London is hedging its stealth bets by attempting to field not just the F-35—the domestically developed Tempest stealth fighter will also swell the Royal Air Force’s fleet.
From the Harrier Jump Jet to the F-35B
The United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force just received three brand-new F-35B stealth fighters, the defense publication Jane’s reported. The three new fighters are to be based out of the RAF’s Marham airbase, located about 100 miles northwest of London.
In total, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense has ordered a total of 48 F-35Bs, the short takeoff and vertical landing variant of the F-35 platform, of which 7 still have to be delivered. The F-35B is capable of take-off and landing from both land and at sea, though at the moment the focus for British F-35Bs will be to reconstitute the Royal Navy’s carrier-capable STOL aircraft capability that was lost in the early 2010s with the retirement of the Harrier II jump jet.
But, the F-35B isn’t the only stealth fighter that the United Kingdom is investing in. A domestically-designed and built option called the Tempest will diversify the UK’s stealth fighter fleet.
An international consortium of European aerospace and defense company heavyweights, spearheaded by the British BAE Systems, but also including several Italian firms, are set to start work on the Tempest, a 6th generation stealth fighter.
Hopes are high for the Tempest, which would carry a wide array of cutting-edge weapons, including hypersonic missiles, directed-energy (i.e. laser) weapons, swarming-type weapons, and could even be optionally manned.
Still, despite the high hopes for the platform, which is expected to fully replace the aging Eurofighter Typhoon sometime in the 2030s, the Tempest is currently represented by mockups only.
Show Me the Money
The United Kingdom’s stealth diversification strategy may have been prompted by financial constraints. The F-35 stealth fighter is the costliest weapon system in history, and certainly a major factor in the United Kingdom’s decision to acquire a paltry 48 of the advanced fighter. By partnering with other European companies for the Tempest’s development, costs can in theory be spread out, resulting in a lower per-unit price point.
Still, a diverse number of manufacturers is no silver bullet. Multiple interests can translate into multiple design requirements, hampering platform, or weapon effectiveness.
The F-35B is arguably one of, if not the world’s most capable stealth fighter, and brings an important high-end capability to the United Kingdom. And though quite a bit of work remains to be done on the Tempest, the domestic stealth option may allow the UK to field a credible stealth capability at a more affordable price. Stay tuned for future information on both UK F-35 procurement, as well as more details on the UK-led Tempest.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer with the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.