The Real Joint Strike Fighter – Commonality and Maintenance

Operating a fleet of seven different tactical jets is a daunting task when it comes to logistics and the cost of keeping all of them relevant and up to date in an ever changing combat environment. The answer is, on paper, simple: design a single fighter that will replace all seven, being able to perform a host of different missions, including air-to-air, air-to-ground, and reconnaissance. This aircraft would be a joint design operated by both the Navy and the Air Force, from land bases as well as carriers, and used for both the strike and fighter mission by both. A real joint strike-fighter.

There has been a few aircraft capable of this feat, mainly the legendary F-4 Phantom II and the F/A-18 Hornet currently in Finnish service, and as is well known the F-35 is set out to be the next fighter built according to this concept. However, for the F-35 the differences between the versions are so large they only share 20-25 percent commonality, leading to critique that the basic idea is flawed.

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Rafale displaying at RIAT in 2013, in my opinion the most beautiful aircraft amongst the HX-contenders. Picture courtesy of © HESJA

Enter the Dassault Rafale, an aircraft actually able to replace seven different tactical aircraft with a single airframe[1], featuring only small modifications to create single- and two-seater land based versions as well as a single-seat carrier based fighter. “They are all the same,” Dassault Aviation explained. “It’s the same aircraft, same engines, same wing. The only differences are the strengthened landing gear and tail hook, as well as the integrated boarding ladder in the Rafale M, as the navy don’t want to have ladders standing on the flight deck.” Crucially, many of the particularities that the Finnish Air Force is looking for in HX are found in the Rafale as a consequence of the design decision to create a minimal-change navalised version:

  • The compact size of the aircraft, which allows straightforward operations on crowded carrier decks or narrow taxiways
  • Ease of maintenance, all service can be done without fixed installations and “in the shadow of the aircraft”
  • Low approach speed and good short field performance

The maintenance need should be discussed a bit further in detail. The engine can be swapped in under an hour, and requires no further testing before the aircraft is ready to go. The aircraft can also stand on the deck of a carrier or parked out in the open for prolonged times without any external connections (such as power supplies or A/C).

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Engine change in the crowded hangars aboard the French nuclear carrier Charles de Gaulle (‘R91’). Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

France has a long history of interventions in the former colonies in Africa, often including operations with minimal support in arid conditions. Earlier the rugged Jaguar and Mirage F1 had been the tools of choice for these missions, and questions were raised if the much more complex Rafale would be able to continue their legacy. However, the fighter proved the doubters wrong, with e.g. Operation Serval showing their ability to operate from austere conditions, where nothing but tents were available to protect the aircraft during maintenance. Similarly, the aircrafts have operated in harsh conditions from a number of bases, including during the recent campaigns in Syria and Iraq, as well as in Djibouti and Afghanistan. However, it is one thing that the aircraft can keep up a high tempo of operations in the dry and dusty Sahel, it is another thing to do so in the Finnish winter. Dassault Aviation readily admits they have “less experience in very cold [conditions]”, but Rafale was successfully evaluated in the Swiss winter, and have deployed to Kandahar in sub-zero conditions for combat operations. Overall, the company seems confident that the proven durability of the aircraft during long deployments on carrier decks and from austere field bases will add up to excellent availability also in the sub-arctic.

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French Air Force Rafale at Kandahar AFB in Afghanistan during Opération Serpentaire, fitted with GBU-12 laser guided bombs. Picture courtesy of © Alex Paringaux

[1] For those counting, I am referring to the F-8 Crusader, Jaguar, Super Etendard, Mirage F1, Mirage IV, Mirage 2000 in the fighter versions (C/RDI, and -5), as well as the Mirage 2000D/N strike versions. The exact number of different aircraft replaced can be anything between six and nine depending on how you count.

8 thoughts on “The Real Joint Strike Fighter – Commonality and Maintenance

  1. One thing is that you will be a bit dependent on France as your sole provider. The beef being that France and French companies underestand the Raison Etat all too keenly. This might lead into narrowing Finnish Foreighnt policy options. This is not to say that other nations would not be heavy handed in their dealings, but USA and France as sole providers might be prone to it more than SWE and UK/D/IT/ESP coalition. But as your said great plane! ”
    Iski tulta ilman lintu”

    1. Yes, there are rumours France threatened to block or delay Finnish EU-membership if we didn’t choose the Mirage 2000 to replace MiG-21/Draken. There certainly are some questions with ensuring the chain of supply, however, it is not as straightforward as it seems. E.g. UK blocked the sale of Gripen to Argentina over the Falklands, which they were able to do thanks to supplying part of the avionics and sensors. In the end, perhaps it’s easier to only deal with a single country than with several? 😉

  2. Borén

    Finland seems to be focused on developing ties to USA and Sweden (along with EU and NATO of course) when it comes to defense, so I’m not sure if there is a political benefit of selecting Rafale. Furthermore Rafale seems to be more expensive than the F-35 (assuming lockmart is correct about the cost decrease) while being less advanced, so I think the choice will be between F-35 and Jas-39 NG and I would put my two cents on the F-35

    1. I believe the political choice of which country the HX is bought from will play a rather small role this time. Main thing was that Finland already to start with ruled out all non-western designs. I will discuss this more in detail in an upcoming post.

      I agree that the F -35 and Gripen are the two most likely candidates, but there’s still a long way to go before the decision is made, so I wouldn’t rule out any of the other ones quite yet.

  3. Kjell

    How is it will Finland to demand to have a local manufacturing, as earlier with Draken, Hornet and Hawk at least?

    Is all competitors able to use existing Finnish weapons, or isn’t that an issue?

    Is there any demand to get “source code knowledge” to be able do own possible unique requirements? At least one competitor will not easily put in non American requirements in the base design so to say.

    1. Borén

      “Is all competitors able to use existing Finnish weapons, or isn’t that an issue?”
      AFAIK only American planes are able to carry the JASSM and it is unknown whether the JASSM can be integrated into non-american planes. All aircraft seem to able to carry our other weapons (AMRAAMS and Sidewinders) with the exception of Rafale. Which I suppose makes it less attractive since we would have to buy new weapons for it.

      1. I will get into the weapons discussion in next part, but both Saab and Dassault Aviation has confirmed that more or less everything can be integrated, including US weapons. Saab has heavily pushed the ability to integrate JASSM as a selling point, while Dassault more like to sell the current set. However, when discussing AIM-9X, AIM-120 AMRAAM and JASSM, one should remember that the limited shelf life and development of newer missiles means that today’s arsenal not necessarily is the one to plan around for HX.

        For the industrial cooperation, an own production line isn’t a ‘must’, but Finland will demand enough technology sharing to be able to keep the aircraft operational during times of crisis. This could include e.g. final assembly or parts production.

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