The HX-project is often treated as a stand-alone program to replace the gap left by the upcoming retirement of Finland’s legacy F/A-18C/D Hornets. However, recent developments have opened up the field for a complete remake of the Finnish Air Force, something which, while unlikely, deserves a closer look. To capture the larger picture, this is the first post of a short series. Expect the next post within the coming days.
The HX-project aimed at finding a replacement for Finland’s F/A-18C Hornets (and a small number of F/A-18D two-seaters) is moving forward at a steady pace. A few new details have surfaced since my last post on the project.
A preliminary letter describing the project has been sent out. This is not the proper Request for Information (RFI), which is slated for February 2016, but rather a letter describing the HX-projects current status and how it will proceed. Of interest is the fact that General Jäämeri, commander of the air force, explained that the letter will go to the five companies (Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, BAE, Dassault, and Saab) which will receive the RFI. The companies are the ones that have been mentioned earlier, but in a surprise move the general also stated that the RFI will not stipulate which fighters are in the run for the program. This is important, as three of the companies, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and Saab, also offer older aircraft, so called Generation 4 fighters, namely modernized version of the F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16C/D Block 50+, and JAS 39C/D Gripen.
The F/A-18C/D Hornet is another prime example of a fourth generation fighter, so why would Finland show any interest in acquiring another one to replace it? Wouldn’t it be better (and cheaper) to simply upgrade our current Hornet-fleet, if a fourth generation fighter would be enough (and didn’t the preliminary report already state fourth generation capability isn’t)?
There are two different issues here: One is that the legacy Hornet in its current form is about to be withdrawn, and Finland would have to support it alone (or upgrade it according to a given standard, i.e. the USMC one). Finnish Hornets are also nearing the end of their flight hours, and the Finnish emphasis on air combat training has placed great strain on the structures of the aircraft. The metal is simply starting to give up. As such, keeping the Hornets in flying shape and at an acceptable level of modernity will probably be prohibitively expensive.
The second issue is that Jäämeri opened up for a new round of speculation, by announcing that it is possible that Finland would buy two different planes, in the same way that we operated both the MiG-21Bis and the Saab 35 Draken before replacing both with the Hornet. However, he noted, while getting two different aircraft isn’t ruled out, it would be an “extraordinary” move, as two aircraft would require two different maintenance and support systems.
At this point aircraft aficionados should shout “F414-GE”. Patience, my friends, we’ll get to that!
The Missing Link – The Cancelled VX-trainer
In the meantime, in a move which have passed almost completely under the radar, the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command (PVLOGL) has cancelled the VX-program for a replacement to the venerable VL Vinka, the basic trainer used by the air force. The Vinka is old, and the taxing training program involving aerobatics have caused extensive metal fatigue (sounds familiar…), and the aircrafts have already once had their lifespan lengthened by an extensive overhaul. The problem is that the air force would like to stick the current curriculum, in which a cheap aerobatic-capable piston-engined trainer is used for basic flight training and early maneuvering as well as formation flights. After this, the student move on to the Hawk advanced jet trainer, where he/she learns air combat and jet engines, before transitioning to the F/A-18D Hornet for familiarization flights in the two-seater Hornet, until finally being cleared for solo-flights and operational missions in the F/A-18C Hornet.
This is the traditional, bordering on conservative, way of setting of flight training (the reason behind the cancelling of the VX was simply that no suitable aircraft was produced anymore!), and a number of countries has in recent years chosen to do things differently:
- The piston-engined trainers have lost ground to vastly more powerful turbine-powered aircrafts, providing almost jet-like performance. This makes it possible to transfer part of the advanced training curriculum from a dedicated advanced trainer to the same aircraft that is handling the basic training. Turbine-powered aircrafts are more expensive than their piston-engined brethren, but they are still cheaper to operate than jets, meaning that they can provide savings in overall training costs.
- More and more training is “downloaded” to simulators. Flight simulators are not a new thing, but they are constantly becoming better and more realistic, and can today offer complex scenarios involving multiple linked units. This means that an ever larger part of flight training can be performed on the simulators, offering significant savings compared to “real” flying.
- The rise of simulators has led to the demise of two-seaters dedicated to training. Of the current aircraft in the running for HX, both JAS 39E Gripen and notably the F-35 are only available as single-seaters, with type familiarization being handled in simulators. There is the possibility that a 39F Gripen will become available if Finland insists on the need for one, but no twin-stick F-35 is in the plans.
- As newer fighters are ever more expensive to operate, and as minituarisation is allowing ever more competent avionics to be fitted into ever smaller airframes, the Lead-In Fighter Trainer has risen in popularity. The LIFT is an aircraft that is taking the place of the advanced trainer, but in a similar way that the turbine-powered basic trainer is pushing the envelope, so too is the LIFT capable of providing training that earlier was in the realm of “real” fighters, such as high-performance maneuvers/air combat training, weapons deliveries, and sensor operations. Aircraft such as the M-346 Master and the Hawk T.2 offer near-fighter like performance, but for a fraction of the price per flight hour.
- Having a training location in another country, in some cases as a joint program with other countries, in other cases as a service bought from a civilian company, is becoming more popular with more countries starting to feel the pressure of rising operational cost, needing fewer new pilots as their air forces shrink in size, and struggling to find large enough empty airspaces to properly train in.
The question is: is the air force correct in asking for more of the same, or should it shake up the roles of the basic trainer/advanced trainer/fighter-classes? Notably, Finland was one of the first customers of the BAE Hawk, buying the first generation Mk.51 (roughly corresponding to the RAF T.1). These are starting to show signs of metal fatigue in the wings due to the demanding use in training fighter pilots, and the fleet have been bolstered by the arrival of surplus low-hour ex-Swiss Hawk Mk.66 (interestingly, the Swiss Air Force let a turbine-powered prop trainer take over the training formerly handled by the Hawks). However, this is only a temporary solution, and the Hawk will have to be replaced somewhere around the same time as the HX enters into service.
In other words: within an extremely short span of time, the air force will have to replace both its trainers and fast jets. It is important to keep this in mind when discussing why Jäämeri has seemingly opened up for the possibility of acquiring more than one kind of fighter.