The Silent Discussion

Finnish public broadcaster YLE has published a long article in Swedish under the headline “Who gets to have an Opinion on the Fighter Deal?

Everyone.

Everyone gets to have an opinion. However, the weight your opinion will have obviously depends on a number of factors. Case closed, you can all go home, and we’ll reconvene later.

On a more serious note – having followed the HX-procurement since the outset, it has throughout been no secret that a number of people hold views differing to those of the Finnish Defence Forces’ and the political mainstream. The criticism comes in a number of different forms, some I can agree with, some I don’t agree with but can understand the line of reasoning, and some are simply plain wrong. The article raises a number of these, and I do feel that separating the wheat from the chaff might add some value to the discussion.

If we start with the overarching idea that you can’t debate the procurement because the FDF and MoD has put a lid on everything, that is objectively not true. Granted politicians in one party or the other can be correct in that inside the party there is little room to question the party line, but that is an issue for their organisation to deal with and far from a blanket ban on debate. The irony here is probably lost on the usual suspects – who gets to decry that they can’t voice their opinion in national media. Of those interviewed, Kimmo Kiljunen (MP for the prime minister’s party the Social Democrats) is currently also editing a book(!) about the lack of debate. You might obviously feel that the discussion doesn’t get the media space it deserves, but to be completely frank the media doesn’t owe any single question space. And considering the number of articles written on the procurement, I fail to see that there would be much merit to the argument that in general there is little discussion surrounding the issue.

The criticism towards the Hornet replacement deals with a number of angles, including whether it is correct from a national security point of view, the cost of the program, transparency, and operational needs. However, much of this is based on shaky arguments. Source: Ilmavoimat FB

Moving on, professor Hiilamo feels that it is important that everyone gets to take part in the debate, and not just the researchers with a background in the FDF. You are currently reading a blog that has made its name as a solid source on HX-related topics, written by a naval private in the reserve, so I do believe we have that one sorted out. Granted some people have questioned whether the whole question is too complex to discuss based on open sources, but I do believe that a valuable discussion can be had as long as the limitations of such an approach are recognised. And so apparently does my readers.

However, what can make it feel like you aren’t getting your voice heard is if the ideas you are trying to push forward are unworkable and therefore encounter solid push-back, which unfortunately is the case with Hiilamo’s suggestion that we buy used fighters or launch a life extension program for the current Hornet-fleet, two potential paths forward which Hiilamo claims haven’t been evaluated.

Surplus Fighters and Life Extension Programs

Anyone who has been following the discussion knows that both claims have in fact been studied. As late as last summer the Air Force staff provided a memo entitled “Life Extension of the F/A-18 Hornet“, which also builds upon a number of earlier studies done internally, many of which are referenced by title in the memo (and which are classified SECRET / TL II). In essence, the issues are:

  • The fleet has been flown and maintained according to an expected 30 year lifespan. If this is stretched out, wear will start affecting the serviceability rates at an increasing level,
  • Finland will be left more or less alone as an operator of the legacy-Hornet, with most of the remaining operators being expected to withdraw their aircraft in the coming decade. This means all upgrades will be developed solely with Finnish money,
  • Finland would in other words be left with an ageing fleet where more and more planes are unserviceable at any given moment, and where the equipment is less modern relative to any potential adversary. This would create what the memo calls “an operational risk”, i.e. the capability of the Air Force to perform their missions and at the end of the day defend Finland would shrink.

None of this is new, but has been evident and stated publicly from the beginning. This would obviously also affect the budget, as the upgrades would incur a serious cost, and quite a bit of the HX procurement process would have to be rerun in a decade or so, adding further costs. The life extension program itself was estimated to cost 1.8 to 2.4 billion Euros in the memo. This has been called into question, as 0.7 to 1.0 billion Euros of this would be new air-to-air missiles, while at the same time part of the current stock will indeed be serviceable past 2030. However, these are earmarked for transfer to the NASAMS batteries, so in case the Hornet would use these longer than planned, the Army would instead have to increase their budget correspondingly, cancelling out any savings. Still, even the lowest estimate gives a price tag for at least 800 million Euros plus the cost of a re-launch of HX (1.8 – 1.0 = 0.8).

The Panavia Tornado is one of the few used aircraft that might be available on the market in any reasonable numbers. However, it is is a terrible fit for the Finnish requirements in that it lacks air-to-air capability, and the fleet is worn out and in serious need of upgrades if it is to serve on. Source: Airwolfhound / Wikimedia Commons

As for the question of used fighters, there really isn’t much on the market at the moment. Granted we can probably get the German Tornadoes or the Norwegian F-16’s cheap, but none of these would provide an increase in capability and all suffer from the same issues as a life extension of the Hornets have with increased costs and lower readiness rates. Eurofighters or Rafales might be available in small numbers, but these would also in most cases require upgrades and will need the same kind of investment in infrastructures and support systems that drives the price tag of HX (remember, the airframes themselves are a relatively small part of the total budget), so while we might get a somewhat cheaper aircraft, the costs will likely add up towards the later part of the aircraft’s service life to mean that by 2040 we are paying more than if we just would have ordered new ones and paid up front. Check the Canadian mess for a reference.

Col. (ret.) Ahti Lappi is more interesting, as he quite frankly should know better.

Ground-based Systems

Having a long career in ground-based air defences, Lappi argues for a very small number of fighters with a serious investment in ground-based systems for air defence and UAVs for reconnaissance. He also states that the report that launched the HX-program didn’t look into the question of air defence as a whole, something that is hard to agree with considering the fact that it did just that. I have earlier noted that any kind of even remotely complete ground-based air defence cover would be ridiculously expensive, and also leaves the system vulnerable in it being reliant on a single operational concept. It is quite evident even for laymen that fighters and ground-based air defences aren’t an apples-to-apples comparison, but rather have different strengths and weaknesses that complement each other in the defensive counter-air mission, and as such a mix (such as the one currently envisioned by the FDF and MoD) is more robust that going all-in for either. It is also rather uncertain how Lappi imagines that a number of other missions are taken care of, such as offensive counter-air, destruction of enemy air defences, long-range strike, support to ground and naval forces, and so forth? While Lappi talks about how unmanned systems have received a greater role in many armed forces worldwide, the truth is still that their roles remain very limited and constrained compared to manned multirole fighters. The FDF is also studying and investing in unmanned capabilities, so this really isn’t a case of HX having crowded out this development path in any meaningful way.

Lappi’s historical examples of the relatively small losses to enemy air units that fighters have caused “in wars during the recent years in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria” is also far from convincing. To begin with, I am unsure exactly which 250 losses he has included in his statistics. The mix of combat and non-combat losses also hides the ratio between air-to-air and ground-to-air victories. Unfortunately, this is a textbook example of choosing metrics that benefit your cause, and is at best careless and at worst dishonest. It also completely overlook how the situation on the ground shapes the events. If one of the sides doesn’t have a strong air force it naturally will lead to few air-to-air encounters. However, it is also notable that Wikipedia lists eleven instances in Syria alone where a fighter has shot down an enemy aircraft or UAS since the start of 2015 (plus a twelfth air-to-air-victory where an Israeli AH-64 helicopter bagged an Iranian-built Saegeh UAS). I won’t vouch for every single one of these, but at least six air-to-air victories are well-known and widely reported instances (24.11.2015 Turkish F-16 downing a Russian Su-24M, 18.6.2018 USN F/A-18 downing a Syrian Su-22, 20.6.2018 USAF F-15E downing a Syrian/Iranian Saegeh, 1.3.2020 Turkish F-16 downing two Syrian Su-24M, 3.3.2020 Turkish F-16 downing a Syrian L-39).

The most famous air-to-air loss in Syria is without doubt Su-24M ‘White 83’ of the Russian Air Force, shot down by a Turkish F-16 in 2015 following it briefly having entered Turkish airspace. Source: Mil.ru / Wikimedia Commons

Without seeing Lappi’s list (and I would very much like to do so), it is impossible to evaluate it further on its merits. However, keep in mind that that is largely a point of whether his argumentation is honest or not. As I noted earlier, the value of the statistics itself is limited. Often (and ironically I would argue in particular when it comes to ground-based air defences) the value of a system can also be better measured in other metrics than kills, e.g. through forcing the enemy to adapt their tactics and avoiding certain areas. But as noted, all of this is largely a question of whether Lappi is honest in his reasoning or not, because crucially: it is near impossible to evaluate how the Finnish mix of air and ground-based capabilities would fare in an all-out conflict versus Russia based on how a bunch of non-state actors have caused losses to the third-rate force that is the Syrian Arab Air Force of the 2010’s.

Luckily, the FDF which has insight into the finer details of the procurement isn’t trying to do that, but has instead run their own studies over the years.

Costs

I can understand the fear that this is a case of making the goat into the gardener. At the same time, it should be remembered that this is an acquisition program undertaken by the MoD and the FDF as a whole and not by the FinAF, meaning that there are numerous eyes keeping a watch over the project. Because let’s fact it: while there’s more or less universal agreement on the need for fighters, the one risk that everyone is aware of is that the operational costs would run over, and either crowd out other services’ needs or cause the Air Force to be unable to keep training its personnel and maintaining the aircraft properly.

There are obviously a number of steps being taken to mitigate this – including the FDF and MoD not accepting the given flight-hour costs but instead asking for individual numbers which are then run into the domestically developed model for how these costs are calculated. These will obviously be kept classified, as they are key competition data in the eyes of the manufacturers. The model will also be kept secret, as it would provide key information about Finnish Air Force operations in peacetime as well as how the force prepares for a potential crisis and include numbers for wartime stocks of spares and weapons. However, this is one area where there will inevitably remain some uncertainty, as predicting cost levels for 2055 will always be part guesswork (the same is true for the upgrades and capability roadmaps). Unless any one of the critics have a good solution to present, I believe this is one of those uncertainties that one has to learn to live it.

National Security

To go back to Kiljunen, Finland’s national security policy will undoubtedly be affected by who the supplier is, that’s a correct interpretation by him (although the fact that the discussions are made with the US – and French, UK, and Swedish – government is perfectly normal when it comes to these kinds of procurement). But here as well I fail to see how this would somehow be a particular issue for HX. Instead, this is part of the wider discussion of Finnish national security, and as recently as last autumn the “Government Report on Finnish Foreign and Security Policy” outlined the importance to Finnish national security of all potential suppliers. If buying a US fighter is an issue for Kiljunen, he should probably have tried to address it at this level rather than as part of HX. Instead, the Government Report feature rather strong language on the importance of US (and European) defence cooperation for Finland:

The increased operations and presence of NATO and the US in the Baltic countries and Poland have enhanced stability in the Baltic Sea region. The US commitment to the European defence is of great importance for the security of the whole of Europe. The EU and the United States will continue their wide-ranging cooperation. […] Cooperation with other Nordic countries and with the EU Member States and NATO countries – including the United States and the United Kingdom – is also important and in line with Finland’s long-term foreign and security policy and it is based on Finland’s own political interests.

The End

To sum up the criticism, it really is much ado about nothing. Everyone is obviously free to disagree with the path forward envisioned by a more or less united front of politicians and defences forces’ representatives. However, that is not the same as there being a lack of debate, and several of the points raised have already been met and discussed years ago.

On one point when it comes to transparency I do raise a careful red flag that we might have to return to later this year. My understanding is that the officially announced plan of the MoD is that when the winner is announced, that is all the information that will be released. I do believe that won’t do in this day and age. While there obviously will be a need to carefully weigh all information released based on both operational and commercial considerations, and we might very well choose not do a full report a’la Denmark, I do believe that there will be pressure to release some general information such as which packages have been able to pass which gate checks and potentially even a few short general comments on the evaluation of the combat effectiveness and national security considerations, though the last two are less likely. But that is a (potential) issue for another day.

2 thoughts on “The Silent Discussion

  1. EMK

    It seems quite obvious some of these folks have alternate motives and/or hidden agendas critiquing the HX. It is hard to see how apparently smart people would make such dumb, biased and/or counter-factual claims if that’s not the case. Or maybe their apparent smartness is just that, appearances, and plain old stupidity explains way more than one would anticipate (given the background of these people).

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