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Saudi Arabia wants to buy its way into a major 6th-gen fighter-jet project, but not all its potential partners are welcoming

British RAF Tempest fighter jet
An illustration of the future Tempest sixth-generation fighter jet, released in December 2020.British Royal Air Force
  • The UK, Italy, and Japan are working together to develop a sixth-generation fighter jet.

  • Saudi Arabia reportedly wants to join the effort, but Japan is said to be wary of letting Riyadh in.

  • The program from the UK, Italy, and Japan is one of several launched in recent years to build next-gen jets.

Saudi Arabia wants to join the UK, Japan, and Italy as a partner in the Global Combat Air Programme, which aims to build the six-generation Tempest stealth fighter jet and other advanced technologies by 2035.

While funding from the Arab kingdom could ease the financial burden on the consortium, other considerations have made Tokyo reluctant to assent to Riyadh's admission.

As first reported by The Financial Times, the Saudis hope to win admission into the GCAP in return for "a potentially significant financial contribution."

Italy and the UK would most likely welcome Saudi participation. The latter is a major arms supplier to the kingdom. A senior British defense source told The Financial Times that the UK viewed "Saudi Arabia as a key partner in the fighter program and we are working to ensure strong progress as soon as possible."

Tempest 6th-gen fighter
A display version of Tempest at a military expo in London in 2019.Bill Bostock/Business Insider

A recent editorial in Britain's Telegraph newspaper also advocated Saudi Arabia's admission, arguing, among other things, that "the sheer scale of the investment needed" for such a project "is virtually impossible to justify unless the costs are shared."

"Without Saudi's milch cow, a project like Tempest may not be viable," the editorial said.

Japan, on the other hand, worries adding a fourth member could slow the group's decision-making process, which requires consensus, and cause the program to miss its already ambitious 2035 deadline, Shigeto Kondo, a senior researcher with the Japanese Institute of Middle Eastern Economies, told Al-Monitor last month.

Tokyo has acquired US-made F-35s, but a delay in developing a sixth-generation jet could put it at a disadvantage compared with China's air force, which is growing in size and capability.

Japan also fears Saudi Arabia may want to export the cutting-edge jet to adversaries, such as China and Russia, or use its veto power to prevent Tokyo from exporting it to one of its allies.

6th-gen in demand

South Korea KF-21
A model of the KF-21 at the Indo Defence Expo in Jakarta in November 2022.BAY ISMOYO/AFP via Getty Images

Time will tell whether Japan's concerns win out against the hefty financial contribution that Riyadh could make, but Saudi interest in Tempest demonstrates its eagerness to secure a next-generation fighter in the coming decade, which is a goal for a growing number of countries.

Indonesia, for example, has joined South Korea's KF-21 Boramae project, which aims to produce a quasi-stealth fighter jet by the late 2020s. Indonesia agreed to a 20% stake in the program in exchange for at least 50 KF-21s to upgrade its air force.

Jakarta's failure to pay its share on time has raised concerns about its commitment, which it recently sought to assuage by offering a payment timetable.

On the other side of Asia, Azerbaijan recently joined Turkey's TF Kaan stealth-fighter project. Like the Saudis, oil-rich Azerbaijan can provide much-needed funding to the program.

Ankara also hopes Pakistan will join the effort. Those three countries are already close and cooperate militarily, often hosting exercises on each other's territory. Azerbaijan previously expressed interest in upgrading its aging Soviet-era air force with JF-17 fourth-generation jets, which Pakistan developed with China. Baku may now just wait for the TF Kaan to roll off the assembly line.

JF-17 Thunder fighter jet
A JF-17 at the 51st Paris Air Show in June 2015.REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

If Saudi Arabia wins admission to GCAP — and if Tempest is completed on time — Riyadh would be set to acquire an aircraft far more advanced than the KF-21 or TF Kaan. Tempest is even set to be a generation ahead of the American F-35 and F-22 and China's J-20.

The first version of the KF-21 is not expected to have the internal weapons bays that are an essential feature of fifth-generation stealth fighters.

The TF Kaan is set to feature internal bays and other fifth-generation features. However, sixth-generation aircraft such as Tempest are also expected to become operational not long after the Kaan is completed and built in significant numbers.

Like other Arab Gulf states, Saudi Arabia's options for fifth-generation aircraft appear limited, and it seems that Riyadh is banking on getting in on a six-generation project while making do with its existing fleet of formidable F-15s and Eurofighters for the intervening decade — and possibly acquiring advanced variants of France's Rafale as an interim solution.

Should Japan drop its objections to Riyadh's admission or reach a compromise with its other GCAP partners, the Saudi air force could be well on its way to ensuring its technological edge for decades to come.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist and columnist who writes about Middle East developments, military affairs, politics, and history. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications focused on the region.

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