The Farnborough Airshow this summer saw the launch of the UK’s new Combat Air Strategy and the unveiling of a model of a brand-new, next-generation fighter concept – the Tempest. In the current issue of AFM, long-time military aerospace commentator Jon Lake investigates the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and examines the design of the new fighter, a potential successor to the Royal Air Force’s Typhoon.
It should be emphasised that this manned/optionally manned platform is just one element of the overall FCAS, which will be a ‘system of systems’. It will act as a ‘force multiplier’, operating with a range of unmanned systems and other assets across the air, land, sea, space and cyber domains.
Although Farnborough saw the first public appearance of the ‘selected’ manned FCAS configuration, another full-scale mock-up had been exhibited (to invited guests only) in a marquee at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, the weekend before the Farnborough announcement.
Moreover, the models and illustrations represent just one of a range of concepts explored by Team Tempest. Charles Woodburn, the chief executive of BAE Systems, described the model as being representative only of a “direction of travel”, while Gavin Williamson called it “a glimpse into what the future could look like”.
Only ten days before Farnborough, during briefings to trade journalists, BAE Systems showed a PowerPoint slide illustrating a ‘spread’ of four quite different vehicles from its concept study. These ranged from a relatively small, single-engined lightweight fighter, optimised to operate in the air policing role in lower-threat situations, to a larger machine intended for highly contested environments. The latter, conceded Michael Christie, BAE Systems’ strategy director for air, was “something that looks a little bit like something from Star Wars!”
The spread of vehicles also included an aircraft that looked like a scaled-up F-35 with longer-span wings and an air defence-optimised machine reminiscent of the YF-23.
The configuration highlighted at Farnborough was a large, twin-engined aircraft bearing some resemblance to the BAE Systems Replica – an LO (stealthy) design study which fed into the UK’s Future Offensive Air System (FOAS) programme. A full-scale radar cross-section model was built and tested, demonstrating the UK’s LO design and manufacturing capabilities and perhaps serving as an ‘entry ticket’ to the development phase of the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme.
The Tempest mock-up shared some design features with other LO aircraft, including a planform reminiscent of the F-117A, with a sawtooth trailing edge (as used on the F-117A and B-2A), trapezoidal twin tails like those of the YF-23 and intakes similar to the F-35’s.
The aircraft is relatively large (closer to the F-22 than to the F-35), its size driven by the requirement for a large internal payload bay to accommodate weapons, sensors or additional fuel while still having sufficient performance and agility to survive the most challenging combat environments.
It’s been clear for some time that any FCAS manned/optionally manned platform would be larger than the F-35, which is perceived as being too small, too short-ranged and with an inadequate internal payload for future requirements.