People will power the future of military air support

Posted on 16 Mar 2023 by Tom St John

How will the Royal Air Force’s fleet of frontline aircraft be supported in the future? Unsurprisingly, it involves transformative technology and innovative new solutions. But perhaps reassuringly, it also involves people. The Manufacturer’s Tom St John was cleared for take-off and headed up to RAF Coningsby, home to the UK’s RAF Typhoon fleet

The event, The Future of Air Support, was hosted by BAE Systems in partnership with RAF Coningsby. I came for the day, but overall, it was a three-day event focusing on the technologies within the RAF’s support and training environment.

As I’d expected, it attracted many members of the local and national press, the BBC among them. They came with a camera man and a reporter and were armed with a considerably bigger TV camera than my own. “Don’t be phased,” I muttered to myself. “You’re Tom St John of The Manufacturer magazine.” Trying to be a bit menacing, I shot them a slow, cool nod of the head, which they ignored.

We were led through the technology roadshow and outside to a large open area flanked by aircraft hangers. Placed proudly for the press to photo and to frame interviews in front of, was a Eurofighter Typhoon jet. An aircraft that celebrates 20 years of service this year, but still, an aircraft of unerring class. Wing Commander Russell Gleason, Innovation Lead at RAF Coningsby, said to me: “They’re on high readiness at all times to support all of our UK operational outputs.”

Eurofighter Typhoon sat proudly on display at RAF Coningsby
Eurofighter Typhoon sat proudly on display at RAF Coningsby

Some other Typhoons were taking off intermittently on a runway in the distance, directly in front of where the press were gathered. The roar of their engines could be heard long before we caught a glimpse of them. Journalists had their cameras and phones trained to the skies in the hope of catching one, but you had to be quick. Nick Sharples, Head of Technology Delivery, Support and Training for BAE Systems Air, walked out to be interviewed. He was immediately collared by the BBC in front of the stationary Typhoon.

After standing for a few minutes, stroppy at having to wait my turn, my heart suddenly skipped as I heard the distant thunder of another Typhoon hurtling down the runway. The BBC reporter paused his interview with Nick and the camera operator attempted to manoeuvre his cumbersome monolith towards the skies. But he was too late! I, meanwhile, with my little Sony DSLR, got the perfect shot. “HA!” I shouted with glee, as I followed the fighter jet’s path through the clouds, which were broken slightly by a ray of light from the afternoon sun. The Typhoon’s rumble became fainter as it streaked away. Biblical stuff.

Digital backbone

With a big grin on my face, I sidled over to chat with Nick. Before coming outside, I’d been walked through the technology roadshow, which displayed the plethora of technology that BAE Systems is developing along with its partners, in both industry and academia, as well as customers at the operational end. In simple terms, it was really cool. In slightly less simple terms, it was a revealing glimpse at the full lifecycle of air support – early technology development right through to deployment. It was quite a sight; augmented reality headsets, optical projection technologies, exoskeletons, to name just a few offerings.

Augmented Reality headsets – allowing data to be visualised in new ways, offering aircraft maintainers hands-free access to technical publications and th
Augmented Reality headsets – allowing data to be visualised in new ways, offering aircraft maintainers hands-free access to technical publications. 

As expected, the future of air support looks largely driven by digital technology. Nick explained: “Digital twin, digital backbone and our ‘digital by default’ ethos, are three key lines in part of our strategy. We’re updating and optimising our services from a digital perspective. As part of that, there will be a number of technologies which require digital inspection, to give one example, and augmented reality, to give another.”

This approach is greatly needed, given the precise nature of the maintenance and data capture of these aircraft. I was surprised to learn from Nick that: “We’re currently on a very manual intensive way of managing things, both from a task and a recording perspective.” He continued: “By bringing in these technologies and that ‘digital by default’ ethos, it will allow us to have a digital record through life. It will allow us to transform, both now, but also as we look further into the life of an aircraft.”

Power to the people

The road show also featured other themes. Sustainability, unsurprisingly, was one. Another centred around bringing manufacturing technologies into the air support environment. And a key element, that was made quite plain, was the collaborative and people-centric aspect of what BAE Systems does (see – it always comes back to people). On my walk around the exhibition floor, I bumped into Chris Payne, Head of Future Capability for Maintenance. He explained: “Developing and implementing technology is a challenge. We can only do it by bringing people together.

“As you can see around us,” he continued, casting a hand across the room, “we’ve got people from BAE Systems, academia, universities, the Royal Air Force and the Ministry of Defence. We really want to make sure that we’re all heading in the same direction and discover where we can align better. We can only achieve this by collaborating across industries and our customer communities.”

This idea underpinned the whole day. The implementation of the digital backbone that will run through the proposed future of air support won’t exclude people. If anything, the hope is it will augment them. “We’re not looking to create an environment where we have a maintenance hangar full of robots that an aeroplane drives itself into automatically with no person in sight,” said Chris. “It’s about how we can support our people to be more effective in a number of ways.”

The exoskeleton, as previously mentioned, was a particularly eye-bulging notion to me. A workforce with superhuman strength? Metal framework and motorised muscles allowing the wearer to carry a Typhoon jet to the runway rather than it having to taxi!? Not quite.

Nick calmed me down by explaining: “We’re bringing this in slowly, as we do with any technology. The first steps will just be about helping with some of the repetitive, heavy lifting tasks. Yes, we can look at lifting much heavier loads with more powered exoskeletons in the future. But we’re currently on the first step of that journey.” Chris explained further: “It’s about physical support at this point. The safety of our people is our number one priority as a company. We’re making sure that we’re not putting people at undue risk in the tasks that they do.

Exoskeletons – allowing aircrew and maintenance teams to safely handle and articulate greater loads, working in tandem with autonomous co-bots1
Exoskeletons – allowing aircrew and maintenance teams to safely handle and articulate greater loads, working in tandem with autonomous co-bots

“Secondly, it helps with the longevity of time on task. We all know that if we’re decorating or painting a ceiling, for instance, there’s only a certain amount of time that we can keep our hands and arms aloft. It’s the same on an aircraft, there’s lots of inspections and tasks that need to happen, where people are working in uncomfortable positions.”

It’s human augmentation – cutting-edge and disruptive technology that will improve, not exclude, people; reducing the possibility of injury, either short-term or longer-term, and increasing efficiency. It is a way of thinking that should inform all technology driven advancements, in my opinion. It should be remembered that technology doesn’t just assist with physical tasks. The widely reported issue of data and information overload can be eliminated with smarter, digital processes. Optical projection technologies are a form of augmented reality which provides a better quality of information within “a world of too much information,” according to Chris.

The maintenance tasks being carried out are complex – information needs to be obtained on key aspects of an aircraft such as fastener torque settings or fastener locations under LO coatings. “To be effective and efficient, our maintenance and support people need the right information at the right time for the task they’re undertaking,” Chris explained. “They don’t need any other information, so this piece of augmentation brings the right information to them in an effective way. It ensures we get the quality and efficiency of the task being done right first time, every time.”

Net zero by 2040

It’s fair to assume that fighter jets produce a significantly high carbon footprint. We can’t find any carbon metrics relating specifically to the UK’s Typhoon, but from my understanding, Tempest, the aircraft set to replace the Typhoon in 2035, will deliver more electrical power than any aircraft before it. We’ll have to wait and see. Similarly, there’s not much information on the carbon footprint of fighter jets deployed by the United States Air Force. For fairly obvious reasons, I don’t believe the world’s military are too quick to make their emissions known, for fear of shocking an ever more environmentally minded public.

I did find something on a Boston University political science professor, who believed they’d calculated that the Lockheed Martin F-35A, a US Airforce multirole fighter, gets through about 2.37 gallons of fuel per nautical mile. And that’s not miles per gallon, but 2.37 gallons of fuel burned for every mile travelled. The calculations revealed that in a single tank of fuel, one plane can produce almost 28 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. If that’s correct, then that’s a lot.

The RAF has set a net zero target of 2040. And after dragging the Americans into this, I should point out the US Airforce has set down its own marker for 2050. Very recently, the RAF has introduced sustainable aviation fuel blended with regular jet fuel to achieve the first sustainable aviation fuel blend air-to-air refuelling of a Typhoon and C-130 Hercules aircraft.

This follows successful initial trials in November 2022 where an RAF Voyager flew on 100% sustainable aviation fuel. The leftover fuel from the Voyager trial was mixed with regular fuel at around 46-48%. The fuel was re-certified and achieved the required standards needed for a safe and effective mission. It’s certainly a sustainable step forward. The hybrid fuel is made from waste based sustainable feedstocks, such as those used cooking oil. It reduces lifecycle carbon emissions on average by up to 80% compared to conventional jet fuel.

On the ground, meanwhile, BAE Systems is assisting further, as Nick explained: “We’re taking our environmental impact very seriously, and again, this push will be helped by the technologies that we’re adopting. If we take our ground power units for example, typically, any aircraft needs a ground power unit to be able to start up.

These are currently diesel assets, which clearly have a large carbon footprint. In collaboration with the RAF, we’re working towards making them electric – an E-ground power unit.” I nodded at Nick with approval. Again, it’s a positive change. The E-ground power units have been trialling successfully and I’m told they will be introduced in the not-too distant future. “With this comes a number of savings in terms of CO2,” added Nick. “It will also mean an 80% reduction in the maintenance cost of the assets.”

BAE Systems Team Tempest Full Scale Replica concept model of a Tempest Sixth-Generation future combat aircraft. shutterstock_2235369239
BAE Systems Team Tempest Full Scale Replica concept model of a Tempest Sixth-Generation future combat aircraft. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Future flying – Tempest

I thanked the team at BAE, as well as the people who had hosted us at RAF Coningsby. I shot an altogether more friendly nod towards the chaps from the BBC, which they again ignored. They, as well as I, had got some good stuff – not only the chance to see an iconic military plane up close and personal, but a broad understanding and appreciation of the future of air support.

This has been a vital component in military operations for decades, and with the arrival of Tempest, it will continue to be for decades to come. We’d got an intriguing glimpse into what that will look like, or certainly, what BAE and the RAF hopes it will look like – digitally driven and people centric.

Can it be truly environmentally friendly? Too early to judge, perhaps. The net zero target is in place and I would certainly list it as a serious aspiration and hope of BAE and the RAF. Another target that the Tempest project is aiming to achieve is a generation of skills. Indeed, it’s being very much billed as a skills, rather than a research and development programme. And what a programme to be involved in by the way. As Nick pointed out: “People want to be excited in what they do.

Tempest will mean we can attract some of that digital talent that we know is out there. We’ve got a huge employment proposition going on at the moment which we hope will bring in skills and people for our future platforms. This will help augment that.” The future of air support will be one to follow closely, so keep your eyes to the skies.


• The tech/people relationship of the Tempest project could be another key component of attracting future talent

• Sustainable initiatives are coming to the fore, but it’s certainly not the primary focus of this project

• Exoskeletons will be a fascinating technology to watch develop. The potential future capabilities are superhero esque!

• We will no doubt start to hear more news about the sixth generation fighter, Tempest.

We have plenty more stories on Digital Transformation.