Lockheed's Asian dogfight

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As Asia Pacific air forces continue to modernise their fleets, Lockheed Martin remains confident that its F-16 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will hold their own despite competition from indigenous programmes and other companies.

"For countries that operate F-16s, [Boeing] F/A-18s, [BAE] Harriers, and [Boeing] F-15s, the F-35 is the natural follow-up," says George Standridge, Lockheed's vice-president for F-35 business development.

"If a country has an existing security co-operation relationship with the USA, it could get the F-35. We believe there's a market for about 500 F-35s in Asia."

Four countries have already declared their interest in the F-35 - Australia is a partner in the programme, Singapore has joined at the participant level, and South Korea and Japan are likely to evaluate the fighter in the coming years. India could also seek fifth generation fighters towards the end of the next decade.

According to some estimates, Lockheed's Asia Pacific market for F-35s could easily be worth more than $20 billion if it meets its sales targets.

Many countries, though, have also been studying indigenous fifth generation fighter programmes. India, for example, is in a joint study with Russia while South Korea and Japan have set up domestic research groups. Industry observers believe that such programmes would cost several billion dollars and may not be viable, while Standridge feels they are unnecessary.

Fifth generation

"Their interest tells me the world feels that fifth generation is the way to go, but we have already made the investment in the capability. We have the best experience with stealth and have access to technology that others require.

"We have the pathfinder from the F-117, to the F-22, and now the F-35. There is no need to go elsewhere," he says.

The F-16, on the other hand, faces more competition than ever. For India's ongoing 126 aircraft tender, worth some $12 billion, it is up against the F/A-18, RSK MiG-35, Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale and Saab Gripen. Russia's Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 are in the fray elsewhere, while China is also actively promoting its indigenous platforms.

Lockheed, which has a production backlog of 104 F-16s that stretches to 2012, believes the fighter is good enough to be in service for another 40 years.

"There has been continuous technology insertion into the aircraft, which also has more combat experience than any other multi-role fighter," says John Larson, vice-president for F-16 programmes.

Existing Asian operators like Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore are looking to upgrade their F-16s, and Taiwan and Indonesia are in talks for additional aircraft - some $5 billion worth in Taiwan's case. India, though, is the big catch.

"This is a very important programme. They have a comprehensive set of requirements, but we've been very successful in tailoring our aircraft to our customers' needs and we can do that for India too," says Larson.

Apprehension in India about the F-16, given that neighbour and rival Pakistan has just purchased the aircraft, does not faze Lockheed.

William McHenry, vice-president for F-16 business development, points out that rivals like Greece and Turkey both operate the aircraft and adds: "If it was an issue, the air force would not have sent us the RFP."

Next stop vietnam?

Further down the line, a country like Vietnam, which has almost exclusively used Russian fighters, could also become a customer. Hanoi could begin looking for replacements for its MiG-21s some time early in the next decade, and the F-16 could be in the picture despite the USA's troubled history with the country.

"The sale of the F-16 is an act of foreign policy between the USA and another country, and the reality is that relations with Vietnam are getting better," says McHenry.

"Vietnam may not seem a likely market now, but you could have said the same thing about countries from the former Soviet bloc. Around 15 years ago, you would not have expected us to sell F-16s to Poland. So we can't rule anything out."