PARIS – Europeans have an affinity for things American. They wear Levis, eat Big Macs, idolize Hollywood stars, and, fortunately for the Pentagon, fly U.S.-made jet fighters.With that in mind, the Defense Department is at full throttle trying to sign up European and other allies to share the staggering $250 billion cost of its Joint Strike Fighter program.
The JSF is being developed as a replacement for three planes — the Air Force’s F-16, the Navy’s F-14 Tomcat and the Marines’ AV-8B Harrier.To the Pentagon, the plane is vital to the nation’s defenses. But it is hugely expensive, and Congress and taxpayers are skeptical about spending billions on new weapons when there is no clear and present danger, as the Soviet Union once posed.To keep the JSF on track, defense planners are avidly pursuing help from friends.
“They are going to have to find partners, if the administration intends to keep the current plan we have in tactical aviation,” said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., a member of the House National Security Committee.Britain has been on board nearly from the beginning and already has contributed $200 million toward development.
The Pentagon recently signed on Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark. This month, it expects Canada to sign a partnership agreement to help produce the JSF.
The Pentagon is not alone in the search for partners abroad. The lucrative JSF contract has become the holy grail for Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co., which are two of nation’s largest defense contractors and are competing to build the new plane.Each of the companies hopes eventually to sell many copies of the new plane abroad to lower costs and increase profits.
They see bringing foreign partners into the program as a way to generate foreign interest in the aircraft.Both companies have set the enormously successful F-16 as their model.Lockheed Martin, and before it General Dynamics, have sold more than 1,400 F-16s in 19 countries. Of the 340 F-16s Lockheed Martin currently has orders for, all but 12 will be delivered to foreign customers.With its next-generation engine, advanced avionics and radar-evading capability, the JSF is expected to be considered seriously by all of the 19 countries that ordered the F-16 in the 1970s and 1980s.
Jon Schreiber, director of international programs for the JSF program, said the Pentagon says it believes that many foreign air forces will make a natural transition from the F-16 to the JSF.
“Between 2010 and 2015, a lot of F-16 customers will be looking to replace the aircraft they purchased in the ’70s and ’80s,” he said. “When you consider the aircraft that will be offered around Europe, the Eurofighter and Rafale, there will be nothing that will be able to touch the Joint Strike Fighter.”
Industry analysts agree. The Eurofighter, beset by financial problems, is being produced by a consortium of European countries, including Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain. The Rafale is being produced by the French, but, like the Eurofighter, it will lack some of the high-tech features of the JSF.
“There is a new central technology for combat aircraft,” said Wolfgang Demisch, an aerospace analyst on Wall Street for Bankers Trust. “They have to be stealthy. Otherwise they wind up being targets.“It is just astonishing to me that Europe would spend a packet of money on two nonstealthy combat aircraft that would be expected to serve for the next 30 years,” Demisch said.
`The JSF is being groomed to be the F-16 successor in the world market with stealthy characteristics, a good flight performer, and for a modest cost. As such, I would expect it to be really quite successful.”
The potential market for the JSF abroad is forecast at 1,000 to 1,500 aircraft. Some analysts say it could surpass 2,000.Schreiber said the JSF program has set various levels of involvement for allies, with the most basic plan the “informed partner.”
For a $10 million investment, a country is allowed access to the development process and can determine whether the fighter will fit its needs. They have no influence, however, on design. Canada will be an informed partner and is interested in the Air Force version of the aircraft.An “associate partner” is given access and has a limited ability to influence the final design of the plane. Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark are associate partners.
They also are interested in the Air Force version.The highest level is a “collaborative development partnership,” which gives a country full involvement in the program. Only Britain has been given this status. Britain is interested in buying 60 of the Marine Corps’ Harrier replacements, but it intends, for the time being, to make the Eurofighter its attack aircraft.
The cost of the two higher levels varies according to such factors as the country’s size and its exact commitment. Schreiber said the partnership programs give the countries wanting to buy the planes a better shot at getting their own industries involved in production.None of the foreign partners will have a say in the selection of the prime U.S. contractor for the JSF.
Late last year, the Pentagon eliminated McDonnell Douglas and chose Lockheed Martin and Boeing to continue in the program. They will build prototypes of their designs to compete in flight tests. The winner will be chosen in 2001.Analysts have said that both companies aim to provide as much technology as possible for the lowest price.
The Pentagon goal is a price of $30 million or less per JSF.By industry standards, that is not considered a big price jump for a next-generation fighter. It is about $10 million more than the current price of an F-16, designed in the 1960s, and is far less than the price of many other fighters already available or expected on the market.
Author: Michael D. Towle Knight-Ridder Newspapers