U.K. May Look to Europe for Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle

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Britain has dismantled a 10 billion pound ($18.3 billion) effort to develop a long-range strike capability, and has reassembled some of its parts in a new program that will further explore the possibilities of unmanned combat aircraft.

Called the Strategic Unmanned Air Vehicle (Experiment), or SUAV(E), the new program will draw partially on work with a U.S.-led unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) project and is intended to help make procurement decisions around 2009.

But emerging issues of industrial participation and technology transfer may lead the British to turn their back on future U.S. efforts in the field and join the French-led Neuron program instead.

SUAV(E) emerged within the last month, following the quiet breakup of the 7-year-old Future Offensive Air System effort. That massive program looked at bombers, cruise missiles and UCAVs as possible replacements for the Royal Air Force’s Tornado GR4 ground attack aircraft.

“If we decide to take these systems forward, it will be as a number of discrete programs,” said a spokesman for the Defence Procurement Agency.

Meanwhile, the team leader of the dismantled program, Air Cmdr. Andy Sweetman, has been reassigned to run SUAV(E), which will examine UCAV technology, cost-effectiveness and interoperability in various long-range roles. The spokesman said the aim is to make “informed decisions on procurement by around 2009 or 2010.”

Sweetman said SUAV(E) was about understanding UCAVs, not necessarily about procuring them. “We expect to fight alongside U.S. forces operating advanced [unmanned aerial vehicles], so we must understand these systems even if we do not buy them ourselves,” he said June 16.

Sweetman said the U.S. Joint-Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) program, which Britain joined in December, should answer many British questions about operational concepts and effectiveness.

“Our aim is to combine the results of our work with the U.S. on J-UCAS, our own technology development and several Ministry of Defence research outputs,” he said.

J-UCAS is intended to explore UCAV operations by flying Boeing’s X-45A drone in increasingly complex test missions, including hitting a target with a 110-kilogram bomb. It is currently a U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program but will transfer to the U.S. Air Force in October. Boeing Co. of Chicago is already developing a C variant of the X-45. Set to fly in 2007, it will be around 12 meters long with a wingspan of 15 meters, an operating ceiling of 12,000 meters and a top speed of 0.85 Mach.

But the British want more than just an education. They want a part in building future UCAVs.

Defence Ministry officials confirmed they were talking with U.S. officials about industrial participation and technology transfer. “Several acquisition routes were under consideration, including international collaboration,” a ministry spokesman said. He declined to elaborate.

But word is spreading that the Americans may believe that production agreements will be a step too far. One European industry source said that the Pentagon has already told the British to forget it.

“Washington has told them, no industrial participation and no technology transfer is going to be on offer,” the source said.

But Jan Walker, a spokeswoman for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said J-UCAS is so early in its development that it is unlikely those sort of production decisions will be made for several years.

Boeing spokesman Tom Goldman concurred. “That’s a premature conclusion on somebody’s part,” Goldman said. J-UCAS “is in the concept demonstration phase,” and must complete that and system development before any production decisions are made. At that point, it will be up to the U.S. government, the Boeing spokesman said.

Still, the notion is causing concerns among British industrialists, who worry about being left behind in the effort to develop 21st-century aircraft. BAE SYSTEMS Chief Executive Mike Turner told reporters at a pre-Paris Air Show dinner June 12 that the British government may decide that collaboration with Europe is the way to go.

British military officials and industrialists are looking with interest at the Neuron. Led by the French government and Dassault Aviation, the six-nation program was officially launched June 13 with the signing of a technology demonstrator contract at the Paris Air Show.

“I have no doubt the French government and industry would be very accommodating to enable that to happen. We haven’t got a closed door in Europe right now,” said Chris Geoghegan, BAE’s chief operating officer. “They would like to see the British moving in that direction. We have not gone into detailed discussions, but we have made it quite clear to them we have not ruled it out. It’s the British [Defence Ministry’s] call.”

Fran´┐Żois Lureau, the chief executive of France’s arms procurement agency, the Delegation Generale pour l’Armament, said June 16 that France is open to the idea of bringing the British on board.

“It’s up to them. I have offered the British [the chance] to join any time and we have discussions — extensive discussions — in the field of [unmanned aircraft], armed or unarmed, with them,” he said.

BAE’s Geoghegan said UCAVs might be an area where the United Kingdom will find it can’t get what it wants out of the trans-Atlantic link, and may ultimately go down the European route. “It is not clear at the moment which way the U.K. is going to go in that regard, but I expect a decision within 12 months. You can only look at U.S. body language, and we are not seeing body language which is helpful to us at the present.”

The U.S.-led international Joint Strike Fighter program “will really be an important test of this,” Geoghegan said. “We have put a large amount of money into the program, and if the combined force of the British government and industry can’t get the appropriate level of technology transfer to allow the aircraft to be supportable by the U.K., we won’t do it in other pro grams.”

William Matthews contributed to this report