The HX-project Preliminary Report, pt. 1: Reports, Politics, and Money

The preliminary working group created last year to look into different solutions for replacing the capabilities of the F/A-18C Hornets (and the small number of F/A-18D two-seaters) in Finnish service have now published its report. The whole report can be found here, and while it is largely in Finnish it also include single page summaries in Swedish and English. In general, it is an extremely well-written document, which not only gives the “what is needed”, but also the “why this is needed”. The argumentation in the report is thorough, the working group has e.g. studied and exchanged information with the current fighter programs of Denmark, Norway, and Canada, as well as arranged a seminar with a number of the key persons involved in the original Finnish Hornet-program, to draw upon the experiences acquired then. One can only hope for a similarly well-written lobbying document from the Navy whit regards to the MTA2020 and other major procurements.

Many of the major points are well-known by now, and includes few surprise (see e.g. my earlier blog posts on the issue: 1, 2, 3, 4). The bottom line is that the working group recommends that the Hornets are to be replaced by a new multirole fighter, which isn’t surprising. Some of the nuances in the report are rather interesting. Of note is the fact that the conclusions and recommendations in the report are unanimous.

Generally, the two big themes that stand out are stealth and local maintenance.

In a number of places it is noted that while stealth is not equal to invisible (nor does it grant an automatic win in air-to-air combat), it still means that the stealthy fighter has an advantage the non-stealthy fighter hasn’t got. The big question is how long this advantage will last, as there are already a number of projects looking into how to work around stealth, e.g. by using infra-red sensors or linked radars. A research project has been launched (with a tight deadline) to determine the importance of stealth in the future. The focus is on how big the difference in detectability can be assumed to be between “true” stealth aircraft and so called 4+ generation fighters during the operational life of the HX-fighter. In the case of Finland, the only true stealth aircraft in the area are the F-35, which is one of the main candidates of the HX-project, and the Russian Sukhoi T-50, while all the other candidates can roughly be regarded as generation 4+-fighters.

Sukhoi’s T-50 is the upcoming fighter for the Russian Air Force. It is safe to assume it constitutes the defining foe for the HX-fighter. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Alex Beltyukov

The other hot issue is reliable maintenance is to be assured, especially in the light of European legislation governing acquisitions. This issue receives a lot of attention, especially with regards to direct offset agreements, see below.

The Politics

The report begins by noting the far-reaching implications the acquisition of the Hornet held for the credibility of the Finnish Defence Forces, and how it took part in cementing Finland as a part of the West in the immediate post-Cold War world. In the same way, the new HX-project will have a significant effect on Finland’s relations and capabilities in the fields of national security and defence policy. The very size and nature of the HX-project means that the country of origin will become an important partner in these fields, as well as with regards to the trade balance.

Russia’s new military doctrine and the Ukrainian crises have showed that Russia have both the capabilities and political will to use force. The changes in our security environment are happening at a faster rate, and with the increased uncertainty comes the fact that “strategic surprises are possible”. With the growth in importance of the Baltic Sea and the Baltic countries, the strategic importance of controlling the inlet to the Gulf of Finland has also increased. All in all, the report is outspoken with the fact that Russia is growing more aggressive, and that this together with the Russian arms program and the renewed doctrine is one of the main threats Finland faces. The importance of the air force in “hybrid wars” and “renegade situations” (such as hijackings) has grown, as has the need for ever more complex peacekeeping and –enforcing operations.

When it comes to international collaboration, the current model gives Finland no guarantees that anyone would come to our aid in times of war (fi: turvatakuut), but provides a foundation for getting political support and possibly accepting military aid if such a situation would arise. It is also an important tool for our national security policy. Still, Finland has to be prepared to fight alone, and as such we will need to be self-sufficient whit regards to all necessary capabilities.

Of interest is that the report clearly states that the number of Hornets ordered by the Finnish Air Force, 57 F/A-18C and seven F/A-18D, is based on economics, and is in fact too small from an operational standpoint. This is a clear indication that the Air Force is not willing to go further down in numbers with the introduction of the HX. However, in the end it will come down to politics, and what the government is prepared to pay for.

The Administration/Legislation

The report goes into detail how the program should be managed, which I won’t discuss here. Of interest is the fact that the report clearly gives alternatives for how it is possible to circumvent normal procurement procedures thanks to directive 2009/81/EC on defence and sensitive security procurement, and thus include direct offset agreements to make certain that a sufficient maintenance organisation is kept in Finland to allow the aircrafts to be maintained and overhauled here (this could include some kind of production line). It also makes it possible to circumvent public tendering, and e.g. keep part of the procurement process secret, which is more or less a given, due to this being a key system for the Finnish Defence Forces.

The Timeline

The rough timeline of the project is as follows:

The project should be officially started no later than the incoming autumn (2015), after which a request for information (RFI) should be sent out in February 2016, with answers being received in October the same year. The request for quotations (RFQ) should then be issued in February 2018, after which the quotations should be sent in a year after that (February 2019). Final negotiations and evaluations then follows, after which a decision is to be made in February 2021, and the first planes should be operational in Finland starting in 2025 (Initial Operating Capability, IOC).

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