On 5 February 2017, a version of the Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) was unveiled. The aptly-named “Advanced Hawk” is a joint-venture between BAE Systems and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). It has been developed using internal funds on an equal risk basis and offers significant enhancement of the capabilities of the basic Hawk AJT.1 The aircraft, besides being offered as an enhanced capability trainer to larger air arms – India with 123 Hawks in service being a prime candidate – is also being marketed as an affordable light-combat aircraft choice to smaller air forces. While the Hawk AJT was a global success story in the export market, the “Advanced Hawk” enters the market at a time when China has made significant inroads into the light combat aircraft market and would be a direct competitor to the “Advanced Hawk”.2
In choosing to create a new aircraft that goes beyond an upgrade of the existing Hawk AJT, HAL and BAE have gambled on being able to break into the export market. Indeed, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is reputedly not keen to order the “Advanced Hawk” as a combat aircraft and is at best lukewarm at this stage about its necessity for enhanced training.3 However, an examination of previous exports of the Hawk as well as an evaluation of possible customers suggests that sales of the “Advanced Hawk” may not be easily forthcoming due to a combination of fiscal and political constraints in addition to cost-effective competition from Chinese platforms.
The potential export market for the “Advanced Hawk” has to be divided into two segments – customers that want a capability enhanced trainer and those that want a cost-effective light combat aircraft-cum-trainer. It is submitted that the demand for the former is going to be less forthcoming than the latter as larger air forces may opt for upgrades of their Hawks’ avionics to meet future training requirements rather than purchase new aircraft. In fact, BAE Systems and HAL have already taken cognizance of this and are offering upgrade options to existing Hawk customers with various modules from the “Advanced Hawk”.4 However, in respect of the latter requirement for cost-effective combat aircraft, the “Advanced Hawk” may be on firmer ground but will nonetheless face severe challenges in finding markets.
The Hawk AJT has been sold to every continent except South America. While most of these aircraft are used in their training role, the Air Force of Zimbabwe (AFZ) made extensive use of the Hawk T.Mk.60 as a light-strike aircraft during the 1998-2001 Second Congo War. Armed with a combination of 30mm Aden cannon (in a pod mounted on a centreline pylon), unguided rockets and bombs, the AFZ Hawks proved to be one of the most effective strike aircraft of that conflict and proved popular in service – even acting as an interceptor armed with Chinese made PL-7 air-to-air missiles.5 This combat pedigree should augur well for the “Advanced Hawk” as it offers a considerable increase in those combat capabilities with provision for Brimstone air-to-ground missiles and ASRAAM air-to-air missiles.6 BAE Systems’ attempts to market dedicated combat versions of the Hawk – in the form of the Hawk 200 series – found only three customers (Malaysia, Indonesia and Oman) for a total of 62 aircraft. However, this does not in any way negate the potential of a new dual-purpose platform – good for training as well as light combat roles.
What is of much greater importance is the fact that the “Advanced Hawk” will be subject to the export control rules of both the United Kingdom and India, with export clearances being needed from the governments of both countries.7 This could adversely affect sales as at least three Hawk operators – Indonesia, Kenya and Zimbabwe – found themselves facing spares embargoes from the United Kingdom. This led to a major fall in serviceability and eventually resulted in the latter two countries withdrawing the type from service.8 The AFZ in particular viewed the sanctions imposed by the UK as being crippling to its defence preparedness.9
This experience has had two consequences. The first is a wariness on the part of some African and Asian countries about buying aircraft subject to UK export clearances. The second has been to open the market to Chinese aircraft to countries that would not have usually chosen such an option. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Zimbabwe where the much less capable Chinese JL-8/K-8 trainer replaced the T.Mk.60 Hawk in the light-attack role with the AFZ’s No.2 squadron which had earned an enviable reputation during the Second Congo War.10
Mexico and the Latin American region may also be wary of UK export controls owing to that country’s close political proximity to the United States. It is unlikely that Argentina would ever be allowed to purchase British combat capable aircraft while any attempt on the part of Mexico to make such a purchase could face additional complications should the United States object. Anticipating and working to circumvent these potential political pitfalls in advance could enhance the “Advanced Hawk’s” prospects for sales.
Despite these concerns, there is a large potential market for the “Advanced Hawk”. Countries that need to replace ageing Cessna A-37 attack aircraft (such as Colombia, Uruguay and even Peru) may be tempted by the capability enhancement that the “Advanced Hawk” offers, while countries seeking to supplement or supplant equally geriatric MiG-21s and F-5s may find the cost-effectiveness of operating the “Advanced Hawk” appealing. The need for replacements for these aircraft – particularly the A-37s and F-5s – is acute, as spares are now in relatively short supply while the extreme age of many airframes will be a cause for concern. If some African and Latin American air forces eschew the “prestige” of supersonic aircraft, the “Advanced Hawk” could be an attractive option.
However, even while readily realizing that this potential market exists, the cost of the “Advanced Hawk” may be a significant deterrent factor. It is as yet unknown what the aircraft will cost. But given the level of sophistication that the type undoubtedly has, it is an open question whether countries that might see the “Advanced Hawk” as a viable aircraft choice can afford to purchase it. This factor cannot be understated as many potential customers are now unable to afford replacement aircraft or even to maintain those in service. Uruguay, for example, can only keep its A-37s flying for two or three more years and has already grounded its IA.58 Pucaras. In this respect, China is well placed, with its JL-8 and its more advanced L-15 trainer/light-strike aircraft being attractively priced.
Yet, it must be acknowledged that the “Advanced Hawk” aircraft is potentially HAL’s opportunity to break into the export market. With the support of BAE Systems, the aircraft has the potential to become a “Make in India” success story. The extent of the success will be dependent upon gauging the market honestly and targeting the product appropriately having regard to all the possible constraints. This is an opportunity that should be grasped by HAL to establish itself as a viable exporter of aircraft and it should use its partnership with BAE Systems to ensure that this project succeeds.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.