In China’s shadow, region eyes upgrade of aging fighter jets

Despite tight budgets across the region, sales executives say they are busier than ever after a five-year lull — and both industry and government sources say the next months could see several multibillion-dollar deals from Malaysia to Vietnam.

A trade conference held in Kuala Lumpur this week thronged with would-be buyers and salesmen from Russian, French, British, Chinese, Pakistani and American firms. Held every other year, attendees reported it was busier than ever.

A prime drawcard was one of the region’s biggest prizes: Malaysia, which is set to finally replace its Russian 1990s-era MiG-29 fighters after several years of delays. Industry sources say Kuala Lumpur could buy up to 18 jets, a deal potentially worth more than $2.5 billion.

Options include the Saab Gripen, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Russian Sukhoi Su-30, and the Sino-Pakistani JF-17. France is optimistic about winning an order for Dassault-built Rafales but other bidders are also hopeful.

“We are hoping to make Malaysia the ninth country to buy the Typhoon,” said John Brosnan, who heads the Asian business for BAE Systems BAES.L, one of the partners in the Eurofighter consortium. Malaysia’s defense ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the talks.

Vietnam, eyeing options beyond traditional supplier Russia, is among those next on the buyers list. It has had preliminary talks with Saab and France’s Dassault to purchase at least 12 fighter jets, industry sources and a separate source familiar with the government talks said.

“They seem to be keen on moving away from Russia, but it has been dormant so far,” said Kaj Rosander, regional director for Gripen exports at Saab. “It looks like the next call will be on Vietnam.”

Industry sources say Vietnam is also in talks with Moscow over several Su-35s. Officials at Rosoboronexport, Russia’s arms export agency, declined to comment on any negotiations.

Vietnamese officials rarely comment on procurement matters, and did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.


While reluctant to comment publicly, officials in countries including Indonesia and Vietnam privately say their renewed interest in new fighter jets is driven in large part by China’s growing presence in the disputed South China Sea.

Chinese state media reported this week that a military plane had landed on Fiery Cross Reef, one of a number of new runways on reclaimed artificial islands, fueling expectations that China will soon deploy fighter jets at the doorstep of many of the Southeast Asian claimants.

“Rising tensions in [the Asia-Pacific region] have seen a long overdue process of military modernization move up the political agenda in a number of countries,” Craig Caffrey, principal analyst at IHS Jane’s said in a report. “The Philippines, Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam are all following China’s lead and we see no sign of this trend coming to an end.”

Beijing for its part says it needs the facilities for self-defense and says the United States and others are militarizing the region, not China.

By rights, US defense firms should be benefiting as the region renews and revamps — they were a heavy presence in Southeast Asian sales in the 1980s and 1990s. But now they face tough competition, as well as tighter purse strings.

Thailand, which has Northrop F-5s and Lockheed Martin F-16s, has bought the Saab Gripen and could order more from the Swedes, say industry sources familiar with the negotiations.

“We do want new jets, we have long-term plans, but we don’t have the money for it,” Maj. Gen. Kongcheep Tantrawanit, Thai defense ministry spokesman, said. “There are no deals in the making right now.”

Boeing executives had been plugging their F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to Malaysia, which operates the older Boeing F-18 Hornet variants. But Kuala Lumpur appears to be leaning towards the Europeans, say industry sources.

Boeing’s only presence at this week’s show was to promote its unmanned systems. Boeing officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Indonesia, which operates older Lockheed Martin F-16s, is close to an order for Russian Su-35s to supplement its Su-30s, industry and government sources said.

It is also a partner in the Korean Aerospace Industry KF-X fighter jet program, which Lockheed is helping to develop. Lockheed did not respond to requests for comment.

For US players, that leaves the list of likely partners at Singapore, which operates only US fighter jets and is a partner in the Lockheed F-35 program.

The region’s other supplier, of course, is China itself.

Its JF-17, which it developed with Pakistan, is being marketed as a viable low-cost option for air forces, including Malaysia and Myanmar.


Japan’s fighter jet scrambles against Chinese planes more than doubled in the first three months of the year, underscoring a “tougher security environment,” the Defense Ministry said on Friday.

Japanese combat planes scrambled 198 times to prevent possible incursions by Chinese planes, up from 93 times from January to March last year.

In the year that ended on March 31, such scrambles rose 23% from a year earlier to a record 571.

“The numbers of scrambles alone do not tell the whole story, but we should recognize that the increase… indicates a tougher security environment,” Kazuhiko Fukuda, head of public affairs at the Japanese Self-Defense Forces’ Joint Staff, told reporters.

“China is modernizing its air force and is clearly aiming to improve its air combat capability in faraway skies…. Concrete activities based on those targets are reflected in these numbers.”

Japan’s ties with China have been strained by a dispute over a group of tiny East China Sea islands, regional rivalry and the legacy of Japan’s Pacific War aggression.

Patrol ships and fighter jets routinely shadow each other near the uninhabited islets that are controlled by Japan, raising concern that an unintended collision or other accidents could develop into a larger clash.

Source: Bworld Online