Combat aircraft sales potentially destabilising: SIPRI

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Combat aircraft account for 27% of worldwide transfers of major weapons by value in the past five years.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIRPRI) in a new report says this dominant position is even more apparent if all the weapons and components that are transferred for use with combat aircraft — missiles, bombs, sensors and engines (a further 7%) — are taken into account.

For the study SIPRI defined a combat aircraft as jet-engined aircraft primarily designed to engage in air-to-air or air-to-ground combat. “This definition does not include the substantial number of smaller jet-engined trainer aircraft that often have a secondary or even primary combat role (such as the Chinese K-8 or the British Hawk), other light armed aircraft (such as the Brazilian

EMB-314, the Swiss PC-7 and PC-9 or the US AC-208), anti-submarine warfare aircraft
or armed helicopters.” If these are included, well over 50% of major weapons transfer involved aircraft.

Eleven exporters delivered 995 aircraft to 44 nations, including South Africa. Siemon Wezeman, Senior Fellow with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme and author of the study, says combat aircraft are often presented as one of the most important weapons needed for defence, but “these same aircraft give countries possessing them the potential to easily and with little warning strike deep into neighbouring countries. Acquisitions of combat aircraft thus clearly can have a major destabilising effect on regions, as reactions to acquisitions in several regions show.”

Commenting ahead of Airshow China 2010 that opens at Zhuhai, near Hong Kong, next week, Wezeman says the fact that combat aircraft form such a large segment of transfers of major weapons “is neither surprising nor dramatically new.” However, with their potential for sudden and long-range attacks, combat aircraft are among the weapons with the greatest potential to cause instability. They are also expensive to acquire and to operate and thus place a heavy burden on military budgets. For these two reasons, transfers of combat aircraft have been and remain a matter of great importance and concern.”

 

Suppliers of combat aircraft, 2000–2004 and 2005–2009
(Figures are the numbers of combat aircraft delivered by each supplier. Figures may not add up due to the conventions of rounding)

Supplier

No. of new aircraft

No. of

second-hand aircraft

Total no. of aircraft

Share of global total (%)

 

2005–2009

2000–2004

2005–2009

2000–2004

2005–2009

2000–2004

2005–2009

2000–2004

China

41

76

41

76

4

8

France

63

34

13

24

76

58

8

6

Germany

15

14

15

14

1

1

Israel

9

14

9

14

1

1

Russia

215

287

4

44

219

331

22

35

Sweden

37

37

4

Ukraine

68

30

68

30

7

3

United Kingdom

37

14

37

14

4

1

United States

331

215

10

71

341

286

34

30

Others

13

152

102

152

115

15

12

Global total

739

639

256

299

995

938

100

100

a New aircraft include surplus (or second-hand) aircraft rebuilt to new status and aircraft already owned by recipients but rebuilt to new status by the supplier listed.
b Other suppliers include Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, the Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and Venezuela.

The SIPRI study notes Russia and the US are by far the two largest suppliers of combat aircraft, adding this is likely to continue. The US exported 331 new F-16C, F/A-18E and F-15E aircraft and produced a similar number of F/A-18E and F-22 aircraft for its own forces in the period 2005–2009. Russia’s exports of 215 Su-25, Su-27, Su-30 and MiG-29 aircraft outnumbered the aircraft produced for its own use by more than 10-to-1. “Based on known orders, this pattern will probably not change for the USA, while for Russia the proportion of aircraft produced for national use is likely to increase.”

Second-hand aircraft accounted for 26% of the aircraft transferred. Ukraine, with a huge inventory of surplus Soviet-era aircraft, delivered the highest number of such second-hand aircraft in this period—68 aircraft, representing 27% of the total number of second-hand aircraft transferred. After the US, the original producer and largest user of F-16 aircraft, Belgium and the Nether lands were the largest exporters of F-16s; with both selling aircraft that have become surplus due to reductions in the size of their armed forces.

Wezeman notes India, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, the largest importers of combat aircraft for the period 2005–2009, as well as many other importers of combat aircraft lie in regions of serious international tensions. Another dimension to be aware of is that seven of the eight states with nuclear weapons include combat aircraft among the systems for delivering these weapons, something not often discussed when exporting countries present sales of combat aircraft as “major business opportunities.”

Combat aircraft are expensive pieces of military hardware: the more advanced aircraft cost over $40 million each and often substantially more, SIPRI says. Acquisition programmes for combat aircraft are the most expensive military hardware programmes for many countries. The cost of the acquisition programmes is further heightened because other high-value contracts—for armaments, training, spare parts, maintenance and technical support, or infrastructure—are often signed simultaneously.

In addition, operating costs are high and significant costs result from major upgrade programmes (e.g. midlife upgrades) that many combat aircraft undergo after having been in service for 15–20 years. Because of their high costs, combat aircraft can weigh heavily on military budgets. Even for rich countries, the acquisition of such expensive systems may shape the direction of defence policy and doctrine for many years—once bought, countries are unlikely to dispose of such high-value assets quicklime.

For arms-producing countries, sales of combat aircraft form a significant proportion of their arms exports and are often the highest-valued arms exports. While all producers developed and continue to develop their combat aircraft for national use, they also see exports as almost a necessity in order to recoup some of the extremely high development costs. Governments of producer countries therefore often do their utmost to win orders for combat aircraft. This includes repeated visits by high-ranking government officials, including presidents and prime ministers, extensive offset arrangements, credits, technology transfers to local industries and fast deliveries from production originally earmarked for use by the exporter’s own armed forces.



Because of the high values of combat aircraft programmes, it is not surprising that companies producing such aircraft or major components or weapons for them are consistently among the largest arms-producing companies in the world.