Tempestuous relations: Brexit and UK future drone developments

Tempest concept image

In May 2017, Chair of BAE Systems, Sir Roger Carr, blithely insisted at the company’s AGM that Brexit would have no impact whatsoever on the on-going development of the new Anglo-French advanced combat drone.  “We will still be working with the EU on defence, certainly in terms of fighting terrorism, and we can preserve our relationship with France in developing the next generation of unmanned aircraft,” he told shareholders.

Just two months later Carr had to eat his words as a major realignment of European aerospace programmes saw France sign a surprise agreement with Germany to develop a new future combat aircraft.  While both BAE Systems and France’s Dassault tried to argue that research work on the Anglo-French combat drone could continue in parallel with the new German deal, silence about the programme at the Anglo-French Summit in January 2018 confirmed that the drone programme was in serious trouble due to uncertainties around Brexit.

Seemingly in response, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson unveiled a full-scale model of a potential new British combat aircraft – Tempest – alongside publishing the UK’s Combat Air Strategy at the Farnborough Air Show in late July. The new initiative, as Defense News put it, “essentially replaces the Anglo-French FCAS program.”

Like many projects at the pipe dream stage, we are being told that the proposed new aircraft will be utterly amazing and capable of doing almost anything:

  • “An operational platform could be manned or unmanned, and capable of deploying swarming munitions and carrying a laser directed-energy weapon,” reported Flight Global;
  • “An artificial-intelligence-driven autonomous flight system would allow the aircraft to fly without a pilot on board, coordinating instead with other fighter jets,  said Wired;
  • “Tempest will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to ensure its weapons hit their targets. It will also carry energy weapons that fire concentrated bursts of laser, microwave or particle beams to inflict damage.” according to The Sun.
Graphic published about the potential wonders of Tempest

While Tempest received a great deal of media coverage, it is hard to see, at this stage, much substance behind the PR.  “None of it is real. It’s wishful thinking” Labour MP and member of the Defence Select Committee, Ruth Smeeth, told the Financial Times.  Other analysts argued that it was perhaps “more significant politically than technologically or aeronautically.”

The Franco-German Future Combat Air System and the new Tempest project are in addition to the European MALE project currently being developed by Airbus and Dassault and it is very hard to see how all of these programmes could be sustained financially.  Its seems far more likely that this is all political posturing and positioning  ahead of some future alignment post-Brexit.  Importantly, despite talk of government and industry ‘pledges’ of £2bn, there will be no financial decision about government spending on Tempest until 2025. In the current climate that is light years away.

As Louise Brooke-Holland notes in her House of Common briefing ‘From Typhoon to Tempest

“Whether the UK eventually partners France and Germany, or forges ahead on a separate programme with other partners, won’t become clear for some time. It is quite possible the three nations will eventually work together.”

Besides the smoke and mirrors on  whether the UK could actually afford economically or politically to proceed independently of its European allies on a new programme, Justin Bronk of RUSI nails the other inherent contradiction in the project on the head:

The Tempest will supposedly be flyable by a pilot in the cockpit or capable of operating as a drone – an arrangement known as ‘optionally manned’ in aviation circles. However, most of the design advantages gained by eliminating the need for an onboard crew are clearly lost in an optionally manned design. It still requires a cockpit, life support systems, physical controls and an instrumentation/information display system for the pilot, all of which add weight, complexity, reduce the space available for fuel, weapons and sensors, and the need for a canopy fairing limits how stealthy the airframe can be made. Perhaps more importantly, if pilots are to be trained for the Tempest, this will require expensive peacetime flying to train and maintain pilot proficiency. The fact that a UCAV can, in theory, stay on the ground, with operators trained simply with simulated aircraft except during actual operational missions, is a key potential cost-saving feature of unmanned alternatives to fast jets, but this would be largely lost with an optionally manned type. On the other hand, while the ability to fly high-risk missions unmanned, to reduce the risk to human pilots, is theoretically useful, the extra electronic complexity and programming risk needed to develop a combat aircraft capable of operating in complex and contested environments without a pilot on board is still required.

While Gavin Williamson will no doubt be very pleased with the press coverage that Tempest has received, and Brexiteers will be convinced that Britain can simply go it alone in developing the new aircraft, the reality is that like many other projects, the UK’s involvement in developing a future drone appears to be on hold pending negotiations around Brexit.

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