Monday, 21 January 2013

2013 Update: Where are they now?

In July, 2010, the Canadian government announced a deal to buy 65 Lockheed Martin F-35A "Lightning II" fighter aircraft to replace the RCAF's aging fleet of CF-188 "Hornets".  There was no bidding process, as "only one aircraft meets operational requirements."  The cost of the jets was said to be $9 billion.

Meanwhile, the Eurofighter Typhoon was nearing the end of its production cycle, with no new orders.  Although there were plenty of updates envisioned, there was doubt if those updates would be funded due to the European debt crisis.

Dassault was heavily marketing its Rafale fighter, but seeing little success.  So far its only customer was its home country of France.

Saab, while having some success marketing the Gripen as a low cost, lightweight fighter.  Many potential buyers were drawn to the promise of the F-35, which, at the time, offered "5th generation" performance at an affordable price.

Oh, what a difference a couple of years make.

A Saudi Arabian Typhoon
The Typhoon has continued its development.  It has been recently tested to use the MBDA Meteor missile.  It has also been selected as the jet fighter of choice for both Saudi Arabia and Oman.  This will keep production going a little longer and Saudi Arabia has shown great interest in helping to develop an AESA radar as well as other improvements.  It has also gained a great deal of prestige after a training exercise when German pilots were able to take advantage of the Typhoon's short range capabilities to make "Raptor Salad" out of the USAF's flagship, the F-22.

An Indian Rafale.
The Dassault Rafale has also had its share of good news.  Proving itself as a competent strike fighter over the skies of Libya and now Mali.  Most importantly, the Rafale was selected as the winner of India's coveted Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition.  With an order for up to 200 aircraft, this was definitely good news for Dassault.  It is also a finalist in the Brazilian FX-2 competition, along with the Gripen and the Super Hornet.

Swiss Gripen E.
Saab's Gripen, has earned a great deal of positive news as well.  It provided reconnaissance over Libya for allied forces.  It also showed off its upgraded "Next Generation" Gripen NG demonstrator.  Saab now has orders for the upgraded model from both its home country of Sweden along with close neighbour Switzerland.  It is also a finalist in Brazil's FX-2 and it is earning a lot of attention due to its proposed low cost compared to other fighter models.  Many are claiming it is the "natural choice" in an era of tightening defence budgets and unpredictable global "hotspots" popping up without much warning.

RAAF Super Hornet.
Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet has seen a few additional sales to Australia, fulfilling a "gap-filler" role as F-111s are decommissioned without F-35s to replace them.

Boeing's stealthy F-15SE "Silent Eagle" has yet to obtain an order, but is under consideration by South Korea, along with the Typhoon and F-35.

F-35Bs:  Currently grounded.
Lockheed Martin's F-35 has seen plenty of publicity as well.  Most publicity surrounding the F-35 is far from positive however.  The STOVL F-35B was put on "probation" thanks to a lack of development progress.  Since then, the probation has been lifted only for the F-35B to be grounded due to "fueldraulic" problems.  Meanwhile, the carrier based F-35C has yet to land on a carrier due to a faulty tail hook design.  All three versions have been ordered to stay from bad weather because there is chance that a lightning strike could result in a catastrophic explosion.  The high-tech helmet and visor is still not working properly.  Stealth coating on the F-35's tail fins can peel off at high speed, and problems with the fuel tanks keep the F-35 from rapidly descending to lower altitudes.  It has been declared "unacceptable for combat or combat training".

The F-35 is still in development, and as such, all these issues are likely to be solved.  But solving these problems will take additional time and money, delaying acquisition and adding to the fighter's final cost.  As costs rise and deliveries are delayed, potential customers are postponing, reducing, and may soon outright cancel their orders.

The Canadian government's recent decision to "reset" the F-35 fighter purchase has indeed been one of the program's greatest blows.  If Canada decides to forgo the F-35 in favour of another, other F-35 partners may be emboldened to do the same.  This may result in a "death spiral" where the F-35 loses its much balley-hooed "economies-of-scale" where the high cost of development is spread out over a large volume of purchases.  As orders decrease, unit costs go up, leading to even more decreased or delayed order, which in turn, raises the unit cost higher.

I wonder what 2013 will bring?

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