Richard North, 21/07/2020  

In December 2005, I wrote a blogpost entitled end of the line, recounting the words of then Defence Secretary John Reid on the introduction of the Eurofighter and the F-35 (Joint Strike Fighter).

It was Reid's view at the time that these aircraft would last us 30 years, following which the government did not envisage needing to design and build a future generation of manned fast jets beyond the current projects.

Commenting on this, the journal DefenceNews suggested that the MoD appeared to have formally brought down the curtain on the design and development of fast jet aircraft in the UK. This was as far as it went, it was the end of the line.

I've thought about this a great deal in the interim, and there seemed some sense in the idea. Many military aviation functions were (and are) being taken over by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs – irritatingly called drones), and it only seemed a matter of time before design effort went into building an "interceptor drone" – faster, lighter and better armed - that would allow its pilots to stay safely on the ground.

Actually, in a sense, we've already got these, in the form of air-to-air anti-aircraft missiles. Not only are these missiles getting more capable, we also have fire and forget, beyond-the-horizon versions.

The certainty of a "kill" therefore, became a function of how fast a launch platform can get into position, and the efficacy of the radar and other detection systems, which would give you the first-launch capability. Those who could get in first became the victors.

On that basis, the type of aircraft we were then deploying – the Eurofighter – already seemed obsolete, as a concept. What was the point of producing an agile dogfighter which could meet and match the Sukhoi Su-57 which was then in development, when the opposing aircraft would never see each other, relying on long-range missiles to knock each other out.

A better idea, I thought, would be to look at air defence systems as a whole, the core of which was the AWACS (Airborne Early Warning and Control System). The logic, it seemed to me, would be to cut out the middle man – the fighter – and mount missiles directly on the AWACS.

Since these were constantly airborne, there would no longer be a need to scramble jets in the event of an incursion. The missiles would already be airborne, 24/7, ready for use as required.

There are obvious limitations to this concept. It is hard, for instance, to intercept an errant airliner with an AWACS and escort it to a designated airfield, and you lose out on any multi-role capabilities, such as using the aircraft for ground attack functions.

Anyhow, it turns out that both Reid and my ideas were largely theoretical. The UK government is now committed to developing a new combat aircraft. The decision was made in 2018 by the May administration, after the French and Germans had excluded the UK from their own joint project which, as a political project, would safeguard and foster Europe's "political and industrial autonomy and sovereignty in the defence sector".

The background to this decision should bring smiles to even the most lukewarm Eurosceptic because what is now the NGF (New Generation Fighter) started off life as the FCAS (Future Combat Aerial System), a distinctly European project which, like the Eurofighter, could well have involved the UK, initially working with Spain, France and Germany.

Now, with the advent of Brexit, what has now become NGF is the first major European military aviation project since the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (which became the Tornado) which hasn't involved the UK. This is Brexit in practice as we go our separate ways.

That separation is hardly a surprise. Says Doug Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, "Look at any European bilateral or multilateral programme over the past three or four decades and Politics - with a capital P - is always a challenge". Without the politics, in this case the binding force of the EU, the chances of successful technical cooperation are remote.

As for the British project, this is to be called the Tempest, doubtless because it follows on from the Typhoon, which is the name the RAF have given to the Eurofighter. And Reid wasn't altogether wrong. It will have the option of being flown autonomously (i.e., as a UAV) or by a pilot.

With government seed funding of £2 billion, it was thought at the time that industry would match those funds, the project taking in BAE Systems, Leonardo, MBDA and Rolls-Royce, partnering with the MoD to create "Team Tempest".

The project was given a "ridiculous timeline", with Gavin Williamson, then defence secretary, wanting to see the aircraft fly by 2025. That was never going to happen.

Fast-forward two years and we are now in the position (which was always recognised) where it is conceded that we can't afford the "eye-watering" costs of going it alone with next generation military technology.

Thus we have the current defence secretary Ben Wallace appealing for other countries to join in the project. Sweden and Italy have already joined, which is interesting as they are both EU countries. With Spain, Germany and France going the NGF route, that doesn't say much for the much-touted European defence identity.

For some nations, the idea of a British-led project might have some attractions, allowing the dependence on US systems to be reduced. With the F-35, for instance, there was a long-running argument about whether the United States would release the source code for the aircraft, opening up the possibility that, if control was retained, a command code could be included which would enable the US to shut down the aircraft if it was put to a use for which it did not approve.

Interestingly, this isn't the only defence project from which we've been excluded. Berlin and Paris also signed up to the production of a new tank, coded the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS). This project is to be led by the Germans, who had initially called it the Leopard 3.

Some reports suggest that this vehicle will be a composite of the Leopard 2 Chassis and the French Leclerc turret, which makes it not so much next generation as bodged generation. However, the capability of modern AFVs – and much of the value – lies in the electronic sub-systems and, in particular, the network capability. However, at first sight, it doesn't look to be comparable with the Russian T-14 Armata.

With the British Challenger IIs getting a bit long in the tooth, the MoD is going for a Life Extension Programme to keep the vehicle in service until 2035. This, in itself, represent a significant departure from European plans, where the MoD was planning on spending £12 billion on FRES (Future Rapid Effects System) which was to be our airmobile armoured contribution to the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF).

But what speaks far louder than words is the divergence in hardware and systems from the Europeans. There was much concern about the UK being absorbed into the European Defence Identity, eventually becoming part of the European Army. That, however, was led by common procurement, managed by the European Defence Agency.

Now that we are going it alone with Brexit, we also seem to be breaking away on the military front. The likelihood of European defence integration now seems to be receding.

Ironically, though, that doesn't give us the ability to go it alone. The fearsome costs of new technology are such that all it means is that we will have to acquire a different set of partners.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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