The Combat Air Strategy, revealed by the government at the Farnborough International Airshow, is a timely and important publication that sets the trajectory for how the UK intends to acquire its next generation of frontline combat aircraft. The ambitious strategy is intended to ensure that the UK has the means at its disposal to guarantee that the RAF is properly equipped to deal with tomorrow’s threats and, in doing so, remains at the technological vanguard in terms of military capability.
That the strategy recognises that the RAF’s current prominence among both allies and adversaries is due in no small part to UK industry being a world-leader in the combat air sector is encouraging. NDI has long campaigned that MOD’s approach to acquiring the next generation of equipment must be founded not only in military capability, but also in a manner that protects the key skills, technologies and infrastructure that supports the delivery of military effect. The operational independence of our armed forces, and our very national security, depends on guaranteed access to technologies maintained in the UK and will continue to do so. I therefore welcome Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s assurance that the new strategy is designed to ‘strengthen the UK’s role as a global leader in the sector.’
More welcome still is the strategy’s vision for how, through future acquisition, the UK can drive the best overall return from its investment, seeking to balance military capability, international influence, and economic and prosperity benefit along with the overall cost. This holistic approach is a much-needed challenge to the MOD’s traditionally narrow decision-making processes which have excluded economic return from being factored into procurement decisions, disadvantaging UK companies who might compete to win business against international competitors. This is a logic based, in MOD’s own words, on the fact that the defence sector is a ‘huge contributor to UK prosperity, creating thousands of jobs in a thriving advanced manufacturing sector, and generating a UK sovereign capability that is the best in the world.’
In order to deliver the strategy, a joint program office, Team Tempest, has been established to develop a new combat air concept. BAE Systems, Leonardo, MBDA and Rolls-Royce are partnering with the RAF Rapid Capabilities Office . This will focus on four key technology areas in which the UK is already world-leading thanks to our role in the Eurofighter Typhoon and F-35 programs. These are advanced combat air systems and integration (BAE Systems), advanced power and propulsion systems (Rolls-Royce), advanced sensors, electronics and avionics (Leonardo) and advanced weapon systems (MBDA). Capabilities such as laser-directed weapons, cyber resiliency and optionally piloted design concepts are likely to be explored and provide a wide range of opportunities for supply chain engagement, both with companies already operating in the aerospace sector and companies with technology that could potentially be harnessed in future. Early decisions around how to acquire the capability are expected to be confirmed by the end of 2020, before final investment decisions are made by 2025. The aim is then for a next generation platform to have operational capability by 2035.
You can read the Combat Air Strategy in full here.