Page last updated at 08:29 GMT, Thursday, 18 June 2009 09:29 UK

F-35 sales predicted to soar

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Paris air show

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Defence sales buoyant at air show

The man in charge of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme, Lockheed Martin vice-president Tom Burbage, has told the BBC that sales of the fighter jet could far exceed earlier predictions.

Mr Burbage said he expected the US and the other eight Joint Strike Fighter partner nations to buy more than the 3,200 aircraft earmarked for them, as "most of [them] operate a lot more aeroplanes than they have tagged to the F-35 today".

Mr Burbage said he was convinced the fighter jet would also be popular amongst nations that had not signed up for the partnership.

"We are currently talking to many more countries in the foreign military sales arena," he said.

"A number of them are large operators of fighter forces, so it is quite conceivable the programme could have more than 5,000 airplanes in it before it's finished."

Tom Burbage
Those countries that can participate in a big project like F-35 see a tremendous economic benefit from doing so
Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin vice-president

Sales of such a magnitude could be worth in the region of $300bn for the world's largest aerospace company, Lockheed Martin, and its subcontractors Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems.

Industrial partnership

That bodes well for the partner nations, which, after years of uncertainty about whether the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme would ever become a success, gathered at a ceremony in Paris to declare their total commitment to the ultra-advanced aircraft.

The US was joined by top military officials from Canada, Australia, Turkey, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy and Denmark, as well as from Norway, just nine days after its parliament ratified the government's decission to go with the F-35 project.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Burbage was eager to point to how the partner nations stood to gain from their participation - and not only in terms of military capabilities.

"Certainly, from an economic standpoint, with some of the stresses the world is going through right now, those countries that can participate in a big project like F-35 see a tremendous economic benefit from doing so," he said.

F-35 scale model at Paris air show
Analysts say the F-35 could corner the market in years to come

"All of our international partners have industrial participation in the programme. Many of them are clearing international weapons to go on the airplane.

"This is not a US weapons system that is being sold to international partners. It's an international co-development programme, so everybody's involved."

Such industrial and economic ties have the additional benefit of further strengthening the coalition that is being created, Mr Burbage said.

Cornering the market

The F-35 is a so-called "fifth-generation" fighter jet that combines radar-evading "stealth" and sensor technology that gives fighter pilots a comprehensive overview of everything around them.

"So if you think of that combination, we give the pilot the element of surprise - 'can't see me' - and the element of situational awareness - 'I know what's going on around me'," explains Mr Burbage.

"The combination of those two gives him overwhelming tactical advantage in any kind of air combat scenario," he said.

Analysts say that such military might has enabled the F-35 to steal a march on rivals such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Dassault Aviation SA Rafale and Saab's Gripen - as well as Russia's Mig-35 and Sukhoi's SU-35.

But the F-35's rivals are not giving up the fight yet. "We have Hungary and the Czech Republic, we have South Africa, and now the big opportunities lie in Brazil and India," Saab's chief executive Ake Svensson told the BBC.

Analysts say there is a window of opportunity for rival fighter jet makers in the short term.

But Richard Aboulafia of Teal Group predicts that as soon as Lockheed Martin's F-35 production has been ramped up, it will pretty much corner the market.

"It's quite likely that after 2020 the market will comprise the F-35 family and some Russian planes," he says.



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