UK HQ for next-generation stealth fighter jet

Three-country deal could expand to Saudi Arabia after Grant Shapps says it 'wouldn't be particularly novel'

A computer-generated image of the proposed Tempest. Photo: UK Ministry of Defence
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Britain will be the headquarters for an ambitious three-nation stealth jet project that aims to get a fighter launched by 2035.

The UK, Italy and Japan have signed an agreement to develop a stealth fighter jet fitted with cutting-edge technology as the countries seek to bolster their security ties and confront emerging threats.

The parliaments of each country must ratify the treaty, which was signed by UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps as well as his Japanese counterpart Minoru Kihara and his Italian counterpart Guido Crosetto in Tokyo on Thursday.

Mr Shapps said the UK was open to other partners joining the alliance, point out that Britain held a defence relationship with Saudi that is “very deep and goes back many decades”.

“From a United Kingdom point of view, it wouldn’t be particularly novel,” he said. “It certainly would be from the perspective of other partners, but it is not something that is in play today either way.

“We’ve always said if other countries are interested then of course, this is an interesting conversation, whether that is Sweden or Saudi or anyone else.

“But initially this is about the three of us working together before then, together, looking to see whether there are other countries that we would work with.

”The aim is to have the combat aircraft in flight by 2035, with the joint development phase of the programme beginning in 2025.

The planned new aircraft – still known as Tempest in the UK – effectively combines the European Tempest and Japanese F-X projects, both of which had been in the pipeline for years.

“No nation can do this alone to this level of expertise,” Mr Shapps said after the signing.

“The risks, problems from Europe to the Indo-Pacific, are clear for all to see. It is enormously important that we join together across our nations to produce this kind of security.”

Both the government and commercial headquarters for the Global Combat Air Programme will be in the UK, the country’s defence ministry said in a statement before the signing.

The first chief executive of the government body will come from Japan, while the first head of the industry organisation will be from Italy, the ministry said.

Under the RAF's plans for the original Tempest project, software and hardware would be easily changed in and out depending on the capability and functions needed for a mission, including various kinds of weapons, sensors and fuel tanks.

There would be no physical dials, with pilots controlling the jet using next-generation augmented and virtual-reality helmets that would project interactive displays and controls directly in front of their eyes.

The deal comes a year after the countries agreed to merge their plans to develop next-generation fighter jets, and is an example of the type of agreements the British government is trying to strike after leaving the European Union.

For Japan, this is the first time since the Second World War that it has looked beyond the US for a major defence equipment project, spurred partly by American reluctance to share technology.

Jet fighters are among the most costly of defence projects, with time frames running to decades and budgets into hundreds of billions of dollars, so adding Japanese financial clout to European know-how honed on a succession of jets culminating in the Eurofighter represents a major step forward in developing the plane.

Marketing of the aircraft beyond the three countries may still face roadblocks, after a Japanese ruling party group failed to agree on relaxing arms export regulations to allow this, the Asahi newspaper said on Thursday. The decision has been put off until next year, the paper said.

London-based BAE Systems, Europe’s biggest defence company, and Italy’s Leonardo SpA – partners on the Eurofighter Typhoon and Tempest – will work with F-X lead contractor Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to take the project forward.

Updated: December 14, 2023, 6:21 PM