Air forces around the world are looking to compensate for declining numbers of fighters by acquiring force-multipliers such as special mission aircraft

Halfway through the first decade of the 21st century, the world's air forces are beginning to recognise that they must diversify their capabilities to meet new challenges and overcome declining budgets. Over the past year, there has been increased interest in combat support capabilities such as command and control (C2), electronic warfare (EW), surveillance and air-to-air refuelling (AAR), which can serve as force multipliers for declining inventories of combat aircraft.

In last year's census we recorded large-scale drops in inventories around the world, particularly in the Middle East, Central Asia and eastern Europe. This year we have tried to provide greater fidelity by breaking down air force inventories according to their active fleets, surplus aircraft held in storage, new aircraft under contract and future requirements.

The results show that, in every region of the world, procurement is failing to keep pace with the number of aircraft grounded as surplus to requirements or no longer airworthy. Many significant requirements remain unfunded and, in many cases, air forces have given up trying to maintain their force structure and cannot replace aircraft one-for-one.

Special missions

With precision-guided weapons and expeditionary warfare now at the forefront of many nations' defence planning, air forces are looking to boost their combat support capabilities. To guide smart weapons to their targets requires accurate intelligence, good communications links to pass targeting information to attack platforms, and AAR support to give strike aircraft the range to reach their targets.

Air forces previously lacking these capabilities are starting to acquire new C2, EW, surveillance and tanker aircraft in significant numbers. China, India and Mexico have all gained new airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft over the past two years and nations like Pakistan and South Korea hope to follow suit. NATO also launched its long-delayed Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) programme in 2004 after years of deliberation.

Air forces that already possess dedicated combat support aircraft must make them more interoperable by gaining access to high-capacity data networks. Network-centric or net-enabled warfare concepts are dependent on this technology, and many air forces realise that their existing assets lack crucial communication links and the necessary computing power.

Rising costs

US and European air forces have embarked on projects to upgrade or replace their AEW and EW platforms, the majority of which are 1950s and 1960s vintage BAe Nimrod, Boeing 707, Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules and P-3 Orion airframes now in their twilight years. Debates are raging about whether to further modernise these aged aircraft – which are suffering from fatigue and other issues – or to introduce a new generation of more cost-effective platforms. The US Army and Navy have opted for the latter, and last year launched the joint Aerial Common Sensor (ACS) programme, based on Embraer's ERJ-145 regional jet. Their decision followed the US Navy's selection of Boeing's 737 Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA) to replace its P-3 maritime patrols.

Efforts by the US Air Force to launch its E-10A Multi-mission Command-and-Control Aircraft project – based on a Boeing 767 airframe – are struggling because of the high costs involved, and the service faces a similar problem in replacing its Boeing KC-135 following the collapse of its planned KC-767 acquisition. The Pentagon is considering whether to refurbish the KC-135 fleet or launch a new contest, which would place airline industry giants Airbus and Boeing head-to-head on a new stage. Australia and the UK have already selected Airbus A330-based tankers, while Italy and Japan have opted for the KC-767.

Global strike

In recent conflicts where enemy forces have lacked sophisticated air defences, large aircraft have proved highly cost-effective platforms for delivering ordnance. The success of the USAF Boeing B-52 and Rockwell B-1B bombers has led to further efforts to extend their longevity and improve their communications to allow rapid targeting of ground targets.

In addition to keeping its current bombers in service for many decades to come, the USAF is also exploring new global strike solutions, such as Lockheed's proposed FB-22 variant of the F/A-22.

There is growing interest in large multi-mission platforms that can carry out littoral and overland surveillance, precision attacks and C2 tasks, with Australia, Italy and Japan all looking to join the USN's MMA project. While it has yet to secure a production decision from the UK government, BAE Systems' Nimrod MRA4 is emerging as a key node in future US and UK networked operations and as a potent addition to the Royal Air Force's future precision strike force once equipped with long-range weapons.

The USAF's fleet of AC-130 gunships saw intensive action in Afghanistan and Iraq, which means the service is looking to increase its inventory during 2005. In the longer term, it is considering replacing the C-130 airframe with Boeing's C-17 and adding other precision-guided weapons. The UK, the only other C-17 operator, is also reportedly watching what the USA does in this field.

Dramatic improvements in computer processing power have allowed some air forces to take a major leap from using airliner-class airframes for combat support missions to introducing business jet-based solutions.

Israel is close to fielding highly modified Gulfstream G550s, which will assume some of the capabilities of its Elta Phalcon AEW radar-equipped Boeing 707s and electronic intelligence-gathering Beech RC-12s and RC-130s, highlighting a future class of special- mission aircraft which several other nations are likely to follow.

Over the past year special-mission aircraft have moved to centre stage, with the launch of several new big-ticket projects like ACS, AGS and MMA. Other nations are now waking up to the reality that a "first division" air force needs a broad range of capabilities that goes beyond the traditional areas of air-to-air and ground attack.


Source: Flight International