Defence-procurement programmes are known for over-running, in no area more so than combat aircraft. The US’s troublesome and monstrously expensive F-35 fighter was conceived circa the mid-1990s, not declared operational until 2016, and its woes are far from concluded.
How seriously, then, to take reports that the US Air Force now has ambitions to design, develop and build its next generation of fighters from scratch within the next five years? The plan calls for different manufacturers to quickly produce aircraft with the latest technology.
A similar approach has been utilised before, in the 1950s and 1960s, to produce the so-called Century Series of combat aircraft, which included Lockheed’s F-104 Starfighter, Republic’s F-105 Thunderchief, Convair’s F-102 Delta Dagger and F-106 Delta Dart. But could it work now?
“Fully operational in five years? I doubt it,” says Justin Bronk, research fellow in airpower and technology at the Royal United Services Institute. “But a reasonably reliable airframe with some new components, into initial operational testing, possibly.”
Even works in progress can have a strategic application. As Bronk points out, the status of the F-35 as the backbone of US airpower over the next few decades is well known – including among adversaries. “Russia and China know what an F-35 looks like and what an F-35 can do. So there’s a standard central threat they can plan against. If the US starts building new aircraft with different capabilities, that complicates other people’s planning.”
BRAZIL — AVIATION
Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer is best known for its svelte short-haul passenger jets. But it also makes military aircraft, such as the propeller-powered Super Tucano light-attack plane. Embraer has now branched out into military transport aircraft, delivering 28 KC-390s to the Brazilian airforce. Embraer hopes to position the KC-390 as a competitor to Lockheed Martin’s workhorse, the C-130 Hercules. “The KC-390 competes on speed,” says Aviation Week’s Tony Osborne. “And that matters if you’re moving kit across a country as big as Brazil.”
IN THE BASKET 06
Who’s buying and who’s selling? We keep you abreast of significant – and surprising – defence deals.
In the basket: Five Type 31 frigates
Who’s buying: The UK
Who’s selling: Babcock International
Price: £1.3bn (€1.4bn)
Delivery date: 2023-2028
The award of this contract to Babcock breaks the lock on Royal Navy surface shipbuilding long enjoyed by BAE Systems and flouts the convention by which such craft are usually UK-designed. Babcock’s bid involves the modification of the Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates, which have been in service with the Royal Danish Navy since 2012. The adaptation of an existing design will mean a substantial saving: the Type 31s will cost less than a third per ship than the Type 26 frigates already under construction.
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CANADA — UNIFORM
The 1990s may have made a comeback in the fashion world but they’re headed out the door for the Canadian military. Soldiers are testing new camouflage patterns to replace the existing Canadian Disruptive Pattern (Cadpat) that was developed in 1997. While the computer-generated pattern has served Canadian soldiers well, advances in night vision and infra-red detection have rendered it less effective than it once was.
This autumn the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment will don Prototype J. The new four-colour motif sits in the middle of the camouflage spectrum, making it a versatile one-scenario-fits-all pattern – unlike Cadpat which has woodland, desert and winter-specific versions. Most soldiers won’t receive the new, finalised kit until 2027 but it appears that a solution is in sight.