This last week saw the announcement by France and Germany that they plan to collaborate on a new European 5th generation fighter aircraft, much to the amusement of everyone except France and Germany. The level of amusement was enhanced by a comment from a German official - with absolutely no sense of irony - saying that such a partnership would benefit from not having UK involvement delaying the project.
This apparently overlooks the fact that the two prime culprits for causing delays in the Eurofighter project which ultimately produced the Typhoon were... France and Germany. A side culprit in the Eurofighter debacle was Spain, who jumped in and out at various points. Spain and Germany also happen to have made a joint announcement not that long ago about exploring options for a new fighter, so if France and Germany could get them on board for this project then that would finally complete the holy trinity of European defence collaboration misfits.
The unnamed German official also seems to have missed the fact that the UK already has a plan for a 5th generation fighter in the shape of the Lightning II (time to get used to stop calling it the F-35). As such the UK doesn't have a pressing requirement for such an aircraft. Indeed, all this announcement really does is expose a lack of planning and preparation for the future on the part of both Germany and France.
The announcement was also met by comments from some about how the UK would need to join this collaboration urgently if it had any plans of developing a similar domestic aircraft, as it did not have the ability to develop one by itself. Again, this rather ignores the fact that the UK already has a plan in place to replace its Tornado aircraft (which is the immediate concern for Germany) with the use of Lightning IIs. It also ignores a few interesting points about UK aircraft design.
Firstly, let's not forget that it was the UK that got bored of waiting for everyone else to get a move on and instead set about designing and building its own prototype for the Eurofighter, with an Italian wing thrown in for good measure. The resulting airframe - the Experimental Aircraft Programme (EAP) - took flight in 1986, having been co-funded by government and industry. That's 8 years before the first flight of a Typhoon and 17 years before the first production Typhoon was accepted into service by one of the partner nations.
It's also worth noting that the UK has become a sought after partner by many countries such as Turkey and Japan who are looking at developing their own 5th generation fighters, due to the experience acquired on the development and manufacture of Lightning II. At this rate the UK might end up actually having a finger in the pie of half of all future 5th generation fighter designs. But would we build one ourselves?
The counter question would be; why? To which I guess the answer would be to eventually replace Typhoon. Lightning is perfectly adequate to replace Tornado and with its advanced sensors and low signature characteristics will probably find it outperforming Typhoon in a range of air to air scenarios. There is some unease though among those that think that Lightning is not a "proper" answer to future air to air threats and that something with a bit more zip and agility is required.
In theory the UK has the ability to pull off such a project with its engineering skills and experience. In practice a new build aircraft program would prove to be very expensive, an expense that the UK and in particular the MoD is not really well placed to bear right at this point in time. There is also the question of whether to go 5th or 6th gen, and what these terms actually mean in practice.
For a start, nobody seems to be able to agree on what would make something 6th generation. Tail-less? What does that make a B-2 then? Vectored thrust? Does that make the F-22 6th gen then? Or are these terms just meaningless garble, useful only for drawing artificial lines between different eras of aircraft design for the convenience of discussions about said aircraft...
Back to the cost issue, I think it would be illustrative to start the discussion of a UK built Typhoon replacement by looking at the end. The back end that is. Or rather, just inside the back end. Could have just said "the engines" in fairness and saved myself a bit of time, but then I'd have missed the whole "start/end" joke and what a loss to the Internet that would have been. So, swerving back on course again, the first problem is that the UK would have to choose either to design a completely new engine from scratch or otherwise utilise an existing design.
The problem most existing designs have is that they're either at or near the end of their growth curve. The amount of power that can be squeezed out of them for future performance upgrades is minimal, barring some unforeseen breakthrough in engine technology. The most obvious candidate is the EJ200, the powerplant of Typhoon which was designed with (according to Rolls-Royce) a 15% margin for improvement built in.
How much of that margin has been eaten since the early development of the engine and how much of that margin is realistically achievable without a big additional expenditure is up for debate. Even if it's all still there, it puts a serious cap on the weight of any future UK fighter design, especially if an overweight margin has to be accounted for in said design.
The alternative is a new build, either a clean sheet design or an adaptation of some existing engine, perhaps using some core components from a commercial design as the basis of a new military one. Neither option would likely be cheap and given the tight budget situation it seems almost incomprehensible that the UK government would authorise such a venture. So in all probability, sticking with the EJ200 is the way forward.
If that's the case then we're basically looking at something in the size region of the Typhoon but with added 'stealth' for want of a better, all encompassing term. Which means we're looking at something with equally short legs without external tanks and equally expensive in terms of construction. And if it's going to keep up with some of the latest and future developments then it's probably going to need vectored thrust in some form, which adds yet more cost.
The idea of sharing this cost by finding industrial partners such as Sweden has been proposed by some, but it's very much up for debate whether they would have the resources themselves to pitch in. Sweden is currently in the process of upgrading its Gripen aircraft to keep them viable in the near term and has only managed to secure export orders through the use of generous industrial offsets combined with the sale of older airframes. It's unlikely they have deep enough pockets to help fund a 5th generation fighter of the nature that the UK would want.
The option of bringing in partners also starts the UK down the slippery slope of defence cooperation that has so often ended in cost overruns and delays as the respective partners argue over work share, final design and which capabilities to prioritise. It's these factors that make the French/German endeavour such a comical match, because it represents the perfect storm for industrial disputes and mismatched requirements leading a cycle of development hell.
It's a tricky position then for those in charge at the MoD and the RAF, one which I don't envy. If they're going to have a crack at it then now would be the time to do it, before Typhoon gets too old and before others scoop up the remaining gaps in the market left after Lightning. But the UK really is in no position financially to be pouring money into such a project, as well as the added spectre of the US having its nose put out of joint that so much of the Lightning program has been invested in the UK only for the UK to go into competition with it.
Might a less expensive program be possible, one that the UK maybe/possibly/perhaps could afford if it absolutely was felt was necessary? Only I think if some way could be found to significantly reduce costs. In 1999 the USAF's Research Laboratory formed a group called the Metals Affordability Initiative Consortium (MAIC) which brought together a variety of companies from across the defence (defense?) industry to help determine what were the most expensive elements of producing an aircraft and what they could do to reduce these costs.
This group identified that, broadly speaking, engines accounted for around 20-25% of the cost, that 25-30% was accounted for by the subsystems such as radar and the like, around 10% was raw material cost, and as much as 40% of the cost was accounted for by engineering, fabrication and assembly. Bare in mind though that these costs can fluctuate based on a number of factors, for example how many engines the aircraft is designed to have.
On a quick side note for those that follow this blog regularly and especially those that follow me on Twitter, this one of the reasons I get annoyed with the old phrase "steel is cheap and air is free" in relation to ship building, because while steel may be cheap(ish), the engineering, fabrication and assembly stages are not. And nor is the additional power required to move said material through the water.
Getting back on track once again, we can see from the cost breakdown above that there are viable ways to reduce the costs in an aircraft program. One "easy win" would be to reduce the engine count from the Typhoon's two to just a single EJ200. The UK has a strong history of producing affordable single engined aircraft that got the job done and were good export successes such as the Hawker Hunter, BAE Hawk, the Harrier and others.
To give some rough (very rough) perspective of what such an aircraft might look like, the Hunter weighed in at just over 14,000lbs empty; the Saab Gripen clocked in at just under 15,000lbs. Hunter eventually packed an engine with just over 10,000lbf in thrust, while Gripen eeks out a little over 12,000lbf dry from its Volvo engine; 18,000lbf with afterburner. EJ200 is currently rated at 13,500lbs dry and just over 20,000lbf with afterburner, with the engine itself weighing just over 2,000lbs (compared to 2,500lbs for the Gripen engine and nearly 3,000lbs for the Avon in the Hunter).
If, purely for the sake of argument, we assume a 10% growth in engine power out of the EJ200 that leaves us at around 14,850lbf of thrust dry and a bit over 22,000lbf with reheat. On that basis the empty weight of Gripen at 15,000lbs seems like a good starting point, keeping in mind that the future of air combat is trending towards factors like supercruise (exceeding the speed of sound without the use of reheat) and high levels of agility, especially at high angles of attack, for which a thrust vectoring engine on an aircraft with a good power to weight ratio is desirable.
And here we bump into the old problems again; likely a low internal fuel capacity (remembering this is supposed to be a "stealth" aircraft) and high cost driven by the need to use more exotic materials (and the techniques of fabricating them) to keep the weight down. Added to this is the problem of taking a relatively slim airframe like Gripen and finding spaces inside that cramped fuselage to store the main air to air armaments.
An old concept design by Saab, which is essentially just a "stealthed-up" Gripen, has two short range weapons tucked into separate bays next to the air intakes, with four medium range weapons kept in two additional bays further back in the middle of the fuselage, between the undercarrriage. That's a slight upgrade on the internal air to air package carried by Lightning II, but it does raise questions about how much this would cut into fuel capacity and whether you could fit a bomb (with all the Paveway guidance kit attached) inside?
The other alternative is to drop some of the more exotic materials from the design to try and reduce that large chunk of costs associated with the engineering, fabrication and assembly. But the second you start doing that, and assuming that BAE doesn't have some kind of miracle breakthrough up its sleeve, then the weight of the aircraft immediately begins to fly up along with the negative impacts this would cause on performance. It's also worth considering that the materials used have a big impact on the signature reduction characteristics of the plane.
All in all then it's not completely beyond the realms of possibility that the UK could drum up the cash and the skill to build its own 5th generation fighter as a replacement for Typhoon, but the question marks over US disgruntlement (the US has been leaning heavily on allies to adopt the F-35) and the potential costs at a time when the UK is struggling to find enough cash to keep its already limited force structure intact does not bode well.