There has been quite some debate about what fighter is best for the Finnish HX-project, aimed at replacing the capabilities of the Finnish F-18C/D Hornet-fleet. As stated in my earlier post, in principle, the same capabilities could be provided by acquiring a large ground-based air defence network, a number of surface-to-surface missiles, as well as a small fleet of light fighter aircraft which would provide QRA in peacetime. This would in a stroke be the most radical realignment of the Finnish Defence Forces since at least the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty in 1948, and as such I find it highly unlikely. One of the reasons is that the cost would probably be on par or higher compared to getting a new fighter. To explain this in further detail, here comes a short mathematical exercise:
A ground-based air defence system for Finland
A thought to begin with: when dealing with given ranges, these are always to be taken with a grain of salt, as at maximum range the lower altitudes are most likely not seen on radar, while the higher altitudes require a longer traveling distance due to the added vertical distance. Still, SAM’s does two things: 1) they kill stuff, and, 2) they force aircraft to adjust their tactics, i.e. fly lower, carry less ordnance, spend time searching for the enemy anti-air batteries, and so forth. This means that even if no kills are scored, their presence alone might mean that they are doing their job.
The new SM-6 provides the long-range anti-air cover for the US Navy, as well for a number of close US allies in the Pacific area. It has a range of roughly 240 km. Above is a picture showing four batteries grouped in Hanko, Joensuu, Kajaani, and Rovaniemi. They cover the better part of Finnish airspace, as well as quite a bit of Estonia’s and some Russian and Latvian too. The downside: they have a fly-away cost of 3,5 million Euros per missile. I haven’t found the cost for a ground-based launcher, but from the French numbers for the SAMP/T, 10 launchers + 575 Aster 30/15 missiles cost 4,1 billion Euros, we can make a rough estimate that its launchers cost around 300 million Euros per battery, with the SM-6 probably not cheaper.
The SM-6 would force enemy aircraft down to lower altitudes, were a system such as the ASTER or the NASAMS 2 (known as ItO 12 in Finnish service) could then shoot them down. The NASAMS 2 have a maximum range of around 15-20 km, of which Finland currently operates 24 firing units bought for 366 million Euros. To this, the cost of missiles will have to be added, and these comes in at a price of 1,45 million Euros each. The firing units can then be networked into batteries, so the total number of batteries is harder to give, but a quick look at the map says that around 12 batteries would be needed to protect key cities, harbours, and the four SM-6 batteries. To this would then have to be added the number of batteries needed to protect the major military units out in the field, as well as some key points in the direction of the battlefield, such as railway lines and bridges.
To these then comes the short-ranged shoulder launched missiles. Stinger missiles for everybody, right? Well, the latest deal included ‘hundreds’ of missiles which Finland bought from ex-US Army stocks, for the price of 90 million Euros. However, for new missiles the price is quite something else, as the earlier Finnish request for 600 Stinger FIM-92C RMP missiles with related equipment and support showed. This whole deal was valued at 265 million Euros, or 440 000 per missile.
The estimated 6 billion Euro program for replacing the Hornets with new fighters suddenly doesn’t look as expensive as it used to. We could buy the French SAMP/T-package with ten batteries and a few hundred missiles, and to this then add 1500-2000 Stinger missiles, for a grand total of around 5 billion Euros. We’d then have approximately 1 billion Euro left to buy a handful of cheap fighters for QRA, as well as cruise missiles and recce UAV’s to be able to attack pinpoint targets deep behind enemy lines, by which time we would be in a rather tight spot not go over the original cost.
Naturally, this is a thought experiment simplified to the extreme. The need for anti-air missiles or unmanned reconnaissance vehicles does not go away if we acquire a new fighter. It can also be debated whether ten SAMP/T really would provide the same level of protection that the more mobile fighters would. A third argument is the difference in life-cycle costs in peacetime, training flights with fighters are extremely expensive compared to a SAM-battery driving out into the woods and setting up camp for a week or two. Still, even this basic calculation shows the simple fact that SAM’s are not the dirt cheap solution to our air defence needs they sometimes are portrayed to be.