The New Bug in Town – Navy Fighters Ashore

Carrier-based fighters have traditionally had a hard time keeping up with their land-based counterparts. Carrier operations put greater strains on the aircraft, as the shorter take-off and landing places higher stress on the airframe in general and the landing gear in particular. In the same way, the arrestor and catapult gear adds further weight, while space restrictions usually demand folding wings and other mechanisms to allow it to pass through elevators and occupy a smaller footprint while parked.

However, there are a number of classic designs which have been able to defeat this traditional axiom. These include the F-4 Phantom II (which was produced in a number of non-carrier versions) and the A-4 Skyhawk (one of the few modern carrier-based aircraft small enough to not need wing-folding), and crucially for HX, the F/A-18 Hornet.

The background of the Hornet is well-known, having started it’s life as the YF-17 ‘Cobra’, losing the LWF-competition to the F-16, then being developed further to the F/A-18 for the US Navy VFAX program. Interestingly enough, it was soon clear that F-16 (in early versions) didn’t meet the expectations of all potential customers, and a niche for the twin-engined Hornet could be found. A dedicated land-based version was created in the form of the Northrop F-18L, but in the end it was the baseline carrier-versions which came to score a number of export successes, with seven nations ending up choosing the ‘Bug’ over the competition.

For Finland, in an interesting cross-over of requirement, much of the carrier-specific equipment was actually in line with the requirements placed by the Finnish dispersed operations from road bases. Short runways, rough landings, space restrictions, little support equipment, and limited number of ground crew working on the aircraft are all similarities that make the rugged airframes and landing gears more of a benefit than a nuisance. The end result has been that the Hornet has provided stellar service in Finnish colours, having been able to adapt to Finnish road bases with ease. The use of a carrier-spec hook (not to be confused with the emergency hooks used by land-based fighters) to reduce braking distances has also been a big benefit. Somewhat surprisingly both Dassault and Lockheed-Martin have indicated that they will focus on the baseline Rafale C and F-35A respectively, leaving the Super Hornet the only fighter in the game able to use arrestor wires for breaking on a regular basis.

While all manufacturers have stated that their fighters are able to handle road bases without problems, Super Hornet and the JAS 39E Gripen are the ones with the pedigree to put more credibility behind the claims. Boeing is also the one to have their complete organisation already in place, having established working routines with the Finnish Air Force and local industrial partners as part of current Hornet-operations. When discussing the lack of a visible marketing campaign, this was something drawn upon by Boeing, who explained that they like to work closely with the customer and prove the capabilities of the aircraft directly to them. While this “more doing, less talking” attitude is exactly how any marketing executive would explain a perceived lack of publicity, it should not be ruled out that this actually is what Boeing has been doing, given the close association with Boeing Defence and the Finnish Air Force.

Interestingly, the F/A-18E/F shares around 50-60% of their support and maintenance equipment with the ‘legacy’ Hornets. While part of the equipment currently in use by the Finnish Air Force is likely starting to show their age and will have to be replaced in any case, this does still leave room for significant savings as well as for the possibility of staggering the procurements of maintenance equipment. Not having to buy a complete set of tools on day one is not only nice for the initial buy, but also means that throughout the lifespan of the aircraft instances of massed obsolescences amongst the support equipment should be rarer, smoothing out the operating costs during the life cycle. There’s also no need for major investment in fixed infrastructure (such as electrical systems or air supplies), as all Finnish air bases are equipped for handling the F/A-18C/D. As Boeing’s Bryan Crutchfield put it, “If a Hornet flies there today, a Super Hornet can fly there tomorrow”. This has also been practiced by the US Navy, which during carrier operations on occasion has swapped out Hornet-squadrons for Super Hornet ones at short notice (though granted the US Navy does have maintenance equipment for both ‘legacy’ and Super Hornets on their carriers).

Life-cycle costs are something that Boeing likes to talk about. To win the Finnish order the Super Hornet, like the Hornet before it, would have to defeat lighter fighters which have lower flyaway unit costs. The Super Hornet currently has the lowest cost per flight hour for all US tactical aircraft, including the F-16. While the comparison is somewhat skewed to the benefit of the Super Hornet as the Super Hornet fleet generally is the youngest of the active US fighters (with the exception of the F-35), it is still remarkable for a twin-engined naval fighter to top the list. Add in the savings in infrastructure and maintenance, and the life-cycle cost for a Finnish Super Hornet might be very competitive.

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Visiting F/A-18E (right) and F/A-18F (left) Super Hornets at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB for trials and familiarisation flights a few weeks ago. Source: Finnish Air Force

The synergies doesn’t stop there, as there is also a clear benefit when it comes to transferring pilots and ground crew from the F/A-18C/D to the F/A-18E/F. Making current Finnish Air Force personnel dual-qualified could be handled in a matter of weeks, and all training could take place in Finland. This is not only a question of transferring the people serving in 2025 when the first HX-fighters are slated to arrive in Finland, but “the Finnish Air Force will have a two aircraft fleet for a number of years”, as Bryan Crutchfield notes. In practice, the current Hornets and their replacement could serve side-by-side for up to five years, if the Air Force decides to maintain the Hornets until HX reaches full operational capability around 2030. This was also the case with the Hornet, where the first F/A-18D and C were delivered to the Finnish Air Force in 1995 and 1996 respectively, with the Draken finally being withdrawn in 2000 (the MiG-21 having left service two years earlier). As such, the argument about ease of transitioning from the Hornet to Super Hornet deserves more credibility than it has usually received, with the benefits tapering off towards 2030 and not 2025 as usually argued.

Of the eight countries which bought the ‘legacy’ Hornet, two already operate the Super Hornet (USA and Australia), two are likely going to operate it (Kuwait and Canada), with Switzerland, Spain and the minor operator Malaysia not looking like likely Super Hornet buyers. This leaves Finland, and many of the arguments which made us choose the Hornet are still perfectly valid today. However, where the F/A-18C Hornet armed with the AIM-120 AMRAAM was clearly the most advanced of the fighters being offered, the Super Hornet faces stiffer competition from both sides of the Atlantic. Traditionally, the Finnish Defence Forces have been rather conservative, favouring tried and tested systems before the new and unproven. Time will tell if Boeing can convince the Air Force that taking what has been a very successful concept and cranking up the dials to eleven is the best way forward, or if a more radical change is warranted.

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