Interview with Christophe Fontaine, Director Strategic Development for Europe, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.
Christophe “Taraz” Fontaine is a retired French Air Force colonel of 30 years with experience in Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). He held squadron level and staff positions related to ISR, Targeting, Combat Search & Rescue (CSAR), NATO doctrine and air operations. He was the first MQ-9 REAPER squadron commander and was deployed 28 times in operations. He is a graduate of the French War College and holds a Master’s degree in both Criminality and Modern History. He has written and published more than 30 articles on ISR. He joined GA-ASI in 2018.
ESD: Which core features and technological developments characterise a modern unmanned aircraft system of the MALE (Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance) class?
Fontaine: The current MALE systems were originally designed for combat operations and not in support of domestic operations. Today, however, there is increased demand from Homeland Security for Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) to provide surveillance to monitor illegal immigrations and the resurgence of the Russian threat at EU-NATO borders, including in the maritime domain. In fact, their characteristics match perfectly with the requirements with one primary handicap: their inability to fly without special permission in most European airspace. GA-ASI is working to address this issue. The production process for our RPA has been changed in order to enable these systems to be certified to fly in civil airspace. The aim is for our RPA to operate in the European airspace like any other aircraft. For that, in addition to the production process to make it certifiable, key system modifications needs to be implemented. It mainly concerns their ability to Detect and Avoid (DAA) other aircraft, to fly in adverse weather conditions and to have a secure and redundant satellite communication datalink. All these modifications are now included in the MQ-9B family of RPA, which continues to be flown by a trained military crew including a rated pilot.
ESD: What are the user requirements for such systems? (technological and regulatory)
Fontaine: The users are of two types. The traditional military users want cost effective endurance, an integrated plug-and-play sensor suite, and weaponisa-tion. They also require a certified aircraft, especially in Europe, in order to easily fly domestic missions. But the main requirement remains the operations capabilities that are now extended to the maritime surveillance domain. Lately, especially in Europe, the requirement of sovereign sensor integration and industry participation on the program are also prerequisites. This has increased the interest in MALE RPA from Homeland Security organisation. Their priority is to be able to fly unrestricted in civilian airspace and therefore, building an RPA that is certifiable is of utmost importance since these customers may end up flying in the same areas and face the same lack of human resources to fly and exploit the data of these systems. This makes the search for commonality between homeland and military missions paramount.
ESD: How does your customer base in Europe look like? Do you see an additional demand for your systems?
Fontaine: With the current security challenges that Europe and NATO are facing, the ISR requirements have now grown well beyond the traditional military or air force organisation. The resurgence of the Russian threat at the NATO borders requires the reestablishment of a persistent ISR capability in order to give the alliance warning of potential danger and collect strategic and operative multi-intelligence in support of EUCOM. In addition, the increase of the Russian naval and submarine activities occurs in a period were NATO nations have dramatically reduced their Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) capabilities. MALE RPA are the perfect cost effective supplement. Then, in a global economy that relies heavily on maritime routes, their surveillance to prevent piracy becomes a greater necessity. Finally, the challenge of illegal immigration, pollution, and illegal trafficking or exploitation of natural resources reinforce the need for customs and coast guard surveillance capabilities. For all these reasons, the MALE RPA, thanks to its native endurance and multi-intelligence characteristics, is the most cost effective platform to perform these surveillance missions.
ESD: With EuroMALE, a European system should be ready by the mid-2020s. How do you perceive this development? What would be the advantages of transatlantic cooperation?
Fontaine: In order to preserve their defence industry, Europeans have a legitimate reason to develop their own capabilities and technological expertise in order to sustain and increase employment. This is understandable. However, the cost of this enterprise needs to remain reasonable. And it should certainly not be done at all cost in terms of performances or delivery delays to the armed forces. These ISR capabilities are desperately needed in the daily fight against terrorism. Therefore, GA-ASI’s has offered its European customers to participate in the program by integrating their own sensors suite into the aircraft. GA-ASI’s MQ-9 already integrates natively a number of European products: the radios are German, the landing gear is Dutch and the display for the cockpit is from Belgium. With the MQ-9B “EuroGuardian,” the next step will be achieved. European nations will have the possibility to maintain the sovereignty for operations by the integration of their own non-ITAR sensor suite. GA-ASI would be in charge of the certifiable RPA and cockpit, and the customer will provide the sensor configuration. Therefore, thanks to the crypto devices and a SATCOM data link of choice, the sovereignty for operations would be ensured and the future of the participating European sensor companies would be preserved. By capitalising on GA-ASI’s six million flight hours of experience, and the customer selecting their own sensors, the European taxpayers would have a better system for a much better price to support deployed operations and protect the homeland.
ESD: There are voices in the French Senate that suggest that the Franco-German cooperation is facing the problem of agreeing on a solution with one or two engines. Are two engines really necessary for the full integration of a MALE drone into civil airspace, as mentioned by the German side?
Fontaine: The reliability of turbo-prop engine enables certification of a single engine passenger aircraft all over the world. The single engine MQ-9 family, after 10 years of operation, has a better mission-capable rate than the F-16. In addition, on a daily basis, everyone accepts that single engine commercial aircraft are flown above Germany by weekend hobby pilots. The MALE RPA is flown by professional pilots and, for MQ-9B, will rely on an autoland system to further reduce the possibility of incidents during the landing phase. So there is no need to have a twin engine RPA to obtain the certification of the system and its integration in the civilian airspace.
ESD: Please elaborate on the advantages and disadvantages of two engines from an operational and logistical point of view?
Fontaine: The first effects of a twin-engine configuration is to augment the weight, the wingspan and of course, the cost per flying hours. With a twin-engine configuration, the EUROMALE weighs twice as much as an MQ-9B. These MALE RPA platforms are designed to loiter by circling above a target. Therefore, a twin-engine aircraft brings no gain in terms of endurance, noise or flying characteristics. The only gain that can be achieved is a slight increase of the speed and of course, to give additional assurances to the certification authority. However, as the system will be more complex to develop, the cost of certification will also be more important. So an improvement in performance would be very small, if not nil. The overall cost for development, certification, production and operation will also be very important. And the aircraft will be more complex to develop and maintain. The REAPER, with almost three million flying hours, has demonstrated that turbo-prop engines have reached an exceptional level of reliability. Therefore, choosing a double engine configuration is therefore questionable especially as these platforms continue, even if the number of homeland ISR missions will increase, to be mainly used in combat operations. It is interesting to note that the two greatest RPA producers, who have been accumulated almost 10 million RPA flying hours, have chosen to continue with a single engine configuration. It is important to remember that an RPA facing an engine problem will remain flyable via the SATCOM link. It will glide and softly be grounded on a runway or an open area. This does not make it more dangerous than another platform, even with a pilot on board.
The interview was conducted by Waldemar Geiger.