While British Prime Minister, David Cameron and French President, Francois Hollande may have appeared to have been bogged down discussing hugely important subjects such migration and potential impacts of BREXIT at the bilateral Summit meeting in Amiens, France last week the two leaders also confirmed that the two-year feasibility study that had been agreed back in 2014 in regard of design of a Future Combat Air System (FCAS) would now move forward to the important development stage.
This is great news for France, Britain together with the major industrial partners and many sub-contractors that will be involved in the UK including BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Selex ES and in France, Dassault, Thales and Safran/Snecma.
Amid turmoil of global and future EU membership issues the new agreement between France and the United Kingdom to move FCAS to the all-important next stage of development is from both a defence and industrial angle a signal that cooperation and partnership is the way forward for future capability development. France and Britain have a long history of defence industrial collaboration and while the UCAV development remains outside of the separate BAE Systems Taranis and French Neuron programme developments it will undoubtedly make use of expertise garnered from both.
FCAS represents the single most important investment decision in European based future unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) technology development so far and it is very welcome. The £1.54bn to be invested by France and Britain will be on an equally split basis and can be expected to produce the most advanced unmanned combat air system that has ever been produced in Europe.
The decision to go ahead with the next stage of the UCAV development turns an initial commitment made at the 2010 Lancaster House defence agreement into a now very significant development programme. It is one that will secure many jobs amongst the various industry participants involved and it fits well with the important UK government innovation agenda that emerged in SDSR 2015. Whilst hugely important in terms of future military air capability being a serious player in UCAV development is hugely important from a potential exportability angle. Indeed, my own view is that fifteen to twenty years from now UCAV has the potential will be equal to or of even greater value that manned military aircraft are today.
Following the initial £120 million preparation based phase studies commitment that had been announced by the two leaders at RAF Brize Norton back in January 2014 the two governments followed this up with design award contracts being made to six participating industry partners (three from each nation) at a ceremony at the Saint-Cloud facility of Dassault in November 2014. BAE Systems and Dassault were to be responsible for the air vehicle design while Rolls-Royce and Safran/Snecma were responsible for engine development. Thales would be responsible for electronics including sensors, electronic warfare and communications and Selex ES, now Finmeccanica, would work in partnership with Thales on the digital backbone and other innovative sensor solutions.
The decision is not only relevant in terms of future defence requirement it is in my view excellent news for the industrial partners of both countries that will be involved, for jobs and skills retention. Significant and detailed progress has clearly been made since the joint two-year £120m/€150m Future Combat Air System (FCAS) Feasibility Phase study was awarded to a UK/French industry team led by BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation in November 2014.
My understanding is that the new agreement announced last week between the two governments is intended to result in a submission of a joint proposal for a UK/French UCAS (Unmanned Combat Air System) Demonstration Programme by Q4 2016. It is important to stress that FCAS is a long term programme development and one that will be spread over many years. Neither should it be seen as heralding the end of manned military aircraft capability. Far from it and both will in my view play an important role in defence and future conflicts.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle technology has been around for a very long time and air forces, navies and armies around the world are using the technology to great effect. This includes the UK with the Royal Air Force operating Reaper, the Army operating Watchkeeper and the Royal Navy operating ScanEagle. UCAV development potential from here on points to capability that is potentially cheaper, can have greater potential range, power, stealth, deploy more weapons and that because it is unmanned, being potentially both adaptable and even expendable. Clearly this is an important way forward in terms of defence and while the technology has little to prove it still has much development potential. In my view while I stress that I do not believe that we can envisage being without manned combat air capability we can that UCAV will be playing a very much greater role in air defence, reconnaissance and combat fifteen years from now.
As had been announced during the Brize North Summit at Brize Norton the joint ‘Feasibility Phase’ was supplemented with UK and French national programmes for sensitive technologies to the combined value of £80m/EUR100m during the same period. Assuming all goes to plan the latest agreement envisages the process of building development prototypes of the next generation unmanned combat air system would begin sometime during 2017.
As I have already alluded, moving the FCAS agreement to its next natural stage is hugely important for all the industrial participants involved. For BAE Systems this is particularly welcome news for the 400-strong team of highly skilled unmanned air systems aeronautical engineers that are based at BAE Systems Military Air & Information (MAI) division at Warton in Lancashire. The company has long experience in unmanned/remotely piloted air systems and is at the cutting edge of systems design and development. Indeed, it is worth reminding that BAE Systems has a decade or more experience of being engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle research and development technology on successful programmes such as Corax, Kestrel, Raven, Demon, Mantis and Taranis.
The various UAV development aircraft and the experience gained have undoubtedly pushed back the boundaries of aerospace technology development in Europe. FCAS will take this to another stage and likely provide for the establishment of a very interesting potential future export market for all those involved.
Using new and experimental flight controls, mission systems, materials and importantly, specialist treatments including paints the work already carried out over the past ten years by BAE Systems and others has ensured that the UK has established a leading position for itself in the field of remotely piloted air systems.
The BAE Systems Taranis programme which as mentioned above continues as a separate development is a very good example of the excellent work being undertaken by the company in unmanned aerial vehicle technology.
A stealthy unmanned combat aircraft demonstrator aircraft, Taranis is the result of one-and-a-half-million man hours of work by the UK’s leading scientists, aerodynamicists and systems engineers working in no fewer than 250 different UK based companies. From the outset Taranis was designed to demonstrate the UK’s ability to create an unmanned air system which, under the control of a human operator, is capable of undertaking sustained surveillance, marking of targets, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, the ability to carry out strikes in hostile territory and importantly, deterring adversaries.
Taranis made its maiden flight at an undisclosed test range in August 2013 and it remains the most advanced aircraft that has ever built by British engineers. The aircraft successfully completed a second phase of flight testing in 2014 where it flew in a fully ‘stealthy’ configuration, making it virtually invisible to radar. Having had the opportunity of viewing Taranis last year I can only say that I was very impressed at the technology developed and of what the capability has the potential to conduct and deliver.
It is also worth noting that BAE Systems is also working to assist regulators develop a framework for allowing unmanned aircraft to operate safely and routinely in shared airspace alongside manned aircraft. As part of this work the company has used a Jetstream research aircraft that has been specially adapted to fly in unmanned mode. In April 2013 the Jetstream turboprop aircraft successfully completed a 500 mile trip from Warton, Lancashire to Inverness, Scotland under the command of a ground based pilot and control of NATS (National Air Traffic Control Services) air traffic controllers.
In separate moves agreed by French and British defence ministers, Jean-Yves Le Drian and Michael Fallon respectively two weeks ago I understand that an officer swap with the French Army will mean that a senior French officer is set to be given the position of deputy commander of the 1st (United Kingdom) Division, the British Army’s light role adaptable force while a British Army colonel will become deputy commander of the French equivalent, the EMF1 (Etat-major de force). There was I believe also discussion that related to the French potentially acquiring complex weapons from MBDA although there is no relevant details on this or the exchange of senior military officers has been made available yet.
The bilateral Summit meeting between the two leaders last week coinciding with commemoration and laying of wreaths to mark 100 years this July since the Battle of the Somme in the ‘Great War’ had begun and during which over 600,000 British, French and German troops would either be injured or lose their lives. It reminding of this dreadful battle it is surely worth recalling as well that the Royal Flying Corps which in 1918 would become the Royal Air Force was actively engaged in bombing German position.
CHW (London – 8th March 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785