On the Horizon
Jan 15, 2009

China to get Aircraft Carrier. Vice-Admiral Jin Mao, a former vice-commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), stated on 6 March that he “had a feeling that news [of an indigenously designed and constructed aircraft carrier project] would be announced soon.” State-run China Daily quoted Admiral Hu Yanlin, former political commissar of the PLAN, as saying that aircraft carriers were “very necessary” for China. This development will enable the ­Chinese government to pursue a more ag­gres­sive role within Asia waters and, potentially, throughout the entire Pacific area.

China looks to Russia for carrier capable aircraft. China is reportedly interested in procuring the latest version Sukhoi 33K for their new Aircraft Carrier(s). Sources have indicated that the main unresolved issue is whether or not China will be licensed to build the aircraft vice buying them “off of the shelf” from Russia.

Chinese Nuclear Base Revealed. Intell has confirmed that China has been constructing a major underground nuclear submarine base near Sanya, on Hainan Island, off its southern coast. The advent of high-resolution commercially available satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe made independent verification possible. The eventual positioning of China’s most advanced sub-surface combatants at Sanya would have major implications for its ability to control the South China Sea and strategically vital straits in the area. New satellite imagery suggests the construction is being supported by a “gradual” military build-up in the Paracel Islands. Some analysts suggest the transformation does not bode well for stability in the region.

India’s first homegrown carrier passes production milestone. India announced the keel of the its Navy’s first indigenous aircraft carrier (Project 71) was laid (Feb 2009) by Cochin Shipyard Ltd. The new 37,500-ton carrier, Vikrant, will be built in two phases. It will be powered by four naval LM2500 gas turbines which which can produce speeds in excess of 28 kts. The 252 m-long carrier will feature two take-off runways and a landing strip with three arrestor wires. The embarked air arm will eventually comprise 30 aircraft, and will likely include Russian-built MiG29K multirole fighters, locally designed light combat aircraft, and about 10 Ka31 airborne early warning helicopters.

The final Nimitz Class, the USS George H.W. Bush, was commissioned ahead of completion. Final fitments and equipment installation is scheduled to be completed by the end of March this year. The new carrier will join the fleet as soon as workups and sea trials have be completed. This unusual move was said to been taken to enable the USN to “clear the decks” so that work could begin in earnest to produce the next generation of aircraft carriers.

The Iranian government has served notice to all naval forces in the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz that it intends to have a naval presence in those areas. Analysts have suggested that the Iranian government has taken the move in order to establish itself as a major regional power and to exert its influence in the region by demonstrating its ability to project its naval power in the area.

The USN and the American Missile Defence Agency have certified the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence System as meeting all requirements and is ready for use. Recently, a US Aegis destroyer demonstrated the system’s capability by making a warhead intercept that saw an incoming missile warhead destroyed by a ship-launched missile that employed a high energy kinetic rod to destroy the warhead. Some observers noted that it was the equivalent of using a bullet to shoot another bullet out of the sky.

The RIM162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) system is continuing to be upgraded. A new version of the missile is currently being developed by the USN and several of its NATO partners. This new project is said to have given the ESSM fresh momentum for continued use by most western navies. It is anticipated that the new missile, when fully evolved and in production, will be adopted by the current users and potentially by new customers.

A Greek warship heads a new naval force which is made up of warships from five European countries. The force, known as EU NAVFOR, is expected to participate in the current anti-piracy operations now operating off the Horn of Africa. It is believed that EU NAVFOR will work closely with NATO naval forces conducting current operations in the region.
UK Army mulls Viking refurbishment. UK is seriously considering a refurbishment project to re-life their fleet of BAE Systems Hagglunds Viking amphibious all-terrain vehicle. Col Neil Hutton, Light Armoured Systems Integrated Project Team Leader, says a business case to refurbish the existing Vikings of 3 Commando Brigade is being prepared and discussions are under way with the manufacturer. The Vikings have proven their worth in northern Norway and deserts of Afghanistan. Some British officers doubt that any other vehicle would be capable of meeting their needs.

Nag anti-tank missile in user trials. A series of final user trials conducted by the Indian Army of the land version of India’s Nag (Cobra) anti-tank guided missile began on 25 December 2008. Tests are being conducted near Pokhran, Rajasthan. Reports indicate successful firings on derelict tanks – live warheads successfully penetrated the target tanks’ armour. Nag was developed by India’s Defence R&D organization. Industry watchers say this could prove a successful export system that could compete with North American, European and Asian anti-tank missile manufacturers.

Evolving CV90 designs change requirements. Swedish manufacturer Hagglunds originally developed the CV-9040 infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) to meet requirements of the Swedish Army. Potential for export sales was noted at an early stage of development, but the “demise” of the Cold War had destroyed any potential market. The vehicle is now armed with a stabilized Alliant Techsystems (ATK) 30 mm Bushmaster II cannon and 7.62 mm co-axial machine gun (MG). In addition, the vehicles can be tailored to meet specific needs. The first export customer for the CV9030 Mk I was Norway. Further developments led to the Mk II version, now in service with both Finland and Switzerland. Continuing product development has led to the improved CV9035 Mk III, which is currently in production for both Denmark and the Netherlands.

Projects are currently underway in the U.S. Army to modernize all current M113 “Family of Vehicles” including the A2 and A3. An unspecified number will be lengthened and rebuilt to handle specialized requirements for the US Army. Each vehicle undergoing the rebuild process will have a major engine upgrade to increase both the power and endurance. The engine also has a new “glow plug” that operates in a wider range of climatic conditions. This increase in ­efficiency and horsepower allows heavier mission loads or the addition of greater armoured protection. M113 vehicles are slated to receive a more durable transmission that is five times more reliable than the current one. The majority of these rejuvenated vehicles will receive high speed ­digital network and data transfer systems that make it compatible with the digital systems that were procured recently.

UH60 purchase. Taiwan has set aside US$230 million from this year’s defence budget to purchase 60 Sikorsky UH60 Black Hawk utility helicopters. Analysts speculate the deal will test the Obama administration’s willingness to continue providing military assistance to Taipei. The Taiwanese government views it as imperative that the USA continues to demonstrate its support of the island nation. Taiwan’s Strait Exchange Foundation is set to hold a third round of negotiations in May with its Chinese counterpart, the “Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits.”

Sino-Russian helicopter deal. China and Russia will shortly sign a contract to jointly develop a heavy-lift helicopter platform based on the Mil Mi26, a senior official of China’s Aviation Industry Corporation (AVIC) reports. In comments published by the China Daily, Zhang Hongbiao (director of China’s Aviation Industry Corporation) said the two countries had made “great progress” on finalizing the deal since a memorandum of understanding was signed in October 2008.

F35 under scrutiny. The US-led F35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter ­program has been coming under intense scrutiny as partner nations are nearing final critical decisions about buying the aircraft. Reports in mid 2008 that Russian-built Sukhoi fighters defeated the F35 in computer-simulated dogfights in August were called “just flat false,” by US Air Force MGen Charles Davis, the DoD official in charge of the US$299 billion program.

The UK Ministry of Defence is facing some difficult decisions regarding their scheduled aircraft procurement in light of recent program set backs and a new fiscal reality. The Ministry has served notice to EADS that their scheduled purchase of up to 24 A400Ms may be terminated if there continue to be major delays in the aircraft’s production dates. Options open to the RAF are to stay the course and to lease new aircraft or refurbish their existing fleet of transport aircraft which would impose an additional unforecasted expense in an already tight fiscal environment. The incremental costs, in conjunction with the ever escalating costs of the Joint Strike Fighter which is now said be in excess of 85 million USD for each aircraft, may cause a significant cutback on the numbers of aircraft purchased. Moreover, the JSF’s projected delivery dates in the back half of the next decade or later are causing concerns about airpower gaps as older airframes like the Harrier are retired having reached the end of their useful lives. Although there have been arguments to retain a number of aircraft to lessen the impact, costs of refurbishing even a small number of aircraft may prove prohibitive. In the U.S., Northrop Grumman has outlined plans to explore the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in an Air-to-Air refueling role. Unveiled late last year, the fighter-sized prototype is expected to begin flight tests later this year. Both the USAF and the USN have expressed considerable interest in the trials.

Russia and India are pursuing the joint development of a new fifth generation fighter. Named the Sukhoi T50 PAK FA, the new and extremely capable advanced frontline fighter aircraft is reportedly able to compete with the F22 Raptor and the F35 Lightening II. Brazil has also shown interest in joining the project and in the follow-on production. Russian aviation sources have said that the aircraft should be in full production by 2012 and that interest in the aircraft had already been expressed by its previous fighter aircraft production. The aircraft will be capable of super cruise, have fifth generation avionics and dramatically improved situational awareness. It will be capable of firing a wide range of weapons and reports indicate the aircraft will be able to track up to 30 targets while engaging eight with individual selected weapons. The Sukhoi manufacturer, the United Aircraft Corporation, indicated that the aircraft would be extremely competitive in costs with current in-service aircraft and substantially less than equivalent U.S. fifth generation aircraft. Testing of the fully fitted aircraft has already begun.

A former Air Force Logistics Officer, Major (ret) Rob Day is a military historian and defence analyst.
© FrontLine Defence 2009