Europe's Reaper club grows with Dutch purchase of General Atomics UAV
European aerospace manufacturers are turning up the pressure on governments to develop a pan-European approach to the continent's medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned air vehicle requirements.
But their protests appear to be falling on deaf ears as another European nation signs up to purchase the.
The Netherlands announced plans Nov. 21 to introduce fourMQ-9 Reapers into full operational service by 2017.
The decision sees the Netherlands joining Italy, the U.K. and, more recently, France, as the latest member of a rapidly growing Reaper-operating community in Europe.
The Hague opted to purchase the MQ-9 after sending out a request for information for a MALE UAV to 19 manufacturers. Royal Netherlands Air Force procurement officers received just nine responses, only three of which were complete, according to a letter sent to the Dutch Parliament by Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.
The General Atomics Reaper was the only model that offers the “off-the-shelf capability” the Netherlands was demanding, she pointed out.
The U.K. and Italy already operate Reapers; France will follow this year after taking delivery of its first two drones under a letter of agreement signed in August.
The Reaper purchases in Europe so far have been driven by the requirements of individual countries, or urgent operational requirements, but Europe's governments are working toward an organic capability. In November, several European states, including the Netherlands, agreed to devise a set of common standards for developing MALE UAVs and to establish a community of European drone users that could support development of remotely piloted vehicles that could compete with U.S. and Israeli technology in the 2020-25 timeframe.
During a two-day meeting with the European Defense Agency (EDA) in Brussels Nov. 18-19, defense ministers agreed the community would welcome any EU member state that either has, or intends to acquire, MALE drones.
Speaking to French lawmakers Nov. 5, the French air force chief of staff, Gen. Denis Mercier, said he is in favor of a European MALE development in the future, but does not see the possibility of drone production before 2022.
“Between now and then we have to fight the capacity gap and, even more important, acquire the expertise that will allow us to specify operational requirements,” for UAVs, he said. He did, however, laud a push by major European defense contractors in France, Germany and Italy that urges European governments to fund development of a pan-European drone.
“It is €1 billion [$1.35 billion] for three nations, thus €333 million per nation over 10 years, or €30-odd million per year. If we are no longer capable of making this kind of effort as part of a research and development budget, we might as well give up having this industrial capacity,” Mercier said of the June proposal by, France's and Italy's to quickly shore-up Europe's MALE gap, adding that “there is also the proposal of a European Reaper community that is very attractive and complementary [to the MALE proposal].”
Meanwhile, agreements between the U.K. and France under the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties have London and Paris drawing up staff requirements for an unmanned combat air vehicle, a project for which France is budgeting €700 million for 2014-19, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in November. The two governments are also discussing common requirements for a MALE UAV, though negotiations on development have been shelved in the near-term.
Elsewhere in Europe, Germany has expressed a need for an armed UAV, and Spanish air force officials—despite facing deep financial challenges—have said that procurement of a MALE UAV is one of their highest priorities (see page 35).
In the Netherlands, military officials are keen to explore the potential benefits of closer cooperation with neighboring Reaper operators. The Hague already has stated it accepts that there are few options for international cooperation at the initial stage of the program, but that it is already looking beyond, with Hennis-Plasschaert saying she is preparing to draw up letters of intent with France and also with Germany, which expressed a similar interest in coordinated capability.
The Netherlands plans to use the Reaper mainly for deployed operations but also to support civil authorities in disaster relief and counter-narcotics operations. They want to discuss the possibilities of cooperation in areas including joint certification, education, training, deployment, maintenance and logistics, as well as the potential of using the aircraft outside of segregated airspace.
France, which has taken delivery of its first pair of Reapers and plans to promptly deploy the aircraft to Africa to support operations there, is working closely with Italy as it develops the capability. Last week, thehad been expected to fly one of its MQ-9s across the Mediteranean to the French island of Corsica to support French ground troops taking part in Exercise Serpentex, but poor weather was reportedly hampering flight operations as Aviation Week went to press.
The first three French UAV crews were in training at Holloman AFB, N.M, and on arrival in Africa, the two platforms and two ground stations will help to quickly shore up intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance gaps highlighted during the nation's intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali earlier this year.
Although the French air force will mainly use the aircraft on operations, the air arm has ambitions to employ it in French airspace, as the Italian air force does with its own Reapers and Predators. Once in Africa, French Reapers will supplant the EADS Harfang, but the aircraft will not be armed; the use of armed UAVs remains controversial in Europe.
“The arming of a UAV is a very sensitive subject in France, which is why the aircraft will only be used for surveillance,” said Gen. Mercier, in an interview with Aviation Week at the Dubai Airshow.
“I am convinced we will see weaponized UAVs in the future,” he added.
In the meantime, the future of the U.K.'s Reaper fleet remains undecided. The aircraft were purchased—outside of the defense ministry's core budget—to meet an urgent operational requirement for the Afghan theater. Because of this arrangement, they are officially due to exit service at the end of operations there. Nonetheless, the number of RAF Reapers is about to double, with the aircraft close to completing testing before their deployment to Afghanistan, expected by the end of the year.