America Pivots to Asia; Europe Arms It

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America Pivots to Asia; Europe Arms It

European firms are providing their Asian customers with some core capabilities.

A neglected aspect of the analysis of the evolution of Asian defense and security is the contribution of the European defense industry. Major players in Europe (and in the United States) are seeking global markets to remain viable and to evolve over time. Defense and security is not a static business; it is highly competitive and modernization is always a key element of the equation. Global customers are a crucial element for U.S. or European defense firms to remain on the cutting edge and to be viable in challenging economic conditions.

European firms provide capabilities in many areas of interest to Asian customers, notably military aerospace, weapons and naval systems. The military aerospace and weapons part of this equation warrants particular note, as does the dynamics of change in the Asian market for these products. The point is simply this: European firms are providing core capabilities for Asian customers and are an important part of the military equation in region.

Perhaps governments will follow as well. Notably, last month the United Kingdom signed agreements with Japan creating a legal framework for defense and security cooperation between their two countries. focusing on defense and security issues.

During the signing of the agreements, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “Japan is a key ally of the U.K. and we work closely together on many issues of global foreign and security policy. This is a groundbreaking agreement, which will enable joint research, development and production of defense equipment.”

This agreement in particular is significant, as it makes the U.K. the first country in the world to sign such a comprehensive agreement with Japan to jointly participate in these activities. The U.K. government also mentioned that the first collaboration project between the U.K. and Japan will involve chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear protection, while future projects will involve other industries.

This agreement underscores the largely overlooked fact that the European defense industry plays a growing role in Asian defense and security. A number of changes in the Asian defense market are driving this greater cooperation.  

First, the larger Asian customers clearly wish to expand their ability to produce their “own” equipment.  What this means is that industrial partnerships between European and Asian firms are a key part of the growing European presence and that the “re-export” of European systems from Asia will be reality for the global arms market in the 21st century.

Second, there is clear concern about the security of supply on the part of Asians, notably with regard to the need to surge to support operations that might be controversial in other parts of the world. There is concern among some Asian nations that the U.S. and Europe would seek to use their status as defense providers to veto military actions they did not agree with.

To avoid this kind of veto power, Asian nations are looking to diverse their suppliers and reduce their dependence on oversea supply chains. It is crucial to have supplies in place if conflict comes to provide for operational flexibility. Europe is seen as enhancing this flexibility.

Within Asia, one can find the most advanced air tankers in the world, the A330MRTT.  Australia has five; the U.S. currently has no new tankers.  These tankers are really multi-mission systems, able to tank, provide airlift and complete other missions, due to the fact that the tankers carry fuel in their wings not in the cargo body of the aircraft. This allows the plane’s cargo area to be used for a range of other purposes.

The Australians see their new tanker as part of their requirement to operate in a wider arc around Australia to protect their interests and to support other allies in the region, including the United States. For the Aussies, the “tyranny of distance” of the Pacific can be better managed by its air assets and those of its coalition partners with their refuelable, long distance tanker.

According to Commodore Gary Martin, commander the RAAF’s Air Lift Group: “This aircraft can take six fighters from Australia to the mainland United States happily. Its loiter time and offload is almost twice that of a US Air Force KC-10A Extender.”

India is an another customer for the new European tanker, and others may well join in the near term.  There are currently five global customers for the plane, in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Another new Airbus Military product is entering Asia in the near term. Malaysia is the first export customer of the new A400M airlifter, and it is set to receive 4 A400Ms to complement its C-130 fleet in the 2015-2016 time frame. “The type will not replace the Royal Malaysian Air Force's (RMAF's) Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules, but serve to double the RMAF's airlift capacity,” Air Force Commander General Rodzali Daud said in a report by Malaysia national news agency Bernama.

In speaking about the A400M, M. Ghazemy Mahmud, the editor of the Malaysian based Asian Defense Journal, told this author that it is very important for Malaysia to be on the ground floor for the launch of the new European airlift program. He added: “And [this goes] both ways, for the European program to operate in Asian conditions and for us to be part of a new global program. Airbus is certainly not new to us.  We are buying the A380 and other planes on the commercial side with Airbus.”

When asked what impact the A400M would have on Malaysia’s existing C-130s, Mahmud explained: “A core reality is that the A400M will be used with our C-235s and C-130s for a long time.  In effect, a task force approach will be put in place. Malaysia has C-130Hs which is a relevantly new airlifter and the Air Force is very pleased with this aircraft.  It will be upgraded over time, but the C-130J will not be bought because of the availability of the A400M.”

The A400M is not just a competitive replacement for a U.S. product; it is a genuinely new product, has a new capability, and is likely to be of significant interest to Asian markets in the years ahead. The A400M features C-130-like ability to use a wide variety of airfields with the capability to carry oversized loads of the sort that the C-17 currently carries.

It will not be difficult to see how this aircraft will initially be used. In the current Mali operation, the French had significant challenges delivering the capability necessary for their forces.  When the A400M many years ago was first thought of, lift was considered somewhat equivalent to a truck or a greyhound bus. With the last decade of experience and the revolution in air dropping, the air lifter is an integral part of the kind of expeditionary logistics, which insertion forces clearly need to operate with for 21st century operations.

And the more classic variants of the original CASA line play a role in Asia as well. For example, Vietnam has bought the C-212 to provide for a key element in the maritime security efforts, focused upon perimeter security.

The partnership between CASA and Indonesia has been redefined and enhanced under Airbus Military (AM) as well. Specifically, AM will no longer build the C-212, which will now be the responsibility of their Indonesian partner, PT Dirgantara Indonesia (PT DI). Along with being built locally, the Airbus Military C-212-400s will be upgraded while a civilian counterpart will also be produced. This just the start of what is expected to be long-term cooperation between the two companies, who have signed a
“teamer agreement.”

With this kind of approach, Airbus Military is likely to see its market share in Asia expand; as will be the case with another key European firm, Eurocopter.  This company has had a significant presence in Asia for a long time, and has built up many partnerships in the process.  What is new is its expanding role in the security and defense market within Asia itself.

In my interview with Norbert Ducrot, Eurocopter’s Senior Vice President for North Asia, he discussed Eurocopter’s evolving role in the region. He underscored the significant position which Eurocopter has in Southeast Asia with their light utility helicopters and their Search and Rescue Helicopters, and he highlighted the importance of the working agreements with South Korea in shaping a new helicopter via production cooperation as a key change.

In 2006, Eurocopter and South Korea signed an agreement to produce the Surion helicopter, which is based on the Puma family of helicopters. The helicopter was produced through an agreement between Korean Aerospace Industries and Eurocopter. 

According to Ducrot, “It really is a Korean helicopter. One needs to realize that about 80% of the helicopter has been redesigned by the South Koreans; it is not simply license production for it is a newly designed helicopter. And we have an agreement to export this helicopter with them to selected markets. This is not a problem for us for the helicopter has no equivalent in the Eurocopter line. It is a new build 8.5 ton helicopter.”

He emphasized that the South Koreans and Japanese are really at the top of the game globally in terms of production technologies and techniques. Because of this it makes a great deal of sense for Eurocopter to expand its presence in Asia. 

An additional engagement of Eurocopter in Asia, which is yielding a new capability, is the Tiger helicopters in Australia.  The Australian Army is in the throes of reform and part of that reform is enhancing its mobility and deployability.  The Eurocopter attack helicopter – the Tiger – is a big part of this initiative. 

The French have innovated significantly with their Tigers, notably in operating them off of their amphibious ships in Libya.  This experience has been shared with the Australians and, indeed, Ducrot underscored that “the user groups of different Eurocopter products share their experience.  For example, the French and Australians are sharing their Tiger experience to better shape their approaches going forward.”

Finally, there is the evolution of these weapons. Clearly, a significant development for combat operations will be the evolution of weapons capabilities, notably intertwined with the new platforms or the modernization of legacy platforms.

An example of a European contribution to Asian defense via a weapons sale was reported earlier by The Diplomat, notably the case of the Taurus missile. As the article noted, the acquisition of the MBDA-SAAB Taurus missile would contribute to the “ROK’s new, more robust military doctrine.”

But this could just be the beginning, especially with the F-35 fleet coming to the Pacific.

An overlooked aspect of the Joint Strike Fighter Program is how it augments the market for those manufacturers whose weapons are on the platform. An entire weapons revolution is enabled by the F-35 in which key developments such as off-boarding of weapons are enabled. This means that weapons can be fired by other platforms, whether air, sea or land-based, while the aircraft is determining target sets.

Even though the U.S. has been the core architect for the aircraft, the implementation of the fleet will not be solely or even perhaps primarily American. The diversity of global weapon suppliers, located around the world – for example, in the European, Israeli, and Asian markets – will seek to integrate their products onto the F-35.

There are two examples already in play of how allies can work with the F-35 to weaponize the aircraft to the benefit of the entire fleet. The first example is the inclusion of a Norwegian missile on the F-35. Indeed, for Norway, a key element of the F-35 decision by Norway was the acceptance of the integration of a new Kongsberg missile onto the F-35 itself.

Through the development of the Naval Strike Missile (NSM), the Norwegian Armed Forces has established Kongsberg Gruppen and other Norwegian industry in the top tier as a supplier of long-range, precision strike missiles that will meet military requirements over a 20 to 30-year timeframe.

Historically, a Norwegian selection of an aircraft and a decision to integrate a missile on that aircraft would be largely for Norway or whoever else chose that aircraft and the series variant of that aircraft.  This is not likely to be a large natural market.

With the F-35, the situation is entirely different because the F-35A that Norway is purchasing has the same software as every other global F-35, and so integration on the Norwegian F-35 provides an instant global marketplace for Kongsberg. And the international team marketing the aircraft is de facto working for Kongsberg as well.

It is very likely, for example, that Asian partners in the F-35 will find this capability to be extremely interesting and important. And so Kongsberg’s global reach is embedded in the global reach of the F-35 itself.

The second example is the development of the Meteor missile by the European consortium MBDA Systems. The new Meteor missile developed by MBDA is a representative of a new generation of air combat missiles for a wide gamut of new air systems. It can be fitted on the F-35, the Eurofighter, Rafale, Gripen and other 21st century aircraft. The new U.K.-Japanese agreement could well highlight the relevance of the MBDA Meteor missile as something of value to the Japanese air combat fleet, notably because it can operate onboard the F-35 and on legacy systems as well.

In short, European defense industry is a growing part of the landscape for Asian defense and security. Even though there is an American “pivot to the Pacific” and key Asian allies are modernizing their forces, the 21st century is not a repeat of the 20th. The overall reconfiguration of Pacific forces is an opportunity for more than just American companies.