ANALYSIS: U.S. Experiences Influencing Tempest Next-Gen Jet Fighter Program

By Stew Magnuson
Small-scale model of the Tempest aircraft displayed at the DSEI Conference in London.

Stew Magnuson

LONDON — A mockup of the first third or so of the multi-national Tempest sixth-generation jet fighter jutted out on the floor of the DSEI conference in London. The flags of four nations hung above the fake cockpit — the United Kingdom, Sweden, Italy and Japan.

Next to it, a small-scale model of the Tempest, followed by two unmanned jet models “flying” in formation, sat in the center of the program’s massive booth at the exhibition. But the mockup and models were at best an educated guess as to what the Tempest might look like. Officials at a panel discussion held next to the booth said they were several years away from finalizing the design of the future fighter. Three years after the program was announced at the Farnborough International Airshow, the program is still in the conceptual stage, and will remain so until 2025.

Meanwhile, experiences developing aircraft in the United States — good and bad — seem to be having a big influence on the program, even though the U.S. military has no involvement in its development.

As for the bad, the F-35 joint strike fighter’s long, tortuous development as a fifth-generation aircraft looms large even though the program was not mentioned once during the 45-minute panel discussion.

Two years ago at the last DSEI conference, National Defense asked officials if lessons learned from the F-35’s development strategy — known as concurrence — were informing the Tempest. Their answer was that they were looking at successes and mistakes make by several jet fighter development programs, including the F-35.

The F-35 had multiple international partners contributing different subsystems, similar to the Tempest, which is now part of the United Kingdom’s Future Combat Air System program.

“We’re not going to carve this up like we did previous programs,” said Michael Christie, director of future combat air systems at BAE Systems. This will be a true alliance between industry and government, he said. The United Kingdom has tapped BAE Systems as its lead on the program, Sweden has chosen SAAB and Italy, Leonardo.

“We are going to behave like a single program, fueled by a single enterprise,” he said. “Our goal was to create something where everybody benefited from [it], and I believe that is a very different collaboration objective than some of other programs over the last few decades.”

While the different nations and their respective prime contractors were to behave as one team, the word “sovereignty” was mentioned several times. The partner nations should be free to modify the aircraft as they see fit after it is fielded, said Air Commodore Jonny Moreton, Royal Air Force director of future combat air.

He also spoke of the need to “future proof” the Tempest. The problem with past jet fighter programs was their decades-long development timelines. Setting requirements too early and engraving them in stone resulted in aircraft being outdated by the time they were finally fielded. The F-35 program’s strategy to get around that problem was to “concurrently” develop and fly the aircraft.

The concurrence strategy for the F-35 was infamously called “acquisition malpractice” by Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall several years ago when he served in a previous administration, but how were the joint strike fighter officials at the program’s birth in the 1990s to solve that problem?

As for the “good,” the development challenges will be solved by digital engineering methods championed by former U.S. Air Force acquisition, technology and logistics undersecretary Will Roper, who has now gone on to become a senior counselor at Pallas Advisors, a consultancy.

The “digital engineering revolution” will help drastically cut the Tempest’s development timeline and solve the requirements conundrum that plagued past programs, the company officials on the panel said.

And Roper is serving as more than just an influencer. He is an advisor on the program, Moreton acknowledged.

“Will Roper is engaged at a very low level as an advisor to the program … to challenge us and to ask challenging questions of us and for us to ask him of his experiences,” Moreton said.


Topics: International

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