The two most widely produced fighter aircraft in the Western world the fifth generation American F-35 Lighting II stealth fighter and the fourth generation French Rafale are both struggling with wide ranging supply chain issues preventing them from quickly meeting either domestic or foreign demand. Although the F-35’s production scale exceeds those of all other Western fighter classes combined, the program is expected to fall over 50 fighters below its target of 156 fighters produced this year – which is itself much reduced from original production goals which were significantly higher. As a result the U.S. Air Force, which initially planned to be receiving 110 F-35As per year, is not expected to be able to meet even its much reduced target of 48 fighters this year. Cuts to F-35 production have been caused by issues with software upgrades for the aircraft, and come as the only other fifth generation fighter produced on a large scale the Chinese J-20 has seen delivery rates to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force rise rapidly with an expected 80-100 fighters set to be delivered this year – and around 120 in 2024.
Beyond cuts to 2023 deliveries, in the longer term with over 20 clients the F-35’s production is far too low to modernise the fleets of American and its security partners at anything approaching the rates they would like. Lockheed Martin’s chief financial officer Jay Malave highlighted accordingly in July that a broad and significant investment across the supply chain would be needed to increase production meaningfully beyond the current goal of 156 aircraft per year. While new foreign orders for the aircraft have injected considerable additional funds into the F-35 program, with the fighter consistently winning tenders to furnish NATO compatible militaries against much less competitive European fourth generation aircraft, many of the factors constraining production could take years to address. Severe shortages in the talent pool, and an insufficient numbers of skilled workers in the United States capable of producing fifth generation fighters and complex high tech products, has been a leading bottleneck – one which has had implications across manufacturing fuelling further outsourcing of advanced manufacturing to East Asia in particular.
The only other Western fighter to have gained significant orders in recent years, the French Rafale has seen supply chain issues undermining its production continue to deteriorate which has made it more difficult to process orders. The fighter’s producer Dassault Aviation accordingly warned in mid-July that “this situation has an impact on the development and production of our aircraft, while we need to ramp up to meet our commitments.” The producer has an order backlog of 160 Rafale fighters, the large majority of them for export and half of them set to be delivered to the United Arab Emirates under a $19 billon deal signed in December 2021. The Rafale was a highly unpopular fighter in its initial years and consistently lost to fighters such as the Russian Su-30 and American F-15 and F-16 in tenders from Algeria and Morocco to the South Korea and Singapore. Its position only worsened as the F-35’s entry into export markets in the mid-2010s left European aircraft with little chance of competing against a similarly priced American jet that was technologically operating in an entirely different league.
The Rafale has managed to gain significant orders from the mid-2010s by targeting states which for political reasons were seeking to acquire Western armaments, but were also for political reasons blocked from acquiring F-35s, with the vast majority of sales being to clients which fit this description. The United Arab Emirates, for example, was barred from purchasing F-35s after it refused American pressure to end cooperation with the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei, while India, Egypt and Qatar were all never offered the F-35. The fact that sales of the fighter have consistently been surrounded by corruption scandals has been another notable factor. The Rafale has a number of benefits over the F-35 including less performance and reliability issues, much lower operational and lifetime costs, and perhaps most importantly signifiant autonomy in how the aircraft can be used by the standards of Western fighters – where the United States famously very strictly controls where, how and for what purposes its fighters can be operated even for fourth generation aircraft. The French aircraft’s combat potential, however, is very far inferior, with European states unlikely to produce a fighter operating in the same league as the F-35 and J-20 for the foreseeable future if ever. Supply chain issues affecting both the F-35 and the Rafale come amid broader industrial issues affecting Western high tech manufacturing in multiple sectors which have only worsened since the COVID-19 crisis, and have gained increasingly significant implications at a time of high geopolitical tensions when Western adversaries particularly China, Russia and North Korea are rapidly improving the scale and sophistication of their own advanced weapons manufacturing including in the former two for fighter planes.