The European Fighter Aircraft Industry: Has It Lost Asia? – Asia


Europe’s combat aircraft manufacturers, in losing a potential sale to Japan, could see their future sales to Asia evaporate completely. This could leave the United States in an unassailable position as the world’s predominant fighter aircraft producer.

By Richard A. Bitzinger

ON 21 DECEMBER, Japan announced that it would purchase 42 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF), at a cost of US$2.73 billion, or US$65 million per plane. It was the second win in Asia for the JSF (in 2007, Australia placed an initial order for 24 F-35s, and Canberra could acquire up to 100 aircraft).

A Eurofighter Typhoon of the Royal Saudi Air Force over Malta in 2010
A Eurofighter Typhoon of the Royal Saudi Air Force over Malta in 2010

This order was the latest in a string of losses for the leading European fighter aircraft programmes, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the French Rafale. If these programmes do not secure an export order soon, it could be the end of their chances to sell to one of the world’s most lucrative arms markets: Asia.

Tough Asian market

The Typhoon was co-developed and is being jointly manufactured by four European countries – the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Spain. The Rafale is solely produced by Dassault of France. Both planes are mainly produced for their countries’ respective air forces, but exports were always anticipated as a means to make these very expensive aircraft profitable. So far, however, the Typhoon has chalked up only two export customers – 72 aircraft to Saudi Arabia, and 18 to Austria – while the Rafale has failed to secure any overseas sales. Most recently, the Rafale lost a big potential deal to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Asia has been a particularly frustrating market for them, especially in the light of successes by competing fighter aircraft manufacturers. Over the past decade, Russia has sold hundreds of Sukhoi Su-27s and Su-30s to India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. The United States has taken away potential European sales to South Korea and Singapore: in both cases, the F-15 fighter (a much older aircraft, at least in terms of its original design) won out over the Typhoon and Rafale. Even the Swedes have had more success in Asia, securing orders for twelve of its Gripen fighter jets to Thailand (Sweden also recently closed a deal for 22 Gripens to Switzerland).

Long-term challenge

It is the JSF, however, that offers the greatest long-term challenge to the European fighter aircraft manufacturers. The F-35 is one of only two fifth-generation fighters currently in existence – the F-22 Raptor being the other – and it is the only one available for foreign customers (the US Congress refuses to permit the F-22 to be exported). No other combat aircraft on the international market approaches the JSF in terms of technology, particularly in stealth and avionics (i.e., radar and other onboard sensors). It is simply in a class by itself and represents a life-or-death threat to its European competitors.

A multinational development and production programme, the F-35 has eleven partnering nations, led by the US. Many of these countries – the US, the United Kingdom, Israel, Norway, the Netherlands, Canada, and Australia – have already announced their intention to buy the JSF, while the others – Singapore, Turkey, Denmark, and Italy – are likely to place orders within the next few years. Singapore, for example, could acquire up to 100 JSFs.

The Japan deal is the first F-35 sale outside the eleven JSF partnering countries, however, and it could signal the start of a major buying spree of F-35s by other air forces, to the detriment of the Typhoon and Rafale. South Korea is a potential customer for the JSF, as an alternative to costly and potentially disastrous dreams of developing its own fifth-generation fighter.

More critically, the JSF could snatch a major deal away from the Europeans to sell 126 new fighter jets to India. In April 2011, after years of testing and evaluation, New Delhi shortlisted the Typhoon and the Rafale, eliminating the US F-16 and F-18 fighters. The US countered with an offer to sell the F-35 to the Indians, including possibly the short-takeoff version to operate off Indian aircraft carriers. If successful, it would perhaps be the death blow to European fighter sales to Asia.

No follow-on programme

Compounding the Europeans’ dilemma is the fact that they have no follow-on fighter jet programme in the works now to compete with the JSF. The Typhoon and Rafale (and the Gripen, for that matter) were all initiated in the early 1980s; consequently, these designs are approaching their replacement dates. At present, however, there is simply no money in the European aerospace sector to fund a fifth-generation fighter like the F-35. Moreover, talk about a European UCAV (an unmanned combat aerial vehicle), which could constitute the region’s next-generation fighter programme, remains just that – talk.

Consequently, the Europeans (including the Russians, who have made little progress so far in developing a fifth-generation fighter) could, through inaction, be ceding the future global fighter business to the US. The F-35 is likely to dominate this market for the next 20 years. This, in turn, could leave the US in an unassailable position as the world’s predominant fighter aircraft producer.

Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow with the Military Transformations Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. Formerly with the RAND Corp. and the Defence Budget Project, he has been writing on aerospace and defence issues for more than 20 years.


RSIS Commentaries are intended to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy relevant background and analysis of contemporary developments. The views of the author/s are their own and do not represent the official position of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU, which produces the Commentaries. For any republishing of RSIS articles, consent must be obtained from S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

2 thoughts on “The European Fighter Aircraft Industry: Has It Lost Asia? – Asia

  • December 28, 2011 at 4:52 am

    If ever there were an article more steeped in delusion. For one it says nothing about the crises facing the JSF-technically, financially and most important politically. It was way over budget, way over-weight and way past service entry dates. More than one nation has expressed concerns over the project with Australia even threatening to buy more Super Hornets.

    Any US cut to JSF numbers next year will drastically affect the project’s export opportunities. The Indian defence ministry itself has said that there has been no ‘concrete offer’ to sell the F-35 and there’s little chance it will happen any time soon.

  • January 2, 2012 at 2:51 am

    Let’s not jump to conclusions.

    First point: will Japan’s choice necessarily be emulated by others in the Asia-Pacific region? This is the spin of the day, and probably wishful thinking by LM. Japan’s JSF buy has been broadly described for what it is: an essentially political decision, not a technical choice. Japan has its hands tied, in no position to buy non-US. And the US needs F-35, not F-18 customers, to mop up the financial mess, not to mention the technical one, that the JSF programme has created. Other nations with greater autonomy: certainly India, maybe Malaysia?, will think twice before embarking on a programme entailing so much risk and with so many strings attached.
    Point two: info regarding life expectancy of European fighters is plain wrong. The Rafale and Typhoon Programmes were indeed mulled in the early eighties, but development actually started in the late eighties/early nineties (roughly same timeframe as F-22), and they matured slowly due to budget cuts (Rafale) or technical cum programme management issues (Typhoon). FOC was reached in the mid-(Rafale) / late 2000s (Typhoon). With airframe life of 40 years (Rafale) or 30 years (Typhoon) both types should be flying well into the mid-2000s. If no new orders materialize soon, the Typhoon will be indeed threatened with sudden death, for lack of funds to procure the planned quantities, lack of funds and political consensus to develop additional capabilities required by export markets (true multirole, AESA radar) and for excessive internal competition by F-35 (UK, Italy). Not so the Rafale: our Defence minister spelled confusion by getting the dates wrong in a recent interview, but the point he tried to get across was that production for national requirements would go on for many years, therefore export orders could wait. Production of the remaining 186 aircraft still planned for the French air force and Navy at the minimum sustainable rate of 11 per annum would stretch until 2028. And Rafale won’t be surpassed anytime soon: despite much hype regarding “fifth generation” F-35 by LM’s marketing gurus: it already incorporates many JSF-like features. Multisensor fusing and networking were brilliantly demonstrated during Libya ops, its man-machine interface, although not as novel as that of F-35 (still has a HUD) is much more advanced than those of Typhoon or even F-22 (I’ve flown the former, and sat in the latter two’s simulators): touchscreen MFDs and the single eye-level, wide angle holographic tactical display make a hell of a difference. Performance-wise, its semi-stealth gives it’s adversaries a hard time (not undetectable but damn hard to track consistently) and it’s manoeuvring, not compromised in the name of STOVL or überstealth, should remain better than F-35.

    Most of Europe committed industrial hara-kiri by partnering with the US on developing the JSF. Its advent will be make or break: if it lives up to its much touted promises, then European industry might succumb. If the often prophesised programmatic trainwreck occurs (disappointing performance and/or unaffordable lifecycle cost), then Rafale might find itself as the one and only attractive Western, genuinely joint strike/fighter aircraft (joint being for first league navies with CATOBAR aircraft carriers).


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