France, Britain Could Team on UAV

By ANDREW CHUTER and PIERRE TRAN
Published: 14 June 2010.
Britain and France have moved a step closer to collaborating on the
development of a next-generation medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE)
UAV.
The potential partners are about halfway through a three-month study
into whether a collaborative approach is possible, a British Ministry
of Defence (MoD) spokeswoman said.
“The work will assess the two
nations’ requirements, arrive at a top-level system concept and
identify a way to manage future work,” she said.
The proposed collaboration is one way Britain might fulfill the
requirements of its Scavenger effort to find future MALE capabilities.
Industry sources say potential candidate UAVs include the EADS
Talarion, a development of BAE Systems’ Mantis, and future versions of
the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper MALE aircraft operated by the British
military. Mantis and Talarion could form the basis for Britain’s
collaboration with France and possibly other European nations.

“The
results of the study will inform the Scavenger initialgate business
case, which is due to go forward later this year, particularly with
regard to the feasibility of collaboration on a candidate solution to
the Scavenger capability requirement,” the MoD spokeswoman said.
France, for its part, intends to choose a MALE UAV as a short-term gapfiller this summer, a French government official said.
Reporters
were tipped to the joint study by Eric Trappier, international director
of Dassault Aviation, who called a June 9 press conference to argue
against France’s consideration of the Predator B, also known as Reaper,
for the short-term fix.
“The British and French authorities are
financing feasibility studies” following a decision by the high-level
working group that coordinates the two countries’ common defense
research and technology projects, Trappier told reporters.
Dassault
is one of the companies vying for a leading role in future French or
cooperative UAV development work. Dassault and Thales have pitched the
Système de Drone MALE (SDM) for the French purchase.
Trappier
said Britain and France, both of which have military forces deployed in
Afghanistan, are natural partners to pursue a European MALE UAV program.
Moreover, Trappier said, “The political climate is rather good,” with London and Paris apparently willing to work together.
“Cooperation is political,” he said. “One chooses a strategic partner.”
Indeed,
Europe’s two biggest defense spenders are moving closer together across
a range of equipment and military requirements. The two sides already
have agreed upon a joint research and technology road map for UAVs,
part of a 100 million euro ($121 million) pot earmarked for various
projects. The French authorities are seriously exploring the
possibility of purchasing the Reaper as a short-term buy to meet
operational requirements. But the prospect of buying off-the-shelf
American has raised deep concern over the sovereignty of European
capabilities in drones.
At the June 9 press conference, Trappier
and Pierre-Eric Pommelet, Thales senior vice president for defense
mission systems, argued against a Predator purchase. They said that
even the proposed short-term acquisition of the Reaper would have grave
long-term consequences for French and European industry.
Trappier
said the purchase of an American drone “would be astonishing,” as it
would go against the French government’s white paper on defense and
national security.
“Industrial issues are at stake. Strategic issues at stake,” he said.
Yet
France continues to call Predator an excellent candidate for a
near-term purchase. French procurement head Laurent Collet-Billon is to
meet General Atomics executives during a June 15 visit to Washington,
where he will meet his Pentagon counterpart, Ashton Carter.
Asked why Predator apparently leads the pack of candidates, a French Air Force official said, “I have requirements.”
But
Dassault and Thales argue that those near-term needs could be met by
the SDM, which the French companies teamed up with Indra of Spain and
Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to offer to France and Spain in May
2008. They say a package of three control stations and nine UAVs would
cost less than 1 billion euros and could be delivered in 2015 if a
decision is made next year.
Pommelet said the SDM, which is based
in IAI’s Heron TP UAV, would carry a European payload, including a
synthetic aperture radar with a range of more than 100 kilometers, a
moving target indicator radar, a secure data link for communications
with ground troops, and a satellite uplink for remote pilot control.
The SDM could handle communications, electronic and signals
intelligence missions, he said.
The Heron TP has been offered under lease to the French government as part of a map to long-term procurement, Trappier said.
Meanwhile,
EADS, which has long advocated an autonomous European strategy for
UAVs, said it will stop funding studies of its Talarion Advanced UAV
this summer unless France, Germany and Spain offer a development
contract.
Dassault and Thales would not put in company money to
fund development of the European UAV. If the American government funds
military research, then European governments should do the same,
Trappier said.
“We want a level playing field,” he said.
It
would end the European defense industry if companies are expected to
finance their own R&D, leading to the purchase of American products
and the local assembly of parts, Trappier explained.
“It’s a political choice,” he said.
Trappier
said Britain had been willing to buy off the shelf from the United
States, but London is looking to recover some of its defense industrial
capability. That makes for a more promising outlook for cooperation
with France on a MALE drone.
If the two governments launch a
joint UAV program, BAE Systems and Dassault would be natural partners,
while Thales France and Thales UK would be well-placed to take part in
that collaboration, Trappier said.
Other partners could join, but
there would have to be a clear prime contractor. Depending on where the
funding comes from, Dassault or BAE would lead the program. The choice
of industry leader would flow from the political decision on financing.
French
and European industry need a decision, Trappier said. Morale is a
factor in industry, as the design engineers are anxious to know what
the future has in store.
“We need a decision, whatever it is,” he said.
The
DGA estimates that Talarion could be delivered around 2018 or 2020 for
1.4 billion euros, according to a December 2008 parliamentary report.
EADS France would work on the Talarion payload, EADS Germany on the air
vehicle.
But the French Air Force wants a MALE UAV in service as soon as possible, ideally from 2012 to 2015.
EADS
offered another option on May 7, proposing to sell France four upgraded
Harfang drones, a source familiar with the program said. The service
already operates two EADS Harfang MALE UAVs in Afghanistan, a third is
used for training in France, and the fourth is being repaired by IAI in
Israel and expected to return to service this summer.
Meanwhile, Thales is on track to deliver the Watchkeeper tactical UAV to the British Army next year, on time, Pommelet said.