Paris Air Show

PARIS 2013

Richard Gardner / Paris

The violent thunderstorms and torrential rain that accompanied the opening of this year’s Paris International Air Show provided an appropriate backdrop to the stormy state of the military aerospace market. While civil markets are booming, with the major suppliers facing the enviable challenge of how to increase production to reduce the growing order backlogs extending over half a decade, the climate for new military orders is decidedly chilly. The problem now for suppliers of military aircraft and the associated systems and weapons that go with them, especially Western plane makers, is that the biggest customers, including the USA and NATO nations, are desperately trying to reduce their debt levels and as a consequence government defence cut-backs are deep, and not just short-term measures – suggesting a permanent readjustment in national funding priorities.

Very noticeable at the show was the complete lack of a presence in the air and on the ground, of operational military aircraft from the USA. This was more than a symbolic gesture to illustrate how determined the US government is to get defence spending under control – it also underlines its decision to refocus defence priorities in an Asia Pacific direction. Nevertheless, despite the lack of US aircraft in view, the major global aerospace and defence giants, such as Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, EADS, Thales, Finmecannica, and the Russian, Chinese and Israeli defence companies, were very active in the chalet rows, corporate pavilions and acres of exhibition halls. Such was the vast scale of the show, it is possible here only to highlight a small fraction of what was on display, or announced, and other new developments will be reported on later.

Russian show-stealer

It now looks likely that there will be very few genuine new major programmes for a decade or more beyond what has already been announced. The main momentum seems to be coming mostly from China, which is playing catch-up in aerospace technology, with no holding back on state investment. Even allowing for an inevitable slow-down in China’s rate of economic growth, its recent military muscle flexing, along with the continuing uncertainty over North Korea, is driving everyone in the region to seriously examine their current capabilities and vulnerabilities.

The need to improve air defences is assuming a new priority, and this is good news for Raytheon, and the Israeli defence sector, where advanced anti-ballistic systems – radars and missiles – are now much in demand. Russia is taking a very active stance by further developing its Sukhoi family of heavyweight multi-role combat aircraft and is working closely with India on the stealthy T50/PAK F/A. India fears Chinese re-armament more than most and has had several near-confrontations with Chinese forces in its northern border areas recently. It is now adopting a more balanced defence procurement policy as can be seen by increasing purchases of US and European military aircraft as well as Russian.

The undoubted star performer in the skies over Paris, and making its debut outside Russia, was the latest Sukhoi Su-35, from the United Aircraft Corporation. Based on the earlier Flanker family of heavyweight air combat fighters, the latest Su-35 incorporates upgraded cockpit and weapons systems throughout and a multi-axis thrust vectoring system on its two Saturn 117S engines. The engines and advanced fly-by-wire flight control system produce enough power and agility to enable the fighter to defy gravity at every turn. The company claims that this supreme agility, pivoting on the aircraft’s own axis, allows it to out turn anything else in the sky, while confusing enemy missile tracking sensors trying to get a positive lock-on. It may be controversial to claim that such slow-motion manoeuvres are advantageous in air combat but it was certainly awesome to watch. Despite this agility, the aircraft can carry a huge weapon load of more than 17,000 lbs of air-to-air or air-to-ground weapons, with a powerful stand-off launch capability, making it a truly multi-role platform. It can fly for almost 2,000 nm without having to refuel in flight. UAC is aiming future sales at both the Russian domestic customer and exports.

Export markets are now seen as the key to safeguarding current production capacity and the lack of all-new programme commitments is giving added momentum to efforts to upgrade and extend the operational lives of current production aircraft. In Europe, the rival Eurofighter, Dassault and SAAB fighter teams are engaged in sales combat with each other, as well as with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and the Russians. The Middle East is regarded as a major source of new orders as replacement aircraft are required to fill outstanding requirements for upgraded fighters and trainers, as well as various ISTAR and tanker/transport needs. The negotiations between France and India continue on firming up the selection of the Rafale, chosen last year, but other fighter competitions are also running, such as in South Korea, Malaysia, Brazil and Canada.

The French homegrown product, the Dassault Rafale was well represented in the static park and flying display. Thales, the supplier of the advanced electronic flight control, avionics and weapons systems aboard the Rafale, was keen to point out at the show that the RBE-2 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar was now in production and was about to be accepted into operational service with the French Air Force. The French Navy will also be AESA equipped with deliveries of the next Tranche 4 Rafales. The Eurofighter consortium has already signed up Saudi Arabia and Oman for the Typhoon, but talks are continuing on how best to roll out the rival Selex/Euroradar Captor-E AESA radar to incorporate it on future export sales as well as retro-fitting to late batch Typhoons already delivered. SAAB’s New Generation Gripen E, which is to feature the Selex Raven AESA radar, suggested at the show that one future option for Gripen E might be an unmanned version, which could fly alongside manned fighters in a future “shepherd and flock” formation. Meanwhile Boeing Defence was very actively promoting the “Silent Eagle” enhanced F-15 and the upgraded F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Both are being offered with AESA radars and a host of new capabilities including stealthy weapons carriage and conformal fuel tanks, as well as increased situational awareness for pilots. The end result is a pair of very up-to-date and fearsome multi-role fighters that come at a much lower cost than the F-35 from Lockheed Martin, which still has some way to go before it is able to deliver on its promise of game-changing capability. BAE Systems took the opportunity at Paris to promote its avionics upgrade package for the F-16, based on its recent success being selected for a major modernization contract for 134 Republic of Korea Air Force aircraft. Other targets in the company’s F-16 upgrade sights include Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.

Euro jumble on UAVs

Although Dassault, SAAB and Finmeccanica have combined and successfully flown the Neuron UCAV demonstrator, which was on show at Paris behind a glass bubble, and BAE Systems is about to fly its very similar Taranis demonstrator, the lack of clarity over possible future UCAV and UAV production orders in Europe is growing rather than receding. A further example of the present muddle in strategy was illustrated at the show where Dassault, Alenia and EADS announced a new agreement to work together on a future joint Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV. This cuts across a previous French/British agreement to develop the Mantis/Telemos air platform as a new MALE for the services of both countries and also follows EADS abandoning its Talerion project and the larger Euro Hawk programme, which was halted by the German government. Adding further to the lack of coordination on European UAV plans was the show news that the Italian government is to support the development of yet another national MALE UAV in the shape of an unmanned ISTAR version of the Piaggio Avanti, known as the P.1HH Hammer Head, in addition to the smaller Finmecannica Falco Evo.

Trainers and light attack aircraft were much in evidence at the show. Competition between the BAE Systems Hawk, KAI’s T50, Alenia Aermacchi’s M-346 and UAC’s Yak-130 is targeting replacement markets in Asian and the Middle East. The latest Hawk is still leading the pack, but in Asia Pacific increased competition is now coming from KAI as export sales of the T50 pick up. Italy is looking for a lower cost trainer to operate alongside its M-346 advanced trainer and is supporting the modernisation of the M-311 which has been re-branded as the M-345 HET (High Efficiency Trainer). This light jet could compete with high-speed turboprop trainers in the export market and replace some of the MB-339 jet trainers in the Italian Air Force. UAC provided a Yak-130 at Paris to demonstrate its high performance in the flying display and announced that it had sold export examples to Belarus as well as the Russian Air Force and to Algeria. Unconfirmed reports suggest that a quantity of Yak-130s have been completed for Syria, but deliveries have not, so far, taken place.

Although it lost its Light Air Support (LAS) bid to supply AT-6 light attack turboprop aircraft to the USAF for transfer to the Afghan Air Force, Beechcraft exhibited its contender at the show and said that other export orders were being negotiated. Embraer also had a Super Tucano on show to underline its current market lead in the turboprop trainer/light attack sector. The US-built Thrush 710P turboprop ex-crop-duster aircraft has been further adapted to its new Counter Insurgency/ISTAR role by Iomax, and is now marketed under the unlikely name “Archangel.” It now has an even more impressive level of onboard sensors, communications systems and multi-function displays, integrated by Esterline CMC. Weapons include guns, missiles, rockets and precision bombs and for surveillance it has a turret mounted electro-optical and infra-red system.

Two of the latest large tactical air transports were joint highlights in the flying and static displays at Paris. The Airbus Military A400M appeared in French Air Force colours, and is about to be accepted into that service, with operational capability building up later this year. Although not a new design, Ukraine’s Antonov An-70 (once proposed by Germany as an alternative to the A400M) has a very similar configuration, but with multi-bladed propfan engines rather than turboprops, and a similar payload of around 45-50 tonnes. The latest An-70 as displayed, features an upgraded cockpit and avionics system. Not as quiet as the A400M in flight, it has a conventional low tail compared to the A400M’s “T” tail.

Other Paris announcements on military transport aircraft included confirmation that Boeing will help Embraer market its new KC-390 twin jet medium transport in export markets. Airbus Military announced the new enhanced baseline C295W, a multi-role family of special mission and transport aircraft. Now fitted with uprated Pratt & Whitney Canada PW127 turboprops and new winglets, this variant offers enhanced hot and high performance and greater fuel economy. It is also being marketed as a maritime patrol platform, capable of carrying anti-submarine torpedoes and anti-ship missiles as well as a search radar, EO/IR surveillance sensors and an onboard mission system. Alenia Aermacchi was represented in the sprawling Finmeccanica static display area and alongside a Eurofighter Typhoon, featured a black-painted MC-27J transport fitted with an ATK 30mm cannon in the gunship role, intended for special missions support. The gun system is pallet mounted in the cabin as is the internal mission equipment, so the aircraft can be converted easily for other roles, such as transport. Not wishing to be left behind in the military transport and MR markets, Lockheed Martin was actively promoting its C-130J Sea Hercules as a flexible MR platform. Three different options are offered, ranging from a simple roll-on/off surveillance and search and rescue role based on the transport version, to a long range surveillance and surface strike role with more specialised sensors and missiles, and thirdly, an anti-submarine version fitted with comprehensive sensors and weapons. These long-endurance C-130Js are seen as offering an affordable replacement option for operators of the large number of P-3C Orion MR aircraft that are still in worldwide service.

Rotary developments

New helicopters also featured at the show, including the full range of rotary wing products from Eurocopter and AgustaWestland. The Eurocopter experimental compound prototype X3 was appearing for the last time before retirement, but the company said that the proven technology would now be studied for future applications. In addition to its growing family of new generation medium multi-role helicopters, the AW 139, 149, 169 and 189, and the AW159 Wildcat, Rival AgustaWestland said that it was planning to build a larger tilt rotor aircraft than the AW609. Showing just how far the company is currently exploring transformational innovation, AgustaWestland also displayed for the first time a revolutionary all-electric ducted-fan tilt rotor demonstrator, known as Project Zero. This will lead to the application of many of its features on future helicopters, the company said. The Russian helicopter industry was also well represented with focus on the new Kamov KA-52 Alligator attack and armed reconnaissance helicopter. This is already in Russian service and has been designed to offer an outstanding performance in hot and high conditions, and is seen as a replacement for the large numbers of Mil-24s in use with many operators.

The Paris Air Show saw the entire world’s leading systems companies present as well as airframe and engine manufacturers. Inside company chalets, pavilions and exhibition halls briefings were undertaken to present the latest developments in radars, EW systems, touch-screen cockpits and weapons, and we shall take a closer look at these in the coming months.



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