Discussing the multi-role combat aircraft market in the Asia-Pacific region is a daunting exercise at the best of times, and one that has many facets. This article will serve as a broad overview of recent events, programme developments, and procurement initiatives in a region which effectively spans from India to Hawaii.
Recent events in the Asia-Pacific region has had direct significance on the importance of multi-role combat aircraft. In recent years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has asserted rights to various territorial and maritime areas in the South and East China Seas. Needless to say, Chinese claims are contested by neighbouring local actors, and extra-regional powers such as the United States. More recently, throughout January and February the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has asserted claims that it has detonated a nuclear device. It has launched short-range ballistic missiles into the sea east of the Korean peninsula, and has made claims that it has developed nuclear warheads that are small enough to fit on ballistic missiles. These events have understandably heightened tensions in the region, resulting in local and global powers increasing their readiness posture.
With its status as a global superpower, the United States is in the midst of pivoting its focus to the Asia-Pacific region, following a realignment of US foreign policy touted by the administration of President Barack Obama in 2011. In doing so it has increased its presence in various ways, including the regular deployment to the region of Theatre Security Packages which often consist of multi-role combat aircraft. In response to the DPRK provocations listed above, the US Air Force dispatched Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor air superiority fighters to the Republic of Korea (RoK) in mid-February as a show of force, and to demonstrate the capabilities of the RoK and US bilateral alliance. During the deployment the F-22A’s conducted combined formation flights alongside RoK Boeing F-15K Slam Eagle fighters and USAF Lockheed Martin F-16C/D fighters.
Lieutenant General Lee Wang-Keon, RoK Air Force Operations Command commander, spoke about the strength of the RoK-US air combat capabilities stating that “The RoK and US combined air forces remain ready to deter (DPRK) threats, and are postured to defeat them with the strength of our combined air combat capability.” These flights were followed in early March by Exercise BEVERLY MIDNIGHT 16-01, which is designed to test American forces in the RoK on their mission readiness in the event of an emergency or wartime environment.
It is clear that the Asia-Pacific region is a hotbed of activity and tension, and it is for that reason that existing fighters play an incredibly important role, and it is also why various nations are upgrading, developing or adopting new fighters. F-16 variants are a common sight throughout the Asia-Pacific as they are operated by Indonesia, RoK, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and the USAF. Similarly, F-15 variants are fielded by Japan, RoK, Singapore and the USAF. In due course, all of these aircraft types will need to be updated or replaced.
For example, Boeing has outlined a programme targeted initially for the USAF’s F-15C/E, dubbed the Advanced F-15. A company statement describes the Advanced F-15 as a “low-risk and affordable multi-role fighter solution that delivers unmatched payload, performance and persistence.” The Advanced F-15 solution incorporates mission critical technologies in the form of the Raytheon AN/APG-82(V)1 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, and a BAE Systems Digital Electronic Warfare System (DEWS) which provides precision threat warning and jamming capabilities. Additional performance and sensor technologies include a Digital Fly-by-Wire Flight Control System, the activation of outboard wing hardpoints one and nine, conformal fuel tanks for increased range, the latest Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) and Infrared Search and Track (IRST) technologies, a new cockpit and next-generation Boeing Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) available for both the forward and aft crew stations, plus the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) standard Link-16 tactical data link.
Meanwhile, the new Lockheed Martin F-35A/B/C Lightning-II fighter factors strongly in the Asia-Pacific region as Australia, Japan and the RoK have all placed orders for this fifth-generation fighter. The F-35A/B/C remains years behind schedule, and continues to face complex software development hurdles; however, the programme is making strides forward in development. In 2015, 45 aircraft were manufactured, inclusive of aircraft from the Italian Final Assembly and Check-Out (FACO) facility. As plans stand today, a total of 53 F-35 variant aircraft are scheduled for delivery in 2016.
Of the various nations exploring new fighter procurements, Indonesia and Malaysia appear to be the furthest along in this process. With that said, strained budgets have in some cases stalled or curtailed procurement initiatives, and in some cases has encouraged fleet upgrades. Looking towards the southern hemisphere, Australia has acquired 24 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters as a replacement for their General Dynamics F-111C ground attack aircraft, and to supplement the RAAF’s fleet of legacy McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornets. According to the RAAF, no new major upgrades to the legacy F/A-18A/B Hornets are currently planned; however they will be maintained to ensure they remain operational. Currently the F/A-18A/B Hornets are due to be phased out at the end of 2021 as the last F/A-18A/B Squadron switches to the F-35A. The Australian Government approved procurement for the F-35A stands at 72 aircraft to replace the 71 ageing F/A-18A/B fleet. The following quotation was made by Air Marshal Leo Davies, chief of the RAAF in July 2015: “The F-35 replaces nothing. It changes everything … It is quite simply the smartest platform we have ever operated. In particular, it will sweep up an unprecedented volume of information regardless of its nominal mission. We must design or adapt the rest of our air force to be fully able to exploit this capability and to analyse and disseminate this information in a timely and relevant manner.”
Away from Australia, India has numerous fighter programmes underway. The country, through Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), is collaborating with Sukhoi to develop the T-50 PAK-FA, known locally as the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). This programme has seen delays primarily due to Indian fiscal constraints, but both countries remain engaged and plan to induct the aircraft into their forces in the coming years. Meanwhile, HAL has designed and built the Tejas Mk.1/1A fighter. On 17 January 2015, the first Tejas Mk.1 was officially inducted into the Indian Air Force (IAF), with final operational clearance expected by mid-2016. Over 200 Tejas Mk.1/1A fighters are expected to be built for IAF. The Indian and French Governments are currently in the process of finalising the acquisition of 36 Dassault Rafale-B/C fighters. The IAF has additional MRCA requirements, so companies like Saab are enhancing their presence in India to position their JAS-39E/F Gripen to meet the government’s ‘Make in India’ indigenous production requirement. Similarly, Lockheed Martin has stated that if successful in a future competition, it would be willing to produce F-16 variants in India.
Like India, Indonesia is looking for new aircraft, primarily to replace its Northrop Grumman F-5E/F Freedom Fighters. The Tentara Nasional Indonesia-Angkatan Udara (TNI-AU/Indonesian Air Force) shortlisted five candidates for the replacement comprising Rafale-B/C, Eurofighter Typhoon, F-16V, JAS-39E/F Gripen, and the Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker. In September 2015, defence minister Ryamizard Ryacudu announced that Indonesia had chosen the Su-35 Flanker-E. The Indonesian MoD’s proposed F-5E/F replacement programme offers an opportunity for Indonesia to not only acquire a new fighter, but also to capitalise on the successful industrial relationship which has developed between PT Dirgantara Indonesia (PTDI) and Airbus, Eurofighter’s parent company. With the Spanish Government’s offer to transfer a fully functioning Eurofighter Final Assembly Facility to PTDI, along with all the associated technologies, there is a strategic opportunity for Indonesia to acquire, for the first time, an industrial capability in advanced fighter aircraft.
Away from south-east Asia, Japan is a F-35A customer. Having ordered 42 aircraft, most will be built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Japan’s first F-35A is being manufactured in Fort Worth, Texas, and will be delivered in the latter half of 2016. Meanwhile the first Japanese-assembled F-35A will be rolled out in 2017. On the F-15J front, Boeing described to AMR the potential correlation of the Advanced F-15 (see above) as an upgrade for Japan’s F-15Js. “Boeing is working closely with the government of Japan and industry partners like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to offer an upgrade to the current JASDF F-15 fleet and keep those aircraft mission effective well into the middle of the 21st century,” said Jim Armington, vice president of global sales in Japan, Boeing’s defence, space and security division. “Keeping the Japan F-15 squadrons updated with the USAF’s modernised F-15C/E fleets also maintains strong interoperability for Japan… Features like an AESA, the Digital Electronic Warfare Systems and an expanded weapons carriage also maximizes air-to-air capabilities to defend Japan and its sovereign territories.”
Of all the countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the most mature fighter procurement programme appears to be in Malaysia, which is seeking to replace their aging MIG-29N/NUB aircraft. As one would imagine, all the major fighter aircraft manufacturers are proposing their wares. Boeing is confident that the F/A-18E/F would complement Malaysia’s existing fleet of legacy F/A-18C/Ds, and told AMR that the company is “convinced the (F/A-18C/D) would best meet the requirements of the Royal Malaysian Air Force based on the capabilities it offers including supportability, affordability and interoperability with the existing fleet of Hornets in Malaysia,” said Yeong Tae Pak, Boeing vice president for Malaysia. “Boeing remains engaged with the Malaysian Ministry of Defence and as a long term partner of Malaysia, is always exploring new ways (to work) with the local aerospace industry as well.” Boeing also stated that the Super Hornet provides the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) support for infrastructure inefficiencies while minimizing acquisition costs by leveraging existing physical and intellectual infrastructure associated with the RMAF’s F/A-18Ds. This includes commonality of training and support equipment along with a common inventory of weapons and spare parts.
Eurofighter’s effort in Malaysia is being spearheaded by Eurofighter partner company, BAE Systems. A company spokesperson told AMR that the firm stands ready to support the Malaysian Government in meeting its requirements for a cost-effective and high-performance (fighter). “We believe we have an innovative and cost-effective solution that will satisfy programme affordability and mission capability issues for the short and long term.” The JAS-39E/F provides the most affordable option of all, and the company is confident that it will be successful. More information regarding Malaysian defence procurement can be found in Dzirhan Mahadzir’s Vexing Questions article in this issue.
Other procurements may occur in the near future in the Philippines. After an exhaustive evaluation process, the Philippine government announced in January 2013 that it awarded Korea Aerospace Industries a contract to deliver twelve F/A-50 fighters. This acquisition leveraged the research and development that the RoK has invested for its own fleet of F/A-50 aircraft. The first Philippine F/A-50 aircraft were delivered in December 2015.
Although it’s often tight-lipped about its military affairs, the Republic of Singapore Air Force announced its intent to modernize its fleet of F-16C/D fighters with enhancements including Boeing Joint Direct Attack Munition family air-to-ground weapons, a new Link-16 tactical data link, helmet mounted display and an AESA radar. Subsequent to that, the US Department of Defence announced in December 2015 that Lockheed Martin had won a $914 million contract to upgrade Singapore’s F-16C/Ds. According to the announcement this contract is expected to commence this year and be completed by 2023.
Like Singapore, the RoK is expected to join the F-35A/B/C club and has placed an order for 40 F-35As. This procurement also sees Lockheed Martin continue its affiliation with KAI and the country’s KFX indigenous fighter programme. This programme involves the transfer of technology from the United States, which has thus far been denied by the US government. The RoK air force is operating a fleet of 20 KAI built F/A-50 fighters, with a total of 60 planned for service.
Another major F-16 upgrade programme was announced by the Republic of Korea’s Defence Acquisition Programme Administration (DAPA) which selected Lockheed Martin to upgrade RoK F-16C/D fighters. This upgrade was originally awarded to BAE Systems; however that decision was later overturned. The DAPA confirmed the Lockheed Martin upgrade includes installation of Northrop Grumman’s AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam AESA radar, modernisation of the aircraft’s avionics, new communications and a new weapons fit. The $1.5 billion USD contract covers the upgrade of 134 F-16C/D’s.
Alongside offering its aircraft to Malaysia and possibly India (see above), Saab has enjoyed success in the Asia-Pacific with the completion of delivery in 2013 of twelve JAS-39C/Ds to the Royal Thai Air Force. Saab remains strongly engaged with the Thai government through the products it has delivered, and it is hopeful for follow-on orders. However, the political situation in the country has imparted challenges.
It is clear that the state of multi-role combat aircraft market in the Asia-Pacific is extremely diverse, wide ranging, and complex. This article touched on a small portion of these programmes, many of which will be addressed in greater depth in future issues of AMR.