Words and pictures : Wayne Bennett and BAE Systems
2018 was celebrated as being the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Air Force, the first independent air force in the world. It was also when Team Tempest was revealed, which may well prove to be a driving force behind UK and allied air power for the next 100 years.
Tempest is a proposed sixth generation fighter aircraft, with the ambition being for it to start replacing the RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoon force from 2035 onwards. This is seen as a crucial development if the UK is to be able to retain its place in the forefront of fighter aircraft development, a position very much under threat as emergent countries like South Korea and Turkey establish themselves in the global aerospace industry.
The name Tempest itself is an important reference point for the RAF. Just as this new Tempest is meant to replace the current Typhoon force in due course, back in 1945 the powerful Hawker Tempest successfully replaced the Hawker Typhoon in RAF service.
The focal point of the Tempest unveiling was, of course, the mock up. The Tempest design itself does have a bit of a ‘kitbash’ appearance. The fuselage resembles that of the Sukhoi Su-57, the wing is similar to that of the Boeing X-32 and the tail carries a hint of the Northrop YF-23. The sum of all these parts also carries a very definite echo of BAE’s own ‘Replica’ design. Replica was a ground-based test article upon which BAE explored how a stealth fighter could be designed without having to cost the Earth. This, no doubt, provided very valuable experience for the current programme and may well be why the UK can even contemplate such a venture.
Those who criticise the mock up for appearing to be a bog standard ‘stealth-by-numbers’ F-22/23/35 clone would do well to remember that this is a conceptual mock up, not an actual airframe design. The final product may look very different. Even if the final form of the aircraft was already defined, BAE would be hardly likely to give its secrets away a full decade before it was due to fly. The Tempest mock up is more of a rallying point. A visible reminder that BAE are actually involved in developing highly advanced combat systems, and they know what they are talking about.
Tempest is also far more than just a speculative fighter design. It represents a wide range of more than sixty different advanced technology demonstration programmes which may result in the next generation of RAF fighters having capabilities undreamt of outside the project office today.
The industrial partnership that was put together in the UK to pursue this project is made up of not only BAE Systems, but also Rolls-Royce, Leonardo UK (formerly Westland Aircraft) and MBDA. Each one brings very specialised knowledge in their own sphere of aerospace expertise. An excellent inclusion within this group is also the RAF’s own Rapid Capabilities Office. The remit of the RCO, according to an answer that was given to a Parliamentary question about them that was provided by Mark Lancaster in July 2018, is as follows;
“The Royal Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) supports the delivery of capability to our Armed Forces personnel. RCO programmes extend ……… into information analysis, …………. it aims to enhance capability delivered to the front line. It also explores opportunities presented by emerging technologies, and leverages diversity in thought with novel and innovative ways of working.“
In this context, this means unparalleled co-operation between the decision makers who define our military requirements and the technology companies tasked with delivering the desired capability from the very beginning of the project definition phase. This should lead to Tempest (and other new programmes) being able to avoid the blight of lengthy delays and cost escalations which have crippled previous programmes, caused by ever changing customer requirements and a lack of cohesion and co-operation between industry and the customer. I see this as a crucially important development in the way we procure our military equipment.
The first major development towards international cooperation on the Tempest came with the signing at RIAT 2019 of an agreement between Team Tempest and SAAB to jointly explore capability upgrades to the Typhoon and SAAB Gripen, and work towards full participation in the future fighter by the Swedish firm, which is itself one of the worlds leading fighter aircraft manufacturers.
Within the last couple of weeks Italy has also decided to join the programme, with Leonardo SPA, the parent of existing Tempest partner Leonardo UK, signing up as a full partner of the consortium. There may yet be room for others to join as BAE seeks to not only minimise financial and technical risk, but also maximise the potential market for its new fighter.
While BAE Systems May be seen as the overall leader of the programme and will have responsibility for integrating the various elements into a cohesive programme, each partner’s unique expertise will be crucial to developing a world class combat air system, the current buzz-term for a fighter plane.
In a tantalising press release before RIAT, Speaking at the 2019 Air and Space Power Conference, the UK’s Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, said:
“As part of the technologies being developed in parallel with Project Tempest, I am delighted to reveal that in concert with Rolls-Royce, Reaction Engines and BAE Systems, we are developing hypersonic propulsion systems, which will be designed and tested over the next 2 years, paving the way for the UK to become a centre of excellence in this technology and contribute to meeting future UK Defence needs.”
Whether this means that the Tempest itself will have hypersonic performance remains to be seen, but the inference is clearly present. Rolls Royce is partnered in this area by Reaction Engines who have themselves been busy in this field for several years as leaders of the Skylon project for a hypersonic aero-space transport aircraft.
Another key element within this programme (and potentially for future Typhoon and Lightning upgrades) is the LANCA project. Also unveiled for the very first time at RIAT 2019. LANCA stands for Lightweight Advanced Novel Combat Aircraft and is comprised of a small, unmanned but fully capable combat aircraft. Armed with missiles and guided weapons, plus potentially laser weapons, the LANCA is envisaged to fly in swarms, in formation with a manned leader aircraft (ie Tempest, Lightning or Typhoon). LANCA would enjoy a degree of autonomy but is also under the control of the leader, effectively meaning one pilot flying three aircraft simultaneously. This will enable the manned element to remain further out of harms way while defended ground targets are attacked by the remote aircraft and even for the LANCA units to provide top cover for the manned fighter where appropriate. This concept has actually been around for many years as it was first mooted within the Future Offensive Air System project of the 1990’s. FOAS, for short, was to be a new aircraft to replace the Panavia Tornado in RAF service, and BAE systems has been refining the concept with a minimum of publicity ever since. LANCA/Mosquito’s public announcement may have been prompted therefore by the announcement of the very similar Loyal Wingman project, a much more recent, if near identical, research programme launched by the US Air Force.
In a further nod to the RAF’s heritage the LANCA aircraft units have now been named Mosquito. Rather cleverly this both references the RAF’s legendary and versatile wartime fighter bomber of the same name, and also alludes to the much smaller size of this aircraft.
The next few years are looking to be very interesting indeed for the UK military aviation industry, having appeared all but extinct until fairly recently.