PARIS --- The four Eurofighter partner nations have agreed to invest €53 million euros to study the program’s potential evolution over the next 20 years, Eurofighter GmbH announced Wednesday at the Paris Air Show. The goal is to keep Typhoon operationally relevant and allow it to remain in service until it is replaced by the next generation of combat aircraft around 2040.
Known as the Long-Term Evolution (LTE), the improvement package will build onto the Project Centurion developed to give the Royal Air Force Typhoons the air-to-ground capabilities of the Tornado strike fighter it retired earlier this year, and also includes integration of the Meteor long-range air-to-air missile and the Brimstone air-to-ground missile.
The LTE studies – 19 months for the aircraft and 9 months for its engine – will mostly focus on improvements to the cockpit and mission systems; the electronic warfare system; and the engine. Eurofighter executives seem certain that the LTE capability enhancement programs will be accepted, but provided no insight as to when this might happen.
Eurofighter AESA radar delay impacts competitiveness
The status of Eurofighter’s future AESA radar, however, remains murky, and it is not even mentioned in Eurofighter’s June 20 statement on the LTE study.
Clearly, studying how to keep Eurofighter operationally relevant “for decades to come” without replacing its 20-year old mechanically-scanned radar leaves a glaring gap in its market credibility, yet Eurofighter continues to evade the issue.
At a press conference at the Paris Air Show on Wednesday, Eurofighter officials refused to say when, and if, the Leonardo Captor-E active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar developed for Eurofighter will be procured by the four partner nations.
Company spokesman Adam Morrison dismissed a question about the status of Captor-E by saying that “all things come in good time,” and refused follow-up questions. He later added that there might be some good news regarding the radar at some unspecified, future time.
His position is in line with Eurofighter’s long-standing evasiveness about the status of the Captor-E radar. Companies working on the program refer questions to Eurofighter, which is the nominal customer, but Eurofighter brushes off unwelcome questions with the claim that "We cannot provide any further details at this point for reasons of commercial sensitivity."
The subject clearly touches a raw nerve at the company.
No AESA radar yet ordered by the four partner nations
The fact is that, while the electronically-scanned Captor-E radar first flew on Eurofighter in 2007, and while the four partner nations have spent €1 billion on its full-scale development, so far none of the four has decided to retrofit it to its Typhoons.
It has become even touchier since the United Kingdom decided not to retrofit the Captor-E to its own Typhoons, while the Italian defense ministry, already unable to meet its defense funding obligations, seems to consider an AESA radar on Typhoon an unnecessary expense.
Both Britain and Italy operate the Lockheed F-35, whose capabilities in this respect are claimed to far exceed what Typhoon could do even with an AESA radar. The British and Italian military have come to believe their own hype about the F-35’s capabilities, and so see little reason to invest in an AESA radar for Eurofighter.
A top executive of Airbus Defence and Space told Defense-Aerospace.com June 14 that industry is preparing a retrofit offeror Captor-E, which should be submitted by early 2020 to the four nations through the joint program executive agency, NETMA. This might allow a final decision by the end of 2020, he said.
“For Germany, it is urgent because the radar is needed for the new Eurofighters that will replace the Luftwaffe’s Tornados…..The UK is going its own way, and we regret it,” he added.
In fact, there will be no concerted action on the AESA radar procurement by the four Eurofighter partner nations, and each will decide whether or not to buy it. But the lack of a concerted, program-wide acquisition and retrofit will increase costs, making the AESA option even less attractive.
Commenting on the situation, an industry official noted that the two countries that also operate the F-35 – Italy and the UK - won’t invest in Eurofighter’s radar modernization. “Early on, it was said that Lockheed planned the F-35 to kill off Europe’s combat aircraft industry, and we are now seeing it come true, as both UK and Italy are dropping out” of the Captor-E retrofit.
Eurofighter was originally due to submit its offer for the production and retrofit of the Captor-E radar by the end of December 2018 – a year earlier than now planned - and a production order would have followed as early as mid-2019, according to the German defense ministry’s autumn report on armaments programs, released Dec. 7, 2018.
A competitive disadvantage on the export market
The fact that none of the four partner nations has yet decided to buy Eurofighter’s AESA radar is hard to explain on the export market, where most combat aircraft of Eurofighter’s generation – and all its competitors - have already been retrofitted with such a radar. Only Eurofighter remains with a mechanically scanned radar.
Without an order from the partner nations, claims that Captor-E is available for export do not carry much credibility, especially as the company’s evasiveness and reluctance to clearly explain the state of play raises questions.
Raffael Klaschka, head of marketing at Eurofighter GmbH, said during Wednesday’s press conference that “we will look into operational effectiveness, interoperability and reduced costs…. and fully exploit the full growth potential of the aircraft,” although the potential for ‘full exploitation’ seems limited without an AESA radar.
Spain, Germany to retrofit Captor-E later
Spain’s final two Tranche 3a production Eurofighters are to be delivered this summer, according to Airbus, which has already delivered the first upgraded Tranche 1 aircraft, with another later this year, and the remaining 15 to follow later. These will however keep their mechanically-scanned radars.
But Spain also needs to replace its Boeing F-18 Hornets, for which it plans to buy a batch of new-build aircraft with AESA radar, and it is not impossible that it may also at some time in the future retrofit the radar to the rest of its Eurofighter fleet. “The goal for a decision on the Spanish radar upgrade is 2022,” a company official said.
Meanwhile, Hensoldt has completed development and testing of the Captor-E’s AESA antenna, and delivered the first production examples to Leonardo UK, the radar’s manufacturer, in December 2018. These will be fitted to the Kuwaiti Typhoons.
Only Kuwait is known to have ordered the Captor-E for its Typhoons. Deliveries to Kuwait are due to begin in late 2020. Logically, Qatar may also have opted for Captor-E, but this has not been officially confirmed.
According to the company, 558 Eurofighter aircraft have been delivered, out of a total order book for 623 aircraft. The Eurofighter fleet has now logged a total of 535,000 flight hours.