The boss of defence contractor BAE Systems has opened the door to Saudi Arabia becoming involved in the UK’s flagship fighter jet programme.

Charles Woodburn, BAE’s chief executive, said the kingdom can ‘offer a lot’ and had a talented workforce that could boost the project.

Woodburn was speaking after it emerged that the Saudi government is pushing to become a full partner in the international global combat air programme.

The project, currently a collaboration between the UK, Italy and Japan, aims to get a demonstrator jet in the air by 2027.

The involvement of Saudi Arabia could unlock a huge source of funding for Tempest

The involvement of Saudi Arabia could unlock a huge source of funding for Tempest

The involvement of Saudi Arabia could unlock a huge source of funding for Tempest

Britain has already committed £2 billion to the programme, which aims to deliver Tempest – Britain’s next-generation supersonic stealth combat aircraft – by 2035. But doubts have been raised about its viability in a recent official report.

The involvement of Saudi Arabia could unlock a huge source of funding for a project expected to cost tens of billions of pounds, as well as engineering expertise.

Woodburn, speaking at a recent defence industry event in London, emphasised that any decision on including Saudi Arabia would be taken at a government level.

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But he stressed during the event at the Royal United Services Institute that the Gulf nation, where BAE employs 7,000 ‘very capable’ staff, had more to contribute than just cash. 

‘For any programme, the kingdom can offer a lot in terms of talent base,’ he said. Saudi Arabia is already a leading buyer of UK military aircraft, including Typhoons. 

But the country’s direct involvement in a flagship defence collaboration could prove controversial, given its abysmal human rights record. It is also said to have raised hackles in Japan, with Tokyo reportedly opposing it on the grounds that it could delay the project.

The UK collaborated with Spain and Germany on the Typhoon programme, but with that generation of jets due to be replaced, those countries are now pursuing their own project. 

Woodburn said that only the US had the financial clout to develop a fighter jet alone and for other countries it was a ‘team sport’.

‘My objective all the way through has been to get the strongest team we possibly can around the table.’

He said the countries currently involved were making ‘very good progress’. But he added: ‘When it comes to future partnerships, then I think the door is open.’

The project’s lead contractors –Britain’s BAE, Japan’s MHI and Italy’s Leonardo – said last week that they had agreed on the next steps to deliver the concept phase.

When asked about Saudi involvement, Richard Berthon, the Ministry of Defence lead on the programme, said that while there had been conversations to explore future options, there had been ‘no decision beyond that’.

An annual report issued last month by the Government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority gave the project a ‘red’ rating, indicating an assessment that successful delivery ‘appears unachievable’. It cited a ‘shortage of resources’.

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