Shifting Threats Spur Demand for Fighter Jets By Daniel Solon

www.nytimes.com / View Original / July 14th, 2014

On Bastille Day in Paris 100 years ago, spectators at the traditional military parade could scarcely have imagined the scale of destruction that was about to be unleashed on much of Europe, including the first use of military air power.

Since then, control of airspace has become a basic strategic doctrine. But which airspace, and how to control it in a period of game-changing developments in weapons, sensors and cybersystems, are questions as challenging as at any time in the past century.

While geopolitical threats are shifting fast, most military budgets are still locked down by post-recession austerity policies. But even though governments may want to cut military spending, defense needs are pushing the other way.

Russian and Chinese expansionism, real or perceived, has revived the specter of Cold War confrontations in Eastern Europe and East Asia. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, boundaries drawn after World War I are disintegrating, with a risk of sectarian and regional power plays potentially affecting governments from Central Asia to the Arabian Peninsula and the Sahara.

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., said he expected this week’s Farnborough International Airshow to see makers of tried-and-trusted fourth-generation fighter planes pulling out all the stops to sell into the Middle Eastern market. The term “fourth generation” is applied to planes such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, the American F-15 or the French Rafale, originally designed in the 1970s and upgraded since then to incorporate some modern stealth and electronic warfare technologies.

Air power, Mr. Aboulafia said, “is becoming less about platforms and more about systems, and systems of systems. The importance of an airplane is being dwarfed by the value and importance of its interior technologies and by the value of all the sensors, data links and connections that make it much more effective.”

An example of that trend is the Gripen E fighter program by Saab of Sweden, which incorporates increasingly advanced electronics and weaponry into a relatively inexpensive existing airframe. Brazil signed a deal in December to buy 36 Gripens, and Saab is prospecting for more customers in Asia.

In India, meanwhile, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, and William Hague, the British foreign secretary, have been jostling this month to sell either Rafales or Typhoons to the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In Asia, however, Mr. Aboulafia said, what China’s neighbors perceive as its increasing assertiveness has placed a premium on stealth technology and interoperability with American forces. That, he said, spells “F-35” to him.

The highly stealthy “fifth generation” Lockheed Martin F-35 was described by Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia in April as “the most advanced fighter in production anywhere in the world.” Australia has ordered 72, with the first expected to enter service in 2020.

Whether Farnborough will provide a platform for more orders, however, is uncertain. Already long delayed and far over budget, the F-35 program suffered further embarrassment this month when an engine fire during testing led the United States military to ground its entire fleet, raising a question mark over the plane’s ability to even turn up at the British air show.

As governments gear up to meet near-term threats, they must also look ahead into a disturbingly different future, where geopolitical disruptions are matched by drastic technological changes in cyberwarfaredrones and hypersonic flight, among other areas.

At least some of those developments can reasonably be projected to a 10-year time horizon, though many others remain cloaked in secrecy.

In February, the United States Air Force said it planned to buy 80 to 100 “Long Range Strike B” heavy bombers, with an optional unmanned flight capacity and the ability to “loiter” over a battle zone, at a price of $550 million each. They would enter service in the mid-2020s.

Using existing technologies, the planes would incorporate cutting-edge electronics, making them harder to target than the current B-2 stealth bombers, which military analysts say will be vulnerable to Chinese countermeasures within a decade.

Mr. Aboulafia said he expected intense competition for contracts by all the major defense players, with “everyone hoping for a piece of this $100 billion project.”

Even more futuristic projects include the X-51 “Waverider,” a program of Boeing’s Phantom Works division. In a flight a year ago, the X-51, an unmanned supersonic ramjet that surfs on its own shock waves, reached Mach 5, five times the speed of sound. Technology from the experimental program could be used in a hypersonic missile planned for service in the mid-2020s, to be launched from B-2 bombers or F-35 fighters.

Not to be outdone, Lockheed Martin’s advanced development division has proposed a pilotless spy plane that could fly faster than a speeding missile, at Mach 6, or twice the speed of the long-retired SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane.

Named the SR-72, a demonstration model could be ready by 2018, with prototype testing in 2023 and an operational version in service by 2030.

The cost, said Alexandra Ashbourne, a military analyst based in London, could be around $300 million per plane, “which only the United States could afford.”

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