Fewer, but fitter: fighter aircraft programmes
Fighter aircraft are increasingly required to justify their expense by adapting to new roles and capabilities. Even so, reports Craig Caffrey, fleet sizes continue to decrease
Despite still forming the backbone of advanced air forces, the size of many global fighter aircraft fleets is on a steady downward trajectory. Simultaneously, this reduction in the physical numbers of combat aircraft coupled with emerging operational requirements has necessitated an expansion in the mission set they are capable of undertaking.
Aside from traditional tasks such as defensive and offensive counter air missions, today's fighters are increasingly required to be accomplished at providing close air support and strike capabilities as well as contributing to intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) efforts.
To justify their great expense, fighter programmes have had to adapt to these new requirements. The Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, both designed purely for air superiority, are undergoing a series of upgrades to ensure they retain their relevance in modern conflict scenarios. More so than any other type of military aircraft, the fighter has been required to become a jack of all trades while ensuring it remains master of its core tasks. In Europe, where the trend is perhaps most obvious, many of the continent's air forces are drawing down the number of fighter aircraft in their inventories as they move away from a Cold War-influenced force structure and take advantage of the efficiencies created by the multirole capabilities of the new generation of combat aircraft.
If the air forces of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain Sweden and the UK are taken as an example, current plans call for a decrease in combat aircraft levels of between 7.4 and 34.6 per cent in all but the UK, and possibly in Spain, over the next 15 years. It should also be noted that present-day combat aircraft inventories for each of these air forces (other than Norway) are in turn between 9.7 and 32.5 per cent smaller than at the end of 2003.
With defence budgets largely stable throughout the last five years, these decreases are largely down to a move away from the traditional air-defence mission.
Force structures in Europe are now increasingly moving towards support of expeditionary capabilities. This has required, and will continue to require, that air force funding be shifted away from combat aircraft and towards a more balanced force structure, largely to address critical shortfalls in tactical and strategic airlift capabilities.
Europe's air forces are progressively moving away from the traditional task of guarantor of airspace sovereignty and towards that of an enabler for the armed forces as a whole, increasingly integrated with their sister services' requirements.
The subsequent emergence of a generation of truly multirole fighter aircraft has, in turn, enabled European air forces to essentially retain the same number of platforms capable of performing strike and air superiority duties while simultaneously decreasing the number of airframes and thereby creating efficiencies in terms of operating and future recapitalisation costs.
Three key European fighters are primarily responsible for providing these capabilities: Dassault's Rafale, Eurofighter's Typhoon and Saab's JAS 39 Gripen.
A total of 39 Rafales have so far been handed over to the French Air Force, with the navy receiving an additional 25 marinised Rafale Ms. Although officially the French Délégation Générale pour l'Armement (DGA) maintains a requirement for 294 Rafales (234 for the air force), the government's June 2008 defence White Paper cast doubts over this figure.
The document outlined plans to decrease the number of combat aircraft across both the navy and air force down to a mix of 300 Rafales and upgraded Mirage 2000Ds. Given that the DGA has previously announced plans to upgrade at least 50 Mirages under a mid-life upgrade (MLU) programme, it now appears possible that the Rafale order may be limited to 250 platforms at the most.
Despite this news, the programme continues to make progress, with the DGA announcing in September 2008 that France will receive 14 new Rafales and will place orders for an additional 60 in 2009, taking the total on order to 143. This news was followed two months later by a Thales announcement that the active electronically scanned array (AESA) version of the Rafale's RBE2 radar had successfully completed its development phase and was ready to enter limited production for the F3-standard Rafale, the first of which will be delivered this year.
The Rafale also remains involved in several key fighter procurement contests around the world. Alongside contesting high-profile competitions in Brazil and India, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been energetic in his attempts to market the type during a recent tour of the Middle East. Libya and the United Arab Emirates are also viewed as key prospects following a narrow miss in Morocco where the Lockheed Martin F-16C/D was selected at the last minute in June 2008.
In Sweden production of the Saab JAS 39 Gripen C/D continues with aircraft for South Africa and Thailand following the completion of deliveries of new-build aircraft to the Swedish Air Force in December 2008. Alongside the 26 South African and six Thai aircraft, Saab is also rebuilding 31 Swedish Gripen A/B aircraft to the C/D standard.
However, despite Thailand clearing funding for the acquisition of the second batch of six Gripens in February 2009, the line is expected to come to an end in 2012 unless further orders can be secured.
There are currently three key short-term prospects for keeping the Gripen line open in Brazil (36-120 aircraft), India (126) and Switzerland (22-30).
Other opportunities in Denmark and the Netherlands exist, although both countries are widely expected to follow Norway and maintain their commitment to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. The contests in Croatia (12) and Romania (24-48) are now subject to significant delay due to the impact of the global financial crisis in both countries.
Simultaneously the Gripen Demonstrator programme continues to investigate possible future enhancements for the aircraft, including more powerful General Electric F414G engines, the installation of additional fuel tanks for enhanced range and the addition of AESA radar. These enhancements will not only offer current operators potential upgrades to their existing fleets but are also intended to demonstrate the potential capabilities of the Gripen NG (Next Generation), which is currently being proposed for a number of potential export customers.
Should Saab secure an export contract for the Gripen NG then the technology demonstration programme would accelerate and effectively lead to the development of a new variant of the Gripen incorporating these enhancements in line with customer requirements.
Meanwhile, as part of a reorientation of Sweden's armed forces, the number of Gripens in service in Sweden will be reduced from the current total of around 135 aircraft down to 100 platforms by 2012.
Speaking to Jane's in February 2009, Chief of the Air Force Major General Anders Silwer confirmed that defence commission talks had included a possible reduction to below 100 aircraft. However, Maj Gen Silwer believes that at present this is unlikely to happen.
Elsewhere, this year saw the air forces of Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK begin taking deliveries of the second tranche of Eurofighter Typhoon multirole fighter aircraft following the completion of deliveries of 148 Tranche 1 aircraft in late 1Q08. The type will form the backbone of the four air forces' fighter aircraft inventories for at least the next 20 years.
Negotiations on the final third tranche continue with Italy and the UK wavering on their commitment to their full 46 and 88 aircraft allocations respectively.
Eurofighter has shown no sign so far that it is willing to let any of the partner nations renege on their earlier commitment. One idea that the consortium appears to have floated successfully is that the third tranche be split into two sub-tranches to allow the partner nations to spread costs over a longer period of time.
Parallel to these negotiations the consortium is also involved in talks on what functionality will be required as part of Tranche 3. While at present Eurofighter is reluctant to discuss details, a spokesman for the consortium told Jane's that the "integration of Meteor [MBDA's beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile] is certainly one of the highest priorities". Company officials also stated that the consortium is "well placed to move forward" on the E-scan [electronically scanned] version of the Typhoon's Captor radar following extensive testing of the Captor Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar (CAESAR) demonstrator.
"Industry needs a decision by the core nations on how to proceed in terms of numbers, timescales and capabilities, definitely this year and rather sooner than later," a Eurofighter official told Jane's, making 2009 a key year for the future of the programme.
In terms of exports the first of 72 Tranche 2 Typhoons destined for the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) made its first flight in October 2008 and is due to be handed over by the end of June 2009. Rumours persist of a potential follow-on order as the RSAF replaces its ageing inventories of F-15C/D and F-5E fighters with additional Typhoons, possibly through aircraft diverted from the UK's Tranche 3 allocation. They will face stiff competition from Boeing, which has already offered new enhanced F-15SA (Saudi Advanced) Strike Eagles and an upgrade of the current F-15S inventory to this standard.
The future structure of the USAF's fighter fleet is currently one of the key issues facing the Pentagon and the new administration of US President Barack Obama, with the White House looking to reduce its defence budget while simultaneously remaining engaged in two foreign theatres.
As a result of these dual demands, the USAF has been placed under increasing pressure by the Pentagon to focus upon providing capabilities relevant to continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, this mentality appears to have shifted attention from the air-superiority mission if current fighter procurement plans are examined.
Once the F-15A/B and C/D fleets are retired, the number of fighter aircraft dedicated to providing air-to-air combat capabilities will decline significantly. While at present the USAF has one dedicated air-superiority fighter for every three strike aircraft, by 2025 this ratio will have dropped to around one for every 10 (if the total number of F-22s stays at 183).
It would be difficult to argue that the Pentagon has lost sight of the importance of fighter aircraft given that it will spend USD360 billion on the F-22 and F-35 programmes. Yet a shift away from the focus on the air-superiority mission seems apparent.
While defence and industry officials state that the F-35 is highly effective in air-to-air engagements, the platform was designed to be optimised for strike. By comparison, the F-22, which boasted an 80:1 simulated kill ratio during the 'Northern Edge' exercise in 2006, is optimised for air-superiority missions and is arguably several steps ahead of potential aggressor aircraft.
At present the production line for the Raptor is set for closure far short of the original 750-aircraft requirement and even the revised 381-aircraft total requested as late as 2008. In November 2008, following a very public dispute between the US Congress and the Pentagon, Lockheed Martin was awarded a USD180 million contract providing advance procurement funding for an additional four F-22s with an option to extend this total to 20.
The funding ensured Lockheed Martin's suppliers were able to continue production of components for the aircraft until President Obama took office and was able to make a decision on the future of the programme. That decision has yet to be made.
The USAF has subsequently submitted its proposal and the new FY10 DoD budget, expected in April, will determine whether production of the F-22 will continue beyond 2011. Rarely in its 62-year history has the USAF had to fight so hard to obtain the tools needed to provide the US military with the air supremacy to which it has become accustomed.
Regardless of this decision, the programme continues to make progress, with 135 F-22s so far delivered to the USAF. Furthermore, upgrade plans for the aircraft continue, with Increment 3.1 enhancements currently in flight-test with an expected deployment date of 2011. The upgrade aims to enhance global strike capabilities through the introduction of synthetic-aperture radar, geolocation, electronic attack and the integration of the Small Diameter Bomb.
Increment 3.2, which focuses on netcentric operations and new weapons, includes adding the new Multi-Aperture Data Link (MADL), while the integration of the AIM-120D Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) and AIM-9X Sidewinder is currently in the weapon system requirements development phase and will begin to be delivered in 2015.
A further upgrade, Increment 3.3, is planned, although the elements of this phase are still under discussion, according to Lockheed Martin officials.
The future of the USAF's fighter fleet is primarily focused upon the Joint Strike Fighter. The programme, currently valued at just short of USD300 billion, will provide 1,763 conventional take-off F-35As for the air force along with 680 F-35B short take-off/vertical landing and F-35C carrier variant aircraft for the US Marine Corps and US Navy (USN). The programme will replace the F-16, A-10, legacy F/A-18 and AV-8B with a single family of aircraft.
To date eight of the 19 System Design and Development (SDD) aircraft have been delivered with the remaining 11 to be handed over by the end of the year. SDD is currently expected to end in October 2014 with initial operating capability for the USMC in 2012, followed by the USAF in 2013 and the USN in 2015.
Production will accelerate from the current rate of one aircraft a month to full-rate production of one aircraft per working day by 2015.
This programme schedule has recently come under increasing scrutiny. A March 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report voiced concerns that under proposed accelerated DoD procurement plans 360 low-rate initial production (LRIP) aircraft will already have been built at a cost of USD57 billion by the time SDD is completed, which they believe may cause significant future cost growth should problems be identified as part of the test programme.
Fighter fleet projections
However, in April 2008, while giving evidence to the US Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces, USAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Air, Space and Information Operations, Plans and Requirements Lieutenant General Daniel Darnell stated that even if the currently planned rates of production for the F-35 are achieved, the USAF fighter inventory may be more than 800 aircraft short by 2024. Slowing down production of the F-35A would therefore have serious implications for the US fighter fleet.
Jane's own analysis shows that if procurement of 48 aircraft a year is maintained from Fiscal Year 2013 onwards then the USAF combat aircraft fleet will decline from its current level of around 2400 aircraft down to 1400 by 2025. Furthermore, by 2035 the planned joint fleet of F-22s and F-35s will number around 1,900 aircraft: a 21 per cent decrease in inventory size from current levels.
Regardless of these issues the programme is moving ahead and represents an unprecedented opportunity in terms of command of the global fighter market. With many advanced air forces around the world already selecting the F-35 as their next-generation fighter, the current European and legacy US production lines look set to close by 2020 or shortly thereafter. This will leave the JSF as the only option for air forces looking to purchase new-build Western manufactured fighter aircraft.
Despite the F-22 and F-35 programmes garnering the lion's share of attention in terms of US fighter aircraft programmes, the Boeing F-15E and F/A-18E/F and Lockheed Martin F-16C/D lines are still very much active. In late 2007 Singapore announced it would increase its 2005 order for 12 F-15SGs up to 24, while South Korea confirmed in April 2008 that it would acquire an additional 21 F-15Ks under phase two of its FX fighter procurement programme.
Meanwhile in late December 2007 Lockheed Martin was awarded a USD498 million contract to supply 18 F-16C/Ds to Pakistan and in June 2008, secured an order for 24 F-16C/Ds for Morocco. Deliveries of the final three F-16s from a 48-aircraft order for Poland took place in December 2008, while Greece began taking delivery of an additional 30 F-16C/Ds in March 2009.
If no further orders are secured then the F-15 and F-16 production lines will close in 2012 followed by the F/A-18 line in 2014. However, all three programmes are confident of securing additional orders in the interim.
Boeing officials identified Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea as key F-15 prospects currently being pursued, while the company has also launched a new incarnation of the aircraft, known as the F-15SE Silent Eagle, which incorporates radar cross-section reduction methods such as internal weapon bays.
Lockheed Martin is similarly confident that production will continue beyond 2012. "We have a number of ongoing F-16 business pursuits and see the potential for 100-200 additional international F-16 sales over today's firm orders, not including India," one Lockheed Martin official told Jane's. "We will continue to provide hardware and software upgrades for the F-16 until at least the middle of this century."
The Super Hornet, meanwhile, looks set to benefit from a projected USN fighter gap. "The navy has told Congress it has a significant strike fighter shortfall that will deepen over the next several years up to about 2017," one Boeing official told Jane's. "That shortfall now looks like a number in excess of 200 aircraft."
To this end Boeing has presented the navy with an offer that would enable delivery of 170 F/A-18E/F Block II Super Hornets under a new multiyear procurement contract.
Furthermore, both the F-15 and F-16 will also remain at the core of the USAF until at least 2025, with a number of future upgrades (including the addition of AESA radars) being proposed to extend the useful life of the type and help address the potential fighter gap. The F/A-18E/F and F-15E Strike Eagle will remain in service until at least 2035 under current plans.
Elsewhere, China's fighter aircraft production capabilities have made significant progress over recent years. The indigenously developed Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-11B combat aircraft are in service with the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).
Although both projects leaned heavily on foreign programmes, they are representative of China's increasingly sophisticated indigenous military aerospace manufacturing capability, which is now close to being able to fully support PLAAF requirements.
Since entering service in 2003 around 100 J-10s are believed to have been delivered to at least four PLAAF regiments, with a total of up to 300 eventually expected to enter service. In line with a move towards increasing indigenisation of Chinese-produced fighters, later aircraft will be fitted with the Chinese-manufactured Liming WS-10B turbofan engine in place of the Russian-made AL-31FN turbofan, which equips current variants.
Images of a new enhanced variant of the aircraft emerged in March 2009 showing further development of the type, including the addition of a new infrared search and track (IRST) system.
The first export contract for the type is expected soon with Pakistan set to acquire 36 J-10s, although plans appear to have been slightly delayed by Pakistan's current economic predicament. Air Chief Marshal Tanvir Mahmood Ahmed informed Jane's in November 2008 that loans would now be sought from China to fund the procurement.
Alongside procurement of the J-10, the J-11B represents another key Chinese combat aircraft programme aimed at modernising and enhancing current capabilities. The J-11B is ostensibly a variant of the J-11 (itself the domestically manufactured variant of the Russian Sukhoi Su-27SK) designed to enhance the J-11s multirole capabilities.
The J-11B incorporates additional domestically manufactured components and subsystems, including an indigenous multimode pulse-Doppler-type radar and a reduced radar cross-section achieved through modification of the aircraft's air intakes. Plans also call for the J-11B to include the WS-10 engine beyond 2010.
Initial deliveries to the PLAAF have already taken place although as yet there does not appear to be a fully equipped regiment.
The induction of the J-10 and J-11B coupled with new missile capabilities (such as the PL-12 beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile) represent a significant enhancement in PLAAF capabilities. They are indicative of a move away from vast inventories of technologically inferior combat aircraft towards fighters with comparative capabilities to their Western- and Russian-manufactured counterparts. Furthermore, both programmes are demonstrative of China's increasing self-sufficiency with regard to combat aircraft procurement.
Beyond these efforts China is pursuing the development of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft under the notional title of J-XX, which was first identified by the US Office of Naval Intelligence in the late 1990s.
At present the programme appears to have progressed little further than the concept phase. However, it is believed that the resultant aircraft will be powered by two later-generation WS-10 engines with the design incorporating significant radar cross-section reduction efforts. The platform is not expected to enter service before 2018.
Despite the Russian Military Air Forces continuing to possess the third largest inventory of fighter aircraft in the world, vast sections of this Cold War-era fleet are thought to be inactive.
Russian state media reports in February 2009 revealed that the MiG-29 fleet, which accounts for around a third of the Russian air force's total fighter numbers, had been grounded since December 2008 following a crash involving the type in Siberia. Subsequent inspections of around 200 aircraft have led to around 90 MiG-29s being withdrawn from service pending possible repairs.
The number of fighter aircraft in service with the Russian air force is believed by Jane's to have declined from around 1,300 aircraft to fewer than 800 over the last decade and looks set to fall further before next-generation fighters come online in sufficient numbers.
Despite defence spending increasing rapidly over the past five years, maintaining, upgrading and replacing the fighter inventory has placed a considerable strain on the air force budget.
Upgrades to the MiG-31 and Su-27 fleets have made painfully slow progress over recent years, while long-term negotiations over upgrades to the MiG-29 fleet have yet to result in a contract, according to RSK MiG officials speaking at the Berlin Air Show in May 2008.
Modernisation plans for the air force are certainly ambitious, yet the size of Russia's fighter fleet will almost certainly shrink significantly by 2015 before new aircraft are produced in sufficient numbers to recapitalise the existing inventory.
However, two key fighter programmes - the Sukhoi Su-35BM and the fifth-generation PAKFA (Perspektivnnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Frontovoi Aviatsyi, or Future Air System for Tactical Air Forces) - do appear to be making progress.
The Su-35BM, which will be acquired as a bridging capability until the PAKFA enters service, is essentially a modernised variant of the Su-27 including more advanced Saturn 117S versions of the AL-31F turbofan engine along with the NIIP Irbis-E multirole phased-array radar.
Flight-testing of two aircraft is currently under way in Russia with a third platform expected to join the test programme by the end of 2009.
Sukhoi officials have repeatedly stated that the first aircraft will be delivered to the air force in 2011, with 100 test-flights conducted on the type so far.
Given that the type was originally launched as an export product, Sukhoi is likely to aggressively market the type overseas, with China and Venezuela having already shown interest in the type.
Longer-term plans revolve around the Sukhoi PAKFA programme. Company officials maintain that the aircraft will make its first flight this year, with initial aircraft apparently being fitted with the AL-31F engine and Irbis-E radar from the Su-35BM rather than the intended AL-41 and AESA radar. It seems likely that the new engine and radar, which are still under development, will instead be installed in later variants to allow Sukhoi to expedite the production of the PAKFA.
The aircraft is expected to enter service between 2015 and 2017 provided the requisite funding can be secured over this period. Perhaps most significantly the PAKFA will be the first fifth-generation fighter aircraft to be produced outside the US, albeit initially containing much of the same advanced fourth- generation technology that will be available in the Su-35BM.
The composition of the world's fighter fleets is therefore going through a period of significant change. Many are shrinking in size as they consolidate around a smaller number of combat aircraft types capable of performing the full range of modern air operations. The fighter is increasingly becoming the military commander's Swiss Army knife.
To a certain extent the challenge for military planners and manufacturers alike, particularly in the West, will be to avoid projecting the past decade of operational experience - which lacks a significant air-to-air component - too enthusiastically onto future force structure and development programmes. Air superiority has lost some of its relevance in today's conflicts, but the ability to provide it remains just as essential.
Moreover, the geography of future fighter programmes seems likely to change over the coming years. Despite European, Russian and US dominance in the current global fighter market in terms of market share, a shift away from these traditional centres of fighter technology, although minimal over the next 15 years, does appear to be taking place.
At present there are eight fighter production lines open in Europe and the United States; by 2020 that number is set to drop to one.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world there are currently eight programmes producing fighter aircraft, with this number set to stay roughly the same (at between seven to 10) by the end of the next decade (depending on the future of fifth-generation programmes in Japan and India and production rates for existing programmes).
This, of course does not tell the full story as the volume of aircraft exports is likely to still be weighted heavily in favour of traditional manufacturers. Those countries that have previously opted for US or European platforms are likely to continue to do so, albeit with the F-35 as the only option. The news is therefore good for Lockheed Martin.
However, as European manufacturers begin to focus on the development of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) such as BAE Systems' Taranis and the pan-European Neuron designed purely around the strike mission, the effects of the F-35's monopoly on Europe remain unclear. For the first time since fighter production began almost a century ago, Europe is set to be without an active jet fighter production line by 2020.
Over the same period China is likely to strengthen its position in the market over the coming decade with the FC-1/JF-17 and the J-10, particularly in countries that have no strong affiliation with either Moscow or Washington or have limited funds.
Elsewhere, joint production of the PAKFA, experience gained from the Tejas programme and the proposed development of the Medium Combat Aircraft may see India enter the export market.
For the next 10 to 15 years fighter fleets in many of the world's largest air forces look set to continue to shrink, while the aircraft themselves will be expected to perform an ever increasing array of tasks. Beyond this period the future appears far less certain.
What technologies will sixth-generation aircraft incorporate? Lockheed Martin for one is looking towards hypersonic speed, multi-spectral stealth and enhanced sensor fusion. Does the F-35 programme represent the final large-scale manned fighter programme in Europe and the US? What role will Europe play in future fighter development and to what extent can China and other nations break into the fighter market?
As the only tool in the arsenal capable of providing essential air superiority and the ability to strike targets many hundreds of miles away on short notice, what remains certain is that the fighter aircraft will remain essential to providing a unique set of capabilities to operational commanders for the foreseeable future.
Craig Caffrey is Jane's Defence Forecasts' Aviation Analyst, based in London