Prototype of Neuron UCAV. (AFP)
Britain and France are on track to decide next year whether to jointly develop of unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) following the submission of program proposals by BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation.
Meanwhile, in the medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drone sector, where the two sides have also considered cooperating, France is seen as stalling on buying 10 more interim MALE UAVs. The British, however, have said that a future variant of General Atomics’ Reaper and international cooperation are among the options being considered to meet long-term needs out to 2030.
European Union defense ministers are also set to discuss improving cooperation in the MALE UAV user community at a meeting in Brussels Nov. 19.
BAE and Dassault recently completed a 15-month preparation phase contract awarded by the British and French defense ministries and have lodged details of a plan to mature and demonstrate critical technology and operational aspects for a future unmanned combat air system. The proposals are scheduled for consideration during a mid-December meeting between British defense procurement minister Philip Dunne and his French counterpart, Laurent Collet-Billon, head of the Direction Générale de l’Armement.
A French source said the meeting is “important” and part of a dialogue between the governments aimed at a contract award for the next phase of the work in 2014.
“A decision is not expected at the [December] meeting,” the source said.
The high-level gathering will study the industry proposals and other bilateral cooperation issues.
Britain and France signed a defense treaty in 2010 that included plans to collaborate on equipment programs across missile, unmanned aerial vehicle, maritime equipment and other sectors.
In written evidence on remotely piloted air systems supplied recently to Britain’s Parliamentary Defence Committee, the MoD said the government would have to make a strategic capability decision on a future combat air system as part of its 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).
The two European nations are examining their options for next generation combat air systems as Rafale and Typhoon are due to come out of service in the 2030 time frame, the documents said.
An MoD spokesperson, though, said it is “too early to provide specific timescales for the future combat air system. We are currently assessing joint proposals received from BAE and Dassault and will make a strategic capability decision at the next SDSR.”
Both nations are already flight-testing technology demonstrator vehicles but the new proposal envisions building a jointly developed machine to explore operational issues.
The British decided to go-it-alone on their technology demonstrator, known as Taranis, but the French-led Neuron program is a collaborative effort which has Greek, Italian, Spanish, Swiss and Swedish involvement.
The BAE-led Taranis UCAV flew recently for the first time and the flight test program of the 8-ton vehicle is ongoing.
An MoD spokesman declined to give further details.
For Neuron, some 85 flights are planned at France’s Istres test center until autumn 2014 before going to Sweden and Italy for further tests, Dassault said. Neuron restarted test flights after appearing at the Paris Air Show in June.
In the MALE UAV sector, France seems to have stalled on adding 10 units to the two General Atomics Reapers already ordered. Industry is frustrated over an absence of studies needed to adapt the remaining 10 Reapers to a French standard, an executive said.
EADS is keen to start looking at Reaper modifications but the French government has failed to order the work, the executive said.
At the industry level, however, EADS is in talks with General Atomics on how the Reaper could be adapted to take French systems. Paris insists on that adaptation, but the requirement causes concern among US authorities.
If the US agrees to French modifications, an order for the remaining 10 UAVs could see the first units delivered in 2016 or 2017.
France’s multiyear budget law for 2014-2019 has set aside €650 million (US $873.3 million) for acquiring 12 MALE UAVs.
Paris has also kept open a possible order of the Israel Aerospace Industries Heron TP for the remaining 10 machines.
Future British MALE plans, part of a program known as Scavenger, were given an airing in evidence to the parliamentary committee with the MoD saying the assessment phase is “focused on maturing and derisking the sole-source acquisition of a future variant of Reaper as a military off-the-shelf solution.”
The British already operate a fleet of Reapers purchased as an urgent operational requirement for the Afghanistan campaign from a special treasury reserve fund.
The MoD said it still may retain the machines as a core Royal Air Force capability once the Afghan mission is over.
But the MoD said nothing had been ruled out at this stage on future MALE requirements, including consideration of cooperative programs “from around the globe.”
Britain and France have held collaboration talks on such a machine, and London is also involved in discussions with the United Arab Emirates about a possible joint development.
The European Union is also weighing into the Euro-MALE debate, with member country defense ministers set to discuss closer cooperation Nov. 19.
A European Defence Agency source said the objective is not to develop the next generation of MALE vehicles, instead, defense ministers from France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain are expected to sign a letter of intent to establish a “European MALE user community.”
The aims are to exchange information and facilitate cooperation to streamline resources, including in areas like training, logistics and maintenance.
In parallel, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK are due to sign up for a joint investment program to allow the use of remotely piloted vehicles in regular airspace. This will take the form of a regulatory framework and work on sense-and-avoid technologies.
Related to this, EU defense ministers will be asked to sign a political declaration on certification and airworthiness.
“A harmonized approach for certification across EU member states is crucial for reducing development costs and the efficient management of new programs,” writes the EDA in a background paper.
Julian Hale in Brussels contributed to this report.