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Life After Typhoon and Rafale, What Next for a European UCAV

ASTRAEA Jetstream

In the previous post I looked at the European defence industry approach to Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) types with EADS, Dassault and Alenia calling for European governments to stump up the cash to bail them out of a situation entirely of their making.

General Atomics created the Predator platform from a good idea and not a lot else, nearly 600 airframes later they dominate the armed MALE system segment with EADS, Alenia, Dassault, Saab and BAE sitting in the corner sulking about the lack of Government money.

Whilst it may be almost palatable to cede the MALE market to the USA and Israel if Europe does not come up with a plan for a post Rafale/Typhoon manned aircraft then an unmanned combat aircraft (UCAV) is the only thing that will ensure the survival of the European defence aerospace sector.

It really is that simple.

One of the reasons the US Government have backed Lockheed Martin to the hilt, despite the development car crash that is JSF, is because it knows full well that after Typhoon/Rafale the way is currently clear for the F35 to dominate the manned fighter aircraft market and not just in the USA but everywhere the Chinese and Russians don’t sell into. The once mighty European defence aerospace industry will be reduced to making parts for US aircraft and picking up scraps here and there for fast jet platforms.

With no MALE UAV and no manned fighter programme after the ‘Euro Canards’ it would be time to turn the lights out across the European defence aerospace sector.

This is why a European UCAV is so important.

But as usual, the industrial landscape across Europe has produced an understandable duplication and where with the prospect of ‘ze big bucks’ any notion of pooling and sharing tends to get somewhat of a battering and no one wants to be on the losing side.

If BAE seemed somewhat uninterested in Mantis/Telemos the same definitely cannot be said of the UCAV space and Dassault have a similarly large interest. Both organisations have been building expertise for some time and both the BAE Taranis and Dassault Neuron technology programmes are well advanced.

BAE Taranis and Dassault nEUROn are the main points of interest but there is a great deal of enabling research and development going on.

In the UK, the ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment) programme for example. This was a collaborative effort between BAE, EADS Cassidian, Thals and AOS. Thales created the sense and avoid architecture, EADS Cassidian the communication systems and AOS the autonomous decision making software.

ASTRAEA Jetstream
ASTRAEA Jetstream

The ASTRAEA Jetstream made an impressive flight in UK airspace this April.

The flight flew 500 miles through normal UK airspace from Warton to Inverness and back with its pilot on the ground controlling it. There were a couple of safety pilots on board who handled take-off and landing but during flight it was controlled from the ground. The point of the flight was to test how unmanned aircraft could operate in civilian airspace.

Another little known innovation is the Flapless Aerial Vehicle Integrated Interdisciplinary Research Programme (FLAVIIR), this seeks to develop the technologies to an unmanned aircraft without conventional control surfaces. An unmanned system without flaps and other control surfaces has obvious maintenance cost reductions and a range of aerodynamic and stealth improvements.

The Demon and ASTRAEA Jetstream are just two examples of first rate hard slog research away from the spotlight of glitzy roll outs and air show appearance.

Just to demonstrate the depth of this research, have a look at a couple of presentations from ASTRAEA, here and here, really informative stuff that shows some of the problems with autonomous flight, but they also show the progress on tackling those same problems.

A recent announcement heralded a joint venture between QinetiQ and the MoD for the development of a UAV deployment centre called the Unmanned Air Systems Capability Development Centre (UASCDC).

UASCDC is a coordination centre designed to pull together the various unmanned programmes.

BAE Systems have a long pedigree in developing unmanned air vehicles and underlying technologies and this has culminated with Taranis but in Europe, BAE is not alone, Dassault have the Neuron, and EADS Cassidian the Barracuda.

So what about the runners and riders?


Taranis is a UK only £142.5m technology demonstrator, it is not the finished article but instead designed to prove technology and operational concepts that will be rolled into a final design and is the latest in a long line of such demonstrators; Replica, Nightjar I, Nightjar II, Kestrel, Corax, Raven and HERTI/Fury.


The video below shows its unveiling in 2010

Flight trials have been delayed from the optimism of 2010 and it seems the first flight of Taranis will be this year in Australia, at the famous Woomera range.

It makes sense to wait until things are right for a first flight and the specialist media have reported that some significant progress has been made recently on engine intake integration and radar cross section testing.

It is powered by a Rolls Royce Turbomeca Adour 951 engine, the same as used in the Hawk T2 and Dassault Neuron, with full FADEC and a thrust rating of 6,5000lbf. The 951 is the latest version of the non-reheated Adour. Maximum weight is reportedly 8 tonnes but its range is unknown, despite several sources taking a guess.


Taranis is about the same size as a Hawk and has been developed under the auspices of the Strategic Unmanned Air Vehicles (Experiment) Integrated Project Team, or SUAV(E) IPT. Joining BAE Systems in the project is QinetiQ, GE Aviation and Rolls Royce.


France and Dassault is leading on the Neuron programme which started in 2005 and includes Spain, Germany, Sweden

It is the next stage in the Dassault Logique de Développement d’UCAV concept

From the Dassault website;

To be fully effective, a single point of decision, the French Defence Procurement Agency (DGA – Délégation Générale pour l’Armement), and a single point of implementation, Dassault Aviation company as prime contractor, were settled to manage the nEUROn programme.

The Italian, Swedish, Spanish, Greek and Swiss governments acting together with their related industrial teams, Alenia, SAAB, EADS-CASA, Hellenic Aerospace Industry (HAI) and RUAG, have joined the French initiative.

It is a complex industrial arrangement.

First flight was December last year

The French Government has invested 202.5 million Euros into the project with the balance coming from the other nations; total programme budget is 405 million Euros.

It has been made abundantly clear several times that the Neuron programme will complete without any other partners, i.e. there is no room at the inn for BAE and the UK


The EADS Barracuda is another collaborative European programme, this time with Germany and Spain providing the funding.

It might be argued that Barracuda is more of a MALE UAV than a UCAV in the mould of Taranis and Nueron but still worth considering in the same space and does have a fairly long track record.


No, I am not smoking something.

As if things couldn’t get even more complex, Saab have rocked up to the Paris Air Show this week with a concept for an unmanned Gripen, or perhaps more accurately, optionally piloted. Another curious proposal given that SAAB are partners in the Nueron system.

See a mock-up image here

An Anglo French Arrangement called FCAS

To summarise;

  • The UK has been going it alone with Taranis
  • Germany and Spain working on Barracuda
  • France, Italy, Sweden, Greece, Switzerland and Spanish on the Neuron

The non UK work is being carried out by various combinations of partnerships with EADS and Dassault being the two prime contractors.

Remember, EADS own 40% of Dassault and EADS itself is split between public and private ownership, the French government owning 22.4% and Spain 5.4%. Germany also has a significant stake through Daimler.

Into this complex situation came the 2010 Anglo French Defence Cooperation Agreement.

The two governments agreed to work together on unmanned technologies and although as I described in the previous post, a change of French government saw work on Telemos fall by the wayside, the agreement also looked at UCAV.

A contract was jointly let to Dassault and BAE for the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) unmanned air system (UAS) programme that was an 18 month study that was intended to mature the underlying technologies and lead to a joint UCAS demonstrator. Roll Royce and Snecma also joined together to work on next generation combat aircraft engines and collaboration on the FCAS demonstration programme.

With the usual alphabet soup of programmes, DPOC, FCAS and many more, the path forward is far from clear.

The Future Combat Air System Demonstration Programme Preparation Phase (FCAS DPPP) has concluded its first stage and the two governments and companies are looking at moving into the next stage, a detailed definition phase.

By around 2015 Taranis and Neuron will have finished, what next is the interesting part, especially what next for collaboration with others.

Perhaps it is too early to start working on what comes after Rafale/Typhoon/Gripen but one thing is certain, the current situation where there are three main European combat aircraft will not be the same with UCAV’s

This is the reality for a European UCAV

Over the next few years the two men might be BAE/Dassault and EADS/Alenia with Saab offering a reserve pugilist for the budgetary challenged.

Would you bet the Barracuda against the Taranis/Neuron?

I know I wouldn’t, which maybe explains why EADS are so keen on a European Future MALE UAV!

Maybe the fight will come down to Neuron and Taranis with the UK pitting son of Taranis against the rest of Europe.

It could be that the UK looks West and enters into some sort of collaboration with US companies.

Maybe we will see sense and keep Taranis on a UK only path.

There so many variables for a UK UCAV!

Interesting times ahead in the run up to life after Typhoon


Further reading;


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41 Responses

  1. “Maybe we will see sense and keep Taranis on a UK only path.”

    Betcha we don’t. Some future government, will announce a collaborative venture with the Frogs (and possibly the Germans, Spanish et all), to save costs, pool expertise etc. etc.. What will happen is decades will go past billions spent and either we get a few kludge system aeroplanes, years late and massively over budget and which has zero export potential, or we end up cancelling the whole thing, buying something from the Septics and chucking away our R & D and, non-screwdriver plant, industry.

  2. HL – good argument well made – it is a pet soap-box subject of mine, the effect of UK Gov’t procurement policy on both the defence industry and the wider UK PLC manufacturing sector. Essentially the argument boils down to “If even UK Gov’t doesn’t think UK produced kit worth buying, why would anyone else?” So I agree the rush to cut cost by buying products & services from foreign businesses or joint multi-national teams does our future no good at all. Penny wise, pound idiotic.

    I guess its all to do with investment. Since the 80s all UK Governments have allowed MOD to invest in the US, France, Spain, Israel and Germany. Perhaps there would be more pay-back if the current Government, which waves its patriotic flag vigorously in the search for votes, directed MOD to find ways to buy British, rather than dribbling cash into greedy developers’ pockets to encourage nice new estates of executive rabbit-hutches, or indeed spending vast fortunes on white elephant glory-projects like the high speed domestic-flight-competing train. The Buy British focus would only work if the right capability is offered, but if British domestic investment was clearly available, I will wager British domestic industrial innovation, ingenuity, energy and commitment would be more than willing to answer the call.

  3. I’m not convinced of the UCAV as a concept at all, given that weapon range and precision targeting via data-links seem to me to increasingly replace the need for fast jets and their proposed successors the UCAV. Arsenal ships at 1000 mile range, ballistic precision for limited effects weapons, loitering munitions and stratospheric ISTAR with GPS guided gravity bombs seem more likely to do the job.

    But, if there are to be UCAVs, I think concentrating on the air platform itself is slightly narrow-minded. Ultimately, the air platform is only a truck to get the weapons into place, to carry the sensors and comms, and for a UCAV, the sensors and comms are subordinate to the weapons. So, it is really only about the software and physical / safety integration of the kit onboard that is the real value. And as alluded to elsewhere on TD, the flight control system could be pretty common across different air platforms, needing only tweaking for specific engine / air platform configurations. After all, Kevins tend to be able to fly several types of aircraft with only limited familiarisation, so software should be able to as well.

    I also don’t see why a manned FJ (any one of dozens of types) could not be turned into a UCAV, as an incremental step for development purposes. Put some physical controls in for the throttle, stick, rudder pedals and the buttonology etc, replicate the Kevin’s display units at very low latency, and it could be flown from a ground station as a first, experimental step. Then, stick in an autopilot for transit flights over distance. Perhaps a F-16 is ultimately not the ideal UCAV, but what could be operational in 3 years? A remotely piloted F-16 or a Taranis?

  4. I just can’t see us finding a British politican with the balls, spine or other manly parts to do soemthing like this without the USA or France holding our hand. It’s a real pitty because we are doing so well on our own. Just look how close Taranis is to its US competitors compared to Eurofighter and F22. I would love to see us embark on a Tornado repalcement based on Taranis flying in the early to mid 2020s but its never going to happen.

  5. “…after Rafale/Typhoon/Gripen”

    …comes F35.

    It’s after Tornado we should be looking at (long-range strike) since Tornado is after all our only proper strike aircraft.

    For this I’d pick Tomahawk or some other cruise missile…

    Ahh, but I wouldn’t. What I’d do is design a reusable stealth bomber that can also be used with double the range in a non-reusable kamikaze role. This means cheap (semi disposable engines), like the J85 was supposed to be, but become so reliable (but still relatively cheap) that it powered proper jets.

    So, I’d use the J85 (15kN dry) or similar and downsize the design to a 4-tonner, which seems about right for two 1000 pounders and a return trip home. Haven’t done any maths yet on this. Might do some tonight.

    Unfortunately I have no idea how much the Ardour 951 costs. Maybe it too is semi-reusable?

  6. We have built up quite some expertise in wings at the expense of Europe/Airbus/EADS. A factor to consider with any JV is whether we allow them to regain it. Certainly with Bae’s sale of its share of Airbus there is little management influence to be exerted so we live or die by the strength of our skills and efficiency.

    Having said that I’d try and pitt Bae against the Europeans and not allow the industry to become one entity as competition is good. Giving in to too many JVs isn’t such a good idea.

  7. @RT
    Of course, a Tomahawk is just another kind of UCAV, or at least, there’s a continuum. Sometimes you’ll want to send 100xTomahawks at £1m/pop, sometimes you’ll want to send a £60m UAV with 400 Brimstone at £0.1m/pop, or a £100m Typhoon firing its cannon and doing a few low passes. Sure, the future will see the balance tip more towards the former – but not 100%

    But your vision makes some massive assumptions about the availability of “precision targeting via data-links” and “GPS guided gravity bombs”. Given that even regional powers like Iran have demonstrated GPS spoofing (qv the RQ-170 incident) – what’s your plan B when your datalinks are disrupted?

    You also have the problem of ROE – what if your target is moving around in an urban area, you end up diverting a lot of Tomahawks to go blow up some empty desert, an “archer” system can come back home with arrows available to fire another day.

    Sure you could have an unmanned F-16 – but there’s more to it than just the fact that there’s no pressing need for such a beast (although qv TD’s mention of the Gripen, and in fact some of the earliest ASM’s were unmanned “kamikaze” versions of the Mig-15 back in the 1960s). We don’t need something in 3 years time. Almost a bigger trend than the unmanned thing is the move away from putting some wings on a jet engine towards blended wings, for stealth and efficiency. If you’re having to rethink the fundamental design of your new bombers, then you might as well combine that with stripping out all the bits and bobs you need to support a human pilot.

    Compare the FJ situation with unmanned helicopters, where the basic design is not being reinvented in the same way, and where many of the UAVs are unmanned versions of existing, piloted, aircraft – the FireScouts A/B/C are based on the Schweizer 330, 333 and Bell 407 respectively, the A160 has its roots in the Robinson R22.

    One problem is the general trend exemplified by the F-35 and Nimrod MRA4 – the balance of costs in new aircraft is increasingly going on software rather than the bits in the air, which means your costs are increasingly one fixed “lump” rather than in proportion to the number of units. Unless you can produce a lot of airframes, the price per copy starts getting ridiculous – that’s the factor which has effectively killed the European manned FJ market, and given the premium on “intelligence” in autonomous combat systems, small-nation efforts will likely struggle there. OTOH they do have a chance of succeeding in “good enough” tasks where the systems don’t have to be too clever – maintaining a SAR patrol or something. And of course once a superpower does crack autonomy and the cost is sunk, they can crank out a lot of units relatively cheaply. Welcome to the clone wars….

  8. @El Sid

    “One problem is the general trend exemplified by the F-35 and Nimrod MRA4 – the balance of costs in new aircraft is increasingly going on software rather than the bits in the air, which means your costs are increasingly one fixed “lump” rather than in proportion to the number of units. Unless you can produce a lot of airframes, the price per copy starts getting ridiculous – that’s the factor which has effectively killed the European manned FJ market, and given the premium on “intelligence” in autonomous combat systems, small-nation efforts will likely struggle there.”

    This is pretty much the problem that has to be overcome and why the UK is very unlikely to go it alone. It is not a matter of “balls” or anything of the sort. It is just pure economics and politics. You won’t be able to do the R&D on UCAV’s and then order 40 of them. The unit cost will be outrageously high and no politician can stay in office if they are buying drones that cost more than a quarter of a billion pounds. Hell, the US will buy well over 100 MQ-4’s and those are still costing around $200 million a piece and they don’t do combat. The more combat you want it to do, particularly on its own when data-links and GPS might be jammed, the higher your R&D cost go.

    I see two realistic options. Work with Europe on the project to get procurement numbers up and make the R&D cost, which will be very large, something that everyone can swallow. The risk here is that negotiations about work share push the start date and IOC date so far back that the program never gets anywhere.

    The other is to work with the US. By my reckoning the USN program alone should have a guaranteed buy of around 100 units. That gets you moving in the right direction fairly quick and I would imagine that the USAF gets pulled into the program itself eventually as well. At least you would just be working with one partner rather than trying to officiate the European work share circus. But it has drawbacks as well to be sure.

    Even looking at the downsides of both those options I just don’t see where the UK can go it alone in this field when the likely R&D tab to go from demonstrators to full up combat aircraft will be so high. Not to mention the cost of ongoing upgrades and everything else that is necessary to keep something like this a front line capability.

  9. Bae seems pretty strong in the software arena – well certainly compared to the Europeans, but much of the software code is tied up with export restrictions monitored and controlled by the US.

    Largely agree with El Sid’s assessment. But we still need to be able to build these things.

  10. Sorry guys ucav is not the future as public opion won’t accpet it and are we really going to send a very expensive peice of kit on a operation and accpet the cost of it being blown out of the air and they won’t be cheap .

    And the first one that crash’s and kills some innocents they won’t be used again in fact they will probable be scraped to get the money to pay for the compensation

  11. @Opinion3

    “But we still need to be able to build these things.”

    Not meant as a flippant question at all but why? And at what cost to the overall defense posture of the UK?

    I mean that is the real rubber meets the road question. With a declining defense budget how long can industrial capability continue to be a major factor in UK procurement decisions if it means a higher cost for the MOD?

  12. @Dan

    UAV’s are already being used offensively, have already caused civilian casualties and have already sparked protests… which has had little impact other than the tightening of ROE.

  13. JMH – evidently I see the world differently to yourself – I’m not saying I’m right you’re wrong, just a different view:

    Firstly I do not see industrial capability support as a major part of defence procurement. Most major contracts over the past two decades have gone to corporations with HQs in foreign lands, with the bland MOD press releases trotting out ‘value for money’ statements as each contract is let. Generally the MOD voices its desire to have the project office in the UK but this is not UK industrial capability – when the project ends, the facility (if not engaged on other projects by then) closes.

    Next, the term ‘industrial capability’ – more often than not I note the context of this term is that it is a foul waste of money, paying money-grabbers to be inefficient just because they are UK based. Again I don’t see things this way – the defence budget is spent on defence and defence is (as one of the other posts noted last week) the method whereby we protect what is ours; our ‘way of life’. I suggest that starving UK industry of defence (and other government) business because it is cheaper to buy foreign is not helping to protect what is ours – jobs, exports, trading presence, wealth. We are supposed to be a trading nation – we need to be able to produce stuff of worth to export. our rock in the ocean has few natural resources, agriculture has been tied in a regulatory straightjacket by the EU and doesn’t crank out the surplus food it once did. Service industries churn money around inside the borders. Only the financial services (yes the evil bankers) and tourism currently bring in significant income to the nation. I posted at the beginning of this stream that there is a knock-on to all export of manufactured stuff when the government prefers to buy foreign to home produced kit – the impact far outweighs just the loss of MOD cash.

    Other countries (mentioning no France) factor these issues into their procurement scoring system (loss of jobs on the contract in question, cost of benefits resulting, impact on perception of foreign buyers who might otherwise have been keen to buy the same equipment, etc. The countries that put these factors into their assessments nearly always buy home built equipment. Either their governments are being patriarchal and paying over the odds to support their inefficient industrial base, or the wider assessment criteria show there is better value in maintaining the strength of their own defence industry. You can choose which you want to believe.

    I do agree that home grown kit must be in the wider sense good value, and it must be capable functional kit that supports the User need. Buying plastic footballs just because they are British when you really wanted assault rifles doesn’t help anyone. But I do think there is more to the total cost of defence contracts than the windscreen sticker price.

    As I have written elsewhere, if the government can’t support its own nation’s industry and that industry withers and shrinks year on year, in the end the only thing the UK will be able to export is wealth.

  14. With the UK having a trade deficit of around £100 billion a year, we cannot afford to import everything. If you have a good industrial sector it can be turned to weapons production in times of major war. During WW2, Singer sewing machines made revolvers, car factories turned out tanks, Meccano made Sten guns, furniture factories made parts for the Mosquito bomber,etc.
    I have ranted before on European fighters. The French developed every last nut & bolt in France at great cost. The Typhoon R&D was shared by 4 countries. Great in theory, but dithering at various times in various capitols led to extra delay & cost. Sweden kept control of the Gripen , but bought in the licence to build off the shelf bits (engine, radar, carbon fibre wings,etc). I think the Swedes got it right.

  15. I think we should avoid the usual “oh, we need a big collaborative project to bring up the numbers and spread the terribly high development cost” crap. The current leaders in UAV’s are companies like General Atomics which are not the usual contractors. And if there’s one thing the last 30 years should have taught us is that “collaborative” projects usually cost more than doing it by ourselves.

  16. @WF

    Sure you don’t need numbers, if what you want to build effectively starts out as a camera with wings and a remote control. A UCAV is an wholly different proposition. If you think about it not a thing on the Predator or even the Reaper was really “new”. That is not the case with a UCAV.

  17. @ the other chris

    I know that they are ucav ‘s out there operating put public perception is still lagging behind reality so my statment above will still happen case in point cars can drive themsleves and have been doing so for at least 10 years or more but public opion has ment that car compaines haven’t been unable to get the required change in legislation or more importantly the sales so on till the perception changes the big dream of loads of ucav’s flying around won’t happen .

    I think we should look at what we did and the sweedes have done and go it on are owen i think 2 seprate programs continued development of tranis and a new 6th gen Manned Figther using our skill set. the precuser to the eurofighter was the BAE Erf which if i was right if we choosed to go it alone could of been up and running as early as the early to mid ninties ok it wouldn’t of been as good as the eurofighter stright out of the box but over time improving it thourgth updating we would of had a excellent aircraft that we could of selled to the rest of the world . with some of the good things coming out of bae trannis programme i think a little support from the goverment and we could have some very good products to export as well as eqiuping our own armed services

  18. @Dan

    Actually my suspicions are along what Other Chris said. It is not public perception that is lacking, but public empathy. People just don’t care about what happens in Timbuktoo.

    As for sacrificing expensive UAVs, that was the biggest problem I have against the MQ series of drones, the capabilities creep made them too expensive to sacrifice, one of the original criteria of UAVs in the first place. The Israelis kept UAVs fairly cheap, and they did find them cost effective in using Scout class UAVs as bait to pinpoint SAM sites in the Lebanon War.

  19. @Jeremy MH: how many hundreds of UAV’s have General Atomics now produced?

    Either way, I think our former reliance on BAE as the “only” system provider is misplaced. I’d prefer to see a Swedish solution where sensible risk management and a willingness to go outside for expertise you lack (even to BAE as the Swedes did for the Gripen wing for example) allows you to produce 80% solutions quickly.

  20. @ Observer

    I agree mission creep will just defeat the objective ucav were going to be cheaper but at the rate they are being developed to do so many different missions theyare fast becoming the main target of opposing forces shoot out of the sky and the cost of them will mean we won’t have alot of them better that they are cheap and cheerful limited mission breif then we could have a steady suppley when you look at most major enduring wars the victor is the side who can replace combat loses the quickest which in turn means cheap and simple aircraft and ships

  21. A recon uav like we have at present are very simple easy to build. Infact there are several manned aircraft that cost probably less to buy and operate and can do the same job though there not “cool” enough but reality it starting to dawn. Uavs do give better endurance but are limited in we’re they can go and require a large number of personnel to operate them.

    Ucavs are very different if you want them to fly in civil airspace, have very long range, have a signature reduced airframe and operate in contested airspace then you sure as hell better be prepared to pay big money they will be the most expensive aircraft we will ever operate make no mistake there and should ship operation be required this will drive the cost up still further. The benefit is we will buy less and operate them less in a hope of making up for there large cost up front.

    The swedes took exactly the same length of time to get the gripen from first flight to entry into service as the 4 nations took to get the higher performance typhoon from first flight to entry into service.

  22. Mark,

    Why? A UAV/ACAV is a glorified radio controlled plane!

    No crew life support, no ejector seat, no helmet, no pilot interface, no dials, no cockpit basically.

    It could be just an engine, a link to a satellite or ISTAR relay, a bomb bay, some undercarriage and an airframe. If loads of sensors are put on the aircraft then it will rise in price (and bandwidth requirement), but a basic SAR from Predator and a gimballed IR/visual camera are hardly expensive.

    If you fancy spending some serious money we could obviously go for some AI.

  23. Simon

    If its in civil airspace sense and avoid with redundancy will require radars and lots of software. If its to operate in contested airspace then sending signals to and from it will expose its location to an enemy requiring signifcant artificial intellegency to allow the aircaft to look after itself for extended periods and be resistance to signal spoofing capability. see current problems with f22, f35 and b2 and who or what they communicate with. Any long range aircraft are generally large and that drives cost. Any aircraft that uses signature reduction methods will drive cost into manufacture and sustainment. All of the above means these aircraft are not cheap and hence no longer expendable so require defensive aids hence more cost. In the end all you’ve done is take a pilot out of the cockpit replace with satellite data links radars and software in the aircraft at much cost and then put a pilot in an iso container somewhere in Lincolnshire to fly it anyway. Last time I saw a unit price cost on a Ucav it was in the order of £200m.

  24. Simon – I suspect that turning a front-line fighter into a radio-controlled remote piloted toy just wouldn’t work like the piloted version. Pilots have always used the term ‘flying by the seat of the pants’ which to a very amateur non-qualified pilot like me means that the pilot reaction is guided by G-forces and sense of balance and the coordination between what is seen outside with what is felt through the seat. While a cheap throw-away recce drone can be flown by someone in a Nevada armchair, trying to dog-fight and keep a sense of the outside world reference I suspect doesn’t work. So a proper fighting UCAV needs smarts of its own to determine that it is not about to stoof into unforgiving mud and that its flying within airframe stress limits and that it’s chasing after the right bad guy and so on. On a different post I nailed my colours to the mast in that I really really don’t like the concept of autonomous killing machines using superficially intelligent but in reality really dumb software to select and kill targets.

    But I can’t see remote piloted aircraft hacking the task of air combat. In any case, the transmission delays between UCAV datalink and remote pilot would become significant where split-second decisions on violent manoeuvres would be needed. Satellite control links would be right out. Ever watched a Satcom interview on TV? Lots of embarrassing silences. So they’d need LOS datalink with a remote pilot to remain agile, which means either the pilot is on the ground waiting for the UCAV to arrive and get fighty, or he’s in a chase-plane within datalink range. Is he (she) in a lumbering transport aircraft or a fast jet then? If in a transport sized aircraft it will be a slower bigger target although it could fly in with UCAVs hanging on pylons waiting to be set loose. If the UCAV takes off after an opposition FJ how long before its datalink is out of range or at least flaky? Not long. If the UCAV pilot is in a faster jet to keep up, then what are we saving beyond putting pilots in fighters and saving the cost of UCAVs? You would need one pilot per remotely piloted UCAV so one 2-seat fast jet flying behind each UCAV. This really isn’t working, is it.

    UCAVs then would need to fly and fight autonomously to be effective. This is where the huge costs come in. The fast and armed jet would be deciding where to fly and what to shoot based on (God help us) software routines that list proscribed situations and the course of action to be taken in each case. If things crop up that the software has no rule to match, then what is the dangerous combatant going to do? Whatever the action, it would probably be less appropriate than one taken by a pilot in the same situation. Note that even on the latest passenger jets, with fully predictable flight routes just as defined in their flight plan, and with microwave landing control, and with very powerful multiple-redundant autopilot systems, there is always a pilot in the front ready to take control if stuff happens the automated systems can’t cope with. In the case of the UCAV, there is no neat flight plan, no comfy air corridor all to itself, no guaranteed helpful ground systems to guide it, and its armed and it is expected to mix it with evading hostile opponents. If we can’t trust million-mile-autopilot-proven airliners to look after themselves without a pilot baby-sitter, why on earth should we think it will be a cheaper option compared to conventional fast jets to get a UAV to be competent and safe to be let loose on its own?

    All of the above relates to air to air combat of course. If the UCAV is restricted to ground strike and recce, and the conemp assumes no self defence measures against hostile air power, then yes you can use remote pilots. The ground rarely reacts as fast or as unpredictably as an enemy aircraft. But all the glitzy marketing videos I’ve seen have shown the likes of a single F22 with a swarm of UCAV wingmen – its clear these are being pushed as air-air combatants. Cripes that’s scary.

  25. Actually if you do want to get cynical, we alredy have CUAVs. They’re called missiles. Long range CUAVs are called cruise missiles. And the really really big UCAVs are called ICBMs.

  26. Is the “C” in UCAV supposed to mean air-to-air combat then?

    Last time you guys put me down (don’t worry I’m not upset) you seemed to think that everyting is about BVR AMRAAM, etc. Now you’re saying dogfighting and “seat of the pants”. Well, I can tell you now that once particle CIWS is on jet aircraft we’ll be back to dogfighting and not having the fleshy bit in the aircraft will win is the war in the air. An airframe can withstand many more times the G than a human can.

    If the “C” is for strike then I’m sorry but I don’t agree. As Observer says we already have pre-programmed cruise missiles. A jet that carries some to point, drops them and then returns home is just a program. If it is intercepted then it doesn’t need stealth and we can deal with signal delays and strength using a slightly different way of flying that you’re thinking.

    Stop assuming flying is about pulling back on the joystick and assume it’s more like. I want to be here at this angle in 0.5 seconds. You could even have a pallet of pre-programmed moves – split s, immelmann role, etc. Oh, with personal adaptations and random jinks.

    It’s still remotely piloted, still autonomous and no AI involved at all.

  27. Simon

    No not talking air to air combat anything. As for your other then if that all you want you don’t need a uav a tornado does that now..

  28. Tornado doesn’t have intercontinental range.

    It’s also not stealthy.

    It also requires a pilot and co-pilot that need to be fighting fit, not colourblind, not wearing glasses, etc, etc.

    Not competely sold either way at the mo. Just seem to think the future is pilotless.

  29. Mark,

    Sorry, I wasn’t clear, my other post said it didn’t need stealth once it had been detected and was being intercepted ready for the air-to-air engagement I was discussing. So, satellite comms were not going to be an issue.

    As for what I was asking for, well I wasn’t at all clear on that either ;-)

    If I could have what I wanted it would be a one-way stealth strike cruise missile. I’d also want a two-way (there and back) stealth bomber using GPS, inertial or ground-based laser seeking bombs (no emissions). Both of these are totally autonomous unless they are intercepted in which case I’d use the concept as discussed in my earlier post.

    The combat pilot is essentially on standby. Probably alerted by a nearby ISTAR platform or by proximity and EM sensors on-board the UCAV.

    Interesting article. Thank you. My faith is being restored :-)

  30. Sorry Simon, but you see things way too simplistically and more optimistically than waranted.

    And make up your mind, are you talking about an autonomous drone or a remotely piloted one? You keep flip flopping between the two.

    ” we can deal with signal delays and strength using a slightly different way of flying that you’re thinking.”

    I don’t think “wing and a prayer” is classed as flying. And your “different way of flying” to get an A2A win is simply wishful thinking, you can’t even come up with a single detail other than vague handwaving.

    In the 30+ years UAVs have been in action, there has only been ONE air to air kill by a UAV, in 1982, and the joke was that it was due to the enemy’s carelessness. The IAF UAV flew so low to the ground the Syrian MiG which tried to strafe it couldn’t pull up in time.

  31. Simon – ref last post; it was not meant as a put down, sorry if it read like one. I will admit I read UCAV as Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, hence my focus of typical air combat. I did note towards the end of that post that if the role was recce and ground strike only, then remote piloting becomes achievable. But I remain deeply sceptical that a remote pilot could be effective in air-air combat, both for the loss of motion cue and head-turningly fast visual cue, and for the unavoidable latency in the control loop.

    But you and Obs bring up a significant factor – the blurring of the distinction between ‘aircraft’ and ‘missile’. When I noted in the earlier comment that the flying control node might have pylons of UCAVs to launch as & when necessary, this came to mind: – in this case launching manned fighters from pylons under a bigger aircraft. Maybe there needs to be some clarity in terminology – what differentiates RPV, UAV, UCAV, Cruise Missile, Guided Weapon, Extended Range Munition. ROE must be really difficult to set and operate within when the same equipment may be given many different classifications.

  32. Observer,

    “Sorry Simon, but you see things way too simplistically and more optimistically than warranted.”

    Perhaps there’s something wrong with the way you think? At a conceptual level everything should be explored. Only technical and financial feasibility stop imagination being reality, and there’s no technical problem with what I was suggesting.

    Make up my mind?

    I suggested a pre-programmed strike flight mission. I then suggested that should the aircraft be intercepted a remote pilot would “jump” into the seat and take over. I also provided some ideas about how to reduce the data bandwidth required from UCAV to remote pilot.

    As for wishful thinking. Yes, that’s exactly what we should have. Without vision or direction we’ll wallow around in the doldrums with all and sundry overtaking us.

    Where do you think the next major advance in aircraft will be? I’m betting on pilotless and improved pilot aiding. I studied it 20 years ago as a mostly NASA series of investigations using ADA, It’s taken a while to come.

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