The F-35 Lightning II European debut in July will be welcome, but it remains the Punch and Judy program of the defense aerospace sector, with boosters and detractors taking turns to bash each other’s argument as to the project’s value — or lack thereof.
The debate, though sometime not worthy of the word, has risked becoming so polarized that neither camp is capable of recognizing nor admitting to any virtue in the others argument. This is a pity because, as is so often the case, any kind of ground truth lies somewhere betwixt and between.
The aircraft is indubitably and considerably late and over-cost, which is about par for the course for a combat aircraft development. The fundamental question is whether its performance will be worth the wait and the sticker price. Hyperbole aside, the program is the Pentagon’s most expensive, and the most important weapon system for the
These domestic and structural concerns are now being compounded by an uncomfortable deterioration in relations with an erstwhile strategic rival,
But if the rhetoric between
Of the two former bloc-leaders, one is no longer a superpower, while the other’s locus of strategic interest is not
US National Security Advisor
Some of this is driven by the fact that the European economic recovery remains patchy and faltering. It remains the overriding concern of the public, rather than Russian military adventurism in the
For the European defense aerospace sector the reality of continuing pressure on defense spending, rather than transatlantic exhortations to reverse a two-decade plus trend, will continue to drive strategy in what remains a difficult environment.
There is little to no opportunity for organic growth in domestic or European marketplaces, while expansion by acquisition – at least at the prime level – could court political intervention. Meanwhile, the international arena is ever more crowded and competitive as new entrants jostle for elbow room with existing players keen to offset domestic reductions with increased external sales. As traditional export markets mature there are greater political demands for technology access among purchasing countries and for investment to support local industry, rather than buying simply off-the-shelf. Technology access has already proved problematic for some European F-35 customers.
For the West in general, and the
For the Europeans these challenges are compounded by concern about how long the combat aircraft platforms will be in production. By the middle of the next decade it is quite conceivable that
Of Europe’s three mature combat aircraft designs, Sweden’s Saab Gripen is arguably the best placed. Assuming its selection in
The mid-life refresh of the Gripen, along with an attractive price point, could see it garner further sales in countries looking to replace third-generation or early fourth-generation platforms with a more capable type where they cannot afford or have no interest in a larger combat aircraft, or — indeed — the F-35.
The four-nation Eurofighter Typhoon could end production as early as 2018 unless more orders are secured. There remains a potential follow-on purchase from
Meanwhile, at press time France’s Dassault has yet to sign the contract on a 126-aircraft order for the Rafale, two years after the type was selected by the
Irrespective of the outcome of the aforementioned competitions production of all three European platforms will almost certainly have ended during the next decade. That raises many questions for the European defense aerospace sector. It will also be during the course of the next decade that several European air forces will discover if their investment in and patience with the F-35 has been justified fully or otherwise.
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