BAE Systems’ Nigel Whitehead has plenty of experience, but when it comes to defence, his eye is firmly on the future.
After nearly four decades in the defence industry, Nigel Whitehead, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at BAE Systems retains a youthful exuberance for his work.
“I actually look at the world through the eyes of a 25-year-old,” he told create.
“I think I’m a youngster and it’s only when people stopped telling me how young I am to do the job I do that I realise that I’m no longer that 25-year-old.”
Exuberance aside, defence is a serious business. What is made is literal life-and-death stuff, and the history of warfare is one of disruptive technology.
Whitehead points out examples: the long-bow, the machine gun, the tank and so forth each delivered a battle-winning advantage.
Anticipating and creating tomorrow’s technology is a key part of the CTO portfolio, including knowing where and how to deploy 1.5 billion pounds ($2.8 billion) of research and development spending over five years.
Asked how he stays on top of his brief, Whitehead answers in terms of his lengthy experience in his industry — from apprentice to aerodynamicist and beyond — while keeping a relentless curiosity and being able to draw on a network of expert advice.
“You end up in a position where you start assimilating information, you build a mental model of how things work, and you are constantly seeking to do things better, and you’re constantly seeking to understand what’s going on,” he said.
“If you’re curious by nature, all that stuff comes quite naturally.
“And the people I work with on a daily basis are some of the finest minds in defence. Certainly, some of the finest minds in the world. As a network, we inform each other.”
Whitehead lived in Australia for three-and-a-half years from 1998 — in Adelaide and then in Newcastle — and was responsible for delivery of the Hawk lead-in fighter for training RAAF pilots.
He recently made his first visit to Australia in his current role, with the local arm of BAE beginning prototyping of the Hunter Class under the $35 billion Future Frigate program next year. Construction will begin in 2022.
During his trip, Whitehead visited sites in which the local team of 4100 is involved in efforts such as the Hunter Class, the Jindalee Operational Radar Network, various autonomous system projects, and the celebrated Nulka program.
Nulka came out of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation in the 1970s and was developed in the 1980s. Production for the Australian and US navies began the following decade.
It involves solid fuel rockets that autonomously launch, hover, and lure incoming anti-ship missiles away from their target.
Today Nulka is Australia’s most successful defence export, with more than $1 billion in sales to Canada and the US.
Flight control expertise from the Nulka team out of Melbourne has been highly useful across other programs, said Whitehead.
“That team was also working as part of a company group on autonomous systems and has therefore developed and then perfected an expertise for a number of Australian programs which were run in the early 2000s to develop the methodology for autonomous aircraft,” he said.
One disruption the future could bring is in the area of hypersonics, which have gained a lot of attention in recent years.
BAE has been developing hypersonic railguns in the US for some time. In 2015 it acquired a strategic stake in Reaction Engines, an English company developing a spaceplane.
“The reality is that speed might be the new stealth: get there quickly, do what you need to do, get back quickly,” Whitehead said.
“Equally, if we are going to counter some of the potential threats we see from others who are developing that capability, it will be a case of fighting fire with fire. You probably have to have something hypersonic to intercept something hypersonic.”
It is not certain what this era’s equivalent of the long-bow, machine gun or tank will be. Whitehead concedes that his job is to more or less place bets on what is going to be important.
His hit rate is never perfect, but it has improved over the years. What he is certain of, however, is that this is a hell of a time to be starting a career as an engineer.
“With ubiquitous sensors and digital enablement of the design process we’re in a position where our products can talk to us and tell us what it’s like to be used by their operators, and with the smart design processes, we have the smart way of folding in operating and operational data into that design,” he said.
“We are developing things that are more usable, more effective and higher performing than you’ve ever been able to achieve before.”
This article originally appeared as “Fighting fit” in the December/January 2019 issue of create magazine.