LONDON ― Step back two years to the start of the 2016 Farnborough International Airshow, when few people in Europe were talking about a new manned fighter. But today it seems to be a topic on everyone’s mind. The reason, according to the head of Britain’s Royal Air Force, is that the technology required to operate an unmanned fighter fleet has not yet advanced sufficiently to make that happen.

“If you trace this back to 2010, if not before, people were saying we have built the last generation of manned combat aircraft. That view was based on how people saw technology development at that stage. But time has moved on and people have realized that it isn’t easy in the combat air part of it,” according to Air Chief Marshal Stephen Hillier.

“You can have highly sophisticated ISR capabilities like the [General Atomics] Protector, but in terms of the manned combat air mission operating in contested, high-intensity airspace against demanding threat, we have yet to see a technological path to take the person out of that platform,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the air power conference in London on July 11.

Even leaving aside fixing the legal, moral and ethical issues surrounding unmanned combat air vehicles, Hillier said he was unable to put a date on when Britain could field a force without a pilot in the cockpit.

“The future air force will have a greater portion of unmanned platforms than we currently have, but I cannot yet forecast a date when we are completely unmanned,” he said. “I don’t say it will never happen, and we have to be sufficiently agile to respond as technology develops, but no one, including the U.S., has yet seen the path to get there.”

Air Chief Marshal Stephen Hillier walks with Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Air Force 100 ceremony on July 10, 2018, in London, England. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Air Chief Marshal Stephen Hillier walks with Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Air Force 100 ceremony on July 10, 2018, in London, England. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Hillier’s questioning of whether the technology to support an unmanned air combat capability at this time is viable seems to be vindicated by the fact Britain and a Franco-German alliance are both taking the first steps toward new manned, sixth-generation fighter programs with in-service dates around the end of the 2030s.

The U.S. is working on its own programs, most noticeably a Northrop Grumman-led effort to build a long-range bomber for the U.S. Air Force.

Lowering expectations

It wasn’t that long ago some in Europe were talking about having an unmanned combat air capability ready for service by 2030. The British and French have had a joint future unmanned combat air study underway for several years.

But progress stalled this year, with French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly saying the British were instead more interested in pursuing a surveillance version of the vehicle. France continues to be interested in a combat variant.

Industry was optimistic the British government would take the wraps off a new combat air strategy in the next week or so to outline the way forward for the military and industry; however, that is now in question because a wider review by the Ministry of Defence into future capabilities and funding has failed to appear as billed by the government.

The expectation was that first step toward a possible manned fighter program and a way forward on unmanned vehicles might appear during the Royal International Air Tattoo, which starts July 13, or during the Farnborough air show, which gets underway July 16.

It’s now unclear whether that will happen.

An apparent ongoing row between the Treasury and Cabinet Office on one side and the MoD on the other over additional defense funds, coupled with the general turmoil in government over British plans to leave the European Union, has delayed what is known as the modernizing defense review.

MoD officials had previously said the headlines of the review would be released by the time the NATO summit opened in Brussels on July 11, but nothing has emerged.

Hillier warned the RAF would be unable to do all it wanted, in the timeline it hoped for without a budget boost.

The Air Force chief was noncommittal over the timing of the release of the defense review and the combat air strategy, saying they would be released when ready.

Industry executives, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it’s possible at least some conceptual designs for a British manned fighter could be on show at Farnborough.

Tempest ― an industry grouping comprising BAE Systems, Leonardo, MBDA and Rolls-Royce ― has been doing conceptual work with the Royal Air Force rapid capability office since at least the turn of the year on the sort of capabilities any future fighter might need.

A second phase of work is now in discussion between the Tempest participants.

Whatever the combat air strategy looks like, Hillier has given notice that it will be different from a Franco-German offering.

“I don’t feel the U.K. role is to chase after France and Germany. We want to define what’s best for us and we will bring other nations with us. If in the future it includes France and Germany, that will be healthy as well,“ he said.

“What we are not going to do is just follow where other nations go. We have world-leading capabilities, we are going to define what we are going to do in the future and we are going to draw other nations towards us,” he added. “We have a leading role in the Typhoon [program] and a significant role on the F-35. This is what we are capable of, and from a U.K. perspective we intend to continue to have that position in [the] future.”

The RAF chief’s comments follow a plea by the boss of Airbus’ defense operation for European combat air companies to unite behind a single program, or face the prospect of the region falling into the second division of world fighter producers.

“I strongly believe it has to be a full European solution [for a new combat air program]. Two or more different solutions is not sustainable ― it will bring Europe into the second league,” Dirk Hoke told reporters at a pre-Farnborough briefing in London on July 6.

Berlin and Paris have previously made it clear that other nations can join the program, but only at a later date.