Last Monday, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense presented a Command Paper to Parliament outlining plans to radically transform the British military in the 2020s.
Alongside significant cuts and reorganization of the Army (described in a companion article), the white paper described a much slimmer but modestly modernized Royal Air Force in the 2020s, confirmed funding for the UK’s next-generation Tempest stealth fighter program targeted for service in the mid-2030s, and notably declined to spell out how many F-35 stealth jets London intends to buy.
Betting on Tempest
The Command Paper reiterates Whitehall’s intention to spend £2 billion ($2.58 billion) by 2025 on the UK’s Future Combat Air System program (not to be confused with the similar Franco-German led program of the same name!), which notably includes the Tempest sixth-generation stealth jet.
Tempest is being developed in partnership with Italy and Sweden with service entry targeted at 2035-2040. The paper also evinces the hope of partnering with Japan, which is separately developing its own sixth-generation jet.
In addition to low-observable characteristics, Tempest would feature networked sensors and datalinks, adaptive cycle engines which can reconfigure themselves depending on flight profile while generating ample electricity for powerful sensors and directed energy weapons, and drone-control capabilities.
Until later in 2020, there had been mounting doubts that the UK defense budget could spare the funding to properly develop Tempest, which likely will entail £25 billion at a minimum. But with the £2 billion seeded, the program will acquire momentum that may prove difficult to reverse. One motivating factor: Tempest may represent the UK’s only hope to retain an aerospace industrial base capable of independently developing a jet fighter.
The Mystery of the United Kingdom’s F-35 Buy
Tempest aside, the British military currently relies on Lockheed F-35 Lightning II stealth jets for strike and reconnaissance missions against adversaries with modern air defense systems.
Additionally, the UK is receiving an order of forty-eight F-35B stealth jump jets. These aircraft will be flown by the RAF’s 617 Squadron and the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm 809 Naval Air Squadron off the decks of the Royal Navy’s two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.
But as they will not be ready for operational deployment until 2023, meanwhile the Queen Elizabeth is deploying with U.S. Marine Corps F-35B units onboard.
Originally, London envisioned a total order of 138 F-35s, including possibly cheaper land-based F-35A mode. But the UK’s commitment to that number has shrunk as evidence of the F-35’s high operating costs has mounted.
The Command Paper cagily promises to “grow the [F-35] Force, increasing the fleet size beyond the 48 aircraft that we have already ordered.”
Grow, yes, but by how much? Currently, the entire F-35 jet fleet appears dedicated to either training or carrier-based operations, leaving few free for land-based deployments.
Unfortunately, the British military restructuring is partly premised on leveraging stealthy deep reconnaissance capabilities offered by the F-35 fighter jet. But that doesn’t work if British Lightning are mostly dedicated to supporting occasional carrier patrols in the Pacific Ocean.
British military aerospace analyst Justin Bronk lays out this conundrum in an article:
joint force is being shaped to rely heavily on targeting data and situational awareness generated by penetrating air assets [ie. stealth aircraft] to enable deep fires, agile manoeuvre, shaping activities and basic survival against state opponents. Therefore, this lack of detail on F-35 or other penetrating ISTAR assets is a major omission. Forty-eight F-35Bs are sufficient to sustainably generate around 12 jets for carrier deployments, but precious little else.
Regardless, the command paper states the Ministry of Defense “will integrate more UK weapons onto Lightning II and invest to ensure that its software and capability are updated alongside the rest of the global F-35 fleet.”
The document also makes an unsurprising commitment to fully upgrading British F-35 jets with the expensive Block 4 upgrade, which will coincidentally enable employment of country-specific weaponry on the F-35 jets. For the UK that includes the SPEAR cruise missiles and the highly lethal Meteor beyond-visual- range air-to-air missile.
The white paper also commits to completing the development of SPEAR Capability 3, an air-launched cruise missile with a range of eighty-five miles and a built-in multi-mode seeker (radar, infrared, and laser) allowing it to autonomously acquire and home in on moving targets. An electronic attack variant of SPEAR serving as both a jamming and decoy system is also in the works.
Typhoons: Fewer but Better
Currently, the RAF’s core combat strength comes from its Typhoon non-stealth multirole fighters. More agile than the strike-oriented F-35 jet and even most U.S. non-stealth jets, the Typhoon’s chief shortcoming is its lack of world-class Active Electronically Scanned Array radar.
That’s set to change as the Ministery of Defense integrates the ECRS Mark 2 radar on its forty most advanced Typhoon Tranche 3 jets. The new radar will allow Typhoons to detect more targets at greater distances, quickly integrate threat library updates, and simultaneously scan for both air and ground targets while blinding threats with high-powered jamming.
On the flip side, however, the RAF will retire its earlier, limited-capability Typhoon Tranche 1 jets in 2025. That will leave the RAF with 107 operational Tranche 2 and 3 Typhoons in seven squadrons doing most of the legwork until Tempest enters service in 2035 at the earliest.
Capabilities Maintained, Capacity Downsized
Outside flashy manned combat aircraft, the Ministry of Defense is retiring older platforms to afford smaller fleets of newer types—maintaining capability but generally resulting in decreased capacity.
For example, the UK’s five E-3D Sentry Airborne Early Warning aircraft with rotating “pizza dish” radars in favor of only three new Boeing E-7 Wedgetail aircraft based on the 737 airliner, due to enter service in 2023.
The Wedgetail is certainly a trade-up, particularly its capability to track fast-moving threats with low-radar cross-sections like stealth fighters or cruise missiles. But three aircraft is too few to provide routine availability when factoring in maintenance and servicing realities.
The Air Mobility fleet will also shrink as it lets go of fourteen C-130J Hercules transport aircraft just as it completes reception of twenty-two A400M Atlas transports. The Atlases boast superior payload (40.75 tons versus 21-tons on the C-130J-30), but it still amounts to a net decrease in capacity.
Finally, the RAF and Royal Navy will phase out their Hawk T1 jet trainers, which entered service in 1976. The T1s serve primarily in No. 100 squadron as aggressor aircraft (mock opponents) as well as in the Red Arrows aerobatic teams.
Trainees will make do with greater use of simulator training and 28 remaining Hawk T2 Advanced Jet Trainers which entered service in 2009, featuring digital “glass” flight computers with enhanced training software, new engines, and redesigned aerodynamic surfaces.
More, Deadlier Drones
Fortunately, the RAF is sticking to its buy of nine capable P-8 maritime patrol planes and replacing its older Chinook heavy transport helicopters with the latest CH-47F/G models.
But one fleet is set to notably grow: the UK’s armed drones (or UCAVs).
The RAF plans to replace its current fleet of ten MQ-9 Reapers in two squadrons with sixteen specially tailored MQ-9B Protector RG1s, which will debut in 2023 in a third UCAV squadron. The protector boasts improved range and endurance, de-icing capability, compatibility with British Brimstone missiles, and certification to operate over European airspace thanks to the detect-and-avoid capability to avoid collisions with civil aviation.
While not so cheap as to be expendable, the Protectors are more cost-efficient to operate per flight hour than manned combat aircraft for lengthy surveillance and strike missions against enemies that lack air defense capability. The growth of the drone fleet therefore will economize on the more expensive flight hours of Typhoons and F-35B jets.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com , and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.