Fighter aircraft: Made in Asia?
Since the end of World War II, a handful of countries in the West – basically, the United States, the USSR/Russia, Britain, France, and Sweden – have controlled the global fighter jet industry. Many countries have tried to break into this business: Argentina in the 1950s, Egypt and India in the 1960s, Israel and South Africa in the 1980s; none were particularly successful, and some – such as the Indian HF-24 Marut – were spectacular failures. Even today, perhaps 90 percent of all fighter jets flown by all the world’s air forces are produced by these five countries, or are based on copies of their planes (such as the Chinese J-7 fighter, a virtual clone of the venerable Soviet MiG-21).
This Western dominance has begun to crumble, however, as Asia ramps up several new fighter jet programs, all of which are intended to come into service over the next 10 to 20 years. Consequently, the center of gravity in the fighter jet industry could gradually begin to shift from the North Atlantic closer to the Asia – a development that could have particularly grave consequences for Western Europe’s military aerospace sector and could eventually even challenge the United States’ predominance in this sector.
Asia’s Fighter Jet Programs: Who’s Up, Who’s Down?
Combat aircraft development in Asia is a decidedly uneven affair. Southeast Asia, for example, has hardly been a player in this sector, despite the vainglorious efforts of B.J. Habibie to turn Indonesia into an aerospace powerhouse. In addition, Taiwan’s indigenous aerospace industry – which developed both an advanced trainer jet (the AT-3) and a frontline fighter (the Ching-kuo) – is for all practical purposes dead in the water, having not produced a new aircraft in over a decade and a half.
Other countries are faring better. Four Asian-Pacific nations – Japan, India, South Korea, and China – are all currently proceeding with advanced fighter jet programs. Japan, Asia’s aerospace leader for decades (and the only country in the region to possess a military aircraft industry before World War II), recently conducted the first flight of its indigenous X-2 Advanced Technology Demonstrator – Experimental (ATD-X). The X-2 is a fifth-generation fighter, incorporating a stealthy, highly maneuverable airframe, advanced engines, an active electronically scanned array (AESA radar, and a high degree of computerization and networking for “sensor fusion”).
Even though the X-2 is still a technology demonstrator and not a prototype of a new fighter jet, it represents a leap forward for the Japanese aircraft industry, which had been reeling from the technological and programmatic failure of its F-2 fighter (of which less than 100 were built). Production of an F-3 fighter, based on the X-2, will not begin until 2027 at the earliest; what’s more, it is likely that this plane could still turn out to be extremely expensive, perhaps as much as US$200 million per plane (or more).
Other Asian countries are following suit with fourth-generation-plus and fifth-generation fighter aircraft programs. India is attempting to develop two fifth-generation fighters, one in collaboration with Russia, based on the Sukhoi PAK FA (T-50) prototype, and the other, dubbed the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), an entirely indigenous program. These aircraft could be deployed by the middle of the next decade, and if either or both of these programs are successful they would constitute a generational leap in India’s fighter jet technology, as well as atoning for the country’s long-delayed and over-budget Tejas fighter.
South Korea is pressing ahead with two designs for an indigenous fourth-generation-plus KF-X fighter, either a twin-engine, canard-type fighter, or an aircraft more resembling the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Interestingly, Indonesia has joined the KF-X program as a 20 percent risk-sharing partner, while Turkey has expressed interest in collaborating with Korea in co-developing and manufacturing one of these fighters. The KF-X would likely enter service in the late 2020s.
It is China, however, that has really emerged as a breakthrough country when it comes to advanced combat aircraft. It is in the process of finalizing development of not one but two fifth-generation fighter jets, the J-10 and the J-31. Each aircraft is the product of China’s two leading fighter jet enterprises: The J-20 is being developed by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, while the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation is in charge of the J-31 program. The J-20 first flew in January 2011, and the J-31 followed suit in October 2012. Both planes nominally resemble currently flying fifth-generation combat aircraft (i.e., the US F-22 and F-35 JSF), and, in fact, they may have benefited from industrial espionage aimed at these two US fighter programs. While the actual details surrounding both aircraft – how stealthy they are, how advanced is their radar and other avionics, what kind of sophisticated weaponry do they carry, and so forth remains sketchy – the J-20 and J-31 programs demonstrate China’s ambitions – and the aggressive steps it is prepared to take – to claw its way up into the vanguard of advanced fighter-jet producers.
What About Europe?
All of these fighter jets are intended to fly or even be fielded within a decade or so. Of course, these countries face tremendous challenges translating these programs – some which are literally paper aircraft – into actual frontline fighters. India is heavily dependent upon Russian know-how and systems, while it is highly uncertain that South Korea possesses the technological base to indigenously develop a state-of-the-art fighter. If these countries should succeed, however, this would constitute a major shift in the center of gravity in the global fighter jet industry.
Europe is the most at risk for losing its place to Asia in the global fighter jet hierarchy. Western Europe has basically not developed a new fighter in nearly 30 years. At present there is no money in the European aerospace sector to fund a fifth-generation follow-on to the Eurofighter Typhoon, the French Rafale, or the Swedish Gripen. By 2030, in fact, Europe may even be out of the fighter jet business, except for retrofits and upgrades.
This “strategic pause” in Europe’s defense R&D cycle leaves it vulnerable to growing insignificance over the next two decades, particularly when it comes to next-generation combat aircraft. Consequently, the future global fighter jet business could in time become a US-Asian duopoly. And while the United States, with the F-35 JSF, is likely to dominate this sector for the next two decades – especially when it comes to international arms sales – some upstart Asian aircraft producers could eventually give it a real run for its money.