Continued combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have kept the air arms of several NATO and allied nations busy throughout 2008, but a dramatic flashpoint that resulted in Russia unleashing its military might against Georgia in August also grabbed the headlines.
Moscow's crushing action, which included an extensive reliance on air power, was launched after Georgia moved to stamp its authority on the disputed border region of South Ossetia, but was marred by civilian casualties and heavy damage to critical infrastructure, drawing widespread condemnation from the international community.
Most worryingly for Russia, the five-day conflict also resulted in the loss of four of its strike aircraft, highlighting tactical and equipment shortcomings and exposing the effects of more than a decade of poor funding and insufficient procurement activity.
Elsewhere, Turkey's military has continued its efforts to strike at Kurdish rebel groups, including several acts performed inside northern Iraq. Lessons learned during such missions have underlined the importance of the Turkish army's order for 50 AgustaWestland T129 attack helicopters, and increased demand for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance assets, such as Israel Aerospace Industries' Heron medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned air vehicle.
Coalition and national ground forces in Afghanistan and Iraq also have an unquenchable need to receive ISTAR data from scarce airborne assets, and for the protection provided by attack helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft that are capable of delivering close air support services.
Fighter aircraft and even bombers such as the US Air Force's supersonic Boeing B-1B are increasingly being equipped with reconnaissance/targeting pods and more precise, lower-yield weapons to reduce the risk of fratricide or collateral damage, even in complex, urban warfare scenarios. But asymmetric threats remain a serious concern, from improvised explosive devices (IED) placed at remote landing strips to attacks by rocket propelled grenade or shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile.
WAR RAVAGED FORCES
Although their nations remain the source of significant combat activity, the new governments of Afghanistan and Iraq are taking steps to re-equip their previously war-ravaged armed forces. Kabul is to receive 18 ex-Italian air force Alenia G222 transports via the USAF, while Baghdad has shown early interest in acquiring Lockheed Martin F-16 multirole fighters and new-generation Lockheed C-130J tactical transports.
Iraq's new air force has also recently joined the ISTAR community, receiving its first two of eight reconnaissance-configured Beechcraft King Air 350s. The US military is also funding a rapid acquisition programme dubbed "Liberty Ship", under which its air force will field almost 40 Beechcraft C-12 Hurons for roles including convoy protection and identifying hidden IEDs.
A major consequence of the sustained high operational tempo facing militaries in Afghanistan and Iraq is the stress being placed on their ageing fleets of strike aircraft. The USAF has since late last year ordered fleet-wide inspections of its legacy Boeing F-15s and Fairchild A-10s, while the US Navy has recently called for fatigue checks to all its A- to D-model Boeing F/A-18 Hornets. The UK Royal Air Force meanwhile continues to place operating restrictions on its British Aerospace Nimrod MR2 surveillance aircraft, following the catastrophic fire that downed one in flight over Afghanistan in September 2006.
The next year will be packed with decisions on several nations' planned purchases of new fighters, including Tranche 3 production of the Eurofighter for Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. Tranche 2 deliveries have recently started, while Saudi Arabia's first of 72 export examples has made its first flight.
© BAE Systems
Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway will decide whether to stay within Lockheed's international partnership on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, or look elsewhere to meet their future combat aircraft requirements. Separately, 2009 should also provide proof of whether Russia's promises to fly a fifth-generation counterpart to the JSF will be delivered through a debut showing of Sukhoi's PAK FA design.
SOUTH AMERICAN ACTIVITY
Manufacturers are also doing battle in several other nations. Partly spurred on by the regional posturing of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, whose air force is now equipped with Sukhoi Su-30 multirole fighters, Brazil has issued a formal request for proposals for its F-X2 fighter requirement. This will lead to the selection of either the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale or Saab Gripen NG (Next Generation).
India's medium multirole combat aircraft contest represents a longer-term opportunity for the same companies, with the Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed F-16 and RSK MiG-35 also in contention.
With Europe's EADS-led Airbus Military A400M programme continuing to suffer development problems, Boeing and Lockheed will hope to secure fresh orders for their respective C-17 and C-130J designs. Qatar has recently signed contracts for a combined six aircraft, while Boeing has this year celebrated the signature of a contract to supply two to NATO, and completed scheduled deliveries to Australia, Canada and the UK.
Elsewhere in the procurement area, the USAF must hope that the influence of its new leadership and January's change of administration will help to transform the fortunes of its beleaguered acquisition process.
The service's controversial choice of the Airbus A330-based Northrop Grumman/EADS North America KC-30 tanker was overturned earlier this year, and as well as launching a new contest to replace its oldest Boeing KC-135s it must also revive a stalled search for a new combat search and rescue helicopter. The outcomes of both decisions will lead to significant export opportunities.