Production of fighter aircraft is on the rise. In Forecast International’s newly updated study “The Market for Fighter Aircraft,” FI projects that a total of 3,401 fighter aircraft will be produced from 2019 through 2028, more than 17 percent (499 units) higher than the number of aircraft that manufacturers produced during the previous 10 years, when fighter production averaged about 290 aircraft per year.
Production will peak at 371 aircraft in 2021 and 2022. Annual production will then decline through 2027, with production falling to 313 aircraft that year.
The Lockheed Martin F-35 will be the largest fighter program over the next decade, due primarily to its selection as the tactical fighter of choice for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Of the nearly 3,400 fighters expected to roll off the production lines during the next 10 years, 1,548 will be F-35s, representing some 45.5 percent of the market.
The F-35 program has also secured several export customers, but Lockheed Martin must continue to reduce the aircraft’s procurement and operating costs if it is to achieve sales expectations on the world market. The company reportedly is offering to sell the U.S. Air Force 100 F-35A variant jets for less than $80 million, down from $89.5 million, as part of a 450-unit block buy.
The outlook for the remaining U.S. fighters – the Boeing F-15 and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin’s own F-16 – continues to improve. The U.S. Navy is extending production of the Super Hornet to make up a shortfall of carrier fighters, and the U.S. Air Force has asked Congress to fund procurement of a new, upgraded version of the F-15E.
While many U.S. allies are ready to purchase the F-35s, the high cost of early production aircraft may lead to additional sales of legacy U.S. aircraft. The F-16, which has received constant technological upgrades over the decades, is seeing new interest from nations in Eastern Europe and Asia that want to buy an American fighter but cannot afford the F-35. Orders from the Middle East are also helping to keep production lines at Boeing, Dassault and the Eurofighter consortium alive.
Meanwhile, Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) continues to provide fighters to nations outside the U.S. and European defense spheres. China is a potential competitor in this submarket, but it has yet to fully develop a solid export program for its most advanced fighters.
China is likely to gradually build markets in Africa and Asia. It offers the JF-17 light fighter in cooperation with Pakistan’s PAC on the export market, and this lightweight fighter offers the capability of beyond-visual-range engagements at a lower price than competing U.S. or Russian aircraft.
For nations that need more of a light attack aircraft capable of close-range air-to-air combat, Korean manufacturer KAI offers the FA-50 variant of its supersonic T-50 jet trainer.
China and Russia have both developed stealth fighters to compete against the F-35, but the technical capabilities of these low-observable models are difficult to evaluate from the outside. In any case, Russian- and Chinese-built fighters only occasionally compete with Western-built fighters in the international market, so the impact of new Russian or Chinese fighters on Western manufacturers is usually small in any given year.