Despite the large sums invested in developing them, nobody seems to want modern Western fighters. By modern, I mean operationally active, in production and with a first flight after 1990. This definition would include the Typhoon, Rafale, Gripen and the Super Hornet (the newer variants of the F-15 and F-16s are either virtually aerodynamically identical to their 1970s forebears or, in the case of Silent Eagle, uncompleted). The Lockheed Martin F-22 is no longer in production, and when it was, export was banned.
With all the hype surrounding these types it’s easy to overlook how poorly they’ve done in the export markets. But let’s look at the figures:
Fighter Total numbered delivered to export customers by February 2013
Dassault Rafale 0
Saab Gripen circa 61 (included leases)
Eurofighter Typhoon circa 39
Though more export orders have been announced, the numbers above reflect what has actually happened so far (I’ve used best available information, I’m happy to adjust numbers if any readers have better,verifiable, data).
Compare these figures with earlier aircraft: F-16 (well over 2000 exported), F/A-18 Hornet (391, not including secondhand aircraft) and Mirage 2000 (293). Even the Panavia Tornado, an aircraft that was difficult to sell, managed to notch up a total of 120. This is not even taking into account F-15s which have been sold by the hundreds. There is of course another dimension to this, and it should be noted that the F-15 and F-16 ‘exports’ have been propped up and organised under the Foreign Military Sales programme. The aggressive, politically-supported F-35 sales drive is comparable to FMS.
The modern generation of Western fighters are all very capable, but seem to be a victim of bad timing, arriving while fourth generation fighters were still relevant, through to today where many air forces are holding out for the F-35. Modern F-16 variants, exemplified by the Block 50+ and 60, combine a proven airframe and global logistics network, with modern avionics and weapons. Late Block F-16s offer what is seen as a relatively low-cost and low-risk option. As well as lower risk rivals being readily available, Generation 4.5 have spent most of their lives in times when militaries are facing reduced budgets. Some air forces wish to cling onto their existing fighter types, knowing that each fighter procurement is smaller than the last and will involve shedding manpower and force size.
The use of ‘Generation X or Y’ terms are not always useful and tend, like I have here, to be manipulated to show an opinion.
Unlike the 5th Generation F-22 and F-35, all of the West’s Generation 4.5 fighters have seen war, even the Gripen (which was used for reconnaissance missions over Libya) and they are all capable of performing both the fighter and bomber mission. Despite tiny export figures, they are sought after, if not by those who make procurement choices, then certainly by many in air forces around the world.
I spoke to two people this week with interesting views on this subject. The first was a high-ranking member of a european air force:
“ ..what happens in five years time? We’ll be waiting for new platforms..what we’ve got now can do the job today, and the crews are great, but the hours are accumulating and we’re putting everything on a new type (F-35) that we will only be able to afford in limited numbers..already smaller air forces cannot fight alone, but take our numbers down to unsustainable numbers and we effectively lose indigenous air power. I would not want to disagree with the air force’s choice, but it is easy to see that going for one of the types available today would give us greater flexibility and would arrive sooner.”
The second person I spoke to, who has been studying US military procurement for more than three decades, commented:
“There appears to be a move towards monolithic military procurement, the ideal situation for defense contractors. With only one shop to go to, it effectively moves out of the competition system of the 1970s-80s. This isn’t just the case in the US, it can be seen in the Russia Federation too. Europe’s big mistake was not providing an answer to the F-35, by doing this they have allowed a monopoly where the military will have no leverage to attain good value… many in Europe hopes that it will be able to gain ground on the UCAV market, but it appears that European nations have not adopted the Lockheed Martin model of how to run an international project- with one hugely dominant leader nation” (editor notes: could this not be France?) “ ..without this the projects will flounder- they will be too slow and too expensive and lack a big enough initial order to give a genuine economy of scale…the last hope for the current European fighters are sales to Islamic countries that the US or Israel does not trust with F-35”
The current generation of fighters is important for several reasons. It is the only insurance the West has if the F-35 fails. Accepting the now commonly-used generation terminology, the F-35 will be the only 5th Generation Western fighter available. This is a unique situation, as since 1914 air forces have always had options, now if they wish to buy into the idea of ‘5th Generation’ and keep their allegiances with the West, they have no choice. The success of the current generation of fighters will be in its abilities to thrive in the F-35′s shadow, to supply to nations unable to order F-35s as they are too poor, politically black-listed or needing aircraft sooner. More significantly, they need nations to reject the dogma of stealth.
Generation 4.5′s biggest strength is that it’s ready now, with each delay to the F-35, another sales possibility opens up. Many believe that further delays may see stop-gap procurements (like Australia’s Super Hornets) staying longer and being ordered in bigger numbers than first anticipated. Canada is also a nation, that given the political flexibility, would seem a natural customer to jump ship and order Super Hornet to replace its existing Hornets.
The modern generation’s existence does have ripple effects; nations without a 4.5 Generation fighter (as pointed out by Combat Aircraft’s Thomas Newdick), such as Israel, Japan and Norway are among the most committed to F-35. Though the sale of second-hand aircraft does not increase the total of the type produced, it can hinder the sales of new-built rival aircraft. European air forces have more Typhoons than they can afford to operate and are offering them at attractive prices, it will be interesting what happens regarding this, especially as the F-16 production line is expected to close in the next few years.