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Combat Air Strategy

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 12 September 2023

The last update to the House on delivery of the combat air strategy was given during Farnborough international air show in July last year. DSEI London has brought the eyes of the world once again to the UK’s world-leading defence capabilities, making this a fitting time to provide a further update on the progress made over the last year.

The Government published the integrated review refresh in March, which lays out a strategic approach based on four pillars: shaping the international environment; deterring, defending and competing across all domains; bolstering our national resilience; and securing strategic advantage. The Defence Command Paper 2023 sets out how Defence will help the UK meet these aims through the interlinked objectives of protecting the nation and helping it prosper. With the world becoming increasingly contested and volatile it is clear, now more than at any time in a generation, that strong and capable combat air is crucial in enabling the UK to meet its core strategic objectives.

It is in this context that RAF fast jets have been conducting an intense schedule of operations and exercises, from eastern Europe to the middle east, and from the high north to Australia. It was with a keen eye to the UK’s future security and prosperity that in December 2022 we launched the global combat air programme (GCAP) with Japan and Italy.

Operations and exercises

Russia’s illegal, full-scale invasion of Ukraine has seen the UK step up its efforts to reassure our NATO allies in eastern Europe. In late 2022, RAF F-35B aircraft deployed on HMS Queen Elizabeth took part in operations with our NATO allies and joint expeditionary force partners above the waters of northern Europe, underscoring our shared commitment to European security. From March to July this year, the RAF led NATO’s Baltic air policing mission, intercepting 50 Russian aircraft and flying for a combined total of more than 500 hours. Operating from Amari air base in Estonia, RAF Typhoons conducted quick reaction alert (QRA) intercepts, demonstrating our willingness and ability to defend our allies. Typhoons have continued to operate from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus and from the Falkland Islands, simultaneously safeguarding our security and projecting UK influence. And of course, RAF Typhoons are on constant standby in the UK itself, to protect our own skies and intercept adversary aircraft when they approach our airspace.

Exercises also continue to play a fundamental role in demonstrating our military capability, interoperability with allies and partners, and our shared resolve. Major global deployments have been conducted, with F-35B Lightning aircraft taking part in Exercise Northern Edge in Alaska, and Typhoon playing a key role in Exercise Pitch Black in Australia. Exercises such as these make clear the RAF’s truly global reach and our commitment to Indo-Pacific security. Closer to home, the RAF has taken part in exercises that underline our commitment to Euro-Atlantic security, such as Air Defender in Germany and Tempest Strike/Tower Guardian with Norway and Estonia. In January, Typhoons from RAF Akrotiri exercised with Saudi Arabia, and in March we agreed a statement of intent to further strengthen our combat air relationship.

Across both operations and exercises, the way in which RAF fast jets operate has become fundamentally more agile, with air-to-air refuelling from both home bases and deployed locations, supported by a global network of allies and partners. This has helped the RAF to take part in operations and exercises with over 30 nations over the last 12 months, across Europe, the high north, the middle east and Indo-Pacific.

In addition to evolving how we operate, we continue to invest in our Typhoon and F-35B fleets to keep them ahead of the threat. In July, an £870 million five-year contract was awarded to BAE Systems and Leonardo UK to fit RAF Typhoons with the European common radar system (ECRS) Mk2, one the world’s most advanced, sustaining 600 UK engineering jobs in Edinburgh, Luton and Lancashire. Typhoon has already proven its export potential and we are working closely with industry to pursue further exports to close international partners. Meanwhile, the RAF continues to grow its F-35 fleet, with the next key programme milestone being the stand-up of 809 Naval Air Squadron in December.

The global combat air programme (GCAP)

In December 2022, the Prime Minister and his Japanese and Italian counterparts launched a partnership to design a next-generation combat aircraft to keep us ahead of the threat well into the second half of the century. We are currently in the early but crucial phases of the programme, developing and assessing concepts for a system with the most advanced capabilities, including machine learning to support human operators, open systems architecture to allow rapid and continual upgrade, and extensive digital networks linking forces across air, land and sea to bolster our overall operational advantage.

This is a strategic endeavour in which Japan and Italy are strong partners. Japan, renowned for its industrial base and with a commitment to increasing investment in its self-defence, has invested heavily in advanced combat air R&D, while Italy brings decades of shared experience on the Eurofighter programme. All three partners operate F-35. Progress is well under way, with the UK, Japan and Italy already working together across a range of areas, including concept design, a trilateral engine demonstrator, and advanced on-board electronics to ensure information advantage. The founding partners are open to exploring how others could become involved going forwards, to mutual benefit and aligned to programme schedule.

Here in the UK, the Ministry of Defence continues to work closely with BAE Systems, Leonardo UK, Rolls-Royce and MBDA UK, under the Team Tempest partnership. We are delivering at pace and in April awarded BAE Systems, on behalf of Team Tempest industry partners, a £656 million contract extension to progress vital concepting and technology work. In July, a £115 million contract was awarded to Leonardo UK to develop a flight test aircraft, to be delivered in partnership with 2Excel. Rapid progress is also being made on an advanced flying demonstrator that was announced at Farnborough air show last year, with over 150 hours of simulated flight trials and key aerodynamic engine and ejector seat testing undertaken.

This progress is being enabled by the long-term approach to capability delivery outlined in the 2018 combat air strategy, which recognised the vital importance of a strong and sustainable UK combat air sector. MOD has invested over £1.1 billion in R&D through the future combat air system technology initiative (FCAS TI), with a further £600 million from our Team Tempest industry partners to date, delivering advanced industrial technologies such as digital design and additive manufacturing. These technologies are revolutionising how we deliver advanced combat air, driving efficiency and cutting timelines. Looking ahead, the UK has a proposed budget of over £12 billion over the next 10 years, alongside robust funding from Japan and Italy. Funding requirements will continue to be refined as the programme matures.

In addition to investing in advanced industrial technologies, we are continually working to develop the skills base needed to succeed, now and in the future. The number of skilled people working on the programme is growing quickly, with approximately 3,000 across the UK’s Team Tempest partners, in major combat air hubs including the south-west and north-west of England and Edinburgh. We recognise that today’s students are tomorrow’s lead engineers, which is why we are reaching out to schools and universities, recruiting graduates and apprentices, and propelling them into long-term STEM careers while continuing to attract mature talent.

Next steps

UK combat air will remain crucial for our security and prosperity and that of our allies and partners, both on NATO’s borders with Russia and in the wider world. The RAF will continue to exercise its global reach, conducting operations and exercises from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. We will continue to invest in our Typhoon and F-35 fleets. On GCAP, we are working intensively with Japan and Italy to establish the core platform concept and the joint structures needed to launch the development phase in 2025, targeting entry into service in 2035.