UPDATE 2-European defence firms put drone project to governments

Mon May 19, 2014 12:03pm EDT

* Airbus, Dassault, Finmeccanica team up

* Companies to work with France, Italy, German governments

* Governments asked to define needs for surveillance drone

* Move comes after several failed projects

* France, Britain eye joint combat drone (Adds Dassault comments, French drone purchase, Franco-British project; previously BERLIN/PARIS)

By Victoria Bryan and Cyril Altmeyer

BERLIN/GENEVA, May 19 (Reuters) - Three leading European defence companies have jointly presented plans to governments aimed at creating an unmanned drone to reduce Europe's reliance on U.S. and Israeli technology.

Airbus Group, France's Dassault Aviation and Italy's Finmeccanica said on Monday that they would work with the governments of Germany, Italy and France for up to two years to define those countries' requirements for an unmanned aerial vehicle, with a view to producing it by 2020.

EU leaders in December backed the idea of creating a European drone by 2020-2025 after previous attempts by companies and countries failed due to differing national needs, corporate rivalry, technical problems and a lack of government support.

Airbus Defence & Space spent 500 million euros ($685 million) developing its Talarion drone but halted work in 2012 after failing to receive an order from the project's instigators, France, Germany and Spain.

It said it was not willing to invest its own money in the project this time.

"We are prepared to spend the money which we get from the customer. We're not putting any company money into this," Airbus Defence & Space Chief Executive Bernhard Gerwert told journalists at an event in Berlin ahead of the city's air show.

He said the plan foresees an unarmed vehicle but that weapon capability could be added if the customers wanted it.

Programme development will cost considerably less than 100 million euros a year per country over a decade, Dassault Aviation CEO Eric Trappier told journalists separately at the Ebace business aviation fair in Geneva.

Germany last year scrapped the Euro Hawk surveillance drone programme, based on Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk, heaping pressure on then Defence Minister Thomas de Maziere over what was seen as a waste of taxpayers' money.

The new plans by the three European defence firms were partly prompted by France saying last year that it would order 12 Reaper surveillance drones made by U.S.-based General Atomics.

"If there's the money to buy American, then I also hope there's the money to buy European," Trappier told Reuters last week.

"WE'RE READY"

Airbus said on Monday it was confident the project would get off the ground this time because of the commitment made by European leaders in December.

The German government also set out a need for drone capability in its coalition agreement last year.

"The air forces need that capability, so there's a need," said Christian Scherer, head of marketing and sales for Airbus Defence & Space.

"If you don't master your own technology, you're dependent on somebody else's and when it comes to sensitive areas, you don't want to depend on somebody else. So that's why we're hopeful we have a real prospect here."

The companies delivered the proposal to governments on Friday.

"It's our way of saying that we're ready," Dassault's Trappier said on Monday. "We want to call on the European authorities, but especially the French, Germans and Italians, to take the responsibility."

A spokesman for Germany's defence ministry said it would look at the proposal but that it was too soon to have evaluated it.

"It is to be welcomed that we will sit down at a table together with industry and with other countries to think about future solutions and to agree on our demands," the spokesman said at a government news conference.

Gerwert said having a joint definition phase should reduce the risk for all involved and that, given both Airbus and Dassault have already been involved in researching drones before, there would be little need for new research studies.

France and Britain, meanwhile, are set to sign a separate agreement for a two-year, 120 million pound ($202 million), feasibility study on a joint combat drone during the Farnborough air show in Britain in mid-July.

($1 = 0.7297 Euros; $1 = 0.5942 British Pounds) (Reporting by Victoria Bryan, Cyril Altmeyer and Tim Hepher; Additional reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Brian Love, Jason Neely and Pravin Char)

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