Unfortunately, Finnish daily Aamulehti which so far has openly shared recordings of the main press event at the HX Challenge media events has decided to put these behind a paywall. As such, this post is based upon secondary sources (i.e. published articles). Sorry for the inconvenience, but these are the unfortunate facts. Next week we will be back to primary sources (as I will attend the Boeing briefing in person).
From the outset, the F-35 has been the aircraft to beat in HX. It isn’t impossible that it will end up beaten, but the string of successes throughout the world (marred only by the highly politicised German failure to be allowed to bid) and unique selling points makes it the gold standard in Western fighter design at the moment. As such, anyone wishing to better Lockheed Martin’s stealth fighter will have to put in some serious effort to show why their bid is better for the Finnish Defence Forces’ concept of operations.
At least from the outside, that task hasn’t become any easier from the start of the competition. While Lockheed Martin might have seemed a bit too certain of success in the early days of the competition, this week’s media event has shown that they are listening to the customer and not just offering a copy-paste version of offers made to other countries.
Few doubt the combat capability of the F-35A. The advanced sensor suite and fusion coupled with low-observability features make it a formidable foe for anyone, and the large number of aircraft on order makes it future proof in a way none of the other contenders are. The biggest questions has been surrounding security of supply, sovereignty of data, and industrial cooperation. It is important to note that this does not mean that the Air Force is ready to buy the second best just to ensure that they will get these secondary benefits, but rather that the Air Force has judged these issues to be of crucial importance in allowing a fighter to be combat capable. As has been repeated throughout the last few years: the bids are only ranked on their overall combat capability as part of the overall Finnish defence solution.
And there’s plenty of combat capability in Lockheed Martin’s offer. While the contenders aren’t allowed to comment on the number of aircraft offered, Steve Sheehy, Lockheed Martin’s Director of Sustainment Strategies and Campaigns, appeared to accidentally disclose that it would be a case of 1-to-1 replacement of the Hornets.
“The requirement is 64, we are at 64”*
This was later walked back to the more politically acceptable line of “‘If the requirement is for 64, we are at 64.’ Lockheed Martin will not comment publicly on the number of fighter jets in its response to the call for tenders.” Considering the fact that we have known since last autumn that 64 isn’t in fact a set requirement any longer, my personal belief is that the offer is for 64 aircraft. Make of it what you will, but a 64-ship strong F-35A force would be an impressive one by any measure. It would conceivably make Finland the seventh largest operator of the F-35 (all marks included), leaving behind Tier 2 and 3 contributors such as the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark, as well as making the Finnish Air Force the third largest European operator after the UK and Italy (both of which will likely be operating joint F-35A/B fleets). While this might seem like a bold step, it should be remembered that when Finland bought the F/A-18C Hornet it was an order on a similar scale (the early 90’s seeing the AIM-120 equipped Hornet second only to the F-15C Eagle in the air-to-air role). As long as the aircraft can fit within the price tag, the Finnish Air Force is unlikely to shy away from capability. In fact, a serious F-35A order does hold deterrence value in and of itself, as it would highlight the determination to invest in a credible high-end defence as well as the close bilateral defence cooperation with the US.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the press release was the part on how Lockheed Martin plans to ensure security of supply and industrial cooperation.
Edited 17/02/2020 22:50 GMT+2
Originally it was reported that not only the aircraft, but the F135 engine as well would reportedly be produced in-country.*
This would have represented a significant development in an area that has traditionally been viewed as a weak part of the Lockheed Martin offer, and would be a significant step away from the current production chain which is responsible for pushing the price of the aircraft down to the extent that 64 aircraft could fit inside the Finnish budget. Such an offer would by it’s very nature include a rather large amount of tech transfer, and ensure Finnish industrial know-how stays up to date when it comes to maintaining and overhauling the aircraft, and would solve what otherwise might represent a significant issue in meeting the 30% industrial cooperation target.
However, upon contacting Lockheed Martin, it became clear that this was a case of serious misreporting. Upon a direct question, John Neilson, Director of International Communications for Europe and Israel, stated in no uncertain terms that no mention was made of final assembly of the F-35 aircraft or engine manufacturing. When asked what the industrial participation may look like, I received the following quote:
“Industrial participation forms an important element of our F-35 proposal for Finland but at this stage of the process, for reasons of competitive sensitivity, it would be inappropriate for is to give any further information and wrong to speculate on the details.”
End of edit.
Perhaps a harder thing swallow for the Finnish Air Force was the scheme drawn up for the management of spare parts. This would include peacetime stocks stored in-country for normal operations, with a different set for times of heightened tensions being stored internationally and transferred to Finland when needed. While this kind of centralised spare hubs likely play a significant role in ensuring a low operating cost, not having complete control over the necessary wartime spares will likely be a no-go. However, it is important to remember that this second offer currently being referenced by Lockheed Martin isn’t the same as their best and final offer, which will come only after the approximately six months of negotiations with the Finnish MoD and Defence Forces that are now starting. Lockheed Martin also acknowledges that the sizes of both the in-country and the international stocks aren’t locked, but are currently being discussed. It does however feel that this is one area where the company’s normal ‘tailored for NATO’-options still clashes with the Finnish thinking surrounding wartime operations.
The stealth capability is the defining feature that sets the aircraft apart from the rest of the competition, and while much has been said about the limitations of stealth in the form the word applies to the F-35, you are still better off with a lower radar cross-section in the X-band than with a larger one (which is the aspect where the difference in observability is the largest). The same goes for the carriage of external stores. Granted the RCS will go up compared to when the F-35 carries only internal weapons, but in all likelihood** an F-35 with external stores will still exhibit a lower RCS than competing fighters with external stores (even if the difference is narrower). And while many countries are investing significant resources in detecting VLO aircraft in general and the F-35 in particular, for the immediate future it will likely remain easier to complete the kill chain against a traditional aircraft than against a VLO one (think of it as armour in ground combat – there are weapons and munitions able to defeat armoured vehicles, but still most soldiers prefer riding into combat under armour than in soft-skinned vehicles). The question mark here is whether some of the contenders can mitigate this difference either through the use of different concepts of operations and/or heavy reliance on electronic warfare? It is a tall order, especially considering that the F-35 isn’t exactly lacking in EW-capabilities either, but it isn’t impossible. What is impossible is discerning that difference in EW-capability based purely on open sources, so we will just have to wait and see when it comes to the final decision in 2021.
It needs to be emphasised just how far beyond the competition the F-35 is when it comes to future proofing the production of the aircraft. The numbers ordered dwarf those of any of the competition, with the F-35A alone having over 2,300 aircraft on order or in the plans of the current customers. This is the only aircraft of the five that beyond any shadow of a doubt will not only be kept in operation but crucially kept up to date outside of Finland well beyond 2060. The need for having other operators also towards the end of the career of HX has been emphasised by those involved in the procurement process several times, and here the F-35 really shines.
The maturity of the aircraft has been questioned, especially as it seems to be followed by a string of bad news. However, it should be noted that the US has a somewhat unique reporting system, which means that many of the minor setbacks (such as the recent issues with the 25 mm gun) are reported in a more open fashion than would be case in most other countries. Colonel Keränen also noted in an interview that if the aircraft is mature enough for Norway to declare IOC, it’s mature enough for us as well. Notable is that the huge number of aircraft flying, 240,000+ flight hours to date, also allow for a rapid pace of development, including the tracking down of any teething troubles at an fast rate.
The GBU-53/B SDB II will be a key weapon of the F-35A Block 4
Like most of the competition, the aircraft being demonstrated doesn’t fully correspond to what would be delivered in five years time. The current F-35A Block 3F standard will give way to the Block 4, which will bring a serious step-up in capability. Most visible are the inclusion of new weapons, such as the JSM anti-ship missile, the GBU-53/B Small-Diameter Bomb II, and the ASRAAM and Meteor for UK use. However, many important changes are simultaneously taking place inside the airframe, which will play a perhaps even larger role than individual weapons when it comes to ensuring that the F-35A of 2025 will be more combat capable, both in absolute and relative terms, than the aircraft now evaluated. Still, it should be pointed out that the inclusion of the GBU-53/B will add a serious anti-vehicle capability to the F-35A, the question then being if the Finnish Air Force in wartime could spare any aircraft for the mission or if all are tied up in the air-to-air role?
Much still remains open. Absent from the reporting from the press event was the promises of complete ownership over the mission data that was repeated by all European manufacturers, and the flight hour costs and changes to infrastructure needed are somewhat open. The F-35 still remain the aircraft to beat though, and the competition have their work cut out for them.
** I can in theory envision a scenario where some kind of strange reflector phenomenon would increase the RCS with external stores ridiculously much and make it larger than some of the other contenders, but that is more along the lines of technical possibilities than anything I would call likely