Germany, France, and Italy are developing a new medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) remotely piloted air system (RPAS). But is the plan being matched by real commitment?
By Andrew Drwiega
On May 18, 2015, the German, French, and Italian defense ministries signed a declaration of intent that launched a 2-year definition study into a European-built, medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) remotely piloted air system (RPAS). Increasingly, “remotely piloted” is used as an aesthetic term that moves public perception away from the idea of mechanical drones that are uncontrolled. This wording ensures that the pilot is remembered, unlike “unmanned aerial system” (UAS), which has the connotation of complete independence from human control.
On November 24, the three nations agreed to commission the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR) to manage the definition study for the MALE RPAS. OCCAR is an international European organization whose core business is the through-life management of cooperative defense equipment programs. It also has responsibility over the A400M airlift aircraft, the Boxer multi-role armored vehicle, and the Airbus Tiger upgrade program.
The objective of the study, according to OCCAR, “is to identify a set of achievable operational capabilities, to define the corresponding set of system requirements and to perform preliminary design activities to allow the launch of a potential development and production phase with minimum residual risk.”
The German Defense Ministry is leading the development. In December of last year, it announced that it will finance 31 percent of the definition study to the tune of €18.6 million ($20.3 million U.S.). France, Italy, and recent fourth partner Spain signed on to contribute 23 percent of the costs, with each country adding approximately €13.8 million to the financial pot.
However, Spain soon withdrew due to financial difficulties. Spain has since opted to purchase four Foreign Military Sale (FMS) MQ-9 Block 5 Reapers from General Atomics, together with two mobile ground-control stations (GCS).
In the meantime, the industrial strength behind the project is found in the muscle of Airbus Defence and Space, Dassault Aviation, and Finmeccanica. They plan to jointly execute a system design upon the completion of the study.
Defining the Study
The basis of OCCAR’s Business Plan 2016 will be to complete a study of the operational requirements of the nations involved through a cost- and risk-based analysis. The results will form the basis of the specification and design of the MALE RPAS.
The operational concept is that this type of MALE RPAS will be used by the owning nations as a platform to “facilitate international conflict prevention and crisis management during all mission phases of an operation.” It will be used by them alone or offer the utility of operation as part of a coalition operation. The central mission of the RPAS will be to support intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions.
The first part of this definition study encompasses a thorough system requirement review (SRR). A preliminary design review (PDR) will represent a second significant milestone, which should lead into the development program. The goal is a design-to-cost model to facilitate an affordable development plan that will accommodate the finances of all participating states, while maximizing the operational capability of the RPAS.
The Multinational Multirole Fleet (MMF) Acquisition Contract is expected to be signed during 2016. The initial manufacturing order is likely to be for three aircraft, with options for up to five more backed by a 2-year in-service support commitment. The initial delivery date for the first prototype has been set as 2019. As with most unmanned platform, the new platform will still have to face the problems associated with air integration within national and international airspace, which OCCAR states “represents a significant challenge.”
The Role of the MALE RPAS
According to Airbus, the missions that are needed by the four European customers for a long-endurance RPAS include ground and maritime surveillance, reconnaissance, and target acquisition, by day or using infra-red. The RPAS will be used for operational support and, in some cases, to integrate command, control, communication, and computer intelligence (C4I). To fulfill this need, it will have to be flexible enough to be equipped with the various sensors utilized by each of the nations in the program.
In addition, to handle the various high-tech payloads used by these countries, the modular design of the RPAS also will need to include a payload bay that is spacious and adaptable to sensor technology development. It also will need good connectivity to ground-control stations — operated by the European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and United Nations (UN) — to enable remote deployment via SATCOM. And it will be have to integrate with a network-centric environment and with air traffic control systems in non-segregated airspace in order to achieve certification to fly in Europe.
To that end, in 2015, the European Defence Agency (EDA) was formally asked to support the MALE RPAS program, particularly in the matter of air safety. Working with other stakeholders, including the European Commission (EC) and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the EDA examined the integration issues involved in flying a military RPAS in non-segregated airspace.
Following the study’s conclusion and contract signature (expected this summer), the industrial partners will have to determine how to distribute the forthcoming workload. One of the companies has to be selected as prime contractor, with Airbus the leading contender due to Germany’s financial dominance in the project; others will then be appointed subcontractors. The ambition would be for the first aircraft to be operational by 2025.
Why Cooperation is Good: The Italian Perspective
Italy’s reason for signing up to the European program “reflects ‘the Italian way’ of participating in European cooperative programmes,” according to Alessandro Marrone, senior fellow at Istituto Affari Internazionali. In a paper entitle A European Drone By 2025: The View from Italy on the EUROMALE, Marrone discusses why Italy is eager to pursue a cooperative industrial strategy with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. He cites four reasons for this.
First, he states, “It is not by chance that Rome has been cooperating with Paris on space (i.e., joint ventures Thales Alenia Space and Telespazio) and naval assets (FREMM) and with Berlin on fighter aircraft (Eurofighter), helicopters (NH90), and submarines.” Italy is focused on engaging with Europe’s big spenders on defense.
The second factor that appeals to the Italian government is that the program is mini-lateral in nature. The time and complexity of negotiations with partners is shorter than in larger projects, and it can have a significant input in the program.
“In the EUROMALE case, the Italian Air Force has significantly contributed to the definition of operational requirements, also thanks to its 13-year long operational experience with U.S. drones. However, once the bar is set sufficiently high to ensure a valid output, there are no a priori entry barriers for other partners from Rome’s point of view,” states Marrone.
He adds that Italy is also interested in increased defense cooperation with the six Letter of Intent (LOI) countries (France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, and Sweden). This refers to an industrial framework agreement that covers security of supply; transfer and export procedures; security of classified information; research and technology; the treatment of technical information; and the harmonization of military requirements.
The third issue for Italy is that the maintenance of a strong defense technological and industrial base (DTIB) is key. Here, Marrone points out that, in 2013, the Italian aerospace, defense, and security industry’s turnover was €15 billion and employed around 50,000 people, not to mention those employed as third-party suppliers. In 2014, he explains, exports were worth €2.9 billion, and organizations such as Leonardo (ex-Finmeccanica) — the ninth largest defense company worldwide and the third-biggest in Europe — reaped substantial benefits.
The fourth and final point, which illustrates a wider trend being witnessed not only in Italy, is the increasing focus on multi-use products and technologies such as Leonardo’s helicopters fleet, which includes several types of aircraft that can be militarized if required. These models are now marketed to appeal to defense, security, and civilian operators. Marrone adds that investment in multi-use projects is also easier to justify to the public, especially where government spending is closely examined.
“EUROMALE has to first and foremost satisfy the armed forces’ needs, but its use for border control and security-related purposes is positively seen by Rome,” he remarks. “It would enlarge the pool of buyers to national law enforcement agencies in Europe and European Union institutions, thus increasing the economies of scale and decreasing unitary costs.”
Marrone concludes by stating that Italy aligns its national interests in a way that is compatible with the rest of Europe. He attributes three particular benefits to the EUROMALE project: 1) It will equip European armed forces with a made-for-purpose and common platform that they can maintain and upgrade, either together or autonomously; 2) it allows the EU to be strategically autonomous; and 3) it enables Europe’s DTIB to compete in the global market with its own RPAS offering.
Wider Customer Appeal
Poland’s Ministry of Defence has its Zefir program, which is looking at an acquisition requirement of around 350 MALE UAS by 2019. However, it demonstrated little positive response to the above-discussed European project. Instead, Poland has openly declared that it is studying alternative potential systems, including General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1C Gray Eagle, as well as Elbit Systems’s Hermes 9000, for its program.
According to Polish Ministry of Defence spokesperson Bartlomiej Misiewicz, there was no disclosure yet from the Polish Armed Forces regarding how the Polish UAS might be weaponized, or how the final selection decision would be made.
No Common Vision in the EU
One of Europe’s major defense spenders, the United Kingdom also is not in the MALE RPAS program. The United Kingdom and France have committed to a larger, arguably more potent, unmanned capability in the Future Combat Air System (FCAS). This unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) will be based on the development of each nation’s previous UAS programs: BAE’s Taranis and Dassault’s nEUROn. Development of prototypes is slated to begin as early as 2017, with the new system expected to be fielded by 2030.
It is anticipated that the FCAS will not only be a stealth aircraft, it also will be highly autonomous. The UAS is initially expected to have a 16-meter (50-foot) wingspan and two internal weapon bays to keep its stealth profile.
Until that project comes to fruition, however, the United Kingdom has committed to its Protector MALE UAV, which will replace its current fleet of General Atomics MQ-9 Reapers. The Protector, which also is made by General Atomics, was derived from the Certifiable Predator B (CPB). The contract is worth £415 million ($605 million U.S.) and is currently slated to procure twenty Protector MALEs, with the order to run between 2016 and 2023.
Image #1 – An artist’s impression depicts the Future Combat Air System (FCAS). (Image courtesy of BAE Systems)
Image #2 - Great Britain and France will begin full-scale development of an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) Future Combat Air System (FCAS) in 2017. (Image courtesy of Dassault Aviation)
Image #3 - France, Germany, and Italy are looking to develop a European medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) remotely-piloted aerial system (RPAS). Due to the slow-moving project, the first prototype is not expected to fly until 2019. (Image courtesy of Dassault Aviation)
Image #4 - The European Defence Agency’s (EDA’s) vision for the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) is intended to “facilitate international conflict prevention and crisis management during all mission phases of an operation.” (Image courtesy of the European Defence Agency)