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UK pauses on unmanned combat role

Ramon Lopez/BRISTOL Howard Gethin/LONDON

The UK Ministry of Defence is to launch a third-phase concept study of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) and conventional air launched cruise missiles (CALCMs). The study will seek alternatives to manned aircraft in the Future Offensive Air System (FOAS) project to develop a successor to the Royal Air Force's Panavia Tornado GR4s in about 2016.

The shape of any FOAS missile or UAV will be influenced partly by decisions to be made by next year on other future UK offensive air platforms, notably the Future Carrier Borne Aircraft.

The decision to undertake further concept studies has also been prompted by industry concerns that it is unrealistic to settle next year on a system with an in-service date almost 20 years away, using relatively embryonic technologies. The MoD says phase three concept studies will "define -work needed to produce a robust requirement by around 2008".

Ian Butcher, MoD FOAS deputy project manager, says: "UAVs will undoubtedly feature in the FOAS solution. I doubt that we would be willing to jump from where we are today to an unmanned offensive capability in a single step, mainly because we need the confidence from operating UAVs before we replace all our manned offensive aircraft."

The MoD is also considering the US/UK Joint Strike Fighter and the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor, as well as further Tornado upgrades, to meet FOAS requirements.

The RAF is uncertain that a solely unmanned solution is viable in the 2020 timeframe. Air Vice Marshal Steve Nicholl, the UK MoD's Assistant Chief of Defence Staff Operational Requirements (Air Systems), sees UAVs "as the preferred solution, but not the answer to all requirements." He sees a UAV possibly serving "as a surrogate wingman" to a piloted tactical aircraft.

Manufacturers with experience of long-range missile or UAV design have been invited to register interest in the phase three concept study, to "define illustrative concepts, explore key cost/ capability trade-offs and investigate the possibility of commonality between UAV and CALCM systems". A contract, likely to be for about 18 months, is expected to be awarded by November.