Trouble on Europe’s flanks lifts interest in drones and military aircraft

Models of military aircraft draw a crowd at the Paris Air Show. [Timothy Spence]

This article is part of our special report Le Bourget 2015.

SPECIAL REPORT / A possible Greek exit from the eurozone, on-going tension with Russia, and a refugee crisis that is causing widening conflicts within the European Union. Added together they could become today’s Waterloo. Yet for the aviation industry participating in the biennial Paris Air Show this week, there is opportunity in these difficulties.

For starters, the latest round of eurozone instability could further weaken the currency and make European goods more attractive in a highly competitive global market. The troubles on the eastern and southern flanks of the EU are prompting governments to bulk up military spending after years of budget cutting – also good news for the industry.

“It’s a perfect storm,” an executive of one European air defence company told EURACTIV. “We are beginning to realise that there is a real need for deployable military capability as long as we have a Russia on steroids and civil wars in the Middle East that are driving people to risk their lives to come to Europe. We’re getting a lot of [business] enquiries because of this instability.”

The Paris Air Show has been dominated by competition between the world’s aircraft superpowers for the sale of new or revamped passenger planes. Europe’s Airbus on Thursday (18 June) announced 421 orders or planned purchases worth $57 billion (€50 billion), while its American rival Boeing tallied 331 orders or commitments worth $50.2 billion (€44 billion).

On the political sidelines of the show, there was evident concern about Russian belligerence over Ukraine and the Kremlin’s announcement on Tuesday that it would expand its nuclear arsenal.

Sweden’s air force commander, General Micael Bydén, said in Paris that his country was backing out of a deal to loan eight fighter aircraft to Switzerland because of increased Russian incursions into Nordic airspace.

U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told journalists at the Le Bourget airfield that Washington was considering deploying advanced F-22 fighters to Europe as a riposte to Russia. This would follow earlier moves to strengthen its armed presence in NATO countries.

European governments are starting to spend on defence following years of financial hardship and budget cutting. Eastern countries have been especially keen on upgrading aircraft and air defence systems, industry officials here say.

“There has been a lot of interest from the Poles, the aviation executive told EURACTIV, “and I’d say there is going to be a lot of cooperation with the Baltic [countries].”

Government in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have all announced significant increases in military spending and Poland is on course to exceed NATO’s recommendation that 2 percent of GDP be spent on defence for the first time in years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Also on the radar screen at Le Bourget are an arsenal of technologies that could be used in Mediterranean refugee crisis operations. Some of the latest search aircraft, drones and surveillance technologies were on display at the Paris show.

Europe’s statistics agency, Eurostat, reported on Thursday that some 185,000 people applied for asylum in the EU in the first three months of the year, up 86 percent from the same period in 2014. Although Kosovars made up the largest single group, at 26 percent, Syrians fleeing civil war accounted for 16 percent of the total, followed by refuges from Afghanistan.

Drone helicopters to the rescue

Italy’s IDS is one company that has seen growing interest in two models of short-range drones that can be deployed from coastal patrol boats. Though still in development, the Italian Red Cross and the country’s coast guard and navy are considering the devices for surveillance, search-and-rescue operations and for use in the EU’s EUNAVFOR anti-smuggling operation.

One unmanned aircraft, the IA-17 Manta, is already under consideration for coastal operations. The firm’s SD-150 Hero helicopter is undergoing operational testing and is capable of both surveillance and delivering small amounts of medicine or relief, according to its manufacturer.

“In this way you can expand the range of patrol craft by 20 kilometres,” said Giovanni Fumia, sales manager for the aeronautical division of IDS, as he explained the Manta. The triangular drone has an 8-hour operational capability. Both unmanned vehicles are compact – Hero is 3.3 meters in length and the Manta aircraft has a wingspan of 2.8 meters.

Competition for such equipment is growing.

Sweden’s Saab produces a Skeldar line of drones and Austria’s Schiebel offers a Camcopter 100 aimed at multi-use surveillance. Globally, the United States and Israel are the major suppliers of advanced drone technology.

Drone capabilities aren’t cheap. The upfront investment can be far higher than human-piloted craft when the cost of the drones, guidance systems and control station are considered. Unmanned vehicles also face flight restrictions around civilian air traffic, limiting the market for anything other than official use.

“Once the regulations are clarified, there will be an explosion of these kinds of platforms, said Fumia. He noted they could be used by farmers to evaluate field conditions and by utility companies to monitor pipelines and power lines. Fumia says his company has already had interest from non-EU customers.

There’s another challenge – remotely piloted aircraft are a politically charged issue in part because of the civilian toll taken by America’s use of armed drones in search-and-kill missions. In a non-binding resolution last year, the European Parliament called on member states to ban the use of unmanned aircraft in extrajudicial killings and to establish ethical standards for their use. They also called for greater transparency in the use of EU funding for research and development of drone technology.

Advantages over human patrols

But Fumia sees many advantages, including the drones’ ability to operate for several hours at a time, easy deployment, and their use in “quick action” operations to deliver medicines and relief supplies in crisis areas. Another advantage is the ability to operate in threatening environments without risk to pilots.

“We didn’t think two years ago about medicine delivery,” he said in describing the early development of the Hero helicopter, which can carry a payload of up to 50 kilograms, including fuel. “Now there are really no limits and how it can be used.”

Another company, Airborne Technologies of Austria, announced at the Paris Air Show that it won a contract to outfit a Beechcraft King Air 250 aircraft with surveillance and radar systems for Croatia’s coastal patrols. The technology is partly funded by the EU’s Frontex border agency.

Helmut Gaschler, the firm’s international sale manager, says its radio and surveillance platforms are mostly being used on police planes and helicopters. But the Croatian plane demonstrates that the technology could be deployed for Mediterranean search missions. “Politicians are now more aware that you need to protect the borders,” he said.

General Frank Gorenc, commander of the U.S. Air Force in Europe and Africa, said at the Paris Air Show: "It’s important to show American equipment and American airmen, and it's important that we describe how those Airmen and equipment operate together. We need to highlight our ability to interoperate with our partners.”

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), have been long identified as a shortfall in the European defence. National militaries mostly rely on American and Israeli technology in this field, especially medium-altitude, long-endurance (or MALE) drones that can operate for long periods.

On July 24, 2013 the European Commission presented a paper aimed at strengthening the EU defence industry which is facing serious risks of technological losses due to deep cuts in defence budgets. Drones were included in the paper as eligible for EU funding for prototypes and for research projects with a dual use, both civilian and military.

An October 2013 report issued by Catherine Ashton, who was then EU foreign policy chief, reiterated the appeal to member states to develop drones with cooperative projects.

  • 5-21 June 2015: Paris Air Show [FR]

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