By Pierre Tran
Paris – Political support has been vital for a European medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle, and even with that backing, years have passed before a program contract appears to be in reach, analysts said.
France expects to green light a deal by mid year, which would clear way for a long awaited European MALE program, seen by the government as a strategic asset, but not one to be pursued at any price.
It will have taken some six or seven years since the Direction Générale de l’Armement, the French procurement office, decided to back a European project for a MALE UAV, said François Lureau, a former DGA chief.
“Political will is a necessity,” said Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of Institut des Relations Internationales et Strategique, a think tank.
Industrial rigor in mitigating risk is also critical, with much depending on the technology proposed.
With that political backing, the authorities will insist the MALE UAV will at the very least match similar platforms on the market and that the expense is justified.
France is in close talks with the prime contractor, Airbus, in an effort to narrow program risk on the prospective MALE UAV project.
Occar, the European procurement agency, will oversee the program for the partner nations France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
It has taken years for industry to draw up an acceptable design and cost for a European MALE UAV program, which has taken on the elusiveness of the Holy Grail.
“As long as it has not been signed, it is under negotiation,” Lureau said.
No Blank Check
“Sovereignty comes at a price, but not any price” armed forces minister Florence Parly told Dec. 2 the French senate.
Europe has lagged behind Israel and the U.S., and the question has been whether there was really a will to catch up.
There have been many announcements which have led to nothing.
The choice in 2013-14 was whether that type of UAV should be bought off the shelf — either from Israel or the US — or built in Europe, Lureau said.
Back then, Jean-Yves Le Drian was defense minister, with François Hollande in the Elysées presidential office after winning the 2012 election and heading a socialist administration.
The political impact could be seen in Le Drian’s decision to reverse the pick of the previous Nicolas Sarkozy administration of the Heron TP drone offered by Dassault and Israel Aerospace Industries. Dassault had rebranded that drone Voltigeur, or tightrope walker.
That Israeli drone fell — or was pushed off the tightrope — and in its place, Le Drian opted for the General Atomics Reaper, offered by Airbus. French interest in the Reaper included a signals intelligence pod, in addition to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Purchase of the Reaper, an interim solution, moved the French preference to the U.S. and away from Israel, which had supplied the Harfang, a French interim drone based on Heron and supported by Airbus.
A Harfang flew the first test flight on Sept. 9 2006 from Istres air base, the first mission over Afghanistan in February 2009, and was retired from service Jan. 8 2018.
Backing a European MALE drone was essentially a political decision, one which carried large expenditure and required long term commitment to industry, Lureau said.
“Does Europe have the will to assign the status of sovereignty to a drone for long distance observation?” he said.
“It is a policy decision of strategy, a decision which restructures industry.”
Le Drian, backed by the Elysées, gave that political approval, he said.
An estimated budget of some €7 billion ($8 billion) is “not negligible and requires a commitment which assigns sovereignty status to MALE UAVs,” he said.
The twin engines on the drone account for 10-15 percent of that estimated budget.
On the industrial side, there is concern to safeguard engineering expertise in the drone sector.
Airbus is channeling know-how from its Talarion MALE UAV into studies for remote carriers in a planned Future Combat Air System, a source said.
There is a deadly sidelight on Turkish work on the cancelled Talarion project.
Turkey had signed up to join the Talarion and when that project was closed, Ankara recalled some 35 engineers who had worked in the Airbus office at Manching, Germany, the source said.
TheTurkish staff were able to draw on that know-how to build Turkey’s own armed MALE drone, intended by Ankara “to give it an edge.”
Turkey has flown combat drones against Syrian forces around Idlib province, northwestern Syria, including hitting a Russian-built air defense system, according to media reports.
Lessons from A400M
Airbus, in its negotiations on the European MALE UAV, is seeking to avoid a repetition of the heavy financial hit taken on the A400M airlifter program.
For Maulny, one of the lessons learnt on the A400M was the need for industry to select sufficiently mature technology and measure the mitigation of risk.
The technology risk on A400M should have been resolved before its development phase, so avoiding excessive expense, he said.
That approach should have applied in other arms programs such as the US F-35 fighter and British Astute attack submarine.
When Airbus was selected to build the A400M, it was seen as unusual for a company which built civil airliners to manufacture a military cargo plane.
The rejoinder to that was Airbus would apply its experience in building commercial aircraft to the military program.
Airbus has reported charges of some €10 billion on the A400M program.
A Long Search
The European pursuit of its own UAV has spanned some 20 years, Maulny said.
A Feb. 25 report from the National Audit Office pointed up stalled efforts to the 2004 announcement of a French-led EuroMALE drone.
Paris failed to find consensus among partner nations on strategy and operational requirements, while industrial partners bickered.
In 2006 Airbus pitched its Advanced UAV, dubbed Talarion, to France, Germany, Italy and Spain, but that also failed to fly, due to a hefty price tag.
Talarion was seen as the Rolls-Royce of UAVs, an executive said.
There was also competition from Telemos, an Anglo-French project, backed by BAE Systems and Dassault and which stemmed from the 2010 Lancaster House defense cooperation treaty.
That joint bid also crashed and burned, as did a cross-Channel project for an unmanned combat aerial vehicle.
Part of the lack of progress between Berlin and Paris over those years stemmed from reluctance in certain parts of the DGA to work with Germany, Maulny said.
A European MALE UAV contract appears to be in reach, if political will and industrial rigor are delivered.
“A lot of patience is needed,” Lureau said.
The featured graphic is credited to Airbus Defence and Space.
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