Western Jetmakers Vie For Asian Contracts
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — As Western defense budgets crash, East Asian democracies could spend $23 billion within the decade on new fighter aircraft and upgrades, providing lucrative markets for European and U.S. aerospace and defense companies.
Japan released a request for proposals (RfP) in April for 40 fighters for its F-X program. The Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and Eurofighter Typhoon are fighting over the $4 billion deal. Bids are due in August with a contract award by the end of the year. The F-X will replace the Mitsubishi F-4EJ Kai Phantoms due for retirement in 2015.
South Korea is expected to issue an RfP in January for its F-X Phase 3 program. While 60 aircraft likely will be involved, it may come in two tranches, with the first being 40. The Boeing F-15, Typhoon and F-35 are already positioning themselves for the $9 billion deal. The FX Phase 3 will replace aging F-4 Phantom and F-5 Tiger fighters. The RfP is expected for release in January.
Taiwan is an exception. Due to Chinese pressure, the U.S. ignored a 2006 request for 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters for $5.5 billion. Taiwan also awaits a reply to a $4.5 billion request for an upgrade package for older F-16A/B Block 20 fighters in 2009.
With Western defense budgets under review and increasing pressure to pursue new market opportunities, European and U.S. combat aircraft manufacturers are “vigorously” engaging the East Asian fighter market, said Doug Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace, U.K.-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“While Japan and South Korea have traditionally been U.S. combat aircraft customers, the present round of acquisition programs offers Europe an opportunity to break into the market,” Barrie said.
European companies face an “uphill battle” to wrestle control of the fighter market from the U.S., which has “locked in markets” for fighter sales to the region for decades, said Richard Bitzinger, a defense industry analyst at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
“The big question will be if the Europeans can break into this market,” Bitzinger said. If not, there is future potential for European aerospace companies to participate in indigenous fifth-generation fighter programs in Japan and South Korea, but in terms of new fighter sales, “these countries are still owned by the U.S.A.,” Bitzinger said.
Barrie said the Typhoon had its best shot at winning in South Korea, despite the fact Boeing won both F-X Phase 1 and 2 with 60 F-15K Slam Eagle fighters. Boeing might propose the stealthy F-15 Silent Eagle in an attempt to edge the Typhoon out of the competition, he said.
In Japan and South Korea, there is a major effort by the competitors to provide local production opportunities.
“The fighter choice in both countries will send a political signal as to the extent to which, if any, South Korea or Japan wants to begin to build a substantial defense-industrial relationship with their respective relationships with Washington,” Barrie said.
Japan ’s F-X program experienced delays over an intense Japanese lobbying effort begun in 2007 to force Washington to release exports of the F-22 Raptor, but the U.S. Congress blocked the effort.
After the F-22 rejection, Tokyo set its sights on the F-35, only to see the JSF effort dogged by delays and cost overruns, which postponed the F-X RfP last year.
Tokyo highlighted its interest in stealth by pursuing an indigenous fifth-generation fighter program. Now, Japan is “using their own fifth-generation fighter [TFX] as a bargaining chip” in the competition, but it is still in the research-and-development stage and “hideously expensive,” Barrie said.
Japan is desperate to secure local manufacturing options for the F-X, but it is prohibitively expensive for only 40 aircraft. Manufacturing costs could be driven down by the procurement of more fighters to replace F-15Js, increasing the number of F-X fighters to more than 100 and lowering manufacturing costs.
Unless the F-X fighters are produced in Japan, the local fighter manufacturing industry faces dire straits. Japan ’s only remaining fighter production line, the Mitsubishi F-2, will end in September.
There are also budget concerns after Japan ’s devastating triple disaster — earth-
quake, tsunami and a nuclear power plant crisis — and many wonder how the estimated $300 billion price tag for the catastrophe will affect the F-X budget.
Cost issues could push Japan to select the Super Hornet or the Typhoon.
Eurofighter officials have been promoting the Typhoon as a flexible, inexpensive alternative to the F/A-18 and F-35. A European industry source in Tokyo said technical restrictions hamper F-35 exports, while Eurofighter has “no black box policy,” which means wider options for Japanese industry participation.
Yet the Japan-U.S. military alliance and pressure to procure a U.S. fighter may keep Tokyo from picking a European fighter.
Taiwan ’s request for new F-16C/Ds is seen as a follow-on request for an earlier procurement of F-16A/Bs in the 1990s. Despite Beijing protests, the U.S. Congress recently called for the White House to release new fighters and upgrade packages, including a request for a follow-on F-16 trainer program for Taiwan’s 21st Tactical Fighter Squadron based at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.
In dollar amounts alone, as the U.S. economy declines, increased pressure on the White House to release the F-16s might be too great to withstand.
“In the case of Taiwan, irrespective of posturing on the part of Beijing, the delivery of F-16 Block 52s should proceed,” Barrie said.
Taiwan bought $16.5 billion worth of U.S.-built arms and equipment from 2007 to 2010. Sales included 12 P-3C Orion Maritime Patrol Aircraft, 30 AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters and 60 UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters. Taiwan has requirements for signal intelligence aircraft, attack jet trainers, basic aircraft trainers and UAVs.