The Swedish Armed Forces today did a decent attempt at upstaging Boeing’s PR-coup last week by casually dropping some major news seemingly as an afterthought, when they today announced a joint assault rifle procurement between Finland and Sweden which will kick off in September:
In September another procurement relevant to many within the Armed Forces. Then it will be determined which firearm will replace the AK5 [FN FNC]. The new firearm will be bought together with Finland – which means that in the future the two countries will use the same assault rifle.
The obvious issue: Finland is not currently in the process of acquiring a new assault rifle, following the rather recent upgrade of the current RK 62 to the RK 62M-standard.
But let’s start from the beginning: two years ago the Swedish Armed Forces outlined a plan to introduce a new “firearms system”, intended to replace the personal weapons of their soldiers. This included both assault rifles currently in service (the older H&K G3 as well as the newer FN FNC, AK4 and AK5 respectively in their Swedish designations), as well as the current AI Arctic Warfare/L96A1 sniper rifle (Psg 90) and the FN Minimi (Ksp 90). The plan is also to acquire a designated marksman rifle, a role which currently is filled with scoped assault rifles. The budget for the project would run from 2021 to 2030, with the major procurements being made starting 2025.
A year ago, the Finnish Defence Forces officially announced that they are acquiring a new weapon designated K22 from Sako. The key thing to notice here is that the weapon is a semi-auto in 7.62 NATO, made by a company famous for only doing bolt-action rifles for the last quarter of a century. The weapon would be delivered in two different configurations, as a sniper rifle and as a designated marksman rifle, differing in the equipment it comes with. The weapon would be a clean-sheet design, but based on “popular solutions”.
Yes, it’s an AR-10.
Now, you don’t have to be a business major to imagine that for Sako to bother looking into autoloaders they might have some plans for manufacturing more weapons than what the FDF might require for their snipers and marksmen. I would be highly surprised if their sights aren’t set on the 200,000+ weapons that will be replaced once the FDF starts retiring the RK 62M sometime in the 2030’s. The K22 might provide a nice development path into the world of ARs, from which to scale down into lighter calibre.
Crucially, the Swedish Defence Material Agency (FMV) has been closely following the Finnish developments, and this eventually led to the signing of an Memorandum of Understanding between the countries last month with regards to exchanging information on firearms and their technology, with the development of the K22 being mentioned in the press release by the Finnish representatives.
The Finnish inspector for the infantry, colonel Rainer Peltoniemi, noted that:
We’ve found that Finland and Sweden have very similar capability requirements, development schedules, and goals, meaning that cooperating is very natural and appropriate.
What has then gone “wrong”, if one country thinks they will be buying a common assault rifle in September? There are two possibilities:
One is that the terminology has been lost in translation. The current designated marksman-ish weapons of the Swedish Armed Forces are coded AK for “automatic carbine” in the Swedish designation system, a designation used regardless of weapon length. It is entirely possible that Sweden intends to buy the K22 in September, and designate it locally as AK-something (Ak6 is one possibility, though e.g. the H&K 416 and 417 which have been acquired for SOF usage are designated AK416 and AK417, so AK22 might be another guess). This would then have been the news that the Swedes happily announced to the world today.
The other is that there is a silent agreement to launch a joint project for a larger number of weapon systems, possibly including the whole Swedish “Nytt Ehv-system”-program as well as Finnish replacement of RK 62M and potentially some other weapons as well. This was now unfortunately slipped into the press release by someone who didn’t know it was supposed to be under wraps.
Hopefully it was a case of the former, but I guess we’ll know by September.
The text has been updated, and it is now made clear that it is indeed the complete New Firearm-project that will kick off in September, and that as a part of this project is to look into whether part of the program can be handled together with Finland. In short, no decision on common weapons just yet, but a Swedish K22 order in late 2021 or early 2022 wouldn’t exactly be surprising in my opinion.
The Best and Final Offers (BAFO) for the HX tender are in, and from here onwards there’s no adjustments to the offers. Whatever the bidder has promised is what they are legally bound to deliver. Now we as well as the OEMs will just have to wait until the end of the year to hear who have been chosen. This also means that the embargo on disclosing details has been lifted, and the suppliers are free to share further information if they want to. Interestingly, some has chosen not to, though that may be telling in itself. Dassault sticks to their line and hasn’t even said whether they have responded to the BAFO-request, though the Finnish authorities have confirmed that they have received all five responses. Lockheed Martin published a short press release, as did Boeing, who followed up with casually dropping the number of fighters offered when asked about it. BAES and Saab in turn held full-blown media events. So what do we know?
The race is on
The big news is that LOGCOM was able to secure five offers, and apparently five serious ones. I struggle to remember when it would have happened that a country has managed to keep a fighter acquisition program fair and open enough that no-one has decided to drop out prematurely or not supply an offer at all (at least Norway, Denmark, Croatia, Slovakia, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Bulgaria, and India have held fighter tenders within the last few years, all of which have either led to some dropping out mid-way, not responding to quotations, the whole program being cancelled, the invitation to tender being rather narrow, or bids being disqualified). It’s hard to overestimate how significant this achievement is, and how important of a quality certificate it is to the process as a whole. In contrast to what some armchair analysts have argued, that some of the largest defence companies in the world – with business intelligence units to match and arguably somewhat cynical worldviews – believe that they have enough of a fair chance to win the competition that they are prepared to invest heavily into making their bids is a solid indication that the tendering process has been, and still is, open and undecided. This also feels reassuring to me as a taxpayer in ensuring that it really will be the best system offered to Finland that will end up in Finnish colours.
A big congrats to LOGCOM, the Finnish Air Force, and the MoD for this achievement!
The number game is interesting. At their press conference, BAES pointed out that they wouldn’t disclose the numbers as all bids weren’t confirmed to have been returned, as that apparently was the wish of the MoD. This sounded logical enough, until the bids were confirmed by the MoD to all have been returned, and BAES still declined to release any numbers. The full quote by a Eurofighter spokesperson was:
We are confident our offer will deliver sufficient Eurofighter aircraft to meet the challenge set by Finland to fully replace its existing capability. This is a competitive process and we will release further details of our offer as appropriate.
This was echoed by Dassault, who told Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat that the MoD had not given permission to release numbers. At the same time, Boeing was happily telling anyone asking that their offer consisted of 50 F/A-18E Super Hornets and 14 EA-18G Growler, i.e. matching the original 57 F/A-18C Hornet and 7 F/A-18D Hornet Finland bought in the 90’s. A bit later Lockheed Martin confirmed that they had sent in an offer that included:
F-35A fighters as well as a maintenance solution
Saab in turn held a press conference on Friday, which included the news that they were to supply 64 JAS 39E Gripen as well as 2 GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft in case they got chosen.
Those who have been watching the process closely will note that it is the two producers who have been expected to sport the cheapest fighters that have disclosed their numbers, and both match the current 64 fighter figure (or rather, the original 64 fighter, as Finland has lost two Hornets in accidents). Saab was also happy to rub it in, noting that while there was no requirement for a set number of aircraft, there was indeed:
Floating around a general expectation in Finland [of 64 fighters]
I’m not sure there’s quite an expectation for 64 fighters, as a matter of fact I personally expected both Boeing and Saab to land in the 60-64 range, but there’s certainly an expectation for almost 64. This stems from years of writings, interviews, and podcasts in which both the HX programme leadership as well as the senior Air Force personnel commenting on the issue has noted that we need roughly the same number of fighters as A) Finland is still the same size as it was in 1995, B) the speed of the fighters are roughly the same as it was back then, and C) the range of the weapons is roughly the same as it was back then. Yes, on a tactical level supercruise and Meteor provide significant increases, but when it comes to the operational or strategic level those are rather minor changes. There’s still 390,905 km² that needs to be defended.
As the Finnish Air Force demonstrated last year when it surged 32 Hornets for a total of eight four-ship formations (out of a fleet of 62), getting coverage really needs numbers. Even in the best of scenarios, the classic three-to-one ratio is a handy rule-of-thumb for prolonged operations. Let’s imagine a snapshot of a wartime scenario:
We are a few days into the war, the operational tempo is still very high as the first wave of the enemy offensive is still ongoing,
The Finnish Air Force has lost a total of 16 aircraft, including those shot down and damaged in combat, as well as those damaged and destroyed on the ground in opening strikes,
The Air Force currently has one formation airborne as part of an air defence tasking in the south-east,
A second formation is on the ground in dispersed locations in the northern parts of the country, ready to take-off and either relieve the southern formation once it needs to return to base, or to intercept enemies heading north,
Four aircraft are currently returning from a bombing raid on enemy advancing mechanised formations and the bridges they rely on for their movements,
Two aircraft are over the northern Baltic Sea, trying to create an accurate maritime situational picture (i.e. locating enemy vessels) as well as checking for a high-value ISR-platform that is known to occasionally operate out of Kaliningrad,
Two aircraft are being prepared with heavy cruise missiles for a deep strike mission against enemy rail infrastructure,
For each active aircraft there are two others that are either the process of refuelling, being maintained, transferring between dispersed bases, or simply standing on the ground allowing the pilots some rest between missions.
You can obviously argue the details, but that is a scenario that is possible with 64 aircraft (16 active in the missions mentioned, 32 in reserve, 16 lost). If you start out with 40 aircraft, you will quickly run into some “interesting” numbers:
If you’ve lost 16 aircraft, that’s 40% of your force instead of 25% as in the 64 aircraft-scenario. To match 25% losses, you can only afford to lose 10 fighters,
Even if you only lose 25% of the fleet, that still leaves you with just 30 aircraft, of which 10 are available. If you still want one four-ship in the air and one on the ground ready to scramble to perform air defence tasks, that leaves a grand total of *two* aircraft for other missions. Not two formations, but two aircraft.
That’s the tyranny of the numbers, and while they certainly can be mitigated (minimise own losses, have spare pilots on the dispersed bases to avoid rest periods, increase spares availability and maintenance capability on dispersed locations, …) there’s really no way around them. And notable is that during exercise Ruska 20, the opening scenario based on a released map featured no less than thirteen four-ships, one three-ship, and a two-ship, all operating in an area well below half of the country’s surface area (as well as what presumably is a Swedish Hercules soloing straight down through the battlespace). Based on the same picture, my guess is that five of those formations might have been REDFOR, leaving 37 BLUFOR fighters airborne simultaneously to defend the airspace between Rovaniemi and Tampere.
The big question for HX then is whether the three manufacturers that are withholding their numbers are doing so because 58 would look bad when someone else has 64 (and that 9% difference in my opinion is still one where it might be possible to make a case for better overall capability thanks to higher availability and lower losses), or whether it is because the numbers offered are outrageously low (the threshold is somewhere in the low-fifties in my book). It is somewhat surprising – and honestly, rather worrying – that three out of five doesn’t want to talk numbers.
As discussed in an earlier post, the Lockheed Martin-team doesn’t want to discuss their industrial cooperation package in detail, though in their press release they have gone into some further details:
The final offer includes many opportunities for the Finnish defense industry related to the direct manufacture and maintenance of the F-35 that have not been offered before.
“The F-35 offers Finnish industry high-tech jobs that none of our competitors can offer,” says Bridget Lauderdale, director of the F-35 program. “Production collaboration would continue for more than 20 years and F-35 maintenance collaboration until the 2050s. Finland would maintain its own F-35 fighters and also support the global F-35 fleet by manufacturing significant aircraft parts. ”
Outside of F-35 production, Lockheed Martin would build partnerships with Finnish companies and universities to develop and promote defense cooperation in indirect industrial cooperation projects.
This is still vague, but better than what Dassault have been able to produce when it comes to disclosing information about their offer. Boeing’s latest press release is in fact even weaker than L-M’s, though they can at least lean on the fact that last time around L-M was thrown out of the competition due to an inadequate IP-offer while Boeing went on to manage a successful IP-program for the legacy-Hornets. Still, their statement is honestly anaemic:
Boeing’s offer also include an extensive industrial cooperation program that offers significant long-term opportunities for Finnish industry.
On to better news: Saab and BAES are happy to discuss details. Both are promising final assembly lines of both engines and airframes in Finland, as well significant other measures. BAES description includes several details:
The opportunity to perform final assembly of the aircraft including EJ200 engine build and maintenance; a partnership in the future development of primary sensors, including technical transfer and data analytic tools and techniques for mission data generation and electronic warfare; the transfer of extensive maintenance, repair, overhaul capability. And, the transfer of data and authority to make upgrades to the aircraft.
In addition, we are proposing projects that enable transfer and ongoing cooperation in Cyber Security which will build resilience in military assets and networks and Space technologies. And a suite of Research and development projects across a broad range of technologies that is being spearheaded by our partner MBDA. These benefit Finnish industry, including small medium enterprises, and Finnish academia.
The jobs that we are offering as a result are high quality, long term jobs equating to over 20 million man hours over 30 years, with the knock on benefit to the wider economy driving this figure even higher, and I am proud to be part of the team submitting this offer into Finland today.
Alex Zino of Rolls-Royce was also able to produce some numbers related to the impact of the engine production line to show that it wasn’t just about unpacking crates being shipped in from the UK: the tech transfer and engine production would result in a combined workload of approximately 1.5 million man hours over 40 years.
Saab on the other hand has earlier talked about approximately 10,000 workyears. A quick back-of-the-enveloped calculation gives the number of jobs on average as something like in the low three-hundreds for Saab and in the high three-hundreds for BAES (using approximately 1,700 hours per year as a benchmark), but there’s obviously significant uncertainties in how exactly the numbers have been calculated. To put it into perspective, this number corresponds to over a third of the whole of INSTA Group, the second major player in Finnish defence industry after Patria.
In the case of BAES, perhaps the single-most interesting piece of technology transfer is the invitation to join the ECRS Mk2 development programme, which promises to be significant both from a military as well as technological point of view. Despite the ECRS standing for European Common Radar System, it is in fact heavily led by the UK for the time being, presumably providing relatively much room for bringing foreign partners aboard compared to some other joint-systems shared by all four core countries. Another key part is obviously the continued discussion on sovereign mission data capability, where the turnaround times promised are in a completely different league from any US offers.
Based on the Royal Air Force’s extensive operational experience, we will establish a sovereign mission data capability to rapidly update the weapon system with the latest threat identification and countermeasure tactics, sortie-by-sortie, if necessary. Mission data is the life blood of any modern combat system, and security of supply is more than repairing physical components.
The RAF describe this as being how the force currently operate in the Middle East, with new threats and emitters being included in the aircraft libraries from one sortie to the other.
Saab is on the other hand planning on creating a System Centre, which will be responsible both for tactics development as well as the fleet management and data part of things. In essence, this would likely handle the same things as the BAES offered sovereign mission data capability, while also providing support to the FDF LOGCOM and the Air Combat Centre of Satakunta Air Command, all under one (literal of figurative?) roof.
Again, to reiterate Dassault isn’t saying anything, Lockheed Martin is saying something, Boeing is promising to tell more in the future, and Saab and BAES is giving their lists to everyone asking.
As we know from the DSCA requests both the F-35 and the Super Hornet would bring JDAMs (HE as well as bunker buster rounds), GBU-53/B SDB II’s small glide bombs, AGM-154C-1 JSOW stealthy glide weapons with a secondary anti-ship capability, AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER very long-range heavy cruise missiles, and AIM-9X short-range air-to-air missiles. Lockheed Martin now confirms that the offer also include the AIM-120 AMRAAM in an unspecified version as well as the JSM (Joint Strike Missile). Neither of these are particularly unexpected, but the JSM offers a nifty capability in its dual use against sea- and ground-targets, as well as passive seeker and possibility of internal carriage in the F-35, as briefly discussed last time around. The expectation is also that there will be a second DSCA-request for undisclosed versions of the AGM-88 signal-seeking missile (likely the AGM-88E AARGM) as well as for AIM-120 AMRAAMs for Boeing, though these are unconfirmed for the time being.
It has been a busy week for my team, who have conducted several strikes against Daesh.
BAES’s bid would bring what the Royal Air Force Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston KCB CBE ADC, describe as the full suite of weapons employed by the RAF – including the upcoming SPEAR 3 light cruise missile as well as the SPEAR EW version, a loitering stand-in jammer. However, curiously absent from the discussion was the Brimstone anti-tank missile, which has been a staple of the Operation Shader, RAF’s anti-ISIS campaign. However, the other two weapons that has been heavily in use in the Middle East by RAF Tornados and Typhoons are included in the list provided – namely the Storm Shadow heavy cruise missile and the Paveway IV guided bomb. The later is a 227-kg guided bomb with dual-mode anti-jamming GPS/INS as well as laser guidance, meaning that it can be used against moving targets. The weapon comes with both HE and penetrator warheads, though the physics dictate that the penetrator isn’t as efficient as those of heavier weapons. From a Finnish point of view, the Brimstone is likely something of a nice-to-have, as with both the SPEAR 3 and the Paveway IV there isn’t really any target that can’t be countered (although in certain scenarios the SPEAR 3 might be overkill while the Paveway IV might require release inconveniently close. Here the GBU-53/B SDB II has an edge thanks to its gliding properties). However, these missions (read: striking vehicles in massed armoured formations) are likely not the mission sets that are of primarily concern to the Finnish Air Force. Perhaps the most interesting detail would be the change from AIM-9X to ASRAAM as the short-range air-to-air missile of the Finnish Air Force. The ASRAAM, as opposed to both IRIST-T and AIM-9X, prioritise range over manoeuvrability, and while the jury is still out on which is more important by the time (or rather: if) you get into a short-range fight, the ability to fire missiles with passive IIR-seekers out to near-AMRAAM ranges is certainly interesting, especially in case of a heavily degraded EW-environment or against stealthy targets.
Saab’s offer in turn include at least IRIS-T and Meteor in the air-to-air role. This is no surprise, as these are the current staples on the Swedish JAS 39C/D Gripen-fleet, and have proved rather popular in Northern Europe in general. More interesting was the inclusion of SPEAR 3 (the EW-variant is not included, as Saab offers its own LADM that is currently in development and aiming for a similar role), as well as the decision to go with the KEPD 350/Taurus as their heavy cruise missile. Saab started out their HX-campaign actively pushing the fact that they can integrate any weapon they need, with the same message being repeated this week. It certainly might be the case, but somehow they still seemingly ended up basically offering MBDA’s portfolio of air-launched weaponry (complemented by Diehl’s IRIS-T and their own KEPD 350).
While it is extremely difficult to judge the true capabilities of the three heavy cruise missiles on offer, it remains a fact that KEPD 350 lost the Finnish evaluation for a heavy cruise missile against the baseline AGM-158A JASSM the last time around. And this time, it is up against the significantly improved AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER (formerly known as AGM-158D JASSM-XR). Again, it is hard to say much for certain, the KEPD 350 has also beaten the JASSM and Storm Shadow in certain competitions, but the decision seems strange on paper. There is a new version in the form of the Taurus K-2 in the pipeline, though that is still in development and the improvements seem rather modest compared to the step from AGM-158A to -158B-2.
Saab’s heavy anti-ship missile RBS 15 Gungnir (based on their Mk 4-version of the venerable weapon) is obviously available as it is a key Swedish requirement, but it seems to be left out of at least this original weapons package. On the other hand, it is safe to assume that there are some smart bombs (likely the GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II 227 kg GPS/INS and laser-guided bomb, as well as either GBU-39 SDB or the GBU-53/B SDB II small glide bombs) making up the lower-end of the package as these have featured rather heavily in both US as well as the BAES packages.
The most impressive part of Saab’s weapons package was the statement that the value of the weapons are “>20 % of the proposal price relating to Gripen”. At first glance this looks like 0.2 x 9.0 Bn EUR = 1.8 Bn EUR, which certainly would provide for a massive number of weapons. However, upon looking at the fine print, it does seem like at least the GlobalEye-portion of the offer is left out of the starting number, as may certain other items (Indirect industrial participation? Training?). I have reached out to Saab for a comment, and will update once I get their answer. Edit 3 May 2021: Magnus Skogberg confirmed that the value of the weapons “is above 15 % of the value of the whole offer (i.e. including Globaleye, IP, etc.)”. Presumably that means above approximately 1.35 Bn Eur. In either case, the weapons package does seem to be a sizeable one, though exactly how large is an open question (as a benchmark, the DSCA-clearances were for roughly 300 guided bombs, 150 JSM/JSOW, and 200 JASSM-ER, though obviously there’s no guarantee that the maximum number of weapons will be sought).
While the lack of large stocks for European weapons compared to US ones is one of the strongest arguments for a US fighter, the importance of this argument obviously would decrease with the size of the Finnish Air Force’s weapons stocks increasing.
What became evident is that the days of traditional type conversion being flown in two-seaters seems to be on the way out for the Finnish Air Force. The Boeing offer did not feature a single vanilla-two-seater, with all fourteen two-seaters being Growlers. Saab followed suite and went for 64 single-seat JAS 39E despite their original 2018 proposal having been split between 12 JAS 39F two-seater and 52 JAS 39E. Eurofighter has earlier seemed lukewarm to the idea of including two-seaters, while F-35 obviously does not come in a two-seat model.
For Boeing the decision to leave out the F/A-18F Super Hornets is somewhat surprising as apparently still by the time the DSCA-requests were made late last year the option to include up to eight twin-seaters was still there. A Boeing contact with insight into current Finnish Air Force training procedures notes that despite the lack of flight controls in the backseat of a Growler, the flight characteristics and ability to bring along a backseater means that their use in peacetime training is seen as “quite reasonable”. However, it is obviously down to the Air Force whether they want to use it in that role.
For Saab, the decision was even more of a surprise. As noted, in the last proposal they were allowed to comment on they saw quite a large role for the two-seaters. In the words of Magnus Skogberg, program director for Saab’s HX bid:
Often there are other drivers for and needs of a two-seat aircraft configuration that, in combination with the more traditional training-related benefits, makes it relevant to procure two-seat fighters. […] Gripen F with its two seats, naturally provides additional flexibility to handle very advanced missions where it may be advantageous to have an additional pilot or operator on-board. Examples are Electronic Warfare Officer, Mission Commander and/or a Weapon System Officer in the rear-seat.
This was how it sounded back in March 2019, despite the GlobalEye being well and truly an established part of their bid already back then. In this week’s press briefing, the company took a strong stance that the 39E with its internal EW-suite, EAJP-pod, and LADM-decoys can handle the SEAD-mission without the need for specialised platforms – or, presumably, dedicated crewmembers. Some commentators have pointed to the ability to direct the Gripen’s EW-suite from the GlobalEye through the datalink, though I have not seen that feature mentioned in any of Saab’s material and it would seem to be a less flexible solution compared to formations having their own dedicated EW-operator (in essence having fourteen Growlers for 50 fighters means every four-ship out there could have their own EW-escort).
While it is difficult to say exactly what has caused this change of hearts over at Saab (the wish to harmonize their bid with the Swedish Air Force force structure probably played a part), it shows that the multi-staged HX-process works in that the offers have been tailored and changed even in rather dramatic fashion since the first round of RFPs. What Saab did mention, however, is that there is still included an option for 39F in the bid, presumably either in the form of buying additional airframes or converting a number of the 39E offered to 39F. However, as this bid is based on Saab’s best understanding of what the Finnish Air Force wants following years of discussion, I personally find it highly unlikely that the option would be used.
The large number of Growlers on the other hand is very significant, and I will admit I did not expect 14 aircraft to fit inside the budget. Keen readers will have noted that there wasn’t as many NGJ-MB jammers in the request, these were limited to eight sets. However, while the NGJ is at the heart of the Growler’s electronic attack and jamming capability, a key part of the situational awareness in fact comes from internal sensors, including the the wingtip ALQ-218 RF Receivers. These tell the pilot not only what is out there, but also where it is, and the crew can then decide what to do with that information, whether to engage with weapons, avoid, or jam in case they have brought along their NGJ. As such the value of including Growlers as part of normal formations is significant, both for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. The additional value of a backseater also means that you have an extra person who isn’t busy flying the aircraft, and who potentially could, I don’t know, perhaps function as an “Electronic Warfare Officer, Mission Commander and/or a Weapon System Officer”.
I have mentioned it before, but it continues to be an important point in the greater picture that in my opinion is brought up often enough: the value of having the unique capabilities that the EA-18G Growler brings does not limit themselves to wartime, but they would give our politicians quite a few more options on the escalation ladder prior to full-blown war. This includes both better situational awareness, as well as the ability to meet e.g. GPS-jamming with non-kinetic means that still can hurt hostile operations without causing damage to adversary equipment or losses to their personnel. Another possibility is the ability to support international operations with a key high-profile and high-demand (but internationally rare) capability, and one that require a relative small footprint in and risks for FDF personnel.
The ability of Boeing to offer 14 Growlers and still reach 64 fighters in total is an extremely strong card on their part, although I do have to caution that the crucial question of the future of the Super Hornet-family past 2040 is still unanswered.
With the first Danish F-35 now officially handed over to the Flyvevåbnet, it seems to be a suitable time to look at the aircraft that perhaps arouses the strongest emotions of all HX-contenders. I have earlier criticised the Kampfly-programme under which the F-35 was chosen (though I should note that the F-35 not being able to fairly prove that it is best fit for the Danish requirements doesn’t mean it isn’t), and a number of decisions surrounding Denmark’s future fighter have raised questions about how a potential HX-winning F-35 force would look in practice (*cough*, the RDAF Skrydstrup budget). To get some answers to the questions, I recently had an opportunity to chat with Scott Davis, Lockheed Martin’s Managing Director for Finland.
While few if any analysts doubt that being stealthy is good, or that the F-35 is the stealthiest of the five HX-contenders, questions have been raised about the trade-offs that brings, and whether the same effects can be achieved cheaper and with greater versatility through the use of active electronic warfare systems? However, the F-35 is far from a one-trick pony, and while the marketing is often heavily focused on the passive measures taken to lower the aircraft’s signature, it does in fact sport a state-of-the-art active EW-suite as well. The two key pieces of hardware here are the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 AESA radar with a large number of transmitter/receiver modules, as well as the huge Pratt & Whitney F135-engine pushing the aircraft and, crucially, providing electric power to all the subsystems.
The fact that the EW-suite is built up around internal systems means that all the power and cooling needed can be drawn from the aircraft’s main systems, as well as allowing the AESA radar itself to function as seriously sized jammer. Not only does this mean that the jamming power is more than an order of magnitude greater than those of traditional pods according to Lockheed Martin, but they also note the fact that the large antenna surface allows for a very narrow beam, lessening the risk of detection from enemy passive sensors. Scott acknowledges that podded solutions are easier to tailor for a wide range of threats, but while he won’t disclose the closer specifications of what the AN/APG-81 can do as a jammer, there are some things he can tell:
All things that can kill you […] is within our jamming range.
That includes both hostile aircraft as well as missiles, or in general anything that can give a fire-control quality radar track.
However, the aircraft is also able to use the radar in passive mode, during which it in essence becomes a large listening device. With several aircraft in formation sharing passively acquired data through the high-bandwidth MADL datalink (which is designed to be difficult to detect and jam compared to earlier standards such as Link 16), it can then rapidly triangulate other emitters.
If you’re not transmitting, you’re in effect an electronic sponge.
The nice thing here is obviously the synergies that can be had through having your aircraft naturally being able to operate closer to the adversary without being detected, but also being able to do so either completely passively or only using systems that are relatively hard to detect. In essence, with these capabilities feeding into each other the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Granted, electronic warfare capabilities are among the aspects that are hardest to judge based on open sources. However, if the F-35 even achieves par in the EW domain compared to the competition, it should according to all logic be better off overall in a combat situation due to the aforementioned synergies coupled with the stealth features, all other things being equal.
However, in reality all other things are rarely equal, and while Scott is correct in identifying the F-35 as the “Next European fighter” based on the large number of European air forces acquiring the type, most do so in significantly smaller numbers than the F-16 fleets they are replacing. In the case of Denmark, the plan is to replace the remaining fleet of around 50 left in service from the original of 77 F-16A/B (7 of which were attrition replacements) with just 27 F-35A in a single squadron. In Norway the cut wasn’t as drastic, but it still sees 52 F-35A replacing an original 74-strong F-16A/B fleet (of which 56 were upgraded to MLU-status). Still, Norway is also consolidating operations to a single base, further underlining the fear that a Finnish F-35 order might lead to a 40 aircraft Air Force and the closing of one of the two fighter squadrons.
Programme Director Lauri Puranen has however shot down at least the latter idea, stating that concentrating the Finnish fighter force to a single base hasn’t even been discussed, and Scott Davis is confident that the fear of an F-35 specific infrastructure cost causing issues is overblown. One example often brought up is that of Eielson AFB in Alaska, which has seen huge spending on F-35 infrastructure. However, much of those investments were due to the base not having been home to combat coded fighters in recent years, meaning that it was more of an expansion than a modernisation project.
[Eielson AFB] was a plus up, adding two more squadrons of fighters […] The logistics footprint of the F-35 is actually less than that of the F-16
In general, the aircraft has turned out to work well in colder climates, including not only in Alaska, but also in locations such as Burlington, Vermont, and over in Norway. Asking about whether actually operating the aircraft in cold weather as opposed to ‘just’ doing cold weather tests have revealed some major insights, Scott confirms that this has indeed been the case. “We’ve definitely learned some lessons”, he confirms, but also states that overall it is going very well and that the “Norwegians are very happy”.
And speaking of happy Norwegians, they just did the first drop-test of an JSM from an F-35. The anti-ship missile is stealthy, sports a passive IIR-sensor, a secondary land-attack role, and crucially can be carried internally on the F-35. As such it is more or less a perfect fit to the aircraft in that it is difficult to detect throughout the attack run, and while Lockheed Martin can’t discuss details of the weapons package offered to the Finnish Air Force, we know from the DSCA-notifications that it is on the table. An interesting detail that often is overlooked for the F-35 is that a better capability to close with your enemy will not only give you more accurate information about what is happening and where, but also offer the possibility to use shorter-ranged (read: cheaper) weapons to hit defended ground targets.
Another question which has popped up related to HX is whether the aircraft can be properly dispersed, especially considering the ALIS/ODIN maintenance software which likes to be connected to the international network to which it sends data. There’s also the added question of cybersecurity risks surrounding the data being sent. Scott, however, isn’t concerned, and notes that sovereign data management is already found in the system, with the user filtering what data they want to share. The Portable Maintenance Aids (in essence dedicated laptops, to be replaced by pads come ODIN) also allow maintenance to run smoothly during dispersed operations regardless of whether the system is connected to the main database or not. The rumoured 30 days limit to offline use is also just a rumour, with nothing more dramatic happening than day one falling out of the aircraft’s memory on day 31 if it hasn’t been able to upload the data in between. Interestingly enough from a Finnish point of view, the USAF is also awakening to the need for dispersed basing, largely as a result of the threat from China. This has seen the logistics footprint being tested in recent exercises such as Cope North 21 earlier this year, which saw Eielson-based F-35s deploy from their home in Alaska to remote airstrips in Guam. The US Air Force’s agile combat employment concept (ACE) is based on a hub-and-spooks principle, i.e. a central permanent base supporting austere satellite fields, not completely unlike the Finnish concept of operations. During Cope North, a key base was the unassuming Northwest Field, which saw fighters operating from it for the first time since WWII.
However, even if the F-35 turns out to be both affordable and deployable, there’s still some particular questionmarks hanging over the project. One is regarding sovereign mission data management and exploitation. Things would be routed through the US (not unlike Boeing’s offer), but with the large number of parameters involved in the F-35’s threat library, Lockheed Martin is careful not to make any promises regarding turn-around times for updates (unlike Boeing’s offer).
We are in discussions with numerous Finnish suppliers about multiple opportunities for potential future work on the F-35. Details on the nature of these discussion are competition sensitive so we won’t disclose that information.
Another question that still waits for an answer is the industrial participation aspect of things. With both Saab and BAES/Eurofighter GmbH having promised production of both the aircraft and the engines in Finland in case their respective bids win, and with both having released general numbers for the amount of Statements of Work they have prepared, as well as highlighting key subsystems that are open for cooperation, the answer to my question about the IP-package was surprisingly timid. In particular after the weak showing in the Swiss AIR2030 programme where the offer was for “assembly of major components” of four (!) out of 40 fighters locally, and considering the challenges the rather strict Finnish requirements for industrial participation (3 Bn Euro, of which the majority is direct), it does sound strange that Lockheed Martin isn’t able to provide any details at the time being when they otherwise are rather talkative.
Lockheed Martin's offer to Switzerland yesterday includes an option for local assembly of 4 F-35As at existing RUAG facilities. pic.twitter.com/JzXTcxvrhj
The request for best and final offers has not slowed down the pace of HX, but on the contrary things are seemingly moving at ever higher speed. At the same time, developments in the wider world are also affecting the competition.
F-35 started the year on the wrong footing, with Acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher Miller, giving a bizarre quote where he not only called the F-35 “that’s a piece of…” and called it “the case study” for an acquisition process which is a “wicked problem”, but also stated that “I cannot wait to leave this job, believe me.” While the full quote was headline stuff for the tabloids, I would not ascribe much value regarding the merits of the F-35 to the opinions of someone who responds to the question “I wanted to ask you…Joint Strike Fighter?” with “Which one? F-35?”
The other major headline was that the program was granted its fourth extension to the deadline for when the F-35 evaluation would be finished and the aircraft approved for full-rate production. While this also caused some bad press, truth be told this is largely a non-issue for the aircraft, as the challenges faced are part of the Joint Simulation Environment where the effectiveness against hostile high-end threats will be tested. It is, however, a serious case of civilian oversight being lacking, as either the decision criteria requiring the JSE tests are wrong, or then the civilian leadership has been watching from the sidelines as more than 600 units have been produced of an aircraft they don’t know if they will approve for full-rate production! Spoiler alert – it’s most likely the former, but it is a serious failure of the Civ-Mil process and how the oversight is structured (rather than any fault of the aircraft itself) that the production run before approval is bigger than the total most other fast-jets will see throughout their lifespans.
The aircraft also “flies with 871 flaws“, something that makes for good headlines but is largely a case of the unmatched US transparency rather than indicative of serious troubles.
In addition there has been issues with shortages of the F135 engines that has hit the fleet. Defense News quoted officials stating that it is a “serious readiness problem”, and noted that in next year “roughly 5 to 6 percent” of the aircraft could be without engines due to a combination of scheduled depot maintenance and unscheduled engine removals. Of all four headlines, this is probably the one that holds water, but while it indirectly isn’t good that a supply chain is hit by bad news, the issues will almost certainly be over by the time Finnish HX deliveries starts in 2025.
The most serious news, however, was an interview in Breaking Defense with the outgoing 13th Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Dr Will Roper (understandably often referred to as the “USAF acquisition czar”, and not with his full title). Roper, who while somewhat controversial regarding his methods of working is a highly respected professional in the field, noted that the aircraft isn’t “at a sustainment point that we need”, explaining that “right now the F-35 has a good ‘sticker price,’ but its cost of ownership is not where it needs to be, making the quantities that the Air Force may need to purchase in question”. Roper hinted that this could lead to the NGAD (not to be confused with the USN program of the same name) receiving higher priority, or even ordering new-built F-16s to boost the numbers. This was developed further by USAF Chief of Staff general Brown this week, who denied any plans to buy the F-16, but left the door open for a clean-sheet design of a fighter less complex than the F-35 and affordable enough for the bulk buys needed to replace the F-16 across the field.
Someone who doesn’t believe that the operating costs will come down is, unsurprisingly, rival Boeing, who will happily tell you that once fighters are starting to be flown, their operating costs won’t come down but rather go up due to wear and tear. And that despite the current Super Hornet-fleet having been flown hard in recent decades, including combat use, their numbers are still good.
Our flyaway costs are about the same [as the F-35], our operational costs are about half of that.
While Program Director Lauri Puranen has been clear with that no-one knows the Finnish operational costs due to no-one having the full detailed picture of Finnish Air Force investments, operations, and pricing models, the two contenders that roughly can be compared is the F-35 and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet due to the US DoD publishing their internal flight hour costs (again, thanks to the US transparency). A GAO report released late last year provide these numbers, noting that “From fiscal year 2011 through fiscal year 2018, the O&S costs per aircraft for the F/A-18E/F increased from about $5.58 million to about $6.41 million”. This was due to “sustained high flight hours, which increased the probability of parts failure on the aircraft, and an increasing aircraft inventory, as the F/A-18E/F is still in production. Maintenance costs also increased as the Navy has worked to address extensive maintenance needs associated with extending the service life of the aircraft from 6,000 hours to 10,000 hours”. At the same time, the F-35A total O&S costs per aircraft was $8.84 million in fiscal year 2018. While the numbers doesn’t support the F/A-18E/F having an O&S cost “half” of the F-35A, it still is 72% of it. And here it should be noted that the strain of the workloads placed on the different fleets will skew the cost (i.e. in a like for like scenario where the Super Hornet would operate from landbases with similar loads and flight profiles as the F-35A, the difference would likely be greater).
Another company who doesn’t care that Puranen stated that no-one knows the cost figures is Saab, where campaign director Magnus Skogberg this week declared that:
We know for sure that nobody beats us on cost.
Of course, the question on cost is highly complex, including the issues of how many flight hours will be needed to maintain proficiency on a multi-role fighter. Earlier Finnish pilots have flown relatively few hours, but have still managed to stay proficient due to having in essence been training solely for the air-to-air mission. With the MLU2 unlocking the air-to-ground capabilities and HX bringing in further expansions of the mission sets, the number of flight hours will most likely need to increase, even as advances in simulator technology are offloading some of the training to ground-based systems.
Of the missions, few have received the focus of long-range strike, which has been elevated to its own category in the HX program alongside the more general counter-land. Here it is important to note that the long-range strike role in Finnish doctrine occupies both a military as well as a deterrence role. Very little about how Finland plans the deterrence mission is found in open documents, but based on the realities of international law and capabilities of the systems involved deterrence by denial can safely be assumed to be the concept involved. To use a straightforward definition by David S. Yost, “Deterrence by denial means persuading the enemy not to attack by convincing him that his attack will be defeated – that is, that he will not be able to achieve his operational objectives.” In other words, there’s preciously little differing the role of the JASSM in Finnish service from the other weapons of the FDF – they all aim to deter the enemy from launching an attack by ensuring that he can’t reach his goals without the cost being unacceptably high. The particularity of the long-range strike is exactly the long-range – being able to affect targets that are important for the enemy but which are too far away for other methods. It might also be worth noting that a majority of Finnish MPs thinks “it would be acceptable for Finnish forces as a part of defending the country to strike militarily relevant targets on adversary territory”.
The question of which weapon will fill this role has largely been viewed as a three-way competition between the US AGM-158 JASSM (currently in Finnish service in the since discontinued AGM-158A version, which beat the Taurus KEPD in the last Finnish evaluation) and the European offerings of the Storm Shadow/SCALP and (possibly) the Taurus 350 KEPD. However, it turns out that last year’s DSCA notifications included an overlooked surprise: the JASSM would come with a seriously longer range than the current version.
Since the original AGM-158A, the JASSM has spawned a number of variants. Key among these are the longer-legged AGM-158B JASSM-ER (Extended Range) which is currently in production and in service as the AGM-158A replacement, as well as the AGM-158C LRASM which is an anti-ship variant of the same weapon. Latest of the bunch is a further refined version, earlier called JASSM-XR (for Extreme Range) which brings a number of improvements. Key among these is a range increase from 500 to 1,000 nautical miles compared to the AGM-158B (926 km to 1,852 km). The differences include “missile control unit, changes to the wings, a different paint coating, an Electronic Safe and Arm Fuze, a secure GPS receiver, and program protection requirements” according to Air Force Magazine. The JASSM-XR received an official AGM-158D designation earlier, and production has been confirmed to start with Lot 19 which is expected to be ordered any day now.
However, the designation AGM-158B-2 showed up in the Finnish DSCA-requests last year. This variant of the AGM-158B has up until now not been seen in many documents outside of the requests. After Inside Defense claimed that there has been yet another change of designations, I decided to ask Lockheed Martin (manufacturer of both the F-35A and the AGM-158 JASSM) about it.
AGM-158B2 will be the next variant in the line of JASSM-ER missiles. The USAF is expected to begin procurement of the JASSM-ERB2 beginning in Lot 19.
Turns out the missile expected to handle the long-range strike mission in case Finland chooses either the Super Hornet or the F-35A is the missile formerly known as JASSM-XR. This would mean a huge increase in range, from the current 370 km of the AGM-158A JASSM to 1,852 km of the AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ERB2 (usual caveat that all range figures are based on open sources and comes with a large dose of “it depends” where things such as launch altitude come into play).
Exactly how much range Finland really needs is an interesting question. The current 370 km can certainly be improved upon, though on the other hand it is questionable if Finland really needs the ability to reach Ufa. In theory going from AGM-158A to AGM-158B-2 is the difference between Rissala-St Petersburg and Rissala-Kazakhstan. What it in practice would do is unlock further options for Finnish military planners, including guaranteed stand-off range against all Russian air defences, current and planned, as well as the possibility to route the flight paths of the cruise missiles around hostile defences. The AGM-158B-2 would for example make it possible to stand back and fire missiles from high altitude over the Bothnian Gulf and still reach the same targets as the AGM-158B would do from within S-400 range. As such, added range doesn’t necessarily mean that the Finnish Air Force is looking at new targets. After all, most military relevant targets in a conflict where Finland is involved – such as command centres, transport infrastructure, and staging areas – are found relatively close to the border, but rather that these targets could be destroyed at smaller risk to the Finnish pilots and aircraft. A military relevant target set that likely is of interest and which is found further from the Finnish border is the infrastructure needed to move troops from other military districts towards a conflict zone in (north-)western Russia. Many of the recent large Russian military exercises have showcased the Russian ability to relatively quickly move personnel and equipment over large distances, either by rail or air. Being able to disrupt or delay such movements in a conflict could be an example of a military target outside the range of the current AGM-158A JASSM, and one which might buy valuable days or even weeks for friendly support to reach Finland.
Crucially, the fact that the US contenders have decided to go for the B-2 and not the B does show that they feel that it fits the Finnish requirement best. It could be just a question of which weapon will be rolling of the production lines in 2027, but if there really is a requirement for range, the European contenders might be at a disadvantage when it comes to evaluating their ability to perform the long-range strike mission. And from a purely deterrence point of view, range does indeed open up more targets to be held at risk, and there’s also the fact that buying the best there is helps with cementing the “passive-aggressive” reputation needed for small-state deterrence to work.
An interesting question is obviously what weapon Saab would offer for the long-range strike role? The Taurus KEPD 350 is a joint Saab-MBDA venture, but as the weapon has lost an evaluation for a Finnish contract already once much of the Swedish discussion has been around the possibility to integrate any weapon the customer wants. However, as the only DSCA requests so far related to HX have been for the US contenders, the question remains if Saab plans on first selling the aircraft, and then trusting Finland to receive the correct export clearances? When asked, Saab declined to comment.
Both with respect to the customer and due to competition we do not comment on the details relating to the weapons package of the HX programme.
But if the F-35 had a somewhat poor start of the year, the Super Hornet also had its unwelcome moment in the spotlight with the announcement that the US Navy is thinking about axing the conformal fuel tanks from the Block III upgrade. The CFTs have been seen as an important part of the plans to increase the range of the Super Hornet, which in turn is seen as important for any China-scenario. For Finland, range and endurance isn’t as critical, but the question is how invested the USN is in the future of the Super Hornet-family if they struggle to meet the envisioned increase in range? Boeing is, at least officially, not concerned. The US Navy is still moving forward with the overall plan to convert the fleet to Block III standard (Block II being the corresponding program for the EA-18G Growler), and the current USN plan is that well over half the fast jets of the carrier air wing of 2030 will be from the Super Hornet-family (28 Super Hornets, 5-7 Growlers, and 16 F-35C). “Staying with three Super Hornet squadrons [per air wing] is quite telling,” Alain Garcia said, and noted that development is set to continue well past Block III. “There is a roadmap […] lots of [software] capabilities coming.” Garcia is one of Boeing’s key persons in their campaign aimed at ensuring Finland stays with the Boeing for another generation, and he sports the somewhat unwieldy title of Capture Team Lead for International Sales & Marketing Fighter and Trainer Campaigns in Finland and Switzerland. The roadmap he refers to will include the manned-unmanned teaming updates which are expected to be included as standard by the time Finnish aircraft would be rolling off the production lines, but also new weapons. With regards to MUMT, the question is obviously if the Finnish Air Force could fit unmanned platforms in a budget that will already be strained by trying to replace the manned components? Garcia notes that it obviously is a decision that the Finnish Air Force will make based on their own needs and doctrines, but that so far as they can tell the option remains available. Especially considering potential savings and trade-offs that can be had.
Looking at current operational costs now, we believe that with our offer there’s still some room for operational costs in there.
While USN might not be as certain about the future of the Super Hornet (or the carrier air wing in general), the EA-18G Growler seems to offer rather good protection against an early retirement of the platform. The unique role of the Growler as a dedicated stand-in electronic warfare platform will only continue to grow in importance (something the general Brown also noted recently in a much reported speech that included quotes about USAF being “asleep at the wheel” since Operation Desert Storm, and “We can no longer solely depend on defensive capabilities” which might get the force home, but don’t meet the need to be able to operate offensively in the electromagnetic spectrum). For not only the US Navy, but the joint US force as a whole, this means that the Growler is likely to remain on the flightdeck of the carriers and on expeditionary bases for decades to come, and with the Growler set to remain in service the future of the Super Hornet is also looking rosier than it would if alone. And if the Super Hornet/Growler would go the road of the A-6 Intruder/EA-6 Prowler where the electronic attack variant soldiered on for 22 years after the retirement of the baseline version, the ability to cross-feed new systems from the USN Growler-community to any potential Super Hornet export customers (as happened within the USN fast-jet fleet with the Block III upgrades) would help avoid the current “operating Hornet”-alone situation.
Saab and Boeing are happily in agreement about the importance of the importance of electronic warfare, as is the US DoD. In their new Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy they describe the electromagnetic spectrum as “not a separate domain of military operations because the EMS is inseparable from the domains established in joint doctrine.” Magnus Skogberg of Saab understandably pushed the need to be able to affect the EMS:
The stealth shaping of the aircraft is not enough to handle this [S-400 sensors covering a wide spectrum]
At this point it is notable that the F-35 in fact far from relying solely on stealth also features one of the most advanced integrated electronic warfare systems available, in fact putting them on the same side as Saab – but opposite Boeing – when it comes to the need for a dedicated EW-platform to get the most out of their aircrafts. While Skogberg proclaims that there’s “No need for a dedicated EW-platform when you are a Gripen operator”, Boeing representatives (not without being slightly smug about it) noted that while the UAE last year had requested a large package that included both the F-35A as well as the EA-18G Growler, only the Growler was denied export clearance by the US government on the grounds of it being too advanced and capable, with the F-35 deal being inked just before the change of administration (and now on hold pending review).
The US government has witheld the proposal from being submitted to the customer
The beauty of the Growler is that the dedication of the platform brings not only the computing power of the specified electronic warfare processor unit, but also the dedicated crew member. This means that for example when a new or previously unidentified signal is encountered, the operator can already in-flight start processing it, giving it an ID or other potential identifier. This means that once the aircraft lands the signal intelligence can be downloaded from the aircraft as “useful data” ready for the library, a capability Boeing believe they are alone in the field to provide. While the complete absence of black boxes and total independence of the mission data has been, and continues to be, one of the main selling points of the European contenders, Boeing takes a somewhat different approach out of necessity.
The data is owned by the Finnish government, but the processing of acquired mission data is easiest to handle through US infrastructure where Finnish personnel can be embedded. Fast turnaround (less than 24 hours) can then be achieved through the use of secure channels. Alternatively the whole or parts of the infrastructure can be rebuilt in Finland, but the cost might be prohibitive. Another interesting aspect is whether Finland wants to share the data (especially the data collected by Growlers) or not. There are a number of three-letter agencies interested in the data collected by USN Growlers, and exchange of data between Finland and the US might in turn provide valuable intelligence from these to the Finnish authorities. The amount of data produced by the Growler is indeed huge, with the snapshot of what the Growler visiting during HX Challenge last year managed to capture simply through its passive sensors reportedly being “eye-opening” with regards to the “saturation of information”. This is another place where the dedicated crew members comes into play.
Regardless of from where it originates, electronic warfare is the hot stuff, with a crucial feature being noted in the new US DoD Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy:
Because many EMS capabilities are employed, not expended, concerns about magazine capacity or cost of munitions may be reduced, which in turn affords commanders and decision makers more sustainable options.
For a country where low numbers of advanced munitions has been raised as a concern in official documents, this is of interest. The ability to control the battlespace without blowing things up is certainly interesting also from an escalation management point of view, one of Finland’s key interests in any (limited) conflict.
But Saab has an alternative. Or rather, the Swedish defence establishment and politicians have an alternative. If Finland would buy the 39E Gripen and GlobalEye, the vision is that the Finnish and Swedish Air Force would be a common customer, meeting Saab together. And crucially, we would be the major customer and not a small customer in a bigger project. Saab’s media event this week was telling, in that it featured the Swedish Minister for Defence Peter Hultqvist, the deputy commander of the Swedish Air Force brigadier general Anders Persson, as well as Saab’s own people. While it technically is the governments and not the OEMs that are selling fighters to Finland, none are as clearly involved in the sales effort as the Swedes. MoD Hultqvist underlined the influence Finland would have on the program, stating that Finland would have “direct influence” on the future development path of 39E and GlobalEye if we choose Saab’s offer.
Slides from the media event, not leaving anything left to imagination
Brigadier general Persson didn’t mess around in his presentation, clearly stating that the potential enemy comes from an aggressive and expansive Russia, and that this is what Sweden has tailored their defenses towards.
Gripen is designed for our common environment, our common enemy, with our people in focus.
While Saab’s part of the presentation focused on their EW-suite, ability to field numbers, high availability, and current footprint in Finland (including the LADM decoy missile currently being under development, with much of the work undertaken in Tampere), Hultqvist and Persson spoke about the possibilities of Finnish-Swedish cooperation. This included harmonizing the acquisition of both Air Forces, but also cooperating with basing, training, and maintenance. Crucially, Sweden hasn’t decided to acquire GlobalEye, but according to Hultqvist while “We haven’t made any formal decision to procure GlobalEye, but that is how it should be interpreted”. A strange statement, as the new Swedish Defence Bill for 2021 to 2025 in fact envisions the replacement for the current ASC 890 to come only in the 2026 to 2030 period, with the decision on the platform still being years into the future. And speaking of the Defence Bill, it is far from a certain grand slam for the Swedish Air Force, as the answer to the realisation that cutting the Swedish fighter force to just 60 aircraft (the number of JAS 39E ordered) was a bad idea wasn’t to increase the size of the order, but rather to maintain the current JAS 39C/D fleet for longer. Beside the obvious issue of lower relative quality for the total force when keeping upgraded older aircraft in service instead of ordering more modern platforms, there is also little room for growth among the highly specialised workforce of the Swedish stakeholders when suddenly two fast-jets are to be kept up to date in parallel. An anonymous engineer from the Combat Aircraft department of the Swedish Defence Material Administration raised questions over on Twitter, noting that some of the engineers at the department are looking at 150 to 170% workload for the foreseeable future due to new 39C/D related developments. The optimist sees possibilities for Finnish industry to step in following an HX win for Saab, the pessimist questions if the small and competent Swedish aviation sector can continue to keep pushing out the kind of high-quality high-end solutions they are known for?
More headline grabbing was the speech held by brigadier general Persson. He noted that already now Finland and Sweden cooperate closely and regularly deploy to the other country for exercises. He also noted that this will continue regardless of the outcome of HX, but that choosing Gripen and GlobalEye would open up unique new opportunities. Not only could Finland fly the aircraft for upgrades to Linköping and Saab’s factory there in the morning and get the aircraft back in the evening, but Sweden and the Swedish aircraft infrastructure could be used as a rear logistics area. For basing, according to need Finnish fighters could deploy to Swedish bases behind the moat of the Baltic Sea, while Swedish fighters could use Finnish dispersed bases as forward staging areas for sorties. Integrating training and tactics could be a true force multiplier in the words of the general.
We will be like one air force with two commanders.
…and here the military historian will point out that ever since consuls Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus led the Roman army to the disaster at Cannae in 216 BC, having a single force with two commanders is usually not seen as a great idea. But leaving that perhaps misplaced quote aside, it is clear that the idea has much going for it. It isn’t exactly new, see for example this older guest post, but getting additional strategic depth for basing would certainly be beneficial, and it certainly would be easier to arrange with the same aircraft type than with different ones.
However, the kind of integrated force that brigadier general Persson describe would be something more than just two interoperable forces, something which they are already today (and will continue to be as both countries strive to maintain their ability to plug into NATO and US compatible forces), but it would require them to be true military allies. This is a political decision, and one which I fail to see either parliament going for in the next six months. Finnish commentators like to question whether Sweden is prepared to make firm commitments that they would send their sons and daughters to die for Kouvola or Sodankylä, but truth be told the answer to the question if Finland would be prepared to declare war on Russia in support of Sweden if the dreaded Gotland-grab scenario would take place is even more uncertain.
In fact, building up a rear logistics area outside of the country’s border is exactly what has been described as a potential weak point of the F-35. Ironically, the deputy commander hit the nail on the head when he described the situation for both countries as “We need to be able to take care of ourselves for days, weeks, maybe months”. The possibility of integrating further with the Swedish force is interesting, as is the ability to be the major operator instead of being a smaller operator in a major program. However, it does feel like much of Saab’s sales pitch this time took a detour to a political reality that simply isn’t there, and completely missed the geopolitical realities and defining features of the Finnish concept of operations which the company earlier has been good at selling towards.
Boeing on the other hand has no issues with selling to the Finnish concept of operations.
If you’re already operating the Hornet-fleet, there really is no change to the concept of operations switching to the Super Hornet and Growler.
This might be a bit of stretch considering the capabilities of the Growler, but granted it would fit the way the FDF usually does things (and likely be cheaper!) that instead of major sudden changes the force would get to iteratively developed its doctrine and concepts of operations.
Today Ylläs is known as one of the larger tourist destinations in Northern Finland. The twin villages of Äkäslompolo and Ylläsjärvi play host to a number of visitors coming there to ski cross-country and alpine in winter, and to hike, mountainbike, and pick cloudberries in the summer. Those wanting to experience the wilderness usually strikes out to the northeast, where the landscape is dominated by the seven fells that have become the hallmark of the region. Furthest away is the mighty Aakenustunturi. While not among the highest, it still reaches well above the treeline, and stretches in a long horseshoe-shaped pattern with three distinct peaks – Vareslaki (north), Moloslaki (east), and Totovaara (south). In the summer hiking routes starting from the nearby Ylläs-Kittilä road makes ascents relatively easy provided you have the proper footwear, while a more demanding alternative is to hike or ski from Äkäslompolo. This blog usually doesn’t deal with outdoors life, but studying the maps you might notice the somewhat unusual name Lentokonejänkkä (Fi. the aircraft fen) for a small marsh just below Moloslaki.
In the early days of 1944 the region was very different. Neither Äkäslompolo nor Ylläs had a road connection (which was a blessing in disguise as the villages were spared destruction during the German retreat the following fall). And on the first of February that year, Aakenustunturi would see one of the many small tragedies that the war was full of.
Germany was handling the northernmost part of the Finnish frontline, leading to a supply line stretching over the Baltic Sea and through Finland up to the Norwegian coastline and the Barents Sea. The main Finnish city in the region, Rovaniemi, became a logistics hub with its own transport aircraft unit. This was the Transportstaffel/Fliegerführer Nord (Ost) sorting directly under Luftflotte 5, and sporting the unwieldy abbreviation Tr.St.Fl.Fü.Nord (Ost). Further to the east and close to the frontline in White Sea Karelia (Fi. Vienan Karjala, Ru. Belomorskaja Kareliya), the airfield of Pontsalenjoki was found. Little more than a clearing in the forest, the field spent the war seeing small detachments of fighters, ground support, and reconnaissance aircraft rotate in and out according to need. It was from here that Junker Ju 52/3m ‘P4+CH’ from Tr.St.Fl.Fü.Nord (Ost) took off loaded with a cargo that included spares for Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighters and mail. The crew of four was made up of oberfeldwebel Kurt Rochna (pilot), unteroffizier Karl Meyer (radio), unteroffizier Stephan Kulin (mechanic), and unteroffizier Willi Brade (rear-gunner), and the plane set course towards Rovaniemi. Someone from the crew also brought along a dog.
We don’t know at what point the crew realised that something was wrong, but the weather over western Lapland was poor that day, and what should have been a routine 250 km trip ended on the eastern slopes of Aakenustunturi 140 km north of their intended destination. It is possible that Ofw. Rochna made a desperate attempt to ditch the aircraft having run out of fuel and options. The large open wetlands west of the fell would have been a better option in that case, but with poor weather and most likely little to no daylight he might have misjudged the white silhouette of the fell until it was too late to change their course of action. In any case the aircraft came to a stop in the snow on the eastern slopes of Moloslaki relatively intact, with bent propellers and the fixed undercarriage torn away. However, the force of the crash was still hard enough that part of the cargo broke loose and came forward, crashing through the thin cockpit wall and instantly killing everyone except Uffz. Brade who was seated further back in the aircraft.
The story about what happened next is a mixture of deduction by those that eventually found the wreck, rumours, and local legends with a hint of horror stories, making it difficult to piece together for certain what actually happened. What seems to clear is that Brade was seriously injured, and could not leave the wreck. In February the snow can easily be more than a meter deep, and trekking through the wilderness without proper equipment is difficult even for a fit and healthy individual. It is also unclear if he knew where the aircraft had crashed. Brade did have a signal gun and during the night he fired an unknown number of flares. The crash location was above the treeline, and with both the village of Kittilä and, crucially, the German air observation post at Levi within 20 km one would be forgiven to think that he might have had some luck with his distress signals. That was however not to be the case. Reportedly some locals in Kittilä saw the signals, but are said to have chalked the lights down to stormy weather coming in over the fell. In any case no one felt the need to report the observation onward to the authorities.
At Levi the situation was none the better, and despite there being a clear line of sight between the two fells none of the signals were observed. According to the most likely explanation the air observation post was simply unmanned due to the poor weather convincing the crew there that no air traffic would take place. In the more grim version told by the locals, the soldiers had started partying, and in the alcohol-fuelled excitement they hadn’t noticed the signals. According to the same tale, they had all been executed afterwards.
In any case, Brade was out of luck, and would not leave the wreck alive. The German search effort was hampered by the poor weather, and failed to locate the Junkers. The next confirmed information is that a Finnish anti-partisan unit based in Kittilä encountered the wreck by chance when out on a trip in April the same year. According to the local horror stories, Brade would have struggled for days, keeping a diary written in his own blood, until eventually succumbing to a combination of his injuries and the harsh conditions. Local reindeer herders would have found the wreck, but as there was a sizeable amount of cash in it they made off with the money and kept their mouths shut. However, staff sergeant Armas Salovirta, second in command of the Finnish company stationed in Kittilä and leader of the group that found the wreck, wrote about the event in the late 80’s to try and kill some of the more spectacular rumours.
According to him, the unit was out as part of a physical education drive when they from far away spotted a dark spot on the eastern slope of the fell. Having nothing better to do, they decided to head over there to check what it was. Seeing it was an aircraft, they approached and peered into the rear compartment through one of the intact windows. There they saw Brade’s body, and a “hairy thing” that they figured was a wolverine. Equipped with an axe, Salovirta then opened the door to the cargo space, and was greeted by a rather aggressive long-haired puppy. The dog was however quickly won over by a piece of bread. After this, Salovirta and his men checked the cockpit and found two mutilated bodies described as the pilot and co-pilot crushed by the crates of aircraft spares. Apparently they did not notice the body of the fourth crew member, probably belonging to the radio operator Uffz. Meyer and seated immediately behind the cockpit. It is likely that at this point he was buried under the same crates that had killed Rochna and Kulin.
Having not expected to find an aircraft wreck, the patrol was poorly equipped to retrieve anything larger than what went into their backpacks. As such, the mail and puppy was packed into their bags, together with a pair of meal packages (one of which was opened and eaten on the return trip). The fact that these were still left in the aircraft shows that Brade most likely didn’t have time to starve before a combination of his injuries and the cold weather got the better of him. Salovirta noted that he indeed seemed to have survived for several days, but denied there being any kind of diary markings (in blood or otherwise) at the crash site. After Brade’s death, the dog had started to eat him, which explained how it had survived alone for over two months. Back in Kittilä the findings were reported up the Finnish chain of command, and the message about the lost aircraft finally reached the Germans. The thankful Germans gifted the puppy to Salovirta, who named it Junkers after the aircraft. Whether the aircraft had been visited before Salovirta’s patrol will likely remain a mystery, but the presence of the dog inside the wreck would indicate that the story of the herders is a myth.
About a week after the wreck had been located a group of German mountain troops, probably either of the 2.Gebirgs-Division or 6. SS-Gebirgs-Division “Nord”, arrived in Kittilä and requested to be shown the wreck. Salovirta accompanied them to the crash site, but the skiers didn’t do much else than observe the location. A short while later German troops came to recover the bodies together with some radio and navigational equipment, before they blew the aircraft to bits.
Thus ended the sad story of ‘P4+CH’ (WNr. 5049) and its crew. Despite the destruction wrought by the German charges, the wreck is one of the few WWII crash sites in Finland where one can still find sizeable aircraft remains to this day. In the summer, the wreck is a short hike from the Totovaara parking spot, with signs helpfully showing the way towards the “Junkers”. On older maps you will encounter a goahti named Lentokonekota (Fi. the aircraft goahti), but it was burned down by the authorities in 2016 due to it being in poor shape. Continuing onwards past the spot of the former goahti you will encounter the wreck, well visible strewn across the trail. As everything not bolted down has a tendency to wander down the slopes with the melting snow in springtime, I would expect the original crash site to have been higher up on the fell. The hike is approximately 10 km to the wreck and back, but for a truly spectacular walk I would recommend doing the whole Moloslaenkierros which continues onward to the stunning ravine Valokuru, where the trail turns up the fell, before heading back along the ridgeline, passing over the peak Moloslaki before descending back towards the parking spot at the Totovaaran pirtti cabin. From the trail it is possible to see Levi to the north-east, from where Brade’s countrymen failed to spot his flares. Also visible to the east is Kittilä airport built in the late 70’s.
Remember if you do visit the spot to only take pictures and only leave footprints to ensure that the site remain intact for future. It is also prudent to remember that this is the site where the lives of four young men ended in a foreign land almost eighty years ago. The nature of the war means that their fate largely became just another number in the statistics, but if you find yourself standing at the site of their demise, I ask you to take a moment to remember them.
This retelling is mainly based on Hannu Valtonen’s book “Hylkyretkiä Pohjolaan“, with some additional details added from other sources.
Yesterday we got to see another HX presser, this time dealing with the final year of the competition. Held by the usual suspects – Minister of Defence Antti Kaikkonen, major general (engineering) Kari Renko of the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command, and Program Director Lauri Puranen – there were no big shifts in the messaging. However, there were some interesting comments, and a confirmation of the current schedule.
Beginning with the schedule, the request for Best and Final Offers (BAFO, or RFBAFO) will be sent out “within January”. For those without a calendar nearby, that means sometime during next week. The legally binding offers will then be returned before the end of April. The speakers acknowledged that this is a tight schedule, but as no major changes are expected compared to the packages currently discussed all manufacturers have confirmed that they should be able to meet the deadline. It is however notable that while the Air Force/MoD/LOGCOM have been negotiating with the manufacturers about what would be the offer FDF wishes for, the manufacturer is still free to offer exactly what they want. In reality, as the purpose is to get chosen, the two will probably align quite well.
The bids will be made up of a single short physical cover letter, and approximately 50 digital documents/files dealing with the offer itself. The Finnish authorities will then start going through them and evaluating the combat capabilities of the offers, a job which by the fall (October) should have led to a recommendation that will be sent to the MoD. According to Kaikkonen the MoD and government will look at the national security and foreign policy aspects. After this, the government will present their suggestion for new fighter to the parliament, which will vote on the matter. Note that as opposed to certain other fighter procurement programs, Finland has a) a strong tradition of majority governments, b) a strong tradition of MPs following the party lead when voting, and c) a strong support throughout the parliament for the program, which means that this is expected to be something of a formality.Edit: the parliament won’t hold any further votes, as they already approved the acquisition budget. The government will however present their findings for the relevant parliamentary committees before the contract is signed. After this, the final negotiations with the preferred bidder will take place, leading to a major signing ceremony where a number of small and large contracts dealing with the overall acquisition are signed. This ceremony will take place before the end of the year.
Having been part of some minor contract negotiation processes in the maritime sector, this is probably the part where the schedule feels most strained in my opinion. Even after the return of a legally binding offer to a (semi-)public tendering process, there’s usually a surprising number of details to work out. If the recommendation spends even a month going through the MoD and parliament, time will quickly start to run out regarding the end of the year deadline. On the other hand, much depends on how controversial the suggestion by the MoD will be. If everything goes smooth and the BAFO is largely unambiguous, it certainly is possible to keep up the pace, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some last minute delays.
To understand the messaging, there will be no talks between the Finnish authorities and the manufacturers following the return of the BAFOs. Another more interesting detail is that Finnish authorities won’t comment on the bids until the papers are signed. I’m not quite sure how this will be handled in practice, whether the winning bidder will be announced when the recommendations are being made to the parliament, or whether the general public won’t know who has won until the doors to the signing ceremony are flung open and the journalists sees who sits at the opposite side of the table?
Another interesting aspect is to what extent the manufacturers can keep discussing their bids with media and the public? In theory, once the BAFOs have been returned the bidders can no longer influence the process directly, and as such could potentially be given freer hands to lobby the benefits of their bid. However, this would on the other hand seem to run contrary to the decision to keep a lid on the details until the signing. Earlier interviews have made clear that the BAFO will include details on what the manufacturers can say and when, so I guess we will get our first idea of the new playing field within a week or so.
For the platform itself, some new details could be seen. One is that the language has indeed changed significantly from the early briefings when it comes to the joint air-sea domain. While the early briefings usually talked about “supporting the maritime domain” with those involved explicitly refusing to say whether that included kinetic anti-ship missions, Puranen now split up the naval support mission to include not only ISR and providing targeting information, but also maritime strike.
The obvious question is in which direction the wind is currently blowing? The answer is that it’s rather turbulent. Renko was rather open with that the winning bid hasn’t yet been drafted:
The competition is very close, all contenders still have challenges in some decisive areas.
While he obviously didn’t start pointing fingers, he mentioned a number of key areas including contract terms, life-cycle costs, the technology readiness levels, and industrial participation arrangements. Tempting as it might be to start to slot different contenders into some of the points above, the complexity of the overall program makes it a largely useless task. Just to give an example, while most probably start thinking about the F-35 Block 4 and JAS 39E Gripen when discussing technology readiness issues, it could very well be related to some key systems of the other contenders as well where the FDF or MoD has questions regarding timelines and performances (Radar Two, the NGJ-family, and the whole Rafale F4-standard comes to mind). Similarly, speculations on who is weak and who is strong on the other issues is largely just that – speculation.
One comment that went largely unnoticed as far as I can tell but which will have a significant impact on the outcome was made by Puranen. While running through all the things looked at as part of the evaluation, he mentioned that they are evaluating:
If they [the armament] start to run out, from where do one get more?
While the requested armaments package is significant, it still will likely run low rather quickly in any kind of serious shooting war (based on the historical fact that no matter how much ammunition any force has gone to war with, usually it will run into shortages rather quickly). And at that point, there’s quite a bit more weapons from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon found in warehouses around the world than those made by MBDA or Safran. In my opinion, this is probably one of the stronger cards of the US contenders, even if both Gripen and Eurofighter are also happily slinging AMRAAMs and US-built smart bombs (and Rafale carrying some US-made air-to-ground weapons such as the GBU-49 and GBU-16).
Otherwise, the messages were largely along the same lines as has been heard before during the last five years. The aircraft will be operated into the early 2060’s, and there will need to be “other users as well” (Puranen). This time it was Kaikkonen who got to use the classic line of “We’re not going to buy an aircraft we can’t afford to operate”. Speaking of which, the operational costs per year will be capped at 250 MEUR (in 2021 Euros), roughly corresponding to 10% of the defence budget, while the MLU costs will be routed in through the normal FDF acquisition budget as was done with the Hornets.
For the additional funds provided for the acquisition, not one but two pie charts were included to show the breakdown of the funding. Of the 10 Bn EUR, 21 MEUR are going to the expenses of doing the competitive tender, and 579 MEUR will go to the costs of the FDF during the five-year transition period. This include infrastructure changes, personnel expenses, C4I integration costs, costs of potential contract changes, and everything else that’s needed. The remaining 9.4 Bn EUR will then be allocated to buying the aircraft, engines, weapons, sensors, spares and replacement parts, maintenance support, and additional training needed outside of the scope of normal FinAF training routines. However, of this sum some (approximately 400 MEUR) will have to go to expenses paid by the Finnish state, and won’t be available for the bidder to use. This includes e.g. project management costs and government furbished equipment, as well as part of the industrial participation costs. As such, the total money that can be used by the manufacturer for tailoring their bid is around 9 Bn EUR. The amount varies somewhat due to the differences in costs for the national part of any given tender, e.g. if your aircraft will fit inside current hangars you’ll have a bit more to spend on your part of the package to take an obvious example. Still, Renko took time to underscore several times that the amounts available are “very close to each other”.
Let’s all take a moment to realise what this means for Saab’s bid – the company is able to include all the added costs associated with introducing a brand new aircraft type in the form of the GlobalEye 6500 alongside their primary bid of a competitive package of fighters and the equipment they need, and still remain “very close” to the competition. Granted Boeing’s feat of including the Growler with associated equipment is also impressive, but while the jamming pods are expensive revamping the training, maintenance, and infrastructure to include a pair of 30 meter long aircraft with a 45 ton max take-off weight is quite something. Just to put things in perspective, the Learjet 35 that the Finnish Air Force currently flies is about half as long and has a MTOW of 8 tons, with the C-295 transports having a somewhat smaller footprint while operating at a marginally higher MTOW. And despite the costs of introducing what would be the largest aircraft in FinAF inventory, Saab’s bid apparently is “very close” to the competition.
It is also obvious that Renko is not amused by the hints, and is some cases outright accusations, that those involved in the program have their own agendas and would be operating outside of normal civilian and political oversight. He took a strong stance by making a point of publicly and clearly praising the team that he described as highly competent and taking great pride in their professionalism, and also noted that everyone strongly believe that they are working towards the best solution for Finland. He also noted that while the COVID pandemic had not caused significant delays and the procurement decision will be taken this year as originally planned, it had required considerable additional effort (and let’s remember that it is in fact a rather small core team) to mitigate the issue and ensure that what at its lowest point was a 6 month slippage in the schedule was clawed back. In the same vein, Kaikkonen reiterated that there is no alternative to multirole fighters, regardless of what some have claimed.
Everyone gets to have an opinion. However, the weight your opinion will have obviously depends on a number of factors. Case closed, you can all go home, and we’ll reconvene later.
On a more serious note – having followed the HX-procurement since the outset, it has throughout been no secret that a number of people hold views differing to those of the Finnish Defence Forces’ and the political mainstream. The criticism comes in a number of different forms, some I can agree with, some I don’t agree with but can understand the line of reasoning, and some are simply plain wrong. The article raises a number of these, and I do feel that separating the wheat from the chaff might add some value to the discussion.
If we start with the overarching idea that you can’t debate the procurement because the FDF and MoD has put a lid on everything, that is objectively not true. Granted politicians in one party or the other can be correct in that inside the party there is little room to question the party line, but that is an issue for their organisation to deal with and far from a blanket ban on debate. The irony here is probably lost on the usual suspects – who gets to decry that they can’t voice their opinion in national media. Of those interviewed, Kimmo Kiljunen (MP for the prime minister’s party the Social Democrats) is currently also editing a book(!) about the lack of debate. You might obviously feel that the discussion doesn’t get the media space it deserves, but to be completely frank the media doesn’t owe any single question space. And considering the number of articles written on the procurement, I fail to see that there would be much merit to the argument that in general there is little discussion surrounding the issue.
Moving on, professor Hiilamo feels that it is important that everyone gets to take part in the debate, and not just the researchers with a background in the FDF. You are currently reading a blog that has made its name as a solid source on HX-related topics, written by a naval private in the reserve, so I do believe we have that one sorted out. Granted some people have questioned whether the whole question is too complex to discuss based on open sources, but I do believe that a valuable discussion can be had as long as the limitations of such an approach are recognised. And so apparently does my readers.
However, what can make it feel like you aren’t getting your voice heard is if the ideas you are trying to push forward are unworkable and therefore encounter solid push-back, which unfortunately is the case with Hiilamo’s suggestion that we buy used fighters or launch a life extension program for the current Hornet-fleet, two potential paths forward which Hiilamo claims haven’t been evaluated.
Surplus Fighters and Life Extension Programs
Anyone who has been following the discussion knows that both claims have in fact been studied. As late as last summer the Air Force staff provided a memo entitled “Life Extension of the F/A-18 Hornet“, which also builds upon a number of earlier studies done internally, many of which are referenced by title in the memo (and which are classified SECRET / TL II). In essence, the issues are:
The fleet has been flown and maintained according to an expected 30 year lifespan. If this is stretched out, wear will start affecting the serviceability rates at an increasing level,
Finland will be left more or less alone as an operator of the legacy-Hornet, with most of the remaining operators being expected to withdraw their aircraft in the coming decade. This means all upgrades will be developed solely with Finnish money,
Finland would in other words be left with an ageing fleet where more and more planes are unserviceable at any given moment, and where the equipment is less modern relative to any potential adversary. This would create what the memo calls “an operational risk”, i.e. the capability of the Air Force to perform their missions and at the end of the day defend Finland would shrink.
None of this is new, but has been evident and stated publicly from the beginning. This would obviously also affect the budget, as the upgrades would incur a serious cost, and quite a bit of the HX procurement process would have to be rerun in a decade or so, adding further costs. The life extension program itself was estimated to cost 1.8 to 2.4 billion Euros in the memo. This has been called into question, as 0.7 to 1.0 billion Euros of this would be new air-to-air missiles, while at the same time part of the current stock will indeed be serviceable past 2030. However, these are earmarked for transfer to the NASAMS batteries, so in case the Hornet would use these longer than planned, the Army would instead have to increase their budget correspondingly, cancelling out any savings. Still, even the lowest estimate gives a price tag for at least 800 million Euros plus the cost of a re-launch of HX (1.8 – 1.0 = 0.8).
As for the question of used fighters, there really isn’t much on the market at the moment. Granted we can probably get the German Tornadoes or the Norwegian F-16’s cheap, but none of these would provide an increase in capability and all suffer from the same issues as a life extension of the Hornets have with increased costs and lower readiness rates. Eurofighters or Rafales might be available in small numbers, but these would also in most cases require upgrades and will need the same kind of investment in infrastructures and support systems that drives the price tag of HX (remember, the airframes themselves are a relatively small part of the total budget), so while we might get a somewhat cheaper aircraft, the costs will likely add up towards the later part of the aircraft’s service life to mean that by 2040 we are paying more than if we just would have ordered new ones and paid up front. Check the Canadian mess for a reference.
Col. (ret.) Ahti Lappi is more interesting, as he quite frankly should know better.
Having a long career in ground-based air defences, Lappi argues for a very small number of fighters with a serious investment in ground-based systems for air defence and UAVs for reconnaissance. He also states that the report that launched the HX-program didn’t look into the question of air defence as a whole, something that is hard to agree with considering the fact that it did just that. I have earlier noted that any kind of even remotely complete ground-based air defence cover would be ridiculously expensive, and also leaves the system vulnerable in it being reliant on a single operational concept. It is quite evident even for laymen that fighters and ground-based air defences aren’t an apples-to-apples comparison, but rather have different strengths and weaknesses that complement each other in the defensive counter-air mission, and as such a mix (such as the one currently envisioned by the FDF and MoD) is more robust that going all-in for either. It is also rather uncertain how Lappi imagines that a number of other missions are taken care of, such as offensive counter-air, destruction of enemy air defences, long-range strike, support to ground and naval forces, and so forth? While Lappi talks about how unmanned systems have received a greater role in many armed forces worldwide, the truth is still that their roles remain very limited and constrained compared to manned multirole fighters. The FDF is also studying and investing in unmanned capabilities, so this really isn’t a case of HX having crowded out this development path in any meaningful way.
Lappi’s historical examples of the relatively small losses to enemy air units that fighters have caused “in wars during the recent years in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria” is also far from convincing. To begin with, I am unsure exactly which 250 losses he has included in his statistics. The mix of combat and non-combat losses also hides the ratio between air-to-air and ground-to-air victories. Unfortunately, this is a textbook example of choosing metrics that benefit your cause, and is at best careless and at worst dishonest. It also completely overlook how the situation on the ground shapes the events. If one of the sides doesn’t have a strong air force it naturally will lead to few air-to-air encounters. However, it is also notable that Wikipedia lists eleven instances in Syria alone where a fighter has shot down an enemy aircraft or UAS since the start of 2015 (plus a twelfth air-to-air-victory where an Israeli AH-64 helicopter bagged an Iranian-built Saegeh UAS). I won’t vouch for every single one of these, but at least six air-to-air victories are well-known and widely reported instances (24.11.2015 Turkish F-16 downing a Russian Su-24M, 18.6.2018 USN F/A-18 downing a Syrian Su-22, 20.6.2018 USAF F-15E downing a Syrian/Iranian Saegeh, 1.3.2020 Turkish F-16 downing two Syrian Su-24M, 3.3.2020 Turkish F-16 downing a Syrian L-39).
Without seeing Lappi’s list (and I would very much like to do so), it is impossible to evaluate it further on its merits. However, keep in mind that that is largely a point of whether his argumentation is honest or not. As I noted earlier, the value of the statistics itself is limited. Often (and ironically I would argue in particular when it comes to ground-based air defences) the value of a system can also be better measured in other metrics than kills, e.g. through forcing the enemy to adapt their tactics and avoiding certain areas. But as noted, all of this is largely a question of whether Lappi is honest in his reasoning or not, because crucially: it is near impossible to evaluate how the Finnish mix of air and ground-based capabilities would fare in an all-out conflict versus Russia based on how a bunch of non-state actors have caused losses to the third-rate force that is the Syrian Arab Air Force of the 2010’s.
Luckily, the FDF which has insight into the finer details of the procurement isn’t trying to do that, but has instead run their own studies over the years.
I can understand the fear that this is a case of making the goat into the gardener. At the same time, it should be remembered that this is an acquisition program undertaken by the MoD and the FDF as a whole and not by the FinAF, meaning that there are numerous eyes keeping a watch over the project. Because let’s fact it: while there’s more or less universal agreement on the need for fighters, the one risk that everyone is aware of is that the operational costs would run over, and either crowd out other services’ needs or cause the Air Force to be unable to keep training its personnel and maintaining the aircraft properly.
There are obviously a number of steps being taken to mitigate this – including the FDF and MoD not accepting the given flight-hour costs but instead asking for individual numbers which are then run into the domestically developed model for how these costs are calculated. These will obviously be kept classified, as they are key competition data in the eyes of the manufacturers. The model will also be kept secret, as it would provide key information about Finnish Air Force operations in peacetime as well as how the force prepares for a potential crisis and include numbers for wartime stocks of spares and weapons. However, this is one area where there will inevitably remain some uncertainty, as predicting cost levels for 2055 will always be part guesswork (the same is true for the upgrades and capability roadmaps). Unless any one of the critics have a good solution to present, I believe this is one of those uncertainties that one has to learn to live it.
To go back to Kiljunen, Finland’s national security policy will undoubtedly be affected by who the supplier is, that’s a correct interpretation by him (although the fact that the discussions are made with the US – and French, UK, and Swedish – government is perfectly normal when it comes to these kinds of procurement). But here as well I fail to see how this would somehow be a particular issue for HX. Instead, this is part of the wider discussion of Finnish national security, and as recently as last autumn the “Government Report on Finnish Foreign and Security Policy” outlined the importance to Finnish national security of all potential suppliers. If buying a US fighter is an issue for Kiljunen, he should probably have tried to address it at this level rather than as part of HX. Instead, the Government Report feature rather strong language on the importance of US (and European) defence cooperation for Finland:
The increased operations and presence of NATO and the US in the Baltic countries and Poland have enhanced stability in the Baltic Sea region. The US commitment to the European defence is of great importance for the security of the whole of Europe. The EU and the United States will continue their wide-ranging cooperation. […] Cooperation with other Nordic countries and with the EU Member States and NATO countries – including the United States and the United Kingdom – is also important and in line with Finland’s long-term foreign and security policy and it is based on Finland’s own political interests.
To sum up the criticism, it really is much ado about nothing. Everyone is obviously free to disagree with the path forward envisioned by a more or less united front of politicians and defences forces’ representatives. However, that is not the same as there being a lack of debate, and several of the points raised have already been met and discussed years ago.
On one point when it comes to transparency I do raise a careful red flag that we might have to return to later this year. My understanding is that the officially announced plan of the MoD is that when the winner is announced, that is all the information that will be released. I do believe that won’t do in this day and age. While there obviously will be a need to carefully weigh all information released based on both operational and commercial considerations, and we might very well choose not do a full report a’la Denmark, I do believe that there will be pressure to release some general information such as which packages have been able to pass which gate checks and potentially even a few short general comments on the evaluation of the combat effectiveness and national security considerations, though the last two are less likely. But that is a (potential) issue for another day.
The lack of transparency and communications with regards to the Finnish operation in Afghanistan (closing in on two decades by now) is one of my pet peeves – an operation that was supposed to be roughly as dangerous and complex as KFOR evolved into something completely else, and most importantly there’s still no complete narrative in open sources on A) what FDF has been doing there all these years, B) what are the political goals, and C) how has the operation changed over the years? I should emphasise that I’m not against the operation per se and by all accounts the vast majority of those that have served seems to have done a stellar job, but it does feel strange that after all these years anyone wanting to get a comprehensive picture of what Finland has been doing in Afghanistan will need to piece it together from numerous open sources (some of which are non-trivial to get hold of) that each hold a small piece of the puzzle. In the picture above it seems like the Germans are coming in to provide a lift. Picture source: Maavoimat Twitter
In a long-awaited move, the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command yesterday sent out the RFQ for a new ground-based air defence system “with a high ceiling”. The corresponding RFI went out in 2018, and under the current schedule the procurement will be finalised before the end of 2022 and the system will become operational during the latter half of the 20’s.
For a more general overview of the current state of the Finnish high-end ground based air defences (and why we won’t acquire an anti-ballistic missile capability), I recommend that you check out my sub-chapter on Finland in the FOI anthology “Beyond Bursting Bubbles“, but the long story short is that Finland acquired the Buk-M1 in the late 1990’s as part of a deal to cover the Russian debt stemming from the Soviet clearing accounts. Unfortunately, worries about the ability of Russia to counter the system meant that they had to be retired quite soon thereafter, with the last conscripts training on the system in 2005. Exactly when (if?) the system was withdrawn is unclear, but it seems to have survived in (limited?) service past Crimea.
In any case, a replacement system was acquired under what would become the ITO12 procurement, which saw SAMP/T and NASAMS II face off in a competition won by the NASAMS. The reason behind the choice was bluntly described by then Chief of Defence, Admiral Kaskeala:
Do we buy one Cadillac or four Volvos?
In any case, the ‘Volvo’ has scored a number of successes around the world, and is generally seen as a potent system, but one that suffers from short range due to the poor performance of its AIM-120C AMRAAM missile when fired from a ground-based launcher. Janes lists it as having an estimated max range of 20 km, though this is partially offset by the launchers being able to be placed up to 25 km out from the fire direction centre (FDC). The ceiling is rather uncertain, with The Drive mentioning 50,000 feet (15,000+ meters), but on the other hand then-Finnish inspector of the ground-based air defences, colonel Sami-Antti Takamaa, in an interview in 2018 stated that the new system (which should be able to go significantly higher than NASAMS) should have a ceiling of 8,000 to 15,000 meters. There’s likely an apples-to-pears situation in the numbers above, with Takamaa referencing the effective engagement altitudes which are quite a bit below the theoretical maximum.
However, for most situations the maximum specifications isn’t as interesting as other factors. The ability to deploy the systems with the launchers dispersed, the active seeker of the missiles, modularity, and the modern C4I architecture are of greater value. However, the fact that the NASAMS would lose in top trumps against the system it replaced means that there is a gap above the coverage provided by Finnish SAMs, and one that can only be covered by fighters.
This leads us to the current ITSUKO-program, where throughout the focus has been on increasing the air defence capabilities at high altitude. This is interesting, as most countries discuss their different classes of SAM’s in terms of range rather than ceiling, and clearly shows which operational problem the FDF is trying to solve. Obviously, with increased ceiling comes increased range (though one shouldn’t think of the effective engagement zone as a half-sphere above ground, as the routes chosen by modern missiles and the physics involved makes things a bit more complex than that), but this is largely seen as a secondary bonus. In the earlier quoted article, major general (engineering) Kari Renko of the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command explained that “Increased territorial coverage means that we have more batteries operational”, and struck down the notion that a meaningful increase in territorial coverage could be achieved solely by increasing the range. In effect, this is due to the large area of Finland, which means that the difference in coverage between differently ranged systems, especially at low range, is small enough that it is negligible at the operational or strategic level.
Here it is good to remember that as none of the current systems are to be replaced, the number of operational batteries will in fact go up. This in turn means that, in the words of current inspector of the ground-based air defences, colonel Mikko Mäntynen, the “fighters will get a higher degree of freedom”. While this is all good and true, there is a nagging feeling that this might be an attempt to cover for the fact that HX won’t reach 64 fighters. Let’s hope that feeling is unfounded…
The news yesterday was that the field competing has been cut down by half. Of the ten companies that received the RFI in 2018, five are still in the competition bidding for the role as prime contractors. These are Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace (KDA), Diehl Defence, MBDA, Rafael, and IAI. Missing from the list are all American companies, as well as Swedish defence company Saab whose RBS 23 lacks the punch to compete in this race (note though that Janes gives the max altitude as 15,000 meters, again showing that 15,000 meters max doesn’t necessarily mean that your system can effectively handle engagements at 8,000 to 15,000 meters). However, it is entirely possible that Saab appears as a subcontractor in some of the bids, as their Giraffe 4A radar has had a tendency to do so in other places. Raytheon is a long-term active partner to KDA, and it is no surprise that they are confirmed to be working together with them here as well (even if rumours had hinted at them also bidding separately as a prime, presumably with the MIM-104 Patriot). Another of Raytheon’s joint programs might also show up…
Of those bidding, Diehl is without doubt the odd one out. As far as I am aware of, Diehl has nothing bigger than the IRIS-T SLS (which recently entered Swedish service as the RBS 98). Being based on a short-range IIR air-to-air missile, it suffers from a 5,000 meter ceiling (again according to Janes), leaving it even shorter-legged than the NASAMS. To be completely honest, I have no idea about what Diehl is planning to offer.
Yes, it is extremely confusunf, especially with Diehl using SL to refer to both SLS and SLM! Here's a picture of the two missiles side by side to illustrate the differences pic.twitter.com/x2wywmzae0
Edit 30 October: Diehl in fact has a longer-ranged version. There is quite a bit of confusion in their designations in open sources (I’ve e.g. seen SL, SLS, and SLM all refer to just different launchers firing the same IRIS-T missile, and I’ve even seen the Swedish EldE 98 referred to as SLM!). However, Diehl’s SLM is in fact a rather different missile with a seriously longer range thanks to a larger rocket and an aerodynamic nosecone that pops off once the target is within range of the missile’s IIR-seeker. This dual-mode (firing solution and early tracking being provided by radar and datalink until switching to final guidance by IIR) is rather interesting and could potentially be more difficult to spoof compared to more traditional solutions. The missile has been test-fired successfully, but the operational status seems to be rather uncertain. Thanks to f-pole for clearing things up!
KDA is the obvious favourite, being able to offer the AMRAAM-ER for the NASAMS-system. The AMRAAM-ER in essence combine booster of the ESSM and the front unit of the AMRAAM to produce a completely new missile with “50% increase in range and a 70% increase in altitude” compared to the current AIM-120C-7.
In other words, KDA can simply offer more of a system already in service with the Finnish Army, but with ability to use either the shorter-legged AMRAAM or the longer-legged AMRAAM-ER according to need. The modularity of the NASAMS also means that integrating a host of other missiles is possible, should the FDF be so inclined (spoiler alert: they’re probably not). That kind of synergy effects could very well be hard to beat, but the competition isn’t giving up without a fight.
As noted earlier on the blog, MBDA has had a surprisingly difficult time in landing any major contract with the FDF. The obvious system for them to offer is the Land Ceptor/CAMM-ER. The missile is an operational system with the British Army and the specifications on paper seems to be a good match, but it is difficult to see it outmatching the stiff competition.
The question about what the two Israeli companies will offer is more open. Rafael is able to offer the SPYDER, which is a truck running around with a bunch of missiles on its back. It offers the ability to fire both the Python 5 highly-manoeuvrable short-range IIR-missile, but also the Derby longer-ranged missile. The overall concept is rather similar to that of the NASAMS, with a modern C4I architecture and air-to-air missiles adopted for ground-based use, and while not as prolific as the NASAMS it has scored a few export successes from serious customers such as Singapore. However, most numbers found in open sources seem to indicate that the SPYDER lacks the range and ceiling to be able to offer a meaningful improvement over the current NASAMS. This would in turn mean that the system offered is the David’s Sling, which uses a two-stage Stunner-missile (also known as the SkyCeptor). The missile is perhaps best known internationally as the PAAC-4 missile for the US Patriot-system, which is a joint program between Rafael and Raytheon to produce a significantly cheaper missile with better performance compared to the current PAC-3 that is used for anti-ballistic missile work with the Patriot battery. The Stunner is designed from the outset to be able to easily integrate into other systems, meaning that it is possible that the weapon could communicate better than some of the competition with the current systems found in the Finnish integrated air defence network. Still, it does feel that the ABM-capable is a bit of overkill in a competition against missiles such AMRAAM-ER and CAMM-ER (remember that several high-ranking officials and generals at different times have shot down the idea that Finland would be interesting in pursuing a real ABM-capability), unless the offer really is one we can’t refuse.
IAI has a more varied, and at least on paper, more suitable range of weapons, with the BARAK-series being the logical contender. This include a range of missiles, with the BARAK-LRAD missile being the most likely version on offer here. This is part of the general BARAK MX-system, and is developed in parallel with the BARAK 8 for the Indian Navy. Crucially, IAI’s Elta-division has a large portfolio of radars (including the ELM-2311 C-MMR which was recently acquired by the FDF for use as a counter-battery radar), and as such it would be interesting to see which radars they would pair with their interceptor for the bid.
Twice each year, the Finnish Defence Forces kicks off several simultaneous local defence exercises. In accordance with their names, these are local in their nature, and “will develop local defence readiness and combat capability, as well as inter-authority cooperation in rapidly evolving situations” according to the latest presser. General Timo Kivinen, Chief of the Finnish Defence Forces, described the trends that led to the local exercises becoming a staple of the FDF’s calendar as follows:
The threat scenarios of today’s world are really multifaceted […] and when the set of available tools is wide, no single authority can handle all of them by themselves […] and for this we need inter-authority cooperation to take care of these threat pictures, and that is what we are practising here. The exercise is built with cases, and each case has one lead agency which the others then support.
The latest round featured Kokkola 20, centered around my hometown that also lent its name to the exercise. With large-scale military exercises being a rarity in Ostrobothnia these days, I naturally was determined to see what the fuss was all about.
The preparations have been going on for a few years already, with not only the FDF playing a key part, but also the local Police, other emergency services, the Finnish Border Guard, and the city itself all being among the main players. The chief executive officer of the Central Ostrobothnia and Pietarsaari Region Emergency Services Department, Jaakko Pukkinen, went as far as to describe it as the “Broadest inter-authority exercise the region has seen.” The elephant in the room was obviously the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought some additional challenges. “We train for exceptional times during exceptional times” the representative for the local police, chief inspector Vesa Toivanen, wryly noted. He was using the Finnish term “poikkeusolot”, which both describe exceptional times generally but also hold the specific legal meaning of a declared state of emergency. The sentiment was echoed by the city’s chief executive, Stina Mattila, who noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has again showed that you can never be too prepared. The third major authority sorting under the Ministry of Interior was the Finnish Border Guard. The FBG also include the coast guard as an integral part, with the latter obviously being the focus of the FBG’s presence in the region. The FBG has a set of military missions as well, and here their part of the exercise was leaning towards their “military” mission set.
The military forces taking part in the exercise in effect were made up of three different components: conscript military police units (mainly from the Pori Brigade), mobilised reserve military police units on a refresher exercise, and the local defence units (Fi. Paikallisjoukot). The Pori Brigade, being one of the country’s most important peacetime units and the “local” unit for a large part of Western Finland including Kokkola, served as the host unit responsible for the exercise.
Kokkola and this region does not constitute some kind of a military vacuum.
That’s how colonel Riku Suikkanen, second in command of the Pori Brigade and exercise lead, put it during the media event leading up to the exercise. A key part of the exercise include it being a high-visibility one, making sure that the population still feel that the FDF is there despite the drawdown in peacetime bases and training locations around the country. And as the colonel noted, the soldiers descending upon the town are no strangers.
Our daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers are those out training.
As the exact duties and setup of military police units varies with country, it can be good to shortly describe the Finnish military police force. This was done well in a recent podcast by the FDF’s own podcast series, Radio Kipinä, so those with a working knowledge of Finnish are recommended to check that out. In short, a Finnish military police is an infantry soldier that has received additional training in security and guard duty. This include a host of different skills, ranging from non-lethal ways to stop and capture an intruder to understanding the legal framework that the FDF work with when it comes to protecting its infrastructure, people, and activities. The exact skill sets vary between peacetime garrisons, all of which sport some kind of military police unit on their premises, but in general it can be noted that military police travel relatively light, prioritising operational mobility over protection, and that they often (but not always) have a better understanding of and training for combat in an urban environment thanks to their focus on infrastructure protection (the obvious outlier is the Guard Jaeger Regiment, with the whole mother unit being the FDF’s prime urban warfare centre means that their military police units are also the most highly specialised urban warriors compared to other military police conscripts). In wartime, military police units can function as part of a larger formation, in which case they would fill a light infantry role. A more traditional role that is closely related to that of security and protection duty is counter-special forces. To some extent all military police units can perform the mission, though some receive additional training in the field. For the Pori Brigade, the most notable unique feature of their military police units is that they offer dog handler training to conscripts, something that no other Finnish unit does.
Back to Kokkola 20. With the military police playing main fiddle together with the local defence units, it meant that military part of the exercise was rather infantry heavy compared to some of the others which sported a more combined arms approach. Besides this, the question obviously arose why Kokkola was chosen to host the exercise. As such, I headed over to Port Tower, the gateway to the local Port of Kokkola, where I got to sit down together with a few other representatives of local media to ask general Kivinen some questions about the exercise. Entering the parking lot of the titanium zinc clad tower where I’ve eaten lunch numerous times, the flurry of exercise activity was immediately obvious. In the treeline (ironically enough the former grounds of the FDF’s gunsmith school) trucks and tents were set up, with small groups of soldiers having taken position at set locations to keep a watchful eye on the heavy traffic heading to and from the port. Entering the building yet more uniforms were visible, and a quick glance around confirmed that they included all FDF categories taking part in the exercise – conscripts, professionals, local and non-local reservists.
With earlier exercises having taken place in nearby Vaasa and Seinäjoki, coming to Kokkola serves dual purposes in that it both lets a significant number of FDF personnel familiarise themselves with local conditions, but it also ensure that the locals get to familiarise themselves with FDF. As could be guessed from the location of the interview, much of the discussion centred around the port. The port is able to handle capesize vessels, and is the most important port in Finland when it comes to bulk cargo as well as rail- and transit cargo, as well as the third largest general cargo port. Without discussing the details of threat scenario in the exercise, there was no hiding the fact that the port was of great interest.
In general when you think about ports they are key nodes in the logistics chain, and as such their importance in case of a serious crisis or in a terrorism related case they would be potential locations where the Finnish authorities would need a readiness to be able to react.
The general also noted that a crisis in the Baltic Sea proper would lead to an increased importance for the ports in the Gulf of Bothnia. As such, it is of interest to ensure that the different authorities can not only communicate with each other, but that they are able to share a common situational picture and coordinate their activities in case of a major crisis. The general noted that in the case of Central Ostrobothnia, the last two issues seems to be the challenging part, as while the other authorities are well-known to each other and have exercised together earlier, FDF is quite new to the region.
This is also the reason behind the lack of heavier units, as Kivinen is happy to explain. “The Army leads the overall situation, and the Army Command have given the units responsible directions regarding the local defence exercises, and it is true that they differ from each other. There are good reasons for this, and they also might vary according to when and how we have last exercised interagency cooperation in any given area,” general Kivinen explained when I questioned about how the different scenarios are chosen. In this case, the scenario was well below the threshold of war.
In this exercise we don’t have a scenario where Finland would be facing a clear threat of a war breaking out, but there are scenarios in which military capabilities are used to support other agencies.
However, that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of bad people running around wreaking havoc. Or at least trying to.
One of the key people involved was a long-term active reservist and instructor, who had earlier experience of red team-activities as well. Without going into details, he was happy to discuss his general role in the exercise.
The red team was tasked partly with following a realistic manuscript, but also to find areas of improvement, e.g. when it comes to how the blue forces train and how they performed. Details and nuances could be discussed later, and talking afterwards is always easy, but I have to admit that KPMAAKK [the Local Defence Company of Central Ostrobothnia] and the military police reservists from the Pori Brigade were darn good.