A Gust from the South

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

18581953_1432713246792650_7696740240917474844_n
Rafale B from Escadron de chasse 1/4 ‘Gascogne’ at Rovaniemi during the first day of flight operations of ACE17. Source: Ilmavoimat / Minna Piirainen

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

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

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

18813271_1440381926025782_2824377643562710785_n
A Rafale being cleared while a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet takes off in the background. Note the MICA IR missile on the port wingtip. The data from the seeker head of this can be fused with the onboard sensors of the aircraft. Source: Ilmavoimat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Bug in Town – Navy Fighters Ashore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18952886_1451536471576994_5050027869021748781_n
Visiting F/A-18E (right) and F/A-18F (left) Super Hornets at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB for trials and familiarisation flights a few weeks ago. Source: Finnish Air Force

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

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

The New Bug in Town – Versions for Finland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Bug in Town – Back in the Game

When first starting to cover the HX-program, I held the JAS 39E Gripen and F-35A Lightning II as the favourites, with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as the potential black horse. Since that, I have questioned the chances of the ‘Super Bug’, mainly based on two different issues.

The first has been the lack of a major road map or upgrade. The first Advanced Super Hornet-concept was displayed already in 2013 with a company-funded prototype. This was then gradually replaced by less ambitious proposals and talk about integrating only some of the features demonstrated by the Advanced Super Hornet. The US Navy, however, didn’t seem too interested in either the 2013 or the 2016 version of the concepts.

The other has been the seemingly low priority given to the Finnish program by Boeing. Compared to the Danish Kampfly-program where Boeing launched a serious marketing effort (and eventually took the whole thing to court), Boeing has been remarkably absent from the public spotlight in Finland.

Both of these changed last week, with the US Navy ordering the Block III-upgrade to the fleet’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers, and Boeing making a high-profile appearance at two Finnish air shows in Helsinki on Friday and Seinäjoki on Saturday and Sunday. Not only did Boeing manage to bring two Super Hornets to Finland, but I also got the opportunity to have a chat with senior manager Bryan Crutchfield to get a better picture of the company’s effort to keep their position as Finland’s supplier of fighter aircraft.

The two fighters brought to Finland were a F/A-18F two-seater and a F/A-18E single-seater. While the single-seater was from the distinguished US Navy squadron VFA-143 Pukin’ Dogs of Vietnam MiG-killer fame, it was the two-seater that really got the heads turning. This was nothing less than the brightly-painted CAG-bird of VFA-103 Jolly Rogers, perhaps the most famous naval fighter aircraft in the world. Getting the opportunity to see both the F/A-18E and the F/A-18F in low-level formation was something many Finnish aviation enthusiasts were happy to experience.

Super Bug Formation
Two Super Hornets in formation over the Gulf of Finland. A rare sight, at least for now. Source: Own picture

Back on the ground, the F/A-18E spent Saturday as a Boeing demonstrator with temporary markings and mock-up conformal fuel tanks, before reverting back to a Block II F/A-18E for Sunday, and continuing on to Pirkkala AFB (Tampere) where they spent the early part of the week offering the Air Force an opportunity to study the aircraft closer. Pirkkala is home to Satakunta Air Command, responsible for the development of tactics and air doctrines as well as handling flight testing and playing a “pivotal role in the development and fielding of new systems”. This is something of a marketing victory for Boeing, as they are the first to offer the Air Force this kind of a chance to get to explore the aircraft on their home turf and according to their own wishes, guided by the company’s own test pilots.

While the Block III might be toned down when it comes to RCS reduction compared to the original Advanced Super Hornet, this is a calculated decision by Boeing. “The Super Hornet Block I reached initial operational capability back in 2001, when stealth was the hot stuff”, Bryan Crutchfield explains. “This means that the aircraft is designed with stealth features, but so are all the other contenders, so that’s nothing special.” Instead, Boeing likes to focus their energy on other measures, such as jamming. According to their view, jamming provides a flexibility that stealth does not, i.e. you are not restricted to a certain waveband, while at the same time avoiding compromises when it comes to aerodynamics and space restrictions. This means that while stealth might hold significant benefits today, the question whether it will in 2050 is far more uncertain given the current development of sensors with the specific goal of countering X-band stealth.

The US Navy also seems to be happy with this dual-pronged approach, as there are currently no plans to let the F-35 replace the Super Hornet. Instead, the two will keep operating side-by-side into the foreseeable future, with the F-35C replacing the ‘legacy’ F/A-18A through D Hornets currently sharing the carrier decks with the Super Hornet. Exactly how long this will last is anyone’s guess, as the US Navy only forecasts around 25 years into the future (contrary to many other air arms), and there’s currently no retirement date set. Boeing, however, expects the Super Hornet to continue in US Navy service to around 2060, in line with (and then some) the plans for HX. In part this is based on a forecasted need for 100+ new Super Hornets being bought by the Navy within then next five years, with these being expected to serve their full lifespan.

What does Block III then hold? The biggest external change is the conformal fuel tanks, which provide added fuel capacity at a lower drag and RCS compared to traditional external fuel tanks, and without occupying hardpoints that could be used for weapons or other pods. However, as is usually the case with these kinds of upgrades, the main changes are on the inside. One major improvement is the increase in bandwidth when transmitting and receiving data to and from other aircraft. This has become an increasingly important issue, as more and more sensor data and imagery are being transmitted between not only fighters, but other friendly units and installations as well.

Block 3.JPG
The Pukin’ Dogs F/A-18E Super Hornet as a makeshift Block III demonstrator, sporting mock-up conformal fuel tanks. Source: Own picture

Another important upgrade is the fitting of an IRST. IR-sensors are nothing new to US Navy fighters, having featured them on a number of occasions throughout history. However, it is only now they really start to come into their own as mature sensor systems. Part of this is because the sensors themselves have matured, but a part also comes from sensor fusion making it easier for the pilot to take in data not coming from the aircraft’s primary sensor.

And speaking of taking in data, a huge improvement is the new large area display replacing the earlier smaller multi-function displays. The display not only means more surface area on which to show information to the pilot, but also makes a higher degree of customisation possible, based on either individual preferences or the type of mission currently being flown. It is as an example possible to now have both the air-to-air and air-to-ground pictures up on the screen at the same time, thanks to the AN/APG-79 AESA radar and the huge screen area available.

The customisation also makes changes to the human-machine interface quicker, a key focus as the increasing number of sensors and data received from other platforms puts ever increasing demands on the pilots to be able to process large amounts of information. Boeing described how they run simulator tests with a group of around sixty active pilots who came in and tested an upcoming update. After having gathered their feedback, Boeing sent them out for lunch, and the software engineers started to make quick changes which allowed for a second run of testing by the same pilots the very same afternoon. Adaptability is the name of Boeing’s game, and they are increasingly moving away from bigger occasional updates to regular smaller ones.

Guest Post: Additional thoughts regarding the strategic depth issue

Professor Forss has for several decades been one of the leading authorities on Finnish defence and national security policy. For me personally his writings in Finnish daily Hufvudstadsbladet were one of very few sources on Finnish security and defence policy available in the pre-#turpo age. It is a great honour for me to be able to publish the post below where he examines the idea of the Finnish Air Force using foreign bases in greater detail.

Corporal Frisk addresses the Finnish – Swedish issue about strategic depth, which started from the by now well-known Jane’s article.

The picture that Jane’s paints, isn’t, however, very new. The idea of using a common strategic depth as an item to be introduced in Finnish-Swedish air force cooperation is actually more than twenty years old. The first to float it was – as far as former colleagues and friends now recall – the eminent Swedish air warfare analyst Bengt Andersson at the Swedish Defence Research Establishment FOA, now known as FOI.

His thinking started from the premise that the Swedish Jas 39 Gripen and the Finnish F-18 Hornet shared enough common features, that Hornets operating from Swedish air bases was a realistic idea worth developing. The Gripen’s engine, Volvo RM 12 was developed from the General Electric F404-400 engine. The Hornet’s GE F404-GE-402 engine was similar enough to use the same fuel as Gripen at least temporarily and both aircraft also carried the same AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles.

As for the Nordic defense co-operation project NORDEFCO, Col. Pekka Holopainen and myself described it in detail in our monograph Breaking the Nordic Defense Deadlock which U.S. Army War College Press published in February 2015.

At that time, the air forces of Finland, Sweden and Norway had already conducted mutual Cross Border Training together for some time in the air space of the three countries. The air forces continue to exercise in this mode on a weekly basis and are already able to operate fairly seamlessly.

20150311_jimcro01_nordefco_dsc1303
The Nordic ministers of defence visiting Swedish Kallax AFB during an exercise back in 2015. In the background a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet stands next to a Swedish JAS 39C Gripen. Source: Jimmy Croona/Försvarsmakten

The particular issue of strategic depth is indeed not new. There is a major practical problem, however, from a Finnish viewpoint. In the late 1990s Sweden had a marvelous dispersed air base system all over Sweden. It was called Air Base 90 and it consisted of 88 individual prepared road bases with full infrastructure, shelters, electricity, fuel and weapons storage facilities. The whole system was built upon the premise that the air force should be able to operate in a nuclear and CW environment.

Then eternal peace broke out in Europe and this magnificent system was dismantled, except for two bases at Jokkmokk in Lapland and Hagshult in Småland in the south. Restoring Base 90 is impossible, but the Swedes are now trying to bring back something. With the Base 90 intact, strategic depth would have carried a lot more substance, seen from our Finnish perspective.

A foreign friend also offered the following thoughts. In his opinion, it seems, there was no particular reason for euphoria regarding the strategic depth issue: “There is a bit of negative that should be added. Why would Finland send aircraft to Sweden when it still would be in the threat ring of bad stuff and would be looking for support from bases with un-like aircraft?

Why wouldn’t Finland want to deploy to NATO bases outside the immediate threat ring where there would be more like-systems and more munitions to carry on the fight? Levels of conventional munitions stocks are classified, but I am guessing that the US has more pre-positioned in Europe than Sweden.”

Be it as it may, it’s no exaggeration to say that the air forces of Finland, Sweden and Norway have

come very far in their efforts to be able to integrate fully should a political decision to do that be adopted.

Norway is in the process of introducing the first Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning-II combat aircraft of the 52 ordered. Sweden is committed to 60-70 domestically produced Saab Jas 39 E/F Gripen aircraft. Ideas of keeping ‘surplus’ Jas 39 C/D Gripens operative have been floated. One leading Swedish security policy analyst Dr. Robert Dalsjö pleaded in August that 97 almost new C/D Gripens should be retained. Another senior Swedish defense analyst, Krister Andrén describes the Swedish needs for the 2030s as eight air combat divisions with 200 aircraft.

ilmave_hnmlu2_2015_09_30
Finnish F/A-18C Hornet in MLU 2 configuration. Source: FiAF

The Finnish Air Force has now concluded its second midlife update of its fleet of 62 Boeing F/A-18 C/D Hornet aircraft and is at present regarded as perhaps the strongest Nordic air force. Two Finnish Hornets plus pilots and support personnel are in the U.S. training to use the advanced JASSM long-range stand-off missile, which will be operationally introduced in the FiAF next year.

At the same time the acquisition process to replace the Hornets has begun. Offers from five manufacturers of the next combat aircraft have been requested, and the planes considered include F-35A Lightning-II, F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, Jas 39 E/F Gripen, Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale. Final decision is to be made in 2021 and operational introduction of the new air craft beginning in about 2025.

We are now four years from that decision. A whole lot of familiarization with both F-35 and the new Gripen will have been acquired by then in the routine Cross Border Training. Depending on how the integration process between the air forces proceeds, it may impact the final Finnish decision. Given that Sweden and Norway have decided on the aircraft for their fleets, the Finnish choice is the only open parameter left and it will of course play a role for the other partners too.

The optimum Finnish choice isn’t necessarily the same if you look at things only from a Finnish national perspective or from the perspective of a combined Nordic air force. The planes that will fly in our common airspace the next 3 4 decades have their individual strengths but also weaknesses. For example, air-to-surface firepower is not one of the strengths of the small Gripen or the F-35 flying in stealth mode with weapons carried only internally.

So, what plane will Finland eventually buy? It is of course impossible to tell. The purchase of the Hornet in the early 1990s proved to be a tremendous success and the Finnish Air Force enjoys respect wherever you go.

Even more important has the security political dimension proved to be. Security political relations between Finland and USA then took a quantum leap. That is something Finland will not easily abandon, although there still are political factions in Finland which try to sabotage our relations with the U.S. the best they can.

Stefan Forss

Professor

Adjunct Professor, Finnish National Defence University

Views presented are solely those of the author.

Strategic depth and Alliances

“American newspaper – the concept of strategic depth: Finland could withdraw to Sweden if attacked”

That is the headline chosen by Finnish news source Verkkouutiset when retelling Jane’s Defence Weekly’s recent story that the Swedish Air Force has been working on a concept of enabling Finnish fighters to operate from Swedish bases in times of crises. The idea is both extremely radical, and blatantly obvious, a combination uncomfortably common in Finnish national security.

In short, the interviewed officer was colonel Magnus Liljegren, responsible for the production of Swedish air units and equipment at the Swedish Defence Forces’ general staff (designated C PROD FLYG in the Swedish Defence Forces). The colonel stated that “Finland is absolutely our top priority partner right now […] they are looking to us in order to increase their operational depth. If they need to withdraw they can move into our country and use our bases.” (full article over at JDW).

Three different fighters from three different countries of the NORDEFCO (Nordic defense cooperation) overflying Turku airport. Source: Own picture

From a strictly military perspective, this is an obvious solution. With the increased range of modern air defence and surveillance systems the Finnish air space is more or less contested throughout from the start of a conflict. There are significant benefits coming from operating from Kallax compared to Oulunsalo, not to mention Kuopio-Rissala.

Side note: if Finnish fighters were planning to use Swedish bases, there’s really only one contender that makes sense for HX. The  benefits of deploying to a base that already has everything you need to operate your aircraft in combat compared to having to bring your logistics train with you is huge. I haven’t seen any indication this would have been a marketing stunt (and I don’t believe it is), but we really should sort this out before 2021 if there’s a chance we would like to run along with the concept.

At the same time, it would be an unprecedented political step. I highly doubt there is a Finnish politician ready to sign the paper saying we would join in the fray if Russian troops suddenly appeared on Gotland. Likewise, if we are supposed to use Swedish bases when attacked, that would mean that Sweden would join in a conflict they might not (yet) be part of.

While that might be a hard sell to the voters, it would in fact make sense. If Finland would react to a Crimea-like coup aimed towards Gotland by mobilising the reserve and dispatching air and sea units to throw out the attackers by force and protect shipping around the island, there is in my opinion a higher likelihood that the conflict would stay local and limited in time. The reasoning behind this is the markedly higher deterrence value of the Finnish Defence Forces once mobilised and dispersed compared to their peacetime stance, as well as the increased striking power of the combined Finnish-Swedish forces. For Sweden, the situation is similar. In effect, Finland shields the northern part of Sweden from direct aggression, allowing the numerically small Swedish Army to concentrate their two brigades in the southern parts of the country, something that would also provide Finland with a measure of flanking support. The strength of the defence forces operating together is also larger than the sum of them individually, as the relatively small sizes of both countries means that some capabilities are found only in one of them, and that their combined size can reach quantitative thresholds (‘critical mass’) in areas where this would not be possible individually, both geographic and capability wise.

What is interesting is that the whole issue has been completely overshadowed by the rather similar quarrel over Finland’s response if Estonia was to be attacked. The whole thing started when Finnish tabloid Iltalehti published a long report stating that a major split had developed between the president (and government) and the parliament. President Sauli Niinistö (yes, we have three different Niinistös in Finnish politics, all representing different parties) of the centre-right National Coalition Party (fi. Kokoomus sv. Samlingspartiet) represents the more “allowing” line, found in the recent Government Defence Report published in February:

“Finland will actively and extensively strengthen its international defence cooperation and other networking as well as develop the abilities to provide and receive international assistance.

[…]

Finland, as a Member State of the European Union, could not remain an outsider should threats to security emerge in its vicinity or elsewhere in Europe. […] Finland will not allow the use of its territory for hostile purposes against other states. On the basis of the Government Report on Finnish Foreign and Security Policy this does not limit Finland’s prospects to provide and receive international assistance or to intensify defence cooperation.”

This is not an uncontroversial view in Finnish politics. Former foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja has apparently been able to gather enough support to get a majority of the parliament behind a strongly worded statement arguing for a reduction in Finnish participation in NATO-exercises and a ban on any Finnish military aid to Estonia in case the country would be attacked. Tuomioja represents the left flank of the Finnish Social Democrat Party, and the veteran politician has not only been able to enlist the support of his party (currently the largest opposition party), but also of the Left Alliance (fi. Vasemmistoliitto sv. Vänsterförbundet) and part of the MP’s from the ruling Centre Party (fi. Keskusta sv. Centerpartiet). The rebellion has deep roots in Finnish post-war history, when the Centre Party was the ideological home of Finlandisation, and the party has still a significant amount of people longing for the ‘good old days’ when we enjoyed a special relationship with the Soviet Union (i.e. not being able to have an independent foreign policy despite not being occupied or a Soviet satellite). While the situation during the Cold War might have called for some careful maneuvering, it surpasses my understanding why Finland in today’s world would strive to stand on the edge between western democracies and a Russian autocracy. This is especially strange considering that both Russia and our European allies consider us an integral part of the ‘West’, NATO-membership or not.

The report in Iltalehti caused considerable buzz. Niinistö and Tuomioja sternly denied there being any open issues between the two, while Yle in turn reported that the argument wasn’t as much between the president and the parliament, as it was between the government and the parliament. Anyhow, Finland has once again managed to make a complete mess of what our current policy vis-a-vis helping Estonia would be, and our southern brothers only made the embarrassment worse when Estonian MoD Margus Tsahkna went to the press (and Twitter) to assure us that we need not worry, Estonia will come to Finland’s aid in case we need help…

The youth organisation of the Finns Party (fi. Perussuomalaiset, sv. Sannfinländarna) in turn took the opportunity to suggest a joint Finnish-Estonian volunteer corps, ready to come to the aid of whichever country would be attacked (original presser in Finnish, blog post on the issue in English). While wordings such as “Failure to provide assistance would be a cold statement to our brothers and sisters. Finnish-Ugrian culture is best defended by the Finno-Ugric peoples themselves” are not necessarily ones I personally would use, the contrast to the careful language found amongst the more pro-Russian politicians is stark. While there to a certain extent do exist a left-right fault line in Finnish politics when it comes to Russia, there are also significant inner-party fault lines, as well as a difference between different generations.

The presser also highlights the difference between the staunchly anti-Kremlin line of the Finns Party, and the pro-Kremlin narrative of many of Europe’s populist parties. This was painstakingly obvious when one of the leading national security voices of the Swedish Democrat’s party started advocating for Sweden to declare their intention not to give assistance to the Baltic countries, using an imaginary Finnish “decision not to help” as justification.

Daniel Vikström: So when Russia threatens and invades its neighbors to secure its geostrategic interests, we should be humble about this?
Mikael Jansson: Finland has declared that it cannot assist the Baltic countries if they are attacked, Sweden should do the same. That is NATO’s task #defencepolicy

Added to this all, Finland ratified the Treaty of Lisbon nine years ago. The Treaty famously include clause 42.7, the so called solidarity clause.

If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

That an “obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power” would include direct military contribution would seem a no-brainer, not to mention the current talking point of whether NATO fighters could use Finnish airspace to defend Estonia in case the country was attacked.

The range of a number of modern Russian weapons systems if based in Tallinn. Courtesy of Petri Mäkelä

To sum it up, even if we skip any moral responsibility to help our neighbours, Finland has a number of self-serving reasons to intervene, or at least allow other countries to intervene (we don’t really want invading smaller countries to be an accepted part of international politics, and Russian weapons stationed on Gotland or in Estonia would be really bad for us). In addition, we have actually signed an international agreement promising to do so. That the prime minister apparently has seen a covert rebellion in his party over this is deeply worrying.

Under Scottish Skies – Selling the Typhoon

As part of a Finnish media tour I had the opportunity to spend a day at RAF Lossiemouth, where BAE Systems and RAF briefed us on why they think the Eurofighter Typhoon would be the right choice for Finland. No discussion on the Typhoon is complete without mentioning the cost, so lets start with a look at the business side of things.

The large twin-engined fighter has so far struggled to secure export orders outside of the wealthy Gulf states, something which is often attributed to the price tab. BAE Systems regional manager Mark Parkinson doesn’t deny that the fighter is expensive. “It’s a large aircraft, which means it has more parts than some of the competitors,” he notes. “That’s certainly visible in the unit cost.” But beyond the outright acquisition cost, the Eurofighter is remarkably competitive, with the current ten-year support agreement signed between BAE and RAF stipulating a support cost per flying hour that is on level with that of the F-16.

Mark Parkinson

“None of these aircrafts are cheap”
Mark Parkinson, Regional Manager BAE Systems

At the heart of this agreement from last summer is the Typhoon Total Availability eNterprise, or TyTAN for short, a support package aiming at closer co-operation between BAE Systems and RAF, who both share the common aim of making sure the operating costs are kept low and availability high for the Typhoon fleet. In essence, BAE tries to react proactively to any upcoming issues and provide for an increased level of training amongst the front-line mechanics of the air force, while RAF in turn strives to clearly communicate their needs and expectations back to BAE. In the words of John Bromehead, “The beauty of TyTAN is us sitting on the same side of table”, and contrasted this to the more traditional customer-supplier relationship which in the past has caused unnecessary friction over contractual issues. As a whole, the role of BAE as the prime contractor for British Typhoon support is not unlike how the Finnish Defence Forces and Millog are handling their strategic partnership in some areas.

Bromehead is the general manager of BAE Systems at Lossiemouth, meaning he oversees a team of some sixty persons that are responsible for not only the maintenance of the aircrafts and the supply chain associated with it, but also for the Typhoon Training Facility (North), an on-site simulator facility where six senior instructors lead the training of the operational fighter pilots. Of his team, only about half are actually BAE employees, with RAF providing a third of the work force, and Leonardo (ex-Selex), Thales, and other subcontractors making up the rest. In the same way as RAF is making resources available to BAE, Bromehead has a single BAE engineer posted to each of the squadrons operating at the base. “These are my ears and eyes,” he explains. The role of the engineers is to get a clear picture of how the operational squadrons perceive the aircraft, what kinds of demands and expectations they place upon it, and then communicate these back to the BAE. As noted, BAE is contractually bound to the ambitious goal of 40% reduction in support costs, and while this still is some way out in the future, a number of relatively simple improvements such as ensuring proper diagnostics not leading to unnecessary swapping out of healthy aircraft parts has meant that already in its first nine months TyTAN has seen reductions in flight hour costs.

John Bromehead

“Typhoon is a step-change in technology for the RAF”
John Bromehead, General Manager BAE Systems

For HX, Parkinson noted that the exact package is still open, and that BAE is in a dialogue with relevant Finnish authorities to get a better picture of what the Air Force and the MoD wants. This includes questions such as whether the contract will be in Euros or Pounds, and what kind of a support package is to be included. “The aircraft does come as a kit of parts,” Parkinson explained, meaning that a final assembly line could be set up in Finland with relative ease. In addition to the question of final assembly, he also revealed that the RFI included questions on whether it is possible to provide test rigs and/or an instrumented aircraft. The answer to both questions is yes, and in the end proper test rigs (and potentially a fully instrumented flight test aircraft) could be of more interest to the Finnish Air Force than a production line. Already under current orders and production rate, a potential Finnish order would fit in well with the large production schedule, and BAE has their scope set on a number of “promising” prospective orders, both new and returning customers. The general message was that while nothing is decided when it comes to the exact scope of the industrial cooperation, more or less anything requested by the Finnish Ministry of Defence can be provided. It is just a question of, you guessed it, cost.

I was invited for a Finnish media event to RAF Lossiemouth. The one-day event included briefings by both RAF and BAE Systems personnel (with the travelling taking places on the days before and after), and BAE kindly offered to cover the travel and stay in Scotland. Neither BAE nor RAF has put any restrictions or requests regarding what I do with the information given, nor have they reviewed (or asked for permission to review) any of my texts before publication. Instead, all involved were very forthcoming with providing us with information and answering questions we had regarding the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter program and how it is operated by the RAF. As RAF Lossiemouth is an active air force base, photography was naturally restricted to certain locations and angles.