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Monthly Defense News Recap – April 2023

Ukraine Starts Acquiring Much-Needed Fighter Aircraft

On 17 April, Slovakia’s defence ministry announced that it transferred all 13 of its MiG-29 fighter aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force. Slovakia delivered the first four aircraft in March, shortly after announcing that it was responding to Kyiv’s repeated requests for fighters over the past year.

Poland, which kicked off the process of transferring legacy aircraft to Ukraine, also announced that it has sent the first tranche of its aircraft. Like Slovakia, Poland also pledged all of its MiG-29s to Ukraine. Warsaw reportedly has many as 28 MiG-29s in service with its air force by the time of the commitment.

On one level, the legacy MiG-29s are a much-needed addition for Ukraine. On the surface, the aircraft can add to Kyiv’s fleet, which was under severe strain due to intense, ongoing combat operations over the past year. However, there are several caveats that dampen Kyiv’s enthusiasm for these aircraft.

First, it is unclear how many of these MiG-29s are serviceable enough to meet Ukraine’s requirements. In fact, like Ukraine’s own MiG-29s, these ex-Slovak and ex-Polish aircraft were built during the Cold War. This means that these units are over 30-40 years of age and, as importantly, operate from a limited supply base in terms of spare parts and other lines of maintenance and logistics support.

Second, being legacy aircraft, these MiG-29s do not offer the technological leap that Kyiv is seeking for its goal of driving successful counter-offensives against Russia. Kyiv repeatedly called for contemporary multi-role fighters with beyond-visual-range air-to-air and precision-strike capabilities.

Some observers believe that Ukraine will rework at least some of these ex-Slovak and Polish MiG-29s for spare parts or, at best, attrition replacements for lost Ukrainian fighters. Thus, while the transfer of these fighters marks a significant shift in the West’s aid to Ukraine (by opening the door to aircraft), they still do not move the needle from a technology and capability standpoint.

Overall, the bulk of Ukraine’s effective anti-air capability will come from its growing inventory of state-of-the-art surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, like the German IRIS-T SL/SLM and American Patriot, among others. However, if Russia steps up its air campaigns, Ukraine’s SAM munitions inventories will come under stress and, in turn, further its vulnerability to Russian gains.

One key trend with the West’s aid to Ukraine, especially from America, that there is an apparent reluctance to supply arms or technologies that can decisively change the situation the ground. Since the start of the war and to-date, Ukraine has been getting enough to bog Russia into a prolonged war, but not enough to drive Russia out of its territory, much less deter it.

Granted, the Ukrainian Air Force does not have the capacity to support Western fighters, like the F-16 and Gripen. Likewise, it would take months, if not several years, to fully operationalize such aircraft. However, a plan to ultimately transfer such jets to Ukraine could have been initiated at the start of the war. By this point, Ukraine could have been in the advanced stages of operationalizing such aircraft.

It is unclear what level of urgency or event would drive the U.S. and its allies to revitalize the Ukrainian Air Force. However, given that the West is taking steps to start recapitalizing Ukraine’s army with both modern equipment as well as doctrine development (i.e., combined arms maneuvers), the U.S. and its allies might have a plan for Ukraine’s air force as well. But at this point, it is a question of ‘why not now?’

Rolls-Royce to Offer Engine Tech for India’s AMCA Fighter

India is poised to take a significant step forward with its next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA) program – i.e., the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

First, India’s Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) is reviewing the Defence Research and Development Organization’s (DRDO)’s request for funds to start building the first AMCA prototype(s). The Aeronautical Development Authority (ADA) has frozen the AMCA’s design. Like many of its contemporaries, the AMCA is a twin-engine, medium-to-heavyweight fighter with a low-observable design and internal payload bay.

If greenlit, DRDO is expecting to roll out the first AMCA prototype by 2026. While the Tejas program is now catching critical momentum across its development, production, and operational pathways, DRDO is also under pressure from the Indian government. Basically, New Delhi wants DRDO to meet project deadlines and avoid cost-overruns, especially given the fact that India’s aerospace industry has greatly evolved since it initially carried out the Tejas, previously designated the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA).

Second, while negotiations with the United States for the transfer of GE F414 turbofan engine technology is seemingly ongoing, the U.K’s Rolls-Royce could offer an alternative breakthrough. The U.K government preapproved an export license for turbofan engine technology to India. Unlike the GE F414, this would be a collaborative program between India and the U.K to design and produce an original engine for the AMCA.

Unlike the U.S. and GE, the U.K and Rolls-Royce are reportedly willing to transfer critical know-how as well as build intellectual property for India. In other words, India would own the rights to the engine and gain the means to independently manufacture them. Interestingly, Türkiye has also been engaging Rolls-Royce for a similar deal for an original powerplant to power its own NGFA, the MMU.

However, there is a concern on the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) part about the time it would take to develop an original engine. It is possible that, at least with the AMCA’s prototypes and initial production tranches, the AMCA will rely on an off-the-shelf powerplant, like the GE F414.

UAE’s EDGE Group to Co-Develop Cruise Missiles With Brazil

The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) EDGE Group and the Brazilian Navy have signed an agreement to jointly develop a new anti-ship missile (AShM) and a supersonic cruising missile. The two sides announced their agreement during the 2023 LAAD Defence and Security Exhibition, which took place last month.

EDGE Group has shown considerable progress in developing advanced munitions, such as precision-guided bombs (PGB) and AShMs. The conglomerate is also developing its own loyal wingman drone, thus showing its growing ambitions and capacity to take on more advanced projects.

Both the Brazilian Navy and EDGE Group anticipate that they have enough synergy between each other to develop missiles that will “exceed current performance at an accelerated rate and at low cost.” Clearly, the two sides are not only aiming to support their respective domestic needs, but the wider global market too.

To develop a supersonic-cruising missile, the partnership will need to produce a ramjet or scramjet-based powerplant. It is likely that this is the crux of their venture and, if successful, would unlock new pathways for both sides to develop more applications (e.g., new long-range air-to-air missiles).

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