Although the last nations involved in the production, sustainment and follow-on development phase of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project will sign up to the effort early this year, the US company will face tough competition on the international stage over the next 12 months to convert their commitment into firm orders from 2008.
European buyers will present the toughest challenge, with Denmark and Norway no longer able to stall on addressing their shared fighter dilemma: whether to further delay their planned replacement of the Lockheed F-16 to wait for the F-35, or select an immediately available design and come back to the JSF later?
Eurofighter is hoping to benefit from JSF delays
The manufacturers of the Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab Gripen will exert increased pressure on the governments of Denmark and Norway this year, urging them to defer on the F-35 and choose between their products. Although delays to the JSF project have seen a window of opportunity open up to rival suppliers, none have benefited from its late arrival - a situation they must force during 2007.
Elsewhere in Europe, manufacturers will step up their efforts to tackle Turkey's need for a new fighter, with the Typhoon to go head to head with designs including the Dassault Rafale. The Turkish air force's search for a new fleet of primary trainers will also attract manufacturers to May's IDEF exhibition in Ankara.
Keeping pace in Asia
India is expected to at last issue a request for proposals this year for 126 new fighters, which are intended to keep pace with Pakistan's recent order for additional F-16s. Bidders will be at next month's Aero India air show in Bangalore in full strength in anticipation of the massive contest, promoting solutions such as the F-16, Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon, plus the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and RSK MiG-35. The Indian air force will, meanwhile, receive its first of 66 BAE Systems Hawk 132 advanced jet trainers in September.
Another big opportunity for fighter builders will be Japan's McDonnell Douglas F-4 replacement, with Tokyo moving closer to issuing a request for proposals. Many leading Western manufacturers are expected to offer solutions, with Lockheed's F-22 possibly to be made available for the first time on the export stage.
With the Serious Fraud Office having last month abandoned a two-year investigation into BAE's previous Al Yamamah arms deals with Saudi Arabia, the UK is expected to conclude talks with the country for 72 Typhoons within the next few months. Combined with the modernisation of its Panavia Tornado interdictor strike aircraft and the potential acquisition of additional Hawks, the project will represent a major modernisation for the Royal Saudi Air Force. With the potential chance to sneak in with a Rafale bid seeming to have vanished, the French government will instead concentrate its efforts on concluding deals with Saudi Arabia for a large number of helicopters, including the Eurocopter EC725 and NH Industries NH90.
Manufacturers hope the United Arab Emirates will also advance its numerous planned procurements this year, including for advanced jet trainers and tanker-transports - a chance that will draw many to November's Dubai air show.
Back in Europe, pressure will be placed on the UK Ministry of Defence to sign a contract by April for its Lockheed/VT-managed Military Flying Training System - a schedule that seems unlikely to be met. Hopes exist that its private finance initiative deal to provide the Royal Air Force with 14 Airbus A330-200-based tanker-transports will finally be signed with EADS-led AirTanker, after almost two years of frustration. But with assessment work on the project's commercial and service provision aspects still to be concluded, these will be tense months for the RAF.
The UK should, however, go some way to resolving its battlefield helicopter shortfall, after weighing up options including repairing its inoperable Boeing CH-47 Chinook HC3s, acquiring more AgustaWestland EH101s from Denmark or Portugal, or leasing new aircraft. The armed forces will be hoping for rapid action. Although their demand for rotary assets could diminish in Iraq early this year, transport helicopters will remain vital to support operational demands in Afghanistan for years to come.