I have been following ECA Program’s progress, or seemingly lack thereof, for some time now. A couple of years ago it was said that the company was close to working out a deal with Iceland to base a substantially large squadron of SU-27 Flankers, procured from Belarus as surplus, on the island nation to provide advanced adversary fighter support for European countries and NATO members. Since then I have heard nothing about the company or it’s lofty goals. Further, I have inquired with some of my contacts within the commercial adversary support industry about ECA Program’s lofty ambitions of starting a 4th generation commercial adversary support squadron and if such a goal were based in reality or if it was all just a pipe dream. Starting a commercial fast jet adversary support company is no easy or cheap endeavor, especially when you are talking about a squadron of gas guzzling and maintenance hogging SU-27s operating from a remote Island in the North Atlantic. Interestingly enough my contacts did not seem to know anymore than I did at that point, and it all seemed pretty far-fetched to say the least as many have tried to introduce large radar equipped fighter aircraft into the aggressor services market, and none have succeeded.
Now it would seem that the company, who bills itself at being able to deliver an air war in a box, complete with fourth generation fighters and a simulated enemy integrated air defense system that would mirror western nation’s worst fears when it comes to real world threats, has actually been funded to a certain degree, has opened up an office at Schiphol International, and is on the hunt for a fighter aircraft. It also appears that ECA’s taste for a heavyweight fighter, such as the aforementioned SU-27 Flanker, has been slimmed down to light fighter proportions. Flightglobal reports that on ECA’s shopping list are a varied array of fighter products from around the globe, including China’s J-10, Sweden’s JAS-39, and Russia’s MiG-35. It is not clear exactly what this change in platform means to ECA’s business model or if these aircraft are in addition to the SU-27s originally planned, although procuring a light fighter with a modern radar and a data-link would probably maximize their cost and fiscal attractiveness to NATO air arms. The decision to step away from a heavy fighter platform could also reflect the possibility that ECA may be rethinking it’s original proposed operating location, cold and remote Iceland (yes I do realize its situated perfectly between the two NATO continents but still, logistics are expensive in the fighter business), and may be looking toward a base on the European mainland and/or operate partially as a “traveling roadshow” throughout the continent.
Whatever ECA’s exact plans may be, the announcement that they are now shopping for aircraft may result in the true “tell” as to how serious their financial backing really is. If aircraft do not materialize it will be clear that the company has a long way to go in accomplishing it’s lofy ambitions. On the other hand if the firm does in fact purchase a batch of fourth generation jets it would be a clear sign that fighter adversary training in Europe may be on the precipice of a major change.
Of the three aircraft on ECA’s shopping list the Chengdu J-10 is the most interesting, as procuring that airframe would offer an interesting mix or euro-canard performance and somewhat mysterious Chinese avionics capabilities. But with such a purchase comes high risk. Will NATO forces feel comfortable showing their capabilities in front of a Chinese built and supported product? And how well will such a relatively new and very foreign system be supported far from China? The MiG-35 is a more mature and well understood weapon system, although the twin engine aircraft will be expensive to operate and MiG is not well-known for standing behind their products with quality support and plentiful spares. This is a big deal when you have very expensive contracts that you have to reliably fulfill in order to keep customers in a very small and volatile market. During large exercises failing putting up aircraft the customer has contracted for can result in tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost training opportunities, so procuring a reliable platform will be key to say the least. The Saab Gripen is a notoriously cost-effective, robust, and capable fighter which seems perfect for the commercial aggressor role. It can operate in austere locales with very little manpower and support infrastructure, it utilizes an incredibly plentiful and reliable motor (GE-F404/414 series), it has good euro-canard handling, it is fast enough, and it has been proven in service for well over a decade. In fact I always thought Sweden’s surplus JS39A/Bs were a perfect replacement for the Navy’s aging F-5N/F aggressor fleet. Further, older but very upgradeable JAS-39A/B models may be able to be had for incredibly low-cost, with servicing and support readily available from Saab. Although these are all interesting aircraft choices, ECA aims high when it comes to how advanced they want their 4th generation fighter to be. In their own words posted on their website they state that their adversary aircraft will be akin to the latest 4.75 generation fighters now hitting the market and will feature the following:
- 2000+ module phased array radar with DSP software control
- IRST double wavelength “staring” focal IR array with TV channel embedded.
- Helmet mounted display and targeting system
- HOTAS, fully digital glass cockpit
- Fly by wire controls
- Satellite link
- 10Mb/sec “Ad-Hoc” digital data link
- Fully integrated with ACMI Systems
- Superheterodyne based ESM/RWR with intra-flight “triangulation” mode
- High degree of data fusion from on and off board sensors
- Defensive jamming with DRFM technologies
- RCS and IR signature reduction
- ELINT interferometer receivers
- VTC nozzles (Vector Thrust Control)
Fielding modern fighters equipped with modern radar and data-link capabilities alone will set a new precedent in the ever-growing commercial adversary support industry, which has not been able to offer true fourth generation threat simulation as of yet. The truth is that ECA’s timing may be perfect. As cash strapped nations procure new fighter aircraft that many of them can barely afford to purchase yet alone operate, migrating to private contractors for adversary training, in the realm of both complex air to air scenarios such as large force exercises as well as simple radar target simulation, will be absolutely imperative in reducing training costs and preserving valuable flight hours on their indispensable and high-maintenance super-fighters. It simply makes no sense to fly a fifth generation F-35 against another F-35 for basic fighter maneuvers and intercepts day in and day out, offering more cost effective aircraft to fill these roles will not only be wise but it will become essential.
Although ECA Program may end up being the first commercial adversary support company to offer 4+ generation capabilities they will most certainly not be the last. Other innovative companies which are already deeply established in the commercial adversary field will adapt to meet what the market demands, in their operating experience and trust with customers will go a long way in winning very expensive and demanding contracts. Further, even a fourth generation aircraft may be expensive overkill for many aggressor missions, where the role of the adversary may be to haul an electronic jamming pod around while the “customer” practices simple intercepts, in which case a much more cost-effective and simple jet trainer may do the job just fine at a fraction of a 4.5 generation aircraft’s cost. ECA Program’s dream to creative a private air force stocked with advanced radar toting fighters and complete with surface based jamming systems and intercept radars is an incredible dream to say the least, one that may prove to be the cornerstone of their future success, or the cost crushing overhead that seals their fate. One thing is for certain, keep you eyes peeled for ECA Program because wherever they are going they want to get there fast and in 4th generation fighter style…