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.

Lifting the Fog

Lockheed Martin’s bid for the HX programme is likely the one that has caused the most speculation, and this blog has seen its fair share of that as well. Scott Davis, Lockheed Martin’s Managing Director for Finland, was happy to chat and clear up some of the remaining confusion.

Let’s begin with the elephant in the room: the offer in their BAFO is for 64 F-35A, and this is most certainly the number the company expects to supply Finland in case they win. The package of weapons they would supply does include an undisclosed number of weapons that include AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM, JSM, and AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER. All of these are included in the BAFO as regular to-be-delivered items, and not as options. Davis acknowledged that he had been unnecessarily vague in his comments at the earlier HX media event, leading to speculation about options to adjust the figures either up or down. However, it is now evident that Lockheed Martin joins Boeing and Saab in the 64 fighter-game.

A pair of Norwegian F-35A taking part in Arctic Challenge Exercise 21 that just finished. The drag chute used by the Royal Norwegian Air Force is an option in the Finnish tender. Source: Mathias Charman / NATO Allied Air Command

The JASSM-ER needs no further introduction, as in essence it is an upgrade of the Finnish Air Force current silver bullet. The weapon slings a 450 kg warhead out beyond 900 kilometers, where an IIR-seeker provide terminal guidance. The current weapons sport a one-way datalink, but it seems like the AGM-158B-2 will feature the updated two-way WDL of the AGM-158D JASSM-ER (the missile formerly known as JASSM-XR). Is it better for Finnish requirements than the Taurus KEPD 350? The Finnish Air Force thought so last time around, but as noted in my last post the weapons sport rather different design philosophies, and it isn’t necessarily a question with a straightforward answer.

A weapon in the class of the JASSM is needed to wipe out certain hardened targets, but the smaller weapons also offer interesting capabilities, especially as internal carriage offer other benefits besides stealth as well. As long as the weapons are carried internally an external observer will not be able to say if the aircraft is loaded, and in that case with what kind of weaponry. For an Air Force that cherish ambiguity – perhaps a bit more than really is healthy – being able to both train and perform QRA-missions in peacetime without sneaky plane spotters with diplomatic immunity being able to tell what the aircraft carries is likely to captivate their imagination. This allows for example raising the number of AMRAAMs carried in response to intel you don’t want the adversary to know you have, or even to change the loadout from a pure air-to-air one to a land-attack or anti-shipping one, all depending on the situation (you can obviously also do the classic ‘lets fly by their ship at low altitude with doors open and show that at least one aircraft carries JSM’ to really have them guessing about how many of the F-35s zooming around are ‘just’ fighters and how many are potential threats to maritime forces). It’s not a war-winning feature, but it is a positive secondary effect recognised already during the Cold War when USAF F-102/106 deltas were flying around at potential flashpoints.

The 55Zh6M radar of the Nebo-M complex is a mobile VHF-band radar that is built to provide early warning of incoming stealth platforms. Source: Vitaly Kuzmin via Wikimedia Commons

Davis understandably was interested in discussing electronic warfare, considering the in his opinion oversimplified illustration that featured on the blog a while back. Showing a generic strike fighter unable to jam anything but the X-band, the impression was that the ‘Strike Fighter’ would have a hard time without its buddy the EA-18G Growler that provide multi-band support. Davis, however, isn’t impressed.

Fourth generation fighters are correctly standing off well outside of the threat rings, as they should. Our threat rings are exponentially smaller. […] I can’t tell what our [jamming] bandwidth is, but it is more than just the X-band.

As has been discussed earlier on the blog, the key jammer on the F-35 is the large AN/APG-81 AESA radar, which thanks to its size produces a thin and accurate jamming beam which is harder for the adversary to detect. Another benefit is the availability of the onboard power (read: engine) and cooling systems, which allows for a very higher jamming output power. This in turn is further enhanced by the F-35 being able to get in closer, or as Davis put it: “Our jamming signal is ten times as powerful as podded systems, so we’re closer because our stealth allows it and more powerful.” However, that still leaves the question of the other bandwidths, such as the low-band radars that are growing in popularity thanks to their better anti-stealth characteristics. But here as well the F-35 has the answer: it will blow them to pieces. The response might come of as arrogant, but isn’t without merit. The antenna arrays tend to grow with wavelength, meaning that the systems outside of the those which the F-35 can jam tend to be rather large and not moving around in the same way as their lighter compatriots. The F-35 signal gathering capability as well as unique datalink and ability to operate as a formation all combine to give it a high situational awareness, which should make the kinetic response a more feasible tactic compared to many other platforms. Granted, while you in the grey zone might possibly jam hostile sensors, you don’t really get to blow them up unless it is a full-blown war, and you don’t block enemy communications through blowing things up, so there is still a lack of flexibility compared to dedicated EW-platforms such as the Growler when discussing manoeuvres in the electromagnetic spectrum (which seems to be the next trend, brace yourself for new and exciting buzzwords!). On the other hand the F/A-18 Hornet-replacing capability the Finnish Air Force asked for in HX didn’t include communications jamming so it remains to be seen how the FinAF judges the value of these.

Another issue raised by the illustration was the question of what happens on the egress, when the aircraft have turned their tails towards the threat. Davis isn’t too worried about that prospect either (and it should be noted that he has actually flown fighters operationally for quite a few years).

I put no great importance in the fact that the jamming is just in front – there are other aircraft in the formation that could support from behind for example

The engineer in me would like to point out that at some point the second pair of fighters in the formation will have to turn around as well, but it is a good reminder of the fact that judging the capabilities on a single fighter vs. fighter rarely gives the complete picture.

Norwegian F-35As participating in a Red Flag exercise earlier this year. The exercises are widely regarded as the gold standard when it comes to large realistic exercises simulating a high-end air war, and the F-35 has reportedly built up a solid reputation among the participants. Source: Forsvaret.no

Another issue that Davis liked to comment was the notion by Saab that their unnamed competition according to Saab’s analysis would be able to maintain around 35 fighters mission capable in a Finnish scenario. Davis noted that he was unable to say if the comment was directed towards the F-35 (neither am I as Saab didn’t say, though I would think it’s a fair guess to assume so) that in their case it is certainly not correct. Despite the issues still plaguing the F-35, including the engine shortages, the aircraft still reached a 76 % mission capability rate in the USAF during 2020. Crucially this happened while the cost per flight hour continued to come down, meaning that the growth in the mission capability rate was organic, for the lack of  a better word, and not just a case of stocking up with more spare parts. So far peacetime rates of over 80 % are routinely seen, with some units even clocking about 90 % at times. More impressive is that a number of Red Flag exercises have seen the participating F-35s pull through the whole three week exercises without losing a single sortie due to maintenance or reliability associated failures. The core message here from Lockheed Martin is that in times of crisis, “almost all” of the 64 Finnish F-35s would be available for service, and there’s an interesting anecdote to back up this claim: recently Eielson AFB (every Finnish F-35 watchers favourite base as it sits at the same latitude as Rovaniemi AFB) had a snap readiness check to get the maximum number of aircraft ready within 24 hours. The end result was that by the end of that deadline 26 out of 26 F-35A were mission capable. While Davis didn’t point it out but stuck to discussing ‘his’ fighter, one thing is evident: he has the anecdotes to back up his readiness claims, something that Saab hasn’t as the 39E isn’t in operational service yet.

As noted in earlier posts, Finland would also receive a “great” security of supply program through the industrial participation package which would include manufacturing of stealth panels and major component assembly, ensuring that in times of crisis there would be local know-how available to ensure that the aircraft stays flying. An interesting detail is that opposed to for example the Danish or Polish F-35 buys, Finland actually have gotten firm commitments for an undisclosed number of components (including panels) not only to the Finnish fleet but to the global F-35 fleet as well. This in turn touches upon perhaps the strongest single selling point of the F-35A, and one that has received surprisingly little attention in Finnish media. The global fleet is significant, or even huge compared to most of the competitors, and a sizeable part of it is found in Europe among our close partners. In the words of Scott Davis:

We offer Finland a platform you won’t be the last user of

While the F/A-18C Hornet has on all accounts been a huge success for Finland, the cost of not being able to align the upgrades with the main user has meant that keeping it relevant has been more expensive than the FDF would have liked to. With 400+ F-35s in Europe by 2030 purely based on already signed contracts, the risk of that happening with the F-35A is negligible. The global F-35 fleet has also been rather busy showcasing its capabilities in the last few weeks, including Norwegian F-35As participating in ACE 21, as well as HMS Queen Elizabeth not only launching RAF and USMC F-35Bs operationally on combat missions over the Middle East, but also seeing RAF aircraft taking part in an austere forward basing exercise with Italian F-35s. While there are levels of austere basing and people might argue about whether the exercise was as demanding as a road base in Finnish winter conditions, the fact is that much of Finnish Air Force dispersed operations would likely take place in roughly similar locations with the use of smaller civilian airfields with limited rather than non-existent infrastructure.

Night operations aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth. While it is unclear if any ordnance has yet been released by aircraft operating out of the carrier, the combat missions in themselves are somewhat historic ones, as they represent the first carrier-based combat operations flown by the UK since the Libyan operation as well as the first combat missions flown by US aircraft from a foreign carrier since 1943. Source: Commander UK Carrier Strike Twitter account

The F-35A is in many ways the fighter which likely would change Finnish Air Force tactics and wider concepts of operations the most, and I ask Scott Davis whether he is worried that the F-35 won’t show its full capability in the Finnish wargames due to those involved using current tactics developed for the Hornet? He confirms that while it is true that the tactics need to be revised due to the increased situational awareness and very-low observability of the F-35, he isn’t worried about the evaluation. The Finnish team has by now ample experience from both briefings and flying the aircraft in simulators aided by both operational USAF pilots and Lockheed Martin personnel, and he is confident that the F-35 will show its best side in the evaluation.

I am impressed by the level of detail the HX-team got into […] We are confident it will be a fair evaluation

Cruise Missiles Flying over your Head

As I was quite vocal in questioning the decision of Saab to opt for the Taurus KEPD 350 as their heavy cruise missile, I was not overly surprised when Saab contacted me and asked if I wanted to discuss the choice as well as their bid more generally. It turned into a rather interesting brief, with representatives from both Saab and TAURUS Systems GmbH (owned to 67% by MBDA Deutschland GmbH and 33% by Saab Dynamics AB).

Saab further discussed the extent to which Finnish-Swedish cooperation and possible synergies play into the bid. Saab has not only run all company simulations of scenarios based on the FDF requirements to find the best setup for Finland, but in a step further they have also run the same simulations with Finland and Sweden being allied to see how this setup would work if Finland wouldn’t have to go at it alone. The BAFO includes not only Saab’s offer, but also drafts for a number of political agreements for closer defence cooperation, such as for a shared situational air picture benefiting from both countries operating not only the same aircraft types, but similar versions of these aircraft. With the Finnish requirement to align the configuration of the eventual HX-winner with the main user, this include not only the earlier announced Swedish political decision to align their 39E configurations with the Finnish requests (including long-range precision strike and “enhanced electronic attack capability”), but also operating similar GlobalEye-configurations. In a change compared to earlier announcements, Bombardier keeping the Global 6000 in production allow Saab to use the same platform for both Finland and Sweden as is currently in service with the UAE. This opportunity saves quite a bit of certification and R&D costs compared to the earlier indicated change to Global 6500 as the basic platform for the GlobalEye, which frankly wouldn’t give too much of an improvement. An improved wing and new Rolls-Royce BR710 Pearl gives better hot and high performance as well as better range and endurance for the newer Global 6500, but for a Finnish scenario the Global 6000 should provide plenty enough of performance and the up-front savings can be better spent elsewhere.

Saab is very much in agreement with Lockheed Martin that having a single-configuration fighter fleet is preferable due to the flexibility it offers when it comes to for example fleet management and readiness. The required capability to be able to pull it off is in Saab’s case based on the brand new integral electronic warfare system – which carries on the tradition of the highly respected JAS 39C/D EW-system – as well as the EAJP offering the wider frequencies and high output power needed to counter not only fire control radars but also other parts of the electro-magnetic spectrum. This goes hand in hand with Saab’s (and Sweden’s) long history of advanced datalinks, which means that Swedish fast jet tactics place a very high emphasis on the four-ship formation as a tactical unit as opposed to the traditional focus on the lead-wingman pair, and allowing e.g. for passive triangulation (another area where Saab and Lockheed Martin is in agreement is that this is a very cool and useful feature).

But none if this is really earth-shattering news. What about that cruise missile?

A Taurus KEPD 350 impacting a concrete target. Picture courtesy of Taurus Systems

The reason behind the Taurus KEPD 350 losing out to AGM-158A JASSM for integration on the Finnish Hornet-fleet was discussed, and Saab responded in rather general terms.

Many factors were behind the original JASSM choice, how flexible were the US authorities in allowing integration of Taurus on Hornet? I don’t know.

Having said that, Saab wasn’t interested in commenting on how flexible the US might be in integrating JASSM on the 39E Gripen. They did however (correctly) point out that the Finnish JASSM inventory is set for either retirement or a mid-life update by the time the Hornets retire, and that technically there are no issues with integrating the weapon.

Still, there’s no tears shed by Saab over the (forced?) choice of Taurus KEPD 350, as they are quick to point out that the weapon is extremely potent, and offering a rather different design philosophy compared to the US offering. Interestingly many of the design choices actually do mirror the design choices of the Gripen-platform itself, lending some credibility to Saab’s argument that it is the superior weapon for a Gripen-fleet in Finnish service.

The basic idea is that radars evolve, and as such the value of stealth will diminish over time. Physics, however, remain surprisingly constant, and as such flying at very low level under the radar horizon is bound to work equally well in 2060 as it does today. This is then coupled with a highly redundant navigation system based on INS, GPS, a radar altimeter, and an IIR-sensor that together open up for image- and terrain-based navigation. This is couple with an advanced mission planning software to ensure that the weapon will get where it needs to be, which take into consideration the overall situation including threats, terrain, friendly forces, and weather.

The mission planning is actually a really interesting feature, as not only is it reportedly very precise (a requirement for being able to fly at extremely low altitude), but by simulating the entire strike it is able to run detailed Monte Carlo-simulations which take into account for example changes in the weather conditions or how the situation for the later missiles released changes with earlier missiles in the strike hitting their targets. The idea is to ensure economy in weapons use, and avoid wasting missiles in saturation attacks. This is a common theme for the marketing of the weapon, promising “low acquisition costs combined with low run-time costs”.

At the heart of this capability is the 480 kg warhead that sport a dual-charge layout with a pre-charge and a penetrator, resulting in what Taurus claim is “unmatched concrete penetration capability” and crucially allows the missile to stay low and attack also hardened targets at shallow dive angles instead of the more classic pop-up profile. But while the bunker-busting features is what the warhead is best known for, specialised fuzes allow additional flexibility such as overflight airburst modes. And again, flexibility further adds to the cost-efficiency.

In short Taurus claims that several factors add up to ensure that more enemy stuff will go boom for the same amount of money compared to JASSM (and yes, continuing the trend after the BAFOs both Taurus and Saab are naming their competitors as opposed to talking about hypothetical comparable systems). In addition, the weapon reportedly outranges the current AGM-158A JASSM in having approximately 600 km range if released at altitude (usual caveats apply).

Interlude: The saga of the JASSM-ER continues

Back in February it seemed the JASSM-version offered to Finland was the weapon originally designated AGM-158D JASSM-XR. However, turns out there’s another twist in USAF weapons procurement that came to light a while ago, as there are in fact a number of different JASSM-ER and -XR versions. The ‘original’ JASSM-XR apparently is still in development though it is now designated AGM-158D JASSM-ER, but it is pushed back as a version of the -ER designated the AGM-158B-2 is entering production. This weapon which is offered to Finland feature the more advanced datalink of the -XR but lack the improved wing (and hence not reaching the same range). At the same time, the US Navy scrapped the JSOW-ER and is focusing on an JASSM-ER version that will feature some components of the AGM-158C LRASM allowing it to also be used as an anti-ship missile, meaning that in total there seems to be at least six different versions of the JASSM either having reached production status or in different stages of development, four of which are designated JASSM-ER (AGM-158B, AGM-158B-2, AGM-158 ‘Navy-version’, and AGM-158D, with the other two being the AGM-158A and the anti-shipping AGM-158C LRASM). Range numbers of the AGM-158B-2 are somewhat obscure, but likely close to the original AGM-158B at around 930 km.

In any case, both the AGM-158B and Taurus KEPD 350 would offer significant increases to the ranges of Finnish air-launched weapons, and while cutting the Jaroslavl-Vologda railroad might be easier with the AGM-158D, a conflict would see no shortage of potential targets within 500 km of the border.

Render of Taurus KEPD 350 showing what is by now a the standard layout of weapons in its class with a boxy fuselage, pop-out wings and rear-mounted fins and engine. Picture courtesy of Taurus Systems

Back to Gripen, the aircraft has been in the headlines recently in Sweden due to budgetary discussions. Saab played down these, noting that none of the reported cost overruns are directly tied to the development of the 39E, but rather they stem from political infighting, earlier overly-optimistic Swedish Armed Forces budgets, and so forth. Not having seen the original documents behind the headlines it’s hard to comment further, though it arguably wouldn’t be the first time there has been a refusal from Swedish politicians to recognise what defence capabilities actually cost.

However, for HX the question is largely moot, as Saab is very much in agreement with Boeing in that now the best and final offers really are the final offers, and that by now everything is set if not in stone then at least ink. The Swedish proposal is firm with regards to contents, price, as well as delivery, and as such it is somewhat different from the FMS framework. And there won’t be any major changes or ‘up to’-wordings.

We have been puzzled by some of the reactions or comments swallowed by the media, there is not ‘later’

We’ll have to see what Lockheed Martin has to say about that.

Saab also confirmed that there are further weapon types in the offer that haven’t been disclosed. While there certainly are some who would like to believe this to be the RBS 15, in reality it is likely to be about gravity bombs.

A more cut-throat statement was that not only is Saab certain that the robustness and availability of the Gripen ensure that “with margin there will always be more than 50 Gripens available in peacetime”, their business intelligence based on open sources gives that for “the competition” the corresponding number would be about 35 fighters available. And that is before including the fact that Gripen would be flying less due to the GlobalEyes providing a better situational picture.

We’ll have to see what “the competition” has to say about that.

The Further Adventures of the F-35 (and the Super Hornet)

The HX competition continues to provide surprises in the post-BAFO era, and this week’s media event courtesy of the US Embassy was no exception. After a short introduction by the embassy that described the strong partnership that exists between Finland and the US (and which included a note about Finnish exports and know-how finding its way into key US programs, such as the Polar Security Cutter), it was on to the two US fighter manufacturers to discuss their bids. And while they might be taking part in the same media event, the tone certainly tells of the battle heating up. Boeing discarded outright the theory of ordinary fighters working as EW-platforms, noting that an AESA radar will only provide X-band jamming, and only during ingress, leaving you unprotected when exiting the target area, while Lockheed Martin explained how the F-35A doesn’t require support from electronic warfare platforms or ISR assets “as opposed to 4th generation fighters”.

Illustration of the difference between having a dedicated EW-aircraft compared to an unnamed strike fighter (no points for guessing which, though) using its AESA-radar as a giant jammer. The colour coding symbolise different bands, with the underwing pods of the Growler jamming the S-, C-, and X-bands while the centre-line pod handles the VHF, UHF, and L-band part of the spectrum. Picture courtesy of Boeing

Much of the presentation from Boeing should be well-known talking points to readers of the blog, but in short Boeing still sees international opportunities for up to 400 Super Hornets on the international market. This includes everything from Germany, which already has down-selected the aircraft, to less likely cases such as India.The German contract is the most important one from a Finnish point of view and would likely be a minor facor in HX as it would mean another serious European operator, though my expectation is that the deal won’t be inked until the new government is formed and have gotten up to speed (read: 2022, which also seems to be roughly the timeline Boeing is expecting). Some have questioned the future of the programme as a whole with the rise of Die Grünen, but so far the programme is continuing apace and Germany has indeed already invested money in the preparatory studies, which would imply that the MoD is expecting it to survive a change of government. Notable also that while the Greens aren’t particularly keen on nuclear weapons, part of the allure of the Super Hornet in the strike role comes from the synergies of the Growler which is part of the non-controversial luWES Tornado ECR-replacement program. Of the near-future decisions, the Swiss and Canadian decision are expected within June and before the end of the summer respectively. Switzerland and Canada are less likely to end in work for St Louis, but you never know.

[Industrial participation] is an area where we are clearly differentiated, we have an unblemished track record.

The major talking points of Boeing were the Growler and their industrial participation package. There won’t be final assembly of aircraft or engines in Finland in case of a Boeing win, but rather production of major aircraft and engine structures for the Super Hornet/Growler. While less media-sexy than the final assembly promised by BAES and Saab, the devil is in the details and which one is better than the other from economic or military points of view will depend on the level of assembly (i.e. how large parts are being delivered to be assembled?) compared to how major the parts produced are. The direct industrial participation is in total 49 different programs spread out over 20 different companies, and on the US side include not only Boeing themselves but other major partners of the Super Hornet industrial team such as Northrop Grumman, GE Aircraft Engines, and Raytheon. On the indirect side, Boeing is striving to “leverage the breadth of the whole company”, i.e. including the civilian and other divisions and not just Boeing Defence.

Discussing weapons in a later call, Boeing confirmed that their offer include a modern version of the AMRAAM, the AIM-120C-8. This is quite a bit of a step-up from the Finnish Air Force’s current C-7, though exactly how much is unclear. Many sources refer to the C-8 as a rebranded D, which is the weapon responsible for the recent test that the USAF described as “the longest known air-to-air missile shot“. Exact range is obviously both classified and depending on a number of launch parameters, but the F-14 Tomcat/AIM-54 Phoenix combo is known to have downed drones in 200+ km tests, so that should give a good indicator of the ranges we are talking about. However, long-time defence journalist Joseph Trevithick stated that his understanding is that the C-8 is a hybrid-version for export that involve much of the improvements of the AIM-120D, such as third-party targeting datalinks, but not the improved engine (range is still likely somewhat better than C-7 thanks to improved steering economy). In any case, a Boeing spokesperson confirmed that while they are “pretty happy with that [the AIM-120C-8]”, there obviously are “other things” coming in the near future (read: the AIM-260 JATM). While commercial details made it impossible to include the upcoming weapon in the BAFO and Boeing can’t comment on potential weapons buys post-BAFO, it should be noted that the details known include a rather aggressive development timeline that will see the JATM overtake the AMRAAM in production in the mid-20’s, a decision by the US Navy to first integrate it on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, as well as the Finnish Air Force having expressed a wish to stay as close as possible to the standard of the main operator of any fighter they buy. Add these all together, and it starts to seem highly likely that by the time HX reaches FOC in 2030, in case the Super Hornet wins, the Finnish Air Force would be flying around with a mix of AIM-120C-8 and AIM-260. Still, for the time being the C-8 is what’s on offer, and Boeing claim to be “confident in their ability to defeat the high-end threats” presented in the HX-scenarios with it.

The Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile – Extended Range (AARGM-ER) during captive carry tests. The missile is externally rather different from earlier members of the AGM-88 family in that it lacks the characteristic mid-body wings. The Navy is integrating AARGM-ER on the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G, and it will be compatible for integration of the F-35. Picture source: U.S. Navy photo

Another question is what the Growler will carry for their kinetic missions. Here Boeing was more careful, and declined to mention a weapon, but noted that the Growler-offer obviously include both kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities. Add the earlier mentioned FinAF wish to stay close to the US Navy configuration, and the answer is rather clear: a Finnish EA-18G Growler would use the AGM-88G AARGM-ER to kill stuff. Another key question for the Growler is obviously the low- and high-band jammers that weren’t part of the original DSCA-notification. Here again the timeline causes something of a headache for Boeing, as the USN will be flying with at least the NGJ-LB jammer before FOC for a Finnish Growler-fleet, but they can’t be released for export yet as they are still in development. However, the plan would, again referring to the fact that Finland does not want a unique Finnish standard, be for Finland to operate with whatever the main user employs, so expect to see some money set aside for the missing NGJ-pods if Finland gets the Growler. In the meantime, there is the option of using loaned pods (i.e. AN/ALQ-99) to get training started.

Our offer is complete for the Growler.

For Lockheed Martin the big news was that they were finally ready to talk numbers as well as industrial participation, and there were certainly positive news.

64 is the only number in our offer.

In what can only be described as a surprise to me (as well as to a number of other people), Lockheed Martin confirmed that their bid is built around 64 F-35A. The rest of their message was less surprisingly centred on the value of having a single-configuration fleet made up of the most advanced tactical aircraft currently found on the market. In short, having a single aircraft configuration means that everything from training, maintenance, logistics, and support equipment are easier to plan and manage (which makes it cheaper). This also translate into simpler tasking as every aircraft can fly every mission. Regarding the statement that the F-35 “does not require electronic warfare or AEW platforms as a fourth generation fighter”, it certainly is less dependent on force multipliers (all other things equal) than most other platforms out there, but there are certainly room for nuance here. There’s a reason why the USAF is investing in AEW platforms and expeditionary Growler squadrons, while at the same time quite a number of smaller air forces are able to fly fast jets independently without force multipliers (though as the phrase suggests, that solution isn’t optimal).

A Finnish Air Force F/A-18D Hornet sporting two AGM-158A JASSM heavy cruise missiles. The weapon has received almost mythical status in Finnish media, and while some of its reputation is exaggerated, there’s no denying it is a key capability. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

When it comes to weapon, Lockheed Martin doesn’t want to discuss what’s coming after the AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM, though it is safe to assume that the AIM-260 wouldn’t be far away here either (especially considering it is a Lockheed Martin product as opposed to the AIM-120). More interesting is the fact that Lockheed Martin put focus on how a stealthy aircraft is able to get closer to the target and as such is less reliant on expensive long-range weaponry. Coupled with the emphasise on the JSM as a “true fifth generation weapon”, and the fact that at no point has Lockheed Martin discussed the JASSM, the rumour mill is starting to ask a new question.

Is there a heavy cruise missile at all in Lockheed Martin’s best and final offer?

The JSM is a very nice weapon, and it marries extremely well with the F-35. However, the 550+ km range is a far cry from the 1,850+ km range of the AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER which is cleared for export to Finland as part of both US offers, but as noted the JASSM has never been confirmed by Lockheed Martin. Granted the F-35A might be able to operate closer to its intended target than the Super Hornet, but I sincerely doubt the difference is in the 1,300+ km class. And the difference isn’t just in the range (the JSM in fact outranges the current AGM-158A, so it would still be a step up), but the JASSM carries a 450-kg penetrating warhead while the JSM comes with the significantly more tame 125-kg fragmentation one.

To put it bluntly – it might be a cruise missile, but it is not the capability the Finnish Air Force is looking for.

I’d be happy to be proven wrong, but it certainly feels a bit worrying, and it might explain another somewhat strange issue with the wording of Lockheed Martin, namely their stubborn refusal to talk about 64 aircraft without including the phrase “up to” before it. This prompted Iltalehti’s Lauri Nurmi to ask what exactly “up to 64” meant, which lead to the “only number in offer”-quote above. However, the answer also included disclaimers about final negotiations between selection and contract signing as well as exchange rates causing issues. These are certainly valid concerns, the original Finnish F/A-18C Hornet order was cut by three airframes compared to the offer due to the Finnish mark collapsing compared to the US dollar, and everyone expects some tweaking between the BAFO and the eventual contract.

Except for the fact that both Boeing and Saab has committed to 64 fighters, full stop.

Boeing was more than happy to offer some insight into how the exchange rate between euro and US dollar is handled in HX during our call yesterday, and provided the following quote:

The exchange rate utilized for the BAFO was provided to all candidates on the same day. The US competitors are utilizing the same exchange rate for USD vs Euro. With that same exchange rate we are able to provide 64 aircraft (50 Super Hornets and 14 Growler) along with a complete weapons and sustainment package. Also with that same exchange rate, we are able to clearly demonstrate that with our solution, we can fit within the O&S budget provided by the FDF

With regards to the eventual negotiations, Boeing was also confident enough to guarantee 64 fighters:

With our [Boeing’s] offer, should we be down-selected, there is room to negotiate items within the offer to better refine the solution, however, regardless of that, it is guaranteed that Finland will receive 64 aircraft along with a complete weapons and sustainment solution as a baseline.

Now, if there really is some rather significant holes in the F-35 package, such as the lack of a heavy cruise missile, it isn’t far-fetched to see a re-negotiation where say two aircraft are dropped and the cost is converted into JASSMs, as in all fairness the difference between 64 and 62 aircraft would in practice turn out to be rather minor. On the other hand, it is the BAFO package that will be evaluated in the war games that determine the winner, and it would be a high-risk gamble to go in with something else than the optimal solution to the needs of the FDF. A third possibility is that Lockheed Martin is believing that they won’t come out on top, and then it would look better to be able to walk away saying that they were able to fit 64 aircraft in their offer under the budget given, but that they lost on some more particularly Finnish requirement (defence budgets and numbers are rather global phenomenon and affect every future fighter programme in which they wish to compete, dispersed operations in snow doesn’t).

F-35A during HX Challenge last year. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

This is obviously pure speculation, but the insistence on talking about “up to 64” is somewhat puzzling. I am however happy that it turned out the number of fighters offered is serious, and as noted am overall positively surprised by this development (BAES and Dassault, take note). This was also the case with the industrial participation programme, which included guaranteed manufacturing of airframe components up to 2040 as well as external stealth panels within the same time frame. The number of guaranteed panels also exceed the Finnish requirement, meaning that Finland is guaranteed component production to some non-Finnish F-35s. I am not sure how well that will sit with countries that didn’t secure guaranteed production orders, but as noted in the case of the Super Hornet, from a Finnish point of view parts production can certainly be at least as good or even better than final assembly depending on the details of the offer. The key words here are “guaranteed” and “exceeding Finnish requirements”, and we got them, so I believe it is safe to assume the industrial participation package is at the very least adequate.

Much was also made about how the operating and sustainment costs are coming down, and how the aircraft is “living in single digit maintenance hours”. This is certainly good news for Lockheed Martin, as the operating budget will likely prove the toughest hurdle for the company in HX. Another proof of how the aircraft is maturing is the mission capable rate which now is the best of all USAF fast jets. However, while 76 % and pole position is nice, the truth is that the F-35 is a new aircraft largely still unburdened by combat usage. The fact that the F-16C-fleet reaches almost 74 % despite being on average 29 years old on the other hand puts the numbers in perspective. Other old and heavily worked USAF platforms are also hovering around the 70 %-mark, including the F-15C (72 %, 35 years on average) and F-15E (69 %, 27 years on average). As such, this particular metric might not be the huge win the F-35 is looking for, but it is still a nice step in the right direction, especially considering the unexpected engine shortage the aircraft suffered last year.

In general, as has been discussed earlier on the blog, the story of F-35 sustainment issues does feel like a two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance. The latest serious question mark surrounds the replacement of the company-controlled ALIS maintenance software with the government-owned ODIN, which has run into trouble. At the heart of recent discussions have been the extent to which Lockheed Martin is involved in the maintenance and logistics, and how to reach the milestone of “25 by 25”, meaning that by 2025 there would be a ~29,000 USD per flying hour support cost (the name comes from 29,000 USD in 2025 corresponding to 25,000 in base year 2012 dollars). Lockheed Martin’s proposal is more direct involvement and longer contracts, something the USAF isn’t too keen on. It should be noted that for the FDF involving industry to work very closely on maintenance isn’t a new issue, the whole Millog-idea in fact rests on doing business this way. However, government control is very much a key issue for the FDF, which has been seen for example in the other strategic procurement where the decision was made to have the FDF own the design of the Squadron 2020 vessels and then hire a yard to build them. Having a foreign defence company tell the FDF what data about their own aircraft they may (or may not) access might certainly be a red line, and with the US government facing issues renegotiating intellectual property rights, the odds of Finland managing better here are slim.

Stop, BAFO Time!

The Best and Final Offers (BAFO) for the HX tender are in, and from here onwards there’s no adjustments to the offers. Whatever the bidder has promised is what they are legally bound to deliver. Now we as well as the OEMs will just have to wait until the end of the year to hear who have been chosen. This also means that the embargo on disclosing details has been lifted, and the suppliers are free to share further information if they want to. Interestingly, some has chosen not to, though that may be telling in itself. Dassault sticks to their line and hasn’t even said whether they have responded to the BAFO-request, though the Finnish authorities have confirmed that they have received all five responses. Lockheed Martin published a short press release, as did Boeing, who followed up with casually dropping the number of fighters offered when asked about it. BAES and Saab in turn held full-blown media events. So what do we know?

The race is on

The big news is that LOGCOM was able to secure five offers, and apparently five serious ones. I struggle to remember when it would have happened that a country has managed to keep a fighter acquisition program fair and open enough that no-one has decided to drop out prematurely or not supply an offer at all (at least Norway, Denmark, Croatia, Slovakia, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Bulgaria, and India have held fighter tenders within the last few years, all of which have either led to some dropping out mid-way, not responding to quotations, the whole program being cancelled, the invitation to tender being rather narrow, or bids being disqualified). It’s hard to overestimate how significant this achievement is, and how important of a quality certificate it is to the process as a whole. In contrast to what some armchair analysts have argued, that some of the largest defence companies in the world – with business intelligence units to match and arguably somewhat cynical worldviews – believe that they have enough of a fair chance to win the competition that they are prepared to invest heavily into making their bids is a solid indication that the tendering process has been, and still is, open and undecided. This also feels reassuring to me as a taxpayer in ensuring that it really will be the best system offered to Finland that will end up in Finnish colours.

Then-colonel Keränen describing the HX decision making model during last year’s HX Challenge. Source: Own picture

A big congrats to LOGCOM, the Finnish Air Force, and the MoD for this achievement!

numbers

The number game is interesting. At their press conference, BAES pointed out that they wouldn’t disclose the numbers as all bids weren’t confirmed to have been returned, as that apparently was the wish of the MoD. This sounded logical enough, until the bids were confirmed by the MoD to all have been returned, and BAES still declined to release any numbers. The full quote by a Eurofighter spokesperson was:

We are confident our offer will deliver sufficient Eurofighter aircraft to meet the challenge set by Finland to fully replace its existing capability. This is a competitive process and we will release further details of our offer as appropriate.

This was echoed by Dassault, who told Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat that the MoD had not given permission to release numbers. At the same time, Boeing was happily telling anyone asking that their offer consisted of 50 F/A-18E Super Hornets and 14 EA-18G Growler, i.e. matching the original 57 F/A-18C Hornet and 7 F/A-18D Hornet Finland bought in the 90’s. A bit later Lockheed Martin confirmed that they had sent in an offer that included:

F-35A fighters as well as a maintenance solution

Saab in turn held a press conference on Friday, which included the news that they were to supply 64 JAS 39E Gripen as well as 2 GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft in case they got chosen.

Those who have been watching the process closely will note that it is the two producers who have been expected to sport the cheapest fighters that have disclosed their numbers, and both match the current 64 fighter figure (or rather, the original 64 fighter, as Finland has lost two Hornets in accidents). Saab was also happy to rub it in, noting that while there was no requirement for a set number of aircraft, there was indeed:

Floating around a general expectation in Finland [of 64 fighters]

I’m not sure there’s quite an expectation for 64 fighters, as a matter of fact I personally expected both Boeing and Saab to land in the 60-64 range, but there’s certainly an expectation for almost 64. This stems from years of writings, interviews, and podcasts in which both the HX programme leadership as well as the senior Air Force personnel commenting on the issue has noted that we need roughly the same number of fighters as A) Finland is still the same size as it was in 1995, B) the speed of the fighters are roughly the same as it was back then, and C) the range of the weapons is roughly the same as it was back then. Yes, on a tactical level supercruise and Meteor provide significant increases, but when it comes to the operational or strategic level those are rather minor changes. There’s still 390,905 km² that needs to be defended.

As the Finnish Air Force demonstrated last year when it surged 32 Hornets for a total of eight four-ship formations (out of a fleet of 62), getting coverage really needs numbers. Even in the best of scenarios, the classic three-to-one ratio is a handy rule-of-thumb for prolonged operations. Let’s imagine a snapshot of a wartime scenario:

  • We are a few days into the war, the operational tempo is still very high as the first wave of the enemy offensive is still ongoing,
  • The Finnish Air Force has lost a total of 16 aircraft, including those shot down and damaged in combat, as well as those damaged and destroyed on the ground in opening strikes,
  • The Air Force currently has one formation airborne as part of an air defence tasking in the south-east,
  • A second formation is on the ground in dispersed locations in the northern parts of the country, ready to take-off and either relieve the southern formation once it needs to return to base, or to intercept enemies heading north,
  • Four aircraft are currently returning from a bombing raid on enemy advancing mechanised formations and the bridges they rely on for their movements,
  • Two aircraft are over the northern Baltic Sea, trying to create an accurate maritime situational picture (i.e. locating enemy vessels) as well as checking for a high-value ISR-platform that is known to occasionally operate out of Kaliningrad,
  • Two aircraft are being prepared with heavy cruise missiles for a deep strike mission against enemy rail infrastructure,
  • For each active aircraft there are two others that are either the process of refuelling, being maintained, transferring between dispersed bases, or simply standing on the ground allowing the pilots some rest between missions.

You can obviously argue the details, but that is a scenario that is possible with 64 aircraft (16 active in the missions mentioned, 32 in reserve, 16 lost). If you start out with 40 aircraft, you will quickly run into some “interesting” numbers:

  • If you’ve lost 16 aircraft, that’s 40% of your force instead of 25% as in the 64 aircraft-scenario. To match 25% losses, you can only afford to lose 10 fighters,
  • Even if you only lose 25% of the fleet, that still leaves you with just 30 aircraft, of which 10 are available. If you still want one four-ship in the air and one on the ground ready to scramble to perform air defence tasks, that leaves a grand total of *two* aircraft for other missions. Not two formations, but two aircraft.

That’s the tyranny of the numbers, and while they certainly can be mitigated (minimise own losses, have spare pilots on the dispersed bases to avoid rest periods, increase spares availability and maintenance capability on dispersed locations, …) there’s really no way around them. And notable is that during exercise Ruska 20, the opening scenario based on a released map featured no less than thirteen four-ships, one three-ship, and a two-ship, all operating in an area well below half of the country’s surface area (as well as what presumably is a Swedish Hercules soloing straight down through the battlespace). Based on the same picture, my guess is that five of those formations might have been REDFOR, leaving 37 BLUFOR fighters airborne simultaneously to defend the airspace between Rovaniemi and Tampere.

Kan vara en bild av karta

The big question for HX then is whether the three manufacturers that are withholding their numbers are doing so because 58 would look bad when someone else has 64 (and that 9% difference in my opinion is still one where it might be possible to make a case for better overall capability thanks to higher availability and lower losses), or whether it is because the numbers offered are outrageously low (the threshold is somewhere in the low-fifties in my book). It is somewhat surprising – and honestly, rather worrying – that three out of five doesn’t want to talk numbers.

Industrial participation
In late April the Italian Air Force Baltic Air Policing detachment became the first to bring the F-35A to perform the QRA-mission over the Gulf of Finland. Picture source: Eesti Õhuvägi FB

As discussed in an earlier post, the Lockheed Martin-team doesn’t want to discuss their industrial cooperation package in detail, though in their press release they have gone into some further details:

The final offer 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.

“The F-35 offers Finnish industry high-tech jobs that none of our competitors can offer,” says Bridget Lauderdale, director of the F-35 program. “Production collaboration would continue for more than 20 years and F-35 maintenance collaboration until the 2050s. Finland would maintain its own F-35 fighters and also support the global F-35 fleet by manufacturing significant aircraft parts. ”

Outside of F-35 production, Lockheed Martin would build partnerships with Finnish companies and universities to develop and promote defense cooperation in indirect industrial cooperation projects.

This is still vague, but better than what Dassault have been able to produce when it comes to disclosing information about their offer. Boeing’s latest press release is in fact even weaker than L-M’s, though they can at least lean on the fact that last time around L-M was thrown out of the competition due to an inadequate IP-offer while Boeing went on to manage a successful IP-program for the legacy-Hornets. Still, their statement is honestly anaemic:

Boeing’s offer also include an extensive industrial cooperation program that offers significant long-term opportunities for Finnish industry.

On to better news: Saab and BAES are happy to discuss details. Both are promising final assembly lines of both engines and airframes in Finland, as well significant other measures. BAES description includes several details:

The opportunity to perform final assembly of the aircraft including EJ200 engine build and maintenance; a partnership in the future development of primary sensors, including technical transfer and data analytic tools and techniques for mission data generation and electronic warfare; the transfer of extensive maintenance, repair, overhaul capability. And, the transfer of data and authority to make upgrades to the aircraft.

In addition, we are proposing projects that enable transfer and ongoing cooperation in Cyber Security which will build resilience in military assets and networks and Space technologies. And a suite of Research and development projects across a broad range of technologies that is being spearheaded by our partner MBDA. These benefit Finnish industry, including small medium enterprises, and Finnish academia.

The jobs that we are offering as a result are high quality, long term jobs equating to over 20 million man hours over 30 years, with the knock on benefit to the wider economy driving this figure even higher, and I am proud to be part of the team submitting this offer into Finland today.

Alex Zino of Rolls-Royce was also able to produce some numbers related to the impact of the engine production line to show that it wasn’t just about unpacking crates being shipped in from the UK: the tech transfer and engine production would result in a combined workload of approximately 1.5 million man hours over 40 years.

Saab on the other hand has earlier talked about approximately 10,000 workyears. A quick back-of-the-enveloped calculation gives the number of jobs on average as something like in the low three-hundreds for Saab and in the high three-hundreds for BAES (using approximately 1,700 hours per year as a benchmark), but there’s obviously significant uncertainties in how exactly the numbers have been calculated. To put it into perspective, this number corresponds to over a third of the whole of INSTA Group, the second major player in Finnish defence industry after Patria.

In the case of BAES, perhaps the single-most interesting piece of technology transfer is the invitation to join the ECRS Mk2 development programme, which promises to be significant both from a military as well as technological point of view. Despite the ECRS standing for European Common Radar System, it is in fact heavily led by the UK for the time being, presumably providing relatively much room for bringing foreign partners aboard compared to some other joint-systems shared by all four core countries. Another key part is obviously the continued discussion on sovereign mission data capability, where the turnaround times promised are in a completely different league from any US offers.

Based on the Royal Air Force’s extensive operational experience, we will establish a sovereign mission data capability to rapidly update the weapon system with the latest threat identification and countermeasure tactics, sortie-by-sortie, if necessary. Mission data is the life blood of any modern combat system, and security of supply is more than repairing physical components.

The RAF describe this as being how the force currently operate in the Middle East, with new threats and emitters being included in the aircraft libraries from one sortie to the other.

Saab is on the other hand planning on creating a System Centre, which will be responsible both for tactics development as well as the fleet management and data part of things. In essence, this would likely handle the same things as the BAES offered sovereign mission data capability, while also providing support to the FDF LOGCOM and the Air Combat Centre of Satakunta Air Command, all under one (literal of figurative?) roof.

weapons

Again, to reiterate Dassault isn’t saying anything, Lockheed Martin is saying something, Boeing is promising to tell more in the future, and Saab and BAES is giving their lists to everyone asking.

As we know from the DSCA requests both the F-35 and the Super Hornet would bring JDAMs (HE as well as bunker buster rounds), GBU-53/B SDB II’s small glide bombs, AGM-154C-1 JSOW stealthy glide weapons with a secondary anti-ship capability, AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER very long-range heavy cruise missiles, and AIM-9X short-range air-to-air missiles. Lockheed Martin now confirms that the offer also include the AIM-120 AMRAAM in an unspecified version as well as the JSM (Joint Strike Missile). Neither of these are particularly unexpected, but the JSM offers a nifty capability in its dual use against sea- and ground-targets, as well as passive seeker and possibility of internal carriage in the F-35, as briefly discussed last time around. The expectation is also that there will be a second DSCA-request for undisclosed versions of the AGM-88 signal-seeking missile (likely the AGM-88E AARGM) as well as for AIM-120 AMRAAMs for Boeing, though these are unconfirmed for the time being.

BAES’s bid would bring what the Royal Air Force Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston KCB CBE ADC, describe as the full suite of weapons employed by the RAF – including the upcoming SPEAR 3 light cruise missile as well as the SPEAR EW version, a loitering stand-in jammer. However, curiously absent from the discussion was the Brimstone anti-tank missile, which has been a staple of the Operation Shader, RAF’s anti-ISIS campaign. However, the other two weapons that has been heavily in use in the Middle East by RAF Tornados and Typhoons are included in the list provided – namely the Storm Shadow heavy cruise missile and the Paveway IV guided bomb. The later is a 227-kg guided bomb with dual-mode anti-jamming GPS/INS as well as laser guidance, meaning that it can be used against moving targets. The weapon comes with both HE and penetrator warheads, though the physics dictate that the penetrator isn’t as efficient as those of heavier weapons. From a Finnish point of view, the Brimstone is likely something of a nice-to-have, as with both the SPEAR 3 and the Paveway IV there isn’t really any target that can’t be countered (although in certain scenarios the SPEAR 3 might be overkill while the Paveway IV might require release inconveniently close. Here the GBU-53/B SDB II has an edge thanks to its gliding properties). However, these missions (read: striking vehicles in massed armoured formations) are likely not the mission sets that are of primarily concern to the Finnish Air Force. Perhaps the most interesting detail would be the change from AIM-9X to ASRAAM as the short-range air-to-air missile of the Finnish Air Force. The ASRAAM, as opposed to both IRIST-T and AIM-9X, prioritise range over manoeuvrability, and while the jury is still out on which is more important by the time (or rather: if) you get into a short-range fight, the ability to fire missiles with passive IIR-seekers out to near-AMRAAM ranges is certainly interesting, especially in case of a heavily degraded EW-environment or against stealthy targets.

Saab showed of a large scale model of Gripen E in Finnish colours equipped with AGM-158 JASSM and RBS 15 at Kuopio Air Show in 2016. Now that particular options seems to be off the table. Source: Own picture

Saab’s offer in turn include at least IRIS-T and Meteor in the air-to-air role. This is no surprise, as these are the current staples on the Swedish JAS 39C/D Gripen-fleet, and have proved rather popular in Northern Europe in general. More interesting was the inclusion of SPEAR 3 (the EW-variant is not included, as Saab offers its own LADM that is currently in development and aiming for a similar role), as well as the decision to go with the KEPD 350/Taurus as their heavy cruise missile. Saab started out their HX-campaign actively pushing the fact that they can integrate any weapon they need, with the same message being repeated this week. It certainly might be the case, but somehow they still seemingly ended up basically offering MBDA’s portfolio of air-launched weaponry (complemented by Diehl’s IRIS-T and their own KEPD 350).

While it is extremely difficult to judge the true capabilities of the three heavy cruise missiles on offer, it remains a fact that KEPD 350 lost the Finnish evaluation for a heavy cruise missile against the baseline AGM-158A JASSM the last time around. And this time, it is up against the significantly improved AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER (formerly known as AGM-158D JASSM-XR). Again, it is hard to say much for certain, the KEPD 350 has also beaten the JASSM and Storm Shadow in certain competitions, but the decision seems strange on paper. There is a new version in the form of the Taurus K-2 in the pipeline, though that is still in development and the improvements seem rather modest compared to the step from AGM-158A to -158B-2.

Saab’s heavy anti-ship missile RBS 15 Gungnir (based on their Mk 4-version of the venerable weapon) is obviously available as it is a key Swedish requirement, but it seems to be left out of at least this original weapons package. On the other hand, it is safe to assume that there are some smart bombs (likely the GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II 227 kg GPS/INS and laser-guided bomb, as well as either GBU-39 SDB or the GBU-53/B SDB II small glide bombs) making up the lower-end of the package as these have featured rather heavily in both US as well as the BAES packages.

The most impressive part of Saab’s weapons package was the statement that the value of the weapons are “>20 % of the proposal price relating to Gripen”. At first glance this looks like 0.2 x 9.0 Bn EUR = 1.8 Bn EUR, which certainly would provide for a massive number of weapons. However, upon looking at the fine print, it does seem like at least the GlobalEye-portion of the offer is left out of the starting number, as may certain other items (Indirect industrial participation? Training?). I have reached out to Saab for a comment, and will update once I get their answer. Edit 3 May 2021: Magnus Skogberg confirmed that the value of the weapons “is above 15 % of the value of the whole offer (i.e. including Globaleye, IP, etc.)”. Presumably that means above approximately 1.35 Bn Eur. In either case, the weapons package does seem to be a sizeable one, though exactly how large is an open question (as a benchmark, the DSCA-clearances were for roughly 300 guided bombs, 150 JSM/JSOW, and 200 JASSM-ER, though obviously there’s no guarantee that the maximum number of weapons will be sought).

While the lack of large stocks for European weapons compared to US ones is one of the strongest arguments for a US fighter, the importance of this argument obviously would decrease with the size of the Finnish Air Force’s weapons stocks increasing.

The two-seaters

What became evident is that the days of traditional type conversion being flown in two-seaters seems to be on the way out for the Finnish Air Force. The Boeing offer did not feature a single vanilla-two-seater, with all fourteen two-seaters being Growlers. Saab followed suite and went for 64 single-seat JAS 39E despite their original 2018 proposal having been split between 12 JAS 39F two-seater and 52 JAS 39E. Eurofighter has earlier seemed lukewarm to the idea of including two-seaters, while F-35 obviously does not come in a two-seat model.

For Boeing the decision to leave out the F/A-18F Super Hornets is somewhat surprising as apparently still by the time the DSCA-requests were made late last year the option to include up to eight twin-seaters was still there. A Boeing contact with insight into current Finnish Air Force training procedures notes that despite the lack of flight controls in the backseat of a Growler, the flight characteristics and ability to bring along a backseater means that their use in peacetime training is seen as “quite reasonable”. However, it is obviously down to the Air Force whether they want to use it in that role.

For Saab, the decision was even more of a surprise. As noted, in the last proposal they were allowed to comment on they saw quite a large role for the two-seaters. In the words of Magnus Skogberg, program director for Saab’s HX bid:

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.

This was how it sounded back in March 2019, despite the GlobalEye being well and truly an established part of their bid already back then. In this week’s press briefing, the company took a strong stance that the 39E with its internal EW-suite, EAJP-pod, and LADM-decoys can handle the SEAD-mission without the need for specialised platforms – or, presumably, dedicated crewmembers. Some commentators have pointed to the ability to direct the Gripen’s EW-suite from the GlobalEye through the datalink, though I have not seen that feature mentioned in any of Saab’s material and it would seem to be a less flexible solution compared to formations having their own dedicated EW-operator (in essence having fourteen Growlers for 50 fighters means every four-ship out there could have their own EW-escort).

While it is difficult to say exactly what has caused this change of hearts over at Saab (the wish to harmonize their bid with the Swedish Air Force force structure probably played a part), it shows that the multi-staged HX-process works in that the offers have been tailored and changed even in rather dramatic fashion since the first round of RFPs. What Saab did mention, however, is that there is still included an option for 39F in the bid, presumably either in the form of buying additional airframes or converting a number of the 39E offered to 39F. However, as this bid is based on Saab’s best understanding of what the Finnish Air Force wants following years of discussion, I personally find it highly unlikely that the option would be used.

The large number of Growlers on the other hand is very significant, and I will admit I did not expect 14 aircraft to fit inside the budget. Keen readers will have noted that there wasn’t as many NGJ-MB jammers in the request, these were limited to eight sets. However, while the NGJ is at the heart of the Growler’s electronic attack and jamming capability, a key part of the situational awareness in fact comes from internal sensors, including the the wingtip ALQ-218 RF Receivers. These tell the pilot not only what is out there, but also where it is, and the crew can then decide what to do with that information, whether to engage with weapons, avoid, or jam in case they have brought along their NGJ. As such the value of including Growlers as part of normal formations is significant, both for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. The additional value of a backseater also means that you have an extra person who isn’t busy flying the aircraft, and who potentially could, I don’t know, perhaps function as an “Electronic Warfare Officer, Mission Commander and/or a Weapon System Officer”.

I have mentioned it before, but it continues to be an important point in the greater picture that in my opinion is brought up often enough: the value of having the unique capabilities that the EA-18G Growler brings does not limit themselves to wartime, but they would give our politicians quite a few more options on the escalation ladder prior to full-blown war. This includes both better situational awareness, as well as the ability to meet e.g. GPS-jamming with non-kinetic means that still can hurt hostile operations without causing damage to adversary equipment or losses to their personnel. Another possibility is the ability to support international operations with a key high-profile and high-demand (but internationally rare) capability, and one that require a relative small footprint in and risks for FDF personnel.

The ability of Boeing to offer 14 Growlers and still reach 64 fighters in total is an extremely strong card on their part, although I do have to caution that the crucial question of the future of the Super Hornet-family past 2040 is still unanswered.

Stealth, Dispersed Operations, and a big Jammer

With the first Danish F-35 now officially handed over to the Flyvevåbnet, it seems to be a suitable time to look at the aircraft that perhaps arouses the strongest emotions of all HX-contenders. I have earlier criticised the Kampfly-programme under which the F-35 was chosen (though I should note that the F-35 not being able to fairly prove that it is best fit for the Danish requirements doesn’t mean it isn’t), and a number of decisions surrounding Denmark’s future fighter have raised questions about how a potential HX-winning F-35 force would look in practice (*cough*, the RDAF Skrydstrup budget). To get some answers to the questions, I recently had an opportunity to chat with Scott Davis, Lockheed Martin’s Managing Director for Finland.

An F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 356th Fighter Squadron takes off from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, an air base at roughly the same latitude as Rovaniemi AFB, but with more dramatic mountains (Sorry, Ounasvaara!). Source: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Beaux Hebert

While few if any analysts doubt that being stealthy is good, or that the F-35 is the stealthiest of the five HX-contenders, questions have been raised about the trade-offs that brings, and whether the same effects can be achieved cheaper and with greater versatility through the use of active electronic warfare systems? However, the F-35 is far from a one-trick pony, and while the marketing is often heavily focused on the passive measures taken to lower the aircraft’s signature, it does in fact sport a state-of-the-art active EW-suite as well. The two key pieces of hardware here are the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 AESA radar with a large number of transmitter/receiver modules, as well as the huge Pratt & Whitney F135-engine pushing the aircraft and, crucially, providing electric power to all the subsystems.

The fact that the EW-suite is built up around internal systems means that all the power and cooling needed can be drawn from the aircraft’s main systems, as well as allowing the AESA radar itself to function as seriously sized jammer. Not only does this mean that the jamming power is more than an order of magnitude greater than those of traditional pods according to Lockheed Martin, but they also note the fact that the large antenna surface allows for a very narrow beam, lessening the risk of detection from enemy passive sensors. Scott acknowledges that podded solutions are easier to tailor for a wide range of threats, but while he won’t disclose the closer specifications of what the AN/APG-81 can do as a jammer, there are some things he can tell:

All things that can kill you […] is within our jamming range.

That includes both hostile aircraft as well as missiles, or in general anything that can give a fire-control quality radar track.

Scott Davis had a varied career in the USAF, flying fighters from the late Cold War-period up until the F-22, before retiring from service after a period as the US Defence Attaché in Helsinki. Picture courtesy of Lockheed Martin

However, the aircraft is also able to use the radar in passive mode, during which it in essence becomes a large listening device. With several aircraft in formation sharing passively acquired data through the high-bandwidth MADL datalink (which is designed to be difficult to detect and jam compared to earlier standards such as Link 16), it can then rapidly triangulate other emitters.

If you’re not transmitting, you’re in effect an electronic sponge.

The nice thing here is obviously the synergies that can be had through having your aircraft naturally being able to operate closer to the adversary without being detected, but also being able to do so either completely passively or only using systems that are relatively hard to detect. In essence, with these capabilities feeding into each other the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Granted, electronic warfare capabilities are among the aspects that are hardest to judge based on open sources. However, if the F-35 even achieves par in the EW domain compared to the competition, it should according to all logic be better off overall in a combat situation due to the aforementioned synergies coupled with the stealth features, all other things being equal.

However, in reality all other things are rarely equal, and while Scott is correct in identifying the F-35 as the “Next European fighter” based on the large number of European air forces acquiring the type, most do so in significantly smaller numbers than the F-16 fleets they are replacing. In the case of Denmark, the plan is to replace the remaining fleet of around 50 left in service from the original of 77 F-16A/B (7 of which were attrition replacements) with just 27 F-35A in a single squadron. In Norway the cut wasn’t as drastic, but it still sees 52 F-35A replacing an original 74-strong F-16A/B fleet (of which 56 were upgraded to MLU-status). Still, Norway is also consolidating operations to a single base, further underlining the fear that a Finnish F-35 order might lead to a 40 aircraft Air Force and the closing of one of the two fighter squadrons.

Programme Director Lauri Puranen has however shot down at least the latter idea, stating that concentrating the Finnish fighter force to a single base hasn’t even been discussed, and Scott Davis is confident that the fear of an F-35 specific infrastructure cost causing issues is overblown. One example often brought up is that of Eielson AFB in Alaska, which has seen huge spending on F-35 infrastructure. However, much of those investments were due to the base not having been home to combat coded fighters in recent years, meaning that it was more of an expansion than a modernisation project.

[Eielson AFB] was a plus up, adding two more squadrons of fighters […] The logistics footprint of the F-35 is actually less than that of the F-16

In general, the aircraft has turned out to work well in colder climates, including not only in Alaska, but also in locations such as Burlington, Vermont, and over in Norway. Asking about whether actually operating the aircraft in cold weather as opposed to ‘just’ doing cold weather tests have revealed some major insights, Scott confirms that this has indeed been the case. “We’ve definitely learned some lessons”, he confirms, but also states that overall it is going very well and that the “Norwegians are very happy”.

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Instrumented test-aircraft AF-01 showing the JSM in the external bomb bay before the drop test conducted from Edwards AFB. Source: Forsvarsmateriell

And speaking of happy Norwegians, they just did the first drop-test of an JSM from an F-35. The anti-ship missile is stealthy, sports a passive IIR-sensor, a secondary land-attack role, and crucially can be carried internally on the F-35. As such it is more or less a perfect fit to the aircraft in that it is difficult to detect throughout the attack run, and while Lockheed Martin can’t discuss details of the weapons package offered to the Finnish Air Force, we know from the DSCA-notifications that it is on the table. An interesting detail that often is overlooked for the F-35 is that a better capability to close with your enemy will not only give you more accurate information about what is happening and where, but also offer the possibility to use shorter-ranged (read: cheaper) weapons to hit defended ground targets.

A picture from a number of years back showing a Portable Maintenance Aid in action. Source: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics photo by Angel DelCueto

Another question which has popped up related to HX is whether the aircraft can be properly dispersed, especially considering the ALIS/ODIN maintenance software which likes to be connected to the international network to which it sends data. There’s also the added question of cybersecurity risks surrounding the data being sent. Scott, however, isn’t concerned, and notes that sovereign data management is already found in the system, with the user filtering what data they want to share. The Portable Maintenance Aids (in essence dedicated laptops, to be replaced by pads come ODIN) also allow maintenance to run smoothly during dispersed operations regardless of whether the system is connected to the main database or not. The rumoured 30 days limit to offline use is also just a rumour, with nothing more dramatic happening than day one falling out of the aircraft’s memory on day 31 if it hasn’t been able to upload the data in between. Interestingly enough from a Finnish point of view, the USAF is also awakening to the need for dispersed basing, largely as a result of the threat from China. This has seen the logistics footprint being tested in recent exercises such as Cope North 21 earlier this year, which saw Eielson-based F-35s deploy from their home in Alaska to remote airstrips in Guam. The US Air Force’s agile combat employment concept (ACE) is based on a hub-and-spooks principle, i.e. a central permanent base supporting austere satellite fields, not completely unlike the Finnish concept of operations. During Cope North, a key base was the unassuming Northwest Field, which saw fighters operating from it for the first time since WWII.

Agile Combat Employment training during Cope North 21 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, in February 2021. Here hot-pit refuelling is practiced to maximize readiness capabilities. Source: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jonathan Valdes Montijo

However, even if the F-35 turns out to be both affordable and deployable, there’s still some particular questionmarks hanging over the project. One is regarding sovereign mission data management and exploitation. Things would be routed through the US (not unlike Boeing’s offer), but with the large number of parameters involved in the F-35’s threat library, Lockheed Martin is careful not to make any promises regarding turn-around times for updates (unlike Boeing’s offer).

We are in discussions with numerous Finnish suppliers about multiple opportunities for potential future work on the F-35. Details on the nature of these discussion are competition sensitive so we won’t disclose that information.

Another question that still waits for an answer is the industrial participation aspect of things. With both Saab and BAES/Eurofighter GmbH having promised production of both the aircraft and the engines in Finland in case their respective bids win, and with both having released general numbers for the amount of Statements of Work they have prepared, as well as highlighting key subsystems that are open for cooperation, the answer to my question about the IP-package was surprisingly timid. In particular after the weak showing in the Swiss AIR2030 programme where the offer was for “assembly of major components” of four (!) out of 40 fighters locally, and considering the challenges the rather strict Finnish requirements for industrial participation (3 Bn Euro, of which the majority is direct), it does sound strange that Lockheed Martin isn’t able to provide any details at the time being when they otherwise are rather talkative.