Fighter Jet Projects Surge, But Not Where You'd Expect
The number of countries attempting to develop a new fighter aircraft has surged recently, part of a cycle that has ebbed and flowed since the dawn of the jet age.
South Korea and Turkey are the latest nations to start clean-sheet programs, while Japan is working on its ATD-X concept demonstrator, India is working on an improved version of its Light Combat Aircraft and Indonesia has signed on to the Korean effort.
Most are drawn by the prospects of developing a homegrown industrial base, boosting employment and filling military needs, analysts said.
"If you want to do all three badly, then you build a national fighter," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group, Fairfax, Va. "It comes in waves, and a lot of it driven by national aspirations and a lot of it is driven by perception of threat, and a lot of it is driven by the ruling party in the given country."
In the 1980s, domestic politics fostered a spate of indigenous fighter projects, which were generally killed off in the next decade or two by economic realities, Aboulafia said. With free-market capitalism's cachet diminished in many parts of the world, such national programs have made a comeback.
"Even autarchy has come back into vogue," Aboulafia said. "I think this might be a reflected dislike of market reality that has come with the economic meltdown of the past three years."
There is also a perception that an indigenous effort will be cheaper than an imported design, said Byron Callan, an analyst at Capital Alpha Partners in Washington. Many countries cannot afford new fighters such as the F-35, Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale or even the new Russian PAK-FA, Callan said.
Even the Swedish Gripen, which recently won a Swiss order largely because it was cheaper than the Rafale and Typhoon, is very expensive, he said.
Something has to fill the market void, Callan said.
But Aboulafia said these nations are grossly underestimating the cost of developing a new fighter. For example, Seoul estimates that its KF-X stealth fighter effort will cost about $8 billion - "which is enough to maybe design a decent set of wings," he said.
Dan Gouré, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, Arlington, Va., concurred.
"It's horribly expensive," he said.
The track record for national fighter programs is not a good one. Japan, which has a highly developed economy and advanced technology, tried and failed to develop good cost-effective fighter, even with U.S. help, Aboulafia said.
Japan's experience with the F-2, which was based on the F-16, was a disaster that largely soured the country on developing an indigenous fighter. Aboulafia noted Tokyo's ongoing ATD-X stealth fighter development effort but said it would likely produce only a concept demonstrator, not a full production effort.
"There is nothing about history that would make you want to do this," Aboulafia said. "And looking at history, they have a lot to answer for."
Nor do most countries attempting to build an indigenous fighter have the technical wherewithal to build such an aircraft. Neither Turkey nor South Korea has the technical ability to build such fighters without external help.
"They're going to find there is an enormous gap between the licensed production of F-16s and designing, integrating and producing an entirely new product," Aboulafia said.
Even South Korea's recent experience in co-developing the T-50 jet trainer does little to alleviate the problem, he said.
Gouré was blunt about their chances for success: "There is no way in hell."
Only a handful of nations can design and build fighters without external help, he said. France, Britain, the U.S. and Russia are the only countries ever to successfully develop their own fighters, he said.
"Even the Chinese stuff, it's really all derivative of Russian hardware," he said.
Only about 60 percent of the Saab Gripen is built in Sweden, with the rest, including the engines, mostly U.S. in origin, Gouré said.
Because indigenous programs almost invariably offer an inferior product, there is tension between those who would develop such aircraft and those who will be expected to fly them in combat.
"Are you simply expecting to do as good a job as a traditional producer, or are you simply expecting your air force to take casualties?" Aboulafia said. "The best-case scenario is the reinvention of a fourth-generation jet with higher cost, which is exactly what happened with Japan's F-2."
India's Light Combat Aircraft is a good example. Leery of adopting the homegrown fighter because of its less-than-impressive performance, the Air Force has shown a clear preference for the winner of the country's Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft - either Rafale or the Typhoon - and the Indo-Russian T-50 PAK-FA stealth fighter.
Callan said, ultimately, countries that need only interceptors for home defense don't need particularly advanced aircraft. A light fighter similar to an F-16 or F/A-18 might suffice.
"There is 'good enough' for a lot of these markets," he said.