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UK rethinks Tornado replacement

Future Offensive Air System programme disbanded amid disquiet over Joint Strike Fighter technology transfer

The UK Ministry of Defence has dramatically adapted its plans to replace the Royal Air Force’s Panavia Tornado GR4 strike aircraft fleet, closing its Future Offensive Air System (FOAS) programme office and establishing a new team dedicated to assessing unmanned air vehicle technologies.

The UK is also reconsidering the direction of its future UAV activities to potentially include greater European co-operation, amid an atmosphere of continued dissatisfaction over technology transfer tied to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project.

The UK Defence Procurement Agency’s FOAS integrated project team has been disbanded and a new Strategic UAV Equipment programme established to advance research into potential unmanned replacements for the GR4.

Industry sources say the issues of sovereignty and technology transfer remain huge issues for the USA’s partners on the JSF programme, and the approval process for an overseas final assembly and check-out line for the F-35 will bring the matter to a head.

With UK calls for increased access to sensitive technology on the JSF having been repeatedly knocked back by the USA, BAE Systems chief executive Mike Turner says the MoD has within the last six months begun to review its attitude to bilateral co-operation on future activities in areas such as unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) development.

“The government could decide against US or national programmes, so there could be potential for European collaboration,” says Turner. “There is a huge lobby now within the MoD to go more European [and] I think we would be welcomed.”

Turner confirms the company has invested a “significant amount” of its own money in developing and testing advanced UAV technologies in support of future UK requirements. A partially MoD-funded demonstration effort dubbed Project Nightjar is testing materials, aerodynamics and systems for future unmanned vehicles, although the company declines to provide more details on its activities.

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