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The Government unveiled the Combat Air Strategy in July 2018. The strategy sets out the Government’s ambition to develop a new combat air system for the mid-2030s. The RAF have two fast-jet combat aircrafts in service, the new Lightning (F-35 Joint Strike Fighter) and Typhoon, which will leave service by 2040. Government figures released at the time of strategy estimated the aerospace sector accounted for 87% of defence exports over the last ten years and the UK combat air sector has an annual turnover of over £6bn. Gavin Williamson, the then Secretary of State for Defence, said the strategy makes clear the UK intends to remain a ‘world leader’ in the combat air sector. The Government and industry have pledged £2bn over the next decade in the Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative.

The Strategy announced the creation of Team Tempest, an “innovative Government-industry partnership” to deliver the Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative. This includes BAE Systems, MBDA, Lenardo and Rolls-Royce, plus MOD personnel. Stuart Andrew, the Minister for Defence Procurement, launched an open day in March 2019 for industry.

Members discussed the Strategy in a debate on military aircraft manufacturing in May 2019. The Minister said the UK is a global leader in military aerospace for three reasons: innovation, a history of successful international collaboration producing military aircraft, and lastly the strength of the domestic combat air sector. He also pledged to provide more detailed updates on the Team Tempest programme in the summer.

The UK is not the only country looking ahead to its future combat aircraft needs. France and Germany have partnered to develop their own Future Combat Air System (FCAS)/ Système de Combat Aérien Futur (SCAF) programme. French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled a full-scale mock-up of the Dassault/Airbus proposal, alongside a proposed unmanned combat aerial vehicle, at the recent Paris Air Show. This is to replace their Rafale and Typhoon fleets from 2040 onwards. Spain has joined the Franco-German project and the UK said when it launched the Strategy it will be talking to potential international partners.

The UK will be hoping to export any future combat air system. The aerospace sector accounted for 91% of UK defence exports in 2017 and 87% of defence exports over the last ten years (2008-17). The Strategy observes “there will be a significant market for a successor to these capabilities over the period 2040-2060”.

Saudi Arabia is a major purchaser of UK combat aircraft – Typhoon combat aircraft and associated systems dominate UK exports to the Kingdom. On 20 June the Government announced it will not grant any new export licenses for exports to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that might be used in the conflict in Yemen. This is in response to a Court of Appeal judgement that found the Government had not attempted to make conclusions as to whether Saudi Arabia had breached International Humanitarian law in its action in Yemen, as required by the decision-making process in granting export licenses (specifically, Criteria 2c of the Consolidated Criteria which requires the Government to “not grant a licence if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law”. Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, said the Government will grant any new licenses while it considers the implications of the judgment for decision making. The Government also intends to seek permission to appeal.

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