As 2011 draws to a close it is time for a retrospectiveabout the Asia Pacific’s top five defence aerospace stories. This list is by nomeans exhaustive, and plenty more happened that is of great importance. I’veselected the stories below owing to their industrial importance or strategic ramifications in the coming decade.
1) Hello World! The Chengdu J-20
The appearance of the J-20 in January took the world bysurprise. First there were photographs, then videos. The day of the firstflight Twitter served up endless details about goings on at Chengdu such as thesetting up of chairs on a viewing platform. The J-20 subsequently conducted ayear of test flights, many caught on amateur video.
Despite warnings from experts that the aircraft isn’t likelyto be deployed in significant numbers until 2020 or beyond, and valid doubtsabout the J-20′s true stealthiness, this iconic aircraft instantly captured theaviation world’s imagination.
It is, at the very least, the MiG-25 of our day. The J-20′sexistence will play a important role in future defence acquisition decisions incountries such as South Korea, Australia, and Singapore. Though stealth is notnecessarily the best way to counter another stealthy aircraft, in the public’smind stealth is the magic ring of aerial warfare. This could be good news for programmes suchas the F-35, the Indo-Russian fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA), andJapan’s Shin Shin stealth demonstrator.
2) Kiss and make up: India’s C-17s
In June Delhi announced it would purchase 10 C-17s.Apparently the deal was supposed to be finalisedduring Barack Obama’s visit to India in November 2010, and then many defencejournos were expecting it at Aero India in February, but only in June was thenews confirmed.
The $4.1 billion deal was the biggest ever US-India defencedeal, partially making up for India’s ignominious ousting of the F/A-18 E/F andF-16 Block 60 from the medium multi role combat aircraft (MMRCA) competition.
There is much talk that India could buy six more C-17s.Boeing and India have said the deal is only ten for now, but where there issmoke there is fire. The C-17 is imminently well suited to flying troops,vehicles, and supplies to airfields along the country’s long Himalayanfrontier.
3) Stealth at last: Japan buys the F-35
Having failed to get the F-22, Japan finally secured astealth fighter in the eponymous form of the F-35.
(Side note: isn’t it odd the USA won’t trust its closest Pacific ally with the technologyin the F-22, but is apparently comfortable losing its most advanced drone tothe Iranians?)
It was a tough year for the F-35 in the USA and things in Asia were not much funeither. At Australia’s Avalon air show in March the local defence journalistshammered F-35 execs with questions about programme delays and possiblereductions in Australia’s total planned order of 100. Later in the year Australiasaid it is indeed reviewing the F-35 programme, and could end up reducing thenumber of F-35s it buys in favour ofmore Super Hornets.
The late December win in Japan for 42 aircraft was thus a majorboost for the F-35. A loss there would have been a major blow to the programmeand hurt its chances in South Korea. If the F-35 is only a fraction as good incombat as it is at defying critics then it will be a formidable aircraftindeed.
4) AESA time: F-16 upgrades in Taiwan and South Korea
Taiwan and South Korea operate hundreds of F-16s. Both fleets are to get major upgrades, thecore of which will be the addition of an active electronically scanned array(AESA) radar. The alternatives are Northrop Grumman’s Scalable Agile Beam Radar(SABR) and the Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar (RACR).
Combined with improved data links the addition of AESA willbe a major force multiplier. One expert reckons a single fighter with an AESAradar can scan as effectively as an entire squadron using conventional radars.
Both upgrade deals are potentially huge for Raytheon andNorthrop Grumman. An executive at one of these companies said either deal “wouldbe like MMRCA for us.”
5) Cruellest cut: India’s MMRCA short list announcement
I had the privilege of working on the Flight Daily News atFebruary’s Aero India show. For a fighter buff it was awesome with cool demosof MMRCA candidates such as the F/A-18E/F, F-16 Block 60, Gripen NG, Rafale, and Eurofighter. Virtually all ofthe photos in the daily’s first edition were of fighters.
And then, just two months later, the Super Hornet, F-16IN (pictured above), andGripen were summarily dismissed. The Eurofighter and Rafale teams weredelighted. Their stands at the Paris air show boasted slogans like ‘MMRCAshort-listed.” Cynics hint that India held off making the announcement untilafter Aero India to ensure a robust foreign presence at the show.
To add insult to injury, India’s ministry of defence – to the annoyance of Indian diplomats – announced the shortlistwithout first alerting those who had been cut. The Americans and Swedes wereshocked. Apparently they learned of the shortlist in the morning newspapers.Ouch.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin, eyeing other contracts, weredisappointed but did not kick up much of a fuss. Saab insisted that the GripenNG was still the best plane for MMRCA, but then went quiet.
The final announcement is due within the next two weeksaccording to Indian media. Some pundits say Eurofighter, some Rafale. Conspiratorialsorts say India will, after years of deliberations, finally decide not to moveforward with MMRCA at all. Their view is that India will decide it needs astealthier aircraft.
No matter what they decide – Eurofighter, Rafale, a splitdecision, or nothing – it is bound to make next year’s top stories list.