Opinion: Why The Time May Be Ripe For The UK Tempest
At this year’s Farnborough Airshow, the UK unveiled the Tempest, a twin-engine combat aircraft concept.
This is the second new European fighter concept, after the Franco-German Future Combat Aircraft System that was announced in April.
The countries involved in these projects see two important reasons to proceed with a new fighter.
First, the Trump administration has created uncertainty about U.S. reliability as a NATO ally as Vladimir Putin’s Russia continues to loom as a significant threat.
This has boosted interest in purely European solutions, rather than relying on future U.S. aircraft or just a workshare in Lockheed Martin’s F-35.
Second, the combat market represents a very good business opportunity.
Fears of obsolescence due to remotely piloted systems have come to nothing, and fighters are still remarkably flexible tools.
Global tensions, delayed recapitalization programs and relatively high resource prices are propelling the market upward.
Source: Teal Group
Looking at current programs and contracts being filled, the world fighter market is heading above $25 billion in 2018 dollars, a level not seen since the end of the Cold War (see graph).
This value merely represents annual deliveries of aircraft; it excludes tens of billions of dollars in related costs, such as weapons, training and support.
Clearly, Europe has a strong economic interest in spending its combat aircraft budgets on its own industries and in pursuing export opportunities.
While the political and economic drivers behind a new UK fighter are clearly there, just £2 billion ($2.7 billion) is earmarked for the broader UK Future Combat Air Strategy through 2025.
Development of a next-generation fighter alone would cost 10 times that.
And it is unlikely that the UK will fund a Tempest-class fighter on its own.
The last all-UK fighter, the English Electric Lightning, ended production about 50 years ago.
Since then, new UK fighter concepts have led to harmonization with other European countries and the creation of pan-European designs: the Eurofighter Typhoon and Panavia Tornado.
In both cases, France and Sweden chose to develop their own designs.
Increasing aircraft development costs, U.S. market dominance and European defense budget constraints mean Europe can no longer afford three platforms.
Even two might be difficult. In the past, the UK would have been the biggest customer and industrial participant in pan-European designs, but Brexit greatly complicates that.
While a Franco-German alliance would be problematic due to France’s insistence on a dominant role, it does reflect Brexit’s grim political reality.
Airbus CEO Tom Enders’ recent comments about being open to a BAE/Airbus fighter unit merger depend on resolution of Brexit and other difficult political obstacles.
Yet the UK holds one very important card: its strategic and commercial relationship with Saudi Arabia, which provided the only significant export orders for the Lightning and Typhoon and was the sole export customer for the Tornado.
The Saudi Al Yamamah Tornado procurement program represented tens of billions of dollars in funding and made a very big economic difference for all three industrial partners.
Would Saudi Arabia consider covering some of the nonrecurring costs of a new UK-led European fighter?
UK Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson stated at the Tempest rollout: “We see this as an opportunity to collaborate with new nations that have not usually been involved in such collaborations before. The initial indications are exceptionally positive.”
The UK likely sees exactly what Europe sees: For political reasons, a second source for combat aircraft is highly desirable.
Only the U.S. has next-generation fighter programs currently underway.
If Saudi Arabia wants a second-source fighter in 2040, it might have no other choice than to support the development of the Tempest or a pan-European fighter leveraging Tempest design work.
That makes a UK-led program more viable, despite Brexit, funding questions and other headwinds.
Richard Aboulafia is vice president of analysis at Teal Group.
He is based in Washington.
The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.