Sunday, November 3, 2013

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 FA, but 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?

4 comments:

  1. I must admit I share your skepticism about these indigenous 5th gen aircraft. If we only take an example, say AESA radar technology : that's not far from a must-have today. But only Japan has this technology right now. For the others, they have either a long development time ahead or the "going foreign option" : that could be a chance for european companies IMHO, but american ones would probably be preferred by these countries. And that's not worth it anyway if that's end like your article about Gripen in Norway... By the way, that's interesting to have this kind of confirmation, after many claims of "ITAR tricks" by USA.

    About the Japan demonstrator first flight in 2014, the article seems a bit old : are you sure they're still holding on that deadline?

    That's even worse in Turkish case : the article you give explains that the pressure on JSF deal isn't only because of the chinese deal, but also against the development of the indigenous fighter! Isn't that bothering you? Turkey seems a rather good ally. Do they deserve this kind of THREAT because they want to be less dependent from USA?
    I'm sorry, that's maybe because of my french perspective... but with that kind of ally, does Turkey need enemy?

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  2. I couldn't find much newer information on the ATD-X (in English, anyway). Like anything else, a few years' delay wouldn't surprise me.


    The deal in Turkey is quite simple... The USA wants to be the exclusive weapon supplier. No real surprise there.

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  3. You would have to think that with the F-35 high cost that somewhere down the line there will be a low cost competitor. I give the Swede/Turks a good shot here as the Swedes already have experience with the AESA. Maybe the French join in? How about Brazil? If the USA wants to be the only weapon supplier, they need keep there promises on cost, as simple as that. The thing about the F-35 that irks me the most, is the broken promises on cost. If Canada were considering this purchase at the original cost, though Im not crazy about it poor dogfighting ability or the single, Id understand a bit better......The post doesn't mention a stealth version of the JF Thunder. I've seen some moc ups on line........

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  4. Thanks for the answer.
    I did not find any information in french language either... the true advancement stage of these programs isn't very clear.

    About the deal in Turkey, that shows all the problem with the "exclusive weapon supplier" thing : that's too tempting for the US to use it in order to remain the single supplier. Who knows? Aren't Canada, South Korea or Japan tied up by the same situation?

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