France and Britain recently announced they would be postponing a decision on a joint development project for next-generation unmanned aerial vehicles for 12-18 months to consider their options. In an email interview, Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, discussed European drone programs.
WPR: What is the current state of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) drone programs in Europe, in terms of deployed models and production capacity?
Douglas Barrie: Recent military conflicts have underscored the utility of unmanned aerial vehicles across a whole range of classes and roles for European militaries. The U.K., for example, deployed its Phoenix artillery-spotting UAV during the Iraq War, with the system utilized as an ad hoc intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) asset. Though much maligned -- it was years late in entering service -- the use of the Phoenix helped refine the British army's thinking on tactical systems and fed through into projects such as the Watchkeeper, which is expected to enter service later this year. The Royal Air Force, meanwhile, has operated the MQ-1 and MQ-9 Reaper, with the aim of acquiring a total of 10 of the latter from the U.S. Italy is also a Predator and Reaper operator, while France uses the Israeli Heron for its Harfang system, although it is considering a purchase of Reapers or Predators to fill current operational gaps in armed drones. An expanded UAV portfolio, particularly in medium and large systems, will certainly be a growing element of European aerospace manufacturers' offerings, with the question being how soon they will be able to meet demand.