JUST IN: Sensors Key Part of New U.K.-Japan-Italy Fighter Jet Program

By Stew Magnuson

Leonardo illustration

CHIBA, Japan — Industry representatives of the three nations building a new sixth-generation jet fighter revealed details March 15 about the nascent program, including their vision of the high-tech sensors it will carry.

Japan, the United Kingdom and Italy announced the creation of the Global Combat Air Program, or GCAP, in December. The trilateral agreement to develop the new jet fighter grew out of the U.K.-led Tempest and Japan’s F-X jet fighter programs. Like those two defunct programs did, GCAP is shooting for a 2035 debut.

The three partners used the first major trade shows held in one of their nations — DSEI Japan — to set up a large booth with a smaller — but still sizable — nine-foot-long scale model of the jet, which rotated on a platform.

“On previous generations of aircraft, electronics accounted for 10 to 15 percent of the cost and capability of a fighter jet,” Masahiro Arai, senior general manager of the defense systems division at Mitsubishi Electric, said at a press briefing. “In GCAP, electronics will be about one-fourth of the cost and over one half of the capability.”

Mitsubishi Electric, Italian companies Leonardo and Elettronica along with Leonardo’s U.K. company signed an agreement during the show to develop the advanced electronics that will make the fighter a flying sensor platform.

Maj. Gen. Masaki Oyama, director of the GCAP development division at Japan’s Ministry of Defense Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said the fighter will be designed to exchange “a vast amount of information in battlefields.”

The four companies will develop the “integrated sensing and non-kinetic effects” and “integrated communications system” that will give it the characteristics of a sixth-generation aircraft, Oyama said.

The aircraft “will deliver integrated information of sensors on a network that is spread all around the aircraft. With this, pilots can fight by maneuvering freely while maintaining excellent situational awareness,” he added.

Andrew Howard, director of future combat air/GCAP at Leonardo U.K., said, “sixth-generation aircraft are all about sensor fusion. It’s all about having all the sensors talking together in a highly networked, highly embedded way onto the airframe.”

Further, “it creates an information advantage by processing more quickly, more information and sharing that information to crosscheck the performance of each sensor,” Howard added.

The GCAP will have a combination of familiar sensors and some that will be new, he said.

“It creates the capacity for the pilot to see more, hear more and act more quickly than ever before,” he added.

The aircraft will also share its information across the network so decisions can be made quickly “in a way that has never been seen previously,” Howard said. Each aircraft will be a node in a larger network of other jet fighters, other aircraft and ground stations to make a “system of systems.”

The ability to process, prioritize and share information will be driven by “smart processing algorithms.” It won’t just be traditional radars or infrared sensors, but a fully integrated capability that will be greater than the sum of its parts, he said.

Giovanni Zoccali, vice president of global sales and business development at Elettronica, said the jet will be developed with an open architecture to allow upgrades as threats grow and to also let each of the three nations decide what kind of systems they want on their versions of the aircraft.

“There will also be a generational leap in the way the companies are working,” he said.

Other industry partners include BAE Systems as lead integrator and provider of the airframe, Rolls-Royce, the engine, MBDA U.K., the weapon system and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

As for whether other nations can join the program, or whether the partners will reach out to subcontractors in other nations to supply parts, Oyama said that was “undecided.”

Initially, the three nations will be concentrating on working together on the electronics systems without any opportunities for outsiders, the executives said.

However, Howard noted that the goal was to be interoperable with other aircraft such as the F-35 joint strike fighter, which is flown by the United Kingdom and Japan.

“Interoperability of our future platform is absolutely critical. We absolutely expect the GCAP to be highly optimized to operate effectively with the F-35 and other platforms, and that will require some level of partnership with other companies,” he said.

Howard said “there is an ambition” to export the aircraft. As for global competitors, a French-German partnership is developing the Future Combat Air System with a goal of flying by 2040. And Howard expects the joint strike fighter to still be in the marketplace in 2035.

Arai said: “Through the GCAP, we will build on our long-standing defense relationship. GCAP will accelerate our advanced military capabilities, technological advantage and deepen our defense cooperation, science and technology collaboration, integrate our supply chains and further strengthen our defense industrial base.”

Earlier in the conference, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace hailed the partnership as an opportunity to bridge East and West.

“It is exciting to be working alongside Japan and Italy and see this project fuse the best of all our technologies, locking in a partnership of liberal democracies who believe in the rule of law,” he said.


Topics: Global Defense Market

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