This week the UK unveiled its latest UCAV technology demonstrator Taranis. The MOD and BAE have spent a £124 million on the project. The project is a year late and £20 million over budget but given the difficult and ground breaking advances made it seems to be well worth the time and money. In fact Taranis is only the latest in a long line of UAV and UCAVS developed by BAE and the MOD over the last 10 years. The UK is the only country excluding the USA who are currently fielding such a capability. The question is will the UK go it alone for the first time since TSR 2 and actually try to produce an independent aircraft or will we as usual try to get into a joint program either with the US or other EU countries. I will predict the latter but if we were to choose to go it along we could secure ourselves a great future in the UCAV production and sales industry. Taranis could become the biggest British export earner since Frank Whittle invested the jet engine and gave it to the rover car company.
Over the last 15 years in an attempt to catch up with the US aviation industry the UK and BAE have spent £100 millions on stealth and UAV projects. Much of this has been done on the quiet with programs such a Night Jar, Corax and Replica. These programs have obviously produced some results as even Lockheed Martin the kings of stealth were keen to partner with BAE on the F35 offering them a significant work share.
From the indications the Taranis demonstrator is almost a fully capable platform able to carry (although it wont) and simulate weapons drops in its testing program.
While with such a new technology it is hard to estimate the potential market it is possible to make assumptions.
Assumption 1 The US will produce its own UCAV and as with the F22 refuse to sell it to anyone else even its allies.
Assumption 2 With the increase in capabilities of air defence's and the reduction in there costs any country which operates a strike fighter ( most countries on the planet) will need a UCAV.
Assumption 3 France will try to partner with other Europeans countries to produce a UCAV then pull out due to the French work share. The resulting French aircraft will be crap and expensive.
Assumption 4 Germany and the rest of the EU will um and aw about making there own and eventually buy off the shelf.
Assumption 5 Russia and China will produce there own which will be crap and no one else will want to buy them.
Assumption 6 Once Russia and China have UCAVS as well as the US then everyone will want one. They will turn to the cheapest most capable off the shelf design.
The Taranis and BAE could be the only credible player in town in the international export market. The best way to do this would be to quickly get the program through evaluation and into initial production. If no one else Can do this for another 10 years then we will have built a commanding lead. Making this a relatively cheap but still capable design on the cost order of $15 million to $25 million a piece would allow us to dominate the world UCAV industry in the way that TSR 2 would have done in the 1960's.
To do this we need to focus the program broadly on RAF needs but also on World export markets.
If it can already fly 4000 miles then it does not need to be capable of air to air refueling. If its highly stealthy then it does not need super sonic speed. If its cheap enough and stealthy enough it does not need an air to air capability. Cut out all the expensive procedures which will require allot of software and hardware and concentrate on a smaller slower platform able to loiter for Reconnaissance and carry a couple of bombs or missiles for deep strike and suppression of air defence. Keep the cost down and the capabilities that it actually needs and we will sell hundreds of them.
If we build develop and produce it our selves we will not have to give away technology rights to other EU nations or work share and we will be free to sell it to who we choose free of US concerns on technology transfer. Indeed if we look at current fighter bomber demand world wide for F35, Rafale and Typhoon we could reasonably expect to build and sell 700+ of these. At an average cost of $25 million each that would give the UK total export orders of $175 billion not to mention the through life maintenance and upgrade contacts.
Taranis represent a new oppertunity for us to regain our lead in the avation industry and once agin produce a world beater. Lets stop cooperating with others to produce expensive crap and actually build something ourselves that people actually want to buy from us.