Will Asian countries opt for IAI's modernized Kfir?
Offering a modernized version of its 1970s-era, delta-wing Kfir Mach 2+ fighter aircraft, is looking toward the Asia-Pacific region for new prospects.
The company can still deliver up to 50 Kfirs, configured to the newest Block 60 standard, using airframes retired from IAF service in the 1990s, according to IAI sources. IAI recently unveiled upgrades, including the introduction of IAI/Elta EL/M 2052 active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, extending the fighter jets' capabilities to conduct maritime strike missions and extended air defense, through the networked integration of on-board and off-board sensors.
The airframes have been mothballed in ultra-dry conditions at an airbase in the southern Negev desert, and are in good condition for refurbishment.
The acquisition cost of the Kfir Block 60 would be around $20 million, including the avionics and weaponry—about a third of the cost of an upgraded, modern second-hand single-engine jet fighter, and its operating cost would be about 25% of an equivalent fighter jet.
Sri Lanka is the first and only Kfir operator in Asia, receiving seven of the fighters in 1995. By the year 2000, the Sri Lankan air force had acquired eight more Kfirs and one two-seater trainer, increasing its Kfir inventory to 15, including two twin-seater trainers. These combat planes proved themselves in combat through a long and intensive service.
One Sri Lankan Kfir squadron has carried out more than 2,800 operational flying hours and dropped more than 3,500 tons of bombs since 1996. During the Tamil War, the squadron provided close air support, air interdiction, battlefield air interdiction, maritime air operations and air interception.
The 10th Squadron, based at the Katunayake air base near Colombo, operates three different types of Kfir aircraft. These include Kfir C-2, C-7 and TC-2 twin-seater variants. A possible modernization would standardize all aircraft to a common configuration and guarantee a full life-cycle for the aircraft and engines. However, since the end of the Tamil war in 2009, Sri Lanka has refocused its requirements, emphasizing maritime patrol, surveillance and internal security. Therefore, modernization of the Kfirs will not be a high priority for the military.
Another prospect for Kfirs is the Philippines, which is currently seeking to modernize and recreate a combat force following years of neglect of its air force. Analysts argue that Kfir Block 60—offered at around $20 million per fully equipped jet fighter—would provide Manila with much better combat capability than the South KoreanF/A-50 trainers, which would cost $38 million per unit.
Yet IAI's Kfir faces competition from other directions. In addition to the Swedishand South Korean F/A-50, the Pakistani/Chinese F-17 Thunder and refurbished are also considered as viable contenders for low-budget acquisitions in the region.
In addition to the Asia-Pacific market, Israel is offering the modernized fighters to customers in Europe and Latin America. Bulgaria may be interested in the Kfir. Ecuador and Colombia both own the fighters.
IAI's proposal includes fully equipped jet fighters with comprehensive technical support. The company is even considering flexible support plans, enabling air forces to operate fighters relying on contractor support. Upgrade programs implemented by IAI in Colombia and Ecuador could become a model for similar upgrades in the Asia-Pacific region.
“The Kfirs we are selecting for refurbishment logged only a few hundred flight hours, their structure is intact, without cracks or fatigue,” says Yosef Melamed, Lahav Division general manager. As part of their return to flying status these jets are totally stripped down, rebuilt, re-wired and re-equipped with modern systems, he adds.
A critical factor in the Kfir Block 60 mission efficiency is its aerial refueling capability and airborne data link support. “Networking is an important element in the modernization of an air force; in the past we upgraded avionics and complete aircraft, now we are offering an upgrade to a complete fleet of aircraft—enabling members in a formation or even larger groups to share information, targets and situational pictures, to assist and support each other in targeting, identification and engagement,” Melamed explains.