Advanced technology takes the lead in Britain’s air defence strategy 

A series of new investments suggest the next generation of optionally crewed aircraft will play a key role in the UK’s future air defence strategy. Alex Love looks at the technology and policy behind these developments.

// Artist’s rendering of the Tempest aircraft. Image: MOD

Advanced technology is at the forefront of Britain’s future air defence strategy, as well as its economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2018, the UK Government unveiled its Combat Air Strategy to enhance next-generation capability development, with a focus on advanced technology to counter evolving threats. The aim is to maintain Britain’s global leadership in the combat air sector, alongside independent air defence capabilities. Another aspect of this strategy is to establish Britain’s future standing in the world as it starts to adjust to life outside the European Union.

A cornerstone of these plans is the Tempest fighter jet, which is potentially the most advanced military aircraft ever seen. It is also due to be the world’s only sixth-generation aircraft when it enters service. Some refer to it as ‘a supercomputer that flies’.

Tempest: the most advanced fighter jet?

With technology advancements moving so fast, there is a danger of being left behind without continuous investment. The UK Government has so far announced £2bn in funding for the Tempest programme.

Tempest is due to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon fleet, entering service in 2035. The stealth aircraft will be able to fly with and without a pilot. It will be fitted with a suite of systems for data management and interconnectivity. The aircraft will also reportedly have the capacity to control multiple support drones through advanced swarming technology and AI.

“This is all about information warfare and information superiority,” says Adrian Spragg, managing director of aerospace and defence practice at Accenture UK. “A combat aircraft in the future is not just an aircraft, it's a capability that will combine multi-domain assets: air, sea, land, and also space and cyber assets. The information exchange and use of AI to gain mission advantage will be paramount.”

“There is even talk that the aircraft’s propulsion systems could be fully electric.”

Tempest’s weaponry sounds like the stuff of science fiction: it will be equipped with lasers and hypersonic weapons. There is even talk that the aircraft’s propulsion systems could be fully electric, although there are doubts as to whether this technology will be advanced enough to power a high-performance military plane by the mid-2030s. Electric power is considered more likely later in its service life.

Team Tempest is a UK-led international consortium with Sweden and Italy and a wide range of industry partners including BAE Systems, Williams Advanced Engineering, Rolls-Royce, MBDA, Leonardo and Saab. It is unclear if Brexit will affect this partnership.

Meanwhile, a similarly advanced aircraft is being developed by France and Germany through partners Airbus and Dassault, with Spain joining most recently. The aircraft is also due to enter service around 2035. However, there is speculation that the two rival programmes could eventually merge, an idea that has been suggested by Airbus head of defence and space Dirk Hoke.

The Tempest aircraft will be able to control multiple support drones.

The Tempest aircraft will be able to control multiple support drones. Image: MOD

Integrated review and coronavirus recovery

The MOD is currently in the midst of an integrated review that seeks to define Britain’s future global role, as well as its capability to deliver long-term strategic objectives.

In addition, the ministry has to deal with a £13bn hole in its equipment budget over the next ten years as well as the government’s wider comprehensive spending review. Despite air projects typically being seen as safer from potential cuts, it hasn’t stopped some questioning whether the Tempest programme is affordable.

What has complicated budgetary matters further is Covid-19 pushing the UK economy into its deepest recession on record. Britain has also recorded the poorest economic performance of any G7 nation. In the second quarter of this year, gross domestic product (GDP) fell year-on-year by 20.4%.

As lockdown eases further, there are at least signs of a recovery gaining pace. An 11.3% GDP increase has been recorded since April's height of lockdown, with a noticeable uptick in June. However, GDP is still 17.2% lower than pre-pandemic levels in February.

“Britain wants to – and needs to – show commitment to NATO more than ever because it has exited the EU.”

At this point it is impossible to predict just how long the full recovery will take. How the government maintains its defence budget will be critical if it is to sustain pre-crisis spending levels and NATO commitments of 2% of GDP.

“It'll be interesting what will happen if the defence budget keeps going, despite the fact that GDP will be lower for longer – not just a one-off hit – so recovery will take longer,” says Dr Marc Schelhase, lecturer in defence studies at King’s College London. “Because then the defence budget will start rising above 2% of GDP and you might end up with debates that you already have: how does defence compare to health, infrastructure and education? It will be interesting to see how those kinds of debates around priorities will play out.

“And of course, we’re in the integrated review at the moment. That’s the other challenge and how Britain repositions itself. Britain wants to – and needs to – show commitment to NATO more than ever because it has exited the EU. It needs to maintain that defence spending to clearly state 'we are committed to the alliance.'”

Smart factories

Meanwhile the UK’s defence industry has been working on more cost-effective means of manufacturing, especially in the aftermath of Brexit and Covid-19.

The use of advanced technology and manufacturing techniques could enable significant savings. BAE Systems’ new Industry 4.0 facility in Lancashire, for example, is leading in this field. The company hopes to manufacture 30% of components for the Tempest fighter jet there using 3D printing. Such technology could also provide a way of avoiding potential supply chain disruption if the most pessimistic of Brexit scenarios comes to pass.

“The slowdown from Covid-19 has accelerated the use of advanced and digital technologies to help production remain on schedule.”

“The ‘Factory of the Future’ is a first-of-its kind facility, bringing next-generation advanced manufacturing technologies to demonstrate how next-generation aircraft can be built,” explains Andrew Kennedy of BAE Systems Air.

“Working in collaboration with more than 50 SMEs, academic and research partners, we’re exploiting technologies including robotics and augmented reality, integrated through the Internet of Things together with advanced processes, such as 3D printing.

“The factory offers a level of flexibility and adaptability that hasn’t previously been possible using traditional manufacturing methods and, through increased levels of automation and a digitally connected supply chain, will help to significantly reduce the costs and increase the efficiency of building a future combat air system.”

The slowdown from Covid-19 has accelerated the use of advanced and digital technologies to help production remain on schedule. The company believes that the technology used to build the Tempest could slash production times in half compared to traditional manufacturing methods.

BAE Systems’ new industry 4.0 factory in Lancashire, UK.

BAE Systems’ new industry 4.0 factory in Lancashire, UK. Image: BAE Systems

Drones, AI and data

Given Tempest’s capacity to operate without a pilot in the cockpit, there are further signs that uncrewed aircraft will play a bigger role in the UK’s future air fleet. In July, the MOD signed a £65m contract for three General Atomics Protector aircraft with an option to buy another 13 to replace the Reaper fleet. Protectors are remotely piloted aircraft that can fly for up to 40 hours and will be used for strike missions and reconnaissance.

“I think we're going to see a lot more different shapes and sizes of drones,” says Spragg. “From the big UAV and UCAV, we will start to see assets, manned and unmanned, including drones, operating collectively much more. I think we'll see more maritime drones deployed. But we'll also see almost handheld launch, ‘throw up in the air’-type drones in the soldier space as well. We'll see micro drones or smaller ones.”

The greater use of AI could make a dramatic difference to the defence industry, providing improvements to manufacturing and operations through data analytics and machine learning.

“The British defence industry is set to undergo a significant transformation as it advances further into Industry 4.0.”

“I think it will literally reach all parts of the defence acquisition and support lifecycle,” Spragg says. “We are right at the early stages. There's also a fair bit of hype around AI, so I think it also needs to go through some normalisation of what actually is it, demystifying it, really looking at where the value is, how to implement it, how to drive value from it. There's also a maturity cycle we need to go through. The backdrop to all of this, I think, is the proliferation of data.

“We're starting to see it in the industry, really helping to identify areas where programmes could be improved in terms of quality, cost schedule, creating cause-and-effects that aren’t visible to the human eye. The ability to look at historical data sets and come up with some really groundbreaking insights, we’re starting to see that. And that can happen in design, it can happen in manufacture, and in the support space. And I think in the operational space as well.”

With the breadth of advanced technologies at its disposal, the British defence industry is set to undergo a significant transformation as it advances further into Industry 4.0.

“I don't think we've ever faced before such an array of really exciting technology as we do today,” Spragg concludes. “Which is a good thing; because I think the cost and capability and schedule challenges are probably greater than ever as well. So, in a sense it's sort of primed for change and to do things differently.”