Interesting times ahead in the land of unmanned aircraft
The future of Mantis, Telemos, Reaper, Heron, Talarion, Neuron, Taranis, Hammerhead, Watchkeeper and Uncle Tom Cobbly and all seems subject to the fickle whims of national industrial self-interest, faux European cooperation and a basic lack of cash.
Something is going to have to give.
For whatever reason, the European defence industry has been well behind the curve with Medium Altitude Long Endurance unmanned systems, whilst Israel and the USA were getting their Predator/Reaper and Heron systems into production Europe was talking about it, basically, they were out innovated.
Conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali have presented an unpalatable choice for European governments, buy American/Israeli or make do with nothing. The UK, Germany and even France have purchased, or will, Predator/Reaper and Heron despite how painful this might have been given the impact on their indigenous defence aerospace industries.
The decision now is either accept that the market opportunity has passed, cede any future domestic or international sales to the USA and Israel or get behind, with cash, a European design.
The UK has invested considerable sums in its Reaper capability and it is difficult to envisage a capability difference between an evolved Reaper and something new that warrants casting that investment aside and starting from scratch.
Even if consensus on a European design were found the practical way forward is far from clear, hugely complex and would have to contend with the rather problematical European defence industrial landscape.
For the Medium Altitude Long Endurance RPAS/UAV, the state of play is…
This an EADS design, notionally for France, Spain and Germany, that they have reportedly spent in excess of £500m developing after the risk reduction contract from the three governments expired. Alenia joined the development programme as well as Saab and Turkey later on.
Let’s not forget as well, EADS is a large shareholder in Dassault.
The mockup on display at the EADS stand at the Paris Airshow this week looks very much Talarion shaped although with some engine and wing variations from the older design
Talarion specs include a maximum altitude of 50,000ft with a payload of just under 1,000kg externally and 800kg in a modular internal payload bay with an endurance of 20 hours. The satellite and electro optical systems are permanently fitted but the payload bay can be fitted with weapons, radar or an additional fuel tank. Indra and Thales have developed the radar option and it is an advanced, electronically scanned system that offers both SAR and GMTI modes.
This initial payload offer also includes potential for SIGINT, comms relay and electronic warfare.
Talarion isn’t the finished article by a long way but the concept looks sound and it offers a number of potential benefits over the turboprop powered Reaper and Mantis.
Work ceased in Talarion in 2012 with no amount of arm bending able to convince anyone to stump up the cash to proceed.
In what was reported as an unusual move, the Paris Air Show this week saw a joint statement from EADS, Dassault and Alenia urging someone, anyone, to dig down the back of the sofa and find some cash to kickstart a European MALE UAV. The statement was at pains to point out the issues of operation in European airspace, resource pooling and European sovereignty.
Note the absence of BAE.
In comparison with Talarion, the Mantis/Telemos looked like it has fallen out of the parts bin and I get the impression neither BAE or Dassault had that much interest in it, preferring the bigger UCAV prize. After an initial flurry of activity during the post SDSR 2010 Anglo French love in it was basically allowed to whither on the vine as no agreement to proceed was reached.
Both companies have now ceased development, which is as large an indicator that the UK is sticking with Reapers as you can get!
When I wrote about the Mantis some time ago I noted that if the UK wanted a BAE MALE UAV it would have to dispense with Dassault and any notion of an Anglo-French collaboration because of the realities of agreeing work-share with the French aerospace industry and grasp the nettle ourselves.
This was of course always an outside bet given the state of the MoD’s budget, Afghanistan and about a gazillion other priorities.
The time has passed for Telemos.
As a wild card, I think this one is a fantastic idea and have covered it a few times in the past, here for example. Piaggio and the UAE Abu Dhabi Autonomous System Investments (ADASI) company had signed an agreement to develop a multirole patrol aircraft variant of the P.180 Avanti II.
The Hammerhead departs from the Avanti II in having a reinforced, folding wing with a higher aspect ratio. Instead of personnel, the interior is fitted with a range of communications and avionics equipment in additional to an extra fuel tank.
Headline specs include 16 hour endurance, maximum altitude of 45,000 feet and a mission payload of 900kg although the initial version will not be fitted with any weapons.
The only problem is it complicates the well-laid plans of EADS, Alenia and Dassault because it neatly sidesteps them and offers a system that on paper looks like both a quicker into service and cheaper option than Talarion yet with a number of qualitative advantages over Reaper/Heron.
After experiencing problems with using weapons on their own Reapers the Italian Air Force is said to be foursquare behind the Hammerhead.
Read more here
General Atomics have sold nearly 600 Predator/Reaper systems and have been making strides into markets outside the USA/Europe including developing a version called the XP that cannot carry weapons and designed for sales to more sensitive areas like the Middle East outside of the Foreign Military Sale (FMS) process. They have stated that the XP will be sold to the UAE which is interesting given the ownership of Piaggio. The Predator B model may also be joined by the faster and jet powered Predator C which would negate the speed advantage of the Hammerhead.
France has recently signed an order for a pair of MQ-9 Reapers which was surprising given a) the French don’t like to buy anything from America and b) they already have in service two EADS Harfang systems, a derivative of the Israeli Heron, that would on face value, seem quite similar and finally, c) they had selected the Heron TP a while ago to replace the Harfang. Early reports indicate that the French Reapers will be unarmed and not likely to have all the bells and whistles of those found on RAF Reapers because, to be blunt, it seems the US do not trust the French to keep their hands off the intellectual property and transfer it to EADS or Dassault.
Germany has plans to purchase Reapers but is also in discussion with IAI for the Heron TP. It is reported that no decision on either will be made before the national elections later this year and the cancellation of the Euro Hawk does leave some additional space in the budget.
Without knowing the underlying reasons why the US has refused Italy the permission to arm their Predators, despite them flying in Afghanistan, they have angrily decided to pursue other options, the so called Black UAV (which in the end turned out to be the Hammerhead). Alenia has no involvement with the Hammerhead.
Read more about the Predator B or Reaper, here
The RAF of course has been a user of Reaper for some time and recent investments in additional airframes and a UK operating facility mean it is likely to enter the core equipment programme post Afghanistan. The contract award for Brimstone integration is another large and obvious signpost.
We might even see a Seaspray equipped maritime patrol variant linked up with the Sea Hercules concept that has been in the news again this week.
With General Atomics spending their own money on STANAG certification, a range of safety improvements and talking up sales to Holland and Germany, it seems likely the the much discussed European Reaper club will become a reality.
There might even be an opportunity here, specifically for the MoD. The MoD has invested significant sums in setting up an operations hub at RAF Waddington and it could feasibly be developed into a European Predator operations hub. Combine that with sovereign technology insertion and the loss of expertise across the sector might not be as acute.
What next for the UK is of course the interesting question, it seems the smart money would be on a continuation of Reaper, with BAE looking beyond MALE and to UCAV and no interest in joining in the European ping pong game of defence aerospace politics it is looking like its over to someone else to pick up the Talarion tab.
Shame really, because when you look at the Talarion concept it is quite well conceived and would be a step forward, arguably, from Reaper, perhaps even encroaching into the space that might have included a HALE type such as Global Hawk.
The modular payload bay, ability to carry a decent weapon load internally and fast transit speed might also have allowed it to slot into the lower end of the UCAV mission space.
With Telemos gone, without any skin in the Talarion game and an established infrastructure in Reaper I can’t see the UK putting anything into Talarion. Let’s not forget the UK is the only country other than the USA that operates armed MALE UAV’s.
However, there seems even less chance that the European operators or would be operators of Reaper, i.e. the big four of Great Britain, Germany, France and Italy will be operating them in European airspace any time ever. The Euro Hawk cancellation and troubles with Watchkeeper clearly shows the difficulty of operating unmanned systems in non-segregated airspace.
If Talarion does have a chance it is because of this, the joint statement clearly making the point that Talarion has been designed with European airspace integration from the start.
The European defence industry is paying the price for their tardiness, urgent requirements have meant that in the medium sized UAV market, General Atomics and IAI have cleaned up, unless Governments want to leave this market to the USA and Israel, accepting that the equipment will never fly in Europe, they are going to have to find the money to move forward on Talarion.
For the UK, it is hard to see anything but Reaper which is a shame given the obvious advantages of Talarion but there are still opportunities to be had in leading a European Predator/Reaper operations and operator group.
The next post will look at the European UCAV situation but for now, the Future European MALE or FEMALE, remains elusive.