Defense ministers of Italy, France and Germany signed a declaration of intent May 18 in Brussels to launch the two-year, €60 million (US $66.7 million) definition study for a future European medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV.
That signing signals long-awaited political support as Airbus Defence and Space, Dassault Aviation and Finmeccanica have lobbied under a flag of sovereignty for governments to select a European UAV.
Previous European efforts have failed. France, Germany and Spain signed for a risk reduction study in 2007 and Airbus invested at least €250 million to design a European MALE UAV.
One Italian analyst saw two reasons why this time it was different.
A US analyst was ambivalent about whether Europe could pull it off.
"But if it's not a pan-European Reaper but a breakthrough product that leaves the Reaper in the dust, and if they use different nations for their expertise while workshare is based on comparative technical advantage, not juste retour, then that's different."
The European partners will effectively compete with US specialists General Atomics and Northrop Grumman, and Israeli producers Elbit and Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI). France, Italy and the UK operate General Atomics UAVs, while Germany leases the IAI Heron.
German industry has learned its lessons from the downed Talarion project, which bore an estimated program cost of €2.9 billion and is now seen to have been a "best of the best," the UAV equivalent of a Mercedes or Rolls Royce, an executive said.
The planned UAV is expected to fly in 2025, Le Drian said in March.
Along with sovereignty, key factors in the study are certification for flying in civil airspace over Europe, civilian missions and cost cutting, two executives said. The UAV would also fly with weapons. The maneuverability of General Atomics' drones is seen as a benchmark to beat.
European rules governing UAV flights in civil airspace are being drawn up, and the Italian source said one advantage the European firms have is that they are helping to write the rules.
"We are working with the European Aviation Safety Agency on this subject to give the view of industry and to give advice on directions to take," he said.
The development of a European MALE design will likely have minimal impact on sales of drones from the US or Israel, which have dominated the unmanned system marketplace, said Michael Blades, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan.
"The sales will likely be localized and probably more in the civil and law enforcement arenas, rather than military, since the program aims to design a system able to fly in the European civil airspace."
"Bottom line: They are scrambling to get some sort of market share while they can but are very late to the party," he added of the European plan.
Michael Horowitz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied unmanned systems, said it's not surprising that the three European nations would look to develop an indigenous system in the face of US restrictions on armed drone exports.
"While both Italy and France purchased the MQ-9 Reaper from the United States, neither was able to purchase an armed version," Horowitz pointed out. "For a capability such as UAVs, where the underlying technology is increasingly available in the commercial sector, it is also natural to expect advanced industrialized countries to have at least some interest in building their own platforms."
Horowitz has been sounding the alarm over the last year that the development of indigenous drones, combined with a reluctance to export unmanned technology by the US government, could limit the ability of the US to set crucial standards for use of the technology.
And while a new US unmanned system export policy announced in February has opened the door for potential sales, with its 2025 time frame, the European strategy creates "a clear window" for the US to use its UAV exports to help shape decision making in Europe.
"The announcement by Italy, France and Germany provides additional evidence that advanced UAV proliferation is likely inevitable even if the United States continues restricting UAV exports to its closest allies and partners," Horowitz said. "Without additional exports, "it could further incentivize other close US allies and partners to strike out on their own and build their own advanced UAVs – or import them from others."
On the operational front, the French Air Force is interested in arming the UAV with the Brimstone air-to-ground precision missile, and have it carry sensors for large-scale surveillance and moving target indicators, a second French Air Force officer said.
The German Air Force focuses on high altitude and long endurance, as can be seen in renewed interest in the Euro Hawk, which is being brought out of storage, the first officer said. That contrasts with the French requirement, which can be summed up as a "Reaper plus."
The Belfort squadron at Cognac airbase, southwest France, flies the Reaper MQ-9 and Harfang, coordinating the drones with Mirage and Rafale fighter jets in the skies over Mali. France has four Harfangs, three in operations and the fourth used for training and on standby.
The design study will help the industrial partners uncover the operational needs. "Industry does not know the requirements," an executive said. The study will help decide key elements, such as: turboprop or jet, twin or single jet, low or high wings.
"The definition is key," the executive said. The air forces' concept of operations will help industry see what will be needed in the next 20-30 years.
A turboprop is low cost but the relatively slow speed makes the UAV more vulnerable to being shot down. The Reaper is a first generation turboprop, while General Atomics is working on the next generation jet-engined Predator C, the Avenger.
The definition phase will cover "key issues such as competitiveness, sovereignty, growth potential, compliance with joint requirements or certification," Airbus, Dassault and Finmeccanica said in a joint statement.
IAI may have supplied the Harfang airframe but the sensors are French built so there is a confidentiality of content, an industry source said.
System Design Key
The systems outweigh the importance of the platform, an analyst said.
The task is essentially to field "an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and command-and-control asset which happens to fly," said Robbin Laird of consultancy ICSA, based in Washington and Paris. The system is agnostic as to the platform on which it flies. That focus on systems puts Thales UK at an advantage. An increasing sophistication of airborne systems means aircraft will be flying a distributed datalink, or a honeycomb, he said.
The need is for more personnel as the sensors gather so much data on a mission, an officer said.
Companies are also interested in drones in the stratosphere, able to stay aloft for weeks and equipped with extra large sensors that would deliver reconnaissance as well as surveillance, the report said.
Airbus has been working on its Zephyr, a high altitude pseudo satellite (HAPS) that flew in 2013. This system flies at 75,000 feet and can stay 14 days in flight. The Zephyr, built like a huge glider and drawing energy from solar panels on wings, would overfly regions where there is little satellite coverage or where enemies would shoot down a UAV.
"We have agreed that during the definition phase, everyone will participate in all areas of work," he said. "Everyone sees everything and the workshare is equally balanced. Then, during the development phase, different firms may take the lead in different areas of the work."
An engine supplier has yet to be decided.
Retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, the former head of the US Air Force's ISR efforts, sees potential benefits to the European design — as long as it is not just a copy of existing US capabilities.
"It depends on the capabilities that are being pursued in the design," he noted. "If it seeks to achieve substantial capability advancement such as modular, multipurpose design with large payload, survivability that will enable use in contested/denied airspace, and persistence that greatly exceeds current capability, then it would be a worthwhile effort."
The contract for the definition study will be signed later this year, with Organisation Conjointe de Coopération en matière d'Armement (OCCAR), the European cooperation office, acting as program manager, and the European Defense Agency will give support on certification for flying in civil airspace, the joint French, German and Italian statement said. Other European countries could join in the development stage, with support from EDA for a broadening of the project.
Spain and Turkey are seen as potential partners, a defense specialist said.
The European plan is to be welcomed, a Sagem top executive said.
"It's very positive because it shows the willingness of the political authorities to develop a European capability," said Bruno Even, chairman of Safran's Sagem. That is welcome after France ordered US MALE UAVs when European industry could have supplied such aircraft.
Sagem can offer technical know-how gained on its Patroller and Sperwer tactical UAV systems, said Even. That includes certification of flying a drone in civil airspace, training armed forces to fly them in the ground station, reading data and preparing missions, he said.
"My view is to take a system approach," Even said. "In the system, the platform has a significant role as the platform is at the heart of the system but it is important to be vigilant and take a system approach".
Hervé Bouaziz, Sagem executive vice president for strategy and business development, said, "The reality is that the system is at the heart of overall performance. There should be a dual approach of aircraft and system."
"European countries must develop a sovereign, next generation, MALE UAS solution, for both military and security missions, which is required by our armed forces," said Eric Trappier, chief executive of Dassault Aviation.
Mauro Moretti, CEO of Finmeccanica, called the deal "a unique opportunity to pursue a joint technological path built on proven industrial leadership all contributing to a single objective."
Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.