America has long been a major exporter of fighter jets, including the venerable F-16 and now the F-35. But as allied and friendly countries begin to ramp up their own efforts to build fighter jets, will the USA lose control of the fighter jet export market it has dominated? Richard Aboulafia reports in Foreign Policy:
It’s rare that jet engines play a significant role in meetings between heads of state. But in June, when U.S. President Joe Biden hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House, the pair released a joint statement hailing, among other partnerships, a “trailblazing initiative” whereby U.S. conglomerate General Electric will manufacture jet engines with an Indian state-owned company for New Delhi’s national fighter jet program.
Although jet engines may seem insignificant compared with, say, high-profile sales of fighter jets or tanks, the announcement points to an important global trend: National combat aircraft are making a comeback. Lesser powers have tried to develop national jets in the past, but now, more are succeeding—just as Washington is moving away from combat aircraft exports. The United States has started to prioritize the development of more capable and specialized jets, rather than export-oriented, jack-of-all-trades jets, so that its military can be better equipped for the rise of superpowers such as China. But the unintended consequence of Washington’s policies will be a diminished presence on the export fighter market.
By the late 2030s, the global fighter market—and defense market in general—will be much more fragmented, and less U.S.-dominated, than today. Countries aren’t going to rely on U.S.-produced fighter jets forever, and if Washington doesn’t adapt by prioritizing the sale of the systems and technologies that power other countries’ jets, the United States will fall behind in the global defense market.
There was a time when almost every major (and minor) power wanted to build its own combat jet. In the 1980s, South Africa, Taiwan, Yugoslavia, Brazil, Romania, Israel, Japan, and India, among other countries, had national fighter jet schemes. A few of these homegrown jets were built—in relatively small numbers—but most simply vanished during the 1990s.
There were many reasons for the collapse of these national programs. As post-Cold War defense budgets shrank, so did the fighter market. Economies liberalized, trade barriers came down, and industrial policy fell out of fashion. The United States, meanwhile, did a great job selling off-the-shelf jets. Lockheed Martin’s F-16 dominated the market, offering tremendous value for money with no upfront development costs. Between 1991 and 1995, Western manufacturers built 1,667 fighter aircraft; 727 of these were F-16s, and 597 were other U.S. types, according to AeroDynamic Advisory data.
As a follow-on, the United States created the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which entered service in 2015. The F-35 cemented Washington’s export dominance in the global fighter-jet market. With more than 20 export customers so far from Norway to South Korea, the F-35, like its predecessor, has been a great success. But the F-35 is a product of the post-Cold War era, when nations were content to buy off-the-shelf products. As new competitors enter the market, the F-35 will not be enough to carry U.S. industry into the future.
Japan is a good example of what happened to national fighter programs—and where they might be headed. In the 1990s, Japan spent billions of dollars developing the Mitsubishi F-2 and was met with the predictable teeth gnashing in Washington about technology transfer leading to the United States surrendering its lead in combat aircraft and defense exports. But realizing it had wasted money to essentially reinvent the F-16, Japan built fewer than 100 F-2s. The country now plans to buy 147 off-the-shelf F-35s. Yet despite its reliance on U.S. fighters, Japan recently teamed up with the United Kingdom to co-develop a new jet that will be built in both countries. Starting in the late 2030s, London and Tokyo will stop procuring F-35s and start to build their joint aircraft.
South Korea, the only national fighter producer to start new aircraft development since the Cold War, is the country that really started (or restarted) this trend, with the KF-21 Boramae. Now, Turkey, with its Kaan TF fighter, has joined in. Taiwan is back in the game too, with a reborn Ching-Kuo trainer and light attack version and a next generation fighter after that. The United Arab Emirates, a major fighter market, revealed its ambitions earlier this year to create its own aircraft.
India’s status is a bit oxymoronic—it’s a legacy emerging producer. New Delhi has been trying to build its own jet fighter since the 1950s. The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft program—the subject of the White House announcement—has been underway since the early 1980s and entered the market in small quantities 2015. But the Tejas may now be ready to ramp up to a double-digit production rate, especially with General Electric’s help.
India also wants to follow the Tejas with a larger, less obsolescent advanced medium combat aircraft that will enter service in the 2030s. Yet unlike most other emerging producers, there’s reason to be skeptical of India’s ability to scale production, since New Delhi largely relies on state-owned contractors rather than the private sector.
It’s not just fighters. Medium powers are planning to bulk up on domestic missile programs, space systems, munitions production, and sustainment capabilities. Australia is seeking partnerships with other countries and international contractors to create industries for missiles, drones, and, famously, AUKUS submarines. Israel didn’t get to build a jet fighter after its IAI Lavi program was canceled in 1987—and likely won’t, partly because Israel enjoys priority access to U.S. aircraft—but its defense exports have reached record highs, particularly in missile defense. Even Saudi Arabia, which until recently had almost no in-country defense industrial capacity, now aims to localize 50 percent of national defense procurement by 2030—and it might even want to join the U.K.-Japan fighter project.
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