A version of this article appears in the July 7 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Late last year, Lockheed Martin was still showing a chart to potential industrial partners that depicted all the so-called fourth-generation fighters going out of production well before 2020 and leaving the F-35 with a Western-world monopoly. That script is not playing out as written.

Within the past few months, the Saab JAS 39E program has been underpinned by Brazil, whose initial order of 36 aircraft will be followed later by two more orders of the same size. With Russia, its traditional adversary, behaving badly in Ukraine, Sweden has raised its commitment to the program, lifting orders to 70 from 60 and abandoning the vestiges of the original plan to convert JAS 39Cs to the new version. This in turn has given Saab more opportunity to offer leased JAS 39C/Ds on the export market.

At the same time, the JAS 39E has emerged as a new aircraft sharing little more than a basic configuration with the earlier version, but—at least as planned—costing less to acquire and operate.

In January, France committed to another upgrade of Rafale, and although negotiations with India continue to grind forward at less-than-warp speed, even its Eurofighter rivals concede that Dassault has the inside track in Qatar—as many as 36 aircraft in a first batch and more to follow—and the United Arab Emirates’ requirement remains active, following its expulsion of Eurofighter at the end of 2013.

Eurofighter itself has hit a rough patch, although team members are casting hungry eyes on India should the Rafale deal go awry. However, an important milestone is coming up in the form of the U.K.’s strategic defense review next year, which should address the thorny question of how many F-35s the nation will actually acquire and (consequently) the degree to which the F-35 force can take over the missions of the Tornado. A similar process is occurring in Italy.

The Gripen is now certain to remain in production into the 2020s, alongside either Rafale or Typhoon or both. The delayed demise of the European fighter industry is due to several factors. Nations that are not yet approved to receive the F-35 constitute a substantial market. There are also nations that cannot afford it at its current price.

However, the upgrades to the European fighters underscore the fact that it was always simplistic to lump them into the same category as older U.S. and Russian designs. In various ways they are a class unto themselves, with a degree of automation and sensor fusion that allows them to grow into true multi-role platforms; capable and fully integrated electronic-warfare systems; and individual strong points such as the Rafale’s range, the Typhoon’s supersonic cruise and agility and the Gripen’s low costs and networking.

The past year has also seen progress with the Neuron unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), the unveiling of BAE Systems’ Taranis and Anglo-French convergence on a joint program. On the French side, the UCAV is not seen as a replacement for the classic fighter ,with its panoply of bolt-on weapons and mission systems, but as a complement to it: a highly stealthy vehicle for the toughest targets, including large surface-to-air missiles, enabling the fighter to do its job. Rafale, Dassault says, will be around until 2050; the Swedes plan on Gripen until 2040. Some of the plans that support that goal are detailed in the next few pages.

Europe’s  Fighters

Type Orders Delivered/Backlog Last Contracted Delivery Sales Prospects Next Upgrade IOC Main Improvements Included
Gripen 312 240/72 2026 Brazil (36-100, first batch in negotiation)
Denmark (30, competition)
Malaysia (competition)
2018 Revised and enlarged JAS 39E with F414 engine, AESA and new electronic warfare system; Meteor and Taurus cruise missile to be introduced on JAS 39C
Rafale 180 130/50 2017-19 India (126, in negotiation)
Qatar (36, evaluation)
Malaysia (competition)
2018 F3-R with new targeting pod, improved laser-guided weapon functions and Meteor AAM
Typhoon 571 400/171 2017-18 Denmark (30, competition)
Malaysia (competition)
2017-19 Meteor AAM, Storm Shadow & Taurus cruise missiles, AESA
IOC= Initial Operating Capacity


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