Europe Reaches a Crossroad in Male UAV Development

 - July 20, 2012, 3:46 PM
This model of an armed Mantis Male UAV was on show in the BAE Systems pavilion at the recent Farnborough airshow. (Photo: Chris Pocock)

European governments have reached a crossroad in the potential development of next-generation unmanned aerial systems that could challenge current Israeli and U.S. leadership in this field. The British and French defense ministers will meet in London on Tuesday, July 24, to assess the Anglo-French Defence Agreement. They had been expected to award contracts to BAE Systems and Dassault for the bilateral pre-development of an unmanned Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and a medium-altitude long-endurance (Male) UAV named Telemos and based on BAE Systems’ Mantis.

But prospects of a Male agreement have been clouded by French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s stated preference for a multilateral European development that also involves Germany and Italy. Moreover, the requirement for a new Male design to equip European air forces appears to be receding, as the French and German air arms ponder whether to upgrade their interim systems based on the IAI Heron, or even acquire GA-ASI Reapers from the U.S. The UK Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Italian Air Force have already acquired armed Reapers for service in Afghanistan.

A senior RAF officer indicated last week that the service might not withdraw its Reapers in 2015 after most British troops leave that country, as previously planned. As long ago as 2009, GA-ASI teamed with Cobham Aviation Services UK to boost the Reaper’s appeal and longevity to the RAF. “We can help ease any sovereignty issues and provide British through-life support,” a Cobham official told AIN at the time. A GA-ASI spokesperson told AIN this week that it has an informal agreement with EADS for the latter to act on its behalf in France, if required. Recently, GA-ASI and the U.S. government agreed to integrate non-U.S. sensors on the Predator/Reaper series, and another of the UK’s sovereignty concerns has been addressed by moving the RAF mission control ground station from Nevada to the UK. In Germany, GA-ASI has teamed with Ruag Aerospace to press the merits of the Reaper.

In France, EADS has offered to modernize the air force’s current Harfang UAS based on the IAI Heron 1, which was supplied by EADS, as an alternative to the Reaper or the Voyageur UAS based on the much larger IAI Heron TP and primed by Dassault. The Voyageur was selected but the previous French government never signed on the dotted line to buy it. In Germany, EADS inherited a service contract for the air force’s SAATEG UAS program using leased Heron 1s when it acquired Rheinmetall Defence earlier this year. France and Germany have been flying their unarmed Israeli-supplied UAS in Afghanistan. The German air force is also reported to be eyeing the Heron TP. But the crash of one in Israel last January has clouded the type’s prospects and thrown renewed focus on the proper certification of new UAS.

The EADS leadership has been frustrated by the failure of European governments to embrace its proposed Talarion Male UAS. EADS is believed to have spent more than €400 million on UAS developments in the past 10 years. EADS Cassidian and Alenia signed an MoU to cooperate on UAS last December. But “the German and Italian governments don’t have any money” to spend on UAS projects, a French aerospace industry official told AIN.

Meanwhile, a BAE Systems official told AIN at Farnborough that the Mantis is the only Male developed in Europe to have flown with a mission system. He discounted the work done by Alenia on the Sky-Y demonstrator. The Mantis demonstrator has been funded jointly by the company and the UK government. BAE is funding a new series of flights in the UK next year, at a cost of £5 million.