F-35 Gains More Market; Rivals Push Upgrades

By Amy Butler
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

Boeing received another blow in December when Brazil selected Saab's JAS39E/F Gripen over the Super Hornet (and Dassault Rafale) for a 36-aircraft order. The F/-18E/F had been leading the long-running FX-2 competition until revelations of U.S. spying on Brazilian officials, and the Rafale was rejected as too costly. Gibbons says there is still interest in the Super Hornet in Canada, Denmark, Kuwait, Malaysia and unnamed Middle Eastern countries. But decisions that could provide confidence in future orders are not expected in the near term.

New and potential orders notwithstanding, the heyday of Super Hornet/Growler production is likely in the past. Gibbons says the current annual production rate of 48 aircraft is likely to be cut by 25% next year and eventually lowered again, to 24 annually. Company officials are looking for lessons from a similar rate reduction in the C-17 transport, aiming to keep the per-unit Super Hornet price at $37 million (not including engines and electronic-warfare systems) while reducing the production rate. Including all government-furnished equipment, Gibbons says the Navy pays a $50 million flyaway price for the Super Hornet. A Growler is expected to cost about $9 million more.

The Eurofighter consortium is expected to face a similar decision for its Typhoon production infrastructure, with the last fighter scheduled to come off of the line in 2017. The Tranche 3 Typhoon had its first flight in early December, incorporating improved avionics computing power; fuel-dump and provisions for an active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar; high-speed data network; fiber-optic weapons bus, and conformal fuel tanks. A Typhoon package with an improved radar is expected for delivery at the end of 2015.

Meanwhile, Saab is under contract to develop the JAS 39E production version of the Gripen NG demonstrator, first flown in 2008, and to modify 60 Swedish Gripen Cs to Gripen Es. Switzerland is expected to buy 22 Gripen Es in 2014. The upgraded fighter features an AESA radar, General Electric F414 engine and increased fuel and weapon loads.

Although losing in Brazil, the Rafale was selected as India's Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) and France's modernization program. The contract for India's largest single defense buy to date, for 126 fighters, is not likely to be issued until April. At the same time, France has begun to take delivery of its latest, fourth-tranche, two-seat Rafales. They include the RBE2 AESA radar and upgraded missile-warning capability. An earlier version of the Rafale was instrumental in French operations in Mali, where the aircraft conducted aerial surveillance and ground-attack missions. The Rafale and Typhoon were also being eyed by the United Arab Emirates, but the UAE put Eurofighter negotiations on ice in December, and the status of Rafale talks was not clear.

Despite this activity, Paris has proposed slowing Rafale production to 26 aircraft over six years, from the current 11-aircraft annual rate.

Not unlike the Rafale, Lockheed Martin's F-16 is being modernized by several customers as well. Singapore will upgrade at least some of its F-16s while it considers purchasing the F-35. Singapore is expected to follow Taiwan and the U.S. in pursuing an AESA radar for the F-16. Northrop Grumman's Scaled Agile Beam Radar (SABR), based on the radars employed by the F-22 and F-35, has been selected by prime contractor Lockheed Martin for the F-16. The U.S. Air Force is also considering structural upgrades to get more flying hours out of its F-16s.

As these programs are relying largely on upgrades, the F-35 footprint continues to grow. In 2013, Italy officially started work at its final assembly and checkout (FACO) facility at Cameri Air Base in the country's northern industrial sector. The Italian government invested roughly $1 billion to construct the state-of-the-art FACO there, which is being operated under the leadership of Alenia Aermacchi.

Defense officials hope to establish a regional maintenance, repair and overhaul facility for European and Middle Eastern F-35s with some of the facility's excess capacity. The first F-35 from the FACO is expected to be delivered to Amendola Air Base in Italy in 2016.

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