Farnborough review: MALE supremacy

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By Peter La Franchi at Farnborough

Euromale is virtually dead - but what will Europe put in the UAV programme's place?

For the first time in at least three years, the EADS stand at a major international air show was notable for its absences as much as its actual exhibits. Wandering around the stand in Hall 4, nowhere was there to be seen references to the firm's Euromale medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned air vehicle development programme.

Euromale is effectively dead. Most work on the project within EADS has been halted, with negotiations and lobbying for the launch of a common European replacement MALE project dominating the behind-the-scenes industry discussions during Farnborough. At least two rival proposals are now manoeuvering to capture the interests of European governments.

The main replacement candidate is the German ministry of defence's Project Agile initiative, proposing a four-year flying programme with existing advanced unmanned reconnaissance air vehicle demonstrators, with Germany's own contribution being the EADS Barracuda. Germany wants an evolved MALE version developed from that effort, and is in talks with France and Spain to carry the initiative forward.

Multi-national

Germany also wants to secure Italian and Swedish participation in the project, and is understood to have started talks with Turkey, Switzerland, Greece and Finland.

However, that process of engagement may not be as advanced as the German MoD has suggested. Mikael Franzen, programme director for UAV systems at Saab Aerosystems, says the company is interested in a role in a European MALE initiative, "if there is a requirement from the Swedish armed forces and they involve themselves in that", but has yet to receive any formal engagement approach.

Industry officials from Turkey's Tusas Aerospace Industries at the show said any involvement in a new European project would depend on the outcome of government to government talks. In the meantime, the company remains focused on its own MALE development effort.

The second initiative - which became public during Farnborough - is Dassault's concept for using the existing French-led Neuron unmanned combat air vehicle programme as the industrial basis and possibly the technology source for any new MALE initiative. The Dassault announcement comes after the company conducted at least one closed-door briefing at a European aerospace technology co-operation forum in early July detailing preliminary concepts for a MALE spin-off from Neuron.

However, the Dassault push also flies in the face of the strategic agreement between Dassault and EADS two years ago that saw them divide their respective aspirations for lead roles in advanced UAV development efforts. Interestingly, Dassault argues that a similar assessment can be made of the EADS position in the wake of its unveiling the Barracuda demonstrator.

The French position on any co-operative Euromale successor is further complicated by its own national military plans for a three-tier "persistent surveillance" joint operational unmanned air vehicle system that would incorporate tactical and endurance aircraft in a single architecture.

Standardisation

The new architecture would provide a standardised French defence force handling system for strategic-level sensor data provided by the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system.

The proposed system would encompass the launch of a new MALE or "operational" UAV project replacing the troubled EADS-led Euromale development effort. It would also absorb the current French army SDTT "mature" tactical UAV requirement, a project under extensive review since its launch two years ago and with a nominal value of €500 million ($635 million).

Alex Creswell, vice-president for ISTAR and UAV systems at Thales Aerospace, said during Farnborough that the proposed joint project represents a "holistic approach to the ISTAR problem, right from the strategic level down to the tactical level". He said that French defence ministry studies are "exploring a mix of high-altitude endurance, high-end tactical, and much smaller tactical UAVs that use an integrated common ground infrastructure and interoperate with manned assets to deliver persistence over the battlefield".

Initial system elements - focusing on tactical level UAVs - would enter service around 2010. The French army wants to retire its EADS CL-289 AOLOS and Sagem Sperwer interim tactical UAVs in 2011-12. The MALE or "operational" component of the project is expected to take longer to develop.

Creswell says the timeframes for the operational part "is a little more speculative. You will have seen the rethink of the Euromale programme that is going on in France; this is part of the same review of end-to-end surveillance capability. I can't see that the programme that replaces it, particularly if it is joined up with the tactical segment and the strategic segment, will proceed quite as fast as in the tactical domain. So I see the tactical domain as being much further ahead. On the strategic side, however, the NATO AGS programme and France's role in that is very clear and there is a very clear timetable for that."