Future of several fighter contenders linked to whether F-35 can meet its cost, schedule and performance targets,
During the past decade, world fighter production totaled only around 2,500 units, but over the next 10 years, annual deliveries are set to rise. Unlike the 1970s and 1980s, when large numbers of dedicated ground-attack aircraft were produced in addition to fighters, the modern market for combat aircraft is focused almost exclusively on multirole fighters that can handle both the air superiority and attack missions. The U.S. Air Force recently proposed building a new bomber, but this program is not expected to deliver an aircraft until the 2020s.
Enter the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. With the Obama administration ending production of the F-22 Raptor at 187 aircraft, the Air Force is relying on the F-35 to give it the quantity of fighters needed to rejuvenate its aging fleet of F-16s, A-10s and even F-15s.
Lockheed Martin is now developing the F-35 under a $19-billion system development and demonstration (SDD) contract with the Pentagon. Three variants are being produced: The F-35A conventional-takeoff-and-landing (CTOL) version will replace the Air Force’s F-16s and A-10s. The F-35B—a short-takeoff/vertical-landing (Stovl) version—will replace the U.S. Marine Corps’ AV-8Bs and F/A-18s. And the F-35C is a carrier-capable version for the U.S. Navy.
The F-35 program also has an important international component. Unlike the F-22, which Congress has prohibited for export, the F-35 was designed with an eye to international customers. The program includes a partnership arrangement through which allies participate at one of three levels, depending on the amount of money each country contributes to the development phase.
The U.K. is the sole Level I partner in the SDD phase, having committed $2 billion under plans to replace its fleet of Harriers with F-35Bs to serve on two new aircraft carriers. Seven other nations are involved at lower levels of participation—Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey. Despite their roles in the SDD phase, none of the eight partner nations is locked into ordering production F-35s. Firm commitments are not likely to be made until they are confident the aircraft can be delivered on time and within its projected unit costs.
If Lockheed Martin can bring the F-35 to market with a flyaway price below $60 million (at today’s prices), customers will be lining up for a relatively affordable, low-observable strike fighter that can replace F-16s, F-4s, F-5s and other 1970s and ‘80s vintage aircraft in their inventories. If unit costs end up significantly higher, the potential pool of customers will shrink.
Even the U.S. military would need to cut back on the number of F-35s it acquires if unit costs grow too high. However, as long as USAF sticks to its plan for an all-stealth fleet, the F-35 must be manufactured in large enough numbers to allow the retirement of a fighter fleet that is being worn out in active service. The Marine Corps is also firm in its need to have a Stovl aircraft to provide close air support to Marine expeditionary forces during operations.
Only the U.S. Navy has an alternative to the F-35. Unlike the Air Force, it has not focused exclusively on stealth aircraft and is acquiring a large fleet of Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as it waits for the F-35C to arrive. The total Navy program requirement for the Super Hornet has risen to 494 aircraft from 462 in recent years. Production for the Navy can be expected to run at least through 2014 and may be extended should the F-35C enter service later than expected.
The Eurofighter Typhoon managed to secure further orders in 2009 from the four partner nations that developed the aircraft—the U.K., Germany, Italy and Spain. They were slated to acquire 620 aircraft under an umbrella contract that involved orders in three separate tranches. The first two tranches totaled 384 firm orders. Tranche 1 is complete; Tranche 2 production began in 2008 and will run through 2013. Tranche 3 is being split into two parts. Instead of the 236-unit order initially envisioned, in mid-July the partners ordered only 112 aircraft. Whether the remaining 124 will be built later in the decade remains to be seen.
In Asia, the F-15 beat out the Eurofighter for orders in South Korea and Singapore several years ago, but these two countries are currently the only customers for Boeing’s large twin-engine fighter. The last delivery of an F-15 is forecast to occur in 2012 unless Boeing secures additional orders. In March 2009, Boeing announced a “Silent Eagle” configuration that adds new stealth features to the design, but the new version cannot be considered a true low-observable platform. Japan and Saudi Arabia, existing F-15 users, are considered potential customers, along with South Korea.
In the spring of 2009, Dassault announced that Rafale production will be cut sharply in 2010, dropping to an annual rate of 11 aircraft from 14. Company managers noted at the time that production will be slashed even if the Rafale is bought by an export customer because the French government will use the new order as an opportunity to slow its own procurement of the Rafale even further. The total number of Rafales to be acquired by the French military will reach only about 250 under current plans.
Lockheed Martin’s F-16 and the Saab Gripen have seen success with nations looking to buy new fighters at relatively low cost when compared with larger twin-engine competitors. Saab’s marketing efforts are complicated by the Swedish air force decision to consolidate its 150-plus fleet of Gripens to 100 upgraded aircraft. This will result in a number of early-model ex-Swedish JAS 39A/B models being offered for sale on the used-aircraft market. Saab is developing an upgraded “Next Generation” Gripen with a more powerful engine and active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, and has made generous offers of technology transfer and industrial offsets to Brazil and India. It is also one of three competitors for a Swiss order, but these sales efforts may not be enough to keep the line open over the long run.
Meanwhile, the Gripen’s best chance for survival is if F-35 costs skyrocket; the type has often been mentioned as a likely alternative for any European nation deciding that the F-35 is too costly.
One interesting aspect of the post-Cold War market is the frequency with which Russian-made fighters are going head-to-head against Western aircraft. Sukhoi’s Su-35, the latest iteration of the Su-27/30 series, faced five Western fighters in Brazil but did not make it past the initial cut. In India, the MiG-35 is facing off against the Eurofighter, Rafale, F-16, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Gripen. The MiG-35 is a derivative of the MiG-29, a fighter that was heavily exported in the 1980s by the Soviet Union but has since largely fallen out of favor among buyers. Sukhoi’s Su-27 family is now the pre-eminent Russian export fighter. India and China—both rapidly becoming the largest growth markets for fighters outside the U.S.—have invested heavily in the Sukhoi Su-27 family while working to build their own fighter development skills.
China’s investment in Sukhoi aircraft has already paid off. The Chinese developed their J-11B through knowledge gained from licensed production of the Su-27. The J-11B is essentially an Su-27 with new Chinese-made components and weapons, but it emerged outside the licensing deal with Russia. While Russian industry is unhappy about the development, it has done little to stop it. Although Russia has found it difficult to fund purchases of new aircraft for its own armed forces, in the summer of 2009 the air force ordered 48 new Su-27SM2/Su-35s to boost the new variant’s export potential.
China’s Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group also has developed the single-engine J-10 to replace hundreds of J-7s (a MiG-21 clone) in its inventory. Chengdu is working on an export version and also developed the single-engine FC-1 in cooperation with the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. The Pakistani air force is expected to become the major operator of the FC-1, which it calls the JF-17, after announcing plans to acquire 250 of the type. The aircraft is being marketed by an agency set up by China and Pakistan, which will handle after-sales support.
The missing ingredient in offerings for the Russian and Chinese aircraft market is a stealth fighter that can compete against the F-35 and F-22 Raptor. Russia is developing the T-50 PAK FA for this purpose. Russian officials had announced plans for a first flight in 2009, but this is likely to be only an early prototype. Service entry is penciled in for 2015, and funding will likely be an ongoing headache. China is also reported to be working on a stealthy fighter, but Chinese designers are far behind their Western and Russian counterparts. It is difficult to imagine a true stealth aircraft emerging from the nation’s aerospace industry over the next decade.
China’s J-10 fighter is set to break into the export market.
Manufacturer: Chengdu Aircraft Industry
Engine: Salyut AL-31F
Max. weight: 40,000 lb.
Max. speed: Mach 1.9
Max. range: 2,100 nm.
Weapons load: 9,900 lb.