FARNBOROUGH, England — The signing of an anticipated future combat air strategy took place on the opening day of the Farnborough Airshow, alongside the reveal of a new fighter design that is being developed to meet the U.K.’s combat needs into the coming decades.
Launched by U.K. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson on July 16, the strategy aims to ensure Britain is prepared for future warfare, while simultaneously sustaining local industry’s role in delivering this to the Royal Air Force and export customers.
Under a so-called Team Tempest moniker, a joint program office — consisting of government divisions alongside BAE Systems, Leonardo, MBDA and Rolls-Royce — will develop a new design under commitments made in the U.K.’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review that allocated £2 billion (U.S. $2.6 billion) in funding of technology by 2025.
“We are entering a dangerous new era of warfare, so our focus has to be on the future,” Williamson said while unveiling a design concept at the show. “We have an ironclad plan to deliver this.”
It will explore new capabilities such as laser-directed weapons, cyber resiliency and optionally piloted design concepts. Williamson noted he wants a business case to be delivered to him by the team before the end of 2018.
The Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative, or FCAS TI, contract to develop the technologies is being delivered over 10 years, which is expected to be followed by a more production-focused initiative.
While the program is being delivered by a team of British companies, all the parties stressed that the team is looking for partners, be it at the TI stage or later on in the program.
“We want to put our world-class skills at the disposal of our friends,” Williamson said.
Obvious nations that may look to partner would be Sweden and Italy, both of which have respective aerospace industries, but are not directly involved in other multinational efforts such as the Franco-German European fighter program.
“Italy has been briefed on what we are doing as other countries have,” Norman Bone, chairman and managing director of Leonardo UK, told Defense News. “We would desperately like Italy to come along, but Italy has to come to its own conclusions, [but will] step up [if] they will be invited in, I’m absolutely sure of that.”
He added that conversations have started with Italy and others at the highest level, and there have been limited briefings on what they are doing.
Jonas Hjelm, Saab’s head of the aeronautics unit, added that Saab is in a good position due to its development of the Gripen E fighter, adding that the company is “talking to everyone” and is open to discussions both inside and outside of Europe.
“Whatever cooperation we end up with, either one or multiple, then we need to have Gripen E technology as a part of that cooperation,” he said. “We are in the middle of developing the next-gen fighter with the Gripen E, but obviously we are interested in staying relevant after 2040, 2045, so we are obviously interested in being part of a platform project or technology projects.”
Airbus has been vocal in recent weeks on the importance of the U.K. remaining part of European projects once it exits the European Union, and the company is keen to ensure it’s involved in European industrial developments.
“Airbus notes the U.K.’s announcement regarding its plans for the development of a new fighter aircraft and is encouraged to see the government’s financial commitment to the project, which supports the goal of sovereign European defense capability," an Airbus Defence & Space representative said. "A Future Combat Air System is of utmost importance to Europe’s armed forces, and therefore we look forward to continuing collaborative discussions in this area with all relevant European players.”
The British Royal Air Force’s Eurofighter Typhoon fleet is currently supported by the various parties involved in Tempest, and the hope is to leverage this and keep work going into the coming decades.
The Typhoon has a funding allocation plan to take it to 2040, although a BAE Systems representative stressed there will be more capability left in the program at that point should the government chose to continue funding it further. This is largely possible due to the spiral upgrades the platform is due to receive, and therefore the new fighter and the Typhoon could be complementary capabilities, with technology being transferred between the two program.
The BAE representative added that the affordability of the Typhoon will be leveraged against the capability of the new fighter, with the former providing essential “affordable combat mass.”
FCAS TI essentially replaces the Anglo-French FCAS program that kicked off in 2014, although Air Cmdr. Linc Taylor, assistant chief of staff of capability for combat air for the Royal Air Force, stressed that work with France is still very much a priority of the U.K. “This leverages some really strong work we are doing with France,” Taylor said.
“We are working at pace, and that is the mantra of the team,” Air Vice-Marshal Simon Rochelle, chief of staff of capability for the Royal Air Force, said at a media briefing at the show. “We are international by design and have opened the door for conversations.”
Rochelle claimed the team is working to a “ridiculous time scale,” in that it is “breaking acquisition paradigms” in the speed in which it is endeavoring to develop the system.
“Funding is real. It does exist — it was put in place in SDSR,” he said.
He added that program risks are shared between the government and industry, so there is incentive on both sides to push the development of this through in line with targeted timelines.
“Measure us not on what we say, but the outcomes,” Rochelle said. “We are learning all of the lessons of the past. It is inevitable we will get some of this wrong … but we are making a good start.”
A number of demonstrators will be used by the Tempest team to test different aspects of the design, according to Michael Christie, strategy director at BAE Systems, who added that development will begin immediately now that the combat air strategy contract has been signed.
He also said some existing demonstrators are being used and that wind tunnel testing has been underway since the beginning of the year to help determine the aerodynamic properties needed from the design.
Bone, meanwhile, noted Leonardo UK hopes a flying demonstrator will begin tests in the mid-2020s.
Some 50-60 technology demonstrations are expected to be undertaken through FCAS TI, focusing on the various technologies highlighted by the parties involved. This includes autonomy, software-based system development for upgrades, thermal-management gas-turbine propulsion, and advanced sensor and fire-control technology.
With regard to the other two fighter fleets the U.K. will operate once the Panavia Tornado GR4 retires in March 2019, Taylor said they will “still lead in their class” and the Royal Air Force is committed to acquiring the 138 F-35Bs it said it would buy in the 2015 SDSR.
Andrew Chuter contributed to this report.