The Chilean Air Force is a mix of relatively new and old aircraft, which are expected to be replaced. Several modernisation programmmes have been initiated, but the most costly ones – such as an upgrade of the F-16 multirole jets – have suffered from economic problems, which are a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Strategic Context of the Chilean Air Force
Directions of technical modernisation depend mainly on challenges, which a particular state faces, and tasks, which its military has to carry out. The Chilean Air Force (FACh, Fuerza Aérea de Chile), which was established in 1930, is mainly responsible for protecting national sovereignty and airspace. Chile is a safe country and thus the risk of a conventional aggression is very low. Therefore the FACh is mainly engaged in non-military operations, such as:
- Search and Rescue (SAR)
- humanitarian relief (including medical evacuation from remote areas)
For instance, in August 2021 the FACh sent supplies to Haiti, while in February 2022, the FACh deployed its Bell 412 helicopters to fight forest fires in the Araucanía Region. Aerial assets are vital in a highly mountainous country with one of the longest coastlines in the world (6,435 km). The main challenge for the FACh is a large area of operation. Chile considers itself a so-called tri-continental country with a unique position in Antarctica, South America and south-eastern part of the Pacific Ocean. An airspace under national responsibility covers an area of approximately 31.9M km². This also includes Antarctica, where SAR duties are shared with Argentina.
According to FACh Commander, Air General Arturo Merino Núñez, there are currently four main challenges facing the Chilean Air Force. Apart from maintaining operational capabilities, the list includes:
- a delayed modernisation of the F-16 multirole jets
- implementation of a civilian-military space programme
- incorporation of the PILLÁN II new primary training aircraft.
The backbone of the FACh is a relatively large combat fleet, which is composed of F-16 multirole jets. Currently, Chile has 44 F-16s in total, mostly of an older A/B MLU variant (Block 20) – 36 used jets were procured from the Netherlands. The MLU variant is equipped with:
- a new F-16 Modular Mission Computer (MMC)
- new Honeywell liquid crystal displays
- NVG night vision goggle compatible instruments
- an Inertial Navigation System)
- the ability to carry the BVR AIM-120C5/7 AMRAAM missile
Only ten are relatively new (Block 50/52 variant) and they were bought from Lockheed Martin in 2006. In 2017, Chile asked the United States for a modernisation programme, which would extend the service life of Chilean F-16s through to the 2030s. It also requested new equipment, including:
- 19 Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing Systems
- Multifunctional Information Distribution System Joint Tactical Radios (MIDS JTRS)
- six inert MK-82 general purpose bomb bodies
- two MXU-650KB Air Foil Groups
- 44 LN-260 Embedded GPS/INS units
No offset agreement related to the update package was announced. The project does not include the purchase of weapons.
It was initially planned to launch modernisation works on all 46 jets before 2021. Additionally, Santiago reportedly also wanted to procure between six and eight new F-16 Block 50 jets. Later, however, this initiative – considered one of Chile’s air priorities – suffered a serious setback. First, in July 2020 the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) notified the Congress of a possible sale to Chile of “equipment and related services for F-16 Modernization” for roughly US$634M. Then Chile announced that this project had been halted due to financial problems and the necessity to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. It was officially explained that “although the upgrade project has been technically validated and was awaiting an allocation of resources, a decision was made to postpone it due to health emergency and a need to prioritise state resources in other more urgent areas”.
Initially, Chile planned to phase out all legacy aircraft, including the F-5E TIGER II, MIRAGE 5 (5BA/5BD ELKAN) and MIRAGE 50CN (50C/FC PANTERA), and rely only on the F-16s. This plan was only partially accomplished. Chile still has ageing Northrop F-5E TIGER II light supersonic fighters, which do not meet the operational requirements of modern warfare, but are very useful in Chile’s harsh climate (which includes strong winds). Moreover, airframes are fatigued – Chile purchased 18 TIGER IIs in the 1970s.
In 1993, they were modernised to a more advanced standard, now known as TIGER III. They were integrated with ELTA EL/M-2032B multi-mode radar, INS/GPS together and various new navigation/ communication sets, in addition to the PYTHON IV and DERBY missiles, as well as GRIFFIN LGB laser-guided bombs. It is believed that 12 TIGER IIIs are still in service and no deadline for their retirement has been set. A life extension programme is under consideration. It is worth noting that in August 2018, representatives of South Korean KAI visited Santiago, where they promoted the KF-X programme (4.5 fighter aircraft).
The FACh has already initiated a long-term process of replacing its old trainers. Currently, Chile has the T-35 PILLÁN twin-seaters, which are used for basic training, and the CASA C-101 AVIOJET (A-36 HALCÓN) combat/trainer jets. Both were delivered in the 1980s. The latest upgrade occurred in December 2018, when Embraer handed over four A-29B SUPER TUCANO combat trainers (the first two from a total of six were delivered in March 2018).
Chile’s first order was made in 2008, when Embraer was requested to manufacture 12 SUPER TUCANOs for the FACh (selected over PILATUS PC-21, Raytheon T-6A TEXAN II, Aermacchi M346, KAI T-50 and LMAASA AT-63 PAMPA). The A-29Bs might replace the A-36s in the future and an acquisition of additional aircraft has not been ruled out. Regarding the T-35s, Chile started looking for a replacement in May 2019. At least 40 aircraft, codenamed PILLÁN II, are to be manufactured by ENAER (Empresa Nacional de Aeronáutica de Chile) and join the FACh between 2024-2025. A prototype is expected in the near future.
It is necessary for such a mountainous country to maintain an effective and robust transport fleet. The FACh has several types of aircraft, including the Gulfstream G-IV, Boeing 767 and 737, Learjet 35, C-130H/KC-130R HERCULES, as well as C-212 and DHC-6 TWIN OTTER (in service with all three Chilean military branches). Over the last decade, the FACh was strengthened by three KC-135 STRATOTANKER aircraft with long-range transport and tanker capabilities. Another significant upgrade occurred in 2015, when Chile received the first of two in total KC-130R (previously used by the US Marines and offered by the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency).
In 2021, Chile received two used C-130H HERCULES from the United States. They joined two C-130Hs previously acquired by Santiago and three KC-130R. At the same time, the FACh has been working on a procurement of medium turbo-prop transport aircraft. The FACh suffered a great loss in December 2019, when the KC-130R, which was en route from Base Aérea Chabunco) in Punta Arenas in southern Chile to the Antarctic station of La Base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva, when it crashed with 17 crew and 21 passengers on board.
The transport fleet, also composed of Bell 412 and UH-1 helicopters, was recently enhanced with a procurement of the S-70i (MH-60M) utility helicopters, which were produced in Poland by PZL Mielec (subsidy of Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation). An order was made in December 2016 and the last batch of three helicopters (six ordered in total) was delivered ahead of schedule in October 2018. The S-70i helicopters were handed over to the II Brigada Aérea’s Grupo de Aviación Nº 9 (2nd Air Brigade’s 9th Aviation Group), where they are tasked with transport duties (including humanitarian relief). They were recently used extensively during the COVID-19 pandemic, when they made numerous short distance flights of 300-400 km to transport patients from Santiago to hospitals in other Chilean cities. Due to the latest procurement, the FACh has now seven BLACK HAWK helicopters, including an S-70A-39 received years ago. More procurements of utility helicopters are expected.
One of FACh’s recent initiatives was a decision to upgrade its Airborne Early Warning (AEW) capabilities, which are very modest, but will soon receive a significant boost. Chile has just one Boeing B-707-385C aircraft, which was built in 1965 and was previously used by LATAM Airlines Chile (later, in 1990, it was transferred to the FACh). Due to fatigue, this aircraft, codenamed CÓNDOR, is expected to be retired in mid-2022. CÓNDOR is equipped with Israeli-made EL/M-2075 PHALCON L-band active phased-array radar with six separate antenna arrays.
Looking for an opportunity to establish a foothold in South America, China presented its C4ISR proposal in 2018, which included the Shaanxi ZDK-03 (AWACS) aircraft. However, Chile decided to look for something else. In early February 2022, it was announced by the British Ministry of Defence that London would sell (for an undisclosed amount) two used E-3D SENTRY Mk 1 to the FACh, “following a period of crew training in the UK”. It was also reported that a third aircraft was also acquired, but it will serve as a source of spare parts.
The ex-British E-3Ds, which are equipped with a single AN/APY-2 passive electronically scanned array radar in a radome on top of the rear of the fuselage, served in the RAF for 30 years. Despite their age, when delivered, the FACh will significantly boost its airborne warning and control capabilities, also including in terms of weather surveillance, communication and command-and-control. E-3Ds will be very useful also in other duties, such as SAR operations and protecting territorial waters from smugglers (this also includes drug dealers, which have grown in strength in Chile in recent years).
The FACh is involved in the National Satellite System (SNS, Sistema Nacional Satelital), which was presented in 2020 as a joint initiative among the Ministry of National Defense, Transport and Telecommunication and Ministry of Science, Technology, Knowledge and Innovation. As was mentioned officially, SNS is a “fundamental pillar to materialise Chile’s ambitious Space Programme”. It is expected that between 2022-2025, Chile will launch up to 10 satellites (in cooperation with SpaceX and Israeli ISI Imagesat International). Three orbital control ground stations will be enabled in Santiago, Punta Arenas and Antofagasta. In December 2021, the FACh created the Space Directorate. Its role is to promote implementation of Chile’s SNS. The first space images were acquired by the FACh from ISI Imagesat in September 2021.
According to Chile-based BNamericas analitycs company, the FACh has established a cooperation with the Chilean Ministry of Mining’s National Geology and Mining Service (SERNAGEOMIN, Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería) in the field of satellites. SNS was visited in September 2021 by Mining Undersecretary Edgar Blanco and SERNAGEOMIN head, Alfonso Domeyko. According to an agreement, which reportedly has already been signed, satellites are expected – apart from purely military duties – to provide information for the Chilean mining industry (including identification of areas with renewable energy potential), to detect volcanic eruptions (105 in total, 90 active) and of potential areas of natural disasters.
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