CAVS Rolling On

While HX has cemented its place in the spotlight during the last few years, in the background a number of other important acquisition programs have been moving forward without making too much of a fuss – just as you want your major projects to do.

One of these is the CAVS, the Common Armoured Vehicle System, in which Finland, Latvia, and since April 2020 also Estonia, has been aiming to procure a new common armoured vehicle system. The baseline will be Patria’s ungoogleable 6X6 armoured personnel carrier.

The 6×6 prototype being shown at the Ādažu base in Latvia this spring. Source: Gatis Dieziņš / Latvian MoD

At the first stage the aim is to bring into service the standard armoured personnel carrier as well as a command post vehicle, though naturally the family can be expected to be expanded into further versions if and when the platform matures. To understand exactly what is happening, a brief look back at Finnish APC development is needed.

The ubiquitous Finnish armoured vehicle is the originally Sisu (later Patria) XA-180 series and the closely related XA-200 series of vehicles. These rather unassuming 6x6s are rather typical of late Cold War designs, and has achieved a comfortable number of export successes as well as a solid reputation in international operations. The Pasi, as it is widely known, does however suffer from the basic issue of being designed in the early 1980’s, and there is only so much you can do to upgrade it before you run into the obvious question of whether a clean-sheet design isn’t the better option.

‘Shadow’, one of the original Rosomak still painted in green and lacking later upgrades, on patrol in the Ghazni province back in 2010. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Mark O’Donald via Wikimedia Commons

Enter Patria AMV, or XA-360. If the Pasi is your basic Cold War APC, the AMV is your typical early 2000’s design, being larger, 8×8, heavily protected, and able to carry both significant firepower and protection into battle. Now, the AMV is by all accounts an excellent vehicle, and has scored a number of export successes during the first decade of its service. It also continued the tradition from the Pasi of building up a solid reputation in international service, in this case with the Poles in Afghanistan. However, this performance didn’t come cheap, and in a twist of irony Finland is in fact one of the lesser users of the platform, with the majority of the vehicles having been produced in Poland under license as the KTO Rosomak. In fact, reports surfaced a few years ago that Polish company PGZ was interested in acquiring the whole land division of Patria.

At home, with the large-scale acquisition of AMV being ruled out (at least for the time being), the FDF instead launched a limited mid-life upgrade programme of the XA-180, bringing the vehicle up to the XA-180M standard and allocating the vehicles to the manoeuvre forces of the Army (these are responsible for creating the centre of gravity of the defence and fighting the decisive battles). It was however clear that this wasn’t a long-term solution.

Exactly what the FDF is up to has been somewhat unclear. A few pre-production vehicles of the Protolab PMPV/Misu have been acquired, but while these obviously can do the job of an APC they are closer to armoured trucks. The same has been the case with the Sisu GTP 4×4, six vehicles of which have been acquired for tests, but these are too small to work as XA-180 replacements. As such, neither is really a direct Pasi-replacement.

The obvious case was to bring the XA-concept into the 21’st century, something which Patria was quick to do once it became clear that the pendulum was slowly swinging back and the 8×8-market was starting to become cramped while at the same time many armed forces wanted a modern wheeled APC that didn’t break the bank.

Latvian Minister of Defence Dr. Artis Pabriks and Janis Garisons, State Secretary of the MoD of Latvia, in front of the 6X6 during this week’s ceremony. Note the additional equipment compared to the prototype, such as shield and mount for a heavy machine gun. Source: Armīns Janiks / Latvian MoD

Enter the 6X6, building on the components of the AMV with the pedigree of the XA. The vehicle sports room for two crew and up to ten dismounts as well as their equipment for a 72-hour mission (or alternatively, three crew and 8-9 dismounts if you want to bring along a gunner). Protection is STANAG 2-level (roughly protection from 7.62 x 39 mm armoured piercing rounds or a 155 mm HE round exploding 80 meters from the vehicle) as standard, but can be increased to STANAG 4-level if the customer so wishes (roughly protection from a 14.5 mm armoured piercing rounds or a 155 mm HE round exploding 30 meters from the vehicle). I’m gonna make an educated guess that you will sacrifice your “optional amphibious capability” if you choose to go down the STANAG 4-route. The vehicle has all the niceties that can be expected, with fully individual suspension, all-wheel drive, ABS brakes, and so forth. As noted, the vehicle ended up chosen as the baseline for the CAVS-programme, and this week the first orders have been placed.

Latvia went all-in, ordering ‘over 200’ vehicles in a joint ceremony in which Finland signed a Letter of Intent for 160 armoured personnel carriers. Estonian plans are still somewhat unclear, but notable is that with the Finnish schedule of placing the main order only in 2023 (with an order for pre-production vehicles this year) the Estonians still have plenty of time to get aboard. A key note on the Finnish decision is that the 6X6 (which by the way locally is known as PSAJON2020, in case you need more designations to keep track off) won’t actually replace the XA-180M in service, but rather allows the manoeuvre forces to trade in their XA-180M for the 6X6 and send the XA-180M to the third-tier local forces (responsible for participating in battle and providing security, surveillance and support to the manoeuvre and second-tier regional forces in their area and assisting them in maintaining contact with the other authorities). The addition of a significant number of armoured vehicles will provide a serious boost to the tactical and operational mobility of these units, but also raises an interesting question about whatever happens with the regional forces, which certainly have an even higher need for APCs? The missing link might be explained by the middle ground of the XA-203 series vehicles, but their number in Finnish service is significantly smaller than the XA-180 series of vehicles, and a number of these are used for other purposes where the heavier and more powerful vehicle is more suitable than the original XA-180, such as vehicles with dedicated signals- or C3-roles. In any case, we know that there are further vehicle programs coming in the form of e.g. replacements for the all-terrain vehicles used by the more northerly units (Bv 206 and NASU) which will be replaced by significantly faster all-terrain vehicles allowing the tracked vehicles to keep up with the wheeled ones of the units, and on the horizon the MLU proper of the CV 9030 looms (for those looking even further, the BMP-2M/MD and MT-LBV-family are also bound to wear out eventually). Whether further 6X6 buys are bound to follow for the needs of the regional forces remain to be seen.

Finnish Land Ceptor – MBDA Aiming High in ITSUKO

After half a decade of talking fighters under the auspice of the HX-programme, much has already been said. Which meant that ironically enough, the most interesting piece of kit at the Kaivari 21 air show wasn’t anything flying, but a green Volvo truck. Meet the Finnish Land Ceptor.

The TEL of the Finnish Land Ceptor in a firing position by the sea at Kaivari 21 with standard-length CAMM missiles. Picture courtesy of MBDA / Paavo Pykäläinen

MBDA was shortlisted in the high-altitude effort of ITSUKO last year, a designation which I believe comes from Ilmatorjunnan suorituskyvyn kehittämisohjelma (literally “the development programme for the capabilities of the ground-based air defences). At the time I wrote that I felt they would have a hard time in face of the competition. However, there certainly is no lack of trying, and the company was eager to come to Helsinki to demonstrate the tricks that could set their offering apart from the competition.

The system shown at the air show was designated the Finnish Land Ceptor, and while based on the British (and to a lesser extent the Italian) Land Ceptor system, the Finnish offering is customised our particular needs by sporting a combination of:

  • Volvo FMX 8×8, a rather popular heavy-duty truck in Finland,
  • Saab Giraffe 4A, which in its navalised form won the contract for the main radar of the Pohjanmaa-class (SQ2020), and
  • CAMM/CAMM-ER family of missiles, in operational service with a number of countries both on land and afloat.

Those familiar with FDF acquisitions will spot the pattern: some of the best yet still  mature systems in their own field. This is usually a popular formula when you knock on the door to the FDF Logistics Command, so let’s go through things step by step, before we look at why the offer could be a stronger contender than I originally anticipated.

A Volvo FMX 8×8 in its natural environment, moving gravel somewhere in Europe (in this case, Minsk). Source: Wikimedia Commons / Homoatrox

The Volvo FMX series of trucks was launched just over a decade ago with an eye to heavy-duty earthmoving, a field that earlier had seen the use of a combination of different variants of the baseline FM- and FH-series of vehicles. The FMX sports generally more rugged equipment, including a serious tow point up front, a proper skid plate, as well as steering and gear box optimised for the task (people might remember the viral commercial in which Charlie the hamster drew a truck up from a Spanish quarry). In the eleven years since its introduction, around 1,000 FMX have been sold in Finland, which is no mean feat for a niche vehicle considering that the total number of newly registered trucks above 16 tons (gross weight) has been hovering between 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles annually in Finland during that time. With the vehicle being so common, it’s no surprise that the spares are relatively easy to come by, and finding a Finnish mechanic who knows the model is relatively easy compared to e.g. for the MAN HX-77 used by the British to transport their systems. It might also be worth noting that Volvo Trucks isn’t owned by the Chinese, as is the case with Volvo Cars. MBDA also notes that truck could be any model capable of carrying the 15-ton missile pallet, and that they are happy to change it out if FDF would prefer some other platform. However, FMX certainly looks like a solid choice, and unless there’s logistical reasons for something else I don’t expect them to do so.

The Giraffe 4A is an S-band radar that combine the functions of acquisition/surveillance-radars as well as fire control-radars into a single system. It builds upon Saab’s experience with the earlier Giraffe AMB and ARTHUR (MAMBA in British service) counter-artillery radar, to have a single AESA-based radar that can support the whole battery. As noted, it is the key sensor of the Finnish Navy’s upcoming corvettes, where it will be paired with the ESSM-missiles to provide air defence. The radar is also on order to the Swedish Defence Forces as part of their integrated air defence system. The basic specifications of the Giraffe 4A – the fact that it’s a GaN-based AESA system – means that it is able to track a significant number of targets effectively and also follow small and difficult to see ones, such as UAS, cruise missiles, artillery projectiles, as well as being able to handle detection and tracking of jammer strobes. And yes, since it operates in S-band and many flying stealth aircraft are optimised for the X-band, it will have an easier time detecting them at longer ranges than if it was a classic X-band radar. However, any such statement is bound to include a number of caveats and quickly degenerate into a mud fight. Will it spot stealth aircraft? Any radar does, as long as the target is close enough. Will it do so at a useful range? That depends on how stealthy your target is from that particular angle. Still, the Giraffe 4A is about as good as they come in this day and age, and while MBDA is happy to change out the radar if the FDF wants something else, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is in fact their first choice (a number of older Giraffes are also in FDF service, most notably the Giraffe 100 AAA as the LÄVA movable short-range air-surveillance system, though their relationship to the Giraffe 4A is rather distant).

The layout of the TEL has the missiles to the very rear with the flat rack missile tubes and the hook-system used to change them, two sets of jacks (front and rear), and the front unit which include both the electronics, onboard power supply, and masts. The FMX-based TEL is a standard road-legal truck according to Finnish regulations, and does not require any special permits besides the standard C-rating on the part of the driver (though you might need an ADR-certificate to drive live missiles, I’ve never had to check up that one so I honestly don’t know). Source: Own picture

The big deal here is the CAMM family of missiles, and in particular the big brother CAMM-ER. The CAMM does share a number of components with the ASRAAM air-to-air missile, though it would be wrong to see it as a ground-launched version of the latter. The missile is designed from the beginning as a dedicated ground-based air defence one, and as such MBAD is really pushing the fact that the optimisation work in the design phase has done wonders.

To begin with, the missile is soft-launched. In other words, instead of the rocket engine just firing and powering the missile into the air, a gas generator causes the missile to pop out of the VLS-tube. Or rather, it doesn’t just pop out, it flings it 20 meters up into air above the launch canister. There thrusters fire to point the missile in the right direction, and only after that does the main rocket fire. The test firings from HMS Argyll of the naval Sea Ceptor-version of the CAMM shows the principle rather well.

Now, why go through all that mess when it is easier to just light the rocket and off you go? There are a number of benefits. To begin with, the stress on the launcher is significantly lower, as there is no blast of fire and hot gases inside the small compartment of the launch tube. Not having to fireproof stuff means cheaper launcher. However, there’s also the benefit that since the missile hasn’t warmed up everything, there is no lingering heat signature from a missile launch, which makes it easier to keep your firing unit hidden. Hiding the launcher with nets and similar is also easier, since you don’t have to worry about them catching fire.

Another positive is the use of a VLS without wasting energy and time to course correct. In theory, a traditional missile will be faster on the target since it starts accelerating immediately. However, that require the launcher being pointed roughly in the right direction. For VLS systems, such as the very popular Mk 41 found aboard most western-built frigates and destroyers, the missile will actually waste a bunch of time accelerating out of the tube straight upwards, and then it has to trade energy to be able to turn toward its target on a less than optimal course. Everything in life is trade-offs and compromises, so which system is the most beneficial depends on your scenario, but the cold-launch means that by the time your rocket kicks off, the missile is already roughly pointing where it’s supposed to go. MBDA is claiming that in total this saves a whooping 30% in nominal launch weight compared to having the missile accelerate out from the tube (I would have to get a rocket scientist to check their maths before I’m ready to confirm that number), which in the case of the CAMM-family directly translates into an added usable energy which allow it to manoeuvre effectively at long-ranges or, crucially, at high altitudes. The profile of the weapons are such that the effective high-altitude performance is a priority, and MBDA describe the principle as the difference between a fence and a bubble. How big an area the fence covers and how high it goes are obviously classified data, but the official figures given is that at 45 km for the CAMM-ER and 25 km for the CAMM-sans suffix there is still usable energy for a high probability of kill, with the max ranges being further still.

A feature that definitely falls in the “Cool”-category is that the soft-launch can take place from inside a building provided that there’s a hole in the roof and the roof is less than 20 meters above the top of the launch tubes. A more serious benefit is that it allows firing positions in forested or urban terrain to be used (again, provided the location meets the the 20 meter + launcher height limit), and the ability to fire in all directions gives added flexibility to the system as well.

A Norwegian NASAMS-launcher of roughly the same standard currently in Finnish use as the ITO 12 showing the hot-launch principle of the AMRAAM-missile. Source: Norwegian Armed Forces / Martin Mellquist

For anybody wondering about the current situation, the NASAMS II-system in use by the FDF sports angled hot-launch cells, meaning that there will be a rocket firing inside a box and the missile will leave the launch cell under its own power headed towards wherever the launcher is pointed. As such, you don’t want to put up your NASAMS-launcher in a small clearing in the middle of the forest.

The basic firing battery for the Finnish Land Ceptor consists of six TELs running around with eight missiles each, a tactical operations center (TOC), and the aforementioned radar which function as the units main organic sensor. In addition there is obviously a number of supporting vehicles such as those carrying reloads and personal equipment for the battery personnel. The TOC is the brains of the unit, and functions as the command and communications node. Here targets are identified and engagement decisions made, with firing units being chosen and launches ordered. The whole system can be fed targeting data via the datalink from any number of sources as long as the location data quality is up to par. This include the organic radar of the battery, but also those of neighbouring batteries, other radars, ships, aircraft, and so forth. This can come either directly to the TEL or, preferably, through the TOC. The TELs are the aforementioned FMX trucks with the complete firing unit as a single palletized unit. They lack their own radars, but can be fitted with an optional electro-optical sensors in a mast which allows for independent passive targeting at ranges of up to approximately 20 km. As such, the TELs are able to operate independently to a certain extent, relying on the datalink and/or own sensor to get targeting data. Crucially, MBDA has already demonstrated their ability to successfully integrate TOCs and TELs with Insta’s C2-network.

The characteristic twin masts of the TEL, with the larger one housing the datalink antenna and the smaller one being the optional E/O-sensor which allow for independent targeting if the radar and datalink are down. Source: Own picture

In practice, the TELs would drive to a given firing location, where the truck would park, lower the jacks, raise the missiles and masts, and the crew would push a few ‘On’-buttons and start connecting cables. The whole thing would be ready to fire within ten minutes, but a more realistic time for a fully integrated IADS-position is in the ten to twenty minutes range. A two-person crew could handle the whole system, but to ensure 24-hour continuous operations a squad of eight is the standard. The complete missile unit is palletized, and in case a position is expected to be static for a longer time the jacks can be heightened to allow the truck to drive away, after which it is lowered to lay flat on the ground a’la NASAMS. This allows for a smaller footprint and is more easily camouflaged compared to the full vehicle. In a static position (something the British Land Ceptors will employ on the Falklands) it is also possible to start pulling power and communications cables between a fortified TOC and the firing units, though in case of a more fluid scenario where one wants to stay mobile the missile unit has its own onboard power unit in the form of a diesel generator and can take care of the communications via the datalink mast mentioned earlier. This flexibility to allow the same system to be either in full shoot-and-scoot mode or as a fortified solution (as mentioned, you could in fact fortify the launcher as well thanks to it being cold-launched) is quite something.

Reloading take a handful of minutes and the whole missile set can be changed out via a flat-rack and cargo hook system. Alternatively, individual launch tubes can be switched out with a crane. The tubes are both the storage and launch containers, meaning the munitions are next to maintenance free. Once the fire command is given, the frangible top-cover is simply torn apart by the missile heading upwards. Any single TEL can quickly change between CAMM and CAMM-ER simply by switching out the flat racks, with the CAMM-ER being identified by its longer tube. Both missiles sport a new active radar-seeker with a low-RCS capability, meaning that they are able to operate in fire-and-forget mode once they’ve left the TEL.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that MBDA is onto something here. While they decline to discuss the specific FDF requirements and projects in much detail – the official line is that that is something best left to the customer – it is rather obvious that the CAMM-ER would give the FDF the wanted high-altitude capability for a ground-based system, while the baseline CAMM would seem to fit the area coverage-requirement rather well. The modularity, mobility, and ability to integrate into current networks are also obviously a big deal. And it is hard to not notice just how well the combination of systems seem to fit the FDF’s Goldilock’s approach of proven but yet cutting edge. With the UK and Italy both having acquired the Land Ceptor-system, it certainly is far from a paper product. This is also something that MBDA like to point out, the benefit of sharing a common system with such a strategic partner as the British Army. The UK might not be first in line when Finland is discussing strategic partners in the defence sector, but it is certainly coming just behind the front-runners thanks to initiatives such as JEF. An interesting aspect is also the possibility of MBAD cooperating with Finnish industry on the Land Ceptor as part of an indirect industrial cooperation package in case some of the eurocanards would win HX (ground- and air-based air defences are obviously all part of the same attempt at increasing FDF’s overall air defence capabilities). Already now, Finnish industry has reportedly been involved in the development of the Land Ceptor proposal. MBDA is also happy to declare that it truly would be a Finnish system, with full sovereign capability and freedom of use, as well as local maintenance. “We give you the keys, and you use it”, as it was explained during our discussions.

But the competition is though, and MBDA has had a surprisingly hard time landing a large Finnish order. Part of this likely comes down to price where the shorter production runs typical of European systems compared to US ones have been an issue. This time they are up against not only the Israelis which have beaten the more traditional suppliers to FDF twice in recent acquisitions, but also Kongsberg with a developed version of the NASAMS which would bring significant synergies to the table. However, might the NASAMS-ER be too much of a case of putting all the eggs in the same basket – especially if we see an AMRAAM-equipped fighter taking home HX? When I ask him about the though competition they face, Jim Price, MBDA Vice President Europe, is confident.

We’re always in though competitions. [But] we have a unique military capability.

You can indeed come a long way with that when dealing with the FDF, and it certainly sounds like a combined force of NASAMS and Land Ceptor batteries each playing to their respective strengths could provide a well-balanced mix to support the Air Force and the FDF as a whole in their quest for air superiority. According to the latest info, we will get to know if the FDF agrees sometime during 2022.

Oh, and you really didn’t think I could write the whole post without embedding The Hamster Stunt, did you?

Higher, Faster, Independent

I have said it before, and I still stand by it: for the everyday work short of war that the Finnish Air Force does, the Eurofighter Typhoon is probably the best fighter out there. The pure performance at speed and altitude makes the aircraft extremely well-suited to air policing, QRA, and in general keeping an eye on things that needs some eye-keeping.

Now, at the same time it needs to be understood that what’s setting the bar for HX is not peacetime operations today, but how efficient the aircraft and associated systems is as part of an all-out war between 2025 and 2060. And that’s a different ballgame. BAES thinks their offer is the best at that as well, though that’s certainly a more controversial view.

The RAF Typhoon display flown by Flt Lt James Sainty, callsign ‘Anarchy 1’. Flt Lt Sainty has not only been doing QRA with the Typhoon in the Falklands, he has also gone to war in the aircraft. Source: Own picture

At the hearth of the Typhoon as a concept is the raw performance coming from the decision to maximise the classic interceptor traits of ‘high and fast’. It deserves to be repeated that not only does this mean that the aircraft can sprint – it reportedly would do the Kuopio-Rissala AFB to Helsinki QRA run in 8 minutes – but also that you don’t need to push your engines in the same way to reach a given speed as you would do with poorer trust to weight ratios and aerodynamics. This in turn gives lower wear on the engines and all other things being equal also translates into less fuel consumption. The ability to use the low power settings together with the large wing and high lift makes it possible to maintain high altitude patrols with relative ease, increasing the time for missions focused on endurance rather than range. The high sprint speed also makes it possible to maximise the kinetic energy of missiles fired, increasing both their outright range as well as their no-escape zones (NEZ). With the air-to-air focus of the Finnish Air Force, it is rather clear that these are aspects of the system that the Air Force appreciates, as is the low-drag installation of a significant number of air-to-air missiles in semi-recessed fuselage mounts. As the UK Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, commented on at an earlier media event this year, the Typhoon is his “platform of choice for QRA” (at the same event, the F-35 was described by the Brits to be very good for the purpose which they acquired it: deep strike and shipboard operations, which struck a nice balance between giving the HX competition a burn while not looking like you’ve bought something less than useful just to stay friends with the big guy).

A scale model of a Finnish Typhoon with the ECRS Mk 2 shown through the transparent panel. Source: Own picture

But war isn’t decided in a drag race, and there are lots of magic happening under the hood. The key subsystem in BAES presentations at Kaviari 21 is the ECRS Mk 2. The exact name for the big thing up front, and it really is on the larger side compared to the competition, is somewhat up to debate if you listen to BAES’s people.

Array, I have deliberately not called it a radar.

The reason is that it transcendens the roles of a traditional radar and several other subsystems. In any case, BAES does describe it as the “most advanced fighter sensor” available, and by happy coincidence is in the final stages of development being flying within a few years and operational well before the end of the decade. This means that BAES and the UK is able to offer both a securely funded and relatively mature product, the system has been in development for quite some time before the final funding decision recently came, as well as the opportunity to allow Finnish industry to take part in the final stages of development of the rad… excuse me, array. Electronic warfare is a notoriously tricky field to analyse based on open sources, but most seem to agree that the ECRS Mk 2 will be among the very top offerings in the world by 2030, potentially even being the top dog.

The DASS might not enjoy the same kind of mythical reputation as the offerings from Dassault and Saab, but it does seem to be more or less up to standard and comes with some nice features such as towed decoys and BriteCloud 55. The weapons found in the package include a nice mix of some of the world’s best-in-class ones, though as is the case with all non-US offerings the question is what is the cost and how quickly can you pick up a refill if war suddenly starts looking like it’s on the horizon. The recently announced 160 MEur P3Ec investment in the Eurofighter-program include not only upgrades to the weapons capabilities and the large-area display which is included in the standard offered to the Finnish Air Force, but also upgrades to the DASS. Associated with the LAD is the Striker II-helmet, which is “the world’s only helmet-mounted display to combine a 40⁰ field of view, daylight readable color display and integrated night vision“, so now you know that.

Seriously though, it really is supposed to be very good.

The standard Finland would be getting is aligned with the one operated by the UK, as is to be expected not only because BAES is taking lead on the project, but also because the UK Typhoons are fully swing-role in a way e.g. the German ones aren’t. This include the varied weapons arsenal – including all categories covered by Finnish requirements – but also the less-visible but key subsystems discussed above, such as the ECRS Mk 2, LAD, Striker II, and BriteCloud. And not to forget, the stuff happening around the aircraft, which in fact might end up tipping the balance in case this turn into Eurofighter’s most prestigious export deal yet.

The whole part about full sovereignty and ownership of both the aircraft, its support systems, and the data it generates is nothing new, but has been a key part of BAES sales pitch. And for good reasons. Being able to promise “full freedom of action”, not only for the FDF in usage of the aircraft and its capabilities, but also to Finnish industry working with and on it, is a rare treat. A good example is the engine maintenance infrastructure, where Finnish industry would be the lead, with EuroJet functioning as a sub-supplier to these. The mission data turn-around times are also a point BAES likes to get back to, with updates being done in country by Finnish personnel with day to day or even mission to mission optimisation ability. Or as a BAES spokesperson expressed it:

This is manoeuvrability, but in a very different sense

This isn’t any hypothetical future capability either, but a process that is in use already in combat operations over the Middle East where the aircraft gather electronic intelligence, which are then analysed and the threat files of the aircraft are being updated accordingly before the next mission.

1(F) Squadron Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 aircraft prepare to fly out of a snow covered Keflavik AB, Iceland, on 6 December 2019. The RAF detachment in question brought four Typhoons to Iceland as part of the periodic NATO air policing mission, the less-famous cousin of the BAP. Picture courtesy of BAES, credits Cpl Cathy Sharples (RAuxAF)

For Finnish industry to support the FDF in this, the industrial participation package is heavily focused on technology transfer in key areas not only physically related to the aircraft – the production line for the EJ 200 engine being the obvious example of this – but also those related more abstractly to secure and efficient operations, such as cyber security, space technology, and sensors. BAES extremely wide portfolio and the close cooperation with other partners in the Eurofighter program allows for the inclusion of tools in such a variety of fields.

At this point, chances are someone, possibly a F-35 fan, will laugh and point finger while claiming that BAES is putting in lots of other stuff in their offer besides the fighter itself to try and win the deal through that.

Yes, you are absolutely correct. And if you paid attention, you would know that is the whole point of this procurement.

Those who have been following the program will remember that from the outset the authorities and Puranen in particular have raised the point that this isn’t a fighter competition, but they are searching for who can supply the best capability to meet the Finnish Defence Forces’ needs in this field? This is why we see GlobalEye’s, Loyal Wingmen, Growlers, and licensed production lines on offer. That’s also why HX Challenge wasn’t the deciding factor, but an all-out wargame simulating total war where the performance of the FDF with those capabilities included in the BAFO will be the deciding factor. If FDF does a better job with your package than with that of a competitor because you were able to offer a decent fighter and ensure safe sharing of the common situational picture throughout the FDF, or if your fighter did somewhat worse in the initial fighting but was able to keep up the tempo longer than the competition because you were able to bring along more bombs, congrats, the contract is yours.

That is how it’s been communicated, and that’s how it should be, because wars are never decided in a series of 1 v 1 or even 4 v 4 engagements, but over days and weeks of combat between the combined armed forces.

End of rant, back to the regular program.

BAES also likes to push the point that the system is mature overall and with known operating costs. The concept of operations in the RAF is an interesting case when it comes to this. As has been discussed on the blog earlier, what drives the affordability in the UK is a close cooperation between local industry and the air force, in this case BAES and the RAF, a system that isn’t too far off from how Millog and FDF cooperate. As it was described in an earlier presser:

[The Typhoon] is designed not to be stealthy, but to be there

The combination of a life-cycle cost that is well understood and affordable with a mature platform with high reliability is what ensures that aircraft actually get to fly, and that is certainly what the Finnish Air Force wants. However, the aircraft is bigger than some of the competitors, and the procurement price is acknowledged to be higher than some of the other platforms on offer.

And that makes it suspicious when BAES insists on talking about replacing capability and not aircraft. As I’ve argued earlier, yes, you can probably get away with 62 fighters getting at least as much airtime as the 64 Hornets would considering higher availability for modern aircraft, and being familiar with large-company-bureaucracy I can see some marketing SVP deciding that it looks bad to say that 62 aircraft are on offer when the rest talk about 64 (except Dassault, but, oh, well). However, I can also see the offer being 50, and that would mean that BAES is out of the running on the procurement budget alone.

Which would be a shame, because as I’ve described here there is quite a lot of good stuff in their offer, and a 64-strong Typhoon fleet taking on the competition in the wargame would certainly be a worthy contender.

Boeing Refusing to Let New Fighters Steal(th) the Show

The difference between success and failure for Boeing in HX is razor thin.

Granted, as there are no prizes for second spot, you can make that argument for all fighters involved, but Boeing still has something of a uniquely deceptive situation. While a favourite of many analysts – and it has to be said, on good grounds – the reliance on US Navy interest in the platform means that the step from favourite to bottom rung is a short one.

The F/A-18E Super Hornet visiting Tampere-Pirkkala AFB and Satakunta Air Wing for the first (?) time back during HX Challenge. Source: Own picture

Boeing representatives readily admit that the very public battle fought between senior US Navy leadership and politicians over the future of the Super Hornet isn’t helping their marketing. At the same time, they don’t admit to being overly worried in the grand scheme of things. The US Navy fighter shortfall is very real, and even if the service would want to phase out the Super Hornet they will struggle to do so any time soon based on the sheer number of Super Hornets in service and the lack of a viable alternative. While Rear Adm. Gregory Harris, director of the Air Warfare Directorate of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, might say the service “must replace the Super Hornets and the Growlers by the 2030s“, it’s a statement that fits poorly with him saying in the same interview (from April this year) that he “expects the Navy to have “a better idea” within the next two or three years as to whether it will buy a manned or unmanned fighter to follow the Super Hornets”. To put it bluntly: the F-35A declared FOC in 2017, with the concept being more or less clear when the X-32 and X-35 designs were selected as concept demonstrators in 1997. If that point in time is 2023-2024 in the case of NGAD, it would mean FOC in 2043-2044, putting the F/A-XX quite some way off from having replaced the Super Hornet before the end of the 2030’s. Even with a faster development timeline – say reaching FOC by 2035 – building a few hundred new fighters and rolling them out will likely take at least five years even on a rushed schedule. And even then, the more specialised Growler is likely to stay on call for longer. The EA-6B Prowler survived 18 years longer in US Navy service compared to the baseline A-6 Intruder, and a few years even further in the USMC. Even provided for a faster turnaround thanks to developments in electronics and unmanned systems (which frankly hasn’t happened just yet, but conceivably could be the case), the Growler staying in service for five to ten years after the retirement of the Super Hornet doesn’t feel like a stretch.

It’s probably something along these lines of reasoning that leads US politicians to question whether the Navy really can afford to run down the Super Hornet production line and just focus on the Service Life Modifications-program (though it has to be said that in some cases securing jobs in homestates does seem to be the first priority). If the Super Hornet stays in service until 2045, and the Growler until 2050, the final round of US Navy-funded Growler upgrades could then be used to feed into an export-directed Super Hornet “Block X” standard in much the same way that Block 3 rests on many technologies originally developed for the Growler.

It isn’t an implausible scenario, but it is far from certain. And if the Finnish Air Force isn’t prepared to gamble on it, the Boeing supplied BAFO can easily be headed for the metaphorical shredder.

But that’s not something that you will see Boeing worrying over, at least not officially.

They express confidence in all aspects of their bid. It’s suitable to Finnish needs, it provides efficiency, there’s a strong weapons package, it’s affordable and mature, and the industrial participation package is solid and based on their long experience of working with Finnish industry in supporting the current Hornet-fleet to ensure security of supply. Boeing also states that it provide the tools to operate independently in a high-treat environment by constituting “a complete self-sustaining package”. Keen readers will note that “self-sustaining” isn’t the same as “sovereign” promised by Dassault and BAES, but still.

A key point worth keeping in mind is that Boeing is taking the Finnish authorities on their word when they have been repeating that they aren’t buying a fighter but a package of capabilities. The Growler is the obvious example, but Boeing also took the opportunity at Kaivari 21 to release further details on how they see Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUMT) in the future.

Let’s first make something absolutely clear: the ATS is in the BAFO, but it is an option. It’s a potential future capability with a price tag given for the systems and associated infrastructure.

As such it won’t be evaluated in the deciding wargames (at least not in the first point, it is more unclear to me how the second evaluation point played with 2030-standards would treat future growth capabilities). However, it offers some interesting capabilities, especially as the concept is that anything mission-related is put into the nosecone which is easily snapped on or off to install another one. There’s obvious benefits here as the same airframe can fly different missions, but there’s an interesting secondary benefit to a small high-tech country such as Finland as well. It is possible to with a relatively small input develop, either alone or together with other operators, new payloads tailored to Finnish needs. This is based on the fact that one doesn’t need to develop the aircraft itself (as is the case with building a new UAS) nor having to run the traditional integration verification testing done on external stores. The nosecone payloads can then either be offered on the export market (provided exports kick off) or then kept under wraps as a covert Finnish capability.

The ATS during testing in Australia. Note the size of the nose compared to the rest of the aircraft. Source: Boeing media

The payloads that first come to mind are quite naturally ISR once as well as electronic warfare. Different sensors, such as electro-optical ones, SAR, and ESM, are likely among the low-hanging fruit that relatively easily could create a significantly improved intelligence gathering capability to the benefit of both the FDF as a whole but also of the political leadership in times of both peace and war. Crucially, this would fit in well with the EA-18G Growler enhancing the same in the electromagnetic spectrum, and would do so while relying on mass and attritable platforms instead of a few (individually more capable) high-value assets. The relatively easily modified sensor payload also means that the adversary can be kept in the dark regarding what capabilities the Finnish Air Force operates.

In the electronic warfare domain, being able to push large jammers or sensors close to the enemy is an extremely valuable opportunity as well. And as has been discussed on the blog numerous times, size does matter when you discuss arrays and antennas. In essence, having a MALD with a 150 litre payload and the ability to get back in case things goes well is a significant step above just firing jammers in front of you.

Another nice feature is that the ATS can be forward deployed with a relatively limited footprint. As such, keeping the ATS spread out on smaller bases in case of heightened crisis to allow for more rapid reaction can be a viable tactic e.g. in the face of increased QRA alerts, where the ATS can be launched from a civilian field (or even a road base in times of war) and by the time the scrambled Super Hornets are about to link up with the aircraft to be intercepted the ATS can already be on location and have provided an updated situational picture. And as we all know, a better situational picture allows for off-loading flight hours from the fighter fleet. In wartime, pushing the sensors out in front of the fighter can also allow for a better situational picture without breaking stand-off distance, or e.g. for long-range AIM-260 JATM shots where the Super Hornet remains passive at distance and let the ATS which is closer to the target provide fire control and guidance via its own radar and datalink. For the Finnish Navy, which faces something of a sensor gap following the ever growing range of modern weapon systems, having a larger number of flying sensors, some of which could be flown from bases along the southern coast, certainly is an interesting proposition.

But with a fixed budget occupied by the non-option stuff in the BAFO, from where would the ATS be funded?

The obvious place is munitions and upgrades. The Super Hornet BAFO include a sizeable munitions package, but some of the stuff included is things that could be carried over from current stocks. This include bombs, but also e.g. the option to skip or limit the buys of the AIM-120C-8 now included and do a jump from the AIM-120C-7 currently in service to the AIM-260 JATM. It’s a calculated risk to go heavy on the sensors and save on the missiles during the first few years, but it wouldn’t be the first one taken by FDF. Another aspect is that the regular operational budget does include money for upgrades and yet more senors and weapons, at some point these could potentially be routed to sensors who do their own flying. The basic software and hardware as well as interfaces to allow for MUMT will be included as a part of the Super Hornet/Growler baseline by 2030 in any case.

“The timing lines up very well,” Boeing notes with regard to the ATS, and they mention German interest in MUMT for their Super Hornet/Growler-package (while pointing out that Finland is the first country offered ATS as part of a fighter competition). There’s also apparently “higher trust” in Finnish calculations compared to Swiss ones when it comes to the affordability of operating the aircraft, as well as the confidence that stems from the continuation of the trend in which the electromagnetic spectrum is continuously growing in importance (the latest data point being the studies to see whether the F-15EX or some other USAF fighter could employ the NGJ-family of jamming pods), especially in the light of continued Russian investment in the field.

An Italian F-35A from Baltic Air Policing turning over the Helsinki waterfront during the Kaivari 21 air show, an air show which saw all HX contenders flying, with the exception of the Super Hornet. Source: Own picture

At the same time, the US Navy publicly says they want to move one, and over the waters next to Kaivopuisto the F-35A is busy trying to steal(th) the show. The difference between success and failure for Boeing is HX is razor thin.

The Art of Dissuasion

When the French ambassador to Finland, Mrs. Cukierman, starts to talk about nuclear weapons in what ostensibly is a sales pitch for the Dassault Rafale as Finland’s next fighter, and is followed up by a company representative also getting into the fact that Rafale is nuclear-capable, you would be forgiven to think that someone from a competing eurocanard-maker has sabotaged their talking points. Finland and France both being longtime members of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). However, we are in fact again seeing something I have brought up numerous times on the blog: Rafale is something of an outlier when it comes to the HX-competition, both when it comes to the bid itself but also when it comes to marketing.

And once you accept that and get over the first shock of (figuratively) encountering the Air-Sol Moyenne Portée-Amélioré in Kaivopuisto – there turn out to be some good arguments in the French message this time as well.

The Rafale solo during the Kaivari 21 air show showing the stunning new special livery celebrating the space domain as well as the more traditional ones. Source: Own picture

Books have been written on France and its nuclear weapons, but in short France has a countervalue strategy, i.e. they will hurt you so much that it isn’t worth it. This did include the French curiosity of a ‘pre-strategic’ strike with an air-launched weapon taking place when vital French interest were threatened as a final warning to the enemy to stand down or face the full wrath of the French nuclear arsenal, but it is a subject of some debate whether this is still the plan. Still, even today the French place a high value on the airborne component of their nuclear weapons and have refused any political attempts at going SSBN-only like their British counterparts (also note that what is clear is that while the French see a use for low-yield weapons, these are not tactical weapons in French doctrine but simply smaller strategic ones). The point is, France places an extremely high importance on its independent nuclear deterrent, the Force de dissuasion, and for it to work as a deterrent everyone – friend and foe alike – needs to be absolutely sure that if the President gives the order, the result really will be fire and brimstone on the intended target. And the Rafale is chosen to be the bringer of that destruction.

In other words, it is a French vital strategic interest that the Rafale is reliable enough that it is mission ready 24-7-365. Cancelling a QRA scramble because of maintenance issues is embarrassing, cancelling a nuclear strike can mean the destruction of your country. Paris trust the Rafale to be ready if the call ever was to come, and practices the complete mission several times a year under the codename “Poker”. That is something else compared to promises of certain levels of availability by 2025.

The second point is equally important, and that is that the French trust the fighter to get through to its target regardless of when and where it sits. Granted the ASMP-A gives a certain matter of stand-off range (likely in the range of 300-500 km), but as you don’t get to chose your countervalue targets (rather, they can be expected to be found deep behind enemy lines and be rather well-defended) it doesn’t matter whether there is a so called ‘A2/AD-bubble’ in your way – you need to be able to punch through it. And here as well, Paris is confident that the Rafale can fight its way through anything thrown in its way. The SCAF and ASN4G may be on the horizon, but the Rafale will most likely still spend decades with the nuclear strike mission (note that the earlier Mirage 2000N was completely retired only back in 2018). All SCAF systems are to be in place around 2040, though that is both an ambitious timeline and likely more of an IOC than a FOC.

Now, the Finnish Defence Forces are decidedly conventional, but they still need to be sure of the same two things as their French counterpart: that their fighters are available and serviceable when called upon, and that they will be able to survive in hostile conditions both today and tomorrow, out to 2060. And there are few better guarantees that something will remain up-to-date than a major power seeing it as a vital national interest.

French fighters and an accompanying A330 MRTT which flew the non-stop 12 hour mission deploying to Tahiti earlier this year. Source: C. Vernat/AAE Facebook

As has been discussed on the blog earlier, the Rafale itself is a rather good for Finland. While the homeland oriented nature of the FDF means it isn’t going to fly to Tahiti any time soon, the ability to load up with extra fuel for extended endurance during air policing missions is nice. Using extreme low-level operations and advanced electronic warfare to operate within range of Russian sensors and weapons is also a nice feature which slots well into the kind of Goldilocks-transformation the FDF likes: building upon current Finnish CONOPS with evolutionary rather than revolutionary upgrades. The French national security policy is also rather well aligned with the Finnish one in the main point that security needs to rest on sovereign capability, which then is backed up through multiple levels of partnerships and capabilities allowing common operations. The fact that this is the only ITAR-free offer is also worth noting, as even US companies struggle with the US export control bureaucracy enough that they see it as a selling point (see Boeing’s ATS). In the same way as BAES, the message of full freedom to operate the aircraft and all supporting systems is a key part of the offer, and even if Finland currently has a US-based model that apparently works well, it is hard to overstate the peace of mind the promised “immediate full autonomy” would bring in the post-Trump era.

But what exactly is in the BAFO? Dassault, never one to be overly talkative, takes the line of not commenting on numbers. This is less of worry in my personal view than BAES not doing the same, precisely because Dassault (as opposed to BAES) has overall taken a rather more closed policy when it comes to communications. Still, it would be nice to hear a ‘6x’ number as confirmation.

Instead, the official line is that the offer cover:

Replacing the capability in full now offered by 64 Hornets and adding new capabilities.

For weaponry, you won’t see a statement, but it is made clear that the graphics shown to the assembled media is no accident but tailored to accompany the HX media events. As such, quite a bit can be concluded.

Part of slide shown to Finnish media and showing expected operational loads based on the weapons offered in the BAFO. Picture source: Dassault Aviation

The first thing that pop out is that the French expect their love of external drop tanks to carry on to Finland in case of a win. While the Finnish Hornets regularly are seen with drop tank configurations typical of USN usage, I still believe the full three-can configuration to be somewhat overkill for Finnish everyday flights. In any case, that’s hardly the interesting detail here.

Top-centre is the full air-to-air load. Notable is that Dassault has unlocked two additional slots for the Meteor compared to the current AAE-configuration, bringing a total of four very-long range Meteors, two medium-range MICA IR with imaging infrared seekers, and two medium-range MICA EM with active radar seekers. The load is smaller than those sported by some of the competition (such as Eurofighter with six Meteor and two ASRAAM or Gripen with seven Meteor and two IRIS-T), but is still on the high end of what can be expected from an operational wartime load and will burn through missiles stocks at an impressive rate once you start flying at a high tempo. The additional Meteor-stations have long been identified and preliminary testing has been done, but up until now France has decided against investing in the final certification work.

An interesting option is the top-left one, which is an anti-ship loadout sporting a single AM39 Exocet radar-seeking antiship missile as well as the two Meteor and two plus two MICA for self-defence. From the original more careful wordings given during the early stages of HX it now seems evident that the Finnish Air Force is seriously considering kinetic anti-ship weaponry for the HX-platform. The current Exocet is a long way from the original weapon that wreaked havoc in the Falklands and in the Gulf during the 80’s, but the basic design is still the one the FDF prefers when it comes to killing ships: big, slow, with an active radar seeker and a serious warhead. The antiship weapon on offer is unlikely to be a deciding factor, but the Finnish Navy will most likely be nodding approvingly if they end up receiving air-launched Exocet support.

250 kg AASM being installed on a Rafale during operations in the Middle East. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – A. Paringaux

Bottom-left and -centre are more traditional air-to-ground modes with the French AASM ‘Hammer’ series of guided missiles (the baseline bomb is fitted with a rocket propulsion unit as well as guidance kit). The particular versions of this modular weapon family shown in the presentation is obviously somewhat difficult to deduce, but safe to say is that the left one shows three 1,000 kg weapons (to be introduced on the F4-standard) while the middle one shows the operationally used with six 250 kg weapons. Both loads also feature two MICA IR and two Meteor for self-defence.

The heavy-strike weaponry is shown in the lower-right corner, and unsurprisingly shows two SCALP (Storm Shadow) heavy cruise missiles as well as MICA IR and Meteor missiles. Nothing strange here, and this loadout as well is in operational use by the French Air Force.

The upper right is the most interesting one, as it shows an uniquely Finnish alternative which I believe hasn’t been discussed in any other deal. We have nothing less but four JSM missiles (as well as two MICA plus two Meteor). With the Exocet providing the heavy antiship missile and based on the material provided by Dassault back last year in Kauhava, it seems evident that this is the SEAD/DEAD weapon of choice for targets that are just a bit too dangerous for one to want to bring the AASM to the fight (although it would be a mean ship-killing one as well). How this fit the requirement of a standard aligned with the main user is unclear, and the hole in Rafale’s armament between the AASM and the SCALP is as far as I am aware of the only instance in HX where a contender has had to integrate a new capability to cover Finnish requirements (the Swedish political decision to buy whatever Finland does in case of a Gripen win obviously being something of an outlier). While there’s pros and cons of a signal-seeker compared to a more traditional weapon in the SEAD-role, the JSM isn’t necessarily a worse weapon in the role compared to something like the AARGM-ER, as while targeting becomes more complicated it will instead offer increased flexibility to affect other kinds of targets such as large TELs and C2/C3-nodes.

Parts of Libyan Palamaria SPGs that belonged to a group of six that were destroyed by Rafales on 19 March 2011. The Rafale started flying swing-role missions with the introduction of the F2 standard already back in 2006. Source: Bernd.Brincken via Wikimedia Commons

There has been some claims that the datalink used by the Rafale for the Meteor is suboptimal for the purpose as it is originally designed for use with the MICA. While Dassault isn’t commenting on that specifically, they did note that the Rafale has an advanced datalink for use both between aircraft as well as between weapons. This allows for, among other things, passive collaborative identification where fighters share data from passive sensors, and fuse the sensor data to provide identification and firing solutions. Another possibility is to hand over Meteor mid-course guidance to another Rafale, allowing e.g. a Rafale to close passively and fire the weapon, after which it turns away and a second Rafale with the radar active at stand-off range takes over the guidance of the missile. As major-general (ret.) Joel Rode was happy to point out, the important part isn’t so much to just carry the Meteor, but how you are able to integrate it into the aircraft’s subsystems and how you employ it. And here, Dassault is very happy with the work done. The upcoming MICA NG which will be online by the time the HX reaches full operational capability is also set to give a serious improvement to the short- and medium-range punch of the aircraft, with new seekers for both versions and a new double-pulse rocket motor which will not only give longer range but significantly improve manoeuvring towards the end of the engagement.

Backing up the passive capabilities, the SPECTRA and its associated systems have generally received high marks, and according to Dassault the system was described by Finnish officers taking part in an exercise of the MACE-series of NATO research and testing exercises for aircraft self protection systems and tactics in Slovakia as “The Reference” in terms of detection and jamming capability.

Speaking of the highly complex world of electronic warfare, Dassault is the only contender to offer a combination of single- and twin-seat fighters for general operational use. Perhaps the best description of the value of operational twin-seaters in HX was ironically enough provided by Saab back before the “alignment with the main user”-requirement stopped the inclusion of the 39F in their BAFO:

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

Saab might have been unable to proceed, but as France uses a mixed Rafale B/C-fleet for operational missions, they are happy to run with it. As mentioned, the exact numbers aren’t provided, but Benjamin Gardette, HX campaign director, note that the Finnish Air Force mix of 57 single-seaters and 7 twin-seaters is good if you only want the latter as a conversion/training platform, but that if you want operational usage you probably want to increase the number of twin-seaters. To give a hint of the numbers that could be involved, my understanding is that currently two out of the five operational Rafale squadrons (not counting test and evaluation or OCU units, nor forward deployed ones) fly the twin-seater on complex strike missions, both conventional and nuclear. For a hypothetical 64 aircraft fleet, that would mean 26 twin-seaters. Saab was planning on offering 12 twin-seaters (18 % of the total fighter number), which is a number closer to what I would expect for Finland based on the current lack of WSO/EW-specialists in the fighter force as well as no need for the nuclear mission. Still, that is pure speculation on my part, and it would be interesting to see where the eventual number lands. It is also highly possible that the BAFO include options of adjusting the ratio either up or down from the figure suggested by Dassault.

For the industrial participation side of things, Dassault believe that “up to” 5,000 jobs could be the outcome once calculating both the direct and indirect ones. The number is high, but roughly in line with the figures released by Saab and BAES. This isn’t really surprising, considering that all five industrial participation packages aim to cover roughly similar sums. A more interesting detail of potentially higher importance is that Dassault mention that they offer “Intellectual Property Rights free of use”. IPR-regulations is a highly specialised legal field, so I will avoid straying too far into it as I am bound to get something wrong. However, on a high level one can safely conclude that the free use of IPRs is a big deal, and likely one that is easier for the European contenders to offer compared to the US ones.

Designed to master the best known adversaries, and upcoming threats

There’s no denying that the choice of Rafale would constitute a major shift in bilateral cooperative patterns for FDF in general and the Finnish Air Force in particular, and that it would be a surprising outcome of HX. There’s also nagging questions about the cost and availability of quick refills of weapon stocks of the rather unique weapons offered with the aircraft, and France’s willingness to sell high-tech systems and platforms to anyone with money (including Russia) raises political concerns. Still, there’s much to be said for why the Rafale makes sense for Finland, including not only the performance of the platform itself but also how it slots into the Finnish concept of operations and the sovereignty it offers. The unique selling point of a combat-capable twin-seat fighter can also turn out to be quite the ace in their sleeve if it plays out well in the FDF wargames. The announcement of HX could well turn into a watershed moment in Finnish national security, but further increasing the attention the French armed forces give to developments around the Baltic Sea would hardly be a bad outcome in and of itself. Even as a conventional platform, there’s definitely a certain amount of dissuasion the canard born next to the Côte d’Argent would bring along to Finnish skies.

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!