The ongoing Combat Air Strategy under development within the Ministry of Defence faces a difficult choice, with significant capability, industrial and geopolitical cost trade-offs involved. The F-35 is at the centre of this dilemma.
The RAF and Royal Navy are poised for the arrival of the first four F-35Bs into their permanent base at RAF Marham in June, with a further five to follow soon after. After a long and expensive development and testing programme, the aircraft is finally delivering impressive capabilities in its early operational deployments and will only improve over time as its critical software-enabled functions mature and evolve. In capability terms, the UK is in an excellent position since the F-35 has strengths and weaknesses which almost perfectly dovetail with the RAF’s current mainstay – the Typhoon FGR.4. The F-35, a stealthy and extremely capable sensor platform, is able to operate inside modern surface-to-air missile (SAM) coverage and conduct electronic warfare, penetrating strike and reconnaissance in ways that the Typhoon cannot. At the same time, the Typhoon can operate higher, faster and at longer ranges than the F-35 with more missiles and standoff munitions, all at significantly lower operating cost – making it ideal for air defence, offensive counter air, and close air support missions outside areas with modern SAM coverage. Together, the two aircraft can offer a force package greater than the sum of its parts, and which is more capable than a force of the same number of aircraft composed of solely one type or the other. However, from a political and industrial angle – things are not quite so rosy.
BAE Systems, which is one of the prime partners within the Eurofighter consortium that produced Typhoon, and which also produces significant parts of each F-35 built globally, faces a major problem. While ongoing upgrades to Typhoon for customers such as Kuwait and Qatar, and potentially Germany, help to maintain a core of design, integration and testing skills in the workforce, the Typhoon production line is unlikely to stay open beyond the mid-2020s. The F-35, meanwhile, provides a huge potential source of income for BAE Systems as a subsystem manufacturer within the global F-35 supply chain but it does not provide employment for the critical skilled individuals required to take a leading role in the design, development and manufacture of a new combat aircraft. Manufacturing parts for the F-35 also does not help to generate new intellectual property for BAE Systems, or indeed other UK subcomponent contractors. In order to secure its Tier 1 partner position and influence within the F-35 programme, the UK had to ‘buy in’ with intellectual property as well as funds. The same was true for Tornado and Eurofighter, since industrial partners gain workshare and national influence over design and specifications of any combat aircraft programme based on what they can offer to the project.
Without a new combat aircraft project during the 2020s, BAE Systems will lose the ability to take part in future programmes as a leading industrial player. Once gone, such expertise will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to regenerate within the budget of a small to medium power like the UK. Enter the Combat Air Strategy; which is as much about trying to keep BAE Systems in the combat air business beyond Typhoon as it is about combat air capabilities in operational terms. There are a few potential avenues for the company and the UK as a whole to get involved in the generation of a new combat air platform or systems.
The Turkish TF-X and Japanese ‘F-3’ future fighter programmes are both potentially of great interest in terms of offering an opportunity for BAE Systems to take part in design and production work. But both would require primary manufacture and final assembly to take place in Turkey and Japan, respectively, so neither are not idea solutions even if BAE Systems can secure a place as primary partner. On the other hand, the Franco-German ambition, announced in July 2017, to develop a new combat air system within Europe is a much more tempting prospect for BAE, since it has long held a central role in such European development programmes and could much more easily negotiate for RAF-suited specifications and domestic manufacturing and development workshare than would be possible in a deal with partners outside Europe. There is also a clear need for British support within the Franco-German proto-programme, since it faces significant hurdles between the political ambition announced and the development of an actual capability.
Essentially, France has significantly more stringent and wide-ranging operational capability requirements for a follow-on to the Rafale in the 2030s than Germany perceives for a Typhoon replacement in the 2040s timeframe. Having the UK as part of a consortium would add weight to France’s arguments for what it sees as a suitable level of capability ambition in the new system. UK involvement would also contribute significant expertise in terms of high-end electronical warfare, signature reduction (stealth) technologies and sensors.
There is also a Franco-German awareness that the most significant shortcoming of the Rafale is the Snecma M88 engine, which leaves it underpowered compared to Typhoon and offers far less growth potential. The Eurojet EJ-200, which powers Typhoon and which was developed primarily by Rolls Royce on the back of work done on the Tornado’s RB-199, is widely recognised as one of the most reliable and efficient high-thrust military engines in the world, and is equally regarded as an excellent basis for future developments. Rolls Royce is the only real option for a European next-generation afterburning turbofan for a future combat aircraft, given the company’s huge commercial turbofan market share and consequent R&D capacity and expertise, as well as its pedigree on the EJ-200. Since the engines and their integration into the airframe and systems has historically been the largest and most expensive single component of combat aircraft design, involving the UK, and Rolls Royce by extension, would be a huge boost to a future European combat air systems’ chances.
From the German perspective, there is also an awareness that France is fiercely protective of Dassault and is already trying hard to make sure that any future fighter is essentially a Dassault airframe design with some German/Airbus input. Having the UK within a consortium would add another vote to such workshare and design decisions, and would enable Germany to have a greater level of design and specifications input by virtue of being a third and potentially decisive ‘vote’ within a trio, rather than the less ambitious and experienced partner in a duo. The UK would also act as a partial safeguard against French threats to ‘go it alone’ if they did not get their way in disputes, as occurred within the original consortium that birthed the Eurofighter.
However, for the Ministry of Defence and the UK government as a whole, the desire to be a part of such a European combat air capability effort, and the strong arguments from an industrial and political perspective for doing so, runs up against the lack of any financial or programmatic headspace within which to do so. Simply put, the UK’s longstanding commitment to purchase 138 jets as part of its Tier 1 partner status within the F-35 programme is such a large financial outlay that it cannot be completed within currently foreseen defence spending levels before the mid-2030s at the earliest. While the government has agreed to a firm order for 48 jets by 2023 in order to ensure that there is at least one squadron’s worth deployable on the Queen Elizabeth class carriers by that time, it is still unclear when the following 90 jets will be ordered and at what price – since the unit costs vary by production lot and airframe variant. With the UK’s F-35 acquisition programme stretching well into the 2030s, and with so many other competing priorities for scarce funds for defence in an era of renewed great power confrontation, there is simply no space within the RAF’s equipment plan for the development and acquisition of a new combat air system or platform during the 2020s and early 2030s.
Without, at least, a theoretically credible RAF order accompanied by significant contributions to the development, testing and production of a new combat air system, BAE Systems will not be able to secure a meaningful place in any new European development programme. However, to create the capacity for such a commitment within the equipment programme, the Ministry of Defence would have little choice but to significantly reduce its ambition to purchase the 90 F-35s expected by the US after the initial 48. This is likely to go down extremely badly with a US administration that sees trans-Atlantic ties in very transactional terms, and which presides over a US Air Force that faces severe affordability challenges for its own massive F-35 acquisition and operating programme in the 2020s. Any public reduction in orders from the UK – the only Tier 1 partner in the F-35 programme – could increase costs and uncertainties around the programme precisely when the US Air Force can least afford them. Given the need for a strong trans-Atlantic political relationship in light of Brexit and the return of Russia as a major security threat – an F-35 order reduction is unlikely in the foreseeable future, and so the UK’s chances of playing a major part in a new European combat air project look slim.
Research Fellow for Airpower, RUSI
Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology