Test pilots at BAE Systems, a sprawling facility in the north-west of England, are putting to the test one of the most advanced fighter aircrafts on earth. Pilots have flown over 170 hours in 125 flights, but the jet has not been built yet. The flights were conducted inside a custom-made simulator.
Virtual testing will inform the live trials for a supersonic aircraft prototype scheduled to fly by 2027. This will be Britain’s very first combat test plane since the Eurofighter Typhoon, almost 40 years ago. This is also an important first step for the UK, Italy and Japan to meet their promise of having new generation aircraft flying in 2035 under the trilateral Global Combat Air Programme.
GCAP, unveiled in December last year, is one of most ambitious military programs ever undertaken. The GCAP combines Japan’s F-X program with the UK, Italy and France’s Tempest projects with the goal of delivering supersonic aircraft in half the time and at a significantly lower cost than previous generations of aircraft like the Typhoon.
Herman Claesen was previously in charge of Eurofighter’s consortium. He said that a new approach is needed to the Typhoon program, which took 20 years to develop.
He said: “There’s not enough money and there isn’t enough time.” “We have to break the curve [of rising costs and long lead times].”
The most expensive and technologically complex aircraft are fighter jets. America’s latest-generation F-35 initiative is the most expensive military project in history, costing the Pentagon an estimated The goal is then to launch a development phase between three nations.
In order to meet the ambitious schedule, the industrial partners leading the programme, BAE, Italy’s Leonardo, and Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, are investing heavily in innovative prototyping, engineering, and digital design. The tolerances for military aircraft are the same as those required by robots in car factories. They will be working alongside humans. BAE, for example, has started to use 3D printing to make moulds that will be used to manufacture carbon fibre components. These “mould tools” are usually made from steel and take about 26 weeks to make. Using 3D printing, the company can print them in under 12 hours and have a fully complete tool ready in under three weeks.
Digital modelling allows engineers to work together on design, understand issues earlier and speed up regulatory certification by eliminating the need for costly physical prototypes.
Claesen, on a visit to the BAE Warton facility, said: “We believe the digital collaborative work environment we will set up between Japan and Italy is one of the most complicated and largest globally.”
The company emphasizes the progress made. Rolls-Royce is one of three companies that are working on the engine. In Bristol, they have been testing the advanced technology.
The partners are still deciding what type of industrial structure they will use to deliver this programme.
Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies said that for the program to succeed, “you need the industry, the government, and the defence ministries to all buy in to the fact that the key authority lies with the. . . management”.
Guglielmo Mavigliana, Director of the Global Combat Air Programme, Leonardo, stated that the partners “are getting closer to creating a permanent industry construct to deliver the program”.
He said there had been discussions to “re-evaluate existing programme structures, infrastructures and performance metrics”, and create a brand new structure. According to executives at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, part of the challenge is that each of the companies wants to take the lead in the most interesting parts of the development, including the cockpit, electronics, the weapons control system and the carbon fibre wings.
Masayuki eguchi, MHI’s head of defence, said that there are many areas where everyone is interested. The final decision on the work-share will depend on factors like how long it will take to develop the technology, and how much money it will cost.
MHI, which has primarily worked with US-based defence companies in previous years, is now learning to effectively communicate with its UK and Italian counterparts.
There are three different countries involved and there is a difference in culture, language and way of thinking. Although all three companies are experienced in building fighter jets it takes time to get to know each other, said Hiroshi Umino, MHI’s deputy general director of the GCAP Programme Office. They often use mathematical formulas or drawings to ensure they understand each other.
Cyber security will be a major challenge, due to the rapid digitalization. Experts in defence said that differences between partner countries’ cyber security could be a source of tension.
Japan has increased its military budget to increase cyber defences, but ‘s vulnerability to cyber attackss is being questioned. Last month, the National Center for Incident Readiness and Strategy for Cybersecurity in Japan revealed that its email system had been hacked. The port of Nagoya, which was temporarily shut down in July by what was thought to be a Russian-backed ransomware, was revealed by the Washington Post as a result of an attack by Chinese hackers on Japan’s defense networks.
Claesen, from BAE, said that security is a “key component of GCAP”, and the governments are “setting out the requirements for security”. . . Often led by the UK. He added that Japan was “taking it incredibly serious”.
Eguchi said that his company’s cyber security measures were comparable to those of other high-level defence companies overseas. There is no doubt the cyber threat will grow in tandem with the growth of digitalisation, but digital tools will only be adopted if they are deemed to have more merits than the disadvantages of a certain level of data leakage.