The British UCAS Has Flown–In Secret

 - October 31, 2013, 11:30 AM
Neither BAE Systems nor the UK Ministry of Defence is saying anything about the first flight of the Taranis UCAS demonstrator, seen here at its unveiling in 2010. (Photo: BAE Systems)

Flight trials of the BAE Systems Taranis UCAS technology demonstrator have started at the Woomera test range in South Australia. But neither the company nor its customer, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), has made any announcement. The news emerged from a policy document on military UAS that the MoD submitted to the defense committee of the UK parliament.

An MoD spokesman told AIN that no comment would be made until the initial flight trials had been completed. BAE Systems told AIN that "progress continues" but it could not comment further. The secrecy contrasts sharply with the pan-European Neuron UCAS program, which has similar demonstration goals. The seven main contractors have all been allowed to discuss their roles and technology solutions. The Neuron has also been shown in public—albeit with strictly limited access—at the Paris Air Show last June. It made a first flight on December 1 last year.

When BAE Systems began work on the stealthy UAV in 2007, it promised a first flight in 2010. But the Taranis demonstrator was not unveiled until the middle of that year, at which time takeoff was predicted for 2011. Last year, BAE Systems said it would fly in early 2013. No reasons for the delays have been given. BAE partnered with GE Aviation, QinetiQ and Rolls-Royce for the all-British program.

Although the MoD policy document was not very forthcoming on Taranis, it provides good insight into some of the key issues that surround the military operations of UAS. British military commanders are particularly sensitive to allegations that they are participating in “killer drone wars.” During October, the United Nations general assembly debated this issue after two of its special rapporteurs produced critical reports.

“The term unmanned can cause confusion or uncertainty over the actual level of human control and has led to safety, ethical and legal concerns being raised, particularly with regard to the employment of weapons,” the MoD document said. Such is the MoD’s concern that it takes issue with the currently approved NATO nomenclature of "unmanned aerial systems" (UAS). The MoD prefers "remotely piloted air(craft) System" (RPAS) because that term “better describes the level of human control.”

The document revealed that since 2007 the Royal Air Force has flown more than 50,000 hours over Afghanistan with its small fleet (currently five) of GA-ASI Reapers. The vast majority of these have been for surveillance, but the RAF Reapers have dropped or fired weapons 418 times. The document describes the only such occasion during which civilians are known to have been killed: an attack on two insurgent pick-up trucks in March 2011. UK targeting policy for UAS is exactly the same as for manned aircraft and “entirely compliant with International Humanitarian Law,” the MoD says. It notes that, in some respects, the remotely located Reaper crews have better access to targeting information and advice than their counterparts flying combat aircraft over the battlefield.

“It is difficult to imagine a future campaign where such (UAS) technology will not have a role to play,” the document predicts. But unlike the Reaper, the Taranis is an autonomous UAS insofar as it self-navigates and receives remote command inputs that are keyboard-, rather than joystick-, originated. Probably with this in mind, the MoD emphasizes that “current UK policy is that the operation of weapon systems will always be under human control. No planned offensive systems are to have the capability to prosecute targets without involving a human.”