A Ukrainian Triptych

As there’s quite a lot happening in Ukraine at the moment, several things of which deserve a bit deeper analysis than is fitting to a Twitter-thread, I decided to do a short (no, I’m not kidding anyone but myself) post on three topics from the past week: the helicopter strike on the Rosneft fuel depot in Belgorod, the ability of Russia to replace losses in equipment (in particular tanks), and the idea of shipping advanced Western systems to Ukraine (in particular fighters and air defence systems).

The helicopter strike in Belgorod

One of the more spectacular single events of the past week was without a doubt the dawn raid on the Rosneft fuel depot in Belgorod, a city sitting just opposite the Russian border from Kharkiv.

A Ukrainian Mil Mi-24 attack helicopter sporting the B-8V-20 rocket pods for the S-8 rocket which was used in the attack on the Belgorod fuel depot. This helicopter is of the locally upgraded Mi-24PU-1 version, which feature a number of improvements – crucially including avionics and sighting equipment to allow for better performance in darkness, making the version a prime suspect for the performer of the raid. Source: Bennorey via Wikimedia Commons

What we more or less know is that during the dawn of April 1 two Mi-24 (NATO-codename HIND) struck a fuel depot in eastern Belgorod with S-8 rockets, before then rapidly exiting the area at very low level. A number of storage tanks burst into flames.

That is basically what we know for certain. The storage depot has been geolocated both using traditional means as well as through NASA’s FIRMS fire monitoring satellites. The depot is apparently operated by Rosneft’s subsidiary AO Belgorodnefteprodukt, and hold 22 larger and five smaller storage tanks. TASS helpfully reported the size of the larger tanks, which come in at 2,000 cubic meters each, meaning that just the 22 larger tanks can store 44,000 cubic meters (i.e. 44 million litres) of fuel, and of these eight were on fire meaning a loss of 16,000 cubic meters of storage capacity as well as any fuel currently stored inside them. Other damage, such as e.g. to transfer lines, pumps, and so forth, are more difficult to asses, but one theory is that the first helicopter did not aim for the tanks but for what looks like it could potentially be the main office building on the site. Another possibility is that it simply didn’t hit anything as flammable as the second helicopter did.

Possible location of the camera (left upper corner of the red triangle roughly showing field of view) and location of the building that I speculate might have been the target of the first helicopter (yellow box).

In any case, the target is of strategic value to Russia. As is well-known, the Russian offensive has suffered from a lack of of supplies in general, and fuel is no exception. While the Belgorod depot is a civilian one – to the extent we can differ between civilian and state/military infrastructure in Russia – the location of Belgorod at the infrastructure node opposite Kharkiv means that it can be expected to have played a role in trying to fuel the stalled offensive on Kharkiv. This clearly was a target of strategic importance, and will hurt the ability of the Russian forces in the greater Kharkiv-region to conduct operations – be they offensive or defensive. Some have compared this to the Doolittle raid of 1942, but in truth this is rather different as there seems to have been serious material damage done in Belgorod which will have some kind of effect on the continued Kharkiv-campaign.

A short interlude: there has been some discussion that the strike would have been a false flag-operation by Russian Mi-24s to somehow stir up further hatred against Ukraine, and while it can’t be ruled out, I sincerely doubt it. To begin with, the enemy being able to strike strategic target on Russian soil after the Kremlin has declared that the Ukrainian air assets are wiped out and Russia enjoys total control of the skies isn’t exactly helpful for the Russian propaganda effort. If you really want to launch a false flag operation, going after something more war crime-y would also help (such as hitting a school or similar, we’ve seen that Russia is not beyond killing own civilians, and if they would be averse to own losses they could have struck early enough that no people would have been present).

The usage of helicopters is interesting. Most often these kinds of interdiction strikes are left to fixed-wing aircraft or long-range missiles, but there are instances of helicopters being successfully used to carry out long-range strikes – the most famous being the raid by AH-64 Apaches of Task Force Normandy firing the opening salvo of Operation Desert Storm. While helicopters often are lamented as being vulnerable on the modern battlefield – and the conflict so far has indeed seen a number of losses – they are significantly more difficult to kill than many expect, in particular if used at speed and at low level. Many of the Russian helicopters lost have been operating at surprisingly high altitude, making them easily visible (and thereby targetable by air defences). Contrary to that, the Mi-24s seems to have left the area at tree-top height. This would give significantly less time for any air defences to react, and would make it extremely hard for ground-based radars to pick up the helicopters. Still, the complete inability of the Russian air defences to hunt them down is telling, as a layered air defence with sensors, people on the ground reporting observations, fighters on alert, and crucially at least some kind of close-range air defences around strategic targets (such as a fuel depot 60 km from the frontline…) should be able to put at least some amount of lead into the air. One possible explanation is people observing the helicopters being hesitant to fire or report them onwards for fear of causing a friendly fire incident, which is an ironic outcome of having air superiority but not supremacy.

While this isn’t the first strike on Russian territory during the war – we’ve seen e.g. the Millerovo air base having been struck by what presumably was a Tochka-U ballistic missile – this does seem to be the first air raid on Russian territory since the Korean War. It also seems to have been executed close to perfection, with a somewhat unconventional but extremely effective plattform being chosen to perform a surprise lightning raid against a target of real strategic value, without causing any serious collateral damage. The last part is important, as the Russian political leadership has accused Ukraine of escalating, a statement that is difficult to take seriously given that it would mean a Ukrainian limited strike on a militarily relevant target is the issue here when Russia started the war by invading Ukraine, and has followed up by systematically targeting civilian infrastructure – including hospitals and agreed upon humanitarian convoys and corridors of safe passage – as well as the widespread raping and looting done by Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

Covering the losses

There has been some discussion surrounding the significant losses to Russian equipment, but quite a few have pointed to the vast size of the Russian Armed Forces as providing a healthy equipment pool from which to draw troop reinforcements as long as the personnel losses can be covered – and notable is that e.g. when it comes to tank losses approximately half the confirmed losses are destroyed or damaged, with the rest being captured or damaged, something which might indicate that the equipment losses are quite a bit worse than the personnel losses.

However, that does overlook the sheer scope of the equipment losses suffered. A good place to start is looking at the tank losses, as the tank is the key offensive weapon system in case Russia plan on succeeding with their regrouping and upcoming Donbas-offensive.

The exact number of operational Russian tanks in service is obviously somewhat obscure. However, there does seem to be a convergence around a number in the 2,500 to 3,000 range. A rather solid estimate from 2019 is this one which is based on the numbers from IISS, which list 2,750 tanks. An interesting detail is that pro-Kremlin “suspicious information operation” (in the words of Jessikka Aro) SouthFront lands extremely close, listing 2,609 tanks in combat units in 2021 (note that there can be operational tank in other places than combat units, such as schools or research units, which might explain why the number is lower). Both also list roughly half of the tanks as being modern versions (T-72B3 in all versions, T-90A and M, as well as T-80BVM), with the rest being older T-72 versions and T-80BV/U. In addition, there is a sizeable amount of tanks in long-term storage, let’s get back to them.

One of the Russian Armed Forces most modern tanks, a T-72B3 Obr. 2016, apparently abandoned close to Mariupol. Source: Ukrainian MoD/Wikimedia Commons

To start with the losses, Oryx lists 389 destroyed, damaged, abandoned, and captured tanks. As such, that represent 14.1 % of the operational tank force if we stick with the IISS numbers (which we will do for the rest of this post). Of course, that is bound to be somewhat off, due to a number of things. One is that the Russian tank force has not been staying stagnant since 2019 –  e.g. last year TASS published a report that 65 T-90M “would be” (note future tense) handed over to the Army during that year. Another is that the tanks operated by the so called People’s Republics in Donbas aren’t included in the Russian total. However, these are likely to be balanced out against not all losses being confirmed, and at the end of the day we are looking for a trend rather than a bean count.

An interesting detail with the confirmed losses is that they match the 1:1 ratio of modern tanks, with 165 of the 345 identified tanks lost being modern ones, i.e. 47.8 % to be precise. Going back to the 14.1 % of operational tanks having been lost, for the individual tanks versions things are somewhat more varied. The T-90 family has so far suffered relatively small losses, with just 4.9 % of the operational force having been knocked out.

Let’s pause for a while and think about that statement. The modern tank that has fared best has seen roughly one in twenty of the total operational force available in 2019 having been either destroyed, damaged, or otherwise left on the battlefield, and all that in just over a month of fighting. That is bad.

For the others the issues are worse. The exact number of T-80BVM is not listed by IISS, but going from SouthFront we are looking at 72 in operational combat units. With 18 lost, that’s a solid 25 %, or one in four. The reason is obviously unclear at this point in time, it might just be that we are seeing T-80BVM units in areas from where there are lots of images, but we also have reports that e.g. the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade (Pechenga) which is a prolific user of the upgraded version has been extremely hard hit around Kharkiv.

The T-72B3 in all versions fare somewhere in between, with 10.8 % of the vehicles being lost. Again, it’s too soon to draw major conclusions about the survivability of the T-90 compared to the T-80BVM or T-72B3, but it is crucial to note that among the most modern Russian tanks available, we are seeing losses in excess of one in ten operational tank. Even if a number of crews have dismounted and marched back to Russia ready to grab a new tank and get back into the fray, that’s not something even a force of Russia’s size will just shrug off.

But what about the tanks in storage? Most reports place the number of tanks in storage at approximately 10,000 (I will argue that the nice roundness of the figure says something about how accurate it is, but it gives us something to work with, and again, we are looking for trends, not individual tanks). However, obviously the tanks in reserve are mainly older versions, and pulling out a T-72A from storage to replace a T-72B3 or a T-80U to replace a T-80BVM will mean a loss of capability in absolute terms.

There is however an argument that on the surface makes sense, that as the Ukrainians have had no issues penetrating the most modern tanks the increased protection these sport is in fact of limited practical value, and that the increased firepower (gun, ammunition, sights, gun handling, FCS, …) they have is of limited value as there has seemingly been relatively little tank versus tank combat and the Ukrainian armed force is also mainly made up of older tanks (the vast majority of identified losses so far being the 1985-vintage 1-64BV with the rather dated Kontakt-1 ERA “bricks”). As such, the 10,000 tanks in reserve are very much  valid replacements for the losses

However, there is a number of issues with that line of reasoning. To begin with, while a tank has splendid mobility, firepower, and protection – the features which has meant that tanks has dominated the battlefields of the world since at least the Second World War – there are obviously some drawback to being locked inside a tin can. One of them is situational awareness, which naturally is somewhat limited if you are in a vehicle compared to moving on foot. To fight this drawback, modern armoured fighting vehicles have an array of technology to help them, allowing them to fight at long distances and during night. It’s not a perfect solution, as we have seen in Ukraine it is still possible for infantry to sneak up on tanks not operating with their own infantry, but a modern sighting unit does provide a huge benefit compared to for example the 1K13-49 installed on the late 80’s versions of the T-72B, not to mention the kit fitted to the even older T-72A and related versions. And if you thought a tank with a modern thermal sight is vulnerable to infantry sneaking around, just wait until your main night vision device is an IR-searchlight. It might have been cutting edge in the Golan in 1973, but those days are long gone. Poor situational awareness gets you killed on the modern battlefield, and that is what you get with 80’s technology.

Similarly, while an NLAW or Javelin will make the same sized hole in a T-72A as in an T-72B3 (surprisingly often it turns out that it is a turret-ring sized hole), there are a lot of other weapons floating around on the Ukrainian battlefield. These include lighter weapons such versions of AT4 and LAW delivered from western sources, as well as a whole host of Soviet-designed weapons, all of which might or might not be able to take out an enemy tank depending on a number of different parameters in the engagement. However, one thing is clear, and that is that the likelihood of doing so significantly goes up with the age of the target. And in the best case, the target will be a tank built in the early 80’s lacking its ERA-blocks.

Because this is another major issue with the stored vehicles. Most pictures that have come out of Russian depots seems to indicate that the storage conditions often are less than optimal, with vehicles in several cases lacking pieces of removable equipment, and instead having a liberal amount of rust. Now, it is important to note that there is probably some amount of bias involved, as the facilities most visible on the web likely are those most poorly guarded, and as such likely not the most high-priority storage units. Still, anyone who has tried to take a machine into service that has been standing for a few years knows that it seldom is a straightforward task. So how many tanks could be pulled out of storage within say a month or two? No one knows, most likely not even the Russian general staff, but it is safe to assume that number is significantly lower than 10,000.

Obviously, Ukraine has similar issues with lost tanks being hard to replace, and Russia might certainly win a war of attrition. But the losses suffered right now are certainly on a scale that even if Russia would be able to supply trained crews to cover the personnel losses, the combat capability of the units will still suffer significantly.

The long game

This leads us on to the third topic: the Ukrainian requests for military equipment which grows fancier and fancier. At this stage, there are talk both about getting Patriot and NASAMS air defence systems, F-15 and F-16 fighters, as well as NSM anti-ship missiles.

The Ukrainian frustration is understandable, and there is no doubt that a few Patriot batteries with well-trained crews would make a significant impact on the battlefield. However, there are two major issues: delivery speed and training.

The Starstreak HVM (High Velocity Missile) is an advanced short-range system that require the operator to keep the target in sight throughout the intercept, but on the other hand provide the benefit of being unjammable. Source: British MoD via Wikimedia Commons

It is possible that Ukraine has reached a stage of the conflict where they can afford to pull units from the frontline for retraining, that’s something we see e.g. with the delivery of the Starstreak which included a (forced) training program before the system was delivered to the front. The issue, even allowing for the fact that in wartime you will accept higher risk-taking and longer working hours, will become even more pronounced as you move into higher and higher levels of complexity, and a long-range air defence battery or anti-ship missile battery are among the most complex individual systems in service today. Pulling an air defence battalion from the frontlines to re-equip with Patriot would mean them being out of service for a month at the very minimum, most likely more depending on the experience level of the unit in question as well as the acceptable level of proficiency after the training has been concluded. It might be that Ukraine sees this as an acceptable trade-off, especially as we’ve seen equipment losses to e.g. their S-300 batteries which might mean that they have trained crews without vehicles.

The same is true for the fighter requests as well, where retraining of pilots would have to take time. Again, there are certainly corners to be cut when looking at this from the wartime versus peacetime angle, but even then miracles are difficult to achieve. Especially when realising that most everything is different in an F-16 compared to a MiG-29, down to how the human-machine-interface works and what kind of a doctrine the aircraft is built around to be as effective as possible (the same can be said about the discussion of supplying western-made tanks to Ukraine, but here the possible supply of stored T-72 of different versions is looking more promising if the political will is present).

This brings us to the other issue, namely that while older anti-tank systems (and some newer ones) are found in storage units across numerous countries in Europe and the US, modern high-end systems are rarely bought in significant numbers to begin with, and they are usually needed in service. Yes, I understand that “need” is a relative term, but few countries would be willing to send away significant numbers of their key systems if they aren’t able to get them replaced in a short time. And the delivery times for high-end systems is long.

Granted there F-16s available surplus in some numbers with e.g. Norway having recently retired its fleet, and the Ukrainians likely would not be upset with the aircraft having relatively few flight hours left. The famous US “boneyard” in Arizona also have a host of different aircraft that might be brought into service under more or less swift schedules. Operating a US fighter would also mean that there are munition stocks available, so if a completely new system is to be brought into Ukrainian service the F-16 – most likely the European MLU-standard – would be the prime candidate. That would however take vastly more time than the 2-3 weeks the Ukrainian Air Force talks about, not to mention such basic logistics tasks as getting the aircraft to a suitable base (most likely outside of Ukraine) and setting up some kind of training program there already taking some time. Considering the issues even with getting the Polish MiG-29s over to Ukraine and the lack of political will to do that, a Ukrainian F-16 conversion unit in Germany or Poland followed by ferry flights to Ukraine does seem like a dream at this stage, and one that would be hard-pressed to be achievable in anything less than a month from the moment all involved parties have signed the papers (though I will say that I can’t quite understand why the MiG-29s were felt to be an escalation compared to the numerous other systems provided).

There are obviously some middle ground to be achieved in some areas, with e.g. the Finnish RBS 15-batteries being replaced with the Gabriel within the next few years. If a quicker delivery schedule could be agreed upon and possibly even a Finnish NATO-membership allowing for additional naval firepower in the Gulf of Finland in case of war these might be freed up. It would be a significantly greater political commitment from both Finland and Sweden (as the original manufacturer) than what we have seen so far, but would also mean that Odesa would be vastly more secure and the Ukrainian forces could start thinking about some local sea denial missions close to the shore. Similarly, there are some older medium-range air defence systems in Europe that might be up for grabs that would offer at least comparable performance to what the Ukrainians currently have. However, even under the best of conditions none of these systems would have an impact on the battlefield during April, and this is in sharp contrast to the numerous simpler systems delivered.

This obviously brings us to the question of how long the war will take? If someone a month ago would not have taken the decision that it was worth shipping the Starstreak despite it being a month away from Ukrainian service, one more Mi-28UB would be flying around killing Ukrainians than what currently is the case. Similarly, any decision not taken today because a month is too long a delivery time might prove to have been faulty in a month from now if the war continues to rage on, and if nothing else Ukraine will indeed also need to rebuild its forces once the conflict is over. With the Russian attempt at a poorly executed lightning strike having stalled, switching to ensuring the Kremlin can’t win a war of attrition might certainly be the best strategic move the West can do right now, especially considering we do seem set for something of a calm before the storm as Russia tries to regroup forces to focus on more limited aims in the Donbas.

I have a hard time seeing Patriot, NASAMS, or F-15 deliveries to Ukraine right now, but we certainly should start looking at the systems a step above the Starstreak in complexity. Because this is starting to turn into a long one.

Smooth Stones and Lightning

Finnish defence discussions have a few topics that quickly tend to derail into a somewhat unhealthy fandom, but few does so more readily than anything that has to do with the Ilmatorjuntaohjus 96, or Buk M1 as it is known internationally.

The Buk M1 had a rather short career in Finnish service, as the FDF quickly realised that having a system designed by the potential enemy might not be the best idea when it comes to such a technical arm as air defence – there’s a reason anything related to electronic warfare, radars, missiles, or SEAD/DEAD usually are among the most well-guarded secrets of any nation. The search for a replacement saw the NASAMS and SAMP/T face off, with the NASAMS taking home the price and becoming the new top-dog in Finnish ground-based air defences.

Let’s be clear, the NASAMS is simply a better air defence system than the Buk it replaced, there really is no discussion. However, as often is the case on the internet, discussions on capability has a tendency to be reduced to a top trumps comparison of specifications that are easy to describe with numerical values. And the top ceiling of the Buk is higher than that of the NASAMS.

Exactly how much of a difference is open to discussion. Most sources quote the ceiling of the NASAMS at around 10,000 meters, while others speak of 15,000 meters. The Buk M1 in turn is often quoted as going up to 22,000 meters (though some give a rather lower one, e.g. 12,000 meters). I personally have a hard time understanding the nostalgia for the semi-active radar homing 9M38 M1-missile that had turned 25 by the time conscript training in Finland stopped (something that does not mean it left the wartime forces at that time) and is well over 40 years old by now (I mean, if we really wanted something with altitude, we’d start shopping around on the second-hand market for the impressive S-200VE with it’s 29,000 meter ceiling and 240 km range…). It also deserves to be said that the F/A-18 Hornet-fleet is more than capable of taking on targets that attempt to sneakily fly above the NASAMS ceiling.

Still, air defence usually is best served by a layered approach, and it has been an ambition for the FDF to get back into the ground-based high-altitude air defence-game for quite some time. In 2018 an RFI was issued, which was followed up with an RFQ to five companies in 2020. The plan at that stage was to finalise the procurement before the end of 2022, but that schedule was adjusted last year – partly due to the pandemic having caused issues.

A Stunner-missile shooting away towards the clouds that are hanging over Palmachim Air Base in Israel. The Stunner is perhaps the best endoatmospheric interceptor in the world, and a surprise top-two in the race for a new Finnish GBAD-system. Source: United States Missile Defense Agency via Wikimedia Commons

However, last week we were treated to a surprise down-select, and it provided a rather surprising outcome. Gone were not only Diehl and always-bridesmaid-never-the-bride MBDA who keeps having a hard time securing Finnish contracts, but also favourite Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace and their NASAMS-ER. Instead we were left with two offers, both from Israel: the David’s Sling of Rafael and the BARAK MX of IAI. Neither system is bad, in fact they are both extremely competent according to all available public sources, but for the Finnish procurement there has been a feeling that they are simply too competent – and by extension too costly. An outspoken goal with the current procurement has been to get enough batteries to provide geographical coverage (it is easy to imagine coverage increasing through increased range, but for air defence that is to some extent a faulty line of reasoning as the difference in effective area coverage between two batteries with differently ranged missiles is rather small compared to what can be achieved through the ability to place more batteries in different key locations – remember that as opposed to e.g. anti-tank weapons the targets for the air defences are also constantly moving around and covering significant distances, at any point in time during which they can run into your air defences).

However, it is now evident that the FDF was more ambitious than just getting an average solution. Considering the timing, you would be forgiven to imagine the FDF having changed the scope somewhat following the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine. The force however denies that that would be case, and states that throughout the program capability has been the primary concern, which do makes you feel a bit sad for Diehl who tried to take on missile systems that sport some of the most advanced endoatmospheric interceptors on the market with their IRIST-T SLM.

Indian destroyer INS Kolkata firing a Barak 8 missile during the initial trials of the system back in 2015. Source: Indian Navy via Wikimedia Commons

As mentioned the two systems left in the running are the BARAK MX from IAI and the David’s Sling of Rafael. The BARAK MX traces its roots to the ship-based family of BARAK 8-missiles. These originally kicked off as a joint Israeli-Indian project, though nowadays the missile family has forked off into two distinct national lines of Israeli and Indian versions respectively. The BARAK MX (with MX standing for ‘Mix’) is the Israeli land-based version and can hold a number of different missiles. While in Israeli service the BARAK is only used as a shipboard weapon, the weapon has been exported in land-based versions to a limited number of countries, best known of which is Azerbaijan.

The Azeri setup comes with both truck-mounted TELs and palletized firing units, truck-mounted BMCs (BARAK Management Centre, the solution is possibly containerised but I’m unsure based on the available pictures. Both container and truck-mounted versions are offered), and ELTA’s palletized ELM-2288 AD-STAR radars. There are also reports that Azerbaijan have acquired the ELM-2080 Green Pine radar (which sports one of the cooler code names around, more on this one shortly). The layout is rather conventional for a modern system. Everything goes on wheeled trucks (unless you want a hardened BMC), and when you arrive at your preferred location the trucks either point their missiles towards the sky or deploy their palletized missiles racks, both setups of which can handle eight missiles ready to fire. The radar is set up and everything is connected to the BMC which is the brains of the systems. Here it is also possible to connect the system to other sensors, to ensure that you have a situational picture that is up to date and allowing e.g. for ambushing enemy aircraft by turning on the fire-control radar only once the enemy target is within range.

The BARAK MX TELs used by the Azerbaijani forces during a parade in Baku. Source: Azerbaijan presidential office via Wikimedia Commons

There are no details about the Finnish offer besides the MX being paired with an ELTA-radar. The ELM-2288 AD-STAR in some version is certainly the expected candidate, though other details are likely to differ compared to the Azeri setup. When contacted, IAI kindly declined to comment due to the sensitivity of the acquisition program, so there is some guesswork involved here. An interesting detail is that the Finnish Defence Forces refer to the missile on offer as the LRAD ER. IAI in turn talk about having three different missiles: the point-defence MRAD (30 km range), the medium-range LRAD (70 km), and the booster-equipped ER (150 km range). The missiles are hot-launched, but still described as having a “low launch signature” – YMMV. When I contacted FDF they confirmed that LRAD ER is one missile and not an offer that include both LRAD- and ER-missiles. I tried to ask IAI if they have more than three missiles integrated – i.e. if the LRAD ER would be a new-version of the LRAD – but they referred only to three above. As the ER is an LRAD with a booster (think they same principle as the Aster-family), I tend to believe that the Finnish designation refer to the ER. This performance is more or less on par with the 160 km range PAC-2 GEM-T missile of the Patriot system (Robot 103A in Swedish service). However, there are two key difference in that the BARAK is equipped with an active radar seeker (i.e. the missile carries its own radar and will continue to home on to the target even if the main radar goes silent) while the PAC-2 is a semi-active radar homing missile (i.e. it relies on the ground radar lighting up the target). The second important difference is that while the PAC-2 is a single-stage missile (i.e. it burns until it no longer does so, and then it coasts along until running out of speed), the BARAK ER is in effect a two-stage three-pulse missile in that we first have the booster kicking off the whole thing, and the LRAD missile mounted on top of the booster then has a dubble-pulse engine, giving significantly more energy during the later stages of the interception compared to traditional missiles. The BARAK also has a vertical launch which gives the ability to cover 360°, though in practice the Patriot batteries are usually deployed so as to minimize the impact of their ‘blind’ sector – it is rare to find locations where you can be jumped on from any direction, unless you deploy on top of the highest hill in the area, and then everyone will see you.

There are reports that the BARAK MX took part in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Few Armenien air losses were documented during the conflict, none of which are attributed to the system. However, there are persistent reporting that during the final stage of the conflict Armenia would have fired a single 9M723 Iskander against the Azeri capital of Baku, and this would have been intercepted by a BARAK. The claims are rightly questioned, as to the best of my knowledge all reporting of the incident go back to a single story by a Turkish journalist, and there have been no independent verification. Verification of successful intercepts of ballistic missiles are also notoriously hard to make even in the best of conditions, and it is unclear whether Azerbaijan actually has the ER with its enhanced theatre-ballistic missile defence (TBMD or BMD for short) capability in service or whether it is relying on the shorter-legged missiles. As such, I would be careful with the ‘Combat Proven’ label for now, though the missile has since successfully intercepted ballistic missiles in trials.

But wait a minute, readers of the blog will say. Finland wasn’t supposed to get a BMD capability!

The answer is “Yes” (and just wait until you see the other guy).

Back in 2019, Finnish Chief of Defence general Timo Kivinen gave the following statement to the Finnish newspaper Kaleva:

No minor country has the resources to develop and maintain an active missile defence system. […] Finland has a passive missile defence system, based on an analysed and identified threat. The concept is based on protection, movement, and decentralized operations.

This statement was by no means unique, but rather one in the line of statements to media and in press releases where the same principle has been stated time and time again. Finland does not have any interest in ballistic missile defence through shooting down incoming missiles. So what is up with that, has the FDF changed priorities now under influence from the war in Ukraine and the liberal amount of missiles fired?

(Note that while that’s a serious number of missiles quoted in the tweet below, there has also been a serious number of airstrikes during the war, and of the ones mentioned only the Iskanders and Tochkas are ballistic missiles)

The short answer is “No”. The longer answer is still the same as it always has been:

The ability to defeat ballistic missiles has not been one of the project’s objectives. We have compared the performance of different systems against traditional targets.

In short, the BARAK ER and David’s Sling with its Stunner missile are simply better at killing aircraft and cruise missiles than the competition, and that’s why they are shortlisted.

But there will be an Iskander-killing capability, right?

Not necessarily. Having a missile capable of hitting the incoming ballistic missile is an important step, but only part of the equation. Since the target is ridiculously quick, getting pre-warning is key (remember the Green Pine-radar rumoured to have gone to Azerbaijan? That’s a radar that is dedicated to long range detection and acquisition of TBMs, exactly the kind of additional – and very expensive – sensor you need if you want to enter the BMD-game for real). That in turn means you want to know where it comes from so you can set up you sensors to detect it at optimal range (see excellent linked thread below by Simon Petersen, who as opposed to yours truly actually is a professional when it comes to these kinds of things), and that is a very different setup of sensors and deployment patterns compared to if you are planning on taking on aircraft or helicopters. This is also a key reason why BMD makes more sense for Sweden than for Finland, as the obvious firing location for Iskanders heading toward Sweden is from the rather limited direction of Kaliningrad, while Finland has a rather large sector of potential enemy TBM firing locations.

So, when the FDF is buying a BMD-capable system and still says they aren’t aiming for a BMD-capability, that’s what they mean. The missile might be there, and if someone is dropping an Iskander on their block they might be able to kill it. But if it is headed to the next district you are probably out of luck.

But if you were impressed by the BARAK MX (and you probably should be), wait until you see what Rafael brings to the table.

David’s Sling is system that resemble a Patriot battery that has decided to enter the near-vertical launch game. It is jointly developed with Raytheon, and is very different from, well, most everything found on the market.

The two-stage missile called Stunner has a distinct ‘dolphin-nose’ look, using the asymmetry to manoeuvre and to fit several sensors. Good manoeuvrability is a must, since the missile is a hit-to-kill one. This means that as opposed to most air defence missiles which flies close to their targets and then detonate to create a cloud of shrapnel, the Stunner will ram into whatever it is targeting at high speed. This is obviously a sure-fire way to bring down most everything, but also a very unforgiving way of operating in that a near-miss doesn’t give you much except disturbed air. To achieve the desired accuracy, the Stunner is a two-stage three-pulse missile as well, with the third pulse providing the speed needed to manoeuvre at the final stages of the intercept. The guidance is provided by several different modes of tracking, including an active radar seeker as well as a multi-function electro-optical sensor sporting IIR-capability. The batteries in Israeli service feature the ELM-2084 MMR S-band radar, which is a step up in capability from the ELM-2288 AD-STAR of the BARAK MX. Of interest, one of the smaller members of the MMR-family is the Compact-Multi Mission Radar ELM-2311 C-MMR which Finland bought and received last year for the counter-artillery role (though they do offer a secondary air-surveillance capability as well). The missiles are transported around on a trailer-type TEL (which might or might not be called a MEL, depending on your level of geekiness), which apparently sports twelve missiles ready to launch. During the test firings the combat management centre seemed to be a containerised solution, and while it certainly seems likely there’s really no telling for sure whether that is the solution used for operational batteries.

As opposed to the BARAK MX, David’s Sling is in Israeli service. The primary purpose is as the mid-tire defence against incoming missiles and heavy rockets, sorting between the short-range Iron Dome and the larger Arrow. Despite the original design purpose being solidly in the BMD-role, the weapon is obviously more than capable of bringing down more conventional targets as well. The performance is largely classified, with some sources stating the range at 160+ km (note that corresponds to a very round “above 100 miles”) while others give 300 km as the maximum. In any case, it is safe to say the range is longer than BARAK ER. An interesting detail is that the missile is being looked at as a possible replacement for/alternative to PAC-3 missiles for the Patriot under the PAAC-4 program, where the additional ‘A’ stands for ‘Affordable’. That is an interesting notion, as while the batteries themselves certainly cost, the munitions add up as well. It would be easy to imagine the Stunner as being a prohibitively expensive missile due to its performance, highly specialised role, and fancy sensors, but apparently that isn’t the case (though in air defence, “cheap” doesn’t equal “small amounts of money”). An interesting detail is that the US so far has been reluctant to let Israel export it directly, meaning that this offer certainly shows the trust and importance Washington places in Finland and the FDF. So far the only almost-confirmed export customer is Poland, which is planning to acquire it for their Wisła-program. The initial package will however sport the PAC-3 MSE, and the program has ran into some issues as the cost of integration into the Polish C3-system has caused the budget to expand considerably compared to e.g. the Swedish Patriot-order.

A really interesting side-track is that Israel, who by the way also happens to be a serious F-35-user, has test-flown the Stunner without the booster on an F-16. The possibility of having a highly-manoeuvrable air-to-air missile with multi-seeker capability is certainly interesting when going after small and/or stealthy targets such as cruise missiles, drones, and Su-57s. While so far no decision has been made  to integrate the Stunner on the F-35 and the FDF is currently not looking at the possibility of acquiring a joint-use GBAD/A2A-missile in the same way as the AIM-120 AMRAAM currently is being operated, it is certainly not something that is a negative in the books for Rafael’s offering. It certainly would be an interesting development, and let’s remember that the decision on what to get after the AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM is still open for the FinAF.

So where does that leave us? Both systems are reportedly easy to integrate into legacy systems, are already in operational service, and sport performance that would propel FDF GBAD into a world-class integrated air defence system on all altitudes and against all conventional targets (drones, cruise missiles, helicopters, aircraft). The big question is whether there is the budget to acquire enough batteries and missiles? So far the FDF isn’t telling, but in an interview the budget is described as “significant but below the threshold of strategic acquisitions”. Considering the Squadron 2020 program was a strategic program and came in at an original budget of 1.2 Bn EUR, a safe guess is that we are talking about several hundred million euros, but below a billion. As a comparison, that would be below the Swedish Patriot-acquisition which is valued at approximately 1.1 Bn EUR, though that did include modernisations to the general sensors and C3-networks. The Swedish program include two battalions of two batteries each, both capable of independent operations but mainly used together to protect a single area. Depending on the Finnish doctrine and pairings with other air defence systems, something similar might be able to fit inside the Finnish budget, but that is largely down to how much other stuff will have to be paid for. As is well-known, the so-called ITSUKO which deals with the high-altitude capability is part of the larger air-defence framework that include a number of other projects, and as such the budget for the batteries themselves might be surprisingly similar for Finland and Sweden. If I had to guess, we will see the BARAK MX take home this one based on the versatility and the smaller footprint leading to greater mobility, but David’s Sling is certainly an impressive system and as we have seen performance matters in this one. It will be highly interesting to see what the next year brings for ITSUKO.

Enter Seahawk – Exit Whitefox?

That Sweden has had a rough time with their NH 90-fleet is no secret. The HKP 14 as it is known locally was delayed to the extent that a batch of 15 UH-60M Blackhawk had to be acquired as a stop-gap for the MEDEVAC-role in Afghanistan due to the Swedish Super Pumas being retired and the NH90 still being quite some way off from entering service. The UH-60M has been a stunning success for the Swedes, becoming a reliable workhorse for the Swedish Armed Forces in general and the airmobile soldiers of the K 3 Livregementets hussarer (Life Regiment Hussars) in particular.

A US Navy MH-60R Seahawk from HSM-78 “Blue Hawks” releases flares during a training exercise. Note the half-full sonobouy dispenser (and lack of port side door), large radar disk under the front fuselage, and aft landing gear being significantly forward compared to a UH-60. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sean M. Castellano via Wikimedia Commons

Now, unlike the situation in Finland where the NH90 eventually overcame the teething troubles to be widely accepted as a fully functioning and integrated part of the Finnish Defence Forces, the NH90 in Sweden has continued to struggle. To the extent that questions about the future of the platform has continued to be raised at regular intervals. A key part of the question is the role of the maritime mission sets which currently is outside the scope of Blackhawk operations. Instead, the Swedish NH 90-fleet sport two different versions: the transport-roled HKP 14E and the maritime-roled HKP 14F. Crucially, the HKP 14F is not an NH90 FFH, but a uniquely Swedish version based on the NH90 TTH (in addition both versions sport a higher cabin to provide a more ergonomic working environment, but the cost impact of that much-maligned feature at this stage is likely minor). The nine HKP 14F are equipped with a “tactical radar” (i.e. a maritime surveillance radar), dipping sonar, as well as sonobuoy launcher and processing capability. Keen readers will note that there are no weapons or datalinks in the description above, and that omission is not by accident.

Somehow, with Sweden being no stranger to neither airborne ASW-operations nor datalinks, it was originally decided against acquiring weapons or datalinks for the NH90, despite the platform being a key integrated part in both the surface and sub-surface warfare plans of the Swedish Navy. The realisation that this is stupid is nothing new, and has been discussed since before the helicopters were delivered. Eventually, common sense prevailed, and the latest long-term plan dictate that the integration of the new lightweight torpedo (TP 47) and a datalink will begin before 2025.

Back in 2018 it was reported that the Swedish Armed Forces looked into mothballing all of the transport-roled HKP 14E operating in northern Sweden to save money. A year later the issues continued, with lack of spares and too few trained technicians leading to fewer (and more costly) flight hours than planned, meaning that the northern Swedish Army units in Arvidsjaur (the recently reinstituted ranger regiment) and Boden have had a hard time getting the flight hours they need.

A HKP 14F, readily identifiable thanks to the large radar disk under the front fuselage. Source: Henrik Rådman/Försvarsmakten

Shortly before Christmas this year, it was reported that the armed forces again are looking at cutting the NH90-fleet. Following preliminary studies, there are two main options: one is to continue with the NH90 and go through with the planned upgrades for the HKP 14F to get the datalink and torpedo, while also ordering another batch of Blackhawks. The second option is to retire all NH90s, and instead go for a joint UH-60 Blackhawk/MH-60 Seahawk-fleet for all the helicopter needs of the Swedish Armed Forces (there is a third helicopter, the light AW109 which is in service as the HKP 15 and seem set for retirement without direct replacement). It is somewhat unclear what is supposed to happen with the HKP 14E, but considering the wish to buy more Blackhawks in both scenarios and the apparent focus on the maritime HKP 14F it does sound like the days of the HKP 14E in the army cooperation role is numbered.

On paper the joint Blackhawk/Seahawk-fleet sounds all nice and simple, and I will say that I am a big proponent of cutting losses and not succumbing to the sunken cost fallacy. At the same time, it is evident that the truth isn’t quite as straightforward.

Another unit which uses the UH-60M is the Swedish SERE- and Personnel Recovery-training unit FÖS, which sort under K 3. Here a UH-60M is out carrying a number of personnel of FÖS earlier this summer. Source: Bezav Mahmod/Försvarsmakten

A key reason why the UH-60M Blackhawk deal was so successful is that it was a rather straightforward need (move healthy and sick people and equipment quickly from point A to B) and that it was accepted to just grab what was already in US service and paint some Swedish crowns on the side (slight exaggeration, but not by much). It is significantly more doubtful if the same is the case for the highly technical ASW-role, case in point being the Danish order for the MH-60R Seahawk (affectionally known as Romeo thanks to the version-letter). Denmark received approval back in 2010 for nine MH-60R, and they achieved IOC in 2017. However, crucially Denmark opted for a non-ASW fitted MH-60R, and decided to include some unique equipment (including the NATO-standard harpoon-hydraulic deck-locking system instead of the US RAST, as well as specific emergency equipment). As such, they have largely operated in the SAR and fisheries protection role, and only now are they being refitted (“during the coming years”) to be able to operate in the ASW-role. This puts it more or less at the same schedule as the Swedish NH90, depending on when exactly “the coming years” is and how long the Swedish integration starting before 2025 takes.

A Danish MH-60R Seahawk in Greenland. Note the additional rescue kit fitted to one of the pylons, and the radar under the forward belly. Source: Forsvaret

Another major question is how the blue-water Romeo works in the brackish littorals of the Baltic Sea? That’s less of an issue for Denmark, where the majority of the time the helicopters will be working out in the North Sea or around Greenland, but for Sweden the Baltic Sea is the main playing field of the Navy. This is acknowledged by the Swedish Armed Forces, and is one of the key reasons why the NH90 NFH wasn’t bought. The plan now is to be able to get a USN helicopter over some time during next summer, and get to see how that performs in Swedish conditions. Obviously, even if the Romeo is chosen, there is a sliding scale between a HKP 16-style off-the-shelf buy and a stripped Romeo fitted with Swedish ASW-equipment and weapons dedicated to the Baltic Sea-environment. Obviously, the most extreme version would be to grab a UH-60M and start installing the extra equipment in that in the same way as is being done with the HKP 14F, something that certainly would be more costly at the outset but would provide a higher degree of synergies and also be based on a simpler platform compared to the navalised MH-60 (there certainly are synergies between the UH-60M and the MH-60R, but there certainly are differences as well). Because for the time being, and unlike Denmark, no Swedish vessel is able to accept either the Blackhawk or the NH90 (the Visby can take aboard the AW109, which honestly might be the feature most sorely missed if it is retired without replacement), meaning that features such as folding blades and tail are just adding extra weight, meaning that a converted Blackhawk might be attractive. A middle of the road alternative that most likely would only combine the worst of the two alternatives would be to use the MH-60S Knighthawk, the multi-role sister to the Romeo, and fit it with an ASW-suite. The Sierra is in essence a navalised version of the UH-60L fitted with the same cockpit and navalised systems as the Romeo (minus the ASW-stuff), and is used for a number of different missions in the US Navy.

Notable is that production for the US Navy has ended for both versions in 2018 (Romeo) and 2015 (Sierra) respectively, though export orders are keeping the production line of the Romeo warm (latest of which is an Australian order for additional Blackhawks and Seahawks to replace their NH90s a decade early in both the transport- and maritime-roles). The Sierra just might be easier to work with if Sweden would want a Seahawk, but with a fully Swedish mission system and if they then would run into some hardware/space-related issues, but the Romeo is by far the most likely alternative (ironically, one of the few prospective MH-60S export orders was for a Qatari contract where a mixed MH-60R/S-fleet lost to the NH90).

However, if we look at the other extreme, and Sweden would simply order nine MH-60R according to USN specifications, there certainly is some interesting options here. To begin with aligning what will be a very small fleet with the standard of a larger operator does provide significant benefits when it comes to operating and upgrade costs, and both spares and weapons would likely be available at a rather cheap rate. The USN training pipeline could potentially also be used, something that might become more of an issue if the AW109 is withdrawn from service.

(Keen readers might notice that several of these points figured prominently during discussions about the HX-program.)

The Romeo and its sensors almost certainly isn’t as well suited to the Baltic Sea as a fully kitted out HKP 14F would be, but here comes the classic question: is a 75 or 90% solution at half the cost the best bang for the buck (note the numbers are pure examples)? A key detail is that finding submarines is extremely difficult, and despite the technological advances is still highly reliant on skilled personnel with a good understanding of local conditions. If switching to a solution that technically might not be the best fit allow the crews to train more, the end result might still be more scrap metal at the bottom of the sea than would otherwise be the case.

The operator stations of the Swedish HKP 14F. While all Swedish Armed Forces helicopters belong to the Air Force, many of those associated with the maritime helicopters have a background in the Navy (including both crew members aboard the helicopters as well as the current commanding officer of the unit). Source: Henrik Rådmark/Försvarsmakten

However – and this is an aspect that the Swedish evaluation will find hard to overlook – ASW is seen as a significant strategic interest for the Swedish defence industry, and killing the HKP 14F with its Saab-designed and built tactical mission system (including domestic sonar) will prove politically difficult. The orders are already far and few between, and with the Armed Forces in general short on funding a decision to acquire a standard Romeo is bound to raise uncomfortable questions. If the Mark 54 is good enough for the heliborne ASW-component, perhaps it is so for the rest of the force as well? What about sensors and processing units? This obviously also ties in with the same questions asked about the small submarine force, as many of the systems rest on a solid knowledge of similar topics (including e.g. Torped 47 as the obvious common weapon system). Giving up the locally developed sensors and weapons on the helicopter might very well come back to bite the Navy at a later stage when it is time for an upgrade of shipboard sensors and systems. As such, the decision on how to proceed with the helicopter part of things shouldn’t be taken lightly.

In the end, a Swedish Romeo-mod might still turn out to the be the best and cheapest option overall. However, the speedy UH-60M buy might not be the best reference point. Rather a highly complex project that hopefully can salvage the lessons (and potentially some hardware) from the current HKP 14F-fleet is to be expected, and I would not be surprised if the FOC date more or less corresponds to what would be the case for a full datalink and torpedo integration for the NH90.

An MH-60R Seahawk (in this case from HSM-73 “Battlecats”) – soon in a littoral theatre near you? Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Logan C. Kellums via Wikimedia Commons

(And since I know you will ask: I don’t foresee Finland acquiring ex-Swedish NH90s to increase the size of the Finnish fleet, though I certainly could imagine some being acquired for cannibalisation in case the spares situation is as poor as the Australian decision seem to indicate)

F-35A is HX – The Winner Takes It All

Back in 2017 I was fortunate enough to travel to RAF Lossiemouth together with a bunch of Finnish media courtesy of BAE Systems to get up and close with the Eurofighter Typhoon group operating there. When discussing the fact that the RAF was acquiring both the Typhoon and the F-35, Wing Commander Billy Cooper, then-CO of the 6 Squadron, said something that puzzled me.

You need stealth to be able to go forward

It seemed the Wing Commander didn’t understand which aircraft he was supposed to be selling.

Her Majesty the Queen being briefed on the other fighter the Royal Air Force (and the Royal Navy) is getting – the stealthy F-35 that is “able to go forward”. This here is the Aircraft Systems Maintenance Trainer in the Integrated Training Centre at RAF Marham. Source: RAF Marham Twitter / Cpl Wise

After what has been described as perhaps the most fair and transparent fighter acquisition program this side of the Cold War – one that resulted in an unprecedented five serious best and final offers – we finally have a winner, and it certainly was a case of a favourite that held. The F-35A was always the one to beat, and while Finland looked like it could be the place where it would be possible to do so (my personal opinion was that the Super Hornet/Growler-combination was the  most likely), it turned out that it was not to be here (either). The much-maligned stealth fighter instead took a rather resounding win in being chosen as the next fighter for the Finnish Air Force. With the FDF traditionally having been known to err on the side of conservative rather than the revolutionary, it certainly adds to the credibility of the claim that the aircraft is maturing nicely.

The strong points of the F-35 are at the same time well-known, but also often somewhat misunderstood (in particular in a Finnish situation). Yes, the aircraft is stealthy, and as Cooper noted that is indeed a big benefit, but it is far from a one-trick-pony. To start with perhaps the most boring factor, simply the sheer amount of F-35s sold is a huge benefit. As has been stressed from the outset, Finland can’t afford to be the sole operator of an aircraft (or even the sole operator of a particular configuration), something which the Hornet MLU-programs have taught the service. The F-35 will be around in numbers in 2060, and there will be users who will be as reliant as Finland on keeping the aircraft up to date. Yes, aircraft spotters will cry a bit as yet another air force convert to the same single-type force, but in the real world that does benefit the operators.

F-35As out of Eieleson AFB in Alaska practised dispersed operations in Guam, including at the abandoned Northwest Field, during exercise Cope North 21 in February this year. Source: DVIDS/Senior Airman Jonathan Valdes

Speaking of which, much of the hesitation about the F-35 has been surrounding how it is from the outset is conceptualised to benefit from being the NATO-standard, with concentrated maintenance and spares supplies. However, in what is a major win for the team behind HX, Lockheed Martin provided a unique tailored solution to Finland – one described in their BAFO-press statement to “includes many opportunities for the Finnish defense industry related to the direct manufacture and maintenance of the F-35 that have not been offered before.” This is in line also with the earlier talking points of Lockheed Martin throughout the past few years, which has focused on the fact that maintenance solutions and spares packages indeed can be altered to meet the needs of the Finnish Air Force (one might also note that Israel had no issue securing far-reaching rights to do stuff themselves, showing that while they arguably are a special case, the rules of the F-35 game aren’t as set as some would like to make them out to be). But while it has been reported earlier that Finland received a “firm commitment” for a number of components and sub-assemblies for not just the Finnish F-35s but for the global fleet as well (itself something significantly more far-reaching than most other countries), today’s presser included information that included a firm commitment that 400 forward fuselage will be assembled in Finland! It’s hard to stress how much of a different league this is compared to e.g. the Danish agreement (and how happy this makes me as a taxpayer).

This is obviously part of building the security of supply. The principle is simple: Finland is to be able to keep the aircraft up in the air even if the borders are shut. To ensure that Finland will have an indigenous maintenance and repair capability for over 100 components (including parts of the fuselage and engine), which is based on the items covered by the industrial cooperation agreement. There will also be significant stockpiles of components that aren’t on the list of items which Finland can repair and overhaul organically (often parts with very long mean time between failures, and for which it aren’t economical to build up an independent repair capability). Notable is also that the Finnish organic repair capability is not just for domestic use, but is also part of the GSS (the global support solution) meaning that they will be used to maintain parts for the global spares pool.

The package is unprecedented, with Lockheed Martin describing it as including opportunities that haven’t been offered to any other country. Company representatives also acknowledged that the road hadn’t been easy.

There were some tense moments.

Their Finnish counterparts had apparently been “very Finnish and upfront with us about where we weren’t meeting their expectations”. It is also evident from both the Finnish authorities and Lockheed Martin that the negotiations have been both tough and thorough, and lead to a significantly better final bid than would have been possible with a more straightforward process. An interesting note in the documentation is that the industrial participation comes with a direct 116 MEUR price-tag, which frankly feels like steal for the capability offered.

The F-35 is no stranger to the cold, having seen service in the high north on both sides of the Atlantic. Picture courtesy of Lockheed Martin

The weapons package is at the same time comprehensive and straightforward. The first package which will be signed off at the same time as the fighter contract is for AIM-120C-8 AMRAAMs and AIM-9X Sidewinders. Further down the road the package will most likely include JSM in the joint air-to-ground and anti-ship roles, as well as the AGM-158 JASSM-ER heavy cruise missile, GBU-54 and GBU-56 LJDAM laser-/GPS-guided bombs in the 250 and 1,000 kg class, as well as the GBU-39 SDB and GBU-53/B StormBreaker SDB II small-diameter bombs. Notable is that this will bring serious new capabilities to the Finnish Air Force, such as the ability to hit moving and mobile targets, on land and at sea. The procurement will be staggered to ensure that there won’t be a single huge batch of weapons becoming obsolescent at the same time, and to ensure that developments with new versions of existing weapons or even completely new munitions are kept up with (no-one is officially mentioning the AIM-260 JATM, but we all know it is coming). That the air-to-air missiles will be first comes naturally as the current Hornet-fleet is expected to be viable in the air-to-ground role longer than it will be in the air-to-air role. As such, during the period of transition the plan is that the F-35A is to be able to focus on the fighter role, with the ability to escort the Hornets focusing on the ground-pounding if the need arises. The total arms package is for approximately 1.58 Bn EUR, of which 754.6 MEUR is for the air-to-air missiles to be acquired in the first step, and 823.8 MEUR for later procurement (up to 2030) and which also will provide funding to the reserve in case parts of the contract will have to be renegotiated/or in case there will be technical risks. Notable is that the large number of weapons included had a positive effect on the evaluation.

Money, Money, Money…

Which brings us to what has been the most controversial aspect of the program: cost.

The acquisition cost has come down nicely, and the current contract gives a unit cost of 73.49 MEUR per aircraft for the Finnish aircraft. More controversial is the annual operating costs, and with impeccable timing I last week noted that both the Norwegian and Swiss life-cycle costs were significantly over the Finnish ones, 77.5% and 30% respectively if extrapolated out to 64. Extrapolating never works, but the difference was large enough that I wanted an explanation. Especially as the Finnish number is 37% below the current US annual cost per aircraft (though it actually lines up rather nicely with the stated US target). Luckily, brigadier general Keränen, Deputy Chief of Staff Air Force Operations, was happy to open up the calculations.

The obvious issue is that it never is an apples versus apples comparison. Switzerland famously include VAT in their costings, something that the FDF avoids. The Swiss also present indexed average costs adjusted for inflation, while the Finnish figure is given in 2021 Euros. The USAF also include a number of basing costs in their figures (and notable is that a USAF base include quite a bit more than a Finnish air force base). But Finland is also paradoxically assisted by jumping aboard the train at a relatively late stage, as the US don’t charge for non-recurring costs, and the partner nations – although they get a share of the license cost when fighters are sold abroad – have obviously invested significant sums throughout the program which now show up in their LCC. But there are a number of other key issues as well. Finland will fly approximately 9,000 hours annually, which is in line with the current Hornet flight hours. However, with the relative large number of aircraft that actually mean that the Finnish fleet flies 140 flight hours per aircraft annually – approximately half of what the USAF does. This naturally create less wear and lower maintenance cost per aircraft and year. Notable is also that the 2 Bn EUR in upgrades are placed outside of the 254 MEUR annual operating costs, a relic from the Hornet-era where upgrades were major MLU-style projects. Another key difference between Finnish and many other European air forces is that Finland plan to shift training from the US back to Finland at a relatively early stage – following their good experiences with the current (cost-effective) proptrainer – Hawk – Hornet pipeline. Keeping pilots at home instead of paying for them living abroad usually turns out to be cheaper (have you seen the real estate prices in Rovaniemi lately?), and we haven’t even mentioned the conscript mechanics. At the end of the day, all bids had roughly similar annual operating costs.

Side note: Yes, that means that no Finnish fighters will stay in the US.

The explanations sounds reasonable enough to me, but even more convincing are two other factors. To begin with, the Finnish Defence Forces is small enough that there isn’t much room for infighting and the Air Force can’t afford to start eating the budget of the other services. And while you might argue that I am naive on that point, even more crucially both external audits and calculations made by the MoD has shown nothing out of the ordinary.

The Norwegian experience of operating F-35A in the far north without doubt has played a similar role to the Canadian CF-18 Hornet operations last time around – providing a serious export reference from snowy fields. Source: Luftforsvaret Twitter

All of the major rumoured causes for the cheap operating costs – cutting any of the bases or cutting the flight hours – are thus out of the question.

All bases, both main bases, other air force bases, alternative civilian fields, and road bases, remain in use. The F-35A has no major issues with operating from the current Finnish network. The key detail that is setting the limit is the safety margins required for an aborted take-off. The old ‘hot’ MiG-21 and J 35 Draken have flown from all, including roads, earlier, and while the F-35A (like any modern fighter) is easier when it comes to the ‘flying’ part, it is also quite a bit heavier at maximum take-off weight. To ensure braking in poor conditions, the Finnish aircraft will be fitted with the ‘Norwegian’ braking chute. As such, the whole current base network will continue in service. The upgrades to infrastructure is broken down in further detail in the official documents, with 409 MEUR for buildings and 75 MEUR for upgrades to the C3I-systems. These include the (in)famous upgrades to cybersecurity in line with the US requirements.

There will however indeed be a serious upgrade to the number of simulators, but not to replace flight hours but to increase the number of simulator training opportunities.

A notable detail is that several of the speakers took time to praise the other offers and note the importance of the countries that provided them as ranking among Finland’s most important allies and partners, a notion that was echoed in the official Swedish MoD press release that in no uncertain terms stated that Finland remain the kingdom’s closest partner, and that the defence cooperation is based on shared values and strategic interests rather than on common arms deals. I will admit that I was happy to hear that, as there always is a risk of backlash in these kinds of situations.

When all is said and done

Having passed the gate checks – something that the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale proved unable to do – the F-35A then went on to beat both the Super Hornet/Growler and Gripen/GlobalEye offers in both the combat evaluation and when it comes to the future development potential. The aircraft will be delivered in ‘Block 4 standard’, though the iterative development path of modern aircraft means that things seldom are that simple. What Block 4 mean in this case is that the first Finnish fighters – coming out of Lot 17 in 2025 – will have the TR3 hardware upgrades that are associated with the Block 4 (including the sidekick upgrade that allow for six AMRAAMs in internal carriage) and what Lockheed Martin describes as the “vast majority” of the software upgrades. The final upgrades will come with Lot 18. The exact engine in use by then is unclear, though looking at the timeline it certainly looks like an uprated F135 might be an option.

The evaluation focused on a major war scenario, in which the air to air role was the focus (30%), with 10% weight being allocated to supporting the Finnish Navy (I can happily report that it indeed was a naval officer who was involved in this part of the evaluation), and 20% each to supporting the Army, long-range fires, and ISR. The F-35A ranked first or joint-first in all mission sets.

At the end of the day, the F-35 has beaten some of the toughest competition, including the bureaucracy and inertia, to come out on top. Following the string of victories it has scored throughout Europe and other parts of the world, there seems little doubt that it indeed is the premier fighter for years to come. As such, it certainly is nice to know that it will also be the aircraft protecting Finnish skies, and it is easy to agree with the official line that the procurement shows that Finland is serious about national defence and now is able to increase the threshold of a potential war.

Wargames

A recent discussion on Twitter caught my eye. In short, fellow blogger ‘IsoT’ had made a scenario in Command: Modern Operations where he ran HX-contenders in strike missions against Russian targets. What raised eyebrows was that a combined Super Hornet/Growler-force had little issues with cleaning out enemy aircraft, they struggled in the face of the Russian IADS. Perhaps most surprisingly, the suppression reportedly worked rather well, but few kills against enemy radars/other GBAD-systems were scored. This peeked my interest, and I got intrigued enough to start doing my own wargaming. But let’s start from the beginning.

What is Command: Modern Operations?

Command: Modern Operations (CMO) is the follow-on to the older Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations (COMANO), itself the spiritual successor to the old Harpoon-series. The basic version is based on open sources and meant largely for entertainment purposes (though granted you need a bit of an unconventional definition of “entertainment” to enjoy it, but I figure most of my readers will fit that description). There is also a professional edition, which sport an impressive list of references (including, ironically enough, both Boeing and Lockheed Martin, as well as a number of services). CMO is widely billed as the best simulator available to the general public for this kind of scenarios, though obviously it being based on open information will lead to a certain amount of guesswork when it comes to the most classified capabilities (such as stealth and EW). As such, while you shouldn’t treat the results as gospel, it does provide some interesting pointers.

Note that there for all aircraft are some omissions/less than ideal loadouts in the database for the rather particular Finnish case. These will have an effect on the outcome. I also generally prefer to create the missions and then let the AI play them out instead of directing individual aircraft and shots. With that said, I have not played the scenarios completely hands-off, but have intervened a few times when e.g. the automated waypoints are placed straight on top of known enemy air defence sites.

So what’s the situation?

For my scenario I imagine us being a bit into a conflict taking place roughly in 2031, with Russian forces advancing on the Vyborg-Hamina and Vyborg-Lappeenranta routes, as well as holding force being located in Niirala/Värtsilä. At this stage the Finnish Air Force decides that cutting a bunch of bridges in the enemy’s rear will slow things down for the aggressor, and as such a coordinated strike is mounted.

The Russian forces are made up of fighters, IADS, Army air defence units, as well as small surface action group operating between Gogland and St Petersburg. In the interest of keeping things manageable and staying with the large coordinated strike-theme I decided to not model enemy air strikes which could be presumed to take place at the same time. As such, no Russian air-to-ground aircraft or helicopters are included in the scenario, and a number of Finnish fighters are deducted to represent fighters on stand-by for other missions (such as defensive counter air).

So how many fighters do Finland have free for this mission? A very rough calculation starts with 64 HX fighters, of which say 12 are unavailable due to maintenance, another 12 shot-down, destroyed, or damaged so that they are unavailable, and 12 being used for other missions. That leaves 28 available for what would be the main offensive air operation, which does sound like a number that is in the right neighbourhood. You can argue it up or down, but in the end that is largely a question of details. As this is the Finnish Air Force we’re talking about, the fighters are dispersed over a number of bases, with the most obviously being found on the main air force bases (Tampere-Pirkkala, Jyväskylä-Tikkakoski, and Kuopio-Rissala in this case, as Rovaniemi is too far north to be of much importance for this operation). The Finnish forces also has their trusty C-295 Dragon Shield SIGINT platform airborne, and there are a number of Finnish GBAD and air surveillance systems spread out (NASAMS-ER isn’t found in the database, so we presume CAMM has won the ITSUKO award).

Sweden and other countries are friendly but not involved in the fighting. That means that BAP (made up of four Italian Eurofighters, of which three are serviceable) and Sweden (operating a GlobalEye and escorting JAS 39E Gripens out of F 16 Uppsala) share their situational picture with Finland. You may argue this is unrealistic, but it felt like a suitable middle ground between modelling a full-scale Baltic Sea-wide conflict on one side and a completely isolated Finland on the other.

The Russians

Perhaps the biggest question for the scenario is the Russian order of battle. I have made a number of assumptions based on the current Russian OOB, in essence assuming upgrades are taking place, a number of units are pulled from other districts to support the conflict, and that modern weaponry (R-77 being key here) are available in numbers (this last point has proved a surprisingly big hurdle when it comes to modernising Russian air power, but in another ten years I am going to give them the assumption of finally having a modern active MRAAM).

The basic view at the start of the scenario on the Russian side. Note the civilian bogey in the north-east, one of a handful of civilian aircraft flying around.

With regards to the units, the following will be doing the fighting and the changes I’ve made:

  • 159 IAP in Besovets (Petrozavodsk) will have received another Su-35S squadron to replace it’s current Su-27SM one, bringing their total strength up to three squadrons of Su-35S,
  • 790 IAP at Kohtilovo replaces their last Su-27SM with Su-35S, bringing their total strength up to two squadrons of MiG-31BM and one of Su-35S. The Su-35S squadron is forward-deployed to Pushkin (St Petersburg), while the two MiG-31BM squadrons provide escort to the AEW&C aircrafts and fly CAP with a prosecution area over St Petersburg while patrolling a bit further back,
  • The naval air arm will have converted both squadrons to MiG-29K (with a small number of MiG-29KUBR), and both 279 KIAP and 100 KIAP are forward-deployed to Gromovo, which have been used by the units earlier,
  • AEW&C is provided by the 610 TsBP out of Ivanovo Severnyi with a small number of A-100 (the unit currently operating variants of the A-50),
  • Current plans call for three squadrons of Su-57 to have been delivered by then. I have based two of these at Pushkin and Besovets respectively, being designated 31 IAP and 14 IAP respectively. The designations are more and indication that these are reinforcements deployed north for this particular conflict rather than me betting that A) these will be among the first three units two set up squadrons of Su-57, and B) that these two wings would provide the squadrons used to reinforce a Finnish conflict.

Again, there are lots of arguments to be made with regards to which particular units would come to support, whether there would be more or less or units, and how many would be available to meet a Finnish air strike and how many would be tied up with other tasks (such as escort missions) in the same way a number of Finnish aircraft are (again, we are only looking at the Finnish strike and the Russian response, which is an oversimplification, but one that hopefully strikes a balance between engagements too small to provide useful data and those too large to be able to run properly).

The Russian Air Force (and Naval Aviation) will fly three main CAP-boxes in addition to the air defence missions the MiG-31s are tasked with. One box roughly cover the Karelian Ishmuts and inner parts of the Gulf of Finland. This is covered by the Pushkin-based units, and at T=0 there are one flight of Su-35S and two of Su-57 taking off (each flight consisting of two fighters), with a third Su-57 flight and two Su-35S flights being ready at T+60 and another 10+10 aircraft in reserve.

The central CAP-box cover the Karelian Isthmus and Lake Ladoga as well as the immediate shoreline of it to the north and north-east. This is the responsibility of the naval fighters, launching three flights of MiG-29K at T=0, followed by another two flights at T+60, and 15 MiG-29K plus 4 MiG-29KUB in reserve.

The Northern CAP-box stretches roughly from the centreline of Lake Ladoga and up to the centreline of Onega. This is the responsibility of the Besovets-based fighters, which launches one flight of Su-57 and two flights of Su-35S at T=0, with a second Su-57 flight at T+30 and two Su-35S flights at T+60, with another 5+18 aircraft in reserve.

The Navy would likely mainly operate out of Baltiysk, but I included a small surface action group made up of one Project 2235 Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate and two Project 22800 Karakurt-class corvettes.

The integrated air defences consist of a number of units, spread out over both regions:

  • Four battalions of S-400 providing general air defence coverage,
  • Six 9K330Tor-M2KM platoons, defending installations such as radars, bridges, and airfields,
  • Seven 9K37M1-2 Buk-M1-2 platoons, defending different areas and key targets,
  • Four Pantsir-SM platoons,
  • Five 1L257 Krasuha-4 and three 1L267 Moskva-1 jammers/ELINT-platforms,
  • One 55Zh6M Nebo-M (Tall Rack) VHF-band radar at Valamo in Lake Ladoga,
  • One 36D6 (Tin Shield B) air surveillance radar on Gogland.

In all cases I’ve strived to place the units at local high spots to provide ample coverage.

In addition, the army units are obviously supported by their own air defence units:

  • Two S-300V4 Antey battalions supporting the main thrust, being placed close to the bridges over the Bay of Vyborg,
  • Five 9K22M1 Tunguska-M1 platoons,
  • Eleven ZSU-23-4 Shilka platoons.

In a real-world scenario there obviously would be a ground-war going on, hiding the GBAD-platforms among a number of other radar blips. To provide for something to that effect without having the processor try to smoke itself, I’ve inserted a total of 30 generic T-72BM platoons (four MBTs in each). In this scenario, their only mission is to mask the important units.

Again, it is entirely possible to argue for any number of changes to the setup presented above, but at the end of the day I believe there should be enough fireworks to separate the wheat from the chaff.*

F-35A – Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes

IsoT reportedly flew with bombs. My spontaneous reaction was that that felt like literally begging for flak, but I was certainly not going to skip over testing that. Especially as Lockheed Martin has argued for the F-35 having an edge over the competition in being able to use cost-effective weapons (i.e. bombs) when others will have to use longer-ranged (i.e. more expensive) munitions. So to begin with, let’s see if the F-35A can bring down a bunch of highly defended bridges with GBU-31!

The F-35A strikes kicking off. Note how the detailed sensor modelling means that one of the vessels in the SAG shows up on both the radar and the AN/ASQ-239 Barracuda of ‘Villisika One’, providing a good fix on the position, while the slightly greater bearing angle to the other vessel means that the radar can’t see it, making the distance to the target more uncertain.

The idea is simple. Four F-35A north and six F-35A south of Lake Ladoga will clean up the ground-based air defence in their respective areas with GBU-53/B SDB II, while the strikes will take place with eight F-35As towards Olonets (plus two escorting) and four F-35As towards the Vyborg-bridges (plus four escorting). All aircraft carries only internal loadouts.

The escorting fighters on the Vyborg strike have no issue cleaning up the enemy fighters with their AIM-120D (AIM-120C-8 wasn’t available in the loadout options), but the ships have noticed them.

This isn’t working out too well. The F-35s dive towards the deck, but both get bagged by the ship-launched SAMs (9M96D, fired from the naval version of the S-350 found aboard Admiral Gorshkov).

The lead is going down in flames, soon to be followed by the wingman. ‘F-22’ in the background refer to ‘Freighter 22’, a Boeing 777 slowly cruising over Pskov, and not a USAF stealth fighter

The northern battle is rather tense, with the enemy fighters making more of a showing.

A number of fighters and missiles from both sides flying around over the border north of Lake Ladoga.

An interesting detail is that the air battle to the north pull away most fighters from the Karelian Isthmus, leaving the door open for the incoming strike aircraft (well, with the exception of the ground-based systems…). It can be mentioned that at this stage the two F-35As have been joined by no less than 13 enemy fighters in the ‘Lost’-column (5 MiG-29K, 4 Su-35S, 4 Su-57). Also worth mentioning that the Finnish fighters have already fired no more than 35 AIM-120D AMRAAMs (against 23 R-77 and eight 9M96D for the Russians), showing the value of large weapon stocks.

However, things take a turn for the worse, and there’s only so many active radarseekers one can outrun. Both the fighters and the Admiral Gorshkov start to take their toll. At the same time the SEAD-efforts and strikes are starting to create some havoc.

The end-result are somewhat surprising. Pushing in to use JDAMs prove though, with 13 out of 28 F-35As not coming home. On the enemy side, more or less the whole first wave of fighters is brought down, with 18 downed aircraft shared equally between MiG-29K, Su-35S, and Su-57. The SEAD-mission is something of a failure, with a large number of the 59 GBU-53/Bs being dropped in-flight by enemy fire. In the end, two Buk TELARs and one Buk LLV as well as a handfull of Shilkas are wiped out. Five bridges are brought down, including one of the heavily defended ones next to Vyborg. Most surprising was the relatively low number of kills for the GBADs, with a Buk and a S-300V4 scoring a single kill each with the fighters and in particular the Admiral Gorshkov proving highly effective. Of course, the large number of missiles in the air that force the F-35s to bleed energy means that the larger systems might have played a more important role in ensuring the kills than the statistics seem to indicate, but considering the large number of missiles fired (10 9M338K from the Tor, 24 9M317 from the Buk, 19 9M311-M1 from the Tungushka, 33 40N6 from the S-400, 48 9M83M from the S-300V4, and 32 9M96D from the Gorshkov), the probability of a kill isn’t overly impressive for the ground-based systems. In part, the F-35s operating at altitude and the flanking position of the Gorshkov probably explain its success compared to the other systems.

Two reruns – including one where I try to actively target the Gorshkov in the first wave of strikes – gives roughly the same result. Yes, you can achieve the target, but there will be significant blood. It feels like it should be doable, but somehow there’s always too much stuff flying around in the air for the aircraft to make it out. The issues with internal loads, especially for the strike- and SEAD-aircraft, is also evident in that two AMRAAMs simply isn’t enough for a serious fight, and if they get cut off from their escorts (who still only sling six AMRAAMs a piece) they will quickly run out off options that aren’t spelled RTB.

But there’s a reason Finland wants JASSMs.

This time with less Finns in the skies of Russia.

The JASSM-strike looks impressive, but the results are surprisingly mixed. The strike aircraft can launch from the safety of staying right above their airfield, but the missiles are vulnerable and need escorting. In the north, the horde of enemy fighters jump on the missiles and the CAP escorts get overwhelmed and shot down trying to protect the missiles. Ironically, this opens up the south, and the lack of fighter cover there means that more or less all weapons get through, reducing four out of five of the key bridges to rubble. But the losses among the CAP and SEAD aircraft that got a bit too close actually means that the Russians achieve a 2:1 kill ratio when eight F-35As are brought down from a combination of fighters and SAMs (including the Gorshkov, which I am really starting to worry about). Still, this was for sure the most effective way of killing bridges, and a one-two-punch of first dragging the fighters north with a four-ship taking off and pretending to pick a fight before turning and running for Rovaniemi while in the south the bridges of Vyborg are bombarded, followed by a second wave after the enemy fighters have returned to their main CAP-boxes might be the holy grail of bridge-hunting.

A quick re-run seems to indicate this is indeed the way forward. The four-ship flying bait does suffer losses (three aircraft shot down, of which one pilot got out), but the enemy losses are serious: nine bridges, 6 MiG-29K, 6 Su-35S, and 4 Su-57. Even despite this not being the out-and-out success I should be possible by making the turn north timed better, this is still a kill:loss ratio in excess of 5:1, and bringing down nine bridges with a combined firing of 24 JASSM isn’t bad. The one thing that was more interesting was the relative lack of success for the SEAD-birds, with both GBU-53s and AGM-88E AARGM-ER (the latter which notably hasn’t been mentioned in Finnish F-35 discussion) being swatted out of the air at comfortable distance by the enemy air defences (again, Gorshkov played a major role).

Typhoon – High and fast

The Eurofighter would in Finnish service align with the UK model, and as such we sprinkle 28 Typhoons with CAPTOR-E radars on the Finnish airfields. Again, let’s first see if we can go out with bombs.

The first step is to launch a four-ship loaded with Meteors from a westerly base to try and sweep away fighters by being able to come in with speed and altitude. The large amount of Meteors pay dividends, as the four Typhoons manage to fight of a number of Su-57 and Su-35S and score five for the loss of a single aircraft.

The Typhoons continue to do well in the air-to-air arena, dodging streams of enemy missiles (including the feared S-300V4) while keeping dropping enemy aircraft. A first wave of SEAD-aircraft causes chaos as enemy fighters and air defences keep hunting swarms of Spear-EW jammers, but the destruction of air defences fail as the strike pair equipped with Spear-missiles fail to properly identify their targets. Still, with a kill:loss ratio at 8:1 things are looking rather promising. Now about those bridges…

The bombers are unable to close on their targets as streams of SAMs force them to keep dodging in the skies above Utti. The combination of DASS and aerodynamics is impressive, and it feels like the aircraft are in fact better able to dodge missile fire than the F-35 was. One possible explanation is that the missiles are fired at longer ranges, allowing for more time to react.

The huge number of Spear EW released by any single Typhoon is a very nice feature. Unfortunately the database doesn’t allow for mixed loadouts, as in reality a SEAD-bird would likely carry a mix of kinetic and EW SPEARs

The whole thing is a bit of a mixed bag. As said, the enemy missiles are largely punching air, but that also means that there’s preciously little in the way of moving forward in the face of combined Buk and S-300V4 fires. Eventually I take manual control and try to push the bombers into firing range of the Vyborg bridges, leading to all four being shot down. The Spears are however a really nice capability, as with the short-ranged loads allowing for four hardpoints dedicated to three each, a pair of Typhoons can bring 24 missiles to the fight. In a fight where volume is crucial, having four aircraft launch 24 jammers/false targets followed by 24 missiles actually allows for some kills, including the Nebo-radar, a 9A83M TELAR and a 9A84 LLV from the S-300V4 batteries, a single Shilka, and five T-72BM as collateral damage during the SEAD-strikes. The Meteors also by far outshine the R-77s, and despite me pushing the bombers too far (leaving 12 Typhoons as craters in the ground) the exchange ratio is somewhat positive with 10 MiG-29K, 10 Su-35S, 4 Su-57, and a single MiG-31BM joining them in the lawn dart-club, netting the Finnish Air Force just over 2:1 in kills-ratio.

Again, the pure amount of munitions fired is enough to make the budget weep:

  • 16x AIM-120C-5 AMRAAM P3I.2
  • 8x GBU-24E/B Paveway III GPS/LGB [BLU-109A/B] (somehow there wasn’t an option for a serious bombload with Paveway IVs in the database, would have been interesting to see how those would have fared against bridges)
  • 70x Meteor
  • 3x Sky Sabre [Land Ceptor]
  • 56x SPEAR 3
  • 72x SPEAR EW

For the Russian side, the expenditure was even worse:

  • 2x R-73M
  • 9x R-74M2
  • 105x R-77-1/R-77M (!)
  • 8x R-37M
  • 6x 9M338K (Tor)
  • 30x 9M317 (Buk)
  • 4x 9M311-M1 (Tunguska)
  • 48x 9M83M (S-300V4)
  • 32x 9M96D (Gorshkov S-350), i.e. the whole complement of missiles
  • 4x 57E6 (Gorshkov Pantsir)
  • …and a ton of rounds ranging from 23 mm to 130 mm in diameter

So where does that leave us?

Well, the Typhoons did better than the F-35 with both the air-to-air ratio and the number of bridges hit roughly similar – though the Typhoons did not manage to get through to hurt any of the bridges at Vyborg, of which the F-35s brought down one. Would it be possible to bomb the bridges in Olonets and use Storm Shadows to get the southern ones?

The first four CAP birds do an excellent job, bagging eleven enemy fighters with their 28 Meteors, and escaping the enemy hail of missiles (25 R-77M/R-77-1 and 10 9M96D) – I must say that if the survivability of the Typhoons in the face of enemy missile fire is anything like this in the real world, I am highly impressed. An interesting detail is that the Typhoons are able to pick out the Su-57 at roughly max weapons range (Meteor) through a combination of Pirate and DASS, i.e. not by using the E-SCAN radar.

After that, things get more harsh. The SEAD-birds and second CAP-wave push deep into enemy territory, and manage to temporarily achieve something resembling air dominance in the airspace covering the whole operational area. Unfortunately it is rather temporary, and poor timing on my part between bomber wave and the overconfident fighters means that the second enemy fighter wave manage to bag a number of Typhoons. However, the bombers managed to get through without issue and bring down four bridges on the Olonets Isthmus (before being shot down by chasing enemy fighters) and with the earlier losses of aircraft that penetrated deep into enemy territory a total of eleven Typhoons were lost. While that is just one better than the earlier case, four out of five bridges around Vyborg was brought down by just eight Storm Shadows (I fired double missiles per bridge, turns out all got through and half the missiles found an empty spot on the map upon arrival) to add to the four bombed bridges, the enemy losses to both aircraft and ground systems was also significant (4x MiG-29K, 8x Su-35S, 7x Su-57, 6x MiG-31BM plus the Nebo, 2x 9A331 TELAR (Tor), 3 9A83M TELAR and a 9A84 LLV (S-300V4), 4x T-72BM).

The Typhoon being able to hit the deck and then take the elevator back up again is a huge benefit when it comes to evading incoming missiles

The Typhoon did surprise me. There’s lots of talk about how it shines in the air-to-air role but suffers in the air-to-ground compared to some of the competition, but the wargaming really drives home the point about how the combination of serious sensors and stellar aerodynamics means that even when the first layer of the survivability onion is penetrated, failing at “don’t be seen” doesn’t mean all that much if the enemy struggle with “don’t be hit”. I also know that quite a few of the losses in the last run could have been avoided if I had had a better handle on things, so even if the final score sheet wasn’t as impressive as I was aiming for, I certainly feel that the aircraft is a solid performer.

Rafale- Everyone gets a dual-seeker

The first thing that strike me when sending out a four-ship of Rafales from the north to try and drag aircraft away is that RBE-2AA radar is able to pick out and identify vehicles on the ground. Not sure if this is indicative of the radar being better than some of the alternatives, or whether there is some checkbox that I’ve marked differently (CMO has quite a few…), but it certainly helps with the situational awareness considering both the F-35 and the Typhoon (to a lesser extent, but still) struggled with creating a proper picture of which enemy ground units are where.

The RBE2 AESA-radar is instrumental in getting a good picture on the ground. In the end it lead to all struck ground targets being either bridges or GBAD-related, with no munitions “wasted” on tanks.

Another interesting detail is that the CAP-birds first choose to use their MICA NG (both IR- and active radar-versions), saving the Meteors.

The Rafales aren’t as overwhelming when it comes to air-to-air as the Typhoon was, and in the intial engagement two of the four fighters are brought down in the first exchange. That’s also where the good news ends for the Russians, as seven of their own are brought down (2x MiG-29K, 4x Su-35S, and a single Su-57). The weapons and sensor range means that only eight R-77M are fired by the enemies, before they have their hands full with evading the incoming MICA and Meteors.

The rather complex main strike

However, the main strike with the SEAD-birds pushing out in front fare significantly better when it comes do dodging incoming missiles. My guess is that  having a larger number of friendly shooters leave the enemy unable to provide proper mid-course guidance, making their fire less accurate, when they have to keep dodging incoming weapons. It is also notable that as opposed to the Typhoon’s ASRAAM – which in effect never was used in the runs I did – the MICA is frequently used by the Rafales thanks to its range.

With no JSM for the Rafale in the database, the main SEAD-weapon is the SBU-54 AASM which sport a 250-kg bomb equipped with glide kit and dual-mode GPS/IIR-seeker. The number carried per aircraft is smaller compared to SPEAR 3 or the SDB-family of weapons, but the bang is still nice and the dual-mode seeker means that mobile targets are valid. Two MiG-31 appear and create a bit of a bad feeling at very-long range, downing a strike aircraft and a SEAD-bird, but the SEAD-effort is by far the best seen so far.

The range of the MICA NG is rather impressive, as is evident here with strike aircraft going feet wet over northern Lake Ladoga (note that Tacview doesn’t draw water in lakes) firing on a fighter heading south over the outskirts of St Petersburg

The end result I dare say is the best seen so far, despite the feared long-range GBAD batteries finally managing to score a few successes against escorts pushing deep and the SCALP-EG somehow seemingly having worse luck with defensive fire compared to the Storm Shadow. The air-to-air game isn’t as impressive, with “only” 17 fighters brought down (6x MiG-29K, 7x Su-35S, and 4x Su-57) against a loss of seven Rafales, but in the air-to-ground arena a total of 13 targets are wiped out (including three of the Vyborg bridges) and the SEAD-side is by far the best yet (the Nebo is dead, as are four 9A331 TELAR (Tor), two 9A310M1-2 TELAR and a 9A39M1-2 LLV (Buk), and four Shilkas. The usefulness of the presumably cheaper MICA (65 fired) also means that just 13 Meteors had to be used for that effect, and the air-to-ground munitions was dominated by the AASM (27 1,000 kg ones for bridges and 30 250 kg ones for SEAD) with an additional eight SCALP-EG for the best defended bridges.

Super Hornet/Growler – Hear me roar

So getting back to where it all started, with the Super Hornet and Growlers. I assume that the losses earlier in the conflict would have been smaller for the Growler-fleet, and that they would have been prioritised in this major strike mission, so the order of battle is 10 EA-18G Growlers and 18 F/A-18E Super Hornets. It is immediately obvious that sending four-ships of Super Hornets out on CAP just isn’t doable, as that occupies too many strike aircraft. At the same time, the plan is to ensure that they stick close to the Growlers for self-protection, better situational picture, and for added firepower. Note that while a Growler in real-life can be used for regular strike missions, the database does not allow for non-SEAD/DEAD-associated lodas.

The first step is simple: put a pair of Growlers escorted by a pair of Super Hornets over south-eastern Finland to get a good overview of the situation.

The Growlers take off, and the magic happens.

You emit, the Growler knows you are there

Immediately they start getting fixes on the different fighters and ships in the area. The “I know everything”-feeling Michael Paul talked about is certainly there.

The only problem with the feeling is that we are feeling slightly overwhelmed, with at least 17 enemy fighters currently airborne. I decide to launch more fighters and temporarily withdraw my current two northwest of Jyväskylä. The fighters trade positively, scoring 11 kills (and forcing a Su-57 down within range of a Land Ceptor battery, which score a twelfth kill!), but lose seven aircraft of their own. Clearly more firepower is needed in the first wave.

Trying to seize whatever momentum I have, I launch an all-out strike with SEAD-escorts. Unfortunately, most of the SEAD-escort figure the SAG is the most menacing target for AARGMs, and while they aren’t exactly wrong, the ships easily swat the missiles out of the air with a Pk close to 1.0. On the positive side, JSOW C-1 turn out to be a surprisingly effective weapon even in the face of the heavily defended bridges of Vyborg, and four are brought down in quick succession. Killing bridges without the need for cruise missiles is nice!

With sixteen own aircraft lost (against 15 enemies, plus the aforementioned four bridges), it’s time for another run to see what could be done better.

The biggest conclusion from the Super Hornet run is that you do need a combination of better situational awareness and longer range to be able to reach the large positive kill ratios wanted by the Finnish Air Force. The AIM-120D doesn’t cut it unless you are able to hide, but the combination of AIM-260 and ATFLIR ensures that the Super Hornet is right back in the game

A few runs later and it’s clear I can’t get the AIM-120D equipped Super Hornet to work as I want it to. The issue isn’t the ground threat as much as the fighters, and compared to the Meteor-equipped eurocanards it simply can’t take on the Russian Air Force and come out with the same kind of kills. This is interesting, as it runs counter to what IsoT said, who claimed that the enemy fighters weren’t an issue. A notable difference was that he used the AIM-260 JATM, which might or might not be coming by 2030.

Just changing the long-range weaponry on two of the four-ships that are flying CAP  while letting the rest soldier on with the AIM-120D made a world of difference. The Super Hornets and Growlers scored 18 kills (6x MiG-29K, 3x MiG-31BM, 5x Su-35S, 4x Su-57) for a total loss of six Super Hornets and no Growlers. Despite the majority of the aircraft flying around with the AIM-120D, twice the amount of JATMs were used (24 vs 12), which tells something about how many earlier shots can be taken and how much a difference that makes also when it comes to the amount and accuracy of the return fire taken. With 16 JSOW, 16 AARGM-ER, and 8 GBU-31 (1,000 kg JDAM) a total of six bridges were brought down (four at Vyborg) and the enemy air defences were seriously reduced (2x Shilka, 2x Pantsir-SM, 3x 9A83M TELAR, 2x 9A82M TELAR and one 9A85 LLV from the S-300V4).  The combination of JSOW and AARGM turned out to be a winning concept against SAMs that stuck to their EMCON and relied upon neighbouring batteries providing the radar picture.

My findings does run rather contrary to those of IsoT. I struggled more with the enemy air than ground defences, and while I didn’t see much in the way of highly effective jamming (though to be honest that might simply be down to not having perfect information, it might be that the enemy operators were sweating and had to rely on secondary systems), the Growlers and Super Hornets were quite able to kill off enemy SAMs if not at will then at least reliably.

Gripen – I have a skibox

As soon as the GlobalEye turn on its radar, it is evident that the situational picture is on another level. I have a full picture of not just where the enemy is, but of who the enemy is as well. This is certainly a step up above the earlier aircraft, and the rather strict EMCON the enemy has been clinging to won’t help.

The level of detail picked out is just on another level compared to everything else tested in this series of scenarios

Unfortunately, the database for the Gripen does not reflect the air-to-ground weaponry offered to Finland in the slightest. No SPEAR, no Taurus KEPD, no LADM, no bombs heavier than 250 kg. Instead I get the BK-90, the AGM-65B Maverick, the RB 15F (Mk 2), and 135 mm unguided rockets – all of which are either already withdrawn or about to be replaced. The original SDB is available in the form of the GBU-39. The available pod is the Litening III, also most likely not what is offered for HX. The air-to-air arena is better, but there’s no option for the seven Meteor short-range loadout, with six and a drop tank being the maximum.

This causes some issues to be perfectly honest, but let’s see if the 39E can bring enough Meteors to the fight to clear away the enemy fighters, and then we’ll see if we can take it from there.

The AI is a bit slow to react to the enemies entering the prosecution area (I believe this being due to the Gripens first having to enter the designated CAP-patrol box before they begin actively looking for intruders), but soon missiles start flying in both directions

The Su-57 turn out to be something of an issue, as to begin with they have a bit of headstart from how the mission is set up, but also because of the inability of either the GlobalEye or the Gripens to get a good long-range radar lock. It isn’t a major issue, the combination of ESM and IRST systems do pick them out at comfortable distances, but it does give the enemy the first shots.

A quick reset to give the AI somewhat more sensible instructions, and we’re off to the races.

As has been seen in a few scenarios, taking off from Helsinki-Vantaa isn’t necessarily a great idea. The lead fighter is quickly brought down, leaving the wingman to temporarily fight off twelve enemies, half of which are Su-57s. It goes surprisingly well, and the Meteors bring down four MiG-29K before a Su-57 manages to close in and finally take it down with a R-77M at close range.

Launching from Helsinki in the middle of a bunch of Russian fighters rushing north is a bad idea

The rest of the battle is somewhat divided, as both sides lose aircraft. An interesting detail is that the Meteor-evading enemy fighters get down to lower altitudes, where two Finnish SAM-batteries combine to bag two fighters. Still, 3:7 is not the kill ratio we were looking for.

With the enemy fighters at least temporarily pushed back, I launch the strikes. As I have a good fix on the GBAD-positions around the bridges at Vyborg, I task the SEAD there with greater detail, while further north I again rely on a more general Wild Weasel-y thing of going there trolling for SAMs and then trying to kill them. Again, with nothing more lethal than GBU-39 for SAMs and GBU-49 for the bridges I don’t have particularly high hopes of actually get anything nailed down on the score card. However, sending fighters into harms way should say something about the survivability of the Gripen.

It doesn’t begin particularly well, with two Su-57 jumping the four northern SEAD-birds immediately after take off before their escorts have been able to form up. After that things temporarily get better as the CAP-fighters bag a few enemy aircraft, before they quickly turn south again. The Vyborg SEAD-strike with GBU-39s is surprisingly effective, bagging two Pantsir-SM and a total of six different TELAR and LLV in the S-300V4 battery. At the end of the day, there is no denying however, that with none of the strike aircraft carrying Meteors, they are simply too vulnerable to enemy air, and in the end the enemy not only manage to protect all their bridges, but also achieve an impressive 13:22 score (for those interested, the GlobalEye which some state will be shot down the minute the fighting start actually survived).

I feel like the main issue is the inability to fly mixed loadouts with a few Meteors in addition to the strike weapons, which really hurt the survivability of the strike aircraft. The answer for round two is obviously to fly a smaller number of strike aircraft per target, instead letting a number fly heavy Meteor loadouts as escorts (and not let the Helsinki-pair take off in the middle of the enemy fighters).

The SEAD-strike close to Vyborg does go rather well, but there really is a need to launch large number of weapons to ensure some get through

This run works out better. Meteors are nice, although the Gripen does seem to be the aircraft which struggle most with the Su-57. The second time around enemy fighters notice the stream of GBU-39 heading toward the S-300V4 battery, and fire away all their weapons as well as giving the SAM-sites the heads up to turn on their radars and join in the fray. A large number of weapons are shot down, but three TELARS and a LLV are still turned into scrap metal. The northern SEAD mission is able to take down a Buk-unit, nailing two TELARs and an LLV. Unsurprisingly, that still isn’t enough to get through to the Vyborg-bridges, but two of the northern bridges are brought down by the two strike aircraft sent north. The air war land on a 2:1 kill ratio for the Finnish Air Force (11 Gripen against 6x MiG-29K, 3x MiG-31BM, 6x Su-35S, and 7x Su-57). The Gripen was able to avoid missiles at an acceptable rate, though it certainly was no Typhoon.

This would be the place where I would do the final run, combining cruise missiles and bombs and putting everything I’ve picked up so far into practice. However, as noted the Gripen armoury in the database lacks a heavy cruise missile, so there’s nothing to see here. However, considering the similar performance of the JASSM and SCALP/Storm Shadow above, I believe it is safe to say that we would have lost 2-4 aircraft less, and brought down a few more bridges. Similarly, having mixed loadouts would probably have allowed for a second pair of striking aircraft to the north downing another bridge or two. The SEAD might also have turned out better with SPEARs than with SDB, but to be honest the difference likely wouldn’t have been game changing. Yes, a few TELARs more would have been nice, but for this scenario that would probably have been neither here nor there.

Conclusions

So where does that leave us? Neither here nor there to be honest, this is a commercial simulator based on open data, I am a happy enthusiast with no major knowledge on the inner workings of how to set up intelligent air strikes, and there were a number of weapons and loadout options missing from the database. But lets put down a few short notes:

  • To win the air war and get the kind of kill ratio the Finnish Air Force want and need, a combination of better situational awareness and long-ranged weapons is needed. The Super Hornet/AIM-120D struggled in this scenario, but bringing even a moderate number of AIM-260 JATM into the mix turned the tables,
  • Large weapon stocks is a must. Especially in the air-to-air and SEAD-missions the expenditures of weapons is huge. At the same time, the enemy will face similar issues. The impact this will have is difficult to model in this kind of single mission scenarios, but it is notable that e.g. the extremely deadly Admiral Gorshkov in several scenarios ran out of long-ranged missiles half-way into the scenario,
  • The ability to avoid the kinds of missile volleys that the scenarios saw from both fighters and ground-based systems really is key. At the end of the day the Typhoon being able to rely on its superior aerodynamics to avoid missile after missile was one of the big eye-openers to me personally when running the scenarios,
  • MICA NG is nice. It was the only mid-ranged weapon to be really useful (besides the AIM-120D when carried by the F-35A which could use its stealth to get close enough), with next to no IRIS-T, ASRAAM, or AIM-9X having been used. Without knowing the sticker cost compared to the Meteor, I do believe it would be a big benefit in a real scenario,
  • The F-35A managed to get by with the AIM-120D to a much better extent than the Super Hornet, but the small number of weapons really hurt the aircraft when faced with hordes of enemies. It also wasn’t able to strike the most highly defended targets with bombs without suffering serious losses. At the end of the day it was a solid performance, but one not quite as outstanding as one could have imagined,
  • The GlobalEye wasn’t particularly vulnerable, and the Casa didn’t in fact get hit in a single mission! At least in this scenario, as long as there are own fighters it was possible to operate large aircraft in western Finland,
  • There was a number of surprises to me personally when it comes to details. The Typhoon and Rafale performed better than expected (especially considering the lack of JSM for the Rafale), the Gripen somewhat worse, and the Super Hornet being a mixed bag (poor with AIM-120D, good with AIM-260) but no single aircraft was a clear failure or winner.

There’s an endless number of details one could discuss when it comes to whether the scenario was set up correctly, and feel free to run your own scenarios if you have CMO installed, but these were my findings. Again, I probably can’t stress enough that this was done largely for fun and with very limited insight into Finnish Air Force CONOPS and the finer details of the bids now on the table, but it certainly was an interesting challenge!

*Pun very much intended, we are after all discussing SEAD/DEAD-options here.

The Wasp that Refused to Die

The famous (misquotation) of “reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated” comes to mind when speaking to Boeing. The Super Hornet is certainly undergoing a rough patch, with the SECNAV Carlos Del Toro trying to kill off the plans to keep building brand-new Super Hornets in the next few years, and instead wanting to focus on the F-35C (and to a lesser extent F-35B) which was described as “a far more significantly capable aircraft”. This is something of different message compared to the earlier one which has been making rounds, where people such as the US Navy’s chief of the naval operation’s air warfare directorate, Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, have expressed that he would prefer to focus more on the mid-life update (Block III) instead of on new-builds because any new-built Super Hornet with their 10,000 hour airframe will fly past 2055, and they don’t see “a lot of analysis out there that supports fourth-generation viability against any threat in that timeframe“.

Boeing readily admits neither message is particularly helpful for their export campaigns.

However, one has to give Boeing a point in that it is clear that at least some of the messaging is clearly directed a result of domestic politics. The US Navy has been struggling to fit all of its priorities into a defence budget that is flat or potentially even falling, with new classes of submarines and destroyers (to replace both early Arleigh Burkes as well as the Ticonderoga-class cruisers) competing with the Super Hornet-replacement-to-be NGAD for funds. The risk of a delay to NGAD is obvious, especially as the force struggles with how to close a “fighter gap” and the house having thrown out the latest set of USN calculations this summer (this is part of a rather longstanding pattern of the politicians not trusting the US Navy to make sound long-term planning decisions and run projects efficiently, which unfortunately isn’t completely unfounded). At the same time, it is rather obvious that some of the Super Hornet’s greatest friends on the hill are representing Boeing-strongholds and might not be guided solely by strategic insights…

Regardless of the outcome, the stated goal of replacing the Super Hornet during the 2030’s does seem optimistic considering the reported state of the NGAD. Crucially, for the time being there also doesn’t seem to be a plan for how to replace the EA-18G Growler with its unique set of capabilities (this is the place where visionaries usually throws in a slide showing a bunch of networked unmanned platforms shooting lightning-shaped datalinks and electronic attack effects between allied forces and against enemies respectively like a latter-day Zeus, but I would again like to state my scepticism of there actually being something resembling a practical plan buried in those slides. The USMC has something a bit more real in the works, but so far that doesn’t include a true Growler-replacement either).

The Juan Carlos I (L 61), an unlikely but apparently not impossible candidate for future Super Hornet operations. Source: Armada Española Twitter

But what is really interesting is the second wind of export interest in the aircraft. Granted Canada apparently has kicked out the fighter (though it has to be said it hasn’t been particularly well-loved north of the border after Boeing dragged Canadian aerospace company Bombardier to court over their jetliners), but the German Super Hornet/Growler-buy seems to have survived the change in government and is reportedly moving forward, and as is well-known there is a strong push to try and get the Indian Navy to see the light and acquire the Super Hornet for their carrier operations. More interesting was Boeing disclosing that they are in talks with Spain about the Super Hornet (almost certainly related to the same EF-18A/B Hornet and EAV-8B Matador/Harrier II as the recently revealed F-35 discussions), as well as stating that the UK have expressed interest in Super Hornet STOBAR testing conducted for the Indian Navy efforts (and where this  testing could lead). Notable is that the flight deck of the Queen Elizabeth-class compares rather well with that of the the INS Vikramaditya when it comes to length and area (though the designs obviously differ), and while it isn’t angled, the Juan Carlos I with its 201.9 m long and 32 m wide flight deck actually matches the 198 m long and 30 m wide angled recovery deck and 195 m long take-off run of the INS Vikramaditya. Speculations about a STOBAR-carrier in Spanish service may hereby commence (though I will warn you that the step from discussing the theoretical possibility to actually converting the vessel is a rather drastic one).

Regardless, there is a non-trivial risk that any Finnish Super Hornets will be the last new-built rhinos rolling off the production line, and the Finnish Air Force has been strongly stating the importance of being aligned with the main user (to the extent that the Swedish Air Force threw out their own long-term planning and instead adopted the Finnish set of requirements in order to ensure that the JAS 39E remained a viable alternative). So how is Boeing intending to work around this issue?

To begin with, while the Super Hornet likely will bow out of USN service before the Finnish Air Force retire HX, as mentioned the Growler will likely soldier on for a bit longer (again, compare the A-6 Intruder retiring 22 years before the EA-6B Prowler), allowing for updates made to keep that platform modern to support exported Super Hornets. The German order is also a key piece of the puzzle (I mean, does anyone really think that the Germans will retire any platform acquired before having worn it down? We are after all talking about the country that flew F-4F Phantoms in central Europe until 2013).

But the big news is the Open Mission Systems, which allows for what Boeing describes as containerised software. Behind the jargon lies a principle through which the software is written once, put into a so called fusion app (the ‘container’ in ‘containerised software’), which then allows it to be pushed out to a number of platforms – manned, unmanned, fixed-wing, rotary, you name it – simultaneously through making the software hardware (and even manufacturer) agnostic.

Illustration from Boeing’s International Fighter Conference briefing describing the principle. No surprises regarding the platforms included. Courtesy of Boeing

While the principle is significantly easier to implement on a PowerPoint-slide than in real-life, successful lab testing with containerised fusion algorithms in the F/A-18 Block III and the F-15EX has taken place, and plans are progressing for flight demonstrations. If the program develops as expected, it would provide the opportunity to piggy-back F/A-18E development onto that of e.g. the F-15E(X), which would grow the user base and spread development costs significantly.

But it’s not just the aircraft itself that are easily upgradable. Michael Paul of Raytheon Intelligence & Space is happy to explain how the NGJ-MB pods are not only cutting-edge today, but that their open design ensure they will stay that way.

The current ALQ-99 jammers made their combat debut in Vietnam, and although it has undergone numerous upgrades and still is a competent system according to most accounts, there’s no denying that it’s greatest days are already behind. The new family of jammers, the mid-band unit of which will be first one out and which passed Milestone C (current version accepted as production standard) earlier this summer, will bring a serious improvement. Trying to find a suitable comparison, Paul struggles a bit. “It’s a level above going from mechanically scanned radars to AESA-technology,” he explains. “It’s a significant leap just because of its AESA-technology, but then you add the power.”

The EA-18G Growler at Tampere-Pirkkala during HX Challenge. Note the large (mock-up) NGJ-MB under the wing. Source: Own picture

And while having an AESA-array means that you can do all sort of nice stuff – both Lockheed Martin and BAES are pushing the fact that they are doing some serious electronic warfare stuff with their arrays – the power and dedicated subsystem really takes things to another level. While a modern AESA-radar for a fighter can give self-protection at levels earlier only dedicated platforms could provide, it is still very much a case of self-protection. Because the dedicated platforms have also stepped up their game. The fact that the NGJ isn’t just a Naval program but sorting under joint oversight in the DoD structure speaks volumes as to the importance the Pentagon places on the program, even while at the same time discussing the need for fifth generation aircraft (the push to integrate the pod on USAF fighters is another datapoint). The NGJ allow the Growler to do what Raytheon describe as “force-level protection”, and while the exact capabilities of the pod are classified, it is significant to note that the Pentagon has been placing an ever increased importance on the electro-magnetic spectrum (EMS), and being able to treat it in the same way as other more familiar terrain – doing manoeuvres and conducting fires in it, so to speak.

This is what modern day air operations looks like

Achieving EMS-superiority will be a key mission for any air force in the future, and the Growler is well-poised to support any force attempting to do so.

What the design of the pod brings with its increased power output is the ability to handle wider spectrums and go straight to the key nodes, which in an integrated air defence systems might or might not be the shooter – it might as well be a surveillance system standing way back, feeding information to silent SAM-batteries operating missiles with their own guidance systems (active radar or IIR). But while the pod is great, the integration of the two-pod shipset with the mission systems of the aircraft really is where the magic happens. The “incredibly integrated” nature of the shipset means that the Growler and the pods are sharing data back forth, including from their own sensors but also from third-party sources (including via satellite), together creating the situational awareness that the Growler is known for, the “I know everything”-feeling as 9-year Growler veteran (and Prowler before that) Michael Paul puts it. The location of the arrays on the pods also means that the aircraft is able to cover the strikes throughout their mission – either from stand-off ranges or as penetrating platforms.

A ‘red shirt’ checking a Sidewinder mounted on the wingtip of a F/A-18E Super Hornet of VFA-106 ‘Gladiators’ aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. For the time being the Supers still occupy a prominent role on the flight deck of any US carrier. Source: @FlyNavy Twitter

While the days of the Super Hornet might be numbered, no one quite seem to know the exact number for sure. It also has to be remembered that many of the particular drawbacks quoted by the US Navy center on how it would like to operate in a China-scenario. The situation in Finland is markedly different in a number of ways, including the significantly lower emphasis placed on range. The very real risk of losing support from the main user toward the last decade or two of the aircraft’s career is no doubt a significant drawback, but at the same time the offer here and now would fit the Finnish Air Force extremely well both as a capability but also in the FDF’s general culture of being somewhat risk averse and preferring mature systems and a continuous iterative development rather than radical steps. And as icing on the cake comes the Growler, which not only would be a strategic assets for both the political and military leadership throughout the span from peace through crisis and into war, but also a huge political signal of the close bond between Finland and the US.

As Paul noted:

It likely wouldn’t have been possible to offer this ten years ago.

One Last Hurrah – Finnish Media visits an HX-contender

It’s getting difficult to remember how it all started back when HX was just a working group thinking about if Finland needed a new fighter, but seven years later here we are, perhaps a month away from the decision.

But there was still room for one last media trip, this time by Saab who used their corporate Saab 2000 (the particular example, SE-LTV, being the last civilian airliner ever built by the company) to fly a whole bunch of media representatives for a day-trip to Linköping to one more time share the details about their bid, with the GlobalEye getting much of the attention.

And it’s hard to argue with this. Yes, the Gripen sport a number of nice features from a Finnish point of view, but what really sets Saab’s offer apart from the rest is the inclusion of not one but two airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. The capability in itself would bring a huge shift in Finnish air operations regardless of whichever fighter would be at the other end of the chain (no, your favourite fighter isn’t a “mini-AWACS” just because it has a nice radar, you still won’t leisurely be cruising around on 10 hour missions gathering intelligence and keeping an up to date air picture while paying biz-jet operating costs). The value of the kind of persistent situational picture provided by a modern AEW&C platform is hard to overstate, especially in a Finnish scenario where the attacker will have numerical superiority (meaning that the decision about when and where to send Finnish fighters will have to be calculated carefully to ensure it is possible for them to do something that actually has an impact on the battle), the flat and forested nature of the country (meaning that there is a lack of suitable mountaintops on which to place groundbased sensors, instead anyone operating at very low levels will enjoy lots of radar shadows from which they can sneak up on Finnish targets), and the very joint nature of any major conflict stemming from the long land-border and the right flank and rear being composed of water (meaning that any higher-level situational picture need to take into account all three domains).

It is difficult to express exactly how much of an asset a modern AEW&C platform would be for Finland, and that include both the Air Force but also the FDF as a whole as well as the government. And for the foreseeable future, the only realistic option for a Finnish AEW&C platform would be if Saab takes home HX. Picture courtesy of Saab

Crucially, the value of the GlobalEye as an intelligence gathering platform for everything from the operational level commanders to the highest levels of political leadership is unprecedented in HX (and arguably within the FDF as a whole, the SIGINT CASA is nice, but it fills a more niched role). With two GlobalEyes, building a baseline situational picture in peacetime is possible (even more so if data is shared with the two Swedish aircraft coming), and that include both airborne and ground traffic, as the aircraft sports a ground moving target indicator mode (GMTI) making it possible to see any vehicles moving on the ground (the cut-off being rather low, in the neighbourhood of 20 km/h). The GMTI doesn’t create individual tracks for every echo due to the huge amount of vehicles moving at most roads during any given time (though it is possible to manually start tracks for interesting vehicles) but instead the operator will follow general flows and densities. Needless to say, keeping an eye on vehicle movements around garrisons and on exercise fields or counting trains (feel free to start measuring how much of the Oktyabrskaya Railway is within say 300 km of the border) would be a huge boost to the Finnish intelligence gathering work and a huge benefit for all branches of the FDF and the government it supports. Having this baseline situational picture and being able to detect changes in it would be of immeasurable value to both the civilian and military leadership in any kind of crisis, and there is no other single measure that would provide as much bang for buck as getting an AEW&C when it comes to this aspect – and the only way to get it into the budget is through Saab’s HX offer.

(The EA-18G Growler does share some of the same traits in this regards in raising the peacetime intelligence gathering capabilities to a significantly higher degree than ‘ordinary’ fighters, but when stuff stops emitting the value decreases rapidly)

This is an aspect that – even if not completely forgotten – has received surprisingly little attention in media. It might be that the inclusion of the completely new capability and the ramifications it has have been difficult to grasp, but in any case it is likely to have a significant impact on the wargames.

Interlude: in some of the darker places of aviation forums there have been people claiming that Saab is trying to sell a fighter that in fact isn’t the best one out there through packaging it with an AEW&C platform. Regardless of whether it is correct or not, that is a completely moot point. The Finnish Air Force isn’t looking for the best fighter, the Finnish Defence Forces is looking for the best capability they can get for 10 billion Euro (and 250 MEUR in annual operating costs), and if pairing 64 JAS 39E Gripen with two GlobalEyes provide a greater combat capability than the competing packages, how Gripen fares in one-on-one air combat against some other fighter isn’t interesting in the slightest to Puranen or his team.

The GlobalEye is more or less everything you would expect from it. Based on the Global 6000, it leverages the comfort of the airliner to ensure that crew can handle the missions that can go “well above” 11 hours. This means a rest area for the relief crew members, as well as cabin pressure and noise levels on par with the regular business jet. The top speed is slightly reduced due to drag from the radar, but the range is in fact more or less the same as the lower and more economic cruising speed roughly cancels out the increased drag. The business jet philosophy of the baseline Global 6000 also brings with it a lot of other nice details, such as dispersed operations being aided by a very high redundancy of key systems and small logistical footprint (the airliner is e.g. equipped with four generators to ensure that it isn’t stopped by a generator failure. On the GlobalEye that means that no additional power sources are required, and the aircraft can in fact remain fully mission capable even if one generator is lost). For a Finnish scenario, a key detail is that the sensors can be initiated already on the ground, meaning that the aircraft is operating as soon as the wheels are up. The five operators can either do general work or specialise in different roles, such as air surveillance, sea surveillance, the aforementioned GMTI-mointoring, ESM/SIGINT, and so forth. Displays in the relief area and in the cockpit allow for the relief crew and pilots to follow the situation, which is valuable e.g. if new threats appear. The exact sensor setup can be changed according to customer needs, but can include everything from the ErieEye-ER radar, a dedicated maritime radar, AIS, DSB, IFF, and classified ESM systems.

Now, an AEW&C alone doesn’t win any wars, but the Gripen is no slouch either. Much has already been said on this blog, but the baseline fact that Gripen from the outset is made for the very same concept of operations that Finland employs certainly gives it something of an edge. Worries about size and range are also of relatively minor importance in a Finnish scenario, and instead factors such as 40% less fuel consumption compared to legacy Hornets (and with that obviously also significantly reduced exhaust emissions, which should make certain government parties happier) play a significant role when laying out the budget for the upcoming years.

While the usage of a very much originally naval fighter has proved a great success in Finland, and  while several other countries have had good luck operating “normal” fighters in the high north, there’s no denying that Gripen is the only fighter (honourable mention to the MiG-31, but we’re not getting that one) from the outset made to feel at home in the subarctic conditions. Picture courtesy of Saab

Saab was happy to go into some detail about how they envision missions to be flown, illustrating with a typical high-end SEAD/DEAD mission against S-400 batteries where the aim was to take out two 92N6E “Grave Stone” radars. The batteries where in turn protected by a number of other ground-based air defence systems, including a Nebo-M (no doubt chosen for the express purpose of raising questions about the viability of the F-35 in the same scenario), Pantsirs, and a pop-up Buk-M1-2 (or M2, just the ‘SA-17’ designation was shown). In addition two pairs of Su-35s were flying CAP under the guiding eye of an A-100. The approach for this mission was rather straightforward. Two Gripens did a hook to the north where they feigned an attack through using the EAJP EW-pods and swarms of LADM cruising around presenting jamming and false targets, thereby drawing two Su-35s north.

At the same time the main striking force consisting of a four-ship Gripen with 7 Meteors and 2 IRIS-T on each acting as fighter escort and two additional Gripens doing the actual strikes with six SPEAR and six LADM each (plus pairs of Meteors and IRIS-T for self-defence) headed east towards the target. With the LADM and the internal EW-systems providing jamming and the escorting Gripens dealing with the fighters (of which one pair was out of position, as you might remember), the strike pair launches their  full dozen of SPEARs which, together with escorting LADMs, go out and hunt down the two radars. Not even the pop-up Buk appearing behind the strike aircraft can ruin the day.

Now, the scenario above is both rather fascinating in that Saab was ready to go into such detail, and not at all surprising since that is more or less exactly how nine aviation geeks out of ten would have set up the mission given what we known about Saab’s talking points and the weapons and stores offered to Finland. Perhaps the most interesting detail is that Saab thinks six SPEAR are enough to take down a defended S-400 radar (when escorted by EW-missiles). However, what on the other hand was interesting was who was telling the story.

Mikko Koli in a 39E Gripen simulator, note the large WAD-display up front. In real aircrafts, he has now also logged time in the front-seat of the JAS 39D two-seater. Picture courtesy of Saab

Meet Mikko Koli, pilot and operational advisor to Saab since this spring when he retired from his job as test pilot for the Finnish Air Force. As a retired major, he may be outranked by many of the other advisors involved in different parts of the HX circus, but he brings some serious street cred instead. Most of his career was spent doing a fifteen year posting as an air force test pilot, mainly focused on the F/A-18 C/D Hornet and the upgrades it went through in Finnish service. This include different roles in both MLUs, but also being among the key players in the AGM-158A JASSM integration project, which culminated in him being the first Finnish pilot to release a live JASSM.

Which definitely is cool, but don’t let that distract you from the main story: he is a seasoned test pilot who has spent years studying and implementing how to get the best out of a fighter in a Finnish context. When Koli decides to spend his retirement days at Saab, that says something. And when he says that he trusts that their bid is “extremely strong”, that is something else compared to Saab’s regular sales guys.

What Koli decided to focus on, in addition to guiding the assembled Finnish media through the scenario described above (together with retired Swedish Air Force pilot Jussi Halmetoja) was certainly things we have heard before, but with a bit of a different emphasis. The “superior situational awareness” thanks to advanced networking and “excellent” human-machine communication of the aircraft are talking points we’ve heard from Saab before, but they often take something of a back seat when non-pilots talk. Discussing the “live chain” is also a refreshing change to just talking about the kill chain, because as we all know actually living and flying a working aircraft is the first step to being able to actually do something useful. And Koli also in no uncertain words explained what he thinks about the GlobalEye.

GlobalEye pays itself back at any level of a crisis, both for military as well as for political decisionmakers [… It is also] a very capable SIGINT-platform

The JAS 39E Gripen is rapidly approaching operational service, but so is the scheduled date for first aircraft delivery under HX. Picture courtesy of Saab

Speaking of JASSM-integrations, I would be wrong not to mention Saab’s latest talking point when describing the size of their weapons package. Readers of the blog might remember that I had some questions regarding the numbers presented during the BAFO release, when it sounded like the weapons offered were worth 1.8+ Bn EUR, until you read the fine print, at which point it sounded more like 1.35+ Bn EUR. Now Saab was back with the comparison “more than ten times the total publicly quoted costs of the Finnish JASSM-project”, which they confirmed referred to 170 MEUR for the JASSM integration and missiles, making the weapons package coming with the Gripen worth 1.7+ Bn EUR. That is a lot, and considering the 9 Bn EUR acquisition cost also include the aforementioned two GlobalEyes, puts things into scale. An interesting detail is that the JASSM-project as mentioned included the integration costs as well, with Saab now taking care to point out that all weapons integration costs are found under other budgetary lines, and the 1.7+ Bn EUR figure just covers the series production and delivery of the munitions.

Modern weapons are expensive, but that is indeed an arsenal you can go to war with without having to worry about every single missile. At least not initially.

With the Norwegian budget figures having raised more questions than the Swiss decision answered for the F-35, and the US Navy trying to kill off the Super Hornet production line faster than you can get a hornets nest fully cleaned out from a redcurrant shrub (which for me is approximately two weeks of time based on empirical testing), the Finnish skies are perhaps looking ready to accept a non-US fighter again. In that scenario, the Gripen is certainly a more likely choice than the two larger eurocanards, but at the same time questions of maturity surround the aircraft that is bound to reach IOC with an operational unit only in 2025 – the same year the first HX fighters are to be delivered. Basing the 39E on the proven 39C/D-platform certainly helps, and the decoupling of flight critical software from other systems seems to have been a winning concept considering the pace at which the test program has advanced (this includes software updates on flying aircraft every four weeks on average up to this point of the program). However, with nine aircraft operational and the first Batch 2 (series production standard) already off the production line, Saab just might be able to cut it in time.

And there’s always the GlobalEye.

An interesting detail is that as the GlobalEye is optimised for endurance, the aircraft is expected to most of the time operate with a 4.8° angle of attack, meaning that the radar is tilted downwards the same amount to keep it horizontal for optimal performance (as are the operator positions inside aircraft, including chairs, desks, and displays). Picture courtesy of Saab

A big thank you to Saab for the travel arrangements.

Finnish Land Ceptor – MBDA Aiming High in ITSUKO

After half a decade of talking fighters under the auspice of the HX-programme, much has already been said. Which meant that ironically enough, the most interesting piece of kit at the Kaivari 21 air show wasn’t anything flying, but a green Volvo truck. Meet the Finnish Land Ceptor.

The TEL of the Finnish Land Ceptor in a firing position by the sea at Kaivari 21 with standard-length CAMM missiles. Picture courtesy of MBDA / Paavo Pykäläinen

MBDA was shortlisted in the high-altitude effort of ITSUKO last year, a designation which I believe comes from Ilmatorjunnan suorituskyvyn kehittämisohjelma (literally “the development programme for the capabilities of the ground-based air defences). At the time I wrote that I felt they would have a hard time in face of the competition. However, there certainly is no lack of trying, and the company was eager to come to Helsinki to demonstrate the tricks that could set their offering apart from the competition.

The system shown at the air show was designated the Finnish Land Ceptor, and while based on the British (and to a lesser extent the Italian) Land Ceptor system, the Finnish offering is customised our particular needs by sporting a combination of:

  • Volvo FMX 8×8, a rather popular heavy-duty truck in Finland,
  • Saab Giraffe 4A, which in its navalised form won the contract for the main radar of the Pohjanmaa-class (SQ2020), and
  • CAMM/CAMM-ER family of missiles, in operational service with a number of countries both on land and afloat.

Those familiar with FDF acquisitions will spot the pattern: some of the best yet still  mature systems in their own field. This is usually a popular formula when you knock on the door to the FDF Logistics Command, so let’s go through things step by step, before we look at why the offer could be a stronger contender than I originally anticipated.

A Volvo FMX 8×8 in its natural environment, moving gravel somewhere in Europe (in this case, Minsk). Source: Wikimedia Commons / Homoatrox

The Volvo FMX series of trucks was launched just over a decade ago with an eye to heavy-duty earthmoving, a field that earlier had seen the use of a combination of different variants of the baseline FM- and FH-series of vehicles. The FMX sports generally more rugged equipment, including a serious tow point up front, a proper skid plate, as well as steering and gear box optimised for the task (people might remember the viral commercial in which Charlie the hamster drew a truck up from a Spanish quarry). In the eleven years since its introduction, around 1,000 FMX have been sold in Finland, which is no mean feat for a niche vehicle considering that the total number of newly registered trucks above 16 tons (gross weight) has been hovering between 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles annually in Finland during that time. With the vehicle being so common, it’s no surprise that the spares are relatively easy to come by, and finding a Finnish mechanic who knows the model is relatively easy compared to e.g. for the MAN HX-77 used by the British to transport their systems. It might also be worth noting that Volvo Trucks isn’t owned by the Chinese, as is the case with Volvo Cars. MBDA also notes that truck could be any model capable of carrying the 15-ton missile pallet, and that they are happy to change it out if FDF would prefer some other platform. However, FMX certainly looks like a solid choice, and unless there’s logistical reasons for something else I don’t expect them to do so.

The Giraffe 4A is an S-band radar that combine the functions of acquisition/surveillance-radars as well as fire control-radars into a single system. It builds upon Saab’s experience with the earlier Giraffe AMB and ARTHUR (MAMBA in British service) counter-artillery radar, to have a single AESA-based radar that can support the whole battery. As noted, it is the key sensor of the Finnish Navy’s upcoming corvettes, where it will be paired with the ESSM-missiles to provide air defence. The radar is also on order to the Swedish Defence Forces as part of their integrated air defence system. The basic specifications of the Giraffe 4A – the fact that it’s a GaN-based AESA system – means that it is able to track a significant number of targets effectively and also follow small and difficult to see ones, such as UAS, cruise missiles, artillery projectiles, as well as being able to handle detection and tracking of jammer strobes. And yes, since it operates in S-band and many flying stealth aircraft are optimised for the X-band, it will have an easier time detecting them at longer ranges than if it was a classic X-band radar. However, any such statement is bound to include a number of caveats and quickly degenerate into a mud fight. Will it spot stealth aircraft? Any radar does, as long as the target is close enough. Will it do so at a useful range? That depends on how stealthy your target is from that particular angle. Still, the Giraffe 4A is about as good as they come in this day and age, and while MBDA is happy to change out the radar if the FDF wants something else, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is in fact their first choice (a number of older Giraffes are also in FDF service, most notably the Giraffe 100 AAA as the LÄVA movable short-range air-surveillance system, though their relationship to the Giraffe 4A is rather distant).

The layout of the TEL has the missiles to the very rear with the flat rack missile tubes and the hook-system used to change them, two sets of jacks (front and rear), and the front unit which include both the electronics, onboard power supply, and masts. The FMX-based TEL is a standard road-legal truck according to Finnish regulations, and does not require any special permits besides the standard C-rating on the part of the driver (though you might need an ADR-certificate to drive live missiles, I’ve never had to check up that one so I honestly don’t know). Source: Own picture

The big deal here is the CAMM family of missiles, and in particular the big brother CAMM-ER. The CAMM does share a number of components with the ASRAAM air-to-air missile, though it would be wrong to see it as a ground-launched version of the latter. The missile is designed from the beginning as a dedicated ground-based air defence one, and as such MBAD is really pushing the fact that the optimisation work in the design phase has done wonders.

To begin with, the missile is soft-launched. In other words, instead of the rocket engine just firing and powering the missile into the air, a gas generator causes the missile to pop out of the VLS-tube. Or rather, it doesn’t just pop out, it flings it 20 meters up into air above the launch canister. There thrusters fire to point the missile in the right direction, and only after that does the main rocket fire. The test firings from HMS Argyll of the naval Sea Ceptor-version of the CAMM shows the principle rather well.

Now, why go through all that mess when it is easier to just light the rocket and off you go? There are a number of benefits. To begin with, the stress on the launcher is significantly lower, as there is no blast of fire and hot gases inside the small compartment of the launch tube. Not having to fireproof stuff means cheaper launcher. However, there’s also the benefit that since the missile hasn’t warmed up everything, there is no lingering heat signature from a missile launch, which makes it easier to keep your firing unit hidden. Hiding the launcher with nets and similar is also easier, since you don’t have to worry about them catching fire.

Another positive is the use of a VLS without wasting energy and time to course correct. In theory, a traditional missile will be faster on the target since it starts accelerating immediately. However, that require the launcher being pointed roughly in the right direction. For VLS systems, such as the very popular Mk 41 found aboard most western-built frigates and destroyers, the missile will actually waste a bunch of time accelerating out of the tube straight upwards, and then it has to trade energy to be able to turn toward its target on a less than optimal course. Everything in life is trade-offs and compromises, so which system is the most beneficial depends on your scenario, but the cold-launch means that by the time your rocket kicks off, the missile is already roughly pointing where it’s supposed to go. MBDA is claiming that in total this saves a whooping 30% in nominal launch weight compared to having the missile accelerate out from the tube (I would have to get a rocket scientist to check their maths before I’m ready to confirm that number), which in the case of the CAMM-family directly translates into an added usable energy which allow it to manoeuvre effectively at long-ranges or, crucially, at high altitudes. The profile of the weapons are such that the effective high-altitude performance is a priority, and MBDA describe the principle as the difference between a fence and a bubble. How big an area the fence covers and how high it goes are obviously classified data, but the official figures given is that at 45 km for the CAMM-ER and 25 km for the CAMM-sans suffix there is still usable energy for a high probability of kill, with the max ranges being further still.

A feature that definitely falls in the “Cool”-category is that the soft-launch can take place from inside a building provided that there’s a hole in the roof and the roof is less than 20 meters above the top of the launch tubes. A more serious benefit is that it allows firing positions in forested or urban terrain to be used (again, provided the location meets the the 20 meter + launcher height limit), and the ability to fire in all directions gives added flexibility to the system as well.

A Norwegian NASAMS-launcher of roughly the same standard currently in Finnish use as the ITO 12 showing the hot-launch principle of the AMRAAM-missile. Source: Norwegian Armed Forces / Martin Mellquist

For anybody wondering about the current situation, the NASAMS II-system in use by the FDF sports angled hot-launch cells, meaning that there will be a rocket firing inside a box and the missile will leave the launch cell under its own power headed towards wherever the launcher is pointed. As such, you don’t want to put up your NASAMS-launcher in a small clearing in the middle of the forest.

The basic firing battery for the Finnish Land Ceptor consists of six TELs running around with eight missiles each, a tactical operations center (TOC), and the aforementioned radar which function as the units main organic sensor. In addition there is obviously a number of supporting vehicles such as those carrying reloads and personal equipment for the battery personnel. The TOC is the brains of the unit, and functions as the command and communications node. Here targets are identified and engagement decisions made, with firing units being chosen and launches ordered. The whole system can be fed targeting data via the datalink from any number of sources as long as the location data quality is up to par. This include the organic radar of the battery, but also those of neighbouring batteries, other radars, ships, aircraft, and so forth. This can come either directly to the TEL or, preferably, through the TOC. The TELs are the aforementioned FMX trucks with the complete firing unit as a single palletized unit. They lack their own radars, but can be fitted with an optional electro-optical sensors in a mast which allows for independent passive targeting at ranges of up to approximately 20 km. As such, the TELs are able to operate independently to a certain extent, relying on the datalink and/or own sensor to get targeting data. Crucially, MBDA has already demonstrated their ability to successfully integrate TOCs and TELs with Insta’s C2-network.

The characteristic twin masts of the TEL, with the larger one housing the datalink antenna and the smaller one being the optional E/O-sensor which allow for independent targeting if the radar and datalink are down. Source: Own picture

In practice, the TELs would drive to a given firing location, where the truck would park, lower the jacks, raise the missiles and masts, and the crew would push a few ‘On’-buttons and start connecting cables. The whole thing would be ready to fire within ten minutes, but a more realistic time for a fully integrated IADS-position is in the ten to twenty minutes range. A two-person crew could handle the whole system, but to ensure 24-hour continuous operations a squad of eight is the standard. The complete missile unit is palletized, and in case a position is expected to be static for a longer time the jacks can be heightened to allow the truck to drive away, after which it is lowered to lay flat on the ground a’la NASAMS. This allows for a smaller footprint and is more easily camouflaged compared to the full vehicle. In a static position (something the British Land Ceptors will employ on the Falklands) it is also possible to start pulling power and communications cables between a fortified TOC and the firing units, though in case of a more fluid scenario where one wants to stay mobile the missile unit has its own onboard power unit in the form of a diesel generator and can take care of the communications via the datalink mast mentioned earlier. This flexibility to allow the same system to be either in full shoot-and-scoot mode or as a fortified solution (as mentioned, you could in fact fortify the launcher as well thanks to it being cold-launched) is quite something.

Reloading take a handful of minutes and the whole missile set can be changed out via a flat-rack and cargo hook system. Alternatively, individual launch tubes can be switched out with a crane. The tubes are both the storage and launch containers, meaning the munitions are next to maintenance free. Once the fire command is given, the frangible top-cover is simply torn apart by the missile heading upwards. Any single TEL can quickly change between CAMM and CAMM-ER simply by switching out the flat racks, with the CAMM-ER being identified by its longer tube. Both missiles sport a new active radar-seeker with a low-RCS capability, meaning that they are able to operate in fire-and-forget mode once they’ve left the TEL.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that MBDA is onto something here. While they decline to discuss the specific FDF requirements and projects in much detail – the official line is that that is something best left to the customer – it is rather obvious that the CAMM-ER would give the FDF the wanted high-altitude capability for a ground-based system, while the baseline CAMM would seem to fit the area coverage-requirement rather well. The modularity, mobility, and ability to integrate into current networks are also obviously a big deal. And it is hard to not notice just how well the combination of systems seem to fit the FDF’s Goldilock’s approach of proven but yet cutting edge. With the UK and Italy both having acquired the Land Ceptor-system, it certainly is far from a paper product. This is also something that MBDA like to point out, the benefit of sharing a common system with such a strategic partner as the British Army. The UK might not be first in line when Finland is discussing strategic partners in the defence sector, but it is certainly coming just behind the front-runners thanks to initiatives such as JEF. An interesting aspect is also the possibility of MBAD cooperating with Finnish industry on the Land Ceptor as part of an indirect industrial cooperation package in case some of the eurocanards would win HX (ground- and air-based air defences are obviously all part of the same attempt at increasing FDF’s overall air defence capabilities). Already now, Finnish industry has reportedly been involved in the development of the Land Ceptor proposal. MBDA is also happy to declare that it truly would be a Finnish system, with full sovereign capability and freedom of use, as well as local maintenance. “We give you the keys, and you use it”, as it was explained during our discussions.

But the competition is though, and MBDA has had a surprisingly hard time landing a large Finnish order. Part of this likely comes down to price where the shorter production runs typical of European systems compared to US ones have been an issue. This time they are up against not only the Israelis which have beaten the more traditional suppliers to FDF twice in recent acquisitions, but also Kongsberg with a developed version of the NASAMS which would bring significant synergies to the table. However, might the NASAMS-ER be too much of a case of putting all the eggs in the same basket – especially if we see an AMRAAM-equipped fighter taking home HX? When I ask him about the though competition they face, Jim Price, MBDA Vice President Europe, is confident.

We’re always in though competitions. [But] we have a unique military capability.

You can indeed come a long way with that when dealing with the FDF, and it certainly sounds like a combined force of NASAMS and Land Ceptor batteries each playing to their respective strengths could provide a well-balanced mix to support the Air Force and the FDF as a whole in their quest for air superiority. According to the latest info, we will get to know if the FDF agrees sometime during 2022.

Oh, and you really didn’t think I could write the whole post without embedding The Hamster Stunt, did you?

Higher, Faster, Independent

I have said it before, and I still stand by it: for the everyday work short of war that the Finnish Air Force does, the Eurofighter Typhoon is probably the best fighter out there. The pure performance at speed and altitude makes the aircraft extremely well-suited to air policing, QRA, and in general keeping an eye on things that needs some eye-keeping.

Now, at the same time it needs to be understood that what’s setting the bar for HX is not peacetime operations today, but how efficient the aircraft and associated systems is as part of an all-out war between 2025 and 2060. And that’s a different ballgame. BAES thinks their offer is the best at that as well, though that’s certainly a more controversial view.

The RAF Typhoon display flown by Flt Lt James Sainty, callsign ‘Anarchy 1’. Flt Lt Sainty has not only been doing QRA with the Typhoon in the Falklands, he has also gone to war in the aircraft. Source: Own picture

At the hearth of the Typhoon as a concept is the raw performance coming from the decision to maximise the classic interceptor traits of ‘high and fast’. It deserves to be repeated that not only does this mean that the aircraft can sprint – it reportedly would do the Kuopio-Rissala AFB to Helsinki QRA run in 8 minutes – but also that you don’t need to push your engines in the same way to reach a given speed as you would do with poorer trust to weight ratios and aerodynamics. This in turn gives lower wear on the engines and all other things being equal also translates into less fuel consumption. The ability to use the low power settings together with the large wing and high lift makes it possible to maintain high altitude patrols with relative ease, increasing the time for missions focused on endurance rather than range. The high sprint speed also makes it possible to maximise the kinetic energy of missiles fired, increasing both their outright range as well as their no-escape zones (NEZ). With the air-to-air focus of the Finnish Air Force, it is rather clear that these are aspects of the system that the Air Force appreciates, as is the low-drag installation of a significant number of air-to-air missiles in semi-recessed fuselage mounts. As the UK Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, commented on at an earlier media event this year, the Typhoon is his “platform of choice for QRA” (at the same event, the F-35 was described by the Brits to be very good for the purpose which they acquired it: deep strike and shipboard operations, which struck a nice balance between giving the HX competition a burn while not looking like you’ve bought something less than useful just to stay friends with the big guy).

A scale model of a Finnish Typhoon with the ECRS Mk 2 shown through the transparent panel. Source: Own picture

But war isn’t decided in a drag race, and there are lots of magic happening under the hood. The key subsystem in BAES presentations at Kaviari 21 is the ECRS Mk 2. The exact name for the big thing up front, and it really is on the larger side compared to the competition, is somewhat up to debate if you listen to BAES’s people.

Array, I have deliberately not called it a radar.

The reason is that it transcendens the roles of a traditional radar and several other subsystems. In any case, BAES does describe it as the “most advanced fighter sensor” available, and by happy coincidence is in the final stages of development being flying within a few years and operational well before the end of the decade. This means that BAES and the UK is able to offer both a securely funded and relatively mature product, the system has been in development for quite some time before the final funding decision recently came, as well as the opportunity to allow Finnish industry to take part in the final stages of development of the rad… excuse me, array. Electronic warfare is a notoriously tricky field to analyse based on open sources, but most seem to agree that the ECRS Mk 2 will be among the very top offerings in the world by 2030, potentially even being the top dog.

The DASS might not enjoy the same kind of mythical reputation as the offerings from Dassault and Saab, but it does seem to be more or less up to standard and comes with some nice features such as towed decoys and BriteCloud 55. The weapons found in the package include a nice mix of some of the world’s best-in-class ones, though as is the case with all non-US offerings the question is what is the cost and how quickly can you pick up a refill if war suddenly starts looking like it’s on the horizon. The recently announced 160 MEur P3Ec investment in the Eurofighter-program include not only upgrades to the weapons capabilities and the large-area display which is included in the standard offered to the Finnish Air Force, but also upgrades to the DASS. Associated with the LAD is the Striker II-helmet, which is “the world’s only helmet-mounted display to combine a 40⁰ field of view, daylight readable color display and integrated night vision“, so now you know that.

Seriously though, it really is supposed to be very good.

The standard Finland would be getting is aligned with the one operated by the UK, as is to be expected not only because BAES is taking lead on the project, but also because the UK Typhoons are fully swing-role in a way e.g. the German ones aren’t. This include the varied weapons arsenal – including all categories covered by Finnish requirements – but also the less-visible but key subsystems discussed above, such as the ECRS Mk 2, LAD, Striker II, and BriteCloud. And not to forget, the stuff happening around the aircraft, which in fact might end up tipping the balance in case this turn into Eurofighter’s most prestigious export deal yet.

The whole part about full sovereignty and ownership of both the aircraft, its support systems, and the data it generates is nothing new, but has been a key part of BAES sales pitch. And for good reasons. Being able to promise “full freedom of action”, not only for the FDF in usage of the aircraft and its capabilities, but also to Finnish industry working with and on it, is a rare treat. A good example is the engine maintenance infrastructure, where Finnish industry would be the lead, with EuroJet functioning as a sub-supplier to these. The mission data turn-around times are also a point BAES likes to get back to, with updates being done in country by Finnish personnel with day to day or even mission to mission optimisation ability. Or as a BAES spokesperson expressed it:

This is manoeuvrability, but in a very different sense

This isn’t any hypothetical future capability either, but a process that is in use already in combat operations over the Middle East where the aircraft gather electronic intelligence, which are then analysed and the threat files of the aircraft are being updated accordingly before the next mission.

1(F) Squadron Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 aircraft prepare to fly out of a snow covered Keflavik AB, Iceland, on 6 December 2019. The RAF detachment in question brought four Typhoons to Iceland as part of the periodic NATO air policing mission, the less-famous cousin of the BAP. Picture courtesy of BAES, credits Cpl Cathy Sharples (RAuxAF)

For Finnish industry to support the FDF in this, the industrial participation package is heavily focused on technology transfer in key areas not only physically related to the aircraft – the production line for the EJ 200 engine being the obvious example of this – but also those related more abstractly to secure and efficient operations, such as cyber security, space technology, and sensors. BAES extremely wide portfolio and the close cooperation with other partners in the Eurofighter program allows for the inclusion of tools in such a variety of fields.

At this point, chances are someone, possibly a F-35 fan, will laugh and point finger while claiming that BAES is putting in lots of other stuff in their offer besides the fighter itself to try and win the deal through that.

Yes, you are absolutely correct. And if you paid attention, you would know that is the whole point of this procurement.

Those who have been following the program will remember that from the outset the authorities and Puranen in particular have raised the point that this isn’t a fighter competition, but they are searching for who can supply the best capability to meet the Finnish Defence Forces’ needs in this field? This is why we see GlobalEye’s, Loyal Wingmen, Growlers, and licensed production lines on offer. That’s also why HX Challenge wasn’t the deciding factor, but an all-out wargame simulating total war where the performance of the FDF with those capabilities included in the BAFO will be the deciding factor. If FDF does a better job with your package than with that of a competitor because you were able to offer a decent fighter and ensure safe sharing of the common situational picture throughout the FDF, or if your fighter did somewhat worse in the initial fighting but was able to keep up the tempo longer than the competition because you were able to bring along more bombs, congrats, the contract is yours.

That is how it’s been communicated, and that’s how it should be, because wars are never decided in a series of 1 v 1 or even 4 v 4 engagements, but over days and weeks of combat between the combined armed forces.

End of rant, back to the regular program.

BAES also likes to push the point that the system is mature overall and with known operating costs. The concept of operations in the RAF is an interesting case when it comes to this. As has been discussed on the blog earlier, what drives the affordability in the UK is a close cooperation between local industry and the air force, in this case BAES and the RAF, a system that isn’t too far off from how Millog and FDF cooperate. As it was described in an earlier presser:

[The Typhoon] is designed not to be stealthy, but to be there

The combination of a life-cycle cost that is well understood and affordable with a mature platform with high reliability is what ensures that aircraft actually get to fly, and that is certainly what the Finnish Air Force wants. However, the aircraft is bigger than some of the competitors, and the procurement price is acknowledged to be higher than some of the other platforms on offer.

And that makes it suspicious when BAES insists on talking about replacing capability and not aircraft. As I’ve argued earlier, yes, you can probably get away with 62 fighters getting at least as much airtime as the 64 Hornets would considering higher availability for modern aircraft, and being familiar with large-company-bureaucracy I can see some marketing SVP deciding that it looks bad to say that 62 aircraft are on offer when the rest talk about 64 (except Dassault, but, oh, well). However, I can also see the offer being 50, and that would mean that BAES is out of the running on the procurement budget alone.

Which would be a shame, because as I’ve described here there is quite a lot of good stuff in their offer, and a 64-strong Typhoon fleet taking on the competition in the wargame would certainly be a worthy contender.

Boeing Refusing to Let New Fighters Steal(th) the Show

The difference between success and failure for Boeing in HX is razor thin.

Granted, as there are no prizes for second spot, you can make that argument for all fighters involved, but Boeing still has something of a uniquely deceptive situation. While a favourite of many analysts – and it has to be said, on good grounds – the reliance on US Navy interest in the platform means that the step from favourite to bottom rung is a short one.

The F/A-18E Super Hornet visiting Tampere-Pirkkala AFB and Satakunta Air Wing for the first (?) time back during HX Challenge. Source: Own picture

Boeing representatives readily admit that the very public battle fought between senior US Navy leadership and politicians over the future of the Super Hornet isn’t helping their marketing. At the same time, they don’t admit to being overly worried in the grand scheme of things. The US Navy fighter shortfall is very real, and even if the service would want to phase out the Super Hornet they will struggle to do so any time soon based on the sheer number of Super Hornets in service and the lack of a viable alternative. While Rear Adm. Gregory Harris, director of the Air Warfare Directorate of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, might say the service “must replace the Super Hornets and the Growlers by the 2030s“, it’s a statement that fits poorly with him saying in the same interview (from April this year) that he “expects the Navy to have “a better idea” within the next two or three years as to whether it will buy a manned or unmanned fighter to follow the Super Hornets”. To put it bluntly: the F-35A declared FOC in 2017, with the concept being more or less clear when the X-32 and X-35 designs were selected as concept demonstrators in 1997. If that point in time is 2023-2024 in the case of NGAD, it would mean FOC in 2043-2044, putting the F/A-XX quite some way off from having replaced the Super Hornet before the end of the 2030’s. Even with a faster development timeline – say reaching FOC by 2035 – building a few hundred new fighters and rolling them out will likely take at least five years even on a rushed schedule. And even then, the more specialised Growler is likely to stay on call for longer. The EA-6B Prowler survived 18 years longer in US Navy service compared to the baseline A-6 Intruder, and a few years even further in the USMC. Even provided for a faster turnaround thanks to developments in electronics and unmanned systems (which frankly hasn’t happened just yet, but conceivably could be the case), the Growler staying in service for five to ten years after the retirement of the Super Hornet doesn’t feel like a stretch.

It’s probably something along these lines of reasoning that leads US politicians to question whether the Navy really can afford to run down the Super Hornet production line and just focus on the Service Life Modifications-program (though it has to be said that in some cases securing jobs in homestates does seem to be the first priority). If the Super Hornet stays in service until 2045, and the Growler until 2050, the final round of US Navy-funded Growler upgrades could then be used to feed into an export-directed Super Hornet “Block X” standard in much the same way that Block 3 rests on many technologies originally developed for the Growler.

It isn’t an implausible scenario, but it is far from certain. And if the Finnish Air Force isn’t prepared to gamble on it, the Boeing supplied BAFO can easily be headed for the metaphorical shredder.

But that’s not something that you will see Boeing worrying over, at least not officially.

They express confidence in all aspects of their bid. It’s suitable to Finnish needs, it provides efficiency, there’s a strong weapons package, it’s affordable and mature, and the industrial participation package is solid and based on their long experience of working with Finnish industry in supporting the current Hornet-fleet to ensure security of supply. Boeing also states that it provide the tools to operate independently in a high-treat environment by constituting “a complete self-sustaining package”. Keen readers will note that “self-sustaining” isn’t the same as “sovereign” promised by Dassault and BAES, but still.

A key point worth keeping in mind is that Boeing is taking the Finnish authorities on their word when they have been repeating that they aren’t buying a fighter but a package of capabilities. The Growler is the obvious example, but Boeing also took the opportunity at Kaivari 21 to release further details on how they see Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUMT) in the future.

Let’s first make something absolutely clear: the ATS is in the BAFO, but it is an option. It’s a potential future capability with a price tag given for the systems and associated infrastructure.

As such it won’t be evaluated in the deciding wargames (at least not in the first point, it is more unclear to me how the second evaluation point played with 2030-standards would treat future growth capabilities). However, it offers some interesting capabilities, especially as the concept is that anything mission-related is put into the nosecone which is easily snapped on or off to install another one. There’s obvious benefits here as the same airframe can fly different missions, but there’s an interesting secondary benefit to a small high-tech country such as Finland as well. It is possible to with a relatively small input develop, either alone or together with other operators, new payloads tailored to Finnish needs. This is based on the fact that one doesn’t need to develop the aircraft itself (as is the case with building a new UAS) nor having to run the traditional integration verification testing done on external stores. The nosecone payloads can then either be offered on the export market (provided exports kick off) or then kept under wraps as a covert Finnish capability.

The ATS during testing in Australia. Note the size of the nose compared to the rest of the aircraft. Source: Boeing media

The payloads that first come to mind are quite naturally ISR once as well as electronic warfare. Different sensors, such as electro-optical ones, SAR, and ESM, are likely among the low-hanging fruit that relatively easily could create a significantly improved intelligence gathering capability to the benefit of both the FDF as a whole but also of the political leadership in times of both peace and war. Crucially, this would fit in well with the EA-18G Growler enhancing the same in the electromagnetic spectrum, and would do so while relying on mass and attritable platforms instead of a few (individually more capable) high-value assets. The relatively easily modified sensor payload also means that the adversary can be kept in the dark regarding what capabilities the Finnish Air Force operates.

In the electronic warfare domain, being able to push large jammers or sensors close to the enemy is an extremely valuable opportunity as well. And as has been discussed on the blog numerous times, size does matter when you discuss arrays and antennas. In essence, having a MALD with a 150 litre payload and the ability to get back in case things goes well is a significant step above just firing jammers in front of you.

Another nice feature is that the ATS can be forward deployed with a relatively limited footprint. As such, keeping the ATS spread out on smaller bases in case of heightened crisis to allow for more rapid reaction can be a viable tactic e.g. in the face of increased QRA alerts, where the ATS can be launched from a civilian field (or even a road base in times of war) and by the time the scrambled Super Hornets are about to link up with the aircraft to be intercepted the ATS can already be on location and have provided an updated situational picture. And as we all know, a better situational picture allows for off-loading flight hours from the fighter fleet. In wartime, pushing the sensors out in front of the fighter can also allow for a better situational picture without breaking stand-off distance, or e.g. for long-range AIM-260 JATM shots where the Super Hornet remains passive at distance and let the ATS which is closer to the target provide fire control and guidance via its own radar and datalink. For the Finnish Navy, which faces something of a sensor gap following the ever growing range of modern weapon systems, having a larger number of flying sensors, some of which could be flown from bases along the southern coast, certainly is an interesting proposition.

But with a fixed budget occupied by the non-option stuff in the BAFO, from where would the ATS be funded?

The obvious place is munitions and upgrades. The Super Hornet BAFO include a sizeable munitions package, but some of the stuff included is things that could be carried over from current stocks. This include bombs, but also e.g. the option to skip or limit the buys of the AIM-120C-8 now included and do a jump from the AIM-120C-7 currently in service to the AIM-260 JATM. It’s a calculated risk to go heavy on the sensors and save on the missiles during the first few years, but it wouldn’t be the first one taken by FDF. Another aspect is that the regular operational budget does include money for upgrades and yet more senors and weapons, at some point these could potentially be routed to sensors who do their own flying. The basic software and hardware as well as interfaces to allow for MUMT will be included as a part of the Super Hornet/Growler baseline by 2030 in any case.

“The timing lines up very well,” Boeing notes with regard to the ATS, and they mention German interest in MUMT for their Super Hornet/Growler-package (while pointing out that Finland is the first country offered ATS as part of a fighter competition). There’s also apparently “higher trust” in Finnish calculations compared to Swiss ones when it comes to the affordability of operating the aircraft, as well as the confidence that stems from the continuation of the trend in which the electromagnetic spectrum is continuously growing in importance (the latest data point being the studies to see whether the F-15EX or some other USAF fighter could employ the NGJ-family of jamming pods), especially in the light of continued Russian investment in the field.

An Italian F-35A from Baltic Air Policing turning over the Helsinki waterfront during the Kaivari 21 air show, an air show which saw all HX contenders flying, with the exception of the Super Hornet. Source: Own picture

At the same time, the US Navy publicly says they want to move one, and over the waters next to Kaivopuisto the F-35A is busy trying to steal(th) the show. The difference between success and failure for Boeing is HX is razor thin.