LONDON and PARIS — Europe may still be playing catch-up with the U.S. when it comes to unmanned combat air vehicles, but in some respects European companies already have more riding on the long-term future of these endeavors than do their North American rivals.
The next two years could see a sea change in the shape of the worldwide airlift market, as new entrants try to secure their global positions while incumbents aim to keep production lines open.
Despite tight defense budgets, operations in Afghanistan and increased demand for humanitarian support around the world have kept the airlift market relatively vibrant, a situation not hurt by the fact many air forces are operating aging airlifters.
Few military competitions will mirror the protracted, bare-knuckle fight between Boeing and EADS over the U.S. Air Force refueling tanker program. Now the two rivals are ready to take the battle on the road as other countries look to recapitalize their fleets.
Europe may still be playing catch-up with the U.S. when it comes to unmanned combat air vehicles, but in some respects European companies already have more riding on the long-term future of these endeavors than do their North American rivals.
The Royal Air Force is undergoing a sweeping overhaul of its fleet, with a raft of aircraft being phased out and new ones, such as the Air Seeker signals intelligence aircraft, F-35 fighter and Airbus Military A400M transport, coming into service through 2020.
The future of large aircraft used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) is undergoing a major change, with many older, tested designs shuffling toward retirement.
Replacing them are penetrating manned and unmanned combat aircraft—including F-22, F-35 and unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV) with enhanced, non-traditional ISR integrated with their attack capabilities. In addition, these designs will be linked with other stealth platforms on and under the sea and in space.
Airbus's interest in setting up a U.S. final assembly line for the A320 may seem like the aerospace equivalent of painting the white roses red, but there are larger business issues at stake than just trying to fool U.S. buyers into thinking they are “buying American.”
There's nothing novel about European firms chasing export deals to offset shrinking domestic defense budgets, but MBDA wants to go a step further by making weapon-design decisions to help enhance its new products for customers beyond the home market.
Historically, MBDA—the joint venture comprising BAE Systems, Finmeccanica and EADS—has generated roughly 30% of turnover from exports. But Paul Stanley, market development director, notes that “to sustain the business we will be looking much more to 50%” of exports.