Key point: Those looking for an affordable subsonic light fighter and trainer are turning to Beijing.
Flying a high-performance jet fighter is a physically and mentally demanding skill that requires a lot of practice—but each hour flying a warplane can cost tens of thousands of dollars in fuel and maintenance expenses. That's why air forces employ lighter, easier-handling Lead-In Fighter Trainers (LIFTs) to give pilots a chance to accumulate real-life experience with supersonic flight, air combat maneuvers, and weapons launch before they take the stick of a possibly finicky high-performance jet fighter.
The thing is advanced jet trainers like South Korea’ T-50 Golden Eagle are quite capable of basic combat duties short of high-intensity conflict while costing half or a third as much as a brand new warplane. For example, Filipino FA-50s and Nigerian Alpha Jet trainers have played a major role in combating brutal insurgencies in 2017, though both were involved in tragic friendly fire incidents.
The U.S. Air Force is looking to purchase 350 new LIFT jets following its T-X competition and is evaluating several designs costing between $30 and $40 million per airframe. However, China has already been phasing into service its own very slick and speedy LIFT, costing the equivalent of only $10 to $15 million, which has attracted interest in Africa and Latin America.
Built by Hongdu in Nanchang, China, the L-15 Falcon resembles an adorably abbreviated Super Hornet or F-16. The Falcon’s two Ukrainian-built AL-222 turbofans afford the trainee and instructor a backup should one engine fail, while multi-function displays in the ‘glass cockpit’ and the hands-on-throttle-and-stick controls give trainees a chance to work with the kinds of instruments typical to fourth-generation fighters.