Defence Secretary Ben Wallace issued an extraordinary appeal for more countries to join the UK’s Tempest programme to build a new fighter jet as he help launched the online version of the Farnborough airshow.
Speaking after the landmark trade show was cancelled because of coronavirus, Mr Wallace urged other countries to join in the development programme for Britain’s next-generation warplane.
His remarks are likely to be seen as part of an effort by ministers to work more closely with allies and share the eye-watering costs of new defence kit. They come amid fears that the armed forces could be cut back sharply to save money, relegating the country to a mid-tier military power.
Mr Wallace said: “We are keen to see more international partners joins us on the flightpath of discovery. This is your chance to share technology, experience and research and development costs, to strengthen existing alliances and help establish new ones.
Italy and Sweden have already joined, the minister said, adding: “I believe there is room for a broad range of other partnerships.”
If Tempest goes ahead as hoped, the stealthy aircraft will enter service in 2035.
It is likely to incorporate technologies such as artificial intelligence allowing the plane to fly with no pilot on board, as well as “swarms” of computer controlled drone wingmen and hypersonic and laser weapons.
Tempest was launched two years ago at the Farnborough airshow as a partnership between the stateand leading aerospace companies such as BAE Systems, Leonardo, MBDA and Rolls-Royce.
The £2bn programme is currently being developed by 1,800 engineers and is intended to work out what capabilities and systems a future fighter would need. They are expected to settle on a basic specification by the end of the year.
Mr Wallace also confirmed that seven more companies – Bombardier, Collins, GE, GKN, Martin-Baker, QinetiQ and Thales – have come on board. They are working with universities and small businesses.
Swedish company Saab is involved too. It is making an initial £50m investment in the UK to develop future combat air systems.
Mr Wallace said that Tempest will give the UK the “potential to break into lucrative global markets”, underlining ministers’ focus on dealing with countries worldwide and desire to rely less on the US defence industry.
Bringing in other nations which could portion up work between them would not only mean the huge costs of producing a new fighter being shared, but would also create a market big enough to make the project financially viable.
Ministers and defence staff have said they are in talks with other countries about Tempest, but have refused to give details of their identities or say how discussions are progressing.
Japan is understood to be the most interested, but there are questions about how involved it would be. The Tokyo government is keen to protect its own aerospace industry and is thought to be reluctant to use aircraft built abroad.
Separately, Airbus said it is braced for a diplomatic crisis in coming years which could pile even more pressure on an industry already reeling from coronavirus.
Guillaume Faury, chief executive of the pan-European plane-maker, has already announced 15,000 job losses and cut production of aircraft by third to combat the pandemic. He hopes Airbus will now stabilise at the much smaller size it was 10 or 15 years ago.
However, Mr Faury warned of further troubles ahead in 2021 or 2022. He said: “There might be another crisis beyond this one. We see a lot of international tensions, we see that the world is really changing very fast.”
Mr Faury added that as well as dealing with the impact of coronavirus, which he described as having done as much damage to the air travel industry “as a war”, cash-strapped companies also face other challenges in the form of cyber threats, new technologies and new entrants.
He added that Airbus remains in talks with the UK government about potential support deals. France and Germany have already doled out aerospace aid.
Meanwhile, the UK Government announced £200m of grants for research projects run by the Aerospace Technology Institute, which will be matched by industry.
Ministers also gave more details of their ambitions to see slash carbon emissions from air travel, with a bid to create a non-polluting airliner that can cross the Atlantic with zero carbon impact.
Around 100 experts from industry and academia will carry out a 12-month study on how this aircraft could be designed and built.