Saudi Arabia has expressed its interest in becoming a full partner in the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), a joint effort by the UK, Japan and Italy to develop the next generation of fighter jets and other air combat systems. The GCAP, also known as Tempest, aims to deliver the first planes by 2035, a tight deadline for such an ambitious project.
The Saudi request, which was confirmed by five senior officials in London, Tokyo and Rome, has been backed by the UK government, which sees Saudi Arabia as a strategic partner and a potential source of funding for the costly programme. The UK has a long history of defence cooperation with Saudi Arabia, which is one of the world’s biggest defence spenders and a major customer of British arms exports.
However, the Saudi bid has also created tensions within the tri-national alliance, as Japan is firmly opposed to the idea of Saudi membership and has made its position clear to the other two partners. Japan has been slowly loosening its post-war pacifist restrictions on weapons exports, but it still maintains strict criteria on the end-use and end-users of its defence products. Japan is also wary of the political and ethical implications of involving Saudi Arabia in the project, given its controversial record on human rights and its involvement in the war in Yemen.
Italy, on the other hand, is open to the idea of Saudi participation, as it sees it as an opportunity to share the burden of developing the fighter jet and to expand its defence market in the Middle East. Italy has also been collaborating with Saudi Arabia on other defence projects, such as supplying frigates and helicopters.
The GCAP is a landmark programme that aims to create a family of systems that can operate in concert across multiple domains, including air, space, cyber and electromagnetic. The programme includes developing a new fighter jet, called Tempest, that will feature advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, stealth, hypersonic weapons and swarming drones. The programme also involves developing other systems such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), remote carriers and loyal wingmen that can support the manned fighter jet.
The GCAP is seen as a strategic endeavour to maintain the technological edge and operational sovereignty of the three partners in an increasingly competitive and complex security environment. The programme is also expected to generate significant economic benefits and create thousands of jobs in the three countries.
The addition of Saudi Arabia to the programme could bring both advantages and challenges for the partners. On one hand, it could help spread the cost of developing the fighter jet and increase its export potential. On the other hand, it could complicate the already complex negotiations involving three governments and several companies from each country. It could also raise legal and ethical issues regarding the transfer of sensitive technologies and the compliance with international norms and regulations.
The talks on Saudi Arabia joining the programme are still at a relatively early stage and are being handled by the Ministry of Defence in the UK. The final decision will require the consensus of all three partners and will depend on various factors, such as technical feasibility, political will and public opinion.