The Future Finnish Air Force, Pt.2: Two Fighters for the Air Force?

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 second post of a short series. Expect the next post within the coming days.

In the end, it probably comes down to money. As a number of countries have realized, fighters are getting more expensive all the time. Lockheed-Martin is still claiming that their F-35 will be no more expensive than the current fighters (presumable compared to the same company’s F-16), while Saab is also maintaining that the 39E will be cheaper to buy and operate than the older 39C. Still, several countries have been unable, or unwilling, to replace their current fleets on a 1:1 basis. Examples include Sweden going from around 100 39C/D’s to 60 (possibly 70) 39E’s, and the Netherlands going from 68 (out of the original 213) F-16’s to 37 F-35’s (planned, not ordered).

For the Finnish Air Force, this is not a route they would like to take. The preliminary report was clear about the fact that the size of the current Hornet-fleet is based on economics and not on operational demands, and is in fact too small. That the air force would be able to buy more than 64 HX-fighters is unlikely, but they just might be able to convince the political leadership that they have to replace the fighters on a 1:1 basis. Jäämeri noted that the RFI will probably include “a number of differently sized packages”, showing that the final number of airframes is yet to be set.

F-16 and crew chief
Danish F-16BM, one of a total of 77 F-16A/B bought by Denmark, to be replaced by 30 fighters in a ongoing procurement program. Source: Author.

This is where the two-fighter solution might come in. If the fighter of choice proves to be prohibitively expensive, let’s say that the F-35 is declared the winner of the HX-evaluation, but only 48 instead of 64 F-35‘s fit inside the given budget, what will the air force do? Buy a too small number of fighters? Buy the second best thing? Or, will the air force buy 24 F-35’s, coupled with 48 additional fighters of a cheaper design, either one of the other primary HX-candidates, or a modernized 4th generation fighter, such as the F-16V Block 60+?

Obviously, some mixes feel more natural than others. Beefing up a JAS 39E (Super) Gripen force with a squadron or two of JAS 39C Gripen would be a relatively (keyword) simple task from a maintenance point of view, especially as a number of subsystems developed for the 39E probably would be retrofitted to the 39C. This would also offer the benefit of making the 39D available for type familiarization. Another possibility is that Finland would buy only 39D’s and no C’s to supplement the 39E, with trained backseaters (WSO/RIO) for strike missions. However, it should be noted that the commonality between the baseline 39C/D and the 39E is far smaller than a quick look at the aircrafts would have you believe, with the 39E more or less a new aircraft, being bigger, heavier, and with a stronger engine.The most straightforward mix is the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (E being the single-seater and F the two-seater) and the EA-18G Growler, the latter being a specialized development of the F/A-18F, tailored for electronic warfare missions (jamming enemy sensors and communications, intercepting enemy signals for intelligence purposes, neutralizing or destroying enemy air defences). As has been discussed on the blog, these capabilities are highly valued during international operations, and would provide Finland with a capability that only a handful of western countries have (USA, Germany, Italy, and Australia). Buying a Growler squadron to support a Super Hornet fleet, however, will not lead to any savings compared to an equally sized “pure” Super Hornet fleet, but rather provide more capability for an added cost.

An interesting detail here is the fact that the JAS 39E Gripen and the super Hornet/Growler feature the same engine, the General-Electric F414-GE, in the F414-GE-400 and F414-GE-39E versions respectively. The latter version differs mainly in a few modifications made to ensure safe operations of the engine in a single-engined airframe, as opposed to the twin-engined Super Hornet. A mixed fleet of Gripens and Super Hornet would be an extremely interesting concept, with the two aircrafts complementing each other well. However, it is most likely a solution that is far too costly for Finland.

5 thoughts on “The Future Finnish Air Force, Pt.2: Two Fighters for the Air Force?

  1. What strange things insomnia brings to one's mind?

    Since Sweden is planning only ca. 60 Gripen E’s.
    And Finland & Sweden are planning (or negotiating) on more closer defence co-operation.

    Could there be possibility lurking in a solution where Sweden would complement their forces with some Growlers and Finland chooses it’s own combination of the two dishes?

    1. Kristian

      There has also been some talk/speculation about a “Gripen Growler” which could be built fairly easily if funds are provided. Some of the basic building blocks are already implemented, or planned, such as the very capable ESM/self-protection jammer and support for a Brazilian anti-radar missile. Integration of the Harm Targeting Pod used by USAF F-16 SEAD aircraft’s shouldn’t be tricky if the more capable HARM is picked instead (which it should imo) and buying a pod for stand-off jamming can’t be very hard either.

  2. It doesn’t make sense to buy two different multirole fighters (unless SH+Growler), because the cost-savings between them are miniscule. Certainly less than the added difficulties of operating mixed setup brings.

    What is more reasonable is combining the need to replace Hawk trainers and Hornets. The last batch of the Hawks will retire in 2036, which are another costly replacement for which the Air Force will dread to ask another infusion of cash.

    20-30 million dollar trainer offers big enough savings compared to multiroles that it can be realistically considered for mixed fleet use, without simply giving up ability for no monetary savings.

    Think 46 F-35 + 24 M-346/KAI T-50. That’s nearer to 5 bn than the 10 bn theoretic maximum that will be awarded to this project.

    1. The third part will on exactly that scenario, however, it needed a slight rewrite after yesterday’s announcement that Patria will refurbish even more Hawk’s to make them viable up until 2036. Stay tuned, it should be up some time during this weekend (or Monday at the latest).

  3. Sirs, ONLY two fighter combo that makes any sense is Air-superiority heavy combined with multirole light. But most of all, the numbers need to be there. For one flight hour fighter is in maintainance for a few hours. So in order to keep some number X fighters available, one needs X multplied number of fighters. Also one needs numbers to take attrition. For area and afore mentioned reasons any number less than hundred fighters is too small, a fact General Jäämeri touched by saying we have been going here economics first defense second (my re-phrasing).

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