The two biggest and most visible industrial collaborations that had been announced between France and UK both seem heading towards, substantially, failure.
The BAE/Dassault Medium Altitude Long Endurance unmanned aicraft, the TELEMOS, might be abandoned soon, with the new french government working to get EADS into the picture, collaborating with Germany more than with the UK. Worse, the french side seems to be re-assessing its plan for drones with a forceful return of the Reaper option.
On the Future Air to Surface Guided Weapon (Heavy) FASGW(H) front, France is delaying its decision, reportedly already having caused a six months slip which could, however, pale in comparison to a by now anticipated decision not to committ to the joint development of the new missile, that the Royal Navy wants to replace the old Sea Skua.
Collaboration is instead continuing on marittime mine countermeasures, for which the plans of both countries roughly match each other, with both navies wanting to replace their current fleets of minesweepers with fewer but larger and more multimission-capable vessels equipped with suites of unmanned suface, air and underwater vehicles for the stand-off neutralization of mines.
Probably, the UK and France will also continue the joint work on the future modernization program for the Storm Shadow cruise missile.
For Dassault and for the british aerospace industry, however, a failure to go ahead with Telemos will be a serious blow. The RAF and BAE have been pinning their hopes on the new MALE drone for quite some time, but the reality is that industry might have to accept a much reduced task than originally envisaged: instead of developing a new drone, they might well be asked to intervene on Reapers and add to them new, sovereign capabilities.
The RAF has not ruled out the option of using Reaper as answer for the Scavenger requirement, that is the need for an armed MALE ISTAR platform, and now France is reportedly reviving contacts with General Atomics, which back in the Sarkozy era had already offered a financially advantageous deal: 209 million euro for a package of 7 Reapers, two ground control stations, 10 years of support at an assumed flying rate of 2000 hours per year. There was provvision for integration of french-specific payload at an additional cost of 88 million euro.
Back then, despite gaining the support of the french senate, the Reaper offer was turned down, in favor of a Sarkozy-backed approach that would see Dassault work with Isreael's IAI to modify (at much higher cost) an equal number of Heron TP drones for french use.
The Dassault/IAI solution would deliver 7 drones and 2 control stations, with the same 10 years support scheme, at 2000 flying hours per year, but it would cost 368 million euro, of which just 50 (deemed insufficient by senators, who expected this amount to grow during the program) to integrate french sensors and equipment.
The drone purchase back at the time was seen as a stop-gap on the way for the entry in service, in 2020, of the franco-british Telemos. It seemed weird from the start, since last january an order had yet to be placed and it would take at least 12 months to have the first aircrafts delivered, so that the expensive drones would have been in service for quite a short period. The argument used to support the Dassault/IAI bid was the protection of french industry, as Dassault would gain considerable know-how by the activity, and gain strenght to negotiate a better deal in the collaboration plan with BAE.
The new government in France is considerably less supportive of Dassault, and both the UK and France have budget cuts to deal with. While the UK is still keen to go ahead with Telemos to support its aerospace industry, in France the interest for a new MALE program seems to have lost a lot of luster.
Without french money, the UK might well decide that it cannot afford Telemos (development and procurement would cost no less than 1 billion pounds) and both countries could end up deciding that Reaper can do for the future. Laurent Collet-Billon, procurement chief at the french DGA, confirmed to the french parliamentary defence committee that they are in informal talks with General Atomics.
General Atomics is not standing idle, and is offering to both countries support to adapt the Reaper to their national requirements, adding sovereign capability by changing sensors and weaponry.
This is important to gain the RAF favor, but it absolutely crucial to gain France's approval: separating the aircraft and the mission system (sensors and weaponry), France would be confident to be able to operate the aircraft regardless of any restriction imposed by the US.
Inserting new sensors and weapons is also the key to keep the aircraft up to date.
To address these wishes, General Atomics recently flew a Reaper modified and fitted with a Selex Galileo Seaspray 7500E radar. On its part, the RAF has said that it wishes to see new sensors developed that can fit inside a common mission pod, enabling the Scavenger drone to be easily updated and kitted for the mission at hand.
|This Reaper shows a very evident new radome: that is the Seaspray 7500E installation recently demonstrated and test flown.|
As of now as i write, no news has come out of the talks between Philip Hammond and his french counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian, who visited the combined british and french fleet in exercise in the Mediterranean and held bilateral talks yesterday, expected to be centered on these two programs, among other things.
The silence points to further delays, at best, and to a failure at finding an agreement in the worst case. At the moment, i think General Atomics's chances of seeing the Reaper retained by the RAF as Scavenger solution have grown considerably.
Regarding FASGW(H), the situation is just as complex. The Royal Navy wants the weapon to replace the ancient Sea Skua and it wishes to have the new missile ready by 2015, to put it in service alongside the FASGW(L), the already ordered Thales Light Multimission Missile, on the Wildcat helicopter.
The new missile would be a major evolution from the current Sea Skua, and at the same time it would retain much of the external characteristics of the predecessor, using, as a consequence, already existing support material and procedures. However, the little that is known of the missile at the moment is hardly impressive. A 30 kg warhead optimised for targets of up to 500 tons, and an advanced Imaging Infra Red seeker do not make much of a revolution. I don't know how much the program of development is due to cost, but Defense News mentions a pricetag of 400 million euro, and frankly, if it is right, i think it's way too much, and it did not surprise me to read that the Royal Navy might decide to pull out of the enterprise, instead of going at it alone.
|A photo of a FASGW(H) model showcased by MBDA - via Mer et Marine|
Isn't there some kind of alternative?
One option could be joining forces with Italy's branch of MBDA, which has been funding, entirely on its own but with italian navy interest, the MARTE MK2 ER, which could be ready in around 36 months. This missile is, however, considerably different from what was being created with FASGW(H): it is radar guided, and it is not in the 100 / 150 kg class, but in the 300 kg range. Instead of 4 missiles (or 2 plus clusters of LMM missiles), a Wildcat would probably only carry two Marte ER, at most with a small number of LMMs in addition.
MARTE ER is an high-subsonic speed, turbo-jet propelled anti-ship missile, sea-skimming, with a 74 kg warhead of which 27 are of high explosive. It would offer considerably greater lethality, and it has a range of over 100 km.
In partial compensation of the differences, it should be noted that MBDA already ran studies for the adoption of an IIR seeker in place of the radar one, if this was requested by a customer. A data-link for man-in-the-loop is also envisaged.
The MARTE ER would be a true "heavy" missile for anti-ship duty. Too heavy? Perhaps, depending on how the Royal Navy sees the future. It is always impressive to note, however, that FASGW is 'Heavy' for the UK and Light for the French.
In my opinion, a more capable air-launched anti-ship missile wouldn't hurt. The FASGW(H) seems more than a bit limited in the range of targets it can succesfully disable, even if a single helicopter can carry more missiles.
Perhaps, a rethink on Scavenger and FASGW(H) would not make for completely bad news. We should ask ourselves if the Reaper can't be made into a suitable, less expensive and more immediately available solution that could just evolve onwards from what is already available and in use due to operations in Afghanistan.
The Reaper is already evolving, thanks to US money and effort, and this is another plus, as the UK could buy into some of the improvements without having to finance big works on its own. A new landing gear enabling a max weight at take-off increase of 1200 lbs, new datalinks and even an extension to the wing's span have been offered already, offering dramatic improvements in several areas.
And we should also think again about FASGW(H), and decide if there is really not a solution that costs less and allows to use money on something else.
I read that MBDA deems the FASGW(H) fundamental work for its future, but if the UK could save on this requirement, and reinvest the money saved on other missile activities i could immediately think of resurrecting the passive radar seeker option for the Meteor, to develop an anti-radar variant, or even better a dual-mission missile.
The RAF will need a replacement for ALARM soon in order not to lose a big part of its SEAD capability. And a dual-mission missile that fits the F35's weapon bays (something that ALARM, HARM, AARGM and company can't do) could prove a real winner on the export market, too.
In more general terms, i'd like to see the money eventually saved going into the Fast Landing Craft requirement. The LCU MK10 is not out of place in a movie on the second world war under many points of view. Its extremely low speed dramatically affects operational tempo. A dozen landing crafts would only cost a few tens of millions, while making a great difference.