South Korea nears critical fighter, AESA choices
The gloves are coming off. International fighter competitions are rarely gentlemanly affairs, but with U.S. and European defense spending in decline, the pressure to succeed overseas has aircraft makers and equipment suppliers becoming more aggressive in the push to secure crucial foreign orders.
After the's loss to the in India's Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft Competition, U.K. officials have tried to pressure the Indian government to let them update their bid—judged to be more costly than the French offering—but to no avail. In Switzerland, tried a similar tactic in its loss to 's , although the Swiss Federal Council said last week it would not reopen the contest.
After stinging losses in high-profile fighter competitions in India and Japan,is refining its proposal and bid strategies as it focuses on several key international contests. The company is looking “to put some new things on the table,” says Jeff Kohler, vice president for business development at Boeing Military Aircraft. The move comes after the /F was eliminated early in India and also lost in Japan to the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
There is some urgency to the issue now that South Korea has opened a competition for 60 new fighters. Bids are due mid-year and a source selection is expected before November. The Brazilian government also is expected to make a fighter decision mid-year in its protracted contest.
Boeing is guarded about the changes it is making, but it is clear that attention is being paid to expanding partnership efforts with local companies overseas. And, the streamlining of technology release-related issues is being discussed with U.S. government agencies.
In South Korea, where Boeing plans to offer itsSilent Eagle, the main competition will be Lockheed's F-35, although the defense ministry has recast the request for proposals; the internal weapon carriage requirement has been stricken in order to enable more bidders to enter the fray. Seoul wants to receive its first fighter by early 2016.
In Kohler's view, this gives the F-15 the edge over the rival F-35A. The theory is that a reduction in near-term U.S. purchases of JSFs makes it harder forto meet the schedule and it creates program uncertainty.
That's not the view in Fort Worth, however. There is spare capacity in the low-rate production lot eight, which is where the first fighters would need to be bought in 2014, says David M. Scott, Lockheed Martin's head of F-35 international customer engagement. The U.S. will be buying around 30 aircraft a year, with production already capable of handling 48. A JSF steering board will meet next month to once again review customers' purchase plans. If a need for additional tooling capacity is discerned, there would be ample time to arrange it, Scott argues.
South Korea also is a battleground for radar suppliers, withtied to the Silent Eagle and to the F-35. The companies also are vying for a South Korean KF-16 radar upgrade program, with bids due next month.
Northrop Grumman's scalable agile beam (SABR), active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar is competing against Raytheon's advanced combat radar (RACR). Taiwan is expected to follow soon after with a similar competition, and the U.S. Air Force is looking at an upgrade of 300.
Lockheed Martin also is keeping its options open for markets where the F-35 cannot be sold or that are not ready to buy yet, unveiling an upgrade package in the guise of the F-16V. The key elements include an AESA radar—either RACR or SABR—an enhanced mission computer, cockpit upgrades, and data links to tie the fighter into anand F-35 network. The KF-16 upgrade is a target, suggests George Standridge, Lockheed Martin aeronautics vice president of business development. Singapore also is looking to upgrade its F-16s, although Standridge did not name the secretive customer.
The F-16V could also be offered as a new aircraft, but with the F-35 nearing, the chances are dimming; in reality, Lockheed is starting to see the end of the line—currently set to close in 2015 after the Iraqi air force's aircraft are delivered.
Line shutdown also is starting to be a concern for the F/A-18E/F, with the U.S. Navy competition nearing a close. The aircraft remains in competition against the Rafale and Gripen in Brazil, where an often-delayed type selection is due around mid-year. Rafale backers are suggesting that the Indian win gives them an edge, although U.S. officials downplay this, noting the recent visit by Brazil's defense minister to India was a mere coincidence of timing and that Brazil's President Dirma Rousseff will visit U.S. President Barack Obama before a source selection is made.