Italy is expected to join a nascent British effort to build a sixth-generation fighter jet, expanding that program’s membership club to three partners after Sweden signed up earlier this summer, Defense News reported.
Officials at the DSEI defense trade show were still unsure as of Tuesday afternoon in what form the government-to-government agreement would be announced, saying that Italy’s and Britain’s turbulent political situations made for little certainty. It appeared that a written statement by the respective defense ministries would be published by Wednesday morning, to be accompanied by a formal event that day.
The UK subsidiary of Italy’s Leonardo has been part of the program since it announced its participation at the Farnborough Airshow last year, working on new new ideas for sensors and avionics. It remains to be seen if involving the whole of Italy’s flagship contractor will alter the playing field on the industrial side, the report said.
Tempest is meant to take flight sometime around 2040, replacing the Eurofighter Typhoon for the British Royal Air Force. The promise of a sixth-generation capability lies in the integration of manned and unmanned planes carrying weapons and sensors, tied together by a complex data network and cloud-like information infrastructure.
Information on the scope of Italy’s involvement in the program was eagerly awaited at DSEI, with some sources suggesting Rome’s participation could go beyond what Sweden and its go-to contractor Saab signed up for in July.
During a news conference in July, Saab CEO Håkan Buskhe described the prospect of jointly developing Britain’s Tempest platform as only one of several possible outcomes of the tie-up inked by the two countries’ defense ministers that month.
The near-term objective, he said, is for Saab to participate in cutting-edge research that could help boost the performance of its latest Gripen E fighter. The jet is “75 percent software,” he explained, which presents the possibility of new capabilities without major hardware changes.
The involvement of Italy in Tempest solidifies what is becoming a major race in Europe to develop a next-generation warplane for the continent. France, Germany and Spain are pursuing a separate effort, the Future Combat Air System, with Airbus and Dassault in the industry lead.
According to Wired, the full-scale mock-up of the sleek aircraft is Lockheed F-22 Raptor-esque, with twin engines and two vertical stabilizers.
The military called the jet a sixth-generation fighter, which would put the Brits ahead of today’s fifth-gen crop: the US’s F-35 and F-22, Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57, and China’s J-20.
The ministry has devoted US$2.6 billion to developing the Tempest concept through 2025, and it will decide then whether to roll out a final aircraft by 2035. The new jet can be flown by a pilot in the air or operated as a drone, officials said.
One big hurdle for the Brit-led effort: building highly complex stealth technology, on which the US usually leads. An effective stealth program needs deliberately chosen materials and manufacturing processes, and impeccable design. A slight miss in any of these can become a literal dead giveaway.
The Tempest team will also want to take a close look at the American-born F-35’s combat and sensor systems.
Rolls-Royce boasts that the Tempest’s stealthily recessed adaptive-cycle turbofans will be made of lightweight composite materials, feature superior thermal management and digital maintenance controls, and generate large quantities of electricity through magnets in the turbine cores, The National Interest reported.
Surplus electricity may be of particular interest for powering directed energy weapons, which could range from lasers to microwaves.
A Meteor long-range air-to-air missiles and a SPEAR-3 cruise missile were displayed next to the mock-up, and compatibility with next-generation”Deep Strike missiles” is also listed.
The presentation also lists hypersonic missiles and swarms of deadly drones as offensive capabilities. To ease the workload on the pilot, the aircraft would utilize artificial intelligence and machine learning to optimize the drone’s behavior.
Like the F-35, the Tempest would employ a diverse array of passive and active sensors, and a Tempest pilot may able to gaze “through” his or her own plane using a helmet-mounted device, which may also replace conventional cockpit display panels.
“Cooperative Engagement” technology would also allow a Tempest to fuse sensor data with friendly aircraft, ships or ground forces using “reconfigurable” communication systems and data links. This could allow one platform to hand off sensor data to another platform, which could then launch missiles without exposing itself.