June 04, 2012
Credit: Credit: Cassidian
Despite the large inventory of unmanned aircraft deployed among European armed forces, many countries are still trying to define their long-term surveillance needs.
That picture could start to come into sharper focus in the coming months, as a series of political uncertainties are removed and tests of various systems are completed. Although they are not billion-dollar contracts, at a time of fiscal austerity in many European militaries, the pending decisions carry significant weight for unmanned aircraft providers as they try to secure deals.
That complexity of fielding new systems is exemplified by the U.K.'s effort to introduce the Watchkeeper tactical unmanned aircraft into service. The program has suffered repeated delays, and Defense Ministry officials are no longer providing a specific projection about when it will be fielded.
Once operational, Watchkeeper, the Thales-run effort to upgrade the Elbit Systems Hermes 450, is expected to be deployed quickly to Afghanistan, where the British army is relying on Hermes 450s provided through a service contract. Much effort is being expended to ensure that Watchkeeper will be fully mature when it is fielded to avoid a reduction in drop-in intelligence-gathering capacity when it replaces the Hermes 450, says Brig. Alan Hill, the British Army's head of information superiority. The Hermes 450 will be gradually withdrawn from service as larger numbers of Watchkeepers come online this year.
Although much of the focus has been on putting intelligence-collection systems into inventory, military planners in Europe are starting to look at a broader range of capabilities. For instance, after last year's air war over Libya, the French air force says it recognized that “the weaponization of UAVs will be vital.”
France has been trying to determine its unmanned aircraft plans for several years. The government decided last year to field the Heron-TP, offered through Dassault Aviation, as an interim measure, with Dassault and BAE Systems cooperating on the Telemos unmanned aircraft as the long-term, medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned vehicle. Contracts have not been signed for either, though, and the new French government under President Francois Hollande has yet to announce its policy on the issue. Resolving those matters will also depend on parliamentary elections this month.
Moreover, a senior French industry official points out that the government is expected to issue a new strategic white paper and budget plans.