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OPINION: Western fighter manufacturers can breathe easier

Western fighter manufacturers can breathe a collective sigh of relief as 2016 draws to a close.

Although defence budgets in most parts of the world continue to be squeezed, a recent burst of procurement activity looks set to give a shot in the arm to a number of programmes that had appeared at risk of oblivion due to lack of orders. And, as our new World Air Forces directory shows, the number of combat aircraft in use has increased year-on-year; albeit by a modest 87 units.

Boeing’s formerly at-risk F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is on a high, with Kuwait edging towards approval for a 40-strong order and the Canadian government having announced its intention to buy an interim batch of 18 as it competes the replacement of legacy Hornets. Likewise, Qatar’s plan to buy 72 F-15s is good news for Boeing’s St Louis plant in Missouri, where they will join a backlog that is otherwise solely reliant on Saudi Arabia.

Europe’s rival producers of heavy-twin fighters – Dassault and Eurofighter – added contracts for 36 ­Rafales and 28 Typhoons this year, with production of both types to extend well into the 2020s. And Saab’s Gripen E is progressing according to plan for Sweden and Brazil, with the company confident of scoring more deals for the single-engined type, which will enter service in 2019.

The longer-than-expected development path for the Lockheed Martin F-35 has played some part in the good fortunes of its rivals – but bar Canada, all its expected participants remain on board. Japan has just received its first example to support training, and the lead two F-15Is will head for Israel in mid-December. The Lightning II has a long way to go on its path to becoming combat-ready, but our directory shows the in-service fleet as having now reached 167 units.

The only type not to have secured new business is Lockheed’s venerable F-16, with a handful yet to be produced for Iraq and the company’s attention now moving to upgrading older examples for the likes of the US Air Force and South Korea.

Not so long ago it looked as if the Western fighter market was on its knees, with the F-35 rapidly becoming the only game in town. Now there are ample opportunities around the world for the other players to aim at – from Canada to Finland, Malaysia, Switzerland and a host of eastern European states, there are deals to be done. Demands for increased NATO defence spending could spur further opportunities, as will the introduction of new and more capable types in China and Russia.

Sales dogfight, anyone?

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