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What combat aircraft will the RAF be flying in two decades time? The Combat Air Strategy, published in July 2018, sets out the Government’s ambition to develop a new combat air system that will fly alongside Typhoon and Lightning by 2035. The aerospace sector accounted for 87% of defence exports over the last ten years and the UK combat air sector has an annual turnover of over £6bn. The Defence Secretary said the strategy makes clear the UK intends to remain a ‘world leader’ in the combat air sector. The Government and industry have pledged £2bn over the next decade in the Future Combat Air System Technology Intiative. 

Tornado, Typhoon, Lightning… Tempest?

The RAF’s combat air fleet is about to undergo a massive change. The aging Tornado GR4 aircraft will leave service in 2019 and be replaced by the new Lightning (F-35) aircraft. Lightning will then partner Typhoon, until the latter leaves service around 2040. Typhoon’s successor is the focus of the Combat Air Strategy (Tempest was the name of a WW2 fighter aircraft although as yet it is only the name for the project team).

Why is a strategy needed now?

While it may seem premature to discuss an aircraft not required until the 2030s, developing and delivering into service combat aircraft takes decades. Tornado and Typhoon were first conceived in the late 1960s and 1980s respectively while Lightning can trace its procurement programme back to the late 1990s. Decisions on a future aircraft for the 2030s need to be taken in the next few years. 

The importance of the defence aerospace industry and the defence export market to the UK is prominent throughout the strategy, as is ensuring the UK retains and develops the industrial capabilities to develop such a system. Government figures suggest the Combat Air sector had an annual turnover of £6.5bn in 2016 and directly supports 18,000 jobs. While the aerospace sector accounted for 87% of defence exports over the last decade.

Working with partners

Any new combat aircraft is likely to be developed with at least one other country. Tornado, Typhoon and Lightning were all developed in collaboration with other nations. The UK had already been working with France on an unmanned combat air system demonstrator programme. However, France and Germany have recently decided to work together to develop a future combat air system. The Government says it will talk to a range of potential partners over the next 12 months.

Team Tempest

The Strategy announced the creation of Team Tempest, an “innovative Government-industry partnership” to deliver the Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative. This includes BAE Systems, MBDA, Lenardo and Rolls-Royce, plus MOD personnel.

About the aircraft

The full-scale mock-up used at the launch of the strategy shows a twin engine single seater aircraft. Media reports suggest it may be ‘optionally manned’ and carry a range of advanced weapons including directed energy weapons. However, the process is still at very early stages and is focused more on exploring and developing potential technologies.


The Prime Minister said the Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative will deliver over £2bn of investment up to 2025. The Strategy says this will come from Government and industry to sustain and enhance key skills and capacity to ensure UK industry is in a good position for when a decision is needed on a successor to Typhoon.


The response from industry and Parliament was broadly positive. MPs debated the need for a defence aerospace industrial strategy in September 2017. Several MPs questioned how the project would be funded in the long-term. This concern was echoed by RUSI analyst Justin Bronk: “it is unlikely that the MOD will be able to adequately fund the testing and procurement phases of the Tempest while buying significant numbers of F-35s and maintaining an increasingly aging core Typhoon force… Somthing will eventually have to give”.

Next steps

The strategy lays out an ambitious timeline, with early decisions required by end 2020 and final investment decisions needed in 2025, with a view to an initial operating capability of 2035. Typhoon is expected to remain in service until 2040.

Library briefing paper Prospects for Combat Air: What follows Typhoon and Lightning? CBP08304, 15 May 2018, provides a more detailed at the RAF’s current and future combat aircraft fleet, the UK aerospace industry and prospects for international collaboration.

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