LONDON, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- The governments of Britain and France are moving forward with plans to acquire a range of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Of special short-term interest are medium-altitude, long-endurance vehicles and later unmanned combat aircraft systems.
"Unmanned air systems are crucial to success in the battlefield, as the Libya and Afghanistan campaigns have shown," the office of British Prime Minister David Cameron said. "We have agreed … to take forward our planned cooperation on UAS within a long-term strategic partnership framework aimed at building a sovereign capability shared by our two countries."
It said a jointly funded contract will soon be given to BAE Systems and Dassault to assess the technical risks involved in producing a MALE system.
"We look forward to taking further decisions jointly in the light of the outcomes of this risk reduction phase to ensure that our respective sovereign requirements will be met in a cost-effective manner," the announcement said.
Meanwhile, France had expressed interest in the Watchkeeper UAV from Thales and will begin evaluating the system this year. Watchkeeper is an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance drone used by British forces and built by Thales UK.
"The U.K. and France want to remain leaders in the use of UAVs and working together on Watchkeeper would ensure both have the best intelligence capabilities without duplicating the costs," said Thales UK Chief Executive Officer Victor Chavez.
"Cooperation will unlock huge potential benefits in terms of interoperability, joint technology development and industrial collaboration …
"Industrially, UAVs are central to the defense sector's renewal over the next period, and (the) agreement gives the market confidence that British and French industry will play a central role," he said.
A joint Future Combat Air System Demonstration Program is being established next year by the two countries, which also agreed last week to work together in maritime mine countermeasures utilizing unmanned technology.
Cooperation between France and Britain on military matters has grown as each struggles with the need to curb defense expenditures, given the global economic downturn, yet maintain strong military capability.
The British prime minster voiced the rationale last week during a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"The defense cooperation is real, it is substantial, it is going to make a big difference to the military capabilities of both Britain and France," he said. "We are similar-sized powers, with similar-sized armed forces, with similar ambitions.
"It is partly about new capacity -- the investment that we are going to make in a drone program. It is also about making the most of our existing capacity, as we will be combining and using it together. It is also about operational capacity and ability to take action together.
"It is, I think, a real breakthrough that we have made over the last two years and we are determined to keep pushing this forward," Cameron said.