Mixed Messages, Outlook for Future Euro-MALE UAV

 - May 23, 2014, 7:50 AM
Will a European MALE UAV ever be built? This concept model was displayed at the 2013 Paris Air Show by EADS-Cassidian (now Airbus Defence & Security). (Photo: Chris Pocock)

Airbus Defence & Space (D&S), Alenia and Dassault Aviation have proposed a Project Definition (PD) study for a future European medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV to the governments of France, Germany and Italy. At the same time, however, Airbus D&S may be working with Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) to develop what it describes as “bridging solution” for the German armed forces, using the Heron TP. Meanwhile, General Atomics–Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) is quietly confident that Germany may join the European “Reaper Club” that already comprises France, Italy and the UK as members.

The trio of European OEMs said that the three nations could define and adjust their requirements during the definition phase. After that, if the nations committed, “an affordable and certifiable solution” would be ready by 2020, they said. There has been no indication to date, that the nations are ready to fund such a study, although its cost would be “negligeable,” Christian Scherer, head of marketing for Airbus D&S, told AIN during a press briefing at the ILA Berlin airshow this week. According to the industrial trio, a summit of European defense ministers last December endorsed the need for a “EuroMALE” and the European Council says it is a key capability for European defencs. The trio said their study offer “is backed by an industrial agreement on workshare,” although at the same Berlin briefing, Airbus D+S military aircraft CEO Domingo Urena-Raso told AIN that the final workshare would depend on the extent of each country’s participation. Asked why the UK had not been sent the PD study proposal, Scherer said that “this is not a closed club, and there is also demand outside the core European nations.”

Also at the BerlinaAirshow, Airbus D+S CEO Bernhard Gerwert signed a teaming agreement with IAI to provide the Heron TP as a follow-on to Germany’s existing operation with the smaller IAI Heron 1 in Afghanistan. This is provided by Airbus D&S subsidiary Cassidian Airborne Systems under a lease-operate-maintain contract that is due to expire later this year. A six-month extension to that contract is likely, but Germany wants to maintain and upgrade this capability longer-term, it seems. The Bundeswehr has been investigating the acquisition of the GA-ASI Reaper UAS again. The Reaper was rejected in favor of the Heron 1 in 2009, when it was proposed by the U.S. under FMS terms. Now, however, GA-ASI is teamed in Germany with Ruag Aerospace Gmbh. In Berlin this week, GA-ASI signed an agreement with Rohde and Schwarz to integrate the German company’s ATC radios on the Predator B/Reaper.

The question of certification looms large in any evaluation of future MALE UAVs for European nations. When Airbus D & S predecessor Cassidian was promoting the Talarion as a jet-powered UAS a few years ago, its other key and unique attribute was certifiability. That requirement was underlined by the Euro Hawk procurement saga in Germany. But now, both IAI and GA-ASI say that their current Heron TP and Reaper UAVs are certifiable. Frank Pace, president, GA-ASI, told AIN in Berlin that the company planned to fly the “certifiable Predator B” by late 2016. “The momentum is building, and we’re setting up a certification office. We will conduct peer reviews, just like the civilian certification process,” he said.

GA-ASI could deliver such UAVs to Germany and the UK if required in January 2018, Pace added. The redesigned UAV would include anti-icing provision, protection against lightning strike, flight data recorders, and GA-ASI’s own “due regard” radar, which has already test-flown. Pace said that Germany could lease current Predator Bs from GA-ASI, until the certifiable aircraft are available.