The UK will fly a supersonic prototype of its next-generation fighter aircraft within five years and work with Japan and Italy on the multibillion-pound defense programme, the government said on Monday, in what could herald a deeper trilateral partnership.
BAE Systemsthe lead industry partner on the Tempest program, said the prototype would be a piloted supersonic aircraft that would test a range of technologies, including the integration of stealth-compatible features.
The aircraft will be the country’s first combat air demonstrator since the Eurofighter Typhoon almost 40 years ago and is seen as critical if the UK is to achieve its promise of having a sixth-generation fighter aircraft in service by 2035.
Success for the Tempest program — to which the UK has so far committed £2bn — is also important if the country is to secure the future of its £6bn-a-year combat air sector and 18,000 related jobs, such as the production of the Eurofighter Typhoon , an enterprise involving the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain, winds down.
BAE is working with the engineering group Rolls-Royceweapons group MBDA and the UK arm of Italian defense contractor Leonardo on the Tempest programme.
Defense secretary Ben Wallace described the development of the demonstrator aircraft as an “important milestone” and welcomed the partnerships with Japan and Italy. Italy is already an existing partner on the program.
The Ministry of Defense said the UK would conduct joint concept analysis on future combat air capabilities with both countries, with decisions on next steps expected by the end of 2022.
The UK and Japan are considering a “wider partnership” that could integrate Tokyo’s own FX fighter jet program with Tempest, although a decision is not expected until the end of the year, according to people familiar with the talks. On the Japanese side, the project would be led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
“As previously announced, Japan and the UK are studying collaboration on the fighter jet,” Naohiko Abe, MHI’s head of integrated defense and space systems, said in an interview. “Obviously there are differences since we are two different countries but we are considering where we can maximize the common factors and how we can mutually accommodate those differences.”
If the two countries co-develop the next-generation fighter jet, it would be the first time Japan has chosen a non-US partner for such a major military program. The people familiar with the talks said the selection of BAE rather than Lockheed in the US reflects concerns in Tokyo about the US’s refusal to share any of its defense technologies.
Separately, the MoD unveiled plans to develop pioneering hypersonic technologies under a partnership with Rolls-Royce and Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines. The ambition is to mature existing technologies that can deliver a significant reduction in the cost of developing a reusable hypersonic air vehicle.
Air Vice-Marshal Linc Taylor, the Royal Air Force’s chief of staff air capability, said: “One of the things we believe will have value in our future warfighting is reusable hypersonics. How do we do this at a fraction of the cost that our adversaries spend in that area?”
Reaction Engines said technologies from its revolutionary air-breathing Saber rocket engine would be a key foundation for the program. Its work has in recent years attracted investment from BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Boeing Horizon X and others.
“Hypersonics are a strategic imperative. It will be done quickly. It’s all about pace and is essential to the UK’s national security,” said Reaction boss Mark Thomas.
The partnership comes after the UK in April said it would join forces with the US and Australia to co-operate on research into hypersonic weapons and how to defend against them.