Riyadh wants a cutting-edge fighter and has turned to London

Saudi Arabia has reportedly expressed a desire to join the UK, Japan, and Italy as an equal player in the monumental task of developing the next-generation fighter aircraft, a move that has garnered support from the British government. 

UK, Japan make a joint next-gen fighter, Tempest and FX merge
Photo credit: British MoD

This large-scale project involves a multinational collaboration among companies from the UK, Japan, and Italy. Under the umbrella of the Global Combat Air Program [GCAP], they are working to construct advanced fighter aircraft and corresponding systems such as drones. 

The GCAP’s audacious goal is to produce and export a cutting-edge fighter jet by 2035. According to reports from the Financial Times, which cited five senior officials from London, Tokyo, and Rome, both Britain and Italy are considering supporting Saudi Arabia’s participation in the Global Combat Air Program [GCAP]. 

Saudi Arabia’s motivation to join the project could be influenced by the prolonged delays it has encountered in acquiring a second batch of Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft from the UK. The primary cause of these delays is believed to be resistance from Germany, one of the four partners in the Eurofighter project. 

Germany imposed a weapons embargo on Saudi Arabia in 2018, a direct response to the Kingdom involvement’s in the Yemen conflict and the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In the middle of July, a significant decision was made by Berlin to withhold its support for the impending shipment of Typhoon aircraft to Saudi Arabia, a nation recognized globally as one of the largest buyers of defense imports, with the majority sourced from the United States. 

However, in recent years, Riyadh has diverted a substantial portion of its wealth, amounting to billions of dollars, towards domestic defense initiatives, illustrating a shift in its approach to defense strategy. 

The potential inclusion of Saudi Arabia in this program could be seen as attractive to partners due to the possibility of sharing costs with one of the planet’s most significant defense budget holders. However, this arrangement could also give rise to tensions between the involved parties. 

Beyond this, the decision could add a layer of complexity to the already intricate negotiations taking place between three governments and numerous companies from each respective country. 

Still unbuilt, Tempest is losing ground to the F-35
Photo credit: Wikipedia

A report has indicated that Riyadh is planning to invest “tens of billions of dollars” into the Global Combat Air Program [GCAP], while also offering their engineering expertise. 

The ultimate goal of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the project is to further its ambition of transitioning from a major defense importer to a domestically self-sufficient producer of defense technology and weaponry. 

Japan’s Hesitation 

Among the GCAP partners, the UK has taken the initiative to facilitate Saudi Arabia’s inclusion. However, it has been reported that Japanese authorities have expressed strong opposition to Saudi Arabia’s participation. 

Shashank S. Patel, an expert on Japanese defense and geopolitical trends, shared with EurAsian Times, “The Japanese government is more worried about the national narrative if they permit the Saudis to join the Global Combat Air Program [GCAP]. The imminent snap general elections are being held amidst an all-time low approval rating for the Kishida government.”

In a significant shift from its historical stance, Japan rescinded its longstanding arms export ban in 2014. The nation is now considering further easing these restrictions in an effort to broaden its global influence through the Global Combat Air Programme [GCAP]. 

However, the integration of Saudi Arabia into this framework could complicate matters, as per a Financial Times report. Japanese officials contend that such an inclusion would complicate the dialogue around potential arms export destinations. 

Patel, a key player in this debate, suggests that this move would provoke questions regarding the arms export policy, particularly considering the Liberal Democratic Party’s [LDP] selective approach to choosing recipient countries. He emphasized that major factions are reluctant to expand the current ‘set of countries, a decision that could incite the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan [CDPJ] or the Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ] to align with the current party moderation processes. 

Patel further argues, “There are objections within Tokyo’s circle to Saudi Arabia’s controversial history in the Gulf region, a factor that could significantly complicate future exports of the Tempest jets.” 

Moreover, the project faces a tight deadline, and the addition of a fourth member could push this timeline out further – a risk Japan is not willing to take. 

“Japan also has reservations about what technological advantage Saudi Arabia would bring to the table, beyond financial contributions. The security aspect is another concern. Japan fears that expanding GCAP will increase its security vulnerabilities, particularly in sensitive tech areas,” Patel added. 

Riyadh wants a cutting-edge fighter and has turned to London - GCAP fighter
Photo credit: BAE Systems

This project carries a unique importance for Japan, as it represents the first time the country has independently embarked on such an initiative without the partnership of the United States. Timely delivery is paramount due to Japan’s unique global positioning. 

Patel notes that Japan’s deliberate choice to proceed without the US could have far-reaching implications for the future of international arms exports. Despite these concerns, Saudi Arabia has shown a sustained interest in the Tempest project. 

In March, the kingdom signed a memorandum of understanding with the UK to conduct a “partnering feasibility study”, exploring the potential for a combat air partnership and closer industrial cooperation. 

Following the agreement, Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, Khalid bin Salman, hinted at the country’s involvement in the international jet project via a tweet. However, the UK was quick to clarify that this was a separate agreement. 

At present, talks about Saudi Arabia’s formal involvement appear to be in the preliminary stages and are being managed by the UK Ministry of Defense. Saudi Arabia is on a mission to reduce its dependence on the United States for military hardware while bolstering its domestic arms industry.


Follow us everywhere and at any time. BulgarianMilitary.com has responsive design and you can open the page from any computer, mobile devices or web browsers. For more up-to-date news, follow our Google News, YouTube, Reddit, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook pages. Our standards: Manifesto & ethical principles.