Fighters, More Fighters and Close Air Support Developments in Asia

In early 2017, combat jet acquisition programmes remain in the headlines throughout Asia. From Pakistan to Japan and China to Indonesia, several nations have fighter acquisition and/or development programmes currently under way and the region seems set to remain the focus of attention for the foreseeable future.

Other recent news from Asia includes that China has unveiled a new version of its Shenyang FC-31 fighter, aimed at offering what it says is fifth-generation capability for the export market, and continues operational test and evaluation of the Chengdu J-20. India has released more details of its new fighter programme, aimed at single-engine solutions; Indonesia’s attempts to negotiate a deal for Su-35s with Russia continue and the Philippines has once again initiated an attempt to procure a close air support (CAS) platform.

China’s Fighter Programmes

Hot on the heels of its debut appearance at Zhuhai last November (see Fighters, Bombers & Flying Boats, December 2016, p7) China’s J-20 progresses through its development programme and the first examples have reportedly already been handed over to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Flight Test Establishment at Yanliang for ongoing testing.

Also described by the Chinese Government as a fifth-generation fighter, it would seem that the J-20 programme is progressing from what some industry observers were calling a ‘science project’ before its first flight in 2011, through low rate initial production and now towards full service entry.

The J-20 is also reportedly not available for export and China’s second new fighter development programme, the FC-31 Gyrfalcon, has recently stepped from the shadows with the unveiling of an updated variant.

Pictures of the new variant, possibly the second prototype, were posted on the Chinese internet in late December, showing what appears to be an enlarged internal weapons bay, single-piece canopy and changes to the outer mold line. The first prototype, wearing the number 31001, made its maiden flight back in October 2012.

The flight of the improved aircraft has been confirmed by a spokesman for the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) but further details have yet to be released. If both the J-20 and FC-31 are indeed fifth-generation fighters with stealth capabilities, as claimed, China is only the second country to develop two advanced fighter designs (behind the United States with the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II). The FC-31 will also be only the second fifth-generation fighter aircraft to be offered for export, again behind the (tightly controlled) F-35.

In other Chinese fighter news, Russian news agency TASS announced on December 30 that the first batch of four Sukhoi Su-35 Flankers had arrived in China five days earlier. China has 24 Su- 35s on order, under a contract signed in November 2015.

Indian Multi Role Combat Aircraft Competition – Again

India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar confirmed in late December that the Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) competition will only consider singleengine fighters.

The revamped MRCA programme will seek to redress the balance caused by the failure of the original MRCA competition, which had selected the Dassault Rafale. Failure to agree on contractual terms led to the government-to-government sale of just 36 Rafales, instead of the original 126 aircraft planned.

In Indian Air Force service, the new MRCA is intended to operate alongside India’s locally-developed Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, which has been under development for almost 30 years but which is yet to reach an operational standard.

The first examples of the J-20 have reportedly been handed over to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Flight Test Establishment at Yanliang for ongoing testing.

In early December, the Indian Navy’s new Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sunil Lamba rejected the naval variant of Tejas as unsuitable for carrier operations and indicated that he would also be looking for another fighter aircraft.

By specifying a single-engine design for the refreshed MRCA requirement, Parrikar has effectively restricted the competition to the Lockheed Martin F-16V and Saab’s JAS-39E Gripen.

The winning design is to be manufactured in India under the government’s ‘Make in India’ policy and this will require Lockheed Martin or Saab to partner with local industry. Both companies have previously indicated they are willing to engage with Indian companies to produce their aircraft locally.

Indonesia Inches Closer to Sukhoi Deal

Despite many earlier reports that Indonesia had concluded a deal with Russia for the supply of Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker E fighters to the air force (TNI-AU), Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told local media in early December the two countries were still haggling over price. This is despite Russian news agency reports of “intense negotiations” between the two countries and negotiations which were ongoing for much of 2016.

Su-27SK/Su-27SKM and Su-30MK/ Su-30MK2 fighters, the first of which were delivered back in 2003, but has a further requirement for at least eight Su-35s to replace its ageing fleet of Northrop F-5 Tiger II aircraft. The exact number of aircraft previously reported to be required has been “between eight and ten”, but Ryacudu’s latest comments would seem to indicate that it is the lower number which is currently under negotiation.

Ryacudu also indicated negotiations over local production and technology transfer are ongoing and no agreement has been reached to date. Although the immediate requirement is for just eight aircraft, Jakarta is likely to buy further aircraft in small batches as it updates its fleet of combat aircraft.

Philippine Government Revitalises Close Air Support Requirement

Meanwhile, the Philippine Department of National Defense has renewed efforts to acquire six aircraft to fulfil a Philippine Air Force requirement for a CAS and counter insurgency capability, with local media reports suggesting that the deadline for bids has been set for January 27.

The Philippines has tried to acquire a CAS capability on several occasions but has failed to progress the project for several reasons, including a chronic lack of funding. The latest attempt, valued at around PHP 4.9 billion, will either replace or bolster the Philippine Air Force fleet of North American OV-10 Broncos, the most recent batch of which was received from Thailand in 2003 and 2004. Around 18 Broncos are thought to be in service, operating with the 15th Strike Wing at Danilo Atienza Air Base, Cavite.

Possible contenders for the competition include the Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros, proposed by Elbit; Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine; Embraer EMB-314 (A-29) Super Tucano and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) KT-1 Wong Bee.