Wednesday, 17 July 2019

A year and a day into Project Tempest

This week we celebrate the 50th anniversary of man landing on the moon. And what an ambitious goal that must have seemed back then! I like ambitious goals. They inspire us to push ourselves and explore our limits, and even if we fall short of our lofty goals we can still achieve a lot along the way. Just look at what NASA achieved with a collection of brilliant brains and determined minds set to one task. It truly was a remarkable achievement.

On that theme I have set myself a somewhat ambitious, but tremendously less difficult goal; to write one post a day for the next three days, thus tripling my output for the current year. I grant you, after that opening this seems like a damp squib, but I think a moon shot is a little bit beyond my capabilities.

For my first post in this very modest endeavour I want to take another look at the RAF's Project Tempest, quite unintentionally a year and a day since the project was formally unveiled and I first wrote about the subject (if it was intentional I would have written this yesterday).

One big development that has happened since then is the rumour that the Swedish government is planning to pledge around £2 billion towards the development of the aircraft in order to become a partner in the project. Indeed the official announcement is expected this weekend at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford. This is something that I advocated for in my first article on Tempest, as I think Sweden can bring a lot of expertise to the project along with their cash, and of course their own purchase requirements for the Swedish Air Force would help boost the production numbers and make the project more sustainable.

I'm also optimistic about the Swedish participation because I wonder if it might add some financial sensibility to the program. The Swedes are unlikely to accept an aircraft whose costs balloon out of control and will almost certainly be looking to act as a moderating force against the free spending financial liability that is the British Ministry of Defence. We can but hope.

On that note one of the things I've been considering in relation to Tempest is whether it might be better off as a single engined aircraft instead of a twin engined one. The Swedes have a long history of producing single engined combat aircraft such as their current Saab Gripen, not least because this helps to keep down the production cost of the design, which is ideal for a smaller country like Sweden. I would argue in turn that this would be a desirable trait for a British produced aircraft, not just to keep the costs down for ourselves but also to make the aircraft more desirable on the potential export market.

With that in mind I went off to do a bit of digging and pulled up the specification for the old Hawker Hunter. I think this makes a nice baseline to start from when considering where to go with Tempest, as Hunter was a solid aircraft that sold well on the international market. For example it's notable that Hunter came in at a relatively modest empty weight of just over 14,000lbs. Bare in mind that's with 1950s materials, design and production techniques. 

For comparison let's just take the difference between the engine powering the Hunter - the Rolls-Royce Avon - and the more modern EJ200 that powers the Eurofighter Typhoon. Despite being 700lb lighter and a few inches thinner, the EJ200 pumps out around 3,500lbs of additional dry thrust compared to the Avon 207 that powered the later Hunter variants. I bring that up because it gives us reasonable belief that an aircraft could be built in this day and age, using more modern materials and methods, that could come in around the 14,000lbs weight of the Hunter, even taking into account the weight requirements of things like radars and modern avionics packages.

Coupled with an EJ200 itself there's the potential to make quite a high performance single engined aircraft with a potentially greatly reduced cost and an easier sell on the export market. Well, it would be if it wasn't for the fact that by the time it came into production the F-35 production and support costs would likely have been greatly reduced, making it a far more attractive prospect. Which begs the question then; what is Project Tempest actually for?

We're a year on now from the announcement and while obviously we're not going to get any of the fine details about the project I also can't see what the longer term strategic aim is, because I don't feel it's been properly elucidated. If it's supposed to be an F-35 counter part then that seems like a wild waste of money. If it's supposed to be a base platform for an unmanned aircraft then why not just invest in the the BAE Taranis platform which is much further along the development path?

Is it a "sixth generation" design? Can the UK actually afford to produce something like that, with or without help, given that we're talking lasers and all manner of bells and whistles? It just seems like we're a year into the concept and the concept hasn't moved forward at all. 

There's little better clarity today than we had a year ago. Perhaps we'll learn more at RIAT, but it just all seems a bit flat. Compared to the ambition of the moon landings this seems more like another MoD aspiration, a way of spending money without actually producing any kind of tangible end goal or end product.


  1. Thoughts -

    It seems a bit premature to talk about the "6th-generation" of combat aircraft, when the first aircraft of the 5th are barely at operating capacity.

    That being said, my suspicion is that the F-35 ends up being rapidly superseded by new development and orders get cut short. Everyone involved in that 20-year debacle just wants their share of the technology and some experience with their first next-gen fighter. Then they'll start investing in more local designs - Lockheed survives because of its close relationship with US politicians and Pentagon lobbying, not because of the quality of its product.

    I like to see Europe collaborating in developing Tempest, and I hope it is a true pan-European project (though how often have those worked out?). Sweden may be coming on board to reduce its dependence on over-expensive and export-controlled US tech.

    Here's a prediction - in the next 5 years or so, all-aspect stealth will be judged too expensive for most combat aircraft (availability rates on F-35s remain atrocious for an "accepted" fighter). In part, because networked distributed multispectral sensors and sufficient computing horsepower can compensate for stealth.

    Question - is there good info out there on costs vs. capabilities with respect to twin engine aircraft? I've always been on the side of two engines for fighters because of the risk of failure or damage to one, but my thinking is based on Pacific considerations, where range and endurance will eventually have to be boosted to keep carriers out of range of land-based threats.

    Once the UK's Brexit debacle has finally been put to bed (my $ has always been on Leave never happening) that will hopefully stabilize defence planning. As the US consumes itself, the EU will be dealing with Russia mostly on its own.

    1. My thought has always been that if you can afford it, two engines are better than one, but sometimes if all you can afford is one then it's better to have a decent fleet of those vs a very small number of twins.

      I think the F-35 might live a bit longer than you expect, because new jets are just so ridiculously expensive. The production cost is running down at a decent pace so I think orders will be completed as planned for the most part. At the minute drones seem to be the way forward and what everyone is looking at.