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BAE Systems Taranis Combat Drone Shapes Future Attack-Jet Design

BAE Systems Plc, Europe’s largest defense company, will build on trials of its Taranis unmanned combat-drone to design a future strike aircraft to eventually replace today’s generation of fighter jets.

“We need to be thinking now about what the next generation of aircraft will look like,” Philip Dunne, the U.K. minister for defense equipment, said at an event to disclose the first details of the London-based company’s Taranis flight trials that started in August.

Work on Taranis will help create a replacement for the Typhoon combat jet -- designed by BAE, Airbus Group and Italy’s Finmeccanica Spa -- and U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, according to Dunne. The Typhoon is already in use, and the U.K. is set to place an order for its first operational F-35s after buying three test jets, he said. A replacement for those planes may come after 2030.

European companies are trying to keep pace in the design of unmanned combat air vehicles with the U.S., which has already flown an advanced drone from aircraft carriers. Taranis and Paris-based Dassault Aviation SA’s Neuron are designed as demonstrators to validate so-called stealth technology that makes aircraft hard to detect by enemy air defenses.

BAE Systems is in talks with the U.K. government about funding for additional phases of the Taranis flight trials program, Nigel Whitehead, the company’s head of U.K. defense operations, said at the event in London. Funding for the work hasn’t been set, he said.

Targets Met

BAE Systems is relying on Taranis to sustain its advanced combat aircraft engineering group’s skills. The group has about 700 workers, Whitehead said. Work on Taranis began in 2006 and a prototype was unveiled in 2010.

Many details of the Taranis project remain classified. The vehicle was airborne for as long as one hour, after flying 15 minutes on an initial flight, and design targets were met. “We achieved all our planned test points,” Whitehead said.

Taranis, which has a 9-meter (30-foot) wingspan and is about 4 meters high, will aid cooperation between the U.K. and France in the field of combat drones, Dunne said. The countries committed to pursuing a research partnership last week during a summit between French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

BAE Systems and Dassault have already agreed to cooperate in the field of unmanned aircraft.

A future development program would not start until 2020 or later, Dunne said. Whether such an effort would be undertaken with France, the U.S., or others hasn’t been decided, he said.

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