Building on lessons learned from several cooperative projects, including projects run within the European Defence Agency (EDA) framework, and on the announcement made in June 2013 by three major European companies  that they would cooperate in this field, the December 2013 European Council stressed the need for Europe to move forward in this capability domain. This set in motion a positive political momentum.

In May 2015, France, Germany and Italy declared their intention to conduct a definition study to prepare the development of a European Medium Altitude Long Endurance RPAS. Since then, Spain has become the fourth participating member and, more recently, Belgium joined as an Observer Nation with a view to becoming a Participating State in due course.

Definition study

The main purpose of the two-year study was to identify a set of achievable operational capabilities, to define the corresponding set of system requirements and to perform preliminary design activities to allow for the launch of a potential development and production phase with minimum residual risk.

In August 2016, the European MALE RPAS Programme was officially integrated into OCCAR, a dedicated programme division was established in Munich/Hallbergmoos (Germany) and the Definition Study contract was awarded by OCCAR to Airbus Defence and Space GmbH, Dassault Aviation and Leonardo S.p.a. as a Co-Contracting Group (CCG). 

This contract award marked the initial phase  for delivering a competitive European solution for a growing capability need across the EU. Subject to a decision in 2018 of the Participating States to continue with development and production phases, the entry into service of the first European MALE RPAS is envisaged for 2025. 

Once operational, the system will be operated worldwide, in particular to support ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) missions with a variety of payloads as well as ground support missions with precision weapons engagement.

This new system must be a game changer in the MALE RPAS world in 2025, not only as a platform but as a global system, as a capability

Design of the future

In July 2017, after an intensive 10 months trade-off period, the European MALE RPAS Co-Contracting Group  provided a substantial set of data that allowed the Participating States (France, Germany, Italy and Spain) to agree on the basic remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) configuration and several main design drivers for the system. The selected twin engine turbo-prop configuration will be the basis for further trade-off studies until the upcoming Systems Requirements Review (SRR) planned by the end of 2017.

From the outset, the European Defence Agency (EDA) was asked by Participating States to provide support to the programme, with a specific focus on the air traffic integration of the future system, and on the support to the integration of other European Member States potentially willing to join the upcoming development phase.

OCCAR Director Arturo Alfonso Meiriñoexplained: “I’m very proud that Nations have entrusted this major armaments programme to OCCAR, which provides the opportunity for OCCAR and EDA to work closely together, specifically on air traffic insertion but also to explore opportunities to welcome other participants into the Programme.”     

Challenging requirements

Several factors drive the definition and will shape the development of the future system. 
Competitiveness is  an overarching objective that must make this new European solution the best choice for its future users. This will mean operational performance giving the end user a clear edge in the battlefield, smooth scalability to facilitate quick adaptation of the system to new missions and threats, enhanced interoperability ensuring seamless integration of the capability in multinational operations, and, of course, affordability through the whole life cycle of the system. This was reinforced by the OCCAR Programme Manager, Klaus Seitz: ”the challenge for the programme is to balance the demanding operational capabilities, affordability and certification requirements”.

The ability to operate with a high level of safety for mission or training purposes, in non-segregated air space, will also be an important driver for the design. The technical support provided by the EDA in that domain to the programme is closely linked with the wider activity of the Agency with its Member States and other European stakeholders (European Commission, EASA, Eurocontrol, SESAR JU) in preparing the regulatory framework and the technical solutions that will enable safe integration of RPAS in the Single European Sky.

As EDA Chief Executive Jorge Domecq put it, “This new system must be a game changer in the MALE RPAS world in 2025, not only as a platform but as a global system, as a capability”. 

This major armaments programme provides the opportunity for OCCAR and the EDA to work closely together

Way ahead

The successful completion of the next steps and the future of the first European MALE RPAS capability as such will greatly depend on two fundamental aspects of the programme. 

  • Firstly, the links between the breakthrough the system will provide to its future operational users, on the one hand, and the development of the European industrial know-how and skills in the related technological areas (through the consolidation of a competitive supply chain across Europe), on the other. In practice, these dimensions are two sides of the same coin: no full operational efficiency and real freedom of action can be guaranteed without making sure Europe has control over the development, production, maintenance and upgrades of such a complex defence system that will have to interact with many other defence systems in the field.

  • Secondly, the absolute need to embrace the development at system level with all its components: the platform, the payloads, the ground segment, but also the radio spectrum management, the information assurance or the dissemination of the information. Indeed, this programme is far more than an aircraft: it aims at being a global capability.