Europe’s military industry and defence suffer as drone project is scrapped
EUROPE should have learned lessons from its experience in the Libyan civil war in 2011. This was a conflict on its doorstep which needed help from the United States to resolve.
The US had intervened hesitantly while European Union partners found themselves without the strategic capacity to act. Precision weapons, logistics and reconnaissance had to be provided by the US.
But lessons were not learned. The situation was repeated two years later, in a conflict which concerned Europe even more directly.
France took the initiative to intervene in Mali’s civil war in 2013 but, as in Libya, it lacked the capability and had to rely on US back-up once again.
Paris has learned from this and has decided to buy aerial drones (UAVs) to increase its ability to act quickly.
It intends to order the MQ-9 Reaper model from the Americans, and possibly also an Israeli model.
The drones will be deployed as reconnaissance versions in 2013.
These drones are medium-altitude and fly at up to 5,000 metres. The Euro Hawks, or European versions of America’s Black Hawks, can operate at altitudes of up to 20,000 metres, far above civilian air traffic.
They are a source of political controversy in Germany since its military drones project to buy the American drones and modify them was cancelled in May 2013 at a cost of US$660 million (500 million euros).
The European Aviation Safety Agency would not allow the drone to fly in Europe. Among other deficiencies, the Euro Hawk was found not to have a proper collision-avoidance system.
France did not wait to get flight clearance for civilian airspace, which is not needed for Mali, but this restricts operational capability in Europe for the time being.
It has long been understood in Germany that no further manned aircraft will follow the Eurofighter.
Future options for the German Air Force are expected to be related chiefly to the development of UAV technology, but that did not make any impression on the scrapping of the German-French Talarion project for a medium altitude long-endurance aerial vehicle.
However, a European version of the American Black Hawk was introduced by the Social Democratic Party (SPD)/Green government. It was promoted by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)/SPD cabinet and came close to operational capability under the CDU/Free Democratic Party (FDP) coalition.
It was intended to be a reconnaissance drone with capability which would have far exceeded anything else available.
The programme was scrapped on May 19. This means that a second European UAV development has now failed, following the demise of the Talarion project in 2012. This will have significant ramifications for European industry.
The spontaneous political debate in Germany about the military use of drones follows a similar discussion a month earlier about armed drones, which represent an important option worldwide.
But the cacophony of the German election campaign has fuelled the debate.
Information has since been provided about the timing of the closure of the UAV programme. Some argue it should have been scrapped as early as 2011.
Drone technology, in comparison with manned aircraft, corresponds to aircraft building of the 1980s and the development of its computer technology is similar. It is at a relatively early stage of development.
But Europe and European industry are increasingly being left behind while technological development and its application are making swift progress worldwide.
Talarion and Euro Hawk are glaring examples of that.
The technological competitiveness of the European Union remains a paramount common goal, yet there is reluctance all round when it comes to military uses, let alone technologies which only serve a military purpose.