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Future proofing

Updated Wednesday, 19th October 2005

Darren Lake asks how companies can future-proof expensive projects like Eurofighter?

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Eurofighter is a next-generation fighter aircraft that will equip the air forces of several European nations and which the manufacturers hope will gain extensive export orders outside the home countries. As a next-generation aircraft the manufacturers have been keen to make sure that Eurofighter is ‘future-proofed’ with the latest technologies and with the potential to be upgraded during the lifetime of the airframe.

However, with the rapid pace of technological change the aircraft’s builders have faced a number of challenges. Things have been made even more difficult by the fact that Eurofighter is a multinational collaborative programme and susceptible to all the pressures that that involves. The aircraft’s builders have faced these challenges in a number of ways, with the result that when it finally comes into service the aircraft will be one of the most sophisticated fighters in the skies.

Eurofighter was conceived in 1983 when the heads of the air forces of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK came up with a common requirement for a next generation aircraft. After much political wrangling over costs and work-share France left the programme, and in 1986 the main aircraft manufacturers of the four remaining nations formed a joint company called Eurofighter to build the aircraft. Other joint companies were also formed to provide the engines and radar system.

What has resulted is a collaborative design that builds on the expertise of four main companies: Alenia in Italy; BAE Systems (UK); EADS-CASA (Spain); and EADS-DASA (Germany).

Eurofighter comes in two versions - a single seat fighter and a two-seater fighter/trainer. The aircraft has been designed as a multi-role platform, capable of carrying out a number of missions depending on the configuration of its armaments. Among the missions Eurofighter can undertake are interception, ground attack, suppression of enemy air defences and anti-shipping.

The multinational character of the programme and the number of companies involved has led to a number of challenges. In the 1990s German budget restraints were a particular problem with the country demanding large cost reductions for its aircraft. These included the replacement of developmental aircraft systems, such as the radar, with already developed (and therefore cheaper) avionics. However, a reduction in aircraft numbers and changes to costings eventually allowed Germany to accept the newer, more sophisticated avionics.

The major plank of the design and concept validation for the programme has been the manufacture of seven developmental aircraft, dubbed DA1-7. The first flight of the aircraft was achieved on 27 March 1994. A vigorous test-flight programme has followed resulting in some 2,990 hours for the seven aircraft. However, the programme hit a set-back on 21st November 2002 when the two-seater DA-6 crashed while on a flight test. An investigation found that the aircraft lost power when an unexpected power surge affected both of its EJ200 engines. Flight tests resumed the next month after it was found that the crash happened under unique circumstances. The engines were two of three made to an early production standard.

The main way in which the partner nations are managing to keep the aircraft current is by continuously ‘growing’ the aircraft. This is being achieved in two ways. The first is a product of the way the aircraft is being procured. Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK are buying the aircraft in three phases. The time between each phase gives the countries an opportunity to further develop the aircraft with the effect that the third phase will be more sophisticated than those originally delivered to the customer.

The second way in which the aircraft will be kept up to date is through a policy of continuous technology insertion. The Eurofighter’s engine delivers 15% more thrust than is necessary. It has 25% more electrical power than it currently needs and its data system can handle twice as much information than is currently run through the system. The result is that the aircraft has huge potential for growth through the insertion of better, faster, more effective technology as it becomes available.

Much of the aircraft has been built using the latest carbon fibre composites (CFCs). The fuselage, wings, fin and rudder all use CFCs in their manufacture. CFCs constitute 70% of the surface area. Various metals such as titanium, used for its strength, and aluminium, used for its lightness, make up 15%. This gives the aircraft a relatively light, but strong structure. In addition the materials used also have the effect of giving the aircraft low radar visibility. Although not as stealthy as some of the latest generation of US aircraft the Eurofighter is exceptionally difficult to spot.

The aircraft’s engine, the EJ200, has been designed specifically for the aircraft by Eurojet Turbo, which brings together Fiat Aviazione (Italy), ITP (Spain), MTU-München (Germany) and Rolls-Royce (UK). The aircraft has two of the engines mounted side by side in the rear fuselage, each being able to provide 20,250 lbs nominal thrust with afterburn.

The engine is one of the areas where a number of further developments are being proposed. One development not being funded by the programme, but privately by the companies, is thrust vectoring nozzles. Studies suggest that installation of the nozzles would reduce in cruise drag by 3%, give a 7% improvement in sustained turn rate, and give a 25% reduction in fuel burn during the take-off run giving the aircraft more range.

The avionics suite for the aircraft is very sophisticated and largely software based, allowing it to be upgraded far more readily than a hardwired system. The systems are configured to NATO standards and some functions can be activated directly by voice using a 100 word vocabulary. The aircraft’s radar, which will allow it to see and attack its targets, has been developed by the Euroradar consortium. One of the improvements envisaged for the ECR 90 Captor multimode pulse Doppler radar is an active electronically-scanned antenna, which will allow the aircraft to operate simultaneously in air-to-air, air-to-ground and terrain following modes.

The first production standard aircraft flew in April 2002. The first five of these carry instrumentation allowing them to be used for flight-testing. Deliveries of Eurofighter will begin in 2005 at which point it will be one of the most-sophisticated aircraft being operated by the world’s air forces largely thanks to the developmental programme and the continuous updating of its technology.

 

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