Why Tempest? A Look At The RAF’s Future Combat Aircraft

The Tempest fighter program, the project to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon in British Royal Air Force (RAF) and Italian Aeronautica Militare (AM) service, is now well underway following its announcement by former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson in July 2018. This marks the first time that the UK has started a national fighter project for its own needs since the Harrier program in the 1960s. BAE Systems does still produce the Hawk, a family of aircraft dating from the 1970s, however, these are only trainers and low-end combat aircraft.

The initial mockup of Tempest produced by BAE Systems (Credit BAE Systems)

The program has rapidly progressed from its announcement to include Italy and Sweden as junior partners. At this point, it is worth mentioning that it is currently unknown whether the Swedes want to use technologies from the program in their own Flygsystem 2020 or whether that project has been replaced by intentions to procure Tempest. The UK maintains the project-lead status and as such the aircraft is seemingly being developed primarily with the needs of the Royal Air Force being first and foremost with other nations seemingly having to accept this.

Many have questioned whether or not the UK could go it alone with a combat aircraft project with previous projects involving both Germany, Italy (both Tornado and Typhoon), and Spain (Typhoon) from day one. While not currently producing combat aircraft on its own, the UK still has a world-class aviation industry, seen by many as second only to the United States. It more than enough industrial capacity to produce a modern, high-end aircraft on its own. The only major issue would be the financial implications of producing only a small number of aircraft for the RAF or Fleet Air Arm.

Some had expected that the UK would piggyback on one of the US’s “Sixth-Generation Combat Aircraft” projects, as it had with the F-35, or be a part of the European Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program, similar to Tempest in that rather than being just an aircraft it’s rather a combination of highly networked systems designed for aerial warfare. The last time the UK was rumoured to be looking at going alone was the BAE Systems Replica, however, this has been seen by many as purely a ploy to gain the UK “Tier 1 Partner” status on the then Joint Strike Fighter (now F-35 Lightning II).

An artists impression of a Tempest flying alongside the Typhoon it is slated to replace, and the F-35B it will serve alongside. (Credit BAE Systems)

The US is currently seeming to pursue the Penetrating Counter Air program for its US Air Force, and the US Navy going for the Next Generation Air Dominance program, otherwise known as F/A-XX. Whilst of course with the “Special Relationship” the UK could join these programs at a very high level of workshare and technological expertise these programs will be the US first and export second, as per most national combat aircraft programs.

Another reason that the UK may have decided not to touch the European FCAS with a bargepole is that, while whilst having begun many combat aircraft projects with the French (Typhoon, Anglo-French Variable Geometry, and Jaguar), only Jaguar ever came to fruition as an Anglo-French collaboration. Indeed even Jaguar struggled, mainly due to Dassault, the French airframe partner in the project attempting to sell its own Mirage and Super Étendard aircraft instead of the Anglo-French Jaguar. The demands of the French delayed the Typhoon program by around ten years (although the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent thaw in East and West relations is also a factor) with the French pulling out altogether when other partners refused to optimise the aircraft for French needs above all else.

A mockup of the European Future Combat Air System (FCAS) (Credit John Newton)

When we put all of the UK’s military aviation design and production capacity together it becomes clear to see that the UK could easily produce an aircraft such as Tempest single-handedly. With BAE being the third-largest defence company on the planet, Rolls-Royce being in the top three aero-engine manufactures on the planet, Selex being known as a very good radar producer, and MBDA being known for its line-up of high-quality air-launched munitions. Other, smaller companies who will also have to contribute to such a major program for it to be successful. The UK has an advantage here, with companies such as Martin-Baker and Chobham being needed to supply key items such as ejection seats and refuelling systems respectively. This shows that the UK can produce the components for such a project, with the real questions being over whether or not the UK can develop the complete system.

British companies are also at the front of developments regarding the construction of aerostructures. Airbus manufactures its complex composite wings in the UK. BAE Systems also construct the rear end of the F-35’s fuselage and the forward end of the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Even though the UK could produce such an aircraft there are indeed questions with regards to its ability to design such a system. The UK has maintained its aviation industry over recent decades almost purely as a partner to other nations. While some projects such as Typhoon and Tornado have indeed been designed and built with the needs of the UK in mind, they haven’t been purely UK projects. Tornado, for example, was spawned from two designs, the Panavia 100 and 200. Britain preferred the larger two-seat 200 design while Germany had a preference for the smaller, single-seat 100. Eventually, a compromise was reached whereby the Panavia 200 was adopted with some design changes.

An example of the multinational Panavia Tornado in RAF service (Credit Ronnie Macdonald)

Much of the UK’s aerodynamic talent no longer works in the aviation industry. Even while this is the case there is much aerodynamic talent in other industries that could be leveraged by the aviation industry. Motorsport is the obvious field where there could be a lot of knowledge transfer towards the aviation industry if the UK is were to completely reinvigorate its aircraft design lineage which has become stale over recent years. Indeed, there has been a high-profile example of an engineer leaving Formula 1 only to save British personnel with their design talent. Although not an aircraft the Force Protection Ocelot, known in British service as Foxhound, was only developed after Nigel Stepney was found to be cheating and banned from motorsport. The decision to ban him from the sport can only be seen as a positive, with the Foxhound, a vehicle the very best at what it does, going on to undoubtedly save hundreds of British servicemen and women.

Motorsport in the UK has also produced arguably the best aerodynamicists on the planet, with the UK’s higher education system also having to take a large amount of credit. Names such as Adrian Newey are synonymous with world-class aerodynamic design while the universities in the UK provide some of the best aerodynamics courses on the planet and being able to leverage this talent coming out of education is vital to being able to progress the national aviation industry.

Motorsport aerodynamics expertise can influence the design of aircraft. Here a Red Bull F1 car, designed my famed aerodynamicist Adrian Newey shows its complex aerodynamic design (Credit Michael Elleray)

The UK has however also been providing its design expertise to other aircraft projects around the world. BAE Systems has been involved in the Turkish TFX program for a “fifth-generation” fighter aircraft, with their involvement being rumoured to be part of a strategy to build-up knowledge prior to the design work on Tempest. BAE and Rolls-Royce have also been involved in the F-35 project, especially with regards to the F-35B variant. The UK’s expertise with regards to Short Take-Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft has seen it being handed work for the systems required to allow STOVL to happen. The fact that the US trusts UK industry enough to give them the work on such vital systems goes to show that they as the world leader believe the UK has the technical expertise to make things happen.

By going it alone the UK is in a position to develop an aircraft that suited RAF requirements, whereas both the previous Typhoon and Tornado projects, were a compromise between the requirements of a variety of nations, each with their national requirements. A key example is Typhoon’s upgrades that had to be agreed upon between the partners, a process which slowed the development of the aircraft. As a result, the RAF decided that remaining in the system was impractical for its needs, and proceeding with its own national updates, leading to the Project Centurion modifications which have allowed the Typhoon fleet to take on some roles from the recently retired Tornados.

Italy and the UK have some similarities in requirements, such as long, over-water patrols being key to the British and Italian air forces. With it being unknown whether the Svenska Flygvapnet (Swedish Air Force) is planning on buying the system or just a technology partner I have decided to ignore their needs with so much information regarding their role in the project still being unavailable to myself or indeed the general public.

I suspect that Tempest will have a slower climb to altitude when compared to its predecessor. Typhoon has brilliant time to height since the aircraft was originally envisaged as an overland interceptor designed for combat around the Central European Plain, and whilst used as a Tornado F.3 replacement may not truly be suited to such long, over water mission profiles. Replacing a long endurance interceptor with a smaller, rapid dogfighter, whilst what happened wasn’t what was originally envisaged. Typhoon was originally slated to replace the F-4 Phantoms operated by Germany and the UK and the F-104S Starfighters operated by the AM. With the end of the Cold War and the subsequent sweeping reduction in force sizes, the RAF found itself retiring the Phantom fleet without replacement and replacing both the Tornado F.3 and Jaguar forces with the Typhoon instead. Had the Typhoon project not been in such an advanced stage it would have likely been cancelled and indeed Germany seriously considered leaving the program but, due to penalties that would have been applied, procured 143 of the aircraft.

RAF and AM Typhoons refuel from an Italian KC-767 over the United Kingdom (Credit Ronnie Macdonald)

The Typhoon program also led to huge debate over workshare. Originally it was allocated by the number of aircraft being procured, with the RAF planning on 250 aircraft, the Luftwaffe 250, Italy 165, and Spain 100. This meant that workshare was originally divided 33%, 33%, 21% and 13% respectively. With the reduction of numbers to 232/140/121/87 (by nations as above) the workshare split should have become 39/24/22/15. However, Germany vehemently objected to this reduction in workshare and eventually a compromise was reached where the UK would produce 37.5% of the aircraft (led by BAE Systems), Italy 19.5% (led by Alenia), and EADS, by then a multi-nation conglomerate representing both Spain and Germany would produce 43% of the aircraft. It must be mentioned that these splits were with regards to components, with the actual building of airframes being carried out on four separate production lines. The individual nations all independently marketed the aircraft for export, with the UK producing aircraft for Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Qatar, and Italy producing aircraft for Kuwait.

With the UK being the exclusive led partner on Tempest there will be no such passionate debate over workshare. If it was only a UK project, the Italian companies involved would likely have taken part anyway, with Leonardo, the largest Italian aerospace company currently owning Selex ES (previously Marconi, a UK based avionics and radar manufacturer) and the Leonardo Helicopters subsidiary (previously AgustaWestland), the UK’s third largest aviation manufacturer.

The most obvious feature of Tempest, other than its stealth characteristics, is that it is designed as a modular platform. The entire system is intended to be “plug-and-play” (PnP), the ability to add new, self-contained modules to the aircraft. This allows new hardware to become available through advances in technology, or to be swapped for specific mission requirements. For example, an aircraft could perform a long-endurance patrol with a purely air-to-air loadout and conformal fuel tanks (CFTs), and upon landing be completely rerolled with self-defence laser modules and an air-to-ground module.

An infographic showing the advanced systems and modularity that Tempest will bring (Credit Team Tempest)

This sort of quick-change, modular system has been seen in various successful defence projects in the last few years. The Boxer armoured fighting vehicle family, developed by the UK, Germany and the Netherlands is a fine example of this. The vehicle was designed specifically as a base vehicle with differing mission modules being able to be swapped in under an hour in field conditions. The Danish Stanflex system is another example of a modular approach to military equipment. Stanflex modules can be swapped on a warship within half an hour, allowing vessels to quickly be rerolled depending on combat conditions.

It is widely expected that Tempest will be capable of using all munitions currently operated by the UK and Italian air forces (and Swedish, depending on their status). One weapon that may be added to current operation is a variant of the Common Anti-Air Missile which is operated as the Sea Ceptor and Sky Sable variants in UK service and the CAMM-ER variant which will enter Italian service imminently. This however seems to have taken a back seat with parts of the CAMM missile being used as upgrades to ASRAAM (Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile), currently in use by the RAF and Royal Navy, amongst others.

As can be seen from the above, Tempest is currently the major hope of the UK’s aviation sector. It is hoped that the project will show that, like in its glory days of the 50s and 60s, the UK can still design world-class combat aircraft. If Tempest can be half as successful as aircraft such as the Hunter or Harrier, the UK will be onto a winner in todays congested market.

The Ministry of Defence now needs to ensure that the Tempest project is fully funded throughout its development, with this being essential to ensuring that the aircraft is as good as it can be in its production form. With possibly 25 years before the aircraft enters service, it is critical that technological advances are taken into account in the aircraft design, while allowing flexibility in case some advances are not financially viable. The rapid changes in processing technology of the last 30-40 years are slowing, so we need to be a position to take advantage of other progressions in technology: directed energy weapons (typically in the form of lasers), neural networking advances, quantum computing, and the possibility of major advances in the railgun field. The plug-and-play architecture allows for these technologies to be taken into account, with PnP adding more growth potential than current systems can offer.

Tempest has at points been suggested as an Optionally Piloted Vehicle, allowing it to be used as both a manned aircraft and an Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV). OPVs are seen by many commentators to be the future of frontline aircraft. Losing an unmanned aircraft, even a frontline fighter, is likely to be much less provocative than losing a manned platform. This will allow minor incidents where an aircraft is shot down to not lead to a major shooting war (such as the recent shooting down of an RQ-4 Global Hawk by Iran). This flexibility, coupled with Tempest’s expected capacity to release drone swarms against an adversary, much reduces the risk to human life and allows for more dangerous missions to be carried out.

An artists impression of a Tempest releasing a swarm of drones (Credit BAE Systems)

Tempest is therefore essential to the future of the UK defence industry. The recent success of BAE’s Type 26 frigates on the world export market suggests that Tempest could be an export success for the UK. It parallels Type 26 in that the system can be configured to differing needs, allowing it to be tailored to any given export customer. If the UK can develop Tempest as fully as it hopes, the country could jump well above its 2018 8th place ranking of largest arms exporting nations. Coupled with the export success of Type 26 and the possibility of Japan joining the Tempest program, we can surely look forward to an increase of British technology available to our allies.

Tempest is therefore essential to the future of the UK defence industry. When looking at the recent success of BAE’s Type 26 frigates on the world export market it is clear to see that Tempest could well become an export success for the UK. It can be seen as a parallel with Type 26 in that the system can be configured to differing needs, allowing it to be tailored to any given export customer.

If the UK can fully develop Tempest into what it hopes it can be the UK could surely be catapulted well above its 8th place of largest arms exporting nations in 2018. Couple this with the export success of Type 26 and the fact that it has been continually rumoured that Japan could join the Tempest program we can surely look forward to an increase of high-end British technology available to our military and allies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *