Defense Market Battles Are Backdrop To Paris

By Bill Sweetman, Amy Butler
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

Boeing initially targeted a menu of upgrades for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet at international customers, but now has the U.S. Navy firmly in its sights with a stealthy derivative rebranded the Advanced Super Hornet. Muilenburg says the change reflects the program's “definition, certainty and clarity” with flights planned this summer to measure the aircraft's reduced radar cross-section with new coatings, conformal fuel tanks and weapons pod.

A major part of upgrades planned for the Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon, Europe's MBDA Meteor will appear, having completed its operational tests and moved closer to becoming the first ramjet-powered air-to-air missile to enter service. Israel's Rafael could choose Paris as the venue to unveil the air-to-air configuration of its Stunner missile, now that the weapon has undergone guided firings as part of the David's Sling air and missile defense system.

Led by the Rafale's Thales RBE2 radar, Europe's push back against the U.S. lead in AESA technology has been boosted by the launch of development of the JAS 39E Gripen, with its Selex-ES/Saab Vixen ES-05 radar. Selex is also working on the Typhoon's Captor-E AESA, a full-scale development contract expected later this year. The value of Selex's “repositioner” technology—a rotating bearing that gives the AESA a wider field of regard—is disputed by U.S. producers, but not by European engineers and pilots, who see it as a defensive advantage.

European fighter manufacturers are enthusiastic also about infrared search and track (IRST) systems, fitted to the Rafale, Typhoon and Su-35S and planned for the JAS 39E. Boeing is testing a Lockheed Martin IRST for the Super Hornet, flying it on a King Air testbed early this year and saying the system is yielding reliable “long-range” detection compatible with AIM-120 medium-range missile use.

Continuing development of existing fighters is crucial to the Europeans, who see no prospect for their replacement. “Is there any request for a manned, fast combat fighter in Europe in the coming years?” Bernhard Gerwert, CEO of EADS defense company Cassidian, asked at a May symposium in Paris organized by the Académie de l'Air et de l'Espace. In his view Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon will continue for 30 to 40 years, and the JSF program is not a model for their replacement. “Look at [it]: there's been a five-year delay, the cost has more than doubled from $40 million to $100 million and it will not be operational until 2020.”

Participants could not agree the extent to which European industry should collaborate or restructure. For Chris Boardman, managing director of BAE Systems' Military Air and Information business, “collaboration is the only way forward to sustain our combat aircraft capability,” while Gerwert said “Airbus or MBDA would be the best model to follow.” But, while Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon are in production, “there is no appetite for thinking about future aircraft,” said Christian Bréant, R&D director of the European Defense Agency.

JSF competitors are increasingly ready to reject the “fourth-generation” label and assert that, while their fighters do not match the F-35's stealth, they can rival its effectiveness and survivability at a competitive cost. They are working to prove their case in three competitions so far, in South Korea and two F-35 partner nations: Canada, where rival manufacturers are to make presentations this month; and Denmark, where Eurofighter, Gripen and Super Hornet are likely to join a reopened fighter selection.

Beyond those potential competitions, other major fighter contests include Brazil, where the clock is running out on a long-delayed decision. Two Middle Eastern nations, likely Kuwait and the UAE, have conducted Super Hornet flight evaluations, Boeing says. The latter, an industry source says, is looking at forgoing mid-life updates for its two unique combat aircraft, the F-16E/F and Dassault Mirage 2000-9, in favor of buying a follow-on with a bigger customer base.

Against this background of domestic cuts and competition internationally, Lockheed Martin is planning a smaller footprint than at previous Paris shows. The company will showcase the F-35 as well as the C-130J airlifter and the Medium Extended Air Defense System, which is struggling after Washington pulled out of the project, leaving Germany and Italy looking for a production partner.

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