TAIPEI - As Western defense budgets crash, East Asian democracies could spend $23 billion within the decade on new fighter aircraft and upgrades, providing lucrative markets for European and U.S. aerospace and defense companies.
Japan released a request for proposals (RfP) in April for 40 fighters for its F-X program. The Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and Eurofighter Typhoon are fighting over the $4 billion deal. Bids are due in August with a contract award by the end of the year. The F-X will replace the Mitsubishi F-4EJ Kai Phantoms due for retirement in 2015.
South Korea is expected to issue an RfP in January for its F-X Phase 3 program. While 60 aircraft likely will be involved, it may come in two tranches, with the first being 40. The Boeing F-15, Typhoon and F-35 are already positioning themselves for the $9 billion deal. The FX Phase 3 will replace aging F-4 Phantom and F-5 Tiger fighters. The RfP is expected for release in January.
Taiwan is an exception. Due to Chinese pressure, the U.S. ignored a 2006 request for 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters for $5.5 billion. Taiwan also awaits a reply to a $4.5 billion request for an upgrade package for older F-16A/B Block 20 fighters in 2009.
With Western defense budgets under review and increasing pressure to pursue new market opportunities, European and U.S. combat aircraft manufacturers are "vigorously" engaging the East Asian fighter market, said Doug Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace, U.K.-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"While Japan and South Korea have traditionally been U.S. combat aircraft customers, the present round of acquisition programs offers Europe an opportunity to break into the market," Barrie said.
European companies face an "uphill battle" to wrestle control of the fighter market from the U.S., which has "locked in markets" for fighter sales to the region for decades, said Richard Bitzinger, a defense industry analyst at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
"The big question will be if the Europeans can break into this market," Bitzinger said. If not, there is future potential for European aerospace companies to participate in indigenous fifth-generation fighter programs in Japan and South Korea, but in terms of new fighter sales, "these countries are still owned by the USA," Bitzinger said.
Barrie said the Typhoon had its best shot at winning in South Korea, despite the fact Boeing won both F-X Phase 1 and 2 with 60 F-15K Slam Eagle fighters. Boeing might propose the stealthy F-15 Silent Eagle in an attempt to edge the Typhoon out of the competition, he said.
In Japan and South Korea, there is a major effort by the competitors to provide local production opportunities.
"The fighter choice in both countries will send a political signal as to the extent to which, if any, South Korea or Japan wants to begin to build a substantial defense-industrial relationship with their respective relationships with Washington," Barrie said.
Japan's F-X program experienced delays over an intense Japanese lobbying effort begun in 2007 to force Washington to release exports of the F-22 Raptor, but the U.S. Congress blocked the effort. After the F-22 rejection, Tokyo set its sights on the F-35, only to see the JSF effort dogged by delays and cost overruns, which postponed the F-X RfP last year.
Tokyo highlighted its interest in stealth by pursuing an indigenous fifth-generation fighter program. Now, Japan is "using their own fifth-generation fighter [TFX] as a bargaining chip" in the competition, but it is still in the research-and-development stage and "hideously expensive," Barrie said.
Japan is desperate to secure local manufacturing options for the F-X, but it is prohibitively expensive for only 40 aircraft. Manufacturing costs could be driven down by the procurement of more fighters to replace F-15Js, increasing the number of F-X fighters to more than 100 and lowering manufacturing costs.
Unless the F-X fighters are produced in Japan, the local fighter manufacturing industry faces dire straits. Japan's only remaining fighter production line, the Mitsubishi F-2, will end in September.
There are also budget concerns after Japan's devastating triple disaster - earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear power plant crisis - and many wonder how the estimated $300 billion price tag for the catastrophe will affect the F-X budget.
Cost issues could push Japan to select the Super Hornet or the Typhoon. Eurofighter officials have been promoting the Typhoon as a flexible, inexpensive alternative to the F/A-18 and F-35. A European industry source in Tokyo said technical restrictions hamper F-35 exports, while Eurofighter has "no black box policy," which means wider options for Japanese industry participation.
Yet the Japan-U.S. military alliance and pressure to procure a U.S. fighter may keep Tokyo from picking a European fighter.
Taiwan's request for new F-16C/Ds is seen as a follow-on request for an earlier procurement of F-16A/Bs in the 1990s. Despite Beijing protests, the U.S. Congress recently called for the White House to release new fighters and upgrade packages, including a request for a follow-on F-16 trainer program for Taiwan's 21st Tactical Fighter Squadron based at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. In dollar amounts alone, as the U.S. economy declines, increased pressure on the White House to release the F-16s might be too great to withstand.
"In the case of Taiwan, irrespective of posturing on the part of Beijing, the delivery of F-16 Block 52s should proceed," Barrie said.
Taiwan bought $16.5 billion worth of U.S.built arms and equipment from 2007 to 2010. Sales included 12 P-3C Orion Maritime Patrol Aircraft, 30 AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters and 60 UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters. Taiwan has requirements for signal intelligence aircraft, attack jet trainers, basic aircraft trainers and UAVs.
ISLAMABAD - China's avionics industry is closing the gap with other avionics producers, with benefits flowing to Pakistan and new challenges emerging for the U.S.
Chinese aircraft are helping Pakistan maintain conventional deterrence toward India as New Delhi pursues cutting-edge technology to revamp its airpower. As a result, said Usman Shabbir, of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank, the new "JF-17 Block II [combat aircraft] may see a Chinese AESA [active electronically scanned array] radar along with an IRST [infrared search and track] sensor, and an even better ECM [electronic countermeasures] suite."
Wider advances by China's aviation industry would result in "greater use of composites to reduce the overall airframe weight" for the JF-17 Block II, and also a thrust vectoring control engine; though Shabbir conceded the latter "has never been officially confirmed."
Analyst Kaiser Tufail said an AESA radar is "the way to go," and that "all future [radar] acquisitions or retrofits would be AESA, whether mechanically scanned or phased-array type."
Tufail said the current JF-17 radar, a variant of which is fitted to the Chinese Chengdu J-10 combat jet, is an interim solution "because the [Pakistan Air Force] had been unable to find a radar vendor who could sell cutting-edge technology at an affordable price."
Tufail said Pakistan's acquisition of advanced Chinese avionics should not be seen through the prism of Indian programs, such as the Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft program. Rather, he said, it should be seen as Pakistan's effort to keep pace with modern weaponry.
And China benefits from its collaboration with Pakistan.
"Traditionally, the Chinese aviation industry has found an excellent test bed in the PAF, and their products have been, and can be, proven in ways that are not possible with [China's Air Force], due to limitations of comparative analysis in truly operational scenarios and with respect to Western equipment that PAF operates," he said.
As a result, a "Chinese AESA radar would, therefore, be a synergetic success in partnership with Pakistan," he said.
However, it is unknown whether the new JF-17 Block II radars are variants of those fitted to the improved J-10B. If that is the case, analyst and Chinese specialist Andrei Chang said the new radar is unlikely to be an AESA type.
"The phased-array radar testing on the J-10B is a passive model," he said.
Chang said he does not think the Chinese have developed "a useful AESA radar for the JF-17 and J-10B," but they could in the future.
"I know they are researching AESA radars, but it takes time," he said.
China's technological advances give potential adversaries cause for concern, Tufail said.
"As in many other fields like space and information technology, China is making a mark in major ways which impacts geostrategic and security issues," he said. "Technological developments like AESA radars would, thus, certainly have a bearing on the comfort levels of countries that have an adversarial relationship with China."
The potential threat posed by Chinese advances in avionics is an issue Carlo Kopp of the Air Power Australia think tank has tried to raise.
"Chinese technology is a mix of reverse-engineered Western and Russian designs, and some often very good indigenous ideas," he said. The danger this poses is clear.
"As the Chinese advance and proliferate these products, they are increasingly narrowing the range of environments in which Western air forces and navies can operate," Kopp said.
"Today, only the U.S. F-22A [stealth fighter] and B-2A [stealth bomber] can penetrate Chinese airspace with impunity," he said. "All other Western designs, including the intended F-35 [Joint Strike Fighter] and existing F/A-18E, would suffer prohibitive loss rates" to surface-to-air missiles, he said.
Kopp's opinion of the F-35 is perhaps surprising, but he said he believes China's investment in more maneuverable aircraft will expose severe weaknesses.
"The notion that having a good AESA [radar] can overcome kinematic performance limitations in a design is predicated on the idea that your missiles are 100 percent effective in long-range combat," he said. "The evidence shows otherwise for the AIM-120 AMRAAM."
The approach that says "let the missiles do the turning," rather than the aircraft, "is a mantra in the F-35 and F/A-18 camps," Kopp said. "Unfortunately, it is wishful thinking by folks promoting obsolete designs. The mathematics and physics of aerial combat do not support this proposition."
Therefore, the strategic impact of China's advances will be substantial and exacerbated by poor long-term decision-making by the U.S., Kopp said.
"As China wholly recapitalizes its fleets, and exports these products, there will be an inevitable strategic impact, as the U.S. has been reluctant to export the F-22, has chopped F-22 production funds, and has no new products in the pipeline capable of robustly surviving against top-end Chinese products in combat," he said.
Kopp also blames the reluctance by Washington to share high-technology weaponry with allies that could check China's advance.
He singles out Defense Secretary Robert Gates for making decisions that will produce "a dangerous long-term strategic environment in Asia as China introduces and proliferates advanced technology, and the U.S. chooses for ideological reasons to no longer invest in advanced air power."
"When you have a system designed by engineers, made by a manufacturer, tested by evaluators, and certified by administrators, then you put it in the hands of troops, you get an entirely different picture," Walby said.
He was referring to the Global Hawk's unexpected deployments in March - to Japan to support the post-tsunami relief efforts, and to Libya to help U.S. and NATO operations against government troops. The operations catapulted the latest RQ-4B model, the Block 30, into real-world operations, where the aircraft produced performances that looked much better than the IOT&E report, Walby said.
For example, the testers watched the RQ-4 fly 19 sorties over 41 days, with mission effectiveness of 57 percent. But in "March Madness," as Northrop dubbed the intense first month of Libya/Japan ops, the UAVs flew 114 sorties in 45 days with a 92.1 percent mission effectiveness, Walby said. (See Northrop's Global Hawk briefing slides.)
That's a level of performance far beyond the expected for an aircraft that hasn't reached its formal acceptance into service.
"We're not supposed to be doing that yet," he said.
What made the difference? One major thing was simply the passage of time, Walby said. The IOT&E testers looked at aircraft with the mid-2010 equipment and software builds. Since then, Northrop has fixed a leaky oil pump and improved the software in various ways.
One Block 10 aircraft was aloft a total of 379 hours in March - more than half of the hours in the month. Over Japan, two Global Hawks passed in the air, demonstrating the first on-station swap. The post-tsunami ops also saw the operation debut of the Block 30 Global Hawk, whose 3,000-pound payload includes electro-optical/infrared cameras, radar, moving-target indicators, and signals intelligence gear.
Next up for the suddenly hyperactive Global Hawk?
■ Block 30 is slated to be declared initially operational in July.
■ The first Euro Hawk, now finishing up testing at Edwards AFP, Calif., is slated to fly over to Germany later this summer.
■ Two Global Hawks are to attempt the world's first autonomous aerial refueling between UAVs in late summer or early autumn.
HONG KONG - China's first aircraft carrier - a remodeled Soviet-era vessel - will go on sea trials next week, a report said June 21, amid escalating tensions in the South China Sea.
China's top military official reportedly confirmed earlier this month that Beijing is building a huge aircraft carrier, the first acknowledgement of the ship's existence from China's secretive defense program.
The sources said the test has been expedited in view of rising tensions in the South China Sea - home to two potentially oil-rich archipelagos, the Paracels and Spratlys - in recent weeks.
The Hong Kong Commercial Daily, which broke the story of the vessel's confirmation, quoted unnamed military sources saying the carrier will go on sea trials on July 1 but will not be officially launched until October 2012.
China's military "hopes it will show the strength of the Chinese maritime forces to deter other nations, which are eyeing the South China Sea, in order to calm tensions," the sources said.
They added that the sea trial date was also picked to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party but noted that factors such as weather could affect the planned test run.
China's military did not immediately respond to an AFP request for comment.
Tensions between Beijing and other rival claimants to the strategically vital South China Sea have heightened recently.
China has claimed mineral rights around the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and argued that foreign navies cannot sail through the area without Beijing's permission.
In September, Japan and China also clashed over the disputed Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands in China, located in the East China Sea.
But Chinese officials have previously said that its first aircraft carrier would not pose a threat to other nations, in accordance with Beijing's defensive military strategy.
The Chinese aircraft carrier plan was confirmed when the chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army, Chen Bingde, confirmed the ship's existence in an interview with the Hong Kong paper.
He said the 990-foot former Soviet carrier, originally called the Varyag, was being overhauled. The ship is currently based in the northeast port of Dalian.
An expert on China's military has reportedly said the carrier would be used for training and as a model for a future indigenously-built ship.
The Varyag was originally built for the Soviet navy but construction was interrupted by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The PLA - the largest army in the world - is hugely secretive about its defense programs, which benefit from a large military budget boosted by the nation's runaway economic growth.
BUCHAREST - Iran's ambassador to Bucharest was summoned by Romanian authorities on June 20 to explain claims in an interview that U.S. plans to build a missile shield were directed at Russia.
"Bajador Aminian Jazi was summoned to the Foreign Affairs Ministry and asked for clarifications," a news release said. "The Romanian side stressed that such statements are not constructive. The system is a purely defensive one and cannot therefore be aimed against any country."
In an interview with HotNews website, the diplomat had said that Iran did not see the deployment of U.S. missile interceptors in Romania as a threat.
"We believe the anti-missile shield is not aimed against us. We don't have a nuclear program targeting any other country, our missiles are defensive only," he said.
However, he added, "you are importing Russian gas. I think that in the future, given also this anti-missile system, you will have some problems with them."
Jazi said this project dated back to 1984, when it was drawn up "to annihilate the Soviet Union's supremacy."
"Yes, [it is directed] against Russia," he added.
Bucharest and Washington last month concluded talks on the deployment of 24 U.S. missile interceptors at a former airbase in south Romania, insisting on the project's purely defensive purpose.
But Russia said it would seek legal guarantees that the shield was not directed against its strategic nuclear forces.
BEIJING - An Indian military delegation arrived in Beijing on June 19 for a six-day visit, an Indian official said, marking the resumption of defense ties that were frozen for a year over a visa dispute.
The eight-member delegation, headed by Maj. Gen. Gurmeet Singh, will visit the Chinese capital and the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang, a senior Indian defense official told AFP earlier.
A spokesman for the Indian embassy in Beijing confirmed the delegation arrived the afternoon of June 19 but could not provide details on their itinerary or with whom they would meet on the Chinese side.
India suspended military exchanges in July last year after Beijing refused to provide a proper stamped visa to the then head of India's Northern Army Command, which controls the region of Indian Kashmir.
China controls a sliver of Kashmir and regards the region, which is also split with Pakistan, as disputed territory. India has been angered by its practice of providing special stapled visas for visitors from Indian Kashmir.
"We decided to pause defense exchanges because of these differences of opinion," a second source in the Indian government told AFP previously on condition of anonymity.
"There were still phone calls and other contacts, but now with this visit we are seeing the resumption of normal, full-scale military exchanges," said the official.
Singh, the delegation chief, heads the Delta Force, part of a specialized anti-insurgency unit deployed in Kashmir.
Suspicion pervades relations between the two Asian giants amid border disputes over Kashmir and the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
The two also fought a short war in 1962, while the presence in India of Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, adds to the tension.
Media reports suggested that the decision to resume defense cooperation was reached during talks between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Hu Jintao in China in April.
SEOUL - South Korea's military said on June 19 it will not punish soldiers who fired at a passenger jet flying from China, mistaking the aircraft for an enemy plane amid sea fog and high tensions with North Korea.
"Early-morning sea fog disrupted their vision... they did what they had been told to do based on military manuals," a Marine Corps spokesman told AFP.
"The action was partly caused by high tension with the North … we for now have no plan to punish them given there was no damage to the plane," he said.
Marines guarding the islands near the tense sea border with the North will be given extra training to distinguish between enemy planes and passenger jets, he said.
Two marines at a guard post on the South's Gyodong island near the disputed Yellow Sea border with the North fired 99 K-2 rifle rounds at the plane, which had 119 people on board, on June 17.
The jet, owned by Seoul-based Asiana Airlines, was descending towards the South's Incheon International Airport when the soldiers opened fire. There was no damage to the plane.
The Airbus 321 was following a normal route from the southwest Chinese city of Chengdu, the company said.
Ties between the two Koreas are at their lowest ebb in more than a decade after Pyongyang announced late last month it was breaking all contacts with the South's conservative government.
Seoul accuses Pyongyang of torpedoing a warship and killing 46 sailors in March 2010 - a charge the communist North angrily denies.
But Pyongyang went on to shell a frontier island off the west coast last November, leaving four South Koreans including two civilians dead.
Then, South Korea's defense minister Kim Kwan-Jin, smarting from criticism of what was seen as the military's feeble and slow response to the attack, told frontline troops to strike back in the event of provocation without waiting for orders from top commanders.
Tension further heightened after nine refugees from the impoverished North crossed the sea border by boat earlier this month to defect to the capitalist South. Seoul last week rejected Pyongyang's demand to return them.
Seoul's policy is to accept all North Koreans who wish to stay in the South, while repatriating those who stray across the sea border by accident.
The arrival in February of a boatload of North Koreans sparked weeks of acrimony. That boat drifted across the Yellow Sea border in thick fog, possibly accidentally.