As Arab Defence Journal has reported over the years, the global defence market for combat aircraft has developed in many different directions. The pattern of procurement has changed through the decades reflecting key factors including new developments in technology and performance, the changing nature of potential threats, and the ability of customers to sustain as well as deploy sufficient numbers of new air systems and personnel to achieve national defence needs. Other factors include the degree of inter-operability that may be possible flying alongside the forces of coalition partners as well as commercial and industrial opportunities to share in the production of chosen aircraft and systems. This latter factor can often include the potential for major cost off-sets that might extend beyond the home needs of the customer to include future added gain from export activities over a longer timescale. This is important as nations seek to link expensive defence orders with new work in advanced technology areas which will enhance wider industrial aspirations, such as in production using advanced composite materials and digital software and hardware. Bearing in mind all these factors it can be seen that in selecting new fighter aircraft for home defence, to replace older types, there are many more considerations that air force planners must take into account beyond just performance and the cost of the package. Will the selection require a complete revision of training and support needs, which might double the long-term procurement cost, or will procurement be able to phase in relatively painlessly with existing aircraft and facilities, or even with a shared training and support programme with other operators?
Best sellers revived
It is quite remarkable that the biggest selling fighter designs, in use throughout the Middle East, and across the globe, remain the series families of the Boeing F-15 and F-18, and the Lockheed Martin F-16, which all date back to the 1970s, yet are still in production after 50 years. During that period they have been regularly upgraded to remain cost-effective and suitable for changing threats. All were originally designed to counter the new generation of Russian fighters that were seen as a major threat in Europe, but as avionics and weapons systems progressed at a fast rate it has been possible to keep them sufficiently updated to provide combat air capability into the 21st Century. This is important as such formidable Russian fighters as the Sukhoi Su-27/30/35 and Mig 29/35 have appeared in Middle Eastern skies, altering the balance of air power over Syria. New digital attack systems with GPS navigation and precision weapons delivery by day or night in all weather conditions gives the legacy US fighters a highly flexible multi-role capability. This is in addition to their combination of new-generation radars and both agile dogfight and long-range air-to-air missiles for interception and air dominance. Integrated electronic warfare (EW) systems also provide an effective self-defence against surface-to-air (SAM) and air-to-air (AAM) missile threats using jamming and decoy measures. The latest F-18E Super Hornet is also available in a specialist EA-18G Growler version for specialist EW duties which include “sanitising” a given air-space zone in which fighter-bombers are operating so that the radars of SAM and hostile fighters can be supressed. Kuwait has a fleet of F-18Cs and is taking delivery of new-generation F-18Es.
The F-16 continues to be the first choice for fighters by many customers in the region and it is still being offered in new, further upgraded, versions, the latest being as the F-21 aimed at an Indian new fighter requirement. Current operators of the F-16 family include Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Morocco, Israel, Oman, Turkey, and UAE. Customers for this popular fighter have already invested in ground support infrastructure, and many also have their own training simulators, so when considering possible future fighters the option of replacing F-16s with more of the same type, but to an upgraded specification, is an attractive and cost-effective solution. The ability to work and fly with so many other similarly-equipped air forces, and possibly share training, increases the overall operational benefits of this option. The lifespan of the F-16 has already been outstanding, and seems destined to continue well into the next decade. As well as a formidable selection of underwing weapons, it can carry EW pods and long-range fuel tanks, or conformal fuselage-mounted fuel tanks for longer endurance. The latest cockpit displays include integration with helmet mounted targeting systems that give fighter pilots an advantage in any air-to-air confrontation, allowing very quick reaction to counter an air threat. For some customers, including Saudi Arabia, there is a need for a more powerful and longer-range fighter-bomber and this is provided for in the F-15C which is just such an interceptor, and the E model, which has an enhanced attack capability with increased weapons payload. The US Air Force has ordered a new, even more capable version, the F-15EX, with new radar and other EW enhancements. This is perhaps an ultimate example of the revival of a long-established fighter for it will see the aircraft continuing in service for at least another two decades.
If these US-designed fighters represent the best of their generation, then it is interesting to see how the follow-on US air domination fighter, the F-22 Raptor, remains as the leading front line combat fighter with the US Air Force, but has not gained any export success in world markets. This is partly due to restrictions on export licencing because of security concerns resulting from its combination of stealthy characteristics and very advanced on board systems and weapons. But the F-22 has proven to be too expensive to replace all the F-15s in its home nation, with less than 200 in service. The chosen primary fifth generation US fighter is the Lockheed Martin F-35. This is also very expensive, and cannot be a replacement on a one-for–one basis, but its operational performance takes it into another league altogether featuring low radar observability with highly integrated sensors. This gives the F-35 an ability to collect, identify and distribute huge levels of battlespace data to ground stations and other aircraft to act as a flying information hub at the heart of an air wing, on traditional air defence duties or attack missions. Over 3,000 aircraft have been ordered and as well as serving with all three US Services they fly with the UK RAF and Royal Navy and the air forces of a growing number of other nations including Australia, Italy, Israel, Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and are on order for Singapore, Poland and the UAE. More than 500 have already been built. The F-35 can operate equally well from traditional airfields or aircraft carriers. The F-35B features a UK-developed vertical lift system that allows the fighter to slow down and hover to land vertically or at very slow forward speed. This version is in service with the UK Services and also the US Marine Corps and will also join the Italian Navy. Japan may also order this version as well as the conventional F-35A model. The F-35B is due to visit the Eastern Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Western Pacific later this year as part of a UK aircraft carrier Eastward deployment by the Royal Navy’s new carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which will carry F-35Bs from the Royal Navy and the US Marine Corps.
The F-35 is introducing the prospect of air forces using it as a “mother-ship” fighter platform, flying alongside multiple unmanned aircraft that could extend the overall weapons launching capability of an air wing and also present a confusing air picture for adversary air forces. The stealth features of the F-35 will help mask its presence and the “loyal wingman” drones will add to the targeting challenge of an enemy. This will probably be the start of a new way of conducting air power in the future. Very sophisticated and expensive air assets such as the F-35 and their pilots are too valuable to be used for high-risk tasks against low-value targets such as close air support at low level so they will increasingly be used in a stand-off role, controlling the unmanned drones, which also may later have increased autonomous capabilities utilising artificial intelligence technology. If inbound hostile targets can be identified, targeted and attacked by long-range missiles then they can be destroyed while the F-35 remains out of harm’s way.
European upgraded fighters
Europe’s aerospace industry has produced three advanced fighters that have been introduced into service for the opening of the 21st Century. These are the Saab Gripen from Sweden, the Typhoon from the UK/Germany/ Italy/Spain Eurofighter consortium, and the Dassault Rafale from France. They were designed to provide a counter to the newer Russian fighters, such as the Su30 and Mig-35, and are all well-armed, well-defended and very agile in air dogfighting mode. As with their US rivals, they have also been adapted to take on multi-roles as well as the core requirement for air defence. All have attracted healthy export orders and are still in production in upgraded versions. They have created a very competitive situation between the three manufacturers as well as with the US aerospace suppliers. Their aircraft have received more powerful engines and most importantly advanced synthetic aperture radars, defensive aid suites (electronic countermeasures) and the latest in cockpit display technologies, including coloured touch-screens and helmet mounted displays. The Saab Gripen is the smallest and lightest of the three fighters but has particular appeal in certain markets where long-range is not a priority but the ability to operate from short runways might be. The most important new export sale has been 100 aircraft to Brazil where 72 will be built locally. The latest Gripen E model has had a comprehensive re-design with major cockpit, engine, radar and system upgrades as well as an increase in weapons stations and the ability to carry the latest air-to-air missiles.
The Eurofighter Typhoon remains a powerful and agile fighter and has been exported to several Middle East customers including Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar. A series of rolling upgrades with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, new avionics and weapons systems has kept its performance edge over potential adversaries and the type is expected to remain in production through this decade. Advanced helmet mounted displays are in widespread Typhoon use, increasingly seen as essential in air combat, and the carriage of four MBDA Meteor missiles offers world-beating long-range kill capability. ASRAAM short-range dogfighting missiles can be carried on wing pylons at the same time. Combined, all the upgrades improve the pilot’s situational awareness considerably, a key to maintaining air superiority.
The Dassault Rafale has been in head-on competition with Typhoon for export orders but has had recent sales success with new customers including Greece and Qatar as well as earlier sales to India. The French Air Force has also ordered a new Rafale batch of fighters taking its total to over 200 aircraft. This will ensure production continues until at least 2030. Rafale also has an AESA radar and the Thales Damocles electronic warfare system, plus helmet mounted display and can carry the Meteor AAM plus a wide range of French-supplied AAM and ASM weapons. France too is studying future “loyal wingman” swarm control applications that might be developed and tested for Rafale ahead of an application for the next generation future combat air system (FCAS).
Into the future
Beyond these current fighter programmes a new sixth generation of supersonic fighters are underway. Some are presently just at the early design study stage, others are being developed as a priority to safeguard national design and development as well as production capabilities, using new materials and advanced technologies. Externally they all look similar, which is hardly surprising as the digitized computer data being used to format the requirements into a suitable low radar signature supersonic shape will inevitably produce similar results. Overall sizes may differ, depending on the required number of engines - single or twin - and the payload requirements, but the configurations share a common theme to deliver stealth and to fully exploit fly-by-wire flight systems and highly integrated sensors. The choice of manned or unmanned might become options for different versions. A design that does not have to be restricted by the physical constraints of a human pilot might be able to feature more radical performance gains, but this has to be balanced against the greater flexibility of having a pilot who can make instant decisions rather than relying on artificial intelligence algorithms created by advanced computers. To date all-new future combat aircraft are being planned by the USA, Europe, Russia, China, Turkey, India, Japan and South Korea. The export market won’t support all these competitors, but national requirements will ensure that some will make it into large scale production.
Although no image has yet been released by the US Air Force, a full-size demonstrator sixth generation combat aircraft has already flown in secret and is undertaking evaluations that will help focus the features of the next fighter. The programme is known as the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) requirement. In Europe the UK’s MOD and RAF Rapid Capabilities Office, with BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, are leading the Tempest programme with development partners Saab from Sweden and Leonardo from Italy. It is intended to feature radical new features and capabilities and lead to a mid- 2030s entry into service. This programme is moving ahead rapidly, and in France Dassault, Thales and Safran are leading an Airbus partnership with Germany and Spain on a similar Future Combat Air System (FCAS) which is aimed at replacing Rafale from the late 2030s. It will also be produced in a naval version for aircraft carrier use. The most advanced next generation fighter in Russia is already flying as the Su57, and in China, the J20 is similar in design but its performance capability is believed closer to Western fourth or fifth generation fighters. One thing is clear, the revival of fighter designs is in full swing across the globe, and big changes will arrive with the sixth generation.