At an unmanned vehicles forum in Bonn this week, EADS Cassidian was again promoting what it now calls a Future European Male (Female) system. But the prospects of a pan-European program to match or improve on Male (medium-altitude long-endurance) UAV offerings from Israel, the U.S. and elsewhere have receded. France has decided to buy two GA-ASI Reaper systems, and there are indications that the UK will retain its Reapers beyond 2015, rather than retire them upon leaving Afghanistan. In Germany, it became known that the Defence Minister had also discussed a possible Reaper buy during a visit to the U.S. in April.
The French decision was justified by Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who cited an urgent need for surveillance over Mali following the French intervention there. However, according to its own magazine, the French Air Force has been successfully operating the EADS Harfang system using the IAI Heron platform over Mali since mid-January. Two of the UAVs deployed to an undisclosed location had flown 1,000 hours by mid-March, and they had used lasers to designate targets for other aircraft for the first time. The Harfang had earlier been deployed to support French and other allied forces in Afghanistan.
France previously considered buying the IAI Heron TP Male offered by a consortium led by Dassault Aviation. Then last year it was ready to cooperate with the UK to develop the BAE Systems Mantis design, until Germany applied political pressure to prevent an Anglo-French Male program emerging. Ironically, Germany has now flirted with the Reaper as a replacement for its own IAI Heron UAV system (known by the German acronym SAATEG). The Defence Ministry in Berlin developed a requirement for 16 Male systems, with the first five to be in service in 2016.
But that requirement is now postponed, thanks to the political fallout in Berlin from the cancellation of the Euro Hawk high-altitude UAV. German defence minister Thomas de Maziere has yet to explain why warnings from within his department about certification problems were ignored. Government documents leaked to Der Spiegel, the newspaper, refer to multiple difficulties in extracting the necessary data from Northrop Grumman and the U.S. government. Meanwhile, EuroHawk Gmbh, the joint venture between EADS and Northrop Grumman that was producing the Euro Hawk, is apparently in denial. In a statement issued last Monday, it said that it “will continue to work with the customer to address any concerns it may have.” The joint venture dismisses assertions that certification costs would be excessive, or that there are problems with the UAV’s flight control system. “The team will provide an affordable and achievable plan to complete flight-testing of the initial asset and the eventual production and fielding of the full system of four additional aircraft,” it continued.
In the UK, the Ministry of Defence revealed plans to add the MBDA Brimstone missile to the Royal Air Force’s Reapers. With significant recent investments in additional air vehicles and a UK-based ground station, it seems likely that the capability will be retained after 2015, despite budget pressures.