With a flying prototype for a sixth-generation warplane to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon given the green light, speculation has grown over whether Japan will be welcomed into the project.
The supersonic fighter jet needs buyers and funding to be ready for its planned entry into service in 2035, according to BAE Systems, which is building the prototype – its first of that kind in almost 40 years – in a venture with the Ministry of Defence.
It is part of the wider Tempest programme, which also involves Italy’s Leonardo, and could offer technological leaps similar to that of the jet engine or Concorde.
Last week the Ministry of Defence said the UK and Japan would conduct “joint concept analysis” to determine how closely they can co-operate on a new jet fighter programme, building on deals between the two nations to work together on radar and jet engine technology.
James Black, a defence researcher at RAND, says the involvement of Japan, which is considering its own next-generation project, would add high-end electronics and precision manufacturing skills, as well as expertise in command and control systems which speed up decisions on the battlefield.
Its version of top defence contractor BAE is Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which led its F-1 and F-2 fighter programmes and the current F-X next generation project, with which it is speculated Tempest could merge.
In exchange, Japan would get a taste of a more senior seat at the table in helping to decide the direction of the project, and would likely purchase many of the finished planes. Most of its prior ventures have been US-led, where it was very much the junior partner.
“Japan and the UK share similar ambitions for future combat air from both a military and industrial perspective. Both are looking for deep and collaborative partnerships,” Black adds.
It comes as Japan weighs up its options for defence pacts amid concern about Russia, as well as Chinese manoeuvres in the South China Sea, according to a senior Japanese politician. They add that the UK is a good candidate because of its experience in cross-border defence development.
The UK has cooperated on attack planes since the 1970s-era Anglo-French Jaguar, made by predecessors to France’s Dassault and BAE. Its successor, the Tornado, and the current Typhoon are UK, Italian and German-led.
Now, France and Germany have joined Spain to create their own next-generation fighter, with plans for a flying prototype in 2027. They are very similar in approach but with two key differences, according to Black.
The French want their version to operate from aircraft carriers and carry nuclear bombs, while the UK’s Tempest will fly from airbases, with Britain’s nuclear arsenal submarine-based.
This differing approach, together with France’s demand for a large share of the work, is thought to have quashed any partnership.
That split leaves something of a gap for orders, says Justin Bronk at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
He estimates a new jet fighter programme in Britain will need 500-600 orders to be cost effective. For comparison, more than 600 Typhoon jets were made with 181 sold to Germany – which is not involved in this programme.
“They need another large economic partner,” Bronk says, adding: “The biggest thing that Japan brings to the table alongside a hefty budget and a very advanced electronics industry is access to an altitude test facility.”
To develop the specialised engines needed to send the plane supersonic and power the equipment it will carry, they need to be tested in a chamber which can mimic the conditions at high altitudes of tens of thousands of feet.
Britain had such a facility near Farnborough in Hampshire, but it was closed in 2000, while Germany’s in Stuttgart is now part of a rival programme. Japan’s IHI does have one – and Britain’s engine developer Rolls-Royce has signed a deal to cooperate with it on jet fighter engine development.
While Japan’s expected large demand for the jets could mean Tokyo sees itself as the senior partner, says Bronk, that might not matter against the backdrop of the immense expense of developing a new jet fighter.
Typhoons cost the UK about £35bn in today’s money, he estimates, way exceeding the UK’s current budget for combat aircraft even despite digital designs reducing some costs.
As the prototype develops, Tempest’s lead contractors BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and MBDA are pressing on with technologies to advance the UK’s fighter capabilities. MBDA is co-owned by BAE, Airbus and Italy’s Leonardo, and makes missiles for the UK, Italy, Germany and France, including the Brimstone anti-tank missile which has recently been deployed in Ukraine.
Tempest will be designed to fire missiles from its bomb bays at supersonic speeds, while BAE Systems is working on novel ways to feed pilots the maximum information possible in combat conditions at its site in Warton.
One of them is through physical feedback – being prodded and poked by the plane when there is trouble.
The move is part of a shift in defence aviation engineering to treating a pilot more like an athlete, measuring their performance under various conditions. The industry’s understanding of how to do this has come on leaps and bounds since the Typhoon’s predecessor, the Tornado, was developed.
Then, the plan was for an alarm to instruct the pilot in the style of a Radio 4 bulletin. But recent understandings show that under pressure, voice alarms do not work.
“The first thing to go in that very complex environment for people when you start to become saturated is the hearing,” says Anthony Gregory, business development director for Europe at BAE Systems. “That’s just the way the brain works.”
Prodding, however, is still recognised and the company is testing out special suits which provide so-called haptic feedback – prompts from the suit to identify threats. Performance is then measured in a regular flight and under a force of 2G, where the body feels twice as heavy as normal.
“It’s a hugely complicated battlespace, lots of information going on – what information do I need at a particular moment in time to make the right decision?” said Gregory. Making sure the pilot has all the intelligence available will be central to the project’s success – and that needs expertise and funding.