The importance of air power

In retrospect, the year 2011 might well be when the use of air power alone has been decisive in ending an armed conflict. The case study of course is Libya, where even more than in the case of the Balkans a decade earlier, a relatively small number of aircraft with precision-guided munitions managed in a few months to end a brutal civil war. Indeed, the initial reluctance of the United States to become involved in Libya was based on the calculation that coalition nations would need to deploy ground troops at some stage – but the opposite proved to be the case. Developments in technology are making it possible to contemplate winning conflicts with minimal loss of life.

21st Jan 2012


 

The importance of air power

Kym Bergmann / Singapore


In retrospect, the year 2011 might well be when the use of air power alone has been decisive in ending an armed conflict. The case study of course is Libya, where even more than in the case of the Balkans a decade earlier, a relatively small number of aircraft with precision-guided munitions managed in a few months to end a brutal civil war. Indeed, the initial reluctance of the United States to become involved in Libya was based on the calculation that coalition nations would need to deploy ground troops at some stage – but the opposite proved to be the case. Developments in technology are making it possible to contemplate winning conflicts with minimal loss of life.

It is therefore hardly surprising that Asian nations continue to invest in strengthening their air forces, and the largest competition presently underway remains India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft evaluation. Even though a decision was expected by many observers to have been made last November, this did not occur and all signs point to a drawn out process. There have even been suggestions that the competition could restart and – India being India – almost anything is possible.

The two current competitors – the Rafale and the Eurofighter – are well matched and picking between the two of them was always going to be difficult. To date the Eurofighter has had a more impressive sales record, but it can be argued that in the Libyan conflict it was the Rafale that was the more impressive all-round performer. The Indian evaluation was been tightly managed and the only reliable rumours indicate that both aircraft have many good points, but these are in different parts of the performance envelope. It can be expected that the industry packages will be comprehensive and the price differential unlikely to be a major discriminator. Unfortunately for the Rafale, recent experience in places like the UAE would seem to indicate that manufacturer Dassault has surprisingly limited flexibility when it comes to terms and conditions.

Whichever aircraft wins, it will be a boost to the European aerospace sector that – with the limited exception of Sweden’s Saab – continues to face stiff competition from US giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing. However, if the MMRCA competition was restarted and several years added to the evaluation then the playing field might look quite different. This is because of the changing nature of military aerospace. At one end of the spectrum is the fifth generation Joint Strike Fighter juggernaut, which already has considerable momentum. At the other end of the range are smaller and cheaper aircraft such as the China / Pakistan J-17 and South Korea’s T-50 Golden Eagle.

These developments are already affecting the market in a way that is not advantageous to European manufacturers. The most recent example is the decision of Japan to purchase the JSF ahead of either the Eurofighter or the Super Hornet. The logic for many purchasers is becoming clearer: the unit costs for JSF are now becoming comparable with older aircraft, its long-term performance will be much better than anything else available and in theory it should be cheaper by far to operate over its 30 year life. Even though the JSF continues to have its critics and still faces formidable financial hurdles, its long-term viability is now all but guaranteed. Another recent vote of confidence from a country that knows all about air power was Israel’s decision to buy 20 of them, with the possibility of purchasing many more as F-16 replacements. Given Israel’s strategic circumstances, the decision to purchase JSF would not have been taken lightly.

Another likely purchaser of the JSF will be Singapore, though the island state is in no particular rush and is still phasing in its F-15SGs. However, the air force is taking a lively interest in the project and has had observer status since 2003. But with the rise of China and the prospects of heightened security concerns in the adjacent regions, it looks almost certain that Singapore will want to field a fifth generation aircraft at some point.

At the other end of the register are emerging aerospace powers such as China and South Korea – along with a mildly resurgent Russia. All of these countries have the ability to produce advanced aircraft of varying capabilities at costs that look to be somewhat lower than Europe can manage. Russia is not quite in this category, though its links with India for the development of a fifth generation fighter might give it access to a high quality, low cost production line.

All of this means that India’s MMRCA competition is taking on even greater significance for Europe’s aerospace industry because it might well be one of the last big contracts that either Eurofighter or Rafale have a good chance of winning. Both aircraft will continue to receive upgrades and improvements funded by their existing customers and both will be around for the next thirty years. However, whether they can remain competitive for much longer in a rapidly changing international environment is open to question. Both manufacturers must be hoping that India makes a decision sooner rather than later.

 

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