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By Yvonne Headington

21 Jul 10. While manned aircraft dominated the skies over the Farnborough International Airshow last week (19-25 Jul 10), Industry’s thoughts were focused on the unmanned future.

BAE Systems has made it clear that its current unmanned demonstrator programmes are crucial for sustaining the UK’s future aircraft design capabilities. The point was made forcefully during Farnborough and at the roll out of the Taranis concept demonstrator at BAE System’s Warton facility on 12 July. The Taranis Unmanned Combat Aircraft System (UCAS) advanced technology demonstrator programme (TDP) “represents a significant step forward in this country’s fast-jet capability” said Nigel Whitehead, Group MD Programmes & Support. “This technology is key to sustaining a strong industrial base and to maintain the UK’s leading position as a centre for engineering excellence and innovation.”

The UK currently operates a mix of unmanned systems secured as Urgent Operational Requirements (UOR), including the General Atomics’ Reaper. According to Air Vice Marshal Steve Hillier (AOC No 2 Group), speaking at the RAF UAS 2010 Symposium earlier this month, Reaper ISR (intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance) missions in Afghanistan have provided a “depth of experience”. Around 80% of the lessons learnt from Reaper operations will be valuable for the future.

Investment in current and future unmanned air systems (UAS) was confirmed on 19 July, by Defence Equipment Minister Peter Luff, as follows:-

In Service UOR:

Desert Hawk (Unit level ‘over the hill’ surveillance capability) – £36m.

Hermes 450 (Theatre Tactical surveillance) – £181m.

Reaper (Strategic ‘armed’ medium altitude remotely piloted air system (RPAS) primarily for ISR missions) – £250m.

Under Development:

Watchkeeper (Persistent all weather, day and night, real time battlefield surveillance, replacing the Hermes 450) – £1,027m approved.

Under Consideration:

Future UCAS/UAS (MoD-Industry funded technology demonstrator programmes such as Taranis and Mantis) – £169m approved.
Decisions concerning future air requirements await the impact of the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) and the outcome of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). However, few predict the imminent demise of manned aircraft. Addressing a recent IQPC UCAV (13-14 July) Conference Wing Commander Chris Thirtle (Air Staff Strategy – Unmanned Air Vehicles) asserted that manned systems will still be required within the 2030 timeframe. He went on to outline certain trends that will influence the debate on optimum force mix. During the Cold War, finding the target was relatively easy but hitting it presented difficulties. Today precision attack capabilities have improved significantly while finding the target has become more challenging. One development has been the fusing of assets: as at July 2010, the Reaper had deployed around 100 weapons in Afghanistan while the Tornado GR4 (fitted with the Rafael Litening III targeting pod) is routinely tasked for ISR missions. Combat ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance) “breaks the concept that a platform is associated with a specific role” according to Chris Thirtle.

BAE System’s Taranis, part funded by industry and the MoD, aims to inform and support future combat ISTAR requirements. The original £124.5m contract, awarded in December 2006, has been increased to £142.5m and extended by one year. Flight trials are now anticipated in 2011. Team Taranis, described as a ‘collaborative partnership proving sovereign capabilities’, comprises BAE Systems (as prime contractor to the MoD’s Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S)) together with Rolls-Royce, QinetiQ and GE Aviation. All parties have signed a Project Charter, which is a voluntary understanding guiding “expected behaviour” within the Team.
Speaking at the IQPC UCAV Conference, David Kershaw (BAE Systems

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