UK Tempest Next-Gen Fighter Program Draws Notice Of Potential Partners
Apr 10, 2019 Tony Osborne | Aviation Week & Space Technology
As potential foreign partners take a serious interest in British proposals to develop a new-generation combat aircraft, the UK government and industry are quietly working on the technologies that will pave the way for it.
Few details of the Tempest’s progress have emerged in the nine months since British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson unveiled the UK vision for a new combat aircraft to be ready in the late 2030s.
To get there, the UK is taking a multipronged approach. While the Combat Air Strategy outlined that Britain would stay in the combat aircraft development game, the Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative (FCAS TI), an eight-year, £2 billion ($2.6 billion) program of research jointly funded by government and industry, is examining the technologies that could be needed not only for the future combat aircraft but also to support future upgrades for the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
UK efforts to develop UCAV technologies will be flowed into the Tempest and associated systems
Trials of hardware to support the development of an open-systems architecture will be underway shortly
The public face of FCAS TI is Team Tempest, the joint government and industry consortium made up of the Royal Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, BAE Systems, Leonardo, MBDA and Rolls-Royce.
All these elements feed into an acquisition program within the Defense Ministry that will ultimately lead to a platform to replace the Typhoon. An initial business case for that platform will be delivered in December 2020, a full business case in 2025 and initial operational capability in 2035.
“Everything we do is focused on ensuring the UK is ready as a globally competitive combat air enterprise,” Group Capt. Jez Holmes, the Team Tempest program director, tells Aviation Week.
What results from the UK’s FCAS TI and Tempest work may look very different from the concepts shown so far, but it will make extensive use of locally developed technologies for future unmanned systems. Credit: BAE Systems Concept
“What we’re trying to do is produce something that delivers credibility in capability terms and also delivers prosperity for the nation by bringing in partnerships,” he says.
Team Tempest’s sphere, in addition to conceiving and developing technologies for the future aircraft, encompasses the educational needs of the program so that skills can be maintained throughout the program’s life.
“Part of the FCAS TI initiative and the industry contribution is about sustaining and building those teams that perhaps have not had a huge amount of demand over the past 10-15 years,” says Clive Marrison, industry requirements director at Team Tempest.
Britain’s last Defense Industrial Strategy, published in 2005, stated that the introduction of the Eurofighter and the JSF meant the UK did not need to envisage building a new fighter for more than 30 years because they were both likely to have long operational lives. Upgrade programs for the Typhoon and development of the Taranis unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) demonstrator have helped maintain those skills, but the Combat Air Strategy said that without a “clear indication of future requirements,” key engineering skills were placed at “greater risk.”
“Would we have lost those skills?” asks Marrison. “It is difficult to say, but without the investment both from industry and government in research and development over the last 10 years and now into FCAS TI and Tempest, we would not have been in such a good position to sustain and grow them again.”
In March, Team Tempest held an industry day for potential suppliers to understand the Combat Air Strategy and how they can feed into the program through government and the Team Tempest consortium. It attracted some 300 delegates from industry and government.
“It is not just about supporting the big four [BAE, Leonardo, MBDA and Rolls-Royce]; it is about supporting as much of the UK industrial and supply base as possible and bringing together as many of the clever minds, clever ideas and clever technologies as we can,” says Marrison.
The team is hoping that the work on the Tempest can ignite interest in aerospace technology in the same way the Concorde did during the 1960s. “Some of the people who will be involved on Tempest, potentially in service until 2080, have not been born yet,” says Holmes.
“Part of our intent here is to engage on a STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] basis across the nation and bring something that gives them an iconic focus,” he adds.
There is no shortage of international interest as well. In late 2018, Sweden’s Saab confirmed it was in a “deepening dialog” with the UK over joining the Tempest program. At the end of last year, the company carried out a 6 billion krona ($650 million) rights issue that CEO Hakan Buskhe said could provide funding for future work, including with the UK. The Italian element of Leonardo said it was actively urging the Italian government to join the British FCAS work. Several influential think tanks in Rome have also pressed Italy’s government to join one of the two European projects, primarily urging it to side with the UK option, arguing that Italy would be sidelined if it joined the Franco-German efforts.
Beyond Europe, the Tempest is one of several options being studied for Japan’s F-3 future fighter requirement to replace the indigenous Mitsubishi F-2, and the British government reportedly has also made offers to India, with which it has previously partnered on the Hawk and Sepecat Jaguar.
FCAS TI is currently focused on 60-70 technology projects, some lasting 1-2 years, others planned to last the full length of the program.
Some of the initial work underway on concepts and requirements is feeding what Holmes calls an “initial gauge,” supporting the opening stages of the acquisition process.
“It will start to deliver them with credible evidence about not only what the need but [also] about what we think we are able to do in an affordable way, with a focus on future adaptability and growth potential, so that we ensure we set ourselves up on a path for success,” says Holmes.
Part of that work is on industry sustainability; others have a more international flavor, such as several projects with France looking at communications and interoperability enabling future platforms to work together in a coalition.
Progress also is being made on development of a comprehensive open mission-system architecture designed to embrace avionics, sensors, connectivity and command-and-control systems. Definition of the architecture and component specifications are close to completion, and components are being built for testing. The architecture will not only underpin the potential for spiral development but also will allow partners or export customers to integrate their own mission-system fits quickly, as it has systematic reuse of software at its core.
With data becoming the currency of the battlefield, and future combat aircraft gathering up information from the electromagnetic spectrum and sensors, any future architecture likely will have to cope with terabytes of information, Holmes suggests.
The challenge will be turning that data into “decision-quality information and presenting it in a useful way,” says Holmes. The ability to do this will depend on how quickly the aircraft’s systems can be upgraded. “What we’re focusing on in some of our work is how we make that much quicker, much easier and much more affordable,” he says. Such an approach could blur the lines between generations of fighters, Holmes says.
While the Typhoon is considered a fourth-generation combat aircraft and the F-35 as fifth-generation, the Tempest is widely considered to be sixth-generation. However, the aircraft might not be considered as such when it enters service in the late 2030s.
“We have architected our capabilities in the past in such a way that you have to talk in generational terms, because they have a long life, and step changes in capability are more challenging to deliver,” says Holmes.
Nevertheless, Holmes points to the Panavia Tornado, which when it left service at the end of March was an almost entirely different platform from when it entered service. The Typhoon will be the same, he notes.
“What is needed for a future combat aircraft is a regular, constant drumbeat of flexibility and upgradability, allowing that capability growth to happen much more quickly . . . almost breaking down the generation nomenclature to much smaller bite-size chunks,” says Holmes.
The UK’s heavy investments in unmanned combat aircraft technologies will also be applied.
The UK Defense Ministry and industry, led by BAE Systems, has poured hundreds of millions of pounds into a series of technology initiatives that ultimately led to development of the Taranis UCAV demonstrator and almost paved the way for a joint UCAV demonstrator with France, until the plans were shelved last year.
Many of these underlying technologies for the UAVs and UCAVs are “very transferable across to the systems-of-systems approach for FCAS TI,” Marrison says.
Those programs resulted in technologies for signature awareness and control, mission-system architectures, low-probability-of intercept communications and the ability to rapidly—potentially in real time—upgrade software and mission capabilities and orders.
“None of the areas of development and design and technology that we saw through those unmanned aerial systems—be they at the design, information, mission-system or architecture level—are going to go to waste,” says Marrison.
Like its Franco-German counterpart, the future British combat aircraft will likely end up working with unmanned platforms, perhaps as so-called loyal wingmen or as attritable systems designed to deceive air defenses, such as the swarming systems revealed by Williamson in February and expected to enter service in the early-to-mid 2020s.
In recent years, the UK has been experimenting with adaptable payload bays, advanced materials and new approaches to cockpit development, including the use of augmented reality. It has also invested in cyber-resilience, making software dynamically reconfigurable and more difficult to hack.
Some of the successful technologies that could emerge from the Tempest could also end up in the Typhoon. Rolls-Royce is testing some of the technologies it envisions for a future Tempest powerplant on a Eurojet EJ200, which could result in improvements for the Typhoon. “We are working closely with Typhoon, working closely with the F-35 team as well, so we can spot those opportunities as and when they arrive,” says Holmes.