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Unpacking UK Combat Air Strategy

Group Captain Kishore Kumar Khera, a former fighter pilot, is an independent analyst Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 23, 2018

    On July 16, 2018, the opening day of the Farnborough Air Show, UK Secretary of State for Defence unveiled the UK Combat Air Strategy (CAS).1 Alongside, in a significant move, a plan to develop a new combat aircraft, ‘Tempest’, was announced. The United Kingdom, a pioneer in airpower, was the first to establish an independent air arm. This year, the Royal Air Force completed 100 years of its existence. The UK led and shaped the field of military aviation with a number of innovations. Of late, rising research and development costs have forced the UK to collaborate with other partners in combat aviation. The Tornado, the Typhoon and the F-35 are its notable outcomes. However, the UK’s share in these collaborations has systematically declined, and for the F 35, it is a paltry 15 per cent.2 With a new look CAS and a pilot project “Team Tempest”, the UK is seeking to fly its way back into the space of combat aviation.


    The CAS is guided by the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and the 2018 National Security Capability Review (NSCR). The SDRS outlined an intensifying and evolving threat picture, thus necessitating a well-defined strategy for generation and employment of combat air power.3 The UK National Security Council (NSC) has placed domestic and overseas risks into three tiers, based on a judgement of the combination of both the likelihood and impact of such risks.4 Accordingly, the 2015 National Security Risk Assessment (NRSA) placed terrorism and cyber threat at the top of the Tier I category. The category also includes scenarios relating to international military crises which draw in the UK through treaty obligations. Tier II includes a conventional or hybrid attack on allies and a threat of use of Chemical, Biological, Radiological or Nuclear (CBRN) weapons. A military attack on the UK is in the Tier III category.5 The new CAS needs to be seen in this context.

    Development of Combat Air Strategy

    Interestingly, after the release of the SDSR, the UK Ministry of Defence put out a series of policy papers outlining strategies in various areas. These include Innovation Strategy (March 24, 2017), Shipbuilding Strategy (September 6, 2017), MOD Science and Technology Strategy (November 30, 2017), Commercial Strategy (Jan 10, 2018) and Defence Knowledge Strategy (April 3, 2018).6 These policy papers outline plans for specific fields. However, the CAS is different as it carefully intertwines combat equipment and industry considerations at the strategic level.

    Divided into six chapters, the CAS begins with the Strategic Context. It emphasises the significance of combat air power for national objectives. Strangely, in this domain, the focus is only on three combat aircraft, namely, the Tornado, the Typhoon and the F35. All other facets of military aviation are not touched upon. Acknowledging diminishing technological differential with respect to prospective adversaries, the CAS assesses integrated air defence systems and electronic warfare as major concerns. Thereon, the focus shifts to the UK’s military aviation industry, with the document eulogising the technological prowess of the industry and the role it has played in the generation of employment and revenue through exports. The CAS basically pitches for the upgradation of the Typhoon for sustaining its operational relevance and garnering contracts for maintenance and upgrade of the F35. Both these proposals are designed to keep the combat aircraft industry going. Practically, the document can be termed as a Combat Aircraft Industry Strategy.

    Pilot Project Team Tempest

    With the Tornado scheduled to be phased out in 2019, the onus of combat aviation will be on the Typhoon and the F35. Early models of the Typhoon will start phasing out in the 2030s and their replacement by a sixth generation combat aircraft will be necessary.7 Looking at the development time and cost of the F35, it indeed is prudent to commence work now for a relevant combat aircraft capable of operation in the 2040s. The CAS brings out the gradual decline of the UK Combat Aircraft Industry. From the BE 2 in 1912 till the Tornado in 1979, 12 different types of combat aircraft were produced and in very large numbers to meet the demands of the domestic and international market.8

    However, in the last 40 years, the only notable contribution is a collaborative effort to produce the Typhoon (2003) and a minor role in the manufacture of the F35.9 With the Typhoon production ceasing in 2020, barring minor support to the F35, the UK combat aircraft industry would lose relevance. So, the revival of the combat aircraft industry seems to be the lynchpin of the CAS and the pilot project called ‘Team Tempest’ the tool to help achieve the revival.

    Team Tempest is part of the Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative programme announced in the SDSR. It is a government-industry partnership and planned to be used as a catalyst and test bed for industry revival. It comprises Ministry of Defence personnel from the Royal Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Defence Equipment & Support and industry partners (BAE Systems, Leonardo, MBDA and Rolls-Royce).10

    The Team has a clearly defined roadmap. The plan starts with outlining the business case including military requirements by the end of 2018. This is followed by an initial assessment of the international collaboration by mid-2019 and finalising operational requirements and partners by end 2019. 2020 is the year for final decisions on these issues and final investment decisions are expected to be taken by 2025 to have the initial operating capability by 2035.

    The outline plan is to have an open architecture design in Tempest. This will allow easy integration of various subsystems. Additionally, to keep the development cost and time under check, the project will keep an option to retain a number of existing systems, albeit upgraded to suit the operational environment. The significance and relevance of this approach can be assessed from the fact at a team from the USA rushed to meet UK MOD officials a day after its declaration.

    Lessons for India

    For a country like India, with a huge demand for combat aircraft, three clear messages underpinning the Team Tempest concept are relevant. First, development of a complex military hardware like a combat aircraft is expensive and time-consuming. An international collaborative mechanism is a necessity. Within the country, such high-risk projects need to be undertaken under the rubric of public-private partnership. The entire process needs to be audited objectively and failure to meet specific goals ought to lead to project termination. Second, continuous upgradation of current systems and making them future-ready is an economic strategy, as these subsystems can directly fit into a developing platform. Small and medium-sized local industry can effectively carry out this kind of work. This approach helps local industry to flourish besides reducing the cost and time of development. Third, all platforms being designed need to have an open architecture. This facilitates plugging in of subsystems developed elsewhere and for other purposes. It permits faster and cost-effective integration. This methodology also helps in expansion of the dual-use technologies basket. Furthermore, commercial use of subsystems thus developed leads to financial offsets.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.