This model of the BAE Taranis clearly shows its stealth-influenced shape
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have been used for decades, but in the last decade they’ve been playing a bigger role in combat operations. MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers have been used in Afghanistan and other operational theatres both for reconnaissance and strike missions. These machines are primitive compared to what planners are looking towards, though, and much more advanced Unarmed Combat Aerial Vehicles are in development. The US Navy has already carried out flight trials of the Northrop Grumman X-47B, a stealthy armed UAV designed for carrier air wings. It’s not just the USA that’s investigating UCAVS, either. BAE Systems, formerly British Aerospace, is working on its own design which is scheduled to fly some time in 2013. In 2010 it was revealed to the public. It’s named Taranis after an ancient British thunder god, and the plan is for it or an even more advanced derivative to be one of the UK’s future strike systems.
A Reaper is controlled from a ground station by a human pilot. It has its own autopilot system, but this is restricted to following a preset course or maintaining a constant heading; the UAV can’t make any decisions itself. Taranis is different. It’s been designed with what BAE are calling “full autonomy,” so it’ll be able to control itself for at least large parts of a mission. BAE aren’t revealing details of its onboard control capabilities but it’s likely to be able to select its own routes based on stored terrain data and GPS, and operate its on-board defensive systems in response to threats. The big question is whether or not it would be able to attack targets on its own. With current thinking about the use of armed robots the answer is probably not; politicians wouldn’t want to take the risk of sending out an unmanned system that could launch attacks without human intervention. It’s likely that as the Taranis approaches its target a human pilot will take control, at least of the weapon release.
What weapons will be carried isn’t clear either. The Taranis is about the size and weight of a Hawk trainer, but from the appearance of the prototype it’s likely to have a lot more internal volume. Much of that is likely to be taken up with fuel for the Turbomeca Adour Mk 951 turbofan engine, because the aircraft is described as having “intercontinental” range, but it’s been confirmed that there are also two internal weapons bays. Probable armament would include 500lb JDAMs or racks for Brimstone missiles.
Taranis has a similar fuselage shape to the X-47B, with a single intake mounted on the top surface behind the nose for maximum shielding from ground-based radars. The planform is different, though; instead of the X-47B’s slender, folding outer wings it has much broader wings with a sharp sweep. The overall shape has been designed for stealth; BAE have already stated that it incorporates technology from several earlier low-observability projects.
At the moment Taranis is part of a research project and isn’t covered by any current Ministry of Defence requirement. The MoD is playing an active role in the project, though. Given the rapid pace of UCAV development, and the RAF’s desire to stay at the leading edge of technology, expect to see the Taranis or something very like it entering service early in the next decade.