* France says committee to mull options over 12-18 months
* France, Britain working on joint armed drone project
* France could buy U.S. drones to fill interim gap
By John Irish
LE BOURGET, France, June 21 (Reuters) - France and Britain are delaying a decision on a joint next-generation flying drone for 12-18 months to buy time to weigh their options, France’s defence minister said on Tuesday.
Speaking to reporters at the Paris Air Show, Gerard Longuet said the lack of an armed drone in France’s military arsenal for the next three to six years meant it could need an interim solution.
“We have an absolute duty to say extremely precisely what we want,” Longuet said. “It will take us a good year from the time when we start working together, that is to say, from September,” he said, later adding that it was more likely to be 18 months.
The UK’s BAE Systems (BAES.L), which helped build the Eurofighter jet, and Dassault Aviation (AVMD.PA), builder of the Rafale, compete to sell conventional fighter jets but were nudged closer together on drones when Britain and France signed a major defence co-operation pact in November.
That agreement has put rival French aerospace firm EADS EAD.PA, also part builder of the Eurofighter, on the back foot, warning that a decision by Paris and London to push other defence companies into working on an armed drone could leave an alternative project in which it is involved out in the cold. [ID:nLDE75H0A0]
Medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drones are unpiloted aircraft that can loiter high over the battlefield on the lookout for threats and are sometimes loaded with weapons.
Europe has been involved for some time in piecemeal efforts to develop a home-built successor to the U.S. Predator, which is built by General Atomics and is widely used in Afghanistan.
EADS has spent years developing the Talarion unmanned aerial vehicle at its own expense in the hope of winning an order from the project’s instigators France, Germany and Spain.
Although EADS owns close to half of Dassault, inherited from the French government, it has no sway over the company and their fighter jets are fierce arms market rivals.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy looked to defuse the potential spat between the two sides when he opened the 49th Paris Air Show on Monday saying that companies had to put aside “industrial squabbles” and avoid commercial suicide.
“For the two armies’ main use, there will only be one drone,” Longuet said.
“The start of this project should be a Franco-British initiative and I don’t exclude anybody but they must work together,” he said, suggesting there should be closer co-operation between the two French aerospace giants.
Dassault said on June 8 its Telemos drone could be ready to enter service in 2016, provided French and British ministers authorised the start of the programme.
The EADS Talarion, which has been criticised for its lack of weapons, could be ready by 2014.
Longuet did not rule out buying U.S. drones to fill the gap in France’s arsenal.
France at present only has the Harfang drone, which is used for surveillance in Afghanistan but has been criticised after breaking down on several occasions.
Longuet’s predecessor at the Defence Ministry, Alain Juppe, said in December that France could buy Predator drones, although since then there has been talk of buying General Atomics’ latest Reaper drone. (Additional reporting by Cyril Altmeyer; Editing by James Regan)