Called Taranis, the wedge-shaped, 8-tonne stealth jet will be able to fly regular drone missions in regions of conflict – but it will also be able to seek and destroy enemy aircraft in dogfights. However, the high degree of autonomy promised by the makers has some observers concerned that the aircraft may decide on its own what constitutes a target.
Taranis is the UK government's response to the dominance of US technology in the uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) market, where aircraft such as the General Atomics Predator reign supreme. Taranis is the outcome of a 2006 Ministry of Defence decision to develop and fly an uncrewed plane that goes one better than the US systems by using jet engines rather than propellers. The result is a fast, highly manoeuvrable fighter jet.
Today, the Ministry of Defence and the UK-based military technology company BAE Systems unveiled the fruits of that development in a high-security roll-out of their Uncrewed Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV). But after reading pre-launch information one expert has raised concerns about the technology...
"Taranis looks set to put the UK ahead of the game in UCAVs," says Noel Sharkey, a robotics engineer specialising in the autonomous military systems at the University of Sheffield in the UK.
"But warning bells ring for me when they talk about Taranis being 'a fully autonomous intelligent system' together with applications in 'deep missions' and having a 'deep target attack' capability."
Sharkey says that "deep mission" is military speak for "beyond the reach of a remote pilot". "We need to know if this means the robot planes will chose their own targets and destroy them – because they certainly will not have the intelligence to discriminate between civilians and combatants..."
Maybe old Fidel isn't so crazy after all. After all, I'm sure this is going to go to the highest bidders, many of whom would gladly arm it with real thermonuclear heat.