French President Jacques Chirac's appearance at the unveiling of the Dassault-led Neuron unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) signalled the official beginning of the six-nation programme to build a technical demonstrator.
But despite Dassault's assertions to the contrary, the commitment of one of the biggest industrial partners, Saab, remains uncertain because of political wrangling in Sweden. The ruling minority Swedish government is at odds with the green and left-wing parties - whose support it needs to remain in power.
Sweden, Italy, Greece, Spain and Switzerland have joined the programme. Dassault has 50% of the work, Sweden around 25%. Industrial contracts were signed with Saab, Alenia, EADS Casa, HAI and Ruag at the 2003 Paris air show.
Last Thursday's expected go-ahead from the Swedish government failed to happen, however, and a cooling-off period has been imposed during which it hopes to explain to the doubters that Neuron will be good for jobs and Sweden's technology base. "The process has stopped while the government does its best to convince the green and left wing alliances", says Saab. "The government could push this through anyway, but it prefers to try and achieve a consensus."
Dassault Aviation chairman and CEO Charles Edelstenne said on Friday last week that Swedish commitment to Neuron was "total", dismissing suggestions of a pull-out. "I spoke to the head of Saab a few days ago and he was delighted with the programme", he added. "Everyone is delighted."
Edelstenne says other European countries are still welcome to join the programme, with Belgium toted as the next likely signatory. The first Neuron is due to fly at the end of 2009 or beginning of 2010, he says. "But that's theoretical. There's no urgency."
The Neuron demonstrator is almost as big as a combat aircraft.
The programme is expected to cost around e400 million ($482), 50% of which will be borne by France.