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Airbus arms firm leads consortium for European combat-drone project

By Matthias Monroy

The German Ministry of Defence has named Airbus as the main contractor for a two-year study for a European long-range armed drone. The contract is due to be signed before the summer recess, and work is to begin in September. The total cost of the project exceeds one billion euros.

The German Federal Ministry of Defence is fleshing out the procurement plans for armable long-range drones. Under the direction of Airbus Defence and Space (ADAS), a division of the Airbus group, an initial definition study for a ‘European MALE RPAS’ is to be conducted. The abbreviations stand for ‘medium-altitude long-endurance’ and ‘remotely piloted aircraft system’, which describe the drone and its guidance and reconnaissance-data processing systems.

This preliminary study is needed to define the potential of the drone and to estimate the subsequent costs. A development phase could follow later and culminate in an implementation phase. By 2025, the drone should be ready for series production. The word from the Ministry of Defence is that the overall bill for the European MALE RPAS project will top the billion-euro mark. This does not include the nine-figure sums that Airbus has already received for civil and military drone research. What is more, the Federal Government, not to mention the European Union, has been investing large amounts in the development of the requisite satellite capacity by Airbus.

Success at last for Airbus

The current market leaders in the production of long-range drones are the US arms group General Atomics, which manufactures the Predator, and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd, which produces the Heron. For many years the Federal Government has advocated the development of a European production capacity, but it has been unable to commit itself to buying drones that will take another ten years to reach the assembly line. Nevertheless, Airbus Defence and Space (ADAS) has made several attempts to convince the Ministry of Defence of the merits of an autonomous development. First of all the company designed the Talarion drone, then came the Future European MALE project (FEMALE 2020).

Now the Federal Government, together with its French, Italian and Spanish counterparts, intends to conclude a binding contract for the production of a definition study. An initial agreement on a multilateral drone project was signed back in May of last year. First of all, Airbus, the French company Dassault Aviation and Alenia Aermacchi of Italy were on board, and then in November Spain joined up. As no Spanish company has much experience of long-range drones, the participation of the Government in Madrid in the project is purely financial.

The European MALE RPAS is to be used as an in-theatre imaging reconnaissance system (SAATEG). The term SAATEG is used by the Bundeswehr to designate drones used for aerial surveillance and reconnaissance. The European drone, which has yet to be developed, is intended to outperform the Heron 1 vehicle which is currently deployed by the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan and will soon be flown in Mali too. Until the European MALE RPAS is finally available, the Defence Ministry intends to procure and arm the Heron TP drone as a ‘stopgap’. Once again, Airbus is the contractor, and the systems are to be leased by the Bundeswehr. The intention is that the European MALE RPAS vehicle should outperform the Heron TP too.

More orders for German companies

The contract for the two-year definition study is to be awarded before the summer recess, and it has been announced that the work will start in September. The study is to begin with a concept phase, and a design phase will follow later. During these phases the specifications for the guided bomb and missile payload are likely to be one of the focal points.
The consortium will be headed by Airbus, which is setting up a new department in Manching, Bavaria, for the development of the European MALE RPAS. The Federal Government intends to place more orders with German companies. Among others, the technical analysis and testing company IABG and the German Aerospace Centre have been awarded technical consultancy contracts worth several million euros.

Responsibility for managing the project lies with the Bonn-based multilateral Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR), an agreement to that effect having been signed in the spring of this year. Within that organisation, the defence ministries of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK cooperate on major arms projects. The European MALE RPAS project is now set to be one of the main beneficiaries of this cooperation. OCCAR already has offices in all of the four countries participating in the definition study, and another department is now to be created in Hallbergmoos, near Munich.

OCCAR is a multilateral organisation that cooperates closely with NATO. Entrusting it with managerial responsibilities may be interpreted as a snub to the EU body, the European Defence Agency. Three years ago, the head of the European External Action Service at that time presented a blueprint for the militarisation of the EU, which included a call for the development of a European drone. In this way, Europe’s role on the ‘world stage’ was to be strengthened. The EU Member States had also agreed on joint efforts to establish military approval procedures for drones.

Type certification for European air space

The four participating countries ultimately agreed on the establishment of a joint certification body. This project is intended to prevent any repetition of the German scandal of the EuroHawk drone,   which cannot obtain type certification for German airspace because it does not qualify for European certification. The European MALE RPAS is intended to be licensed to operate in the airspace of all European countries.

The cost of the definition study is estimated at a maximum of 83 million euros, to be divided among the participating countries. Because the Federal Government and Airbus are heading the project, the German share amounts to 31%. The other expenditure on the consultancy services of the IABG and the German Aerospace Centre brings the total cost of the project over the 25-million mark, which is why it must be examined in the Bundestag.