UK will be HQ for high-flying next-gen fighter jet treaty with Italy, Japan

Global Combat Air Program aims to replace Eurofighter Typhoon and Mitsubishi F-2

Britain will be acting as headquarters for a not-so-secret next-generation fighter aircraft program the UK has linked up with Japan and Italy to build, the MoD revealed late last week.

The trio are hoping to develop a sixth-generation warplane by 2035, as they look over their shoulders at the collective efforts of the US, China, and Russia.

Known as the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), the project's sixth-generation fighter aircraft will replace the Eurofighter Typhoon currently in service with the British and Italian air forces, and the Mitsubishi F-2 operated by Japan.

As the somewhat clip-artish pictures suggest (to be fair many of the current real fifth gen warplanes look very much like early '90s pixel art), the craft will be a merge of the Japanese F-X program with the Tempest project already under development by the UK and Italy, with the involvement of major defense companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, BAE Systems, and Leonardo.

This latest agreement comes a year after the three nations formally launched the GCAP partnership, and about three months after the signing of a trilateral collaboration agreement between the defense companies named above to deliver the concept phase requirements for the project.

An announcement from the UK Ministry of Defence claimed the project will deliver one of the world's most advanced, adaptable, and connected fighter jets, and that it would create a number of highly skilled jobs in the UK and its partner countries over the next decade or so.

Some of the concepts that have previously been touted for Tempest include an advanced radar system capable of collecting and processing huge amounts of data, equivalent to the internet traffic of a large city such as Edinburgh, every second.

Another was for the physical controls and readouts in the aircraft cockpit to be replaced by augmented or virtual reality displays projected directly onto the visor of the pilot's helmet (what could go wrong?), and for a "virtual copilot" that could take on some tasks ("It looks like you're trying to shoot down a Russian MIG, would you like some help?").

Tempest was also envisaged as being part of a wider "system of systems" that might include autonomous drones – dubbed loyal wingman – that could accompany the crewed fighter on missions. However, the Mosquito technology demonstrator for this concept was cancelled last year, and it isn't clear how many of these ideas will make it through to the final aircraft in service.

The UK's MoD has already spent £2 billion ($2.5 billion) over the last five years on developing technology for Tempest, with a further £600 million ($762 million) coming from industry, while the Financial Times reports that Japan's defense ministry is to set aside ¥72.6 billion ($483 million) for GCAP in the 2024-2025 fiscal year.

A date of 2035 may sound ambitious for delivering a project like this – work on the Typhoon began in the 1970s, but it didn't enter service until this side of the millennium. However, the Tempest team last year committed to building a flying demonstrator that it said will be delivered within the next five years.

The US is also working on sixth-generation fighter designs and has a similar ambitious timescale. The Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program aims to produce an aircraft to replace the F-22 in US Air Force service in the 2030s, and it is claimed that a prototype has already been built and flown. The US Navy is developing its own aircraft under the F/A-XX code name to replace the F/A-18 Super Hornet within a similar time frame.

There is also a European rival for GCAP in the shape of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), a joint project between France, Germany, and Spain to replace the Rafale, Typhoon, and Hornet in their respective forces. It is expected to enter service around 2040.

UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps met his Japanese and Italian counterparts, Minister Minoru Kihara and Minister Guido Crosetto, for the signing of the agreement in Tokyo.

"Our world-leading combat aircraft program aims to be crucial to global security and we continue to make hugely positive progress toward delivery of the new jets to our respective air forces in 2035," he said in a statement.

Although the UK is set to host the joint GCAP headquarters, the first CEO will come from Japan, and the first leader of the joint business construct will be from Italy.

The UK also faces a shortfall in its military spending that could affect projects such as GCAP/Tempest. Earlier this month, public spending watchdog the National Audit Office said that the Ministry of Defence has a shortfall in its budget of nearly £17 billion ($21.5 billion) for new weapons and equipment over the next 10 years. ®

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