A French-led industrial consortium is developing Europe’s first combat-size stealth aircraft. The program will produce an unmanned aerial vehicle that will serve as a testbed to validate a variety of materials, computer and avionics capabilities. Another important goal is to provide European aerospace engineers with the skills and understanding to apply advanced technologies in future airborne military platforms.
Launched by the French government in 2003, the goal of the Neuron program, also spelled nEUROn, is to develop an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) demonstrator that features the combined skills of the European aerospace industry. One objective is to nurture strategic technologies such as stealth and validate their application through flight tests.
According to Yves Robins, vice president for international relations at Dassault Aviation
, Paris, the French government will provide half of the program’s 400 million euro ($477 million) budget while the remaining funds will be supplied by the other participating member nations. The effort is administered through the French armament procurement agency.
The contract and memorandums of understanding establishing the Neuron project’s industrial partnership and designating Dassault Aviation as the prime contractor were signed in early 2005. Scheduled for an initial test flight in 2010, the UCAV will perform experimental air-to-ground missions in a network-centric warfare environment, demonstrate stealth technologies and deploy weapons from an internal bay. According to Dassault officials, European combat aircraft currently use external hard points to carry bombs and missiles. An internal bay also can house systems such as reconnaissance packages.
Besides being the first combat-aircraft-size stealth platform designed in Europe, Neuron also will test a variety of systems such as autonomous navigation and software capabilities.
In addition to Dassault, the Neuron team comprises Saab, Sweden; Hellenic Aerospace Industry (HAI), the European Aeronautics Defence and Space (EADS) Company of Spain; RUAG Aerospace, Switzerland; and Alenia Aeronautica, Italy.
The program has three goals: to maintain and develop the skills of the participating European aerospace companies’ design offices; to investigate and validate the technologies that will be needed by 2015 to design next-generation combat aircraft, either manned or unmanned; and to validate an innovative cooperation process by establishing a European industry team responsible for developing next-generation combat aircraft.
The work will include designing more efficient ways to cooperate, methods to operate within budgetary constraints and processes that respect individual nations’ planning and agenda issues. “What we wanted when we selected our partners was not to develop a capability that did not exist but to build on existing capabilities and further enhance them in a cost-efficient way,” he offers.
The ultimate goal of Neuron goes beyond production numbers, Robins shares. The challenges lie in developing appropriate industrialization processes, new materials, radar absorbent coatings and stealthy shapes. He notes that Dassault has some experience in developing stealth materials, while Saab and EADS also have produced stealth systems and UAV ground control capabilities.
While he cannot discuss much of the technology being developed for the program, Robins reiterates that Neuron is the first purely stealth-based platform built in Europe.
Other technologies will include the ability to attack ground targets with precision munitions such as laser-guided weapons. The team also is exploring the capability to insert the UCAV into a command, control, communications, computers and intelligence environment and the ability to operate unmanned platforms in the same airspace as manned civilian and military aircraft.
Additional considerations are autonomous navigation and decision-making processes. The program will examine dynamically reconfiguring the system during a mission and will study the ability to alter mission plans in mid-course if the tactical environment changes. Designers also will determine the right place for human operators in the operational/decision loop. In addition, the platform includes innovations such as fly-by-wire technology and a tailless body.
When Neuron is ready to fly, Robins expects operational goals for both stealth and UCAV platforms to be established. “By that time, we hope that the European armed forces—not only France—will have defined a more accurate need for an operational system.”
The full version of this article is published in the September 2005 issue of SIGNAL
Magazine, in the mail to AFCEA members and subscribers September 1, 2005. For information about purchasing this issue, joining AFCEA
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, contact AFCEA Member Services