Fighter Procurement News- India, Netherlands

India’s much-heralded purchase of the Dassault Rafale fighter, critical for closing a yawning gap in India’s force structure left by the retirement of MiG-21s and other older aircraft, is moving forward at a snail’s pace, as India contemplates an expensive integration of Russian missiles for the platform. Never mind that India has a large enough air force to comfortably use two sets of ordinance (as they already do with their Mirage fleet), or that having two ordinance sets provides a nice insurance against flaws in any one system, integration of new weapons and the consequent delay in procuring the fighters could well cost more than maintaining two sets of ordinance.

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The Dutch government, in a stroke of illogic that beggars belief, has decided to purchase only 37 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters over the next five years, while selling their new naval support ships. The expensive F-35 was always going to cripple Dutch force structure and defence procurement, but it seems the government is trying to mitigate the damage by purchasing a force so small as to be useless for anything beyond domestic air defence, a role for which the F-35 is hardly the optimal aircraft. There is a word that a government wanting to preserve capabilities while cutting costs should be strongly urged to consider: Gripen.

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Speaking of which, an interesting piece on the possibilities of the Gripen for Canada can be found here, and a more formal one from the Ottawa Citizen here. The Gripen in its new NG version is a real balm to the ills of modern fighters. It is not only reasonably priced, but has a low cost of ownership, a complete array of integrated weapons (a big problem with other platforms including Eurofighter and F-35), high speed (unlike the Super Hornet and the F-35), great manoeuvrability (the F-35’s dogfighting ability has frequently been questioned), up-to-date electronics… It is neither a demigod of aerial combat like the Eurofighter nor a full stealth aircraft like the F-35, but neither is it far behind in those areas, and if the RCAF can buy two Gripens to an F-35 with a guarantee that maintenance costs won’t leach money from other important capital programs (of which the RCAF has several), it would be more than worth it.

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In other news, the crisis in Syria has seen a prolonged congregation of Russian, American and NATO ships in the Eastern end of the Mediterranean. A map of the ships from earlier this month.

F-35 vs. Typhoon: Which Costs More?

When the Aeronautica Militare placed its initial order for three F-35As, it was able to approach the Italian Parliament with a surprisingly low unit cost: 80 million dollars. This is significantly lower than what European countries are paying for their Eurofighters. But what exactly is unit cost? How is it determined? Is it the cost of manufacturing the airframe? The cost of airframe plus engines? Airframe plus engines plus flight avionics? What about weapons systems integration? What about development costs? Up-front investment? Cost of ownership? What about differences caused by different service requirements? What gets averaged into the unit price can mean a difference of hundreds of millions of dollars. One thing is certain: whether or not it’s included in the sticker price, it will be in a contract somewhere, and will get paid somehow.

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Eurofighter (Centre) with Su-30MKI and Tornado

Eurofighter (Centre) with Su-30MKI and Tornado

With so many possibilities for juggling the figures, it is no surprise that fighter manufacturers have become expert in doing so, and incidentally created a confusopoly (to borrow a word from Scott Adams) by filling the market with incomparable prices. Defense Aerospace.com’s 2006 paper Sticker Shock: Estimating the Real Cost of Modern Fighter Aircraft is one of the braver attempts to create comparable baselines for the major contenders in the Western fighter market. Some of its findings are unsurprising- the Swedish JAS-39 Gripen is both the cheapest to buy and the cheapest to own, with the French Rafale a close second. The Super Hornet is not nearly as cheap as advertised. But most shockingly, the F-35 is at least several million dollars less expensive per unit than the Typhoon.

That the Typhoon is expensive is something everyone has been painfully aware of. Its tortuous pan-European procurement model and the vascillation and wrangling over different national requirements have contrived to make it one of the great cautionary tales in procurement lore. But that the F-35 is cheaper- well, we’ll see about that.

It should be noted that Defense Aerospace’s estimate of F-35 unit price, $115 million, is significantly higher than the price quoted by the Italian Air Force- and this was in 2006, before the full cost footprint of the F-35 was understood. Winslow Wheeler, the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the U.S. Center for Defense Information, estimates the unit cost at $155 million. As far as a country like Canada is concerned, that could go up as far as $167 million. But that is nothing compared with Canada’s share in the total program cost, now estimated to be in the neighbourhood of $46 billion over 42 years- an eye-bugging $707.7 million per plane.

So, are we just comparing apples and oranges? Should we concede that the whole mess is beyond our meagre imaginations and give up trying to make sense of it? No. Because in the end, whatever the sticker price, a certain amount of money has been directed in total to procuring a certain number of new airframes. That global number may be difficult to dig out, but the taxpayer deserves to know how much public money is being spent per aircraft. More than that, it is part of due diligence for a government to properly study all the ways in which these programs might bleed money in order to improve the cost-effectiveness of their purchase. Unfortunately, if they believe a program is in their interest for other reasons, they may deliberately turn a blind eye.

It also matters who’s buying. If you’re paying for the development of an aircraft and the initial orders, your costs will be higher than those of a foreign buyer five years later. If you consider the Rafale’s total program cost of around 39.6 billion euros, then the 115 aircraft built for France thus far average to 344 million euros, which will decrease to around 152 million euros if all planned aircraft are delivered. The flyaway cost for a new customer, however, may actually be in the neighbourhood of the avertised $62.1 million, which of course does not include cost of ownership and may not include certain systems.

In short, it is usually better to buy someone else’s aircraft with a limited defence budget, and, for Canada at least, even a $114-118 million Typhoon (assuming that unit prices have not been reduced) would still be far better than a $167 million F-35. But it is not the sticker price, but rather the total program cost, from the beginning of the program through systems integration through cost of maintenance and upgrades that needs to be considered- and laid out for public scrutiny. If they are not, then no unit cost quoted in any competition can be trusted to reflect the true cost of the program.

About time, and may the most cost-effective and air-to-air capable platform (the Canadian Government still maintains the pretence that airspace protection is the primary mission, rather than bombing small countries) win. That isn’t the F-35, but it is hard to choose among the others. The Gripen is an economical platform in every respect, designed for cold weather and very capable. The Typhoon is probably the best air-to-air platform in the West short of the F-22, and investment by Canada could bring a lot of long-planned upgrades, including AESA radar, for which Europe would thank us. Rafale is a good all-round platform but problematic in terms of weapons compatibility. The Super Hornet is an aerodynamically dated airframe but with excellent electronics and support, is relatively cheap and reliable, and offers the possibility of conversion to the electronic warfare “Growler” version, a very enticing capability as Australia has discovered. If the contract is fought with an eye toward industrial offsets, France and Sweden have both proven willing to go that route, and it will unfortunately be likely to rule out the Eurofighter, whose procurement process is already ridiculously complex.

Back to the Future: The USAF needs a (new) non-stealth fighter

For years, the USAF has resisted any notion of a Generation 4.5 low-end fighter solution in an attempt to frame first the F-22 and later the F-35 as all-or-nothing options. Now, with the F-22 out of production and costs of the F-35 program rising, it’s time to stop and re-evaluate.

2012 was a year of bad news for USAF fighter programs. Costs of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program have continued to mount, orders from a number of international partners called into question, and its capabilities brought into severe scrutiny. Meanwhile, with average aircraft age in the USAF pushing 25, the service is scrambling to extend the life of its F-15 fleet. The future of the fighter force is definitely in the balance, with ageing aircraft with high maintenance and cost-of-ownership burdens being replaced by stealth aircraft with high maintenance and cost of ownership burdens. Air Forces around the world are recapitalising much more rapidly and economically, with so-called Generation 4.5 fighters.

While lacking the stealth characteristics of the Generation 5 Raptor, Gen 4.5 offers a number of advantages over USAF legacy platforms, from reduced radar cross section to Infrared Search and Track systems which can defeat stealth in some circumstances to improved power, manoeuvrability and aerodynamic characteristics. Only one of these capabilities, Active Electronically Scanned (AESA) radar, is being widely incorporated into the USAF fleet. It is a tremendous capability boost- but still a limited one.

None of this is to say that the F-15 and F-16 are not still capable designs which, with the addition of AESA radars, Infrared Search and Track systems etc. can serve ably for many more years. The issues are airframe life, force numbers and the cost of ownership associated with old aircraft.

Attempting to recapitalise the entire legacy fighter force with Generation 5 aircraft is a non-starter, if only because the costs would be absolutely crippling, and that burden would continue throughout the service life of the aircraft. Stealth aircraft generally require a great deal of maintenance. A non-stealth aircraft is much cheaper to own than a stealth aircraft. The way to alleviate the cost burden in the long term is to select a Generation 4.5 design to recapitalise a substantial part of the fighter force.

The Generation 4.5 characteristics that would give such a fleet its edge, not only over the existing non-stealth fighter force, but over most of the 4.5 fleets out there, include AESA radar, IRST systems, aerodynamic upgrades including canards and thrust vectoring, as well as the little things of combat, including decoys, jamming and tactical pods and especially helmet-mounted sighting and display systems. What the US, with its technological base and economies of scale, can do that no other nation can is to put all of these capabilities together on the same aircraft and buy them in quantity. I repeat, no other nation has a force with all of these capabilities.

The cheapest option would be to take modernised versions of existing US designs, such as the Super Hornet or F-16, adding AESA radar where not already incorporated, ditto IRST, helmet-mounted sights (a key feature MIA from the Raptor program, and even the F-35 is experiencing trouble here), and preferably canards and thrust vectoring. (The latter is a simple matter given that all existing US fighter designs have been tested with thrust vectoring.) The problem with all of the existing designs is that aerodynamically and in terms of signature reduction, they remain behind the curve for Generation 4.5. The USAF would do well to finally acknowledge that, as far as their non-stealth fleet is concerned, technological developments (the proliferation of stealth technology) increasing militate towards rather than away from visual range engagements, and therefore the necessity of excellent dogfighting capability. Rules of Engagement, of course, have always pushed in the same direction.

A better option altogether would be to license produce a modified version of an existing European design such as the Saab Gripen or the Eurofighter, thus gaining the benefits of a later generation of airframe incorporating the lessons of the teen series fighters without having to foot the development cost. At least one USAF general has publicly admitted that Eurofighter is a better air-to-air platform than any non-stealth fighter in the US inventory. This would, in effect, be a subsidy of the fighter chosen, which would allow unit costs to come down and improvements postponed or cancelled due to cost to be made, permitting European allies to resume stalled fighter purchases. This is objectively the preferable option, but is unlikely to happen for political reasons, defence funding in the US being even more a function of pork-barrel politics than it is in most Western countries.

The problem is this: no existing US airframe is completely suitable to become the low-end fighter of choice beyond 2020. Boeing can call Silent Eagle and Super Hornet “Generation 4.5” all it wants, but electronic improvements notwithstanding, they are aerodynamically almost forty years behind the times. International customers such as India, which have experience of the latest Russian offerings, have been blunt about these shortcomings in recent competitions. In a world of Su-30s and J-10s, the US cannot maintain its edge with such aircraft. A third option might be something like the F-16XL, which added a lengthened fuselage and cranked delta wing for significantly improved performance. Such a redesign, while slightly more expensive than using an existing airframe, would allow structural changes to be made for improved performance in all parameters. The danger here is feature creep and cost inflation, which would have to be strictly managed, much the way the Navy did with the Super Hornet. The US already has or is developing every single technology that needs to go into these aircraft. It would have to be made abundantly clear to all concerned that this is simply an exercise in integration, not a re-invention of the wheel.

Whatever option were chosen, it would be well for the USAF to consider it quickly. With spiralling costs, extended timescales and international uncertainty around the F-35 (and frankly, questionable capabilities), a heavily circumscribed Raptor fleet and the emergence of large modern air forces in Asia, it would be helpful if the USAF could set itself up for a procurement win for once. The argument will be made that any attempt to procure a second fighter would upset the F-35 applecart, raising unit costs even higher and forcing some countries to back out. I think I’ll leave it to F-16 designer Pierre Spey to explain the many ways in which this would be a good thing for everyone involved.