The UK will build and fly a technology demonstrator for the Tempest next-generation fighter, and it will take to the air in the next five years. Confirmation came in parliament on Monday with an announcement by defence secretary Ben Wallace. “The design and development of the demonstrator represent an important milestone, showcasing the success and talent of our engineers, programmers, and software developers,” he said. “This program will go on to attract opportunities for many more great minds and talent from across the UK.”

The Future Combat Air System program was formally launched in 2018 and, while a demonstrator for the Tempest sixth-generation fighter that lies at its heart was mooted, there was no confirmation that one would be built and flown. The demonstrator program has already been underway for two years, reported Richard Berthon, director of Future Combat Air with the UK's defence ministry. Funding for the trials aircraft has come entirely from the UK, from both government and industry. However, Berthon noted that officials are exploring international participation.

Representing the first UK fighter demonstrator since the British Aerospace EAP that informed the design of the Typhoon in the 1980s, the demonstrator will be a supersonic aircraft with internal weapons carriage capability. The latter will certainly aid Team Tempest member MBDA, which is studying and developing a range of weapons for the Tempest, for which aircraft/weapon clearance from a bay at high speed is a significant challenge.

The exact nature of the demonstrator or its powerplant has yet to be defined, and neither has the full scope of its activities. Early flights will validate the results of computer modelling. However, the demonstrator is being built as much to provide knowledge about “how we do things” as capabilities, said Berthon, such as the way the development of underpinning technology and methods and manufacturing processes can be conducted in an all-digital environment. A series of related programs is reducing development time cycles by considerable amounts, in turn making those developments cheaper to undertake.

Meanwhile, much of the Tempest’s integrated sensor suite will be tested on the Boeing 757 “Excalibur” testbed, which is being converted by 2Excel Aviation. Plans call first flight by the end of the decade so that it can support the final period of development leading to the Tempest's stated in-service date of 2035.

Along with the demonstrator program, Team Tempest announced that studies are being undertaken into adopting a more aligned approach to development with Italy and Japan. “I’m delighted that the UK, alongside Italy and Japan, are working on similar combat air journeys together," said Wallace. "Our work with Japan and Italy on cutting-edge technology like this shows the benefit of our alliances across the world.” The three countries share similar military goals and requirements, approaches to sovereignty, and capabilities at a technology/industrial level.

Another development announced was the launch of the Generation Tempest initiative, a drive to accelerate the recruitment of people with the necessary skills for the development process and beyond.