nEUROn program takes off
On 9 February 2006, the DGA procurement branch of the French MoD officially awarded Dassault Aviation prime contractorship for the design and development of the nEUROn. The European UCAV project is now up and running.
Dassault Aviation was designated prime contractor for the nEUROn program by the French MoD at the 2003 Paris Air Show. A full-scale mockup of the future UCAV demonstrator was unveiled at the 2005 edition of the Show. Less than three years after the project was launched, the main contract and industrial partnership agreements had all been signed. The pace of the negotiations was impressive. The DGA procurement branch of the French MoD, as the executive agency, conducted negotiations with representatives of the different European governments to finalize the terms and conditions of their participation in the project. Meanwhile, Dassault Aviation, as the prime contractor, created a team of European industrial partners. The nEUROn program represents an innovative approach to industrial cooperation. For European design offices, it offers a chance to maintain their strategic know-how. Over the next 20 years, the European fighter aircraft industry is confronted by three major challenges:
• to develop strategic technologies which the US already possesses, or will possess, and which will never be transferred to Europe;
• to maintain its poles of excellence -- European industry has developed technology niches in a number of areas and, in the absence of sufficient workload, this know-how could disappear;
• to maintain the workload of its design offices.
These challenges could not be met by launching a new combat aircraft program based on an all-European development, since there would be no opportunity to replace the aircraft currently in service before 2030.
Faced with this situation, the French government adopted a proactive approach and took the initiative to launch the nEUROn project. This represented a turning point in European cooperation since, for the first time, it went beyond theoretical studies and included construction and flight-testing of a demonstrator. In addition to the program objective, the whole approach was unprecedented. Charles Edelstenne explains: “The French government wanted to avoid the current mode of collaboration, in which each country wants to acquire knowledge that it does not yet possess. With nEUROn, the workshare arrangements are based on the know-how of each industrial partner.”
Partner selection was based on:
• Excellence and know-how. The objective of this project was not to create new capabilities all over Europe, but to make the best possible use of existing technology niches.
• Competitivity. The goal was to find new ways to reduce costs. Each partner’s contribution had to offer the best cost/effectiveness ratio.
• Government funding commitment. The DGA decided that any country wishing to participate in the nEUROn program also had to contribute to financing. Following consultations with governments and contractors in a number of European countries, the industrial team that was formed satisfied these criteria and offered the best guarantees of success for the project. Sweden, Italy, Spain, Greece and Switzerland joined the team. Dassault Aviation is prime contractor for the program and all directly related tasks: overall design, shape definitions, final assembly, global tests, airworthiness, etc. Our company is developing stealth technologies (with Saab and Alenia taking responsibility for certain elements), general control architecture (including the flight control system), and the weapons bay and associated carriage and separation capacities.
Thales is the subcontractor with responsibility for the air/ground datalink and the interface between the ground station and the command and communication centre. Saab (Sweden) is responsible for the fuselage (including systems), avionics, fuel system and part of the flight testing. Alenia (Italy) is responsible for combat capabilities (with associated ED/IR sensor), an innovative internal weapons bay concept, the design and construction of the electrical system, air data system and part of the flight testing. EADS (Spain) brings its know-how in wings, ground control stations and datalink management. Hellenic Aerospace Industry (Greece) is responsible for the aft fuselage, nozzle and construction of the integration bench. RUAG (Switzerland) is in charge of low-speed wind tunnel testing and platform/weapons interfaces. Cooperation is total and open. More than half of the total workload is in the hands of non-French industrial partners.
The program set some ambitious demonstration goals: • build a stealthy platform, both in the radar and infrared domains; • fire weapons from an internal bay within very short timeframes; • perform an air-ground mission within a complex command and communication network. As a technology demonstrator, nEUROn does not respond to any specific military requirement, but it will allow the application, integration and validation of existing or future technologies for unmanned combat air vehicles. The objective is to demonstrate the validity of technologies to monitor and control an unmanned vehicle the size of a combat aircraft, including all the backup modes required to achieve the desired level of security. The system must be capable of exchanging data with all other units present on the battlefield. Stealth will be a major program focus: nEUROn will be the first large stealthy platform built in Europe. The primary technology challenges relate to the shape of the aircraft (aerodynamics, tail-less configuration, low-signature absorbent materials, internal weapons bay), the key role of software, insertion of aircraft of this type into the air traffic environment, high-level algorithms necessary for automation, and the role of the human operator in the mission loop. Finally, nEUROn must be capable of firing weapons from an internal weapons bay – currently all European aircraft carry bombs and missiles externally. Of course, this European collaborative project, led by Dassault Aviation, was inconceivable outside a Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) environment. Following in the footsteps of the Falcon 7X, nEUROn will be the first military aircraft in the world to be completely designed and developed on a virtual plateau. The six industrial teams will work simultaneously in real time on the same data base. Through its prime contractorship of the nEUROn program, Dassault Aviation is leading European industry along the path of excellence by developing its capabilities in the domain of unmanned air systems, its know-how for the next generation of European combat aircraft, and its experience in optimized management of international collaborative programs.