Made in England: Tempest Part One

In the first of two parts dedicated to the UK Tempest next-generation fighter, Mark Ayton starts the conclusion of a threepart series on aircraft designed and produced by BAE Systems

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BAE Systems’ Tempest mock-up at Warton. Under concept development by Team Tempest, the eventual air vehicle remains officially unnamed. What chance that the RAF’s next fighter is christened Tempest?
Ray Troll/BAE Systems

Imagine being fortunate enough to be at the Farnborough International Airshow, a place where many an aviation writer gathers once every two years, just to write about many of the world’s latest aeroplanes. Does it get any better than that?

Last year, photographers gawked while aviation journalists wondered if this thing, this big ugly mock-up, was really happening. It was the big story of the show.

Unveiling Tempest, a project being undertaken by four aerospace giants – BAE Systems, MBDA, Rolls-Royce and Leonardo – plus the RAF and the MoD, was the big story of the show. Note the term project rather than aircraft. Despite a 50-foot-long mock-up placed stage centre, many officials associated with the project were not hesitant to advise anyone showing interest of two important facts. One, Tempest was not the official name of the fighter on display in mock-up form; and two, the mock-up design was not, in anyway, a final design.

FCASTI: the reason for the beast

That dirty great mock-up is one concept of the UK’s next-generation fighter aircraft and represents 1,000s of hours’ design work by a team of dedicated designers based at BAE System’s Warton, Lancashire site.

But from where was this beast born? Put simply, boffins who work for various requirements offices within the MoD. The work has been ongoing for a while, at least since the UK government’s 2015 Strategic Security Defence Review was made public, and quite possibly longer. Within the highbrow content of the 2015 SDSR documents, the Future Combat Air Systems Technology Initiative (FCASTI, pronounced fugh-cass-tee) was the overarching arrangement for Anglo- French manned and unmanned air vehicle technology development.

FCASTI has changed its scope in more recent years and is now the main focus of the UK’s FCAS programme from which Tempest emerged. In short, today FCASTI is the programme which will develop key technologies for the next-generation of fighter aircraft that, if built and sent out into UK service, will interoperate with Typhoon and F-35 Lightning strike fighters. That’s easy to write in a feature like this, but it represents a major challenge to the RAF and the broader MoD. How do RAF officers in charge of multi-billion-pound, futuristic programmes make decisions, manage the budget and enable all three weapon systems to interoperate in a networked, but lowobservable way as what one leading team member called a total capability?

BAE Systems’ Future Combat Air Systems Director, Michael Christie maintains the company has not designed an aircraft yet, but is looking at the total capability, one that’s going to be required for service into the 2050s and beyond.

Wait a minute, though. What about that dirty great mock-up on show at Farnborough last year? That didn’t happen while making some toast. According to Christie, BAE Systems has been doing concept work for quite some time and remains at the early concept stage. He said: “We’re looking at a range of diff erent concepts and diff erent ways of meeting the challenge, but [the MoD] have yet to select which of those concepts is the one that meets the total requirement and developed into a detailed design. What was unveiled at Farnborough was one concept, one that we believe is in the right area to meet the threats out beyond the 2050s. Clearly there’s a design behind the mock-up. One that we can evaluate, to determine in broad terms, how that design would work in the future threat environment.”

Some of the earliest work undertaken by BAE Systems that’s now being used for the FCASTI project, developed for the UK’s Future Off ensive Air System, a study of aircraft concepts to replace the Royal Air Force’s Tornado GR4 strike capability, was cancelled in 2005.

Similarly, technologies developed for the Taranis unmanned technology demonstrator, such as autonomous control, low observable coatings and air vehicle design, and background knowledge have also fed into Tempest. From a new aircraft development perspective, perhaps the biggest shift with Tempest is the study of using a mix of manned, unmanned and optionally manned air vehicles.

Manned, unmanned and optionally manned

Michael Christie reckons the Taranis unmanned technology demonstrator is massively valuable to the Tempest concept because it uses autonomous systems, which from a capability point of view are very valid in a futuristic cockpit. Decision aids are one example. He said: “Rather than the aircraft flying itself, many functions can be done autonomously, with the pilot remaining in overall control. The future cockpit concept is very diff erent to the current concept. The bulk of the future cockpit controls are in the helmet, rather than actually in cockpit-fitted equipment. When the pilot puts the helmet on, they see a cockpit and all of the displays required.

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All images BAE Systems

“That could equally be in a manned air vehicle and a ground-based control station for an unmanned air vehicle. There are diff erent ways of looking at what we display [in the helmet] as the cockpit; it could either be the real cockpit or it could be the ground station controller.”

Part of the concepts under consideration by Team Tempest is to develop a UAV, the design of which is not concluded upon. Nor indeed is the mix of manned, unmanned or optionally manned, and it’s certainly the case that diff erent types of UAVs may be part of a system of systems.

According to Michael Christie, potential exists for using the same air vehicle for manned or unmanned ops, though they could be diff erent variants loaded with diff erent software loads. He said: “There’s no reason why we can’t. It’s a fundamental aspect, which reduces development costs. Develop one platform rather than two, and then try to use each diff erently.”

BAE Systems is trying to balance what can be common to diff erent variants against the cost drivers of developing each diff erent variant. One such cost driver is structural testing; diff erent air vehicle designs, each requiring full structural tests, drive costs up. The point of flex is to maximise a common core with variances achieved by software, sensor and weapon capabilities.

Michael Christie says it’s straight economics, too many variants with too little commonality will drive cost and complexity. As the Strategy Director for the Air Sector Christie is determined to keep aff ordability, flexibility and upgradability at the core of Tempest’s mantra: “If we lose that it stops being upgradable, which makes it unaff ordable and we lose flexibility; the whole value proposition disappears unless we stick to that.”

In terms of the air vehicle’s design concept, BAE Systems is designing and developing Tempest in new futuristic ways such that its configuration is changed to suit each mission set in a relatively straightforward way. Reconfiguration is achieved by either plugand- play or dropping out one set of systems and uploading another set

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Once again, Christie affirmed that this concept is central to the idea of the air vehicle being flexible and upgradable. He explained that upgradable doesn’t mean upgradable in ten years’ time: “It means upgradable in a dynamic way between missions. Developing the architecture to enable that is fundamental, which links to the supportability of the air vehicle.”

He also explained that the concept under consideration is a system that is upgradeable, which means it needs to be flexible with architecture that makes it easy to upgrade because things always change over time. “The number of changes we’ve had to cope with within the military aircraft manufacturing industry over the past 50 years is massive. That’s going to continue, and in some cases it’s going to get even greater in magnitude simply because of the ever more rapid changes in information technology.”

This is a big deal. This problem might not be one that Team Tempest can conquer. It’s an age-old problem. While the world keeps on turning, technology will keep on burning, and upgrades will be required over and over. At the very least it will require an architecture that makes upgrades easy, particularly cockpit upgrades involving software rather than hardware.

This is also a big deal for the training aspects of a future Tempest air vehicle. If the ultimate system is all software driven with next to little hardware, complete concurrency between the software configuration in operation in the air vehicle’s cockpit, the simulator and the desk top trainers is easily achieved. Configuration concurrency of each element of a weapon system is a challenge that every air force faces.

Connectivity and the ability to be part of a network are other requirements for Tempest.

Computing power will be all important for the air vehicle’s operation and is likely to be distributed around its fuselage. This aspect is part of the architecture consideration. Understanding how to manage the computing power in terms of the sheer amount of processing to be done, and the much increased need for protection against cyberattack and resilience in the event of an attack.

Both cyber protection and cyber resilience add considerably to the thinking behind the air vehicle’s architecture right from the start and remains the number one priority of the FCASTI.

This is a great example of where the team has to cope with Moor’s Law; continuing development of things that will change completely between, in this case, the air vehicle’s service entry and its out-ofservice date.

Michael Christie off ered some examples: “Some of the cockpit technologies under demonstration as part of the Tempest programme can be traced back to the Hawk trainer, some aspects of the Hawk led to technologies incorporated in Tempest, and the RAF Hawk T2’s flexible mission system and advanced cockpit are significant stepping stones to the system destined for the next generation of combat aircraft.”

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”The company has not designed an aircraft yet, but is looking at the total capability, one that’s going to be required for service into the 2050s and beyond.” BAE Systems’ Future Combat Air Systems Director, Michael Christie

Maintenance and support

In its work to date, BAE Systems is determining concepts for the hangar of the future and what the maintenance environment will look like. Given the UK’s leading position in military aircraft maintenance and support led by BAE Systems, the company is keen to retain that capacity as an enabler to future maintenance using the digital thread in all support activities. Christie claims this capacity drives software flexibility, upgradability and the ease of changing mission configurations for diff erent roles, but all aspects have to be enabled by the system.

With all this talk of aff ordability, flexibility and upgradeability, what kind of specification is BAE Systems working to: one set out by the customer outlining what it ultimately wants?

No surprise that Michael Christie confirmed the team has a specification of sorts, detailing a need to achieve a given mission with an all-important question: what’s the best way of doing that? It also allows for a bit of flexibility in how the outcome requirement is addressed, which is a diff erent requirements ethos.

Programme performance is driven by translating a military specification into an engineering specification. He said: “It’s a flawed process in many ways. You’ve got to interpret requirements and turn them into performance, for example speed and altitude. But in reality, how many times does that specific altitude and that specific Mach number actually get used? Test points for the requirements are flight tested, but it’s the case that we’re almost precisely inaccurate rather than roughly right. When trying to determine outcomes with the end customer we have to ask them what they want to achieve with a little flexibility about how we achieve the outcome.”

The RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office manages the process and Team Tempest will test it.

Sovereignty and exportable by design

One aspect that’s not hardware or softwarecentric is the need for the final air vehicle to be exportable by design, which means ensuring the air vehicle is configured for export from the start of the programme and not from a point after the UK’s variant has been developed. It’s a beneficial requirement since it avoids non-recurring cost each time a customer requests a specific feature.

With the best will in the world, though, the UK’s domestic requirement will never great enough to make Tempest a fighter that will be aff ordable.

Given this almost unimaginable and pragmatic approach, what are the objectives behind this multi-billion-pound programme? UK sovereignty is up at the top of the list of reasons. Tempest is a UK programme seeking to develop the technologies and capabilities in the UK to retain sovereignty and play a leading position in a broader scope collaborative programme.

From the outset, Tempest needs to secure partners in the market for a new-generation fighter. By increasing the cumulative number of aircraft required by the partner nations, per unit cost should be more aff ordable for each partner nation. Sovereignty is of course only retained by a nation while it retains the ability within its industrial base; hence the four partner companies are willing to invest in Tempest.

However, sovereignty is not just beneficial to industry, but also for the MoD and the RAF. Spelled out in the UK’s combat air strategy, freedom of action and operational advantage are two military advantages; operational advantage having world class capability, freedom of action is the ability to act unilaterally.

Tempest is the UK’s latest generation of maintaining its position as a credible player on the world stage, which BAE Systems and its partner companies seek to carry on with the model used for the Typhoon, which was a successful production base model that was successfully used to become a partner company in the F-35 Lightning II.

Paradigm shift

Looking at the medium-term future, what is likely to happen next and how will that drive the project forward?

Michael Christie was unable to provide a comprehensive answer due to “sensitive areas”, but in general terms he explained that BAE Systems is partnered with the Rapid Capabilities office and the RAF to invoke a paradigm shift to mature key technologies to the higher technology readiness level very quickly, put them on an aircraft, usually Typhoon, and demonstrate them in a range of diff erent activities as quickly as possible.

Referring to the paradigm shift, the author asked Michael Christie, whether given the time lines released, the four-company team would be able to develop, build and flight test the first aeroplane in the required length of time, as sketchy as that remains right now.

In his response, Michael said he couldn’t in all faith carry on coming to work if I didn’t believe in that and cited that the real questions are why he believes it and why he thinks it’s possible.

He explained: “There are some philosophical aspects for why programmes tend to run late. Some of that is about the focus on a detailed specification. If a team is trying to chase the detailed specification, then it chases that until it’s done. Our shift in thinking seeks to get us to the point of understanding what the minimum viable capability is. That’s a term used by the communications and information technology sectors when referring to getting a product to the market followed by its spiral develop. A product needs to be viable, needs to be good enough, but doesn’t need to have everything in it on day one. That’s one of the reasons why many programmes get delayed. By chasing the absolute pinnacle, almost inevitably you have loads of false peaks and you don’t quite get there. It stretches out and stretches out. Solving that issue is more about leadership style than technical ability. Part of the paradigm shift is about making decisions quickly, doing things diff erently and deciding that’s good enough.”

Citing Team Tempest’s unveiling at Farnborough, Christie confirmed the team had achieved things very rapidly across all four companies and various MoD agencies, and quoted the then Assistant Chief of Staff Capability Delivery Combat Air, Headquarters Air Command, and Head of the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office, Air Commodore Linc Taylor who uses the sentence, “If we don’t feel uncomfortable we’re not doing this right.”

Taylor’s use of the word ‘uncomfortable’ denotes the team did not have the usual amount of information upon which decisions are made. The emphasis is to decide the amount of information is enough, make a decision and move on.

And what of the four partner companies? Each one is not averse to developing new systems. Leonardo produces a nice range of sensors, Rolls-Royce turns its hand to a decent engine, and MBDA is masterful in the art of providing air arms the ability to shoot things down (with its missiles, of course). Each has a legacy portfolio to build upon, but according to Christie, part of Team Tempest’s ethos is to use current where current is good enough, and develop new where new is required: that good enough aspect spoken of by Air Commodore Taylor.

Always curious of such grand claims, the author asked whether BAE Systems has, in recent years, been static with developing new technologies. Michael Christie reckons the Typhoon programme continues to stretch technology and cited weapons, sensors and a range of information systems being developed for the jet as ones that will feed through to FCASTI. He said: “Current systems are world class anyway, but we don’t want to use them because of a need to go further for the next generation.” AI