One of the recurring themes across all military forces is the escalating costs of their basic equipment. Of course these equipments are better than what went before but the question is, how much better. Compounding the problem is the difficulty of working out actual costs; commercial confidentiality, confusion about what is included in announced contract costs and any meaningful comparison of capabilities in the public domain all conspire to make any analysis nothing more than educated guesswork.
With increasing personnel costs and a fully understandable casualty aversion every technical means possible of achieving superiority over the neighbours continues to be very expensively applied. In the same way naval forces apply the ‘does it work in a hot war’ test, so does the RAF.
This is the ‘hi-lo’ argument we have rehearsed many times in the naval subject area.
If we make the assumption that the majority (not all) combat missions the RAF will be involved in will be in a moderate to low air threat environment then do we actually need the world’s first or second best multi role strike fighter?
The operation after Afghanistan might not look anything like Afghanistan so we should make sure we retain the ‘high’ whilst thinking about the ‘low’ but could we supplement Typhoon with something cheaper and/or more numerous for those missions where close air support and ISR are the predominant type.
The cheapest type of aircraft is usually the one you have paid for and in the last few years we have divested ourselves of several Jaguars, Harriers and Tornados. The real costs, however, are those that you incur every day, crew, fuel, training, spares and maintenance etc. If the aircraft you have are expensive to operate then the keep or ditch calculation is not as simple as it might seem.
The key question is;
Would a cheaper to buy and operate aircraft that could carry out the most likely tasks the RAF needs to cover, be so cheap that it overcomes the cost penalty of having an extra type in service.
The cost of maintaining numerous types of aircraft that do similar things should not be underestimated and it is the RAF’s stated objective to move to as few types as possible but are there any candidates that would allow the Typhoon/F35 thoroughbreds be used less and therefore retained in service longer, there has to be a cost pay off or it’s not worth doing.
Are we missing the Jaguar, a cheap to operate, rugged and simple fast jet able to provide limited strike, close air support and ISR in low to medium threat environments.
There have been persistent attempts to breathe life into a Harrier III but the development costs would be very high.
There are many options including new builds, trainer derivatives and modernising existing types so rather than try and list all the options here are a few interesting options;
Gripen NG; The Gripen is the most capable of this group, a proper modern fighter! The NG has been designed to operate from austere locations with low costs but has a full range of modern systems and a very high performance for a single engine aircraft. It also has the same BK27 cannon as the Typhoon. A Sea Gripen has also been proposed that would provide CVF compatibility.
BAe Hawk ; arguably the easiest option, we have plenty of surplus and a new build would be a UK product. The T.Mk2 or Hawk 128 is the latest version with the Adour 951 engine and modern avionics and although this is highly optimised for the training role the basic Hawk design has proven adaptable and versatile. The Malaysian and Indonesian (Hawk 208/209) exports were multi role light fighters, fitted with a lightweight multi-purpose radar, in flight refuelling probe and an external payload of about 3,500 kg.
KAI FA-50; a derivative of the supersonic T-50 Golden Eagle trainer, its maximum speed is in the order of Mach 1.4 with a operating ceiling of nearly 15,000m and maximum payload of 4,600 tonnes. In addition to modern avionics it has full set of defensive aids and data links to support advanced weapon carriage and all weather/night operations. The radar is Israeli but the Selex Vixen 500E which is a modern AESA system designed for light fighters, an also be fitted. The T-50 from which this more aggressive model is derived reportedly costs in excess of $20 million with estimates for the FA-50 at around $25-30 million. It uses the same GE F404 engine as the Gripen and F18. For an even cheaper option, A-50 sits somewhere in between the trainer and light multi role FA-50. Crucially, given its export oriented design, its operating costs are said to be very low. Click here and here for more information.
AMX; If we were interested in a joint development with Brazil we might consider the AMX, an Embraer and Alenia joint venture. It’s quite an old design but there have been a number of proposals for updates including one with the EJ200 engine and the Brazilians are currently updating a number in conjunction with Elbit. High subsonic with a payload of about 4,000kg on 5 external hard points, it also has wingtip rails for AA missiles. More information here
It is worth considering the performance figures of these light fighters when compared to Typhoon, payload, range and endurance are of particular importance, especially in Close Air Support where endurance and the ability to carry multiple munitions to suit the target and a targeting pod. For example, an AMX has 5 hard points; by the time two drop tanks and a targeting pod have been added there are only 2 left for munitions. Even with multi weapon pylons this is a limitation and there range and endurance limitations would mean more required in the air to cover a given area with a greater number of tanker sorties.
My gut feeling is that the cost penalties of introducing and maintaining a new type, especially after getting rid of a couple already, would be prohibitive. It would be worth a serious study though, as a means of keeping our racing thoroughbreds in service longer.
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