BAE Systems Tempest concept per MoD Jul18

The unveiling of Britain’s future combat aircraft concept last week was driven by industrial policy as much as it was by advanced technology. Which is just as well.

The industrial statements were made, implicitly. To France and Germany: the UK can do this without you. To Japan, Sweden and other nations: the UK would welcome your contribution – financial as much as technical. Plus a more explicit statement to the British electorate: this faltering government wants to preserve high-technology employment and exports.

The problem is, with agile Typhoons still being delivered directly into storage, and a fleet of stealthy F-35s to come, British taxpayers would not be well-served by starting development of a new jet for the Royal Air Force in even the medium-term. And some of the advanced technology touted for Tempest last week will surely be incorporated into the Typhoon and the F-35 over the next two decades as upgrades.

I’m thinking of advanced cockpits, hypersonic missiles, multispectral sensors, and network-enabled co-operative engagement.

For sure, some aspects of Tempest are unique: open systems architecture; new propulsion technology that allows supercruising, longer range and directed energy; all-internal carriage for even large air-ground weapons; and more stealth to enable air superiority missions in defended airspace.

But who knows what the air combat landscape will look like in ten years’ time? Already in the last few years, second thoughts have emerged on the desirability of unmanned combat aircraft. Freezing a design in 2025 when it really isn’t needed in service before at least 2040 doesn’t seem like a good idea. And according to the leadership of the UK Rapid Capabilities Office, it is entirely possible to compress development timescales – and therefore save money.

In the meantime, why not turn some of Britain’s high-technology workforce to more useful challenges, such as solar- and electric-powered air vehicles?


IMG_0447 cropped more

  1. Britain’s fixed-price entry into the System Design and Development (SDD) for $2 billion bought significant influence and knowledge, without exposing the country to the huge increase in the cost of SDD.
  2. That good deal did not automatically entitle British companies to a defined workshare on the F-35. They earned their place by providing “best value” bids. It has turned out to be about 15% by value of every jet – great! But that could change, up or down, as the program progresses and more countries join and demand a share. Already, BAE Systems has been required to cede some component manufacturing of the rear fuselage. Also, note that in the US, Lockheed Martin recently dropped Northrop Grumman as supplier of the jet’s Distributed Aperture System (DAS) in the future, because Raytheon offered “enhanced capability and reduced cost.”
  3. It’s nonsense for the MoD to say that the UK will eventually buy 138. Who knows what we will be able to afford, and what alternative technology may become available or desirable, over the next 25 years? UCAVs, anyone?
  4. The STOVL F-35B is the most expensive version to buy and operate. Yes, the price is coming down, and may ‘only’ be $105 million (unit recurring flyaway cost) by 2026. The UK will have 48 jets by then, and unless they prove very unreliable, that should be enough to provide two squadrons to one of the QEII-class carriers. (Don’t tell me that we are ever going to operate both of those ships at the same time!). After 2026, the UK should buy some conventional F-35As. Oh, and by the way, the F-35A already costs no more than a Eurofighter Typhoon to acquire.
  5. No-one yet has much idea on what it will cost to operate and support the F-35 long-term. There have been a couple of preliminary sustainment projects in the US. But the UK could still be years away, from negotiating with Lockheed Martin, the type of contract that it extracted from BAE Systems on the Typhoon. That reduced O & S costs by a third.
  6. The two most worrying issues that have been highlighted by recent official US government reports is the F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), which is well known, and the timely programming of the aircraft’s Mission Data Files, which is not so well-publicised because it is a very sensitive aspect. This jet can’t fly into harm’s way, as designed, if its operational software isn’t quickly updated with the relevant threats.
  7. The cost of further development could be higher than expected. Already, the US watchdog agencies have warned about this. Anyway, why the hurry to proceed with Block 4, if the initial Block 3F software is so good, and there are no processor capacity problems, as Lockheed Martin assures us?





Operation Inherent Resolve Raqqa image by Amnesty International full report Jun18

Compare and contrast. Amnesty International said last month that the US-led coalition killed hundreds of civilians in re-taking Raqqa from Islamic State (IS), many of them in airstrikes. Air commanders in Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) say they took the greatest care to avoid any such outcome. The UK Ministry of Defence still says that British airstrikes caused only one civilian casualty.

Air Cdre Johnny Stringer is a typically capable and conscientious RAF officer, who commanded the UK effort in OIR in 2016-17. In two briefings, I have heard him describe the precautions. A long ‘no-strike’ list of hospitals, water supply facilities, mosques and so on, enforced by ‘red-card holders’. No fewer than 500 in the Mosul campaign, and a similar proportion in Raqqa. Some of them ‘national caveats’ eg not recognised by other nations in the OIR coalition. The “huge intelligence effort” put into targeting, including long-duration prior observation by UAVs to establish the ‘pattern of life’. The Law of Armed Conflict interpreted by lawyers sitting alongside airmen in the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC).

Then a policy of using only precision-guided weapons, preferably with more than one guidance means. Forward air controllers in the vital areas whenever possible. No fewer than 3,600 weapons were dropped from RAF aircraft in 1,700 airstrikes during OIR. Even so, said Stringer, only 25% of all potential targets were struck. Aircrew were under orders to abort a strike if civilians appeared in view at the last moment.

Then a post-strike review of all targeting video and collateral sources to check that all went according to plan. First in the CAOC, but in some cases, referred back to the UK. And all the records are kept for two years, to help the ‘lessons learned’ process.

But Amnesty says that its 68-page report (available here) provides “prima facie evidence that several Coalition attacks violated international humanitarian law.” The NGO spent two weeks visiting 42 locations of strikes and interviewing 112 witnesses.

Amnesty acknowledges that IS used civilians as human shields. It also says that IS artillery and mortars caused much death and destruction. But it describes specific airstrikes that killed civilians in detail. Some of them were performed with “wide-area munitions,” it says.

Ninety percent of the OIR airstrikes on Raqqa were performed by the US forces, the remainder by France and the UK, according to Amnesty. It makes no mention of any Russian or Syrian air activity (and there is no doubt that they used mostly ‘dumb’ weapons and routinely hit civilians).

Referring to the ‘pattern of life’ intelligence technique, Amnesty says that “the daily routines adopted by civilians attempting to survive in a high-intensity urban conflict were not particular to Raqqa and had been observed in other conflicts in other countries.”

I find it impossible to square this particular circle. Maybe the US took less care than the Brits. Maybe the survivors confused airstrikes with ground-launched weapons – with IS sometimes pulling the trigger.

Whatever the truth, I get very depressed when I view the images of so much urban destruction. How will Ramadi, Mosul, Raqqa and other cities be rebuilt?

Stringer has said that the OIR coalition had “moral clarity in the fight, against an amoral and nihilistic enemy with no respect for civilian life.” He predicts that there will be more air operations in urban environments in future conflicts.

But will it ever be worthwhile?


After 30 years of covering the aerospace/defense business for Aviation International News (AIN), I will be leaving on good terms in mid-2018, to focus on my other interests:

Chris Pocock in black Sep15 low res

  1. I am best-known as the unofficial historian of the U-2 spyplane. I want to revise the book that I self-published in 2015, on the recent and current operations of the world’s premier reconnaissance aircraft. I also want to devote more time to my website, www.dragonladytoday.com
  2. In the recent past, I have written on the ISR business for two well-known aerospace companies. UTC Aerospace Systems asked me to co-author a book on the history of the RAPTOR/DB-110 airborne tactical reconnaissance sensor, that is currently in service with some 15 air forces. Raytheon UK asked me to produce a similar volume on the past, present and future of the Sentinel reconnaissance jet that serves the UK’s Royal Air Force. I am willing to consider similar projects, upon request.
  3. I am writing a book on the modern development of hybrid airships. This is fascinating and little-known story that started at the Lockheed Skunk Works in 1991, and has continued to this day in the UK as well as the US.
  4. I am a Visiting Fellow at the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies (BCISS) in the UK. I want to continue supporting the valuable work of education and research that is performed there.
  5. I have previously done some consulting work in my areas of expertise, notably advice to documentary and feature film-makers. I will have more time available for such work in the future.
  6. I am creating this website to offer occasional commentary and opinions. During all my years at AIN, I tried not to ‘editorialize.’ But I do have views and ideas that I want to share.