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Combat Air Strategy

Volume 718: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2022

The 2018 combat air strategy set out how the UK will deliver the military capability we need to operate in highly contested environments, boost our industrial capability and maximise our international influence. My Department actively maintains our Typhoon and F-35B Lightning fleets at the cutting edge. This enables them to project UK influence and uphold international security from the south Atlantic and north sea, where Typhoon is responsible for controlling the UK’s skies through sustainment of a quick reaction alert capability, to East Asia, where in 2021 our F-35s, on board HMS Queen Elizabeth, undertook their first embarked operational deployment. The Future Combat Air System programme is undergoing important progress as we collaborate with international partners to design next generation technologies.

The RAF’s combat aircraft have been key to our ability to deal with the most pressing security issues of our time, from degrading Daesh, to policing NATO airspace, to deterring Russia.

Indeed, the operational need for advanced, capable, agile combat air is as evident now as it ever has been. In east Asia, the carrier strike group took part last year in exercises with air and naval forces from the United States, the Netherlands, Australia, France, Japan, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, Singapore and the Republic of Korea, building interoperability, demonstrating the reach of UK combat air, and putting into practice the integrated review’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific. As I submit this update to the House, RAF Typhoon aircraft are patrolling the skies above eastern Europe, at the vanguard of NATO’s collective security. There could be no clearer demonstration that we are steadfast in the defence of our shared values following Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

We must maintain the RAF’s ability to undertake these vital missions for decades to come and are working with close international partners to determine how FCAS could fulfil this role. The combat air strategy highlights the importance of air power in delivering our national security, but also the Government’s vision for a strong, prosperous and influential Global Britain, underpinned by a world-leading combat air sector. Combat air has a vital role to play in the UK’s national security, defence industrial capacity and international influence.

Military capability

The integrated review highlighted that there is a systemic competition under way to shape the international environment. From a combat air perspective, the key features of this competition will be efforts to dominate the operating environment and preserve or deny freedom of action, the rapid pace of technological change, and proliferation of advanced capabilities. This is the strategic context in which the integrated review said we would continue to develop FCAS and why the defence Command Paper reaffirmed that we will invest more than £2 billion in the programme out to 2025. This is part of a budget of more than £10 billion over the next 10 years, although the ultimate amount we invest will depend on key programme choices and the role that our international partners take in the programme.

Given the rate of technological advance, it is crucial that we have a system that can maintain its effectiveness against tomorrow’s threats. Our entire approach to military capability acquisition must respond to this reality. Consequently, we are designing a capability with truly 21st-century characteristics. These include an open systems architecture that will allow modularity and rapid upgrade, the exploitation of machine learning to augment and support human operators, and the use of digital networks and data to ensure operational advantage.

The next generation of combat air will be defined as much by the “how” as by the “what”. For example, we are exploring how our future capability could be more than a traditional combat air platform, but the vital connected heart and mind of an integrated combat air system. This will mean the ability to contribute to and utilise wide-ranging capabilities, from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to command and control and air defence. The core platform would be one vital element of a broader combat system that links seamlessly with other units in the air, on land and at sea, bringing these together to maximise effect. Central to the strides we are taking are advances in data processing, communication networks, sensor fusion and sophisticated effectors. We will continue to exploit technology in the way we train, using synthetic training for an expanding number of professions from aircrew to air traffic controllers and battlespace managers.

Last summer we awarded a national contract, initially worth £250 million, for concept and assessment work under the FCAS acquisition programme. This will define and begin design of FCAS and secure the infrastructure to underpin cutting-edge digital engineering, data and software-based systems, to enable major programme choices by 2024. The contract was awarded to BAE Systems, with flow-through to Rolls-Royce, Leonardo UK and MBDA UK, collectively known as Team Tempest, and a wider supply chain of UK of small and medium-sized enterprises and academic institutions.

To drive forward further development, a series of demonstration and test activities are being planned throughout this decade. At the centre of this activity will be a next generation flying demonstrator, currently being developed by the MOD and Team Tempest industry partners. It will be a crewed core platform concept capable of supersonic flight and is expected to take to the skies for the first time within the next five years. This UK project is now being expanded to include involvement from Italy.

While we press ahead with work to develop concepts for FCAS, we are also enhancing the capability of our existing combat air fleet. The continued development and production of Radar 2, Typhoon’s new electronically scanned array, will deliver a step change in capability. It will enable Typhoon to keep ahead of versatile and proliferating threats well into the next decade and offer a pathway for incremental development that will prepare Typhoon to operate in heavily contested and complex electro-magnetic environments. Our F-35 fleet reached initial operating capability (maritime) in 2020 and put this into practice in the carrier strike group in 2021, giving the UK its first low-observable, carrier-based, fifth-generation combat air capability. We also continue to develop cutting-edge complex weapons, including the Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon and the SPEAR family of missiles.

Industrial capability and levelling up

The question of how is equally important to the design, development, and manufacturing processes for our future combat air capability. The UK must break the boom and bust acquisition cycles that have been a hallmark of previous combat air programmes and move the sector to a more stable footing. In line with the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy, this would help us to sustain the UK’s defence industry as a “strategic capability” and safeguard our operational independence, the ability “to conduct military operations as we choose without external political interference, and to protect the sensitive technologies that underpin those capabilities”.

Cutting-edge design and manufacturing capabilities will also be increasingly central to how UK combat air capability is delivered, maintained and upgraded. We have partnered with industry to develop advanced Industry 4.0 technologies, such as digital design and additive manufacturing.

BAE Systems’ new factory of the future in Lancashire is illustrative of this progress. It demonstrates integrated and agile manufacturing capabilities including advanced 3D printing and autonomous robotics. It is a team effort with more than 40 blue chip and SME companies and academic institutions collaborating, driving the best of UK innovation and highlighting what it can achieve.

A digital-first approach, whereby we maximise the extent to which we design and test in the digital world, will be central to fast and affordable delivery. For example, additive manufacturing is reducing the number of components needed to manufacture key parts, while digital testing means that aerodynamics can be trialled more quickly and to a greater level of fidelity before the need to produce models for testing in wind tunnels. These technologies are already delivering in weeks what previously took months, and in days what until recently took weeks.

This approach requires people throughout the enterprise who can truly understand, seize and exploit the benefits of digital working. The people designing FCAS today, whose careers in science and industry are being launched by the programme, represent our vision for a “generation tempest”. Our core industry partners employ 1,000 apprentices and graduates working on FCAS, and this figure is growing. The tempest early careers network gives opportunities to the next generation of leaders to work together across Government and industry to solve design and engineering challenges. To drive the skills agenda forward, Team Tempest partners are launching a national recruitment and skills initiative to attract the diverse talent and expertise needed across the country to support the programme. This will see a substantial expansion in the recruitment of apprentices and graduates.

More broadly, the FCAS Enterprise now employs around 2,500 personnel including engineers and programmers and recruitment is set to expand. This is part of a wider industrial eco-system focused on combat air, with hundreds of companies and academic institutions across the UK and key workforce clusters in the north-west and south-west of England and in Scotland. The defence Command Paper noted the many thousands directly employed by the sector and the tens of thousands more in the supply chain.

Indeed, combat air has a key role to play in supporting the Government’s levelling-up agenda. For example, as noted in the levelling-up White Paper itself, the FCAS technology initiative, a research and development programme in partnership with industry and SMEs, has already invested £1 billion in R&D across the UK and will invest a further £1 billion over the coming years. There have been impressive developments in many technology areas, including power and propulsion, airframes, sensors, open mission systems, communications, and weapons integration. This work is now fully embedded into the FCAS acquisition programme as we draw on those crucial technology areas. Vitally, a close link exists between FCAS and Typhoon, allowing future FCAS technologies to be considered for integration into Typhoon as part of Typhoon’s long-term evolution.

F-35 and Typhoon continue to play key roles in supporting defence industrial hubs across the UK and hundreds of companies in the broader supply chain. In north Wales, Sealand Support Services Ltd has declared a repair capability that will support F-35 for years to come. Key elements of the thousands of F-35 aircraft being manufactured for air forces across the globe continue to be made in the UK, such as the aircraft tails at BAE System’s site at Samlesbury. Meanwhile, the Typhoon long-term evolution study has entered its second phase and, alongside Radar 2, will secure hundreds of highly skilled jobs at Leonardo’s sites in Edinburgh and Luton, BAE Systems’ sites in Lancashire and with Meggitt in Stevenage. The Typhoon Total Availability Enterprise (TyTAN), an innovative agreement with UK industry, continues to see substantial reductions in Typhoon’s support costs while enhancing its availability for crucial operations, such as QRA. BAE Systems continues to provide essential sustainment support to both Typhoon and F-35B Lightning at RAF Lossiemouth, Coningsby and Marham.

International influence

The UK has extensive experience in delivering combat air programmes through global partnerships, from Tornado, to Typhoon and F-35, built on strong political, industrial, operational and training relationships. Continuing in this vein, and to maximise the synergies of working with close partners, we are exploring means to deliver FCAS under a UK-initiated international partnership, to achieve an affordable state-of-the-art capability and support the UK’s sovereignty, freedom of action and industrial base. This approach supports the DSIS international co-operation objectives of delivering effective capability based on common requirements, improving value, attracting international investment and bolstering UK influence. The UK is now conducting joint concept analysis with Italy and Japan to understand each other’s military requirements, areas of commonality, and to explore potential future combat air partnership options. We and our partners intend to make further decisions on this by the end of 2022. We will also continue to explore working with other allies and strategic partners on future combat air.

This will build upon the substantial work already undertaken. In line with the integrated review, we have continued to work with Italy and Sweden, as underpinned by our trilateral memorandum of understanding. Both countries have a strong record in the development of combat air and our industries have a history of close collaboration, as demonstrated by Italy’s central role in the Eurofighter programme and Sweden’s development of the Gripen aircraft. Building on our respective expertise, we have worked with both countries and learned from regular exchanges and collaboration between our engineers and technical experts.

Over the past year, we have also worked increasingly closely with Japan and have agreed to develop a joint engine demonstrator, supported by Rolls-Royce’s world-class capabilities, and to explore expanding the relationship. This partnership is underpinned by an overarching memorandum of co-operation signed in December 2021. In February, we followed this up by announcing an agreement to jointly conduct co-operative research on a world-leading fighter jet sensor, supported by Leonardo UK’s highly skilled engineers.

Our next step in the development of FCAS is to complete the concept and assessment phase of the programme by 2025. This means maturing technologies currently under development, such as the propulsion system, working with industry to grow our national digital design and testing capabilities, and increasing the recruitment of people with the right skills. At the same time, we will continue to invest in our Typhoon and F-35 fleets, ensuring that the UK’s combat air capability is always ready to undertake the missions required of it and meet the goals set out in the combat air strategy.

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