The fight is on for European manufacturers to secure scant fighter exports

October's selection of Lockheed Martin to develop its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is likely to determine the shape of the defence aerospace business for the foreseeable future. If all goes to plan, the first JSFs will be handed over towards the end of the decade. Over 3,000 will eventually be produced, making the project by far the most costly fighter programme in history.

As the USA tries to involve as many international partners in the JSF as it can, its European competitors, Dassault, Eurofighter, and Saab/BAE Systems, are aware that they need to score some sales successes - or the export future for their products, the Rafale, Typhoon and Gripen respectively, will be bleak. This battle is likely to be hottest in the first half of this year, as a number of countries, including Italy and the Netherlands, are persuaded to sign up for JSF systems development and demonstration, acquire one of the European competitors or postpone a decision to 2007-8.

The Europeans themselves face a tough year, not least the four nations involved in the Eurofighter. The first production-standard aircraft is scheduled to fly early this year, and the first service aircraft is due to be handed over to the UK Royal Air Force in June. Developed by Alenia, BAE Systems, EADS Casa and EADS Germany, Eurofighter has orders for 232 aircraft.

Rafale deliveries will continue this year to the French navy, which formed its first squadron in the middle of last year. Another Dassault milestone will be the handover of the first of 33 Mirage 2000-9s to the United Arab Emirates air force, scheduled for the end of this year. Saab/BAE will be hoping to build on its success in the Czech Republic and Hungary. If the Gripen can win in Austria, where it is widely regarded as the leading contender, and in Poland, the Swedish fighter will have scored a clean sweep through central Europe.

Vibrant industry

Russia's combat aircraft industry is no more vibrant than it has been for the past 10 years. Promises of upgrade contracts and initial work on the LFI fifth-generation fighter, if they come, are unlikely to be worth significant amounts, leaving the industry as moribund as ever.

Signing of the A400M contract in the last days of 2001 places the aircraft on schedule for a first delivery to the RAF in 2008. Airbus Military Company (AMC)will have to ensure that development moves ahead to the aggressive timetable. And it remains to be seen whether participating governments will accept AMC's determination to have the A400M transport developed and built to a commercial contract, and not subject to the political machinations so familiar to other European collaborative defence programmes.

Germany's last-minute attempts to renegotiate the contract unilaterally, despite, like the other partners, having given responsibility to do so to OCCAR, the pan-European arms procurement body, endangered the programme and cast Berlin in a poor light.

There is still uncertainty over whether the German parliament will produce the additional funding the Luftwaffe will need to pay for the full 73 aircraft it has ordered. AMC will now have to work hard to ensure the programme reaches all its milestones, including a first flight 51 months from signature of contract, followed by initial deliveries 20 months later.

Any problems with the A400M will undoubtedly play into the hands of its principal rival, the Lockheed MartinC-130J Hercules. Having suffered significant problems during service introduction, and lacking support from the US Department of Defense, this year is likely to see a major reversal in the C-130J's fortunes. The USA's other in-production transport, the Boeing C-17, is also likely to benefit, as air forces consider a C-17/C-130 mix. The successful start of an up-to-nine-year lease by the UK of four C-17s last year could lead to similar programmes in other NATO countries, Australia and elsewhere.

Certification of the latest Block 5.3 software for the C-130J in the third quarter of last year, and its subsequent implementation around the user community, should improve the aircraft's serviceability, and introduce more tactical - as opposed to strategic - capabilities.

This year is also the first that the US Air Force is committed to a major C-130J order; its previous contracts have been demanded by US politicians, and funded through the supplementary budget. This will also improve C-130J support throughout the USAF, as a fully funded order will have logistics provision, unlike the congressionally mandated contracts.

Further C-17 acquisitions can also be expected, as Boeing will need to order long-lead items to ensure the production line does not end, particularly as the USAF requires further aircraft and will not want the expense of restarting the line.

Germany will begin working up its Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopter force this year with France, the other partner nation, receiving its machines in 2003. Eurocopter will hope to build on last year's success - selection by the Australian Army - with more export sales. Spain looks the best bet, but whether a helicopter is chosen this year remains to be seen. Like Australia before it, Spain has been running an attack helicopter competition for many years.

Last chance

The last real chance for Sikorsky's S-92 is a Canadian request for proposals expected this year, after it lost last year to the Agusta Westland EH101 and NH Industries NH90 in the Nordic Standard Helicopter Programme, and to the EH101 in Portugal. The two multi-national European helicopter programmes have tied up the business in Europe, and current competitions elsewhere in the world, such as Singapore, are looking at other types.

The 11 September attacks have resulted in additional defence funding in many countries, although it is too early to say which programmes and companies will benefit most. It is likely, however, that US precision munitions manufacturers will gain from top-up orders to replace ordnance used in Afghanistan, particularly stand-off and precision-guided weapons.

As in the Balkan conflicts, Europe's lack of strategic transports, tankers, and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance assets will be highlighted.

US focus may be on the shortage of usable tankers for the US Navy, which uses hose-and-drogue refuelling rather than the US Air Force's flying-boom system. The USAF plans to replace its KC-135 tankers with KC-767s, which will have both types of equipment. Reliance on the UK's BAC Canberra PR9 imagery reconnaissance aircraft may also raise questions.

The USA will be keen to learn as many lessons as possible from the use of new systems in Afghanistan, not least the operational debut of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4AGlobal Hawk unmanned air vehicle. Operations in Afghanistan have also brought armed UAVs such as Predator/Hellfire into prominence.

Source: Flight International