BAE Systems canceled a briefing here yesterday on Anglo-French collaboration for the next generation of UAVs. The company had hoped that ministers from both countries would be ready to announce joint funding for further studies of medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAVs and a future combat air system (FCAS).
In briefings last month, BAE officials expressed guarded optimism that the deals could be struck. They still hope for approval of the studies this month. But the recent change of government in France has slowed the process, and may even have confused it. New French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said that the German and Italian aerospace industries might become partners in joint European UAV development. The British government, on the other hand, is on record as preferring bilateral cooperation only.
More immediately, Le Drian is due to announce this week whether France will stick to a plan to procure the Voltiger MALE system that was outlined by the previous government. Intended as an interim solution to an urgent requirement to support French troops in Afghanistan, the system was proposed by Dassault and based on the IAI Heron TP platform. But no contract was signed, and French troops are leaving Afghanistan later this year. Various alternatives have been suggested, including an upgrade to France’s existing Harfang MALE system based on the smaller IAI Heron, or even a buy of Reaper UAVs from the U.S.
The UK Royal Air Force (RAF) already operates Reaper UAVs in Afghanistan. These were acquired under an urgent operational requirement (UOR) and are not funded from the core defense budget. They are supposed to be withdrawn in 2015 after most British troops leave Afghanistan.
The RAF has been pleased with the Reapers in operation, but has raised concerns over the lack of operational sovereignty. However, two recent developments have allayed some of those concerns. The RAF Reaper ground station has been relocated from the U.S. to the UK, and the U.S. has conceded that non-American payloads can be integrated on the Predator/Reaper via a new open architecture. If the UK were to take Reaper into the core defense budget and prolong its service life, the case for speedy development of the proposed Anglo-French Telemos MALE could be undermined.