Spain has decided to buy four Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drones for its air force. According to the Ministry of Defense announcement made on thursday in Madrid, the Government allocated €25 million ($27 million) in the 2016 budget to fund the acquisition of the first system. The entire five-year program is expected to cost about €171 million ($187 million) and include four aircraft and two ground control stations – one fixed and one deployable overseas. Delivery of the new aircraft is expected in 2017.
Although media reports crowned the MQ-9 Reaper made by General Atomics as the winner, the Spanish announcement included no specific selection of one of the two bidders. Two companies answered the Spanish tender for MALE UAS – a team lead by General Atomics and Spanish partner Sener offering the MQ-9 Reaper (Predator B), and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) teamed with Spanish company Indra offering the Heron TP.
According to defense sources the selection leans toward the American offer, as Spain could benefit from logistical support and availability of five Reaper operators currently available within NATO – UK, France, Italy, Netherlands and the USA. The final selection of MALE could be influenced by the results of elections to be held in Spain next month.
Spain has been operating the Israeli Searcher MkII tactical drone since 2008, and evaluated the larger Heron I platform in maritime surveillance missions. Madrid also acquired ‘mini-drones’ – the RQ-11 Raven made by the US company Aerovironment. Therefore, the next acquisition refers to the platform as ‘Mega-Drone’, the first unmanned platform in Spanish service to be able to operate at an altitude of 30,000 ft for missions lasting over 24 hours. Although these Megadrones can carry weapons, the Spanish military intends to use them unarmed – strictly for reconnaissance and surveillance.
One of the main concerns for European UAV operators is the inability of the Reaper to meet European aviation certification to be able to fly in the crowded European airspace. Israel’s drones were more responsive to such requirements, as Heron platforms are operating with special permissions over parts of the continent for years. In June 2015 General Atomics announced it is expecting to fly a ‘Certifiable Predator B’ in 2017. According to GA-ASI, certification of delivered systems will be granted by the responsible agencies within each country.
Whatever the final decision be, the current procurement is regarded as a stopgap, buying time and developing operational capabilities until Spain joins the future European MALE project. The program was launched earlier this year in Brussels, when France, Germany and Italy signed the cooperation program to develop the system under an initial €60 million investment.