Lockheed Martin’s F-35 took the international community by storm in 2017, with operational deployments to both the European and Pacific theaters, an aerobatic debut at the Paris Air Show and delivery of the first Norwegian version to Orland Air Base. The stealth fighter will continue to draw focus in 2018 as the U.S. Navy nears initial operational capability for its F-35C variant and several nations look to choose their next-generation combat aircraft.
Lockheed will continue to dominate the Western fighter market as the F-35 line at Fort Worth ramps up to full-rate production. By the end of 2017, 241 F-35s were in service worldwide, and international final assembly lines in Cameri, Italy, and Nagoya, Japan, had begun operations. Lockheed is predicted to produce 54% of the Western-built fighters—734 aircraft—in 2018-22, clearly beating runners-up Boeing, Eurofighter, Dassault, Saab and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), according to an Aviation Week analysis.
Although Lockheed did not secure any new customers for the F-35 in 2017, the fighter is widely expected to emerge victorious in several upcoming competitions. Belgium is expected to select a winner in 2018, and Austria, Finland, Switzerland and Poland are evaluating proposals. In November, the Danish defense ministry began purchasing its 27 planned F-35s, after selecting the type over the Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in 2016.
Germany also has begun to express interest in the F-35, with Lt. Gen. Karl Muellner, chief of staff of the German Air Force, announcing in November that the F-35 was the service’s preferred choice to replace its 85 Panavia Tornado fighters. They are the only non-U.S. operational platforms based in Germany cleared to carry the B61 nuclear weapon, starting in 2025. The F-35 is the only aircraft under consideration for which certification to carry the B61 is planned.
However, the announcement by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel of a vision to develop a new fifth-generation-plus European fighter jet may complicate the F-35’s prospects in Germany. The new Franco-German fighter then would replace both the French Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon, and several other nations have expressed interest in joining such a program. Berlin and Paris are expected to deliver more details about a way forward in early 2018.
Meanwhile, Lockheed may have a new market for the F-35 before long: the Persian Gulf. The U.S. is now considering selling the stealth fighter to allies there such as the United Arab Emirates, if those nations agree to take steps to protect the network-centric fighter’s sensitive technology and vast data bank of critical information. Such a deal could be met with pushback from Israel, as it currently is the exclusive operator of the Joint Strike Fighter in the Middle East.
Canada continues to present a question mark for the F-35 program. Ottawa is still a bill-paying member of the international program, but the new liberal government rolled back a plan to procure 65 A-models in 2016, instead announcing it would seek 18 “interim” F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to bridge an airpower gap until a new fighter can be selected to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s RCAF 1980s-era CF-18s.
But prospects for that deal dimmed when Boeing filed an anti-dumping suit against Bombardier, saying the government was unfairly subsidizing the Canadian company’s C Series passenger jetliners. In December, reports emerged that Canada would scrap the Super Hornet deal in retaliation, instead opting to buy earlier-generation Hornets from Australia as a short-term solution.
Boeing stands to lose not just the 18 new Super Hornets that Ottawa planned to buy initially, but the chance to capture all 65 new fighters the RCAF needs to recapitalize its fighter force. For a relatively small air force like Canada’s, it makes little sense to operate two types of aircraft, virtually guaranteeing the first 18 Super Hornets would have been followed by 47 more, argues Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis with the Teal Group.
If Canada scraps the Super Hornet deal and pursues a competition for a next-generation fighter in the next five years, Lockheed’s F-35 almost inevitably will be victorious, analysts agree.
As the F-35 dominates the market in the West, Russia and China are continuing to make progress on their own fifth-generation fighter programs. Amid heightened tensions in the Pacific, as North Korea refuses to halt its effort to develop nuclear missiles, China’s Avic Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter formally entered service in 2017 with the country’s air force. The official role of the twin-engine J-20 is unknown, but it is most likely intended as a long-range fighter due to its substantial internal fuel volume.
Meanwhile, Russia’s stealthy, twin-engine Sukhoi Su-57, formerly known as the T-50, completed the first stage of joint evaluation trials in 2017 and received approval for a pre-production batch. Delivery of the new fighter, which is intended to replace the fourth-generation Sukohoi Su-27 Flanker family in the Russian inventory, is expected to start in 2019.
And in Ankara, BAE Systems engineers are working with Turkish Aerospace Industries colleagues to develop a twin-engine fifth-generation indigenous fighter. The government wants to see a prototype or demonstrator fly over Ankara in 2023, while operational versions would enter service in 2030. Key decisions to come include engine selections for the prototype and production aircraft. Turkey is looking for a platform free of International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which means it can be exported widely, and seeking additional partners to share in its significant cost.
Lockheed Martin’s F-35 made its aerobatic debut at the Paris Air Show in June, one of several international milestones for the new fighter in 2017. Credit: Mark Wagner/Aviation-images.com
As fifth-generation fighters begin to come online, there is still a robust global market for fourth-generation aircraft. On June 14, 2017, Qatar signed a $12 billion contract for 36 F-15QA Strike Eagles with options for a dozen more, and Boeing is expected to begin building the first aircraft before the end of 2018. The building of the Qatari Strike Eagles will extend Boeing’s F-15 production line past 2022. Meanwhile, Bahrain formally signed up for 16 new-build Lockheed Block 70 F-16s in November, in a deal valued at $2.3 billion. These aircraft will be the first of the type to be built on the company’s new assembly line in Greenville, South Carolina, following the end of F-16 production at Fort Worth in 2017.
Lockheed is hoping to attract additional international customers for the F-16V configuration. The largest single pending fighter order is from India, with New Delhi seeking as many as 120 locally produced single-engine aircraft to replace its aging MiG fleet. If New Delhi selects the F-16 over Saab’s Gripen, Lockheed would partner with Tata Advanced Systems, the defense arm of India’s Tata Group, to set up and operate an in-country facility where the new fighters would be assembled.
In the meantime, there is growing demand internationally for second-hand F-16s, particularly from Eastern European nations such as Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania.
Boeing’s other fourth-generation fighter, the F/A-18, will continue as the backbone of the U.S. Navy fleet for decades, with the service’s fiscal 2018 budget blueprint including plans to invest almost $300 million through fiscal 2022 to upgrade the existing Super Hornets to Boeing’s proposed Block III configuration. Block III will include a new large-area cockpit display for improved user interface, a more powerful computer called the Distributed Targeting Processor Network, a bigger data pipe for passing information called Tactical Targeting Network Technology, conformal fuel tanks to extend range by 100-120 nm, a long-range infrared sensor and advanced signature enhancements.
Elsewhere in the world, international companies also are seeing demand for their legacy fighters. Eurofighter’s largest export customer, Saudi Arabia, has now taken delivery of its order for 72 aircraft, but the British government is pushing for an order for another 48. Kuwait has ordered 28 aircraft, already in production, and Qatar on Dec. 10 signed a deal with the UK government to purchase 24 of the type. The Qatari order should keep production running until 2024. The Typhoon is being offered in both the Belgian and Finnish competitions and probably will be featured in bidding to replace Switzerland’s F/A-18s and Northrop F-5 Tigers. The Typhoon’s future in Austria is less certain after Vienna launched a court case against Airbus and decided it wanted to be rid of the jets after 2020.
The Eurofighter partner nations—Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK—have signed up for the third Phased Enhancements program, which will see the MBDA Brimstone air-to-ground missile integrated onto the Typhoon. This will follow from contracts to integrate the MBDA Storm Shadow cruise missile and Meteor long-range air-to-air missile onto the Typhoon. The UK hopes to have these weapons on its Typhoons by late 2018 in time for the retirement of its Panavia Tornados during 2019 as part of its Project Centurion.
Flight development work on the Captor-E active, electronically scanned array radar continues apace in the UK, with an additional test aircraft from Germany due to join the trials in 2018. Kuwait will be the first customer for the Captor-E in the Radar 1+ configuration. The four Eurofighter nations likely will begin buying the radar in the early 2020s. Upcoming upgrades include the addition of an antiship missile, the MBDA Marte Mk. 2. A new wide-area cockpit display also is being mulled.
Dassault is looking to bolster its orderbook as well, buoyed by success in 2015 with orders from Egypt, Qatar and India. In early December, Qatar signed up to purchase 12 additional Rafales from France, adding to the 24 it already has on order. Meanwhile, Dassault has delivered aircraft to Egypt progressively and flown several for Qatar, although none have been delivered to Doha yet. Qatari aircrews and ground personnel are being trained in France. During 2017, the French government gave the green light for development of the F4 standard, which will give the aircraft improved network-centric warfare capability, sensors and sensor integration. The F3R standard, which is due in 2018, will add the ability to fire the Meteor and Thales Talios laser designator pod.
In Sweden, following the rollout of the first JAS 39E Gripen, coded 39-8, in Linkoping in May 2016, Saab began flight-testing the aircraft in June 2017, achieving supersonic speeds over the Baltic in November. The beginning of flight testing was delayed deliberately to further mature the aircraft’s federated software architecture and qualify it to a commercial standard known as DO-178C. Work is underway to build additional prototypes including the first aircraft for the Brazilian Air Force.
Sweden is planning to buy 60 single-seat Gripens, while Brazil will purchase 36 aircraft including eight two-seaters. The twin-stick model will be developed in Brazil through Saab’s cooperation with Embraer. The aircraft also is being offered in Finland and Switzerland. First deliveries to the Swedish Air Force are expected in 2019, although the first front-line unit will not be formed until 2023. Deliveries are planned to continue until 2026. Sweden is considering funding an additional 10 aircraft.
Saab is continuing to offer the older JAS 39C/D that, with the enhancement provided by the MS20 upgrade, allows the aircraft to carry the Meteor missile. The Gripen C/D is currently in contention in Botswana, Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovakia, and may be offered in Austria depending on whether Vienna keeps its Eurofighters. Saab also is offering a specialized aggressor version to meet the needs of commercial live-air training operators; this version was unveiled at the DSEI show in London in September 2017.
In the trainer/light-attack market, bids are in for the U.S. Air Force’s T-X competition, but the lucrative contract award for 350 aircraft to replace aging T-38s has been postponed until at least the summer of 2018. In an unexpected move, Northrop dropped out of the race in 2017, leaving three competitors: Lockheed and KAI are partnered on the latter’s T-50; Boeing is offering a clean-sheet design; and Italy’s Leonardo has proposed the T-100, a derivative of its M-346 fighter. Leonardo still contends its T-100 is the best solution even after its partner Raytheon dropped out earlier in 2017 and has declared the aircraft will be produced in Alabama if selected.
Meanwhile, Leonardo is widening its proposal for the M-346 with a new light-attack version called the M-346FA (Fighter Attack), which features additional weapons pylons including wingtip rails for air-to-air missiles. Leonardo envisages the installation of the Grifo-M346 multimode radar to add to its light-attack capabilities. Leonardo has begun delivering to its export customers including Israel, Poland and Singapore, while Italy is taking delivery of small batches.
And Leonardo’s M-345 has been developed to meet the Italian Air Force’s need for a high-efficiency trainer with the performance of a jet but with operating costs comparable to those of a high-performance turboprop. Developed from SIAI-Marchetti’s S.211 jet trainer, the M-345 has been fitted with a new avionics suite, a modified fuselage and Williams FJ44-4M-34 turbofan. A demonstrator aircraft took to the air in December 2016, and the first new-build standard prototype is scheduled to fly in 2018. At the Paris Air Show, Leonardo said the M-345 has been selected by two undisclosed air forces to meet their training needs.
After Northrop dropped plans to propose an updated version of BAE Systems’ Hawk trainer for a clean-sheet T-X design, BAE continues the hunt for orders. Having largely completed delivery of a batch of 22 aircraft to the Royal Saudi Air Force and eight to the Royal Air Force of Oman, the company is now building assembly kits that are being sent to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where local workers will assemble a second batch of 22 aircraft. So far, two kits have been sent to the kingdom, including one for the 1,000th Hawk. As part of Qatar’s expected order for Typhoons, the agreements include six Hawks. BAE also is pushing for sales of new-build Hawks to Kuwait to support training for its 28 Typhoons on order.
In addition, BAE is continuing development of the Advanced Hawk, which first flew on June 7, 2017. This version, for which BAE is partnered with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. of India, features a new advanced wing and advanced wide-area display cockpit. It has been developed for advanced training and light attack.
Elsewhere, Aero Vodochody is planning the first flight of its new-generation L-39NG jet trainer for November 2018. The company has completed flight trials of the L-39CW, featuring the new Williams International FJ-44 turbofan and avionics suite developed for the L-39NG that are to be retrofitted into old-model L-39s. The L-39CW should be ready for market in early 2018. The L-39NG will differ from the older model externally as it will not feature the aircraft’s distinctive wingtip tanks. Aero Vodochody is in final negotiations with Lom Praha, the Czech government-owned MRO organization—which also runs the Czech Air Force’s flight training center at Pardubice—to purchase L-39NGs to refresh the school’s fleet.
Aero Vodochody is in advanced negotiations with an undisclosed country for the aircraft, too. Signing of these two contracts would mean the company has sold out the first two years of L-39NG production Eight aircraft would be built in 2020 and 12 in 2021.
Finally, with Batch 2 model aircraft now in service with the Pakistan Air Force, the Chengdu Aircraft Corp./Pakistan Aeronautical Complex JF-17 Thunder is attracting export interest. Myanmar and Nigeria are confirmed customers. A long-awaited two-seat version made its first flight in 2017. Future production blocks are expected to include new avionics and more precision-guided weapons, mainly Chinese.