Last week, Saudi Arabia expressed interest in joining the UK-Italian-Japanese Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), also known as Tempest. The program aims to develop the next generation of fighter jets and accompanying systems, including unmanned aerial vehicles.
GCAP aims to deliver its first planes by 2035, but that timeframe is seen as optimistic. London might be open to bringing in additional partners to help cover the research and development costs, the Financial Times reported.
Saudi Arabia is already one of the world’s highest spenders on national defense, and while talks remain at a very early stage, the Middle Eastern nation could also contribute engineering expertise.
However, Tokyo reportedly opposes Riyadh’s bid to join the consortium, for technical and geopolitical reasons.
Japan’s own involvement with the GCAP is seen as somewhat groundbreaking.
Tokyo has historically restricted its defense exports and has never collaborated on a program of this scale and complexity, the Financial Times added.
Saudi Involvement in Tempest Good for the UK
London maintains reasonably good relations with Riyadh, and the lead GCAP partners, which include engine maker Rolls-Royce and defense and aerospace giant BAE Systems, already do significant business with the kingdom.
The same is true of the UK arms of Italy’s aerospace firm, Leonardo, and the European missile maker MBDA.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the UK’s strategic partnerships and UK defense is keen to deepen work on GCAP. We see Saudi Arabia as a key partner in the fighter program and we are working to ensure strong progress as soon as possible,” said a senior British defense source.
Riyadh is currently spending billions of dollars to develop a domestic arms industry, and it has sought partnerships with foreign defense manufacturers.
A number of factors are behind Tokyo’s hesitation to partner with Saudi Arabia on the advanced jet fighter.
That includes the Gulf state’s record on human rights, including its involvement in the war in Yemen as well as the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Another issue is Saudi Arabia’s warming ties with China. That relationship is already a barrier to the possibility of the kingdom receiving advanced fighter jets, notably the Lockheed Martin F-35, from the United States.
Adding another partner, even one that is simply providing financial resources, could impact the timeline.
Tokyo may see that as another concern related to China.
“If we delay the delivery of fighter jets by one or two years, it gives adversary countries like China and Russia an advantage and could mean a lot for Japanese defense capabilities,” Shigeto Kondo, a senior researcher with the Japanese Institute of Middle Eastern Economies, told Al-Monitor.
Kondo thinks adding another member to the trinational group would likely delay its decisionmaking and slow its overall progress, while he suggested Japan has reservations about Saudi Arabia being one of the four decisionmakers with veto power.
“If Saudi Arabia says they want to sell that jet to Russia or China — definitely, we will veto it,” said Kondo about Japan, a G-7 member aligned with the West. “What we fear is Saudi Arabia doing some kind of retaliation against us if we don’t vote their way and [Saudi Arabia] saying ‘if we can’t export to China, we will veto your export as well.’”
Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.