Seeking to secure funding, BAE Systems claims its billions-worth Tempest jet program will be affordable, create thousands of jobs, and feature cutting-edge software and eco-friendly tech. It sounds a lot like the US’s F-35 fiasco.

Once the fifth-generation jet becomes operational in 2035, swarms of drones will accompany it into combat, while its pilot will have an AI “avatar” copilot helping them focus on commanding the mission, not flying the plane. Its radar will be 10,000 times more powerful. A “virtual cockpit” will eliminate buttons and enable flying by gesture. The program will pour £35.3 billion ($45.5 billion) into the UK economy and support as many as 20,000 jobs a year!

These are all the claims BAE made in a public-relations blitz on Thursday, teasing the details of a study it commissioned to persuade the government of Boris Johnson that it should fully fund the program rather than scrap it amid the economic crunch of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 20,000 jobs per year would happen from 2026 to 2050, BAE’s chief technology officer Nigel Whitehead argued in a Sky News interview, calling the program “extremely ambitious and fantastic” and “making great progress.”

The Tempest will be “highly-capable, adaptable and affordable,” featuring “augmented reality and artificial reality,” said Whitehead. BAE even has a “fantastic” new engine concept, which will make the Tempest faster while producing less carbon-dioxide, he added.

All of these claims come from a study BAE commissioned about the program, which it intends to present to 10 Downing Street by the end of the year in order to secure the ongoing commitment to the jet, first proposed in 2018.

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BAE’s PR blitz comes at a time when Ben Wallace’s MoD is contemplating the proposal to mothball its tank force as too expensive to maintain. Officials behind the plan argue that tanks – invented in Britain during the First World War – are obsolete in modern warfare and should be replaced by high-tech systems.

London has already pledged some £2 billion ($2.58 billion) to the Tempest, and the Royal United Services Institute has estimated the program’s price tag to be at least £25 billion ($32.25 billion). By comparison, the entire UK military budget in 2019 was just short of £40 billion, while the Combat Air budget for the next decade is £18 billion – and at least half of it is intended for buying the F-35 from the Americans.

While the cost of the Tempest may seem sensible compared to, say, the Pentagon’s $1.5 trillion (£1.16 trillion) estimated lifetime cost of the Lockheed Martin jet, that still won’t make the money magically appear. 

The F-35 was pitched to the Pentagon as a multipurpose platform featuring the newest technology that would actually make it cheaper than its pricey F-22 predecessor. The final product fell far short of the promised capabilities, however, while continuing to be plagued by structural and software problems.

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The F-35 production has gone so poorly, in fact, that the Royal Navy has been unable to secure enough for an air wing to operate from its flagship, the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth II. The planes aren’t expected until 2023, so the current plans envision “loaning” the carrier to the US Marine Corps starting in 2021.

The UK has committed to buying at least 48 F-35B jets through 2025, at the cost of £9.1 billion including training and maintenance – and another 90 jets thereafter. Meanwhile, the Tempest is being pitched as a replacement for the current RAF workhorse, the Eurofighter Typhoon, as well as a lifeline to the British aerospace industry.

Building the jet is “critical to ensuring the UK can sustain its world-leading combat air sector, preserving the sovereign capability that is essential to retaining military freedom of action,” Michael Christie, BAE’s director of the Combat Air Acquisition Programme, told the Daily Mirror. 

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