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Saudi Arabia Wants to Join UK, Japan, Italy Fighter Jet Program

Saudi Arabia has expressed interest in joining the next-generation fighter jet program involving the UK, Italy, and Japan.

Known as the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), the initiative aims to produce an exportable sixth-generation combat aircraft by 2035.

According to officials in London and Tokyo, the kingdom’s efforts to join the project began in July when it sent a direct request to the government of Japan to make the GCAP a four-nation program.

The UK already said it is willing to include its Middle Eastern ally in the project, given their strategic partnerships in various areas, including defense.

“We see Saudi Arabia as a key partner in the fighter program and we are working to ensure strong progress as soon as possible,” a senior British defense source said, as quoted by Nikkei Asia.

If allowed, Riyadh vows to offer a “significant financial contribution” to the project estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars.

Its participation would also likely include a contribution of its engineering expertise in various phases of the program.

Japanese Opposition

Unlike the UK and Italy, Tokyo firmly opposes Saudi Arabia’s proposed membership in the GCAP.

Signing joint partnerships with London and Rome was not an easy move for Japan as it had to overturn its decades-long ban on arms exports for the fighter jet project.

Japanese officials said Riyadh would only complicate discussions about which countries are allowed to purchase the aircraft.

Additionally, the Asian nation believes that having another member at this stage of the program would delay the production of the fighter jet.

Despite promising a large financial contribution, there are doubts about whether Saudi Arabia would have anything significant to offer technologically.

GCAP sixth-generation fighter
Another look at the proposed GCAP sixth-generation fighter aircraft. Photo: Japan Ministry of Defense

Why the Sudden Interest?

The oil-rich country’s interest in joining the GCAP was reportedly fueled by unexpected delays in the delivery of Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft.

Over five years ago, Saudi and the UK signed an agreement for the supply of 48 aircraft that would be added to the kingdom’s current fleet of 72 Typhoons.

However, London suspended arms sales to Riyadh in 2019 because the British government “failed” to properly assess the risk of civilian harm.

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