Battle lines are being drawn in European efforts to restructure the unmanned aircraft sector. But one big question looms: What front will France be fighting on?

An effort between France and the U.K. to launch a joint medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV program has already suffered its first delays and now may also be caught up in unrelated political turmoil that has London and Paris at odds. The dispute between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron over plans to reform Europe's financial governance system has strained the personal ties that underpinned last year's formation of the so-called Entente Frugale—a long-term security partnership aimed at allowing both sides to sustain military capacities at a time of diminishing resources.

Whether the palpable ill-will spills over into the security relationship should become clearer in February, when a summit is planned between the two sides on security matters. A prior security summit, called for this month, was scrapped when the political focus in Europe shifted to saving the euro.

The summit was expected to see the launch of the MALE unmanned aircraft program, with BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation already having teamed up to develop and build the system. Still unclear is whether the deal would simply be handed to the two industrial players, or if others would be allowed to compete.

The Franco-British partnership has also drawn criticism from other players in Europe who feel left out. Industrially, for instance, EADS has complained that the link-up would cut short efforts at rationalizing Europe's UAV efforts and lobbied instead for countries to back its Talarion unmanned aircraft concept.

As if on cue to take advantage of the tension between Paris and London, EADS and Alenia Aeronautica have announced their own partnership arrangements to cooperate in the realm of unmanned aircraft, first looking at the MALE mission area and later also at unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV). An EADS sister unit of Cassidian and Alenia already plays a role on the European Neuron UCAV demonstrator.

The Cassidian-Alenia set-up effectively tries to mirror the Franco-British pronouncement, but without a firm government commitment to develop a program. However, the German and Italian defense ministries have quietly agreed to work more closely together, although no specific program details are attached to that agenda.

U.K. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond recently told Parliament that he expects the Franco-British UAV program to move forward. “We will look for a suitable opportunity, probably in the new year, to make a joint announcement” about the commitment to the joint assessment phase.

In addition, France, Britain, Germany and Italy have a larger geostrategic goal in mind—to shut out U.S. and Israeli unmanned aircraft makers from the European market. But as the political and industrial deliberations drag on, more opportunities are emerging for those contenders as militaries look to meet urgent operational needs.

The Netherlands, for example, is moving forward with plans to buy an off-the-shelf MALE UAV system six years after the floundering of the so-called EuroMALE program. The aim is to conduct an assessment phase and then deploy a fully operational system within a year of its initial fielding in 2015, Defense Minister Hans Hillen tells his legislature.

The Dutch system, initially at least, would not be armed, but it would be equipped with an electro-optical/infrared payload, a synthetic aperture radar and a laser designator. It will also be required to have satellite communications capability. Even France and Germany are considering off-the-shelf buys because of urgent operational needs; the U.K. has already done so.

So what is the likelihood the Sarkozy-Cameron tiff will harm the long-term security cooperation agenda between the two countries? The impact will be minimal, suggests Alastair Cameron, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. “The relationship will have time to mend” before the two leaders meet again, he suggests, while noting that French and British military officials have been working together far more closely since the arrangement was established.

However, one key variable lies ahead—the French presidential elections, with the first round of voting taking place in April. Although Sarkozy is trailing badly in the polls, he may gain political mileage by using Cameron as a whipping boy; but such a move could torpedo near-term progress.

It is not just the unmanned aircraft sector that is watching what happens to the Franco-British alliance. A cornerstone of the arrangement also is to further rationalize the missile sector and push forward several cooperative initiatives. However, the two defense ministries have failed in their goal this year to launch the development and manufacturing phase of the Future Anti-Surface Guided Weapon (Heavy)—FASGW-H, or ANL in French—and more clearly spell out upgrade plans for the Storm Shadow/Scalp cruise missile. Both initiatives could still materialize in early 2012.

Also on the agenda is to further streamline industrial capacities, including within MBDA, to avoid duplication and establish centers of excellence. One issue still to be resolved, though, is how to handle other elements of the guided-weapons supply chain in the two countries, including at Thales and Safran.

Even as MBDA seeks to restructure its European footprint, it is moving forward with a separate effort to bolster its U.S. presence and, after months of talks, has finalized a deal to buy Northrop Grumman's Viper Strike business. The terms of the deal have not been disclosed, but MBDA CEO Jerry Agee says the company has already completed the regulatory review under the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. process. The engineering and production capabilities will be managed under the special security agreement governing MBDA Inc.

The deal effectively meets two objectives that MBDA set for an acquisition in the U.S. One was to give itself direct customer access—in this case, the U.S. Army—and the other involves securing a site where it could mass-produce munitions as it bids on contracts.

MBDA Inc. already owns a facility in Westlake Village, Calif., but production capacity there is limited. The Huntsville, Ala., production facility is located on the U.S. Army's Redstone Arsenal and does not have the limitations of the California plant. The deal also includes an engineering facility in Huntsville.

Besides developing its own munitions, the U.S. business would be looking to bring in technologies from its European parent.