By Pierre Tran
Paris – Tough talks between industry and the French and German authorities on development cost are holding up a program launch of a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle, the French procurement chief said.
Joel Barre, head of the Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office, gave Oct. 2 an update on the stalled UAV project, along with Franco-German efforts to launch programs for a Future Combat Air System and a new tank in the Main Ground Combat System.
Airbus Defence and Space is prime contractor, working with partner Dassault Aviation on the planned UAV, in a European attempt to enter a key market led by the U.S. and Israel.
“The hold up today lies in differences over development cost,” Barre told the defense committee of the French senate, according to minutes of the meeting. Development is one of three elements in the prospective contract for the UAV, along with production and service.
“I have every hope of reaching agreement by the end of the year, because we will not build the MALE (UAV) at any price. Discussions are being held, the conversation of the last few days seem to be rather encouraging. To sum up, I have some hope but no guarantees.”
Berlin and Paris called for a revised plan for the European MALE UAV project after industry requested more than €2 billion ($2.2 billion), double an initial estimated budget, La Tribune business website reported.
That funding overspill from industry compares to an initial Franco-German budget of €4 billion by 2025 for development of a new generation fighter jet in the FCAS project, with France contributing €2.5 billion, according to the French armed forces ministry, Reuters reported.
The future European UAV would be armed and equipped for signals intelligence, the Air chief of staff, General Philippe Lavigne, told Oct. 10 the defense committee of the lower house National Assembly.
The UAV budget request reflects twin engines and 10-ton weight, which makes the UAV “too heavy, too expensive and therefore difficult to export,” Christian Cambon, chairman of the Senate defense committee, said in a June 26 parliamentary report. Those specifications reflected German requests, leading to “obesity,” he said.
That weight could be compared to a Rafale fighter jet, which weighs some 10 tons without fuel and weapons, and Reaper MQ-9, weighing some two tons, without arms and payloads.
The German specification for twin engines reflects a concept of operations centered on flying domestic surveillance and avoiding a crash on a German city, Cambon said.
For the French forces, the UAV is for overseas deployment in Mali and Adrar des Ifoghas, a mountainous range near the Mali border with Algeria.
The recurring cost for service of the UAV is the factor closest to budgetary agreement, Barre said.
“The question of over-specification is no longer an issue,” he said. The twin engines are a “reality.”
Two engines increased weight and cost, but France accepted in 2017 that configuration, he said. What remained to be resolved was reaching agreement with industry on cost-efficiency.
Italy and Spain have signed up for the UAV project. The French 2019-25 military budget law foresees 18 UAVs, on the basis of six UAV systems, with three units per system.
On the FCAS project, Cambon said a new fighter program would cost €25 billion, which called for cooperation as such a budget was outside the reach of France acting on its own.
Barre said there remained two factors to resolve before launching work on a technology demonstrator for the new generation fighter.
“The first element is organizing the entry of Spain into the program,” he said. That required finding a “good compromise” to avoid a delay in the prototype and should be reached before an Oct. 16 Franco-German ministerial council meeting on defense and security.
The Spanish defense minister, Margarita Robles, signed June 17, the opening day of the Paris air show, a framework agreement to bring Spain into the FCAS program, led by France and Dassault, and partnered with Germany and Airbus D&S.
The second, more sensitive, element lay in appointing Safran as prime contractor on the engine program, with MTU Aero Engines as industrial partner, Barre said.
The industrial responsibilities should be clearly set out, in contrast to the engine on the Airbus A400M airlifter, he said. There are talks between Safran and MTU to accord program leadership to the former to ensure balance in the work assigned to the companies.
There would be a resolution following talks with the companies and between the companies, he said, adding the “highest political level” would resolve the situation if needed. The French and German ministers would meet Oct. 9 to discuss organization of engine production ahead of the bilateral ministerial council meeting the following week, he said.
In France, the DGA, backed by the government, negotiates with industry, and talks to the German counterpart, the junior defense minister, he said. In Germany, industry has “a very powerful role” in decision-making.
The German political side is complex, with the government seeking consensus between three or four parties, and powerful oversight by the Bundestag parliament, two French defense executives said. On the French side, the president holds political power.
Problems on the TP-400 engines were among the key factors in slowing deliveries of the A400M.
The program to build a new powerful turboprop engine was based on work share, reflecting client orders for the aircraft. Germany had ordered the largest number of A400M, opening the way for German industry to learn how to build core engine parts.
That led to costly delays and a French commitment to avoid future large industrial consortiums.
Airbus and Dassault called Oct. 7, ahead of the ministerial council meeting, for launch of the prototype fighter jet, backed by “a reliable funding plan.”
“We call on our political leaders to make every effort to launch these demonstrators at the earliest opportunity in what will be a key step in moving this ambitious project forward,” Eric Trappier, CEO of Dassault and Dirk Hoke, CEO of Airbus DS said in a joint statement.
On the budget for the MGCS project for a new tank, there is government agreement on 50:50 work share split between France and Germany, with Nexter leading the French side, and Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall sharing the German stake, a defense source said.
It will be up to the two German partners to negotiate their respective shares of the program, with an equal split seen as the ideal, the source said.
There will also be nine sub-projects for a system architecture study, with each of the three partners taking leadership of three sub projects, the source said.
That architecture study will begin early next year and will launch a technology demonstrator for the tank, the Elysée president’s office said on the Oct. 16 meeting of the Franco-German defense and security council. That meeting was held in Toulouse, southwestern France.
The tank project will be open to other European nations, the Elysée office said. Paris and Berlin would also “examine steps for a further consolidation and evolution of their land systems industries.”