Could new fighter jets trigger regional arms race?

thabo masokola
Monday, 14 December 2015
Could new fighter jets trigger regional arms race?

It seems the honorary doctorate the south Koreans conferred on President Khama is already starting to pay dividends. The hidden strings attached to it are starting to show.

If the recent interaction between President Khama and Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) is anything to go by, then FA-50 supersonic light combat aircraft and its prototype multirole trainer T-50 could soon define BDF’s airpower. Reports from south Korea are indicative of a ‘done deal.’ The Korean fighter jets would be replacing the almost obsolete fleet of CF-5A and D variants of 28 squadron as lead-in fighters and trainers.

Apparently the current fleet, which was pre-owned by the Royal Canadian Air Force no longer, makes neither financial nor strategic sense to retain. Besides that, being pre-owned came with logistical and technical complications that rendered the fleet effectively redundant. As such, the BDF is set to be looking for brand new aircrafts.

The T-50, also known as Golden eagle, is considered an advanced but affordable multirole trainer for current and next generation platforms. Its co-developer Lockheed Martin is even touting it to bridge for 5th generation platforms. It can also be utilised as an attack aircraft. The FA-50 is however a complete state-of-art fighter jet armed with air-to-air and air-to-ground missile capability.

It is also said to have an avionics suite that con- tains advanced electronic warfare suite. Although airpower capabilities offered by this possible acquisition will enable us with new engagement systems and weapons with increased lethality, are they a necessity? There is no doubt that airpower can play a critical role in providing operational capabilities, deterrence and long-range projec- tion of military power, but I contend that such capability must be aligned to a clear military and geo-political threat assessment.

The question is, what specific military and geo- political threats are necessitating this acquisition? I am saying this because the new jets may end up just like F-5s as white elephants if not ‘paper- tigers.’ They are likely to rot in the hangers with occasional deployment as amusements toys at BDF Day and national Day celebrations. I think we are overreacting because our employment of airpower is not any- way reflective of our geo-political environment.

Therefore this acquisition must be evaluated in light of its contribution to the overall political object and political utility. It is clearly isolated from the political objective airpower ultimately serves. The thing is, we should understand war and its instruments as a means to facilitate a political objective. As such, the political impli- cations of acquiring these strategic air assets in a region that has been seeing moderate defence expenditure with exception of Angola can cause strategic anxiety.

It can be said that geopolitical rivalry in the region has undergone fundamental changes from previous times in history: rather than racing for a more formidable arsenal and stronger military blocs, geopolitical players are competing with each other mainly in diplomatic, economic, cultural and institutional arenas.

Therefore, if the rationale for acquiring these assets cannot be properly communicated, it can easily trigger arms race and escalate latent geo-political rivalry as a result of strategic anxiety. But on an optimistic note instead of seeking to monopolise power and larger spheres of influence, regional powers are learning to share power by peaceful and rule- based approaches.

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