Under Scottish Skies – The Path Forward

‘Seek and Destroy’. That’s the motto of the RAF’s 41(R) test and evaluation squadron currently residing at RAF Coningsby. Operating six Typhoons (as well as a few Tornados set for retirement next year), the squadron is responsible for testing updates to RAF’s Typhoons and looking into the best ways of employing new capabilities in the field, before these are rolled-out to the frontline squadrons of the service. This summer, the squadron will start testing a new and highly destructive tool, as the first operational Typhoons will receive the P2E-upgrade (Phase 2 Enhancements). The most obvious change to RAF Typhoon operations this brings is the introduction of the Meteor very-long range air-to-air missile, though internally the there will also be major improvements to the data link and sensor fusion.

Smith

“Meteor [on Typhoon] will feature a two-way datalink, which is quite different to Rafale”Paul Smith, BAE Systems Test Pilot

Meteor is something both RAF and BAE Systems like to talk about. RAF Lossiemouth station commander group captain Paul Godfrey notes that the real life roll-out has been preceded by a significant amount of test in simulators, focused on looking into the tactics the new weapon will allow for. “I am hugely looking forward to it”, he says. BAE test pilot Paul Smith shows a slide highlighting the different velocity pattern of the ramjet-driven missile compared to traditional rocket-powered ones. Rocket engines accelerate faster out of the gate, but once the rocket has burned out the missile will coast towards the target, meaning that long-range shots will have relatively little energy left for maneuvering close to the target. The Meteor’s ramjet engine is able to cruise at an economical setting and then throttle up when it closes in on the target, giving it a huge boost to the no-escape zone compared to rocket-powered missiles. It is no surprise that the Meteor is set to complement or in some cases replace the AIM-120 AMRAAM and MICA medium- and long-range missiles on all HX-contenders with the exception of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, though there are differences to exactly how it is being implemented. Both the Eurofigher and the Gripen will feature a two-way datalink, which allows the missile to send data back to the aircraft, further increasing accuracy as well as situational awareness.

Godfrey talking

“We already know how we’ll operate the Meteor”GROUP CAPTAIN PAUL GODFREY OBE, STATION COMMANDER AT RAF LOSSIREMOUTH

But P2E is only part of what RAF calls the the Centurion staircase, a series of phased enhancements aimed at making sure no capabilities will disappear with the retirement of the Tornado in 2019. The P3E(a) is in the works for RAF, which will bring the Brimstone to the Typhoon. Officially described as a low-collateral high precision air-to-surface weapon, the anti-tank/anti-vehicle missile is probably best described as an AGM-65 Maverick for the 21st century. It has been used with great success in all combat operation RAF has taken part in during recent years. Godfrey highlighted its performance in Libya, where RAF Tornados used it to take out a pro-Gaddafi T-72 which was shooting at a crowd in an urban environment. The Brimstone penetrated the tank, and the explosion was violent enough to cause the turret to bounce from its mount, while the people standing besides it were unhurt. The Brimstone has also quite a lot of potential against lighter naval vessels, and being carried on triple-racks a nice number of missiles can be carried by the Typhoon.

Yes, that is the kind of stuff that gives landing craft skippers nightmares.

The other weapon being integrated with P3E(a) is the Storm Shadow stealthy cruise missile, called SCALP in French service. In the event of the Eurofighter (or Rafale) actually winning the HX-program, this would likely be acquired to replace the AGM-158 JASSM in Finnish service (the 15 year shelf-life of the missiles nicely matches the retirement date of the F/A-18C Hornet). In parallel the P3E(b) is being developed for the Kuwait Air Force, and includes the Enhanced GBU-16 (GBU-48) 1,000 pound laser/GPS-guided bomb, as well as the CAPTOR E AESA radar and the Sniper advanced targeting pod in place of RAF’s Litening III pods.

There has been much talk about the fact that the Eurofighter still relies on the CAPTOR M mechanically scanned radar, which, despite being more or less as good as it gets when it comes to mechanical scanning, is still not an electronically scanned array. Godfrey admits that while the current radar is very good, he would like to get the CAPTOR E.  “Would I like to have an AESA? Sure. Why? Because of versatility.” While his wish will be granted, in the case of RAF, the CAPTOR E is still some time out in the future.

Before HX deliveries the plan is that yet another major upgrade will have taken place. The P4E is currently in the negotiation phase, and as such its exact scope is yet undecided. The plan is that the upgrade will include full operational capability for the CAPTOR E, upgrades to the PIRATE infrared search and track sensor, as well as the integration of SPEAR long-range anti-tank/anti-vehicle weapon (and/or the Small Diameter Bomb in some version). The SPEAR will, together with a planned major improvement to the DASS and sensor integration, be at the core of allowing the Typhoon to take up the SEAD/DEAD mission. This is a most welcome addition for RAF, as they lack a dedicated SAM-hunting capability after the retirement of the ALARM anti-radiation missile in 2013. In addition, a number of anti-ship missiles are currently being evaluated. These include the Marte ER, of which there is currently a feasibility study ongoing for integrating it onto the Typhoon, as well as the JSM and Harpoon (of which the JSM is further along). A contract for the P4E is expected within the next 12 months.

Pair of Tiffies

“The Centurion staircase is what’s driving the UK Typhoon program”JOHN BROMEHEAD, GENERAL MANAGER BAE SYSTEMS

What won’t see a direct replacement is the RAPTOR reconnaissance pod, the British version of the Goodrich DB-110. Instead, advanced targeting pods will take over the role of dedicated reconnaissance pods for the Typhoon.

The P4E would likely form the basis of the Eurofighter Typhoon’s HX-bid. Still, it is important to remember that just because an aircraft is certified for a certain weapon, it does not mean that Finland would get these (case in point the current F/A-18C Hornet is able to carry the better part of the US Navy’s arsenal, while in Finnish service the weapons used goes on the fingers of one hand). In the case of the Eurofighter, while the weapons integration is part of the core package, ‘unlocking’ a certain weapon or capability means buying it from the nation(s) that have originally paid for it’s integration. In this way, costs for popular weapons are brought down through sharing, but you only pay for the ones you plan on buying. Realistically, this means that Finland e.g. would buy either IRIS-T (likely) or the ASRAAM short-ranged air-to-air missiles to complement the longer-ranged Meteor, and not both. In the same way, exactly which ground attack weapons would be bought is open. To replace the capabilities of the current F/A-18C Hornet the Storm Shadow would likely replace the JASSM, with SPEAR and some suitable GPS/LGB being other likely candidates. Brimstone and an anti-ship missile would add significant punch to the Air Force, but while the Air Force Command has confirmed they are looking into the anti-shipping mission for HX, it is unlikely that the funds will be found for these (at least not in the initial buy).

What will then follow after P4E? The Typhoon is set to stay RAF’s primary air superiority fighter for the foreseeable time, and the current plan is that it will stay in RAF service beyond 2050. Integration with unmanned platforms operating is a hot topic. A large area display for the cockpit has also been proposed to customers, but currently the interest from the users has instead focused on the Striker II helmet mounted sight, which will provide a full-colour, fully digital night/day sight. While the exact development path is still open, it is clear that the development will continue. As BAE Systems Mark Parkinson notes: “There is simply nothing else on the horizon.”

Under Scottish Skies – Air Superiority

While the Typhoon so far has seen combat solely in the air-to-ground role, there is no mistaking in that the primary role of RAF Lossiemouth lies elsewhere. The base is the northern of RAF’s two quick-reaction alert bases, abbreviated as QRA(N). As such, a pair of armed Typhoons stand guard around the clock, year round. These are airborne within ten minutes of the scramble, often with time to spare. While the usual ‘bogey’ for QRA(S) down at RAF Coningsby is an airliner gone silent (usually due to having the wrong radio frequency), RAF Lossiemouth handles the classic North Sea intercept of any Russian bombers coming down round Norway. This includes “Bears in different versions”, presumably meaning that both the Tu-95 bomber version and the Tu-142 maritime patrol versions has been sighted, as well as the Tu-160 Blackjack. The latter is something of a newcomer in the area, starting to make appearances only post-Crimea. By the time any bomber approaches the British isles, they are always escorted by Norwegian F-16s, which hand over the mission to the Typhoons. Notably, the Typhoons has been on station and escorted the Tu-160 during the strikes in Syria which have been flown along the western route, circumnavigating the UK.

Scottish mountains

“Deliver QRA(I)N and prepare for global operations”
RAF Lossiemouth mission statement

All QRA flights are armed with a mix of four ASRAAM short-range IR-missiles and four AMRAAM medium-range missiles, of which two ASRAAM would be traded for another two AMRAAM in case of a ‘wartime load’. In addition, the aircraft are sporting two supersonic drop tanks and a full load of 27 mm ammunition for the internal Mauser gun. While RAF’s QRA flights haven’t had to open fire upon intercepted aircrafts in modern times, the risk is always there. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Baltics, where the Typhoon face the most modern fighters that Russia has to offer.

Wing Commander Billy Cooper is the officer commanding 6 Squadron, and an experienced fighter pilot who has logged over 1,300 hours on the Typhoon after transitioning to it from the Tornado F.3, RAF’s earlier QRA jet. Before joining the Lossiemouth based squadron, he took part in a Baltic Air Policing tour with the Coningsby based 3(F) Squadron, being deployed to Šiauliai in Lithuania. The detachment brought some interesting challenges to the RAF, as the facilities of the old Soviet base were overcrowded. A number of portable cabins were shipped out for the personnel to live in, while the Typhoons were allocated unheated soft-skin hangars throughout the stay. While these did offer a measure of protection from the wind and precipitation, this still meant that all maintenance work on the planes were performed in whatever the outside temperature happened to be. While the detachment had “relatively small issues with the climate”, as Cooper put it, a more unexpected issue appeared. Soon after arrival, the British airmen spotted a “large, elk-like creature” towards the far end of the base. Large mammals was not something that RAF was used to operating around, but with the proper procedures in place, air operations could continue.

If the QRA(N) gets scrambled once every few months, BAP is another issue completely. The latest tour by 2(AC) Squadron to Ämari air base in Estonia resulted in 42 intercepted aircraft during their 4 month long stay. In addition to the normal weaponry a targeting pod was often carried, being particularly useful in the identification of ships. Some targets are trickier than others, with Cooper mentioning one of his personal highlights being the intercept of a Kamov Ka-27 helicopter launched from a Russian frigate. After he had intercepted the helicopter, the Finnish Air Force also appeared and closed in to take a look on it.

Cooper

“We were briefed quite closely to not interact with them too much”
WING COMMANDER BILLY COOPER, OFFICER COMMANDING 6 SQUADRON

The behavior of the Russian pilots varied widely, and while the British pilots where briefed to maintain their cool, Cooper was under the impression that their Russian colleagues were more free to engage their adversaries as they saw fit. This included aggressively turning against any intercepting fighters trying to take pictures of them, and while no-one tries to cause a mid-air collision, the short distances between the aircrafts (Typhoons often closing to within 65 meters of their targets) meant that the risk certainly was there. This kind of behavior was more common if the Russian fighters were flying escort for transport or attack/bomber aircraft, and apparently also depended on the personal style of the pilots. “Sometimes you closed in and thought for yourself ‘isn’t that the one from last week’, and sure enough he starts doing the same kind of things this time around as well,” Cooper explained. When asked whether he had experienced the kind of aggressive flare dumping described by the Swedish Air Force, he commented that he hadn’t personally seen it, “but it wouldn’t surprise me”. Both sides carry flares on a regular basis, and in addition to being defensive countermeasures, their purpose does include (stern) signalling. Some Russian pilots did use other means of less-than-friendly communication, while RAF’s pilots stuck to smiles and occasional waves.

Cooperation with the Finnish Air Force is not uncommon for the BAP, with Finnish Air Force and BAP sharing a common recognised air picture and sharing data over Link 16. During intercepts over the Gulf of Finland, it was not uncommon to have a pair of BAP fighters shadowing a Russian target from the south, with a pair of Finnish F/A-18C Hornets doing the same from the north. Operating together in this manner is no problem, as both the RAF and Finnish Air Force share the same doctrine and has the ability to use the same data link. “It is the same as operating with a NATO-country”, Cooper sums up. In addition to chance encounters on intercepts, the two air forces regularly do schedule joint training missions.

Cooper and media

“You need something that can fight long-range and dominate short-range”
WING COMMANDER BILLY COOPER, OFFICER COMMANDING 6 SQUADRON

The nature of aerial combat also was also something which came up. With the advent of a new generation of long-range missiles and sensors, many have concluded that the classic within-visual-range dogfight is (finally) dead. Cooper wasn’t as sure, noting that he could see quite a few scenarios where a fighter would find itself uncomfortably close to its target before being able to open fire. The main question was to what extent the rules of engagement would allow for firing at targets beyond visual range, or if a visual confirmation will be required first. In any case, RAF has taken their Typhoons on exercises against both Indian Sukhoi Su-30MKI and Malaysian Su-30MKM, and contrary to some Indian reports, the “Typhoon did extremely well” against the Su-30MKI at close range, while long range engagements were a matter of “clubbing seals” (an expression BAE was quick to explain is fighter pilot jargon for easy air-to-air kills, in case someone would have misunderstood its use…). In the end, “the Indians weren’t happy”, despite their pilots spending much of their time practicing within visual range combat according to Cooper.

It is no secret that while the Finnish Air Force is looking for a fighter able to handle a range of missions in a full-scale conventional war, the main mission during peacetime is QRA and air policing in the crowded airspace over the Baltic Sea. This is also a point which BAE likes to push, and certainly one of the better selling points of the Typhoon. That isn’t to say that BAE is trying to sell the fighter with its peacetime mission as the argument (arguably not a great idea…), as they are clear with that they think the Typhoon is a great multirole fighter all around. It just happens to be very good at what the Finnish Air Force does in their everyday line of work. At least according to the sales pitch.

The speed is well-known, with the Eurofighter being able to supercruise (though the exact prestanda in supercruise mode is somewhat controversial, with anything between Mach 1.1 to 1.5 being quoted depending on the source and load conditions), but Cooper was also keen to point out the range of the aircraft. Operating alongside the Polish MiG-29’s in BAP, the importance of endurance quickly became evident. While Cooper noted that the Polish Air Force pilots were professional and eager to do a good job, at the same time they did suffer problems due to the notorious short range of their aircraft. At the time these were early production MiG-29 9.12 from ex-DDR stocks, while the Polish detachment which took up the BAP-mission this week is flying F-16’s instead of MiG-29’s. The Typhoon, usually operating with twin supersonic drop tanks, were able to stay on target, despite what appeared to be efforts to shake them off. “Sometimes when the Russian flight came to Kaliningrad, instead of landing they just turned around and headed back north, probably thinking we would have to break off,” Cooper remembered. “We didn’t.”

Under Scottish Skies – Red Flag and the Middle East

The Eurofighter Typhoon is probably the most misunderstood aircraft of the HX program. The public perception of it, especially outside of Finland, is surprisingly negative. Much of this is based on the early teething troubles experienced by the program. “There were absolutely issues to starts with”, group captain Paul Godfrey, OBE, concedes. The former Harrier pilot is the station commander of RAF Lossiemouth, the larger of Britain’s two Typhoon-bases, and one of the original pilots to transition to the multirole fighter when it first entered service with the RAF a decade ago, something he was chosen for partly because he had multirole experience from flying the F-16CJ ‘Wild Weasel’-variant during an exchange tour with the USAF. Of his current mount, he has (almost) nothing but praise. “It’s like an F-16 on steroids”, he compares the two, talking about the similar philosophy of the aircrafts, with both focusing on performance and multirole capability. Fully coming to grip with the multirole tasking has required some new thinking for the RAF, who up until recently operated a large variety of single-role aircraft. This was one of the reasons pilots with exchange experience were common in the first Typhoon units. Today, there’s naturally a considerable number of ex-single role pilots, especially as the Tornado is approaching the end of it’s service life in the RAF.

Godfrey

“When I first flew Typhoon, I knew it was gonna be a game changer.”
Group Captain Paul Godfrey OBE, Station Commander at RAF Lossiremouth

But while the early Typhoons were plagued by a number of different issues and a decided lack of interest on the part of British politicians when it came to funding the necessary development programs needed to unlock the fighters full potential, today it is in many ways a mature system. This was something Godfrey got to experience first hand. Only in the second week of his new job as station commander, he was faced with the order to dispatch six Typhoons from 1(F) Squadron down to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, from where they were to conduct strikes over Iraq and Syria. Within twenty-four hours of receiving the mission, the Typhoons touched down at their new operating base, and within a further twenty-four hours the first combat-loaded aircrafts were already flying operational missions over the battlefield. After 1(F) Squadron was ready with their tour, fellow Lossiemouth squadron 6 Squadron took over. In total, Lossiemouth based Typhoons alone have dropped closed to 700 Paveway IV laser/GPS-guided bombs during Operation Shader, as the British anti-ISIL air operation is known.

The missions flown in Syria and Iraq include air interdiction, close air support (CAS), and strike coordination and reconnaissance (SCAR). Cue lasting debate over value of fast jets as opposed to classic single-role aircraft such as the A-10 Warthog or Su-25 flying the CAS mission. For wing Commander Billy Cooper, the squadron commander of 6 Squadron, the answer is clear. The old way of doing CAS was created out of necessity, as the only way of acquiring a target accurately was by looking out of the window, which meant you had to be close to the target and flying slow. With today’s advanced sensors and precision guided munitions, that need is gone, and using faster and more advanced aircraft will provide significant benefits, including e.g. survivability and transit time from loitering area to the battlefield. Originally a Tornado F.3 pilot, Cooper is also a Qualified Weapons Instructor with over 3,000 flying hours on fighters. The RAF QWI course roughly corresponds to the US Navy’s TOPGUN program, but strives to give a broader understanding of the aircraft, it’s weapons and capabilities. Earlier this year, he lead the squadron in exercise Red Flag 17-1 in Nevada, an exercise which created quite some buzz for being the first time the F-35A participated in a Red Flag exercise.

Cooper under plane

“We were working quite closely with the F-35.”
Wing Commander Billy Cooper, Officer Commanding 6 Squadron

While it was heavily reported that the F-35A had achieved a 20:1 kill ratio, the details of the exercise has naturally been kept under wraps. As such, it was very interesting to hear Cooper describe his first-hand experience of operating Typhoons together with the F-35’s. As could be expected, he described the F-35 regularly operating within the engagement zones of the REDFOR air defences. Compared to other non-stealthy fighters, the Typhoon was in turn able to achieve greater stand-off range for its weapons, thanks to its ability to operate higher and faster. This allowed it to lay further back, often remaining outside of the threat range. What all seemed to agree on, was that the the F-35 transmitting sensor data on Link 16 provided a huge boost in situational awareness for the rest of the fleet.

When asked about the RAF acquiring both aircraft, none of the pilots were prepared to pick one over the other. “You need stealth to be able to go forward,” Cooper argued. His personal opinion was that the future lies in the mix of capabilities provided by different platforms, echoing the sentiment expressed by his commander at an earlier briefing. “Both airplanes are fantastic airplanes,” Godfrey had said. “A mix would always be better [than operating only F-35’s or Typhoons].” When pressed further for which one he would choose if he could only get one, Godfrey had smiled and just said “Both”.

While a puzzled group of Finnish media representatives started to wonder if the fighter pilots were arguing for the stealthy F-35 as the right choice for HX, further discussion revealed the complexity of the issue. The big thing in the mind of the pilots was not so much stealth in and by itself, but the superior situational awareness the F-35 got by combining the ability to get in close while carrying a good sensor suite, and which it then shared with the rest of the team. By teaming up with the Typhoons and their heavy load of long-ranged weapons, the F-35 in turn got around it’s main weakness in Red Flag, namely its very limited load of internal weapons. Some participants in the exercise jokingly referred to the stealth fighter as the ‘cheerleader’, always present providing data and cheering the other ones on, but often unable to take the shots themselves having already expended all their missiles.

It also seemed that for an air force used to operating a wide variety of tactical single-role jets the Finnish problem of only being able to afford a single type while not being able to count on the support of allies was hard to relate to. BAE test pilot Paul Smith, a former squadron mate of Cooper, agreed with the operational pilots that he saw a future need for a stealthy platform providing increased situational awareness, but rather than going for a stealth fighter he talked about replicating the successful hunter/killer-teams of Red Flag with an unmanned stealthy wingman getting in close and the Typhoon bringing its firepower to bear from stand-off range (yes, a picture of Taranis had managed to sneak its way into one of the briefings).

But while going into heavily defended airspace with a non-stealthy platform might not be optimal, Red Flag did also see the Typhoon do just that and come out on the other side to live to tell the tale. While the exact details aren’t open information, we were briefed that the fighters took out targets being covered by layered defences of “double and triple digit SAM’s”, indicating systems entering service in the early 80’s and later, likely including at least the S-300. What made this possible was two things. To begin with, the Typhoon’s self-defence DASS suite received nothing but praise. The system not only automatically scans for threats and autonomously uses jamming and countermeasures to defeat them, it also provide visual cues for the pilot on how to best outmanoeuvre any threats encountered. The other factor that increased the survivability of the Typhoon was again its performance. The combination of a manoeuvrable aircraft with an impressive thrust-to-weight ratio gave the pilots the ability to defeat the missiles encountered. It might not be as nice as having stealth, but BAE puts enough trust in the concept to plan for the upcoming P4E enhancement to include a SEAD/DEAD-ability (more on the upgrade path in an upcoming post).

In the end, no-one was willing to tell us which aircraft we were supposed to buy, though for the RAF, the operational concept is clear. Typhoon is set to stay the force’s air superiority platform past 2050, while “F-35 is a Tornado [GR.4] replacement,” as BAE’s John Bromehead explained. None of the pilots seemed interested in trading their Typhoons for F-35’s, but they just might be willing to swap out the Typhoons of the squadron next door.

Typhoon 320

“I’ll never gonna give up speed”
Gp Capt Godfrey

The Canadian connection – Hornets in need of replacement

In 1980 Canada declared the F/A-18A Hornet the winner of their New Fighter Aircraft program, which meant it would be brought into service as the CF-18 to replace three different fighters as the country’s sole fast jet. In doing so it beat a number of other fighters, crucially the F-16A. It is important to remember that the F-16 back in those days wasn’t a multirole aircraft, but rather a within visual range fighter with a limited secondary ground attack capability. The F/A-18 with its AIM-7 Sparrow medium-range missiles was arguably the more competent aircraft, and one of the main worries of the Canadian air force was Soviet bombers and cruise missiles swooping down over the Arctic. Canada is also a large and sparsely populated country that include large swaths of land were bailing out does not necessarily mean you’re in for a happy landing. This combination of BVR capability, longer range, and twin-engine safety in the end meant that Canada went with the more expensive option of the F/A-18 over the F-16 (it has to be mentioned that the government did claim that the economic incentives was better for the Hornet, making it cheaper for the Canadian economy. However, these kinds of arguments usually have a tendency to depend upon who’s making the calculations).

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CF-18A visiting Farnborough during its early years of service. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Andrew Thomas

Thirteen years after Canada received their first F/A-18’s, the first four Hornets for Finland landed at Tampere-Pirkkala. Finland, though markedly smaller than Canada, had a largely similar set of requirements, including cold-weather capability, twin-engine safety, long-range, and focus on the interceptor role. In the end, both Canada and Finland have been very happy members of the Hornet club, but the end of that era looms at the horizon.

Now the alert reader interrupts, if Finland has to replace its Hornets by 2025 due to their lifespan being up, Canada, having bought theirs ten years earlier, by the same logic should have replaced theirs already?

Yes and no. Finland operated the Hornet up until now as a single-role fighter, have placed a higher focus on traditional dogfighting maneuvers, which are extremely taxing on the airframe. In other words, not all flight hours are created equal, and not all aircraft fly the same amount of yearly hours. Also, the Canadian Hornets have been through a number of upgrade programs. Currently they seem to be looking at another set of programs which will take the aircraft up to and past 2025, not bad considering that the original lifespan was envisioned as 20 years (i.e. up to 2002). Canada also did have the replacement figured out, having been a partner of the F-35/JSF program since its beginning, and is currently a Level 3 Partner, i.e. the ‘normal’ level of partnership (only the UK, the Netherlands, and Italy are ranked higher).

Canadian Hornets in operation against ISIL as part of Operation IMPACT

Still, the F-35 has been beset by delays, and the project has been something of a hot potato in Canadian politics. The latest major turn was when Justin Trudeau led the Liberal Party to a victory in the federal elections last year, with the party’s position having been that they will ditch the F-35 and instead launch an open tender for a new fighter (with the F-35 being banned from participating). However, Canada have continued to make the required payments to stay a partner in the program while reviewing how the Hornet should be replaced.

Enter July, and amidst it becoming increasingly clear that there is an urgent need to replace, or at least supplement, the Canadian Hornets, the Canadian government launched what can best be described as a non-binding Request for Information. The aircrafts under consideration are the usual suspects: Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed-Martin F-35 (which is back in the running), and Saab JAS 39 Gripen.

Now, the interesting thing here is the schedule, with the answers to the questionnaire having been requested within three weeks (compare to the eight months allocated for the RFI issued by the Finnish HX). The details are rather sketchy, mainly because the questionnaire is “neither a Call for Tenders nor a Request for Proposals”. The background information provided also emphasises that “no procurement decision has been made“ and that “no summary or final report will be issued following the collection of information from industry”. The schedule for replacing the Hornets is literally given as “as soon as possible”, which ought to make things interesting. The whole thing feels like it is done under extreme time pressure. 

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A F-35 mock-up in Canadian colours. The only way the Lightning II will ever wear the maple leaf? Source: Wikimedia Commons/Alan Rioux

Interestingly enough, the flight scenarios in the attached file requires the respondent to use “actual aircraft configuration (utilize systems which are operational with Armed Services today only – non-developmental)”. This requirement pans out very differently. While Saab currently is the only one to sport the Meteor operationally, they only operate the 39C Gripen and not the longer-ranged 39E which would add considerably to their odds when flying intercepts far out over the Arctic. On the other hand, the F-35 is currently only operational in the V/STOL F-35B version, and if the Canadians decide to interpret the requirement literally, this is effectively a way to make certain the F-35 is a non-starter without explicitly writing so. Another problem for the F-35A is the bases used in the scenario. As fellow blogger Doug Allen noted over at Best Fighter 4 Canada, the 6,000 feet runways are too short for comfort. The Typhoon in turn is designed for exactly the scenario described in the evaluation, transiting high and fast to meet an enemy aircraft far out, but is a few years from getting an AESA radar and the Meteor. The Rafale does feature supersonic drop tanks and a potent AESA set, but the repeated requests for “seamless” integration with Five Eyes ISTAR and other tactical and strategic assets might not play to its strengths. The weapons are also uniquely French.

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The only non-carrier operator of the Super Hornet, Australia bought a batch of F/A-18F Super Hornets to supplement their ‘legacy’ Hornets while waiting for the F-35A. Sounds familiar? Source: Wikimedia Commons/Robert Frola

Enter the Super Hornet, which features the AN/APG-79 AESA radar, is seamlessly integrated into the US-Canadian NORAD air defence network, and carries the same munitions and missiles that the ‘legacy’ Hornet does. The last part is explicitly asked for in the questionnaire, something which is not the case in any documents regarding the HX which are openly available. The Super Hornet manufacturing line is also struggling with having too few aircraft to produce each year, so quickly ramping up to supply the RCAF with a limited number of stop-gap aircraft would be *relatively* easy. Boeing also has an established partnership with the Canadian defence forces and aviation industry. All in all, the stage seems set for Boeing’s fighter, and Canada is indeed one of the countries for which stealth isn’t necessarily a big deal, at least not for their homeland defence/NORAD contribution. Noteworthy is also that the questionnaire does mention cost for 100 pilots being trained, which would imply that the information could serve as a base for the complete Hornet replacement program (though one should remember that there isn’t a procurement decision for anything as of yet).

Another possibility is that, despite his continued official anti-F-35 view, Trudeau is trying to set the stage for a F-35 purchase, by creating the foundations for a competition, which the F-35 then can sweep clean (compare to Kampfly in Denmark). For Canada, a mix of Super Hornets (or Typhoons) for NORAD duties combined with F-35A’s for expeditionary work under NATO and UN commitments might actually be the ideal solution. Only time will tell if this will be the final outcome.

A big thanks to Karl Rieder for the link to the Canadian source material! Do follow him on Twitter if you don’t already.

Typhoon starting to unlock growth potential

The Eurofighter Typhoon has long been one of the prime contenders for the title of fighter with the most untapped potential. While the combination of excellent fast/high performance, a sizeable radar dish, and a large battery of ASRAAM and AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles have long made certain that it is one of the best BVR interceptors available, the lack of a AESA radar and limited range of ground attack weaponry available have made it seem lackluster when compared with other multirole fighters, and in some aspects even with the very Tornado it is set to replace.

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The Typhoon in the original F.2 air superiority only version. Picture courtesy of Jussi Seppälä – flyFinland.fi

While this comparison is somewhat unjust and oversimplified, it is also true that there has been a marked lack of interest on the part of the governments of Spain, Italy, Germany, and the UK with regards to keeping the Typhoon at the forefront of technology. In a way this is understandable, as all of the air forces operate older types which already largely have the ground attack capabilities that the Typhoon is lacking. Allocating precious funds from limited defence budgets to unlock capabilities that’s already there in another form have been hard to justify. Especially with two of the four air forces already having received their first F-35’s.

But nothing lasts forever, and that include both Tornadoes and Hornets. After having already had to push back on the retirement date for a number of Tornado squadrons, the RAF in particular have finally decided to put some effort into actually unlocking more of the Eurofighter’s potential.

The current situation is that the RAF is operating their Typhoons in the somewhat ungainly named P1E(B)-standard, which is adding on to the original P1E (the first standard to bring multirole capability) by, amongst other things, introducing the very capable Paveway IV guided bomb. The Paveway IV adds a dual GPS/INS-seeker as well as being aerodynamically more efficient compared to earlier members of the Paveway-family, and has rapidly become the RAF’s weapon of choice when requiring more punch than the Brimstone.

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Eurofighter Typhoon with the upcoming P3E weapons fit. Picture courtesy of BAE Systems/Ray Troll

The past weeks’ major story has been that the Typhoon has performed at RIAT and Farnborough with the upcoming P3E weapons kit, in a configuration that include:

  • Four Meteor very-long range air-to-air missiles
  • Two ASRAAM mid/long range air-to-air missiles
  • Six Brimstone 2 anti-vehicle/low-collateral damage guided missiles
  • Two Paveway IV guided bombs
  • Two external drop tanks

While a single aircraft might be unlikely to employ both Brimstones and Paveways on the same mission, it does show a well-rounded capability to target many different kinds of air and surface threats. What is even more interesting is that the aircraft flies during the airshows with this loadout, further emphasising the impressive thrust and manoeuvrability available to the Typhoon.

“This display will also demonstrate is that Typhoon, even with this weapons fit, loses none of the incredible agility and manoeuvrability for which it is known.”

Nat Makepeace, BAE Systems Typhoon Experimental Test Pilot

Notable is also the fact that of these weapons, only the Brimstone 2 is actually a P3E weapon, with the Meteor being integrated under the earlier Phase 2 Enhancement (together with the Storm Shadow stealthy cruise missile), and the Paveway IV and ASRAAM being available already today. In an export configuration, the Typhoon also benefits from having already integrated both the long-range ASRAAM and the highly-manoeuvrable IRIS-T (used by non-UK Typhoons), giving it an interesting mix of heat-seeking missiles. In addition the brand new SPEAR missile has also been successfully test-fired earlier this year, and though no decision has yet been taken, integrating it would open up even further capabilities. The only piece of the puzzle currently missing is the CAPTOR-E AESA radar, which is currently about to start flight testing as well under the P3E-program. It seems like the Typhoon finally is starting to show its true multirole potential.

The Real Joint Strike Fighter – Our Next Fighter?

Having looked at a number of different aspects of the Rafale in detail, one question remains: should it be the fighter that replaces the Hornets?

To begin with, the aircraft would be suitable for dispersed operations of the kind envisioned by the air force, and the advanced electronic warfare systems coupled with signature reducing features and excellent performance down amongst the treetops means that it might have a shot at operating in the Finnish airspace even after Russian very-long range surface-to-air missile systems have extended their cover here.

The long-range development plan is solid, and the aircraft will stay as France’s main fighter for the foreseeable future, which guarantees that it will receive focus from a major backer. The upgrade path include the F3R currently in testing to become operational in 2018, main features of which are the integration of the Meteor, full integration of the AASM, adding the new TALIOS targeting pod, and a host of upgrades to the AESA radar and Spectra suite. This will also provide the baseline for the Rafale offered to Finland under HX.

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The RBE2 AESA Radar, one of the core sensors of the Rafale. Picture courtesy of Y. Kervel/I3M ©Thales

The F3R will then be followed by F4, which should reach operational service around 2023, and is set to include new air-to-air missiles in place of the Mica, significant improvements to the datalink as well as making the Spectra of different aircraft communicate directly with each other. Improvements to the radar are also planned, potentially including electronic attack modes. Further out are the MLU, to become operational post-2030, where focus is placed upon close co-operation with UCAV’s and radical additions to the sensors (including conformal mutli-band antennas), and the Rafale NG post-2035 which might include a larger and stealthier fuselage coupled with bigger engines.

Looking closer at the Rafale as it stands, there are a host of benefits it would provide already from day one. These include excellent short-field performance and a proven ability of operating in austere conditions. A large and proven array of sensors and weapons are also available, including the Exocet anti-ship missile which would add a significant new capability currently lacking in the Finnish Air Force. The Spectra together with the AEROS recce pod would provide a very interesting combination of IMINT and ELINT capabilities which would be extremely useful already during peacetime for policing the movements of troops and equipment in the areas adjacent to the Finnish border.

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The traditional way of providing longer loitering time for fighters, here in the form of a USAF KC-10. For the Finnish Air Force, large dedicated tankers have never been an option. Picture courtesy of Jussi Seppälä – flyFinland.fi

Another role in which the Rafale is regularly used by the French Navy is for buddy-buddy air refuelling. Fitted with a refuelling pod and lifting 6,500 litres of fuel in external tanks (in addition to the normal internal load) it can provide extended range for the aircrafts carrying combat loads or out on long patrol missions. For Finland, operating a dedicated tanker aircraft has always been considered prohibitively expensive, but there are still cases where the capability would come in handy (not at least as air-refuelling proficiency is a pre-requisite for long deployments and/or international missions which require tanker support).

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© Alex Paringaux

For the question as to which version would be the one to buy, the single-seat C would be the logical choice. The B might add some benefits on complex attack missions, such as long-range interdiction or SEAD, and naturally for providing operational conversion. However, it should be noted that the Armée de l’Air wing currently tasked as centre of excellence for precision ground attack and reconnaissance (with both the Damoclès and AEROS) is the legendary EC 2/30 ‘Normandie-Niemen’, operating the single-seat C-variant.

Another perhaps more boring but still important feature is the fact that the Rafale is sold, and largely built, in euros.When Finland bought the Hornets, they were budgeted for in Finnish marks, while the contract was in US dollars. An unfortunate drop in exchange rates meant that the Hornets came in significantly over budget (in FIM). The euro is significantly more stable than the mark ever was, but the currency risk is still there (coupled with a Finnish purchasing power risk inside the euro zone).

Studying the Rafale further in detail was in many ways an eye-opener, with many of the features presented here being new to me. While I still consider the Rafale an underdog in the HX-evaluation, I would not count it out either. In the end, all five contenders are extremely competent, and regardless of the outcome, the air force is set to receive a great aircraft.

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© HESJA

The Real Joint Strike Fighter – Weaponry

The arsenal available to the Rafale is naturally one of the talking points when discussing the fighter. To begin with, it should be pointed out that there is nothing that blocks the integration of non-French weapons onto the aircraft, something which the French themselves have shown with the rapid integration of different members of the US Paveway-series of laser-guided bombs. “Everything is possible,” was Dassault Aviation’s answer when asked the question of integrating weapons such as the AGM-158 JASSM. Still, the main weapons of the Rafale are French, and Dassault likes to emphasize self-reliance as a selling point. I am not quite convinced the Finnish authorities will see things the same way, but regardless, there are some really interesting options currently featured. A key note is that of the aircraft’s fourteen hardpoints, five are of the ‘wet/heavy’ type (meaning they can carry external fuel tanks and/or heavy loads such as air-to-ground weapons). An interesting thing for long-term readers of the blog is that a surprising number of the missiles mentioned here have also featured in my earlier post on the weapons alternatives available for the Squadron 2020 corvettes.

AASM

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© Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

The AASM (fr. Armement Air-Sol Modulaire), also marketed as ‘Hammer’, is a modular French guidance kit that is fitted to different sizes of normal ‘dumb’ bombs, to give them greater accuracy. The AASM is highly modular, and can include either laser- or electro-optical tracking, as well as a GPS-receiver, and is available in powered or unpowered versions. With all the bells and whistles, the weapon is closer to a guided missile than a traditional ‘smart bomb’. The issue is obviously that with the increase in capability comes a higher price, but that is a cost the French have been happy to pay for the ability to employ the weapon against high-priority targets. The AASM proved its worth when it allowed Rafales to fly the SEAD/DEAD mission over Libya and hunt down and destroy air defence assets. After full integration, which is set to become operational within the next few years, the ability to use the AASM for long-range high-off boresight attacks will become available to the Rafale.

Paveway

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© Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

A number of laser-guided Paveways are integrated onto the Rafale, including the 227 kg GBU-12 Paveway II, GBU-22 Paveway III, and GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway, as well as the 454 kg GBU-16 Paveway II and the 908 kg Paveway III. Some of these very integrated at a very short notice, due to combat needs in Afghanistan and Mali.

Exocet

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© Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa

A weapon currently only used by Aéronavale is the latest version of the legendary AM 39 Exocet. The latest Block 2 Mod 2 is a far cry from the weapons that wreaked havoc on the Royal Navy in the Falklands War, and the ability to employ Link 16 for targeting data allows the aircraft to acquire the target ‘silently’. Currently a single missile is carried on the centre-line, but the ability to carry up to three missiles is there.

SCALP

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© Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

The joint French-British SCALP, called Storm Shadow in the UK, is a stealthy long-range cruise missile. The missile is in many aspects similar to the JASSM currently employed by the Finnish Air Force, and it is not unlikely that the SCALP would replace the JASSM in the case either the Rafale or the Eurofighter would be chosen as our next fighter. A high-resolution IIR-seeker provides terminal guidance, and a number of different modes of operation can be set, including fusing (air burst, impact, or penetration) and dive angle. The weapon has also been successfully used in both Libya and Iraq. Navigation is via inertial, GPS, or terrain reference. The missile is designed to feature a very high level of automation on the part of the pilot, meaning that it is suitable for single-seat fighters as well as twin-seaters. It does currently lack a data-link, though future versions might include this feature.

Mica IR

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© Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

The Mica IR is the current standard heat-seeking missile of the Rafale, and as mentioned in the earlier post it is moonlighting as an IR-sensor fused with the rest of the fighter’s sensor suite. As an IR-missile, the MICA is something of an in-between, not being quite as manoeuvrable as ‘proper’ high-off boresight missiles such as the IRIS-T, and not featuring quite the range that the ASRAAM has. Still, it is able to perform lock-on after launch, and over-the-shoulder firings at targets behind the firing aircraft has been demonstrated, with the targeting data being provided by datalink.

Mica RF

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© Dassault Aviation – S. Fort

The single major weak spot in the arsenal of the Rafale is the current beyond visual range missile, which is simply a Mica with an active radar seeker. The missile lacks the range and punching power of the AIM-120 AMRAAM, and as a matter of fact the above mentioned ASRAAM also has a higher kinetic energy at longer ranges. The sole benefit it has over the AMRAAM is that the US missile is something of a victim of its own success, with any potential adversary having spent serious resources studying how to defeat the AMRAAM, something which isn’t necessarily true for the Mica.

Meteor

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© Dassault Aviation – DR

The Meteor is the most advanced very-long range air-to-air missile available today. Having only entered operational service (with the 39C Gripen) this spring. The Eurofighter and Rafale are next in line to be armed with this exceptional ramjet-powered weapon, which promises to become the new ‘gold standard’ of its class. In particular for the Rafale, the Meteor promises to solve the lack of a ‘proper’ BVR-missile, and will mean that the pilots are able to take full benefit of the aircrafts powerful AESA radar. The initial load will be limited to two Meteors, but two more can be cleared if an export customer so requires. To note is that, as the Meteor will employ the same datalink as the MICA does, it will feature only one-way communication with the Rafale. This is unlike the integration on the Eurofighter and Gripen, which both will feature full two-way datalinks. It remains to be seen how large of a deficit this is.

 

All in all, the Rafale already in its current configuration provides weapons alternatives not only corresponding to but surpassing those currently available to the Finnish Air Force’s Hornets. The addition of AASM and Exocet would also mean that the possibility of new missions would be opened up, such as close air support and anti-ship missions.