By Craig Hoyle in London

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The last year has provided a much-needed boost to several of the West’s leading fighter aircraft programmes, with Boeing and the four-nation Eurofighter consortium having cause to celebrate and Lockheed Martin positioned to advance its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project into the production and sustainment phase with continued multinational support.

Singapore signed a contract with Boeing last December to acquire 12 F-15SGs and the US company last month received a further boost for its Eagle line when South Korea announced its intention to buy another 20 aircraft, expanding its F-15K fleet to 60.

Saudi Arabia also late last year announced that it is to introduce the Eurofighter Typhoon – which recently conducted its first air-to-surface weapon tests – to replace its Panavia Tornado air-defence fighters. Discussions on the sale continue between the British and Saudi governments, with around 72 aircraft likely to be involved. In the USA, Lockheed’s F-22 air-superiority fighter entered frontline use, although the US Air Force continues to push for increased production of the Raptor.

JSF issues

On balance the JSF programme is advancing on a reasonable footing, with initial progress made with the UK on resolving crucial technology transfer issues and all eight international partners still aboard the effort – for now at least. A key step will come in October, when the first system development and demonstration aircraft – a conventional take-off and landing F-35A – will make its flight debut. Taken in combination with industrial and in-service support considerations, the outcome of this flight will play a pivotal role in deciding whether some nations sign a memorandum of understanding in December to continue in the project.

But it is not only big-budget air forces that are bolstering their combat aircraft fleets, with others taking advantage of a continuing reduction to the size of European fleets. Brazil has acquired ex-French air force Dassault Mirage 2000C/Bs amid delays to its planned F-X fighter programme, while Jordan has snapped up surplus Belgian and Dutch Lockheed F-16s within the last six months. The retirement earlier this year of the UK Royal Navy’s last British Aerospace Sea Harrier FA2 fighters could likewise represent a windfall for the Indian navy, which is interested in acquiring several of the aircraft. Longer-term, new operators could emerge for the Saab Gripen, following Sweden’s recent decision to further cut its active combat fleet to just 100 aircraft. While such deals do nothing to sustain production lines, they do offer opportunities to undertake aircraft and system upgrades and provide long-term product support.

Manufacturers are holding their breath on the outcome of ongoing competitions to supply new training aircraft to countries including Singapore and the UK: turnkey deals that could sway numerous other potential buyers in the future. While platform solutions for the UK Military Flying Training System will remain unknown for several months, Singapore’s search for a primary trainer is likely to be met by the Aermacchi M311 or Pilatus PC-21 – both evolutions of earlier trainers. BAE Systems late last month hit the campaign trail with its latest-generation Hawk, in the hope of luring fresh orders. The Korea Aerospace Industries T-50 has formally entered air force service with South Korea, while Aermacchi’s M346 is also nearing readiness.

However, delays to Europe’s Advanced European Jet Pilot Training or Eurotraining system mean immediate prospects for major collaborative equipment orders are limited, prompting industry and the military to promote interim solutions using upgraded platforms, such as the Spanish air force’s Northrop F-5s.

Airlift remains a strategically important capability for an increasing number of nations, but time is running out for new buyers to come forward for the Boeing C-17, threatened with an end to production after USAF procurement ends in 2008. Australia has made a late charge to acquire four of the aircraft, the UK is to eventually own five and Canada is also believed to be close to concluding an order for the type. Airbus Military is moving ahead with its A400M for nine nations, with successful engine tests conducted and production activity now ramping up across Europe.

Intra-theatre airlift requirements have also taken on more importance, with a coming together of US Army and USAF requirements under the Joint Cargo Aircraft programme prompting a contest between dominant manufacturers Alenia Aeronautica with the C-27J Spartan and EADS Casa with the CN-235 and C-295.

Tanker contest

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The tanker market also continues to heat up, with the Royal Australian Air Force’s first Airbus A330-200 in development testing ahead of its conversion to a multi-role tanker-transport standard and the UK is poised to sign a delayed deal for 14 of the aircraft. The USAF’s tanker-transport battle will prompt fierce competition between an EADS/Northrop Gruman-promoted KC-30 variant and Boeing, which has been forced to consider alternatives to its KC-767A now in development for Italy and Japan.

Special-mission aircraft are in demand, particularly among Asia-Pacific nations for dedicated maritime patrol and anti-surface warfare platforms. India is leading the charge, with an offer of Boeing’s 737-based P-8A Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft facing competition from an EADS Casa solution based on the Airbus A319. Regional opportunities are also being pursued by Lockheed with refurbished P-3 Orions and S-3 Vikings, although numerous other manufacturers are also targeting the region.

Meanwhile, a 737-based platform may taste success in South Korea’s long-delayed E-X airborne warning and control system contest.

The UK will next month mark the end of an era by retiring its last English Electric Canberra PR9 photographic reconnaissance aircraft, but the arrival of its first Raytheon Systems-produced Sentinel Airborne Stand-Off Radar platform will mark the advent of a new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

Source: Flight International