RAF drone programmes fly into stormy skies

BAe System image of Tempest aircraft with accompanying drones

Funding for the ‘Tempest’ Future Combat Air System which is intended to replace the RAF’s Typhoon aircraft is “significantly less than required” and “adds significant overall programme risk” to delivery of the new jet, according to a report on government project management published jointly by HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

In its first assessment of the Tempest programme the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), which reports jointly to the two government departments, reveals that successful delivery of the aircraft is already “in doubt”.  Another high profile drone project, delivery of the RAF’s new ‘Protector’ aircraft, rated a similar assessment.

Tempest is under joint development by Italy, Sweden, and the UK as the next generation combat aircraft for the three nations – a high performance, high cost system consisting of a core aircraft, which is likely to be able to fly in both crewed and uncrewed modes, with an associated network of swarming drones, sensors, and data systems.

The IPA, which each year rates the performance of government departments in delivering major projects, has scored the Future Combat Air System programme with an Amber / Red risk rating in its report for the 2020-21 financial year.  This means that “successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to address these problems and assess whether resolution is feasible”. 

This is the first year that the IPA has included the Tempest programme in its annual assessment.  The inauspicious debut is the result of a government decision to claw back funding for development of the aircraft from the level proposed during preparation of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.  The IPA data reveals that spending on the Tempest programme over the next four year phase has been reduced from £1.65 billion allocated through the Integrated Review to a lower figure of £1.2 billion following the government’s 2021 budgeting cycle.  The IPA reports that the new budget “was significantly less than required”.  Although it “preserves the feasibility of the programme within current parameters”, it adds “significant overall programme risk, particularly to the assumed date for Initial Operating Capability”.

The IPA report gives a snapshot of the situation for each of the projects reviewed as of March 2021, when the government’s financial year ends.  Whether action has been taken to address the Tempest budget situation since then remains unclear.  A recent Ministry of Defence (MoD) press release announcing the award of a £250 million contract with the ‘Team Tempest’ industrial partners who will deliver the project stated that the award “forms part of more than £2 billion worth of UK Government spending on the project over the next 4 years”.

The Tempest programme is currently in its concept and assessment phase, with further decisions about costs, requirements, and timescales to be made at later stages as the project matures.  For the first time costs for Tempest have been published.  Funding committed for the programme at the present time is £9.47 billion, with an anticipated whole life cost for the programme of £72 billion, covering both acquisition and running costs until the aircraft leaves service in 2070.

New SkyGuardian drone which the UK is calling ‘Protector’

The Royal Air Force’s flagship Protector drone programme, to replace current Reaper drones with the newer SkyGuardian version, is also in difficulties.  The Protector programme is rated as Amber / Red by the IPA, again indicating doubts over its successful delivery.  This represents a decline in performance since last year, when the project received an Amber rating.

Unsurprisingly, the problems which Protector is experiencing were not mentioned in an up-beat announcement last month from the MoD publicising the award of a £195 million contract for the purchase of a further 13 Protector aircraft, in addition to three already ordered.  The IPA’s analysis provides no further clues about the reasons for the decline in project performance, having been censored by the MoD on the grounds that publishing this information would prejudice the defence of the United Kingdom.  Commentaries in IPA Reports over previous years have highlighted factors relating to recruitment of personnel into the RAF’s drone programme, and in a letter to the chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Select Committee in November 2019, the MoD’s Permanent Secretary stated that “the most significant risk to the Protector Programme is the RAF’s ability to generate and sustain the volume of trained personnel necessary to assure IOC [Initial Operating Capability] in Nov 2023 …  training and retaining sufficient RPAS [Remotely Piloted Aircraft System] crews has historically proved challenging”.

The Protector programme was “rebaselined” in 2019 when it became apparent that the project could not be delivered within its original timetable and costs estimate.  The project’s budget was increased to a total of £1,155 million and the in-service date for the first aircraft has been delayed until mid-2024.  Although the RAF still expect the first of the drones to be delivered in 2023 and enter service by mid-2024, the out of service date for the last of the sixteen drones has now slipped from 2035 until 2038.

The costs of the Protector programme continue to rise, with a slight overspend of £5 million (3 per cent of the planned budget) over the last financial year, and a projected increase in the whole life costs of Protector, which has risen from the rebaselined estimate of £1,155 million (itself an increase of £325.6 million above the original budget for the programme as approved in 2016) to a current estimate of £1,347.  The increased costs are the result of the inclusion of Detect and Avoid systems, foreign currency exchange rate increases, and extension of the out of service date for the drone.

The ill-fated Watchkeeper drone, which in previous years has been included in the IPA’s reporting, does not feature in this year’s report as Watchkeeper has now arrived at the end of its procurement programme and has finally limped into service with the Army.  The future for Watchkeeper remains unclear.  The drone hit the headlines when it was used briefly to provide support to the UK Border Force in monitoring irregular migration across the Channel last autumn, but flew in this role for a period of only two months.  During this period Watchkeeper aircraft were only permitted to fly in certain areas covered by temporary airspace restrictions and could only fly in suitable weather.  According to the Defence Command Paper ‘Defence in a competitive age’, published as part of the government’s Integrated Review, the Army will “retain and upgrade Watchkeeper”.  It remains to be seen whether Watchkeeper can make a niche for itself in military operations.  Given that Watchkeeper cannot fly safely under certain conditions, placing restrictions on its use, to many observers the pledge to upgrade the drone will appear to be throwing good money after bad.

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