The 'military aircraft club's' ranks are becoming less exclusive, writes Graham Warwick and civil aircraft are poised to penetrate military domain

Any veteran of the airshow circuit will be all too familiar with the Airbus versus Boeing, Bombardier versus Embraer rivalry that attends each event. Traditionally the rhetoric has been confined to the civil sector. But, increasingly, the battle is reaching into the military domain

Modern airliners are emerging as ideal platforms for missions ranging from aerial refuelling to airborne surveillance. And long-ranging, high-flying business jets or low-cost, high-cycle regional jets are seen as viable alternatives where massive fuel capacity or cabin volume is not required.

A year ago, Boeing looked set to dominate the in-flight refuelling market with its 767 tanker/transport. But the US Air Force's plan to lease 100 KC-767s has become embroiled in controversy even as EADS's bid to break into the business has been boosted by the UK's selection of the Airbus A330-200 as its Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA).

Boeing is not out for the count. The first of four KC-767s for Italy is undergoing modification in Wichita, Kansas, while Japan has ordered another four. And the KC-767 is being offered against the A330-200 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) for a five-aircraft Australian requirement.

The US giant remains confident of signing some form of USAF lease/purchase deal, eventually, while the AirTanker consortium faces significant hurdles before it can sign the 27-year, $24 billion FSTA private finance initiative deal.


EADS, meanwhile, has rolled out the first of four A310 MRTTs for Germany, to be followed by two for Canada. These aircraft feature wing-mounted hose-and-drogue pods, and EADS has embarked on the $83 million company-funded development of a fly-by-wire refuelling boom that will enable the MRTT to compete head-on with the KC-767 for future US Air Force tanker purchases. The boom will fly on an A310 demonstrator in 2005.

Airbus versus Boeing will be a factor in South Korea's four-aircraft airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) contest, due to be decided in December. Boeing is offering its 737 AEW&C, already selected by Australia and Turkey, L-3 Communications is offering a modified A321 and Thales an A320.

Israel Aircraft Industries, however, could offer Korea a Gulfstream G550 business jet equipped with Elta's Phalcon phased-array radar - a combination already under development for the Israeli air force. This could open up the competition to other, smaller aircraft including the Embraer EREJ-145 regional jet equipped with Ericsson's Erieye phased-array radar. Brazil already operates the EMB-145SA AEW&C, and the first two of four for Greece will soon be delivered. Malaysia is believed to be close to a four-aircraft purchase. Brazil also operates an intelligence-gathering version of the EMB-145, while the first maritime-patrol variant of the regional jet will be delivered to Mexico later this year.

Smaller aircraft are becoming more attractive as defence budgets come under pressure. The NATO Airborne Ground Surveillance competition, expected to be decided later this year, pits a Northrop Grumman-led proposal based on the A321 against a Raytheon-led bid built around the Bombardier Global Express business jet.


Raytheon argues that the Global Express can fly higher and for longer than the A321, both important characteristics for a radar-carrying aircraft. Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, offsets the short legs of the A321 by teaming it with the company's Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned air vehicle.

A business jet and regional jet come face to face in the US Army/Navy Aerial Common Sensor competition, again due to be decided later this year. Here Northrop Grumman has picked the Gulfstream G450, while Lockheed Martin is backing the ERJ-145. At stake is a combined requirement for upwards of 50 communications and electronic intelligence-gathering aircraft.

While Northrop Grumman cites the high-altitude, long-range capability of the G450 business jet, Lockheed Martin says it selected the ERJ-145 because of the regional jet's low operating costs and high dispatch reliability, which it considers ideal for intelligence-gathering mission.

The military applications of commercial aircraft will only increase. In the USA, the US Navy's Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft competition pits a version of Boeing's 737-800 against new-build Lockheed Martin P-3 Orions. India is weighing refurbished P-3s against maritime-patrol EMB-145s and ATR 42s. Brunei, Sweden and Turkey all have maritime-patrol requirements for which the ATR 42MP and other like aircraft will be contenders.

The military-aircraft club is no longer as exclusive as it once was.

Source: Flight Daily News