• Toby Irwin

Digital Systems Utilised in New Fighter Aircraft Development

The UK has been hard at work developing the country's future next-generation combat aircraft, Tempest. The Tempest aircraft is currently in development in an international consortium between British and Italian firms, and it is due to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon in both country's fleets. Recently, BAE systems, a major partner firm in the aircraft's development, confirmed that it had been making the most of newly developed technologies in order to ensure that the aircraft met its deadline of being delivered by the mid 2030s.

These technologies involve the digital processing of conceptual designs. These digital designs are then able to be vigorously tested to determine things such as aerodynamic performance and in-flight durability. All of this of course differs to development of previous generations of aircraft in that test-flights and prototypes can now be calculated and tested in computers and not necessarily in the skies. This naturally leads to a decrease in costs and development time, not to mention the risks of testing real prototypes in airspace.

Beyond this, the digitally analysed components and systems are now able to be 3D printed. This allows the Tempest team to physically put components to the test in real simulations such as in a wind tunnel. Noting the use of new technologies Paul Wilde, Head of Airframe Technologies at Tempest, said:

“The digital twin concept we have developed will be used to design, test and support every single system and structure for Tempest. By taking an entirely digital approach to the challenge the UK Government has set us, we’re transforming the way we work and adding incredible value to the programme.  We can achieve what traditionally would have taken a number of months in a number of days..  As a result, we’re working faster for the future and we’re using the virtual environment to create endless opportunities for our engineers to experiment without boundaries, and with open minds – key to the future innovation of the programme.”

All of this is incredibly welcome news, especially given that military research and development costs (R&D) have exponentially been increasing with each subsequent generation of aircraft. Two things should be worthy of note here, however. First, the painful truth is that public sector funded R&D programmes near always overrun on costs. This is obvious when looking at the estimated initial and final costs of the Navy's carrier programmes as well as the previous development of Typhoon. Secondly, and on a similar note, Typhoon saw the late-stage scaling back of the number of aircraft ordered. This decrease in the number of units being ordered is also likely with the Tempest programme. For instance, only recently the UK Defence Journal reported that the ensuing recession will likely see a reduction in the number of F-35 being ordered. The consequence of decreased order numbers is that the economies of scale become warped. High production costs demand that the units sold are high enough to compensate. In the absence of a sufficient domestic market the reduction in the R&D costs are thus very welcome. That said, one would be very surprised not to find the final Tempest aircraft being opened to exports beyond the UK and Italy once the project has been finalised, and the costs calculated.




Cover image courtesy of Financial Times.

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a fourth year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.

The student project covering international relations and foreign affairs


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