:: August 2007 Letter ::


Dear Fellow Aircraft Anthropologists,

Best part of any vacation: local aviation content (and an indulgent wife). Most countries have some kind of aviation legacy, a story told through museums, monuments or planes. This summer I found myself in Istanbul for a week. For a big and increasingly prosperous country Turkey has a small aerospace sector, but I was delighted to read in the local papers about the latest proud Turkish national plane. It’s a turboprop trainer, about the size of a PC-9/T-6. Its proud creators decided to name it after Vecihi Hurkus, a proud pioneer of proud Turkish aviation. Reading this story brightened an already bright hotel rooftop glass of raki.

Yet this summer a funny thing happened. Turkey’s trainer procurement officials took a look at this handsome winged avatar of national glory, and, with understandable pride said, “umm…no thank you.” They decided to purchase Korean KT-1s instead.

We can’t know what those procurement officials were thinking. They were likely concerned that the Hurkus wouldn’t be ready in time to meet the requirement (it flies in 2009). But say what you will about Turkish defense procurement practices (and if you’re well informed you won’t say anything good); this was a great moment. It’s possible the officials said, “We’re tasked with buying a good trainer for our pilots at a good price. The rest is irrelevant. This foreign trainer looks like a wise choice.” If that’s what they said, these guys are heroes. Heroes with truncated careers, perhaps, but heroes nevertheless.

This trainer decision made me think about the toxic effect nationalism has on combat effectiveness. For years, countries assumed that a national military aerospace company was a great way to promote economic development. They also assumed that this decision didn’t hurt their national militaries. Both assumptions were very wrong. All of the national planes that resulted—India’s LCA, Japan’s F-2, Israel’s Kfir and Lavi, Brazil/Italy’s AMX, China’s entire domestic fighter line, Taiwan’ Ching Kuo, Yugoslavia’s YugoFighter (I made that up, but they worked on some kind of fighter), and others—produced little or no technological or industrial development. Worse, they burdened their national air forces with an inferior or overpriced plane.

The main problem, of course, is lack of competition. Militaries need the freedom to buy the best plane at the best price. “Buy local” requirements are bad enough, but buying local from a government-owned creation with the capabilities of a start-up company can be disastrous. As the CEO of a state-run emerging market aerospace company told me, “We don’t worry about customer relations. We are the customer.” To put a twist on one of Murphy’s laws of combat: Never forget your weapon was made by someone who didn’t need to make any kind of bid at all.

In its practical effects on an air force, aviation nationalism is a close cousin of corruption. Also this summer, it became stunningly clear that the Royal Saudi Air Force Tornado buy had a checkered past. The UK Government stopped its Al Yamamah investigation, transferring the case from the SFO (Serious Fraud Office) to the RQTFO (Really Quite Trivial Fraud Office). Without commenting on the Tornado itself, we can say the RSAF procured aircraft for reasons possibly unrelated to performance. Not only was their weapon probably made by someone who didn’t need to make a bid, but that non-bid may have been accompanied by hefty “commissions.” Practices like these undermine a military force.

Countries with established manufacturers are hostage to national planes too, but established producer countries are leading the way in internationalizing their programs, like JSF and Eurofighter. The US is also opening its defense market with the presidential helicopter, Light Utility Helicopter, and Joint Cargo Aircraft decisions. Northrop Grumman/EADS might not have a great chance of winning KC-X. But if the USAF takes their bid seriously, it would represent the strongest sign yet that the US is an open market and that it puts military effectiveness above nationalism. The USAF should ignore rallies in Mobile and Seattle and focus on the requirement.

The next big test will be Japan’s F-X program. The military wants F-22s or F-35s, but the local industry boosters want something that can be built in-country, like more F-15s or updated F-2s. Unlike the RSAF, corruption isn’t a factor here. It’s a pure battle between military requirements versus jobs and business. The last Japanese aircraft selection might provide a cautionary tale—they went with the locally-built P-X over Boeing’s far more effective P-8/MMA. I suspect many Japanese servicemen rue that choice.

The best procurement practice is obvious: keep aircraft selection independent from everything except aircraft effectiveness. It should be about what’s best for the military, not what’s best for industry, jobs, or national pride. One great breakthrough in commercial aviation is WTO’s Agreement on Trade in Civil Aircraft (ATCA). ATCA prohibits signatory countries from mandating national jets, or even jets with local content, for their national airlines. Even China, which has “observer” status in ATCA, has largely abided by this agreement.

Whenever new national jetliners are mentioned you hear, “well, they’ll build it for their national airlines.” If the world really worked like that (if we didn’t have ATCA), civil aviation in many countries would be in dreadful shape. Yet that’s how most Air Forces are run.

Back to Turkey. Like many countries, it’s suffering a few nationalist ills including outbreaks of conspiratorial paranoia and elevated self-importance. But they’ve avoided aerospace nationalism, which is good news. It’s also a fantastic country, with great food, great people and great things to see. Stay at the Four Seasons in Istanbul, converted from the scary prison from Midnight Express (in the bad old days that’s where those trainer procurement guys would’ve been sent). You may also want to split your week as we did, staying in Taksim/Beyoglu, across the Golden Horn. Restaurants and nightlife are better there, but there’s less history.

This month: updates of the Rotorcraft and Regional market overviews. Also, updates of the F-22, F-117, A-4, A139, AS350, Il-96, Tu-204, SJ30, and T-4 reports. Have a great month.

Yours, Until The USN Buys Rafales And The French Navy Gets F-35Cs,
Richard Aboulafia


© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.
  ~  Last updated on January 08, 2006