Sunday, 3 November 2013

The rise (and fall?) of the indigenous 5th gen fighters.

Turkish TFX concept (that one in the middle looks kinda familiar...)

You would think that talk of a JSF "death spiral" would encourage the Pentagon to cling on to every potential F-35 sale like a hungry dog with a turkey leg.  Recent events in Turkey would suggest otherwise, however.  A recent decision to purchase Chinese missile defense systems has the potential of getting Turkey kicked out of the JSF club.

Like Canada, Turkey is a "Level 3 Partner" in the JSF program.  Unlike Canada, however, Turkey is much more committed to the program, looking at ordering 100 (vs 65) airframes in total and possibly buying its first two within months.  The F-35 won't be Turkey's only fighter however, as it recently purchased some F-16s, not to mention plans on an indigenous fifth generation fighter design (with a little help from Saab).

Proposed KAI KFX design.

Turkey isn't the only country working on its own "5th generation" stealth fighter, however.  South Korea believes it can build its own as well, known as the KAI KFX.  S. Korea's current (and perplexing) FX-III fighter competition includes a bidding clause for competitors to offer assistance to the KF-X program.  The Eurofighter consortium has promised a $2 billion investment in the KFX if S. Korea picks the Typhoon.

HAL AMCA proposal

Not to be outdone, India is also hoping to joint the 5th generation club.  Not only is it partnering with Sukhoi to develop an version of the PAK FAbut it is working on its own Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).  Like the others, the AMCA is still only in the planning stages, without a finalized design or even a certain future.

Mitsubishi ATD-X mock-up
Japan's strategy is slightly more pragmatic.  It's going ahead with the Mitsubishi ATD-X "Shinshin" demonstrator.  Incorporating advanced features like fly-by-optics, 3D thrust-vectoring, and an advanced AESA radar, just to name a few.

The ATD-X is planned to fly as early as next year, with the hope that its technological advancements will be used in an indigenous F-3 fighter.

Joe Green's "Super Arrow" concept

There are plenty of other examples, of course.  Some are top-secret projects we don't know about.  Others, like Joe Green's Super Arrow concept, are unofficial, grass-roots projects proclaiming that individual nations can do just as good, if not better, than the latest designs from Lockheed-Martin and Sukhoi.

The benefits of producing a home-grown fighter design are obvious:

  1. It provides a boost to the indigenous aerospace industry, creating jobs R&D and pumping money into the economy.
  2. It allows an air force to "tailor make" an aircraft to their specific needs, while avoiding extraneous "gold plating".
  3. It's a great source of nationalistic pride.

All of these indigenous fighter designs face some tough challenges ahead.  Not the least of which is simple financing.

  1. Designing and building fighter aircraft is difficult, time consuming, and expensive.  It gets even more expensive as newer features like stealth and advanced sensors are added.
  2. Even if the finances are available, there is the matter of technology rights.  Any components built from American designs are likely to face sales restrictions.  This can be done for security reasons, or simply to kneecap the competition.
  3. With fighters like the F-35, PAK FA, and now J-31 on the market; is an expensive and risky indigenous fighter program even worth the trouble?  You might not get the EXACT fighter you want, but it could be "close enough".

The successful Swedish Gripen

The cancelled IAI Lavi

Do any of these concepts have a realistic chance at seeing reality?  Possibly.  I have a strong feeling that many of these concepts won't see the light of day, however.  While Sweden and France have shown that it is possible for a nation to more or less "go it alone" when it comes to fighter design, other projects like the Isreali IAI Lavi serve as a warning that modern jet fighter design is not for the feint of heart.

Of course, the biggest question in all this:  If Turkey, Japan, S. Korea, and India can develop their own fifth generation fighters...  Why can't we?

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