The Procurement Games 2014: A Fishy Fighter for All Occasions

Luchtburg, a reasonably wealthy country with limited strategic interests in its immediate vicinity1, requires a robust array of aerial equipment. The lynchpin of any air force is its fighter type, and Luchtburg has a few specific constraints.

First, as a Central American power with trade interests primarily in Europe and Asia, it operates aircraft carriers2. As such, any fighter it purchases must either be a naval fighter already, or be available in a navalized variant.

Second, it must be inexpensive to procure and operate. Luchtburg is reasonably wealthy, but is also in the midst of a 20-year, $200 billion-ish procurement plan, and savings on the operating costs of acquired hardware can be put into personnel or further hardware purchases.

Third, it must be a swing-role aircraft, capable of carrying out tasks which fit multiple roles in the space of a single mission.

Fourth, in terms of weapons carried, it must not be tied inextricably to a single bloc3. Luchtburg does not want to be like Iran in any way at all, but especially does not want to be like Iran by having fighters which require American arms after falling out of favor with America.

Fifth, it must be capable of buddy refueling. Carriers in Luchtburg’s inventory aren’t universally large enough to operate light tankers, and so fighters must be able to top off fighters.

Other capabilities and characteristics Luchtburg would like include proven combat performance, short and unimproved airfield performance, and fancy network and datalink capability, but these are points in favor more than their absences are disqualifying factors. Supercruise and supermaneuverability are nice to have, too.

There are five good candidates: Flankers and navalized Flanker variants from Russia, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet out of the good old US of A, the F-35A and C, also of the USA, France’s prized Rafale4, and the Gripen NG/E/F of Sweden.

The easiest candidate to discard is, I’m afraid, the F-35. The reasons are myriad: it’s extremely expensive, it’s unproven in combat, and its armaments load is very American. Further, there are tradeoffs Luchtburg doesn’t like. The naval variant doesn’t feature an internal gun, although it does feature larger wings and correspondingly improved low-speed performance, and the type’s focus on stealth yields compromises in weapons load which Luchtburg finds unacceptable. As far as the procurement mavens know, it’s neither supercruise-capable nor supermaneuverable.

After discarding the F-35, the going gets harder. Next up on the chopping block is the entry from Sukhoi. Navalized Su-35s hit a lot of the capabilities Luchtburg wants, but also feature a lot of the downsides. Russian aircraft are notoriously expensive to operate, hard on fuel and hard on parts, as well. Russian avionics, though much improved from those dark days of the Cold War, still lag somewhat behind their Western counterparts, especially in aerial radars. Although Flankers mount Russian weapons almost exclusively, Russia is willing to sell arms to just about anybody, so that factors less into the decision.

Next to be crossed off the list is the Super Hornet. Here, it starts to get very hard. The biggest point against the Super Hornet is its absolute dependence on American support. Luchtburg hopes its policy goals never preclude its purchase of AMRAAMs, but it’s impossible to say that will certainly be the case. In every other category, the Super Hornet is average or above average, but in the absence of a native air to air arms industry, Luchtburg can’t go with the F/A-18E.

If Luchtburg were to go with a two-fighter procurement plan, the Rafale would be its heavy fighter. Agile, proven, carrier-capable, and able to haul quite a lot off of even Charles de Gaulle-sized decks, it can also mount weapons from both Europe and America, and has cockpit and pilot workload features Luchtburg also finds intriguing. Unfortunately, Dassault has no experience successfully exporting the Rafale, and the unit cost, in the $100 million range, is too high for Luchtburg to call it the one fighter for every occasion.

That leaves us with the victor, the JAS-39E/F Gripen. Now purchased by Brazil, the next-generation Gripen is one launch customer away from a naval variant, and Luchtburg is more than happy to continue operating its obsolescent air force until such time as Saab begins to roll out the Sea Gripen. A Sea Gripen variant would no doubt improve on the Gripen’s already-impressive short-field performance, and given that it’s not all that much bigger than an A-4 Skyhawk, it would be a suitable fighter even for miniature carriers. In initial procurement cost, it’s the second-cheapest behind the Super Hornet, and far and away the least expensive to operate5. It fits the swing-role descriptor, capable of carrying a wide variety of munitions at once. Variants can already mount American and European equipment, and Saab’s willingness to open the aircraft’s avionics source code to partners puts the armaments possibilities at essentially limitless, especially for a high-tech economy like Luchtburg’s. Gripens use a probe and drogue refueling system, and therefore have the technical ability to buddy tank.

It’s supercruise-capable, designed to operate from highways and unimproved airstrips, and features a datalink equaled in current service only by the F-22’s datalink. Perhaps most important of all, Saab has, in the past, been willing to offer technology transfers and even co-production, which would serve to kickstart Luchtburg’s own native air industry. Finally, Saab is a known quantity in the export market, trustworthy and reliable.

In the end, the Gripen is (though it pains me to say) not the most combat-capable aircraft on my list. For Luchtburg’s purposes, it is, however, the best fit for the requirements, militarily, politically, and economically.

1. That sounds like a post for sometime down the line: what are its specific aims? I’ll put it on the stack.
2. Luchtburg’s navy is also a post I need to write, but probably after the one about strategic aims.
3. The US, Europe, and Russia, for the purposes of this discussion.
4. Yet another piece of military hardware whose name means ‘squall’.
5. It is a small, single-engined fighter in a pack of large, twin-engined fighters, after all.

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