LONDON — Europe can afford to develop two different sixth-generation combat jets concurrently, but the nations involved in the programs are coordinating to “maximise interoperability,” according to a British Ministry of Defence report to Parliament about the country’s Tempest effort.

Boosted by last week’s memorandum of understanding with Sweden to investigate the feasibility of the Nordic nation becoming Britain’s first partner in the Tempest sixth-generation fighter development effort, British Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt told Parliament July 22 there was room for two when it came to Europe funding rival programs.

France and Germany have teamed up to develop a new European combat aircraft.

Some analysts believe the huge cost and possibly small numbers of jets required for the post-2040 battlefield will eventually prohibit the Europeans from running two separate sixth-gen fighter programs.

But for the moment, Mordaunt appears to disagree.

“From progress to date [with Tempest], we believe that Europe can afford two separate combat air programmes,” Mordaunt reported to lawmakers in what will become an annual statement about progress on the project.

BAE Systems, Leonardo UK, MBDA and Rolls-Royce are the main players in the Tempest team.

Saab is not part of the industrial team as a result of the memorandum of understanding, but Britain’s defense procurement minister, Stuart Andrew, said the Gripen aircraft manufacturer “is very much part of this joint arrangement between the industries in the two countries.”

Swedish and British ministers said Tempest technology development would be incorporated in future upgrades to their respective Gripen and Typhoon fighter programs as a bridge ahead of introduction in any Tempest fighter. That effort for a Typhoon road map is underway.

Mordaunt said that in June the U.K. and the other Eurofighter nations of Germany, Italy and Spain awarded a €54 million (U.S. $61 million) contract for the long-term evolution study of the Typhoon to industry, which will explore how to maximize Typhoon’s future capabilities.

Britain failed to reach agreement to join a Franco-German project to develop a sixth-gen fighter project and instead went its own way, taking the wraps off its Tempest at last year’s Farnborough Airshow. The British government pledged £1.9 billion (U.S. $2.4 billion) to mature the technologies and retain the industrial skills needed for a future combat system.

The big news of Farnborough 2018 was the unveiling of the British Tempest fighter concept.

But the door to cooperation hasn’t completely closed. Mordaunt reported to Parliament that the government is “contracting our industry to work with their French counterparts on technologies that would maximise interoperability of our current and future platforms, recognising that, as currently envisioned, the Franco-German [Future Combat Air System (FCAS)] acquisition programme does not meet the objectives laid out in our strategy.”

That cooperation is applicable to the Future Combat Air System as well as current fighter jets like the Typhoon and the F-35.

Sweden signed up with the U.K. to analyze the early economic, operational and industrial prospects for partnering in Tempest. “The main purpose of this partnership is to explore the feasibility for an affordable and substantial industrial base for the U.K. and Sweden offering solutions for a future operational requirement,” said Peter Hultqvist, the Swedish defense minister, in announcing the deal at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford, western England, on July 19.

Hultqvist said the study work will run until next Autumn. “After that we will be ready to discuss the next steps. This [memorandum of understanding] is a starting point,” he said. He made it clear that Sweden is looking for an equal partnership with the U.K. on any future aircraft program.

Industry reaction

Signing up Sweden to the early concept work on Tempest has been welcomed by British industry leaders.

Norman Bone, the chairman and managing director of the U.K. arm of Italian firm Leonardo, said that, among other benefits, the Swedes bring the ability to deal with problems in a practical way.

“We have worked with Saab for many years on radar and other programs. They are tremendously good partners, and this is a real opportunity to bring Swedish pragmatism into the project,” Bone said.

Sweden may be the first to sign up for the early stages of the program, but the country appears unlikely to be the last, according to Mordaunt. The defense secretary said Britain is performing feasibility work with other potential partners and expects to sign deals similar to the one struck with Sweden within the next 12 months.

The feasibility work is bilateral between the U.K. and other nations. Italy, Japan and India have been among those linked with the Tempest project, and Mordaunt confirmed in her report to lawmakers that partners may include nations from outside Europe.

Bone said there was a “very good possibility of another partner coming through. Britain has been in discussion with a number of nations, and Italy is one of those,” he said.

British defense export officials previously said more than 12 nations had been engaged in discussions over joining the Tempest program. The report to Parliament said that the Tempest project was starting to ramp up. Some 120 subcontracts were awarded and more than 1,000 people are working on the project, a number that is expected to double within a year.

The government said it is making progress developing technologies earmarked for a Tempest platform that emerges from early work.

“The first of these has already been achieved — the embedding of an electrical starter generator by Rolls-Royce within the main body of a powerful military aircraft engine. This increases the power density and reduces the complexity of future aircraft engines," the report stated. "This technology will continue to be matured in the coming years, leading to a fully integrated novel power and propulsion system.”