The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) is to launch the feasibility study for the replacement of its Panavia Tornado GR4s. The French defence ministry is also funding elements of the project in a clear indication that it has an embryonic requirement for a strike aircraft to complement the Dassault Rafale.
The MoD has secured £35 million ($57 million) for the feasibility study into what is now called the Future Offensive Air System (FOAS) - previously known as the Future Offensive Aircraft (FOA). The name change was in part a response to UK Treasury concerns that "Aircraft" was too prescriptive. The study launch was delayed by Treasury scrutiny of the project.
The £6 million Anglo-French element of the study is described as a "-technology-demonstration programme to permit computer modelling of weapons systems". This part of the study will model possible air-vehicle and weapons configurations across a broad spectrum of options.
While pre-feasibility studies into the FOA considered only crewed platforms, the FOAS study will look at the possibility of using unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) as well as widebody aircraft acting as cruise-missile launch platforms.
While the MoD stresses that it is keeping an open mind as to what the FOAS will eventually turn out to be, the Royal Air Force's preference is likely to be for a crewed aircraft. With the GR4 to be replaced around 2015, there is concern that uncrewed air-technologies will lack the desired maturity for the long-range strike role.
With a maximum RAF requirement of 200 "aircraft", the FOAS will almost certainly emerge as a collaborative programme.
European and US collaborative options are being explored. Preliminary approaches have been made to the UK's Eurofighter partners: Germany, Italy and Spain, while the MoD could also opt for a US programme.
Alongside next-generation low-observable (LO) designs, the MoD will also look at modifying the Eurofighter EF2000, to increase its range/payload and improve its LO characteristics. Other off-the-shelf options include purchasing a strike derivative of the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 or a variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. The study will also look at a "synthetic-cockpit environment" where the canopy would, at least temporarily, become opaque, with the crew relying on electro-optic and radio-frequency sensors. This is being considered because of the increasing threat of laser weaponry as an anti-air system.
Beyond this, the study will also consider the possibilities of remotely crewed air vehicles. This would either be from a dedicated ground station, or from another aircraft, such as a Boeing E-3 airborne warning and control system.
The feasibility study is expected to run until around 1999-2000, following which the MoD will determine which procurement path to follow. If a LO design were chosen, it is likely that this would result in a technology-demonstrator programme along the lines of the Experimental Aircraft Programme, which fed into the EF2000.