Japan, UK and Italy formally establish a joint body to develop a new advanced fighter jet

The defense ministers of Japan, Britain and Italy signed an agreement Thursday to establish a joint organization to develop a new advanced jet fighter, as their countries push to strengthen cooperation in the face of growing threats from China, Russia and North Korea.

The three countries had agreed last year to merge individual plans — for Japan’s Mitsubishi F-X to succeed the retiring F-2s developed with the United States and Britain’s Tempest – to produce the new combat aircraft for deployment in 2035.

Japan, which is rapidly building up its military, hopes to have greater capability to counter China’s rising assertiveness while welcoming Britain’s bigger presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Underscoring their closer ties, Britain announced Thursday its carrier strike group will visit Japan in 2025 first time in four years.

Japan’s Defense Minister Minoru Kihara said at a joint news conference with his British and Italian counterparts, Grant Shapps and Guido Crosett, that co-developing a high-performance fighter aircraft is “indispensable to securing air superiority and enabling effective deterrence” at a time that Japan faces an increasingly severe security environment.

Kihara said no individual nation can defend itself alone today, and that securing technology and funding to develop an advanced fighter jet involves large risks. He said the joint trilateral Global Combat Air Program was a “historic program.”

Shapps said the joint project will develop cutting-edge technology and bring about “a new era of prosperity,” involving thousands of people working on the project. “It will strengthen our collective security,” he said. “The risks and problems from Europe to Indo-Pacific are clear for all to see.”

Under the plan, a joint body called the GCAP International Government Organization will manage the private sector joint venture — which includes Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy, Britain’s BAE Systems PLC and Italy’s Leonardo — to oversee the aircraft’s development. The organization will be staffed by several hundred people from the three countries.

It will be headquartered in Britain and headed by a Japanese official while the joint venture will be led by an Italian representative, Kihara said. The top posts will rotate every few years.

The project, however, hinges on Japan easing its postwar ban on exporting jointly developed lethal weapons to third countries. It said before Thursday’s signing it was working to do so, but the process has been delayed.

Shapps said he expected Japan would approve the changes as soon as possible. “We are working within the three of us. It needs updating. Otherwise, who will be able to take the project forward at all?” he said.

The restriction under Japan’s postwar pacifist Constitution does not allow it to sell a jointly developed fighter jet and possibly complicates the project, since Britain and Italy hope to be able to sell the new aircraft.

A Japanese government panel has been discussing the easing of military sales and has agreed to relax restrictions on the transfer of licensed technology and equipment. But it recently postponed a decision on easing the policy for the joint fighter jet until early next year.

Japanese defense officials refused to discuss how the situation would affect the joint project.

“We are keen to understand what changes can be made because the world is now a more contested place and Japan has a very important part in helping to protect the world,” Shapps said.

Later Thursday, on a visit to Japanese guided missile destroyer JS Maya docked at the Yokosuka Naval Base near Tokyo, Shapps announced the 2025 visit to Japan by Britain’s carrier strike group during its Indo-Pacific deployment, stressing the importance to show the Indo-Pacific also needs protection at a time of conflicts in Europe and the Middle East.

The next-generation fighter jet project is the first time that Japan will participate in a multinational organization to jointly develop new military equipment.

To counter growing threats from China, North Korea and Russia, Japan has been expanding its defense partnerships with countries in Europe, Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific, including Australia and the Philippines.