WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is gaining new markets but rival manufacturers are straining to upgrade their models to catch up, Aviation Week and Space Technology said.
Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is the F-35's direct competitor in the U.S. defense aviation industry but the global air force market has serious contenders in Dassault Aviation's Rafale, Eurofighter's Typhoon and Saab's Gripen.
The Swedish manufacturer won over Brazil in a long-drawn out jet fighter competition in the Latin American country and is on course to upgrade its offering and aim for new markets.
Until last year, Boeing was widely tipped to be leading the Brazilian contest after edging Rafale sideways. But Brazil reportedly switched its choice after a row over U.S. National Security Agency intelligence-gathering in the country.
The U.S. Marine Corps is set to be the F-35's first customer and likely to declare operational capability within 18 months. Despite escalating costs, the Lockheed Martin jet continues to dominate the global fighter market, Aviation Week said.
As the upgrades continue the rival manufacturers will target a diverse set of customers, Aviation Week said. Some of those customers will eventually buy the F-35 but there are others who might decide not to go for the U.S. stealth plane because of cost considerations.
The final cost per unit of the F-35 is still to be determined but the Lockheed Martin project received a much needed boost when South Korea in November last year decided to buy fewer F-35s than choose 60 semi-stealth F-15s Silent Eagles from Boeing.
Work is afoot in Italy on setting up a regional F-35 maintenance, repair and overhaul facility for European and Middle Eastern F-35s.
The upgrades being implemented by F-35 rivals involved major changes to avionics and addition of stealth capability and other features aimed at giving those jets an edge over the Joint Strike Fighter.
The Eurofighter consortium recently added improved avionics, high-speed data network, fiber-optic weapons bus, and conformal fuel tanks as part of a major upgrade.
The French Rafale likewise is going through upgrades to improve its market. Rafale was selected as India's medium multi-role combat aircraft but the contract for India's largest single defense buy to date, for 126 fighters, is not likely to be issued until April, Aviation Week said.
Meanwhile, pressure on Canada to keep its F-35 option and not look elsewhere continues. The greatest uncertainty still hangs over Canada's final choice. Boeing is working hard to persuade Ottawa to switch to Super Hornet. Boeing is among F-35 rivals pushing for a jet fighter competition to decide on the next generation of fighter planes for the Canadian air force.
The Globe and Mail cited Lockheed Martin warnings Canadian aviation firms could lose more than $10 billion in spinoff contracts if Canada decides to ditch the F-35/
Orlando Carvalho, executive vice-president of aeronautics at Lockheed Martin, delivered a cautionary message in Montreal when he said Canadian companies could keep about $500-million in fighter-related contracts but no more F-35 work would be likely for Canada if Ottawa does not embrace the Lockheed Martin jet, the Globe and Mail reported.