Let’s Look At The UK’s Plan To Fly A Tempest Fighter Demonstrator In Just Five Years
More details have come to light regarding the United Kingdom’s next-generation air combat program, with the recent announcement that a demonstrator aircraft will fly “within the next five years.” BAE Systems, which is leading work on the program, has also presented a new model of a potential Tempest configuration, showing a manned fighter that, overall, bears a resemblance to the U.S. F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, while its empennage is reminiscent of the F-22’s competitor, Northrop’s YF-23.
The Farnborough International Airshow, taking place outside London this week, has provided the opportunity for BAE to unveil its new concept model of the Tempest, which makes for a striking comparison with previous artwork, videos, as well as the full-size mock-up that were first shown when the project was revealed at the airshow back in 2018. You can read about that event here.
Compared to previous concepts, the latest Tempest model retains the overall stealthy configuration and moderate-to-large size. However, significant modifications have been made to the wing planform, with the ‘lambda’ wing traded for a cropped delta with an arrow-like trailing edge. The engine intakes, as well as the overall profile of the forward fuselage, now all appear to share much more with the F-22 than the earlier iterations, which featured a characteristic ‘pelican’ nose profile.
The tail surfaces are still ruddervators, as found on the YF-23, rather than separate vertical stabilizers and stabilators, but these are now larger and are mounted immediately aft of the wing trailing edge. The engine nozzles appear to be well shrouded by the rear fuselage and the projecting ‘sting’ that was formerly located between them is absent.
In many ways, the latest model is very much more in keeping with notions of other conceptual next-generation fighter aircraft, like the Indian AMCA or Turkish TF-X. While we should not read too much into the model at this stage, it’s certainly interesting that it has been updated. The changes may even be related to the aforementioned demonstrator aircraft, although we also don’t know to what degree this will actually reflect the appearance of the final Tempest. In the same way, while a demonstrator for the U.S. Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program has been flown, we have no idea to what degree it might reflect the configuration of the manned fighter to follow.
Indeed, Jon Lake, a long-term observer of British military aerospace, writes that the BAE Systems “demonstrator will not be a prototype in the traditional sense, as the design can and will continue to evolve. This is possible because so much development, design, and testing can be carried out rapidly and efficiently in the virtual world, using synthetic modeling and model-based systems engineering. This means that the traditional ‘metal bashing’ and flight test phases of the project can be telescoped into a much shorter time frame. This in turn means that quite major design decisions can be left much later than would be the case in a traditional program.”
Nevertheless, the commitment to actually building a demonstrator aircraft is a significant one for the program as a whole, and for the U.K. aerospace industry. If all goes as planned, it will be the first new U.K. fighter demonstrator to fly since the British Aerospace EAP, which took to the air back in 1986. The EAP contributed to the Eurofighter Typhoon, the aircraft that the Tempest is primarily intended to replace in U.K. Royal Air Force (RAF) service.
“We recognize our responsibility in providing trusted sovereign combat air capability,” Charles Woodburn, BAE Systems Chief Executive, said in a company statement. “We’re partnering with the U.K.’s highly motivated and skilled supply chain to accelerate the innovation of the nation’s future air power; integrating new technologies so the Royal Air Force and its allies can stay ahead of our adversaries. The demonstrator is an exciting once-in-a-generation opportunity providing experienced and young engineers alike a chance to contribute to an endeavor which really matters to our national defense and security.”
Meanwhile, the U.K. Secretary of State for Defense, Ben Wallace, added: “The design and development of the demonstrator aircraft represents an important milestone, showcasing the success and talent of our engineers, programmers, and software developers. This program will go on to attract opportunities for many more great minds and talent from across the U.K.”
Interestingly, Wallace also referenced the fact that “the U.K., alongside Italy and Japan, are working on similar combat air journeys together. Our work with Japan and Italy on cutting-edge technology like this shows the benefit of our alliances across the world.” It’s not immediately clear if this implies that one or both of those countries will also be involved in the demonstrator aircraft, as well as the wider Tempest program, but it’s notable that Japan, in particular, is widely expected to partner with BAE Systems to help build its next-generation combat aircraft, known as the F-X.
So far, Japan has not formally merged its F-X effort with Tempest and/or FCAS. However, officials have confirmed that the current “joint concept analysis” is expected to lead to a final decision on a full partnership later this year. Already, the United Kingdom and Japan have announced plans to jointly develop a prototype fighter jet engine and to share advanced air-to-air missile technologies, and sensor development has now been added to that list. If Japan, which has around $40B set aside for the development and procurement of its next generation fighter, formally joins Tempes it would be a massive coup for the program and will help stabilize it through what could be a very expensive development process.
On the other hand, Wallace didn’t mention Sweden, another country that has been involved in the Tempest program in the past. That, coupled with the fact that the Scandinavian country is busy still developing its own JAS 39E/F Gripen, could suggest that it’s now less committed to the Tempest fighter. However, Sweden could well still be involved in the wider Future Combat Air System, or FCAS, framework, something that a U.K. Ministry of Defense official recently hinted at.
The British FCAS, not to be confused with the European program of the same name, has the Tempest manned sixth-generation fighter as its centerpiece. But like the U.S. Air Force and Navy NGAD equivalents, it also includes other complementary technologies, among them ‘loyal wingman’ type drones and a new generation of air-launched weapons and sensors.
That the Tempest manned fighter will be absolutely critical to the U.K.’s FCAS enterprise as a whole is also made clear by BAE’s wording in its press release about the forthcoming demonstrator. This says that the aircraft “will play a critical role in proving the technology and design principles needed to deliver the U.K.’s Future Combat Air System.” Indeed, the same release also refers to “the Tempest, the U.K.’s Future Combat Air System,” suggesting that boundaries between the manned fighter and the overarching ‘system of systems’ are becoming increasingly blurred.
“The demonstrator will provide evidence for the critical technologies, methods, and tools, which will be used on the core platform,” BAE’s statement continues. “As part of the broader activity involved in developing Tempest, the demonstrator program is also helping retain, further develop and stimulate the next generation of skills and expertise required to deliver this ambitious program.”
Among the exotic technologies that are planned to be incorporated in the Tempest are new propulsion systems, sensors and countermeasures, cockpit interfaces, communications networks, payloads, and automated support. As to how these will be realized, BAE says it’s now working with “novel digital engineering technologies,” including synthetic modeling and model-based systems engineering. These are intended to reduce the time it takes to actually put the aircraft into service, something that will be absolutely critical if the goal of service entry in an initial operating capability by 2035 is to be achieved.
BAE recently confirmed it had built a “representative military fast jet fuselage” using its new “industry 4.0 Factory” in Lancashire, England. Here, more than 65 percent of the fuselage structure was built using robot technology.
A similar approach has been taken by Boeing and Saab for the U.S. Air Force’s T-7A Red Hawk advanced jet trainer and was also (briefly) espoused under the Air Force’s eSeries initiative, which was intended to “inspire companies to embrace the possibilities presented by digital engineering” in the development of new aircraft, satellites, weapon systems and more.
At the same time, BAE is talking up the potential of these same cutting-edge design and engineering methods to provide upgrades to the aircraft once in service. If that comes off, it should mark a step-change compared to the experience with the Typhoon, for example, where much-needed upgrades have sometimes taken many years to actually reach the front line.
While any next-generation fighter program is ambitious, the United Kingdom has set its sights very high for its Typhoon successor. It’s hard to see how the program will succeed without the economic and industrial boosts that would come from partnering with Italy and Japan, and potentially others, and to lose one of these partners could paralyze the program. This week, Andrew Howard, the director of Major Air Programmes for Leonardo U.K., warned that the Tempest program “is not affordable for one country to bring … to life on its own.”
At the same time, the Tempest and FCAS programs are becoming increasingly important to preserving the United Kingdom’s sovereign combat air manufacturing base — not least, BAE Systems — making their success a point of pride for the country’s industrial sector.
As for the Tempest’s “crucial role in providing long-term defense and security for the U.K.,” the need for a Typhoon successor around 2035 is well recognized, but it might be argued that the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, already well-established and combat-proven in U.K. service, is able to do this job, and likely do it more cheaply.
What’s more, the F-35B has the flexibility to operate from the U.K. Royal Navy’s carriers, an option that won’t be open to the Tempest, while its short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) qualities also make it suitable for dispersed operations from more austere airstrips and forward operating locations.
The United Kingdom has been very hesitant about committing to the full batch of 138 F-35Bs that it originally said it would buy. It seems likely that the U.K. government has been mulling a reduced F-35B buy partly to help fund the Tempest — as well as other flagship projects like the new nuclear-powered attack submarine successor to the Astute class of submarines, and RAF Space Command.
Then there is the issue of future drones and where they will fit within FCAS. Under an RAF unmanned initiative known as the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) program, studies are underway to examine what kinds of drones will be needed to meet the demands of what BAE refers to as a “complex and rapidly evolving battlespace.” As part of this thinking, Project Mosquito, which was to test a loyal wingman-type drone capable of working together semi-autonomously with manned aircraft, was recently canceled.
Meanwhile, last week, BAE unveiled concepts for two new types of unmanned aerial vehicles. One is a relatively small drone capable of operating either individually or as part of a networked swarm, while the second is larger and more in line with various lower-tier unmanned combat air vehicle concepts that other companies have put forward in recent years. You can read more about both of them here, but they point to the fact that the United Kingdom is very much still weighing up how to use drones — including which missions to configure them for and what degrees of autonomy they should have.
In this way, the United Kingdom’s approach seems to parallel that of Lockheed Martin. Recently, the U.S. contractor’s Skunk Works advanced projects division outlined its vision for multi-tier distributed manned-unmanned teaming, including an expandable swarming component together with unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV)-like designs. You can read more about the famed aerospace design group’s plans here.
The results of the U.K.’s studies will almost certainly influence the path of the Tempest, too, including the optimum mix of swarming drones and unmanned combat aircraft, and to what degree these might even be able to carry out the same kinds of missions traditionally assigned to manned fighters.
The capabilities promised by the Tempest look convincing, on paper, at least, although they may look less so once the aircraft is actually available for service. After all, the timeline as it stands looks to be exceedingly ambitious. If, as stated, a demonstrator starts flying within the next five years, that could leave as little as eight years between its first flight and the planned initial operating capability for the production-representative Tempest. Compare this with the Typhoon, for which 17 years passed between the demonstrator’s first flight and service entry.
While advances in design and engineering should play a part in closing that gap, the fact is that economic realities — combined with the unpredictable nature of test work in the non-virtual realm — are likely to provide the same kinds of hurdles that they have done in past combat aircraft programs.
Moreover, for the program to succeed, it will very have to make a credible case that it actually provides significant economic benefits and that the money wouldn’t be better spent on topping up the F-35B fleet, investing in unmanned systems, as well as on some of the other big-ticket defense programs vying for precious funds.
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