BAE Systems Plc lifted the veil on plans for the world’s first combat drones, saying it’s working toward a scenario in which the unmanned warplanes will fight alongside piloted aircraft rather than instead of them.
Europe’s largest defense company has modeled a battlefield scenario in which a super-stealthy successor to its current Taranis drone penetrates enemy lines and destroys key ground defenses before calling in conventional strike aircraft.
The simulation, made public this week, indicates that the drone BAE expects to emerge from a 10-year development program with France would wield its own air-to-ground weapons but leave the bulk of bomb and missile attacks to jets such as the Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35.
Unlike current military drones such as the General Atomics Reaper, which are generally flown by ground-based “pilots,” the new model would have the autonomy to reach its own operational decisions and would contact ground personnel only to initiate attacks, Martin Rowe-Willcocks, BAE’s head of business development for future combat air systems, said in a briefing at the company’s Warton plant in northwest England.
At the same time, BAE’s simulation makes it clear that a future Unmanned Combat Air System would be fully integrated with conventional warplanes -- dispelling suggestions that it might make obsolete the newest fifth-generation fighters such as the F-35, of which Britain has ordered 138 examples, or the French Rafale produced by Dassault Aviation SA.
The parameters for a 2 billion-pound ($2.9 billion) demonstrator drone to be produced under the Franco-British accord signed in March and likely to pave the way for a prototype craft should be set by the two governments in the next nine or 12 months, Rowe-Willcocks said.
The demonstrator, to be built by six countries including jet-engine makers Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc and Safran SA, will combine elements of BAE’s current Taranis model and the French Neuron from Thales SA.
BAE this week displayed Taranis to defense reporters for only the second time since it was announced and then only from a distance of 15 meters (50 feet), sufficient to disguise a complex surface aimed at making the vehicle all but invisible to ground defenses. Photographs and even sketches were forbidden.
The U.K. manufacturer also confirmed that Taranis, named after the Celtic god of thunder and measuring 9 meters wide by and 4 meters high, has completed the third and final phase of flight testing at the hitherto undisclosed site of Woomera in South Australia, a defense range the size of England.
Britain and France are betting that when a combat drone eventually enters service it will allow Europe to eliminate a U.S. lead in the current generation of military unmanned aerial vehicles. There is, though, little prospect as yet of drones taking on air-to-air war-fighting roles, according to Rowe-Willcocks.
“We won’t be going dog-fighting,” he said.