:: July 2020 Letter ::


Dear Fellow Once And Future Air Show Attendees,

Here’s a phrase you can’t find with a Google search: “I miss the Farnborough Air Show.” You can’t Google it because nobody has ever written, said, or even thought that phrase. Farnborough is an obligation, and let’s face it, not having to go made this a more pleasant July than usual. But I do miss hanging around the pub with friends and colleagues at the end of each day, following the inevitable three hour slog through London traffic. In an effort to replicate that fun pub experience, I asked a bunch of pals what they thought about Tempest, which if Farnborough happened this month, would be the biggest topic of conversation.

First, me. I like Tempest. Yes, it’s unfortunate that its unveiling coincided with Brexit, but the UK hasn’t built its own fighter since the TSR2 cancellation (and the end of the English Electric Lightning program) ended decades of combat aircraft sovereignty. What aeronautical anglophile wouldn’t love its return? Besides, as I argued here (, it’s possible that that Germany will defect from SCAF/FCAS and join Tempest instead, making the UK a pan-European project leader.

Barry Eccleston, former Airbus Americas President and CEO, scoffs at Tempest, calling it “TSR3.” He also makes three painfully sardonic points: “The reality is Europe should learn the lesson of Airbus: that is if they unite against the Americans it is far more effective and powerful than pretending to defend against some undefined threat.” and “The reality is the UK can never afford this, even with the cash-rich Italians to bail them out...” and “The reality is by 2040 the UK will need either no pilots (the system would be better without one)...or one pilot (because there will only be enough money for one airplane).”

Yikes. Tough crowd in this e-pub. But Barry’s a hardcore jetliner guy, and commercial aero people tend to view combat jets as an irritant, at best. So, let’s hear from another Brit: Keith Hayward, retired Royal Aeronautical Society analyst (and current historian). Doesn’t get any more Ye Olde England than that, but he’s kind of scathing too. He says BAE/Wharton is brilliant at prototyping, but UK industry has never been great at series production; it simply lacks the scale and volume. Worse, Keith posits that Tempest might be nothing more than leverage for the UK to get a bigger role on future US combat aircraft: “If excluded from European action, the logical thing to do! I have this feeling that a death of UK money will emphasize the American end of BAES; that’s where the profits are, if not the political kudos.”

Okay, that’s worse. Maybe other Americans will think like me. Sure enough, Vago Muradian, editor of Defense & Aerospace Report, points out that the UK worked on the Tempest concept for years before it was revealed, and that Saab brings low-cost development and production, and Leonardo aircraft and systems capabilities. Most intriguingly, he points out that Italy and the UK have considerable manufacturing insight into the only high-volume fifth generation fighter program, through their key national roles in the F-35; the three SCAF partners have none.

Sash Tusa of Agency Partners, my fellow commentator on Vago’s weekly business podcast, comes forward as the first British Tempest fan in this virtual bar. He laments the SCAF team’s anti-Tempest arguments, and blames them for the Brexit/Tempest juxtaposition argument. He also observes an interesting split: “Dassault/France has made this [its unwillingness to not be a project leader] more explicit, and hence is already blocking any possibility of a rapprochement. Whereas Airbus (Germany) might actually welcome it.” So, he sees Germany’s position as I do.

Joel Johnson, Teal’s Executive Director – International, is next, and, as usual, he’s got a lot to add. He points out that they’ve got F-35s for Day One combat operations (presumably against Russia, the only high-end threat they could deploy forces against), and Typhoons for Day Two and after. So, he asks, “Is it worth building an entirely new [second] plane just to be able to play with the big boys on Day One?” As an alternative, he proposes a UK hypersonic weapons program. But since we’re talking in a pub, he adds, “Admittedly, it’s much more fun to belly up to the bar with a white scarf and announce you're the best damn fighter pilot in town, than to suggest you're one step beyond playing the modern-day version of Atari or PlayStation, but with real rockets, but at least you'd be in the game.”

Joel also makes the point that the political factors influencing European fighter decisions will be different “if the US elects Biden and we announce that we are back to being a responsible player with an appreciation for allies, as opposed to stomping out of the Western alliance sandbox (after kicking sand at the other kids) and going it alone.” An internationalist US administration might diminish European go-it-alone impulses.

Doug Birkey, Executive Director at Mitchell Institute, also thinks it’s all about cost-effectiveness; given the RAF’s size, does it make sense to spend billions on new platform development when off-the-shelf acquisitions (i.e., more F-35s) would be much more cost-effective? And, “Added to this, I think the timelines driven by an internationally teamed effort, which is necessary for finance, will slow the development at a time when speed is essential for relevance. We clearly saw this with Typhoon and A400. So what was a difficult charge a few months ago now looks quite daunting in a post-COVID-19 and Brexit world.”

Doug also thinks an RAF B-21 acquisition would be a solid alternative to Tempest. For those of us with numerous books on the UK’s V bomber programs in our libraries, this would be seriously gratifying. As Doug puts it, “In many ways, they never recovered their power projection capabilities after Vulcan sunset and post-Cold War drawdowns have not made things any better.” But I’d point out that unlike Joel’s hypersonics alternative, a B-21 buy would have no benefit to the UK’s aerospace industry, unless they want a FACO for 12 bombers.

So, I’ve come out of this virtual post-FAS pub session with my pro-Tempest views challenged (but not overridden). Thankfully, the program remains beyond the range of our usual ten year forecast. I can make a decision after proper pub research in person, at a future, real FAS.

But I like to end these letters on a funny note. JJ Gertler, Military Aircraft Specialist at the Congressional Research Service, is here to help: “The main reason for Tempest may be to equip the 2040 Battle of Brexit Memorial Flight.”

Yours, ‘Til Le Bourget 2021 Features In-Person Café Conversations,
Richard Aboulafia

© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.
  ~  Last updated on January 08, 2006