Europe shopping abroad for its drone needs

Ruben Veenstra and Lieuwe de Vries for Veenstra & De Vries Aviation Publishing

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Italian MQ-9 of the 32 Stormo, Amendala. The Italians operate Reapers without offensive capabilities although requests have been made to the U.S. for arming them.

Even if you’re not following the aviation news, it’s hard not to know that ‘drone’ is the buzzword nowadays. It’s not a secret the United States is a big proponent of the unmanned aerial vehicles, letting the drones perform countless surveillance and tactical missions in the Middle East. On the other side, China is also putting some serious effort in developing their own drones, even if they are mostly clones of their American counterparts. But what about Europe, the Old Country? How are they currently faring in the drone arms race?

In 2013 six European nations signed a declaration in which they stated to jointly produce MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) drones from 2020 onwards. This group of nations consists of France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain. Although this suggests that a real Eurodrone is pending, the declaration states that the project is mainly being used to develop and research related technology.

It’s similar to a 2005 started cooperation between several European companies and headed by Dassault. They declared to develop a drone that would serve as a platform for developing new technologies. Nine years later the ‘nEUROn’ is making test flights above France. As is common in a test phase, the nEUROn is making short trips in the vicinity of it’s airfield. Later on, it’s going to be relocated to Sweden for further systems testing. Still, it’s not going to result in further production as the nEURon will be the only of its kind.

Also similar is the UK’s Taranis project. Again a showcase project, the Taranis first took off in 2013 after eight years of development instead of the seven years the nEUROn took from the drawing-board to first flight.

So, projects abound but the only European MALE drone in active use would be EADS’ (now Airbus Group) Harfang. It’s a prop-engined drone system of which three have been in use with the French Air Force since 2008. As a reconaissance drone it has no offensive capabilities. Still, it has been deployed in Afghanistan, Libya and, more recently, Mali. But even though the Harfang has flown thousands of hours with the French, the Armée de l’Air is shopping for a replacement.

Indeed, Europe seems to be building its drone forces around the MQ-9 Reaper. Current operators are the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany with the Netherlands joining the party in 2016. Where lack of heavy air transport and airborne early warning were addressed jointly through cooperative purchases of aircraft and sharing of operational costs, it seems strange that European nations would go it alone with their drone forces. Especially when they independently choose to standardise on the same platform in the Reaper.

For an smaller airforce such as the RNLAF which intends to buy just four of these drones this would make particular sense. Once the need arises for these system to be deployed abroad to support a deployment such as the current Dutch mission to Mali, most likely it would need to send two drones. Of the two remaining at home it is not unlikely to assume that one will always be in some need of repairs with the other one being needed for proficiency training of operators and ground forces. This would make for a force vulnerable to operational losses or downtime. If only one of the machines either deployed or at home would suffer a catastrophic failure or breakdown, it would immediately compromise the RNLAF’s ability to operate it’s deployed drones in support of their ground forces. In a scenario where European Reapers would be part of a larger pool, training could be conducted on machines from other airforces and a large portion of member nations forces could be deployed in a stable manner.

USAF Tennessee Air National Guard Reaper of the 118th Wing armed with AGM-114 Hellfire II air-to-surface missiles.

One stumbling block to a group approach however might be more of a political and judicial nature then a military one. In The Netherlands some controversy has arisen about arming their Predators with the main concern being who decides to pull the trigger but also fearing collateral damage from drone strikes like those in Pakistan. Until all countries can agree it seems hard for a joint operation to get of the ground, at least for the time being the Dutch Reaper will not be carrying a scythe.

Image credit: Ugo Crisponi / aviationgraphic.com

  • Mark

    Neither of those aircraft pictured are Reapers. Both are MQ-1 Predators.