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Nov 17
 
  Published by Dar Assayad Arab Defence Journal
Highlights   المعلوماتية العسكرية تكنولوجيا الدفاع حول العالم العالم العربي تحديث السلاح الافتتاحية رسالة الناشر
EXTENDING LIFE IN THE AIR
There can be no doubt that defence planners today are facing an increasing challenge in trying to decide how to sustain their air fleets into the future at a time when new aircraft have become very expensive to purchase, and replacing them on a one-for-one basis may be prohibitive within allocated budgets. While front line combat aircraft need to be capable of carrying out their operational tasks against a potential enemy which may have more modern weapons systems available, the risks associated with allowing existing air assets to become obsolete and more vulnerable are unacceptable, and all options for the future must be considered.
The ability to retain a warfighting edge in anticipated threat situations has to be balanced against the reality of being able to afford a front line that is not over-stretched in performance terms or likely to be overwhelmed by superior numbers. This is not an easy conundrum to solve, and optimum solutions will vary from nation to nation, but in general terms there are now very manly alternatives available for those operators unable or unwilling to invest $billions in the latest new-build military aircraft if their budgets can better absorb cost-effective upgrades that will provide greatly enhanced performance from older aircraft, extending their lives well into the coming decades. The refurbished aircraft can be given new sensors, avionics, mission and weapons systems that will keep them fully prepared to face likely adversaries and in some cases airframes can be given several decades more useful life instead of being sold or consigned to the scrapyard.


The business of providing upgrades for military air arms is extensive and includes not only the original manufacturing companies but also specialist aviation engineering companies and government-owned support organisations. Withdrawn aircraft which have been sold by the original operators and placed into storage are often bought by companies which strip them down, either to provide spare parts or replacement components for re-sale, or which are put through a complete process of re-engineering, replacing major airframe sections, in some cases to give them a zero-life certification, which will enable them to continue for perhaps decades of further use. Examples of such "second life" upgrades can be seen around the world, but former US and UK aircraft have often been put through extensive re-build programmes and then sold on to new customers. Very large numbers of retired front-line combat jets have featured in this process. Some of the most widely upgraded used combat aircraft include Lockheed-Martin F-16s and Boeing F-15 Eagles and F-18 Hornets. Previously, the US sold large numbers of retired or surplus F-5Es, A-7 Corsairs and F-4 Phantoms, and the UK sold on many refurbished Hunters, Canberras, Lightnings and Jaguars, while France sold refurbished former French Air Force Mirage fighters as well as new-build models. SAAB also sold former Swedish-built fighters to new operators, and Russia also supplied many Mig and Sukhoi fighters after use by the original operators. The Indian Air Force has undertaken major equipment and weapon upgrades over many years to its Mig-21s and Mig-29s in an effort to improve their performance and sustainability.
The French Air Force and French Navy Dassault Rafale fourth-generation multi-role fighters are due to be upgraded to a later standard with new Thales RBE-2 active electronically scanned (AESA) radars, new Talios laser target designation pods and other changes, and similar upgrades will be available to export customers who have not had these systems fitted from new. Although refurbished combat aircraft receive most of the attention, the biggest market for the upgrading of military aircraft is in other areas, such as trainers, helicopters, transports and maritime patrol aircraft. These sectors of activity have seen continuous refurbishment of older airframes and significant life-extension programmes, including modification to make them suitable for different specialist roles. One aircraft type that seems destined to continue flying forever is the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules tactical freighter. There is no doubt that with the combination of refurbished airframes and modern cockpits and avionics, these veteran transports can carry on providing very valuable military service almost indefinitely. Marshall Aerospace and Defence at Cambridge in the UK has over the years re-built hundreds of C-130s for the UK and overseas air forces and this work is continuing, the latest contract with the UK MOD being for the replacement of centre wing boxes on 14 twenty year old C-130Js which will have their operational lives extended until 2035. Another widely used Lockheed Martin military workhorse is the P-3C Orion Maritime Patrol Aircraft. This also dates back to the late 1950s but is still the most widely used MPA in the world. Most current P-3Cs in service have been fitted with strengthened wings and wing boxes to extend their lives, which are spent at salt-laden low altitudes over the sea. Operators including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA have all subjected their P-3C fleets to extensive structural life-extension programmes and at the same time used the strip-down condition of the airframes to install updated systems, so that the emerging aircraft are well able to exploit advances in anti-submarine, electronic warfare and radar systems.
The world"s fleets of training aircraft are now ageing and many are in need of replacement either by new aircraft or major upgrades of current platforms. New production jet trainers are plentiful and available from Leonardo/Alenia in the M-346, BAE Systems producing the Hawk, and from South Korea the KAI/LM T-50. With over 1,000 Hawks in service many customers are looking at how best to upgrade. Some, like the Royal Australian Air Force, are putting their Hawks through a major refurbishment and modernisation programme to bring them to the latest Hawk T2 standard. Other Hawk customers are upgrading specific features, such as the cockpits and mission system so as to allow for simulated combat training and improved situational awareness. Other trainers are similarly being upgraded, mostly by adopting new digital displays.
There are growing numbers of commercial companies, as well as the original manufacturers, who can provide major certifiable upgrades that will keep aircraft flying well into future years. Customers seeking the best value for money in military air procurement have never had such a wide choice of anti-obsolescence solutions or suppliers
 
 
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