The European Fighter, Pt. 2

25 years ago Finland was looking for an air superiority fighter to replace the ageing J 35 Draken and MiG-21Bis which dominated the ranks of the air force. As is well known, the choice fell on the F/A-18C Hornet, which for the first two decades served solely in the air-to-air role (officially designated F-18C by the Finnish Air Force). But the times they are a-changin’, and with MLU2 the multirole potential was finally brought into play in the Finnish Air Force as well. This also means that for HX to meet the matching set of capabilities, it must be able to fulfill different roles, including air-to-air, air-to-ground, ISR, maritime strike, and stand-off precision strike. The last is treated as a unique requirement by the Finnish Defence Forces, as it requires a completely different setup compared to ‘ordinary’ air-to-ground missions.

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A crew chief from the Finnish Border Guard’s AW119 Koala watches as an Italian F-2000 Eurofighter touches down in Finland for the first time ever. Source: Own picture

However, while the aircraft will certainly occupy a host of roles, there’s little question that air defence still is and will remain the core mission of the Finnish Air Force. The ample availability of indirect fire, coupled with the planned acquisition of more accurate and longer-ranged munitions for both barrel and rocket artillery, means that there are several ways to kill anything moving on the ground. But even with the upcoming GBAD program, getting proper air defence coverage at medium and high altitudes is another issue. Here the teamwork between air and ground-based systems is a must, and HX will be the air component at least past 2050.

This suits the Eurofighter consortium just fine. While the marketing slogan might be that it is “a platform for any weapon, any mission”, it is clear that the concept owes much to the requirement of an air defence fighter that emerged a number of decades ago. This is most visible in the thrust-to-weight ratio of 1.15, well above both the F-15 and the F-16, which together with the aerodynamically rather clean design gives the aircraft an edge over the competition when it comes to raw speed and altitude performance. Over Syria and Iraq, Typhoon packages handle deconfliction of the air space by simply transiting above the rest of the aircrafts operating in the area, using their speed and endurance to quickly transit between holding areas and targets.

The speed is and obvious benefit in the QRA role as well, a key part in the life of both the Finnish as well as for the partner nations. This is where the Typhoon really shines. Being airborne in just over 1,000 feet (305 meters), the fighter is supersonic within two minutes from scramble. Importantly, even a light air-to-air load includes four semi-recessed Meteor and two ASRAAM or Iris-T, with the full load of six Meteors and two short-range missiles (or four plus four) already starting to put hurt into the arms budget of most air forces if more than a handful of fighters are to be launched. Compared to the current full F-35 load (including external stores) of four shorter-ranged AIM-120C AMRAAM and two AIM-9X, that is a significant difference both in quantity and quality (the F-35 is slated to receive upgrades to the capacity at some point in the future).

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Part of the German delegation watches as the Finnish F/A-18C Hornet solo display passes above. Source: Own picture

Meanwhile, the Typhoon is proving to be no hangar queen (Germany being the exception, but that is a reflection of the readiness of the German Defence Forces as a whole). The preceding Italian Typhoon rotation to BAP which took place in 2015 sported a 99,4% availability rate, and during the recent NATO Tiger Meet the Eurofighter had the best mission availability rate of all involved fighters. As test pilot Paul Smith puts it:

If you put fuel and weapons on it, it just keeps flying.

The combination of large amounts of advanced weapons carried, long-ranged sensors, and a significant endurance (further improved by the large drop tanks routinely carried on stations 3 and 11) means that the aircraft in high-end exercises often is the first aircraft in and the last aircraft out. The semi-recessed Meteors and light outer stations (no. 1 and 13) also mean that even in a heavy air-to-ground load, the aircraft has four long-range and two short-range air-to-air missiles to defend itself or other parts of the airspace.

But while the fighter has a clear air-to-air pedigree, recent upgrades has made it a true multirole platform. The British Typhoons have currently been hard at work employing the light Brimstone anti-vehicle/low-collateral damage missile and the Paveway IV laser/GPS/INS-guided 500 lbs (230 kg) bomb over Iraq and Syria. The Brimstone is carried on triple launchers, while the Paveway IV can be carried on single- or twin-launchers, leading to an impressive amount of weapons a single aircraft can bring to the battlefield. Instead of the Paveway IV, the German Air Force carry the corresponding GBU-48 Enhanced Paveway II.

However, Finland has never seen the prime role of the Air Force as being that of quashing large amounts of enemy armour, so the Brimstone might not be high on the wishlist. More interesting are the cruise missiles of the aircraft, with BAE Systems marketing both the Storm Shadow (used by RAF in the recent Syrian strikes) and the Taurus KEPD 350 (integrated onto the German Typhoons). Both are very much the kind of weapon that will be acquired to fill the void left by the AGM-158 JASSM. The really interesting weapon is however the SPEAR 3, which is currently in flight testing on the Typhoon.

Outwardly, the SPEAR looks rather like the Brimstone, but while the Brimstone has a rocket engine to boost it up to speed after which it coasts along until hitting something, the SPEAR is a cruise missile with pop-out wings and a small turbojet. This gives it significantly more range and the ability to fly at low altitudes, and while the Brimstone is a AGM-65 Maverick replacement and Storm Shadow is a JASSM replacement, the SPEAR is something completely new. The low weight (100 kg) and triple racks means that they can be used in larger numbers compared to the ‘silver bullet’-role that traditional cruise missiles occupy. At the same time, their stand-off range and smart attack modes (such as synchronised attacks from multiple directions) means that they can reach targets which earlier would have been considered too far away or too well defended. The warhead might be too small for hardened buildings, but will nicely take out vehicles, light buildings, and small vessel (or disable elements of capital ships).

Good examples of these kinds of sub-strategic targets are command posts, air defence radars, and high-value vehicles (armoured or soft-skinned). To further highlight the interest from the Finnish Defence Forces for this kind of ability to “shape the battlefield”, as the BAE Systems marketing line goes, it is notable that the targets for the Finnish JASSM living firings earlier this year were shaped suspiciously like Russian Iskander ballistic missile launchers or long-ranged SAM-launchers. While the cost of JASSM likely make it prohibitively expensive in a SAM-busting role, the SPEAR would be highly efficient. RAF is already planning on taking up the SEAD/DEAD role with the Typhoon/SPEAR-combination. The flexibility of the weapon would mean that the SPEAR would provide the Finnish Defence Forces with a SEAD, anti-armour, and anti-ship capability in a single stroke. All of these are mentioned as capabilities which the Finnish Air Force is looking at for HX, but which might prove too niche for dedicated single-role weapons.

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The dream – at least for BAE Systems and their partners. Source: Own picture

But from where does a small country such as Finland get adequate targeting data for long-range cruise missile strikes? Here the Eurofighter consortium plays one of their unique selling points, in that the varied partner companies sport a large number of different capabilities, one of which is the Airbus Intelligence Defense and Space-division. This is one of the prime suppliers of satellite imagery, including synthetic-aperture radar ones. BAE Systems notes that a Finnish Typhoon-buy could include an unspecified satellite intelligence package. This shines an interesting light on one of the more curious air show-tweets made by any of the HX-contenders.

The European Fighter, Pt. 1

So BAE Systems had a problem. They had managed to create some buzz in Finnish media by bringing the Eurofighter Typhoon to the Finnish capital last summer and taking part in a major airshow there. However, the fact that BAE Systems is the lead of the HX-marketing program was starting to give the picture of the aircraft as being a British fighter. And with the whole Brexit-mess ongoing, the idea of investing in closer ties with Britain might not sound tempting to the Finnish public. Something had to be done to bring the “Euro” in the “Eurofighter” firmly into view of the Finnish public.

Enter the main Finnish air show of 2018. Lockheed-Martin brought a mock-up, Saab two JAS 39C (one flying and one static) and a 39E mock-up, Dassault three Rafale (two flying and a spare), and Boeing brought two EA-18G Growlers (one flying and one static).

Eurofighter brought six Typhoons, with five aircraft (representing all four partner nations) on static display, and one for the RAF flying display. In addition both BAE Systems and Airbus had their own stands next to each other, with one of the two Spanish Eurofighters parked in front of them.

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The Spanish Air Force operates their Eurofighters alongside their EF-18 Hornets, which are currently upgraded to a standard close to the US F/A-18C/D. As such, the Spanish experience will likely be studied closely by the Finnish Defence Forces. Source: Own picture

Raffael Klaschka, former Luftwaffe Typhoon-pilot and current head of marketing for Eurofighter GmbH, flew in from his office in Munich to attend the air show. And the message is clear: The Eurofighter is a core air defence system for Europe, with almost 500 aircraft responsible for the air defence of half the population of the European Union, and it is set to remain that way past 2050. That includes the time after the Future Air Combat System is rolled out, as the Eurofighter representatives are keen to point out that the FCAS is much more than just a new stealth fighter, being a complete concept which will include an important role for the Typhoon as well (a similar point was raised by Dassault with regards to the future of the Rafale).

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Raffael Klaschka began his career in the German Air Force as a F-4F Phantom II pilot, before converting to the Eurofighter. However, he also has experience from the F/A-18 Hornet, no doubt valuable knowledge when dealing with the HX. Source: Own picture

Another issue which was heavily emphasized in the discussions in Tikkakoski was that a Finnish Eurofighter-buy would effectively land Finland many of the benefits enjoyed by the original four partner nations. This includes full access to all aircraft systems and subsystems, as well as representation amongst the partners at the Munich headquarters. “There’s no closed black boxes for European partners,” BAE Systems test pilot Paul Smith notes, a clear reference to a number of transatlantic systems where sealed black boxes have to be shipped back to the manufacturer for maintenance. For the HX-programme where security of supply and an indigenous industrial base able to support the aircraft in peace and war has been one of the main themes, this is exactly the message the Finnish Defence Logistics Command wants to hear.

And the good news doesn’t end there. “Finland will get the E-scan, the very latest version of the E-scan,” Paul assures the gathered crowd of journalists. He refers to the AESA-radar which is currently being flight tested on the Typhoon. Next to him he has a full-scale cutaway model of the nose, with the PIRATE IRST-sensor and the E-scan, together with a number of black boxes representative of the units driving the sensors. “Size does matter” is another of the lines pushed by the company, as the Typhoon has ample room for growth both when it comes to power output for subsystems as well as the physical size of the sensors.

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The German two-seat Eurofighter from Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 71 “Richthofen” which attended the air show. Source: Own picture

However, while the fighter is a decidedly European in build and concept, the Typhoon is fully interoperable with US fighters. This goes beyond just sporting a NATO-standard Link 16, but the Typhoon has shown to be a plug-and-play asset in stateside Red Flag-exercises where several of the partner nations have ‘fought’ both with and against the best US assets, including both F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning. While some of the more spectacular accounts are disputed,  it is clear that the Typhoon has emerged as a both flexible and highly valued multirole fighter to BLUFOR, and one that indeed is able to be seamlessly integrated into any NATO-led coalition out there.

F-35 taking aim on HX

F-35 is in many ways the fighter to beat in the HX-program, having been chosen by both Norway and Denmark, and sports a perfect record in all fighter programs where it has competed (though in a number of cases not without controversy). This fits Lockheed-Martin perfectly, as the company representatives are confident in their fighter.

The way you operate the F/A-18 today, you can operate the F-35 tomorrow

That’s the response from Mark Pranke, the Finland F-35 Campaign Manager, when I raise the ever present question if the stealth fighter really can operate from road bases in subarctic conditions. He goes on to describe how the stealth coatings earlier known for being extremely maintenance intensive have taken quantum leaps when it comes to robustness. The aircraft is designed for a lifespan of 8,000 hrs in all versions (in other words, the harsh naval requirements likely sets the standard for operating environment), and Lockheed-Martin are already confident that it can handle two, likely even three times that.

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The EOTS (Electro-Optical Targeting System) is one of the core sensors of the F-35. Here seen on the full-scale mock-up. Source: Own picture

However, stealth is not the only unique selling point of the F-35 if you ask Billie Flynn, Lockheed-Martin’s longtime test pilot (who also happens to have considerable CF-18 Hornet experience from the Canadian Air Force, including as commander of the Canadian Hornets in Operation Allied Force). In his words, sensor fusion increases the pilots situational awareness with “orders of magnitude”, and is the second defining feature of the fifth generation. Notably, major general (eng.) Renko of the Finnish Defence Logistics Command downplayed the importance of stealth when faced with the question at the presser following the release of the RFQ, and instead labelled significant improvements in sensors and sensor fusion as the defining feature of modern fighters, and went on to note that all HX-candidates have them. Flynn doesn’t quite agree.

We do sensor fusion, the others have sensor correlation

The way F-35 presents information from a multitude of sensors covering an area stretching hundreds of kilometers in all directions is nothing less than a “paradigm shift” according to Flynn. “AWACS would gather data we get everyday with the F-35”, he explains. He gets backed up by Yung Lee, Director International Business Development Northern Europe, who notes that “more sensors means more data”. Looking forward, the company expects that intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) will be an important role for the aircraft in the future, thanks to its advanced sensor suite.

The F-35 full-scale mock-up at the Finnish Air Force 100 year anniversary air show. Source: Own picture
The F-35 *almost* visiting Finland for the first time, here in the form of the full-scale mock-up at the Finnish Air Force 100 anniversary air show. Source: Own picture

And if Renko isn’t necessarily impressed by stealth (at least not openly), Flynn maintains its importance on the modern battlefield. “It’s not Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility” (a clear comeback in Saab’s direction), but it makes the aircraft difficult enough to see that it allows the F-35 to operate with impunity, and the best measure of its importance is the results at Red Flag.

Best we ever did [with earlier fighters] was 2:1, now we are 20:1 [in air-to-air kills]

Looking forward, the plan is for the fighter to go through so called tech refresh cycles every fourth year, where both hardware and software are renewed to keep the F-35 up to date. The funding for the research and development is largely covered by the US, with Finland only having to fund the new hardware (mainly increases in processing power). This way of working harnesses the power of economics of scale to produce a common baseline for the aircraft, with local changes mainly coming down to different weapons, threat libraries, and mission data files. While the approach saves money, it also leaves Finland with relatively limited possibilities to influence the developments of the program as a whole. But as said, Lockheed-Martin is confident that they have the right model for Finland. And the slot is available. “Deliveries to the partner nations will largely have finished by 2021,” Pranke notes. “We will have no problem fitting in a Finnish order.”

The path forward for HX

The preliminary request for quotations for the HX-program is now out, and the process is kicking into the next gear. The manufacturers will have about three-quarters of a year from when it was sent out before they will have to return their answers early next year. However, what happens after that is the really interesting part.

The offers will be evaluated according to a stepped ladder of requirements, where all stages except the last one are of the go/no-go nature. If the preliminary bid doesn’t meet the requirements of a step it is back to go and the negotiation table (note, this is where the ‘preliminary’ comes into the process), and the Defence Forces will discuss with the manufacturer how their bid can be tuned to meet the requirements so that an updated bid can pass the step and move on to the top of the ladder. The goal is not to shake down the field, but to get the best possible offer from all five companies when it is time for the final and legally binding offers.

The first requirement is maintenance and security of supply. The supplier will have to present a plan for how the aircrafts are able to keep operating both during peacetime and in war. This will require plans for in-country spares and training for maintainers.

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The unique and highly centralised maintenance model of the F-35 Lightning II has raised questions whether the aircraft can meet the requirements for security of supply for militarily non-aligned Finland. Source: Jonas Selim / Forsvaret

Moving on from here comes the life-cycle costs. The project is receiving a start-up sum of up to 10 Bn Euros, but after this is used up the operating costs of the system will have to be covered under the defence budget as it stands today. In other words, the cost of training pilots and ground crew, renewing weapon stocks, maintaining the aircrafts, refuelling – everything will have to be covered by a sum similar to that used for keeping the F/A-18C Hornets in the air. Naturally this ties in to the first requirement, as an aircraft requiring vast amounts of spares and maintenance will have a hard time meeting both the security of supply and the LCC requirements at the same time.

Industrial cooperation will then be the third step. 30% of the total acquisition value will have to be traded back into the country, as a way of making sure that the necessary know-how to maintain the aircrafts in wartime is found domestically (and as such this requirement ties into the two earlier requirements). Notably, current sets of rules require that the industrial cooperation is indeed cooperation directly related to the HX-program. Sponsoring tours of symphonic orchestras might buy you brownie points, but not industrial cooperation.

Following these go/no-go criterias comes wartime performance. This is the only requirement which will be graded. The Defence Forces will run a number of simulations of how the aircraft would perform in different missions and scenarios, gather information from the field, and possibly do flight trials. All of this will then come together to give a picture of how a given aircraft would perform as part of the greater Finnish Defence Forces in wartime.

Yes, wartime performance as part of the whole FDF is the sole factor that will rank the aircrafts in the acquisition proposal put forward to the MoD by the Finnish Defence Forces.

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The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, both Australian and US birds, have been busy flying missions over Syria and Iraq as part of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, making it one of the more combat proven competitors. Source: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz via Wikimedia Commons

“But wait!” I hear you say. “Doesn’t economic considerations count for anything?”

Yes, indeed they do. Wartime performance require more than just 64 aircraft. If you can squeeze the price on the aircraft and its maintenance costs, the pilots will be able to receive more flight hours, and the Defence Forces will be able to stock more advanced weaponry (the low stocks of which is identified as a key issue in the latest Puolustusselonteko). Thus a cheaper aircraft allows the Defence Forces will provide more room for other things, which in the end make it more dangerous to the enemy.

Having received the acquisition proposal from the Defence Forces, the MoD takes over, and their job is to bring in the national security policy aspect into the equation. The national security evaluation coupled with the evaluation of wartime performance is then used to create the final acquisition proposal made by the MoD and put forward to the then government (i.e. the one which will take over following the next parliamentary elections). The final decision will then take place in 2021.

That the MoD will make a national security evaluation is interesting as it leaves room for politics overruling the wartime performance (though likely only to a certain extent). At first glance this would seem to favour the US contenders, however the situation might be more complex than that, thanks to the law of diminishing marginal utility. To what extent would a fighter deal actually deepen the already strong Finnish-US bilateral relations? There are already eleven confirmed export customers for the F-35, and a double-digit number of countries have bought into other US fighter programs as well, so would Finland’s inclusion (or absence) from that group be noticed in Washington? The US is also already Finland’s premier arms exporter (2015 numbers, unfortunately I didn’t find newer ones), and while this in parts comes from weapons for the Hornet-program, a number of other potential deals are on the horizon.

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The Wide Area Display is one of many features which makes the JAS 39E Gripen a quantum leap over the older C/D-generation. But how will the wartime performance of the relatively light fighter measure up against the larger competitors? Source: Own picture

The Swedish offering has understandably not gathered quite the same number of export customers, but here as well even without a fighter deal the bilateral Finnish-Swedish cooperation is reaching levels that make one wonder whether significant improvements are possible? Geography and shared history also seems to dictate that the relation would survive Gripen failing to secure the HX order (though Charly might disagree). The benefits of operating the same aircraft is obvious when it comes to interoperability, but for political benefits it is doubtful how much 10 Bn (in the short term) actually would buy.

Enter France, a European powerhouse with an army still measured in divisions, a permanent seat at the UN security council, a nuclear strike force, a rather low threshold for military interventions, and a marked disinterest in what takes place on the northern shores of the Baltic Sea. The Finnish fighter order would be a big deal for Dassault, accounting for 40% of the total number of Rafale’s exported (96 firm orders to date plus 64 aircrafts for HX). It is also eye catching that a large percentage of the whole sum would go to France, compared to the larger amounts of foreign content in the Eurofighter Typhoon and the JAS 39E Gripen.

© Dassault Aviation - S. Randé
Dassault Rafale, a French take on the Eurocanard. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

10 Bn Euros would not buy Finland a French expeditionary corps brimming with Leclercs in case of a Russian invasion. However, they just might ensure that Paris starts paying more attention to what happens in the European far north, courtesy of increased exchanges of people, experiences, and arms deals. If Finland would face an attack, having France as a political ally in Brussels and in the UNSC would be significant, even if the support would stop short of a military intervention. Another element is that as Washington is proving to be a more unreliable ally, the importance of the EU security cooperation is bound to increase (though granted from a low level to a somewhat less-low one), and with “the other European power” (Germany) showing limited appetite for anything resembling a confrontation with Russia over eastern Europe, the role of France in the greater Finnish security picture seems set to increase.

While Finnish security policy is famed for being slow in altering course and likely to favour trying to cash in further political points with Sweden or the USA, the question deserves to be asked:

Might it just be that we would gain more by having this investment go into our relationship with France?

Pantsir taken out

On 9 May, Iranian forces in Syria launched several rockets against Israel. The Israeli response was swift and included one of the largest air campaigns the region has seen.

However, attention soon turned to one single strike in particular, as the Israeli forces released a video clip shot by a missile taking out a Pantsir-S1 (SA-22 GREYHOUND). While it has earlier been reported that Pantsirs have been destroyed in Syria (a misidentified Mercedes truck a year ago comes to mind), this is the first confirmed instance I have seen.

The Pantsir is the short-range companion to Russia’s more famous long-range S-300/S-400 air defence missiles, and its role is to swat down any aircraft or air-launched weapons which manage to penetrate to close range where the longer-ranged systems are less capable. In line with the Russian marketing of the longer-ranged systems, the Pantsir is described as “near 100 % efficiency” and some western journalists have described it as showing how Russia’s “air defenses outpace America’s”. Needless to say, there are preciously little evidence to support Russia’s claims, and as the Israeli video is one of the rare documented encounters between the system and an airborne enemy it quickly generated considerable discussions.

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Pantsir on Kamaz 6560, note the lowered radar hiding the U-shaped support. Source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin

On one hand, some questioned whether the system was a decoy, others whether it was operational, and some declared the whole Pantsir-family as being nothing but expensive trash. All in all, the short clip deserves further scrutiny.

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It is clear that the radar is elevated and pointing backwards, as the U-shaped radar support is visible (blue). The weapons are pointing towards the rear, which is the transport position (though if the whole vehicle was rigged for transport, the radar would be lying flat facing upwards). The front of the truck corresponds with the Kamaz 6560 which is used by the most numerous Russian version (red).

Could it be a decoy? Parking out in the open on the tarmac and not making any attempt at covering the system certain seems to be begging to be destroyed. However, a crucial detail is visible in the video. A group of people are standing next to the vehicle, and seconds before the missile impact it one of them runs towards it.

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Whether he was trying to save it or fire at the attacker is unsure, but in any case you would not run towards a decoy being fired upon. A brave act, but far too late.

Interestingly enough, images of the destroyed vehicle also appeared afterwards.

The picture matches the video as far as it is possible to tell. The truck is hit just aft of the cabin, the weapons are facing rearwards, and the radar is raised. The versions floating around on pro-Assad accounts often refer to the IAI Harop, a loitering UAV, while other sources often mention the Delilah loitering cruise missile (others still refer to the Spike NLOS, a very long range anti-tank missile). All three carry relatively small warheads consistent with the kind of damage visible in the picture. However, the only evidence in either direction I’ve seen is that the sight picture does seem to match the Delilah better than it does for the other two.

In any case, the exact weapon doesn’t really matter, as this was not a case of an Israeli wonder-weapon being able to crack the defences of the Pantsir. Instead, it is clear that poor training on the part of the Syrian air defences, coupled with the lack of a clear situational picture, spelt the end for the Pantsir. The latter comes as no surprise, considering the numerous Israeli strikes targeting the integrated air defence network operated by Syria, but as shown by Serbia during Operation Allied Force, it is possible to stay alive and at least constitute a force-in-being even if the individual units have to fight their own war. This however require basic skills and training which the Syrians clearly lacked in this case. The Pantsir had no job standing out in the open if it lacked missiles, and it never had any job being parked in such an open spot without camouflage (as a matter of fact, it can fire on the move, so parking out in the open even if camouflaged might not be the best option).

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S-300PMU-2 TEL. Source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin

For the Russians getting the Pantsir knocked out was something of an embarrassment, and they have been quick to point out that it must have either been out of ammo or otherwise non-operational. While that seems to indeed have been the case, it should be noted that days after the strike, the Russian government made a U-turn with regards to supplying the advanced long-range S-300PMU-2 free-of-charge to Syria. The idea was floated after the Western cruise missile strikes, but is now apparently completely scrapped. Many sources attribute this to Israeli prime minister Netanyahu’s successful lobbying during his recent visit to Moscow, but one has to wonder if not the incompetency shown by the Syrians operating the Pantsir caused concerns about the international embarrassment a successful strike against the S-300 would cause for the Russian arms manufacturers. As such, taking out the Pantsir might indeed have had significant regional consequences, but it does not in any way prove the system itself either good or bad.

Review: Carrier Aviation in the 21st Century

Carrier aviation has always had a tendency to interest people. After all, flying aircraft of ships sounds crazy enough than one wouldn’t think it was a viable plan of operations if not for the very fact that a number of navies does so on a regular basis. Interestingly, quite a number of important changes have taken place when it comes to worldwide carrier operations in the last decade or so. This includes several new carriers being commissioned, and new aircrafts coming into service, making much of what is written on the subject out of date.

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Enter Harpia’s Carrier Aviation in the 21st Century – Aircraft carriers and their units in detail. The book goes through all navies currently sporting a commissioned carrier and fixed wing aircraft, and with “currently” that means the end of 2017. In short, the Royal Navy and Queen Elizabeth is included, but the Thai Navy is not following the retirement of their Harriers. Navies with more or less suitable ships but not having fixed wing aircraft, e.g. the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, are left out.

Readers can, and most likely will, have opinions about this line. Some will undoubtedly feel that it is a stretch to include Brazil considering the state of the NAe São Paulo (ex-Foch) or the Royal Navy considering that shipboard F-35 operations are yet to commence. Others will likely argue for a inclusion of a number of big-deck helicopter carriers and amphibious ships which arguably sport more shipbased aviation than some of the smaller ‘Harrier carriers’. Personally I would have liked to see some discussion around the feasibility of F-35B operations from a number of ships that have been speculated to be more or (usually) less ready to handle the V/STOL bird, such as the Japanese Izumo-class, the Australian Canberra-class, and the Dokdo-class of the ROKN. Still, I get that the line has to be drawn somewhere, and the basis of who’s included and who’s left out is clearly stated, which is nice.

One interesting feature of the book is that it puts the carriers and their aircraft into context. While chances are you have read a text or two about the INS Vikramaditya and its MiG-29K’s before, the book does not only (briefly) discuss the history of Indian naval aviation to put the latest program(s) into context, it also explains the contemporary doctrine and what role the carrier plays in today’s Indian armed forces, the likely composition of a carrier battlegroup, and not only lists but describes all embarked aviation units, fixed and rotary winged.

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More or less the same is the case with each and every country-specific chapter of the book. I say more or less, because every chapter is written by a country-specific expert (hence the ‘editor’ after Newdick’s name), and the setup and sub-headings vary slightly. While purists might find this irritating, I personally find it good that the authors have been given some leeway, as the unique situations in different navies are better served by getting more custom fit descriptions compared to being shoehorned into a ‘one size fits all’ template. I was a bit worried upon opening the book that the variances would be so big that the book wouldn’t feel like a coherent work, but having read it I don’t feel that is the case.

Over all the book is a very enjoyable read, though the Italy-chapter does suffer from the same kind of language-issues that I mentioned in my review of Harpia’s Tucano-book. However, I am also happy to say that the good points of the Tucano-book carries over as well. These include highly enjoyable pictures and top-notch full-colour illustrations, as well as excellent build-quality of the book. In fact, I am yet to manage to break any single one of my Harpia-books, and that include bringing an earlier review book along for a camping trip in the archipelago.

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The gorilla in the room when writing about carrier aviation worldwide is the completely outsized role of the US Navy. In short, the US Navy fields more and larger carriers and carrier air groups than the rest of the world together. How do you tackle this, without the book feeling unbalanced? The USN does indeed get a longer chapter than the rest of the countries. However, US carrier aviation is also remarkably homogeneous, being built around two clear templates: the Nimitz (and now Ford) with a carrier air wing and the smaller amphibious ships with their aviation elements, and the number of flying platforms has shrunk considerably compared to the classic cold war wings. This means that there is no need to give ten times the space for the USN compared to e.g. the French just because they have ten times the number of carriers. This makes the book feel balanced, and laid the last of my worries to rest. The sole issue I foresee is that developments in carrier aviation is moving rapidly in several countries at the moment (USA, UK, China, India, …), and that means that parts of the book run the risk of becoming outdated quite fast. Still, that will be the case with any book on the topic released during the next five to ten years (at least), and there is certainly enough ‘longlasting information’ to make sure that the package as a whole isn’t going anywhere soon.

Compared to the Tucano-review which I was very excited for, I was somewhat more lukewarm to the prospect of what felt like yet another carrier book. However, the book surprised me, and certainly grabbed my attention. The chapters are deep enough to include plenty new information to me, and of such a length that it is easy to pick up and read through a single chapter if you suddenly have a need for a quick rundown of the current status of Spanish carrier aviation (yes, such things do happen to me occasionally). Harpia’s telltale illustrations and tables are also found in abundance.

Highly recommended for anyone looking for an update of carrier aviation worldwide!

The book was kindly provided free of charge for review by Harpia Publishing.

Of Helicopters and High Costs

The NH90 was supposed to become the gold-standard of military transport helicopters, utilising composite structures and high-tech avionics to provide a modern workhorse for the airlift needs in a host of European countries.

Almost immediately the grand vision hit rough waters, with significant teething troubles and delays. A chapter in itself was the joint Nordic helicopter program, which eventually ended up with the different countries all going more or less their own ways. In the end, Denmark and ordered the larger AW101 (ex-EH101), Norway got both the AW101 and the NH90 NFH (naval version), while Finland ordered the NH90 TTH and Sweden opted for two modified versions of the NH90, designated HKP 14E and 14F locally.

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Swedish HKP 14E visiting Kuopio, Finland, in 2016. Source: Own picture

In addition to the “baseline” teething troubles experienced by the project as a whole, the Swedes in a highly-publicised move decided that they wanted a higher cabin. This lead to a significant redesign, which brought added costs and delays. In the background also loomed persistent rumors that the evaluation made by the Swedish Defence Forces had been won by another contender (the Sikorsky S-92), and that the NH90 had been bought due to political considerations.

While the Finnish helicopter program also suffered delays, at one point forcing the once-retired Mi-8’s back into service, the Finnish Army rather quickly regained their footing. In part thanks to the delays, Patria was negotiated to take a bigger role in the overhaul of not only the Finnish but also of foreign helicopters, and by not requiring all documentation and systems to be fully operational immediately, the Army was able to phase the NH90-fleet into use at a relatively fast pace (still years late compared to the original plan). One of the breakthrough moments was the major exercise Pyörremyrsky 2011, which saw a formation of 9 helicopters perform an airlift operations. A first, also by international standards.

In the meantime Sweden was still suffering from issues with regards to the localisation, and the attitude towards incomplete or temporary paperwork was not as forgiving. To make matters more urgent, like in Finland, Sweden was also in the process of retiring their earlier helicopters. In this case, the retirement of the Hkp 10B (Super Puma) meant that the forces in Afghanistan would be without a MEDEVAC helicopter for the foreseeable future, something which was deemed unacceptable. To solve the issue an urgent order for 15 UH-60M Blackhawk was placed in 2011 as a stop-gap solution. Influenced by the troublesome HKP 14 program, the helicopters were ordered according to US standards, with one of the chief programme executives being rumoured to have summed up the order with “I don’t care if it reads ‘US ARMY’ on their sides, just get them here!”.

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Swedish HKP 16 (UH-60M Blackhawk) in joint operations with the ground elements of NBG 15. In an ironic twist, the Finnish detachment to the battle group was a NH90 MEDEVAC unit. Source: Alexander Karlsson/Försvarsmakten

The new Blackhawks provided stellar service in Afghanistan, and once the operation winded down they were integrated into the Swedish Air Force’s Helicopter Wing as part of the medium lift capability of the defence forces. By all accounts the helicopters, locally designated HKP 16, have performed well, and the deal is a prime example of something acquired outside of original plans quickly finding its place in the greater scheme of things. At the same time the transport version HKP 14E was slowly getting introduced into service, but still the critique didn’t let up. The marine version HKP 14F (not to be confused with the international naval version NH90 NFH) was being delayed further until 2015, and entered service both without any kind of anti-submarine torpedo as well as without a working data link to relay information to and from other units.

NH 90 on show
Finnish NH90 during an aerial display in Vaasa in early 2018. Source: Own picture

The latest blow came when it was clear that the Air Force had looked into mothballing all nine HKP 14E, due to the extremely high operating costs, over 19,000 EUR per flight hour. At the heart of the issue lies accounting. The majority of the costs does not come from fuel, but from fixed costs such as yearly overhauls. The high cost means that the Air Force prefer to use the Blackhawks whenever possible, as they sport a flight hour cost one-fifth of that of the HKP 14 . This in turns leads to even lower usage for the HKP 14, further pushing up the cost per hour. To make matters worse, there is speculation that part of the fixed costs are depreciation, i.e. accounting for the fact that the value of the helicopter diminishes per year. A handy tool when it comes to calculating investments in regular companies, a not-so-handy one when it comes to defence budgets.

This is in stark contrast to the Finnish numbers, where the flight hour cost is on a steady downwards trajectory. For 2017 the budgeted flight hour cost was 15,900 EUR, while for 2018 it is down in the neighborhood of around 10,000 EUR. This was confirmed by colonel Jaro Kesänen, Commanding Officer of Utti Jaeger Regiment which is home to the Helicopter Battalion. Speaking as a private citizen, Kesänen noted in a non-formal Twitter exchange that the NH90 is an appreciated asset in the Finnish Defence Forces and that the flight hour cost is within the range envisioned when the helicopters were acquired. Notable is that in the case of Finland the NH90 is the sole transport helicopter available to the Defence Forces (though a limited number of Border Guard helicopters can also be called upon by the authorities), and the caveat should be made that rarely does the Finnish Defence Forces openly voice negative opinions about their own systems.

In the last weeks two major reports on the future of the Swedish Defence Forces have been released. The first was SOU 2018:7 which looked at the long-term needs for new equipment to the Swedish Defence Forces (also known as “Wahlbergs review”). The review looked into mothballing either all HKP 14 or only the army cooperation HKP 14E to make budgetary saving. The conclusions presented was that few to none savings would be made if the HKP 14E was retired, and in case all HKP 14 were retired this would have too large negative effects in the maritime domain. The second report was the Defence Forces’ outlook at how to expand up until 2035 (known as PerP). The report only deals with the Helicopter Wing in passing, and does not mention individual systems. What it does note is identify the need to grow the organisation and its capabilities, in part due to the need for airmobile units. As such, the career of the HKP 14 seems set to continue in the Swedish Defence Forces. Time will tell if it will grow into a beautiful swan, or whether it is destined to stay the ugly duckling of the Helicopter Wing.