After the MoD’s PR push on the use of Reaper drones last month and David Cameron’s announcement last week of further funding for UK-France work on a future combat drone, this week its BAE Systems turn to push drones with a media briefing on their new Taranis drone.
As well as working on a range of technology aimed at enabling drones to fly, BAE Systems has been working over the past few years on two specific unmanned aircraft; the Reaper-class Mantis and the more advanced unmanned combat drone, Taranis. While Mantis seems to have stalled, BAE have today revealed some more details about Taranis, announcing that the first flight took place on August 10, 2013 at an undisclosed location and other flight tests, again undisclosed, have taken place since.
Taranis is another expansion in the use of armed unmanned systems. Drones like Taranis and the US X-47B are not flown by pilots on the ground but fly autonomously, taking off, flying a mission, and returning to land by themselves. BAE Systems and the UK MoD insist that there continues to be a person-in-the-loop, “overseeing” the drone, particularly if it ever comes to launching weapons, yet Taranis is undeniably one more step towards autonomous weaponry.
Chris Cole, Director of Drone Wars UK said:
“The development and deployment of ‘First Strike’ nuclear weapons brought the world to the brink of disaster during the Cold War. In a similar escalation, this new generation of autonomous, stealthy drones, designed to be used in the ever expanding global war on terror to launch armed strikes wherever ‘our interests’ are threatened, simply makes the world a more dangerous place.”
In December 2006 the MoD signed a contract for a £127m project to design and build an experimental unmanned combat drone, called Taranis. In its response to a questions from the Defence Select Committee in 2008, the government stated that
“TARANIS will address a range of technology issues including low observable signature technology integration, vehicle management (including autonomous operation), sensor and payload integration, air vehicle performance, command and control and communications integration.”
Taranis was unveiled to journalists in 2010 (although they had to stay 10 metres away!) and was due to make its first flight in 2011. This deadline was missed and it was later announced that the first flight would occur in early 2013.
Primarily BAE Systems is hoping to persuade the MoD to buy its drones to fulfil Scavenger, a programme which the MoD’s policy document on unmanned aerial vehicles states is aimed at providing UK forces with “a theatre-wide, persistent Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability and an ability to attack land and maritime time-sensitive targets.”
The MoD estimates that the Scavenger programme (which is part of a wider intelligence gathering and analysis plan called Solomon) will cost £2 billion. It should be remembered that the UK is operating armed Reaper drones in Afghanistan under Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) rules, meaning that the cost of purchasing and operating Reaper, like the cost of all UK military operations in Afghanistan, is not funded out of the efence budget but out of the Treasury Reserve.