Asian Air Force Modernisation

South Korean president Moon Jae-in
South Korean president Moon Jae-in addresses the audience during the unveiling of the KF-21 Boramae 4.5-generation combat aircraft.

Regional tensions have forced the pace for regional air forces to buy new capability or update legacy platforms.

The increasing prospects of a peer-on-peer conflict among Asia Pacific armed forces, particularly in East Asia, are steadily rising as China’s increasingly belligerent behaviour ramps-up concern within the immediate region as well as further afield.

Amid heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait, China has been deploying a record number of military aircraft near the self-ruled island – which Beijing considers as a renegade province that must be reunified with the mainland, by force if necessary – in a renewed show of force that commenced on 1 October: the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced on 4 October that an unprecedented 56 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft, including two Sukhoi Su-30 and 38 Shenyang Aircraft Corporation J-16 multirole fighters, two Shaanxi Y-8Q/KQ-200 anti-submarine warfare (ASW)-optimised aircraft, two KJ-500 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platforms, and 12 H-6 strategic bombers, had entered the island’s southwestern air-defence identification zone (ADIZ). The figure represents the largest number of PLA aircraft registered in a single day since the MND began announcing PLA aircraft movements near Taiwan in September 2020.

The surge in military aircraft followed three earlier days of PLA aircraft operations in the same area, with 39, 16, and 39 aircraft entering the ADIZ between 1-3 October respectively. The MND noted that the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) reacted on each occasion by deploying its own fighters, issuing radio warnings, and mobilising its air-defence systems until the PLA aircraft left the area.

The escalating tensions come as Taipei continues to acquire advanced US military equipment and establish closer ties with Washington. Moreover, Taiwan’s Executive Yuan recently announced a plan to spend $8.56 billion (NT$240 billion) over the next five years to bolster the armed forces’ air and naval capabilities.

Although the Executive Yuan did not identify specific platforms, draft legislation to support the special budget reportedly includes funding priorities to acquire indigenously developed Tien Chien II (Sky Sword II) medium-range air-to-air missiles (MRAAMs), Tien Kung III (Sky Bow III) surface-to-air missiles, and Hsiung Feng IIE (Brave Wind IIE) surface-to-surface cruise missiles. The MRAAMs arm the domestic Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC) F‐CK‐1A/B Ching‐Kuo (Indigenous Defence Fighter, IDF) aircraft.

Further trouble brewing

China has also piled pressure on other regional rivals such as Japan, with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) recording 725 scrambles in fiscal year (FY) 2020, 458 times (63 percent) against Chinese aircraft, 258 times (36 percent) against Russian aircraft and one percent others in the period of 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021. According to the JASDF, the bulk of scrambles were undertaken by its southwestern air defence forces with 404 sorties – almost double that of the northern sector forces.

The PLA’s aggressive modernisation since the 1990s, initially fuelled by Russian combat aircraft and weapon imports but now underpinned by new and increasingly capable indigenous systems, have significantly shifted the aerial balance of power in East Asia and places it in a favourable position to challenge Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese, and even US regional airpower.

Air superiority

State-owned Chinese military aerospace companies have made some remarkable advancements over the past 20 years, moving up the value-chain from modifying or reverse engineering Soviet and Russian aircraft technology to developing indigenous platforms.

China’s military aerospace ambition can be seen in a growing number of local designs, starting from the single-engine Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) J-10 multirole combat aircraft which was developed from the 1980s by its Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) and entered the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) service in 2003. The initial model, the J-10A, was superseded by the improved J-10B with a redesigned airframe and more powerful Russian-made Salyut AL-31FN Series 3 engine offering over 30,200lb (134.4kN) of thrust around 2013.

The latest variant of the J-10 family is the J-10C, which made its maiden flight in December 2013 and entered service in April 2018. The J-10C features a new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar of unknown designation, improved avionics including a new datalink for the PL-15 beyond visual range anti-air missile (BVRAAM).

At least 600 J-10s are expected to eventually enter service with the PLAAF to replace the ageing CAC J-7 fighter-bombers, which entered service in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

An AVIC Chengdu J-10C fighter.
An AVIC Chengdu J-10C fighter.

CAC also developed the twin-engine J-20, a single-seat multirole fighter with low-observability features such as twin, outward-canted, serrated edge landing gear doors, and an internal weapons bay. The J-20 is also equipped with a chin-mounted electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) that appears to be comparable to the one found on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

Low-rate initial production (LRIP) aircraft are believed to have been fitted with a heavily modified version of the Russian 99M2 (AL-31FM2) engine. However, it is known that the intent is to equip serial production J-20s with domestically manufactured engines. This desire appears to be close to fulfilment, with the PLAAF demonstrating two examples powered by indigenously developed WS10C turbofan engines at the recently concluded Airshow China 2021 in Zhuhai.

Other in-service PLAAF twin-engine combat aircraft include the AVIC Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) J-11B air superiority fighter, which is essentially derived from reverse-engineered technology from imported and locally assembled Russian Sukhoi Su-27 airframes. Initial deliveries of the type commenced in the late 1990s, followed by a tandem-seat version, the J-11BS, around 2010.

The latest J-11B variant, which reportedly entered serial production in late 2020, features substantial improvements including a strengthened airframe with reduced radar cross-section (RCS), an improved AESA fire-control radar, as well as modernised avionics and the domestically produced Liming WS10B engine.

SAC has also developed a long-range strike variant of the J-11BS, the J-16, featuring locally developed avionics and weapons as opposed to the mainly Russian-supplied equipment used in the earlier model. The J-16 further improves on the J-11 with an increased stores carrying capacity using 12 hardpoints as opposed to the 10 available to the latter, as well as a wider range of precision guided munitions. With the fielding of the stealthy J-20 for air superiority missions, the type is now considered by many to be an ideal standoff engagement platform comparable to the F-22/F-35 and F-15 mix being explored by the US Air Force (USAF).

A new electronic warfare (EW) variant of J-16, known as the J-16D, was first sighted in December 2015. Although no official data of this variant has been released, the type is clearly distinctive from the baseline J-16 multirole fighter in several aspects, featuring a shorter nosecone believed to house an AESA radar and large wingtip pods with vertical antennas. The standard internal 30mm cannon and the infrared search and track (IRST) sensor system have also been removed, likely to free up space for the additional EW systems required for its specialised role.

The PLAAF debuted the type at Airshow China 2021, with the displayed aircraft also featuring four large jamming pods under its wings and air intakes. Each pod is clearly physically distinct and is therefore likely to cover different frequency ranges in the electronic spectrum. The first J-16D prototype that reportedly first flew in late 2015 had been seen with KG600 EW pods developed by China Electronics Technology Group, although the new pods seen on the aircraft in Zhuhai have not been previously documented.

The J-16D is the electronic warfare (EW) variant of J-16.
The J-16D is the electronic warfare (EW) variant of J-16.

Meanwhile across the Taiwan Strait, the RoCAF has committed to a recapitalisation of its combat aircraft fleet. The Legislative Yuan in October 2019 approved the procurement of 66 Lockheed Martin F-16V Fighting Falcon multirole combat aircraft – coming after US State Department clearance about two months prior – worth around $8 billion to add to those already received under the service’s ongoing Phoenix Rising upgrade programme, which involves the upgrade of 142 older F-16A/B aircraft to the F-16V standard.

As with the comparable upgrade programmes underway for Singaporean and South Korean F-16s, Phoenix Rising includes the Northrop Grumman APG-83 active electronically scanned array Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), a new mission computer, as well as updates to the electronic warfare suite and avionics. The AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile and precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) have also been integrated.

The programme experience delays in its initial development stage due the discovery of airframe corrosion and various technical issues. Lockheed Martin’s local partner, AIDC, handed over the first upgrade F-16V at its Taichung facility in October 2018. A further 36 aircraft were handed over to the RoCAF by December 2020, with the last aircraft due to be completed by 2023. However, while the additional newbuild F-16Vs will certainly be welcome news for the RoCAF, the service’s long-term stated ambition is to procure a fifth-generation fighter such as the Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II JSF.

A comprehensive effort to modernise and upgrade the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s (JASDF) fleet of F-15J interceptors has progressed following a Direct Commercial Sale (DCS) agreement signed between Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) and Boeing to support upgrades to the aircraft. Over 200 single-seat F-15Js and two-seat F-15DJs are believed to have been built by MHI under license from Boeing between 1980 and 2000.

The DCS agreement, which was announced by Boeing on 28 July, lays the groundwork for the wider $4.5 billion modernisation programme for up to 98 F-15J/DJs into the Japanese Super Interceptor (JSI) configuration approved by the US State Department under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) mechanism in October 2019.

“Sojitz Corporation, a trading company that works with Boeing’s team in Japan, will support this effort,” Boeing said in its statement, adding that it will provide MHI with retrofit drawings, technical publications, and ground support equipment for the upgrade of the first two F-15J aircraft to the F-15JSI configuration.

In contrast, MHI will be responsible for developing detailed modification plans and putting in place the necessary infrastructure and skilled workforce for upgrade work to commence in 2022.

According to Boeing the upgrades will introduce state-of-the-art electronic warfare and weapons: “An all-new advanced cockpit system, running on the world’s most advanced mission computer, will deliver pilots enhanced situational awareness.”

The F-15JSI configuration will also feature the Raytheon AN/APG-82(V)1 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, the Honeywell Advanced Display Core Processor II (ADCP II) mission computer, and the BAE Systems AN/ ALQ-239 Digital Electronic Warfare System (DEWS). Other enhancements include new aircraft radios and anti-spoofing GPS systems.

A Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) F-15J Eagle over Misawa Air Base, Japan, 2017. A $4.5 billion modernisation programme will upgrade 98 F-15Js into the Japanese Super Interceptor (JSI) configuration.

Many of these upgrades are comparable to those developed under Boeing’s Advanced Eagle programme, which has resulted in Qatar’s F-15QA, Saudi Arabia’s F-15SA, and the United States’ upcoming F-15EX platforms.

Japan officially selected the conventional take-off and landing Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II JSF as its next-generation fighter in December 2011 to replace the ageing F-4EJ Phantom which had been used by the JASDF for close to 50 years before being retired in December 2020. The country plans to acquire a total of 105 F-35A aircraft to be initially being based at Misawa Air Base, although it is reportedly looking to expand F-35A activity to Komatsu Air Base by 2025.

Over in the Korean Peninsula, South Korean aerospace and defence prime Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) has rolled out the first prototype aircraft under development for the Korean Fighter eXperimental (KF-X) programme, which aims to develop a multirole platform that will replace the Republic of Korea Air Force’s (RoKAF’s) ageing F-4D/E Phantom II and F-5E/F Tiger II aircraft. The RoKAF is expected to acquire 40 KF-21s by 2028 and another 80 aircraft by 2032.

The indigenously developed twin-engine prototype was officially unveiled in a ceremony held on 9 April at KAI’s headquarters in Sacheon. The event was also attended by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto.

Now officially named KF-21 Boramae (Hawk), the ‘4.5-generation’ aircraft is powered by two General Electric F414-GE-400K engines from General Electric (GE) Aviation and is expected to have a maximum take-off weight of 56,300lb (25,580kg) with a payload capacity nearly up to 17,000lb (7,700kg).

The maiden flight of the first prototype, designated aircraft 001, is scheduled for 2022 following ground testing. KAI earlier stated that the initial production aircraft will be optimised for air-to-air combat and will have limited air-to-ground capabilities. It will feature three hardpoints under each wing for weapons and/or external fuel stores, while missiles can also be externally carried under the fuselage. Serial production aircraft, however, will be fully capable of performing both mission sets. LRIP production is expected to commence from 2026, with full-rate production following from 2028.

The KF-21 will be equipped with an AESA radar jointly developed by the Agency for Defense Development (ADD) and Hanwha Systems, which is claimed to be capable of detecting and tracking more than 1,000 targets simultaneously. Other local content includes an electro-optical targeting pod and an infrared search-and-track (IRST) system from Hanwha Systems, while LIG Nex1 is supplying its electronic warfare (EW) self-protection system.

The aircraft will also feature terrain following/terrain avoidance (TF/TA) systems from Israel’s Elbit Systems and several critical systems from Collins Aerospace, including its Environmental Control System (ECS) – which comprise air conditioning, bleed air control, cabin pressurisation and liquid cooling systems – and Variable Speed Constant Frequency (VSCF) generator, as well as engine start components.

It will be armed with a range of European and US-made weapons, with planned integration of systems such as the Diehl Defence IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missile and MBDA Missile Systems Meteor BVRAAM, as well as the Boeing GBU-31/38 JDAM, GBU-54/56 Laser JDAM, and GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb1 (SDB1) and Raytheon GBU-12 Paveway II.

Indonesia is the only foreign partner in the KF-X development programme, which is known as the Indonesian Fighter eXperimental (IF-X) programme and had earlier committed to paying 20 percent of total development costs, although it has reportedly fallen behind on payments and is renegotiating its position.

KAI revealed in an April 2021 stock exchange filing that it is planning to develop a new ‘smart factory’ to support the production of the KF-21 platform. The company said it will invest around $87 million over five years to set up a ‘smart manufacturing system’ that will leverage on 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analytics.

While the new facility will be utilised across several projects, one of its initial tasks is expected to be the production of KF-21 components and structures. It is understood that KAI aims to localise production of approximately 65 percent of KF-21 components, involving the participation of over 700 domestic companies.

KAI's KF-21
KAI’s KF-21 Boramae is set to be the next-generation mainstay fighter for the Republic of Korea Air Force.

Boosting airlift capacity

Besides their primary role of airborne logistical support, tactical airlifters have gained widespread attention in recent years due to their outsized contributions to regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations. Among the most notable demonstrations of airlift in recent months is the use of the USAF’s Lockheed Martin C-5M Super Galaxy and Boeing C-17 heavy airlifters to deliver much needed aid to alleviate India’s COVID-19 surge in mid-2021.

According to the USAF Transportation Command, deliveries performed by a C-17 and three C-5M aircraft included more than one million N95 masks, over 440 oxygen cylinders, and more than one million rapid diagnostic test kits. One of the flights also carried a Deployable Oxygen Concentration System donated by the state of California.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) likewise deployed its airlift assets around the Asia Pacific region to collect urgently needed medical and oxygen supplies, including one sortie with one of its C-17s to Singapore’s Changi Airport to receive four liquid oxygen tanks in late April. The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) followed within the same period with two of its Lockheed Martin C-130 medium transporters, delivering 256 oxygen cylinders from Singapore to West Bengal.

India has since committed to increasing its airlift capacity by signing for 56 new Airbus Defence and Space C295 transport aircraft, the company announced on 24 September. The first 16 aircraft are to be built by Airbus in Spain, with the remaining 40 to be assembled in India by the end of 2031 through local partner Tata consortium under a joint venture between the two companies. Deliveries are expected to commence from 2025.

India is to receive the latest variant of the twin-turboprop airlifter designated the C295MW (Modernised, Winglets) that has been acquired by 34 other operators, with the aim of replacing its 1960s-vintage licence-built Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Avro 748M aircraft. The updated model offers improved hot and high runway performance, with increased range, endurance, and payload, and reduced operating costs compared to the baseline platform.

“India has formalised the acquisition of 56 Airbus C295 aircraft to replace the Indian Air Force (IAF) legacy Avro fleet. It is the first ‘Make in India’ aerospace programme in the private sector, involving the full development of a complete industrial ecosystem: from the manufacture to assembly, test and qualification, to delivery and maintenance of the complete lifecycle of the aircraft,” said Airbus in a statement.

C295 airlifter
Following years of uncertainty, Airbus has finally inked a deal to supply its C295 airlifter to the Indian Air Force.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian Air Force (Tentara Nasional Indonesia-Angkatan Udara: TNI-AU) has quietly emerged as the latest operator of Lockheed Martin’s C-130J medium transporter, adding to its current fleet of older C-130B and H model aircraft. The TNI-AU has reportedly acquired five new C-130J-30 aircraft.

TNI-AU Chief of Staff Air Marshal Fadjar Prasetyo said in statement released on 7 September during a visit to Lockheed Martin’s C-130J production site in Marietta, that the additional C-130Js will enhance Indonesia’s airlift capabilities, noting that the platform type will continue to serve as the backbone of TNI-AU logistics and HADR operations.

CAS Prasetyo added that the service’s older C-130s have been successfully used in supporting disaster relief efforts in the Indonesian archipelago over the years, including recent COVID-related airlift and medical delivery operations. The country also encounters natural disasters such as earthquakes and flooding regularly, with the remote nature of many of its islands complicating any attempts to respond via sea or land.

Airborne intelligence

The ability to detect, intercept, geo-locate, and analyse physical or electromagnetic activity of an adversary at long range is highly prized among modern armed forces, and Asian air arms are often seen as the vanguard against any potential incursions of sovereign territory.

Airborne platforms are particularly advantageous in this domain as they can naturally overcome line-of sight limitations imposed on land- and sea-based platforms and are potentially capable of intercepting signals at greater distances, enabling information gathering beyond territorial boundaries.

Australia announced in March 2019 that it would acquire four MC-55A Peregrine signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft for approximately $1.9 billion with the intention of basing these at RAAF Base Edinburgh as well as three forward operating bases in Darwin and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

The RoKAF is looking to replace its four ageing Hawker 800SIG Peace Pioneer ISR aircraft with potentially more Dassault Falcon 2000S-based Baekdu SIGINT/ISR platforms to be constructed between 2022 and 2026 at a cost of around $728 million. Korean Air, which successfully developed and delivered the first two Baekdu aircraft between 2011 to 2018 with assistance from L3Harris Technologies (for the first aircraft), announced in July 2021 that it will also bid for the second Baekdu programme comprising up to four new aircraft.

The company noted that it had already entered into an agreement with Dassault Aviation in anticipation of a successful contract award, which suggests that the new programme will likely be based on the same Falcon 2000S platform. The four new aircraft are also expected to be equipped with foreign instrumentation signature intelligence (FISINT) capabilities as well as the ability to detect ballistic missile launches.

In June 2020 the Republic of Korea Defense Project Promotion Committee approved plans to acquire an undisclosed number of additional airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) and SIGINT aircraft to “minimise potential surveillance gaps amid growing security threats by neighbouring countries”, particularly as foreign military aircraft continue to enter South Korea’s ADIZ without notice.

Close by, the JASDF is fielding new electronic and communications intelligence (ELINT AND COMINT)-optimised aircraft built domestically by Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI). Designated RC-2 in JASDF service, the variant is differentiated from the baseline C-2 heavy airlifter by its nose, dorsal, lateral, and fincap radomes, as well as an extended tail-cone and a ventral antenna farm. The RC-2 is expected to replace the service’s ageing turboprop Nihon Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation (NAMC) YS-11EB aircraft.

“The current battlespace is a combination of conventional areas and new areas such as space, cyber, and the electromagnetic spectrum,” the JASDF announced during the acceptance ceremony of the first aircraft in October 2020. “The RC-2 will be an indispensable platform for securing the superiority of the electromagnetic domain, and in realising multi-domain operations.”

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)

Despite emerging concerns about the survivability of medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in contested environments, demand for these platforms is clearly still growing in the Asia-Pacific region.

Despite their vulnerability to air defence systems, the demonstrated operational use of MALE-class UAVs for both intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike in the Middle East and Pakistan over the past 20 years has captured the attention of several regional countries, especially those with expansive land borders or maritime territory to secure. What makes these platforms especially compelling for resource-constrained countries is their inherent ability to transit long distances and loiter for extended periods while carrying multiple types of sensor and mission equipment.

In November 2019 the Australian Department of Defence (DoD) shortlisted General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ (GA-ASI) MQ-9B SkyGuardian to fulfil its requirement for an armed reconnaissance MALE UAV for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) under Project Air 7003 Phase 1, with the aim of fielding a fleet of 12 to16 MQ-9B platforms. In April 2021, the US State Department approved a potential $1.65 billion FMS of up to 12 weapons-ready MQ-9B systems, along with a sensors and weapons package and related equipment and services.

The SkyGuardian is a derivative of GA-ASI’s Reaper platform with hardware and software upgrades, including new flight control software and design improvements to reduce structural fatigue and increase damage tolerance and environmental resistance. The variant is also specifically designed to be able to operate in unsegregated airspace.

Australia is also anticipating six high-altitude long endurance Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton UAVs that were ordered in separate deals between 2018 and 2019. These are expected to enter service in mid-2023 and fully operationalised by 2025 with the intention of supporting the RAAF’s Boeing P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft in long-range maritime surveillance.

Southeast Asian countries have also demonstrated interest in long-range unmanned capabilities, Indonesia and the Philippines respectively fielding the Chinese-made Caihong 4 (CH-4) and the Israeli Elbit Systems Hermes 900 platforms. China is widely seen to be one of the leading regional suppliers of MALE-class UAVs, having deployed such platforms operationally for decades.

The Indonesian Air Force has acquired several examples of the Chinese-made CH-4 armed reconnaissance UAV.
The Indonesian Air Force has acquired several examples of the Chinese-made CH-4 armed reconnaissance UAV.

For instance, the interception of a brand-new Chinese-made air vehicle identified to be the Sichuan Tengden TB001 ‘Twin Tailed Scorpion’ by a Japanese fighter patrol over the East China Sea in late August 2021 provided the first glimpse of the country’s emerging confidence in its unmanned ISR capabilities.

Indonesia’s TNI-AU officially unveiled two satellite communications-enabled CH-4 platforms during a parade to mark the 74th anniversary of the Indonesian Armed Forces in October 2019. The two UAVs, seen at Halim Perdanakusuma Air Base in East Jakarta, were supplied by the Beijing-based China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and are understood to be part of a deal comprising up to six air vehicles, associated ground control systems (GCSs) and mission payloads, training, and technology transfers.

With its new CH-4s, the TNI-AU appears to be the first Southeast Asian country to field armed unmanned platforms with the reported delivery of CASC’s AR-2 precision-guided missiles in April 2021. The missile can engage lightly protected threats at ranges of up to 4.3nm (8km) with a 11lb (5kg) warhead, and features an inertial guidance system for mid-course updates and a semi-active laser (SAL) seeker for terminal guidance. The Indonesian CH-4s were also seen carrying the larger AR-1 missiles during a 2019 exercise in East Java.

by JR Ng