The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has awarded a £115m ($150.4m) contract to begin the next phase of the Excalibur Flight Test Aircraft (FTA) project, which will see a Boeing 757 airliner overhauled and turned into a test platform for technologies that could be used by the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP).

Announced at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) airshow on 14 July, the contract, which was awarded to Leonardo and delivered in partnership with 2Excel, is the next step in the delivery of the Excalibur project and will feed into much the UK’s Future Combat Air System (FCAS), one element of the GCAP effort.

According to the UK Government the Excalibur aircraft will be adapted to host integrated sensors, digital technology, and integrated communications, and is expected to fly with the new technology within the next three years.

The GCAP collaboration between the UK, Italy, and Japan intended to deliver a next-generation air combat platform for 2035.

In 2022 it was revealed that the UK had already begun work on a technology demonstrator aircraft under the FCAS programme, with a first flight test due by 2027. Designed as a sixth-generation stealth combat air platform, the Tempest FCAS is intended to begin entering service from 2035 and gradually replace the Royal Air Force’s Typhoon fleet.

UK jet engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce is also developing a new turbine under Project Orpheus, to inform propulsion requirements for the Tempest platform. With the tight timescales required by the GCAP effort, early testing of a system that could be integrated into Tempest could aid in delivery the platform, according to the current schedule.

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Also at RIAT, UK Defence Procurement Minister, James Cartlidge, signed the Defence Aviation Net Zero Charter, which follows the release of the Defence Aviation Net Zero Strategy and is part of the MoD’s effort to contribute to the UK Government’s Net Zero by 2050 goal. Aviation accounts for over 30% of defence carbon emissions in the UK, with ESG a significant factor for both public and private organisations.