Politics

Asia’s Quest For Stealth: Advanced Combat Aircraft Projects [PART 2]

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Asia’s Quest For Stealth: Japan

Japan’s indigenous stealth fighter project is the ATD-X (Advanced Technology Demonstrator eXperimental) ShinShin (Spirit of the Heart), which is being developed with the Technical Research and Development Institute (TRDI) of Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The ATD-X project developed out of planning in Tokyo for a future fifth-generation aircraft to serve the Japan Air-Self Defense Force (JASDF). Early studies were done, but the project gained a new importance with Tokyo’s acceptance that it would not be able to convince U.S. lawmakers in the 2000s to export the F-22 Raptor. With few other options for a fifth-generation aircraft, Japan took the indigenous route, and now the ATD-X is meant to serve as a technology demonstrator and test bed that might ultimately be developed into a production ready design.

Asia's Quest For Stealth: Advanced Combat Aircraft Projects [PART 2]

In an interview with Bloomberg News on December 2, Hirofumi Doi, a program manager at the MoD, said that the ATD-X is now scheduled to make its maiden flight in the first quarter of 2016. While it is known that the program is well on its way towards an eventual maiden flight, the prospect of one in the past has been flirted with before. In the first quarter of 2014, the MoD then said that a flight would occur before the end of the year; now it seems the project is over a full year behind schedule. One of the causes for that delay was a software error in the engine control unit.

The Obey Amendment in the U.S., which came into law in 1998, prohibits the sale of the F-22 to any foreign power out of fear that its advanced technology, particularly stealth-related, could fall into the hands of adversaries. Tokyo genuinely desired the aircraft, and there were those who thought an exception could be made considering the strategic importance of Japan to the U.S. and the close relationship. In the late 2000s there was some belief in the U.S. and Japan that the amendment would be repealed, but despite strong efforts by supporters, the export ban remained. Hope for a watered-down version of the F-22 to be allowed for export failed to materialize in 2009. With that, Tokyo realized that the F-22 would most likely never fly in the service of the JASDF.

As a result, Japan’s existing stealth project was afforded a new importance with original hopes of fielding a flight ready prototype by 2014. In a matter of years, Radar Cross Section (RCS) models were scaled up while new technologies were developed and since 2009, well over $1 billion USD has been invested into it. In July 2014, the TRDI officially unveiled the prototype of the ATD-X. What emerged is a twin-engine technology demonstrator that is fairly small in relation to similar aircraft. Due to its nature as a demonstrator, possible weapon loads are unknown, nor can they be properly hypothesized.

What is known is that various high-end technologies are being incorporated into the ATD-X. Among its many planned technologies are 3D thrust vectoring, which is found on several Russian aircraft and allows for superior high-maneuverability and a “self-repairing flight control capability.” This latter technology can automatically detect failures in the flight control surfaces of the aircraft brought on by accidental failure or battle damage and by using the remaining control surfaces, compensate to maintain controlled flight.

If the ATD-X is successful in tests, the MoD will decide by 2018 whether or not to have it enter serial production as the F-3 or opt for a joint-development program with other countries such as Australia to utilize the lessons learned and share expenses towards the development of a future combat aircraft. Regardless, Tokyo intends to use the product of the program to replace its fleet of F-2s and F-15s by the late 2020s. The final F-2 rolled out of Mitsubishi in December 2011, and with it marked the last time Japan domestically built a jet fighter, ending a 55-year continuous stretch.

Rukmani Gupta, an analyst with IHS Jane’s, said of the aircraft, “Should the ATD-X test be deemed successful, it is very likely that Japan will pursue production of a next-generation fighter.”

Such a view is echoed in Tokyo by senior leaders.

Japan needs the testing of the ATD-X to be successful, as it needs this aircraft, given the lack of suitable alternatives. Already the JASDF fleet is ageing and shrinking, and it is hoped that the eventual F-3 will replace the 1980s-procured F-15Js by the 2030s. In late 2011, Japan grudgingly chose the F-35 as the winner of its F-X Fighter competition as the official replacement for its aging fleet of F-4 “Kai”Phantoms. If anything though, the procurement of 42 planned F-35s will be slow and seems to be a stopgap measure after the failed procurement attempts of the F-22. Plagued by problems, the F-35 has its fair share of critics and it is years behind schedule.

Regardless, Japan is on the way to becoming the fourth country to test-fly an indigenous fifth-generation stealth aircraft. One must bear in mind that of those countries, Japan is a close ally of the U.S., a stable associate of Russia, and increasingly distrustful and concerned by China. In light of the deteriorating situation in and around the South China Sea and Senkaku Islands and coupled with Prime Minister Abe’s more aggressive foreign policy and defense stances, the need for such an aircraft to serve the JASDF is clear when alternatives do not exist.

The U.S. has flat out rejected the sale of its most advanced air superiority fighter, the F-22 to any country, regardless of relationship. In any case, Japan is the third largest global economy by nominal GDP and has been a leading source of technological innovation and advancements. The development of a fifth-generation combat aircraft is by no means beyond the capabilities of the state or domestic Japanese companies. Problems do arise in funding, and though Abe’s leadership has led to small increases in defense funding, the high cost of Japan’s labor and the need to develop new technologies that cannot be purchased put a strain on the project.

South Korea and Indonesia

While not technically a fifth-generation aircraft, South Korea and Indonesia are jointly pursuing development of the KF-X, a stealth 4.5-generation fighter. For the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF), the KF-X is meant to be an economical bridge between the combat capabilities of its current fourth-generation F-16s and much higher cost and performance fifth-generation aircraft such as the F-35. Furthermore, the KF-X is intended to replace ROKAFs ageing fleet of F-4s and F-5s. For the Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU), the project is meant to provide a replacement for ageing F-5s while also supplementing its F-16s and Su-30s. Under the $15.5 billion USD program, Korea hopes to have the KF-X operational by 2025 and 120 units deployed by 2032.

Despite being a rising industrial, technological and economic powerhouse, this is an ambitious program for South Korea and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI). With the fact that Korea has only designed and produced one other supersonic aircraft, the lead-in trainer/light fighter KAI T-50, the technological jump to a 4.5-generation fighter is quite substantial. Furthermore, Washington has in place significant legal and technological hurdles which are causing substantial delays while putting the ultimate outcome and timetable of the project in question.

Recent events have brought forward the importance of the KF-X in light of revelations concerning Seoul’s September 2014 plan to purchase 40 F-35s from the U.S. at over $6 billion. Just this week, Representative Kim Kwang-jin of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) told The Korea Times that “It is not an easy decision to cancel the F-35 deal, but the idea is well worth considering if it is hard for Korea to acquire the U.S. technology through the deal.” The “technology” alluded to are the 25 technological side deals which will provide Seoul with the engineering knowhow, technology and materials needed to pursue the development of the KF-X. Meanwhile Representative Chung Doo-un of the ruling Saenuri Party said, “One of the reasons why the KF-X project is facing difficulties is that the U.S. is not too happy about Korea developing its own fighter jets,” adding “The U.S. is concerned about the possible decline of its fighter jet exports, which would also reduce the level of dependence of its allies on Washington.”

Four of the technologies are currently being withheld by the U.S under a national technology protection policy, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations; active electronically scanned radar (AESA-helps identify friends and foe and aids in target acquisition), infrared search-and-track systems (by detecting heat signatures from aircraft and missile exhausts, can warn a pilot of a nearby threat), electro-optical targeting pod (aids in precision ground attack strikes) and a radio frequency jammer (can temporarily disable an enemy’s electronics, often just for enough time to make an escape). It has been reported that Korea will indigenously develop the latter two technologies and cooperate with foreign industry on the former two.

Throughout 2015, there was the possibility that the KF-X project would be cancelled with such a prospect almost reaching a boiling point in September. Some relief was brought on December 2 by the decision of the Korean Parliament to authorize over $57 million USD towards the project. While this will provide the means to conduct additional work on the KF-X, it is a paltry amount for an advanced fighter with stealth characteristics that is intended to surpass the fighting capabilities of ROKAFs current fleet of foreign designed aircraft. The high costs of the project and the refusal of access to U.S. technology have repeatedly put the future of the KF-X program in doubt. Furthermore, pressure has been growing on the government for its planned purchase of the F-35 with the knowledge that certain technologies would not be granted.

The KF-X project was first announced in March 2001 by President Kim Dae-Jung at the graduation ceremony of the Korea Air Force Academy though in actuality, the program did not seriously take off until 2010. Seoul and Jakarta agreed to cooperate on the KF-X in July 2010 with the goal of developing a 4.5-generation single-seat, twin-engine aircraft with stealth capabilities to be put into production sometime in the 2020s. In late October 2015, the Indonesian Parliament approved a $78.6 million USD investment in the project, the first of a planned total of $1.49 billion in funding Jakarta intends to spend. Under an agreement signed on November 22, Indonesia and Korea formalized a proposed investment and workshare arrangement for the development of the KF-X. Indonesia will fund 20 percent of the development cost of the KF-X in return for 50 aircraft.

Significant problems exist that serve to put the project in jeopardy. The Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) has estimated that Korea would pay $1.2 billion as a cancellation charge if the F-35 deal is cancelled. Representative Kim and others have argued that this calculation serves as proof that Seoul has already considered backing away from the deal. While this figure can decrease substantially based on overall procurement figures of F-35s, the transfer of technology was an offset deal with Lockheed Martin, dependent on the purchase F-35 aircraft.

Knowing the sentiment in South Koreas parliament, the U.S. State Department in a move to perhaps ease tensions on Tuesday, December 1 2015, declared that it would provide maximum project support to the KF-X program. Last week responding to a question from the Yonhap News Agency, Katina Adams, a State Department spokeswoman said “The U.S. continues to support the ROKs defense programs and priorities through the transfer of many of our most sensitive defense technologies. We seek to support the KF-X indigenous fighter program to the maximum extent possible.” She added “The U.S. government is in discussions with Lockheed Martin to address ROK areas of concern. We will continue to work closely with Lockheed Martin throughout this process to ensure continued support to the KF-X program.

There is a fear in Washington being that Indonesia is a partner, technology might fall into the hands of Russia which currently is the primary supplier of military equipment to the country. Furthermore, Washington is somewhat reluctant to provide technology to Korea that will wind up in a low-cost competitor to its own F-35 in the export market. Right now the lack of access to the four technologies is important to the future of the project but few doubt Korea’s ability to develop such technology indigenously or in partnership. The question then becomes at what price will such development require and will Seoul foot the bill on it with others or put its entire next-generation combat aircraft program in jeopardy.

Arguably Seoul’s greatest threat lies to the north in North Korea. The air force and air defenses of the North though do not represent a serious threat to Seoul, at least a threat that the current ROKAF fleet cannot handle. Rather the KF-X is intended to keep Seoul competitive with China and Japan; the former it enjoys stable relations with and the latter it has sometimes bitter relations but which are not of enough seriousness to point to a foreseeable conflict in the future.

The role of the U.S. though is important. Despite its advanced engineering and technological base, certain technologies are not available to South Korea though the U.S. has them. For its part, Washington is unwilling to provide these core technologies but the question becomes, is Washington truly protecting technology or forcing countries to buy into and offset the cost of the F-35 fiasco? The coming months will reveal the true position of Seoul. Already there is substantial discontent over the planned purchase of F-35s and if such a feeling spreads and lasts, the KF-X project might receive the domestic boost it truly needs.

India’s Advanced Combat Aircraft

India is currently engaged in two fifth-generation projects, the Sukhoi/HAL FGFA and the HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) AMCA. For all intents and purposes, the former is a development of Russia’s PAK-FA fighter with substantial improvements funded by New Delhi. The latter though is India’s indigenous project being undertaken by the Aeronautical Development Agency with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited as the primary contractor.

India has indigenously developed only two other supersonic combat aircraft prior to the AMCA; the HAL Marut (designed by famed German WWII engineer Kurt Tank) and the troubled HAL Tejas.  New Delhi is envisioning the AMCA as supplementing additional platforms in the Indian Air Force rather than outright replacing them. The aim is to fly the first twin-engine AMCA prototype by 2023-2024, around the time deliveries of Tejas Mark-II fighters will be underway. The AMCA is being developed using lessons learned and technology developed for the Tejas, the incorporation of FGFA technology, and new ideas to ultimately combine towards its development.

Dr. K Tamilmani, Chief Controller R&D (Aero) of Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) said in February 2015, “The basic technology required for AMCA is available with us.” At the time it was reported that the basic design configuration of the AMCA had been finalized and that three critical technologies remained to be developed; stealth, thrust vectoring and super cruise. AMCA is intended to be a multi-role aircraft that will serve both the air force and navy, the latter on its carriers.

New Delhi has expressed disappointment over the FGFA project with Russia and has informed Moscow that it cannot wait till 2024-2025 to begin the introduction of the planned 127 fighters that are to emerge from the project, at a cost of around $25 billion. The use of older powerplants, high cost, and poor engineering are all problems seen by India in the project. India is not alone in its complaints as Moscow is finding its own problems with the plane the FGFA is based off of.

If the Tejas program can serve as any indicator of the problems facing the AMCA program, at the least it can be said the outlook is not positive. Originally conceived as the Light Combat Aircraft program in 1983, technological problems related to the steep learning curve designers in India needed to develop an indigenous supersonic aircraft led to budget overruns from the onset of the Tejas program. Its first flight took place nearly two decades later in 2001 and only this January, has it entered service in a testing and evaluation role with full combat operational introduction well over a year away.

Granted, aeronautical expertise in India has improved considerably since 1983 thanks to the expertise gained from the Tejas program and joint deals with Russia. While the majority of the development of the FGFA is on the shoulders of Russia, India is gaining valuable technological know how which can be and ultimately will be applied to the AMCA. Unfortunately defense acquisition projects in India typically are over-budget and never meet deadlines.

With the planned acquisition of the FGFA, if the AMCA program proves successful, India will field two stealth aircraft in the late 2020s. The big question is how successful the AMCA project is; if the Tejas is any indicator, then it can and should be assumed that the AMCA will be delayed, over-budget and underwhelming. This is not to say that India is incapable of advanced weapon development but rather an indicator of an inefficient bureaucracy which has time and time again hampered weapons development.

Does India truly need two stealth aircraft? India has been highly reliant on Russia for much technology but with its rising power status, it is now beneficial for India to move towards indigenous production, Concurrentlly, India cannot be expected to develop fifth-generation aircraft on its own without some technological foundation. Unlike South Korea and Japan, India does not have access to the F-35 nor in most likelihood has it stolen such technology from the U.S. and allies like China. India stands to gain from its development partnership with Russia yet much has to be learned and problems inherent to its defense procurement process will need to be ironed out before true strides can take place.

Conclusion

The geopolitical situation from the Indian Ocean to the West Pacific is tense, to say the least, and if anything, growing worse each week. World War II ushered in the importance of aerial warfare, both to protect territory and strike at long range, an opponent’s means to wage war. It is only natural that countries in Asia would commence advanced combat aircraft development projects.

China is rapidly developing its military, much to the dismay of regional countries. To counter the threat from China, few avenues are open to acquiring next generation aircraft. Washington refuses to sell its F-22 to any country, while the F-35 is often viewed as a second-rate option. While the cost of indigenous production in countries such as South Korea and Japan are higher than procurement of the F-35, advanced combat aircraft programs serve to increase the technological and engineering base while also bringing jobs and the benefits of ancillary technologies.

In the 2020s, it is entirely possible that multiple fifth-generation aircraft not of U.S. or Russian design will be taking to the skies over Asia. One must hope though that in taking to the skies, their mission is not one of war.