A French-led effort to develop a stealthy unmanned combat air vehicle is set to move into high gear as engineers begin to prepare detailed definition of the Neuron demonstrator.
For the six partner nations, Neuron is a major attempt to explore what uses a UCAV capability might serve. For industry, it's seen as a vital effort to keep pace with the nearest competitors. Program planners acknowledge that similar U.S. and British undertakings might be further advanced (AW&ST Dec. 11, 2006, p. 35). But with military strategists everywhere still grappling with UCAV requirements, they are confident there's still enough time for Europe to be competitive. In fact, they are already eyeing an extension to the 10-year program to allow more potential uses to be explored.
What comes after the demonstration flights is anyone's guess. Some participating countries, notably France, are eyeing an eventual follow-on UCAV development program. Others, such as Sweden, are not even sure they would want to arm unmanned aircraft. One of the goals of the test flight campaign will be to help determine future requirements. However, most experts believe a real UCAV is unlikely to be fielded before 2030, which would imply kickoff of development no sooner than 2015.
It's good to see that the Europeans are building an independant tech base, but...how far are they behind? Quite a bit at this point. A friend of mine - that I think reads this blog now and again stated back in the mid 1990s that it didn't matter if Europe didn't do the tech development because they would use the second and third round developed tech by buying it from us without having to go through the costs of investment in the immature technologies like the US does. That's definitely true, but if the Europeans don't want Washington to hold the strings on what they can and cannot sell and to who or, heaven forbid, the US and EU fall out almost completely, be able to use it for themselves, then, well...