Denmark fired the starting pistol on a new competition to replace its aging F-16 fighter jets last week. (Air Force)
LONDON — Denmark fired the starting pistol on a new competition to replace its aging F-16 fighter jets last week, in a move that pitches European and U.S. companies against the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for the chance to snare one of the troubled program’s partner nations as a customer.
Nobody expects a Danish procurement of around 30 fighters to have much of an impact on the F-35 program, expected to produce about 3,000 jets globally. But with soaring costs and the threat posed by sequestration causing concern, Copenhagen’s decision to restart its fighter competition soon after Canada opted to reconsider its procurement plans could prompt other hard-up partners to look at alternatives to the Lockheed Martin program.
The Danish competition also marks the re-entrance of the Eurofighter Typhoon, whose maker reportedly walked away from the competition six years ago, when it seemed the process favored the F-35.
“It’s yet another test of whether a small country wants to keep the code of coalition war-fighting and U.S. commonality, or whether it wants to simply look for having a modest airpower capability at a lower price,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Virginia-based Teal Group think tank.
“The conundrum is being faced by a lot of countries. Unfortunately for Lockheed Martin, a lot of them are F-35 countries, Canada being the perfect example,” he said.
Countries such as Denmark and Canada “might just look more at bang for buck rather than keeping that code,” Aboulafia said.
Last week, Saab’s Gripen NG, along with Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon and the Joint Strike Fighter program office were officially invited by the Danish Defense Ministry to restart a competition frozen in 2010 amid economic budget woes.
The Danish economy remains in poor shape and the defense budget is in decline, but with its F-16s coming toward the end of their useful lives, the major political parties agreed late last year that the fighter purchase should go ahead, and told the MoD to select an aircraft by June 2015.
Aside from the other competitors, Dassault Aviation’s position with the Rafale fighter is unclear, but a spokesman for the French company said if the “conditions are such that there is an open competition for an alternative to the F-35, we will obviously be a candidate.”
Denmark is a Tier-3 partner in the JSF program and has invested more than $200 million in the program over the past few years. Tier-3 is the lowest level of partnership.
Lennart Sindahl, head of Saab Aeronautics, said Copenhagen and Ottawa appear to be heading down a similar path.
“The Canadians are having something like the same thoughts, and it’s rather interesting that two of the important countries in the F-35 program are hesitating and looking into what could be the alternatives. It’s interesting that both have been in touch with us,” he told Defense News on March 15.
Sindahl said some people in the Netherlands, also a JSF-partner nation, could be thinking in a similar fashion to the Danes, but added that he “doubted very much Norway will change their mind.”
Doug Barrie, the senior air analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, said he’s “sure other people in the region will be watching which way the Danes go with considerable interest.”
“Everybody is having to justify their procurements, and a competition involving the F-35 will either provide ammunition to those who say it is too expensive or even those who say it may be more expensive than we want, but it remains the aircraft we require,” he said.
Despite the question marks over rising costs and other issues on the F-35, prime contractor Lockheed Martin reckons the new-generation fighter will still come out on top of any competition.
“The F-35 is the best solution for the F-16 replacement from both a capability and cost perspective,” a company spokeswoman said. “Since 2002, Denmark has been a committed and integrated partner on the F-35 program, participating in the F-35 flight test program at Edward Air Force Base, Calif., with a Danish F-16. Additionally, the program has created jobs for Danish industry before they have selected a new fighter.”
A Boeing spokeswoman, meanwhile, said the company looks forward to competing “the affordable, combat-proven and modern Super Hornet.”
An in-service date for the new fighter is not clear yet, but U.S. industry executives estimate it’s likely to be about 2020. That was partly borne out by the Danish defense minister, who told a local newspaper that the country’s F-16s could fly until 2020 or possibly even 2024 before having to be pensioned off.
The Typhoon, meanwhile, has been allowed back into the fray even though Eurofighter walked away from the competition in 2007, expressing dissatisfaction with the procurement process.
Media reports at the time said the Eurofighter move was prompted by a process that favored the JSF.
Eurofighter chief executive Enzo Casolini said he was pleased to enter the competition. “We are ready to develop a strategic partnership with Denmark and provide opportunities for significant collaboration with Europe’s leading industrial nations.”
The last time the F-35 and Typhoon were in head-to-head competition was in Japan, where the F-35 beat Eurofighter on political grounds.
Saab’s Next Move
It’s not just Typhoon that has benefited from the delay.
In the period since the tender was put on hold, Saab has won a firm commitment from the Swedish government to proceed with the development of the Gripen NG and secured its first export customer for the combat jet for the Swiss Air Force.
First, though, Saab must decide whether it will actually recompete for the Danish deal.
The Swedish company is the only one of the four adopting a wait-and-see stance on whether to compete, with Sindhal saying Saab would decide whether to re-enter the competition when further information on the bid process becomes available.
“We have to see the details before we decide to take part,” he said. “The only thing we know is they are restarting the competition. We don’t know the how and when and under what prerequisites this is going to be done. This has to be analyzed, as it would be a major process to start a campaign in Denmark.”
Industry executives here said they are looking to see what price the Danes put on the politics of a fighter buy that pits Europe against the U.S.
“For the moment, that is unclear. There is definitely a political interest in this, but whether the financial side or political side will weigh the heaviest on the scales remains to be seen,” one executive said. Ë
Marcus Weisgerber in Washington and Pierre Tran in Paris contributed to this report.