Julian Moxon/PARIS

Dassault Aviation has surprised its rivals with the development and test flight of a stealthy twin-engined unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV).

The company developed, built and flew the AVE (aéronef de validation experimental) in just six months. It is Dassault's first unmanned aircraft programme and heralds a major change in strategy aimed at positioning the French company for a "completely new aerial warfighting scenario".

Dassault says the AVE is the forerunner of a range of vehicles designed to operate with manned fighters in forward areas.

The company aims to offer the product alongside the Rafale fighter. "We conceived the Rafale for dialogue with such vehicles operating under a mixed fleet concept in a complex electromagnetic environment", says Dassault vice-chairman Bruno Revellin-Falcoz. An operational UCAV could be around 80% Rafale's size, he adds.

Dassault has self-funded AVE development and, "given a requirement", claims it could start production of a full-sized vehicle in two years. Revellin-Falcoz says the programme aims "to prove that Dassault has the capability to do this on its own".

The AVE is 2.4m (7.9ft) long and wide, and weighs 60kg (133lb) fully fuelled. It is made from "classified" composite materials and is controlled using three flaperons on each wing. Power on the prototype is from two 45lb-thrust (200N) AMT turbine engines supplied through a single intake above the nose.

On its first flight on 28 July, the prototype reached 135kt (250km/h) but "is capable of Mach 0.5", says Dassault. Range is "around 150km [80nm], but can be increased significantly". Take-off and landing are performed manually, but Revellin-Falcoz says the satellite navigation equipped AVE, can fly autonomously or under air or ground-based remote control. Future versions will have internal weapons carriage, he adds.

Stealth is a key aim and the radar signature "is about the same as that of a sparrow", says Dassault.

Source: Flight International