Europe Considers 'Black' Armed MALE UAV Project

By Amy Butler abutler@aviationweek.com
Source: AWIN First
May 09, 2013
Credit: IMAGE FOR POSITION ONLY

Frustrated by apparent U.S. ambivalence in granting authority to integrate weapons onto its Reaper aircraft, the Italian air force is looking at possible alternatives, including a yet-to-be-announced “black program” to create a European medium-altitude/long-endurance (MALE) armed UAV.

Rome requested permission to weaponize Reaper nearly two years ago, and a lack of response from Washington is “a case that is not very acceptable,” Gen. Claudio Debertolis, secretary general of defense and national armaments director for Italy, tells Aviation Week during a May 8 interview.

Italy purchased the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper systems because they could be more quickly fielded to support soldiers in Afghanistan than building a UAV in Europe. The decision has put Italy at the whim of the U.S. government in terms of upgrades. But weaponizing these UAVs is a “high priority” for Italian forces, says Gen. Alberto Rosso, logistics branch chief for the Italian air force.

“The U.S. is not the only country with the capability to provide those capabilities,” he says. “If we are unable to meet those requirements, we are already looking for alternatives.”

Along those lines, Rome is in talks with potential European partners to move forward with a weaponized UAV that Debertolis refers to as a “Super MALE.” One of its principal requirements would be for it to deploy weapons, he says.

This is a “black program,” Debertolis says, providing little details. Work has not yet begun because partners haven’t yet agreed on a way ahead. But the goal would be to field something using existing technology by around 2017. This project, if it moves forward, could be unveiled at the Paris air show in Le Bourget next month, he says.

Nonetheless, Rosso insists that weaponizing the existing Italian Predators and Reapers is still the “preferred way ahead” and “we are still confident that the political sensitivities will be overcome in [the] U.S.”

This situation is further soured for Italy because the U.K. has been granted the authority to begin integration of the MBDA Brimstone missile onto the Reaper, using U.S. Air Force assets for the project so as not to interrupt the service of U.K. Reapers for Royal Air Force soldiers in Afghanistan. Brimstone is akin to a Hellfire modified with a tandem-charge warhead optimized against armored targets and a millimeter-wave radar. Furthermore, the U.K.’s Reapers already employ the Hellfire and 500-lb. GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb.

Italy has been operating the MQ-1 Predator in Afghanistan and is preparing to rotate its new Reapers into Afghanistan and bring the Predators home. Officers had hoped to have the integration ready for this transition. But a response to the request has taken so long that now, even if granted, there is little money to fund it, Rosso says.


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