The first thing that strikes you about the full scale model of the proposed Tempest, which is due to take to the skies by 2035 and which will eventually replace the Eurofighter Typhoon, is what a sleek, aerodynamic beast it is.
The futuristic twin-engined aircraft is at the heart of the Future Combat Air Strategy unveiled by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson at the Farnborough International Airshow this week and, while some comparisons have been made with Lockheed Martin’s F-22 ‘Raptor’, it looks like nothing else on earth.
As impressive as the mock-up itself is the fact that ‘Team Tempest’ put the whole design together in just four months.
BAE Systems will contribute the advanced combat air systems and integration; Rolls-Royce will provide the advanced power and propulsion systems; Leonardo is responsible for advanced sensors, electronics and avionics and MBDA is in charge of the advanced weapons systems.
News that the UK was planning a sixth-generation jet fighter did not leak until the beginning of this month and the name ‘Tempest’ – a worthy successor to Typhoon and Tornado – was kept under wraps right up until the announcement.
It is when you actually climb into the cockpit, though, that you get a real sense of what this aircraft is going to be able to achieve.
The most remarkable thing is that there are no obvious controls.
The controls are all “virtual” and are all contained instead on a helmet-mounted display.
They interact both with the pilot’s hand and eye movements and, having tried it out, it becomes apparent how easily this aircraft could be unmanned as well as manned if the circumstances require it.
Although the BAE trainer who demonstrated it stressed that, on many battle scenarios, human intuition is still essential.
The weaponry on the aircraft will include energy weapons that can fire concentrated bursts of laser, microwave or particle beams.
But perhaps the most eye-catching feature will be the ability to launch ‘swarming’ drones that can be launched and operated by the pilot.
The ideas behind this is to overwhelm any enemy’s air defence systems with so many incoming drones that it cannot cope.
Trying out the helmet, with its augmented reality displays, reveals operating the weaponry is incredibly intuitive.
Even a technological incompetent like me could get to grips with it fairly swiftly – so imagine the ease with which a bright young recruit, who has probably grown up with computer gaming, will be able to master the technology and finesse their skills.
App-like software will be able to enhance the aircraft’s capabilities over time so it evolves to keep ahead of changing combat conditions.
What is also truly remarkable about the technology is that it will be able to give the pilot cognitive feedback and also detect whether their alertness and responses are flagging.
The people working on this programme over the next decade are just as likely to be psychologists as physicists, engineers or IT specialists.
It will also safeguard many thousands of skilled British jobs for at least the next two decades.
The Ministry of Defence has allocated £2bn towards its development costs but, given that the Typhoon cost £20bn to develop, that is only going to go so far.
This is a big bet on British engineering know-how and expertise but also on the ingenuity of British salespeople.
Collaboration with other contractors, possibly from Sweden, is also a must.
It was truly inspiring to see this model and to experiment with its technology.
It shows that this country not only still has a viable future in manufacturing and engineering – but that it is a world leader.
To think that the Tempest will be defending Britain’s skies, and those of our allies, into the second half of this century is more inspiring still.