Europe may be gearing up for the development of two next-generation combat aircraft, but its trio of so-called Eurocanards have managed to hold sway in the international fighter market.
As little as five years ago, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter seemed set to rule the roost in Europe, and the production of the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale was deliberately drip-fed as industry extended production in hopes of securing a place in future fighter contests.
Today, however, production of both types looks assured: Export sales and top-up orders from domestic nations will take production of both aircraft well into the late 2020s and their service lives out to 2060-70. Meanwhile, development of Saab's Gripen E continues apace, and the aircraft it was supposed to replace, the C/D model, now looks set to enjoy a career with the Swedish Air Force into the 2030s, paving the way for a new upgrade path into a future as a firm fixture on the international fighter market.
“There has been a confluence of military, political, financial and industrial considerations that has kept these aircraft in production,” says Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Because these platforms were originally designed for Cold War-era threats, the expectation was that if the Cold War had continued, the successors to these platforms would have already entered the inventory or at least been well into development.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting reduction in tensions instead saw the pace of fighter development slacken. Financial concerns put future fighter needs on the back burner, and largely incremental upgrades were delivered by industry to keep their skills ready for future programs.
“In recent years, however, the deterioration in the security environment and renewed concerns with Russia have given the European fighters and their American counterparts a second wind,” Barrie says.
The F-35 is another key factor. Some European countries view the U.S. fighter as a threat to their national industry and sovereignty, and the type is perceived as having strings attached to security and operational uses. Furthermore, the cost of operation has so far been high, and the weaponry options that come with European platforms are not available on U.S. platforms. Both the Eurofighter and the Gripen, however, are integrated with many different U.S. munitions. All three European fighters can now use the ramjet-powered MBDA Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile, and export customers can also access standoff weapons such as the Storm Shadow, Scalp and Taurus KEPD 350 air-launched cruise missiles, all largely free of strict U.S. regulation—a significant element for Middle East customers.
Yet even with their replacements now on the distant horizon, the future development road map for the three European fighters appears more certain than ever.
Both the French-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and the UK-Italian-Swedish Tempest initiatives look set to benefit the platforms they will replace.
French plans call for the Rafale to remain in service until 2070, supplementing the New-Generation Fighter (NGF), which will be at the heart of the Future Combat Air System when it enters service around 2040 (AW&ST Nov. 25-Dec. 8, 2019, p. 46).
The F4 upgrade for the Rafale includes improvements to the aircraft's communications suite and delivers additional weaponry. The F5 upgrade, meanwhile, planned for the early 2030s, will enable the Rafale to make use of the FCAS' remote-carrier concept and introduce a virtual cognitive assistant to support the pilot in high-workload situations. Work on the artificial intelligence is already underway through the Man-Machine Teaming advanced study program launched by Thales and Dassault in March 2018.
Plans for F6 and F7 upgrades, likely to emerge in the 2040s, are envisioned to align with the upgrade path for the NGF.
One of the drivers for the Rafale's retention is France's aim to have a two-type fighter fleet: one to meet high-end threats and another lower-cost platform to take on less complex threats.
Currently, the Rafale takes that lead role, and the Dassault Mirage 2000 supplements it, but once the NGF enters service, the Rafale will augment that platform.
A wave of Rafale orders has helped to sustain that development activity, led first by Egypt and Qatar and then followed by India after the long-drawn-out agreements were finalized.
Greece joined the Rafale operators club in January, the first European customer outside France to do so, with an order for 18, including several second-hand aircraft from French Air Force stocks.
The Rafale is also in contention in Finland and Switzerland, and an export deal is said to be close in Indonesia. Top-up orders from France are in the offing, too: Twelve are on order to offset those aircraft being delivered to Greece, while another 30 Rafales are planned for delivery in 2027-30.
The four Eurofighter partner nations—Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK—managed to draw out production for domestic use over 17 years, keeping production warm for potential future orders. This was a strategy that finally paid off in 2016: Kuwait ordered 28 aircraft, and a year later Qatar ordered 24. The two orders boosted the business case for investment in an active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar for the aircraft, and Germany's Quadriga order will bring new enhancements to the AESA sensor. The order for 38 Tranche 4 Eurofighters to replace its Tranche 1 fleet keeps the production lines and platform development moving and adds an improved AESA radar and updated electronic warfare systems to the type's optional extras list. Another top-up order should come later this year from Spain, whose Halcon requirement calls for the purchase of an additional 20 airframes.
The Eurofighter also will benefit from both the Tempest and FCAS development streams, but much of how this will pan out is still subject to agreement among the four nations.
Jointly, they have been studying proposals for the Eurofighter's Long-Term Evolution (LTE) described as a midlife update for the platform. Studies for the LTE, launched by the four-nation consortium at the Paris Air Show in 2019, aim to expand on the performance-enhancement packages already being rolled out across the fleet and build on the fighter's mission-system architecture, defensive-aids suite and human-machine interface. The LTE studies also will consider a wide-area display cockpit as well as the integration of new weapons and enhanced engine performance.
LTE will likely feature on the planned Tranche 5 Typhoons that Germany wants to introduce to replace its Panavia Tornado fleet. Airbus has suggested the first LTE aircraft could fly in 2027-28.
Other opportunities are in the offing, too. Like the Rafale, the Eurofighter is competing in Finland and Switzerland, and the potential exists for further orders from the Middle East. Saudi Arabia might use the platform to replace its Tornado fleet, which is due to exit service around 2030. Agreements signed by Riyadh in 2018 for another 48 aircraft are yet to be exercised.
Output from the LTE study has been submitted to Eurofighter customers for review and consideration, Eurofighter's head of strategic marketing, Raffael Klaschka, tells Aviation Week.
“We are actively supporting that process, and we will continue to do so until it concludes. . . . A positive outcome will allow us to progress toward the next phase of the program and bring Typhoon LTE aircraft into service through the latter half of the decade,” Klaschka says. “We are confident that the LTE study report contains cost-effective long-term solutions that will maintain Typhoon's position as a world-leading multirole fighter aircraft, providing the foundation for the continued development of the weapon system well into the 2060s.”
In support of the FCAS introduction, Airbus is proposing a combat cloud network for both the Eurofighter and Rafale that would be ready for operations in 2030 and might even pave the way for use of remote carriers—unmanned aircraft that are envisaged to accompany the FCAS into hostile airspace. The UK also is discussing the use of its Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft alongside the Typhoon as an additive capability before the Tempest enters service. Additionally, the UK is advancing plans for a more capable AESA radar with an electronic-attack capability (AW&ST Sept. 14-27, 2020, p. 28).
Development of Saab's Gripen E is continuing rapidly; efforts are now taking place across two continents with the arrival of Brazil's first aircraft in-country in late 2020.
Saab views the Gripen E as a new-generation fighter aircraft. Because of the differences between the E and C/D models, the company argues there are now four Eurocanards. Although production of the Gripen C/D is currently on ice, Saab has said it could quickly restart production should new orders for the older version emerge.
“Gripen E is a completely new aircraft,” says Mikael Franzen, vice president and head of marketing and sales at Saab's aeronautics business. “Of course, we use this very optimized configuration that we have on Gripen, but we have redesigned the complete airframe internally. . . . Pretty much every system in there has been redesigned.”
The Gripen E is a stockier, heavier machine than its predecessor. Broader wing roots allow it to carry 40% more fuel, and wider air intakes feed the more powerful General Electric F414-GE-39E turbofan engine. Two additional belly-mounted pylons expand weapon load capacity, while faceted wingtip pods feature an enhanced electronic-warfare capability. Its empty weight is up by 1,200 kg (2,650 lb.) to 8,000 kg, and all-up weight is increased by 2,500 kg to 16,500 kg, yet the jet has been designed to remain within the strict parameters that allow the Swedish Air Force to use the newer version from its network of austere bases and road runways. Internally, Saab has focused on the development of advanced sensor and electronic-warfare capability, while a federated architecture separates critical flight control systems from the tactical systems.
Saab says the federated approach will make the Gripen E's avionics and mission systems more easily and quickly upgradable; tactical upgrades could be written, tested and installed in weeks rather than months or even years.
“The technology is working, and we are talking weeks rather than months or years for upgrades,” Franzen says.
The challenge will be for customers to adapt to this new rapid pace of change. Air forces will need to develop ways to approve the new upgrades and then train their pilots to be able to fight with the modified aircraft, Franzen adds.
The Gripen E's new sensors should allow it to surpass the capability of the Gripen C/D when it reaches the front line in 2023. Among the systems onboard is what Saab refers to as human-machine collaboration: If the pilot is focused on an air-to-ground task, for instance, the aircraft systems will continue to monitor the aerial picture and warn the pilot if a potential threat emerges ahead.
Sweden would like the aircraft to be able to carry a standoff weapon by the end of the decade, and Brazil sees its Gripen Es carrying a cruise missile, the domestically developed MICLA-BR, in the coming years.
Meanwhile, the Swedish government's decision to keep 40 Gripen C/D aircraft in service to supplement the Gripen E fleet in response to the enhanced threat posed by a resurgent Russia has prompted Stockholm to consider how to keep the older, smaller Gripen model relevant into the 2030s, which could bolster its chances on the international market once again, too. The last Gripen C/D sale was to Thailand 13 years ago, but the fighter has struggled to find a sale since; at least one country has cited a lack of AESA on Gripen C/D as a reason for its rejection. Saab subsequently self-developed and flew an X-band AESA in the Gripen last year, and that could form part of the platform's development road map, particularly for the retained Swedish fleet.
Franzen says the study work will initially focus on removing obsolescence from the aircraft before looking at capability areas. “We will, of course, try to get all of the ground support system [and] planning stations into one track to support both aircraft,” he says.
The Gripen E orderbook stands at 96 aircraft: 60 for Sweden and 36 for Brazil. But Brazil has ambitions to double or triple that number. Like its European rivals, the Gripen is competing hard for Finnish requirements.
Saab is developing a road map for the Gripen E, likely to build off Sweden's partnership with the UK and Italy on the Tempest technology work.
Both British and Italian industry have cited Sweden's experience with the rapid development of the Gripen E as a key ingredient to achieving success with the Tempest.
Ironically, after years of ferocious competition, Europe's fourth-generation fighters will be intrinsically linked together and will end up sharing technologies developed through the political and industrial links established to help replace them.