By David Crane
defrev (at) gmail (dot) com
July 12, 2010
Anyone remember the movie Stealth (2005)? It was a huge bomb at the box office, but it did feature some interesting fictional future aircraft tech, including the “Extreme Deep Invader (EDI)” an autonomous high-speed, low-observable jet-powered unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) with artificial intelligence (via a quantum computer pilot module). Well, it looks like NATO air forces are one step closer to having a real life version of EDI, thanks to a partnership between the UK MOD (Ministry of Defence), and British military defense contractors, including BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, QinetiQ and GE Aviation.
It’s called Taranis (named after the Celtic God of Thunder), it’s about the size of a BAE Hawk jet, and it’s being billed by British publication the Daily Mail as “the future of unmanned flight”. Nationalistic hyperbole aside, the Brits may just be on the money on this one. As this is written, there’s a fight going between the proponents of manned aviation and unmanned aviation to determine which will dominate future warfare, and the technological and political momentum would appear to be in unmanned aviation’s favor, at the moment.
The BAE Taranis is a low-observable/stealth jet-powered UCAV with “an ‘autonomous’ artificial intelligence system”. It’s designed to carry out long-range precision strikes deep inside enemy territory, and have intercontinental strike capability. We’re calling it the BAE Taranis, because BAE Systems (UK) is the lead company on the project, and the lead technology integrator (LTI).
The Taranis UCAV prototype looks like a cross between a Boeing B2 Spirit bomber and Northrop Grumman X-47B UCAS (Unmanned Combat Air System), and costs £143M (143 million pounds), or $215M (215 million dollars) at today’s monetary exchange rate–so it ain’t cheap. The Daily Mail reports that “experts” are classifying Taranis as a cutting-edge design “at the forefront of world technology and as advanced as any US development.” According to Nigel Whitehead, Group managing director of BAE Systems’ Programmes & Support business, “Taranis has been three and a half years in the making and is the product of more than a million man-hours”.
The goal of Taranis would appear to be to provide NATO air forces with an armed/weaponized unmanned low-observable fast jet that can effectively evade the latest advanced Russian and Chinese anti-aircraft/surface-to-air radar-guided missile systems and air-to-air radar and missiles, and then destroy enemy targets with minimal input from its human controllers. DefenseReview wonders whether or not Taranis is low-observable enough to effectively evade the Russian S-400 Triumf (NATO codename SA-21 Growler) air defense system. Only war will tell. If not, that’s a lot of time, money, and manpower down the drain. We also wonder if Taranis will and it’s technological successors will one day turn on its human masters–that’s us–a la Skynet. That would be counterproductive.
But what if one of our artificially-intelligent autonomous UCAVs does indeed turn on us? Well, in the words of Sam Shepard’s character, Senator James Reisman (R, Georgia), in the film Swordfish (2001), “Son, let’s say you have a 200-pound Rottweiler. He loves you, and it’s his job to protect you. But if he ever bites you, even once, you gotta put him down. You can’t have an uncontrollable weapon running unchecked in your back yard. He becomes a liability. You never know who he might bite next.” Let’s just hope we can put these things (autonomous UCAVs) down when/if necessary. Otherwise, the Chinese and the Russians will be the least of our problems.
Defense Review doesn’t yet know the BAE Taranis UCAV’s payload capability or intended weapons suite (bombs and missiles).
BAE Systems Taranis UCAV Fact Sheet (PDF Format)
Image(s) Credit: BAE Systems
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