The British government is reviewing a security agreement signed previously with the U.S. that could preclude future cooperation with Europe on unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs). Last week’s unveiling of the all-British Taranis stealthy UCAV demonstrator by BAE Systems has brought renewed focus on whether European governments and industry can or should unite to fully develop such a system.
The existence of the agreement was confirmed to AIN by Jonathan Barratt, Team Leader for Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) in the Defence Equipment and Support (DES) organization that is part of the UK Ministry of Defence. Officials at Dassault, which leads the pan-European Neuron UCAV demonstrator program, previously told AIN that when they approached the UK to discuss the possibility of cooperation, “the British were not able to discuss low observables with us because they had signed an exclusive agreement with the U.S.”
Barrett said technical knowledge gained from the U.S. could be ring-fenced from any future international collaboration. Further, he told journalists attending a BAE Systems briefing on the Taranis here yesterday that a program in which two British representatives participated in the Pentagon’s UCAV development programs had ended last year. It was called Project Churchill and lasted five years, but did not involve any technology development or exchange, he said. “The project discussed the CONOPS [Concepts of Operations], doctrine and through-life costs of a UCAS. Both we and the U.S. side derived great value from it,” he added.
However, Barrett did not rule out future cooperation with the U.S. “We’re exploring all opportunities to collaborate with Europe, or with the U.S. Project Taranis provides us with a good basis to open that dialogue,” he said.
BAE Systems’ strategy and business development director for auto-nomous systems Dave Kershaw delivered the same message. “Taranis is a catalyst for technology and know-how. It allows us to bring credible skills to the market,” he said. He confirmed that BAE and partners GE Aviation, QinetiQ and Rolls-Royce had provided £40 million for the Taranis demonstrator program. The British government has provided £142.5 million, up from the original £124.5 million, to extend the project by one year to include additional risk reduction and airborne low-observability measurements. The aircraft will fly next year.
Kershaw said that BAE’s experience in developing autonomous systems could be a key discriminator in any future UCAS full-scale development. But at the Taranis unveiling ceremony, and again at yesterday’s briefing, BAE and government officials carefully noted that human intervention must be a key part of the design.
Can the UK afford to go-it-alone? Despite the British flag-waving at Warton last week, no one is prepared to say yes. “It’s a demonstrator. We don’t know what might come out of it,” said Gerald Howarth, UK Minister for International Security Strategy.