With Asia-Pacific united by unprecedented levels of cooperation towards enhanced regional peace and stability, the sense of optimism engendered seems at times an almost palpable thing. Few would have thought, for example, that five years on from the inception of the six-party talks to attempt to find a resolution to the nuclear stand-off with North Korea, there would be calls for this assemblage to be transformed into a permanent vehicle to achieve lasting peace in the region.

Yet, behind the rhetoric, there lies a different story – at least if military expenditure is any guide. Over the opening decade of the 21st century, of the nations involved in those six-party talks, five – the US, China, Russia and the two Koreas – have increased their defence spending by at least 50%, while the sixth, Japan, has maintained steady budget growth. As a whole, this group now accounts for around 65% of the entire global military spend.

With regional powers dedicated to boosting their conventional war-fighting capabilities, Asia-Pacific air forces increasingly find themselves in the forefront of what a number of analysts are calling a ‘hidden’ arms race.

As Indonesian and Thai pilots fly joint exercises to showcase their continued cooperation – the latest, code-named ‘Elang Thainesia XIV’, in October 2008 being the 14th of its kind since 1980 – substantial purchases are being made across a range of assets and technologies.

Growing regional procurement

Since the R&D costs of many of the sought-after systems make domestic development prohibitively expensive, the region’s air forces will account for much of the area’s estimated $104bn defence import procurement expenditure into the next decade. In many respects, the writing was already on the wall. During 2007, Singapore ordered airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft and F-15 fighters, Malaysia brought new Sukhoi-30 multi-role strike fighters into service and Thailand set out to procure Swedish multi-role fighters and (AEW) planes, while Indonesia pursued negotiations with India for the supply of combat aircraft. The spending spree seems set to continue as moves to modernise or replace aging systems gain momentum.

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The immediate priorities lie in improving intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), with AEW, maritime patrol aircraft – essential to safeguard vital regional sea lanes – and network-centric warfare (NCW) assets receiving particular interest. At the same time, some hard decisions are being faced over balancing upgrade procurements for existing combat planes with the eventual moves to fifth-generation fighters in the future.

“The R&D costs of many of the sought-after systems make domestic development prohibitively expensive.”

Network-centric thinking

As the concept of the integrated battle-space takes root ever more deeply in regional military thinking, unsurprisingly there has been a concomitant growth in emphasis on systems that promote and facilitate the required degree of interoperability. With an increasingly network-centric view being adopted, technologies such as geospatial mapping and ISR radar have come to be seen as the key to maximised response, particularly for the smaller players on the regional stage. As Chern Wai Cheong, a Frost & Sullivan research analyst comments, “NCW is expected to drive the market demand for better radar detection technologies, and a better-networked environment.”

While the urge to adopt high-end technologies such as the latest generation of active electronically scanned array (AESA) is clear, the costs of these systems inevitably inject a restraint on their uptake by those smaller nations. The expenditure to establish indigenous development programmes also makes foreign procurement the only realistic option. Never-the-less, Frost & Sullivan says the Asia-Pacific ISR radar market was worth $381m in 2007 alone and they predict it to exceed $430m by 2014.

The fifth-generation paradox

Even as the fifth-generation fighters display their ongoing tactical superiority, enhanced situational awareness and inherent operational survivability to appreciative and aspiring military audiences, the Asia-Pacific airspace remains dominated by fourth-generation aircraft.

“NCW is expected to drive the market demand for better radar detection technologies, and a better-networked environment.”

In the context of the regional arms race – however covert – the lure of world-class avionics, stealth, multi-sensor data fusion, AESA radar and inherent network integration, which adds up to their much-vaunted ‘first-look, first-shot, first-kill capability,’ is hard to deny.

For those tasked with balancing the procurement budgets of the region’s air forces, the challenge remains to reconcile current demands to modernise and upgrade legacy aircraft, with future plans for fifth-generation purchases.

There are also many political factors to take into account and who buys what, and from whom, is often as much a question of expediency as it is of strategic planning.

Much of the debate has centred on US-built aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor and the fledgling F35 joint strike fighter aircraft (JSF). With legal restriction preventing the sale of F-22s even to allies, the JSF holds the promise of fifth-generation aircraft for many but interestingly only Australia and Singapore have taken a direct stake in the development of this fighter, as a level three partner and a security cooperative participant, respectively. And although there is political consensus within Australia regarding the purchase of JSF aircraft, there is disagreement as to the timing – while in the country as a whole there has been much discussion as to whether the F-35 is the most suitable warplane for the job.

However, the US is not the only player in this particular game; elsewhere in the region, other countries have their own fifth-generation development projects. A newly confident Russia intends its Sukhoi PAK-FA to be in service by 2015 having signed an agreement in 2007 with India for joint participation in the programme which will see New Delhi responsible for developing the two-seater version.

Regional giant China is rumoured to be some way along the path to its own design – known to western analysts as the JXX – while South Korea has plans to begin an indigenous development programme. Japan too, long frustrated by its failure to persuade the American administration to relax its rules on the F-22, is also considering producing something home-grown.

“The Asia-Pacific ISR radar market was worth $381m in 2007 and is predicted to exceed $430m by 2014.”

The market for air power

The Asia-Pacific market for air power is, then, a complex one, predicated on procurement decisions which are the result of the extensive balancing act necessitated by a myriad of often conflicting military and political factors.

Threat assessments and the demands imposed by strategic alliances obviously feature in such considerations but in many ways the goal of total inter-operability within the context of a networked battlefield has emerged as the key driver, making ISR and AEW ever more indispensable elements.

Consequently, although the market remains both highly competitive and potentially lucrative, it is also essentially fragmented and shaped by the region’s evolving threat environment.

As Singapore’s Minister for Defence Teo Chee Hean commented in his address to the assembled air chiefs from 41 nations at the fourth global air power conference in February 2008, “the inherent characteristics of air power – flexibility and mobility – make it well suited to meet today’s challenges.” Exactly how this air power will develop in Asia-Pacific skies – and how effective it proves in meeting the demands made of it – remains to be seen, but for the moment at least there are few signs that the spending will stop anytime soon.