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.
The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II: https://f35.com/
Looks: like a building society or bank website. Ohhh, the header is ribbed like Spiderman’s suit
Language: The two films ‘F-35 in action’ were clearly written by a lunatic. They start like budget action films. A montage of audio news reports is played, reminding us what a big, bad world it is. Words appear on the screen: ‘One mission’..‘protecting freedom’…‘one solution’.. what the hell does that mean? The more you think about it, the less it means.
is expressed in
three or four words or short phrases
which are very vague
Then we’re in some kind of mission control centre, where women of all races seem to be watching graphics of F-35s. No idea why, but certainly seems important.
The bizarre, empty series of slogans are high-quality nonsense. My favourite line insists that the F-35 “brings lethality and stealth to the battlefield.” I think it’s fair to say that a battlefield probably has a fair amount of ‘lethality’ before the F-35 turns up. All entrants to a battlefield bring a fair amount of lethality with them. ‘Lethality’ means ‘capable of causing death’, it’s not a very special trait for a military weapon. In fact it’s such a normal trait for a weapon, that when a weapon is non-lethal, it is specified. I think arms manufacturers just like the term because it sound cool.
Lethality seems to be used as a synonym for invincible.
Lockheed Martin then goes on to describe the F-35 as “A lethal information collector”. I think this one may be a Freudian slip, I Googled it and ‘Lethal Information’ was a hardcore porn film from 2001.
Other words that pop up with regularity in this website are ‘affordable’, ‘survivable’, ‘supportable’ , odd to boast about any of these really, as if a warplane lacked any single one of these characteristics it would be an absolute failure. ‘Affordable’ is the funniest word, as this is an aircraft which has become the second most expensive fighter ever built (based on 2012 prices). The most expensive, the Lockheed Martin F-22 was intended as a no-compromise superfighter, and though its price is quite bananas, it was always considered a top-end fighter. The F-35 on the other hand was conceived as a low-cost option, something it has objectively failed to become. The use of redundant words makes the viewer suspicious. How would Lockheed Martin describe a burger?
The LM Stealth-burger: ‘Edible’ ‘Holdable’ ‘More burger-like than any rival pizza’
The F-35 is the only 5th Generation fighter on the market and makes all previous fighters obsolete. I guess this is the claim. There are several problems with this idea. The first being, that the term ‘5th Generation’ has been defined by Lockheed Martin (not a problem in itself, but…). Here’s their definition:
“5th Generation: The most advanced class of fighters, representing a quantum leap in capability that includes unmatched air-to-air and air-to-ground capability, dominant situational awareness, unprecedented Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR), inherent airborne electronic attack and very low observable, all-aspect stealth.”
Nothing contentious there then…I won’t go into detail as this has been well covered by others, I will just note that the term ‘5th Generation’ is wonderfully amorphous and prone to change depending on what LM is trying to sell. When the F-22 was being defended ‘supercruise’ and ‘supermanoeuvrability’ were prerequisites for entry into this elite club. The F-35 is certainly not ‘super manoeuvrable’, but surprisingly, recent reports suggest it can supercruise.. well sort of. It apparently needs to use reheat to get over Mach 1, then can cruise at Mach 1.2 for 150 miles in dry thrust (I seem to remember LM defining supercruise as being over Mach 1.5 when it was trying to defend the F-22). Another good point, the F-35 is not really now on the market.
Best features: Big, slick and confident, it is an impressive marketing tool. Despite vast failings, the project and the company are quite amazing. I found myself momentarily buying into F-35 after a few videos, all this confidence, all this money, surely it will end up working won’t it?
Weirdest feature: ‘Take Action’ show your support for the F-35 by writing an email to congress (this is an automated feature). “Our nation is currently facing both economic and national security challenges, and the F-35 plays a vital role in addressing both.” !?! This isn’t an endangered whale (well not literally), it’s the biggest, most financially out of control, example of military procurement in history. Quite what ‘national security challenges’ the F-35 is vital in addressing is beyond me, maybe militant Texans are building a top notch integrated air defence system?
Is it up to date? Nope. Check out the following, my comments are in brackets: “The F-35 will replace the F-16, F/A-18 (legacy, not Super), EA-6B (for the large part, this is being replaced by the EA-18G) , F-111 (retired by USAF in 1996 and by RAAF in 2010), A-10, AV-8B, Harrier GR.7 (d’ oh!), Sea Harrier (this refers to Britain’s, which were retired in 2006), AMX and Tornado. ”
Biggest porkie: “This is America’s newest fighter” No. It is nobody’s fighter now, as it can’t fight yet. The biggest porkie, in a whole bucket-load of tricksy statements, is the way the F-35 is treated as if it’s operational and proven.
If you enjoyed this, try ‘A Pacifist’s guide to military aircraft’ or
Notes: According to http://www.fas.org/news/reference/lexicon/del.htm:
lethality is defined as:
“1[DSMC] The probability that weapon effects will destroy the target or render it neutral. 2[DoD] The ability of a munition (or laser, high power microwave, etc.) to cause damage that will cause the loss or a degradation in the ability of a target system to complete its designated mission(s).”
On the 4th December 2012 the first launch of a MBDA Meteor missile from a Eurofighter Typhoon took place. This followed successful launches from Saab Gripen, Panavia Tornado F.Mk 3 (now retired) and Dassault Rafale. The weapon was launched from a rear fuselage missile station.
The flight trials were conducted with support from QinetiQ and MBDA at a firing range in Aberporth, Wales.
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On November 10 1988, a heavily airbrushed photo was shown at a press briefing by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, J. Daniel Howard. Until that moment the subject of the photo had been one of the world’s most closely-held secrets.
The photograph was of the Lockheed F-117, the legendary ‘stealth fighter’.
It was a new and weird shape. Slightly preceding this, (in April 1988) the Northrop B-2 had also emerged from the Black world of secret defence projects. The B-2 ‘stealth bomber’ was a charcoal grey flying-wing, clearly designed by the same person who had created the Batmobile.
Stealth was big news. Until then, aeroplanes had been tubes with wings, designed primarily with air particles in mind, now they were shaped for their reaction with radio waves; things had suddenly changed. As an aeroplane-fixated ten-year-old, I was hungry for more information on this new world. With its secrecy, its potency and dramatic unveilings, it was wildly exciting.
So I was very happy when I was bought a copy of Stealth Warplanes, a book by Doug Richardson. I believed that this book, with its thrilling cover, was my secret pass to the nefarious world of Stealth. I picked up another copy today, as I was curious to see how well this book had stood the test of 23 years.
Soviet developments could not be ignored by the book, despite the fact that at this time, nothing about Soviet stealth projects was known in the press. So the ‘Mikoyan MiG-37’ was pure conjecture, based on the pure ‘conjecture’ (more on this later) of the MiG-2000. The MiG-2000 was a notional threat aircraft devised by General Dynamics’ Richard Ward, of what a follow-up to the MiG-29 might look like. It was intended to give the international F-16 community an idea of what they may be up against in the year 2000. This was based on Ward’s observations of several technologies the Soviets appeared to be very interested in, most notably thrust vectoring and the canard-delta arrangement. At this time, it was rumoured that the MiG-35 was to be a single-engined aircraft in the F-16-class, though in retrospect it is more likely that this rumour related to the Izdeliye 33 (Izd 33) which would have probably been designated MiG-33 (and may have been a design influence on the JF-17).
Regardless, it looked to many observers that MiG-37 seemed the most likely designation for the first Soviet stealth fighter. As the text points out:
“In the autumn of 1987, the US plastic model manufacturer Testors.. launched its model of the “MiG-37B Ferret E”- a Soviet equivalent to the Lockheed stealth fighter. Its appearance must have caused a few smiles around the Mikoyan design bureau. As its manufacturer admitted.. Its reception in the Pentagon must have been less amusing. Here in widely-distributed form was the first model to widely illustrate the use of RCS reduction technique.” (more on Testor’s MiG-37 can be seen here). It seems that the concepts of a gridded intake and a surface made of flat panels was already there for those looking. And Testors’ model designer John Andrews certainly seemed to have his ear to the ground.
One of the fascinating features of this book was its strong belief in ‘round stealth’. Many of the hypothetical aeroplanes in this book feature rounded-off wingtips, noses and fin-tips of the hypothetical aircraft. Radar returns would be scattered from these curves:
“…the rounded planform (of the MiG-37) shown here would ensure that reflected energy was scattered over a range of directions.”
In reality, this design idea was never used (albeit to a small degree on some cruise missiles), and it could be argued that the cultivation of this idea was the result of deliberate disinformation by several companies. Loral, Northrop and Lockheed (in several ATF artworks) may have been actively involved in this attempt to draw attention away from the F-117-facetingand B-2 flying wing approach. This idea can be seen on most ‘F-19s’ and is evident on this MiG-37.
Of course complex curves are used in modern low observable designs, but this ‘round stealth’ is not like the two US schools of stealth that have emerged, the Lockheed approach (sharp angles and flat surfaces) and the Northrop approach (as flat as possible, and of the flying wing configuration for subsonic designs, as seen on the B-2, Lockheed Martin RQ-170, Dassault NeuroN etc). When Northrop and McDonnell Douglas designed the YF-23, they incorporated the ‘flat as a pancake’ Northrop approach.
The notional MiG-37 is a tactical fighter that weighs around 50,000 lb and is powered by two 30,000 lb (in reheat) thrust class turbofans. It has two-dimensional vectored thrust provided by ‘slotted low-RCS nozzles’. It is a two-seater, with a canard delta planform and two canted out vertical fins. The concept emphasizes performance and reduced radar cross section.
Did history provide us with a real MiG-37 to compare it to? The simple answer is yes. The Mikoyan Project 1.44/1.42 was a technology demonstrator that first flew in 2000. It displayed some similarities to Richardson’s MiG-37.
It was a canard delta, it did have out twin canted tails. The thrust class was similar, though the real aircraft was even more powerful, with two Lyulka AL-41F turbofans rated at 176 kN (39,680 lb) in reheat. Weight was between 42-62,000 lb depending on fuel load, test equipment etc, so again- excellent guesswork. It certainly did not have rounded-off wingtips or tail-fins. The nozzles were not flat, despite the stealth advantages these could have conferred. The reason for the inclusion of round exhaust nozzles could have been one or more of the following-
1. 3D vectoring was envisioned, requiring a circular nozzle (perhaps extreme manoeuvrability was considered more important than minimum RCS)
2. Russian metallurgy was not good enough to make square nozzles which could withstand the high temperatures of a vectoring jet nozzle
3. The actual production version if made, would have featured 2D nozzles
4. They were not required or were not consider a suitable design feature
It was claimed that the aircraft would feature plasma stealth technology, an exotic idea that a General Electric employee had filed patents relating to in 1956. Little has been heard about plasma stealth since, though the fact that the later PAK FA is so carefully shaped suggests it is not a technology that was made to work satisfactorily. Problems in developing working plasma stealth include the generation of sufficient power to create the required plasma layer, and the operation of radar and radio in what amounts to a ‘radio blackout’. Talk of this technology may have been deliberate disinformation.
The MiG 1.44/1.42, a candidate for the Mnogofunksionalni Frontovoy Istrebitel (Multifunctional Frontline Fighter) programme was cancelled (though some contend that research from this effort found its way into the Chengdu J-20 project though there is no direct evidence of this). Sukhoi’s rival S-47 ‘Berkut’ took a radically different approach and adopted canards with forward swept wings, as can be seen from later developments this configuration appears to have been a design dead-end, at least for the time being.
As far as we know MiG’s current stealth efforts are devoted to developing a Northrop-style UCAV with Sukhoi (using experience gained on MiG’s cancelled ‘Skat’ UCAV).
The Russian stealth fighter in development today is the Sukhoi PAK FA. The design features with some smaller similarities with Richardson’s MiG-37. Both the ‘MiG-37’ and the PAK FA feature a IRST/laser ranger finder (à la MiG-29/Su-27)- something the Russians very much appreciate, and there seems relatively little effort to reduce this sensor’s radar cross section.
It appears the PAK FA is built with a more attention to ease of maintenance than the ‘hygienically’ smooth Raptor, which seems to favour absolute minimum radar return (but this is pure speculation). The PAK FA does not have a canards (a difficult feature to make stealthy, nevertheless featuring on the J-20), instead, it has an innovative kind of movable leading edge root extension (described by some as Povorotnaya Chast Naplyva or PChN). The Sukhoi approach to stealth includes elements seen in both the Northrop and LM schools, but seems to have less emphasis on achieving a minute RCS to the detriment of serviceability and aerodynamic efficiency.
Richardson’s MiG-37 concept was, given the information available to him, an excellent piece of guesswork, and a pleasantly revealing insight into a ‘crossroads’ period of aviation history. It is also interesting that, on first impressions, the MiG-37 was a more accurate guess than Ward’s MiG-2000. However, there is more to the story than this, as Richard Ward was one of the most experienced figures in the design of stealth aircraft. General Dynamics had inherited a wealth of stealth research from Convair, from projects including the A-11 and Kingfish. Ward probably worked on the Model 100/Sneaky Pete and other A-12 precursors. As Bill Sweetman said to Hush-Kit: “He knew what to avoid with MiG-2000.”
The PAK-DA is a new stealth bomber project at a very early stage of development.
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Special thanks to the great Bill Sweetman for ironing out several of the facts in the original version of this. There are likely to be further amendments to this piece at a later date.
I followed the competition to provide India’s air force with a new fighter aircraft like a soap opera. I loved it. Six fighters competed for a multi-billion dollar deal. The capabilities of the six entrants had been discussed for years, but the debates were little more than innuendo, sales-spin and national pride. Six of the world’s best fighters were evaluated in detail to determine which would become India’s MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft). Never before had the types been examined against each other with such scrutiny, the results would be very revealing.
The USA offered two types: the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, pride of the US Navy, and the largest and heaviest of the contenders. The other type the US offered was the Lockheed Martin F-16. The F-16 had already been sold to Pakistan, the traditional enemy of India, which led many to belief it was a lame duck from the get-go.
The Russians offered the MiG-35, a souped-up variant of their MiG-29 (a type losing favour around the world). The MiG-29 was already in service with the Indian air force, a foot-in-the-door which gave the Russians hope.
A European consortium of the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain offered the spectacularly expensive Typhoon. Their drive to sell Typhoon in India was led by Germany.
France offered the Rafale, long the fighter world’s underdog, having failed to achieve a single export sale.
Even idiosyncratic Sweden joined in, offering its petite Saab Gripen.
This contest was big. India wanted at least 126 fighters, with more orders likely. The fighters will stay in service for at least forty years, needing support and spares. Success in India was the golden ticket for the fighter ‘houses’, making other sales around the world almost inevitable.
For some companies, failure in India would mean the end of their fighter lines. The MiG series had started in 1940 in Stalin’s USSR and fought in virtually every air war up to the present day, most notably Korea and Vietnam. The other big Russian fighter house, Sukhoi, is poised to decimate RSK MiG, and has support from the highest levels. According to a startling statement from the labour union that represents MiG’s workers:
“In the past five years, six general directors have been replaced, they all come from the Sukhoi company.. they are strangling us, they want to close our company”
India could mean life or death to MiG, but the Russian company was confident that over 40 years of selling aircraft to the IAF would put it in a strong position.
Another company that needed India was Dassault. The French company had it origins in a pre-war company set up my Marcel Bloch. The war brought misery to Marcel. Being of Jewish descent and refusing to collaborate with the German aviation industry, he was sent to the hell of Buchenwald. Meanwhile his brother fought in the French resistance under the nome de guerre Darius Dassault. The surname derived from char d’assaut (the French word for battle tank); d’assaut means ‘for assault’. Marcel also took the surname. Following the war, he took back control of his old aircraft company and it was renamed Dassault. The company went onto to develop the Mirage series of fighters, among the most beautiful and capable jet fighters in history. The Mirage family is inextricably linked to the story of Israel. In 1967, a French embargo on military exports to the Jewish state led to a bizarre and very exciting Mossad mission to steal the plans for the French jet (which succeeded).
The Mirage 2000 was the final fighter to carry the famous name, and was bought by India. The type has proved popular with the IAF (what type hasn’t?) and was deemed highly effective in the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan.
The Mirage series sold well around the world, but Dassault made two decisions that risked ending its fighter line.
Risky move number 1!
In the early 1980s it grouped together with other European nations to develop a new advanced tactical fighter. The advantages of collaboration where obvious: it would ensure a large production run, the development costs would be shared and when one government wobbled on the project, another would badger them to persist with it. However, Dassault-Breguet (as it was then known) could not resolve key differences with the other nations and went its on way in 1985. France went off to develop what was later named Rafale (‘sea squall’). The Mirage name, which had been applied to several generations of very different aircraft was dropped.
Britain, Italy and West Germany went off to develop what would become the Eurofighter Typhoon. Spain couldn’t quite make its mind up, and flirted with France, before returning to the bigger party.
France had pitted itself against its neighbours. France would have to pay for Rafale by itself, spending billions of Francs and Euros on developing a fighter which was in many, many ways similar to Typhoon.
Risky move number 2!
Like all the best things, the Mirage 2000 was born in 1978. It was beautiful; a dynamic triangle that looked it had escaped from a 1950s corporate logo. It is the shape of speed and harmony. The dynamism of 50’s futurism was combined with the miracles of the electronic age. It could even fly very slow with its nose raised high, something delta (tri-angular) winged aircraft shouldn’t be able to do.
“ The Mirage 2000 is the perfect aeroplane.” was a surprising quote I got from a Rafale test pilot I spoke to in 2005. He said Rafale was great, very capable, but the older Mirage 2000 was perfect. The type is known by some in French air force as the Electric Cake Slice.
The 2000 was an export hit. India, the UAE, Peru, Greece, Taiwan, Egypt and Brazil all bought it. Pilots loved it. The Mirage 2000 could face up to the US F-16, the most popular modern fighter. The F-16 is slightly older than the 2000, but in 2012 remains in production. In 2007 Dassault ceased 2000 production to concentrate on the Rafale. This was a risky move indeed. The Mirage 2000 was still highly capable.
Recession scorched nations bent over backwards to chase the rupee. Indian filmstars were given fighter flights, heads of state flew out to India, Cameron from the UK, Sakozy from France, Obama from the US… promises of industrial collaborations , commercial offsets and ‘strategic partnerships’.. all heads were turned to see what India would do..
Internet forums exploded with patriotic fervour and Top Trumps speculation. Which fighter was most agile, had the greatest instantaneous turn-rate, longest radar range…would India’s traditional use of French and Russian-supplied kit continue?
Rumours and counter-rumours flowed daily, and it was a nail-biting drama, with unexpected twists and turns and press statements along the way.
Strangely all of the aircraft types (barring the MiG-35) competing for the contract took part in the 2010 air campaign against Libya. Even neutral Sweden sent Gripens to Libya. This led some cynical observers to wonder whether the ‘noble defence’ of the Libyan people may have had a commercial angle.
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Like the X-factor it was eventually whittled down to the two finalists: The Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale. The United States had lost, days later the US ambassador for India announced his retirement. Russia and Sweden were out too.
Typhoon versus Rafale was the most dramatic final possible. The fighter business held its breath as the painfully slow Indian procurement process weighed the arch-rivals. Both had passed the gruelling assessments, now which ever could come up with a lower bid had the deal.
On 31 January 2012 it was announced that France had won. Within minutes of the announcement the Eurofighter website, which had been plastered with adverts for Typhoon in India, switched to a bland India-less image.
The British government threw a hissy-fit and France celebrated.
The millions spent on marketing the losing aircraft were lost.
Now the reason I recount this is to go back to the idea of double-think and the enjoyment of military aircraft. I enjoyed the MMRCA contest as a fiction, as sport.
How the healthy this is, I can’t say. I was biased, I wanted Typhoon to win.
But, a couple of months ago I was reading the child mortality figures for India in The Times and did wonder how much India really needs a vast force of cutting edge fighter planes? I wondered how I could hold two Indias so separately in my mind.
Update: the MMRCA was eventually cancelled, following the failure of the Indian MoD and Dassault to agree on the terms and costs of the deal. Eventually 36 Rafales were ordered.
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Images have emerged of a Chinese aircraft closely resembling the F-22 Raptor. Some sources have referred to it as the Shenyang J-31 as the serial number begins ’31’. The relationship between these photos and the mystery aircraft seen on a truck in June (see Hush-Kit archives, June) is unclear, though some have dismissed the link say the two shapes are too different to be related.
The aircraft appears to be smaller than the F-22, though similar in general appearance, strongly suggesting a similar role- a stealthy air dominance fighter (the designation J-21 was previously associated with an aircraft more in the F-35 class). As long time stealth-guru Bill Sweetman noted, the J-31 is appears to freed from the STOVL demands for a single engine that lead to the F-35’s configuration. This could mean a less draggy fuselage and a larger weapons bay. It is possible that whereas the F-35 is attack-optimised, the J-31 puts more emphasis on the fighter role.
A noticeable difference is that the aircraft appears to have 3D vectoring nozzles, as opposed to the Raptor’s flat 2D exhausts. The smaller size may also suggest that the J-31 is the ‘lo’ to the J-20’s ‘hi’. Today the ‘Flanker’ series represent China’s high-level fighter and the J-10, their low, F-16 equivalent, fighter.
Another notable feature is the twin nosewheels, possibly suggesting a carrier role for the fighter (though some land-based Chinese fighters have twin nosewheels). It is possible that China has followed the US in producing a ‘joint’ multi-service aircraft and this variant is equivalent to the F-35 ‘C’ variant.
The front aspect reveals several similarities with the F-35, and is it possible that the intakes feature a divertless ‘bump’, something China has experience of from both the JF-17 and J-10B. Several reports have discussed alleged Chinese hacking of the F-35 programme, whether this relates to the J-31 is unknown. It is questionable if China has the know-how to develop the avionics which are key to both the F-35’s potential capabilities, though one wry observer noted ‘..It is also questionable as to the extent that the US can produce the F-35 systems..’.
The type appears to be stealthier than J-20, and the surface finish more representative of a production stealth fighter. The type is gaudily decorated with a bird of prey design on the tail and is numbered ‘31001’. The tail design features the Chinese symbols for ‘Falcon’. A similar motif was seen on a scale model of the same basic configuration, revealed on the internet in 2011, described as the F-60 (Chinese fighters for export are prefixed with an ‘F’ designation).
Whereas both the J-20 debut pictures and ‘J-21/31 truck’ pictures were initially greeted with scepticism, analysts are generally impressed by these most recent pictures, demonstrating a shift in general mood towards Chinese internet leaks. Could this be a fake?
With the J-15, ‘J-20’ and ‘J-31’ in development, China has more nascent fighter projects than any other nation, and has eclipsed Russia as the ‘call and response’ counter to US projects. The ‘stealth club’ currently has one member,the US, but it is clear that China and Russia are likely to join at some point in the future. If the aircraft sighted is a prototype, then it would be reasonable to expect frontline aircraft by 2022. The lag between initial flying prototype and squadron aircraft in the West is generally no less than 9 years. Though we do not know if the sighted aircraft is more akin to the YF-22 or the first F-22. The first flew in YF-22 form 1990, followed by the first F-22 1997, and squadron service in 2005. It is even possible, but unlikely, that this is close to production standard. China tends to move faster than the West, with the J-10 taking around 7 years from likely first flight (1998) to service entry (2005).
Clearly the ‘J-31’ is far more ambitious than the J-10 (or J-10B) and the timescale is likely to be longer. The political motives for the very public transportation of a fighter shape on a truck in June and the recent images is unknown, but on the anniversary of the invasion of the disputed Diaoyu islands, Japan is on the mind of many in Chinese government, and anti-Japanese sentiments are increasingly vocal. Could this publicity be a response to Japan’s selection of the F-35? Even more likely, considering the time this project was originated, is the possibility that this is a response to Japan’s earlier intentions to acquire the F-22 Raptor, an effort quashed by US export regulations. Another factor in the timing of the unveiling must be the forthcoming visit by US Defense Secretary Panetta, some observers noting the similar debuting of the J-20 when Robert Gates visited China in 2011.
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Vice magazine’s Bruno Bayley takes a look at what an aircraft says about the nation that produced it.
AUTHOR’S DISCLAIMER: Two things to note – both probably more than obvious: This is not meant to be a conclusive look at national output of aircraft. Each country, had for the one aircraft picked below, an opposite, which would in no way suit my argument. Secondly, the exercise is almost by definition skirting the edges of xenophobia, and will draw upon some clichés. But what fun is revisiting the Second World War’s aircraft without a healthy slosh of xenophobic blinkeredness?
USSR – Ilyushin Il-2
There is a well-worn, and possibly false, anecdote about the Soviet nail factory that met its quotas by producing a two-ton nail. Or maybe that was just a lie my history teacher told me. Either way, it sort of sums up the target obsessed insanity of Stalin’s Russia. The Il-2, possibly more perfectly than any other aircraft in this run down, sums up the mentality of the regime that created it.
Produced more numerously than any other aircraft in the war, the Il-2 was the primary Soviet ground attack weapon. Ugly, heavy, crude, and easily mass-produced it suited the appalling conditions of the Eastern Front as well as the staggering requirements of a nation already reeling from the initial success of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa.
In a slightly callous fashion, that many associate with the wider Stalinist mentality (not without just cause) the pilot was ensconced in thick armour plating, as was the engine, while the rear gunner was left fairly exposed, often equipped only with a standard issue machine gun on a rope bungee. It should be noted however, that the Il-2 was designed as a single seat aircraft and the rear gunner position was added to try and stop crippling losses.
Though loses were heavy with Il-2 units, quite possibly a result of the Soviet policy of not returning to base with unspent ammunition, their impact on the Eastern front has long been attested to. Not least at the typically grim Battle of Kursk where they claimed a great many German tank kills.
If any aircraft sums up the mass-production obsessed, brutal, and grimly effective nature of Stalin’s Russia it is the ‘hunchback’.
BRITAIN – Hawker Hurricane
Sydney Camm’s greatest work – the Hurricane – was an evolution of interwar aircraft like the Hawker Fury and Hart. The Hurricane was essentially a monoplane version of the Fury and was explicitly referred to as the ‘Monoplane Fury’ in Air Ministry and Hawker correspondence. It was known as the ‘Interceptor Monoplane’ from 1934 and the Hurricane name was formally adopted in 1936. The Hurricane was an evolution of the interwar Fury fighter .
Built expressly to use the Merlin engine that would also equip greats of the war like the Supermarine Spitfire, P-51 Mustang, Avro Lancaster, and the de Havilland Mosquito among others, the Hurricane cruelly lived in the shadow of the sexy Spit. However, in spite of being more portly and far less lauded, the Hurricane racked up over 60% of the RAF kills during the Battle of Britain, went on to be a prestigious tank-buster in North Africa, night-fighter, and carrier and catapult launched naval fighter – known as Sea Hurricanes and Hurricats and respectively.
The Hurricane embodied the ballsy pugnacity of war-time Britain, frankly outdated as a design by the start of the war, its blending of inter-war and modern construction techniques made it easier, cheaper, and faster to build (and repair) than all metal craft like the Spitfire (and made it more battle-resistant). Its rear fuselage draped with doped fabric (as were the wings on some versions) it didn’t eat into the Nation’s meager supply of desperately rationed metals. If any craft summed up the stiff upper lip, ingenuity under pressure, and slightly stuffy geography teacher air people associate with 1940s Britain, this was it.
GERMANY –Messerschmitt Me 262
Perhaps the most staggering thing about the Luftwaffe in the war, was the volume of wasted potential – in both leaders, pilots, and most crucially, machines. The Me 262, the first jet fighter to enter widespread service (the very first had been the He 280), typified both the exceptional potential of Germany’s scientists and designers as well as the insane impact of political meddling in Hitler’s Reich.
First conceived in 1938, and prototyped in 1941, it was only in the later months of 1944 that Hitler showed enough faith in the 262 to push it into full-blown production. He, and under him Goering, had spent the previous years insisting on the mass production of tried and tested models like the 109, 190, Ju 88 – all of which were retro-fitted endlessly to fulfill any task – ultimately to the detriment of the original aircraft. As well as that, an obsession with producing troublesome new ‘defensive’ bombers, like the Do 217 hampered jet fighter production.
Had the 262’s almost miraculous potential to repel the round-the-clock bombing offensives of the USAAF and the RAF been recognized earlier, things may well have been different. Even once operational, many of these excellent fighters were modified to carry almost ineffective bomb loads, or to house heavy cannon for ground attack roles. In the last days of the war, the few operational Me 262s formed one of the most elite air units of the war – Jagdgeschwader 44, headed by the pre-eminent ace Adolf Galland and made up of numerous top aces of the Luftwaffe. By the end of the war, only around 100 of the 1,433 Me 262s built had seen combat. The Me 262 was a testament to a system plagued by meddling and misguided policies spurred on by blind optimism and a refusal to face facts.
ITALY – Macchi C.202 Folgore
As my grandfather used to say – what’s the difference between toast and Italians? The answer being that you can make soldiers out of toast. And the chortle goes around. True enough, the Italians had a rough time of it in the war, but their Macchi C.202, or Folgore (‘lightning‘) was about the only plane that could line up with the Spitfire in the ‘Miss Pretty Aeroplane of the War’ pageant. Superbly good-looking, with the cockpit sat far back on the fuselage. Possibly the most stunning feature of the Folgore was its wings. Not in that they were especially pretty in most aspects, but in that one was a whole eight inches shorter than the other, a design quirk that offset the propeller torque – a trick that Reggiane did it as well with the Re 2005.
But true to those stereotypes, the beautiful fighter was under-armed, and though a stunning piece of kit, never had the impact it could have on a fashion runway. In the Mediterranean theatre it outclassed the underwhelming P-40 Kittyhawk and out-flew the Hurricane, but was somewhat late to the party in North Africa, where it could have provided solid fighter cover for the embattled Italian troops.
The blame for the Folgore’s lack of impact could arguably be placed at the feet of the Italian air industry overlords who ignored the evidence (Italy having won the world speed record in 1934 with its in-line-engine-powered Macchi C.72) and focused on heavy duty radial engined fighters, rather than embracing the often speedier, in-line, options. The Folgore was destined to be a beautiful, iconic, and essentially irrelevant ghost at the air war ball.
Read more about World War II Italian fighters here: https://hushkit.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/from-prancing-stallion-to-chubby-ass-and-back-again/
USA – Republic P-47 Thunderbolt
The most iconic American fighter of the war, the P-51 Mustang, was also rather exceptional by American design standards. It was originally built for the RAF, and at first a rather disappointing product until the introduction of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. It was a sleek, almost pretty, aircraft (far prettier after its upgrading to a bubble cockpit) with an in-line engine. Aside from the Airacobra / Warhawk families and so on – all generally below par as purebred fighters – the typical American approach to fighter aircraft was based around heavy, powerful, radial engines. The planes themselves also tended to be heavy and tough.
Machines like the Corsair and the Hellcat (and Wild/Bearcats) conformed to this type well. The P-47 thunderbolt however was the epitome of that attitude and reflected America’s wealth in both financial and material terms.
“Tubby and verging on ugly, it developed a reputation for taking punishment”
It was the heaviest and most expensive single (piston) engined fighter of World War II. Few ‘single piston’ aircraft ever surpassed the ‘Jug’ regarding weight, with the exception of the experimental Boeing XF8B-1 and the post-war Eagle-powered Wyvern and Douglas A-1 Skyraider. Tubby and verging on ugly, it developed a reputation for taking punishment, and the nickname the ‘Jug’. Though surpassed by the Mustang as a bomber escort, the Thunderbolt’s armor plating, ruggedness, and ability as a weapons platform made it an exceptional ground attack aircraft. There is a tale of a National Guard P-47 over-shooting a runway in 1946, going through a wall, and the pilot then climbing out and trotting off. Pretty sturdy.
Bruno Bayley is the Managing Editor of Vice Magazine. From an original idea by Juanita Franzi. Juanita’s excellent aviation illustrations can be seen at: http://aeroillustrations.com/