Future of war in the air

Future of war, part three: aerial combat, take to the skies

Image credit: BAE Systems

War is one of the great accelerators for technology development. It is, quite simply, a matter of life and death and consequently it is a huge industry sector in its own right. In this series of three articles, E&T talked to military and aerospace contractor BAE Systems about how the future is shaping up for equipment for land, sea and air.

Dominance in the air gives control of the battle below, so aerial prowess wins wars. In a changing world, what technologies will we see developed in combat aircraft?

“Our world is more complex and uncertain than ever before,” says Andrew Kennedy, head of strategy, BAE Systems Air. “A future combat air system will need to operate effectively in the most contested, congested and complex environments we will have ever known, facing new threats that don’t currently exist.

“We believe that any future combat air system will need to be highly capable, flexible, upgradeable, connected and affordable –ensuring it can adapt to meet the changing threat environment throughout the life of the system.

“The UK has been investing significantly in combat air technologies in order to make this possible. The UK government, the Ministry of Defence, the Royal Air Force and industry partners MBDA, Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and Leonardo are developing technologies such as more advanced stealth technologies, advanced sensors, agile reprogramming and lean sustainment models.”

Future of war in the air (inline version)

Image credit: BAE Systems

In July 2018 the government launched its new Combat Air Strategy. Kennedy says: “It delivered an ambitious vision for the future, setting out a pathway for how we will bring this investment together alongside international partners and initiating the programme that will deliver the next generation of combat air capability by 2035.”

In support of the strategy launch, Team Tempest, a co-funded technology initiative with UK industry partners and the RAF Rapid Capabilities Office, revealed one possible concept vision of the future: Tempest.

Technologies currently being investigated for this future combat air system include:

  • Cooperative operations: Enabling unmanned wing-man operations to overcome the challenge posed by increasingly difficult threat environments without adding to pilot workload.
  • Laser-directed energy weapon defence: The system is likely to operate with kinetic and non-kinetic weapons. The integration of laser-directed energy weapons for self-defence and use within visual-range combat is also highly likely.
  • Dynamic architectures: Dynamically reconfigurable architectures is an emerging technology programme that seeks to change the way aircraft systems relate to one another. Systems architectures will support a ‘plug and play’ approach, easily integrating new algorithms and hardware. System could also support ‘scalable autonomy’ to provide a number of modes of unmanned operation and a range of pilot decisions aids when manned flight is being conducted. These features are dynamically reconfigurable and serve to enhance survivability, availability, cyber resilience and tactical options.
  • Long-range sensing: Understanding the range of sensing options to allow future aircraft to ‘see and shoot first’.
  • Flexible payload bay: Future combat aircraft could carry multiple payloads in internal bays to ensure low observability. The ability to deploy and manage air launched ‘swarming’ unmanned air vehicles (UAV) through this flexible payload bay allows the system to address dangerous anti-access/area denial (i.e. hostile) environments.
  • Common and virtual cockpit: A common cockpit will employ a ‘design and build once, use many times’ philosophy through a virtual cockpit. This virtual cockpit will allow command and control of other systems, such as UAVs, and will feature advanced human-machine interfaces including eye-tracking and gesture-based controls, offering intuitive and sophisticated mission management. Using a similar virtual approach, both mission planning on the ground and the remote command of unmanned aircraft can be enhanced, ensuring a rapid and effective understanding of the battlespace.
  • Trusted reasoning: Future combat aircraft will require increases in processing power and novel algorithms to enable rapid decision-making against a range of threats.
  • Adaptable airframe: Re-optimisation of a future aircraft’s performance may be vital to conducting a range of roles. Depending on the mission, ‘role fit’ additions such as low-observable conformal fuel tanks, weapons dispensers, air-launched UAV dispensers, large modular sensors, long-range oblique photography systems for reconnaissance and laser-directed energy weapons could be available.

As Kennedy notes, this concept provides an indication of the technologies that UK defence firms are developing and investing in “so that we can deliver world-leading capabilities for the future”.

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