For the moment, the epicenter of the evolving global aerospace and defense industrial base appears to be South Korea of all places. This week, Boeing and Airbus announced that they along with Korean Airlines would enter the competition to assist the Republic of Korea in its effort to develop and produce an indigenous fighter, the KF-X, which is intended to replace that country’s obsolescent F-4D/E Phantom II and F-5E/F Tiger II aircraft. The KF-X would be superior to Seoul’s current fleet of F-16s but less powerful than either the upgraded KF-15s or the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) it plans to buy in the near future. It was thought that Lockheed Martin had the inside track on the KF-X procurement as a result of Seoul’s decision to acquire the F-35 over an upgraded Boeing F-15 or a variant of the F/A-18E/F and because that company was teamed with Korean Aerospace Industries on both the KF-X and on the anticipated bid for a new Air Force jet trainer. Commentaries suggest that the new team might be attractive to South Korea because Airbus would be able to offer advanced technologies that remain export restricted under current U.S. policy.
The pace of globalization in the aerospace and defense industry is quickening. In part, this reflects the great expense involved in many large aerospace programs. The Eurofighter and JSF programs are examples of countries pooling their resources and sharing the work involved in building a new fighter aircraft. Russia is believed to have joined with India in the development of the T-50, a stealthy competitor for the F-22.
In part too, it reflects the reality that many foreign countries, particularly U.S. allies in Europe and Asia, now possess critical design skills, production capabilities and products. For example, several of the teams competing for the new Air Force trainer, including General Dynamics/Alenia Aermacchi and BAE Systems as well as Lockheed Martin, are offering a foreign made airframe. All four teams bidding on the Marine Corps Amphibious Combat Vehicle 1.1 are providing a vehicle made overseas. In many technology areas, including night vision systems, naval radar, sonar, air-to-air missiles and even space systems, foreign companies have technologies and products equal to or better than those provided by U.S. companies.
In some product niches, the United States has no domestic production capability at all. One of these is conventionally-powered submarines. The public and Congress were shocked to discover recently that due to a failure to invest in a domestic capability, the U.S. space launch program was dependent on a Russian made rocket engine to power the Atlas V launch vehicle into space.
If Western defense budgets continue to shrink, the time will soon come when even the United States will not be able to go it alone in the development and production of next generation systems. In order to save money, the U.S. and the United Kingdom are collaborating on development of their respective follow-on nuclear missile submarines. The so-called sixth generation fighter won’t be a U.S. only program or even a joint one; it will be trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific. The same may come to pass for armored fighting vehicles, air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, combat helicopters and space systems.
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