The U.S.-led Lockheed Martin F-35 project will continue to dominate the -direction of the global fighter market—including investments by allies and potential adversaries—for 2015, with  several key milestones along the way to mark its progress.

However, new fighters in China and Russia are also nearing their in-service dates, which will provide alternatives to countries that might not want to rely on the Pentagon.

One of the most anticipated benchmarks is the U.S. Marine Corps’ initial-operational-capability (IOC) date for its F-35B unit; it will be the first squadron worldwide to operate the F-35, which began development in 2001. Although most partners are buying the conventional-takeoff-and-landing F-35A, progress on the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing F-35B will be a bellwether for the eight other Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) partner nations and would-be foreign military sales (FMS) customers.

FMS customers are watching to see how well the F-35’s entry into service goes, especially with respect to the aircraft’s reliability and ease in turning sorties, as well as its ability to draw from a young but growing spares pool and logistics system. These are indicators for the entire F-35 fleet, not just the B. The U.K. and likely Italy will also buy small numbers of F-35Bs.

In parallel, the U.S. Air Force is making progress on standing up its international training capability at Luke AFB, Arizona, and its own F-35A unit at Hill AFB, Utah, which will house the first of the service’s jets for its IOC. Program officials will also conduct surveys for sites slated to house F-35s in Israel, Australia and the U.K. These milestones will show that despite years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns, the project is establishing a global foothold.

However, two partner nations have yet to officially commit to their buys. Canada remains undecided, and Denmark—a longtime holdout—is expected to announce its selection for a new fighter next year. Should Denmark reject the F-35, it would be the first partner nation to opt against recouping its investment in the development. An endorsement, however, would simply add numbers to the international orders so desired by Lockheed Martin and the Joint Program Office (JPO) as they vow to reach, in fiscal 2019, a per-unit flyaway price of less than $85 million per F-35A with an engine.

International partners and buyers are likely to make progress in talks for the “international block buy” of F-35s in 2015 The JPO plans to issue a request for proposals for Lockheed Martin this summer that would include this block buy and provide participants a discount in exchange for committing to purchases in low-rate, initial production lots 11-13, with deliveries starting around 2019. The buy could include as many as 50 jets per year, for a total of 150 units. The idea is to entice partners to commit early to stabilize the industrial base and push the per-unit price down as early as possible in the program.

The fate of this proposal will be a good indicator of whether the F-35 program can achieve its ambitious cost targets; roughly half of the annual sales are to be for foreign customers in the coming years, if customers sign on as planned. If not, the per-unit price is likely to hover too high and, possibly, deal a major blow to the long-term future of the project.

International customers will also be interested in whether the F-35 is once again a no-show at the Royal International Air Tattoo in July. The aircraft missed its first attempt at an international debut at last year’s air tattoo due to a fire in a Pratt & Whitney F135 engine on an F-35A. Fixes are being added to fielded jets to ensure the unplanned friction does not recur in the third stage of the integrally bladed rotor of the cold section, but a production fix has not yet been codified. The Pentagon is still hoping to debut the aircraft this coming summer at the air tattoo at RAF Fairford, outside London.

Italy, which has built the first F-35 final assembly and checkout facility outside the U.S., will roll out its first jet built at the Cameri facility in Northern Italy by next spring. Meanwhile, Japan is continuing work at its own final assembly and check-out facility in Nagoya. Officials there plan to load the first major subcomponents onto the Electronic Mate and Assembly System by late 2015. Japan’s fifth F-35A will be the first aircraft to roll off the Nagoya assembly line, a milestone slated for the end of 2016. Delivery of the first of Tokyo’s -F-35As to the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force is slated in the spring of 2018. Japan is a foreign military sales customer for the F-35, as are Israel and South Korea.

Work will also gather steam for the F-35 customers who were chosen to handle heavy maintenance activities for airframes and engines. Late in 2014, the Pentagon announced that Italy will handle maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrades (MRO&U) for the F-35s in Europe, and Turkey will be the first of three nations to oversee MRO&U for the F135 engine on the continent. The Netherlands and Norway will stand up engine facilities in 2021, about three years after the work in Italy and Turkey starts. Japan and Australia will each establish heavy airframe facilities by 2018, splitting work between the vast North and South Pacific regions. Initial heavy engine work there will be in Australia; a Japanese system will start up within five years of that. 

The U.S. Marines intend to declare IOC with the first 10-16 F-35Bs as early as July 1 but no later than the end of the year. The Pentagon is modifying the jets for this first unit to the 2B configuration, which will be the standard used by the Marine Corps for IOC. This first F-35B unit is slated for its first deployment to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, in 2017. F-35 Program Executive Officer USAF Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan says that the mods will likely be finished on time, but the task of loading the so-called mission data files could prompt the IOC declaration to occur beyond the desired July 1 schedule. 

Mission data files are needed to enable the F-35’s sophisticated avionics to operate in various scenarios. They allow for avionics to identify and address threats, for example, in different regions.

With the IOC declaration, the first operational test period for the F-35B will occur—likely onboard the USS Wasp amphibious Navy ship; also, the second round of developmental tests for the U.S. Navy’s F-35C are slated for September. The first trial—DT-1—was declared successful last year by program officials. The vast preponderance of testing points were achieved, and there was even time to conduct the first two catapult takeoffs and arrested landings at sea at night (which were not part of the prescribed testing agenda). The redesigned tailhook performed as planned with 124 catapult takeoffs and arrested landings on the USS Nimitz off the coast of San Diego. The final F-35C developmental trial is slated for 2016.

Last fall’s F-35C trials were notable for the U.S. Navy because the service has been the long-standing holdout for the Pentagon’s buy. The Navy is expected to purchase 260 F-35s (with another 80 going to the Marines), but it has always allowed the Marines and Air Force to take the lead on buys while it kept open the option of procuring more Boeing F/A‑18E/Fs for its carrier decks instead. With the DT trials under its belt, political pressure is mounting for the Navy to walk away from its Super Hornet option.

Boeing has orders to keep its St. Louis final assembly line open for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler through 2016. But given the uncertainty of the orders, the company is studying what rate is optimal to keep the line in play as long as possible. Boeing Defense, Space and Security President Chris Chadwick likely will announce his rate decision in 2015.

Company officials are publicly mum about plans to propose a version of its Advanced Super Hornet with Korean Airlines, likely taking on Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) with an indigenous, clean-sheet design concept for South Korea’s burgeoning requirement. However, multiple sources in South Korea have said the option is on the table, and Seoul probably will decide a path forward as soon as 2015. If the nation opens up the bidding to modified, off-the-shelf concepts, Lockheed Martin has also considered an F‑16-based design and Airbus Group is eyeing one based on the Typhoon. The indigenous program was estimated to be worth 8.5 trillion won ($7.7 billion). The KF-X program was crafted to replace South Korean F-16s as early as 2025. Indonesia plans to contribute 20% of the development work for the project.

Although the F-35 is dominating the market moving forward, another looming question is what Seoul will do about its F-16 upgrade plans in the wake of a failed deal with the Pentagon and BAE to upgrade its 126 fighters with new cockpits and avionics, including the addition of an active, electronically scanned array radar. It is widely thought that the work will go to Lockheed Martin, the F-16 manufacturer and winner of a similar upgrade effort for Taiwan. Phase 1 of BAE’s deal was worth about $140 million, but the entire project was estimated to be $1.3 billion. This is a sizable share of the available F-16 market since the U.S. Air Force opted to cancel its avionics upgrade project for its F-16s in 2014.

Another sizable deal to watch is the expected signing of a contract between India and France’s Dassault for procurement of 126 Rafales, estimated to be worth $20 billion. Dassault is expected to provide the first 18 aircraft from its existing production line; Hindustan Aeronautical in India would establish its own final assembly facility and deliver the next 108. The Rafale was selected for the Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft program to replace aging Russian MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters in inventory.

Sweden’s first JAS 39E Gripen is slated for its maiden flight in the second half of 2015. Brazil, so far, is leading development of the two-seat F version and has plans to buy more than 100 of the aircraft. 

Meanwhile, Russia’s Sukhoi is progressing toward its operational debut of the T-50, a single-seat, stealthy, twin-engine fighter developed under the country’s PAK-FA program. The aircraft, which would be a competitor to the F-35, is likely to enter service in 2016, but could debut as early as this year. It could offer an alternative to nations weary of too much reliance on Washington for military hardware.

Russia is buying at least 150 of the aircraft and Sukhoi is in a cooperative program with India to modify the design for its purposes. The aircraft was originally flown in 2010.

China’s J-10B multirole fighter is also near its service entry date there. Produced by the Chengdu Aircraft Corp., Beijing is slated to buy 256 of the single-seat J-10As for its air force and 24 twin-seat versions for its navy.

Pakistan’s variant has been designated the FC-20. It is outfitted with more radar-absorbent material and an active, electronically scanned array radar.

Though mystery continues to surround China’s stealthy J-20 fighter project, Pentagon officials project the twin-engine fighter could be operational around 2018. China unveiled new prototypes of the J-20 in 2014, however, indicating some design changes, including a more slender fuselage section aft of the main landing gear.

Also in 2014, China unveiled its stealthy, twin-engine FC-31 fighter as an export offering at the Zhuhai air show. Although much mystery still surrounds the project, details could trickle out in 2015 if Beijing is seeking foreign sales.

A forthcoming classified decision in the U.S. between the Boeing/Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman teams for a multibillion-dollar deal to build 100 new bombers for the Pentagon is expected early in the year. The request for proposals for the work was issued last fall, but the Air Force says its procurement strategy and details are classified. The decision will, however, have a major impact on U.S. combat aircraft manufacturing for decades. Boeing’s F-15 and F/A-18 lines are winding down and Northrop Grumman’s airframing assignments are limited.

Meanwhile, nations opting for stealthy aircraft that feature fused avionics are also eager to pivot to new training systems to ready their pilots for this enhanced workload. The U.S. Air Force is expected to start its long-awaited T-X program to replace aging T-38Cs in service in 2015. The field of competition has grown and become more diverse as the service delayed its plans. Boeing has officially acknowledged its partnership with Saab, although the company remains mum on details of what officials say will be a new design to satisfy the T-X requirement.

With a plan to buy at least 350 new trainers, the T-X tender is one of Pentagon’s largest, at least in the near term.

Northrop Grumman/BAE are teamed and likely to offer the Hawk aircraft. General Dynamics and Alenia are offering the Italian-made M346, and Lockheed Martin/Korea Aircraft Industries is proposing the T-50.

Industry officials have said USAF is considering including a T-1 replacement in the T-X program; this would increase the number of units to be purchased.

Some armed forces in North Africa and Asia are waiting for a decision on T-X before moving forward with their own procurements.

Progress is also expected in 2015 for unmanned combat aircraft. The Pentagon will have to decide whether to proceed with its on-again, off-again plan to buy a Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system, a follow-on to the Northrop Grumman X-47B demonstration. The U.S. Navy is eyeing the system as a long-endurance intelligence-collection system for service on aircraft carriers; it is also expected to feature a limited-strike capability.

Across the Atlantic, Dassault is planning to test the Neuron unmanned aircraft’s weapons capability at the Visdel Range in northern Sweden. The stealthy unmanned aircraft is slated to drop the Mk 82, a 500-lb. general purpose bomb.

BAE Systems and Dassault are also continuing talks to finalize a contract for work on a future combat air system, a cooperative unmanned aircraft program. Work on this joint effort has been slow, however. 

Gallery See a review in photographs of key events in the combat aircraft sector in 2014 at: AviationWeek.com/CombatAircraft2014 

A version of this article appears in the December 29, 2014-January 14, 2015 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misidentified the location of Hill AFB.