The writing is on the wall, or should I say in the air, when it comes to the future of air combat, and it reads 'UNMANNED' in block letters. France and the UK have both been working on their own discreet stealthy air combat vehicles over the last decade, now they are joining teams with an eye on fielding a front-line in the coming decade.
Cheaper, more range, greater broad-band stealth, modular, rapidly adaptable, and most importantly, expendable, advanced unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs), especially the autonomous kind, will knock down the enemy's metaphorical front door in future wars. The US, Russia and China all have advanced UCAV programs underway and this technology will increasingly result in an arms race as it matures.
The first country that fields autonomous UCAVs in mass is very likely to have the upper-hand when it comes to the future of peer-state air combat. By partnering together, UK and France can compete, and possibly succeed, in this emerging but still shadowy arms sector.
Not only is national defense or the ability for a state to project power abroad on the line when it comes to UCAV development, but the export market for UCAVs will eventually rival manned systems.
In other words, there could be many billions of dollars in weapons sales at stake. By the time the world figures out what these systems can do, and with less vulnerability than even a manned system in many cases, nobody will be shopping for Rafales or Eurofighters.
Currently, a French consortium led by Dassault has their impressive nEUROn proof of concept UCAV, while the UK has its Teranis UCAV demonstrator, a program which is led by BAe. By taking the best of both of these designs, and their manufacturers' intellectual property and engineering capabilities, the Anglo-French UCAV consortium could very well come up with one of the most deadly air combat systems of the modern age.
Following an initial announcement at the Farnborough Air Show last July, the Future Combat Air System initiative will now see the UK and France, Dassault and BAe, work together on a recently signed $200M 'feasibility phase' of joint UCAV's development. This consortium will also include Rolls-Royce and Snecma (Safran) for engines and Thales and Selex ES for subsystems, sensors and avionics. It is likely that this initial effort will morph into a FCAS flying demonstration program and eventually production.
Eric Trappier, the chief executive of Dassault, described the stakes of this new cross-channel advanced drone initiative in an interview with The Telegraph:
"This new step prepares the future of both manned and unmanned combat air systems. It ensures French and British companies maintain their technological excellence which is vital to competitiveness in a globalised environment, and shows the commitment of France and Britain to remain leading aviation powers."
This rising FCAS cooperation initiative is hardly the first time France and the UK have worked together on a high-profile tactical aircraft project. Namely the SEPECAT Jaguar comes to mind as something of an analogue.
Initial design imagery released from Dassault shows a 'cranked kite' UCAV configuration. This is very similar to stealth aircraft designs by Northrop Grumman, namely the already flying X-47B and concepts for the upcoming next generation bomber, known as the LRS-B. This configuration differs from both Taranus's and nEUROn's current configurations which feature a straight 'V' leading edge, with the wings blending into the fuselage linearly.
As wealthy militaries around the globe realize just how game-changing stealthy unmanned air combat vehicle technology is, the focus on rapid developing this technology will intensify exponentially. We saw this over the last decade and a half with traditional 'man in the loop' unmanned systems like the Predator and Reaper, and we will see it again with their much more complex and heavier UCAV cousins.
There is little doubt that BAe and Dassault will be a powerful team for developing and nurturing this new capability, and I suspect that as this decade comes to an end, their timeline to field an operational system by 2030 will be accelerated dramatically.
Like it or not, the age of autonomous unmanned air combat has arrived. The sooner the west comes to terms with it the better off it will be and the worse off their potential enemies will fare in combat.
If more funds are not directed into realizing UCAVs full potential, and fielding them in mass in the near term, such a statement may be the reversed, which could result in dire strategic consequences for American and its allies.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com