A symbol of national ambition and realisable intent, the Combat Air Strategy announced last week by Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson combines an ambitious and well-defined view of future requirement with genuine intent to ensure that the UK remains at the leading edge of Combat Air systems development.
Put another way would be to say that I believe Combat Air Strategy has not only determined that the UK is still in the fight but that it intends to stay there and succeed. This then is not just an important message being sent out from the UK to its competitors about an intention to remain at the forefront of cutting edge combat aircraft design and technology development but also that we intend to preserve our national advantage and maintain the choice we have what we need is delivered.
Combat Air Strategy plays to the many strengths that the UK has but importantly, it accepts the vital need of the UK to retain indigenous sovereign technological development capability. In addition, it recognises the strength of partnership from government, industry and military perspectives and also the need to embrace interoperability.
Confirming the long held view that operational advantage requires ability to find and maintain an edge over potential adversaries in order to increase the chances of success in hostile situations, Combat Air Strategy confirms that freedom of action is prerequisite if we are to maintain the ability to determine our internal and external affairs and the ability to act in the our own best interests free from intervention by other states or entities.
Clearly there is no intention by the UK to do this on our own. Thus the approach to deliver future combat air capability embraces the need to secure international partnerships based on realistic proposition and need and one that plays to the individual strengths of all those involved. The UK has a long history of partnering in combat air capability that continues to this day in the Eurofighter Typhoon partnership, the A400M programme and that of our being a Tier 1 partner in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme.
Combat Air Strategy also benefits from the many lessons learned from the past and it says that the UK will seek only partners that share similar and complimentary collaboration objectives. The partnering framework for future combat aircraft will provide clear leadership and build on the strengths of contributing partner nations within a development programme that from the outset will have as its primary objective, the need to deliver flexible and adaptable capability quickly, affordably and with minimal bureaucracy and process.
The ‘Team Tempest’ partnership arrangement of four industrial companies, BAE Systems, MBDA, Leonardo, Rolls-Royce together with the government owned DSTL (Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) and senior Royal Air Force officers and personnel will lead a development programme whose aim is to initiate next generation combat air development. This is a small team that was formed to pursue the opportunity, begin technical and conceptual work and position itself to decide what technologies are required on the capability based on evidence. There is a long way to go and the importance of making the right decisions at the start is not lost on those involved.
Team Tempest is not about deciding on acquisition and neither is it built in any way around disinvesting in the Typhoon programme or deciding future force mix. Typhoon has a very long way to go yet and what evolves in and from Team Tempest in terms of next generation capability is not targeted to become operational capability until 2035. Team Tempest is however about developing with as yet unknown partner governments a low cost, autonomous and novel single platform combat aircraft system that could be manned, unmanned or indeed, a system that is capable of being both. With open mission systems, open architecture and plug and play, what evolves will have been designed to allow adding, upgrading and swapping of capability requirement with ease.
As a crucial pillar of the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) review process, Combat Air Strategy may be usefully described as being about transformation, defining aspirations and moving the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) initiative into a new and very exciting phase.
Importantly, Combat Air Strategy has identified the need for the UK to play a leading role in the development of next generation air power technologies and capability and it confirms that in order for the Royal Air Force to be able to continually adjust to whatever future technology threats it faces, freedom of action will ensure that we are able to adapt to required need. In doing so, Combat Air Strategy is determining not only that the UK needs to maintain strong sovereign based industry capability and support but also that innovation will be at the heart of the Team Tempest development programme.
Comprising as I have said a formidable team of military, science based and industry personnel working alongside the Royal Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, Team Tempest will now be the primary Future Combat Air Systems Technology (FCAS) Initiative. With FCAS funded out of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review process, the £2 billion investment will take the Team Tempest development project through to its next stage by 2025. Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson said at the Combat Air Strategy launch that the plan envisaged a business case being made for the acquisition programme by the end of this year and early decisions around acquiring next generation capability being made by the end of 2020, with final investment decisions being made by 2025.
Make no mistake then, Combat Air Strategy is about determination to succeed. Team Tempest is thus a real groundbreaking partnership and one that will expand as new partner(s) come in. As to who those partners might be I am not about to speculate but come in they certainly will in my view.
Whilst there is no suggestion within Combat Air Strategy that the UK can or will develop next generation combat air capability on its own without international partners, I see this as a statement of absolute intent that the UK is determined to lead the way forward to its development.
Clearly, decisions relating to ultimate funding of the project will evolve and at this stage, other than to say that it will be shared between government partners and industry, it is far too early to speculate how future funding arrangement might work. I would add however that the UK Government has a very long history of being seen as an excellent partner to work with both from a capability development, build and acquisition perspective and also in working with export customers on programmes. The UK defence industry also commands huge respect in relation to partnership build programmes. Importantly, the Royal Air Force is highly respected by air forces around the world and is always a partner of choice.
For these reasons and because the UK has maintained leading edge technology strength in air power project development, I believe that securing the right international partners to carry this vital project forward with the UK will not be that hard to find.
As to what will eventually be developed? Modular, adaptable, upgradable and being to my mind a crucial future capability designed from the outset to be either manned, unmanned or both, Team Tempest has rightly embraced the view that international collaboration in the Combat Air sector is the best and most affordable way to deliver future military air capability.
Team Tempest is a completely new approach to capability development and delivery just as it will also be in respect of potential uses that will include data collection and complex weapons delivery. Designed to be fully flexible and adaptable in order to meet changing needs and to be deployed in a variety of roles, the intention is that the capability will be able to change its systems depending on mission requirement and include systems that use an approach known as ‘plug and play’ and that allows new hardware to be integrated more easily. The technology to be developed is intended to allow the capability to provide a number of different ‘modes’ both manned and unmanned.
In respect of how it sets about choosing partners for the development programme, I suggest that the UK approach will be to leverage technological and industrial strengths with a primary aim of driving down cost. An important point to make here is that Combat Air Strategy has been designed to place the UK in a position to ‘choose’ the partners that it would wish to have rather than those it would not. International partnering remains critical in respect of operational effectiveness and the ability to build interoperability with our primary operational partners.
Launching the Combat Air Strategy and Team Tempest last week at Farnborough, Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson said that this “shows to our allies that we are open to working together to protect the skies in an increasingly threatening future and that the Team Tempest concept model is a glimpse into what the future might look like”.
Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier said: “Team Tempest demonstrates our commitment in ensuring that we continue to build our capabilities, draw upon our experience and history in order to bring forward a compelling vision for the next generation fighter jet” whilst Charles Woodburn, CEO of BAE Systems said that “Combat Air Strategy is a powerful statement of intent” and an “initiative that is “a great opportunity for us all”.
The manufacturer says this can “enhance survivability, availability, cyber resilience, and tactical options”.
CHW (London – 24th July 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785