Most Asian nations that operate fleets of legacy fighter aircraft continue to procure upgrade packages to increase capability and the extend service life of their jets. Around the Indo-Pacific, numerous upgrade programmes for American, European and Russian types are underway.
One of the biggest fleets of fighter aircraft currently operated by an Asian nation resides in India. Fielding a fleet of 260 Su-30MKI multi-role jets (the last of 272 produced by Hindustan Aeronautics was completed in April 2020, with 12 lost to attrition), the Indian Air Force (IAF) is a major operator of Pavel Sukhoi’s best-seller. It is the mainstay of the IAF strike-fighter fleet and will remain so for decades to come. Given its age, the type first entered service in 2002, and the recent cross-border tussles with the People’s Republic of China and Pakistan, the IAF needs to maintain the jets in a configuration that provides a combat advantage over Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Lockheed Martin F-16s and JF-17s, and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) J-16s, J-20s and Su-35s. Also, the Air Force desperately needs to improve the Su-30MKI’s mission availability rates.
Such a need can only be satisfied by a fleet-wide upgrade programme. The IAF has kept the Su-30MKI upgrade programme on its shopping list for several years.
Unofficially known as the Super 30, by the summer of 2019 HAL chairman Shri Madhavan confirmed an engine upgrade, a new radar, electronic warfare suite and beyond visual range missiles are included. Some speculate the new engine model is likely to be the Russian NPO Saturn AL-41FS rated at 32,000lb thrust with afterburner, and new radar to be the Tikhomirov NIIP Irbis-E hybrid passive electronically scanned array based on the N011M Bars system.
According to an official HAL presentation, some of the indigenous systems included in the Super 30 upgrade are: upgraded EO/IR targeting system; advanced weapon control system; enhanced electronic warfare suite; digital radar warning receiver; two 230x305mm high-resolution LCDs with a multifunction control panel; AESA radar with LRDE Active Array Antenna Unit (AAAU); new laser-designator pod; new mission computer; new helmet-mounted display system (HMDS); and HAL digital head-up display with 20×30 degree wide field of view.
Away from the Super 30 upgrade, the IAF has undertaken successful integration of the 5,500lb (2500kg) air-launched Brahmos/DRDO/NPO Brahmos-A conventionally armed standoff missile, giving the Su-30MKI a lethal maritime strike capability, with an estimated 215nm (400km) range and Mach 3 cruise speed. Integration efforts on the Su-30MKI were completed in December 2019. Release to service was due in late 2020. Two squadrons are expected to be assigned a fleet of 40 Su-30MKIs configured to carry the Brahmos-A missile. Based at Air Force Station Thanjavur in southeast India, 222 Squadron was the first to stand-up in January 2020.
India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has designed the Bharat/DRDO Astra beyond visual range air-to-air missile with all-weather day and night capability. Billed as India’s first indigenously-developed beyond visual range air-to-air missile, the Astra was first fired from a Su-30MKI in March 2016, entered production the following year and should be fielded with IAF Su-30MKI squadrons.
Indonesia’s Tentara Nasional Indonesia-Angkatan Udara (TNI-AU) operates a mixed fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons comprising ten Block 15 OCUs acquired in 1989, and 24 Block 25s upgraded to Block 52ID standard. Delivered between 2014 and 2017, all 24 aircraft were upgraded by the US Air Force’s (USAF) Ogden Air Logistics Center at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. Each aircraft received a new set of wings, horizontal stabilisers, landing gear, and structural enhancements. Systems installed included a new modular mission computer, Link 16 data link, Raytheon ALR-69 radar warning receiver, Terma ALQ-213 electronic warfare management system, BAE Systems ALE-47 countermeasures dispenser system, and enhancements to the original APG-68 radar.
In February 2020, the first upgraded Block 15 jet made its first flight. Each of the ten remaining Block 15 aircraft are undergoing Lockheed-Martin’s Falcon Star mid-life update to bring their service lives up to 8,000 hours including installation of avionics and radar upgrades. Upgrade work is being undertaken by PT Dirgantara Indonesia (PTDI) in partnership with Lockheed Martin and TNI-AU personnel.
The TNI-AU’s Skadron Udara 16 (Air Squadron) at Pekan Baru Air Base in Indonesia’s eastern island of Sumatra operate the Block 15 OCU aircraft, while Skadron Udara 3 at Iswahyudi Air Base operates the Block 52ID jets.
Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) continues to build-up its Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II force at Misawa Air Base, and its Ministry of Defence has overseen a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to develop is F-X fighter; the planned replacement for the F-2 fighter in the 2030s timeframe. All Phantom F-4EJs were retired in December 2020 leaving the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries F-15J Eagle as the nation’s primary interceptor. Assigned to seven frontline squadrons, another for training and a dedicated aggressor unit, JASDF Eagles are getting old; the first aircraft entered service in 1981, the last aircraft built was delivered in 1999. If the Japanese government decides to continue operating its F-15 fleet, which is especially important given the increasing number of incursions into its air defence identification zone (ADIZ) by Chinese and Russian aircraft, the aircraft will need to be upgraded. In fact, 98 F-15Js were earmarked for upgrade to F-15JSI (Japan Super Interceptor) standard during this decade, but the plan is in doubt because of cost.
According to an 29 October, 2019 release by the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCO), the upgrade programme includes the APG-82(V)1 active electronically scanned array radar, the Advanced Display Core Processor II (ADCP II) mission system computer, the ALQ-239 Digital Electronic Warfare System; all three systems are standard fits on the USAF F-15EX. Boeing claims the APG-82 radar’s antenna is the largest array face currently available on a fighter in the world.
All of the avionic systems on the aircraft, and all data migrating around the aircraft are run by Boeing’s ADCP II mission system computer. According to Boeing the ADCP II has gargantuan processing power with the ability to operate at 87 billion instructions per second and enables the full exploitation of the APG-82 radar’s ability to track a large number of targets, operating mode simultaneity, and provide increased track data.
Other systems include an ARC-210 digital radio, a selective availability anti-spoofing module for the aircraft’s GPS receiver, and a joint mission planning system. Aircraft and munition integration and test support is also provided to include integration of the Lockheed-Martin AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile. That’s a big deal. Integration of the AGM-158 on the F-15JSI would make the Eagle Japan’s first combat aircraft equipped with an air-to-surface strike capability.
Buried within a media release about a Direct Commercial Sale agreement between Boeing and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to support Japan’s F-15JSI programme, Boeing listed an all-new advanced cockpit system as part of the upgrade. Boeing has developed this advanced cockpit system to ease the workload in managing the amount of sensor and data fusion provided to the pilot. Assuming the F-15JSI’s advanced cockpit is Boeing’s Advanced Crew Station (ACS), as fitted in the F-15EX, it will feature a 19×11-inch high-definition display designed and produced by Israeli company Elbit Systems. According to Boeing: “The display integrates tactical data, mission planning and flight information into a complete situational picture, and responds to specific mission phases and pilot controls. Boeing’s primary objectives for designing the ACS were to improve the pilot’s interaction with the aircraft and operate in synch with the head-up display. These aspects improve the pilot’s situational awareness and increase mission effectiveness.”
In 1993, the Malaysian government procured eight F/A-18D Hornets. Today the aircraft are assigned to the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s (RMAF) 18 Skuadron ‘Lipan’ based at Butterworth. The squadron is tasked with the all-weather strike role.
In 2017, the Hornets entered a phased upgrade programme that included integration of colour moving map displays and an enhanced IFF transponder. But the larger component of the upgrade involved integration of new weapons and targeting systems. More specifically, Boeing’s Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System and the ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared pod. Weapons integrated were Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X-2 Block II Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, and GBU-31, GBU-32, GBU-38 and GBU-54 Joint Direct Attack Munitions.
Republic of Singapore
Seven years ago, the US State Department approved a foreign military sale (FMS) to Singapore for an upgrade package to provide a fleet-wide upgrade of the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) 60 Block 52 and Advanced Block 52 F-16s. Valued at $2.43 billion, the programme includes integration of the Northrop Grumman APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar, an active electronically scanned array type, a new mission computer, and the Joint Helmet Mounted-Cueing System. Weapons being integrated are the AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile, CBU-105 sensor-fused weapon, GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition and the GBU-49/GBU-50 Enhanced Paveway II dual-mode precision-guided bombs. Integration of an advanced datalink and the GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb were added to the programme in a $130 million follow-on request. Two RSAF F-16s are currently conducting a flight test programme with Lockheed Martin from its Fort Worth facility.
Singapore’s ST Engineering Aerospace is performing the upgrade work from its Peya Lebar base in Singapore, and expects the first upgraded F-16 aircraft to be rolled out in 2021. This upgrade programme will maintain the F-16-fleet’s capability to counter emerging threats into the 2030s when the type is expected to be replaced by the F-35 Lightning II.
Singapore is one of three Asian nations currently undertaking or preparing to upgrade their respective F-16 fleets. Both the Republic of Korea and the Republic of China also have active upgrade programmes.
Republic of Korea
The Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) operates one of the largest F-16 fleets in the world comprising 40 Block 32 F-16C/Ds and 140 Block 52 KF-16C/Ds. Those designated KF-16s were built in country by Samsung and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI).
On 18 November, 2016 the US State Department approved a foreign military sale to the South Korea involving the upgrade of 134 KF-16s to an advanced configuration similar to Lockheed Martin’s F-16V model, one of the most advanced configuration. The sale valued at $1.2 billion is part of the RoKAF’s F-16 Peace Bridge Upgrade (PBU) programme originally launched in November 2009 and designed to ensure interoperability with US assets.
The PBU includes an active electronically scanned array radar, a new avionics subsystem, a large-format, high-resolution centre pedestal display, a high-volume, high-speed data bus, the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System II, the AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missile and the GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munition.
Lockheed Martin expects to complete upgrade of the last of 134 aircraft by November 2025.
In March 2020, the US State Department approved another foreign military sale to the Republic of Korea involving an upgrade package for its fleet of Block 32 F-16s, with an estimated price tag of $194 million.
Systems listed in the notification include the Link 16 datalink, the APX-126 combined interrogator transponder (a Mode 4 and Mode 5 capable system which allows US and allied aircraft to conduct combined air operations via Mode 5), an ARC-238 software-defined radio comprising two transceivers, one installed in the avionic bay, remotely controlled, and one installed in the cockpit controllable by the pilot, and frequency hopping algorithms to protect voice and data communications against eavesdropping.
Republic of China
The Republic of China’s (Taiwan) remaining fleet of 141 F-16A and F-16B Fighting Falcons is currently part way through the $5.3 billion Phoenix Rising upgrade programme. It was approved by the US State Department back in 2011. As with the Singaporean and Korean programmes, Phoenix Rising includes the Northrop Grumman APG-83 active electronically scanned array Scalable Agile Beam Radar, a new mission computer, updates to the electronic warfare suite and avionics. The integration of the AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions.
The programme experience delays in its initial development stage due the discovery of airframe corrosion and various technical issues. Taiwanese defence company, the Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation handed over the first upgraded Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) F-16V in October 2018 at its Taichung facility. A further 36 aircraft were due to have been handed over to the ROCAF by December 2020, with the last aircraft due to be completed by 2023.
For years, the United States refused to sell to Taiwan new, advanced model F-16s. That all changed in August 2019 when President Trump’s administration approved the sale of 66 Block 70 F-16s under the foreign military sale programme named Phoenix Soaring. The programme is valued at $8.1 billion.
More types of weapon are planned for integration on ROCAF F-16 in the medium term. Following US State Department approval in 2017 and October 2020, the ROCAF is due to receive three types of air-to-surface missiles; the Raytheon AGM-154C Joint Stand-off Weapon, the AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile dubbed HARM, and the AGM-84H Standoff Land Attack Missile Expanded Response missile. The ROCAF requested these weapons as a means to counter People’s Liberation Army aircraft ships transiting the Straits of Taiwan.
Operating an 11-aircraft fleet, Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) JAS 39 Gripens are configured with Saab’s Material System 19 (MS19). This enabled integration of the Link 16 NATO-standard data link, an ARC-164 Have Quick II secure radio, and night-vision goggles. Additionally, the MBDA Meteor and Diehl BGT Defence IRIS-T air-to-air missiles, and the GBU-49 laser-guided and Enhanced Paveway II GPS-guided bombs were included.
The RTAF 2020 White Paper contained details of the service’s aspiration for upgrading the jets to Material System 20 standard. That supports a number of new capabilities including the Mark 4 version of the PS-05/A radar, which Saab claims will double the air-to-air and air-to-ground detection ranges, improve the aircraft’s ability to detect targets with a very low-radar cross-section, and facilitates the first operational capability of the MBDA Meteor missile.
by Mark Ayton