by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
The high cost per unit of fourth- and fifth-generation jet fighters is proving to be problematic, especially as many militaries around the world seek to modernize their aircraft. During Canada’s 2015 federal election, the victorious Liberals campaigned on the commitment to seek combat aircraft for the Royal Canadian Air Force more affordable than the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. In a May 2014 referendum, Swiss voters rejected a proposal to replace the Swiss Air Force’s aging Northrop F-5E Tiger II fighters with the Swedish produced Saab JAS 39 Gripen. As voters turn away from the sophisticated technology and hefty price tags of the aircraft promoted by the most prominent manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, there may be quite a market for affordable but relatively modern fighter jets.
For example, Textron AirLand – part of an American industrial conglomerate that includes Bell Helicopter, Cessna Aircraft, and Beechcraft – has developed a fighter to be employed in a light attack role as well as an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) role: the Scorpion. With a unit cost of approximately $20 million US, the Textron Scorpion could be an attractive alternative for those militaries seeking new aircraft but lack the funds necessary to acquire fifth-generation fighters. By way of comparison, the unit cost of the F-35 is estimated to be $120 million, although it is also hoped that the opening of production lines in Italy and Japan will drive down the unit cost to $85 million by the 2020’s. Fourth-generation fighters do not come much cheaper: the unit cost of the Eurofighter Typhoon is above $100 million while the fly away cost of the French-produced Dassault Rafale is estimated to be around $100 million. Meanwhile, the most recent estimates of the unit cost for the JAS 39 Gripen rejected by Swiss voters amount to approximately $90 million.The Russian Federation is also intent on participating in this disruption of the aerospace and defence industry. Although Sukhoi is developing the T-50, a fifth-generation fighter that boasts a unit cost comparable to the most advanced American and European designs, Yakovlev has designed the Yak-130 with a unit cost of only $17 million. As it replicates many characteristics of a fourth- or fifth-generation fighter, the Yak-130 has been adopted by the Russian Federation Air Force as an advanced jet trainer. Meanwhile, the design is also reportedly employed in light attack and reconnaissance roles by the military forces of Algeria, Bangladesh, and Belarus. China is also staking a place for itself in this market with the JF-17 Thunder, jointly designed by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. With a unit cost of approximately $28 million, buyers from all over have expressed interest in acquiring the aircraft to fulfil light attack and reconnaissance roles.
In the wake of the 2015 Chinese stock market crash and the collapse of oil prices worldwide, budgetary constraints will induce governments to be more discerning about major procurement projects. The September 2015 sale of 28 Eurofighter Typhoon jets to the Kuwait Air Force will be the exception to the rule, at least until world markets adjust to the “new normal”. Light attack aircraft – like the Textron Scorpion, Yak-130, and JF-17 – are well-positioned to take the fore. Another likely outcome involves the rise to prominence of specialized aircraft. Whereas multirole fighters like the F-35 are attractive for their versatility, Embraer has enjoyed considerable success in emerging economies with its EMB 314 Super Tucano. This turboprop aircraft excels at counter-insurgency, close air support, and reconnaissance missions. Since its introduction in 2003, the Super Tucano has been purchased by the militaries of Angola, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ghana, Honduras, Indonesia, Lebanon, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal. With a unit cost of approximately $14 million, the Super Tucano is still less expensive than the Fairchild Republic A-10 Warthog employed by the United States Air Force but benefits from fourth-generation avionics and weapons guidance systems. Countries recognizing a greater operational need for close air support than air superiority, for example, will continue to opt for aircraft specifically tailored for that role, eschewing “master of all trades” models.
As Switzerland’s Federal Ministry of Defence, Civil Protection, and Sport launches a new evaluation process for possible replacements to the F-5 in 2017, it is necessary to refine the operational requirements of the Swiss Air Force. Multirole fighters like the JAS 39 Gripen make sense if Switzerland intends an expeditionary role. However, Switzerland has not participated in the enforcement of no-fly zones in overseas conflicts, such as NATO’s 2011 Operation Unified Protector in Libyan airspace. If policing Swiss airspace is to be the sole objective of the Swiss Air Force in the long term, then the Textron Scorpion could be up to the task of replacing the remaining F-5 fighters. At a quarter of the unit cost for the JAS 39 Gripen, Swiss voters may also be more willing to cast their ballots in support of the Scorpion.
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era as the Scorpion
- KAI T-50 Golden Eagle (see image below) — The Philippine Air Force (PAF) received the first two of 12 Korean-made KAI T-50 trainer worth about $400 Million at the end of 2015. According to PAF spokesman Colonel Enrico Canaya, the jets, however, are not combat-ready and only capable of patrolling the country’s airspace (“Philippine Air Force Set to Receive First 2 Korean FA-50 Jets“, Fence Blog, 11.11.2015). Nevertheless, the arrival of the jets is significant as it marks the first time that Manila has had a supersonic capability since it decommissioned its Northrop F-5 Tiger jet fighters back in 2005 due to the lack of spare parts (Prashanth Parameswaran, “Philippines Receives 2 New Fighter Jets from South Korea“, The Diplomat, 01.12.2015).
- Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master — The M-346 is an Italian-made advanced trainer and light attack jet operating in the air forces of Italy, Israel, Singapore and Poland. Originally Alenia Aermacchi cooperated with Yakovlev as the Yak/AEM-130, later known as Yak-130 (see above). The partnership ended in 2000. Thanks to Pietro Nurra for mentioning the M-346 on Twitter.
- “‘The last 10 percent of performance generates one third of the cost and two thirds of the problems.‘ In the F-35, it’s likely that we’re paying a huge premium for the capability edge we’re hoping for. It’s not clear how good a return on investment we can expect. The F-35 is so expensive, it’ll have to last until 2045 to be anywhere near as cost efficient as previous platforms. And there’s a big gamble in assuming that the strategic landscape of 2045 will even remotely resemble that of today. — James Mugg, “Jet fighter costs—a complex problem“, ASPI, 21.09.2015.
- Fore more on the Textron Scorpion see also David J. Van Dyk, “Textron AirLand’s Scorpion: A Smart Gamble“, CIMSEC, 15.01.2016.
- Only in German: Textron stand schon vor der Gripen-Abstimmung mit der Schweizer Botschaft in Washington in Kontakt und warb nach dem negativen Resultat der Abstimmung für ihr Produkt: “Der Scorpion ist ideal auf die Verhältnisse der Schweiz zugeschnitten. Er ist günstiger als der Gripen und erfüllt dennoch 90 Prozent der gestellten Aufgaben. Der Schweiz könnten wir den Jet für weniger als 20 Millionen Dollar anbieten”, so der Projektchef Bill Anderson im Gespräch mit Tagesanzeiger Ende Mai 2014. EIn Dank für den Hinweis auf den Artikel geht an Peter Platzgummer.