The future of British combat air power in the second drone age

Whilst the UK is already acquiring the latest version of the Predator armed drone, which it is choosing to call Protector, behind the scenes it is also developing new complex combat aircraft and systems to project force and fight wars in the future. Here Tim Street gives an overview of what is happening and discusses how these developments are incorporating lessons learned from drone warfare over the past 15 years.

FCAS: RAF mock up of Tempest aircraft operating with 'loyal wingman' drones
Future Combat Air Systems (FCAS): RAF mock up of Tempest aircraft operating with ‘loyal wingman’ drones

What is the future for combat air power involving the UK and the world’s other leading military nations? More specifically, what types of new technology are being developed in this area? And how does this relate to the second drone age, which is characterised by rapid horizontal and vertical proliferation? Such questions are currently under discussion, with several countries—including the UK—in the process of deciding whether to spend further billions to develop and acquire advanced capabilities for their air forces. This is partly because the current generation of fighter jets will begin retiring from service in the 2030s and 2040s. The next generation of combat aircraft will form a central part of what is often described in a European context as Future Combat Air Systems (FCAS). The FCAS concept refers to a ‘system of systems’, including primarily offensive, war-fighting weapons designed to achieve air superiority. 

The UK has been developing its own FCAS since 2015 to replace its Typhoon jets, which will retire in the mid-2030s. British research and development on FCAS has centred on the Tempest aircraft project, which involves a consortium of arms companies. The UK has committed £2 billion since 2018 for the initial phase of this project, currently cooperating on it with Italy and Sweden, with other potential partners including Saudi Arabia and Japan. As Peter Burt notes, since 2017, the RAF has also been ‘exploring options for a low cost, low maintenance drone as part of the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) programme’, which includes the Mosquito project. LANCA may, in future, operate ‘in partnership with fast jets such as the Typhoon, F35 Lightning, or the next-generation Tempest aircraft’.

What is FCAS and why does it matter?

The FCAS projects underway represent a new approach to air combat, based around the concept of a collection of systems, providing more flexibility than relying on a single platform, such as a fighter jet. For example, the joint French and German-led FCAS project aims to connect manned and unmanned aircraft as part of a network with support assets. It is likely that fighter jets will thus end up being complemented, rather than replaced, by armed drones—specifically, Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs).

Until now, the drones used by the UK and US for operations in the Middle East and Africa, such as Predator and Reaper, have been Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS). UCAVs differ from RPAS as they are designed to fight with other nation’s aircraft for air supremacy. RPAS often operate in permissive airspace, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, which means that they don’t need to be able to defend themselves from other aircraft.

The question of the extent to which aircraft will be manned or unmanned in future is seen by military powers as an important concern for several reasons. For example, certain NATO member states think acquiring UCAVs could address the problem of having limited numbers of crew available for manned aircraft and the need to have larger numbers of lower cost aircraft which are more expendable in battle.

In addition, in the UK’s case, there is the issue of insufficient air crew being available to fly armed drones. This has been caused by difficulties in recruitment and retention, with crews suffering from the psychological stresses and strains of drone warfare, in addition to an awareness of the social stigma attached to their profession. According to the MOD’s permanent secretary, such personnel shortages threaten the UK’s ability to sustain its future drone operations.

Team Tempest graphic

In terms of the opposition to the adoption of autonomy by air forces, some believe that pilots give better situational understanding, whilst others point to the problem of hacking and lost communication links. For groups such as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, meanwhile, the prospect of lethal autonomous weapon systems being deployed has led them to pressure governments to ensure that the use of force remains under meaningful human control, to ensure compliance with legal and ethical requirements.

Analysts have previously speculated as to whether the US is choosing to stick with manned fighters or has developed secret UCAV programmes which it prefers to keep hidden from its competitors. One recent US project which has garnered some discussion—and may indicate a change in direction by the US—is named Skyborg, and involves UCAVs driven by artificial intelligence.

Elsewhere, China is developing different UCAV concepts, which largely remain cloaked in secrecy. Russia, meanwhile, has also begun developing stealthy UCAVs, although the question remains open as to whether such projects will come to fruition given the technological barriers involved. Overall, in addition to the ethical, legal and security issues raised by the proliferation of UCAVs over the next decade, the possibility of these systems being exported by the world’s major powers is deeply concerning.

In addition to autonomy, FCAS being developed may eventually incorporate other advanced capabilities, including swarming, stealth, and directed energy and hypersonic weapons. Modern air forces need such technology, proponents in the UK and US claim, partly because of the rise in sensors which can better detect their aircraft. In addition, Russia and China are deploying a range of defensive capabilities and countermeasures in an attempt to disrupt NATO nations’ advanced aircraft and level the playing field.

The onset of FCAS therefore represents a potentially destabilising development, particularly if autonomous weapons are deployed by NATO member states in conflict zones where Chinese or Russian combat aircraft are also present. The possibility of a war involving NATO, China and / or Russia is growing, in what many analysts view as an emerging era of great power competition, which could escalate to the use of nuclear weapons.

The UK, France and Germany’s approach to FCAS

How each of the leading European military powers will decide whether to procure FCAS, and, if so, what type, will not only depend upon military concerns, but several other overlapping political and strategic issues with domestic and international consequences. For example, decisions on the future of FCAS will have implications for such nation’s ability to maintain a sovereign production capacity for advanced military technology.

Airbus video on their Future Combat Air System (FCAS)

Originally, the UK was part of a joint FCAS project with France for an unmanned aircraft. This would combine technologies developed under BAE System’s Taranis project (begun in 2006), and the French nEUROn stealth drone project (begun in 2003). However, Brexit has complicated matters and the idea of a joint UK-France project proceeding is now in doubt. Furthermore, France has begun a separate FCAS project with Germany.

In the UK’s case, Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) argues that because the majority of its ‘conventional firepower’ will ‘likely remain’ delivered by the air force, this means that ‘the viability of combat air as a whole must be maintained if the UK wishes to remain a credible warfighting power.’ Developing new technology, such as FCAS, requires the British government to massively subsidise military industry, including through support for arms exports, which make the production costs of advanced military systems sustainable. Furthermore, for European powers such as the UK, France and Germany, international partnerships are needed to spread the costs of projects like FCAS.

However, Bronk states that the UK cannot afford all the different types of aircraft it is currently procuring and developing and will need to choose which to acquire, and in what numbers (including F-35s and Protector armed drones) based on the type of future conflict it expects to be involved in and its likely opponents. Others have suggested that the UK’s expenditure on Tempest is the price of entry for it to keep up with US military technology. For Sebastien Roblin, the consequence of a ‘failed Tempest project’ could be that British companies are relegated ‘to building components for other jets like the F-35 instead of for domestic jet fighter designs.’ Similarly, Douglas Barrie of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)  notes that without programmes such as FCAS, ‘Europe would be faced with buying its combat-air needs ‘off the shelf’, most likely from the United States, with the resulting loss of industrial capabilities and sovereign control.’

In terms of France and Germany’s decision-making calculus, the two leading European military powers are considering what will follow their existing Rafale and Typhoon jets when they retire between 2035 and 2040. Notably, another possible role for France and Germany’s 6th generation combat aircraft is to carry nuclear weapons. France’s has its own nuclear arsenal, which includes an air-based component, whilst Germany participates in NATO’s nuclear sharing mission.

Each country in the Franco-German FCAS project has a national industrial coordinator, including Airbus for Germany and Dassault for France. These two companies, usually competitors, are cooperating on this project by focusing on different areas. In 2019 Spain (via arms company Indra) also joined this project, which opened up the possibility of support from the European Defence Fund.

As Bronk explains, future decisions on FCAS for each of these nations will be influenced by their strategic outlook. For France, which is regularly involved in overseas military interventions, ‘the primary driver for next generation combat-air systems is to find a way to shift the burden of attrition away from scarce manned assets such as Rafale or any manned successor.’ Germany’s more limited priority, meanwhile, concerns the ‘defence of NATO airspace’ and the provision of air-based fire support to ‘Allied ground units on NATO soil during a conventional attack scenario’.

From France’s perspective, because Germany has less ambitious ideas about the missions these aircraft should be used for, whilst it ‘may be the ideal partner from a political and economic point of view’, it represents a ‘problematic bilateral partner for the development of next generation combat-air systems’. London’s preference for global power projection thus appears to provide a more suitable match for Paris and may eventually lead to a rekindling of the relationship between France and the UK on FCAS.

In terms of alternatives to further militarisation and the acquisition of advanced forms of air power, the public health emergency brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic has led to growing calls around the world for governments to prioritise spending on civil goods and services. There is also a clear opportunity here to address the climate emergency by shifting the world’s major economies towards green production, which would be popular with global publics. Ultimately, building global peace and security also requires the leading military powers to devote much more energy to arms control, disarmament and strategic restraint. Whether they will do so will largely depend on whether the international community and domestic political forces in the US can achieve progressive reforms so that Washington prioritises multilateral diplomacy over military intervention.

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