Japan, UK and Italy unveil plan to develop jet fighter by 2035

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Japan, the UK and Italy will work together on an effort to develop a next-generation fighter jet by 2035, the three countries’ leaders said in a joint statement.

The deal effectively combines the British-Italian Tempest warplane project and Japan’s F-X program, both of which have been in the pipeline for years. The statement released Friday gave no details on financial commitments.

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Dubbed the Global Combat Air Programme, the plan marks the first time since World War II that Japan has picked partners other than its US ally for a major military development project, in a move spurred partly by US reluctance to share technology.

“Through the GCAP, we will build on our longstanding defense relationships,” the leaders said in their written statement, adding the plan “will deliver wider economic and industrial benefits, supporting jobs and livelihoods across Italy, Japan and the UK.”

The main contractors are Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd for Japan, BAE Systems Plc for the UK, and Leonardo SpA for Italy. Saab AB of Sweden, which currently makes the Gripen fighter, is regarded as a further potential recruit.

Japan’s IHI Corporation had already agreed last year to work with the UK’s Rolls-Royce on a future fighter aircraft engine demonstrator.

The US supports the plan and is working with Japan on autonomous systems that could complement the fighter program, its Department of Defense and Japan’s Ministry of Defense said in a separate joint statement. The three leaders also said future interoperability with the US, NATO and other partners would be a central concept.

London and Rome have been working on bringing Japan into the group, with Sweden another prospective partner, to enable them to rival France and Germany’s so-called Future Combat Air System. The leaders said in their statement Friday that their countries would work “together in a spirit of equal partnership.”

Long-pacifist Tokyo brings financial power to the project, as it prepares to hike its defense budget by more than 50 percent and upgrades its national security strategy after being spooked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Previous reports have suggested the UK has pledged to invest more than £2 billion ($2.5 billion) over the next three years, while Italy committed a similar amount over several years as part of defense spending plans agreed last year. Japan’s Ministry of Defense has requested ¥143 billion ($1.1 billion) for its next-generation fighter jet for the year starting in April.

The project is expected to build security ties between Japan and the UK, after the two countries in May reached a deal in principle on a Reciprocal Access Agreement that would enable the two countries’ militaries to work together more easily.

“The security of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions are indivisible,” UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement. “The next-generation of combat aircraft we design will protect us and our allies around the world by harnessing the strength of our world-beating defence industry – creating jobs while saving lives.”

The three countries will work to reach the development phase of the project in 2024. The structure of the program, as well as division of labor and ownership rights will need to be laid out in separate agreements. Participants are currently working on a split with each country taking a third of ownership, people familiar with the situation told Bloomberg last week, but negotiations are ongoing and the stakes have not yet been finalized.

The rival Franco-German program has taken a step forward recently after a long hiatus, with Berlin and Paris reaching an industrial and political agreement on how to move forward with a demonstrator aircraft. The FCAS is scheduled to come into operation about five years later than the GCAP. Germany has previously been a member of the Eurofighter consortium with BAE and Leonardo.

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