I suspect that, RAF 100 commemorations apart and that this year included a very special Royal International Air Tattoo held at RAF Fairford, a quite spectacular flypast over The Mall in London together with a raft other important events, the most rewarding of other UK defence related events to occur during 2018 was formal launch of ‘Team Tempest’ at the Farnborough International Air Show in July.
‘Team Tempest’ is a ‘sixth-generation’ stealth jet project being led by BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Leonardo, complex weapon manufacturer MBDA, the Royal Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and the government owned DSTL (Defence Science and Technology Laboratory).
Considered as being vital for the UK military and importantly, in respect of maintaining sovereign UK defence capability, ‘Team Tempest’ provides a massive opportunity for the UK to build on the long history of established combat jet capability development success and for the future, to become a world leader in the next generation of combat air power capability.
As a symbol of “national ambition and realisable intent” UK Combat Air Strategy and ‘Team Tempest’ combine to form an ambitious and well-defined view of future combat jet requirements to meet our future needs. Equally important is that Tempest demonstrates that the UK now has a genuine intent to ensure that we remain at the leading edge of Combat Air systems development. Put another way would be to say that Combat Air Strategy is not only a clear demonstration that the UK is still in the fight but also that it intends to stay there and succeed.
Since the July launch ‘Team Tempest’ partners have been working hard not only in respect of understanding the military and sovereign capability requirement but also in building a business case that underpins the UK Government decision to back a ‘next generation’ manned/unmanned aircraft capability development.
Announced as part of the UK Government ‘Combat Air Strategy’ by Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, the ‘Team Tempest’ programme development phase is being financially supported through £2 billion of initial funding that was set aside in SDSR 2015.
Although the business case for the Tempest’ development is due to complete very soon, the requirement for decision on the final programme investment from Government and partners that will join the programme is not envisaged to occur before 2025.
Team Tempest will secure ‘international partnerships’ based on realistic proposition, and that can play to the individual strengths of all partners involved. As the leader of ‘Team Tempest’ the UK is in the position to choose the partners that it would like to join the programme. More news on that score in due course but ahead of any formal announcement, I would not envisage that the UK will have a problem in finding the partners it needs.
The Team Tempest programme envisages that the first sixth generation jet will be delivered by 2035. The UK may not be the first country to announce a sixth generation offensive/defensive air capability but with the ability to learn from involvement in other partnership programmes that the UK continues to be engaged such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Eurofighter Typhoon, it has a natural advantage.
Long term military objectives aside, ‘Team Tempest’ is also built around retention and investment in future sovereign capability. Clearly, while the concept has been around for many year the ‘Team Tempest’ programme is still at the beginning of what will be a long development phase. There are many very meaningful decisions yet to be taken but that said, incorporating many sophisticated new technologies and materials now available, learning from past programme developments, ‘Team Tempest’ is not just about maintaining UK leadership but also ensuring that we maintain and develop the skills that we will need in an increasingly more difficult and hostile geo-political environment.
To be based on open (software) architecture design in order to allow ease of upgrading and replacement, ‘Team Tempest’ provides a real blueprint for UK success. I dislike to term last chance but it is important to realise that there may never be another opportunity for the UK to develop sovereign capability such as this and reap the advantage.
From a technology development and sovereign capability standpoint, the UK is still very well placed to supply much of what Tempest will require. Take the engines that will power the capability for example and which, it has been suggested, could well be based on a new Rolls-Royce propulsion system that includes an adaptive cycle engine with digital controls and precise power management that is designed to optimise both speed and range. The propulsion system would be hidden deep into the airframe in order to keep infrared signatures low.
Tempest would make use of lightweight, more complex materials including composites in order to assist the stealth capability requirement and the electronic warfare suites together with wide array of state-of-the-art sensor equipment including advanced radars and multi speed cameras would provide the ability to pass all collected military data and information, including systems capability health, to the ground or to other air capability support within seconds. In terms of complex weapons, Tempest would carry a wide array of offensive and defensive weapon capability. Importantly, Tempest will be interoperable with NATO and other allied capability and designed to be used either in manned or unmanned mission multi-capability capability roles.
‘Combat Air Strategy’ and the ‘Team Tempest’ project development send an important message from the UK Government to competitor nations that ‘our’ intention is to remain at the forefront and cutting edge of combat aircraft design together with the equally important message that the UK intends to preserve our national advantage and maintain necessary sovereign capability.
Confirming the long held view that operational advantage requires that we have the ability to find and maintain an edge over potential adversaries, in order to increase the chances of success in hostile situations, it is worth reminding that ‘Combat Air Strategy’ also confirmed that freedom of action is a 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”.
Britain is of course not alone in having plans to develop ‘sixth generation’ stealth aircraft capability. France and Germany are working together to create similar capability with Airbus and others involved. FCAS (Future Combat Aircraft Capability) projects can be found elsewhere such as Japan which is now actively contemplating the idea of a conceptual sixth-generation F-3 stealth jet – although it is equally true to say that there have also been suggestions that Japan might prefer to settle for a foreign inspired fifth generation jet design to be built in Japan.
For the record, the USA has two projects currently in the early stages of development, the US Air Force inspired ‘Penetrating Counter Air’ programme which, I understand, is a long-range stealth fighter aircraft project that is being designed to escort stealth bombers and secondly, the US Navy sixth generation FA-XX project which I know little about.
While China continues to be busy working on its fifth generation stealth fighter jet development (Chengdu J-20) which has been compared by some to be somewhat similar to the F-22, Turkey plans to fly its TF-X Stealth Fighter for the first time in 2023. The TF-X programme follows from an agreement signed between Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) and BAE Systems to design a fifth generation jet with superior stealth and attack capability.
Finally, having pulled out of the Joint Stealth Fighter Project development that it has with Russia earlier this year it seems likely that for the time being India will concentrate on embracing technology and manufacturing expertise based on fourth and fifth generation aircraft technology and manufacturing.
CHW (London – 16th December 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785