The Reshaping of the Air Combat Market: Fighter Production in the Decade Ahead


2014-01-06 By Robbin Laird

The multi-mission fighter remains the bedrock of national and coalition air combat capability.

As the 21st century progresses, the fighter remains a centerpiece of an evolving combat air force, including new weapons, new robotic elements, new tools for connectivity and new support elements.  What we see in front of us is hardly the end of manned aviation, but restructuring of combat aircraft within a 21st century framework.

This air combat capability will be forged by core procurement decisions, the evolution of technology and success or failure in combat.

It is difficult to believe that the next few years will not see combat experience for the global fighter fleets, perhaps even significant ones in dealing with core challenges, like the evolution of the second nuclear age. And how key elements perform will be essential elements of shaping the period ahead.

It is not about air shows; it is about success in military operations and combat which is the real litmus test.

Conflicts in the Middle East, the Pacific and in various hot spots in the developing world will see air combat of various intensities.  We could see confrontations with powers of the second nuclear age; we could see conflicts between states like the PRC and Vietnam; we could see Iran in conflict with Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

UK and USMC F-35Bs in December sortie generation training exercise. Credit: 33rd Fighter Wing
UK and USMC F-35Bs in December sortie generation training exercise. Credit: 33rd Fighter Wing

For the manufacturers of fighters, decisions by global customers about which fighters to buy will have a significant impact on the evolution of the global fleet as well.  Two decisions at the end of 2014 provide indicators of the way ahead.  Brazil chose the new version of the Gripen over Rafale and the F-18.  The UAE chose not to buy the Eurofighter.

To put these decisions in context, the F-18 failed to win in the Indian competition, and may be relevant to other competitions, but has only nailed down a contract in Australia for Growlers and remains in competition in Canada for its fighter replacement.

Eurofighter has lost in South Korea, and is having difficulty in closing the deal in Saudi Arabia.

Put in other words, the production of legacy fighters will be coming to end in the near term, not the long term. 

The F-15 lost in South Korea and the production line is expected to end in 2018.  The loss in Brazil for the F-18 means that the expected end of the production line is 2016.  The Eurofighter production line will terminate either in 2016 or 2017 dependent upon which of the 4 lines one is talking about.  And the Eurofighter faces the additional challenge of two of the core Eurofighter countries, Britain and Italy building out their combat air future around the F-35.

Illustrative of the shift is the approach articulated by the Chief of Staff of the Italian Air Force.

According to Lt. General Preziosa, the F-35 presages a new era in air combat, and he is engaged in working through how his F-35s will work with legacy Eurofighters as Italian air power adapts to 21st century conditions.

One way to think about the way ahead is to continue to use 4th generation aircraft in surging mass to more classic airpower situations.  One would use the F-35 as the key asset up against the distributed operational settings or for operations in denied air space.

Another way to look at it will be to find ways to gain more synergy between the F-35 and the legacy fleet.  How can we better utilize our older assets during the process where the F-35 fleet becomes a reality?

Shaping combinations of 4th generation with the F-35s will be a mix and match opportunity in tailoring airpower to the missions ahead.

This is a challenge; but it is a key task within which the F-35s will make the legacy aircraft more effective; and the 4th generation aircraft will add support and strike capabilities to an F-35 enabled air power force.

The F-35 is in the process of becoming the dominant Western production combat aircraft for the decade ahead for the US, Pacific allies, European partners and Middle Eastern allies.

What is often forgotten is that the F-35 is produced by a global consortium, headed by Lockheed Martin, but with significant reach into global supply chains.

It is not simply a case of an American fighter dominating the market; it is about the F-35 approach reshaping the decade ahead.

In addition, the Gripen in Brazil could provide a solid anchor to provide the new version of the Gripen to smaller air forces worldwide, along the lines of Francis Tusa’s concept of the air force of 24 aircraft. The Gripen has been built by SAAB to be a highly interoperable aircraft with its allies, and this is attractive to the Brazilian Air Force.

South African Gripen in operation. Credit: DefenceWeb
South African Gripen in operation. Credit: DefenceWeb 

The Gripen has built a substantial maintainability capability into the aircraft, and as Francis Tusa has noted, the aircraft was designed from the outset to be more maintainable by at least 50 % than its predecessors.  It also carriers a variety of modern weaponry, and can be configured in a variety of ways looking into the future.

An additional possibility is that Brazil could host the Gripen fighter weapons school and become a center of excellence for those global air forces which buy the Gripen.  In other words, rather than being simply a BUYER of aircraft, Brazil could become a center of excellence for the production, maintenance and concepts of operations for the new version of the Gripen.

The Indians hold the balance in key respects, because if they go ahead with the Rafale deal this will ensure that the aircraft is built into the next decade. The reduced numbers by the French government has put the Rafale in a difficult situation and the French position has only enhanced the importance of India for the program.

Obviously, there are two other players with global impact who will surely be building new combat aircraft in the decade ahead, and to do so along the lines of building in greater stealth and greater performance in the radars carried by those aircraft.  The Chinese and Russians have collaborated in the past, but are likely to diverge and compete in the decade ahead, and this competition could well not just at air shows or in marketing face-offs.

Russian T-50
Russian T-50

The proactive approach the Chinese and Russians will take will be a significant shaper of the decade ahead.  To be clear, neither China nor Russia are reluctant promoters of new systems and of engaging others in building these new systems.

For example, the UAE clearly wants a fifth generation aircraft because of the perceived threat from Iran.  Clearly, the F-35 is the preferred system; yet if the US decides not to go down this path (for whatever reason), there will be a clear opening for China or Russia in this market.  And given the roles of China and Russia in partnering with Iran, which is the threat, might geopolitical bargains be part of the deal as well?

The potential end of legacy aircraft production has been hardly noticed by the world’s press but that is the impact of the F-35 sweep in the Pacific and the Brazilian and UAE decisions.

Nor has the impact of the Russians and the Chinese pushing the envelope on legacy systems.

Clearly, air power modernization is occurring worldwide in spite of sequestration in the United States or the Euro Crisis in the West.

Although the West is a core part of the global system, they are not driving the core parameters of change in peace and war in that system.

It is clearly not the end of the role of legacy aircraft in the fleet, for these aircraft will evolve with modernization initiatives, new weaponization, new approaches to work with robotic elements, and new connectivity enhancers.

The re-formulation and re-shaping of concepts of operations, notably under the effect of combat operations will be significant in determining what types of modernization are highlighted for legacy aircraft in working with the new aircraft coming off of the production line.

But the context will not be SHAPED by those aircraft; they will participate in the restructured air combat environment. 

Nations who build legacy aircraft can decide to extend the production lines by buying additional aircraft.  Britain, Spain, Italy and Germany could decide to buy more Eurofighters.  France could decide to buy more Rafales.  The US could decide to buy more F-18s and F-15s or F-16s for that matter. Such decisions can lengthen the time the sun sets, but not the fact that it is setting on the production of some core legacy programs.

Nonetheless, global competition has delivered a verdict: time to move on to the next phase of reshaping air combat systems, forged around the aircraft which will be built in the decade ahead.

Credit T-50 Photo:

Potential Sunsets for Current Production Legacy Aircraft:

Eurofighter: 2017

According to the Airbus Group website: “Production of Tranche 3 is secured through 2017.”

Two of the Eurofighter countries are committed to F-35 and will be major players in shaping a European sustainment consortium for the aircraft with reach into the Middle East.

F-18: 2016

“Boeing is scrambling to drum up additional orders for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the EA-18G Growler electronic attack plane before its production line is slated to end in 2016.”

F-15: 2018 or 2019

The Saudi deal to buy F-15s will keep the F-15 in production until 2019.