One year after France and Germany announced plans to jointly develop a future European fighter, Britain has lifted the veil on its vision for a future combat aircraft.

The Tempest concept, a twin-engine, delta-winged, low-observable fighter – unveiled by ministers on the opening day of the Farnborough Airshow – is a major milestone in Britain’s approach to develop a fighter through international co-operation.

And with aggressive development timelines and a vision to introduce cutting-edge technologies, the UK appears to be hoping to snatch away interest from the project being proposed by its neighbors across the Channel.

The Combat Air Strategy calls for Britain to take a leading role in a multinational program, with a ‘build it and they will come’ approach.

Some £2 billion has been put aside for the development of technologies associated with the aircraft, and 50-60 technology demonstrations are planned over the coming years, some funded entirely by industry, others on a 50/50 basis with government.

“We are entering a dangerous new era of warfare,” said defense minister Gavin Williamson. “It [the strategy] shows our allies that we are open to working together to protect the skies in an increasingly threatening future.”

British industry has already been heavily involved in the concept development work through the Team Tempest industry consortium which was announced by the Royal Air Force Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Steven Hillier. Partners include BAE Systems, engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce, missile manufacturer MBDA, and Leonardo, along with agencies including Defense Equipment & Support [the UK procurement agency] and the RAF’s Rapid Capability Office.

The UK is eager to preserve its combat air capabilities, not only because it sustains thousands of jobs but because it has also generated 80% of the UK’s defense export income over the last decade with sales to Saudi Arabia and Oman.

The UK wants to disrupt the trend of lengthy development programs, with Williamson saying he wants to see a business case for the project delivered by the end of this year, to be followed by initial decisions about how to acquire the capability to come by the end of 2020, before investments decisions emerge by 2025.

The future fighter could be flying alongside F-35s and Typhoons by 2035, the minister suggested.

The Typhoon is due to exit service in around 2040, which means the new platform will likely end up operating alongside British F-35s.

Such a timeline would put the British-led program almost five years ahead of the Franco-German program announced last summer and given the go-ahead in April, it may also be ahead of the U.S. Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance or Penetrating Counter Air programs, although progress could be being made in the black world.

The UK has actually been quietly developing technologies associated with a future combat aircraft since the end of 2015 with research into open architecture avionics and aircraft systems through programs such as Pyramid. BAE has been trialing adaptive payload bays and testing new advanced materials.

New technologies envisioned for the aircraft include a new generation engine to support the new aircraft’s extensive electrical power demands. A third stream will provide bleed air to support the aircraft’s thermal management. The power system will provide electrical power to support directed energy weapons.

It will also make use of new advanced weapons including hypersonic and swarming missiles.

The aircraft’s systems will be rapidly upgradable and cyber resilient.

Air chiefs from around the world were invited at the weekend to take a look at a second mock-up which was shown off at the Royal International Air Tattoo on July 13-15 and briefed on the proposals.

“This hinges on international cooperation, we want new partners,” Williamson said.

“Together we want to design and build ultra-advanced equipment far faster, keeping ahead of technological change… and put it at the disposal of our friends,” he said.

Delegations from Sweden and Japan were in the room as the veil on the aircraft was lifted.

 

Airbus Responds

Airbus reacted to the news with a statement that read: “Airbus notes the UK’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.

“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.”