Radical Digital Approach To Cut Cost From Tempest Development

The UK’s Combat Air Strategy calls for the Tempest to be a challenging combination of flexible, upgradable, affordable and exportable.
Credit: BAE Systems

Time is money,” goes the saying, and that could not be more true for fighter development, which is often complicated by drawn-out negotiations over requirements as well as complex integration, certification and testing processes.

Numerous fighter programs bear the scars of lengthy development programs, during which requirements change and technologies evolve. 

  • UK wants to deliver Tempest in less than half the time it took to develop Eurofighter 
  • Program will validate technologies synthetically rather than through demonstrators 

In the UK, the industrial consortium behind the Tempest Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative (FCAS TI) and the associated FCAS Acquisition Program says this is a trend that can—and must—be reversed if the future fighter platform is to be an export success. 

“We are trying to do what every program for many years has said that [it was] trying to do—give a lot of capability for a not-exponential increase in cost,” Michael Christie, BAE Systems’ head of Future Combat Air Systems, tells Aviation Week. But to do this, says Christie, “You can’t just try and tighten up what we’ve always done. . . . You have to take a more radical approach.” 

With its mantra of being flexible, upgradable, affordable and exportable, the Tempest is taking lessons from previous programs.

Despite facing political and budgetary hurdles, the Eurofighter Typhoon has been an export success for the UK. The aircraft has accounted for a significant percentage of defense exports in recent years, with the UK leading sales campaigns for it in Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But the aircraft itself is a product of 1980s Cold War requirements. It flew for the first time in 1995, entered service in 2003 and only truly acquired meaningful multirole capabilities in the mid-2010s.

By comparison, the Tempest aims to deliver a platform to the front line to begin replacing the Typhoon in UK service by 2035, just 10 years after a full development program is initiated in 2025.

To do this, the Team Tempest companies—including BAE Systems, Leonardo, MBDA and Rolls-Royce—are derisking technology, making greater use of synthetics in digital design, development and integration, using open systems architecture and planning to make use of lower-cost additive manufacturing processes when metal finally needs to be cut. 

The program is also engendering changes in the procurement process. Unlike previous UK fighter procurements—which would begin with a statement of requirements, followed by industry responding with a statement of work that is then negotiated—industry is jointly developing the statement of work with the customer. The new process will skip several steps, with the definition of requirements left for later in the program.

The most significant time savings, however, will emerge from the wholly digital approach envisaged for the development of the aircraft and its systems. High-performance computing has already allowed industry to assess many more air system configurations and additive capabilities, such as loyal wingmen, than previously possible. But the key priorities will be to use digital platforms to expedite qualification and certification, where some of the “biggest challenges” to program schedules lie, Christie says.

Processes such as subsystem development and test and their subsequent integration into the platform can now be modeled synthetically. Engineers can also model the impact of so-called emergent properties, the unexpected interactions that occur when numerous systems operate together. This digital approach, however, must be validated to ensure that the synthetic models work as expected in the real world. This is the derisking process being undertaken through FCAS TI, paving the way for the program to go “full digital,” after the complete business case is presented in 2025.

The FCAS TI program is validating those models through a series of demonstrations of the technologies that “drive the most schedule and cost benefit,” Christie says.

The idea is to avoid the need for what Christie describes as a “full dress rehearsal,” a reference to flying demonstrators such as the Experimental Aircraft Program flown by BAE in the 1980s as a precursor to the Eurofighter. The approach is radically different from that taken by French, German and Spanish industry for their FCAS program. The partners are planning a demonstration phase that includes flight testing of a demonstrator New-Generation Fighter, along with associated sensors and engines.

The Tempest’s demonstration work instead will take place in the synthetic world, as well as in test rigs and on board a Boeing 757 testbed aircraft.

“You don’t need to take everything into the air,” Christie says. “So we are making careful choices to make sure that we minimize the cost and maximize the impact.” 

Other elements aimed at reducing the cost of upgrading the aircraft in the future as well as boosting the freedom of action for export customers will be the use of open architecture software such as BAE’s Pyramid—which in the Tempest’s case will separate safety-critical software from that associated with mission systems, an approach similar to that adopted by Saab on its Gripen E/F aircraft. Pyramid allows operators to make use of more capable computing hardware and to host different applications in different layers without compromising flight-critical systems. This means that when new capabilities are added to the aircraft, the software does not need to be recertified each time. 

“Pyramid is key to the freedom of modification and freedom of action for export customers, particularly when it comes to real front-end military functionality,” Christie says. “If a country has a particular weapon in its inventory and it wants to integrate [the weapon], it makes the process so much easier.”

Rapid updates of software and hardware can help keep obsolescence at bay. When the model of the notional Tempest aircraft debuted at the 2018 Farnborough Airshow, those who sat inside were presented with an empty-looking cockpit, the systems only coming to life when they donned an augmented-reality headset, which was able to display flight-critical and mission information all around the pilot, eliminating the need for traditional cockpit displays.

“We still have aircraft flying with cathode ray tubes, and such technology is fundamentally obsolete in the world,” Christie says. “Our approach is to be able to deal with obsolescence in a very different way.”

When it comes to cutting metal, BAE is trying out technologies for its so-called factory of the future, a facility that makes extensive use of synthetics to practice the entire assembly process before the first metal is cut.

“We see the future a bit like synthetic training for a pilot,” Christie says. “We would like to get to a point where the first time an operator actually picks up the tools, they have already been able to rehearse that. It means that when you get to manufacturing, you get high yield, and you get it right the first time.” Such processes will help reduce material waste and assembly errors.

Part of the intent is also to reduce reliance on economies of scale, Christie says, and to make the facilities flexible for different production rates. Furthermore, the approach is easily exportable should a customer want to perform local production, while also allowing intellectual property rights and a level of control over the production process to be maintained.

The UK government has pledged to spend another £1.2 billion ($1.7 billion) over the next four years on the Tempest to see the program through its concept and assessment phase, which is due to get underway this summer. It is slated to be followed by a series of alternative-systems reviews before full-scale development is launched around 2025. 

Similar funding pledges are expected from the governments of Italy and Sweden by year-end. The British government has also confirmed it is undertaking “important subsystem cooperative opportunities” with Japan through the FCAS initiatives.

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.


Way too much political involvement and military requirements are key to the current development nightmare. Let industry alone and you will save
at least 50% of time, and a lot of money.
Is there any recent example of a large software effort that was delivered on schedule and to the customers satisfaction?
Much of the projected gain in efficiency and flexibility echoes the early hopes during the F-35 development. Reality was less kind.
I may be missing something, but at the outset of the article the statement is made, "Numerous fighter programs bear the scars of lengthy development programs, during which requirements change and technologies evolve. ". and then they say, "The new process will skip several steps, with the definition of requirements left for later in the program." !?!? If we design a product and then define the requirements, I suspect the impact of "changing requirements" will be the same as "new requirements!
As an aside, they propose “We would like to get to a point where the first time an operator actually picks up the tools, they have already been able to rehearse that. It means that when you get to manufacturing, you get high yield, and you get it right the first time.”....I have been hearing about the "Factory Of The Future" since the mid 1980's, and, in fact, the airplane factories have continued to evolve since then, but what they are proposing to do is exactly what was done on the F/A-18 E/F program in the mid 1990's (at McDonnell Douglas)....The airplane was designed by integrated product teams. Not just engineers , but manufacturing engineers, tool designers, NC programmers, composite specialists, manufacturing personnel, supplier managers...all co-located from day one, fully participating in the design. The airplane was defined in fully surfaced 3D models, used assembly analysis software tools (synthetic design), Common datums, tooling concepts and assembly sequences were agreed upon BEFORE detail design, and much of the assembly tooling was also modelled in 3D. One month before the first aircraft went into production, assembly workers were 'virtually' assembling the first aircraft!
And yes, in a time when every military aircraft program for the past 30 years was behind schedule, over cost and over weight, the E/F flew one month ahead or schedule, on cost, and 1000 lbs. under the spec weight. So yes, these tools are effective and we know how to do it. In fact, the tools have become even more powerful in the last few decades. All it takes is leadership that really understands the complexity of modern weapon systems and the discipline required to manage their development.
I wish all new aircraft development teams the best of luck! It will give them great satisfaction to have done it right!
Mario Vitale
The issue with joint European programs like this is that there is no industrial competition. Innovation, technology leaps and manufacturing streamlining occur when companies compete, not when they ask for more funds to complete a project.