The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 10/16/20

 In Weekly Wire
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Boosting the Home Made Surion

Alix Leboulanger, Research Associate

The Defense Acquisition Program Administration’s (DAPA) potential plan to replace the Army’s UH-60P Black Hawk helicopters with newly built KUH-1 Surion may have come as a surprise in the helicopter industry. Despite a solid track record and scheduled life extension plan, the ageing UH-60P are likely to be phased out earlier than anticipated.

Financial reasons seem to be the main considerations behind this choice, with a simple calculation: it should be more cost-efficient to procure a new platform (circa $2.9-$3 billion) and gain 30-35 years of active service, instead of upgrading an aging aircraft for another 15 years of service life ($550-$600 million) and then eventually replace it shortly after ($3-$3.5 billion).

If this may be appealing to the taxpayer, some have raised concerns on the technical aspects and what may be the consequences of this decision. In other words, there are concerns that mission success may be sacrificed due to economics. The UH-60 Black Hawk is a battle-tested aircraft, whereas the KUH-1 Surion has a lower performance envelope (payload, range, and endurance) and has encountered serious teething issues in its early years of its service life.

Besides, another hidden aspect of the UH-60 upgrade deal would have been the possibility to acquire the US Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA – which will be either the V280 Valor or the SB1-Defiant) as a Black Hawk replacement when exports become available in the mid-2030s, around the same time the 103 Korean UH-60Ps should be phased out. However, some will argue the FLRAA program is still in the early developmental stages, with a lot of uncertainty to impact its funding schedule, time of award, and production rates. All of which means delays are more than likely to become reality. In a region where tensions remain high, taking a guess on a future platform not yet produced is dangerous planning, and for this reason the local Surion may appear more attractive.

Being local is the Surion’s strongest asset. Jointly developed by Airbus Helicopters and Korea Aerospace Industries in 2009 in Sacheon, this utility multi-role helicopter has progressively imposed itself upon the Korean landscape. One particularly popular feature is that the Surion by allows a high level of systems customization on-board from leading Korean system providers, something that is not always possible with export platforms. In some ways, the Surion is not necessarily only just an aircraft, it should be more seen as a local ecosystem, with thousands of domestic jobs and skills behind it.

Needless to say that the preference for the Surion is also driven by the economic aftermath caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially after Korea announced defense budget cuts in April 2020 despite its neighbors flexing their muscles. Unlike the 2008 crisis where helicopter platform upgrades were preferred over new acquisitions to contain procurement costs, arguing that rotorcraft were solid workhorses with a 40 years of service lifespan, 10 years later the story is different. On one hand, rotorcraft in service for more than 20 years are now reaching a tipping point due to higher wear and tear rates. Regional tensions with neighboring countries and deployments within allied coalitions have dramatically pushed aircraft capacity and driven down availability rates. Ensuring combat readiness and mission safety may drive requirements for a new aircraft instead of upgrading an aging one that will still need to be replaced in the near-future. On the other hand, preserving local jobs and ensuring more visibility on the Surion production line is also a matter of strong importance for the Korean government, especially when the aircraft has so far failed to secure export markets(despite being competitive in the Philippines and Indonesia).

Finally, one of the biggest lessons learned during the pandemic, notably in aerospace and defense, is the crucial importance of the resilience and continuity of a supply-chain. Becoming independent for equipment supply and production, while limiting reliance on foreign suppliers, is paramount for many nations, and in particular for Korea. Its recent announcement to start developing and building howitzer engines instead of relying on German systems is a similar example, illustrating this trend towards more independence. This self-reliance may eventually become lucrative on the export side of the business, but it is, first and foremost, crucial for combat readiness in a time of closed borders and disrupted supply chains. Moreover, due to Korea’s geographic location, minimizing the amount of goods that have to pass through numerous maritime check points before reaching the Korean peninsula is especially crucial. As of now, most Korean imports must pass through the South China Sea or Japan, and the Korean government is strongly determined to reduce this vulnerability, especially in times of conflict.

Therefore, DAPA’s decision to swap upgraded Black Hawks for new Surion should not be read as a simple cost/performance decision, but more as a value proposition to boost the local economy from a hardware and software perspective, and also a long term investment in self-reliance and a chance to strengthen its competitiveness in the global market place.

Israel

On October 11, the Israeli Intelligence Minister stated that Israel would object to any attempts to sell the F-35 fighter to Qatar. In August, the US said that it might approve a sale of F-35s to the United Arab Emirates after the UAE and Israel began to normalize relations. However, Qatar has not done the same with Israel, and it has ties to both Iran and Hamas – both of which are of concern to Israel’s military. The United States is obligated to help Israel maintain a qualitative military edge in the Middle East, so Israel’s objection is a hurdle to any potential sales though, not an insurmountable one. For its part, Qatar has said that it will not normalize relations with Israel until a peace agreement is signed between Israel and Palestine. As a result, while a sale of F-35 fighters to Qatar is not impossible, it is extremely unlikely.

Japan

On October 14, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries launched the first in a new class of diesel-electric submarines, the Taigei. The 3,000 ton submarine is powered by lithium-ion batteries, and when commissioned in 2022, is part of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force’s goal of expanding the submarine fleet from 16 to 22 boats in order to counter rising Chinese maritime modernization. She will eventually be joined by two sister ships in the following years, with a potential fourth boat being added in this year’s budget.

Belgium

On October 13, it was confirmed that Belgium has awarded a contract to Oshkosh for 322 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLTVs) that will replace the in-service Iveco LMV command and liaison vehicle. In September, the Belgian Government announced that an order would be placed worth EUR 135 million ($160 million). 135 of the vehicles are to be equipped with FN Herstal’s FN DeFNder Light 7.62mm remote weapon station. The order from Belgium is the first direct commercial sale of the JLTV, with other orders having been made through the US Foreign Military Sales program.

Bangladesh

The US Army is preparing to deliver an undisclosed number of AeroVironment RQ-12B Wasp UAVs to the Bangladeshi Army. Media reports cite an RFI published by the US Army on October 8, 2020 that also calls for the delivery of accompanying EO/IR payloads, ground control stations, and initial spares. AeroVironment’s Wasp UAV is a man-portable system designed for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance missions in both maritime and land environments. Should the transfer be completed, the Wasp would become the Bangladeshi military’s first major unmanned aerial platform. The WASP procurement could also be a harbinger of future near-term UAV procurements, as the South Asian nation has also expressed interest in tactical UAVs, such as Boeing’s ScanEagle, that could also be deployed for ISTAR missions.

Germany

After the Bundeswehr notably selected the Haenel MK556 as its next service rifle, displacing long-time incumbent Heckler and Koch (H&K), the procurement has been withdrawn. Following the initial selection on September 15 for 120,000 MK556 rifles, H&K requested an official review of the award decision. The German Ministry of Defense launched an investigation which has found a possible case of patent infringement. Other reports cite possible tendering irregularities and charges of dumping. The Federal Procurement Office (BAAINBw) will now re-evaluate the offers, taking the newly surfaced factors into account. Haenel had reportedly won the initial tender for based on price, with the Haenel offer coming in at EUR 152 million ($178 million), compared to the H&K offer of EUR 179 million ($210 million).

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