Singapore Airshow 2010 Wrap Up

The official statistics indicating that the air show grew strongly from its beginnings 2 years ago tells only part of the story.

10th Mar 2010

Singapore Airshow: Strong presence from US companies

The official statistics indicating that the air show grew strongly from its beginnings 2 years ago tells only part of the story. By that measure the event has been a great success with visitor numbers and trade delegations up from the previous show in 2008 – but this sidesteps the issue that there is now a rival Asian Aerospace event in Hong Kong that has the potential to further confuse a marketplace already saturated with major exhibitions.

Held during the first week of February, the Singapore show attracted the usual defence industry players from the United States, Europe and Israel. Perhaps noteworthy were those companies that did not attend – particularly BAE Systems and Saab. Given that both are pursuing a number of regional aerospace opportunities they must have made the calculation that their marketing pounds and kronor were better spent elsewhere.

A different conclusion was reached by Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Rockwell Collins and Sikorsky – to name only the most prominent of the US companies who were present. The timing was unfortunate for Lockheed Martin because their presence coincided with the announcement of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the Joint Strike Fighter was behind schedule and that urgent remedial action was being taken to address the problems. Given that Lockheed Martin had continued to state that the program was on time and on budget until only a few weeks beforehand the discomfort of some of their senior staff was palpable.

However, Lockheed Martin continues to have strong regional aerospace ambitions – not least via India’s MMRCA program, where the F-16IN seems to be flavor of the month after successful flight trials in the United States. The Joint Strike Fighter itself is a future contender in Singapore as well as Japan and South Korea and an initial batch of 14 have recently been ordered by Australia. As well as that, there is clearly a very large market in supporting existing F-16 users for many years to come and it is worth noting that the aircraft is still being produced for Pakistan, Morocco and Turkey, with Egypt considered a possibility for additional platforms.

For its part Boeing is also very positive about the regional defence aviation market and at the top of the list the company is a strong contender in India with the Super Hornet, which is continuing to prove itself operationally in theatres such as Afghanistan. Boeing has developed a large number of partnerships with major Indian aerospace suppliers over the last few years and even though these have had a civil focus to date they will undoubtedly play a strong supporting role in the company’s bid for the MMRCA. Boeing was keen to emphasise that the delivery of 24 Super Hornets to Australia is 3 months ahead of schedule - a nice contrast to the situation with the Wedgetail Early Warning & Control aircraft.

It is worth noting that India is the first international customer for Boeing’s P-8A maritime patrol aircraft. This early order for the P-8A is obviously encouraging as there are hundreds of old P3-Cs in the region, many of which will eventually need to be replaced with other manned aircraft.

When it come to the fighter market, Boeing continues to support various configurations of the F-15, which are in service – or being introduced into service – in Japan, South Korea and most recently Singapore, which has started to take delivery of their 24 aircraft. Examining future prospects, company officials noted that Japan has delayed their RFP to replace 45 of their aged F-4s, which could be replaced by more F-15s. Company representatives also mentioned the ambitious Japanese FX program as a big opportunity. Since Boeing will have to compete with the Joint Strike Fighter – a situation similar to South Korea – the company unveiled a year ago a stealthier version of the F-15 known as the “Strike Eagle”, which reduces radar cross section with the inboard carriage of weapons but without a major airframe redesign. It remains unclear what the “Strike Eagle” has over the company’s other advanced aircraft - the Super Hornet. The latter is already in service with 2 major customers – the US Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force (with Qatar now also a strong possibility) – while the former remains largely an interesting concept, which might be easier to export. Progress on the “Strike Eagle” is said to be steady, with anechoic chamber testing showing good results in RCS reduction and live missile firings scheduled for later this year.

Raytheon also had a large and well-organised presence featuring an array of aircraft related technologies such as weapons and radars. Briefings were provided on systems such as “Fishhawk” the flying version of the stand-off Mk 54 torpedo made using many parts from the successful JSOW program. The company emaphasised the modular nature of their approach meaning that the kit could be adapted to other torpedoes such as the European MU90 or even the old Mk46 and could be launched from a variety of aircraft. The idea of being able to attack underwater objects from long range of 40+ kilometers is becoming more attractive as submarines themselves will soon be able to deploy defensive sub-surface launched anti-aircraft missiles.

In missile developments Raytheon detailed how the successful and reliable AIM-9X has recently been upgraded so it can not only engage the air targets for which it was originally designed but also those on water or land – either stationary or moving. A motivation for this improved capability seems to be that the sponsoring service – the US Navy – wants to have available a truly multi-purpose missile to use against targets of opportunity. APDR assumes that such targets have previously presented themselves in the Middle East area of operations but have remained outside the engagement capability of a pure air-to-air combat weapon. Those days now seem to be over.

The Haiti earthquake tragedy took place only a few days before the show and that acted as the backdrop for an updated briefing on the civil and military capabilities of the Global Hawk unmanned aerial system by prime contractor Northrop Grumman. Apparently a Global Hawk was flying to Afghanistan from its US base not long after the quake struck and was redirected to assist in rescue and recovery efforts. The aircraft was able to use its IR sensors to detect the presence of survivors and it was also able to provide imagery of the extent of the devastation – a valuable tool for the co-ordination of rescue missions. While it could have remained on station for 28 hours this was reduced for practical purposes to an average mission loiter time of 24 hours. Because it operates at an altitude of 60,000 feet it presented no air traffic control problems and at that height the atmosphere is apparently very benign, meaning that Global Hawk is an extremely stable and reliable sensor platform. Questioned about resources required to support operations, Northrop Grumman explained that the Global Hawk needed only 1/3 the number of people supporting a U2 and that furthermore a proper comparison with P-3s also made Global Hawk a far more cost-effective option for many surveillance roles than a manned aircraft.

Israeli companies were a significant presence at the show with Elbit, Rafael, IMI, Plasan and others showcasing their technologies. Elbit in particular are very mindful of opportunities for regional military aircraft upgrade programs and showcased 2 products of particular interest – their latest Helmet Mounted Display and in addition a new central display unit optimized for F-16s using a commercial processor. Elbit has long been a world leader in HMD technology, evidenced by the fact that the products are on all US fighter aircraft, including the JSF, through the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System. Elbit believes that the cost of the technology has been progressively reduced to the point where it can now be considered for use on transport aircraft and that systems will eventually permeate further and will be used by emergency services personnel in addition to military users.

Elbit’s central display unit seems to have a great deal of potential for upgrading F-16s and eventually other aircraft because it is low cost and hosted on PC-based technology. This means that a highly capable, large, full color display – compatible with GIS software such as Falcon View - can be installed right in the centre of the cockpit without the extremely intensive effort required to change the aircraft’s operational flight programme (OFP), which is usually a major cost driver.

Of the senior industry figures to visit the show, prominent was Eurocopter’s Lutz Bertling, who was extremely positive about the Asian region and pointed out that even though the global financial crisis had effected the civilian market, military orders were in good shape. He spoke not only about the company’s organic products but also the “Surion” utility helicopter developed in conjunction with South Korea’s KAI. This aircraft will occupy a convenient niche in the spectrum of Eurocopter products and so will not be a case of the company competing with itself. Speaking of Korean Aircraft Industries, the company was extremely guarded about saying anything connected with their bid in Singapore for trainer aircraft or about their activities in the United Arab Emirates where it is rumored that their T-50 might still be in the hunt, let alone their longer term ambitions to break into the US market – all of which seems to defeat the purpose of participating in a public air show.

Finally the daily flying program was marked by one of the last appearances of a RAAF F-111, which made a series of spectacular contributions to global warming until finally being sidelined by a technical issue.

APDR at a glance