Europe's aerospace sector at a crossroads

  • 06-Sep-2012 04:31 EDT

Taranis is a U.K. national demonstrator program for a possible future unmanned attack and surveillance system. The prototype, built by BAE Systems, is due to fly this year.

A new report by the European Defence Agency (EDA) titled “Future Air Systems 4 Europe” presents in blunt, stark terms how Europe’s military plane makers are heading toward a future crisis in just a few years.

Current leading military combat jets are progressing well in sales terms, but all were launched more than 20 years ago and will need to be replaced on the assembly lines within a decade. However, it can take two decades to get a new combat airplane from the signature desk to squadron service, so unless difficult decisions are faced soon, European aircraft factories will see a gradual rundown and maybe even complete closure, perhaps by as early as the end of this decade.

The EDA report points to the steady decline in R&D investment in Europe in recent years, stating “the timescales and costs associated with advanced military aviation suggest the need for EU member nations to agree to a coordinated plan for the future direction of the Aeronautics European Defence Technological & Industrial Base, but no plan exists.”

The report suggests that the defense aerospace industrial base in Europe is already systematically deteriorating and will soon seriously impact many key capabilities and technologies, and that the consequences could be considerable.

A failure to acquire important enabling technologies will put existing capabilities at risk and threaten the complete supply chain, leading to substantial job losses in high-quality specialist fields and related sectors. It proposes a new recovery roadmap that it says is vital if Europe’s defense sector is not to become dependent on non-European solutions, which may produce capability gaps and remove prospects for maintaining current high levels of export sales.

The FAS4Europe advisory team (which represents almost all Europe’s major aerospace and defense primes and first-tier companies) recommends a remedial strategy in three phases.

Phase 1 would be implemented in the short term up to 2017 and would aim to keep future capability options open with a set of agreed projects that together will help sustain industrial capabilities, mature new technologies, and prepare new-cooperation business models, as well as closer procurement processes. This would be in addition to continuing new programs already in hand.

Second phase is comprised of a set of substantial project proposals to be initiated over the 2017-22 period to reduce risks in future development programs. It calls for a number of new demonstrator programs within this phase.

The third phase would consist of developing the longer-term proposals for the period after 2022 to a position where European nations’ air systems requirements could be met. It continues to point out that Europe is now at a turning point, and if appropriate measures are not taken to halt the steady erosion in capabilities, it will be very difficult and costly to reverse the decline. But if action is taken now, it remains possible, according to the EDA, to safeguard an industrial and technological base that will be able to meet future challenges and can maintain Europe’s sovereign capability.

If this report is to lead to any real progress in helping to end future uncertainty over future air systems development in Europe, then increased efforts will be needed to rationalize existing military procurement efforts that are currently very fragmented. The best example of this can be seen in the field of unmanned air systems (UAS), where there are now too many separate projects chasing a limited military market, with insufficient firm orders to maintain the momentum that has been created by building technology demonstrators.

The U.K. and France signed a treaty two years ago to cooperate more closely in meeting future UAS requirements. This led to the adoption of the BAE Systems Mantis as the chosen platform for a new long-endurance UAV to be developed with Dassault. There as yet has been little news of progress.

In sharp contrast at the moment is the head-on competition between these two partners on their more-advanced stealthy unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) demonstrators that both are developing separately, and which are both due to fly this year. It would seem logical for the BAE Taranis and the Dassault-led NEURON UCAV projects to come together into a single program to save duplicating further development work and costs.

While both look near identical in appearance, there are major differences in materials and construction features, and it remains to be seen if something substantial will emerge that might provide at least one major new program for the future.

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