Delayed take off

Two key military aircraft projects vital to British industry and aerospace jobs will be looking for buyers at next month’s Farnborough Air Show. On offer is the US Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and the pan-European Future Large Aircraft (FLA). Although British industry is involved in both projects, the Government is not committed to buy either […]

Two key military aircraft projects vital to British industry and aerospace jobs will be looking for buyers at next month’s Farnborough Air Show. On offer is the US Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and the pan-European Future Large Aircraft (FLA).

Although British industry is involved in both projects, the Government is not committed to buy either aircraft. While keeping a hand in both projects, it is also considering other options.

The FLA is a four-engined turboprop transport aircraft. In size it will be somewhere between the US C-130 Hercules and the larger Boeing C-17. It is intended to replace 288 European military transport aircraft, including the RAF’s 30 older Hercules. Partners in the project are France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Turkey.

But the programme faces a potentially disastrous disagreement, as far as UK partner BAe is concerned: Germany wants to abandon the independent design work carried out by the FLA consortium and instead adopt the Ukrainian Antonov An-70 as the FLA airframe.

BAe maintains: ‘We are still very much part of the FLA consortium. But while a lot of studies are being done on the Antonov, we believe the FLA is the way ahead.’ It adds: ‘The FLA is the only aircraft that meets the European (military) staff requirement.’

However, Defence procurement minister John Spellar is not so definite, and says the FLA is only one of Government’s options. The main option is to buy more of the new C-130J version of the Hercules. The RAF has already ordered 25.

The Strategic Defence Review confirmed that four big C-17 class aircraft will be leased to meet short-term needs. Ian Fauset, director-general for air systems at the MoD Procurement Executive, says it could eventually buy these leased aircraft which could scupper FLA’s chances. More C-17’s may even be bought outright.

Fauset stresses that the decision on the short-term transport requirement (for a C-17 class aircraft) and the long-term requirement (for which FLA is a candidate) will be made at the same time so as not to prejudice either.

The JSF, meanwhile, will replace 3,000 multi-role fighters in the US: the F-16, F-18 and AV-8B Harrier II aircraft used by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. In Britain, it could be a substitute for the Royal Navy’s Sea Harrier and the RAF’s Harrier GR7.

The JSF is due to enter service in 2008 after tough competitive trials starting in 2000. In 2001, the choice will be made between two demonstration aircraft. The first is the X-35, made by Lockheed Martin with input from British Aerospace and Northrop Grumman.

Its competitor is Boeing’s X-32. Rolls-Royce, GEC and other UK suppliers are involved in the X-32 demonstrator programme.

So far, the UK is the US’s only full industrial partner in the JSF project. The British Government has committed $200m to the programme, giving it a 10% stake in the development phase. What its stake in the final project will be is less clear, as more international partners are expected to join in the future.

The international marketing arrangements between Lockheed Martin and its partners are not yet firmed up. Dave Palmer, Lockheed Martin’s JSF project manager, suggests BAe could take charge of markets where it has a strong presence, such as Saudi Arabia. Some 30 countries are mentioned as potential JSF buyers.

Lockheed Martin believes the UK will be among them, with the Royal Navy expected to take 60 aircraft. Interest from the RAF may add another 90 aircraft to this figure, a spokesman suggests.

The manufacturing side of the programme also promises to be international. Lockheed Martin is applying a ‘best value’ test to the JSF. This means suppliers will be chosen on their ability to make components which are ‘equal to anything in the world but at a lower price’, irrespective of nationality, according to Palmer.

So could the first JSF be an amalgam of products from half a dozen countries? ‘It’s almost certain it will be like that,’ Palmer says. ‘The unique thing is the emphasis on affordability. This is not a threat-driven or technology-driven programme. The focus is entirely on affordability.’

Palmer is not specific about the size of BAe’s industrial participation. ‘The teaming agreement allows a certain minimum percentage in each and every phase of the programme,’ he says. The agreement ‘will be honoured in perpetuity’, with BAe as a member of the team.

Key UK elements

He points out that ‘some very, very key elements of the propulsion are being produced by Rolls-Royce and [its US subsidiary] Allison. To say that the UK is forever involved in the programme is a given as far as we are concerned’.

BAe says ‘it’s all too far ahead’ to talk about what share it would have in the JSF, but affirms that ‘we would have a significant input’.

BAe is likely to have a hand in the project no matter what the outcome of the concept demonstrator phase. If the Lockheed Martin bid loses, it is hard to imagine that BAe would not somehow become involved in the Boeing programme, through its links with Boeing acquisition McDonnell Douglas.

BAe was McDonnell Douglas’s partner on the competition phase of the JSF, and as builder of 40% of the US Harrier II. The elimination of McDonnell Douglas from the JSF competition led to its takeover by Boeing, which continues to share the Harrier work with BAe.

BAe joined the opposite JSF camp, and is now focusing is efforts on helping Lockheed Martin win. The X-35 demonstrator will have its final design review this month and is ‘fully on track for the first flight in the first quarter of 2000’, the US firm says.

Meanwhile, the JSF is also in the running as a possible choice to serve on the two new Royal Navy aircraft carriers promised in Britain’s Strategic Defence Review.

Minister John Spellar has said a version of the JSF ‘remains a strong contender’ for the carrier-borne aircraft, but added that several other possibilities were being considered.

These include short take-off but arrested-landing aircraft; conventional carrier aircraft with a steam-catapult assisted take-off and arrested landing; and a further development of the Harrier aircraft.

Sellar confirmed that besides the JSF, a naval version of the Eurofighter and ‘other off-the-shelf aircraft’ would fit the bill. This means future versions of Boeing’s F-18E/F and Harrier II Plus are also on the table.

BAe is content to stress that ‘our expertise in short take-off and landing and our lean manufacturing capabilities’ explains Lockheed Martin’s interest in what the company has to offer.

However, BAe says it is also ‘a logical step forward to do a study’ into a naval version of the Eurofighter. ‘We are looking quite deeply into a marine Eurofighter,’ a BAe spokesman confirmed.