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  • Fighter Wars
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 2:28 PM on Sep 28, 2011

    We are headed for an interesting quarter in the fighter business -- with orders for 150-200 aircraft in play before anyone is singing Auld Lang Syne.

    India is due to open the commercial bids for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft program by mid-October, launching a nail-biting few weeks for Eurofighter and Dassault. The tea-leaves are giving a slight edge to Eurofighter, but not enough of one to offset even a small perturbation on the political side.

    Brazil has delayed its fighter decision again, until 2012. Saab's movement of Sea Gripen work to the UK, as noted last week, is aimed at bolstering its position in Brazil. High-level meetings continue between Saab and Embraer, exploring a proposal in which Gripen would become a joint program with Embraer as a permanent partner.

    Gripen supporters argue that if the air force and Brazilian industry had wanted Rafale, the game would have ended when then-president Lula and French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced Rafale's victory in September 2009.

    The fact that the decision was reversed could be significant, but it also leaves the Super Hornet as a strong candidate -- depending on the degree of US political influence that is brought to bear. (As the Swedes keep being reminded: You may have given the world Abba and Ikea, but the global influence of a neutral nation with a population smaller than Michigan is limited.)

    Speaking of neutral nations, Switzerland is expected to resolve a dispute between its defense ministry and legislature on the issue of delaying its next fighter purchase, for which Gripen, Rafale and Eurofighter have been competing. Unusually, it's the legislature saying "go" and the ministry holding back, having commissioned a study from RUAG into the cost and feasibility of upgrading F-5E Tigers to perform homeland defense and lead-in training missions through 2020.

    For the Joint Strike Fighter, the most visible story will be sea trials for the F-35B aboard the USS Wasp. However, there are other events in sight.

    One of these is the first direct competition in a non-partner country, where three contestants - Lockheed Martin, Boeing (with the Super Hornet) and Eurofighter - submitted proposals on September 26. Again, a decision on a buy of 40-60 aircraft is due by year-end.

    I will be staggered if the Typhoon wins, given the length, depth and complexity of the US alliance. But Japan's primary requirement is to replace F-4EJ Phantoms in the air defense role, which is Typhoon's long suit and was never a primary mission for JSF. And although the USAF has not formally set an initial operational capability date for the F-35A, the Japanese target of 2017 could be hard to meet.

    Japan originally wanted the F-22, and the country and its US supporters kept pushing the issue until then Defense Secretary Robert Gates terminated F-22 production in 2009. Whether that frustration will be enough to spur Japan into the first import of a non-US combat aircraft since 1944 remains to be seen.

    On the industrial side:  Remember late last year, when Pratt & Whitney was warning that its suppliers were beginning to show signs of pain? The only supplier that P&W mentioned by name, Melbourne's Production Parts, went into liquidation last week. The company says that the slower-than-expected ramp-up of JSF production had left it unable to pay the debts that it had incurred as it invested to meet expected demand. As little as a year ago, the company was predicting a doubled workforce.

    In the next few months we'll see if that was a fluke or a mine canary, but BAE Systems has also announced redundancies -- as a result of lower production rates for both the Typhoon and the JSF.

    However, the big JSF story will be the Defense Acquisition Board review -- which was expected within weeks when the Senate last held hearings on the project, in May, but then was abruptly kicked back to the fall. The importance of DAB is that it has to include the Pentagon leadership's best estimates of full-production acquisition costs and operating costs- - the subject of rancorous debate for the past year-and-a-half. And if DAB slips further, that will also be news.

    Tags: ar99, tacair, jsf, typhoon, rafale, gripen

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