While the announcement of a full-scale mock-up of a twin engine single-seater called Tempest at the Farnborough Airshow was widely reported, don’t read too much into it.
Tempest’s purpose is to explore the technologies and systems that could form a future combat air system. It is not yet at the stage of building a demonstrator aircraft, it may never end up being in any way similar to the mock-up.
According to a Commons Library briefing paper which provides a brief overview of the Strategy, the process is still at very early stages and is focused more on exploring and developing potential technologies. It states that:
“Tempest was a fighter aircraft in World War Two, although the Strategy only uses this term in the context of ‘Team Tempest’ – it does not confirm this will be the name of whatever aircraft or system emerges.”
The companies involved have given some indications of the technologies and techniques they are looking at. The Strategy itself discusses ‘Pyramid’: the project to develop open mission systems architecture. This should make upgrades simpler and more cost effective and allow partners/export customers to easily integrate their own mission systems.
Rolls Royce has talked of developing a future power system that drives not just the aircraft but provides a “step-change levels of electrical power (for the future systems on board)”.
BAE say that a future combat air system must be able to survive the most challenging combat environments meaning that payload-range, speed and manoeuvrability will be key.
“We expect that the system will be equipped with a range of sensors including radio frequency, active and passive electro-optical sensors and advanced electronic support measures to detect and intercept threats.”
The aircraft, say the defence giant, is likely to operate with kinetic and non-kinetic weapons.
The integration of Laser Directed Energy Weapons for self-defence and use within visual range combat is also highly likely. The use of directed energy weapons on aircraft is becoming reality as the US Air Force will shortly begin testing a laser that will be mounted on an F-15.“We have got tests starting this summer and the flight tests next summer,” Jeff Stanley, deputy assistant secretary of the US Air Force for science, technology and engineering, told reporters.
“There are still some technical challenges that we have to overcome, mainly size, weight, power.”
The Pentagon last year awarded a $26 million contract to Lockheed Martin for a laser program called SHiELD (Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator). The overall aim is to put a laser system on aircraft with an output of about 50 kw to test their ability against unmanned aircraft and missiles.
Another driver for the concept say BAE is that air forces of the future ‘will require a fighter system that is highly flexible and can be applied to a wide variety of military operations’, a multi-role aircraft then, which is not really all to different to most new aircraft today.
“Operators will have the ability to rapidly adapt the system to perform new functions or to change its performance.
Depending on the mission, ‘role fit’ additions such as low observable conformal fuel tanks, weapons dispensers, air launched UAV dispensers, large modular sensors, long range oblique photography systems for reconnaissance and Laser Directed Energy Weapons could be available.
Adaptability will be built into the system design, with systems architectures which support a ‘plug and play’ approach, easily integrating new algorithms and hardware.”
The system will also support ‘scalable autonomy’ say BAE, to provide a number of modes of unmanned operation and a range of pilot decisions aids when manned flight is being conducted. This concept is known to most as ‘optionally manned’.
An optionally piloted vehicle is a hybrid between a conventional aircraft and an unmanned aerial vehicle, able to fly with or without a human crew on board the aircraft. The thinking is that, unimpeded by a human’s physiological limitations, an OPV is able to operate under more adverse conditions and/or for greater endurance times.
The USAF are also pursuing this with newer aircraft, notably the B-2 bomber replacement, the B-21. A document DODIG-2015-170, published last year named “Audit of the Acquisition of the Long Range Strike Bomber,” as well as other documents in a heavily redacted form, contain highly relevant official confirmations as to the aircraft’s baseline requirements.
The document clearly states that the B-21 will indeed be optionally manned as a core requirement.
Retaining on-board controls, an OPV can operate as a conventional aircraft during missions for which direct human control is preferred or desired as an immediate option.
Another trend being embraced by ‘Team Tempest’ is an ability deliver significant information advantage and mission effectiveness, the future combat air system will act as a ‘force multiplier’, inter operating with a wide range of other civil and military platforms and services across air, land, sea, space and cyber domains – as well as unmanned systems.
Leonardo says it will “mature the critical technologies to deliver next generation sensing and communications alongside the advanced open-system architectures that will deliver a step-change in how the sensors are employed within an operational system.”
An MBDA slide lists a range of possible weapons, including deep strike, swarming, directed energy, hypersonic and strike weapons. BAE Systems is looking into a software-driven cockpit to be all in the pilot’s helmet. Media reports also talk of the aircraft being ‘optionally manned’ suggesting the MoD is looking at the possibility of flying a system without a pilot on board.
The paper also states that the UK has been working with France for the last few years on an unmanned combat air system demonstrator programme. However, the future of that was thrown into doubt last year when France teamed up with Germany to develop its own Future Combat Air System.
Whether the UK eventually partners France and Germany, or forges ahead on a separate programme with other partners, won’t become clear for some time. It is quite possible the three nations will eventually work together – which is the view of the CEO of the Eurofighter Typhoon consortium, who believes “Europe will converge on one fighter solution”.
The Commons Library briefing paper also lays out the ambitious timeline leading up to an initial operating capability of 2035 for whatever emerges:
• End 2018: a strategic outline business case
• Mid-2019: initial assessment of international collaboration options
• End 2020: early decisions for capability acquisition (capability, partnership approach, cost and delivery schedule)
• 2025: final investment decisions
• 2035: initial Operating Capability