General Atomics' MQ-9 Reaper (General Atomics)
PARIS — Despite a last-minute plea for European governments to finally collaborate on a common medium-altitude UAV, the solution that regional industry had been hoping to avoid — the US-made Reaper — seemed to take on an air of inevitability at the Paris Air Show last week.
Reaper-maker General Atomics said at the show that it would make efforts to “Europeanize” the Reaper and partially fund a continental user group as it took steps to seal deals with the Netherlands and Germany. Italy and the UK are already in the Reaper club, soon to be joined by France.
One day before the show launched, France’s Dassault, Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi and EADS Cassidian jointly called for the launch of a European medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) program, claiming it would pool resources, allow for the incorporation of emerging European certification requirements and safeguard jobs and know-how while guaranteeing “European sovereignty and independence in the management of information and intelligence.”
The letter followed French plans to acquire two General Atomics Reaper UAVs to deploy in Mali — in the face of a last ditch offer from Israel Aerospace Industries to supply two Heron 1s — followed by a possible order for 10 further Reapers.
“News of the Reaper prompted the open letter, which says this is the moment,” said Fabrizio Giulianini, CEO of Selex ES, the Finmeccanica-owned sensor maker.
But the spotlight belonged to General Atomics. From its stand in one of the show’s halls, General Atomics talked up negotiations for a sale to Germany, signing up Fokker as a partner to help it win an order from the Netherlands and announced it is investing US $100 million to meet NATO standardization agreements within four years — including lightning-strike protection — to smooth European certification.
Italy, which has been demanding US permission to arm its Reapers, would get the green light “within a couple of months,” promised Frank Pace, president of General Atomics’ aircraft systems group.
And as customers grow in Europe, Pace said General Atomics envisions a European Reaper users’ group, partially funded by General Atomics, which could decide on common software and mounting European systems. Lockheed Martin did something similar with five European F-16 users, improving interoperability and common standards.
Still, General Atomics was not doing a victory lap. Neil Blue, General Atomics’ president and CEO, did not suggest Reapers should preclude any European MALE program, instead calling a Europeanized Reaper “a gap filler to cover that interim period before Europe may develop alternative or more advanced unmanned aircraft systems.” The use of “sovereign payloads” would, he added, “enhance both their technology base and the performance of their own systems.”
Among visitors to the General Atomics stand was Claude-France Arnould, head of the European Defence Agency, the EU body charged with promoting joint programs on the continent, not the least of which is a MALE UAV program.
Hitherto, European MALEs have failed to get off the ground, most notably EADS’ Talarion system.
That said, Reapers may not have universal appeal, warned one French industrial executive. “The bitter experience of seeing what appears to be an extremely difficult effort to certify the Global Hawk to operate in European airspace might be an obstacle for the Germans to consider Reaper if they need a MALE system,” he said.
Christian Scherer, Cassidian’s head of international operations, said the pre-Paris appeal for a European solution was a bid to make politicians grasp the MALE initiative.
“It’s a matter of sovereignty; we need to master this technology in Europe,” he said. “If we don’t do that, we will end up having to buy the technology for top dollar from outside and we will have to give up the sovereignty as well.
“We can do it today but we can’t miss a generation or cycle, and that’s really what we are saying. Our business people would say we are responding to a customer who has expressed a requirement, but our technology people are saying to the government, ‘Help us maintain our leading edge because this technology is going to find its way into all things flying, including commercial aircraft,’” Scherer said.
“The Reaper may be a solution,” said Jean Marc Nasr, president of Cassidian France, “but it doesn’t prevent us presenting an idea of what the longer term could look like.
“The open letter was not an act of desperation, but we wanted people to understand that as an industry, we can act together.”
One industry executive who asked not to be named said the letter wasn’t so much “desperation as exasperation.”
Scherer said it had been prompted by a degree of “provocation, perhaps ... because the various countries are not synchronized in their ability to make a decision either because of elections or budget pressures.”
“If we as industry call for a synchronized response and a strong political will, we are hopefully giving the politicians an excuse to pick up the ball, and that’s what we are trying to do,” the Cassidian executive said.
But one analyst said he has heard such appeals before.
“The statement put out before Paris was like something out of ‘Groundhog Day,’” said Douglas Barrie, military aerospace analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London. “Europe’s fundamental problem is that it is talking with many voices. This all might have been done and dusted if BAE and EADS had been allowed to merge. But in any case, with no money around, is it wise to be reinventing the wheel when a Europeanized Reaper would help out as an interim?”
EADS CEO Tom Enders, in an interview with “This Week in Defense News” TV show, acknowledged that Europe is lagging its rivals in developing UAV technology.
“Europe is 10 years behind the US and Israel,” Enders said. “We should play a role in this field, but due to differing political constellations, we haven’t seen any European program so far. But I’m not giving up hope.”
Eric Trappier, the Dassault Aviation boss, told Defense News’ TV program the three companies had been discussing the UAV initiative for 12 months ahead of the letter’s release. The British could also join the initiative, he said.
Trappier said he expects the French government to support a program launch for a European MALE in the event of a decision in favor of Reaper.
With the Global Hawk problems in Germany, it was difficult to judge for the moment whether Berlin would go for a program of its own or buy Israeli, he said. “There will be a decision in the coming months.”
Italy’s procurement chief further muddied the waters at the air show by strongly backing the unmanned version of the P.180. The twin-prop aircraft was unveiled by Italian-based Piaggio Aero, which is a third owned by Abu Dhabi’s investment agency.
Gen. Claudio Debertolis announced that 10 of the UAVs would fit the bill as Italy’s armed Reaper replacement, and he backed the aircraft as Europe’s joint MALE.
BAE Systems declined to comment on why it had not joined the other European majors in signing the open letter. Instead, it pointed out that work is continuing on future combat air system development with Dassault.
Several executives in Paris said BAE was losing interest in the MALE sector in favor of harboring its cash and resources for the much more difficult task of developing a combat UAV, or UCAV. It’s a position that likely reflects that of a cash-strapped Ministry of Defence in London that has thrown in its lot with Reaper for the time being.
An MoD spokesperson in London said, “At this stage the UK has not ruled out any possibilities, and potential opportunities remain for France and the UK to cooperate on a MALE [unmanned aircraft] in the future.”
BAE, along with Dassault, had done some early study work on a MALE as a spinout from the Anglo-French defense treaty of 2010. The two companies are actively working on UCAVs and are due to present proposals to the two governments this year on a possible operational demonstrator to continue development after the present French-led Neuron and BAE-led Taranis demonstration programs are complete.
Neuron is already flying, but the much-delayed first flight of Taranis is not scheduled until some time later this year.
Dassault has said it will share with the UK the secrets of the Neuron demonstrator program, an offer that may raise eyebrows with its partners Italy and Sweden.
In Paris, a spokesman for Italy’s Alenia pointedly said: “Alenia strongly supports the quick creation of a large, common European UCAV program,” suggesting continental wrangling over UCAV work is on the way.
In the short term, General Atomics’ ascendancy in the European MALE market is being fought not only by domestic firms but by Israel Aerospace Industries, which would be able to supply two Heron 1 UAVs to France — complete with satellite communications — “within days,” with larger Heron TPs available by year’s end if France chooses not to buy Reapers, said Miki Bar, a special adviser to the company’s CEO.
“The Heron TP can be the basis for the European platform,” he said. “It is ready to integrate everything they want and we are ready to give the source codes, which the US will never give,” he said.
Bar said he saw a French purchase of Reapers as putting European UAV development on hold for years.
Starting a European program from scratch is also problematic, he said. “It would take eight to 10 years if you are good, and cost $3 [billion] to $4 billion to get to a mature system. If you go with the Heron, you learn about UAVs and can develop your own UCAV in 10 years.”
Vago Muradian contributed to this report.