Friday, December 16, 2011

Fighter Jet Projects Surge, But Not Where You'd Expect

The number of countries attempting to develop a new fighter aircraft has surged recently, part of a cycle that has ebbed and flowed since the dawn of the jet age.
South Korea and Turkey are the latest nations to start clean-sheet programs, while Japan is working on its ATD-X concept demonstrator, India is working on an improved version of its Light Combat Aircraft and Indonesia has signed on to the Korean effort.
Most are drawn by the prospects of developing a homegrown industrial base, boosting employment and filling military needs, analysts said.
"If you want to do all three badly, then you build a national fighter," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group, Fairfax, Va. "It comes in waves, and a lot of it driven by national aspirations and a lot of it is driven by perception of threat, and a lot of it is driven by the ruling party in the given country."
In the 1980s, domestic politics fostered a spate of indigenous fighter projects, which were generally killed off in the next decade or two by economic realities, Aboulafia said. With free-market capitalism's cachet diminished in many parts of the world, such national programs have made a comeback.
"Even autarchy has come back into vogue," Aboulafia said. "I think this might be a reflected dislike of market reality that has come with the economic meltdown of the past three years."
There is also a perception that an indigenous effort will be cheaper than an imported design, said Byron Callan, an analyst at Capital Alpha Partners in Washington. Many countries cannot afford new fighters such as the F-35, Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale or even the new Russian PAK-FA, Callan said.
Even the Swedish Gripen, which recently won a Swiss order largely because it was cheaper than the Rafale and Typhoon, is very expensive, he said.
Something has to fill the market void, Callan said.
But Aboulafia said these nations are grossly underestimating the cost of developing a new fighter. For example, Seoul estimates that its KF-X stealth fighter effort will cost about $8 billion - "which is enough to maybe design a decent set of wings," he said.
Dan Gouré, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, Arlington, Va., concurred.
"It's horribly expensive," he said.
The track record for national fighter programs is not a good one. Japan, which has a highly developed economy and advanced technology, tried and failed to develop good cost-effective fighter, even with U.S. help, Aboulafia said.
Japan's experience with the F-2, which was based on the F-16, was a disaster that largely soured the country on developing an indigenous fighter. Aboulafia noted Tokyo's ongoing ATD-X stealth fighter development effort but said it would likely produce only a concept demonstrator, not a full production effort.
"There is nothing about history that would make you want to do this," Aboulafia said. "And looking at history, they have a lot to answer for."
Nor do most countries attempting to build an indigenous fighter have the technical wherewithal to build such an aircraft. Neither Turkey nor South Korea has the technical ability to build such fighters without external help.
"They're going to find there is an enormous gap between the licensed production of F-16s and designing, integrating and producing an entirely new product," Aboulafia said.
Even South Korea's recent experience in co-developing the T-50 jet trainer does little to alleviate the problem, he said.
Gouré was blunt about their chances for success: "There is no way in hell."
Only a handful of nations can design and build fighters without external help, he said. France, Britain, the U.S. and Russia are the only countries ever to successfully develop their own fighters, he said.
"Even the Chinese stuff, it's really all derivative of Russian hardware," he said.
Only about 60 percent of the Saab Gripen is built in Sweden, with the rest, including the engines, mostly U.S. in origin, Gouré said.
Because indigenous programs almost invariably offer an inferior product, there is tension between those who would develop such aircraft and those who will be expected to fly them in combat.
"Are you simply expecting to do as good a job as a traditional producer, or are you simply expecting your air force to take casualties?" Aboulafia said. "The best-case scenario is the reinvention of a fourth-generation jet with higher cost, which is exactly what happened with Japan's F-2."
India's Light Combat Aircraft is a good example. Leery of adopting the homegrown fighter because of its less-than-impressive performance, the Air Force has shown a clear preference for the winner of the country's Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft - either Rafale or the Typhoon - and the Indo-Russian T-50 PAK-FA stealth fighter.
Callan said, ultimately, countries that need only interceptors for home defense don't need particularly advanced aircraft. A light fighter similar to an F-16 or F/A-18 might suffice.
"There is 'good enough' for a lot of these markets," he said.

Russia Signs Deal to Sell 42 Jets to India

MOSCOW - Visiting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev oversaw the signing of an agreement Dec. 16 to sell to India 42 Su-30 jets in kit form as the Kremlin scrambles to retain ties with its Soviet-era arms purchaser.
AN HONOR GUARD salutes Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, right, and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as they meet in the Kremlin on Dec. 16. (Vladimir Rodionov / AFP via Getty Images)
The agreement comes after India, the biggest importer of military hardware among emerging nations, had earlier this year rejected Moscow's bid to supply its traditional ally with 126 multi-role combat aircraft in a deal worth about $12 billion (9.2 billion euros).
The two leaders sought to play up progress in bilateral ties, stressing they withstood the test of time.
"Our cooperation with India in the military technical sphere has reached an unprecedented level," Medvedev said in comments released by the Kremlin.
After the talks the two leaders oversaw the signing of an agreement to "render technical assistance in the organization of production of the SU-30plane," the Kremlin said in a statement without providing further details.
The Kremlin said ahead of the signing the two sides had planned to ink an agreement to supply India with 42 Su-30 jets in kit form that would be assembled in India.
New Delhi and Moscow have enjoyed close ties that date back to the 1950s but relations have recently come under strain as India becomes more demanding over pricing and quality and looks to other countries like Israel and the United States as potential military suppliers.
Singh said the two countries discussed nuclear cooperation and supplies of liquefied gas adding they also agreed the terms of a Russian loan to build two additional generating units at a nuclear power plant in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Capability Reviews Bring Changes for Australia's Navy

MELBOURNE, Australia - The Australian government this week announced its response to two reports that criticize the operational capability of the Royal Australian Navy.
Speaking to media on Dec. 13, Defence Minister Stephen Smith and Jason Clare, minister for defense materiel, announced the Navy would acquire an additional sealift ship to improve its amphibious capability, following withdrawal of two amphibious warfare vessels, Kanimbla and Manoora, due to poor condition earlier this year.
The ministers also detailed responses to the recently released first phase of a review of maintenance of the Navy's six Collins-class submarines by John Coles, an independent expert from BMT Defence Services in the U.K.
The review was commissioned following revelations that most, and sometimes all, of Australia's submarines were not able to put to sea for a period of time and that sustainment costs had increased dramatically.
Speaking during the commissioning of the RAN's amphibious ship Choules in Western Australia, Smith responded to Phase 1 of the Coles review, saying that implementation of the recommendations will begin immediately.
"The report shows very deep, long-standing difficulties so far as maintenance and sustainment of the Collins-class submarine is concerned," he said. "It points to very serious flaws over a long period of time and draws attention to the need for fundamental reform in the way in which maintenance and sustainment is effected. The report itself makes very salutary reading, and it is a no-holds-barred report into what I regard as a long-standing systemic difficulty so far as Collins-class maintenance is concerned."
The report identified a range of shortfalls, including poor availability, a lack of cohesion in strategic leadership, a lack of clarity about accountability and responsibility, unclear requirements and unrealistic goals.
Its recommendations include increasing the provision of spare parts, further training and the development of an In-Service Support Contract between the government's Defence Materiel Organisation and the Australian Submarine Corp., manufacturers of the Collins boats.
Phase 2 of the Coles report will be released in April.
The Rizzo report, commissioned to investigate Australia's amphibious capability and conducted by independent external reviewer Paul Rizzo, was submitted to government in July and has directly resulted in the plans to acquire a third vessel to complement Choules and the existing landing ship, Tobruk.
To cover the shortfall in the interim, the Australian Defence Force is leasing the subsea operations vessel Windemere from civilian sources.
"A commercial off-the-shelf vessel will be sought so that minimal modifications will be needed, allowing the ship to enter service in the course of 2012," Smith said. The new ship "will primarily be used to transport troops and supplies in support of humanitarian and disaster relief operations domestically and in the region. Detailed discussions on the purchase will be taken in the near future."
Responding to the Coles and Rizzo reviews, Chief of Navy Vice Adm. Ray Griggs said, "I see these reviews as a very important opportunity for Navy, and for me as the capability manager, to be able to exercise my responsibilities. I don't see them as a threat. I see them - and their candor and honesty - as extremely useful to me to exercise my responsibilities and to make sure that we work together to get the sustainment of our Collins submarines right."
Australia plans to build 12 conventionally powered submarines to replace the Collins boats in the next decade, and Smith and Clare also announced Dec. 13 that French shipbuilder DCNS, Germany's HDW and Spain's Navantia will be issued requests for information.
Australia has also contracted with Babcock to study the establishment of a land-based propulsion systems test facility in response to a Rand Corp. study into Australia's submarine design capabilities and capacities.
The government has held high-level discussions with the U.S. Navy on the Future Submarine Project, most recently during November's AUSMIN ministerial talks.
"The Future Submarine Project is the biggest and most complex defense project we have ever embarked upon," Clare said. "It will involve hundreds of companies, thousands of workers and a lot of skills that do not currently exist in sufficient numbers.
"Some of those skills are available overseas; others will have to be grown here. Now is the time to develop a plan to make sure we have the skills we need when we start designing and building the submarines."
Clare said future announcements regarding the program will be made in 2012.
Smith and Clare also announced a study into alternate methods of crewing some naval vessels with a mix of civilian and military crews in a manner similar to the Military Sealift Command in the U.S. or Britain's Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

India: Howitzer Buyback on Track

NEW DELHI - India is going ahead with the purchase of M777 Ultra Light Howitzers from the U.S. subsidiary of BAE Systems, Defence Ministry officials said, refuting media reports here that that the project has run into "rough weather."
One ministry official said the $650 million, 145-gun deal is on track and will proceed quickly.
In a press statement, Defence Minister A.K. Antony said user trials of the gun have been completed, with maintainability testing and an evaluation by the Director General of Quality Assurance still to come.
Antony told the Indian parliament on Dec. 12 that India is looking at buying the guns through the U.S. government's Foreign Military Sales program.
The procurement was stalled after a report on the trials was released, but the program is back on track now, Antony said.
"The field evaluation trial report of the guns was a confidential document. Four pages of draft field trial report were received in an anonymous envelope by the Army headquarters. An enquiry in the matter is underway," the minister said.
Army officials want the howitzers quickly to boost firepower in high-altitude battlegrounds. A 2008 attempt to buy the guns was canceled in late 2009 after bidder Singapore Technologies was alleged to have been involved in kickbacks. In early 2010, Army officials gave the nod to the other bidder, BAE Systems. Singapore Technologies responded early this year with a lawsuit meant to stay the deal with BAE. The lawsuit is still in the hearing stage.

S. Korea to Make Bunker-Buster Bombs: Lawmaker

SEOUL - South Korea is developing a bomb capable of penetrating North Korean bunkers or caves housing artillery pieces, according to a member of parliament's defense committee.
An aide to lawmaker Song Young-Sun quoted her as saying that the state-run Agency for Defense Development (ADD) launched a 6.2 billion won ($5.35 million) project last year to develop the "bunker-buster."
ADD officials declined to comment.
"ADD is developing a bomb capable of penetrating 1.5-metre-thick (4.95 feet) concrete walls with a view to completion by 2013," Song was quoted assaying in comments Dec. 15. "When developed, this weapon will be used for precision strikes against military strongholds in the North."
A military official told Chosun Ilbo newspaper the new bombs would be capable of destroying most bunkers and other structures hiding airplanes and tanks.
North Korea's long-range artillery is often hidden in fortified caves and rolled out to fire shots before being rapidly pushed back. For this reason, South Korean troops were unable to retaliate effectively with their K-9 howitzers when the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island near the disputed Yellow Sea border in November last year. Four South Koreans including two Marines were killed.
The ADD also plans to develop another bomb capable of penetrating five-six meters once the initial bunker-buster is completed, Chosun said.