When it is just the two last players left in a major international fast jet competition, both of whom are offering brilliant interoperable combat jet capability, it is sad that one of them has to lose. That is just what occurred late last week when the Belgian Government confirmed that Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter had won and in the process beaten off competition from the equally superb German, Italian, Spanish and British Eurofighter Typhoon partnership contender.
The Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel announced on Friday that a total of 34 F-35A combat jets would be acquired from Lockheed Martin. The F-35A variant jets are intended to replace an existing fleet of around 52 F-16 fighter jets, also built by Lockheed Martin.
The Belgian combat jet competition has without doubt been a fantastic one to observe being played out. It was one that ended in a two-aircraft race between the F-35A variant and Eurofighter Typhoon. Worth noting also that Saab had earlier chosen to withdraw its Gripen capability from the contest and also that having submitted a non-compliant to the Belgian authorities that was more suggestive of the French built Dassault Rafale being put forward as a wider strategic partnership between Belgium and France, together with other options rather than what had been requested by the Belgian Government, a direct response to the ‘request for proposal’ for a combat jet procurement process meant that the French proposal in the form of the Dassault Rafale was eliminated.
Announcing the decision to acquire F-35A variant the Belgian Prime Minister is reported to have said that this aircraft capability had beaten its competitors on all 7 evaluation criteria, including price, adding that the US Government bid, one that has I understand already been approved by the US State Department, was apparently some way below what the Belgian government had budgeted for the combat jet procurement process. The estimated value of the Belgian Government F-35 programme covering the purchase of 34 F-35A variant aircraft has been suggested at $6.5 billion.
So, all credit to Lockheed Martin for yet another international F-35 success. Winning the Belgian Government combat jet competition also means that the F-35 has now been successful in each and every international procurement competition that the programme has contested. Lockheed Martin knows Belgian well and the support that the company has provided to the fleet of Belgian Air Force F-16’s no doubt plays into the choice of the country in deciding to buy the F-35.
Selection of F-35 by Belgium makes the country the 13th nation to join the programme – a record and indeed, testament to value of the capability and what it can provide. Importantly, apart from the pure combat and weapons delivery role, F-35 is not only able to collect, analyse and share data making the capability a powerful force multiplier enhancing airborne, surface and ground-based assets. Interoperability with aircraft capability such as Eurofighter Typhoon will both enhance and help to transform NATO’s air power capability along with that of other allied nations.
For the UK, whilst the decision by the Belgian Government to acquire F-35 over that of Eurofighter Typhoon is hugely disappointing, particularly for those that have worked so hard to persuade the Belgian Government of the merits of Eurofighter Typhoon, the decision should also be seen as another important business win for the UK in the form of the 15% value of each F-35 aircraft made benefitting the UK supply chain.
Having invested $2 billion towards the SDD (Design and Development) phase of the F-35 program in 2001 UK involvement adds up to 15% of production by value of each of the currently projected 3,000 plus number of F-35 that are estimated will be built over the project lifetime being manufactured here in the UK. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme supports 20,000 (direct and indirect) jobs. That adds up to significant benefits to the UK defence/aerospace supply chain and this advantage has already shown through in the $13.5 billion of contracts so far awarded to some 500 plus UK companies.
With the UK being the only level one partner on F-35, our involvement on the programme in respect of being a sizable part of the supply chain is extremely important to a great many large and medium sized companies. Amongst others these include BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, GE Aviation, Cobham, Martin Baker, Leonardo, Meggitt, QinetiQ Honeywell, Survitec and Gentex. A similar story exists for UK based weapons systems suppliers with industrial participation from Raytheon UK and MBDA.
Importantly, the UK which has played an integral role in the F-35 aircraft design and development (the aircraft incorporates several UK-specific design requirements) and British industry has a significant role in the manufacture of all aircraft produced for customers globally will see that involvement play out on every F-35 aircraft that will be built.
For the record, led by BAE Systems the UK defence industrial base produces F-35 aft fuselage and structural components, fuel system, crew escape system, weapons bay door drive (UTC) electrical power management system (GE Aviation) STOVL role ducts and bearing swivel nozzle (Rolls-Royce) in-flight refuelling probe (Cobham Election Seat (Martin Baker) Life Support Systems (Honeywell Aerospace, pilot flight safety equipment, masks and headsets (Survitec and Gentex) Pneumatic Power System and Gas Generation Systems (Ultra Electronics) Sterling Dynamics (active stick and throttle) plus others.
In addition, an innovative partnership between Defence Electronics & Components Agency (DECA), BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman has been chosen by the F-35 Program Office to be a global repair hub providing maintenance, overhaul and repair, together with upgrade services for F-35 avionic and aircraft components. What this means in reality is that over the lifetime of the F-35 programme all European-based F-35 aircraft will be serviced and maintained in North Wales. The work will involve maintenance and repair of systems for the F-35 aircraft including electronic and electrical components, fuel, mechanical and hydraulic systems, and ejection seats. This work is likely to be worth £ billions to the UK over the next forty years.
Of interest too is that F-35A unit costs have declined by more than 60% since the first ‘LOT’ production aircraft and that they are likely to continue to reduce across production and sustainment.
Lockheed Martin has stated that its goal is to deliver the F-35A aircraft capability at a price equal to or less than the cost of current legacy aircraft and that the company is on track to reduce the cost of an F-35A to $80 million in then-year dollar value terms by 2020.
CHW (London 29th October 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd
M: +44 7710 779785