Asian air forces scramble for more fighter firepower
Continued tensions in the Far East and southern Asia are ensuring that the region remains a major sales battleground for the world’s fighter houses. At stake is the sale of several hundred new combat aircraft in the coming years as air arms seek to modernize their forces or, in the case of countries such as Japan and Singapore, stay ahead of the regional threat.
Traditional rivals from Europe (Dassault, Eurofighter and Saab), the U.S. (Boeing and Lockheed Martin) and Russia (RSK-MiG and Sukhoi) have now been joined by China in offering viable competitors in this hard-fought marketplace. Furthermore, India, Japan and South Korea have exhibited ambitions to further their indigenous industrial capability, and this may become a factor in type selection as companies offer their assistance with national projects. For some manufacturers a failure to secure significant business in the region may spell the end of their activities in the combat aircraft sector.
India’s multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) requirement is currently the biggest fighter competition in the world, with the Gripen, Rafale, Typhoon, MiG-35, F-16 and F/A-18 vying for a 126-aircraft order (with potential follow-ons). Evaluation is currently under way, but there are other factors that may have some bearing on the MRCA result. India has requirements for carrier aircraft, to which Boeing, Dassault, Lockheed Martin (with the F-35C) and MiG could respond based on existing products, and now Saab has joined the argument by outlining the feasibility of a Sea Gripen.
Meanwhile, India is proceeding with its troubled Tejas light combat aircraft, and is also building more Sukhoi Su-30MKI heavy fighters under license. The country is negotiating to collaborate with Russia on the PAK FA fighter and has outlined a stealthy medium combat aircraft requirement that could be developed with international assistance.
Indonesia’s most recent fighter purchases have covered small numbers of Su-30 Flankers. Seven are already in service and three more are to be delivered this year. Further orders are a possibility, while Indonesia has also been viewing China as a potential source of air force equipment. There is also a desire to increase the effectiveness of its U.S.-supplied F-16 force, through new acquisitions or updates.
While the desired acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor remains unlikely, Japan is expected to issue an RFI for a new fighter in the next month or so, with the F-35, F-15SE, F/A-18E/F and Typhoon being the likely contenders. Any deal almost certainly has to include a sizeable amount of work for Japanese industry, which itself has been working on the ATD-X stealthy technology demonstrator.
Since the withdrawal of the MiG-29 fleet late last year, the longstanding search for a new fighter has gained greater urgency in Malaysia. The country is to evaluate a number of options, perhaps to maintain its “heavy-light” fighter mix, although the procurement of further Su-30MKMs is a possibility to maintain commonality with the existing “heavy” fleet. Malaysia would also like to acquire an AEW capability, which could be bundled into combined proposals from suppliers such as Saab.
In its attempts to keep pace with its Indian neighbors, Pakistan is pursuing a number of courses. They include attempts to purchase further F-16s from the U.S., the possible order of Chengdu J-10s from China and the co-development with China of the JF-17 Thunder, which is now in production in Pakistan.
Currently receiving 24 F-15SG Eagles from Boeing, Singapore may look to acquire further numbers of this potent multi-role fighter. However, as a JSF security cooperation participant it is also interested in the F-35 to fulfill future airpower requirements, ensuring that the Republic of Singapore Air Force maintains its qualitative advantage over the regional threat.
Boeing’s F-15K is in the process of delivery for the first two phases of the Republic of Korea Air Force’s F-X requirement, but the third phase is likely to be met by an aircraft with lower radar cross section. Boeing is pitching the F-15SE Silent Eagle, which could do well if the Lockheed Martin F-35 cannot be procured according to schedule. A split buy is a possibility.
The Republic of China air force has a long outstanding request for 66 new F-16s, but this has been held up by the U.S. and is still under review. In the interim, AIDC is undertaking a mid-life update of half the F-CK-1A/B Ching-kuo fleet pending a final word on the new F-16s. Less politically sensitive may be the upgrade of the ROCAF’s existing F-16A/Bs.
Thai air force personnel have begun training in preparation to operate six Saab Gripens, acquired along with a Saab 340 Erieye AEW&C platform. The initial requirement was for 12 JAS 39s, but the purchase had to be split because of budgetary constraints. Now the Thai cabinet has approved in principle funding for the extra six, plus a second airborne early warning and communications aircraft in January. Funds are to come from the next five-year budget (2010-2014) and will also cover the upgrade of 18 F-16s.
Having operated Sukhoi Su-27 Flankers in the fighter role for some time, Vietnam turned to the Su-30MK2 multi-role aircraft with an initial order for eight. A further 12 ordered last year are in the process of delivery over the course of this year. Closer military ties between Hanoi and Moscow are expected to lead to further procurement. However, with a requirement to replace aging MiG-21s and Su-22s, Vietnam could also look to the West for a light multi-role fighter.