GCAP Nations Eye ‘Several Hundred’ Export Sales

Tempest concept
Credit: BAE Systems

RAF FAIRFORD, England—The trination Global Combat Air Program (GCAP) could see several hundred export sales of the crewed aircraft that emerges from the initiative, senior industry figures suggest. 

Such sales would stem from the aircraft being a “first mover” in delivering a sixth-generation capability, according to Herman Claesen, managing director of Future Combat Air Systems at BAE Systems. He spoke to journalists on July 4 during company briefings ahead of the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) here. 

Claesen said analysis of the potential export market was ongoing, a key feature of the program. He noted the 2035 anticipated first-delivery date would make the fighter platform the first sixth-generation model available to export customers.  

“I think that’s an incredibly strong position for the GCAP program to be in,” Claesen said, adding that several other sixth-generation platforms in development are unlikely to be exported, such as the U.S. Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD), or they may simply be too expensive for nations to consider. 

Under the GCAP program, formally launched by Italy, Japan and the UK in December 2022, the goal is to develop a supersonic, low-observable combat aircraft that could replace the Eurofighter Typhoons operated by Italy and the UK and the Mitsubishi F-2s operated by Japan. 

Each nation, unilaterally and increasingly on a trilateral basis, is undertaking a range of technology maturation programs and demonstrations ahead of what is expected to be a full development contract in 2025. Here in the UK, that contract milestone would be preceded by the submission of a business case as well as a future defense review. The resulting document is expected to compare a plan to move the GCAP forward by either purchasing additional Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters or by seeking to join an alternative fighter program.  

Officials say the commitments made by the governments of all three partner nations and the significant investments made so far would suggest the GCAP option is the most likely to go forward and the industry’s focus “is making the international program work as the prime option,” Claesen said.  

The GCAP program has also captured interest from Saudi Arabia, which agreed to the production of a feasibility study around its combat air relationship with the UK and how that might continue, post-Typhoon. 

Ahead of such potential exports, however, UK industry is looking toward development of the Tempest demonstrator as the first manned supersonic aircraft built entirely in the UK for a generation.  

With the aircraft due to fly in 2027, BAE Systems and industry partners are restarting significant development efforts to derisk proving technologies that will be invaluable to the wider Tempest effort and reviewing UK aerospace development capabilities and skills. Engineers are pressing ahead with the demonstrator’s critical design review prior to the beginning of final assembly in 2024-25. 

The demonstrator effort is being led by BAE’s newly established FalconWorks business for advanced and agile research and development. 

In June it emerged that BAE Systems had completed development of the air intake and duct that will feed the demonstrator’s Eurojet EJ200 engines, validated the vehicle’s escape system and developed rigs for testing the aircraft’s flight control system. It was also producing its own software code through a process called autocoding.  

As part of the development, use of test rigs has already identified a potential issue with the so-called excitation of the demonstrator’s two all-moving vertical stabilizers­—if one vibrates, the second will do the same. Discovering this at such an early stage has allowed engineers to modify the design of the aircraft’s structure to eliminate the issue. Such an issue would previously have been discovered only during flight testing and required the aircraft to be grounded for the modifications to take place. 

The Tempest demonstrator will also be the first British aircraft produced without forgings and will make extensive use of additive manufacturing in critical structures. By eliminating forging, one of the time-critical elements of the production process is removed, as the production of dies for forging is often considered a long-lead item and extends the timeline. 

Among the components being made from additive manufacturing are the braces that link the landing gear to the aircraft’s structure. These components absorb much of the energy as the aircraft lands. They are being produced through a process called hot isostatic pressing in which metal powder is used and ejected into a mold before being subjected to high pressure and temperatures. 

“With this [demonstrator] aircraft, we are going to be doing many things for the first time, and some things for the last time,” FalconWorks Managing Director Dave Holmes said. 

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.