Fighters, Missiles, and Forces

The request for best and final offers has not slowed down the pace of HX, but on the contrary things are seemingly moving at ever higher speed. At the same time, developments in the wider world are also affecting the competition.

F-35 started the year on the wrong footing, with Acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher Miller, giving a bizarre quote where he not only called the F-35 “that’s a piece of…” and called it “the case study” for an acquisition process which is a “wicked problem”, but also stated that “I cannot wait to leave this job, believe me.” While the full quote was headline stuff for the tabloids, I would not ascribe much value regarding the merits of the F-35 to the opinions of someone who responds to the question “I wanted to ask you…Joint Strike Fighter?” with “Which one? F-35?”

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The F-35 is followed by dark headlines, most of which are frankly little more than hot air caused by the unmatched media focus and US transparency surrounding the program. At the same time, questions regarding the sustainment costs continue to linger. Source: Norwegian Defence Forces Twitter

The other major headline was that the program was granted its fourth extension to the deadline for when the F-35 evaluation would be finished and the aircraft approved for full-rate production. While this also caused some bad press, truth be told this is largely a non-issue for the aircraft, as the challenges faced are part of the Joint Simulation Environment where the effectiveness against hostile high-end threats will be tested. It is, however, a serious case of civilian oversight being lacking, as either the decision criteria requiring the JSE tests are wrong, or then the civilian leadership has been watching from the sidelines as more than 600 units have been produced of an aircraft they don’t know if they will approve for full-rate production! Spoiler alert – it’s most likely the former, but it is a serious failure of the Civ-Mil process and how the oversight is structured (rather than any fault of the aircraft itself) that the production run before approval is bigger than the total most other fast-jets will see throughout their lifespans.

The aircraft also “flies with 871 flaws“, something that makes for good headlines but is largely a case of the unmatched US transparency rather than indicative of serious troubles.

In addition there has been issues with shortages of the F135 engines that has hit the fleet. Defense News quoted officials stating that it is a “serious readiness problem”, and noted that in next year “roughly 5 to 6 percent” of the aircraft could be without engines due to a combination of scheduled depot maintenance and unscheduled engine removals. Of all four headlines, this is probably the one that holds water, but while it indirectly isn’t good that a supply chain is hit by bad news, the issues will almost certainly be over by the time Finnish HX deliveries starts in 2025.

The most serious news, however, was an interview in Breaking Defense with the outgoing 13th Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Dr Will Roper (understandably often referred to as the “USAF acquisition czar”, and not with his full title). Roper, who while somewhat controversial regarding his methods of working is a highly respected professional in the field, noted that the aircraft isn’t “at a sustainment point that we need”, explaining that “right now the F-35 has a good ‘sticker price,’ but its cost of ownership is not where it needs to be, making the quantities that the Air Force may need to purchase in question”. Roper hinted that this could lead to the NGAD (not to be confused with the USN program of the same name) receiving higher priority, or even ordering new-built F-16s to boost the numbers. This was developed further by USAF Chief of Staff general Brown this week, who denied any plans to buy the F-16, but left the door open for a clean-sheet design of a fighter less complex than the F-35 and affordable enough for the bulk buys needed to replace the F-16 across the field.

Someone who doesn’t believe that the operating costs will come down is, unsurprisingly, rival Boeing, who will happily tell you that once fighters are starting to be flown, their operating costs won’t come down but rather go up due to wear and tear. And that despite the current Super Hornet-fleet having been flown hard in recent decades, including combat use, their numbers are still good.

Our flyaway costs are about the same [as the F-35], our operational costs are about half of that.

While Program Director Lauri Puranen has been clear with that no-one knows the Finnish operational costs due to no-one having the full detailed picture of Finnish Air Force investments, operations, and pricing models, the two contenders that roughly can be compared is the F-35 and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet due to the US DoD publishing their internal flight hour costs (again, thanks to the US transparency). A GAO report released late last year provide these numbers, noting that “From fiscal year 2011 through fiscal year 2018, the O&S costs per aircraft for the F/A-18E/F increased from about $5.58 million to about $6.41 million”. This was due to “sustained high flight hours, which increased the probability of parts failure on the aircraft, and an increasing aircraft inventory, as the F/A-18E/F is still in production. Maintenance costs also increased as the Navy has worked to address extensive maintenance needs associated with extending the service life of the aircraft from 6,000 hours to 10,000 hours”. At the same time, the F-35A total O&S costs per aircraft was $8.84 million in fiscal year 2018. While the numbers doesn’t support the F/A-18E/F having an O&S cost “half” of the F-35A, it still is 72% of it. And here it should be noted that the strain of the workloads placed on the different fleets will skew the cost (i.e. in a like for like scenario where the Super Hornet would operate from landbases with similar loads and flight profiles as the F-35A, the difference would likely be greater).

Another company who doesn’t care that Puranen stated that no-one knows the cost figures is Saab, where campaign director Magnus Skogberg this week declared that:

We know for sure that nobody beats us on cost.

Of course, the question on cost is highly complex, including the issues of how many flight hours will be needed to maintain proficiency on a multi-role fighter. Earlier Finnish pilots have flown relatively few hours, but have still managed to stay proficient due to having in essence been training solely for the air-to-air mission. With the MLU2 unlocking the air-to-ground capabilities and HX bringing in further expansions of the mission sets, the number of flight hours will most likely need to increase, even as advances in simulator technology are offloading some of the training to ground-based systems.

Of the missions, few have received the focus of long-range strike, which has been elevated to its own category in the HX program alongside the more general counter-land. Here it is important to note that the long-range strike role in Finnish doctrine occupies both a military as well as a deterrence role. Very little about how Finland plans the deterrence mission is found in open documents, but based on the realities of international law and capabilities of the systems involved deterrence by denial can safely be assumed to be the concept involved. To use a straightforward definition by David S. Yost, “Deterrence by denial means persuading the enemy not to attack by convincing him that his attack will be defeated – that is, that he will not be able to achieve his operational objectives.” In other words, there’s preciously little differing the role of the JASSM in Finnish service from the other weapons of the FDF – they all aim to deter the enemy from launching an attack by ensuring that he can’t reach his goals without the cost being unacceptably high. The particularity of the long-range strike is exactly the long-range – being able to affect targets that are important for the enemy but which are too far away for other methods. It might also be worth noting that a majority of Finnish MPs thinks “it would be acceptable for Finnish forces as a part of defending the country to strike militarily relevant targets on adversary territory”.

The question of which weapon will fill this role has largely been viewed as a three-way competition between the US AGM-158 JASSM (currently in Finnish service in the since discontinued AGM-158A version, which beat the Taurus KEPD in the last Finnish evaluation) and the European offerings of the Storm Shadow/SCALP and (possibly) the Taurus 350 KEPD. However, it turns out that last year’s DSCA notifications included an overlooked surprise: the JASSM would come with a seriously longer range than the current version.

Since the original AGM-158A, the JASSM has spawned a number of variants. Key among these are the longer-legged AGM-158B JASSM-ER (Extended Range) which is currently in production and in service as the AGM-158A replacement, as well as the AGM-158C LRASM which is an anti-ship variant of the same weapon. Latest of the bunch is a further refined version, earlier called JASSM-XR (for Extreme Range) which brings a number of improvements. Key among these is a range increase from 500 to 1,000 nautical miles compared to the AGM-158B (926 km to 1,852 km). The differences include “missile control unit, changes to the wings, a different paint coating, an Electronic Safe and Arm Fuze, a secure GPS receiver, and program protection requirements” according to Air Force Magazine. The JASSM-XR received an official AGM-158D designation earlier, and production has been confirmed to start with Lot 19 which is expected to be ordered any day now.

However, the designation AGM-158B-2 showed up in the Finnish DSCA-requests last year. This variant of the AGM-158B has up until now not been seen in many documents outside of the requests. After Inside Defense claimed that there has been yet another change of designations, I decided to ask Lockheed Martin (manufacturer of both the F-35A and the AGM-158 JASSM) about it.

AGM-158B2 will be the next variant in the line of JASSM-ER missiles. The USAF is expected to begin procurement of the JASSM-ERB2 beginning in Lot 19.

Turns out the missile expected to handle the long-range strike mission in case Finland chooses either the Super Hornet or the F-35A is the missile formerly known as JASSM-XR. This would mean a huge increase in range, from the current 370 km of the AGM-158A JASSM to 1,852 km of the AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ERB2 (usual caveat that all range figures are based on open sources and comes with a large dose of “it depends” where things such as launch altitude come into play).

A Finnish F/A-18 Hornet sporting two AGM-158A JASSM during exercise Ruska 19. Source: Joni Malkamäki/Ilmavoimat

Exactly how much range Finland really needs is an interesting question. The current 370 km can certainly be improved upon, though on the other hand it is questionable if Finland really needs the ability to reach Ufa. In theory going from AGM-158A to AGM-158B-2 is the difference between Rissala-St Petersburg and Rissala-Kazakhstan. What it in practice would do is unlock further options for Finnish military planners, including guaranteed stand-off range against all Russian air defences, current and planned, as well as the possibility to route the flight paths of the cruise missiles around hostile defences. The AGM-158B-2 would for example make it possible to stand back and fire missiles from high altitude over the Bothnian Gulf and still reach the same targets as the AGM-158B would do from within S-400 range. As such, added range doesn’t necessarily mean that the Finnish Air Force is looking at new targets. After all, most military relevant targets in a conflict where Finland is involved – such as command centres, transport infrastructure, and staging areas – are found relatively close to the border, but rather that these targets could be destroyed at smaller risk to the Finnish pilots and aircraft. A military relevant target set that likely is of interest and which is found further from the Finnish border is the infrastructure needed to move troops from other military districts towards a conflict zone in (north-)western Russia. Many of the recent large Russian military exercises have showcased the Russian ability to relatively quickly move personnel and equipment over large distances, either by rail or air. Being able to disrupt or delay such movements in a conflict could be an example of a military target outside the range of the current AGM-158A JASSM, and one which might buy valuable days or even weeks for friendly support to reach Finland.

Crucially, the fact that the US contenders have decided to go for the B-2 and not the B does show that they feel that it fits the Finnish requirement best. It could be just a question of which weapon will be rolling of the production lines in 2027, but if there really is a requirement for range, the European contenders might be at a disadvantage when it comes to evaluating their ability to perform the long-range strike mission. And from a purely deterrence point of view, range does indeed open up more targets to be held at risk, and there’s also the fact that buying the best there is helps with cementing the “passive-aggressive” reputation needed for small-state deterrence to work.

An interesting question is obviously what weapon Saab would offer for the long-range strike role? The Taurus KEPD 350 is a joint Saab-MBDA venture, but as the weapon has lost an evaluation for a Finnish contract already once much of the Swedish discussion has been around the possibility to integrate any weapon the customer wants. However, as the only DSCA requests so far related to HX have been for the US contenders, the question remains if Saab plans on first selling the aircraft, and then trusting Finland to receive the correct export clearances? When asked, Saab declined to comment.

Both with respect to the customer and due to competition we do not comment on the details relating to the weapons package of the HX programme.

But if the F-35 had a somewhat poor start of the year, the Super Hornet also had its unwelcome moment in the spotlight with the announcement that the US Navy is thinking about axing the conformal fuel tanks from the Block III upgrade. The CFTs have been seen as an important part of the plans to increase the range of the Super Hornet, which in turn is seen as important for any China-scenario. For Finland, range and endurance isn’t as critical, but the question is how invested the USN is in the future of the Super Hornet-family if they struggle to meet the envisioned increase in range? Boeing is, at least officially, not concerned. The US Navy is still moving forward with the overall plan to convert the fleet to Block III standard (Block II being the corresponding program for the EA-18G Growler), and the current USN plan is that well over half the fast jets of the carrier air wing of 2030 will be from the Super Hornet-family (28 Super Hornets, 5-7 Growlers, and 16 F-35C). “Staying with three Super Hornet squadrons [per air wing] is quite telling,” Alain Garcia said, and noted that development is set to continue well past Block III. “There is a roadmap […] lots of [software] capabilities coming.” Garcia is one of Boeing’s key persons in their campaign aimed at ensuring Finland stays with the Boeing for another generation, and he sports the somewhat unwieldy title of Capture Team Lead for International Sales & Marketing Fighter and Trainer Campaigns in Finland and Switzerland. The roadmap he refers to will include the manned-unmanned teaming updates which are expected to be included as standard by the time Finnish aircraft would be rolling off the production lines, but also new weapons. With regards to MUMT, the question is obviously if the Finnish Air Force could fit unmanned platforms in a budget that will already be strained by trying to replace the manned components? Garcia notes that it obviously is a decision that the Finnish Air Force will make based on their own needs and doctrines, but that so far as they can tell the option remains available. Especially considering potential savings and trade-offs that can be had.

Looking at current operational costs now, we believe that with our offer there’s still some room for operational costs in there.

While USN might not be as certain about the future of the Super Hornet (or the carrier air wing in general), the EA-18G Growler seems to offer rather good protection against an early retirement of the platform. The unique role of the Growler as a dedicated stand-in electronic warfare platform will only continue to grow in importance (something the general Brown also noted recently in a much reported speech that included quotes about USAF being “asleep at the wheel” since Operation Desert Storm, and “We can no longer solely depend on defensive capabilities” which might get the force home, but don’t meet the need to be able to operate offensively in the electromagnetic spectrum). For not only the US Navy, but the joint US force as a whole, this means that the Growler is likely to remain on the flightdeck of the carriers and on expeditionary bases for decades to come, and with the Growler set to remain in service the future of the Super Hornet is also looking rosier than it would if alone. And if the Super Hornet/Growler would go the road of the A-6 Intruder/EA-6 Prowler where the electronic attack variant soldiered on for 22 years after the retirement of the baseline version, the ability to cross-feed new systems from the USN Growler-community to any potential Super Hornet export customers (as happened within the USN fast-jet fleet with the Block III upgrades) would help avoid the current “operating Hornet”-alone situation.

Saab and Boeing are happily in agreement about the importance of the importance of electronic warfare, as is the US DoD. In their new Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy they describe the electromagnetic spectrum as “not a separate domain of military operations because the EMS is inseparable from the domains established in joint doctrine.” Magnus Skogberg of Saab understandably pushed the need to be able to affect the EMS:

The stealth shaping of the aircraft is not enough to handle this [S-400 sensors covering a wide spectrum]

At this point it is notable that the F-35 in fact far from relying solely on stealth also features one of the most advanced integrated electronic warfare systems available, in fact putting them on the same side as Saab – but opposite Boeing – when it comes to the need for a dedicated EW-platform to get the most out of their aircrafts. While Skogberg proclaims that there’s “No need for a dedicated EW-platform when you are a Gripen operator”, Boeing representatives (not without being slightly smug about it) noted that while the UAE last year had requested a large package that included both the F-35A as well as the EA-18G Growler, only the Growler was denied export clearance by the US government on the grounds of it being too advanced and capable, with the F-35 deal being inked just before the change of administration (and now on hold pending review).

The US government has witheld the proposal from being submitted to the customer

The beauty of the Growler is that the dedication of the platform brings not only the computing power of the specified electronic warfare processor unit, but also the dedicated crew member. This means that for example when a new or previously unidentified signal is encountered, the operator can already in-flight start processing it, giving it an ID or other potential identifier. This means that once the aircraft lands the signal intelligence can be downloaded from the aircraft as “useful data” ready for the library, a capability Boeing believe they are alone in the field to provide. While the complete absence of black boxes and total independence of the mission data has been, and continues to be, one of the main selling points of the European contenders, Boeing takes a somewhat different approach out of necessity.

The data is owned by the Finnish government, but the processing of acquired mission data is easiest to handle through US infrastructure where Finnish personnel can be embedded. Fast turnaround (less than 24 hours) can then be achieved through the use of secure channels. Alternatively the whole or parts of the infrastructure can be rebuilt in Finland, but the cost might be prohibitive. Another interesting aspect is whether Finland wants to share the data (especially the data collected by Growlers) or not. There are a number of three-letter agencies interested in the data collected by USN Growlers, and exchange of data between Finland and the US might in turn provide valuable intelligence from these to the Finnish authorities. The amount of data produced by the Growler is indeed huge, with the snapshot of what the Growler visiting during HX Challenge last year managed to capture simply through its passive sensors reportedly being “eye-opening” with regards to the “saturation of information”. This is another place where the dedicated crew members comes into play.

An EA-18G Growler from VAQ-132 during heavy snows at Naval Air Facility Misawa, Japan, showing that the aircraft doesn’t stop just because everything turned white. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kenneth G. Takada via Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of from where it originates, electronic warfare is the hot stuff, with a crucial feature being noted in the new US DoD Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy:

Because many EMS capabilities are employed, not expended, concerns about magazine capacity or cost of munitions may be reduced, which in turn affords commanders and decision makers more sustainable options.

For a country where low numbers of advanced munitions has been raised as a concern in official documents, this is of interest. The ability to control the battlespace without blowing things up is certainly interesting also from an escalation management point of view, one of Finland’s key interests in any (limited) conflict.

But Saab has an alternative. Or rather, the Swedish defence establishment and politicians have an alternative. If Finland would buy the 39E Gripen and GlobalEye, the vision is that the Finnish and Swedish Air Force would be a common customer, meeting Saab together. And crucially, we would be the major customer and not a small customer in a bigger project. Saab’s media event this week was telling, in that it featured the Swedish Minister for Defence Peter Hultqvist, the deputy commander of the Swedish Air Force brigadier general Anders Persson, as well as Saab’s own people. While it technically is the governments and not the OEMs that are selling fighters to Finland, none are as clearly involved in the sales effort as the Swedes. MoD Hultqvist underlined the influence Finland would have on the program, stating that Finland would have “direct influence” on the future development path of 39E and GlobalEye if we choose Saab’s offer.

Slides from the media event, not leaving anything left to imagination

Brigadier general Persson didn’t mess around in his presentation, clearly stating that the potential enemy comes from an aggressive and expansive Russia, and that this is what Sweden has tailored their defenses towards.

Gripen is designed for our common environment, our common enemy, with our people in focus.

While Saab’s part of the presentation focused on their EW-suite, ability to field numbers, high availability, and current footprint in Finland (including the LADM decoy missile currently being under development, with much of the work undertaken in Tampere), Hultqvist and Persson spoke about the possibilities of Finnish-Swedish cooperation. This included harmonizing the acquisition of both Air Forces, but also cooperating with basing, training, and maintenance. Crucially, Sweden hasn’t decided to acquire GlobalEye, but according to Hultqvist while “We haven’t made any formal decision to procure GlobalEye, but that is how it should be interpreted”. A strange statement, as the new Swedish Defence Bill for 2021 to 2025 in fact envisions the replacement for the current ASC 890 to come only in the 2026 to 2030 period, with the decision on the platform still being years into the future. And speaking of the Defence Bill, it is far from a certain grand slam for the Swedish Air Force, as the answer to the realisation that cutting the Swedish fighter force to just 60 aircraft (the number of JAS 39E ordered) was a bad idea wasn’t to increase the size of the order, but rather to maintain the current JAS 39C/D fleet for longer. Beside the obvious issue of lower relative quality for the total force when keeping upgraded older aircraft in service instead of ordering more modern platforms, there is also little room for growth among the highly specialised workforce of the Swedish stakeholders when suddenly two fast-jets are to be kept up to date in parallel. An anonymous engineer from the Combat Aircraft department of the Swedish Defence Material Administration raised questions over on Twitter, noting that some of the engineers at the department are looking at 150 to 170% workload for the foreseeable future due to new 39C/D related developments. The optimist sees possibilities for Finnish industry to step in following an HX win for Saab, the pessimist questions if the small and competent Swedish aviation sector can continue to keep pushing out the kind of high-quality high-end solutions they are known for?

More headline grabbing was the speech held by brigadier general Persson. He noted that already now Finland and Sweden cooperate closely and regularly deploy to the other country for exercises. He also noted that this will continue regardless of the outcome of HX, but that choosing Gripen and GlobalEye would open up unique new opportunities. Not only could Finland fly the aircraft for upgrades to Linköping and Saab’s factory there in the morning and get the aircraft back in the evening, but Sweden and the Swedish aircraft infrastructure could be used as a rear logistics area. For basing, according to need Finnish fighters could deploy to Swedish bases behind the moat of the Baltic Sea, while Swedish fighters could use Finnish dispersed bases as forward staging areas for sorties. Integrating training and tactics could be a true force multiplier in the words of the general.

We will be like one air force with two commanders.

…and here the military historian will point out that ever since consuls Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus led the Roman army to the disaster at Cannae in 216 BC, having a single force with two commanders is usually not seen as a great idea. But leaving that perhaps misplaced quote aside, it is clear that the idea has much going for it. It isn’t exactly new, see for example this older guest post, but getting additional strategic depth for basing would certainly be beneficial, and it certainly would be easier to arrange with the same aircraft type than with different ones.

However, the kind of integrated force that brigadier general Persson describe would be something more than just two interoperable forces, something which they are already today (and will continue to be as both countries strive to maintain their ability to plug into NATO and US compatible forces), but it would require them to be true military allies. This is a political decision, and one which I fail to see either parliament going for in the next six months. Finnish commentators like to question whether Sweden is prepared to make firm commitments that they would send their sons and daughters to die for Kouvola or Sodankylä, but truth be told the answer to the question if Finland would be prepared to declare war on Russia in support of Sweden if the dreaded Gotland-grab scenario would take place is even more uncertain.

In fact, building up a rear logistics area outside of the country’s border is exactly what has been described as a potential weak point of the F-35. Ironically, the deputy commander hit the nail on the head when he described the situation for both countries as “We need to be able to take care of ourselves for days, weeks, maybe months”. The possibility of integrating further with the Swedish force is interesting, as is the ability to be the major operator instead of being a smaller operator in a major program. However, it does feel like much of Saab’s sales pitch this time took a detour to a political reality that simply isn’t there, and completely missed the geopolitical realities and defining features of the Finnish concept of operations which the company earlier has been good at selling towards.

Boeing on the other hand has no issues with selling to the Finnish concept of operations.

If you’re already operating the Hornet-fleet, there really is no change to the concept of operations switching to the Super Hornet and Growler.

This might be a bit of stretch considering the capabilities of the Growler, but granted it would fit the way the FDF usually does things (and likely be cheaper!) that instead of major sudden changes the force would get to iteratively developed its doctrine and concepts of operations.

The Junkers of Aakenustunturi

Today Ylläs is known as one of the larger tourist destinations in Northern Finland. The twin villages of Äkäslompolo and Ylläsjärvi play host to a number of visitors coming there to ski cross-country and alpine in winter, and to hike, mountainbike, and pick cloudberries in the summer. Those wanting to experience the wilderness usually strikes out to the northeast, where the landscape is dominated by the seven fells that have become the hallmark of the region. Furthest away is the mighty Aakenustunturi. While not among the highest, it still reaches well above the treeline, and stretches in a long horseshoe-shaped pattern with three distinct peaks – Vareslaki (north), Moloslaki (east), and Totovaara (south). In the summer hiking routes starting from the nearby Ylläs-Kittilä road makes ascents relatively easy provided you have the proper footwear, while a more demanding alternative is to hike or ski from Äkäslompolo. This blog usually doesn’t deal with outdoors life, but studying the maps you might notice the somewhat unusual name Lentokonejänkkä (Fi. the aircraft fen) for a small marsh just below Moloslaki.

In the early days of 1944 the region was very different. Neither Äkäslompolo nor Ylläs had a road connection (which was a blessing in disguise as the villages were spared destruction during the German retreat the following fall). And on the first of February that year, Aakenustunturi would see one of the many small tragedies that the war was full of.

The remains of ‘P4+CH’. Note the radiator belonging to a Bf 110 in the foreground, part of the fateful cargo. Source: Own picture

Germany was handling the northernmost part of the Finnish frontline, leading to a supply line stretching over the Baltic Sea and through Finland up to the Norwegian coastline and the Barents Sea. The main Finnish city in the region, Rovaniemi, became a logistics hub with its own transport aircraft unit. This was the Transportstaffel/Fliegerführer Nord (Ost) sorting directly under Luftflotte 5, and sporting the unwieldy abbreviation Tr.St.Fl.Fü.Nord (Ost). Further to the east and close to the frontline in White Sea Karelia (Fi. Vienan Karjala, Ru. Belomorskaja Kareliya), the airfield of Pontsalenjoki was found. Little more than a clearing in the forest, the field spent the war seeing small detachments of fighters, ground support, and reconnaissance aircraft rotate in and out according to need. It was from here that Junker Ju 52/3m ‘P4+CH’ from Tr.St.Fl.Fü.Nord (Ost) took off loaded with a cargo that included spares for Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighters and mail. The crew of four was made up of oberfeldwebel Kurt Rochna (pilot), unteroffizier Karl Meyer (radio), unteroffizier Stephan Kulin (mechanic), and unteroffizier Willi Brade (rear-gunner), and the plane set course towards Rovaniemi. Someone from the crew also brought along a dog.

A Spanish-built Junker Ju 52 (locally designated CASA 352) warbird showing how the typical ‘Tante Ju’ looked like above the Eastern Front during WWII. Note the gunner’s position towards the rear of the aircraft. Source: Mike Freer – Touchdown-aviation via Wikimedia Commons

We don’t know at what point the crew realised that something was wrong, but the weather over western Lapland was poor that day, and what should have been a routine 250 km trip ended on the eastern slopes of Aakenustunturi 140 km north of their intended destination. It is possible that Ofw. Rochna made a desperate attempt to ditch the aircraft having run out of fuel and options. The large open wetlands west of the fell would have been a better option in that case, but with poor weather and most likely little to no daylight he might have misjudged the white silhouette of the fell until it was too late to change their course of action. In any case the aircraft came to a stop in the snow on the eastern slopes of Moloslaki relatively intact, with bent propellers and the fixed undercarriage torn away. However, the force of the crash was still hard enough that part of the cargo broke loose and came forward, crashing through the thin cockpit wall and instantly killing everyone except Uffz. Brade who was seated further back in the aircraft.

The story about what happened next is a mixture of deduction by those that eventually found the wreck, rumours, and local legends with a hint of horror stories, making it difficult to piece together for certain what actually happened. What seems to clear is that Brade was seriously injured, and could not leave the wreck. In February the snow can easily be more than a meter deep, and trekking through the wilderness without proper equipment is difficult even for a fit and healthy individual. It is also unclear if he knew where the aircraft had crashed. Brade did have a signal gun and during the night he fired an unknown number of flares. The crash location was above the treeline, and with both the village of Kittilä and, crucially, the German air observation post at Levi within 20 km one would be forgiven to think that he might have had some luck with his distress signals. That was however not to be the case. Reportedly some locals in Kittilä saw the signals, but are said to have chalked the lights down to stormy weather coming in over the fell. In any case no one felt the need to report the observation onward to the authorities.

A piece of the wreck still showing traces of the paint layers despite eight decades of the sun and snow having taken their toll. Source: Own picture

At Levi the situation was none the better, and despite there being a clear line of sight between the two fells none of the signals were observed. According to the most likely explanation the air observation post was simply unmanned due to the poor weather convincing the crew there that no air traffic would take place. In the more grim version told by the locals, the soldiers had started partying, and in the alcohol-fuelled excitement they hadn’t noticed the signals. According to the same tale, they had all been executed afterwards.

In any case, Brade was out of luck, and would not leave the wreck alive. The German search effort was hampered by the poor weather, and failed to locate the Junkers. The next confirmed information is that a Finnish anti-partisan unit based in Kittilä encountered the wreck by chance when out on a trip in April the same year. According to the local horror stories, Brade would have struggled for days, keeping a diary written in his own blood, until eventually succumbing to a combination of his injuries and the harsh conditions. Local reindeer herders would have found the wreck, but as there was a sizeable amount of cash in it they made off with the money and kept their mouths shut. However, staff sergeant Armas Salovirta, second in command of the Finnish company stationed in Kittilä and leader of the group that found the wreck, wrote about the event in the late 80’s to try and kill some of the more spectacular rumours.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-382-0211-22, Flugzeug Messerschmitt Me 110.jpg
A Bf 110 at the Western Front. Note the underwing radiator just outside of the engine. Source: Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons

According to him, the unit was out as part of a physical education drive when they from far away spotted a dark spot on the eastern slope of the fell. Having nothing better to do, they decided to head over there to check what it was. Seeing it was an aircraft, they approached and peered into the rear compartment through one of the intact windows. There they saw Brade’s body, and a “hairy thing” that they figured was a wolverine. Equipped with an axe, Salovirta then opened the door to the cargo space, and was greeted by a rather aggressive long-haired puppy. The dog was however quickly won over by a piece of bread. After this, Salovirta and his men checked the cockpit and found two mutilated bodies described as the pilot and co-pilot crushed by the crates of aircraft spares. Apparently they did not notice the body of the fourth crew member, probably belonging to the radio operator Uffz. Meyer and seated immediately behind the cockpit. It is likely that at this point he was buried under the same crates that had killed Rochna and Kulin.

Having not expected to find an aircraft wreck, the patrol was poorly equipped to retrieve anything larger than what went into their backpacks. As such, the mail and puppy was packed into their bags, together with a pair of meal packages (one of which was opened and eaten on the return trip). The fact that these were still left in the aircraft shows that Brade most likely didn’t have time to starve before a combination of his injuries and the cold weather got the better of him. Salovirta noted that he indeed seemed to have survived for several days, but denied there being any kind of diary markings (in blood or otherwise) at the crash site. After Brade’s death, the dog had started to eat him, which explained how it had survived alone for over two months. Back in Kittilä the findings were reported up the Finnish chain of command, and the message about the lost aircraft finally reached the Germans. The thankful Germans gifted the puppy to Salovirta, who named it Junkers after the aircraft. Whether the aircraft had been visited before Salovirta’s patrol will likely remain a mystery, but the presence of the dog inside the wreck would indicate that the story of the herders is a myth.

About a week after the wreck had been located a group of German mountain troops, probably either of the 2.Gebirgs-Division or 6. SS-Gebirgs-Division “Nord”, arrived in Kittilä and requested to be shown the wreck. Salovirta accompanied them to the crash site, but the skiers didn’t do much else than observe the location. A short while later German troops came to recover the bodies together with some radio and navigational equipment, before they blew the aircraft to bits.

The trail is well marked, but the trailhead isn’t one you stumble upon by accident. Source: Own picture

Thus ended the sad story of ‘P4+CH’ (WNr. 5049) and its crew. Despite the destruction wrought by the German charges, the wreck is one of the few WWII crash sites in Finland where one can still find sizeable aircraft remains to this day. In the summer, the wreck is a short hike from the Totovaara parking spot, with signs helpfully showing the way towards the “Junkers”. On older maps you will encounter a goahti named Lentokonekota (Fi. the aircraft goahti), but it was burned down by the authorities in 2016 due to it being in poor shape. Continuing onwards past the spot of the former goahti you will encounter the wreck, well visible strewn across the trail. As everything not bolted down has a tendency to wander down the slopes with the melting snow in springtime, I would expect the original crash site to have been higher up on the fell. The hike is approximately 10 km to the wreck and back, but for a truly spectacular walk I would recommend doing the whole Moloslaenkierros which continues onward to the stunning ravine Valokuru, where the trail turns up the fell, before heading back along the ridgeline, passing over the peak Moloslaki before descending back towards the parking spot at the Totovaaran pirtti cabin. From the trail it is possible to see Levi to the north-east, from where Brade’s countrymen failed to spot his flares. Also visible to the east is Kittilä airport built in the late 70’s.

Levi in the distance seen from a spot on Aakenustunturi close to the crash site. Source: Own picture

Remember if you do visit the spot to only take pictures and only leave footprints to ensure that the site remain intact for future. It is also prudent to remember that this is the site where the lives of four young men ended in a foreign land almost eighty years ago. The nature of the war means that their fate largely became just another number in the statistics, but if you find yourself standing at the site of their demise, I ask you to take a moment to remember them.

This retelling is mainly based on Hannu Valtonen’s book “Hylkyretkiä Pohjolaan“, with some additional details added from other sources.

HX Home Stretch

Yesterday we got to see another HX presser, this time dealing with the final year of the competition. Held by the usual suspects – Minister of Defence Antti Kaikkonen, major general (engineering) Kari Renko of the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command, and Program Director Lauri Puranen – there were no big shifts in the messaging. However, there were some interesting comments, and a confirmation of the current schedule.

Current schedule, including the ‘silent period’

Beginning with the schedule, the request for Best and Final Offers (BAFO, or RFBAFO) will be sent out “within January”. For those without a calendar nearby, that means sometime during next week. The legally binding offers will then be returned before the end of April. The speakers acknowledged that this is a tight schedule, but as no major changes are expected compared to the packages currently discussed all manufacturers have confirmed that they should be able to meet the deadline. It is however notable that while the Air Force/MoD/LOGCOM have been negotiating with the manufacturers about what would be the offer FDF wishes for, the manufacturer is still free to offer exactly what they want. In reality, as the purpose is to get chosen, the two will probably align quite well.

The bids will be made up of a single short physical cover letter, and approximately 50 digital documents/files dealing with the offer itself. The Finnish authorities will then start going through them and evaluating the combat capabilities of the offers, a job which by the fall (October) should have led to a recommendation that will be sent to the MoD. According to Kaikkonen the MoD and government will look at the national security and foreign policy aspects. After this, the government will present their suggestion for new fighter to the parliament, which will vote on the matter. Note that as opposed to certain other fighter procurement programs, Finland has a) a strong tradition of majority governments, b) a strong tradition of MPs following the party lead when voting, and c) a strong support throughout the parliament for the program, which means that this is expected to be something of a formality. Edit: the parliament won’t hold any further votes, as they already approved the acquisition budget. The government will however present their findings for the relevant parliamentary committees before the contract is signed. After this, the final negotiations with the preferred bidder will take place, leading to a major signing ceremony where a number of small and large contracts dealing with the overall acquisition are signed. This ceremony will take place before the end of the year.

Having been part of some minor contract negotiation processes in the maritime sector, this is probably the part where the schedule feels most strained in my opinion. Even after the return of a legally binding offer to a (semi-)public tendering process, there’s usually a surprising number of details to work out. If the recommendation spends even a month going through the MoD and parliament, time will quickly start to run out regarding the end of the year deadline. On the other hand, much depends on how controversial the suggestion by the MoD will be. If everything goes smooth and the BAFO is largely unambiguous, it certainly is possible to keep up the pace, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some last minute delays.

The pillars of the process – equality, non-discrimination, and transparency

To understand the messaging, there will be no talks between the Finnish authorities and the manufacturers following the return of the BAFOs. Another more interesting detail is that Finnish authorities won’t comment on the bids until the papers are signed. I’m not quite sure how this will be handled in practice, whether the winning bidder will be announced when the recommendations are being made to the parliament, or whether the general public won’t know who has won until the doors to the signing ceremony are flung open and the journalists sees who sits at the opposite side of the table?

Another interesting aspect is to what extent the manufacturers can keep discussing their bids with media and the public? In theory, once the BAFOs have been returned the bidders can no longer influence the process directly, and as such could potentially be given freer hands to lobby the benefits of their bid. However, this would on the other hand seem to run contrary to the decision to keep a lid on the details until the signing. Earlier interviews have made clear that the BAFO will include details on what the manufacturers can say and when, so I guess we will get our first idea of the new playing field within a week or so.

For the platform itself, some new details could be seen. One is that the language has indeed changed significantly from the early briefings when it comes to the joint air-sea domain. While the early briefings usually talked about “supporting the maritime domain” with those involved explicitly refusing to say whether that included kinetic anti-ship missions, Puranen now split up the naval support mission to include not only ISR and providing targeting information, but also maritime strike.

The obvious question is in which direction the wind is currently blowing? The answer is that it’s rather turbulent. Renko was rather open with that the winning bid hasn’t yet been drafted:

The competition is very close, all contenders still have challenges in some decisive areas.

While he obviously didn’t start pointing fingers, he mentioned a number of key areas including contract terms, life-cycle costs, the technology readiness levels, and industrial participation arrangements. Tempting as it might be to start to slot different contenders into some of the points above, the complexity of the overall program makes it a largely useless task. Just to give an example, while most probably start thinking about the F-35 Block 4 and JAS 39E Gripen when discussing technology readiness issues, it could very well be related to some key systems of the other contenders as well where the FDF or MoD has questions regarding timelines and performances (Radar Two, the NGJ-family, and the whole Rafale F4-standard comes to mind). Similarly, speculations on who is weak and who is strong on the other issues is largely just that – speculation.

One comment that went largely unnoticed as far as I can tell but which will have a significant impact on the outcome was made by Puranen. While running through all the things looked at as part of the evaluation, he mentioned that they are evaluating:

If they [the armament] start to run out, from where do one get more?

While the requested armaments package is significant, it still will likely run low rather quickly in any kind of serious shooting war (based on the historical fact that no matter how much ammunition any force has gone to war with, usually it will run into shortages rather quickly). And at that point, there’s quite a bit more weapons from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon found in warehouses around the world than those made by MBDA or Safran. In my opinion, this is probably one of the stronger cards of the US contenders, even if both Gripen and Eurofighter are also happily slinging AMRAAMs and US-built smart bombs (and Rafale carrying some US-made air-to-ground weapons such as the GBU-49 and GBU-16).

Otherwise, the messages were largely along the same lines as has been heard before during the last five years. The aircraft will be operated into the early 2060’s, and there will need to be “other users as well” (Puranen). This time it was Kaikkonen who got to use the classic line of “We’re not going to buy an aircraft we can’t afford to operate”. Speaking of which, the operational costs per year will be capped at 250 MEUR (in 2021 Euros), roughly corresponding to 10% of the defence budget, while the MLU costs will be routed in through the normal FDF acquisition budget as was done with the Hornets.

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For the additional funds provided for the acquisition, not one but two pie charts were included to show the breakdown of the funding. Of the 10 Bn EUR, 21 MEUR are going to the expenses of doing the competitive tender, and 579 MEUR will go to the costs of the FDF during the five-year transition period. This include infrastructure changes, personnel expenses, C4I integration costs, costs of potential contract changes, and everything else that’s needed. The remaining 9.4 Bn EUR will then be allocated to buying the aircraft, engines, weapons, sensors, spares and replacement parts, maintenance support, and additional training needed outside of the scope of normal FinAF training routines. However, of this sum some (approximately 400 MEUR) will have to go to expenses paid by the Finnish state, and won’t be available for the bidder to use. This includes e.g. project management costs and government furbished equipment, as well as part of the industrial participation costs. As such, the total money that can be used by the manufacturer for tailoring their bid is around 9 Bn EUR. The amount varies somewhat due to the differences in costs for the national part of any given tender, e.g. if your aircraft will fit inside current hangars you’ll have a bit more to spend on your part of the package to take an obvious example. Still, Renko took time to underscore several times that the amounts available are “very close to each other”.

Let’s all take a moment to realise what this means for Saab’s bid – the company is able to include all the added costs associated with introducing a brand new aircraft type in the form of the GlobalEye 6500 alongside their primary bid of a competitive package of fighters and the equipment they need, and still remain “very close” to the competition. Granted Boeing’s feat of including the Growler with associated equipment is also impressive, but while the jamming pods are expensive revamping the training, maintenance, and infrastructure to include a pair of 30 meter long aircraft with a 45 ton max take-off weight is quite something. Just to put things in perspective, the Learjet 35 that the Finnish Air Force currently flies is about half as long and has a MTOW of 8 tons, with the C-295 transports having a somewhat smaller footprint while operating at a marginally higher MTOW. And despite the costs of introducing what would be the largest aircraft in FinAF inventory, Saab’s bid apparently is “very close” to the competition.

JAS 39E Gripen and GlobalEye – apparently a surprisingly cheap combination. Source: Own picture

It is also obvious that Renko is not amused by the hints, and is some cases outright accusations, that those involved in the program have their own agendas and would be operating outside of normal civilian and political oversight. He took a strong stance by making a point of publicly and clearly praising the team that he described as highly competent and taking great pride in their professionalism, and also noted that everyone strongly believe that they are working towards the best solution for Finland. He also noted that while the COVID pandemic had not caused significant delays and the procurement decision will be taken this year as originally planned, it had required considerable additional effort (and let’s remember that it is in fact a rather small core team) to mitigate the issue and ensure that what at its lowest point was a 6 month slippage in the schedule was clawed back. In the same vein, Kaikkonen reiterated that there is no alternative to multirole fighters, regardless of what some have claimed.

The Silent Discussion

Finnish public broadcaster YLE has published a long article in Swedish under the headline “Who gets to have an Opinion on the Fighter Deal?

Everyone.

Everyone gets to have an opinion. However, the weight your opinion will have obviously depends on a number of factors. Case closed, you can all go home, and we’ll reconvene later.

On a more serious note – having followed the HX-procurement since the outset, it has throughout been no secret that a number of people hold views differing to those of the Finnish Defence Forces’ and the political mainstream. The criticism comes in a number of different forms, some I can agree with, some I don’t agree with but can understand the line of reasoning, and some are simply plain wrong. The article raises a number of these, and I do feel that separating the wheat from the chaff might add some value to the discussion.

If we start with the overarching idea that you can’t debate the procurement because the FDF and MoD has put a lid on everything, that is objectively not true. Granted politicians in one party or the other can be correct in that inside the party there is little room to question the party line, but that is an issue for their organisation to deal with and far from a blanket ban on debate. The irony here is probably lost on the usual suspects – who gets to decry that they can’t voice their opinion in national media. Of those interviewed, Kimmo Kiljunen (MP for the prime minister’s party the Social Democrats) is currently also editing a book(!) about the lack of debate. You might obviously feel that the discussion doesn’t get the media space it deserves, but to be completely frank the media doesn’t owe any single question space. And considering the number of articles written on the procurement, I fail to see that there would be much merit to the argument that in general there is little discussion surrounding the issue.

The criticism towards the Hornet replacement deals with a number of angles, including whether it is correct from a national security point of view, the cost of the program, transparency, and operational needs. However, much of this is based on shaky arguments. Source: Ilmavoimat FB

Moving on, professor Hiilamo feels that it is important that everyone gets to take part in the debate, and not just the researchers with a background in the FDF. You are currently reading a blog that has made its name as a solid source on HX-related topics, written by a naval private in the reserve, so I do believe we have that one sorted out. Granted some people have questioned whether the whole question is too complex to discuss based on open sources, but I do believe that a valuable discussion can be had as long as the limitations of such an approach are recognised. And so apparently does my readers.

However, what can make it feel like you aren’t getting your voice heard is if the ideas you are trying to push forward are unworkable and therefore encounter solid push-back, which unfortunately is the case with Hiilamo’s suggestion that we buy used fighters or launch a life extension program for the current Hornet-fleet, two potential paths forward which Hiilamo claims haven’t been evaluated.

Surplus Fighters and Life Extension Programs

Anyone who has been following the discussion knows that both claims have in fact been studied. As late as last summer the Air Force staff provided a memo entitled “Life Extension of the F/A-18 Hornet“, which also builds upon a number of earlier studies done internally, many of which are referenced by title in the memo (and which are classified SECRET / TL II). In essence, the issues are:

  • The fleet has been flown and maintained according to an expected 30 year lifespan. If this is stretched out, wear will start affecting the serviceability rates at an increasing level,
  • Finland will be left more or less alone as an operator of the legacy-Hornet, with most of the remaining operators being expected to withdraw their aircraft in the coming decade. This means all upgrades will be developed solely with Finnish money,
  • Finland would in other words be left with an ageing fleet where more and more planes are unserviceable at any given moment, and where the equipment is less modern relative to any potential adversary. This would create what the memo calls “an operational risk”, i.e. the capability of the Air Force to perform their missions and at the end of the day defend Finland would shrink.

None of this is new, but has been evident and stated publicly from the beginning. This would obviously also affect the budget, as the upgrades would incur a serious cost, and quite a bit of the HX procurement process would have to be rerun in a decade or so, adding further costs. The life extension program itself was estimated to cost 1.8 to 2.4 billion Euros in the memo. This has been called into question, as 0.7 to 1.0 billion Euros of this would be new air-to-air missiles, while at the same time part of the current stock will indeed be serviceable past 2030. However, these are earmarked for transfer to the NASAMS batteries, so in case the Hornet would use these longer than planned, the Army would instead have to increase their budget correspondingly, cancelling out any savings. Still, even the lowest estimate gives a price tag for at least 800 million Euros plus the cost of a re-launch of HX (1.8 – 1.0 = 0.8).

The Panavia Tornado is one of the few used aircraft that might be available on the market in any reasonable numbers. However, it is is a terrible fit for the Finnish requirements in that it lacks air-to-air capability, and the fleet is worn out and in serious need of upgrades if it is to serve on. Source: Airwolfhound / Wikimedia Commons

As for the question of used fighters, there really isn’t much on the market at the moment. Granted we can probably get the German Tornadoes or the Norwegian F-16’s cheap, but none of these would provide an increase in capability and all suffer from the same issues as a life extension of the Hornets have with increased costs and lower readiness rates. Eurofighters or Rafales might be available in small numbers, but these would also in most cases require upgrades and will need the same kind of investment in infrastructures and support systems that drives the price tag of HX (remember, the airframes themselves are a relatively small part of the total budget), so while we might get a somewhat cheaper aircraft, the costs will likely add up towards the later part of the aircraft’s service life to mean that by 2040 we are paying more than if we just would have ordered new ones and paid up front. Check the Canadian mess for a reference.

Col. (ret.) Ahti Lappi is more interesting, as he quite frankly should know better.

Ground-based Systems

Having a long career in ground-based air defences, Lappi argues for a very small number of fighters with a serious investment in ground-based systems for air defence and UAVs for reconnaissance. He also states that the report that launched the HX-program didn’t look into the question of air defence as a whole, something that is hard to agree with considering the fact that it did just that. I have earlier noted that any kind of even remotely complete ground-based air defence cover would be ridiculously expensive, and also leaves the system vulnerable in it being reliant on a single operational concept. It is quite evident even for laymen that fighters and ground-based air defences aren’t an apples-to-apples comparison, but rather have different strengths and weaknesses that complement each other in the defensive counter-air mission, and as such a mix (such as the one currently envisioned by the FDF and MoD) is more robust that going all-in for either. It is also rather uncertain how Lappi imagines that a number of other missions are taken care of, such as offensive counter-air, destruction of enemy air defences, long-range strike, support to ground and naval forces, and so forth? While Lappi talks about how unmanned systems have received a greater role in many armed forces worldwide, the truth is still that their roles remain very limited and constrained compared to manned multirole fighters. The FDF is also studying and investing in unmanned capabilities, so this really isn’t a case of HX having crowded out this development path in any meaningful way.

Lappi’s historical examples of the relatively small losses to enemy air units that fighters have caused “in wars during the recent years in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria” is also far from convincing. To begin with, I am unsure exactly which 250 losses he has included in his statistics. The mix of combat and non-combat losses also hides the ratio between air-to-air and ground-to-air victories. Unfortunately, this is a textbook example of choosing metrics that benefit your cause, and is at best careless and at worst dishonest. It also completely overlook how the situation on the ground shapes the events. If one of the sides doesn’t have a strong air force it naturally will lead to few air-to-air encounters. However, it is also notable that Wikipedia lists eleven instances in Syria alone where a fighter has shot down an enemy aircraft or UAS since the start of 2015 (plus a twelfth air-to-air-victory where an Israeli AH-64 helicopter bagged an Iranian-built Saegeh UAS). I won’t vouch for every single one of these, but at least six air-to-air victories are well-known and widely reported instances (24.11.2015 Turkish F-16 downing a Russian Su-24M, 18.6.2018 USN F/A-18 downing a Syrian Su-22, 20.6.2018 USAF F-15E downing a Syrian/Iranian Saegeh, 1.3.2020 Turkish F-16 downing two Syrian Su-24M, 3.3.2020 Turkish F-16 downing a Syrian L-39).

The most famous air-to-air loss in Syria is without doubt Su-24M ‘White 83’ of the Russian Air Force, shot down by a Turkish F-16 in 2015 following it briefly having entered Turkish airspace. Source: Mil.ru / Wikimedia Commons

Without seeing Lappi’s list (and I would very much like to do so), it is impossible to evaluate it further on its merits. However, keep in mind that that is largely a point of whether his argumentation is honest or not. As I noted earlier, the value of the statistics itself is limited. Often (and ironically I would argue in particular when it comes to ground-based air defences) the value of a system can also be better measured in other metrics than kills, e.g. through forcing the enemy to adapt their tactics and avoiding certain areas. But as noted, all of this is largely a question of whether Lappi is honest in his reasoning or not, because crucially: it is near impossible to evaluate how the Finnish mix of air and ground-based capabilities would fare in an all-out conflict versus Russia based on how a bunch of non-state actors have caused losses to the third-rate force that is the Syrian Arab Air Force of the 2010’s.

Luckily, the FDF which has insight into the finer details of the procurement isn’t trying to do that, but has instead run their own studies over the years.

Costs

I can understand the fear that this is a case of making the goat into the gardener. At the same time, it should be remembered that this is an acquisition program undertaken by the MoD and the FDF as a whole and not by the FinAF, meaning that there are numerous eyes keeping a watch over the project. Because let’s fact it: while there’s more or less universal agreement on the need for fighters, the one risk that everyone is aware of is that the operational costs would run over, and either crowd out other services’ needs or cause the Air Force to be unable to keep training its personnel and maintaining the aircraft properly.

There are obviously a number of steps being taken to mitigate this – including the FDF and MoD not accepting the given flight-hour costs but instead asking for individual numbers which are then run into the domestically developed model for how these costs are calculated. These will obviously be kept classified, as they are key competition data in the eyes of the manufacturers. The model will also be kept secret, as it would provide key information about Finnish Air Force operations in peacetime as well as how the force prepares for a potential crisis and include numbers for wartime stocks of spares and weapons. However, this is one area where there will inevitably remain some uncertainty, as predicting cost levels for 2055 will always be part guesswork (the same is true for the upgrades and capability roadmaps). Unless any one of the critics have a good solution to present, I believe this is one of those uncertainties that one has to learn to live it.

National Security

To go back to Kiljunen, Finland’s national security policy will undoubtedly be affected by who the supplier is, that’s a correct interpretation by him (although the fact that the discussions are made with the US – and French, UK, and Swedish – government is perfectly normal when it comes to these kinds of procurement). But here as well I fail to see how this would somehow be a particular issue for HX. Instead, this is part of the wider discussion of Finnish national security, and as recently as last autumn the “Government Report on Finnish Foreign and Security Policy” outlined the importance to Finnish national security of all potential suppliers. If buying a US fighter is an issue for Kiljunen, he should probably have tried to address it at this level rather than as part of HX. Instead, the Government Report feature rather strong language on the importance of US (and European) defence cooperation for Finland:

The increased operations and presence of NATO and the US in the Baltic countries and Poland have enhanced stability in the Baltic Sea region. The US commitment to the European defence is of great importance for the security of the whole of Europe. The EU and the United States will continue their wide-ranging cooperation. […] Cooperation with other Nordic countries and with the EU Member States and NATO countries – including the United States and the United Kingdom – is also important and in line with Finland’s long-term foreign and security policy and it is based on Finland’s own political interests.

The End

To sum up the criticism, it really is much ado about nothing. Everyone is obviously free to disagree with the path forward envisioned by a more or less united front of politicians and defences forces’ representatives. However, that is not the same as there being a lack of debate, and several of the points raised have already been met and discussed years ago.

On one point when it comes to transparency I do raise a careful red flag that we might have to return to later this year. My understanding is that the officially announced plan of the MoD is that when the winner is announced, that is all the information that will be released. I do believe that won’t do in this day and age. While there obviously will be a need to carefully weigh all information released based on both operational and commercial considerations, and we might very well choose not do a full report a’la Denmark, I do believe that there will be pressure to release some general information such as which packages have been able to pass which gate checks and potentially even a few short general comments on the evaluation of the combat effectiveness and national security considerations, though the last two are less likely. But that is a (potential) issue for another day.

Advent Calendar #12: All Quiet on the Eastern Front?

The lack of transparency and communications with regards to the Finnish operation in Afghanistan (closing in on two decades by now) is one of my pet peeves – an operation that was supposed to be roughly as dangerous and complex as KFOR evolved into something completely else, and most importantly there’s still no complete narrative in open sources on A) what FDF has been doing there all these years, B) what are the political goals, and C) how has the operation changed over the years? I should emphasise that I’m not against the operation per se and by all accounts the vast majority of those that have served seems to have done a stellar job, but it does feel strange that after all these years anyone wanting to get a comprehensive picture of what Finland has been doing in Afghanistan will need to piece it together from numerous open sources (some of which are non-trivial to get hold of) that each hold a small piece of the puzzle. In the picture above it seems like the Germans are coming in to provide a lift. Picture source: Maavoimat Twitter

Finland goes GBAD-shopping

In a long-awaited move, the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command yesterday sent out the RFQ for a new ground-based air defence system “with a high ceiling”. The corresponding RFI went out in 2018, and under the current schedule the procurement will be finalised before the end of 2022 and the system will become operational during the latter half of the 20’s.

For a more general overview of the current state of the Finnish high-end ground based air defences (and why we won’t acquire an anti-ballistic missile capability), I recommend that you check out my sub-chapter on Finland in the FOI anthology “Beyond Bursting Bubbles“, but the long story short is that Finland acquired the Buk-M1 in the late 1990’s as part of a deal to cover the Russian debt stemming from the Soviet clearing accounts. Unfortunately, worries about the ability of Russia to counter the system meant that they had to be retired quite soon thereafter, with the last conscripts training on the system in 2005. Exactly when (if?) the system was withdrawn is unclear, but it seems to have survived in (limited?) service past Crimea.

In any case, a replacement system was acquired under what would become the ITO12 procurement, which saw SAMP/T and NASAMS II face off in a competition won by the NASAMS. The reason behind the choice was bluntly described by then Chief of Defence, Admiral Kaskeala:

Do we buy one Cadillac or four Volvos?

In any case, the ‘Volvo’ has scored a number of successes around the world, and is generally seen as a potent system, but one that suffers from short range due to the poor performance of its AIM-120C AMRAAM missile when fired from a ground-based launcher. Janes lists it as having an estimated max range of 20 km, though this is partially offset by the launchers being able to be placed up to 25 km out from the fire direction centre (FDC). The ceiling is rather uncertain, with The Drive mentioning 50,000 feet (15,000+ meters), but on the other hand then-Finnish inspector of the ground-based air defences, colonel Sami-Antti Takamaa, in an interview in 2018 stated that the new system (which should be able to go significantly higher than NASAMS) should have a ceiling of 8,000 to 15,000 meters. There’s likely an apples-to-pears situation in the numbers above, with Takamaa referencing the effective engagement altitudes which are quite a bit below the theoretical maximum.

However, for most situations the maximum specifications isn’t as interesting as other factors. The ability to deploy the systems with the launchers dispersed, the active seeker of the missiles, modularity, and the modern C4I architecture are of greater value. However, the fact that the NASAMS would lose in top trumps against the system it replaced means that there is a gap above the coverage provided by Finnish SAMs, and one that can only be covered by fighters.

The Finnish air defence doctrine places a high emphasise on the joint aspect, with the ground- and sea-based systems supporting the fighters of the Finnish Air Force. Here a NASAMS II battery is deployed in Lohtaja during the Air Forces’ main exercise Ruska 20 earlier this fall. Source: Finnish Air Force FB/Joni Malkamäki

This leads us to the current ITSUKO-program, where throughout the focus has been on increasing the air defence capabilities at high altitude. This is interesting, as most countries discuss their different classes of SAM’s in terms of range rather than ceiling, and clearly shows which operational problem the FDF is trying to solve. Obviously, with increased ceiling comes increased range (though one shouldn’t think of the effective engagement zone as a half-sphere above ground, as the routes chosen by modern missiles and the physics involved makes things a bit more complex than that), but this is largely seen as a secondary bonus. In the earlier quoted article, major general (engineering) Kari Renko of the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command explained that “Increased territorial coverage means that we have more batteries operational”, and struck down the notion that a meaningful increase in territorial coverage could be achieved solely by increasing the range. In effect, this is due to the large area of Finland, which means that the difference in coverage between differently ranged systems, especially at low range, is small enough that it is negligible at the operational or strategic level.

Here it is good to remember that as none of the current systems are to be replaced, the number of operational batteries will in fact go up. This in turn means that, in the words of current inspector of the ground-based air defences, colonel Mikko Mäntynen, the “fighters will get a higher degree of freedom”. While this is all good and true, there is a nagging feeling that this might be an attempt to cover for the fact that HX won’t reach 64 fighters. Let’s hope that feeling is unfounded…

The news yesterday was that the field competing has been cut down by half. Of the ten companies that received the RFI in 2018, five are still in the competition bidding for the role as prime contractors. These are Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace (KDA), Diehl Defence, MBDA, Rafael, and IAI. Missing from the list are all American companies, as well as Swedish defence company Saab whose RBS 23 lacks the punch to compete in this race (note though that Janes gives the max altitude as 15,000 meters, again showing that 15,000 meters max doesn’t necessarily mean that your system can effectively handle engagements at 8,000 to 15,000 meters). However, it is entirely possible that Saab appears as a subcontractor in some of the bids, as their Giraffe 4A radar has had a tendency to do so in other places. Raytheon is a long-term active partner to KDA, and it is no surprise that they are confirmed to be working together with them here as well (even if rumours had hinted at them also bidding separately as a prime, presumably with the MIM-104 Patriot). Another of Raytheon’s joint programs might also show up…

Of those bidding, Diehl is without doubt the odd one out. As far as I am aware of, Diehl has nothing bigger than the IRIS-T SLS (which recently entered Swedish service as the RBS 98). Being based on a short-range IIR air-to-air missile, it suffers from a 5,000 meter ceiling (again according to Janes), leaving it even shorter-legged than the NASAMS. To be completely honest, I have no idea about what Diehl is planning to offer.

Edit 30 October: Diehl in fact has a longer-ranged version. There is quite a bit of confusion in their designations in open sources (I’ve e.g. seen SL, SLS, and SLM all refer to just different launchers firing the same IRIS-T missile, and I’ve even seen the Swedish EldE 98 referred to as SLM!). However, Diehl’s SLM is in fact a rather different missile with a seriously longer range thanks to a larger rocket and an aerodynamic nosecone that pops off once the target is within range of the missile’s IIR-seeker. This dual-mode (firing solution and early tracking being provided by radar and datalink until switching to final guidance by IIR) is rather interesting and could potentially be more difficult to spoof compared to more traditional solutions. The missile has been test-fired successfully, but the operational status seems to be rather uncertain. Thanks to f-pole for clearing things up!

KDA is the obvious favourite, being able to offer the AMRAAM-ER for the NASAMS-system. The AMRAAM-ER in essence combine booster of the ESSM and the front unit of the AMRAAM to produce a completely new missile with “50% increase in range and a 70% increase in altitude” compared to the current AIM-120C-7.

In other words, KDA can simply offer more of a system already in service with the Finnish Army, but with ability to use either the shorter-legged AMRAAM or the longer-legged AMRAAM-ER according to need. The modularity of the NASAMS also means that integrating a host of other missiles is possible, should the FDF be so inclined (spoiler alert: they’re probably not). That kind of synergy effects could very well be hard to beat, but the competition isn’t giving up without a fight.

Land Ceptor during test fires in Sweden in 2018. The time lapse shows the cold launch sequence in which the missile is flung upwards and only then actually firing. Source: Crown copyright

As noted earlier on the blog, MBDA has had a surprisingly difficult time in landing any major contract with the FDF. The obvious system for them to offer is the Land Ceptor/CAMM-ER. The missile is an operational system with the British Army and the specifications on paper seems to be a good match, but it is difficult to see it outmatching the stiff competition.

The question about what the two Israeli companies will offer is more open. Rafael is able to offer the SPYDER, which is a truck running around with a bunch of missiles on its back. It offers the ability to fire both the Python 5 highly-manoeuvrable short-range IIR-missile, but also the Derby longer-ranged missile. The overall concept is rather similar to that of the NASAMS, with a modern C4I architecture and air-to-air missiles adopted for ground-based use, and while not as prolific as the NASAMS it has scored a few export successes from serious customers such as Singapore. However, most numbers found in open sources seem to indicate that the SPYDER lacks the range and ceiling to be able to offer a meaningful improvement over the current NASAMS. This would in turn mean that the system offered is the David’s Sling, which uses a two-stage Stunner-missile (also known as the SkyCeptor). The missile is perhaps best known internationally as the PAAC-4 missile for the US Patriot-system, which is a joint program between Rafael and Raytheon to produce a significantly cheaper missile with better performance compared to the current PAC-3 that is used for anti-ballistic missile work with the Patriot battery. The Stunner is designed from the outset to be able to easily integrate into other systems, meaning that it is possible that the weapon could communicate better than some of the competition with the current systems found in the Finnish integrated air defence network. Still, it does feel that the ABM-capable is a bit of overkill in a competition against missiles such AMRAAM-ER and CAMM-ER (remember that several high-ranking officials and generals at different times have shot down the idea that Finland would be interesting in pursuing a real ABM-capability), unless the offer really is one we can’t refuse.

One of the final test firings of the David’s Sling before the system entered operational use with the IDF. Note the asymmetric nose. Source: United States Missile Defense Agency via Wikimedia Commons

IAI has a more varied, and at least on paper, more suitable range of weapons, with the BARAK-series being the logical contender. This include a range of missiles, with the BARAK-LRAD missile being the most likely version on offer here. This is part of the general BARAK MX-system, and is developed in parallel with the BARAK 8 for the Indian Navy. Crucially, IAI’s Elta-division has a large portfolio of radars (including the ELM-2311 C-MMR which was recently acquired by the FDF for use as a counter-battery radar), and as such it would be interesting to see which radars they would pair with their interceptor for the bid.

Kokkola 20 – Local defence in action

Twice each year, the Finnish Defence Forces kicks off several simultaneous local defence exercises. In accordance with their names, these are local in their nature, and “will develop local defence readiness and combat capability, as well as inter-authority cooperation in rapidly evolving situations” according to the latest presser. General Timo Kivinen, Chief of the Finnish Defence Forces, described the trends that led to the local exercises becoming a staple of the FDF’s calendar as follows:

The threat scenarios of today’s world are really multifaceted […] and when the set of available tools is wide, no single authority can handle all of them by themselves […] and for this we need inter-authority cooperation to take care of these threat pictures, and that is what we are practising here. The exercise is built with cases, and each case has one lead agency which the others then support.

The latest round featured Kokkola 20, centered around my hometown that also lent its name to the exercise. With large-scale military exercises being a rarity in Ostrobothnia these days, I naturally was determined to see what the fuss was all about.

Different authorities meet up during one of the cases taking place at the local airport. Source: Pori Brigade FB

The preparations have been going on for a few years already, with not only the FDF playing a key part, but also the local Police, other emergency services, the Finnish Border Guard, and the city itself all being among the main players. The chief executive officer of the Central Ostrobothnia and Pietarsaari Region Emergency Services Department, Jaakko Pukkinen, went as far as to describe it as the “Broadest inter-authority exercise the region has seen.” The elephant in the room was obviously the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought some additional challenges. “We train for exceptional times during exceptional times” the representative for the local police, chief inspector Vesa Toivanen, wryly noted. He was using the Finnish term “poikkeusolot”, which both describe exceptional times generally but also hold the specific legal meaning of a declared state of emergency. The sentiment was echoed by the city’s chief executive, Stina Mattila, who noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has again showed that you can never be too prepared. The third major authority sorting under the Ministry of Interior was the Finnish Border Guard. The FBG also include the coast guard as an integral part, with the latter obviously being the focus of the FBG’s presence in the region. The FBG has a set of military missions as well, and here their part of the exercise was leaning towards their “military” mission set.

The military forces taking part in the exercise in effect were made up of three different components: conscript military police units (mainly from the Pori Brigade), mobilised reserve military police units on a refresher exercise, and the local defence units (Fi. Paikallisjoukot). The Pori Brigade, being one of the country’s most important peacetime units and the “local” unit for a large part of Western Finland including Kokkola, served as the host unit responsible for the exercise.

Kokkola and this region does not constitute some kind of a military vacuum.

That’s how colonel Riku Suikkanen, second in command of the Pori Brigade and exercise lead, put it during the media event leading up to the exercise. A key part of the exercise include it being a high-visibility one, making sure that the population still feel that the FDF is there despite the drawdown in peacetime bases and training locations around the country. And as the colonel noted, the soldiers descending upon the town are no strangers.

Our daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers are those out training.

As the exact duties and setup of military police units varies with country, it can be good to shortly describe the Finnish military police force. This was done well in a recent podcast by the FDF’s own podcast series, Radio Kipinä, so those with a working knowledge of Finnish are recommended to check that out. In short, a Finnish military police is an infantry soldier that has received additional training in security and guard duty. This include a host of different skills, ranging from non-lethal ways to stop and capture an intruder to understanding the legal framework that the FDF work with when it comes to protecting its infrastructure, people, and activities. The exact skill sets vary between peacetime garrisons, all of which sport some kind of military police unit on their premises, but in general it can be noted that military police travel relatively light, prioritising operational mobility over protection, and that they often (but not always) have a better understanding of and training for combat in an urban environment thanks to their focus on infrastructure protection (the obvious outlier is the Guard Jaeger Regiment, with the whole mother unit being the FDF’s prime urban warfare centre means that their military police units are also the most highly specialised urban warriors compared to other military police conscripts). In wartime, military police units can function as part of a larger formation, in which case they would fill a light infantry role. A more traditional role that is closely related to that of security and protection duty is counter-special forces. To some extent all military police units can perform the mission, though some receive additional training in the field. For the Pori Brigade, the most notable unique feature of their military police units is that they offer dog handler training to conscripts, something that no other Finnish unit does.

Port Tower, gateway to the port area, became a centre for military activity in the first days of September. Source: Own picture

Back to Kokkola 20. With the military police playing main fiddle together with the local defence units, it meant that military part of the exercise was rather infantry heavy compared to some of the others which sported a more combined arms approach. Besides this, the question obviously arose why Kokkola was chosen to host the exercise. As such, I headed over to Port Tower, the gateway to the local Port of Kokkola, where I got to sit down together with a few other representatives of local media to ask general Kivinen some questions about the exercise. Entering the parking lot of the titanium zinc clad tower where I’ve eaten lunch numerous times, the flurry of exercise activity was immediately obvious. In the treeline (ironically enough the former grounds of the FDF’s gunsmith school) trucks and tents were set up, with small groups of soldiers having taken position at set locations to keep a watchful eye on the heavy traffic heading to and from the port. Entering the building yet more uniforms were visible, and a quick glance around confirmed that they included all FDF categories taking part in the exercise – conscripts, professionals, local and non-local reservists.

With earlier exercises having taken place in nearby Vaasa and Seinäjoki, coming to Kokkola serves dual purposes in that it both lets a significant number of FDF personnel familiarise themselves with local conditions, but it also ensure that the locals get to familiarise themselves with FDF. As could be guessed from the location of the interview, much of the discussion centred around the port. The port is able to handle capesize vessels, and is the most important port in Finland when it comes to bulk cargo as well as rail- and transit cargo, as well as the third largest general cargo port. Without discussing the details of threat scenario in the exercise, there was no hiding the fact that the port was of great interest.

In general when you think about ports they are key nodes in the logistics chain, and as such their importance in case of a serious crisis or in a terrorism related case they would be potential locations where the Finnish authorities would need a readiness to be able to react.

The general also noted that a crisis in the Baltic Sea proper would lead to an increased importance for the ports in the Gulf of Bothnia. As such, it is of interest to ensure that the different authorities can not only communicate with each other, but that they are able to share a common situational picture and coordinate their activities in case of a major crisis. The general noted that in the case of Central Ostrobothnia, the last two issues seems to be the challenging part, as while the other authorities are well-known to each other and have exercised together earlier, FDF is quite new to the region.

General Kivinen sharing a final chat with the media about local conditions after the presser had ended. Source: Own picture

This is also the reason behind the lack of heavier units, as Kivinen is happy to explain. “The Army leads the overall situation, and the Army Command have given the units responsible directions regarding the local defence exercises, and it is true that they differ from each other. There are good reasons for this, and they also might vary according to when and how we have last exercised interagency cooperation in any given area,” general Kivinen explained when I questioned about how the different scenarios are chosen. In this case, the scenario was well below the threshold of war.

In this exercise we don’t have a scenario where Finland would be facing a clear threat of a war breaking out, but there are scenarios in which military capabilities are used to support other agencies.

However, that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of bad people running around wreaking havoc. Or at least trying to.

A suspected bad guy has been brought down next to the railway line in the port area. Source: Pori Brigade FB

One of the key people involved was a long-term active reservist and instructor, who had earlier experience of red team-activities as well. Without going into details, he was happy to discuss his general role in the exercise.

The red team was tasked partly with following a realistic manuscript, but also to find areas of improvement, e.g. when it comes to how the blue forces train and how they performed. Details and nuances could be discussed later, and talking afterwards is always easy, but I have to admit that KPMAAKK [the Local Defence Company of Central Ostrobothnia] and the military police reservists from the Pori Brigade were darn good.

HX goes DSCA

One of the more anticipated milestones of the HX-process took place this week with the publication of the DSCA-notifications. These somewhat poorly understood bureaucratic processes caused some waves in the PTO 20200-tender. This time the Finnish MoD has done its best to avoid similar jumps to conclusion by media and other observers, but there has still been some less-than-helpful interpretations of what the notifications says. In short, the US regulations require that the congress is informed about important upcoming arms deals as a matter of oversight, something that happens through the DSCA-notifications. In the case of HX (and the Swiss AIR2030/NFA which made headlines a short while ago) the potential tenders are being pre-cleared, i.e. congress is notified about an upcoming potential sale. This allows for quicker turn-around if and when a contract is signed, and ensures that the supplier actually can deliver what they’ve promised. The most important points that sometimes get lost are:

  • The fact that this isn’t an order, nor are they necessarily corresponding to what is included in the final order (in fact, often they aren’t as it makes sense to clear the possible maximum amount of items in one go instead of having to go back and request a second clearance in case the requirements changes),
  • The negotiations of the HX-program is still ongoing, and as such neither the buyer nor the seller knows for certain the details of the final offer,
  • The value quoted for the DSCA-notifications usually aren’t that helpful in determining the contract value,
  • Most crucially, the notifications are ridiculously detailed in some ways, but glossing over major items in others. See “40 inch wing release lanyard” getting its own row, but “Spares” being a single line item.

To sum it up, long-term aviation journalist Gareth Jennings commenting on the AIR2030 put words to how everyone covering the process feels.

With that said, let’s jump into what information can be gleaned from the notifications.

Numbers don’t lie

The first obvious issue is the number of aircraft. With programme director Lauri Puranen on record stating that 64 aircraft seems impossible, it is noteworthy that the Lockheed Martin notification is for 64 F-35A and the Boeing has a total of 72 aircraft, made up of 50 F/A-18E Super Hornet, 8 twin-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet, and 14 EA-18G Growler. While it is still within the realms of possibilities, if unlikely, that we would see a 64 fighter buy, I don’t see how 72 could fit within the operating budget. As such, the 72 aircraft notification is a good indication for the fact that the final mix of the Boeing offer is still up in the air. 40 F/A-18E, 8 F/A-18F, and 12 EA-18G for a 62 aircraft fleet would be my personal guess.

Another place where the final offer is evidently still not set in the Boeing offer is the targeting pods (the F-35 notably not requiring one, as it has an internal electro-optical sensor based on the technology of the Sniper pod). The notification includes 32 ATFLIR, 32 Sniper (of an undisclosed version, but likely the XR), and an undisclosed number of the Litening (notable is that Finland currently uses an earlier version of the Litening-pod, the version now on offer would likely be the Litening 5). The ATFLIR was the one brought over for HX Challenge, but on the other hand the Litening was brought over hanging under an Eurofighter, so Finland has verified data on that one as well. I won’t comment on which pod would provide the best solution, as the details are A) classified, and B) I’m not familiar enough with the pod-world to say if there’s any kind of significant differences found in open sources. I will note that the ATFLIR has had teething troubles, but those seems (maybe?) to have since been overcome, and that the Litening 5 is being developed to sport a SAR-module, which is something of an unique selling point, but one likely to be of secondary value.

The single-seat F/A-18E Super Hornet getting airborne from Tampere-Pirkkala AFB during HX Challenge earlier this year. The notification confirms that if Boeing wins, the single-seater will be by far the most common version. Source: Own picture

In the same way, it can be noted that a total of 25 IRST-pods are cleared for the Hornet-bid. The Super Hornet’s IRST solution with a centre-line has been criticised for being less elegant than the integration on the competitors, though it in fact suffers from a relatively small blind spot. What is interesting is that the numbers for both the targeting pod (presuming that only one model is bought) and the IRST both are offered in numbers covering approximately half of the fleet. This is in general one of the strong points of the F-35, every aircraft gets its own ‘pod’ thanks to the sensor being internal, while for the rest budgetary restraints often causes some aircraft to be left without. Exactly how the Super Hornet operations would look is an interesting question, but one alternative could be one aircraft of a pair flying with a pod and the other with an IRST.

As noted, with security of supply being a key factor and the ability to overhaul the aircraft locally from local stocks a key item here, the spare parts packages are naturally of great interest. Here, however, we’re more or less completely out of luck, as these crucial items are reduced to the single line of “provisioning, spares and repair parts”. It is, however, notable that this is a rather different wording compared to the Swiss notifications that only include “aircraft spares”. However, there is another place where spares catch the eye, and that is on the line discussing engines. The F-35A bid lists two spare P&W F-135 engines, while the F/A-18E/F/G offer lists 22 spare F414-GE-400 (interestingly enough, here the Swiss notifications for 40 aircraft listed six and 16 respectively). Good arguments can be made for the F-35 needing fewer complete spare engines for a given fleet size, including both during peacetime (single-engined aircraft having half the number of engines compared to twin-engined ones, the more modern design potentially having longer life and more replaceable subassemblies) and wartime use (an engine damaged enough to warrant replacement likely will lead to the loss of the aircraft). However, for a country obsessing about security of supply and with the supply of spare parts being one the major questions surrounding the F-35 in the HX-programme, it does strike one as an oddly low number, and makes the question about what really is found in the spare package even more interesting.

Like the spares, the amount of supporting equipment found amongst the rows isn’t straightforward to judge. There are a number of interesting rows, including training equipment, as well as numerous test vehicles for the weaponry. Key terms are also differing if compared to AIR2030 notifications, though considering the somewhat erratic template through which the notifications are pushed it is difficult to say how much weight should be placed on these differences. Still, there’s a few interesting discrepancies, such as the inclusion of the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN, to replace the much maligned ALIS which is on the way out) in the Finnish notification, a system that isn’t found the Swiss one. “Weapons system software” is also found in both Finnish notifications but in neither Swiss one, something that might simply have to do with the inclusion of more complex weaponry. An interesting row is found on the personnel needed to support the F-35.

U.S. contractor representatives will be required in Finland to conduct Contractor Engineering Technical Services (CETS) and Autonomic Logistics and Global Support (ALGS) for after-aircraft delivery

As noted, everything that includes the word “Global” is something of a red flag to the Finnish security of supply requirements, but at the same time it is obvious that during normal peacetime operations it makes sense to leverage the significant savings that can be found in operating what is rapidly turning out to be the next joint European fighter. However, there is little in the notification to indicate what kinds of additional steps have been taken to ensure that Finland has the required level of control over the security of supply compared to other more traditional customers. This might or might not mean something, as noted many of the crucial items in the notification doesn’t provide much in the way of details.

EW

Everyone, myself included, is obviously counting weapons cleared for sale, but let’s start with the more obscure but no less important side of things. Electronic warfare.

It is important to note that we in essence are talking of three very different platforms, something that is visible in the notifications. The electronic warfare suite of the F-35A is highly integrated into the aircraft, and as such relatively few lines are dealing with it. There’s simply a mention of “Electronic warfare system”, as well as related systems such as C4I and the “F-35 unique infrared flares” (to the best of knowledge the aircraft does not carry chaff dispensers Edit: The F-35 is in the process of getting chaff. Thanks to JoJo for flagging it in the comments!) and access to the reprogramming centre. Compared to the long list of the Super Hornet that seems a bit cheap, but that is most likely simply because you can’t buy an F-35 without getting the whole package. As such, there’s no reason to mention particular details such as the ALE-70 towed decoy for the F-35, while in the case of the Super Hornet, the corresponding ALE-55 does get it’s own row.

The NGJ mock-up together with an AGM-88E AARGM anti-radiation missile (i.e. it locks onto a radar and flies into it) under the wing of the EA-18G Growler taking part in HX Challenge. The capabilities of the NGJ will be evaluated in the US, due to sensitive nature of the capability and the need for a large testing range. Source: Own picture

Another good pointer to the fact that Boeing isn’t in fact preparing a 72 aircraft bid is the fact that only 65 pieces of the AN/ALR-67(V)3 EW countermeasures receiving sets and the AN/ALQ-214 integrated countermeasures systems are included. The more cryptic “Advanced Electronic Attack Kit for EA-18G” is more along the lines of how the F-35 is described, with a single line referring to more or less the whole package.

With an important exception.

Eight (8) Next Generation Jammer Mid-Band (NGJ-MB) sets

I’ve discussed the NGJ-MB earlier, the long story short version is that it is an extremely powerful system able to go after enemy air defences, but also enemy communication networks. On the flip side, it costs an arm and a leg, but in many ways it is a key piece of the Growler’s wartime capabilities post-2030, and getting eight systems would provide Finland with one of the best airborne escort as well as stand-in jamming capabilities in Europe. Note the reference to “sets”, which would seem to indicate that there will be a total of sixteen pods delivered, with the aircraft having one under each wing. Currently the Growler flies with three AN/ALQ-99 pods in different configurations for different bands. The new NGJ-MB replaces the two underwing units, with the third centre-line mounted one being slated for replacement by the low-band NGJ-LB. If Finland opts for the Growler, the NGJ-LB can make its entry at some point further down the line (as can the eventual high-band pod which will come yet later). However, the utility against current threats is greatest for the NGJ-MB, especially if Finland continues on with a non-stealthy force meaning that the proliferation of new low-band radars aren’t as big a threat scenario as it is for the US forces. It is also notable that the greatest criticism leveraged against the NGJ-MB so far (decreasing the range of the Growler due to high drag when the pod is active and the doors to the ram air turbine are open) is less of an issue for Finland compared to the China-scenario which is the main driver behind current USN development.

Weapons

One thing we do know, however, is that Puranen didn’t exaggerate when he talked about the comprehensive weapons packages pushing the budget. The notifications include sizeable amounts of JDAMs, both thermally insensitive HE (i.e. the stuff shouldn’t explode if your ammunition storage is on fire) as well as bunker buster rounds, GBU-53/B SDB II’s small glide bombs, AGM-154C-1 JSOW stealthy glide weapons with a secondary anti-ship capability, AGM-158B JASSM-ER long-range heavy cruise missiles, AIM-9X Block II+ and Block II respectively, as well as JSM integration in the case of the F-35A and HARM/AARGM-rails in the case of the Super Hornet/Growler. Curiously absent are the JSM and anti-radiation missiles themselves, as well as any air-to-air missiles with a longer reach than the Sidewinder.

JTAC directing a Hornet dropping a JDAM on a target that already was under artillery fire as part of last year’s KAAKKO19 exercise

The air-to-ground package is interesting, as it continues as well as expands upon the air-to-ground capabilities currently operated by the Finnish Air Force. The JDAM is a weapon currently found in the Finnish inventory in the form of Mk 84-based GBU-31V1, the Mk 83-based GBU-32, the Mk 82-based GBU-38 and the BLU-109-penetrator based GBU-31V3 (commonly known as a ‘bunker buster’). The Mk 84 and BLU-109 is a 1,000 kg class weapon, with the Mk 83 and Mk 82 being 500 kg and 250 kg class weapons respectively. It is more of the same weapons that are requested this time around, with exception that the F-35A has skipped the GBU-32 and loaded up with more GBU-38s. The Super Hornet is cleared for 102 GBU-38, 51 GBU-32, 120 HE GBU-31, and 30 bunker-busting GBU-31, with the corresponding numbers being 150 GBU-38, 120 HE GBU-31, and 30 bunker-busting GBU-31 for the F-35. Are there situations where you want a 500 kg weapon instead of a 250 kg or a 1,000 kg one? Sure, if nothing else the 500 kg provides a bit of margin with regards to accuracy compared to a 250 kg one, in particular if you go after semi-hard targets. Is it enough of a difference to say that the Super Hornet has the edge here? I doubt it, the acquisition as a whole is complex enough that the 50 JDAMs most likely won’t provide a decisive edge. However, they might indicate that Boeing feel they have that small extra wiggle room when it comes to how their package is built, something that might also be seen in the next weapon. Or not.

The JSOW is also found in (limited) numbers in the Finnish arsenal. Originally envisioned largely as a back-up plan in case the JASSM sans-ER wasn’t cleared for export, it apparently has found enough of a use as to be requested this time around as well. The notifications include 100 JSOW for the F-35A, and 160 for the Super Hornet. The JSOW is unpowered (at least for the time being), and as such is highly reliant on release speed and altitude when it comes to range. Once released the weapon pops out a pair of wings on which it glides towards the target. The basic navigation is GPS-assisted inertial navigation, but the C-1 also has an IIR seeker for terminal guidance which has given the weapon better accuracy, and the ability to strike moving ships. The two-stage penetrating BROACH warhead can also be set to a one-stage mode which is more effective against soft targets, such as ships or unarmoured vehicles. The question of maritime strike for HX has been left somewhat open by the authorities, with the aircraft required to be able to support the Navy in the maritime domain, but not necessarily through kinetic means (e.g. systems such as the Growler or the GlobalEye could certainly be of great value when it comes to supporting the Navy in the electronic warfare domain and in building the situational picture). The JSOW could potentially provide a middle-ground, providing the Finnish Air Force with an important capability the primary use of which is in the land domain, but which also could be used against enemy vessels. The JSM is on the other hand a dedicated anti-ship missile with a secondary ground attack role. Thanks to it being powered it has a significantly longer range. However, the JSM might be included as an option for another role as well, as we saw in the Dassault marketing material that it seems destined to be the SEAD/DEAD weapon of choice for the French offer. Boeing and Lockheed Martin reading different levels of importance into the maritime strike mission can obviously be one explanation, but another is that LM feel they need a powered weapon of a lighter class than the JASSM to go SAM-hunting with, and there felt that they can kill two birds with one stone (or rather, both SAMs and ships with the same missile). In any case, the JSM, if acquired, would provide a seriously improved ship-killing capability, and with the JSM being stealthy and equipped with an IIR seeker (as opposed to the radar seeker of the Navy’s PTO 2020/Gabriel V), it would create the need for an enemy to be prepared to defend against two very different kinds of threats. I am unsure how Raytheon and Kongsberg have split up the market for the JSM (again, my time at Kongsberg was spent far away from the Defence & Aerospace-division, so I have no insider knowledge of the project), but it is possible that somewhere outside the US-package there is a separate offer for 60 JSM from Kongsberg for the F-35 package, which would explain the smaller number of JSOW.

The somewhat awkwardly named GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb increment II (it is in fact renamed to StormBreaker, but that one hasn’t stuck. At least not yet) would represent a completely new capability for the Finnish Air Force, in that it is a light glide bomb that can be used to take out individual vehicles, including moving ones. The fact that it is unpowered causes the range to be dependent on release height and speed, but on the positive side the small size means a large number can be carried, and it has a seeker with no less than three modes of operating. In the words of Raytheon:

• Millimeter wave radar — provides all-weather capability and the ability to quickly detect and track moving or stationary targets.
• IIR sensor — uncooled IIR sensor provides three categories of classification capability and aim point refinement.
• Semi-active laser sensor — tracks a laser spot from the launch platform or third-party designators.

This would give the HX the ability to go after tanks or artillery positions, including moving ones, but also to provide close air support by striking individual positions designated by ground troops or other platforms. And with the small size of the weapon allowing for large numbers to be carried on each station, the notification include up to 500 live weapons for either offer. The weapon follows on the highly successful original GBU-39 SDB, and is currently cleared for the F-15E Strike Eagle and since this year on the Super Hornet.

A Finnish F/A-18D Hornet loaded with two (training) AGM-158A JASSM during exercise TOUHU17. Note the decision to use a twin-seat aircraft for the long-range strike mission, something that together with earlier self-critique about having too few twin-seaters for operational conversion led many (myself included) to speculate that a larger number of F/A-18F might be included in the offer, something the notification now proved wrong. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

The big stick, however, remains the JASSM. Finland currently operate a limited number of the original AGM-158A JASSM. This has to the best of my knowledge been completely replaced on the production line by the longer-legged (but otherwise sharing a high-degree of commonality) AGM-158B JASSM-ER, 200 of which are now being offered to Finland. This is in turn set to be overtaken by the even longer-ranged AGM-158D JASSM-XR in the next few years (the missing AGM-158C being the LRASM anti-ship version). I would not read too much into the fact that Finland is about to switch from JASSM to JASSM-ER if we end up buying a US fighter. More range is nice, but it is likely also the cheaper (or even the only) option compared to the rest of the family as the ER-production line is currently hot.

Notable is that the JASSM in Finnish service is a weapon described as having a deterrence role, a somewhat controversial notion, but one that apparently has some support in Russian doctrine. However, the low number of weapons has always been the main Achilles heel when it comes to the doctrine of heavy conventional precision-guided munitions being able to function as a deterrent. 200 JASSM-ER backed up by 100-160 JSOW are certainly numbers that are starting to be felt. Especially if the current JASSM stocks are refurbished.

This brings us on to another point. There’s some rumours going on in Finnish defence forums that the ability to employ weapons from current Finnish stocks won’t be factored into the eventual deciding wargame. While I don’t have any insight into the finer details of the wargame, I have not been able to find any support for that idea in the official communication, nor is it in line with what has been communicated earlier. The Finnish Defence Forces is (in)famous for not throwing things away that can be put to use, and Puranen has confirmed to Lännen Media that the possibility of keeping the current JASSM for use on the eventual HX-winner is being studied. While there is no requirement for the winner to be able to employ the Hornet-arsenal, considering that the stated goal of the wargame is to evaluate how well the total package offered would perform as part of the FDF and the Finnish defence concept, removing a potential benefit of one package (such as the ability to keep using the current stocks of AGM-158A JASSM or AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM after overhauling these) in the name of “fairness” does run contrary to both that aim and the nature of war, which famously isn’t fair.

To use a hypothetical example to make things really clear: the Finnish Air Force says they need 200 precision-guided free-fall bombs of a 250 kg class. Eurofighter brings 200 Paveway IV in their offer, but Boeing and Lockheed Martin knows that the Finnish Air Force already has 50 GBU-38 in their current stocks, so they offer 150 new GBU-38 and an engineer that comes over with a toolbox and some spares to ensure that the old stock is good to go for another decade or two. As the whole competition is based on the design to cost method, this allows for the inclusion of more stuff elsewhere in the package. What package would then be evaluated in the wargame? A US fighter with only three quarters of the number of light bombs compared to the competition? A hypothetical package that include 200 new-built bombs but skips on the extra? So far everything we’ve seen and heard from the Finnish LOGCOM indicate that they aren’t interested in playing games, but that they want to evaluate what is on offer. If that include continued life for some current equipment, then I am quite sure that that is what is evaluated.

In any case, there will be medium-ranged air-to-air missiles operational on any aircraft that ends up winning HX, and the options on the table for the American ones include either a separate notification and order before IOC (order in 2025 and delivery 2026/2027 would probably be the approximate timeline) or the continued use of the current AMRAAM stocks. The shelf-life left for these naturally vary highly depending on whether the weapons have been stored or flown, but with the DSCA notification for 300 missiles coming in 2008 and deliveries probably stretching out over at least a few years after that, the newest missiles are likely fit to serve into the early 2030’s if maintained and overhauled. The C-7 version of the AMRAAM is also still rather close to the state of the art when it comes to medium-ranged missiles, and is regularly carried by not only US fighters, but by the Eurofighter and Gripen as well to complement the long-range Meteor. The Meteor is unlikely to enter service on a US fighter, but that doesn’t mean that the US fighters are set to remain looking on while the Europeans (and crucially, the Chinese) have all the fun at longer ranges. When asked about the situation at HX Challenge, Boeing representatives noted that “There’s an opportunity for an advanced air-to-air missile within our offer to address that need”. Exactly what it is wasn’t said, and apparently it won’t be part of the original package. However, both the newest AIM-120D AMRAAM and the upcoming AIM-260 JATM, and possibly other parts of the more opaque LREW-program, are all possible candidates to enter the field at a later date.

One of the visitng F-35As that took part in HX Challenge airborne together with a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

For the anti-radiation missiles, my personal guess is that they would be acquired as a separate package in the early 2030’s if Boeing wins. The capability is completely new to the Finnish Air Force, and with the Growler-unit busy learning the tricks of the trade I could imagine a timeline where the first few years are spent dealing with the non-kinetic methods, with the DEAD-part of SEAD/DEAD being introduced after the HX has reached FOC by 2030.

Conclusions

The notifications were largely on par with what was expected, though I will say that if the requested numbers found in the weapons packages are close to what eventually will be acquired their sheer number came as a surprise to me (and certainly explains the comment Puranen made about the difference in cost between the early calculations and the eventual budget). Even “comprehensive packages” comes in different scales, let’s just put it at that.

The large number of SDB IIs and JSOWs requested were also a bit of a surprise, and shows the expanding mission set of the Finnish Air Force is set to continue. Personally I am still a bit sad, though not necessarily surprised, about the fact that even under the current budget it was possible to squeeze in a small number of the Quickstrike naval mine/JDAM ER combination, but these are obviously possible to acquire later as well.

Some have noticed the large number of aircraft and notification price tags going over (10.6 billion EUR for the F-35 and 12.4 billion EUR for the SH/Growler), and question whether the HX budget will grow eventually (as was the case with the Squadron 2020 one). As said, the value given on DSCA notifications are usually not much to go by at the best of times, but here is a number of other issues at play as well.

Let’s begin by saying that I personally don’t believe there will be significant increases, though even an index-increase if the program is delayed with a year will be a lot of money when we’re talking about a 10 billion package. However, the crucial issue is that there is little room for increase when it comes to the eventual operating budgets, and so far there seems to be little indication that the Air Force will be allowed to increase it’s share of the annual budget, either through an increase in the defence budget or by shrinking the budgets of the Navy and/or Army.

The other issue is that this isn’t a question of the budget being a few hundred millions over 10 billion, but rather it should be remembered that a significant part of the 10 billion allocated will be spent outside the items found in the DSCA notifications. To begin with, around 700 MEur will be spent of other stuff (infrastructure, the work of the procurement agency, early training, etc.). In addition, the operations from first aircraft delivery until IOC/FOC will in part be covered by the 10 billion as the Hornets continue to fund their operations out of the Air Force’s annual operating budget. There are also infrastructure changes and possibly other significant investments that will be made outside of the contract that is covered by the notification, including non-listed equipment and equipment from third countries. As such, if one were to take the number quoted in the notification at face value, and I repeat – one shouldn’t, the question wouldn’t be if the Air Force can sneak in a budget increase of a few hundred millions, but whether they can pull off an increase of the programme value that is spelled out in a ten-digit figure. I don’t believe they can, and don’t believe they are going to try. Following the release of the notifications, Puranen also noted that they feel confident they are able to deliver the required capabilities within the current budget.

It should, however, be acknowledged that there are some worrying signs that the budget really is tight, just having two spare engines for the F-35 and no HARM/AARGM for the Super Hornet/Growler comes to mind. Even if those two items can be sorted out, the question lingers if they are only the tip of the iceberg, and what more is hidden under the surface when it comes to missing or low quantities of crucial items?

The Black Horse(s)

I have on a number of occasions stated that the outcome of the HX programme is far from certain, despite the F-35 probably being the fighter to beat. While waiting for the sprint to the finish line to start of in earnest, there are two things that probably are worth keeping in mind.

To begin with, the unlikely doesn’t equal the impossible. Betsson earlier this year placed odds on the outcome, and while I don’t condone gambling generally and in particular not with questions of national security, the odds given weren’t too controversial. At the point of Finnish tabloid Iltalehti reporting on the live odds, they were:

  • F-35 2.15 (i.e. 35 % of being chosen)
  • F/A-18E/F Super Hornet 3.00 (25 %)
  • JAS 39E/F Gripen 3.75 (20 %)
  • Eurofighter Typhoon 6.25 (12 %)
  • Rafale 9.35 (8 %)

It is easy to read 8 % as “never”, but it deserves to be remembered that this is not the case. As a comparison, if you sit down with your Monopoly board and bring out the two dice, the odds of you rolling the dreaded ‘snake eyes’ or 1-1 is just 2,78 %. Does that mean that things are looking bright for the Rafale? Not really. The reason you can remember rolling snake eyes in board games is that you have a large numbers of die rolls per game, while the HX is a single event. Granted, you still do roll snake eyes on your first roll sometimes, but it is rare. And since someone is bound to comment on it, yes, Leicester City F.C. won the Premier League.

Hornet Elephant March FinAF 2020
The Finnish Air Force earlier this summer launched over half of the 62 aircraft strong Hornet-fleet simultaneously in what was a show of strength when it comes to readiness and the ability to temporarily surge, but also a stark reminder that the country hasn’t gotten smaller since the 90’s (a trend we’d very much like to

…which brings us to our second point, which is a more serious concern for the odds favourites. Last time around the details surrounding the choice of the F/A-18C/D Hornet were largely confidential for a long time, but back in 2017 twenty-five years after the event Olli Ainola of Iltalehti got the memo circulated amongst the ministers back then released (it had been classified as ‘Salainen’ or ‘Secret’, i.e. the second-highest classification on the four-tier system). It provide a good lesson to keep in mind when discussing the expected outcome for the current programme.

Of the five contenders left (the more fanciful offer to sell Finland the MiG-31 had already been discarded at this point), two were outright disqualified as not meeting the Air Force’s requirement. These included the MiG-29 (not meeting requirements related to “avionics nor lifespan, nor the maintenance setup”) and more surprisingly the popular favourite, the F-16C/D (failing both on the technical aspect as well as on industrial cooperation). The JAS 39 Gripen and its subsystems were felt to be not mature enough, leading to unacceptable risks. This left just two of the five contenders, the Mirage 2000-5 and the F/A-18C/D Hornet, to battle it out in the end.

In short, in the early 90’s the Finnish Air Force and MoD were not afraid to disregard offers they felt weren’t up to standard, and that might have a serious effect on the outcome this time around. And note, at least based on open sources, it is the favourites that seem to have the biggest reason to worry.

F-35 has a long and troubled development history. Some questions linger on, such as the ALIS/ODIN logistics system, but on the whole the F-35A is starting to look like a highly competent multirole fighter at a nice level of maturity (especially considering that we are still ten years away from HX FOC). However, the big questions are to be found in other aspects of the tender. One major issue is the question of how and to what extent the though industrial cooperation requirements can be met considering the unique international nature of the F-35 program. Lockheed Martin’s press briefing at HX Challenge unfortunately did little to bring clarity to the question, instead causing further confusion about what might and might not be on the table.

Another serious question that refuses to die is the one regarding costs, and in particular operating costs. While comparing acquisition costs is largely a fool’s errand, the fact that none if any of the DSCA notices or reported signed contract values are anywhere close to fitting inside the Finnish budget is cause for concern. Perhaps even more damning is the Danish life-cycle cost estimates. A report out of the Centre for Military Studies of the University of Copenhagen written by Gary Schaub Jr and Hans Peter H. Michaelsen published in late 2018 (h/t Charles Forrester who drew my attention to it on Twitter) discusses the possibility of increasing the number of F-35s in Danish service, and quotes the annual operating cost of the current fleet as 70 million DKK per aircraft (or approximately 9.4 million EUR). The numbers are taken from the original authorisation to buy the F-35 (referred to as “Aktstykke 31” in the report), and as such is likely the best available open source number found for the RDAF. The Danish concept of operations is naturally somewhat different from the way Finland would operate the aircrafts, but on average I believe it is an acceptable point of reference (smaller number of aircraft and single base vs. economics of scale and dispersed operations). Toying around with numbers, if we accept the Danish annual operating cost to be a good fit for Finnish annual operating cost per aircraft (i.e. 9.43 MEur), that would mean that Finland was able to afford between 26.5 and 35.7 aircraft, depending on how you calculate (26.5 if the annual total operating cost is 250 MEur, and the MLU isn’t included in that, and 35.7 if the annual operating cost is 270 MEur + the MLU reservations spread out over 30 years).

lockheed-martin_f-35a_lightning_ii_e280985209e28099_284930561163829
Like their Danish allies, Norway is converting over to a single base for its fast jets with the introduction of the F-35A, the air defence of the northern parts of the country being handled by a QRA detachment rotating in to Evenes Air Station (outside Narvik) from the main base at Ørland. Here an aircraft of the 332 Squadron visits Bodø for an airshow in 2019, the city that used to host the two northern F-16 squadrons. Source: Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons

In practice, this would mean that one of the Finnish Air Force’s two fighter squadrons would be slashed, and we’d likely see a Norwegian model in which one of the current two bases would host a QRA detachment of four to six aircraft instead. The upper boundary of that calculation also aligns with the lower limit of what long-term aviation journalist Tony Osborne of Aviation Week stated on Twitter last week, when he estimated that the eventual offer to Finland would be for “36-40 aircraft”. If correct, it would be an extremely bitter pill for the Finnish Air Force to swallow, and one that very well might prove politically unacceptable (in particular to the agrarian Centre Party that currently holds the MoD seat).

As it happens, on the Finnish Defence Forces Flag Day June 4 the Air Force launched eight four-ships of Hornets, a total of 32 aircraft to celebrate the occasion. This also provide a nice reminder of what it actually takes to cover an area as large as the Finnish airspace. And if your fleet is 40 aircraft, you don’t get to surge to launching 32 at a time…

But the F-35 is far from the only favourite that is facing some serious risks. Both the Super Hornet and the JAS 39E Gripen rests on a single major operator. One of the major talking points that the FDF and MoD has raised when asked about what issues other than straight out performance can become deciding factors is the risk of becoming the sole user:

By no means do we want to be the last and sole user.

Lauri Puranen, in Suomenmaa 2019

The US Navy has been reluctant to lock down exactly how the future of their carrier air wing will look past 2030, to the point that the US congress last month actually pounded the table and demanded a plan. The issue here is obviously that any plan won’t be out before HX is decided, and if the plan then is to scrap all Super Hornets by 2035 and go all in for the NGAD and F-35C, Finland will be left standing in the corner looking stupid. The fact that the USN is still planning on rolling more or less the whole F/A-18E/F fleet through the Block 3 upgrade program which will give the airframes a significantly longer lifespan together with the unique role of the EA-18G Growler and the likely-looking German buy does lend some credibility to Boeing’s claims of them anticipating a service life for the Super Hornet in US service significantly past 2040, but it certainly is far from set in stone.

For Sweden the situation is roughly similar, with the recent decades not instilling much in the way of trust with regards to political long-term planning for the Swedish Defence Forces. Currently Sweden has 60 Gripens on order (all of the single-seat 39E-version), which ironically enough would make Finland the world’s largest operator of the 39E/F if 64 aircraft were to be acquired. At the same time, while the aircraft is moving through the development program and meeting milestones at an impressive pace, the words that doomed the original 39A/B offer to Finland in 1992 does echo through history.

JAS 39 Gripen and in particular some of its systems are currently still at the prototype-stage, and the schedule of the project with its uncertainty factors include significant risks.

The 39E is maturing nicely, but it certainly is not yet on par with the competition. Is that an issue? Probably not, but the risk of Sweden pulling the plug on the 39E in 2040 and moving on to something else (Tempest?) is there. Especially as the next stage of long-term planning for the Swedish Air Force is only about to kick off next year.

How is it then with the two dark horses? Surprisingly well, to be honest. The Eurofighter Typhoon has a solid user base, including four major European countries having invested heavily in the system, which provide a depth that significantly improves the chances of it staying in service up to 2060 even if the FCAS and Tempest are already looming at the horizon. The Rafale has a more limited user base, despite scoring three notable export orders recently. Still, France can generally be considered a rather stable user country, and has traditionally held onto its platforms for a long time. Recent examples include the Super Étendard (retired in 2016), the Mirage F1 (retired from the reconnaissance role in 2014), and the Mirage 2000 (still happily serving on in both the ground-attack 2000D and fighter 2000-5 versions). Karl Rieder joked on Twitter when discussing the future of the Super Hornet that buying French is safer, since there’s no budget to change plans. It’s a joke for sure, but there’s also a grain of truth buried within that statement.

© Dassault Aviation - K. Tokunaga
Will 2021 be the year of the biggest Rafale export order to date? Likely not, but don’t say I didn’t warn you! Source: © Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

So, will 2021 see a showdown between the Rafale and Eurofighter for the HX-prize, the rest having failed the gate checks? Probably not, though I would not be surprised if there is at least someone in the anticipated top-three being kicked out (which based on earlier information, we might know the details of in 2046). At the same time, I am certainly open for the possibility of us getting a surprise winner, and I do not believe anyone who claims they knows the outcome.

When the global becomes local

Russia paid for attacks agains US forces in Afghanistan” Finnish public broadcaster YLE headlined a week ago when the New York Times first broke the news. “Trump under pressure on Russian bounty for US soldiers” was the headline Swedish public broadcaster SVT used only yesterday. Both are representative for the general vibe of the reporting on the affair. It is seen as another step in the increased US-Russian competition, and one that will affect Trump’s ability to be re-elected this autumn. It is a frankly bizarre take on what should be one of the more significant pieces of local foreign policy news.

_DSC6214

YLE does it a tad better than their Swedish counterparts, and in the text notes that the reward covers “US and allied forces”, while SVT seems to have overlooked that part completely. What neither recognises is that two of these “allies” (or “coalition partners”, as is the more commonly used term in English) are Finland and Sweden. Sweden has approximately 25 soldiers near Mazar-e-Sharif and in Kabul, while Finland has no more than 60 soldiers in the same two locations. These are soldiers that, if they had been killed, Russian military intelligence would have awarded their killers for.

I find it hard to understand how this angle has been absent from Finnish and Swedish reporting so far.

If the reports are correct, and so far most indications seem to be that they are, one would imagine that this would require a response from the Finnish authorities at a suitably high level, i.e. either the Prime Minister’s office, the MoD, or the highest levels of the Finnish Defence Forces. However, when I raised the question on Twitter earlier this week, two different journalists stated that all questions had so far gone unanswered. I am not necessarily surprised, as there are three different issues making any Finnish reaction somewhat “problematic”:

  • The Finnish political and public discussions have never quite gotten to grips with the changed nature of the peacekeeping operations conducted in Afghanistan, first in the form of ISAF and now under Operation Resolute Support. In short, any comment about the reward being applied to Finnish soldiers as well as US ones leads to the conclusion that Finland is participating in a conflict on the same side as the US, and that is not a discussion that many Finnish politicians are keen on having,
  • Finnish national security rests heavily on having a good bilateral Finnish-US relationship, and starting to make a fuss about this would work counter to that purpose. Especially if the opposition (or Finnish media) would start asking why the US (apparently) wasn’t sharing the information with it’s coalition partners,
  • Most importantly, Finland is not keen on rocking the boat vis-a-vis Russia. It’s an unfair world, and bringing up the fact that Russia was paying people to kill our soldiers would not sit well with the Kremlin.

All these things considered, I still find it hard to believe that no official statement whatsoever has been made. The men and women of the Finnish (and Swedish) Resolute Support contingents serve in uniform abroad because we the people through our democratically elected governments have decided that it furthers our national interests that they spend their days in a significantly more dangerous environment than their home garrisons or everyday jobs. At the very least, some kind of expression of support and concern for their well-being would seem appropriate when it appears that the threat picture they face have been impacted negatively by a foreign power. This could easily be done in such a way that the question regarding whether Finnish intelligence believe the reports or not and the question about when Finland first received knowledge of the allegations are left unanswered. Even a short “We naturally have the safety of our personnel as one of our highest concerns, and continually monitor and evaluate the situation based on both own intelligence gathered and that received from partners. If the unverified reports are correct this is a serious issue,” would be a significant step up from the current “No comment”-line.

Crucially, the FDF is already facing some difficulty in finding people ready to volunteer for peace keeping operations, and only last month YLE published news about steps being taken by the government to try and mitigate these issues. I have a hard time seeing the lack of visible support to our peacekeepers currently serving aiding with that goal.