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UK Defence – Negativity Rears Its Ugly Head By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.



I was both surprised and disappointed in equal measure to see Ruth Smeeth, the Labour Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent North & Kidsgrove who is also a member of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee quoted in a Financial Times article this morning suggesting that “Tempest has opened up more questions than the Government has so far answered” and then add insult to injury by saying “None of this is real. It is wishful thinking.”


‘Team Tempest’ which includes the RAF Rapid Capabilities Office brings together world leading sovereign UK aerospace and defence industry from four key technology areas – advanced combat air systems and integration (BAE Systems); advanced power and propulsion systems (Rolls-Royce); advanced sensors, electronics and avionics (Leonardo) and advanced weapon systems (MBDA) – in order to design and ultimately develop next generation combat jet capability.

To be led by Britain and with the intention that international partners of choice will eventually join, this is a well thought through long term development plan to create a next generation jet is one that in my view should be considered quite the opposite of Ruth Smeeth’s notion of ‘wishful thinking’.

As the FT article points out, Team Tempest partners are currently engaged developing a business case that will underpin the UK Governments decision to back development of ‘next generation’ manned/unmanned fast jet capability. Announced as part of Combat Air Strategy by Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson in July this year, the ‘Team Tempest’ programme will make use of £2 billion initial funding that was set aside within SDSR 2015.

The business case for the development Tempest not even due to be completed before the end of this year and the final programme investment decision from Government is not envisaged to occur until 2025 with the aim, if the programme goes ahead, of delivering the first jet by 2035.

Why are we so good at doing ourselves down in the UK? I am very sorry that a story like this should emerge just weeks after the ‘Team Tempest’ plan was announced and well explained by all those involved. This is to me a story that, apart from views of those who clearly do not understand the importance of investing in sovereign capability, plays into the hands of our international competitors. Either the whole FT story is meant as a spoiler that challenges all the good work being done on Team Tempest by the UK Government, the Royal Air Force and the four industry partners involved or it is invention created by the newspaper, one aimed either at garnering headline publicity or simply the filling of space!

In regard of the ‘Team Tempest’ project which formed part of the published Combat Air Strategy this is what I said following the announcement in July:

“A symbol of national ambition and realisable intent, Combat Air Strategy and Team Tempest announced 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 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 is not just an important message being sent out from the UK Government to competitor nations about our intention to remain at the forefront of cutting edge combat aircraft design and technology development, but a strong message that says the UK intends to preserve our national advantage and maintain the choice we have what we need is delivered”.

I went on to say that “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 through the Tempest project development embraces the need to secure international partnerships based on realistic proposition and need and importantly, 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 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”.

Why I wonder would Ruth Smeeth whose constituency has a long history of manufacturing and export seek to do down what is after all a well-thought out plan to develop next generation combat jet capability that will, led by Britain, include international partners chosen by us. Had Ruth been around at the time, I wonder whether she would have similarly attempted to condemn the European partnership development of Eurofighter Typhoon, that of the Panavia Tornado before it or indeed, would she have put a similar spoke in the wheel when the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that Britain would invest £2 billion in the US Lockheed Martin led development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter back in 2001 that would give us 15% of the manufacturing of each airplane built over a forty year period and of which aircraft capability, the UK has only this year received the first batch of nine aircraft at RAF Marham?

I both know and have huge respect for Ruth Smeeth but I am extremely disappointed that she should have chosen to play the ‘Team Tempest’ project down by suggesting it is ‘wishful thinking’. Of course, had she been MP for any of the important manufacturing centres of excellence that will eventually be involved in the Tempest development, those at Warton, Samlesbury, Bristol, Glasgow and Stevenage for instance, I rather doubt that she would have made some an ill-timed, ill-thought through suggestion.

What is clear though is that Ruth Smeeth either believes that in a post Brexit environment Britain should throw away all remaining defence development ambition, throw its defence manufacturing operations to the wind and, assuming she still believes in strong UK defence, buy the defence equipment we need from others.

As to the FT article which, a whole seven years before the Government has said that it will make a final decision in relation to programme development, the FT questions how Britain can afford to pay for a new fighter jet when it cannot cover the costs of its existing defence budget? Justin Bronk, a highly respected analyst at the Royal United Services Institute who I also know well is quoted as saying that “The British-led and Franco-German efforts need to merge at some point but the question is on what terms and with what division of design responsibility and workshare”. Unusually I beg to differ with Justin on this occasion by taking the view that the UK must be in a position to choose the partners it needs to develop next generation combat jet technology and given our strengths we must lead.

Of course, whilst from a skills and technology point of view, the UK could do most of the Tempest project development on its own, that was never the intention. The UK will choose the partners that it needs and they in turn will recognise the importance of working with a reliable partner that will play to the strengths of all rather than one.

We all recognise that money is tight, that defence needs more from the Treasury and that there is already a large and still growing hole in the current defence budget. As a partnership programme I am in little doubt that the UK will secure the partners it needs and wants to push the Tempest programme forward. Arguably we are the sixth largest economy in the world and if France and Germany can do it, so can we. It is time we started believing in ourselves and our ability to create, lead and develop an international partnership based programme such as Tempest. With a can do, will do approach what an amazing place this could be!

CHW (London – 3rd September 2018)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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