In a move replete with political symbolism the UK’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) has decided to fund a significant combat drone project in Northern Ireland.
The MoD is reportedly investing £30 million ($41 million) in the project which is expected to either create or sustain more than 100 jobs in Belfast.
The proposed drone, nicknamed the “loyal wingman”, will be developed as part of a joint project by the Belfast branch of Spirit AeroSystems and Northrop Grumman UK.
Dubbed “Team Mosquito”, the project managers have been commissioned by the MoD to develop an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) capable of flying at high speed alongside fighter jets.
The proposed combat drone will be the UK’s first uncrewed platform with the capability to target and down enemy aircraft as well as evading surface-to-air missiles.
Team Mosquito has been tasked to deliver a full-scale vehicle flight-test program by 2023.
However, it is not clear when the combat drone is expected to be deployed operationally.
Lauding the project, the director of Future Combat Air at the MoD, Richard Berthon, issued the following statement: "Project Mosquito is a vital element of our approach to Future Combat Air, rapidly bringing to life design, build and test skills for next generation combat air capabilities”.
However, the decision to base the project in Northern Ireland is bound to raise eyebrows, and will inevitably lead to speculation about hidden political motives.
Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, appeared to acknowledge political motives by issuing the following statement: "This ground-breaking project will involve significant investment which will not only support local employment, but also reinforce Northern Ireland's contribution to the security of our nation."
Meanwhile, Defense Minister, Jeremy Quin, reinforced the implicit political motive by claiming the project is a “great win for the Northern Ireland defense industry” in so far as it will showcase “some of the most pioneering engineering work currently being undertaken in the UK”.
Northern Ireland is currently in the grip of a major political crisis with Unionist elements increasingly on the defensive against a rejuvenated Irish unity movement.
There are growing calls for a border poll (or a referendum on Irish unity), with pro-British political factions trying hard – but failing – to arrest the momentum towards a united Ireland.
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