In Douglas Carswell MP’s blog post “Is Mantis going to fly?”, he bemoans the amount of money the Ministry of Defence have spent funding BAE’s Mantis unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), suggesting instead that we should not have invested in it and should instead have bought existing off-the-shelf UAVs, by which he presumably means the MQ-9 Reaper. He goes on to presume that a Mantis procurement contract must no longer be on the cards, based on the response he received to his question to the Secretary of State for Defence.

With all due respect to Mr Carswell, I do believe he’s missed the point here. Not only has the Royal Air Force already bought 13 of the Reaper aircraft, but they have already seen operational use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

BAE's Mantis vehicle (picture from Wikimedia)

BAE’s Mantis vehicle is, as Parliamentary Undersecretary of State Peter Luff says, a technical demonstrator – a one-off prototype built in order to prove the technology behind it. There never was a procurement programme for the Mantis. Sure, BAE received some funding from the Ministry of Defence, though as this DefenseNews article suggests, it may not have been all that much. Mostly it seems like BAE and the other consortium members threw their own money into the Mantis programme, and the MoD put some of their own research budget into it in the hope that the Mantis would suit Britain’s needs better than the Reaper does.

As I write this post, Mr Carswell has updated his own to address the comment of “an angry reader” (not me, by the way) who points out that “Mantis is just a demo project… We’re just seeing if we can do it better”. The MP’s response is to bring up the SA80 rifle and the Future Lynx and Eurofighter programmes. Issues with the SA80 and with the Typhoon have been widely broadcast in the press (though I can’t find anything particularly damning about the Future Lynx from my brief online search). But the fact that the Mantis is a technical demonstrator is still relevant here – the SA80 and the Typhoon are in active production and use by our armed forces, the Mantis is not.

Maybe with our glorious 20/20 hindsight, we should have abandoned the Eurofighter project and bought F35s and F22s. Who knows – it’s not as if those are the epitome of successful programmes. But shying away from technical demonstrators entirely, particularly ones that are largely privately-funded, would result in stagnation. Britain is one of the few countries that maintains a high level of military research of its own, rather than committing to buying all our gear from the Americans or the Russians. While I don’t pretend to have any big numbers to throw around, I would imagine that the defence sector is reasonably important to the British economy, and it would be in poor shape indeed if the Ministry of Defence no longer wished to invest in the kind of technical demonstrator programmes that further our country’s engineering prowess.

(Disclosure: I’m a former employee of QinetiQ, a member of the Mantis consortium, though I’ve had no involvement with Mantis itself.)