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Sunday, August 26, 2018, 09:34 (GMT+7)
On modernization of the air force in several Southeast Asian countries

Many countries, including Southeast Asian ones, have given priority to modernization of their air force. Due to the difference in scientific and technological capability and budget among countries, they have adopted different approaches. Nevertheless, these countries have all combined upgradation of old-generation aircraft with procurement of modern aircraft.

Importance attached to renovating and upgrading old-generation aircraft

Most of weapons and equipment, particularly aircraft mainly imported from Russia, America, UK and France, now used by Southeast Asian countries’ air forces are outdated. Therefore, to meet the requirements of modern warfare, they must be renovated, upgraded and modernized. Yet, the defence budget allocated for research and development by Southeast Asian countries is limited. These countries’ defence industry – the determinant to materiel renovation and upgradation is not capable of carrying out upgrade packages; therefore, they have to rely on foreign defence industry complexes.

Singapore has been the pioneer in applying foreign upgrade packages to its air force. It now has 60 F-16 Block-50/52 plus fighters (received from America in the 1998-2003 period) upgraded with new data transmission line, active electronically scanned array (AESA) and satellite-guided weapons. This is a cooperation program between Singapore and Lockheed Martin Corporation, which started in 2016 and will finish in 2022, through a contract worth 914 million USD to upgrade all F-16s of this country. Following that approach, Thailand has initiated the program to upgrade 61 F-16A/B Block-15 fighters. In particular, the initial upgrade package worth 700 million USD will supplement 18 fighter aircraft with AESAs, active jamming systems and infrared-guided air-to-air missiles. Malaysia is also implementing the upgrade package for 8 F/A-18 Hornet aircraft which were acquired in 1997 from the Boeing Company. The key items in this package include the upgradation of AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles, the installation of Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and the integration of GPS into weapons.

To continue effectively exploiting the existing aircraft, Indonesia has signed a contract between this country and Belarus to repair, upgrade and increase the lifespan of its aircraft which it has acquired from Russia since 2003. In addition to repairing and upgrading Su-27SK aircraft, Indonesia focuses on upgrading Su-30MK aircraft. To achieve the standard of “Super 30” upgrade, new AESA-based firepower controlling radars, KRET Khibiny electronic warfare systems, and Astra-guided air-to-air missiles have been added to these aircraft.

Actively exploiting, transferring technology, and manufacturing new-generation aircraft

F-16D Block 52 plus fighter (photo: F-16.net)

This is a rather complex issue due to the unavoidable dependence on each nation’s capabilities in science, technology and material support. Singapore’s rather large defence budget (about 14.9 billion USD in 2018) has enabled its scientists to concentrate on research and development and make breakthroughs in aviation technology. Therefore, Singapore has taken the initiative in exploiting, maintaining, repairing and increasing the lifespan of its aircraft of all types (Airbus and Boeing), and mastering modern fighters, such as F-15SG and F-16C/D. Moreover, Singapore’s defence industry establishments are capable of providing equipment for training its pilots and technicians from both civil and military aviation.

In spite of limited defence budget, Indonesia is the only country in the Southeast Asia that is able to manufacture aircraft for its army and exportation. Thanks to its cooperation with major foreign defence contractors in terms of technology transfer, Jakarta has made remarkable advances in cooperation on manufacture of important military equipment. Typical example of this cooperation is CN-235 military transport aircraft co-manufactured by Spanish aircraft manufacturer CASA and Indonesian aerospace company PT. Dirgantara. This type of aircraft has been quite successful in both military and civil terms. At present, 3 CN-235s are being used in this country’s air force. Besides, during the process of cooperation on manufacturing these aircraft, Indonesia has an opportunity to access European advanced military aviation technology as CASA is a branch of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS). This has laid a solid foundation for this country to take advantage of significant technologies for the sake of its own future independent researches. Furthermore, Indonesia has been cooperating with South Korea in developing the 5th generation fighters in the framework of the KF-X/IF-X program. The two countries have planned to manufacture 250 aircraft of this type; 50 of which will be handed over to Indonesian air force; the rest of which will belong to South Korean air force. According to designers, this model of aircraft will have 3 versions in parallel with its development phases. The first version KF-X/IF-X Block 1 which has been recently approved in 2018 will have a radar cross-section that is equivalent to that of current 4th and 4th plus generation fighters, such as F/A-18E/F, Rafale, and Eurofighter Typhoon. The KF-X/IF-X Block 2 will add internal weapon bays, and its radar cross-section will be reduced to the level of the first-generation stealth fighter F-117. The last version KF-X/IF-X Block 3 will have the same radar cross-section as B-2 bomber and F-35 fighter – the most modern stealth aircraft in the world.

Accelerating the procurement of new-generation fighters

According to statistics, in the past 10 years, Southeast Asia has been among the biggest buyers of weapons and equipment in the world with the average yearly increase of 10% since 2009. Countries in this region have been acquiring the latest weapons and equipment for their air forces, such as multi-role 4th and 4th plus generation fighters, armed helicopters, airborne early warning and control aircrafts, air-to-air and air-to-surface precision weapons. Typically, Singapore and Indonesia have all equipped their air forces with modern multi-role fighters. 

It is believed that Singaporean air force is equipped with the most modern aircraft imported from America, including 40 multi-role F-15SG fighters, 60 F-16C/D fighters, and 20 AH-64D Apache Longbow armed helicopters. The F-15SG fighter is among the most modern aircraft of the U.S. and exported to only 4 other countries, namely Israel, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea. In addition to new-generation fighters, Southeast Asian countries’ air forces have invested in command, control, communication, computer, and intelligence simulator system, particularly the acquisition of airborne early warning and control aircrafts (AEW&C). These aircraft were exclusive to super military powers before, such as America and Russia. Most notably, Thailand has bought its air force 12 new-generation fighters JAS-39C/D Gripen and 2 AEW&C aircraft Saab 340 Erieye. Singapore has also purchased E-2C Hawk Eyes which serve as AEW&C aircraft. This is a massive step in the modernization of the air forces by Southeast Asian countries.

Attention has been paid to acquiring the 5th generation fighters by regional countries especially since the U.S. deployed its 5th generation fighters (F-22) to attack Syria in 2018, Russia employed its 5th generation fighters (Su-57) in the war against the Self-Proclaimed Islamic State (IS) in Syria in 2017, and China developed the 5th generation fighters (J-20). That has made Southeast Asian countries more determined to modernize and equip their air forces with 5th generation multi-role fighters in the interests of aerial advantage, interception, suppression of enemy air defence, and daytime/nighttime air attacks in the sea or on land.

To sum up, modernization of the air force in Southeast Asian countries is very noteworthy, particularly in terms of acquisition of new-generation aircraft. In fact, these countries have only selected 3 main suppliers so far, namely the U.S. with the multi-role fighters F-15SG, Russia with the 4th plus generation fighters Su-30MK, and Sweden with the fighters JAS-39C/D Gripen. However, due to limited defence budget, repairing, upgrading and increasing the lifespan of the old-generation aircraft is still a demand of urgency.

Sr. Col. Dang Dong Tien, General Department of Technology

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