In the skies over the Australian Outback, the U.K. is testing technologies it hopes will not only shape the future of the Royal Air Force but also help it retain key skills and grab a lead in defense exports.

With the first flights of the £185 million ($300 million) BAE Systems Taranis unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) last August, the U.K. has become only the third sovereign state to develop the capability, after the U.S. and China. The Neuron UCAV demonstrator flown in France in 2012 is a joint international effort.

So keen is the U.K. to retain its perceived competitive and perhaps technological edge that it has kept the program under a veil of secrecy since the aircraft was first rolled out at BAE's facility at Warton, England, in July 2010.

When industry and defense officials finally revealed more about the flight-test program on Feb. 5, they did so with caveats: No details on the number of flights completed, speeds, altitudes and flight times achieved, or even the test site—which turned out to be the remote Woomera Test Range in South Australia—were officially revealed.

The Taranis platform—named for the Celtic god of thunder—is similar in size to a BAE Hawk jet trainer and powered by a single Rolls-Royce Adour turbofan, the same engine fitted to Dassault's Neuron. Officials specified that the demonstrator must be capable of sustained surveillance, intelligence collection and target marking as well as strikes based on that intelligence, but it is unclear what sensors or payloads the aircraft carries.

News of the Taranis's progress came less than a week after British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande announced during a Jan. 31 Anglo-French summit their intention to spend £120 million on a two-year feasibility study into whether the two countries could develop what is notionally being called the Future Combat Air System (FCAS). A communique from the summit states that the study will “sustain and enhance vital teams and skills within the relevant industries,” and notes, “we will be ideally placed to decide by 2016 whether to collaborate on demonstration and manufacturing phases.”

The two countries plan to sign a memorandum of understanding at the Farnborough Airshow this July.

Officials say Taranis will help the U.K. Defense Ministry decide on a direction for its own FCAS program, which it wants to achieve in time for the Eurofighter Typhoon's currently planned out-of-service date in 2030. They want to put the UCAV into operational service much more quickly than the Typhoon was.

Any UCAV that results from the FCAS is likely to operate alongside the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but officials say they also recognize a need to retain the sovereign capability to produce aircraft such as a UCAV in order to retain a level of military independence. FCAS work is also likely to study whether a future platform will be simply used for strike or to carry out other missions. The U.K. must consider whether a future UCAV would need to be compatible with its new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, as well. A decision on further investment in remotely piloted air vehicles is expected in the 2015 Strategic Defense and Security Review.

The U.K.'s work on Taranis is likely to go black again for some time. Officials describe the flight-test program as taking a “gated” approach, with funding dependent on the success and confidence levels built during the preceding phase. Part of the trials will see Taranis fly a representative strike mission, said Nigel Whitehead, group managing director for programs and support at BAE Systems, in 2012. The aircraft will fly into a mission area and sweep it with its sensors to locate and identify targets. It also will be presented with a series of “pop-up” targets, and the aircraft's “evasive response” will be monitored.

While program costs have been relatively modest, they have risen from the £126 million envisaged in 2010 to £185 million today, with a significant contribution from industry, while a planned initial flight in 2011 was pushed back to 2013. But Whitehead pointed out a year ago that the cost increase was more the result of greater preparedness before the aircraft took to the air.

“Engineering teams were able to expand the nature of what we were testing, so [they] did more, and took the time to do further testing before we took the aircraft into the air,” he added. “We spent time and money on that, and we added a body of data.”

BAE conducted the first taxi tests at its Warton facility last April, and about a month later the aircraft's wings were detached and the UCAV was flown by a Royal Air Force C-17 Globemaster to Australia. Fast taxi trials took place in July and the first flight of Taranis was a 15-min. hop on August 10, 2013. A second flight followed a week later.

Watch video of Taranis during takeoff and landing and in flight on our Ares blog at ow.ly/tzbie