Asian Jet Fighter Competitions Heating Up
By Andrew Chuter and Wendell Minnick
SINGAPORE — Details of fighter decisions in Japan, South Korea and Australia came into clearer focus at the 2012 Singapore Airshow last week.
Japan’s December decision to procure 42 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) from Lockheed Martin for roughly $8 billion raised questions about how Lockheed would fulfill Japan’s local industrial participation requirements. Japan is not a partner on the JSF program, which includes nine primary customers and financial partner nations who each have a piece of the manufacturing and production pie.
However, “there is a substantial amount of work on the program that is not being done from within the partnership,” said David Scott, director of F-35 International Customer Engagement for Lockheed.
With U.S. government approval, Lockheed Martin offered Japan an F-35A final assembly and check out site, “which is where they put the four major structural components of the airplane together, install the engines and all the electronic systems, do the codings, do the test flights,” he said. Lockheed also “offered construction of major structural components and subcomponents, engine assembly, integration and test, and light maintenance and repair.”
The F-35 beat Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and Eurofighter’s Typhoon in Japan’s competition to replace aging Mitsubishi-built F-4EJ Kai Phantoms. Now the F-35 is challenging Boeing’s F-15 Eagle and the Typhoon in a competition in South Korea worth $7.4 billion.
There are suggestions the Japan decision will build momentum for an F-35 win in South Korea. Not so, Boeing officials at the air show argued, pointing to the fact that the F-15 is already in the Korean Air Force’s inventory following an earlier buy and that relationship will take precedence over competitors.
However, Boeing’s Super Hornet lost two big competitions in India and Japan. But this year, the company is hoping for better news from Australia and Malaysia where the fighter has chances of landing new orders.
Malaysia could decide later this year on an order for 18-plus aircraft with the Super Hornet, Typhoon and Dassault’s Rafale as the main contenders.
In Australia, officials are reviewing options in the face of F-35 delays and questions over cost. The country will decide later this year whether to stick with F-35 or buy additional F/A-18s to bolster its existing fleet of Super Hornets.
Most eyes, however, will be on South Korea where Boeing is pitching its latest version of the F-15, the much upgraded and stealthier Silent Eagle variant, for a 40-aircraft order.
Jeff Kohler, vice president of business development at Boeing Military Aircraft, told reporters at the air show that the company will submit its response to a recent request for proposals in mid-June and expects a decision from the South Koreans by late September or October.
Few see the Typhoon as a serious contender, saying it is evidence they expect a U.S. win for political and requirement reasons.
The South Korean and Australian decisions will be the litmus test for JSF’s near-term prospects in the region following the crucial deal with Japan, defense industry executives said at the show.
They believe the F-35 is the one to beat in the South Korean competition as the country’s military will want to match anything its neighbor, Japan, has in terms of capability.
But Boeing executives are banking on the company’s relationship with Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) while questioning Lockheed’s ability to deliver in the 2016 timeframe demanded by the Koreans.
“From an industry standpoint, they already build the F-15 wings there. If they go for the Silent Eagle, [KAI] will help on [the development and manufacture of] the conformal weapons bay in Korea as well,” Kohler said.