The Asia-Pacific fighters market will continue to be the world's most active over the next decade, with the countries likely to buy more than 500 aircraft to supplement existing fleets, embark on upgrades and acquire new capabilities to take them into the next stage of their development.
"For many Asian countries, fourth-generation planes will be useful and relevant for decades to come, and we'll see orders for a few more batches of these," says Richard Aboulafia, vice-president analysis at the Teal Group. "But for Japan and Singapore, there's a need for any technology that will help them overcome quantitative inferiority and cement a strategic relationship with the USA."
Lockheed Martin is pusing its F-35, the only fifth-generation fighter available for export
Western manufacturers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin from the USA, France's Dassault, the Eurofighter consortium and Sweden's Saab are vying for several potentially lucrative contracts around the region. They face stiff competition from the Russian alternatives, which will take advantage of Moscow's long-standing political and military relationships. China, too, is fast emerging as a viable alternative supplier.
What, however, do the various air forces really need? While there is a lot of talk about fourth- and fifth-generation fighters, these labels are of little help in understanding the actual requirements of the various countries. It is far better, say observers, to talk about the capabilities that are available and link them to national requirements.
Lockheed, which is pushing both its latest version of the F-16 single-engined multi-role fighter and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the only fifth-generation aircraft available for export, believes that having situational awareness and denying it to adversaries will be increasingly important.
"Through stealth, electro-optical sensors, a powerful and advanced AESA [active electronically scanned array] radar, electronic warfare, inherent jamming capability, and the ability to share information via secure datalinks, the F-35 combines its sensor capability like no other platform before it," says Steve O'Bryan, vice-president, F-35 business development and customer engagement
"So while those types of sensors and the situational awareness they provide will become increasingly important, they are most effective when their information is fused and presented to the pilot in a single, coherent display, as they are on the F-35. It's difficult to remove the platform from the equation, because the platform itself is integral to the capability."
Singapore first to order F-15 SG
Singapore has ordered 24 Boeing F-15SG multi-role fighters, making it the first South-East Asian country to order the type and ensuring its air force retains its edge as the region's most potent strike force.
Republic of Singapore Air Force pilots began training with the F-15SGs at Mountain Home AFB in Idaho, USA, last year. The air force will replace its McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawks with the F-15s, but has not said when it would fly the aircraft from Singapore.
It has also not released details about their configuration, apart from confirming that 29,000lb-thrust (130kN) General Electric F110-GE-129 engines will power them.
A US Defense Security Cooperation Agency notification to the US Congress in 2005, when the service made an initial order for 12 F-15s, said that the weapons included 200 AIM-120C AMRAAM medium-range air-to-air missiles with six captive air training rounds, and 200 AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles with 24 CAT and dummy rounds.
For the air-to-ground role, Singapore was to get 50 GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions and 30 AGM-154A-1 Joint Stand Off Weapons both with BLU-111 warheads, and 30 AGM-154C Joint Standoff Weapons. It was also to be supplied with 24 Link 16 multifunctional information distribution system/low volume terminals (fighter datalink terminals) and 44 pairs of AN/AVS-9(V) night vision goggles.
The aircraft are also likely to be fitted with the Raytheon AN/APG-63(V)3 active electronically scanned array radar, and the Data Device high-performance 1553 databus or HyPer-1553TM tested by the Boeing Phantom Works F-15E1 Advanced Technology Demonstrator aircraft.
It has been speculated that Singapore will work with Israel to modify and upgrade its F-15s. The Israeli F-15I Ra'am (Thunder) has an Elisra SPS-2110 integrated electronic warfare system, and its crews wear DASH helmet sights.
A new round of procurement decisions to replace Northrop F-5s with a new tactical fighter are due to start soon, with Singapore likely to choose between the F-15 Silent Eagle - Boeing's latest variant - and the Lockheed Martin F-35. Singapore joined the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme in 2002 at the "security co-operation participant" level, and could ask for more information in the next year. Pentagon officials say that the island could buy up to 100 F-35s.
Rival Boeing is promoting its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-15 Silent Eagle multi-role fighters actively in the Asia-Pacific region. It also believes that platforms are key.
"That said, we think there will be continued fusion and integration of on-board and off-board sensors and weapons, giving pilots the ability to detect and engage targets in any domain - in the air, at sea, or on the ground. We will also develop engine capability that is quieter and provides more range at less fuel burn," it says.
"Multirole capability is paramount for countries investing in fighters. Fighters don't just exist in one or two spectrums any more. They must be able to fulfil a variety of missions over vast geographic space. These aircraft will handle both strategic and tactical missions, including air-to-air, maritime strike, air-to-ground, and ISR missions. Long endurance and versatility will always be factors in Asia Pacific, given the vast geographic diversity - over water, over mountain ranges, and other terrain."
Lockheed, reflecting the fact that its products are primarily for allies of the USA, adds that threat perceptions matter. "Given the continued increase in capability - and numbers - of fighters being developed by China and Russia, it becomes imperative that regional governments continue to equip their air forces with the leading-edge capabilities required to counter the emerging threats to security," says O'Bryan.
Russia has been a mainstay in Asia for decades. Rosoboronexport, the country's arms export agency is promoting its Sukhoi Su-30, Su-35 and RSK MiG-35 as replacements for earlier aircraft such as the Su-27, MiG-29 and MiG-21.
"We have many close friends in Asia - India, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam are just some of them," says Victor Komardin, deputy director-general of Rosoboronexport. "Yes, there is more competition from the USA and Europe. But we are confident in our ability to secure more contracts in the coming years. Russia has never stopped helping its friends, and our friends know we are here for them."
Representatives from the Eurofighter Typhoon consortium and Dassault Rafale have been active in the region as well. Neither, however, has had a sale yet. Saab, on the other hand, had its first success in Asia Pacific after signing a contract with Thailand for six Gripens. It is pushing Bangkok to buy another six and is promoting the fighter in India and Malaysia. Its sales pitch is essentially that its "ideologically neutral" fighter is cheaper than and just as capable as its competitors.
China is becoming more active. Beijing has exported fighters for several decades - most notably the Chengdu F-7 interceptor and Nanchang A-5 ground attack aircraft to the likes of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. But it has newer-generation fighters and it is now casting its net wider.
Beijing has held talks with several countries on the Chengdu FC-1, also known as the JF-17 in the export variant that was developed with Pakistan, and the light attack variant of the Hongdu L-15 advanced jet trainer. For JF-17 customers, China could set up an assembly line or produce components for the aircraft, just like some Western suppliers. This includes traditional and non-traditional clients, say officials.
"We are talking to about five to six countries for each aircraft, and air force pilots from some of them have already flown test flights," says Ma Zhiping, president of China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation, which markets China-made military aviation products globally.
"We provide very capable aircraft at a very reasonable price compared to what else there is in the market. One of the biggest problems for many of our customers is financing. Many are developing countries and their payment abilities are limited. We work with the Chinese government in these cases to help them get cheap credit."
Exports of the Chengdu J-10 fighter are possible, but Beijing's priority is to develop an upgraded version of the aircraft. "This will take a bit of time and we are confident we will have a very good fourth-generation fighter when this is completed. Then, we could export the J-10 to our friends," says Wang Yawei, president of AVIC Defence, the military arm of state-owned aircraft manufacturer China Aviation Industry (AVIC).
The development of indigenous fighters is also under way in India, Japan and South Korea, with various degrees of success, and some could involve foreign partners. These programmes reflect a desire to acquire the technology to develop new combat aircraft and insecurity about the future availability of imports, say observers.
Boeing points out that the USA has spent billions on research to develop various fighter capabilities, and says that countries that embark on indigenous programmes could succeed if they do the same. There is an easier alternative, it adds.
"In each case, it would make more sense to partner with the US government and US industry that has already made this investment, and has not only developed the technology but has also integrated those disparate capabilities into an effective weapons system. Boeing would certainly be interested in this type of collaboration," says the company.
This could happen in India. The Indian air force is due to take delivery of the first batch of the long-delayed Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) later in 2010 - although, going by its past record, that event could face a further postponement.
The pain that the air force went through with the LCA, however, means that foreign collaboration is a possibility for the proposed Medium Combat Aircraft, on which the country's Aeronautical Development Agency could begin work on it in the middle of this decade.
The twin-engined aircraft will incorporate stealth features, have air-to-ground and air-to-air capabilities and be able to perform suppression of enemy air defence, precision strike and close combat missions, says the ADA.
The 20t aircraft will also have a low radar cross-section, "serpentine-shaped" air intakes, internal weapons bays and advanced radomes to increase its stealth features. All of these technologies are already available in the USA, observers point out.
India is also in talks with Russia to collaborate on a fifth-generation fighter programme. This aircraft will be based on Russia's Sukhoi-led PAK-FA fighter, which is likely to have its first flight in 2010. Officials from both countries are confident that they can reach an agreement on the joint venture shortly, but there are worries within India about the level of access their researchers will get to the Russian programme.
In South Korea, the KF-X programme to develop a successor to the country's F-16s and McDonnell Douglas F-4s has stalled at the study stage. Seoul declined to finance the development stage due to the economic downturn, and there is still no clear indication of when that will go through. The focus of the study appears to have shifted.
Initially, the plan was to develop an advanced fighter similar to the Rafale or Typhoon. Last year, however, the research institute that is studying the feasibility of the programme recommended that it instead focus on developing a larger version of the F-16. That could involve Lockheed, which helped the county's Korea Aerospace Industries develop its T-50 advanced jet trainer that is based on the F-16. But the uncertainty, and potential $10 billion bill, means that this should remain in limbo.
Seoul, however, has given KAI the go-ahead to develop a prototype of a light attack version of its T-50, with a production contract likely after the air force tests the aircraft. The F/A-50 also has export potential, says KAI.
Japan has been working for years on the ATD-X programme to develop a stealth fighter that would be similar to the Gripen in size. It would be powered by a pair of IHI XF5 afterburning, thrust-vectoring engines derived from the XF7 turbofan used by Japan's Kawasaki XP-1 maritime patrol aircraft.
© Flightglobal/Tim Bicheno-Brown
Indegenousfighter developments like Japan's proposed ATD-X have largely stalled
However, there has been little word on the programme since the defence ministry unveiled the first full-sized mock-up of the demonstrator at Japan Aerospace 2008. That same year, it decided against proceeding with the development stage and instead continued to fund the studies.
Some observers say that Japan would fund the development of a fighter only to satisfy the needs of its indigenous aerospace industry. Others say that this is just a ploy to get the USA to release access to the Lockheed F-22 Raptor, which Japan covets but Washington is refusing to release for export.
When it comes to indigenous programmes, Aboulafia proposes his "Rule of National Fighter Creation" to assess why countries embark on them. It can mean one of four things: they have a big budget and are not prepared to compromise on quality, they believe that it would be cheaper than the alternative imports, only local firms can meet the country's requirements, or they do not mind having an inferior aircraft.
His point is that, when indigenous programmes are closely scrutinised, none of those reasons really holds up. Almost inevitably, these plans cost too much and produce an inferior or outdated aircraft.
"India's LCA, for example, is quick becoming a multi-decade horror story, despite a large market and an abundance of talent and cash," Aboulafia points out. "National fighter concepts are almost always a very bad idea."
INDIA HEADS CLUTCH OF COMPETITIONS
There are several big fighter requirements around the Asia-Pacific region, with the countries assessing a variety of aircraft.
India has the biggest competition in the region - a $10-12 billion tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft. The Saab Gripen NG, Dassault Rafale, Boeing F/A18-E/F Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16 and RSK MiG-35 are in contention in what could be a product-saving opportunity for some.
New Delhi requires naval fighters as well, and has sent a request for information to Boeing, Dassault and Lockheed for the carrier version of its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. New Delhi is also likely to order more Sukhoi Su-30MKIs, which Hindustan Aeronautics licence-produces in India.
Neighbouring Pakistan, with one eye on its rival, has begun indigenous production of the Chengdu JF-17 that Pakistan Aeronautical Complex helped to design. It also began to receive its newer batch of F-16s last year. In a few years, Islamabad is likely to ask Washington for more F-16s and attempt to buy a batch of the Chengdu J-10, China's latest fighter.
© Sipa Press/Rex Features
India is likely to order more Sukhoi Su-30MKIs, which Hindustan Aeronautics licence-produces in India
Further east, Lockheed is pushing South Korea to select the F-35 for the third phase of its F-X competition, with the company saying that Seoul could get access to the aircraft from 2014 if required. Seoul is looking to buy around 60 fighters, but worries about possible delays to the F-35 and that the early variants may not be as sophisticated.
That could pave the way for Boeing and its F-15 Silent Eagle variant, which the company has proposed with countries such as South Korea in mind. The F-15K was selected for the first two phases of South Korea's F-X competition, and Boeing is pushing Seoul to consider the F-15SE.
Japan is studying the F-35, the F-15SE and the F/A-18E/F, along with the Eurofighter Typhoon, for its F-X competition. Its first choice, however, is the Lockheed F-22 Raptor. Washington's reluctance to export the fighter, however, could lead Japan to the F-35 instead. If there is a delay, one of the others could be an interim solution.
The Obama administration is still studying Taiwan's long-standing request for 66 new F-16C/Ds worth $1.3 billion, and Taipei has asked to buy mid-life upgrade kits for its existing F-16A/Bs as well. It is keen on the F-35, but that is a long shot. Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation, the island's national aircraft manufacturer, proposes upgrades to half of the service's existing 130 A/B-model IDFs.
In South-East Asia, Singapore has ordered 24 Boeing F-15SGs to complement its older fleet of Lockheed F-16s. It could buy up to 60 aircraft, although the Singapore air force could begin evaluating the F-35 in the coming years. It is unlikely to proceed with an order until the F-35 has entered into service with several air forces, and proven its capabilities. When that order comes, the air force is likely to retain the region's most modern and capable combat aircraft fleet.
The Royal Malaysian Air Force bought 18 Su-30MKMs and was considering a follow-on order. However, in October, the Malaysian government decided to retire the country's fleet of MiG-29s because of their high operating costs. It plans to assess fighters from the USA, France, Sweden and the UK to replace them, and Russian arms export agency Rosoboronexport says that it is likely to offer the Sukhoi Su-30MKM for the tender.
Thailand has ordered six Saab Gripens, but it has delayed the purchase of an additional six due to the deepening economic crisis. Its neighbour Vietnam is reported to be going ahead with the purchase of a new batch of Su-30s and could order more advanced fighters from its traditional supplier Russia.
Indonesia has taken delivery of five Su-30MKs and two Su-27SKs, with another three Su-30SKMs likely to be delivered in the coming year. It also hopes to buy six Block 50/52 F-16C/Ds and upgrade six of its airworthy F-16A/Bs to the enhanced standard. This would enable Jakarta to stand-up an F-16 squadron to replace its F-5s by 2014.
Last year, Australia ordered an initial batch of 14 F-35s - the first country in the Asia Pacific region to commit to the fighter. The first F-35 is due to be delivered in 2014, and the first operational squadron to be stood up by 2018. Approval for a second batch will be considered in 2012, fulfilling Australia's commitment to form three operational squadrons and a training squadron.
Canberra also ordered 24 Boeing F/A-18E/F - becoming the first export customer for the type - but could convert around 12 of them to the E/A-18G electronic attack configuration.