Global Combat Air Program

The Japan-Italy-UK sixth-generation stealth fighter project marks a new export-oriented frontier for the Japanese defense industry.

In December 2022, Japan, Italy, and the United Kingdom signed an agreement to partner on the development of a sixth-generation stealth fighter aircraft.

The Global Combat Air Program (GCAP) aims to produce aircraft ready for export and deployment by 2035. This represents a new frontier for Japanese weapons co-development and is an excellent opportunity to enhance regional cooperation on safety matters.

The UK and Italy are motivated to partner with Japan in GCAP to fill gaps in development finance. The number of aircraft to be produced and their technological development have improved thanks to the Japanese participation in GCAP.

Initially, Japan was seeking “Japan-led development” of its Mitsubishi FX fighter jet project, with a view to international cooperation in its Medium-Term Defense Forces Development Plan, assuming joint development with the United States or the United Kingdom.

But as the US was reluctant to support “Japan-led development” and technology transfer, Japan chose the UK as a partner for the joint development of its next-generation fighter jet.

Many contentious issues are expected to arise in the GCAP program, including negotiations over development initiatives, operations, specifications, development cost sharing, technology transfer, scheduling and production sharing.

Global Combat Air Program
The Mitsubishi FX is a sixth-generation stealth fighter in development for Japan and the first stealth fighter aircraft developed in the country.

The desired outcome of GCAP is to contribute to regional security, establishing the weapons system as the core of NATO and AUKUS regional cooperation in responding to the war in Ukraine and the military tension with China.

Operational requirements, technology and industry, development cost sharing and alliance policy are essential in international joint development. But the GCAP negotiations seem to be driven mainly by the politics of alliances.

Understanding the UK and Italy as partners in the context of ‘Japan-led’ development policies is essential. During the 20 years of operations of the Mitsubishi F-2 fighter between Japan and the United States, Japan has been able to carry out “Japan-led” development in terms of operational requirements, improvements, and systems integration. These are the three independent operations that should continue in GCAP.

These and other issues will probably be the subject of negotiations between the three countries. Japan has only co-developed defense technology projects with the United States in the past. Negotiation is essential to the success of GCAP, which will be Japan’s first co-development with a country other than the United States.

The key to GCAP’s success is expanding the number of aircraft produced before achieving economies of scale and learning curve effects by exporting to the European and Asia-Pacific markets, where many States are expected to start purchasing aircraft from fifth or sixth-generation combat.

The key is to develop a cheap, degraded version of GCAP for target countries that envision modern stealth air warfare and those that don’t. In the first case, the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System will be a contender, while in the second, the South Korean-Indonesian KF-21 will be the favorite.

Within the framework of AUKUS, it will be essential to determine what performance Australia requires from its next generation of combat aircraft. Within the US-centered network of hub-and-spoke alliances, it is necessary to promote regional cooperation between the UK, Japan and Australia.

The UK, Japan and Italy are required to offer offset agreements whereby Australia and other fourth countries can participate in the development and production of GCAPs and import non-combat weapons, agricultural products and resources when considering the purchase of GCAP.

Japan’s promotion of GCAP export and offset agreements requires a relaxation of its outdated Three Principles on the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology. In particular, the ban on transfers that “violate obligations under UN Security Council resolutions” must be urgently reviewed, as the UN Security Council has not functioned effectively since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

Japan must change its strategic outlook and promote a mission-oriented defense policy. By introducing mission engineering methods into the development of GCAP, which is led by the United States and the United Kingdom, Japan can promote smooth GCAP development and enhance regional security cooperation, including weapon systems, with AUKUS countries, including Australia.

Takeshi Sakade