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Partnership potential – Australia and Israel’s options for sixth-gen fighters

31st January 2024 - 03:01 GMT | by Edward Hunt

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This analysis article originally appeared in January's Decisive Edge Air Newsletter.

Factors such as Brexit, AUKUS, Ukraine and now Gaza have been testing the industrial energy of many countries at various tiers of global defence standing. Given that politics often trumps strategic rationale, shifting geopolitical tides will have a significant impact upon how current multinational combat aircraft programmes will develop.

Sitting in the Brexit/AUKUS melange – but not immune from Ukraine/Israel influences – is the ongoing topic of how the UK-Japan-Italy Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) and Franco-German-Spanish-Belgian Système de Combat Aérien du Futur (SCAF) will fit into the global picture... Continues below

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Above: Shifting geopolitical allegiances could see other nations joining the GCAP effort, but the list of potential partners is a short one. (Image: BAE Systems)

The US has been relatively clear that it is neither picking sides nor interested in general collaboration on either effort. Despite this, many American or multinational companies in various supply chains remain hopeful of a signal to engage with one or both programmes.

But it is possible to assess the future programme potential for additional Tier 1 and 2 participants, at least at a national level.

Of the genuine aerospace leaders (the US aside) not already involved, South Korea and Turkey are developing their own aircraft, Sweden remains undecided on the sidelines and any MENA interest would be reduced largely to funding.

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and BRICS nations are effectively automatically excluded, with even France hard-pressed to justify inclusion partners from the above groups at a key technical level.


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But two countries and their associated aerospace sectors have yet to make any public statements. While now in Tier 2 in terms of advanced airframe design and development, both Israel and Australia have a strong global presence and hence would be valuable partners for either multinational programme.

Israel’s current situation has meant that – politically speaking – it is somewhat suspicious of the EU and hence the SCAF partner countries. Despite Germany’s position on the recent International Court of Justice case, it is doubtful that IAI, Elbit or Rafael would be particularly keen to engage with the other programme participants.

Having adopted the F-35 but burned somewhat by the F-22 export ban, a non-US but US-acceptable new fighter would have obvious appeal. The F-15I fleet is highly likely to be replaced by the new EX model, with an FMS deal reportedly ready for approval, but this does not solve Tel Aviv’s heavy fighter requirement should such a need remain. The debate continues.

The second, and arguably far more interesting, candidate is Australia, whose local Boeing entity has long been trying to market the F-15EX as a natural replacement for the RAAF’s ageing Super Hornets and as a more natural Australian platform than the F-35.

Despite the advanced capabilities of the new Eagle, the understandable sense in Canberra is of joining an ebbtide. Barring direct participation in the US NGAD or F/A-XX efforts, this leaves an open requirement for Australia’s next Pacific-oriented combat aircraft.

Boeing Australia has focussed on its MQ-28 Ghost Bat, a UCAV capability likely key to any future mixed fleet, but traditional combat aircraft have not been part of its recent portfolio.

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Given the cachet attached to crewed fast jets, participation in a new major programme would likely be welcome, albeit with the danger of high cost and risk. However, the benefits to Australian high-tech industry are potentially huge.

There are three main reasons why Australia – and specifically Boeing Australia – might see participation in GCAP as highly tempting. These reflect the situation of the RAAF, of Boeing and wider Australian calculations regarding its strategic position.

The first aspect is a tactical issue with the ability of the air force to deploy combat power. Investment in ‘Pacific’ assets such as the E-7 and P-8 indicate the long-range approach necessitated by the geography facing Australian forces.

Arguably, this is not matched by its fighter fleet which is of somewhat short range given the distances involved. This is especially true of the F-35A when carrying external ordnance, given that this destroys its low-RCS benefits. A larger fighter to replace the F/A-18s and offer longer range and persistence would clearly be of interest to the military.

Above: The largely independent development of the MQ-28 by Boeing Australia might be an indication that the company is prepared to join non-US combat aircraft programmes. (Photo: Boeing Australia)

The second is the business opportunity for Boeing. Many of the major designs in Australian service have a degree of local input, but most are essentially imported and (where necessary) modified. The MQ-28 is an important part of the company’s indigenous efforts Down Under but F/A-18s, E-7s and others are not domestic products.

To develop local capability, access greater state funding and sustain a supply chain will likely prove difficult without a major aviation programme, ideally with international interest. A new fighter project encompassing a fresh design and with genuine collaboration would be an extremely strong proposition.

Although not directly a Boeing Australia issue, slow progress on the F-15EX, KC-46 problems and the likely termination of Super Hornet production form an unsettling, background headache.

The third element is one of geopolitical attraction. Japan, although shocked by the 2016 rejection of its submarine bid, remains keenly interested in defence work with Australia. The position is largely reciprocated and collaboration with Tokyo is regarded as a key part of national policy.

This sentiment has only increased with Japan’s evolution towards a more muscular defence posture. It also neatly reflects the two’s alignment with US aspirations but desire not to be dependent upon Washington. Collaboration on GCAP with Japan would strengthen the Quad grouping and, coming after AUKUS, reinforce Australia’s efforts to be a key player in the Pacific.

Given the stake Boeing has in the next generation of US combat aircraft, it may be that the company’s participation in GCAP would be counter to wider corporate strategy. However, the emergence of an independent UCAV in the MQ-28 suggests that the Australian organisation may be given leeway to collaborate on major non-US programmes.

This would also, arguably, hedge Boeing’s bets on next-generation work, should it be denied a major part in the equivalent USAF and USN programmes.

In light of historic ties with the UK and a wish to cooperate with Japan, GCAP can be seen as a logical next step and ticks many boxes within the landscape of Australian security considerations.

With the programme still at a relatively early stage, significant room remains for the entrance of a committed and technologically capable partner. As arguably the strongest defence company in Australia, Boeing is well positioned to lead efforts for a next-generation combat aircraft, distinct from the traditional approach of importing US designs.

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