Piecing together the future of aerial combat
Having created some of the most iconic warplanes of the last 100 years, Britain’s role in the next leap forward is up in the air, says Alan Tovey
This year marks the RAF’S 100th anniversary but as the service celebrates its past, it’s also looking to the future and wondering what it will be flying – and who will build it. Last month, France and Germany announced plans to develop a “future combat air system” (FCAS), built by Airbus and France’s Dassault. What FCAS means isn’t exactly clear, a point made by Airbus boss Tom Enders. “We’re not talking about ‘a’ military aircraft,” he said. “We’re talking about a system of military-combat airborne elements.” Enders wasn’t certain if it would have a pilot.
John Sneller, IHS Jane’s head of aviation, thinks FCAS is likely to be a “fusion” of aircraft and roles. “With artificial intelligence (AI), there’s less need to put people in danger,” he says. “FCAS could mean a manned aircraft working with drones, missiles and ground systems. You could see a ‘loyal wingman’: an Ai-controlled drone flying alongside that is told, ‘Fly there, see what’s there, if it’s the enemy, attack it’. The same level of AI might be go into cruise missiles controlled by the main aircraft, with new sensors providing information to help AI.”
Sneller thinks the next combat aircraft might not fly faster and higher than current jets. “It could be stealthier, slower and carrying more weapons and sensors,” he says. “Maybe we’ve hit the zenith in performance terms.” Such predictions raise questions about the future of air combat and the technology it requires. But the Franco-german deal raises another point: where is Britain in all this? The UK – previously a key player in European aircraft such as Jaguar, Tornado and Typhoon – was left out of the announcement. The door was left open to others, with the FCAS announcement referring to the “involvement of other key European defence industrial players”.
BAE Systems insists it is relaxed about the plans. BAE said it had “a strong history of collaboration with other nations”, adding it was “investing to develop aircraft of the future”.
Since the Franco-german tie-up was first mooted last summer, BAE executives have said they are confident that their company will find a place in any consortium. However, Brexit could complicate cross-channel defence co-operation.
A further hurdle could be Britain’s huge stake in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a project headed by America’s Lockheed Martin. In exchange for Britain investing in developing the $1.5 trillion (£1.1 trillion) programme, BAE is the only tier 1 partner in the making of the jet, with a 15pc stake. Taking a chunk of production on the F-35 might be good for BAE financially, guaranteeing 40 years’ work, but it hasn’t helped the company in other areas.
“The F-35 is good for BAE’S bottom line but it doesn’t keep design expertise alive,” says Justin Bronk, air power expert at think tank RUSI, noting that without control of the F-35’s design and intellectual property (IP), BAE is just a sub-contractor.
“Tornado is going out of service, Typhoon production will end in a few years, and the Hawk has been pushed as far as it can go,” he says.
“Joining the Franco-german project could be the last chance to keep its fighter design skills alive for BAE.”
Sources within BAE have privately confirmed such worries. “All we learnt on Tornado and Typhoon went into the F-35, and while it’s great, it’s left us without any intellectual property,” said one senior figure.
France and Germany’s decision to work together is driven by operational need and political expediency. France’s Rafale jets leave service in 20 years, and Germany’s Typhoons soon after, meaning replacements are needed. Coming together on FCAS will also strengthen the two countries’ ties in Europe where their unity faces challenges because of Brexit.
Britain is in a different position. “We’ve got the F-35, which will be in service for the next 40 years,” says Sneller. “That means the UK can wait and see. The US is developing its own next generation combat system – maybe we’ll join that.”
In any case, Britain sees the development of military kit differently to many in Europe. “Britain is about operational need and capability: what’s the mission and what do we need to do it?” says Sneller. “Right now that means the Typhoon and later the F-35. In the future we might buy off the shelf to fulfil that need. In Europe it’s more about protecting the industrial base so that’s why they want FCAS – they want technical ability.”
France and Germany could also be making a political statement, says Sash Tusa, analyst at Agency Partners. “It could be seen as a reaction to the F-35 and to Donald Trump.”
Bronk agrees. “Right now there’s no operational need for FCAS,” he says, noting that France and Germany could also buy from the US, if they could bear it politically. “FCAS is a political statement by Macron and Merkel.”
In February, UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said Britain is taking a hard look at its needs, launching its “future combat air strategy”. This, he said, will see the MOD work “closely with
industry and international partners” to examine the RAF’S future capabilities, and the skills and resources needed to deliver it. Mr Williamson – whose department is facing a huge funding gap – said the strategy will “build on the industrial strategy” and take into account “export potential”.
The combat air strategy could also signal that Britain has learnt a lesson from the F-35, according to Tusa. “For the UK to pursue the combat air strategy might also send a message [about the F-35] in that Britain can’t control the software and the integration of new systems on to it.”
The lack of IP control of the F-35 extends to the software, which not only flies the aircraft but is linked to its supply chain. It means countries flying the F-35 can’t upgrade unless they work with Lockheed Martin.
BAE says it “welcomes the debate” about what’s next for combat aircraft in the UK but – along with engine maker Rolls-royce – sees nearer-term opportunities to offer its expertise, such as Korea and Indonesia’s KF-X and Turkey’s TF-X fighters. But, while British engineers might have brought about legendary aircraft such as the
Sopwith Camel, Supermarine Spitfire and Avro Vulcan in the past, the days of UK companies turning out aircraft on their own are gone. “No Western country [apart from the US] could build a nextgeneration aircraft alone, it’s just too expensive and too risky,” says Sneller.
If Britain does want to keep alive the skills needed to build aircraft, it’s going to require political will. “It’s a political decision that feeds into a budget decision – ultimately it’s what the country can afford,” says Tusa.
But just because Britain isn’t wowing crowds at air shows with planes it has designed, it doesn’t mean the UK isn’t still a global power. “We’ve become good at the systems that go into making combat aircraft,” says independent defence analyst Howard Wheeldon. “And that’s where the money – and less risk – is.”
While an air force might only buy a few hundred of the airframes that go into combat, the systems inside them – the engines, sensors and weapons – have a higher turnover.
“Systems are getting more complex and more expensive,” says Sneller. By comparison he points to UK defence group Ultra Electronics. Militaries burn through the sonar buoys that it makes to detect submarines, at a high rate, creating a steady revenue stream. “It might not be as exciting, but once you make that first black box you keep churning them out,” he says. “Systems are less risky and more profitable.”
BAE has made smart acquisitions of US electronic companies, which are in demand from the US military, perhaps pointing to the firm’s acceptance that, while it won’t be sketching out the form of the future fighters, it will be building the kit they contain.
Still, there’s plenty of British expertise others can draw on, perhaps breathing new life into the UK’S combat aircraft base. As Tusa says: “Those who read the last rites to European combat aircraft development 15 years ago were wrong, and those reading the last rites for it now could also be wrong.”
‘With artificial intelligence, there’s less need to put people in danger. Maybe we’ve hit the zenith in performance terms’
With many of the BAE Systemsdesigned aircraft, such as the Typhoon, set to end production soon, the next generation for the UK is the Us-built F-35. But it is what follows after, which seems likely to set the tone for the future of aerial combat and UK...