Since 1967, when General De Gaulle, a myopic and vain-glorious rabid anti-American, insisted that France withdraw from NATO, the country has always maintained a fairly ambivalent attitude towards the USA. In particular, successive governments have insisted on supporting the French defence industry, regardless of cost or quality, by almost always purchasing French equipment. Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) and Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft are the only two areas that the French have been forced to grit their teeth and buy US equipment - 12 C-135F Stratotankers for the French Air Force, four E-3F Sentry’s for the French Air Force and 4 E-2C Hawkeye’s for the French Navy. Although the French armed forces are sometimes fortunate to obtain equipment tailored exactly for their particular needs and however commendable this support for French national industries may be, it comes at a price for the French taxpayer. Often equipment is considerably more expensive than other very similar equipment from other suppliers and because it has been tailored for a specific French requirement, it can sometimes be difficult to sell on to other countries.
Many countries that decide to get involved in collaborative defence projects with the French soon discover a catch - namely that the project will only tend to get past the discussion stage if the other country effectively agrees to give the French the design lead, as well as allow them to tailor the requirement to suit French needs first and the other countries second. When France cannot get their own way, they generally have a hissy fit, withdraw from the project and build what they want in France, regardless of cost. A good example of this is the Eurofighter Typhoon, when the other countries involved refused to let France have their way and build a much lighter aircraft suited for carrier operations, which only the French wanted, they went off in a sulk and built the Rafael at considerable extra cost. However good the Rafael is, it will have stiff competition from the Eurofighter and the Gripen and will struggle to secure export orders.
The French defence industry, led by Dassault, know that the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) is bound to become one of the decisive weapons of the 21st century and, as a consequence, are determined to develop a French UCAV to compete with the two UCAVs currently under development in the USA. Consequently, Dassault has managed to convince Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland to join them in a cooperative project to develop the Neuron UCAV. Roughly about the same size as a Mirage 2000, Neuron is a stealthy, all- electric, subsonic, all-composite, flying wing with an internal weapons bay. The weapons bay is designed to accommodate a variety of munitions or reconnaissance sensors in a modular, quick-change package. Two goals of the programme is to make maximum use of COTS avionics and to enable the vehicle to operate in a network-centric environment.
Dassault will be the prime contractor for the programme and France’s DGA will be the project manager. Currently it is planned that half the programme will be sourced outside France, although how long that arrangement will last remains to be seen. Currently Sweden will concentrate on developing the avionics, EADS-CASA (Spain) will develop the composite structure and ground control systems, Hellenic Aerospace Industries (Greece) will aft fuselage and exhaust, Alenia (Italy) will develop the Smart Integrated Weapons Bay (SIWB) using experience gained on their Sky-X demonstrator and RUAG (Switzerland) will develop the weapons interfaces. Neuron is scheduled to make its first flight in 2010, but according to Dassault it is not a production programme, instead the programme is designed to develop and sustain Europe’s ability to design and integrate sophisticated military airframes – absolutely, why would anyone even think that the programme is really all about giving Dassault the ability to rapidly build a production model as and when it suits them.
It’s no surprise that the Neuron looks virtually identical to the Boeing X-45C and will also probably be similar to a number of other UCAVs in the future – as a number of companies have discovered, a tail-less delta-wing design, with the engine intake above fuselage, is probably the optimum design for a stealthy UCAV. However, problems are already beginning to emerge in some of the countries in the Neuron programme. In particular, the minority parties in Sweden’s coalition government have blocked Swedish funding for their 25% participation in the Neuron programme, amounting to some EUR75 million. A study will now be undertaken by the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV) into Sweden’s involvement in all international co-operative programmes and the needs of Sweden’s aerospace industry over the next 30 years or more. In the meantime SAAB are developing their own demonstrator UCAV named Filur to assess stealth technologies for possible use in the Gripen fighter and possibly also for a purely Sewdish UCAV.
I believe the market for UCAVs will be far smaller than that currently available for fixed wing aircraft and, given Sweden’s traditional neutrality, I don’t really think they would get much return on their considerable investment in the Neuron programme. If the FMV report recommends against Sweden’s involvement in the Neuron, it’ll be interesting to see who will be prepared to pick up their 25% of the bill, of course the French should, but I suspect the French will try and look for another partner. They need not look across the channel at the BAe Systems, as they have already test flown a stealthy fighter-sized UAV of their own called Corax and are unlikely to want to become involved as a junior partner in a French dominated programme. Whether Corax or other BAe Systems UCAVs ever lead to a UK UCAV programme remains to be seen, but in the longer term I suspect the UK will be more interested in some form of close involvement in the US J-UCAS programme, rather than run the risk and expense of funding a small production run of a UK UCAV – but only time will tell.
In early Jan 06 it was announced it was announced that the Swedish government had granted its approval for national participation in the project by SAAB. The Swedish governments delay in granting approval for the participation of SAAB has delayed the project by about six months, however, with flight tests planned for 2010, I think there are many turns still ahead on the rocky road to Neuron's first flight.