The Eurodrone: An industrial project fuelled by politics

© Anna Zvereva | CC BY-SA 2.0

Should the Eurodrone be armed or unarmed? Should it have one or two engines? And whichever decision on that: who will produce it? 

These are only some of the issues that have slowed down the development of the Eurodrone, a €7.1 billion industrial project by a consortium of France, Germany, Italy and Spain and their major giants; Airbus Defence and Space, Dassault Aviation and Leonardo. The first deliveries of the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) are expected in 2029, 15 years after the project was launched.

The risk is that “we will be buying obsolete equipment when it is ready”, says French senator Cédric Perrin.

No permission needed from the US

The Eurodrone is not only a complex project between major defense companies. It is also the industrial flagship of EU’s political push for stronger common defence capabilities and more “strategic autonomy”, not least from the USA. In concrete terms, the Eurodrone aims to compete with American drones like Reaper and Predator, the Israeli UAVs Heron and Hermes, and Turkey’s Bayraktar. The Eurodrone’s strength lies in being a completely European product, a technology that does not depend on third countries. “The first Reapers purchased by France were completely managed by the Americans. When you wanted to fly it somewhere, you had to ask permission from the American Congress”, Cédric Perrin explains.

Public money, no call for tender

The Eurodrone, with a wingspan of 30 meters, can provide surveillance or air strike capabilities for around 20 hours. It stands out for yet one reason: it is so far the largest recipient of EU funding for industrial development in the military sector. In 2021, the drone project received €100 million from the European Defence Industry Development Programme (EDIDP) without any call for tenders. That is a “symbolic, but welcome” sum, according to a source in one of the companies involved. “We are happy to receive this funding, but it does not give the European Commission the right to intervene in the negotiations we conduct with our clients, the four countries”, this person says.

The clients are not totally on the same page. Each country has a different use of the drone in mind: France wants a weapon to be used in the Sahel in Africa, while Germany aims at surveillance of its own territory.

Jean-Brice Dumont (Airbus DS) and Lucio Valerio Cioffi (Leonador S.p.A) sign Eurodrone | © Airbus

Germany also, for safety reasons, imposed a twin-engine solution that will make the drone heavier and more expensive to produce and maintain.  

With or without weapons?

The planned use heavily influences another discussion: should the drone be armed or not? Drones usher in a new type of warfare. Armed, they can give support for soldiers on the ground. They can strike on their own – without risking the lives of crews. In Ukraine, Turkish-made drones are allegedly helping the Ukrainian army destroy invading Russian tanks.

“The Eurodrone is a project designed primarily as a reconnaissance system”, stated the German governmental coalition partners in February 2021. They reiterated this position in April of the same year, when the Bundestag’s budget committee included as a requirement for approving the project that “no ammunition may be purchased for the Eurodrone system, and there will be no tactical weapons training for Eurodrone system operators”.

In the end, the countries opted for a flexible solution to accommodate all needs.

Where are the customers?

60 Eurodrones will be produced and delivered to the four partner countries. “The Italian government’s attention to drones is growing”, says Francesco Vignarca of the Italian Peace and Disarmament Network. He points out that the Italian government last autumn opened up the possibility of arming Reaper drones, which until then had been used for surveillance missions.

Is the Eurodrone a common European project, or just an agreement between four countries?

Investigate Europe asked the 23 remaining EU governments whether they consider buying the Eurodrone once the current “study and design” phase is completed. We received ten answers. None of these governments said they want to join the project or buy the future drone. Four member states reject the project. Six are waiting to decide.

From the Portuguese Ministry of Defence came a similar response to those from the Netherlands and Denmark: “There is no expression of interest from the Armed Forces”.

A very delayed take-off

Even getting to the present stage of the Eurodrone development has been a long and steep process. The international collaboration came after several attempts over the past 20 years to develop a European drone.

France had tried with the EuroMale programme, a project that failed due to differences between the European partners on strategy and operational requirements, and even more disagreements between manufacturers.

A new project, known as Advanced UAV or Talarion, was launched in 2006 by the French, German and Spanish governments. But it, too, failed to get off the ground due to costs and competition from other European projects, such as Telemos, a French-British partnership.

Repeated failures then pushed European countries to get foreign MALE drones, such as the American Predator and Reaper and the Israeli Hermes and Heron.

Desert mission: Eurodrone visualisation | © Airbus

The turning point came in 2013, when France announced the purchase of American Reapers for use in their military mission in Mali. At that point, “Dassault, Airbus and their colleagues at Leonardo said ‘wait a minute, we know how to build these drones. We have a big aeronautical industry. We want to produce them ourselves’”, says a source close to OCCAR, a Bonn-based agency that manages European arms cooperation programmes.

Leonardo, Safran, Dassault and Airbus have all declined Investigate Europe’s requests for interviews about the drone.

The battle for the engine

The partners are now debating the nationality of the Eurodrone engine. The choice stands between alternatives from the Italian company Avio Aero and the French Safran Helicopter Engines. Avio Aero is owned by the American giant General Electric.

Safran emphasizes the European pedigree of its proposed engine, Ardiden TP3.

“It would be shocking if European taxpayers were to finance a non-European solution”, Franck Saudo, CEO of Safran Helicopter Engines, told La Tribune, hinting that Avio Aero’s Catalyst engine could be subject to extraterritorial ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations). This would mean that countries who produce that engine would have to seek permission from the US before being able to export it.

These accusations show the strong competition between the candidates. Avio Aero has dismissed  them as lies that aim to cast Italian competitors in a bad light. This interpretation is echoed by the source close to OCCAR.

“Safran is trying to play its own game. Our initial analysis shows that Avio Aero’s engine meets the conditions as well as the one proposed by Safran”.

The decision has been postponed several times. But, finally, on 25 March, Airbus announced the selection of Catalyst, the Italian engine. The agreement provides for the supply of 120 engines and associated maintenance and service, for a total expenditure of €500 million.  “Catalyst has been identified as the best solution on the basis of superior performance, lower development risk, better in-service economics and higher growth potential” said Jean-Brice Dumont, Head of Military Aircraft at Airbus Defence and Space. 

With the engine producer in place, it remains to be seen if the Eurodrone in the end will fly as Europe’s preferred UAV, or remain in the arsenal of a few.