Killer drones for Europe

In September the Dutch government finally decided to buy a mere 37 of the initially planned 85 F-35 fighter aircraft to replace its F-16 fleet. As this leaves the Netherlands with very limited air power, it might only be a question of time before the recently selected General Atomic's MQ-9 Reaper will receive an armed payload.

So far the four planes and one ground station are intended for reconnaissance operations only and will be equipped with standard 'SAR' radar. The procurement of a special ground search radar, also on the air force wishlist, will have to wait until prices go down or further budget becomes available. The Dutch Reaper squadron will have around 100 personnel and will be based at Leeuwarden military airbase.

In her letter informing the parliament about the Reaper's selection, Dutch minister of Defence Jeanine Hennis already wrote: “In case a future need for armament will be formulated, it must be possible to provide for this with only minor modifications.” Hence the Reaper. Drill holes for Hellfire missiles already provided. The Reaper is operational in its hunter-killer capacity since 2007, and has been used that way in assassination operations over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The Dutch minister of Defence certainly has ambitions in the field of future drones. At the meeting of the European Defence Agency’s (EDA) Steering Board in November, four EU military shortfalls were identified: Air-to-Air Refuelling, Governmental Satellite Communication, Cyber Defence and Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). The Netherlands will lead the RPAS programme. It signed a Letter of Intent with France, Germany, Estonia, Spain, Italy and Poland to form a 'community' of states which currently operate or plan to operate so-called MALE - medium-altitude long-endurance - drones. Aim of the new drone community is to exchange information, as well as to identify and facilitate cooperation, under the wings of EDA, as part of a roadmap “for a European solution in the 2020-2025 timeframe”.

How much of the technology of this “2020-2025 solution” will be European is probably still subject of arms industry lobby. “It’s a matter of sovereignty; we need to master this technology in Europe,” said Christian Scherer of Airbus at the Eurosatory Paris air show this summer, where three of Europe’s biggest defense companies — Airbus (then EADS), Dassault Aviation and Finmeccanica — issued a plea to governments for help building a European MALE drone.

At the November Steering Board meeting EDA has also been tasked to prepare the launch of a so-called 'Category B' project for MALE drones, which is a Research & Technology project supposed to “lead to the development of technologically superior military capabilities.” However, all plans for a 'made-in-Europe' MALE drone so far have failed. Most notably the Airbus Military Aircraft (formerly Cassidian) Talarion project, which failed to secure financial backing from potential future buyers, as European countries rather preferred off-the-shelf American and Israeli drones. The American Reaper is acquired or in use by the Netherlands, France, Italy and the UK. Certification for the EU airspace is still a huge problem. General Atomics however announced to invest $100 million to meet NATO standardization agreements within four years and to smoothen European certification.

Germany, after initial interest in the Reaper, decided to lease Israel's IAI Heron TP instead, favouring its arms company Rheinmetall, which is responsible for Heron's service, maintenance and repairs in Germany.

For Dutch company Fokker it is good news that the Netherlands will lead the EU MALE community, as it may favour Reaper technology. Last summer Fokker signed a partnership with General Atomics to assist in the adaptation of Dutch Reaper requirements, and to support further design and manufacturing as well as operational and maintenance support after delivery. 

Thank to Dutch Defense minister Hennis, more Reaper drones business may be coming to the Netherlands.

[Wendela de Vries, 5 December 2013]