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Commentary: Fifth-Generation Capabilities vs. High Cost

The F-35 and the Asian Arms Market

Feb. 10, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
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As the 2014 Singapore Airshow opens, there is a surge in speculation surrounding the modernization of regional air forces, and particularly about likely future acquisitions of combat aircraft.

Nearly every air force in Asia anticipates buying new fighter jets over the next decade, and each wants to get the best fighter they can afford. The options are numerous — the French-built Rafale, the Swedish Gripen, the Russian Su-30, to name but a few. But the standout fighter to beat has to be the US-built F-35 joint strike fighter.

The F-35 holds a tremendous advantage over its rivals in almost any fighter acquisition competition in which it participates; more often than not, it is the F-35’s contest to lose.

The F-35 is the only fifth-generation fighter being offered on the global arms market. All others on the market are, at best, fourth-generation-plus aircraft, while other so-called fifth-generation fighters, such as the Russian T-50 or the Chinese J-31, are still under development.

The F-35 is being developed and built under a unique multinational program led by the US and involv­ing 10 partner countries, including Singapore (as a Level 4, or “security cooperative participant,” partner). Partner nations have invested a total of more than US $5 billion into the plane’s development phase, about 20 percent of total research and development costs. In return, they are allowed to competitively bid to produce components and subsystems for the F-35, and they can go to the head of the queue to buy it, should they decide to do so.

So far, six partners — the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, Israel and Italy — along with Asian countries Japan and South Korea have either signed contracts for the F-35 or announced their intentions to buy the aircraft.

Canada, Denmark, Norway and Turkey are likely to buy the F-35. Finally, Singapore is believed to be in the market for up to 100.

The F-35 defeated the Gripen in Norway and the F-15 and Eurofighter Typhoon in South Korea. It was Japan’s only clear choice for a fifth-generation aircraft to supply its air defense forces.

The question is, can it continue its winning streak? While the F-35 is the most advanced fighter jet available on the global arms market, it faces many challenges when it comes to dominating export sales, especially to Asia.

In the first place, the F-35 is expensive. Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group consulting firm, estimates that the cost of an F-35 approaches $125 million per plane. This compares to roughly $35 million to $50 million each for a Swedish Gripen or a US-built F-16.

Aboulafia has noted that only seven countries have ever bought a fighter jet from an overseas supplier that cost more than $65 million per unit.

Consequently, few countries may be able to afford the F-35. Japan, for example, is considering delaying its purchase of the F-35 due to cost growth. However, while Japan and most anticipated F-35 customers will likely follow through on their acquisition plans, it is much less likely that other air forces, particularly those in Southeast Asia, will even consider the F-35 given the sticker shock. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, for example, are more likely to buy the Gripen, the Su-30 or used F-16s.

In addition, the F-35 is still a highly risky endeavor. According to a lengthy article in last September’s issue of Vanity Fair, the F-35 program is at least seven years behind schedule and still striving to overcome technical challenges, particularly in its software and its helmet-mounted display.

Development costs were also driven up by the US Marine Corps’ requirement for a jump-jet version. Nevertheless, under the rubric of “concurrent development,” the US Air Force is taking delivery of its first F-35s, even though the single-engine stealth jet has not been fully flight-tested.

Admittedly, the F-35 is a much more capable plane than any other fighter on the market, particularly in the area of stealth and sensor fusion. But how many air forces really require such capacities, given the costs and the technological unknowns? The F-35, therefore, will likely dominate the high-end fighter market for decades to come.

The market remains open to less expensive, if slightly lesscapable, planes. The F-35 might be the case of perfection being the enemy of good enough. ■

RichardBitzinger, a senior fellow and program coordinator of the Military Transformation Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. These opinions are his own.

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