Spearheaded by French fighter maker Dassault, the nEUROn drone began flight tests earlier this month, marking the beginning of a new global UCAV arms race .
The leader in drone today technology is the U.S., fielding a bevy of various drone types. But other countries are determined to catch up. The nEUROn represents one such an attempt by a continental European consortium of France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Sweden and Switzerland.
Dassault’s UCAV represents five years of research and development and is expected to be in testing for several years more before a combat version is rolled out sometime in 2015.
(Image by Dassault Aviation)
But costs pose a significant obstacle for the French-led consortium. While the U.S. is getting ready to produce a fighter drone, France is seeking partners on the continent who would help foot the bill for an operational prototype of the nEUROn. This may prove difficult as many European countries are struggling financially. Still, there are countries on the continent such as Poland that could join the nEUROn project.
The nEUROn is not the only European drone platform in development. The German-Spanish funded EADS Barracuda and England’s Taranis represent other notable efforts. Then there’s Russia’s Mikoyan design bureau’s Ckat concept. There are plenty of projects to choose from for European governments still on the sidelines but eager to get in on the UCAV race.
Choosing a winner may prove difficult at this stage, however. In many ways, the UCAV race is reminiscent of the 1930s, when European aircraft manufacturers were competing to build the best piston fighters. As then, today is a transitional period out of which will emerge clear winners, designs that will be revolutionary and change the air combat paradigm.
What will the future look like? Current air-warfare concepts assign such drone aircraft the role of a first-strike platform whose goal would be to penetrate enemy air defenses and hit critical targets. But as the technology matures, and the major weakness of the drone – its susceptibility to jamming and hijacking – is overcome, supersonic drones capable of high G-force maneuvers that no human pilot can sustain may emerge, rendering human-piloted fighter planes obsolete. While the fifth-generation fighter such as the F-22 is still manned by a human pilot, the sixth-generation fighter may be a UCAV and even have autonomous capability that reduces its chances of being hijacked by enemy signals. Besides greater capabilities, drones are likely to be much less expensive because unlike human-piloted fighters, drones working in a swarm need not contain expensive elements such as radars; such expensive and energy-hungry sensor elements may be located elsewhere, feeding their information to the master combat supercomputer in control of a drone swarm.