Foreign Partnerships Expected for New U.K. Fighter Project
Photo: U.K. Ministry of Defence
FARNBOROUGH, England – The British Defence Ministry’s pursuit of a new high-tech fighter jet is expected to create new opportunities for the international defense industrial base in the coming decades. But it’s unclear how much of a role the United States will play in the effort.
At the Farnborough International Airshow in July, U.K. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced the publication of a new combat air strategy, and unveiled a concept model for a future “Tempest” fighter.
“Today’s news leaves industry, our military, the country and our allies in no doubt that the U.K. will be flying high in the combat air sector as we move into the next generation,” he said in a statement.
To advance the project, the United Kingdom has established “Team Tempest,” which includes BAE Systems, Leonardo, MDBA, Rolls-Royce and the Royal Air Force rapid capabilities office.
By the end of the year, the group is expected to outline a business case for the new system including high level military requirements. Talks with potential international partners will accelerate, and an initial assessment of international collaboration options will be delivered by the summer of 2019.
Early decisions for capability acquisition will be confirmed by the end of 2020 including partnering approach, cost and delivery schedule. Final investment decisions are to be confirmed by 2025, and the new fighter is expected to achieve initial operating capability by 2035.
Dan Darling, a European military market analyst at Forecast International, said the effort could provide a major shot in the arm for the U.K. industrial base.
“This is definitely a huge project for their aerospace sector and … it’s going to involve all their major players,” he said. “I kind of view it as sustaining the aerospace sector at a time where there’s some uncertainty with Brexit.”
But for the next-generation fighter program to be cost effective, it will require international cooperation, he said.
The British Defence Ministry in its air combat strategy noted that effective international partnering and collaboration offers the nation the best opportunity to deliver military capability requirements while managing the price tag.
“Value for money in acquisition is heavily dependent on program volume to offset upfront investment in research and development,” the document said. “Our approach to partnering will seek to achieve this, including through exports. The U.K. approach to future partnerships will seek to leverage the technological and industrial strengths of our partners to further drive down costs.”
Darling doesn’t anticipate that Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union will undermine international cooperation on the Tempest project. “There’s a lot of issues coming up with Brexit for the U.K. and for its tech sectors, but in this instance I don’t really see that as a huge issue,” he said.
The United States would be an unlikely export market for the new aircraft because the U.S. government prefers to buy its platforms from domestic suppliers. That could impact U.K. decisions about who to partner with, he noted.
For U.S. policymakers “it’s always buy American and particularly when it comes to fighters,” Darling said. “That mantra will remain the same regardless of who’s in the White House.”
The effort is more likely to be a European project, he said. “What they’re going to want in a partnership with a nation is economies of scale in production and unit price, and they’re going to want guaranteed orders beyond just the RAF.”
Sweden and Italy, which have advanced aerospace industries, would be prime candidates for teaming with the United Kingdom, Darling said.
Andrew Kennedy, head of strategy for BAE Systems’ military air and information division, suggested the Eurofighter consortium could serve as a potential model for the project.
“You could have a number of partners the same as we do on the [Eurofighter] Typhoon,” he told National Defense during an interview at Farnborough.
However, there will be limits to how much international teaming is involved, Kennedy noted.
“There are some fundamental aspects that we need to consider in those partnerships,” he added. British firms want to maintain as much control over intellectual property as possible, he said. “If you’re not the prime contractor on the program it’s difficult to do that.”
If the United States is a major player in the effort, it might make it more difficult for the United Kingdom to sell the system to overseas customers because the U.S. government could veto the sale of high-tech components, Darling noted.
During a meeting with reporters at Farnborough, U.S. Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper said he planned to engage with his British counterparts.
“Anyone that’s building something that’s going to be critical to an allied fight is going to be pushing the state-of-play of technology,” he said. “We’ll look forward to discussions to hear what the U.K. is thinking about for their airplane and determine if there’s a role they would like us to play.”
Lockheed Martin executives have already begun sounding out their British colleagues about potential collaboration on the project.
“We’re in discussions with them and trying to learn more about how we can help in supporting what their plans are,” Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed’s chairman, president and CEO, said during a recent earnings call. “We bring … tremendous capability from an innovation standpoint, particularly out of our Skunk Works organization.”
During a recent appearance at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., Williamson was asked if U.S. firms could potentially be part of the project.
The United Kingdom is “very open” to foreign countries and firms joining a Tempest consortium, he said, but noted that Britain would play the leading role in the project.
“We have a great tradition of having that national sovereign [industrial] capability and we are never going to be wanting to surrender that,” he said. “We recognize the need for us to have the ability to deliver our own fighter aircraft in the future and we’re very confident we can produce the world’s best fighter aircraft.”
Williamson said he hoped the U.S. Air Force would be looking to buy the British-made fighter, but noted that the United States does “tend to be a tad protectionist” when it comes to its aerospace industry.
Some observers have raised questions about whether the Tempest could end up competing with the Lockheed-built F-35 joint strike fighter on the international market. Hewson noted that Royal Air Force leaders at Farnborough told her they see the aircraft as a complement to the F-35, not a replacement.
“The U.K. is solid with the F-35,” she said. “They’re still on their path for the 138 [aircraft] program of record that they’re going to buy, so I don’t see an impact.”
Darling said some countries might be inclined to buy the joint strike fighter instead of the next-generation U.K. platform to save money. By the 2030s, the F-35 will be fully developed and the unit prices will likely be lower than they are now, he noted. At that time, the new British fighter would probably be more expensive, he said.
A number of other factors could affect demand for Tempest, Darling noted. Much of it will depend on where nations are in their military modernization cycles, and what other options are available.
“By the time this is beyond low-rate initial production, the question is what does that market look like?” he said. “Where is the Franco-German fighter project going? Where is the next U.S. fighter project going?”
Changes in the geostrategic situation would also have an impact, he said. Tensions in Europe or Asia could boost demand for Tempest among nations in those regions, he said.
Countries wary of bureaucratic red tape and restrictions related to U.S. foreign military sales might also look to the United Kingdom as a supplier, Darling noted. “Somebody like, say, Saudi Arabia would be a logical destination point for a ‘sixth-gen’ British fighter.”
As the concept moves forward, the Eurofighter Typhoon is expected to be a test bed for new technologies that could potentially be incorporated into the Tempest, said Raffael Klaschka, head of marketing for the Eurofighter consortium.
“The way to the future aircraft and the future combat air system will be via the Typhoon with bridging technologies … that we will see in the next 10 to 20 years [on] the Typhoon,” he said in an interview. “We have quite a good and comprehensive capability roadmap right now.”
Improved low-observability technologies, jamming pods, data links, sensors, engine power and weaponry will be needed in the future battlespace, he noted.
Klaschka expects the Eurofighter to be operating well into the future, even after fifth- and sixth-generation aircraft come online. It is a high performance jet with advanced radar and large payload capacity, he said.
“When you go outside and look at the model that we have, you see like 50 different sets of weapons and bombs, rockets and missiles,” he noted.
There are about 500 Typhoons in Europe already, with additional procurement expected, he said.
BAE’s Kennedy said he hopes to see technologies developed for Tempest make their way into the F-35 or other U.S. military platforms.
“If you look at … the U.K. role on F-35, we brought into that program some of the technologies that were world leading,” he said. “The way that we developed those world-leading technologies was through our work on the Typhoon, on the Tornado and the Harrier.
“The hope is … if we can develop new technologies on Tempest similarly we could create something that we could then bring into a U.S. program in the future,” he added.
Clive Morrison, operational requirements executive at BAE Systems’ military air and information division, said new capabilities developed for Tempest could be integrated onto other platforms before the new aircraft is operational. Doing so would increase the return on investment for the Tempest team, he noted.
“We would look to exploit those technologies as and when they were appropriate and available onto existing” systems, he added.
However, the Tempest initiative could face challenges, Darling said.
Research and development for the new fighter could cost well over $25 billion. Unit prices could escalate above original projections if new requirements are added, which happened with previous fighter programs, he noted.
“Suddenly the cost of fighters goes up and up and up, and that shrinks how many you can buy,” he said. “With these sixth-gen combat aircraft it’s likely to be the same thing.”
There’s a high degree of uncertainty as to whether the vision for Tempest will come to fruition, he said.
“I see this as a question of diplomatic skill and political willpower,” Darling said. “Because the U.K. is looking to — especially in light of Brexit — protect and grow its own sector, I would put it at just slightly above 50 percent that this emerges as a viable platform.”
— Additional reporting by Yasmin Tadjdeh