|Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP)
|Royal Air Force
Japan Air Self-Defense Force
Italian Air Force
|BAE Systems Tempest, Mitsubishi F-X
The Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) is a multinational initiative led by the United Kingdom, Japan, and Italy to jointly develop a sixth-generation stealth fighter. The programme aims to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon in service with both the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Italian Air Force, and the Mitsubishi F-2 in service with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.
On 9 December 2022, the governments of Japan, the United Kingdom, and Italy jointly announced that they would develop and deploy a common fighter jet, merging their previously separate sixth-generation projects: the United Kingdom-led BAE Systems Tempest developed with Italy, and the Japanese Mitsubishi F-X. This was cemented with a treaty signed in December 2023 in Japan.
Under the current timeline, the program expects to begin the formal development phase from 2025, with a demonstrator to fly in 2027, and production aircraft to begin entering service from 2035.
Main article: BAE Systems Tempest
On 16 July 2018 during the Farnborough Airshow, then UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson publicly revealed a mock-up of 'Tempest' a BAE Systems led sixth-generation fighter program and wider Future Combat Air System (FCAS) that would be developed to replace the RAF's Eurofighter Typhoons in the mid-to-late 2030s. A year later on 19 July 2019, Sweden signed a Memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the UK to work together in developing the wider FCAS needed for the future of aerial operations. on 11 September during DSEI 2019, Italy formally joined the Tempest program. In 2020, Sweden and the UK 'firmed up' their MoU for FCAS and saw Sweden's SAAB establish a centre-of-excellence in the UK as part of a £50 million investment, However it was stressed that this was not an indication that Sweden or SAAB had signed onto the main Tempest effort. On the 21 December 2021, The UK, Italy, and Sweden signed a trilateral MoU for cooperation on the FCAS.
A number of new technologies were being explored for possible deployment on Tempest, including:
It was envisaged that the program would agree to funding and manufacturing arrangements in 2025 with an expected in-service date for the aircraft in 2035.
Following the USA's decision not to allow the export of the F-22 Raptor, Japan began looking for a domestic solution to field a new fighter aircraft. From the mid-2000s Japan began funding various research programs involved in fighter design culminating in the Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin experimental aircraft which took flight on 22 April 2016. This research and the data collected from the X-2 program would feed the development of Japan's main fighter effort, the Mitsubishi F-X program.
Discussions to combine efforts on both fighter projects as a means of reducing overall development costs began as early as 2017. This began yielding results in December 2021 when the UK and Japan announced they would jointly cooperate to produce a demonstrator for a new fighter engine as well as the signing of a memorandum of cooperation to explore future air combat technologies together. On 15 February 2022, a further agreement was reached between both nations to jointly develop sensor capabilities for their respective fighters known as the 'Japan and Great Britain Universal Advanced RF (radio-frequency) system' or 'JAGUAR'.
In July 2022, Reuters reported from anonymous sources within both programs that both parties were close to a deal for merging Tempest and F-X into a single program. In December 2022, this was proven correct when the final decision was made to merge the development of both programs into a single endeavour to procure a common multi-role fighter now called the "Global Combat Air Program" (GCAP). The resulting aircraft is also expected to be available for the export market to further reduce the per-unit costs.
The programme is envisaged as an equal partnership between the member nations. In the UK, BAE Systems will act as prime contractor and handle the airframe, Rolls-Royce the engines, Leonardo's UK division the electronics, and MBDA UK the weapons. In Japan, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries will act as prime contractor, with IHI Corporation handling the engines, and Mitsubishi Electric handling the electronics. In Italy, Leonardo S.p.A. will be prime contractor, with Avio Aero working on the engines, and MBDA IT will also work on missile development.
By around 2024, detailed development and cost sharing for each company will be clarified, and production will begin around 2030, with the first aircraft to be deployed in 2035.
In late December 2022, two weeks after GCAP was announced, Japan and Sweden signed an ‘Agreement on the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology' that would explore deeper bilateral ties between both nations. This also began speculation as to Sweden potentially becoming a member of GCAP as a means of replacing their Saab JAS 39 Gripen given that Sweden had previously been cooperating with the UK and Italy regarding the FCAS to which Tempest would have contributed. However, in March 2023, several industrial figures involved in GCAP placed doubt on Sweden joining GCAP with some stating that Sweden's concepts for FCAS did not align with the views of the UK or Italy.
On 11 August 2023, the Financial Times reported that that Saudi Arabia was pushing to join the program. While the UK and Italy were reportedly open to the concept, Japan was firmly opposed, seeing Saudi membership as a complication to both further domestic efforts in allowing Japanese defence exports to foreign nations and the overall timeline for the program in successfully producing an in-service aircraft by 2035. There were also concerns from defence sources that the security of sensitive technology might be complicated by Saudi membership as well as the questionable technical contribution that the Kingdom could feasibly provide to GCAP.
On 15 September, Leonardo's CEO said that Saudi Arabia would not become a core partner in GCAP, with Reuters reporting that in a response to the question of Saudi membership they said "The programme is (for) UK, Japan, Italy, that's it. There is nothing else at the moment".
On 1 November 2023, The Times reported on leaked rumours that Germany was considering abandoning the €100 billion Future Combat Air System; also known by its French designation SCAF (a parallel European effort to field a sixth-generation fighter design alongside other systems) with other core members France and Spain, and would instead look to join GCAP. Extensively this was due to ongoing problems within both the SCAF program regarding intellectual property and industrial participation as well as tensions spilling over from other European programs such as on matters of air defence and Germany's procurement of the F-35A. However, many experts were quick to point out that the complexity of the discussions for this type of program should keep observers sceptical of such rumours. James Black from Rand Europe and Isabella Antinozzi from RUSI explained to Shepard News that this leak might potentially be a German negotiating tactic to pressure France and Spain to concede into more of Germany's demands for the program or risk their divergence. There was also scepticism as to whether Germany would even be able to join GCAP, at least to the same level of membership they had within SCAF, especially given previous statements by GCAP industry heads.
In December 2023, a Swedish official during the International Fighter Conference announced that Sweden would not make a decision on a future fighter to replace the Gripen until 2031 following several national studies and related planning efforts. It was also mentioned that Sweden walked away from bilateral and trilateral discussions with the UK and Italy a year before, but did not expand on the reasons for this decision. Whilst such a decision does not rule-out future Swedish participation in GCAP, delaying membership in the program would risk losing industrial influence over design requirements.
On the first day of DSEI 2023 on 12 September, a trilateral collaboration agreement was signed between all three parties to support the long-term working arrangements and capability requirements of the program.
On 14 December 2023, 12 months after the initial agreement to pursue GCAP, the tri-lateral effort was cemented with the signing of an international treaty for the development of the aircraft in Tokyo. This treaty would see the both the collaborative governmental headquarters and industrial hub for the effort based in the UK, confirming earlier reports, with Japan providing the first CEO and Italy the first leader of the business entity.