Will the UK continue to produce combat aircraft in the next decade? The government has promised to answer that question soon, by launching a new “Combat Air Strategy.” This is particularly awaited by the Military Air and Information (MAI) business of BAE Systems (Outside Exhibit 11). It may no longer be rolling out new Eurofighter Typhoons at Warton by the middle 2020s and, although the company has developed significant expertise in unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs), these have been on research and development contracts only.
Chris Boardman, the managing director of the MAI business at BAE, said recently that he hoped the new strategy “is very clear about what stance we want to take in the world.” He was speaking at RAF Marham on the sidelines of the first deliveries to the UK of Lockheed Martin F-35s—a program that will bring large revenues to BAE Systems in the next two decades. The company is producing the rear fuselages and tails for the 3,000-plus of the stealth fighters that are expected to be ordered.
Boardman noted that it took 17 years for the F-35 program to reach its current, early operational stage. So with the out-of-service date for the RAF’s Typhoons being 2040, “we need to make a decision in the next few years, including whether we work with partners.”
Most observers have assumed that partnership is mandatory, for both cost and political reasons. The Typhoon is a four-nation partnership, and the Tornado that preceded it was three-nation. But the French have produced the Rafale on their own. And, as Boardman noted, the UK has developed and flown the Taranis UCAV on its own. “We are capable, and I would like us to take some leadership as a nation,” he said.
Even as BAE Systems was completing a third series of Taranis flight tests in 2015, the company was starting work on the Anglo-French Future Combat Air System (FCAS) study for the two governments. That work continues, on both manned and unmanned options. Boardman said an extension of the contract is being negotiated. The new work would include communications and training aspects, as well as the platform.
But recent political developments in Europe have scuppered the original Anglo-French intention of funding FCAS as far as producing “operationally representative demonstrators” by 2025. In June 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union. A year later, the leaders of the French and German governments declared their intent to develop an FCAS—with no mention of the UK. At the Berlin Air Show last April, Airbus and Dassault signed an industrial partnership for this “alternative” FCAS project. They did not rule out “the involvement of other key European defense industrial players,” but made it clear that they would be the leaders.
Meanwhile, BAE Systems has signed a contract to provide expertise to Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) for the TF-X project. That is potentially a fifth-generation fighter, although Boardman acknowledged that BAE Systems is constrained by an Anglo-Turkish inter-government MoU, on the extent to which it can share advanced technology. Nevertheless, the company has sent engineers to Turkey. However, Boardman noted that Turkey has not yet made some basic decisions on (for instance) the TF-X flight control system and powerplant(s). A final design review is still a few years away.