LONDON – Britain’s effort to develop a sixth-generation combat jet is on track, with the concept and assessment phase of the program expected to be signed off by industry and government imminently, according to officials involved in the discussions.

An announcement by the Ministry of Defence on a contract starting the next phase of work on the British-led Tempest future combat air program is expected in the next few weeks, said a BAE Systems spokesman.

“We are making good progress on the route to the concept and assessment phase, with the shared aim of launching the next phase of an international program to jointly develop and deliver world-leading future combat air capability. We expect to agree the concept and assessment phase contract in the summer,” the spokesman said.

The spokesman wouldn’t be drawn on an exact date but with Parliament due to go into summer recess in July that could potentially trigger a contract announcement ahead of that.

A deal for the concept and assessment phase marks the first proper step to the launch of a full-fledged 6th-generation combat jet program by the British and their international partners.

The British government has committed £2 billion ($2.8 billion) to the program over the next four years, with industry expected to contribute as well.

Initial work on Tempest was formally launched mid-2018 with the British government and industry partners BAE, Leonardo, MBDA and Rolls-Royce, beginning the early stages of exploring and developing technology options in a partnership known as Team Tempest.

More recently that work has included involvement by likely program partners Italy and Sweden.

The likelihood of the three nations partnering in the upcoming phase of work was heightened at the end of last year when the governments announced they had signed a trilateral memorandum of understanding aimed at launching an international program this summer.

The British government has also been in talks with Japan, looking at how the nations can collaborate on their combined combat air requirements.

The doors are not closed to further partners coming onboard either.

“At the moment the focus is on our program and making it as successful as we possibly can,” Michael Christie, BAE’s director of future combat air systems, said at a May 25 online event hosted by the lobbying group ADS. “We will continue to be open to further partnering discussions with others but right now the primary focus is on delivering what we have to deliver,” he added.

Christie declined to put a time line on development of a prototype Tempest but said the project remained on target to see the jet reach its initial operating capability in the mid 2030s.

Over time the jet will replace Typhoon jets that currently form the backbone of Royal Air Force combat air capabilities. The British have also ordered 48 F-35B with an unknown number of the jets still to be ordered.

“We are on schedule to start the concept and assessment phase as we planned back in 2018. We aimed at a 2021 contract award and we are still on track for that,” said the BAE executive.

In a statement, U.K. Defense Minister Jeremy Quin said the Tempest program would provide a major employment boost and increase security capabilities.

“By investing in the research and development to support this national endeavor to create the Future Combat Air System alongside our partners, we are turbocharging our combat air industry,” he said, referring to the formal name for the British development program, not to be confused with the rival mainland Europe effort by France, Germany and Spain.

“Situated at the heart of the country’s aerospace sector, investment in FCAS reaffirms the government’s commitment to spend more than £2 billion over the next four years, with additional investment from industry, to create military capabilities that will keep us and our allies safe whilst creating thousands of skilled jobs right across the UK,” said Quin.

Just how important the future combat air system is to the British military aerospace industry and the government’s wider prosperity agenda was illustrated by an updated version of a report published by consultants PwC into the economic impact of Tempest in Britain.

The analysts first published the report last October but have since updated the document, commissioned by Team Tempest.

Among the main takeaways from the report are:

  • The Tempest program will contribute £26.2 billion to the UK economy between 2021-2050.
  • Team Tempest partners and their supply chain is expected to contribute £100 billion over the same period.
  • The program will support an average of 21,000 employees a year.

Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.

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