The UK-led Future Air Combat System (FCAS) has entered a “concept and assessment phase” with a contract worth approximately £250 million ($340 million) to lead contractor BAE Systems. The effort is also called Project Tempest— the name of a new and stealthy fighter aircraft that forms the centerpiece of the system. But at a series of presentations at the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) show in London recently, officials described the wider ambitions and content of the FCAS.
“We’re taking a revolutionary approach, looking at a game-changing mix of swarming drones and uncrewed aircraft, as well as a next-generated piloted platform,” said Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, chief of the UK air staff. “Tempest is not just hardware,” he continued. “It is about the weapons, the sensors, its battlespace connectivity, and how information is moved around its network. Tempest will exploit our world-class industrial base, pairing our brightest minds with digital ways of working.”
The digital approach was a constant theme of the presentations. The main partners—so far, they are Leonardo, MBDA, Rolls-Royce, and Saab—will be linked to each other and to the wider supply chain by the latest open systems information and networking technology. They will share design and development models. Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) will play a big part. “We must become digital natives. We are learning from Saab’s experience of digitalization on the Gripen E and the T-7,” said Michael Christie, the FCAS director at BAE Systems. The T-7 is the new jet pilot trainer for the US Air Force that Saab has designed with Boeing.
“We will behave as a single program,” Christie continued. He alluded to the unwieldy, protracted, and workshare-driven Eurofighter Typhoon program. “FCAS has a half-the-cost, half-the-time mantra. A 10-year development to operations cycle is a massive improvement.” Team Tempest plans to propose the capability and timescale to the sponsoring governments in late 2024, in time for entry into service around 2035. Christie also noted that although the team would have to keep down the unit cost of Tempest, it would prove a challenge to do so because there would not be “hundreds” ordered.
Stealth Aspects Remain Hush-Hush
The Tempest airframe mock-up appeared with great fanfare at the Farnborough Airshow in 2018, and BAE Systems has continued the publicity drive since then. However, not much detail has emerged about stealth aspects of the evolving design. Peter Nilsson, vice-president for future programs at Saab, said that it would have to fly into “denied airspace” against a high-tech adversary and counter a wide electromagnetic threat. “There are survivability challenges that I can’t talk about,” said Air Commodore Jez Holmes, head of the Royal Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO). He noted that there would likely be some tradeoff of performance for stealth.
Conrad Banks, chief engineer for future programs at Rolls-Royce, described the “Integrated Power System” that his company was developing for Tempest, which would combine the gas turbines with aircraft electrical systems. The IPS would serve as a “flying power station” that would provide 10 times more power to sensors and systems compared with the Typhoon, and also enable the use of directed energy. The design would provide for the ingestion of over 100 kg of air per second; combustion chambers operating at 2,000 deg C; and feature vapor cycles, distortion-tolerant fans, and advanced heat exchangers. Rolls-Royce used simulation tools to predict thermal flows and hotspots. AI would help calculate, for instance, how much power goes to charging batteries versus providing a power surge margin. Although the project would still require hardware testing, there would be no need to build eight full-scale development engines as in the case of the Typhoon. “We’re targeting a 50 percent reduction in development time,” Banks added.
Lukas Chamberlain, project chief engineer at Leonardo, said that the success of the project would require new thinking about size, weight, and power for the sensors. The company would leverage and repackage commercial technology such as 5G networking in designing them. “We are simulating threats by using emulators,” he added. Leonardo announced that it would use a modified Boeing 757 to flight-test futuristic sensors, communications, and “non-kinetic effects” for FCAS. British MRO 2Excel is modifying the airplane. Air Commodore Holmes welcomed the plan. “Sensors often work perfectly on the bench and in the labs.,” he said. “The performance is more challenging when placing them in combat-like, cluttered environments.”
UK autonomous systems developer Intrepid Mind Robotics shares the platform with the main partners. The British SME is part of the team for Project Mosquito, to design and build and demonstrate a small, jet-powered unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). The aircraft could deploy autonomously, or in formation, including as so-called ‘loyal wingmen’ to a manned combat aircraft. The other team members on the £30 million ($40 million), three-year contract are Northrop Grumman UK, Spirit Aerosystems, the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), and the government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL). The project previously went by the name Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA).
Intrepid Mind Robotics managing director Adam Smith said that the modular design of the Mosquito airframe allowed for five different wing shapes to be interchanged with a fuselage in 10 minutes. Different payloads could also be easily added or removed. Developers are employing multicore processors, using techniques from the gaming industry. An official from Spirit Aerosystems said that “we’ve done 18 months design in nine months.” Air Marshal Wigston said that the project had progressed so well that the demonstrator would fly by the end of 2023, perhaps earlier.
Wigston also reported progress with Project Alvina, a scheme to deploy small drones in swarms. The RAF has already formed an experimental squadron to test how they could be deployed to confuse and overwhelm enemy air defenses. In a recent test, more than 20 of them flew together. “Our future fleet of drones will be agile in design and rapid in manufacture,” said Wigston. “The operational swarms are likely to be a mix of drones of different sizes, range, and endurance, each carrying a variety of bespoke payloads including electronic attack and more.”
The UK seeks more international partners for FCAS. France, Germany, and Spain cannot be candidates because they are developing their own FCAS (see below). Japan remains a possibility. It is developing the F-X, its own new combat aircraft. But Air Commodore Jonny Moreton, the RAF’s future combat director, said that the F-X was being designed to counter the same threats as Tempest, and its timetable was similar. Negotiations were underway, and some “minor” collaboration on electronic warfare and radar already has taken place, he added. Moreton also noted that the Tempest program was being structured to allow participating countries to make their own modifications.
The Other FCAS
To the dismay of those who advocate more pan-European defense collaboration, rival sixth-generation combat air programs have emerged. France, Germany, and Spain are working on their own Future Combat Air System (FCAS). It looks quite similar to Project Tempest, with a stealthy New Generation Fighter (NGF) that includes a new engine. Like its UK-led counterpart, the “Euro-FCAS” also includes new sensors and communications, including combat cloud and “remote carriers” in the form of drones and UCAVs.
The main contactors consist of Airbus Defence and Space (Germany and Spain), and Dassault (France). MTU (Germany), Safran (France), and ITP (Spain) comprise the engine team. Indra, MBDA, Thales, and some SMEs also participate. Various designs for both the fighter and the remote carriers have been researched in Phase 1A of the project, which started in 2020 and cost €300 million ($345 million). They will undergo evaluation over the next three years in Phase 1B of the project at a cost of €3.5 billion. Schedules call for a prototype of the fighter to fly in 2027, although the partners don’t foresee entry into service until 2040.