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Wednesday, 29 May, 2002, 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK
The 'trainer' jet the UK loves to hawk

The Hawk jet is a British export success story - 66 could soon be going to India in a deal worth 1bn. But this lucrative sale is the latest in a controversial series which has marred the aircraft's image.
In the UK, the BAE Systems Hawk jet is a welcome sight in the skies. As the chosen aircraft of the RAF's Red Arrows aerobatics team, the screech of a Hawk's engine holds the promise of a breath-taking show of precision flying.

Red Arrows display team
The Hawk's playful side
However, for the residents of such places as East Timor, the arrival of a Hawk overhead would bring memories of a more menacing kind.

The UK-made military "trainers" were flown by the occupying Indonesians during their operations to suppress the East Timorese independence movement. Some locals said they carried out bombing runs.

Despite Indonesia's poor human rights record, more than 40 Hawks were supplied to the country during the 1980s and 90s - with 16 more on order when the world's attention became concentrated on the plight of East Timor in 1999.

Hammering the Hawk

Such sales attracted criticism and even activism. In 1996, one Indonesia-bound Hawk was wrecked by three hammer-wielding women who infiltrated a BAE Systems plant. The raiders were acquitted for causing 1.5m of damage when a jury deemed they had used "reasonable force to prevent a crime".

Indonesian troops in East Timor
Indonesia is accused of using Hawks in East Timor
In 1997 the new Labour government - despite wanting to add an "ethical dimension" to foreign policy decisions - continued to honour Hawk contracts signed by the previous administration.

When ministers did finally call a halt to deliveries in 1999 - amid an upsurge of violence in East Timor - three of the jets were already en-route to the Far East and, embarrassingly, could not be legally recalled.

Less than a year later, the UK stopped supplying spare parts for Zimbabwe's fleet of Hawks. The aircraft had been sold to Robert Mugabe's regime in the mid-1980s - just after his forces had killed as many as 20,000 opponents in Matabeleland.

Flown in anger

While the political violence which led up to recent presidential election did not rely on jet aircraft, Mugabe's Hawks have seen action during Zimbabwe's involvement in the calamitous war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Andrea Needham, Lotta Kronlid and  Joanna Wilson took hammers to a Hawk
Protesters declared war on the Hawk
The sight of these fighters taxiing on the tarmac at Kinshasa airport laden with arms brought into focus the claims made for the Hawk that it is a "training" aircraft.

Though the aircraft is indeed used by many air forces to give novice pilots a taste of what it is like to fly a more sophisticated fighter at near-supersonic speeds, the Hawk is not without military bite of its own.

Just add talons

A military training aircraft by necessity has to have combat capabilities, says Nick Cook, aerospace consultant at Jane's Defence Weekly.

"Right from the outset the Hawk is rigged to become a ground-attack aircraft. There really isn't much adaptation required," he told BBC News Online.

A BAE Systems Hawk
BAE Systems Hawk
  • First customer: The RAF ordered 176 Hawks in 1972, with the first being handed over in 1976
  • Speed: Mach 0.8 (approaching the speed of sound) in level flight
  • Weaponry: Can carry air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, bombs and cannon
  • Bought by: Zimbabwe, Australia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, South Africa, Switzerland, South Korea, Canada, Oman, Brunei, Malaysia, Kenya, Finland

  • The sale of 66 Hawks to India - a nation embroiled in a tense military stand-off with Pakistan over Kashmir - has re-ignited criticisms of the UK's arms export policy. However, there is little danger these Hawks would be used in anger.

    "India would be mad to pitch them against Pakistan in a battle environment. They would be quickly brought down by Pakistan's air defences," says Mr Cook.

    However, the relatively primitive Hawk is ideally suited to attacking lightly armed (or more worryingly, unarmed) opponents in low-intensity disputes, "at a fraction of the cost of major front line aircraft types" according to its makers.

    The Indian deal is a lifeline for BAE Systems' Hawk, according to Mr Cook. Though other orders are "trickling in", the future of the aging model is not exactly rosy.

    Flying into history?

    The design has been updated several times, beefing up its attack capabilities, but the latest Hawks are still caught somewhere between the technology of the 1970s and that of today. The aircraft could go out of production in just a few years.

    There are already foreign competitors keen to take BAE Systems' business if its deal with India runs aground. The Russians have shown a great interest in the "trainer" market.

    Indian troops in Kashmir
    India wants 66 Hawks
    The Hawk has been used by many decent and respectable states exercising their right to bolster their military defences. However, perhaps because it appeals to smaller, poorer nations, the jet seems to have been dogged with controversy.

    South Africa recently shrugged off economic worries to proceed with the purchase of 12 Hawks - to add the the dozen bought a few years before. Ministers said the new planes were badly needed to halt the nation's military decline.

    Opposition politicians countered this argument saying the money would better be spent doubling the police force, providing a basic income for 4.5m destitute citizens, saving 53,000 babies born to HIV-positive mothers and doubling Aids spending in the provinces - with cash left over.

    See also:

    28 May 02 | UK Politics
    16 Feb 02 | Wales
    12 Sep 99 | UK Politics
    13 May 00 | UK Politics
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