BAe Systems Nightjar
Probably the biggest RAF procurement decision in the future will be whether to buy an ‘off-the-shelf’ UCAV from America or to rely on UK industry (BAe) to build a UK version. It has recently been revealed that BAe are already test flying a stealthy demonstrator UCAV called Nightjar, presumably in the hope of eventually attracting an MOD order in competition with the Boeing X-45 and Northrop X-47 UCAVs. The Nightjar has been developed, partially with MOD funding, out of the public gaze in group of hangers on the south side of Warton aerodrome, on the opposite side of the runway from the main manufacturing area. In these hangers BAe have a small ‘Skunk Works’ in which classified full-sized technology demonstrators are assembled and tested. The area also has a low-speed wind tunnel, a hot gas test stand together with a variety of electronic warfare and electromagnetic test facilities.
The Nightjar programme is almost certainly a follow-on to the work already done by BAe on a £20m programme known as Replica which started in 1994 and ended in 1999. In March 2003 BAe released a photograph of Replica undergoing testing in their radar cross-section testing hanger at Warton. On the other hand Nightjar may be a completely new design based on the lessons learnt from this Replica programme. If the Nightjar is a completely new design I suspect it will almost certainly be a tailless delta winged shape, with an engine intake mounted above the fuselage, very similar to the Dassault Neuron and the Boeing X-45C, as various designers have discovered that this appears to be the optimum shape for a stealthy UCAV. It’s possible that the Nightjar has been test flown out of Warton, but as the area surrounding the airfield in fairly heavily populated, I imagine that most of the Nightjar testing will have taken place at a more remote location such as Machrihanish on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland or Aberporth in Wales. The name Nightjar gives a less than subtle clue to when the testing has taken place, so it’s hardly surprising that no photographs have yet been obtained of this new UCAV.
The Nightjar programme is certainly directed at the planned SUAVE, the MOD’s Strategic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Experiment (SUAVE), during which a whole range of UAV and UCAV technologies will be tested and inform a number of procurement decisions which will eventually lead to a replacement for the capability currently provided by the Tornado. If Nightjar has been a success, it will have shown that the necessary technology base exists in the UK to build an effective UCAV and this presumably will have given UK industry a ‘bargaining position’ when earlier this year the MOD joined the US Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems programme.
However, the key to developing an effective UCAV will be the onboard software that must allow the vehicle to operate safely and yet autonomously, whilst exchanging information with other UCAVs and relaying operating data back to ground stations. Given the UK’s sad and expensive history of defence procurement disasters, particularly involving complex software, I can only hope that this time BAe, or whoever, they subcontract, to get it right first time. If, in the future, the UK armed forces are always likely to be involved in coalition operations working alongside their US counterparts, it would probably make more sense to buy the same UCAV as they will eventually operate, to overcome the compatibility problems that have bedevilled joint operations in the past. If past UK military procurement history is anything to go by, it’s more likely that the usual domestic politics will take centre stage and become the over-riding factor in a vital procurement decision that will have long-term consequences for the UK’s armed forces in general and the RAF in particular.