I’ve written about this before, and nothing has changed— so why have I returned to this subject? Vain hope maybe, definitely a need to vent before I strafe YouTube headquarters in a stolen Westland Wyvern.
There are many aviation enthusiasts who cannot take a word of criticism against an aeroplane made in his (yes, his) home country. The tiniest whiff of negativity about the Short Bannotoe, MiG Kartoshka, Martin Bullfinch, Dassault Mangouste — or whatever his national darling is — and he shits out swear words and conspiracy theories on his oversized gamer’s keyboard in a fevered sweat of rank Red Bull and celibate regret. He’ll drown the comments section in condescending bile, shaking his desk with the force of his paranoid indignagasm (an orgasm of indignation, a word coined by my friend). He’ll accuse you of being a Russian bot, a Communist or even… an American. I’ve read too much of this nonsense. Your country (whatever it is, even Switzerland) has made some crap stuff, bought some crap stuff and done some bad things. You know this in your heart. I know that most of you are too intelligent to commit this kind of offence so I say this in sympathy for what you have had to endure.
Blind faith in our national products is dangerous, the US got burnt this way when their inferior aeroplanes first faced Japanese aircraft that should have been, based on contemporary national stereotypes, worse.
We’re all raised with childish history books telling us our nation (whichever that is) is the greatest in the world but most of us, by the time we’re adults, take it no more seriously than believing our beloved mother’s ‘World’s greatest mum‘ mug makes her the supreme matriarch.
Having said that, there are certain prejudices in the aviation press — an anti-French bias in some quarters, a seriously pro-Swedish (or rather pro-Saab) in others. In the non-specialist media — Sputnik, Fox and the Daily Mail are as accurate on aviation subjects as they are on any and should be taken with a large pinch of ‘I need to wash my hands and talk to my priest after clicking on this’.
Every observer has a bias, but they are probably not trying to destroy your national self-esteem (unless it is Sputnik and you’re American). Rant over, as you were.
“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”
― William Shakespeare,
Project Tempest is a team of British and Italian companies looking for leadership of a new-generation ‘do everything’ stealth fighter. Ambitious and bold it may be, but is it a good idea — and will it actually happen?
A life-size plastic model of a stealthy fighter was unveiled at the Farnborough airshow. The model and accompanying press briefing was from a team that comprised the British Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems, European defence giant MBDA, Rolls-Royce, and the Italian company Leonardo. This was the public birth of Project Tempest, intended to develop new aircraft technologies and find partners for a future fighter project. The mock-up’s exact shape may be a placeholder, but having a physical manifestation at an airshow was a symbolically strong move, as was the name. Normally new fighter project names are a series of letters (FEFA, JSF, ACA, TFX etc.) and the use of an emotive word is a public relations coup. Following the use of other former wartime Hawker fighter names — Tornado and Typhoon — Tempest is a predictable choice. The name may also hint at the desire for this to grow into a wider pan-European collaboration. If the British defence sector wishes to stay in the fighter market (outside of its US and Turkish involvement) post-Brexit it will need to show willing, confidence and initiative — and Team Tempest is just such a move. It has been stated that BAE Systems wants leadership if such a new collaboration starts, but should it? Is Team Tempest a good idea, and will it work? Though Team Tempest is already international it is intended to be British-led. Arguments for a new British-led tactical fighter will revolve around five perceived needs: let’s have a quick look at them.
The make-up of Britain’s current fighter force reveals what the RAF will need in the future. Tornado is on the way out, Typhoon is the current mainstay, and a mixed Typhoon/F-35 force represents the medium term. I have avoided mentioning FCAS and the plethora (sorry Paul Beatty) of British paper studies over the last 25 years in any detail as they’re too numerous to mention. They generally centre on a mixed force of manned and unmanned stealthy aircraft. It is likely that any fast jet would be used in conjunction with a subsonic flying wing UCAV if these don’t fall out of favour before entering service outside of the US.
There are rumours going around that many in the RAF and MoD do not want the full 138 F-35s on order. Insiders suggest a ‘silver bullet’ force akin to USAF’s 1990s F-117 fleet is being mooted in high places. Stealth is not required for all missions, and comes at a great cost (though the F-35’s situational awareness advantage is useful for many missions). It is likely that fewer aircraft will be delivered and to protect the RAF’s independence some of these will be F-35As.
Procurement moves by the US (both F-22s and 6th Gen’ plans), Japan (with the F-3) and Turkey with the TF-X show that those who can afford an alternative don’t consider the F-35 a viable air superiority platform. This flies in the face of public announcements by Lockheed Martin, USAF and F-35 pilots regarding the aircraft’s effectiveness in the role, but it is hard to read the facts in any other way. With the Meteor long-range air-to-air missile a likely weapon for Tempest, Air Superiority, or at least a strong Swing Role capability, is likely. The RAF will need a replacement for Typhoon.
The British military doctrine and inventory currently has little provision for the idea of fighting a powerful well-equipped enemy without assistance from the US and /or NATO.
Analysis of the design can be found here.
Having a high technology base is probably good for a nation’s economy, and many are returning to the idea of nation states above internationalism. Could high technology levels be maintained without a new fighter? British-made defensive aids and sub-systems are widely respected – featuring on the F-22, F-35 and advanced F-15s among others – so even without Tempest it is likely Britain could continue to create high-end military aerospace technology.
Though a 30-year old design, the EJ200 turbofan engine that powers the Typhoon is widely respected, with many technical observers putting Britain in the number-two slot of advanced jet producers (behind the US). In Europe, only France has the ability to create fighter engines. This technology is very hard to develop if lost, or never achieved – as evident in the experiences in China and India.
British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced, “We have been a world leader in the combat air sector for a century, with an enviable array of skills and technology, and this Strategy makes clear that we are determined to make sure it stays that way…British defence industry is a huge contributor to UK prosperity, creating thousands of jobs in a thriving advanced manufacturing sector, and generating a UK sovereign capability that is the best in the world.. Today’s news leaves industry, our military, the country and our allies in no doubt that the UK will be flying high in the combat air sector as we move into the next generation.”
Britain’s global position
Historian David Edgerton noted in conversation with Hush-Kit, “It is not historical destiny which makes the British warlike, but particular political and military programmes of the recent past. So I would say that in the early twentieth century the United Kingdom was more warlike than myth suggested, much more so, but it is only in recent years that we have had a gleeful indulgence in military adventurism overseas. The United Kingdom did once have a major world role, now it just pretends to. It is now really a big Canada, but political leaders want to see themselves at the head of a small United States.” This bloated self-perception sometimes leads to Britain going it alone on military procurement programmes its smallish domestic market cannot justify. This can lead to a higher unit price, which leads to a lack of export success, which in turn keeps the unit price high. With this in mind partners are needed.
Divided by politics, losing support from its European friends, and tied to an increasingly erratic US, Britain needs a shot in the arm. Ambitious military equipment projects are popular with large sections of the public and demonstrate confidence in the future. To others the idea will seem wasteful, irrelevant and unlikely to come to fruition. Some may point out that huge national problems, like the record homelessness epidemic, are more pressing than billion-pound plastic planes (though the £2billion figure has been earmarked for several years).
Does BAE Systems deserve the gig?
BAE Systems sells more to the US Department of Defense (DOD) than the UK MoD, and needs to keep a cordial relationship with the US. It currently has a 13-15% workshare of each F-35 Lightning made* — so aggressively pursuing export sales at the expense of British or European needs is not at the top of its agenda. It also has pretty lamentable track record — other than the Hawk trainer, the last new military aircraft project it led was the disastrous Nimrod MRA.4. Before that the British Harrier GR.5 lagged behind its US brother the AV-8B; the AV-8B served with distinction in Desert Storm, whereas the British GR.5 was considered too immature to deploy. BAE Systems is good at high technology, has an exceptionally large portfolio and is world-class. That the F-22 and the highest spec F-15s carry BAE Systems tech is testament to this. In short, BAE Systems could do it, but it would probably be slow and expensive.
(*While BAE Systems claims a 13-15% workshare on the F-35 on their website, the F-35 site says the total British workshare (from all British companies) is 15%. We spoke to BAE Systems who commented “To clear it up, 15% is the correct number for all British industry, whereas 13-15% is BAE Systems globally, including our businesses in the US and Australia. Numbers differ depending if you include propulsion.”)
Analysis of the design can be found here.
Military aircraft design and production workforces are very vulnerable. BAE has frequently cut or threatened to cut staff when aircraft do not sell well — the Typhoon being a case in point. As an employment-creation scheme, the military aviation sector is very expensive, and demonstrably unstable.
A 2035 in-service date seems unlikely, with fighters outside of China and Sweden taking about 25 years from initial ideas to frontline service. If all went well and Tempest followed this pattern, we would be looking at 2043 as the earliest in-service date.
Technologically, the watchword is ‘Everything’! A feast of exotic technologies discussed include disruptive energy weapons, stealth, virtual cockpits,variable cycle engines, hypersonic missiles, thrust-vectoring control, massive onboard electrical power generation, sensors operating in weird bandwidths, and optionally manned. This is a vision of ambition. So far, the only air forces to have indigenous stealth fighters in service are the US and China. The ‘optionally manned’ feature of Project Tempest has raised a few eyebrows, with many experts seeing it as path to getting the worst of both worlds.
Claims that Team Tempest will use new ideas to move quickly and affordably are reminiscent of early JSF talk, when the F-35 was predicted to cost $28 million a unit thanks to an innovative contract type, and design and manufacturing techniques (in 2018 the F-35 project is now celebrating some models’ price tags going under 100 million, which even allowing for time and inflation puts it into a different category from the low-cost aircraft it was originally supposed to be).
Britain, the black sheep of Europe, will struggle to find a willing team with its neighbours. France, has always prioritised autonomy and design leadership, and Germany is the least militaristic of the major European players. Franco-German concepts for a Future Combat Air System for Europe (below) have been notable by their exclusion of UK involvement, something that has alarmed BAE Systems no end. When things were easier for military projects Europe (and NATO) still struggled to unite on common procurement programmes. The 1980s offered a perfect storm for the development of a new fighter: a relatively strife-free EU, a tangible advanced threat, and much larger orders (Britain originally wanted 250 Typhoons). Even in these fertile conditions, the effort that led to Typhoon was a struggle, so looking further afield for partners is likely.
The Swedish firm Saab is the most successful manufacturer of fighter aircraft in terms of achieving – or coming closest to – predicted schedules and budgets, and its model could be one to follow.
Typhoon and Tornado suffered from an overly democratic concept-definition process, whereby compromise was put ahead of overall effectiveness. Attempts at fairness in design-sharing and production allocation led to some odd decisions (such as Germany leading the flight control system for Typhoon and a cumbersome and expensive production line). The arrangement of Eurofighter made upgrades slow and tortuous, and left the consortium little room for initiative.
The bright news for a new fighter programme is the multitude of nations, including Turkey, Japan and South Korea, desiring fighters of their own and open to collaboration. A prime contributing factor in this worldwide trend for indigenous fighters is the absence of an exportable F-15 replacement. While updated F-15s, F/A-18s, Eurocanards and late F-16s are impressive, in the long term there are no high-end Air Superiority fighters available for Western friendly nations.
Is project Tempest a serious thing, or an attempt by a nation on the back foot to appear confident? Time will tell.
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The most potent operational fighter aircraft in Russian service is the Sukhoi Su-35. We asked Justin Bronk, Research Fellow from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), how it would fare in combat against the formidable F-22 Raptor operated by the United States Air force.
Are there tactics which would enable a Su-35 force to take on a F-22 formation?
Simply put – no. Whilst the Su-35 does have the hypothetical capability to detect the F-22 at close ranges using its IRST and potentially the Irbis-E radar, both sensors would have to be cued to focus on exactly the right part of sky to have a chance of generating a target track. By contrast, the F-22 will know exactly where the Su-35 is at extremely long range and can position for complete control of the engagement from the outset with superior kinematics. The Su-35’s only chance would be to absorb the AMRAAM and AIM-9 shots from the F-22’s and hope that they had sufficient numbers left to attack the tankers and airbases which the F-22’s rely on post-engagement.
How do the F-22 and Su-35 compare in terms of close-in agility/energy preservation/types of fighters (angles V energy)
The Su-35 can probably out-turn an F-22 in a horizontal fight at medium and low altitudes, but the need to carry missiles and tanks externally to be effective, as well as the brute size of the Sukhoi will ensure it remains at a distinct energy disadvantage to the Raptor in terms of energy retention and acceleration at all speeds. The F-22 also will not get into an angles fight with an Sukhoi – there is simply no need for it to do so.
How do they compare in terms of BVR engagements?
BVR engagements are all about situational awareness, positioning/energy advantage, and persistence in terms of fuel and missiles. In all but the latter category the Su-35 is hopelessly outclassed by the F-22 (as are all other operational fighter aircraft). Even in terms of missiles, the Su-35 can carry up to twelve to the F-22’s eight but combat practice, especially against stealthy targets, involves firing salvos of six missiles with mixed seekers so the Su-35 only really has two credible shots. By contrast the F-22 can get much closer without being threatened so even against the Su-35S DRFM jammers, it can fire smaller salvos with much better Pk.
(taken from full article here)
Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_Br0nk
Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit
You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet Satellite. Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker.
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In a 2007 interview with former General Wesley Clark, he described how Rumsfeld told him (on the 20th September 2001), “We’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” The reasons for these vast, and potentially catastrophic, actions were vague, however Rumsfeld noted that the US had a strong military, ‘“I guess if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem has to look like a nail.”
The danger of finding problems that fit your tool is known as the ‘Law of the instrument’ or ‘Maslow’s hammer’. This idea was expressed in 1964 by the American philosopher Abraham Kaplan as: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”
As we have mentioned before, military plans and military inventories are not independent bodies. The aircraft your air force chooses will to a large extent dictate how you can use your air force. The ramifications of armed unmanned aircraft have been well-explored (such as in the excellent Wired for War by P. W. Singer), the consequences of stealth aircraft less so.
In attempting to justify the F-35, some have hinted at breakthrough technologies onboard the aircraft that are classified and enormously impressive. While all F-35 claims can be taken with a grain of salt (remember the Lockheed Martin boast of superior kinematics to any 4th generation fighter?) it seems likely that one of these technologies is electromagnetic-pulse based.
This development has entered the White world in several recent projects, notably the Boeing Counter-electronics High-powered Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP). These weapons use microwave radiation to fry enemy electronics, crippling computers or even knocking the power system out for an entire building (it should also be noted that missiles contain electronics). Other possible candidates for ‘technology-X’ on the F-35 include extremely aggressive electronic attack modes to disable enemy radars, including computer virus insertion. If this were the case, it would combine with the F-35’s low-observability to produce an ‘asymmetric fighter’ capable of Black ops. As with unmanned aircraft, this could led to small scale military operations without the bother of international accountability. The F-35, which will inevitably serve in smaller numbers than now anticipated, will not be well suited to 21st century offensive warfare’s central mission of close air support. Though it may well excel in the other important modern role: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). The F-35 to was conceived excel in Desert Storm-style warfare, it was to be used in blitzkrieg (later, and with added emphasis on the psychological, known by the revealingly repulsive term ‘shock and awe’) operations.
Israel is expected to receive its first F-35s in 2016. The Israeli air force has a long history of surprise air attacks on enemies or potential enemies outside of declared wars— at the risk of losing aircraft, and thus deniability and national prestige. If the F-35 performs as advertised (to use a cliche that has long attached itself to the programme) then it would by the ideal aircraft for Israel to threaten or attack Iran.
For other F-35 users, especially in NATO, the type’s usage- with its emphasis on off-base, centralised maintenance and sealed box components — will make it further apparent that their air forces are little more than ancillary wings of USAF. Whereas today it would be hard to conduct prolonged military operations without US consent (considering the large amount of US technology used by all NATO nations), in the days of the F-35 it would be impossible.
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By David Hare
The people of Switzerland recently voted against buying new fighter planes for their air force on the grounds of cost. To put this into context, a country ranked 20th in the world in terms of gross domestic product (it sits between Saudi Arabia and Iran) said no to a small fleet of one of the cheapest fighter aircraft, Saab’s Gripen.
The twenty two Gripen E/Fs would have replaced Switzerland’s geriatric F-5E fleet and eventually its F/A-18C/Ds. Though the referendum result was only won by a narrow margin it leads to the question, could this be the start of a trend? Have high performance manned fighters priced themselves out of the future?
In the 1940s-50s the RAF operated around 60 Gloster Meteor squadrons (even Belgium ordered 355 aircraft), and Britain’s total order (including FAA aircraft) surpassed 2700 aircraft. Today the RAF has five Typhoon squadrons, from around 2020 (when the Tranche 1 aircraft will be retired) it will have 107 Typhoons. Best not to think about the estimated £37 billion it will have cost the UK taxpayer by the time it retires. A comparison between the US F-86 and the later F-22 show an even more extreme example of the reduction in fighter fleet sizes. The size of fighter forces has declined for most nations since the 1950s. What will happen at the end of the next generation cycle in forty years time? In terms of development, Europe has no next generation fighter planned, the US has nothing firm beyond the F-35 (which is leaving a bad taste in the mouth of US procurement bodies, if you can forgive this rather weird imagery), and the Navy’s F/A-XX is far from definite. Considering that fighters take around thirty years from concept to operational readiness it appears that fighters are on the way out. So what of the PAK FA, J-20 and J-31? Do they not prove an international desire for this most high prestige of weapon’s platform? It could be argued that these aircraft represent a rather conservative response to the US so-called ‘5th Generation’ force, and instead point to a wish to continue a slow and careful arms (and technology) race between nations with no real wish for ‘peer’ war.
Time will tell if the referendum will lead to Switzerland abandoning the fighter role (as New Zealand did in 2001), and if it is a significant moment in a trend that could see small and medium-size air forces killing their most glamorous types.
Following the cancellation of the BAC TSR.2 in 1965, it was suggested that the RAF purchase fifty General Dynamics F-111Ks and one hundred AFVGs. The Anglo-French Variable Geometry aircraft was a proposed multi-role fighter. The troubles this project endured illustrate the three main obstacles still facing European fighter development: aggressive US marketing backed by political might, Britain’s inability to go it alone and France’s insistence on keeping its fighters French.
The F-111 was seen as a lower cost, lower risk alternative to TSR.2, but as early as 1965 the British Government was aware that the US F-111 programme was having serious and expensive development issues. British experts visiting the General Dynamics plant at Fort Worth assessed the aircraft. They noted that the high-lift systems (especially the leading edge slats) were ill-suited to the extreme conditions of low-level flight, this was an alarming problem as this was exactly the type of flying the F-111 was conceived to do. The engine intake design was terrible and the engine was prone to surging. General Dynamics asked for assistance from the British Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) to solve the mess of the intake design, and one Dr. Seddon was sent to help.
Before the TSR.2 had been scrapped, the British and French were considering collaborating on the development of a swing-wing fighter.
The AFVG was a projected multi-role strike fighter with formidable capabilities. As well as land-based variants for the RAF and Armée de l’Air, it would have been available in carrier compatible variants for both British and French naval use. It was to have a radius of action of 500 nautical miles when configured for the strike or reconnaissance role, a top speed of well over Mach 2 and a ceiling of 60,000 feet. It was to be powered by two SNECMA/Bristol Siddeley M45Gs. This was a new turbofan that was used, in its M45H version, for the VFW-Fokker 614 airliner. At the early stages of the project the French wanted the strike mission to be prioritised , the British on the other hand, wanted it weighted toward the fighter mission. In 1966 this position reversed: Britain had ordered the Phantom to meet its fighter needs, and France having left NATO, felt more vulnerable from attack and wanted a new, more potent air defence fighter.
The design team was composed of members from Dassault and BAC. The skilled, experienced designers were dedicated and worked in a spirit of mutual respect; the same cannot be said of the officials involved in the project.
Friction between Europe’s two biggest aviation nations was common, and the British grew distrustful of French officialdom, believing it favoured indigenous offerings over collaborative efforts. Meanwhile the costs of the AFVG were rising.
The British distrust turned out to be correct when it was found that Dassault was secretly working on its own swing-wing fighter. In fact, a technology demonstrator, the Mirage G8, was being readied to fly. The British were furious at this duplicity. British embassy staff and project officials went to confront Dassault boss Bloch and co-chairman of the Anglo-French committee, Lecamus. The French team denied knowledge of the project, but the British were insistent. Lecamus knew the game was up, and said to Bloch in French ‘It’s no good, they know’. They do not however admit to the existence of the Mirage F1, another threat to the project. Soon after, in June 1967, France pulled out of AFVG citing the rising cost as the primary reason. France pursued its own swing-wing projects for a short time, and then cancelled them. Later, the F-111K was also cancelled.
Meanwhile on the other side of the channel, AFVG became the UKVG, a British project lacking carrier capability. However, the culture had moved away from indigenous aircraft and the UKVG received little funding. Britain sent a delegation to Canada to ask if it could join the huge F-104G replacement discussions featuring Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. These nations were a little miffed by a non-F-104 operator joining these talks, but reluctantly let them in with ‘observer status’. Britain’s real motive may have been to poach supportive nations to co-develop its UKVG, which with international backing became the MRCA (multi-role combat aircraft, not to be confused with the Indian medium fighter contest or the proposed MiG-29 variant). Germany, Italy and the Netherlands joined the project (though the latter soon pulled out). Canada and Belgium were irritated that their attempts to procure a cheap fighter had been hijacked, by the British desire to develop a far more sophisticated and therefore expensive type. MRCA was eventually christened ‘Tornado’ and remains in service today, four decades later. In RAF service the type has performed frontline combat missions for a longer period than any other type, from the daring airfield raids of Desert Storm in 1990, to the controversial attacks in Syria in 2015.
Tornado Versus Typhoon
The Tornado has been so successful, that it has damaged the potential of the follow-on Typhoon project- as Tornado is still a viable ground attack platform – Britain, Germany and Italy have been slow to develop Typhoon’s ground attack potential, something which has affected its export potential. Even today, in 2015, Eurofighter is boasting that Typhoon is currently being integrated with weapons the Tornado has been carrying for a decade. Frontline Typhoons do not yet have Brimstone or Stormshadow, nor a dedicated reconnaissance pod (nor do would they be able to carry the superb RAPTOR). As well as superior equipment, the RAF Tornado force have the most experienced (at fixed-wing close air support) crews in Europe. The Typhoon will have big boots to fill, and with the inevitable wait for the F-35 it may have to do it alone for some time.
Afraid to go it alone
The AFVG story highlights the cultural differences in British and French military aircraft development: Britain industry isn’t allowed to go it alone, and France is scared of its aviation industry falling into international hands.
There are no cost advantages to the collaborative development of an aircraft, despite the many times this has been claimed. The advantage is that once they’re in motion they’re harder to cancel. Generally, they’re also harder to export.
The total cost to the UK taxpayer of the Typhoon, is around the same as the French have paid for Rafale- between 50 and 60 billion Euros.
The British government is happy to pay for two types of national military aircraft development: familiar things (Nimrod, Hawk etc) and unfamiliar things (yep, we’ll pay for UCAVs as we’re not quite sure what they are).
Despite Britain having the necessary technological base to develop its own aircraft alone, it is only allowed to work in an international team. Some might ask whether squandering this ability is a good idea (even China and India struggle to make genuinely indigenous advanced aircraft). But likewise, it could be argued that the notion of nation is at best an irrelevance. Lockheed Martin, whose mastery of technology and PR are second to none, have adopted a strange and powerful approach with the F-35: it is all things to all men- American or collaborative depending on who you ask.
With Gripen’s success in Brazil last week, it is easy to wonder if the BAe P.106 could have been developed into an even more successful aircraft. The BAe P.106 of 1980 was a British study for a type very similar to Gripen. If this could have been developed with the single-mindedness that France demonstrated with Rafale it could have resulted in an aircraft far more exportable than the Typhoon.
Looking at Rafale and Typhoon in flight together, one is struck by the similarities. Following a recent joint exercise a RAF Typhoon pilot was asked the perennial question: which is better Typhoon or Rafale, he replied that they are very similar aircraft. The parallel development of such similar aircraft is enormously wasteful, though what you conclude from this depends on your bias. One French observer noted that if the Eurofighter nations had joined Rafale, split the costs and sent its designers/ factory workers to France, a fortune would have been saved. Though this would have been hard for the non-French nations to swallow.
One of the reasons for Gripen’s success is the modest production facilities it uses. Eurofighter and Dassault have invested in enormously expensive modern facilities to produce their fighters. This level of ambition is expensive, especially in the case of France where the amount of aircraft produced is so low.
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Western Europe never succeeded in developing a common fighter. This fantasy was crushed by the tension between France and Britain, and the high-pressure sales of lower-cost US types. The F-35, combined with the high cost of the Typhoon and Rafale has killed Europe as a fighter maker in the long-term. A fighter takes 20 years to develop, and with the possible exception of Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) TF-X (which may be developed with Swedish help), there are no future clean-sheet European fighters in development.
Was the Spitfire overrated? Full story here. A Lightning pilot’s guide to flying and fighting here. Find out the most effective modern fighter aircraft in within-visual and beyond-visual range combat. The greatest fictional aircraft here. An interview with stealth guru Bill Sweetman here. The fashion of aircraft camo here. Interview with a Super Hornet pilot here. Most importantly, a pacifist’s guide to warplanes here. F-35 expose here.
Bill Sweetman, an aviation reporter renowned for his good sense recently noted that the latest, hideously over-priced generation of fighters typified by the F-35, mean that modern air forces will have to face up to the fact that they won’t be able to do all that they could twenty years ago.
As air forces prepare for the worst and order fighters for World War 3 in numbers too small to win World War I, many are beginning to question the sense of aircraft that cost more than $150 million to buy.
The marketeers of military aircraft love to re-enforce the notion of an unpredictable world that requires the purchase of super hi-tech aircraft. But maybe it’s time to look at what is sensible. The world has always been unpredictable; the post-‘Cold War’ is no more unpredictable than the 1950s, despite claims to the contrary. Considering that the most popular prediction of the Cold War was all out war between the super-powers, the post Cold War, is if anything, more predictable. The oft-cited example of the Falklands War as an example of unpredictably bolstering large military procurements is disingenuous.
These equations also imagine a passive relationship between military capability and foreign policy. They ignore how a nation’s military equipment informs its foreign policy: the US, with its fantastically capable military is more likely to invade a medium-sized nation than is the Principality of Sealand. If Sealand bought 1800 ‘Flanker’s it may be a little more feisty.
With this in mind, what can air arms actually afford?
One of the projects that led directly to the F-35 was the Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter. Though ‘affordable’ is a blatantly meaningless term, this is a good illustration of how the development time of modern fighters makes a mockery of the idea of a ‘low-cost’ fighter. The typical time from conception to operational service is today about 20 years. Maintaining ‘affordability’ over such a long time is probably impossible.
This gives more frugal air arms three options. The first is to upgrade existing airframes. The advantages of this are that if handled well it is relatively easy and cheap. A 1970s-designed airframe is likely to have similar performance to a modern fighter in many respects (top speed, range, low-speed agility, weapons-compatibility), where an old airframe fails is in the fields of safety, maintainability and, if you’re so inclined, stealth. Many air forces are getting excellent service out of vintage designs like the F-16 and ‘Flanker’ series.
The second option is to buy a light fighter. Saab’s Gripen is currently the world’s best light fighter. Other aircraft in its category include the endlessly postponed Tejas from India and the Chinese/Pakistani JF-17. It is easy to criticise the Tejas, an aircraft inferior to Gripen in almost every respect until its origin is looked at. India’s last indigenous fighter was designed by Kurt Tank! The Tejas is an incredible achievement, and a big stepping stone for India’s technological progress. It would be a brave observer that would guess Sweden will retain its technological lead over India in aviation in 2040.
The third option for the tighter-pursed air arms is to look for fighters with a few miles on the clock. Second-hand Typhoons are an appealing option, certainly in terms of ‘bangs for your bucks’, but many looking at this option are wondering how cheap supporting such a fleet, in terms of parts and maintenance would be. ‘Vertical’ cuts in the USAF inventory would see entire fleets of particular types retired. Hints of which types are most vulnerable to these slashing cuts have mentioned that single-purpose aircraft are in the cross-hairs. In terms of fast jets this could mean the killing of the F-15C. Considering USAF’s lack of Air Superiority fighters, thanks to the great price of the F-22, this seems unlikely. If it did happen it would push around 200 F-15C/D airframes onto the market at bargain-basement prices. They would need comprehensive refurbishment in some cases though, so the cost advantage over ‘Flanker’s would come into question.
So what is the best way?
The JF-17 is hardly the most capable fighter in the world, but it may point the way forward. Compared to other fighters in production, it is cheap. Its performance is fine. A ‘silent’ JF-17 is the kind of fighter that air forces want. The first nation to produce an affordable, exportable fighter of this kind could be in a very strong position. The closest aircraft to meeting this need could be the J-10B or perhaps the J-31, if it’s price is kept in check. With rumours of a smaller aircraft based on the aerodynamic configuration of PAK FA, perhaps MiG RAC ( a weak and endangered company) could produce the aircraft air arms actually need.
In keeping a future fighter aircraft cheap and capable, there are lessons to be learned. The first is to avoid multi-national collaboration, which though it may decrease the chance of cancellation invariably increases the project costs by an enormous factor. The second is to cut development time; 20 years is too long. The third, and perhaps hardest lesson is to be realistic.
Sadly, none of these lessons will be taken onboard for the next generation of Western combat aircraft. Europe moves slowly and vaguely towards collaborative unmanned stealth aircraft and has given up on fighters and the US is fatalistically looking at the capability hole that the F-35 will bring.