Despite the large inventory of unmanned aircraft deployed among European armed forces, many countries are still trying to define their long-term surveillance needs.

That picture could start to come into sharper focus in the coming months, as a series of political uncertainties are removed and tests of various systems are completed. Although they are not billion-dollar contracts, at a time of fiscal austerity in many European militaries, the pending decisions carry significant weight for unmanned aircraft providers as they try to secure deals.

That complexity of fielding new systems is exemplified by the U.K.'s effort to introduce the Watchkeeper tactical unmanned aircraft into service. The program has suffered repeated delays, and Defense Ministry officials are no longer providing a specific projection about when it will be fielded.

Once operational, Watchkeeper, the Thales-run effort to upgrade the Elbit Systems Hermes 450, is expected to be deployed quickly to Afghanistan, where the British army is relying on Hermes 450s provided through a service contract. Much effort is being expended to ensure that Watchkeeper will be fully mature when it is fielded to avoid a reduction in drop-in intelligence-gathering capacity when it replaces the Hermes 450, says Brig. Alan Hill, the British Army's head of information superiority. The Hermes 450 will be gradually withdrawn from service as larger numbers of Watchkeepers come online this year.

Although much of the focus has been on putting intelligence-collection systems into inventory, military planners in Europe are starting to look at a broader range of capabilities. For instance, after last year's air war over Libya, the French air force says it recognized that “the weaponization of UAVs will be vital.”

France has been trying to determine its unmanned aircraft plans for several years. The government decided last year to field the Heron-TP, offered through Dassault Aviation, as an interim measure, with Dassault and BAE Systems cooperating on the Telemos unmanned aircraft as the long-term, medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned vehicle. Contracts have not been signed for either, though, and the new French government under President Francois Hollande has yet to announce its policy on the issue. Resolving those matters will also depend on parliamentary elections this month.

Moreover, a senior French industry official points out that the government is expected to issue a new strategic white paper and budget plans.

EADS, which had competing offers for both the interim UAV program in France and the long-term MALE project, is holding out hope that the political changes may reopen the door for it to participate. Modernizing the existing Harphang system, the EADS-provided equipment based on Israel Aerospace Industries' Heron 1, could be an option instead of the Heron-TP. Some French legislators have also argued Paris should simply acquire General Atomics Reaper unmanned aircraft.

Switzerland is also sorting out UAV plans for its army. The government will conduct a flyoff between the Elbit Systems Hermes 900 and Heron 1, with a type selection due in the first half of 2014 to replace the Ruag Aerospace ADS 95 Ranger, which is reaching the end of its service life. The purchase of six air vehicles and associated equipment is slated to be part of the 2015 armaments spending plan, with a 2017 in-service date.

The Swiss would use the system only for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, with no current plans to arm the UAV. The system will be operated by the Swiss air force, which will be involved in the type selection along with the Swiss armaments agency.

Another area of interest is how countries will field vertical-takeoff-and-landing unmanned air vehicles (VTUAV). The U.K. is seeking an over-the-horizon surveillance capability for the Royal Navy, and France is looking at its long-term needs. Schiebel's S-100 Camcopter has been used heavily during demonstrations, and company CEO Hans Schiebel says, “since we are the only system in the market and the most mature system, we have a very good market position.”

Still, many navies have signaled that the S-100 may be too small for their long-term needs, driving Schiebel to work on a larger system it hopes to be able to deliver next year.

Others have their eye on that segment, too. Saab is working on its Skeldar system and Indra has begun flight tests of its Pelicano unmanned aircraft. The Spanish company plans to complete ship integration work this year. It is targeting the 6-hr.-endurance system for use from frigates and patrol boats.

EADS is betting on its 300-kg. (260-lb.) Tanan VTUAV aimed at both navy and army users. One of its key features is a heavy fuel engine, notes a company official. Flight trials are underway.