Murphy's Law: Free Is No Fun


November 22, 2010: The Indonesian parliament recently accepted the American offer of 24 F-16 fighters, for free. There was quite a lot of opposition to accepting this offer, with many legislators preferring to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy new aircraft. To foreigners, this appeared odd, but not to most Indonesians. Corruption, especially when extracting bribes from foreign arms suppliers, is rampant in Indonesia. So refusing free aircraft made sense, as there was no opportunity to coerce the supplier to divert some of the purchase price to bank accounts of well-connected politicians. Some Indonesians believe that the politicians will seek to make an illegal profit anyway, by demanding "fees" for the transfer of the free aircraft. As absurd as this may sound to foreigners, it's considered all too common to Indonesians.

Meanwhile South Korea and Indonesia have recently agreed to jointly develop a new fighter, the KFX. This would be an aircraft with capabilities somewhat beyond the top-line American F-16 Block 60. The best example of this is a special version of the Block 60 developed for the UAE (United Arab Emirates). The UAE bought 80 "Desert Falcons" (the F-16E) which is optimized for air combat. It is a 22 ton aircraft based on the Block 52 model, but with an AESA (phased array) radar and lots of other additional goodies.

KFX development is expected to take ten years and cost $2 billion. Some of that money will end up in the pockets of Indonesian politicians. Meanwhile, South Korea hopes to build on the work it did to develop its T-50 jet trainer. This is a 13 ton, two seat, single engine aircraft that is also available as a combat model (the F-50), which carries a 20mm autocannon and up to three tons of bombs and missiles. The KFX would weigh twice as much, have one or two engines, a single seat and the ability to carry twice as much weight in weapons. The KFX is expected to look more like the Eurofighter Typhoon, than the T-50 or F-16. The KFX is also expected to cost $50 million each, have advanced electronics (including an AESA radar). Indonesia will provide 20 percent of the development costs and buy fifty of the KFXs. South Korea will buy 150-250 of the new aircraft, to replace its current fleet of elderly American F-4s and F-5s. This is an ambitious undertaking, and success is not certain, especially when the timeline, budget and aircraft performance are concerned.

Meanwhile, Indonesia has decided to buy six more Su-30 jet fighters from Russia. Indonesia already has ten Su-27s and Su-30s, but wants 16 of these modern aircraft so they will have a full squadron. Although expensive, the Russian fighters are modern, and look great. They are also relatively cheap to maintain. This was all part of a plan to switch from American fighters (ten F-16s, and 16 F-5s) to Russian Su-27s and 30s. But free F-16s are so much cheaper than Su-27s, and the public pressure forced the Indonesian politicians to hang on to the F-16s, even looking at upgrading existing F-16s, an expensive proposition that appeals to Indonesian officials.





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