Britain’s next-generation fighter programme will support roughly 20,000 jobs and deliver £25.3bn in value to the UK economy by 2050, according to initial estimates that will form part of an outline business case to be handed to government later this year.
BAE Systems on Thursday published initial findings from PwC on the potential economic contribution from the Tempest programme over the next 30 years. The UK defence giant is hoping the business case will help to unlock further commitment to the multibillion-pound project, even as defence spending comes under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic.
The outline business case will assess three options: going with Tempest; being a junior partner on an international programme; or simply buying an off-the-shelf fighter. The government is expected to make its preference known in the coming months, releasing funding for the next phase.
The UK has already committed £2bn to the programme, which aims to see manufacture begin by 2025, with a combat air system delivered by 2035 which can then be upgraded regularly to last until the end of the century.
Tempest was launched in 2018 in response to the announcement from France and Germany that the two countries would work together on a sixth-generation stealth jet without the UK. Britain has since collaborated with Sweden’s Saab and Italy’s Leonardo in a bid to share costs.
The programme as a whole aims to incorporate far more than the traditional combat jet, and is being described as a “system of systems”. It is expected to include both manned and unmanned aircraft, swarming technology, and perhaps even laser weaponry.
But this technology will come at a price. While there is no official estimate for the total cost of the programme, Justin Bronk, defence analyst at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, has put the price tag at up to £25bn. The UK’s entire defence budget last year was less than £40bn.
Yet government officials have recognised the need to maintain the UK’s combat air capability, as production of the Typhoon fighter winds down.
The UK has a substantial share in the production of the F-35 US fighter jet programme developed by Lockheed Martin. However it was not involved in the development of the jet and that programme has done little to maintain cutting-edge system expertise.
The Ministry of Defence estimates that the F-35 programme “will have contributed £35bn to the UK economy over its lifetime” with more than 3,000 ordered globally.
While this is lower than the value-added estimate for Tempest, the PwC study — commissioned by BAE on behalf of the programme’s partners — did not include “the full potential of export opportunities, R&D investment or the value of the programme beyond 2050”, BAE said.
The Tempest programme is also being seen as providing critical support for an aerospace industry devastated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Tempest would encourage innovation that otherwise might not happen given there was not likely to be a new commercial aircraft platform for several years, said Rob Loveday, growth strategy director at GE Aviation Systems UK, which earlier this year joined the Tempest consortium. “The timing of Tempest was important before Covid, but it is very important now,” he said.
BAE and its partners on Thursday showcased some of the innovative concepts being developed for the programme, including new radar capable of providing more than 10,000 times more data than existing systems, and a “wearable cockpit” with aircraft controls projected via virtual and augmented reality.
Pilots would be able to manipulate and feel virtual controls or data displayed inside a helmet with simple hand gestures thanks to tracking and haptic — or touch — technology developed by a small Bristol start-up, Ultraleap.
This would help the pilot focus on mission command rather than flying, said Suzy Broadbent, human factors engineering lead at BAE. It would also eliminate the need for buttons and controls in the cockpit, making upgrades easier and cheaper through software updates.
“It will be easier to customise,” said Ms Broadbent. “Our starting point is: ‘Let’s not put things in the cockpit just because they have always been in the cockpit.’ The question is what does pilot actually need to do.”
— to www.ft.com