LONDON – Sweden is set to become the first international partner to join the British “Tempest” sixth-generation fighter program.
An announcement involving the governments and industries of the two nations is expected to be made at the three-day Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) event, which begins July 19 at RAF Fairford, according to industry executives.
The British government took the wraps off the Tempest program at the Farnborough Air Show last year. The project is the main attraction in a new combat air strategy stitched together largely to enable the British defense aerospace industry to maintain its technological edge in developing jet fighters.
The Conservative government pledged £2 billion, or $2.5 billion, to fund the early stages of the program, which is being led on the industry side by BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, missile maker MBDA and the UK arm of Leonardo, a key supplier of systems like the radar.
But government officials have always made it clear that the Tempest program was affordable only with the involvement of foreign partners bringing money, technology and markets to the table.
Doug Barrie, the senior military air analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London, said the Swedes bring several benefits to the program, not least their industrial skill sets.
“Saab has been able to build capable combat aircraft at a cost a country like Sweden can afford, so they bring cost competitiveness and they bring numbers of potential orders,” said Barrie.
The analyst said it’s likely that the Swedes will have similar military requirements to the British by the time the Tempest is in service.
“With a much more assertive Russia on their doorstep the Swedes may well look at their capability requirements for 2040 and beyond and decide they need something much bigger than the Gripen,” said Barrie.
Sweden, Japan, Italy and Turkey have been among the countries touted as being potential partners for a program aimed at seeing the first aircraft flying around 2035.
Mark Goldsack, the director of the UK government's defense and security export organization, told media at the Paris Air Show recently that the British were holding discussions about joining the program with at least a dozen countries.
It wouldn’t be the first time the British and Swedes have cooperated in the development of a fighter jet.
BAE, then known as British Aerospace, helped produce and market early versions of the successful Gripen fighter developed by Saab.
At one time, the British defense contractor had a 35 percent stake in Saab before selling out its holding in 2004.
Saab is now selling the latest version of the single-engine jet, the Gripen E, and has signed up Sweden and Brazil as customers. The first E-variant aircraft is set to be handed over to the Swedish air force later this year for test and evaluation.
BAE, together with its Eurofighter partners Airbus and Leonardo, continues to build the latest version of the Typhoon for domestic and export customers.
The British expect to start replacing the Typhoon with a new jet fighter around 2040.
One potentially difficult issue the British and Swedish may have to overcome is the disparity in export regulations, with Stockholm at present being much stricter than London on where fighter jets and other defense items can be sold.
Barrie said export approvals could “potentially be an issue between the two countries, but I doubt whether it is as much of a gulf as exists between France and Germany over the export rules potentially governing their joint fighter program.”
The Tempest program was launched after talks failed with France and Germany over joining a rival European fighter program known as the Future Combat Air System.
Spain joined that program at the Paris Air Show last month. It is being led on the industrial side by Airbus and Dassault.
Some industry executives still think the British could eventually throw their hand in with the FCAS effort.
Sweden had also been in talks about joining the FCAS program, but Saab CEO Hakan Buskhe pretty much played down any prospect of a tie-up with the Franco-German venture when he recently told reporters, “We are (in) much more intensive discussions with the Brits than the other consortium. ... I think we can do good things together.”