The United States is bracing for tough competition from Russia and China as cash-flush Asian economies look up to the trio for a new breed of fighter jets to beef up their air forces, experts say.
Japan, India, Australia and South Korea are keen to have the most modern, fifth generation, jet fighters while Southeast Asian nations such as Malaysia and Indonesia are reportedly eyeing fourth generation fighters from China.
With Asia powering ahead with military modernization and capability growth, the United States wants to maintain leadership in defense sales in the region attracted by low cost offerings from Russia and China, experts said.
“The Americans and Russians are competing hard for the Asian fighter aircraft market, but everybody is also watching to see how aggressively the Chinese will be entering this market,” Richard Fisher, an expert with the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, told AFP.
The tight competition comes as Asian economies move ahead “much more aggressively” to upgrade their air defense capabilities, he said.
“It’s not quite right to say an arms race, but there is an arms jog in Asia,” Fisher said.
The United States is currently the sole producer of fifth generation fighters — the F-22s and F-35s. Export of F-22s is barred by law while the lower cost F35s have just started flight testing ahead of deployment around 2012.
Russia and China’s fifth generation fighter offerings could well be on the market between 2015 and 2020, a time frame experts say is not very far away in terms of defense planning.
“I don’t want to get into the numbers because they were given to me in confidence but the price the Russians are estimating for their fifth generation fighter is substantially less than the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) and substantially less than F-22,” US aviation expert Reuben Johnson told a Washington forum last week on “challenges to the Asian air power balance.”
He said the Russian arms industry was grappling with high production costs.
Russian weapon exports to China have also plunged as Beijing became more wary over Moscow’s sales of its most advanced weaponry to neighbor India, Johnson said.
“What is really the challenge is we have two very large countries, China and India, whose economies are booming and who are buying lots of hardware and we are looking at a situation down the road where they are going to have very, very sophisticated air forces,” he said.
Russia had already teamed up with India to co-develop and co-produce a version of Moscow’s fifth generation fighter, but Fisher said that given the Indian preference of diversifying its weapons sources, it was possible New Delhi could purchase a US fifth generation fighter at some point.
The United States is also vying with Russia and others for a 12-billion-dollar contract to sell 126 fourth generation fighter jets to the Indian air force.
The competition from Russia could prod the Americans to lift an export ban on F-22s, eyed by Australia and Japan, top US allies in the region, experts said.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates hinted during a recent Australian visit that Congress may be asked to reconsider the ban.
“It is imperative that the United States consider selling some version of the F-22 to maintain a strong deterrent posture in Asia,” Fisher said.
“I would say categorically that Japan requires a capability of the level of the F-22 in order to sustain a sufficient position to deter China,” he said.
Japan and another key US ally, South Korea, have indigenous fifth generation fighter programs but their transition to full scale development is uncertain.
Australia is also in the midst of a debate over the future of its fighter force.
Canberra recently said it would go ahead with the previous government’s decision to acquire 24 US F/A-18 fighter jets for US$5.6 billion.
It also may review whether to purchase all of the F-35s the previous government committed to, or include F-22s in the package as well, experts said.
“There is a considerable private lobby and even some bipartisan interest in trying to purchase the F-22 because of fear of Russian sales to Southeast Asia and China’s looming challenge,” Fischer said.
Singapore, with one of the most powerful air forces in the region, is seen as probably a good potential customer for the F-35s.
The US-Russia competition for the fourth generation fighters is expected to be intense — but China is emerging as a wild card.
“I would say within the next five years, China will be quite competitive at the low cost end of the fourth generation market,” Fisher said.
Pakistan, for example, is co-developing a very low cost fourth generation FC-1 fighter with China and is very likely going to be the first export customer for China’s larger J-10 fighter as well, experts said.
China is expected to “market aggressively” to Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar the same two fighters as well as the KJ-200 AWACS aircraft to the Southast Asian region, Fisher said.
Malaysia and Indonesia have purchased a relatively small number of advanced Russian Sukhoi fighters.