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RUSI Combat Air Choices Questioned!By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.






In what I can regard as being an interesting yet, as far as maintaining and enhancing UK sovereign capability, biased and somewhat defeatist approach taken by Justin Bronk in a recently published RUSI paper (Combat Air Choices for the UK Government) – one in which the author set out to provide his own view of options and choices that will need to be made by the UK in regard of future UK combat air capability in the context of both perceived budgetary pressures and ‘Integrated Review’ process, I find myself obliged to comment and maybe challenge some of his views.

While there is a lot of interesting and well researched detail to be found in the document and even opinion that I can agree and commend, I disagree certain conclusions and particularly those that suggest ‘Tempest’ should emerge only in UCAV form as opposed to being a capability that has the ability to be both manned and /or unmanned.   

Launched in 2018, the central plank of the UK Combat Air Strategy is based around maintaining and maturing current fast jet Typhoon capability over the next twenty years in order for this to remain fully effective until the 2040 OSD, increasing numbers of Lockheed Martin F-35-B STOVL ‘Carrier Strike’ capability and with international partners and led by the UK, developing ultimate Typhoon fast jet capability replacement in the form of ‘Team Tempest’.

When it was published last year ‘UK Combat Air Strategy’ was rightly in my view well received. Notwithstanding our awareness that in leaving the EU and with the need to face unquantifiable economic challenges as a direct result, the UK is now somewhat belatedly facing up to the larger question of future identity, influence, global ambition and with it, future power projection, I find the negativity of approach in some aspects of the RUSI published paper alarming.

It is a sad fact of course that UK governments of every colour have all too frequently seen defence as a cost rather than a necessity. We are, it is true, facing a new world order in which our would-be adversaries are massively increasing spending on defence as we play around the surfaces pretending that we are doing the same. We must not and despite all the other pressures faced by government, close our eyes to maintaining strong defence capability. We are investing in new ideas and technology and UK Combat Air Strategy is an important part of the future requirement mandate.

I for one do not envisage any significant change emerging in our ongoing and enduring support of the NATO alliance. Neither, in the upcoming Integrated Review process, do I envisage that the UK defence budget might be cut or indeed, there being any change in government commitment to the increasing of the defence budget by 0.5% above inflation each year until 2021. I readily accept that every aspect of how we currently do defence must be looked at and that technology rather than boots on the ground will decide the outcome of future wars.

The central plank of Mr. Bronk’s argument in his ‘UK Combat Air Choices’ paper and which I take issue and disagree with are:

In its present form the UK Combat Air Strategy as stated is, in his view and under presupposed renewed and maybe enhanced budget conditions, unaffordable.

He believes that have F-35 Joint Strike Fighter AND Tempest capability as manned combat aircraft platforms and as part of a ‘system of systems’ would be financially unsustainable without significant extra funding from outside the core defence budget

Whilst many defence specialists have long believed that the original plan by the Government to acquire 138 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft through the life of the programme – possible up to 40 years) was unlikely given the cost, Mr. Bronk believes that path of least resistance would be to purchase as many of the originally planned number [138] of F-35s during 2020.

He goes on to suggest that explicitly designating Tempest as an UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle) could be a good solution, enabling generation of IP (Intellectual Property) for the UK defence industry whilst at the same time being in his view, inherently cheaper to develop, procure and sustain through life and without additional costs of supporting squadrons and personnel needs and also because the training requirement would be much lower.  

Finally amongst the issues that I choose to raise, Mr. Bronk suggests that if Tempest was to be UCAV only as opposed to being both manned and unmanned would allow generation of Tempest operational capability to be achieved much faster and that comparable operational combat strength could be achieved by 2040 while delivering fewer than half the airframes required for a viable piloted solution.

In the Executive Summary Mr. Bronk suggests that:

Under current budgetary conditions, these ambitions [as set out in the UK Combat Air Strategy] are not affordable without major changes to the makeup of the RAF’s whole force structure, as well as significant changes to the defence-industrial model that currently underpins the UK defence aerospace sector.

Political guidance around the need to plan for high-intensity, state-on-state warfighting is needed from the government as part of the Integrated Review, in addition to clarity on the financial resources which defence can draw on to try to meet policy ambitions.

Even if a political decision is made to deprioritise regenerating operational credibility against Russian forces in a NATO Article 5 context for the armed forces as a whole, credible RAF suppression/destruction of enemy air defences (SEAD/DEAD) capabilities will likely be a requirement to ensure sovereign freedom of action overseas and a leading role within coalition operations in the coming decades.

While it remains an operating assumption for many, the outcome of the Team Tempest next-generation combat air development programme is not necessarily going to involve a new (optionally) piloted fast jet fleet to directly replace Typhoon. If that ambition is the choice made, it will have major budget implications for an already stretched combat air equipment programme between 2024 and 2040.

Without greatly increased defence spending, F-35 purchases at scale beyond 2024 remain financially incompatible with a separate (optionally) piloted fast jet-centric Tempest programme to replace Typhoon, even if some additional combat air funding can be found through cuts elsewhere in the force structure. • Explicitly designating Tempest as an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) programme could help avoid this deadlock to a degree. A Tempest UCAV would allow the generation of new design intellectual property (IP) for industry, and be inherently cheaper to develop, procure and sustain for a given level of combat power. Cost savings derive from the significantly reduced airframe complexity, fleet size, training, testing and certification requirements compared to a piloted aircraft development effort.

Making a UCAV-centric programme viable for an industry that has typically relied on large production volumes, support and maintenance contracts at scale and large numbers of flight hours for long-term profitability will require a new and more streamlined financial model. However, the alternative is likely to be long-term relegation of UK defence aerospace to sub-contractor status within larger US- or European-led programmes due to funding constraints. As I am sure you will already be aware, the National Value Framework sits at the heart of the Combat Air Strategy and central to this is a requirement that balances the values delivered by the sector across military capability, prosperity and industrial capability, international influence and budget. Sadly, the Bronk report has seemingly failed in its recommendations to take account of the National Value Framework and just as it also fails to recognise the degree to which Tempest (in comparison to F-35 for example) can and will I hope make in terms of significant contribution to national prosperity; safeguarding

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