The only true British military transport aircraft type in Royal Air Force service has turned 35 years old. On 3 September 1981 the BAe 146 took first to the skies, as a regional airliner, at Hatfield in Hertfordshire. Many years later the four RAF machines are part of the surviving active fleet of 220 BAe 146s worldwide.
Serving with No. 32 (The Royal) Squadron at RAF Nordholt two BAe 146 CCMk2s are there to transport members of the Royal Family and other senior government or military hotshots. A pair of grey painted BAe 146 CMk3s – based on the civilian QC variant – provide tactical air transport in both the passenger and palletised freight role.
RAF’s quartet are part of a successful British regional jetliner production when looking at the numbers. A total of 394 BAe 146s – and its successor the Avro RJ – were built until production ceased after 22 years of operations in November 2003 in Woodford, Ceshire. Together the type has made more than 12 million hours of flight.
In a civilian role the BAe 146s often provide freight services, for example with Virgin Australia. In parts of Europe the type is commonly deployed as city hopper, for example between Stockholm-Bromma and Brussels IAP.
In the aerial firefighting role three operators in North America will use the machine as a 3000 gallon fire extinguisher and are replacing older piston and turboprop aircraft.
With many of the aircraft having made 20,000 to 35,000 take-offs and landings, most of the BAe 146s are still very much able to double or almost triple that number the coming decades.
It is a kingdom known by its beautiful fjords, shock-and-awe inland scenery and very friendly, maybe slightly reserved people. Once a domain of Norman the Scandinavian country stretched on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean is prepping to be have some new toughness to show: the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. Airheadsfly.com dug into the Norwegian view of what is coming. This is what we got back from our sources inside the Norwegian Armed Forces.
As announced by the Royal Norwegian Air Force in July, a total of ten F-35s will be on strength by late Summer 2017. Three of these will be flown to Norway before the end of next year. Initially they will form part of the Operational Training and Evaluation (OT&E) effort, before becoming part of the first Norwegian F-35 squadron. As of 2019, the F-35 will take over roles and missions of the current F-16 fighter jet. In that year Norway expects to declare Initial Operational Capability with the F-35. But which roles will be taken first, has not officially been confirmed yet.
Evenes to become “combat base”
The future Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) in the north will be at Evenes, near Narvik. It is a big move north from Bødo, Airheadsfly.com feels. Evenes was initially chosen as a Forward Operating Base that would mainly utilize existing infrastructure to support the F-35. But, under a more recently presented long-term plan, Evenes will be a “combat base” for the RNoAF, “including operations with new maritime patrol aircraft” that Norway will choose to replace the aging Lockheed P-3 Orions at Andenes.
“Evenes will also gain dedicated ground defence and ground based air defence systems.” However, no details on when the “significant investments in infrastructure will be made that go above and beyond what is required for the previously planned QRA functions of Evenes” a Norwegian Armed Forces spokesperson writes to Airheadsfly.com. The F-35s are to commence operations from Evenes in 2021 or 2022, with the new plans for Evenes first having to go through the Norwegian parliament for approval.
Current Norwegian Air Force bases of Andenes and Bardufoss were deemed not feasible for F-35 operations after the closure of Bødo. “The primary reason was noise concerns, along with other technical considerations related to the ability to conduct fighter operations in line with the stated requirements.” Bodø Air Station’s air strip has already been formally transferred to civilian aviation authorities, ahead of its future closure, after the last passenger aircraft landed there on 1 August 2016.
Joint Strike Missile
Oslo is confident that the F-35 will perform and will be better than than the F-16, also when it comes to operations in the Arctics. “The F-35 will provide a marked improvement over the F-16 in all aspects of High North operations. It offers superior range and situational awareness, and will allow Norway to operate freely throughout our air space under all conditions thanks to its survivability.
The addition of long-range precision guided weapons such as the Joint Strike Missile will also add considerably to the capabilities of the Norwegian Armed Forces.” The Joint Strike Missile (JSM) is developed by Norway’s own Kongsberg Defence Systems as a Anti Surface Warfare and Naval Fire Support weapon that even includes a Link 16 connection.
When it comes to operations a long way from base – like in the Arctics, over the Atlantic Ocean or down a long the many many miles of coast line – aerial refuelling might seem like a logic addition to the capabilities of the Air Force. But Norway is not considering any air tankers of its own, nor is it planning modification to the current fleet of four C-130J Hercules transport aircraft to be able to provide in-flight refueling. “However, Norway continues to explore the possibility of contributing to a multinational effort to strengthen the availability of air refueling tankers in Europe.”
Oslo is confident it can defend any of its territories, including Svalbard. Airheadsfly.com stands corrected that Svalbard – of which parts are allowed to be run by Russia – is in fact not a demilitarized zone. “Norway has full and absolute sovereignty over Svalbard. Svalbard is not demilitarized as such, however the Svalbard Treaty puts certain limitations on the use of military force against other states from or on Svalbard.
This does not exclude the use of military force pursuant to self-defense as defined in the UN-charter, article 51. The Norwegian government, as the sovereign on Svalbard, has the right and obligation to ensure that other states do not exploit Svalbard for military purposes. As such, Norway has the right to defend Svalbard militarily and Svalbard is an acknowledged part of NATO’s area of responsibility, as defined in the North Atlantic Treaty, article 6. Beyond that, we do not wish to discuss specific plans for responding to any potential future threats against Norwegian territory.”
During his presentation at the Lockheed Martin / RIAT 2016 press conference at RAF Fairford in July by RNoAF’s Lt. Col. Tesli, Norway’s main F-35 pilot and Norwegian F-35 detachment senior officer, the F-35 can expand the range of for example the navy by serving as its airborne recon/targeting gathering platform.
“Providing reconnaissance and targeting is not in itself a new role for the Norwegian Air Force. The F-35 forms part of a wider development where both platforms, sensors and weapons of all services gradually add range and capability, and where the F-35 in particular provides our joint force the ability to find, track, and effectively engage targets at significantly greater distances than we have been able to in the past,” a Norwegian F-35 Program spokesperson writes to Airheadsfly.com.
The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force Mitsubishi (McDonnell Douglas) F-15J/DJ Eagles are facing an update program that is aimed solely at them being able to throw more into the face of advancing Chinese combat pilots.
That is in short the analysis of the Tokyo plans with the spearhead of the Japanese airborne air-defence. Of the more than 220 built F-15J/DJ air supiority fighters the first 40 will see their air-to-air missile load doubled to 16 pieces, half of it short-range, the other half medium-/long-range.
Sweeping the skies
According to sources in Tokyo once airborne these F-15s should be able to stop or slow down a large-scale Chinese air attack, sweeping the skies clean enough of Chinese fighter jets and attack aircraft to last another day. Japan military sources – quoted also by Nikkei – are said to be worried by a more and more active Chinese air force and naval air arm.
Earlier this year the JASDF moved one of its F-15CJ/DJ squadrons from Tsuiki Airbase in the Fukuoka area to Naha Airbase on Okinawa. Although closer to China by at least 215 miles (400 km) it leaves a direct flight line to mainland Japan and Tokyo more open. Apparently Japan is more worried with the Chinese reaching Okinawa for a limited military operation than it is for a large scale long-distance attack further into Japanese airspace.
Naha Air Base now has about 40 F-15CJ/DJ combat jets on strength. They may be the first to carry 16 air-to-air missiles in the near future.
A debate has started in Sweden to keep part of the current Gripen C/D fighter fleet of the Swedish Air Force flying, even after the purchase of the new and more capable E/F-model. Target: to safeguard that Sweden is able to protect its borders and economic zone.
The newest contribution to the debate comes from expert Robert Dalsjö of the Royal Swedish Academy for War Sciences. “The Gripen C/D has an average age of seven years and only a handful of planes have flown more than 1,000 hours. Combat aircraft are designed for 8,000 flight hours and in the Western world the are used for up to 30 and 40 years,” Dalsjö writes in the Swedish national daily Svenska Dagbladet.
Axe the Gripen
Having invested huge in the Gripen C/D Dalsjö argues that it is a wrong burning of money to axe the aircraft already. Sweden officially has 97 Gripen C/Ds on its three main airbases of Ronneby (southeast), Såtenäs (centrewest) and Luleå-Kallax (north) and on maintenance locations, with currently about 87 of them rotating operationally between the units. The Swedish government decided to buy 60 brand-new, larger and more capable Gripen E/F in the near future – with Brazil getting another 36 in cooperation with Brazilian Embraer.
Many in Sweden with insight in the defence world believe the expanded range, heavier payload and newer features of the Gripen will improve the readiness and survive chances of the Swedish Armed Forces, but the number of 60 aircraft is overall considered to low for the vast Scandinavian country. The Swedish Air Force will then have to protect, defend and – if necessary – attack with only max. 15 operational aircraft at its three air bases. The remainder 15 aircraft will be likely be held in reserve.
The low number is seriously going to limit the Swedish reaction in international crises, for example when Russia will increase it already quite visible presence in the Baltic Sea area. During the last century SAAB built 329 Viggen combat aircraft for the Swedish Air Force. Eighty-five of them were fully multirole and were considered the absolute minimum to keep Sweden safe.
“Protected” by neighbours
Safety is no longer a post-Cold War luxury. The Swedes need to worry, even when it comes down to being “protected” by its neighbours. The 55 F/A-18s of the neighbouring Finnish Air Force are good, but even when dispersed during a war situation they will likely not be a match to Russian air power.
The same goes for the new Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35A, with only a handful planned to serve as Norway’s own QRA on Eveness Airbase in the north and the main force much further south on Ørland Airbase near Trondheim. Unlike Norway, Sweden is no real NATO member and the future president of the USA might not even consider to come to Sweden’s aid to live up to the military coop and support contracts Stockholm and Washington DC have signed. However, politically Sweden has shown combat aircraft support to especially NATO-neighbour Norway several times the last couple of years during high-profile war games.
Keeping a mixed fleet of 60 Gripen E/F aircraft and – let’s say – 30 to 60 Gripen C/D seems like a reasonable, future solution for the Swedish Air Force, from both a financial and military-strategical point of view. It will even support Sweden’s indigenous aviation industry of Saab – a reason why Sweden fully chooses the 60 new aircraft – more, with maintenance contracts as well as new-build options for the defence firm based in Linköping.
No follow-on order
Of course at SAAB HQ they are hoping there will be a follow-on order from the Flygvapnet for another 10 to 30 Gripen jets, but that may never come. Cash-aware as Sweden needs to be these days, the Defence is buying new submarines (from SAAB), is in an urgent need for an effective long-range ground-based air-defence system to counter Russian offensive air and the remaining six of originally eight ancient Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft are in need of replacement. The new aircraft, which may be the Brazilian Embraer KC-390 will likely have to feature in-flight refuelling as well – currently being provided by the C-130 fleet.
The debate to keep the JAS 39C/D flying for many years to come has just started. Whatever the outcome, many Swedes are increasingly worried by their country’s safety. And that is normally fuel for decision makers to weigh more options.
The Israeli Air Force now has its full complement of 30 Leonardo Finmeccanica M-346 Lavi advanced jet trainers operational. The final one has been commissioned this week.
With the new jets, the skies of Israel will be free of the Skyhawk – the legendary A-4 that was the Lavi’s predecessor after having been commissioned in the 1960s.
The commissioning of the full 30 jets – known in Italy as the Master – went with some bad mouthing on the biggest competitor: the Korean Aerospace Industries T-50 Golden Eagle. “At the end of the day, the Italian plane was better than the Korean one. We choose wisely for the Lavi,” Israel’s head of procurement of the Ministry of Defence – Shmuel Tzuker, said to The Times of Israel.
USA’s T-X program
An interesting remark, since a derivative of the T-50 is also in the running to replace the US Air Force’s Northrop T-38 Talon advanced jet fighters. This Lockheed Martin/KIA T-50A is also facing the heat of the M-346, enroled in the USA’s T-X program as the Raytheon/Leonardo Finmeccanica T-100. According to Israel the M-346 is better in quality of training, safety, maintenance, specs and costs of operation.
So far, 68 M-346 Lead-In Fighter Trainer versions have been ordered by the air forces of Italy (18), Singapore (12), Israel (30) and Poland (8). But there are new markets at the horizon.
A noticeable development which may also interest countries like Israel and Poland is the recently presented armed version of the Italian advanced trainer. At the 2016 Farnborough International Airshow Leonardo Finmeccanica showed of its M-346FT (Fighter Trainer) with light multi-role capabilities including laser guided bombs and air-to-air missiles. Airheadsfly.com already went inside deep at Lecce Airbase, aka the Master’s nest.