While the cutting edge of next-generation fighter design - Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor - will remain beyond the means of all but a few of the wealthiest nations, the company's smaller F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is already on the shopping lists of many air forces eager to acquire their first stealthy combat aircraft.
The JSF programme office proved its detractors wrong late last year by successfully keeping all eight of Washington's international partners inside the F-35 project, despite many months of tough discussion.
Financial commitments are in place from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and the UK to support the programme's production, sustainment and follow-on development phase, but Team JSF will face an equally tough battle if it is to keep the nations convinced that they should wait for the aircraft in the event of additional schedule delays and cost increases.
Norway's pressing need to replace its Lockheed F-16s by around 2015 makes it reluctant to fully commit to the JSF project's uncertainties, and Oslo is continuing its parallel involvement in the Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab Gripen programmes.
Similarly, while Australia's recent order for 24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets has been described as an interim measure to plug a capability gap until the frontline availability of the F-35, its plans could be reviewed if dissatisfaction increases over issues such as industrial workshare and technology transfer.
Having already spent over £1 billion ($2 billion) on the JSF project, the UK remains determined to secure approvals from Washington to obtain a sovereign capability to perform in-service support and embody upgrades for its future short take-off and vertical landing F-35Bs, which will operate alongside the Royal Air Force's Eurofighters. "Typhoon is a better air-to-air platform, and in terms of offensive capability will offer you everything that JSF does, except the low-observable capability against the more advanced surface-to-air missile systems," says chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy. "That's what we're buying JSF for: that low-observable, first-day capability that we believe the UK needs in a coalition."
Underlining the anticipation felt across the nine-nation programme, Torpy adds: "This is not just going to be a stealthy bomb truck, it is going to be a fantastic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform as well."
While conceding that key technology transfer issues have yet to be resolved, US Air Force Brig Gen Charles Davis, head of the JSF programme executive office, says: "I don't think it's a big problem. At the working level we're making significant progress."
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