The Future of Combat Air: UK Military Aircraft Technology
(Source: BAE Systems; issued July 16, 2018)
BAE Systems and its predecessor companies have been designing and manufacturing military aircraft for the UK’s Royal Air Force and other nations for over 100 years.

We are immensely proud to continue a long tradition of aeronautical expertise that helps maintain security and defend nations as well as bringing significant economic, technological and skills benefits. The UK Government has launched its Combat Air Strategy at the 2018 Farnborough International Air Show with the aim of delivering the next generation of combat air capability by 2035.

Evolving threats

Our world is more complex and uncertain than ever before. Future combat air systems will need to operate effectively in the most contested, congested and complex environments, where speed and agility are essential.

We believe that any future combat air system will need to be highly capable, flexible, upgradeable, connected and affordable - ensuring it can meet the uncertainties faced by air forces for decades to come.

A new combat air system

BAE Systems is working alongside the UK Government, the Ministry of Defence, the Royal Air Force and industry partners MBDA, Rolls-Royce and Leonardo to develop technologies to support the UK’s world-leading combat air capability today and into the future.

Key contributions from the industry partners are:
-- BAE Systems: advanced combat air systems and integration
-- Rolls-Royce: advanced power and propulsion systems
-- Leonardo: advanced sensors, electronics and avionics
-- MBDA: advanced weapons systems

Typhoon - the route to the future

Investment in Eurofighter Typhoon’s ongoing enhancement programme includes the development of the latest combat air technologies on Typhoon. These technologies will ultimately be incorporated onto a future combat air system, ensuring Typhoon remains at the forefront of technology and will operate seamlessly alongside future platforms.

Future Combat Air Concept

At the Farnborough International Air Show a next generation fighter concept model was revealed showcasing key technologies that will be important in the future. The concept gives an indication of the types of technologies that we and our partners are developing and investing in so that we can deliver world leading capabilities for the future.

We know that the future operating environment will be contested, congested and complex. A future fighter system will need to be capable, flexible, upgradeable, connected and affordable to ensure we deliver a system to meet the demands of the operating environment, both known and unknown.


A future combat air system must be able to survive the most challenging combat environments meaning that payload-range, speed and manoeuvrability will be key. We expect that the system will be equipped with a range of sensors including radio frequency, active and passive electro-optical sensors and advanced electronic support measures to detect and intercept threats.

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. The ability to deploy and manage air launched ‘swarming’ Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV) through a flexible payload bay allows the system to address dangerous Anti-Access Area Denial environments.


Air forces of the future will require a fighter system that is highly flexible and can be applied to a wide variety of military operations. Operators will have the ability to rapidly adapt the system to perform new functions or to change its performance.

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.

Adaptability will be built into the system design, with systems architectures which support a ‘plug and play’ approach, easily integrating new algorithms and hardware. The system will 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.


To deliver significant information advantage and mission effectiveness, the future combat air system will act as a ‘force multiplier’, interoperating with a wide range of other civil and military platforms and services across air, land, sea, space and cyber domains – as well as unmanned systems.

Command and control of other systems, such as UAVs, will be enabled from a fully customisable virtual cockpit, with 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.


The FCAS will be quickly and affordably upgradable, maintaining Operational Advantage and Freedom of Action in a rapidly evolving threat environment.

Physical interfaces must therefore be strong, lightweight, numerous, and affordably produced. This will be achieved through our expertise in additive layer manufacture, joining and fastener technology, ‘geometric locking’, and low observable materials. Robotic and cobotic assembly is likely to play a significant role.


Advanced manufacturing techniques will play a significant role in reducing the unit production cost of a FCAS, and will be a key enabler of flexibility and upgradeability. For example, in-service support costs can be reduced by using robotics adapted from manufacturing to re-fuel, re-arm, role-fit, and repair.

Exoskeletons, wearable displays and computing to provide hands-free instructions, guidance and technical publications could further reduce in-service support costs by helping to improve resource flexibility, improve the quality of work, and the speed at which tasks are performed. The use of artificial intelligence and data analytics in vehicle health and mission related data will improve aircraft availability as well as increase the mission success probability. Training costs could be significantly reduced using the virtual cockpit and virtual mission planning system as a result of their low cost, flexibility, and extreme portability.

Economic benefits that add up

The UK’s military aircraft industry has consistently delivered significant economic benefits to the nation by exporting whole aircraft and designs as well as providing support, maintenance and upgrade for overseas air forces.

The export success of the Hawk jet trainer aircraft is a good example. More than 1,000 aircraft have been built or are on order, demonstrating a very significant return for the UK Government from its initial investment of £900M. By 2013 Hawk aircraft exports had generated a return of £11.5 billion for the UK Government. Over time, the Typhoon programme is expected to generate a return of £28.2 billion from an initial Government investment of £15.2 billion.

Developing skills and people

For more than a century, BAE Systems has made a significant contribution to the development of engineering and technical skills in the UK. For decades our apprentice and graduate training programmes have provided the highest quality of training to thousands of young people, giving opportunities for social mobility.


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