MILITARY SPENDING

US and Israel competing for €300m Spanish drones contract

Spain's Defense Ministry wants to purchase four unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance

The MQ-9 Reaper, made by US firm General Atomics, is one of the models that the Spanish Defense Ministry is considering.
The MQ-9 Reaper, made by US firm General Atomics, is one of the models that the Spanish Defense Ministry is considering.

The United States and Israel are competing to supply Spain’s armed forces with its first major purchase of drones. The Spanish Defense Ministry is looking at the two bids, worth almost €300 million, for MALE, or Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance, systems: one from General Atomics, the US firm that produces the MQ-9 Reaper, and another from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), which makes the Heron TP.

Spain’s armed forces already have a number of surveillance drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – such as the Searcher and Raven, used by the army in Afghanistan, and the ScanEagle, based aboard navy vessels in the Indian Ocean, but these are much smaller craft and limited to tactical reconnaissance missions.

Spain already has a number of surveillance drones, but these are limited to tactical reconnaissance missions

In contrast, the MALE is a strategic surveillance system weighing between four and five tons, able to fly at altitudes of 9,000 meters for up to 24 hours, and that takes off like a conventional aircraft. The Defense Ministry says it is among its priorities and aims to have it operative by 2017.

The government says it intends to make a decision this summer, or at the latest by the general elections in November. The aim is to buy four UAVs with two land-based stations, one fixed and the other mobile, along with their equipment. Spain’s high-tech industries will have limited involvement, but both General Atomics and IAI have found domestic partners: Sener and Indra respectively.

Defense Minister Pedro Morenés has seen the Heron in action during a trip to the Tel Nof base in Israel in December. Experts say its appeal to Spain is that its technology is easier to access and modify.

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The Reaper, also known as the Predator B, is the Spanish armed forces’ preferred option, and is already in use by the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and the Netherlands, which would make it easier to train pilots, as well as to take part in joint missions. The Defense Ministry has excluded Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk for technical reasons.

The purchases are seen as a short-term measure while the EU develops its own drone, due to come into service by 2025 at the latest. After lengthy delays, on May 18, the German, French, and Italian defense ministries announced the technical studies for the EU’s MALE, which aims to garner a part of the global defense market currently dominated by the United States and Israel. Developing the prototype over the coming two years will cost an estimated €60 million.

Spain is not part of the project, but the three founders want to attract new partners, and are looking to Spain and Poland. Defense experts say that the purchase of the Reaper or the Heron, which could be secondhand to save costs, would enable Spain to joint the EU MALE project.

Both drones can be equipped with weapons, but Spanish armed forces sources say they will be used only for surveillance.