European Air Forces Seek a Common Weaponized UAS

An MQ-9 Reaper is tasked with armed recce missions, armed with laser guided bombs and Hellfire missiles. At present, France intends to use its new Reapers for ISR missions. Photo: General Atomics

Some European countries may consider an Israeli made unmanned air system (UAS) as a platform for a “Black program” to create a European medium-altitude/long-endurance (MALE) armed UAS, I-HLS reports.

This is the assessment of European sources familiar with the advanced Israeli made UAS.

According to Aviation Week, frustrated by apparent U.S. ambivalence in granting authority to integrate weapons onto its Reaper aircraft, the Italian air force is looking at possible alternatives, including a yet-to-be-announced “black program” to create a European Medium Altitude/Long-Endurance (MALE) armed UAV. Several European air forces have long planned to arm their UAS but non of the NATO nations have sofar reached this goal.

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[Ismember]France has been considering an armed drone as early as the mid 2000s, when Sperwer drones armed with Israeli Spike LR missiles were flown for testing. More recently Paris has been considering buying the General Atomics Aeronautical Air Systems (GA-ASI) MQ-9 or the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Heron TP. Germany has also been probing the use of armed drones, considering the MQ-9 and Heon TP. Spain is also considering buying a strategic drone, primarily for reconnaisance missions. The Polish Ministry of Defense has already announced it was also considering buying weaponized drones to replace its aging Su-22 strike fighters. Warsaw could be considering the two rival designs for similar missions and has clearly stated that the ability to weaponize these drones would be detrimental for the system selection.

Switzerland is also expected to announce its selection of an Israeli drone. Both the IAI’s Heron and Elbit Systems’ Hermes 900 were the top finalists in the Swiss evaluation earlier this year. The Swiss requirements did not openly refered to future weaponization of their drones.

The British Royal Air Force (RAF) and Italian Air Force both operate the MQ-9, but on different missions. While the RAF operates its Reapers under full cooperation with similar US units (since Reapers cannot fly in the UK, armed or unarmed) the Italians want full autonomy in equipping and operating their drones. Rome requested permission to weaponize Reaper nearly two years ago, and a lack of response from Washington is “a case that is not very acceptable,” Gen. Claudio Debertolis, secretary general of defense and national armaments director for Italy, told the magazine.[/ismember]

While the Italian aircraft manufacturer Alenia Aermacchi is already developing a MALE drone (SKY-E), Italy decided to purchased the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 because they were readily available to support operations in Afghanistan. The decision has put Italy at the whim of the U.S. government in terms of upgrades. But weaponizing these UAVs is a “high priority” for Italian forces, says Gen. Alberto Rosso, logistics branch chief for the Italian air force. “The U.S. is not the only country with the capability to provide those capabilities,” he says. “If we are unable to meet those requirements, we are already looking for alternatives.”

Along those lines, Rome is in talks with potential European partners to move forward with a weaponized UAS that Debertolis refers to as a “Super MALE.” One of its principal requirements would be for it to deploy weapons, he says.

This “Super MALE” is currently a “black program,” Debertolis says, providing little details. Work has not yet begun because partners haven’t yet agreed on a way ahead. But the goal would be to field something using existing technology by around 2017. [Ismember]If the parties are serious about fielding a system in four years the options available to the Europeans narrow to proven platforms – the IAI Heron TP as a platform, or Elbit Systems’ Hermes 900, both from Israel, and the American MQ-9 Reaper from GA-ASI. Reaper would offer the largest payload capacity and most versatile weaponization configurations, while the Israeli designs would provide a more versatile, adaptable and open platfom for each of the partners.[/ismember]

This project, if it moves forward, could be unveiled at the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget next month, Debertolis said.