JSF has become a template for military aircraft development

Stewart Penney/LONDON

In October, a winner of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) competition is due to be selected. Engineering and manufacturing development is set to start in November, and the JSF is likely to shape the defence aerospace industry for the next 40 years, with around 3,000 aircraft expected to be supplied to US and UK forces and another 2,000 to export customers.


If the JSF competition continues as planned it will be winner takes all, and one of the bidders - Boeing or Lockheed Martin - will be faced with a limited fighter manufacturing future. The stakes are high, and many countries with aerospace industries are eyeing a role in the programme. The UK has already signed up, and the JSF programme office is talking to many NATO members and other nations.

There is one cloud on the horizon - the risk the Bush Administration could still shelve the JSF and spend the money elsewhere: on more Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit bombers; on boosting the number of USAir Force Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptors and US Navy Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets; or on developing space-based weapons.

Future of aviation

Although the air force and navy are counting on the aircraft to recapitalise their fighter forces, scrapping JSF would most affect the US Marine Corps. Already with fewer combat aircraft than it wants, and without fallback orders for the F/A-18E/F, the future of Marine Corps combat aviation has been staked on the short take-off and vertical landing version of the JSF.

If approved, the JSF will not enter service before the end of this decade and is unlikely to be available for export much before 2015, which means there are many potential markets for today's aircraft. There is evidence the JSF programme office is trying to persuade countries to delay procurement decisions until the aircraft is available, and the onus is on Boeing, Dassault, Eurofighter and Saab/BAE Systems to establish their respective F/A-18E/F, Rafale, Typhoon and Gripen fighters in the market before the JSF's lure becomes too strong.

They must contend also with Lockheed Martin's established F-16, which continues to be improved. The last generation of Soviet fighters, the RSK MiG-29 Fulcrum and Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, also continue to be upgraded. The latest Flanker - the Su-30 with advanced avionics and, in the MKI variant for India, thrust vectoring - is considered a potent competitor in the international market.

Whether RSK and Sukhoi will ever sell fighters to western countries, or to western manufacturers' traditional customers, remains to be seen. The advantage of Russian fighters is their relative affordability, but they can be costly to maintain and support can be patchy.

China could also conceivably become a major player within the next 10 years. Export success so far has been based on the supply - not necessarily sale - of aircraft to 'friendly countries', or to nations such as Pakistan, which are subject to western sanctions. But the Chengdu J-10 now under development and a future fighter known in the west as the XXJ have the potential to become serious competitors.

While there are plenty of air forces with well-established requirements for new combat aircraft - Austria, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea to name but a few - the cost of modern equipment has lead to many delays as countries struggle to find funding.

Some competitions have been halted at the eleventh hour, a fate Eurofighter has suffered twice: first in Norway, which delayed its fighter selection; then in Greece, which postponed a contract signing. Similar problems could be around the corner elsewhere. If the USA slides into recession, the rest of the world's economies will inevitably suffer, and many procurement programmes will be headed for delay. New Zealand has already decided to abandon its air combat capability, and others may follow suit.

Acquiring new combat aircraft inevitably leads to other requirements, including for trainers that reflect the capabilities of the frontline fleet. But the trainer market has been flat for several years despite numerous requirements. Whether this will change with the emergence of new generation trainers such as the Korean Aerospace Industries/Lockheed Martin T-50 or EADS Mako is still to be seen. The BAE Systems Hawk remains the type to beat and, with the USAF upgrading its Northrop T-38s to keep them in service until 2040, sales opportunities could be limited.

All-important support

Changing geopolitics, with out-of-area operations becoming commonplace, means support aircraft have become all-important. New transports are already emerging - Lockheed Martin's C-130J Hercules has entered service and the Airbus Military Company A400M is close to formal launch. Airborne early warning and control has become more affordable, in the shape of the radar-equipped Embraer ERJ-145 regional jet purchased by Greece and the Boeing 737 AEW&C ordered by Australia and selected by Turkey. Ground surveillance aircraft are likely to follow suit, with the Raytheon's business-jet-based ASTOR under development for the UK and Gulfstream offering intelligence and surveillance platforms based on its GV.

Two market areas yet to see such major changes are maritime patrol and aerial refuelling. Tankers are of increasing interest in many countries, some of which will follow the traditional approach of acquiring and converting ex-airliners. Others are considering new-build aircraft, but again with airliners, like Boeing 767s, as the likely platform. The prize remains the US Air Force's long-desired but still-unfunded Boeing KC-135 replacement, the KC-X. A procurement decision is still years away, but studies are gathering pace.

In the maritime patrol arena, meanwhile, BAE continues to struggle with development of the upgraded Nimrod MRA4, because of the difficulty of rebuilding old airframes with new wings and engines. With the US Navy again considering a replacement for its Lockheed Martin P-3 Orions it remains to seen whether rebuilding the existing aircraft will be considered a viable option.

Mirroring the current direction of military aircraft development, and the increasing importance of systems integration, the choice of airframe for any P-3 replacement will be relatively unimportant and the onboard systems and sensors will be the discriminators. Today, if the platform is right for job, it can be kept in service for decades and given new capabilities every few years. This is one reason why the JSF will serve on the front line for at least 40 years and why it will change the shape of the industry.


Source: Flight International