In recent times a number of nations such as Israel, South Africa and Pakistan have carried out large-scale programmes to upgrade aircraft, and by doing so have avoided the high expense - on average a new fighter plane costs about $50m - that comes with replacement.
There are several ways an upgrade can be made cheaper for air forces around the world – something for all technology vendors to keep in mind.
If the upgrade is done locally, for example, the cost for the end user can be brought down. Manpower is another issue – keeping installation and the manufacture of items in-house will make an upgrade proposition more valuable not only in terms of cost but also because exposing defence teams to new technology reduces training and upkeep costs.
From Australia to Pakistan
In the 1990s, the Pakistan Air Force purchased 42 Mirage-IIIs from Australia and discarded the avionics systems, replacing them with a new state-of-the-art system that boosted performance and efficiency. These aircraft were upgraded at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) at Kamra by local factory Kamra Avionics and Radar Factory (KARF).
The upgrade was carried out in collaboration with French company Sagem, which provided expertise and most of the equipment. The avionics package included an inertial navigation system, head-up display, an airborne video tape recording system, communication systems, computers, data bus, IFF, user interface and self-protection systems such as Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), and a chaff and flares dispenser.
These systems have been growing in complexity, and their importance has been heightened as the technology has advanced. Modern airborne radar, Grifo-M, was also retrofitted.
Extensive planning was required for the project, called Retrofit of Strike Element (ROSE), to work. A project team was formed to oversee it, and regular review meetings were held alternatively in Pakistan and France, where problems were brought up and solved.
The factory engineers and technicians were actively involved in the upgrade, and some parts were manufactured and quality-checked at the PAC factories. Only the avionics systems were upgraded, not the entire aircraft, which brought further cost savings.
Once the upgrade for the first aircraft was complete, Pakistan Air Force test pilots flight-tested all the new equipment and validated its performance. The new technology installed proved a resounding success. By going through this process, the local engineers and technicians of the Pakistan Air Force acquired experience and gained confidence to undertake any similar project with confidence in future, while the Mirage received new capabilities that improving its performance in battle dramatically. This exercise also saved Pakistan's cash-strapped air force a huge amount of foreign exchange.
As good as new
By upgrading an air force's existing fleet it is, to a great extent, possible to attain the performance and efficiency of new aircraft. Another benefit is that the pilots and the ground crew need only be trained on those systems that are being upgraded as the remaining systems remain the same. It also means that upgrades are carried out as they become affordable. As such, upgrading is an option vendors should also be careful to consider when proposing technologies to forces around the world.