The global race to develop and field a sixth-generation fighter is picking up pace as Sweden has formally agreed to support the British development of the BAE Tempest in a return to distinctly British air combat capability, drawing on the memory of the venerable Spitfire at a time of increased global instability and competition.
As the global air combat capability continues to progress toward a fully integrated, 'fifth-generation' force, broader global trends continue to evolve, making the strategic environment increasingly complex. In response, the UK government and RAF have identified the need for its future air combat capabilities to operate effectively in congested, contested and complex environments, where speed and agility are essential for mission success.
Building on the success of the Eurofighter Typhoon, developed in conjunction with Germany, Italy and Spain and now in operation with air forces throughout Europe and the Middle East, the UK government, Ministry of Defence, RAF and BAE have combined the lessons learned throughout the research and development, procurement and operational phases of the Typhoon project to prepare the nation and industry for the next generation of air combat capability.
This program has gained further impetus as the growing success and introduction of of Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the Su-57, J-20 and JF-31, followed by recent announcements by Turkey, combined with the increasing proliferation of advanced, integrated air and missile defence systems like the Russian S-400 series all combine to form a perfect storm, challenging the 'fifth-generation' air combat capability transition.
Many hands make light work
Recognising these challenges, combined with the increasing cost, research and development and industrial capability necessary for developing a sixth-generation fighter aircraft both the UK government and prime industry partner, BAE Systems have sought to openly collaborate with a range of British and European specialists to support the development of the platform, with early agreements signed with:
- BAE Systems – advanced combat air systems and integration;
- Rolls-Royce – advanced power and propulsion systems;
- Leonardo – advanced sensors, electronics and avionics; and
- MBDA – advanced weapons systems.
Building on these early industrial successes, BAE and the UK government recently announced a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Swedish government – outlining the combined research and development on advanced weapons systems, including a focus on developing a future air combat capability.
UK Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt said, "The UK and Sweden have an enduring defence relationship, with our two industries sharing a rich history of collaboration in air power.
"This agreement further deepens this partnership and sees us look to the future with a bold and shared vision of UK and Swedish air power," Secretary Mordaunt added.
These comments are echoed by the UK Minister for Defence Procurement, Stuart Andrew, who identified the growing industrial collaboration between the UK and Sweden, saying, "I’m delighted that we have signed this memorandum of understanding, endorsing a shared and ambitious vision for future combat air systems which lays firm foundations for future collaboration. Today we usher in an exciting new era in which the talents of two great combat air nations will be combined to lift Swedish and British airpower into the stratosphere."
Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist supported the statements made by his British counterparts, reaffirming the commitment of both nations to developing and maintaining a leading-edge air combat capability. Minister Hultqvist stressed the opportunities to put advanced technologies onto Gripen and Typhoon, the world-class combat aircraft currently operated by Sweden and the UK, respectively, before inserting these technologies onto a future combat air system.
It is anticipated that the UK, in conjunction with its industry partners, will deliver the Tempest next-generation air combat capability by 2035 to operate in conjunction with the RAF F-35s and the later tranche of Eurofighter Typhoons, which they will eventually replace.
Both BAE and the Royal Air Force anticipate that the Tempest will be a step change in air combat capability, and it is expected to be defined by a number of specific capabilities, outlined by BAE:
Capable: All of the partners agree that a future combat air system must be able to survive the most challenging combat environments, meaning that payload-range, speed and mannoeuvrability will be key to operational success. It is also expected that the Tempest system would be equipped with a suite of sensors including radio frequency, active and passive electro-opitcal sensors and advanced electronic support measures and counter measures to support threat detection and interception.
Developments in directed energy weapons systems will also provide for self-defence and use within visual range aerial combat, while the ability to deploy and manage swarms of air launched UAVs will provide an unprecedented lethality and response to anti-access area denial strategies currently employed by potential adversaries.
Flexible: Adaptability will be built into the system design, with systems architectures that support a ‘plug and play’ approach, easily integrating new algorithms and hardware. Depending on the mission, ‘role fit’ additions such as low observable conformal fuel tanks, weapons dispensers, air launched UAV dispensers, large modular sensors, long range oblique photography systems for reconnaissance and laser directed energy weapons could be available.
The aircraft would require that these features are dynamically reconfigurable and serve to enhance survivability, availability, cyber resilience and tactical options.
Connected: Leveraging information and data gathering enables commanders and individuals to make informed decisions in complex, stressful environments, while also increasing the force multiplier effects of interoperability with a wide range of other civil and military platforms and services across air, land, sea, space and cyber domains, as well as unmanned systems.
Command and control of other systems, such as UAVs, will be enabled from a fully customisable virtual cockpit, with advanced human-machine interfaces, including eye tracking and gesture-based controls, offering intuitive and sophisticated mission management.
Upgradeable: The Tempest will need to be quickly and affordably upgradeable. This means physical interfaces must be strong, lightweight, numerous and affordably produced. This will be achieved through industry expertise in additive layer manufacturing, joining and fastener technology, ‘geometric locking’, and low observable materials.
Affordable: Advanced manufacturing techniques will play a significant role in reducing the unit production cost of Tempest, and will be a key enabler of ensuring system flexibility and upgradeability. Automated manufacturing, maintenance and support infrastructure can reduce in-service support costs by leveraging the research and development and implementation of such equipment in earlier models to assist in the re-arming, re-fuelling, specialist role-customisation and repair spaces.
Additionally, affordable pilot and air crew training costs can be supported through the integrated use of artificial intelligence, data analytics and complex flight simulators to minimise the burden on all involved.
It is anticipated that the UK, in conjunction with its industry partners, will deliver the Tempest next generation air combat capability by 2035 to operate in conjunction with the RAF F-35s and the later tranche of Eurofighter Typhoons, which they will eventually replace.
Michael Christie, director of future combat air systems at BAE Systems, echoed this ambitious task, saying, "12 months ago, industry and government launched a bold and exciting vision for the future for the UK combat air sector on the BAE Systems stand at the Farnborough International Air Show. This was a vision that was encapsulated by the launch of the UK’s combat air strategy and the unveiling of our Tempest concept, a glimpse into the future of combat air.
"It also marked the launch of the Ministry of Defence’s combat air acquisition program – a program tasked with defining and delivering the future capabilities required when Typhoon begins to leave Royal Air Force service. The importance of international government and industry collaboration was made clear and, as such, today is a significant milestone for that program as we welcome our first international partner. This spirit of co-operation was encapsulated in the memorandum of understanding signed by all industry partners at the start of our deepening dialogue many months ago."
For Australia, the future operating environment to the nation's immediate north will necessitate investment in a highly capable, long-range, air dominance fighter aircraft to complement the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and replace the ageing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets, by the mid 2030s.
Australia's industrial capability and value adding capacity as developed throughout the F-35 program places Australia in an ideal position to integrate and participate in the development of any number of sixth-generation fighter designs to ensure continued air combat capability and interoperability with key regional and global allies in increasingly contested environments, beyond 2030.