Decisions loom over major programmes in the USA and Europe

The US Department of Defense will determine the fate of three of its leading programmes within the next 12 months. Two are air force projects - the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F/A-22 Raptor multirole fighter and the Boeing KC-767 tanker - while the third is one of the Missile Defense Agency's (MDA's) thorniest technical problems - the search for a reliable booster rocket. The debate over the controversial Buy American Act is also likely to be revived, but this time amid the swirl of a presidential election season.

The US Air Force and Lockheed Martin are now preparing to enter the final stages of an operational test and evaluation phase that will allow the Pentagon to finally make a decision on full-rate production of the F/A-22 Raptor. This work could be undone, however, if Lockheed Martin is unable to modify enough aircraft for the testing period. The USAF could require the company to supply six modified jets - two more than currently available.

A Pentagon investigation, which is probing for links between the employment of a Boeing executive and pricing terms for the air force's proposed lease/buy of 100KC-767 tankers, is likely to drag on next year and culminate in another round of Congressional hearings. The scandal could also adversely affect the prospects of the TTSC consortium, led by Boeing and BAE Systems, which is bidding with a 767-based tanker for the UK's Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) requirement.

Missile shield

Arguably the most active sector in US defence next year will be that of missile defence. The MDA has already dubbed 2004 as the "year of the booster," as it plans to finally test two possible booster vehicles by 31 September. The agency will also from 1 October operate an initial ballistic missile shield in the form of six interceptors at Fort Greeley, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg AFB, California. These will provide a basic capability against a relatively unsophisticated threat from north-east Asia.

In 2003, strong lobbying and Bush administration pressure thwarted a surprise effort by a Californian lawmaker to raise the threshold for US-made content in defence contracts, known as the Buy American debate. The proposals appear certain to resurface in Congress in 2004, according to industry lobbyists, who fear that the tumult of the presidential election could obscure a resurgent and strengthened Buy American effort. If successful, the campaign could scupper international projects such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, with partner nations already having voiced extreme concern over the proposal.

The next 12 months will also be crucial in determining the long-term fate of Europe's leading collaborative effort: the Eurofighter Typhoon. While the four partner nations recently took delivery of their first production examples from a 148-aircraft launch order, delays in signing their Tranche 2 order for a further 236 aircraft underline the tough negotiations facing the German, Italian, Spanish and UK defence ministries. Key sticking points include the need to resolve acknowledged inefficiencies in manufacturing the aircraft, and in determining the level of ground attack capabilities sought by the partners in the second production batch.

NATO must make a decision on its most important aviation project - the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system - over the next few months. Worth around €3.5 billion ($4.2 billion), the AGS project will deliver an alliance-owned and -operated battlefield reconnaissance capability from 2010. NATO members will by February determine the best type and mix of manned and unmanned aircraft to meet the requirement, before placing a development contract for the system with one of two consortia next December.

NATO must also try to resolve such vital defence contracts more swiftly in the future. However, procurement seems likely to become more complicated than ever, with the alliance poised to welcome an additional seven member states.

With its recent defence White Paper having disappointed in terms of hard details, the UK Ministry of Defence will over the coming months define the shape of its future armed forces. Long-expected cuts to the Royal Air Force's planned fleet of 232 Eurofighter Typhoon fighters could be confirmed, and some uncertainty still surrounds its BAE Systems Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft project. While BAE Systems officials talk down any threat of cancellation, the remanufactured aircraft must achieve its first flight in mid-2004 if it is to make it as a frontline asset.

The UK will also make a decision on its £13 billion ($22.6 billion) FSTA project in the new year, and underline its shift toward network-centric operations through the selection by mid-year of its Watchkeeper unmanned air vehicle system. This transition will also be demonstrated through the UK's receipt of its first of five Raytheon Sentinel R1 Airborne Stand-Off Radar surveillance aircraft next year.

With recent warfighting experiences in theatres such as Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq having underlined the growing threat to military transport aircraft and utility helicopters from shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, significant growth can be expected in the global market for countermeasures equipment.

Source: Flight International