Leading defence manufacturers of the UK and France will cooperate on development of an advanced military drone as part of a £120m project jointly funded by the UK and French government.
British defence giant BAE Systems together with France’s Dassault Aviation will lead the team of companies, including Rolls-Royce, Selex ES and Snecma, that will conduct a feasibility study for the Future Combat Air System over the next two years.
The joint French-British Future Combat Air System (FCAS) programme was originally announced at the Farnborough Air Show in July this year, aiming to optimise development costs of the cutting-edge military technology for both countries.
“This contract award is a key step in the partnership between our two nations, governments and industries,” said BAE System’s CEO Ian King. “The Feasibility Phase will allow UK and French industry to work closely together and provide a strong foundation for a potential follow-on Future Combat Air System Demonstration programme as well as supporting a number of highly skilled jobs.”
Following the completion of the feasibility study at the end of 2016, the two companies will build a technology demonstrator that should be ready to fly, according to French officials, as early as 2017. However, the eventual deployment of the system with military forces would only take place around 2030.
BAE Systems and Dassault have both previously developed their own unmanned aerial vehicle demonstrators – the Taranis and Neuron drones. However, the high development costs were seen as a major obstacle for further progress of the two projects.
The project comes as advances in unmanned flight fuel debate over how far pilotless planes can take on the role of fighters.
But executives and analysts said it too early to talk about combat drones completely replacing traditional warplanes.
"We are developing technologies for a future combat drone which could also be used by fighters," said Dassault Aviation chief executive Eric Trappier at a Paris signing ceremony.
King added: "It is not manned or unmanned. The two technologies will be used in combination. One does not replace the other."
Together with national measures, the total value of work involved in the study alone will increase to €250m.
"Both Britain and France have the technology and can develop it, but they need each other and haven't got the money to do this alone," said Francis Tusa, editor of Defence Analysis.
Such vehicles could be used for electronic warfare but are unlikely to replace pilots entirely, due partly to legal concerns and the rapid response times of manned jets, he said.