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28 March 2016

FIDAE 2016: Sharp Edge of South America - Chilean Military Aviation

Chile’s well-equipped aviation components make its military one of the strongest in South America, bolstered by some big acquisitions over the last decade. Although plans have been in the works to purchase further big ticket items like fighters and jet trainers, the Chilean military is instead focussing on upgrading and consolidating its aerial assets. One of the reasons for upgrading and consolidating Chile’s aerial assets is the decline in the copper price. Chile’s military benefits greatly from the Copper Law, which directs state copper giant Codelco to give 10% of revenue to the armed forces, primarily for acquisitions. However, with the decline in the copper price, this has seen Codelco’s contribution fall from $1.2 billion in 2013 to $989 million in 2014. Although there have not been any major acquisitions in recent years, all three branches of service have benefitted from acquisitions of some kind or upgrades and the consolidation of fleets to ensure relatively modern aircraft remain in their inventories – over the last few years, dozens of ageing or obsolete aircraft have been retired and replaced with new or second hand equipment.

FACh F-16 refuelled by an Arizona ANG KC-135 over Chile. (Photo: USAF/MSG Bill Kimble)


Tactical Types in Service

The F-5 fleet has been upgraded extensively over the years and it appears will be flown for some time yet, as a replacement programme has been put on hold for now. The Chilean Air Force (FACh) flies 11 upgraded F-5Es and two F-5F TIGER III+ fighters, the survivors of 15 Es and three Fs delivered in 1976. They were upgraded in the early 1990s by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI - now Israel Aerospace Industries) with Elta EL/M-2032B multimode radar, Rafael PYTHON and DERBY missiles, self-protection systems and improved avionics. In 1998, all surviving F-5s were given air-to-air refuelling probes. Only two aircraft were upgraded in Israel and the rest by ENAER (Empresa Nacional de Aeronautica) in Chile, which supports the Chilean military through upgrades, maintenance and repair. They are flown by Grupo 12 at Punta Arenas – they relocated from Antofagasta in March 2010 to make space for incoming F-16s.

Chile hoped to replace the TIGER III around 2015 and this attracted interest from major manufacturers, but many big procurements have been delayed, primarily due to the acquisition of major systems in recent decades, and it appears the TIGER will soldier on with the FACh for some time - during FIDAE 2014, Merex Group announced that, together with ENAER, it had started a pilot programme aimed at keeping the TIGER III fleet going, primarily through the replacement of the F-5s’ wing skins.

The other most important tactical type in service with the FACh is the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting FALCON, with 46 in service. The FACh began looking at buying the F-16 in 1994 as a Hawker HUNTER and Dassault MIRAGE replacement, and a sale was approved by the US in 1997. However, a deal for six Block 50M F-16Cs and four F-16Ds was only signed in February 2002, at a cost of $547 million, under the Peace Puma deal. The first aircraft was rolled out in April 2005 with deliveries to Grupo 3 at Los Condores air base commencing in January 2006. Deliveries concluded in March 2007. Weapons fit includes the AIM-9, AIM-120, PYTHON 4, Boeing AGM-84 HARPOON, Raytheon AGM-65 MAVERICK, and Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), as well as the LITENING II targeting pod.

The aircraft have been deployed outside Chile’s borders on training missions – their first major expedition was to the US in October 2012 when three of the fighters deployed to Texas to train with USAF and Air National Guard F-16C/Ds. They were supported by one of the FACh’s three KC-135E STRATOTANKERs. Most recently, F-16s, along with Embraer Super TUCANOs, exercised with the US Navy and its F/A-18s off the Chilean coast in October 2015.

Peace Amstel II

In December 2006, the FACh retired the last of its 25 MIRAGE 5s, with the survivors of 16 MIRAGE 50s following suit in December 2007. Ahead of the planned retirement, in October 2005 Chile bought 11 Royal Netherlands Air Force Block 15 MLU F-16As and seven F-16Bs under the Peace Amstel I deal for $185 million, with deliveries in batches of six between August 2006 and September 2007. The Dutch aircraft were sold in order to generate funding for the Netherlands MoD.
Under Peace Amstel II, the Dutch in May 2009 sold Chile 18 F-16As for $270 million. Three batches of six were delivered in November 2010, April 2011, and August 2011, and were assigned to Grupo 7 at Antofagasta. F-16s are flown by Grupos de Aviacion Nos 3, 7 and 8 from Iquique and Antofagasta.
The FACh would like to acquire additional Block 50 F-16s, reduce the number of second hand F-16s and retire the F-5Es. In the meantime, it is upgrading the used F-16s. In February 2015, Pratt & Whitney was awarded a contract to produce turbine modules for the F100-PW-100 engines for Chile’s F-16s. Chile has spent tens of millions of dollars over the last couple of years on turbine manufacture, as well as several new engines and has invested time and money into its Fighting FALCONs, with ENAER responsible for most upgrade work.

Training Aircraft

Bridging the gap between the 20 ENAER T-35A and ten T-35B PILLAN basic trainers flown by the Escuela de Aviacion at El Bosque and FACh jets is the A-29B Super TUCANO. The FACh ordered 12 from Embraer in August 2008 at a cost of $120 million. Chile’s contract includes Embraer’s Training and Operation Support System (TOSS) incorporating a flight simulator, mission planning station, and mission debriefing station. Although bought primarily for training duties, they retain their combat capabilities, such as their 12.7mm machineguns. The first aircraft was rolled out in November 2009 and the first four were handed over that December to Grupo 1 at Los Condores. Deliveries concluded in 2010.

Chilean Air Force (FACh) Super TUCANOs 

Grupo 1 also flies some 10 surviving A-36 TOQUI jets, which are variants of Spain’s CASA C-101 AVIOJET. The FACh received 13 T-36 HALCON (Falcon) trainers between October 1981 and February 1984 and another two in June 1991, with some being assembled locally by ENAER, which then produced 22 A-36 HALCON attack aircraft (a single prototype was also converted). 15 of these were upgraded with new avionics and SHAFRIR air-to-air missiles and designated A-36 TOQUI. The first was redelivered in July 1996. The T-36s were replaced by the Super TUCANO while the A-36s are used as a bridge.

The surviving 10 A-36s were recently grounded for a year pending a contract for new trainers, but when this fell through, a decision was made in 2014 to reactivate them. In March 2014 Airbus Defence and Space and ENAER signed an agreement covering technology transfer and maintenance of Airbus C295, CN235 and C212 aircraft and the upgrade of the A-36s.

In 2011, Chile expressed interest in replacing its A-36 fleet and the AleniaAermacchi (now Finmeccanica Aircraft) M-346, BAE Systems HAWK, and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50 were thought to be in the running for the $300 million competition, which called for first deliveries in 2016. However, in March 2013 it emerged that the Chilean MoD had scrapped a plan to buy jet trainers for budget reasons and would instead focus on upgrading its F-16s. Various manufacturers are still hoping that Chile will purchase new jet trainers – for instance, in April 2015, the AleniaAermacchi signed an MoU with ENAER to collaborate on the M-345 High Efficiency Trainer as well as the C-27J SPARTAN. A 2008 MoU covered the M-311 and M-346 trainers.

Future Acquisitions as Force Multipliers 

As with many of its aircraft types, there has been talk over the years of acquiring new medium lift helicopters for the FACh to replace its UH-1 fleet. It now seems this programme will go ahead. In late 2015, the FACh initiated the bidding process for the acquisition of new medium helicopters to augment its Bell 412s and UH-1Hs. $136 million is expected to be spent on 6-8 aircraft. Participants in the tender include the Sikorsky UH-60 BLACK HAWK, AgustaWestland (now Finmeccanica Aircraft) AW149, Airbus Helicopters COUGAR, Rosoboronexport Mi-171, and KAI SURION. Earlier indications were that at least two to three additional BLACK HAWKs would be acquired. The FACh currently flies 15 Bell UH-1Hs, 16 Bell 412s, and five Bell 206 Jet RANGER IIIs for training.
Another future acquisition will be the Embraer KC-390 tanker/transport. In August 2010, Chile signed an LoI for six KC-390s, which will most likely replace its stalwart C-130 HERCULES. Grupo 10 at Santiago flies two 1970s era C-130Hs and a single C-130B, delivered in 1991. The FACh in April 2015, received a former USMC KC-130R HERCULES, which was offered to Chile in September 2012 and transferred for $700 000. A second KC-130R was offered in August 2013 and was scheduled for delivery in late 2015 or early 2016. These serve as a stopgap following the halt of the procurement of new medium transport aircraft. The FACh is also exploring the possibility of acquiring four to six light/medium transports such as the C-27J or C295.

The FACh also flies 14 DHC-6 TWIN OTTERs, four Cessna (Textron Aviation) CITATION CJ1s (for training), three CASA 212s and two Beechcraft (Textron Aviation) Beech 99s. The TWIN OTTERs are being upgraded with new avionics, including weather radar displays. VIP aircraft include a second hand Boeing 767-300ER, a 737-300, 737-500, and Gulfstream IV in VIP configuration. The rotary wing VIP fleet includes a single Sikorsky S-70 BLACK HAWK and a BK 117.

Chile is somewhat unusual in that it is very long (4,300km) but very narrow, being only 175km wide on average. Consequently, aerial refuelling was deemed a vital capability and so the FACh acquired three refurbished KC-135E STRATOTANKERs from the US in February 2010 and August 2011, assigned to Grupo 10.

Another force multiplier is the CONDOR AEW aircraft, operated by Grupo 10 at Santiago. IAI converted a single Boeing 707-320C for Chile in 1995. Its PHALCON radar system has a range of 380-400km and the ability to simultaneously track around 60 to 100 targets. Other special mission aircraft include a Beech A100 King AIR and two Learjet 35As for mapping and surveying, a King AIR 200 for ILS calibration, and Cirrus SR22Ts for patrolling Chile’s northern border to combat drug trafficking. The first two of these was received in May 2013, and Cirrus delivered another two in August 2015.

Armada de Chile’s Aviacion Naval (Naval Aviation)

Although the FACh is well equipped, the military’s other arms of service also have sizeable aviation components. Given its long coastline, it is hardly surprising that the Chilean Navy has a relatively large air wing, especially as its territory includes the Strait of Magellan. The Chilean Navy flies three Lockheed Martin P-3ACh ORIONs in the maritime patrol role and these have recently benefitted from the P-3 MLU, which involves replacing wing and horizontal stabiliser components and using corrosion resistant materials. This gives decades more life to the aircraft, which are expected to serve until 2030. Two P-3s were upgraded by Safe Air in New Zealand with IAI Elta EL/M-2022 radar. Other upgrades involve the ability to fire HARPOON missiles. Chile uses three ORIONs for maritime patrol and one for transport.

A Chilean Navy Super PUMA on the USS MITSCHER. (Photo: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Damien Horvath)

The Navy also flies three C295 MPAs and has plans to acquire another three. Other types in service include three CN235s, seven Pilatus PC-7s, and one Embraer C-111. From 2016, Chile’s Naval Aviation will receive a boost with the acquisition of new platforms. On 29 September 2015, Vulcanair announced it would supply seven P68 OBSERVER 2 aircraft under Project Piquerob. Five will be delivered in 2016 and two in 2017 and used for SAR, maritime policing, reconnaissance and MEDEVAC, replacing the 1960s-era Cessna O-2A SKYMASTER fleet, operated by VC-1 at Base Aeronavale Concon (Vina del Mar). They will be equipped with an Automatic Identification System (AIS), infrared camera and other mission equipment.

On the rotary wing side, the Navy flies five Airbus Helicopter AS532SC Super PUMAs (SH-32), armed with MBDA EXOCET missiles. Two medium lift Super Pumas were also acquired second hand in 2012 for shipboard use. Other helicopters include several UH-1s, five Jet Rangers (H-57s), four AS365Ns and four SA365F1s.

Brigada de Aviacion Ejercito de Chile

On the landward side, the Ejercito de Chile (Chilean Army) has a sizeable air wing. Army Aviation flies a number of helicopters, including the Airbus Helicopters COUGAR. Eight early models were delivered and these are being augmented by three AS532ALe COUGAR Mk 1s, the first of which was handed over in March 2014. At one stage the service was looking to acquire up to 18 additional Super PUMA/COUGARs, light armed helicopters, and attack helicopters to replace its 15 rocket and machinegun armed MD530s, but such plans have been delayed. Other types include four AS350s, three CN235s and three Cessna 208B Grand CARAVANs. In 2014 it expressed interest in acquiring four medium transports but this project has not gone far.

Two new Cessna 172S SKYHAWKs, fitted with Garmin 1000 glass cockpits and other equipment, were in April 2015 handed over at Eulogio Sanchez Airfield for pilot training. The Army previously flew 19 R172K HAWK XP IIs, but the last three were withdrawn in November 2012.

The Army also operates a single Cessna 680 CITATION SOVEREIGN, acquired second hand from the US in late 2012 and operated by Regimiento de Aviacion No 1/Batallon de Aviones at Rancagua-La Independencia.


For more information please see MILITARY TECHNOLOGY #03/2016, available at the show at Pavilion E, Stand 13; and frequently check back for more NEWS FROM THE FLOOR.