My Mines and those of My Brother

Naval mines have a tendency to stay largely out of sight, until they suddenly pop up to remind everyone about their existence. This goes both for the weapons themselves, as for their role in the grand scheme of things. The Baltic Sea, always a favourable battlefield for mines, has seen a number of interesting development during the last few weeks.

EML Wambola (A 433) has replaced sister EML Tasuja (A 342) in service as the sole Estonian minelayer. Note open stern door. Source: Estonian Defence Force / n-Ltn. Karl Alfred Baumeister

The most significant is that Estonia announced the procurement of a “significant number” of Finnish naval mines. The version isn’t confirmed, but the main suspect is the Forcit “Blocker“, known in Finnish service under the significantly less awe-inspiring moniker of PM16. The mine in question has a strong claim on the title as the world’s most advanced ground influence mine, and is the result of decades of Finnish (open) research into influence mines. Its characteristics also fit rather well with the description used by the Estonian Defence Forces with regards to how the new mine will change their ways of operating:

We haven’t rehearsed many practical skills with regard to how to submerge them in water lately, I admit, at least not in the way we will be doing it now. And this has changed – there are fewer people, and more computers.

The quote above is made by the Commander of the Estonian Navy, Cdre Jüri Säska, in an interview with the Estonian national broadcaster ERR. In the original TV-interview the footage shown is interestingly of the Finnish naval auxiliary FNS Louhi (999) using a containerised system – presumably the 20-foot Forcit SUMICO able to deploy 12 Blockers – to drop the mines. It is unclear whether this is just B-roll, or whether the deployment shows Estonian tests of the containerised solution. Considering the small number of vessels within the Estonian Navy, the ability to use workboats able to handle 20-foot containers for minelaying would be a significant force multiplier.

Screengrab from Estonian broadcaster ERR showing a PM16/Blocker going over the stern of FNS Louhi. Source: ERR

For the time being, the Navy operate a single ex-Danish Lindormen-class minelayer, the EML Wambola. The sister EML Tasuja was retired in 2016 when EML Wambola was taken into service, but depending on the source it seems she might still be held in reserve. The 577-ton vessel, roughly corresponding in size to the Finnish Pansio-class, can take approximately 50-60 mines but has mainly seen work as squadron leader to the Navy’s three minehunters which together with it make up the main unit of the small Estonian Navy: the Miinilaevade Divisjon. It will be interesting to see whether the role of the EML Wambola will change, or if a new class of vessels will take on the role as minelayers.

However, while the changes to Estonian doctrine and naval order of battle are interesting, this is a deal of strategic significance which will have caught the attention of people both in Norfolk as well as in St Petersburg. Because a revitalised Estonian minewarfare capability, especially when taken together with the announced decision to procure land-based anti-ship missiles, certainly provide the basis for a 21st century re-run of the 20th century favourite of armchair admirals studying maps of the Baltic Sea: Czar Peter the Great’s Naval Fortress.

Source: Dmitrii Fedotoff-White – University of Pennsylvania press

Morskaya krepost imperatora Petra Velikogo was what happens when your Navy decides to sail halfway around the world only to get sunk by an up-and-coming naval power. Shortly before WWI, the Russian state started investing heavily in coastal defences to protect the entrance to St Petersburg. Great idea, at least until Estonia and Finland became independent and ran away with most of the heavy fixed guns installed in the half-finished project. The interwar years then saw Finland and Estonia in turn planning how to use these as the backbone in a plan to seal the Gulf of Finland to Soviet shipping, before Estonia was occupied by the Soviets. With the exception of the brief interlude between 1941 and 1944 when Finland and Germany rather successfully bottled up the Soviet Baltic Fleet through a combination of mines, coastal guns, and smaller naval vessels, the Estonian coast spent the rest of the century firstly occupied, and then rather poorly defended. This is now set to change.

Very much in a similar fashion to the situation around Kaliningrad where the (in)famous Suwałki-gap is both a trap and an opportunity for both sides, the waterways from the Gulf of Finland out to the northern parts of the Baltic Sea proper are of serious importance both to NATO as the logistics route to reinforce Estonia and Latvia (either as the last sea-leg for an overland route through Norway and Sweden or as the ports of disembarkation for ships) as well as to Russian planners in a number of different ways. Key among these are not only the military ones, but the route is of great importance to Russian hydrocarbon exports (Ust Luga and Primorsk combined outranking the largest single port for exports, Novorossiysk, which handles basically all of Russia’s Black Sea exports), and the importance of the Gulf of Finland as the route for exports westwards is only set to keep growing. However, by the time one start talking about sea mines, the military considerations will in all likelihood be of greater importance, and here the Gulf of Finland is of both offensive and defensive importance.

Kronstadt in the summer of 2018. In the centre of the picture is decommissioned Project 956-class destroyer Bespokoynyy which is now a museum ship. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

Defensively, while Baltiysk is the main base of the Russian Baltic Fleet, it is also isolated from the Russian mainland. As such, keeping a supply line open not only for the Baltic Fleet to be able to shift units between Kronstadt and Baltiysk according to need, but also to be able to supply the rest of Kaliningrad’s military and civilian needs, is of great importance. Offensively, the ability to operate freely in the northern parts of the Baltic Sea proper would allow for cutting off vital supply lines to both Finland and Estonia, as well as seriously threatening key Swedish interests such as the capital Stockholm and surrounding regions.

As opposed to with its Nordic neighbours, Finland hasn’t been as active in advertising increased defence cooperation with Estonia in recent years. Rather, the headlines have been dominated by a number of if not exactly crises, then at least diplomatic grumblings. Part of this is a natural outcome of the rather different lessons drawn by the very different historical outcomes (read: occupation versus Finlandization) the countries experienced following WWII, but it has nonetheless caused friction. Still, once one start digging below the surface, Finnish soldiers have been actively taking part in key Estonian exercises, and the deepened cooperation between democratic countries in Northern Europe has certainly had a positive effect on Finnish-Estonian military cooperation as well.

In any case, with Finland largely being seen as a part of “The West” in Moscow, any Russian aggression would most likely affect Finnish supply lines and cause a quick alignment of Finnish and Estonian interests (read: keeping the northern Baltic Sea free of Russian vessels and aircraft). As such, the prospect of not one but two countries with modern mining capabilities as well as the ability to protect the minefields with long-range anti-ship weaponry will have an effect on the strategic calculations made by the Kremlin. Further to this, while the Gulf of Finland is narrow enough that even modern long-range artillery can cover it from one shore to the other at the narrowest location, but getting an accurate picture of what happens on the other shore might still prove more of a challenge, the prospect of these countries sharing a maritime situational picture and possibly even cooperating on the operational use of the aforementioned systems further tilt the balance. Notable is also that the ability to use ‘smart’ mines means that the risk to civilian shipping is lower, a not insignificant aspect when it comes to the use of naval mines in waters as heavily trafficked as those of the Baltic Sea.

For the Finnish Navy, mines have always featured heavily in their communication, a method of latent suasion for which mines are well suited (and something that will happen to some extent almost by default the minute one start stockpiling them). However, as usual there are significant ambiguity when it comes to the stockpiles, including not only numbers but also exact models in use. Interestingly, the Finnish Navy has during the last year showed a number of the oldest influence mines acquired by the Finnish Navy back in the 80’s being used in exercises, including both practicing their employment as well their search and recovery. Whether this is just by chance or a conscious decision to raise the awareness that there are many arrows in the quiver is an interesting question, but it certainly shows that Finnish minewarfare consists of more than the Hot Dog-dance.

…and in my own Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam-moment, I will note that there’s further US investment in the Quickstrike-ER. The US Navy has recently placed a 58.3 million USD contract with Boeing for the manufacturing of prototype glide-kits and associated equipment. In essence, the Quickstrike-ER is a JDAM-ER with a dedicated fuse which makes it a sea mine able to deploy at depths of up to 60+ meters (which also happens to match nicely with the depths of the Gulf of Finland). It remains my opinion that the Quickstrike-ER represents the most versatile, effective, and cheapest way of introducing air-launched kinetic effect into the maritime domain for the Finnish Air Force, and that the ability to use a handful of JDAM-ER kitted ‘dumb’ bombs to either resow cleared minefields or to cut strategic narrow waterways in what is a relatively low-risk mission compared to the use of JDAM-ERs in a more traditional ground-combat setting would represent a significant capability addition to Finnish minewarfare.

Swiss decision rolls in F-35’s favour

Let’s begin by the obvious: Finland isn’t Switzerland, and HX isn’t AIR2030.

It still would be wrong to say that the Swiss decision, and especially the way it was made, wouldn’t have bearing on the Finnish evaluation. The odds of the stealth bird just went up.

A Finnish F/A-18C Hornet and an Italian Air Force F-35A teaming up during Exercise Ramstein Alloy 21-2. Source: Finnish Air Force Twitter

I will leave the finer details of Swiss politics to those better versed in that topic, but let’s start by looking at why the Swiss decision matters for HX.

Something a number of commentators have missed is why the Swiss evaluators felt the aircraft was the right choice:

It includes entirely new, extremely powerful and comprehensively networked systems for protecting and monitoring airspace. The F-35A is able to ensure information superiority; this means pilots benefit from a higher situational awareness in all task areas when compared with the other candidates.

The following sentences then goes on to discuss that the aircraft is designed “to be especially difficult for other weapons systems to detect”. The debate about whether Switzerland need a stealth fighter misses the point. The main reason why the Swiss appreciate its effectiveness isn’t the stealth features, but the networked nature and integrated sensors giving the pilots a higher situational awareness. Oh, and by the way: it’s stealthy which is a nice bonus. And it seems set to stay in service the longest. The last two points arguably in of higher importance in HX, but even then F-35 took home AIR2030.

The point about staying in service further resonates with the product support question. ALIS gets good points, the maintenance system is modern and simple, and the large number of both fighters produced in general and European operators in particular ensure cooperation opportunities in both training and operational usage.

Crucially, the calculations made by the Swiss also showed that the aircraft was significantly cheaper compared to the second lowest bid when calculating full life-cycle costs (i.e. acquisition and 30 years of operations), coming in at approximately 2.0 Bn CHF cheaper (3.2 Bn EUR).

The big deal here is that as opposed to several of the recent wins for the F-35 where it has been the favourite from the outset, in Switzerland the F-35 is most likely the most difficult political choice. That the evaluation still found that the F-35 won three out of four categories including combat capability, product support, and cooperation opportunities is significant, as if the race would have been close the temptation to fudge the numbers a bit to ensure a more politically acceptable winner could certainly have been there. And crucially, unlike some other evaluations, the fact that the F-35 wasn’t the bestest and greatest in all measurable ways ironically lends a bit more credibility to the evaluation.

That’s the good news for the F-35, and it would be naive to think that the Swiss findings are taken out of thin air. The grey fighter again cements its position as the new European standard fighter in a way the F-16 did decades ago.

An interesting aspect is the worries about ownership of data and cyber security. I’ve discussed the topic before, especially with regards to the ALIS/ODIN, but the full quote is interesting.

All candidates were able to guarantee data autonomy. In the case of the F-35A, the system’s cyber management, the security of its computer architecture and its cyber protection measures combine to ensure an especially high level of cyber security. As with all other candidates, with the F-35A Switzerland controls which information to exchange with other air forces via data link, and what logistics information to report back to the manufacturer.

This is also certainly a good sign for F-35 from a Finnish point of view, as the cyber security and sovereignty aspect are among the questions still lingering with regards to the fighter. While Lockheed Martin has stressed that it isn’t an issue, it is one of those things that are next to impossible to judge based on open sources. However, that Switss evaluators has reached the conclusion is certainly promising.

But there’s also a few flies in the ointment.

The cheapness is… strange.

I could write a long-winding paragraph about it, but Steve Trimble summed it up perfectly in 280 characters:

A few key points still deserve to be reiterated. There is a significant difference between those struggling with whether to upgrade early blocks and export customers now jumping aboard and getting what presumably will be TR-3 hardware (slated for introduction in 2023) from the start. Especially considering the significant maturity the program has achieved in the past few years it is likely that the maintenance and operating costs will continue on a downward spiral.

However, the GAO isn’t overly impressed, and while originally deliveries from 2026 should have been Block 4, that standard is pushed back, and GAO isn’t sure that the current schedule will hold either.

In 2020, the program added a year to its Block 4 schedule and now expects to extend Block 4 development into fiscal year 2027. We found, however, that the program office did not formulate its revised schedule based on the contractor’s demonstrated past performance. Instead, the schedule is based on estimates formulated at the start of the Block 4 effort, increasing the likelihood that the scheduled 2027 completion date is not achievable.

Perhaps more worrying is how the aircraft became 3 billion euros cheaper to operate – by offloading flight hours into simulators. This is certainly one of those ‘Yes, but…’-arguments. Modern simulators are very good, and with a continued emphasis on things like electronic warfare and advanced (expensive) weaponry, it certainly makes sense to do more training in simulators. The Finnish Air Force is a good example of this, with HX seemingly largely skipping two-seaters for operational conversion, going Hawk->simulator->HX single-seater instead. However, there still are things that differ between simulators than the real thing. A key thing to note is the lack of cues which pilots learn to fly with, everything from vibrations to G-forces which are very difficult to model. Former Hornet-pilot C W Lemoine flew DCS a few years ago, and in the video discussed how flying the real jet differs from high-end commercial and military simulators and how the armed forces are using them. The DCS-specific issues obviously doesn’t apply when you have a properly modelled cockpit, the other issues do.

More crucially, the German longer version of the presser include further details on the process (and overall could function as a good template for the eventual HX releases) and discuss how that part of the calculations were done.

Diese basieren auf den Angaben der jeweiligen Luftwaffen respektive der Marine in den Herstellerländern, wie sie im Rahmen der Offertanfrage bei allen Kandidaten identisch angefragt wurden. Die Antworten der Kandidaten wurden mit den Erfahrungen der Luftwaffe mit dem F/A-18C/D und den Erkenntnissen aus der Evaluation verglichen.

In other words, seems the Swiss have asked main operators about simulators versus real flight hours, and the USAF has returned with a 20% lower number compared to the USN, AdA, and LW. There is preciously little in open sources to explain this difference in real terms. Yes, the F-35’s simulators are good, but the rest are no slouches either. I can see no clear reason why it wouldn’t be possible to run a simulation-heavy training curriculum for the rest of the fighters as well, if that is what you want.

Another key number thrown around is that the F-35 would require 50% fewer take-offs and landings compared to the current F-5E Tiger II/F/A-18C Hornet-fleet. This honestly doesn’t feel overly impressive, as it is unclear to me how much the old and short-legged F-5E pushes up the current number, and it is unclear to me if the comparison is between 36 F-35A and the total fleet of 66 F-5E/F Tiger II and F/A-18C/D Hornets or an interpolated 36 to 36. However, notable is that the Finnish Air Force reportedly has had issues meeting the NATO-standard of 180 flight hours per pilot and year, and while there are some redeeming features of Finnish operations (such as short transits to training areas), cutting 20% of the flight hours while at the same time increasing the complexity of the mission sets and bringing in new roles won’t happen. At least not in a good way…

Which brings us to the numbers. The Swiss are looking at a procurement cost of 5.068 Bn CHF for 36 fighters, which converted to Euros and extrapolated to 64 gives us the figure of 8.2 Bn EUR, well below the 9.6 Bn EUR maximum of HX. So far so good, until you realise that the 10.432 Bn CHF cost of operating the aircraft over 30 years gives 16.9 Bn EUR extrapolated to 64, giving you an annual operating cost of 563.3 MEUR, which is significantly over the FinAF 270 MEUR annual budget.

With 20% less flying hours than the competition.

…and that brings us back to the fact that Finland isn’t Switzerland.

The mission set which 36 F-35A are supposed to handle is described as follows:

As far as fleet size is concerned, for all four candidates a fleet of 36 aircraft would be large enough to cover Switzerland’s airspace protection needs over the longer term in a prolonged situation of heightened tensions. The Air Force must be able to ensure that Swiss airspace cannot be used by foreign parties in a military conflict.

Which is a realistic threat scenario in my opinion. As long as the French suddenly doesn’t get revanchist over the dissolution of the Helvetic Republic, there’s little direct threat.

Swiss government infographic describing how the integrity of own airspace is protected. Source: Swiss MoD

The stated aim for the Finnish forces in a ground war is to:

Making it possible to slow down and wear out the aggressor’s
land attack in selected terrain and ultimately defeat him. All
services and civilian authorities as well as the Border Guard
participate in land defence.

…which can be described by this fancy infographic of the battlefield in 2030.

The multi-domain battlefield in 2030. Source: FDF Homepage

This difference is evident in the DSCA-notices as well, were the Swiss DSCA-notification include a grand-total of 40 AIM-9X Sidewinders, 12 Mk 82 500-lb bombs with JDAM-guidance kits, and 12 SDB-II small glide-bombs. You do not fight a war with that kind of stock, although the possibility to carry on the weapons currently used by the Hornets are there. As has been discussed for Finland, the weapons and spares bought will be a huge part of the overall acquisition costs, suddenly making the 8.2 Bn EUR Swiss pricetag look less than stellar (although granted the Swiss DSCA-notification included more spare engines compared to the Finnish bid). Comparing costs is a case of apples against pears against olives with the occasional mango thrown into the mix, but the resulting smoothie evidently tastes like Finland won’t be able to acquire and operate 64 F-35As at Swiss prices.

More confusingly, if that is 20% cheaper than everything else, there’s some serious discrepancies between what the Swiss asked for and the five packages offered to Finland for 9.6 Bn Euros.

Lifting the Fog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cruise Missiles Flying over your Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interlude: The saga of the JASSM-ER continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Operaatio Punainen kettu

In a revelation that will surprise absolutely no one reading this, I spent a sizeable time of my early teenage years cruising the narrow spaces between the shelves of class 84.31 “Narrative literature in Swedish” at our local library here in Kokkola. On one of the last shelves there was a note declaring that shelf to hold books with the form tags “War, hunting”, and you would be excused for thinking I spent much of my time there. However, that wasn’t the case, as all the techno-thrillers were usually found interspersed among the general books of 84.31.

This was something that came to mind after I put down Helena Immonen’s debut novel “Operaatio Punainen kettu” (Operation Red fox, Docendo 2020, ISBN 9789522918581). The librarians of Kokkola once felt that Red storm rising was a thriller and not a book about war, but somewhere along the line the techno-thriller format associated with Tom Clancy has become the standard template used by writers throughout the western cultural sphere when wanting to portray a fictional modern conflict. But while Immonen does employ some of the identifying features of the genre, e.g. the use of multiple narrative threads that are more or less interwoven, this isn’t a techno thriller. This is a book about war.

A few short words on the author. Helena Immonen might be a new name as an author, but she is no stranger to either writing or the Finnish Defence Forces, having spent years in both fields in different positions, often combining the two by working as an editor for FDF’s different communications channels. She’s also an officer in the reserve.

The last decade has seen something of a renaissance for the techno thriller, as the ever more authoritarian Russian and Chinese regimes have provided ample opportunities for realistic background scenarios. The trend has also been picked up in Sweden, where local techno thrillers have hammered out a small niche market of dedicated readers. So far the Finnish offerings have however been few and far between (with the marked exception of Ilkka Remes who has released a stream of books for the last 20+ years). Part of the explanation is probably that Finnish appetite for war books usually is filled with novels set during WWII. However, modern novels of war fill another important role: they provide templates from which to reflect upon what a conflict today could like, and can form a common frame of discussion for the national security debate. This has been a key feature of many of the recent US/UK and Swedish novels – Lars Wilderäng’s debut “Midvintermörker” has without doubt influenced the Swedish national security discussion and the prominent (perhaps even exaggerated) role Gotland has in it to give an example – but so far this has been sorely missing in the Finnish discussions. When the common frame of reference is Väinö Linna’s “The Unknown Soldier”, picturing tomorrow’s war becomes hard.

But this was supposed to be a review and not an essay on the importance of the genre, so is it a good book?

Yes, I am happy to say. It is.

The scenario described is realistic and include a good portion of unexpected twists and turns to keep the readers on their toes. But where it really shines is in its portrayal of the human face of war. As I earlier noted, this isn’t a techno-thriller, but a story about humans that find themselves in a war, and what it means for them. Yes, it does sound like a cliche to look at people in different positions and how different their personal war is, but it is a cliche exactly because if it is done well it works. And Immonen does it well. She has captured a very interesting group of persons and brings to light several questions – some given, some which at least I hadn’t thought about earlier – that without doubt would surface if Finland really would mobilise and send her sons and daughters to war. This is perhaps the greatest benefit of the book from a societal point of view: we can read foreign novels and non-fiction works to get a picture of how a modern war would look, but it needs a Finnish setting to shine a light on how Finnish society would be impacted. Because one thing is certain – it wouldn’t be the same as it was last time around.

Luckily, Immonen not only nails the portrayal of the persons, but she also nails the portrayal of Finland. A Finn travelling in Sweden will see many familiar sights, but somehow still recognise that this isn’t their home country. It isn’t necessarily obvious exactly why, but there’s the small tells that just means you know. I hadn’t realised how much I missed feeling at home while reading Swedish novels, until I picked up “Operaatio Punainen kettu”. The everyday scenes from the homefront were decidedly Finnish, and the small cultural cues present do their job in filling out the blanks between the lines and painting a vivid picture of common people in an uncommon situation.

Side note, if you ever get invited to coffee in a Finnish home and they don’t bring out their Moomin mugs, you’re probably not quite as welcome as you think.

On the flip side, there are a few issues, though arguably these are minor. Personally, while I found the depiction of Finnish high-level politics to be very believable, the brief portrayal of Swedish political decision making felt a bit off. This is more about tone than anything being actually wrong, and is of minor importance to both the scenarios and the narrative. In further nitpicking of details and without spoiling the scenarios, readers of the blog knows that I have voiced some opinions with regards to Russian behaviours and systems that means parts of the scenario wouldn’t be my first guess for Russian escalatory behaviour. However, there’s obviously no “right” answer when it comes to hypothetical scenarios, and as said the overarching story is well thought through and very much within the realm of possibility. And as I mentioned in the beginning of the review, if you are on the look out for a traditional techno-thriller filled with details of switches and calibres, this isn’t it. I won’t hold that as a negative, but be aware of the fact if that is what you were expecting. Overall, the book is a joy to read, and an extremely strong debut.

I was recently part of a Twitter-thread discussing the outlook for an English-translation of the book. While unfortunately the chances are slim based on the complexity of translating a work so deeply entrenched in Finnish society and politics, I do believe the book would find a niche market in Sweden, where not only is there a proven market for the genre, but where there (especially among the likely readers) also is an understanding of the local politics at play. The fact that part of the book is set in Sweden and happening against the backdrop of ever increasing Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation certainly also helps. I am in fact somewhat surprised that none of the more niched publishers haven’t picked up it already, especially with the impact the book has had on the Finnish political discussion and with a sequel in the works. Here’s hoping that is about to change!

No Love for the Baltic Sea from Green Ministry

Readers of the blog might remember a post from two years ago in which I noted that the new government programme included a decision that the Finnish Border Guards’ two Dornier Do-228-212 patrol “will be replaced by 2022“. The unambiguous wording seemed clear enough to me, and indicated that there was a solid political understanding regarding the importance of the mission and the issues caused by the rapidly ageing platforms. As such, I have been following the Twitter-feed of people close to the Finnish Border Guard Flight Division with rising concern, as it seems they didn’t feel the funding decision was a foregone conclusion.

Turns out they were correct.

This week the news broke that the Ministry of the Interior has not approved funding to start moving forward with the procurement process, meaning that the replacement of the aircraft will be shifted forward at least with a year from the already announced 2025 date, i.e. don’t expect to see the new aircraft having taken over from the Dorniers until 2026 at the earliest. Alert readers will notice that the date is in fact not one but four years behind the original schedule envisioned in the government program two years ago.

The situation is challenging, and is set to continue to be. The two aircraft flies and average of 250 flights a year, and already now up to 60 missions a year has been cancelled or aborted due to technical issues and failures –  a staggering non-mission capable rate of 20 to 25 % (depending on whether the 250 flights include aborted ones or just those actually performed). It is not just the aircraft themselves that are ageing, but their mission systems replaced during the MLU over a decade ago are also starting to show their age and cause a number of the non-missions. As noted, nothing of this comes as a surprise, but the lifespan of the aircraft and their sensors have been progressing as expected, which is the reason why the MVX-program was kicked off a few years back. The FBG has already received responses to their Request for Information, and is now just waiting for the funding approval for 60 million EUR to be able to send out a Request for Quotations.

It is a mystery why this hasn’t been approved as a matter of routine. The capability is extremely flexible, and serves not just the Finnish Border Guards but a host different agencies, including everything from counting seals for the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke), providing information to the maritime situational picture for the Navy, assisting the emergency services with searching for people getting lost in the forests, and keeping a watchful eye over police operations against suspicious locations in the archipelago. Their primary work is policing the Finnish maritime borders, which besides “normal” border guarding include oil spill surveillance as the key mission, a mission in which by all accounts they have been remarkably successful. With the ever evolving importance of FRONTEX, the aircraft have also been seen over warmer waters on a number of occasions. Considering the relatively minor budget and small number of people involved in running this highly specialised operation, it is difficult to find a better example of a bargain capability multiplier in the Ministry of the Interior’s toolbox.

Darker skies ahead for Finnish environmental protection and border security work over the Baltic Sea. Picture source: FBG Flight Division Twitter

Perhaps that makes it understandable that the commander of the FBG Flight Division, captain (N.) Matti Lallukka, tweeted that “These are values-based decisions choices – maritime safety and the Baltic Sea doesn’t seem to be important enough reasons to carry out the procurement?” A surprisingly political tweet for a Finnish senior officer.

Still, it is hard to disagree with Lallukka. Having grown up by the sea and dipped my toes into the world of professional seafaring through my career in the maritime industry as well as being a avid outdoorsman, I will admit to being somewhat upset myself, and there doesn’t really seem to be any other plausible explanation for the omission of the funding decision than the Ministry not being interested in the question. This is utterly surprising, especially considering that the Green League is the party in charge of the Ministry of the Interior. Few capabilities transcend the worlds of traditional hard security to “softer” values such as environmental protection and refugee safety, while also straddling the gap between a more global and a more traditional view on national security. That in a time of expanding budgets the government wasn’t able to find 60 MEUR to what must be one of the least controversial programs in Finnish national security cannot be described as anything less than a major failure of leadership on the part of the politicians involved. Let us hope it will addressed swiftly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our offer is complete for the Growler.

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

64 is the only number in our offer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AK6, meet K22

The Swedish Armed Forces today did a decent attempt at upstaging Boeing’s PR-coup last week by casually dropping some major news seemingly as an afterthought, when they today announced a joint assault rifle procurement between Finland and Sweden which will kick off in September:

In September another procurement relevant to many within the Armed Forces. Then it will be determined which firearm will replace the AK5 [FN FNC]. The new firearm will be bought together with Finland – which means that in the future the two countries will use the same assault rifle.

The obvious issue: Finland is not currently in the process of acquiring a new assault rifle, following the rather recent upgrade of the current RK 62 to the RK 62M-standard.

But let’s start from the beginning: two years ago the Swedish Armed Forces outlined a plan to introduce a new “firearms system”, intended to replace the personal weapons of their soldiers. This included both assault rifles currently in service (the older H&K G3 as well as the newer FN FNC, AK4 and AK5 respectively in their Swedish designations), as well as the current AI Arctic Warfare/L96A1 sniper rifle (Psg 90) and the FN Minimi (Ksp 90). The plan is also to acquire a designated marksman rifle, a role which currently is filled with scoped assault rifles. The budget for the project would run from 2021 to 2030, with the major procurements being made starting 2025.

A year ago, the Finnish Defence Forces officially announced that they are acquiring a new weapon designated K22 from Sako. The key thing to notice here is that the weapon is a semi-auto in 7.62 NATO, made by a company famous for only doing bolt-action rifles for the last quarter of a century. The weapon would be delivered in two different configurations, as a sniper rifle and as a designated marksman rifle, differing in the equipment it comes with. The weapon would be a clean-sheet design, but based on “popular solutions”.

Yes, it’s an AR-10.

Now, you don’t have to be a business major to imagine that for Sako to bother looking into autoloaders they might have some plans for manufacturing more weapons than what the FDF might require for their snipers and marksmen. I would be highly surprised if their sights aren’t set on the 200,000+ weapons that will be replaced once the FDF starts retiring the RK 62M sometime in the 2030’s. The K22 might provide a nice development path into the world of ARs, from which to scale down into lighter calibre.

Crucially, the Swedish Defence Material Agency (FMV) has been closely following the Finnish developments, and this eventually led to the signing of an Memorandum of Understanding between the countries last month with regards to exchanging information on firearms and their technology, with the development of the K22 being mentioned in the press release by the Finnish representatives.

A somewhat grainy picture of the K22 in the hands of brigadier general Mikael Frisell, chief for the ground forces’ systems-section of FMV. Source: FDF homepage

The Finnish inspector for the infantry, colonel Rainer Peltoniemi, noted that:

We’ve found that Finland and Sweden have very similar capability requirements, development schedules, and goals, meaning that cooperating is very natural and appropriate.

What has then gone “wrong”, if one country thinks they will be buying a common assault rifle in September? There are two possibilities:

One is that the terminology has been lost in translation. The current designated marksman-ish weapons of the Swedish Armed Forces are coded AK for “automatic carbine” in the Swedish designation system, a designation used regardless of weapon length. It is entirely possible that Sweden intends to buy the K22 in September, and designate it locally as AK-something (Ak6 is one possibility, though e.g. the H&K 416 and 417 which have been acquired for SOF usage are designated AK416 and AK417, so AK22 might be another guess). This would then have been the news that the Swedes happily announced to the world today.

The other is that there is a silent agreement to launch a joint project for a larger number of weapon systems, possibly including the whole Swedish “Nytt Ehv-system”-program as well as Finnish replacement of RK 62M and potentially some other weapons as well. This was now unfortunately slipped into the press release by someone who didn’t know it was supposed to be under wraps.

Hopefully it was a case of the former, but I guess we’ll know by September.

Edit 04 May 2021:

The text has been updated, and it is now made clear that it is indeed the complete New Firearm-project that will kick off in September, and that as a part of this project is to look into whether part of the program can be handled together with Finland. In short, no decision on common weapons just yet, but a Swedish K22 order in late 2021 or early 2022 wouldn’t exactly be surprising in my opinion. 

Stop, BAFO Time!

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

The race is on

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

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

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

numbers

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

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

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

F-35A fighters as well as a maintenance solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kan vara en bild av karta

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

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

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

The final offer includes many opportunities for the Finnish defense industry related to the direct manufacture and maintenance of the F-35 that have not been offered before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

weapons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two-seaters

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

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

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

Often there are other drivers for and needs of a two-seat aircraft configuration that, in combination with the more traditional training-related benefits, makes it relevant to procure two-seat fighters. […] Gripen F with its two seats, naturally provides additional flexibility to handle very advanced missions where it may be advantageous to have an additional pilot or operator on-board. Examples are Electronic Warfare Officer, Mission Commander and/or a Weapon System Officer in the rear-seat.

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

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

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

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

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

Stealth, Dispersed Operations, and a big Jammer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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