A Squadron from the North

Few readers of the blog are likely to have missed the fact that the world’s largest submarine and sole survivor of the Akula (NATO-nickname ‘Typhoon’) class recently paid a visit to the Baltic Sea for the Russian Navy Day parade. TK-208 Dmitriy Donskoy grabbed most of the headlines, but as with all good tricks, it’s when you watch the ball too closely that the magic happens.

Hieronymus Bosch: “The Conjurer” (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the Baltic Sea the submarine completely lacked suitable weaponry, sensors, and quite frankly space to move around. However, the world’s largest surface combatant, Pyotr Velikiy (‘099’), travelled together with the submarine. In addition, the cruiser Marshal Ustinov (‘055’) and destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov (‘626’) both travelled to the Baltic Sea to join in the festivities from the Northern Fleet, with the frigate Admiral Makarov (‘799’) joining from the Black Sea Fleet. These surface combatants stood for the real increase in firepower, and deserve a closer look:

Note hatches for vertically launched weapons on foredeck. Source: FLVFOT, Flyvevåbnets Taktiske Stab

Pyotr Velikiy: at 251 meter long and 24,300 tons standard displacement, she is a huge vessel by any standard. Often referred to as a battlecruiser, because she packs significant firepower but lacks the armour associated with ‘real’ battleships. The Kirov-class was launched in the 80’s, with the goal of intercepting and destroying the carrier task forces of the US Navy by unleashing a barrage of P-700 Granit missiles. Originally named Yuri Andropov, she is currently the only vessel of the class in operational service. Powered by two KN-3 nuclear reactors supplemented by oil-fired boilers.

Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

Marshal Ustinov: the Slava-class of cruisers are the little sisters (186 m and 9,380 tons) of the Velikiy, and are made to perform the same missions of targeting enemy surface vessels (with the P-500 Bazalt) and functioning as flagships. The Ustinov was launched in 1982, making it seven years older than the Velikiy.

Source: Brian Burnell via Wikimedia Commons

Vice-Admiral Kulakov: the Udaloy-class are specialised anti-submarine destroyers with secondary air defence and anti-ship capabilities. While the destroyer is significantly smaller (163 m and 6,930 tons) and somewhat older (launched 1980) than the cruisers, she still represents a vessel of the same size as the current flagship of the Baltic Fleet, the air defence destroyer Nastoychivyy.

Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

Admiral Makarov: The odd bird out, Makarov not only comes from Sevastopol instead of Murmansk, she is also one of the few really modern warships of the Russian Navy. While the frigate is the lightest of the kvartet (125 m and 3,300 tons), she packs a considerable punch for her size with moderns sensors and weaponry (including the long-range Kalibr-cruise missile), and also feature some amount of signature reduction.

Notable is that Granit, Bazalt, and Kalibr all can come equipped either with conventional or nuclear warheads.

As noted, the current flagship of the Russian Baltic Fleet is the Sovremennyy-class destroyer Nastoychivyy, which is the sole operational destroyer of any country permanently stationed in the Baltic Sea. In addition, her sister Bespokoynyy is in reserve/long-term storage. It is hard to overstate the boost the four vessels dispatched brought to Russia’s Baltic Fleet, traditionally one of the smaller fleets in the Soviet/Russian Navy. While all except Makarov are starting to show their age, they brought significant increases to the air defences available. Ustinov feature both the medium ranged Osa-MA and the long-range S-300F Fort surface-to-air missile systems, which are naval derivatives of the 9K33 Osa and the S-300. The Fort employs the original semi-active 5V55 missiles, while the Veliky in turn feature the upgrade S-300FM Fort-M system, which is longer ranged and sporting the newer 48N6E and 48N6E2 missiles. The Veliky also has the medium-range 3K95 Kinzhal (a naval derivative of the 9K330 Tor) and the Kashtan close-in weapons systems with autocannons and short-range missiles (easiest described as 2K22 Tunguska derivatives). The Kinzhal is found on the Kulakov as well. Makarov in turn has the Kashtan for short-range work and the Shtil-1, which in essence consists of Buk-M1 missiles in vertical launch tubes, for medium-range work.

In short: that is a serious amount of different air defence systems, and should have been of note for anyone interesting in drawing A2/AD-bubbles on maps.

The open-water anti-submarine capability was also given a considerable increase by Kulakov and Makarov. Up until now, the main sub-hunting force has been the six coastal ASW-corvettes of the Parchim-class, with open water capability largely resting on the shoulders of the fleet’s sole submarine Vyborg (an early Project 877 ‘Kilo’-class sub from the early 80’s) and the four Steregushchiy-class (light) frigates. This is a relatively small force, considering that the Baltic Sea is home to two of the world’s most modern AIP-submarine forces: the Swedish (Gotland– and Södermanland-classes) and the German (Type 212) submarine squadrons.

The escorts

The vessels arrived well in time before the parade, and the small squadron of Donskoy, Veliky, and the tug Nikolay Chiker was followed closely by both defence forces and media. NATO-vessels escorted the vessels throughout their journey, with the Norwegian Coast Guard shadowing them along the Norwegian coast, and then handing over to HDMS Diana and the Royal Danish Navy. The Danish Defence Forces had earlier stated that the passage of the vessels was business as usual, and that they would dispatch an escort. In hindsight it might not have been quite as usual, as the passage under the Great Belt bridge was escorted by no less than three Diana-class patrol vessels and a single standby vessel positioned just south of the bridge.

After this, the Russians got the attention of, well, everyone. The German Elbe-class tender Main followed them for a while, before the Poles showed up with landing craft/minelayer ORP Gniezno. The Swedes then tried to get the price for most creative solution, by having the Naval Reserve’s Hoburg (ex-ASW hunter Krickan of the Ejdern-class) intercept the formation (granted, there was probably a submarine lurking somewhere for more serious intelligence work). The Estonian’s in turn sent the joint flagship of the border guards and the police force, the Kindral Kurvits.

The Finnish reaction, or rather, the fact that there didn’t seem to be one, caused some people to voice opinions about Finlandisation and the Navy sleeping on their stations. While I am usually quick to argue for clear signalling rather than anything resembling Finlandisation (due to the risk of misinterpretation given our history), I do feel that this is uncalled for. On the contrary: it is painstakingly clear that the appearance of the Donskoy in particular was a PR-stunt, and the considerable buzz caused was quite likely an end in itself. The measured Finnish response was in my opinion a balanced way to acknowledge their existence, without giving them undue attention.

It is perfectly possible to maintain watch over surface vessels in the Gulf of Finland without venturing out to sea (especially in peacetime conditions when no one is targeting or jamming your sensors), and this is particularly true for a vessel with the radar cross section of the Velikiy. So the Finnish Navy seems to have decided that the squadron was not interesting enough to receive an escort.

Note however that the Navy did venture out to sea to get picture of the vessels, and not only that: the Finnish vessel has circled around to a position south of the Russian units (I have gotten confirmation that the pictures are taken from a Finnish naval vessel, and aren’t from Estonian sources). In my opinion, this measured response was likely the best one available. The Navy showed that they knew where the Russian units where, and that they weren’t afraid of maneuvering around in their vicinity to get the best pictures, without showing too much attention (easily interpreted as fear in the face of the Russian show of force).

Exit… Stage Left

The vessels again caused something of a buzz when the question was raised how many of them actually had left the Baltic Sea. According to Russian sources, all Northern Fleet vessels had headed North again, but the pictures used to show this were actually Finnish press photos from the Gulf of Finland. Eventually it became clear that Veliky and Donskoy had left (hat tip to Cornucopia?/Lars Wilderäng), and were indeed northbound. The Kulakov, however, was intercepted by Belgian and British forces while heading south, and no one seems to know where the cruiser Ustinov and the frigate Makarov have went (no one who is ready to tell, that is, I fully expect the defence forces of the countries bordering the Baltic Sea to have proper info on the movement of what might be the strongest vessels currently deployed to our pond). As is well known, the Baltic Fleet has received some significant reinforcements from the Black Sea Fleet earlier as well, and while unlikely, a (semi-)permanent deployment here can’t be ruled out.

A Gust from the South

Like the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Dassault Rafale made a rare visit to Finland earlier this year. However, a significant difference between the two visits was that while the ‘Super Bugs’ were leased by Boeing to take part in two air shows and a short stay at the Finnish Air Force’s research and evaluation facilities at Tampere-Pirkkala, the French fighters arrived as part of normal Armée de l’air operations when they participated in the international Arctic Challenge Exercise. The French contribution was made up by six single-seat Mirage 2000 and three two-seat Rafale B, all of which were based at Rovaniemi AFB in the northern parts of the country for the duration of the exercise.

Rafale B from Escadron de chasse 1/4 ‘Gascogne’ at Rovaniemi during the first day of flight operations of ACE17. Source: Ilmavoimat / Minna Piirainen

The decision to send two-seaters was something which raised my curiosity already as the first pictures of the aircraft touching down started to appear. Luckily, while the Dassault did not bring an aircraft to this year’s Finnish air shows, they did have a nicely sized stand in Helsinki, where I got to sit down and have a chat with company representatives.

Dassault was keen to point out that ACE17 was an air force exercise that they as a manufacturer had no real connection to, they did confirm that the decision was made by AdA to send two-seaters in order to provide familiarisation opportunities. The three Rafales seems to have flown most of the time with a foreign pilot as a backseater, providing a “good opportunity” to show off the aircraft, as Dassault put it.

The choice of squadrons were also interesting. ETR 3/4 ‘Aquitaine’ is the operational conversion unit, responsible for training both AdA and Marine Nationale Rafale air crews, while EC 1/4 ‘Gascogne’ is the land-based strike squadron of the Force de Dissuasion, the French nuclear strike force. The third and final aircraft bore the badge of legendary fighter squadron EC 2/30 ‘Normandie-Niemen’, which is nominally a single-seat Rafale C squadron (focused on ground-attack) but which is known to have operated a handful of two-seaters to assist in the training of younger pilots. Especially the inclusion of the inclusion of the ‘Gascogne’-fighter is interesting. The nuclear strike role means that the squadron places a high emphasis on operations at low level and high speed (down to 60 meters over land and 30 meter over water, at speeds up to Mach 0.9 / 600 knots). While the Rafale’s automatic terrain following system wasn’t likely pushed quite to these limits during ACE17 (due to having a foreign backseater, lack of terrain data of Lappi, and height restrictions during the exercise), it certainly gave an opportunity to show of one of the strong points of the Rafale.

A Rafale being cleared while a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet takes off in the background. Note the MICA IR missile on the port wingtip. The data from the seeker head of this can be fused with the onboard sensors of the aircraft. Source: Ilmavoimat

Dassault assured that the fighter operated without issue over the Finnish north, with the most dramatic episode being a bird strike experienced during a sortie with a French pilot and a foreign backseater. Even this wasn’t too much of an story, as it was only noticed once the plane had landed.

Back to Dassault: While they naturally weren’t able to comment on the details of the request for information related to the Finnish HX-program, they did describe it as “very interesting as far as the opposing power goes”, noting the high-end threat environment the HX has to be able to operate in. As discussed at length last summer in a series of posts, Dassault’s solution to the Finnish request is to emphasise the complete package. “It is not a question of just technical capability”, as Dassault explains. “There’s no golden solution, but a mix of capabilities is needed.” In practice, this means that Dassault strives to develop all parts of the aircraft in conjunction with each other. With an eye towards the other eurocanards adopting the Meteor very-long range missile before integrating AESA-radars, Dassault’s representatives pointed out that they first focus on the sensors, and then integrate the weapons which can take advantage of sensor developments. A complete concept, multirole, and flexibility are the keywords when Dassault tries to sell their fighters.

However, all is not unicorns and roses for the French fighter. Early July, Finnish tabloid Iltalehti published a long article on the earlier Finnish fighter program which eventually lead to the choice of the F/A-18C Hornet. While the analysis was rather poor (see Twitter rant), it did for the first time provide access to the secret memo presented to the politicians outlining the reasoning behind the Air Force favouring the Hornet. Dassault’s offering back then was the Mirage 2000-5, which was the only fighter besides the F/A-18C/D Hornet that was deemed to fulfil the requirements of the Air Force. The MiG-29, JAS 39A/B, and F-16 (my understanding is that the C/D was offered, but I am unsure about exact version) failed to meet the mark. The Mirage 2000-5 is described in the brief as follows:

Mirage 2000-5 fulfils the requirements of the Air Force, but the aircraft’s maintenance system is difficult for us, and life-cycle costs are probably in the higher-end owing to the small user base.

At around the same time as the article was published, impeached Brazilian president Rousseff gave her testimony on the choice of JAS 39E/F Gripen for the Brazilian Air Force. At 1:25 and forward in the video below, she describes the Rafale as having “extremely high” maintenance costs (compared to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and JAS 39E Gripen).

The Rafale is significantly easier to maintain compared to the Mirage 2000, mainly thanks to the automated fault detection software and smarter component layout of the Rafale. In practice, maintenance tasks are further in between and each individual task takes roughly half the time they did on the Mirage. Depot-level maintenance has also disappeared altogether. The Finnish comment from 25 years ago puzzles me. It seems this would indicate some kind of major difference in how maintenance was handled between the US Navy (for the Hornet) and the Armée de l’air (for the Mirage). I am unsure what kind of difference this would have been, and whether it still exists and affects the chances of the Rafale in HX.

Dassault is also looking over how the maintainers are trained, bringing something as rare as a maintenance simulator into play. The Oculus Rift-based software was demonstrated in Finland at the Kaviopuisto Air Show. The idea is that an instructor together with up to ten trainees can inspect a complete colour coded Rafale in virtual reality, where it is possible to move around freely and look at the components being discussed, without being restricted by the size of how many pairs of eyes can look through an open maintenance hatch at the same time. Being able to pass through structures and look at how different components connect together to form the complete system is also a significant benefit. The system has been pioneered on the Dassault Falcon-series of business jets, and is currently being rolled out for Rafale training.

For Rousseff, she obviously has an interest in painting the decision to buy Gripen as a clear-cut case. However, together the two reports does create the impression that this might not be the French fighter’s strongest point after all. I tried to contact Dassault for a comment, but have unfortunately not received a reply (possibly due to summer vacations). This will likely be a point that the blog will return to in the future.

© Dassault Aviation - V. Almansa
A Rafale undergoing landing gear tests during maintenance. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa.

Another point of great interest is the recent carrier-based operations over Syria and Iraq. A great write up on these can be found at the Liveifst-blog by Shiv Aroor who visited the homebase of 11F, one of three Rafale M units, at Landivisiau. An interesting tidbit is the description of a mission by two Rafale M to intercept and record the attack mode of the Su-33’s N001K radar when the carrier-borne fighters were operating of the Admiral Kuznetsov over Syria in 2016. The mission eventually ended in success, with the Rafale’s integrated SPECTRA electronic warfare system now featuring yet another radar mode in it’s library.

An SDV goes Gävle

So it seems that approximately once a year there is some kind of more serious unexplained underwater activity in Finnish or Swedish waters. On 29 June it was the port of Gävle’s turn to be at the centre of attention.

Following dredging works in the main sea lane leading into the port, a hydrographic survey was made. As is usually the case when measuring small areas where high precision is needed, a measuring frame was pulled under the water at the correct depth (for simplicity, think of a welded frame being pulled at a constant depth, indicating if it hits something). At the very inlet of the port this indicated some kind of “anomaly”, and it was decided to scan the plot with a multibeam sonar. The area was then scanned between 11:00 and noon, after which followed a lunch break during which the scans were studied closer. It was then that the crew thought that the shape looked “boat like”, and after lunch the area was rescanned around 13:00. The “anomaly” was still there, and the survey vessel ran a few laps around it. The vessel then went to get divers, and when the divers arrived around 14:00 the anomaly wasn’t visible on the multibeam sonar any longer.

The object is described as around 12 meters in length, and roughly 3 meters high.

Gävle skiss
A rough skiss of the general dimensions of the anomaly based on the imagery released by SVT. The object seems to cast a shadow towards one of the sides, which according to my understanding is normal for this kind of sounding equipment. Source: Own work

It does seem clear that it was some kind of a underwater vehicle. It was observed by professionals, using proper equipment, and observed numerous times before disappearing. It should also be noted that the location meant that if it had been there for any longer periods of time, it would have been hit by a passing merchant vessel.

The obvious next question is what kind of a vessel it could have been. It does seem to feature a quite pronounced passenger bay, meaning that it is likely a ‘wet’ swimmer delivery vehicle, SDV, in which divers sit with their gear on, and not a ‘proper’ midget submarine. There are two (likely) operators of these in the Baltic Sea: Russia, and Sweden.

Russia (probably) uses the Triton-NN, which rose to fame during the Swedish sub-hunt a few years back when it featured heavily in the speculations. Here there’s the obvious point that Gävle was mentioned by Gerasimov in April as part of a staging area, as discussed on the blog earlier, and as such it is likely the target of some form of intelligence gathering efforts.

A more likely candidate, however, seems to be the Swedish JFD SEAL Carrier, which the company has confirmed it has delivered to the Swedish Defence Forces. The likely user is the combat divers Attackdykarna, thought within the Swedish Defence Forces there are also other potential operators under the surface, such as the special forces (SOG), underwater clearance teams (Röjdykare), and even certain army engineers practice diving.

Compare the general dimensions of the SEAL Carrier to the skiss above. The vessel is 10,5 m long, with a width of 2,21 m. The stern is sloping (tumblehome, left side of the picture), while the bow is more sharply built with the crew/passenger compartment being the open bay close to the bow. Perhaps the most significant feature is the round object to the left of the centreline just aft of the passenger compartment. This location matches the location of the snorkel on the SEAL Carrier. As it happens, the Triton NN is more or less an mirror-image of this design, with a car-like bow and a passenger-compartment towards the (straight) stern. There is also a snorkel mounted on the right-side in front of the passenger compartment, but the proportions doesn’t seem to match as well.

As such, my impression is that this is an example of the Swedish Navy’s combat divers being accidentally found during one of their unannounced exercises. As such, the outcome of the incident is probably not much worse than that someone has to buy someone else a round of drinks. Keep calm, and carry on!

Points to @covertshores, who I believe was the first one to point out the similarities to the SEAL Carrier.

Review: Ghost Fleet

Let’s get the obvious comparison out of the way: Yes, Ghost Fleet is Red Storm Rising set in the Pacific in the late 2020’s. Some have made the comparison sounding like it would detract something from Ghost Fleet, which I find a bit odd. The novel is made up of a number of individual stories, which follows the main cast of the book. These are usually not interconnected in any way, and while some of the story lines run through the entire book, others are brief individual scenes. All in all, the book fits nicely into what has by now become the expected format of large-scale techno-thrillers. It worked in the eighties, it still works today, and while it might not score any points for creative writing, I don’t see any issues with it.


The subtitle of the book is “A novel of the Next World War”, and that is where it stands out. While there is a continuous stream of think-tank reports and studies about potential conflicts, few of these capture how a conflict would look at the individual level. A novel offer the opportunity to take a different angle, without the demands of academic verifiability. That is not to say that Ghost Fleet is science fiction, the book does include a nice list of sources to all concepts and systems described which aren’t yet operational. Some of these feel more outlandish than others, but as always that will largely depend upon personal taste and preferences.

Being set in the Pacific theatre, the main focus is naturally on the air and sea theatre, with space and cyber also playing important roles. The fighting on land is largely a question of small-scale infantry skirmishes (some exceptions apply, but don’t expect any major tank battles). The political game is featured, but does feel more shallow, and some key elements are brushed over without going into details. At times this feels rushed, but some trade-offs have to be made in order to keep the number of pages down, and I understand that from my Eurocentric viewpoint I have a slight bias towards stuff happening here versus what’s happening in the Pacific (one of the few factual mistakes I found in the book concerned Poles not knowing their own 20th century history. Still, that’s minutiae and not really an immersion-breaker).

More annoying was the unhidden contempt for the F-35 and LCS. There are valid points of criticism for both projects, but the portrayal in the book does feel like an attempt to score cheap laughs. Especially in the case of the F-35, it does feel like the authors expect that the plane would not mature at all in the fifteen years between when the book was written and when it takes place. The issue becomes even more evident when contrasted to how the USS Zumwalt, arguably the star of the book, is described. Here the weaknesses of the vessel are discussed, but so are the strengths.

As a novel, the book doesn’t stand out. It does pick up towards the end when most of stage setting is done and the full focus can be on the developing story. Some of the characters remain stereotypes of the genre, and on the whole the character development largely failed to catch my interest for any prolonged periods of time. What did catch me was the developments on the frontline, including the story of the Zumwalt, while the problems of outsourced supply chains and a dependency on imported components are presented in a thought-provoking way.

As is probably evident by now, my feelings about Ghost Fleet are somewhat mixed. The book as a whole did keep up my fascinated. I did happily keep turning the pages until reaching the end, and at the end of the day, I do think it is worth a read for it’s thought-provoking ideas and well-researched storytelling.

The New Bug in Town – Navy Fighters Ashore

Carrier-based fighters have traditionally had a hard time keeping up with their land-based counterparts. Carrier operations put greater strains on the aircraft, as the shorter take-off and landing places higher stress on the airframe in general and the landing gear in particular. In the same way, the arrestor and catapult gear adds further weight, while space restrictions usually demand folding wings and other mechanisms to allow it to pass through elevators and occupy a smaller footprint while parked.

However, there are a number of classic designs which have been able to defeat this traditional axiom. These include the F-4 Phantom II (which was produced in a number of non-carrier versions) and the A-4 Skyhawk (one of the few modern carrier-based aircraft small enough to not need wing-folding), and crucially for HX, the F/A-18 Hornet.

The background of the Hornet is well-known, having started it’s life as the YF-17 ‘Cobra’, losing the LWF-competition to the F-16, then being developed further to the F/A-18 for the US Navy VFAX program. Interestingly enough, it was soon clear that F-16 (in early versions) didn’t meet the expectations of all potential customers, and a niche for the twin-engined Hornet could be found. A dedicated land-based version was created in the form of the Northrop F-18L, but in the end it was the baseline carrier-versions which came to score a number of export successes, with seven nations ending up choosing the ‘Bug’ over the competition.

For Finland, in an interesting cross-over of requirement, much of the carrier-specific equipment was actually in line with the requirements placed by the Finnish dispersed operations from road bases. Short runways, rough landings, space restrictions, little support equipment, and limited number of ground crew working on the aircraft are all similarities that make the rugged airframes and landing gears more of a benefit than a nuisance. The end result has been that the Hornet has provided stellar service in Finnish colours, having been able to adapt to Finnish road bases with ease. The use of a carrier-spec hook (not to be confused with the emergency hooks used by land-based fighters) to reduce braking distances has also been a big benefit. Somewhat surprisingly both Dassault and Lockheed-Martin have indicated that they will focus on the baseline Rafale C and F-35A respectively, leaving the Super Hornet the only fighter in the game able to use arrestor wires for breaking on a regular basis.

While all manufacturers have stated that their fighters are able to handle road bases without problems, Super Hornet and the JAS 39E Gripen are the ones with the pedigree to put more credibility behind the claims. Boeing is also the one to have their complete organisation already in place, having established working routines with the Finnish Air Force and local industrial partners as part of current Hornet-operations. When discussing the lack of a visible marketing campaign, this was something drawn upon by Boeing, who explained that they like to work closely with the customer and prove the capabilities of the aircraft directly to them. While this “more doing, less talking” attitude is exactly how any marketing executive would explain a perceived lack of publicity, it should not be ruled out that this actually is what Boeing has been doing, given the close association with Boeing Defence and the Finnish Air Force.

Interestingly, the F/A-18E/F shares around 50-60% of their support and maintenance equipment with the ‘legacy’ Hornets. While part of the equipment currently in use by the Finnish Air Force is likely starting to show their age and will have to be replaced in any case, this does still leave room for significant savings as well as for the possibility of staggering the procurements of maintenance equipment. Not having to buy a complete set of tools on day one is not only nice for the initial buy, but also means that throughout the lifespan of the aircraft instances of massed obsolescences amongst the support equipment should be rarer, smoothing out the operating costs during the life cycle. There’s also no need for major investment in fixed infrastructure (such as electrical systems or air supplies), as all Finnish air bases are equipped for handling the F/A-18C/D. As Boeing’s Bryan Crutchfield put it, “If a Hornet flies there today, a Super Hornet can fly there tomorrow”. This has also been practiced by the US Navy, which during carrier operations on occasion has swapped out Hornet-squadrons for Super Hornet ones at short notice (though granted the US Navy does have maintenance equipment for both ‘legacy’ and Super Hornets on their carriers).

Life-cycle costs are something that Boeing likes to talk about. To win the Finnish order the Super Hornet, like the Hornet before it, would have to defeat lighter fighters which have lower flyaway unit costs. The Super Hornet currently has the lowest cost per flight hour for all US tactical aircraft, including the F-16. While the comparison is somewhat skewed to the benefit of the Super Hornet as the Super Hornet fleet generally is the youngest of the active US fighters (with the exception of the F-35), it is still remarkable for a twin-engined naval fighter to top the list. Add in the savings in infrastructure and maintenance, and the life-cycle cost for a Finnish Super Hornet might be very competitive.

Visiting F/A-18E (right) and F/A-18F (left) Super Hornets at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB for trials and familiarisation flights a few weeks ago. Source: Finnish Air Force

The synergies doesn’t stop there, as there is also a clear benefit when it comes to transferring pilots and ground crew from the F/A-18C/D to the F/A-18E/F. Making current Finnish Air Force personnel dual-qualified could be handled in a matter of weeks, and all training could take place in Finland. This is not only a question of transferring the people serving in 2025 when the first HX-fighters are slated to arrive in Finland, but “the Finnish Air Force will have a two aircraft fleet for a number of years”, as Bryan Crutchfield notes. In practice, the current Hornets and their replacement could serve side-by-side for up to five years, if the Air Force decides to maintain the Hornets until HX reaches full operational capability around 2030. This was also the case with the Hornet, where the first F/A-18D and C were delivered to the Finnish Air Force in 1995 and 1996 respectively, with the Draken finally being withdrawn in 2000 (the MiG-21 having left service two years earlier). As such, the argument about ease of transitioning from the Hornet to Super Hornet deserves more credibility than it has usually received, with the benefits tapering off towards 2030 and not 2025 as usually argued.

Of the eight countries which bought the ‘legacy’ Hornet, two already operate the Super Hornet (USA and Australia), two are likely going to operate it (Kuwait and Canada), with Switzerland, Spain and the minor operator Malaysia not looking like likely Super Hornet buyers. This leaves Finland, and many of the arguments which made us choose the Hornet are still perfectly valid today. However, where the F/A-18C Hornet armed with the AIM-120 AMRAAM was clearly the most advanced of the fighters being offered, the Super Hornet faces stiffer competition from both sides of the Atlantic. Traditionally, the Finnish Defence Forces have been rather conservative, favouring tried and tested systems before the new and unproven. Time will tell if Boeing can convince the Air Force that taking what has been a very successful concept and cranking up the dials to eleven is the best way forward, or if a more radical change is warranted.

The New Bug in Town – Versions for Finland

One issue that has been open to much speculation is exactly which version(s) of the Super Hornet will be offered to Finland. The answer was simple, with Bryan Crutchfield explaining that it was up to the customer, and: “As a mainly single-seat air force, I would expect Finland to primarily be interested in F/A-18E.” This lead to the natural follow-up question, why the equally mainly single-seat Royal Danish Air Force was offered only the two-seat F/A-18F, a decision which proved to be something of a decisive issue in the Kampfly-program. “Because they only asked for the two-seater,” Bryan explained. On the question of why, he had no direct answer, but this is yet another strange data point in the already rather murky Danish affair.

CAG bird
The CAG-bird of VFA-103 ‘Jolly Rogers’. The squadron operates two-seat F/A-18F, with a focus on different kinds of ground attack missions where a second crew member comes in handy. For Finland, a small number of F/A-18F would likely be acquired for advanced training, with a secondary fighter/strike tasking. Source: Own picture

More interesting then was that Boeing seemed to assume that Finland would be interested in a number of Growlers as well. In the case of the US Navy, roughly 20% of the Super Hornets bought are of the electronic warfare version, meaning that a potential Finnish mix of Super Hornets could be something along the lines of 40 F/A-18E single-seaters, 12 F/A-18F two-seaters, and 12 EA-18G Growlers, for a combined fleet of 64 fighters. When asked about if the ‘full-spec’ Growler is likely to be released for sale to Finland, Crutchfield was careful not to make any promises, noting that any sale would be a government-to-government deal. However, he went on to say that Finland appears to be a “very trusted” partner in Washington, and pointed to JASSM-deal as an indication that if Finland wants the Growler, there likely wouldn’t be any issues.

The Growler in many ways is an unrivalled platform in the electronic warfare role, being able to not only jam and destroy enemy radars and air-defence systems, but also having a significant capability when it comes to intercepting and jamming enemy communications and signals. The latter has made it a valuable resource in the operations against ISIS, and it is safe to assume that if Finland would acquire a handful of dedicated EW-platforms, it would make us a sought after coalition partner in the kind of low-intensity conflicts we have participated in in Afghanistan and Iraq. The question then is largely about the price of acquiring and operating the Growlers, as well as what kind of a loss having only 40 instead of 52 F/A-18E’s would be in the eyes of the Air Force Command. While the size reduction in ‘true’ fighters is significant, the role of the Growlers as force multipliers might provide a huge enough boost for both the Air Force and, crucially, to the ground forces to warrant this. As said, this is not solely a question of providing SEAD, but also of the Growlers being able to increase the fog of war for the enemy at crucial moments.

“Envelop the enemy in the fog of war, sow confusion while providing time and space for one’s own forces. Jam the adversaries’ radars. Disrupt his communications. Induce indecision; make the enemy question his own equipment and make mistakes.”The mission of the Growler as described by the Growler Industry Team

But even without the Growler, the baseline F/A-18E/F is a highly versatile multirole aircraft. “The most capable combat-proven multi-role aircraft”, as Boeing likes to put it (a statement that will upset the French). In addition to ‘normal’ air-to-air and air-to-ground work, the aircraft is able to handle both the maritime strike (Boeing did feature a scale model of a Harpoon anti-ship missile in their stand) as well as SEAD, two missions discussed at length in the Finnish report at the launch of the HX-project. What makes the SEAD-mission possible is the Integrated Defensive Electronic Countermeasures (IDECM)-package, currently in its Block IV state, coupled with the ‘leakage’ of technology developed for the Growler back into the fighter version of the aircraft.

“Physics matter,” Crutchfield sums up the sensor package, and point towards the large nose of the F/A-18E parked behind us during the interview. The nose hoses the AN/APG-79 AESA radar built by Raytheon, and Crutchfield isn’t shy when talking about the capabilities of the radar, stating that it is ‘generations’ in front of the competition, with rolling upgrades being introduced every two years. It should be remembered that the AN/APG-79 did experience some rather significant teething troubles when first introduced into service, though things seems to have gotten better since. One of the key features of the AESA is that it allows the pilot of the F/A-18F to stay fully focused on the air-to-air picture, while the weapon system operator (WSO) in the aft seat works on the air-to-ground view, with both having access to the radar modes they want.

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Deployment
A colorful EA-18G Growler of Electronic Attack Squadron 130 (VAQ-130) “Zappers” onboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) in the Arabian Sea. The squadron operated in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the operations against ISIS. Note the large jammer on the centreline station, the carriage of which is one of the distinguishing features of the Growler compared to the baseline F/A-18F. Source: USN / Seaman Dartez C. Williams via Wikimedia Commons

Like the ‘legacy’ Hornet before it, the Super Hornet is qualified for a large number of weapons, including the most recent versions of the venerable AIM-9 Sidewinder, the AGM-88 HARM, and the AIM-120 AMRAAM (these being the AIM-9X, AGM-88E AARGM, and the AIM-120D respectively). On the horizon the SDB-II and the LRASM looms, while more exotic munitions include the Quickstrike-series of air-dropped mines. Which of these would be of interest to the Finnish Air Force is uncertain, but a continued reliance on ever more advanced versions of the AIM-9/-120 combination would be a natural choice for the immediate future. The big deficit is the lack of the very-long range Meteor ramjet-powered missile, which all other HX-contenders are set to have received prior to HX’s IOC date. The US Navy seems content with traditional rocket-powered air-to-air weapons at the moment, and while Finland naturally could pay for Meteor integration on its own, that would still make be a considerable sum. Going for the Super Hornet could then mean having to get closer to the enemy before firing, as there is a significant difference in the size of the no-escape zones of the throttleable ramjet motor compared to traditional rockets.

The New Bug in Town – Back in the Game

When first starting to cover the HX-program, I held the JAS 39E Gripen and F-35A Lightning II as the favourites, with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as the potential black horse. Since that, I have questioned the chances of the ‘Super Bug’, mainly based on two different issues.

The first has been the lack of a major road map or upgrade. The first Advanced Super Hornet-concept was displayed already in 2013 with a company-funded prototype. This was then gradually replaced by less ambitious proposals and talk about integrating only some of the features demonstrated by the Advanced Super Hornet. The US Navy, however, didn’t seem too interested in either the 2013 or the 2016 version of the concepts.

The other has been the seemingly low priority given to the Finnish program by Boeing. Compared to the Danish Kampfly-program where Boeing launched a serious marketing effort (and eventually took the whole thing to court), Boeing has been remarkably absent from the public spotlight in Finland.

Both of these changed last week, with the US Navy ordering the Block III-upgrade to the fleet’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers, and Boeing making a high-profile appearance at two Finnish air shows in Helsinki on Friday and Seinäjoki on Saturday and Sunday. Not only did Boeing manage to bring two Super Hornets to Finland, but I also got the opportunity to have a chat with senior manager Bryan Crutchfield to get a better picture of the company’s effort to keep their position as Finland’s supplier of fighter aircraft.

The two fighters brought to Finland were a F/A-18F two-seater and a F/A-18E single-seater. While the single-seater was from the distinguished US Navy squadron VFA-143 Pukin’ Dogs of Vietnam MiG-killer fame, it was the two-seater that really got the heads turning. This was nothing less than the brightly-painted CAG-bird of VFA-103 Jolly Rogers, perhaps the most famous naval fighter aircraft in the world. Getting the opportunity to see both the F/A-18E and the F/A-18F in low-level formation was something many Finnish aviation enthusiasts were happy to experience.

Super Bug Formation
Two Super Hornets in formation over the Gulf of Finland. A rare sight, at least for now. Source: Own picture

Back on the ground, the F/A-18E spent Saturday as a Boeing demonstrator with temporary markings and mock-up conformal fuel tanks, before reverting back to a Block II F/A-18E for Sunday, and continuing on to Pirkkala AFB (Tampere) where they spent the early part of the week offering the Air Force an opportunity to study the aircraft closer. Pirkkala is home to Satakunta Air Command, responsible for the development of tactics and air doctrines as well as handling flight testing and playing a “pivotal role in the development and fielding of new systems”. This is something of a marketing victory for Boeing, as they are the first to offer the Air Force this kind of a chance to get to explore the aircraft on their home turf and according to their own wishes, guided by the company’s own test pilots.

While the Block III might be toned down when it comes to RCS reduction compared to the original Advanced Super Hornet, this is a calculated decision by Boeing. “The Super Hornet Block I reached initial operational capability back in 2001, when stealth was the hot stuff”, Bryan Crutchfield explains. “This means that the aircraft is designed with stealth features, but so are all the other contenders, so that’s nothing special.” Instead, Boeing likes to focus their energy on other measures, such as jamming. According to their view, jamming provides a flexibility that stealth does not, i.e. you are not restricted to a certain waveband, while at the same time avoiding compromises when it comes to aerodynamics and space restrictions. This means that while stealth might hold significant benefits today, the question whether it will in 2050 is far more uncertain given the current development of sensors with the specific goal of countering X-band stealth.

The US Navy also seems to be happy with this dual-pronged approach, as there are currently no plans to let the F-35 replace the Super Hornet. Instead, the two will keep operating side-by-side into the foreseeable future, with the F-35C replacing the ‘legacy’ F/A-18A through D Hornets currently sharing the carrier decks with the Super Hornet. Exactly how long this will last is anyone’s guess, as the US Navy only forecasts around 25 years into the future (contrary to many other air arms), and there’s currently no retirement date set. Boeing, however, expects the Super Hornet to continue in US Navy service to around 2060, in line with (and then some) the plans for HX. In part this is based on a forecasted need for 100+ new Super Hornets being bought by the Navy within then next five years, with these being expected to serve their full lifespan.

What does Block III then hold? The biggest external change is the conformal fuel tanks, which provide added fuel capacity at a lower drag and RCS compared to traditional external fuel tanks, and without occupying hardpoints that could be used for weapons or other pods. However, as is usually the case with these kinds of upgrades, the main changes are on the inside. One major improvement is the increase in bandwidth when transmitting and receiving data to and from other aircraft. This has become an increasingly important issue, as more and more sensor data and imagery are being transmitted between not only fighters, but other friendly units and installations as well.

Block 3.JPG
The Pukin’ Dogs F/A-18E Super Hornet as a makeshift Block III demonstrator, sporting mock-up conformal fuel tanks. Source: Own picture

Another important upgrade is the fitting of an IRST. IR-sensors are nothing new to US Navy fighters, having featured them on a number of occasions throughout history. However, it is only now they really start to come into their own as mature sensor systems. Part of this is because the sensors themselves have matured, but a part also comes from sensor fusion making it easier for the pilot to take in data not coming from the aircraft’s primary sensor.

And speaking of taking in data, a huge improvement is the new large area display replacing the earlier smaller multi-function displays. The display not only means more surface area on which to show information to the pilot, but also makes a higher degree of customisation possible, based on either individual preferences or the type of mission currently being flown. It is as an example possible to now have both the air-to-air and air-to-ground pictures up on the screen at the same time, thanks to the AN/APG-79 AESA radar and the huge screen area available.

The customisation also makes changes to the human-machine interface quicker, a key focus as the increasing number of sensors and data received from other platforms puts ever increasing demands on the pilots to be able to process large amounts of information. Boeing described how they run simulator tests with a group of around sixty active pilots who came in and tested an upcoming update. After having gathered their feedback, Boeing sent them out for lunch, and the software engineers started to make quick changes which allowed for a second run of testing by the same pilots the very same afternoon. Adaptability is the name of Boeing’s game, and they are increasingly moving away from bigger occasional updates to regular smaller ones.