Britain pushes ahead with plans for first fighter drone

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain pushed ahead with plans for its first fighter drone on Monday, signing a 30 million pound ($41 million) design and manufacture contract for the unmanned aircraft to have a trial flight in the next three years.

The government said in a statement that the drones will be built to act as a “loyal wingman” to its Typhoons and F-35s, flying alongside the military jets to shoot down enemy aircraft.

Last November, the country announced its biggest military spending increase since the Cold War, pledging to end the “era of retreat”. The extra 1.5 billion pounds of investment for military research and development will help fund the new drones.

The new contract was signed with the Belfast unit of Spirit AeroSystems, the U.S. group which last year acquired the former Bombardier business in Northern Ireland, and includes a full-scale vehicle flight test programme by the end of 2023.

If the programme, named Team MOSQUITO and which also includes the UK unit of Northrop Grumman, is successful, the government said that the drones could be deployed alongside British fighter jets by the end of the decade.

The three-year contract will support more than 100 jobs in Belfast, the government statement said.

Reporting by Sarah Young; editing by Michael Holden