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IISS Strategic sees cloudy prospects for Europe's combat aircraft

Posted 10 September 2012 · Add Comment

Europe's combat aircraft industry faces an uncertain future. While it still has several types of fighter aircraft in production, there is no new European-developed manned combat aircraft currently in prospect and the outlook for the development and production of unmanned air systems is also unclear.

There remain six final assembly lines for three types of combat aircraft: the Eurofighter Typhoon built in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain, Dassault's Rafale, built in France, and Saab's Gripen, built in Sweden. The manufacture of Rafale and Typhoon – at least within Europe – is likely to have ended by around the turn of the decade, though there will be substantial work in upgrading aircraft already built. The production of the Gripen, meanwhile, now appears likely to continue into the 2020s with Sweden and Switzerland to buy the Gripen NG, a mid-life update of the basic design.

So far, however, there is nothing now being considered within Europe that – at least in terms of production capacity – could directly take the place of all three types. 

Several European countries are already buying a next-generation combat aircraft, the American-made F-35 strike fighter: Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Italy and Turkey are all participants in the F-35 Lightning II programme. All have contributed funding to the aircraft's development phase, with Britain providing an estimated 8% of the total cost, some $2 billion. But the role of European companies in the F-35 is limited to that of sub-contractors.

New European developments are now focused on unmanned military aircraft. A potentially important move was made in July by France and the UK to begin to establish a future programme, with the announcement that the two countries would launch an initial study of an unmanned combat air system (UCAS). While such a project will help sustain high-end design and development skills, any future production runs would almost certainly be far smaller than the present generation of combat aircraft. This has important implications for the defence aerospace manufacturing base.

American dominance
As things stand, the F-35, for which Lockheed Martin is prime contractor, is likely to be the West's dominant combat aircraft for decades to come. It is not yet, however, in service and has suffered substantial delay and cost escalation. Washington, facing funding constraints, has slowed the planned production rate over the next few years. Despite these issues, the likelihood remains that the aircraft will become the mainstay of the US military's strike-fighter fleet, and will also be prevalent in European combat aircraft fleets. France and Germany are not participating in the programme.

For Europe's defence aerospace manufacturers the F-35 represents both a threat and an opportunity. The aircraft's penetration of the European market undermines the continent's requirement for indigenous combat aircraft development. But many European companies are suppliers to the F-35 programme, so it provides them with the potential security of large-scale production runs, particularly BAE Systems of the UK, which is manufacturing the rear section of the aircraft.

European governments and industry leaders face a difficult choice when trying to balance their shrinking defence budgets: commit to joint development programmes of next-generation air combat platforms – bearing in mind that fighter aircraft are among the most expensive items of equipment to develop and purchase – or accept that the technological design and development capabilities of Europe's defence aerospace industry will gradually be lost.

Whether consciously or not, this would in effect mean accepting Europe's dependence on the United States to meet any future manned combat aircraft needs.

Unmanned systems
The past decade has witnessed the growing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as both sensor and weapons platforms. Israel and the US were early adopters of the technologies, and have secured strong positions in the export market for certain classes of UAVs in the tactical arena. However, because of the use of classified stealth technologies for advanced unmanned combat air vehicle designs, any European collaborative projects are likely to be restricted to a limited number of NATO allies.

The Franco-British decision on UCAS collaboration thus offers one route to sustaining some European capability and production capacity – though the initial investment in a preparation phase is modest at €13m. This phase is intended to draw up a joint approach to the development and testing of the key technologies required for an operational unmanned stealthy strike system.

Following the completion of the first phase, expected to last around 18 months, the two partners will have to decide whether to commit to a significantly more costly second phase. This would see the construction of a demonstrator air vehicle, with flight testing set for the first few years of the next decade. The aircraft would enter into service between 2030 and 2035. BAE Systems and Dassault are the two industry leads, drawing on their respective experience of unmanned systems.

Engine manufacturers Rolls-Royce and Snecma are also jointly exploring propulsion options for such an air vehicle.

The two nations may also jointly develop an unmanned medium altitude long-endurance surveillance aircraft. A decision is expected once the recently elected French government has finished re-evaluating its unmanned aircraft needs and acquisition approach.

The UK and France already have unmanned combat air vehicle work in train. Over the coming year they will fly their respective technology demonstrators of unmanned combat aircraft, the Neuron and Taranis. The former is a French-led six-nation European project, while Taranis is an entirely British development. The British programme, led by BAE Systems, has been supported by a considerable amount of highly classified work which has focused on making the aircraft as stealthy as possible. Considerable effort has gone into minimising its radar signature, as well as the amount of infra-red radiation emitted by the engine. By contrast, given the multinational nature of the Neuron project, it is unlikely to have explored low-observable technologies to quite the same extent. The experience gained from both the Taranis and Neuron will help inform the Anglo-French UCAS work. Neither Taranis nor Neuron was intended to lead directly to a system suitable for production.

Manned fighter projects
Following the heavy use of unmanned systems in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with expectations that they will continue to have a growing role at least in uncontested airspace, there is a question mark over the likely extent of future global requirements for crewed combat aircraft. This does not mean, however, that manned combat aircraft programmes have come to a halt quite yet.

Several countries are continuing to pursue manned combat aircraft projects, including the US, China, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea and Brazil. The US is already looking at the generation of fighters beyond the F-35, as well as a future bomber. Meanwhile Moscow now has three Sukhoi T-50 prototypes of its fifth-generation fighter in flight test, and Beijing has two J-20 prototypes flying. Both aircraft have low-observable design characteristics, and while neither is likely to be as stealthy as the US F-22 Raptor, they represent considerable developments for their respective industrial bases. Assuming the T-50 and J-20 come to fruition, they will also provide a significant increase in capability for their respective air forces.

India, Japan, South Korea and Brazil have aspirations to use the development of new combat aircraft to boost their respective national industrial sectors. Though some – or possibly none – of these projects may come to fruition, they should not be dismissed. India has used its very long-running light combat aircraft programme as a vehicle for industrial development – in spite of the troubled history of the programme – and it is now in the early stages of an advanced medium combat aircraft project. This is intended to be a reduced-radar-signature multi-role combat aircraft, with an in-service date of towards the end of the next decade. India is also a junior partner in the Russian T-50 project, and intends to purchase 214 of the type for its own air force. Japan, though an F-35 buyer, has also funded the ATD-X low-observable fighter technology demonstrator project, while South Korea has the KF-X indigenous fighter programme intended to develop an F-16-class fighter with stealthy characteristics. Beyond Brazil's FX-2 fighter procurement, a decision upon which may emerge by the end of the year, the country also harbours ambitions to develop a next-generation fighter in partnership with a third party.

European industry has in the recent past tried to use some of these potential programmes as a basis for future development, but without success. EADS, the parent company of Airbus and Eurocopter, and Saab had also floated longer-term co-development possibilities when competing in South Korea and Brazil respectively. Meanwhile all three European fighters, Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon, have secured other export orders, but these, however welcome, sustain only the current designs, or developments thereof.

This leaves Europe's two main military powers, France and the UK, continuing to grapple with the problem of sustaining their respective combat aircraft sectors in the medium to long term.

European cooperation
Any future aircraft programmes and collaborations will reflect the continued scaling down of capabilities and ambitions by European countries. In the UK, for example, aims in the 1990s to develop or buy different types of manned combat aircraft to replace the Harrier and the Tornado GR4 have had to be abandoned. As long ago as 2005, then-defence minister John Reid noted that: 'Our current plans do not envisage the UK needing to design and build a future generation of manned fast jet aircraft beyond the present [Typhoon and F-35] projects.' Further cuts to the air force were implemented in a 2010 defence review, and a similar outcome seems likely in France's review, which is now under way.

It is against this background that London and Paris have been trying to align defence research and development more closely to maximise the benefit of their national spending, with one aim being common acquisition projects. The two countries signed a ground-breaking treaty on defence and security cooperation in 2010.

Defence ministers Jean-Yves Le Drian and Philip Hammond, meeting in July for the first time since the election of French President François Hollande, signed the UCAS agreement and also a memorandum to enable cooperation on the Watchkeeper tactical unmanned air system. They discussed the potential for military cooperation between specialised units of the two armies using the same systems. Watchkeeper is being developed for the British Army by Thales of France to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. It is expected to enter service this year.

Their communiqué said: 'The UK and France are determined to set the pace in Europe for cooperation to deliver their future capability requirements and the ministers agreed that cooperation on specific programmes may include other close allies with similar capability and contribution, when practicable and feasible.'

Meanwhile, France also signed a declaration of intent with Germany to identify possible collaborative development and procurement projects – the two countries had previously been working on the joint acquisition of a medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aircraft, and the previous French administration decision to pursue such a programme with London instead had caused consternation in Berlin.

Germany, Italy and Sweden are closely watching the development of the Anglo-French relationship in the military air sector to determine their own options, which could perhaps include taking part in some form of expanded collaboration.

Limited prospects
Future decisions on cooperation to develop new aircraft – unmanned or even manned – will be crucial for the future of Europe's defence industry. But such projects are likely to be of modest scale in terms of production numbers. Between them, London and Paris may purchase as few as 100 unmanned combat aircraft. This – even when combined with supply contracts for American-built aircraft – is unlikely to sustain a European production base on the scale that currently exists. As they mull future collaboration, governments and industry will face the problem of managing a considerable reduction in manufacturing capacity.

 

IISS Strategic Comments Volume 18, Comment 27 – September 2012
Copyright © 2012 The International Institute For Strategic Studies (IISS)

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