A full-scale concept model of a future combat aircraft was unveiled in the BAE Systems Farnborough Airshow pavilion (Outside Exhibit 11) on Monday morning by British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. His message was that the UK already had the best sovereign capability in the world. It could, therefore, lead such a development, but international partners would be sought.
BAE Systems chief executive Charles Woodburn said the UK government’s new Combat Air Strategy—released Monday—“is a powerful statement of intent to invest.” Royal Air Force (RAF) chief sir Stephen Hillier said his service is "taking ownership of our next-generation capability.”
The concept model has been generated by Team Tempest, a partnership between the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) and British industry (including BAE Systems, Leonardo UK, MBDA UK, and Rolls-Royce). It is a large, manned twin-engine and twin-tail design with a near-delta wing except for trailing-edge indentations for stealth alignment. But additional images on display next to the model also showed a scaled-down unmanned version, and industry officials cautioned that the model should not be considered definitive, although some wind-tunnel testing has been done already, they said.
According to Williamson, more than £2 billion ($2.65 billion) would be invested in the UK’s Future Combat Air Strategy (FCAS) by 2025. Industry is contributing up to 50 percent of this on some of the 50 to 60 “national technology demonstrations” that form part of the FCAS. Williamson said Team Tempest should deliver a business case by year-end and take “initial conclusions” on international partners by next summer. Further, he said, the partners could be “nations around the world, including ones that we haven’t worked with before.”
He continued, “Early decisions on how to acquire the capability will be confirmed by the end of 2020, before final investment decisions are made by 2025. The aim is…to have operational capability by 2035.” Officials from Team Tempest later clarified that no commitment has yet been made to build a flying demonstrator in the near-term. “We could do some tests on existing platforms,” said BAE Systems air strategy director Michael Christie.
Christie told AIN that the size of the concept on display had been driven by the need for a large payload bay, whether for weapons, sensors or additional fuel. One accompanying illustration showed four small drones in the bay, that could be launched in a "swarm" concept of operations. The MBDA Meteor air-to-air missile and Spear 3 air-to-surface weapon are on display, but an official from that company said that the ultimate aircraft could carry future weapons from the pipeline of developments already projected by MBDA and the UK Ministry of Defence. They will likely include hypersonic and directed-energy weapons.
Conrad Banks, chief engineer for future defense programs at Rolls-Royce, described advanced engine technologies that would be incorporated. These include distortion-tolerant fan systems; two embedded starter-generators that eliminate the accessory gearbox and would provide greatly increased and continued electrical power; advanced composite materials providing a “step-change” in thrust-to-weight ratio; and a fully-integrated thermal management system.
Other characteristics of a future combat aircraft that are illustrated next to the concept model or discussed at Farnborough on Monday include a “virtual cockpit”; reconfigurable communications; network-enabled co-operative engagement; artificial intelligence and machine learning; “intrinsic ISR"; multispectral sensors fully integrated at the subsystem level; and advanced digital manufacturing processes.
But Air Commodore Linc Taylor, head of the RCO and Team Tempest, noted that a spiral strategy would be employed to leverage existing technologies. “We will re-use what’s good enough already,” he said, adding that this would particularly apply to mission data reprogramming.
His boss, Air Vice Marshall "Rocky" Rochelle, chief of staff for capability and instigator of the RCO, said, “We are working at pace, and breaking traditional paradigms.” He said past lessons about unnecessarily complicated and protracted developments were being learned. While admitting, “We will get some things wrong,” he also accepted, "We should be measured by the outcomes.”