Reports that Britain has reached out to India for a partnership to design and manufacture a potential ‘sixth generation’ stealth fighter, the Tempest, may set the world of international politics and aerospace abuzz. Could such a partnership be workable in the long run?
There are multiple challenges inherent in making a joint project on this scale work. There may be bureaucratic inertia and resistance on both sides, especially as there are still outstanding unrelated disagreements between the two countries on a range of issues including immigration, a hot issue in British politics especially. In international relations, everything is relevant as leverage. There may also be some disagreement between the two powers on important issue of workshare: who gets to do what. The US may also not react too well to the prospect of a new fighter design providing serious competition to its own F-35 in the medium-long run. That being said, this project proposal may be a considerable opportunity to enhance and upgrade a bilateral relationship that has long been viewed as having prime importance in Whitehall.
The 21st century is essentially one of radical change. The current Western dominated global order is beginning to recede, to be replaced by the even older trend of Asian geo-economic dominance. Three of the top five global economies will be Asian, including India which will overtake Britain to become the world’s fifth largest economy in nominal GDP this year. Britain by contrast, while still a robust and sophisticated economy, is facing global headwinds. It faces the twin challenges of a slowing global economy and of course Brexit. Growth is slowing as uncertainty over Brexit increases. The politics of leaving the European Union also makes future collaboration with France, Germany, Italy and Spain on fighter jet projects much more difficult. That leaves only a handful of powers with modern and respectable aerospace industries –having built their own fighter jets- for potential collaboration: the US, Russia, China, Japan and India.
The US is the world’s leading aerospace-industrial power by a long way. It pioneered stealth technology over 3 generations of aircraft from the F117 to the F-35 and will earn hundreds of billions in sales of the latter. However it is precisely that dynamism and potency that makes the US an unlikely partner for Britain in its first post Brexit military project. Traditionally Washington has gone it alone on major weapons projects. It does not need Britain to develop or market anything. Needless to say, Russia and China are states that now play an adversarial or potentially adversarial role. Japan is a very interesting option, with a very advanced industrial base. However it is still politically very closely aligned to the US, and importantly does not offer the crucial advantages of potentially lower production costs for manufacturing. India on the other hand, with a nascent yet respectable aerospace industry has many strengths and few disadvantages.
Delhi offers Britain the real prospect of a partner with a modern industrial base, experience with modern aerospace (it has recently inducted a home-made fourth generation fighter, the Tejas) and the very real advantage of lower manufacturing costs. That last point could be hugely significant in an era where modern jet fighters cost hundreds of millions of pounds per unit owing to the rapid growth of sensors and avionics, enabling the potential British design to achieve serious economies of cost. That could help make the Tempest a potential success in the export market when not every country can afford the latest fighter designs in large numbers.
Obstacles remain in the way of making such a possible collaboration a success. India today demands to be treated as a respected equal by the great powers, especially the West. For the Tempest project that means if a collaboration is to go ahead it may demand a comprehensive share of the work as well as joint intellectual property rights over key areas of technology, such as stealth and sensors. Britain may be reluctant to part with crown jewel technology such as engines, worth hundreds of billions over their service lifetime but that would likely not go down well in Delhi. The Indian government is unlikely to be enthused by the idea of paying for an expensive new jet only to have Britain keep the most lucrative technology and intellectual property for itself. There is also the potential issue of some British technology perhaps having an American origin (and vice versa- Britain contributed to the F-22 and F-35), which might give the US some oversight if not a veto on what would nominally be a two party arrangement between India and the UK. As mentioned above the US would likely not take too kindly to Anglo-Indian competition to its own fighter jets in a vast multibillion dollar market. It will be interesting to watch the final outcome of negotiations between Delhi and London in that respect.
The fact is that Britain needs funding for ambitious defence projects after Brexit and India is looking to expand its technology base. A partnership to develop a new generation fighter jet would be a real political (and financial given export potential) win-win for both countries, provided that Delhi feels respected as an equal partner which reasonable access to core advanced technology. It would push the relationship between India and the UK up a gear, a long time aim of Conservative government in London since 2010. It is unlikely that Britain would sound India out for this if it did feel that such a collaborative effort did not have a good chance of success. There is time for the details to be sketched out, as Tempest is projected to enter service only in the 2040s given it is expected to field advance technology such as optional unmanned modes and directed energy weapons.
With careful negotiation on both sides, Tempest may yet prove to be the beginning of a new Anglo-Indian strategic-technical partnership touching the exciting limits of modern technology benefiting both powers greatly.