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Prospects for combat air: What follows Typhoon and Lightning?

Published Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Ministry of Defence is developing a Combat Air Strategy to look at the UK's future Combat Air requirements. This Commons Library briefing paper looks at the RAF's current and future combat aircraft fleet, the UK aerospace industry and prospects for international collaboration.

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The Ministry of Defence is developing a Combat Air Strategy as part of the Modernising Defence Programme. The aerospace sector accounted for 70% of UK defence exports in 2016 and the Government describes the UK as a leader in air sector technology and capability.

MPs have been calling for a sector analysis of the defence aerospace industry for some time. Last year the MOD published a National Shipbuilding Strategy which laid out the Government’s plans to work with Industry to develop future navy surface ships, starting with the new Type 31e frigates. The Ministry also refreshed its defence industrial policy last year and, early this year, launched the Modernising Defence Programme.

The MOD has not indicated when the Strategy will be released. It has said the headline conclusions of the Modernising Defence Programme will be announced in time for the next NATO Summit (11-12 July 2018).

Assessing the options for the UK’s future combat air requirements

The MOD says the strategy will “set the framework and timeline to assess options for the UK’s future Combat Air requirements and associated decision making”. One driver of the strategy is the need to begin thinking now about what combat air capabilities the RAF will be flying in the 2040s.

The RAF currently flies Tornado and Typhoon aircraft and will shortly introduce the new stealthy Lightning aircraft. Tornado will then retire in 2019, leaving Typhoon and Lightning to continue in service for the next couple of decades. The MOD is yet to decide on the choice of variant of the remaining 90 F-35 aircraft it intends to order.

The Future Combat Air System

Work has already begun on possible options under the Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative. Any new combat aircraft is likely to be developed with at least one other country. The UK has been working with France for the last few years on an unmanned combat air system demonstrator programme. However, the future of that was thrown into doubt last year when France teamed up with Germany to develop its own Future Combat Air System.

Unlike the National Shipbuilding Strategy, which focused heavily on the initial need for new frigates and longer-term on replacements for other vessels, the Combat Air Strategy may scope out the alternative or additional ways defence can fulfil the requirements of combat air that are not confined to the traditional combat aircraft model.

£18bn on combat air

The MOD will spend £18bn over the next ten years to the combat air sector. About half is allocated to Lightning procurement and support and the rest for Typhoon capability enhancements, unmanned air systems and military flying training. A further £13bn will be spent on weapons, including integrating air-to-ground weapons onto Typhoon and the new SPEAR missile for Lightning.

Positive response from industry and unions

UK industry and unions have broadly welcomed the focus on Combat Air and the Government’s pledge to “consider operational capability, technological advantage, economic benefits, industrial capability, capacity and skills, as well as international partnering, wider prosperity and export potential.”

ADS, the trade body for the aerospace and defence industry, said it presented an opportunity for industry and Government to “work together to ensure the UK remains a world leading military air power and a highly competitive and capable option in the export market. The trade union Unite called on the Government to “move swiftly to secure the UK’s ability to build combat aircraft and ensure that capability isn’t outsourced to foreign powers”.

Protecting and retaining UK skills and jobs is a significant concern for UK and European industry. Airbus and Dassault Aviation explicitly cited the need to retain European sovereignty and strategic autonomy when they agreed to work together on developing and producing a Future Combat Air System capability for France and Germany.

A defence space strategy?

It is unclear whether the Strategy will also discuss defence space policy or whether this will be a separate strand. The current disagreement between the UK and the EU over the UK’s access to the Galileo satellite navigation system after Brexit has brought space to the fore.


Commons Briefing papers CBP-8304

Author: Louisa Brooke-Holland

Topics: Armed forces, Aviation, Defence equipment and procurement, Defence policy, EU defence policy

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