Two years ago, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 was set to make its first Atlantic crossing ahead of a high-profile Farnborough air show debut. The manufacturer seemed poised to dominate the fighter market afresh, following a more than 40-year success story with the F-16. In Europe, Dassault had yet to secure a first international customer for its Rafale, the Eurofighter consortium had not won an export deal since a modest 12-unit order secured from Oman in late 2012, and Saab had suffered a recent setback, with a public referendum in Switzerland shooting down a proposed 22-aircraft procurement of its Gripen NG.

Of course, the Joint Strike Fighter never made it “across the pond” in July 2014, as operating restrictions imposed following a ground engine fire in a US Air Force example frustrated the US Marine Corps, Lockheed and show-goers in the UK.

Atlantic crossings made by one Italian air force F-35A and more recently a pair of Royal Netherlands Air Force examples mean that distinction was not claimed when USMC and USAF Lightning IIs arrived at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire in late June, ahead of a starring role at the 8-10 July Royal International Air Tattoo. The fifth-generation strike aircraft will then also be appearing in the skies above Farnborough, including an expected flypast in formation with the RAF’s Red Arrows aerobatic display team.

While the F-35B achieved initial operational capability status with the Marines late last year, and should hit the same milestone with the USAF before the end of 2016, it seems a less dominant force than when it missed out at the last Farnborough event.

A fix for the earlier issue with the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine – which was linked to excessive blade rubbing – and a number of international commitments made since the last Farnborough have provided significant boosts for the F-35. However, competition in the fighter sector is vibrant, and challenges remain for Lockheed as it continues along the path to delivering full operational capability with the Lightning II. It also must meet ambitious plans for a dramatic ramp-up in production and associated cost reduction.

After a spectacular double-success in early 2015, when it signed back-to-back contracts with Egypt and Qatar, for 24 aircraft each, Dassault now appears to be edging towards concluding its third export deal for the Rafale, with India’s government seeking approval for a 36-aircraft buy. While this is greatly fewer than the 126 previously sought via New Delhi’s now-abandoned medium multi-role combat aircraft contest, it would be a welcome outcome, more than four years after the French type won selection.

After diverting several Rafales from delivery to its French customers to accommodate the urgent requirements of Egypt, Dassault has now delivered six of the nation’s on-order examples, Flight Fleets Analyzer shows. These have all been in the two-seat Rafale B configuration, which will make up the bulk of the Egyptian order, along with eight single-seat fighters.

Meanwhile, following an Italian-led campaign victory and 28-aircraft deal in Kuwait, Eurofighter will be at the show with renewed drive, as it looks to secure further sales to safeguard production of the Typhoon beyond the start of the next decade.

Significantly, Doha’s commitment for Tranche 3 production aircraft includes the first confirmed order for a new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, in development by the Euroradar consortium. Eurofighter partner nations Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK used the last Farnborough show to underscore their commitment to complete development of the Captor-E sensor.

“We have a contract – in 2019 this capability will be delivered,” says Alberto Gutierrez, head of Eurofighter and combat aircraft programmes for Airbus Defence & Space. Until earlier this year chief executive of the Eurofighter consortium, he adds that Germany and Spain have also made commitments to add the AESA capability to parts of their fleets, while Italy is also considering the enhancement. Notably, that list does not include the UK, which is also studying a potential national solution to integrate an active array in some of its most advanced Typhoons.

Gutierrez points to opportunities in Asia, Europe and the Middle East for additional Typhoon sales, with current targets including Belgium, Finland, Indonesia, Malaysia, Poland, Qatar and Switzerland, plus potential repeat orders from Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia. In many contests it will face familiar competition from the Rafale, Gripen E and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet – and for the some of the opportunities from the F-35 as well.

Saab Gripen E/NG

Sweden's Saab unveiled the first test example of the Gripen E/NG on 18 May, with initial orders from Brazil and its home air force


For Swedish airframer Saab, its narrow referendum disappointment in Switzerland was swiftly followed by securing contracts from its home air force and Brazil to complete the development of the Gripen E/NG. Sweden’s air force will receive 60 single-seat examples, with an option on a further 10, while Brazil’s F-X2 contract is for an initial 36 NGs – including eight two-seat examples to be developed in collaboration with Embraer. The new-generation model is making solid progress, with Saab having unveiled its first test aircraft in Linköping on 18 May.

Saab lists a large number of nations that it considers as potential future Gripen customers – either in the current C/D-model standard or the in-development E/NG. Near-term prospects include Belgium, Bulgaria, Colombia, Croatia, Finland, Indonesia, Malaysia and Slovakia.

Deliveries could be made within 18 months of a deal being signed, says head of Gripen Jerker Ahlqvist, who adds that Saab has the capacity to build 25-30 of the type per year if multiple successes are recorded. Overseas production will also be conducted, if India selects the type for an expected requirement to acquire about 100 light fighters, he adds.

Swedish policy precludes it from offering fighter aircraft in the Middle East, and – due to past experience – the company is unlikely to enter into a head-to-head battle with the F-35.

Airbus’s Gutierrez says three things sell a fighter aircraft: “price, performance and political support”. While companies can control the first two of these variables, the latter can be less predictable – and sometimes quick to change.

With manufacturers in this sector serving as the industry’s heavyweight prize-fighters, their pride is easily dented. Following a competition defeat to the USA’s Boeing F-15K in South Korea more than a decade ago, Dassault famously quipped that “bamboo always leans the way it’s pushed the hardest”. Saab mounted a fierce defence of its Gripen NG when the Norwegian government and defence ministry used a capability modelling exercise to reject the type in favour of the F-35A in 2008, labelling the analysis “incomplete, or even faulty”. Its decision to withdraw the single-engined type from contention in a Danish contest recently appeared vindicated, when a self-picked panel of experts ranked the Lightning II as superior to the Super Hornet and Typhoon in all categories.

Airbus Defence & Space is now seeking clarification from Copenhagen, with head of military aircraft Fernando Alonso unhappy about the result – which should lead to a 27-aircraft buy. “We totally disagree with how the technical evaluation was done,” he says. Referring to claims about the projected cost, performance and risks associated with a selection of the Typhoon, he adds: “We will fight, and we will demonstrate that they are not true.”

The defeated firm has submitted a list of about 40 questions to the Danish government, but responses had yet to be received by late June.

“The F-35 is a fantastic machine – but not fantastic enough to equip all European air forces,” contends Jean-Pierre Talamoni, Airbus Defence & Space’s head of sales and marketing.

Elsewhere in the fighter arena, Boeing’s wait to announce a second export buyer for the Super Hornet continues, after its previous sales of the F/A-18F and EA-18G variant to Australia. Pending interest from existing Hornet operator Kuwait has yet to advance to a procurement, but the company’s production line has been safeguarded for some time, due to a US Congressional plan to acquire more for the US Navy.

Boeing’s F-15 has not secured additional sales since the last Farnborough, although unconfirmed reports have suggested that Qatar could also be interested in acquiring the type, to join its future Rafales. For now, production of the type continues for Saudi Arabia.

Lockheed also is looking at the potential to extend production of its F-16. The United Arab Emirates has previously shown interest in acquiring additional E/F-model examples. The type has also been offered to other nations, including Bahrain, in an enhanced F-16V configuration, with features including an AESA radar. Without additional sales, assembly of the type could come to an end during 2017.

Current US government policy restricts Lockheed from offering the F-35 to any nation in the Middle East apart from Israel, whose first “Adir” was rolled out at the company’s Fort Worth site in Texas in mid-June. With this position unlikely to change for some years, the prospects for additional sales of both the Rafale and Typhoon within the region are likely to be strong.

Meanwhile, Canada could offer a rare opportunity for European types to take on the F-35, since Ottawa’s new government has pledged to hold a competition, rather than proceed with an earlier acquisition strategy considering only the Lightning II.

In Russia, the nation’s industry continues to sustain production of the RAC MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-30, as the latter design bureau’s new-generation T-50/PAK-FA also edges closer to service entry with the Russian air force.

Irkut is currently delivering Su-30SM multirole fighters to the Russian air force and navy, and also to Kazakhstan, while MK-series examples are being produced for Algeria and India.

One potential wildcard in this market is Lockheed’s F-22, with the USAF – prompted by Congress – looking at the practicality and cost implications of reviving production of the type. Unlike during its previous build-run, this could even include the prospect of selling the Raptor on the international stage. However, Japan, which previously wanted to buy the air-superiority platform, has instead ordered the F-35A, and is investing significant sums in developing its X-2 technology demonstrator, first flown on 22 April.

But for some operators, budgetary constraints, a limited-threat environment and an inability to access advanced fighters presents opportunities for the manufacturers of less-sophisticated strike aircraft. Embraer has been particularly successful in this sector with the armed EMB-314 Super Tucano, with competition coming from the Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine. Combat-capable versions of advanced jet trainers such as the Leonardo Aermacchi M-346 and Irkut-built Yak-130 also can expect to secure business, while the pending first flight of a production-standard version of the Textron AirLand Scorpion should also boost interest in the low-cost design.

Longer term, technological advancement and service interest will determine whether air forces might be ready to replace some of their piloted aircraft with unmanned combat air vehicles. However, the USN has downgraded its ambitions for such a combat-capable asset to instead propose using it as an airborne tanker, and the prospects for an Anglo-French future combat air system – expected to enter use post-2030 – could potentially diminish following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union.

For its part, Germany has asked Airbus Defence & Space to study options for a manned follow-on to the Panavia Tornado, which could be optimised for teamed operations alongside unmanned systems. The company is calling on other European firms to work together to maintain the continent’s capabilities in fighter production after sales of current models come to an end.

So, while the F-35’s Farnborough debut will grab many headlines during the show, Lockheed will by no means be having the fighter market of the future all to itself.

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Source: Flight International