BAE Systems' Air division is heading for its first Farnborough air show since being formed through a major reorganisation of the UK's leading defence contractor, and with an executive team optimistic of maintaining its position at the forefront of Europe's combat air system mix.
Created from the former Military Air & Information unit, the Air division's current activities accounted for 55% of BAE's sales last year. Outlining the unit's objectives at its Warton site in Lancashire on 5 July, BAE Systems Air group managing director Chris Boardman identified collaborating on an operational future combat air system as a top priority.
The French and German governments earlier this year cemented a pact to work together on an FCAS capability, with Dassault taking the lead on the initiative, which also involves Airbus Defence & Space. The potential for UK involvement is currently uncertain, as a result of unease in Paris and Berlin over its pending departure from the EU, and while London prepares to publish a broad-ranging Combat Air strategy to outline its objectives.
Airbus Defence & Space chief executive Dirk Hoke has called for UK involvement in a European FCAS project, and Boardman believes BAE will have an important role to play. Pointing to its involvement in past projects like the Sepecat Jaguar and Panavia Tornado, and its current role as an industrial partner in the Eurofighter consortium, he notes: "You shouldn't be trapped by your history, but if you are a good collaborator with good technology, you'll be okay.
"We are not against any part of multinational collaboration," Boardman adds. "Leonardo and Airbus are easy for us to work with, because we work with them now… and we have spent five years working with Dassault." He also describes the multinational consortia working on projects like Eurofighter as "fundamentally sound".
An Anglo-French FCAS project involving BAE and Dassault has lost momentum over the uncertainties of Brexit and is now focused on researching supporting technologies.
"I'm less bothered about the specific partnership of today," Boardman says. "What's really important is we get clarity on the UK strategy – that gives you a platform to work from." Plans for the document were disclosed in February, and its release is expected at or around the 16-22 July Farnborough show.
"There are things that are happening," Dave Armstrong, director, Europe and international for BAE Systems Air, says ahead of the new strategy emerging. "In 2025, you will see the UK at the heart of a future combat system and a future fighter."
In the meantime, BAE is advancing UK-specific activities linked to an FCAS; recently receiving a 12-month contract from the Ministry of Defence. It is also conducting research on an unmanned air vehicle called LANCA, described as "a small, affordable wingman" for manned fighters.
While it is keen to work in partnership, BAE notes that of the three European combat aircraft produced today – also including the Dassault Rafale and Saab Gripen – only the Typhoon is the result of a joint endeavour.
"Rafale is not a European aircraft – it's a Franco fighter," Armstrong argues. "It's a French aircraft with French products and French subcontractors."
Describing the Typhoon as a success, he predicts that production will continue until 2025. "It's going to evolve and develop, and there will be further development on weapons, and capability updates for the future fighter domain," he says. Other potential updates could include the incorporation of a single, large-screen display in the cockpit, and BAE is also investing in wider human/machine interface and helmet-mounted sight technologies for combat aircraft.
"If you get Eurofighter you get choice, and you get help with how to operate it in service," Boardman says. "That’s a fundamental discriminator – you don't force nations to take inventory that a single nation has developed."
BAE also points to the experience it will gain over the next few years with supporting the Royal Air Force as it integrates operations of the fourth-generation Typhoon with Lockheed Martin's stealthy F-35 as providing it with an advantage in creating operating concepts suitable for an eventual FCAS. "We will be bringing F-35 and Typhoon in while other countries are talking about it," Armstrong notes of such a task.
"I believe we are at a juncture where we are going to move the air domain in the UK into a different direction," he suggests, adding that the company's unique experience "sets it apart in its ability to lead the future combat air systems in Europe”.
Boardman describes the F-35 – for which BAE manufactures the rear fuselage, and horizontal and vertical tails – as "a little bit of a conundrum on international", because it competes with the Typhoon in some markets. However, he notes of the company's industrial involvement: "We're not just a supplier – we are very much a top-tier partner."
"We have moved to a philosophy which says we can be market-focused and technology-driven," Boardman concludes of BAE's new Air focus. "Previously we had organisational groupings around products – now what we have are businesses that are regionally market-based."