OK, I’m asking for trouble with such a hyperbolic title, but hear me out. Yes, I know it wasn’t really a stealth fighter but I suspect its radar cross section (how large it appears to a radar) was remarkably small — and almost definitely the smallest of its generation. It was possibly even the stealthiest fighter until the F-16 come on the scene twenty years later.
Let’s start with a little bit of background detail. The Saab Draken was a Swedish fighter developed in the 1950s to counter Soviet bombers and their fighter escorts. Sweden’s neutrality meant it was better for them to develop their own military aircraft, and this they did with aplomb, creating a series of fighters specialising in low-maintenance (as there was a large conscripted force) and high deployability as in a war the air force would operate from hidden underground bases and sections of motorways acting as a guerilla force.
The Draken was an immensely clever design, and remained in frontline service until 2005 (and in a training capacity in the US until 2009). It was powered by a licence-built Avon engine. Whereas the British Lightning had two Avons, the smaller Draken had only one, despite this, the Draken could reach Mach 2, had triple the range of the British fighter and had a similar (and later significantly better) armament (four Sidewinders versus two archaic British weapons).
Today fighters are designed to have the minimal radar cross section as stealth is a good safety measure against radar, the furthest seeing method of aircraft detection. In the 1950s speed was king, and immense compromises were made to reach high mach speeds. Some design features suitable for high speed flight are compatible with stealth, and occasionally a low radar cross section is arrived at by accident as a happy byproduct of aerodynamics and other considerations. Looking at the Draken its hard not to wonder what the radar cross section of this sleek design would have been.
Highly swept leading edges
In some ways radar energy bounces off at a flat surface in the same way as a billiard ball would, so predicting what it will do is possible and can be tested. Stealth aircraft hide from radar in several ways, one being the the use of aircraft’s shape to divert returning radar ‘spikes’ away from the hostile radar. The leading edge of the Draken’s inner wing had an 80° sweep angle for high-speed performance, an extreme angle that would deflect radar energy away from the transmitting aircraft. The outer wing, swept at 60° for better performance at low speeds, was of an even greater angle than the Raptor (42 degrees) and not far off the F-117’s 67.5 degrees. The vertical tail is also highly swept, though a single straight up tail is doubly-bad offering a large signature from the side and creating the avoided at all cost 90 degree angles (with the wing) that provide a painfully loud radar return. The wings’ smoothness are not interrupted by many angle changes, ‘dog teeth’ or wingfences.
The compressor face of the engine, essentially a massive block of metal perpendicular to the flightpath (radars looking directly from the front at an aircraft will have the greatest notice of the aircraft’s arrival, hence stealth’s preoccupation with the aircraft’s frontal cross section) is a key contributor to an aircraft’s radar signature — that of the Draken is completely hidden away within the fuselage.
As far as we know the Draken did not incorporate any radar absorbent materials (RAM) or radar absorbent structures (RAS), it also of conventional materials (largely aluminium). The radar plate in the nose and the cockpit would be highly reflective, though the general canopy shape may less reflective than others of the time.
Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes. I asked his opinion on the Draken’s signature and how it would compare with its contemporary, the F-5 and the later F-16 (an aircraft known to have a small signature).
“I’m not an expert in the radar signature world, and to those that are, a single-figure rcs is not appropriate, But I did write (ages ago) a little algorithm that I used to provide an estimate to drive an optimising program. The estimation tool was explicitly not for LO aircraft. As one of your other commentators pointed out, the type and frequency of the illuminating radar is important, as are the details of the geometry. Testing and analysis is the only way to go – but for the three aircraft you mention, Draken, F-5E and F-16, one can make the following comments:
Draken, head-on, has relatively small intakes, relatively highly swept wing, relatively tidy boundary layer diverter, somewhat blended wing and fuselage, and should have a lower rcs than most of its contemporaries. From the quartering front, the fuselage and wing are relatively blended, which would help. Directly side on, the fin is going to give you a spike, as are the external pylons. And all of the aircraft will have significantly higher returns when carrying missiles. Interestingly, later aircraft have a IRST.
F-5E is a trim little aircraft. Compared to the Draken, although it too has smallish intakes, the boundary layer diverter arrangement is notably messy. From the quartering front, one can observe the flat fuselage side making a right-angle to the plane of the wing, and the fin and tailplane, and tailplane and rear fuselage, doing the same. So from the side, not only will there be a spike from the fin, but the wing-fuselage and fin-tail-fuselage geometries form corner reflectors, increasing radar returns.
F-16 has much higher power-to-weight than F-5 or Draken, and as a result has a large intake. Head-on this is likely to increase signature, but the inlet may (will in later/US models) be treated so as to counter this. The boundary layer diverter is large, and will contribute to the rcs. From quartering front, the leading edge strake and the blending of the wing and body will help, as will the gold flashing of the canopy, which prevents radar energy from entering the cockpit and reduces returns from that area. Side-on, the large fin and the under-fuselage strakes will contribute. Of the three aircraft, only the F-16 is likely to have benefited from RCS reduction treatments, almost certainly in the intake duct, around the radar and possibly some applique coatings.”
Without knowledge of the radar in question and the materials used in the Draken it is hard to make a precise estimation but it seems likely that it was stealthier than the Lightning, F-4 and even the F-104 (suffering as it did a circular fuselage, a T-tail and tiptanks). For its generation it may have indeed had a marginal advantage in radar conspicuity.
Fast, brutal and unforgiving, the MiG-27 is a formidable Soviet attack aircraft that continues to serve with the Indian Air Force. Hush-Kit spoke to former MiG-27 pilot Anshuman Mainkar about flying and fighting in this ferocious machine known locally as the Bahadur.
What is the best thing about the MiG-27? “She was built for low level flying. No doubt about it, she offered a silk smooth ride down low. And she was fast….I remember a live fire exercise mission flows in card with two French Mirages trailing. On being given a call to push, we engaged afterburners and pulled away from the Mirages, who couldn’t catch up with us after that.”
“She was very fast at low-levels, and her ability to hold steady was superb. With wings swept back fully and speeds exceeding 1000 km/h at low levels, the wings waggled and the noise and vibrations that set in gave an impression of a banshee just freed, screaming with abandon.”
What were you first impressions of flying the MiG-27?
“The MiG-27 you got to fly, after doing dual conversion on the MiG-23UB trainer, which was very different from the MiG-27. Firstly, the MiG-23UB stands with its nose up, making visibility on ground difficult for a short guy like me. I had to use two cushions to prop myself up decently. But the switches and their placement in the cockpit were not very different from a MiG-21 which made things easier. True, it was a different generation, so there were other things to contend with, but similar aesthetics made adjustment easy.
It was heavier than the MiG-21. I remember using both hands to control attitude after retracting flaps on the take-off leg during the initial few sorties. Visibility was generally poor, but cockpit workload during the conversion phase did not leave much room or time to take in the scenery.
The big difference of course, was the variable sweep wings, which you had to control manually in the air. We usually flew at 45 degree sweep, extending the wings to 16 degrees for landing/take-off and to 72 for getaways. During the initial sorties, there were a couple of instances when one forgot to sweep wings. But the aircraft gave a few indications (vibrations, sluggish turning) before the trainer captain got a chance to add your name in the little black book and claim a crate of beer.
The circuit speeds were comparable to the MiG-21, and the landing speeds were a notch lesser, flaring out at approx. 310-300 kmph.
The MiG-27, in comparison was set low, had the duck nose and afforded amazing visibility (in relative terms). Handling was similar, but it was much more fun to fly, also considering the lack of patter from the rear cockpit ☺. It handled nicely, although it was heavier than the MiG-21. She was a little stiff to manoeuvre, but once you got the hang of it, she’d follow you to high heaven. Larger than the MiG-21, she also gave you more time in the air, which was welcome, although, built for low levels, the non-existent air-conditioning below 6000 ft made a huge announcement when you landed, and got out, dripping wet from aircraft.
She was very fast at low-levels, and her ability to hold steady was superb. With wings swept back fully and speeds exceeding 1000 km/h at low levels, the wings waggled and the noise and vibrations that set in gave an impression of a banshee just freed, screaming with abandon.”
Which three words best describe the MiG-27?
“Fast, furious and a true Flogger.”
What is the cockpit like, and how pilot-friendly is it?
“I mention this above (for both the MiG-23UB and the MiG-27). Adding some more. The cockpit was slightly bigger than the MiG-21FL. The seat pan was also bigger, the KM-1M. The throttle and stick were sizeably bigger than the FLs. Visibility was a stark contrast between the MiG-23UB and the -27ML (as described earlier). The MiG 27 visibility was ‘great’ compared to the MiG-23, but having sat in an F-16 as well, I shouldn’t boast too much.
The instrumentation was similar, and its placement resembled that of a MiG 21 – communication, flaps and gear, engine instruments, pneumatic/hydraulic dials were the same make, and their positioning was also similar. This added to the aesthetics. In addition, in the MiG-27, the dials were a tad angled towards the pilot, reducing the parallax error, and making it easier to spot and interpret.
There were adequate warning switches and also the Natasha, (audio warning), which made life simple.”
The aircraft had an extremely powerful gun, what was it like to fire? “After pickling, the aircraft seemingly came to a stand-still, engrossed with its target – tracers creating an illusion of morse communication. Smoke and the smell of cordite entered the cockpit, and in a flash it was all over. 30mm at 5000 rds/min. ‘Surge’ had to be avoided. Plus…the ‘Gasha’ was a six-barrelled Gatling type gun, the airframe shuddered during the trigger pull, and surge was a possibility, hence the exit had to be smooth and deliberate. Hearing the A-10’s infamous BRRRRRT gun sound brings back memories of the MiG-27 to me.”
What was your most notable mission and why?
“I’d gotten disoriented after take-off, recovering at about 500metres above ground level.
But let me talk about a mission that sums up life in a regular fighter squadron, and the small joys that make all the difference. This was a 6 -ship long-distance range strike mission as part of our annual preparedness inspection. The range was approximately 800 km away, involving a flying time of 40 min, followed by recovery at a base close to the armament range. Two squadrons were being inspected at the home base, so there were 12 ac, plus the inspection ships. Since the inspectors were to be the same for both formations, the spacing couldn’t be kept far apart, catering to the limited loiter times for the inspectors.
Take-off was uneventful. We proceeded at medium levels at tactical speeds since we were out of the ‘green period’ for the morning. Radar handovers were okay. We got bounced once, and we managed to evade the threat, having spotted it in time. Having ensured our separation from the earlier formation, we commenced descent and built up separation gradually between the members, altering position as to ensure max situational awareness (SA). I was the last. Ensuring adequate spacing, I settled down at 100m AGL, checked my switches and started accelerating towards the target on cue, trimming constantly to ensure minimum pressure on the stick. Coming off a navigation, I needed to read the ground, correlate it with my map, adjust heading, cross-check spacing with the guy in front, check engine parameters, speeds, switches, trimming the aircraft finely to ensure no inadvertent ‘g’ forces during trigger press. This process was repeated, but faster each time, as the target approached. A minute out, I started scanning for the target, trying to align myself with it, to reduce any deflection errors. 45” to go, at the right speed, switches checked, I spotted the white dot which represented the target. It appeared huge by comparison, or maybe the focus was so intense that I blacked out everything else. I gave the 30” LIVE call indicating my position and intention to fire to the Range Officer, marking the target on ground. Speed was +10, height was +10 metres…which meant a nudge-back on the throttle lever (mentally prepared to push this back up, in a couple of seconds, such was the response time of the jet) and a slight trim forward, aligned to the target, master switch on, trigger cover pulled up, trimmer locked. Now there would be no more check on speed or alignment. The entire focus was on a smooth ride-up to the base of the target, keeping the fingers around the stick as light as possible, with the right index finger ready to pickle. I can still remember the gentle coaxing to get the gunsight move up towards the target steadily. Once it got to the base of the target, a pause, just as I had imagined the scene from the workstation that morning…trigger press and a hollered ‘FAAAIIRRRE!’. I immediately selected safe switches, pulled back, throttled back to get the aircraft back to tactical speeds, checked engine parameters, heard the weapon sighted call from the Range Officer and began a scan for the member in front.
Five minutes later, with the adrenalin still flowing (a double shot actually, given the flying plus the range-work), 14 aircraft got into the landing pattern. Recovering thirsty aircraft was a delicate operation. There was just about enough fuel to reach the primary diversion, and with each minute, the point of no return was approaching fast. What you did not want to hear was a call of ‘runway blocked’! With fingers crossed in spite of the cockpit workload and the scanning for multiple aircraft in the circuit pattern, the adrenalin kept pumping till I call finals and landed, literally panting for fuel. Upon opening the canopy after switching off the jet, there were my squadron mates lined up. An exceptional score gets you that sort of adulation, especially when not many can boast of the feast. Given the seriousness of the mission, it was absolutely the best feeling in the world.”
Which new piece of equipment would you have most liked have seen integrated on the MiG-27? “A few of our ML machines have got a Mid-Life Upgrade, equipping them with HUD and a navigation/avionics suite which was far better than what we map-bound warriors had to contend with. So, I think for the generation that it represented, the upgrade gave it the best possible facelift. As someone who has come out with a sore behind on multiple occasions after long duration missions, I wouldn’t insist on in-flight refuelling”
“In my opinion, it is the only fighter which has ‘engine explosion’ as a standard aircraft emergency.”
What are worst things about the MiG-27?
“At a time counted as one of the most powerful single-engined fighters in the world, it has a few teething issues with the power-plant, but that also had to do with age / engine rating / maintenance issues. In my opinion, it is the only fighter which has ‘engine explosion’ as a standard aircraft emergency.
But a real issue was the air-conditioning, which only kicked in climbing past 6000’. At low-levels it’s hot / hotter / hottest temperature settings (as fondly known in the IAF) did not offer much respite.”
Tell me something I don’t know about the aircraft – Did you know it waggles along its longitudinal axis (nose to tail) at high speeds at max sweep, esp. at low levels. Resembles the rifling of a bullet.
How fast was the MiG-27?
- Climbing – decent
- Low level max speed – I’ve crossed 1100 kmph
- High level max speed – supersonic at 10 km altitude (air-test profile)
What’s the best way to avoid or defeat an F-16? A MiG 27, being a striker, is likely to be escorted into adversary territory. However, if it had to contend with an F-16, defensive manoeuvring towards a low level quick getaway would be the ideal choice.
Which aircraft have you trained against, which was the hardest opponent and why? “A good pilot, even in a MiG 27 can make a big difference. Basically any opponent who can exploit the manoeuvre envelope the best, and make optimal use of the energy. If you can build an edge for the first 30”, you have the close combat wrapped up – either dominating or escaping. That said, I found the Su-30 daunting, versatile and dominating in almost any situation.”
What’s your favourite piece of equipment on the MiG-27 and why? “Its undercarriage. Designed like a piece of art, fits like a glove. — and sturdy to boot.”
What advice would you have given a new pilot coming onto the MiG-27? “Respect her, listen to her, and she’ll treat you right.”
How high was the pilot workload? “Considerable, given that she was heavy to handle, low-level work required a lot of outside scan, and her age demanded a judicious amount of internal monitoring as well. And of course, no HUD and Nav goodies meant that outside cockpit workload was also considerable, making maps, plans and rehearsing profiles. But it was worth it!”
How combat effective was the MiG-27? “In today’s age, you can’t expect much out of them. But their systems were well designed and it was a strike pilot’s dream – for its day and age. It delivered the payload well!”
What is the greatest myth about the aircraft? “Low reliability. True, they required maintenance, but aside from the engine (explained above), they behaved and performed relatively well, given the analog systems and equipment on board. The Russians built good stuff!”
Has the MiG-27 been kept in service for too long? “Yes. The IAF is probably the only AF operating these. So, as a philosophy and platform, it is obsolete. However, the upgrade version is a potent platform, and should render decent service, within its mandates scope.”
How would you rate the MiG-27 in the following: (1 to 5; 5 being a high score)
- Instantaneous turn rate – 2
- Sustained turn rate – 3
- Weapon accuracy – 3 (4 – upgrade)
- Survivability – 2 (3 – upgrade)
What was the MiG-27s role in the Kargil War and how well did it perform? “Strike. The terrain did not allow conventional weapon delivery, so limited effectiveness. However, LGB employability could be done, provided the target was painted by another platform.”
Were spare parts always available as required? Serviceability was maintained at about 60-70%, with decent flying, ensured by good planning process, and subsequently a phase-out plan ensured that even the last non-upgrade unit maintained its operational status. The MiG 27 upgrade units are still flying decently.
Which aircraft do you fly and with which unit, how many do you hours do you have on type?
“MiG 21FL (Type 77 in India) with ‘OCU AF’ (Operational Conversion Unit) and with 8 Sqn, AF (Eighth Pursoot). These tenures were part of my MiG Operational Flying Training (MOFT) stint, which followed advanced Jet training, and preceded a posting to operational squadrons of the IAF. I flew these from Mid-2004 till Dec-2005, approx. 150hrs.
MiG 27ML with 18 Sqn AF (Flying Bullets), 222 Sqn AF (Tigersharks) and 22 Sqn AF (Swifts) as operational pilot from Jan 2006 till May 2012. However, I was off flying from mid-2011 due to a cervical spine injury. I subsequently got out of the AF in mid 2014. I flew these ac for approx. 600 hrs”
What should I have asked you? I think you were comprehensive.
Photographs: photographs by Kedar Karmarkar & Anshuman Mainkar
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You may also enjoy- My favourite Spitfire, Project Tempest: Musings on Britain’s new superfighter project, Everything you always wanted to know about Indian air power, but were afraid to ask: In conversation with Shiv Aroor
“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”
― William Shakespeare,
Project Tempest is a team of British and Italian companies looking for leadership of a new-generation ‘do everything’ stealth fighter. Ambitious and bold it may be, but is it a good idea — and will it actually happen?
A life-size plastic model of a stealthy fighter was unveiled at the Farnborough airshow. The model and accompanying press briefing was from a team that comprised the British Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems, European defence giant MBDA, Rolls-Royce, and the Italian company Leonardo. This was the public birth of Project Tempest, intended to develop new aircraft technologies and find partners for a future fighter project. The mock-up’s exact shape may be a placeholder, but having a physical manifestation at an airshow was a symbolically strong move, as was the name. Normally new fighter project names are a series of letters (FEFA, JSF, ACA, TFX etc.) and the use of an emotive word is a public relations coup. Following the use of other former wartime Hawker fighter names — Tornado and Typhoon — Tempest is a predictable choice. The name may also hint at the desire for this to grow into a wider pan-European collaboration. If the British defence sector wishes to stay in the fighter market (outside of its US and Turkish involvement) post-Brexit it will need to show willing, confidence and initiative — and Team Tempest is just such a move. It has been stated that BAE Systems wants leadership if such a new collaboration starts, but should it? Is Team Tempest a good idea, and will it work? Though Team Tempest is already international it is intended to be British-led. Arguments for a new British-led tactical fighter will revolve around five perceived needs: let’s have a quick look at them.
The make-up of Britain’s current fighter force reveals what the RAF will need in the future. Tornado is on the way out, Typhoon is the current mainstay, and a mixed Typhoon/F-35 force represents the medium term. I have avoided mentioning FCAS and the plethora (sorry Paul Beatty) of British paper studies over the last 25 years in any detail as they’re too numerous to mention. They generally centre on a mixed force of manned and unmanned stealthy aircraft. It is likely that any fast jet would be used in conjunction with a subsonic flying wing UCAV if these don’t fall out of favour before entering service outside of the US.
There are rumours going around that many in the RAF and MoD do not want the full 138 F-35s on order. Insiders suggest a ‘silver bullet’ force akin to USAF’s 1990s F-117 fleet is being mooted in high places. Stealth is not required for all missions, and comes at a great cost (though the F-35’s situational awareness advantage is useful for many missions). It is likely that fewer aircraft will be delivered and to protect the RAF’s independence some of these will be F-35As.
Procurement moves by the US (both F-22s and 6th Gen’ plans), Japan (with the F-3) and Turkey with the TF-X show that those who can afford an alternative don’t consider the F-35 a viable air superiority platform. This flies in the face of public announcements by Lockheed Martin, USAF and F-35 pilots regarding the aircraft’s effectiveness in the role, but it is hard to read the facts in any other way. With the Meteor long-range air-to-air missile a likely weapon for Tempest, Air Superiority, or at least a strong Swing Role capability, is likely. The RAF will need a replacement for Typhoon.
The British military doctrine and inventory currently has little provision for the idea of fighting a powerful well-equipped enemy without assistance from the US and /or NATO.
Analysis of the design can be found here.
Having a high technology base is probably good for a nation’s economy, and many are returning to the idea of nation states above internationalism. Could high technology levels be maintained without a new fighter? British-made defensive aids and sub-systems are widely respected – featuring on the F-22, F-35 and advanced F-15s among others – so even without Tempest it is likely Britain could continue to create high-end military aerospace technology.
Though a 30-year old design, the EJ200 turbofan engine that powers the Typhoon is widely respected, with many technical observers putting Britain in the number-two slot of advanced jet producers (behind the US). In Europe, only France has the ability to create fighter engines. This technology is very hard to develop if lost, or never achieved – as evident in the experiences in China and India.
British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced, “We have been a world leader in the combat air sector for a century, with an enviable array of skills and technology, and this Strategy makes clear that we are determined to make sure it stays that way…British defence industry is a huge contributor to UK prosperity, creating thousands of jobs in a thriving advanced manufacturing sector, and generating a UK sovereign capability that is the best in the world.. Today’s news leaves industry, our military, the country and our allies in no doubt that the UK will be flying high in the combat air sector as we move into the next generation.”
Britain’s global position
Historian David Edgerton noted in conversation with Hush-Kit, “It is not historical destiny which makes the British warlike, but particular political and military programmes of the recent past. So I would say that in the early twentieth century the United Kingdom was more warlike than myth suggested, much more so, but it is only in recent years that we have had a gleeful indulgence in military adventurism overseas. The United Kingdom did once have a major world role, now it just pretends to. It is now really a big Canada, but political leaders want to see themselves at the head of a small United States.” This bloated self-perception sometimes leads to Britain going it alone on military procurement programmes its smallish domestic market cannot justify. This can lead to a higher unit price, which leads to a lack of export success, which in turn keeps the unit price high. With this in mind partners are needed.
Divided by politics, losing support from its European friends, and tied to an increasingly erratic US, Britain needs a shot in the arm. Ambitious military equipment projects are popular with large sections of the public and demonstrate confidence in the future. To others the idea will seem wasteful, irrelevant and unlikely to come to fruition. Some may point out that huge national problems, like the record homelessness epidemic, are more pressing than billion-pound plastic planes (though the £2billion figure has been earmarked for several years).
Does BAE Systems deserve the gig?
BAE Systems sells more to the US Department of Defense (DOD) than the UK MoD, and needs to keep a cordial relationship with the US. It currently has a 13-15% workshare of each F-35 Lightning made — so aggressively pursuing export sales at the expense of British or European needs is not at the top of its agenda. It also has pretty lamentable track record — other than the Hawk trainer, the last new military aircraft project it led was the disastrous Nimrod MRA.4. Before that the British Harrier GR.5 lagged behind its US brother the AV-8B; the AV-8B served with distinction in Desert Storm, whereas the British GR.5 was considered too immature to deploy. BAE Systems is good at high technology, has an exceptionally large portfolio and is world-class. That the F-22 and the highest spec F-15s carry BAE Systems tech is testament to this. In short, BAE Systems could do it, but it would probably be slow and expensive.
Analysis of the design can be found here.
Military aircraft design and production workforces are very vulnerable. BAE has frequently cut or threatened to cut staff when aircraft do not sell well — the Typhoon being a case in point. As an employment-creation scheme, the military aviation sector is very expensive, and demonstrably unstable.
A 2035 in-service date seems unlikely, with fighters outside of China and Sweden taking about 25 years from initial ideas to frontline service. If all went well and Tempest followed this pattern, we would be looking at 2043 as the earliest in-service date.
Technologically, the watchword is ‘Everything’! A feast of exotic technologies discussed include disruptive energy weapons, stealth, virtual cockpits,variable cycle engines, hypersonic missiles, thrust-vectoring control, massive onboard electrical power generation, sensors operating in weird bandwidths, and optionally manned. This is a vision of ambition. So far, the only air forces to have indigenous stealth fighters in service are the US and China. The ‘optionally manned’ feature of Project Tempest has raised a few eyebrows, with many experts seeing it as path to getting the worst of both worlds.
Claims that Team Tempest will use new ideas to move quickly and affordably are reminiscent of early JSF talk, when the F-35 was predicted to cost $28 million a unit thanks to an innovative contract type, and design and manufacturing techniques (in 2018 the F-35 project is now celebrating some models’ price tags going under 100 million, which even allowing for time and inflation puts it into a different category from the low-cost aircraft it was originally supposed to be).
Britain, the black sheep of Europe, will struggle to find a willing team with its neighbours. France, has always prioritised autonomy and design leadership, and Germany is the least militaristic of the major European players. Franco-German concepts for a Future Combat Air System for Europe (below) have been notable by their exclusion of UK involvement, something that has alarmed BAE Systems no end. When things were easier for military projects Europe (and NATO) still struggled to unite on common procurement programmes. The 1980s offered a perfect storm for the development of a new fighter: a relatively strife-free EU, a tangible advanced threat, and much larger orders (Britain originally wanted 250 Typhoons). Even in these fertile conditions, the effort that led to Typhoon was a struggle, so looking further afield for partners is likely.
The Swedish firm Saab is the most successful manufacturer of fighter aircraft in terms of achieving – or coming closest to – predicted schedules and budgets, and its model could be one to follow.
Typhoon and Tornado suffered from an overly democratic concept-definition process, whereby compromise was put ahead of overall effectiveness. Attempts at fairness in design-sharing and production allocation led to some odd decisions (such as Germany leading the flight control system for Typhoon and a cumbersome and expensive production line). The arrangement of Eurofighter made upgrades slow and tortuous, and left the consortium little room for initiative.
The bright news for a new fighter programme is the multitude of nations, including Turkey, Japan and South Korea, desiring fighters of their own and open to collaboration. A prime contributing factor in this worldwide trend for indigenous fighters is the absence of an exportable F-15 replacement. While updated F-15s, F/A-18s, Eurocanards and late F-16s are impressive, in the long term there are no high-end Air Superiority fighters available for Western friendly nations.
Is project Tempest a serious thing, or an attempt by a nation on the back foot to appear confident? Time will tell.
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Air Traffic Controller, comedian and son of Viscount pilot, Dorian Crook, reviews a new book on the Vickers Viscount by Nick Stroud.
SPOILER ALERT! Production of the Viscount finished in 1962!
Not too much of a Spoiler Alert, as it happens, because this is no geek’s telephone-directory-style production list (not that there’s anything wrong with that….).
No. Mr. Stroud’s biography of the Viscount is beautifully illustrated thoughtfully presented and, whilst it includes the usual facts and figures, is happy to stray into the social, political, and other worlds beyond rivets and registration letters. This will come as no surprise to readers of Mr.Stroud’s independent magazine The Aviation Historian; it’s where he comes into his own, and I would say we need more of this…
Back to the basics- we have 120 pages with well-reproduced photos on each- good value at £16.99. Starting with Mr. Stroud’s personal connection, we have chapters on Genesis, Development and Production, a chapter on Military variants and interesting diversions into second-hand uses and corporate or private operators. Again, deviating from the tired listings of other publications, Mr. Stroud has not felt the need to tabulate accidents to Viscounts. Instead, he has chosen to look in detail at one accident, near Sydney, Australia, in 1961. This gives us much more feel of the operation in general, than a mass of statistics. No, it’s not the complete story of every accident, but it’s much more readable for that.
Talking of Viscount incidents, my late father, who was a Captain on the 700 series, told the tale of a colleague of his, whose passengers had a lucky escape when an inboard propellor detached and embedded itself in the toilet section of the fuselage. After the hearty meal and wine of an early-Sixties holiday charter, it seems the only reason the toilet was unoccupied was that the crew had forgotten to cancel the Seat Belts sign after a period of turbulence….
When I read novels, I’m disappointed if I don’t find at least one word which I have to look up. I don’t normally set such high standards for aircraft production histories, but again Mr. Stroud has delivered: Legerdemain was a new one on me. This is a book you could show your non-Aviation friends- the photos are not just side-on spottershots- they contain the human element wherever possible, engineers tinkering with flaps, with comments on the weather (and surroundings). Airline brochures, luggage labels and similar all help to evoke the era of which this aircraft was a part.
These good intentions are well shown in the photo of an elegant Aer Lingus stewardess sashaying down the steps of an Aer Lingus V.707. It’s more reminiscent of a Vogue fashion spread than an aircraft history. As well as observing her immaculate attire, we are invited to divert our attention to the air-conditioning air scoop under the fuselage! So- no accusations of objectification of Air Stewardesses and something for all readers.
I look forward to seeing more from the Stroud writing desk, and I do hope he’s sent a copy to the ‘Viscount Bar’, a hostelry complete with a Viscount profile image, on the road to Dublin Airport.
The British test pilot John Farley, famous for his work on the Harrier jump-jet, passed away in June. The artist and aeronautical engineer Stephen Mosley shares a personal recollection of an immensely skilled and principled man.
I first met John when he gave a talk in Gosport to an air enthusiasts group, the second time when I invited him to give a talk to my local Rotary club. In each case the subject matter was the same – “How to Fly a Harrier” – but the content was totally different, with each tailored to the specific audience. This gives an insight into an aspect of John’s character that I think elevates him to a credible candidate for being the best test pilot that Britain has ever produced. The stereotypical image of the test pilot promulgated by Hollywood is that of the loner, the rebel who pushes the boundaries for the thrill of it. However what you actually need is someone who can fly reliably to set parameters, deal calmly with high pressure situations and who can impart information to others as the core of a team. John’s flying ability is something I only know of through reputation but the way he tailored his talk was, to me, indicative of the “emotional intelligence” that must have made him such a valuable part of all the projects he was involved in.
My next meeting with John was when he joined the Farnborough-Aircraft.com air taxi team as a consultant. There were about a dozen or so of us and as we were introduced each of us told him, to his slight embarrassment, when we had met him before. Invariably it had been at some talk or lecture and equally invariably it had left an impression on all of us. I always found John’s innate modesty to be a curious thing. His continual surprise that anyone should wish to spend time with him, or to call in and chat was undoubtedly genuine yet given his achievements who of us wouldn’t wish to sit and listen to him? Something I had the singular honour of doing whilst Wills and Kate were getting hitched. Our wives were both going to be watching the wedding so I popped over to John’s and we sat talking in his study for a couple of hours – or at least I prompted occasionally and just sat back.
His early flying career, the Paris Air Show Tu-144 crash, accidentally testing the strength of the Vulcan undercarriage, landing the Spitfire and his views on Chuck Yeager. All were gone into along with various other aspects of his career including, of course, the Harrier. That deep rooted ability to impart information in an interesting manner, relaying the incredible and the exceptional as if it were the everyday, once more shone through. Something that undoubtedly informed the way he influenced those he worked with. More than one colleague from the Farnborough-Aircraft days has remarked how he had a way of explaining something you’d missed as if it was based in some minor oversight on your part rather than his own keen and insightful engineering ability.
John’s flying exploits are a matter of public record with the key points of his life recorded in his excellent autobiography. As regards the man behind those all I can say is that he was a genuinely nice person who coupled an exceptional ability with modesty and a highly developed intellect with a sincere consideration for those around him. I truly believe that Britain has lost one of its finest test pilots with John’s passing, certainly one who was involved in some of the most exciting developments in British aviation since the war. Those of us who were lucky to know him have also lost a very dear friend.
Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes. From ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. We asked his opinion on what we can learn from looking at Britain’s next potential fighter, Project Tempest.
Hush-Kit has asked me to provide some quick analysis of the BAE Systems Tempest 6th Gen combat aircraft concept announced on 16 July. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to comment, although much that follows will be speculative, and perhaps based on a view of what this concept might become, rather than a detailed analysis of what looks like an early placeholder which will be refined through further study.
Because I am currently travelling (and indeed writing this at 5:30 local in the airline lounge in Dubai) I have had the opportunity also to read Justin Bronk’s comments, which strike me as very sound. What can I add?
Well my first question, which will perhaps come as no surprise, is – what is Tempest intended to do? From a configuration perspective, this looks to me to be deliberately flexible at this point. The graphics show the aircraft firing a Meteor-like missile – no surprise there, given MBDA’s stated involvement, and the excellence of the weapon – and hence suggesting a BVR combat role. From the size of the aircraft, (which is driven by payload-range) this looks to be targeted at the air superiority rather than air defence role.
My earlier piece discussing BVR combat aircraft draws a distinction between the air defence role as one performed at or near the boundary between own and threat airspace, and air superiority, which depends on an ability to penetrate and fight in defended threat airspace. This becomes a driver for longer-range, and hence bigger aircraft; signature management and comprehensive EW for survivability; and powerful and sophisticated sensors aiming at a shoot-before-detected capability.
Tempest looks to have aspirations in all these areas, with space provided for internal carriage of weapon, and by implication, stores, sensors and fuel.
What should Tempest be? In my view there is the opportunity here to build a worthy successor to Typhoon and Tornado. This will only be realised if the MoD resist the urge to squeeze every ounce of weight out of the aircraft by attempting to pare cost by reducing the aircraft BME (Basic Mass Empty). Ideally Tempest should be designed to have managed signature, with internal weapons carriage, and sufficient range to conduct penetrating Offensive Counter Air (OCA) ops, while still retaining enough internal volume to carry air to surface stand-off weapons. For the BVR and strike roles, a reasonable level of agility would be required, but thrust-to-weight and energy manoeuvre capability are likely to be less than an air-to-air configured Typhoon.
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Looking at the upgradeable part of the slide, it appears external conformal tanks (above the wing ?) and conformal external sensor or weapons packs are a possibility – this approach could yield a 6th gen F-15 like capability, with the clean aircraft having somewhat more agility compared to the conformal ccarriage configurations providing both range and payload options (like the F-15C compared to the F-15E, but stealthier and probably with a bit less agility), which might even include a dedicated EW capability (like a stealthy F-18G, at least until the EW kit fires up).
On basic aircraft configuration, this looks close to the sort of sweep, aspect ratio and planform I would expect to come out of a design optimisation process for an aircraft with decent mission performance (good payload range), managed signature, and good enough manoeuvre capability (point performance) for a BVR fighter. It does not, however, look particularly like a dog-fighting aircraft, and nor need it be.
What are the points to worry about?
I agree with Jason Bronk that optionally manned is the worst of both worlds. But is there a scope for an unmanned wingman concept, where weight is saved by removing all the man-supporting elements? I’m still not sure this would be an optimal solution, but significant weight could be saved, and coupled with an FCS adapted to exploit the structural strength to the max, i.e. up to the aerodynamic and structural capability of the aircraft, rather than the 9g human limit, might have some advantages.
I cast some dark looks at the intakes, which have no boundary layer diverter, but also no ‘diverterless’ intake bump, such as is used by Lockheed and others. Managing the fuselage boundary layer is essential to get good engine and intake performance, but this is also a risk area for signatures.
Otherwise, there may be difficulties incorporating the conformal tanks/stores carriers in a stealthy design, and some aspects of the rear end design look a bit untidy at present.
My main message would be to hope BAE and the MoD keep this as a flexible, truly multi-capable aircraft, and not squeeze the life out of it in a mistaken attempt to minimise cost. If they do, any savings will come at the expense of future capability.
The British Ministry of Defence today unveiled a new £2 billion project, dubbed Tempest, intended to lead to a 6th generation fighter to be ready in the 2030s. Following Brexit, Britain fears isolation from the next European fighter and Tempest is likely an attempt to keep Britain in the game. Hush-Kit spoke to RUSI defence analyst Justin Bronk to find out more.
“The Tempest mock-up and virtual concept art unveiled at Farnborough , whilst clearly very early stage ideas rather than anything approaching a prototype or tech demonstrator, do tell us a few things about British thinking in terms of a new combat air platform for the late 2030s.
Firstly, the concept still includes canted vertical fins which indicates a preference for retaining some fighter-like agility and stability in extreme flight regimes. This is in marked contrast to various concept artworks released by US OEMs in recent years which have typically eschewed vertical tail surfaces, presumably to aid all aspect signature reduction.
Secondly, the concepts feature a sleeker, longer fuselage than the F-35 and are clearly twin engined. This suggests an emphasis on endurance and unrefuelled range over low costs and simplicity compared to the latter and a desire to carry a larger and presumably modular payload internally. In many ways, it is remarkable the extent to which the Tempest physical and virtual mock ups unveiled mirror the design choices made by Chengdu for China’s J-20A. Large, twin engine with small canted vertical surfaces and strong F-22 Raptor influences showing around the nose and especially canopy/cockpit shaping.
Thirdly, the concept has been described as optionally manned. This suggests a British governmental approach which is not comfortable with risking calling the new combat aircraft manned or unmanned at this stage, but unfamiliar with the reasons for going in either direction. In my personal opinion, optionally manned is a terrible way of designing a new combat air system because it gives you the downsides of both without many upsides. Sure, your new combat air system could be sent in on high-threat missions without risking a pilot, but the extra electronic complexity and programming risk for developing a combat aircraft capable of operating autonomously is still required. Meanwhile, the cockpit, life support, controls and HMI still have to be included with consequent penalties over an unmanned design in weight, space, complexity and RCS reduction potential. Furthermore, aircrew still have to be trained and maintain currency on the new type, meaning one of the key cost efficiencies promised by UCAVs – not having to physically fly for currency, training in peacetime – is significantly eroded. Call me pedantic or pessimistic but for my money, optionally manned should be banned as a term in developmental projects. If you are not willing to take the risk of saying you are developing a UCAV from the outset – forget about unmanned during the development phase and concentrate on keeping costs and complexity down for your new manned fighter!
In terms of the funding announced – the UK is committing £2bn by 2025. That is a decent start and will get the UK’s foot in the door in some sort of new European combat aircraft collaborative effort (and it will of course need to be collaborative especially with France and Sweden in order to make technical and financial sense). What it will not do is fund a new combat aircraft during active testing, prototyping and development up to procurement. That will need much more than £2bn from the UK after 2025 and as such that funding will have to come from somewhere. Assuming no major uplift in defence spending – the only likely place where a new combat aircraft can be funded from within the MoD Equipment Plan in the late 2020s and 2030s is by cutting F-35 numbers from the 138 which the country still doggedly insists it will buy even though few seriously believe that by the time the last aircraft is ordered (2040ish) it would still be the best option. However, the US will react furiously to any announcement that the UK intends to curtail its F-35 buy and so for now the government is having to pretend that in combat air, as in so many areas at the moment, it can have its cake and eat it too!
Re. the wing shape: I would guess that it’s a placeholder without obvious radar return issues pending proper aerodynamic testing of actual test concept mock ups rather than plastic showpieces.”