Orders for major military aircraft manufacturers are buoyant – but long-term prospects are not so bright as defence budget increases are going on network-warfare technologies and operations

Combat aircraft manufacturers around the world celebrated several major successes over the past year, winning new orders and long-term production contracts. These have ensured that the major players in the military aerospace industry have enough work to keep their production and design teams busy past the turn of the decade. But then there are dark clouds on the horizon, as uncertainty surrounds the long-term fate of several major combat aircraft programmes.

The upswing in Western defence budgets as a result of the global "waron terrorism" has tended to pass the aerospace industry by, with most countries choosing to invest what extra funding they can secure on network-warfare capabilities and ongoing combat operations.

A recent US Department of Defense budget request threatened two major US aviation projects – the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F/A-22 Raptor fighter and Lockheed C-130J Hercules airlifter – and the forthcoming Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) threatens to force reductions and reorganisation to other projects. However, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld appears to have already spared the C-130J.

December was an excellent month for Europe's combat aircraft manufacturers. The Eurofighter partner nations – Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK – signed up for a Tranche 2 commitment for 236 Typhoons in the continent's largest-ever defence contract, worth ?16 billion ($20.2 billion). The same month, the French government and Dassault agreed a follow-on order for another 59 Rafale fighters.

Busy factories

These orders will keep aircraft factories across Europe busy until 2012 and requirements to field "smart" air-to-ground weapons on the Typhoon and Rafale will give their design and development teams several years of "noble" work integrating them onto the new aircraft.

Saab is also rapidly moving forward with its project to lease JAS39 Gripen fighters to the Czech Republic and Hungary, as well as completing deliveries to the Swedish air force. However, a round of brutal defence cuts have threatened to derail Sweden's ambitious plans for future development of the aircraft.

Swedish problems are a foretaste of the debates that are emerging in Eurofighter partner nations and France over the long-term purchases of the Typhoon and Rafale into the next decade. Key investment decisions are due in the 2007-8 timeframe to allow production to move forward to complete the delivery of the planned 620 Typhoons and 294 Rafales.

Lockheed's veteran F-16 achieved a major milestone earlier this year with the delivery of the last new-build aircraft for the US Air Force. Production of the fighter is scheduled to continue at the company's Fort Worth, Texas site for at least another three years and if new orders from Pakistan and elsewhere materialise, the aircraft could enter its fifth decade in production.

Boeing's F-15 Eagle is in a similar position, with export orders for South Korea keeping the St Louis, Missouri line open. The prospect of further orders from Seoul and Singapore could extend production into the next decade.

The new-generation Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet continues to thrive with the commitment of the Pentagon to a second multi-year order and work progressing on the electronic attack EA-18G model.

Ending uncertainty

The long-term future of the USA's combat aircraft industry beyond the end of the decade will largely be determined by the outcome of QDR, which could once and for all end uncertainty over the number of F/A-22s to be built. The review should also give some clarity about the USA's future airlift requirements, with Boeing and Lockheed seeking a long-term commitment to their C-17 and C-130J products.

The long-term shape of Lockheed's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme will also emerge from the QDR and the end of year will see a decision on the details of the production phase of the project.

The roll-out last November of the first Sukhoi Su-30MKI from Hindustan Aeronautics' Bangalore plant was a major milestone in the rejuvenation of India's air power, but it also heralded the end of large-scale deliveries of new-build Sukhoi fighters from Russian factories.

For over a decade India and China have kept plants in Russia active building SK and MK versions of Sukhoi's superfighter. This era is now clearly over, raising questions about the long-term viability of the Russian military aerospace industry. Small orders to sell RSK MiG's MiG-29 to Yemen and India and Sukhois to Indonesia and Vietnam have not yet replaced the old level of business with New Delhi and Beijing. An order for up to 50 fighters to Algeria will provide some short-term relief, but this will not reverse the long-term trend.


The Russian air force does not have the money to develop or buy new fighters, let alone upgrade its existing inventory. This all makes it likely that by the end of the decade the Russian military aerospace industry will be significantly smaller than it is today.

One area of potential long-term growth is for training aircraft. Pilots heading to fly fourth-generation combat aircraft require appropriate training platforms to fullyprepare them for 21st century aerial combat. BAE Systems and a Korea Aerospace Industries/Lockheed team are clearly leading the pack to win a sizeable chunk of this growing market with their improved Hawk and T-50 Golden Eagle products. Italy's Aermacchi is coming up fast on the inside with its M346 aircraft, but EADS's planned Mako seems to have stalled after failing to attract significant foreign investment for another year.

Given the significant level of investment planned in combat aircraft production for at least a decade, the era of the manned fighter is clearly not over. Thousands of Typhoon, Rafale, Gripen, Super Hornet, Su-30, F-35, F-16 and F-15 pilots will still be required for the next three decades. It will also be at least another decade before money is available to start building significant numbers of unmanned combat air vehicles. Even then they will still be outnumbered by manned aircraft for many years to come.


Source: Flight International