The difference between success and failure for Boeing in HX is razor thin.
Granted, as there are no prizes for second spot, you can make that argument for all fighters involved, but Boeing still has something of a uniquely deceptive situation. While a favourite of many analysts – and it has to be said, on good grounds – the reliance on US Navy interest in the platform means that the step from favourite to bottom rung is a short one.
Boeing representatives readily admit that the very public battle fought between senior US Navy leadership and politicians over the future of the Super Hornet isn’t helping their marketing. At the same time, they don’t admit to being overly worried in the grand scheme of things. The US Navy fighter shortfall is very real, and even if the service would want to phase out the Super Hornet they will struggle to do so any time soon based on the sheer number of Super Hornets in service and the lack of a viable alternative. While Rear Adm. Gregory Harris, director of the Air Warfare Directorate of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, might say the service “must replace the Super Hornets and the Growlers by the 2030s“, it’s a statement that fits poorly with him saying in the same interview (from April this year) that he “expects the Navy to have “a better idea” within the next two or three years as to whether it will buy a manned or unmanned fighter to follow the Super Hornets”. To put it bluntly: the F-35A declared FOC in 2017, with the concept being more or less clear when the X-32 and X-35 designs were selected as concept demonstrators in 1997. If that point in time is 2023-2024 in the case of NGAD, it would mean FOC in 2043-2044, putting the F/A-XX quite some way off from having replaced the Super Hornet before the end of the 2030’s. Even with a faster development timeline – say reaching FOC by 2035 – building a few hundred new fighters and rolling them out will likely take at least five years even on a rushed schedule. And even then, the more specialised Growler is likely to stay on call for longer. The EA-6B Prowler survived 18 years longer in US Navy service compared to the baseline A-6 Intruder, and a few years even further in the USMC. Even provided for a faster turnaround thanks to developments in electronics and unmanned systems (which frankly hasn’t happened just yet, but conceivably could be the case), the Growler staying in service for five to ten years after the retirement of the Super Hornet doesn’t feel like a stretch.
It’s probably something along these lines of reasoning that leads US politicians to question whether the Navy really can afford to run down the Super Hornet production line and just focus on the Service Life Modifications-program (though it has to be said that in some cases securing jobs in homestates does seem to be the first priority). If the Super Hornet stays in service until 2045, and the Growler until 2050, the final round of US Navy-funded Growler upgrades could then be used to feed into an export-directed Super Hornet “Block X” standard in much the same way that Block 3 rests on many technologies originally developed for the Growler.
It isn’t an implausible scenario, but it is far from certain. And if the Finnish Air Force isn’t prepared to gamble on it, the Boeing supplied BAFO can easily be headed for the metaphorical shredder.
But that’s not something that you will see Boeing worrying over, at least not officially.
They express confidence in all aspects of their bid. It’s suitable to Finnish needs, it provides efficiency, there’s a strong weapons package, it’s affordable and mature, and the industrial participation package is solid and based on their long experience of working with Finnish industry in supporting the current Hornet-fleet to ensure security of supply. Boeing also states that it provide the tools to operate independently in a high-treat environment by constituting “a complete self-sustaining package”. Keen readers will note that “self-sustaining” isn’t the same as “sovereign” promised by Dassault and BAES, but still.
A key point worth keeping in mind is that Boeing is taking the Finnish authorities on their word when they have been repeating that they aren’t buying a fighter but a package of capabilities. The Growler is the obvious example, but Boeing also took the opportunity at Kaivari 21 to release further details on how they see Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUMT) in the future.
Let’s first make something absolutely clear: the ATS is in the BAFO, but it is an option. It’s a potential future capability with a price tag given for the systems and associated infrastructure.
As such it won’t be evaluated in the deciding wargames (at least not in the first point, it is more unclear to me how the second evaluation point played with 2030-standards would treat future growth capabilities). However, it offers some interesting capabilities, especially as the concept is that anything mission-related is put into the nosecone which is easily snapped on or off to install another one. There’s obvious benefits here as the same airframe can fly different missions, but there’s an interesting secondary benefit to a small high-tech country such as Finland as well. It is possible to with a relatively small input develop, either alone or together with other operators, new payloads tailored to Finnish needs. This is based on the fact that one doesn’t need to develop the aircraft itself (as is the case with building a new UAS) nor having to run the traditional integration verification testing done on external stores. The nosecone payloads can then either be offered on the export market (provided exports kick off) or then kept under wraps as a covert Finnish capability.
The payloads that first come to mind are quite naturally ISR once as well as electronic warfare. Different sensors, such as electro-optical ones, SAR, and ESM, are likely among the low-hanging fruit that relatively easily could create a significantly improved intelligence gathering capability to the benefit of both the FDF as a whole but also of the political leadership in times of both peace and war. Crucially, this would fit in well with the EA-18G Growler enhancing the same in the electromagnetic spectrum, and would do so while relying on mass and attritable platforms instead of a few (individually more capable) high-value assets. The relatively easily modified sensor payload also means that the adversary can be kept in the dark regarding what capabilities the Finnish Air Force operates.
In the electronic warfare domain, being able to push large jammers or sensors close to the enemy is an extremely valuable opportunity as well. And as has been discussed on the blog numerous times, size does matter when you discuss arrays and antennas. In essence, having a MALD with a 150 litre payload and the ability to get back in case things goes well is a significant step above just firing jammers in front of you.
Another nice feature is that the ATS can be forward deployed with a relatively limited footprint. As such, keeping the ATS spread out on smaller bases in case of heightened crisis to allow for more rapid reaction can be a viable tactic e.g. in the face of increased QRA alerts, where the ATS can be launched from a civilian field (or even a road base in times of war) and by the time the scrambled Super Hornets are about to link up with the aircraft to be intercepted the ATS can already be on location and have provided an updated situational picture. And as we all know, a better situational picture allows for off-loading flight hours from the fighter fleet. In wartime, pushing the sensors out in front of the fighter can also allow for a better situational picture without breaking stand-off distance, or e.g. for long-range AIM-260 JATM shots where the Super Hornet remains passive at distance and let the ATS which is closer to the target provide fire control and guidance via its own radar and datalink. For the Finnish Navy, which faces something of a sensor gap following the ever growing range of modern weapon systems, having a larger number of flying sensors, some of which could be flown from bases along the southern coast, certainly is an interesting proposition.
But with a fixed budget occupied by the non-option stuff in the BAFO, from where would the ATS be funded?
The obvious place is munitions and upgrades. The Super Hornet BAFO include a sizeable munitions package, but some of the stuff included is things that could be carried over from current stocks. This include bombs, but also e.g. the option to skip or limit the buys of the AIM-120C-8 now included and do a jump from the AIM-120C-7 currently in service to the AIM-260 JATM. It’s a calculated risk to go heavy on the sensors and save on the missiles during the first few years, but it wouldn’t be the first one taken by FDF. Another aspect is that the regular operational budget does include money for upgrades and yet more senors and weapons, at some point these could potentially be routed to sensors who do their own flying. The basic software and hardware as well as interfaces to allow for MUMT will be included as a part of the Super Hornet/Growler baseline by 2030 in any case.
“The timing lines up very well,” Boeing notes with regard to the ATS, and they mention German interest in MUMT for their Super Hornet/Growler-package (while pointing out that Finland is the first country offered ATS as part of a fighter competition). There’s also apparently “higher trust” in Finnish calculations compared to Swiss ones when it comes to the affordability of operating the aircraft, as well as the confidence that stems from the continuation of the trend in which the electromagnetic spectrum is continuously growing in importance (the latest data point being the studies to see whether the F-15EX or some other USAF fighter could employ the NGJ-family of jamming pods), especially in the light of continued Russian investment in the field.
At the same time, the US Navy publicly says they want to move one, and over the waters next to Kaivopuisto the F-35A is busy trying to steal(th) the show. The difference between success and failure for Boeing is HX is razor thin.