The Big Dance that wasn’t to be

It was supposed to be the last big dance of the HX contenders in Finland, with a final air show in the unpredictable June-weather before the decision was to be announced not even a year later in early 2021. But then COVID happened.

The air show was first moved to August, and then the whole program schedule was pushed back with the decision now expected Q4 2021 due to the inability to hold the final pre-BAFO talks in person last spring. As such, the air show in Kauhava this weekend is set to be a somewhat muted affair compared to the expectations. This is obviously a pity, especially as the local enthusiasts in Kauhava were set to have the biggest celebration of the towns aviation heritage since the closure of the air force base in 2014.

Compared to earlier years, the late stage of the program is visible in the fact that few breaking news were published, though there were some interesting stories.

First out in the spotlight was the Finnish Defence Forces and MoD themselves, who published a rather long and surprisingly open interview interview with colonel Keränen (FinAF A3) and Lauri Puranen (MoD program manager for strategic capability projects) in their Radio Kipinä-podcast. The theme was “The HX-program – Mythbusters”, and they spent quite a bit of time explaining why it isn’t possible to replace the fighters with ground-based systems or UAVs, the extremely close cooperation between the politicians making the eventual decisions and the soldiers and officials providing the groundwork, as well as how there are no favourites at this stage. All of these are issues that have been raised in the domestic discussion in Finland, with more or less populist undertones depending on the issue and who’s making the point. However, there were some interesting nuggets for the avgeek community as well.

Keränen made a direct point that the Air Force is not planning on going even in case of war, but that they will strive for a serious kill ratio.

We want something like the Brewster, [which] had 32:1 during the Second World War. Of course that is the kind of thing we are aiming for, whether it’s realistic or not is another thing, but if we can reach for example 10:1 that is 600 fighters that we can shoot down. Or bombers, depending on whatever comes.

You’d be excused for feeling this comes off as arrogant, but a quick look into the history books shows that during the jet age such numbers have been well within the realms of possibility. The USAF F-86 experience in the Korean War is given as between 10.5 to 2:1. The Israeli Air Force is also well-known for having extremely high numbers during the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars, and while the exact numbers are debated (figures like 50:1 in 1973 and 80:0 in 1982 are frequently given), even if they feature some serious inflation they should be well over the 10:1 threshold. The Royal Navy in the Falklands War also famously reached 19:0 with the Sea Harrier (although a small number were lost in accidents and to ground fire), and in this case the kills and losses are largely confirmed from sources on both sides. Operation Desert Storm also saw a kill ratio above 30:1 for the coalition. As such, the goal of reaching double-digit kill ratios is perfectly achievable with the right combination of training, equipment, and doctrine. In fact it can be argued to be something of a requirement for overall success in modern wars.

The interview also confirmed that the idea of a 64 aircraft fleet is effectively dead, as Puranen noted that all first round offers for 64-aircraft packages were “significantly over 10 billion Euros”. However, the requirement is still for a fleet of around 60 aircraft. The reasons are simple and well-known to followers of the project, in that the aircraft now included in the HX program aren’t really faster or have significantly better endurance compared to the current Hornet-fleet. Coupled with the fact that Finnish territory hasn’t gotten smaller (or rather, not significantly smaller) since the Hornet was bought, the same air defence capability will require more or less the same number of aircraft.

The interview crucially also included a declaration that they are happy with the planned service lives of all aircraft, and see them continuing in service into 2060 and beyond. If that really is the case, it certainly is good news to, well, everyone besides F-35A (which we all knew would not have an issue with the lifespan requirement).

Boeing did not have any aircraft beside the Finnish Air Force’s three F/A-18C/D Hornets on location at the air show this year, but their tent continued to heavily push the manned-unmanned teaming concept. Source: Own picture

The last significant detail given was that the Growler will show its active systems at a test range in the US during a test period there, and that the passive systems were evaluated during HX Challenge which Boeing attended with a three-aircraft fleet that included not only the Growler but also single- and two-seat Super Hornets. Since then, Boeing confessed that their testing program had been hit with some delays, but that as time goes and the safety measures are put into place everything is starting to ramp back up again. With both the Block 3 and the NGJ now flying, it was a bullish team that was on location in Kauhava yesterday. Despite the issues facing Boeing’s civilian sector, the defence, space and security-part of the company was described as “healthy”, with the international side being “more active than ever”. This include the Canadian program, where Boeing recently sent in their offer, the Swiss program, as well as the ongoing German program where Boeing has been downselected for luWES and together with Eurofighter to provide the solution for the Tornado Replacement Program. The ATS and manned-unmanned teaming was also mentioned, and Boeing was quick to point out that while they are happy with the progress the ATS-platform itself is making down in Australia, that is only part of the complete system. The technology and software part of the program is to some extent a different track running in parallel, large parts of which are already in place.

Finland is a user organisation, not a developer organisation

Boeing’s main sales pitch hasn’t moved anywhere, it is still the proven and mature option, two words that has worked well in Finnish defence procurement earlier. The one thing that didn’t excite the company was Saab’s announcement of the Lightweight Air-launched Decoy Missile (LADM), the representative sounding almost confused when he recounted an earlier question:

We got a question if we have anything similar. We’ve been doing that thing for years, first with the TALD and now with the MALD. I really don’t know what else to say.

The US launched over a hundred of the original (in turn based on earlier missiles of the same concept used by the Israelis) ADM-141 TALD during the opening night of Operation Desert Storm. Here two of the TALDs that were later launched into Iraqi airspace are shown under the wing of a Hornet. Source: iflyfa18 via Wikimedia Commons

As said, Saab had one of the few (only?) breaking story of the show, with the announcement that they are developing a lightweight decoy. Despite the seeming similarity to the US ADM-160C MALD-J and the SPEAR EW, the Saab-version has a few things going for it. To begin with, it is “largely” developed in Finland and as such (probably?) should be ITAR-free. Secondly, while Saab won’t discuss at what stage they are in the development (usually a sign that there’s not much in the way of hardware yet to be shown), there’s likely significant synergies between the internal EW-suite of the Gripen E/F, the EAJP jamming pod, and the electronic warfare capabilities of the GlobalEye.

The third GlobalEye built for the UAE, here with Swedish civilian registration SE-RMU. Source: Own picture

Saab continues to emphasis the overall package, with security of supply and the close relationship with Sweden adding to the performance of the JAS 39E/F Gripen and GlobalEye combination. 39E made its air show debut at Kauhava, and it was backed up by no less than three 39C/D Gripen of the Swedish Air Force and a GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft. An interesting aspect of Saab’s presentation was the inclusion of colonel Carl-Fredrik Edström, Swedish Air Force A3, who spoke warmly about Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation, and noted that this will continue regardless of the outcome of HX. However, if Finland would end up choosing Gripen, there’s certain possibilities opening up that the Swedish Air Force would be happy to provide. These include e.g. the possibility of embedding Finnish flying personnel into the test and evaluation program at an early stage, as well as the potential of cooperating not only on research and development of the fighter, but also e.g. handling the advanced training/OCU as a joint unit which likely would be a cost saver for both countries.

For the first time ever the 39E Gripen took part in an air show. The aircraft in question was ‘6002’, the first series production aircraft for the Swedish Air Force. She will join the verification and validation programme together with the Swedish Armed Forces and FMV. Source: Own picture

The star of the four Gripen on location was the ‘6002’ which is the first series produced JAS 39E, and feature a really nice three-tone camo to commemorate this fact. Making its air show debut, the aircraft featured a serious air-to-ground load of four SDB on the centreline rack, two Taurus KEPD 350 heavy cruise missiles, and two Enhanced Paveway II (believe that is the GBU-49 227 kg version), as well as two IRIS-T air-to-air missiles for self-defence. That Saab managed to convince the Swedish Air Force to let their precious fighter come over for an air show is yet another sign of the wholehearted support Saab’s export push enjoys from the operator.

Another fighter in special paint was the Dassault Rafale solo. Unfortunately it (and the other two Rafales) were parked a bit offside, so I wasn’t able to get any nice shots of it yesterday. But rest assured it looked the part, both on the ground and in the air.

Edit 02 September 2020 – I managed to get my hands on this video that Dassault used as marketing material during the weekend, and got permission to republish it here, courtesy of Dassault Aviation.

Speaking of air forces supporting export pushes, the RAF sent over the Red Arrows to celebrate forty years of Finnish Hawk-operations. While in theory this had nothing to do with BAES trying to sell the Typhoon to Finland, it is obvious that there are some overlap. In particular, BAES tries to use their long experience working together with Patria on the Hawk-program as a template to build onto for a Finland as a Eurofighter operator. This isn’t something to laugh at, as besides Boeing they are the only operator to be able to claim experience on this side of 2000 to have cooperated with the Finnish Air Force (and Finnish industry) on an operational fast jet. And it should be remembered that while the Hawk is a much simpler platform compared to the Hornet, there still has been some significant projects based around the aircraft in Finnish service, including the Hawk MLU-project.

The BAES-lead consortium have their game plan ready. The key part is taking a holistic approach to the gate-check requirements of industrial participation, affordability, and security of supply. In simple words this starts with ensuring Finnish industrial participation from the get-go (read: domestic production line), which provide a base for thirty years of sustainment. This allows for a TyTAN-style program where the industry is handling maintenance and support on location, which in turn saves money as moving aircraft around for service is expensive. As has been discussed earlier, TyTAN won’t be coming to Finland as a copy-paste solution, but as it bears a strong resemblance to the FDF way of working with strategic partners and with the experience of BAES and Patria working together on the Hawk, it will provide lessons for how to produce a tailored way of working for the HX. Crucially, TyTAN provide an already proven operational way of working that shows how the costs can be managed, something that at least two other aircraft in the field currently lack. And with BAES confident enough to sign a fixed-price ten year contract on the Typhoon, the life-cycle cost gauntlet certainly has been thrown down.

The Large Area Display simulator for Eurofighter which is in development. Picture courtesy of BAES

But while much talk is centered on the European aspect, Finnish ownership of mission data, lack of sealed black boxes and “independence“, it is when discussing the aircraft itself that the superlatives really start to come out. An interesting talking point at the BAES presser was that the upcoming large area display will enable the pilot to take a step back and get more information than just the fused picture by seeing also the raw data from individual sensors. While sensor fusion has been one of the main themes of most of the HX-contenders, the theory that you can get additional value from being able to see raw data as well as to sort through ambiguities and anomalies does make sense on paper. The question about how valuable this is depends on how good each individual fusion method is, and that is something that we won’t know based on open sources. Still, I couldn’t help but reflect on whether we are seeing the hype cycle in action, or is this is just a PR-talking point for the use of a large display?

But while the value of non-fused data to complement the fused picture is ambiguous, the raw performance of the Eurofighter is uncontested. The aircraft’s ability to supercruise is seen as a key for the QRA mission, and it has been demonstrated to the Finnish Air Force (naturally it is dependent on height and environment).

It is without peer in the sense it can supercruise, and it can supercuise with air to air stores.

This is coupled with the Striker and upcoming Striker II helmet, which allows the weapons cuing through the cockpit amongst a host of other nice features. In short the company believes that they “already have a helmet advantage”, and that it will only get better with the introduction of the Striker II with full colour and picture-in-picture.

31 thoughts on “The Big Dance that wasn’t to be

  1. Yes it is true. We, but not I, haven’t learned yet that Finland looks out for Finland and noone else. I salute them and send the ship off, out into the sea. As for the representative from SAAB that didn’t know if he had his head on his shoulders still screwed on when asking the Boeing representative if they had anything similar like LADM at Boeing. Curtains! But i would much rather hear about SAAB’s and Boeing’s different technical solutions and which has the better MALD.

    1. JBC

      Jeez Rog – re-read the article .. CK didn’t say it was a Saab rep that asked the Boeing rep if they had something similar to Saab’s new Lightweight Air-launched Decoy Missile (LADM). I’m guessing it was some reporter that had also attended the Saab presentation.

  2. BB3

    With the HX decision being pushed back to the 4th qtr of 2021 – one has to wonder if it doesn’t make sense for Finland to engage in further evaluation of the candidates early next yr – perhaps in connection with one of the arctic air exercises that most all the candidates would be participating anyway. My thought is that all the candidates are likely to have progressed with their proposed aircraft – the Rafale with it’s F4 std, the EF with it’s new AESA radar (unclear if Finland will be getting/ wanting the German or UK version) and possible ECR improvements, the Super Hornet Block 3 upgrades, the F-35 Block 4 upgrades and Saab’s Gripen E should be close to completing all testing/ verification work for all the sensors on the Gripen E. I’ve got to believe that Saab in particular will be keen to keep its Finnish counterparts up to date re: progress respecting the Gripen E .. perhaps even including the E and GlobalEye in some of the regular Finnish-Swedish-Norwegian cross-border exercises.

    Would be interested in your thoughts CK ..

      1. Joren

        The GlobalEye may very well reduce the operating costs over the life cycle of the procured package. During the 10 billion implementation phase it must however increase costs, its after all two more aircraft and a new type of aircraft.

        Saab making this move makes it extra surprising given that their cost advantage in the implementation phase should be lower than over the full life cycle. So either this could be a brilliant move to maintain flexibility in the negotiations (an easily droppable part of the package), a mistake as they underestimated the Finnish cost add ons or a mix thereof.

    1. Don Pablo

      Procurement costs, operating costs, and availability rates are historically extremely high cost with low availability when looking at dedicated AWACS aircraft. Even with priority placed on their airworthiness and systems functionality, they are hard-pressed to exceed 50% FMC rates.

      Since we have no baseline set of data for the GlobalEye (Canadian business jet with AESA and relevant electronics installed by Saab, along with structural mods), it’s purely a guessing game at this point. Periodic upgrades to AWACS platforms are also very high-cost.

      My concern for the future force structure and how it will have to face the emerging Russian force structure is vulnerability of AWACS, even when flying far away from the Finnish-Russian border. With the Su-57 flying anti-AWACS missions from southern or northern vectors, and uncommon approach routes most people are overlooking, any AWACS platform is going to be a prime target in the opening moves of a regional game of air dominance chess.

      The AWACS bird itself has only countermeasures to rely on, which don’t do well against incoming missiles using multiple methods of terminal stage guidance at their disposal.

  3. IED

    CF: There are without doubt some serious advantages to having the GlobalEye included in the package. And I am quite convinced that the GlobalEye can offload the Gripens by using cheaper flight hours to a greater effect than any of the competition. Possibly this means SAAB can meet the HX budget in terms of LCC.

    But the mystery still remains. In the globaleye post you write “Saab naturally isn’t sharing their calculations, but assure that this fits inside the HX-budget.” Now you quote Puranen as saying that all packages were significantly above 10BEUR (this being an important part of the budget).

    1. There’s two possibilities (or rather three, with the third being that Saab was outright lying):

      Either Saab’s package fit within the budget, but when the non-Saab part including infrastructure and weapons added it ran over (possible, as in an YLE-interview Puranen stated that the size of the weapons buy was the most serious issue, as it was so big due to security of supply concerns).

      Alternatively Saab had already by then received the information that the 64-aircraft requirement would be scrapped, can’t remember when exactly that happened.

      The thing here is that most (all?) suppliers voiced no concerns about the budget in public at any stage of the project. My guess is that this was due to a combination of marketing talk, a bit of creative number crunching, and the mentioned issues with the weapons packages.

      1. BB3

        CK – in your previous post on the HX competition you noted that, due to the F-35’s high acquisition, operating, maintenance and upgrade costs – the F-35 offer will likely need to for 36-40 planes. If true – one wonders whether the F-35 can still be considered the leading contender given that Lauri Puranen confirmed that: “the requirement is still for a fleet of around 60 aircraft .. in that the aircraft now included in the HX program aren’t really faster or have significantly better endurance compared to the current Hornet-fleet. Coupled with the fact that Finnish territory hasn’t gotten smaller (or rather, not significantly smaller) since the Hornet was bought, the same air defence capability will require more or less the same number of aircraft.”

        Would be interested in your thoughts.

        Consistent with your earlier comments about Saab’s GlobalEye early warning attributes and low operating costs resulting in fewer expensive fighter flight hours – one wonders if the Finn DOD considers purchasing the GlobalEyes regardless of the fighters purchased given that the GlobalEyes would presumably result in fewer patrol flight hours for whichever fighter is chosen. Again – would be interested in your thoughts.

      2. BB3

        On this point about Saab’s offer and whether it still includes 64 Gripens and 2 GlobalEye AEWC planes – I remembered reading the Feb 5, 2020 AINOnline article that reported on Saab’s participation on the HX Challenge which paraphrased Saab reps as saying: “the Gripen’s low operating costs have allowed it to add the GlobalEye to the offer AT ONLY A SMALL COST TO OVERALL FIGHTER NUMBERS, yet offering expanded operational capabilities.” [emphasis added]

        In short – though it’s earlier offer included 52 Es and 12 Fs and 2 GlobalEyes – Saab’s updated offer may have shaved off a few Gripens from the offer while retaining the 2 GlobalEyes – to keep within the 10 M Euro budget.

      3. EMK

        Best guesstimates of flyaway prices (in Euros) of the HX-contenders.

        Plane M€/unit B€/64 units
        Typhoon 66 4.22
        F35-A 63 4.03
        Rafale C 57 3.65
        Gripen E 50 3.20
        Super-Hornet 43 2.75

        A few caveats:

        Saab sold GlobalEye system (2 planes) to United Arab Emirates a few years ago at 1.2B USD (1B €). So, 64 x Gripen E + GlobalEye system with two planes would be around 4.2B €.

        Super-Hornet prices seem too good to be true. And they are. Super-Hornet prices above do not include Growlers. Since I’ve no idea how Boeing will split the numbers between the types, I didn’t even tried to estimate more realistic price. I think it will be quite a bit higher, though.

        The price of F-35 in the table is the actual unit price of the latest production batch. Lockheed says they aim to push a flyaway unit price of F-35A to 54M€, but I didn’t use that figure because we do not know if they’ll ever hit that target.

        Anyway, considering all the above, the contenders seem to be pretty much at the same ball park when it comes to (flyaway) acquisition prices.

        Assuming there are no huge differences between the weapons prices, I’d say the operating costs (and maybe spare parts) will have a big impact on choosing the winner.

  4. IED

    Agreed, but to be fair you need to add a fourth alternative. That Puranen is being a bit liberal with the truth.

    I believe none of the suppliers would actively state that they cannot meet the budget as it would then be difficult for the HX program to disregard that fact. Conversely if only one supplier could indeed meet the budget restrictions I don’t think that would be openly stated as that would sort of close the competition. Or at least cause some concern about the validity of the competition criteriae.

    My best guess would be a combination of your first alternative (that SAAB but not the extras met the budget) and the fact that they actively search for extra costs because they want the competition to be perceived as still open. Hopefully, this would then have been evenly applied across the competition and not to selected participants only. (Note that I didn’t mention Norway at all in the previous sentence.)

  5. jp

    spotter have some difficulties for follow the rafale in acceleration

    Impressive Dassault Rafale Display | Kauhava Airshow 2020

  6. someone

    Do you think Greece’s intent to purchase 18 Rafales will increase this aircraft’s profile in Finland? Once the contract is actually signed, it will have an EU export customer.

    1. It certainly doesn’t hurt! Difficult to say how much of an impact it will have, as 18 is still a relatively small fleet, but Dassault has been able to add an impressive number of international users in recent years which certainly is a positive sign. A bit like the German EF/Super Hornet buys (if they are confirmed), this won’t win the competition, but will be a small boost in a large and complex evaluation.

  7. Patrick

    Hi Corporal Frisk.
    I have two questions about the video from Dassault seen above.

    At the beggining of the video, some archive images are present, showing french-manufactured aircrafts which either served within the Finnish Air Force, or were contenders in competitions.
    Strangely, at 0:10 exactly, an image is shown, of what looks like a Bloch Aviation MB152. Using a roundel as markings, not a blue svastika.
    I didn’t even know such a peculiar roundel had ever been adopted by the Finnish Air Force since it is very different from those observed on finnish aircrafts post-WW2.
    More importantly, to my knowledge, not even captured Bloch Mb152 were exported to Finland.
    Can you provide any information regarding this picture? Because right now it is quite a mystery.

    The video features the Joint Strike Missile, with testing footage of said weapon.
    This is the first time ever this weapon is shown in a Dassault commercial, until now no one had ever heard about its integration under the Rafale. Not a word in the french or international specialised press.
    Do you know more about this story? Was it a requirement from the Finnish Air Force to have this weapon integrated?

    Thanks in advance!

    1. Patrick

      Little addendum (and more mystery):
      Apparently the plane I mistook for a Block MB152 is in fact a prototype, the Bloch MB700, mostly made of wood which wasn’t a material as strategic as metal.
      The only aircraft produced only flew 10 hours before being destroyed. The second prototype was never completed.

      Is this a mistake from the Dassault PR department for including such an aircraft or was the type marketted for Finland back then?

    2. I don’t think that there’s been an explicit request for JSM, although it’s known that the offers are iterated together with FiAF and it’s possible that the suggestion to include it might have come from the Finnish side.

      As such I doubt it has been integrated other than initial feasibility and fit checks, but further integration would be covered by the purchase contract.

      JSM does fit quite nicely into the Finnish requirements, covering both maritime and SEAD/DEAD and time sensitive/high value strike roles complementing SCALP and AASM. Additional passive RF seeker is also being funded by Australia, which would help with the SEAD/DEAD mission. The wording SEAD/DEAD unanticipated attack used by Dassault seems to imply that the CONOPS would involve low level nap-of-earth flight profile, which should suit the weapon.

      BAE has also hinted at JSM being included in the Eurofighter offer, so it’d seem not only Dassault has recognized the fit. Additional upside is that Kongsberg and Patria have founded a missile technology center in Finland, which could provide domestic development capability for the missile.

      1. My guess is more or less along the same lines. We know that some kind of maritime support capability (kinetic or non-kinetic) has been requested, as have SEAD/DEAD. Dassault likely has identified the JSM as being the best option to fit both requirements (the Exocet obviously could fit the maritime strike role, but I do believe it has less of a focus than SEAD/DEAD, and the JSM probably is a better fit there).

        Why the Bloch was included in the video with the fake marking I have no idea. Granted there were a bunch of non-Finnish aircraft (mainly Mirages), but they all had their original markings.

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  14. Mike

    Hi – just found your site…

    Q: do you know why there’s no cooperation between the three european countries currently seeking a replacement for their jet-fleets?

    Switzerland, Austria and Finland are searching a new Jet to be flown from or around 2030 up to 2060. These countries have the same candidates (Austria additionally the F-16V), the same requirements (Finland: a little more range-based than the other two), and simliar budgets, specially: simliar concerns of using the candidates…

    Cooperations buying new jets are not uncommon, and would make things easier for all involved partys… I tried finding out with swiss and austrian air force, but the answers I’ve gotten were “copy and paste” for “none of your concern”, so to speak…

    Do you know why or have an idea?

    Cheers from Switzerland!

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