The proponents of the Tempest future combat aircraft organized a storm of publicity as part of the virtual Farnborough Air Show this week. But I heard nothing to change my view that the project is not necessary for many years yet, and the wrong outlet for engineering skills in these extraordinary times.
There was much talk of a high-paced, lean and efficient development that will “break the cost curve”. The industrial partners are clearly conscious of the dismal cost record of previous combat aircraft developments, especially the Eurofighter and the F-35. With some justification and perhaps also irony, a senior manager from new partner Saab noted that his company had uniquely developed the Gripen fighter in an “affordable and efficient” manner.
But consider the following. The British government is proposing to spend £2 billion – yes, £2 billion – on Tempest and related projects by 2025, when it has not yet even received a detailed proposal for the assessment stage from industry. Then another ten years will follow before the aircraft enters service. The project is already employing 1,500 people. How can this be a “high-speed, lean-paced” project that will employ “one-tenth of the manpower” of previous developments, as the chief scientist for the Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) in the Royal Air Force (RAF) claimed?
Here’s an interesting comparison to that £2 billion figure. Let’s assume that it includes the assessment phase. According to a 2015 report from the National Audit Office, the assessment phase for the Eurofighter cost £364 million for the UK, which had a one-third share of the four-nation programme. Let’s assume that the assessment phase ended with the “main gate” approval in late 1998. Now adjust that figure for inflation into today’s prices, and multiply it by three to get the total four-nation spend on assessment. That makes about £1.85 billion for what is now acknowledged to have been an expensive and inefficient programme. That’s actually less than the apparent pre-main gate cost of Tempest. Are my calculations correct? If so, this does not bode well for the future of this supposedly “lean” programme, especially since it is now adding international partners.
It’s also worth noting that all three of the main partners – BAE Systems, Leonardo and Saab – previously received government-funded contracts to help design and build stealthy Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) demonstrators, namely Neuron and Taranis. No doubt the experience thereby gained will read across to Tempest. But aren’t taxpayers entitled to expect that industry doesn’t get paid again for recycling this knowledge?
When the Taranis demonstration was in progress ten years ago, it was certainly the RAF’s intention to introduce such a UCAV by 2025. British industry received over £100 million for that project (in 2010 prices). It was followed by the Anglo-French feasibility study for a UCAV-driven Future Combat Air System (FCAS), which cost the two governments another £120 million (2014 prices). By their nature, small UCAVs are much less expensive to build and operate than full-scale manned combat aircraft. And with sensors and weapons getting smaller all the time, their effect multiplies. What happened to that concept?
I realize that the RCO and others are exploring the operational utility of small unmanned vehicles that would work in conjunction with Tempest. The “loyal wingman” idea is currently quite fashionable. But why not integrate them with today’s fourth and fifth-generation combat aircraft? As I noted in my previous commentary, most of these current jets are quite likely to be in service for the next two decades. Or, as the RCO is exploring in its Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) project, why not launch them from the ground?
Actually, there was no meaningful detail in the briefings this week about loyal wingmen or other developments such as networking via the “combat cloud”, that could also be integrated with today’s combat jets. All we got was vague talk about a “system of systems”.
Instead, the “high-tech jobs” card was played. The big news this week was that seven British companies are “progressing opportunities” to work on the Tempest project. They join Leonardo, MBDA, Rolls-Royce and the aforementioned Saab. These companies bring expertise in avionics, communications, structures, weapons etc. Again, though, is there any reason why such expertise could not be applied to upgrades of existing aircraft? In fact, some advances in these areas, especially in avionics and weapons, stand a much better chance of achieving export success on their own, than as part of the Tempest project.
Further, and as I argued in my previous commentary, the engineering skills in those companies could be better deployed in commercial aviation, cyber security challenges, environmental innovation, and so on. Team Tempest managers made various references to the development of new technology, in such areas as advanced materials, broadband sensors, electrical generation, and model-based design and engineering. But commercially-driven programmes could equally drive such developments, and at far less cost to the taxpayer.
Team Tempest is scheduled to deliver “an outline business case” and plans for the assessment phase, to the British, Italian and Swedish governments by the end of this year. I hope that ministers are not taken in by the hyperbole surrounding this project, and are well-informed about the alternative industrial investments that would be of greater benefit to their countries at this time.
(After initial publication, I revised the fourth paragraph to more accurately account for the effect of inflation).