Transport Focus: Embraer is leading a group of partners in development of the KC-390, intended to challenge the C-130 Hercules transport in various markets. (Embraer illustration)
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BUENOS AIRES — As South America continues increasing its defense expenditures, air fleet modernization is driving numerous requirements and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.
Brazil, accounting for half of South America’s defense expenditure, is conducting the region’s most ambitious modernization of air military assets, and local industry is involved in both the production of foreign equipment under license as well as indigenous development. The most visible of them is the F-X Project, launched in 1997 to select a proven fourth-generation multirole fighter to be manufactured locally to replace all combat jet aircraft in Brazil’s inventory. After 16 years of starts and delays, F-X seems to have entered its last phase with December’s selection of Saab’s Gripen NG.
Final negotiations are underway with a signature expected by the end of 2014 on a contract for a first order comprising 36 aircraft. It would include local manufacture of components and subsystems as well as the assembly of the airframes in Brazil.
While the Air Force plans to acquire more than 100 Gripen NGs to replace about 120 F-5M and A-1M aircraft by 2025, many observers say that figure is more likely to be between 60 and 80 because of continuing pressures for spending on social concerns. Nevertheless, a number of navalized Sea Gripens, a carrier-capable version in the design stage, could be ordered in a separate program. Up to 24 new jet combat aircraft would be needed to equip the air wing of a future aircraft carrier that would be built locally to replace the Sao Paulo under plans recently confirmed by Defence Minister Celso Amorim.
Meanwhile, Embraer is upgrading the last of 50 Brazilian Air Force Northrop F-5E fighters to the M standard by integrating new avionics and the capability to launch Rafael’s Derby beyond-visual-range missiles. It has also started to upgrade 50 A-1 Falcao jets, the local version of the AMX ground attack light jet, with an avionics package optimized for precision air-to-ground weaponry.
A similar upgrade package is being integrated into 12 MDD A-4KU Skyhawk jet fighter bombers of the Brazilian Navy, locally designated AF-1 Falcoes, as part of a project to provide Sao Paulo with a complete, upgraded naval air wing. The project also includes refurbishing four Grumman C-2 Trader carrier onboard delivery transport aircraft in the US by Marsh Aviation, including two to be fitted as tankers to transfer fuel in-flight.
Fitting two additional C-2s with sensors and other equipment for the airborne early warning role by Embraer, after being refurbished by Marsh, is also being considered.
Embraer is also leading a group of domestic and international partners in development of the twin-engine tactical military transport aircraft KC-390. With production scheduled to start in 2018, the Brazilian Air Force plans to order 28 KC-390s to replace its 20 C-130 Hercules.
Argentina and Colombia have chosen to be customers as well as industrial partners, while Chile declined to take part in the industrial effort but remains a potential customer.
“While combat aircraft fleet replacement numbers in South America, excepting Brazil, remain comparatively small, they are of interest to manufacturers given pressures in domestic markets,” said Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow for Military Aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay, for example, all have combat aircraft requirements, though budgetary pressures continue to constrain at least some of these. The option of surplus stock aircraft remains potentially attractive, given the cost competitiveness of such an approach.”
There are two potential programs that, together with Brazil’s F-X contract, could push a new wave of combat aircraft modernization in South America. One is the upgrade of Chile’s fleet of F-16s, comprising 10 block 50 machines bought new from the US and 36 acquired second-hand from the Netherlands.
According to local sources, the Air Force would prefer to acquire some additional Block 50 machines and reduce the number of second-hand versions while retiring its F-5Es. It aims to reach a mix of 36 F-16s upgraded with a common active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, mission computers and advanced new-generation weapons.
Colombia also is considering supplementing and eventually replacing its fleet of 20 Israeli Kfirs by procuring second-hand F-16s — as hinted last November by Colombian Air Force Chief Gen. Carlos Bueno — and upgrading them with AESA radars. Officials from BAE Systems and L-3 have expressed interest in the F-16 work, and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Boeing and maker Lockheed Martin also are following the situation, according to officials from the two countries.
The eventual appearance in South America of fighter aircraft equipped with much superior AESA radars, both for Brazil’s Gripen and upgraded F-16s in Chile and Colombia, will drive other countries to follow suit. Venezuela likely would respond by ordering Russian-built Sukhoi Su-35s, and both Peru and Ecuador would resort to similar solutions within the reach of their budgets.
In Argentina, the Air Force is desperate to replace its very old Mirage fleet, but budget constraints could force it to acquire other older aircraft, leaving it lagging behind neighbors flying newer planes with more sophisticated radars.
In the area of fixed-wing military transport, the Chilean Air Force, in recent years, has acquired a Boeing 767 airliner and three KC-135E strategic support tanker aircraft from US surplus, but the service is now eyeing procurement of tactical transports. The Airbus Military A400M is a possible replacement for C-130s; the C-295 and Alenia’s C-27J Spartan could provide smaller, supplementary platforms.
Argentina is also launching a program to bring seven C-130s currently grounded back into service and extending their service lives. The country is also considering acquisition of two Airbus Military A330transport and tanker jets. The Chilean Army also has a requirement for a twin-engine, medium transport aircraft.
While most of countries around the region use C-130s, Venezuela has also acquired Chinese Shaanyi Y-8s to supplement its military transport fleet. Argentina has plans to eventually replace its C-130s with the KC-390; it also needs to replace older Fokker F-27s and is eyeing the Airbus Military C-295.
Peru has ordered two C-27J Spartans under plans to replace Antonov An-32s.
In the field of maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), the Brazilian Air Force, which operates all shore-based MPA, is receiving the last of eight refurbished P-3BR Orions, which were acquired second-hand from US surplus and then had their mission equipment upgraded.
The Chilean Navy also had two of its three P-3s modernized in New Zealand with synthetic aperture radar and is operating them with three similarly equipped C-295 MPA. The service has plans to acquire three additional C-295 MPA.
Meanwhile, the Argentine Navy is upgrading its three operative P-3Bs, received from US surplus in the 1990s, adding the capability to launch MBDA AM-39 Exocet anti-ship missiles, while the Peruvian Navy increased its long-range air patrol capabilities since 2010 when it purchased two Fokker 60 MPA.
While Colombia and Ecuador operate small numbers of CN-235 MPA, with plans to add more of these or the larger C-295, Venezuela operates only three C-212s for maritime surveillance. Procurement of Antonov An-74s as long-range MPA has been repeatedly announced but not completed.
The first EC725 Cougar medium transport helicopters delivered from the Helibras assembly line, a wholly owned subsidiary of Airbus Helicopters, were made primarily with components shipped from France, but locally manufactured parts are being progressively used and eventually will account for 50 percent of components.
The initial order is for 51 machines but, while additional orders from the Brazilian military are expected, sales to other South American nations are also sought.
Some of the EC725s to be delivered to the Brazilian Navy will have mission systems and weapons for maritime tactical operations, including anti-submarine warfare and air-to-surface vessel actions, in the last case with the integration of MBDA’s AM-39 Exocet anti-ship missiles.
Helibras is also upgrading the engines, propulsion and avionics of 34 AS365K Panther transport helicopters belonging to the Brazilian Army’s Aviation Command, in a program that started in 2011 and will extend to 2021.
Colombia is the main operator of rotary wing aircraft in South America and also one of the biggest users of Sikorsky’s Black Hawk, with nearly 100 machines of the type in the inventory of its Army, Air Force and Police. Colombia is also an important user of Russian-built Mi-17s and derivatives, with nearly 30 machines in service with the Army.
Peru, which has long used Russian helicopters in the region, recently ordered 20 Mi-171s to replace older machines worn out by intense use in counter-insurgent operations against the Shining Path guerrilla group.
Venezuela has become another important operator of Russian-built rotary wing aircraft, with 30 Mi-17V5 medium transports, three Mi-26T heavy lift transports and 10 Mi-35 attack helicopters.
The Argentine Air Force operates three Mi-171s fitted for operations in Antarctica, while the Army operates the bigger fleet of Bell UH-1Hs in South America, with more than 40 machines, and is upgrading all to Huey II standards.
In Chile, the Army plans to expand its mixed fleet of 12 AS332 and AS532 Super Puma medium lift helicopters by acquiring up to 18 additional machines of the last type and is also eyeing light armed machines for reconnaissance in the Bell 407 category, as well as heavy armed attack helicopters like the Airbus Helicopters, Tiger, AgustaWestland’s A-129 Mangusta or its Turkish derivative, the T-129 Atak.
The Chilean Air Force, operating 12 Bell 412s and some remaining UH-1Hs, is studying procurement of between six and eight S-70 type helicopters for all weather/night combat search-and-rescue missions in a high/hot environment.
The Navy operates a seagoing helicopter fleet of five AS532 Super Puma maritime attack machines, armed with MBDA’s AM39 Exocet missiles and whose sensor and other mission systems and avionics have been recently upgraded.
After the acquisition of a bigger amphibious assault ship in 2011, the Navy also procured two AS532 medium lift transport helicopters for onboard operation in the vertical assault and support roles and may add six more.
Most South American countries, including Brazil, lack modern lead-in fighter jet trainers, which will become more important as more advanced combat jets are introduced. Venezuela and Bolivia have acquired Chinese-built K-8s, used by Venezuela as a trainer and Bolivia as a light combat aircraft.
The Chilean Air Force has announced it intends to acquire a lead-in jet trainer has shown interest in Alenia’s M-346, BAE’s Hawk and Korea Aerospace Industry’s (KAI’s) T-50, but lately decided to wait for the outcome of the US T-X program. But the possible retirement of its F-5Es, used in dual interceptor and advanced trainer role, could force earlier procurement.
While Brazil is expected to tackle its trainer needs once the F-X program is settled, Colombia and Ecuador are facing the same need. All three countries, as well as Chile, operate the turboprop Super Tucano, but that aircraft functions more as a light strike aircraft than a trainer.
For basic training, Peru is procuring the KT-1 turboprop from KAI, and while Colombia is assembling the T-90 Calima for primary training from kits provided by Lancair from the US, the Fabrica Argentina de Aviones is developing the IA-73 primary trainer for joint purchase by members of the Union of South American Nations. ■
Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.