Thursday, 4 December 2008

Asymetrical air warfare

When you mention military planes to people, they will most often think of the high-tech fighters or supersonic bombers that seem to dominate the news. However, not all nations need such high-tech kit. In the same way that insurgents with cheap and even improvised weapons have bene killing trops in Iraq and Afghanistan , so cheap and/or outdated planes can (and have) been used effectively in some areas. Some recent developments have shown this.

In the mid-fifties the RAF introduced a new jet fighter type, the Hawker Hunter. After initial problems it became a very successful plane, with nearly 2,000 built for a wide variety of air forces around the world. Unfortunately it was also designed at a time when there was rapid development of the capabilities of jet aircraft, and it soon became outdated. In 1963 it was withdrawn from an air-to-air (the classic fighter) role in the RAF, but continued on until the early 80's in the trainer role. It was a cheap yet effective plane that had been rapidly outclassed by other planes (e.g. the English Electric Lightning).

Other countries that operated the type, such as Lebanon, Switzerland and Singapore, kept the type in service for far longer, Switzerland retired it in the mid-nineties, having upgraded them instead of using more modern plane types. This is a testament to quite how cheap and flexible the plane was. However, by the late seventies the type had really had its day.

Now, as shown at, the Lebanese Air Force is reintroducing a number (possibly more than five) Hawker Hunters back into combat service. These were withdrawn over ten years ago, and apparently will be used in a ground-attack role. In the middle of last year there was a conflict in Lebanon, and much of the fighting occured within the Nahr el-Bared camp in the north of the country. Lacking any fixed-wing resources, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) updated old Vietnam-era Huey helicopters to drop MK82 dumb bombs against militant positions. These were not ideal platforms for bombing, but it appears that the ability to bomb from the air was so useful that the more capable Hunters are being brought back into service.

Another case to point was the controversial sale by BAe of Hawk trainer jets to the Indonesian government. This highly successful trainer aircraft (a variant is even built in the US as the Goshawk) is best known for its role in the Red Arrows aerobatic display team. However, the sale to Indonesia caused widespread protests within the UK, as detailed below:
"In 1996, one Indonesia-bound Hawk was wrecked by three hammer-wielding women who infiltrated a BAE Systems plant. The raiders were acquitted for causing £1.5m of damage when a jury deemed they had used "reasonable force to prevent a crime". (source:
The problem was that whilst the Hawk is a very effective training aircraft, those same capabilities make it useful in the ground-attack role. This is especially the case when the opposing forces have no significant air assets to attack the fighters. The Indonesians were using the Hawks to bomb the region of East Timor.

A third case: the Tamil Tiger terrorist group in Sri Lanka formed their own air force in 2007 - the Tamil Eelam Air Force (TAF) . The prop-driven ZLIN-143 aircraft was modified to be able to drop bombs. Several attacks of varying success followed, including one attack that temporarily cut off power supplies to the capital. Many of their attacks have been against the Sri Lankan Air Force, which has capable Mig-27 and Chengdu-F7 aircraft. It is quite amazing that such a cheap, irregular air wing has been quite so effective against a much better equipped rival. Apparently the Z-143 planes are quite hard to spot when they are flying, and the Sri Lankans do not have suitable early warning systems. However, allegedly, the Sri Lankans shot down a TAF Z-143 in September this year - the first air-to-air kill by the Sri Lanka air force.

The Hawk apparently costs around £18 million per unit, compared to an alleged £69 million for the latest Eurofighter Typhoon, and £94 million for the F22 (although such costs have to be taken with a pinch of salt, particularly for the Typhoon and F22). This means you can have three or four Hawks for the price of one Typhoon (and I reckon the support costs for the Typhoon are also much higher that they are for the much simpler Hawk).

I have not been able to discover the cost of a Z-143; I would reckon you could get a handful of something equivalent for a million. An indication was that one was recently for sale for €165,000 (approximately £143,000), although I have no idea what condition that airframe was in.

If you only need air-to-ground capability (i.e. the enemy do not have any fighter aircraft), then the use of such aircraft is obviously cost-effective. Unfortunately, this asymetrical air warfare has been shown all too well by the the Lebanese, the Tamil Tigers and the Indonesians in East Timor.

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