Military Suppliers Push For Europe-Made Drone By Nicola Clark

New York Times
June 17, 2013
Pg. B2

PARIS — Three of Europe’s top military contractors urged the region’s governments on Sunday to support a joint program to develop a reconnaissance drone to reduce dependence on American and Israeli manufacturers.

In a joint statement, EADS, European Aeronautic Defense and Space, the parent company of Airbus, with Dassault Aviation of France and Finmeccanica of Italy, said a regional collaboration in unoccupied aerial vehicles would “support the capability needs of European armed forces while optimizing the difficult budgetary situation through pooling of research and development funding.”

Governments across the European Union have slashed spending on weapons programs in recent years as the war in Afghanistan winds down and pressure builds to rein in ballooning public deficits. Recent interventions in Libya and Mali, meanwhile, have exposed a significant gap in Europe’s aerial capabilities, particularly in reconnaissance and combat drones, refueling tankers and heavy transport aircraft.

After years of pitching competing programs to reluctant governments, the three companies said on Sunday that they were prepared to work together to design a European medium-altitude, long-endurance, or MALE, drone, which could fly missions of up to 48 hours at elevations of 10,000 to 30,000 feet, or about 3,000 to 9,000 meters. While normally used for surveillance, such unoccupied vehicles can be equipped with missiles for combat.

“European sovereignty and independence in the management of information and intelligence would be guaranteed” by such a program, the companies said on the eve of the weeklong Paris Air Show, which opens Monday. They added that an effort on a European scale would “foster the development of high technologies and contribute to sustaining key competencies and jobs within Europe.”

Notably absent from the group was BAE Systems of Britain, Europe’s biggest military contractor, which had been a partner with Dassault Aviation to develop a MALE drone for France and Britain.

Last year BAE was in advanced merger talks with EADS when the deal was abandoned amid German political opposition.

BAE executives did not immediately reply to telephone and e-mail messages requesting comment.

However, one person familiar with the drone proposal said the group was open to British participation. “They can join anytime if they want,” said the person, who, lacking authorization to discuss the matter, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The absence of a coherent European strategy for unoccupied aerial systems has been a source of frustration for the region’s military contractors, which have collectively spent billions of euros on drone projects that have yet to draw serious interest from governments. Yet those same governments have entered into negotiations with American and Israeli contractors about the possibility of developing or buying drones to meet their short- and medium-term needs.

Last month, Germany canceled a plan to buy five Euro Hawk drones that were being jointly developed by EADS and Northrop Grumman of the United States, citing the program’s escalating costs of more than $1.3 billion.

France, meanwhile, is in talks with companies in the United States and Israel to buy two surveillance drones to support military operations in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is fighting Islamist militants in Mali. Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has criticized France’s lack of independent drone capability, has said that Paris could buy as many as 10 more such drones in the medium term.

Analysts said that for a Pan-European program to get off the ground, the companies would probably need commitments from governments in the region for at least 40 drones.

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