Combat aircraft for a digitalised battlespace

Combat aircraft for a digitalised battlespace

With the race now on for next generation air supremacy, FINN editor-in-chief Alan Peaford introduces the contenders and the technologies which will influence their design and manufacture

Combat aircraft for a digitalised battlespace

It seems like only yesterday that I visited Boeing at its Palmdale, California plant to witness the unveiling of the X-32, the company’s contender for the American joint strike fighter programme. In fact it was 20 years ago.

It was a truly awesome experience, like looking into the future and hearing too that this could be the last of the manned fighter aircraft.

Just a few miles away in Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works the X-35 was being developed following in the footsteps of the first fifth generation fighter its F-22 Raptor. The X-35 won the contest becoming the F-35 and now becoming operational with sales across 11 countries and earlier this month recorded its biggest sale of $34billion for 478 aircraft.

But the world doesn’t stand still. The race for the next generation of air supremacy is already underway. While stealth was the buzz for the fifth generation, it looks as if artificial intelligence (AI) and even greater speed and manoeuvrability will be the drivers for the 6th.

Three combat aircraft launches in 18 months

In the past 18 months there have been three launches of Future Combat Aircraft. At the end of the last century, a united Europe produced the Eurofighter/Typhoon. Now Europe is looking at a 6th generation aircraft – but without the British who were heading off on a Brexit adventure.

At Farnborough Air Show in 2018 the UK unveiled Tempest, its go-it-alone successor to the Typhoon. Led by BAE Systems the programme has now been joined by Italy’s Leonardo and Sweden’s SAAB.

By the time of Paris Airshow the European contender was rushed through with a French-German concept, driven by Dassault and Airbus, having the wraps lifted in front on President Macron with the manufacturers pushing for government commitments to take the programme further.

Amazingly, barely 100 metres further along the flight-line, Turkey was also drawing in the crowds to show its proposition for a future fighter from Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) which had been working on plans with BAE Systems too. Currently leaving the F-35 industrial partner programme Turkey is moving closer to Russia and is likely to opt for the 5th generation Su-35 with the two countries in advanced talks.

Having put its Su-57 stealth fighter on the back burner, Russia is racing to join the 6th generation contender MiG-41 interceptor making a debut on Pravda in both manned and unmanned versions.

US unveils concepts

Unusually it has been very quiet in the United States. The lessons learned from the F-35 suggest that a joint services design will be unlikely. There are also suggestions that the US would not be looking for international partners. Currently, the United States has two ‘known’ projects: the Air Force's ‘Penetrating Counter-Air'—a long long-range stealth fighter to escort stealth bombers—and the Navy's FA-XX. So far, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and Northrop-Grumman have unveiled sixth-generation concepts.

Japan, China and India are all said to be investigating the 6th generation potential. But why all the interest? Why do nations need it?

Modification and update potential are key

Team Tempest Programme Director, Group Captain Jez Holmes has no doubts about the need for the programme but recognises with an combat aircraft that could still be operating in the 2080s, just what the mission it should be designed for is still uncertain.

Speaking to me at DSEI earlier this year, Holmes said: “Our assumption is that it's going to be an uncertain world with an uncertain threat. So one of the most important aspects of Tempest will be the ability to modify, upgrade and update the whole capability as fast as we can.”

The inclusion of primes from UK, Italy and Sweden to work together is seen as an advantage. “The interesting thing is we are talking to those potential partners about what we might do together and how we might do it. This is an early stage in the programme. But it's important that we develop our relationships with those countries understand what their needs are as much as ours, understand what strengths they bring to the programme to match up with ours, so we can deliver something that's great for our Warfighter as it is for theirs.”

The European contender with France and Germany heading the commitment to a new Future Combat Aerial System (FCAS), is also about cross-border cooperation. But the two European powerhouses have different ideas, as they did when France stepped away from the Eurofighter concept and focused on the Dassault Rafale instead.

France places a lot of importance on projecting power across significant distances, and will demand a very strong nuclear component for whatever replaces Rafale. While Germany is absolutely not interested in this option.

Battlespace will be digitalised

According to Airbus, the FCAS will be not just a fighter, but a systems-of-systems programme that will also incorporate drone swarms, stand-off cruise missiles and legacy aircraft, which are all connected through a highly-digitised battlespace.

It may well be a decade before we see the designs and concepts taking shape. But let there be no doubt, the future is out there and the plans to maintain our defensive deterrents is here for as long as it takes.

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