Germany leases Israel Aerospace Industries' Heron 1 drone — on display at the Berlin Air Show — but several European firms want to collaborate on an indigenous medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV. (Johannes Eisele / Getty Images)
BERLIN AND ROME — European countries are in the grip of the ever-expanding thirst for drones, which give them the ability to add reconnaissance and strike capability at lesser cost and risk to service members.
But while last week’s ILA Berlin Air Show was filled with a wide range of smaller unmanned machines, European companies have yet to create a workhorse drone that can fit the medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) need, filled now by the American-made MQ-9 Predator or Reaper.
Three European firms did, however, announce a workshare agreement on the MALE 2020 program.
The UK, Italy and France all fly the Predator, Germany’s Air Force is considering buying the Predator when its service contract for Israeli systems expires, and the Dutch have already signed up to purchase a couple of aircraft.
With the growing wave of countries working with the Predator have come concerns over the reliance on an American supplier given the export restrictions that can complicate buys and limit access to the technology behind some of the systems. Italy and France continue to sort through the process of arming their Predators, something which US law makes complicated partially because arming UAVs means that the aircraft are categorized as cruise missiles.
“The issues at stake include European operational sovereignty and independence in the management of information and intelligence as well as European industrial independence in sustaining key competencies and jobs within Europe,” said a source from the Italian company Alenia Aermacchi. “This is not possible with a non-European made UAV.”
Alenia is one of several companies pushing their governments for the development of a new MALE UAV program, including Airbus and Dassault.
The three firms are hoping to get commitments from capitals by the end of 2014, the Alenia source said.
“The definition phase could lead to a development phase starting in January 2017, provided the early agreement is signed this year in 2014,” he said. That would ready the new UAV by 2020.
The three firms envision the definition phase to last about two years, 2015 through 2016, during which governments would set their requirements. One industrial source said the phase would cost about €50 million (US $68 million), with the cost shared by Germany, France and Italy. The three companies also have set up a work share agreement on what is being called the MALE 2020 program.
The plan was announced by the companies on May 19, just ahead of the ILA Berlin Air Show, where it was a hot topic. Also that day, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told the press, “At the moment there is no pressure to make a decision.” Parliamentary and public debates are supposed to take place this summer, which could be a drawn-out process because of public distaste for unmanned systems due to America’s heavy reliance on drones.
Europe has thrashed around for several years trying to come up with a viable plan to enter a MALE market already cornered by US and Israeli producers.
Anglo-French interest in a collaborative development waned after initial optimism that a program could emerge in the sidelines of the 2010 defense treaty signed by London and Paris.
A project study led by BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation was delivered to the two governments in 2012. Since then the plan has been pretty much put into abeyance as the two sides work to pull together a joint unmanned combat aircraft project.
A spokeswoman for the British Defence Ministry said options for a MALE UAV as part of its Scavenger project were ongoing.
Airbus, Dassault and Finmeccancia all put their names to an open letter published just ahead of the 2013 Paris Air Show urging their respective governments to collaborate in developing Europe's own technology in the sector.
Almost 12 months later, industry has refined its offering but governments still appear reluctant to sign up for a program on which to spend their dwindling defense budget resources.
“There is plenty of project push from industry and seemingly little requirement pull from the governments,” one British executive said.
While public perceptions of unmanned vehicles are likely part of the problem, the large cost of a major development program also plays a role.
An Italian defense source said the government is discussing the proposal with Alenia Aermacchi. “Discussions are underway and continuing,” he said.
Airbus, Alenia and Dassault would split the work share evenly, although Airbus Defence and Space will lead the definition phase, the Alenia source said.
The firms are already focusing on giving the UAV intelligence-gathering capabilities, long range and the ability to maneuver quickly, including fast changes of altitude, which will be key to operating in mixed air space. Propulsion will also be designed to boost safety as the UAV flies over populated areas in Europe.
The system would be offered with all possible variants pre-integrated in the basic design, with weaponization among the possibilities, the Alenia source said.
“Furthermore, flight into non-segregated airspace over European nations requires a specific definition from the start, leading to a specific type qualification and certification, which a non-European UAV cannot achieve,” he said.
That certification issue became a problem with the now-defunct Eurohawk program, with the German government citing concerns over being able to fly the UAV when it canceled the program. Other European UAV programs have flopped, but the basic interest in finding a non-American solution remains.
“European sovereignty and independence in the management of information and intelligence through systems being resilient against cyber attacks would be guaranteed,” the Alenia source said. “The program would furthermore be orientated to foster the development of ITAR [International Traffic in Arms Regulations]-free high technologies and contribute to sustaining key competencies and jobs within Europe.”
The concerns about ITAR and exportability have affected the sales of the current European go-to, the Predator, said Frank Pace, president of the Aircraft Systems Group at Predator-maker General Atomics. But there is some hope on the horizon, in the form of a more clearly defined UAV export policy that Pace expects will be signed by President Barack Obama in the coming weeks.
“One of the things that has been holding things up is there’s this policy going through, and it’s an overarching UAV export policy,” he said. “It would set up boundaries as to what class of airplanes we can export where. Before this nobody knew what they could buy. I think that’s hurting us right now in Europe.”
The biggest issue has been which nations can arm their UAVs and which can’t. While the Predator B has become the primary workhorse for Europe, only the UK has permission to arm the drone, with France and Italy engaging in drawn-out negotiations about arming theirs. Pace said once the export rules are clarified, he thinks Denmark, Norway, Spain and Turkey are potential customers and the French and Italians would likely increase their inventory.
“Germany, even with public concerns and everything, right now isn’t talking about putting weapons on the airplane, but one day they might,” Pace said. “I think that’s affecting France. It’s definitely affecting Italy.”
Pace said he believes it does not make sense for European countries to spend money on a MALE system that would replicate most of what they already have from the Predator.
“They already have the Predator, their pilots are already trained on them, they have spare parts already,” he said, estimating that a new program would likely cost more than $1 billion. “These countries shouldn’t build a ‘me too’ Predator B. They should go build a stealth airplane, which they’re not going to be able to import from the US. I think that’s going to be badly needed maybe 10 years from now. That type of program will take maybe 10 years to develop. It’s a logical thing for them to do, to take the next jump and go develop a high-speed low-radar cross-section type of airplane.”
Meanwhile, Germany has to figure out what it is going to do when its contract with the Bundeswehr and Airbus to lease three Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) Heron 1 type MALE UAVs that are being used for reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan expires in 2015.
On May 21, Airbus Defence and Space and IAI announced a teaming agreement to continue providing unmanned aerial systems to the German military. The two are proposing a solution to bridge the gap until the arrival of a European-developed drone in 2020. Their offer is based on the Heron TP type MALE UAV and there would be a purchase option as well as continuation of the leasing concept.
The Heron is the major competitor to the Predator at the moment, but besides the Europeans, others are also trying to market that space. At the Berlin show, Turkish Aerospace Industries displayed its Anka UAV. So far there hasn’t been much of an international market. The company began the process of selling the aircraft to Egypt, only to have to back out of the deal after last year’s change in government.
The next year will show whether any other Europeans can become Predator competitors. ■
Andrew Chuter in London and Albrecht Müller in Berlin contributed to this report.