FCAS, SCAF, Tempest, GCAP : A view from London.

It is increasingly surprising that understanding the nature and organization of the multinational Tempest program has not only not improved over time but has worsened.

The fact that the project has at least three names—”Tempest,” “Future Combat Air System,” and “Global Combat Air Programme”—is enough to throw off even the most seasoned analyst and the hardest of nuts. Many professionals in the industry struggle to make sense of all the jargon.

The widespread misunderstanding about the nature of what we will call Tempest is especially evident in the French media and other European media. The key here, as apparent from a Les Echos article from mid-April, are a few common misunderstandings:

– That Tempest is a British program in which Italy, Japan and Saudi Arabia participate.

– That Tempest is a program designed to “catch up” to the tri-national (France, Germany, Spain) SCAF [Ed: for ease of understanding, I call the European program by its French acronym, rather than trying to explain the difference between the British and FCAS the French FCAS].

– That the Tempest is configured and managed is, once again, based on how the SCAF is configured, which copies it, even slavishly.

– That, unlike the SCAF, the firms and nations working on Tempest are not fully integrated. Hence there is, in fact, no unified worldwide R&D effort now in place for the project.

The Tempest took off two years before the SCAF.

One drawback must be noted to cut to the chase on a key point that the Tempest is an attempt to “somehow make up for lost ground” from the more advanced SCAF,.

Although discussions had begun prior to July 2017, the SCAF was not formally launched until the signing of a bilateral agreement that included Spain in 2019.

However, the initial funds for Tempest were granted in 2015, and the UK industry-wide outreach work (in much of, but also in Italy and Sweden) began at that time. This was all thanks to the UK’s Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) in 2015.

What seems to be the “problem” at the bottom of the Tempest misunderstanding is that there was no ceremony, no national flags flown, no red leather folders of documents to sign before the assembled media, and no ministers toasting each other. 

Neither songs nor dances. The only thing that happened was agreements between the key players, and everyone went to do their job without fuss.

Since 2015, there have been some more formal (but still rather underappreciated) public signings of deals, such as the 2019 deal signed between the UK and Italy at the DSEI defense fair in London. But this agreement was based on others already signed and expanded the work already done by the two countries: it was not the beginning, but the continuation of what had been done during the previous 4 or 5 years.

That’s the thing: the work had been going on for about 5 years when this event occurred. And now, in 2023, Tempest is arguably 8 years in the making, for what it’s worth, three years longer than SCAF.

The belief that SCAF has formal and structured governance, while Tempest is a UK-dominated and controlled project, does not hold up. Tempest not only divides work between companies but also between countries. Behaviors, expectations and the like have agreed paths: Tempest is structured how it’s meant to be.

Again, I think the misunderstanding is because Tempest hasn’t presented itself sufficiently as a show, leading people to (wrongly) understand that it’s not serious or compelling. 

It has been made clear from the beginning that the Tempest only works if everyone is happy with their place, their role and what they will get out of it, and these issues are documented: “Domination” is not a word in the Team Tempest dictionary… well, at least not industrially.

You don’t get partners like Japan and Saudi Arabia (and perhaps India in the not-too-distant future) by treating them like second-class players.

By the way, anyone who tries to suggest that one partner dominates a program like Tempest to the detriment of the others should remember the ruthless application of the “Meilleur athlete” in SCAF negotiations and the frequent (French) briefings on the insufficiency of German and Spanish defense companies.

If I were French, I would want to understand a lot better what the Tempest is instead of trying to be dismissive and dismissive about it. But from Team Tempest’s point of view, everyone is probably quite happy with the SCAF members’ lack of interest in Tempest’s progress – it’s one less thing to worry about.

And while there is still a long way to go if Tempest is merely catching up with SCAF, might people wonder why current plans call for one or more demonstrators to be flown before 2025 while equivalent dates for the SCAF have been delayed until 2028?

It’s strange, but that 3-year lag reflects the different start dates of the programs. And all reports on the Tempest from any participants agree that the first variants will enter service before 2035, compared to the SCAF’s predictable 2040.

Catching up?

It is perfectly conceivable that both Tempest and SCAF will take to the skies and enter active service, and it is also perfectly possible that both will fail. It amazes me how many European observers have blatant chauvinism for the second European fighter program, Tempest.

You never know: understanding how Tempest functions as a political and industrial entity could help SCAF for years to come.

Francis Tusa