Absent government backing, Dassault Aviation of France and Britain's BAE Systems have shelved plans to jointly develop a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drone. But the two companies are forging ahead with the definition phase of a future unmanned combat air system (UCAS) demo that French government officials say could fly before the end of the decade.
Since last summer the two companies have been executing work on a UCAS risk-reduction study contract awarded as part of a broader $62-million effort announced by the U.K. Defense Ministry in December 2011, known as the Future Combat Air System (FCAS). With the UCAS study phase nearing completion, Dassault Aviation Chairman and CEO Eric Trappier says the project is entering the next stage.
"This will be a definition phase of what would be the next operational UCAS demonstrator for both countries based on common requirements," Trappier told reporters attending a Dassault media breakfast here June 14.
Laurent Collet-Billon, head of French defense procurement agency DGA, says the Franco-British UCAS development is the top priority in the nation's unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) roadmap, which also includes plans to purchase about 30 tactical battlefield drones in the coming years and a dozen or more U.S. General Atomics-built MQ-9 Reapers by 2020 to meet near-term ISR requirements.
For the joint UCAS, the first "major milestone, after the 'risk-reduction studies,' will be the launch of the "first phase of an FCAS-Demonstration Program (FCAS-DP) as soon as next year," Collet-Billon told AW&ST June 11.
"After the demo, at the end of 2015 we have to set new contracts. Before 2020 we will know what we can afford and what we can technologically achieve. We do not want to make dreams. We want to develop a system at the end."
Both France and the U.K. have been working independently on UCAV technology demonstrators for the past several years. BAE Systems is preparing to fly its Taranis UCAV demo at Australia's Woomera test range this summer, while the six-nation nEUROn -- a stealthy UCAV technology testbed led by DGA and Dassault -- conducted a successful first flight at the French air force's Istres test center in December last year.
"We will share with our British friends all the results we will got from nEUROn test flights, and from Taranis when it flies," Collet-Billon said, adding that the stealthy nEUROn demonstrator is slated for flight tests in Sweden and Italy this year, following Le Bourget June 17-23.
"We just finished a test sequence for RCS (radar cross section)" at the DGA information superiority center, near Rennes, he said. "The test results are very good."
As the Franco-U.K. UCAS project advances, Collet-Billon said he expects Dassault and BAE Systems to bring unique skills to the program while sharing equal visibility into its development.
"We intend to have a common specification on a common development on a common view on each part of the future demonstrator," he said. "That means that BAE as well as Dassault will be aware of everything in the project."
In the meantime, Dassault is looking for partners outside the U.K. to develop a pan-European MALE drone after France shelved plans for a Franco-British development last year.
"We could have been ready for 2020, and we requested last year to start the definition phase, but both governments didn't agree on the start," Trappier said, adding that Dassault is now discussing a potential UAV development with Finmeccanica of Italy and European aerospace giant EADS, which already has invested hundreds of millions on its own to develop the Talarion MALE drone, only to scrap it absent government support.
"Our company has spent serious money to advance UAVs, but without orders we stopped," says EADS CEO Tom Enders. "All together, we've lost 10 years in Europe on UAV development."