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Future Fighters: in conversation with Bristol-based aerospace company, Leonardo

You may not realise it, but there is a Bristol company right on our doorstep that is creating futuristic cyber protection for a new Air Force capability that will be responsible for protecting British skies for decades to come. We sit down with the Vice President at Leonardo Cyber and Security Max Wigley to find out more…

Above: Vice President of Capability and Chief Technology Officer at Leonardo Cyber and Security, Max Wigley

Bristol-based company Leonardo is one of the UK’s leading aerospace companies and one of biggest suppliers of defence and security equipment to the UK Ministry of Defence, making a significant contribution to the UK economy with revenues of around £2 billion. It has had a presence in Bristol since 2011. Located within walking distance of the UK MoD’s Abbey Wood site, the office is the focal point for Leonardo’s engagement with defence equipment and support and the headquarters for Leonardo’s UK cyber and security team. The office homes around 150 members of staff mainly focused on cyber security, homeland security, automation as well as a small population of simulation and training specialists.

In July 2018 at the Farnborough International Air Show, it was announced that Leonardo would be working with the UK Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems, Rolls Royce and MBDA as ‘Team Tempest’. Together, they will provide the technologies, knowledge, skills and expertise to develop a Next Generation Combat Air System capable of operating in the 2040+ environment.

Through our work on Tempest, we are helping to create the next generation of Cyber Security talent, and also creating highly skilled people and jobs in the Bristol area

In July 2021, The Ministry of Defence signed a further contract with the Team Tempest partners worth £250 million for the next phase of the project, which will see Leonardo continue to develop the sensing and communications technologies for the next generation aircraft. This month, we sat down with the Vice President of Capability at Leonardo Cyber and Security, Max Wigley, to understand how their innovation will help keep the UK safe.

TBM: Tell us about Tempest…
Max: Tempest is a project to develop a future combat air system, including a sixth-generation fighter jet, for the UK Royal Air Force and its international partners. A lot of work so far has been carried out by a consortium known as ‘Team Tempest’. The programme is an international endeavour, with the UK in advanced discussions with Italy, Sweden and Japan as to the full scope of future collaboration. The aircraft will enter service from 2035 and Leonardo UK is leading on Tempest’s advanced electronics, as well as its cyber protection.

Why is Cyber Security so important for Tempest?
Compared to traditional fighter jets, Tempest will make much greater use of digital sensor data, be much more connected and use cyber technology and artificial intelligence in new ways. That means it is going to need a lot more cyber protection, because what you don’t want is anyone trying to interfere with or take control of any capability within the cockpit.

For example, the pilot will be receiving a constant stream of data while they are sitting in the cockpit from Leonardo’s ISANKE and ICS system (Integrated Sensing and Non Kinetic Effects and Integrated Communications System). This ‘spider web of electronics’ is a brand new way of connecting everything on-board the aircraft and also connecting the aircraft itself with other assets such as wingmen and ground-based sensors. It will keep the pilot better informed than ever before about their surroundings and potential threats. However, with so much information flowing, it is important that we protect the integrity of the information being seen by the pilot as they will make potentially life or death decisions based on that information.

How futuristic will Tempest be? Can you explain how Virtual Intelligence will be used in Tempest and how the pilot will benefit from a ‘Virtual Wingman’?
The way Artificial Intelligence is going to work on Tempest is that it will help to fuse multiple streams of data from sensors to share complex information in a very clear way. That ‘Virtual Wingman’ will be able to respond to the air pilot’s ongoing requests in an intelligent way.

What if that data being supplied through Artificial Intelligence or the Virtual Wingman is corrupted by an attacker?
This could be a catastrophic event like stopping power systems, or could be much more subtle such as small changes to some of the information the pilot uses, to throw them off the scent. Tempest will need to be fully resilient to cyber threats to enable the Air Force to achieve its goals. Recent events such as the cyber-attack on satellite services have shown how important cyber will be in future conflicts and we need to prepare for this. The real challenge is that we don’t even know yet what the technology of the 2030s and 2040s will look like – there is no point designing a cyber-security system to protect against today’s threats – we need to prepare for future threats.

What are Leonardo and its Tempest partners doing to help protect the capability?
Cyber resilience is a crucial concept for Tempest. That is: making sure that even when under a sustained and sophisticated cyber-attack, that Tempest can still deliver the mission. Leonardo, working with our Team Tempest partners, is supporting the implementation of cyber resilience across the whole Tempest ecosystem. In order to be resilient, you need to first know when you are being attacked, so we are designing smart monitoring systems that use machine learning to automatically detect threats to the platform. Machine learning is a branch of computer science that focuses on the use of data and algorithms to imitate the way that humans learn, gradually improving its accuracy. We can then implement measures to allow the aircraft to adapt to the attacker’s actions in real time so that the mission can continue.

Finally, how is this benefiting Bristol?
Leonardo will support 370 apprentices and 230 graduates and industrial placements at its sites across the UK this year. In Bristol, these focus on Cyber Security roles – so through our work on Tempest, we are helping to create the next generation of Cyber Security talent, supporting highly skilled people and also creating jobs in the Bristol area.

Find out more about Tempest and its current vacancies at: uk.leonardocompany.com