Real Life Terminator on the Way?

Well maybe not one that will want to kill us all. However, it seems the world’s most advanced air forces may only be decades away from having advanced unmanned aircraft. In just 10 to 15 years, many of today’s aircraft will look like B22 bombers. One of the pioneers of this hot new technological frontier is none other than Israel. It has one of the most modern military apparatuses in the world. Many people think that is because the US supplies it with that equipment. However, that is not entirely true.

Israel has a very advanced indigenous armament industry of its own and it goes well beyond the world famous Uzi machine gun. It is one of the top arms exporters in the world to. According to US government figures it is number eight in global rankings of exporters. From other sources it sometimes ranks as number five. It builds its own advanced tanks and is even working on a sixth generation multi-role fighter currently known as the SM-36 Stalma. Its manufacturer, Stavatti, sees the plane as an ideal successor/alternative to the F-16/F-18, Mirage 2000, Tornado, Mig 29 and similar class aircraft. The SM-36 is due to be produced from 2014-16 onwards.

However, where Israel has really been making its mark in the aerospace/defense industry is the area of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). It has for a while been in front of all European manufacturers, which are belatedly catching up. One of the reasons why Israel relies so heavily on technology is to compensate for its relatively small population and hence smaller military man power when compared with the often hostile Arab countries which surround it. The attraction of UAVs is that they don’t need pilots and can carry out often risky surveillance without putting pilots in danger. Increasingly, like in the Lebanon conflict, they also carry out bombing. Another factor is that they’re cheaper than manned craft.

However, one the country’s biggest coups in this area is when Israel Aircraft Industries landed a contract to supply UK armed forces with a surveillance drone, to be known as Watchkeeper. Other companies such as Thales are included in the consortium – but the vehicle itself is based on an Israeli design. Israel also sells UAVs to other countries such as India. Indeed, it was also a sure sign that it is an area that the UK had been neglecting for a long time unlike the US for example. The UK was relying on the under-funded and unreliable Phoenix drone, which became part of BAE Systems product line when it acquired GEC. Phoenix’s job was mainly to help with targeting for artillery.

But, there is speculation that the UK will not be looking to new manned fighter planes after Eurofighter or Typhoon and post Joint Strike Fighter, yet to enter service. This would seem sensible. Indeed, given the huge advances in UAV technology, could the JSF be a waste of money? From the Afghan and Iraq invasions onwards drones have been receiving an increasingly high profile. Apart from providing valuable intelligence they can literally hover for many hours over surveillance areas. They can also carry out precision bombings as seen with the US Global Hawk.

UK arms manufacturer, BAE Systems, has been rolling out a number of interesting prototypes recently, one of which is Corax. This strange aircraft has a resemblance to an earlier US unmanned spy plane known as DarkStar, which was cancelled. Apparently, Corax is part of an effort to test the performance and develop technology for UAVs. BAE Systems is also experimenting with UAVs, which can think for themselves – hence the comparison with Terminator. No doubt other companies are working on similar projects. Within ten years could intelligent drones – with built-in artificial intelligence – be making their way into airforces, possibly as interceptors? Indeed, BAE systems recent advances in this area are quite startling and no doubt the company is positioning itself to be a key player in this emerging market. A technology, which could have plenty of civilian applications as well.

Without humans on-board, fighter drones would have incredible performance as much as the materials they’re made of can take. They could be far more manoeuvrable and have greater endurance than any manned fighter. Meanwhile, the UK’s research company, Qinetiq, has been putting through paces its rather bizarre Zephyr drone. This particular craft is solar powered and in theory can remain airborne indefinitely at extremely high altitudes. It could for example replace the ageing Canberra, built in the early 1960s and now mainly used for surveillance.

Indeed watch this space. Every, conflict directly or indirectly involving US/UK seems to spawn an entire suit of new military technologies.