Now France and Germany have joined Spain to develop their own next-generation fighter, with plans for a flying prototype in 2027. They’re very similar in approach, but with two key differences, Black says.
The French want their version to operate from aircraft carriers and carry nuclear bombs, while the British Tempest flies from air bases, with the British nuclear arsenal based on submarines.
It is believed that this different approach, combined with France’s demand for much of the work, killed any partnership.
That split leaves a kind of order gap, says Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
He estimates that a new jet fighter program in the UK will need 500-600 orders to be cost effective. For comparison, more than 600 Typhoon jets were made, of which 181 were sold to Germany – which is not involved in this program.
“They need another big economic partner,” says Bronk, adding, “The biggest thing Japan brings to the table, alongside a heavy budget and a very advanced electronics industry, is access to an altitude test facility.”
To develop the specialized engines needed to send the aircraft at supersonic speeds and power the equipment it will carry, they must be tested in a chamber that can mimic conditions at high altitudes of tens of thousands of feet.
The UK had one such facility near Farnborough in Hampshire but it closed in 2000 while Germany’s in Stuttgart is now part of a competing scheme. Japan’s IHI has one – and British engine developer Rolls-Royce has signed a deal to work with him on engine development for jet fighters.
While Japan’s expected high demand for the jets could lead Tokyo to see itself as a senior partner, Bronk says, given the immense cost of developing a new jet fighter, that may not matter.
Typhoons cost the UK around £35bn in today’s terms, he estimates, far exceeding the UK’s current budget for fighter jets, although digital designs cut some costs.
As the prototype develops, Tempest’s prime contractors, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and MBDA, are advancing technology to enhance the UK’s combat capabilities. Jointly owned by BAE, Airbus and Leonardo of Italy, MBDA manufactures missiles for the UK, Italy, Germany and France, including the Brimstone anti-tank missile recently deployed in Ukraine.