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.
Internet giant Google revealed yesterday that the F-35 was dangerously over-exposed in terms of media coverage. A USAF spokesman commented “With over 200 articles a week published on the F-35 program, there is a very real danger that some of this rhetoric will bounce off the airframe rendering it dangerously visible to enemy radars”
The F-35’s airframe, which is shaped to reduce visibility to auditors, is 60 per cent caviar, 15 per cent mink and 25 per cent cocaine. The aircraft is even more vulnerable from detection by obsolete search engines such as Ask.com, ChaCha and Boogami which operate on a different wavelength. A US Navy think tank has been studying the so-called ‘Swarm’ effect, whereby one reputable website produces a story on the JSF and thousands of reverse-engineered drone stories follow it. The think tank noted that many of these drones were poorly produced with little regard for production quality.
The Gray Slag
The aircraft is powered by the sunk cost fallacy and with a loaded weight of 50,000 lb it is considered too big to fail. While critics suggest a unit price upwards of $170 million, Lockheed Martin have pointed out that once you deduct the cost of the engine, materials and electronics in the jet this figure goes down. This figure can further be reduced by removing other numbers. Proponents of the F-35 are keen to point out that everything is fine and it is brilliant. Meanwhile, critics of the $500 trillion project are keen to point out that everything is fucked and it’s awful. Arthur Koala, head of Public Affairs for the American taxpayer is quoted in this article as saying “The first priority for any nation is defense, and we remain committed to the defense of Lockheed Martin.”
Wonga.com, who are in charge of finalising contracts with export nations are confident in future sales. Their head of sales noted “The partner nations and export customers are of course free to walk away from the program, though they may find Hillary Clinton refusing to talk to them again. But if they are comfortable with a bad relationship with the world’s greatest super power they are free to leave…terms and conditions apply.”
The Australian Minister of Defence, Senator the Honourable David Johnston, said he shared Canada’s blind faith in the dumpy fighter and would buy it however expensive, late or ineffective it was. British Secretary of State for Defence Richard ‘The Hamster’ Hammond has fought hard to ensure that Britain has the minimum amount of F-35s at the maximum price. He noted that “By making sure our biggest defence contractor is making tail-planes for a US design we have ensured that Britain will never again be able to make a front-line military aircraft by itself. Following the rather mental Nimrod MRA.4, this is considered a good idea” .
Britain’s force of four F-35Bs will enter service in 2022 and will replace the Typhoon, A400M, Grob Tutor and take over the role of Joey in The Only Way is Essex.
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The Russians cannot be trusted to give their aircraft emotive English language names. Luckily for them, NATO helped them with this throughout the Cold War. The assigned code-names ranged from the cool (‘Foxhound’) to the bizarre (‘Fishbed’) to the slightly unsavoury (‘Fiddler’). Sadly this now seems to be over. Should we let these exciting aircraft be known only by a bland designation? NO!
We’re running a competition to give the PAK FA a HRN (Hush-Kit Reporting Name) . The winning entry will be sent to Sukhoi’s public relations department and hopefully they will read it, like it, and adopt the name.
1. The name must begin with ‘F’.
2. It must contain two syllables.
3. Names to be submitted by Twitter only. Address to @Hush_Kit with hashtag
Tenacious journalist Bill Sweetman has always been one step ahead: the man described by Tom Clancy as “a genius” was writing about ‘stealth technology’ when it was sill buried in official secrecy; he broke the story of the Laden raid stealth helicopter; possibly unearthed proof of the Aurora hypersonic spy-plane and remains an outspoken critic of the F-35 programme.
How did you start in aviation journalism? I answered an ad in the back of Flight for a sub-editor. Mark Hewish, who was in that position, had taken a job at New Scientist (although he changed his mind and stayed on as a defence writer). The printers insisted on having an extra sub (so one could always be there on Friday) and IPC balked at the GBP 2,400 salary, which was the lowest NUJ rate. The solution was to hire two trainees at 60 per cent. I arrived thinking that I was on a gap year before Uni and never left.
What are the biggest pitfalls facing aerospace writers? Making a living! Related to the fact that many outlets pay minimum rates and have little interest in quality. The other problem is that there are lots of people paid to manipulate the story, and most of them earn more than you do, and some of them are depressingly good at it.
Your informed guesswork and predictions regarding US black programme have frequently proved very accurate. Is there an article you are particularly proud of?
I still look back on the 1986 book Stealth Aircraft with affection. Some of my IDR and Interavia stories on stealth in the late 1990s and early 2000s hold up well in retrospect. There’s a lot in there that has never been published or talked about since. Breaking the bin Laden stealth helicopter story – now, that was quick-draw fun.
Some of your journalistic investigations appear to involve long, exhaustive studies of budget documents. If this is the case, what motivates you to persist- does it not seem tedious sometimes? Browning had a mathematician saying “While I triumph o’er a secret wrung from nature’s close reserve”. When it stops being interesting you’re probably not getting anywhere.
What have been the highest and lowest points of your career so far? I’m deeply enjoying the present day, the hunt for black programmess and the epic story of JSF – which started off as the most ambitious project since the ICBM and has been a grievous disappointment.
Which black programmes are you currently most interested in? I could tell you, but then I’d have to use some hackneyed cliché from one of the worst aviation movies ever.
What is the biggest myth regarding stealth? Stealth doesn’t make you invisible, much less immortal.
Who are your writing heroes ? Bill Gunston, above all. Mark Hewish was my mentor in many ways – very efficient and a total professional. LJK Setright was an inspiration in terms of having fun with writing. C.G. Grey – great writer, lousy politics. Outside aviation, Wodehouse and Saki are influences.
Does the inclusion of industry advertisers in aviation magazines have an affect on the impartiality of reporting? Not if I have anything to do with it.
The Typhoon, F-22 and F-35 programmes have all received a great deal of criticism; can you give an example of a well-run military aircraft project? Almost anything from the land of blondes, aquavit and IKEA.
What are the future aerospace technologies to look out for? Additive manufacturing. The application of 3D aerodynamic modelling to blended shapes.
Do you have a favourite aeroplane, and if so why? The ‘Flanker‘ in its many forms. It was a very difficult program and relied on a lot of aerodynamic and propulsion technology that even today is not appreciated. And it looks incomparably bad-ass, as if God designed a pterodactyl to go Mach 2.
Read about stealth in fact and fiction Here
Despite the large sums invested in developing them, nobody seems to want modern Western fighters. By modern, I mean operationally active, in production and with a first flight after 1990. This definition would include the Typhoon, Rafale, Gripen and the Super Hornet (the newer variants of the F-15 and F-16s are either virtually aerodynamically identical to their 1970s forebears or, in the case of Silent Eagle, uncompleted). The Lockheed Martin F-22 is no longer in production, and when it was, export was banned.
With all the hype surrounding these types it’s easy to overlook how poorly they’ve done in the export markets. But let’s look at the figures:
Fighter Total numbered delivered to export customers by February 2013
Dassault Rafale 0
Saab Gripen circa 61 (included leases)
Eurofighter Typhoon circa 39
Though more export orders have been announced, the numbers above reflect what has actually happened so far (I’ve used best available information, I’m happy to adjust numbers if any readers have better,verifiable, data).
Compare these figures with earlier aircraft: F-16 (well over 2000 exported), F/A-18 Hornet (391, not including secondhand aircraft) and Mirage 2000 (293). Even the Panavia Tornado, an aircraft that was difficult to sell, managed to notch up a total of 120. This is not even taking into account F-15s which have been sold by the hundreds. There is of course another dimension to this, and it should be noted that the F-15 and F-16 ‘exports’ have been propped up and organised under the Foreign Military Sales programme. The aggressive, politically-supported F-35 sales drive is comparable to FMS.
The modern generation of Western fighters are all very capable, but seem to be a victim of bad timing, arriving while fourth generation fighters were still relevant, through to today where many air forces are holding out for the F-35. Modern F-16 variants, exemplified by the Block 50+ and 60, combine a proven airframe and global logistics network, with modern avionics and weapons. Late Block F-16s offer what is seen as a relatively low-cost and low-risk option. As well as lower risk rivals being readily available, Generation 4.5 have spent most of their lives in times when militaries are facing reduced budgets. Some air forces wish to cling onto their existing fighter types, knowing that each fighter procurement is smaller than the last and will involve shedding manpower and force size.
The use of ‘Generation X or Y’ terms are not always useful and tend, like I have here, to be manipulated to show an opinion.
Unlike the 5th Generation F-22 and F-35, all of the West’s Generation 4.5 fighters have seen war, even the Gripen (which was used for reconnaissance missions over Libya) and they are all capable of performing both the fighter and bomber mission. Despite tiny export figures, they are sought after, if not by those who make procurement choices, then certainly by many in air forces around the world.
I spoke to two people this week with interesting views on this subject. The first was a high-ranking member of a european air force:
“ ..what happens in five years time? We’ll be waiting for new platforms..what we’ve got now can do the job today, and the crews are great, but the hours are accumulating and we’re putting everything on a new type (F-35) that we will only be able to afford in limited numbers..already smaller air forces cannot fight alone, but take our numbers down to unsustainable numbers and we effectively lose indigenous air power. I would not want to disagree with the air force’s choice, but it is easy to see that going for one of the types available today would give us greater flexibility and would arrive sooner.”
The second person I spoke to, who has been studying US military procurement for more than three decades, commented:
“There appears to be a move towards monolithic military procurement, the ideal situation for defense contractors. With only one shop to go to, it effectively moves out of the competition system of the 1970s-80s. This isn’t just the case in the US, it can be seen in the Russia Federation too. Europe’s big mistake was not providing an answer to the F-35, by doing this they have allowed a monopoly where the military will have no leverage to attain good value… many in Europe hopes that it will be able to gain ground on the UCAV market, but it appears that European nations have not adopted the Lockheed Martin model of how to run an international project- with one hugely dominant leader nation” (editor notes: could this not be France?) “ ..without this the projects will flounder- they will be too slow and too expensive and lack a big enough initial order to give a genuine economy of scale…the last hope for the current European fighters are sales to Islamic countries that the US or Israel does not trust with F-35”
The current generation of fighters is important for several reasons. It is the only insurance the West has if the F-35 fails. Accepting the now commonly-used generation terminology, the F-35 will be the only 5th Generation Western fighter available. This is a unique situation, as since 1914 air forces have always had options, now if they wish to buy into the idea of ‘5th Generation’ and keep their allegiances with the West, they have no choice. The success of the current generation of fighters will be in its abilities to thrive in the F-35’s shadow, to supply to nations unable to order F-35s as they are too poor, politically black-listed or needing aircraft sooner. More significantly, they need nations to reject the dogma of stealth.
Generation 4.5’s biggest strength is that it’s ready now, with each delay to the F-35, another sales possibility opens up. Many believe that further delays may see stop-gap procurements (like Australia’s Super Hornets) staying longer and being ordered in bigger numbers than first anticipated. Canada is also a nation, that given the political flexibility, would seem a natural customer to jump ship and order Super Hornet to replace its existing Hornets.
The modern generation’s existence does have ripple effects; nations without a 4.5 Generation fighter (as pointed out by Combat Aircraft’s Thomas Newdick), such as Israel, Japan and Norway are among the most committed to F-35. Though the sale of second-hand aircraft does not increase the total of the type produced, it can hinder the sales of new-built rival aircraft. European air forces have more Typhoons than they can afford to operate and are offering them at attractive prices, it will be interesting what happens regarding this, especially as the F-16 production line is expected to close in the next few years.
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This follows the Azarakhsh (Lightning) and Saeqeh (Thunderbolt) fighter jets which are modified variants of the US F-5 design.