At an industry seminar, recently, I decided to pose a simple question about Eurofighter Typhoon. Should we view it as a ‘legacy’ aircraft or as a ‘legend’ in the making?
For me, the answer to the question is clear, it’s a legend in the making. Typhoon is just about a third of the way through its expected life. Seen through that lens, we should be looking forward, it’s still relatively young with lots of potential.
That said, I’ve worked on the programme for the bulk of my 23-year career and I accept you sometimes hear Typhoon referred to as a legacy. It’s also true that nations are investing in the development of new platforms and these programmes quite rightly generate both excitement among engineers and headlines in the media.
But two facts can be true at the same time. Yes, there are some exciting plans for a next generation of future combat air systems and, yes, Typhoon will play a significant part in the future battlespace alongside it.
I’m an engineer but I understand language matters because there’s a risk it creates a perception that left unchallenged could be very damaging. That’s why I thought it was worth exploring the ‘legacy or legend in the making’ question in more detail.
It got me thinking — if Typhoon were a human where would it be on its life journey. Mike Frank, Head of Engineering Typhoon Product Strategy, BAE Systems Air
That’s when the first major units were delivered into the final assembly facility. It’s when the first production aircraft — the wings, centre and front fuselage, essentially the Typhoon as we know it — were all put together for the very first time.
To continue the analogy, Typhoon took its first steps in 2002 when IPA1, the first UK aircraft flew at Warton. I had the privilege of being there that day. It’s one I vividly recall. That’s a real point of connection for me — I was only a couple of years into my career back then and can still remember the thrill of watching that first flight.
Then, relatively quickly, Typhoon went to 'nursery'. This was when the Royal Air Force came to Warton. The pilots and ground crew started to work with the weapons system and learn about its qualities and behaviours through a project known as 'Case White'.
The next big step in Typhoon’s life was when it went to 'secondary school'. In 2011 it went on operations for the first time in Libya alongside its big brother the Tornado. The latter was still the mainstay of the RAF fleet and it was there to guide Typhoon through. Again, I feel a very personal connection because at the time I was seconded to the MoD, in the Typhoon Project Team, and worked on one of the Urgent Operational Requirements that we delivered onto Typhoon over a very intense nine-day period.
In 2018, Typhoon turned 18 and effectively it become the adult. This was the year when Project Centurion delivered new capability for the RAF on Typhoon as Tornado went out of service. Adding swing role capability, giving Typhoon air-to-surface capability alongside its peerless air-to-air abilities. At 18, Typhoon took over as the mainstay of the RAF.
For its 21st birthday in 2021 Typhoon received the game-changing new electronic warfare radar capability as the first Kuwait aircraft equipped with the ECRS radar were delivered. This took the aircraft to a new level of maturity. Which brings us up to the present day.
When you look to the future it’s clear that there is plenty of growth left in Typhoon. Towards the end of the decade, the UK fleet will gain more crucial capabilities around the next generation radar with the scheduled arrival of the ECRS Mk2 radar, equipped with electronic warfare and electronic attack capability.
Much further into the future and Germany has stated it sees 2060 as the end of service date when retirement will finally beckon. Which is the point when we can actually start talking about its legacy.
The reality is that we are actually only a third of the way through Typhoon’s service life. It has twice as much ahead of it, as it has lived through. That’s a very powerful thought, even for someone like me who works closely on the programme.
What’s clear is that Typhoon will play a fundamental part in a combined air force for the RAF and many of our customers for many years to come. The physical aircraft is robust and reliable with awesome performance that still invokes the ‘Typhoon Grin’ for those that are lucky enough to fly in it. Now we're adding additional capabilities which means it will continue to be relevant in the evolving battlespace.
Even once it's gone through the planned capability refresh, it will still have 30 years of working alongside an FCAS and the F-35. Yes, Typhoon has grown up in public over the last two decades but in a very real sense, we're just getting started.
As someone who has worked on the Eurofighter programme for many years, I am proud of the things we’ve achieved and I’m excited about the future.