Is it too late for the NEURON?

On December 1, 2012, the first European-made combat drone, the NEURON, took to the air for the first time from Istres air base 125, in the Bouches-du-Rhône, for a flight that lasted 25 minutes at above the pond of Berre. This event materialized 9 years of efforts on the part of the Dassault Aviation teams and its European partners, Italians, Swedes, Spaniards, Greeks and Swiss, and offered Europe the opportunity to position itself at the forefront in the field of drones. stealth combat, called to become crucial in the air wars to come. 8 years later, the demonstrator program has not given rise to any operational conversion, or even to an industrial program, while at the same time, the major military nations, such as the United States (Skyborg, Stingray), the Russia (S70 Okhotnik-B) and China (GJ-11 Sharp Sword) have all started industrial production of this type of equipment. How to explain this phenomenal French and European failure? And above all, is it too late today to make the NEURON program the essential operational combat drone for the European air forces in the years to come?

Objectives and History of the NEURON program

The NEURON program, initially launched in 2003 by French Defense Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie, responded to a need clearly identified by the Air Force Headquarters: by 2030, densification and performance anti-aircraft systems could prevent conventional combat aircraft, such as the Rafale, from carrying out their missions, depriving the French air forces of a key capability, that of "entering first" over contested territory. This is why it was decided, on the basis of the work carried out by Dassault on the Petit-Duc and and Moyen-Duc demonstrators intended to study stealth technologies and combat drones and started in 1999, to entrust the French aircraft manufacturer the preliminary study of the “Grand Duke”, which would later become the European Neuron program.

Dassaut Aviation's AVE-D Petit Duc demonstrator during testing. It measured 2 m wingspan and did not exceed 50 kg

In 2006, 5 European countries had joined the initiative, Sweden and Italy each contributing € 75m, Spain contributing € 35m, Switzerland and Greece contributing € 20m each, while France contributed , € 180m, for a total budget of € 405m. Remarkably, the program respected not only its agenda, but also its budget, however out of proportion with the sums invested for example across the Atlantic on similar programs. Other countries, such as Germany, Belgium, and even Russia, took an interest in the program. But Germany withdrew, and decided to develop your own program confidentially with Airbus DS, and Russia did the same, initially with Mig's Skat program, then Sukhoi's Okhotnik program.

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