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A mock-up of the Tempest aircraft in 2019

Gambling Responsibly and the UK Tempest Programme: Experiences, Risks and Opportunities

Trevor Taylor
Occasional Papers, 16 November 2020
Defence, Industries and Society, UK Integrated Review 2020, UK, UK Defence
The Tempest programme should be recognised as central to the credibility of the UK's claim to be an independent military actor. This paper explores its risks and opportunities.

The Tempest programme for a new combat aircraft is arguably the most ambitious in the Ministry of Defence’s portfolio, bringing significant risks and sizeable as yet unknown costs, but also extensive potential benefits. Only the Dreadnought programme might be seen as a rival in terms of difficulty. This paper shows how the Tempest programme can bring potential benefits and how its inherent risks are being managed with prudence. 

The development of combat aircraft is an inherently risky activity, with many past examples in the UK and elsewhere being marked by cost overruns and delays. However, there are several reasons to hope that this may not be the case with Tempest: 

  • The consortium is using a heavily digitised approach to design, development, testing and production which should both speed development and cut testing costs in particular. The US shares similar hopes for aircraft development. 
  • Government and industry are working together to generate a requirements set that meets military priorities while remaining feasible in terms of the time and funding available. 
  • There is a significant period until 2025 for technical risk reduction in terms of individual components and sub-systems, a strategic approach endorsed by the Government Accountability Office in the US. With risks much reduced, the UK government should be able to require that companies be incentivised to perform in the later development and production phases through Target Cost and Incentive Fee contracts. 
  • The four major companies at the centre of the programme have a creditable track record in recent years, and are incentivised to perform well by having to invest significant sums of their own money in development efforts and by the knowledge that there will be a ceiling on government readiness to spend on this project. There is little danger of their feeling complacent. 
  • Sweden and Italy have been signed up as provisional partners, bringing additional expertise and funding. 

However, if good progress is not made, the UK government will have the option of cutting its losses and not putting Tempest through the ‘Main Gate’ approval point in 2025 or early 2026. This would represent a major setback for UK industry and the national prosperity levelling-up agenda, and for the international image of the UK as a capable hi-tech state, one of the very few currently able to take on the tasks associated with developing a fifth/sixth-generation combat jet. It would also fatally wound the government’s credibility about being able to use its armed forces as it sees fit, without foreign control. The UK’s dependence on external suppliers, especially the US, would be publicly underlined in bold text. 

In focusing on a piloted aircraft rather than just an unmanned system, the UK shares the judgement of other major powers including the US that, while the use of unmanned air systems, both remotely controlled and autonomous, will increase, there will still be a need for an aircraft with a pilot to manage its capabilities in complex, dynamic and of course hostile environments. 

Success for Tempest would mean, besides the generation of a valuable military asset, that a major sector of British industry will gain expertise in digital engineering and manufacture, which could be spread well beyond aerospace. Already, Tempest has meant that a whole new generation of more than 1,000 apprentices are being taken on who will have core expertise with digitised manufacturing technology. It will also mean that a range of export possibilities will open up going well beyond the sale of finished airframes, bringing political as well as economic benefit. Finally, it would be a tangible manifestation putting particular meaning into the phrase ‘Global Britain’ as well as bringing long-term, extra-EU links with important states in Europe. 

Thus, the Tempest project is risky but potentially extremely valuable in multiple dimensions, and the structuring of management activities in the coming five years means that significant risk reduction can take place. In committing to the Combat Air Strategy of which Tempest is a core part, the government is clearly taking risks but, as the commercials ask of us all, it is gambling responsibly.

BANNER IMAGE: A mock-up of Tempest in 2019. Courtesy of Swadim/CC BY-SA 4.0.

Trevor Taylor
Professorial Research Fellow, Defence, Industries and Society

Trevor Taylor is Professorial Research Fellow in Defence Management at RUSI, where he heads up a research programme in Defence,... read more

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