Fit And Flexible For The Future
For at least the next two decades Eurofighter is on a journey of capability development.
If a complex design development journey can ever justifiably be summed up in one word, it’s probably this: flexibility.
“The central idea is not to make a big bang change, rather introduce changes that will facilitate ongoing refreshes quickly and affordably. That’s one of the guiding principles,” says Rob Wells, Eurofighter Weapon System Manager, who along with Filippo Danubio, Vice President Weapon System Development, is part of the team pulling together the plan.
“We know that the threats — aircraft, Surface-to-Air missiles and other types of weapons systems that are coming into play —are all evolving. We need to be able to counter that. So we will have to evolve too and we will firstly have to be able to do it quickly, and secondly, as you’re not actually sure exactly what’s around the corner, we have to plan for the unplannable.”
In some senses then, the future capability journey is an acceleration of what has characterised Typhoon’s operational life to date.
Over the past decade it has already shown an incredible amount of adaptability. Fortunately, the original design team did an excellent job creating a fantastic design template, which has been able to grow. So in a very real sense, the machine has been transformed in line with the needs of its various air force users.
Through the Long-term Evolution initiative, the team is pro-actively looking at future capability needs and they’re aiming to repeat this success, but this time by introducing greater flexibility.
Rob says: “It’s not about changing the platform completely, but making a series of refreshes to maintain the tactical performance.”
When aircraft from earlier generations went through an update programme, they often came out of it looking a little different than their predecessors. They were given a new nose job, or perhaps the fin was a different shape, or maybe the wings were bigger.
But this isn’t going to be the case with the Eurofighter Typhoon. The airframe with the engines is fixed because the team who came up with it pretty much aced it from the outset — it’s at its optimum. Eurofighter’s combination of high thrust-to-weight ratio, manoeuvrability at all speeds, 65,000-foot service ceiling, supercruise capability, powerful radar and large missile load ensures that it is a world-class operational fighter aircraft with a reputation few can rival.
So why now?
According to the authors of the Long-term Evolution initiative there are three main factors that are driving the activity:
- Longer service life: Air Forces have already expressed an interest in flying longer than the original design life of the aircraft. The original specification was 25 years and 6000 flying hours, but Eurofighter Typhoon will comfortably exceed that.
- Evolving threats: As Eurofighter is a top of the range fighter, the threats it has to deal with are evolving too. Hence, it can’t stand still, it needs to evolve as well.
- Advancing technology: One of the opportunities is not just to introduce new technology simply because it’s new or to avoid obsolescence, but to use it in a way that enables updates to be carried out quickly, cheaply and flexibly.
This last point is crucial. While the Eurofighter of the 2040s will look pretty much the same as it does today — it will have two engines and fly at certain speeds within its design envelope — its sensors and the weapons will evolve to enhance its operational effectiveness.
So the next phase of the evolution will build on the foundation but take place largely ‘under the surface’ because, in the second half of its service life, Eurofighter Typhoon will be increasingly dependent on its avionics rather than on the traditional systems. But what it won’t be is one big data dominated midlife refresh. Indeed, that notion is regarded as being folly.
“Computing power is growing at an exponential rate, so even if we changed all the computers today, they’d be old within two years — the pace of change is so rapid. Therefore, rather than focusing exclusively on new computers, increasing memory and processors, we want to concentrate on how we can perform a refresh of the weapon system in a way that will allow us to accommodate faster insertions of new capability throughout its remaining life.”
One thing is for certain, information — in develop the jet to meet that need. Of course, nobody really knows for certain what the future will bring. It could be, arguably, that air forces continue operating Typhoon in the same way as it has since it entered service. It will, for example, always perform QRA duties.
But current demands are not as high when compared to operating in the perceived contested battlefield.
One factor that is gaining more and more importance is cyber resistance. Ensuring the aircraft is immune to cyber attacks through what’s variously called cyber hardening or cyber resilience is being taken seriously and forms part of our plans for the future.
What Will Change Look Like
Key candidates for upgrades, enhancements and new capabilities will be sensors and weapons.
“Avionics is the area where web technology is evolving quickest, and all key sensors are within avionics. Radar, the DASS (Missile warner, laser warner), and the Data Link are all sensors and they are all evolving,” says Rob.
“We are likely to need more Data Links than we have today — covert data links, high bandwidth data and so on. The Laser Designator Pod is a sensor too (though it’s equipment that you plug in) and it will have to interface with the aircraft.
“The world of sensor development, sensor exploitation, is often driven by either evolving threats, (for example shoulder-mounted missiles whose frequencies can be changed overnight), or because the rules of engagement are changing as well as a focus on low collateral damage and so on. It all comes from sensor information technology, digitised information.”
With weapons the story is slightly different.
What the team is trying to do as part of the initiative is to make weapons easier, cheaper and faster to integrate. They confidently expect the weapons portfolio to continue to expand, even within the Typhoon’s eight-strong customer community, as customer requirements are continuously evolving.
“In general that means getting smaller weapons rather than bigger weapons and potentially using multiple weapons on a station, so things like Brimstone and the introduction of a Common Weapon Launcher, which by definition would carry more than one weapon on that launcher. In essence we’re moving away from one store per station to multiple stores per station, usually with small warheads, all individually targetable, therefore the amount of information is multiplied. They could be data driven, they will certainly be data hungry and it will be necessary to get data to the weapon quickly. That’s the sort of terms of data— is going to be key.”
Operational evaluation commences for RAF Typhoon fleet enhancements under project Centurion
Rob explains: “The rapid evolution in technology means there’s an expectation that more information will be exploited by Typhoon in the future. Whether that’s higher bandwidth, more pictures, videos, colour, and so on. Of course, all of this is going to take up more space, and on a fast jet space isn’t something you have an unlimited supply of.
“One key task to look at is how you can get as much information on board as possible, how you use that information in a proactive manner and how you can pass the information to other users, whether it be in the air or on the ground. And it’s about doing all this in real time.
“We will look into opportunities for increased information flow within the existing space available. This may mean changes to the avionics architecture to optimise that performance, because we will be working with 5th gen aircraft, which have their own rules of engagement, and to be able to interoperate with them will mean certain new requirements.
Arguably, of course, we will also be operating against military 5th gen threats, which will also need a certain methodology and techniques to prevail against.
Understanding how threats may evolve involves a certain amount of crystal ball gazing, but there is a degree of common thinking. Speakers at international fighter conferences often describe a future where aircraft will be working in congested and contested airspace.
“Our position in industry is if that’s the customer’s expectation we will continue to challenge facing us.”
Another area they are looking to address is turnaround times. Rob says: “If you need to land your jet, refuel, load up your weapons and get data on them before you take off again then the transmission of that information needs to be done quickly. The aim is to give the right amount of information to the pilot so that he’s got the optimum number of choices available for the weapons on board.
And when the pilot fires them that they’ve got maximum accuracy.”
Also up for discussion is the potential for a new cockpit design that would allow the pilot to exploit any new sensors and weapons to their full potential. Initial discussions have already started on what a prototype would look like.
Rob says: “Because the cockpit is one of the systems on the aircraft and it has a lot of equipment in it, it is one of the candidates for change. This enhancement is being driven by the need to ensure mission effectiveness — in other words the pilot’s situational awareness and decision making. Over time, the existing cockpit configuration will reach its limit, in terms of the amount of information a pilot can deal with.
When Does The Process Start?
Eurofighter’s Long-term Evolution initiative is being forged in three distinct phases:
This is an analysis of the weapon system as it will be by around 2020-21 with the addition of the new capabilities that are already being built into the existing capability road map.
This includes on-contract items like E-Scan radar, Meteor, Brimstone and Storm Shadow.
These give a predictable and reliable baseline. From there the team is investigating the areas that could benefit from technological change. The report examines options for the developmental opportunities for the 20 years thereafter.
Start a system definition with the aim of developing the enablers for the key areas of refresh that have been identified, including the plan for development of technology demonstrators
We will have to phase things in in a manner that means customers will still have aircraft on call when they need them
Prioritise and develop the changes with a phased approach. The aim is that some early work would commence in parallel with E-scan radar integration. However, rather than firing a starting gun to change everything, it’s the start of the iterative process designed to build in more flexibility.
Rob adds: “In terms of timings we would need to work out what would be operationally sensible because an air force commander won’t want to hand over all their aircraft for six months.
“We will have to phase things in in a manner that means customers will still have aircraft on call when they need them, but they can rotate those back into industry to carry out changes that are appropriate for the role that the aircraft is going to do, in a manner that’s also affordable.
“Therefore, probably the optimum time for a refresh will be within the next 10 years. That’s based on the time left in service, the maturity of evolving technology and the exploitation of the roles that the aircraft is expected to perform.”
Potential For Variants
Looking ahead, the aircraft will still be able to do what it does today and more
To date, the Eurofighter Typhoon has been developed with what’s nominally a ‘one size fits all’ policy where, in other words, all aircraft can do all things for all their various air forces.
But, that may change with the possible arrival of different variants.
Rob says: “Looking ahead, the aircraft will still be able to do what it does today and more. However, there is the prospect of developing variants as you shouldn’t necessarily expect all the jets to do all the things, all of the time.
“That’s important because, firstly, not all the pilots are trained to carry out all the roles, and secondly, if you don’t have to apply a modification across an entire fleet it can reduce costs.
“The idea of having different variants is something that’s been happening throughout aviation history. Indeed, even variants are often further subdivided. So we recognise that, while it should still be a multi-role aircraft and will continue to be so, there will be some potential niche roles that a ‘mini-fleet’ will be able to fulfil.”