WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A squabble among arms companies over what to call the world’s most advanced warplanes could roil the competition for multibillion-dollar fighter contracts worldwide.
At issue is an esoteric term, “5th generation,” to describe aircraft designed to dodge detection by enemy radar even when loaded with their weapons.
The term is applied first and foremost by aerospace experts to Lockheed Martin Corp’s (LMT.N) F-22 and F-35 fighters, which are built to appear as small as a swallow on radar screens.
Boeing Co (BA.N), whose F/A-18 Super Hornet is set to compete against Lockheed’s F-35 worldwide, has been keen to suggest that the “5th generation” tag overstates any real-world advantages of the F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter.
“I think it’s fair to say that the ‘5th-generation’ terminology is a marketing terminology,” Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s chief executive for its defense business, told the Reuters Aerospace and Defense summit in Washington this week.
“We don’t operate in a world today where it’s an individual airplane against an individual threat,” he said. “It’s the combined forces and bringing all of those forces and their capabilities together.”
Boeing, the Pentagon’s No. 2 supplier by sales, is competing against Lockheed, the Pentagon’s No. 1 supplier, and the Eurofighter GmbH consortium for a potential $6 billion contract for about 40 fighters in Japan.
Boeing’s offering is the Super Hornet, which it calls a combat-proven strike fighter with “built-in versatility.”
Eurofighter is offering its multirole “Typhoon.” It was selected as a finalist along with France’s Dassault Rafale in a potential $11 billion Indian competition for 126 fighters. The Europeans beat the Super Hornet and Lockheed’s earlier-generation F-16.
“The 5th-generation classification for fighters is just a commercial slogan and an abused one,” Marco Valerio Bonelli, a spokesman for Eurofighter, said in an email. “Scoring the Eurofighter Typhoon against the same ‘admission criteria’ as the 5th-generation club would produce a much higher” ranking than the F-35, he said.
Fighter competition stakes are huge, including national prestige, ties between countries’ military establishments and high-paying jobs and know-how that can enhance a nation’s industrial base.
President Barack Obama made a strong pitch for Boeing’s Super Hornet in March during a meeting with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, for instance. France’s Rafale and Sweden’s Saab’s Gripen are also competing.
Lockheed says the 5th-generation category is widely accepted by U.S. and allied defense leaders to describe “stealth,” or radar-evading, fighter technology.
“In truth, I’d really rather not get into a debate like this,” said Michael Rein, a Lockheed spokesman who provided quotes from U.S. leaders praising the F-35. It is meant to achieve air dominance on Day 1 of any war.
The F-35 is due to form the bulk of U.S. tactical air power in coming decades, the Pentagon’s costliest acquisition at some $382 billion for 2,443 aircraft in three models being built for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Eight foreign co-development partners are due to buy another 750 F-35s.
Richard Aboulafia, a fighter market expert at Teal Group, an aerospace consultancy in Fairfax, Virginia, said 5th generation planes did have “identifiable qualities that are superior.”
“But individual aircraft are becoming less important than the broader network of sensors and control systems,” he said.
Reporting by Jim Wolf; Additional reporting by Tim Hepher