Fighters Far and Wide

Jan. 1, 2010

The world’s military air arms, intent on preserving and strengthening their fighter forces, have touched off what could prove to be a decade-long global aircraft sales upsurge.

Wealthy and developing nations alike are turning their attention to fighter recapitalization. Their efforts might well send thousands of new and advanced units into global fighter forces. At stake: scores of billions of dollars in sales.

Experts maintain that the newest US fighter, Lockheed Martin’s F-35, is poised to dominate sales in the latter years of this “growth decade” of roughly 2010-19. However, the initial years will see fierce competition among many manufacturers.

Fueling the demand are pressures created by deferrals of modernization and the desire for emerging technologies. It is a combination felt by many nations—from Britain to India, from Japan to Israel, not to mention the United States.

The Dassault Rafale, a Frenchbuilt fighter. (Dassault photo)

What will this boom look like? Opinions vary, but reputable industry watchers Forecast International and the Teal Group consultancy of Fairfax, Va., reported that sales may rise as much as 35 percent, and be worth a whopping $164 billion, during the period 2008-17. In their analyses, FI and the Teal Group projected sales of between 2,909 and 3,345 fighters. The average per-fighter cost works out to about $52 million.

FI, a consulting firm specializing in market research for the aerospace and defense industries, contended in 2008:

“Although the production of fighters will hover around the 300-aircraft-per-year line through 2013, FI projects that production levels will jump by more than a third from 2014 to 2017, as fighter manufacturers are forecast to produce more than 400 new fighters in each of the final two years of the forecast period.”

Customers for US fighters—there are many—are generally acquiring the latest versions of legacy designs such as the USAF F-15 and Navy F/A-18 (built by Boeing) and USAF’s F-16 (built by Lockheed Martin).

Boeing has a stake in several international competitions. Thomas A. Bell, the firm’s vice president of business development for military aircraft, sees two primary demand drivers for new fighters worldwide: the need to recapitalize old fleets “simply from the standpoint of aircraft life span and fatigue issues” and a desire for the latest technology.

“No matter how much capability you put into the aircraft that were bought in the ’70s or ’80s, at a certain point they’re just not capable of engaging in the kind of conflicts that NATO and other allied nations are getting into,” Bell said.

Bell said lessons from modern warfare are prompting a greater interest from “almost every corner of the Earth” in Boeing’s two fighter offerings—the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the F-15 Eagle.

Indeed, Bell noted, Boeing has not been involved in so many international fighter contract competitions since McDonnell Douglas (acquired by Boeing in the 1990s) marketed its F-4 Phantom fighter around the world, beginning in the 1960s.

The Eurofighter Typhoon at an air show. (Eurofighter photo)

The First Step

“We feel we’re really able to hit the sweet spot in terms of price and capability with both of these aircraft,” he said.

Neither Boeing nor Lockheed Martin is a sure thing in these international duels, however.

Outside the traditional US customers, the competition is fierce. Dassault, Saab, Sukhoi, Eurofighter, and Mikoyan-Gurevich all have advanced aircraft on offer to clients who are not eligible for the F-35 or who are unwilling to wait for it.

The top international fighters include France’s Dassault Rafale, Russia’s MiG-35 and Sukhoi Su-35, Sweden’s Saab Gripen and the EADS-BAE Eurofighter Typhoon, produced by a consortium of British, German, Italian, and Spanish companies.

Late last year, France and Kuwait signed a defense pact that appears likely to lead to a sale of 60 Rafale fighters to that Gulf nation. Dassault has been making overtures to at least two other regional players, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In South America, Boeing’s Super Hornet, the Rafale, and the Gripen are finalists in a competition to replace Brazil’s Dassault Mirage fleet. Brazil in mid-December had not yet chosen a manufacturer for what could ultimately become a 120-aircraft buy, although the Brazilian government has indicated that it favors the Rafale.

Robert E. Gower Jr., Boeing’s VP for F/A-18 programs, said Brazilian officials have “been insistent” that “they do not want to buy an aircraft, they want to buy technology.” Last summer, Obama Administration officials traveling in Brazil outlined a proposal for unprecedented transfers of F/A-18 technology, in order to give Boeing a better shot at the multibillion-dollar contract.

“The transfer … would be something that we had never done before, and specifically because [the relationship] with Brazil is so prized, so significant for us,” said Ellen O. Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, during the trip.

Top Pentagon weapons buyer Ashton B. Carter, also on the trip, said “this is just the first step” in a technology relationship with Brazil that “gets deeper and deeper with … time.”

Boeing’s Gower said industrial offsets are a significant part of the Boeing package. For example, all of the final assembly work will be done in Brazil, if Brazilian officials choose to go with the Super Hornet.

India has made clear that technology transfers would be part of any deal to replace its aging fighter fleet.

The Su-35 is the newest and most advanced version in Russia’s Su-27 family of fighters. (Photo via Piotr Butowski)

New Delhi last year began long-flight evaluations for the purchase of 126 multirole fighters, with a firm option for at least 50 percent more. A contract could ultimately be worth up to $20 billion, according to Boeing’s Gower.

“This is by far the largest campaign going on around the world right now—potentially one of the largest international buys of all time,” he said. “And with six competitors, it is going to be a real shoot-out.”

India plans to replace hundreds of MiG-21s with 126 aircraft that would fit somewhere in between its high-end Russian Su-30MKIs and its low-end indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft fighters.

The Rafale, Gripen, Eurofighter Typhoon, F-16, Super Hornet, and MiG-35 are competing for the contract. India’s changing requirements have created repeated delays, and a decision is not expected until later this year.

Elsewhere in Asia, South Korea and Japan, both preparing for their competitions, already fly variants of the F-15. Mark Bass, Boeing’s F-15 program vice president, said in the future these nations will likely require some amount of radar cross section reduction, and that’s why Boeing developed the Silent Eagle.

The F-15SE, under development with company funds, would be capable of internal weapons carriage and would have some radar absorbent coatings, Bass explained.

Japan is contemplating replacement of its 80 F-4 Phantoms. Industry watchers say a competition could be opened sometime this year. “We believe the No. 1 requirement [for Japan] will be air superiority,” said Bass. “No. 2 will probably be cruise missile defense.”

Australia, meanwhile, has ordered 24 two-seat Super Hornets, with deliveries to be completed by 2012—the only international Super Hornet sale to date. The purchase was a hedge against possible delays in the F-35 program, which it remains committed to.

“The Australians know that the worst time to buy a fighter is during the initial stages,” Gower said in a veiled reference to the F-35, before implicitly acknowledging that Boeing will have trouble competing with the Lightning II in later years.

“The capability will improve, and the price will almost inevitably go down over time,” he said.

Indeed, it seems only a matter of time until the F-35 becomes the big dog on the world fighter market. With the United States Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy all in line to buy the Lockheed fighter, US purchases alone would make the Lightning II among the largest fighter acquisitions in history, in terms of cost.

The Swedish-made Saab Gripen, shown here, is already in service not only in Sweden but Hungary, the Czech Republic, and South Africa. (Saab photo)

How many F-35s will go to US services over the next 10 years? Figures are still in flux. However, a rough, back-of-the-envelope estimate holds that the US will buy 700—some 400 for the Air Force and 300 for the sea services.

There is likely to be a huge export market for the F-35, which is the first US stealth fighter built for export.

Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Turkey are all participating in the development effort, and these international partners are expected to purchase approximately 750 aircraft.

Singapore, while not a consortium member, maintains an interest in acquiring up to 100 F-35s, said Jon Schrei-ber, the Pentagon official in charge of the program’s international efforts. Israel, which has not been involved in development, announced plans last year to purchase 25 airplanes in early production and perhaps 50 more if a deal can be worked out to insert indigenous electronic warfare technology into those aircraft.

“The Israelis have some unique requirements, … and we have basically been able to accommodate those,” Schreiber said in November. Should Israel accept the Pentagon’s pricing offer sometime early this year, it would be in line to receive some of the first F-35 production models.

Schreiber said discussions with Japan have also moved forward “now that the F-22 is definitely not going to be exported anywhere outside the United States.” Tokyo had long expressed interest in purchasing the F-22 Raptor, Lockheed Martin’s faster and higher-performing fighter. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates early last year decided to cancel additional F-22 production, instead putting all the department’s money on the F-35.

“They’re looking more seriously now at the only real fifth generation fighter available, which is the F-35,” Schreiber said of the Japanese.

He added that Japan and South Korea are the next countries likely to become F-35 customers, and they “could come on board pretty quickly.” Both nations are expected to open fighter contract competitions this year.

For some in the Pentagon, the F-35 is as much an alliance-building tool as it is an airplane. Lockheed Martin executives emphasized that vision.

“The F-35 is a state-of-the-art platform, but more importantly, it is a means to shared security,” George Standridge, Lockheed’s vice president for business development, said in an interview late last year.

The F-35 Lightning II prototype, with its weapons bay doors open. The F-35 will soon be the only true fifth generation fighter in production. (Lockheed Martin photo)

Not a Typical Offset Program

The spreading of the F-35’s industrial largesse helps, too. Schreiber, who has been the F-35 international director since 1996, hails his program’s competitive industrial participation effort as an effective way of providing offsets. He headed the US negotiating team that helped craft an agreement whereby international companies bid for work on the program.

“Our basic principle going into those negotiations was that this is not a typical offset program,” Schreiber said. He wanted to avoid the “false economies” he believes are inherent to traditional guaranteed offset programs.

“They’re good for a short period of time, but it doesn’t sustain the countries’ industries over the long term, … and it adds cost to the program,” he said.

Early in the F-35 program, according to Schreiber, various international companies significantly overbid with high prices for F-35 component contracts because “they heard what we said about real competition, but they didn’t believe us.”

With the next round of requests for proposals, “they sharpened up their pencils and started becoming more competitive,” Schreiber explained.

His assessment is that the program office did indeed manage to build a better mousetrap. He said each F-35 aircraft will be less expensive than it would have been had the program incorporated guaranteed offsets.

The F-35 program certainly still faces obstacles. The program is on the verge of “significant” cost increases, according to an independent assessment ordered by the Pentagon. The joint estimate team’s latest financial projection for the program is “pessimistic” and “clearly raises concerns about the course the program is on,” Defense Department spokesman Geoffrey S. Morrell said late last year.

“This is the biggest, most expensive, and arguably most complicated program this department has ever pursued,” he said. “We have a great deal riding on the success of this program.”

Still, the setbacks, while significant, don’t spell inevitable doom for the program, said Richard L. Aboulafia, a fighter-market expert at the Teal Group. “The fact that the international partners have kept the faith is a sign of program health.”

The next five to seven years, according to most experts, are Europe’s and Boeing’s window of opportunity to export fighters or to create new alliances to forestall F-35 market dominance. But in the end, many say that this is all but inevitable, and the fighter market will neck down to the F-35 and perhaps a few Sukhoi products.

US allies are still intensely interested in flying US fighters, with two caveats, according to Standridge: “They need to be multirole, and they need to be affordable.” He predicted that the F-35 “will become the new F-16,” in the world fighter marketplace.

An artist’s conception of Boeing’s F-15SE Silent Eagle, now in development. The fighter’s radar cross section will be smaller than that of earlier F-15s. (Boeing illustration)

Aboulafia agrees. Unless a new generation competitor to the F-35 emerges, the world fighter market will eventually fall to Lockheed and Sukhoi, he said, adding that everyone else is “merely on borrowed time.”

Marina Malenic is the Pentagon correspondent for Defense Daily, a Washington, D.C.-based defense newsletter. This is her first article for Air Force Magazine.