Saturday, August 13, 2011
Last Aircraft Built in Europe?
The lack of money in the European countries has resulted in cut down of the armed forces. The focus on international Afghanistan look-alike missions has resulted in low need for future updated aircraft. What exist today is good enough for most Air Forces. There is no high tech enemy that forces continuous development of the Air Forces. War with Russia, China or India is unlikely. But what countries will in he future but 5:th generation aircraft? What will the threat scenario look like in Africa or Asia in the future? What many politicians often forgets is hat developing a new aircraft takes many years and the next European aircraft will not be designed for the threat scenario of today, but of 2040+
There are also four ongoing major military jet-engine projects in Europe. The Eurofighter EJ200, The Rafale Snecma M88 and the Gripen RM12 (updated F404 license built engine) are built for local aircraft production.
The last engine partly built in Europe is the GE/Rolls Royce F136. It has been questioned in USA due to budget constraints in the F-35 project. But so far it is in production. USA normally want two different engines to an aircraft in order to have some backup if there are technical problems with one type. One extra consideration is of course that USA want the UK defence industry to be happy. I personally do not believe it will be technically possible to swap engines from one type to the other in an aircraft without heavy modification. Rolls Royce also produces the lift-fan for the STOVL F-35B. But since UK has dropped out of this part of the F-35 project and there are still some serious weigh problems with the F-35B, my guess is that the F-35B will be cancelled and the RR lift-fan with it. If both the F136 and he F-35B are cancelled, then Rolls Royce are out of the F-35 project.
The Eurofighter project have serious financial problems. Tranche 3B has been put on hold. The industry has stated that they will continue with he development of Tranche 3B on their own money, but I doubt that this can continue for very long. By this the Eurofighter has no air to ground capability except for the Royal Air Force Tranche 1 Block 5 - FGR4. There is however an ongoing modification of all Eurofighters. All Tranche 1 will be of Block 5 status and Tranche 2 of Block 8. This will give the Eurofighter air to ground capability. In the Libyan campaign the RAF has mainly used Tornado for air to ground missions. The Italian Air Force were initially using he Eurofighers for CAP - Combat Air Patrol to enforce the NFZ - No Fly Zone, but the Italian Eurofighers have now been withdrawn from the Libyan mission. Germany is not involved in Libya, but has not used the Eurofighters on any international missions. Spain has send F-18 to Libya, but no Eurofighters.
Even though the Eurofighter has been exported to Saudi Arabia (72) and Austria (15), these aircraft were not actually sold by the Eurofigher consortium. The Austrian aircaft were Tranche 1 aircraft from the Luftwaffe. The Saudi Arabia aircraft were Tranche 2B aircraft from the Royal Air Force. As an compensation for the Saudi Arabia deal, the RAF will order 40 Tranche 3A aircraft.
One big problem for Eurofighter is that there are a number of countries involved, which makes it very hard to develop the aircraft.
Read more here about the different Eurofighter Tranche and Blocks.
Dassault has yet to find an export customer for the Rafale. In the Indian MMRCA competition, Dassault is together with Eurofighter the last teams left in the competition. In he next phase the Indians will focus on economy and on technology transfer. Even though the Rafale has shown very good results in the Liban campaign compared to the Eurofighter, this should not be used as an decisive factor in the next part of the evaluation.
In the Brazilian evaluation it looked like Sarkozy had a signed contract with former president Lula. But then this evaluation was put on hold, due to bad economy. It will start again next year. The US have stated that they will offer the F-35 together with F-18E/F. Russia will offer the Su-35 and maybe also the PAK-FA T-50. I seriously doubt that the Brazilian economy can handle the F-35 or the PAK-FA, but who knows in these days? Maybe Embraer will get an offer they can not refuse?
In the UAE competition it was earlier stated hat UAE had decided for he F-18E/F, but now Rafale seem to be back in business again.
Even though there has yet been no international business for Rafale, it looks very likely that they will sell some aircraft very soon.
Dassault has very good backup from the French government. In the Brazilian competition there has been rumors that France will support a Brazilian dream of becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Even if there will be no Rafale sold on the international market I believe hat the french pride will make it possible for Dassault to continue to build military aircraft in the future. The French government also has a very good reputation of exporting weapon to any who needs it. Unlike the UK, the french will not buy american fighter aircraft in the first place. But the french economy is like the rest of Europe bleeding. Anything can happen.
Saab is as of now under delivery of the last Gripen C/D aircraft to South Africa (26 ordered, xx delivered), Thailand (12 ordered, 6 delivered) and update of A/B to C/D aircraft to Sweden (31 ordered, xx delivered). Depending on the yearly production rate this indicate that after approximately 2014 there will be no aircraft built in Linköping unless a new order arrives.
As part of the campaign to sell aircraft to Norway, Saab presented the Gripen NG. This is an update of the existing Gripen C/D with new engine (F414), new avionics, AESA radar, bigger fuselage to allow more internal fuel and two additional weapon pylons under he main fuselage. The Gripen Demo has flown for a number of years with the new engine and has recently been upgraded with hew avionics and AESA radar. But so far no custsomer has bought the aircraft. India has cut Gripen from their competition, Brazil has delayed their campaign with at least one year and the Swedish armed forces has delayed their decision to upgrade the existing Gripen C/D fleet with Gripen E/F based upon the Gripen NG to 2012.
Since the Swedish Air Force and the Swedish politicians has stated that Sweden will operate Gripen to 2040 there is a need to keep the workers at Saab occupied. Otherwise Saab will not have the knowledge and personell to continue to support the Gripen C/D. Most probably this will result in that the Swedish Air Force will 2012 order a slow but continuous update of their existing Gripen C/D to E/F standard.
One reason for the delay with ordering the Gripen NG is that Volvo is lobbying for an updated RM12+ (F404) instead of the F414 engine. This has resulted in that the Swedish politicians want to study what can be done by updating the existing C/D aircraft to C/D+ instead of E/F. In practicality this will result in keeping the existing airframe and updating the avionics. It is unclear if the C/D can carry an AESA radar since this radar requires a larger nose section, more power and cooling.
The new CEO of Saab has however made two major errors during the last six months:
- He has acknowledged that there has been illegal money transacted during the sales of Gripen to South Africa, but he has put all the blame on then-partner BAE. This will result in three problems for Saab. 1 - South Africa has a need to show their voters hat they take this type of accusations very seriously. In the worst case scenario, the deal could be off. In he best case scenario Saab will have very frosty discussions with the South African poiliticians when it comes to future upgrades and continuous operations with Gripen. Since the South African economy is very bad, there is a need for South Africa to decrease the payments to Saab. 2 - Future customers of Gripen might be afraid that their business will be exposed since Saab did not keep their business secrets for themselves. 3 - Future cooperations with other European aircraft manufacturers will be affected. Who wants to work with a partner who sells you out when hings go sour? At this time when there is a need for European cooperation it could be disastrous for Saabs future. The bribes in themselves are not the big problem in this case. In the weapon industry bribes are common. E.g. BAE are accused of bribing Saudi Arabia during the sales of Eurofighter and EADS are accused for bribing South Africa during the sales of A-400M.
- He has ordered a new design bureau to be started in London. The aim of this bureau is to design a carrier version of Gripen, the "Sea Gripen". This is probably a result of the lost deal in India. The Indian deal said nothing about carrier capability, but India has carriers and in the future it migh be the case that they want a replacement for the existing Mig-29. Rafale has already a carrier version and Eurofigher has started up design works for a carrier version. (Maybe the Eurofigher will also be used on the new Queen Elisabeth carrier since it has been redesigned to be used with F-35C instead of F-35B?). In the case of the Gripen I think this will just be wasted money. To qualify an aircraft for carrier operations means more than just a tail-hook and stronger under-carriage.
What should Saab do?
The Gripen has one very big advantage considering the bad economy in the world. It is cheaper to buy and much cheaper to operate compared to the competitors. But in he same way as for Rafale, Eurofighter and F-35 there has been a gradual change in requirements from a lightweight fighter to a multi-role fighter capable of everything. Instead of trying to compete with the others, which will probably result in a better but also more expensive version of the Gripen, do the other way around. Make it cheaper! Be the F-5/F-16 of the 21:st century instead of the F-35. Focus on what Saab always has done well and that is indigenous solutions. I would for example want to see close integration of he Gripen with UAV. Use UAV as remote sensors for the Gripen. What about a clustered radar or electronic warfare system using a number of small UAV? Send in a UAV to identify argets at long distance and then fire precision weapons lead by the UAV. Use he backseat of a Gripen D to control the UAV. Saab has in their business portfolio the Skeldar UAV which is a very good solution for future CAS operations. Use the Skeldar as a tool for the FAC to lead attacks with the Gripen.
Saabs weakness is the lack of support from the Swedish government. The buzzword when it comes to military equipment is to buy COTS from the international market to reduce the cost. Local development should be avoided unless there are no other alternatives. The Swedish press is also very negative to weapon manufacturing in Sweden, which of course affects the political will. In Sweden export of military equipment is by law forbidden. Each business case has to be approved by the Swedish government export control office. This might stop some customers since they fear the Swedish politicians will stop supporting the Gripen if they are used in a conflict that Sweden does not agree with. During the international sales of the Gripen there has for many years been very low involvement by the politicians. But lately in the Brazilian campaign the interest has increased. Maybe the Swedish politicians has understood the need for political backup. Unless Saab finds some more international sales, the Swedish Air Force has to finance all future development of the Gripen by themselves.
EDA - European Defence Agency has started FAS4Europe, a study to list key aircraft technology companies in Europe 3035+.
The objective of the study is to identify the key industrial capabilities together with a proposed implementation plan.
Most European countries of course want that their local aircraft manufacturer will be among the selected ones 2035+. The tricky part of assembling the list of possible manufacturers in 2035 is to decide who will not be on the list any more.
Is there a European budget big enough to continue with five major (and a number of smaller) aircraft manufacturers in he future? I believe not. But it will be a big fight to see which country that stop supporting their local aircraft manufacturer first. Probably the next European joint project will be a UAV. The Neuron project is a starting point. BAE (Taranis), EADS (Talarion), Saab (Skeldar) all have their own UAV projects ongoing, but in order to prepare the way for a future aircraft I believe the best way to start is with the UAV.
However Europe has already started to use American UAV system. Sweden just bought the Shadow 200, Germany the Euro Hawk (a European version of the US Global Hawk) and Raptor and UK and Italy bought the Reaper. The competition in the UAV market is tough. And there are a lot of smaller industries that do not build aircraft that see business opportunities. A big drawback for the aircraft manufacturers is that they are mostly to expensive to buy from.
The next step is to arrange with a consortium as for the Eurofighter, including Saab and Dassault. It is not an easy solution. The Tornado and the Eurofighter projects have not always been smooth rides. The local industries will manufacture their own specialties to all buyers and the also do final assembly of whatever number of aircraft each country order.
The alternative is of course to buy a American, Russian or Chinese aircraft and then let the local industries deliver parts of the aircraft and do final assembly. Much in the same way as for the F-16/F-18 today. The F-35 will have major parts built in UK, but all final assembly will be done in the US.
Lockheed Martin is the F-35 prime contractor, while Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems are principal partners in the project.
Final assembly of the F-35 takes place at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company in Fort Worth, Texas. Northrop Grumman Corporation in Palmdale and El Segundo, California will manufacture the center-fuselage, and the aft fuselage and tails will be manufactured by BAE Systems in Samlesbury, England. Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth will manufacture the forward fuselage and wings.
What is best for the European aircraft manufacturers. To build parts of many aircraft or the whole of just a few?
There are many questions. But one thing is clear. If the European defence industries does not cooperate very soon, there will be very little left of them in 2035+.