Europe to help construct next-generation jet fighter

Associated Press

FORT WORTH, Texas – The new Joint Strike Fighter, which the U.S. military sees as its flying workhorse for decades to come, probably will have doors, cooling devices and other parts made abroad.

It’s not that contractor Lockheed Martin can’t find U.S. companies to manufacture the components. Boeing Co., which lost out in the contract competition with Lockheed, had talked to officials there about doing some of the work. But it doesn’t appear Boeing will have a significant role.

By giving work to companies from places such as Italy and the Netherlands, Lockheed hopes to make those countries more keen to buy the jet itself – at $40 million to $50 million apiece.

That kind of marketing is increasingly common today in building military jets and reflects both intense global competition and the potential for huge profits. Still, Lockheed may be taking the art to new levels.

The Joint Strike Fighter, or F-35, is expected to start rolling off assembly lines in six years and could be the last manned fighter aircraft. Lockheed expects to build 3,000 for the U.S. Navy, Marines and Air Force and for Britain over the next 40 to 50 years.

Pentagon officials have placed the value of the Joint Strike Fighter program, including incidentals, at about $200 billion. But the value could soar with sales to other friendly nations. A Lockheed executive speaking to a group of technology analysts recently estimated $750 billion to $1 trillion.

To hit those lofty targets, however, Lockheed must outgun other new fighters such as the Gripen, built by Sweden’s Saab and Britain’s BAE Systems, the Rafale by France’s Dassault Aviation, and the Eurofighter, built by a consortium of European manufacturers.

Countries such as the Netherlands and Italy are being pressured by neighbors to buy European-built planes instead of the F-35, which will be assembled at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co.’s Fort Worth plant.

The Dutch are believed to be close to deciding whether to invest $1 billion in helping build the F-35. Dutch officials visited Washington in mid-December to discuss a government-to-government deal, which is needed before foreign companies work on the plane.

In the negotiations, the U.S. government tries to protect technology secrets from foreign companies. Industry officials say Lockheed won’t be allowed to share certain information about the plane’s control system and stealth with subcontractors.

Foreign countries, however, are eager for their companies to learn the latest technology.

“If countries are going to put money into the program, they’re going to have to go back to their parliaments and say, ‘Here is what’s in it for us in terms of work and technology,’ ” said Joel Johnson, international vice president for the Aerospace Industries Association.

Lockheed hopes for a payoff in sales.

“We certainly hope that after they make the investment in the JSF program, they will decide this is the plane they want to buy,” said Dana Pierce, an international business development official for Lockheed.

But it has another reason for using foreign suppliers: Thrift.

Take, for example, two Dutch companies angling for F-35 work: Fokker Aerostructures, which makes doors and other plane parts; and Thales Nederland, which builds a variety of technology systems for planes and ships, including devices to cool sensors.

“With direct-country funding, they developed some leading-edge technology at very little cost – and no cost to us,” Pierce said. “It was essentially funded by the Dutch government. It’s really a model we’d like to see in other countries.”

Getting a better deal on components helps Lockheed keep the price of the JSF near or lower than its competitors.

Cevasco also said countries are influenced by domestic political factors such as winning subcontracting jobs for their workers. “Whether any of us like it or not, there are political imperatives to the purchasing countries having a piece of the action,” he said.

Copyright ©2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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