After South Korea overturned its procurement agency's choice of the Boeing F-15SE Silent Eagle as its air force's next new fighter in September, and announced that it would buy the Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, Lockheed Martin and sources close to the company were not shy about predicting an Asian sweep for JSF. Japan had already chosen the new U.S. fighter over the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Eurofighter Typhoon (the latter was also passed over by South Korea), and Singapore was expected to follow suit imminently. Other nations in the region would do the same, it was argued, driven by the desire to match their neighbors and the growing threat from China.

The real picture may be more complex, according not only to competitors but analysts in Washington and elsewhere, and will be the outcome of many factors, including regional economic developments, the dynamics of the arms market and technological progress. South Korea and Japan's decisions were both influenced by changing national strategies as well as their close relationship to Washington, which has previously been known to exert heavy pressure on allies to acquire the JSF.

Japan acquired the F-35A—designed from the outset with an emphasis on strike into areas covered by advanced integrated air defense systems (IADS)—to replace F-4EJKai fighters used in the air defense role. This change in emphasis reflects changes in Japan's defense strategy (see page 64) under the conservative administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The new strategy views China as a rising adversary with long-term plans to acquire Japanese-held islands, emphasizes offensive weaponry and leans toward relaxing Japan's post-World War II constitutional ban on defense exports.

One sign of increasing tension between Japan and China is an increasing rate of quick-reaction launches by air-defense units. In the later Cold War years, Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) fighters were scrambled more than 800 times a year. From 1995 to 2005 the rate was usually under 200 per year but rose to 567 by 2012, F-35 program office leader Col. Koji Imaki told a conference in London in November.

JASDF's fighter force has been managed on a “three pillars” posture since the 1960s, Imaki said, with three types in service at any time. The force size has remained quite stable since the 1970s, declining to 12 from 14 squadrons, and is expected to comprise a mix of stealthy F-35s and upgraded conventional F-15s and Mitsubishi F-2s throughout the 2020s.

The current F-15J variant features an infrared search and track system, and the upgraded version—designated F-15MJ—will have the APG-63(V)1 radar (the most recent mechanically scanned variant) and a new electronic warfare suite. It will be armed with the new Mitsubishi AAM-5 short-range air-to-air missile, which externally resembles the German-Swedish IRIS-T—and the AAM-4B, an active-radar missile that has an active, electronically scanned array (AESA) antenna. (The earlier AAM-4 with mechanically scanned radar is already in service on some F-15s.)

The JASDF still must decide how many of its F-15s should be upgraded. About half the force's aircraft were delivered in the early 1980s, before some of the major Multistage Improvement Program (MSIP) enhancements were incorporated; Imaki describes them as being “very expensive to upgrade.”

Meanwhile, the F-2 force—primarily assigned to interdiction—will be upgraded with AAM-5, AAM-4B and an improved AESA radar, the J/APG-2—a major advance on the current configuration, which carries the AIM-9 Sidewinder and Japanese-build AIM-7 Sparrow. Both new versions will have helmet-mounted displays to complement the high off-boresight capability of the AAM-5.

Along with a planned $1 billion upgrade of Japan's unique Boeing E-767 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, the improvements to the F-15 and F-2 will boost Japan's air defense capability even as the two F-4 squadrons are retired and replaced by the F-35A. The F-35A will augment the F-2 in the attack role, and free those aircraft for air defense tasks alongside the modernized F-15. The next opening for new aircraft—about four squadrons—will occur if the JASDF elects not to modernize its older F-15s.

The slumping value of the yen is putting pressure on the F-35 acquisition timescale in Japan, possibly resulting in a decision to slip the completion of deliveries of all 42 aircraft to 2023 from 2021. There has been speculation as to whether Japan could buy the F-35B to establish a naval aviation capability aboard its new 27,000-ton Izumo-class helicopter carriers, but a former Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces commander, Vice Adm. Yoji Koda, poured cold water on that idea in Washington in January. The funding for such a project, he said, would have to be found by eliminating another force element, and that is unlikely in the short or medium term.

Beyond the F-35, Japan is funding Mitsubishi's Advanced Technology Demonstrator-X (ATD-X) stealth fighter prototype. The program has been underway for a decade: A full-scale, detailed radar cross-section model was tested in the massive Solange indoor RCS range in Bruz, France, in late 2005. According to Japan's Technical Research and Development Institute, the ATD-X is due to fly in the 2014 Japanese fiscal year—that is, by the end of March 2015.

South Korea is also combining a limited F-35 buy with upgrades and an indigenous fighter program. In August, the Defense Acquisition Program Agency (Dapa) selected the Boeing F-15SE, but the decision was overturned in September (AW&ST Sept. 30, 2013, p. 28) in favor of the F-35A. In November, the government announced it would be acquiring only 40 F-35s (AW&ST Dec. 2, 2013, p. 22) for delivery starting in 2018, with the funds that would have paid for 60 Eagles.

The decision may have been influenced by changes in South Korea's military planning since the F-X Phase 3 procurement process began over five years ago. More evidence has emerged pointing to the development of mobile missiles by North Korea. Seoul has responded with the concept of a “kill chain” that can destroy both fixed, hardened targets and relocatable weapons such as transporter-erector-launchers for ballistic missiles. The F-35A specification was written with those targets in mind, following the lack of success by the U.S. coalition's “Scud hunt” in the first Gulf War, in 1991.

The switch to the F-35A immediately preceded the signature of a new U.S.-South Korea bilateral agreement on “tailored deterrence” against North Korean nuclear threats, outlining a pre-emptive strategy aimed at degrading the North's nuclear strike capability to the point where missile defenses can handle surviving threats.

South Korea will also upgrade its F-16s, with the aim of keeping the aircraft capable and survivable into the 2030s. In December, the defense ministry reached a final agreement with BAE Systems to modernize 134 F-16 Block 52 fighters with the AESA-based Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar, new mission computers and new cockpit displays. The first upgraded aircraft should be delivered in 2018.

The country had selected BAE Systems for the program in 2012. It was an upset win because it is the first third-party upgrade for the F-16, and because the U.S. Air Force had already chosen Lockheed Martin to lead the similar Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (Capes) program for 300 or more of its newest F-16s. Capes is also the basis for a planned upgrade of Taiwan's F-16s and was on offer to South Korea and other international operators. The competitive stakes increased when the U.S. Air Force delegated the choice of a radar to Lockheed Martin —which selected its long-time partner Northrop Grumman—while South Korea picked Raytheon.

BAE Systems is locating its development program at a new site at Fort Worth's Alliance Airport, with the aim of hiring F-16 veterans. The company is building a systems integration laboratory and acquiring a large corporate-type jet which will act as a flying test-bed for the new systems. The first of a group of South Korean air force F-16s will arrive this year to start modifications for the test program, and flight tests are due in 2016. Production modifications will be carried out in Korea.

BAE Systems estimates that 1,000 F-16s worldwide—including 830 Block 50/52s outside the U.S.—are upgrade candidates. The fighter's current 8,000-hr. life can be extended to 10,000 hr., BAE says, making the investment worthwhile for older aircraft.

South Korea's switch to the F-35A has affected its own plans for an indigenous stealth fighter, studied by Korea Aerospace Industries and the Agency for Defense Development under the KF-X designation. The latest South Korean budget provides 20 billion won ($19 million) to continue KF-X studies in 2014, hedged by two major conditions—development cost must be capped at just under $8 billion and be complete by 2025, and the aircraft must be approved for export by the U.S. An international partner must be found and contribute a 15% investment. Eurofighter is still trying to offer South Korea 40 Typhoons, along with support for KF-X.

Singapore was tapped as the next Asian F-35 customer, with a specific interest in the F-35B because of its use of road bases: there are several of these in Singapore, some adjacent to military airfields, and one on Pulau Sudong island off the south coast. Most are shorter than 8,000 ft. The F-35A is believed to require relatively long runways—its landing gear was modified relative to the initial design (used in the AA-1 prototype) to move the mainwheels closer to the center of gravity and reduce rotation speed. In the April 2013, JSF program director Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan said that he expected Singapore to decide on an F-35 buy within a few months.

Late in 2013, Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said the country was in “no particular hurry” to buy the F-35. Singapore was “seriously looking at the F-35s to replace our F-16s,” but the older fighters would be upgraded first. In January, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced a proposed deal under which 60 Singapore F-16s (almost all the current fleet) would be upgraded with AESA radar and associated changes—extending the type's replacement date into the 2030s. One likely factor behind the priority given to an upgrade is that Singapore is undertaking major non-aerospace defense investments, including a new and ambitious submarine class.

Singapore has been a prime target for the Lockheed Martin/USAF Capes program, but—unusually—the DSCA announcement did not identify a prime contractor, or the source of the new radar. This may reflect uncertainty over the future of Capes, which is a possible victim of cuts in the Fiscal 2015 U.S. defense budget. BAE responded to the DSCA announcement with the statement that “we want to be considered as a competitor for Singapore's F-16 upgrade program and look forward to further discussions.”

In other Asia-Pacific nations, fighter decisions are in flux. In January, Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted a conference on arms sales trends, focused on factors that could threaten the market share of U.S. industry. One participant noted (the conference was operated under Chatham House rules so quotes could not be attributed) that there is a trend toward “good enough” systems rather than the “high-end” weapons produced by the U.S.

Another delegate observed that (particularly in Asia) the end of U.S. dominance means few nations face a major threat for which the U.S. is their sole security guarantor, opening their defense markets to new players, and making them less concerned on interoperability with U.S. equipment.

Although one participant characterized Russia as “living off old technology” and hampered by a lack of micro-electronic infrastructure—“Russia's high-tech industry still is the defense sector,” one speaker noted—two trends are apparent. One is the export of long-range surface-to-air missile systems, an area where Russia is dominant. The other is a rapprochement between Russia and China, apparent in an under-negotiation sale of Sukhoi Su-35 fighters. One reason for Russia's renewed willingness to sell to China despite the alleged “bootleg” development of the Shenyang J-11 version of the Su-27—may be that with Russia's own technology moving forward again, copying represents less of a threat.

Indonesia and Malaysia are both operators of the Su-27/30 series, and the Su-35 has been offered as a candidate in current fighter contests in both nations. In fact, both could see three-way competitions between U.S., Russian and European fighters—both the Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing Advanced Super Hornet were promoted hard at last year's Lima show in Malaysia.

Saab's Gripen could also expand its foothold in Asia. With the new JAS 39E's future secured by its win in Brazil, it will be a much more credible competitor. Although program costs in different countries and budgeting systems are not always directly comparable, it is noteworthy that Singapore's F-16 upgrade program is estimated at $40 million per aircraft (including some weapons, but only in test quantities), which is almost equal to the Swedish air force's cost to upgrade JAS 39Cs to the new JAS 39E.

Saab's current regional customer, Thailand, is continuing to build out its planned force of Gripens and ex-Swedish air force Saab 340 AEW aircraft. A second batch of six Gripens and a second AEW aircraft were delivered during 2013, and Thailand could be the site for the long-planned Gripen weapons school now that the original South African site has fallen through. The Swedish company is saying little about its regional plans, although it has reportedly offered Malaysia a deal under which it would lease Gripen C/Ds and then upgrade to the JAS 39E.

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