After missing out in India’s MMRCA contest, a combination of private funding, demanding export customers and high-level political backing means Eurofighter Typhoon is now set to unlock its true multi-role potential. TIM ROBINSON reports from BAE Systems in Warton.
Just over a year ago BAE Systems and its Eurofighter partners faced a bitter blow. India’s high-profile MMRCA fighter contest saw the Typhoon pipped at the post by Rafale. Meanwhile, job cuts in the UK and the high-profile BAE-EADS merger that fell apart, left some wondering over BAE’s future.
Yet today while Dassault is finding out first-hand the complexity of the labyrinth Indian defence procurement process, in December, BAE and Eurofighter celebrated a key win in Oman – with 12 Typhoons and additional eight Hawk trainers. Meanwhile, additional Saudi sales could be on the cards, while the company is looking at opportunities in Malaysia and UAE. It’s considered a long shot, but there even may be a chance of Typhoon in RCAF colours, if Canada’s review of its JSF commitment leads to it axing its F-35 purchase. Privately too, BAE contend that all is still not lost in India and Dassault may yet slip up.
Moreover, there is now a high-level appreciation of the value of manufacturing and the defence sector in spearheading UK exports. The result is that BAE’s Military Air and Information (MAI) business has a new focus and energy. A combination of long-term planning, export customers with ambitious plans and a wake-up call for high-level decision makers is set to unlock the Typhoon’s full capabilities.
An analogy from history might be the iconic Spitfire which went from a two-bladed propeller point defence fighter armed with eight machine guns to, by 1945, a Griffon-engined cannon-armed multirole platform capable of air superiority, strike, reconnaissance and even carrier-based operations.
Part of this has not been luck, but long term planning by both government and industry. While the mainstream media has often misunderstood the aircraft as a Cold War air defence fighter, the plan to increase its multi-role capabilities has always been there from the beginning. “What it’s been designed for, first and foremost…” Says Bob Smith, Engineering Director, Combat Air, at BAE Systems, “is an air superiority fighter. It’s highly agile, and has a big wing with 13 weapon stations. Those 13 stations create the ability to have quite a flexible ‘swing-role’ weapon load. You can have air-to-air or air-to-ground but the key capability is to have the mix – you can do them both in the same mission.”
However, the end of the Cold War and the political manoeuvring needed for a complex multinational programme led to a slowing of Eurofighter development effort as countries revaluated their defence priorities in the face of the changed strategic situation. Then came 9/11. With the war on terror a prime focus, exploiting the full capabilities of a high-end fighter took a lower priority than anti-IED efforts or up-armouring vehicles. More recently, the 2008 financial crisis and the chaos in the Eurozone has put extreme pressure on European defence budgets.
Yet the complexity of Eurofighter’s four partner nations and their related aerospace champions, BAE, EADS and Alenia, as well as providing foot dragging frustrations, has had a number of critical advantages. First it has provided guaranteed sales to four European air forces. Secondly it has meant that the programme has been insulated to some extent from politician’s whims, where a single-nation programme might have been cancelled. Thirdly, and most importantly for future capabilities, the varied industrial partners have allowed their deep pockets to provide for self-funding to lay the foundations to unlock these improved capabilities.
Industry, for example, is now self-funding the E-Scan AESA radar for the Typhoon as well as some of the future development. Says Bob Smith: “We already knew, early on in programme, that as we went through Tranche 1, 2 and 3, we would be looking at capability development on a continuous basis all the way through the programme.” He goes on: “If you look at Tornado, it came into service in the late 1970s and is still being updated today.”
In short, then, while gaining consensus and multi-national agreements between the countries has slowed development , BAE and its Eurofighter partners have kept the faith by funding key technologies and conducting R&D ready for the mood to change. It is also worth remembering too, that this critical military aircraft industrial capability is also extremely difficult to replace once lost.
The penny drops
Part of that ‘mood change’, at least in the UK, can be attributed to the intention of British Governments to rebalance the economy away from the finance and services sector and boost manufacturing. The aerospace and defence industry, which provides high-tech skilled employment, is long-term and is export focused, has become a key sector that politicians hope will lead a UK manufacturing rebirth. This was particularly evident during last year’s Farnborough Air Show, where as well as a visit from the Prime Minister, David Cameron, he also pledged that development of Eurofighter capabilities would now be prioritised. It was also echoed in a recent confirmation of the MoD’s ten year equipment spending plan to 2022, following the Defence Secretary announcing that the budget has been balanced. This plan includes spending uncommitted funds on expanding the Typhoon’s multirole capabilities: “Further investment to develop and enhance the aircraft’s multirole and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities are priorities for use of unallocated headroom in the plan budget.”
While the exploitation of Typhoon’s full capabilities was always a long-term development plan, the gap between the glossy brochure weapons fit of Eurofighter and reality was thrown into sharp focus in the aftermath of losing the Indian MMRCA contest to Dassualt’s Rafale. The lack of AESA radar, too, some observers suggested, also harmed Typhoon’s chances against its French rival.
Though this experience has been painful – especially given Typhoon’s performance and capability (where even USAF pilots have described it second only to the F-22 in air combat) this ‘wake-up call’ of effects of the delay in fully developing its multirole capabilities has now fully been grasped by politicians. Yet just when this ‘penny has dropped’ Europe is now extremely short of cash. Is there a solution?
Export customers in the driving seat
The solution, paradoxically is coming from outside the traditional European Eurofighter partner nations and from export customers, who see the chance to not only boost their air forces with a more capable version of the fighter, but also to invest in and share technology that will feed into their own aerospace industries. For instance, in 2012 Saudi Arabia took on a bigger role on the programme, with a seat on NETMA (NATO Eurofighter and Tornado Management Agency) and increased power in deciding development priorities. This has already borne fruit.
BAE’s MAI were reluctant to comment but it is understood that the RSAF, for example, is funding the French-built Damocles targeting pod to integrate with the Typhoon. Saudi Arabia too is also now pushing integration with MBDA’s Storm Shadow cruise missile.
Bob Smith admits that gaining agreements to requirements for the legacy European partners and new export customers like Saudi Arabia is a challenge. However the result is that it does provide a win-win outcome for all parties. Eurofighter customers get a more capable fighter, new foreign partners get technology transfer and set the pace, and the Eurofighter consortium itself gets a more exportable product to build extra sales. With the Typhoon only perhaps one-fifth of the way through its operational life, BAE argues that now is the perfect time for export customers desperate to grow their own high-tech aerospace industry to get on board. It allows them to share costs across the customer base.
The recent selection by Oman has given the programme a boost with its second Middle East customer and now means the programme has 571 aircraft on order, with 719 contracted. Additionally, rumours from the UAE, a country extremely keen on developing its own aviation and aerospace industry and technology base, may see the Typhoon find a place there. In a sign of perhaps other future deals, in February a contract was signed with the UAE’s Tawazun Precision Industries to provide a major structural component for the jet. Further export opportunities exist in Malaysia, as well as South Korea. There may even be the potential of the first South American operator if Peru decides to take-up Spain’s offer of 18 used Tranche 1 Eurofighters. Finally, Saudi Arabia, having already ordered 72, could place a follow-on order of between 48-72 more Typhoons.
All told, this represents a significant sea-change in defence procurement. Previously UK–funded military aerospace projects had entered service with Britain’s armed services, to then be available for export. But moving into the future, export customer-funded technology and integration, will then trickle back to HM armed forces. One constant factor though is that ‘as used by the RAF’ will still remain a valuable cachet and seal of quality.
The next war?
The final factor influencing this acceleration in Typhoon development is that there is also an awareness that after ten years of COIN and the war of terror, future conflicts are likely to be completely different than the permissive air environments of the past decade. Only recently, for example, we have seen a French combat parachute jump to seize an airport in Mali, Israel conduct an airstrike in the highly defended skies of Syria, and sabre-rattling in the Pacific involving fast jets between China and Japan. Thus, the ground-centric emphasis of the past decade is now being replaced with a renewed interest in the sea and air environments – perhaps best exemplified for the US ‘pivot’ to Asia-Pacific. And while the UAS sector continues to expand, there are questions over how suited many of the current platforms would be to any country or opponent with even a basic air defence or fighter capability. In short, IED-resistant vehicles are out, air superiority is in.
Indeed, while the past decade has seen only one clean sheet western fighter design emerge in the form of the F-35, the reference combat aircraft that the Typhoon was designed to to beat, the Su-27 (and its derivatives) has now been joined by new potential threat aircraft in the form of the PAK-FA, J-20 and J-31.
But there is also another aspect in that the success of stealth or low-observable platforms since the F-117s combat debut has spurred anti-stealth radar and detection technology by both friendly and not-so friendly powers. Bi-static passive detection methods threaten to erode the edge of stealth aircraft and their unique advantage. Put more simply then, while any new fighter now will be designed with LO features built-in, the coming proliferation of anti-stealth technology will reduce the gap between a stealth aircraft and a non-stealth aircraft with a good jammer and EW systems. This means Typhoon, with its advanced DASS (Defensive Aid Sub System), towed decoys and supersonic manoeuvrability will remain effective even into the post-stealth era.
Know your Tranches
Part of the difficulty in assessing development progress has been the fact that the Eurofighter is very much an avionics and software-led fighter – with little to show on the outside. The other has been the ‘catch all’ terminology of the three ‘Tranches’, separate umbrella agreements between the partner nations and the Eurofighter consortium. This had led to some oddities where for example, the UK, seeking an earlier air-to-surface capability – saw its Tranche 1 aircraft given an ‘austere’ air-to-ground fit ahead of Tranche 2 aircraft. Libya, too, saw some improvements quickly added as a UOR, further complicating things.
Says Bob Smith: “As we went through Tranche 1 and were thinking about agreeing the contract for Tranche 2, the customers had a view that they wanted some additional requirements built into the aircraft, and the same when we were considering Tranche 3. This is to keep the aircraft current against today’s threats and also to build on its capability to do a variety of different roles.” He notes: “The customer has long had a long term capability plan which they have shared.”
He explains: “On Tranche 2, we upgraded all the computing units on the aircraft to give it more software capacity, more throughput, more memory. On Tranche 3 we put in provisions for a updated radar, conformal fuel tanks and a general purpose computer. These are provisions for the customers to invoke at a later date.”
Says Bob Smith: “Where we are today is on the first batch of enhancements that give greater capability in the air-to-surface role.” He goes on: “For this batch of enhancements to Tranche 2 we are doing them in two phases, Phase A (P1EA) and Phase B (P1EB). Phase A is finished and we have delivered all the evidence for clearance to service to the four launch nations. In about three months when the UK has gone through its release to service process, this new capability will be put on to UK aircraft. That will give ‘swing-role’ capability with additional improvements to the man-machine interface.” This will enable pilots to simultaneously and consecutively employ both A-A and A-G weapons. The updates also includes integration of Paveway IV and EGBU16 laser and GPS guided bombs, as well as the (HMSS Helmet Mounted Symbology System) now being opened up for air-to-surface use – an update that will give the Typhoon pilot the ability to simply glance at ground targets to slew the targeting pod on them and designate them. Says Smith: “The helmet is a brand-new precision piece of kit, opening up a new era in pilot capability.”
Other near-term enhancements, according to Smith, include the Iris-T A-A missile integration having some digital updates, upgrades to the defensive aids (DASS) and also the multifunction information distribution systems (MIDS). Additionally, the Typhoon is set to receive improvements to the attack and navigation computer redundancy, along with upgraded IFF.
These Tranche 2 updates also include some enhancements from the UK Tranche 1 ‘austere’ A-G fit – called the ‘Drop’ programme. Bob Smith explains: “We are trying to take all the work we have done on Tranche 1 and embed it in the Tranche 2 programme.” However he notes: “It won’t all go in one go, so we are phasing it to the Tranche 2 development.” Phase B (P1EB), a much smaller update, is set to finish at the end of this year.
Differences between Tranche 1 and 2 have now been rationalised with a upgrade package to Tranch 1 aircraft called ‘Drop 2′ which is now set to be rolled out by the RAF to its entire T1 fleet. The upgrade package covers enhancements to a wide range of avonic systems including displays, attack and navigation, DASS and communication. The first RAF Typhoons to receive this package have been the fighters participating in this year’s Red Flag excercises at Nellis, with the rest of front-line squadrons to follow. Additionally other Eurofighter nations are also looking with interest at upgrading their Tranche 1 fighters with this Drop 2 package.
Smith notes that comments from the RAF, which took the Tranche 1 jet to war in Libya in its combat debut were “all very very positive” about the aircraft – especially its comfort to fly during long-duration missions and the DASS. He adds of the Libya lessons: “I suspect that out of that eventually the UK will be suggesting other things that we need to embody in the jet.”
Enhancement package 2, says Smith, is currently being ‘debated now’ and there is a focus on Storm Shadow and Meteor BVRAAM, along with MIDS upgrades, enhanced on-board data recording, upgrades to ASRAAM.
While BAE itself was quiet on the matter, privately industry sources say that the Eurofighter/Storm Shadow combination in particular is desired by several customers. Says Smith: “We’ve now got to try and broker an agreement across the customer base for the next capability development that encompasses all their needs.” He admits that this is a challenge: “We are in the process of trying to agree a single development programme that will give all the customers everything they want – which is very tricky!”
Part of this single development path may in fact come from self-funded capability enhancements the Eurofighter consortium put in place ahead of the Indian MMRCA contest, as well as other things outside the core nations and new customers that industry thinks may satisfy potential export customers.
Thus the result of this trading between old and new customers to produce a single development path should substantially boost the Eurofighter’s export potential with a true multi-role combat aircraft and a visibly funded plan for new customers to see and plug into.
The future is now
One concrete example of the next stage of Eurofighter development is already here. In BAE Systems Warton factory earlier this year was the first Tranche 3A Typhoon, destined for the RAF. From the outside, this looks like a single-seat Typhoon. However, two small bumps on the rear of the fuselage are a giveaway that this is not your normal Eurofighter. These humps are rear mounting attachments for conformal fuel tanks (CFTs). The Tranche 3, with increased fuel capacity, there is also new fuel dump nozzles under each wing. Key fuselage frames are also strengthened for the extra weight of the 4,500lb CFTs. There are also further changes under the skin. The nose of the fighter, for example, has been beefed up to take the 100kg extra weight of the E-Scan AESA radar, which could enter service in 2017. Additionally, the high-speed data transfer capacity has also been increased on the Tranche 3A to take advantage of these new sensors.
These key changes, visible from only the two tiny humps on the rear fuselage, show that this Typhoon is ‘future proofed’ and ready to accept a significant leap in its capabilities. This is borne out by one BAE test pilot who commented, the next couple of years will be “mad and manic” in testing.
With Meteor and Storm Shadow next on the agenda for integration (Meteor was fired from Typhoon in late 2012), future weapons could also include the UK’s stand-off precision SPEAR. Smith says that the Typhoon’s AESA radar integration is likely to be phased in over two or three steps, with a baseline radar which will be followed by more sophisticated follow-on version.
Typhoon in 2045
So how long will the Typhoon be in service? Bob Smith says the aircraft has “probably another 30-40 years” of service life ahead of it. Indeed, given the current trend of military aircraft, that may be a conservative estimate. So, what might any hypothetical ‘Super Typhoon’ of 2045 look like?
First, for the UK customer it will have to be interoperable with the F-35 to allow both platforms to be able to complement each other, providing the RAF with a flexible and dynamic air control capability.
The future Typhoon is also likely to incorporate a new glass cockpit as part of a mid-life update, leveraging consumer technology such as iPad-style large displays. That said, its colour coded MIDS already sets a very high standard in MMI (man machine interface). Says Smith: “As time goes on we will probably have to look at updating the cockpit and computing, adding in more and more automation.” He added: “If you have a lifespan of 30-40 years there will come a time when you will have to do a cockpit upgrade. BAE Systems has that part of the project and we have already started to look at what sort of technology might be applicable to doing that task”
(Check out this video of an exclusive cockpit briefing on the Typhoon from BAE Systems Test Piloy Andy Blythe)
More futuristically, Smith also talks of the Typhoon of 2045 being a ‘hybrid’ air platform – incorporating new levels of autonomy to help the pilot. Smith raises this intriguing idea: “I don’t think we’ve come to the end of manned aircraft yet, but I wonder about a ‘hybrid’ air platform. Something like Typhoon, where you have immense capability on it but, if the pilot can’t manage all that, could you consider making some of that capability autonomous?” He goes on: “You would have a man-in-the-loop but a lot of the functionality would work on its own – so a hybrid manned vehicle with autonomous capability is an interesting byproduct of unmanned vehicles and manned vehicles.” Smith notes that the Typhoon’s advanced MMI (along with ‘carefree handling’), which allow the pilot to concentrate on the mission, mean it is “not a far stretch of the imagination” to take this even further.
Essentially this could mean that BAE’s work on autonomy (which, though Taranis is the most recent example, actually dates back to the Corax/Raven in the early 2000s) may at some point turn a single-seat Typhoon into a ‘virtual twin-seater’ with the second ‘AI’ crewmember providing enhanced situational awareness, suggesting courses of action, or perhaps even flying the aircraft back to base should the pilot become incapacitated. Although this sounds like science fiction, some of BAE’s work on autonomy for the civil ASTRAEA UAS project is already laying the groundwork for this advanced ‘computer co-pilot’.
What is noteworthy from this vision, is that it shows that BAE’s work on UAS, and autonomy in general, is now feeding into concepts for a Typhoon that by the middle of this century could still be extremely lethal. Aided by a smart AI as a ‘virtual WISO’, the potential ‘Super Typhoon’ pilot of 2045, with its AESA radar, thrust vectoring, extra range thanks to CFT will be an extremely capable multi-role platform. As the F-15E Strike Eagle demonstrates, converting an air superiority fighter to a multirole strike produces a phenomenal platform. Says Bob Smith: “If you really want to build a multirole combat aircraft then build an extremely capable fighter first.”
Furthermore, it is not too far-fetched to also speculate that the Super Typhoon of 2045 might include LO tweaks such as stealth pods (such as proposed for the International F/A-18E/F Super Hornet) or other measures to reduce its RCS.
Finally, the ‘Super Typhoon’ of 2045 might also become a UAV or UCAV mission commander. Explains Smith: “By that time there will be a lot more unmanned vehicles flying around and it would be an interesting concept, because of the interoperability capability, to operate a few UAVs from a Typhoon cockpit.” Potentially, the Typhoon pilot could then command an AI wingman, perhaps to clear air defences out of the way. “You could see yourself being in a situation where not only have you got onboard capability on your own aircraft but you are controlling airborne capability too.” Again while this might seem like science fiction, the UK has already undertaken ‘UAV wingman’ trials using a Tornado and BAC-1-11 (as a surrogate UAV). Indeed, one could also imagine that the Eurofighter’s direct voice input (DVI) system (where the pilot can already set radio frequencies, check fuel and even designate targets) could even be used to command robot UCAV wingman.
It is clear from visiting BAE’s Military Air Systems, that whatever recent headlines have suggested, it is a business which will be around for a long time. Typhoon, F-35 work and the expanding interest in UAS and autonomy means it is a long-term game. However while BAE and its industrial partners have kept faith with Typhoon, the world has changed. But more interestingly is that it is export customers (both in Typhoon and UAS) rather than cash-strapped European militaries that are now setting the pace of the roadmap to enhanced capabilities. Says Bob Smith, who spent a large part of his engineering career on the Typhoon when the avionics were a ‘blank sheet of paper’: “I’ve always been ambitious for Typhoon to succeed as a product and also in the marketplace.” As well as exploiting the near-term potential of the fighter, it is also noteworthy that the Typhoon may spearhead advanced technologies and concepts such as UCAV control and AI backseater that today sound like science fiction.
It may have taken a while to get to this point, but the full gale force of Typhoon is now set to be unleashed. Hang onto your hats.