The Finnish Navy is passionate about naval mines. This includes both laying mines – as evident by the liberal amount of minerails found on not only the dedicated minelayers but also on surface combatants and auxiliaries – as well as hunting for them. This has its natural explanation, as the Finnish coastline (and the Baltic Sea in general) is well suited to mine warfare, with the waters being shallow and many port facilities being found inside the archipelago where thousands of islands and skerries form narrow sea lanes and obvious chokepoints. Keeping the Finnish waters free from hostile mines is at the end of the day not a nice-to-have to capability, but is crucial if Finnish society is to function and the FDF is to be able to keep fighting for any prolonged period in a wartime scenario.
Mine countermeasures can be done in a number of ways. The easiest and most cost-efficient is usually to ensure that no mines are laid, preferably through simply blowing up the enemy stocks of naval mines while they are still portside, but in real life things seldom prove this easy. And even in the best case, ensuring that areas used for friendly traffic really are minefree is usually a must. This leads us to the two main ways in which already sown mines can be rendered harmless: minehunting and minesweeping. Minehunting is the use of sensors to find mine-like objects, which then can be studies in more detail either with other sensors or with clearance divers, and if found to be a mine the object can then be neutralised through a number of different ways – most commonly through simply blowing it to pieces. The other option is sweeping, which is probably what most people think about when hearing about clearing naval mines. This is done through towing wires to cut moored mines so that they may float free (and preferably be destroyed by something once they breach the surface) or through towing magnetic or acoustic generators which then create signatures that cause influence mines to detonate.
In case anyone didn’t already figure out the main issue with sweeping: towing means that your ship is in front of the thing you use to disable the mines with, a decidedly bad place to be at. Different solutions have been tried to remedy this, including the use of helicopters for towing the sweeps, but at the end of the day these have all proved either costly or unreliable. Instead, the stoic men and women plying the sea to ensure it is safe for other ships to go there has adopted a simple maxim:
Hunt where you can; Sweep where you must
But why would anyone sweep if that’s so dangerous? The answer is time. A general rule of thumb is that a typical minehunter is able to clear approximately one nautical square mile (1,852 x 1,852 meters) every 24 hours, while a typical mechanical sweeper should be able to clear between 4 to 6 nautical square miles. Remotely manned systems usually log approximately the same figures as their manned counterparts. This also brings up one of the other issues with mine clearing, namely that it will require hulls. And every hull can only be in one location at any single time.
When combined, these factors add together to explain the somewhat curious order of battle for the Finnish 4. Mine countermeasures squadron of the Coastal Fleet (Fi. 4. Miinantorjuntalaivue and Rannikkolaivasto respectively). From their homeport at the Pansio naval base just outside of Turku, the unit operate a motley collection of three state-of-the-art minehunters of the Katanpää-class, as well as six small (16 meters LOA and 20 tons) Kiiski-class minesweepers built in the 1980’s and four of the larger (32 meters LOA and 150 tons) Kuha-class minesweepers built back in the 1970’s (but lengthened and modernised around the turn of the millennium). Both are built with GRP-hulls to minimise their magnetic signature (i.e. to try and ensure that they don’t trigger magnetic mines), and can sweep both impulse and contact (moored) mines. The Kiiski-class was built to be optionally manned – the nature of minesweeping meaning that the field has a long and storied history with small optionally manned vessels being controlled from larger sweepers (the German Seehund-class being the best-known internationally) – though my understanding is that feature is no longer used. An interesting detail when it comes to operating the vessels is that a single Kuha (Kuha 26) and five Kiiski (Kiiski 3 through 7) are operated by the regional defence unit Clearance Detachment Osprey (Fi. Raivaajaosasto Sääksi) which is made up of reservists volunteering to do more frequent refresher exercises compared to the regular reserve.
Edit 15/02/2022: Swedish YLE has gotten an update from the Navy, and it turns out the number of operational vessels has shrunk further in the last few years, currently standing at two Kuha and four Kiiski.
However, nothing lasts forever, not even lengthened GRP-hulls, and Naval News this week broke the story that the Finnish Navy has issued a tender for a new minesweeping capability under the designation Minesweeping Capability 2030 (MSC2030, or Raivaamiskyky 2030 / RAKY2030). A new class of vessels will replace both of the older classes of sweepers, which will retire before the end of the decade.
The vessel will sit between the Kiiski and Kuha in size, but being closer to the latter by having a maximum length of approximately 24 meters and sporting a galley as well as accommodation and sanitary spaces. In true Finnish fashion, the mechanical sweeping gear will be transferred from the current vessels on to the new class. The integrated influence sweep systems will however be new, and should cover “all relevant signatures (e.g. acoustic, magnetic, electric)”. This might in other words spell the end of the line for Patria’s domestic sweepers, though the details are obviously unconfirmed as of yet. As was the case with HX, the tender is design to cost, with the expected budget being in the 18 to 20 MEUR range with an additional 15 MEUR reserved for options which might or might not be exercised. The number of hulls, however, is not mentioned in the tender, something that the Finnish Navy confirms isn’t an oversight but rather something they have left open to the bidders (at least for now).
The schedule given include a call for interested yards to report their interest before mid-March, the RFQ will then follow during Q2 this year, and the negotiations to find a prime contractor will kick off during Q3. Contract signing is not yet given, but with an FOC date of 2030 it can be expected to come quite rapidly (my personal guess would be during the first half of 2023). If a supplier can be found.
Because it deserves to be said: nothing like this has been built in the last decade or two.
Few navies are as passionate about mines as the Finnish ones, and those that still run serious mine countermeasure capabilities have largely transited to minehunting instead of sweeping, with most sweepers left in service being rather old. In addition, most new vessels are also on the bigger side compared to the 24 meters of the new class. Perhaps the most recent example of anything resembling the Finnish requirement is found in the Danish Navy which operate the MRD- (or MRD-STOR) and MRF-classes of optionally manned minesweepers. Telling however is that both are old enough (20+ years) that the builder Danyard has since folded.
So who will be competing for the job? The obvious Finnish yard to build a displacing 24 meter craft for any Finnish authorities is Uudenkaupungin Työvene (or Uki Workboat for short), though they are solidly a aluminium/steel-yard. Marine Alutech, supplier of landing craft and fast patrol boats to the Finnish Navy and Border Guards, is also a contender, though the size of the vessel is on the larger side for them and they usually prefer planing hulls. They do however have experience with composite hulls following their order for patrol craft to Oman. My alma mater Kewatec AluBoat has also recently bagged an order from the Finnish Navy, though they are also a pure aluminium yard. They do however sport some interesting designs that would fit the general requirements for the vessel.
A key note, however, is that the Navy isn’t prepared to comment on whether they are looking for a Finnish yard as prime contractor or for building some or all of the vessels locally on license, at least not “at this stage of the process”. This obviously opens up the field even more, and you can expect more or less all the major players in Europe to step up to the plate ready to have a swing at it. This include both smaller players for whom this would be a really nice fit (such as Swedeship Composite and Intermarine), but also the big players for whom this might be a bit on the small side (such as Naval Group, TKMS, Lürssen, or FINCANTIERI) who possibly might outsource the building of the vessels to a smaller yard and do the outfitting and technology integration themselves. Saab occupies something of a special spot in this discussion, as they have both the GRP know-how (over at Kockums) and a dedicated small craft yard (Docksta). Saab confirms that the project obviously is of interest to them, but said it is too early to tell whether they will be making an offer.
Trying to state which yard (or yards) are the favourites at this stage is tough, and depends somewhat on the equipment level of the vessels. As a very general rule of thumb, the larger yards with recent experience of mine countermeasure vessels such as Naval Group (with the MCM for the Dutch and Belgian navies) and Intermarine (with the large number of Lerici-class derivatives) will benefit from a more tech-heavy approach, while smaller yards with less overhead and leaner structures will benefit from a more bare-bones approach. With that said, Intermarine might be in for a tough race considering the delays with the Katanpää-class probably not having been forgotten quite yet.
The general layout of the vessel is likely to be rather conventional, mirroring both Kiiski and Kuha in sporting an open deck aft for the handling of the sweeping gear and a superstructure towards the bow. The tender notes that they need to be capable of being optionally manned, which as noted is nothing new or revolutionary in the field of minesweeping. One interesting question that could alter the general layout is if a twin-hull design would prove feasible, as these certainly would provide ample of deckspace and a stable working platform for the rather limited overall length. The Norwegian Navy operate two related classes of mine countermeasure vessels, the Alta-class sweepers and the Oksøy-class minehunters, which sport catamaran hulls of surface effect ship design. SES as a technology is overkill for the Finnish requirement, but shows that unconventional designs are possible within the field of mine countermeasure vessels.
This obviously also ties back to the design to cost and the question of capability versus number of hulls. For a stripped vessel the size of the Kiiski-class, one might get away with paying around a million for the vessel itself, plus whatever the sweeping gear will cost. However, while the 24 meter is a maximum, it certainly gives an indication that the vessel are expected to be 20+ meters in LOA, which together with the navalisation of the design will add to the cost. I also asked the Navy to clarify what exactly the thought behind the options are, which for the time being represent a sum corresponding to 75 to 83 % of the primary contract. Unfortunately they declined to comment on that question. In my mind, there are two prime alternatives: more hulls, or equipment that would go onto the ‘fitted for but not with’-list in case the options aren’t used. This could include defensive weapons (dual-purpose guns or anti-aircraft systems) or anti-submarine weapons, but also upgrades to the mine sweeping equipment, including things such as better sensors, more ROVs, or equipment to assist in case clearance divers are to be used from the vessels. More hulls is a more straightforward option, as even in the best of cases replacing the current 4+6 vessels on a one-to-one basis seems unattainable with 20 MEUR as that leaves an average of 2 MEUR per vessel, including project management costs and sweep equipment. However, five vessels of a rather basic design might be attainable for 20 MEUR (i.e. 4 MEUR per vessel), dropping the non-recurring costs might mean that another four or five vessels could be squeezed in for an additional 15 MEUR in options. This is just pure speculation at this point, but says something about the scope of the contract. Notable is that the Navy on a direct question stated that Raivaajaosasto Sääksi through the implementation of MSC2030 will have “their materiel renewed and the activities developed”, meaning that the complexity of the vessels will need to be kept at a level where reservists can make a meaningful contribution.
To give a bit of perspective, the three Katanpää-class minehunters came in at 81.7 MEUR a piece, giving a hint at just how stripped an – arguably significantly smaller – minesweeper would have to be to fit the 4 MEUR unit price. However, the aforementioned 23 meter long survey vessels recently ordered by a Swedish company from Kewatec AluBoats came in at 3 MEUR per vessel, so it certainly is doable. At the end of the day, if we could see six or seven new sweepers fit in under the contract while still ensuring that the needed capability is there, I would be rather happy.
Speaking of Swedish companies, an interesting question is obviously whether someone else might be interested in acquiring a few (presumably) dirt cheap minesweepers? I asked the Navy, and got the following line:
The Finnish Navy interact regularly and actively with several countries and take part in international research activities in the field of mine countermeasures, but the MSC2030-project is handled as a national project.
So no export customers for the time being. On the other hand, if the vessels turn out to be good and economical ships, I would not be overtly surprised to see some version of them going on export to some of the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. Sweden is a good example of a country that has a solid minehunting capability, but lack in the number of hulls available and currently doesn’t operate a dedicated minesweeper. The Swedish Navy did in fact acquire and briefly operate one ex-Danish MRD-class vessel, HMS Sökaren (MRF01), for tests and trials as part of the deal to lease a surplus submarine to the Danish Navy, but no operational program came out of the so called SAM II-trials. With the Swedish Navy in general being short on hulls and having the same kind of geographical issue as Finland with numerous ports covered by narrow approaches, a small fleet of sweepers could certainly have a role to fill (in particular if Saab makes a successful bid for the program). But for the time being, MSC2030 stays a purely Finnish program, and one that will certainly be interesting to follow, despite it not being as media sexy as Squadron 2020.
As several observers on Twitter already have noted, while Finland doesn’t directly shout “We’re raising the readiness!” there’s certainly been a flurry of the – as usual rather low-key – messaging to that effect from the Finnish Defence Forces. However, the messages are opaque enough that they do require a bit of attention to detail to figure out what’s really going on.
Like in this case with the Army Academy and Karelia Brigade going out on exercise. Now, note that the Army Academy (Fi. Maasotakoulu) isn’t exactly loaded with conscripts, so these aren’t the much hyped (and with good reason) Valmiusyksiköt (Readiness units, abbreviated VYKS) made up of long-serving conscripts, but rather the Valmiusosastot (Readiness detachments, VOS) staffed by professionals. You’d be forgiven for not realising that tiny detail, but it certainly is interesting that the Karelia Brigade has not sent out it’s VYKS in the field, but rather the VOS, as confirmed by a second tweet.
A benefit of using professionals is obviously that it is possible to train more, including with other authorities where ROEs and command chains can quickly get a bit complicated. The tweets published by the brigade on Twitter does make it sound like the Police decided to crack down on a criminal gang, realised the weapons stash was something too hot for them to handle, and decided to hand over tactical command to the FDF. I will say that I struggle to remember any similar scenario in real life. Sure the FDF has assisted with e.g. providing transports in the form of helicopters or APCs, or a combat engineer or two to defuse some explosives, but I don’t think the scenario description above quite fit that of taking down your local drug dealing network.
Another unit that seemingly out of the blue decided that it was a good idea to train cooperation with other authorities is the Guard’s Jaeger Regiment in Helsinki, the premier MOUT-unit (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) in the Finnish Defence Forces. They even sent out a presser, around 300 soldiers will be running around in different parts of the greater Helsinki-region practicing a number of different mission sets, supported by APCs and including air operations in some scenarios. The regiment states that the operation is part of the normal training plan, but to be honest it is quite difficult to pinpoint which unit would be running this kind of exercise at this time of the year. Charly Salonius-Pasternak speculate that it might be reservists called up, which certainly would fit with the stated training goals, as well as being a clear indication that the current international situation has not come as a surprise to the Finnish Defence Forces, as the normal call-up time for these kinds of units measure in months rather than days or weeks.
Rear Admiral Harju already last week decided to tweet out a nice little image of one of the mineships at sea, noting that the current ice conditions – which have been on the more severe side during the early parts of this winter – doesn’t stop the Navy from doing their mission.
Which include the ability to drop a bunch of mines in some suitable sea-lane should that be called upon, I assume.
Brigadier General Keränen of the Finnish Air Force in turn spotted a quite sizeable detachment of the NH90 helicopters operated by the army aviation, sorting under the Finnish special forces unit in Utti. Apparently he didn’t know why they had decided to visit Tampere-Pirkkala air base, but still decided to take a picture of them and post it on social media.
To be honest, I’m not sure he’s telling us everything he knows.
Coupled with the decision by the Finnish Chief of Defence and Assistant Chief of Staff – Operations (J3) last week to give rather in-depth interviews to the public broadcaster YLE and the Finnish paper of record Helsingin Sanomat respectively, it seems evident that while the Finnish Defence Forces is sticking to the decision not to publish their state of readiness directly, they have opted to take a more open line compared to what has been the case in some other situations. Crucially, while the general public might not pick up on the details, there is little doubt that the potential adversary will be able to pick up on everything they need to know.
A key takeaway, however, is once again how differently the Swedish and Finnish Defence Forces communicate. At a time when both forces integrate deeper and deeper with each other with the aim of being able to perform joint operations in peace or war, this sticks out and is evidently an area that also will need to be the focus of exercises at the bilateral level. Luckily, as these kinds of strategic decisions are taken rather high up in the chain of command, they should be quite cheap to practice as the number of people and equipment involved is rather small.
So today the blog turned eight. Time flies when you have fun – or as is the case for this particular blog, when you get to watch the most tense security environment Europe has seen for a generation or two from a front row seat.
I would like to take time to thank all of you readers! It certainly wouldn’t be the same without you. As to who exactly “you” are, the majority of you last year came from Sweden, with Finland being a rather close second, followed by USA, France, the UK, Germany, Norway, Canada, and Australia quite a bit further down the list. A special shout-out to my single readers in Madagascar, Sint Maarten, Congo-Brazzaville, Turkmenistan, Timor-Leste, Gabon, the Falklands, Guyana, Mayotte, Kiribati, Tajikistan, St Lucia, and Bhutan (no guessing how many are correct and how many are creative VPN-users).
The number of page views rose nicely (38%) compared to 2020, with everything HX obviously being a big fan favourite. The most read post was still not HX-related, but my take on AUKUS. This was followed by a bunch of HX-related material, before it was time for two posts on another acquisition program: the new sniper rifles for Finland (and probably Sweden). My interview with brigadier general Frisell and colonel Norgern of the Swedish Defence Material Administration was without doubt the post that featured the most unique details of any blog post last year – HX is studied in such a detail by more or less the whole Finnish media landscape that few details can be said to be really breaking.
A big shift visible last year was that the number of comments jumped from a rather steady baseline that in fact hasn’t changed much despite the growth in readership over the year. 304 in total in 2020, to a whooping 1,174 in 2021. While I welcome the discussion and have received quite a few hints and correction through the comments over the years, the amount at this stage is slowly starting to reach the point where more moderation might be required than I have time for. For the time being the comments stay open, though I am going to have to make some kind of decision on the future of the comments at some point during the not-too-distant future.
I would like to end with a big Thank You to the large number of people who in one way or the other have helped me during the past year with answering questions, giving hints, and generally being nice people! You are too many to mention all, but I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to the people involved in different aspects of HX – including both Finnish authorities, manufacturers, and other.
That was all for this anniversary post. Normal posts will continue soon, and unfortunately I have a feeling that the situation in Europe will provide plenty of topics during the upcoming year.
According to US leaks the Biden administration is open for real discussion about arms control, provided that that is indeed the intent of the Putin regime. These could include confidence building measures surrounding military exercises, the number of US and Russian troops stationed in and opposite Poland and the Baltic States, as well as reductions in long-range weapon systems.
Make no mistake, this would without doubt be a most welcome development.
One of the most under-reported aspects of this new Cold War is the almost complete breakdown of what in fact was a rather extensive number of arms control and arms reduction treaties covering both conventional weapons and forces as well as weapons of mass destruction. This year will see the fifty year anniversary of SALT I, and in the time since there has been (or rather, had been) significant advances in the field. A rejuvenated arms control regime would certainly be a fitting way of celebration, because at the end of the day, while no treaty is perfect, the world in general is safer, there’s less room for misunderstandings, and you have a better situational picture and understanding of your opponent and their options if there is a solid framework of treaties in place. Even a simple “let’s get back to the CFE, INF, and Open Skies“-would be most welcome.
The current diplomatic situation as a whole is in many ways not beneficial to the free world, as most of the recent talks between Russia and the US has taken place following threatening Russian behaviour. You don’t have to be a genius to realise that that reward the Kremlin doing bad things to get attention. Everyone knows that the US would like to pivot to China, which obviously also tells Moscow that Washington sees the current superpower hierarchy as going 1) themselves, 2) Beijing, and 3) Moscow (maybe, or then they’re just a regional power with nukes in an important region). That is obviously not how the Kremlin would prefer things, and if the only way to get to the US to treat them as equals is to march a hundred-thousand troops up and down the Ukrainian border, well, so be it. Perhaps, just perhaps, it might be worth settling in for one of two options: either talks should happen without the need for serious threats to kick them off, or alternatively talks shouldn’t happen at all, regardless of the Russian behaviour. The second option obviously is a somewhat dangerous one, while the first easily could lead to appeasement.
It is important to remember that arms reduction treaties are not a reward for good behaviour and being a decent chap. Instead, the reason for talks is exactly that the other side is made up of jerks that are doing stupid stuff. When the JCPOA-treaty about Iran’s nuclear weapons was in the headlines, a friend of mine who is a staunch supporter of democracy was surprised to learn that I supported the deal with that decidedly undemocratic and untrustworthy country. “Would I have supported a deal with Hitler?” my friend asked. “Yes,” was my answer. “Because one of the few things worse than fighting the Second World War would have been fighting the Second World War against a Nazi-Germany armed with nuclear weapons.”
That analogy is a bad mix of Goodwin’s law and counterfactual history, but it gets the point through.
Having established why I believe that arms control talks in principle would benefit the West by giving us a clearer picture on what the Russians are doing and removing or transferring some of the most aggressive capabilities further from the border to ensure a longer build-up before any Russian attack, I will unfortunately have to crash my own party by stating that I don’t think there is any hope for real and productive talks any time soon. This basically rests on the worldview found in the Kremlin.
In short, the basic premise for any arms control treaties is that they are based on reciprocity, i.e. that the sides agree to take similar steps and allow each other to have the same rights. Unfortunately, I don’t believe Russia sees the security concerns of Estonia as equally valid as their own ones, and I don’t believe Russia sees NATO as a valid partner. It has been rather clear from the outset that eyes are fixed on the price of a bilateral Russia-US agreements. There are a few possible reasons behind this, one of which is that Russia believe it is easier to get concessions from the US compared to the states neighbouring Russia, or that trying to split NATO would make eventual decoupling of the US and its allies easier. However, a possibility that in my view certainly is worth serious thought is that Russia does not understand that NATO is indeed for real an organisation made up off independent states and based on consensus decision making. The US is indeed primus inter pares when it comes to anything happening within it, but this is not the same as the role played by the Soviet Union in the Warsaw Pact where the leading nation extended Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in the form of invading armies into countries that felt they could make decisions independently (something that happened not just once, but twice, and very nearly a third time). If that is the frame of reference you have when thinking about alliances, involving the rest of the countries in any discussions are just a waste of time, and it also very effectively reduces the easternmost countries from independent states with independent security concerns into just buffer states (this certainly might explain why countries are more interested in joining the other country’s alliance instead of the one you are promoting, but reaching that insight require a certain amount of introspection and self-critical reasoning that might be anathema to the whole thing).
A word of caution here as well: if the US authorities doesn’t remember these basic facts as well, there is a very real risk of an agreement indeed leading to some level of decoupling with the easternmost NATO-countries feeling left out. Besides other obvious issues, the benefits the US gets from its network of allies and partners after all is based on the US ability to get independent states to at times compromise their own interests in the understanding that in the long-run having US support is more beneficial. If their allies start believing that they are about to be sold out in a Munich 2.0-style agreement, the US will loose influence and might indeed instead of arms reduction along both sides of the Russian border see an uptick, potentially even a small-scale arms race as countries start to invest more heavily in systems they feel hold deterrent value – such as the long-range missile systems which both the US and Russia apparently agree constitute an issue (at least the enemy once constitute an issue, the own one are obviously just peaceful deterrents).
A short tangent: some have compared NATO’s enhanced forward presence to the Cuba Crisis and asked why the US strong response there was warranted if the Russian one here isn’t. There is an obvious issues here, namely that the country which has aggressively placed nuclear-armed long-range systems close to the heartland of other countries is Russia and not NATO – the only nuclear weapons found in Europe outside of Russia is the handful of UK and French SLBMs on their submarines, a limited number of French air-launched cruise missiles stationed in France and aboard the French carrier Charles de Gaulle, as well as a modest number of traditional free-fall bombs found on a handful of air force bases in the old NATO countries. Russia on the other hand has aggressively developed and deployed new weapons and delivery systems, the most notable of which is the Iskander-M deployment to Kaliningrad. Of course, if the European countries doesn’t have valid security concerns and should just be happy that they aren’t occupied and should forget about being able to freely choose their partners and allies, then the argument becomes more understandable, but I rarely see those using the Cuba-card to justify Russian demands also supporting the US blockade on Cuba or the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Where does that leave us? Well, in the best of worlds, mutually constructive talks can be had and a number of steps decided upon between NATO as a whole and Russia. These might include e.g. the withdrawal of Iskander-units from Kaliningrad and the regions close to the Russian western border in exchange for NATO commitments to not station the upcoming post-INF systems within range of Russian territories, or the movement of the 76th Guards from Pskov to a more eastern location in exchange for set limits on US troops in eastern Poland, or simply the lower hanging fruit of pre-announcing exercises and attaching observers to said exercises.
Unfortunately, as mentioned I expect the Kremlin not to appreciate the fact that the EFP and other steps taken by NATO countries in the east is largely based on the very real concerns these countries have, in no small measure based on their experiences from decades of Soviet occupation and dominance. As such, reciprocity will most likely be hard to achieve. In that environment, any arms control treaty is most likely a bad idea, and won’t achieve the desired effect. Instead, there is a very real risk that any agreement would just lead to splits within the alliance.
A very specific word of warning for Finland and Sweden: in the unlikely scenario of a major transatlantic security agreement that would include restrictions to e.g. long-range weapon systems near the Russian border based on the understanding that Poland doesn’t need JASSM because the corresponding capabilities can be supplied by other NATO-members, Finland and Sweden would be left vulnerable being both unable to buy high-end capabilities from NATO-members as well as not having the protection offered by being part of the alliance. The obvious solution is to join the alliance to ensure a seat at the table, and not just the courteous phone calls afterwards informing about what the decision is.
…and while the US just selling out the countries of eastern and central Europe – either under this administration or the next one – might be an unlikely option, it is also an extremely high-impact one, and since the options for the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea then would range from bad to expensive, it is high time to start thinking about what our plan is in that case.
That Sweden has had a rough time with their NH 90-fleet is no secret. The HKP 14 as it is known locally was delayed to the extent that a batch of 15 UH-60M Blackhawk had to be acquired as a stop-gap for the MEDEVAC-role in Afghanistan due to the Swedish Super Pumas being retired and the NH90 still being quite some way off from entering service. The UH-60M has been a stunning success for the Swedes, becoming a reliable workhorse for the Swedish Armed Forces in general and the airmobile soldiers of the K 3 Livregementets hussarer (Life Regiment Hussars) in particular.
Now, unlike the situation in Finland where the NH90 eventually overcame the teething troubles to be widely accepted as a fully functioning and integrated part of the Finnish Defence Forces, the NH90 in Sweden has continued to struggle. To the extent that questions about the future of the platform has continued to be raised at regular intervals. A key part of the question is the role of the maritime mission sets which currently is outside the scope of Blackhawk operations. Instead, the Swedish NH 90-fleet sport two different versions: the transport-roled HKP 14E and the maritime-roled HKP 14F. Crucially, the HKP 14F is not an NH90 FFH, but a uniquely Swedish version based on the NH90 TTH (in addition both versions sport a higher cabin to provide a more ergonomic working environment, but the cost impact of that much-maligned feature at this stage is likely minor). The nine HKP 14F are equipped with a “tactical radar” (i.e. a maritime surveillance radar), dipping sonar, as well as sonobuoy launcher and processing capability. Keen readers will note that there are no weapons or datalinks in the description above, and that omission is not by accident.
Somehow, with Sweden being no stranger to neither airborne ASW-operations nor datalinks, it was originally decided against acquiring weapons or datalinks for the NH90, despite the platform being a key integrated part in both the surface and sub-surface warfare plans of the Swedish Navy. The realisation that this is stupid is nothing new, and has been discussed since before the helicopters were delivered. Eventually, common sense prevailed, and the latest long-term plan dictate that the integration of the new lightweight torpedo (TP 47) and a datalink will begin before 2025.
Back in 2018 it was reported that the Swedish Armed Forces looked into mothballing all of the transport-roled HKP 14E operating in northern Sweden to save money. A year later the issues continued, with lack of spares and too few trained technicians leading to fewer (and more costly) flight hours than planned, meaning that the northern Swedish Army units in Arvidsjaur (the recently reinstituted ranger regiment) and Boden have had a hard time getting the flight hours they need.
Shortly before Christmas this year, it was reported that the armed forces again are looking at cutting the NH90-fleet. Following preliminary studies, there are two main options: one is to continue with the NH90 and go through with the planned upgrades for the HKP 14F to get the datalink and torpedo, while also ordering another batch of Blackhawks. The second option is to retire all NH90s, and instead go for a joint UH-60 Blackhawk/MH-60 Seahawk-fleet for all the helicopter needs of the Swedish Armed Forces (there is a third helicopter, the light AW109 which is in service as the HKP 15 and seem set for retirement without direct replacement). It is somewhat unclear what is supposed to happen with the HKP 14E, but considering the wish to buy more Blackhawks in both scenarios and the apparent focus on the maritime HKP 14F it does sound like the days of the HKP 14E in the army cooperation role is numbered.
On paper the joint Blackhawk/Seahawk-fleet sounds all nice and simple, and I will say that I am a big proponent of cutting losses and not succumbing to the sunken cost fallacy. At the same time, it is evident that the truth isn’t quite as straightforward.
A key reason why the UH-60M Blackhawk deal was so successful is that it was a rather straightforward need (move healthy and sick people and equipment quickly from point A to B) and that it was accepted to just grab what was already in US service and paint some Swedish crowns on the side (slight exaggeration, but not by much). It is significantly more doubtful if the same is the case for the highly technical ASW-role, case in point being the Danish order for the MH-60R Seahawk (affectionally known as Romeo thanks to the version-letter). Denmark received approval back in 2010 for nine MH-60R, and they achieved IOC in 2017. However, crucially Denmark opted for a non-ASW fitted MH-60R, and decided to include some unique equipment (including the NATO-standard harpoon-hydraulic deck-locking system instead of the US RAST, as well as specific emergency equipment). As such, they have largely operated in the SAR and fisheries protection role, and only now are they being refitted (“during the coming years”) to be able to operate in the ASW-role. This puts it more or less at the same schedule as the Swedish NH90, depending on when exactly “the coming years” is and how long the Swedish integration starting before 2025 takes.
Another major question is how the blue-water Romeo works in the brackish littorals of the Baltic Sea? That’s less of an issue for Denmark, where the majority of the time the helicopters will be working out in the North Sea or around Greenland, but for Sweden the Baltic Sea is the main playing field of the Navy. This is acknowledged by the Swedish Armed Forces, and is one of the key reasons why the NH90 NFH wasn’t bought. The plan now is to be able to get a USN helicopter over some time during next summer, and get to see how that performs in Swedish conditions. Obviously, even if the Romeo is chosen, there is a sliding scale between a HKP 16-style off-the-shelf buy and a stripped Romeo fitted with Swedish ASW-equipment and weapons dedicated to the Baltic Sea-environment. Obviously, the most extreme version would be to grab a UH-60M and start installing the extra equipment in that in the same way as is being done with the HKP 14F, something that certainly would be more costly at the outset but would provide a higher degree of synergies and also be based on a simpler platform compared to the navalised MH-60 (there certainly are synergies between the UH-60M and the MH-60R, but there certainly are differences as well). Because for the time being, and unlike Denmark, no Swedish vessel is able to accept either the Blackhawk or the NH90 (the Visby can take aboard the AW109, which honestly might be the feature most sorely missed if it is retired without replacement), meaning that features such as folding blades and tail are just adding extra weight, meaning that a converted Blackhawk might be attractive. A middle of the road alternative that most likely would only combine the worst of the two alternatives would be to use the MH-60S Knighthawk, the multi-role sister to the Romeo, and fit it with an ASW-suite. The Sierra is in essence a navalised version of the UH-60L fitted with the same cockpit and navalised systems as the Romeo (minus the ASW-stuff), and is used for a number of different missions in the US Navy.
Notable is that production for the US Navy has ended for both versions in 2018 (Romeo) and 2015 (Sierra) respectively, though export orders are keeping the production line of the Romeo warm (latest of which is an Australian order for additional Blackhawks and Seahawks to replace their NH90s a decade early in both the transport- and maritime-roles). The Sierra just might be easier to work with if Sweden would want a Seahawk, but with a fully Swedish mission system and if they then would run into some hardware/space-related issues, but the Romeo is by far the most likely alternative (ironically, one of the few prospective MH-60S export orders was for a Qatari contract where a mixed MH-60R/S-fleet lost to the NH90).
However, if we look at the other extreme, and Sweden would simply order nine MH-60R according to USN specifications, there certainly is some interesting options here. To begin with aligning what will be a very small fleet with the standard of a larger operator does provide significant benefits when it comes to operating and upgrade costs, and both spares and weapons would likely be available at a rather cheap rate. The USN training pipeline could potentially also be used, something that might become more of an issue if the AW109 is withdrawn from service.
(Keen readers might notice that several of these points figured prominently during discussions about the HX-program.)
The Romeo and its sensors almost certainly isn’t as well suited to the Baltic Sea as a fully kitted out HKP 14F would be, but here comes the classic question: is a 75 or 90% solution at half the cost the best bang for the buck (note the numbers are pure examples)? A key detail is that finding submarines is extremely difficult, and despite the technological advances is still highly reliant on skilled personnel with a good understanding of local conditions. If switching to a solution that technically might not be the best fit allow the crews to train more, the end result might still be more scrap metal at the bottom of the sea than would otherwise be the case.
However – and this is an aspect that the Swedish evaluation will find hard to overlook – ASW is seen as a significant strategic interest for the Swedish defence industry, and killing the HKP 14F with its Saab-designed and built tactical mission system (including domestic sonar) will prove politically difficult. The orders are already far and few between, and with the Armed Forces in general short on funding a decision to acquire a standard Romeo is bound to raise uncomfortable questions. If the Mark 54 is good enough for the heliborne ASW-component, perhaps it is so for the rest of the force as well? What about sensors and processing units? This obviously also ties in with the same questions asked about the small submarine force, as many of the systems rest on a solid knowledge of similar topics (including e.g. Torped 47 as the obvious common weapon system). Giving up the locally developed sensors and weapons on the helicopter might very well come back to bite the Navy at a later stage when it is time for an upgrade of shipboard sensors and systems. As such, the decision on how to proceed with the helicopter part of things shouldn’t be taken lightly.
In the end, a Swedish Romeo-mod might still turn out to the be the best and cheapest option overall. However, the speedy UH-60M buy might not be the best reference point. Rather a highly complex project that hopefully can salvage the lessons (and potentially some hardware) from the current HKP 14F-fleet is to be expected, and I would not be surprised if the FOC date more or less corresponds to what would be the case for a full datalink and torpedo integration for the NH90.
(And since I know you will ask: I don’t foresee Finland acquiring ex-Swedish NH90s to increase the size of the Finnish fleet, though I certainly could imagine some being acquired for cannibalisation in case the spares situation is as poor as the Australian decision seem to indicate)
The opaque Sako AR has finally properly broken cover with an FDF order for series production of the weapon. The weapon – which was known as the K22 in the testing phase – was officially adopted as the M23 with an order worth approximately 10 MEUR this week. The weapon will be acquired in two configurations for the (light) sniper and designated marksman roles. In these configurations the weapon will be known as the 7.62 TKIV 23 and 7.62 KIV 23 respectively.
Emphasis can be placed on the fact that both rifles are the same, with only the accessories differing. Key among these differences is that the TKIV 23 (sniper rifle) will sport a Steiner M7Xi 2,9-20×50 with a modified MSR2-reticle. The MSR2 is a prime example of a modern sniper optic, which means it is packed with different dots and bars to allow for accurate judging of distances and adjustment for different conditions (and which also make it look rather busy to the untrained eye, something the Finnish modifications deals with). The KIV 23 (DMR) will instead sport the Trijicon VCOG 1-6×24, which is a typical example of modern DMR-optics in that it allows for almost red dot-like close-range versatility at the non-magnified setting while still providing for target recognition and accurate shots at range with the higher magnification.
Most of the details are what you would expect from a modern DMR-platform. The weapon is an AR-10 pattern short-stroke piston-operated semi-auto rifle, fully ambidextrous, ships with 10- and 20-round P-mags, free-floating barrel, NATO Accessory Rail (i.e. backwards-compatible with Picatinny) and M-LOK mounting options, and sports a Ase Utra flow-through suppressor as standard (believe this is the version in question) mounted on a BoreLock-flash hider, adjustable Magpul CTR stock (which is used also on the upgraded 7.62 RK 62M), green ceramic coating, and so forth. Perhaps the one thing that does somewhat differentiate the weapon is the fact that it comes only with a 16” barrel, with a number of countries (including Norway) preferring a 20” barrel for their corresponding sniper systems. At the same time the uniqueness of this feature shouldn’t be exaggerated, as 16” barrels certainly also are found in a number of places (such as the US Army’s new M110A1 which likewise is used both as a compact sniper rifle and as a DMR). There is obviously a bipod involved as well, which for the time being at least is a Magpul bipod.
An interesting detail is that more or less all components are found straight off the shelf, meaning the cost should be manageable (and any reservist wanting to build their own MILSPEC-rifle should be able to do so once the rifle itself is out on the civilian market, something which I expect will happen within the next few years). Several of the components are also familiar from the RK 62M, further highlighting that while the weapon itself is new, this is really a rather straightforward and conservative design. As such the risk of any unpleasant surprises down the road either when it comes to performance or cost appear limited.
The first deliveries will take place before the end of 2022, with conscripts getting their hands on the weapon starting in 2023 (hence the name), after which “most” 7.62 TKIV 85 (a highly modded Mosin-Nagant) and all 7.62 TKIV Dragunov (no points for guessing which weapon that is) will be withdrawn from Finnish service. While infantry weapons seldom win wars, it is hard to describe how much of an upgrade this is for both the Finnish snipers as well as for the designated marksmen running around with Kalashnikovs with ACOGs (okay, slight exaggeration, but still). On paper the effective ranges are reported as up to 800 meters with the Steiner scope and up to 600 meters with the VCOG, though to be honest I would not be surprised if trained shooters under somewhat decent conditions would be able to be effective out to and beyond the 1,000 meter mark considering the scope, calibre, and Sako’s reputation for quality on their rifles. A key detail here is that the FDF press release discussing the ranges mentions high-quality rounds when talking about the 800 meters figure, while the DMR apparently is not set to receive such luxuries. One of the obvious benefits of the 7.62×51 mm is obviously the fact that there is both (relatively) cheap bulk ammunition allowing for training at shorter ranges, as well as dedicated long-range loads. The small number of rounds fired by Finnish conscript snipers is certainly one of the weaknesses of the current training, something that hopefully at least partially can be remedied by the transfer away from the classic rimmed 7.62 mm calibres.
The obvious question at this stage is why isn’t this a Heckler & Koch HK417/G28/M110A1? That does seem to tick all the boxes, right? The obvious answer is that the M23 is made in Finland, with the FDF better being able to influence design and production, and security of supply certainly is a key driver. On paper, there is preciously little that differentiates the two weapons from each other, and it will be highly interesting to see if this is just an illusion once the first comparative reviews start to appear on the internet. What has been said is that the FDF did test the GK417 as well, but preferred to go with the M23.
What about the Swedes? As mentioned earlier the weapon is currently undergoing testing in Sweden in the DMR-version with the VCOG as a potential replacement for the AK 4D (modified G3), and while the testing is still underway with no word on the findings, brigadier general Mikael Frisell (Director Land Systems at the Swedish Defence Material Administration, FMV) confirmed that if the weapon meet the Swedish requirement the “primary alternative is to buy the same as Finland, i.e. both the weapon and the accessories”. In other words, the Swedish DMR would be the same specification as the 7.62 KIV 23. The brigadier general was indeed over on a quick visit to Helsinki on the day of FDF placing the order with Sako to sign an Implementation Arrangement for firearms together with his Finnish colleague, building upon the earlier agreements (as well as a highly interesting Technical Arrangement for joint procurement of ammunition to mortars, MBTs, artillery, and anti-tank systems), further cementing the path forward.
Is this also the new assault rifle for both countries then? The short answer is that the M23 contract does not include anything besides sniper rifles and DMRs. However, as was earlier reported, both countries are looking at renewing their assault rifles, and with Sweden reportedly having taken lead on the assault rifle, and looking at the 7.62 NATO as the most promising candidate due to its development potential, and both countries having expressed a wish to buy from Sako due to security of supply reasons, any future assault rifle bought from Sako in the same calibre would certainly be at least based on the M23. But, and I will stress this, for the time being no such contracts are in place, and the assault rifle program is still at the concept stage.
An interesting detail is that there’s an option in the FDF order that is worth 525 MEUR (yes, fifty times the original order value). Exactly what this covers is interesting, but note that sniper rifles tend to be expensive when coming fully kitted out. The M110A1 is for example coming in at approximately 12,000 USD (10.6 kEUR), and it is entirely possible that there is included e.g. simulators or even bulk buys of ammunition for a decade or two with a requirement on Sako to deliver batches meeting a certain accuracy requirement, all of which could drive costs. Also, it is worth remembering that even if the weapon will be rare-ish in Finnish service, that’s still one in nine of the infantry soldiers in the first line squads who will receive the KIV 23. However, no matter how you parse it, it has to be said that the option is certainly surprisingly large. The potential Swedish order value is also not included, though the cross-buy principle reported earlier means that the contract signed by the lead country include the option for the partner to acquire weapons according to the same cost and legal terms.
Back in 2017 I was fortunate enough to travel to RAF Lossiemouth together with a bunch of Finnish media courtesy of BAE Systems to get up and close with the Eurofighter Typhoon group operating there. When discussing the fact that the RAF was acquiring both the Typhoon and the F-35, Wing Commander Billy Cooper, then-CO of the 6 Squadron, said something that puzzled me.
You need stealth to be able to go forward
It seemed the Wing Commander didn’t understand which aircraft he was supposed to be selling.
After what has been described as perhaps the most fair and transparent fighter acquisition program this side of the Cold War – one that resulted in an unprecedented five serious best and final offers – we finally have a winner, and it certainly was a case of a favourite that held. The F-35A was always the one to beat, and while Finland looked like it could be the place where it would be possible to do so (my personal opinion was that the Super Hornet/Growler-combination was the most likely), it turned out that it was not to be here (either). The much-maligned stealth fighter instead took a rather resounding win in being chosen as the next fighter for the Finnish Air Force. With the FDF traditionally having been known to err on the side of conservative rather than the revolutionary, it certainly adds to the credibility of the claim that the aircraft is maturing nicely.
The strong points of the F-35 are at the same time well-known, but also often somewhat misunderstood (in particular in a Finnish situation). Yes, the aircraft is stealthy, and as Cooper noted that is indeed a big benefit, but it is far from a one-trick-pony. To start with perhaps the most boring factor, simply the sheer amount of F-35s sold is a huge benefit. As has been stressed from the outset, Finland can’t afford to be the sole operator of an aircraft (or even the sole operator of a particular configuration), something which the Hornet MLU-programs have taught the service. The F-35 will be around in numbers in 2060, and there will be users who will be as reliant as Finland on keeping the aircraft up to date. Yes, aircraft spotters will cry a bit as yet another air force convert to the same single-type force, but in the real world that does benefit the operators.
Speaking of which, much of the hesitation about the F-35 has been surrounding how it is from the outset is conceptualised to benefit from being the NATO-standard, with concentrated maintenance and spares supplies. However, in what is a major win for the team behind HX, Lockheed Martin provided a unique tailored solution to Finland – one described in their BAFO-press statement to “includes many opportunities for the Finnish defense industry related to the direct manufacture and maintenance of the F-35 that have not been offered before.” This is in line also with the earlier talking points of Lockheed Martin throughout the past few years, which has focused on the fact that maintenance solutions and spares packages indeed can be altered to meet the needs of the Finnish Air Force (one might also note that Israel had no issue securing far-reaching rights to do stuff themselves, showing that while they arguably are a special case, the rules of the F-35 game aren’t as set as some would like to make them out to be). But while it has been reported earlier that Finland received a “firm commitment” for a number of components and sub-assemblies for not just the Finnish F-35s but for the global fleet as well (itself something significantly more far-reaching than most other countries), today’s presser included information that included a firm commitment that 400 forward fuselage will be assembled in Finland! It’s hard to stress how much of a different league this is compared to e.g. the Danish agreement (and how happy this makes me as a taxpayer).
This is obviously part of building the security of supply. The principle is simple: Finland is to be able to keep the aircraft up in the air even if the borders are shut. To ensure that Finland will have an indigenous maintenance and repair capability for over 100 components (including parts of the fuselage and engine), which is based on the items covered by the industrial cooperation agreement. There will also be significant stockpiles of components that aren’t on the list of items which Finland can repair and overhaul organically (often parts with very long mean time between failures, and for which it aren’t economical to build up an independent repair capability). Notable is also that the Finnish organic repair capability is not just for domestic use, but is also part of the GSS (the global support solution) meaning that they will be used to maintain parts for the global spares pool.
The package is unprecedented, with Lockheed Martin describing it as including opportunities that haven’t been offered to any other country. Company representatives also acknowledged that the road hadn’t been easy.
There were some tense moments.
Their Finnish counterparts had apparently been “very Finnish and upfront with us about where we weren’t meeting their expectations”. It is also evident from both the Finnish authorities and Lockheed Martin that the negotiations have been both tough and thorough, and lead to a significantly better final bid than would have been possible with a more straightforward process. An interesting note in the documentation is that the industrial participation comes with a direct 116 MEUR price-tag, which frankly feels like steal for the capability offered.
The weapons package is at the same time comprehensive and straightforward. The first package which will be signed off at the same time as the fighter contract is for AIM-120C-8 AMRAAMs and AIM-9X Sidewinders. Further down the road the package will most likely include JSM in the joint air-to-ground and anti-ship roles, as well as the AGM-158 JASSM-ER heavy cruise missile, GBU-54 and GBU-56 LJDAM laser-/GPS-guided bombs in the 250 and 1,000 kg class, as well as the GBU-39 SDB and GBU-53/B StormBreaker SDB II small-diameter bombs. Notable is that this will bring serious new capabilities to the Finnish Air Force, such as the ability to hit moving and mobile targets, on land and at sea. The procurement will be staggered to ensure that there won’t be a single huge batch of weapons becoming obsolescent at the same time, and to ensure that developments with new versions of existing weapons or even completely new munitions are kept up with (no-one is officially mentioning the AIM-260 JATM, but we all know it is coming). That the air-to-air missiles will be first comes naturally as the current Hornet-fleet is expected to be viable in the air-to-ground role longer than it will be in the air-to-air role. As such, during the period of transition the plan is that the F-35A is to be able to focus on the fighter role, with the ability to escort the Hornets focusing on the ground-pounding if the need arises. The total arms package is for approximately 1.58 Bn EUR, of which 754.6 MEUR is for the air-to-air missiles to be acquired in the first step, and 823.8 MEUR for later procurement (up to 2030) and which also will provide funding to the reserve in case parts of the contract will have to be renegotiated/or in case there will be technical risks. Notable is that the large number of weapons included had a positive effect on the evaluation.
Money, Money, Money…
Which brings us to what has been the most controversial aspect of the program: cost.
The acquisition cost has come down nicely, and the current contract gives a unit cost of 73.49 MEUR per aircraft for the Finnish aircraft. More controversial is the annual operating costs, and with impeccable timing I last week noted that both the Norwegian and Swiss life-cycle costs were significantly over the Finnish ones, 77.5% and 30% respectively if extrapolated out to 64. Extrapolating never works, but the difference was large enough that I wanted an explanation. Especially as the Finnish number is 37% below the current US annual cost per aircraft (though it actually lines up rather nicely with the stated US target). Luckily, brigadier general Keränen, Deputy Chief of Staff Air Force Operations, was happy to open up the calculations.
The obvious issue is that it never is an apples versus apples comparison. Switzerland famously include VAT in their costings, something that the FDF avoids. The Swiss also present indexed average costs adjusted for inflation, while the Finnish figure is given in 2021 Euros. The USAF also include a number of basing costs in their figures (and notable is that a USAF base include quite a bit more than a Finnish air force base). But Finland is also paradoxically assisted by jumping aboard the train at a relatively late stage, as the US don’t charge for non-recurring costs, and the partner nations – although they get a share of the license cost when fighters are sold abroad – have obviously invested significant sums throughout the program which now show up in their LCC. But there are a number of other key issues as well. Finland will fly approximately 9,000 hours annually, which is in line with the current Hornet flight hours. However, with the relative large number of aircraft that actually mean that the Finnish fleet flies 140 flight hours per aircraft annually – approximately half of what the USAF does. This naturally create less wear and lower maintenance cost per aircraft and year. Notable is also that the 2 Bn EUR in upgrades are placed outside of the 254 MEUR annual operating costs, a relic from the Hornet-era where upgrades were major MLU-style projects. Another key difference between Finnish and many other European air forces is that Finland plan to shift training from the US back to Finland at a relatively early stage – following their good experiences with the current (cost-effective) proptrainer – Hawk – Hornet pipeline. Keeping pilots at home instead of paying for them living abroad usually turns out to be cheaper (have you seen the real estate prices in Rovaniemi lately?), and we haven’t even mentioned the conscript mechanics. At the end of the day, all bids had roughly similar annual operating costs.
Side note: Yes, that means that no Finnish fighters will stay in the US.
The explanations sounds reasonable enough to me, but even more convincing are two other factors. To begin with, the Finnish Defence Forces is small enough that there isn’t much room for infighting and the Air Force can’t afford to start eating the budget of the other services. And while you might argue that I am naive on that point, even more crucially both external audits and calculations made by the MoD has shown nothing out of the ordinary.
All of the major rumoured causes for the cheap operating costs – cutting any of the bases or cutting the flight hours – are thus out of the question.
All bases, both main bases, other air force bases, alternative civilian fields, and road bases, remain in use. The F-35A has no major issues with operating from the current Finnish network. The key detail that is setting the limit is the safety margins required for an aborted take-off. The old ‘hot’ MiG-21 and J 35 Draken have flown from all, including roads, earlier, and while the F-35A (like any modern fighter) is easier when it comes to the ‘flying’ part, it is also quite a bit heavier at maximum take-off weight. To ensure braking in poor conditions, the Finnish aircraft will be fitted with the ‘Norwegian’ braking chute. As such, the whole current base network will continue in service. The upgrades to infrastructure is broken down in further detail in the official documents, with 409 MEUR for buildings and 75 MEUR for upgrades to the C3I-systems. These include the (in)famous upgrades to cybersecurity in line with the US requirements.
There will however indeed be a serious upgrade to the number of simulators, but not to replace flight hours but to increase the number of simulator training opportunities.
A notable detail is that several of the speakers took time to praise the other offers and note the importance of the countries that provided them as ranking among Finland’s most important allies and partners, a notion that was echoed in the official Swedish MoD press release that in no uncertain terms stated that Finland remain the kingdom’s closest partner, and that the defence cooperation is based on shared values and strategic interests rather than on common arms deals. I will admit that I was happy to hear that, as there always is a risk of backlash in these kinds of situations.
When all is said and done
Having passed the gate checks – something that the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale proved unable to do – the F-35A then went on to beat both the Super Hornet/Growler and Gripen/GlobalEye offers in both the combat evaluation and when it comes to the future development potential. The aircraft will be delivered in ‘Block 4 standard’, though the iterative development path of modern aircraft means that things seldom are that simple. What Block 4 mean in this case is that the first Finnish fighters – coming out of Lot 17 in 2025 – will have the TR3 hardware upgrades that are associated with the Block 4 (including the sidekick upgrade that allow for six AMRAAMs in internal carriage) and what Lockheed Martin describes as the “vast majority” of the software upgrades. The final upgrades will come with Lot 18. The exact engine in use by then is unclear, though looking at the timeline it certainly looks like an uprated F135 might be an option.
The evaluation focused on a major war scenario, in which the air to air role was the focus (30%), with 10% weight being allocated to supporting the Finnish Navy (I can happily report that it indeed was a naval officer who was involved in this part of the evaluation), and 20% each to supporting the Army, long-range fires, and ISR. The F-35A ranked first or joint-first in all mission sets.
At the end of the day, the F-35 has beaten some of the toughest competition, including the bureaucracy and inertia, to come out on top. Following the string of victories it has scored throughout Europe and other parts of the world, there seems little doubt that it indeed is the premier fighter for years to come. As such, it certainly is nice to know that it will also be the aircraft protecting Finnish skies, and it is easy to agree with the official line that the procurement shows that Finland is serious about national defence and now is able to increase the threshold of a potential war.
A recent discussion on Twitter caught my eye. In short, fellow blogger ‘IsoT’ had made a scenario in Command: Modern Operations where he ran HX-contenders in strike missions against Russian targets. What raised eyebrows was that a combined Super Hornet/Growler-force had little issues with cleaning out enemy aircraft, they struggled in the face of the Russian IADS. Perhaps most surprisingly, the suppression reportedly worked rather well, but few kills against enemy radars/other GBAD-systems were scored. This peeked my interest, and I got intrigued enough to start doing my own wargaming. But let’s start from the beginning.
What is Command: Modern Operations?
Command: Modern Operations (CMO) is the follow-on to the older Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations (COMANO), itself the spiritual successor to the old Harpoon-series. The basic version is based on open sources and meant largely for entertainment purposes (though granted you need a bit of an unconventional definition of “entertainment” to enjoy it, but I figure most of my readers will fit that description). There is also a professional edition, which sport an impressive list of references (including, ironically enough, both Boeing and Lockheed Martin, as well as a number of services). CMO is widely billed as the best simulator available to the general public for this kind of scenarios, though obviously it being based on open information will lead to a certain amount of guesswork when it comes to the most classified capabilities (such as stealth and EW). As such, while you shouldn’t treat the results as gospel, it does provide some interesting pointers.
Note that there for all aircraft are some omissions/less than ideal loadouts in the database for the rather particular Finnish case. These will have an effect on the outcome. I also generally prefer to create the missions and then let the AI play them out instead of directing individual aircraft and shots. With that said, I have not played the scenarios completely hands-off, but have intervened a few times when e.g. the automated waypoints are placed straight on top of known enemy air defence sites.
So what’s the situation?
For my scenario I imagine us being a bit into a conflict taking place roughly in 2031, with Russian forces advancing on the Vyborg-Hamina and Vyborg-Lappeenranta routes, as well as holding force being located in Niirala/Värtsilä. At this stage the Finnish Air Force decides that cutting a bunch of bridges in the enemy’s rear will slow things down for the aggressor, and as such a coordinated strike is mounted.
The Russian forces are made up of fighters, IADS, Army air defence units, as well as small surface action group operating between Gogland and St Petersburg. In the interest of keeping things manageable and staying with the large coordinated strike-theme I decided to not model enemy air strikes which could be presumed to take place at the same time. As such, no Russian air-to-ground aircraft or helicopters are included in the scenario, and a number of Finnish fighters are deducted to represent fighters on stand-by for other missions (such as defensive counter air).
So how many fighters do Finland have free for this mission? A very rough calculation starts with 64 HX fighters, of which say 12 are unavailable due to maintenance, another 12 shot-down, destroyed, or damaged so that they are unavailable, and 12 being used for other missions. That leaves 28 available for what would be the main offensive air operation, which does sound like a number that is in the right neighbourhood. You can argue it up or down, but in the end that is largely a question of details. As this is the Finnish Air Force we’re talking about, the fighters are dispersed over a number of bases, with the most obviously being found on the main air force bases (Tampere-Pirkkala, Jyväskylä-Tikkakoski, and Kuopio-Rissala in this case, as Rovaniemi is too far north to be of much importance for this operation). The Finnish forces also has their trusty C-295 Dragon Shield SIGINT platform airborne, and there are a number of Finnish GBAD and air surveillance systems spread out (NASAMS-ER isn’t found in the database, so we presume CAMM has won the ITSUKO award).
Sweden and other countries are friendly but not involved in the fighting. That means that BAP (made up of four Italian Eurofighters, of which three are serviceable) and Sweden (operating a GlobalEye and escorting JAS 39E Gripens out of F 16 Uppsala) share their situational picture with Finland. You may argue this is unrealistic, but it felt like a suitable middle ground between modelling a full-scale Baltic Sea-wide conflict on one side and a completely isolated Finland on the other.
Perhaps the biggest question for the scenario is the Russian order of battle. I have made a number of assumptions based on the current Russian OOB, in essence assuming upgrades are taking place, a number of units are pulled from other districts to support the conflict, and that modern weaponry (R-77 being key here) are available in numbers (this last point has proved a surprisingly big hurdle when it comes to modernising Russian air power, but in another ten years I am going to give them the assumption of finally having a modern active MRAAM).
With regards to the units, the following will be doing the fighting and the changes I’ve made:
159 IAP in Besovets (Petrozavodsk) will have received another Su-35S squadron to replace it’s current Su-27SM one, bringing their total strength up to three squadrons of Su-35S,
790 IAP at Kohtilovo replaces their last Su-27SM with Su-35S, bringing their total strength up to two squadrons of MiG-31BM and one of Su-35S. The Su-35S squadron is forward-deployed to Pushkin (St Petersburg), while the two MiG-31BM squadrons provide escort to the AEW&C aircrafts and fly CAP with a prosecution area over St Petersburg while patrolling a bit further back,
The naval air arm will have converted both squadrons to MiG-29K (with a small number of MiG-29KUBR), and both 279 KIAP and 100 KIAP are forward-deployed to Gromovo, which have been used by the units earlier,
AEW&C is provided by the 610 TsBP out of Ivanovo Severnyi with a small number of A-100 (the unit currently operating variants of the A-50),
Current plans call for three squadrons of Su-57 to have been delivered by then. I have based two of these at Pushkin and Besovets respectively, being designated 31 IAP and 14 IAP respectively. The designations are more and indication that these are reinforcements deployed north for this particular conflict rather than me betting that A) these will be among the first three units two set up squadrons of Su-57, and B) that these two wings would provide the squadrons used to reinforce a Finnish conflict.
Again, there are lots of arguments to be made with regards to which particular units would come to support, whether there would be more or less or units, and how many would be available to meet a Finnish air strike and how many would be tied up with other tasks (such as escort missions) in the same way a number of Finnish aircraft are (again, we are only looking at the Finnish strike and the Russian response, which is an oversimplification, but one that hopefully strikes a balance between engagements too small to provide useful data and those too large to be able to run properly).
The Russian Air Force (and Naval Aviation) will fly three main CAP-boxes in addition to the air defence missions the MiG-31s are tasked with. One box roughly cover the Karelian Ishmuts and inner parts of the Gulf of Finland. This is covered by the Pushkin-based units, and at T=0 there are one flight of Su-35S and two of Su-57 taking off (each flight consisting of two fighters), with a third Su-57 flight and two Su-35S flights being ready at T+60 and another 10+10 aircraft in reserve.
The central CAP-box cover the Karelian Isthmus and Lake Ladoga as well as the immediate shoreline of it to the north and north-east. This is the responsibility of the naval fighters, launching three flights of MiG-29K at T=0, followed by another two flights at T+60, and 15 MiG-29K plus 4 MiG-29KUB in reserve.
The Northern CAP-box stretches roughly from the centreline of Lake Ladoga and up to the centreline of Onega. This is the responsibility of the Besovets-based fighters, which launches one flight of Su-57 and two flights of Su-35S at T=0, with a second Su-57 flight at T+30 and two Su-35S flights at T+60, with another 5+18 aircraft in reserve.
The Navy would likely mainly operate out of Baltiysk, but I included a small surface action group made up of one Project 2235 Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate and two Project 22800 Karakurt-class corvettes.
The integrated air defences consist of a number of units, spread out over both regions:
Four battalions of S-400 providing general air defence coverage,
Six 9K330Tor-M2KM platoons, defending installations such as radars, bridges, and airfields,
Seven 9K37M1-2 Buk-M1-2 platoons, defending different areas and key targets,
Four Pantsir-SM platoons,
Five 1L257 Krasuha-4 and three 1L267 Moskva-1 jammers/ELINT-platforms,
One 55Zh6M Nebo-M (Tall Rack) VHF-band radar at Valamo in Lake Ladoga,
One 36D6 (Tin Shield B) air surveillance radar on Gogland.
In all cases I’ve strived to place the units at local high spots to provide ample coverage.
In addition, the army units are obviously supported by their own air defence units:
Two S-300V4 Antey battalions supporting the main thrust, being placed close to the bridges over the Bay of Vyborg,
Five 9K22M1 Tunguska-M1 platoons,
Eleven ZSU-23-4 Shilka platoons.
In a real-world scenario there obviously would be a ground-war going on, hiding the GBAD-platforms among a number of other radar blips. To provide for something to that effect without having the processor try to smoke itself, I’ve inserted a total of 30 generic T-72BM platoons (four MBTs in each). In this scenario, their only mission is to mask the important units.
Again, it is entirely possible to argue for any number of changes to the setup presented above, but at the end of the day I believe there should be enough fireworks to separate the wheat from the chaff.*
F-35A – Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes
IsoT reportedly flew with bombs. My spontaneous reaction was that that felt like literally begging for flak, but I was certainly not going to skip over testing that. Especially as Lockheed Martin has argued for the F-35 having an edge over the competition in being able to use cost-effective weapons (i.e. bombs) when others will have to use longer-ranged (i.e. more expensive) munitions. So to begin with, let’s see if the F-35A can bring down a bunch of highly defended bridges with GBU-31!
The idea is simple. Four F-35A north and six F-35A south of Lake Ladoga will clean up the ground-based air defence in their respective areas with GBU-53/B SDB II, while the strikes will take place with eight F-35As towards Olonets (plus two escorting) and four F-35As towards the Vyborg-bridges (plus four escorting). All aircraft carries only internal loadouts.
This isn’t working out too well. The F-35s dive towards the deck, but both get bagged by the ship-launched SAMs (9M96D, fired from the naval version of the S-350 found aboard Admiral Gorshkov).
The northern battle is rather tense, with the enemy fighters making more of a showing.
An interesting detail is that the air battle to the north pull away most fighters from the Karelian Isthmus, leaving the door open for the incoming strike aircraft (well, with the exception of the ground-based systems…). It can be mentioned that at this stage the two F-35As have been joined by no less than 13 enemy fighters in the ‘Lost’-column (5 MiG-29K, 4 Su-35S, 4 Su-57). Also worth mentioning that the Finnish fighters have already fired no more than 35 AIM-120D AMRAAMs (against 23 R-77 and eight 9M96D for the Russians), showing the value of large weapon stocks.
However, things take a turn for the worse, and there’s only so many active radarseekers one can outrun. Both the fighters and the Admiral Gorshkov start to take their toll. At the same time the SEAD-efforts and strikes are starting to create some havoc.
The end-result are somewhat surprising. Pushing in to use JDAMs prove though, with 13 out of 28 F-35As not coming home. On the enemy side, more or less the whole first wave of fighters is brought down, with 18 downed aircraft shared equally between MiG-29K, Su-35S, and Su-57. The SEAD-mission is something of a failure, with a large number of the 59 GBU-53/Bs being dropped in-flight by enemy fire. In the end, two Buk TELARs and one Buk LLV as well as a handfull of Shilkas are wiped out. Five bridges are brought down, including one of the heavily defended ones next to Vyborg. Most surprising was the relatively low number of kills for the GBADs, with a Buk and a S-300V4 scoring a single kill each with the fighters and in particular the Admiral Gorshkov proving highly effective. Of course, the large number of missiles in the air that force the F-35s to bleed energy means that the larger systems might have played a more important role in ensuring the kills than the statistics seem to indicate, but considering the large number of missiles fired (10 9M338K from the Tor, 24 9M317 from the Buk, 19 9M311-M1 from the Tungushka, 33 40N6 from the S-400, 48 9M83M from the S-300V4, and 32 9M96D from the Gorshkov), the probability of a kill isn’t overly impressive for the ground-based systems. In part, the F-35s operating at altitude and the flanking position of the Gorshkov probably explain its success compared to the other systems.
Two reruns – including one where I try to actively target the Gorshkov in the first wave of strikes – gives roughly the same result. Yes, you can achieve the target, but there will be significant blood. It feels like it should be doable, but somehow there’s always too much stuff flying around in the air for the aircraft to make it out. The issues with internal loads, especially for the strike- and SEAD-aircraft, is also evident in that two AMRAAMs simply isn’t enough for a serious fight, and if they get cut off from their escorts (who still only sling six AMRAAMs a piece) they will quickly run out off options that aren’t spelled RTB.
But there’s a reason Finland wants JASSMs.
The JASSM-strike looks impressive, but the results are surprisingly mixed. The strike aircraft can launch from the safety of staying right above their airfield, but the missiles are vulnerable and need escorting. In the north, the horde of enemy fighters jump on the missiles and the CAP escorts get overwhelmed and shot down trying to protect the missiles. Ironically, this opens up the south, and the lack of fighter cover there means that more or less all weapons get through, reducing four out of five of the key bridges to rubble. But the losses among the CAP and SEAD aircraft that got a bit too close actually means that the Russians achieve a 2:1 kill ratio when eight F-35As are brought down from a combination of fighters and SAMs (including the Gorshkov, which I am really starting to worry about). Still, this was for sure the most effective way of killing bridges, and a one-two-punch of first dragging the fighters north with a four-ship taking off and pretending to pick a fight before turning and running for Rovaniemi while in the south the bridges of Vyborg are bombarded, followed by a second wave after the enemy fighters have returned to their main CAP-boxes might be the holy grail of bridge-hunting.
A quick re-run seems to indicate this is indeed the way forward. The four-ship flying bait does suffer losses (three aircraft shot down, of which one pilot got out), but the enemy losses are serious: nine bridges, 6 MiG-29K, 6 Su-35S, and 4 Su-57. Even despite this not being the out-and-out success I should be possible by making the turn north timed better, this is still a kill:loss ratio in excess of 5:1, and bringing down nine bridges with a combined firing of 24 JASSM isn’t bad. The one thing that was more interesting was the relative lack of success for the SEAD-birds, with both GBU-53s and AGM-88E AARGM-ER (the latter which notably hasn’t been mentioned in Finnish F-35 discussion) being swatted out of the air at comfortable distance by the enemy air defences (again, Gorshkov played a major role).
Typhoon – High and fast
The Eurofighter would in Finnish service align with the UK model, and as such we sprinkle 28 Typhoons with CAPTOR-E radars on the Finnish airfields. Again, let’s first see if we can go out with bombs.
The first step is to launch a four-ship loaded with Meteors from a westerly base to try and sweep away fighters by being able to come in with speed and altitude. The large amount of Meteors pay dividends, as the four Typhoons manage to fight of a number of Su-57 and Su-35S and score five for the loss of a single aircraft.
The Typhoons continue to do well in the air-to-air arena, dodging streams of enemy missiles (including the feared S-300V4) while keeping dropping enemy aircraft. A first wave of SEAD-aircraft causes chaos as enemy fighters and air defences keep hunting swarms of Spear-EW jammers, but the destruction of air defences fail as the strike pair equipped with Spear-missiles fail to properly identify their targets. Still, with a kill:loss ratio at 8:1 things are looking rather promising. Now about those bridges…
The bombers are unable to close on their targets as streams of SAMs force them to keep dodging in the skies above Utti. The combination of DASS and aerodynamics is impressive, and it feels like the aircraft are in fact better able to dodge missile fire than the F-35 was. One possible explanation is that the missiles are fired at longer ranges, allowing for more time to react.
The whole thing is a bit of a mixed bag. As said, the enemy missiles are largely punching air, but that also means that there’s preciously little in the way of moving forward in the face of combined Buk and S-300V4 fires. Eventually I take manual control and try to push the bombers into firing range of the Vyborg bridges, leading to all four being shot down. The Spears are however a really nice capability, as with the short-ranged loads allowing for four hardpoints dedicated to three each, a pair of Typhoons can bring 24 missiles to the fight. In a fight where volume is crucial, having four aircraft launch 24 jammers/false targets followed by 24 missiles actually allows for some kills, including the Nebo-radar, a 9A83M TELAR and a 9A84 LLV from the S-300V4 batteries, a single Shilka, and five T-72BM as collateral damage during the SEAD-strikes. The Meteors also by far outshine the R-77s, and despite me pushing the bombers too far (leaving 12 Typhoons as craters in the ground) the exchange ratio is somewhat positive with 10 MiG-29K, 10 Su-35S, 4 Su-57, and a single MiG-31BM joining them in the lawn dart-club, netting the Finnish Air Force just over 2:1 in kills-ratio.
Again, the pure amount of munitions fired is enough to make the budget weep:
16x AIM-120C-5 AMRAAM P3I.2
8x GBU-24E/B Paveway III GPS/LGB [BLU-109A/B] (somehow there wasn’t an option for a serious bombload with Paveway IVs in the database, would have been interesting to see how those would have fared against bridges)
3x Sky Sabre [Land Ceptor]
56x SPEAR 3
72x SPEAR EW
For the Russian side, the expenditure was even worse:
105x R-77-1/R-77M (!)
6x 9M338K (Tor)
30x 9M317 (Buk)
4x 9M311-M1 (Tunguska)
48x 9M83M (S-300V4)
32x 9M96D (Gorshkov S-350), i.e. the whole complement of missiles
4x 57E6 (Gorshkov Pantsir)
…and a ton of rounds ranging from 23 mm to 130 mm in diameter
So where does that leave us?
Well, the Typhoons did better than the F-35 with both the air-to-air ratio and the number of bridges hit roughly similar – though the Typhoons did not manage to get through to hurt any of the bridges at Vyborg, of which the F-35s brought down one. Would it be possible to bomb the bridges in Olonets and use Storm Shadows to get the southern ones?
The first four CAP birds do an excellent job, bagging eleven enemy fighters with their 28 Meteors, and escaping the enemy hail of missiles (25 R-77M/R-77-1 and 10 9M96D) – I must say that if the survivability of the Typhoons in the face of enemy missile fire is anything like this in the real world, I am highly impressed. An interesting detail is that the Typhoons are able to pick out the Su-57 at roughly max weapons range (Meteor) through a combination of Pirate and DASS, i.e. not by using the E-SCAN radar.
After that, things get more harsh. The SEAD-birds and second CAP-wave push deep into enemy territory, and manage to temporarily achieve something resembling air dominance in the airspace covering the whole operational area. Unfortunately it is rather temporary, and poor timing on my part between bomber wave and the overconfident fighters means that the second enemy fighter wave manage to bag a number of Typhoons. However, the bombers managed to get through without issue and bring down four bridges on the Olonets Isthmus (before being shot down by chasing enemy fighters) and with the earlier losses of aircraft that penetrated deep into enemy territory a total of eleven Typhoons were lost. While that is just one better than the earlier case, four out of five bridges around Vyborg was brought down by just eight Storm Shadows (I fired double missiles per bridge, turns out all got through and half the missiles found an empty spot on the map upon arrival) to add to the four bombed bridges, the enemy losses to both aircraft and ground systems was also significant (4x MiG-29K, 8x Su-35S, 7x Su-57, 6x MiG-31BM plus the Nebo, 2x 9A331 TELAR (Tor), 3 9A83M TELAR and a 9A84 LLV (S-300V4), 4x T-72BM).
The Typhoon did surprise me. There’s lots of talk about how it shines in the air-to-air role but suffers in the air-to-ground compared to some of the competition, but the wargaming really drives home the point about how the combination of serious sensors and stellar aerodynamics means that even when the first layer of the survivability onion is penetrated, failing at “don’t be seen” doesn’t mean all that much if the enemy struggle with “don’t be hit”. I also know that quite a few of the losses in the last run could have been avoided if I had had a better handle on things, so even if the final score sheet wasn’t as impressive as I was aiming for, I certainly feel that the aircraft is a solid performer.
Rafale- Everyone gets a dual-seeker
The first thing that strike me when sending out a four-ship of Rafales from the north to try and drag aircraft away is that RBE-2AA radar is able to pick out and identify vehicles on the ground. Not sure if this is indicative of the radar being better than some of the alternatives, or whether there is some checkbox that I’ve marked differently (CMO has quite a few…), but it certainly helps with the situational awareness considering both the F-35 and the Typhoon (to a lesser extent, but still) struggled with creating a proper picture of which enemy ground units are where.
Another interesting detail is that the CAP-birds first choose to use their MICA NG (both IR- and active radar-versions), saving the Meteors.
The Rafales aren’t as overwhelming when it comes to air-to-air as the Typhoon was, and in the intial engagement two of the four fighters are brought down in the first exchange. That’s also where the good news ends for the Russians, as seven of their own are brought down (2x MiG-29K, 4x Su-35S, and a single Su-57). The weapons and sensor range means that only eight R-77M are fired by the enemies, before they have their hands full with evading the incoming MICA and Meteors.
However, the main strike with the SEAD-birds pushing out in front fare significantly better when it comes do dodging incoming missiles. My guess is that having a larger number of friendly shooters leave the enemy unable to provide proper mid-course guidance, making their fire less accurate, when they have to keep dodging incoming weapons. It is also notable that as opposed to the Typhoon’s ASRAAM – which in effect never was used in the runs I did – the MICA is frequently used by the Rafales thanks to its range.
With no JSM for the Rafale in the database, the main SEAD-weapon is the SBU-54 AASM which sport a 250-kg bomb equipped with glide kit and dual-mode GPS/IIR-seeker. The number carried per aircraft is smaller compared to SPEAR 3 or the SDB-family of weapons, but the bang is still nice and the dual-mode seeker means that mobile targets are valid. Two MiG-31 appear and create a bit of a bad feeling at very-long range, downing a strike aircraft and a SEAD-bird, but the SEAD-effort is by far the best seen so far.
The end result I dare say is the best seen so far, despite the feared long-range GBAD batteries finally managing to score a few successes against escorts pushing deep and the SCALP-EG somehow seemingly having worse luck with defensive fire compared to the Storm Shadow. The air-to-air game isn’t as impressive, with “only” 17 fighters brought down (6x MiG-29K, 7x Su-35S, and 4x Su-57) against a loss of seven Rafales, but in the air-to-ground arena a total of 13 targets are wiped out (including three of the Vyborg bridges) and the SEAD-side is by far the best yet (the Nebo is dead, as are four 9A331 TELAR (Tor), two 9A310M1-2 TELAR and a 9A39M1-2 LLV (Buk), and four Shilkas. The usefulness of the presumably cheaper MICA (65 fired) also means that just 13 Meteors had to be used for that effect, and the air-to-ground munitions was dominated by the AASM (27 1,000 kg ones for bridges and 30 250 kg ones for SEAD) with an additional eight SCALP-EG for the best defended bridges.
Super Hornet/Growler – Hear me roar
So getting back to where it all started, with the Super Hornet and Growlers. I assume that the losses earlier in the conflict would have been smaller for the Growler-fleet, and that they would have been prioritised in this major strike mission, so the order of battle is 10 EA-18G Growlers and 18 F/A-18E Super Hornets. It is immediately obvious that sending four-ships of Super Hornets out on CAP just isn’t doable, as that occupies too many strike aircraft. At the same time, the plan is to ensure that they stick close to the Growlers for self-protection, better situational picture, and for added firepower. Note that while a Growler in real-life can be used for regular strike missions, the database does not allow for non-SEAD/DEAD-associated lodas.
The first step is simple: put a pair of Growlers escorted by a pair of Super Hornets over south-eastern Finland to get a good overview of the situation.
The Growlers take off, and the magic happens.
Immediately they start getting fixes on the different fighters and ships in the area. The “I know everything”-feeling Michael Paul talked about is certainly there.
The only problem with the feeling is that we are feeling slightly overwhelmed, with at least 17 enemy fighters currently airborne. I decide to launch more fighters and temporarily withdraw my current two northwest of Jyväskylä. The fighters trade positively, scoring 11 kills (and forcing a Su-57 down within range of a Land Ceptor battery, which score a twelfth kill!), but lose seven aircraft of their own. Clearly more firepower is needed in the first wave.
Trying to seize whatever momentum I have, I launch an all-out strike with SEAD-escorts. Unfortunately, most of the SEAD-escort figure the SAG is the most menacing target for AARGMs, and while they aren’t exactly wrong, the ships easily swat the missiles out of the air with a Pk close to 1.0. On the positive side, JSOW C-1 turn out to be a surprisingly effective weapon even in the face of the heavily defended bridges of Vyborg, and four are brought down in quick succession. Killing bridges without the need for cruise missiles is nice!
With sixteen own aircraft lost (against 15 enemies, plus the aforementioned four bridges), it’s time for another run to see what could be done better.
A few runs later and it’s clear I can’t get the AIM-120D equipped Super Hornet to work as I want it to. The issue isn’t the ground threat as much as the fighters, and compared to the Meteor-equipped eurocanards it simply can’t take on the Russian Air Force and come out with the same kind of kills. This is interesting, as it runs counter to what IsoT said, who claimed that the enemy fighters weren’t an issue. A notable difference was that he used the AIM-260 JATM, which might or might not be coming by 2030.
Just changing the long-range weaponry on two of the four-ships that are flying CAP while letting the rest soldier on with the AIM-120D made a world of difference. The Super Hornets and Growlers scored 18 kills (6x MiG-29K, 3x MiG-31BM, 5x Su-35S, 4x Su-57) for a total loss of six Super Hornets and no Growlers. Despite the majority of the aircraft flying around with the AIM-120D, twice the amount of JATMs were used (24 vs 12), which tells something about how many earlier shots can be taken and how much a difference that makes also when it comes to the amount and accuracy of the return fire taken. With 16 JSOW, 16 AARGM-ER, and 8 GBU-31 (1,000 kg JDAM) a total of six bridges were brought down (four at Vyborg) and the enemy air defences were seriously reduced (2x Shilka, 2x Pantsir-SM, 3x 9A83M TELAR, 2x 9A82M TELAR and one 9A85 LLV from the S-300V4). The combination of JSOW and AARGM turned out to be a winning concept against SAMs that stuck to their EMCON and relied upon neighbouring batteries providing the radar picture.
My findings does run rather contrary to those of IsoT. I struggled more with the enemy air than ground defences, and while I didn’t see much in the way of highly effective jamming (though to be honest that might simply be down to not having perfect information, it might be that the enemy operators were sweating and had to rely on secondary systems), the Growlers and Super Hornets were quite able to kill off enemy SAMs if not at will then at least reliably.
Gripen – I have a skibox
As soon as the GlobalEye turn on its radar, it is evident that the situational picture is on another level. I have a full picture of not just where the enemy is, but of who the enemy is as well. This is certainly a step up above the earlier aircraft, and the rather strict EMCON the enemy has been clinging to won’t help.
Unfortunately, the database for the Gripen does not reflect the air-to-ground weaponry offered to Finland in the slightest. No SPEAR, no Taurus KEPD, no LADM, no bombs heavier than 250 kg. Instead I get the BK-90, the AGM-65B Maverick, the RB 15F (Mk 2), and 135 mm unguided rockets – all of which are either already withdrawn or about to be replaced. The original SDB is available in the form of the GBU-39. The available pod is the Litening III, also most likely not what is offered for HX. The air-to-air arena is better, but there’s no option for the seven Meteor short-range loadout, with six and a drop tank being the maximum.
This causes some issues to be perfectly honest, but let’s see if the 39E can bring enough Meteors to the fight to clear away the enemy fighters, and then we’ll see if we can take it from there.
The Su-57 turn out to be something of an issue, as to begin with they have a bit of headstart from how the mission is set up, but also because of the inability of either the GlobalEye or the Gripens to get a good long-range radar lock. It isn’t a major issue, the combination of ESM and IRST systems do pick them out at comfortable distances, but it does give the enemy the first shots.
A quick reset to give the AI somewhat more sensible instructions, and we’re off to the races.
As has been seen in a few scenarios, taking off from Helsinki-Vantaa isn’t necessarily a great idea. The lead fighter is quickly brought down, leaving the wingman to temporarily fight off twelve enemies, half of which are Su-57s. It goes surprisingly well, and the Meteors bring down four MiG-29K before a Su-57 manages to close in and finally take it down with a R-77M at close range.
The rest of the battle is somewhat divided, as both sides lose aircraft. An interesting detail is that the Meteor-evading enemy fighters get down to lower altitudes, where two Finnish SAM-batteries combine to bag two fighters. Still, 3:7 is not the kill ratio we were looking for.
With the enemy fighters at least temporarily pushed back, I launch the strikes. As I have a good fix on the GBAD-positions around the bridges at Vyborg, I task the SEAD there with greater detail, while further north I again rely on a more general Wild Weasel-y thing of going there trolling for SAMs and then trying to kill them. Again, with nothing more lethal than GBU-39 for SAMs and GBU-49 for the bridges I don’t have particularly high hopes of actually get anything nailed down on the score card. However, sending fighters into harms way should say something about the survivability of the Gripen.
It doesn’t begin particularly well, with two Su-57 jumping the four northern SEAD-birds immediately after take off before their escorts have been able to form up. After that things temporarily get better as the CAP-fighters bag a few enemy aircraft, before they quickly turn south again. The Vyborg SEAD-strike with GBU-39s is surprisingly effective, bagging two Pantsir-SM and a total of six different TELAR and LLV in the S-300V4 battery. At the end of the day, there is no denying however, that with none of the strike aircraft carrying Meteors, they are simply too vulnerable to enemy air, and in the end the enemy not only manage to protect all their bridges, but also achieve an impressive 13:22 score (for those interested, the GlobalEye which some state will be shot down the minute the fighting start actually survived).
I feel like the main issue is the inability to fly mixed loadouts with a few Meteors in addition to the strike weapons, which really hurt the survivability of the strike aircraft. The answer for round two is obviously to fly a smaller number of strike aircraft per target, instead letting a number fly heavy Meteor loadouts as escorts (and not let the Helsinki-pair take off in the middle of the enemy fighters).
This run works out better. Meteors are nice, although the Gripen does seem to be the aircraft which struggle most with the Su-57. The second time around enemy fighters notice the stream of GBU-39 heading toward the S-300V4 battery, and fire away all their weapons as well as giving the SAM-sites the heads up to turn on their radars and join in the fray. A large number of weapons are shot down, but three TELARS and a LLV are still turned into scrap metal. The northern SEAD mission is able to take down a Buk-unit, nailing two TELARs and an LLV. Unsurprisingly, that still isn’t enough to get through to the Vyborg-bridges, but two of the northern bridges are brought down by the two strike aircraft sent north. The air war land on a 2:1 kill ratio for the Finnish Air Force (11 Gripen against 6x MiG-29K, 3x MiG-31BM, 6x Su-35S, and 7x Su-57). The Gripen was able to avoid missiles at an acceptable rate, though it certainly was no Typhoon.
This would be the place where I would do the final run, combining cruise missiles and bombs and putting everything I’ve picked up so far into practice. However, as noted the Gripen armoury in the database lacks a heavy cruise missile, so there’s nothing to see here. However, considering the similar performance of the JASSM and SCALP/Storm Shadow above, I believe it is safe to say that we would have lost 2-4 aircraft less, and brought down a few more bridges. Similarly, having mixed loadouts would probably have allowed for a second pair of striking aircraft to the north downing another bridge or two. The SEAD might also have turned out better with SPEARs than with SDB, but to be honest the difference likely wouldn’t have been game changing. Yes, a few TELARs more would have been nice, but for this scenario that would probably have been neither here nor there.
So where does that leave us? Neither here nor there to be honest, this is a commercial simulator based on open data, I am a happy enthusiast with no major knowledge on the inner workings of how to set up intelligent air strikes, and there were a number of weapons and loadout options missing from the database. But lets put down a few short notes:
To win the air war and get the kind of kill ratio the Finnish Air Force want and need, a combination of better situational awareness and long-ranged weapons is needed. The Super Hornet/AIM-120D struggled in this scenario, but bringing even a moderate number of AIM-260 JATM into the mix turned the tables,
Large weapon stocks is a must. Especially in the air-to-air and SEAD-missions the expenditures of weapons is huge. At the same time, the enemy will face similar issues. The impact this will have is difficult to model in this kind of single mission scenarios, but it is notable that e.g. the extremely deadly Admiral Gorshkov in several scenarios ran out of long-ranged missiles half-way into the scenario,
The ability to avoid the kinds of missile volleys that the scenarios saw from both fighters and ground-based systems really is key. At the end of the day the Typhoon being able to rely on its superior aerodynamics to avoid missile after missile was one of the big eye-openers to me personally when running the scenarios,
MICA NG is nice. It was the only mid-ranged weapon to be really useful (besides the AIM-120D when carried by the F-35A which could use its stealth to get close enough), with next to no IRIS-T, ASRAAM, or AIM-9X having been used. Without knowing the sticker cost compared to the Meteor, I do believe it would be a big benefit in a real scenario,
The F-35A managed to get by with the AIM-120D to a much better extent than the Super Hornet, but the small number of weapons really hurt the aircraft when faced with hordes of enemies. It also wasn’t able to strike the most highly defended targets with bombs without suffering serious losses. At the end of the day it was a solid performance, but one not quite as outstanding as one could have imagined,
The GlobalEye wasn’t particularly vulnerable, and the Casa didn’t in fact get hit in a single mission! At least in this scenario, as long as there are own fighters it was possible to operate large aircraft in western Finland,
There was a number of surprises to me personally when it comes to details. The Typhoon and Rafale performed better than expected (especially considering the lack of JSM for the Rafale), the Gripen somewhat worse, and the Super Hornet being a mixed bag (poor with AIM-120D, good with AIM-260) but no single aircraft was a clear failure or winner.
There’s an endless number of details one could discuss when it comes to whether the scenario was set up correctly, and feel free to run your own scenarios if you have CMO installed, but these were my findings. Again, I probably can’t stress enough that this was done largely for fun and with very limited insight into Finnish Air Force CONOPS and the finer details of the bids now on the table, but it certainly was an interesting challenge!
*Pun very much intended, we are after all discussing SEAD/DEAD-options here.
The famous (misquotation) of “reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated” comes to mind when speaking to Boeing. The Super Hornet is certainly undergoing a rough patch, with the SECNAV Carlos Del Toro trying to kill off the plans to keep building brand-new Super Hornets in the next few years, and instead wanting to focus on the F-35C (and to a lesser extent F-35B) which was described as “a far more significantly capable aircraft”. This is something of different message compared to the earlier one which has been making rounds, where people such as the US Navy’s chief of the naval operation’s air warfare directorate, Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, have expressed that he would prefer to focus more on the mid-life update (Block III) instead of on new-builds because any new-built Super Hornet with their 10,000 hour airframe will fly past 2055, and they don’t see “a lot of analysis out there that supports fourth-generation viability against any threat in that timeframe“.
Boeing readily admits neither message is particularly helpful for their export campaigns.
However, one has to give Boeing a point in that it is clear that at least some of the messaging is clearly directed a result of domestic politics. The US Navy has been struggling to fit all of its priorities into a defence budget that is flat or potentially even falling, with new classes of submarines and destroyers (to replace both early Arleigh Burkes as well as the Ticonderoga-class cruisers) competing with the Super Hornet-replacement-to-be NGAD for funds. The risk of a delay to NGAD is obvious, especially as the force struggles with how to close a “fighter gap” and the house having thrown out the latest set of USN calculations this summer (this is part of a rather longstanding pattern of the politicians not trusting the US Navy to make sound long-term planning decisions and run projects efficiently, which unfortunately isn’t completely unfounded). At the same time, it is rather obvious that some of the Super Hornet’s greatest friends on the hill are representing Boeing-strongholds and might not be guided solely by strategic insights…
Regardless of the outcome, the stated goal of replacing the Super Hornet during the 2030’s does seem optimistic considering the reported state of the NGAD. Crucially, for the time being there also doesn’t seem to be a plan for how to replace the EA-18G Growler with its unique set of capabilities (this is the place where visionaries usually throws in a slide showing a bunch of networked unmanned platforms shooting lightning-shaped datalinks and electronic attack effects between allied forces and against enemies respectively like a latter-day Zeus, but I would again like to state my scepticism of there actually being something resembling a practical plan buried in those slides. The USMC has something a bit more real in the works, but so far that doesn’t include a true Growler-replacement either).
But what is really interesting is the second wind of export interest in the aircraft. Granted Canada apparently has kicked out the fighter (though it has to be said it hasn’t been particularly well-loved north of the border after Boeing dragged Canadian aerospace company Bombardier to court over their jetliners), but the German Super Hornet/Growler-buy seems to have survived the change in government and is reportedly moving forward, and as is well-known there is a strong push to try and get the Indian Navy to see the light and acquire the Super Hornet for their carrier operations. More interesting was Boeing disclosing that they are in talks with Spain about the Super Hornet (almost certainly related to the same EF-18A/B Hornet and EAV-8B Matador/Harrier II as the recently revealed F-35 discussions), as well as stating that the UK have expressed interest in Super Hornet STOBAR testing conducted for the Indian Navy efforts (and where this testing could lead). Notable is that the flight deck of the Queen Elizabeth-class compares rather well with that of the the INS Vikramaditya when it comes to length and area (though the designs obviously differ), and while it isn’t angled, the Juan Carlos I with its 201.9 m long and 32 m wide flight deck actually matches the 198 m long and 30 m wide angled recovery deck and 195 m long take-off run of the INS Vikramaditya. Speculations about a STOBAR-carrier in Spanish service may hereby commence (though I will warn you that the step from discussing the theoretical possibility to actually converting the vessel is a rather drastic one).
Regardless, there is a non-trivial risk that any Finnish Super Hornets will be the last new-built rhinos rolling off the production line, and the Finnish Air Force has been strongly stating the importance of being aligned with the main user (to the extent that the Swedish Air Force threw out their own long-term planning and instead adopted the Finnish set of requirements in order to ensure that the JAS 39E remained a viable alternative). So how is Boeing intending to work around this issue?
To begin with, while the Super Hornet likely will bow out of USN service before the Finnish Air Force retire HX, as mentioned the Growler will likely soldier on for a bit longer (again, compare the A-6 Intruder retiring 22 years before the EA-6B Prowler), allowing for updates made to keep that platform modern to support exported Super Hornets. The German order is also a key piece of the puzzle (I mean, does anyone really think that the Germans will retire any platform acquired before having worn it down? We are after all talking about the country that flew F-4F Phantoms in central Europe until 2013).
But the big news is the Open Mission Systems, which allows for what Boeing describes as containerised software. Behind the jargon lies a principle through which the software is written once, put into a so called fusion app (the ‘container’ in ‘containerised software’), which then allows it to be pushed out to a number of platforms – manned, unmanned, fixed-wing, rotary, you name it – simultaneously through making the software hardware (and even manufacturer) agnostic.
While the principle is significantly easier to implement on a PowerPoint-slide than in real-life, successful lab testing with containerised fusion algorithms in the F/A-18 Block III and the F-15EX has taken place, and plans are progressing for flight demonstrations. If the program develops as expected, it would provide the opportunity to piggy-back F/A-18E development onto that of e.g. the F-15E(X), which would grow the user base and spread development costs significantly.
But it’s not just the aircraft itself that are easily upgradable. Michael Paul of Raytheon Intelligence & Space is happy to explain how the NGJ-MB pods are not only cutting-edge today, but that their open design ensure they will stay that way.
The current ALQ-99 jammers made their combat debut in Vietnam, and although it has undergone numerous upgrades and still is a competent system according to most accounts, there’s no denying that it’s greatest days are already behind. The new family of jammers, the mid-band unit of which will be first one out and which passed Milestone C (current version accepted as production standard) earlier this summer, will bring a serious improvement. Trying to find a suitable comparison, Paul struggles a bit. “It’s a level above going from mechanically scanned radars to AESA-technology,” he explains. “It’s a significant leap just because of its AESA-technology, but then you add the power.”
And while having an AESA-array means that you can do all sort of nice stuff – both Lockheed Martin and BAES are pushing the fact that they are doing some serious electronic warfare stuff with their arrays – the power and dedicated subsystem really takes things to another level. While a modern AESA-radar for a fighter can give self-protection at levels earlier only dedicated platforms could provide, it is still very much a case of self-protection. Because the dedicated platforms have also stepped up their game. The fact that the NGJ isn’t just a Naval program but sorting under joint oversight in the DoD structure speaks volumes as to the importance the Pentagon places on the program, even while at the same time discussing the need for fifth generation aircraft (the push to integrate the pod on USAF fighters is another datapoint). The NGJ allow the Growler to do what Raytheon describe as “force-level protection”, and while the exact capabilities of the pod are classified, it is significant to note that the Pentagon has been placing an ever increased importance on the electro-magnetic spectrum (EMS), and being able to treat it in the same way as other more familiar terrain – doing manoeuvres and conducting fires in it, so to speak.
This is what modern day air operations looks like
Achieving EMS-superiority will be a key mission for any air force in the future, and the Growler is well-poised to support any force attempting to do so.
What the design of the pod brings with its increased power output is the ability to handle wider spectrums and go straight to the key nodes, which in an integrated air defence systems might or might not be the shooter – it might as well be a surveillance system standing way back, feeding information to silent SAM-batteries operating missiles with their own guidance systems (active radar or IIR). But while the pod is great, the integration of the two-pod shipset with the mission systems of the aircraft really is where the magic happens. The “incredibly integrated” nature of the shipset means that the Growler and the pods are sharing data back forth, including from their own sensors but also from third-party sources (including via satellite), together creating the situational awareness that the Growler is known for, the “I know everything”-feeling as 9-year Growler veteran (and Prowler before that) Michael Paul puts it. The location of the arrays on the pods also means that the aircraft is able to cover the strikes throughout their mission – either from stand-off ranges or as penetrating platforms.
While the days of the Super Hornet might be numbered, no one quite seem to know the exact number for sure. It also has to be remembered that many of the particular drawbacks quoted by the US Navy center on how it would like to operate in a China-scenario. The situation in Finland is markedly different in a number of ways, including the significantly lower emphasis placed on range. The very real risk of losing support from the main user toward the last decade or two of the aircraft’s career is no doubt a significant drawback, but at the same time the offer here and now would fit the Finnish Air Force extremely well both as a capability but also in the FDF’s general culture of being somewhat risk averse and preferring mature systems and a continuous iterative development rather than radical steps. And as icing on the cake comes the Growler, which not only would be a strategic assets for both the political and military leadership throughout the span from peace through crisis and into war, but also a huge political signal of the close bond between Finland and the US.
As Paul noted:
It likely wouldn’t have been possible to offer this ten years ago.
It’s getting difficult to remember how it all started back when HX was just a working group thinking about if Finland needed a new fighter, but seven years later here we are, perhaps a month away from the decision.
But there was still room for one last media trip, this time by Saab who used their corporate Saab 2000 (the particular example, SE-LTV, being the last civilian airliner ever built by the company) to fly a whole bunch of media representatives for a day-trip to Linköping to one more time share the details about their bid, with the GlobalEye getting much of the attention.
And it’s hard to argue with this. Yes, the Gripen sport a number of nice features from a Finnish point of view, but what really sets Saab’s offer apart from the rest is the inclusion of not one but two airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. The capability in itself would bring a huge shift in Finnish air operations regardless of whichever fighter would be at the other end of the chain (no, your favourite fighter isn’t a “mini-AWACS” just because it has a nice radar, you still won’t leisurely be cruising around on 10 hour missions gathering intelligence and keeping an up to date air picture while paying biz-jet operating costs). The value of the kind of persistent situational picture provided by a modern AEW&C platform is hard to overstate, especially in a Finnish scenario where the attacker will have numerical superiority (meaning that the decision about when and where to send Finnish fighters will have to be calculated carefully to ensure it is possible for them to do something that actually has an impact on the battle), the flat and forested nature of the country (meaning that there is a lack of suitable mountaintops on which to place groundbased sensors, instead anyone operating at very low levels will enjoy lots of radar shadows from which they can sneak up on Finnish targets), and the very joint nature of any major conflict stemming from the long land-border and the right flank and rear being composed of water (meaning that any higher-level situational picture need to take into account all three domains).
Crucially, the value of the GlobalEye as an intelligence gathering platform for everything from the operational level commanders to the highest levels of political leadership is unprecedented in HX (and arguably within the FDF as a whole, the SIGINT CASA is nice, but it fills a more niched role). With two GlobalEyes, building a baseline situational picture in peacetime is possible (even more so if data is shared with the two Swedish aircraft coming), and that include both airborne and ground traffic, as the aircraft sports a ground moving target indicator mode (GMTI) making it possible to see any vehicles moving on the ground (the cut-off being rather low, in the neighbourhood of 20 km/h). The GMTI doesn’t create individual tracks for every echo due to the huge amount of vehicles moving at most roads during any given time (though it is possible to manually start tracks for interesting vehicles) but instead the operator will follow general flows and densities. Needless to say, keeping an eye on vehicle movements around garrisons and on exercise fields or counting trains (feel free to start measuring how much of the Oktyabrskaya Railway is within say 300 km of the border) would be a huge boost to the Finnish intelligence gathering work and a huge benefit for all branches of the FDF and the government it supports. Having this baseline situational picture and being able to detect changes in it would be of immeasurable value to both the civilian and military leadership in any kind of crisis, and there is no other single measure that would provide as much bang for buck as getting an AEW&C when it comes to this aspect – and the only way to get it into the budget is through Saab’s HX offer.
(The EA-18G Growler does share some of the same traits in this regards in raising the peacetime intelligence gathering capabilities to a significantly higher degree than ‘ordinary’ fighters, but when stuff stops emitting the value decreases rapidly)
This is an aspect that – even if not completely forgotten – has received surprisingly little attention in media. It might be that the inclusion of the completely new capability and the ramifications it has have been difficult to grasp, but in any case it is likely to have a significant impact on the wargames.
Interlude: in some of the darker places of aviation forums there have been people claiming that Saab is trying to sell a fighter that in fact isn’t the best one out there through packaging it with an AEW&C platform. Regardless of whether it is correct or not, that is a completely moot point. The Finnish Air Force isn’t looking for the best fighter, the Finnish Defence Forces is looking for the best capability they can get for 10 billion Euro (and 250 MEUR in annual operating costs), and if pairing 64 JAS 39E Gripen with two GlobalEyes provide a greater combat capability than the competing packages, how Gripen fares in one-on-one air combat against some other fighter isn’t interesting in the slightest to Puranen or his team.
The GlobalEye is more or less everything you would expect from it. Based on the Global 6000, it leverages the comfort of the airliner to ensure that crew can handle the missions that can go “well above” 11 hours. This means a rest area for the relief crew members, as well as cabin pressure and noise levels on par with the regular business jet. The top speed is slightly reduced due to drag from the radar, but the range is in fact more or less the same as the lower and more economic cruising speed roughly cancels out the increased drag. The business jet philosophy of the baseline Global 6000 also brings with it a lot of other nice details, such as dispersed operations being aided by a very high redundancy of key systems and small logistical footprint (the airliner is e.g. equipped with four generators to ensure that it isn’t stopped by a generator failure. On the GlobalEye that means that no additional power sources are required, and the aircraft can in fact remain fully mission capable even if one generator is lost). For a Finnish scenario, a key detail is that the sensors can be initiated already on the ground, meaning that the aircraft is operating as soon as the wheels are up. The five operators can either do general work or specialise in different roles, such as air surveillance, sea surveillance, the aforementioned GMTI-mointoring, ESM/SIGINT, and so forth. Displays in the relief area and in the cockpit allow for the relief crew and pilots to follow the situation, which is valuable e.g. if new threats appear. The exact sensor setup can be changed according to customer needs, but can include everything from the ErieEye-ER radar, a dedicated maritime radar, AIS, DSB, IFF, and classified ESM systems.
Now, an AEW&C alone doesn’t win any wars, but the Gripen is no slouch either. Much has already been said on this blog, but the baseline fact that Gripen from the outset is made for the very same concept of operations that Finland employs certainly gives it something of an edge. Worries about size and range are also of relatively minor importance in a Finnish scenario, and instead factors such as 40% less fuel consumption compared to legacy Hornets (and with that obviously also significantly reduced exhaust emissions, which should make certain government parties happier) play a significant role when laying out the budget for the upcoming years.
Saab was happy to go into some detail about how they envision missions to be flown, illustrating with a typical high-end SEAD/DEAD mission against S-400 batteries where the aim was to take out two 92N6E “Grave Stone” radars. The batteries where in turn protected by a number of other ground-based air defence systems, including a Nebo-M (no doubt chosen for the express purpose of raising questions about the viability of the F-35 in the same scenario), Pantsirs, and a pop-up Buk-M1-2 (or M2, just the ‘SA-17’ designation was shown). In addition two pairs of Su-35s were flying CAP under the guiding eye of an A-100. The approach for this mission was rather straightforward. Two Gripens did a hook to the north where they feigned an attack through using the EAJP EW-pods and swarms of LADM cruising around presenting jamming and false targets, thereby drawing two Su-35s north.
At the same time the main striking force consisting of a four-ship Gripen with 7 Meteors and 2 IRIS-T on each acting as fighter escort and two additional Gripens doing the actual strikes with six SPEAR and six LADM each (plus pairs of Meteors and IRIS-T for self-defence) headed east towards the target. With the LADM and the internal EW-systems providing jamming and the escorting Gripens dealing with the fighters (of which one pair was out of position, as you might remember), the strike pair launches their full dozen of SPEARs which, together with escorting LADMs, go out and hunt down the two radars. Not even the pop-up Buk appearing behind the strike aircraft can ruin the day.
Now, the scenario above is both rather fascinating in that Saab was ready to go into such detail, and not at all surprising since that is more or less exactly how nine aviation geeks out of ten would have set up the mission given what we known about Saab’s talking points and the weapons and stores offered to Finland. Perhaps the most interesting detail is that Saab thinks six SPEAR are enough to take down a defended S-400 radar (when escorted by EW-missiles). However, what on the other hand was interesting was who was telling the story.
Meet Mikko Koli, pilot and operational advisor to Saab since this spring when he retired from his job as test pilot for the Finnish Air Force. As a retired major, he may be outranked by many of the other advisors involved in different parts of the HX circus, but he brings some serious street cred instead. Most of his career was spent doing a fifteen year posting as an air force test pilot, mainly focused on the F/A-18 C/D Hornet and the upgrades it went through in Finnish service. This include different roles in both MLUs, but also being among the key players in the AGM-158A JASSM integration project, which culminated in him being the first Finnish pilot to release a live JASSM.
Which definitely is cool, but don’t let that distract you from the main story: he is a seasoned test pilot who has spent years studying and implementing how to get the best out of a fighter in a Finnish context. When Koli decides to spend his retirement days at Saab, that says something. And when he says that he trusts that their bid is “extremely strong”, that is something else compared to Saab’s regular sales guys.
What Koli decided to focus on, in addition to guiding the assembled Finnish media through the scenario described above (together with retired Swedish Air Force pilot Jussi Halmetoja) was certainly things we have heard before, but with a bit of a different emphasis. The “superior situational awareness” thanks to advanced networking and “excellent” human-machine communication of the aircraft are talking points we’ve heard from Saab before, but they often take something of a back seat when non-pilots talk. Discussing the “live chain” is also a refreshing change to just talking about the kill chain, because as we all know actually living and flying a working aircraft is the first step to being able to actually do something useful. And Koli also in no uncertain words explained what he thinks about the GlobalEye.
GlobalEye pays itself back at any level of a crisis, both for military as well as for political decisionmakers [… It is also] a very capable SIGINT-platform
Speaking of JASSM-integrations, I would be wrong not to mention Saab’s latest talking point when describing the size of their weapons package. Readers of the blog might remember that I had some questions regarding the numbers presented during the BAFO release, when it sounded like the weapons offered were worth 1.8+ Bn EUR, until you read the fine print, at which point it sounded more like 1.35+ Bn EUR. Now Saab was back with the comparison “more than ten times the total publicly quoted costs of the Finnish JASSM-project”, which they confirmed referred to 170 MEUR for the JASSM integration and missiles, making the weapons package coming with the Gripen worth 1.7+ Bn EUR. That is a lot, and considering the 9 Bn EUR acquisition cost also include the aforementioned two GlobalEyes, puts things into scale. An interesting detail is that the JASSM-project as mentioned included the integration costs as well, with Saab now taking care to point out that all weapons integration costs are found under other budgetary lines, and the 1.7+ Bn EUR figure just covers the series production and delivery of the munitions.
Modern weapons are expensive, but that is indeed an arsenal you can go to war with without having to worry about every single missile. At least not initially.
With the Norwegian budget figures having raised more questions than the Swiss decision answered for the F-35, and the US Navy trying to kill off the Super Hornet production line faster than you can get a hornets nest fully cleaned out from a redcurrant shrub (which for me is approximately two weeks of time based on empirical testing), the Finnish skies are perhaps looking ready to accept a non-US fighter again. In that scenario, the Gripen is certainly a more likely choice than the two larger eurocanards, but at the same time questions of maturity surround the aircraft that is bound to reach IOC with an operational unit only in 2025 – the same year the first HX fighters are to be delivered. Basing the 39E on the proven 39C/D-platform certainly helps, and the decoupling of flight critical software from other systems seems to have been a winning concept considering the pace at which the test program has advanced (this includes software updates on flying aircraft every four weeks on average up to this point of the program). However, with nine aircraft operational and the first Batch 2 (series production standard) already off the production line, Saab just might be able to cut it in time.
And there’s always the GlobalEye.
A big thank you to Saab for the travel arrangements.