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EXCLUSIVE: Russian and Chinese threats loom large in the design considerations for future British fighter

 “It is a tale of magic, exile, tyranny and revenge,” states leading scholar of early modern drama, and editor of Early Modern Diplomacy, Theatre and Soft Power, Dr. Nathalie Rivère de Carles in her succinct summary of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The name chosen by The Bard for one of his most enduring plays is shared by the UK’s new concept fighter unveiled during July’s Farnborough air show in southern England. While the latter three subjects in Dr. Rivère de Carles’ description may not figure prominently in the aircraft’s design philosophy, ‘magic’ is an apt term for the electronic attributes in this manifestation of air power.     

In the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) centenary year the service has received a shot in the arm. During the show UK secretary of state for defence Gavin Williamson formally launched the country’s Combat Air Strategy. His backdrop was a life-sized model of the Tempest; a sixth-generation fighter developed by the UK defence industry and British government. ‘Team Tempest’ as the alliance is dubbed includes the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office plus BAE Systems, Leonardo, MBDA and Rolls Royce. Mr. Williamson was generous with hyperbole during the strategy’s unveiling. Despite the UK’s global role destined to diminish following the country’s expected exit from the European Union in late March 2019, Mr. Williamson told reporters that the country has “been a world leader in the combat air sector for a century, with an enviable array of skills and technology,” adding that, “this strategy makes clear that we are determined to make sure it stays that way … This concept model is just a glimpse into what the future could look like.”

The Tempest forms a key part of the Combat Air Strategy which is focused on the eventual replacement of the RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoon-FGR4 combat aircraft in circa 2040. This is to ensure that the country can continue to deploy airpower globally despite the expected proliferation of advanced air-to-air and surface-to-air threats: “High capability threat systems have proliferated widely in the last 20 years, and we expect this trend to continue,” the strategy predicts. Intrinsic to this prediction is the recognition that the strategic emphasis of the country over the past 20 years will need to change: “For much of the last two decades the UK and our allies focused our attention on counter-insurgency operations in environments where we were largely unchallenged in the air domain.” The strategy concedes that this is no longer the case. Instead “investments by adversaries in highly capable systems has reduced the technological advantage that Western air forces have in achieving and maintaining control of the air.”

Threatening Behaviour

Anticipating the future threat environment is key to the Tempest effort, according to the aerospace writer and consultant Professor Keith Hayward: “Once again, the RAF is looking at the prospect of fighting in contested airspace,” as it did during the Cold War with its ever-present prospect of a confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in the skies above Central Europe. Since the turn of the century the RAF has primarily operated in areas where the Defensive Counter-Air (DCA: hostile ground-based air defences and fighters) postures of their adversaries have been almost non-existent (Afghanistan) and badly degraded (Iraq and Libya): “Now you are having to think about the type of threats you may face 20 years hence,” Prof. Hayward cautions. This will require “future proofing” the Typhoon’s successor as much as possible to ensure it can meet and preferably surpass these threats.

The emerging DCA environment is best exemplified by the proliferation of Russian so-called ‘double digit’ high-altitude Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems such as the Almaz-Antey S-400 (NATO reporting name SA-21 Growler). Not only have two of these batteries been deployed to protect the Russian armed forces’ deployment in northwest Syria as of November 2015, but have also been exported. According to the author’s records the S-400 has won the People’s Republic of China, India and Turkey as export customers. The UK will also have to contend with air-to-air threats such as the Russia’s sixth-generation Mikoyan MiG-41 fighter currently believed to be under development. Confidential sources in NATO’s air power domain told the author that, despite the MiG-41 being touted as a highly sophisticated combat aircraft, it may be at least a generation behind current Western designs like the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor fighter. That said, as the seminal military journalist David Hackworth once exclaimed: “if you are in a fair fight, you didn’t plan it properly.” Whatever aircraft is procured to replace the Typhoon-FGR4, be that the Tempest or another design employing many of its proposed features it will have to surpass the capabilities of expected rival designs such as the MiG-41.

Beyond achieving this overmatch the Typhoon successor will need to ensure that it can adequately challenge future threats the West is yet to see on the battlefield. This could include Russia’s Almaz-Antey S-500 Prometheus high altitude SAM system. Planned for a reported service entry of 2020 this weapon could potentially threaten aircraft at ranges of up to 324 nautical miles/nm (600 kilometres/km); a significant increase from the 216nm (400km) range offered by the 40N6 SAM which forms part of the S-400. The Combat Air Strategy adds that the Future Force Concept published by the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) in 2017 concluded that the future air environment will “continue to be characterised by highly-capable integrated air defence systems and an increasingly complex electromagnetic environment … Combat air systems will need to be agile and adaptable to address this future environment, and will need to harness technological change over their lifetimes.”

That Buzzing Sound

Thus, kinetic (stuff that goes bang) is not the only threat to the Typhoon’s successor: The enemy’s use of the electromagnetic environment for the detection, targeting and telecommunications upon which successful air-to-air and surface-to-air engagement depend will be just as potent a threat. The growing complexity of this future environment is likely to be characterised by ever-more advanced ground-based and airborne radars which maybe increasingly discreet, making them harder to detect than today’s radars, as well as having better jamming detection and rejection. The latter capability risks severally degrading, if not nullifying, the jamming today’s air platforms can achieve. As a riposte the Typhoon’s successor will need to employ the very latest Electronic Warfare (EW) technology across the Electronic Attack (EA: The use of the electromagnetic spectrum to disrupt, degrade and destroy an adversary’s electronic systems), Electronic Protection (EP: the use of the electromagnetic spectrum to protect against hostile attempts to disrupt, degrade and destroy friendly electronic systems) and Electronic Support (ES: the collection and exploitation of electronic intelligence to support EA and ES) domains.

Spitting Electrons

What might the EW systems furnishing the Typhoon’s successor look like? Much will depend on future threats as discussed above. Leonardo is a member of Team Tempest. Steve Williams, vice president of capability and chief technology officer of Leonardo’s airborne and space systems division told the author that: “One of the key considerations Team Tempest is investigating is the future threat environment. This is made up of a wide range of conventional land, sea and air threat systems utilising guns and missiles to achieve effects; these will obviously be upgraded over the next decades and are likely to be joined by a range of new threats, some of which will deliver effects through unconventional means.” As Mr. Williams notes, the Typhoon’s replacement will have to fight and survive in a complex and crowded electromagnetic environment. The future demand for spectrum, both civilian and military is unlikely to diminish. Regarding the former, the increased proliferation of smartphones globally plus the advent of so-called 4G (fourth generation) cellular communications, which will see such communications inhabiting new bandwidths in the 700 megahertz/MHz to 2.6 gigahertz/GHz frequency spread, while greatly increasing the number of subscribers hosted on an individual network, will increasingly congest the spectrum. This translates into a ‘louder’ electromagnetic environment in which radars can ‘hide’ to shield themselves from detection. Furthermore the number of defence systems relying on the electromagnetic spectrum is likely to increase: A report examining the military radar sector from research company marketsandmarkets predicted that this domain could be worth $15.4 billion by 2022; a significant increase from the $13 billion it was worth in 2017.

Ultimately, Albion’s fighter of tomorrow is likely to face more, and better-hidden, electromagnetic threats than its counterparts today. Mr. Williams warns that predicting the future is an inexact science, both in terms of threats and technology. Yet this is as true for the RAF as for its future adversaries, and as-yet-unseen technologies could still be folded into the Typhoon successor’s to address future electromagnetic threats: “principles of flexibility and adaptability will be the bedrock for success as we move forward in this very complex endeavour,” Mr. Williams advises.

One tantalising glimpse regarding the design philosophy for self-protection that could be used on the Typhoon’s replacement is the multifunction sensor. Mr. Williams foresees this comprising antennae distributed around the aircraft to “deliver situational awareness across the electromagnetic environment.” This multifunction sensor could detect wide array of threats from low band radars typically transmitting in very low frequency (133MHz to 144MHz/216MHz to 225MHz) up to the Ka-band (33.4GHz to 36GHz) radars commonly used in SAMs/AAMs to provide missile guidance during the end game, and possibly further up the spectrum to potentially include the detection of lasers and other threats in the terahertz range. The distributed nature of a multifunction sensor means that it could be placed on an aircraft’s skin and in such a fashion as to provide 360 degree threat detection. A taste of such a capability has been provided by Northrop Grumman’s AN/AAQ-37 Distributed Aperture System equipping the Lockheed Martin F-35A/B/C Lightning-II combat aircraft. Future incarnations of this technology will be more sophisticated. This could potentially eliminate the need of a fighter aircraft to carry a disparate number of different sensors to address the threats that they may face (see below).

Open for Business

Open architecture, in the form of easily upgradeable software, will form the core of the Typhoon replacement’s self-protection system, Mr. Williams predicts. The threat data gathered by the multifunction sensor can then be processed using software with the threat addressed through jamming delivered via the same antennae, “or in coordination with other platforms,” he notes. He refers to this process as the “sense-to-effects” cycle, with the multifunction sensor and its software comprising “an intelligent, integrated system of subsystems that exploit cutting edge science and innovative technology.” Prof. Hayward believes that this open approach could tackle some of the problems of ‘unknown unknowns’ regarding future threats: “You can use open architecture to augment and enhance the aircraft’s passive and active self-protection systems,” he remarks. This approach, Mr. Williams continues, should ensure that these systems are relatively easy and economical to upgrade in the future as and when new threats are encountered in the skies.

Beyond the employment of the multifunction sensor and open architecture, the third element of the Typhoon successor’s EW fit will be its ability to share its electronic intelligence with friendly forces, Mr. Williams adds. This will go hand-in-hand with the use of sophisticated wideband robust communications handling large amounts of data zooming around the battlefield. This could be helped by the step change that British military communications may enjoy over the coming decade as the MOD contemplates its Satellite Communications (SATCOM) prior to the expected retirement of its current Skynet-5A/5B X-band (7.9GHz to 8.4GHz – uplink/7.25GHz to 7.75GHz – downlink) spacecraft in circa 2025. The new Skynet-6 constellation, which is being developed by Airbus, will include X-band SATCOM which may carry significantly more data compared to today’s spacecraft. There is also the chance that the MOD could procure or lease Ka-band (26.5GHz to 40GHz – uplink/18GHz to 20GHz – downlink) SATCOM bandwidth in the future. This could afford greater data throughput using relatively small airborne SATCOM equipment. Such advances would ease the carriage of torrents of EW-related data between the Typhoon’s replacement and other platforms across the air, land and sea domains. This could allow the aircraft to alert other planes to electromagnetic threats, and allow these planes to direct either EA or kinetic attack against the threat, and vice versa. This could also be helped by the common EW database which will share electronic intelligence across all three services (Royal Navy, British Army and RAF) which the MOD is thought to be developing, according to confidential sources. As Mr. Wilson notes: “Co-operative protection is definitely an area we are looking at. Techniques across the electromagnetic spectrum, utilising on-board, off-board and co-operative techniques and tactics, will be essential to protect ourselves and others in the team in the future threat environment.”


Mr. Wilson expects the Typhoon’s successor’s EW systems to evolve from those already in service on-board platforms like the Typhoon-FGR4. This could include Leonardo’s Praetorian Defensive Aids Subsystem self-protection ensemble used by this aircraft. Praetorian combines an electronic support measure/radar warning receiver covering a 100MHz to ten gigahertz waveband encompassing the transmissions of most airborne and ground-based air surveillance and fire control radars in service today. It also include a laser warning receiver (fitted only to the RAF and Royal Saudi Air Force Typhoons); an electronic countermeasure covering a six gigahertz to twelve gigahertz waveband with 50 watts of output power; a Ka-band (32GHz to 38GHz) radar-based missile approach warning system which can identify radar and infra-red guided SAMs/AAMs and a chaff/flare dispenser for radar and infrared guided missiles.

“During the renaissance, The Tempest was a metaphor for war. Yet, in Shakespeare’s play it is also a means to trigger an action that will solve a pre-existing conflict,” Dr. Rivère de Carles remarks. This perhaps summarises the duality of the aircraft: A machine for war, but one so equipped and employed that it may bring hostilities to a close.

Thomas Withington

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