One of the world’s most advanced new unmanned military aircraft has recently been unveiled in England, but surprisingly it was not to be found at the recent Farnborough International Air Show, the global aerospace’s major trade show of 2010.
So highly classified is this “black” program, only a handful of press and VIP guests were permitted to visit the BAE Systems secretive Lightning Works at Warton, Lancashire, to see a preview of the machine.
Named after the Celtic God of Thunder, Taranis has taken just four years from program go-ahead to emerge as an ambitious stealthy technology demonstrator aimed at providing key data to inform the decision-making process as the mix of next-generation combat air platforms is discussed. With military attention increasingly turning to UAVs, Taranis attempts to leap-frog today’s operational UAS offerings and has the potential to consolidate the U.K.’s aerospace sector as Europe’s center of excellence for UAS programs.
Perhaps an overriding consideration for the U.K. government is the fact that it has been developed as a totally all-British project, retaining sovereignty on all key aspects. At present the U.K. military relies heavily on off-the-shelf UAS platforms for armed surveillance missions, and includes the General Atomics Predator and Reaper and the Israeli Hermes 450, but all of which are relatively slow and certainly not stealthy.
Taranis is quite a big aircraft (30-ft wingspan) and combines autonomous capability with on-station persistence, advanced control features, highly integrated systems, low observability, and potential for deep-strike missions. Previous experimental programs involving a company investment of over $150 million have quietly taken BAE Systems toward integrated autonomous UAS capability.
The classified Corax and Raven demonstrators tested the tail-less swept wing platform and autonomous systems ahead of Taranis, which brings a raft of added capabilities.
It is roughly the same size as a Hawk trainer, and the structure is largely comprised of machined metallic sections with composite panels and special coatings. The powerplant is a Rolls-Royce/Turbomeca Adour 951, as used in the latest Hawk 128 AJT, and has been deeply embedded within the airframe.
Rolls-Royce has completed the design, analysis, and rig testing of the new propulsion system hardware, and, with the majority of the components manufactured, is focusing on the instrumentation and assembly phases with bench testing to be completed by the end of the year. It has also been engaged in other classified activity involving highly integrated power solutions that include provision for all the many onboard systems. The low observability requirements mean that aerials must be integrated into the structure.
The budget for such an advanced project has been remarkably low in comparison to previous programs involving similar advances in technology, which was achieved by using rapid prototyping and the latest production techniques that have also been applied to the company’s work on the Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed Martin F-35.
The original budget of around $200 million USD was increased to broaden the scope of the program to provide further outputs with wider exploitation into manned fast jet aircraft, which includes additional risk mitigation activities.
If Taranis should progress to fulfilling a future operational requirement, via an enabling spiral development, it might lead to cross operations with other UAS platforms and manned aircraft and integrating data exchange with airborne command and control assets as well as ground stations. Accomplishing this in such a compact airframe is a huge challenge.
Speaking at Warton, Nigel Whitehead, Group Managing Director, BAE Systems, did not specify where flight testing would take place next year after further systems integration and ground testing had been completed in the U.K. He said many hours will be “flown” on the ground first in strict test conditions to de-risk the systems.
Following on from the successful flight testing carried out at Woomera, Australia, on other BAE UAS programs, including Herte and Mantis, it is thought likely that Taranis will follow.
BAE Systems Australia is highly involved in the team effort and is supplying the flight control computing system. BAE Systems Integrated System Technologies is responsible for the vehicle’s control infrastructure and the effective integration and interoperability of Taranis within the U.K.’s operations and battlespace infrastructure. By July, over 1 million man-hours had been spent building the demonstrator.
Taranis has arrived at a time when Combat ISTAR capability is said to be essential if the Royal Air Force is to retain an affordable but still significant air power role. Also, the U.K. aerospace sector is in need of a transfusion of new programs if future export earnings are to be sustained, let alone expanded, as government ministers have indicated they wish to see.
But success can only happen if defense R&D investment continues at a reasonable level and is monitored effectively to eliminate delays and cost over-runs that have blighted past military programs. There is every sign, however, that Taranis has broken away from this mold and has already shown outstanding value for money. Also partnering on the project are the U.K. MOD, Rolls-Royce, QinetiQ, and GE Aviation, plus over 100 other smaller suppliers.
Taranis is not a new RAF combat jet—at least not yet. A key aim is to see how a stealthy remotely piloted air system can operate under autonomous tasking conditions, or alongside other air and ground assets in simulated operational conditions. It will provide the U.K. MOD with experimental evidence on the potential capabilities of this class of UAV. Any future in-service systems based on such a concept will be under the command of highly skilled ground-based operators who will also be able to remotely pilot the aircraft.
The term “unmanned” is misleading, according to the RAF, as UAS operations can involve even more personnel in the complete operating chain than conventional manned aircraft. But where they do score highly is the ability to remain on station for up to 24 hours, or even longer. A stealthy fast jet platform such as Taranis could provide a flexible ISTAR capability with deep-strike possibilities.