Asian trainer aircraft

An air force is only as good as its pilots and training them is a vital part of ensuring combat effectiveness. That is why trainer aircraft are an integral part of any air force, but they can also be used for light attack and surveillance duties

22nd Oct 2012

 Asian trainer aircraft

 Strong regional demand for trainer aircraft

Byline: Guy Martin / Johannesburg

An air force is only as good as its pilots and training them is a vital part of ensuring combat effectiveness. That is why trainer aircraft are an integral part of any air force, but they can also be used for light attack and surveillance duties – an important consideration for budget-conscious countries. Many of the 973 jet and 599 turboprop trainers projected by Forecast International to be sold between now and 2021 will go to Asian countries, especially as they develop their domestic industries. While many nations are shrinking their combat jet fleets, numerous Asian countries are expanding theirs and the importance of trainer aircraft in the region is highlighted by their acquisition of fifth generation fighter aircraft, such as the F-35, FGFA and J-20.

China and Pakistan jointly produce the Karakorum-8 (K-8) jet trainer, manufactured by Hongdu Aviation Industry Corporation and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC). They are replacing the Pakistan Air Force’s Cessna T-37 Tweet jet trainers and its 25 obsolete Shenyang FT-5s, which were retired in January. Pakistan has 75 K-8s on order, in addition to six initially delivered. The low cost K-8 has been widely exported to around a dozen countries, which also use it for other duties, including light attack. A ton of weapons can be carried, including a 23 mm cannon pod and PL-5 and PL-7 air-to-air missiles. Pakistan also flies nine Shenyang FT-6s, seven Chengdu FT-7s and more than a dozen T-37B/Cs, together with PAC MFI-17 Mushshak and PAC Super Mushshak ab initio trainers. Pakistan has shown interest in acquiring Hongdu L-15s to bridge the gap between the K-8 and its frontline combat aircraft.

Pilot training is of tremendous importance for the Indian Air Force (IAF), especially as it suffers a relatively high accident rate, notably with the MiG-21, and is planning to introduce 126 new Rafale multirole combat aircraft in the coming years. In late May Pilatus announced that it had signed a contract with the IAF for 75 PC-7 Mk II trainers to replace 180 to 200 HAL HPT-32 Deepak aircraft, which were grounded in July 2009 after a number of fatal accidents. The contract is worth more than US $520 million including ground based training equipment and logistics support (the aircraft will be maintained by HAL in India). An option can extend the contract to 105 aircraft. Deliveries are set to begin at the end of 2012 or early next year. Pilatus chose to pitch the PC-7 Mk II rather than the more advanced PC-21 due to its lower operating costs.

In addition to acquiring PC-7s, HAL is developing an indigenous counterpart in the form of the HTT-40 turboprop basic trainer. For training pilots on large and medium transport aircraft, the IAF has ordered 15 Saras multi-role twin turboprop transport aircraft, developed by National Aerospace Laboratories. They will be delivered from 2014. The IAF may acquire up to 50 for training.

Intermediate training is provided by around 150 HAL HJT-16 Kiran trainers, which will be replaced by the locally developed HAL HJT-36 Sitara, which first flew in March 2003. Eighty-five have been ordered but the total requirement could be for up to 250 aircraft. The programme has been delayed by crashes and engine changes - full production may only occur in 2015, a year after the Kirans were supposed to have been replaced.

For advanced training, the IAF has in service the BAE Systems Hawk Mk 132. In 2004 66 Hawks were acquired after twenty years of negotiations. The first aircraft was accepted into service in 2008 and another 40 were ordered in July 2010 for the Air Force and 17 for the Navy. India’s first 24 Hawks were bought as flyaways while the rest were built under license by HAL. The Indian Air Force may order another 20 Hawks to replace the Kirans flown by the IAF’s aerobatic team – HAL in September issued an RFP to BAE Systems for the license production of the additional aircraft.

The September unveiling of China’s latest stealth fighter, the Shenyang J-21, and the revelation of the Chengdu J-20 some 20 months earlier highlights the importance of new generation training aircraft for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). These need to be in service before the aircraft they are preparing pilots to fly even enter production. Two aircraft are competing to become the PLAAF’s next generation advanced trainer, which will replace the approximately 40 MiG-21-based Guizhou JJ-7s used for advanced training.

Hongdu is developing the supersonic L-15 Falcon advanced jet trainer/lead-in fighter, built with assistance from the Yak-130 development team. It first flew in March 2006 and is competing with the Guizhou JL-9/FTC-2000 Mountain Eagle. The L-15 has encountered engine problems and is unlikely to enter service before the end of the decade. Meanwhile, the JJ-7-based JL-9 first flew in December 2003 and is entering PLAAF service, while a carrier version (JT-9H) is under development for the Chinese Navy. China’s air force operates approximately 175 Hongdu JiaoLian-8 JL-8s (K-8s) for basic training and the Chinese Navy has around a dozen Shenyang JJ-6s and a dozen JL-8s in service.

China’s rival Taiwan has a large air force with some 300 frontline combat aircraft and around 200 training aircraft, making its flight training system one of the best in the region. Local industry (with foreign help) has developed the F-CK-1B advanced trainer variant of the AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-Kuo fighter, and AIDC AT-3 advanced jet trainer. Sixty-two AT-3s were built, of which around 50 remain in service. In addition, there are some 37 Beechcraft T-34 Mentors in service. The AT-3 can be armed with a variety of weapons, including bombs, rocket pods and AIM-9 and TC-1 air-to-air missiles. The AT-3A/Bs will be replaced by 50 new aircraft worth US$2.6 billion from 2016, together with Taiwan’s Northrop F-5Fs. AIDC in 2000 began extending the AT-3 fleet’s life to 2017.

Like Taiwan, Japan has also produced several indigenous military aircraft, including the Fuji T-5 side-by-side primary trainer (over 40 in service with the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force) and Fuji T-7 turboprop primary trainer. Around 50 have been produced for the Japan Air Self Defence Force (JASDF). For advanced jet training, Kawasaki produced 205 twin-jet T/XT-4s. Japan’s training fleet should be sufficient to prepare pilots for the nation’s first F-35 Lightning IIs, 42 of which have been selected to fulfil its F-X fighter requirement. For multi-engine training, the JASDF flies 13 Hawker 400 twin-jets, and has a two-seat trainer variant of the Mitsubishi F-2 fighter.

South Korea is one of the top defence spenders in the region, and is planning to acquire 60 fourth or fifth generation fighters under its F-X III competition (the Boeing F-15SE, F-35 and Eurofighter Typhoon are bidding for this programme, with a decision expected in October). The Republic of Korea Air Force’s (RoKAF’s) trainer fleet is highly capable and can easily meet its next-generation fighter requirements. Many of its trainers have been supplied by local industry - South Korea is one of only a dozen nations to successfully develop a supersonic aircraft, which it did in partnership with Lockheed Martin, developing the T-50 Golden Eagle.

The first of 50 T-50s was delivered to the RoKAF in December 2005 and another ten were built for the Black Eagles aerobatic team. Two variants are in service: the T-50 trainer and TA-50 lead-in fighter-trainer with Elta EL/M-2032 radar. Both are weapons capable and apart from an internal 20 mm cannon can carry Mk 82, Mk 83 and SUU-20 bombs, AIM-9 air-to-air missiles and AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missiles. From 2013, KAI will produce 20 FA-50 multirole versions to replace the RoKAF’s F-5E/Fs, at a cost of US$600 million. A total of 60 to 150 FA-50s could be acquired. The T-50 is a highly capable trainer and light combat aircraft, but is also expensive, at around US$20 million per unit. Nevertheless, it has attracted export interest.

The KAI KT-1 Woongbi turboprop trainer is another proud achievement for Korea’s aerospace industry. The Republic of Korea Air Force received 85 KT-1s and 20 armed KA-1s, which feature five hard points for rocket launchers, gun pods and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. The RoKAF also flies 15 BAE Systems Hawk Mk 67 advanced trainers, but these are due for retirement in 2013.

Indonesia was the launch export customer for the KT-1, buying seven in April 2003 for US $60 million, and another five in May 2005. It also became the first export customer for the T-50, ordering 12 T-50s and four TA-50s in May 2011 for US $400 million. They will be delivered in 2013 and will replace the Air Force’s 13 Hawk Mk 53/109 aircraft.

Indonesia has one of the largest air forces in the region, flying Lockheed Martin F-16s and Sukhoi Su-27/30s, and is greatly expanding its trainer fleet – in August 2011 it selected the Grop G 120TP to be its future trainer and will use it to provide ab initio and basic training. Grob claims the G 120TP to be the only aircraft that can provide elementary, basic and advanced pilot training in one package, delivering huge cost savings. This aircraft features a Martin Baker Mk 15B ejection seat, Rolls Royce RM250-B17F turboprop and glass cockpit with hands-on throttle and stick (HOTAS) controls. Indonesia was the launch customer for the G120TP, with 18 on order, for delivery in 2012/13. The G120TPs will replace its roughly 28 FFA AS/SA-202 Bravo and dozen T-34 trainers. Around 15 Aermacchi SF-260s, donated by Singapore, are in service as well. (See also Super Tucano story, p 14)

Singapore has essentially outsourced its fighter pilot training - in November 2006 the Singapore Defence Science and Technology Agency awarded Lockheed Martin a 20-year contract to support its Basic Wings Course. Lockheed Martin is providing aircraft, maintenance, simulators and instruction to the Air Force’s 130 Squadron at Royal Australian Air Force Base Pearce in Western Australia. Pilatus delivered the first six of 19 PC-21s in support of the programme in April 2008, with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) commencing flight training on these in July 2008. The PC-21s replaced the Air Force’s 32 Alenia S-211 jet trainers, which were received in the 1980s.

For Singapore’s Fighter Wings Course, the country ordered 12 M-346 Master advanced/lead-in-fighter trainers from Alenia Aermacchi in September 2010 through a consortium formed by ST Aerospace and Boeing (the latter providing simulators). The US$241 million contract was finalised in June 2011 and includes 20 years of support. The first aircraft was rolled out on August 7 in Italy, and is due to be handed over later this year. The M-346s will replace Douglas A/TA-4SU Skyhawks at Cazaux air base in France, where the RSAF conducts its Fighter Wings Course.

The Royal Australian Air Force conducts flight training with its 63 Pilatus PC-9/A and 33 Hawk Mk 127 aircraft, as well as eight King Air 350s. However, the training system is under review in anticipation of the acquisition of up to 100 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs. The Hawk Mk 127s were acquired in 1997, with deliveries concluding in 2001. They are highly capable trainers, able to provide combat training, air-to-air refuelling training and night vision flying (due to an NVG compatible cockpit). They will be further enhanced by a AUD $25 million (US $24 million) contract with BAE Systems, which will see them upgraded to a configuration similar to that of the Royal Air Force’s new-generation T2 model. The upgrade, announced in July, will ensure the Hawks remain effective in training pilots for Boeing Super Hornet and F-35 aircraft as they are introduced into service.

Nearby, New Zealand conducts flight training on a dozen piston-engined Pacific Aerospace Ltd CT-4E Airtrainers and five Hawker Beechcraft King Air 200s (the latter being used for multi-engine training). Advanced jet trainers are not necessary as the country no longer flies fast jets. A request for proposals to replace the Airtrainers is expected in 2013. The Airtrainer is also in service with the Royal Thai Air Force and is used for privately contracted Royal Australian Air Force training.

The Philippine Air Force has been promised the fruit of increased military spending resulting from the massive modernisation budget for 2013, which was approved in September. This will see the Philippine Air Force acquire 12 TA-50s, six Super Tucanos, 12 attack helicopters, six light and 25 medium transport aircraft, and 11 helicopters. The Philippine Air Force flies several surviving S-211s, a number of Cessna T-41 Mescaleros (15 were acquired from South Korea in 2009) and more than 20 SF-260M/F/TPs (deliveries of another 18 concluded in September 2011).

The Malaysian Air Force flies a wide variety of trainers, including SME MD3-160 AeroTiga piston-engined ab initio trainers, around 20 PC-7 Mk I/II basic trainers (31 PC-7s were acquired in the 1980s and 19 Mk IIs purchased in 2005), eight Alenia MB-339CMs (16 ex-RNZAF examples were recently delivered), several Hawk Mk 108 advanced trainers and a couple of Northrop F-5F Tiger IIs that function as lead-in fighter trainers. The Hawk 108s complement the service’s 14 Hawk 208 fighters.

The Royal Thai Air Force has expanded its combat aircraft fleet with Saab Gripen fighters, for which pilot training is provided by roughly two dozen CT-4A/E Airtrainers (ex RNZAF), half a dozen T-41Ds and 22 PC-9Ms. Advanced training and light attack duties are carried out by around 35 Aero Vodochody L-39ZA/ART Albatroses and about 20 Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jets. Six Diamond DA 42s are used for multi-engine training, and another four are used for reconnaissance.

The Bangladesh Air Force has seven L-39ZAs, six Shenyang FT-6s, and 11 Cessna T-37Bs in service. It is planning to modernise much of its fleet and is looking at purchasing 10-16 Yak-130 fighter/trainers.

Myanmar’s Air Force acquired 16 PC-7s in 1979/80 (and modified them for ground attack missions), ten PC-9s in the mid-80s and six Soko G-4 Super Galebs in 1990. The latter were non-operational by the mid 2000s and appear to have been replaced by a dozen K-8s, received between 1998 and 2000. Another 50 were apparently ordered in 2009.

Numerous other Asia-Pacific countries operate an eclectic mix of trainers. The North Korea People’s Army Air Force has 30 Shengyan FT-2 (MiG-15UTI) and 135 Shenyang FT-5 trainers, as well as dozens of Nanchang CJ-6 piston trainers and a dozen L-39Cs. The Vietnam People’s Air Force has two dozen L-39s in service, together with Yak-52 piston trainers, and has reported interest in acquiring eight Yak-130s from Russia from 2015 to replace its L-39s.

Elsewhere, the Royal Brunei Air Force has four PC-7 Mk IIs in service; the Royal Cambodian Air Force has five L-39Cs and Sri Lanka flies a half a dozen K-8s, and handfuls of PT-6s and Cessna 150s.

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