With all the expected hopefuls lining up for a Gulf contest for 50 to 80 strike fighters, companies are scrambling in the wings in anticipation.

Graham Warwick/AtlantaDouglas Barrie/London

If it were any where else, the finalists would be collectively sitting on the edge of their seats. As it is the United Arab Emirates, then the anticipation of a decision on a future strike fighter is tempered by the expectation of a further delay.

The UAE's "requirement" for 50-80 strike fighters is one of two potentially large procurements to be decided in the relatively near term in the Gulf region. Saudi Arabia is also looking to select a replacement for its Northrop F-5s. As with the UAE programme, this procurement has suffered the vagaries of fortune. By mid-1995, its future looked uncertain, with indications that the Royal Saudi Air Force intended to shelve the project. Industry sources suggest, however, that the programme is "back on".

The UAE competition has all the usual suspects lining up to offer their wares: McDonnell Douglas (MDC) is offering the F-15U derivative of the F-15E; Lockheed Martin is likely to be pushing the so-called Block 60 variant of the F-16; Dassault is offering the Rafale and the Mirage 2000-5; British Aerospace is proposing 24 Panavia Tornado GR4s and, possibly the Eurofighter 2000 ; and Sukhoi is offering derivatives of the Su-27 Flanker.

Whether the UAE will choose a winner in 1996 remains to be seen. Some competitors now expect a decision in May or June, other analysts believe any decision may not now be made until 1997. Unlike in Malaysia, where MAPO-MiG was successful with the MiG-29 Fulcrum, a Russian purchase by the UAE is considered to be unlikely.

The significance of the UAE competition is that it provides a potential export launch customer for several of the contenders. For others it provides the opportunity to push a new variant of mature airframe into the export market.

BAe, Dassault and Sukhoi are all looking to secure their first export customers for the latest designs from their respective stables.

Dassault's offer of the Rafale, however, received a blow when the French Government decided to delay purchasing the aircraft for the French air force. Availability of the air force Rafale is now pencilled in for 2004-5. It is unlikely, though not impossible given the charms of French marketing initiatives, that the UAE will be tempted to risk being the launch customer for the land-based variant.

Lockheed Martin's strategy with the F-16 is to offer customers a sliding scale of capabilities , depending on the requirement, and the budget. While the UAE is likely to be offered the advanced Block 60, the Royal Saudi Air Force may be looking more towards the current-production Block 50 aircraft.


The Block 60 aircraft is the company's answer to criticisms that the F-16 is not as capable as the F-18 nor as modern as the EF2000. It combines improvements developed for the F-16A/B mid-life update (MLU) with upgrades envisaged under the US Air Force's fighter-configuration plan (FICOP), plus advanced options to be developed with customer funding. The most advanced configurations under consideration would cost "several hundred million dollars" to develop, the company says.

From the MLU comes the modular mission-computer and colour liquid-crystal multi-function displays. From the FICOP would come infra-red targeting, helmet-mounted cuing and missile-warning systems, plus terrain-following/synthetic-aperture radar. Options requiring customer funding include an air-refuelling probe and the APG-78 radar, a derivative of the F-16's APG-68, with electronically scanned active-array antennae.

Lockheed Martin does not expect that one customer will select all the options, and says that two or more customers could co-operate to fund development of expensive systems such as the active-array radar, which the USAF presently has no plans to develop. An infra-red targeting system is a "fundamental requirement" of most customers, the company says, and two options are being considered: an internally mounted sensor and a low-drag derivative of the present LANTIRN pod.

Key to Lockheed Martin's plans for the Block 60 are its efforts to keep the F-16 in production beyond the year 2000. The 400-aircraft firm-order backlog will keep the F-16 in production until September 1999, although the last F-16C on order will be delivered in November 1998. The company foresees production continuing beyond 2005, and is forecasting more than 500 additional export sales, 60-80% of them from existing customers.

That forecast does not include a planned 120 new F-16Cs for the USAF, the first six of which have been purchased for delivery beginning in 1998. The decision not to reduce Air National Guard units from 18 to 12 aircraft could generate a requirement for an additional 115 new F-16s, and extend production to 2010 when the Joint Strike Fighter is to enter service.

A victory in the UAE would provide the platform for the launch of an advanced variant of the F-16, something that Lockheed Martin has long hankered after. It would also keep the door closed on rivals Dassault and BAe.

MDC's bid with the F-15U marks an increasingly rare appearance of this aircraft on the fighter market. The key development for MDC is that production of the F-15E for the USAF is being restarted and could extend the line beyond the year 2000.

Far more important for the company in both the domestic and export arenas are the prospects for its F-18 programme.

Cost is the major issue facing MDC as the US Navy makes the transition from the F-18C/D to the upgraded F-18E/F. The USN plans to buy its last C/Ds and first E/Fs in fiscal year 1997, but has a requirement for additional C/Ds that could, if funded, help sustain production of the current aircraft.

MDC is working to hold the F-18C/D price steady and to extend production to 2005, by which time the E/F will be exportable, early F-18 customers will be looking for a replacement aircraft, and the cost of the C/D and E/F "will be similar", the company says.

The company admits, however, that holding the line on cost will be a challenge. MDC will build 84 aircraft in 1996, including all 34 SF-18s for Switzerland. F-18C/D production for the USN will halve, to 18, in 1997 and end in 1998 unless the US Congress provides money for additional aircraft.

At the same time, MDC is working to make the F-18C/D more attractive to export customers. An "international" version, with additional standard features, was briefly considered but dropped because of concern that it would become another F-18L - the original land-based variant which failed to sell because customers wanted commonality with the USN.

Instead, the company is working on a series of upgrades which will also be offered to the USN. These include a 9G airframe; additional internal fuel and larger external tanks to extend combat radius by 40%; increased chaff/flare expendables; and, potentially, upgrading of the cockpit with the liquid-crystal displays developed for the E/F.

A 9G airframe is seen as necessary to offset the F-16's perceived competitive advantage over the 7.5G F-18 in the export market. No strengthening of the primary structure is required, MDC says, and re-certification of the existing airframe for 9G is expected soon. Switzerland is likely to be the first customer to adopt the 9G upgrade.

Tackling perceived weaknesses in manoeuverability and range are key to MDC's plans to offer the F-18C/D in every fighter competition where the F-16C/D is a contender. The company is counting on increased capability, including the uprated F404 engine and improved APG-73 radar now available, offsetting the higher cost.


One "competition" which has recently been resolved, though not in the USA's favour, was that of the Royal Air Force's need for a gap-filler fighter. The delay to the service introduction of the EF2000 (a first RAF air-defence unit will not be operational until 2004-5) has meant that an interim solution had to be found. Leasing F-16s was examined as an alternative to upgrading the RAF's Panavia Tornado F3s, but was deemed to be politically unpalatable and too costly.

This competition may also have marked the first foray onto the marketplace of the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22. Some sources maintain that the F-22 remains on the table for the RAF should it want a "silver bullet" fighter force to complement the EF2000 in the first decades of the next century. The F-22 is unlikely to feature in any fighter competitions in which its service entry is required for before 2010, and when it does appear only a handful of countries will be able to afford the aircraft.

With Lockheed Martin proposing the Block 50-level F-16 for the Saudi F-5-replacement programme, BAe is understood to have re-examined its strategy based on pushing a single-seat Hawk derivative. Instead, the most likely candidate in its stable for the Saudi requirement is the Saab JAS39 Gripen.

Saab and BAe plan to compete definition of an export variant of the Gripen in August. The two companies formed a joint venture in June 1995 to "market, adapt, produce and support" export variants of the aircraft. As a first step, a NATO-compatible version of the basic Swedish air force Gripen has already been offered to Hungary.

The export Gripen will represent the next step, but will still be an "adaptation" of the JAS39, the team says. Baseline changes will be restricted to those features required for operation outside the Swedish environment for which the aircraft was designed, and will involve items such as the environmental-control system and NATO compatibility.

Exportability is a major issue for the Gripen team, particularly after the abortive Finnish competition, when US refusal to release the AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) effectively ended Saab's ability to compete. The joint venture says it has strong Swedish and UK Government support for exports of the fighter. Some sources, however, suggest that a Saudi Arabian sale would require the Swedish Government to revise its position opposing sales into the Middle East.

Importantly, the US Government has agreed that the Gripen, which has substantial US content, can be sold to any country cleared to receive the F-16 and F-18. In addition, the team says, the USA has undertaken that releasability of the AMRAAM will never again be used to give US fighter manufacturers an advantage in competing against the Gripen.

In support of Gripen export sales, Saab has secured the assistance of Sweden's Wallenburg industrial group to help place indirect-offset work with local industry. BAe, which will have a 45% workshare in the export Gripen, is also offering offsets, as are the US suppliers involved. Hungary is being guaranteed 100% offset.

The joint venture forecasts a market for more than 1,200 aircraft in the Gripen's 8t weight class, with two-thirds of that represented by replacements for Dassault Mirage IIIs, Mikoyan MiG-21s and Northrop F-5s. Competition will come from the Mirage 2000, F-16 and MiG-29, the team believes, with the F-16 setting the benchmark for cost and capability.


Lockheed Martin continues to attempt to maintain the F-16's dominance in the export market, and the USAF has also been offering used F-16A/Bs to several states. The USAF has up to 400 early-model F-16s in storage which are being made available for export.

Sources close to the USAF suggest that the baseline aircraft are now being offered at a unit cost of $6 million. With the Falcon Up structural upgrade and potential engine and avionics updates pushing this cost up to $13-14 million, while airframe life remains limited to 4,000h, sources question the rationale of this option when a new-build F-16A/B Block 20 aircraft costs $15-$16 million.

There are suggestions that the USAF is looking to drop the initial cost of a used F-16A/B to around $3 million to address this issue.

The US Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme, although still many years away, is already beginning to attract the attention of European F-16 operators as they look ahead to replacing their aircraft around 2010 or beyond. Norway has been briefed formally on the JSF, and precursor Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) concept-demonstration effort, after F-16 customers were introduced to the programme at a recent operators' meeting.

The JSF is intended to replace US Air Force F-16s, as well as US Navy Grumman A-6s and F-14s, US Marine Corps MDC AV-8Bs and F-18s, and UK Royal Navy BAe Sea Harriers. Development is scheduled to begin in January 2001 and the JSF is envisaged as a minimum 3,000-aircraft production programme.

The JAST/JSF concept is based on development of three variants of the same single-seat, single-engined aircraft, including a carrier-capable conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) version for the US Navy and a short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) version for the Marine Corps and Royal Navy. Of most interest to F-16 operators is the US Air Force CTOL variant. Compared with the F-16, the CTOL JSF will offer stealth and substantially increased range. The target flyaway unit-cost for the land-based CTOL variant is $30 million, which compares with $20 million for the current USAF-standard F-16C.


The clearest indication yet of Russian fighter- manufacturers' priorities came with this year's FIDAE show in Chile. At the previous year's event, Russian manufacturers had a substantial presence: this time there were no combat-aircraft on display and only a small exhibit.

MAPO-MiG and Sukhoi appear to be re-focusing on what, under the Soviet Union's tenure, would have been known as their traditional markets - China, India, and certain Arab and Pacific Rim states.

MAPO-MiG is continuing to offer derivatives of the MiG-29 Fulcrum. Having developed an air-to-air refuelling capability for the Royal Malaysian Air Force, it is now offering this to Fulcrum A users as a potential upgrade along with several other options. The most significant of these is an upgrade to the aircraft's NO19 radar providing a two-target engagement capability and the option of using the Vympel R-77 (AA-12 Adder) active-radar missile.

The company has also been searching for potential customers for the upgraded MiG-29M, with India a prime candidate. The MiG-29M programme has been "reinstated" by the Russian Government, although no funding has yet been forthcoming for the completion of flight trials. In the short to middle term, MAPO-MiG's main aim will be to try to keep as many existing MiG-29 users as possible tied to the aircraft through limited upgrades.

The most significant development for Sukhoi has been the agreement in principle to allow China to licence-manufacture the Su-27, believed to be dubbed Project 11 by the Chinese. Following delivery of two batches of Komsomolsk-produced Su-27s, China is likely to move to kit-assembly of the aircraft as a first step towards local production. Chinese press reports claim that three Su-27s had already been assembled locally in 1995, and that a further 20 will follow during 1996.

Chinese licence-production of the Su-27, possibly under the designation Su-27SMK, may threaten not only US and European manufacturers competing for non-aligned markets, but possibly Sukhoi. Whether this issue is addressed within the agreement is still to be determined.

China is developing the F-10, as well as building the Su-27, using Israeli Lavi technology. This may also increasingly figure in fighter competitions in non-aligned states as the first decade of the next century draws to a close.

Source: Flight International