Saudi Arabia’s request to be a primary partner in the advanced Tempest fighter could “speed up” the project’s development, military analysts have told The National.
British defence sources have also indicated they are “very supportive” of the proposal to bring the kingdom on board as the fourth partner nation for the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) that will produce the world’s most advanced aircraft in 2035.
It is understood an official request has been made by Riyadh to join the tri-nation project developed by Britain, Italy and Japan.
Initially Japan had opposed Saudi Arabia’s inclusion, fearing it might delay the tight deadline to produce a modern aircraft in a very rapid timeframe.
But the UK defence source told The National Tokyo’s position was “evolving” and it was “our understanding that Japan is open to it as Italy”.
“The key requirements for all three nations are that the existing timescales are pretty ambitious and a new potential partner can't risk those timescales,” the source added. “The further the programme matures, the more challenging it is to bring in another full partner but that is still a possibility.
“From a UK perspective, there's been a long-standing relationship with Saudi [Arabia], which has been a significant customer for well over 50 years, so we would be very supportive of its involvement in Tempest."
It is now “basically a political decision” on whether the countries want to bring Saudi Arabia into the programme.
It is understood that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made a direct request to the Japanese government when he met Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Jeddah in July.
The kingdom wants to build its domestic defence industry. It is also Japan’s biggest oil supplier.
The Tempest, as it is known in Britain, will have advanced stealth technology with the ability to fly without a pilot. It will also be able to direct swarms of drones under its control, as well as incorporating artificial intelligence and carrying a large ordnance of missiles and directed-energy lasers.
The GCAP project was launched last December, with the merging of the Tempest and Japanese F-X fighter programmes to build a sixth-generation aircraft to combat future threats, potentially from China and Russia.
While Saudi Arabia’s request was initially opposed by Japan, military analyst Tim Ripley suggested the kingdom’s involvement in the project, estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars, could speed up development.
“Saudi Arabia can push a significant amount of money into the development programme so having them as a partner could theoretically mean the aircraft is built faster.”
He added that the kingdom had invested heavily in the aerospace industry with repairs and support workshops for its fleet of fighters including the BAE Systems-supplied Eurofighter Typhoon.
“They've got some component manufacturing capabilities with the ability to purchase high-quality materials and machines,” he added. “If they wanted to, they could build an aircraft factory to manufacture the Tempest once it’s in development.”
He said if the kingdom was taken on as a fourth partner, a key requirement would be that “they do not tinker too much with the design” adding extra capabilities.
BAE Systems, the British defence company making Tempest, has also said Saudi Arabia’s involvement would not lead to delay.
Herman Claesen, managing director of BAE, said “absolutely not” when asked by the Financial Times if the kingdom’s request would mean the 2035 deadline would be broken.
Using digital tools and advanced manufacturing skills, the GCAP alliance plans to build the jet in about half the time it took to launch the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Mr Ripley described the aircraft as a “showstopper” after viewing the demonstrator plane being assembled in Warton, Lancashire this summer.
“They have almost finished key components and they are cracking on to build the demonstrator aircraft that will precede to the prototype,” he said.
He said it would be “pretty straightforward” to assemble the aircraft in Saudi Arabia once it has been developed.
The demonstrator aircraft is expected to fly from Warton within the next four years, so the three nations would have to move quickly if Saudi Arabia’s involvement was to be meaningful in the development stage, the defence source said.
Japan’s Defence Mistry has indicated there was an opportunity for involving another country in GCAP on condition there was no delay.
The Saudi Embassy in London did not respond immediately to a request for comment.