Manufacturer stresses importance of launching national programme before making decision on collaboration
BAE Systems is pushing the UK government to launch a national unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) programme ahead of any decision on whether to sign up to projects already under way in Europe and the USA.
The USA and the French-led Neuron group are forging ahead with UCAV work, but the UK Ministry of Defence is yet to reach a decision on initial gate approval for the Future Offensive Air System (FOAS) programme, which will almost certainly include a UCAV component (Flight International, 6-12 April).
"We have to see [the UCAV discussions] come to fruition in the next few months," says BAE chief executive Mike Turner. Regarding potential collaboration on UCAVs with European or US partners, he says: "Before you can do that you need a programme in the UK. It's very important that we have such a programme."
The MoD's Defence Procurement Agency says an initial gate decision on FOAS is still expected this year. It adds: "We are still at quite an early stage. We are looking at all the options and no decisions have been taken." Initial gate approval has been repeatedly delayed, with the most recent target date having passed last May.
Intended to replace the Royal Air Force's Panavia Tornado GR4 strike aircraft from around 2018, FOAS will provide the capability to conduct long-range attacks against time-critical targets and is likely to comprise manned and unmanned combat aircraft, cruise missiles and air-launched unmanned air vehicles.
The MoD has requested information on the USA's Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) programme from the US Department of Defense, and the possibility of a Joint Strike Fighter-style international collaborative programme has been discussed. The J-UCAS prime contractors are Boeing, developing the X-45C UCAV, and Northrop Grumman with the X-47B. The USAir Force plans to use UCAVs for suppression of enemy air defences, while the US Navy envisages an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role.
Europe's Neuron UCAV demonstrator project has Dassault Aviation as its prime contractor. The system is seen as a potential replacement for current-generation fighters including the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab/BAE Systems Gripen. Greece, Spain and Sweden have also joined the project.
ANDREW DOYLE / LONDON