In particular, the Tempest’s directed-energy weapon could be used defensively to take out missiles, including hypersonics.
The Tempest program is a sixth-generation fighter that its backers envision as being optionally manned, able to interact with swarms of drones, incorporate the latest in hypersonic weapons, and of course be highly stealthy.
What the design would ultimately look like is known only from several mockups, and may be subject to change.
Arguably one of the most cutting-edge technologies the British and Italian design consortium would like to incorporate on the platform is laser weaponry.
If a laser weapon could be mated to the platform, the Tempest could possess a powerful defensive capability.
However, the challenges from an engineering perspective are not inconsiderable.
Laser Weapons: Just a Dream?
Several countries, including the United States, have made strides in recent years to design and test laser weapons with the ultimate goal of arming surface ships. You can read more about the United States’ progress here, as well as Germany’s initial foray into naval laser weapons here.
Mating a laser weapon to a ship is a significantly easier engineering feat compared to an airplane thanks to two important factors: onboard real estate, as well as energy generation potential.
Naval ships are just plain bigger than fighter jets, with more room to place laser weapons that can sometimes be bulky — it would be easier, in theory, to mount a laser weapon to a ship’s bow than finding space on an already space-poor jet airframe.
Power is also a liming factor: ships generate huge amounts of electrical power that can be harnessed to power a laser weapon, whereas current 5th generation jet airplanes generate significantly less amounts of electrical power.
The only feasible way to mate a laser weapon to a jet airframe would be via a state-of-the-art generation — which is exactly what the Tempest program would like to do.
One UK Ministry of Defense release states exactly that and explained that the Tempest design team is “designing a generator that delivers unprecedented levels of electrical power,” though what that means more concretely is currently unknown.
More specific details about the project remain to be seen, though information will no about become available in the future. One this is certain, however: given the current lack of a European-designed 5th generation stealth fighter, a European-designed 6th generation fighter would be a huge challenge.
The jury is still out on if the Tempest will move from mockups to reality.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.