Missile and UAS cooperation gain under British-French defense agreement
At the highest level politically, it may be merely a marriage of necessity. But the commitments made by the U.K. and France to precision weapons and unmanned aircraft projects provide the most significant boost yet to the countries' defense industry since fiscal concerns gripped Paris and London.
In the weeks leading up to this month's summit, there was palpable animosity between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, both because of differences on EU financial policy and, more recently, the U.K.'s clumsy efforts to undo India's selection of theas the preferred bidder in the Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft program. But for a few hours at least, the two leaders managed to set their differences aside and focus on the need to work more closely together at a time of shrinking military budgets in order to sustain key industrial skills and meet future combat needs.
The get-together set important markers for near-, mid-, and long-term cooperation in the areas of missiles and unmanned aerial systems (UAS), giving MBDA,, and other companies a sense of what business they can bank on through 2030. Although financial commitments were largely absent, the work being put in place represents a substantial investment in development and production activity across the Anglo-French defense supply chain.
Industry officials are taking heart from the policy pronouncements, particularly since they cover a range of activities that will lead to new production opportunities as well as to long-term research and technology work. “We are delighted with the announcement,” says an industry representative involved in UAS projects.
In the missile domain, the two governments identified four main areas, largely involving the Anglo-French elements of European missile manufacturer MBDA.
The most ambitious effort is an agreement to work jointly on a cruise missile with land-attack and anti-ship capabilities. A low-level study contract had already been awarded in December. The weapon would likely serve as a replacement for the Scalp/Storm Shadow cruise missile and the Exocet anti-ship weapon around 2030.
MBDA researchers have been exploring options and last year unveiled the Perseus concept. While the eventual weapon will likely be different, some of the underlying technologies—including the continuous-detonation-wave engine to provide high speed over a long range—could serve as building blocks. Serious development work is not expected to begin until after 2020, though.
In the nearer term, the governments gave their long-anticipated commitment to the Future Anti-Ship Guided Weapon (Heavy)—FASGW(H) or ANL in French. The development contract was to have been finalized last year; but owing to delays in arranging the summit, contract-signing should now take place in the next few months.
Wind-tunnel trials and other component tests to prepare the 110-kg (242-lb.) FASGW(H) missile, which is to be used from the Panther,and Wildcat helicopters, have already been completed.
Bridging those timeframes is work to upgrade the Scalp/Storm Shadow cruise missile. Still under review is whether this will be merely a rebuild to deal with parts obsolescence, or a capability upgrade—including the addition of a two-way data link—in which thehas signaled interest.
The other mid-term project is the Future Anti-Surface Tactical Missile, with initial studies to be conducted this year. The weapon is likely a 50-kg anti-armor weapon equivalent to the French effort to replace its Milan missile with the MMP—the medium-range weapon program for which France awarded a risk-reduction contract late last year.
In the unmanned aircraft realm, the two sides also are looking to expand their partnership. France, for example, may join theU.K. Watchkeeper tactical UAS program. After many delays, the U.K. hopes to field Watchkeeper—an upgraded version of the —this year. And France has a long-unmet requirement to replace its Sperwers.
The real centerpiece of the new Franco-British initiative is the combined BAE Systems/Dassault Aviation effort to provide the two countries with a high-end medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAS capable of operating in civilian airspace. An 18-month technology risk-assessment phase is to begin in April for industry to explore 12 areas where work may be needed and to help military users refine their initial requirements.
This phase will examine a range of issues from sensor performance to certification. If some requirements are seen as too risky to program execution, or as driving up costs excessively, they may be adjusted. Industry will undertake modeling and simulation activities as well as technology demonstrations.
The unmanned aircraft is likely to be turboprop-powered and feature electro-optical/infrared and radar payloads. A payload capability has not been set; instead, the prime contractor team has been urged to work with suppliers to identify the best way to meet the established mission requirements.
To help ease program management, a single program office has been set up within the U.K.'s Defense Equipment and Support organization, but the actual risk-reduction contract will be awarded through the French defense armaments agency (DGA). Industry will share the work equally, with Dassault and BAE Systems leading different activities.
At this point, the schedule is one of the biggest unknowns. The U.K. has a notional 2018 initial operational capability objective; France's is two years later. However, given the complexity of the program and the pace of activity early on, meeting the 2018 objective will be challenging, says an industry official.
For Europe, success or failure of the MALE UAS activity could have major ramifications. If things go well, the project could lead to closer cooperation in developing unmanned combat air systems. As part of the summit, Sarkozy and Cameron agreed to launch a Future Combat Air System Demonstration in 2013, with specifications to be established starting this year. BAE Systems is already working on the British Taranis demonstrator, with Dassault leading the European Neuron project; both are to fly this year. Dassault Aviation CEO Charles Edelstenne has long urged Europe to start focusing beyond the demonstration phase, and put in place longer-term development commitments.
Other equipment issues on the Anglo-French agenda include a reaffirmation to work together in logistics support for thetransport and cooperating to meet future satellite communications needs. France currently operates the Syracuse military satcom system, while the U.K. relies on .
Moreover, the spirit of cooperation extends beyond equipment matters. By 2016, the two counties want to establish a deployable joint-force headquarters, with the goal of having it capable of integrating representatives from allied militaries.