Continuing indecision by the governments of France, Germany and Italy over what type of Medium-Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial system (UAS) should be built by Europe is holding up signature of the long-awaited project definition (PD) contract.
Meanwhile, the maker of the Reaper UAS that already serves with three European air forces has again questioned why European industry seeks to build a Euro-MALE that will essentially be “a me-too” version of the American drone. And, not coincidentally, that company–General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI)–issued a statement here Monday that described its progress towards a “certifiable Reaper.”
When the French, German and Italian defense ministers declared their intent last month to fund the PD study, some observers expected them to ink the deal with a flourish here at the show. The reality is they have not yet provided enough definition of the Euro-MALE requirement to allow the industrial team led by Airbus Defence &Space, Dassault Aviation and Finmeccania to proceed.
“They haven’t decided whether it should be armed or not; fly slow or fast; and operate only independently or be capable of joining a combat aircraft formation,” an informed industrial source told AIN. He said that arming a Euro-MALE was a particularly sensitive issue for Germany. The PD study could provide options, he added, but industry needed more clarity on the basics.
The trio of European OEMs joined together here at Paris two years ago to press for a development of a Euro-MALE that would challenge U.S. and Israeli supremacy in this field; assure sovereignty of operational control; and provide an air vehicle and control system that would be certified to fly in non-segregated airspace, extending the mission sets of the UAS to border or urban surveillance. They submitted their proposal for the two-year PD study in May 2014.
Meanwhile, GA-ASI said it had just successfully completed an internal Phase 1 Critical Design Review (CDR) of a Reaper that would be certified for flight “according to the NATO Airworthiness Standards,” including STANAG4671, UKDEFSTAN 00970, SAE ARP4754A, as well as others. The company said it would conduct flight tests next year, leading to the first flight of a certifiable production aircraft in 2017.
AIN understands that GA-ASI is spending $160 to 200 million of its own money on this effort. It includes new wings and tails that have de-icing and can resist lightning strikes; flight control software that has been rewritten to audit standards; and “sense and avoid” capability through the addition of TCAS II and the company’s own Due Regard Radar (DRR) development. This combination is already flying on NASA’s version of the Predator B, in a project that feeds into the ongoing development of UAS certification standards in the U.S.
Speaking to AIN here at the show, Frank Pace, president of GA-ASI, questioned the need for a Euro-MALE when the air forces of France, Italy and the UK were all “doing well” with their Reapers, and two more European countries might soon join them. They are the Netherlands and Spain, with the latter likely to choose between the Reaper and an Israeli UAS by the end of this month.
Incidentally, the two unspecified European countries that were described in a GA-ASI statement as “prospective customers” for the certifiable Reaper, and that have participated in its CDR, are not the Netherlands and Spain.AIN understands that they are Germany and the UK. The latter country is not a surprise, since the UK has declined to join the Euro-MALE study. But given the German government’s commitment to the study, it is hard to understand why it is also considering a Reaper purchase.