Duels In The Sky
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Jun 6, 2011
By Bill Sweetman
The European fighter development community’s views on the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) have become more negative since 2005-06, and this is not, primarily, the result of marketing. The commentary expressed in offline meetings at conferences and shows is much more negative than on-the-record statements suggest.
People at Saab, Eurofighter and Dassault are of one voice on JSF and do not believe it will deliver its promised affordability, whether in acquisition, upgrades or operational cost, or that it will deliver capability on its present schedule. They expect that when JSF emerges from development, its stealth technology will be less valuable than expected, and that it will be inferior in other respects to European products.
The non-competitive selections of the JSF by the Netherlands, Norway and Canada are attributed to three main factors: political pressure by the U.S. (suspected for years but confirmed in 2010 by WikiLeaks), U.S.-oriented air forces, and political vacillation enabled by the fact that full-rate production JSFs are not available for order.
This worldview underpins the Europeans’ determination to keep their programs alive until the JSF program runs its course, or unravels, as they expect it to.
India’s decision to eliminate all but two contenders for its Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) requirement was a blow to Boeing and Saab, the companies in the losing group who had reason to hold out most hope in the competition (see p. 21). For the survivors, Eurofighter (Typhoon) and Dassault (Rafale), it means a bruising duel to win the contract and—for the winner—a major challenge to fulfill it.
Indian officials say the winners scored highest on technical grounds, which is not surprising. Typhoon and Rafale are larger and more powerful than Saab’s Gripen. The former is better at high altitude and the latter excels in payload and range. The European fighters also have a more contemporary aerodynamic design than Boeing’s Super Hornet.
But a word of caution—what is being offered in both cases is not what is coming off the production line today. Boeing’s Super Hornet proposal seems to have been close to the in-production F/A-18E/F Block 2, with the exception of General Electric’s Enhanced Performance Engine (EPE) version of the F414. Gripen NG rests on a development program that is well underway.
Whether Rafale or Typhoon is selected, the program will aim to achieve several things simultaneously, including co-developing improvements such as an active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and Meteor air-to-air missile (AAM) integration; dealing with obsolescence issues that are inevitable in long development cycles; transfering technology and launching joint indigenous production; and transplanting a complex all-digital aircraft into the Indian air force, all on a tight timescale.
If Rafale wins, and is also successful in Brazil, Dassault and its partners—Safran and Thales—will be doing much the same thing, 9,000 mi. from India.
Good luck with that. The Indian customer, however, may take the view that the burden of risk will fall on the contractor—and ultimately its domestic government stakeholder, which is unlikely to want to see problems erupt into public finger-pointing.
Boeing and Saab, meanwhile, can take comfort in depicting the Indian decision as something less than an outright repudiation of their approach to fighter design and the market. Boeing can present it as a choice to not rely on the U.S. for a principal weapon system, and Saab can point out that either finalist represents a move to closer ties with the major powers of Europe.
The current competitive situation of the three “Euro-canard” fighters, however, is shaped by economic, operational, technical and historic factors, and whether one or all survive into the 2020s as viable programs depends on all of them.
The historic factor dates to the mid-1980s, when France and the Eurofighter partners went their separate ways. Germany and the U.K. argued that one-nation programs no longer had the critical mass to compete with those from the U.S. France believed multinational programs without a clear leadership structure were impossibly cumbersome.
Both arguments were right.
Rafale works, but is being built at such slow rates that costs are high. To increase rates would be to starve other national programs of resources. Typhoon’s production and upgrade program has been successively delayed and restructured as the sponsoring nations have wrangled over how much should be spent on each step, and when.
Sweden escaped these outcomes because it had always structured its fighter programs differently. Design, integration and most manufacturing remained in Sweden, but subsystems such as the engine, radar and weapons were co-developed with foreign partners or imported. Combined with a uniquely authoritative and highly skilled government arms-development agency, Gripen’s development has been affordable on a national basis.
Technically and operationally, Rafale and Typhoon are more different than the distant view suggests. At its conception, Typhoon was expected to enter service at a point where Tornado, developed by three of its four partners, would be at its mid-life point. Combined with the emerging threat of the MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27, this drove the design toward air-combat performance, with a configuration that accommodated large radar and a standard, low-drag, six-missile load-out, and aerodynamics and propulsion optimized for agility (including supersonic maneuver) and acceleration.
The RAF considers the Typhoon second only to the Lockheed Martin F-22 in the air-to-air regime. Armed with Meteor ramjet-powered AAMs and equipped with a high-end infrared search-and-track (IRST) system, it will be more formidable yet. The problem is that few customers face adversaries with large or modern fighter forces.
Also, there is a difference of approach among the four Typhoon nations. The U.K. has recognized since the early 2000s that the Typhoon will have to take over some or all Tornado missions and developed an interim air-to-ground precision-strike capability. But the other partners have not seen this as an urgent need (and are less involved with air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan), so funding for definitive solutions has been slow to materialize.
Nonetheless, the Typhoon team continues to promote future variants, including evolved designs with thrust vector control (TVC)—which, among other things, improves handling with heavy external loads—and even a carrier-based version, which is of interest to India (and to the U.K. if JSF has problems). TVC is linked to carrier landing capability, as it permits a trimmed approach at a lower angle of attack and overcomes a problem with earlier “Seaphoon” studies—the big radome that interposed itself between the pilot’s eyes and the ship.
Rafale, by contrast, was designed to permit a one-type air force for France, including the navy, with missions ranging from close air support to nuclear strike. The result was a small aircraft with the ability to carry a large external load and lower top-end performance than Typhoon. Another tradeoff was to accept less radar range in return for flexibility and light weight, with the relatively small passive phased array of the RBE2.
The Rafale has impressive capabilities, including discretion, which the French prefer to the term “stealth.” Rafale visibly shows more marks of low-observables technology than its contemporaries, and there is evidence that its Thales Spectra electronic warfare system has an active cancellation mode.
The Rafale team has, since the mid-2000s, done reasonably well at keeping its plans to mature and upgrade the aircraft on schedule. It can self-designate with the GBU-12 laser-guided bomb and carries the Sagem AASM extended-range, precision-guided weapon family. For the destruction of enemy air defenses mission, presentations show one Rafale targeting with radar from outside lethal range, while another approaches in terrain cover and delivers a pop-up AASM. The latest version to be tested is the imaging-IR model. Rafale is also operational with the Thales Areos multiband, long-range oblique reconnaissance pod.
Stealth, meanwhile, appears to be the hallmark of Gripen development, in that it is moving forward under a shroud of non-publicity. Sweden has taken the strategic decision to retain a small but capable air force, which will be based on Gripen until at least 2040. The only currently planned route to that goal is through the JAS 39E/F Gripen NG.
The next milestone is the return to flight of the Gripen Demo prototype, equipped with the E/F’s new avionics system, designed to reduce the cost of upgrades by partitioning mission systems from flight-critical functions. Selex Galileo is pushing forward with the Skywards-G IRST—the first system of its type to operate in dual IR bands—and the Raven ES-05, the first wide-angle AESA.
The first new-build Gripen NG is due to fly in 2012. Reports describe stealth enhancements including diverterless inlets. The enhanced performance (EPE) engine would be a useful addition—at its highest reported rating, its non-afterburning output would be over 90% of the maximum thrust of the C/D’s RM12 engine, although Saab may elect to take a smaller thrust boost combined with longer engine life to reduce ownership cost. GE claims that the EPE is relatively low-risk.
There’s a lot of work to be done if European programs are to remain viable, but so far, industry considers it worthwhile.
Source: Defense Technology International (DTI)