Heavy (or rather, light) Metal in the South, Pt. 5 – The Korean Bird Appears

While a relatively minor part of the framework agreement, what surprised defence analysts most was not the huge armour numbers, but the decision by Poland to buy the FA-50 Fighting Eagle light fighter for their Air Force.

A ROKAF FA-50 in front of two USAF A-10. The FA-50 is a true light fighter rather than an armed trainer, and while it might feel like an unlikely fit for Poland, there aren’t in fact many other options on the table. Source: ROKAF FB

The idea of the light fighter is not new. During the Cold War the complexity and cost of top-end fighters rose quickly, and in addition there was a general growth in size which added to operating costs. This was slowly crowding out defence budgets, and while it at first led simply to smaller numbers, by the time the F-4 Phantom came around it was already clear many countries were unable to afford the gold standard. By the time the F-14 Tomcat and F-15 Eagle came along, the number had dropped steadily towards zero. The answer was a lighter and cheaper fighter that could be used to keep numbers at an acceptable level. The most prolific was the F-5 Freedom Fighter/Tiger II-family out of Northrop, which saw huge success on the export market and is still found in (limited) use in a respectable number of air forces. In somewhat the same vein, the F-16 emerged out of the Lightweight Fighter Program which originally envisioned a light and cheap dogfighter able to fill out the numbers as the high-end F-15 grew in size and cost.

However, before the aircraft even was ordered the light Sidewinder-armed dayfighter had turned into a multirole aircraft, and if you state that the F-16s rolling off the production line today are ‘cheap and light’ the reply will likely be ‘compared to what?’ This is part of the issue Poland is facing, being one of the major F-16 users in Europe, and with an ageing fleet of MiG-29 and Su-22 complementing their F-16s. These are to be backed up by 32 F-35A which will start arriving in-country by 2026, but that is only part of the answer. The F-16 fleet is modern, consisting of a total of 48 F-16C and -16D versions of the Block 52 standard. The MiG-29A (9.12) and Su-22M4 that are found are so in dwindling numbers, from original fleets numbering some 40 MiG-29 and some 30 Su-22 (including small numbers of two-seaters of both) around twenty MiG-29 and just over a dozen Su-22 remain in service. Neither have received any serious upgrades, and largely still represent the finest of Soviet engineering from the first half of the 80’s. For those wondering what that means, this interview with an ex-Luftwaffe pilot who flew the aircraft inherited from DDR (and which eventually went to Poland) nicely illustrate the difference between a MiG-29 and anything western.

The F-35A as a MiG-29-replacement should come with a sticker warning for serious cultural shock for the pilots doing the transition, it is a revolutionary step up in capability that is difficult to overstate. 32 fighters replacing the current fleet of 20+ MiG-29s also mean that Poland is one of few air forces to get more F-35A than the number of aircraft they are replacing, so nice job on that one. However, that still leaves the Su-22 fleet, which while only providing rudimentary fair-weather air to ground capability (it’s never a good sign when the fact sheet at ‘Radar’ just goes ‘Nope’) still represent 15-20 % of the total Polish fast jet fleet when it comes to numbers.

The obvious replacement would be more F-16 or F-35, but both are costly and delivery times are not great – Lockheed Martin is also famously not overly interested in selling F-16s to potential F-35-customers, and Poland is obviously in that category. The market for used aircraft is also largely dried up, and while the airframes floating around would certainly be interesting to Ukraine, they are in most cases beat up to the extent that they don’t offer the kind of long-term solution the Polish Air Force is looking for.

So for the final time in this series of posts: Enter the Republic of Korea.

ROKAF’s ‘Black Eagles’ brought the T-50 trainer version to Poland for a show earlier this year in anticipation of the FA-50 coming to Poland next year. Source: Polish Air Force/4 Skrzydło Lotnictwa Szkolnego FB

Poland has already inked a contract for the Italian M-346 advanced trainer, half-sibling to the Yak-130 and fierce rival to the Korean KAI T-50 Golden Eagle. As such, an order for the Korean trainer seemed as unlikely as, well, an order for a 1,000 K2 Black Panther tanks. An order for a light fighter, on the other hand, is something else.

The idea to take an advanced trainer, put a radar in the nose (and often strip out one of the seats) and tailor it to the light multirole fighter-role is not new. The Hawk 200 based on the hugely successful trainer is probably the most famous one, having score orders for between 12 and 23 fighters from three countries (Oman, Indonesia, Malaysia), but closer to home the Czech Aero L-159 ALCA has also reached series production. The FA-50 is however significantly larger than the other two (in fact, the maximum take-off weight is higher than the earlier mentioned F-5E Tiger II at 13.5 tons compared to 11.1 tons), giving it higher combat potential than the earlier two (as well as retaining the second seat, allowing it to continue in the advanced training role as well). This is significant, as air combat is one of the more technical domains of combat, and as opposed to firearms or guns which have a tendency to provide useful service long after having been state of the art, in air combat not having modern equipment is often comparable to fighting with one arm behind your back – and usually end up with you being punched in the face.

So is that the case for Poland as well? The Polish order is planned to be split into two batches, the first 12 of which will be the current Block 10 standard which provide a basic initial operational capability through the usage of AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missiles, JDAM, and unguided Mk 80-series of bombs, as well as the older AIM-9L/M-series of missiles for self-defence.

Let’s be clear, Block 10 is not an impressive combat aircraft, and while still light-years better than the Su-22, serious questions can be raised about its combat value on the modern battlefield. However, this is just a temporary stop, before the train moves on at speed to the eventual destination: FA-50PL Block 20.

If you feel like you’ve read this before, yes, you have. Quick delivery of a basic version, followed by a tailored version developed to meet Polish needs following in the next few years, as well as an upgrade of the earlier delivered ones to the new baseline.

The FA-50PL Block will be a rather more serious beast, including a new AESA-radar, Link 16, NATO-standard IFF, AIM-120 AMRAAM giving it a beyond visual range capability, AIM-9X Sidewinders replacing the older L/M-versions, a Sniper targeting pod (there’s some discussion about whether this is already integrated on the Block 10, but the answer seems to be ‘No’), as well more advanced air-to-ground munitions. Exactly which weapons are to be included is uncertain, but earlier there has been talk about integrating e.g. the JSM or the Korean lightweight version of the KEPD-350 Taurus – the KEPD-350K-2. In essence, the end-result will be an aircraft with F-16-like capability in a smaller package (now, exactly which F-16 it will be comparable to is up to debate). Being lighter the weapons load will be reduced, the radar is likely to be shorter-legged and with lesser power and cooling, giving it overall worse performance, and so forth. However, at the same time the vast majority of F-16s running around are not of the latest generation, so everything depends on your yardstick. What is important to understand is that this is not your armed trainer, a concept which has proved to be of dubious value in a high-intensity conflict (even in the case of the Israelis in the Six-Day War they had to pull their Fouga CM.170 Magisters from combat despite enjoying total air superiority as the losses were too high). Instead, the FA-50 sports the same afterburning GE F404 as is found in the F/A-18 Hornet, giving the small fighter over 78 kN of thrust and a thrust to weight ratio of 0.59 at maximum take-off and 0.90 at full fuel – comparable to the 0.57 and 0.84 for the F-35A or 0.69 and 1.10 for the F-16 Block 52.

The FA-50PL will start arriving in Poland by 2025, and over the next two-three years a total of 36 aircraft will be added to the inventory. Together with the 12 Block 10 – which will be upgraded to ensure a single standard for all Polish FA-50 – that will make 48 light fighters to equip a total of three squadrons. In other words, the current fleet of F-16 (48 aircraft), MiG-29 (~20), and  Su-22 (~15) will be converted into a mix of F-16 (still 48 aircraft), F-35A (32), and FA-50PL (48), giving both a serious increase in capability as well as in numbers (to be honest, even the simple FA-50 Block 10 with AIM-9M might be a closer fought fight against the MiG-29A with R-27 than a quick glance at the numbers might indicate).

Two Polish M-346, an aircraft that apparently isn’t evoking warm feelings in the Polish Air Force despite its solid track record on the export market. Source: Polish Air Force/4 Skrzydło Lotnictwa Szkolnego FB

But again, why the FA-50PL? This interview with Polish defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak gives a quite clear picture of the reasoning behind the decision. The first thing he brings up is how close the FA-50 is to the F-16, and the possibility to introduce a training path for F-16 pilots that passes through the FA-50 – similarly to ROKAF. Apparently the minister is not happy with the M-346 in Polish service, which is interesting to note. The fact that Lockheed Martin isn’t selling F-16s to Poland, and their long delivery times to Slovakia are also ruling out additional orders for the Viper, as at the same time the MiG-29 and Su-22 have become safety hazards for the Polish fighter pilots due to their age. As such, the FA-50 offer a unique combination of training opportunities as well as multirole combat capability at a relatively low cost (it is notable that the Su-22 has been doing some work that would correspond to lead-in fighter training in the later years). But as is the case with the tanks and artillery, it is also important to look at the industrial aspect of the framework agreement. Poland has a long history of a domestic aviation industry, but the jet-side of things have not seen much in the way of development in recent years. The Koreans are here as well promising a serious technology transfer and aiding the Polish industry in setting up a service centre, and in the future looms the Korean stealth fighter, the KF-21 Boramae. Polish involvement in that program is certainly a possibility given the current trend. But it is also notable that there are plans for an additional two multirole squadrons for the Polish Air Force in the near-future. In the interview the possibility of additional F-35A or F-15 Eagles is discussed, while the KF-21 is “monitored”. However, as noted plans can change quickly in the Polish armed forces (and the F-15 feels about as unlikely as the KF-21 to be honest).

All in all, while the FA-50 wasn’t an obvious choice, a combination of tight schedules, Lockheed Martin-policy, industrial considerations, unhappy feelings about the M-346, and old Soviet airframes falling out of the skies all conspired to make it one of the only options left in the game (I hear you Swedish followers asking about the Gripen, but the lack of an JAS 39F outside of Brazil likely is an issue). And suddenly, the serious light fighter is staging a comeback in Europe.

Replacing the (Capabilities of) the F-18C/D Hornet: The Minor Candidates

Much has been written about the different options Finland has when it comes down to replacing the F-18 Hornet with a new fighter, but as my last post on the issue proved quite popular, I decided to yet again add my opinions to the discussion.

I believe there are only two main candidates for the HX-program, namely the Swedish JAS-39E/F (Super) Gripen, and the US/somewhat international F-35 Lightning II. However, let us first look at some of the less likely candidates before moving on to the two main candidates in a post that will be published on Monday.

Eurofighter Typhoon

The Eurofighter Typhoon is the spiritual successor to the PANAVIA Tornado, a purely European fighter designed and built by a consortium of European aerospace companies (Airbus Group 46%, BAE Systems 33%, Alenia Aermacchi 21%), capable of meeting the best that the Soviet Union/Russia could throw at it, while being able to compete on equal terms on the export market with US and French designs.

A British Eurofighter Typhoon. The ‘ball’ immediatley below and in front of the canopy is the IRST, an infra-red camera used to detect enemy aircraft with. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Sgt Ralph Merry ABIPP RAF/MOD

There is no denying that the Eurofighter is a very competent fighter, being able to perform both air-to-air, air-to-ground, and reconnaissance missions. With the IRST-sensor and the coming addition of the CAPTOR AESA-radar the plane will have a very potent sensor suite, and the plane is cleared for a large number of today’s most popular air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons.

On the downside, the big Eurofighter is expensive to order and operate, and the failure to attract large exports means the production line is about to shut down before 2020. However, if the current trend continues, there might be quite a number of low-hour airframes available on the second-hand market in 2020, as cash-strapped air forces tries to make room for F-35 squadrons and further force reductions.

Dassault Rafale

Dassault Rafale on the flight deck of the USN carrier USS John C. Stennis. Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell

After over forty years, Dassault eventually ditched the Mirage-name for their fighters. The Rafale is currently only in operation with France, and is notable for being available in a strengthened carrier-capable version, which would provide an interesting option for operations from Finnish road bases. While no doubt being a beautiful airplane, and every bit as capable as the Eurofighter, it is hampered by the lack of international support due to a lack of exports, and as all twin-engine designs it has a higher operating cost than corresponding single-engine jets. If no export orders are forthcoming, its production line is also set to close before the HX-fighters will be produced.

Boeing F-18E/F Super Hornet

The Finnish Air Force has always been proud of their Hornets, and thus the obvious step would be to upgrade to the second generation of the successful aircraft, right?

Australian F-18F Super Hornet showing the large square air intakes that are one of the main external differences compared to ‘legacy’ Hornets. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Robert Frola

Not so, as the Super Hornet, despite being a marked upgrade over the ‘legacy’ F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornets, has failed to score the kind of success on the export markets it pre-runner did. When no less than seven export nations bought the A/B/C/D-Hornets in addition to the US Navy and Marine Corps, the sole customers for the Super Hornet are USN and the Royal Australian Air Force, meaning that a total of 24 aircrafts have been exported so far. It is a telling sign that the USMC decided not to upgrade, instead choosing to wait for the F-35B/C.

While the Super Hornet will remain a potent multirole fighter well into the time span of the HX-project, the small number in use makes continued support an issue. Simply put, more or less any kind of weapons integration, new software, updated sensors, or other major upgrades are reliant on how long the USN chooses to see the Super Hornet as an important platform. The day they decide that they don’t need the ‘Super Bug’ anymore, any export customers are set for some major headaches.

And yes, without any major exports, the production line is set to close sometime during the coming years.

Boeing F-15/Lockheed-Martin F-16

If you today would receive either an F-15 or an F-16 with all bells and whistles, you could make a convincing argument that you ae flying the most advanced multirole fighter operational bar none. As a matter of fact, it has been argued that when the United Arab Emirates bought the Block 60 F-16E/F Desert Falcon, the US actually exported a multirole fighter more advanced than it currently operated in its armed forces, something which had not happened since early 1942 when the British RAF made the first operational sorties with the Mustang Mk I.

A mixed formation with two F-15E Strike Eagles, an F-15C, and an F-16C. Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald

Still, while the addition of new sensors and features gives these classic fighters excellent capabilities for a relatively cheap cost, the fact is that the basic designs are over forty years old, and while they remain competitive today, they will reach the end of the way sooner than their younger competitors. The F-35 will probably be a force to reckon with in forty years from now. The F-15 and F-16 most probably won’t.

From Russia with Love (or at least big bombs and smoky engines)

An alternative that can’t be ignored is the possibility of buying Russian fighters. Both the MiG-29/33/35 and the Su-27/31/33/35 have evolved into extremely competent aircrafts, and on the horizon the brand new T-50 looms.

The Mikoyan MiG-35D. latest in a long line of MiG-29 derivatives. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Oleg V. Belyakov

While there is no denying that on specifications alone, these could compete on equal terms with most western designs, the fact is that the world is more complicated than that. Questions arise around topics such as support, maintenance, and the problem of operating an aircraft whose sensor suite has been designed by the potential enemy. The combination of these worries made Minister of Defence Carl Haglund state that he can’t see a Russian fighter as a replacement for the Hornet.

Sukhoi Su-35S, simply one of the best multirole aircrafts currently in service. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin

Neither can I, though the Russians might make a very tempting offer in their desperate hunt for European friends.

Mitsubishi F-3

A real high-stakes bet for HX would be the projected Japanese Mitsubishi F-3. Japan has a large indigenous defense sector, and has recently started to open up for the potential of actually exporting arms. The F-3 is yet only in the early stages of the program, with the Mitsubishi ATD-X technical demonstrator scheduled for its first flight later this year, but if priced competitively (unlikely), and if the project doesn’t hit any major complications (unlikely), the F-3 could be a serious competitor by 2025/2030.

Shenyang J-31

The Chinese aircraft industry has long been known for exporting cheap copies of Soviet-era designs to countries where cutting-edge technology is less important than pricing and ease of operation. This has changed with the introduction of a number of modern designs into the service of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force, including the Chengdu J-10 and the Xian JH-7. Still more impressive aircrafts are in flight testing, such as the Chengdu J-20 and the Shenyang J-31, the latter perhaps the true black horse of the HX-project.

J-31 about to take off during its first public apperance last year. Source: Wikimedia Commons/wc

The J-20 is best referred to as a Chinese F-22 Raptor, being rather large and apparently employing the very best the Chinese industry can offer when it comes to sensors, avionics, and aerodynamics. Only the future will tell how good it really is, but it has some western experts worried. The J-31 is usually compared to the F-35, and while some experts doubt whether the J-20 is ever to be exported, the J-31 most probably will. While the current prototype, which was unveiled publicly last autumn, seems more akin to a technology demonstrator than a fully-fledged prototype, China is on the road to offer a light-ish stealth fighter for those that can’t or won’t buy the F-35.

It is entirely plausible that China, eager to score a major high-profile success in the form of a large deal with a Western European country would offer the J-31 to Finland in a very lucrative deal, complete with large offset buys and possible technology transfers in certain areas. It is harder to envision the Finnish government actually accepting this deal. Another major question mark is whether China would see Finland as too close to the US to allow us to operate such an advanced aircraft in the joint exercises that would take place sooner or later.

Still, if one looks at the changes to world politics and the Chinese aviation industry that has taken place during the last ten to fifteen years, the J-31 cannot be ruled out completely.

In Brief

Most Western designs risk having their production lines shut down before having a chance to participate in the HX-program. The Eurofighter and perhaps the Super Hornet can potentially get around this by offering second-hand airframes with low flying hours, but the problem is high operating costs and uncertain support for the Eurofighter and Super Hornet respectively. This might leave the field open for such up-and-coming countries as Japan and China, but it would be a major political shift if the next fighter for the Finnish Air Force would be built in Asia. A Russian fighter as HX is not likely.

Belbek and what’s there

Most have probably already seen or at least heard of one of the more stunning videos to appear yesterday, namely that of Col Yuri Mamchur, commander of 204th TABr, leading his unarmed men towards the Russian soldiers firing over their heads. Col Mamchur achieved his goal, and managed to negotiate some kind of an agreement with the Russian forces occupying Belbek air force base (Sevastopol). The whole unit was earlier erroeneously reported to have defected to the ‘Crimean authorities’, but apparently it remains loyal to Kiev and defiant towards the Russians.

I was a bit too trigger happy, and gladly shouted out that there are Su-27’s at the base, having misidentified the tails appearing in the video of the march, and not checked the Ukrainian air force OOB. It is MiG-29’s that the 204th TABr operates. Sorry about that.

Ukraine inherited a sizeable fleet of MiG-29’s of different variants, but today most of the earlier versions are gone, with as far as I can tell, all remaining operational aircraft being of the MiG-29S 9.13 or MiG-29UB 9.51 (two-seat trainer) variants, with a tiny number of upgraded MiG-29MU1 slowly becoming operational. One of the later is apparently at Belbek, although not yet in operational use.

MiG-29’s at Belbek in 2011. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Antropomant.

From this page with pictures as well as video from Belbek, quite a number of MiG’s can be seen. How many of these are truly operational, and how many are in different states of long time storage/disrepair is hard to say, but I counted to 29 airframes (25 in the video, and a further 4 have been seen standing in the QRA-area in earlier photos), with at least 2 being two-seaters. Along with the MiG’s, three Aero L-39 can be seen in seemingly pristine condition with a digital three-tone grey/white scheme, meaning that they are probably of the upgraded L-39M1 version.

Exactly what aircraft are at Belbek at the moment is hard to say. RT gives the numbers as 45 MiG-29 fighter jets and 4 L-39, with only four fighters and one training aircraft currently operational, but I wouldn’t give RT much credit as an objective source normally, and even less so in this conflict. CombatAir reports that it “Seems the squadron had 11 operational Fulcrum C [sic] and UBs […] in 2013″.

It is equally hard to judge what kind of a loss it would be for the Ukrainian air force if the Russians decides to either destroy or take home as a war prize the aircrafts currently being held at the base. If most of the MiG-29’s are indeed in such a sorry state that some reports indicate, the loss of the four (or three?) L-39’s from the already small fleet of refurbished trainers might prove to be an even bigger blow.

As an interesting note, according to this source, 204th TABr traces its roots back to the 62nd Fighter Aviation Regiment of the Soviet air force, and had no less than six Heroes of the Soviet Union during WWII (this source doesn’t give a stragiht connection, but confirms the 62nd IAP’s presence at Belbek up until 1992).

Edit: Apparently, the situation has changed during the writing of this post, and Belbek is now in Russian hands. Will be interesting to follow how this develops from here.