Untangling Project Tempest, GCAP and British dreams of a Sixth Generation Combat Aircraft

What is or was Project Tempest and what is its relationship to GCAP? We untangle the Tempest.

In engineering slang, Project Tempest is a ‘pipe-cleaner’. The UK hasn’t built a supersonic combat jet since the EAP of the 1980s, and the early joint Typhoon development was years ago. Everyone who was worked on those projects has either retired or is about to. So Project Tempest was a dusting-off, assessment and cleaning up of Britain’s ability to create new advanced combat aircraft. It’s about retaining and building that capability and taking potential technologies through to maturity so the UK can hit the ground running. Designing and developing fast jets isn’t easy – witness to that is the fact that BAE Systems have been helping on the Turkish TFX programme as Turkey couldn’t do it alone, and the never ending saga of the Tejas in India. Retaining the hard-won capability to create advanced warplanes is crucial because not many nations have it and it’s exceptionally difficult to build it back up once it’s gone. The UK is one of the few nations that has all technologies required to make a modern warplane, but some of these capabilities are currently ‘rusting’ and may need an ‘oil’.

In essence, Project Tempest is about getting the organisations ready for GCAP, a British/Japanese/Italian 6th Generation combat aircraft effort announced last week. Britain and Japan have enjoyed successful collaborations for some time, and are currently working on a new air-to-air missile featuring propulsion technology developed for the MBDA Meteor with a seeker head based on Japanese innovations.

We know nothing (yet)

All of the interesting specifics about GCAP / FCAS are classified as secret, and a lot of the specifics are still being defined, so any journalistic articles claiming to offer specifics should be treated with extreme caution.

Technology demonstrator

For the moment let’s decouple Tempest and what has been announced last week as GCAP (although the aircraft in GCAP might end up being called Tempest, Tempesta or even Arashi, who knows). GCAP will be developing the successor to Typhoon with a proposed Entry Into Service of 2035. Tempest is the UK initiative that is effectively a ‘pipe cleaner’ for what was known as FCAS-AP but is now GCAP. It is within Tempest that tech is being developed in the UK for GCAP, and while this is being led by BAE, Rolls, Leonardo UK and MBDA, other UK based second tier suppliers and universities are involved. It was announced in parliament in July this year and at Farnborough that BAE Systems are building a flying demonstrator that will fly ‘within 5 years’.

There is a video about it on the BAE Systems website. No pictures on it and it’s mainly talking heads but don’t underestimate how critical this aspect of the programme is. It’s effectively a 21st century EAP, which helped very much helped inform Typhoon, but it wasn’t a prototype. The other component of Tempest is the technology development which isn’t just the aircraft systems but how it’s being designed and developed. This is not just the Tempest partners (BAE, RR, Leonardo UK and MBDA) but also other industry 2nd tier partners and university research. There is lots going on around model-based systems engineering to reduce development and qualification times as the goal is to have the production aircraft in service in 2035, but this is drifting into GCAP territory now. That goal of ten years between expected contract placement in 2025 and EIS, covering design, development, prototype, test flying and production start – is somewhat quicker than Typhoon. It also needs to be cheaper as Britain can’t afford to do it alone hence the GCAP announcement.

Global Combat Air Program (GCAP)

GCAP is much more complex and some kind of Eurofighter/Panavia-type organisation needs to be established to manage it. Each country has its own operational requirements as well as technology- industrial bases to consider. Technical details are vague if nothing else because it’s classified as secret and because of the potentially differing requirements. However it will be a Typhoon replacement that will also fly alongside the F-35 so you can probably extrapolate from that some of the roles it will likely perform, with air dominance high on the list of priorities. The slowness of Typhoon’s upgrade path will be a cautionary lesson to the new coordinating body, and they must work out a far better system of who ‘who will pay for what’ if new ideas are proposed. They must also work out how ideas are not ‘cock-blocked’ or sidelined by differing national needs.

Japan is an island facing off against China, so a major consideration will likely be a long-ranged ranged aircraft with the ability to counter (and possibly deploy) hypersonic weapons. GCAP also needs to be exportable to other nations who aren’t currently partners (and may not ever be) so the whole requirements question poses some interesting questions as to the design and trade-offs. Both the UK and Japan have historically run extremely costly aircraft projects, examples including the Japanese F-16 derivative (the Mitsubishi F-2) and the UK’s aborted Nimrod MRA.4; so a radically new approach will need to be found to avoid the mistakes of the past. Some in British aviation may recall the time Japan assessed the Anglo-French Jaguar, mulled over licence-production, before settling on building their own aircraft. Many eyebrows were raised at the similarity in overall configuration the resultant Mitsubishi F-1 had with the scorned Jaguar. They will be hoping a similar exercise in alleged tech harvesting will not happen in GCAP.

The Swedish defence and aerospace leader Saab once flirted with involvement, but now seem to be out of the picture. Rumour has it they were more interested in the unmanned adjunct, but then the MoD announced project Mosquito with Spirit in Belfast in 2021….then cancelled it this year citing developments in additive tech making the project obsolete. Then, at RIAT, BAE Systems showed two UAV concepts. Coincidence? I’m not one to gossip.

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