Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Pilotless Plane for an Aimless Europe


By Silvio Lora Lamia (Translated by L. Pavese).  

Dum Romae consulitur, Saguntum expugnatur” [“While people are conferring in Rome, Sagunt is being taken”].
To disturb Livy might seem a bit exaggerated, but what is happening in Europe, in the field of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (the UCAV’s), brings back to memory the way the Roman historian related the feats of the Carthaginian general Hannibal against Rome. That is, while in the Old World there rages the discussion about who, in cooperation with whom, in what way, and in how long will be able to build an entirely European UCAV, the United States, after having given its allies on the other side of the pond a small taste of the fifth generation fighter, is preparing to score again, debuting with a first generation of combat unmanned aircraft, while laying the foundation for the second generation, which could coincide, tout court, with the sixth generation of fighters.

The risk for Europe, or for part of it, is very obvious: to end up co-opted in a Joint-UCAV program, led by, guess who? The United States of America. That would be the second, and this time final gravestone over the defense and aerospace industry of the European continent. 

The most recent reports tell us how the main European governments and their respective industrial groups are studying each other’s moves from a distance, forming opposing alliances in a badly concealed effort to gain an advantage, in preparation for a hoped-for “as-much-European-as-possible” UCAV, and in the name of a future European common defense policy that could avert new fratricidal wars, such as the commercial (but not only) competition between the Rafale and the Typhoon.

In an attempt to forget the (still pretty fresh) precedent of the French jumping ship of the European Fighter Aircraft program, the enterprising French president Francois Hollande cut it short: that’s water under the bridge.

A Moment of Concorde 

Today the game of the new UCAV is played between London, Berlin, Paris and Rome using a very complicated network of “preparatory” crisscrossing agreements. It is the replay of the story of the MALE, the “medium altitude” unmanned aircraft for surveillance and intelligence gathering.  The MALE is intended to be the necessary step towards a combat drone, with which the European planned to counteract the “excessive” power of the United States and its ubiquitous Predator RQ/MQ-1, and the soon-to-come new XP model, which was already offered (with the approval of the Obama administration) to the Middle-Eastern and North-African markets. Coincidentally, those are the same markets to which the future “ Made in Europe” MALE could aspire.          


The European combat UAV, which naturally should be “invisible” (and, according to the Germans, also “ethical,” that is, incapable to be used for indiscriminate assassination missions like the U.S. Predators), has mainly one task: to carry out a first strike deeply within the enemy air defenses, to try to eliminate them; creating corridors and spaces in which manned, and not necessarily stealthy air-superiority and strike fighters, could do their job in relative tranquillity.




To be able to accomplish that, the Combat UAV’s (to be more precise the Strike UAV’s), must be equipped with effective sensors, jamming and countermeasure, as well as counter-cyberwarfare systems.
When the combat UAV’s will have become supersonic and capable to maneuver at a load factor higher than the g-forces that a pilot could bear, they will replace manned fighter aircraft even in the air-defense and air-superiority roles. We’ll talk about that in fifteen or twenty years; but now, for Europe to miss the train of the combat UAV too would be unforgivable.

The unbearable lightness of the inability of the Old World to undertake wholeheartedly the development of a credible “post generation 4++” fighter might be explained by the scarce attractiveness of the potential domestic market that, as far as the MALE is concerned, seems to be small by default; as far as the UCAV is concerned, an estimation of the market is not possible  given the lack of precise government specifications and budget commitments.

Therefore, the European industry has not yet been able to respond to the Request of Information that was issued at the beginning of February by India, who, after having bought everything from everybody, now finds herself in need of an UCAV.

There is a mortal danger lurking around the corner, that is, the risk that Europe will also miss the train of the first generation of this new class of warplanes after having deliberately decided not to get on the train of the new generation of manned fighter aircraft in the year 2000.
In hindsight, by choosing the JSF (the F-35), five NATO countries created quite a bit of scorched earth around a possible European unmanned combat aircraft, that Europe could have made available only a few years after the JSF will have reached full combat readiness, and with a financial commitment equivalent to just a fraction of the cost of the JSF.

Silvio Lora Lamia is an Italian aviation writer who specializes in defense-related issues. His articles appear very frequently on the Italian on-line magazine Analisi Difesa, from which, with the permission of Mr. Gianandrea Gaiani, I took and translated this article.
Your comments will be greatly appreciated.
Thank you
L. Pavese


  1. Interesting points. Great photographs.

  2. Replies
    1. The nEUROn reminds one of Darth Vader.

  3. Even worse. It doesn't even have anything remotely human inside.

  4. Ottimi disegni Leonardo. Gli aerei sono sempre stati la tua passione e al primo anno di liceo artistico, ricordo che riempivi fogli interi di modelli d'aerei. Felice che sia diventato anche un lavoro. Un tuo compagno di classe. Ciaoo

  5. Hola Jerry,
    se sei un compagno della mia fallita (e molto imbarazzante) campagna barabiniana del 1974/75, francamente spero che ti sia dimenticato quasi tutto di me; ma grazie dei complimenti.