No contest

This first appeared as a Comment in the 3 December issue of Flight International

South Korea’s decision to obtain 40 Lockheed Martin F-35As brings a degree of closure to F-X III – one of the most hard-fought fighter competitions in recent years. Leaving the door open to a possible buy of 20 ­additional fighters, Seoul has even given a hint of a consolation prize for the contest’s losers, the Boeing F-15 and Eurofighter Typhoon.
The deal is a happy ending for the South Korean air force, as it will get the stealth fighter it wanted all along. It also provides a major boost for Lockheed ­Martin, eager to lock in more customers for the F-35 and further drive down the programme’s unit costs.
Following Japan’s order for 42 examples of the Joint Strike Fighter in 2011, the South Korean acquisition all but guarantees the stealthy type as the fighter of the ­future for the Asia Pacific’s regions big powers. ­Singapore, which possesses Southeast Asia’s best air force, is certain to order the type in the next few years, possibly taking a mixed buy of the conventional ­A-model and the short take-off vertical landing F-35B.
And although Australia flirted with a follow-on order of F/A-18F Super Hornets earlier this year – eventually opting for just 12 of the Growler electronic warfare variant – Canberra has never backed away from its plan to buy up to 100 F-35s. Its future orders for fighters are all likely to be with Lockheed Martin too.
When looked at from a historical perspective, Seoul’s F-35 decision could well mark the end of the great fighter competitions of the Asia-Pacific region. Aside from relatively minor requirements for combat aircraft among second-tier services, the major contests of recent years have been settled.
Asia-Pacific will, however, remain a vibrant arena for fighter upgrades. BAE Systems and Lockheed ­Martin are caught up in an intense duel to enhance the region’s F-16 fleets with new avionics. And Raytheon and Northrop Grumman will continue their no-holds-barred rivalry to sell active electronically scanned array radars for the region’s Fighting Falcons.
Nonetheless, history is, finally, on the side of Lockheed Martin’s occasionally troubled programme in the region. While fourth-generation types will continue to be potent platforms, it is impossible to escape the sense that these are the fighters of yesteryear in a new era where stealth is king.
The F-35 promises to be all fighters to all air forces. A risky bet indeed, but one that Asia-Pacific air forces seem willing to take.

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