A Gust from the South

Like the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Dassault Rafale made a rare visit to Finland earlier this year. However, a significant difference between the two visits was that while the ‘Super Bugs’ were leased by Boeing to take part in two air shows and a short stay at the Finnish Air Force’s research and evaluation facilities at Tampere-Pirkkala, the French fighters arrived as part of normal Armée de l’air operations when they participated in the international Arctic Challenge Exercise. The French contribution was made up by six single-seat Mirage 2000 and three two-seat Rafale B, all of which were based at Rovaniemi AFB in the northern parts of the country for the duration of the exercise.

Rafale B from Escadron de chasse 1/4 ‘Gascogne’ at Rovaniemi during the first day of flight operations of ACE17. Source: Ilmavoimat / Minna Piirainen

The decision to send two-seaters was something which raised my curiosity already as the first pictures of the aircraft touching down started to appear. Luckily, while the Dassault did not bring an aircraft to this year’s Finnish air shows, they did have a nicely sized stand in Helsinki, where I got to sit down and have a chat with company representatives.

Dassault was keen to point out that ACE17 was an air force exercise that they as a manufacturer had no real connection to, they did confirm that the decision was made by AdA to send two-seaters in order to provide familiarisation opportunities. The three Rafales seems to have flown most of the time with a foreign pilot as a backseater, providing a “good opportunity” to show off the aircraft, as Dassault put it.

The choice of squadrons were also interesting. ETR 3/4 ‘Aquitaine’ is the operational conversion unit, responsible for training both AdA and Marine Nationale Rafale air crews, while EC 1/4 ‘Gascogne’ is the land-based strike squadron of the Force de Dissuasion, the French nuclear strike force. The third and final aircraft bore the badge of legendary fighter squadron EC 2/30 ‘Normandie-Niemen’, which is nominally a single-seat Rafale C squadron (focused on ground-attack) but which is known to have operated a handful of two-seaters to assist in the training of younger pilots. Especially the inclusion of the inclusion of the ‘Gascogne’-fighter is interesting. The nuclear strike role means that the squadron places a high emphasis on operations at low level and high speed (down to 60 meters over land and 30 meter over water, at speeds up to Mach 0.9 / 600 knots). While the Rafale’s automatic terrain following system wasn’t likely pushed quite to these limits during ACE17 (due to having a foreign backseater, lack of terrain data of Lappi, and height restrictions during the exercise), it certainly gave an opportunity to show of one of the strong points of the Rafale.

A Rafale being cleared while a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet takes off in the background. Note the MICA IR missile on the port wingtip. The data from the seeker head of this can be fused with the onboard sensors of the aircraft. Source: Ilmavoimat

Dassault assured that the fighter operated without issue over the Finnish north, with the most dramatic episode being a bird strike experienced during a sortie with a French pilot and a foreign backseater. Even this wasn’t too much of an story, as it was only noticed once the plane had landed.

Back to Dassault: While they naturally weren’t able to comment on the details of the request for information related to the Finnish HX-program, they did describe it as “very interesting as far as the opposing power goes”, noting the high-end threat environment the HX has to be able to operate in. As discussed at length last summer in a series of posts, Dassault’s solution to the Finnish request is to emphasise the complete package. “It is not a question of just technical capability”, as Dassault explains. “There’s no golden solution, but a mix of capabilities is needed.” In practice, this means that Dassault strives to develop all parts of the aircraft in conjunction with each other. With an eye towards the other eurocanards adopting the Meteor very-long range missile before integrating AESA-radars, Dassault’s representatives pointed out that they first focus on the sensors, and then integrate the weapons which can take advantage of sensor developments. A complete concept, multirole, and flexibility are the keywords when Dassault tries to sell their fighters.

However, all is not unicorns and roses for the French fighter. Early July, Finnish tabloid Iltalehti published a long article on the earlier Finnish fighter program which eventually lead to the choice of the F/A-18C Hornet. While the analysis was rather poor (see Twitter rant), it did for the first time provide access to the secret memo presented to the politicians outlining the reasoning behind the Air Force favouring the Hornet. Dassault’s offering back then was the Mirage 2000-5, which was the only fighter besides the F/A-18C/D Hornet that was deemed to fulfil the requirements of the Air Force. The MiG-29, JAS 39A/B, and F-16 (my understanding is that the C/D was offered, but I am unsure about exact version) failed to meet the mark. The Mirage 2000-5 is described in the brief as follows:

Mirage 2000-5 fulfils the requirements of the Air Force, but the aircraft’s maintenance system is difficult for us, and life-cycle costs are probably in the higher-end owing to the small user base.

At around the same time as the article was published, impeached Brazilian president Rousseff gave her testimony on the choice of JAS 39E/F Gripen for the Brazilian Air Force. At 1:25 and forward in the video below, she describes the Rafale as having “extremely high” maintenance costs (compared to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and JAS 39E Gripen).

The Rafale is significantly easier to maintain compared to the Mirage 2000, mainly thanks to the automated fault detection software and smarter component layout of the Rafale. In practice, maintenance tasks are further in between and each individual task takes roughly half the time they did on the Mirage. Depot-level maintenance has also disappeared altogether. The Finnish comment from 25 years ago puzzles me. It seems this would indicate some kind of major difference in how maintenance was handled between the US Navy (for the Hornet) and the Armée de l’air (for the Mirage). I am unsure what kind of difference this would have been, and whether it still exists and affects the chances of the Rafale in HX.

Dassault is also looking over how the maintainers are trained, bringing something as rare as a maintenance simulator into play. The Oculus Rift-based software was demonstrated in Finland at the Kaviopuisto Air Show. The idea is that an instructor together with up to ten trainees can inspect a complete colour coded Rafale in virtual reality, where it is possible to move around freely and look at the components being discussed, without being restricted by the size of how many pairs of eyes can look through an open maintenance hatch at the same time. Being able to pass through structures and look at how different components connect together to form the complete system is also a significant benefit. The system has been pioneered on the Dassault Falcon-series of business jets, and is currently being rolled out for Rafale training.

For Rousseff, she obviously has an interest in painting the decision to buy Gripen as a clear-cut case. However, together the two reports does create the impression that this might not be the French fighter’s strongest point after all. I tried to contact Dassault for a comment, but have unfortunately not received a reply (possibly due to summer vacations). This will likely be a point that the blog will return to in the future.

© Dassault Aviation - V. Almansa
A Rafale undergoing landing gear tests during maintenance. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa.

Another point of great interest is the recent carrier-based operations over Syria and Iraq. A great write up on these can be found at the Liveifst-blog by Shiv Aroor who visited the homebase of 11F, one of three Rafale M units, at Landivisiau. An interesting tidbit is the description of a mission by two Rafale M to intercept and record the attack mode of the Su-33’s N001K radar when the carrier-borne fighters were operating of the Admiral Kuznetsov over Syria in 2016. The mission eventually ended in success, with the Rafale’s integrated SPECTRA electronic warfare system now featuring yet another radar mode in it’s library.

The New Bug in Town – Navy Fighters Ashore

Carrier-based fighters have traditionally had a hard time keeping up with their land-based counterparts. Carrier operations put greater strains on the aircraft, as the shorter take-off and landing places higher stress on the airframe in general and the landing gear in particular. In the same way, the arrestor and catapult gear adds further weight, while space restrictions usually demand folding wings and other mechanisms to allow it to pass through elevators and occupy a smaller footprint while parked.

However, there are a number of classic designs which have been able to defeat this traditional axiom. These include the F-4 Phantom II (which was produced in a number of non-carrier versions) and the A-4 Skyhawk (one of the few modern carrier-based aircraft small enough to not need wing-folding), and crucially for HX, the F/A-18 Hornet.

The background of the Hornet is well-known, having started it’s life as the YF-17 ‘Cobra’, losing the LWF-competition to the F-16, then being developed further to the F/A-18 for the US Navy VFAX program. Interestingly enough, it was soon clear that F-16 (in early versions) didn’t meet the expectations of all potential customers, and a niche for the twin-engined Hornet could be found. A dedicated land-based version was created in the form of the Northrop F-18L, but in the end it was the baseline carrier-versions which came to score a number of export successes, with seven nations ending up choosing the ‘Bug’ over the competition.

For Finland, in an interesting cross-over of requirement, much of the carrier-specific equipment was actually in line with the requirements placed by the Finnish dispersed operations from road bases. Short runways, rough landings, space restrictions, little support equipment, and limited number of ground crew working on the aircraft are all similarities that make the rugged airframes and landing gears more of a benefit than a nuisance. The end result has been that the Hornet has provided stellar service in Finnish colours, having been able to adapt to Finnish road bases with ease. The use of a carrier-spec hook (not to be confused with the emergency hooks used by land-based fighters) to reduce braking distances has also been a big benefit. Somewhat surprisingly both Dassault and Lockheed-Martin have indicated that they will focus on the baseline Rafale C and F-35A respectively, leaving the Super Hornet the only fighter in the game able to use arrestor wires for breaking on a regular basis.

While all manufacturers have stated that their fighters are able to handle road bases without problems, Super Hornet and the JAS 39E Gripen are the ones with the pedigree to put more credibility behind the claims. Boeing is also the one to have their complete organisation already in place, having established working routines with the Finnish Air Force and local industrial partners as part of current Hornet-operations. When discussing the lack of a visible marketing campaign, this was something drawn upon by Boeing, who explained that they like to work closely with the customer and prove the capabilities of the aircraft directly to them. While this “more doing, less talking” attitude is exactly how any marketing executive would explain a perceived lack of publicity, it should not be ruled out that this actually is what Boeing has been doing, given the close association with Boeing Defence and the Finnish Air Force.

Interestingly, the F/A-18E/F shares around 50-60% of their support and maintenance equipment with the ‘legacy’ Hornets. While part of the equipment currently in use by the Finnish Air Force is likely starting to show their age and will have to be replaced in any case, this does still leave room for significant savings as well as for the possibility of staggering the procurements of maintenance equipment. Not having to buy a complete set of tools on day one is not only nice for the initial buy, but also means that throughout the lifespan of the aircraft instances of massed obsolescences amongst the support equipment should be rarer, smoothing out the operating costs during the life cycle. There’s also no need for major investment in fixed infrastructure (such as electrical systems or air supplies), as all Finnish air bases are equipped for handling the F/A-18C/D. As Boeing’s Bryan Crutchfield put it, “If a Hornet flies there today, a Super Hornet can fly there tomorrow”. This has also been practiced by the US Navy, which during carrier operations on occasion has swapped out Hornet-squadrons for Super Hornet ones at short notice (though granted the US Navy does have maintenance equipment for both ‘legacy’ and Super Hornets on their carriers).

Life-cycle costs are something that Boeing likes to talk about. To win the Finnish order the Super Hornet, like the Hornet before it, would have to defeat lighter fighters which have lower flyaway unit costs. The Super Hornet currently has the lowest cost per flight hour for all US tactical aircraft, including the F-16. While the comparison is somewhat skewed to the benefit of the Super Hornet as the Super Hornet fleet generally is the youngest of the active US fighters (with the exception of the F-35), it is still remarkable for a twin-engined naval fighter to top the list. Add in the savings in infrastructure and maintenance, and the life-cycle cost for a Finnish Super Hornet might be very competitive.

Visiting F/A-18E (right) and F/A-18F (left) Super Hornets at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB for trials and familiarisation flights a few weeks ago. Source: Finnish Air Force

The synergies doesn’t stop there, as there is also a clear benefit when it comes to transferring pilots and ground crew from the F/A-18C/D to the F/A-18E/F. Making current Finnish Air Force personnel dual-qualified could be handled in a matter of weeks, and all training could take place in Finland. This is not only a question of transferring the people serving in 2025 when the first HX-fighters are slated to arrive in Finland, but “the Finnish Air Force will have a two aircraft fleet for a number of years”, as Bryan Crutchfield notes. In practice, the current Hornets and their replacement could serve side-by-side for up to five years, if the Air Force decides to maintain the Hornets until HX reaches full operational capability around 2030. This was also the case with the Hornet, where the first F/A-18D and C were delivered to the Finnish Air Force in 1995 and 1996 respectively, with the Draken finally being withdrawn in 2000 (the MiG-21 having left service two years earlier). As such, the argument about ease of transitioning from the Hornet to Super Hornet deserves more credibility than it has usually received, with the benefits tapering off towards 2030 and not 2025 as usually argued.

Of the eight countries which bought the ‘legacy’ Hornet, two already operate the Super Hornet (USA and Australia), two are likely going to operate it (Kuwait and Canada), with Switzerland, Spain and the minor operator Malaysia not looking like likely Super Hornet buyers. This leaves Finland, and many of the arguments which made us choose the Hornet are still perfectly valid today. However, where the F/A-18C Hornet armed with the AIM-120 AMRAAM was clearly the most advanced of the fighters being offered, the Super Hornet faces stiffer competition from both sides of the Atlantic. Traditionally, the Finnish Defence Forces have been rather conservative, favouring tried and tested systems before the new and unproven. Time will tell if Boeing can convince the Air Force that taking what has been a very successful concept and cranking up the dials to eleven is the best way forward, or if a more radical change is warranted.

The New Bug in Town – Versions for Finland

One issue that has been open to much speculation is exactly which version(s) of the Super Hornet will be offered to Finland. The answer was simple, with Bryan Crutchfield explaining that it was up to the customer, and: “As a mainly single-seat air force, I would expect Finland to primarily be interested in F/A-18E.” This lead to the natural follow-up question, why the equally mainly single-seat Royal Danish Air Force was offered only the two-seat F/A-18F, a decision which proved to be something of a decisive issue in the Kampfly-program. “Because they only asked for the two-seater,” Bryan explained. On the question of why, he had no direct answer, but this is yet another strange data point in the already rather murky Danish affair.

CAG bird
The CAG-bird of VFA-103 ‘Jolly Rogers’. The squadron operates two-seat F/A-18F, with a focus on different kinds of ground attack missions where a second crew member comes in handy. For Finland, a small number of F/A-18F would likely be acquired for advanced training, with a secondary fighter/strike tasking. Source: Own picture

More interesting then was that Boeing seemed to assume that Finland would be interested in a number of Growlers as well. In the case of the US Navy, roughly 20% of the Super Hornets bought are of the electronic warfare version, meaning that a potential Finnish mix of Super Hornets could be something along the lines of 40 F/A-18E single-seaters, 12 F/A-18F two-seaters, and 12 EA-18G Growlers, for a combined fleet of 64 fighters. When asked about if the ‘full-spec’ Growler is likely to be released for sale to Finland, Crutchfield was careful not to make any promises, noting that any sale would be a government-to-government deal. However, he went on to say that Finland appears to be a “very trusted” partner in Washington, and pointed to JASSM-deal as an indication that if Finland wants the Growler, there likely wouldn’t be any issues.

The Growler in many ways is an unrivalled platform in the electronic warfare role, being able to not only jam and destroy enemy radars and air-defence systems, but also having a significant capability when it comes to intercepting and jamming enemy communications and signals. The latter has made it a valuable resource in the operations against ISIS, and it is safe to assume that if Finland would acquire a handful of dedicated EW-platforms, it would make us a sought after coalition partner in the kind of low-intensity conflicts we have participated in in Afghanistan and Iraq. The question then is largely about the price of acquiring and operating the Growlers, as well as what kind of a loss having only 40 instead of 52 F/A-18E’s would be in the eyes of the Air Force Command. While the size reduction in ‘true’ fighters is significant, the role of the Growlers as force multipliers might provide a huge enough boost for both the Air Force and, crucially, to the ground forces to warrant this. As said, this is not solely a question of providing SEAD, but also of the Growlers being able to increase the fog of war for the enemy at crucial moments.

“Envelop the enemy in the fog of war, sow confusion while providing time and space for one’s own forces. Jam the adversaries’ radars. Disrupt his communications. Induce indecision; make the enemy question his own equipment and make mistakes.”The mission of the Growler as described by the Growler Industry Team

But even without the Growler, the baseline F/A-18E/F is a highly versatile multirole aircraft. “The most capable combat-proven multi-role aircraft”, as Boeing likes to put it (a statement that will upset the French). In addition to ‘normal’ air-to-air and air-to-ground work, the aircraft is able to handle both the maritime strike (Boeing did feature a scale model of a Harpoon anti-ship missile in their stand) as well as SEAD, two missions discussed at length in the Finnish report at the launch of the HX-project. What makes the SEAD-mission possible is the Integrated Defensive Electronic Countermeasures (IDECM)-package, currently in its Block IV state, coupled with the ‘leakage’ of technology developed for the Growler back into the fighter version of the aircraft.

“Physics matter,” Crutchfield sums up the sensor package, and point towards the large nose of the F/A-18E parked behind us during the interview. The nose hoses the AN/APG-79 AESA radar built by Raytheon, and Crutchfield isn’t shy when talking about the capabilities of the radar, stating that it is ‘generations’ in front of the competition, with rolling upgrades being introduced every two years. It should be remembered that the AN/APG-79 did experience some rather significant teething troubles when first introduced into service, though things seems to have gotten better since. One of the key features of the AESA is that it allows the pilot of the F/A-18F to stay fully focused on the air-to-air picture, while the weapon system operator (WSO) in the aft seat works on the air-to-ground view, with both having access to the radar modes they want.

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Deployment
A colorful EA-18G Growler of Electronic Attack Squadron 130 (VAQ-130) “Zappers” onboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) in the Arabian Sea. The squadron operated in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the operations against ISIS. Note the large jammer on the centreline station, the carriage of which is one of the distinguishing features of the Growler compared to the baseline F/A-18F. Source: USN / Seaman Dartez C. Williams via Wikimedia Commons

Like the ‘legacy’ Hornet before it, the Super Hornet is qualified for a large number of weapons, including the most recent versions of the venerable AIM-9 Sidewinder, the AGM-88 HARM, and the AIM-120 AMRAAM (these being the AIM-9X, AGM-88E AARGM, and the AIM-120D respectively). On the horizon the SDB-II and the LRASM looms, while more exotic munitions include the Quickstrike-series of air-dropped mines. Which of these would be of interest to the Finnish Air Force is uncertain, but a continued reliance on ever more advanced versions of the AIM-9/-120 combination would be a natural choice for the immediate future. The big deficit is the lack of the very-long range Meteor ramjet-powered missile, which all other HX-contenders are set to have received prior to HX’s IOC date. The US Navy seems content with traditional rocket-powered air-to-air weapons at the moment, and while Finland naturally could pay for Meteor integration on its own, that would still make be a considerable sum. Going for the Super Hornet could then mean having to get closer to the enemy before firing, as there is a significant difference in the size of the no-escape zones of the throttleable ramjet motor compared to traditional rockets.

Under Scottish Skies – The Path Forward

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


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

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

Godfrey talking


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

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

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

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

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

Pair of Tiffies

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

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

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

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

Under Scottish Skies – Air Superiority

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

Scottish mountains

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

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

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

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


“We were briefed quite closely to not interact with them too much”

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

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

Cooper and media

“You need something that can fight long-range and dominate short-range”

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

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

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

Under Scottish Skies – Red Flag and the Middle East

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


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

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

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

Cooper under plane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Typhoon 320

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

The Canadian connection – Hornets in need of replacement

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

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

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

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

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

Canadian Hornets in operation against ISIL as part of Operation IMPACT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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