European companies should act together now to develop next-generation unmanned air systems, or else the continent will face having its capabilities fragmented just as in today's fighter market, a leading UK industry official has cautioned.
"Europe: decide we want to do UAS, and let's get on with it collectively," says Ian Godden, chief executive of the UK's ADS industry group. "If we don't we will be fragmented again," he told the Royal Aeronautical Society's Aerospace 2011 conference in London earlier this month.
Godden likens the current situation - where several of Europe's leading aerospace companies are involved in competing projects to fly unmanned combat air vehicle demonstrators and medium-altitude, long-endurance systems - to that which resulted in the development of both the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale.
Also looking to the fighter sector, he notes that companies' eagerness to secure an industrial stake in the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme has come at the cost of them pursuing their own projects. "JSF has divided Europe, and stopped Europe from getting together," he says. When it comes to exports, "Typhoon and Rafale are suffering from that", he adds.
Godden also warns that a failure to combine industrial know-how and scarce research funding in Europe will hand an advantage to US companies in the development of UAS.
Some progress has been made in European collaboration since late last year, for example with France and the UK having pledged to pursue the joint development of a MALE UAS to meet their armed forces requirements.
But speaking about the tie-up at the same conference, another industry source noted: "Maybe we're looking at a combined need for 60 aircraft. That is not a model that will fly. Commercial interest has to drive it to the market."