Air combat


 Richard Gardner / London

During the closing weeks of 2011 the global defence spotlight for new fighter sales turned once again to the Asia Pacific region. For some considerable time, several important fighter bids have been underway and this highly competitive sales battleground has been seen by many as a potential tipping point for customer choice on new fighter procurement. Can the all-conquering F-16 family, and other rejuvenated 70s US fighters, such as the F-18 and F-15, face up to the newer generation aircraft by offering a potent mix of high capability with affordability, or is the curtain for new sales drawing down with fourth and fifth generation combat aircraft crowding in on the scene?

The long term rise of China as an expanding military Superpower in the region is causing concern and those countries with significant territory and trade interests to protect can no longer rest easy with fleets of ageing combat aircraft. While there is no sign of any desire on the part of China to become more aggressive in terms of foreign and defence policy, it remains a fact that for the last decade, the Peoples’ Republic has embarked upon a two digit annual increase in its defence budget. The cumulative effect of this is now starting to be seen in the shape of newer combat aircraft in development and production, with more on their way.

China’s programme for a breakout in capability and operational reach beyond its regional airspace and maritime areas in the form of new aircraft carriers equipped with advanced supersonic fighters, supplemented by more nuclear submarines and warships armed with long-range anti-ship missiles, means that even the protective military shield provided for so long by the US Navy, is no longer unchallenged. Additionally, China has shown itself to be fully capable of taking out space satellites, now essential tools in providing situational awareness, surveillance and command and control. As the military power and influence of China moves out into the Pacific and Indian Ocean, India, sharing a border in Tibet with Chinese forces on its doorstep, is perhaps the most concerned with potential military encirclement, and so is also embarking on a major upgrade of its military capabilities right across the board. This new arms race is cascading down throughout the Asia Pacific region and so it is little wonder that the world’s major fighter suppliers are presently highly active as countries plan for front-line upgrades or replacements for existing air combat assets.

Bring them on!

Although it is now up against a host of competitors, including the F-15, F/A-18, Mig 29/35, Su-27/30, F/A-50, J-17, Gripen, Typhoon and Rafale, Lockheed Martin has lost none of its enthusiasm for promoting its F-16 Block 60 family. The popularity of the type is truly global and it has served the air arms of the USA, many NATO nations, and other customers from North Africa to South America and the Asia Pacific. In recent times the F-16 Fighting Falcon has scored highly in sales in the Middle East and Asia. Morocco has ordered 16 F-16s (after a lengthy sales battle with Dassault), the UAE has 54 F-16Es, fitted with the latest mission systems, surveillance and targeting pods, Israel has over 170, highly modified with new avionics, EASM and weapons systems and conformal tanks, Jordan flies over 40, Oman has 8 F-16Cs, Egypt 170, and Indonesia has 7, with 25 new aircraft ordered as part of a major upgrade to its air defence strength. This was a breakthrough as the supply of Western combat types has been banned during the last decade. The controversial sale of BAE Hawk trainers, and also light attack versions, was an exception and as a result of the defence sanctions, Indonesia turned to Russia for the supply of Su-27/30 fighters. Their success in service was somewhat limited however, with only 10 delivered, and so in an improving political climate, the sale of F-16s was permitted. (Europe had been hoping to sell Typhoons).

The USA has made maximum use over the lifetime of the F-16 its Foreign Military Sales programme. It has also released very many used ex-USAF F-16s for refurbishment and delivery abroad. Several NATO countries have also downsized their F-16 fleets and sold off the aircraft. One of the latest new customers is Iraq, where the new Iraqi Air Force is re-equipping with 18 US-supplied F-16C/Ds. 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 firepower, “ ISTAR (digital connectivity), and ample endurance over the battlefield. It is expected that in due course, as Coalition forces run down and gradually withdraw from Afghanistan, the US may wish to ramp up the capabilities of the re-forming Afghan Air Force.

This depends on whether or not foreign combat aircraft remain in the country for a longer timescale, or are based in neighbouring friendly states to provide additional air power if required. At present the build up in Afghan Air Force strength is limited to helicopters and transport aircraft, but light turboprop attack aircraft are the next step and eventually a small number of F-16s might follow as in Iraqi. The long-running saga of the vetoed US F-16s destined for Pakistan ended with that country retaining 36 F-16C/Ds, but chances of further orders being placed now seem unthinkable following a recent breakdown in relations that flowed from a mistaken US drone attack on a Pakistani border post, and for the fact that Pakistan is now accepting into service over 100 JF-17 fighters, co-produced with China, and is expected to also take deliveries of China’s J-10 fourth-generation combat aircraft. Though still lagging far behind the West, China is to increase its air power over the next decade with a family of more capable combat aircraft. These include the J-10 multi-role fighter, the J-11 (cloned Su-27/30) air superiority fighter, J-15 (cloned Su-33) naval fighter and the fifth-generation J-20 stealthy fighter project now at the prototype flight test and evaluation stage. This is believed to have been under development for almost 10 years and has not undertaken much flight testing, which indicates that it is still a long way from becoming an operational aircraft with a performance similar to that of the T50 /PAKFA or F-22.

The Block 60 F-16s should be a capable counter to the JF-17 fighter for many years to come. The fear comes from the superior J-10 and J-20. Taiwan’s Republic of China Air Force flies around 150 F-16As. 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. 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.

South Korea has recently placed a $600 million order for 20 indigenous F/A-50 two-seat light fighters. It is intended to eventually order a total of 150 of the operational F/A-50s. These will replace the country’s 160 F-5Es. South Korea maintains a well-equipped front line force of fighters, ranging from the F-15K Eagle (61 ordered), around 160 F-16Cs and the F-5Es, together with home-produced T50 supersonic trainer. This Korea Aerospace Industries design uses as much as possible from the F-16 to aid commonality and is 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 it. The F-16 Fighting Falcon is well established in ROK service and can be expected to receive further upgrades to maintain its use as a ground attack and reconnaissance aircraft as well as a light air defence fighter. The intention is to replace the existing radar with a new Active Electronically Scanned Array radar. Both Raytheon and Northrop Grumman in the US (and Selex Galileo in Europe) produce advanced lightweight AESA radar systems, and the chosen system for the F-16 upgrade may well find adoption in an enhanced F/A-50. South Korea is still looking for an F-4 replacement fighter and there is currently a fight-out between the F-15 Silent Eagle, Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed Martin is offering the F-35. In the light of the Japanese decision, and the threat from North Korea, the JSF must rate as a very good prospect.

Japan upgrades

There was much speculation in Europe that the competition to replace Japan’s ageing fleet of F-4EJ Phantoms might satisfy the long nurtured dream of selling this US-dominated customer some Eurofighter Typhoons. Japan is still dependent on 150 locally-assembled F-15J Eagle air defence fighters and around 100 F-4EJ Phantoms, plus 60 locally manufactured F2A light fighters, based on a local interpretation of the F-16. The country was never going to order more F-16s but Boeing once had hopes for the latest version of the F-15E, but concentrated this bid on its multi-role enhanced F/A-18E/F model. Eurofighter made a very strong case for Typhoon, and offered generous local assembly opportunities as well as off-sets and technology transfer, but with US government support, Lockheed Martin offered the Joint Strike Fighter. It thus hardly came as a total surprise when in late December last year the Japan Air Self Defence Force announced that it had chosen the F-35A Lightning II JSF as its next generation combat fighter.

Following its rejected attempt to overcome the F-22 veto, Japan had been developing indigenous fifth-generation designs, which it progressed to the mock-up stage. Now, with the decision to join the JSF programme, with first deliveries starting in the second half of this decade, the JASDF will be content to have a local final assembly and flight test role on the F-35. The details of this deal have not been fully revealed, so the total aircraft buy and extent of Japanese industrial involvement remains unclear. However, the initial order is thought to cover the sale of 42 aircraft. The earlier F-2 and F4 fighters that will be replaced number around 150, but it is unlikely all will be replaced on a one-for-one basis, bearing the superior performance of the F-35. The new aircraft will probably also replace the F-15Js in due course. This order for the F-35 will be welcomed not only by the US and Japanese governments, but also by other regional governments as such a capability will provide a most useful counter to the growing military power of China and the continuing instability of North Korea. Japan joins Israel as another new F-35 customer taking sales beyond the nine partners who have shared in the development costs.

India moves ahead

India’s indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) has suffered an extended development period, though examples are now entering service, 10 years after achieving a prototype first flight. However, the value of the development work on this project, including the capability to produce large composite structures, should not be underestimated. Partnerships have enabled HAL to build up expertise in manufacturing and systems integration capability on a broad range of combat aircraft, engines and systems. HAL is currently producing 272 Irkut Su-30MKI fighters and its Mig-29Ks and Sea Harriers, which have also been upgraded, together with radar-equipped Maritime Jaguars, provide the most powerful carrier and shore-based air defence and attack capability in the region. This front line air power has been acquired through direct sales and licence building, with a procurement balance that has aimed at avoiding becoming totally dependent on any single supplier nation. Generous licence agreements with Britain, Russia and France may have led to operational duplication with diverse types and over-lapping capabilities, but this has nevertheless provided India’s air force and navy with a flexible and highly credible front line. US suppliers, particularly Boeing, are increasing their military sales to India but efforts to sell combat fighters, in particular, the F/A-18E/F, have not been successful.

In the meantime, Indian experience in systems integration and upgrades will become crucial in terms of enhancing industrial capability, further boosted by technology transfer becoming a core element in all new defence programmes. The current plans for a fourth-generation Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) and a fifth-generation air superiority fighter joint programme with Russia’s Sukhoi based on the T-50/PAKFA, illustrate just how serious this effort has become, with plans in place to expand India’s fast-jet combat fleet to 60 squadrons by 2025. Results of the final shoot-out between Europe’s Typhoon and France’s Rafale over 126 MMRCA aircraft are still awaited, but in India, fifth-generation stealth aircraft have now become the centre of attention as this will provide a unique opportunity to consolidate the nations’s aerospace technological know-how on an unprecedented scale. While Russia is planning to use the single-seat T-50 as its counter to the US F-22, India is to develop an operational two-seat T-50 version, known as the FGFA, equipped with Indian avionics and weapons, as well as a lighter, stealthy multi-role aircraft known as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). This latter Indian design will incorporate technology from the FGFA but is closer in size to the US F-35 and is aimed at replacing India’s Jaguars and Mirage 2000s.

Hornets sting

Although the F-16 cannot fully 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. It has won so many export contracts over the last few decades it is easy to overlook the F/A-18 Hornet family from Boeing. 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. 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 55 As and 24 Fs). The latest F/A-18F Super Hornet has now joined the Royal Australian Air Force as an F-111 replacement stop-gap until the first F-35As will take over the main attack role from 2017. 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 its main rivals head-on. This new variant was offered but rejected in the Indian MMRCA competition and has been offered to Malaysia pitted against the Su30MKM, and Typhoon. Although the unrest in East Timor created additional tension between Indonesia and many of its immediate regional neighbours, conflagration across Indonesia itself did not happen. The city state of Singapore has one of the most modern and capable, if very small, air forces in the region, reflecting its key strategic location. It is equipped with advanced multi-role F-15SG Strike Eagles and upgraded F-16C/D Fighting Falcons as well as F-5s

Australian air power renewed

The Royal Australian Air Force is mid-way through a comprehensive modernisation programme that will see around AUD $26 billion spent in total. This will provide for a rolling renewal programme that will take the service through to 2030. The programme allows for a 3% year-on-year increase in the defence budget, recognises fully the shifting regional power balance resulting from Indian and Chinese defence expansion, and has been constructed to provide a flexible force structure that will retain a high level of defence self-reliance. It will contribute to, and be capable of leading, coalition forces, and will retain a wider strategic defence capability to help secure threatened neighbours as well as defending the land mass of Australia. Closer defence links with New Zealand, in the form of shared air transport and amphibious warfare capability will be developed, but perhaps the most significant regional defence contribution will be delivered by the acquisition and deployment of a range of advanced Combat I-STAR assets,including Boeing P-8A Poseidon MR aircraft and Global Hawk UAS platforms, Boeing Wedgetail AEW&C patrol aircraft and a new fleet of five EADS/Airbus KC-30A tanker aircraft that will provide global reach for all suitably equipped receiver aircraft, including the fast jet combat fleet of Hornets and Super Hornets. From 2018 Australia will introduce up to 100 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters which will fully restore Australia’s strategic attack superiority across the region.

The major air forces of the Asia Pacific 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. So it soon 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.


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