HX Challenge pt. 5: Bigger, Better, Stronger

“I prefer to have two engines over just one.” Yes dear readers, even in the 21st century, the single- versus twin-engined debate isn’t dead. Sorry Pratt & Whitney, but once that one engine catches a flock of birds (or a 30 mm round) down in the weeds, having two is an advantage. How much of an advantage is an open question, and one for the HX-team to ponder upon. Let’s just note that while the Finnish Air Force hasn’t lost any Hornets to birdstrikes, it has lost a Hawk.

However, that wasn’t Boeing’s main selling point when they held their media event as part of HX Challenge this week. Instead, it was about a total package. The Super Hornet as the most versatile and reliable multirole fighter available, offering the greatest suitability to the Finnish concept of operations (read: dispersed operations), having a proven track record as a reliable partner when it comes to customer support and industrial offset, and with the EA-18G Growler bringing unique capabilities to the fight. In essence, Boeings pitch isn’t necessarily that the Super Hornet is miles in front of the competition in any particular field, but rather that the package as a whole will offer the flexibility and cost-to-benefit ratio needed to win the deal.

Family picture
Boeing brought all three aircraft on offer to HX Challenge, starting with the F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets closer to the camera, and the EA-18G Growler towards the rear. Source: Own picture

There is much to be said for that approach. The Finnish Air Force is very happy with the legacy Hornet (or ‘Classic’, as Boeing likes to call it), and the transition to Super Hornet makes sense in many ways. The carrier pedigree is still valuable in many ways besides the obvious short take-off and landing distances. The US Navy carrier air wing is in fact a good analogy for the Finnish Air Force. You find yourself in a taxing environment, having roughly fifty to sixty fighters and whatever spares and stocks you’ve brought with you. You might or might not be fighting alongside allied assets, so you need to be able to both go alone and have the interoperability to link up with friends. Hence the need for high rates of readiness, quick turnaround times, high sortie generation, as well as the ability to keep operating with a minimal amount of support equipment and a small logistical footprint.

“The most proven and affordable multirole platform out there”

That’s how Jennifer Tebo, Director of Development for both the Super Hornet and the Growler programs, opened her presentation. This was a sentiment echoed throughout the presentation, and Boeing was keen to point out that they don’t have to project operating costs or look at trends in cost-saving programs — they know what the aircraft cost to operate. “Particularly suite for Finland” was another phrase used. For a cost-conscious customer, this is something that will earn them a few points extra in the evaluation. Another thing is the cost-savings Boeing experiences during the phasing in of the aircraft. While the final checks of current infrastructure hasn’t been made yet, they are due for next week, Boeing estimate up to 60 % of current infrastructure, including both facilities, maintenance equipment, ground support, and dispersed bases, can be used with the Super Hornet (the remaining percentage also include equipment that can be either refurbished or replaced, depending on the Air Force’s view). Considering the large amount of support equipment needed due to the dispersed operations, this might easily turn into a significant saving. The Super Hornet can also continue to carry the weapons currently found in the Finnish arsenal, with some added tricks up it’s sleeve. The aircraft is fitted for tactical aerial refuelling, and it is easily to imagine a scenario during fluid dispersed operations where the fuel isn’t in the correct place relative to the fighters. At such a time, having a Super Hornet configured for tanker duty linking up somewhere can save valuable time. In peacetime, being able to practice air-to-air refuelling without a tanker having to fly in from RAF Mildenhall will also significantly ease training routines.

One thing that was touched upon in the weapons department was the fact that the Super Hornet is the only HX contender not slated for Meteor integration. “There’s an opportunity for an advanced air-to-air missile within our offer to adress that need,” was the line we were given. While obviously not confirmed by Boeing, initial deliveries sporting the AIM-120D AMRAAM and later buys of AIM-260 once that comes online is the most likely scenario here.

Finally, the transition time would be easier and faster. Captain Brian Becker, commodore of US Navy’s Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, noted that a six month transition period was enough to switch Hornet squadrons to Super Hornets. It should be pointed out that this is for the squadron as a whole, and includes not only teaching the pilots to fly the aircraft, but also transitioning the support personnel, changing out equipment, and getting everyone up to speed on the new aircraft to the level that it is a functioning unit able to perform operational missions. The sentiment was echoed by colonel Aki Heikkinen, commander of Satakunta Air Wing, who noted transitioning a pilot was largely a matter of hours rather than weeks if strictly talking about flying the aircraft safely (colonel Heikkinen also shot down the idea that some of the contenders would struggle with landing or taking off from road bases. “We’ve flown Draken from them”, he said, alluding to the Saab-built interceptor that the Hornet replaced in Finnish service). It should be remembered that the 10 Bn Euro budget isn’t available as such to the fighter manufacturer, but parts of it will also finance the reconstruction of air bases as well as part of the everyday operations of the aircraft during the first five years (as the Hornet operations are using the Air Forces’ normal budget until their retirement). As such, Boeing has a crucial advantage when it comes to saving money on these indirect costs, money that can be used to include one of the premier force multipliers of the fighter world in their bid.

Tebo
Jennifer Tebo, Director of Development for F/A-18 and EA-18G, ascertains that the Super Hornet production line is “alive and well” with an “active and healthy supply chain”. Source: Own picture

The EA-18G Growler is a serious asset to any operator. The Growler is in essence a combination of a SIGINT-platform gathering data from anything that is emitting, as well as a jamming platform blocking any system from emitting anything useful, be it communications or radars. While stealth platforms currently does a nice job of denying the enemy the ability to close the kill chain by making it hard to get a fire-control solution on the radar, the Growler has the ability to take it further by jamming the electronic spectrum from the VHF-band to the Ku-band, denying the enemy all parts of the chain (early warning, acquisition, and fire control radar bands). If need be, the Growler can also take out the transmitting radars by employing the latest AGM-88E AARGM-missile, or just feed the information to the nearest Super Hornet slinging a suitable weapon to form a classic hunter-killer team.

All this means that the Growler is a highly appreciated asset, and not just by the US Navy. In fact, the USAF is funding part of the Growler-force, that include five expeditionary squadrons. It is not unusual to find Growlers assisting some of the Air Forces’ stealthiest platforms with both situational awareness and jamming. The Growler is growing with the Super Hornet, with both aircraft introducing technologies that filter over to the other. But while the aircraft maintain 90% commonality with each other, it is the remaining 10% that makes the Growler really venomous. The wingtip ALQ-218 RF Receivers, perhaps the most obvious external recognising feature, are described as “extremely good” and tell the pilot not only what is out there, but also where it is. The crew can then decide what to do with that information, whether to engage with weapons, avoid, or jam.

Alain Garcia
Alain Garcia is Capture Team Lead for Finland and Switzerland, and like many of Boeing’s people involved in the Super Hornet program he has a background flying the aircraft. He also has a cool jacket, and really like the ALQ-218 RF Receiver System. Source: Own picture

A key part of the jamming system is the two large ALQ-249 Next Generation Jammers (NGJ) for the mid-band. These are amongst the most advanced US electronic warfare capabilities, and just the fact that they have been released for export to Finland even before the US Navy has accepted them into operational use tells something about the US-Finnish bilateral relation. Ernie Winston from Raytheon, the developer and manufacturer of the pods, was happy to confirm that the development program is moving forward according to plan, and that the first pre-production batches are expected to join the program this year, which also will see the first mission system flight testing. The first series production deliveries will take place in 2022.

What exactly makes the NGJ different from the current generation then? A lot, as it turns out. The big thing is that it is capable of hitting numerous targets simultaneously, thanks to AESA features and “extremely high power”. To counter modern radars, it is also able to switch modes very quickly. The pod is designed from the bottom up to be modular and easily upgradable. Winston describe the system as providing “transformative electronic attack capability”, while the more modest HX-programme manager colonel Keränen just noted that the Growler represents a capability currently not found in the Finnish Air Force

NGJ
The NGJ mock-up together with an AGM-88E AARGM anti-radiation missile (i.e. it locks onto a radar and flies into it) under the wing of the EA-18G Growler taking part in HX Challenge. The capabilities of the NGJ will be evaluated in the US, due to the sensitive nature of the capability and the need for a large testing range. Source: Own picture

The versatility of the Growler also means that they can be used in a number of different ways. The US Navy likes to use the superior intelligence gathering and presence of a backseater to allow the aircraft to stand back a bit from the fight (the high power of it’s  jammers ensure that it can perform stand-off as well as stand-in jamming), sharing it’s tactical picture with the rest of the flight and having the Growler’s WSO (backseater) play the role of a mission commander, directing the fight. ‘Quarterbacking it’, as Boeing put it with a good analogy that will be meaningless for a majority of Finns.

The RAAF on the other hand has a more hands-on approach, and isn’t afraid to use their Growlers up close and personal. This is aided by the fact that the Growler in essence has all the air-to-air capabilities of a F/A-18F Super Hornet (minus the wingtip AIM-9 Sidewinders), coupled with vastly superior jamming capabilities. While a Growler preferably shouldn’t get involved in the air-to-air fight, it certainly is capable of defending itself.

The Australian connection is interesting. While there are lot of difference between Finland and Australia, there are surprising similarities when looking at the air forces. Both were major operators of the ‘legacy’ Hornet (sorry Boeing, the designation has stuck already), and were the first two (and for a long time, only) export customers of the AGM-158 JASSM which gave their respective fleets a precision deep strike capability. Both also operate in the grey zone of being somewhat non-aligned but enjoying close bilateral relations with the US (though Australia has a significantly more expeditionary approach). This closeness of the respective US-relations is what makes deals such as the JASSM or Growler possible. And if Finland chooses the Super Hornet, there is something very interesting brewing down under.

Recently Boeing made headlines by flying three Growlers simultaneously, with one controlling the other remotely two (they were often referred to as ‘unmanned’ by the press, something that wasn’t strictly true as they had a back-up crew aboard to take control if something would have gone wrong). The news wasn’t that a Growler can be flown remotely, but rather that Boeing had successfully demonstrated that without modifying the cockpit hardware, it is possible to effectively command unmanned wingmen from a Growler or Super Hornet using currently available data links (Link 16 or ATDL). The software part is included on both the Growler and Super Hornet road maps, and is expected to be rolled out sometime during the latter half of the decade (i.e. when Finland is receiving its HX-fighters). The question is then what would you control? Granted you can use the Growler (or a ‘legacy’ Hornet using Link 16, though that is suboptimal due to bandwidth and security concerns), but a smarter way is to use a purpose-built platform. Such as the Loyal Wingman.

FA-18E take-off
The larger wing make the take-off and landing distance shorter compared to the legacy Hornet, despite the higher take-off weight. Source: Own picture

The Loyal Wingman is currently being developed in Australia, something that has the added benefit of ensuring it stays ITAR-free. In other words, ensuring that it can be exported through direct commercial sales from Australia without the need to go through the sometimes tiresome US bureaucracy. To a certain extent, the current Loyal Wingman is a solution looking for a problem. It is highly modular, meaning that it can take up a number of payloads. While the system in its first configuration is likely to play the role of ISR platform and/or forward active sensor, it can be armed as well. And importantly, it is built from the ground up to be cheap enough that it is attritable. With a first flight slated for later this year, this isn’t a hypothetical MLU-capability, but rather something that very well might be operational by the time Finland declare FOC for the HX-fleet. Having an unmanned (the plan is for the Loyal Wingman to have the ability to operate independently using AI or to be remotely controlled) ISR-platform with a huge range, 3,700+ km has been mentioned, would be a very interesting option. However, when it comes to HX specifically, Boeing might have outwitted themselves, as the Australian Loyal Wingman can’t be included in the US Foreign Military Sales-package that is being offered for HX. With the relatively low price tag, it is instead found in the “Future capabilities”-column with a detailed description, and treated as a possible arms sale for the time post 2030.

But the Loyal Wingman is just one piece of the puzzle making the Super Hornet-family “networked and survivable”, to use Boeing’s phrasing. The key here is the Advanced Tactical Datalink, or ATDL, that allows for vastly increased amounts of data being sent between the aircrafts (and other friendlies, including ground and ship units). To be able to cope with this increased amount data received, as well as the increased amount of data from the Block III’s own sensors (including the ATFLIR targeting pod and the long-range IRST pod), the aircraft has received the increased processing power of the DTP-N (a “big computer”, as it was described). This in turn makes the creation of a common tactical picture (CTP) possible, which is presented to the pilot on the new wide-angled display that is the most visible part of the Advanced Cockpit System, vastly increasing the situational awareness of the pilots. In essence, what Boeing does is linking together the aircraft to get a clear situational picture even in complex high-treat environments. The new cockpit coupled with the CTP also lower the pilot workload, providing a “huge step up” when it comes to how the information is presented to the crew, and helps avoid overloading the pilot with data.

The rhino in the room is the as yet undefined date when the US Navy will withdraw the Super Hornet from service. Despite the recent news of the death of the Super Hornet being seriously overblown, the fact is that when captain Becker describes the future of the Super Hornet in the Navy, the timeline is two decades plus in US service.

“Regardless of other platforms coming out, F/A-18 will be the cornerstone for many years to come”

That all sounds nice and plausible, probably even slightly conservative considering there are no plans for the F-35C to replace large number of Super Hornets and that the NGAD is still just in the study stage of the program, but the gap from 2040+ to 2060+ is still significant. And the day the US Navy pulls the plug on the Super Hornet the continued development of the aircraft can quickly become prohibitively expensive for Finland. As said, a sunset before the late 2040’s is unlikely, especially given the 500+ aircraft upgrade program that will continue to push out refurbished Block III’s past 2030 and the unique nature of the Growler. However, the last ten years of the HX winner’s service life are uncertain, there is simply no way around it.

This is Boeing’s main weakness in the current offer, and to be fair one they share with much of the rest of the competition (especially Rafale and Gripen, Eurofighter to a somewhat lesser extent). France at least has officially stated that the Rafale will fly in French service into the 2070’s, but on the other hand the value of such promises might not be particularly high if FCAS suddenly encounter cost overruns that need to be covered (on the other hand, if FCAS encounter delays to the in-service date, the Rafale might suddenly have to soldier on longer). Gripen is even more vulnerable than the Rafale and Super Hornet, considering the smaller fleet and that the Swedish Air Force as opposed to AdA or USN is unlikely to run a multi-type fleet for any considerable time. Will Boeing be able to convince the Finnish Air Force that it is a risk worth taking? That is perhaps the biggest hurdle facing the Boeing sales team, and we won’t know the answer for a year. A German decision during 2020 on getting the Super Hornet as a Tornado replacement could easily be a deciding factor, but considering the decision was to have been made before the end of 2018, this could easily slip beyond the HX decision date of Q1 2021. Another key piece missing is the US Navy’s Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment that was expected in January, but has since been postponed. The current one dates to 2016 and is the basis for the (in)famous 355-ship force. The new INFAS could easily change the future of the Super Hornet fleet in one direction or the other.

Hangar door
The F/A-18E Super Hornet being admired by the assembled media. Note the left wing armament, which if mirrored on the right wing would give the aircraft seven AIM-120 AMRAAM and two AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles. On the centerline the podded IRST is visible. Note the badges on the hangar, celebrating the history of now disbanded fighter squadron HävLLv 21 and 44,500+ flight hours of the Hornet, the latter nicely summing up why the Super Hornet is one of the front runners in HX. Source: Own picture

One area were Boeing on the other hand has an edge is in their industrial cooperation program. The company has already once successfully performed a 3.5 Bn USD offset program in Finland. Though it might not have been quite as happy an affair as Boeing lyrically described it, there’s little doubt that the close cooperation with a number of Finnish companies, including key partners such as Patria and Insta Group, enabled the domestic handling of the Hornet MLU-programs. As such, there’s little doubt that Boeing’s presence on the ground in Finland give the company a serious edge when it comes to the creation of a trustworthy and executable industrial participation program of the same size as what they did last time around. Like most of the competition, Boeing declines to go into details at the moment. However, one interesting detail is that while Saab has already offered a final assembly line of the F414 engine to Finland, Geoff Hanson representing GE Aviation at the Boeing media event would not speculate in whether the F414 line (yes, the Super Hornet and Gripen share engine) would come to Finland in case of a Super Hornet order.

“It’s a bit early to commit to that”

Crucially, Geoff noted that the question of what exactly “final assembly” means is unanswered. There are certainly some assembly steps that relatively easily could be transferred, and which would provide know-how that is useful from a maintenance point of view. On the other hand, major assembly steps requiring check-out and factory acceptance tests is an undertaking of a different scale.

Maria Laine, Vice President International Strategic Partnerships, first entered Boeing during the original Hornet industrial cooperation program. As such, it is no surprise that she emphasised the ability to leverage the existing partnerships stemming from the old program. Finland and Boeing represents a “true, genuine partnership”.

“We understand Finland”

There’s a few other who claim to do so. Boeing might have a better basis for the claim than most, but if that is enough to ensure that Super Hornet will be the aircraft protecting Finnish skies in 2060 remains to be seen. One of the open questions surrounding the US aircraft have been that of mission data. Finland’s requirement is simple: we need to be able to operate the aircraft even if the supply lines are cut. This include both the physical lines of communication, but also data cables. Alain Garcia of Boeing doesn’t shy away from the topic when I bring it up. It is a challenge, he acknowledges, as US government requirements include a requirement for new signals to be processed at a US facility before being inserted into an updated version of the data set. The solution is to embed Finnish personnel at a suitable US facility. Once Finnish (or allied) assets would identify a new signature the data would be supplied to these Finns who would process it, before it would be sent back to Finland. The whole process would result in a turnaround time of less than 24 hours from collecting the raw data until having the updated mission data in the aircraft. As I mention the requirement for cut data cables that colonel Keränen had described at the beginning of the media day, Garcia nods.

“We have methods to get them back into country”

Boeing kindly paid for my hotel stay in Tampere (a single night), all other costs (including travel) being covered by myself. Neither Boeing nor any of their partners have seen, nor requested to see, this text or the illustrations used before posting.

51 thoughts on “HX Challenge pt. 5: Bigger, Better, Stronger

  1. BB3

    Good reporting and color per normal CF. So the obvious question now that all 5 contenders have presented – how do you rate them .. and do you think FAF is likely to rank them similarly.

    To my eye – all 5 seem to have a lot to offer – and as noted by the Finn colonel – all 5 would seem to provide a big upgrade in capabilities over the current force structure. It is, however, a competition so which platform/ bid is in the lead?

    Personally – I’d put the Super Hornet in a slight lead over the Gripen and then the F35, the Rafale & the Eurofighter.

    The Super Hornet benefits from being familiar and currently operational and the updated Growler helps their bid as does their incumbent status.

    The Gripen E/F aren’t yet operational, but the Finns are very familiar with the capabilities of the C/D and the fact that Saab and Sweden don’t usually over promise. The fact that they are cheap to acquire, maintain and operate are big positives in my mind and the 2 Global Eye planes being part of their bid really helps them as well as its a force multiplier and an asset that’s not being offered by anyone else. I’d also think that the ability to fully integrate the Finn air force assets with the Swedish air force assets and all their bases, maintenance, infrastructure and manufacturing assets is also likely a big positive.

    The F35 is the shiny, but expensive new toy. Operating maintenance and upgrade costs have to be of some concern as are restrictions on proprietary upgrades and the transfer of technology.

    The Rafale seems like a great multi-role plane .. think the only issues are cost and whatever restrictions France might place on technology transfers and the ability to integrate weapons other than those that France uses. The Gripen is likely the most open in this category, but the Super Hornet has the advantage of being able to use most all of Finland’s current inventory.

    I think the Eurofighter is the odd man out as it seems to be nearing the end of it’s lifetime upgrade cycle. If Germany were to place a big buy and commit to keeping it’s Eurofighters operational and updated for the next 30-40 yrs, but I don’t think we know that yet.

    Again – always appreciate your work and insights.

  2. Znail

    Why does Corporal Frisk rate Gripen as a risk with future development? It’s the newest plane that haven’t even entered service yet, hardly at risk of retirement any time soon. Sweden also doesn’t have any problems with running more then one plane as that is the current plan with Gripen C/D/E.

    The most likely planes to be bought by SwAF in the near future are Gripen versions and upgrades to the Gripen E. This wont cause any problems for Gripen.

    As for future proofing, consider that Boeing didn’t give any details to the “large computer” so is it safe to assume it’s smaller then F-35. And F-35 have a bit more then half of Gripen E computer power. Both SH and F-35 will have trouble keeping up with developments in the future without radical redesigns.

    1. There’s 60 aircraft ordered by Sweden, and I don’t foresee Brazil with their small order and limited threat environment spending large money on serious upgrades. The Swedish plan of operating C in parallel with E is shaky at best, considering the lack of funding and the quickly changing priorities in Swedish defence planning. The simple fact is that a long term (30+ years) commitment by Sweden to keep the aircraft in service is at least as uncertain as the current US Navy future plans.

      The DTP-N provides 17 times more processor power compared to what the Block II has available, but to be fair raw specifications are less interesting than what it is doing.

      1. asafasfaf

        When looking at design and production infrastructure Brazil is building for Gripen, it’s clear they dream big. Original plan was to have 36+36+36 acquisition program.

      2. BB3

        Everyone seems to talk a big game re: acquiring assets, but they often seem to find almost any excuse to put off actually committing to purchases. Last we heard from Brazil was that they were actually requesting that deliveries of the 1st 36 be slowed to a crawl. Here’s what Jane’s reported back on Sept 30, 2019: https://www.janes.com/article/91612/brazilian-defence-cuts-to-affect-the-gripen-and-kc-390-programmes

        “While the entry into service of the Embraer-Saab Gripen will remain 2021 as planned, deliveries for that year are expected to be reduced from 11 to 4 aircraft and the finalization of the programme will be delayed from 2024 to 2026, or perhaps even 2028.”

        India & Canada have been talking about big buys for years .. and years .. and years .. At least the Finns seem intent on keeping to their stated timetable.

  3. AI

    What would Sweden upgrade to?

    *Finland and Sweden would be procuring the aircraft in the same time frame.
    *Finlands geographic threat is higher.
    *Gripen is the lowest cost aircraft on the market and has proven itself as a useful testbed for weapons development and testing even for other aircraft.

    For Sweden to abandon Gripen there would have to be some major revolutionary evolution in future combat air systems making pretty much all manned combat aircraft obsolete. And in such a case Finland would probably also need to upgrade its airforce give it’s more exposed location.

      1. Znail

        Sweden getting Tempest seems highly unlikely. I am curious about what you are talking about with “volatility in Swedish defence planning”? Swedish planning is at least significantly more stable then US as anything beyond 1 year ahead is speculation.

      2. Have you been following the dance going on between Försvarsberedningen, the Swedish Defence Forces, and the politicians in government and opposition? It is a mess, and very fickle. Going back somewhat longer, there has been drastic changes between 1995 and today more than a few times.

  4. Tero Lakkonen

    How do you feel about the talk that Boeing’s quality control has gone downhill ever since the McDonnell Douglas merger? Considering the 737 Max debacle, Starliner failure and the recent finding of debris left over during construction inside 737 Max fuel tanks.

    1. BB3

      The ‘debris/ foreign objects ‘ issue has plagued Boeing’s tanker deliveries to the USAF for quite some time .. it’s not a one-off with respect to the troubled 737 Max. It’s a problem that Seems endemic o Boeing’s production processes and lack of quality control with respect to same & the fact that they haven’t been able to fix the problem despite being warned by the USAF multiple times is very troubling.

  5. EMK

    Now that all the candidates have been presented by C.F., what are the conclusions so far?

    I think Rafale and Typhoon are out. Both are dated already and the future development prospects are questionable, especially for Typhoon. Rafale is probably too French weapons wise. Neither can compete by being affordable.

    The two cheapest solutions are from Boeing and Saab. Both offer technically sound packages but Saab might have a slight advantage. The future support and development, however, is somewhat unclear on both cases. Both are probably capable of coping with what the only plausible enemy can throw against them – at least if we assume they can avoid close combat with the best russian air superiority fighters. In BVR and mid-range WVR the difference is smaller. In any case, both would offer an significant improvement over the current FAF capability.

    The “expensive toy” that most everyone loves to hate is, as said, expensive to buy and operate. The maintenance is, in more than one sense, a question mark. But it is the state of the art technologically and future proof in terms of development. In the air, it is without a question the strongest of the pack (in my opinion that is) and even in a close combat its better than what FAF has currently and probably what Boeing has to offer. And it has the best changes to continue to be technologically superior.

    Of the three serious candidates, F-35 offers more tactical options than the other two. By a lot. That’s another kind future proofing. But the very same thing also requires FAF to rethink much of their way of doing business from the scratch. That’s an unknown and those tend to make people nervous.

    So, is there a way to say it all in one sentence? I came up with this: its a battle between the cheap, easy and technologically sound options with uncertain future (Boeing, Saab) against expensive state of the art which requires a big change in the mind-set and lots of convincing answers regarding the availability.

    I’ve no idea how FAF will weigh these factors.

  6. IED

    Agree with EMK about Rafale and Typhoon. I must admit I am more positive towards Boeing now than I was before. I didn’t quite understand if the offer actually included growlers and if so how many. The addition of Globaleye or Growler would in my view give FAF some interesting new possibilities which to a degree weights up for the tactical advantages of the F35.

    One advantage of the Gripen solution that I think BB3 touched upon is the possibility of combining assets with the Swedish Air Force. Using the same plane Sweden and Finland could reinforce each other at will and have a more fluid approach which would increase the fog of war for an aggressor. Remember that in Sweden there are now politicial unity around training units explicitly to fight in Finland with finnish troops. (This is IMHO a rather remarkable development that has not received a lot of attention.)

    At the end of the day though, I believe in numbers. To paraphrase the opening line of CFs post “I prefer to have two airplanes over just one.” As long as equal numbers of fighters are on offer for the same price (LCC), the F35 must have the competitive edge. If so Finland would be a rather unique country given that everyone seems to agree that F35 is the most expensive option. (Norway claimed to have F35 as cheaper than Gripen, but only after single-handedly prolonging the F35 life expectancy from 6000 to 8000 hours and adding some bulk development cost to the Gripen.)

    If not, I would have the Gripen slightly ahead of Boeing due to the strategic flexibility of a Finnish-Swedish cooperation. And because I like the idea of Globaleyes patrolling the Russian border.

    1. EMK

      @IED, Global Eye has also the benefit of being relatively cheap to operate, so I assume it would be useful during the peace time too.

      I also agree that Swe/Fin combo has potentially a tremendous value. However, I am not convinced its real, practical value during a conflict without an formal agreement (i.e. a formal alliance) though. I am afraid without such an agreement, presumed co-operation would just add to the confusion and, in the worst case, will lead to catastrophic decisions (or rather, lack of decisions) based on unrealistically high hopes.

      I am a firm believer in numbers too. In a sense that I am for candidate that will give, in FAF*s estimation, the most bang for the buck *AND* has the greatest potential to do so until its time to purchase the next fighter platform (i.e. the one after HX).

      Don’t get me wrong. I am all for co-operation, sharing assets and forces. I’d take into account in choosing the winner only and only if there is already absolutely no way the other party can slither away from its commitments when the going gets tough. In another words, only a formal alliance established before its time to pick the winner would make me grant co-operation too much value. But maybe I am just too cynical.

      Your numbers argument reminded me about the numbers and types the winning candidate will be up against. As of 2016, Russians had approx.

      – 250 Mig 29 Fulcrum
      – 130 Mig 31 Foxhound
      – 350 SU-27 Flanker
      – 34 MiG-29SMT
      – 40 SU-35 Flanker E
      – 0 SU-57 (they have some, but not operational, AFAIK)

      The condition of their fleet as a whole is not stellar, not even today. But it seems they make steady progress on that front. (I’ve not checked more recent numbers, but I guess they have produced more SU-35’s and modernized SU-27’s all along).

      An interesting point though, IMO, is the number of SU-35 Flanker E they’ve got. That plane is the only really dangerous opponent for F-35 in my estimation.

      I’ve not done any systematic comparison, but I’d say SU-35 vs. F-35 the kill ratio could be something in the order of 1:3 – 1:5 for the F-35. For the Super Hornet and the Gripen. the ratio against the SU-35 is definitely more gloomy. I’d say something like 1:1 or 1:2 or maybe even worse than 1:1.

      Regarding the other Russian types, I’d say the kill ratio would be in the order of 1:10 for F-35 and something like 1:3 – 1:5 for the Super Hornet and Gripen.

      This is a numbers game one should also bear in mind although reliable numbers are hard to come by. It would be an interesting exercise to go through all the performance and weapons metrics and crunch the numbers to get more systematic and maybe realistic estimates. Regarding the numbers above, please take them with a *huge* block of salt.

  7. IED

    @EMK I disagree about the need for a formal cooperation. The aim of any defensive military force is to dissuade an enemy to attack. Thus uncertainty is on the side of the defender. Some well executed joint exercises and polictical statements will make it more difficult to correctly judge the opposing force. It will also facilitate any later stage reinforcements – official or not as per the last war. I believe the threshold effect will be there but obviously difficult to measure. In actual conflict, obviously you are right.

    Also, and while I don’t doubt your kill ratio estimates, they need to be put in perspective. Even with a 1:1 chance the defender is likely to have some additional surface-to-air capability. Would you then as the aggressor send your 40 or so SU-35s to joust in Finland?

    Interesting to see the breakdown of russian fighters. To those 800 fighters I will add that Russia borders some 14 countries across a large part of the world!

    1. EMK

      @IED, I don’t doubt the uncertainty would make everything harder for the attacker. It does. What I am doubtful of, is our (Finnish) politicians. I fear they rely more on the current co-operation and its future prospects than would be wise. I fear their high hopes drive them to make bad decisions (or postpone/neglect necessary decisions). That’s all. That’s why I would not count the co-operation in on the HX scoring.

      Sorry, I assumed it was obvious for all of us the russian fleet is spread around a huge country. Good you pointed that out though. It is IMO also quite unlikely the conflict would be between two countries anyway (its possible, though). In practice russia would have hard time concentrate much more to the area than they already have as the north wouldn’t be their only area of operations.

      In my opinion, the right ball park of kill-ratio numbers is way more important than accuracy. The actual number will inevitably vary during the conflict depending on countless factors. More over, skill, training and proficiency is not incorporated in these numbers. Nor is the opposite effect of the small absolute number of FAF planes. Each lost plane makes it harder to realize those good looking kill ratios in practice. This is also fact that speaks for combining forces with Sweden.

      All that being said, what I gather from the kill ratio estimates and the russian fleet size / condition, is that FAF is not a such an underdog people tend to think. Not even today. And after the HX planes are operational, it is a force to be reckoned with, even by the Russians with their 800 strong fleet. But that’s not what you read on newspapers. Quite the opposite in fact, which is remarkable when you think about it. Well, I guess its enough that Russians know, which they undoubtedly do.

    2. BB3

      IED – “The aim of any defensive military force is to dissuade an enemy to attack. Thus uncertainty is on the side of the defender.”

      you and I think similarly – which is why I emphasized in my comments in the Part 4 thread re: the Super Hornet – all the factors that to my mind enhance survivability & deterrence – including the early warning attributes of Global Eye type assets, Keep It Simple Stupid platforms that are easy/ cheap to maintain, repair, operate etc – from dispersed/ austere locations – including neighboring countries if/ as necessary. And – as to EMK’s point about the value of long range/ cross-border A2G capabilities – I think you and I acknowledge the value of this attribute – including the deterrent value of same, but the Finn airforce isn’t going to strike the 1st blow .. at best it’s going to ‘respond’ to a Russian 1st move – and that requires early warning, rapid response and the ability to disperse, re-fuel, re-arm, re-supply, repair etc. I fear a fleet of capable, but expensive F35s that are difficult to service/ maintain at remote/ austere bases might suffer the fate of the docked fleet of US battleships at Pearl Harbor.

  8. EMK

    @BB3, I have to admit I have never really understood the surprise attack argument against F35 (or any other type, for that matter). More precisely, I don’t understand how that situation would be different depending on the FAF fighter type.

    As I understand the way FAF (or any AF) does business, is that they have some well defined readiness levels. The readiness level determines in no uncertain terms how fast they would need to do different things, such as transfer a base to remote location. More over, that time limit is not dependent of the type of the planes. Rather, they plan and practice their execution to a point that the demands of the readiness level can be met with what ever the planes and other assets are.

    So, should all FAF peace time bases be attacked out of the blue, what difference does it make what planes FAF operates? The runways and on the surface premises have been destroyed or damaged, no matter the fighter type. And if we do get an early warning, we have exactly the same amount of time to protect and/or move our assets. And we have practiced to do these things within a time frame that doesn’t depend on the type of the plane but rather on what needs to get accomplished as per demands of the readiness level.

    Maybe I am missing something. Could you elaborate your argument or maybe point out an error in my assumptions or thinking.

    1. BB3

      EMK – thought I, IED, Locum & others have addressed this point in adequate detail, but to summarize:

      1. only the Saab proposal includes the Global Eye platforms as part of the $10 Billion Euro bid – so if the FaF goes with the F35s they won’t have an AWACs asset capable of providing cost effective, long endurance & long range early warning & standoff EW & situational awareness, targeting & communication capabilities. Would think it obvious that the foregoing would enhance survivability in the event an enemy launches a 1st strike. Global Eye or other AWACs type assets would also assist those fighter planes that can/ do get airborne with advanced situational awareness to assist with responsive strikes and then continue to provide early warning/ situational awareness to all surviving fighters – at main & dispersed bases.

      2. Additionally, there are questions as to the ability of F35s to operate effectively at dispersed/ austere road and other 2ndary bases – a hallmark of Gripens and to a lesser extent F18s. Don’t see LM or the USAF suggesting that F35s can be re-armed, refueled and maintained by 5 conscripts & one service technician – or that engines can be swapped out in 1 hr or that flight & mission software can be easily downloaded/ update – or that the stealth coatings don’t degrade if kept outside in severe weather, etc. And, ideally, you’d might start dispersing assets on a rotational basis as tensions heighten – prior to a surprise 1st attack. Is this something that’s even feasible with the F35s w/out massive additional investment re: infrastructure, supply chain and maintenance/ support/ operational personnel? – and I’m talking about the ability to not just land at some remote base, but to be able to effectively sustain operate out of these road bases and other 2ndary/ austere locations.

      3. And finally – the advantage of being able to potentially disperse to and operate out of additional main and 2ndary bases in Sweden – at least on an interim/ temporary basis – seems obvious.

      There are I’m quite sure additional factors and arguments on both sides – but these are at least points that seemingly deserve some consideration. And again – the ability (even the perceived ability) to survive, respond, and continue to operate in some reasonable fashion in response to a 1st/ 2nd wave of attacks – adds to the deterrence equation one would think – in the same way that IED points out that the Russians would have to at least consider the possibility of triggering a response/ assistance from Sweden & Nato – even in the absence of formal/ binding assistance/ cooperation commitments.

      1. EMK

        @BB3, thanks.

        1. I am not totally convinced. Let’s consider two scenarios, one for the normal, peaceful situation (such as today) and one where tensions have risen and military organizations have begun preparing for trouble ahead.

        If such a surprise attack would occur today, out of the blue, how likely it would be that Global Eye would be airborne? Its not up there all the time, that’s for sure. So no difference there. And even if it was airborne, how much time it would actually give. An hour? 30 minutes? Maybe 10 minutes in case the attack is ballistic (Iskander). That would give at best enough time to get on duty pilots (a few planes) airborne and move any planes in the service hangars or in the tarmac into the caves. These few planes would be the ones at risk without the Global Eye. (I am not saying a few planes don’t matter.)
        More likely situation would be the one where the tensions have been risen and AF bases have begun preparing. The planes would be probably dispersed, the pilots and ground crews either on duty or on alert. In that situation Global Eye, Growlers or F-35’s would provide signal intel. Its a mistake that only Global Eye is capable of doing that. Maybe the capabilities of Growlers and F-35’s fall a bit short of Global Eye, but surely both are more than capable enough to give an early warning. So, the three candidates are all offering enough (IMO) in this regard.

        2. Sure there are differences on how easy or difficult a plane is to operate on a remote location with mobile ground support. But again, its a mistake to say it cannot be done with F-35. It probably would require more resources true, but should FAF choose F-35, they just provide those resources and make it work. I mean to say, its not a realistic to assume FAF would choose F-35, and then waving their hands say, sorry, we can only operate from fixed bases. So, if FAF decides these dispersed locations require too much resources with F-35, they don’t choose it. If they choose it, they think they can handle it. Its that simple.

        3. Agreed. This one goes to the Gripen.

        In my thinking your arguments, while valid, are too narrow. Its true there probably are some show stopper requirements, but I think its unlikely these are. Just a few days ago we heard from FAF colonel that all the HX candidates in fact can be operated from road bases. The only uncertainty with F-35 before the test week was, he said, the directional stability during the take-off and landing runs as the roads are much narrower than airport runways. And that uncertainty was removed during the F-35 test week.
        While F-35 may get less scores due to amount of resources it needs in these dispersed bases, the other candidates have their own downsides too. Its the whole package that matters. Not single narrow concerns. That’s at least how I think about it.

        Finally, while it may seem I am a F-35 defender, I still don’t know if it would be the right plane for the FAF. I am just trying to be as objective as I can and resist the popular demand to bash it and ignore the undeniable upsides. I happily admit I probably fail in my attempts to remain objective as miserably as everyone else does 🙂

      2. BB3

        You suggest you are trying to be objective, but I’m not seeing it as to the points you raise in your most recent post (discussed below) – which are separate from the F35’s attributes as a stealth fighter as compared to the other candidates.

        I don’t doubt that the F35 is a serious contender and it’s the only stealth entrant – though the other entrants claim their EW characteristics provide similar advantages. Regardless, your primary argument in favor of the F35 is that the Lightening is going to have far superior kill ratios vs. the other candidates, but I can’t help but think your #s are speculative and perhaps inflated. Certainly, LM will tell you the F35 is invisible and can/will shoot down 10 enemy fighters with its 4 hidden A2A missiles in stealth mode – the magic bullet theory – 2+ kills for every missile, but I’m not fully buying LM’s sales pitch. Certainly, the other contenders would question those #s and suggest that their platforms will perform near as well, but who knows for sure.

        As to the ‘objective’ points discussed in your most recent post – I just don’t think you are really being objective.

        1st off – Global Eye is a purpose built long range ISR/EW platform that has low hourly operational costs and can fly for 8-10 hrs at a time. You’d need multiple Growlers or F35s in the air to get anywhere near equivalent coverage and they are much more expensive to operate and can’t stay airborne for anywhere near the duration of the Global Eye – without midair refueling – including at night when it’s dangerous even if possible. Bottom line – I don’t see the 2 assets as fungible and Finland isn’t likely to be using them as ISR platforms like they surely would with the Global Eye planes.

        2nd – you seem to acknowledge that the F35 would likely require additional infrastructure as well as additional support personnel. Even assuming that additional money could be found, Finland would still be constrained as to where to disperse it’s planes – no flying to Sweden for repairs and re-arming, or changing in-country landing areas on the fly – and you’d better hope that major work isn’t necessary in the field and that your trained crews don’t get injured and have to be replaced with conscripts on the fly.

        Regardless, it’s best to compare apples to apples. If it’s going to cost say $11-12 Billion to get 64 F35s to IOC with all the necessary additional infrastructure and ground personnel – then Finland ought to be asking how many additional Gripens and Global Eyes they could get with/ for the same $$ in addition to calculating the lifetime operational, maintenance and upgrade savings. Maybe Finland should be comparing 64 F35s to 74 Gripens + 3 Global Eye planes

        I see the operational costs and adaptability of the Super Hornets as being more similar to Gripen – but they are still more expensive to operate and base. I’m less certain about the operating costs and basing requirements for the other 2 Eurocanards.

        I’m not sure it’s worth continuing to go back & forth on these points. The F35 is a stealth platform and that has it’s advantages & disadvantages. The disadvantages relate to higher acquisition, operational and maintenance costs, the need to maintain stealth coatings & temperamental/ problematic software etc. The benefits are stealth and possibly higher kill ratios/ operational lethality – assuming all the high maintenance F35s can be kept combat ready and available in a wartime setting under less than ideal conditions – at least that’s my take on things.

  9. THalken

    The F35 is a 5gen plane and the 1000 on order means it comes at the same price as a SH while being only slightly more expensive to maintain. Its the one to beat. If LM can shoehorn 64 into the order it will be a serious force and change the balance of power in the Baltic Sea. The multi mission SH means its equally poor at everything and at the end of its life.

  10. EMK

    @BB3, In my last post in points 1 & 2 I wasn’t talking about which plane is/would be the best. I was merely saying an early warning is not something ONLY Global Eye can offer. Hardly an opinion against or for any candidate. Maybe you are saying the only “objective” thing one can do is to praise the Gripen and Global Eye?

    It is also quite strange you go after my aspired “objectivity” by pulling examples like the kill-ratios I talked about earlier. Maybe you didn’t read that post after all, since I specifically said things like “reliable numbers are hard to come by” and “take these numbers with a huge block of salt” and not the usual “with a grain of salt”. Your criticism is pretty damn biased and unfair, “objectively” speaking, if you ask me. But then again, what the bleep do I know… it seems to me we think differently and talk past each other anyhow, so let’s leave it here. Thanks for the discussion though.

  11. IED

    @BB3 and EMK Objectivity issues aside, what is interesting is how these capabilities will be judged by the HX evaluation. In my mind the F35 has been chosen by several airforces for reasons well beyond strictly military. For NATO members with a strategic situation such as Norway and Denmark or with a rather unstrategic location such as Belgium, it may make sense to have a smaller airforce that is intended to work only in cooperation with other airforces. In fact, I would deem the Danish airforce almost useless on its own, simply because of numbers.

    Finland has no such luxury. I think that is why a lot of us are fascinated by this process, because this assessment will be as practical and impartial as these types of procurements are ever likely to get.

    The F35 must be judged on its own merits and I do believe these are substantial. I also believe that its abilities are not perhaps the ideal mix for Finland. But that belief is based primarily on three assumptions in comparison with the competition that may or may not be true. The first is that the F35 is substantially more expensive to maintain if not to buy. The second that the plane is less suitable for dispersed airbases or even main bases in times of war due to being more advanced and complicated resulting in a lower availability and slower redeployment. The third assumption is that it will be difficult to get supplies in case of conflict and that Finland will be the last in line to get supplies. Pretty much what you have mentioned BB3. All of these are more or less qualifying criteriae.

    Against this is a fighter with substantial advantage in terms of future development, stealth and sheer competence. I think it’s great that you help show these features EMK. And to be fair – if the rest of the world believe the F35 to be superior to anything the russians can throw at it, the bigger numerical advantage they would want before attacking. These are more award-winning criteriae and should be compared to Growlers, Globaleye etc.

    Now, if LM can convince FAF that they can meet all these criteriae we must also be prepared to accept that they are well positioned in the competition. But it is this that remains to be seen.

    1. BB3

      Video re: Norway’s current air policing operation in Iceland confirming need for much larger logistical footprint for their new F-35s vs F-16s .. more manpower, more equipment, more maintenance, more $$, more everything. The F35 is not an easy plane to maintain & operate at main bases let alone Spartan, remote road bases.

      1. IED

        Certainly, if you compare with this video of the Czech gripen detachment in Iceland 2014, you’ll notice that Gripen pilots spend a lot more time in the air than in front of the camera discussing logistics…

        Sorry, that was a bit of a joke. Just thought it was funny to see how two different airforces present the same mission.

        But it certainly would be interesting for the FaF to have a look at the F35 deployment in Iceland to see how it works out behind the glossy broschure. The Gripens were C and D versions so perhaps not 100% the same but that mission would also be an indicator of how the aircraft redeploys.

    2. BB3

      Gripen – easy to fly, service, maintain, repair, operate & base …

      The F18s are also rugged planes with STOL capabilities and Finland has operated its legacy Hornets out of remote/ Spartan road bases so one can perhaps assume similar operational/ support/ maintenance criteria) capabilities for the Super Hornets.

      Don’t think the same assumptions can be made re: the F35s ..

      1. BB3

        It’s not just higher maintenance costs .. it’s also the need for a lot more support personnel .. more skilled technicians .. longer & more complicated upgrade cycles, the need to coordinate everything with the US & Lockheed .. Hell even the US DOD is having problems with all this stuff .and can’t get Lockheed to fix known problems absent more $$. How do you remotely base & maintain/ operate these birds? The logistical footprint needed is massive.

        I don’t know how a small country like Finland can afford to get stuck in this morass. They will have zero leverage once they commit to buying these albatrosses.

        Could well be a repeat of Austria’s disastrous experience w/ the Eurofighter where they bought planes that are too costly & difficult to fly, maintain, upgrade etc. Austria is looking for someone to sue/ blame for that disastrous decision while trying to find some cash in the couch to buy some more affordable Gripens to replace the expensive Bentleys that are parked in the Garage because they are too expensive to maintain & actually use.

    3. EMK

      It seems to me worries about the F-35 are real, but vastly exaggerated.

      When it comes about the cost per flight hour (CPFH), we (the public) don’t actually know how the manufacturers calculate their CPFH numbers. Even though the basic principle is simple, we most likely aren’t able to compare apples with apples.

      For example, do the 4th gen contestants include their various pods and other external carriage to their published numbers? Even a simplest thing like a cost of external fuel tanks is difficult to assess.
      More over, pilots do drop these tanks in a real combat situation practically every time in order to gain speed, agility (WVR) and a smaller radar cross section (BVR). So how many tanks you should buy and include to your cost calculations for a single plane? Omitting these costs make the numbers look way better than the real CPFH. That, though, is one way to make your candidtate look better in the public eye.

      @BB3, you seem to have great trust in FAF’s HX decision process. Not. You can second guess all you want, that doesn’t change a thing. It strikes me odd you seem to think FAF is unable to choose a right plane for Finland, but you can do it easily, as if by some magic. A smart guy like you must be filthy rich. Any investment tips to spare?

  12. EMK

    One more thing regarding the kill-ratios. BB3 didn’t even bother to ask how I came up with the numbers not to mention the fact that he did not provide a single reason those admittedly unreliable an inaccurate estimates would be on the wrong ball park.

    Instead he chose to claim I am parroting LM sales pitch or at least that I knowingly twist or inflate the numbers in order to make F-35 look good.

    No matter how hard I try, I cannot help but take that as a one more way to bash anyone who dears to undermine his unshakable, if not fanatic, beliefs about the Gripen + Global Eye combo.

    So, for BB3 and anyone else interested. I came up with the numbers entirely by my own estimation. Should I’ve swallowed LM sales pitch as such, the F-35 kill-ratio would have been in an entirely different level (maybe 1:20 or even 1:25 against anything other than SU-35, as the USAF – not LM, mind you – reporting from the Red Flag 2018 exercise seem to suggest).

    My estimates are based on
    – the publicly available information concerning the performance metrics and capabilities of both the planes and the current and/or planned a2a weaponry for the planes.
    – my knowledge (or lack-of, thereof) about air combat in general and tactics that apply these planes specifically..

    So, BB3 or anyone else who thinks the numbers are entirely wrong, please be my guest and come up with your own numbers and then we can go into details. If you’re not willing to do that, please, don’t spew that BS about me parroting LM either.

  13. IED

    Inspired by the above discussion and with apologies to CF for hi jacking this post, I would like to venture into some scenario analysis. Basically all evaluations are based on some assumption regarding the nature of the conflict. But as there are different scenarios the evaluation will differ a bit.

    I’m thinking there are three main scenarios or situations that need to be adressed. The first is a peace/grey zone state where there is substantial tension but no armed confligt. The second is a state of general war such as WW2 where Finland would be involved. The third is a surprise attack by Russia for unknown political reasons.

    In the first (greyzone) scenario I believe the main objective is to gather intel, and to be able to keep many aircraft at a high readiness state (dispersed basing or at least rotating) for a long time. Preferrably at a low cost. Here I believe the Gripen/Globaleye excels. Possibly with the F18 as a second. As there is no actual conflict, stealth and a2a abilities have no function beyond deterrance.

    In the second scenario Finland would be at war but not alone. I would assume that only a small portion of the russian air force would be assigned to Finland except possibly for a surge operation aimed at neutralising Finland completely. In this scenario F35s would be a great asset as they are not easy to destroy once airborne and they can do a lot of damage at a lot of different locations thus necessitating a rather active defence on behalf of russia. Assuming that they are more numerous, the F18 with growlers could be equally effective. The joker in this scenario is Gripen, an active cooperation (although not part of HX per se) with Sweden would increase the possibility to resist a surge by quite a lot. Gripen has perhaps also the best availability while being on par with the competition for all but a few mission types.

    The surprise attack scenario involves no or very little advance warning and a great number of opposing fighters. Surviving the first day is the only thing that matters. My thinking is that the more fighters you have the greater the chance that one of them survives the initial attack. The more suitable they are to dispersed basing the likelier it is that they are dispersed. But once they get airborne I would much prefer a stealthy plane. Assuming that LM are not too far behind in numbers this is the one where the F35 may come out on top. Again, an active cooperation with Sweden that sees swedish Gripens regularly on finnish airbases similar to the navy agreement between the two countries would drastically change the situation.

    (I realise the Swe-Fin cooperation is given a high emphasis, especially since it is not part of the HX evaluation, but alliances do tend to have a high impact on conflicts so I don’t think it is unreasonable to discuss.)

    1. DiminishedGravitas

      In my mind the F-35 has one trump card the traditionally defensive thinking of most Finns do not appreciate: a deterrence value an order of magnitude higher than the competition.

      While it cannot be put in so many words publicaly for political reasons, even the current FAF Hornet is an offensive platform with stand-off strike capability. An F-35 based air force will take this threat to another level: not only can the deploy stealthy weapons that can reach strategic targets in the St. Petersburg and Murmansk regions from within Finnish airspace, the JSF can credibly penetrate deep into Russian airspace to attack even more valuable targets. This fighter upgrade is not simply a thicker layer of armor for the Finns, it is buying a weapon that can wound the heart of the Russian bear at will.

      As noted in the discussion about kill ratios and Russian fighter inventories, the FAF has and will have sufficient A2A bite to inflict significant losses, if not guarantee air superiority outright. The HX programme will procure a platform that has the Russians updating their calculations on not only expected attrition of air assets, but their strategic assets as well. In the future, both of the neighbouring nations has to worry about defending their capital from each other.

      That makes a huge difference in any plausible scenario. While you might think twice about walking into a hornet’s nest, you certainly tread very carefully around a vindictive god of thunder.

      1. EMK

        @DiminishedGravitas You’re absolutely right IMO.

        There is some interesting psychology going on here. In my experience, many of us (Finns) have an odd assumption, according to which an offensive, especially when targeted outside of our borders, is always something unacceptable, even unbearable. Should someone ever dare to talk about such thing, s/he must be a misguided, impulsive, rash and inconsiderate (at best) or an ignorant, crazy and aggressive warmonger (at worst).

        I mean, the rational stance that we shouldn’t consider starting a war (which I completely agree) gets somehow twisted into two unrelated and confused views:

        1. FAF should not have an offensive a2g capability in the first place
        2. Should FAF have such capability, it should never ever be used outside of our borders. Not even during an on-going conflict.

        People seem to have two distinct arguments they use in defending those views. One based on morale and other based on fear.

        The “morale group” thinks that even considering about such an awful deed as being offensive and attacking someone, is an evidence pointing to a morally corrupt individual. And if using an offensive capability is, god forbid, acceptable to a state run institution (such as FAF), it makes us all morally corrupt. We become morally corrupt as a nation. (Which obviously includes these morally virtuous people, rendering it even more horrible to them.)

        The latter group seem to be possessed by a “good-girl syndrome”. They think: if we play nice, the other side will play nice too. In another words, they fear that if we use our weapons, it provokes a similar or even worse response from the other side. And since the other side is BIIIIG and deemed invincible, its better to be passive, cautious and not to do or say much anything. Which is, of course, as absurd a view as they come.

        Although opinions as extreme as I’ve described them are probably quite rare, you see and hear quite lot of less pronounced, mild versions of these arguments. To me that is mind boggling.

      2. Locum

        This plane is Invincible.

        I still remember the first F-15A Eagle very impressive demo at Farnborough at a very rainy day.
        Later in 1978, they were deployed in The Netherlands. The Eagle drivers were rightly excited about it’s great performance, it’s superb avionics, heavy BVR armament with 4 considerably improved AIM-7M’s and an ergonomically cockpit (That of the F-4 Phantom was quite cumbersome). One of the pilots said: It’s invincible ! Everybody agreed. The cheering faded away and the same pilot said again: “It’s invincible … as long as EVERYTHING works as advertised. Folks, we ‘ve been to ‘Nam’ with some of the most technically advanced, capable, but also most complex war machines from this planet. To turn war machines into the most effective weapons. You will need a well organized force, with a prudent strategy. With well developed tactics, techniques and procedures. Effective training, enough exercise, a good working logistics train and the highest possible morale. US Armed Forces in Nam were lacking in these departments.
        After Vietnam, the USAF got her organization, training, exercise, tactics, etcetera finally right.
        Briefly said: it’s roughly 50 % the capabilities of the machine and 50 % human factors.
        To quote a WW 2 German general: the side who makes the least mistakes will win.
        Another crucial factor are logistics. With logistics, I do not only mean the movement of gas, beans and bullets to the right place. It’s also about maintenance, repair and overhaul. How and were you are based with your fighter jets. The F-111 Aardvark was a great fighting machine, yeah … as long as it did’t malfunction. And in ‘Nam’ it did break down a lot.

  14. Kjell

    And the Finnish Air Force didn’t lose any Draken jets either due to a bird strike.

    And you may take into consideration if the engine is designed as a single engine installation or not, which wasn’t the case for the Hawk’s Adour engine. There is also the question on FADEC programming if there is one in the first place. Take the RM12 as an example versus the F404.

    1. DiminishedGravitas

      In my mind the F-35 has one trump card the traditionally defensive thinking of most Finns do not appreciate: a deterrence value an order of magnitude higher than the competition.

      While it cannot be put in so many words publicaly for political reasons, even the current FAF Hornet is an offensive platform with stand-off strike capability. An F-35 based air force will take this threat to another level: not only can the deploy stealthy weapons that can reach strategic targets in the St. Petersburg and Murmansk regions from within Finnish airspace, the JSF can credibly penetrate deep into Russian airspace to attack even more valuable targets. This fighter upgrade is not simply a thicker layer of armor for the Finns, it is buying a weapon that can wound the heart of the Russian bear at will.

      As noted in the discussion about kill ratios and Russian fighter inventories, the FAF has and will have sufficient A2A bite to inflict significant losses, if not guarantee air superiority outright. The HX programme will procure a platform that has the Russians updating their calculations on not only expected attrition of air assets, but their strategic assets as well. In the future, both of the neighbouring nations has to worry about defending their capital from each other.

      That makes a huge difference in any plausible scenario. While you might think twice about walking into a hornet’s nest, you certainly tread very carefully around a vindictive god of thunder.

  15. EMK

    @Locum. Words of wisdom.

    I’ve been researching the Russian AF lately, and oh boy, are they a mess. Their pilots may fly as little as 50 – 100 hours annually (for example, in the Nato 150 hours is considered to be an absolute minimum to keep pilots proficient enough.). Their pilot training is in an dismal state. They have hard time finding recruits and even harder time to get them thorough the training. Number of pilots getting through have been as low as 20 – 30 annually in recent years (some years have been slightly better though) which is really small number in comparison the size of their fleet.

    Their fighter fleet is big if measured by the number of air frames, but a large proportion of the planes are, it turns out, wrecks unable to get airborne and come back in one piece. Of those planes that are still safe enough to fly, most are 3+ generation. We’ve heard a lot about modernization, but the harsh reality is that the number of planes actually modernized is astonishingly small. And most of the old planes are past that point anyway. The manufacturing part of the story is not any better. For example, they’ve managed to produce only 10 SU-35’s annually since 2015. And what about the SU-57, the infamous F35 killer? The orders have been reduced from the original 52 first to 12 and now, I’ve learned, to a whopping total of 4 planes.

    What I’ve gathered from various analysts, the Russian AF may have only about 100-120 operational fighters *on par* with western 4th gen fighters at the moment. Others are too old to have any value in a combat at all. And that’s the whole Russian Air Force. Not just the western district. (I am still a bit wary about the numbers and some of the sources I’ve gathered them, but so far I’ve not been able to refute the numbers either.)

    One analyst even claimed 90% operational russian af planes are in Syria. That is probably too bold a claim. But it seems like a good summary of the sentiments people following the Russian AF express. Things look grim for them at the moment, to put it mildly.

    Lucky for us, our friends at the other side of the eastern border have so far rather talked the talk than walked the walk, it seems. Let’s hope they’ll keep on focusing their strengths in the future too.

    1. Locum

      EMK, thanks for your assessment.
      However, Winston Churchill once said: Russia is never as weak as you hoped for and never as strong as your feared for.

      Russia is big, regarding her land mass, but their GDP in 2018 was USD 1,66 trillion, compared to USD 2,08 trillion of Italy = 20 % smaller GDP.
      The 2018 Russian Defense expenditures were USD 61,4 billion, is 3,9 % of the GDP.
      While Italy in 2018 just spent USD 27,8 billion / 1,3 % of the GDP, for her defense.
      For comparison: France spent in 2018 USD 63,8 billion, 2,3 % of the GDP. Source: SIPRI.
      But the buying power parity in Russia is better than of those EU countries.

      Fighter planes are just one of the several tools in Russia’s ‘Anti Access, Access Denial’,
      (A2-AD) toolbox.
      See this excellent article, about attacking “the opponent’s system” rather than just countering one particular type of weapon system:
      https://corporalfrisk.com/2020/01/28/russian-a2-ad-overrated-underrated-and-poorly-understood/

      In this article you will find also information about the modernization of Russian fighter aircraft and their ammunitions.

      1. EMK

        @Locum, thanks for the link. I’ve read that article more than once. Its a good reminder we all should probably be a bit cautious when it comes to our pet notions 🙂 The world is complicated place and simplistic truths we hold are rarely either simple or true.

        My intention was not to say Russia is so weak we can (or should) ignore it or feel triumphant because of their difficulties. As this blog post and most of the comments are about fighter aircraft, that’s what I tried to focus on too. But you’re absolutely right. Despite the undeniable difficulties, Russian military capability as a whole is obviously dependent on much more than just one class of aircraft. At the same time we should, however, be cautious of regarding Russia more capable than she actually is. We should always look deeper and that’s what I was trying to do (with a narrow focus on primarily a2a fighters).

        One thing I am quite sure about, though. The problems I’ve described are not limited to their air force alone. Rather, they are indicative of similar problems in *almost* all the branches of their military and in most(?) sectors of their economy as well.

        More over, I don’t expect them to get their act together without fundamental changes in their society and the system that governs and runs it. The system they have just does not reward ‘good behavior’. Quite the opposite. It rewards short term thinking, corruption, thievery, and discourages long term investments, efficiency and so on.

        So, the problems related to their military are not separate from the rest of the society. In my estimation its a mistake to assume they can “repair” one without the other. Its just a common sense to be very skeptical about the reform talk you hear on a regular basis from their leaders. For a rational, dispassionate observer their countless more or less failed ‘reforms’ should speak much much louder than their ambitious project and goal proclamations, the annual Kremlin pep-talk shows or the futuristic weapons programs they brag about every other week.

        One upside of their system is, though, that they can mobilize the whole society, including the industry, to support their military efforts if need be. They can also do that very quickly and without worrying too much about the money either. One more reason not to be too complacent. Besides that, the service-life of HX planes will be decades, so who’s to say what will happen in Russia during that period.

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