Britain in the wilderness? We ask RUSI think-tank’s Justin Bronk about the future of European combat aircraft

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An Airbus concept for the Future Combat Air System. Note the Su-57esque LEVCONs.

 

As German and France lay the groundwork for the next European combat aircraft, Britain’s BAE Systems, long a major player in European defence, remains uninvited. We caught up with Justin Bronk (Research Fellow at the RUSI  think-tank and Editor of RUSI Defence Systems) to find out more about the future of European combat aircraft. 

HK: I’m confused at the current state of next generation European combat aircraft studies- who is proposing what at the moment? 

The issue is that the three main players, the UK, France and Germany have different conceptual requirements for next generation combat aircraft; and even more crucially completely mismatched timescales for new airframes in service. In simple terms, the UK is looking for a replacement for Typhoon in the 2040 timeframe, France is looking for a replacement for Rafale in the 2030 timeframe and Germany is looking for a replacement for Typhoon in the 2040-50 timeframe but a replacement for Tornado (which may be upgraded Typhoons) in the 2020s timeframe.

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“for France, FCAS encompasses more than this – constituting their larger effort to decide on either a comprehensive upgrade or replacement for Rafale, coupled with possible unmanned systems, enhanced decoys and stand-off munitions.”

The Dassault/Airbus concept is, at this stage, a primarily political undertaking – a statement of intent if you will. For the UK, FCAS means a joint Anglo-French UCAV technology demonstrator programme on the basis of Taranis and the nEUROn. But for France, FCAS encompasses more than this – constituting their larger effort to decide on either a comprehensive upgrade or replacement for Rafale, coupled with possible unmanned systems, enhanced decoys and stand-off munitions.

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The pride of French aerospace: the nEUROn technology demonstrator leads a formation with a Rafale fighter and Falcon biz-jet.

Why are Dassault and Airbus Defence not mentioning BAE Systems in their proposal? 

Firstly, because it is based on a political drive by Merkel and Macron to make a clear statement on deepening European defence industrial cooperation. The UK does not fit into this yet, at least until the terms of Brexit become clear. The latter creates not only political difficulties for high level cooperation, but also has the potential to introduce serious difficulties in terms of tariffs, security and technology exchange barriers if there is a ‘hard Brexit’ outcome.

What is the current state of the Anglo-French UCAV- is it likely to happen?

As I said before, the problem is that for the UK, the FCAS programme is narrower in scope than for France. Also, all the current budget headspace for future combat air development and acquisition in the MoD is tied up with F-35. In France, there is an intention to keep producing Rafale up to around 2030 but also to explore other options. A future platform might have resulted from FCAS if the UK downsized their F-35 buy at some point in the 2020s but with Brexit, that is less likely now than a Franco-German aircraft. However, it is worth noting that most in the know see Taranis as a fundamentally more advanced stealth UCAV prototype than the nEUROn so in the case of a specifically UCAV solution in future, France and any other European countries would probably still greatly value BAE Systems’ participation if politically and economically viable.

Could the UK join as a late partner, would this weaken their influence on the design process?

Any late partner in a programme will have far less influence on the design process. The UK is unlikely to be shut out per se from joining a European programme at any point but it is unlikely to be offered the opportunity to tailor any design to RAF specifications if joining at a late stage which would eliminate much of the rationale of not simply buying off the shelf more cheaply from the US.

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Why does the German Government seemed opposed to a F-35 buy? Could Typhoon be a viable replacement for German Tornados in the long term? 

The Luftwaffe wants F-35 because it sees itself as being more relevant in the future if it is ‘part of the club’ and able to (at least theoretically) go downtown into the enemy SAM missile engagement zones on night one of a conflict. However, the German government doesn’t really see the role of the German armed forces as requiring that. Typhoon, especially if upgraded with the much talked about but very late CAPTOR-E AESA radar and increased weapons carriage capability, could be very useful for the Luftwaffe in a supporting role within a NATO coalition. It is a superior choice compared to the F-35 for contributing standoff munitions such as Storm Shadow or Taurus for SEAD from a distance, for combat air patrols and QRA, and for contributing Meteor shots to an air combat team from high and fast. However, it cannot go into modern SAM engagement zones without support in the same way that F-35 is designed to do. So it depends ultimately on what the German government wants from an air force. Valuable but fundamentally supporting forces (mass) or more exquisite stealth fighters but with limited range, payload capacity and sortie generation compared to Typhoon (capability).

Will RAF Typhoons have all they need to replace Tornados next year? Will some capabilities be lost? Will it have a decent tactical recce capability for example.

 

RAF Typhoons will have all the weapons delivery capabilities to replace Tornado in full. In some cases, the greater kinematics of the aircraft enable delivery options that Tornado could not have performed well, but equally, the loss of a rear-seater will limit some workload dependent functions especially in a complex CAS situation, despite the massively superior HMI and carefree controls in Typhoon.

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A German Eurofighter and the troubled Airbus A400M transport.

Typhoon can carry the Litening targeting and recce pod, and once the CAPTOR-E radar is in service will also be able to perform SAR mapping functions. However, it has not been equipped with the DB-110 stand-off wide area tactical reconnaissance capability which will be lost when the Tornado retires. The RAPTOR pod which currently houses DB-110 on Tornado is too long to fit on the centreline station underneath Typhoon and too large to be cleared for asymmetric carriage on an underwing pylon.

What should BAE Systems do if it wants to maintain or regain the ability to make combat aircraft? 

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Turkey’s TAI TFX fighter may be developed in partnership with BAE Systems. 

They need to at least participate in the design and manufacture of a new combat aircraft. This could be a derivative of Typhoon, a UCAV derived from Taranis or something with Turkey or Japan for example. However, all of these options are united by one factor – there is no headspace for supporting them with a funded future UK purchase for the RAF, due for the most part on the costs for the 138 F-35s which we are still slated to eventually buy. If we are to be part of making a new aircraft, the orders have to come from somewhere and foreign orders want domestic manufacturing and workshare. F-35 production will supply BAE Systems will a lot of money over the life of the programme, but no new intellectual property to be traded for future participation in other projects. Furthermore, it will not sustain the vital expertise required to successfully design, test and produce new combat aircraft.
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Could Britain return as a manufacturer of combat aircraft? 

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Despite its involvement in both the Typhoon and Taranis could the UK be left in the dark? 

Once the industrial capability is lost, history suggests it is almost impossible to regain. The ability to design and manufacture combat aircraft relies not only on having access to a huge range of human talents and expertise but also a massively complex supply chain apparatus. This took a century to build and could be lost in a decade.

What kind of aircraft or system will the Franco-German studies lead to?
If the project remains purely Franco-German then I think it will end up looking something like a Rafale 2.0 with further signature reduction features, upgraded EW suite and the built-in capacity to operate alongside and perform some C2 functions for UCAVs and UAVs. If more partners come in, who knows. Of course, it Europe finds itself in some sort of major conflict in the mean time then it is much more likely to emerge as some sort of UCAV with basic air to air and strike capabilities. Needs must when the Devil drives…

Will it need some British technology, say advanced engines? 

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Britain can still offer superior engine technology to that which France can call on SNECMA for thanks to Rolls Royce’s enormous R&D budget and workforce expertise which is sustained by a huge civil turbofan market share. This is (hopefully) unlikely to change, but if the UK is not involved at all in the programme, then SNECMA might be chosen for political reasons.

Should France lead the design process?

France has the more exacting military requirements of the two nations, especially with an enduring requirement to be able to operate across Francophone Africa out of mainland France at short notice and sustain operations from austere bases once there. It is also likely to be the larger technology contributor in terms of airframe design and engines. So in a word, yes – unless something major changes such as Germany achieving 2% GDP spend on defence by 2024… Then economics and order numbers might change the equation.

What should Europe learn from the Eurofighter and Rafale programmes? 

Stick. To. The. Requirements. Once. Set.

Also, don’t over-inflate order numbers to drive estimated costs down, only to find the programme in a death spiral once reality bites.

Finally, when it comes to setting contracts, remember that this is the last chance for Airbus defence and Dassault to stay in the fighter business. The prime customers here have a lot of potential leverage. Just as Sweden manages to do consistently for Saab, Germany and France must ensure that the contracts are set out in such a way as to incentivise sticking to time and budget, with extra costs falling primarily on the original equipment manufacturer.

What should I have asked you? 

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Lockheed Martin has proposed a fighter optimised F-22/F-35 hybrid for Japan.

Which fighter programme am I most excited about right now?
Definitely the teaser offer of an F-22/F-35 hybrid design for Japan from Lockheed Martin. Something combining the airframe and engine combination of the F-22 with the electronics, coatings and production/testing lessons learnt so painfully with the F-35 just makes too much sense to ever see the light of day though so I’m hoping rather than expecting it to ever fly.

 

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Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here– it doesn’t have to be a large amount, every pound is gratefully received. Recommended amount £15.

Thank you

 

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One comment

  1. yves pagot

    Hmmm France to retire RAfale in 30ies and Germany/Uk retiring Typhons in 40ies. What is Mr Bronk’s retailer adress. Seems good stuff!

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