(Adds UK PM comment, BAE Systems CEO comment)
TOKYO/LONDON, Dec 9 (Reuters) - Japan, Britain and Italy
are merging their next-generation jet fighter projects in a
ground-breaking partnership spanning Europe and Asia that is
Japan's first major industrial defence collaboration beyond the
United States since World War Two.
The deal, which Reuters reported in July, aims to put an
advanced front-line fighter into operation by 2035 by combining
the British-led Future Combat Air System project, also known as
Tempest, with Japan's F-X programme in a venture called the
Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), the three countries said in
a statement on Friday.
Against the backdrop of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and
intensifying Chinese military activity around Japan and Taiwan,
the agreement may help Japan counter the growing military might
of its bigger neighbour and give Britain a bigger security role
in a region that is a key driver of global economic growth.
"We are committed to upholding the rules-based, free and
open international order, which is more important than ever at a
time when these principles are contested, and threats and
aggression are increasing," the three countries said in a joint
Amid what it sees as deteriorating regional security, Japan
this month will announce a military build up plan that is
expected to double defence spending to about 2% of gross
domestic product over five years.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak separately said his
country needed to stay at the cutting edge of defence
"It means we can keep the country safe from the new threats
that we face, it also adds billions to our economy and supports
tens of thousands of jobs across the country," Sunak, visiting
an air force base in eastern England, said of the deal. "It's
also good for our international reputation"
Britain's BAE Systems PLC, Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy
Industries and Italy's Leonardo will lead
design of the aircraft, which will have advanced digital
capabilities in artificial intelligence and cyber warfare,
according to Japan's Ministry of Defence.
European missile maker MBDA will also join the project,
along with avionics manufacturer Mitsubishi Electric Corp
. Rolls-Royce PLC, IHI Corp and Avio
Aero will work on the engine, the ministry added.
The three countries, however, have yet to work out some
details of how the project will proceed, including work shares
and where the development will take place.
Britain also wants Japan to improve how it provides security
clearances to contractors who will work on the aircraft, sources
with knowledge of the discussions told Reuters.
Other countries could join the project, Britain said, adding
the fighter, which will replace its Typhoon warplanes and
complement its F-35 Lightning fleet, will be compatible with
fighters flown by other North Atlantic Treaty Organization
BAE Chief Executive Charles Woodburn told reporters that no
other partners were needed.
"The three nations is everything that we need to take this
programme forward very successfully," he said, adding he was
confident the partners would work out further details of the
collaboration in the coming months.
Confirmation of the plan comes days after companies in
France, Germany and Spain secured the next phase of a rival
initiative to build a next-generation fighter that could be in
operation from 2040.
Asked about the potential for the British, Japanese and
Italian project to join forces with the rival European project
in future, Woodburn said it was a possibility.
"I wouldn't rule out one thing or another. At the end of the
day, these are political decisions," he said.
The United States, which has pledged to defend all three
countries through its membership of NATO and a separate security
pact with Japan, also welcomed the joint Europe-Japan agreement.
"The United States supports Japan's security and defence
cooperation with likeminded allies and partners, including with
the United Kingdom and Italy," the U.S. Department of Defense
said in a joint statement with Japan's Ministry of Defense.
Japan had initially considered building its next fighter
with help from U.S. defence contractor Lockheed Martin Corp
, which had proposed an aircraft that combined the F-22
airframe with the flight systems from the F-35 fighter.
(Reporting by Tim Kelly, Nobuhiro Kubo in TOKYO and Paul Sandle
in LONDON, additional reporting by Sarah Young and William
James; Editing by Robert Birsel and Mark Potter)