France, Britain agree on UAV cooperation amid strengthening of defence ties

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France and Britain have agreed to jointly work to develop next-generation unmanned aerial vehicles as part of their military cooperation as their leaders reconciled after an acrimonious clash over Europe last year.

“There is a letter of intent for the long-term,” French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet told Reuters after the summit.
“We are working together for the medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) drone and we are thinking together what the future combat drone should be.”

Longuet said France’s Dassault Aviation and British defence contractor BAE Systems would develop the unmanned aircraft. The two companies would also start work on a next-generation unmanned fighter jet, he said.

Since 2011, industrial representatives from Dassault and BAE Systems have been working together to develop a MALE UAV. Cameron said the partnership would be strengthened by a ‘jointly funded contract’ to study the technical risks of developing the system.
“We look forward to taking further decisions jointly in the light of the outcomes of this risk-reduction phase to ensure that our respective sovereign requirements will be met in a cost-effective manner,” Cameron said.

The French government confirmed its interest in working with the UK to develop Thales UK’s Watchkeeper UAV. France will evaluate the aircraft this year and into next.

Victor Chavez, Chief Executive of Thales UK, said that “UAVs have played a fundamental role in military operations in recent years, and it is only natural that they now also take centre stage in international defence agreements. The UK and France want to remain leaders in the use of UAVs, and working together on Watchkeeper would ensure both have the best intelligence capabilities without duplicat­ing the costs.”
“Cooperation will unlock huge potential benefits in terms of interoperability, joint tech­nology development and industrial collaboration…today’s agreement gives the market confidence that British and French industry will play a central role. Collaboration also creates the chance to work with the best small and medium-sized enterprises on both sides of the channel, as part of ensuring this dynamic capability continues to evolve.”

The Watchkeeper is an all weather, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) UAV being built for the British Army. It is based on the Elbit Hermes 450 UAV, but with an increased maximum take-off weight and 16 hour endurance, according to Thales. The UAV has a dual-payload configuration, including an electro-optical/infrared sensor and synthetic aperture radar.

In addition, Flight International reports that the UK and France will create a demonstration programme for an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), to be developed by BAE Systems and Dassault. Specifications will be finalised this year.
“This work will provide a framework to mature the relevant technologies and operational concepts for a UCAV operating in a high-threat environment,” Cameron said.

In November 2010, Sarkozy and Cameron signed a defence and security cooperation treaty to increase coordination between their countries’ armed forces and co-develop equipment.

With the exception of the war in Libya when the two countries’ militaries worked together to degrade the forces of Muammar Gaddafi, the relationship has focused more on commercial arms deals rather than on coordinating strategy.

In Britain, greater military collaboration with France is seen as a way of maintaining defence capability while slimming down the armed forces to save money.

In addition, Sarkozy and Cameron expanded plans to develop a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF), agreeing to build it up to full operating capability in 2016. A combined joint headquarters will also be put together in the same timeframe. Exercise Corsican Lion will this year see the French and British armed forces coming together to “accelerate the development of the CJEF”.

The UK and France also discussed a joint carrier strike group to be ready in the early 2020s, enhancements to MBDA Storm Shadow and Scalp missiles and the development of a Future Anti-Ship Guided Weapon.