Europe needs to co-operate on building unmanned military aircraft or risk falling behind in the race to develop the next generation of jet fighters that may not even be flown by pilots, industry experts have warned.
Despite huge development costs, European nations compete to sell three different types of fighter plane to preserve their national pride and can ill afford to show disunity in the US$100 billion market for drones, executives and analysts said.
“Nothing would be worse than having all the European countries … saying they need roughly similar systems but not avoiding the traps they fell into regarding military aviation in Europe,” said Nicolas Chamussy, in charge of drones at EADS’s Cassidian defence unit, Reuters reports.
France pulled out of the Eurofighter combat jet in the early 1980s to focus on the all-French Dassault Rafale but has failed so far to find an export market for it.
The four-nation Eurofighter is built by EADS on behalf of Germany and Spain, along with Britain’s BAE Systems and Finmeccanica of Italy. Sweden’s Saab offers the lightweight Gripen fighter.
All three European planes are competing against U.S. and Russian arms firms in a US$10 billion contest to supply India.
Now, a similar pattern of shifting alliances is being played out in the battle for control of unmanned technology. It is an important market in its own right and could be a testbed for technology to be used in future generations of fighters.
In early 2009, EADS unveiled a next generation drone called Talarion. But the European defence group is still awaiting a green light from France, Spain and Germany, the three nations who would share the cost estimated at nearly 3 billion euros.
Dassault Aviation and BAE have proposed a military drone to France and Britain under a new cross-Channel defence pact, but without EADS.
“We are pragmatic: it is a European programme, but with two partners,” said Eric Trappier, Dassault Aviation’s executive vice-president in charge of international.
$100 BILLION MARKET
There is also a debate over whether Europe should try to be self-sufficient or rely on adapting Israeli platforms, such as in the Thales-Dassault bid to build a medium altitude long endurance (MALE) drone to compete with the EADS Talarion.
Most of these players are meanwhile involved in developing a pan-European stealth attack drone called the nEUROn, while BAE Systems has rolled out a prototype of a pilotless military plane called the Mantis, shaped like the predatory insect.
Critics say such disunity and delays are making it harder for Europe to catch up with US manufacturers such as Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics and with Israeli groups such as IAI.
Global spending on unmanned aircraft is expected to total about $103.5 billion from 2011 to 2020, according to data from Virginia-based Teal Group. Over three quarters of this comes from the United States and only 10 percent from Europe.
As with many military ventures, shrinking defence budgets could provide Europeans countries the impetus they need to co-operate on research, Guillaume Rochar, aerospace and defence leader at the Paris office of PricewaterhouseCoopers, said.
“But those are state-of-the-art technologies and nobody wants to show their cards,” he added.
France’s Defence Minister Alain Juppe is expected to announce his choice of drones by the end of the month and has not excluded buying General Atomics’ Predator off the shelf for the country’s most pressing needs in Afghanistan.
The implications of such a choice could be far-reaching.
“If France bought Predators today, would this mean it would not develop a combat drone? Rochard asked. “And if France decided not to invest in research and development in combat drones, how could it maintain its know-how regarding fighting jets?”