(Revised September 24, 2015. See bottom of the page for the complete revision history)
Shortly after the contract signing for the purchase of twelve FA-50 Fighting Eagles by the Philippines from Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) last March (2014), the Department of National Defense (DND) thru its Assistant Secretary Patrick Velez announced plans to “upgrade” the FA-50s so these will have the capability to carry and fire Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles.1 This came as a pleasant surprise to me as it means more capability for the FA-50s we are buying.
BVR missiles are Air-to-Air missiles that have ranges of at least 36 km.2 Note that the FA-50s have NOT been qualified yet for the use of any BVR missiles, in fact the only air to air missiles the plane is currently qualified for are the AIM-9 Sidewinder Short Range Air to Air Missile (SRAAM) versions up to the AIM-9M version.3 South Korea, Indonesia and Iraq have also bought FA-50s, but if this plan pushes thru then we will have the most capable FA-50s in the world so far.
‘AIM-7 Sparrow Missile’
There are several issues that sort of dampens this planned upgrade for me though, the first is that the upgrade will only be for the AIM-7 Sparrow Missile. The Sparrow was initially made by the American company “Sperry Corporation” and first entered service with the United States Air Force (USAF) in 1954. Since then more than 58,000 missiles have been produced and served in the air forces of at least 20 countries around the world.4 The Sparrow is a COMBAT-PROVEN missile design, having been first used in actual combat during the Vietnam War and is credited with shooting down a total of around 117 aircraft since then.5
The latest version of the Sparrow is the AIM-7P which weighs 231 kg with a 40 kg warhead and a range of 70 km. Other physical characteristics of the missile are as follows:6
Diameter: 0.20 m
Length: 3.66 m
Wingspan: 1.02 m
Speed: Mach 4
The Sparrow is a good missile, but it uses a previous generation technology for air to air missiles as most BVR missiles now have moved on to using Active Radar Homing (ARH) guidance system instead of the Semi-Active Radar Homing (SARH)7 system used on the Sparrow. In simplest terms, the SARH system means that the aircraft’s radar “illuminates” the target with radar waves which are picked up by a receiver on the missile’s nose, which then guides the missile to the target.
The disadvantage of this is that the aircraft will need to illuminate the target until the moment of impact, limiting the launch aircraft’s ability to take evasive maneuvers. On the other hand, the newer BVR missiles with ARH guidance are more flexible in that the launch aircraft doesn’t have to illuminate the target until impact, the aircraft can provide datalink updates of the enemy’s position until the missile activates its own miniature radar when it is 25-30 km away from the target, and from there the missile homes in on its own. Another advantage of the newer ARH guided missiles is that the target aircraft will have less warning time that a radar has locked on to it because the missile only activates its own mini-radar when it is nearer to the target.
This means that in any confrontation between the Sparrow-armed FA-50s and enemy aircraft using ARH missiles, the FA-50s will be at a disadvantage because of its inability to maneuver while the Sparrow is in flight. Use of Electronic Counter Measure (ECM) equipment will help the FA-50s as ARH missiles are susceptible to jamming as we have seen in my blogs “Missile Boat Naval Battle Lessons” and “Modern Large Ship Naval Battle Lessons”.
However, I don’t think relying on jamming alone to offset the weakness of the Sparrow would be enough as the dynamics of Air Combat are a little bit different from the dynamics of Ships versus Anti-Ship Missiles (AShM). For one there is less reaction time in air combat because the closing speed of the aircraft and missile is much faster. Another is that air to air missiles are smaller and harder to detect than AshMs. Hence it will likely take a COMBINATION of JAMMING, MANEUVER, and the use of CHAFF to increase the chances of defeating ARH missiles.
Another issue is the fact that not all twelve of the FA-50s we are buying will be upgraded to have BVR capability, only 3-4 or 25-33% of the FA-50s will be upgraded. The main reason given is because of COSTS as the cost of upgrade is reportedly between P 800 million to P 1 billion PER AIRCRAFT (USD 17.8 to 22.2 million using the exchange rate of P 45 to USD 1).1 At that price, the upgrade cost is already around HALF the price of each aircraft.
The article is not clear why the cost is so high, I assume it’s because first, the cost will cover the hardware and software testing and integration of the AIM-7 to the FA-50 as the Fighting Eagle is NOT yet certified for use with the Sparrow missiles. However, I don’t expect this cost to be considerable, probably only a couple of million dollars, and most of it should be fixed cost rather than variable cost because once the testing is completed, the certification will apply to all future aircraft. Second, I assume and HOPE that the cost already covers the inclusion of a couple of missiles, which some other reports say is around USD 265,000 each (adjusted for inflation since 2005).5 At that price, assuming around 10 missiles per aircraft is allocated, then the total cost for the missiles will only be USD 2.65 million per aircraft.
Based on the above computations, it seems to me that MOST of the cost will go to LICENSING FEES to Lockheed Martin (LM), the owner to the design rights of the FA-50. Remember that the FA-50 is based on the F-16, but a smaller version and was designed and manufactured with the aid of LM. As the design owner of the aircraft, LM seems to have majority if not full control of what weapons the FA-50 should be qualified with, and could also demand “licensing costs” for whatever weapons that are to be integrated into the FA-50.
If the majority of the cost really goes to the licensing fees to LM, then it is an example of CORPORATE GREED which seems to be afflicting many American defense companies these days. By charging such a high cost for integrating weapons like the Sparrow into the FA-50, LM probably hopes to DISCOURAGE countries from using the FA-50 other than as an Advanced Jet Trainer and thus directly competing with the F-16C Fighting Falcon that they are manufacturing. It’s bad enough that the FA-50’s performance is not as good as the F-16, LM still went out to find more ways to discourage users from just settling with the FA-50s. An additional USD 17-22 million per aircraft will bump up the cost of the FA-50 from USD 35 million to USD 52-57 million, still lower than the USD 77 million the Greeks paid for their F-16Cs,8 but not by much and considering that the FA-50s will be using an older technology missile system.
I understand that this is just business and LM does need to be compensated for their excellent design of the FA-50, but why does it have to be USD 17-22 million per aircraft? Will they end up as beggars if the licensing cost is brought down to less than half of that amount PER AIRCRAFT? Some American defense companies nowadays seem to be obsessed about milking as much money out of their customers using their products, which is why almost all defense procurements the last couple of years have always had HUGE COST OVERRUNS. This is also why the United States (US) government can’t buy as many F-22 Raptors or F-35 Lightnings that they need because they just end up being so much more expensive.
‘Mediocre Combat Record’5
A third isue with the Sparrow is its mediocre combat record. When it was first used during the Vietnam War, it had a pretty dismal record with a Probability of Kill (Pk)9 of only 9% (56 kills out of 597 shots). After that war, though, the missile was improved based on the lessons learned during the war and its kill rate improved considerably during the next Yom Kippur, Bekaa Valley and Desert Storm wars, improving to a Pk of 33% (41 kills out of 123 shots).
However, out of those 41 kills and 123 shots, only 18 kills out of approximately 68 shots were made to Beyond Visual Range, driving down its Pk for BVR to 26%. To put it another way, the Sparrow missile is only successful one out of three times in shooting down another aircraft OVERALL, but this goes down to only one out of four times if the shot was made to BVR.
In contrast, a Rand Corporation study10 puts the Pk of the ARH missile, the American AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile (AMRAAM)11 to be at 59% (ten kills out of 17 shots) overall, and a BVR Pk of 46% (six kills out of 13 shots). This means the AMRAAM is successful at an around every three out five shots in total or one out of two times if the shot is made to BVR. Of course the AMRAAM hasn’t been fired as much as the Sparrow yet, but then again the Sparrow has not had as good as start as the AMRAAM when it first saw action during the Vietnam War.
(Note that most if not all of the above-mentioned kills were made against targets that did not actively use a combination of maneuver, jamming and chaff to counter the oncoming missiles. Using such combination of counter measures is expected to bring down the Pk of each missile further, perhaps by as much as 50%, maybe even more.)
Based on the items discussed above, the biggest question for me now is, Is the upgrade worth it?
Arguments FOR getting the AIM-7 would be first, it may be our only chance to arm the FA-50s with BVR missiles. LM may only allow the Sparrows for now in order to protect the sales of their precious little F-16s, hence we might either have to take the Sparrows, or not have any BVR capability at all. And even if LM will allow more modern AIM-120 AMRAAM or Derby missiles for the FA-50, how much will they charge for it? Likely to be much more so that it won’t be feasible anymore considering that the AIM-7 upgrade alone cost already about half the price of the aircraft.
Second is that the older technology of the Sparrow may be a good TRANSITIONAL system for us to work with as we have not had any experience with BVR capability before, hence it may be easier to go from zero BVR capability to the Sparrow rather than going directly to the latest missile technology available. There is a need for our pilots to practice BVR capability now so they can easily move on to if and when AMRAAM or Derby or some other BVR missile capability becomes available later with some other aircraft platform.
Arguments AGAINST it would be that it is too expensive for the purpose of training and operational experience; it uses a previous generation technology that is tactically disadvantageous to the aircraft using it as it won’t allow the launch aircraft to maneuver while the missile is in flight. On top of that, it doesn’t seem to be as good in terms of actual combat performance against the type of missiles our enemies will likely be armed with.
So personally for me, the answer would be … NO. IMHO the disadvantages just outweighs the benefits. I think the Philippine Air Force (PAF) would be better off spending money on ECM pods and training how to evade ARH missiles using a combination of counter measures to close in on ARH missile-equipped opponents and use their more flexible fire-and-forget SRAAMs, which hopefully will be better than just the AIM-9L/M Sidewinder missiles (for more on this, see my blog “Offsetting Radar Range Deficiency in Air Combat“).
Aside from the issues above, another issue I see is that upgrading only a couple of aircraft means that those upgraded aircraft will likely have faster wear on their airframes compared to the others as they will be used more often for both training and patrols. These are just my opinion, of course, and if the Air Force does find the AIM-7 upgrade to be still worthwhile, then I wouldn’t mind … too much.
If the upgrade does push thru, it will be again another of those now getting-to-be-boring first for the PNoy Administration because as I’ve said above, we have never had any BVR air-to-air missile capability before. I feel I am getting a bit repetitive mentioning about all these “firsts” by the Administration, but it is what it is, and in truth I am VERY happy to see that the DND even gets to seriously consider buying weapons like these at all.
(1) May 6, 2014: Originally posted.
(2) September 24, 2015: Made mainly editorial changes like improving the comprehensibility of the sentences, and then also repaired dead links.
DND eyes BVR upgrades for F/A-50s,
(https://web.archive.org/web/20140502110319/http://retiredanalyst.blogspot.com/2014/03/dnd-eyes-bvr-upgrades-for-fa-50s.html) ↩ ↩
KAI contracts for serial production of the FA-50,
Promise and Reality: Beyond Visual Range Air Combat,
(https://web.archive.org/web/20160312091608/http://pogoarchives.org/labyrinth/11/09.pdf) ↩ ↩ ↩
Raytheon AAM-N-2,3,6/AIM-101/AIM-7/RIM-7 Sparrow,
Semi-Active Radar Homing,
Greek F-16 and Weapons Buys Taking Off,
Probability of Kill,
Air Combat Past, Present and Future,
AIM-120 AMRAAM Slammer,