As Europe dithers on joint development of a strategic unmanned aerial vehicle, Italy is touting a government-backed development with collaborative potential: the Piaggio-Selex HammerHead, a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drone that offers a capability similar to the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper at what supporters say will be a lower price.

But after a decade of fits and starts in launching a pan-European MALE development, skeptics question whether Europe's top defense spenders—U.K., France, Italy and Germany—are willing or able to fund a long-term industrial collaboration in a field where Europe already lags at least a decade behind the competition.

“All together, we've lost 10 years in Europe on UAV development,” says Tom Enders, CEO of EADS, about the moribund Talarion MALE drone unveiled by the aerospace giant's Cassidian defense unit in 2009. “Our company has spent serious money to advance UAVs, but without orders we stopped.”

A parallel development between France and the U.K. was stalled last summer when French President Francois Hollande took a clean-sheet approach to key elements of the nation's UAV roadmap, which included plans for bilateral cooperation between Dassault Aviation and Britain's BAE Systems on a MALE drone to be fielded by 2020, as well as an unmanned combat air system (UCAV) targeted for 2030.

Ensuing visits by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to Italy, Germany and Poland hinted at broadening the Franco-U.K. collaboration. But while the minister recently signaled plans to forge ahead with joint UCAV development, Le Drian recently stated a preference for purchasing a dozen Reapers by 2020, potentially dimming prospects for French participation in a European MALE program.

The Italian air force's own Reapers will need to be replaced by decade's end, but Rome's frustration with the U.S. government, which has been reluctant to approve requests to arm them, has prompted pursuit of HammerHead as an alternative.

The timing of the Piaggio-Selex announcement June 18 followed the unveiling of a pact between Cassidian, Dassault and Finmeccanica of Italy, in which the three rivals said they plan to embark on yet another unfunded European MALE development. But absent government monies, some industry analysts believe this is unlikely. They say HammerHead, with its commitment from Italy to buy up to 10 drones, brings a degree of credibility to the debate.

Designated P.1HH and based on the twin-turboprop, nine-passenger aircraft, the HammerHead has been supported in secret by Italy's defense ministry through a mix of financing, personnel and access to facilities. Until now, government involvement was kept quiet, but in May, Aviation Week first reported the ministry's investment in a classified UAV program, which Italian air force Lt. Gen. Claudio Debertolis, Italy's secretary general of defense and national armaments, confirmed as HammerHead last week.

Debertolis says the ministry and its industrial partners at Piaggio and Selex ES—which is supplying the HammerHead's mission management system—are ready to expand cooperation on the project.

Debertolis says the goal with HammerHead is to eventually carry up to 1,100 lb. of weapons, just enough to comply with the Missile Technology Control Regime. With a max speed of 395 kt. and endurance of 16 hr., Italian officials are calling the HammerHead the “Super MALE,” and say it is designed to operate as high as 45,000 ft. and loiter at 135 kt. Taxi tests have already begun and first flight is slated for the summer, Piaggio officials say.

HammerHead is expected to fly at the Italian government's Sardinian test ranges in August or September, with the air force managing military certification.

The initial HammerHead demonstrator will be followed by a production-standard aircraft that will fly next year. It will be fitted with a complete sensor suite and definitive airframe modifications, including an extended wing, ventral sensor bay (used for the Selex Seaspray 7300E radar in the basic configuration) and fuselage fuel tank. Italy is looking for an initial operational capability in 2016-17.

“We won't wait for France and the U.K.,” Guiseppe Giordo, CEO of Finmeccanica's Alenia Aeronautica aircraft manufacturing unit, said in May.