Disastrous European Stealth Fighter Program is Expanding New Markets For American F-35s – Spain Could Be Next

Amid ongoing revelations regarding the troubled state of the joint Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System (FCAS) sixth generation fighter program, a growing number of European air forces are expected to look to the United States to supply F-35 fifth generation fighters to modernise their fleets as an alternative. The latest to reportedly show an interest is Spain, where 50 F-35s may be acquired to replace 25 Spanish Air Force F-18 Hornets and 25 Spanish Navy AV-8B+ Harriers II. While the U.S., China, and in the near future Russia and South Korea will all have multiple units of indigenous fifth generation fighters in service, with America and China considered frontrunners in a neck to neck race for sixth generation development, European producers are not expected to move past the fourth generation until after 2030 and possibly much later. CEO of French aerospace firm Dassault Eric Trappier elaborated in June regarding the state of the FCAS program that “[The target of] 2040 is already missed, because we already stall, and the discussions of the next phase will surely also be long,” he said, “so we rather aim for the 2050s.” This meant the fighter would enter service around 25 years behind American and Chinese sixth generation fighters and quite possibly after both countries have moved on to a seventh generation. As the gap continues to grow between increasingly lagging producers in Europe, and the U.S. and China which have emerged as the clear industry leaders, the appeal of purchasing American combat aircraft is expected to continue to grow for European states. 

Should Spain acquire the F-35 for its air force, it would be only the latest European country to do so with Belgium, Switzerland, Poland, Finland, the Czech Republic and Germany having all recently opted for the aircraft despite often fierce efforts by European fighter programs to compete. The pan-European Eurofighter and French Rafale have consistently lost tenders across the continent to the F-35, and come at a similar price despite being fourth generation aircraft without stealth capabilities. Losses have continued despite France in particular offering multi billion dollar investment deals and other perks should its Rafale be selected over the F-35, with the more modern U.S. aircraft seeing no comparable perks offered to market it. The latest sign of the ongoing trend was a German decision in April to move towards purchasing the F-35 despite considerable domestic pressure to divert orders to the Eurofighter, which has performed poorly on export markets. European aircraft have thus been able to compete only in third world markets where a combination of American political pressure not to buy Chinese or Russian products, and unwillingness to offer the F-35, has allowed the Rafale and Eurofighter to gain some market share where they would not have been able to otherwise.  

Other than Portugal, Spain is the poorest country in Western Europe by per capita GDP standing at less than half those of developed economies such as the Netherlands and under a third that of Switzerland. While the Spanish Defence Ministry has denied interest in the F-35 based on the American fighter’s cost the pressure to buy the aircraft could grow as it becomes increasingly clear that not doing so would leave it without a post fourth generation capability into the 2030s and potentially much longer. Spain has at times faced tensions with neighbouring Algeria, which in the Cold War frequently flew MiG-25 interceptors near its airspace which nothing in the Spanish fleet was able to meaningfully threaten, and Algeria’s expected acquisition of fifth generation fighters in the near future could add urgency to Spain’s perceived need for a more advanced capability.