The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has so far missed the opportunity of utilising advanced manufacturing technologies developed through a cancelled unmanned aircraft demonstrator programme in future products, a leading supplier has argued.

Speaking as part of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s inquiry into defence spending in the country on 1 May, Nick Laird, managing director for European space and defence at Spirit AeroSystems in Belfast, referenced the uncrewed combat air vehicle it had been developing alongside Northrop Grumman under Project Mosquito.

Mosquito concept

Source: Team Mosquito

Unmanned asset was destined to form part of the UK’s future combat air system

Although selected by the Royal Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office under its Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft, or LANCA, effort, the £30 million ($37.5 million) project was axed in mid-2023 in favour of smaller and cheaper alternatives.

Designed as a “loyal wingman” aircraft to accompany manned future fighters, Spirit had assembled a “very effective team” to work on Mosquito and had generated a “huge amount of knowledge [for] capture and exploitation”, says Laird.

While the knowledge-capture element of the project was strong, the MoD “could do better” on exploitation, he says, highlighting two technologies from the classified project that the ministry has “yet to fully leverage what they have already paid for and gained the knowledge [on]”.

Aerostructures specialist Spirit took the technology it uses to manufacture the wing for the Airbus A220 at the Belfast site and moved it “not one step forward but about four steps forward, and created a single-shot, all-composite, one-part wing”, he says.

“Nobody had ever done that before for a platform,” says Laird, arguing the project demonstrated “huge advances in technology”.

There were also “some very, very clever technology jumps on tooling,” he adds, with Spirit developing tooling capable of handling multiple aircraft parts “on a single tool”, reducing a major source of non-recurring cost for any programme.

These are “two examples… that have yet to be fully exploited by [the ministry of] defence”, he says.

Although Spirit is part of the Team Tempest grouping – part of the wider tri-national Global Combat Air Programme effort – and is working on a demonstrator aircraft, Laird says “there are technologies we have developed in Northern Ireland that have a rightful place on the Tempest programme going forward”.

One question not addressed by the committee is the future of Spirit itself. Boeing is looking to acquire the aerostructures maker to shore up its supply chain, with Airbus likely to pick up the parts of the business producing components for its A220 and A350 programmes in Belfast and Kinston, North Carolina, respectively.  

Assuming a break-up of Spirit takes place, it is unclear who would acquire the defence activities carried out in Belfast – or the aerostructures work it performs for the site’s former owner Bombardier.