F-35 will ‘kill’ the European aviation industry, France says

Recent reports from French media suggest that the deployment of the F-35 fighter jet may pose a serious challenge to the European aviation industry. In a recent development, Portugal is said to be getting ready to replace its existing F-16 fighter jets with the F-35 model, making it the 14th European nation to choose the American stealth jet fighters

F-35 Block 4, designated AY-01 will fly to Belgium next year
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

This rising popularity has cemented the F-35’s position as the prevailing fighter jet across the European landscape, calling into question the future of Europe’s own emerging fighter jet designs. 

Europe’s progression in fifth-generation aircraft technology has lagged behind. This is largely due to cooperation issues among European military forces on projects like the Rafale and Typhoon fighter jets. As a result, the designs for these two types of fighters stretched from the 1980s to the dawn of the 21st century. Coincidentally, this was the period when the F-22, the inaugural fifth-generation aircraft in the world, was officially commissioned. 

UK will train Ukrainian pilots, even though it cannot train its own - eurofighter typhoon
Photo credit: Pixabay

Given additional cuts in defense budgets across Europe and the advanced status of the F-35 project, an increasing number of European nations are opting to purchase the F-35 directly, putting aside the development of indigenous fifth-generation aircraft. 

Nonetheless, Europe hasn’t relinquished its intention to forge ahead with the development of a new generation of combat aircraft. Currently, a multitude of European countries have initiated research and development projects for next-generation fighters, and interestingly, a decision has already been made to bypass fifth-generation aircraft and jump straight into the development of sixth-generation models.

Projects like SCAF [involving France, Germany, Spain, and Belgium] and GCAP [comprising the UK, Italy, and Japan] have been initiated to craft new fighter jets that could potentially be in service until 2060 or beyond. However, these European endeavors face challenges due to limited equipment demand and the formidable presence of the United States in the region’s defense arena. This often results in the disruption of European projects that seek independence from the U.S. 

First part of UAE's 80 Rafale F4 delivery program is in full swing
Photo credit: Dassault Rafale

The U.S. has been actively encouraging European nations to show their support for America’s stealth fighter—the F-35. Florence Parly, the French Defense Minister, stated in 2019 that the F-35 was not within the purview of NATO’s solidarity clauses. The growing influence of American warplanes is seemingly tuning down the significance of European aircraft. 

This shift was evident when Switzerland, in 2021, rejected the French Rafale jets, and again in 2022, when Finland weeded out the Swedish Gripen E/F jets. 2023 marked a tough year for European manufacturers as Greece, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Portugal decided in favor of the F-35 for their next-generation fighter jet. 

French media likened this sweeping trend to a “tsunami,” suggesting that the F-35 was taking over Europe. By 2030, it is projected that two-thirds of the European air forces will be equipped with this aircraft. This burgeoning pattern poses a formidable threat to the European aviation industry as it implies that only a handful of European nations will be able to sustain the development of their indigenous fighter programs. 

Danish F-35s have no weapons package, they'll use F-16's weapons
Photo credit: Danish Armed Forces

The ubiquity of the F-35 in Europe, as reported by various media outlets, compelled more European countries to procure it instead of investing in local fighter development. 

This development dealt a considerable blow to the European aviation industry, which historically prided itself on indigenous fighter technology. 

The success of the F-35 was hardly surprising, though. Dassault Aviation had been cautioning since the late 2000s that the primary goal of the F-35 was to stifle the European aviation industry and detract from its market and strategic autonomy. 

The provision of F-35 fighter jets to European nations further entrenched the U.S.’s military and political footprint in the continent. This has added fuel to the competitive fire that the European aviation industry must grapple with. 

Only a select few, including the French Rafale and Swedish Gripen, continue to foster their fighter jet programs. They, however, are impeded by a lack of market demand, budget constraints, and inherent technical complexities. 

If left unchecked, this could potentially decimate the entire European military aviation industry—known globally for its prowess in fighter jet development, production, and sales—but now threatened by the U.S.’s F-35. 

Sweden's Gripen gets new EW, comm- and reconnaissance systems
Photo credit: SAAB

Continued preference for the F-35 over indigenous fighters can prompt a serious existential crisis for the European aviation industry. 

This scenario underscores the pressures and challenges that the European aviation industry faces from its U.S. counterpart. While opting for the F-35 might offer immediate military and political dividends, it could undermine the sustainability of the European aviation industry and its strategic independence in the long run. 

Therefore, it is crucial for European nations to meticulously examine their strategic interests and developmental prospects to ensure that they maintain their relevance and authority in the international aviation arena.

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