Taranis – A new era unfolds for excellent UK defence products

05 Feb 14. There is much that one might like to say about the most sophisticated and advanced unmanned air combat system that Britain has so far developed, but even if I had been able to comprehend what I suspect are highly complicated technical specifications I would be prevented from telling you about these because much of the detail about Taranis remains classified information. So it should too as – far from being a leap into the dark and unknown world of Remotely Powered Air System (RPAS)/Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) – Taranis is not only an absolute winner for Britain but also an investment with strategic long term benefits.

Looking rather more like a USAF B-2 Stealth Bomber than one of the more traditional Remotely Piloted Air System or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV’s) currently in operation with NATO forces, Taranis is first and foremost a completely British designed and built UAV. Operated remotely by a human operator who could be hundreds or even thousands of miles away, Taranis is able to fly through a system of direct commands via its on-board computers that allow the vehicle to perform various manoeuvres and tasks; such as intelligence gathering, identifying targets and if necessary attacking enemy targets with great precision.

The number of UAV’s now in service with UK armed forces continues to grow. The Reaper and Predator UAV systems have been in service now for several years and very soon the Thales-built Watchkeeper system, which has also been specifically developed for the UK military, will enter service. UAV’s won’t replace fast jet military aircraft capability in the foreseeable future but in the role that they undertake they can and do greatly enhance military battlefield capability. Certainly they are changing the way that military aircraft are used in combat missions and in terms of force mix their use can only but increase in the years ahead.

Designed for ‘stealth’ and ‘low observance’ Britain’s Taranis development has been funded through a partnership between the MOD and UK industry. As an engineering and technology partnership, the Taranis development programme brought some of the best UK defence and aerospace industry excellence together to create a huge step forward in unmanned aerial vehicle technology. With BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, QinetiQ and GE working alongside DE&S and DSTL, Taranis is set to undertake sustained surveillance activity, gather intelligence, mark targets, deter adversaries and strike with absolute precision deep inside hostile territory.

My specific interest in Taranis is not only the military-based UAV technology capability that it brings but also the science, technology and industrial benefits that it potentially offers the UK. Taranis is certainly the most highly sophisticated unmanned aerial combat vehicle to have been designed, built and flown in the UK and yet the £185 million MOD/Industry funded project could hardly be regarded as expensive.

Importantly Taranis is confirmation that that industry and Government can and are working well together. As a technology-based military project, Taranis has achieved the objective required to develop a UK designed and built stealth based UAV to help the military. In the process of development the Taranis project has brought together some of the best available science, aerospace and engineering skills that the UK possesses. The greatest significance of Taranis to me is that the project is living proof that Britain remains at the forefront of aerospace and defence technology. In addition it proves the value and importance of the ‘skills retention’ argument; demonstrating what can be done if we put our heads together and invest in R&D.

The Defence Growth Partnership (DGP) which is a direct follow-on to the hugely successful Aerospace Growth Partnership will be at the forefront of future efforts to further expand research and technology investment in defence. Taranis is an example of what can be achieved if we have the right mindset and of what can be achieved for the benefit of the UK if government and industry work together. Taranis might not be a product to have directly emerged from the DGP but it is living proof that far from being dull, engineering is a great profession to work in. As another example of government/industry partnership the DGP has certainly got a big job to do but if Taranis can be held up as an example of what can occur when everyone sings off the same hymn sheet, the possibilities could be enormous.

While Taranis is a partnership between industry and government (and a totally British based partnership). it is important to see how this develops its the long-run, especially following an evolving industrial entente with the French. Detail of the intentions of an Anglo/French UAV are almost as sparse as the technical detail of Taranis but the hope is that while Taranis will remain an absolutely British development, there can also be advantages from this that link into Anglo/French programmes.

Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS,
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.
Tel: +44 7710 779785
Email: hwheeldon@wheeldonstrategic.com

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