The Black Horse(s)

I have on a number of occasions stated that the outcome of the HX programme is far from certain, despite the F-35 probably being the fighter to beat. While waiting for the sprint to the finish line to start of in earnest, there are two things that probably are worth keeping in mind.

To begin with, the unlikely doesn’t equal the impossible. Betsson earlier this year placed odds on the outcome, and while I don’t condone gambling generally and in particular not with questions of national security, the odds given weren’t too controversial. At the point of Finnish tabloid Iltalehti reporting on the live odds, they were:

  • F-35 2.15 (i.e. 35 % of being chosen)
  • F/A-18E/F Super Hornet 3.00 (25 %)
  • JAS 39E/F Gripen 3.75 (20 %)
  • Eurofighter Typhoon 6.25 (12 %)
  • Rafale 9.35 (8 %)

It is easy to read 8 % as “never”, but it deserves to be remembered that this is not the case. As a comparison, if you sit down with your Monopoly board and bring out the two dice, the odds of you rolling the dreaded ‘snake eyes’ or 1-1 is just 2,78 %. Does that mean that things are looking bright for the Rafale? Not really. The reason you can remember rolling snake eyes in board games is that you have a large numbers of die rolls per game, while the HX is a single event. Granted, you still do roll snake eyes on your first roll sometimes, but it is rare. And since someone is bound to comment on it, yes, Leicester City F.C. won the Premier League.

Hornet Elephant March FinAF 2020
The Finnish Air Force earlier this summer launched over half of the 62 aircraft strong Hornet-fleet simultaneously in what was a show of strength when it comes to readiness and the ability to temporarily surge, but also a stark reminder that the country hasn’t gotten smaller since the 90’s (a trend we’d very much like to

…which brings us to our second point, which is a more serious concern for the odds favourites. Last time around the details surrounding the choice of the F/A-18C/D Hornet were largely confidential for a long time, but back in 2017 twenty-five years after the event Olli Ainola of Iltalehti got the memo circulated amongst the ministers back then released (it had been classified as ‘Salainen’ or ‘Secret’, i.e. the second-highest classification on the four-tier system). It provide a good lesson to keep in mind when discussing the expected outcome for the current programme.

Of the five contenders left (the more fanciful offer to sell Finland the MiG-31 had already been discarded at this point), two were outright disqualified as not meeting the Air Force’s requirement. These included the MiG-29 (not meeting requirements related to “avionics nor lifespan, nor the maintenance setup”) and more surprisingly the popular favourite, the F-16C/D (failing both on the technical aspect as well as on industrial cooperation). The JAS 39 Gripen and its subsystems were felt to be not mature enough, leading to unacceptable risks. This left just two of the five contenders, the Mirage 2000-5 and the F/A-18C/D Hornet, to battle it out in the end.

In short, in the early 90’s the Finnish Air Force and MoD were not afraid to disregard offers they felt weren’t up to standard, and that might have a serious effect on the outcome this time around. And note, at least based on open sources, it is the favourites that seem to have the biggest reason to worry.

F-35 has a long and troubled development history. Some questions linger on, such as the ALIS/ODIN logistics system, but on the whole the F-35A is starting to look like a highly competent multirole fighter at a nice level of maturity (especially considering that we are still ten years away from HX FOC). However, the big questions are to be found in other aspects of the tender. One major issue is the question of how and to what extent the though industrial cooperation requirements can be met considering the unique international nature of the F-35 program. Lockheed Martin’s press briefing at HX Challenge unfortunately did little to bring clarity to the question, instead causing further confusion about what might and might not be on the table.

Another serious question that refuses to die is the one regarding costs, and in particular operating costs. While comparing acquisition costs is largely a fool’s errand, the fact that none if any of the DSCA notices or reported signed contract values are anywhere close to fitting inside the Finnish budget is cause for concern. Perhaps even more damning is the Danish life-cycle cost estimates. A report out of the Centre for Military Studies of the University of Copenhagen written by Gary Schaub Jr and Hans Peter H. Michaelsen published in late 2018 (h/t Charles Forrester who drew my attention to it on Twitter) discusses the possibility of increasing the number of F-35s in Danish service, and quotes the annual operating cost of the current fleet as 70 million DKK per aircraft (or approximately 9.4 million EUR). The numbers are taken from the original authorisation to buy the F-35 (referred to as “Aktstykke 31” in the report), and as such is likely the best available open source number found for the RDAF. The Danish concept of operations is naturally somewhat different from the way Finland would operate the aircrafts, but on average I believe it is an acceptable point of reference (smaller number of aircraft and single base vs. economics of scale and dispersed operations). Toying around with numbers, if we accept the Danish annual operating cost to be a good fit for Finnish annual operating cost per aircraft (i.e. 9.43 MEur), that would mean that Finland was able to afford between 26.5 and 35.7 aircraft, depending on how you calculate (26.5 if the annual total operating cost is 250 MEur, and the MLU isn’t included in that, and 35.7 if the annual operating cost is 270 MEur + the MLU reservations spread out over 30 years).

lockheed-martin_f-35a_lightning_ii_e280985209e28099_284930561163829
Like their Danish allies, Norway is converting over to a single base for its fast jets with the introduction of the F-35A, the air defence of the northern parts of the country being handled by a QRA detachment rotating in to Evenes Air Station (outside Narvik) from the main base at Ørland. Here an aircraft of the 332 Squadron visits Bodø for an airshow in 2019, the city that used to host the two northern F-16 squadrons. Source: Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons

In practice, this would mean that one of the Finnish Air Force’s two fighter squadrons would be slashed, and we’d likely see a Norwegian model in which one of the current two bases would host a QRA detachment of four to six aircraft instead. The upper boundary of that calculation also aligns with the lower limit of what long-term aviation journalist Tony Osborne of Aviation Week stated on Twitter last week, when he estimated that the eventual offer to Finland would be for “36-40 aircraft”. If correct, it would be an extremely bitter pill for the Finnish Air Force to swallow, and one that very well might prove politically unacceptable (in particular to the agrarian Centre Party that currently holds the MoD seat).

As it happens, on the Finnish Defence Forces Flag Day June 4 the Air Force launched eight four-ships of Hornets, a total of 32 aircraft to celebrate the occasion. This also provide a nice reminder of what it actually takes to cover an area as large as the Finnish airspace. And if your fleet is 40 aircraft, you don’t get to surge to launching 32 at a time…

But the F-35 is far from the only favourite that is facing some serious risks. Both the Super Hornet and the JAS 39E Gripen rests on a single major operator. One of the major talking points that the FDF and MoD has raised when asked about what issues other than straight out performance can become deciding factors is the risk of becoming the sole user:

By no means do we want to be the last and sole user.

Lauri Puranen, in Suomenmaa 2019

The US Navy has been reluctant to lock down exactly how the future of their carrier air wing will look past 2030, to the point that the US congress last month actually pounded the table and demanded a plan. The issue here is obviously that any plan won’t be out before HX is decided, and if the plan then is to scrap all Super Hornets by 2035 and go all in for the NGAD and F-35C, Finland will be left standing in the corner looking stupid. The fact that the USN is still planning on rolling more or less the whole F/A-18E/F fleet through the Block 3 upgrade program which will give the airframes a significantly longer lifespan together with the unique role of the EA-18G Growler and the likely-looking German buy does lend some credibility to Boeing’s claims of them anticipating a service life for the Super Hornet in US service significantly past 2040, but it certainly is far from set in stone.

For Sweden the situation is roughly similar, with the recent decades not instilling much in the way of trust with regards to political long-term planning for the Swedish Defence Forces. Currently Sweden has 60 Gripens on order (all of the single-seat 39E-version), which ironically enough would make Finland the world’s largest operator of the 39E/F if 64 aircraft were to be acquired. At the same time, while the aircraft is moving through the development program and meeting milestones at an impressive pace, the words that doomed the original 39A/B offer to Finland in 1992 does echo through history.

JAS 39 Gripen and in particular some of its systems are currently still at the prototype-stage, and the schedule of the project with its uncertainty factors include significant risks.

The 39E is maturing nicely, but it certainly is not yet on par with the competition. Is that an issue? Probably not, but the risk of Sweden pulling the plug on the 39E in 2040 and moving on to something else (Tempest?) is there. Especially as the next stage of long-term planning for the Swedish Air Force is only about to kick off next year.

How is it then with the two dark horses? Surprisingly well, to be honest. The Eurofighter Typhoon has a solid user base, including four major European countries having invested heavily in the system, which provide a depth that significantly improves the chances of it staying in service up to 2060 even if the FCAS and Tempest are already looming at the horizon. The Rafale has a more limited user base, despite scoring three notable export orders recently. Still, France can generally be considered a rather stable user country, and has traditionally held onto its platforms for a long time. Recent examples include the Super Étendard (retired in 2016), the Mirage F1 (retired from the reconnaissance role in 2014), and the Mirage 2000 (still happily serving on in both the ground-attack 2000D and fighter 2000-5 versions). Karl Rieder joked on Twitter when discussing the future of the Super Hornet that buying French is safer, since there’s no budget to change plans. It’s a joke for sure, but there’s also a grain of truth buried within that statement.

© Dassault Aviation - K. Tokunaga
Will 2021 be the year of the biggest Rafale export order to date? Likely not, but don’t say I didn’t warn you! Source: © Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

So, will 2021 see a showdown between the Rafale and Eurofighter for the HX-prize, the rest having failed the gate checks? Probably not, though I would not be surprised if there is at least someone in the anticipated top-three being kicked out (which based on earlier information, we might know the details of in 2046). At the same time, I am certainly open for the possibility of us getting a surprise winner, and I do not believe anyone who claims they knows the outcome.

34 thoughts on “The Black Horse(s)

  1. John

    Wouldn’t it also be prudent to look at costs for operating the Eurofighter and Rafale given both appear to have a similar to higher long term cost than the F-35 even thought they are you suggest will likely survive longer than the Super Hornet? Additionally I don’t think anyone knows what the Gripen will actually cost to operate but given the small fleet size it won’t be insignificant, especially for those mid life upgrades…

    1. Kjell

      It seems that you aren’t familiar with Saab’s way of upgrades as it isn’t done with a big mid-life upgrade but with continues smaller upgrades so you are able to keep up with the operational requirements the whole time. And it’s even simpler in the Gripen E with the unique structuring of the avionics HW an SW totally independent of each other and so are the SW also.

      As an example is that they did change all computers between 39-8 and 39-9.

      1. Under a joint BAES / RAF program named TyTAN the operating costs of the Typhoon is reportedly pushed below that of the F-16 in USAF service. They were reportedly well on track when I visited in 2017, and UK defence journalists have since largely confirmed that. It is also rather reminiscent of how FDF operate together with their strategic partners (including Patria, Millog, and some others), so I am significantly less worried about the Typhoon LCC than those of the F-35. https://corporalfrisk.com/2017/04/28/under-scottish-skies-selling-the-typhoon/

  2. asafasfaf

    Those were live bets, moving based on how masses gambled. Last figures that I saw before closing were:

    F-35A 1.7
    Gripen E 2.5
    Super Hornet 5
    Rafale 7
    Typhoon 11

    Btw your story forgot to tell about Suomen Kuvalehti insider, who revealed that F-35’s (leasing styled) operating costs are tens of percents larger than rest of the competition.

    1. Yes, if you read the text it is clearly stated that they were live odds, and that the numbers quoted were those at the time of IL reporting on them.

      I’m not sure how much the anonymous leak to SK would have added compared to the Danish figures which are 1) approximately twice that of the Finnish budget, and 2) officially confirmed in that they are used by the Danish government for authorising the deal. I.e. they are both more detailed and have a significantly higher reliability as a source.

      1. Locum (Ben Ari Eitan)

        The Danish figures are in line with those of the Dutch F-35A fleet.

        But why did the F-16C/D fail in the technical aspect in the Finnish evaluation ?

  3. Thomas Björklund

    I think 16 F-35s and 48 Gripen E would be the most cost efficient alternative. Then you would have fighters that could carry out deep strikes against ant air systems or provide target data from sensors to the Gripens or the opposite, that the Gripen would use their AESA radar to provide data to completely radar silent F-35s. As for capability, it´s enough to be superior to the existing and coming russian aircraft and that are all of the western alternatives. By having Gripens, the logistics would be much more efficient. With the new setup, finnish fighter pilots could land on a Swedish air base, reload and refuel but also be replaced with swedish pilots and then the opposite with swedish fighters.

  4. To think of decades in the future is foolish and to prepare for such is foley.
    It would be wise to think and prepare the land, houses and people for the inevitable.
    Because even when you cannot survive a direct nuclear impact, you CAN survive the nuclear fallout which will follow.

    1. Umm… Both the FDF and the civilian part of the total defence concept does have CBRN protection questions integrated into their work, and when making huge long term investments you most definitely want to plan decades ahead to the best of your ability.

  5. jp

    For me the F35 block 3F/Gripen E/F/Eurofighter T3 are staying unproved combat in war and they are no mature jet, rest only F18 or rafale. the winner will be f18, because politic case with US. my view, i will take never unproved combat jet in war.

    1. John

      Everybody said the Harrier Jump Jet now called just he Harrier would get shot down quickly in a dog fight as it was too slow. Then the Falklands war happened and it quickly proved it’s viability and it’s capability. New combat planes always have to prove themselves but if you don’t take them into combats, you will never know it’s true capability. That’s why fighter pilots have big balls. They are willing to risk it all.

    2. Thomas Björklund

      Ha ha ha – So then you will never go to war 🙂

      There´s always a first for every plane. Now, Gripen is proven. The difference on the plane hull is that it is bigger and has a new stronger engine. The engine is the well proven GE F414. As for the rest, it is a new AESA radar, IR search and track, a powerful ECCM suit and top of the line weapons.

  6. PG

    Hi!
    I agree with Thomas taktical wise 16 F35B protected by 48 GripenE/F supported by 2 GlobalHawk.
    Why F35B they can land/load anywhere ofcourse to a higher pricetag.

    1. Thomas Björklund

      An interesting thing is that the US will now apply the same thinking as I presented. The US just ordered the first batch of 144 F-15EX. They will be used in the same way as I proposed for the Finnish airforce – the F-35 is using its passive sensors to detect enemy planes, relays the data to the F-15EX and then the F-15 EX attacks.

      The main problem with F-35 is that it can carry so few weapons.

      https://www.military.com/equipment/military-aircraft/everything-you-need-know-about-air-forces-new-f-15ex.html

      1. EMK

        “The main problem with F-35 is that it can carry so few weapons.”

        This problem will be solved, at least in part, by the new weapons rack called “Sidekick”. Currently each internal weapons bay can carry two AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles. The Sidekick will increase the capacity by one (per weapons bay). So, the internal capacity will increase to total 6 missiles.

        The new weapons rack will be available for block 4 versions of F35A (and C), so it should be available before the HX will proceed to the decision phase.

  7. Timoteus

    Would under 40 F-35s be enough for defending whole country? If not, then yes, the Centre Party will shoot down such acquisition. Also, how big margins there should be for combat losses? I’m not expret in this area, but to me even the planned 64 aircraft fleet sounds quite small.

    While Thomas Brörklund’s two platform proposal would provide tactical benefits, it also has its drawbacks. In my opinion most important of these is training requirements: Gripen E and F-35 have very little in common, so you would need separate training pipelines for both pilots and ground crews. There would also be additional logistics burden as you would have to maintain two sets of spare parts (lower economics of scale) and (to some extent) maintenance equipment. While this maybe viable for a superpower, I don’t think Finland could afford it.

      1. The idea of a mixed fighter fleet was investigated early on in the process, and it is one of the things that the authorities have been very clear on at every turn: there will be no mixed fleet, it’s too complex and expensive on a number of levels (including those mentioned in the comments here). For a 60 aircraft fleet, it just doesn’t make sense.

      2. Thomas Björklund

        Well then, then it´s the usual “most bang for the bucks”. Every Euro you can save in the aircraft purchase can be spent on something else – anti air systems for example. The most important factor is not the benchmark between the planes but which plane is better than the russian, to the smallest cost over the life cycle.

    1. asafasfaf

      It’s not really about defending the whole country, it’s about war game points. I would be surprised if winning bid has less than 60 fighters.

      1. Timoteus

        True, but I’m surprised if that “defending whole country” isn’t included in political explanation to the public. I’m sure you are right here and that is reason for second question: is planned fleet of about 64 aircraft enough? For layperson without detailed understanding of FAF doctrine or planning assumptions, it sounds quite small number.

  8. EMK

    @Corporal Frisk

    “Umm, no, the HX decision is to come H1 next year (originally Q1, but I believe there was talk of a slight delay),”

    Oh, my bad. Thanks for pointing that out.

    It seems that block 4 and the Sidekick will be available before HX deliveries will start though. The question is, however, does the new weapons rack has any relevance to the HX decision making even its not available at Q1/2021?

    I think there’s no reason to assume it won’t. I mean, if Finland chooses F35, the LM will probably deliver block 4 (or later ) versions and block 4 is not available Q1/2021 either. Or am I missing something here?

    1. The configurations as delivered are the ones evaluated, e.g. Tranche 4 for Typhoon and F4 for Rafale, and, yes, it’s Block 4 for F-35. However, technological and R&D risks are naturally also included, so if there’s a risk that any of the configurations slip that’s also taken into account.

      1. EMK

        Ok, that’s my understanding as well.

        “However, technological and R&D risks are naturally also included”
        Of course.

        BTW, the UK gvmnt contracted BAE Systems to develop similar weapons rack (and support for Meteor missile) for their F35 fleet. Sidekick on the other hand seems to be a Lockheed Martin project. Does anyone know if BAE is still working on their project or did they hand it over to LM?

    2. asafasfaf

      There needs to be a “cut day” for new technical data and it’s likely the day when final offers are given. Of course the whole Block4 matter is already part of the equation as Finland evaluates all fighters as in estimated 2025 spec and that spec is not copypaste from manufacturers sales flyer.

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