As is often the case in the run-up to a major air show, European nations have launched a high-profile industry initiative, in this case their latest effort to develop an alternative to US and Israeli remotely operated aircraft.

As the aerospace and defense worlds gathered in Paris, Germany, Italy and France arrived with a recently signed letter of intent for a joint program for medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, a partnership to develop a better version of the Reaper system by US firm General Atomics — and to own the technology.

Reaper has been popular, and the General Atomics plane is already Europe's de facto standard, in service in Britain, France, Italy and Turkey. Germany and the Netherlands entertained Reaper, but have yet to embrace it.

Those that operate the aircraft give it high marks for capability, reliability and value. But only Britain has the ability to fire weapons, and was irritated with the long export approval process and has expressed sovereignty concerns. Italy, France and Turkey have expressed frustration at not getting the same weapons approval. US export reforms that aim to improve the transfer of technology and systems to close allies aren't expected to give their friends free rein anytime soon.

At issue for Europeans is national technological sovereignty over the systems they have bought.

If Washington were strategic, it would approve and deliver this capability in a more predictable and efficient manner to ensure that a popular US system garners more customers, increasing interoperability. It also should trust its allies to be responsible and respect their sovereignty concerns.

Hence, the new tri-national program that could become the core of a wider European effort. But it is now just a €60 million concept study. US and Israeli systems have become gold standards because of sustained investment and millions of operational hours to eradicate bugs.

If European states decide that, this time, they will follow through with the initiative, they have to make sure it's a strategic program that provides nations with reconnaissance and equally vital electronic-warfare capabilities that can also be used over contested airspace; and that the aircraft is fully interoperable with European and US systems.

European leaders also must synchronize this program with the Anglo-French effort to develop a stealthy unmanned combat air vehicle. The two nations last year agreed to study a joint program, which they have discussed for years. This program must be coordinated with wider UAV efforts and the trinational MALE program in particular. Britain has opted out of the MALE UAV to focus on a combat air system.

A far better approach would be to coordinate these parallel initiatives through a common family of air platforms that share flight and sensor systems. That would cut purchase and ownership costs while maximizing technological expertise. And that would enable the acquisition of backbone systems that would go with these air vehicles, including the considerable analytics, processing and data distribution systems that go with it.

Make no mistake, for Europe's military aircraft makers, these programs are essential to preserving design skills that will atrophy without an ambitious effort to keep them sharp. So the stakes are high and compounded by the reality that funding remains a problem for a region just beginning to rebound from a 12 percent defense spending cut since 2010.

It's fashionable to criticize Europe for its often chaotic multinational acquisition programs, but by thoughtfully coming together, partner nations have developed highly sophisticated systems. Succeeding with multiple partners is always a challenge. It will take clear vision, thoughtful and achievable requirements, pragmatism and abundant funding.

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