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February 5, 2014 6:53 pm
Britain on Wednesday revealed it secretly flew its controversial, nearly invisible, automated fighter jet drone for the first time last year, successfully testing the most advanced aircraft ever built in the UK.
Philip Dunne, minister for defence equipment, support and technology, said Taranis was “the most advanced air system yet conceived, designed and built in the UK, and it’s vitally important for the future of both UK air defence and the UK defence industry”.
Details of the £185m unmanned aerial vehicle development programme have been classified since Taranis was unveiled in June 2010 by BAE Systems, the UK’s biggest defence company.
Nigel Whitehead, head of the UK for BAE, said Taranis had been packed in a C-17 military transport aircraft and sent to an undisclosed location (widely believed to be Australia).
It was then reassembled and sent on a number of test flights at various altitudes and speeds – the longest one lasted an hour.
He said: “Taranis is designed to demonstrate our ability to create a system capable of undertaking sustained surveillance, marking targets, gathering intelligence, deterring adversaries and carrying out strikes in hostile territories.”
Mr Whitehead said that a delay in the test flight and cost increase of the programme were due to its expansion and extra tests ahead of the flight.
Take-off, which happened at 8:09am on August 10, took little more than the push of a button, said Bob Fraser, the chief pilot, who commanded the flights from halfway up the control tower of the airfield.
After having “practised and practised and practised” on simulators, “it was one of the most exciting routine things I’ve ever done”, said the former Royal Air Force pilot.
He acknowledged that Taranis can be programmed to fly on its own and even make decisions based on preprogrammed information. But he and everyone from defence ministry and air force officials to company executives stressed that Taranis would always be controlled by humans.
There is good reason for their energetic assurances.
At Elbit Systems’ Haifa headquarters, a room is devoted to give pride of place to the Hermes 450, the Israeli defence group’s top-of-the-line unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone.
With its 300km range and ability to stay aloft for 17 hours, the Hermes 450 forms the backbone of Israel’s military fleet, which uses the drone in counterterror operations.
The use of drones – aircraft that are flown from the ground – mainly for surveillance, but also for attacks, such as those by the US in Pakistan, is likely to increase as costs come down, according to analysts from the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
But a debate about the ethics, legality and morality of using autonomous killing machines is likely to prove very heated, says Douglas Barrie of the IISS.
“The west is going to be extremely cautious about this,” he says, expecting “immensely difficult legal issues”.
The race to build the next drone is one where the stakes are high. Military experts believe the next fighter jets to be built will not have pilots in the cockpit, but will be drones like Taranis.
Countries are competing fiercely to push ahead and close the gap with the US, which has spent billions of dollars on programmes such as Northrop Grumman’s X-47, and others that remain classified.
Even though austerity is eating into European defence budgets, France and the UK both have advanced attack drone programmes. Last month they agreed to use the knowledge they have gained from the Taranis and nEUROn programmes to work together on an attack drone that could eventually be used in combat.
That is likely to take another couple of decades, and could eventually include other countries too, Mr Dunne says.
But as Sue Gray, air vice marshal and director of combat air at Defence Equipment and Support, said, the Taranis test flight represents “an extremely important milestone”.
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