LONDON ― Expectations are growing among industry executives and analysts that the British government will use a huge gathering of international air force chiefs in the U.K. in mid-July to outline a strategy leading to development of a new generation of fighter jets for the post-2040 era.
Left out in the cold by a joint Franco-German plan to develop a new fighter, Ministry of Defence officials ― supported by industry ― have been working for months on a combat air strategy to sustain Britain’s capabilities beyond the Eurofighter Typhoon, and they are determined to figure out a way forward this summer.
With more than 50 air force chiefs from around the world expected to attend the Royal International Air Tattoo at Fairford, southern England, as part of the Royal Air Force’s centenary celebrations, it is likely the British will use the event to kick-start plans to develop an eventual replacement for the Typhoons, which form the backbone of the country’s fighter fleet.
“We are definitely hoping that between the NATO summit, the Royal International Air Tattoo and the Farnborough air show in mid-July, something gets announced to get the combat air strategy underway,” said Paul Everitt, the CEO at ADS, a U.K. defense and aerospace trade organization.
Consultant Howard Wheeldon, of Wheeldon Strategic, who is very much plugged into MoD and industry circles, said nothing was set in stone yet, but he expects some kind of announcement, possibly at the Royal International Air Tattoo , which starts July 13.
“I do get the impression they will go for something big in the way of an announcement. It could be something along the lines of ‘this is what we would like to do, and we want to do it with partners.’ In part it’s meant to be a bit of a shock to France and Germany,” Wheeldon said.
An MoD spokesman told Defense News that the U.K.’s air combat strategy “will aim to set the policy goals that will maximize the national strategic value in combat air, including operational capability; technological advantage; economic benefits; industrial capability, capacity and skills; prosperity; and export outcomes, and will set clear parameters for industry to drive long-term, sustainable improvements in productivity and efficiency to ensure the U.K. combat air sector remains world-leading and internationally competitive.”
“It will signal to international partners the U.K.’s approach to combat air capability development, encouraging a wider dialogue with partners and allies over future cooperation,” the MoD spokesman added.
Everitt said any announcement would fall short of a program go-ahead, but expects a significant step forward by the British.
“I think it will be a commitment to a strategy rather than a strategy itself. It will cover some of the key elements they will need to address rather than a commitment to build. Nevertheless, in terms of making progress I see it as a big step forward,” he said.
Everitt said the jointly funded government-industry UK Defence Solutions Centre has already been tasked with looking at potential international partners and future customers for a sixth-generation jet.
The ADS boss said the “politics of the situation are if we want to interest potential partners or even customers, we are going to have to demonstrate we have something that’s real.”
“If we want to be taken seriously, we have to put something on the table. Time pressures mean while we would not necessarily like to do it in this environment, we have to put something out there to say we have the capability and political intent to do this,” Everitt said.
What the British don’t have, however, is the money to go it alone in developing a new fighter. So a partner, or two, is essential if the country’s air combat-dominated defense industry is to remain a leading player.
“We will still have sufficient time over the course of the next five years that if we begin to make progress with this we will be able to combine with other players, be it France and Germany, or others around the world. But to meet any kind of timetable we have to start doing something now,” Everitt said.
Jon Louth, the director of defense, industries and society at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London, said it’s a big ask to see the U.K. joining the nascent program now being touted by France and Germany.
“The Germans and the French want to go it alone on this and almost have it as a European Union exemplar,” Louth said. “Politics aside, I think U.K. will likely want to move quicker than Franco-German partners, even if we were let in.”
France has suggested Britain could be brought into the program at a later date, but Everitt questioned the value of any deal that didn’t give the defense sector in Britain a leading role.
“As we look beyond Europe, it’s a bit tricky who we might establish a partnership with. With us having difficult conversations with colleagues in the European Union, we need the strategic vision and political preparedness to make some quite challenging decisions about who might be a potential partner in this project,” he added.
Wheeldon reckons a combat air strategy will emphasize partnerships at the international and domestic levels.
“I think the signals put out from the strategy will be very positive, particularly in terms of looking for a partnership with another country. It could be Italy, Turkey, Sweden, Japan or whoever. It will also likely [emphasize] Britain’s defense-industrial base and its importance, so any government partnership will be with them as well,” Wheeldon said.
Louth said the U.S. might provide another partnering option, although there looks to be a gap between the likely requirements of the two countries.
“The U.S. seems to be talking about a larger platform than we want, so there could be some interesting options around new partners that would fit the British Brexit narrative of global markets,” he said, referring to Britain’s exit from the European Union.
“I sense that we will start to hear about an emerging combat air replacement program in July, and there might even be some early money from the government to start thinking about capabilities and, longer term, a demonstrator,” he added.
BAE Systems already has a deal with Turkey to help develop the TF-X fighter program being pursued by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, while the British and Japanese governments announced last year they were looking at options for collaborating on a new generation of fighters.
However, The Financial Times has reported the British deal with Turkey is running into trouble over issues surrounding the passing of intellectual property related to sensitive aircraft and engine technology to Ankara.
BAE continues to lead in the development of technologies for the Typhoon and is Lockheed Martin’s main international partner in the F-35 program. It is also part of a stalled Anglo-French partnership to investigate unmanned combat vehicle technologies.
In a statement, the company said it is working closely with the Royal Air Force and industry partners to further develop “Britain’s work-leading combat air capability” and envisions a future combat air system developed with international partners that is flexible, affordable and customizable for export.
But for such a vision to move forward, Everett said, the role of Britain must be clear.
“The industrial question is would we have sufficient lead in any joint program to make it worthwhile. That perhaps is a more serious question in any U.K.-French-German mix.”