Britain Prepares for New Era of Robot Bombers

February 14th, 2006 - by admin

Douglas Barrie / Aviation Week & Space Technology – 2006-02-14 22:04:13

(December 17, 2005) — Unveiling a grand defense industrial strategy, the British government is signaling that the Joint Strike Fighter will be its last manned combat aircraft and that it will launch an unmanned combat air vehicle technology demonstrator in 2006.

The government’s defense industrial strategy (DIS), announced last week, will determine the shape of the UK’s defense industry for decades to come, as well as the government’s relationships with US and European companies. The strategy is aimed at keeping BAE Systems as the country’s national champion. The document is the first time a British government has attempted to spell out its policy in this arena, and is intended to address radically changing requirements in an evolving defense market.

The document flushes out previously classified unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) research, committing the ministry to launch a full-scale technology demonstrator next year. The UCAV effort is a key element of the approach to air systems enshrined in the policy paper (see

The DIS is an attempt to fill the void that has until now been British defense industrial policy, across the air, land and naval sectors. Had the drift continued, BAE Systems now admits the company would have wound down its efforts in the UK to focus even more on the US

“If we didn’t have the DIS and our profitability and the terms of trade had stayed as they were . . . then there had to be a question mark about our future in the UK,” admits BAE Chief Executive Mike Turner. While the BAE board has yet to study the full document in detail, Turner suggests BAE is “here to stay.”

Turner has vociferously urged the government to provide a long-term defense-industrial road map. Paul Drayson, the British minister for defense procurement, has done just that. “It’s an interesting and generously comprehensive document,” says Keith Hayward, head of research at the London-based Royal Aeronautical Society. “BAE comes out very well . . . the company is effectively embedded as the UK national champion.”

The UCAV work will build on formerly classified BAE programs such as Corax (“Raven”) and Herti, both of which have been flown. The technology demonstrator is a crucial element in sustaining the air systems sector. Beyond the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Joint Combat Aircraft (JCA)–as the UK refers to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter–“current plans do not envisage the UK needing to design and build a future generation of manned, fast jet aircraft beyond these types,” states the strategy document.

To offset the long-term impact of this, both in terms of the manufacturing base and capability retention, the government argues: “The focus must shift to through-life support and upgrade and what is required to sustain this critical capability in the absence of large-scale manufacturing.”

THIS IS NOT JUST AN ISSUE for the UK, “it applies to the rest of Europe and even to the US,” states the report. The government wants to ensure that the UK maintain “the core industrial skills required to contribute to any future international manned, fast jet program, should the requirement for one emerge.” Hayward suggests, “For anybody associated with fixed-wing fast jet production, the long-term future appears bleak.”

BAE’s Turner is, unsurprisingly, more upbeat. He points to the Typhoon and JCA programs as providing long-term production and development work. The JCA work is, of course, dependent on the UK’s getting the “right level of technical transfer.”

The JSF will have a significant impact on how the new strategy plays out in the air systems sector, one way or another. Turner and Peter Spencer, the British defense procurement czar, visited the US last week, to reiterate the importance of adequate technology access on the F-35 program.

Critical British ambitions for the JSF are set out in the strategy document. The UK “intends to establish sovereign support capabilities which would provide in-country facilities to maintain, repair and upgrade the UK fleet, and an integrated pilot and maintenance training center.”

Turner underscores that for the UK involvement in JSF, “2006 is a very important year. . . . Operational independence is a big issue. The UK government is pushing very hard. . . . If it doesn’t get [the required technology access] it will be very interesting to see what decision it takes at the end of next year,” when the Defense Ministry is due to commit to production of the F-35.

Alongside the JCA and potentially Typhoon, UCAVs are likely to form a critical element of the UK’s future offensive air capability. The report also notes “targeted investment in UCAV technology demonstrator programs would help to sustain the very aerospace engineering and design capabilities that we need to provide assurance of our ability to operate and support our future fixed-wing aircraft.”

While the report maintains the Defense Ministry has “no funded UCAV program,” the ministry is supporting classified UCAV-related research, in part through low-observable (LO) platform work. It recently recast its future offensive strike needs within the Strategic UAV Experiment program.

The previously secret Corax air vehicle project culminated in a series of flight trials last year using ranges in Australia. The jet-powered LO platform is being used to explore the possible development of a “highly survivable, strategic UAV system.” The UK is interested in LO platforms not only for strike operations, but also for potential strategic reconnaissance applications. A stealthy endurance UAV is one possible candidate to fulfill elements of the Defense Ministry’s “Dabinett” intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance program, which is now at the concept phase. Corax flight tests included fully autonomous operation from takeoff to landing.

AUTONOMY WAS ALSO THE FOCUS of the Herti UAV system. On Aug. 18, the Herti-1A air vehicle had the distinction of carrying out the first fully autonomous mission of a UAV in UK airspace. The mission was flown from Machrihanish in southwest Scotland.

A UCAV technology demonstrator was also a key recommendation of the government and industry Aerospace Innovation Growth Team. Not only will it serve to develop UK capabilities in this area, it will also provide potential leverage on the US The UK is participating in the US Joint Unmanned Combat Air System.

While the policy document augurs a healthy future for the UCAV/UAV community, there’s a more anxious outlook for the guided-weapons sector. The report states: “There is, apart from the Meteor program, little significant planned design and development work beyond the next two years. This will present a substantial challenge as we seek to maintain those industrial capabilities we would wish to retain on-shore.”

In working to sustain the UK capability, of which MBDA has more than half of the funding, the DIS notes that “for the short to medium term, we will consider suspending the use of international competition.” The strategy also calls for further restructuring of both the domestic and European guided-weapons sectors.

In the rotary-wing environment, the report notes that the ministry is continuing to negotiate a strategic partnering arrangement with AgustaWestland that it hopes to sign during the second quarter of 2006.

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