December 30, 2013
Credit: Lockheed Martin
With the first F-35 customer—the U.S. Marine Corps—set to declare operational capability with the single-engine, stealthy fighter in as little as 18 months, the Lockheed Martin jet continues to dominate the global fighter market.
However, its competitors—the Boeing F/A-18E/F, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab Gripen—are all continuing with upgrade plans for a diverse set of customers, some of whom will eventually buy the F-35 and others who cannot afford it.
The F-35's edge was affirmed in November when Seoul bypassed its own procurement agency's recommendation to purchase 60 semi-stealthy Boeing F-15 Silent Eagles in order to buy fewer F-35s within a set budget of 8.3 trillion won ($7.7 billion). South Korea's decision follows Japan's choice in late 2011 of the F-35, which both countries have been willing to buy at a premium, sacrificing tail numbers in their force structures for stealth and integrated avionics.
Seoul's decision likely buries Boeing's ambitions to sell the Silent Eagle variant of its venerable F-15; both the Strike Eagle and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler are built at the company's facility in St. Louis. The Silent Eagle was to include conformal weapons bays and employ fly-by-wire controls. It is unclear whether the company will snag more F-15 sales beyond those to Saudi Arabia; Riyadh's last aircraft is scheduled to roll off the line in 2018.
Boeing officials say the Silent Eagle options—including the stealthy weapons bay, the fly-by-wire controls and digital electronic warfare system—will remain as options for legacy F-15 customers choosing to retrofit their fleets.
For the twin-engine Super Hornet/Growler line, Boeing officials are upbeat about further buys from the U.S. Navy, which has always been the last of the three Pentagon services to buy the F-35 in volume. Ship trials slated for 2014 could jolt it out of its lukewarm stance, however. The company must decide by March whether to use its own funding to keep long-lead Super Hornet and Growler production activities in play. Boeing officials are anticipating another Navy order in the fiscal 2015 budget, which is expected to go to Congress in February; that would likely trigger Boeing funding for the line until the contract is solid, says Mike Gibbons, Boeing's Super Hornet vice president.
“Boeing financially has the ability to keep this line going,” Gibbons notes. The company has cash on hand largely because of its balanced defense and space portfolio and hearty commercial aircraft backlog.