This week’s biggest defence related news from Finland is without doubt the announcement from the Ministry of Defence that a preliminary committee has been created to prepare the launching of an assessment about how the capabilities of the F-18C/D Hornet is to be replaced in Finnish service. The press release is found in both Finnish and Swedish, but so far no English release has been made. Note the keyword, “capabilities”.
The Finnish Air Force operates a mixed fleet of 55 single-seat F-18C (two out of the original 57 having been lost in accidents) and seven two-seat F-18D. The D-variant is fully combat capable, but its primary use in Finnish service is as a dual-control trainer for pilots practicing their skills. These are the sole combat jets of the air force, but in times of crises the Hawk Mk.51/51A/66 jet trainers can be employed as light fighter or attack aircraft with a limited combat capability during conditions of good visibility. In times of war, the Hornets would play a key role in protecting own troops from enemy air attacks, as well as attacking enemy ground targets. A rough picture of the main missions of the Finnish Hornets in times of war can be acquired from the weapons they are equipped with.
For air-to-air work, long the sole official role of the Finnish Hornet-fleet, the AIM-9X short range IR-guided missile is used in conjunction with the JCHMCS helmet-mounted sight. For longer ranges, the AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM medium-ranged active radar-guided missile is used. The use of these constitutes no surprise, as they have been the weapons of choice for most west-oriented countries for quite some time. It is notable, however, that the Finnish Air Force employs some of the latest versions of both the AIM-9 and AIM-120 available.
For air-to-ground work, three different weapons are in use: the GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), the AGM-154C Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW), and the ‘silver bullet’ in the form of the AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile). These are guided by the state-of-the-art AN/AAQ-28 LITENING AT Block-2 targeting pod.
The JDAM is basically a kit that is fitted to any Mk-80-series ‘dumb’ bomb, and turns it into a short-ranged GPS-guided weapon. Due to its vastly improved precision over unguided munitions and its (relatively) low price, it has quickly become the weapon of choice for air forces the world over, and has seen extensive use in a number of low-intensity conflicts, up to and including the latest campaign in Syria.
The JSOW is a gliding bomb, guided through the initial stages of flight by GPS coupled with inertial guidance, and in the terminal phase of the flight by an IR-seeker. The C-version is fitted with a specially designed two-stage warhead that first employs a smaller shaped-charge warhead to blast a passage through walls or armor, allowing the main charge to pass through and detonate inside the target. As it lacks propulsion, the range of the JSOW varies greatly with launch altitude, being roughly 20 to 130 km. The current state of the JSOW program in Finnish use is somewhat unclear to me. It seems plans for large scale operational use might have been abandoned as the JASSM was cleared for sale to Finland.
The JASSM is one of the most advanced stand-off weapons in service anywhere in the world today. It has a low radar cross-section, giving it somewhat stealthy characteristics, and is powered by a small turbojet, giving it a maximum range of well over 350 km (depending on launching height). It navigates in the same way as the JSOW, with GPS-assisted inertial guidance and an IR-seeker, but it also employs a data-link, being able to transmit data back to the launching aircraft. The fact that Finland as only the second foreign country in the world was allowed to buy these missiles from the USA is a strong political signal, an aspect I won’t delve further into, but for those interested Charly Salonius-Pasternak has written a very interesting briefing paper under the name Not just another arms deal: The security policy implications of the United States selling advanced missiles to Finland for the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
What is striking here is the complete lack of variety in the arsenal of the Hornet. There is no anti-vehicle weapon like the venerable AGM-65 Maverick or the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, no area weapon in the form of cluster munitions or even rocket pods, no anti-shipping missile, no anti-radiation missile. In a nutshell, all three acquired weapons are pinpoint weapons, designed to take out single high-value (hardened) targets. To put it bluntly, their main differences are in range and price only, with longer range demanding a higher price tag.
As a side-note, this can be contrasted with the weapons employed by the JAS-39C/D Gripen in Swedish service, about which Swedish blogger and air force pilot Wiseman wrote last fall (in Swedish only). The Swedish Air Force uses a mix of the Rb 15 indigenous anti-shipping missile and the laser-guided GBU-12/49 Enhanced Paveway II 227 kg bomb for their ground work, with AGM-65 and DWS-39/BK90 having been retired (Add. The BK90 was a gliding stand-off submunitions dispenser with 72 submunitions. Not unlike the A-version of the JSOW, it was cancelled due to political pressure on cluster weapons). Although it seems like the choice of weapons on the Gripen has had as much to do with politics as with operational requirements, it is interesting to note that the Gripen flies with the weapons the Hornets lack, and vice versa.
Back to Finland, it is rather clear that in the ground attack role, the Hornets will not perform close-air support or go hunting after enemy tanks and ground troops. They carry a highly specialized payload, and will be used to take out key targets behind enemy lines, such as bridges, command and control centers, communication hubs, and so forth. This mission is known as air interdiction, and there are a number of historical cases where it has been instrumental in tilting the balance of ground operations (and a number of cases where it has failed miserably). The use of stand-off weapons allows the Hornets to perform the mission from within Finnish air space, which should enhance their chance of survival.
It is also notable that the army has a large artillery park in comparison with many other countries, including both towed and self-propelled guns, as well as medium and heavy rocket launchers. While close air support no doubt can be devastating, artillery strikes on enemy troop concentrations can perform very much the same mission, given that they receive accurate target data and are protected from enemy countermeasures (mainly air attacks and counter-battery fire). Note that the MGM-140B ATACMS surface-to-surface missile, which Finland asked for and received permission to buy but then decided against, was not directly comparable to the JASSM, as it was not fitted with a large single warhead but 275 smaller submunitions.
The capabilities the Hornet provide the Finnish Defence Forces with during times of war are thus two-fold: anti-air operations, and attacking key enemy ground targets.
The obvious way to replace these capabilities is to buy a new fighter. The last Hornets are scheduled for retirement by 2030, with the first leaving in 2025. In the same 2025-2030 time span the replacing fighter would be produced and delivered. However, modern fighters are not cheap. The F-35C Joint Strike Fighter has a price tag somewhere around 91 million Euros if you ask the manufacturer, but this may be way higher (the naval version likely being a better fit than the F-35A for Finnish use due to the requirement of operating from dispersed basing). While the “list price” of a Hornet is given by the US Navy as 23 million Euros, for Finland, the price of our Hornets jumped due to fluctuations in the exchange rate and a number of administrative fees, leading to a unit price of around 49 million Euros. Still, this leaves the Hornet at roughly half the inflation adjusted price of the F-35. Another alternative is obviously the Swedish JAS-39E/F Gripen. The first Swedish order for 60 “refurbished” planes is at a flyaway cost of 33 million Euros per unit. Notably, the cost for flight hours during the life cycle is considerably smaller for the Gripen than corresponding figure for twin-engined aircrafts such as the Rafale or the Super Hornet.
Another thing to remember is that the production lines for a number of fighters currently in production will likely close during the coming years, including the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (2017?), the Rafale (2018?), and the Eurofighter (2017?). This would leave the F-35 and Gripen as the only western fighters available by 2025. A more exotic alternative is the upcoming Japanese F-3, the technology demonstrator of which was recently unveiled. With the Japanese showing signs of opening up their arms industry for exports, it might be available on the export market by 2025. However, Japanese high-tech weapons systems such as the Type 10 tank and the F-2 (support) fighter have been notorious for their high unit price.
The main problem in replacing the Hornet with another fighter is the development of ever more accurate and maneuverable long-range surface-to-air missiles. I discussed this in an earlier post, where I noted that more or less all of Finland’s air space would be controlled by Russian SAM’s. This naturally begs the question, whether it is worth investing 5-7 billion Euros (based on the 3.5 billion for Brazil’s 36 planes) in an air force which would operate in the face of a numerically and quite possibly technologically superior force, and then only at minimum height?
The obvious answer then seems to be that what we need is more ground based anti-air systems. The medium-ranged NASAMS 2/ITO12 system bought by Finland a few years back had a total price tag (excluding missiles) of around 366 million Euros. This gives a price tag of around 61 million per battery, which actually is in the middle ground between a Hornet and an F-35C. Of course, once deployed, the battery can maintain (or at least contest) air superiority over a certain area for an indefinite time as long as it receives needed supplies, but the difference in price is not as big as one could assume. Also, the benefit of the fighter jet is its flexibility, being able to move at high speeds between different areas of the battle field, and perform numerous different missions.
It is also important to remember that no single anti-air system can function effectively alone. The medium-ranged systems needs to be complemented by short-ranged MANPADS for use against attack helicopters and planes operating at tree-top height, as well as long-ranged sensors and C3-systems to give a correct situational picture. All in all, this kind of layered defence will probably cost as much as or more than a new fighter. However, the question is, can we afford not to employ a layered ground based anti-air network, even if we would acquire a new fighter jet? The question can also be turned the other way, who will protect our skies during peace time, if we lack fighters to scramble and identify intruders with? A minimum force of 15-30 planes is needed for normal air policing duties, and as long as Finland isn’t a member of a military alliance, we have to pay for these ourselves. A solution could be to try and source a number of low-hour F-16’s, to use for the air policing mission in peace time, and rely on ground based sensors and weapon systems in times of war.
An interesting note here is that Brigadier general (ret.) Lauri Puranen who leads the current project is known as promoting the “spirit of ‘joint’”, having been both the commander of the air force as well as the section commander of the army aviation. As such, he just might be the man to advocate such unorthodox solutions, although a new fighter is still the most likely route.
I am personally of the opinion that in the best of worlds, Finland and Sweden would both be members of NATO, and Finnish JAS-39E’s would be able to operate from bases in Norrland in case of war. However, neither of us are, and it then follows that the committee has some very tough decisions coming up, with no clear answer being provided.