Europe's Neuron unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) is as much a political marvel as a technological one.

Led by the French defense armaments agency DGA and prime contractor Dassault Aviation, the technology testbed aims to demonstrate both the airworthiness of a stealthy combat air vehicle and the ability to develop, build and flight-test the UCAV with a relatively limited €405 million ($500 million) budget across six European countries with multiple industrial partners.

Initiated in 2003, Neuron is 50% financed by France, with participation from Italy, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland and Greece. In addition to technology development, the UCAV aims to demonstrate a leaner decision-making process that eliminates the procurement complexities that have plagued other international collaborations, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon. For Neuron, Dassault coordinates industrial interests and interacts with DGA, which is responsible for coordinating the governments' collective position.

Neuron completed its maiden flight Dec. 1 from the Istres test center in southern France, marking the first flight of a European UCAV and the first demonstration of European stealth technology, paving the way for upcoming flight testing in Italy and Sweden.

Designed to attack relocatable targets, such as “double-digit” air defense systems and mobile ballistic missiles Neuron can autonomously transmit imagery to an operator on the ground who can then clear the vehicle to return and strike.

During the 25-min. flight, Neuron climbed as high as 7,000 ft. and reached a top speed of 200 kt. The landing gear remained down for the flight, during which Neuron was tailed by a twin-seat Rafale fighter for safety.

Powered by a Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour engine, the 10-meter-long (33-ft.) Neuron has a wingspan of 12.5 meters and a dry mass of 5,000 kg (11,000 lb.). It is designed to operate for up to 3 hr. at a maximum altitude of 10,000 ft., achieving speeds up to Mach 0.8.

As a technology demonstrator, Neuron is not intended to enter serial production, though France and U.K. are both eyeing future air combat systems. Earlier this year the U.K. Defense Ministry awarded Dassault and BAE Systems an 18-month study contract aimed at developing technologies for a potential joint UCAV that could be operational by 2030.

Meanwhile, Neuron addresses a number of technological challenges for future combat aircraft in Europe. The vehicle incorporates Dassault's radar-absorbent materials and structures into the airframe edges and inlet lips and demonstrates stealth-compatible air data systems. Alenia Aermacchi's internal weapons bay development is the first in Europe since the Breguet Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft of the 1950s. Italy, which is contributing about €74 million to Neuron, also produced the electro-optical/midwave infrared targeting system developed by Selex Galileo. Based on mercury cadmium telluride (MCT) detector technology, it is installed behind a large flush window and provides a field of view of more than 90 deg. with a stabilization system for high resolution at long range.

Sweden's €74 million contribution funded the central and forward fuselage, landing gear doors, fuel system and avionics, all developed by Saab, while Spain's €34 million supplied the EADS CASA-built wing, data-link integration and ground station. Switzerland provided €17 million for the Ruag-built weapons interface and Greece's €4-million contribution includes Hellenic Aerospace Industry's rear fuselage, exhaust duct and other components.

With the initial flight test complete, Neuron is to undergo radar cross section trials at DGA's Centre de l'Electronique de l'Armament near Rennes. With 150-200 fight tests planned, trials will resume in April at Istres, where Dassault expects to progressively open Neuron's flight envelope. Beginning in 2014, operational trials in Sweden and Italy will pit Neuron against live air-defense sensors, culminating in a weapons-drop test at the Perdadesfogu range in Italy.