Boeing Refusing to Let New Fighters Steal(th) the Show

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.

The F/A-18E Super Hornet visiting Tampere-Pirkkala AFB and Satakunta Air Wing for the first (?) time back during HX Challenge. Source: Own picture

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 ATS during testing in Australia. Note the size of the nose compared to the rest of the aircraft. Source: Boeing media

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.

An Italian F-35A from Baltic Air Policing turning over the Helsinki waterfront during the Kaivari 21 air show, an air show which saw all HX contenders flying, with the exception of the Super Hornet. Source: Own picture

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.

12 thoughts on “Boeing Refusing to Let New Fighters Steal(th) the Show

  1. Hairysteed

    I’m sure you meant “no prizes for second spot” – price is what you pay, prize is what you win. 😉

  2. Locum

    The US Navy asked congress 10 years ago to stop F-18E/F production in favour of the F-35C.
    Persistent problems with the JSF project, forced the USN to keep on buying Super Bugs.
    Now, they try to pull the same trick again, by a planned F-18E/F production stop, to accelerate the USN NGAD programme. The USN NGAD shares a lot of systems with the US Air Force NGAD,
    but they have different airframes. The USAF NGAD is meant as F-22A replacement, (hopefully) beginning in 2030.

    The JSF project started in November 1996. The X-35 concept demonstrator flew for the first time in October 2000. The F-35A made it’s first flight in December 2006. And with 670+ LightningII’s manufactured per August 1 2021, in this almost 25 year long project there is still no permission for the Full Rate Production (FRP). How funny.

    With enduring and persistent troubles, with the supply chain; maintenance, repair & overhaul; sustainment of the engines; an inefficient and ineffective Autonomous Logistics Information System (ALIS) and too high operation & support costs. The F-18E/F and F-18G are proven and reliable platforms.
    Which programme will get Damocles sword in it’s neck, the F-18E/F or the F-35A & F-35C ?

    1. Matias

      Using FRP as a measuring or comparison number could be misleading since the FRP for an aircraft could vary according to the number of aircraft purchased and it could vary from year to year. For example Lockheed delivered 120 F-35 in 2020, expected to deliver 130+ in 2021 and level at 175 a year probably all the way to 2030. In comparison the Rafale FRP has varied from 11 to 24 fighters a year, now that is funny.

      1. Locum

        The best, is the enemy of just good enough.

        I am talking about the permission / authorisation, officially the Milestone C decision, to begin with the FRP. And not about the Full Rate Production run itself. That authorisation is not given untill the Initial Operational Test & Evaluation (IOT&E) is finished. The official reason given, is that the Joint Simulation Environment (JSE) is still not completed. Originally, completion of the JSE was set in 2017. After several postponements, a finished JSE is now planned for August 2022. And will maybe occur somewhere in 2023.

        The Rafale FRP was never delayed or lowered because of development problems, but only for budgetary and export reasons. If your production line is not ‘hot’ anymore, it becomes at least very hard till probably impossible to sell any extra aircraft.

        IN 2001 – 2002 the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) ran a fighter evaluation. The ‘JSF’ was the winner. The Rafale F4 version became a close second. While the Typhoon Tranche 3 got a far third place, and behind ‘Tiffy” came the Gripen. The F-35A Block 3 scored 10 % more points than the Rafale F4. Those 10% extra points were not for the F-35’s considerably Lower Observability (LO, stealth). But for the bigger and more advanced sensors package and fundamentally further going sensor fusion. This evaluation showed that the kinetic performances were quite equal. And the logistical tails for the single engine F-35A and twin enginned Rafale C were identical !

        The F-35 came with an astonishing low aquisition and exploitation price tag too.
        The JSF business case was built at a large-scale continuous central production / assembly line in Fort Worth. Large “scales of economies” for a predicted 4.500 – 6.000 F-35’s and an (overly optimistic) short concurrent development schedule, should keep the F-35 costs lower than that of the F-16C. In 2004, the General Accountability Office (GAO) reported that 7 of the 8 key technologies applied to the JSF programme were still not mature enough. However, full F-35 system development & demonstration started allready in 2002. Learning a baby to walk, while it still cannot crawl, is asking for problems.

        The JSF business case has gone up in smoke. Now we have allready 2 more assembly lines in Japan and Italy. The F-35A, F-35B and F-35C had originally a very high commonality of around 80 %.
        In 2010, this commonality was allready decreased to 20 – 25 %. During the System Development and in fact “Discovery” (SDD) fase, the commonality went even lower. In fact, we have now 3 different types of fighter aircraft. 4.500 – 6.000 manufactured F-35’s ? Forget about that, probably it will be around 3.000 – 3.200 planes. The USAF will never get 1.763 F-35A’s. Think about 858 – 1.160 F-35A’s. They have to replace 187 F-22A Raptors. Around 2005, the USAF declared that they needed minimally 381 Raptors. How much NGAD’s will they need after 2030 to counter China ? The USAF also needs 145 – 175 B-21 Raiders of approx USD 550 – 600 million a copy.

        The F-35 block 3 was supposed to have al the promised capabilities. However, some capabilties were cancelled permanently and a lot of capabilties were deferred to Follow on Modernization (FoM) Block 4, and maybe Block 5 and so on. The Technical Release TR1 and TR2 avionics packages cannot achieve the promised Block 3 capabilities. To achieve that extra 10% sensor capabilties over the Rafale F4, more advanced computer hardware is needed in the form of a TR3 enhencement. Block 4 development costs went up from USD 10,6 billion in 2018, till a predicted USD 14,4 billion now. Planned Block 4 development finalization stands currently at the end of calendar year 2026.

      2. Matias

        Hey nice overview of the F-35 program, you are probably spot on on the details. Lockheed already produces a reliable fighter, the F-16 block 70, which is 4th generation and there is the McDonald Douglas F-15 EX, by the way both actually have victories under their belt. The F-35 being a fifth generation fighter and with a new software concept, it will have growing pains, with problems to fix and improvements with each new block, but that is normal with any new weapon system.

      3. Locum

        The best, is the enemy of good enough, part 2.

        So there you go. You have the best fighter-bomber in the form of the F-35A, in other words: a bit better than a F-18E/F Block II and Rafale F4.
        But … the B-1B Lancer and Litorral Combat Ship (LCS) programmes suffered from concurrency too. Experiences show clearly, that concurrency leads to fundamentally unreliable and very expensive or too expensive to operate weapon systems. The F-18E/F, F-18G, Rafale, Mirage 2000 and Gripen, have proven to be sturdy and reliable platforms. In the RNLAF evaluation of 2002, the F-35A and Rafale, the predicted logistic tales were equal. Actual experiences have shown that this not true at all. The F-35 logistics tail is considerably larger than that of the Rafale.

        Conducting 50 % of your annual exercise programme in simulators, might be a financial and environmentally friendly way of operating your fighter aircraft force in peace times. But, how will we run this fighter force, when tensions are turned up in the Baltic States; Belarus; Libya; the South Chinese Sea; the Gulf of Aden or the Persian Gulf ? F-35 jockey’s will have to swap their simulators for the real F-35 to fly CAP’s and ISR recce missions to show the flag. Than, the gun barrels start talking. But … guided (quasi) ballistic missiles and cruise missiles force you to move your air bases and aircraft carriers at least 810 nm / 1.500 kilometers away from their possible launch pads. Air operations over Iraq and Afghanistan showed that fighter-bomber squadrons quadrupled their mission hours Overthere, compared to the flown exercise hours in peace time at home. Real life war time F-35 operations will break the bank / Treasury.

  3. Locum

    General (Charles Q. Brown, chief of staff USAF), F-35. “How serious is the engine shortage from your standpoint? You’ve got a four star and three star review down at Tinker today talking about it. What’s your level of concern about the shortfall? And how does the F-35 fit into your accelerate change or lose and your Action Order D in terms of – how does it apply to that program?
    General Brown: One of the things that, I’ve sat down with our leadership team. I’ve also sat down with the JPO to talk about F-35s and the F-35A. And one of the things when you roll up data, you can look at it from one perspective, from the JPO’s perspective, but the Air Force right now has the largest and most mature F-35 fleet. So what we are seeing based on the use of the engine, in some cases they’re failing a little bit faster in certain areas, but it’s also because of the high use rate. They’ve been deployed to different locations and that extra time on the engines is causing them to fail a bit sooner. So what we really want to do is understand what are the options we have with the engines we do have, to accelerate some of those changes on the maintenance side and the depot side. At the same time I want to moderate how much we’re using those aircraft.

    As I described, it’s like your Ferrari. You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day.
    You only drive it on Sundays. This is all high end. We want to make sure we don’t use it all for a low end fight when we want to save it for the high end fight. Which goes into my force design.”
    via Defense Writers Group, February 17 2021, interview page 23 of 26, link:

    The F-35A ‘Ferrari’ only wants to steal the show at Sunday’s ?

  4. Ferpe

    The strength of the Boeing offer is the F-18 Growler, only the Aussies have been approved to buy it before FIAF.

    To understand its value I have made a graphic of the text post I entered in the F-35 thread. It’s easier to understand what the EA capabilities of the F-18 Growler and Gripen E bring in a graphic. One can also see the rather complete own-ship jammer protection they carry.

    It’s also obvious that a stealth machine like the F-35 is a totally different concept. It protects itself from the detection of higher frequency radars by stealth. The MFA adds to the radar protection where the stealth is strong, however, mid-band and forward sector. A non-optimal solution dictated by the problems of adding ECM to a stealth design.

    The holes in Rafales SPECTRA were not acceptable to the Indians (ref. my post in the Rafale thread). They had Daussualt add a low band jammer for the forward sector and the Israeli X-guard towed decoy. As a retrofit, it takes the outer wing MICA position. These add-ons might be on offer to FIAF.

  5. Bjørnar Bolsøy

    Locum wrote:

    “Large “scales of economies” for a predicted 4.500 – 6.000 F-35’s”

    Keep in mind that these figures are not the business case of the F-35. If the program ever reaches those numbers, it will be on top of the planned numbers and, thus, adding to the “scales of economies”.

    “The F-35 block 3 was supposed to have al the promised capabilities. However, some capabilties were cancelled permanently and a lot of capabilties were deferred to Follow on Modernization (FoM) Block 4, and maybe Block 5 and so on. The Technical Release TR1 and TR2 avionics packages cannot achieve the promised Block 3 capabilities. To achieve that extra 10% sensor capabilties over the Rafale F4, more advanced computer hardware is needed in the form of a TR3 enhencement”

    I don’t think you can realistically compare with a 20 year old evaluation of these fighters. Sure, a number of early SDD capabilities have since passed, but many of the older weapons were never going to be fielded anyhow, simply because they are obsolete by modern standards. Goes for any fighter, not just the F-35.

    Also keep in mind that the Rafale F4 and Typhoon Tranche 3, with the proposed AESA, was supposed to be fielded many years ago. The F4, while proposed to the Dutch in 2002, didn’t actually launch until 2017 and was first flight tested this April. That’s a 20 year gap. So speaking of promised capabilities, I don’t see how the F-35 fares any worse. Perhaps quite the contrary.

    “So there you go. You have the best fighter-bomber in the form of the F-35A, in other words: a bit better than a F-18E/F Block II and Rafale F4”

    I’m not sure that is a good assessment. Despite the current lack of weapons options, Block 2/3 F-35s have proven themselves in exercises being far superior to legacy fighters due to it’s stealth, sensors and EW capabilities.

  6. BB3

    I don’t see where you defined “ATS’ in your article. Per the context, however, I conclude that you’re referencing the Boeing-Australia ‘loyal wingman’ drone. It’s a Boeing product, so obviously Boeing is mentioning it as part of its SH/ Growler offer, but the US is working on numerous different UCVs as part of its Skyborg program and the Boeing offering may not end up the winner of the competition – though there certainly may be multiple drones that end up being used – perhaps with different capabilities/ sizes/ etc. and with some used (and better suited) as weapons platforms and others used (and best suited) as sensor/ EA/ ISR platforms.

    My point is that – as these UCVs and UCAVs develop over time, I’m guessing they get integrated with multiple fighter platforms – just like weapons. So the advantage will go to the fighters with ‘open mission systems’ where the software can be upgraded & the drones integrated – quickly & easily.

    Historically, this is an area where Gripen has excelled. I’m not sure how far along the F-18 or the EF or Rafale or the F-35 are in this area, but historically none of these other platforms have been anywhere near as quick re: integration of new systems/ sensors and weapons as Gripen.

    I am curious as to whether any of the other contenders talked about future integration of UCVs as a logical next step in aerial combat/ warfare – and likely to be something we see before all the proposed 6th gen aircraft. A recent War Zone article on The Drive confirms that a USAF F-15 successfully used its IRST to locate, track and take out a QF-16 Full-Scale Aerial Target (FSAT) with an AIM-120 BVR missile.
    Since IRSTs aren’t influenced by LO design, the question becomes whether current state of the art stealthy aircraft like the F-35 & F-22 will have to accept that they are now more vulnerable to detection & interdiction. In that case 4.5+ gen aircraft become more equal with their stealth counterparts and the use of vanguard armed and sensor carrying stealthy drones to augment existing 5th gen & 4.5+ gen aircraft become more important.

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