EADS war of the drones
PARIS, June 10 (Reuters) – European aerospace group EADS hit back at French rivals in a race to build unmanned military aircraft on Tuesday, saying it hoped for a deal to build surveillance and reconnaissance drones this year.
EADS said it had presented an offer to France, Germany and Spain for a series of drones which could loiter at high altitude on surveillance missions, as set out by the French, or handle the kind of fast, low-level reconnaissance favoured by Germany.
The announcement comes days after Dassault and Thales teamed up with Spanish company Indra and Israel’s IAI to offer medium altitude long endurance (MALE) drones to France and Spain in a direct challenge to EADS.
The growing need for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) above the battlefield or in civil border and maritime patrols is shaping up to be the next fight between defence giants for a dwindling pile of European defence dollars.
France is due to unveil a defence review next Tuesday likely to scale back deployments, and defence firms are betting on increased investment in reconnaissance, intelligence and space.
“UAVs are a fast-emerging market. Existing proposals are not great on endurance and have no satellite capability. Ours offers more capability at the same price,” Stefan Zoller, head of the EADS defence and security division, told a news conference.
Franco-German-Spanish company EADS, which owns Airbus, has struggled for years, however, in the competition to build drones. Its SIDM model which incorporates Israeli technology was delivered years late and lost money, while its efforts to produce an all-European model were dealt a severe blow when its Barracuda prototype smashed into the sea off Spain in 2006.
Most European nations are unwilling to put up the funding alone for a new UAV project, but do not agree on the missions and specifications required for their forces.
Zoller said EADS had learned “painful” lessons from its experience with SIDM and Barracuda but had decided to leapfrog existing technology with a new, modular approach.
Its new Advanced UAV model would use a single fuselage, with long wings for loitering at high altitude and a short-winged, faster version for low-level reconnaissance.
Zoller declined to give the value of the proposal or estimate how many UAVs it would sell, but denied EADS would be wasting taxpayers’ money by designing a new model from scratch.
Dassault Aviation says its surveillance UAV would be a billion euros cheaper than anything EADS can supply because it uses an Israeli platform whose development is already paid for. Dassault is also the European leader in combat drones or UCAVs.
Speaking at EADS France’s newly built defence headquarters outside Paris, Zoller said work would be split evenly, with Germany building the vehicle, France supplying its electronic brains and Spain handling the satellite-based communications.
Citing a Frost and Sullivan report estimating the market for this type of UAV could reach 10 billion euros ($15.56 billion) over three years, he said, “my belief is that it is far higher”.
Behind the drones dispute is an industrial poker game as the number of new defence projects drops. Officials from both camps have accused the other of sabotaging their efforts to hold onto coveted prime contractor status on key new defence projects.
EADS’s Eurofighter and Dassault’s Rafale also compete for fighter plane sales, though the independent French Rafale has yet to win any export orders. Radar manufacturer Thales is involved in the Rafale and has a foot in both drones projects.