Back in 2017 I was fortunate enough to travel to RAF Lossiemouth together with a bunch of Finnish media courtesy of BAE Systems to get up and close with the Eurofighter Typhoon group operating there. When discussing the fact that the RAF was acquiring both the Typhoon and the F-35, Wing Commander Billy Cooper, then-CO of the 6 Squadron, said something that puzzled me.
You need stealth to be able to go forward
It seemed the Wing Commander didn’t understand which aircraft he was supposed to be selling.
After what has been described as perhaps the most fair and transparent fighter acquisition program this side of the Cold War – one that resulted in an unprecedented five serious best and final offers – we finally have a winner, and it certainly was a case of a favourite that held. The F-35A was always the one to beat, and while Finland looked like it could be the place where it would be possible to do so (my personal opinion was that the Super Hornet/Growler-combination was the most likely), it turned out that it was not to be here (either). The much-maligned stealth fighter instead took a rather resounding win in being chosen as the next fighter for the Finnish Air Force. With the FDF traditionally having been known to err on the side of conservative rather than the revolutionary, it certainly adds to the credibility of the claim that the aircraft is maturing nicely.
The strong points of the F-35 are at the same time well-known, but also often somewhat misunderstood (in particular in a Finnish situation). Yes, the aircraft is stealthy, and as Cooper noted that is indeed a big benefit, but it is far from a one-trick-pony. To start with perhaps the most boring factor, simply the sheer amount of F-35s sold is a huge benefit. As has been stressed from the outset, Finland can’t afford to be the sole operator of an aircraft (or even the sole operator of a particular configuration), something which the Hornet MLU-programs have taught the service. The F-35 will be around in numbers in 2060, and there will be users who will be as reliant as Finland on keeping the aircraft up to date. Yes, aircraft spotters will cry a bit as yet another air force convert to the same single-type force, but in the real world that does benefit the operators.
Speaking of which, much of the hesitation about the F-35 has been surrounding how it is from the outset is conceptualised to benefit from being the NATO-standard, with concentrated maintenance and spares supplies. However, in what is a major win for the team behind HX, Lockheed Martin provided a unique tailored solution to Finland – one described in their BAFO-press statement to “includes many opportunities for the Finnish defense industry related to the direct manufacture and maintenance of the F-35 that have not been offered before.” This is in line also with the earlier talking points of Lockheed Martin throughout the past few years, which has focused on the fact that maintenance solutions and spares packages indeed can be altered to meet the needs of the Finnish Air Force (one might also note that Israel had no issue securing far-reaching rights to do stuff themselves, showing that while they arguably are a special case, the rules of the F-35 game aren’t as set as some would like to make them out to be). But while it has been reported earlier that Finland received a “firm commitment” for a number of components and sub-assemblies for not just the Finnish F-35s but for the global fleet as well (itself something significantly more far-reaching than most other countries), today’s presser included information that included a firm commitment that 400 forward fuselage will be assembled in Finland! It’s hard to stress how much of a different league this is compared to e.g. the Danish agreement (and how happy this makes me as a taxpayer).
This is obviously part of building the security of supply. The principle is simple: Finland is to be able to keep the aircraft up in the air even if the borders are shut. To ensure that Finland will have an indigenous maintenance and repair capability for over 100 components (including parts of the fuselage and engine), which is based on the items covered by the industrial cooperation agreement. There will also be significant stockpiles of components that aren’t on the list of items which Finland can repair and overhaul organically (often parts with very long mean time between failures, and for which it aren’t economical to build up an independent repair capability). Notable is also that the Finnish organic repair capability is not just for domestic use, but is also part of the GSS (the global support solution) meaning that they will be used to maintain parts for the global spares pool.
The package is unprecedented, with Lockheed Martin describing it as including opportunities that haven’t been offered to any other country. Company representatives also acknowledged that the road hadn’t been easy.
There were some tense moments.
Their Finnish counterparts had apparently been “very Finnish and upfront with us about where we weren’t meeting their expectations”. It is also evident from both the Finnish authorities and Lockheed Martin that the negotiations have been both tough and thorough, and lead to a significantly better final bid than would have been possible with a more straightforward process. An interesting note in the documentation is that the industrial participation comes with a direct 116 MEUR price-tag, which frankly feels like steal for the capability offered.
The weapons package is at the same time comprehensive and straightforward. The first package which will be signed off at the same time as the fighter contract is for AIM-120C-8 AMRAAMs and AIM-9X Sidewinders. Further down the road the package will most likely include JSM in the joint air-to-ground and anti-ship roles, as well as the AGM-158 JASSM-ER heavy cruise missile, GBU-54 and GBU-56 LJDAM laser-/GPS-guided bombs in the 250 and 1,000 kg class, as well as the GBU-39 SDB and GBU-53/B StormBreaker SDB II small-diameter bombs. Notable is that this will bring serious new capabilities to the Finnish Air Force, such as the ability to hit moving and mobile targets, on land and at sea. The procurement will be staggered to ensure that there won’t be a single huge batch of weapons becoming obsolescent at the same time, and to ensure that developments with new versions of existing weapons or even completely new munitions are kept up with (no-one is officially mentioning the AIM-260 JATM, but we all know it is coming). That the air-to-air missiles will be first comes naturally as the current Hornet-fleet is expected to be viable in the air-to-ground role longer than it will be in the air-to-air role. As such, during the period of transition the plan is that the F-35A is to be able to focus on the fighter role, with the ability to escort the Hornets focusing on the ground-pounding if the need arises. The total arms package is for approximately 1.58 Bn EUR, of which 754.6 MEUR is for the air-to-air missiles to be acquired in the first step, and 823.8 MEUR for later procurement (up to 2030) and which also will provide funding to the reserve in case parts of the contract will have to be renegotiated/or in case there will be technical risks. Notable is that the large number of weapons included had a positive effect on the evaluation.
Money, Money, Money…
Which brings us to what has been the most controversial aspect of the program: cost.
The acquisition cost has come down nicely, and the current contract gives a unit cost of 73.49 MEUR per aircraft for the Finnish aircraft. More controversial is the annual operating costs, and with impeccable timing I last week noted that both the Norwegian and Swiss life-cycle costs were significantly over the Finnish ones, 77.5% and 30% respectively if extrapolated out to 64. Extrapolating never works, but the difference was large enough that I wanted an explanation. Especially as the Finnish number is 37% below the current US annual cost per aircraft (though it actually lines up rather nicely with the stated US target). Luckily, brigadier general Keränen, Deputy Chief of Staff Air Force Operations, was happy to open up the calculations.
The obvious issue is that it never is an apples versus apples comparison. Switzerland famously include VAT in their costings, something that the FDF avoids. The Swiss also present indexed average costs adjusted for inflation, while the Finnish figure is given in 2021 Euros. The USAF also include a number of basing costs in their figures (and notable is that a USAF base include quite a bit more than a Finnish air force base). But Finland is also paradoxically assisted by jumping aboard the train at a relatively late stage, as the US don’t charge for non-recurring costs, and the partner nations – although they get a share of the license cost when fighters are sold abroad – have obviously invested significant sums throughout the program which now show up in their LCC. But there are a number of other key issues as well. Finland will fly approximately 9,000 hours annually, which is in line with the current Hornet flight hours. However, with the relative large number of aircraft that actually mean that the Finnish fleet flies 140 flight hours per aircraft annually – approximately half of what the USAF does. This naturally create less wear and lower maintenance cost per aircraft and year. Notable is also that the 2 Bn EUR in upgrades are placed outside of the 254 MEUR annual operating costs, a relic from the Hornet-era where upgrades were major MLU-style projects. Another key difference between Finnish and many other European air forces is that Finland plan to shift training from the US back to Finland at a relatively early stage – following their good experiences with the current (cost-effective) proptrainer – Hawk – Hornet pipeline. Keeping pilots at home instead of paying for them living abroad usually turns out to be cheaper (have you seen the real estate prices in Rovaniemi lately?), and we haven’t even mentioned the conscript mechanics. At the end of the day, all bids had roughly similar annual operating costs.
Side note: Yes, that means that no Finnish fighters will stay in the US.
The explanations sounds reasonable enough to me, but even more convincing are two other factors. To begin with, the Finnish Defence Forces is small enough that there isn’t much room for infighting and the Air Force can’t afford to start eating the budget of the other services. And while you might argue that I am naive on that point, even more crucially both external audits and calculations made by the MoD has shown nothing out of the ordinary.
All of the major rumoured causes for the cheap operating costs – cutting any of the bases or cutting the flight hours – are thus out of the question.
All bases, both main bases, other air force bases, alternative civilian fields, and road bases, remain in use. The F-35A has no major issues with operating from the current Finnish network. The key detail that is setting the limit is the safety margins required for an aborted take-off. The old ‘hot’ MiG-21 and J 35 Draken have flown from all, including roads, earlier, and while the F-35A (like any modern fighter) is easier when it comes to the ‘flying’ part, it is also quite a bit heavier at maximum take-off weight. To ensure braking in poor conditions, the Finnish aircraft will be fitted with the ‘Norwegian’ braking chute. As such, the whole current base network will continue in service. The upgrades to infrastructure is broken down in further detail in the official documents, with 409 MEUR for buildings and 75 MEUR for upgrades to the C3I-systems. These include the (in)famous upgrades to cybersecurity in line with the US requirements.
There will however indeed be a serious upgrade to the number of simulators, but not to replace flight hours but to increase the number of simulator training opportunities.
A notable detail is that several of the speakers took time to praise the other offers and note the importance of the countries that provided them as ranking among Finland’s most important allies and partners, a notion that was echoed in the official Swedish MoD press release that in no uncertain terms stated that Finland remain the kingdom’s closest partner, and that the defence cooperation is based on shared values and strategic interests rather than on common arms deals. I will admit that I was happy to hear that, as there always is a risk of backlash in these kinds of situations.
When all is said and done
Having passed the gate checks – something that the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale proved unable to do – the F-35A then went on to beat both the Super Hornet/Growler and Gripen/GlobalEye offers in both the combat evaluation and when it comes to the future development potential. The aircraft will be delivered in ‘Block 4 standard’, though the iterative development path of modern aircraft means that things seldom are that simple. What Block 4 mean in this case is that the first Finnish fighters – coming out of Lot 17 in 2025 – will have the TR3 hardware upgrades that are associated with the Block 4 (including the sidekick upgrade that allow for six AMRAAMs in internal carriage) and what Lockheed Martin describes as the “vast majority” of the software upgrades. The final upgrades will come with Lot 18. The exact engine in use by then is unclear, though looking at the timeline it certainly looks like an uprated F135 might be an option.
The evaluation focused on a major war scenario, in which the air to air role was the focus (30%), with 10% weight being allocated to supporting the Finnish Navy (I can happily report that it indeed was a naval officer who was involved in this part of the evaluation), and 20% each to supporting the Army, long-range fires, and ISR. The F-35A ranked first or joint-first in all mission sets.
At the end of the day, the F-35 has beaten some of the toughest competition, including the bureaucracy and inertia, to come out on top. Following the string of victories it has scored throughout Europe and other parts of the world, there seems little doubt that it indeed is the premier fighter for years to come. As such, it certainly is nice to know that it will also be the aircraft protecting Finnish skies, and it is easy to agree with the official line that the procurement shows that Finland is serious about national defence and now is able to increase the threshold of a potential war.