Lower Rhine takes over multi-hundred ‘stealth’ fuselages production

Renowned German arms manufacturer, Rheinmetall, is ready to make a significant stride in Western military aviation. Choosing a location in Weeze, Lower Rhine, western Germany, the firm is set to start producing “at least 400″ F-35A center fuselages from 2025, as per their recent press release. 

Italy will assemble 24 of the 36 Swiss F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters
Photo credit: Il Manifesto

Not just a production facility, the site is also equipped to serve German F-35s and those belonging to “other friendly nations”. This new setup replaces the previous facilities in Turkey, which was ousted from the fighter program due to political reasons, thus shifting the production to Germany. 

While Turkey’s lower costs made it ideal for labor-intensive production, the move to Germany is expected to be less cost-efficient. However, it’s a necessary transition. 

At present, the entire center fuselage production for the F-35 is conducted by American military aviation firm, Northrop Grumman. The introduction of a second, albeit smaller, facility in Germany will help overcome the crucial bottleneck that has been hindering the expansion of stealth fighter deliveries. 

F-35 wins it all

Italy will assemble 24 of the 36 Swiss F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters
Photo credit: Info Aero Quebec

The F-35, currently the only fifth-generation fighter in production in the Western world, has consistently clinched all recent tenders for NATO-compatible combat jets. Its significant performance advantages over fourth-generation rivals like the French Rafale and the pan-European Eurofighter, largely built in Germany, have made it a favorite. 

While the previous German administration under Angela Merkel was hesitant about F-35 acquisitions, the new Chancellor, Olaf Scholtz, decided to order the aircraft within months of assuming office. This decision, however, faced opposition from the local industry due to the potential losses it posed for the Eurofighter program. 

Teal Group senior analyst JJ Gertler, in a letter to Breaking Defense, emphasized the importance of expanding the F-35’s center fuselage production. He noted it as a bottleneck that has been limiting the output of the fighters. 

Non-NATO orders

Currently, F-35 orders can support a production rate of around 175 a year but are limited to 156 due to Northrop’s production capacity. The new German facility could potentially increase this figure to 165 per year, thus providing additional capacity to meet the rising demands of countries modernizing their NATO-compatible fighter fleets. 

F-35I Adir is a 'monster', with its own frequency hopping EW system
Photo credit: IAF

Notable orders for the F-35 have come from countries outside NATO, including Japan, South Korea, Israel, and Switzerland. As the fighter represents the only option for states unwilling to consider Chinese or Russian alternatives, its demand is expected to grow. 

Developed under the Joint Strike Fighter program, the F-35 was primarily designed for air-to-surface strike roles and to counter enemy ground-based air defenses. Its advanced electronic warfare, sensor fusion, and stealth capabilities make it a formidable opponent against such defenses. 

Not ready for battle yet

Despite its advanced capabilities, the fighter has experienced long delays in its development and is yet to be ready for high-intensity combat. It also suffers from one of the world’s lowest availability rates, which has led to significant reservations within the American civilian and military leadership about the program. 

There will now be six air-to-air missiles in the F-35 'belly'
Photo credit: Aviation Week

The fighter’s engine has been a particular concern, with its design specifications for power and cooling falling short of the aircraft’s current needs. This design flaw has led to additional maintenance costs amounting to tens of billions of dollars and calls for a new powerplant. 

The F135 engine’s issues have been a leading cause of the fighter’s low availability rates. The Pentagon is expected to make serious cuts to planned orders due to major overruns with the fighter’s operational costs and maintenance needs.

Impact on the economy

The newly revealed production of fuselages for the F-35 will have a significant impact on the economy of Lower Rhine and Germany. This production will create new job opportunities and generate revenue for the region. The production process will require skilled workers, which will lead to the creation of new training programs and educational opportunities. This will not only benefit the workers but also the local economy as a whole.

AN-APG-81-AESA - F-35's radar detects a Russian Su-57, but within a certain range
Photo credit: Northrop Grumman

The production of the F-35 fuselages will also lead to an increase in demand for raw materials and supplies, which will benefit local suppliers and manufacturers. This will create a ripple effect throughout the local economy, as these suppliers and manufacturers will also need to hire more workers and invest in new equipment and technology to meet the increased demand.

Furthermore, the production of the F-35 fuselages will also have a positive impact on the region’s infrastructure. The increased economic activity will lead to improvements in transportation, communication, and other essential services. This will make the region more attractive to other businesses and investors, which will further stimulate economic growth and development.

Negative impact

Increased F-35 production can potentially have a negative impact on the Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale market. The F-35 is a fifth-generation fighter jet that boasts advanced stealth capabilities, making it a highly sought-after aircraft. As more F-35s are produced, countries may choose to invest in this newer technology instead of purchasing the Eurofighter Typhoon or Rafale.

Photo credit: Sputnik News

However, it is important to note that the Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale have their own unique strengths and capabilities. The Eurofighter Typhoon is known for its agility and speed, while the Rafale is a versatile aircraft that can perform a variety of missions. These factors may still make them attractive options for countries that prioritize certain capabilities over stealth technology.

Additionally, the Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale have already established themselves in the global market, with several countries already operating these aircraft. This existing customer base may continue to support the Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale, even as the F-35 production increases.

While increased F-35 production may have some negative impact on the Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale market, it is not necessarily a death knell for these aircraft.


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