Open-system architectures and low-cost drones are at the heart of UK future combat aircraft thinking. And the UK Rapid Capability Office is speeding up the introduction of new capabilities.

As the Royal Air Force marks its centenary it is also in the midst of an extraordinary realignment of its front-line combat aircraft fleets.

With the retirement of the Panavia Tornado slated for March 2019, the Eurofighter Typhoon is being prepared, under Project Centurion, to take on its numerous missions including long-range strike and close air support. Meanwhile, the new Lightning Force – in conjunction with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm – is gearing up for F-35 operations from both land and sea, with the UK aiming to achieve an initial operating capability from land at the end of this year [2018] and from the new Queen Elizabeth-class carrier two years later.

With the Typhoon and F-35 forming the backbone of the RAF combat aircraft fleet right into the 2040s, work is underway to make sure the two aircraft can work together.

“We are looking to maximize the combat effect of both of those types,” explains Air Cdre Linc Taylor, the senior responsible officer for delivering the UK’s combat air capability now and into the future.

As part of the plan, Typhoon’s out-of-service date has been nudged back to 2040, and a road map of improvements is envisioned – including the integration of new weaponry beyond the Meteor air-to-air missile, the Storm Shadow cruise missile and the Brimstone ground-attack weapon – which will be introduced as part of Project Centurion, including the MBDA Spear Cap 3 missile, currently under development. The RAF is also looking to introduce the active electronically scanned array radar, which Taylor hopes will be fully operational in the mid-2020s.

The Typhoon, combined with the low-observable attributes and sensors of the F-35 and the growing experience of sharing information between the two aircraft through a series of trials known as Babel Fish, will give the UK, Taylor says, “a really potent force mix.”

The Babel Fish work – aptly named after the fictitious alien-like fish that acts as a universal translator in the British radio play The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – has enabled both the Typhoon and the F-35 to communicate via the Link 16 data link.

“It is an absolute game changer, with F-35 providing the new level of information to the Typhoon…and we are doing it both ways,” Taylor points out, with the Typhoon also passing critical data back to the F-35.

The question of data linking between the F-35 and older fourth-generation fighters is one that has been widely scrutinized on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly as Link 16 transmissions are less stealthy than the specially developed multifunction advanced data link signals that link F-35s.

Taylor points out that the more critical element is the need to understand what information should be shared and when, making sure that the correct protocols are in place.

“Babel Fish will start to explore, and has explored, how we do some of that interoperability,” he says.

While the F-35 will be the UK’s first combat aircraft with low-observable (LO) attributes, the UK has already built up considerable experience in this arena. Taylor himself is one of a handful of British pilots who have flown the F-117 Nighthawk.

Furthermore, Britain received its first F-35 back in 2012 and has been heavily involved in the development and test processes.

“We have been flying the [F-35] for six years now, our test squadron has been stood up for the last three years, so I think we are at a point of understanding LO technologies, employment and maintenance,” says Taylor.

Another learning curve that comes with the F-35, and that will with the Typhoon when it gets the new radar, is the process of reprogramming the sensor to deal with evolving threats in a similar way to defensive aids suites.

Reprogramming of the radar ensures that it is not a “static capability,” and adds to the sensor’s operational effectiveness, says Taylor.

“You actually get far more agility out of being able to reprogram some of these sensors,” he adds.

The RAF is also looking to accelerate the introduction of new capabilities to reflect rapidly evolving threats, such as the anti-access/area denial capabilities emerging in Russia and China.

In 2017, the RAF stood up its Rapid Capability Office (RCO) in a bid to speed up the introduction of new technologies into the air force and to address new challenges or problems. Perhaps the best known of the programs to emerge from the RCO is the development of the BriteCloud active expendable decoy with Leonardo, which was declared for operational use at the end of March.

Taylor says the RCO has some 40 projects on the go currently, and while not all of them are successful, Taylor says the approach has managed to take up to two-thirds out of the time normally taken to deliver such projects.