Exclusive-Britain and Japan aim to merge Tempest and FX Fighter source programs

A model of a new jet fighter, called ‘Tempest’ at the Farnborough Airshow, in Farnborough, Britain July 16, 2018.

Britain and Japan are close to a deal to merge their next-generation Tempest and FX fighter jet programs, with the two countries aiming for agreement on a new joint project by the end of the year, three sources told Reuters.

It would be the first time Japan has sought a non-US partner for a major military program and the first major collaboration between Tokyo and London, going beyond what was anticipated when industrial talks began five years ago.

“It would be an equal partnership between Japan and Britain,” said one of the sources with knowledge of the plan. It will cost tens of billions of dollars, he added.

The move to combine Japan’s FX program, run by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), with Britain’s Tempest, run by BAE Systems PLC, by December has not previously been reported.

The sources asked to remain anonymous as they are not authorized to speak to the media.

“The main thing we are aiming for is to build a common jet, which may have small design differences for each country,” said another of the sources.

Britain could handle exports to Europe, while Japan would take care of the Asian market, another of the three sources said.

A collaboration would spread development costs, while exporting would increase production batches and lower the price per aircraft, helping both countries stretch their defense budgets.

This would represent a deepening of the security ties between the two close allies of the United States. London is taking on a bigger military role in Asia as part of a strategic “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific, and Tokyo is expanding defense cooperation beyond Washington.

Japan’s policy, pushed by the late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to strengthen Tokyo’s hand against neighboring China, took on new urgency after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow describes as an “operation special”.

The move to a European partner comes as Japan’s defense spending rises, with the budget set to double over the next decade as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida sticks to Abe’s national security agenda and fulfills a promise election to “substantially” increase military spending.

“We would like to decide how we can cooperate by the end of this year and are considering various possibilities,” the Japanese defense ministry said.

The UK Ministry of Defense had no immediate comment. The country’s air force chief, Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, told a conference on Thursday that Britain is “exploring partnership opportunities and sharing technological expertise with a series of international partners, including Japan and Italy”.

MHI and BAE declined to comment. Britain plans to give an update on Tempest at the Farnborough Airshow next week, another source said, without giving further details.

OPENING TO EUROPE

Japan’s partnership with Britain is a chance for BAE and other European Tempest companies, such as Rolls-Royce, missile maker MBDA and Italian defense group Leonardo, to tap into a growth market long dominated by American companies.

The effort to merge the fighter jet projects follows deepening cooperation between the UK and Japan in recent years, from the JNAAM missile project to sensor work and an agreement to develop a engine demonstrator.

“You can see the direction of travel,” said Douglas Barrie, senior military aerospace researcher at the IISS think tank.

It’s been more than 20 years since MHI, maker of the WWII Zero fighter, and US defense group Lockheed Martin Corp built the Japanese F-2 fighter, a short-winged derivative of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Lockheed, which later developed the F-35 stealth aircraft, was also expected to help MHI build the FX, an F-2 replacement, which Japan wants to deploy in the 2030s to counter China’s advanced fighters.

The cost of the FX development program is estimated by Japanese Defense Ministry officials at around $40 billion, of which $700 million has been allocated this year, making it a lucrative proposition for Japanese companies that have lost when Tokyo bought American kits, including the F-35.

The BAE-led Tempest project to replace Europe’s Typhoon fighter jet has a government budget of £2 billion ($2.38 billion) until 2025, when full development is expected to begin.

It is one of two European initiatives for the next generation of air power alongside the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System, currently mired in divisions between partners Airbus and Dassault Aviation.

Lockheed in 2018 had offered to use an F-22 Raptor airframe and F-35 components for the FX, but that tentative partnership ended this year because US control over sensitive technology meant Washington could tell when and how Japan maintained and modernized its aircraft. , the sources said.

A Lockheed spokesperson said questions about the program should be referred to the Japanese government.

For Japanese companies, which were banned from exporting weapons overseas until 2014, the partnership is a chance to access foreign markets and European technology with potentially fewer restrictions than those imposed by Washington.

Tempest “is a flexible construct that lends itself to multiple forms of cooperation,” said defense analyst Francis Tusa.

The fighter will still need some US components, such as communications and data links, to ensure interoperability with US forces.

As talks in Tokyo and London progress, it remains unclear what role, if any, the Swedish and Italian governments will have in the new project after agreeing to collaborate on Tempest.

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