Battle for the skies of the future

The plane chosen for the US`s largest ever combat aircraft programme, worth £200bn, could corner the world market, says George Paloczi-Horvath

The future of the world’s fighter aircraft market may largely depend on which plane is chosen by the US as its urgently needed Joint Strike Fighter, a multi-role aircraft for the US Air Force, Navy and Marines. The $200bn JSF project is taking centre stage alongside a serious rival, the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Boeing is offering the X-32 for the current JSF demonstration and validation (demval) phase, while Lockheed Martin is providing its X-35. It is rumoured that Boeing’s plane has the edge, because its turbofan is more conventional than the X-35’s turboshaft-driven lift fan system.

Whichever aircraft wins the JSF demval, it faces competition from the Typhoon, Eurofighter’s export variant. What Eurofighter claims is a `stealthy, swing role’ fighter, that cannot be easily seen by radar and can switch roles mid-mission, is already being recognised as a major threat to US fighter exports.

Robin Keil of US naval consultancy AMI says one reason why the JSF programme is so urgent, apart from the pressing need for it from the US Marines and US Air Force, `is the challenge the two US manufacturers are facing from Eurofighter’.

Typhoon has already been sold to Greece, Eurofighter’s first export customer, which has committed itself to buying between 60 to 90 aircraft, with initial deliveries from 2005.

Greece will join original Eurofighter partners Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain once a contract is signed this summer. The RAF will buy 232 aircraft (worth around £16bn), Germany 180, Italy 121 and Spain 87. For the RAF, Eurofighter will replace the Tornado F3 fighters and Jaguar strike and reconnaissance aircraft from 2002. The workshare between Eurofighter partners is 36.3% for Britain, 30% for Germany, 20% for Italy and 13.7% for Spain.

Norway remains a target for the sale of 20 Typhoons, with an option for a further 10. A decision is expected later this year. Proposals have also been made to South Korea and information has been given to the Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Poland, the Czech Republic and Brazil.

Andy Lewis, vice-president of sales support at Eurofighter International, says: `Eurofighter has identified a market for 800 aircraft over the next 30 years. We confidently expect to capture 50% of that market.’ This would mean 400 aircraft worth more than £35bn.

Other European competitors to US fighters are the Saab/BAE Systems Gripen and the Dassault Rafale, which are pitched as `stealthy’ fighters.

While Rafale has yet to be exported, Gripen won its first export order from South Africa last year for up to 28 aircraft. The plane is now in service with the Swedish Air Force, and BAE and Saab (in which BAE has a 35% stake) are pitching Gripen as a rival to the latest F-16s. Gripen is more sophisticated than the fighter version of the Hawk trainer, but cheaper than Typhoon.

Meanwhile, the US will buy around 3,000 JSFs because of the perceived threat of modern Russian fighters like the MiG-29 and Su-30. The giant programme is possibly worth $200bn. US predictions are that the total market will be 6,000 including exports. This is easily the largest combat aircraft programme in US history.

JSF will replace F-16s, A-10s, F-14s, F-18s and AV8-B Harriers in the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The programme is urgent because of the age of some planes JSF will replace. US deputy defence secretary Rudy de Leon said in May that `in the short term, it’s particularly critical to the Marine Corps and the Air Force’.

The choice of JSF depends on which aircraft is judged as meeting the US Air Force’s requirement for a conventional take-off aircraft, the US Navy’s need for a plane to fly off aircraft carriers and the US Marines’ requirement for a plane with a short take-off and vertical landing capability.

It is this version that Britain will probably buy for the Royal Navy to replace the Sea Harrier. Up to 60 aircraft will be required. The RAF could also buy 90 more to replace its Harrier GR7s, as all Navy and RAF Sea Harriers and Harriers are now combined in the Joint Force 2000. Boeing’s `One Team’ has five major British partners including BAE Systems, Dowty and Flight Refuelling. BAE Systems is also one of three key partners in Lockheed Martin’s team.

The US Marines’ AV-8B Harriers are at the end of their life, de Leon says. `And even though we have an aggressive service life extension programme for the Air Force’s F-16s, they are coming close to the 6,000-hour mark. This means they need to be replaced sooner rather than later by whichever plane wins the JSF contest. It’s a critically important programme,’ de Leon adds.

But the US Congress has questioned JSF’s extreme cost and the technical guarantees that it will deliver the required performance. A report on 9 May from the US General Accountancy Office (GAO) said the JSF development schedule should be extended to reduce the risk. The GAO said the Pentagon should postpone $20bn-worth of engineering and manufacturing development contracts, planned for March 2001, to allow several critical areas of technology to become `more mature’.

Keith Hayward, head of research at the Society of British Aerospace Companies, says the contest between Boeing and Lockheed Martin is `difficult to call’. The GAO opinion means `the acquisition process is starting to slip to the right’. To compete for JSF funding the modern F/A-18E/F is now seen as one of the available alternatives. `JSF is extremely susceptible to internal US politics,’ Hayward says. `The US defence budget is a problem for JSF, as it isn’t certain there will be enough money,’ Hayward says bluntly.

Defence analyst Howard Rubel of Goldman Sachs New York says the `maturity’ issue shows `there is a gap between reality and the JSF plan on paper’. Statements made by Boeing and Lockheed Martin always `concentrate on what that they want to show and hide what they’re not willing to reveal’.

Rubel believes that once a winning JSF contender is named next spring, it will not be a winner-takes-all situation but `the programme will have to be restructured so that the adverse impact on the other player is mitigated’. But US defence under-secretary Jacques Gansler was still saying last month that the Pentagon would stick to its winner-take-all approach, but could modify it after an independent assessment.

The JSF demval starts this summer. `There is a very narrow window when JSF needs to be available (from 2009 to 10) and to when we can extend the life of the F-16,’ de Leon says. But the US is now running three fighter projects simultaneously – the Lockhead Martin F-22, easily the most advanced fighter in the world, the JSF and Boeing’s F/A-18E/F and the advanced F-18. To stick to all three programmes is `going to be tight’, de Leon admits.