Affording to keep the peace around the world is becoming, for many air forces around the world, the most elusive of goals. Increasingly, costly commitments in terms of planning, wear and tear on equipment and impact on personnel continue to test allied coalition forces. Scaled back defence budgets simply serve to exacerbate for many the mismatch of ever-demanding operations and ageing inventories.

The irony is that, just as governments around the world slashed defence spending in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the the East-West confrontation, the number and complexity of conflicts with the potential to escalate using weapons of mass destruction rose. Air forces are needed to perform newer, more sophisticated and, in some instances, higher risk, operations than could ever have been projected.

Air forces, particularly Western forces, are under greater pressure to adapt to these new threats with fewer resources and, in many cases, tired airframes stretched beyond what they were originally intended to perform. With this in mind, the central task for combat aircraft builders is not simply to be able to build advanced new generation aircraft more cheaply than before, but to ensure that when they enter service they can not only be enhanced over several decades to meet new threats and combat scenarios, but also be cheap to operate and maintain.

For new generation aircraft such as the Lockheed F-117A stealth fighter, used extensively for bombing missions during the 1991 Gulf War, maintenance costs were not at the top of the agenda at the concept design stage. Operations demonstrated that stealth aircraft like the F-117A required high maintenance and so upgrades are now planned to improve in-service reliability and operational readiness by changing the configuration to bring maintenance costs down.

The through-life costs of military aircraft, especially fighters, now strike at the very heart of their concept definition, design, development, production and in-service support. That is driving fewer new programme starts, heralding an era where a single platform design is likely to form the baseline for a family of aircraft produced internationally - or, at least, by like-minded, "approved", democratic states.

The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project potentially involves production by the aerospace industries of five countries, including the USA, with a further three, possibly more, standing by to join. The economy of scale which a production cycle of up to 5,000 aircraft offers, plus a through-life support cost target of just 40% of the total cost of the aircraft (compared with the average of 70%), is an attractive proposition for the air force operator and government purse.

But the JSF, while offering perhaps the most realistic future for NATO and NATO-aligned air forces in terms of meeting capability and affordability criteria, also poses questions on a scale far greater than the cost of developing, producing and keeping the aircraft in the air.

The US Government, which will be by far the largest customer for the JSF, will soon need to address the issue of the supplier base and which companies it keeps alive. For many second tier suppliers in Europe and in the USA, this programme will decide their fate. For years, their aerospace industries have flourished through indigenous high-technology, high value, military projects. But before the programme takes on an international industry momentum of its own, led by US "super-primes", participating governments perhaps should reach agreement in advance on what they are prepared to trade in technology, intellectual property and industrial terms.

Notwithstanding the fact that participating nations will be able to protect their electronics industries by configuring the cockpit, weapons and control software themselves, the fact remains that, with US industry inevitably leading the programme, the US Government may seek to place restrictions on what it is prepared to share. If the JSF is to be a truly international programme benefiting from advanced technologies from all countries, some protocols need to be drawn up now, or rather risk putting allied air forces at a disadvantage in the name of affordability.

Source: Flight International