Advertising
  • News
  • Offensive ambitions

Offensive ambitions

After Eurofighter comes the Future Offensive Aircraft... perhaps.

Douglas Barrie/LONDON

A DECADE AFTER the baseline configuration for the European Fighter Aircraft was agreed, the Royal Air Force is behind a push to develop a next-generation - the Future Offensive Aircraft (FOA) - to complement that air-superiority fighter. The operational requirement for the FOA may be rather more complicated than that for the Eurofighter 2000, but the success or otherwise of the FOA to fruition will hinge heavily on the lessons learned during the earlier project.

SUSTAINING EUROPE

The Eurofighter project has been instrumental in sustaining the European combat-aircraft industry. It is difficult to envisage Italy, Spain - or even Germany - doing anything other than building US fighter designs without the project getting under way in the mid-1980s. Whether the UK would have been able to do anything else is debatable.

Steve Marsh, British Aerospace assistant project director for the EF2000, points out that the project places BAe's Military Aircraft division at "-the leading edge of technology and provides the basis from which to develop the next generation of combat aircraft".

What the next generation of combat aircraft will be, in terms of the FOA, has yet to be determined - as has the political and industrial route to its development. One thing ought to be certain, however: the EF2000 programme presents political and technical lessons in what not to do.

The UK Ministry of Defence, with BAe, has recently completed a pre-feasibility study into the FOA, Staff Target (Air) 425, considering "-a range of aircraft-based weapon-system concepts to determine their capability, cost-time scale and technical risk".

While the EF2000 programme has run badly adrift on cost-time scale and risk, initial reports on the aircraft's capability are encouragingly positive.

The requirement, which the RAF is looking to fill with the FOA, is substantial. It will replace the Panavia Tornado GR4/A and, possibly, the BAe Harrier GR7. The replacement of the latter could signal the RAF bowing out of operating advanced short-take-off-and-vertical-landing (STOVL) aircraft.

It also raises the issue of which service, with what aircraft, would fulfil the close-air-support (CAS) requirement. Rotary-wing-ownership issues could once again be raised, or the RAF might cede elements of the primary CAS role to the British Army Air Corps, operating the McDonnell Douglas WAH-64D Apache.

VARIED FOA ROLES

As a strike aircraft, the FOA is intended to cover the roles of air interdiction (AI), offensive counter-air, tactical air-reconnaissance, suppression of enemy air-defence (SEAD), anti-surface warfare, and offensive air support.

UK MoD officials are well aware that, before full-scale development of an FOA begins, there are those who will need to be convinced that it is still necessary for the UK to retain a long-range offensive air capability. One certainty about the FOA project is that it will be expensive.

A top-level study is being carried out within the MoD into its future long-range offensive capability, with the FOA an "integral part of the equation". Other elements of the yet-to-be-balanced equation include the Royal Navy's future aircraft carrier and conventional cruise-missile-armed submarines.

Senior RAF officers are already rehearsing their arguments, which they hope will persuade the UK Treasury to supply funding.

They argue that, even in the "post-Cold War" environment, there remains a need for offensive air power. At different ends of a spectrum of conflict, the Gulf War and the Bosnian conflict have both shown the continuing utility of an offensive air capability, the officers argue - that is, if a state's foreign policy requires the ability to deploy, and therefore maintain, an offensive military capability.

Senior RAF officers place an offensive air capability at the heart of their operational doctrine, flagging up the need to "...attack the enemy's centres of gravity, often deep into enemy territory; reduce his war-fighting capability; and attack high-value fixed and mobile targets".

The aircraft, which are now deployed in these roles, is the Panavia Tornado GR1. Originally specified to meet the RAF's requirement for long-range, low-level, nuclear-penetration strike aircraft carrying the WE177 free-fall variable-yield nuclear bomb, it is undergoing a considerable upgrade. The Tornado mid-life update, to GR4 standard, is intended to maintain the aircraft's conventional-strike capability until 2015, when the FOA is intended to begin service.

The GR4 programme will give the Tornado improved lethality, flexibility and survivability, but there remains a limit as to just how far the basic airframe can be pushed. BAe has already carried out studies into additional strike variants of the Tornado, using the Tornado F3 air-defence airframe as the basis for a deep-strike penetrator aircraft, the Tornado 2000.

With a feasibility study into the FOA to be launched in September, assuming that it is given the go ahead by the Equipment Approvals Committee in September, such options are likely to be revisited.

There are, however, two fundamental limiters to the Tornado: its airframe life and its all-aspect radar cross-section (RCS). The greater the aircraft's RCS, the bigger the target it presents on the opponent's air-defence or air-intercept radar, and the further away the aircraft can be detected.

The RAF remains committed to the concept of the piloted penetrator aircraft. This, in turn, means proving that those crew will have the ability to enter hostile airspace in as survivable an aircraft as can be afforded.

Unlike that for the Tornado, however, the FOA requirement specifies an aircraft capable of low-, medium- and high-level operation. As previously noted, the Tornado GR1 was optimised for the low-level penetration role. As became readily apparent in the Gulf War, under particular scenarios the ability to switch quickly from low- to medium-level strike is desirable.

Such operational flexibility can be fully obtained only if it is designed into the weapons platform from the outset. Creditably as both the Tornado - and the Lockheed Martin F-16 - performed from medium level in the Gulf War, the "bolt-on" nature of the role was apparent.

Although senior RAF officers maintain that what level of low observability, if any, is embodied within the FOA, it is difficult to envisage anything but a third-generation low-observable, or balanced stealth, design being chosen to meet the requirement.

CLASSIFIED ACCESS

The RAF remains understandably coy about talking in any detail about the low-observable projects, which it has under way. "Stealth" remains classified domain, but that there are projects under way is not in doubt.

The HALO project was inadvertently revealed in an unclassified paper as feeding into the Experimental Aircraft Project MkII beyond the turn of the century. The HALO is understood to stand for High Agility Low Observable, with the project being implemented in part by BAe.

The UK MoD has also enjoyed a close relationship with the USA on low-observable programmes. MoD officials are believed to have been given, access to details of US classified stealth projects, far in advance of these programmes entering the public domain.

It is also perhaps worth remembering that the General Dynamics A-12 US Navy low-observable strike-aircraft project was originally pencilled in by the RAF as its GR4 replacement, but that was before the programme was cancelled. The US Navy's "day-one" strike capability will now be met by a mix of MDC F-18E/Fs and whatever emerges as the navy variant of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

RUSSIAN CAPACITY

Russia's defence-manufacturing base remains partially intact, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its military-manufacturing capacity offers one of its few hopes of earning hard foreign currency abroad through weapons sales and licence-production agreements.

The likelihood of a military confrontation with Russia in central Europe has all but disappeared, but its geo-political outlook and aspirations remain distinct from those of the major Western states. In pursuance of these, it will sell and support advanced military equipment to states whose interests may court conflict with those of the West.

China has acquired the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, and plans licensed production. It has also acquired, and is believed to have put into production, a variant of the S-300PMU (SA-10 Grumble). The latter is a capable medium-range surface-to-air missile.

Given China's past export history, the Chinese-built S-300PMU could quite easily be widely exported to numerous states. Factoring these possibilities, as well as follow-on systems, into a threat analysis for a future strike aircraft inevitably pushes toward an aircraft with low-observable technology.

Several other states in addition to China and Russia with technological capabilities, such as Israel and South Africa, also pursue independent military export policies. As the Gulf War so easily proved, Western powers may also face their "own" kit being wielded by the opposition.

PILOTLESS AIRCRAFT

The UK MoD pre-feasibility study focused only on piloted aircraft. The feasibility study will also consider pilotless combat vehicles and a conventional cruise-missile-carrying large aircraft, according to RAF officers.

Artists' impressions of conceptual FOA platforms, released from the pre-feasibility study, all exhibit to varying degrees the influence of low-observability design. Single- and twin-engined, single- and two-crew, configurations have been examined, with a twin-engined, two-crew, aircraft remaining the RAF's present preferred solution as presenting the lowest-risk developmental path.

Uncrewed combat aircraft are in vogue within certain elements of the US defence-research establishment which believe that they provide one solution to deep-strike penetration, but the RAF has a more conservative attitude. The USAF has no direct replacement for either the MDC F-15E or the F-111, unless such a project exists in the classified arena.

While pertinent technologies for uncrewed combat vehicles will be closely examined within the framework of the feasibility study, senior RAF officers point to risk areas which will need to be fully explored.

At a doctrinal level, the RAF does not have the "luxury" of the USAF's large package approach to strike operations. USAF strike-operation concepts are built around the use of several single-role aircraft in areas such as stand-off jamming, active SEAD, and escort coupled with dedicated sensor-support aircraft built around the AI aircraft. Few air forces besides the USAF and, perhaps, the Russian air force, can afford such an expensive approach.

At the research level, the USA is now also looking in addition at the utility of uncrewed, possibly stealthy, strike vehicles. Remotely piloted and potentially targeted via off-board sensors, and such as an approach would allow mission task planners the comfort of going against high-value targets from day one of any conflict, irrespective of the threat of high losses or of having attained air superiority.

With an in-service date of 2015, procurement officials would need to be certain that the required systems capability to deploy such an aircraft would have reached the necessary levels of availability and reliability.

Other areas of concern focus on the potential vulnerability of the command-and-control and sensor-targeting datalinks. Operating centres for the uncrewed aircraft, as well as manned sensor platforms, would also inevitably be at the top any opponent's targeting list. The required redundancy to allow for the loss of some of these would also be highly expensive.

While the RAF is the first European air force to admit to identifying a requirement for a next-generation strike aircraft, it is not alone in its deliberations. The French and the German air forces have begun to look at requirements to replace the Dassault Mirage 2000D/N and the Tornado respectively in the strike role.

Like the UK, France has also invested in researching stealth technologies, while Germany got as far as building a large, non-flying, stealth fighter in the late 1980s. Both France and Germany are embroiled in paring their respective defence budgets and, in the short term, a full commitment to a next-generation strike aircraft is not likely.

France and the UK, have, however, already begun a series of joint technology-demonstrator projects including the Rolls-Royce/Snecma advanced military-engine technology (AMET) and GEC and Thomson-CSF radar programmes. Germany's Daimler-Benz Aerospace (DASA) has already joined the radar programme, while its engine subsidiary MTU has made overtures to join AMET.

RAF officers consider that a future collaborative European programme to meet its FOA requirement remains, despite the problems with Eurofighter, a clear possibility. At an industrial level, such an approach also offers considerable attractions, as both a route to consolidation and providing the industrial mass to remain a competitor to the US defence aerospace giants.

Along with clean-sheet-of-paper designs, the feasibility study will also consider a derivative of the EF2000. With the likely requirement for low observability and internal carriage of 2 x 900kg-class weapons, the aircraft would have to be redesigned, but such a development path is possible. It would allow the partner nations to further recoup their investment in the project. Italy will also eventually require an aircraft to replace its Tornado strike aircraft.

JSF UNDER SCRUTINY

The feasibility study team will also look at the USAF/US Navy JSF. The Advanced STOVL variant of the JSF for the US Marine Corps will also fill the Royal Navy's requirement for a BAe Harrier F/A2 replacement. The feasibility study will consider whether the USN conventional-take-off-and-landing variant of the JSF will fulfil the RAF's FOA role.

As a single-engined, single-crew design, the JSF faces an uphill struggle, with RAF officers voicing concern over its ability even to come close to meeting FOA range requirements.

The importance of the FOA cannot be underestimated for the RAF, neither should the potential importance of such a programme for BAe and its European industrial partners be under valued.

DASA chairman Manfred Bishscoff says that BAe would be the core around which a European combat-aircraft group would coalesce. The emergence of an FOA programme would provide a concrete programme around which industry could draw together.

Advertising
Advertising