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Monthly Defense News Recap – August 2023

U.S. Commits to Training Ukrainian Pilots on the F-16

Several months after greenlighting the transfer of third-party F-16s and training from Europe, the U.S. will now directly provide F-16 flight training to Ukrainian pilots. The Biden administration also said that it will closely work with its European allies to ensure Kyiv receives its F-16s as soon as its pilots are ready.

The U.S. training program, which will take place at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Arizona, will run in parallel to the pilot and maintenance training currently programs underway in Europe.

Thus far, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway have pledged to send F-16s from their respective fleets to Ukraine. Denmark has committed to send 19 of its F-16s to Ukraine, while the Norwegian Prime Minister Gahr Støre reportedly said his country will likely supply up to 10 F-16s to Kyiv. Overall, it appears that the U.S. and its Western European allies are aiming to equip Ukraine with at least several F-16 squadrons.

New fighter aircraft have been among Ukraine’s earliest and most pressing requests from the West. Up to this point, the U.S. had been reluctant to provide – or even permit the third-party transfer – of such arms to Ukraine, out of apparent concern of escalating the war with Russia. However, as the war continued, the U.S. and the West have gradually released increasingly sophisticated arms, such as new main battle tanks (MBT), infantry fighting vehicles (IFV), and guided artillery systems. In January 2023, Quwa had concluded that the U.S. was poised to transfer fighter aircraft to Ukraine and, as importantly, it would serve as a key turning point in re-shaping the Ukrainian military along Western lines.

Be it used third-party F-16s or, potentially, new-build aircraft, the transfer of F-16s (and Western multi-role fighter aircraft in general) will not be a token gesture. Just as the West supplemented, rebuilt, and enlarged Ukraine’s land forces into a more Western-style force, it will invest in Ukraine’s airpower. Thus, one should expect Ukraine’s F-16s to come equipped with modern beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM), precision-guided bombs (PGB), and, potentially, stand-off range weapons (SOW).

The challenge, however, is enabling Ukraine to rapidly induct and fully deploy the F-16s. Thus far, it seems that training Ukrainian aircrews for the fighter will take time, with the English language reportedly being a barrier to overcome. U.S. officials believe Ukraine could start fielding the F-16s as early as mid-2024.

However, as it stands today, Russia is experiencing pressure from its war in Ukraine; some analysts expect it could take Russia a decade to recover. With the military capability it currently possesses, Ukraine is also making gains in its ongoing counteroffensive against Russia.

These are important factors. It may take some years for Ukraine to field a capable air force centered on Western jets and, by that point, the war with Russian may be over or, potentially, driven to a stalemate. It is unlikely that the U.S. approved the transfer of F-16s in light of current realities as the development will not materialize and matter until a later stage. Thus, the F-16s are a step for Ukraine’s long-term security – and, potentially, of strategic significance. In other words, the F-16s could be both an immediate response as well as future deterrence play, and that it is just the beginning of Ukraine building serious air power.

Indonesia Commits to Buying Boeing F-15EX Fighters

On August 21, Indonesia’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) and aerospace giant Boeing signed a Memorandum-of-Understanding (MoU) committing to a deal for 24 F-15EX fighters for the Indonesian Air Force (Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Udara or TNI-AU).

If finalized, this order would be the second key component of the TNI-AU’s fighter modernization efforts – in 2022, Jakarta ordered 42 Rafales from France’s Dassault. Currently, 24 of the aircraft are in Dassault’s production backlog, with Indonesian pilots also undergoing training in France for the platform.

Boeing noted that the Indonesian F-15EX deal was still subject to U.S. government approval; however, it is unlikely the MoU would have been signed without early positive signals. In fact, the U.S. State Department had greenlighted a proposal to sell up to 36 F-15EXs to Indonesia in a USD $13.9 billion package.

The intriguing aspect of the TNI-AU’s modernization effort is its pursuit of similarly capable and configured aircraft from different vendors – France, the U.S., and South Korea (via a joint-project surrounding the KF-21). Granted, the F-15EX would be the largest of the three, so it can occupy its own niche as a long-range, heavy payload strike fighter. However, the Rafale and KF-21 are comparable in size and, in all likelihood, in their respective range, payload, and, ultimately, roles in the TNI-AU.

One could see a strategic imperative to pursue the KF-21 as it helps Indonesia forge closer relations with a key regional neighbour in South Korea and, potentially, support Indonesia’s aircraft industry. On the other hand, the Rafale offers nearer-term availability and a mature, combat-proven platform. However, acquiring both will come at the cost of parallel logistics and maintenance support lines. The TNI-AU is not leveraging the overhead cost of one fighter to commit to additional units; it is creating additional overhead and is not taking the opportunity of one larger order to drive commercial offset and/or technology transfer benefits.

Shahpar III Points to Expanding Pakistan Army Drone Use

During the International Defence Industry Fair (IDEF) exhibition in Türkiye in July, Pakistan’s state-owned defence conglomerate Global Industrial & Defence Solutions (GIDS) officially revealed its Shahpar-III drone, an enlarged and more capable development of the Shahpar-II.

According to GIDS, the Shahpar-III is a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with a maximum take-off-weight (MTOW) of 1,650 kg, a beyond line-of-sight (BLoS) range of 3,000 km, an internal payload capacity of 165 kg, and an overall payload of 530 kg across six hardpoints.

Compared to the preceding Shahpar-II, the Shahpar-III will be a significant capability upgrade, especially in terms of its range/endurance and payload. Not only will the Pakistan Army (PA) be capable of deploying heavier and longer-ranged munitions from the Shahpar-III, but potentially sophisticated sensors too, such as a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and electronic support measures (ESM).

The Shahpar-III could provide the PA with a strike capability, which it can leverage to take ownership of air-to-surface precision-strikes as part of counterinsurgency (COIN) and counter-terrorism (CT) operations in lieu of or complementary to Pakistan Air Force (PAF) fighters. In comparison to the latter, deploying UAVs would cost less and be of lower risk (from an attrition standpoint).

Thus far, it seems that the PA has opted to procure domestically designed and built drones, while the PAF is acquiring drones from Türkiye (specifically Baykar Group). However, in the PA’s procurement plans up to this point, it does not yet have a drone of the size and capability of the Bayraktar Akıncı. Interestingly, GIDS removed a potential 3,000-kg “Group 5” UAV from its development roadmap, and this may have been the future HALE unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) platform of the PA.

Granted, the GIDS may have nixed the Group 5 UCAV due to cost and/or technical complexity issues. Thus, it will be worth seeing if the PA procures an off-the-shelf alternative; if not, there could be a chance that the PA will not overlap with the PAF in regard to certain UAV/UCAV types, including HALE drones. Such a demarcation would be important as the PAF could invest more heavily in heavier, faster, and higher-flying drones (e.g., strike UCAVs, ‘flying wingman’ drones, etc). In other words, the PAF could be adverse to the PA operating aircraft – including drones – with an endurance, speed and/or payload exceeding a particular level. In such cases, the other sister services would start duplicating the capabilities of the PAF.

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