”Whichever one you want!”
That was the answer a smiling Gary North gave to the (literal) billion-dollar question regarding which version of the F-35 they were planning on offering to the Finnish Air Force. Gary North, retired fighter pilot (F-4G, F-16, F-15C) and Air Force General, was present at Tour de Sky in his position as Lockheed Martin’s Vice President Customer Requirements, meaning that he is the one ensuring that the company meets customer requirements and strategic milestones across a number of aeronautics programs, including the F-35. It should probably be seen as a measure of the importance Lockheed Martin places on the Finnish fighter program that he had been chosen to lead the delegation that arrived at the air force base in a rainy Savo.
None of the other candidates in the HX-program stirs people’s emotions quite the way the F-35 does. But love it or hate it, the current situation is that the F-35 is undefeated in all procurement program it has been present in. However, the Finnish requirements have a number of marked differences compared to e.g. the Danish Kampfly, and many (including myself) has questioned whether some of these, such as the requirement for dispersed basing or localized maintenance and overhauls, effectively will eliminate the stealth fighter to the benefit of the more traditional designs.
On this, North was adamant. The plane will have no problem operating from austere road bases in sub-zero conditions, having been tested in temperatures down to -40oC. “Absolutely, we are basing this on 40 years of experience with stealth”, he explained, and went on to note that the average age of the people working the flight deck of a US Navy carrier is 19 years old, so having the aircraft run by conscript mechanics won’t be a problem. The aircraft is designed “with the maintainer in mind”. For the maintenance requirement, Lockheed Martin is well aware of the Finnish wish to handle these in-country, and the company seems to have softened its stance on the issue of centralized maintenance and spares somewhat. The message sent was that this won’t be a problem, and that Finland is free to tailor its own spares package, based on the considerable experience the company will have of the need for spares created by different usage profiles of the aircraft, as well as any additional spares Finland judges might be necessary to keep the fleet operational in wartime.
Back to the question of which variant should be offered, North declined to give any direct answer regarding which one he thought best fit the Finnish requirements. Instead, he noted that all three have different strengths and weaknesses, with the ‘basic’ F-35A being closest to the current F/A-18C Hornets, featuring an internal gun and being a +9 G rated fighter. The STOVL capable F-35B certainly offers some interesting operational concepts, but does so at a higher cost and serious reduction in internal fuel (and thus range). The carrier-based F-35C does offer a longer range, sturdier undercarriage, and the ability to use the tail hook as part of normal operations (the emergency tail hook on the F-35A needs to be raised manually from outside the aircraft after deployment), and the sturdy undercarriage makes it possibly to fly a more aggressive carrier-type approach when landing. However, the large wingspan might also cause problems on narrow road bases and in legacy hangars, as the aircraft will need more space to maneuver around. The aircraft is also, together with the F-35B, rated for lower G’s than the F-35A, and comes at a higher price.
Speaking of price, the issue has been discussed at the blog earlier as well, and is probably one of the single most heavily covered topics in the whole field of defence and security today. The current forecast is that an F-35A ordered in 2019 will cost 80-85 million (then-year) US dollars, in other words around 71-75 Euro with today’s exchange rate. This price is the unit cost, and include the aircraft, engine (bought by the US government directly from Pratt & Whitney and then handed over to Lockheed Martin), and all the sensors. The current flight hour cost is 53,000 Euro, though as was noted in the aftermath of the Kampfly-evaluation this is a number that should be treated with care when used for evaluations.
Capability wise, the aircraft is made for operations inside modern air defence bubbles of the kind that will most likely cover the majority of Finnish airspace by 2025. Besides the stealth characteristics, this is done through the advanced sensor array, which has a very high degree of fusion to provide the pilot with a single tactical picture (a map with all other activity in the area shown in real-time), as well as net-enabled operations. The networking is handled both through the ‘legacy’ standard Link 16 as well as through an F-35-only secure datalink that allows for up to four aircraft to share data with a very low chance of intercept. The latter is designed to provide all data needed to keep all the pilots in the formation updated with tactical information without the need for communicating over the radio. This includes not only sending information regarding own sensor data to the wingmen, but also information such as which targets are targeted by which fighter, and which of these is the designated priority target. For a fighter designed to excel at getting the first shot away before being seen, the tactical advantages of this when setting up an ambush are obvious.
With regards to trying out the simulator, the first thing that strikes one is the extremely clean design of the cockpit. Gone is the myriad of buttons, switches and levers that dominate the cockpits of today’s fighters. Even with my limited knowledge of simulator flying, getting the aircraft, which constantly auto-trims to keep the nose pointed in the direction chosen by the pilot, off the ground was easy, and the basic combat maneuvers, a BVR-engagement against a two-ship of MiG-29’s and planting a JDAM on a Buk, was easily executed with support from the simulator engineer present. Contrary to the engineer, my virtual wingman took very little part in the fighting, only being present to show the functions of the datalink. Perhaps the single most impressive feature (one that is probably solely of academic interest for HX) was how easy the F-35B was to control in VTOL-mode.
The F-35 program is moving along nicely, with 185 aircraft flying today, and despite the headlines the program has started to show a steady trend of meeting requirements and major milestones in a reassuring manner. There certainly still are open questions, such as the rather limited armament options when comparing to some of its candidates and the performance of the electro-optical sensor when compared to dedicated pods. However, at the end of the day, the F-35 will always have the benefit of, for any given load condition, sporting a smaller radar-cross section than the competition.
 Before someone points it out: Yes, I believe he meant median and not average, but it is still an impressive number that correlates more or less directly with the Finnish AF organisation
 Yes, this is for X-band, but that is where we stand for the foreseeable future when it comes to air-to-air radars in fighters