Course: check. Direction: check. Speed: check. Pilot: redundant.
Welcome to the robotic arms race.
As Canada resumes the seemingly endless debate about whether the RCAF’s next combat fighter will be the troubled F-35 Lightning II or something else, Britain has moved on.
It has course, direction and speed plotted for the world’s first unmanned supersonic stealth combat aircraft.
British aerospace giant BAE Systems is leading the consortium behind a delta-shaped aircraft known as Taranis. This “flying wing” could be the natural successor to the troubled F-35.
Resembling an oversize insect and using the technology seen in contemporary stealth aircraft — such as America’s B-2 Spirit bomber — Taranis is designed to fly faster than the speed of sound over inter-continental distances.
Once within range of target and still undetected by enemy radar, it will attack with an array of standoff precision missiles and bombs.
Taranis mounts two internal weapons bays and is intended to incorporate “full autonomy” once airborne, allowing it to operate without human control for a large part of the mission.
Unlike current generation attack drones such as MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper — used extensively to attack insurgent targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen — Taranis will carry the latest in remote defensive technology to help it evade missiles and hostile manned aircraft.
All without a pilot, navigator or weapons officer and using a fast jet platform the same size as the RCAF’s current CT-155 Hawk trainer.
The project is now so far advanced that flight testing will begin within weeks at the remote Australian desert weapons range at RAAF Woomera.
Speaking at the Taranis unveiling ceremony at BAE Systems in Warton, Lancashire, Britain’s Minister for International Security Strategy Gerald Howarth lauded Taranis as “a truly trailblazing project” when it met the media for the first time a little over two years ago.
“The first of its kind in the U.K., it reflects the best of our nation’s advanced design and technology skills and is a leading programme on the global stage,” Howarth said.
“This shows the U.K.’s advanced engineering, research, technology and innovation sector at its world-beating best.”
Taranis is an informal partnership between the U.K. Ministry of Defence and engineering firms, including BAE Systems, Rolls Royce and GE Aviation.
Rolls-Royce is providing the critical next generation propulsion systems for the project.
Nigel Whitehead of BAE Systems’ Programmes and Support business, who also spoke at the unveiling, had this to say about future possibilities.
“Taranis has been 3 1/2 years in the making and is the product of more than 1 million man-hours.
“It represents a significant step forward in this country’s fast-jet capability. This technology is key to sustaining a strong industrial base and to maintain the U.K.’s leading position as a centre for engineering excellence and innovation.”
Now that a flying example is ready to take to the sky for testing, could we see one flying Canadian skies sometime soon?
It will also be later rather than sooner according to retired lt.-gen. George Macdonald.
A research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI), Macdonald served 38 years in the Canadian Forces, culminating in the position of vice-chief of the defence staff from 2001 to 2004, following three years as the deputy commander-in-chief of NORAD.
He said the main advantage of an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) will always be “persistent capability.” That means they don’t have pilots who need sleep and can focus on a task indefinitely.
Still, this singular advantage does not automatically mean it is a replacement for a manned aircraft.
“I think this concept will be complimentary to traditional aircraft and at the moment it is still at the experimental stage,” Macdonald said. “Exciting, but experimental, with a lot of work ahead before they can think about strike missions.
“There are plenty of advantages already defined for aircraft of the future that will operate in a UCAV capacity. Don’t think, though, that because there is no human pilot aboard that there will be massive cost savings.
“UCAV’s on the scale being talked about here, promising as they are, still require operators and support staff to make them viable.”
They also have to keep them flying. UCAV endurance is not just defined by the human element — or lack thereof — but also consumables like lubricants, weapon payloads and availability of aerial refuelling assets.
The do-or-die item will be the software in the UCAV’s central mission computer. It relies upon the digital radio data links connecting it to distant operators or mission supervisors.
It’s reasonable to assume manned combat aircraft will fulfill roles which demand high levels of autonomy and the complex reasoning capabilities of human pilots.
The latter have the ability to provide feedback and instant, deductive analysis an onboard computer lacks.
Simple UCAVs may well be diverted to roles where very high risk is combined with simple tasks and the corresponding potential for loss of life is extreme.
“Ultimately, nobody should discount the human factor in combat,” Macdonald cautioned, “because the human brings powers beyond the capability of any computer.”
He or she also stands between the prospect of an autonomous, pilotless aircraft capable of killing enemy combatants outside human control and the future of unrestrained robot wars that represents.