Europe should stop trying to build a “me-too” version of the Reaper Male unmanned aircraft system (UAS) and concentrate instead on a stealthy unmanned combat air system (UCAS), because the U.S. will not export that technology. That was the advice offered at the Paris Air Show yesterday by Frank Pace, president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (Hall 3 Stand A82). As for the thorny issue of certification, that was no justification for a new European program either because–he revealed–General Atomics had started a drive to certify the Reaper to the appropriate NATO Standardization Agreement (Stanag).
Pace was speaking at a memorandum of understanding signing with CAE, for a partnership to create a new mission training system for the Predator and Reaper series. Later today he will sign another MoU with Fokker Technologies that will support the U.S. offer of Reapers to the Netherlands. The Dutch would be the fourth European country to acquire Reapers, following the UK, Italy and France. But Pace also said that Germany remained interested in acquiring the UAS. He said that this interest stemmed from the cost to develop and field a European alternative, which he said could be $1.5 billion. “We’ve had a lot of discussions with the Germans,” he told AIN.
General Atomics will spend about $100 million of its own money over the next four years to certify the Reaper. Pace outlined three areas of work: protection against lightning strike by inserting metal layers inside the structure; other, albeit slight, structural mods to achieve a defined fatigue life; and qualification of the flight and ground control software. Some of this would have to be refactored and old software cleaned up, he said. In a separate program, Pace recalled that General Atomics was investing $40 million to add a “due-regard” radar to the Reaper, to help pilots sense-and-avoid conflicting air traffic. The two programs would increase the international appeal of the Reaper, but Pace also noted that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would also benefit. The DHS operates Reapers on border patrol duties in the U.S.
Pace complained about slow progress on both sides of the Atlantic in developing rules and procedures for operating UAS in non-segregated airspace. “No-one is stepping up to the plate, there’s too much risk aversion,” he said. He added that regulators should not try to devise a single set of rules for all types of UAS. Instead there should be three classes: the smallest UAVs that are essentially model airplanes, weighing no more than 50 pounds and flying no higher than 1,000 feet; the mid-size UAVs weighing around 300 pounds; and the high-end airplanes such as the Reaper and Global Hawk. Only the latter enjoy the size, weight and power margins that enable them to accommodate perhaps 150 pounds of new equipment for ATC compliance.
The justifications for developing an all-European Male UAS include a perception that the U.S. would not allow adaptation of the Predator/Reaper series to achieve national sovereignty in command, control and dissemination, weaponization and alternative sensors. Pace said those perceptions were false. “The U.S. Air Force is 100 percent in favor of allies adding weapons,” he claimed. There had been some resistance in Congress to Italy adding weapons, but this would be overcome within a couple of months. He said that France was talking about a European datalink for its Reapers. European Sigint packages could be added, especially since the U.S. won’t release that technology, he said. In fact, he continued, it might be a good idea for European countries to form a “Reaper Users Club” to discuss and progress alternative payloads.
The MoU with CAE develops an existing relationship that started when Canada outlined its Joint Unmanned Surveillance Target Acquisition System (Justas) requirement. This has been slow to progress, Pace noted. The RFP is not now expected until next year. As well as the Reaper, Canada was interested in the jet-powered Avenger, Pace said. With a cruise speed of 360 knots instead of 220 knots, it could still make progress in the strong jetstream winds that affect northern Canada, Pace said.
A scale model of the Avenger dominates the General Atomics stand (Hall 3 Stand A82) here at Paris. The type is a candidate for the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (Uclass) requirement. Pace revealed that General Atomics would be bidding a slightly larger version for that program. It would have stealth treatments that are absent from the current version, which can therefore be exported, he said. The bids for Uclass are due early next month, with an award foreseen in September. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are all expected to bid.