A Swedish-built Saab Gripen fighter © Reuters

The UK has held initial discussions with Sweden about collaborating on a future fighter jet, as it prepares to reveal a long-awaited combat air strategy at the Farnborough air show later this month.

As part of the strategy, the government is expected to commit to launching a next-generation fighter programme by 2020 in a sign of its post-Brexit ambitions to retain cutting-edge combat air expertise.

The strategy, which is expected to set out a timeline for awarding a firm manufacturing contract by 2020, has yet to be given final cabinet approval. But it aims to deliver a strong signal to potential international partners that the UK is determined to press ahead with such a programme, despite being left out  of a Franco-German future fighter project last year. 

The statement is expected to set out the criteria for international collaboration, stressing that the UK intends to play a leading design role in any partnership to develop a fighter to replace the Typhoon jet from 2040. Sweden — whose defence flagship, Saab, makes the Gripen combat aircraft — has indicated its potential interest and would be a natural partner, according to several sources.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “The combat air strategy will be launched to ensure Britain maintains a world-leading combat air capability.”

The accord struck last summer between Paris and Berlin to work on a road map for a future fighter programme took the UK government by surprise and stunned executives at BAE Systems, repository of Britain’s combat air expertise. BAE has for several years been working with France’s Dassault Aviation on a future unmanned fighter. It is also a prime partner in the Eurofighter consortium with Franco-German Airbus and Italy’s Leonardo.

The unmanned project, combining capabilities on Britain’s Taranis demonstrator and France’s Neuron, has been seen by many in the defence sector as critical to sustaining the UK’s competence in high-end aerospace skills and technology once Typhoon production ends around 2024.

However, several sources said that collaboration appeared to be stalling in the wake of the Franco-German accord. A person close to BAE said it continued to progress but admitted that the technology involved in the partnership was being reviewed as the focus turned to a future fighter.

France and Germany last month signalled that initial plans for collaboration on a so-called sixth-generation fighter had expanded to include its role in a wider combat system.

Dassault and Airbus have been named the prime industrial partners on the Franco-German project, while France will lead the programme. The two countries have said they would be open to working with other partners, but at a later stage. This has raised concerns that if Britain were to join the project it could be forced to take a secondary role and be locked out of the crucial planning and design phase of any future fighter.

Industrial sources said Brexit tensions had clouded the issue. Questions over the UK’s willingness to make a firm commitment to funding a programme have also frustrated European partners, one industry executive said.

“To break into the Franco-German relationship, we have got to put something on the table that makes it worthwhile for them to take it seriously,” he said.

The strategy will aim to do just that and will be a “strong statement of national interest”, according to one person close to the subject. However, it will not mention the Franco-German accord and will deliberately leave the door open to other partners. As well as Sweden, Japan and South Korea could be potential partners, industry sources said.

BAE said: “We welcome debate about the need for next-generation combat air systems across many nations. We have a strong history of collaboration with other nations and continue to invest in new and emerging technologies so we can develop future aircraft.”

Although the strategy is not expected to define whether the next-generation jet will be manned or unmanned, it will set out policy goals, future requirements and timelines for certain milestones on a future fighter programme.

It is not yet clear if there will be any funding announced at the air show. However, BAE Systems is expected to unveil a concept aircraft at Farnborough to showcase potential technologies for a sixth-generation fighter.


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UK in talks with Sweden over next-generation fighter jet