Airbus Seeks Pan-European Drone Pact as U.K.’s Taranis Leads Way

Jul 21, 2014 5:41 am ET

July 21 (Bloomberg) -- Airbus Group NV said it favors a pan-European deal on military drones after an Anglo-French agreement from which it’s excluded received government backing and the U.K.’s Taranis model began testing stealth technology.

A bilateral approach to developing a combat drone that could succeed aircraft such as the Eurofighter ignores both the capabilities of other countries and the success of more inclusive aerospace programs, Domingo Urena-Raso, who heads Airbus’s military-aircraft operations, said in an interview.

“It won’t be enough,” Urena-Raso said at the Farnborough Air Show, arguing that Spain, Germany and Italy should be allowed to join the U.K.-France pact. “If this is considered strategic we know how to do it: we should take successful programs like Airbus and gather the political will to succeed.”

While Airbus is a key player in the four-state Eurofighter group through its German and Spanish arms, the Anglo-French deal that progressed last week is focused on London-based BAE Systems Plc and Dassault Aviation SA, France’s main warplane manufacturer. Airbus’s own unmanned combat-drone, the Barracuda made by the German operation, is excluded from the pact.

Britain and France have agreed to provide 120 million pounds ($205 million) for the funding of in-depth design studies to BAE and Dassault, as well as Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc and Safran SA -- the two countries’’ biggest engine-makers -- and avionics firms Thales SA and Selex ES, a U.K. unit of Italian aerospace company Finmeccanica SpA.

A400M Lesson

Europe must be sure to avoid having two competing combat- drone projects, Urena-Raso said, adding that the region’s major aerospace players have similar competencies when it comes to unmanned combat air vehicles, or UCAVs.

“They all have the basic technologies, they all have demonstrators,” he said. “We have what we need on payload, we all have automated pilot, we are not going to do four times the same thing. We don’t want to divide the energy, technology and export capacity.”

Though Airbus is widely perceived as a major European success, establishing itself as the equal of Boeing Co. in the airliner market, other multi-nation aerospace pacts in the region have been less successful.

The Airbus A400M airlifter fell behind schedule, sending costs higher, after chips were found in a gearbox made by Avio SpA of Italy for engines from the Europrop group of Rolls-Royce, Safran, Germany’s MTU Aero Engines AG and Spain’s ITP. Funding delays also set the program back, with Urena-Raso saying in 2010 that talks had been delayed by the multiple countries involved.

Celtic God

BAE’s Taranis demonstrator -- named after the Celtic god of thunder -- has completed a second phase of flight testing, flying in a fully “stealthy” configuration that made it virtually invisible to radar, the company and the U.K. Ministry of Defence said in a joint program update last week.

The aircraft, the size as a BAE Hawk jet trainer with its 9-meter (30-foot) wingspan, successfully transmitted data after being stripped of external probes and booms for the test, while its “hidden” Rolls-Royce Adour engine and stealthy exhaust system performed flawlessly, according to the statement.

European companies designing UCAVs are trying to keep pace with the U.S., which has already flown an advanced fighter drone from aircraft carriers.

The Taranis, in which the former Smiths Aerospace unit of General Electric Co. and one-time U.K. defense-research lab Qinetiq Group Plc are also partners, and Paris-based Dassault’s Neuron are designed as demonstrators to validate stealth technology that makes aircraft hard to detect by enemy defenses.

Airbus owns a 46 percent stake in Dassault, though there are firewalls around sensitive projects. Rolls-Royce’s military engines chief Tom Bell said at the Farnborough show -- which ended yesterday -- that he couldn’t comment on the performance of the Taranis’s Adour power-plant because as an American he wasn’t allowed to know.

A future UCAV development program wouldn’t start until 2020 or later, Philip Dunne, the U.K. minister for defense equipment, said in February, with an unmanned replacement for aircraft such as the Eurofighter and Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter coming after 2030.