As Allies Design Fighter Aircraft, the United States Faces a Decision
The United States has a long history of urging its closest allies to spend more on defense, and over the past few years Europe and Japan have started to respond. But there’s a catch: Rather than content themselves with procuring capabilities that complement U.S. forces, they are about to drop some very expensive investments into the development of their own next-generation fighter aircraft.
In its recently released Defence Command Paper, the U.K. Ministry of Defense committed to invest 2 billion pounds (approximately $2.8 billion) over the next four years into the concept phase of its Future Combat Air System with Sweden and Italy, which includes the Tempest “sixth-generation” fighter program first unveiled in 2018. In 2017, France and Germany (joined by Spain in 2020) launched their own Future Combat Air System program, which includes a common next-generation manned fighter to be fielded by 2040. This European program is projected to cost over 100 billion euros ($119 billion). Japan announced last year that it plans to spend 5 trillion yen ($45 billion) to develop and field its “F-X” future fighter by 2035. In April 2021, South Korea unveiled the prototype of its own KF-21 fighter, developed for approximately $8 billion by leveraging existing engines and other subsystems. But transitioning from prototype to a production-ready jet will require significant additional investment.
The decisions allies are making now on their future fighter programs will have far-reaching implications for their capabilities in the years and decades to come. Because of its need for capable allies and the scale of these investments, the United States has a significant interest in ensuring that its allies’ investments into future fighters pay off in the form of relevant military capabilities that can fight alongside (and in some cases in lieu of) American forces. The primary U.S. policy objective for allied future fighter programs should be to maximize interoperable allied capabilities to counter future threats. To achieve this objective, the U.S. government should play an active role in supporting these programs by helping allies define what they need their future fighters to do and sharing technologies to help them succeed. Lack of collaboration risks an outcome in which allies sink their finite resources into duplicative programs with limited benefits and ability to interoperate with U.S. forces.
The Policy Challenge of Allied Future Fighters
Major allied investments in future fighters might seem to be unabashed good news. After all, U.S. national security and defense strategies produced by administrations of both parties have emphasized the need for allies and partners to invest in their own defense and share the burden of upholding global security. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan, and South Korea are wealthy countries with sophisticated industrial bases and have long operated combat aircraft of their own design and manufacture.
But developing and procuring advanced fighter aircraft is costly and time-consuming — often more so than anticipated at the outset. While some of these allied investments may seem small compared to U.S. expenditures, they represent significant commitments for allies with smaller defense budgets. For example, Japan’s total projected expenditure on the F-X program, which is expected to produce approximately 90 aircraft, is roughly equivalent to Japan’s entire 2021 defense budget. Investments in new development programs of this scale risk crowding out other funding for other capabilities needed to uphold alliance commitments in the near to medium term, such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance or air and missile defenses.
This is not to say that the United States should exert pressure on its allies to curtail the U.K. or European Future Combat Air Systems or the Japanese F-X programs, or steer them toward existing American platforms — such efforts would engender resentment and resistance, and would fail. Allies are committed to these programs as matters of industrial policy as well as defense requirements. The United Kingdom, for example, has been explicit that its future fighter effort aims to bolster both its military capability and its national industry, highlighting in its Defence Command Paper that:
[Future Combat Air System] has already created over 1,800 new [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] jobs in over 300 companies nationwide, sustaining and supporting over 18,000 existing highly skilled jobs in the sector, as well as tens of thousands more in the wider supply chains across the UK.
Japan has been similarly focused on industrial base concerns in its F-X program. Disputes over workshare and intellectual property rights between the countries almost split the Franco-German-Spanish consortium earlier this year.
These Programs Are an Opportunity to Work Together
But the fact that industrial concerns are central to allied future fighter development does not mean that the United States should discount or dismiss those programs. They are going to consume substantial allied funding resources over the next 20 years and beyond, and the United States and its allies will have to live with the outcomes and opportunity costs. It behooves the United States to treat these programs as opportunities to work with its allies to address common threats. Allies have real defense requirements that need to be addressed with a new generation of combat aircraft. Japan needs to defend extensive airspace that is being probed with increasing frequency. The United Kingdom, France, and other allies need future strike platforms that can operate in contested environments. Like the United States, they all face the proliferation of increasingly capable adversary combat aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, and air defenses.
Despite generally shared requirements and growing threats, the U.S. government has not played a proactive or constructive role in these emerging allied development programs. U.S. combat aircraft development programs, like the separate Air Force and Navy Next Generation Air Dominance efforts, are highly classified and not open to allied cooperation at this point. The U.S. government’s current restrictive and often ponderous export control process creates strong disincentives for collaboration and hinders discussions about future capabilities with U.S. allies. At best, U.S. industry can share current-generation technologies, but even these are limited due to prioritization of security concerns.
Even if the effect is unintended, this treatment of even the closest U.S. allies reinforces their determination to go their own way on combat aircraft development and makes it harder for the United States to work with them to help define requirements and develop future capabilities. It also makes it harder to leverage America’s robust alliance network of technologically advanced nations, which should provide an advantage against future threats. It is a risky approach for the United States to take toward some of the most expensive defense investments its allies will make in the years ahead.
Toward Future Fighter Collaboration
If the U.S. government is serious about the need for capable allies, it needs to adopt a more collaborative approach that helps ensure their aircraft development programs deliver. This new approach would require the United States to engage in discussions with allies during the conceptual phase of their respective fighter programs to develop a shared understanding of what missions the allies intend to prioritize for their future fighters. Fortunately, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the European partners are still in this phase, so the United States has a chance to discuss this central question about the direction of these programs. The answers will have far-reaching implications for system requirements, design, and cost. For example, how stealthy does a future fighter need to be to accomplish its missions? How far does it need to fly without refueling, and at what speed and altitude? How many weapons does it need to carry, and of what type? Does it need to be manned?
Such discussions would be greatly facilitated if the United States began proactively sharing technical data about current threat capabilities. It should also share as much detail as possible about its plans for next-generation battle management networks, which integrate an array of sensor inputs to enable commanders to quickly understand the battlefield and respond to threats, under the Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept so that allies have the technical detail they need to make their future combat aircraft work seamlessly with U.S. forces from the moment they become operational. Currently, allies have to specifically request such collaboration and sometimes even go through the lengthy and complex foreign military sales process to seek studies and analyses. The United States should be forward-leaning and cut the red tape on behalf of its allies if it wants them to operate capable and compatible systems in the future.
The United States can further incentivize closer collaboration on these programs by proactively sharing technologies that help advance these programs. Offering concrete partnership or co-development proposals would provide a critical carrot for U.S. officials to extend in support of these programs and to ensure they remain focused on advancing alliance military capability and interoperability with U.S. forces.
Currently, U.S. firms seek to win roles in international fighter development programs on their own, such as Lockheed Martin’s recent selection as Japan’s “Integration Support Partner” role on the F-X. However, these are essentially transactional relationships in which the U.S. government only makes decisions about technologies to release based on what an international customer requests and an American company seeks to provide. It is not a strategic approach to developing allied capabilities. A direct government-to-government partnership could help future fighter aircraft programs actually produce advanced warfighting capabilities for allies by pushing the U.S. export control process to unlock more advanced technologies for allies’ programs. It would also help reassure allies that America’s interest is not simply in exporting its own fighters or securing revenue for its defense firms, but in ensuring robust alliance capabilities.
Specific needs will vary from program to program, and agreement between the United States and allied governments on requirements and technologies does not mean they will or should lead to a common aircraft. Japan’s F-X should be optimized for Japan’s specific defense needs and alliance role, just as the U.K. and Franco-German-Spanish programs should be optimized for their needs. However, the U.S. government should be open with its allies about its own direction on future combat aircraft programs like Next Generation Air Dominance, which appears to be leveraging advances in digital engineering, agile software development, and advanced manufacturing to produce results in a shorter time frame than previously anticipated. The United States will fail to maximize the advantages of its alliances if it soars ahead in fighter development with these new technologies while its allies slog through programs that won’t produce results until the late 2030s or 2040s.
Making this new approach to allied future fighters a reality will require the U.S. government to play an active role in identifying the best potential U.S. industry partners based on the specific needs of each program. Current U.S. government policy is to avoid picking winners and losers between American companies in foreign competitions. In this new approach, the U.S. government would pick a set of potential solutions to offer in support of an allied development program based on consultations with the partner nation, rather than U.S. companies working on their own with allied governments. The purpose would be to advance technology sharing on specific elements of a program, like air vehicle design or mission systems development. This new approach would provide a greater opportunity for smaller and medium-sized U.S. firms to showcase their capabilities and compete for opportunities on allied programs. U.S. defense primes already have the resources to vie for these roles, but smaller companies do not, and the opportunity to be connected by the U.S. government to an international fighter program can be game-changing.
One way to help accelerate the process of selecting contenders to participate in specific parts of an international fighter program would be for the Defense Department to hold quick-turn “challenges” through platforms like AFWERX for solutions to particular issues facing an allied program, such as manned-unmanned teaming interfaces or data fusion algorithms, and select the best contenders. Facilitating access to the unique capabilities of startups and nontraditional entrants into the defense marketplace is one area where the U.S. Defense Department is ahead of many of its allies, and this challenge approach would help bring that advantage to bear in support of allied requirements. The Defense Department will have to engage directly in helping to shape creative business cases, such as licensing fee structures or workshare on other U.S. or international programs, to incentivize U.S. companies to share relevant technology and intellectual property with allies on more permissive terms than those companies would otherwise consider.
A working group coordinated by the National Security Council and including the relevant policy, functional, and regional offices within the departments of Defense, State, and Commerce should also be established to look holistically across the portfolio of allied fighter development programs to shape U.S. involvement and make determinations about what capabilities and technologies the United States can help provide allies. This issue cannot be left solely to the acquisition-focused offices of the Defense Department or the traditional export control process. A working group at this level is necessary to help cut through existing processes to develop a more responsive approach to getting advanced technology released to key partners.
Continuing the current approach to allied future fighter programs will hinder the development of U.S. allies’ defense capabilities at a time when the United States needs them to be stronger than ever. Ultimately, if the U.S. government is serious about the importance of its allies fielding capable military forces in the future, it needs to be a serious partner in their future fighter programs.
Brian M. Burton previously served as a defense and national security staffer in the U.S. Senate and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is now an international business development specialist at Boeing Defense, Space & Security. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent those of his employer.