Although I was unable to personally attend the important event held at RAF Marham yesterday which saw Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson confirm that not only had the UK’s F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter has passed the important Initial Operating Capability (IOC) milestone but also that the £425 million ‘Project Centurion’ upgrade programme had been completed by BAE Systems and its partners on time and on budget, I was definitely there in spirit.
‘Project Centurion’ of which I have previously written in terms of its crucial importance is the enabler programme that allows Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft to carry a much larger suite of complex weapon capability including Meteor beyond visual range missile, the deep strike cruise missile system known as Storm Shadow together with the precision guided attack Brimstone missile system. That this very difficult yet crucial programme has been completed on time and on budget is I am sure music to the ears not just for the Royal Air Force and the MOD but also for all of us that have a vested interest in UK air power capability.
Speaking yesterday, Steve Worsnip who is BAE Systems F-35 Support Director said of UK F-35 having reached IOC, that this “is a proud moment for BAE Systems and that working alongside our partners at Lockheed Martin, MBDA, Raytheon we have been able to integrate the first weapons in the form of ASRAAM and Paveway 1V”. Of course, there is more work to do in the future but for UK F-35 IOC to have been achieved on target is a wonderful measure of success.
Achieving Initial Operating Capability is a vital component part of any defence programme. I almost regard IOC as being akin to self-regulation and may be best interpreted as meaning that a set of important challenges have been completed to the satisfaction of the whole force user or in other words, that ALL objectives set have been met, the aircraft is combat ready in order to deter, deny and defeat threats and challenges it has been designed for. That is not to suggest that there may not be more challenges ahead of course but it does say that UK F-35 Lightning is now more than a nice looking shiny military airplane – it is one that should now be regarded as true defence capability in its own right
Completion and success of ‘Project Centurion’ is of equal if not, timing wise, even more important. What the announcement confirms is that over the past three years in respect of complex weapon firing capability Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 aircraft have been transformed so that they are now able deliver firepower that is everything and more that the brilliant Panavia Tornado GR4 capability that it will shortly replace currently delivers.
BAE Systems and the various partner companies involved such as MBDA and Leonardo are to be congratulated for having done a brilliant and complicated job of work in order to complete a programme that had been too long delayed by past governments.
Typhoon FGR4 already carried a range of complex weapon capability such as the Raytheon UK built Paveway 1V precision guided bomb (plus Enhanced Paveway 2) and in the air-to-air role the infrared guided Advanced Short Range Air to Air (ASRAAM) missile, and radar guided beyond visual range Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air (AMRAAM) missile but until now it has been forced to play second fiddle to the excellence of Tornado GR4. It goes without saying that I welcome completion of this hugely complex programme which, with its its larger payload and increased agility and range, will allow Typhoon to operate in concert with F-35 ‘Lighting’ interacting and exploiting synergy of 4th and 5th generation combat aircraft. With Typhoon and F-35 Lightning the UK can be considered in respect of air power capability with what it needs to counter the variety of evolving threats that we now see in the global environment.
Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier is rightly proud to have seen both the huge ‘Project Centurion’ Typhoon complex weapon upgrade programme and the target of F-35 Lightning ‘Initial Operating Capability’ (IOC) having been reached on his watch. That UK F-35 Lightning aircraft of which nine aircraft are currently based at RAF Marham, these aircraft currently armed with Paveway precision-guided bombs and ASRAM and AMRAAM air-to-air missile capability will eventually, as part of the ongoing development programme, be able to carry and deliver Meteor, SPEAR Cap 3 [medium-range, air-to-surface missile], Paveway 4 Mk3, Paveway 4 tactical penetrator and Block 6 ASRAAM will make this formidable capability.
Also on display at RAF Marham was the mock up ‘Tempest’ aircraft which the UK and yet to be announced partners will develop as ‘sixth generation’ combat air capability and that is intended to be operational in 2035. I wrote again on ‘Team Tempest’ during December and will not repeat myself here other than to remind that Tempest is not just to be considered as being vital for the UK military and in respect of maintaining sovereign UK defence capability, but also that it provides a massive opportunity for the UK to build on the long history of established combat jet capability development success. As a symbol of national ambition and realisable intent, I take the view that UK Combat Air Strategy and ‘Team Tempest’ combine to form a very ambitious, well-defined, justified and realisable view of future combat jet requirements.
As I draw this short commentary to a conclusion I will add words made by Chris Boardman, Group Managing Director of BAE Systems yesterday who said that “The launch of the UK Combat Air Strategy delivered a clear commitment for the UK to continue to provide global leadership in the air sector. Our track record of collaboration and the skills of our people mean that we are ready to deliver on our commitment on Typhoon, F-35 and as part of Team Tempest developing the new and emerging technologies that will continue and contribute to the retention and development of the UK’s combat air capability”.
I for one cannot disagree with that but while industry is ready, willing and knows the correct direction of travel I do believe that in respect of F-35 the MOD needs to provide clarity in respect of future intentions with regard to future F-35 purchases over and beyond the 16 aircraft already delivered and the total 35 aircraft that the UK has either already taken delivery of or that are now on order. It is all well and good the MOD constantly reminding us that the intention is to acquire 138 F-35 aircraft over the programme lifetime but as I told Andrew Chuter at Defense News yesterday in respect future planned mix of F-35A and B variants that are in my view required to ensure a credible F-25 force “They [MOD] need to set out a clear strategy, as opposed to mere definition of intent, in respect of required capacity in numbers and requirement for both the ‘A’ and ‘B’ variants. How many U.K.-owned ‘B’ variants do we really need for carrier strike, and will we see U.S. Marine Corps aircraft permanently based on U.K. carriers”.
CHW (London – 11th January 2019)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785