Buying a combat aircraft has always been a political decision. But as costs go up and budgets come down, the stakes get higher. It is not just about securing the best deal, but sharing development costs, accessing technology and guaranteeing support for an aircraft through a service life that could span half a century.

Some countries favor political or diplomatic tit-for-tat. In Brazil, where French, Swedish and U.S. fighters are competing, the FX-2 decision has been delayed until 2013, after the U.S. Air Force chooses between a Brazilian and a U.S. light-attack aircraft to equip the Afghan air force. In the United Arab Emirates, politics and pride, as much as price and performance, have dogged on-again/off-again negotiations over Dassault's Rafale.

Other countries choose to exert their independence. India has selected U.S. airlifters, helicopters and maritime-patrol aircraft, but rejected U.S. bids and picked France's Rafale as its medium multi-role combat aircraft, while cooperating with Russia on development of stealthy Sukhoi T-50 as its heavy fighter. Industrial—as much as political—factors drove those decisions.

Others still choose the partnership route. Switzerland has elected to cooperate with Sweden on development of the next-generation Saab Gripen. Indonesia has joined South Korea's proposed KFX indigenous fighter program. Turkey, meanwhile, is looking to partner with other countries on its potential TFX fighter development.

Aviation Week Intelligence Network (AWIN) forecasts deliveries of almost 880 Western-made fighters from 2013-17—74% of them U.S.-built. Although AWIN does not have a formal forecast for Chinese and Russian fighters, Aviation Week estimates five-year production of 200 aircraft by Chengdu and perhaps 250 by United Aircraft.

Forecast sales are dominated by the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, a partnership of nine nations: the U.S., U.K., Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Australia. Despite delays that have pushed back the completion of development by seven years to 2019, new customers are signing up.

Israel has ordered an initial 19 F-35As and Japan plans to buy 42. The F-35A is competing for a 36-aircraft order in South Korea, and Singapore will be next to decide. Meanwhile, stated procurement plans remain unchanged at 2,443 for the U.S., but have slid below 600 for the other eight partner nations.

Production of current U.S. fighters continues, for now. Additional U.S. Navy procurement will keep the Boeing F/A-18E/F line open to 2015, and a Saudi Arabian order for 85 F-15SAs will keep it in production to 2020. Boeing is proposing a suite of F/A-18E/F upgrades to potential export customers, including Brazil and Kuwait.

With the F-35's initial operational capability date still undefined, the U.S. Air Force is to upgrade 300 F-16s with active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radars to keep them in service through 2030. Taiwan is following suit and there is interest in the upgrade from Greece, Poland, Portugal and Singapore. BAE Systems is to upgrade South Korea's F-16s with AESAs.

Europe is moving to catch up with the U.S. in fielding fighters with AESA radars. The first production Rafale with Thales RBE2 AESA entered operational testing in 2012, with squadron deliveries to begin in 2013. An Indian contract for 126 AESA-equipped Rafales is expected to be signed early in 2013.

The four nations behind the Eurofighter Typhoon, which lost in India and Japan but is competing in South Korea, are expected to award a development contract for an AESA to the Selex Galileo-led Euroradar consortium early in 2013, aiming for fielding in 2015. Meanwhile, production has begun under the 112-aircraft Tranche 3a contract, which could be the final batch for partners Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K.

Sweden and Switzerland signed a framework agreement in 2012 covering joint development and procurement of the Saab JAS 39E, based on the Gripen NG demonstrator, with a more powerful General Electric F414 engine, increased range and weapons capacity, and Selex Galileo/Saab AESA radar. Deliveries are to begin in 2018, first to Sweden, which plans to buy 60-80, then to Switzerland, which intends to order 22.

At the same time as U.S. and European fighter-makers compete for export orders to keep production lines open, more countries are looking to develop combat aircraft to advance their aerospace ambitions. Amid domestic political obstacles, South Korea continues to pursue plans to develop an indigenous stealth fighter, the KF-X, to replace its F-16s starting in 2020. Concept definition was completed in 2012.

Indonesia has a 20% stake in the KF-X program, and intends to take 50 of the 250 aircraft planned, as a follow-on to its purchase of Korea Aerospace Industries' T-50 supersonic trainers. Turkey's Turkish Aerospace Industries, meanwhile, will complete a funded feasibility study of the proposed TFX program in early 2013, and recommend a strategy for fielding a new fighter and trainer after 2023.

While Japan has selected the F-35 to replace its F-4EJs, and is to modernize its F-15Js, it is planning indigenous development of a stealth fighter. The new F-3 would begin replacing its Mitsubishi F-2s in the first half of the 2030s and the F-15s in the second half, with some 200 aircraft planned. A subscale technology demonstrator is to fly in 2014.

India's attempts to develop an indigenous light combat aircraft, the Hindustan Aeronautics Tejas, have not gone as planned. The first of 40 Tejas Mk1s became operational in 2012, but the overweight, underpowered aircraft does not meet requirements. Development of a larger Mk2, with a more powerful GE F414 engine, is planned, with a requirement for 80 for the Indian air force plus 50 naval variants for the Indian navy.

Design work has begun on the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, but India's next major fighter program will be the co-development of the Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA)—a derivative of the Sukhoi T-50 now in flight test and scheduled to enter service with the Russian air force in 2017. India plans to buy 144 single-seat FGFAs to replace its Su-30MKIs from 2020.

While it waits for the T-50, Russia is topping up its aging fighter force, having taken delivery of 12 new single-seat Su-27M3s and four two-seat Su-30M2s, upgraded others, with 48 new modernized Su-35Ss and 30 two-seat Su-30MKs to be delivered by 2015. The air force will also receive 92 new Su-34 fighter-bombers by 2020. These orders will keep the Su-27/30 family available for export for several years,

China, meanwhile, has no fewer than six combat aircraft development programs underway. These include the improved Chengdu J-10B single-engine and Shenyang J-11B twin-engine fighters, and Shenyang J-15 and two-seat J-15S carrier-based fighters modeled on the Su-33. China has also flown two new prototype stealth fighters: the 35,000 kg-class Chengdu “J-20” in January 2011 and 17,500 kg-class Shenyang “J-31” in October 2012. Chinese reports say the F-22-class J-20 is expected to be operational by 2019. The status of the J-31 is less clear, but China's Avic is promoting it for export.

Perhaps prompted by the unveiling of China's stealth fighters, after the end of Lockheed Martin F-22 production and delays in F-35 development, the U.S. Defense Department is accelerating plans to demonstrate next-generation air-dominance fighters. In October 2012, the Pentagon outlined plans for an 18-month concept definition effort funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that could lead to a prototyping program to be completed within five years. But “sixth-generation” fighters for the U.S. Air Force and Navy are not expected to be fielded until after 2030.

Introduction of advanced fighters is driving increased activity in the trainer market, as air forces address more-demanding training requirements. AWIN forecasts 2013-17 deliveries of almost 480 advanced trainers, lead by Pilatus (31%) and Embraer (16%).

A 28-aircraft deal with Iraq has put the Aero Vodochody L-159 back in production, while follow-on orders for 22 from Saudi Arabia and potentially 20 for India will extend BAE Systems Hawk production through 2015. Israel has ordered 30 Alenia Aermacchi M-346s for delivery beginning in 2014, following Italy and Singapore, and Indonesia has ordered 16 Korea Aerospace Industries T-50s. The Hawk, M-346 and T-50 are the leading offshore candidates for the U.S. Air Force's upcoming, but undefined and unfunded, T-X competition to replace its T-38 trainers. Boeing plans to offer a clean-sheet design.

Turboprop trainers are also in demand. Embaer continues to score customers for its EMB-314 Super Tucano, and a decision in the restaged U.S. Air Force light-attack competition against the Beechcraft AT-6 is expected early in 2013. The Pilatus PC-21 was boosted in 2012 with orders for 55 from Saudi Arabia and 24 for Qatar, for delivery beginning in 2014.

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The U.S.-led F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is set to dominate the combat-aircraft market for decades to come. To see a video analyzing the various contenders in the market, check out the AW&ST digital edition on leading tablets and smartphones or go to

Combat Aircraft To Watch
Boeing Defense, Space & Security
F-15E Strike Eagle 42.8 63.8 18.7 609.4 37,000 81,000 2 X P&W F100-229 or GE F110-129 29,000 lb. ea M 2.5-class 24,500 lb. external
F/A-18E/F Super Hornet 44.9 60.2 16 500 32,080/32,795 66,000 2 X GE F414-400 22,000 lb. ea M 1.8+ 11 weapons stations
Dassault Aviation
Rafale C/B/M 36 50 17.5 492 22,000 54,000 2 X Snecma M88-2 17,000 lb ea M 1.8 21,000 lb. external
Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH
Eurofighter 35.11 52.4 17.4 538 24,250 51,809 2 X Eurojet EJ200 20,000 lb. ea M 2 16,535 lb. external
Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co.
F-35A Lightning II 35 51.5 14.1 460 29,300 68,000 1 X P&W F135-100 43,000 lb. M 1.6 Internal: 2 X AIM-120, 2 X GBU-2
Saab AB
JAS 39C/D Gripen 27.6 46.3 14.8 323 15,000 28,000 1 X Volvo Aero RM12 18,100 lb. M 2 8 weapon stations
Sukhoi Design Bureau JSC
Su-35 50.2 71.9 19.4 667 ­— 76,059 2 X NPO Saturn 117S 31,970 lb. ea M 2.25 17,640 lb. external