Over two decades, hundreds of millions of euros spent on European UAV technologies have failed to deliver capabilities sought by regional militaries.
Some, like Britain’s Herti, or Harfang, the Franco-German adaptation of Israel’s Heron, have yielded modest capabilities. Others, like EADS’ Talarion, have been long in gestation at tremendous cost but with scant prospects for adoption.
In the field, Britain and Italy went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan only to find their existing vehicles were ineffective.
In Mali, France’s UAVs fell short and unmanned US assets were needed.
These nations, plus Turkey, have bought or are about to buy the US-made Reaper as their long-endurance aircraft for surveillance. Germany and the Netherlands are likely to follow.
The drive for a proven system synonymous with persistent surveillance has dampened Europe’s desire to reinvent the wheel.
Indeed, at the 50th Paris Air Show last week, three industrial behemoths — Alenia Aermacchi, Dassault and EADS — again called on the region’s governments to launch a common medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) program. It is an unrealistic, unnecessary push.
Their request comes as operations in Afghanistan wind down and budgets across Europe decline. With new aircraft in service, it’s hard to justify spending on replacements just because they’re made in Europe, not America.
France originally selected Israeli aircraft for their MALE UAVs, but Paris is set to cancel that order and instead acquire 12 Reapers, the first batch of two by the end of the year, to bolster its capabilities in Mali.
To be fair, Europe’s issue goes beyond national pride or domestic manufacturing. The US sells its Reapers with strings attached — requiring that the data collected must be shared with US agencies. Not surprisingly, therefore, non-US aircraft have extra appeal because customer nations can exert greater sovereignty over the information the aircraft gather. On this score, Washington should grant its allies the autonomy they seek, if for no other reason than as a great sales tool.
Like it or not, the Reaper has emerged — at least for the time being — as Europe’s default MALE unmanned aircraft. The Reaper answers that need with a relatively simple, sturdy but long-range aircraft packed with sophisticated sensors and data links that can be tailored by Europe. Now resources should be pooled so their operation, maintenance and support is executed as economically as possible as nations consider their unmanned future.
Rather than waste time and precious resources duplicating the Reaper, Europe should instead pursue its more pressing priority: develop and field an unmanned combat air system.
The need for a combat aircraft more robust than a drone carrying a missile or two was proved in Libya, when operations sometimes slowed because the requisite combat search-and-rescue forces, which UAVs don’t need, weren’t available.
Sweden’s answer to the requirement is an unmanned variant of the Gripen fighter, while thanks to French leadership, European nations have together developed the Neuron after a decade of work. The ambitious Neuron promises to stretch structural, material and systems engineers, as well as flight test personnel who otherwise might be underused, given the most challenging design work on fighters like Rafale and Eurofighter have passed. The demand to keep skills fresh is part of the reason Saab is considering unmanning its Gripen aircraft.
That’s investment Europe can and should believe in. Instead of reinventing the wheel, Europe should develop an important military capability that stands to also advance regional, industrial and technical expertise.