Opinion, Bruno Sainjon, Chairman and CEO, ONERA

Which role Research & Technology must play to ensure France's continued stance as a major aerospace power ?

On September 8 and 9, ONERA participate in the Summer Defense Conference, with Chairman and CEO Bruno Sainjon taking advantage of this opportunity to discuss the role that Research & Technology must play to ensure France's continued stance as a major aerospace power.

Bruno SainjonThe French (and European) aerospace industry is one of the increasingly rare industry sectors in which we still enjoy global status, with all that entails in terms of scientific, technological, industrial, economic and of course human challenges. Today's major programs are successful because they are based on scientific and technological innovations that were matured and proven in previous years. At the heart of this future-facing structure is ONERA, which was originally tasked by the French government with a unifying role, acting as an interface between the worlds of academia and industry. Where do things stand today?

The creation of ONERA in 1946 signaled France's determination to become a leading player in aviation, a goal that was later extended to include space. We have largely met this objective, and France is now among the world leaders in both of these areas.

We have achieved a number of successes in both civil and military aerospace, all built on technologies and expertise that have been carefully developed to meet not only technology and performance goals, but also economic objectives.

These are collectives successes, bringing together both public and private organizations. Above all, they are achieved by scientists, engineers and technicians who combine the requisite skills and determination, virtually all of them strongly committed to working for the common good, and in the public interest.

This clearly applies to the men and women of ONERA. Since the founding of this state establishment, our people have been involved in the success of major French and European programs in all areas of aerospace and defense, including civil and military airplanes and helicopters, launch vehicles, strategic and tactical missiles and more. From the Rafale and the A400M to the A320 and the M51, from Ariane 5 to Exocet, from Falcon bizjets to the ASMPA... Take a closer look, and you'll undoubtedly find "ONERA Inside"!

For decades now, ONERA has helped define new airborne platforms in conjunction with aircraft manufacturers and equipment suppliers. Our work calls on long-standing expertise, keyed to the requirements of airplanes, helicopters and the engines that power them. Our expertise spans a number of scientific and technological disciplines, including modeling, simulation and experimental tools that are among the best in the world. One of the most striking examples is our elsA computation code, a complete aerodynamics software package that simulates complex internal and external airflows for multidisciplinary applications. This also includes coupling with aeroelasticity, aerothermodynamics and aeroacoustics for a broad range of applications, including airplanes, helicopters, turbomachinery, missiles, launchers, nozzles, inlets, propulsive jets and more.

ONERA's expertise has enabled us to form very productive research partnerships with leading agencies such as NASA in the United States, TSAGI in Russia, JAXA in Japan and the DLR in Germany. One excellent example of scientific collaboration that benefits industry is Sondra, a French-Singapore lab in partnership with the Supelec electrical engineering school, that just celebrated its tenth anniversary. Collaborations of this type provide an opportunity to establish ties within the aerospace sector, whether scientific or industrial. We have to further develop these teaming arrangements, while also making sure that we sign robust security and defense agreements that will protect our mutual interests.

However, over the last decade ONERA's role as a federator of basic aerospace research has crumbled. There are a number of reasons for this decline, starting with budgets. The previous grants from France's civil and defense ministries have now been reduced to a sole subsidy from the Ministry of Defense, via the defense procurement agency DGA. Furthermore, over the last few years this subsidy has been decreasing due to cuts in the defense budget, and now only covers about 40% of ONERA's operations. While this drop has been partially offset by an increased share of contracts in ONERA's overall budget, these contracts are far more uncertain. Contract awards are being announced later and later, and they are also impacted by a steady annual decrease in defense spending. The year-end 2013 results at ONERA reflected this difficulty.

Secondly, for certain contracts, whether government or industry, ONERA is in competition with organizations that have subsidies covering a much larger part, or even all of their operations, which considerably reduces ONERA's chances of winning the contract. We are going up against competitors capable of submitting a proposal that has to cover only a small part of their payroll, or even none. In addition, ONERA's strengthened role as an expert advisor to the DGA also prevents us from competing for certain contracts, so as to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.

Thirdly, it is a highly paradoxical situation for ONERA to have only this single guaranteed source of funds, from defense, when both national (National Research Agency funding, for instance) and European rules mandate that an organization such as ONERA self-finance part of the civil research relevant to these agencies.

The amount of basic research carried out by academia, small businesses and ONERA has been considerably reduced, to only about 4% of the current total contractual amount, because of the disappearance of the subsidy from the DGAC (civil aviation directorate), and the – very respectable – decisions made within the scope of the aerospace section of France's Future Investment Program, to focus work on demonstrators, meaning high Technology Readiness Levels (TRL). I believe it is well worth mentioning that the state representatives subgroup in ACARE – Advisory Council for Aviation Research and innovation in Europe – recently expressed its regret that the Commission did not provide adequate funding for activities entailing lower TRLs. Let us hope that the upcoming national choices reflect this observation and that, instead of reinforcing the insufficiency of longer-term work, they will help offset it, at least in part.

Another aspect: while the advent of entities intended to bolster the coherence of academic and industry work in several areas (SATT, IRT, clusters, etc.) has met its objective in several areas, in the aerospace sector, this coherence, a de facto mission assigned to ONERA at the outset, has in fact been weakened. During Patrick Gandil's recent hearing by the Finance Committee in the French National Assembly, which was interviewing players in France's Future Investment Program, representatives of French civil aviation directorate DGAC were asked about the benefits of these structures. Their answer reiterated the pertinence of the original model: "… ONERA is a public benchmark establishment in aerospace, which, since being created in 1946, has been able to build bridges between public and private research. (…) Aviation, unlike other sectors, therefore does not need a proactive policy designed to couple the public and private sectors: this marriage was already made many decades ago. (…)" Naturally, I supported this same position during my own hearing.

It's not always "the other guy's fault" of course, and ONERA has committed the error of turning back within itself, at the local, national and international levels, with the notable exception of the Carnot Institutes, which should be strengthened. "Sleeping Beauty" has indeed fallen asleep, and during this time others have made massive investments to take over leadership. It's time to wake up, and the initiative that kicked off a year ago – moving closer to industry, state entities, the ISAE aeronautical engineering school and academia, via the "community of universities and educational establishments" association in Toulouse, Lille and Saclay, etc. – puts us on the right track, and should be accelerated.

We also have to reinforce and structure our role as an incubator for small businesses, to enhance our image and the efficiency of our actions for French industry, especially since a number of ONERA technologies have already caught the attention of other industrial sectors, and will continue to do so.

At the same time, we should play a more active role in training French and foreign doctoral students. We already have the scientific resources and capabilities for this task, but we also need the financial means.

Adapting ONERA to the current environment should also spotlight our role as a pioneer and major player in sustainable development. ONERA has long focused on making the aerospace sector more eco-conscious. A number of research projects address this issue, including noise reduction, the use of alternative fuels, reducing fuel consumption by enhancing aircraft aerodynamics, reducing structural mass, increasing the intrinsic performance of engines, reducing emissions and more.

Lastly, I would like to mention the specific area of ONERA's wind tunnels. We operate a fleet of wind tunnels that is unrivaled worldwide, one that contributes to the success of our current and upcoming programs (e.g., the A380, A400M, A350, etc.). European industry recently named eight of our wind tunnels as strategic resources for the future of the sector. It's a proven fact that the quality of the tests and experiments carried out in these facilities, coupled with the skills in related areas (physics, computation codes, metrology, etc.) offered by ONERA's scientific departments, makes us stand out.

However, some industrial tests are performed elsewhere, under the pressure of achieving short-term savings. "It's not that customers are avoiding us, it's just that they're distracted."*  And ONERA has to take sole responsibility for expenses. Despite our efforts to reduce the expense of this resource, via an increase in productivity, especially by reducing our workforce and diversifying our clientele, to include American and Chinese customers, for instance, our Large Testing Facilities business is systemically loss-making. Furthermore, it will be impacted by necessary upgrading, because of the age of our facilities, as well as the need to invest to stay at the cutting edge of technology and testing, and enable our industry to maintain its leadership. But today, ONERA is totally incapable of taking on these investments.

To underscore my point, let me make a comparison – daring, but not all that unrealistic – with the small caliber munitions and weapons sector. Giat Industries inherited industrial facilities representing a hefty capital investment, with insufficient workload, and generating a recurring loss. France's decision to award the contract for small caliber munitions to its competitors, in the late 1990s, sounded the death knell for these activities in France. Since then, people have criticized this situation, and the resulting impact on economics and national independence – but it was too late, and France is now out of this sector for good.

ONERA is at the heart of an organization that has proven its efficiency. Our many successes in recent decades are ample proof of the pertinence of this model. However, this model must once again be applied whole-heartedly so that the aerospace programs that will enter the market in 2030-2050, which must be prepared right now, will enjoy the same success as their predecessors. They have to be able to call on the best technologies developed by research in the coming years, an ambitious mission that ONERA is fully capable of accomplishing, in line with its mandated task when it was created – provided, of course, that it is given the requisite resources.

This is a point well worth remembering if we want one of our rare industrial crown jewels to still shine brightly 20 or 30 years from now.

Bruno Sainjon

Chairman and CEO, ONERA

* A well-known quote from the French gangster comedy Les tontons flingueurs (known as "Crooks in Clover" or "Monsieur Gangster" in English), directed by Georges Lautner and starring Lino Ventura.

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