Industry retools to build Britain’s new Tempest combat aircraft

The World War II hangar in northern England has become a testbed for Britain’s initiative to build the next generation of fighters.

BAE Systems, the UK’s largest defense contractor, reused its facility in Warton, Lancashire, to experiment with advanced manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing and customized robots to create complex structures for Tempest programs. ..

It is also a melting pot of cooperation involving multinational corporations such as Rolls-Royce and MBDA. Leonardo of Italy and Saab of Sweden in the UK division, and dozens of small suppliers.

The challenge is huge. It’s about radically changing the way fighters are built so that Tempest will fly into the air by 2035. This is about half the time frame of the previous program.

Moreover, Tempest is more than just a fighter. The highlights of Britain’s combat air patrol strategy are expected to include manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, swarming drone technology, and perhaps laser weapons.

The aim is to fulfill the government’s desire to retain cutting-edge expertise after being excluded from rival French and German projects. Success to secure 18,000 jobs as the UK secures the future of the £ 6 billion combat air patrol sector annually and the production of Eurofighter Typhoon, a British, French, Italian and German company, ends. Is indispensable.

Tempest concept model aircraft at BAE Systems (home of Eurofighter) in Warton, Lancashire. © Jon Super / FT

It is also a major commitment from the Ministry of Defense, which has long been criticized for signing up for major procurement programs that take time and money, such as British aircraft carriers.

MoD has invested £ 2 billion in Tempest over the next four years and the companies involved have invested £ 800 million over the same period. The agency said: .. .. This program aims for significant efficiency savings that can save time and money. “

An important milestone is approaching. The two companies hope to secure contracts for the next phase in the coming weeks to carry out the concept and evaluation work, which will be the first appropriate step to the launch of a fighter. The purpose is to start a major development program in 2025.

For BAE and its partners, the focus is on the time to market for that decade. that is” [aircraft’s] The capabilities are significantly higher than in previous generations, “said Michael Christie, director of BAE’s combat air patrol program.

“It’s a bit of a double pain. You can get more features in less time.”

Michael Christie, director of BAE's combat air patrol program, said the project was

Michael Christie, director of BAE’s combat air patrol program, said the project was ” [aircraft’s] The functionality is significantly higher than in the previous generation. © Jon Super / FT

To meet the deadline, partners have replaced traditional playbooks on how to work together and get involved in mods.

Mark Hamilton, Managing Director of Electronics at Leonardo UK, said MoD is playing an integrated role, not just acting as a customer. Meanwhile, the traditional hierarchy of prime contractors and subcontractors has also been replaced by more equal partnerships.

The new approach is prominent in Wharton, where BAE has built fighters for over half a century. There are no fixed rigs in the hangar that are common to most such facilities. Instead, robots in the automotive industry have been modified to operate with the tolerances required for military aircraft.

The two companies are also testing larger and more complex geometries to see which parts of the aircraft can be manufactured by laminating or 3D printing. BAE aims to use 3D printing for about one-third of its Tempest components, compared to less than 1% of Typhoon, which went into service in the mid-1990s.

Titanium parts for Typhoon fighters. 3D printing is one of the facilities available at the BAE Systems factory in Wharton.

Titanium parts for Typhoon fighters. 3D printing is one of the facilities available at the BAE Systems factory in Wharton © Jon Super / FT

Dave Holmes, BAE’s manufacturing director, admitted that “going anywhere in half the time and half the cost would significantly change the level of automation at every step of the manufacturing process.”

But he argued that robots were there for “dull, dirty, dangerous work” rather than replacing people. Unions are generally supportive and claim to create more valuable jobs. According to an independent report commissioned by BAE, the program is estimated to support approximately 21,000 jobs per year across the UK.

Increasing the use of software to design and validate parts also helps reduce the need for expensive physical prototyping.

“To prove a digital model, we still have to physically test it, but when we prove a digital model, we can do things digitally,” says Christie of BAE.

Staff are working on the technical demonstrator part of the Tempest fighter fuselage © JonSuper / FT

This novel approach has been adopted by other industries as well. About half of Wharton’s 50 companies are outside the aerospace sector, from multinationals such as Siemens to SMEs.

Both companies are keen to highlight the overall economic impact of the program on the UK and its ability to promote broader industrial innovation. Some of the manufacturing techniques identified in Tempest may be applied in other areas such as civil aerospace. To say they.

There are still many unknowns, but especially what the final aircraft will look like, and decisively the price tag. There is no official cost yet, but Justin Bronck, a think-tank defense analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, estimated that it would likely cost at least £ 25 billion in total.

“If it’s political, industrial and economic ambition, the country can afford to develop its own fighter,” he said. “I wonder if defense can tolerate this as part. [its] Equipment program? “

Until the early 2030s, Tempest will rob money from programs that are essential to developing combat capabilities. This is “for a long time in the hope that it will be available in the late 2030s.”

One of the looming strategic issues is whether the European government can actually purchase the two combat aviation programs, which could increase the alignment of rival French and German projects with similar requirements. There is. Christie said there was “no specific convergence” at this time, but did not exclude some due to the need for interoperability between the two programs.

For now, his focus is on securing Tempest’s first contract.

“My goal is to establish an acquisition program. That will be a reality.”

One of the challenges in building a modern fighter is finding a way to meet the unprecedented demand for power from on-board computer systems and sensors. For Tempest, its mission is led by Rolls-Royce. Rolls-Royce engines have propelled British fighters for generations.

For Tempest, the company is developing a gas turbine that combines two embedded generators, according to Philip Townley, director of the FTSE 100 Group’s future combat program. This is similar to an “empty power plant”.

One of the many challenges is controlling the thermal properties of the aircraft to avoid detection. Unusual for military aircraft, the company is also looking at ways to enable it to operate on synthetic aviation fuel, given the increasing pressure on the aviation industry to reduce carbon emissions.

“Jets and unmanned aerial vehicles don’t run on the right type of fuel, so it doesn’t make sense to touch down,” Townley said.

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