Over more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the names of America's several "drone" aircraft have entered into our national vocabulary. If you mention a "Predator" drone in a conversation these days, hardly anyone will respond: "What's that?"
But now, just when you thought you knew all the names of all the drones in the world, there's a new name to add to the list -- "Taranis" -- and this one's an import.
Introducing Britain's top-secret battle drone
Last week, Britain's Ministry of Defence released data on previously undisclosed tests of a new drone being developed by defense contractors Dassault Aviation and BAE Systems (NASDAQOTH:BAESY). The drone, designated a "UCAV," or unmanned combat aerial vehicle, began flight testing at an undisclosed location in August. Eventually, it is intended to perform roles ranging from surveillance to intelligence-gathering to "lighting up" targets to be hit by bombers. And because the Taranis will be an unmanned combat aerial vehicle, the drone will also be capable of carrying weapons -- it can blow up targets itself.
Dassault and BAE expect to spend as much as $300 million on the drone's development, but once it's finished, BAE will build it. (Dassault will take data from the tests to develop a UCAV of its own, to be called the "Neuron.")
Other partners in the effort include Britain's Rolls-Royce (NASDAQOTH:RYCEY) and QinetiQ, and General Electric (NYSE:GE) from America. But that's just the core of the team. Britain is pulling out all the stops to catch up to the U.S. in UAV capability. According to MoD, some 250 local companies are involved in the project.
What Taranis is
MoD is keeping mum on most of Taranis' specs, but it does disclose that the drone is "about the size of a BAE Systems Hawk aircraft," which makes it roughly 40 feet long, and with about a 33-foot wingspan. The drone will be shaped like a flying wing, however, and designed to be stealthy -- so more resembling an American B-2 Stealth Bomber in form.
As for the Taranis' armaments, militarized Hawks can be equipped with 30mm cannon, and with hard points carrying bombs and missiles for ground attack, and even Sidewinder air-to-air missiles for dogfighting. Assuming Taranis is of comparable size to a Hawk, therefore, it's likely that the drone could carry a similar payload. Overall, BAE boasts that when it is complete, Taranis will be "the most advanced air system [that the U.K. has] ever conceived."
What it means to you
In recent years, American defense contractors have done big business outfitting European nations with drone technology. In 2009, NATO signed a memorandum of understanding paving the way for it to buy eight of Northrop Grumman's (NYSE:NOC) Global Hawk reconnaissance drones. A contract for five of these drones was signed last year, promising $1.7 billion in sales for Northrop. Meanwhile, Britain has purchased 10 Reaper drones from General Atomics, and France has placed orders for 16 more.
The most obvious effect of BAE building the Taranis, for U.S. defense investors, will be that it makes it harder for American defense contractors to sell into the UK market. Once Taranis is built, the UK may be inclined to "buy local." Farther down the line, Taranis could even compete with U.S. UAVs for international sales.
Fortunately for shareholders of U.S. defense stocks, that day is still quite a ways off. MoD doesn't expect to have Taranis ready for deployment before 2030. Meanwhile, Northrop's X-47B UCAV has already proved itself capable of landing and taking off from aircraft carriers at sea. For the time being, at least, U.S. defense contractors -- and Northrop Grumman in particular -- retain close to total air superiority in the drone space.