BAE Systems Plc (BA/), Britain’s biggest defense company, has tested its first combat drone with jet fighter-like capabilities, stepping up European efforts to close a 10-year gap to the U.S. in developing a new class of warplane.
The U.K. Parliament’s defense committee said in a report that flight trials of BAE’s Taranis drone have taken place in 2013, the first public acknowledgment that the model has flown. The milestone comes as the Neuron combat drone developed by France’s Dassault Aviation SA (AM) and Saab AB (SAABB) of Sweden resumes flying after months of ground tests.
Europe is playing catch-up in the unmanned combat aircraft field as it seeks to avoid a rerun of its failure in the market for so-called endurance surveillance drones, which was ceded to U.S. and Israeli rivals. In the combat arena, Boeing Co. (BA) flew its X-45 test model as long ago as 2002, while Northrop Grumman Co. (NOC)’s X-47B successfully landed on an aircraft carrier in July.
“It’s important for Europe to get its act together,” Saab Chief Executive Officer Hakan Buskhe said in a telephone interview from Stockholm. “We should have the goal of being a world leader in this area. We started slow.”
London-based BAE, which has had links to U.S. combat drone efforts, had worked through a series of technology demonstrators before flying the Taranis, a model that’s the size of a Hawk jet trainer and designed to be all-but invisible to enemy radar.
Flight trials scheduled for last year were delayed to allow for more ground tests.
Investment in Taranis, on which the U.K. is spending 180 million pounds ($287 million), will offer “more advanced capabilities” than current jets, according to the parliamentary report released last month. BAE referred questions to the Ministry of Defense, which said only that “progress continues.”
BAE, which is working with Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc (RR/) and Qinetiq Group Plc (QQ/) on Taranis, has a U.K. contract to chart a path to an operational design, and the drone would provide a “cost-effective solution” for maintaining a British ability to strike target deep behind enemy lines, the committee said.
The Franco-Swedish Neuron drone flew twice last year before undergoing tests of its radar-evading features which showed “excellent” stealth performance, according to an e-mail from Dassault. The drone resumed flying in the second half.
Trials are focused on a flight center at Istres, southern France, where it will remain until next fall before transitioning to Vidsel in northern Sweden, Europe’s biggest overland test range. The partnership also includes Italy’s Finmeccanica SpA (FNC) and European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co. (EAD), which is involved via its Spanish business.
Germany has no formal combat drone program, though EADS has been flying its Barracuda demonstrator in Canada to validate the technologies needed for such a system.
European advances still leave the region lagging years behind the capabilities displayed by U.S. drones, with Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop’s X-47B logging more than 100 flights, including its landing on the USS George H.W. Bush, as the U.S. Navy works to field an operational system around 2020.
While Saab’s Buskhe, who is also promoting an unmanned version of the Gripen fighter, says he’s confident Europe can catch up, the importance of a coherent strategy among leading European players cannot be underestimated, according to Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
“Present research and technology efforts both conclude after a comparatively small number of flight tests,” he said. “And as yet there is no set route beyond these.”
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