Vietnam’s surprising purchases from the US, and France’s defence exports have a moment.
Brazil’s Embraer has already shown that it can build successful commercial airliners. Now it’s looking to prove that it has what it takes to supply the world’s airforces too, with its medium-sized military transport aircraft. The kc-390 enters service with Brazil’s airforce later this year and has secured letters of intent from Portugal, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and the Czech Republic. By all accounts Embraer has built a very capable, versatile aircraft.
The kc-390 was designed for extreme environments and is able to fly fast and high. Embraer is hoping that its track record with commercial jets, and the low operating costs and simplicity they require, will help it win new customers. “We’re targeting forces that need a very efficient aircraft with the flexibility to perform different types of mission,” says Walter Pinto Jr, vice-president of defence programmes at Embraer. “We’ve built a highly integrated solution that will decrease the workload for pilots so they can focus on the mission. It’s simple to operate and simple to maintain, with low operational costs.”
Naturally Embraer wants to see the order book grow but the odds are stacked against it: militaries put great stock on proven track records and longstanding relationships. So Embraer’s new strategic partnership with Boeing – still pending approval – could be well timed. Boeing’s marketing muscle and global reach should help to open up new markets.
Airbus’s largest-ever defence project is the Future Combat Air System (FCAS). It’s an aerial-defence system – with a new fighter jet at its core – that uses the latest in artificial intelligence to connect everything from drones to satellites in order to respond to future threats. The programme, set to debut in 2040, is being backed by European countries, who would prefer to avoid buying such equipment from the US.
What need does the FCAS programme address?
When you look at the scenario of the future, the capabilities that the enemy will have are going to require disruption. We have to develop a fighter for the next generation, one that is surrounded by an interconnected web of other tools. So we have two choices. We could buy the f-35 or another solution but then we are strategically dependent on other countries and we would start to lose our technical competence at home. Or we take the decision to invest in our own industry and develop key technologies with European roots so that when we face threats in the future, we are self-sufficient.
With long lead times, how do you futureproof the product?
A fighter has a life cycle of 40 to 50 years, which means that the system we deploy will operate until 2090. What will happen in 2090 in terms of threats? We don’t know so we have to develop a system that can be adapted. Normally you need 15 years to develop a fighter jet. Then as new threats arise, you need to update and upgrade it; it takes a lot of time and money. Our aim is to develop drones in a cycle that’s much shorter and cheaper: four to five years. So instead of fully modifying your fighter you say, “OK, I’ll develop a new remote carrier that will upgrade the capability of the fighter by flying alongside it and adapt to this new threat.” Then you have a system which is completely upgradable and adaptable to the future.
It’s difficult to characterise bumper results for military sales as just good news but France’s defence industry has had quite the year. Results for 2018 reveal that its weapons exports surged 30 per cent to more than €9bn as Qatar bought Rafale fighters and nh90 helicopters, Belgium bought Griffon and Jaguar armoured vehicles and Saudi Arabia bought patrol ships.
So what does this mean for the country’s industry? “A rolling five-year average gives a more accurate picture,” says Trevor Taylor, a research fellow in defence management at Rusi. “But political leaders like to emphasise good news.”
Who’s buying and who’s selling? We keep you abreast of significant – and surprising – defence deals.
In the basket: Six Boeing Insitu Scaneagle reconnaissance UAVS
Who’s buying: Vietnam
Who’s selling: The US
Price: $8.5m (€7.5m)
Delivery date: 2022
These uavs are the first arms sold to Vietnam by the US since the war between the two ended in 1975. An embargo was maintained until 2016 but a recent US Department of Defense report was big on links in the Indo-Pacific. Less subtly, Donald Trump said on a trip to Hanoi that the US makes “the best military equipment in the world”.