The UK’s ambitious plans to develop a next generation stealth fighter jet are to accelerate in the coming 12 months, with the four international companies leading the programme preparing to step up recruitment as they race to finalise a business case for the project.
The four founding partners of the Tempest programme — BAE Systems; the UK arm of Leonardo of Italy; MBDA, the European missile maker; and Rolls-Royce — have until December 2020 to complete their analysis of a programme critical to the future of Britain’s combat air capabilities.
“We have to give the government confidence we are working towards a viable international partnership,” said Andrew Kennedy, strategic campaigns director in BAE Systems’ Air division. “They have to be confident we are doing something that will be affordable, capable and delivered on time.”
To meet the deadline, the companies plan to more than double the total UK workforce involved in the project from the current 1,000 to 2,500 by 2021.
The acceleration of the Tempest programme comes as the UK prepares to carry out a sweeping defence review which will consider the UK’s diplomatic and military place in the world after Brexit.
But with the Ministry of Defence facing a £15bn shortfall in its equipment budget over the next decade, the review will also look at ways the British armed forces can reduce costs.
Tempest is the centrepiece of Britain’s combat air strategy and designed to underline the country’s intention to retain its cutting-edge expertise in spite of Brexit, after being left out of a rival Franco-German future fighter project.
It will eventually replace the Eurofighter Typhoon, which will start to be retired from Royal Air Force service in about 2040, and will complement the US made F-35 stealth fighter jet.
The companies developing Tempest aim to devise a business case that delivers a cutting-edge combat air system — which may include not just advanced weapons but deployable drones — in about half the 20 years it took to take Typhoon from the concept phase to operational service.
“To get this number [of jobs] this early — that is pretty significant,” said Francis Tusa, editor of Defence Analysis. “If you went back to the early 2000s, BAE Systems would have had 3,000 people working on Typhoon. But at this stage of game, to have 2,500 research engineers — that is big.”
The Tempest project was unveiled in the summer of 2018 with initial funding of £2bn-a-year following a decision by France and Germany to leave the UK out of its future fighter jet programme.
Since then, Italy and Sweden have joined the UK project, while Spain has committed to the Franco-German fighter.
Both programmes have continued independently, although many experts believe that they will eventually have to converge. There are questions over whether the UK can afford such an ambitious programme given the funding shortfall in the MoD’s equipment plan and concerns over next year’s budget.
Executives involved in both projects have privately admitted that eventually there will be pressure to merge. However, the longer the two projects continue, the harder it may be to integrate them. “Both sides are very much on their paths,” said one person close to the UK project.
Another senior UK executive said his company had no intention of accepting a secondary role in a project led by Dassault for France and Airbus for Germany, with Safran and MTU collaborating on the propulsion system.
Tempest is considered vital to secure the future of the UK’s £6bn-a-year combat air sector, which has made up more than 80 per cent of the country’s defence exports over the past decade.
“Team Tempest will ensure the UK has the capability to sit at the top table in an international collaborative programme,” said Mr Kennedy.
When the project was launched, the government prioritised international partnerships both to reduce costs and to open up new export markets.
But the collaboration was being done differently than in the past, according to Mr Kennedy. The initial phase of the project was not about sharing out work between partners but “how we will work in the future . . . It is about how to develop capabilities quicker”, he said.
The French and German teams, meanwhile, are determined to limit participation in the first phase of their project, when capabilities are identified, responsibilities are sketched out and work begins on a demonstrator.
The aim is to avoid a repetition of previous troubled attempts to collaborate on
European defence projects — such as with the 400M military transport aircraft, where multiple demands from different partners left development schedules in tatters and sent costs soaring.
“If we open the door to the British, the Scandinavians, the Italians, we will do another 400M and it will be a disaster,” said one executive involved in the Franco-German project. “Every time you add one new partner you multiply the cost by two or three. Everybody wants to impose some specs, which is understandable, but when you build something where five, six or seven people are happy, you build a monster.”
However, the Franco-German project has also been beset by tensions, in particular over the leadership of the engine programme. France’s spending bill for 2020, passed this month in the Senate, raised concerns that the project could be at risk due to serious disagreements between the French and German industrial partners. In early December Safran of France and MTU of Germany reached agreement on a division of responsibilities for the design development and servicing of propulsion system.