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.

The Art of Dissuasion

When the French ambassador to Finland, Mrs. Cukierman, starts to talk about nuclear weapons in what ostensibly is a sales pitch for the Dassault Rafale as Finland’s next fighter, and is followed up by a company representative also getting into the fact that Rafale is nuclear-capable, you would be forgiven to think that someone from a competing eurocanard-maker has sabotaged their talking points. Finland and France both being longtime members of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). However, we are in fact again seeing something I have brought up numerous times on the blog: Rafale is something of an outlier when it comes to the HX-competition, both when it comes to the bid itself but also when it comes to marketing.

And once you accept that and get over the first shock of (figuratively) encountering the Air-Sol Moyenne Portée-Amélioré in Kaivopuisto – there turn out to be some good arguments in the French message this time as well.

The Rafale solo during the Kaivari 21 air show showing the stunning new special livery celebrating the space domain as well as the more traditional ones. Source: Own picture

Books have been written on France and its nuclear weapons, but in short France has a countervalue strategy, i.e. they will hurt you so much that it isn’t worth it. This did include the French curiosity of a ‘pre-strategic’ strike with an air-launched weapon taking place when vital French interest were threatened as a final warning to the enemy to stand down or face the full wrath of the French nuclear arsenal, but it is a subject of some debate whether this is still the plan. Still, even today the French place a high value on the airborne component of their nuclear weapons and have refused any political attempts at going SSBN-only like their British counterparts (also note that what is clear is that while the French see a use for low-yield weapons, these are not tactical weapons in French doctrine but simply smaller strategic ones). The point is, France places an extremely high importance on its independent nuclear deterrent, the Force de dissuasion, and for it to work as a deterrent everyone – friend and foe alike – needs to be absolutely sure that if the President gives the order, the result really will be fire and brimstone on the intended target. And the Rafale is chosen to be the bringer of that destruction.

In other words, it is a French vital strategic interest that the Rafale is reliable enough that it is mission ready 24-7-365. Cancelling a QRA scramble because of maintenance issues is embarrassing, cancelling a nuclear strike can mean the destruction of your country. Paris trust the Rafale to be ready if the call ever was to come, and practices the complete mission several times a year under the codename “Poker”. That is something else compared to promises of certain levels of availability by 2025.

The second point is equally important, and that is that the French trust the fighter to get through to its target regardless of when and where it sits. Granted the ASMP-A gives a certain matter of stand-off range (likely in the range of 300-500 km), but as you don’t get to chose your countervalue targets (rather, they can be expected to be found deep behind enemy lines and be rather well-defended) it doesn’t matter whether there is a so called ‘A2/AD-bubble’ in your way – you need to be able to punch through it. And here as well, Paris is confident that the Rafale can fight its way through anything thrown in its way. The SCAF and ASN4G may be on the horizon, but the Rafale will most likely still spend decades with the nuclear strike mission (note that the earlier Mirage 2000N was completely retired only back in 2018). All SCAF systems are to be in place around 2040, though that is both an ambitious timeline and likely more of an IOC than a FOC.

Now, the Finnish Defence Forces are decidedly conventional, but they still need to be sure of the same two things as their French counterpart: that their fighters are available and serviceable when called upon, and that they will be able to survive in hostile conditions both today and tomorrow, out to 2060. And there are few better guarantees that something will remain up-to-date than a major power seeing it as a vital national interest.

French fighters and an accompanying A330 MRTT which flew the non-stop 12 hour mission deploying to Tahiti earlier this year. Source: C. Vernat/AAE Facebook

As has been discussed on the blog earlier, the Rafale itself is a rather good for Finland. While the homeland oriented nature of the FDF means it isn’t going to fly to Tahiti any time soon, the ability to load up with extra fuel for extended endurance during air policing missions is nice. Using extreme low-level operations and advanced electronic warfare to operate within range of Russian sensors and weapons is also a nice feature which slots well into the kind of Goldilocks-transformation the FDF likes: building upon current Finnish CONOPS with evolutionary rather than revolutionary upgrades. The French national security policy is also rather well aligned with the Finnish one in the main point that security needs to rest on sovereign capability, which then is backed up through multiple levels of partnerships and capabilities allowing common operations. The fact that this is the only ITAR-free offer is also worth noting, as even US companies struggle with the US export control bureaucracy enough that they see it as a selling point (see Boeing’s ATS). In the same way as BAES, the message of full freedom to operate the aircraft and all supporting systems is a key part of the offer, and even if Finland currently has a US-based model that apparently works well, it is hard to overstate the peace of mind the promised “immediate full autonomy” would bring in the post-Trump era.

But what exactly is in the BAFO? Dassault, never one to be overly talkative, takes the line of not commenting on numbers. This is less of worry in my personal view than BAES not doing the same, precisely because Dassault (as opposed to BAES) has overall taken a rather more closed policy when it comes to communications. Still, it would be nice to hear a ‘6x’ number as confirmation.

Instead, the official line is that the offer cover:

Replacing the capability in full now offered by 64 Hornets and adding new capabilities.

For weaponry, you won’t see a statement, but it is made clear that the graphics shown to the assembled media is no accident but tailored to accompany the HX media events. As such, quite a bit can be concluded.

Part of slide shown to Finnish media and showing expected operational loads based on the weapons offered in the BAFO. Picture source: Dassault Aviation

The first thing that pop out is that the French expect their love of external drop tanks to carry on to Finland in case of a win. While the Finnish Hornets regularly are seen with drop tank configurations typical of USN usage, I still believe the full three-can configuration to be somewhat overkill for Finnish everyday flights. In any case, that’s hardly the interesting detail here.

Top-centre is the full air-to-air load. Notable is that Dassault has unlocked two additional slots for the Meteor compared to the current AAE-configuration, bringing a total of four very-long range Meteors, two medium-range MICA IR with imaging infrared seekers, and two medium-range MICA EM with active radar seekers. The load is smaller than those sported by some of the competition (such as Eurofighter with six Meteor and two ASRAAM or Gripen with seven Meteor and two IRIS-T), but is still on the high end of what can be expected from an operational wartime load and will burn through missiles stocks at an impressive rate once you start flying at a high tempo. The additional Meteor-stations have long been identified and preliminary testing has been done, but up until now France has decided against investing in the final certification work.

An interesting option is the top-left one, which is an anti-ship loadout sporting a single AM39 Exocet radar-seeking antiship missile as well as the two Meteor and two plus two MICA for self-defence. From the original more careful wordings given during the early stages of HX it now seems evident that the Finnish Air Force is seriously considering kinetic anti-ship weaponry for the HX-platform. The current Exocet is a long way from the original weapon that wreaked havoc in the Falklands and in the Gulf during the 80’s, but the basic design is still the one the FDF prefers when it comes to killing ships: big, slow, with an active radar seeker and a serious warhead. The antiship weapon on offer is unlikely to be a deciding factor, but the Finnish Navy will most likely be nodding approvingly if they end up receiving air-launched Exocet support.

250 kg AASM being installed on a Rafale during operations in the Middle East. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – A. Paringaux

Bottom-left and -centre are more traditional air-to-ground modes with the French AASM ‘Hammer’ series of guided missiles (the baseline bomb is fitted with a rocket propulsion unit as well as guidance kit). The particular versions of this modular weapon family shown in the presentation is obviously somewhat difficult to deduce, but safe to say is that the left one shows three 1,000 kg weapons (to be introduced on the F4-standard) while the middle one shows the operationally used with six 250 kg weapons. Both loads also feature two MICA IR and two Meteor for self-defence.

The heavy-strike weaponry is shown in the lower-right corner, and unsurprisingly shows two SCALP (Storm Shadow) heavy cruise missiles as well as MICA IR and Meteor missiles. Nothing strange here, and this loadout as well is in operational use by the French Air Force.

The upper right is the most interesting one, as it shows an uniquely Finnish alternative which I believe hasn’t been discussed in any other deal. We have nothing less but four JSM missiles (as well as two MICA plus two Meteor). With the Exocet providing the heavy antiship missile and based on the material provided by Dassault back last year in Kauhava, it seems evident that this is the SEAD/DEAD weapon of choice for targets that are just a bit too dangerous for one to want to bring the AASM to the fight (although it would be a mean ship-killing one as well). How this fit the requirement of a standard aligned with the main user is unclear, and the hole in Rafale’s armament between the AASM and the SCALP is as far as I am aware of the only instance in HX where a contender has had to integrate a new capability to cover Finnish requirements (the Swedish political decision to buy whatever Finland does in case of a Gripen win obviously being something of an outlier). While there’s pros and cons of a signal-seeker compared to a more traditional weapon in the SEAD-role, the JSM isn’t necessarily a worse weapon in the role compared to something like the AARGM-ER, as while targeting becomes more complicated it will instead offer increased flexibility to affect other kinds of targets such as large TELs and C2/C3-nodes.

Parts of Libyan Palamaria SPGs that belonged to a group of six that were destroyed by Rafales on 19 March 2011. The Rafale started flying swing-role missions with the introduction of the F2 standard already back in 2006. Source: Bernd.Brincken via Wikimedia Commons

There has been some claims that the datalink used by the Rafale for the Meteor is suboptimal for the purpose as it is originally designed for use with the MICA. While Dassault isn’t commenting on that specifically, they did note that the Rafale has an advanced datalink for use both between aircraft as well as between weapons. This allows for, among other things, passive collaborative identification where fighters share data from passive sensors, and fuse the sensor data to provide identification and firing solutions. Another possibility is to hand over Meteor mid-course guidance to another Rafale, allowing e.g. a Rafale to close passively and fire the weapon, after which it turns away and a second Rafale with the radar active at stand-off range takes over the guidance of the missile. As major-general (ret.) Joel Rode was happy to point out, the important part isn’t so much to just carry the Meteor, but how you are able to integrate it into the aircraft’s subsystems and how you employ it. And here, Dassault is very happy with the work done. The upcoming MICA NG which will be online by the time the HX reaches full operational capability is also set to give a serious improvement to the short- and medium-range punch of the aircraft, with new seekers for both versions and a new double-pulse rocket motor which will not only give longer range but significantly improve manoeuvring towards the end of the engagement.

Backing up the passive capabilities, the SPECTRA and its associated systems have generally received high marks, and according to Dassault the system was described by Finnish officers taking part in an exercise of the MACE-series of NATO research and testing exercises for aircraft self protection systems and tactics in Slovakia as “The Reference” in terms of detection and jamming capability.

Speaking of the highly complex world of electronic warfare, Dassault is the only contender to offer a combination of single- and twin-seat fighters for general operational use. Perhaps the best description of the value of operational twin-seaters in HX was ironically enough provided by Saab back before the “alignment with the main user”-requirement stopped the inclusion of the 39F in their BAFO:

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

Saab might have been unable to proceed, but as France uses a mixed Rafale B/C-fleet for operational missions, they are happy to run with it. As mentioned, the exact numbers aren’t provided, but Benjamin Gardette, HX campaign director, note that the Finnish Air Force mix of 57 single-seaters and 7 twin-seaters is good if you only want the latter as a conversion/training platform, but that if you want operational usage you probably want to increase the number of twin-seaters. To give a hint of the numbers that could be involved, my understanding is that currently two out of the five operational Rafale squadrons (not counting test and evaluation or OCU units, nor forward deployed ones) fly the twin-seater on complex strike missions, both conventional and nuclear. For a hypothetical 64 aircraft fleet, that would mean 26 twin-seaters. Saab was planning on offering 12 twin-seaters (18 % of the total fighter number), which is a number closer to what I would expect for Finland based on the current lack of WSO/EW-specialists in the fighter force as well as no need for the nuclear mission. Still, that is pure speculation on my part, and it would be interesting to see where the eventual number lands. It is also highly possible that the BAFO include options of adjusting the ratio either up or down from the figure suggested by Dassault.

For the industrial participation side of things, Dassault believe that “up to” 5,000 jobs could be the outcome once calculating both the direct and indirect ones. The number is high, but roughly in line with the figures released by Saab and BAES. This isn’t really surprising, considering that all five industrial participation packages aim to cover roughly similar sums. A more interesting detail of potentially higher importance is that Dassault mention that they offer “Intellectual Property Rights free of use”. IPR-regulations is a highly specialised legal field, so I will avoid straying too far into it as I am bound to get something wrong. However, on a high level one can safely conclude that the free use of IPRs is a big deal, and likely one that is easier for the European contenders to offer compared to the US ones.

Designed to master the best known adversaries, and upcoming threats

There’s no denying that the choice of Rafale would constitute a major shift in bilateral cooperative patterns for FDF in general and the Finnish Air Force in particular, and that it would be a surprising outcome of HX. There’s also nagging questions about the cost and availability of quick refills of weapon stocks of the rather unique weapons offered with the aircraft, and France’s willingness to sell high-tech systems and platforms to anyone with money (including Russia) raises political concerns. Still, there’s much to be said for why the Rafale makes sense for Finland, including not only the performance of the platform itself but also how it slots into the Finnish concept of operations and the sovereignty it offers. The unique selling point of a combat-capable twin-seat fighter can also turn out to be quite the ace in their sleeve if it plays out well in the FDF wargames. The announcement of HX could well turn into a watershed moment in Finnish national security, but further increasing the attention the French armed forces give to developments around the Baltic Sea would hardly be a bad outcome in and of itself. Even as a conventional platform, there’s definitely a certain amount of dissuasion the canard born next to the Côte d’Argent would bring along to Finnish skies.

Swiss decision rolls in F-35’s favour

Let’s begin by the obvious: Finland isn’t Switzerland, and HX isn’t AIR2030.

It still would be wrong to say that the Swiss decision, and especially the way it was made, wouldn’t have bearing on the Finnish evaluation. The odds of the stealth bird just went up.

A Finnish F/A-18C Hornet and an Italian Air Force F-35A teaming up during Exercise Ramstein Alloy 21-2. Source: Finnish Air Force Twitter

I will leave the finer details of Swiss politics to those better versed in that topic, but let’s start by looking at why the Swiss decision matters for HX.

Something a number of commentators have missed is why the Swiss evaluators felt the aircraft was the right choice:

It includes entirely new, extremely powerful and comprehensively networked systems for protecting and monitoring airspace. The F-35A is able to ensure information superiority; this means pilots benefit from a higher situational awareness in all task areas when compared with the other candidates.

The following sentences then goes on to discuss that the aircraft is designed “to be especially difficult for other weapons systems to detect”. The debate about whether Switzerland need a stealth fighter misses the point. The main reason why the Swiss appreciate its effectiveness isn’t the stealth features, but the networked nature and integrated sensors giving the pilots a higher situational awareness. Oh, and by the way: it’s stealthy which is a nice bonus. And it seems set to stay in service the longest. The last two points arguably in of higher importance in HX, but even then F-35 took home AIR2030.

The point about staying in service further resonates with the product support question. ALIS gets good points, the maintenance system is modern and simple, and the large number of both fighters produced in general and European operators in particular ensure cooperation opportunities in both training and operational usage.

Crucially, the calculations made by the Swiss also showed that the aircraft was significantly cheaper compared to the second lowest bid when calculating full life-cycle costs (i.e. acquisition and 30 years of operations), coming in at approximately 2.0 Bn CHF cheaper (3.2 Bn EUR).

The big deal here is that as opposed to several of the recent wins for the F-35 where it has been the favourite from the outset, in Switzerland the F-35 is most likely the most difficult political choice. That the evaluation still found that the F-35 won three out of four categories including combat capability, product support, and cooperation opportunities is significant, as if the race would have been close the temptation to fudge the numbers a bit to ensure a more politically acceptable winner could certainly have been there. And crucially, unlike some other evaluations, the fact that the F-35 wasn’t the bestest and greatest in all measurable ways ironically lends a bit more credibility to the evaluation.

That’s the good news for the F-35, and it would be naive to think that the Swiss findings are taken out of thin air. The grey fighter again cements its position as the new European standard fighter in a way the F-16 did decades ago.

An interesting aspect is the worries about ownership of data and cyber security. I’ve discussed the topic before, especially with regards to the ALIS/ODIN, but the full quote is interesting.

All candidates were able to guarantee data autonomy. In the case of the F-35A, the system’s cyber management, the security of its computer architecture and its cyber protection measures combine to ensure an especially high level of cyber security. As with all other candidates, with the F-35A Switzerland controls which information to exchange with other air forces via data link, and what logistics information to report back to the manufacturer.

This is also certainly a good sign for F-35 from a Finnish point of view, as the cyber security and sovereignty aspect are among the questions still lingering with regards to the fighter. While Lockheed Martin has stressed that it isn’t an issue, it is one of those things that are next to impossible to judge based on open sources. However, that Switss evaluators has reached the conclusion is certainly promising.

But there’s also a few flies in the ointment.

The cheapness is… strange.

I could write a long-winding paragraph about it, but Steve Trimble summed it up perfectly in 280 characters:

A few key points still deserve to be reiterated. There is a significant difference between those struggling with whether to upgrade early blocks and export customers now jumping aboard and getting what presumably will be TR-3 hardware (slated for introduction in 2023) from the start. Especially considering the significant maturity the program has achieved in the past few years it is likely that the maintenance and operating costs will continue on a downward spiral.

However, the GAO isn’t overly impressed, and while originally deliveries from 2026 should have been Block 4, that standard is pushed back, and GAO isn’t sure that the current schedule will hold either.

In 2020, the program added a year to its Block 4 schedule and now expects to extend Block 4 development into fiscal year 2027. We found, however, that the program office did not formulate its revised schedule based on the contractor’s demonstrated past performance. Instead, the schedule is based on estimates formulated at the start of the Block 4 effort, increasing the likelihood that the scheduled 2027 completion date is not achievable.

Perhaps more worrying is how the aircraft became 3 billion euros cheaper to operate – by offloading flight hours into simulators. This is certainly one of those ‘Yes, but…’-arguments. Modern simulators are very good, and with a continued emphasis on things like electronic warfare and advanced (expensive) weaponry, it certainly makes sense to do more training in simulators. The Finnish Air Force is a good example of this, with HX seemingly largely skipping two-seaters for operational conversion, going Hawk->simulator->HX single-seater instead. However, there still are things that differ between simulators than the real thing. A key thing to note is the lack of cues which pilots learn to fly with, everything from vibrations to G-forces which are very difficult to model. Former Hornet-pilot C W Lemoine flew DCS a few years ago, and in the video discussed how flying the real jet differs from high-end commercial and military simulators and how the armed forces are using them. The DCS-specific issues obviously doesn’t apply when you have a properly modelled cockpit, the other issues do.

More crucially, the German longer version of the presser include further details on the process (and overall could function as a good template for the eventual HX releases) and discuss how that part of the calculations were done.

Diese basieren auf den Angaben der jeweiligen Luftwaffen respektive der Marine in den Herstellerländern, wie sie im Rahmen der Offertanfrage bei allen Kandidaten identisch angefragt wurden. Die Antworten der Kandidaten wurden mit den Erfahrungen der Luftwaffe mit dem F/A-18C/D und den Erkenntnissen aus der Evaluation verglichen.

In other words, seems the Swiss have asked main operators about simulators versus real flight hours, and the USAF has returned with a 20% lower number compared to the USN, AdA, and LW. There is preciously little in open sources to explain this difference in real terms. Yes, the F-35’s simulators are good, but the rest are no slouches either. I can see no clear reason why it wouldn’t be possible to run a simulation-heavy training curriculum for the rest of the fighters as well, if that is what you want.

Another key number thrown around is that the F-35 would require 50% fewer take-offs and landings compared to the current F-5E Tiger II/F/A-18C Hornet-fleet. This honestly doesn’t feel overly impressive, as it is unclear to me how much the old and short-legged F-5E pushes up the current number, and it is unclear to me if the comparison is between 36 F-35A and the total fleet of 66 F-5E/F Tiger II and F/A-18C/D Hornets or an interpolated 36 to 36. However, notable is that the Finnish Air Force reportedly has had issues meeting the NATO-standard of 180 flight hours per pilot and year, and while there are some redeeming features of Finnish operations (such as short transits to training areas), cutting 20% of the flight hours while at the same time increasing the complexity of the mission sets and bringing in new roles won’t happen. At least not in a good way…

Which brings us to the numbers. The Swiss are looking at a procurement cost of 5.068 Bn CHF for 36 fighters, which converted to Euros and extrapolated to 64 gives us the figure of 8.2 Bn EUR, well below the 9.6 Bn EUR maximum of HX. So far so good, until you realise that the 10.432 Bn CHF cost of operating the aircraft over 30 years gives 16.9 Bn EUR extrapolated to 64, giving you an annual operating cost of 563.3 MEUR, which is significantly over the FinAF 270 MEUR annual budget.

With 20% less flying hours than the competition.

…and that brings us back to the fact that Finland isn’t Switzerland.

The mission set which 36 F-35A are supposed to handle is described as follows:

As far as fleet size is concerned, for all four candidates a fleet of 36 aircraft would be large enough to cover Switzerland’s airspace protection needs over the longer term in a prolonged situation of heightened tensions. The Air Force must be able to ensure that Swiss airspace cannot be used by foreign parties in a military conflict.

Which is a realistic threat scenario in my opinion. As long as the French suddenly doesn’t get revanchist over the dissolution of the Helvetic Republic, there’s little direct threat.

Swiss government infographic describing how the integrity of own airspace is protected. Source: Swiss MoD

The stated aim for the Finnish forces in a ground war is to:

Making it possible to slow down and wear out the aggressor’s
land attack in selected terrain and ultimately defeat him. All
services and civilian authorities as well as the Border Guard
participate in land defence.

…which can be described by this fancy infographic of the battlefield in 2030.

The multi-domain battlefield in 2030. Source: FDF Homepage

This difference is evident in the DSCA-notices as well, were the Swiss DSCA-notification include a grand-total of 40 AIM-9X Sidewinders, 12 Mk 82 500-lb bombs with JDAM-guidance kits, and 12 SDB-II small glide-bombs. You do not fight a war with that kind of stock, although the possibility to carry on the weapons currently used by the Hornets are there. As has been discussed for Finland, the weapons and spares bought will be a huge part of the overall acquisition costs, suddenly making the 8.2 Bn EUR Swiss pricetag look less than stellar (although granted the Swiss DSCA-notification included more spare engines compared to the Finnish bid). Comparing costs is a case of apples against pears against olives with the occasional mango thrown into the mix, but the resulting smoothie evidently tastes like Finland won’t be able to acquire and operate 64 F-35As at Swiss prices.

More confusingly, if that is 20% cheaper than everything else, there’s some serious discrepancies between what the Swiss asked for and the five packages offered to Finland for 9.6 Bn Euros.