Team Tempest leads the way for UK’s Future Combat Air System

The UK is developing a sixth-generation fighter jet incorporating the most modern open-architecture technology to stay ahead of future threats. Norbert Neumann speaks to Tempest programme partner BAE Systems about the current status of the project and delves into specifics about the system’s potential capabilities.

The UK is developing a sixth-generation fighter jet incorporating the most modern open-architecture technology to exploit and stay ahead of future threats. The Tempest programme involves five main partners. Norbert Neumann speaks to one, BAE Systems, about the current status of the project and delves into specifics about the system’s potential capabilities.

The Combat Air Strategy was launched in 2018 and established the path for the future combat air capability for the UK and Tempest, a proposed Future Combat Air System (FCAS) was born. At the end of July, BAE Systems signed an approximately £250m contract with the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) to progress the design and develop the next-generation FCAS.

The project’s concept and assessment phase will be carried out by Team Tempest, a UK-led partnership of BAE Systems, Leonardo UK, MBDA UK and Rolls-Royce, working closely with the MOD. But a wider international partnership also plays a vital role in meeting the goals set out in the UK’s ambitious vision for future air combat.

The FCAS concept 

The MOD published the Defence Command Paper in March, setting out a significant strategic investment in the Tempest programme over the next four years by the UK Government.

BAE Systems senior communications manager Matthew Squires tells us: “The continued funding announced by the secretary of state underlines the UK Government’s confidence in the progress and maturity of the programme, which is set to deliver the military, industrial and economic requirements of the national combat air strategy.

“The concept and assessment phase will see the Tempest partners working together to develop a range of digital concepts, embedding new tools and techniques to design, evaluate and shape the final design and capability requirements of FCAS.”

Squires adds that during this phase, Team Tempest remains closely engaged with partners in Sweden and Italy in a continuation of international collaboration.

We recognise that the future operating environment will be quickly evolving and increasingly complex.

The project aims to deliver initial operating capabilities by the middle of the 2030s.

Future air combat is set to become ever more complex and technologically advanced, meaning air forces won’t be able to rely on traditional platforms alone. It depends on connecting systems across all domains – including cyber – and capabilities, to enable an air force that can stay ahead of evolving threats.

Squires says: “We recognise that the future operating environment will be quickly evolving and increasingly complex, with rapid technological advancements, especially in areas like sensing, information management, connectivity and autonomy. A connected ‘system of systems’ – across the air domain but also connected to the land, sea, cyber, and, increasingly, space, domains – will be vital to adapting to this fast-changing environment.”

At the heart of the FCAS, a connected, agile and flexible future aircraft must be able to interact with and leverage other capabilities to maximise its competence, he adds.

“Information advantage and data will be a key driver at the centre of this – with platforms across all domains being able to seamlessly exchange and interpret huge amounts of data to provide armed forces with a complete picture of that future battlespace.”

//  The MOD’s Combat Air Strategy first proposed a Future Combat Air System.

Flexible, upgradable and cost-effective

The Tempest programme offers an open system architecture that allows swift adaptability and upgradability as part of its digital design concept. This enables the system to quickly be prepared for threats not yet identified, and for forces to modify capabilities accordingly. Squires says the digital method also contributes to the technology’s mission support and maintenance and how those are delivered in the future.

“Wind tunnel testing work is just one example of how we have adopted this approach already. Using the latest digital twin technologies, conceptual shapes for an aircraft were virtually designed and tested, with high-performance computers able to calculate the aerodynamic performance of different aircraft features and test pilots taking Tempest to the skies from a ground-based simulator.

“Once digitally tested, scale models were 3D printed and tested at our wind tunnel facilities at our Warton site in the UK. As a result of this digital approach, work which would have traditionally taken several months was achieved in just days,” he says.

BAE Systems uses data from earlier trials combined with research and experience gathered during previous phases of the programme.

However, to deliver FCAS faster and more cost-effectively, the working method also needs to be transformed, says Squires.

“We will also create digital twins to test new components in a rapid, synthetic environment before they are added to a physical product, allowing us to significantly reduce the time involved in physical testing,” he explains.

Data created this way is fed into BAE Systems' Factory of the Future, which reduces the manufacturing period while ensuing high-quality airframe capabilities. Squires says that building, testing and refining capabilities in a synthetic environment allows innovation to a greater extent, not only in the design phases of the system but throughout the operational life cycle as well.

Virtual flight control system 

Collaborating with various small and medium-sized enterprises – including companies within the gaming and digital health industries – the team is working on an augmented and virtual reality-based cockpit concept, without any physical controls or displays.

Squires says: “At the heart of this ‘wearable cockpit’ is a next-generation, full-colour helmet, which is used to project augmented-reality, interactive cockpit displays and controls inside the visor, directly in front of the pilot’s eyes, overlaid on the real outside world, replacing the current physical layouts in today’s cockpits. That means those displays are completely and fully configurable and customisable according to the mission or pilot preference. Whereas physical cockpits are constrained by space, there would be no such issue in a wearable cockpit.”

With a system immensely reliant on data, the right data must be presented to the pilot at the right time to ensure mission success. To further enhance the cockpit capabilities, Squire says, the programme is looking to adopt technologies such as devices that can measure operator workload and mental stress, gesture control and eye-tracking.

He says there are still some unknowns, but the developers are also experimenting with an AI-fuelled virtual assistant, which alongside the other technologies could support the pilot if they become overwhelmed.

The Eurofighter Typhoon will receive many of the innovations first, as Team Tempest sees the aircraft’s technologies, sensor and human-machine interface synergies as one that could serve the programme best.

BAE Systems is mainly responsible for developing the project’s concepts and new technologies. Leonardo UK and MBDA UK will provide sensors effectors respectively, and Rolls-Royce is leading power and propulsion delivery.

Following extensive testing in a laboratory environment and some light aircraft flying, the next major step will be fast jet flight trials of some of the new technologies and capabilities.

// UK Minister for Defence Procurement Jeremy Quin (R) touring new WFEL Boxer Hall during Official Opening Event. Credit: WFEL

// Main image: Team Tempest is developing a sixth-generation fighter jet featuring cross-domain connectivity. All image credit: Team Tempest