Plan for European Manufactured Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Uncertain

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Europe is edging closer to the development of its own indigenous medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle that could threaten U.S. and Israeli manufacturers’ business, experts said.

The United States and Israel have long been leaders in the global UAV market with ubiquitous systems like General Atomics’ Reaper and Israel Aerospace Industries’ Heron flying around the globe. Some countries, such as Italy, France and Germany, are keen on creating a native European system that could alleviate their reliance on foreign drones, defense ministers from each respective country have said.

This summer, the three countries signed a two-year declaration of intent to study the possibility of manufacturing a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drone that could be used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. After the study is complete, a decision will be made whether to proceed with the development and procurement of the system.

Airbus Defence, Dassault Aviation and Finmeccanica have been at the forefront of the project, which has been in the works for years. In 2014 they submitted a MALE unmanned aerial system study proposal for a 24-month “definition phase” followed by a development stage.

After the signing of the declaration of intent in May, all three companies’ CEOs said they were pleased by the decision.

“The next generation MALE UAS represents a step … [forward] for the European defense and security agenda,” Mauro Moretti, Finmeccanica’s CEO said in a statement. “This initiative is a unique opportunity to pursue a joint technological path built on proven industrial leaderships all contributing to a single objective.”

Eric Trappier, CEO of Dassault Aviation, said the decision was a welcome announcement and stressed that an indigenous capability is necessary for both military and security missions.

Bernhard Gerwert, CEO of Airbus Defence and Space, said the signing was a milestone for the European defense industry.

It “clearly recognizes that sovereignty in [the] development of new systems — and specifically in military reconnaissance and unmanned aviation — is of strategic importance for European security,” he said.

The current definition phase, as part of the declaration of intent, will focus on “tailoring new developments to customer requirements,” said Giovanni Soccodato, executive vice president of strategy, markets and business development at Finmeccanica. “It is the first phase of a system development and serves to reduce financial and development risk to a minimum — thanks to a trade-off process — before the launch of the subsequent full-scale development.”

During this stage, the contractors will address issues regarding competitiveness, sovereignty, growth potential, compliance with joint requirements and certification. This process will involve industry, customers, armed forces and procurement agencies, he told National Defense in an email.

Finmeccanica is ready to start the definition phase and is looking forward to getting the “green light from our governments as soon as possible,” Soccodato said. All three companies plan to evenly share the work during this phase.

Over the past decade, European aerospace companies have initiated a number of development efforts in order to kick start an independent industrial and technology capacity in the region that is “capable of rivaling the world’s major players,” he said.

The effort to procure the system had previously been known as MALE 2020, with the number signifying the year the first system would be operational. Because of delays, that timeline has been pushed back to 2025.

The drone, which will be used for surveillance purposes and have an armed capability, will be able to fly at altitudes of more than 29,000 feet for 24 hours. It is also likely to have an array of advanced sensors, said Huw Williams, unmanned systems editor for IHS Jane’s International Defence Review.

Countries involved want a system that is more advanced than a Reaper, but not as complex as the U.S. Navy’s planned unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike drone, he said.

Italy, Germany and France are keen to develop manned/unmanned teaming, he said. Additionally, the drone will have enhanced secure communications and cyber security measures built in from the start.

Specific requirements are being hashed out, he said.

“They’re still working on what everyone wants and what they can produce but you don’t want to say, ‘Let’s do a stealthy combat, deep penetration platform,’ because that’s not what the program is aiming to do,” he said. “It’s a balancing act because they can’t overstretch and say, ‘Let’s bring in all these advanced capabilities.’ … They might think that they can bring that in, but it’s going to cost a lot to do it.”

German, French and Italian defense manufacturers are more than able to build an advanced system, it’s just a matter of the countries working together and putting a solid goal in place, he said.

While the study gets underway, experts have mulled over how the system could affect the global UAV market.

Derrick Maple, principal analyst for unmanned systems at IHS Aerospace, Defense and Security, said “it would help develop a much stronger European UAV capability in the longer term, with less reliance on U.S. and Israeli imports.”

“It is a step towards greater consolidation of capability, which makes sense in terms of efficiencies of scale,” he said. “These type of projects are not economically justifiable by individual countries in Europe and also there would be wasteful duplication, which in today’s austere defense budget climate makes no sense.”

Airbus, Dassault and Finmeccanica stand the most to gain from the system coming to fruition, he added. It is possible that the drone could help the companies eat into the sales of more established UAV manufacturers, he said in an email.

It could affect sales “in Europe, and also potentially in other parts of the world, if the project can be competitive with U.S. and Israeli designs,” he said.

There will be significant pressure to ensure that the system matches a price point relative to U.S. and Israeli systems, he added. “The main concern with multi-national programs is the cost of overhead with multi-national management/direction structures. Not only could this be a burden in terms of cost, but also in terms of market responsiveness and potential program slippage.”

“In my view, they will struggle on price grounds, and selling will need to encompass a package solution where offsets could play a vital part. This has always been the case in achieving defense exports, but I think it will be even more important here,” he said.

There is a strong push in Europe to get the system to development, said Poornima Subramaniam, a senior analyst with Hawk, a European aerospace, defense and security analysis firm. The European Defence Agency, which is part of the European Union, has been a big advocate, she added.

“It means a lot to the EDA, which has been pushing for this for the past few years,” she said. The European Union has made it clear that it has learned from past procurement mistakes, such as the failed effort to develop an advanced European jet pilot training system earlier in the decade, she said.

“The EDA is reportedly offering more guidance on planning joint procurement, [and] the European Commission is working with different governments in helping reduce inefficiencies in defense planning/procurement,” she said.

It will be critical that all participating countries “are on the same page with what they want out of the MALE capability,” she said. For instance, some countries have differing regulations over the arming of drones, she added.

One perennial obstacle to the system is that not every country in the region is on board, she said.

“European countries really do want to find a solution as it would not be cost-effective to depend on U.S./Israeli options in the long run,” she said in an email. However, “the problem is that there is a varying degree of enthusiasm for a multi-national development program.”

Many countries have already made significant investments in foreign systems and would be less likely to invest in a European-designed system, she said.

Contractors and industry analysts will have to “wait and watch” to see if the program comes to fruition, she noted.

Larry Dickerson, a senior defense analyst at Forecast International, a Connecticut-based market consulting firm, said one of the reasons there have been delays with the program is because of bickering among Germany, Italy and France over the system’s capabilities.

“Whenever you get joint programs you’ve always got to start giving things up,” he said. If the countries can’t work together, they will not be able to create a viable system.

“If they want to compete in this market, they’ve got to cooperate with each other. Otherwise, they’re just not going to be able to do it,” he said. “They’re going to come out with systems that are probably equally as good but they’re going to be hideously expensive just because of the fact that their own home requirements can’t really support much of a product run.”

A joint effort lowers the overall cost for all partners and having Germany on board makes development easier, he added.

“The Germans are the ones that have the money. If you want a program like that to work, having Germany on your side is a big advantage,” he said.

If the system is procured, it will likely be used for peacekeeping and border control missions, Dickerson said. MALE systems are ideal for the types of maritime environments many European countries will be operating their drones in, he said. Smaller tactical systems don’t have the range or capabilities necessary for that type of operation, he said.

Michael O’Hanlon, co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, said while Europe does want its own indigenous system, it’s not a top priority.

“Europe still has and still values a strong aerospace sector and this technology is one of the ‘next big things,’ so in that industrial base sense, it’s moderately important” but it isn’t crucial, he said.

For companies involved in its development, “it will help their sales and their technology base,” he said. However, “it probably won’t be a big enough program to be the main factor in determining their overall future, especially for the larger companies.”

Topics: International, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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