MRCA programme: Moving Forward

PETALING JAYA: Since I am threading on sensitive grounds, lets just say that our very own MRCA programme is moving forward, despite my reservations about funding issues. And since I am not able to divulge the details at the moment, let us look at this matter via the Switzerland example.

Apart from the Super Hornet, the other three contenders for the our MRCA programme, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale and the JAS-39 Gripen were competing for the Swiss AF F5 replacement.

The Rafale. the loser in Switzerland, but a winner in India and probably in Brazil and UAE too

In December, last year, Switzerland announced that that the Swedish Gripen has been selected for the replacement programme. Following the announcement, accusations that the Gripen did not meet specifications of the Swiss AF was made public and even the confidential evaluation report was made public.

For the full report read here
Defense Industry Daily summarises the report:
According to this report [PDF], France’s Rafale was the only plane to meet Swiss requirements in all 3 areas – an assessment that would have created significant problems for the competition. The JAS-39C/D Gripen failed to meet Swiss threshold requirements in all 3 areas of Counter-air, Reconnaissance, or Strike roles; though overall performance for Reconnaissance was assessed as “satisfactory, with comments.” The Swiss Luftwaffe also concluded that after a “credibility factor” was used to discount future promises, the JAS-39NG/ “MS21” would still fall short of a 6.0 score in all 3 areas. It would come very close in the Strike category, and was assessed as bringing the design “close to the expected capabilities” overall, but the report adds that “the risk involved in redesign of the aircraft is rated high”. This reflects prudent uncertainty until that final Gripen configuration is set, produced, and tested.

The underlying basis for these conclusions remains murky, because that aspect was not leaked, only the end scoring and some comments. Those comments are quite interesting, however, as the report’s 2nd-ranked Eurofighter Typhoon also failed to meet requirements for Reconnaissance and Strike, even with modifications in the proposed Tranche 3 P1E version offered to the Swiss. Highlights include:

Vertical integration adds cost, but helps in some contests. The Rafale benefited from the high performance of its ancillary French equipment, in gaining its high ratings. GPS-guided bombs and its SPECTRA EW suite helped improve its strike score, and equipment like its high-end Reco NG pod enhanced its reconnaissance score. In contrast, the “basics at low-cost” market positioning of RAFAEL’s ReeceLight pod was seen as insufficient in the Eurofighter and Gripen.

Got GPS strike? For strike missions, the Swiss valued engagement of multiple targets in one pass. GPS-guided weapons are the obvious method for that. Even in 2008, the French had worked to add Paveway GPS/laser guided bombs to its Rafales, which were followed shortly thereafter by France’s own GPS-guided AASM. Both competitors are integrating GPS-guided weapons, but they were well behind both the Rafale, and the Swiss evaluation period. This cost both competitors. Saab’s Gripen was specifically cited with “Multiple targets were not able to be engaged during strike missions.” Inquiries to Saab reveal that the EGBU-12 GPS & Laser guided bomb wasn’t qualified on Gripen until 2009, which explains the report’s verdict. Current Gripen fighters can indeed hit multiple targets in a single pass, using the 500 pound EGBU-12/GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway. The Eurofighter is still qualifying Paveway IV and EGBU-16 Enhanced Paveway dual-guidance GPS weapons.

Specifications matter. The core JAS-39C/D Gripen was rated behind current upgraded F/A-18C/Ds for air-air warfare. “Range/combat radius and its aircraft performance” was the cryptic reason, though the report says they “cannot be improved without a change in the structure of the aircraft.” This seems to indicate that the Swiss requirements were tilted toward the capabilities of larger fighters, but Switzerland is a small country with a defensive-only posture. It will be interesting to see if and how this question plays out in debates, and which details emerge.

The Swiss saw the JAS-39NG “MS21’s” notional performance as “insufficient to get the air superiority against future threats (2015+)”. The rationales behind that assessment, and behind the scores comprising it, are critical to the coming Swiss debate – but aren’t yet public.

The Swiss rated the Gripen’s electronic warfare suite as a strong point, and so were its 3 large mission displays, but the report faults the lack of integration between the Gripen radar and Electronic Warfare/ defensive suites. It remains to be seen if the Gripen NG’s new ES-05 Raven AESA radar and EW upgrades will be more integrated.

Saab did get a top score among the competitors for operations and maintenance arrangements, with one option involving spare parts pooling for al Gripen fleets assessed at a “Swiss perfect” 9.0.

HMDs matter. The Rafale’s biggest weakness was seen as its lack of a helmet-mounted sight (HMD) system, which would allow it to take full advantage of modern missiles. Switzerland’s F/A-18 Hornets already have this combination via their JHMCS HMD and AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles, which nullifies many of the Rafale’s close-combat maneuvering advantages. All competitors were actually weak in this area in 2009, with the Gripen (Cobra HMD), Eurofighter (Striker HMD) just remedying this defect now.

The report cites Eurofighter supercruise at Mach 1.4 without afterburners. This is a useful public data point, but seems to have been done without weapons. Eurofighters used armed supercruise during Libyan operations, but this was only possible with low-drag “4 + 2” air-to-air missile configurations, at high altitude, and to about Mach 1.2.

Despite a lot of engineering and publicity effort expended on Eurofighter’s sensor fusion quality and DASS electronic warfare suite, the Swiss evaluation cited them as weak points.

“Before 2025 (at the latest), a stock (small number) of Meteors [DID: long-range air-air missiles, scheduled for employment by all 3 contenders] shall be part of the Swiss inventory.” End of DID report.

Coming so soon after the Indian decision to opt for the Rafale and followed soon after by reports that Brazil would also choose the French jet have upped the ante for our own selection. It must be noted though that evaluation done by the Swiss were during the 2008/2009 period and ours are just starting.

And despite reservations from the ATM that we are buying too things from French, the Rafale did earned some brownie points for its participation during Lima 2011.

Seeing the two aircraft taking off on a daily basis for displays during the show and joy-rides for officials and journalists, in our hot and humid weather without much preparations, earned the French some bragging rights.

The Super Hornet did the same thing but taking only VVIPs for joy-rides are not too bright either.

As for the Typhoon? The decision to base them in Butterworth Air Base was not too smart in terms of marketing. And having them under wraps (when not being readied for flight) and sheltered for the entire two months they were there does not bring much confidence to local pilots and fitters who had their share their difficulties with the Hawk 108s and 208s in the past.

Yes the Typhoons managed 95 % readiness rate during their time here and flew 4,000 miles to get here but to the eyes of those who were supposed to fly and maintain them in 3 years time, first impressions are everything! One wonders whether our High Commissioner in London is working as hard his counterparts in Washington and Paris to get the best TOT possible to clinch the deal.

At the end of the day, as shown by the Swiss example, its not what the fighter jockeys says that clinched the deal, its the fat cat politicians that ruled the day.

— Malaysian Defence

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