The Franco-British combat drone officially launched – 07-11-2014

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Now known as combat air systems rather than combat aircraft, there will clearly be only one future system to replace Rafale and Eurofighter, which will just as obviously be piloted from the ground. We are most definitely talking about a combat drone. A further step in this direction was taken on 5 November with the formal signing of an accord first announced in January at the Anglo-French Brize Norton summit. A funding agreement was also announced at Farnborough international airshow last July. And, to prove that this is an agreement between two equal partners, the industrial launch of the Franco-British project was signed at Dassault Aviation’s headquarters near Paris, where the industrials involved were awarded their study contracts for the feasibility phase of the future combat air system (FCAS).

This feasibility phase, representing 150 million euros (£120M), will be funded in equal parts by the two states. In addition, over the same two-year period, studies amounting to €50M (£40M) will be carried out by each country, making a total of €250M (£200M). Some argue that this is nothing compared with sums pledged by the US, where 2 billion dollars are said to have been committed to combat drone development. But the Franco-British partners are not starting from scratch. As stated by Bernard Gray, Chief of defence material at the British Ministry of Defence (MoD), “The programme will develop and compare two national designs and concepts that will lead to a joint one which could then be used for any potential follow-on UCAS demonstration programme”. Without mentioning them by name, Bernard Gray is clearly thinking of Dassault Aviation’s combat drone demonstrator nEUROn (a European cooperation), whose first flight took place in December 2012, and the British Taranis demonstrator, which first flew in April 2013. These two demonstrators between them represent an investment of over €600 euros.

During this first phase of work, the partners will not only have to work on technology, but also gauge the respective needs of the two countries in order to define the specifications. The programme could also be thrown open to other nations, not only in terms of funding but also mission definition. A particularly thorny issue, as witnessed in other programmes, with costs spiralling due to customisation. The A400M military transport aircraft leaps to mind in this respect, as well as the Tiger combat helicopter and the NH90.

Nonetheless during the feasibility phase, the six partners will be concentrating on perfecting the various technologies – stealth, avionics, sensors (i.e. radars) and engines – in order to enhance autonomy and reduce noise. The two aircraft manufacturers Dassault Aviation (FR) and BAE Systems (GB) will be joined by four other industrials: Snecma/Safran (FR) and Rolls-Royce (GB) for engines and Thales (FR) and Selex ES for sensors; the latter is implanted in Great-Britain, but is a subsidiary of the Italian Finmeccanica.

In a context of drastic cuts to European defence budgets, the six partners in the programme are well aware of the need to cooperate in order to share costs and maintain their international ranking. As Pierre-Eric Pommellet, Thales’ deputy director general for defence mission systems, affirmed: “French and British support is essential for future UCAVs and combat aircraft in Europe. With this contract, Thales and Finmeccanica-Selex ES will reinforce their cooperation in the area of military electronics and develop their onboard sensors to meet the needs of the armed forces in terms of new generation platforms. »

On the engine side, a 50/50 Rolls-Royce/Safran-Snecma subsidiary has signed the contract to launch the SCAF feasibility phase, which should lead to an operational system around 2030. These two engine manufacturers have a long history of cooperation on many types of engines, including the Olympus fitted on the Franco-British Concorde, the TP400 on the Airbus A400M and various helicopter turbines. And in order to optimise their joint activities on the SCAF engine, they have decided to appoint a Managing director, Philippe Loty, to coordinate studies into these new technologies.

Nicole B. for Aeromorning.

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