The Further Adventures of the F-35 (and the Super Hornet)

The HX competition continues to provide surprises in the post-BAFO era, and this week’s media event courtesy of the US Embassy was no exception. After a short introduction by the embassy that described the strong partnership that exists between Finland and the US (and which included a note about Finnish exports and know-how finding its way into key US programs, such as the Polar Security Cutter), it was on to the two US fighter manufacturers to discuss their bids. And while they might be taking part in the same media event, the tone certainly tells of the battle heating up. Boeing discarded outright the theory of ordinary fighters working as EW-platforms, noting that an AESA radar will only provide X-band jamming, and only during ingress, leaving you unprotected when exiting the target area, while Lockheed Martin explained how the F-35A doesn’t require support from electronic warfare platforms or ISR assets “as opposed to 4th generation fighters”.

Illustration of the difference between having a dedicated EW-aircraft compared to an unnamed strike fighter (no points for guessing which, though) using its AESA-radar as a giant jammer. The colour coding symbolise different bands, with the underwing pods of the Growler jamming the S-, C-, and X-bands while the centre-line pod handles the VHF, UHF, and L-band part of the spectrum. Picture courtesy of Boeing

Much of the presentation from Boeing should be well-known talking points to readers of the blog, but in short Boeing still sees international opportunities for up to 400 Super Hornets on the international market. This includes everything from Germany, which already has down-selected the aircraft, to less likely cases such as India.The German contract is the most important one from a Finnish point of view and would likely be a minor facor in HX as it would mean another serious European operator, though my expectation is that the deal won’t be inked until the new government is formed and have gotten up to speed (read: 2022, which also seems to be roughly the timeline Boeing is expecting). Some have questioned the future of the programme as a whole with the rise of Die Grünen, but so far the programme is continuing apace and Germany has indeed already invested money in the preparatory studies, which would imply that the MoD is expecting it to survive a change of government. Notable also that while the Greens aren’t particularly keen on nuclear weapons, part of the allure of the Super Hornet in the strike role comes from the synergies of the Growler which is part of the non-controversial luWES Tornado ECR-replacement program. Of the near-future decisions, the Swiss and Canadian decision are expected within June and before the end of the summer respectively. Switzerland and Canada are less likely to end in work for St Louis, but you never know.

[Industrial participation] is an area where we are clearly differentiated, we have an unblemished track record.

The major talking points of Boeing were the Growler and their industrial participation package. There won’t be final assembly of aircraft or engines in Finland in case of a Boeing win, but rather production of major aircraft and engine structures for the Super Hornet/Growler. While less media-sexy than the final assembly promised by BAES and Saab, the devil is in the details and which one is better than the other from economic or military points of view will depend on the level of assembly (i.e. how large parts are being delivered to be assembled?) compared to how major the parts produced are. The direct industrial participation is in total 49 different programs spread out over 20 different companies, and on the US side include not only Boeing themselves but other major partners of the Super Hornet industrial team such as Northrop Grumman, GE Aircraft Engines, and Raytheon. On the indirect side, Boeing is striving to “leverage the breadth of the whole company”, i.e. including the civilian and other divisions and not just Boeing Defence.

Discussing weapons in a later call, Boeing confirmed that their offer include a modern version of the AMRAAM, the AIM-120C-8. This is quite a bit of a step-up from the Finnish Air Force’s current C-7, though exactly how much is unclear. Many sources refer to the C-8 as a rebranded D, which is the weapon responsible for the recent test that the USAF described as “the longest known air-to-air missile shot“. Exact range is obviously both classified and depending on a number of launch parameters, but the F-14 Tomcat/AIM-54 Phoenix combo is known to have downed drones in 200+ km tests, so that should give a good indicator of the ranges we are talking about. However, long-time defence journalist Joseph Trevithick stated that his understanding is that the C-8 is a hybrid-version for export that involve much of the improvements of the AIM-120D, such as third-party targeting datalinks, but not the improved engine (range is still likely somewhat better than C-7 thanks to improved steering economy). In any case, a Boeing spokesperson confirmed that while they are “pretty happy with that [the AIM-120C-8]”, there obviously are “other things” coming in the near future (read: the AIM-260 JATM). While commercial details made it impossible to include the upcoming weapon in the BAFO and Boeing can’t comment on potential weapons buys post-BAFO, it should be noted that the details known include a rather aggressive development timeline that will see the JATM overtake the AMRAAM in production in the mid-20’s, a decision by the US Navy to first integrate it on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, as well as the Finnish Air Force having expressed a wish to stay as close as possible to the standard of the main operator of any fighter they buy. Add these all together, and it starts to seem highly likely that by the time HX reaches FOC in 2030, in case the Super Hornet wins, the Finnish Air Force would be flying around with a mix of AIM-120C-8 and AIM-260. Still, for the time being the C-8 is what’s on offer, and Boeing claim to be “confident in their ability to defeat the high-end threats” presented in the HX-scenarios with it.

The Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile – Extended Range (AARGM-ER) during captive carry tests. The missile is externally rather different from earlier members of the AGM-88 family in that it lacks the characteristic mid-body wings. The Navy is integrating AARGM-ER on the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G, and it will be compatible for integration of the F-35. Picture source: U.S. Navy photo

Another question is what the Growler will carry for their kinetic missions. Here Boeing was more careful, and declined to mention a weapon, but noted that the Growler-offer obviously include both kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities. Add the earlier mentioned FinAF wish to stay close to the US Navy configuration, and the answer is rather clear: a Finnish EA-18G Growler would use the AGM-88G AARGM-ER to kill stuff. Another key question for the Growler is obviously the low- and high-band jammers that weren’t part of the original DSCA-notification. Here again the timeline causes something of a headache for Boeing, as the USN will be flying with at least the NGJ-LB jammer before FOC for a Finnish Growler-fleet, but they can’t be released for export yet as they are still in development. However, the plan would, again referring to the fact that Finland does not want a unique Finnish standard, be for Finland to operate with whatever the main user employs, so expect to see some money set aside for the missing NGJ-pods if Finland gets the Growler. In the meantime, there is the option of using loaned pods (i.e. AN/ALQ-99) to get training started.

Our offer is complete for the Growler.

For Lockheed Martin the big news was that they were finally ready to talk numbers as well as industrial participation, and there were certainly positive news.

64 is the only number in our offer.

In what can only be described as a surprise to me (as well as to a number of other people), Lockheed Martin confirmed that their bid is built around 64 F-35A. The rest of their message was less surprisingly centred on the value of having a single-configuration fleet made up of the most advanced tactical aircraft currently found on the market. In short, having a single aircraft configuration means that everything from training, maintenance, logistics, and support equipment are easier to plan and manage (which makes it cheaper). This also translate into simpler tasking as every aircraft can fly every mission. Regarding the statement that the F-35 “does not require electronic warfare or AEW platforms as a fourth generation fighter”, it certainly is less dependent on force multipliers (all other things equal) than most other platforms out there, but there are certainly room for nuance here. There’s a reason why the USAF is investing in AEW platforms and expeditionary Growler squadrons, while at the same time quite a number of smaller air forces are able to fly fast jets independently without force multipliers (though as the phrase suggests, that solution isn’t optimal).

A Finnish Air Force F/A-18D Hornet sporting two AGM-158A JASSM heavy cruise missiles. The weapon has received almost mythical status in Finnish media, and while some of its reputation is exaggerated, there’s no denying it is a key capability. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

When it comes to weapon, Lockheed Martin doesn’t want to discuss what’s coming after the AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM, though it is safe to assume that the AIM-260 wouldn’t be far away here either (especially considering it is a Lockheed Martin product as opposed to the AIM-120). More interesting is the fact that Lockheed Martin put focus on how a stealthy aircraft is able to get closer to the target and as such is less reliant on expensive long-range weaponry. Coupled with the emphasise on the JSM as a “true fifth generation weapon”, and the fact that at no point has Lockheed Martin discussed the JASSM, the rumour mill is starting to ask a new question.

Is there a heavy cruise missile at all in Lockheed Martin’s best and final offer?

The JSM is a very nice weapon, and it marries extremely well with the F-35. However, the 550+ km range is a far cry from the 1,850+ km range of the AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER which is cleared for export to Finland as part of both US offers, but as noted the JASSM has never been confirmed by Lockheed Martin. Granted the F-35A might be able to operate closer to its intended target than the Super Hornet, but I sincerely doubt the difference is in the 1,300+ km class. And the difference isn’t just in the range (the JSM in fact outranges the current AGM-158A, so it would still be a step up), but the JASSM carries a 450-kg penetrating warhead while the JSM comes with the significantly more tame 125-kg fragmentation one.

To put it bluntly – it might be a cruise missile, but it is not the capability the Finnish Air Force is looking for.

I’d be happy to be proven wrong, but it certainly feels a bit worrying, and it might explain another somewhat strange issue with the wording of Lockheed Martin, namely their stubborn refusal to talk about 64 aircraft without including the phrase “up to” before it. This prompted Iltalehti’s Lauri Nurmi to ask what exactly “up to 64” meant, which lead to the “only number in offer”-quote above. However, the answer also included disclaimers about final negotiations between selection and contract signing as well as exchange rates causing issues. These are certainly valid concerns, the original Finnish F/A-18C Hornet order was cut by three airframes compared to the offer due to the Finnish mark collapsing compared to the US dollar, and everyone expects some tweaking between the BAFO and the eventual contract.

Except for the fact that both Boeing and Saab has committed to 64 fighters, full stop.

Boeing was more than happy to offer some insight into how the exchange rate between euro and US dollar is handled in HX during our call yesterday, and provided the following quote:

The exchange rate utilized for the BAFO was provided to all candidates on the same day. The US competitors are utilizing the same exchange rate for USD vs Euro. With that same exchange rate we are able to provide 64 aircraft (50 Super Hornets and 14 Growler) along with a complete weapons and sustainment package. Also with that same exchange rate, we are able to clearly demonstrate that with our solution, we can fit within the O&S budget provided by the FDF

With regards to the eventual negotiations, Boeing was also confident enough to guarantee 64 fighters:

With our [Boeing’s] offer, should we be down-selected, there is room to negotiate items within the offer to better refine the solution, however, regardless of that, it is guaranteed that Finland will receive 64 aircraft along with a complete weapons and sustainment solution as a baseline.

Now, if there really is some rather significant holes in the F-35 package, such as the lack of a heavy cruise missile, it isn’t far-fetched to see a re-negotiation where say two aircraft are dropped and the cost is converted into JASSMs, as in all fairness the difference between 64 and 62 aircraft would in practice turn out to be rather minor. On the other hand, it is the BAFO package that will be evaluated in the war games that determine the winner, and it would be a high-risk gamble to go in with something else than the optimal solution to the needs of the FDF. A third possibility is that Lockheed Martin is believing that they won’t come out on top, and then it would look better to be able to walk away saying that they were able to fit 64 aircraft in their offer under the budget given, but that they lost on some more particularly Finnish requirement (defence budgets and numbers are rather global phenomenon and affect every future fighter programme in which they wish to compete, dispersed operations in snow doesn’t).

F-35A during HX Challenge last year. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

This is obviously pure speculation, but the insistence on talking about “up to 64” is somewhat puzzling. I am however happy that it turned out the number of fighters offered is serious, and as noted am overall positively surprised by this development (BAES and Dassault, take note). This was also the case with the industrial participation programme, which included guaranteed manufacturing of airframe components up to 2040 as well as external stealth panels within the same time frame. The number of guaranteed panels also exceed the Finnish requirement, meaning that Finland is guaranteed component production to some non-Finnish F-35s. I am not sure how well that will sit with countries that didn’t secure guaranteed production orders, but as noted in the case of the Super Hornet, from a Finnish point of view parts production can certainly be at least as good or even better than final assembly depending on the details of the offer. The key words here are “guaranteed” and “exceeding Finnish requirements”, and we got them, so I believe it is safe to assume the industrial participation package is at the very least adequate.

Much was also made about how the operating and sustainment costs are coming down, and how the aircraft is “living in single digit maintenance hours”. This is certainly good news for Lockheed Martin, as the operating budget will likely prove the toughest hurdle for the company in HX. Another proof of how the aircraft is maturing is the mission capable rate which now is the best of all USAF fast jets. However, while 76 % and pole position is nice, the truth is that the F-35 is a new aircraft largely still unburdened by combat usage. The fact that the F-16C-fleet reaches almost 74 % despite being on average 29 years old on the other hand puts the numbers in perspective. Other old and heavily worked USAF platforms are also hovering around the 70 %-mark, including the F-15C (72 %, 35 years on average) and F-15E (69 %, 27 years on average). As such, this particular metric might not be the huge win the F-35 is looking for, but it is still a nice step in the right direction, especially considering the unexpected engine shortage the aircraft suffered last year.

In general, as has been discussed earlier on the blog, the story of F-35 sustainment issues does feel like a two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance. The latest serious question mark surrounds the replacement of the company-controlled ALIS maintenance software with the government-owned ODIN, which has run into trouble. At the heart of recent discussions have been the extent to which Lockheed Martin is involved in the maintenance and logistics, and how to reach the milestone of “25 by 25”, meaning that by 2025 there would be a ~29,000 USD per flying hour support cost (the name comes from 29,000 USD in 2025 corresponding to 25,000 in base year 2012 dollars). Lockheed Martin’s proposal is more direct involvement and longer contracts, something the USAF isn’t too keen on. It should be noted that for the FDF involving industry to work very closely on maintenance isn’t a new issue, the whole Millog-idea in fact rests on doing business this way. However, government control is very much a key issue for the FDF, which has been seen for example in the other strategic procurement where the decision was made to have the FDF own the design of the Squadron 2020 vessels and then hire a yard to build them. Having a foreign defence company tell the FDF what data about their own aircraft they may (or may not) access might certainly be a red line, and with the US government facing issues renegotiating intellectual property rights, the odds of Finland managing better here are slim.

72 thoughts on “The Further Adventures of the F-35 (and the Super Hornet)

  1. Ferpe

    Observe that the F-18F and Growler radars (APG-79 AESA) have the same X-band ESM and ECM capability as the F-35 radar (the narrow red stripes from the F-18 nose). In fact, all US radars from the F-22 radar except SABRE (F-16V70) have this capability, as have all other contenders in BAFO in their 2025 configuration.

    So the LM boasting about their ESM/ECM capable radar is a “me too” boast. The problem for all is they are limited to X-band, have limited forward-only coverage, and vertical polarisation only. The swashplate for the Raven and ECRS 2 increases the coverage angles from a 140° cone to 200° and gives all possible polarisations. But the bandwidth limit remains. This is why all other contenders have 360° coverage self protect ECM as well.

    You could argue the F-35 has stealth. Yes, but it’s at its weakest in side and rear hemispheres where the aircraft lacks protection except for expendables (includes a towed decoy). Egressing from a JDAM/JSOW attack will be interesting.

    1. JoJo

      Well, the the Marine Corps “is going to replace its EA-6B [a dedicated jamming aircraft] with the baseline F-35B” with no additional pods or internal systems. And I’m quite sure you don’t know all about F-35 EW/EA systems. Like the AN/ASQ-239 Barracuda EW system, and what bandwidth coverage the ten dedicated apertures around the airplane can provide. And don’t forget the ALE-70 towed decoy, and that several F-35 can work together in a team. Always entertaning to read that stealth also are the weak side of the F-35. What about the other planes that shines like a lightbulb from all angles?

      1. No, the F-35B isn’t replacing the EA-6B. The EA-6B is replaced by a large program designated MAGTF-EW made up of a combination of platforms (manned and unmanned) and systems. The F-35B being able to perform SEAD/DEAD is a key part, but so is the lntrepid Tiger II-pod system found in a number of variants (some combat proven, some in development) carried by a host of platforms and providing a serious jamming capability.

      2. Swedish chef

        From my reading of the Boeing slide: The other airplanes will fire weapons with better range at an earlier stage of the ingress and then run away faster?

        A question regarding the map in the slide – Is the plan to attack into Russian territory or do the coast line indicate basing in a neighbouring country?

  2. Pelle

    I find it very hard to belive that LM can fit the costs of 64 aircraft in the operations budget. Is it possible that LM can move funds from the aquisition budget to the operations budget to pull it of?

      1. Rav

        I do not now the details of the HX program and off course the offers and certainly the contract that is not even written yet, but I know it’s possible. Every time there is any work to be done by plane producer outside of the scope of the primary contract they will negotiate and charge you for it. O&S included. I know there will be an army of lawyers to anticipate and mitigate this – hope they will do their job well. I think I read somewhere that FAF will not want changes to they configuration in comparison to the original user-if that’s is correct I think it’s really good idea. Nothing like customer induced changes to hide all your mistakes in it and overcharge him for it. This of course is valid for all of them not only LM. But what do I know maybe it’s not just business and they really just want to help you. Btw. It does not matter from which part of the program the moneys coming from. It does not even have to come in the same fiscal year. It’s just have to come after set period of time … MLU maybe. Sorry I am ranting again.

  3. JoJo

    Maybe things look different now. I was refering to an article in AirForceMag several years back, but have not checked how things have developed since.

    O’Bryan said the power of the F-35’s EW/EA systems can be inferred from the fact that the Marine Corps “is going to replace its EA-6B [a dedicated jamming aircraft] with the baseline F-35B” with no additional pods or internal systems.

  4. Herciv

    And Croatia will fly Rafales!

    The goal is to sign a contract before the end of the year, so that the first six Rafales can be delivered by the end of 2023, early 2024, followed by a second package by the end of 2024, early 2025, to replace the Croatian Air Force’s old MiGs.

    And that’s three! After Greece and Egypt in 2021, it’s Croatia’s turn to buy the Dassault Aviation Rafale F3R proposed by France. Or more precisely, to select the tricolor fighter that will be taken from the air force fleet (12 aircraft: 2 two-seaters and 10 single-seaters) despite maximum pressure from Washington on the Croatian authorities to get on board the F-16. After the selection of the Rafale, Zagreb will negotiate with Paris for several months to sign a contract for 12 second-hand Rafales armed with MICA air-to-air missiles, AASM bombs and finally a 30-mm cannon with its ammunition, according to our information. France is also committed to providing training for Croatian pilots. The overall contract is valued at around 999 million euros.

    According to Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, “this is the largest investment in Croatian armaments. We are increasing our combat power capacity of the Croatian army in the next 30-40 years, which is the greatest guarantor of peace. The committee studied the offers thoroughly. A study on the acquisition of aircraft was unanimously adopted. The government considers the French offer to be the best: 12 Rafale F3R aircraft (…) For the best financial amount, Croatia obtains the best rated and best equipped aircraft. 999 million euros is the best offer and France provides the best installment payment.

    The goal is to sign a contract before the end of the year to deliver the first six Rafales by the end of 2023, early 2024, followed by a second package by the end of 2024, early 2025 to replace the Croatian Air Force’s aging MiGs, which are scheduled to retire in 2024. The aircraft taken from the French air force have an average age of nearly 10 years and will have a potential service life of at least 30 years. This is certainly not the contract of the century for France, but it is nevertheless another contract for the Rafale. And it was won in a European country, the second after Greece. This is clearly the export priority of French Minister of the Army Florence Parly.

    Freedom to use the Rafale
    On November 10, France submitted an offer for Rafales compatible with both NATO and EU missions as part of the renewal of the Croatian fighter aircraft fleet. “A project that would be structuring for cooperation between our two countries, and for a stronger Europe of defense,” explained then Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly on Twitter during her November 2020 visit to Croatia. And the French commercial offer was competitive. The Paris proposal would therefore amount to less than 1 billion euros, while the other favorite (Lockheed Martin) proposed the new F-16 Block 70/72 Viper for an amount estimated between 1.6 and 1.8 billion euros. But the American group would have considerably lowered their offer.

    In recent days Paris and Dassault Aviation believed in the Rafale’s chances. “We continue to believe that we have a very good chance,” said a source close to the matter. And rightly so, despite a certain amount of skepticism generated by the relentless American lobbying of the Croatians. Florence Parly visited Croatia twice last year in less than a year. This was the first visit by a French Minister of Defense since the country’s independence. The French offer ended up triumphing in Croatia against the American ogre. The Rafale’s number one asset remains its freedom of use. This is not the case with an American aircraft. The Croatians have understood this…

    Translated with (free version)

    1. Rav

      I really like what’s happened there. The Croatians really showed their independence and frankly balls. Especially after admitting that every plane in the offer suited their needs. Blocking the buy of Israeli F-16 was a bad move by the US.

  5. Eero Heikkinen

    Would be nice if you do analysis of recent Gazza war.

    For me IDF AI did play significant role.

    And even in that small area there were so many targets. Is the any change FDF could have enough missles and bombs to go even close.

    I did notice that almost every destroyed building did have significant set of antennas and communication facilities. Pictures afterwards did show only very sparce and simple antennas left.

    IDF did not mention EW at all. Was there such?

    BR Eero

  6. asafasfaf

    Feels like LM is hoping for some kitchen door route and their BAFO is scraped together by ducktape.

    But there is likely some truth about LM’s message about “final negotiations”, after selection-win that is. Saab has stated they have a good margin in operating cost and BAFO contains an option to by more than 64+2. And that is the key word: “more”, it doesnt make any sense what so ever to run a tedious wargame with exact weaponry and fighters, and then throw results out of the window.

    It would not be surprising if LM lacks a heavy cruise missile(I have not looked into the issue).

    1)Finland does not directly pay any integration HX costs, weapons or datalinks
    2)It’s up to manufacturer to solve the long range strike scenario

    But still strange that sales permission has a JASSM-ER in it.

    1. Ferpe

      The stand-off distance for an F-35 on a JASSM-ER mission is so long that it can fly it in Beast mode, i.e. with external stores where the JASSM-ER can be carried. You still have a low RCS, giving any A2D2 batteries a limited range and the J-35 internal fuel gives you all the range you need to avoid enemy areas on the mission to a from flight.

  7. JayJay

    Thank you for the article.
    To me the end of the article is a killer. How can an offer be seriously if you have no sovereignty on data ? This, maybe over all other issues that plague the F35 program, disqualifies the offer from LM. You cannot pay 6M€+ and have not guarantee that you will be able to use the aircrafts exactly how you want to use them, and that you will not get full access to data. Frankly, this F35 offer to me is nonsense.
    As far the F18, it really smells the 70s… good airplane , but its future is way behind him. As for the German order, it is not signed at all and many doubt it will ever be.

  8. Rav

    Thanks for a very good post again. I looks like the LM is really struggling to close the offer for 64 planes within the requirements constraints which really is no surprise as the most expensive to operate. They try to make it at the cost of the next most expensive thing the weapons package. For me the most interesting would be what Rafale and EF offered in this area.

    1. Yes, the lack of USN longterm interest in the future of the Super Hornet is the biggest hurdle of the aircraft. The Block III conversion program is however continuing forward and there’s still no set sunset day, so there is a bit of mixed signals. There’s probably Super Hornets on the flight deck in 2040, there might be (at least Growlers) in 2050, there most likely won’t be in 2060.

      1. THalken

        Yes. But how will they be used?

        The US is preparing for a new high-end fight against a near-peer. While USN may keep the Growler, they will not use the SH+Growler in a first day of war against a near-peer or against high-end IAMD to knock the door in. It will be the F35C as it was made for that particular task. The SH and 4 gen fighters will go in after the F35s to provide bulk in the attacks covered by Growlers. Have you seen how many Grolwers the USAF has bought? Again I think they and other EW assets in a major conflict will be used to provide cover for the 4 gen assets more than cover for the F35s.

      2. Four expeditionary squadrons of Growlers are operated by the Navy for non-shipbased use. Can’t remember how big a percentage of their budget is USAF funds, but the USAF is in fact paying for Growlers even if they fly in USN colours.

      3. Ferpe

        You have to realize that operating an F-35 fleet alone leaves all the VHF, UHF, L-, S- and C-band band surveillance assets of an enemy to operate without any disturbance whatsoever (and yes the Russians and Chinese have surveillance assets in all these frequency bands).

        Their air and ground picture of the whole conflict is left undisturbed if you only have F-35s, which gives the enemy a perfect SA and picture of the battle at all times. The fact that you can’t find an F-35 until it’s close is not a major problem, its capability in sortie rate and damage-creation is limited when forced to operate in stealth mode by this perfect enemy SA. There is no question a fighting force needs to disturb the surveillance assets of an opponent. This is where the Growler and other assets come in, to make sure an enemy has a tough situation working out what’s happening, in the air, on the ground, and at sea. It’s not only to save the bacon for 4th gen fighters.

      4. JO

        I’ve been comparing at what stage in their life-span Finland got the legacy hornets vs. where we are now with the super hornets. According to Wikipedia, the legacy hornet introduction to USN was in 1984, delivered to Finland was between 1995 and 2000, and the last USN carrier deployment was in 2018. Super hornet introduction was in 2001, expected delivery to Finland is between 2025 and 2030, and let’s say there will still be super hornets flying from carriers in 2040. We are still roughly one decade late compared with the legacy hornet acquisition. This begs the question, will there be any significant upgrade of the rhino after 2030? THalken has a good point about the likely shift in US focus towards future platforms due to increased great power competition, regardless of how congress might shape this (and the coming few) budget proposals in the near future.

        On a completely separate note, I’ve been entertaining myself with the scenario “Old friends in trouble – second winter war” in Command – Modern Operations. After playing both the Finnish and Swedish side, I changed the Finnish arsenal to the BAFO mix of Rhinos and Growlers, with comparable weapon quantities to the original scenario (although newer versions). I also deleted the AWACS assets from Sweden. For the Russians I added some Pantsir point defenses and newer versions of the S-400 and replayed as Finland. Not surprisingly, it felt a lot easier with the Rhino + Growler mix. With the lack of any long-range land-strike capability, it was a suicide mission to take out the Iskander battery with the CMO version of Gripen E. Situational picture was great with the GlobalEye thou. Should probably try with the F-35 next…

        Just a couple of years ago I felt the super hornet growler mix was the obvious / most likely choice for Finland all things considered, but I think arms race between China and US has increased the likelihood that all the current “4th gen” platforms are replaced sooner rather than later.

    2. Rav

      It’s late so maybe I am not seeing it right but the linked article mentions only the aggressor squadron in which they intent to purchase only the F-16 so for their opposing red team.

      1. Fifth paragraph, and it’s old news that was reported a year ago already (and a key reason why I’ve kept bringing up the lack of USN commitment as the Super Hornets weakest area).

  9. JO

    Ps. Of course, If Finland goes for one of the 4th gen options and we head into another arms-race spiral, it’s not impossible that Finland considers a new platform a decade earlier than 2060. But this is getting very speculative very fast.

    1. Mike

      Yeah, that’s what I hope for, too – both for Finland and Switzerland (due to their similar requirements).
      4th gen gonna be replaced soon, 5th gen …well. There are better offers.

      I still think it would be best going the “save route now, and accelerate its replacement”, for Finland getting the Gripen-E in 64 + 2, but themselves in to either Tempest or FCAS, and go 6th gen as soon as possible.

      I don’t see any of the models (other than the Rafale – thanks to the needs of french navy) having an Upgrade-Path up to 2060, so it might very well be the best choice to partake in a Gen6-program that shall be flying from 2040 onwards, for Finland to get them from 2050, and take a system NOW that’s modern enough but cheap enough (“saving” the money for 6gen) for an “overlap” of 4th and 6th gen-fighters until everything’s working.

      1. JO

        Yeah, that does make a lot of sense. I think CF wrote somewhere that the wargames will be built around scenarios in 2025 and 2030, not further in the future. Makes you wonder if the 2060 date is more to justify the spending now on a political level, rather than an absolute technical requirement, considering the difficulty of predicting future developments accurately in a global reality that is changing ever more rapidly.

        But why do you think Saab has a stronger “bang for the buck”-offer than Boeng? It seems to me that the relative performance of both platforms over time will depend mostly on the main user’s willingness to integrate the newest weapons to through 2040. As Fighters SH and Gripen E seem similar enough. Unless you think the GlobalEyes provide a bigger military advantage than the Growlers? Even if the USN will get rid of the Rhino in 2040, I’m much more confident they want the newest weapons on them all the way to the end (compared with Sweden). Finland doesn’t want to pay for any weapon integration costs…

        …which also leads me to belive Finland has no interest in participating in any of the 6th gen development projects, even if they would be happy to buy a ready and functioning product already in the 2050s – if the security situation would require it.

      2. Mike

        As a swiss, I can assure you:
        NOBODY wants to integrate weapons when they have to pay themselves.
        (a lesson learned from Mirage III-deal here in CH)

        I can see both countries not wanting to integrate weapons for it being VERY expensive, that’s btw also a point here in CH the socialists brought up: “Swiss AF just modernised Amrams and Sidewinders – could they be used with Rafale or Typhoon?” – answer: …if CH pays for it, yes.

        That’s also why both jets are very expensive for CH, due to the need of buying new missiles for them, too (though we’d profit from Iris-T and Meteor as well of Magic II, Mica and Meteor (Rafale getting it, too) – it’s also a “hidden cost” for the F-35 here: swiss Amram/Sidewinder can’t be fitted to the F-35 internal bays (no stealth = F-35 losing its ONE advantage over the others)

        As for “not interested in Gen 6” – always remember: politicians are interested in their possible re-election but not beyond that… ATM, there’s the “magic line 2060”, why think about something some other politicians in 2030 have to take care off – not seeing the possibility making the participation in FCAS/Tempest part of the deal, getting better prices for becoming an “early adopter” of the Gen6 (it’s not like the F-35 being still in pre-series – a gen6-fighter can’t be worse than that)…

        But well – let’s just hope both Finland and Switzerland making the best choice, and not a political one…

  10. Pg

    Goddag CF,
    The main wapeon seems to be the JASSM158 and ER for the FAF, with approx. 500 and 1000 km depends on how far up you let them go!
    The Aussis talking of a workradie of 500 km for a F35 and 4th gen. So far, how long do you have to go to offload your cargo to reach the goal ?
    500 + 500 or 500 + 1000 or order next JASSM158 XR and plus another 1000 km.
    Witch means you can offload them from a point far away outside F.

    1. The long-range weapon of the Super Hornet and possibly the F-35 in Finnish service would be the 1,850 km ranged AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER (former AGM-158D JASSM-XR).

      1. PG

        Tanks for the clearens, I hope Sweden go for them as well!
        Today J39E was flying around my house 300m+ with the new camopainting and different sound from the engine compere to c/d,
        Sounds more powerfull and having a good approach/attityd!

        If it was possible a mix of F35A 12pc and 12pc F18G and 36pc J39E divaided in 3 flotiljas could be very powerfull over a long time facing different treads.

      2. Sorotai

        Hmm.. That kind of makes me wonder though, is that a special version of the AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER?.. Cause as far as I know, that one carries a 2000 lb (910 Kg) warhead, & weighs in total 2 300Kg+..? & suspect all of the fighers in the competition would have do some special adaptations to carry a missile that heavy on one single station..?..🤔

  11. EMK

    CF wrote: “it might explain another somewhat strange issue with the wording of Lockheed Martin, namely their stubborn refusal to talk about 64 aircraft without including the phrase “up to” before it.”

    I think a skeptic attitude is always a good thing when applied wisely. When overblown it tends to produce biases and makes it difficult to asses things objectively. The discussion around HX and especially around the F-35 is a text book example of the latter.

    In this case it has lead to leaving one obvious possibility out of discussion. What about a preposterous and unthinkable possibility, that LM in fact said (during the embassy info) what they think is true: Namely, that the 64 F-35’s provide capability exceeding the HX requirements and thus, they leave Finland an option to buy a smaller amount that still matches the required capability.

    Before writing ad-hominem comments, people should remember that the above mentioned assumption (that 64 is more than enough for Finland) doesn’t have to be objectively true nor shared by the HX organization. It is enough the LM believes that to be true. And if they in fact do believe that, the meaning of “up to 64” becomes immediately clear. No need for political pricing tricks (as Lauri Nurmi speculated) or assuming hidden holes in the F-35 offering to explain the “up to 64”.

    1. Uroxen

      In this case the F-35 bid is clearly stating “up to 64 while the proposal also got uncertainties such as an oddly low number of spare engines (2 spares which is 4 fewer than to the Swiss) and does not mention high capability weapons such as the heavy cruise missile.

      If Lockheed Martin had a highly competitive proposal it would make a lot of sense for them to push both aircraft numbers and the support infrastructure to place themselves at the forefront of the competition. Right now it looks more like they want to both have the cake and eat it by claiming “up to 64” aircraft to satisfy the believers as you call them while in reality it is likely that Finland will sacrifice numbers to fund the necessary supporting infrastructure and weapons package.

  12. EMK


    Why Finland would sacrifice numbers?

    The unit price of F-35A was was $78M as per lot 14. 64 planes x $78M = $4.9B which is around 4.1B euros. That leaves plenty of money for other things, such weapons.

    Typhoon and Rafale are both more expensive (64 planes cost around 4.8B €). 64 Gripens + Global Eye system with 2 planes is roughly at the same level as the F-35A. In fact, Gripen and F-35 packages are so close that tiny variations in the exchange rate will determine which one is more expensive (or cheaper). The Boeing package is the only one that stays below 4B € (barely).

    1. @EMK “The unit price of F-35A was was $78M as per lot 14” ..
      Who said that? LM? USAF biennial 2019-2020 acquisition report shows $130M per unit. Such a minor difference, lol. For some reason I tend to believe USAF more, than marketing department of LM.

      1. EMK


        The price I mentioned is the airframe+engine selling price. USAF unit price includes much more than that, including infrastructure, weapons etc.

        The airframe+engine unit prices are published per manufacturing lot and the price has been dropping as the number of manufactured planes has been growing. I am using that price because that’s the only way to make comparisons between different planes. (the amount of weapons, spare parts, training, simulators etc. vary from one buyer to another so those must be excluded in order to be able to make sensible comparisons at all).

      2. Let’s be real: neither you nor anyone else here (unless Puranen is reading this blog, in which case: Hello, big fan of your work!) knows the manufacturing costs of the aircraft involved, so trying to say which package of aircraft cost what is a very rough estimate at best, and at worst pure guesswork. The only case of even remotely comparable numbers are those of the US platforms which *somewhat* can be compared relative to each other, but not really in absolute terms.

      3. Mike

        …Rafale and Typhoon are System-prices, including weapons aso.
        That’s LMs best trick: they publish the Take-off price, but never mention the system-price (which’s way higher, you need simluators as there’s no doubleseater, Alice/Odin, spareparts galore (blackboxes which can’t be maintained locally), aso…)

        I hope that as soon the decissions are made, the numbers get published.
        Would be interesting reading ALL takeoff-prices, ALL system-prices aso…

      4. EMK


        If you were talking about my price estimates, I think I mentioned those were based on available public information. I was never claiming they are accurate and true. They are just my best estimates based on the information I’ve been able to gather. And again, those are estimates of airframe + engine. (In case of Global Eye that’s even more difficult a task since the only public information I was able to find was the total system incl. 2 planes). Besides, I never even hinted that the airframe + engine price is the one and only relevant thing here. But it is the easiest one to use when comparing different planes.

        More over, the fact that LM is offering 64 planes suggests, that estimates regarding the purchase price of the plane AND its operating costs (that is, the operating costs of Finnish AF as estimated by LM) have both been too high.

    2. Uroxen

      As others have said here. You take the unit price and even exclude the long lead items pre-payment and use that as an argument for an entire systems implementation cost.

      If LM had wanted to prove the doubters wrong they could have just made a pitch like the ones made by Saab and Boeing but instead we are here discussing the interpretation of an “up to 64 aircraft” bid.

      1. EMK

        “If LM had wanted to prove the doubters wrong”

        LOL. Let’s imagine F-35 wins the HX competition. What would “doubters” say? They won’t say: Oh, I was apparently wrong. No, they say: U.S.A pressured the Finns. Or LM fooled the Finnish AF. Or it must have been a political decision. Or what ever brain feces the doubters may find on the internet. What ever facts are given to these people, they don’t stop thinking they know how things are. They are right, so facts must have been faked somehow. So, why in the world would LM give a rats ass to what doubters think?

        “You take the unit price and even exclude the long lead items pre-payment and use that as an argument for an entire systems implementation cost.”

        What ever you say 🙂

      2. Uroxen

        This wasn’t however about winning the HX competition, this was about clearly describing their best and final offer which they are unwilling to do.

      3. Uroxen

        To quote your comment “LOL. Let’s imagine F-35 wins the HX competition. What would “doubters” say?”.

        LM have the opportunity to provide a comprehensive overview of what they can offer within a fixed and comparable framework. They have decided to not do that.

      4. EMK

        Reading the whole comment often makes it easier to understand it. I Recommend you try that approach. If you still don’t get my point, so be it.

    3. Tomas Nordstrand

      @EMK The quote $78M is an LM PR-trick. This is the re-occurring fly-away cost, which only covers all the aircraft’s parts and the manpower to assemble humpty-dumpty, in baseline 2012 dollar. Assembly lines, tools, R&D costs etc are not included as well as the follow-on modernization to TR3 and Block4, both severely delayed. Nor does it cover ALIS to ODIN transformation and the finalization of IOT&E costs. More than 800 issues are not resolved and some will never be. So a realistic cost in 2021 is about $130M. EUR USD ratio is 0.82. Adding weapons, simulators, security of supply, etc. In conclusion LM’s HX BAF has with a high probability 50-60 aircrafts, which is “up to 64”, with the caveat of no long rage cruise missile and no firm commitment on Finnish spare parts manufacturing and tech transfer.

  13. Silver Dart

    Very interesting to read these news and your point of view about it.

    Stand-off strike capability gets an important focus and in this area, Super Hornet has clearly the edge with the JASSM : you discuss F-35 and JSM, but the Eurocanards cannot compete either with their shorter-legged Storm Shadow and Taurus KEPD 350.
    But I’m a bit confused about your information on Super Hornet JASSM offer. You quote AGM-158D/JASSM-XR range, but AGM-158B/JASSM-ER warhead.
    That doesn’t change the fact than JASSM provide 1000+ km range, which seems important for Finns needs.
    However, with all the list of sophisticated equipment (new anti-air missile, new anti-radiation missile, new jamming, state of the art cruise missile), I’m beginning to wonder if the marvelous Boeing shopping list could end in marvelous spending for FDF.

    Another interesting point is Lockheed proposal of ‘guaranteed’ offsets, a rare privilege! Especially outside of the inner circle of partner countries of the JSF program.

    1. Very limited as far as I can tell. It is an “understanding” as opposed to a formal agreement, and the main purpose is not to stop export of missiles per se, but to stop the spread of technology making it possible to launch weapons of mass destruction. As long as the French offer doesn’t include ASMP-A, all other cruise missiles mentioned in the speculation should be okay considering Finland’s current technology level, tech transfers, and political considerations.

  14. Miguel

    Whats interesting js that the USN just recently stopped development of JSOW-ER, which could be carried internally on the F-35, in favor of officially procuring a Navy strike variant of JASSM which utilizes both JASSM and LRASM capabilities

    That suggests to me that the Super Hornet will still get the majority of weapons development, because the Navy isnt paying for weapons integration on an external carry only weapon for the F-35 while the bulk of their fighting forces will be Super Hornets well into the next decade. Between getting JATM and AARGM-ER on the Super Hornet first as well, I think its clear weapons integration is a huge plus foe the Super Hornet whereas the F-35 seems to be behind timeline in development to the point that they are talking about integrating those weapons at a TBD date

  15. Purple Leopard

    Article from Key Aero: “Are weapons the Achilles heel of the F-35”?

    Regarding cruise missiles, it is very hard to figure out the useful range. Actual range can be less than cited range, because they can take a route where they turn many times and go around obstacles and go zig-zag. Also I could imagine that the JASSM-ER could even do a big U-turn and attack a target from behind, even if it is just 100 km away.

    1. JoJo

      Well, the article are from 2017, and it’s hardly that relevant regarding Finland after 2025.

    1. Purple Leopard

      Came to my mind too. We are going to see quite soon. “Seeing is knowing”

    2. Silver Dart

      that’s… surprising!
      Given the rigourous selection process, it’s unlikely to give away a winner 6 months ahead of the final results.
      It’s nice to have a Rafale in a Finn’s clip, but it remains a “long-shot” challenger here 🙂

      1. Purple Leopard

        Sorry Dart, I put my original reply in the wrong place, at the end. I just want to add – this is the video for the Flag Day of the Finnish Defence Forces. There is basically no other interpretation than….

      2. Silver Dart

        Ok, I saw your reply 😉

        Another interpretation : It’s just a subtle reference to HX and for that they chose the best looking aircraft in the competition :p

        Don’t get me wrong, I also believe Rafale offer is well balanced and could provide good capabilities and benefits to Finland. But being good isn’t enough here and final choice will depend on Finland priorities : tell me what fighter aircraft you get, I’ll tell you who you are.

  16. Throwaway

    Is there a reason why the Swiss opted for ALIS and the Finnish offer includes ODIN? I initially assumed that the Swiss DSCA-notice was published prior to the unveiling of ODIN, and it’d be revised at a later date. However it appears that there is a mere 9 day difference between the Finnish and Swiss notices. What gives?

    1. Not sure, though generally the Finnish requirement include more in the way of sovereign high-end capability, so it might be that which come into play.

    2. Purple Leopard

      Maybe not. It is the most balanced offer, with no problems regarding timetable. It has no serious weakness, if they have negotiated the prices low enough. Throw in maximal tech transfer, maximal independence, and so on… and voila.

      Bring on the frog legs, snails, brie, camembert 😉

      1. Purple Leopard

        Sorry, this was supposed to be a reply to Silver Dart!!! I put it in the wrong place :(((

      2. Silver Dart

        Brie and camembert, that’s a good beginning!
        But Herciv is right : Champagne is mandatory… and still allowed to our friends from the US, Sweden and UK even if they win 😉

    3. Mike

      Well, two possible reasons:
      a) requirement: everything that’s evaluated must be in use with troops at the time of evaluation
      b) budget. Swiss AF only has 6mrd swiss francs to replace ALL current fighters

      My guess: Odin is too new, not yet fully deployed, and maybe too expensive for Switzerland.

      Cheers from CH,

  17. Purple Leopard

    Not much has been written about the new MICA NG missile. But it is very interesting. Could this missile be behind some of Rafale’e success? Think about it:

    -Coming to market soon
    -Radar guided version has an AESA seeker. Is this a frequency-hopping seeker that can fool the enemy’s radar warning system? I do not know myself.
    -IR version has almost the same range as RF version. It is a little less, perhaps due to the more obtuse shape of the cone at the front. But it remains THE heat seeker with longest reach in the world. Anyhow this enables a dual shot at one target with both RF and IR.
    -Designed to work together with Meteor.

    It has been said that Rafale is especially effective at medium range, and this does look like a terribly effective combo. However the price tag is also terror-inducing. If you consider a loadout of Meteors and MICA NG’s, well you might as well load up your plane with ivory, precious stones, gold and pearls.

    1. Silver Dart

      You’re right, information about MICA NG is… sparse to say the least.
      MICA NG will indeed provide new IR and RF seekers, as well as range increase, while keeping the same shape and mass. Bi-pulse propulsion concept also seems to be a key features to increase lethality of the missile.

      I don’t know if MICA NG can be a factor for current export customers, because production begin in 2026. Theoretically, it could be a topic of discussion for Finland in the same way that the AIM-120/AIM-260.
      It’s true that MICA and Meteor are expensive. But it seems that no Air-Air Missile with RF seekers are especially cheap, even the mass-produced AMRAAM.
      As always, economies of scale play in favor of US weapons, which is kind of a trap difficult to escape…
      With countries such as Finland with an existing inventory of US weapons, MICA and other Rafale missiles and bombs usually are a negative factor for export markets!

  18. Roland

    I think that the F-35 is impossibly high risk for Finland. They are stuck with the development of JSE.

    JSE is not just required for finishing testing. It is part of the foundation for further development.

    The idea behind JSE is that there are many virtual F-35’s flying inside it. It makes sense in a way: to test F-35’s in, say, four ship formations, communicating and performing electronic warfare, would be very difficult in real life. That is why they need JSE.

    The very concept of the F-35 is drastically different from every other plane in the competition. F-35 is a massive system. JSE is part of that system. And it is not working. JSE is stuck in a limbo.

    And JSE is part of the plan to move forward. It is not just required for one round of testing. Everything depends on JSE. Unless they change the plans – but then the end product will also be different.

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