Battle for the skies at Singapore Airshow

Eyes to the skies: Big deal for fighter jets and drones are hoped for at this year's Singapore Airshow

Story highlights

  • Singapore is Asia's biggest airshow
  • Event is for civil and military aviation companies
  • Asia seen as key market for expansion
  • Big attraction at the show will be F35 fighter jet
Aerobatic stunt teams will provide Singapore's international airshow with entertainment, but the real dogfights for billion dollar contracts take place behind closed doors.
The world's third biggest aviation event takes place later this month, a mix of trade conference and national flag-waving with a whiff of kerosene and big money in the air.
The main players in the civil aviation industry will be in town, with announcements on new sales from the big plane makers expected, plus Indonesia's flagship carrier Garuda rumored to be set to announce new additions to its fleet.
Apart from the airline industry workhorses and business planes for the global jet-set, the event is also a grand bazaar for airborne weaponry where makers of combat aircraft and defense department bigwigs meet to talk shop and see some of the multi-million dollar hardware in action.
"There are high ranking generals walking around these events," says Gareth Jennings, Managing Editor of Jane's Missiles and Rockets. "Sometimes they are walking around in full uniform and happy to be noticed. It's about being seen and building international partnerships."
But away from the gold brocade and gleaming aircraft on show, the aviation industry, both military and civilian, doesn't have quite the same lustre. It faces the same problems as many other export industries, that of slow growth and the need to find new markets.
The United States, Russia and western European countries dominate the manufacture of weapons, but against a backdrop of U.S. defense cuts and a recession-haunted Europe, they are no longer the main markets for sales.
"In Europe it's pretty much stagnant," says Jennings. "If anything (European countries) are trying to offload the equipment they've got, interestingly to developing countries because that's where the money is," says Jennings.
Not all European defense departments are taking on the role of second-hand car salesmen, but the need to cut back or suspend deals means that more than ever Asia, South America and the Middle East are prime targets for arms companies.
Between 2006 and 2010, six of the ten largest importers of weapons came from the Asia Pacific region, according to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and companies from the west will be hoping that trend continues.
"There have been some large scale acquisitions in the (Asia) region," says Paul Holtom of SIPRI.
"In Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore there have been significant naval and combat aircraft orders," he says.
"Suggestions are that some of these acquisitions are looking at China as defense posturing, but also 'Keeping up with the Joneses.' We do see that tendency in that region."
India has been the worlds biggest recipient of combat aircraft for the past six years and is unlikely to cede that title soon. It is expected to announce who will supply its new fleet of multi-role fighter jets in the next few months and the battle between companies for the estimated $20 billion contract has raged for years. The recent news that Dassault's Rafale jet is the cheaper option and preferred bidder could save the French company that had been rumored to be in financial trouble for failing for find a single export order for its jet.
One of the big draws at this year's show and on display will be the Lockheed Martin F35 -- the only game in town, says Jennings, when it comes to the next generation of fighter jet.
While it has had some setbacks in development, Jennings believes they have mostly been overcome and is set to a big winner for the company. But it will have to be, he says.
"It's a big project. To achieve the cost figures they're looking at, around $57 million per aircraft once full production is going, they're going to have to get as many customers as possible."
While Asian countries including China, South Korea and India are developing their own fighter planes it will be a long time before they can compete with the established players in the industry from Europe, Russia and the U.S., believes Jennings.
Instead a big area of development and procurement is in unmanned drones. The U.S. and Israel dominate the market for those with strike capabilities, but the capacity for other countries to develop smaller unmanned aerial vehicles is growing.
"You see them cropping up almost everywhere," says Holtom. "Countries like Azerbaijan that you wouldn't normally assume to be a significant arms producer are looking to set up cooperative production arrangements so they can produce their own. From tiny things that can be launched by hand to the largest systems; it's cost effective rather than manned vehicles."
If the aircraft are getting smaller, the skies and aviation marketplace are set to become more crowded while manufacturers hope the deals will remains just as large.