F-35 Customers, Competitors And Challenges

By Bill Sweetman, Amy Butler
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
June 17, 2013

The F-35 fighter program remains fully funded despite delays and overruns, but acquisition plans for the U.S. and some partner nations are in flux. Orders have been delayed or cut by some partners, and further delays are possible, now that the 3F software release needed for international countries to declare initial operational capability has slipped to 2019. One hundred of the original 730 partner orders have been removed from acquisition plans due to increasing cost and defense budget reductions globally.

Almost 360 more are jeopardized by planning changes and political challenges. Denmark has launched a new source-selection process with a mid-2015 decision deadline. The Canadian government launched a review of its choice of the stealthy Joint Strike Fighter, after the nation's auditor-general found flaws in the sole-source plan, and it is under pressure to start a competition. The U.K. and Australia remain committed, but some of their purchases are likely to be deferred beyond 2030, while major political groups in Italy (including the fast-growing M5S movement) and the Netherlands are opposed to buying any F-35s.

The U.S. services have held to their total buys—but those are subject to decisions of future Congresses, since fewer than half of the planned orders will be placed in the next 10 years. Multiple Washington think-tanks, including the influential Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, have recommended reducing F-35 orders (and in some cases, tactical fighter forces in general) in favor of longer-range systems.

The U.S. Navy's peak annual JSF acquisition rate (for both the B and C models) has been reduced to 40 from 50 aircraft per year, according to the latest selected acquisition report. Nominally, the U.S. Air Force plans to increase its delivery rate to 60 per year in 2018 and 80 in 2021, but this does not mesh with service testimony to Congress that shows 1,130 or more older aircraft, including 300-plus updated F-16s, in its 2030 inventory. That would leave the Air Force with 770 F-35s, but current plans show 1,050 JSFs delivered to the service by 2030. The Air Force has not been willing to comment on the discrepancy.

By contrast, Lockheed Martin has nabbed sales to Israel and Japan, and is in the running for orders in South Korea and Singapore.

These developments have opened up opportunities for competitors to challenge the F-35 in U.S. and international markets with upgraded versions of in-service aircraft. Boeing will flight-test features of a stealthier, more powerful, longer-range Advanced F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in the coming months, and Australia has announced its intention to acquire EA-18G Growlers, which would be the first-ever export sale of a dedicated fighter-based electronic combat aircraft. Two development contracts for the Saab JAS 39E Gripen were issued in February and March by Sweden. Meanwhile, the Eurofighter partner nations—seeing opportunities in the United Arab Emirates, Canada and Denmark, among others—appear to be more ready to back the consortium's product-improvement plans, a Eurofighter executive says.

—Amy Butler and Bill Sweetman/Washington

Software: U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, F-35 program director, is “moderately confident” of on-time delivery of the fighter's 2B software package for the U.S. Marine Corps to be the first to declare initial operational capability (IOC) by December 2015. Likewise, the 3I release, including 2B software and updated hardware, is needed for the Air Force's IOC planned for December 2016. Bogdan acknowledges greater risk in the readiness of the 3F package, which will include a more comprehensive attack capability, when development wraps up in 2017 (AW&ST July 9, 2012, p. 103).

Helmet: Questions remain about whether Rockwell Collins Vision Systems International will deliver the so-called “Gen 3” helmet-mounted display system needed for full F-35 performance. The Marine Corps plans to declare F-35B IOC in December 2015 with the “Gen 2” helmet on which the night-vision camera falls short of requirements for nighttime aerial refueling and vertical landing. A new nighttime camera will be tested on a Gen 3 helmet in January. Questions remain about whether earlier jitter and horizon calibration issues will be addressed in this next helmet version. (AW&ST June 10, p. 29).


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