On Monday the U.K. revealed their concept for a next-generation fighter that seemed to borrow heavily from the U.S. led F-35 program with one notable difference: they claim this new jet will be functional both as a manned and unmanned aircraft.
The new fighter, which U.K. Secretary of Defense Gavin Williamson called the Tempest, will be a joint venture developed by BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Leonardo, and MBDA. The full-scale mock-up of the fighter unveiled on Monday, however, may not actually be an accurate depiction of the jet that will eventually replace the U.K.’s existing fleet of Typhoon fighter jets. As Williamson pointed out, the U.K. is currently excluded from an ongoing fighter development program helmed by France and Germany — but their unveiling of the Tempest should also be interpreted as a willingness to partner with other nations in the development of a European-grown advanced fighter for the twenty-first century.
“It shows our allies that we are open to working together to protect the skies in an increasingly threatening future — and this concept model is just a glimpse into what the future could look like,” Williamson said.
Aside from a drone capability, Williamson also added that the Tempest will come equipped with lasers and drone swarms, and will be designed to be resilient to weapons employed in cyber attacks, not unlike those claimed to be under development by Russia in their forthcoming Porubshchik 2 electronic warfare aircraft.
“We are entering a dangerous new era of warfare, so our focus has to be on the future,” he said. “We have an ironclad plan to deliver this.”
Williamson offered little more in the way of details, but then, that’s because no further details truly can exist quite yet. The announcement was much more a declaration of intent than it was an unveiling of the U.K.’s latest foray into air superiority. The program has already been allocated approximately £2 billion (U.S. $2.6 billion) over the next seven years, at which point it can be expected that the U.K. government, along with any formal partners they’ve gathered along the way, will need to decide as to the aircraft’s future.
As this aircraft and others like it inch toward production, a conversation will likely arise regarding just what generation these new fighters will belong to. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, F-22 Raptor, and to questionable extent, Russia’s rare Su-57 and China’s J-20 are all considered fifth-generation fighters — differentiated from their predecessors primarily by the incorporation of stealth in the airframe design. A number of other elements that are often considered standard in fifth generation aircraft are advanced avionics, data link capabilities and the capability to serve as a multi-role aircraft. However, each of these elements can be found to some extent in previous generation fighters.
It stands to reason that the Tempest could potentially serve as the first of a sixth-generation of fighters — an aircraft that comes with all the trappings of a fifth-generation fighter but offers the added versatility of carrying out missions sans pilot. This blurring of lines between unmanned aerial combat vehicle (UCAV) and manned fighter could feasibly be the dividing line between fifth and sixth generation fighters — and if not, the consensus of the definition of “fifth-generation” will almost certainly need to be amended.
“Measure us not on what we say, but the outcomes,” said Air Vice-Marshal Simon Rochelle, chief of staff of capability for the Royal Air Force. “We are learning all of the lessons of the past. It is inevitable we will get some of this wrong … but we are making a good start.”
You can watch the unveiling of the Tempest below:
Featured image: British Defence Secretary launches Combat Air Strategy at Farnborough International Air Show. | U.K Ministry of Defence