European hopes of developing a home-grown large surveillance unmanned air vehicle are effectively dead, with programmes based on proven and readily available foreign platforms the only solution for governments' hard-pressed defence budgets.
That is the view of Dassault Aviation chairman Charles Edelstenne, whose company is teaming with Thales and Indra to propose to France and Spain a medium-altitude long-endurance UAV based on Israel Aerospace Industries' Heron TP. The offer, submitted on 22 May, is unsolicited and comes despite an earlier commitment by the two governments, plus Germany, to back an EADS-led initiative to develop the so-called Advanced UAV, a successor to the collapsed Euromale project.
However, Edelstenne is confident a decision to fund what he calls "a practical rather than political solution" by Paris and Madrid may be made as early as January 2009, which would allow deliveries from 2012. This, says Francois Quentin, senior vice-president of Thales's Aerospace division, would be at least four years ahead of the EADS rival and allow immediate deployment of a combat-proven airframe equipped with French and Spanish technology.
"There is no money for a European MALE," says Edelstenne, speaking in Paris at the official launch of the partnership last week. "So we have to forget any other project for a MALE in Europe. We cannot dream about what we can do, but make what we can sell."
This would leave Germany backing the EADS Advanced UAV. However, last month Berlin launched its own competition for five MALE UAVs, with Israel Aerospace Industries' Heron TP and General Atomics' Predator B candidates for the airframe. Edelstenne says there was never an intention to involve Germany in the latest partnership because its need for fast, reconnaissance UAVs is very different to that of France and Spain, which require a longer-endurance, loitering solution.
Although other unnamed countries were also invited to participate, the time which it would have taken to put together any team made it unrealistic, says Edelstenne.
Ironically, Thales and Indra were earmarked to develop a synthetic aperture radar payload for the Advanced UAV, but the companies' involvement was less than on the Dassault-led programme. Dassault is also continuing to work with EADS Spain on the French-led Neuron unmanned combat air vehicle demonstrator, scheduled to fly in 2011 and being developed with Greece, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland.