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BAE Adds F-15, F/A-18 to Fighter Upgrade Push

After landing contracts to upgrade F-16 fighter jets overseas, BAE Systems Plc is now looking to do the same with F-15 and F/A-18 aircraft, according to a news report.

The London-based defense contractor returned to the Singapore air show this week after a several-year absence in part to encourage the government there to hold a competition to upgrade its fleet of F-16s made by Lockheed Martin Corp., according to an article by Andrew Chuter of Defense News.

John Bean, vice president of global fighter programs at BAE's U.S. subsidiary, also said the company is seeking international opportunities to upgrade Boeing Co.-made fleets of F-15s, possibly in Singapore and Japan, and F/A-18s, according to the report. The firm has already upgraded 50 of Turkey’s F-16s and has begun work on a deal to refurbish about 130 of South Korea’s jets.

"It's easy to take what we are doing because the F-16 is the smallest of the aircraft, so once we have a packaging that works for the Lockheed Martin aircraft, it's pretty straightforward to make it work for the F-15 and F/A-18," he told the publication, referring to common radar and targeting pods the company has installed.

Besides the U.S., the governments of Israel, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Singapore fly versions of the F-15 Eagle, and those of Australia, Canada, Finland, Kuwait, Malaysia, Spain and Switzerland operate variants of the F/A-18 Hornet.

The international market for upgrading the twin-engine jets won't be as large as that of the single-engine F-16 Fighting Falcon, which Bean estimated at about $6 billion and 850 aircraft, according to the article.

Upgrading fourth-generation fighters is cheaper than buying new fifth-generation aircraft such as F-22 Raptors and F-35 Lightning IIs, and thus may be more attractive to cash-strapped governments during an era of tightening defense budgets. This was the argument Bean made at last year's Paris air show. "Defense budgets around the world are shrinking," he said at the time. "Many customers are looking for an affordable alternative.”

Yet evolving security threats may prove more convincing to certain governments than fiscal challenges.

South Korea last year scrapped plans to buy Boeing's newly upgraded F-15SE in a potential $7.7 billion, 60-aircraft deal. While the firm's offer was cheaper than competing bids from Airbus SAS for the Eurofighter Typhoon and from Lockheed for the F-35, the government decided it wanted a stealthier aircraft amid provocations by North Korea.

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