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?