Sixth-Generation Aircraft: Believers Join Here

The Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) is an interlocking set of treaties and commercial agreements through which the United Kingdom, Japan and Italy will develop jointly a sixth-generation stealth fighter. The idea is for the new aircraft to replace the Typhoon, currently in service with the British and the Italians, and the Mitsubishi F-2 of the Japanese Air Self-Defence Force. The three key companies involved in the development of a demonstrator aircraft – to fly by 2027 – are BAE Systems, Leonardo and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as the three national prime contractors. Their respective supply chains will play critical roles in development and production with aircraft said to be entering service with air forces from 2035.

That this is a massive geopolitical, technological and industrial undertaking should not be in doubt. Practitioners of risk management, however, might offer some gentle advice at this time, part way through the first year of a programme post-treaty signature by the three governments in December 2023. First, in terms of a master schedule, is 36 months really long enough to deliver a demonstrator aircraft acceptable to all stakeholders’ requirements? Whilst there might be an outline specification, does that underscore the multiple concepts of operations envisaged from 2035 and beyond? I doubt it, simply because the manner of air operations in the middle of this century is probably beyond imagination currently. Second, the assumptions for the programme – perhaps captured in a Master Data and Assumption List – seem a little opaque and more the stuff of theology than effective programme management. Informed folk in Westminster and across the businesses suggest that the business case for GCAP assumes a fielded fleet size of some 600 aircraft, populating both the air forces of the three national partners, but also those of allies through significant exports. I have just published a book on UK defence exports and in recent decades British air programmes, in collaboration with partner nations, have only been financially viable through exports, especially to Middle East countries. So, of the 600 aircraft assumed for GCAP, a high proportion will need to be sold, probably to similar nations. There is a significant risk here, just with this assumption, as both European and US nations are also developing six-generation fighter aircraft in the same timeframe for the same assumed export market. Moreover, the price point for each aircraft is, as yet, unknown but folk have been speculating on a value per unit close to a billion US dollars. The impact upon defence budgets at home and abroad would be astounding, possibly even disastrous if home costs weren’t mitigated by export sales.

The GCAP concept is exciting and strategically profound. The discussion, at this moment though, should be framed in the languages of risk and programme management. That it is not is a strategic risk in itself. I hope it doesn’t come back to haunt us.

John Louth

Professor John Louth is senior strategic adviser to Redstone Risk. He serves on a number of UK defence boards as either a non-executive director or strategic adviser and sits on the panel of advisers to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. His latest book on UK exports was published this year by Routledge. He is a collaborating professor with the University of South Australia in Adelaide.