Analysis: This is why future military aircraft market could favor light fighters

light combat aircraft market
Leonardo M-346FA light combat aircraft.

Outdated fleets of venerable fighter jets combined with the financial crisis affecting many states around the world are raising serious concerns about the future of several air forces. Budget problems are driving many air forces to carry out only basic tasks, such as QRA missions nationwide, without being able to operate overseas. Furthermore, the high cost per flight hour, coupled with the low availability of aircraft, reduces the number of combat ready pilots.

What is the solution? The logical answer could be to turn to cheaper and lighter modern fighters with capabilities close to those of the expensive 30 ton class fighters.

Today many operational contexts do not require the use of "high-end" fighters, as they are characterized by a low aerial threat. The old F-5 Tiger II, for example, is still doing its job worthily and it appears that many nations have a real need and desire for the kind of light and cheap fighters that have been the backbone of many air forces during the 1970s and 1980s. However, most of the aircraft of this era are ending their operational life and are not equipped to provide adequate deterrence in the event of potential international threats or tensions.

With the end of the Cold War, the previous "top-of-the-range" fighter jets became widespread in many countries. Many air forces suddenly received more capabilities than those provided by the light economic fighters of that era. This has led to raising the bar of their expectations as well as raising the level of threats.

Maneuverability, powerful long-range radar and beyond-visual-range capability define the basic features essential for today's fighters. To survive in a modern battle space, a fighter must have good agility and survival abilities, a wide range of countermeasures, and a helmet-mounted display. It must have an adequate data link and secure radio to ensure interoperability requirements.

Budget nations can meet these needs in two ways: buy a new light fighter or buy second-hand aircraft. The second choice looks good on paper, because planes are often available at an affordable cost. However, this option comes with many potential problems. A second-hand aircraft will certainly have high operating costs and may be difficult to maintain due to the unreliable supply chain. It may require an upgrade which will add to the overall cost burden.

For smaller air forces with limited requirements, purchasing light supersonic fighters is definitely the best solution. In addition, a light fighter can also be useful to those nations that want to keep costs down despite being able to afford fifth generation aircraft. It can complement frontline fighters and be used in low-threat contexts, especially to conduct reconnaissance and CAS missions, reducing the cost per flight hour by approximately five times.

Today, manufacturers are focusing heavily on this segment, expanding the capabilities of their most advanced training aircraft. The most interesting markets for the type are those of Latin America primarily, but also the Middle East and Africa.

Written by Matteo Sanzani
Photo Credit: Leonardo

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