France signs delayed deal for Neuron UCAV demonstrator

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Green light for six-nation project as Dassault receives $486m development contract 

Dassault has at last signed a deal to co-ordinate a six-nation programme to design, build and fly an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) technology demonstrator, with France’s DGA procurement agency last week awarding the company a contract worth €405 million ($486 million).

The company will head the Neuron project’s industrial phase as prime contractor, with the DGA to manage its government-to-government aspect under co-operation agreements with European partners Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

France’s government and national industry have provided the largest slice of programme funds, at €185 million, while Sweden’s late 2005 commitment of SKr750 million ($97 million) ranks it second in backing the project.

The DGA declines to provide a detailed funding split for the programme’s remaining four partners, although their contributions are believed to descend in scale through Italy, Spain, Greece and Switzerland. The majority of industrial workshare on the Neuron project will be divided between Alenia Aeronautica, Dassault, EADS Casa, Hellenic Aerospace Industry, Ruag Aerospace, Saab and Thales.

The final hurdle to signing the 9 February development and demonstration phase contract was removed late last year, when Stockholm granted its approval for Saab’s participation after completing a study into potential alternatives (Flight International, 3-9 January). Gaining Swedish government backing stalled the Neuron contract signature for several months, a factor that has resulted in the project’s first flight date having now been pushed back from 2010 until 2011.

France initially highlighted a 2008 flight debut when it announced plans for the UCAV demonstration programme during the 2003 Paris air show.

The DGA says the programme’s one 6,000kg (13,200lb) Neuron air vehicle will undergo flight tests in France, Italy and Sweden from 2011, with the first release of weapons scheduled to take place during 2012. The demonstrator is expected to carry two 250kg bombs during this phase of the multinational project.

CRAIG HOYLE / LONDON