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France, UK To Sign Agreement Kicking Off Combat Drone Study

Jul. 10, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By PIERRE TRAN and ANDREW CHUTER   |   Comments
Building Technology Base: Taranis, an unmanned combat aerial vehicle technology demonstrator made by BAE Systems, taxis in Warton, Lancashire, in February.
Building Technology Base: Taranis, an unmanned combat aerial vehicle technology demonstrator made by BAE Systems, taxis in Warton, Lancashire, in February. (Ray Troll/ / BAE Systems)
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PARIS AND LONDON — Britain and France plan to sign a memorandum of understanding for the study of a combat drone, bringing their air forces closer to an advanced fighter program worth billions, defense ministry spokespersons of the two countries said.

On July 15, during the Farnborough International Airshow, Defense Ministers Philip Hammond and Jean-Yves Le Drian are due to sign the agreement to launch a two-year feasibility study for the high tech combat drone, the French spokesperson said.

The unmanned combat aerial system (UCAS) study is seen as a step toward preparing a successor to the Rafale and Typhoon fourth-generation fighters starting around 2035.

The memorandum lays the groundwork for a contract around September for an Anglo-French industry group to explore the technology and concepts, the French spokesperson said.

Dassault Aviation and BAE Systems will focus on the platform, Rolls-Royce and Snecma on the engine, and Selex ES and Thales on the sensors and electronic systems, the official said.

London and Paris have signaled high level political support for the planned UCAS. “Our target was set by our president and the British prime minister at the Brize Norton summit: to sign at Farnborough Airshow an agreement aimed at launching the feasibility stage worth more than €200 million (US $272 million),” according to prepared remarks for Le Drian on a June 12 visit to the Istres flight test center, southern France.

“The technology demonstrator project for the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), which aims to prepare together the generation of fighter aircraft after the Rafale and Typhoon, is without doubt the most ambitious cooperation plan on our road map in terms of equipment and defense industry,” he said.

The FCAS is a concept based on flying manned fighters such as the F-35 joint strike fighter and Rafale alongside unmanned combat aircraft.

“This is an important step in building the French-British UCAS project, which prefigures the launch of a program in two years’ time,” Dassault Chief Executive Eric Trappier said. “This combat drone could be an operational complement to existing fighters such as the Rafale.”

The feasibility study will work on “systems architecture, certain key technology and definition of the simulation methods,” the French ministry said on Jan. 31 after a letter of intent was signed at the Brize Norton meeting.

“The work consists of identifying the key technology and validating the technology through the use of simulation,” Trappier said.

Further tasks will be to examine the operational concept, set the specifications and estimate the cost of building a demonstrator, he said.

The study will also lay out the prospective FCAS program, including setting the role of each of the companies in the cooperative effort. There will be a search “for the most efficient cooperation possible,” he said.

One British executive said the study represented a step back from the more ambitious program that had originally been considered, but the curtailing of ambition was the right thing to do.

“Last year we were talking about a demonstrator program, now we have a study involving experimentation, trade-offs and other things that will inform a future demonstrator program. It’s building from the ground upwards,” he said.

A second British executive said the FCAS study was an important first step in a program critical to industry retaining the ability to produce combat-capable jets, a skill that was endangered by the partnership with the US in the F-35 program.

“The F-35 gave Britain great opportunities but also a huge problem as so many of the critical systems use US technology,” he said. “FCAS gives us a chance for some form of rebalancing. It’s a way back to the mainstream of systems development on combat jets.”

A joint FCAS program offers Britain and France the chance to retain industrial skills beyond Typhoon and Rafale, as well as improve operational sovereignty, he said.

The first British executive said the issue goes beyond the maintenance of skills and capabilities in France and the UK, but touched on the future of a number of leading aerospace suppliers across Europe.

“It’s vital for European aerospace as a whole,” he said. “There has been a lot of discussion about when or whether to involve other nations or continue to just align with France. My view, though, is that once we get beyond this stage we are going to need more money and more production volume than just two nations can supply.”

For now, though, prompted by defense ministers and others, industry from both nations are “working more collaboratively than ever before on this,” the second executive said. “There will be bumps along the road but the structure they have adopted with the industrial champions pairing off across the key sectors gives cause for optimism that we will get a balanced study which emphasizes the importance of systems, the power plant and weapons as well as the platform.”

If the studies across the industry partnerships goes well it could open the door to further collaboration outside of the FCAS program for companies that are normally bitter rivals, the first British executive said.

What happens after the study is delivered in 2016 prompts some uncertainty. “Where we go after the study is a good question. The French will likely want to get on and build a demonstrator whereas the British may want to go for an early assessment phase as they need to be confident they can justify the funding,” the second executive said.

Others disagreed, saying the British would likely also want to see a demonstrator as the next step, but that the strategic defense and security review set to follow next year’s May general election would set the tone for London’s future involvement in the program.

British Defence Procurement Minister Philip Dunne told Defense News that the two sides had moved forward on the unmanned air combat system study.

“Following the summit in January we are anticipating some further progress in the FCAS commitment and moving that on a step. That’s happening through the summer. We have a very strong relationship with France and it continues to grow,” he said.

Britain and France each has a technology base gathered from building and flying respectively the Taranis and Neuron UCAV demonstrators.

For the UCAS feasibility study, London and Paris will equally fund a total of £120 million (US $205 million), and each country also will fund a total of £80 million for national studies on the unmanned fighter, a joint declaration from the Brize Norton summit said.

The study, which is predominantly technical, will involve the development and testing of elements of the systems required for a highly integrated vehicle like a UCAS.

Thales would supply the French components of the radar and electronic warfare, electro-optronics and sensors for targeting and situation awareness, line of sight and satellite communications, avionics sensors and computers, a company spokeswoman said.

Safran’s Snecma and Rolls-Royce have agreed on how to share the work if the demonstrator is launched.

Last year, the two companies handed a preparation phase report to British and French procurement offices. The report detailed how to mature and demonstrate key technology and operational aspects for a future combat drone.

“Each stage is important and this is starting to be significant, certainly on the financial front,” said Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of think tank Institut des Relations Internationales.

Once the study is completed, an issue will be whether funds will be available to pursue the project, he said. Another question is whether the program will be opened to other European partners such as Germany and Italy.

The ministers are also due to sign an agreement for the exchange of British and French studies on an upgrade of the Scalp-Storm Shadow cruise missile, the French ministry said in a July 10 statement. MBDA builds the long-range weapon. ■

Email: ptran@defensenews.com; achuter@defensenews.com.

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