Richard Gardner looks at how changing factors are influencing the competitive regional market for combat aircraft. The volatile political situation in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia has understandably grabbed the world’s attention as unrest and anger amongst populations and ethnic groups has spilled over into riots and revolutions, and in some cases open warfare. Nations including Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Bahrain, thought to be relatively immune to revolution, have seen the wind of change sweeping away, or seriously challenging, old orders, as armoured cars appear in the cities and jets fly overhead. Further to the East, the high tension in Syria, Gaza and Iran, and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, show little sign of diminishing.

8th Jun 2011

 Fighter aircraft


 Richard Gardner / London

Richard Gardner looks at how changing factors are influencing the competitive regional market for combat aircraft.

The volatile political situation in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia has understandably grabbed the world’s attention as unrest and anger amongst populations and ethnic groups has spilled over into riots and revolutions, and in some cases open warfare. Nations including Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Bahrain, thought to be relatively immune to revolution, have seen the wind of change sweeping away, or seriously challenging, old orders, as armoured cars appear in the cities and jets fly overhead. Further to the East, the high tension in Syria, Gaza and Iran, and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, show little sign of diminishing. Compared to all this instability, the Asia Pacific “Tiger” economies appear a far more stable market for increased aircraft sales. But with more competition for water and energy supplies to support future populations numbering several billion people, the need for upgraded defence capabilities is emerging as a higher priority in the Asia Pacific region as governments and air forces look at how best to provide for the future. This is a hugely competitive market, with potential export sales worth $billions, and the currently dominating US aerospace suppliers are increasing their efforts in the face of new challenges from Europe and within the Asia Pacific region itself.

For the past twenty years, the perceived threat to regional stability along conventional East-West divisions has been overtaken by new dynamics, introducing fundamentalism as an unpredictable factor. More recently, the astounding economic expansion of India and China has seen a global shift in perceptions. On the one hand, both these emerging 21st Century Superpowers are ripe for absorbing a lot more aircraft imports from the world’s suppliers. But they are, of course, far more ambitious than that, unwilling merely to accept the aerospace and defence status quo. Both India and China have long histories as producers of military aircraft – first imported, then licence- produced, and now indigenous designs. Until recently India’s efforts at designing, testing and manufacturing its own military aircraft has had a limited success rate. Front line air power has been bought in through direct sales and licence building, while experience in systems integration and system upgrades has steadily improved. Things are about to move up several stages in terms of industrial capability over the next few years as India achieves a tighter grip on its own forward vision, with technology transfer becoming a core element in all new defence programmes. The current plans for a new Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) and a fifth-generation air superiority joint programme with Russia’s Sukhoi on the T50/PAKFA, illustrate just how serious this effort has become, with plans in place to move up to a fast-jet fleet of 60 squadrons by 2025. China has always had a big air force, pitting sheer numbers against the sophisticated capabilities of the US air forces surrounding it, and other Western air forces. But, though still lagging far behind the West, China is planning a massive increase in its air power over the next decade with the more capable J-10 combat aircraft as its core, with a fifth-generation J-20 project now at the prototype development stage. This is expected in due course to lead to an operational aircraft with a performance similar to that of the T50 PAKFA or F-22. So, the major air forces of the Asia Pacific region are having to face up to the uncomfortable fact of life that things are changing in a significant way. Nobody knows exactly what China’s long term ambitions are, but it would be out-of-keeping with that country’s culture to become a Superpower and not have the military capability that would be expected of it to maximise its power and influence across the region. India, fearing this growing power to its North and East, and at sea, is keen to stay ahead in air power projection. Add to this re-arranging of strategic issues the defence anxiety of smaller nations throughout the region, and it becomes plain to see why interest in updating ageing air power assets is gaining in priority, and why the US is keen not to willingly give up its hard-won export lead in fighter aircraft.

Building on the sales record

The US government and its aerospace and defence suppliers have established an enviable sales record in the region as a result of open competitions and government-to-government deals, including key Foreign Military Sales, which are treated as an arm of US foreign policy. The US influence is part geographical, with a strong physical presence at permanent bases and in carriers at sea, part political, and part based on past events, such as major military involvement in regional conflicts and disputes, from World War Two and Korea, to the wars in the 60s and 70s in South East Asia and more recently around Korea and Taiwan. The USA’s willingness to provide its best fighters has not always been part of the foreign sales deal, though in fairness to the US manufacturers, US government objections have been on geo-political or security grounds, rather than any shortcomings on the part of the products concerned.

Perhaps the best example of this in recent times has been the repeated attempt by the government of Japan to acquire the F-22 Raptor air dominance aircraft. US industry saw this as one of the relatively few export opportunities for the type where the customer was willing to pay the extremely expensive asking price. But even such a loyal “Buy-American” customer could not negotiate a way around the sensitivity barrier, which extended beyond the issues surrounding the F-22’s stealth features, and so Japan is today dependent on 150 F-15J Eagle air defence fighters and around 100 F-4EJ Phantoms, plus 60 locally manufactured F2A light fighters, based on a modified F-16. The Japan Air Self Defence is not yet fully committed to an F-15J replacement, and has been developing designs, up to a mock-up stage, for an indigenous fifth-generation combat aircraft, but few regard this as a realistic prospect, and it appears most likely that the JASDF will eventually purchase the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, though it remains to be seen how or if its own industry will be permitted to produce the aircraft in Japan.

The F-16 marches on

The F2A gave Japan’s domestic aerospace industry an airframe platform to keep its production facilities busy, but by developing this one-off F-16 clone design, the country has excluded itself from adopting the Block 60 variants of the standard F-16 family, which Lockheed Martin has introduced and developed further, offering an extremely attractive and affordable package for those air forces seeking a balance between a genuine multi-role fighter and making the defence budget stretch as far as possible. The F-16 Fighting Falcon has become the default Western supersonic fighter over 40 years of production. The latest version, with its multi-target tracking synthetic aperture radar (SAR), glass-cockpit, Defensive Aids Suite DAS), night-vision capability, optional helmet-sight, precision weapons, advanced surveillance and reconnaissance electro-optical sensor pods, electronic warfare jamming pods, secure communications, GPS navigation and conformal fuel tanks, offers maximum value, combining no-risk capability with powerful effects (firepower), “ ISTAR (digital connectivity), and reach (range or endurance over the battlefield). Although the F-16 cannot match the agility or modernity of its 4th generation competitors, such as Rafale and Typhoon, it has a ready-to-go high performance available “out of the box”, providing a worthwhile improvement over the earlier F-16 models.

Pakistan’s well known problem obtaining further F-16Cs after the US imposed an arms embargo on the country, has been eased now that the US is providing military assistance in the wild and lawless northern border areas of the country. While the US was preventing Pakistan from receiving all the F-16Cs it had ordered, the RAF ordered in its place nearly 150 JF-17s, co-produced with China. This single–engine fighter is very similar to the standard F-16 in most respects, but is a more modern design and has led to the further development of China’s J-10, which is also on order for Pakistan. This 4th generation type also has only a single engine, but looks remarkably like a Eurofighter Typhoon from most angles. The Block 60 F-16s should be a capable counter to this new Chinese fighter for many years to come however. Customers in the Middle East have selected the aircraft, and Israel is a major operator, with 100 in service, as well as 70 older F-16Cs.

Taiwan’s Republic of China Air Force flies around 150 F-16As and Bs alongside nearly 60 French-supplied Mirage 2000s and over 80 F-5ETiger II light fighters. Relations between the USA and Taiwan fluctuate, depending on the state of the relationship between Washington and Beijing, and as the mainland giant flexes its air asset muscles, this sensitive political balance might work against any significant US fighter sales to the CAF for fear of provoking hostility. The US is the ultimate guarantor of Taiwan’s separate existence outside The Peoples’ Republic of China, which still claims the offshore territory, but US air power which might be needed to back up this supportive defence policy is concentrated largely in mobile carrier-based Pacific naval assets and long-range bombers based as far away as The Indian Ocean and Hawaii. Taiwan and South Korea both remain potential areas where a future military confrontation with China may arise. This is a major justification for US air forces having the capability of the F-22 Raptor available to dominate the air space over chosen regions of the world. At the moment there is no challenger to this air asset, but Russia and India, with the T50 PAKFA, and China, with its J-20, intend to bring into use powerful new fighters which may become game changers over the next decade, unless the USAF reveals an even more radical “Skunk Works” design.

South Korea maintains a well-equipped front line force of fighters, ranging from the F-15K Eagle (61 ordered), around 160 F-16Cs and 160 F-5Es, together with home-produced A-50 light fighters, based on the T50 supersonic trainer. This indigenous design uses as much as possible from the F-16 to aid commonality and is being offered for export as a competitor to the Alenia M-346 and BAE Hawk. Lockheed Martin played a key role in helping KAI to develop the T/A50. The F-16 Fighting Falcon is well established in ROK service and can be expected to receive further upgrades to maintain irs use as a ground attack and reconnaissance aircraft as well as a light air defence fighter. A controversial international competition to replace the F-4 Phantom as ROK’s major air defence aircraft saw the US win with its F-15K. France’s Dassault, which had bid its Rafale 4th generation fighter, suggested that the competition was rigged in favour of the US bid as a result of US political muscle, but even if this were true, it remains a reality that the performance of the much enhanced F-15K was sufficiently impressive to also attract orders from Singapore and even Saudi Arabia (even though that customer had already ordered Typhoon fighters). Singapore had a similarly hard-fought competition before the F-15SG unexpectedly emerged the winner. Despite nurturing operational desires for advanced solid-state radar systems, the European manufacturers of both the Typhoon and Rafael fighters have been at a disadvantage in recent years by being able only to offer brochure-status advanced radar options for their products, while the US has been able to offer real hardware aboard the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 families. This is to change, as France has ordered new radars for its next batch of multi-role Rafales, and the Eurofighter team has realised that it will continue to miss key export opportunities until it can also supply Typhoons similarly equipped.

All at sea?

The F-16 family from Lockheed Martin has walked away with so many export contracts over the last few decades it is sometimes easy to overlook the F/A-18 Hornet family from Boeing. As with the F-16, the F-18 design dates back to the 1970s, though today’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is a far cry in terms of capability from the original model, which was optimised for aircraft carrier operations. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) Malaysia and Australia have made this aircraft a familiar sight in the region in its earlier form (Malaysia has just eight F/A-18Ds and Australia around 60As) but the latest and highly modified F/A-18E-F Super Hornet has now joined the Royal Australian Air Force as an F-111 replacement stop-gap until the day (sometime in 2018) when the first F-35s will take over the main attack role.

Not content with keeping the Super Hornet highly competitive well beyond its original carrier era, the Boeing team has taken the latest version and is proposing even more new features so that it can take head-on competition from Lockheed Martin (with the F-35 as well as the F-16), Typhoon, Rafale, Gripen and the Russians (Mig-35 and Sukhoi Su-30MK). The newest additions to the Super Hornet comprise conformal fuselage-hugging fuel tanks ( with 3,000lbs of extra fuel), next-generation cockpit displays, uprated F414 engines (20% more thrust), an integrated Infrared Search and Track sensor, a new Defensive Aids Suite (DAS), an enclosed weapons carrying pod (with reduced radar cross section) and the ability to carry new weapons. Increased situational awareness is a feature of the new 3D cockpit displays. This new variant is being offered in the Indian MRCA competition as a “maximum value” competitor that is more affordable than the 4th Gen fighters, but can deliver a comparable performance in terms of weapons carrying and range, and supportability. It certainly has agility, as has been demonstrated at many air shows around the world. With a more capable multi-target identification and track radar system, the Super Hornet is still extremely viable. The enthusiasm of the Boeing company to promote this as a possible cheaper and less-risky alternative to the F-35 joint strike Fighter has not gone un-noticed by competitors and would-be customers alike. Whether Boeing will be able to persuade others to follow the Australian example in adopting the Super Hornet as an interim solution to the air superiority challenge is another matter.

The final word

The Lockheed Martin F-35 JSF is regarded by the US aerospace community as the natural successor to the F-16 and “the final word” on ISTAR capable battlespace air platforms for the next 30 years. The key issues are performance delivery and affordability. If the worldwide line-up of partner-customers can be convinced that this aircraft is all the salesmen say it is, and can be delivered at a realistic cost, then it is probably home and dry as the next world leader in jet fighters. If, on the other hand, the complex integration issues (the latest of which involves compatibility between the helmet sight and night-vision issues) continue to extend and extend the development phase, then at least some buyers may turn elsewhere. Already the highly complex STOVL version, the B model, has been pulled sideways from the development flying so as not to hold up progress on the A and C models. If reliability questions concerning the intake door mechanisms, and indeed the overall STOVL propulsion system, can be overcome, then the US Marines (and other navies currently flying Harriers) will be very relieved. The sheer complexity of the design was always going to be a challenge, but the next couple of years will be critical if the main STOVL customer, the US Marine Corps is to stick with the F-35B. Everyone has been, and still is, waiting patiently for JSF to come right. There is far too much at stake for there to be any doubt that it will come right in due course, and maybe then it can fully demonstrate with its networked next-gen technology (more important than stealth) that the wait has been worth it. Then, and probably only then, can the US feel more relaxed about taking on other new generation competitors in the Asia Pacific region.


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