Cruise Missiles Flying over your Head

As I was quite vocal in questioning the decision of Saab to opt for the Taurus KEPD 350 as their heavy cruise missile, I was not overly surprised when Saab contacted me and asked if I wanted to discuss the choice as well as their bid more generally. It turned into a rather interesting brief, with representatives from both Saab and TAURUS Systems GmbH (owned to 67% by MBDA Deutschland GmbH and 33% by Saab Dynamics AB).

Saab further discussed the extent to which Finnish-Swedish cooperation and possible synergies play into the bid. Saab has not only run all company simulations of scenarios based on the FDF requirements to find the best setup for Finland, but in a step further they have also run the same simulations with Finland and Sweden being allied to see how this setup would work if Finland wouldn’t have to go at it alone. The BAFO includes not only Saab’s offer, but also drafts for a number of political agreements for closer defence cooperation, such as for a shared situational air picture benefiting from both countries operating not only the same aircraft types, but similar versions of these aircraft. With the Finnish requirement to align the configuration of the eventual HX-winner with the main user, this include not only the earlier announced Swedish political decision to align their 39E configurations with the Finnish requests (including long-range precision strike and “enhanced electronic attack capability”), but also operating similar GlobalEye-configurations. In a change compared to earlier announcements, Bombardier keeping the Global 6000 in production allow Saab to use the same platform for both Finland and Sweden as is currently in service with the UAE. This opportunity saves quite a bit of certification and R&D costs compared to the earlier indicated change to Global 6500 as the basic platform for the GlobalEye, which frankly wouldn’t give too much of an improvement. An improved wing and new Rolls-Royce BR710 Pearl gives better hot and high performance as well as better range and endurance for the newer Global 6500, but for a Finnish scenario the Global 6000 should provide plenty enough of performance and the up-front savings can be better spent elsewhere.

Saab is very much in agreement with Lockheed Martin that having a single-configuration fighter fleet is preferable due to the flexibility it offers when it comes to for example fleet management and readiness. The required capability to be able to pull it off is in Saab’s case based on the brand new integral electronic warfare system – which carries on the tradition of the highly respected JAS 39C/D EW-system – as well as the EAJP offering the wider frequencies and high output power needed to counter not only fire control radars but also other parts of the electro-magnetic spectrum. This goes hand in hand with Saab’s (and Sweden’s) long history of advanced datalinks, which means that Swedish fast jet tactics place a very high emphasis on the four-ship formation as a tactical unit as opposed to the traditional focus on the lead-wingman pair, and allowing e.g. for passive triangulation (another area where Saab and Lockheed Martin is in agreement is that this is a very cool and useful feature).

But none if this is really earth-shattering news. What about that cruise missile?

A Taurus KEPD 350 impacting a concrete target. Picture courtesy of Taurus Systems

The reason behind the Taurus KEPD 350 losing out to AGM-158A JASSM for integration on the Finnish Hornet-fleet was discussed, and Saab responded in rather general terms.

Many factors were behind the original JASSM choice, how flexible were the US authorities in allowing integration of Taurus on Hornet? I don’t know.

Having said that, Saab wasn’t interested in commenting on how flexible the US might be in integrating JASSM on the 39E Gripen. They did however (correctly) point out that the Finnish JASSM inventory is set for either retirement or a mid-life update by the time the Hornets retire, and that technically there are no issues with integrating the weapon.

Still, there’s no tears shed by Saab over the (forced?) choice of Taurus KEPD 350, as they are quick to point out that the weapon is extremely potent, and offering a rather different design philosophy compared to the US offering. Interestingly many of the design choices actually do mirror the design choices of the Gripen-platform itself, lending some credibility to Saab’s argument that it is the superior weapon for a Gripen-fleet in Finnish service.

The basic idea is that radars evolve, and as such the value of stealth will diminish over time. Physics, however, remain surprisingly constant, and as such flying at very low level under the radar horizon is bound to work equally well in 2060 as it does today. This is then coupled with a highly redundant navigation system based on INS, GPS, a radar altimeter, and an IIR-sensor that together open up for image- and terrain-based navigation. This is couple with an advanced mission planning software to ensure that the weapon will get where it needs to be, which take into consideration the overall situation including threats, terrain, friendly forces, and weather.

The mission planning is actually a really interesting feature, as not only is it reportedly very precise (a requirement for being able to fly at extremely low altitude), but by simulating the entire strike it is able to run detailed Monte Carlo-simulations which take into account for example changes in the weather conditions or how the situation for the later missiles released changes with earlier missiles in the strike hitting their targets. The idea is to ensure economy in weapons use, and avoid wasting missiles in saturation attacks. This is a common theme for the marketing of the weapon, promising “low acquisition costs combined with low run-time costs”.

At the heart of this capability is the 480 kg warhead that sport a dual-charge layout with a pre-charge and a penetrator, resulting in what Taurus claim is “unmatched concrete penetration capability” and crucially allows the missile to stay low and attack also hardened targets at shallow dive angles instead of the more classic pop-up profile. But while the bunker-busting features is what the warhead is best known for, specialised fuzes allow additional flexibility such as overflight airburst modes. And again, flexibility further adds to the cost-efficiency.

In short Taurus claims that several factors add up to ensure that more enemy stuff will go boom for the same amount of money compared to JASSM (and yes, continuing the trend after the BAFOs both Taurus and Saab are naming their competitors as opposed to talking about hypothetical comparable systems). In addition, the weapon reportedly outranges the current AGM-158A JASSM in having approximately 600 km range if released at altitude (usual caveats apply).

Interlude: The saga of the JASSM-ER continues

Back in February it seemed the JASSM-version offered to Finland was the weapon originally designated AGM-158D JASSM-XR. However, turns out there’s another twist in USAF weapons procurement that came to light a while ago, as there are in fact a number of different JASSM-ER and -XR versions. The ‘original’ JASSM-XR apparently is still in development though it is now designated AGM-158D JASSM-ER, but it is pushed back as a version of the -ER designated the AGM-158B-2 is entering production. This weapon which is offered to Finland feature the more advanced datalink of the -XR but lack the improved wing (and hence not reaching the same range). At the same time, the US Navy scrapped the JSOW-ER and is focusing on an JASSM-ER version that will feature some components of the AGM-158C LRASM allowing it to also be used as an anti-ship missile, meaning that in total there seems to be at least six different versions of the JASSM either having reached production status or in different stages of development, four of which are designated JASSM-ER (AGM-158B, AGM-158B-2, AGM-158 ‘Navy-version’, and AGM-158D, with the other two being the AGM-158A and the anti-shipping AGM-158C LRASM). Range numbers of the AGM-158B-2 are somewhat obscure, but likely close to the original AGM-158B at around 930 km.

In any case, both the AGM-158B and Taurus KEPD 350 would offer significant increases to the ranges of Finnish air-launched weapons, and while cutting the Jaroslavl-Vologda railroad might be easier with the AGM-158D, a conflict would see no shortage of potential targets within 500 km of the border.

Render of Taurus KEPD 350 showing what is by now a the standard layout of weapons in its class with a boxy fuselage, pop-out wings and rear-mounted fins and engine. Picture courtesy of Taurus Systems

Back to Gripen, the aircraft has been in the headlines recently in Sweden due to budgetary discussions. Saab played down these, noting that none of the reported cost overruns are directly tied to the development of the 39E, but rather they stem from political infighting, earlier overly-optimistic Swedish Armed Forces budgets, and so forth. Not having seen the original documents behind the headlines it’s hard to comment further, though it arguably wouldn’t be the first time there has been a refusal from Swedish politicians to recognise what defence capabilities actually cost.

However, for HX the question is largely moot, as Saab is very much in agreement with Boeing in that now the best and final offers really are the final offers, and that by now everything is set if not in stone then at least ink. The Swedish proposal is firm with regards to contents, price, as well as delivery, and as such it is somewhat different from the FMS framework. And there won’t be any major changes or ‘up to’-wordings.

We have been puzzled by some of the reactions or comments swallowed by the media, there is not ‘later’

We’ll have to see what Lockheed Martin has to say about that.

Saab also confirmed that there are further weapon types in the offer that haven’t been disclosed. While there certainly are some who would like to believe this to be the RBS 15, in reality it is likely to be about gravity bombs.

A more cut-throat statement was that not only is Saab certain that the robustness and availability of the Gripen ensure that “with margin there will always be more than 50 Gripens available in peacetime”, their business intelligence based on open sources gives that for “the competition” the corresponding number would be about 35 fighters available. And that is before including the fact that Gripen would be flying less due to the GlobalEyes providing a better situational picture.

We’ll have to see what “the competition” has to say about that.

Review: Operaatio Punainen kettu

In a revelation that will surprise absolutely no one reading this, I spent a sizeable time of my early teenage years cruising the narrow spaces between the shelves of class 84.31 “Narrative literature in Swedish” at our local library here in Kokkola. On one of the last shelves there was a note declaring that shelf to hold books with the form tags “War, hunting”, and you would be excused for thinking I spent much of my time there. However, that wasn’t the case, as all the techno-thrillers were usually found interspersed among the general books of 84.31.

This was something that came to mind after I put down Helena Immonen’s debut novel “Operaatio Punainen kettu” (Operation Red fox, Docendo 2020, ISBN 9789522918581). The librarians of Kokkola once felt that Red storm rising was a thriller and not a book about war, but somewhere along the line the techno-thriller format associated with Tom Clancy has become the standard template used by writers throughout the western cultural sphere when wanting to portray a fictional modern conflict. But while Immonen does employ some of the identifying features of the genre, e.g. the use of multiple narrative threads that are more or less interwoven, this isn’t a techno thriller. This is a book about war.

A few short words on the author. Helena Immonen might be a new name as an author, but she is no stranger to either writing or the Finnish Defence Forces, having spent years in both fields in different positions, often combining the two by working as an editor for FDF’s different communications channels. She’s also an officer in the reserve.

The last decade has seen something of a renaissance for the techno thriller, as the ever more authoritarian Russian and Chinese regimes have provided ample opportunities for realistic background scenarios. The trend has also been picked up in Sweden, where local techno thrillers have hammered out a small niche market of dedicated readers. So far the Finnish offerings have however been few and far between (with the marked exception of Ilkka Remes who has released a stream of books for the last 20+ years). Part of the explanation is probably that Finnish appetite for war books usually is filled with novels set during WWII. However, modern novels of war fill another important role: they provide templates from which to reflect upon what a conflict today could like, and can form a common frame of discussion for the national security debate. This has been a key feature of many of the recent US/UK and Swedish novels – Lars Wilderäng’s debut “Midvintermörker” has without doubt influenced the Swedish national security discussion and the prominent (perhaps even exaggerated) role Gotland has in it to give an example – but so far this has been sorely missing in the Finnish discussions. When the common frame of reference is Väinö Linna’s “The Unknown Soldier”, picturing tomorrow’s war becomes hard.

But this was supposed to be a review and not an essay on the importance of the genre, so is it a good book?

Yes, I am happy to say. It is.

The scenario described is realistic and include a good portion of unexpected twists and turns to keep the readers on their toes. But where it really shines is in its portrayal of the human face of war. As I earlier noted, this isn’t a techno-thriller, but a story about humans that find themselves in a war, and what it means for them. Yes, it does sound like a cliche to look at people in different positions and how different their personal war is, but it is a cliche exactly because if it is done well it works. And Immonen does it well. She has captured a very interesting group of persons and brings to light several questions – some given, some which at least I hadn’t thought about earlier – that without doubt would surface if Finland really would mobilise and send her sons and daughters to war. This is perhaps the greatest benefit of the book from a societal point of view: we can read foreign novels and non-fiction works to get a picture of how a modern war would look, but it needs a Finnish setting to shine a light on how Finnish society would be impacted. Because one thing is certain – it wouldn’t be the same as it was last time around.

Luckily, Immonen not only nails the portrayal of the persons, but she also nails the portrayal of Finland. A Finn travelling in Sweden will see many familiar sights, but somehow still recognise that this isn’t their home country. It isn’t necessarily obvious exactly why, but there’s the small tells that just means you know. I hadn’t realised how much I missed feeling at home while reading Swedish novels, until I picked up “Operaatio Punainen kettu”. The everyday scenes from the homefront were decidedly Finnish, and the small cultural cues present do their job in filling out the blanks between the lines and painting a vivid picture of common people in an uncommon situation.

Side note, if you ever get invited to coffee in a Finnish home and they don’t bring out their Moomin mugs, you’re probably not quite as welcome as you think.

On the flip side, there are a few issues, though arguably these are minor. Personally, while I found the depiction of Finnish high-level politics to be very believable, the brief portrayal of Swedish political decision making felt a bit off. This is more about tone than anything being actually wrong, and is of minor importance to both the scenarios and the narrative. In further nitpicking of details and without spoiling the scenarios, readers of the blog knows that I have voiced some opinions with regards to Russian behaviours and systems that means parts of the scenario wouldn’t be my first guess for Russian escalatory behaviour. However, there’s obviously no “right” answer when it comes to hypothetical scenarios, and as said the overarching story is well thought through and very much within the realm of possibility. And as I mentioned in the beginning of the review, if you are on the look out for a traditional techno-thriller filled with details of switches and calibres, this isn’t it. I won’t hold that as a negative, but be aware of the fact if that is what you were expecting. Overall, the book is a joy to read, and an extremely strong debut.

I was recently part of a Twitter-thread discussing the outlook for an English-translation of the book. While unfortunately the chances are slim based on the complexity of translating a work so deeply entrenched in Finnish society and politics, I do believe the book would find a niche market in Sweden, where not only is there a proven market for the genre, but where there (especially among the likely readers) also is an understanding of the local politics at play. The fact that part of the book is set in Sweden and happening against the backdrop of ever increasing Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation certainly also helps. I am in fact somewhat surprised that none of the more niched publishers haven’t picked up it already, especially with the impact the book has had on the Finnish political discussion and with a sequel in the works. Here’s hoping that is about to change!

No Love for the Baltic Sea from Green Ministry

Readers of the blog might remember a post from two years ago in which I noted that the new government programme included a decision that the Finnish Border Guards’ two Dornier Do-228-212 patrol “will be replaced by 2022“. The unambiguous wording seemed clear enough to me, and indicated that there was a solid political understanding regarding the importance of the mission and the issues caused by the rapidly ageing platforms. As such, I have been following the Twitter-feed of people close to the Finnish Border Guard Flight Division with rising concern, as it seems they didn’t feel the funding decision was a foregone conclusion.

Turns out they were correct.

This week the news broke that the Ministry of the Interior has not approved funding to start moving forward with the procurement process, meaning that the replacement of the aircraft will be shifted forward at least with a year from the already announced 2025 date, i.e. don’t expect to see the new aircraft having taken over from the Dorniers until 2026 at the earliest. Alert readers will notice that the date is in fact not one but four years behind the original schedule envisioned in the government program two years ago.

The situation is challenging, and is set to continue to be. The two aircraft flies and average of 250 flights a year, and already now up to 60 missions a year has been cancelled or aborted due to technical issues and failures –  a staggering non-mission capable rate of 20 to 25 % (depending on whether the 250 flights include aborted ones or just those actually performed). It is not just the aircraft themselves that are ageing, but their mission systems replaced during the MLU over a decade ago are also starting to show their age and cause a number of the non-missions. As noted, nothing of this comes as a surprise, but the lifespan of the aircraft and their sensors have been progressing as expected, which is the reason why the MVX-program was kicked off a few years back. The FBG has already received responses to their Request for Information, and is now just waiting for the funding approval for 60 million EUR to be able to send out a Request for Quotations.

It is a mystery why this hasn’t been approved as a matter of routine. The capability is extremely flexible, and serves not just the Finnish Border Guards but a host different agencies, including everything from counting seals for the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke), providing information to the maritime situational picture for the Navy, assisting the emergency services with searching for people getting lost in the forests, and keeping a watchful eye over police operations against suspicious locations in the archipelago. Their primary work is policing the Finnish maritime borders, which besides “normal” border guarding include oil spill surveillance as the key mission, a mission in which by all accounts they have been remarkably successful. With the ever evolving importance of FRONTEX, the aircraft have also been seen over warmer waters on a number of occasions. Considering the relatively minor budget and small number of people involved in running this highly specialised operation, it is difficult to find a better example of a bargain capability multiplier in the Ministry of the Interior’s toolbox.

Darker skies ahead for Finnish environmental protection and border security work over the Baltic Sea. Picture source: FBG Flight Division Twitter

Perhaps that makes it understandable that the commander of the FBG Flight Division, captain (N.) Matti Lallukka, tweeted that “These are values-based decisions choices – maritime safety and the Baltic Sea doesn’t seem to be important enough reasons to carry out the procurement?” A surprisingly political tweet for a Finnish senior officer.

Still, it is hard to disagree with Lallukka. Having grown up by the sea and dipped my toes into the world of professional seafaring through my career in the maritime industry as well as being a avid outdoorsman, I will admit to being somewhat upset myself, and there doesn’t really seem to be any other plausible explanation for the omission of the funding decision than the Ministry not being interested in the question. This is utterly surprising, especially considering that the Green League is the party in charge of the Ministry of the Interior. Few capabilities transcend the worlds of traditional hard security to “softer” values such as environmental protection and refugee safety, while also straddling the gap between a more global and a more traditional view on national security. That in a time of expanding budgets the government wasn’t able to find 60 MEUR to what must be one of the least controversial programs in Finnish national security cannot be described as anything less than a major failure of leadership on the part of the politicians involved. Let us hope it will addressed swiftly.

The Further Adventures of the F-35 (and the Super Hornet)

The HX competition continues to provide surprises in the post-BAFO era, and this week’s media event courtesy of the US Embassy was no exception. After a short introduction by the embassy that described the strong partnership that exists between Finland and the US (and which included a note about Finnish exports and know-how finding its way into key US programs, such as the Polar Security Cutter), it was on to the two US fighter manufacturers to discuss their bids. And while they might be taking part in the same media event, the tone certainly tells of the battle heating up. Boeing discarded outright the theory of ordinary fighters working as EW-platforms, noting that an AESA radar will only provide X-band jamming, and only during ingress, leaving you unprotected when exiting the target area, while Lockheed Martin explained how the F-35A doesn’t require support from electronic warfare platforms or ISR assets “as opposed to 4th generation fighters”.

Illustration of the difference between having a dedicated EW-aircraft compared to an unnamed strike fighter (no points for guessing which, though) using its AESA-radar as a giant jammer. The colour coding symbolise different bands, with the underwing pods of the Growler jamming the S-, C-, and X-bands while the centre-line pod handles the VHF, UHF, and L-band part of the spectrum. Picture courtesy of Boeing

Much of the presentation from Boeing should be well-known talking points to readers of the blog, but in short Boeing still sees international opportunities for up to 400 Super Hornets on the international market. This includes everything from Germany, which already has down-selected the aircraft, to less likely cases such as India.The German contract is the most important one from a Finnish point of view and would likely be a minor facor in HX as it would mean another serious European operator, though my expectation is that the deal won’t be inked until the new government is formed and have gotten up to speed (read: 2022, which also seems to be roughly the timeline Boeing is expecting). Some have questioned the future of the programme as a whole with the rise of Die Grünen, but so far the programme is continuing apace and Germany has indeed already invested money in the preparatory studies, which would imply that the MoD is expecting it to survive a change of government. Notable also that while the Greens aren’t particularly keen on nuclear weapons, part of the allure of the Super Hornet in the strike role comes from the synergies of the Growler which is part of the non-controversial luWES Tornado ECR-replacement program. Of the near-future decisions, the Swiss and Canadian decision are expected within June and before the end of the summer respectively. Switzerland and Canada are less likely to end in work for St Louis, but you never know.

[Industrial participation] is an area where we are clearly differentiated, we have an unblemished track record.

The major talking points of Boeing were the Growler and their industrial participation package. There won’t be final assembly of aircraft or engines in Finland in case of a Boeing win, but rather production of major aircraft and engine structures for the Super Hornet/Growler. While less media-sexy than the final assembly promised by BAES and Saab, the devil is in the details and which one is better than the other from economic or military points of view will depend on the level of assembly (i.e. how large parts are being delivered to be assembled?) compared to how major the parts produced are. The direct industrial participation is in total 49 different programs spread out over 20 different companies, and on the US side include not only Boeing themselves but other major partners of the Super Hornet industrial team such as Northrop Grumman, GE Aircraft Engines, and Raytheon. On the indirect side, Boeing is striving to “leverage the breadth of the whole company”, i.e. including the civilian and other divisions and not just Boeing Defence.

Discussing weapons in a later call, Boeing confirmed that their offer include a modern version of the AMRAAM, the AIM-120C-8. This is quite a bit of a step-up from the Finnish Air Force’s current C-7, though exactly how much is unclear. Many sources refer to the C-8 as a rebranded D, which is the weapon responsible for the recent test that the USAF described as “the longest known air-to-air missile shot“. Exact range is obviously both classified and depending on a number of launch parameters, but the F-14 Tomcat/AIM-54 Phoenix combo is known to have downed drones in 200+ km tests, so that should give a good indicator of the ranges we are talking about. However, long-time defence journalist Joseph Trevithick stated that his understanding is that the C-8 is a hybrid-version for export that involve much of the improvements of the AIM-120D, such as third-party targeting datalinks, but not the improved engine (range is still likely somewhat better than C-7 thanks to improved steering economy). In any case, a Boeing spokesperson confirmed that while they are “pretty happy with that [the AIM-120C-8]”, there obviously are “other things” coming in the near future (read: the AIM-260 JATM). While commercial details made it impossible to include the upcoming weapon in the BAFO and Boeing can’t comment on potential weapons buys post-BAFO, it should be noted that the details known include a rather aggressive development timeline that will see the JATM overtake the AMRAAM in production in the mid-20’s, a decision by the US Navy to first integrate it on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, as well as the Finnish Air Force having expressed a wish to stay as close as possible to the standard of the main operator of any fighter they buy. Add these all together, and it starts to seem highly likely that by the time HX reaches FOC in 2030, in case the Super Hornet wins, the Finnish Air Force would be flying around with a mix of AIM-120C-8 and AIM-260. Still, for the time being the C-8 is what’s on offer, and Boeing claim to be “confident in their ability to defeat the high-end threats” presented in the HX-scenarios with it.

The Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile – Extended Range (AARGM-ER) during captive carry tests. The missile is externally rather different from earlier members of the AGM-88 family in that it lacks the characteristic mid-body wings. The Navy is integrating AARGM-ER on the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G, and it will be compatible for integration of the F-35. Picture source: U.S. Navy photo

Another question is what the Growler will carry for their kinetic missions. Here Boeing was more careful, and declined to mention a weapon, but noted that the Growler-offer obviously include both kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities. Add the earlier mentioned FinAF wish to stay close to the US Navy configuration, and the answer is rather clear: a Finnish EA-18G Growler would use the AGM-88G AARGM-ER to kill stuff. Another key question for the Growler is obviously the low- and high-band jammers that weren’t part of the original DSCA-notification. Here again the timeline causes something of a headache for Boeing, as the USN will be flying with at least the NGJ-LB jammer before FOC for a Finnish Growler-fleet, but they can’t be released for export yet as they are still in development. However, the plan would, again referring to the fact that Finland does not want a unique Finnish standard, be for Finland to operate with whatever the main user employs, so expect to see some money set aside for the missing NGJ-pods if Finland gets the Growler. In the meantime, there is the option of using loaned pods (i.e. AN/ALQ-99) to get training started.

Our offer is complete for the Growler.

For Lockheed Martin the big news was that they were finally ready to talk numbers as well as industrial participation, and there were certainly positive news.

64 is the only number in our offer.

In what can only be described as a surprise to me (as well as to a number of other people), Lockheed Martin confirmed that their bid is built around 64 F-35A. The rest of their message was less surprisingly centred on the value of having a single-configuration fleet made up of the most advanced tactical aircraft currently found on the market. In short, having a single aircraft configuration means that everything from training, maintenance, logistics, and support equipment are easier to plan and manage (which makes it cheaper). This also translate into simpler tasking as every aircraft can fly every mission. Regarding the statement that the F-35 “does not require electronic warfare or AEW platforms as a fourth generation fighter”, it certainly is less dependent on force multipliers (all other things equal) than most other platforms out there, but there are certainly room for nuance here. There’s a reason why the USAF is investing in AEW platforms and expeditionary Growler squadrons, while at the same time quite a number of smaller air forces are able to fly fast jets independently without force multipliers (though as the phrase suggests, that solution isn’t optimal).

A Finnish Air Force F/A-18D Hornet sporting two AGM-158A JASSM heavy cruise missiles. The weapon has received almost mythical status in Finnish media, and while some of its reputation is exaggerated, there’s no denying it is a key capability. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

When it comes to weapon, Lockheed Martin doesn’t want to discuss what’s coming after the AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM, though it is safe to assume that the AIM-260 wouldn’t be far away here either (especially considering it is a Lockheed Martin product as opposed to the AIM-120). More interesting is the fact that Lockheed Martin put focus on how a stealthy aircraft is able to get closer to the target and as such is less reliant on expensive long-range weaponry. Coupled with the emphasise on the JSM as a “true fifth generation weapon”, and the fact that at no point has Lockheed Martin discussed the JASSM, the rumour mill is starting to ask a new question.

Is there a heavy cruise missile at all in Lockheed Martin’s best and final offer?

The JSM is a very nice weapon, and it marries extremely well with the F-35. However, the 550+ km range is a far cry from the 1,850+ km range of the AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER which is cleared for export to Finland as part of both US offers, but as noted the JASSM has never been confirmed by Lockheed Martin. Granted the F-35A might be able to operate closer to its intended target than the Super Hornet, but I sincerely doubt the difference is in the 1,300+ km class. And the difference isn’t just in the range (the JSM in fact outranges the current AGM-158A, so it would still be a step up), but the JASSM carries a 450-kg penetrating warhead while the JSM comes with the significantly more tame 125-kg fragmentation one.

To put it bluntly – it might be a cruise missile, but it is not the capability the Finnish Air Force is looking for.

I’d be happy to be proven wrong, but it certainly feels a bit worrying, and it might explain another somewhat strange issue with the wording of Lockheed Martin, namely their stubborn refusal to talk about 64 aircraft without including the phrase “up to” before it. This prompted Iltalehti’s Lauri Nurmi to ask what exactly “up to 64” meant, which lead to the “only number in offer”-quote above. However, the answer also included disclaimers about final negotiations between selection and contract signing as well as exchange rates causing issues. These are certainly valid concerns, the original Finnish F/A-18C Hornet order was cut by three airframes compared to the offer due to the Finnish mark collapsing compared to the US dollar, and everyone expects some tweaking between the BAFO and the eventual contract.

Except for the fact that both Boeing and Saab has committed to 64 fighters, full stop.

Boeing was more than happy to offer some insight into how the exchange rate between euro and US dollar is handled in HX during our call yesterday, and provided the following quote:

The exchange rate utilized for the BAFO was provided to all candidates on the same day. The US competitors are utilizing the same exchange rate for USD vs Euro. With that same exchange rate we are able to provide 64 aircraft (50 Super Hornets and 14 Growler) along with a complete weapons and sustainment package. Also with that same exchange rate, we are able to clearly demonstrate that with our solution, we can fit within the O&S budget provided by the FDF

With regards to the eventual negotiations, Boeing was also confident enough to guarantee 64 fighters:

With our [Boeing’s] offer, should we be down-selected, there is room to negotiate items within the offer to better refine the solution, however, regardless of that, it is guaranteed that Finland will receive 64 aircraft along with a complete weapons and sustainment solution as a baseline.

Now, if there really is some rather significant holes in the F-35 package, such as the lack of a heavy cruise missile, it isn’t far-fetched to see a re-negotiation where say two aircraft are dropped and the cost is converted into JASSMs, as in all fairness the difference between 64 and 62 aircraft would in practice turn out to be rather minor. On the other hand, it is the BAFO package that will be evaluated in the war games that determine the winner, and it would be a high-risk gamble to go in with something else than the optimal solution to the needs of the FDF. A third possibility is that Lockheed Martin is believing that they won’t come out on top, and then it would look better to be able to walk away saying that they were able to fit 64 aircraft in their offer under the budget given, but that they lost on some more particularly Finnish requirement (defence budgets and numbers are rather global phenomenon and affect every future fighter programme in which they wish to compete, dispersed operations in snow doesn’t).

F-35A during HX Challenge last year. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

This is obviously pure speculation, but the insistence on talking about “up to 64” is somewhat puzzling. I am however happy that it turned out the number of fighters offered is serious, and as noted am overall positively surprised by this development (BAES and Dassault, take note). This was also the case with the industrial participation programme, which included guaranteed manufacturing of airframe components up to 2040 as well as external stealth panels within the same time frame. The number of guaranteed panels also exceed the Finnish requirement, meaning that Finland is guaranteed component production to some non-Finnish F-35s. I am not sure how well that will sit with countries that didn’t secure guaranteed production orders, but as noted in the case of the Super Hornet, from a Finnish point of view parts production can certainly be at least as good or even better than final assembly depending on the details of the offer. The key words here are “guaranteed” and “exceeding Finnish requirements”, and we got them, so I believe it is safe to assume the industrial participation package is at the very least adequate.

Much was also made about how the operating and sustainment costs are coming down, and how the aircraft is “living in single digit maintenance hours”. This is certainly good news for Lockheed Martin, as the operating budget will likely prove the toughest hurdle for the company in HX. Another proof of how the aircraft is maturing is the mission capable rate which now is the best of all USAF fast jets. However, while 76 % and pole position is nice, the truth is that the F-35 is a new aircraft largely still unburdened by combat usage. The fact that the F-16C-fleet reaches almost 74 % despite being on average 29 years old on the other hand puts the numbers in perspective. Other old and heavily worked USAF platforms are also hovering around the 70 %-mark, including the F-15C (72 %, 35 years on average) and F-15E (69 %, 27 years on average). As such, this particular metric might not be the huge win the F-35 is looking for, but it is still a nice step in the right direction, especially considering the unexpected engine shortage the aircraft suffered last year.

In general, as has been discussed earlier on the blog, the story of F-35 sustainment issues does feel like a two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance. The latest serious question mark surrounds the replacement of the company-controlled ALIS maintenance software with the government-owned ODIN, which has run into trouble. At the heart of recent discussions have been the extent to which Lockheed Martin is involved in the maintenance and logistics, and how to reach the milestone of “25 by 25”, meaning that by 2025 there would be a ~29,000 USD per flying hour support cost (the name comes from 29,000 USD in 2025 corresponding to 25,000 in base year 2012 dollars). Lockheed Martin’s proposal is more direct involvement and longer contracts, something the USAF isn’t too keen on. It should be noted that for the FDF involving industry to work very closely on maintenance isn’t a new issue, the whole Millog-idea in fact rests on doing business this way. However, government control is very much a key issue for the FDF, which has been seen for example in the other strategic procurement where the decision was made to have the FDF own the design of the Squadron 2020 vessels and then hire a yard to build them. Having a foreign defence company tell the FDF what data about their own aircraft they may (or may not) access might certainly be a red line, and with the US government facing issues renegotiating intellectual property rights, the odds of Finland managing better here are slim.

AK6, meet K22

The Swedish Armed Forces today did a decent attempt at upstaging Boeing’s PR-coup last week by casually dropping some major news seemingly as an afterthought, when they today announced a joint assault rifle procurement between Finland and Sweden which will kick off in September:

In September another procurement relevant to many within the Armed Forces. Then it will be determined which firearm will replace the AK5 [FN FNC]. The new firearm will be bought together with Finland – which means that in the future the two countries will use the same assault rifle.

The obvious issue: Finland is not currently in the process of acquiring a new assault rifle, following the rather recent upgrade of the current RK 62 to the RK 62M-standard.

But let’s start from the beginning: two years ago the Swedish Armed Forces outlined a plan to introduce a new “firearms system”, intended to replace the personal weapons of their soldiers. This included both assault rifles currently in service (the older H&K G3 as well as the newer FN FNC, AK4 and AK5 respectively in their Swedish designations), as well as the current AI Arctic Warfare/L96A1 sniper rifle (Psg 90) and the FN Minimi (Ksp 90). The plan is also to acquire a designated marksman rifle, a role which currently is filled with scoped assault rifles. The budget for the project would run from 2021 to 2030, with the major procurements being made starting 2025.

A year ago, the Finnish Defence Forces officially announced that they are acquiring a new weapon designated K22 from Sako. The key thing to notice here is that the weapon is a semi-auto in 7.62 NATO, made by a company famous for only doing bolt-action rifles for the last quarter of a century. The weapon would be delivered in two different configurations, as a sniper rifle and as a designated marksman rifle, differing in the equipment it comes with. The weapon would be a clean-sheet design, but based on “popular solutions”.

Yes, it’s an AR-10.

Now, you don’t have to be a business major to imagine that for Sako to bother looking into autoloaders they might have some plans for manufacturing more weapons than what the FDF might require for their snipers and marksmen. I would be highly surprised if their sights aren’t set on the 200,000+ weapons that will be replaced once the FDF starts retiring the RK 62M sometime in the 2030’s. The K22 might provide a nice development path into the world of ARs, from which to scale down into lighter calibre.

Crucially, the Swedish Defence Material Agency (FMV) has been closely following the Finnish developments, and this eventually led to the signing of an Memorandum of Understanding between the countries last month with regards to exchanging information on firearms and their technology, with the development of the K22 being mentioned in the press release by the Finnish representatives.

A somewhat grainy picture of the K22 in the hands of brigadier general Mikael Frisell, chief for the ground forces’ systems-section of FMV. Source: FDF homepage

The Finnish inspector for the infantry, colonel Rainer Peltoniemi, noted that:

We’ve found that Finland and Sweden have very similar capability requirements, development schedules, and goals, meaning that cooperating is very natural and appropriate.

What has then gone “wrong”, if one country thinks they will be buying a common assault rifle in September? There are two possibilities:

One is that the terminology has been lost in translation. The current designated marksman-ish weapons of the Swedish Armed Forces are coded AK for “automatic carbine” in the Swedish designation system, a designation used regardless of weapon length. It is entirely possible that Sweden intends to buy the K22 in September, and designate it locally as AK-something (Ak6 is one possibility, though e.g. the H&K 416 and 417 which have been acquired for SOF usage are designated AK416 and AK417, so AK22 might be another guess). This would then have been the news that the Swedes happily announced to the world today.

The other is that there is a silent agreement to launch a joint project for a larger number of weapon systems, possibly including the whole Swedish “Nytt Ehv-system”-program as well as Finnish replacement of RK 62M and potentially some other weapons as well. This was now unfortunately slipped into the press release by someone who didn’t know it was supposed to be under wraps.

Hopefully it was a case of the former, but I guess we’ll know by September.

Edit 04 May 2021:

The text has been updated, and it is now made clear that it is indeed the complete New Firearm-project that will kick off in September, and that as a part of this project is to look into whether part of the program can be handled together with Finland. In short, no decision on common weapons just yet, but a Swedish K22 order in late 2021 or early 2022 wouldn’t exactly be surprising in my opinion. 

Stop, BAFO Time!

The Best and Final Offers (BAFO) for the HX tender are in, and from here onwards there’s no adjustments to the offers. Whatever the bidder has promised is what they are legally bound to deliver. Now we as well as the OEMs will just have to wait until the end of the year to hear who have been chosen. This also means that the embargo on disclosing details has been lifted, and the suppliers are free to share further information if they want to. Interestingly, some has chosen not to, though that may be telling in itself. Dassault sticks to their line and hasn’t even said whether they have responded to the BAFO-request, though the Finnish authorities have confirmed that they have received all five responses. Lockheed Martin published a short press release, as did Boeing, who followed up with casually dropping the number of fighters offered when asked about it. BAES and Saab in turn held full-blown media events. So what do we know?

The race is on

The big news is that LOGCOM was able to secure five offers, and apparently five serious ones. I struggle to remember when it would have happened that a country has managed to keep a fighter acquisition program fair and open enough that no-one has decided to drop out prematurely or not supply an offer at all (at least Norway, Denmark, Croatia, Slovakia, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Bulgaria, and India have held fighter tenders within the last few years, all of which have either led to some dropping out mid-way, not responding to quotations, the whole program being cancelled, the invitation to tender being rather narrow, or bids being disqualified). It’s hard to overestimate how significant this achievement is, and how important of a quality certificate it is to the process as a whole. In contrast to what some armchair analysts have argued, that some of the largest defence companies in the world – with business intelligence units to match and arguably somewhat cynical worldviews – believe that they have enough of a fair chance to win the competition that they are prepared to invest heavily into making their bids is a solid indication that the tendering process has been, and still is, open and undecided. This also feels reassuring to me as a taxpayer in ensuring that it really will be the best system offered to Finland that will end up in Finnish colours.

Then-colonel Keränen describing the HX decision making model during last year’s HX Challenge. Source: Own picture

A big congrats to LOGCOM, the Finnish Air Force, and the MoD for this achievement!

numbers

The number game is interesting. At their press conference, BAES pointed out that they wouldn’t disclose the numbers as all bids weren’t confirmed to have been returned, as that apparently was the wish of the MoD. This sounded logical enough, until the bids were confirmed by the MoD to all have been returned, and BAES still declined to release any numbers. The full quote by a Eurofighter spokesperson was:

We are confident our offer will deliver sufficient Eurofighter aircraft to meet the challenge set by Finland to fully replace its existing capability. This is a competitive process and we will release further details of our offer as appropriate.

This was echoed by Dassault, who told Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat that the MoD had not given permission to release numbers. At the same time, Boeing was happily telling anyone asking that their offer consisted of 50 F/A-18E Super Hornets and 14 EA-18G Growler, i.e. matching the original 57 F/A-18C Hornet and 7 F/A-18D Hornet Finland bought in the 90’s. A bit later Lockheed Martin confirmed that they had sent in an offer that included:

F-35A fighters as well as a maintenance solution

Saab in turn held a press conference on Friday, which included the news that they were to supply 64 JAS 39E Gripen as well as 2 GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft in case they got chosen.

Those who have been watching the process closely will note that it is the two producers who have been expected to sport the cheapest fighters that have disclosed their numbers, and both match the current 64 fighter figure (or rather, the original 64 fighter, as Finland has lost two Hornets in accidents). Saab was also happy to rub it in, noting that while there was no requirement for a set number of aircraft, there was indeed:

Floating around a general expectation in Finland [of 64 fighters]

I’m not sure there’s quite an expectation for 64 fighters, as a matter of fact I personally expected both Boeing and Saab to land in the 60-64 range, but there’s certainly an expectation for almost 64. This stems from years of writings, interviews, and podcasts in which both the HX programme leadership as well as the senior Air Force personnel commenting on the issue has noted that we need roughly the same number of fighters as A) Finland is still the same size as it was in 1995, B) the speed of the fighters are roughly the same as it was back then, and C) the range of the weapons is roughly the same as it was back then. Yes, on a tactical level supercruise and Meteor provide significant increases, but when it comes to the operational or strategic level those are rather minor changes. There’s still 390,905 km² that needs to be defended.

As the Finnish Air Force demonstrated last year when it surged 32 Hornets for a total of eight four-ship formations (out of a fleet of 62), getting coverage really needs numbers. Even in the best of scenarios, the classic three-to-one ratio is a handy rule-of-thumb for prolonged operations. Let’s imagine a snapshot of a wartime scenario:

  • We are a few days into the war, the operational tempo is still very high as the first wave of the enemy offensive is still ongoing,
  • The Finnish Air Force has lost a total of 16 aircraft, including those shot down and damaged in combat, as well as those damaged and destroyed on the ground in opening strikes,
  • The Air Force currently has one formation airborne as part of an air defence tasking in the south-east,
  • A second formation is on the ground in dispersed locations in the northern parts of the country, ready to take-off and either relieve the southern formation once it needs to return to base, or to intercept enemies heading north,
  • Four aircraft are currently returning from a bombing raid on enemy advancing mechanised formations and the bridges they rely on for their movements,
  • Two aircraft are over the northern Baltic Sea, trying to create an accurate maritime situational picture (i.e. locating enemy vessels) as well as checking for a high-value ISR-platform that is known to occasionally operate out of Kaliningrad,
  • Two aircraft are being prepared with heavy cruise missiles for a deep strike mission against enemy rail infrastructure,
  • For each active aircraft there are two others that are either the process of refuelling, being maintained, transferring between dispersed bases, or simply standing on the ground allowing the pilots some rest between missions.

You can obviously argue the details, but that is a scenario that is possible with 64 aircraft (16 active in the missions mentioned, 32 in reserve, 16 lost). If you start out with 40 aircraft, you will quickly run into some “interesting” numbers:

  • If you’ve lost 16 aircraft, that’s 40% of your force instead of 25% as in the 64 aircraft-scenario. To match 25% losses, you can only afford to lose 10 fighters,
  • Even if you only lose 25% of the fleet, that still leaves you with just 30 aircraft, of which 10 are available. If you still want one four-ship in the air and one on the ground ready to scramble to perform air defence tasks, that leaves a grand total of *two* aircraft for other missions. Not two formations, but two aircraft.

That’s the tyranny of the numbers, and while they certainly can be mitigated (minimise own losses, have spare pilots on the dispersed bases to avoid rest periods, increase spares availability and maintenance capability on dispersed locations, …) there’s really no way around them. And notable is that during exercise Ruska 20, the opening scenario based on a released map featured no less than thirteen four-ships, one three-ship, and a two-ship, all operating in an area well below half of the country’s surface area (as well as what presumably is a Swedish Hercules soloing straight down through the battlespace). Based on the same picture, my guess is that five of those formations might have been REDFOR, leaving 37 BLUFOR fighters airborne simultaneously to defend the airspace between Rovaniemi and Tampere.

Kan vara en bild av karta

The big question for HX then is whether the three manufacturers that are withholding their numbers are doing so because 58 would look bad when someone else has 64 (and that 9% difference in my opinion is still one where it might be possible to make a case for better overall capability thanks to higher availability and lower losses), or whether it is because the numbers offered are outrageously low (the threshold is somewhere in the low-fifties in my book). It is somewhat surprising – and honestly, rather worrying – that three out of five doesn’t want to talk numbers.

Industrial participation
In late April the Italian Air Force Baltic Air Policing detachment became the first to bring the F-35A to perform the QRA-mission over the Gulf of Finland. Picture source: Eesti Õhuvägi FB

As discussed in an earlier post, the Lockheed Martin-team doesn’t want to discuss their industrial cooperation package in detail, though in their press release they have gone into some further details:

The final offer 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.

“The F-35 offers Finnish industry high-tech jobs that none of our competitors can offer,” says Bridget Lauderdale, director of the F-35 program. “Production collaboration would continue for more than 20 years and F-35 maintenance collaboration until the 2050s. Finland would maintain its own F-35 fighters and also support the global F-35 fleet by manufacturing significant aircraft parts. ”

Outside of F-35 production, Lockheed Martin would build partnerships with Finnish companies and universities to develop and promote defense cooperation in indirect industrial cooperation projects.

This is still vague, but better than what Dassault have been able to produce when it comes to disclosing information about their offer. Boeing’s latest press release is in fact even weaker than L-M’s, though they can at least lean on the fact that last time around L-M was thrown out of the competition due to an inadequate IP-offer while Boeing went on to manage a successful IP-program for the legacy-Hornets. Still, their statement is honestly anaemic:

Boeing’s offer also include an extensive industrial cooperation program that offers significant long-term opportunities for Finnish industry.

On to better news: Saab and BAES are happy to discuss details. Both are promising final assembly lines of both engines and airframes in Finland, as well significant other measures. BAES description includes several details:

The opportunity to perform final assembly of the aircraft including EJ200 engine build and maintenance; a partnership in the future development of primary sensors, including technical transfer and data analytic tools and techniques for mission data generation and electronic warfare; the transfer of extensive maintenance, repair, overhaul capability. And, the transfer of data and authority to make upgrades to the aircraft.

In addition, we are proposing projects that enable transfer and ongoing cooperation in Cyber Security which will build resilience in military assets and networks and Space technologies. And a suite of Research and development projects across a broad range of technologies that is being spearheaded by our partner MBDA. These benefit Finnish industry, including small medium enterprises, and Finnish academia.

The jobs that we are offering as a result are high quality, long term jobs equating to over 20 million man hours over 30 years, with the knock on benefit to the wider economy driving this figure even higher, and I am proud to be part of the team submitting this offer into Finland today.

Alex Zino of Rolls-Royce was also able to produce some numbers related to the impact of the engine production line to show that it wasn’t just about unpacking crates being shipped in from the UK: the tech transfer and engine production would result in a combined workload of approximately 1.5 million man hours over 40 years.

Saab on the other hand has earlier talked about approximately 10,000 workyears. A quick back-of-the-enveloped calculation gives the number of jobs on average as something like in the low three-hundreds for Saab and in the high three-hundreds for BAES (using approximately 1,700 hours per year as a benchmark), but there’s obviously significant uncertainties in how exactly the numbers have been calculated. To put it into perspective, this number corresponds to over a third of the whole of INSTA Group, the second major player in Finnish defence industry after Patria.

In the case of BAES, perhaps the single-most interesting piece of technology transfer is the invitation to join the ECRS Mk2 development programme, which promises to be significant both from a military as well as technological point of view. Despite the ECRS standing for European Common Radar System, it is in fact heavily led by the UK for the time being, presumably providing relatively much room for bringing foreign partners aboard compared to some other joint-systems shared by all four core countries. Another key part is obviously the continued discussion on sovereign mission data capability, where the turnaround times promised are in a completely different league from any US offers.

Based on the Royal Air Force’s extensive operational experience, we will establish a sovereign mission data capability to rapidly update the weapon system with the latest threat identification and countermeasure tactics, sortie-by-sortie, if necessary. Mission data is the life blood of any modern combat system, and security of supply is more than repairing physical components.

The RAF describe this as being how the force currently operate in the Middle East, with new threats and emitters being included in the aircraft libraries from one sortie to the other.

Saab is on the other hand planning on creating a System Centre, which will be responsible both for tactics development as well as the fleet management and data part of things. In essence, this would likely handle the same things as the BAES offered sovereign mission data capability, while also providing support to the FDF LOGCOM and the Air Combat Centre of Satakunta Air Command, all under one (literal of figurative?) roof.

weapons

Again, to reiterate Dassault isn’t saying anything, Lockheed Martin is saying something, Boeing is promising to tell more in the future, and Saab and BAES is giving their lists to everyone asking.

As we know from the DSCA requests both the F-35 and the Super Hornet would bring JDAMs (HE as well as bunker buster rounds), GBU-53/B SDB II’s small glide bombs, AGM-154C-1 JSOW stealthy glide weapons with a secondary anti-ship capability, AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER very long-range heavy cruise missiles, and AIM-9X short-range air-to-air missiles. Lockheed Martin now confirms that the offer also include the AIM-120 AMRAAM in an unspecified version as well as the JSM (Joint Strike Missile). Neither of these are particularly unexpected, but the JSM offers a nifty capability in its dual use against sea- and ground-targets, as well as passive seeker and possibility of internal carriage in the F-35, as briefly discussed last time around. The expectation is also that there will be a second DSCA-request for undisclosed versions of the AGM-88 signal-seeking missile (likely the AGM-88E AARGM) as well as for AIM-120 AMRAAMs for Boeing, though these are unconfirmed for the time being.

BAES’s bid would bring what the Royal Air Force Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston KCB CBE ADC, describe as the full suite of weapons employed by the RAF – including the upcoming SPEAR 3 light cruise missile as well as the SPEAR EW version, a loitering stand-in jammer. However, curiously absent from the discussion was the Brimstone anti-tank missile, which has been a staple of the Operation Shader, RAF’s anti-ISIS campaign. However, the other two weapons that has been heavily in use in the Middle East by RAF Tornados and Typhoons are included in the list provided – namely the Storm Shadow heavy cruise missile and the Paveway IV guided bomb. The later is a 227-kg guided bomb with dual-mode anti-jamming GPS/INS as well as laser guidance, meaning that it can be used against moving targets. The weapon comes with both HE and penetrator warheads, though the physics dictate that the penetrator isn’t as efficient as those of heavier weapons. From a Finnish point of view, the Brimstone is likely something of a nice-to-have, as with both the SPEAR 3 and the Paveway IV there isn’t really any target that can’t be countered (although in certain scenarios the SPEAR 3 might be overkill while the Paveway IV might require release inconveniently close. Here the GBU-53/B SDB II has an edge thanks to its gliding properties). However, these missions (read: striking vehicles in massed armoured formations) are likely not the mission sets that are of primarily concern to the Finnish Air Force. Perhaps the most interesting detail would be the change from AIM-9X to ASRAAM as the short-range air-to-air missile of the Finnish Air Force. The ASRAAM, as opposed to both IRIST-T and AIM-9X, prioritise range over manoeuvrability, and while the jury is still out on which is more important by the time (or rather: if) you get into a short-range fight, the ability to fire missiles with passive IIR-seekers out to near-AMRAAM ranges is certainly interesting, especially in case of a heavily degraded EW-environment or against stealthy targets.

Saab showed of a large scale model of Gripen E in Finnish colours equipped with AGM-158 JASSM and RBS 15 at Kuopio Air Show in 2016. Now that particular options seems to be off the table. Source: Own picture

Saab’s offer in turn include at least IRIS-T and Meteor in the air-to-air role. This is no surprise, as these are the current staples on the Swedish JAS 39C/D Gripen-fleet, and have proved rather popular in Northern Europe in general. More interesting was the inclusion of SPEAR 3 (the EW-variant is not included, as Saab offers its own LADM that is currently in development and aiming for a similar role), as well as the decision to go with the KEPD 350/Taurus as their heavy cruise missile. Saab started out their HX-campaign actively pushing the fact that they can integrate any weapon they need, with the same message being repeated this week. It certainly might be the case, but somehow they still seemingly ended up basically offering MBDA’s portfolio of air-launched weaponry (complemented by Diehl’s IRIS-T and their own KEPD 350).

While it is extremely difficult to judge the true capabilities of the three heavy cruise missiles on offer, it remains a fact that KEPD 350 lost the Finnish evaluation for a heavy cruise missile against the baseline AGM-158A JASSM the last time around. And this time, it is up against the significantly improved AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER (formerly known as AGM-158D JASSM-XR). Again, it is hard to say much for certain, the KEPD 350 has also beaten the JASSM and Storm Shadow in certain competitions, but the decision seems strange on paper. There is a new version in the form of the Taurus K-2 in the pipeline, though that is still in development and the improvements seem rather modest compared to the step from AGM-158A to -158B-2.

Saab’s heavy anti-ship missile RBS 15 Gungnir (based on their Mk 4-version of the venerable weapon) is obviously available as it is a key Swedish requirement, but it seems to be left out of at least this original weapons package. On the other hand, it is safe to assume that there are some smart bombs (likely the GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II 227 kg GPS/INS and laser-guided bomb, as well as either GBU-39 SDB or the GBU-53/B SDB II small glide bombs) making up the lower-end of the package as these have featured rather heavily in both US as well as the BAES packages.

The most impressive part of Saab’s weapons package was the statement that the value of the weapons are “>20 % of the proposal price relating to Gripen”. At first glance this looks like 0.2 x 9.0 Bn EUR = 1.8 Bn EUR, which certainly would provide for a massive number of weapons. However, upon looking at the fine print, it does seem like at least the GlobalEye-portion of the offer is left out of the starting number, as may certain other items (Indirect industrial participation? Training?). I have reached out to Saab for a comment, and will update once I get their answer. Edit 3 May 2021: Magnus Skogberg confirmed that the value of the weapons “is above 15 % of the value of the whole offer (i.e. including Globaleye, IP, etc.)”. Presumably that means above approximately 1.35 Bn Eur. In either case, the weapons package does seem to be a sizeable one, though exactly how large is an open question (as a benchmark, the DSCA-clearances were for roughly 300 guided bombs, 150 JSM/JSOW, and 200 JASSM-ER, though obviously there’s no guarantee that the maximum number of weapons will be sought).

While the lack of large stocks for European weapons compared to US ones is one of the strongest arguments for a US fighter, the importance of this argument obviously would decrease with the size of the Finnish Air Force’s weapons stocks increasing.

The two-seaters

What became evident is that the days of traditional type conversion being flown in two-seaters seems to be on the way out for the Finnish Air Force. The Boeing offer did not feature a single vanilla-two-seater, with all fourteen two-seaters being Growlers. Saab followed suite and went for 64 single-seat JAS 39E despite their original 2018 proposal having been split between 12 JAS 39F two-seater and 52 JAS 39E. Eurofighter has earlier seemed lukewarm to the idea of including two-seaters, while F-35 obviously does not come in a two-seat model.

For Boeing the decision to leave out the F/A-18F Super Hornets is somewhat surprising as apparently still by the time the DSCA-requests were made late last year the option to include up to eight twin-seaters was still there. A Boeing contact with insight into current Finnish Air Force training procedures notes that despite the lack of flight controls in the backseat of a Growler, the flight characteristics and ability to bring along a backseater means that their use in peacetime training is seen as “quite reasonable”. However, it is obviously down to the Air Force whether they want to use it in that role.

For Saab, the decision was even more of a surprise. As noted, in the last proposal they were allowed to comment on they saw quite a large role for the two-seaters. In the words of Magnus Skogberg, program director for Saab’s HX bid:

Often there are other drivers for and needs of a two-seat aircraft configuration that, in combination with the more traditional training-related benefits, makes it relevant to procure two-seat fighters. […] Gripen F with its two seats, naturally provides additional flexibility to handle very advanced missions where it may be advantageous to have an additional pilot or operator on-board. Examples are Electronic Warfare Officer, Mission Commander and/or a Weapon System Officer in the rear-seat.

This was how it sounded back in March 2019, despite the GlobalEye being well and truly an established part of their bid already back then. In this week’s press briefing, the company took a strong stance that the 39E with its internal EW-suite, EAJP-pod, and LADM-decoys can handle the SEAD-mission without the need for specialised platforms – or, presumably, dedicated crewmembers. Some commentators have pointed to the ability to direct the Gripen’s EW-suite from the GlobalEye through the datalink, though I have not seen that feature mentioned in any of Saab’s material and it would seem to be a less flexible solution compared to formations having their own dedicated EW-operator (in essence having fourteen Growlers for 50 fighters means every four-ship out there could have their own EW-escort).

While it is difficult to say exactly what has caused this change of hearts over at Saab (the wish to harmonize their bid with the Swedish Air Force force structure probably played a part), it shows that the multi-staged HX-process works in that the offers have been tailored and changed even in rather dramatic fashion since the first round of RFPs. What Saab did mention, however, is that there is still included an option for 39F in the bid, presumably either in the form of buying additional airframes or converting a number of the 39E offered to 39F. However, as this bid is based on Saab’s best understanding of what the Finnish Air Force wants following years of discussion, I personally find it highly unlikely that the option would be used.

The large number of Growlers on the other hand is very significant, and I will admit I did not expect 14 aircraft to fit inside the budget. Keen readers will have noted that there wasn’t as many NGJ-MB jammers in the request, these were limited to eight sets. However, while the NGJ is at the heart of the Growler’s electronic attack and jamming capability, a key part of the situational awareness in fact comes from internal sensors, including the the wingtip ALQ-218 RF Receivers. These tell the pilot not only what is out there, but also where it is, and the crew can then decide what to do with that information, whether to engage with weapons, avoid, or jam in case they have brought along their NGJ. As such the value of including Growlers as part of normal formations is significant, both for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. The additional value of a backseater also means that you have an extra person who isn’t busy flying the aircraft, and who potentially could, I don’t know, perhaps function as an “Electronic Warfare Officer, Mission Commander and/or a Weapon System Officer”.

I have mentioned it before, but it continues to be an important point in the greater picture that in my opinion is brought up often enough: the value of having the unique capabilities that the EA-18G Growler brings does not limit themselves to wartime, but they would give our politicians quite a few more options on the escalation ladder prior to full-blown war. This includes both better situational awareness, as well as the ability to meet e.g. GPS-jamming with non-kinetic means that still can hurt hostile operations without causing damage to adversary equipment or losses to their personnel. Another possibility is the ability to support international operations with a key high-profile and high-demand (but internationally rare) capability, and one that require a relative small footprint in and risks for FDF personnel.

The ability of Boeing to offer 14 Growlers and still reach 64 fighters in total is an extremely strong card on their part, although I do have to caution that the crucial question of the future of the Super Hornet-family past 2040 is still unanswered.

Stealth, Dispersed Operations, and a big Jammer

With the first Danish F-35 now officially handed over to the Flyvevåbnet, it seems to be a suitable time to look at the aircraft that perhaps arouses the strongest emotions of all HX-contenders. I have earlier criticised the Kampfly-programme under which the F-35 was chosen (though I should note that the F-35 not being able to fairly prove that it is best fit for the Danish requirements doesn’t mean it isn’t), and a number of decisions surrounding Denmark’s future fighter have raised questions about how a potential HX-winning F-35 force would look in practice (*cough*, the RDAF Skrydstrup budget). To get some answers to the questions, I recently had an opportunity to chat with Scott Davis, Lockheed Martin’s Managing Director for Finland.

An F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 356th Fighter Squadron takes off from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, an air base at roughly the same latitude as Rovaniemi AFB, but with more dramatic mountains (Sorry, Ounasvaara!). Source: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Beaux Hebert

While few if any analysts doubt that being stealthy is good, or that the F-35 is the stealthiest of the five HX-contenders, questions have been raised about the trade-offs that brings, and whether the same effects can be achieved cheaper and with greater versatility through the use of active electronic warfare systems? However, the F-35 is far from a one-trick pony, and while the marketing is often heavily focused on the passive measures taken to lower the aircraft’s signature, it does in fact sport a state-of-the-art active EW-suite as well. The two key pieces of hardware here are the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 AESA radar with a large number of transmitter/receiver modules, as well as the huge Pratt & Whitney F135-engine pushing the aircraft and, crucially, providing electric power to all the subsystems.

The fact that the EW-suite is built up around internal systems means that all the power and cooling needed can be drawn from the aircraft’s main systems, as well as allowing the AESA radar itself to function as seriously sized jammer. Not only does this mean that the jamming power is more than an order of magnitude greater than those of traditional pods according to Lockheed Martin, but they also note the fact that the large antenna surface allows for a very narrow beam, lessening the risk of detection from enemy passive sensors. Scott acknowledges that podded solutions are easier to tailor for a wide range of threats, but while he won’t disclose the closer specifications of what the AN/APG-81 can do as a jammer, there are some things he can tell:

All things that can kill you […] is within our jamming range.

That includes both hostile aircraft as well as missiles, or in general anything that can give a fire-control quality radar track.

Scott Davis had a varied career in the USAF, flying fighters from the late Cold War-period up until the F-22, before retiring from service after a period as the US Defence Attaché in Helsinki. Picture courtesy of Lockheed Martin

However, the aircraft is also able to use the radar in passive mode, during which it in essence becomes a large listening device. With several aircraft in formation sharing passively acquired data through the high-bandwidth MADL datalink (which is designed to be difficult to detect and jam compared to earlier standards such as Link 16), it can then rapidly triangulate other emitters.

If you’re not transmitting, you’re in effect an electronic sponge.

The nice thing here is obviously the synergies that can be had through having your aircraft naturally being able to operate closer to the adversary without being detected, but also being able to do so either completely passively or only using systems that are relatively hard to detect. In essence, with these capabilities feeding into each other the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Granted, electronic warfare capabilities are among the aspects that are hardest to judge based on open sources. However, if the F-35 even achieves par in the EW domain compared to the competition, it should according to all logic be better off overall in a combat situation due to the aforementioned synergies coupled with the stealth features, all other things being equal.

However, in reality all other things are rarely equal, and while Scott is correct in identifying the F-35 as the “Next European fighter” based on the large number of European air forces acquiring the type, most do so in significantly smaller numbers than the F-16 fleets they are replacing. In the case of Denmark, the plan is to replace the remaining fleet of around 50 left in service from the original of 77 F-16A/B (7 of which were attrition replacements) with just 27 F-35A in a single squadron. In Norway the cut wasn’t as drastic, but it still sees 52 F-35A replacing an original 74-strong F-16A/B fleet (of which 56 were upgraded to MLU-status). Still, Norway is also consolidating operations to a single base, further underlining the fear that a Finnish F-35 order might lead to a 40 aircraft Air Force and the closing of one of the two fighter squadrons.

Programme Director Lauri Puranen has however shot down at least the latter idea, stating that concentrating the Finnish fighter force to a single base hasn’t even been discussed, and Scott Davis is confident that the fear of an F-35 specific infrastructure cost causing issues is overblown. One example often brought up is that of Eielson AFB in Alaska, which has seen huge spending on F-35 infrastructure. However, much of those investments were due to the base not having been home to combat coded fighters in recent years, meaning that it was more of an expansion than a modernisation project.

[Eielson AFB] was a plus up, adding two more squadrons of fighters […] The logistics footprint of the F-35 is actually less than that of the F-16

In general, the aircraft has turned out to work well in colder climates, including not only in Alaska, but also in locations such as Burlington, Vermont, and over in Norway. Asking about whether actually operating the aircraft in cold weather as opposed to ‘just’ doing cold weather tests have revealed some major insights, Scott confirms that this has indeed been the case. “We’ve definitely learned some lessons”, he confirms, but also states that overall it is going very well and that the “Norwegians are very happy”.

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Instrumented test-aircraft AF-01 showing the JSM in the external bomb bay before the drop test conducted from Edwards AFB. Source: Forsvarsmateriell

And speaking of happy Norwegians, they just did the first drop-test of an JSM from an F-35. The anti-ship missile is stealthy, sports a passive IIR-sensor, a secondary land-attack role, and crucially can be carried internally on the F-35. As such it is more or less a perfect fit to the aircraft in that it is difficult to detect throughout the attack run, and while Lockheed Martin can’t discuss details of the weapons package offered to the Finnish Air Force, we know from the DSCA-notifications that it is on the table. An interesting detail that often is overlooked for the F-35 is that a better capability to close with your enemy will not only give you more accurate information about what is happening and where, but also offer the possibility to use shorter-ranged (read: cheaper) weapons to hit defended ground targets.

A picture from a number of years back showing a Portable Maintenance Aid in action. Source: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics photo by Angel DelCueto

Another question which has popped up related to HX is whether the aircraft can be properly dispersed, especially considering the ALIS/ODIN maintenance software which likes to be connected to the international network to which it sends data. There’s also the added question of cybersecurity risks surrounding the data being sent. Scott, however, isn’t concerned, and notes that sovereign data management is already found in the system, with the user filtering what data they want to share. The Portable Maintenance Aids (in essence dedicated laptops, to be replaced by pads come ODIN) also allow maintenance to run smoothly during dispersed operations regardless of whether the system is connected to the main database or not. The rumoured 30 days limit to offline use is also just a rumour, with nothing more dramatic happening than day one falling out of the aircraft’s memory on day 31 if it hasn’t been able to upload the data in between. Interestingly enough from a Finnish point of view, the USAF is also awakening to the need for dispersed basing, largely as a result of the threat from China. This has seen the logistics footprint being tested in recent exercises such as Cope North 21 earlier this year, which saw Eielson-based F-35s deploy from their home in Alaska to remote airstrips in Guam. The US Air Force’s agile combat employment concept (ACE) is based on a hub-and-spooks principle, i.e. a central permanent base supporting austere satellite fields, not completely unlike the Finnish concept of operations. During Cope North, a key base was the unassuming Northwest Field, which saw fighters operating from it for the first time since WWII.

Agile Combat Employment training during Cope North 21 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, in February 2021. Here hot-pit refuelling is practiced to maximize readiness capabilities. Source: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jonathan Valdes Montijo

However, even if the F-35 turns out to be both affordable and deployable, there’s still some particular questionmarks hanging over the project. One is regarding sovereign mission data management and exploitation. Things would be routed through the US (not unlike Boeing’s offer), but with the large number of parameters involved in the F-35’s threat library, Lockheed Martin is careful not to make any promises regarding turn-around times for updates (unlike Boeing’s offer).

We are in discussions with numerous Finnish suppliers about multiple opportunities for potential future work on the F-35. Details on the nature of these discussion are competition sensitive so we won’t disclose that information.

Another question that still waits for an answer is the industrial participation aspect of things. With both Saab and BAES/Eurofighter GmbH having promised production of both the aircraft and the engines in Finland in case their respective bids win, and with both having released general numbers for the amount of Statements of Work they have prepared, as well as highlighting key subsystems that are open for cooperation, the answer to my question about the IP-package was surprisingly timid. In particular after the weak showing in the Swiss AIR2030 programme where the offer was for “assembly of major components” of four (!) out of 40 fighters locally, and considering the challenges the rather strict Finnish requirements for industrial participation (3 Bn Euro, of which the majority is direct), it does sound strange that Lockheed Martin isn’t able to provide any details at the time being when they otherwise are rather talkative.

Uncompetitive Defence in a Competitive Age

Following the Integrated Review released last week, the British MoD released a report this week titled “Defence in a Competitive Age” detailing (or trying to detail) the changes this will bring to the UK armed forces. Much of this had been leaked in the weeks leading up, but the final text still deserve a look.

The general idea is well-known: a global Britain will need leaner and more mobile forces to be able to counter Russian and Chinese peer threats. Somehow that means serious cuts in numbers and retirement of some key systems, but lets go through some of the changes in order. The list is certainly non-exhaustive, and based purely on my personal interest.

The Royal Navy

7.23. The Royal Navy will invest £40m more over the next four years to develop our Future Commando Force as part of the transformation of our amphibious forces, as well as more than £50m in converting a Bay class support ship to deliver a more agile and lethal littoral strike capability. Forward deployed to respond rapidly to crises, this special operations-capable force will operate alongside our allies and partners in areas of UK interest, ready to strike from the sea, pre-empt and deter sub-threshold activity, and counter state threats. This will be enabled by the deployment of two Littoral Response Groups; the first in 2021 will be deployed to the Euro-Atlantic under a NATO and JEF construct, while a second will be deployed to the Indo-Pacific region in 2023. They will also be able to deliver training to our partners in regions of the world where maritime security is most challenging.

The focus on the Royal Marines and the littoral strike capability is certainly welcome from a Finnish point of view. The Marines are able to deploy rapidly and with a highly skilled force of a size that can make an impact. The conversion of a Bay-class support ship is an interesting solution, and I highly look forward to getting some details on the project. The JEF is also alive and well, which is good to hear from a Finnish point of view as it is one of the main tools that Finland has post-Brexit to ensure British interest in the Baltic Sea region is kept alive in an era of renewed East of Suez-ambitions.

Sandown-class minehunter HMS Pembroke (M107) alongside a US MH-53E Sea Dragon minesweeping helicopter in the Persian Gulf. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Lynn Friant via Wikimedia Commons

More worrying is the idea that a new “safer, faster and automated mine hunting capability delivered in partnership with France will replace all of the Royal Navy’s Mine Counter Measures Vessels (MCMV)”. The MCMV include six of the older and larger Hunt-class (commissioned 1980-1985) as well as seven of the newer Sandown-class (commissioned 1998-2001), and granted the vessels are slowly starting to show their age. However, the minehunting role is one that simply require hulls, and while remotely operated systems are of great value and becoming more and more important, I fail to see how exactly these systems are to operate without access to suitable vessels? If the answer is highly automated unmanned platforms with high endurance, it will in turn raise a number of questions regarding operations below the threshold of war where minehunting runs into a number of legal issues dictating where a vessel can operate and what actions it can take, as well as e.g. dealing with evidence collection for later attribution of mines encountered. Crucially, much as has been the case with unmanned aerial systems, exactly where the savings will be made is very much an open question. With minehunting in general being a rather overlooked field, the prospect of one of the major players facing a significant reduction in capability is worrisome to countries with interest in the eminently mineable Baltic Sea. I sincerely hope the Baltic countries can afford to snatch up and start operating a few more of the surplus vessels, because the Baltic Sea will need them in case of a crisis.

The cuts to the number of frigates isn’t as big a deal in my opinion as some have made it out to be. Yes, the situation isn’t exactly good, but in all fairness the Royal Navy has long since shrunk its number of surface combatants to a level where they will be able to do little more than provide escort to a very limited number of task groups or squadrons, and retiring two Type 23s earlier won’t affect that situation much in either direction. Now, if the ambition is to do more than escort two carriers and maintain a token vessel or two active in home waters, the number of escorts is obviously too small, but that isn’t solved by keeping the Type 23 in service longer.

The army

The Army is set to “become more agile, integrated, lethal and expeditionary”. Contrary to some rumours, this won’t be done by cutting all the tanks, but instead by cutting all the tracked IFVs. At the risk of being erased from every Christmas card-list of the whole Finnish tank-mafia, I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have been better the other way around if one of them really had to go? Paring the upgraded Challenger III (tangent: yes, the obvious solution would have been to just buy the Leopard 2A7 and avoid facing obsolescence issues within ten years again, but that’s politically impossible) with the wheeled Boxer just seems to set up the mechanised units for a force mix where neither platform really can play to its strengths if it is to avoid getting separated from the other one. As such, this attempt at saving as much as possible seems set to leave the force worse of in the end than if the Army would have accepted that they can’t run a proper mechanised tracked force under the current budget, and then sat down and took a “hard-headed and unsentimental view of those capabilities that will be less relevant to the changing threat” and determined what to do instead.

To some extent the new Deep Recce Strike Brigade Combat Team can be seen as actually having done that. It “will combine the Ajax’s formidable sensors with enhanced fires systems to provide long-range persistent surveillance for the coordination of deep fires.” That’s a lot of buzzwords, but it just might happen to be a similar revolution in combat ability as the combined arms armoured division represented in the interwar years, creating a unit through combining earlier capabilities in a new way into something that is bigger than the sum of the individual parts. However, and this need to be stressed, revolutions in warfare are very hard to get right if you are on a shoestring budget. And if you get the Deep Recce Strike-concept wrong, not only won’t you achieve the firepower overmatch to sweep your enemies before you like the Mongol hordes of old, but you will be left with a small number of dispersed and squishy targets that are no match for conventional heavy mechanised forces fighting under armour. Again, the devil will be found in the details. On the positive side, there seems to be the realisation that a serious(?) upgrade in long-range fires is needed for the system to work, and this includes upgrades to both traditional artillery and rocket artillery, as well as investment in the Spike NLOS missile system (EXACTOR in British service) and the AH-64E Apache gunships.

However, looking at the issues from the Baltic Sea region, a good argument can be made that the changes to the mechanised units really isn’t that much of an issue. The Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) recently released an interesting report looking at the availability of western forces in the defence of NATO’s northeastern flank, and came to the sober conclusion that “The UK-based mechanised infantry, due to its heavier equipment, would be more dependent on transport possibilities and thus slower to theatre than the other units. The heavy equipment would not be entirely dependent on sea or air transport, as exercises have been conducted to transport heavy tanks (MBTs) through the English Channel. However, the Army has few Heavy Equipment Transporters (HET), which would limit transportation abilities by land.”

Robert Dalsjö put it even more bluntly in a recent podcast discussing the report, where the noted that a combination of readiness issues and logistical challenges would mean that it would be two-three months before British or French heavy units would be on location in eastern Poland or the Baltic countries.

The British cuts announced now wouldn’t matter, as the British would in any case still be home drinking tea when the war ends.

Life being what it is, I get a sense that the UK MoD didn’t read the FOI report:

7.33. The restructuring of the Army means fewer units are required. The creation of Combat Service Support Battalions will require fewer separate units of logisticians, electrical and mechanical engineers, and medics.

Again, we’ll have to wait and see, but scrapping support units because the same capabilities are added in the form of organic battalions is one of those ideas that is good on paper, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up leading to a reduction in capability.

On the positive side, there’s apparently continued focus on the parts that could (relatively) easily be transported to the northeastern flank, in the form of the new Ranger regiment and the very high readiness Global Response Force. The former is the current Specialised Infantry Group, consisting of four understrength battalions of highly trained light infantry. It is unclear to me to what extent their training, role, or equipment will change, or whether this is just a case of unlocking a slightly wider mission set under UK laws thanks to rebranding them as SOF? The situation is somewhat similar with the Global Response Force which is made up of the current 16th Air Assault Brigade and the accompanying 1st Combat Aviation Brigade, in essence paring up the paras and the Army Air Corps’ helicopters together into a single unit and deciding against calling it an airmobile division. Still, despite the somehow dubious claim of these developments being “new”, there is no denying that both units would likely be highly effective on the modern battlefield (as long as they can be somewhat picky about the terrain of the battlefield in question). The medium transport helicopter fleet, which currently sport four different types, will also undergo an upgrade and consolidate to a single new type in the mid-2020s.

The ROYAL AIR FORCE

Due to this focus on a smaller but leaner and highly mobile force, the airmobility arm of the RAF will obviously receive considerable investment.

Just kidding, there will be a significant cut in the removal of all C-130 Hercules from RAF service, the majority of which are the stretched C-130J-30 model (locally designated C.4) which entered UK serve just before the end of last millennium. The plan is to have all Hercs out of service by 2023, but on the other hand the A400M Atlas force will “increase its capacity and capability”. There is no indication how this increase will happen, presumably simply by flying more hours once the teething troubles all have been dealt with. However, the majority of Atlases are already delivered and the type has been flying operationally with the RAF since 2015, so one would imagine there isn’t much room for growth without ordering more aircraft (and RAF has earlier scaled back the original order for 25 aircraft to the current 22). Granted, the A400M is objectively a better and more capable aircraft than the stretched C-130J-30 in more or less all ways measurable, but that still doesn’t mean that cutting the number of tactical airlifters by well over a third won’t be felt.

Tangent: In the best of worlds, the obvious winner of this should be the Swedish Air Force which didn’t get a replacement for their small fleet of forty year old C-130E/H Hercules (locally designated Tp 84) in last year’s defence bill, meaning they will have to soldier on for at least another decade. I sincerely hope that somewhere money could be found to acquire a few of the now to be retired RAF-birds, which probably would be a cheap stop-gap solution (and most likely have quite a bit more life left in the airframes considering they are almost twenty years younger) that ensure safe working conditions for the personnel of the 71. Transportflygdivisionen and reliable fixed-wing air mobility for the rest of the Swedish Armed Forces in the decade ahead.

The fast jets have received much of the attention, but there’s quite little of substance in the final document. The plan to acquire 138 F-35B Lightning II ‘over the lifespan of the program’ (note that this didn’t necessarily indicate a fleet of 138 aircraft, but could include later batches to replace earlier ones) has now been truly shelved, but the report only states that UK will keep “increasing the fleet size beyond the 48 aircraft that we have already ordered”. This obviously leaves quite a lot of room between 49 and the original 138, but UK Defence Journal quote sources stating that the First Sea Lord would have put the number at 60, with room to increase it up to “maybe 80” which would mean four deployable squadrons. In essence that would mean some kind of a minimum credible carrier strike force if both carriers are to deploy with wartime F-35 wings. This might or might not be tactically sound depending on your scenario, but it is safe to say that RAF might have to start looking at a combination of drones, Typhoon, Tempest, and cruise missiles, for the ISR and deep strike roles, because those F-35s could very easily become too busy for land operations in any serious war.

The older Tranche 1 Typhoons have mainly been doing QRA, such as this aircraft out of Number XI Squadron of RAF Coningsby intercepting a Russian Tu-95MS strategic bomber. Source: UK MoD / Corwn Copyright via Wikimedia Commons

The announced decision to retire the last 24 Typhoon Tranche 1 is not really news, as it was announced already in 2010, but saved by the SDSR 2015 when it was decided to retain the early air-to-air-only Typhoons. The move to keep the additional 24 airframes was then said to make it possible to “create two additional front-line squadrons from our existing fleet”, while now it is said that RAF will “continue to grow its Combat Air[sic!] capacity over the next few years as we fully establish all seven Typhoon Squadrons[sic!] and grow the Lightning II force”. No one has cared to explain how the Combat Air Capacity will grow in any meaningful way by keeping the number of squadrons constant while cutting the force with what six years ago was felt to be the number needed for two squadrons, but I guess the approximately twelve(?) additional F-35Bs will make the difference?

Some have questioned if the decision to retire the 24 Typhoons signal diminished UK interest in the Typhoon? I don’t necessarily think so, as noted the Tranche 1s were already living on borrowed time, and the decision to cut the F-35 buy by perhaps 45-55% will arguably leave the Typhoon playing a more important role – especially in the high-end peer conflicts, ISR, and air-to-ground mission sets – than what would have been the case with a 138 aircraft F-35B fleet and a full seven squadron Typhoon-force which included two squadrons of Tranche 1s. As such I don’t see the Typhoon retirement affecting HX in any major way (nor the F-35 cut for that matter. The UK F-35B/carrier strike concept was always far enough from the Finnish concept of air force operations that whether or not it was a good idea has little bearing on HX).

The decision to retire the E-3D Sentry fleet in 2021 and replace it with three E-7A two years later is just bizarre. Sure it will “transform our UK Airborne Early Warning and Control capability”, but mainly through being able to have perhaps a single AEW&C aircraft operational at any given time. Granted the E-7A is a significantly more capable platform and is likely to have significantly less down-time compared to the E-3D, but there is still more than a grain of truth to the classic military thought of needing three to have one in the field. And I have seen no statement regarding what to do during the two year break in UK AEW&C operations.

Conclusions

The report leaves key questions open, and despite some promising concepts and ideas it unfortunately seems that political considerations, counting cap badges, and crucially maintaining the visuals of a major power outweighed combat capability in the final considerations. Despite the talk of major changes and radically reform there is very little in the paper that feels different from a review simply aiming for significant cuts (approximately 11.5% of the Army’s Full Time Trade Trained strength, though current recruitment issues means that the number to go is approximately half of that). It’s hard not to think of the USMC and General Berger. His decision to take a no-holds-barred look at his force and then make radical changes to the force structure based on the findings may be controversial, but at least he led an honest attempt at trying to adapt his force for the current and future peer threats instead of just pretending to in order to justify cuts.

So let us end with a quote from @defencewithac‘s unrivalled thread on the review:

Fighters, Missiles, and Forces

The request for best and final offers has not slowed down the pace of HX, but on the contrary things are seemingly moving at ever higher speed. At the same time, developments in the wider world are also affecting the competition.

F-35 started the year on the wrong footing, with Acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher Miller, giving a bizarre quote where he not only called the F-35 “that’s a piece of…” and called it “the case study” for an acquisition process which is a “wicked problem”, but also stated that “I cannot wait to leave this job, believe me.” While the full quote was headline stuff for the tabloids, I would not ascribe much value regarding the merits of the F-35 to the opinions of someone who responds to the question “I wanted to ask you…Joint Strike Fighter?” with “Which one? F-35?”

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The F-35 is followed by dark headlines, most of which are frankly little more than hot air caused by the unmatched media focus and US transparency surrounding the program. At the same time, questions regarding the sustainment costs continue to linger. Source: Norwegian Defence Forces Twitter

The other major headline was that the program was granted its fourth extension to the deadline for when the F-35 evaluation would be finished and the aircraft approved for full-rate production. While this also caused some bad press, truth be told this is largely a non-issue for the aircraft, as the challenges faced are part of the Joint Simulation Environment where the effectiveness against hostile high-end threats will be tested. It is, however, a serious case of civilian oversight being lacking, as either the decision criteria requiring the JSE tests are wrong, or then the civilian leadership has been watching from the sidelines as more than 600 units have been produced of an aircraft they don’t know if they will approve for full-rate production! Spoiler alert – it’s most likely the former, but it is a serious failure of the Civ-Mil process and how the oversight is structured (rather than any fault of the aircraft itself) that the production run before approval is bigger than the total most other fast-jets will see throughout their lifespans.

The aircraft also “flies with 871 flaws“, something that makes for good headlines but is largely a case of the unmatched US transparency rather than indicative of serious troubles.

In addition there has been issues with shortages of the F135 engines that has hit the fleet. Defense News quoted officials stating that it is a “serious readiness problem”, and noted that in next year “roughly 5 to 6 percent” of the aircraft could be without engines due to a combination of scheduled depot maintenance and unscheduled engine removals. Of all four headlines, this is probably the one that holds water, but while it indirectly isn’t good that a supply chain is hit by bad news, the issues will almost certainly be over by the time Finnish HX deliveries starts in 2025.

The most serious news, however, was an interview in Breaking Defense with the outgoing 13th Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Dr Will Roper (understandably often referred to as the “USAF acquisition czar”, and not with his full title). Roper, who while somewhat controversial regarding his methods of working is a highly respected professional in the field, noted that the aircraft isn’t “at a sustainment point that we need”, explaining that “right now the F-35 has a good ‘sticker price,’ but its cost of ownership is not where it needs to be, making the quantities that the Air Force may need to purchase in question”. Roper hinted that this could lead to the NGAD (not to be confused with the USN program of the same name) receiving higher priority, or even ordering new-built F-16s to boost the numbers. This was developed further by USAF Chief of Staff general Brown this week, who denied any plans to buy the F-16, but left the door open for a clean-sheet design of a fighter less complex than the F-35 and affordable enough for the bulk buys needed to replace the F-16 across the field.

Someone who doesn’t believe that the operating costs will come down is, unsurprisingly, rival Boeing, who will happily tell you that once fighters are starting to be flown, their operating costs won’t come down but rather go up due to wear and tear. And that despite the current Super Hornet-fleet having been flown hard in recent decades, including combat use, their numbers are still good.

Our flyaway costs are about the same [as the F-35], our operational costs are about half of that.

While Program Director Lauri Puranen has been clear with that no-one knows the Finnish operational costs due to no-one having the full detailed picture of Finnish Air Force investments, operations, and pricing models, the two contenders that roughly can be compared is the F-35 and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet due to the US DoD publishing their internal flight hour costs (again, thanks to the US transparency). A GAO report released late last year provide these numbers, noting that “From fiscal year 2011 through fiscal year 2018, the O&S costs per aircraft for the F/A-18E/F increased from about $5.58 million to about $6.41 million”. This was due to “sustained high flight hours, which increased the probability of parts failure on the aircraft, and an increasing aircraft inventory, as the F/A-18E/F is still in production. Maintenance costs also increased as the Navy has worked to address extensive maintenance needs associated with extending the service life of the aircraft from 6,000 hours to 10,000 hours”. At the same time, the F-35A total O&S costs per aircraft was $8.84 million in fiscal year 2018. While the numbers doesn’t support the F/A-18E/F having an O&S cost “half” of the F-35A, it still is 72% of it. And here it should be noted that the strain of the workloads placed on the different fleets will skew the cost (i.e. in a like for like scenario where the Super Hornet would operate from landbases with similar loads and flight profiles as the F-35A, the difference would likely be greater).

Another company who doesn’t care that Puranen stated that no-one knows the cost figures is Saab, where campaign director Magnus Skogberg this week declared that:

We know for sure that nobody beats us on cost.

Of course, the question on cost is highly complex, including the issues of how many flight hours will be needed to maintain proficiency on a multi-role fighter. Earlier Finnish pilots have flown relatively few hours, but have still managed to stay proficient due to having in essence been training solely for the air-to-air mission. With the MLU2 unlocking the air-to-ground capabilities and HX bringing in further expansions of the mission sets, the number of flight hours will most likely need to increase, even as advances in simulator technology are offloading some of the training to ground-based systems.

Of the missions, few have received the focus of long-range strike, which has been elevated to its own category in the HX program alongside the more general counter-land. Here it is important to note that the long-range strike role in Finnish doctrine occupies both a military as well as a deterrence role. Very little about how Finland plans the deterrence mission is found in open documents, but based on the realities of international law and capabilities of the systems involved deterrence by denial can safely be assumed to be the concept involved. To use a straightforward definition by David S. Yost, “Deterrence by denial means persuading the enemy not to attack by convincing him that his attack will be defeated – that is, that he will not be able to achieve his operational objectives.” In other words, there’s preciously little differing the role of the JASSM in Finnish service from the other weapons of the FDF – they all aim to deter the enemy from launching an attack by ensuring that he can’t reach his goals without the cost being unacceptably high. The particularity of the long-range strike is exactly the long-range – being able to affect targets that are important for the enemy but which are too far away for other methods. It might also be worth noting that a majority of Finnish MPs thinks “it would be acceptable for Finnish forces as a part of defending the country to strike militarily relevant targets on adversary territory”.

The question of which weapon will fill this role has largely been viewed as a three-way competition between the US AGM-158 JASSM (currently in Finnish service in the since discontinued AGM-158A version, which beat the Taurus KEPD in the last Finnish evaluation) and the European offerings of the Storm Shadow/SCALP and (possibly) the Taurus 350 KEPD. However, it turns out that last year’s DSCA notifications included an overlooked surprise: the JASSM would come with a seriously longer range than the current version.

Since the original AGM-158A, the JASSM has spawned a number of variants. Key among these are the longer-legged AGM-158B JASSM-ER (Extended Range) which is currently in production and in service as the AGM-158A replacement, as well as the AGM-158C LRASM which is an anti-ship variant of the same weapon. Latest of the bunch is a further refined version, earlier called JASSM-XR (for Extreme Range) which brings a number of improvements. Key among these is a range increase from 500 to 1,000 nautical miles compared to the AGM-158B (926 km to 1,852 km). The differences include “missile control unit, changes to the wings, a different paint coating, an Electronic Safe and Arm Fuze, a secure GPS receiver, and program protection requirements” according to Air Force Magazine. The JASSM-XR received an official AGM-158D designation earlier, and production has been confirmed to start with Lot 19 which is expected to be ordered any day now.

However, the designation AGM-158B-2 showed up in the Finnish DSCA-requests last year. This variant of the AGM-158B has up until now not been seen in many documents outside of the requests. After Inside Defense claimed that there has been yet another change of designations, I decided to ask Lockheed Martin (manufacturer of both the F-35A and the AGM-158 JASSM) about it.

AGM-158B2 will be the next variant in the line of JASSM-ER missiles. The USAF is expected to begin procurement of the JASSM-ERB2 beginning in Lot 19.

Turns out the missile expected to handle the long-range strike mission in case Finland chooses either the Super Hornet or the F-35A is the missile formerly known as JASSM-XR. This would mean a huge increase in range, from the current 370 km of the AGM-158A JASSM to 1,852 km of the AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ERB2 (usual caveat that all range figures are based on open sources and comes with a large dose of “it depends” where things such as launch altitude come into play).

A Finnish F/A-18 Hornet sporting two AGM-158A JASSM during exercise Ruska 19. Source: Joni Malkamäki/Ilmavoimat

Exactly how much range Finland really needs is an interesting question. The current 370 km can certainly be improved upon, though on the other hand it is questionable if Finland really needs the ability to reach Ufa. In theory going from AGM-158A to AGM-158B-2 is the difference between Rissala-St Petersburg and Rissala-Kazakhstan. What it in practice would do is unlock further options for Finnish military planners, including guaranteed stand-off range against all Russian air defences, current and planned, as well as the possibility to route the flight paths of the cruise missiles around hostile defences. The AGM-158B-2 would for example make it possible to stand back and fire missiles from high altitude over the Bothnian Gulf and still reach the same targets as the AGM-158B would do from within S-400 range. As such, added range doesn’t necessarily mean that the Finnish Air Force is looking at new targets. After all, most military relevant targets in a conflict where Finland is involved – such as command centres, transport infrastructure, and staging areas – are found relatively close to the border, but rather that these targets could be destroyed at smaller risk to the Finnish pilots and aircraft. A military relevant target set that likely is of interest and which is found further from the Finnish border is the infrastructure needed to move troops from other military districts towards a conflict zone in (north-)western Russia. Many of the recent large Russian military exercises have showcased the Russian ability to relatively quickly move personnel and equipment over large distances, either by rail or air. Being able to disrupt or delay such movements in a conflict could be an example of a military target outside the range of the current AGM-158A JASSM, and one which might buy valuable days or even weeks for friendly support to reach Finland.

Crucially, the fact that the US contenders have decided to go for the B-2 and not the B does show that they feel that it fits the Finnish requirement best. It could be just a question of which weapon will be rolling of the production lines in 2027, but if there really is a requirement for range, the European contenders might be at a disadvantage when it comes to evaluating their ability to perform the long-range strike mission. And from a purely deterrence point of view, range does indeed open up more targets to be held at risk, and there’s also the fact that buying the best there is helps with cementing the “passive-aggressive” reputation needed for small-state deterrence to work.

An interesting question is obviously what weapon Saab would offer for the long-range strike role? The Taurus KEPD 350 is a joint Saab-MBDA venture, but as the weapon has lost an evaluation for a Finnish contract already once much of the Swedish discussion has been around the possibility to integrate any weapon the customer wants. However, as the only DSCA requests so far related to HX have been for the US contenders, the question remains if Saab plans on first selling the aircraft, and then trusting Finland to receive the correct export clearances? When asked, Saab declined to comment.

Both with respect to the customer and due to competition we do not comment on the details relating to the weapons package of the HX programme.

But if the F-35 had a somewhat poor start of the year, the Super Hornet also had its unwelcome moment in the spotlight with the announcement that the US Navy is thinking about axing the conformal fuel tanks from the Block III upgrade. The CFTs have been seen as an important part of the plans to increase the range of the Super Hornet, which in turn is seen as important for any China-scenario. For Finland, range and endurance isn’t as critical, but the question is how invested the USN is in the future of the Super Hornet-family if they struggle to meet the envisioned increase in range? Boeing is, at least officially, not concerned. The US Navy is still moving forward with the overall plan to convert the fleet to Block III standard (Block II being the corresponding program for the EA-18G Growler), and the current USN plan is that well over half the fast jets of the carrier air wing of 2030 will be from the Super Hornet-family (28 Super Hornets, 5-7 Growlers, and 16 F-35C). “Staying with three Super Hornet squadrons [per air wing] is quite telling,” Alain Garcia said, and noted that development is set to continue well past Block III. “There is a roadmap […] lots of [software] capabilities coming.” Garcia is one of Boeing’s key persons in their campaign aimed at ensuring Finland stays with the Boeing for another generation, and he sports the somewhat unwieldy title of Capture Team Lead for International Sales & Marketing Fighter and Trainer Campaigns in Finland and Switzerland. The roadmap he refers to will include the manned-unmanned teaming updates which are expected to be included as standard by the time Finnish aircraft would be rolling off the production lines, but also new weapons. With regards to MUMT, the question is obviously if the Finnish Air Force could fit unmanned platforms in a budget that will already be strained by trying to replace the manned components? Garcia notes that it obviously is a decision that the Finnish Air Force will make based on their own needs and doctrines, but that so far as they can tell the option remains available. Especially considering potential savings and trade-offs that can be had.

Looking at current operational costs now, we believe that with our offer there’s still some room for operational costs in there.

While USN might not be as certain about the future of the Super Hornet (or the carrier air wing in general), the EA-18G Growler seems to offer rather good protection against an early retirement of the platform. The unique role of the Growler as a dedicated stand-in electronic warfare platform will only continue to grow in importance (something the general Brown also noted recently in a much reported speech that included quotes about USAF being “asleep at the wheel” since Operation Desert Storm, and “We can no longer solely depend on defensive capabilities” which might get the force home, but don’t meet the need to be able to operate offensively in the electromagnetic spectrum). For not only the US Navy, but the joint US force as a whole, this means that the Growler is likely to remain on the flightdeck of the carriers and on expeditionary bases for decades to come, and with the Growler set to remain in service the future of the Super Hornet is also looking rosier than it would if alone. And if the Super Hornet/Growler would go the road of the A-6 Intruder/EA-6 Prowler where the electronic attack variant soldiered on for 22 years after the retirement of the baseline version, the ability to cross-feed new systems from the USN Growler-community to any potential Super Hornet export customers (as happened within the USN fast-jet fleet with the Block III upgrades) would help avoid the current “operating Hornet”-alone situation.

Saab and Boeing are happily in agreement about the importance of the importance of electronic warfare, as is the US DoD. In their new Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy they describe the electromagnetic spectrum as “not a separate domain of military operations because the EMS is inseparable from the domains established in joint doctrine.” Magnus Skogberg of Saab understandably pushed the need to be able to affect the EMS:

The stealth shaping of the aircraft is not enough to handle this [S-400 sensors covering a wide spectrum]

At this point it is notable that the F-35 in fact far from relying solely on stealth also features one of the most advanced integrated electronic warfare systems available, in fact putting them on the same side as Saab – but opposite Boeing – when it comes to the need for a dedicated EW-platform to get the most out of their aircrafts. While Skogberg proclaims that there’s “No need for a dedicated EW-platform when you are a Gripen operator”, Boeing representatives (not without being slightly smug about it) noted that while the UAE last year had requested a large package that included both the F-35A as well as the EA-18G Growler, only the Growler was denied export clearance by the US government on the grounds of it being too advanced and capable, with the F-35 deal being inked just before the change of administration (and now on hold pending review).

The US government has witheld the proposal from being submitted to the customer

The beauty of the Growler is that the dedication of the platform brings not only the computing power of the specified electronic warfare processor unit, but also the dedicated crew member. This means that for example when a new or previously unidentified signal is encountered, the operator can already in-flight start processing it, giving it an ID or other potential identifier. This means that once the aircraft lands the signal intelligence can be downloaded from the aircraft as “useful data” ready for the library, a capability Boeing believe they are alone in the field to provide. While the complete absence of black boxes and total independence of the mission data has been, and continues to be, one of the main selling points of the European contenders, Boeing takes a somewhat different approach out of necessity.

The data is owned by the Finnish government, but the processing of acquired mission data is easiest to handle through US infrastructure where Finnish personnel can be embedded. Fast turnaround (less than 24 hours) can then be achieved through the use of secure channels. Alternatively the whole or parts of the infrastructure can be rebuilt in Finland, but the cost might be prohibitive. Another interesting aspect is whether Finland wants to share the data (especially the data collected by Growlers) or not. There are a number of three-letter agencies interested in the data collected by USN Growlers, and exchange of data between Finland and the US might in turn provide valuable intelligence from these to the Finnish authorities. The amount of data produced by the Growler is indeed huge, with the snapshot of what the Growler visiting during HX Challenge last year managed to capture simply through its passive sensors reportedly being “eye-opening” with regards to the “saturation of information”. This is another place where the dedicated crew members comes into play.

An EA-18G Growler from VAQ-132 during heavy snows at Naval Air Facility Misawa, Japan, showing that the aircraft doesn’t stop just because everything turned white. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kenneth G. Takada via Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of from where it originates, electronic warfare is the hot stuff, with a crucial feature being noted in the new US DoD Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy:

Because many EMS capabilities are employed, not expended, concerns about magazine capacity or cost of munitions may be reduced, which in turn affords commanders and decision makers more sustainable options.

For a country where low numbers of advanced munitions has been raised as a concern in official documents, this is of interest. The ability to control the battlespace without blowing things up is certainly interesting also from an escalation management point of view, one of Finland’s key interests in any (limited) conflict.

But Saab has an alternative. Or rather, the Swedish defence establishment and politicians have an alternative. If Finland would buy the 39E Gripen and GlobalEye, the vision is that the Finnish and Swedish Air Force would be a common customer, meeting Saab together. And crucially, we would be the major customer and not a small customer in a bigger project. Saab’s media event this week was telling, in that it featured the Swedish Minister for Defence Peter Hultqvist, the deputy commander of the Swedish Air Force brigadier general Anders Persson, as well as Saab’s own people. While it technically is the governments and not the OEMs that are selling fighters to Finland, none are as clearly involved in the sales effort as the Swedes. MoD Hultqvist underlined the influence Finland would have on the program, stating that Finland would have “direct influence” on the future development path of 39E and GlobalEye if we choose Saab’s offer.

Slides from the media event, not leaving anything left to imagination

Brigadier general Persson didn’t mess around in his presentation, clearly stating that the potential enemy comes from an aggressive and expansive Russia, and that this is what Sweden has tailored their defenses towards.

Gripen is designed for our common environment, our common enemy, with our people in focus.

While Saab’s part of the presentation focused on their EW-suite, ability to field numbers, high availability, and current footprint in Finland (including the LADM decoy missile currently being under development, with much of the work undertaken in Tampere), Hultqvist and Persson spoke about the possibilities of Finnish-Swedish cooperation. This included harmonizing the acquisition of both Air Forces, but also cooperating with basing, training, and maintenance. Crucially, Sweden hasn’t decided to acquire GlobalEye, but according to Hultqvist while “We haven’t made any formal decision to procure GlobalEye, but that is how it should be interpreted”. A strange statement, as the new Swedish Defence Bill for 2021 to 2025 in fact envisions the replacement for the current ASC 890 to come only in the 2026 to 2030 period, with the decision on the platform still being years into the future. And speaking of the Defence Bill, it is far from a certain grand slam for the Swedish Air Force, as the answer to the realisation that cutting the Swedish fighter force to just 60 aircraft (the number of JAS 39E ordered) was a bad idea wasn’t to increase the size of the order, but rather to maintain the current JAS 39C/D fleet for longer. Beside the obvious issue of lower relative quality for the total force when keeping upgraded older aircraft in service instead of ordering more modern platforms, there is also little room for growth among the highly specialised workforce of the Swedish stakeholders when suddenly two fast-jets are to be kept up to date in parallel. An anonymous engineer from the Combat Aircraft department of the Swedish Defence Material Administration raised questions over on Twitter, noting that some of the engineers at the department are looking at 150 to 170% workload for the foreseeable future due to new 39C/D related developments. The optimist sees possibilities for Finnish industry to step in following an HX win for Saab, the pessimist questions if the small and competent Swedish aviation sector can continue to keep pushing out the kind of high-quality high-end solutions they are known for?

More headline grabbing was the speech held by brigadier general Persson. He noted that already now Finland and Sweden cooperate closely and regularly deploy to the other country for exercises. He also noted that this will continue regardless of the outcome of HX, but that choosing Gripen and GlobalEye would open up unique new opportunities. Not only could Finland fly the aircraft for upgrades to Linköping and Saab’s factory there in the morning and get the aircraft back in the evening, but Sweden and the Swedish aircraft infrastructure could be used as a rear logistics area. For basing, according to need Finnish fighters could deploy to Swedish bases behind the moat of the Baltic Sea, while Swedish fighters could use Finnish dispersed bases as forward staging areas for sorties. Integrating training and tactics could be a true force multiplier in the words of the general.

We will be like one air force with two commanders.

…and here the military historian will point out that ever since consuls Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus led the Roman army to the disaster at Cannae in 216 BC, having a single force with two commanders is usually not seen as a great idea. But leaving that perhaps misplaced quote aside, it is clear that the idea has much going for it. It isn’t exactly new, see for example this older guest post, but getting additional strategic depth for basing would certainly be beneficial, and it certainly would be easier to arrange with the same aircraft type than with different ones.

However, the kind of integrated force that brigadier general Persson describe would be something more than just two interoperable forces, something which they are already today (and will continue to be as both countries strive to maintain their ability to plug into NATO and US compatible forces), but it would require them to be true military allies. This is a political decision, and one which I fail to see either parliament going for in the next six months. Finnish commentators like to question whether Sweden is prepared to make firm commitments that they would send their sons and daughters to die for Kouvola or Sodankylä, but truth be told the answer to the question if Finland would be prepared to declare war on Russia in support of Sweden if the dreaded Gotland-grab scenario would take place is even more uncertain.

In fact, building up a rear logistics area outside of the country’s border is exactly what has been described as a potential weak point of the F-35. Ironically, the deputy commander hit the nail on the head when he described the situation for both countries as “We need to be able to take care of ourselves for days, weeks, maybe months”. The possibility of integrating further with the Swedish force is interesting, as is the ability to be the major operator instead of being a smaller operator in a major program. However, it does feel like much of Saab’s sales pitch this time took a detour to a political reality that simply isn’t there, and completely missed the geopolitical realities and defining features of the Finnish concept of operations which the company earlier has been good at selling towards.

Boeing on the other hand has no issues with selling to the Finnish concept of operations.

If you’re already operating the Hornet-fleet, there really is no change to the concept of operations switching to the Super Hornet and Growler.

This might be a bit of stretch considering the capabilities of the Growler, but granted it would fit the way the FDF usually does things (and likely be cheaper!) that instead of major sudden changes the force would get to iteratively developed its doctrine and concepts of operations.

The Junkers of Aakenustunturi

Today Ylläs is known as one of the larger tourist destinations in Northern Finland. The twin villages of Äkäslompolo and Ylläsjärvi play host to a number of visitors coming there to ski cross-country and alpine in winter, and to hike, mountainbike, and pick cloudberries in the summer. Those wanting to experience the wilderness usually strikes out to the northeast, where the landscape is dominated by the seven fells that have become the hallmark of the region. Furthest away is the mighty Aakenustunturi. While not among the highest, it still reaches well above the treeline, and stretches in a long horseshoe-shaped pattern with three distinct peaks – Vareslaki (north), Moloslaki (east), and Totovaara (south). In the summer hiking routes starting from the nearby Ylläs-Kittilä road makes ascents relatively easy provided you have the proper footwear, while a more demanding alternative is to hike or ski from Äkäslompolo. This blog usually doesn’t deal with outdoors life, but studying the maps you might notice the somewhat unusual name Lentokonejänkkä (Fi. the aircraft fen) for a small marsh just below Moloslaki.

In the early days of 1944 the region was very different. Neither Äkäslompolo nor Ylläs had a road connection (which was a blessing in disguise as the villages were spared destruction during the German retreat the following fall). And on the first of February that year, Aakenustunturi would see one of the many small tragedies that the war was full of.

The remains of ‘P4+CH’. Note the radiator belonging to a Bf 110 in the foreground, part of the fateful cargo. Source: Own picture

Germany was handling the northernmost part of the Finnish frontline, leading to a supply line stretching over the Baltic Sea and through Finland up to the Norwegian coastline and the Barents Sea. The main Finnish city in the region, Rovaniemi, became a logistics hub with its own transport aircraft unit. This was the Transportstaffel/Fliegerführer Nord (Ost) sorting directly under Luftflotte 5, and sporting the unwieldy abbreviation Tr.St.Fl.Fü.Nord (Ost). Further to the east and close to the frontline in White Sea Karelia (Fi. Vienan Karjala, Ru. Belomorskaja Kareliya), the airfield of Pontsalenjoki was found. Little more than a clearing in the forest, the field spent the war seeing small detachments of fighters, ground support, and reconnaissance aircraft rotate in and out according to need. It was from here that Junker Ju 52/3m ‘P4+CH’ from Tr.St.Fl.Fü.Nord (Ost) took off loaded with a cargo that included spares for Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighters and mail. The crew of four was made up of oberfeldwebel Kurt Rochna (pilot), unteroffizier Karl Meyer (radio), unteroffizier Stephan Kulin (mechanic), and unteroffizier Willi Brade (rear-gunner), and the plane set course towards Rovaniemi. Someone from the crew also brought along a dog.

A Spanish-built Junker Ju 52 (locally designated CASA 352) warbird showing how the typical ‘Tante Ju’ looked like above the Eastern Front during WWII. Note the gunner’s position towards the rear of the aircraft. Source: Mike Freer – Touchdown-aviation via Wikimedia Commons

We don’t know at what point the crew realised that something was wrong, but the weather over western Lapland was poor that day, and what should have been a routine 250 km trip ended on the eastern slopes of Aakenustunturi 140 km north of their intended destination. It is possible that Ofw. Rochna made a desperate attempt to ditch the aircraft having run out of fuel and options. The large open wetlands west of the fell would have been a better option in that case, but with poor weather and most likely little to no daylight he might have misjudged the white silhouette of the fell until it was too late to change their course of action. In any case the aircraft came to a stop in the snow on the eastern slopes of Moloslaki relatively intact, with bent propellers and the fixed undercarriage torn away. However, the force of the crash was still hard enough that part of the cargo broke loose and came forward, crashing through the thin cockpit wall and instantly killing everyone except Uffz. Brade who was seated further back in the aircraft.

The story about what happened next is a mixture of deduction by those that eventually found the wreck, rumours, and local legends with a hint of horror stories, making it difficult to piece together for certain what actually happened. What seems to clear is that Brade was seriously injured, and could not leave the wreck. In February the snow can easily be more than a meter deep, and trekking through the wilderness without proper equipment is difficult even for a fit and healthy individual. It is also unclear if he knew where the aircraft had crashed. Brade did have a signal gun and during the night he fired an unknown number of flares. The crash location was above the treeline, and with both the village of Kittilä and, crucially, the German air observation post at Levi within 20 km one would be forgiven to think that he might have had some luck with his distress signals. That was however not to be the case. Reportedly some locals in Kittilä saw the signals, but are said to have chalked the lights down to stormy weather coming in over the fell. In any case no one felt the need to report the observation onward to the authorities.

A piece of the wreck still showing traces of the paint layers despite eight decades of the sun and snow having taken their toll. Source: Own picture

At Levi the situation was none the better, and despite there being a clear line of sight between the two fells none of the signals were observed. According to the most likely explanation the air observation post was simply unmanned due to the poor weather convincing the crew there that no air traffic would take place. In the more grim version told by the locals, the soldiers had started partying, and in the alcohol-fuelled excitement they hadn’t noticed the signals. According to the same tale, they had all been executed afterwards.

In any case, Brade was out of luck, and would not leave the wreck alive. The German search effort was hampered by the poor weather, and failed to locate the Junkers. The next confirmed information is that a Finnish anti-partisan unit based in Kittilä encountered the wreck by chance when out on a trip in April the same year. According to the local horror stories, Brade would have struggled for days, keeping a diary written in his own blood, until eventually succumbing to a combination of his injuries and the harsh conditions. Local reindeer herders would have found the wreck, but as there was a sizeable amount of cash in it they made off with the money and kept their mouths shut. However, staff sergeant Armas Salovirta, second in command of the Finnish company stationed in Kittilä and leader of the group that found the wreck, wrote about the event in the late 80’s to try and kill some of the more spectacular rumours.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-382-0211-22, Flugzeug Messerschmitt Me 110.jpg
A Bf 110 at the Western Front. Note the underwing radiator just outside of the engine. Source: Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons

According to him, the unit was out as part of a physical education drive when they from far away spotted a dark spot on the eastern slope of the fell. Having nothing better to do, they decided to head over there to check what it was. Seeing it was an aircraft, they approached and peered into the rear compartment through one of the intact windows. There they saw Brade’s body, and a “hairy thing” that they figured was a wolverine. Equipped with an axe, Salovirta then opened the door to the cargo space, and was greeted by a rather aggressive long-haired puppy. The dog was however quickly won over by a piece of bread. After this, Salovirta and his men checked the cockpit and found two mutilated bodies described as the pilot and co-pilot crushed by the crates of aircraft spares. Apparently they did not notice the body of the fourth crew member, probably belonging to the radio operator Uffz. Meyer and seated immediately behind the cockpit. It is likely that at this point he was buried under the same crates that had killed Rochna and Kulin.

Having not expected to find an aircraft wreck, the patrol was poorly equipped to retrieve anything larger than what went into their backpacks. As such, the mail and puppy was packed into their bags, together with a pair of meal packages (one of which was opened and eaten on the return trip). The fact that these were still left in the aircraft shows that Brade most likely didn’t have time to starve before a combination of his injuries and the cold weather got the better of him. Salovirta noted that he indeed seemed to have survived for several days, but denied there being any kind of diary markings (in blood or otherwise) at the crash site. After Brade’s death, the dog had started to eat him, which explained how it had survived alone for over two months. Back in Kittilä the findings were reported up the Finnish chain of command, and the message about the lost aircraft finally reached the Germans. The thankful Germans gifted the puppy to Salovirta, who named it Junkers after the aircraft. Whether the aircraft had been visited before Salovirta’s patrol will likely remain a mystery, but the presence of the dog inside the wreck would indicate that the story of the herders is a myth.

About a week after the wreck had been located a group of German mountain troops, probably either of the 2.Gebirgs-Division or 6. SS-Gebirgs-Division “Nord”, arrived in Kittilä and requested to be shown the wreck. Salovirta accompanied them to the crash site, but the skiers didn’t do much else than observe the location. A short while later German troops came to recover the bodies together with some radio and navigational equipment, before they blew the aircraft to bits.

The trail is well marked, but the trailhead isn’t one you stumble upon by accident. Source: Own picture

Thus ended the sad story of ‘P4+CH’ (WNr. 5049) and its crew. Despite the destruction wrought by the German charges, the wreck is one of the few WWII crash sites in Finland where one can still find sizeable aircraft remains to this day. In the summer, the wreck is a short hike from the Totovaara parking spot, with signs helpfully showing the way towards the “Junkers”. On older maps you will encounter a goahti named Lentokonekota (Fi. the aircraft goahti), but it was burned down by the authorities in 2016 due to it being in poor shape. Continuing onwards past the spot of the former goahti you will encounter the wreck, well visible strewn across the trail. As everything not bolted down has a tendency to wander down the slopes with the melting snow in springtime, I would expect the original crash site to have been higher up on the fell. The hike is approximately 10 km to the wreck and back, but for a truly spectacular walk I would recommend doing the whole Moloslaenkierros which continues onward to the stunning ravine Valokuru, where the trail turns up the fell, before heading back along the ridgeline, passing over the peak Moloslaki before descending back towards the parking spot at the Totovaaran pirtti cabin. From the trail it is possible to see Levi to the north-east, from where Brade’s countrymen failed to spot his flares. Also visible to the east is Kittilä airport built in the late 70’s.

Levi in the distance seen from a spot on Aakenustunturi close to the crash site. Source: Own picture

Remember if you do visit the spot to only take pictures and only leave footprints to ensure that the site remain intact for future. It is also prudent to remember that this is the site where the lives of four young men ended in a foreign land almost eighty years ago. The nature of the war means that their fate largely became just another number in the statistics, but if you find yourself standing at the site of their demise, I ask you to take a moment to remember them.

This retelling is mainly based on Hannu Valtonen’s book “Hylkyretkiä Pohjolaan“, with some additional details added from other sources.