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A partnership between the UK, Italy and Japan aims to create a new supersonic fighter aircraft by 2035, as part of the Global Combat Air Program (GCAP). This revolutionary project promises to cut development times and costs, but faces major technological challenges, particularly in terms of cyber security.
In a hangar at BAE Systems in England, test pilots are carrying out extensive tests on what is supposed to become the world’s most advanced fighter jet. However, the jet in question only exists in a flight simulator, and the real supersonic prototype is not due to fly until 2027. This ambitious project is part of the Global Combat Air Program (GCAP), a collaboration between the UK, Italy and Japan aimed at creating a new generation of fighter aircraft by 2035.
The challenges of GCAP
The GCAP program is one of the most ambitious military projects in history. It merges Japan’s F-X program with the Tempest project from the UK and Italy. The aim is to develop a supersonic aircraft in about half the time, and therefore at a considerably lower cost, than previous generations of fighter jets, such as the Typhoon. Fighter jets are notoriously expensive, as demonstrated by the USA’s F-35 project, the most expensive military project in history.
The race against time and cost
The cost of each aircraft depends on various factors, but estimates for the F-35 jet range upwards of $170 million. By comparison, the unit cost of the latest version of the Typhoon, which is a generation older than the F-35, is between $110 and $120 million. The GCAP includes not only aircraft, but also manned and unmanned drones, as well as laser weapons. Given these exponential costs, it is imperative that GCAP succeeds in making these aircraft more affordable.
The Importance of International Collaboration
Norman Augustine, former CEO of US defense group Lockheed Martin, predicted in the 1980s that, given the exponential rise in the cost of new military aircraft, the defense budget could only afford one jet by 2054. It was against this backdrop that GCAP was born, with the aim of reducing costs while maintaining industrial sovereignty in defense matters.
Investment in technology
To meet such an ambitious schedule, the program’s leading industrial partners – BAE, Leonardo from Italy and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries from Japan – are investing heavily in digital design and innovative engineering methods. They have even adapted robots used in the automotive industry to work to the tolerances required for military aircraft.
For example, BAE uses 3D printing to manufacture molds for carbon fiber components. These “molds” are usually made of steel and take around 26 weeks to manufacture. With 3D printing, the company can produce them in less than 12 hours, and have a fully complete tool in less than three weeks. The use of digital modeling will enable engineers to collaborate on the design, detect problems earlier and speed up the regulatory certification process by reducing the need for costly physical prototyping.
International Design Collaboration
The complexity of international collaboration is one of GCAP’s major challenges. Each of the partner companies is keen to take the lead in the most interesting areas of development, including the cockpit, electronics, weapons control system and carbon fiber wings. However, it remains to be seen how responsibilities will be shared between the three partner countries.
Communication is also a challenge, as the three countries have differences in language, culture and thinking. They use illustrations and mathematical formulas to make sure they understand each other.
The Cybersecurity Challenge
One of the biggest challenges will be cybersecurity, given the sheer amount of digital development. Defense experts point out that cybersecurity divergences between partner nations could create tensions. Japan, for example, is allocating part of its increased military spending to strengthen its cyber defenses, but its vulnerability to cyber attacks is a growing concern.
The GCAP program represents an ambitious and innovative military venture, seeking to create a next-generation supersonic fighter jet in record time and at an affordable cost. Industrial partners BAE, Leonardo and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are investing in technology and international collaboration to meet this challenge. However, cybersecurity remains a major hurdle to overcome. GCAP’s success could not only redefine the military aviation landscape, but also strengthen defense industrial sovereignty for its partners. The stakes are immense, but the potential rewards are commensurate with the ambition of this unique project.