Drop the pilot

The government needs to stop dithering about the next generation of fighter aircraft, or the UK is in danger of being left behind technologically. Many believe the future is unmanned.

The UK is learning the difficulties of joint-nation fighter programmes the hard way. While government faces fresh criticism as it readies to commit to a new batch of expensive Eurofighter aircraft, collaboration between the European partners has hit yet another obstacle.

Meanwhile, the aerospace industry and analysts are predicting that a new generation of fighters – unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) – will enter service within the next 15 years. As a crop of unmanned fighter projects springs up in the US and Europe, speculation is rife over the UK’s next step. But while Eurofighter may well be the last big fighter programme of its kind, the British can learn valuable lessons from the project’s mistakes.

The Eurofighter’s raft of problems has been widely reported. At the time of going to press, the second ‘tranche’ contract for the next phase of the programme had yet to be signed after repeated delays. Unlike many previous hiccups in the programme, this time it was the fault of the British. The MoD has dragged its heels over the details in the new contract.

This UK fudge now means every nation will have to pay more for its aircraft, and the UK’s image in the European aerospace community is tarnished. In Munich late last month Eurofighter officials described the ‘unpleasant’ problem now facing the four nations: a costly production gap.

Brian Philipson, programme management director, said: ‘We now have cracks in the production line. We cannot keep stretching tranche 1. We’re building aircraft not under contract. There’s only so long industry can do that.’ By the end of the year there will be a raft of expensive machinery in the Eurofighter factories forced to stop producing Eurofighter parts, the officials said.

But while the cautious Eurofighter officials suggested a tranche 2 signing would be unlikely for a few months, in the UK at RAF Warton BAE’s Eurofighter managing director Chris Boardman was bullish. ‘There is no logical reason that we could not meet a November date for agreement. But each nation has to be comfortable with what it is committing,’ he said. ‘What I don’t want is a contract I can’t deliver.’

He denied any upcoming production gaps, saying tranche 2 aircraft were being built at Warton already and, significantly, he rejected British culpability. ‘There is no pinpoint location for delay. I don’t think it’s localised. It’s not as clear as that.’ He admitted that if tranche 2 was not signed soon it would be an ‘absolute disaster’. But BAE is closing with the MoD on an agreement, he said.

Eurofighter was already heavily delayed, and much of the technology has become obsolete during its development, particularly weapons systems, Eurofighter’s Philipson said. Each additional delay has threatened the fighter’s potential on the export market.

Meanwhile, the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, due in the next decade, is considered by many to be a generation ahead technology-wise. Although its stealth capability and air-to-ground weaponry make it a different proposition from the dogfight-specialist Eurofighter, it will directly compete for export contracts from airforces, such as Australia or Norway, that can only afford to buy one fighter.

More comparable with Eurofighter, the US’s air-to-air fighter F/A-22 Raptor (which is due around 2006) is unlikely to succeed in the export market because of its exorbitant cost. And even the US is cutting back numbers for its air force.

Dr. Malcolm Davies, lecturer in defence studies at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, King’s College London, said the market will become dominated by the JSF within the next 20 years. ‘The key competition is fighters like France’s Rafale and Eurofighter. But for them there’s only a narrow window of opportunity to get an edge on the market prior to JSF. If nations want top-of-the range technology, they’ll want JSF.’

So in the wake of Eurofighter delays and contract problems, coupled with criticisms from the media and government select committees about money wasted on defence procurement, the MoD faces some stark choices about its future fighter programmes.

No nation can afford the huge cost of developing a fighter aircraft on its own, and the UK has no intention of doing so. France’s Rafale fighter best illustrates the pitfalls of such a move. The country opted out of the Eurofighter programme early on to develop its own fighter, but delays meant that it couldn’t afford to keep the technology up to date. Despite President Chirac’s reported attempts to butter up prospective buyers such as Singapore its export sales prospects are poor.

Today the UK sits as a bridge between Europe and the US. The RAF is buying both Eurofighter for air defence and JSF to launch from carriers for air-to-ground missions, and BAE Systems is heavily involved in both programmes. The UK shares knowledge such as low-observability stealth technology with the US on the one hand, while courting European partners on the other. The latest defence white paper appears to maintain this position, said Davies, but it’s becoming apparent that maintaining the relationship in future may prove difficult.

‘If we go with Europe there could be a concern on the part of the US that intelligence and technology would be shared – would we still have access to the top technology? And if we side with the Americans we may lose our markets within Europe. I don’t know how long we can maintain this bridging role.’

Technology ownership looks set to dominate any approaching fighter programme decisions. The future, it seems, lies with aeroplanes without pilots – unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). Professor John Fielding of Cranfield University has led a number of feasibility studies on UCAVs. He said Eurofighter and JSF will be the last large-scale manned fighter programmes in the West. ‘They were both designed to fight against the Eastern bloc – a capable air force. But the threat has changed. And they’re reaching their limit of capability.’

UCAVs are the natural next step, he said, offering lower running cost in service, smaller size, improved manoeuvrability without the restraints of placing high G-forces on the human body, and, of course, no risk to a pilot. Davies agreed: ‘What you will see is the airforces of the future with UCAVs dominating and a small number of manned platforms in niche roles.’

There are, however, a number of engineering challenges still to overcome, Fielding added, such as accurate target identification. Situational awareness in air-to-air fighting is also a long way off, he said.

Others are dismissive of the whole concept of UCAVs. Andrew Brookes, aerospace specialist at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), said many of the suggested applications for UCAVs are ‘science fiction’, especially using them as air-to-air fighters. ‘I do not see mad scientists creating a brain in a cockpit that can do what a human brain can do in nanoseconds. That’s science fiction. And if you’re transmitting electronics from the ground via wonderful linkages, then you have to make them more resilient. I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.’

But the aerospace industry expects a UCAV in service by 2020, according to an EADS spokesman. US and European companies are positioning themselves to develop the technology, and a number of classified projects are underway, said industry sources. The Defence Procurement Agency (DPA) has overseen over 35 UCAV studies. However, Europe, and especially the UK, has been left standing while the US forges ahead with its J-UCAS unmanned technology demonstrators: Boeing’s air defence suppression X-45C and Northrop Grumman’s X-47B for the US Navy.

In 1998 France, Italy, Spain, the UK, Sweden and Germany signed up to the European Technology Acquisition Programme (ETAP). As well as promising an information share and restructure to the European aerospace industry, this was thought by many to be the centre around which a UCAV project would be built.

However, a lack of impetus has left the programme with disparate technology development projects and no central thrust Industry knows that Europe can probably only afford one UCAV project because potential export markets are smaller, and does not want to repeat the mistakes of the past with France going alone. Mike Turner, chief executive of BAE Systems, said in July that his company was pushing the UK government to launch a UCAV project. ‘Continental Europe is getting its act together on UAVs and UCAVs,’ he said. ‘It’s really important that as a nation we get onboard.’

France is now leading a joint-nation effort to develop a stealthy UCAV technology demonstrator called Neuron, due for first flight around 2009. Sweden and Greece are already onboard, with Spain, Switzerland and Italy set to follow and Belgium and Germany also said to be interested.

The French defence ministry has promised the Neuron UCAV around e300m (£206m), and Dassault, leading the project, claims the financial envelope will change as more nations join, with the final contract due towards the end of this year. Dassault’s philosophy is to achieve a ‘totally European product, much cheaper to buy than a manned combat aircraft’, with an eye to eventually replacing the Eurofighter and Rafale. But as one EADS official said, ‘nobody wants a French lead in this’, so Neuron may have the effect of triggering UCAV activity in other nations.

To date the UK has chosen not to join the Neuron project, perhaps partly because of the risk of putting UK-US accords on low-observable technology in jeopardy.

UCAV technology is a large part of the UK’s Future Offensive Air System (FOAS) project, intended to improve its long-range attack capability by providing a range of new manned and unmanned aircraft from 2017.

However, an initial gate approval – the first milestone in getting the project off the ground – has yet to be granted after repeated delays and missed deadlines in May 2004 and early 2003. The DPA said more time is needed for ‘evaluation and operational analysis reasons’, with a decision expected later this year.

A FOAS decision could focus the UK position on UCAV development. The DPA refused to comment on future joint-nation collaboration despite reports this summer that claimed the MoD had requested information on the J-UCAS programme from the US Department of Defence and a collaboration had been discussed.

So, while the UK is embarrassed on the international stage for its delay in the Eurofighter programme, it is standing still as a rapidly forming European collaboration led by France consolidates, and the advanced technology research in the US carries on regardless.

The Brits will have to make up their minds before they are left behind.

SIDE BAR: Joint Strike Fighter

Eurofighter isn’t the only programme with relationship issues. The US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter involves nine nations including the UK. Partners like Australia, Denmark and Norway have publicly expressed discontent at how the US has allocated contracts to them and have yet to commit to buying the fighter.

It’s been a problematic year for the programme with the revelation that the fighter was 3,300lb overweight, pushing back the schedule by two years and causing a reported $5bn (£2.75bn) cost overrun. Lockheed Martin was forced to set up a Weight Attack Team, which trimmed 2,700lb off the plane by redesigning the propulsion system and streamlining the electrical systems. The redesigns could still fail to deliver the performance expected from the partner nations, however.

The UK will buy 150 fighters for its navy carriers. The US originally planned to buy over 3,000 aircraft, but defence cuts mean that the combined number is now around 2,600. The US Navy and Marine Corps has cut its combined JSF purchase by nearly 500 planes and the US Air Force is considering shrinking its order of 1,763 planes. Final assembly of the JSF is due to start early next year, with the first aircraft expected in late 2005.