F-35s Needed in the Middle East, Lockheed Executive Says

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
F-35A joint strike fighter

Photo: Air Force

LONDON — The United States and its allies need fifth-generation fighter jets to maintain air superiority in the Middle East, said a Lockheed Martin executive.

The U.S. and its coalition partners have been operating in Syria since 2014 in an effort to take down the Islamic State terrorist group. Since Russia entered the conflict in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015, it has brought in powerful weapons, said Steve Over, Lockheed's F-35 joint strike fighter international business development director. 

Those include advanced fourth-generation warplanes and the S-400 surface-to-air missile system, he said.

“These things are lethal monsters. They have an unclassified engagement radius against fourth-generation airplanes that’s 400 kilometers,” he said during an interview at the Defence and Security Equipment International Conference held at the ExCel in London. 

If Russia were to declare a no-fly zone over Syria “it would make it not impossible but extremely difficult for the U.S. and our allies to continue combat operations there against terrorists with a fourth-generation fighter,” he added.

The F-35, an advanced fifth-generation fighter, gives countries such as the United States and United Kingdom a deterrent capability, Over said. The platform is equipped with powerful sensors and has a low-observable signature for stealth, he noted.

Additionally, the aircraft's senior fusion capabilities “allow the pilots to operate in the battle space with impunity so that these big, lethal air defense systems really don’t represent a threat to your mission,” Over said. 

The United Kingdom — a joint strike fighter partner nation — has signed on to purchase 138 F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing variants. So far, Lockheed has delivered 12 systems, he said. By the end of the year, the company will have delivered the 14th.

“That gives them enough airplanes to be ready to start operational service next year,” he said.

The United Kingdom is focusing first on the platform achieving initial operating capability for land-based operations, he noted. They will start flying F-35s off the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier in 2019, he added.

Currently, about 15 percent by value of an F-35 is sourced in the United Kingdom, he said. “There’s just hundreds and hundreds of small- and medium-enterprise companies here in the U.K. that are producing pieces and parts of the airplane,” he said.

To date, Lockheed has awarded almost $10 billion worth of contracts to U.K. companies, Over added.

As Lockheed looks elsewhere for new F-35 customers, Singapore may be the biggest opportunity in the Asia-Pacific region.

Australia, Japan and South Korea have already inked deals to buy the aircraft. Singapore joined as a security participant in the program in 2004, Over said. That essentially entails investing a small amount of money into studies and analyses, he noted.

At the moment, “they are considering their options and may or may not at some point in time actually decide to purchase the F-35. We are supporting them as they continue their evaluations,” he said.

Japan may also purchase more aircraft, Over noted. The country’s current program of record is 42 fighters.

“Japan next year … is going to publish their next mid-term defense plan,” he said. “We look forward to a decision that they might make to extend their program of record. But that will be a decision that the sovereign government of Japan has to make.”

The Middle East also provides a large market opportunity for the company, but Over noted that Lockheed must wait for the U.S. government to make any such decision regarding a sale to a nation other than Israel in the region.

The F-35 “is a very, very sophisticated weapon system,” he said. “As I try to look at it through the lenses of the U.S. government, it’s right now being reserved for our best allies. … That’s their decision, and not ours.”

Topics: Air Power, Joint Strike Fighter, International

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