Corporal Frisk

One Last Hurrah – Finnish Media visits an HX-contender

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It’s getting difficult to remember how it all started back when HX was just a working group thinking about if Finland needed a new fighter, but seven years later here we are, perhaps a month away from the decision.

But there was still room for one last media trip, this time by Saab who used their corporate Saab 2000 (the particular example, SE-LTV, being the last civilian airliner ever built by the company) to fly a whole bunch of media representatives for a day-trip to Linköping to one more time share the details about their bid, with the GlobalEye getting much of the attention.

And it’s hard to argue with this. Yes, the Gripen sport a number of nice features from a Finnish point of view, but what really sets Saab’s offer apart from the rest is the inclusion of not one but two airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. The capability in itself would bring a huge shift in Finnish air operations regardless of whichever fighter would be at the other end of the chain (no, your favourite fighter isn’t a “mini-AWACS” just because it has a nice radar, you still won’t leisurely be cruising around on 10 hour missions gathering intelligence and keeping an up to date air picture while paying biz-jet operating costs). The value of the kind of persistent situational picture provided by a modern AEW&C platform is hard to overstate, especially in a Finnish scenario where the attacker will have numerical superiority (meaning that the decision about when and where to send Finnish fighters will have to be calculated carefully to ensure it is possible for them to do something that actually has an impact on the battle), the flat and forested nature of the country (meaning that there is a lack of suitable mountaintops on which to place groundbased sensors, instead anyone operating at very low levels will enjoy lots of radar shadows from which they can sneak up on Finnish targets), and the very joint nature of any major conflict stemming from the long land-border and the right flank and rear being composed of water (meaning that any higher-level situational picture need to take into account all three domains).

It is difficult to express exactly how much of an asset a modern AEW&C platform would be for Finland, and that include both the Air Force but also the FDF as a whole as well as the government. And for the foreseeable future, the only realistic option for a Finnish AEW&C platform would be if Saab takes home HX. Picture courtesy of Saab

Crucially, the value of the GlobalEye as an intelligence gathering platform for everything from the operational level commanders to the highest levels of political leadership is unprecedented in HX (and arguably within the FDF as a whole, the SIGINT CASA is nice, but it fills a more niched role). With two GlobalEyes, building a baseline situational picture in peacetime is possible (even more so if data is shared with the two Swedish aircraft coming), and that include both airborne and ground traffic, as the aircraft sports a ground moving target indicator mode (GMTI) making it possible to see any vehicles moving on the ground (the cut-off being rather low, in the neighbourhood of 20 km/h). The GMTI doesn’t create individual tracks for every echo due to the huge amount of vehicles moving at most roads during any given time (though it is possible to manually start tracks for interesting vehicles) but instead the operator will follow general flows and densities. Needless to say, keeping an eye on vehicle movements around garrisons and on exercise fields or counting trains (feel free to start measuring how much of the Oktyabrskaya Railway is within say 300 km of the border) would be a huge boost to the Finnish intelligence gathering work and a huge benefit for all branches of the FDF and the government it supports. Having this baseline situational picture and being able to detect changes in it would be of immeasurable value to both the civilian and military leadership in any kind of crisis, and there is no other single measure that would provide as much bang for buck as getting an AEW&C when it comes to this aspect – and the only way to get it into the budget is through Saab’s HX offer.

(The EA-18G Growler does share some of the same traits in this regards in raising the peacetime intelligence gathering capabilities to a significantly higher degree than ‘ordinary’ fighters, but when stuff stops emitting the value decreases rapidly)

This is an aspect that – even if not completely forgotten – has received surprisingly little attention in media. It might be that the inclusion of the completely new capability and the ramifications it has have been difficult to grasp, but in any case it is likely to have a significant impact on the wargames.

Interlude: in some of the darker places of aviation forums there have been people claiming that Saab is trying to sell a fighter that in fact isn’t the best one out there through packaging it with an AEW&C platform. Regardless of whether it is correct or not, that is a completely moot point. The Finnish Air Force isn’t looking for the best fighter, the Finnish Defence Forces is looking for the best capability they can get for 10 billion Euro (and 250 MEUR in annual operating costs), and if pairing 64 JAS 39E Gripen with two GlobalEyes provide a greater combat capability than the competing packages, how Gripen fares in one-on-one air combat against some other fighter isn’t interesting in the slightest to Puranen or his team.

The GlobalEye is more or less everything you would expect from it. Based on the Global 6000, it leverages the comfort of the airliner to ensure that crew can handle the missions that can go “well above” 11 hours. This means a rest area for the relief crew members, as well as cabin pressure and noise levels on par with the regular business jet. The top speed is slightly reduced due to drag from the radar, but the range is in fact more or less the same as the lower and more economic cruising speed roughly cancels out the increased drag. The business jet philosophy of the baseline Global 6000 also brings with it a lot of other nice details, such as dispersed operations being aided by a very high redundancy of key systems and small logistical footprint (the airliner is e.g. equipped with four generators to ensure that it isn’t stopped by a generator failure. On the GlobalEye that means that no additional power sources are required, and the aircraft can in fact remain fully mission capable even if one generator is lost). For a Finnish scenario, a key detail is that the sensors can be initiated already on the ground, meaning that the aircraft is operating as soon as the wheels are up. The five operators can either do general work or specialise in different roles, such as air surveillance, sea surveillance, the aforementioned GMTI-mointoring, ESM/SIGINT, and so forth. Displays in the relief area and in the cockpit allow for the relief crew and pilots to follow the situation, which is valuable e.g. if new threats appear. The exact sensor setup can be changed according to customer needs, but can include everything from the ErieEye-ER radar, a dedicated maritime radar, AIS, DSB, IFF, and classified ESM systems.

Now, an AEW&C alone doesn’t win any wars, but the Gripen is no slouch either. Much has already been said on this blog, but the baseline fact that Gripen from the outset is made for the very same concept of operations that Finland employs certainly gives it something of an edge. Worries about size and range are also of relatively minor importance in a Finnish scenario, and instead factors such as 40% less fuel consumption compared to legacy Hornets (and with that obviously also significantly reduced exhaust emissions, which should make certain government parties happier) play a significant role when laying out the budget for the upcoming years.

While the usage of a very much originally naval fighter has proved a great success in Finland, and  while several other countries have had good luck operating “normal” fighters in the high north, there’s no denying that Gripen is the only fighter (honourable mention to the MiG-31, but we’re not getting that one) from the outset made to feel at home in the subarctic conditions. Picture courtesy of Saab

Saab was happy to go into some detail about how they envision missions to be flown, illustrating with a typical high-end SEAD/DEAD mission against S-400 batteries where the aim was to take out two 92N6E “Grave Stone” radars. The batteries where in turn protected by a number of other ground-based air defence systems, including a Nebo-M (no doubt chosen for the express purpose of raising questions about the viability of the F-35 in the same scenario), Pantsirs, and a pop-up Buk-M1-2 (or M2, just the ‘SA-17’ designation was shown). In addition two pairs of Su-35s were flying CAP under the guiding eye of an A-100. The approach for this mission was rather straightforward. Two Gripens did a hook to the north where they feigned an attack through using the EAJP EW-pods and swarms of LADM cruising around presenting jamming and false targets, thereby drawing two Su-35s north.

At the same time the main striking force consisting of a four-ship Gripen with 7 Meteors and 2 IRIS-T on each acting as fighter escort and two additional Gripens doing the actual strikes with six SPEAR and six LADM each (plus pairs of Meteors and IRIS-T for self-defence) headed east towards the target. With the LADM and the internal EW-systems providing jamming and the escorting Gripens dealing with the fighters (of which one pair was out of position, as you might remember), the strike pair launches their  full dozen of SPEARs which, together with escorting LADMs, go out and hunt down the two radars. Not even the pop-up Buk appearing behind the strike aircraft can ruin the day.

Now, the scenario above is both rather fascinating in that Saab was ready to go into such detail, and not at all surprising since that is more or less exactly how nine aviation geeks out of ten would have set up the mission given what we known about Saab’s talking points and the weapons and stores offered to Finland. Perhaps the most interesting detail is that Saab thinks six SPEAR are enough to take down a defended S-400 radar (when escorted by EW-missiles). However, what on the other hand was interesting was who was telling the story.

Mikko Koli in a 39E Gripen simulator, note the large WAD-display up front. In real aircrafts, he has now also logged time in the front-seat of the JAS 39D two-seater. Picture courtesy of Saab

Meet Mikko Koli, pilot and operational advisor to Saab since this spring when he retired from his job as test pilot for the Finnish Air Force. As a retired major, he may be outranked by many of the other advisors involved in different parts of the HX circus, but he brings some serious street cred instead. Most of his career was spent doing a fifteen year posting as an air force test pilot, mainly focused on the F/A-18 C/D Hornet and the upgrades it went through in Finnish service. This include different roles in both MLUs, but also being among the key players in the AGM-158A JASSM integration project, which culminated in him being the first Finnish pilot to release a live JASSM.

Which definitely is cool, but don’t let that distract you from the main story: he is a seasoned test pilot who has spent years studying and implementing how to get the best out of a fighter in a Finnish context. When Koli decides to spend his retirement days at Saab, that says something. And when he says that he trusts that their bid is “extremely strong”, that is something else compared to Saab’s regular sales guys.

What Koli decided to focus on, in addition to guiding the assembled Finnish media through the scenario described above (together with retired Swedish Air Force pilot Jussi Halmetoja) was certainly things we have heard before, but with a bit of a different emphasis. The “superior situational awareness” thanks to advanced networking and “excellent” human-machine communication of the aircraft are talking points we’ve heard from Saab before, but they often take something of a back seat when non-pilots talk. Discussing the “live chain” is also a refreshing change to just talking about the kill chain, because as we all know actually living and flying a working aircraft is the first step to being able to actually do something useful. And Koli also in no uncertain words explained what he thinks about the GlobalEye.

GlobalEye pays itself back at any level of a crisis, both for military as well as for political decisionmakers [… It is also] a very capable SIGINT-platform

The JAS 39E Gripen is rapidly approaching operational service, but so is the scheduled date for first aircraft delivery under HX. Picture courtesy of Saab

Speaking of JASSM-integrations, I would be wrong not to mention Saab’s latest talking point when describing the size of their weapons package. Readers of the blog might remember that I had some questions regarding the numbers presented during the BAFO release, when it sounded like the weapons offered were worth 1.8+ Bn EUR, until you read the fine print, at which point it sounded more like 1.35+ Bn EUR. Now Saab was back with the comparison “more than ten times the total publicly quoted costs of the Finnish JASSM-project”, which they confirmed referred to 170 MEUR for the JASSM integration and missiles, making the weapons package coming with the Gripen worth 1.7+ Bn EUR. That is a lot, and considering the 9 Bn EUR acquisition cost also include the aforementioned two GlobalEyes, puts things into scale. An interesting detail is that the JASSM-project as mentioned included the integration costs as well, with Saab now taking care to point out that all weapons integration costs are found under other budgetary lines, and the 1.7+ Bn EUR figure just covers the series production and delivery of the munitions.

Modern weapons are expensive, but that is indeed an arsenal you can go to war with without having to worry about every single missile. At least not initially.

With the Norwegian budget figures having raised more questions than the Swiss decision answered for the F-35, and the US Navy trying to kill off the Super Hornet production line faster than you can get a hornets nest fully cleaned out from a redcurrant shrub (which for me is approximately two weeks of time based on empirical testing), the Finnish skies are perhaps looking ready to accept a non-US fighter again. In that scenario, the Gripen is certainly a more likely choice than the two larger eurocanards, but at the same time questions of maturity surround the aircraft that is bound to reach IOC with an operational unit only in 2025 – the same year the first HX fighters are to be delivered. Basing the 39E on the proven 39C/D-platform certainly helps, and the decoupling of flight critical software from other systems seems to have been a winning concept considering the pace at which the test program has advanced (this includes software updates on flying aircraft every four weeks on average up to this point of the program). However, with nine aircraft operational and the first Batch 2 (series production standard) already off the production line, Saab just might be able to cut it in time.

And there’s always the GlobalEye.

An interesting detail is that as the GlobalEye is optimised for endurance, the aircraft is expected to most of the time operate with a 4.8° angle of attack, meaning that the radar is tilted downwards the same amount to keep it horizontal for optimal performance (as are the operator positions inside aircraft, including chairs, desks, and displays). Picture courtesy of Saab

A big thank you to Saab for the travel arrangements.

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