For the UK Royal Air Force (RAF), 2019 has been a truly momentous year for the Eurofighter Typhoon. First, the type assumed full strike responsibilities over Iraq and Syria, in a seamless transition from the service's retiring Panavia Tornado GR4s. This was enabled by the £425 million ($517 million), 70-month Project Centurion activity, which added new precision attack weapons.
Just months later, BAE Systems is poised to deliver the UK's last production example of the multirole fighter. Some 15 years after the RAF stood up its first Typhoon squadron, the final single-seat, Tranche 3-standard jet will be handed over before the end of this year.
Typhoon developments will act as bridge to future fighter
Today, the type provides the backbone for the UK's air combat capability, with six squadrons based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire and Lossiemouth in Scotland. In addition to performing combat duties in the Middle East, the fighters provide quick reaction alert cover at home and for the Falkland Islands, and, on a rotational basis with NATO allies, for the Baltic States and the Black Sea region off Romania.
Current plans call for the service to continue flying the twin-engined model until at least 2040, alongside the UK's growing fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning strike aircraft.
Despite the pending completion of contracted deliveries for the UK and its Eurofighter consortium partners Germany, Italy and Spain, current business also includes the production of a combined 52 Typhoons for export buyers Kuwait and Qatar, which will safeguard assembly work through 2024.
The four-nation Eurofighter consortium's partner companies – also including Airbus Defence & Space and Leonardo – are also eyeing additional sales prospects, which BAE's sales director air, Dean McCumiskey, believes will keep "Typhoon in production into the 2030s and beyond".
In its half-year results report released on 31 July, BAE noted: "The memorandum of intent signed between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UK government in March 2018 remains under discussion for a further 48 Typhoon aircraft, support and transfer of technology and capability." The company has previously supplied Riyadh with 72 Eurofighters, delivered between 2009 and 2017 via the government-to-government Project Salam deal.
"Final assembly of all 48 Typhoon aircraft would be in-Kingdom," the company says. "This would enable BAE Systems to continue with the industrialisation of defence capabilities in Saudi Arabia." BAE Hawk 165 advanced jet trainers already undergo final assembly in the Gulf nation as part of this process.
More broadly, "the potential pipeline for Typhoon additional orders remains positive, with opportunities both with partner nations and through exports with existing and new customers", says BAE, which is leading the Eurofighter consortium's current sales pitch to Finland. Germany, Spain and Switzerland are viewed as other near-term opportunities, with Airbus to lead the offers made to these nations.
But such prospects aside, how is BAE shaping itself to maintain its combat aircraft development and production expertise, capabilities that remain a matter of sovereign importance for the UK? And can it successfully bridge any potential gap between building further Typhoons and the emergence of a next-generation type that could secure launch approval for the nation and potentially international partners over the course of the coming decade?
The industrial footprint of BAE's air sector activities has contracted markedly over recent years, with its Woodford facility in Cheshire closed following the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft programme, and Hawk assembly relocated from Brough in east Yorkshire to its Warton site in Lancashire.
At the same time, the company's Samlesbury facilities in Lancashire have undergone dramatic change. In addition to manufacturing parts for the Typhoon, the site is the home to BAE's assembly of rear fuselage sections for every F-35 produced.
While the Eurofighter programme has over recent years slowed its delivery rate in a move to extend production activities while seeking fresh orders, BAE's pace of activity on the F-35 programme has rocketed.
"2019 production ramp-up of rear fuselage assemblies for the F-35 Lightning II aircraft programme progresses well towards 140 sets, with full-rate production levels targeted in 2020," the company says. Some 67 shipsets were delivered from Samlesbury during the first six months of this year, "bringing total rear fuselage deliveries on the programme to over 500", it adds.
BAE says that its status as a Lockheed production partner on the F-35 programme means it will secure business worth more than $1 billion through its 12th to 14th production lots, in addition to delivering electronic warfare equipment and support services.
In addition to its Typhoon and F-35 activities, other new business opportunities exist where BAE could – with approval from the UK government – offer its industrial expertise in the fighter arena to potential international partners.
Ankara appears to represent one possible such avenue for co-operation, with the company's recent financial report noting: "Progress continues on the collaboration for the design and development phase of an indigenous fifth-generation fighter jet for the Turkish air force." Some 74 BAE employees were deployed in the NATO member country in support of this activity as of earlier this year, it adds.
But last year’s Farnborough air show provided the clearest indication of BAE's efforts in new programme terms. As part of a Team Tempest organisation also including Leonardo UK, MBDA and Rolls-Royce, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the RAF's Rapid Capabilities Office, the company is at the heart of the UK's future combat air process.
The first fruit of that collaboration was unveiled within BAE's exhibit at the biennial event, in the shape of a full-scale model of a conceptual next-generation strike asset with internal weapons bays and other stealthy features.
The work is being backed by long-term investment worth around £1.9 billion, which was outlined by the MoD as part of its Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2015, including contributions from industry.
The Tempest platform unveiled at Farnborough is representative of current thinking, but is by no means sure to fly and progress into production. Instead, it is being used to help investigate key supporting technologies – including some that could be brought into use as part of a future mid-life upgrade for the Typhoon.
"A lot of combat air engineering and capability skills in industry were a little rusty," says Clive Marrison, BAE's industry requirements director for Team Tempest, looking back to Team Tempest’s origins and initial studies in the middle of the decade. "We have been working on a broader range of capabilities across UK industry on other concepts and options, and there are quite a number in play," he says of the work performed since last year's formal announcement. However, he cautions: "It’s very early days."
In a boost for the UK, Sweden formally signalled a willingness to work with it on future combat air system technologies, with their collaboration formalised at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) in July. The pact "commits both governments to work on a joint combat air development and acquisition programme, including the development of new concepts to meet both nations’ future requirements", the MoD says.
Saab says it "will contribute with its experience of advanced technology development, system integration of complete combat air systems and related areas, including sensors, missile systems and support" during the initial one-year study phase, before Stockholm decides on further involvement.
With the cost of fighter aircraft developments having risen markedly over time, Marrison notes that for Team Tempest, "whatever we do, and whatever we buy needs to be affordable". Predicting operational conditions 20 years into the future means flexibility is also key, he contends.
Using the Typhoon as a bridge to this future, by hosting new cockpit and radar technologies, for example, will "help with the art of the possible – and the art of the sensible" when considering future products, he adds.
Current funding allocations will run through 2027, but Marrison says: "we will have to go to the UK and other nations well before that" to secure the additional money required to provide an operational capability.
"There are a number of other countries that the MoD and industry are talking to," he confirms. "Having Sweden as an early aspirant partner has been hugely helpful" in driving interest.
Ensuring a future in combat aircraft production is of vital importance to BAE, Marrison notes. "For the UK aerospace industry, this is a critical point in its future – if there is nothing to follow Typhoon, it makes it incredibly difficult for us as a nation to sustain a whole-of-aircraft life capability."
For BAE human factors senior systems engineer Suzy Broadbent, the sky is very much the limit when it comes to the potential introduction of technology to help a new generation of fighter pilots. From testing advanced helmet-mounted colour displays today to the prospect of a virtual cockpit environment with gesture controls capable of providing haptic feedback, or even remote piloting, the company is exploring enabling technologies, in many cases drawing on gaming technology.
BAE is also exploring the use of eye-tracking technology and electrocardiogram equipment in the form of a "brain cap", which would monitor pilot performance and detect conditions such as g-lock and hypoxia. "I thoroughly imagine Typhoon will be a testbed for a lot of this, and if we mature things quickly enough, [we could] definitely bring them back onto Typhoon," Broadbent notes.
For the RAF, expectations go further than delivering a future fighter. The service's Rapid Capabilities Office is trying to drive innovation into operations, by also investigating innovative propulsion concepts, new weapons and the use of satellites, data links and underpinning software and mission system equipment for widespread use.
Another expected part of the UK's future combat aircraft mix are so-called "additive capabilities", such as advanced weapons and a proposed unmanned adjunct for the Typhoon and Tempest. A lightweight affordable novel combat aircraft (LANCA) demonstrator effort is planned, with bidders Black Dawn, Blue Bear Systems Research and Boeing pursuing the opportunity to build and fly a demonstrator before 2023.
To be capable of carrying sensors or electronic warfare equipment and operate in formation with manned assets, a LANCA-type system should be available for perhaps only 10% the cost of a fighter, says Peter Stockel, innovation autonomy challenge lead for the MoD's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. A notional model of the subsonic vehicle was displayed at RIAT.
Group Captain Jez Holmes, the RAF’s programme director for the future combat air systems technology initiative and Team Tempest efforts, describes the military's relationship with industry as a "meaningful partnership". "The first thing you have to do is align the incentives," he says. "You have got to come into a relationship – if we succeed, they succeed."
Back at BAE's Warton site, associated work is already under way to investigate a so-called factory of the future, with ambitious goals including reducing programme lead times, doubling productivity and cutting manufacturing waste, while halving the time required to bring new products to market.
"We want to take time out of the design process – it's not just about the physical bits," says Andy Schofield, director of manufacturing and materials at the facility.
Study work is investigating changing production techniques, Schofield says. Building a Hawk requires 150,000 holes and fasteners, and while the Typhoon's major sections are mated using sophisticated laser-alignment technology, this requires expensive and bulky tooling.
BAE is exploring whether the use of robotics could in the future enable more precise assembly. "Robots are very repeatable, but not very accurate," Schofield notes of the performance available from the technology today, when measured against the miniscule tolerances required for assembling advanced aerospace products. The company plans to next month build a representative forward fuselage section for a Tempest platform using robots, in order to assess the technique's potential.
The 3D printing of some titanium parts is also now possible for combat aircraft. This offers clear cost benefits, when viewed against a more traditional machining process, which can result in up to 95% of the expensive material being discarded as waste.
BAE is also testing the use of jointless aluminium structural assemblies, which use no fasteners. It is also eyeing the introduction of so-called multifunctional materials – for example a composite that can also work as a battery, or to relay data within the aircraft without the need for cabling – as means of transforming future build techniques.
Another, more modest effort involves testing a "smart bench" design. This can be rapidly reconfigured to assist individual workers with varying levels of experience, and even linked via camera internationally, for example enabling a supervisor to monitor the output of an employee working for a business partner gaining skills via an offset programme.
Whatever the future of the UK's combat aircraft market, the technologies and innovation now being explored via Team Tempest and other initiatives look set to change the face of its manufacturing footprint just as dramatically as the Typhoon's recent operational progress.
Source: Flight International