Announced this week was a 5 year renewable Memorandum of Understanding between the French and British governments concerning the management of Urgent Operational Requirements.
Quentin Davies MP, the Minister for Defence Procurement, commenting on the agreement
In order to ensure success in Afghanistan, it is important for us to co-operate closely with our international allies, including France. We often have the same urgent requirements for equipment, so it makes good sense to examine ways in which we could co-operate on procurement to mutual economic advantage.
The agreement supplies a framework for common UOR procurement based on five different scenarios which range from signing joint contracts to state-to-state sales via tweaking existing contracts to include the other nation’s needs.
In reality it is difficult to see how a common framework for UOR purchases would actually work and whether there is that much of a need for a common approach, given that the bulk of the UOR spend has already been carried out, Afghanistan is in the ‘let’s look at how we can get the @##k out of Dodge’ phase and the UK and France have very little commonality at an equipment level, although the announcement specifically states that interoperability is not an objective of the MoU.
I suspect this is part of a confidence building and public relations exercise to soften up public opinion for greater collaboration on defence issues with the EU, proponents will point to the MoU as an example of beneficial integration, whatever the relatively minor benefits will actually be.
One thing is certainly true, the mutterings about closer European defence integration continue to be heard all over the continent and the recent publication of defence and security proposals from Labour and the Conservatives confirm this as a strategic objective. Several think tanks have also pointed to load sharing as a means of reducing cost and improving capabilities on a common European basis and there certainly seems to be an appetite for more European collaboration on major equipment projects.
It seems those in charge of defence equipment acquisition are doomed to relive the same old mistakes decade after decade, project after project.
The UK and other European nations have been slow to grasp the benefits of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and because of the lack of state stimulus the European defence industry has had to contend itself with sensor payloads or integration work. If one wants to field a serious UAS today there are two choices of where to go shopping, the US or Israel. There are of course many types of UAS but in the Medium Altitude Long Endurance market segment there are effectively two choices; the IAI Heron or General Atomics Predator/Warrior.
Europe is playing catch up, France, Germany and the UK have definite requirements for a medium to long term strategy but in the absence of anything available from the likes of EADS or BAe and faced with urgent operational requirements (primarily in Afghanistan) have had to purchase or lease systems from IAI or GA.
As we all know, where there is a strategic defence industry to think about this simply won’t do and so we find ourselves at another point of conflict between military needs and industrial/political expediency.
Where next for the euro MALE?
In a recent report from the French National Assembly the desire for increased funding for MALE UAS was laid out including a commitment to the technology and the classification of it as a strategic capability that should not be obtained from outside the EU.
The report acknowledges that because of funding issues the programme will have to be a collaborative one and suggests that the BAe Mantis might be the sensible choice with Thales and Dassault providing the payload and integration respectively, this is building on the greater collaboration on ISR announced last November.
Italy, Germany and Spain would likely be interested in joining any collaborative venture but only if EADS could be involved and therein lies the problem. EADS has a competing development called Talrion but this is at a much less advanced stage than Mantis and would no doubt be a riskier proposition i.e. more costly.
What started out as a possible joint venture would get wrapped up in European defence politics and likely morph into a multinational programme like the Typhoon or A400. No doubt it would be a fine system but it would be 10 years late, several billions over budget and not likely to be exportable because the Israelis and Americans had dominated the market.
It is interesting to note the rapid progress the MoD and BAe have made in unmanned systems development and contrast that with other European nations. The MoD and BAe have created a number of low risk programmes, getting on with the job quietly and competently. Mantis is the culmination of these to date and has cost very little in comparison, a limited set of deliverables, moderate aspirations and a low risk technology approach yielding significant results.
The MoD and BAe have valuable experience and a tangible lead over our European competitors in this area now.
We must not squander it and concentrate on fielding Mantis to provide the UK with a system that is independent of US infrastructure and easily exported. There is a large future market for MALE UAS so let’s make sure the UK gets back into the weapons exporting business by not farting around for the next ten years deciding who is going to make the wings.
Have we learned nothing from the experience of European military industrial collaborations?
Groundhog Day is not a blueprint for defence planning