A team led by the British corporation BAE Systems, which is developing the next generation of combat aircraft, Tempest, has been awarded a contract by the United Kingdom Department of Defence to test scores of new technologies before creating a demonstrator fighter. On April 14, it was reported that $822 million had been allocated to finance the “concept and technology” associated with the Tempest fighter’s development.
The MoD aims to use this project to determine which advanced technologies will be used to construct a demonstrator aircraft by 2027. Reportedly, the designers of the Tempest fighter (Team Tempest) and their partners (Italy and Japan) are presently working on sixty promising technologies and numerous conceptual advancements.
The funds are part of the UK government’s projected expenditure of over £2 billion on the Tempest fighter project through May 2025. It is also when the UK will decide if it will purchase further F-35 B’s.
Additional F-35B purchase – to be or not to be
The United Kingdom, which is the sole first-level partner that the United States has in the “Joint Strike Fighter” programme, had intended to acquire 138 F-35B fighter bombers (the STOVL version, which stands for “short take-off and vertical landing”), with 114 being purchased for the Royal Air Force (RAF) and 24 being purchased for the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy.
To this day, however, the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) has only placed an order for a total of 48 units, and the last unit of the first batch (also known as “tranche 1”) is not expected to be delivered until the year 2025. This allocation is inadequate, considering the Royal Navy possesses two aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
In addition, the strategic review that took place in March 2021 and was titled “Defence in the Age of Competition” stressed how important it was for the Royal Air Force to increase its air combat capability over the next years, going above and beyond the 48 F-35Bs that had already been ordered. However, the paper did not include any information regarding the Fleet Air Arm, of which the 809 Naval Air Squadron is the first unit that, in theory, ought to be outfitted with the fighter bomber produced by Lockheed-Martin.
The MoD announced in May 2022 that discussions had commenced for an order of 26 additional F-35Bs. While these initiatives are still in progress, it is the objective to have achieved the capability of aligning these new aircraft by the beginning of the 2030s. The new head of state, Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Knighton, confirmed that this is, in fact, the case during his appearance before parliament on May 16.
In response to a question regarding whether it is still necessary to purchase 64 F-35Bs to meet the eventual objective of 138 aircraft, he replied that a decision would be taken around the year 2025 and would depend on the future air combat system.
According to the Chief of Staff of the Royal Air Force, the 74 F-35B would be sufficient for the United Kingdom to fulfil its NATO duties for the time being.
If the broader question is whether the United Kingdom needs new fighter jets or combat air capabilities, then the answer is yes. It would indicate that the administration is dedicated to raising the number of F-35B aircraft from 48 to 74. However, it is not just an issue of numbers but also of capabilities to consider. According to Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Knighton, this relates to investments in upgrading aircraft such as the Typhoon and the F-35, unmanned capabilities, and the FCAS (Future Combat Air System, not to be confused with the French led program, ed.).
The United Kingdom appears torn between several programmes for its combat aviation, including the Eurofighter Typhoon, which is currently the backbone of its fleet, and which must continue to evolve to remain competitive while awaiting the advent of an effective Tempest. The United Kingdom is a “tier 1 partner” for the F35, which has proven to be more expensive than anticipated and has made politically problematic commitments to withdraw. The Tempest, which represents the future of British combat aviation by 2035, necessitates an immediate investment of billions of pounds. The budget is non-expandable, so choices had to be made. Quite logically, these decisions confirm the priority given to Tempest, to the detriment of the others: reduction of the initial acquisition objective for F35s and minimal modernisation of the Typhoon fleet (only planes in tranche 3 would receive an AESA radar). The wager is risky if the Tempest/GCAP programme falls behind schedule or derails along the road.