Warplanes: January 26, 2005

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: The F-35 (JTF, or Joint Strike Fighter) has a huge potential for export sales. Nine countries have provided funds to the program, and its cheapest variant is $37 million. Compare this with the flyaway cost of $58 million for the Eurofighter and $56 million for the Rafale. Australia is one of the countries eager to adopt the F-35 as its future fighter-bomber. It has, to date, contributed $150 million to the development of the plane, and is considering the purchase of 100 aircraft at a total cost of $4.5 billion (averaging to $45 million per aircraft).

Why would a country choose the F-35? Well, for one thing, it will have a huge production run. Being chosen as the replacement for the F-16 will do that for an aircraft. The United States Air Force took delivery of 2,216 F-16s and is looking to take delivery of nearly as many F-35s (anywhere from 1,763). This is before the versions for the Navy and Marine Corps are added in (480 and 609, respectively). In other words, this is a plane whose unit cost will be significantly lowered. Indeed, the F-22s cost has increased to $370 million per plane as the planned number of aircraft is cut, because each plane is paying for more of the development costs.

That said, when a plane is purchased by the United States, it has picked up a huge endorsement. This is why the Northrop F-20 never gained traction, despite an endorsement by Chuck Yeager once the F-16 was cleared for export by the Reagan Administration. The F-20 was not a bad plane, but the F-16 was in use by the U.S. Air Force, and many American allies bought the plane as a result (most notably, Israel, Belgium, and South Korea). Countries that wanted American, but didnt want the F-16 went with the F/A-18 (Australia is one, but Spain and Canada also bought the F/A-18). The F/A-18s had the gear for carrier takeoffs and landings removed, which improved their performance.

What does this mean for Australia? From World War I on, the United States and Australia have seen combat side-by-side. Given that history, it makes sense to have equipment in common. The Australians fly the F/A-18, which is in use by the United States Navy and Marine Corps (incidentally, the two services which work with the Australians pretty often). The F-111 is also in service with the Royal Australian Air Force, and while it is not in service with the United States Air Force, plenty of planes are available for spare parts or as attrition replacements. It also reduces problems with combined operations the U.S. and Australians will be using the same aircraft.

The F-35 also has another advantage: It has a lower radar cross-section than the Eurofighter and Rafale, making it much harder to see and track. This means it will be likely to get the first shot in, and when combined with standoff weapons like JSOW, it will give the pilot an excellent chance of surviving combat missions. For a country like Australia, which sometimes has dealt with a shortage of pilots, this is vital. Training pilots to fly high-performance planes like the F-35 takes a lot of time. In times of war, there might not be enough time available to replace heavy losses among pilots. Sending up half-trained (at best) pilots is a good way to lose pilots and aircraft (see the Battle of the Philippine Sea). Australia has not yet announced which version of the F-35 they will select at this time.

Ultimately, the F-35 is going into any competition against the Eurofighter and Rafale with some huge advantages. Not only will it be slightly cheaper than its competition, it will have some edges in performance (mostly in terms of avoiding detection). This combination of a competitive price, and solid performance will make the plane an extremely attractive option for more countries seeking front-line aircraft. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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