France keeps UCAV options open

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French defence capability planners are continuing to reserve their position on whether  unmanned combat air vehicle technologies will be sufficiently mature to allow for their adoption as part of the replacement of its air force Dassault Mirage 2000C and N series strike aircraft from 2020.

Col Hugues Neret, capability manager combat engagement in the French Joint forces headquarters, says current assessments do point to a role for UCAVs in the air force’s future capability mix, with roles including suppression of enemy air defence, combat air patrol and close air support missions.

Speaking at the IQPC UCAV 2006 conference in London on 28 November, he said: “There is a national role and even a European need for future combat air systems in 2020, but the UCAV has to prove its ability to be a solution.”

The air force wants the Mirage 2000 successor system to operate as part of a highly networked operational force alongside its Dassault Rafale fighters. Neret says the replacement effort is likely to involve a mix of new cruise missiles, a new-generation European developed manned fighter, and UCAVs.

Any future operational UCAV system would need to be able to demonstrate a high-level action radius and operational endurance, but have a platform cost in the realm of between three and five times below the cost of existing manned combat aircraft. That points to a need to minimise the number of sensors aboard the UCAV, Neret said, as well as improved through-life support arrangements.

“The global cost must be competitive in comparison with other strike means,” he said.

The French defence ministry-funded UCAV research is following a dual-track approach Neret said, linking the Dassault-led Neuron demonstrator project with a series of enabling research efforts exploring airborne networking operations, wideband datalinks and aircraft low observability. “It is necessary to go on with technical and operational research.”

French planners also want to ensure that any UCAV system brought into service will be capable of supporting combined manned-unmanned operations: “We need the ability of co-operative work with other aircraft.”

Actual UCAV introduction into operational service would follow a “step-by- step approach”.

Neret ruled out possible transfer of France’s tactical nuclear strike role, currently performed by the Mirage 2000N, to a UCAV system. “The replacement of the Mirage 2000N is the Rafale,” he said.

Consideration has also been given to the possible use of UCAVs in support of special force operations, but studies so far indicate “the costs of this orientation will not be attractive”.

Significant overheads are also seen to be attached to any development of a UCAV-based air-to-air combat capability. “We have to think about the question of cost reduction. However, the reality is that we need the air-to-air missions. UCAV can be used as a factoring element.”