Japan, Britain and Italy on December 16 announced plans to cooperate in developing next-generation fighters in an effort to reflect the need to jointly deal with growing geopolitical threats.

The three countries will jointly develop and produce a common airframe. Tokyo is in the process of relaxing arms export rules and hopes to eventually exploit the connections Britain and Italy have to export to other countries. The future joint aircraft is intended to replace about 90 aging F-2 fighters operated by the Air Self-Defense Force, while Britain and Italy plan to use it to replace 144 and 94 Eurofighters, respectively.

London and Rome will merge their existing plans for the Tempest sixth-generation fighter with Japan’s plans. This is the first time in the post-World War II period that Japan has developed a major defense platform with other countries other than the United States. According to the leaders’ joint statement, the three countries will launch the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), which is described as “an ambitious effort” to develop the next generation fighter.

The statement also emphasized that the program will bring “broader economic and industrial benefits” to the three countries, promoting research and development activities and creating opportunities for highly skilled engineers. Nikkei Asia previously reported that industrial groups from the three partners will lead the development, with Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Britain’s BAE Systems and Italy’s defense and aerospace group Leonardo. The engine will be developed by Japan’s IHI Group, Britain’s Rolls-Royce and Italy’s Avio.

Details of the sixth-generation fighter are expected to take shape around 2024. The allocation of costs between countries is yet to be determined and could become a contentious issue. In Japan, the new fighter will replace the F-2 jets of the Air Self-Defense Force (ADF). The project also marks a turning point for Japan, as the country mainly cooperates with the US in the defense sector. In 2020, Japan initially chose to receive technical support from America’s Lockheed Martin but later turned to Britain and Italy. Part of the reason Japan chose to “avoid” the United States was to participate in a program in which Tokyo could play a leading role. That program is more adaptable to the specific threats Japan faces.

Tokyo envisions a next-generation fighter that can work with unmanned aerial vehicles, satellites and the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). The SDF has purchased Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jets but has expressed disappointment over many issues that were kept secret, hindering the ability to repair and upgrade.

The design of the 6th generation fighter Tempest was announced by the UK in 2020. The most important technology of the Tempest fighter is described as “An aircraft, manned or unmanned”. In particular, Tempest can also operate a group of drones and coordinate operations to make it impossible for enemy air defenses to determine the main target to destroy. In addition, Tempest also demonstrates its strength in the high-tech weapons it can carry including: directed energy weapons, hypersonic weapons with speeds of Mach 5 or faster, depending on tactics.

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