The Few become none: RAF tests pilotless fighter

Britain’s move to an unmanned air system using giant drones is already under fire, but BAE says it is vital for our defence. Jonathan Owen sees the first test-flight footage

A futuristic pilotless stealth fighter – the most technologically advanced combat aircraft ever produced in Britain – has passed its first ever test flights in a major milestone towards taking to the skies in combat, defence chiefs have announced.

The giant-sized drone, approximately 12 metres long with a 10-metre wingspan, has been codenamed Taranis – and is so secret that few details have emerged until now.

Footage of the unmanned aircraft in flight was shown for the first time in public at a briefing by the Ministry of Defence and BAE Systems at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London.

The first ever test flights of the aircraft, dubbed an “unmanned combat vehicle demonstrator”, took place in August at a secret location, understood to be Australia.

Nigel Whitehead, group managing director of BAE Systems, refused to disclose the actual number of flights made but confirmed they had been at different altitudes and speeds, lasting up to an hour at a time.

“The aircraft has been designed to demonstrate the UK’s ability to create an unmanned air system which, under the control of a human operator, is capable of undertaking sustained surveillance, marking targets, gathering intelligence, deterring adversaries and carrying out strikes,” he said.

The development and deployment of a new generation of drones “is a dangerous expansion similar to the development of ‘First Strike’ nuclear weapons that brought the world to the brink of disaster during the Cold War,” warned Chris Cole, who runs the website Drone Wars UK. Drones such as Taranis “make the world a more dangerous place,” he added.

The use of US drones has become increasingly controversial. Last October United Nations human rights experts warned that a world where “multiple states use such weapons in secrecy” was a “less secure world”.

Reports have suggested that more than 2,371 people have died from drone strikes in Pakistan since 2006.

Is it a UFO? No, it’s the £185m Taranis drone (BAE) Is it a UFO? No, it’s the £185m Taranis drone (BAE)
But Mr Whitehead, who hailed the Taranis test flights as “a major landmark” for British aviation and an “extraordinary achievement in British engineering”, said the project is “vitally important” for the future of Britain’s defence sector. The flights “ surpassed our expectations in every way” and “prove industry has the ability to design and build an unmanned stealth combat aircraft,” he added.

Ground testing of the Taranis aircraft began in 2010, and runway trials were carried out last April. It was then shipped to an overseas test range, where the first flight took place in August.

There have been “significant challenges” in getting to this point, he admitted. The budget has soared by 50 per cent in the past eight years. A cost of £124.5m was cited when the Taranis project began in 2006, but it now stands at £185m.

The defence contractors QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and GE Aviation are involved in the BAE-led consortium for the MoD, which draws on the expertise of scientists, aerodynamicists and systems engineers from 250 UK companies. Taranis was formally unveiled in July 2010 but only a small number of scientists and engineers have been given full access, on a need-to-know basis, to the top secret aircraft.

The stealth jet does not have a tail and looks more like a UFO than a potential addition to the RAF fleet.

It has been built to enter hostile airspace undetected and unleash missiles against enemy targets. Its designers boast that it can search for  and destroy enemy targets, dodge incoming missiles and defend itself against enemy aircraft without the need of human intervention.

Although it does not yet have a functioning weapons bay, it will be able to carry a series of armaments on board including missiles and laser-guided bombs.

Taranis is named after the Celtic god of thunder (BAE) Taranis is named after the Celtic god of thunder (BAE)
A BAE spokesperson told The Independent “humans would be able to programme these aircraft however they wanted”, but stressed that a controller will monitor the aircraft “at all times” and “can force a landing in case of an issue”.

Most details of the technology remain classified. The briefing was the first in four years, and workers at the BAE Systems’ military aircraft factory in Warton, Lancashire, are subject to extensive security checks and have to sign the official secrets act.

Taranis is the “most advanced air system yet conceived, designed, and built in the UK”, according to Philip Dunne, minister for defence equipment, support and technology.

Mr Dunne cited “military reasons” for the secrecy behind the project. “Taranis includes some technological advantages that this country wants to keep control of,” he added.

Air Vice-Marshal Sue Gray, the director of combat air at defence equipment and support, told The Independent: “although the combat aircraft can ‘fly itself’, it will not be used in that way, and cannot make up its own missions”.

Why the code name? Thunder God

Taranis was the Celtic god of the heavens, more commonly known as the thunder god.

The word, an appropriate name for such an aircraft, has its origins in the Breton language, derived from the words “taraniñ” and “taran”, meaning “to thunder” and “thunder”.

When provoked, Taranis could bring the fury of the skies down against those whom had angered him.

The Roman emperor Julius Ceasar compared  Taranis, who was the thunder and storm god of the Celts of Gaul, to the Roman god Jupiter.

Jonathan Owen

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - SQL Server, T-SQL

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Data Analyst (SQL Server, T-SQL, data)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst...

Day In a Page

Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

In the driving seat: Peter Kay

Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road