The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has placed a £30-million contract with a consortium of aerospace companies, led by Spirit AeroSystems Belfast (a British subsidiary of major US aerospace group Spirit AeroSystems), for the development of an advanced technology high-speed uncrewed fighter aircraft prototype for the country’s Royal Air Force (RAF). The programme is designated the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (Lanca).
The Lanca programme was launched in 2015 within the MoD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl). It forms part of the UK’s Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative and is intended to use new and innovative technologies and concepts to significantly cut development time and costs. The programme falls under the RAF Rapid Capabilities Office, with the project management of, and technical authority for, the Lanca vested in the Dstl.
The Spirit Aerosystems Belfast-led consortium includes Northrop Grumman UK (also a British subsidiary of a major US aerospace and defence group) and is called Team Mosquito. (The name recalls the renowned Second World War British multirole combat aircraft, the De Havilland Mosquito, as well as the biting insect.)
“This is fantastic news and underlines the distinct strengths in Northern Ireland’s economy, through its advanced engineering and manufacturing capabilities,” highlighted Secretary of State (Cabinet Minister) for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis. “This ground-breaking project will involve significant investment which will not only support local employment, but also reinforce Northern Ireland’s contribution to the security of our nation.”
Team Mosquito, in cooperation with other partners across the UK, will use the latest techniques in software development, plus expertise in civil aerospace engineering and manufacturing, to dramatically cut development costs and times. The aim is to develop an aircraft capable of being upgraded quickly, easily and affordably.
The prototype is scheduled to be flown in 2023, with a full-scale flight test programme due to start by the end of that year. Data gathered from the development, construction and operation of the prototype will be used to further develop the Lanca concept. The ultimate aim is to produce an uncrewed high-performance combat aircraft capable of undertaking air-to-air, air-to-ground, reconnaissance and electronic warfare missions, alongside the RAF’s crewed Typhoon, F-35B and later Tempest combat aircraft.
Lanca will be the first British uncrewed aircraft designed and intended to engage in air-to-air combat and to survive in the presence of hostile surface-to-air missiles. “We’re taking a revolutionary approach, looking at a game-changing mix of swarming drones and uncrewed fighter aircraft like Mosquito, alongside piloted fighters like Tempest, that will transform the combat battlespace in a way not seen since the advent of the jet age,” affirmed UK Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal (equivalent to General) Mike Wigston.
The equivalent American programme is called Skyborg. Contracts for the development and manufacture of Skyborg prototypes were awarded to three companies (Boeing, General Atomics and Kratos) last year and flight tests are expected to start later this year. Major European aerospace and defence group Airbus has a similar concept, as part of the pan-European Future Combat Air System programme, but this is still in the joint concept study stage, with the preliminary demonstrator development phase due to start this year. However, the most advanced such programme is probably the Royal Australian Air Force’s Loyal Wingman, being developed under the leadership of Boeing Australia. The prototype is expected to fly in the near future.