Air combat of the future: how far can globalization go?

Sovereignty is complex, making transmitting even between close partners with strongly aligned interests difficult. Multi-nation projects are notoriously difficult to pull off, as demonstrated by the difficulties encountered by Europe’s Eurofighter, A400M, and Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) programs.

The UK-led Global Combat Aircraft Program (GCAP) appears to be going remarkably well: tight schedules, ambitious technology targets, prestigious industry players, and new partner nations. But will it be enough?

Since it got underground in 2018, with initial funding of £2bn, the next-generation fighter jet program, Tempest, has quietly but smoothly built momentum. Firstly, the best of the British aerospace and defense industry have come together under one roof: Team Tempest

This includes BAE Systems, Leonardo UK, MBDA UK, and Rolls-Royce, along with Bombardier Belfast, Collins Aerospace UK, GE Aviation, GKN Aerospace, Martin-Baker, QinetiQ, Thales UK, and a growing number of start-ups in the fields Of AI, advanced manufacturing, autonomy, human-machine interface, big data analytics, cloud storage, and other disruptive technologies.

In July 2021, the UK Ministry of Defense awarded a £250m contract to advance the design and development of Tempest, funding and officially starting the concept and evaluation phase of the Program.

Last year at the Farnborough Airshow, Team Tempest announced that a supersonic demonstrator would be unveiled in flight “within the next five years,” and in February, the MoD added £1.4bn to fund the concept and evaluation phase. 

As part of this contract, “UK industry, led by BAE Systems, will collaborate with international partners to carry out concept development, technology maturation, technical demonstration planning, and critical program enablers.”.

GCAP, like any other cutting-edge defense program, will not come cheap.

Everyone knows this, especially the British Ministry of Defence, which is faced with several budgetary ‘black holes’ and is fully aware of the scarcity of resources in the Ministry of Finance. London initially saw the need to incorporate partners, to take advantage of its technological advantages and coffers.

Italy was the first to join, providing a necessary and significant injection of around 2,000 million euros, but hardly enough to establish the Program on solid foundations. And the £5bn nominal increase for 2023-24 announced this week by the UK government’s Integrated Review Refresh 2023 will not fundamentally change the picture when it comes to GCAP, as £3bn will go to fund the huge AUKUS submarine deal and £1bn to be spent on replenishing ammunition stocks…

Sweden was somewhat more reluctant to commit public money to what it considered an unconvincing business case. After a few months, Stockholm took a step back, finding that Tempest’s schedule and operational requirements did not align with its strategic roadmap.

Micael Johansson, CEO of SAAB, was unusually forthright about the company’s annual results last month. “The Swedes will decide their future steps by the year 2030. We, therefore, engage in dialogue with prospective partners, albeit sometimes not at the most senior levels. Sweden’s help is required for that, “He remarked this in passing, subtly inviting participation in the FCAS continental effort.

While other potential European partners are limited and unlikely to make a significant contribution, Britain did what it does best – went abroad to seek wealth! And successfully.

A ray of hope from the East

Like the dawn, the ray of hope came from the Far East. In December 2020, Japan and the UK agreed to merge their main next-gen platforms – Tempest and FX. 

The plan was to start the development phase in 2024 and build a future advanced fighter jet together by 2035. The Japanese taxpayer signed up, which is no small feat, as the Japanese Defense Ministry had already allocated $600 million. In fiscal years 2020 and 2021, to finance FX developments.

And yesterday, it emerged that “the cost of the project will probably be around 40% for Japan and Britain” while “Rome will pay only a fifth of the total cost of development,” people with knowledge of the talks told Reuters between the three nations.

It has been acknowledged that “much of the details of the program are yet to be decided,” meaning that the three countries have not yet reached an agreement on further streamlining defense cooperation. The “who does what” has not been resolved.

Possible Saudi involvement?

Saudi Arabia signed a statement of intent (SOI) on March 1 in the Middle East to “initiate a partnership feasibility study to investigate how we can effectively position our decades-old combat air alliance for the future.” Although not specifically stated, it allows Riyadh to join GCAP in the future.

This is certainly a positive outlook regarding funding for the Program, but perhaps a nightmare regarding its management! Not to mention the fact that, not surprisingly, London is also quietly luring other potential partners to join the Program, such as Australia, Canada, India, Qatar…

Unlike its continental rival, Britain has always made it clear that Tempest/FCAS was designed to remain open to new foreign entrants. However, Richard Berthon – the Program’s director – recently clarified that “the sooner, the better” regarding allocation. of work…

But this open-minded philosophy can also become one of the show’s biggest weaknesses because that’s where it will get tricky! Unifying requirements and deadlines are complicated from a military point of view.

 Organizing technology transfers is politically complicated. Adapting to interoperability and future updates is technically challenging. Distributing work packages is complicated from a social point of view.

The devil is in the details.

The Franco-German-Spanish Air Combat System of the Future is still in its infancy, and many bad things can happen before a next-generation fighter demonstrator flies. The numerous U-turns and clashes leading up to the signing of the first major development contract were excruciating. But Phase 1b is underway, with a budget of 3.2 billion euros.

Will a demonstrator finally fly in 2030, as expected? We don’t know.

Will a new generation weapon system enter service in its current form in 2040-50? I don’t know.

Despite the lengthy and arduous process, the three countries are now aligned, and the industry teams are prepared to work together, pillar by pillar, under clear and widely agreed-upon rules. There will be 2,000 European technicians involved in the industrial phase, 800 of which will be from Airbus, and it will begin on March 20.

Control the key to sovereignty.

Combat air is considered the spearhead of defense technologies and the key to sovereignty in general. Therefore, any movement or compensation on this topic is extremely delicate and must be handled with extreme care.

It took almost five years – including two years of near standstill due to a bitter standoff between Airbus and Dassault Aviation – for three border nations with compatible operational requirements to agree on a financed political, industrial, and technological roadmap, with clear management of intellectual property, work sharing agreements and common export standards.

So far, we have not seen anything like it in GCAP. And the painful precedent of the FCAS gives us reason to believe that, whatever the level of British ambition, goodwill, knowledge, involvement, and capabilities – which, admittedly, are great – they would find it easier to arrive at a solid organization, detailed and shared.

Air combat of the future: how far can globalization go?
The merger of the British-Italian technology demonstration program Tempest with Japan’s future FX fighter to produce a single trilateral Global Combat Air Program that can also involve other partners faces a number of political, administrative, engineering, military and problems that will require a great deal of energy, time and money to resolve.

Despite Team Tempest’s best efforts, adding such different newcomers will increase complexity, diverging interests, and ambiguous statements, as Sweden’s coolness shows. GCAP’s biggest problem will be creating the correct governance framework for so many political and cultural diversity.

According to sources cited by Reuters yesterday, a collaborative development organization for GCAP is not envisaged until… 2025. Joint research on new motors and new sensors (ISANKE) and other capabilities has already started, but industrial construction has yet to be found Permanent.

Naturally, all agreements and contractual clauses are not made public, and we would be happy if you proved the contrary. It’s not that we think one Program will succeed while the other will fail, but continental FCAS seems to have figured out some key aspects of program management that GCAP has yet to master.

Even for close partners with similar interests, sovereignty is difficult to transfer due to its complexity. Programs like the Eurofighter, A400M, and Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) in Europe are multi-national in scope and have shown just how difficult such projects can be.

The future need for Australian nuclear submarines under AUKUS is another case study. “Only” three – otherwise very close – members of the very strong Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance have yet to agree on technology transfers and local workload fully…

Calling something as complex and delicate as a fighter jet program “global” certainly sounds good, but it can be simply far-fetched.

Rochefort Committee