The Complex

Now You See It, Now You Don't: Britain Unveils Stealthy Super-Drone

A new video released by aerospace giant BAE shows a bat-shaped drone zipping down a runway, taking off smoothly, and then coasting over an empty expanse of mountains and valleys before landing back at the empty airstrip. The next-generation unmanned aerial vehicle is outfitted with stealth technology and designed to fly - and theoretically fire at targets on the ground -- without a human controller. The United States has been working on similar drones for years. But the Taranis, named after the Celtic god of thunder, isn't being built for the U.S. military. It's being built for the British one, and it showcases both a remarkable high-tech achievement and just how slow Britain's military can be to adapt to what is virtually certain to be the future of warfare.

The Taranis won't fly into a war zone anytime soon. It's essentially an advanced prototype designed to show off current capabilities and help BAE develop future ones. If all goes well, it will come into usage in 2030 and help the British air force slip into enemy airspace without being spotted by radar and reach targets that conventional warplanes like the UK's Tornado can't safely approach.

Related: From DaVinci to Skynet, a history of lethal autonomy and drones.  

But there's a catch. The Taranis, whose development costs are estimated at roughly $300 million, will soon have competition from similar models built by companies around the world. Britain,  long one of the premier developers of advanced military aircraft, has been slow to adapt to the era of unmanned warfare.

The drones we've come to know - namely the U.S.-built Predator series, five of which are flown by the British - have been enthusiastically embraced for their ability to fly for up to a full day at a time, circling over a target with cameras and allowing the Obama administration to kill targets in places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. But they would be nearly useless against targets defended by sophisticated air defense systems, where they are easily visible to radar and vulnerable to anything larger than a Cessna pilot with a pistol.

This is where Taranis comes in. The aircraft is fast - some say supersonic - and stealthy, sacrificing time in the air for speed. Unlike the Predator and other widely used medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAVs, Taranis can fly quickly through enemy air defenses from distant airfields, a ‘penetrating strike' role in military parlance. This is an aircraft built for bombing Damascus or Tehran.

When it would be capable of doing so, though, is an open question. The Taranis prototype is impressive, but the development program is so pricey that falling budgets and the delays routine to complex aerospace projects (Taranis' first flight was initially planned for 2010), it's unclear if it will be ready by 2030.

In fact, Britain's impressive high-technology aerospace manufacturing sector has lagged behind much of the rest of the world in UAVs. Aside from the United States' Lockheed Martin RQ-170, which has flown (and crashed) operationally, only a handful of test beds are publicly known to have flown, though some secret counterparts certainly exist and are frequent topics of speculation. Such designs mostly go beyond the traditional reconnaissance role, jumping straight to a purpose-built bomb-dropper.

It's not as though the nation is incapable of flying such aircraft - they do. Britain operates more than 500 UAVs operationally, one of the larger fleets in the world, almost all of which are built in foreign lands. In the MALE category alone, Britain's Royal Air Force operates a handful of American-built General Atomics Predator B's (called MQ-9 Reaper in US service), and the British Army flies several Israeli Elbit Hermes 450s that operate as stand-ins until locally-produced versions (dubbed Watchkeeper) come into service maturity. The RAF's flight training, and until recently some operational missions, were flown from the US via satellite, occasionally by borrowed US Reapers.

BAE - effectively Britain's only major military aircraft builder - has built MALE UAV demonstrators before, notably the Fury and Mantis. Mantis, in particular, serves as a blueprint for the forthcoming Telemos project to serve at Britain's own Predator-type aircraft. Stealthy MALE UAVs have become high-technology flagships of a sort, and as the United States and other countries move forward with operational programs, the Taranis remains in the prototype stage. Aside from the RQ-170, the US is said to be nearing operational capability with a much larger classified Northrop Grumman UAV, and the X-47B demonstrator is making autonomous flights from aircraft carriers, which are among the most demanding flying environments. Notably, China has a leg up with its Lijian ("Sharp Sword") aircraft, which made its first flight around the same time; Russia has the Skat, France the Neuron, Germany the Barracuda, etc. Several other countries have plans to build similar aircraft capable of varying degrees of autonomous flight.

BAE has signed with French builder Dassault, which builds its own stealthy Neuron UAV demonstrator to develop a joint future combat air vehicle. The program, thus far limited to a design study, is being set up with an eye towards replacing the Britain's current state of the art fighter/attack aircraft, the Typhoon, augmenting the U.S.-built Lockheed F-35. As with conventional drones, though, the British version probably won't fly until years - and possibly decades - after its American counterpart goes into the air. BAE describes the Taranis as the "inspiration for a nation." Britain looks like it could use a lot more.

BAE

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