BAE Systems is unveiling a new model at the Farnborough International Airshow that offers clues about the company's collaborative work with Dassault on an Anglo-French unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV).

Any insight into this program – pivotally important for the futures of both nations' air forces and aerospace industries – is welcome. But it's the things that are going on underneath those stealthy curves that will really change the way combat air capabilities are designed and delivered.

"Everybody wants to see what the aeroplane's going to look like," says Martin Rowe-Willcocks, BAE's future combat air systems (FCAS) business development director. "But quite frankly, until you've frozen the requirement, you don't know."

Emerging concepts of operation are of much more importance to BAE's FCAS team at Warton than the shape of whatever aircraft evolves from the program. The tailless "mini B-2" planform of Dassault's Neuron, BAE's Taranis and Northrop-Grumman's X-47B shows industry and its likely customers are interested in survivability in denied airspace. But stealth will not be much use if the aircraft is remotely piloted.

"It's about more than just making a low-observable aeroplane," Rowe-Willcocks says, "because a low-observable aeroplane isn't low-observable if you have to talk to it all the time."

Among the key emerging requirements is a concept of operations that sees the future UCAV working in partnership with manned platforms, operating inside denied airspace while less stealthy and/or manned aircraft stand off at safe distances. A vision for this manned-unmanned teaming is explored in a demonstration scenario BAE is running during the show.

The four-screen demo, which includes elements taken from current mission-planning technologies used on the Eurofighter Typhoon, features a scenario where two manned fighters send a stealthy unmanned UCAV into defended airspace to locate, identify, and prosecute a target. Once inside denied airspace the UCAV maintains radio silence, and controls itself using on-board systems.

The scenario shows that the UCAV requires a considerable level of autonomy. It has to re-route itself around pop-up threats and is able to assess, in accordance with pre-programmed parameters that embody the rules of engagement, when it needs to risk exposing its location by communicating with its controllers. Although it does not represent U.K. Ministry of Defence thinking, the demonstration has been approved by MoD for BAE to run during the air show.

The degree of autonomy the scenario suggests necessary to enable stealthy UCAV operations is perhaps the most deeply controversial area of future combat air policy. A great deal of work on the still-largely-classified Taranis program seems to have been concerned with this aspect of the system.

The Anglo-French program differs from Neuron and Taranis, which are feeding in to the joint work, because those are technology demonstrators, while the goal of the cross-Channel project is to develop what is termed an “operationally representative demonstrator”. The difference is about more than semantics.

"A technology demonstration can prove what technology can do: to turn it into an operational demonstrator, you have to decide how much of that technology you're prepared to use," Rowe-Willcocks says. "Could systems be fully autonomous? Yes, of course they could. Is that within the bounds of international law? No, it's not. Nor is it within the bounds of the rules of engagement that U.K. forces would use."

Rowe-Willcocks hopes that air show visitors will take the time to engage with the demonstration and consider the questions it raises. "There has to be a bit of a mind-shift to accept this mission," he says, "and what we're trying to test with the demonstration is whether people are prepared to make that mind-shift. If you're not, there's no point in having a stealthy UCAV." 

More Taranis Tests Flights Possible, Says BAE

The existence of the Anglo-French program does not necessarily mean we've seen the last of BAE's Taranis. The system has completed the three sets of flight trials originally contracted for, but BAE hope it may fly again. Rowe-Willcocks would not be drawn on whether the company would fund a fourth phase of trials independently, though he says the suggestion "is not unthinkable."

"We would like there to be (a fourth phase)," he says. "The question is, what is it to achieve? There's still an appetite in the business to carry on flying. There are things we'll want to do together within the Anglo-French construct, and things we'll want to carry on doing in the national programs that were there before."

The aircraft is being maintained in a flight-ready condition at Warton. This involves occasionally running the engine and the mechanical systems. There is no indication from BAE that this activity has a scheduled end date.