The UK and French governments have awarded a series of contracts for the feasibility phase of the Anglo-French future combat air system (FCAS) programme.
Valued at a combined £120m, the contracts were awarded to six firms, which were BAE Systems, Dassault Aviation, Thales France, Selex, Rolls-Royce and Safran.
Under the contract, the industry partners would explore concepts and options for the potential collaborative purchase of an unmanned combat air system (UCAS) over the next two years.
UK Ministry of Defence Materiel chief Bernard Gray said: "The development of unmanned combat air systems is of vital importance to the UK and France, which have the most capable and experienced armed forces in Europe and well-established defence industrial bases.
"By working together and drawing on a common vision we will see military, technological and financial benefit and sustain skills to fulfil our mutual needs and aspirations in the combat air sector."
Dassault Aviation chairman and chief executive officer Eric Trappier said: "It ensures French and British companies to maintain their technological excellence which is vital to their competitiveness in a globalised environment."
The award follows a statement of intent signed at the Anglo-French security and defence summit at RAF Brize Norton in January and a programme arrangement signed at the Farnborough International Air Show in July this year.
Scheduled to sustain hundreds of highly-skilled jobs at industry partners, the contract will develop and compare two national designs and concepts, which will be combined to form a joint design that could be used for any potential future UCAS programme after 2016.
The contracts are expected to be supplemented with additional UK and French national funding to the combined value of £80m in the same period.
Anticipated to enter service in 2030, UCAS would be designed to undertake sustained surveillance, mark targets, gather intelligence, deter adversaries and carry out strikes in hostile territories.
The system is expected to meet future military requirements of both France and the UK.
Image: Taranis, a prototype unmanned combat aircraft of the future. Photo: courtesy of Copyright BAE Systems.