In a long-awaited move, the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command yesterday sent out the RFQ for a new ground-based air defence system “with a high ceiling”. The corresponding RFI went out in 2018, and under the current schedule the procurement will be finalised before the end of 2022 and the system will become operational during the latter half of the 20’s.
For a more general overview of the current state of the Finnish high-end ground based air defences (and why we won’t acquire an anti-ballistic missile capability), I recommend that you check out my sub-chapter on Finland in the FOI anthology “Beyond Bursting Bubbles“, but the long story short is that Finland acquired the Buk-M1 in the late 1990’s as part of a deal to cover the Russian debt stemming from the Soviet clearing accounts. Unfortunately, worries about the ability of Russia to counter the system meant that they had to be retired quite soon thereafter, with the last conscripts training on the system in 2005. Exactly when (if?) the system was withdrawn is unclear, but it seems to have survived in (limited?) service past Crimea.
In any case, a replacement system was acquired under what would become the ITO12 procurement, which saw SAMP/T and NASAMS II face off in a competition won by the NASAMS. The reason behind the choice was bluntly described by then Chief of Defence, Admiral Kaskeala:
Do we buy one Cadillac or four Volvos?
In any case, the ‘Volvo’ has scored a number of successes around the world, and is generally seen as a potent system, but one that suffers from short range due to the poor performance of its AIM-120C AMRAAM missile when fired from a ground-based launcher. Janes lists it as having an estimated max range of 20 km, though this is partially offset by the launchers being able to be placed up to 25 km out from the fire direction centre (FDC). The ceiling is rather uncertain, with The Drive mentioning 50,000 feet (15,000+ meters), but on the other hand then-Finnish inspector of the ground-based air defences, colonel Sami-Antti Takamaa, in an interview in 2018 stated that the new system (which should be able to go significantly higher than NASAMS) should have a ceiling of 8,000 to 15,000 meters. There’s likely an apples-to-pears situation in the numbers above, with Takamaa referencing the effective engagement altitudes which are quite a bit below the theoretical maximum.
However, for most situations the maximum specifications isn’t as interesting as other factors. The ability to deploy the systems with the launchers dispersed, the active seeker of the missiles, modularity, and the modern C4I architecture are of greater value. However, the fact that the NASAMS would lose in top trumps against the system it replaced means that there is a gap above the coverage provided by Finnish SAMs, and one that can only be covered by fighters.
This leads us to the current ITSUKO-program, where throughout the focus has been on increasing the air defence capabilities at high altitude. This is interesting, as most countries discuss their different classes of SAM’s in terms of range rather than ceiling, and clearly shows which operational problem the FDF is trying to solve. Obviously, with increased ceiling comes increased range (though one shouldn’t think of the effective engagement zone as a half-sphere above ground, as the routes chosen by modern missiles and the physics involved makes things a bit more complex than that), but this is largely seen as a secondary bonus. In the earlier quoted article, major general (engineering) Kari Renko of the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command explained that “Increased territorial coverage means that we have more batteries operational”, and struck down the notion that a meaningful increase in territorial coverage could be achieved solely by increasing the range. In effect, this is due to the large area of Finland, which means that the difference in coverage between differently ranged systems, especially at low range, is small enough that it is negligible at the operational or strategic level.
Here it is good to remember that as none of the current systems are to be replaced, the number of operational batteries will in fact go up. This in turn means that, in the words of current inspector of the ground-based air defences, colonel Mikko Mäntynen, the “fighters will get a higher degree of freedom”. While this is all good and true, there is a nagging feeling that this might be an attempt to cover for the fact that HX won’t reach 64 fighters. Let’s hope that feeling is unfounded…
The news yesterday was that the field competing has been cut down by half. Of the ten companies that received the RFI in 2018, five are still in the competition bidding for the role as prime contractors. These are Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace (KDA), Diehl Defence, MBDA, Rafael, and IAI. Missing from the list are all American companies, as well as Swedish defence company Saab whose RBS 23 lacks the punch to compete in this race (note though that Janes gives the max altitude as 15,000 meters, again showing that 15,000 meters max doesn’t necessarily mean that your system can effectively handle engagements at 8,000 to 15,000 meters). However, it is entirely possible that Saab appears as a subcontractor in some of the bids, as their Giraffe 4A radar has had a tendency to do so in other places. Raytheon is a long-term active partner to KDA, and it is no surprise that they are confirmed to be working together with them here as well (even if rumours had hinted at them also bidding separately as a prime, presumably with the MIM-104 Patriot). Another of Raytheon’s joint programs might also show up…
Of those bidding, Diehl is without doubt the odd one out. As far as I am aware of, Diehl has nothing bigger than the IRIS-T SLS (which recently entered Swedish service as the RBS 98). Being based on a short-range IIR air-to-air missile, it suffers from a 5,000 meter ceiling (again according to Janes), leaving it even shorter-legged than the NASAMS. To be completely honest, I have no idea about what Diehl is planning to offer.
Yes, it is extremely confusunf, especially with Diehl using SL to refer to both SLS and SLM! Here's a picture of the two missiles side by side to illustrate the differences pic.twitter.com/x2wywmzae0
Edit 30 October: Diehl in fact has a longer-ranged version. There is quite a bit of confusion in their designations in open sources (I’ve e.g. seen SL, SLS, and SLM all refer to just different launchers firing the same IRIS-T missile, and I’ve even seen the Swedish EldE 98 referred to as SLM!). However, Diehl’s SLM is in fact a rather different missile with a seriously longer range thanks to a larger rocket and an aerodynamic nosecone that pops off once the target is within range of the missile’s IIR-seeker. This dual-mode (firing solution and early tracking being provided by radar and datalink until switching to final guidance by IIR) is rather interesting and could potentially be more difficult to spoof compared to more traditional solutions. The missile has been test-fired successfully, but the operational status seems to be rather uncertain. Thanks to f-pole for clearing things up!
KDA is the obvious favourite, being able to offer the AMRAAM-ER for the NASAMS-system. The AMRAAM-ER in essence combine booster of the ESSM and the front unit of the AMRAAM to produce a completely new missile with “50% increase in range and a 70% increase in altitude” compared to the current AIM-120C-7.
In other words, KDA can simply offer more of a system already in service with the Finnish Army, but with ability to use either the shorter-legged AMRAAM or the longer-legged AMRAAM-ER according to need. The modularity of the NASAMS also means that integrating a host of other missiles is possible, should the FDF be so inclined (spoiler alert: they’re probably not). That kind of synergy effects could very well be hard to beat, but the competition isn’t giving up without a fight.
As noted earlier on the blog, MBDA has had a surprisingly difficult time in landing any major contract with the FDF. The obvious system for them to offer is the Land Ceptor/CAMM-ER. The missile is an operational system with the British Army and the specifications on paper seems to be a good match, but it is difficult to see it outmatching the stiff competition.
The question about what the two Israeli companies will offer is more open. Rafael is able to offer the SPYDER, which is a truck running around with a bunch of missiles on its back. It offers the ability to fire both the Python 5 highly-manoeuvrable short-range IIR-missile, but also the Derby longer-ranged missile. The overall concept is rather similar to that of the NASAMS, with a modern C4I architecture and air-to-air missiles adopted for ground-based use, and while not as prolific as the NASAMS it has scored a few export successes from serious customers such as Singapore. However, most numbers found in open sources seem to indicate that the SPYDER lacks the range and ceiling to be able to offer a meaningful improvement over the current NASAMS. This would in turn mean that the system offered is the David’s Sling, which uses a two-stage Stunner-missile (also known as the SkyCeptor). The missile is perhaps best known internationally as the PAAC-4 missile for the US Patriot-system, which is a joint program between Rafael and Raytheon to produce a significantly cheaper missile with better performance compared to the current PAC-3 that is used for anti-ballistic missile work with the Patriot battery. The Stunner is designed from the outset to be able to easily integrate into other systems, meaning that it is possible that the weapon could communicate better than some of the competition with the current systems found in the Finnish integrated air defence network. Still, it does feel that the ABM-capable is a bit of overkill in a competition against missiles such AMRAAM-ER and CAMM-ER (remember that several high-ranking officials and generals at different times have shot down the idea that Finland would be interesting in pursuing a real ABM-capability), unless the offer really is one we can’t refuse.
IAI has a more varied, and at least on paper, more suitable range of weapons, with the BARAK-series being the logical contender. This include a range of missiles, with the BARAK-LRAD missile being the most likely version on offer here. This is part of the general BARAK MX-system, and is developed in parallel with the BARAK 8 for the Indian Navy. Crucially, IAI’s Elta-division has a large portfolio of radars (including the ELM-2311 C-MMR which was recently acquired by the FDF for use as a counter-battery radar), and as such it would be interesting to see which radars they would pair with their interceptor for the bid.
Twice each year, the Finnish Defence Forces kicks off several simultaneous local defence exercises. In accordance with their names, these are local in their nature, and “will develop local defence readiness and combat capability, as well as inter-authority cooperation in rapidly evolving situations” according to the latest presser. General Timo Kivinen, Chief of the Finnish Defence Forces, described the trends that led to the local exercises becoming a staple of the FDF’s calendar as follows:
The threat scenarios of today’s world are really multifaceted […] and when the set of available tools is wide, no single authority can handle all of them by themselves […] and for this we need inter-authority cooperation to take care of these threat pictures, and that is what we are practising here. The exercise is built with cases, and each case has one lead agency which the others then support.
The latest round featured Kokkola 20, centered around my hometown that also lent its name to the exercise. With large-scale military exercises being a rarity in Ostrobothnia these days, I naturally was determined to see what the fuss was all about.
The preparations have been going on for a few years already, with not only the FDF playing a key part, but also the local Police, other emergency services, the Finnish Border Guard, and the city itself all being among the main players. The chief executive officer of the Central Ostrobothnia and Pietarsaari Region Emergency Services Department, Jaakko Pukkinen, went as far as to describe it as the “Broadest inter-authority exercise the region has seen.” The elephant in the room was obviously the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought some additional challenges. “We train for exceptional times during exceptional times” the representative for the local police, chief inspector Vesa Toivanen, wryly noted. He was using the Finnish term “poikkeusolot”, which both describe exceptional times generally but also hold the specific legal meaning of a declared state of emergency. The sentiment was echoed by the city’s chief executive, Stina Mattila, who noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has again showed that you can never be too prepared. The third major authority sorting under the Ministry of Interior was the Finnish Border Guard. The FBG also include the coast guard as an integral part, with the latter obviously being the focus of the FBG’s presence in the region. The FBG has a set of military missions as well, and here their part of the exercise was leaning towards their “military” mission set.
The military forces taking part in the exercise in effect were made up of three different components: conscript military police units (mainly from the Pori Brigade), mobilised reserve military police units on a refresher exercise, and the local defence units (Fi. Paikallisjoukot). The Pori Brigade, being one of the country’s most important peacetime units and the “local” unit for a large part of Western Finland including Kokkola, served as the host unit responsible for the exercise.
Kokkola and this region does not constitute some kind of a military vacuum.
That’s how colonel Riku Suikkanen, second in command of the Pori Brigade and exercise lead, put it during the media event leading up to the exercise. A key part of the exercise include it being a high-visibility one, making sure that the population still feel that the FDF is there despite the drawdown in peacetime bases and training locations around the country. And as the colonel noted, the soldiers descending upon the town are no strangers.
Our daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers are those out training.
As the exact duties and setup of military police units varies with country, it can be good to shortly describe the Finnish military police force. This was done well in a recent podcast by the FDF’s own podcast series, Radio Kipinä, so those with a working knowledge of Finnish are recommended to check that out. In short, a Finnish military police is an infantry soldier that has received additional training in security and guard duty. This include a host of different skills, ranging from non-lethal ways to stop and capture an intruder to understanding the legal framework that the FDF work with when it comes to protecting its infrastructure, people, and activities. The exact skill sets vary between peacetime garrisons, all of which sport some kind of military police unit on their premises, but in general it can be noted that military police travel relatively light, prioritising operational mobility over protection, and that they often (but not always) have a better understanding of and training for combat in an urban environment thanks to their focus on infrastructure protection (the obvious outlier is the Guard Jaeger Regiment, with the whole mother unit being the FDF’s prime urban warfare centre means that their military police units are also the most highly specialised urban warriors compared to other military police conscripts). In wartime, military police units can function as part of a larger formation, in which case they would fill a light infantry role. A more traditional role that is closely related to that of security and protection duty is counter-special forces. To some extent all military police units can perform the mission, though some receive additional training in the field. For the Pori Brigade, the most notable unique feature of their military police units is that they offer dog handler training to conscripts, something that no other Finnish unit does.
Back to Kokkola 20. With the military police playing main fiddle together with the local defence units, it meant that military part of the exercise was rather infantry heavy compared to some of the others which sported a more combined arms approach. Besides this, the question obviously arose why Kokkola was chosen to host the exercise. As such, I headed over to Port Tower, the gateway to the local Port of Kokkola, where I got to sit down together with a few other representatives of local media to ask general Kivinen some questions about the exercise. Entering the parking lot of the titanium zinc clad tower where I’ve eaten lunch numerous times, the flurry of exercise activity was immediately obvious. In the treeline (ironically enough the former grounds of the FDF’s gunsmith school) trucks and tents were set up, with small groups of soldiers having taken position at set locations to keep a watchful eye on the heavy traffic heading to and from the port. Entering the building yet more uniforms were visible, and a quick glance around confirmed that they included all FDF categories taking part in the exercise – conscripts, professionals, local and non-local reservists.
With earlier exercises having taken place in nearby Vaasa and Seinäjoki, coming to Kokkola serves dual purposes in that it both lets a significant number of FDF personnel familiarise themselves with local conditions, but it also ensure that the locals get to familiarise themselves with FDF. As could be guessed from the location of the interview, much of the discussion centred around the port. The port is able to handle capesize vessels, and is the most important port in Finland when it comes to bulk cargo as well as rail- and transit cargo, as well as the third largest general cargo port. Without discussing the details of threat scenario in the exercise, there was no hiding the fact that the port was of great interest.
In general when you think about ports they are key nodes in the logistics chain, and as such their importance in case of a serious crisis or in a terrorism related case they would be potential locations where the Finnish authorities would need a readiness to be able to react.
The general also noted that a crisis in the Baltic Sea proper would lead to an increased importance for the ports in the Gulf of Bothnia. As such, it is of interest to ensure that the different authorities can not only communicate with each other, but that they are able to share a common situational picture and coordinate their activities in case of a major crisis. The general noted that in the case of Central Ostrobothnia, the last two issues seems to be the challenging part, as while the other authorities are well-known to each other and have exercised together earlier, FDF is quite new to the region.
This is also the reason behind the lack of heavier units, as Kivinen is happy to explain. “The Army leads the overall situation, and the Army Command have given the units responsible directions regarding the local defence exercises, and it is true that they differ from each other. There are good reasons for this, and they also might vary according to when and how we have last exercised interagency cooperation in any given area,” general Kivinen explained when I questioned about how the different scenarios are chosen. In this case, the scenario was well below the threshold of war.
In this exercise we don’t have a scenario where Finland would be facing a clear threat of a war breaking out, but there are scenarios in which military capabilities are used to support other agencies.
However, that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of bad people running around wreaking havoc. Or at least trying to.
One of the key people involved was a long-term active reservist and instructor, who had earlier experience of red team-activities as well. Without going into details, he was happy to discuss his general role in the exercise.
The red team was tasked partly with following a realistic manuscript, but also to find areas of improvement, e.g. when it comes to how the blue forces train and how they performed. Details and nuances could be discussed later, and talking afterwards is always easy, but I have to admit that KPMAAKK [the Local Defence Company of Central Ostrobothnia] and the military police reservists from the Pori Brigade were darn good.
The recent DSCA notifications for the Finnish HX programme included one particular oddity, in that they did not sport any longer-ranged air-to-air weapons than the AIM-9X. For an Air Force that swears by the supreme importance of the air-to-air mission above anything else, it was a surprising detail, and one which I in my post on the release commented as follows:
In any case, there will be medium-ranged air-to-air missiles operational on any aircraft that ends up winning HX, and the options on the table for the American ones include either a separate notification and order before IOC (order in 2025 and delivery 2026/2027 would probably be the approximate timeline) or the continued use of the current AMRAAM stocks.
And I wasn’t the only one thinking about the lack of serious air-to-air firepower. Turns out the issue caused enough of ripples to warrant a blog post by programme director Lauri Puranen.
In his post, Puranen starts with rehashing the same things that he has commented on a few times earlier as well, namely that the offers are far from ready, that they can’t comment on details of any particular offer, and that speculation on what is included in the DSCA notifications and what isn’t isn’t helpful for the competition. However, there are a few issues that warrants clear comments to avoid confusion.
The first point is, as he said in his earlier post which was published when the notifications came out, that they are confident that they will be able to build five offers that fills all the requirements within the current budget, and that these packages obviously will include air-to-air missiles. He also points out that there is a twelve year window during which acquisitions can be made as part of the HX-specific funding, and that all offers will include parts of the package, e.g. sensors and weapons, that will come online later than 2025. Nothing strange there, but might be good repeating it once more for those in the back.
He also reiterates that the Finnish Air Force Command still stands by the memo published last summer that lifespan of the current air-to-air missiles largely is planned to correspond to the lifespan of the current Hornet-fleet, and that the current air-to-air missiles will have to be replaced as part of the HX-programme. These acquisitions are paid for by the same funding that pays for everything else in the HX-programme. This makes sense (and for anyone questioning how this lines up with the JASSM-quotes he has made earlier, it should be noted that he strictly talks about air-to-air missiles in the post).
So far so good, until he finishes of with the following statement:
The air-to-air missiles of the Finnish Defence Forces remain an asset for the Finnish Air Force and air defences throughout their lifespan, but the removal of the older missile stocks will require new acquisitions for the HX-programme.
Make of that what you will.
Se pieni määrä AMR, jolla on elinkaarta jäljellä 2030-luvulla säilyy ilmapuolustuksen käytössä. Teoriassa siis mahdollista US HX, mutta toinenkin järjestelmä käyttää niitä. Tasapuolisessa kilpailussa tarjouksetkin halutaan tasapainossa.
Edit: Commander of the Finnish Air Force, major general Jokinen, gave further details in a tweet. There is a “small number” of AMRAAMs that have shelf-life left into the 2030’s, which in theory could be used “by US HX-contenders” (something of a simplification, as in fact all contenders except Rafale have the AMRAAM integrated). However, as “another system” (read: NASAMS) also uses these, it has been decided that these will be earmarked for ground-based use. This will even the playing field for HX somewhat, but also generally makes sense to me as it then means savings for the Army and it is likely possible to maximise getting lifespan out of these as they aren’t exposed to the G-forces and elements involved in aircraft carriage.
One of the more anticipated milestones of the HX-process took place this week with the publication of the DSCA-notifications. These somewhat poorly understood bureaucratic processes caused some waves in the PTO 20200-tender. This time the Finnish MoD has done its best to avoid similar jumps to conclusion by media and other observers, but there has still been some less-than-helpful interpretations of what the notifications says. In short, the US regulations require that the congress is informed about important upcoming arms deals as a matter of oversight, something that happens through the DSCA-notifications. In the case of HX (and the Swiss AIR2030/NFA which made headlines a short while ago) the potential tenders are being pre-cleared, i.e. congress is notified about an upcoming potential sale. This allows for quicker turn-around if and when a contract is signed, and ensures that the supplier actually can deliver what they’ve promised. The most important points that sometimes get lost are:
The fact that this isn’t an order, nor are they necessarily corresponding to what is included in the final order (in fact, often they aren’t as it makes sense to clear the possible maximum amount of items in one go instead of having to go back and request a second clearance in case the requirements changes),
The negotiations of the HX-program is still ongoing, and as such neither the buyer nor the seller knows for certain the details of the final offer,
The value quoted for the DSCA-notifications usually aren’t that helpful in determining the contract value,
Most crucially, the notifications are ridiculously detailed in some ways, but glossing over major items in others. See “40 inch wing release lanyard” getting its own row, but “Spares” being a single line item.
To sum it up, long-term aviation journalist Gareth Jennings commenting on the AIR2030 put words to how everyone covering the process feels.
With that said, let’s jump into what information can be gleaned from the notifications.
Numbers don’t lie
The first obvious issue is the number of aircraft. With programme director Lauri Puranen on record stating that 64 aircraft seems impossible, it is noteworthy that the Lockheed Martin notification is for 64 F-35A and the Boeing has a total of 72 aircraft, made up of 50 F/A-18E Super Hornet, 8 twin-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet, and 14 EA-18G Growler. While it is still within the realms of possibilities, if unlikely, that we would see a 64 fighter buy, I don’t see how 72 could fit within the operating budget. As such, the 72 aircraft notification is a good indication for the fact that the final mix of the Boeing offer is still up in the air. 40 F/A-18E, 8 F/A-18F, and 12 EA-18G for a 62 aircraft fleet would be my personal guess.
Another place where the final offer is evidently still not set in the Boeing offer is the targeting pods (the F-35 notably not requiring one, as it has an internal electro-optical sensor based on the technology of the Sniper pod). The notification includes 32 ATFLIR, 32 Sniper (of an undisclosed version, but likely the XR), and an undisclosed number of the Litening (notable is that Finland currently uses an earlier version of the Litening-pod, the version now on offer would likely be the Litening 5). The ATFLIR was the one brought over for HX Challenge, but on the other hand the Litening was brought over hanging under an Eurofighter, so Finland has verified data on that one as well. I won’t comment on which pod would provide the best solution, as the details are A) classified, and B) I’m not familiar enough with the pod-world to say if there’s any kind of significant differences found in open sources. I will note that the ATFLIR has had teething troubles, but those seems (maybe?) to have since been overcome, and that the Litening 5 is being developed to sport a SAR-module, which is something of an unique selling point, but one likely to be of secondary value.
In the same way, it can be noted that a total of 25 IRST-pods are cleared for the Hornet-bid. The Super Hornet’s IRST solution with a centre-line has been criticised for being less elegant than the integration on the competitors, though it in fact suffers from a relatively small blind spot. What is interesting is that the numbers for both the targeting pod (presuming that only one model is bought) and the IRST both are offered in numbers covering approximately half of the fleet. This is in general one of the strong points of the F-35, every aircraft gets its own ‘pod’ thanks to the sensor being internal, while for the rest budgetary restraints often causes some aircraft to be left without. Exactly how the Super Hornet operations would look is an interesting question, but one alternative could be one aircraft of a pair flying with a pod and the other with an IRST.
As noted, with security of supply being a key factor and the ability to overhaul the aircraft locally from local stocks a key item here, the spare parts packages are naturally of great interest. Here, however, we’re more or less completely out of luck, as these crucial items are reduced to the single line of “provisioning, spares and repair parts”. It is, however, notable that this is a rather different wording compared to the Swiss notifications that only include “aircraft spares”. However, there is another place where spares catch the eye, and that is on the line discussing engines. The F-35A bid lists two spare P&W F-135 engines, while the F/A-18E/F/G offer lists 22 spare F414-GE-400 (interestingly enough, here the Swiss notifications for 40 aircraft listed six and 16 respectively). Good arguments can be made for the F-35 needing fewer complete spare engines for a given fleet size, including both during peacetime (single-engined aircraft having half the number of engines compared to twin-engined ones, the more modern design potentially having longer life and more replaceable subassemblies) and wartime use (an engine damaged enough to warrant replacement likely will lead to the loss of the aircraft). However, for a country obsessing about security of supply and with the supply of spare parts being one the major questions surrounding the F-35 in the HX-programme, it does strike one as an oddly low number, and makes the question about what really is found in the spare package even more interesting.
Like the spares, the amount of supporting equipment found amongst the rows isn’t straightforward to judge. There are a number of interesting rows, including training equipment, as well as numerous test vehicles for the weaponry. Key terms are also differing if compared to AIR2030 notifications, though considering the somewhat erratic template through which the notifications are pushed it is difficult to say how much weight should be placed on these differences. Still, there’s a few interesting discrepancies, such as the inclusion of the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN, to replace the much maligned ALIS which is on the way out) in the Finnish notification, a system that isn’t found the Swiss one. “Weapons system software” is also found in both Finnish notifications but in neither Swiss one, something that might simply have to do with the inclusion of more complex weaponry. An interesting row is found on the personnel needed to support the F-35.
U.S. contractor representatives will be required in Finland to conduct Contractor Engineering Technical Services (CETS) and Autonomic Logistics and Global Support (ALGS) for after-aircraft delivery
As noted, everything that includes the word “Global” is something of a red flag to the Finnish security of supply requirements, but at the same time it is obvious that during normal peacetime operations it makes sense to leverage the significant savings that can be found in operating what is rapidly turning out to be the next joint European fighter. However, there is little in the notification to indicate what kinds of additional steps have been taken to ensure that Finland has the required level of control over the security of supply compared to other more traditional customers. This might or might not mean something, as noted many of the crucial items in the notification doesn’t provide much in the way of details.
Everyone, myself included, is obviously counting weapons cleared for sale, but let’s start with the more obscure but no less important side of things. Electronic warfare.
It is important to note that we in essence are talking of three very different platforms, something that is visible in the notifications. The electronic warfare suite of the F-35A is highly integrated into the aircraft, and as such relatively few lines are dealing with it. There’s simply a mention of “Electronic warfare system”, as well as related systems such as C4I and the “F-35 unique infrared flares” (to the best of knowledge the aircraft does not carry chaff dispensers Edit: The F-35 is in the process of getting chaff. Thanks to JoJo for flagging it in the comments!) and access to the reprogramming centre. Compared to the long list of the Super Hornet that seems a bit cheap, but that is most likely simply because you can’t buy an F-35 without getting the whole package. As such, there’s no reason to mention particular details such as the ALE-70 towed decoy for the F-35, while in the case of the Super Hornet, the corresponding ALE-55 does get it’s own row.
Another good pointer to the fact that Boeing isn’t in fact preparing a 72 aircraft bid is the fact that only 65 pieces of the AN/ALR-67(V)3 EW countermeasures receiving sets and the AN/ALQ-214 integrated countermeasures systems are included. The more cryptic “Advanced Electronic Attack Kit for EA-18G” is more along the lines of how the F-35 is described, with a single line referring to more or less the whole package.
With an important exception.
Eight (8) Next Generation Jammer Mid-Band (NGJ-MB) sets
I’ve discussed the NGJ-MB earlier, the long story short version is that it is an extremely powerful system able to go after enemy air defences, but also enemy communication networks. On the flip side, it costs an arm and a leg, but in many ways it is a key piece of the Growler’s wartime capabilities post-2030, and getting eight systems would provide Finland with one of the best airborne escort as well as stand-in jamming capabilities in Europe. Note the reference to “sets”, which would seem to indicate that there will be a total of sixteen pods delivered, with the aircraft having one under each wing. Currently the Growler flies with three AN/ALQ-99 pods in different configurations for different bands. The new NGJ-MB replaces the two underwing units, with the third centre-line mounted one being slated for replacement by the low-band NGJ-LB. If Finland opts for the Growler, the NGJ-LB can make its entry at some point further down the line (as can the eventual high-band pod which will come yet later). However, the utility against current threats is greatest for the NGJ-MB, especially if Finland continues on with a non-stealthy force meaning that the proliferation of new low-band radars aren’t as big a threat scenario as it is for the US forces. It is also notable that the greatest criticism leveraged against the NGJ-MB so far (decreasing the range of the Growler due to high drag when the pod is active and the doors to the ram air turbine are open) is less of an issue for Finland compared to the China-scenario which is the main driver behind current USN development.
One thing we do know, however, is that Puranen didn’t exaggerate when he talked about the comprehensive weapons packages pushing the budget. The notifications include sizeable amounts of JDAMs, both thermally insensitive HE (i.e. the stuff shouldn’t explode if your ammunition storage is on fire) as well as bunker buster rounds, GBU-53/B SDB II’s small glide bombs, AGM-154C-1 JSOW stealthy glide weapons with a secondary anti-ship capability, AGM-158B JASSM-ER long-range heavy cruise missiles, AIM-9X Block II+ and Block II respectively, as well as JSM integration in the case of the F-35A and HARM/AARGM-rails in the case of the Super Hornet/Growler. Curiously absent are the JSM and anti-radiation missiles themselves, as well as any air-to-air missiles with a longer reach than the Sidewinder.
JTAC directing a Hornet dropping a JDAM on a target that already was under artillery fire as part of last year’s KAAKKO19 exercise
The air-to-ground package is interesting, as it continues as well as expands upon the air-to-ground capabilities currently operated by the Finnish Air Force. The JDAM is a weapon currently found in the Finnish inventory in the form of Mk 84-based GBU-31V1, the Mk 83-based GBU-32, the Mk 82-based GBU-38 and the BLU-109-penetrator based GBU-31V3 (commonly known as a ‘bunker buster’). The Mk 84 and BLU-109 is a 1,000 kg class weapon, with the Mk 83 and Mk 82 being 500 kg and 250 kg class weapons respectively. It is more of the same weapons that are requested this time around, with exception that the F-35A has skipped the GBU-32 and loaded up with more GBU-38s. The Super Hornet is cleared for 102 GBU-38, 51 GBU-32, 120 HE GBU-31, and 30 bunker-busting GBU-31, with the corresponding numbers being 150 GBU-38, 120 HE GBU-31, and 30 bunker-busting GBU-31 for the F-35. Are there situations where you want a 500 kg weapon instead of a 250 kg or a 1,000 kg one? Sure, if nothing else the 500 kg provides a bit of margin with regards to accuracy compared to a 250 kg one, in particular if you go after semi-hard targets. Is it enough of a difference to say that the Super Hornet has the edge here? I doubt it, the acquisition as a whole is complex enough that the 50 JDAMs most likely won’t provide a decisive edge. However, they might indicate that Boeing feel they have that small extra wiggle room when it comes to how their package is built, something that might also be seen in the next weapon. Or not.
The JSOW is also found in (limited) numbers in the Finnish arsenal. Originally envisioned largely as a back-up plan in case the JASSM sans-ER wasn’t cleared for export, it apparently has found enough of a use as to be requested this time around as well. The notifications include 100 JSOW for the F-35A, and 160 for the Super Hornet. The JSOW is unpowered (at least for the time being), and as such is highly reliant on release speed and altitude when it comes to range. Once released the weapon pops out a pair of wings on which it glides towards the target. The basic navigation is GPS-assisted inertial navigation, but the C-1 also has an IIR seeker for terminal guidance which has given the weapon better accuracy, and the ability to strike moving ships. The two-stage penetrating BROACH warhead can also be set to a one-stage mode which is more effective against soft targets, such as ships or unarmoured vehicles. The question of maritime strike for HX has been left somewhat open by the authorities, with the aircraft required to be able to support the Navy in the maritime domain, but not necessarily through kinetic means (e.g. systems such as the Growler or the GlobalEye could certainly be of great value when it comes to supporting the Navy in the electronic warfare domain and in building the situational picture). The JSOW could potentially provide a middle-ground, providing the Finnish Air Force with an important capability the primary use of which is in the land domain, but which also could be used against enemy vessels. The JSM is on the other hand a dedicated anti-ship missile with a secondary ground attack role. Thanks to it being powered it has a significantly longer range. However, the JSM might be included as an option for another role as well, as we saw in the Dassault marketing material that it seems destined to be the SEAD/DEAD weapon of choice for the French offer. Boeing and Lockheed Martin reading different levels of importance into the maritime strike mission can obviously be one explanation, but another is that LM feel they need a powered weapon of a lighter class than the JASSM to go SAM-hunting with, and there felt that they can kill two birds with one stone (or rather, both SAMs and ships with the same missile). In any case, the JSM, if acquired, would provide a seriously improved ship-killing capability, and with the JSM being stealthy and equipped with an IIR seeker (as opposed to the radar seeker of the Navy’s PTO 2020/Gabriel V), it would create the need for an enemy to be prepared to defend against two very different kinds of threats. I am unsure how Raytheon and Kongsberg have split up the market for the JSM (again, my time at Kongsberg was spent far away from the Defence & Aerospace-division, so I have no insider knowledge of the project), but it is possible that somewhere outside the US-package there is a separate offer for 60 JSM from Kongsberg for the F-35 package, which would explain the smaller number of JSOW.
The somewhat awkwardly named GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb increment II (it is in fact renamed to StormBreaker, but that one hasn’t stuck. At least not yet) would represent a completely new capability for the Finnish Air Force, in that it is a light glide bomb that can be used to take out individual vehicles, including moving ones. The fact that it is unpowered causes the range to be dependent on release height and speed, but on the positive side the small size means a large number can be carried, and it has a seeker with no less than three modes of operating. In the words of Raytheon:
• Millimeter wave radar — provides all-weather capability and the ability to quickly detect and track moving or stationary targets.
• IIR sensor — uncooled IIR sensor provides three categories of classification capability and aim point refinement.
• Semi-active laser sensor — tracks a laser spot from the launch platform or third-party designators.
This would give the HX the ability to go after tanks or artillery positions, including moving ones, but also to provide close air support by striking individual positions designated by ground troops or other platforms. And with the small size of the weapon allowing for large numbers to be carried on each station, the notification include up to 500 live weapons for either offer. The weapon follows on the highly successful original GBU-39 SDB, and is currently cleared for the F-15E Strike Eagle and since this year on the Super Hornet.
The big stick, however, remains the JASSM. Finland currently operate a limited number of the original AGM-158A JASSM. This has to the best of my knowledge been completely replaced on the production line by the longer-legged (but otherwise sharing a high-degree of commonality) AGM-158B JASSM-ER, 200 of which are now being offered to Finland. This is in turn set to be overtaken by the even longer-ranged AGM-158D JASSM-XR in the next few years (the missing AGM-158C being the LRASM anti-ship version). I would not read too much into the fact that Finland is about to switch from JASSM to JASSM-ER if we end up buying a US fighter. More range is nice, but it is likely also the cheaper (or even the only) option compared to the rest of the family as the ER-production line is currently hot.
Notable is that the JASSM in Finnish service is a weapon described as having a deterrence role, a somewhat controversial notion, but one that apparently has some support in Russian doctrine. However, the low number of weapons has always been the main Achilles heel when it comes to the doctrine of heavy conventional precision-guided munitions being able to function as a deterrent. 200 JASSM-ER backed up by 100-160 JSOW are certainly numbers that are starting to be felt. Especially if the current JASSM stocks are refurbished.
This brings us on to another point. There’s some rumours going on in Finnish defence forums that the ability to employ weapons from current Finnish stocks won’t be factored into the eventual deciding wargame. While I don’t have any insight into the finer details of the wargame, I have not been able to find any support for that idea in the official communication, nor is it in line with what has been communicated earlier. The Finnish Defence Forces is (in)famous for not throwing things away that can be put to use, and Puranen has confirmed to Lännen Media that the possibility of keeping the current JASSM for use on the eventual HX-winner is being studied. While there is no requirement for the winner to be able to employ the Hornet-arsenal, considering that the stated goal of the wargame is to evaluate how well the total package offered would perform as part of the FDF and the Finnish defence concept, removing a potential benefit of one package (such as the ability to keep using the current stocks of AGM-158A JASSM or AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM after overhauling these) in the name of “fairness” does run contrary to both that aim and the nature of war, which famously isn’t fair.
To use a hypothetical example to make things really clear: the Finnish Air Force says they need 200 precision-guided free-fall bombs of a 250 kg class. Eurofighter brings 200 Paveway IV in their offer, but Boeing and Lockheed Martin knows that the Finnish Air Force already has 50 GBU-38 in their current stocks, so they offer 150 new GBU-38 and an engineer that comes over with a toolbox and some spares to ensure that the old stock is good to go for another decade or two. As the whole competition is based on the design to cost method, this allows for the inclusion of more stuff elsewhere in the package. What package would then be evaluated in the wargame? A US fighter with only three quarters of the number of light bombs compared to the competition? A hypothetical package that include 200 new-built bombs but skips on the extra? So far everything we’ve seen and heard from the Finnish LOGCOM indicate that they aren’t interested in playing games, but that they want to evaluate what is on offer. If that include continued life for some current equipment, then I am quite sure that that is what is evaluated.
In any case, there will be medium-ranged air-to-air missiles operational on any aircraft that ends up winning HX, and the options on the table for the American ones include either a separate notification and order before IOC (order in 2025 and delivery 2026/2027 would probably be the approximate timeline) or the continued use of the current AMRAAM stocks. The shelf-life left for these naturally vary highly depending on whether the weapons have been stored or flown, but with the DSCA notification for 300 missiles coming in 2008 and deliveries probably stretching out over at least a few years after that, the newest missiles are likely fit to serve into the early 2030’s if maintained and overhauled. The C-7 version of the AMRAAM is also still rather close to the state of the art when it comes to medium-ranged missiles, and is regularly carried by not only US fighters, but by the Eurofighter and Gripen as well to complement the long-range Meteor. The Meteor is unlikely to enter service on a US fighter, but that doesn’t mean that the US fighters are set to remain looking on while the Europeans (and crucially, the Chinese) have all the fun at longer ranges. When asked about the situation at HX Challenge, Boeing representatives noted that “There’s an opportunity for an advanced air-to-air missile within our offer to address that need”. Exactly what it is wasn’t said, and apparently it won’t be part of the original package. However, both the newest AIM-120D AMRAAM and the upcoming AIM-260 JATM, and possibly other parts of the more opaque LREW-program, are all possible candidates to enter the field at a later date.
For the anti-radiation missiles, my personal guess is that they would be acquired as a separate package in the early 2030’s if Boeing wins. The capability is completely new to the Finnish Air Force, and with the Growler-unit busy learning the tricks of the trade I could imagine a timeline where the first few years are spent dealing with the non-kinetic methods, with the DEAD-part of SEAD/DEAD being introduced after the HX has reached FOC by 2030.
The notifications were largely on par with what was expected, though I will say that if the requested numbers found in the weapons packages are close to what eventually will be acquired their sheer number came as a surprise to me (and certainly explains the comment Puranen made about the difference in cost between the early calculations and the eventual budget). Even “comprehensive packages” comes in different scales, let’s just put it at that.
The large number of SDB IIs and JSOWs requested were also a bit of a surprise, and shows the expanding mission set of the Finnish Air Force is set to continue. Personally I am still a bit sad, though not necessarily surprised, about the fact that even under the current budget it was possible to squeeze in a small number of the Quickstrike naval mine/JDAM ER combination, but these are obviously possible to acquire later as well.
Some have noticed the large number of aircraft and notification price tags going over (10.6 billion EUR for the F-35 and 12.4 billion EUR for the SH/Growler), and question whether the HX budget will grow eventually (as was the case with the Squadron 2020 one). As said, the value given on DSCA notifications are usually not much to go by at the best of times, but here is a number of other issues at play as well.
Let’s begin by saying that I personally don’t believe there will be significant increases, though even an index-increase if the program is delayed with a year will be a lot of money when we’re talking about a 10 billion package. However, the crucial issue is that there is little room for increase when it comes to the eventual operating budgets, and so far there seems to be little indication that the Air Force will be allowed to increase it’s share of the annual budget, either through an increase in the defence budget or by shrinking the budgets of the Navy and/or Army.
The other issue is that this isn’t a question of the budget being a few hundred millions over 10 billion, but rather it should be remembered that a significant part of the 10 billion allocated will be spent outside the items found in the DSCA notifications. To begin with, around 700 MEur will be spent of other stuff (infrastructure, the work of the procurement agency, early training, etc.). In addition, the operations from first aircraft delivery until IOC/FOC will in part be covered by the 10 billion as the Hornets continue to fund their operations out of the Air Force’s annual operating budget. There are also infrastructure changes and possibly other significant investments that will be made outside of the contract that is covered by the notification, including non-listed equipment and equipment from third countries. As such, if one were to take the number quoted in the notification at face value, and I repeat – one shouldn’t, the question wouldn’t be if the Air Force can sneak in a budget increase of a few hundred millions, but whether they can pull off an increase of the programme value that is spelled out in a ten-digit figure. I don’t believe they can, and don’t believe they are going to try. Following the release of the notifications, Puranen also noted that they feel confident they are able to deliver the required capabilities within the current budget.
It should, however, be acknowledged that there are some worrying signs that the budget really is tight, just having two spare engines for the F-35 and no HARM/AARGM for the Super Hornet/Growler comes to mind. Even if those two items can be sorted out, the question lingers if they are only the tip of the iceberg, and what more is hidden under the surface when it comes to missing or low quantities of crucial items?
It was supposed to be the last big dance of the HX contenders in Finland, with a final air show in the unpredictable June-weather before the decision was to be announced not even a year later in early 2021. But then COVID happened.
The air show was first moved to August, and then the whole program schedule was pushed back with the decision now expected Q4 2021 due to the inability to hold the final pre-BAFO talks in person last spring. As such, the air show in Kauhava this weekend is set to be a somewhat muted affair compared to the expectations. This is obviously a pity, especially as the local enthusiasts in Kauhava were set to have the biggest celebration of the towns aviation heritage since the closure of the air force base in 2014.
Compared to earlier years, the late stage of the program is visible in the fact that few breaking news were published, though there were some interesting stories.
First out in the spotlight was the Finnish Defence Forces and MoD themselves, who published a rather long and surprisingly open interview interview with colonel Keränen (FinAF A3) and Lauri Puranen (MoD program manager for strategic capability projects) in their Radio Kipinä-podcast. The theme was “The HX-program – Mythbusters”, and they spent quite a bit of time explaining why it isn’t possible to replace the fighters with ground-based systems or UAVs, the extremely close cooperation between the politicians making the eventual decisions and the soldiers and officials providing the groundwork, as well as how there are no favourites at this stage. All of these are issues that have been raised in the domestic discussion in Finland, with more or less populist undertones depending on the issue and who’s making the point. However, there were some interesting nuggets for the avgeek community as well.
Keränen made a direct point that the Air Force is not planning on going even in case of war, but that they will strive for a serious kill ratio.
We want something like the Brewster, [which] had 32:1 during the Second World War. Of course that is the kind of thing we are aiming for, whether it’s realistic or not is another thing, but if we can reach for example 10:1 that is 600 fighters that we can shoot down. Or bombers, depending on whatever comes.
You’d be excused for feeling this comes off as arrogant, but a quick look into the history books shows that during the jet age such numbers have been well within the realms of possibility. The USAF F-86 experience in the Korean War is given as between 10.5 to 2:1. The Israeli Air Force is also well-known for having extremely high numbers during the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars, and while the exact numbers are debated (figures like 50:1 in 1973 and 80:0 in 1982 are frequently given), even if they feature some serious inflation they should be well over the 10:1 threshold. The Royal Navy in the Falklands War also famously reached 19:0 with the Sea Harrier (although a small number were lost in accidents and to ground fire), and in this case the kills and losses are largely confirmed from sources on both sides. Operation Desert Storm also saw a kill ratio above 30:1 for the coalition. As such, the goal of reaching double-digit kill ratios is perfectly achievable with the right combination of training, equipment, and doctrine. In fact it can be argued to be something of a requirement for overall success in modern wars.
The interview also confirmed that the idea of a 64 aircraft fleet is effectively dead, as Puranen noted that all first round offers for 64-aircraft packages were “significantly over 10 billion Euros”. However, the requirement is still for a fleet of around 60 aircraft. The reasons are simple and well-known to followers of the project, in that the aircraft now included in the HX program aren’t really faster or have significantly better endurance compared to the current Hornet-fleet. Coupled with the fact that Finnish territory hasn’t gotten smaller (or rather, not significantly smaller) since the Hornet was bought, the same air defence capability will require more or less the same number of aircraft.
The interview crucially also included a declaration that they are happy with the planned service lives of all aircraft, and see them continuing in service into 2060 and beyond. If that really is the case, it certainly is good news to, well, everyone besides F-35A (which we all knew would not have an issue with the lifespan requirement).
The last significant detail given was that the Growler will show its active systems at a test range in the US during a test period there, and that the passive systems were evaluated during HX Challenge which Boeing attended with a three-aircraft fleet that included not only the Growler but also single- and two-seat Super Hornets. Since then, Boeing confessed that their testing program had been hit with some delays, but that as time goes and the safety measures are put into place everything is starting to ramp back up again. With both the Block 3 and the NGJ now flying, it was a bullish team that was on location in Kauhava yesterday. Despite the issues facing Boeing’s civilian sector, the defence, space and security-part of the company was described as “healthy”, with the international side being “more active than ever”. This include the Canadian program, where Boeing recently sent in their offer, the Swiss program, as well as the ongoing German program where Boeing has been downselected for luWES and together with Eurofighter to provide the solution for the Tornado Replacement Program. The ATS and manned-unmanned teaming was also mentioned, and Boeing was quick to point out that while they are happy with the progress the ATS-platform itself is making down in Australia, that is only part of the complete system. The technology and software part of the program is to some extent a different track running in parallel, large parts of which are already in place.
Finland is a user organisation, not a developer organisation
Boeing’s main sales pitch hasn’t moved anywhere, it is still the proven and mature option, two words that has worked well in Finnish defence procurement earlier. The one thing that didn’t excite the company was Saab’s announcement of the Lightweight Air-launched Decoy Missile (LADM), the representative sounding almost confused when he recounted an earlier question:
We got a question if we have anything similar. We’ve been doing that thing for years, first with the TALD and now with the MALD. I really don’t know what else to say.
As said, Saab had one of the few (only?) breaking story of the show, with the announcement that they are developing a lightweight decoy. Despite the seeming similarity to the US ADM-160C MALD-J and the SPEAR EW, the Saab-version has a few things going for it. To begin with, it is “largely” developed in Finland and as such (probably?) should be ITAR-free. Secondly, while Saab won’t discuss at what stage they are in the development (usually a sign that there’s not much in the way of hardware yet to be shown), there’s likely significant synergies between the internal EW-suite of the Gripen E/F, the EAJP jamming pod, and the electronic warfare capabilities of the GlobalEye.
Saab continues to emphasis the overall package, with security of supply and the close relationship with Sweden adding to the performance of the JAS 39E/F Gripen and GlobalEye combination. 39E made its air show debut at Kauhava, and it was backed up by no less than three 39C/D Gripen of the Swedish Air Force and a GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft. An interesting aspect of Saab’s presentation was the inclusion of colonel Carl-Fredrik Edström, Swedish Air Force A3, who spoke warmly about Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation, and noted that this will continue regardless of the outcome of HX. However, if Finland would end up choosing Gripen, there’s certain possibilities opening up that the Swedish Air Force would be happy to provide. These include e.g. the possibility of embedding Finnish flying personnel into the test and evaluation program at an early stage, as well as the potential of cooperating not only on research and development of the fighter, but also e.g. handling the advanced training/OCU as a joint unit which likely would be a cost saver for both countries.
The star of the four Gripen on location was the ‘6002’ which is the first series produced JAS 39E, and feature a really nice three-tone camo to commemorate this fact. Making its air show debut, the aircraft featured a serious air-to-ground load of four SDB on the centreline rack, two Taurus KEPD 350 heavy cruise missiles, and two Enhanced Paveway II (believe that is the GBU-49 227 kg version), as well as two IRIS-T air-to-air missiles for self-defence. That Saab managed to convince the Swedish Air Force to let their precious fighter come over for an air show is yet another sign of the wholehearted support Saab’s export push enjoys from the operator.
Another fighter in special paint was the Dassault Rafale solo. Unfortunately it (and the other two Rafales) were parked a bit offside, so I wasn’t able to get any nice shots of it yesterday. But rest assured it looked the part, both on the ground and in the air.
Edit 02 September 2020 – I managed to get my hands on this video that Dassault used as marketing material during the weekend, and got permission to republish it here, courtesy of Dassault Aviation.
Our Managing Director Paul Hitchcock was delighted to present Major General Pasi Jokinen, Commander of the @FinnishAirForce, with a framed technical drawing of the Finnish Hawk from our design archives. Hawk is marking 40 years in service training Finnish pilots. 🇫🇮 🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/S9J4SHheoa
Speaking of air forces supporting export pushes, the RAF sent over the Red Arrows to celebrate forty years of Finnish Hawk-operations. While in theory this had nothing to do with BAES trying to sell the Typhoon to Finland, it is obvious that there are some overlap. In particular, BAES tries to use their long experience working together with Patria on the Hawk-program as a template to build onto for a Finland as a Eurofighter operator. This isn’t something to laugh at, as besides Boeing they are the only operator to be able to claim experience on this side of 2000 to have cooperated with the Finnish Air Force (and Finnish industry) on an operational fast jet. And it should be remembered that while the Hawk is a much simpler platform compared to the Hornet, there still has been some significant projects based around the aircraft in Finnish service, including the Hawk MLU-project.
BAE Systemsin Suomen maajohtaja Paul Hitchcock lahjoittaa ilmavoimien komentaja Pasi Jokiselle Kauhavan lentonäytöksessä muistoksi kuvan ensimmäisestä BAE Systems Hawk-koneen teknisestä piirrustuksesta Suomen ilmavoimien Hawkien 40-vuotisen taipaleen kunniaksi. 🇫🇮 #hxhankepic.twitter.com/KCHdJyAL6A
The BAES-lead consortium have their game plan ready. The key part is taking a holistic approach to the gate-check requirements of industrial participation, affordability, and security of supply. In simple words this starts with ensuring Finnish industrial participation from the get-go (read: domestic production line), which provide a base for thirty years of sustainment. This allows for a TyTAN-style program where the industry is handling maintenance and support on location, which in turn saves money as moving aircraft around for service is expensive. As has been discussed earlier, TyTAN won’t be coming to Finland as a copy-paste solution, but as it bears a strong resemblance to the FDF way of working with strategic partners and with the experience of BAES and Patria working together on the Hawk, it will provide lessons for how to produce a tailored way of working for the HX. Crucially, TyTAN provide an already proven operational way of working that shows how the costs can be managed, something that at least two other aircraft in the field currently lack. And with BAES confident enough to sign a fixed-price ten year contract on the Typhoon, the life-cycle cost gauntlet certainly has been thrown down.
But while much talk is centered on the European aspect, Finnish ownership of mission data, lack of sealed black boxes and “independence“, it is when discussing the aircraft itself that the superlatives really start to come out. An interesting talking point at the BAES presser was that the upcoming large area display will enable the pilot to take a step back and get more information than just the fused picture by seeing also the raw data from individual sensors. While sensor fusion has been one of the main themes of most of the HX-contenders, the theory that you can get additional value from being able to see raw data as well as to sort through ambiguities and anomalies does make sense on paper. The question about how valuable this is depends on how good each individual fusion method is, and that is something that we won’t know based on open sources. Still, I couldn’t help but reflect on whether we are seeing the hype cycle in action, or is this is just a PR-talking point for the use of a large display?
But while the value of non-fused data to complement the fused picture is ambiguous, the raw performance of the Eurofighter is uncontested. The aircraft’s ability to supercruise is seen as a key for the QRA mission, and it has been demonstrated to the Finnish Air Force (naturally it is dependent on height and environment).
It is without peer in the sense it can supercruise, and it can supercuise with air to air stores.
This is coupled with the Striker and upcoming Striker II helmet, which allows the weapons cuing through the cockpit amongst a host of other nice features. In short the company believes that they “already have a helmet advantage”, and that it will only get better with the introduction of the Striker II with full colour and picture-in-picture.
The Swedish Armed Forces has started an operation to raise their readiness in the South-east and central Baltic Sea. The behind this being the “extensive military activities” being conducted in the region, which include both Russian and Western activities. According to the Swedish Armed Forces, the exercises being conducted in the region are larger and more complex, and takes place at a swifter pace compared to earlier ones. Coupled with COVID-19 the situation is significantly more volatile and unpredictable. The key focus for the Swedish operation is increased maritime surveillance (including from the air), but Gotland is also being reinforced. Readers will remember that the Battlegroup Gotland is still in the process of being stood up (eventually it will become a battalion-sized battlegroup), but what the reinforcements now consisted of are unconfirmed.
Notable is that two days ago a USAF MC-130J Commando II special forces aircraft landed on a short stop in Visby. The aircraft did not take part in any Swedish exercise, though it was reportedly taking part in an unspecified US one that included the visit to Gotland. This was followed by a three-flight of MC-130Js skirting the Swedish border during a flight from Norway today. As far as I am aware, no details have been released about the flights.
Lots of US Hercules Ghosts on the move.
GHOST71, AE5963 13-5786, US Type code: C30J Lockheed MC-130J Hercules
GHOST72, AE4E19 11-5731, US Type code: C30J Lockheed MC-130J Hercules
The Russian and Belarusian activities are all significant, with Belarus having initiated a readiness check that aims at raising the armed forces to their highest level of readiness, something that includes calling up the reserve. At the same time, the Russian Western Military District is reportedly home to a major exercise, including the Baltic Fleet and the Baltic Fleet’s Army Corps in Kaliningrad, as well as unspecified units in the St Petersburg area. This in turn is naturally of significant interest to the West, and among the visitors in the area is one of two RC-135U Combat Sent strategic electronic reconnaissance aircraft.
US Combat Sent also watching Kaliningrad. It did some low flying off the coast.
It is important to note here that Swedish Armed Forces are clear that the readiness operation is indeed an operation and not an exercise. However, there are some interesting overlaps in that the main surface striking force of the Swedish Navy, four of their five Visby-class stealth corvettes, earlier today started an air defence exercise in the waters south of Stockholm (Västervik-Nynäshamn). Crucially, the Finnish Navy is also taking part in the exercise with an unidentified mineship. So far no information has been released about what not happens with the exercise, or with the Finnish contribution.
Edit 25/08/20 11:15 GMT+2
While the exact scope of the Swedish operation remain uncertain the morning after the announcement, the fact that it is unprecedented in near-term Swedish history is starting to become clear. Johan Wiktorin, long-term Swedish defence analyst and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences, notes that he hasn’t seen anything similar since the 1991 Soviet coup attempt. At the same time, his colleague in the Academy, Annika Nordgren Christensen points out that the terminology used is new to the Swedish Armed Forces, and has not been used earlier.
Jag har inte upplevt en liknande beredskapshöjning i Försvarsmakten sedan augustikuppen 1991. Denna gång är vi också alerta, men uthålligheten inte densamma. Vi kanske inte är intresserade av ett försämrat säkerhetsläge, men det är intresserat av oss. @FinansdepSvhttps://t.co/NawZ6ADAJb
The decision not to go with the traditional “readiness check” (Swe. beredskapskontroll) shows that the message the Swedish Armed Forces wishes to communicate isn’t so much that they practice being able to swiftly respond to a sudden crisis, but that they as of today are at a level where they keep an eye on any potentially hostile movements and stand ready to counter these should the need arise. As is usual with these cases, and as is clearly stated in the Swedish press release, the risk for open war remains low, since none of the countries involved are interested in an all-out conflict. However, with the large number of moving parts currently involved, the risk of miscalculations leading to someone getting caught in the machinery is higher than normal.
With the FDF and Finnish government having had some time to react, it does seem clear that we won’t see any Finnish participation in the Swedish operation. This would require a political decision, and as such would most probably be communicated through the appropriate channels. However, as is well known, bilateral exercises and information sharing takes place on a regular basis, and as one of the main themes of the Swedish operation is enhanced information gathering to ensure a correct situational picture over the central and southeastern Baltic Sea, there exist a significant grey zone for what is an exercise, what is an operation, and what is a unilateral Finnish operation that just happens to create information that can be shared with Sweden. As opposed to the Swedish Armed Forces culture of sharing openly and directly what is going on, the Finnish Defence Forces is known to rarely discuss anything directly related to operational activities. As such, unless the air traffic monitorers suddenly catches a Finnish bird outside of Kaliningrad, it is very difficult to tell if Finland has raised the readiness levels in a parallel operation to the Swedish one.
While the Finnish silent culture can be supported from an operational security point of view, and a good argument can be made that the message can be sent to potential adversaries as effectively through actions rather than words, it has also come under increased scrutiny and faces criticism. In particular the question has been raised how to handle this discrepancy between Finnish and Swedish ways of handling strategic communications in the event of a joint response to a serious crisis?
Suuri ero Ruotsin ja Suomen välillä:
Ruotsissa valmiuden kohottamisesta kerrotaan herkemmin, koska ymmärretään että #viestintä on myös osa puolustuksen kokonaisuutta. Suomessa yritetään pitää asiat piilossa/salassa. Tämä(kin) pitäisi yhteensovittaa #turpo kriisissä. https://t.co/Y7qUC0wLGB
The Finnish Navy has now confirmed that it is FNS Uusimaa (’05’) that is taking part in the exercise.
The exercise develops the vessels’ national capabilities and the interoperability between the Finnish and the Swedish vessels in anti-aircraft warfare at sea.
The exercise is part of the larger cooperation frame between Finnish and Swedish Navies with the aim to maintain the vessels’ interoperability and the capability of the vessels to serve as part of the Finnish-Swedish fleet troops. In the exercise formation the Finnish minelayer will technically operate as part of the Swedish troops but stays under the national lead of the Coastal Fleet. In this exercise there will be no participants from other countries.
The exercise will take place at sea, and minelayer Uusimaa will not moor in Sweden. There will not be any exchange of crew between vessels during the exercise.
This exercise is preplanned among the other exercises between the two countries and it was accepted as an international exercise included in the 2020 programme by the Ministry of Defence.
The long-term planning of the Swedish Defence Forces, SVFM, has been in quite some flux during recent years. The short version of a complex dynamic is that prior to Crimea the Swedish Defence Forces were focusing rather heavily on international missions and peacekeeping abroad, including serious contributions to a number of missions in Europe and Africa, as well as in Afghanistan. Following Crimea the homeland defence mission again took centre-stage, and a growth process was started.
The latest plans describe growth when it comes to the Army, relative stagnation for the Air Force, and a slow decline for the Navy.
A bit of background is needed to understand exactly which papers we are looking at. Last spring the parliamentary working group for defence (Försvarsberedningen) that was tasked with developing a long-term plan for how to grow the Swedish Defence Forces broke down, as in the final stages it became clear that while everyone was in agreement on the plan itself, the ruling Social Democratic party refused to confirm their willingness to fund it. Upon this, the centre-right opposition refused to sign the final report “Värnkraft“, though they still agreed with the way forward presented by the document. This has led to an unresolved political quarrel, and as cherry on top leadership of the SVFM is not particularly keen on all details in Värnkraft.
The events got complicated yet further with the SVFM returning the supporting budgetary documents in February this year outlining what they would be able to do during 2021 to 2025 (with the period 2026-2030 being broadly described as well). The government in turn wasn’t happy with these plans, and SVFM got the order to redo the plans earlier this summer, and this time with a list of which projects were not to be touched. The new supporting documents were published last week, and include some key changes to the schedule, and it is these that I am going to open up in this post.
(As this is a long one, feel free to scroll to whatever part interests you)
The Swedish Air Force
The Swedish Air Force had originally planned to phase out the current generation JAS 39C/D Gripen-fleet rather quickly (it is a bit more complicated than that, but for the sake of brevity let’s pretend this was the whole story). This has now changed, and the current Gripens will be kept in service alongside the JAS 39E Gripen up until 2030 (possibly beyond that). This allows the Air Force to keep operating six squadrons of multi-role fighters. In the period 2026 to 2030 the preliminary work on the future air combat capability will kick off in earnest (though Saab is quick to state that current cooperation as part of/together with Team Tempest does not mean that 39E will be phased out anytime soon). To keep the fighter fleet up to date, a new reconnaissance pod is to be acquired before 2030, and advanced munitions will also be acquired in the 2026 to 2030 time span. The February documents included an explicit mention of Sweden acquiring a long-range cruise missile to the Gripen-fleet, but this has been removed from the July version (likely due to a lack of funds).
Another thing that has been pushed back is the replacement of the ASC 890, the current Swedish AEW&C platform. This is based on the Saab 340 propliner equipped with the Erieye-radar, and in February the plan was to replace these old airframes before 2030. Under the current plan, the replacement process is “begun” before 2030.
Something that apparently will keep going forever is the Swedish fleet of first-generation C-130 Hercules. Sweden operates six C-130H (originally delivered in the mid-60’s as C-130E) under the Tp 84 designation, with the aircraft being amongst the oldest still operational in Europe. These will now undergo a serious overhaul to get more flight-hours out of them, with no replacement being planned before 2030.
Another veteran is the Saab 105 (Sk 105), which is used for training. The old jets have started to show signs of their age, including having been temporarily grounded in both Swedish and Austrian service late last year. A new modern turboprop trainer is to be acquired for basic training before 2025, with the 39D getting a larger role in the advanced training syllabus.
The helicopter force will continue to use the current equipment (with assorted updates during the next decade), but will be reorganised into four wartime squadrons. Changes to operational doctrine and the support function will also make them better suited to support the Army and Navy in a high-end conflict. The unique Swedish naval version of the NH 90, the Hkp 14F, will receive some important changes, though the exact nature and timeline of these are more obscure in the July papers than they were in February. It is no secret that integration of tactical naval datalinks and the new light-weight torpedo (NLWT/Torped 47) is high on the wish-list.
Other organisational changes are also to be rolled out, including splitting up the fixed-wing heavies into individual squadrons based on their roles, as well the (re)forming of the F 16 Upplands flygflottilj as an independent air wing. It is unclear to me if and to what extent these changes will impact how the SwAF operates, and to what extent it is a question of administration.
The Swedish Navy
The Swedish Navy was the one to draw the short straw in Värnkraft, and the July documents further reinforce this. In February two new surface ships were to be operational before 2030, which would replace the ageing Gävle-class, with the construction on vessels three and four of the new series also being started before 2030. Ships three and four have now been pushed past 2030, by which time the Swedish Navy’s surface warfare vessels will be five Visby-class corvettes (launched between 2000 and 2006) and two modern corvettes. The Visby-class will start rotating through their MLU between 2021 and 2025, which will include getting air-defence missiles, the Torped 47 replacing the current Torped 45, and a new anti-ship missile (Saab RBS15 Gungnir not being mentioned but certainly the most likely candidate). This will allow them to serve until 2040, by which time they will be 35 to 40 years old. Those that remember the last two sentences of the text will realise that if the Visby-class is to retire in 2040 and the building of it’s replacement hasn’t even started by 2030, that leaves less than ten years in which to build the replacement class.
A key decision which also will impact the Navy heavily is that the work on converting the current base structures so that in wartime there would be two mobile units responsible for maritime logistics (i.e. allowing for dispersed basing in the archipelago) has been delayed in the July papers.
For the marines the situation is looking better. One of the main roles of the Swedish marines is the coastal anti-ship mission which they handle with a version of the anti-tank HELLFIRE-missile. This will be replaced by a new system (a new heavy missile system will also replace the current truck-mounted RBS 15). The marines will also get a new man-portable surface-to-air missile, as well as Minigun 7.62 mm gatling machine guns for their vessels. On the flip side, the earlier announced second marine battalion (Amf 4) will be delayed from 2022 to 2025. There will also be less funding available to replace the boats of the marines, which is bad news as the majority of the Stridsbåt 90 (and some larger vessels) are starting to reach the age when small aluminium hulls usually are retired. However, a boat-mounted mortar system is to be in service by 2030.
The Swedish Army
The Army is the one seeing the biggest organisational changes. For a brief primer, I recommend my old post on the Swedish wartime order of battle, which roughly corresponds to the current baseline.
Starting from the top, the divisional level of command is brought back in the form of the 1. Division. The division will not be of fixed composition, but instead will be a command function with certain higher level assets. This “modular HQ”-model is not completely unlike the current Swedish brigade HQ’s, and will be needed as the size of the Army grows to a point where a single brigade HQ no longer is able to effectively direct all units involved in a single battle. At the same time, the Army headquarters should not have tactical responsibilities, and as such the higher tactical level is brought back into the force structure.
Perhaps the most visible new equipment will be the acquisition of divisional artillery. I spent quite some time on the blog discussing higher-level fires in my earlier series on the future of Finnish fires. The current Swedish plans are still to be nailed down, but currently it seems like 12 new guns will be acquired in the 2026 to 2030 time-span (i.e. a battalion under Swedish doctrine), but the SVFM is also seriously contemplating acquiring a proven multiple rocket system (of which quite a few are found on the market).
Artillery in general will receive a boost, with all 48 Archers being included in the wartime organisation, as well as a second artillery regiment being created in the central parts of Sweden (most likely A 9 Bergslagens artilleriregemente will reform in Kristinehamn). Considering the three brigade force envisioned, it’s still not exactly an artillery-heavy force, but coupled with the introduction of self-propelled mortars the Swedish Army will have a serious increase in indirect firepower available by 2030.
The special forces are also seeing changes. The most visible is that AJB, the Swedish Army Ranger Battalion, which is currently subordinated to I 19 in Boden will become an independent regiment through the reformation of K4 Norrlands dragonregemente. The battalion will transform from a Jägarbataljon (ranger battalion) to a Norrlandsjägarbataljon (Norrland ranger battalion), and a second battalion will be added to the regiment starting in 2025 and being fully operational by 2030. The Norrlandsjägarbataljon is an old designation from the Cold War-era when Sweden operated two different kinds of ranger battalions, the NjBat and their southern cousin Jägarbataljon Syd (ranger battalion south), which differed mainly in equipment choices. However, these battalions had very different doctrines compared to the current unit, as was explained in a guest post by Jägarchefen a while back:
The battalions were given a geographical area, which was further divided into company-, platoon-, and squad areas. Within these the so called direct action would take place, simply put different forms of ambushes against predetermined targets such as supply vehicles during a prolonged time. The battle would then transform to interdiction once the divisions of the Swedish Army would launch their all-out offensive aimed at destroying the enemy formations.
Today’s sole ranger battalion is miles apart from its predecessors. The unit isn’t tied to specific geographic areas, but is used deep behind enemy lines against the critical vulnerabilities that have been identified as having the potential to affect the outcome of the battle. How the battle is fought and with what unit size is not defined in set doctrinal rules, but rather decided on the basis of the specific target in question (the critical vulnerability).
The reintroduction of the old designation apparently doesn’t herald a major change in doctrine, but rather a greater focus on the current role in the unique environment that K4’s home region offer. Looking at the long-term plan presented in the SVFM’s PerP-report, the geography of Upper Norrland (i.e. the northernmost part of Sweden) is such that a defence in depth is possible. This would rest on two ranger battalions that together with defensive works and increased long-range fires can slow down the advancing enemy and attrit their rear units. While the units obviously can be used in other locations as well, the tactic works particularly well in this region thanks to it featuring relatively little infrastructure and being heavily forested. Still, in case Norrland wasn’t directly threatened but an enemy landing was made in the southern or central parts of Sweden one should likely expect the NjBats to quickly head south.
The NjBat designation is also needed to differentiate the units from the other major change in the organisation of the SOF force, namely that the airmobile 31. battalion will be converted to a ranger-style battalion and designated simply as a jägarbataljon (i.e. what the AJB’s current wartime organisation 193. jägarbataljonen is designated as). Their mission will “amongst other things” be to provide support to the Swedish SOF-units (i.e. SOG and the Navy’s special forces found in Amf 1’s coastal ranger company). Internationally, the best comparison is probably to the UK’s Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), which “serves as a quick-reaction force to assist Special Forces missions. This might include large supporting offensives, blocking enemy counter-attacks or guarding areas of operation” (quote from here). Notable is that these mission sets aren’t in fact widely different from the current missions of the airmobile battalion, which also include operations behind enemy lines and emphasise the rapid reaction made possible by the unit being relatively light and moved around by helicopter, and in fact the unit already does cooperate with SOG when the need arises. The wording about “amongst other things” obviously leaves room for other mission sets as well. Time will tell how big the change compared to the current role is for the 31.
Brigades and Battlegroups
For the main combat units of the Swedish Army the changes are dramatic. Going from the current two brigades that would be built upon modular blocks being moved around the country, the new structures will be fixed and emphasise the major peacetime regiments all mobilising into their own brigade.
P4 and I19 will both create a brigade each, the 4. mechanised brigade and the 19. mechanised Norrland brigade. On paper these are similar in force structure, with two armoured and one mechanised battalion each as their manoeuvre elements, being backed up by an engineering battalion, an artillery battalion (currently these have 12 wheeled Archer 155 mm SPGs each), an air defence company, and a reconnaissance company, amongst other. Again, the question arises whether the designation “Norrland” will denote anything else than the northern brigade being more accustomed to snow and bogs due to it being located in Boden? It is certainly possible, although as of yet unconfirmed, that there will be differences in equipment, such as tracked all-terrain vehicles replacing trucks in some roles. However, in both cases the main equipment will be the local variant of the Leopard 2A5, the Strv 122, and the CV 90 fitted with the 40 mm Bofors, the Strf 9040.
The third brigade will be the completely new one, and will be based in the southern parts of the country. P7 Södra skånska regementet is currently home to half of the Swedish Patria AMV-fleet in the form of the 71. motorised rifle battalion. These will be sent to Stockholm, and the battalion will convert to become the 71. armoured battalion by receiving the Strv 122 and other assorted equipment from the sister battalion, the 72. mechanised battalion. The conversion should be completed by 2025. This will leave the eventual 7. mechanised brigade lighter than the other two, having a single armoured and two mechanised battalions (the supporting units likely being similar). The reason behind all three brigades not being carbon copies is simply that there aren’t enough tanks. There are a number of CV 90s currently mothballed though, so they are available. The decision to make the brigade positioned in the open flat terrain of Skåne, the stereotypical tank country, is interesting. An optimist would say that it is as MekB 7 will be the first to receive new tanks when they are ordered sometimes post-2030, though there is currently no funds or direct plans for a renewal of the Strv 122/Strf 9040-combination.
As mentioned, the AMVs will be sent to Stockholm, where the other major new combat formation is created. Stridsgrupp Mälardalen (SG MÄL, literally Battelgroup Mälaren Valley) will be a reduced motorised infantry brigade centred around three infantry battalions of which two will sport the AMV – the current 12. motorised rifle battalion (being re-designated 1. motorised rifle battalion) and the new 2. motorised rifle battalion (set up with the equipment from the 71.). In addition, the Livbataljonen(Life battalion) will be included in the battlegroup, though they will likely remain rather lightly equipped when it comes to vehicles. The battlegroup will be responsible for the defence of the greater Stockholm region, and will have relatively light organic support functions. There will be a single artillery company and a single air defence company, with no higher level engineering or logistical assets. However, if the capital really is threatened, my guess it that it would not be long until e.g. MekB 4 would arrive on scene.
The other independent battlegroup is Stridsgrupp Gotland on the island with the same name. This is built around a single mechanised battalion, the 181. battalion, and will receive an artillery company and an engineering company as well as a logistics company to support it. In addition, there is an air defence unit already operational on the island that will be integrated into the battlegroup.
Local Defence Battalions
One of the features of the current Swedish Army is the lack of a “middle level” between the highly mobile and often heavily protected key units and the home guard battalions. This will now be addressed with the creation of local defence battalions (Lokalförsvarsskyttebataljon), of which five new battalions will be in production by 2030 (three will be fully operational by then, the first coming in 2028). These will be mobilised from new regiments, of which I5 Jämtlands fältjägarregemente in Östersund will be the first (the fältjägar-designation in this case is used due to the traditions of the reactivated regiment, and should not be taken to indicate a ranger/SOF-role).
The kicker here is that while the middle level certainly is needed to flesh out the ranks and ensure that there is the required mass allowing the tip of the spear to be pointing at the key locations, the political decision to create new regiments in cities currently lacking garrisons is the one single issue that most heavily eats up the funds needed for a serious and well-balanced force. It was also in the schedule for these that the leadership of the defence forces clashed most directly with the politicians.
As noted, several delays are caused by the inclusion of the new regiments on an aggressive timeline. The ones mentioned for the Army include reduced funds for the acquisition of new personal firearms, a project that was launched last year and is urgently needed according to Twitter-rumours that describe many of the current rifles starting to be worn out. Less sexy but vital acquisitions of “trucks, trailers, and other vehicles” are also being delayed, as is the Telekrigsbataljonen (signals and EW battalion) of the new divisional setup. New C3-equipment for the ground forces are also delayed.
The overall situation is also described in rather stern words in the documents:
“In addition to this, there is an extensive need for support from the rest of the total defence [i.e. the civilian sector] as an imbalance, in terms of operational units and supporting functions, will remain until 2030. “
In short, the political drive now is to score easy points that can be waved around in the TV debates before next election, pointing at new regiments and brigades as signs of growth. At the same time, basics such as the increased logistical footprint to go with it and personal firearms are put on hold or kicked towards the future.
The Political Game
However, whether the plan will be implemented remains to be seen.
Several politicians of the centre-right opposition (which crucially has a parliamentary majority) are openly stating that come the budgetary rounds in parliament this autumn, they will force the budgetary increase needed for SVFM to implement Värnkraft in full upon the left-leaning government. Whether they actually will make good on their threat or whether a last-minute compromise will be reached remains to be seen, as if the budget really is forced upon the government by the opposition it would constitute a serious political crisis. At the same time, sticking to the limited increases currently envisioned by the government in the current troubling times while notionally trying to increase the fighting power of the SVFM will likely lead to the serious issues and imbalances described above. As such, this is in many ways a litmus test to whether the Swedish political line of growing their defence forces and becoming a serious contributor to stability in the Baltic Sea region is true or just empty promises.
I have on a number of occasions stated that the outcome of the HX programme is far from certain, despite the F-35 probably being the fighter to beat. While waiting for the sprint to the finish line to start of in earnest, there are two things that probably are worth keeping in mind.
To begin with, the unlikely doesn’t equal the impossible. Betsson earlier this year placed odds on the outcome, and while I don’t condone gambling generally and in particular not with questions of national security, the odds given weren’t too controversial. At the point of Finnish tabloid Iltalehti reporting on the live odds, they were:
F-35 2.15 (i.e. 35 % of being chosen)
F/A-18E/F Super Hornet 3.00 (25 %)
JAS 39E/F Gripen 3.75 (20 %)
Eurofighter Typhoon 6.25 (12 %)
Rafale 9.35 (8 %)
It is easy to read 8 % as “never”, but it deserves to be remembered that this is not the case. As a comparison, if you sit down with your Monopoly board and bring out the two dice, the odds of you rolling the dreaded ‘snake eyes’ or 1-1 is just 2,78 %. Does that mean that things are looking bright for the Rafale? Not really. The reason you can remember rolling snake eyes in board games is that you have a large numbers of die rolls per game, while the HX is a single event. Granted, you still do roll snake eyes on your first roll sometimes, but it is rare. And since someone is bound to comment on it, yes, Leicester City F.C. won the Premier League.
…which brings us to our second point, which is a more serious concern for the odds favourites. Last time around the details surrounding the choice of the F/A-18C/D Hornet were largely confidential for a long time, but back in 2017 twenty-five years after the event Olli Ainola of Iltalehti got the memo circulated amongst the ministers back then released (it had been classified as ‘Salainen’ or ‘Secret’, i.e. the second-highest classification on the four-tier system). It provide a good lesson to keep in mind when discussing the expected outcome for the current programme.
Of the five contenders left (the more fanciful offer to sell Finland the MiG-31 had already been discarded at this point), two were outright disqualified as not meeting the Air Force’s requirement. These included the MiG-29 (not meeting requirements related to “avionics nor lifespan, nor the maintenance setup”) and more surprisingly the popular favourite, the F-16C/D (failing both on the technical aspect as well as on industrial cooperation). The JAS 39 Gripen and its subsystems were felt to be not mature enough, leading to unacceptable risks. This left just two of the five contenders, the Mirage 2000-5 and the F/A-18C/D Hornet, to battle it out in the end.
In short, in the early 90’s the Finnish Air Force and MoD were not afraid to disregard offers they felt weren’t up to standard, and that might have a serious effect on the outcome this time around. And note, at least based on open sources, it is the favourites that seem to have the biggest reason to worry.
F-35 has a long and troubled development history. Some questions linger on, such as the ALIS/ODIN logistics system, but on the whole the F-35A is starting to look like a highly competent multirole fighter at a nice level of maturity (especially considering that we are still ten years away from HX FOC). However, the big questions are to be found in other aspects of the tender. One major issue is the question of how and to what extent the though industrial cooperation requirements can be met considering the unique international nature of the F-35 program. Lockheed Martin’s press briefing at HX Challenge unfortunately did little to bring clarity to the question, instead causing further confusion about what might and might not be on the table.
Another serious question that refuses to die is the one regarding costs, and in particular operating costs. While comparing acquisition costs is largely a fool’s errand, the fact that none if any of the DSCA notices or reported signed contract values are anywhere close to fitting inside the Finnish budget is cause for concern. Perhaps even more damning is the Danish life-cycle cost estimates. A report out of the Centre for Military Studies of the University of Copenhagen written by Gary Schaub Jr and Hans Peter H. Michaelsen published in late 2018 (h/t Charles Forrester who drew my attention to it on Twitter) discusses the possibility of increasing the number of F-35s in Danish service, and quotes the annual operating cost of the current fleet as 70 million DKK per aircraft (or approximately 9.4 million EUR). The numbers are taken from the original authorisation to buy the F-35 (referred to as “Aktstykke 31” in the report), and as such is likely the best available open source number found for the RDAF. The Danish concept of operations is naturally somewhat different from the way Finland would operate the aircrafts, but on average I believe it is an acceptable point of reference (smaller number of aircraft and single base vs. economics of scale and dispersed operations). Toying around with numbers, if we accept the Danish annual operating cost to be a good fit for Finnish annual operating cost per aircraft (i.e. 9.43 MEur), that would mean that Finland was able to afford between 26.5 and 35.7 aircraft, depending on how you calculate (26.5 if the annual total operating cost is 250 MEur, and the MLU isn’t included in that, and 35.7 if the annual operating cost is 270 MEur + the MLU reservations spread out over 30 years).
In practice, this would mean that one of the Finnish Air Force’s two fighter squadrons would be slashed, and we’d likely see a Norwegian model in which one of the current two bases would host a QRA detachment of four to six aircraft instead. The upper boundary of that calculation also aligns with the lower limit of what long-term aviation journalist Tony Osborne of Aviation Week stated on Twitter last week, when he estimated that the eventual offer to Finland would be for “36-40 aircraft”. If correct, it would be an extremely bitter pill for the Finnish Air Force to swallow, and one that very well might prove politically unacceptable (in particular to the agrarian Centre Party that currently holds the MoD seat).
As it happens, on the Finnish Defence Forces Flag Day June 4 the Air Force launched eight four-ships of Hornets, a total of 32 aircraft to celebrate the occasion. This also provide a nice reminder of what it actually takes to cover an area as large as the Finnish airspace. And if your fleet is 40 aircraft, you don’t get to surge to launching 32 at a time…
But the F-35 is far from the only favourite that is facing some serious risks. Both the Super Hornet and the JAS 39E Gripen rests on a single major operator. One of the major talking points that the FDF and MoD has raised when asked about what issues other than straight out performance can become deciding factors is the risk of becoming the sole user:
By no means do we want to be the last and sole user.
The US Navy has been reluctant to lock down exactly how the future of their carrier air wing will look past 2030, to the point that the US congress last month actually pounded the table and demanded a plan. The issue here is obviously that any plan won’t be out before HX is decided, and if the plan then is to scrap all Super Hornets by 2035 and go all in for the NGAD and F-35C, Finland will be left standing in the corner looking stupid. The fact that the USN is still planning on rolling more or less the whole F/A-18E/F fleet through the Block 3 upgrade program which will give the airframes a significantly longer lifespan together with the unique role of the EA-18G Growler and the likely-looking German buy does lend some credibility to Boeing’s claims of them anticipating a service life for the Super Hornet in US service significantly past 2040, but it certainly is far from set in stone.
For Sweden the situation is roughly similar, with the recent decades not instilling much in the way of trust with regards to political long-term planning for the Swedish Defence Forces. Currently Sweden has 60 Gripens on order (all of the single-seat 39E-version), which ironically enough would make Finland the world’s largest operator of the 39E/F if 64 aircraft were to be acquired. At the same time, while the aircraft is moving through the development program and meeting milestones at an impressive pace, the words that doomed the original 39A/B offer to Finland in 1992 does echo through history.
JAS 39 Gripen and in particular some of its systems are currently still at the prototype-stage, and the schedule of the project with its uncertainty factors include significant risks.
The 39E is maturing nicely, but it certainly is not yet on par with the competition. Is that an issue? Probably not, but the risk of Sweden pulling the plug on the 39E in 2040 and moving on to something else (Tempest?) is there. Especially as the next stage of long-term planning for the Swedish Air Force is only about to kick off next year.
How is it then with the two dark horses? Surprisingly well, to be honest. The Eurofighter Typhoon has a solid user base, including four major European countries having invested heavily in the system, which provide a depth that significantly improves the chances of it staying in service up to 2060 even if the FCAS and Tempest are already looming at the horizon. The Rafale has a more limited user base, despite scoring three notable export orders recently. Still, France can generally be considered a rather stable user country, and has traditionally held onto its platforms for a long time. Recent examples include the Super Étendard (retired in 2016), the Mirage F1 (retired from the reconnaissance role in 2014), and the Mirage 2000 (still happily serving on in both the ground-attack 2000D and fighter 2000-5 versions). Karl Rieder joked on Twitter when discussing the future of the Super Hornet that buying French is safer, since there’s no budget to change plans. It’s a joke for sure, but there’s also a grain of truth buried within that statement.
So, will 2021 see a showdown between the Rafale and Eurofighter for the HX-prize, the rest having failed the gate checks? Probably not, though I would not be surprised if there is at least someone in the anticipated top-three being kicked out (which based on earlier information, we might know the details of in 2046). At the same time, I am certainly open for the possibility of us getting a surprise winner, and I do not believe anyone who claims they knows the outcome.
“Russia paid for attacks agains US forces in Afghanistan” Finnish public broadcaster YLE headlined a week ago when the New York Times first broke the news. “Trump under pressure on Russian bounty for US soldiers” was the headline Swedish public broadcaster SVT used only yesterday. Both are representative for the general vibe of the reporting on the affair. It is seen as another step in the increased US-Russian competition, and one that will affect Trump’s ability to be re-elected this autumn. It is a frankly bizarre take on what should be one of the more significant pieces of local foreign policy news.
YLE does it a tad better than their Swedish counterparts, and in the text notes that the reward covers “US and allied forces”, while SVT seems to have overlooked that part completely. What neither recognises is that two of these “allies” (or “coalition partners”, as is the more commonly used term in English) are Finland and Sweden. Sweden has approximately 25 soldiers near Mazar-e-Sharif and in Kabul, while Finland has no more than 60 soldiers in the same two locations. These are soldiers that, if they had been killed, Russian military intelligence would have awarded their killers for.
I find it hard to understand how this angle has been absent from Finnish and Swedish reporting so far.
If the reports are correct, and so far most indications seem to be that they are, one would imagine that this would require a response from the Finnish authorities at a suitably high level, i.e. either the Prime Minister’s office, the MoD, or the highest levels of the Finnish Defence Forces. However, when I raised the question on Twitter earlier this week, two different journalists stated that all questions had so far gone unanswered. I am not necessarily surprised, as there are three different issues making any Finnish reaction somewhat “problematic”:
The Finnish political and public discussions have never quite gotten to grips with the changed nature of the peacekeeping operations conducted in Afghanistan, first in the form of ISAF and now under Operation Resolute Support. In short, any comment about the reward being applied to Finnish soldiers as well as US ones leads to the conclusion that Finland is participating in a conflict on the same side as the US, and that is not a discussion that many Finnish politicians are keen on having,
Finnish national security rests heavily on having a good bilateral Finnish-US relationship, and starting to make a fuss about this would work counter to that purpose. Especially if the opposition (or Finnish media) would start asking why the US (apparently) wasn’t sharing the information with it’s coalition partners,
Most importantly, Finland is not keen on rocking the boat vis-a-vis Russia. It’s an unfair world, and bringing up the fact that Russia was paying people to kill our soldiers would not sit well with the Kremlin.
All these things considered, I still find it hard to believe that no official statement whatsoever has been made. The men and women of the Finnish (and Swedish) Resolute Support contingents serve in uniform abroad because we the people through our democratically elected governments have decided that it furthers our national interests that they spend their days in a significantly more dangerous environment than their home garrisons or everyday jobs. At the very least, some kind of expression of support and concern for their well-being would seem appropriate when it appears that the threat picture they face have been impacted negatively by a foreign power. This could easily be done in such a way that the question regarding whether Finnish intelligence believe the reports or not and the question about when Finland first received knowledge of the allegations are left unanswered. Even a short “We naturally have the safety of our personnel as one of our highest concerns, and continually monitor and evaluate the situation based on both own intelligence gathered and that received from partners. If the unverified reports are correct this is a serious issue,” would be a significant step up from the current “No comment”-line.
Crucially, the FDF is already facing some difficulty in finding people ready to volunteer for peace keeping operations, and only last month YLE published news about steps being taken by the government to try and mitigate these issues. I have a hard time seeing the lack of visible support to our peacekeepers currently serving aiding with that goal.
Readers of the blog will in all likelihood be familiar with the books of Austrian publishing house Harpia Publishing, that has built up a solid reputation of well-illustrated books covering a wide range of military aviation topics. Two of the more well-covered ones are Russian and Chinese military aviation, of which a number of volumes have been reviewed on the blog earlier (and often with good verdicts).
“Chinese Air Power in the 20th Century” (ISBN 978-1-9503940-0-5) is a bit of an outlier, even if the author Andreas Rupprecht will be familiar to those that have read Harpia’s earlier China-books. The book in essence tells the history of PLAAF, as well as dealing with the most important aircraft types. To provide a basis, it starts with a somewhat brief overview of the early aviation pioneers offering their services to any more or less recognised ruler or warlord in the early decades, before moving on to the somewhat more organised efforts by both nationalists/KMT and the communists to establish their own air forces, often with foreign assistance. Once the civil war had been decided, the development of PLAAF kicked off in earnest, and the book starts to pick up pace. In four chronological chapters, the reader is able to follow the growth from a few aircraft left behind by the Japanese occupiers and the retreating nationalists, to eventually become one of the most powerful air forces in the world. Each chapter also concludes with an overview featuring a short description of all of the most important aircraft types and variants. In true Harpia fashion the book then concludes with three serious appendixes that cover the history of PLAAF units on both the military region air force- and division-levels, as well as the PLAAF serial number system.
Unsurprisingly, with Rupprecht being one of the leading western experts (or perhaps simply the leading western expert) on Chinese military aviation, the quality leaves little to be desired. Having read his three books on the current state of Chinese air power earlier, I feel that this would be have been an excellent primer to better understand where the current day force comes from. The book also feature many of Harpia’s trademark characteristics, being a high-quality and sturdy large-size soft-cover with plenty of photographs. The photographs are interesting and really add to the reading experience, with the older chapters naturally having mostly black-and-white ones with colour taking over as history progresses. The illustrated side and top-view profiles typical of Harpia’s aircraft type monographs are absent. However, considering the topic of the book I don’t feel they would add anything, but rather just be taking away space from the photographs.
I do feel somewhat torn about the structure of the book, with the dual focus on both the history of the overall force and its units as well as the technological presentations of the individual aircraft (and often individual variants of these) at the end of each chapter. This dual-nature feels if not exactly confusing at least uncalled for, and while both parts are of equally high quality and enjoyable to read on their own, I often find myself depending on the mood wanting to skip either the aircraft descriptions to just be able to continue with the story or to just read the technical descriptions to get a better understanding of how the aircraft fleet changed over the years. Of course, there’s nothing stopping one from reading different parts of the book in the order one like, and it might even benefit from this kind of “choose your own adventure”-style of reading. The information you want might certainly all be there, but it might not be grouped together. As such, if what you want is an understanding of how the different versions of the J-6 relate to each other, this book can help you, but it will require a bit of page turning to get the whole picture.
I can understand the reasoning behind this split, but it might not have worked as well in practice for the casual reader as it was intended. And that is a shame, because the casual reader who has a general military aviation and/or China-interest would likely find the contents of this book highly enjoyable. At the same time, one should be aware of what this book is and what it is not (something that might be unclear based on the generic title, I known I got a good grasp of what exactly I held in my hands only once I started flipping through the pages). As said, there’s nothing wrong with the writing or illustrations, these are the kind of top-notch stuff to be expected from Harpia and Rupprecht. It’s just that the complete package is a bit complex.
If you are interested in a particular aircraft or period, either the modern day or an earlier one, you are probably better served elsewhere. However, if you want a one-stop source for the general history of the Chinese Air Force and its flying equipment, this could very well be it.
The book was kindly provided free of charge for review by Harpia Publishing.