The United Kingdom, Japan and Italy announced Friday they are teaming up to build a sixth-generation fighter jet, designed to rival or eclipse the best warplanes now employed by the likes of China and Russia – and possibly even the United States, the main ally of the trio.
“We are announcing the Global Combat Air Program (GCAP) – an ambitious endeavour to develop a next-generation fighter aircraft by 2035,” British, Japanese and Italian leaders said in a joint statement.
The leaders’ statement did not mention China or Russia by name, but said the new fighter jet is needed because “threats and aggression are increasing” against the “rules-based, free and open international order.”
“Defending our democracy, economy and security, and protecting regional stability, are ever more important,” the leaders said.
In a separate statement, the British government said development of the new warplane is expected to begin in 2024, and it is expected to be flying by 2035.
It will showcase technologies from each of the three partners, the British statement said.
“The ambition is for this to be a next-generation jet enhanced by a network of capabilities such as uncrewed aircraft, advanced sensors, cutting-edge weapons and innovative data systems,” it added.
The new jet is seen as a replacement for Britain’s Typhoon fighters and Japan’s F-2s.
The new program will see Britain, Japan and Italy going their own way without the assistance of the US, the world’s preeminent warplane maker.
All three countries are part of the US fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter program, under which all three fly the F-35 and versions of the warplane are assembled in Italy and Japan. The new jet is not expected to affect the F-35 program.
US backs allies’ plan
In a joint statement with the Japanese Defense Ministry, the Pentagon backed the development of the new warplane.
“The United States supports Japan’s security and defense cooperation with likeminded allies and partners, including with the United Kingdom and Italy – two close partners of both of our countries – on the development of its next fighter aircraft,” the US-Japan statement said.
Meanwhile, the UK-Japan-Italy statement said the new plane would be designed to integrate with the defense programs of all their allies and partners.
“Future interoperability with the United States, with NATO and with our partners across Europe, the Indo-Pacific and globally – is reflected in the name we have chosen for our program. This concept will be at the center of its development,” it said.
The leaders said the GCAP program “will support the sovereign capability of all three countries to design, deliver and upgrade cutting-edge combat air capabilities.”
Critics say that strict US export controls on military technology have sometimes limited what customers of planes like the F-35 can do to adapt them to their specific needs.
The US also has a sixth-generation fighter jet – known as the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program – in the works. It is designed to be the successor to its F-22, which along with the F-35, is considered the world’s top fighter jet.
The NGAD program has similar aims to the joint UK-Japan-Italy plan.
“The Air Force intends for NGAD to replace the F-22 fighter jet beginning in 2030, possibly including a combination of crewed and uncrewed aircraft,” a US Congressional Research document says.
But as of now the US is pursuing the NGAD program alone.
Shared economic interests
The British, Japanese and Italian leaders highlighted the benefits of working together.
“It will deepen our defense cooperation, science and technology collaboration, integrated supply chains, and further strengthen our defense industrial base,” their joint statement said.
The program is also expected to provide an economic boost.
“This program will deliver wider economic and industrial benefits, supporting jobs and livelihoods across Japan, Italy and the UK,” the statement said.
The British statement said a 2021 analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted the new warplane program could support about 21,000 jobs a year by 2050 and contribute an estimated $32.1 billion (£26.2 billion) to the economy.
Meanwhile, China and Russia are also thought to be pursuing sixth-generation aircraft.
China and Russia now fly fifth-generation fighters – Beijing’s J-20 and J-31 jets and Moscow’s Su-57.
But the US-designed F-35s are widely seen as equal to or better than the Chinese or Russian aircraft.