While it’s well known that foreign buyers of the F-15 and F-16 jet fighters are helping to keep the production lines open, some of these customers are also helping boost the development of the aircraft, according to managers of the two programs.
“It’s still surprising to a lot of folks that … we have a very active production line” at Lockheed Martin, said Col. Scott Jansson commander of the Air Force’s F-16 Systems Group.
There is a backlog of 150 aircraft being built for foreign customers as of November, he said. Twenty-two countries fly the F-16, with Chile and Poland expected to join their ranks this year. He anticipates a market for another 200 to 300 aircraft.
“It used to be said that the sun doesn’t set on the British Empire, now it can be said that the sun doesn’t set on the worldwide F-16 fleet,” Jansson said.
Improvements have been made to the F-16 radar—known as the (v) 9—with the help of Greece and Israel. The two countries paid for the radar’s development and have fielded it on 100 aircraft. The U.S. Air Force in turn is making some additional modifications to its (v) 9s, Jansson said.
The United Arab Emirates has been active in the development of the Block 60 version of the aircraft. It can collect a $3 million per aircraft royalty on every unit Lockheed Martin sells to a non-U.S. buyer.
“[These countries] have been able to take advantage of development and investments that the U.S. and other countries have made … We’ve just got to turn it around for a change and we appreciate the help,” Jansson said.
George Spencer, director of the U.S. Air Force F-15 systems group, said Boeing and its foreign customers have similar synergies.
“We take that into account what others are doing — our international partners — as well as the F-18 and F-35 programs,” Spencer said.
The foreign customers are Japan, Israel, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Singapore announced in December that it will become the sixth country to fly the aircraft, placing an order of 12 F-15SGs, with an option for another eight. The order is expected to keep the production line open until 2008, and possibly 2010.
As for how long Boeing and Lockheed Martin can keep their respective lines open, Richard Aboulafia, an analyst for the Teal Group, said it is hard to see a future past the end of the decade.
The F-15 might get a boost from a follow-on order of 20 to 40 from South Korea, he said. “Beyond that, there are probably not a whole lot of prospects.”
The F-16’s future is murkier. Orders begin to run thin after the next couple of years, he said. It will come down to potential orders from India, Pakistan and follow-on buys from other customers.
“The key thing from Lockheed’s perspective is to stay in the export fighter business until the [joint strike fighter] starts getting built in quantity.”