Today has seen the unveiling of "Project Tempest", a new sixth generation combat aircraft for the RAF, to be designed and built here in the UK. I have to confess that seeing the announcement I was immediately struck by two conflicting opinions.
On the one hand delight, as I think this is something the UK is entirely capable of doing and offers a lot of promise. On the other hand, caution, as this is the MoD we're talking about, which means the phrase "everything that can go wrong, will go wrong" is in immediate effect.
Let's get some admin out of the way first. Already people are speculating about what the aircraft might be capable of based on the mock up at Farnborough. Please stop doing this. Immediately. As far as I can tell from the pictures that have been released, the mock up is basically just the old BAE "Replica" radar cross section experiment but with new wings. They needed something for the Minister to stand in front of, and a life size mock up is significantly more impressive than just a PowerPoint slide. That's all it is.
Now, the announcement did actually come with a fancy PowerPoint slide and that is what is giving me cause for concern. Basically in the world of jets (and by extension, defence as a whole) you can have something that is cheap or you can have something that is highly advanced. Pick one, because you're not having both.
The UK easily has the ability to do cheap. BAE could build something vaguely resembling the Tempest mock up, put a pair of EJ200 (possibly with upgrades) from a Typhoon in it, put a decent AESA radar in there and the job would be a good 'un (a slight simplification, but you get the point). The thing could be flying well before the middle of the next decade and probably into production ahead of the 2030s. It would be cheap(ish), cheerful, probably a bit more "stealthy" than an F-35 and with higher performance. It would be "British" (except for all the myriad of sub components that weren't) and you might even be able to flog some to a few allies. Whether it would qualify as being sixth generation - if anyone is even really sure what that means - is up for debate.
I'm not sure the UK can do highly advanced though. Not because we lack the expertise or ingenuity. More that we lack the money and the financial management (readers are invited to insert jokes here about the lineage of chickens and eggs at their discretion). The PowerPoint slide mixes the words "affordable" with "advanced power and propulsion systems" which would seem to be contradictory claims. Jet engines are bloody expensive; new, highly advanced ones are even more expensive still. Add on the claims about using automated support processes, and advanced digital processes and tools for the construction, and perhaps you can see why I'm a cynic.
It sounds a lot like a whizz jobs and tech development program for BAE and Rolls-Royce at this stage. If that's what the government wants, seeing it as an investment in British tech and manufacturing capabilities then that's fine, just don't pretend you're building an affordable fighter, because that will become a PR nightmare faster than you can say "Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it".
On top of that we've seen images of lasers, networked drones and all manner of future tech integrated into the platform. If that is the aspiration for Project Tempest then be ready to get your cheque books out (does anyone still use cheques outside of business now?) because it's going to cost a small fortune. In the current spending climate that might not be the wisest plan, even among calls for greater defence spending which are likely to go unheeded.
The UK could technically afford to run such a program itself. While the headline figures tend to look scary, as they often do with projects like this or the Trident replacement, in practice you'd be looking at an investment only averaging probably £1-2 billion per annum, so the cost would actually be spread over the long term. Which is fine, providing you can find space in the budget for it. And by space I do of course mean, "what would you like to cut to pay for this sir?".
If government finances were managed by someone with a bit more inspiration in them than your typical HR secretary then it wouldn't be a problem. But Philip Hammond is the current chancellor and married no less to the MoD and the service chiefs, forming an unholy financial trifecta. As such the next thing I want to hear from Gavin Williamson about this project is how he intends to pay for it, and I do not want to hear the words "funding uplift" or anything of the sort included in the statement. The days of wishing for a bigger pot to piss in should be firmly behind us by now. Not to say he shouldn't be arguing for more defence money, just that he shouldn't be planning his budgets as if it were a given.
The RAF will then have to explain why it's spending such vast sums on a sixth generation fighter when it's only just got its hands on the F-35, an aircraft that is expected to stay relevant, especially with software upgrades, for quite some time to come. Which makes me wonder at this stage if this has all been properly thought through. It just seems to have a veneer of someone waking up with a hangover and realising that last night they'd promised their boss they could deliver the undeliverable and do it by next week, or as if someone near the top of the RAF has floated the idea and nobody had the heart to say no, so now we've arrived at Farnborough with a full scale mock up and a bunch of concept art that looks like it was intended for the next Star Wars movie.
One also wonders - for one is in posh mode - if we're going down the high tech route then just how high tech are we talking? British engineers have been experimenting for a while now with all sorts of fancy new ideas and tricks, such as BAE's work with the University of Manchester on its MAGMA drone that uses wing circulation control and fluidic thrust vectoring to remove the need for traditional movable control surfaces such as flaps and ailerons. In an aircraft designed to be difficult to detect this could have tremendous advantages.
But with tremendous advantages comes tremendous additional expense, such as likely having to take a manned aircraft like a Hawk trainer and convert it to test these systems on a full size aircraft with a pilot in it. Every additional leap forward adds an additional layer of cost, and there's a real risk that Tempest could become the latest piece of classic British gold plated defence equipment, highly capable yet exquisitely expensive, and virtually unsaleable on the international market.
In defence of such an approach, there's never been a better time to do it. This is based on the principle that with Typhoon expected to last well out into the 2030s and possibly into the 2040s (it should make it that far) and with the Lightning coming on stream now, there's no pressure to rush out a design. Industry and RAF can take their time, de-risk each stage in turn, develop the technologies fully before implementing them on the final design, then pop out the other side with a very capable combat aircraft plus a lot of domestic industry expertise and some technology with a high level of transfer to other domains such as civilian airliners. It'll be pricey, but potentially very worthwhile and without the usual pressure to deliver instant results that often accompanies defence projects.
The real elephant in the room however comes from potential international cooperation and its the thing I fear more than anything about Project Tempest. Done correctly, with the correct partners, cooperation on development has much potential, not least for defraying the cost of researching and proving the advanced systems being proposed. Done poorly though, you end up with the Typhoon development debacle.
Countries like Turkey, Sweden and Italy offer promise. Turkey is working on its own brand new domestic fighter jet program and wants to develop new engines for it. As such there is room for the UK and Turkey to agree a deal on joint funding with Rolls-Royce, specifically for the development of the engine, but leaving each country to its own when it comes to the rest of the aircraft. Sweden and Italy meanwhile are countries with a long history in the aerospace industry, whether it be in the assembly of complete aircraft or just a bit of sub-component manufacture. Both represent viable partners for sharing some of the work in exchange for investment in the development stage, helping the UK to defray the cost of designing and building something like Tempest from scratch.
All three partners also offer the major, major advantage of not wanting to take over the project themselves, or demanding a high level of workshare, thus derailing the whole thing for years while teams of lawyers determine who pays for what, who gets what at the manufacturing stage, and how many aircraft each country agrees to buy. I'm not naming any names here, but you know who I mean. On a completely and utterly unrelated note, congratulations to France for winning the world cup and commiserations to Germany for getting knocked out at the group stage.
Back on topic, I think I'd summarise by saying that ultimately I believe that Project Tempest is a good thing with the potential to be great, but with the caveat that it also has the potential to be horrendous if we take our eye off the ball. I think it shows a level of confidence in UK industry that comes at the right moment, what with the final brexit date looming on the horizon, and I think the timing and conditions are well set for Tempest to be a success.
Never underestimate the ability of the MoD to ruin a good thing though. Sleep tight, don't have nightmares...