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

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Business -

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...

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