HX Shifting Gears

The HX program has shifted gear into the next phase, as all five contenders returned their answers to the first round of the RFQ (for those needing a primer on the process, see this post). As noted all five are still in the race, but a few notable events have taken place.

On the Air Force-side of things, the Chief of Defence (and former Air Force CinC) was quite outspoken in an interview back in December, where he amongst other things highlighted the need for Finland to ensure that we aren’t the sole operator of the HX towards the end of it’s operational life. This is in essence nothing new, it was noted as an issue for the continued operation of the Hornet-fleet past 2030 in the original HX pre-study, and could in all honesty been seen from a mile away. Still, it was felt that the decision to speak openly about one of the key points that set the F-35 aside from the rest of the bunch (i.e. a widespread international userbase which will operate the aircraft as their prime combat aircraft past 2060) was surprising given the continued emphasis on the competition still being wide open. However, given the obvious nature of the issue, I find it difficult to get too excited over the quote.

There will however be some personnel changes, as a scandal has rocked the Air Force with a wing commander being under investigation for less than proper conduct while drunk during an Air Force-sponsored trip with local stakeholders. This has also raised questions about how the investigation has been conducted by his superiors, something which has likely played a part in both the Air Force chief and the chief of defence declining to apply for extensions of their respective terms, instead opting to retire when their current terms are up. This likely won’t affect the HX program in any meaningful way.

F-35C Lightning II from VFA-101 ‘Grim Reapers’ taking off from USS George Washington (CVN-73) during F-35C Development Test III. Picture courtesy of Lockheed Martin, photo by Todd R. McQueen

Back to the F-35, preciously little has come out regarding the offer. This is due to Lockheed Martin not being allowed to comment upon anything, as the offer is made by the US Government. That means we still haven’t gotten confirmation that it is the F-35A that is on offer, leaving the door open for the odd chance that the carrier-based F-35C would be seen as better suitable tp Finnish requirements. That detail will likely become clear soon enough, but in the meantime we can note that the F-35C declared IOC recently, meaning that all three versions of the F-35 now are operational. The F-35B recently finished it’s first combat cruise, and scored a 75% availability rate. That number is perhaps the most impressive metric to come out of the F-35 program during the last year in my opinion, as that availability rate would be acceptable for mature operational fighters operating from their home base. Now it was achieved by a brand new STOVL aircraft operating in combat from a small carrier, clocking twice the hours of its predecessor. While questions surrounding the ALIS and other parts of the program still exist, this is a strong sign of maturity. The F-35 still in many ways remain the fighter to beat for anyone aiming for the HX-contract.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, while the F-35 is still undefeated in combat, it is no longer so on the market. This is following the German decision to drop it from their Tornado-replacement program, where the Eurofighter Typhoon and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet will now go head to head for the deal. The undoubtedly political decision to drop the F-35 at this early stage has received widespread criticism, including from not one but two former chiefs of the German Air Force (and as opposed to how the HX-debate looks in Finland, both of the generals have recent experience, having retired in 2009 and 2018 respectively). However, the decision isn’t quite as far-out as some would like to make it, as both the Typhoon and the Super Hornet actually hold significant selling points. Crucially, Germany already operate the Typhoon, making it easier to just raise the number of aircraft than to integrate a new fighter. For the Super Hornet, it should be remembered that Germany besides the ground-attack Tornado IDS also operate the SEAD/DEAD-variant Tornado ECR, one of very ‘Wild Weasel’ aircraft currently in service anywhere in the world. And the only modern Wild Weasel aircraft found on the market is the Super Hornet-based EA-18G Growler (we’ll get to that shortly). Will the German decision affect HX? Yes, although mainly indirectly by securing another reference to either fighter, and likely to a lesser extent than another recent German decision.

Germany decided to despite considerable British and French pressure continue to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the War in Yemen and the brutal murder of journalist Khashoggi. The actions are certainly correct in my personal opinion, the War in Yemen and the murder were both particularly brutal (even considering the fact that wars and murders in general are brutal), but it also points to a willingness of Germany to pull the brakes on arms exports contrary to the wishes of other major European countries. In itself that isn’t necessary worrying, but Germany has also shown a worrying tendency of running their own show when it comes to relations with Russia (case in point: Nord Stream 2). Taken together, especially when considering Russia’s usual taste for false flag operations and trying to shape the narrative of any conflict, the risk of Germany stalling orders and urging both sides to de-escalate in a potential Russo-Finnish crisis is probably being analysed in Helsinki. It’s hard to quantify the risk (especially with Trump having demonstrated that rapid political swings can take place elsewhere), but it likely didn’t improve the prospect of Typhoon taking home HX.

Italian Eurofighter touching down at Tikkakoski Air Base last summer. Source: Own picture

What might have improved the odds was the Spanish Air Force showing how an operator can both develop their own upgrade path and benefit from cooperation with the other partner countries. In the case of Spain, the country follows the common upgrade path with the Tranche 2 and 3 Eurofighters. At the same time, being unhappy with the roadmap for the Tranche 1 fighters, it has independently embarked on a more ambitious program for those aircraft. The big cloud still hanging over the Eurofighter program is whether any operator will be invested in it as their primary platform up to 2060, or whether they all will have moved on with the upgrade funds of their air forces largely being allocated to whatever comes next.

The second 39E, 39-9, taking off. Picture courtesy of Saab AB

If Lockheed Martin is unable to talk much about their offers, Saab is more outspoken and even flew a bunch of journalists to Sweden to inform them about the offer. The big news was that Saab offers a domestic production line, and that the fleet would be a mix of 52 JAS 39E single-seaters with 12 JAS 39F two-seaters. The Finnish Hornet-order was 57 F/A-18C single-seaters and 7 F/A-18D two-seaters, so this would be a remarkable shift from a ratio of 8:1 to 4:1. While it is well-known that the Finnish Air Force in hindsight would have wanted more two-seater Hornets for the conversion training role, Saab is open with the fact that training needs isn’t the main reason behind the inclusion of a squadron of two-seaters.

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. 

Magnus Skogberg, program Director of Saab’s HX-bid

In essence this means that Saab is arguing that the needs of the Finnish Air Force is best met by a squadron of two-seaters backing up the single-seaters for certain missions, while at the same time the two-seaters can obviously provide benefits for the OCU-mission i peacetime. The 39E and 39F are more or less similar, with the cockpit setup being the same in the front and rear cockpits of the 39F, as well as in the sole cockpit of the 39E. This means that all will be equipped with the same wide-angle display that will be found in both Swedish and Brazilian fighters. Any Finland-specific details, configurations, or equipment will also be the same for both versions. The only major difference is that the 39F does not feature the internal gun. Both versions sport an onboard electronic warfare system, which include electronic attack capabilities, and which can be further supplemented by podded jammers and sensors. This is where the second crewman comes into the picture, as there’s a real risk that the human brain will run out of bandwidth before the options of the EW-system does.

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.

Magnus Skogberg, program Director of Saab’s HX-bid

The same can be said for advanced long-range strike missions, and in the air-to-air role the use of modern data links even makes it possible to have an aircraft with the backseater working as something akin to the Fighter Allocator of an AWACS, concentrating on staying up to date with the situational picture and issuing orders to other airborne friendly fighters. Is there a benefit of moving the fighter controller from the ground to the backseat of a fighter? Possibly, in general the Finnish Defence Forces likes to have the one calling the shots to be situated close to the action, though the benefit is likely smaller than when it comes to EW and strike missions. While Saab maintains that two-seaters offer significant flexibility in multiple roles, it seems that the main focus is on the 39F as a SEAD/DEAD asset.

The EA-18G Growler in flight. Note the size of the AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missile under the left wing compared to the AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles under the air intakes. Picture courtesy of / All rights reserved – Boeing / Aviation PhotoCrew

Boeing is in essence bound by the same non-disclosure issues as Lockheed Martin. However, they have managed to get permission to discuss some aspects of their offer, and happily fill in any blank spots by referencing how the US Navy (and to a lesser extent the other flying services) perform their mission. The big deal was that Boeing is now officially offering not only the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in the most modern Block 3 configuration, but the EA-18G Growler dedicated SEAD/DEAD version as well (though ‘dedicated’ should be interpreted carefully, as it can do everything the F/A-18E/F can do, with the exception of sporting two wingtip short-range air-to-air missiles). Boeing could not speak about the Super Hornet/Growler ratio to Finland, but notes that on a US carrier it is currently 44 Super Hornets to 5-7 Growler, with the intention being to raise that to 10-12 Growlers. In the case of Finland, that would mean 10 to 15 Growlers out of the total of 64 fighters.

Boeing isn’t one to downplay the importance of this move. The release for export took place in extremely short time (comparisons to the ~10 years it took to clear the AGM-158 JASSM were made), and this is a tangible example of the strong Finnish-US bilateral bond when it comes to national security. A bond which kicked off in earnest with the acquisition of the F/A-18C/D ‘legacy’ Hornet back in the 90’s (though you might argue that correlation doesn’t equal causation here, as it also coincided with the end of the Cold War). The US sees a Finnish acquisition of modern airborne capabilities as another way of improving stability around the Baltic Sea through improving Finland’s conventional deterrence. The Growler would add significantly to Finland’s “Tröskelförmåga“, threshold capability, as senior advisor (and retired admiral) Juhani Kaskeala explained using the Swedish word, and as such is nicely in line with US strategic interests.

You can trust the Super Hornet

Juhani Kaskeala, senior advisor at Blic

The Super Hornet Block 3 may be one of the most advanced versions of any fighter available, but Boeing also makes an important point of the fact that all cards are already on the table. They know “exactly” what it costs to operate the fighter, a sum which is lower than that of Finland’s current Hornet’s despite the Super Hornet being heavier, and they know how many hours they can get out of any given aircraft. The current lifespan is 10,000 flight hours per aircraft, compared to just 6,000 flight hours of the legacy ones (Finland has experienced issues reaching that number, due to the larger proportion of heavy-G air combat maneuvers flown by the Finnish Air Force). Boeing’s package is within the budget of the program, though they aren’t able to comment upon the cost of the package in any detail. The question of cost is interesting, as Boeing has gone three for three in the last major US defence contracts (T-X, MH-139, MQ-25), in a move that has largely been described as Boeing buying the deals. What you lose on the swings, you make up for on the roundabouts, and the fact that Boeing in essence is the world’s largest civil aviation business with a sizeable defence division makes it able to manage the cashflow issues this would cause to dedicated defence companies. Boeing might not be as aggressive in the pricing for the kind of smaller order that HX represents, but they are likely the only company that even has the option.

The question about the lifespan of the program lurks in the background. While admiral Richardson might want to phase out the Super Hornet by 2040, there is currently no sunset plan for the Super Hornet, and with the NGAD nowhere to be seen, the idea of having replaced the last Super Hornet with a new design in just twenty years sounds impossible rather than improbable. Also, even without any additional Super Hornet orders from the US Navy, the service will accept their last new fighters as late as 2034, and these are unlikely to be phased out in just six years.

EA-18G Growler folding it’s wings following a display flight at last summer’s Finnish Air Force 100-anniversary air show. Source: Own picture

Regardless of the risk to be left alone in the timespan past 2050, what is clear is that the Super Hornet/Growler combo would bring impressive capabilities to the Finnish Air Force. The Growler is also far more versatile than simply being the world’s best SAM-killer (which in itself would be valuable to the Air Force), as it is also an extremely potent ELINT asset with impressive non-kinetic capabilities. The ability to ‘listen to’ or jam different signals as the need arises without firing shots in anger could prove very useful in countering a “gray” or “hybrid” scenario. In US service, the Growlers are seen as a “truly joint aircraft”, able to assist and support not only other combat aircrafts, but ground and sea forces as well. As such it is able to shape the electronic battlefield, and is expected to be operating closely with F-35s of all branches in case of a peer- or near-peer conflict.

Enough power.

The answer to what makes the Growler unqiue in the EW-role

The secret sauce is simple, the Growler sports two of the same F414-engines that propel the single-engined 39E/F Gripen, giving plenty of raw power to the EW-suite, including jammers. The aircraft is also described as “by far the most winter-qualified” of all HX-contenders, which is a statement I guess some of the other contenders might want to fight. The same goes for the notion that the sensor fusion on the Block 3 is “exactly the same capability” as that of the F-35. What is objectively clear though is that the Super Hornet currently sports the best availability numbers of all US tactical jets, and Boeing is happy to assure Finland that not only can all maintenance and upgrades be done locally, but it is also possible to build the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet locally if Finland so wishes. Still, it does sound like Boeing isn’t as keen on the idea of a local assembly line as Saab is.

Kaskeala also points out that the current buying wave of F-35s is made up of F-16 operators. Australia is indeed the sole export customer that is switching from the ‘legacy’ Hornet to the F-35A, and they are in turn a bit of an outlier in that they operate both the Super Hornet and the F-35A. Last time around Finland identified a different need compared to e.g. Denmark and Norway, and went with a different fighter. Will the same be true this time around? What is obvious to any observer is that the legacy of the Hornet-deal is strong in Boeing’s organisation. Boeing is able to host press conferences in Finnish, thanks to the fact that not only their local advisors but key persons inside the company speak Finnish as their mother tongue. It is also evident that Boeing understands how Finland works, both as a society and as a customer. Of the companies involved in HX, only Saab comes close with their local organisation having a relatively large footprint on the ground in Finland and with the Swedish way of doing business being very similar to the Finnish one. While cultural differences in theory shouldn’t affect the outcome of HX, at the end of the day everyone involved are still just humans, and it is hard to shake the feeling that Boeing and Saab have a nonquantifiable but significant advantage in this field.

Rafale B undergoing cold-weather testing in the last week of January. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

Dassault has kept a low profile in media, but in late January Dassault sent a single Rafale B up to the home base of Lappi Fighter Wing for a week of cold weather testing. Ostensibly this was just normal company testing, but it is hard not to think that the choice of location was dictated by a willingness to show the aircraft to a potential customer. In any case, the 30-person big testing team is said to have been happy with both the tests and their stay at the air force base.

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A Northern Heavy-lift

I have traditionally been rather sceptic of some of the more innovative new capabilities suggested for the Finnish Defence Forces on Twitter. The issue is usually money, and in particular that with a number of gaping holes in the budget the money available could usually be better spent on more conservative endeavours. Today, however, a rather interesting suggestion appeared.


Now, before you (yes, especially you Army officers) move one to more realistic proposals, hear me out on what make this proposal more interesting than, say, a multi-national amphibious division.

Vertical Movement

It is no secret that both Finland and Sweden like airborne movement of light infantry. Sweden have their own airmobile battalion in the 31. Btn of the Life Regiment Hussars K 3, while in Finland several units, including the special jaegers of the Border Guards (who have their own helicopter wing), the paras of the Utti Jaeger Regiment, and the different readiness units spread out over the country, all regularly train with helicopters. The benefits are obvious. A helicopter will get you from point A to point B quickly, especially through rugged terrain the difference compared to ground transport is significant. It also needs a relatively small open space to be able to land on, and the units transported need relatively little training compared to the traditional way of doing vertical movement by parachuting people out of airplanes.

Of course there are issues as well. Helicopters are relatively squishy (though not as badly as some of their detractors suggest), and expensive to operate. While the units being transported need relatively little training, crewing the helicopters on the other hand is a very complex and demanding task. This means that there will always be a limited number of helicopters available, while at the same time their utility means that they will always be in high demand. The end-result means that it is risky for any commander to count upon having helicopter support when requested.

Nordic Operations

Three Bell 412 SP helicopters of the 339 SQD, Royal Norwegian Air Force. Source: Ole-Sverre Haugli / Forsvaret

Both the Finnish and Swedish Defence Forces use the NH90 for tactical transports, with the Swedish Air Force also use the UH-60M Blackhawk in the same role. While Norway operate both the NH90 and the EH 101 Merlin, they are mainly reserved for maritime roles, with the main tactical transport being the venerable Bell 412 SP. While the Bell 412 certainly is a considerable improvement compared to the Vietnam-era UH-1D, it is still a relatively old and light system, hauling a maximum of 11 passengers and an underslung load of 1,500 kg maximum.

The Finnish Defence Forces officially states that NH90 is capable of transporting 16 passengers and has an underslung capacity of 3,000 kg, while the Swedish Air Force is happy to cram in an even twenty passengers, or half that number if the soldiers bring their gear with them. This highlights an important point in airborne operations: light infantry don’t travel light, and certainly not if they are planning on doing a lot of fighting.

The setup of a regular Finnish jaeger company, sporting 268 or 297 soldiers depending on if it has three or four jaeger platoons on strength. Which boxes do you leave at home if you’re on a lift with a dozen helicopters? Source: Jääkärijoukkueen ja -ryhmän käsikirja 2018

Especially if one starts looking at support weapons or want a serious amount of ammunition and supplies brought along, it quickly becomes evident that ten NH90s or Bell 412s won’t allow for much in the way of Operation Market (though a remake of Operation Deadstick just might be possible).

Increasing the number and/or size of helicopters have always been felt as being too expensive, and it is a great irony that only thanks to the serious delays of the NH90-program the Swedish force actually has the largest inventory of medium transports of the three countries. However, there are a few reasons why a tri-nation heavy lift force could work.

The Case for Heavy Lift

The utility of even a limited number of heavy-lift helicopters is obvious. Case in point being the famous Chinook Bravo November of the Falklands War, where the single surviving Chinook of the British forces, flew 1,500 troops and 550 tons of cargo during the conflict. Less well-known is the fact that this distinguished old lady is still in active use, and has seen service both in Iraq and Afghanistan, though now upgraded to HC.4 standard.

A British Chinook coming in to drop off not one but two 105 mm light guns during an exercise in Oman. Source: MoD / PO[Phot]Lewis.S.J. via Wikimedia Commons

A heavy-lift helicopter is able to significantly add to the combat value of an airmobile unit, either in the form of more soldiers, a single Chinook could lift a platoon of jaegers by itself, or by carrying significantly more supplies to the battlefield. This also includes items too heavy for the NH90, with an underslung load up to and above 10,000 kg being possible (depending on fuel and other cargo).

Crucially, while joint-units outside of an alliance are something of a risk, shared transport assets have proved feasible. The Heavy Airlift Wing at Pápa have proved to be a successful concept, and one which all three countries are involved in. While not a one-to-one comparison, a similar-ish setup with say fifteen helicopters spread over the three countries (five national helicopters each) would allow for on average three being operational in each country at any given time, as well as allowing for dry- or wet-lease of the other countries’ assets in times of need. This could include both during international missions, where heavy helicopters are a sought after capability, or during national emergencies such as the large forest fires which plagued Sweden this summer.

While operating a small force of heavy helicopters alone would quickly become expensive due to the fixed cost, this kind of shared unit would offer economics of scale, and also provide an excellent building block in case an escalating crisis calls for rapid expansion of airborne capabilities. The CH-47 (there are really only two options, so we’ll just predict that the CH-47F and CH-53K would meet in a fly-off were the former would win) is also everything the NH90 wasn’t, being a tried and tested design supported by a large number of flying units, both in Europe and worldwide. This makes international cooperation (and possible expansion) relatively straightforward and cheap.

The Questions to be Solved

What are then the pitfalls that need to be avoided for this to work?

To begin with there’s always the question of workshare. With the NH90 Patria is a major service hub, and it is entirely possible that other actors would place significant pressure on local politicians in the other countries to ensure that they would get more of the work done domestically. Splitting maintenance and other support functions might mean that the envisioned economics of scale evaporate.

An even greater risk is nationalised versions. Very few joint procurements have actually succeeded in producing a situation where the same product is bought by all involved. The nightmare scenario would be one country dropping out, one buying the Chinook, and the other getting the King Stallion.

The biggest question is still the hard numbers. Keen readers will have noted that I haven’t mentioned any sums here, as truth be told I am not in a position to estimate the share each country would have to pay to operate a third of a Chinook-unit. It might very well be overly expensive, and would need some serious calculations before any commitments are made. Some funds would have to come from outside the defence budgets, as all countries’ defence forces are on extremely tight budgets already. As the helicopters would be valuable assets for emergency services and as part of disaster relief efforts domestically and internationally, having the ministries of interior and foreign affairs respectively provide part of the funding would likely be a must for this to work.

All in all it is a long shot. But it just might be worth looking into.

Review: Modern Chinese Warplanes – Chinese Air Force & Naval Aviation

Harpia is doing an update for their Modern Chinese Warplanes-book, something which is certainly needed, considering how things have changed during the last six years. The update also splits the original into several volumes according to branch. The Naval Aviation volume came out during the spring, while the Air Force one is hot off the printers. Army Aviation will then follow in April 2019.

From a Finnish (or even European viewpoint), China is largely a trading partner with a rather poor human rights record. Great power struggles in the Pacific and Thucydides traps are far away both geography-wise and psychologically. As such I will admit that my understanding of Chinese military aviation is rather limited, and the books filled a much needed void in my bookshelf.

In case anyone has missed it, China is rapidly starting to produce modern aircraft in a host of different classes, including both high-profile fighters such as the J-20 and lesser-known projects such as the Y-20 transport. On the other hand, the far-reaching organisational changes and updates to doctrine and training regimes during the last years are likely of even greater importance, and is only now (likely) reaching their final form. The books cover all of these aspects, including aircrafts currently in use (stretching from the An-2 derivative Nanchang Y-5 to the top-modern Chengdu J-20), weapons, doctrine, training curriculum, and last but not least an impressive full order of battle. The order of battle is likely the single most comprehensive and up-to-date one published in non-classified books, and explains both the current organisation as well as the roots it comes from.

As with all Harpia-books, the illustrations are of a very high-quality and (almost always) spot-on.

The big question is if the book is too up-to-date? Especially in the case of the Naval Aviation one, questions still remain which units exactly have been reformed and which are still awaiting change. Operational secrecy and increased internet censorship inside China means that information isn’t always easy to come by. Here as well Rupprecht does a good job, as his long experience with the topic gives him the ability to piece together the available snippets of information to create the bigger picture. Importantly, he also clearly indicates which parts are confirmed, which are unconfirmed, and where there are alternative theories and explanations.

The map of the Eastern Theatre Command Navy at the beginning of the Southern Theatre Command Navy-chapter.

But as always there is some room for improvement. The otherwise excellent maps of the areas of operation for the different theatre commands are placed after their respective chapters, leading to the slightly confusing situation where you’re reading about one theatre command while looking at a map of the bases of another one. Another issue is the appearance of the Army Aviation, which is briefly mentioned in a number of places, especially when discussing the Air Force helicopters in use. The role of Army Aviation is never quite explained, and I was left somewhat wondering what exactly they do, and how it differs from the rotary-winged units of the Air Force. I can only assume this would have been clearer if all three volumes had been read together. As it now stands (and as it would for some other China-rookie only getting a single volume) it all remains rather fuzzy, and I found myself wishing for a few sentences on how the lines are drawn between the three branches. A third issue was that in a handful of places I found myself struggling to get a picture of how exactly the designations had changed during development of aircrafts (this was especially the case with the UAVs), though to be honest I am unsure about to what extent the author is to be blamed, and to what extent the Chinese drone programs simply have been complex. As a counter-balance, the chapters on the rather confusing family of different Soviet/Russian and Chinese ‘FLANKER’-variants is simply the clearest and most straightforward one I’ve come across over the years, and a joy to read.

However, even if there are a few minor things I dislike or would have chosen to do otherwise had I been the editor, there’s no denying that this is yet another great addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in Chinese aviation. Personally I found greatest enjoyment in the descriptions of Chinese aircraft and airborne weaponry, but I certainly can see that anyone interested in developments in the South China Sea or potential Sino-Japanese clashes would find the OOB to be of even greater value. The books are also of the usual high-quality and hold up well to regular use (and abuse), and the illustrations include both a large number of colour photographs of high-quality as well as the excellent maps and tables which one has come to expect from Harpia. Note that the differences in size of the aviation arms are reflected in the books, as the Air Force one is considerably longer at 240 pages compared to 96 for the Naval Aviation.

Recommended.

The books were provided free of charge by Harpia for review. The ISBN numbers are 978-0-9973092-6-3 for the Air Force and 978-0-9973092-5-6 for Naval Aviation.

Finnish Hornets at Red Flag Alaska 19-1

Yesterday I had the opportunity to comment upon the Finnish participation in Red Flag Alaska for Finnish TV-show YLE A-studio, and while I feel I got to bring up the most important points there I realise that it is in Finnish and that a few of the points warrant further inspection. As far as I see it, there are four main point regarding why the Finnish Air Force decided to scrap what is usually the annual main exercise and instead fly over with half a dozen F/A-18C Hornets to Alaska.

The need to train hard

As with a sports team, if you only face the same opposition time after time, at some point you stop progressing. You need to shake things up, get new ideas into your training and meet new competition (and preferably competition that is better than you) to continue developing. Red Flag is hands-down the best full-scale air exercise in the world, and getting to meet the trained aggressor units of the USAF on an instrumented range is extremely valuable. Especially when it comes to the air-to-ground role which is new to the Finnish Air Force, getting to practice with experienced ground-pounders is of immense value.

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Your run-of-the-mill US F-16 with a serious amount of mission markings. Source: Joni Malkamäki / Ilmavoimat

Northern Flag

The declaration of intent of raising the level of the Arctic Challenge Exercise-series to ‘Flag’-status, preliminarily named Northern Flag, would provide a boost in training capacity at home. As such, studying how the Red Flag exercises are led and handled provide valuable experience for the Finnish Air Force’s exercise leaders and planners.

International Cooperation

On the whole participating in international exercises strengthens Finnish ties to the west, is part of strategic signalling in peacetime and (hopefully) assists in setting up working inter-coalition ways of operating for wartime. Here Red Flag is just the latest in a long line of exercises taking place at home, in Europe, and now overseas as well.

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A Finnish F/A-18C Hornet taking-off towards Alaskan skies. Source: Jouni Malkamäki / Ilmavoimat

HX

The timing of the first Finnish participation in Red Flag coincides nicely with the Finnish fighter procurement programme. Yes, planning for participating in Red Flag has been going on for years, but it’s not like HX suddenly appeared out of thin air either. While the main reasons behind Finland’s Red Flag-participation are likely found above, the insight into how modern air war looks in practice will without doubt be used as a data point when setting up the missions used in the evaluation of the HX contenders. A special point of interest is the participation of US Navy EA-18G Growlers. Getting to see first-hand how they integrate into a modern high-end scenario is extremely valuable, as they differ quite significantly from the rest of the HX-contenders in their role, making them harder to evaluate.

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A USN EA-18G Growler taxiing past the tower at Eielson AFB. Source: Jouni Malkamäki / Ilmavoimat

The Unlucky COOT

For the second time since the start of the Syrian Civil War, a reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over the Mediterranean by the Syrian air defences this week. However, unlike the last time when it was a Turkish RF-4E Phantom, this time it was Russian Il-20M (NATO codename ‘COOT-A’) which was brought down. The friendly fire incident caused quite a stir, and the fallout is yet to settle.

HMS MONTROSE TRACKS RUSSIAN WARSHIP IN INTERNATIONAL WATERS
An Il-20M similar to the aircraft downed in Syria, here photographed when it kept an eye on western ships during exercise BALTOPS 14. Source: PO(Phot) Si Ethell/MOD via Wikimedia Commons

The loss of the Il-20 is by far the most serious aircraft loss suffered by the Russian forces in Syria. This is regarding both the highly specialised aircraft as well as the large crew of intelligence specialists (likely 10 out of 15 killed). The single Il-20 arrived at the very beginning of the Russian operation in Syria. The exact mission in Syria is unclear, but likely includes eavesdropping on enemy ground forces as well as signal gathering from NATO ships in the Med and unfriendly air assets in Syria. It seems a single Il-20 has been on strength throughout the operation. It was e.g. caught on satellite pictures back in March 2017, and is visible on Google Maps.

However, recently a total of three similarly looking aircraft has been spotted at the base, though these likely include the Il-38 (NATO codename ‘MAY’) anti-submarine aircraft which have been deployed to Khmeimim, and are based on the same Il-18 passenger aircraft. Much have been made of the fact that the Il-20 is based on an airliner that first flew in 1957, making it an ancient design by aircraft standards. However, it should be noted that this is not rare when it comes to larger specialised airframes, with the corresponding US type, the P-3 Orion, being based on the Lockheed L-188 Electra which first flew the same year. The C-135 family still in widespread western use is based on the Boeing 707, which made its debut the following year.

The exact target of the Israeli raid is unclear. Israel has earlier indicated that there is an Iranian missile factory being built in Baniyas, around 30 km south of Khmeimim. Iranian long-range weapon systems, including rockets as well as surface-to-surface and anti-ship missiles, have always been one of Israel’s prime worries, and the transfer of these to Hezbollah has been a policy red-line. It now seems that Israel suspected Iran of dismantling the whole or parts of the production line in Baniyas and shipping it to Hezbollah. Israel has not made any further details public, but the Russian MoD in their presentation of the raid stated that four Israeli F-16 approached at low level, used the Il-20M as cover, and released GBU-39’s at three different targets, including a military base, a fuel depot, and an aluminium plant. A Syrian S-200 battery then shot down the Il-20M while trying to hit the F-16s (or the GBU-39s).

It is quite clear that not all factors add up in the Russian story. The GBU-39 is an unpowered glide-bomb, also known as the SDB for Small-Diameter Bomb. This means that the range is highly dependent on the altitude at which the weapon is released, meaning an Israeli low-level raid would have had to get very close to the target, largely defeating the idea of using the GBU-39 with its pop-out wings. It also seems that a single target, a large warehouse in Latakia, was hit by the raid. Interestingly, this was the same modus operandi used by Israel in a raid that leveled a warehouse close to Aleppo airport in July (the weapon was identified by pieces left behind). The GBU-39 packs a small warhead, and is generally not used against buildings. However, the small diameter of the weapons allow large numbers to be carried by a single aircraft, enabling this Israeli ‘death by papercuts’-approach. As such, it is entirely possible that the Russians identified the weapon used correctly (either based on the number of weapons released or by pieces found in the ruins of the building hit).

With regards to the friendly fire incident, it is highly unlikely that the Israeli fighters would have ‘masked’ behind the aircraft in any meaningful way. To begin with it would have brought the Israeli aircraft closer to the Syrian air defences, and it would also have put the Russian aircraft at risk, something which Israel has so far been unwilling to do due to political considerations. It is also notable that the S-200 is a semi-active radar-homing system, meaning that it will only home in on a target that is locked by the 5N62-radar. As such, this was not a case of a runaway missile switching target after launch, but of the Syrian crew misidentifying the Il-20M. They hit what they aimed for, they simply aimed at the wrong aircraft. Crucially, Russian MoD has afterwards stated that Syrian forces doesn’t have access to IFF-equipment to identify Russian aircrafts as own forces. Once the Il-20 was lit up by the 5N62 it stood no chance, as the aircraft completely lack self-defence equipment. A modernised version designated Il-20MS has been in the works for a few years, and feature both UV-missile approach warning and decoy launchers. However, the program does not seem to have moved beyond a single prototype, leaving the operational Il-20M defenceless.

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The F-16I is the workhorse of the Israeli Air Force when it comes to ground-pounding, and was likely the aircraft used in the raid. Source: Own picture

The Russian reaction was interesting. The first suspect was the French frigate Auvergne (D654) which would have fired a missile in the area at the time. Then it was changed to that the Auvergne had fired a cruise missile (France has sternly denied the Auvergne releasing any kind of weapon at the time), which had confused the Syrian air defence crew. Then the Russian MoD came out all guns firing, and declared that while it was a Syrian S-200 that brought the plane down, it was the reckless and calculated Israeli provocation that placed the Il-20 in the lane of fire. Russia would also respond in force.

Granted, from the outset it is clear that Russia would not respond in force to the “Israeli aggression”. Russia is very much playing the away-game if they would launch raids on Israeli targets, and while the small force of jets assembled in Syria together with naval assets and the long-range bomber force is plenty enough to make an impression on any Syrian rebels, the Israelis vastly outnumber them in the region. The Israeli Air Force is also on another level when it comes to quality, both regarding aircrafts, support, and training, and while things definitely would get ugly, there’s little doubt that it would end with a serious Russian defeat. Luckily for all involved, neither Putin nor Netanyahu was interested in escalating the whole thing, and crucially Putin shifted the Russian narrative to describe the situation as a series of unfortunate events leading to the accident. The very active Israeli communication, including the Israeli Air Force CinC major general Nokin visiting Moscow to present a report on the Israeli findings, is contrasted to what seems like a very low-key and late Syrian response to get their version of events out. All in all, it does seem like the risk for further Israeli-Russian escalation is low for the time being.

The big question is what happens now? Putin indicated that he would respond by strong measures to ensure better protection of the Russian servicemen in Syria. It isn’t hard to envision this including the deployment of further Russian SAM-batteries, though truth be told when it is your allies that are the greatest threat it naturally won’t do much good. The Syrian air defences, especially those in areas where Russian aircrafts regularly operate, will likely come under closer Russian command, something which likely won’t be appreciated by Damascus or the Syrian forces. Syria could potentially use the incident to renew requests for delivery of more modern air defence systems, as the more modern user interface of a system like the S-300 would likely significantly reduce the risk of blue-on-blue incidents. However, I have not seen any indication that this would happen, and considering that Putin seems to more or less agree with the Israeli narrative this is unlikely to happen.

If Russia chooses to up their game, one possible way to communicate intent would be to send the modern Tu-214R to Syria as a replacement. This would signal determination without escalating things. The aircraft has made a short visit to the region earlier, and nothing says it couldn’t come back. The major issue is that while the number of operational Il-20M is likely down to single digits following this, there are a grand total of two Tu-214R in service. Another option is the earlier mentioned Il-20MS prototype, which would offer continued ELINT/SIGINT operations with a level of protection.

Quickstrike for HX?

An interesting piece caught my eye this morning, describing how the US Navy is putting JDAM-ER kits on their Quickstrike series of mines. These are in effect naval mines based on the Mk 80-series of general-purpose bombs, and the combination of a modular warhead with a modular guidance and glide kit makes so much sense that the first reaction is why no-one has put the together earlier?

The linked story gives a good primer for the concept, but the too long, didn’t read version is that the Quickstrike mine is dropped by an aircraft, glides tens of kilometres (depending on release altitude) to a pre-set target location, where it sinks to the bottom of the sea and becomes a ‘smart’ bottom mine.

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A 1,000 lbs Mk 63 Quickstrike mine being checked prior to loading onto an F/A-18C Hornet belonging to VFA-113. This is the traditional baseline version of the mine, being a free-fall weapon with a retarding tail. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Tyler Orsburn via Wikimedia Commons

For HX this suddenly opens up interesting possibilities. Mining is traditionally a key interest of the Finnish Navy, as our waters are shallow and the number of usable sea lanes to reach any given port is severely limited by the cluttered archipelago. However, if the enemy enters the area and manages to sweep a sea lane, going in to mine it again is usually not to be recommended. Mining is also a time-consuming task, putting the vessels performing it in danger.

The Quickstrike/JDAM-ER combination offers a solution as it makes it possible to mine from a stand-off distance and to release the whole minefield more or less simultaneously, and with the exact location of the mines already logged. A pair of fighters could easily and in a very short time span shut down a key chokepoint or scatter their load over a more general area to force the enemy to conduct time-consuming sweeping operations.

GHWB is the flagship of Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 2, which is comprised of the staff of CSG-2, GHWB, the nine squadrons and staff of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8, Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 22 staff and guided-missile destroyers USS Laboon (DDG 58) and USS Truxton (DDG 103), and Mayport-based guided-missile cruisers USS Philippine Sea (CG 58) and USS Hue City (CG 66).
F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to VFA-87 sporting eight GBU-32 1,000 lbs JDAM. Note that this is a combat load, and not a demonstrator aircraft being loaded up. The same amount of JDAM-ERs or Quickstrike mines could likely be carried. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matt Matlage via Wikimedia Commons

The obvious platform here is the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. It is already using the JDAM-ER in Australian service, and chances are that the USN will focus any effort to integrate the Quickstrike on it much sooner than they will get around to the F-35C (not to mention how long it would take before the F-35A picks up the load). The ‘Rhino’ has flown impressive JDAM sans suffix loads in Syria, including slugging it out with two 2,000 lbs (900 kg) GBU-31 JDAMs under each wing, or eight of the lighter 1,000 lbs GBU-32. A pair of Super Hornets could likely drop eight heavy or sixteen lighter sea mines in a single mission, and could do so deep behind enemy lines. In fact, this is something of an unique selling point for the ‘Rhino’.

This opens up completely new tactical possibilities, including quickly shutting down a strategic sea lane if an enemy task force seems to be able to avoid Finnish surface units or coastal defences (a scenario becoming increasingly likely as the number of ships decrease). Another possibility is cutting off an enemy amphibious landing by mining the sea lanes used to supply the bridgehead, or even offensively dropping mines in or in the very vicinity of enemy ports and bases.

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A B-52 dropping a dummy Quickstrike mine during exercise BALTOPS 2017. Traditionally the US has prioritised mining with heavy bombers and maritime patrol aircraft, but in a modern air defence environment the use of tactical strike aircraft increases survivability, and modern guidance kits allows for greater precision meaning that fewer mines can be used to create an effective minefield. Source: US Navy Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet via Wikimedia Commons

The best part is the cost. This is largely an off-the-shelf system, with (relatively) cheap components and requiring little specialised training on the part of the flight crews to operate. While I find it unlikely that we will see a true maritime strike capability on the HX anytime soon, this would allow the air force to support the navy and shape the maritime battlefield in a cost effective way. The JDAM-ER guidance kits, mines, and regular Mk 80s could even be bought separately, and combined as appropriate during wartime depending on if the mines are needed or if the weapons are better used in a land-strike role. This does seem to be low-hanging fruit for an interesting and unique joint capability at a low price.

The Rocketeers

In the midst of the strategic acquisitions it is easy to get locked in on the choice of platform, whether it is the HX fighter or the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes. But someone has to supply the teeths to make them able to bite, and this is where companies such as MBDA come in to the picture.

© Dassault Aviation - V. Almansa
A Dassault Rafale being armed. Picture courtesy of: © Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa

MBDA is yet another of the numerous joint ventures created in Europe in a time when not even the major regional powers can muster enough of a demand to warrant developing their own high-performance weaponry. However, the company is something of an outlier in that several of the products they have on their shelf have a good reputation both when it comes to project management and the cost/capability ratio of the final product.

Arming HX

Our basic philosphy is that we are platform agnostic, we serve everybody

MBDA has a product integrated or somewhere down the propsed upgrade paths on most HX-candidates. The flagship is without doubt the very-long range Meteor, largely held to be the most capable weapon in beyond-visual range engagments against fighter-sized targets currently operational. The introduction in service aboard the JAS 39C Gripen as part of the MS20 upgrade “changed the behaviour over the Baltic Sea”, both on the part of the Swedish fighters carrying them as well as for the Russian aircrafts they meet there. Courtesy of the ramjet engine and the 100+ km range, it provide “at least three times the no-escape zone” of current medium range missile (read: AIM-120C AMRAAM). The missile will find itself under the wings and fuselages of the Rafale and Typhoon within the next few years in addition to Gripen (both Charlie and Echo), creating an interesting dilemma for a manufacturer supplying highly complex equipment which is to be integrated into competing platforms. MBDA’s solution is to assign each aircraft and country it’s own manager, making sure that there are watertight bulkheads between any platform specific information entering the company.

For Gripen in HX, that man is Peter Bäckström, MBDA’s director exports for the Nordic region. An engineer by trade, he worked on a number of subsystems for the Meteor and TAURUS KEPD 350 before moving into sales. He has a clear view about what made the Meteor different from so many other projects. “It was born out of a requirement, a need for a 100+ km capable missile”, he notes, before continuing. “Game changer is a worn-out term, but this really is. It establishes a new set of rules.”

For the Gripen E, the Meteor and the increased number of hardpoints changes what has often been decried as a light fighter into a serious BVR-force, with a maximum load of seven Meteor and two short-range IRIS-T on the wingtips. While the maximum load might not be suitable for everyday carriage (if nothing else then due to budgetary constraints), it still places the air-to-air weapons load more or less on par with e.g. the Rafale.

Meteors
The fulls-scale Gripen ‘Echo’ mock-up showing three belly-mounted Meteors. Source: Own picture

But Meteor is far from the only thing MBDA has to offer for HX. ASRAAM is also found in their arsenal, a rather unique missile in being designed for ranges which are usually the realm of radar-guided ones. Given this, I have to ask Bäckström if there is any truth to the rumours that it can outrange the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Bäckström just smiles, and simply quips “It’s a very good missile”. In roughly the same class, the MICA-family (with both IR- and radar-guided versions) is set to be upgraded within the next decade. Unlike the Meteor, from the viewpoint of HX MICA is tied to Rafale. If Finland buys Rafale, we will likely get the MICA as well, but if any other aircraft takes home HX the MICA likely won’t make it’s way into the Finnish inventory (though it isn’t ruled out).

For heavy cruise-missiles, there’s not one but two options. The best known is likely the combat-proven SCALP/Storm Shadow, sporting inertial/GPS/terrain reference guidance and an IIR-seeker for terminal guidance. The different parameters which can be set include fusing (air burst, impact, or penetration) and dive angle. The missile is designed to feature a very high level of automation on the part of the pilot, meaning that it is suitable for single-seat fighters as well as twin-seaters.

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A TAURUS KEPD350 being loaded onto a Sapnish F/A-18 Hornet (C.15). Source: Ejército del Aire Ministerio de Defensa España via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Taurus KEPD 350E is the other alternative, being built to a different requirement for the German and Swedish Air Forces (though Sweden is yet to acquire and put the weapon into operational use). The ‘350’ in the name comes from the requirement of 350 km range in all conditions at all drop heights. In practice, this means that the range when dropped from height is well above 500 km. It can be dropped from as low as 100 meters, which often is little more than a gimmick for stand-off weapons. However, for Finland this might actually be a useful feature, as there is value in staying below the radar horizon of the Russian ground based air surveillance radars. The 480 kg MEPHISTO penetrating warhead with pre-charge is also described in grand terms.

This is a real penetrator, not a ‘put down it down in a hole and blow it up’-warhead

TAURUS actually did compete for the contract which was won by the JASSM regarding integration into the Finnish Air Force F/A-18C Hornets. It is hard to tell what made the TAURUS come in second back then, whether there were particular political considerations or ease of integration (US fighter – US missile, though ROKAF has opted for the TAURUS for their F-15K Strike Eagles and Spain is integrating it on the Hornet) which played into the decision, or whether it was purely based on performance of the missile in question. In any case, the TAURUS is set to be integrated on Typhoons and not completely unlikely to appear on the 39E Gripen, so it wouldn’t be altogether surprising for it to fill that JASSM-shaped void after the retirement of the Hornet.

Ground-/Ship-based

While the airborne systems grabs all the attention, the question of air defence system for the Pohjanmaa-class (Squadron 2020) is still unresolved. The last of the major weapon systems open, it will pit ESSM against the CAMM-ER (Barak 8 has been mentioned in the speculations, but is likely too large. I-Derby might be on offer instead). CAMM and CAMM-ER shares some of the same ancestry as the ASRAAM, but has developed into a rather different beast. The weapon feature a newly developed radar seeker, and is able to be quad-packed into a Mk 41 (or the smaller and lighter ExLS) just as the ESSM. From there the CAMM+family is soft-launched, and sports ranges in the 25 to 45 km class, depending on exact version and target. Interestingly enough, packed into the launcher it is completely maintenance free for a decade. This also ensures that once Finland has gotten the missiles, it is possible to operate them completely independently from the supplier. Or as Bäckström describes it:

A sovereign supply solution.

The weapon is already operational with the Royal Navy (and has been sold to other nations), but perhaps even more interesting is that the British Army performed their first firings of the Land Ceptor (known as EMADS in mainland Europe) earlier this year. If MBDA manages to get the CAMM-ER chosen as the main air defence weapon for the Finnish Navy, MBDA could suddenly claim synergy effects in the race for a longer-ranged ground-based air defence system for the Finnish Army. So far the ability of the NASAMS systems (already in Finnish service as the ITO12) to fire the longer-ranged AMRAAM-ER has made it a favourite, but questions has also been raised if that would mean putting too many eggs in the same basket. Notably the CAMM-ER would also provided the altitude coverage the Finnish Army is looking for following the retirement of the Buk-M1. A Land Ceptor solution able to use a joint missile stock with the Navy’s corvettes might suddenly be a very interesting proposition.

Land ceptor
Land Ceptor during test fires in Sweden earlier this year. The time lapse shows the cold launch sequence in which the missile is flung upwards out of the tube, and only then firing its engine. Source: UK MoD (Crown copyright/OGL)

Another interesting thing to note is that MBDA is quick to point out that the missile would fit nicely into the Swedish organisation as well, as an all-weather mid-tier missile between the Patriot and the IRIS-T. While currently all light is on the Patriot-deal, it is clear that two understrength air defence battalions won’t provide the air defence coverage needed by the Swedish Army, and MBDA raising the benefits of a joint Finnish-Swedish buy (either of whole systems or missiles) might be worth keeping an eye on. Normal caveat about companies liking to market that they are in negotiations/close to a deal applies…

The draft text has been read through by MBDA, to make certain that it only contain non-classified information and general comments. Minor changes followed as part of the feedback received from them.