Knight no. 52 – No Bridges Burning

The highest Finnish decoration for military service is the Mannerheim Cross, which was introduced as part of the Knighthood of the Cross of Liberty following the Winter War. A total of 191 servicemen received the order during the Second World War, of which only four received it twice. Of these, colonel Martti Aho spent the last years of his life in my hometown Kokkola, and it is here that he was laid to rest in 1968. The Mannerheim Cross is somewhat unusual in that it can be issued both for exceptional bravery, but also for the conduct of especially successful combat operations, meaning that it was found throughout the ranks of the Finnish Defence Forces, which also was the expressed purpose when the cross was created. Martti Aho’s both crosses belonged to the second category, but that is not to say that he would have been lacking in courage.

Aho was born in 1896 in the countryside outside of Kemi in the northern parts of the country. He begun his military career by volunteering as a rifleman in the Civil War of 1918, where he advanced to squad leader and fought in both his home region as well as in Karelia. Following the end of the war, he joined the unsuccessful Olonets Expedition serving in different battalion and regimental logistics functions, before he returned following the failure of the attempt to extend Finnish rule into Eastern Karelia. It wouldn’t however be the last time he visited the forests of Karelia. Back in Finland, he passed reserve officer training in 1921, and joined the Border Guards two years later. Steadily rising through the ranks, he was swiftly appointed battalion commander once the Winter War started and sent to the Olonets Ishmuts. He ended the war as the commander of Osasto Karpalo, part of the 13. Division, and was wounded twice during the fighting in January and February.

JR. 50:n komentaja majuri Aho neuvottelee saksalaisten upseerien kanssa.
Then-major Aho (second from right closest to the camera) discussing with some German officers in Suvilahti in August 1941. Source: SA-Kuva

The interim peace saw Aho return to the Border Guards where he worked a number of different staff positions and a short stint as a commander of the Border Guard training unit, before he was transferred to the Defence Forces in 1941. When hostilities broke out, he served as the head of operations in the divisional staff of 11. Division, but quickly received command of infantry regiment JR 50, the unit which was to be most closely associated with him.

JR 50 would have an eventful war, and Aho would lead it throughout. Once the offensive east started, the regiment quickly became known for it’s speed and stamina. 19 August the foot infantry unit broke through the enemy positions at Ignoila, despite the Soviet’s having been supported by tanks and direct firing guns, Aho having personally led the offensive from the front of the unit. Having broken through, he pushed onward “skilfully and with ruthless speed”, to use the words of the citation of his first Mannerheim Cross, and captured the strategically important, and hence heavily defended, railway and road bridges over Suojoki before the enemy managed to blow them. Not stopping, he continued in the front, twice having to use his personal light machine gun (yes, that apparently was a thing in JR 50) to chase away enemies from their positions before capturing Suvilahti on the 21 of August. Having appeared in the flank and rear of the enemy position at Näätäjoki, these were forced to retreat with the Finnish forces causing significant losses to the escaping units.

JR. 50 etenee kahlaten vetelällä suolla n. 15km.
Soldiers of JR 50 marching 15 km through the swamps as the operations near Teru commences in the first days of September 1941. Source: SA-kuva

Four days later JR 50 was on the move again, Aho’s regiment first encircling and then crushing the enemy positions at Kurmoila so swiftly that they after this managed to capture the prepared Soviet positions on the hilly Essoila isthmus before they had a chance to man these. This was followed by another short stop, before the unit in early September marched through the forests and swamps around Teru, charged into the position protecting the enemy’s southern flank, broke these, and continued with speed to capture another strategic bridge over Suojujoki before the enemy managed to blow it. He again personally led the first two platoons to cross over. In the end, the successful campaign of JR 50 played a key role in paving the way for the Finnish occupation of Petrozavodsk. This had not gone unnoticed, and Aho was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in October and received his first Mannerheim Cross in March the following year, becoming knight number 52.

The next few years saw limited movements along the front, and JR 50 spent much of the time along the Svir River. When the Soviet summer offensive of 1944 started steamrolling the Finnish positions on the Karelian Isthmus, JR 50 was sent south and met the enemy juggernaut at Portinhoikka during the battle of Tali-Ihantala. Here Aho was wounded the third time, and the regiment suffered devastating losses during the fighting 28 and 29 June. It was then pulled back and placed in reserve for just over a month, before it again was sent to the front in early August. Aho returned to again take command of his regiment on the first day of September, just three days before the armistice. The end of the Continuation War did not spell the end of fighting for the regiment, however.

Everstiluutnantti Aho ja luutnantti Toivonen (JR 50) ovat saaneet rautaristin.
Aho’s achievments weren’t just noticed by the Finnish command. Here he, together with lt Toivonen, has received the German Iron Cross in Kuuttilahti in 1942. Two years later Aho would earn his last victories fighting his former brothers in arms. Source: SA-Kuva

As part of the armistice agreement, Finland was to ensure that the Germans left Finnish territory. The German’s weren’t about to go nicely though, and the Lapland War was the result. On 5 October the regiment landed in Röyttä, the outer port of Tornio, just a short distance from Aho’s childhood home. The fighting had already been going for a few days, and the Finnish forces were hard-pressed to defend themselves against the German counteroffensives. The pendulum was about to swing, however, as more and more Finnish forces arrived. And once again, JR 50 received the order to go on the offensive.

The counteroffensive by JR 50 is probably the second most well-known episode of the battle for Tornio (following the unfortunate episode with the alcohol depot in Little-Berlin). The regiment left much of it’s heavy equipment in Röyttä and marched into swamps and forests through a gap in the front to flank the main German force consisting of three battalions, and encircled them against the River Tornio. While post-war research has shown that significant parts of the encircled did manage to break out, the motti was a significant success and would play an important role in the political games surrounding the Lappland War. Just eight days after the last encircled Germans surrendered, both Aho and his superior major general Aaro Pajari received what in both cases was their second Mannerheim Crosses.

165596
Heavy equipment left behind by the fleeing Germans in the motti north of Tornio. All surviving equipment was sent to the Soviet Union in accordance with the armistice treaty. Source: SA-Kuva

While it can be argued that political considerations weighed more heavily than usual in the decision to hand Aho his second Mannerheim Cross, there is little doubt that he had done more than his share in ensuring Finland’s independence through his participation in four wars. After the war, he spent six weeks arrested when the plans to hide weapons caches in anticipation of a Soviet invasion. Following a few more years in uniform, he retired from active service in 1949.

At this point, he moved to Kokkola and worked at the local stevedoring company until his retirement, also owning a share in it. Today, a commemorative plaque of the double-knight was unveiled at the offices of Rauanheimo, the company still continuing the same line of trade under the original name in the port of Kokkola. Considering his long and remarkable career, it does feel overdue to see him memorialised in his final home town.

Mayor Mattila unveiled the commemorative plaque. Source: own picture

As it happens, my grandmother worked at Rauanheimo during Aho’s final years in the company. She recalled that he was ever the gentleman, each morning making a point out of stopping at every desk and wishing everyone a good morning. The personality that had made him rank amongst Finland’s most decorated soldiers did shine through as well. Once the chain smoker occupying the desk opposite of Aho had left the room for a short break when the remnants in the ashtray set fire to the paperwork he had left on the desk. Aho calmly watched flames, until the smoker came rushing back and started putting out the flames, shouting at Aho why he didn’t do something? Aho, without moving from behind his desk, just answered “It isn’t my fire,” and continued to calmly watch the firefighting efforts. For someone who had faced hostile fire in five wars, some scorched paperwork didn’t qualify as a crisis.

HX Challenge pt. 5: Bigger, Better, Stronger

“I prefer to have two engines over just one.” Yes dear readers, even in the 21st century, the single- versus twin-engined debate isn’t dead. Sorry Pratt & Whitney, but once that one engine catches a flock of birds (or a 30 mm round) down in the weeds, having two is an advantage. How much of an advantage is an open question, and one for the HX-team to ponder upon. Let’s just note that while the Finnish Air Force hasn’t lost any Hornets to birdstrikes, it has lost a Hawk.

However, that wasn’t Boeing’s main selling point when they held their media event as part of HX Challenge this week. Instead, it was about a total package. The Super Hornet as the most versatile and reliable multirole fighter available, offering the greatest suitability to the Finnish concept of operations (read: dispersed operations), having a proven track record as a reliable partner when it comes to customer support and industrial offset, and with the EA-18G Growler bringing unique capabilities to the fight. In essence, Boeings pitch isn’t necessarily that the Super Hornet is miles in front of the competition in any particular field, but rather that the package as a whole will offer the flexibility and cost-to-benefit ratio needed to win the deal.

Family picture
Boeing brought all three aircraft on offer to HX Challenge, starting with the F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets closer to the camera, and the EA-18G Growler towards the rear. Source: Own picture

There is much to be said for that approach. The Finnish Air Force is very happy with the legacy Hornet (or ‘Classic’, as Boeing likes to call it), and the transition to Super Hornet makes sense in many ways. The carrier pedigree is still valuable in many ways besides the obvious short take-off and landing distances. The US Navy carrier air wing is in fact a good analogy for the Finnish Air Force. You find yourself in a taxing environment, having roughly fifty to sixty fighters and whatever spares and stocks you’ve brought with you. You might or might not be fighting alongside allied assets, so you need to be able to both go alone and have the interoperability to link up with friends. Hence the need for high rates of readiness, quick turnaround times, high sortie generation, as well as the ability to keep operating with a minimal amount of support equipment and a small logistical footprint.

“The most proven and affordable multirole platform out there”

That’s how Jennifer Tebo, Director of Development for both the Super Hornet and the Growler programs, opened her presentation. This was a sentiment echoed throughout the presentation, and Boeing was keen to point out that they don’t have to project operating costs or look at trends in cost-saving programs — they know what the aircraft cost to operate. “Particularly suite for Finland” was another phrase used. For a cost-conscious customer, this is something that will earn them a few points extra in the evaluation. Another thing is the cost-savings Boeing experiences during the phasing in of the aircraft. While the final checks of current infrastructure hasn’t been made yet, they are due for next week, Boeing estimate up to 60 % of current infrastructure, including both facilities, maintenance equipment, ground support, and dispersed bases, can be used with the Super Hornet (the remaining percentage also include equipment that can be either refurbished or replaced, depending on the Air Force’s view). Considering the large amount of support equipment needed due to the dispersed operations, this might easily turn into a significant saving. The Super Hornet can also continue to carry the weapons currently found in the Finnish arsenal, with some added tricks up it’s sleeve. The aircraft is fitted for tactical aerial refuelling, and it is easily to imagine a scenario during fluid dispersed operations where the fuel isn’t in the correct place relative to the fighters. At such a time, having a Super Hornet configured for tanker duty linking up somewhere can save valuable time. In peacetime, being able to practice air-to-air refuelling without a tanker having to fly in from RAF Mildenhall will also significantly ease training routines.

One thing that was touched upon in the weapons department was the fact that the Super Hornet is the only HX contender not slated for Meteor integration. “There’s an opportunity for an advanced air-to-air missile within our offer to adress that need,” was the line we were given. While obviously not confirmed by Boeing, initial deliveries sporting the AIM-120D AMRAAM and later buys of AIM-260 once that comes online is the most likely scenario here.

Finally, the transition time would be easier and faster. Captain Brian Becker, commodore of US Navy’s Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, noted that a six month transition period was enough to switch Hornet squadrons to Super Hornets. It should be pointed out that this is for the squadron as a whole, and includes not only teaching the pilots to fly the aircraft, but also transitioning the support personnel, changing out equipment, and getting everyone up to speed on the new aircraft to the level that it is a functioning unit able to perform operational missions. The sentiment was echoed by colonel Aki Heikkinen, commander of Satakunta Air Wing, who noted transitioning a pilot was largely a matter of hours rather than weeks if strictly talking about flying the aircraft safely (colonel Heikkinen also shot down the idea that some of the contenders would struggle with landing or taking off from road bases. “We’ve flown Draken from them”, he said, alluding to the Saab-built interceptor that the Hornet replaced in Finnish service). It should be remembered that the 10 Bn Euro budget isn’t available as such to the fighter manufacturer, but parts of it will also finance the reconstruction of air bases as well as part of the everyday operations of the aircraft during the first five years (as the Hornet operations are using the Air Forces’ normal budget until their retirement). As such, Boeing has a crucial advantage when it comes to saving money on these indirect costs, money that can be used to include one of the premier force multipliers of the fighter world in their bid.

Tebo
Jennifer Tebo, Director of Development for F/A-18 and EA-18G, ascertains that the Super Hornet production line is “alive and well” with an “active and healthy supply chain”. Source: Own picture

The EA-18G Growler is a serious asset to any operator. The Growler is in essence a combination of a SIGINT-platform gathering data from anything that is emitting, as well as a jamming platform blocking any system from emitting anything useful, be it communications or radars. While stealth platforms currently does a nice job of denying the enemy the ability to close the kill chain by making it hard to get a fire-control solution on the radar, the Growler has the ability to take it further by jamming the electronic spectrum from the VHF-band to the Ku-band, denying the enemy all parts of the chain (early warning, acquisition, and fire control radar bands). If need be, the Growler can also take out the transmitting radars by employing the latest AGM-88E AARGM-missile, or just feed the information to the nearest Super Hornet slinging a suitable weapon to form a classic hunter-killer team.

All this means that the Growler is a highly appreciated asset, and not just by the US Navy. In fact, the USAF is funding part of the Growler-force, that include five expeditionary squadrons. It is not unusual to find Growlers assisting some of the Air Forces’ stealthiest platforms with both situational awareness and jamming. The Growler is growing with the Super Hornet, with both aircraft introducing technologies that filter over to the other. But while the aircraft maintain 90% commonality with each other, it is the remaining 10% that makes the Growler really venomous. The wingtip ALQ-218 RF Receivers, perhaps the most obvious external recognising feature, are described as “extremely good” and tell the pilot not only what is out there, but also where it is. The crew can then decide what to do with that information, whether to engage with weapons, avoid, or jam.

Alain Garcia
Alain Garcia is Capture Team Lead for Finland and Switzerland, and like many of Boeing’s people involved in the Super Hornet program he has a background flying the aircraft. He also has a cool jacket, and really like the ALQ-218 RF Receiver System. Source: Own picture

A key part of the jamming system is the two large ALQ-249 Next Generation Jammers (NGJ) for the mid-band. These are amongst the most advanced US electronic warfare capabilities, and just the fact that they have been released for export to Finland even before the US Navy has accepted them into operational use tells something about the US-Finnish bilateral relation. Ernie Winston from Raytheon, the developer and manufacturer of the pods, was happy to confirm that the development program is moving forward according to plan, and that the first pre-production batches are expected to join the program this year, which also will see the first mission system flight testing. The first series production deliveries will take place in 2022.

What exactly makes the NGJ different from the current generation then? A lot, as it turns out. The big thing is that it is capable of hitting numerous targets simultaneously, thanks to AESA features and “extremely high power”. To counter modern radars, it is also able to switch modes very quickly. The pod is designed from the bottom up to be modular and easily upgradable. Winston describe the system as providing “transformative electronic attack capability”, while the more modest HX-programme manager colonel Keränen just noted that the Growler represents a capability currently not found in the Finnish Air Force

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

The versatility of the Growler also means that they can be used in a number of different ways. The US Navy likes to use the superior intelligence gathering and presence of a backseater to allow the aircraft to stand back a bit from the fight (the high power of it’s  jammers ensure that it can perform stand-off as well as stand-in jamming), sharing it’s tactical picture with the rest of the flight and having the Growler’s WSO (backseater) play the role of a mission commander, directing the fight. ‘Quarterbacking it’, as Boeing put it with a good analogy that will be meaningless for a majority of Finns.

The RAAF on the other hand has a more hands-on approach, and isn’t afraid to use their Growlers up close and personal. This is aided by the fact that the Growler in essence has all the air-to-air capabilities of a F/A-18F Super Hornet (minus the wingtip AIM-9 Sidewinders), coupled with vastly superior jamming capabilities. While a Growler preferably shouldn’t get involved in the air-to-air fight, it certainly is capable of defending itself.

The Australian connection is interesting. While there are lot of difference between Finland and Australia, there are surprising similarities when looking at the air forces. Both were major operators of the ‘legacy’ Hornet (sorry Boeing, the designation has stuck already), and were the first two (and for a long time, only) export customers of the AGM-158 JASSM which gave their respective fleets a precision deep strike capability. Both also operate in the grey zone of being somewhat non-aligned but enjoying close bilateral relations with the US (though Australia has a significantly more expeditionary approach). This closeness of the respective US-relations is what makes deals such as the JASSM or Growler possible. And if Finland chooses the Super Hornet, there is something very interesting brewing down under.

Recently Boeing made headlines by flying three Growlers simultaneously, with one controlling the other remotely two (they were often referred to as ‘unmanned’ by the press, something that wasn’t strictly true as they had a back-up crew aboard to take control if something would have gone wrong). The news wasn’t that a Growler can be flown remotely, but rather that Boeing had successfully demonstrated that without modifying the cockpit hardware, it is possible to effectively command unmanned wingmen from a Growler or Super Hornet using currently available data links (Link 16 or ATDL). The software part is included on both the Growler and Super Hornet road maps, and is expected to be rolled out sometime during the latter half of the decade (i.e. when Finland is receiving its HX-fighters). The question is then what would you control? Granted you can use the Growler (or a ‘legacy’ Hornet using Link 16, though that is suboptimal due to bandwidth and security concerns), but a smarter way is to use a purpose-built platform. Such as the Loyal Wingman.

FA-18E take-off
The larger wing make the take-off and landing distance shorter compared to the legacy Hornet, despite the higher take-off weight. Source: Own picture

The Loyal Wingman is currently being developed in Australia, something that has the added benefit of ensuring it stays ITAR-free. In other words, ensuring that it can be exported through direct commercial sales from Australia without the need to go through the sometimes tiresome US bureaucracy. To a certain extent, the current Loyal Wingman is a solution looking for a problem. It is highly modular, meaning that it can take up a number of payloads. While the system in its first configuration is likely to play the role of ISR platform and/or forward active sensor, it can be armed as well. And importantly, it is built from the ground up to be cheap enough that it is attritable. With a first flight slated for later this year, this isn’t a hypothetical MLU-capability, but rather something that very well might be operational by the time Finland declare FOC for the HX-fleet. Having an unmanned (the plan is for the Loyal Wingman to have the ability to operate independently using AI or to be remotely controlled) ISR-platform with a huge range, 3,700+ km has been mentioned, would be a very interesting option. However, when it comes to HX specifically, Boeing might have outwitted themselves, as the Australian Loyal Wingman can’t be included in the US Foreign Military Sales-package that is being offered for HX. With the relatively low price tag, it is instead found in the “Future capabilities”-column with a detailed description, and treated as a possible arms sale for the time post 2030.

But the Loyal Wingman is just one piece of the puzzle making the Super Hornet-family “networked and survivable”, to use Boeing’s phrasing. The key here is the Advanced Tactical Datalink, or ATDL, that allows for vastly increased amounts of data being sent between the aircrafts (and other friendlies, including ground and ship units). To be able to cope with this increased amount data received, as well as the increased amount of data from the Block III’s own sensors (including the ATFLIR targeting pod and the long-range IRST pod), the aircraft has received the increased processing power of the DTP-N (a “big computer”, as it was described). This in turn makes the creation of a common tactical picture (CTP) possible, which is presented to the pilot on the new wide-angled display that is the most visible part of the Advanced Cockpit System, vastly increasing the situational awareness of the pilots. In essence, what Boeing does is linking together the aircraft to get a clear situational picture even in complex high-treat environments. The new cockpit coupled with the CTP also lower the pilot workload, providing a “huge step up” when it comes to how the information is presented to the crew, and helps avoid overloading the pilot with data.

The rhino in the room is the as yet undefined date when the US Navy will withdraw the Super Hornet from service. Despite the recent news of the death of the Super Hornet being seriously overblown, the fact is that when captain Becker describes the future of the Super Hornet in the Navy, the timeline is two decades plus in US service.

“Regardless of other platforms coming out, F/A-18 will be the cornerstone for many years to come”

That all sounds nice and plausible, probably even slightly conservative considering there are no plans for the F-35C to replace large number of Super Hornets and that the NGAD is still just in the study stage of the program, but the gap from 2040+ to 2060+ is still significant. And the day the US Navy pulls the plug on the Super Hornet the continued development of the aircraft can quickly become prohibitively expensive for Finland. As said, a sunset before the late 2040’s is unlikely, especially given the 500+ aircraft upgrade program that will continue to push out refurbished Block III’s past 2030 and the unique nature of the Growler. However, the last ten years of the HX winner’s service life are uncertain, there is simply no way around it.

This is Boeing’s main weakness in the current offer, and to be fair one they share with much of the rest of the competition (especially Rafale and Gripen, Eurofighter to a somewhat lesser extent). France at least has officially stated that the Rafale will fly in French service into the 2070’s, but on the other hand the value of such promises might not be particularly high if FCAS suddenly encounter cost overruns that need to be covered (on the other hand, if FCAS encounter delays to the in-service date, the Rafale might suddenly have to soldier on longer). Gripen is even more vulnerable than the Rafale and Super Hornet, considering the smaller fleet and that the Swedish Air Force as opposed to AdA or USN is unlikely to run a multi-type fleet for any considerable time. Will Boeing be able to convince the Finnish Air Force that it is a risk worth taking? That is perhaps the biggest hurdle facing the Boeing sales team, and we won’t know the answer for a year. A German decision during 2020 on getting the Super Hornet as a Tornado replacement could easily be a deciding factor, but considering the decision was to have been made before the end of 2018, this could easily slip beyond the HX decision date of Q1 2021. Another key piece missing is the US Navy’s Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment that was expected in January, but has since been postponed. The current one dates to 2016 and is the basis for the (in)famous 355-ship force. The new INFAS could easily change the future of the Super Hornet fleet in one direction or the other.

Hangar door
The F/A-18E Super Hornet being admired by the assembled media. Note the left wing armament, which if mirrored on the right wing would give the aircraft seven AIM-120 AMRAAM and two AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles. On the centerline the podded IRST is visible. Note the badges on the hangar, celebrating the history of now disbanded fighter squadron HävLLv 21 and 44,500+ flight hours of the Hornet, the latter nicely summing up why the Super Hornet is one of the front runners in HX. Source: Own picture

One area were Boeing on the other hand has an edge is in their industrial cooperation program. The company has already once successfully performed a 3.5 Bn USD offset program in Finland. Though it might not have been quite as happy an affair as Boeing lyrically described it, there’s little doubt that the close cooperation with a number of Finnish companies, including key partners such as Patria and Insta Group, enabled the domestic handling of the Hornet MLU-programs. As such, there’s little doubt that Boeing’s presence on the ground in Finland give the company a serious edge when it comes to the creation of a trustworthy and executable industrial participation program of the same size as what they did last time around. Like most of the competition, Boeing declines to go into details at the moment. However, one interesting detail is that while Saab has already offered a final assembly line of the F414 engine to Finland, Geoff Hanson representing GE Aviation at the Boeing media event would not speculate in whether the F414 line (yes, the Super Hornet and Gripen share engine) would come to Finland in case of a Super Hornet order.

“It’s a bit early to commit to that”

Crucially, Geoff noted that the question of what exactly “final assembly” means is unanswered. There are certainly some assembly steps that relatively easily could be transferred, and which would provide know-how that is useful from a maintenance point of view. On the other hand, major assembly steps requiring check-out and factory acceptance tests is an undertaking of a different scale.

Maria Laine, Vice President International Strategic Partnerships, first entered Boeing during the original Hornet industrial cooperation program. As such, it is no surprise that she emphasised the ability to leverage the existing partnerships stemming from the old program. Finland and Boeing represents a “true, genuine partnership”.

“We understand Finland”

There’s a few other who claim to do so. Boeing might have a better basis for the claim than most, but if that is enough to ensure that Super Hornet will be the aircraft protecting Finnish skies in 2060 remains to be seen. One of the open questions surrounding the US aircraft have been that of mission data. Finland’s requirement is simple: we need to be able to operate the aircraft even if the supply lines are cut. This include both the physical lines of communication, but also data cables. Alain Garcia of Boeing doesn’t shy away from the topic when I bring it up. It is a challenge, he acknowledges, as US government requirements include a requirement for new signals to be processed at a US facility before being inserted into an updated version of the data set. The solution is to embed Finnish personnel at a suitable US facility. Once Finnish (or allied) assets would identify a new signature the data would be supplied to these Finns who would process it, before it would be sent back to Finland. The whole process would result in a turnaround time of less than 24 hours from collecting the raw data until having the updated mission data in the aircraft. As I mention the requirement for cut data cables that colonel Keränen had described at the beginning of the media day, Garcia nods.

“We have methods to get them back into country”

Boeing kindly paid for my hotel stay in Tampere (a single night), all other costs (including travel) being covered by myself. Neither Boeing nor any of their partners have seen, nor requested to see, this text or the illustrations used before posting.

HX Challenge pt. 4: More of Everything

Unfortunately, Finnish daily Aamulehti which so far has openly shared recordings of the main press event at the HX Challenge media events has decided to put these behind a paywall. As such, this post is based upon secondary sources (i.e. published articles). Sorry for the inconvenience, but these are the unfortunate facts. Next week we will be back to primary sources (as I will attend the Boeing briefing in person).

From the outset, the F-35 has been the aircraft to beat in HX. It isn’t impossible that it will end up beaten, but the string of successes throughout the world (marred only by the highly politicised German failure to be allowed to bid) and unique selling points makes it the gold standard in Western fighter design at the moment. As such, anyone wishing to better Lockheed Martin’s stealth fighter will have to put in some serious effort to show why their bid is better for the Finnish Defence Forces’ concept of operations.

F-35 at Pirkkala FinAF FB Joni Malkamäki
The two F-35A’s from that eventually came over from 308th FS were described as being amongst the latest jets in use at Luke AFB, which should mean that they are of the Block 3F, i.e. ready for combat use. Source: Finnish Air Force FB/Joni Malkamäki

At least from the outside, that task hasn’t become any easier from the start of the competition. While Lockheed Martin might have seemed a bit too certain of success in the early days of the competition, this week’s media event has shown that they are listening to the customer and not just offering a copy-paste version of offers made to other countries.

Few doubt the combat capability of the F-35A. The advanced sensor suite and fusion coupled with low-observability features make it a formidable foe for anyone, and the large number of aircraft on order makes it future proof in a way none of the other contenders are. The biggest questions has been surrounding security of supply, sovereignty of data, and industrial cooperation. It is important to note that this does not mean that the Air Force is ready to buy the second best just to ensure that they will get these secondary benefits, but rather that the Air Force has judged these issues to be of crucial importance in allowing a fighter to be combat capable. As has been repeated throughout the last few years: the bids are only ranked on their overall combat capability as part of the overall Finnish defence solution.

And there’s plenty of combat capability in Lockheed Martin’s offer. While the contenders aren’t allowed to comment on the number of aircraft offered, Steve Sheehy, Lockheed Martin’s Director of Sustainment Strategies and Campaigns, appeared to accidentally disclose that it would be a case of 1-to-1 replacement of the Hornets.

“The requirement is 64, we are at 64”*

This was later walked back to the more politically acceptable line of “‘If the requirement is for 64, we are at 64.’ Lockheed Martin will not comment publicly on the number of fighter jets in its response to the call for tenders.” Considering the fact that we have known since last autumn that 64 isn’t in fact a set requirement any longer, my personal belief is that the offer is for 64 aircraft. Make of it what you will, but a 64-ship strong F-35A force would be an impressive one by any measure. It would conceivably make Finland the seventh largest operator of the F-35 (all marks included), leaving behind Tier 2 and 3 contributors such as the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark, as well as making the Finnish Air Force the third largest European operator after the UK and Italy (both of which will likely be operating joint F-35A/B fleets). While this might seem like a bold step, it should be remembered that when Finland bought the F/A-18C Hornet it was an order on a similar scale (the early 90’s seeing the AIM-120 equipped Hornet second only to the F-15C Eagle in the air-to-air role). As long as the aircraft can fit within the price tag, the Finnish Air Force is unlikely to shy away from capability. In fact, a serious F-35A order does hold deterrence value in and of itself, as it would highlight the determination to invest in a credible high-end defence as well as the close bilateral defence cooperation with the US.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the press release was the part on how Lockheed Martin plans to ensure security of supply and industrial cooperation.

Edited 17/02/2020 22:50 GMT+2

Originally it was reported that not only the aircraft, but the F135 engine as well would reportedly be produced in-country.*

This would have represented a significant development in an area that has traditionally been viewed as a weak part of the Lockheed Martin offer, and would be a significant step away from the current production chain which is responsible for pushing the price of the aircraft down to the extent that 64 aircraft could fit inside the Finnish budget. Such an offer would by it’s very nature include a rather large amount of tech transfer, and ensure Finnish industrial know-how stays up to date when it comes to maintaining and overhauling the aircraft, and would solve what otherwise might represent a significant issue in meeting the 30% industrial cooperation target.

However, upon contacting Lockheed Martin, it became clear that this was a case of serious misreporting. Upon a direct question, John Neilson, Director of International Communications for Europe and Israel, stated in no uncertain terms that no mention was made of final assembly of the F-35 aircraft or engine manufacturing. When asked what the industrial participation may look like, I received the following quote:

“Industrial participation forms an important element of our F-35 proposal for Finland but at this stage of the process, for reasons of competitive sensitivity, it would be inappropriate for is to give any further information and wrong to speculate on the details.”

End of edit.

Perhaps a harder thing swallow for the Finnish Air Force was the scheme drawn up for the management of spare parts. This would include peacetime stocks stored in-country for normal operations, with a different set for times of heightened tensions being stored internationally and transferred to Finland when needed. While this kind of centralised spare hubs likely play a significant role in ensuring a low operating cost, not having complete control over the necessary wartime spares will likely be a no-go. However, it is important to remember that this second offer currently being referenced by Lockheed Martin isn’t the same as their best and final offer, which will come only after the approximately six months of negotiations with the Finnish MoD and Defence Forces that are now starting. Lockheed Martin also acknowledges that the sizes of both the in-country and the international stocks aren’t locked, but are currently being discussed. It does however feel that this is one area where the company’s normal ‘tailored for NATO’-options still clashes with the Finnish thinking surrounding wartime operations.

The stealth capability is the defining feature that sets the aircraft apart from the rest of the competition, and while much has been said about the limitations of stealth in the form the word applies to the F-35, you are still better off with a lower radar cross-section in the X-band than with a larger one (which is the aspect where the difference in observability is the largest). The same goes for the carriage of external stores. Granted the RCS will go up compared to when the F-35 carries only internal weapons, but in all likelihood** an F-35 with external stores will still exhibit a lower RCS than competing fighters with external stores (even if the difference is narrower). And while many countries are investing significant resources in detecting VLO aircraft in general and the F-35 in particular, for the immediate future it will likely remain easier to complete the kill chain against a traditional aircraft than against a VLO one (think of it as armour in ground combat – there are weapons and munitions able to defeat armoured vehicles, but still most soldiers prefer riding into combat under armour than in soft-skinned vehicles). The question mark here is whether some of the contenders can mitigate this difference either through the use of different concepts of operations and/or heavy reliance on electronic warfare? It is a tall order, especially considering that the F-35 isn’t exactly lacking in EW-capabilities either, but it isn’t impossible. What is impossible is discerning that difference in EW-capability based purely on open sources, so we will just have to wait and see when it comes to the final decision in 2021.

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F-35A during tests with four externally mounted GBU-31 JDAM. One benefit of the F-35A from a Finnish point of view would be the ability to carry over numerous weapons, such as the JDAM-family and the air-to-air missiles, from the current inventory and into the HX-era. Picture courtesy of Lockheed Martin/photo by Darin Russell

It needs to be emphasised just how far beyond the competition the F-35 is when it comes to future proofing the production of the aircraft. The numbers ordered dwarf those of any of the competition, with the F-35A alone having over 2,300 aircraft on order or in the plans of the current customers. This is the only aircraft of the five that beyond any shadow of a doubt will not only be kept in operation but crucially kept up to date outside of Finland well beyond 2060. The need for having other operators also towards the end of the career of HX has been emphasised by those involved in the procurement process several times, and here the F-35 really shines.

The maturity of the aircraft has been questioned, especially as it seems to be followed by a string of bad news. However, it should be noted that the US has a somewhat unique reporting system, which means that many of the minor setbacks (such as the recent issues with the 25 mm gun) are reported in a more open fashion than would be case in most other countries. Colonel Keränen also noted in an interview that if the aircraft is mature enough for Norway to declare IOC, it’s mature enough for us as well. Notable is that the huge number of aircraft flying, 240,000+ flight hours to date, also allow for a rapid pace of development, including the tracking down of any teething troubles at an fast rate.

The GBU-53/B SDB II will be a key weapon of the F-35A Block 4

Like most of the competition, the aircraft being demonstrated doesn’t fully correspond to what would be delivered in five years time. The current F-35A Block 3F standard will give way to the Block 4, which will bring a serious step-up in capability. Most visible are the inclusion of new weapons, such as the JSM anti-ship missile, the GBU-53/B Small-Diameter Bomb II, and the ASRAAM and Meteor for UK use. However, many important changes are simultaneously taking place inside the airframe, which will play a perhaps even larger role than individual weapons when it comes to ensuring that the F-35A of 2025 will be more combat capable, both in absolute and relative terms, than the aircraft now evaluated. Still, it should be pointed out that the inclusion of the GBU-53/B will add a serious anti-vehicle capability to the F-35A, the question then being if the Finnish Air Force in wartime could spare any aircraft for the mission or if all are tied up in the air-to-air role?

Much still remains open. Absent from the reporting from the press event was the promises of complete ownership over the mission data that was repeated by all European manufacturers, and the flight hour costs and changes to infrastructure needed are somewhat open. The F-35 still remain the aircraft to beat though, and the competition have their work cut out for them.

* F-35:n valmistaja lupaa Suomelle hävittäjän tuotantoa – “Emme kerro, kuinka häive rakennetaan, mutta kerromme miten se ylläpidetään” 

** I can in theory envision a scenario where some kind of strange reflector phenomenon would increase the RCS with external stores ridiculously much and make it larger than some of the other contenders, but that is more along the lines of technical possibilities than anything I would call likely

HX Challenge pt. 3: Head start for Future Growth

The snow finally arrived to central Finland this week, and with it came the last eurocanard to take part in HX Challenge. 39-10, the latest of the pre-production JAS 39E Gripens, touched down on Tampere-Pirkkala airport in a landscape that looked decidedly different compared to the weeks before when the Eurofighter and the Rafale had been visiting.

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The 39-10 today at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB, carrying not only the wingtip IRIS-T missiles, but also Meteor very-long range air-to-air missiles and the new EAJP jammer pod. Source: Own picture

Someone that didn’t show up was anyone working at the Swedish embassy in Helsinki, a marked difference from the media days of the other two eurocanards. The reason was simple: “I don’t think anyone doubts that Finland and Sweden has a close bilateral cooperation.” As such the focus was placed on the aircraft instead of the strategic partnership, though the offer was described as being prepared in close cooperation with both the Swedish Air Force and the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV). This is also crucial, as besides the limited Brazilian order Sweden is so far the only major buyer of the 39E-version. Any Finnish order will rest on how reliable the Swedish long-term (i.e. into the 2060’s) commitment to the 39E as a platform is judged to be.

Saab has decidedly taken the Air Force at their word when they said they want the best capability that can fit inside the budget, with an offer that include not only the 39E/F Gripen, but also the GlobalEye airborne early warning and control platform. As reported last summer the idea behind is that not only does it improve the overall combat capability of the Finnish Air Force, but it also saves the fighter fleet by off-loading part of the missions that would otherwise have been flown by the HX fighters. This not only saves money and airframes, but crucially helps in ensuring a high-level of readiness for the fighter fleet. Anders Carp, head of Saab’s Surveillance business unit explained that they are happy to be able to offer HX “a true force multiplier”, and that he expects the Finnish Air Force to be happy about it as well. Unfortunately, the poker faces of the FinAF colonels present held, so we have to wait until 2021 to see if that is a correct conclusion.

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Colonel Keränen, head of the HX Programme, outlining how the programme is continuing. Source: Own picture

However, colonel Keränen in his briefing prior to Saab’s presentation did note that ISTAR is a capability that will be required from the HX-package, and that it is a new capability compared to the current Hornet-fleet. This is interesting in that it shows that the capability sought is something more than what the Hornet currently offer by flying around with their AN/APG-73 radars and Litening-targeting pods. Here the GlobalEye really shines, as it not only provides a superior air-to-air picture (especially against targets operating at low heights) compared to the current Finnish ground-based network, but also provide air-to-surface radar pictures and signal intelligence from passive sensors. The range of sensors, both passive EW-sensors and possible EO/IR-sensors, can be tailored towards the specifications of the customer. However, in general it could be noted that the aircraft would not only be a valuable sensor in wartime, but would provide a serious benefit in peacetime as well through its ability to gather information far beyond the Finnish borders. As such, it would complement the Air Force’s single C-295 SIGINT-aircraft and the Border Guards’ maritime patrol aircraft.

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Magnus Skogberg discussing the vast range of the GlobalEye’s sensors, describing the aircraft as a “substantial contribution to the joint operational capabilities of the Finnish Defence Forces”. Source: Own picture

For the Gripen, much of the focus was on the adaptability and electronic warfare side of things. The differentiation of flight critical software, and to some extent hardware as well, from the mission software ensures that it can be upgraded in short increments, avoiding the traditional larger but less frequent MLUs. This is incremental upgrade approach is in effect already now with the current 39C/D-fleet, but the steps would take place in even shorter increments for the 39E/F. “This is unique”, according to Saab, who also pointed out that when the first 39E flew, it did so with a fully certified software. This is also exploited in the form of the 39-7 two-seat aircraft demonstrating the capabilities of the 39F for HX Challenge. The aircraft has a full set of 39E/F mission systems in the backseat, while the flight control software is based on that of the 39C/D.

When faced with the question of how the aircraft that currently is in the test and verification phase, Saab’s view was that since the aircraft is mature enough and will meet the Finnish deadlines with time to spare, it’s recent appearance on the market is simply a benefit. Being the newest of the contenders ensure that the technology is new, and allow the company to take advantage of the latest developments in a way older platforms can’t.

I guess you can make the arguement that the glass is half full.

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The smart fighter – now in Finnish as well. Source: Own picture

For the electronic warfare side, according to Saab the aircraft is providing capabilities close to those of dedicated platforms (read: EA-18G Growler). It is “probably the most advanced EW-suite” carried by a fighter, and provide a full spherical coverage from all directions. This include not only missile approach warning systems, but also internal jammers, chaff/flare dispensers, and so forth. When that isn’t enough, the brand new Electronic Attack Jammer Pod (EAJP) can also be carried, a fully functioning version of which was carried by 39-10 in Tampere. At this point, Saab notes that the 39F does provide superior performance in the electronic warfare (and SEAD/DEAD) role, as the combined suite is powerful enough that to get out the maximum use of it a dedicated systems operator is needed.

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The EAJP is utilising some of the “same kind of technology” as found in the internal EW systems of 39E, but provide broader frequency ranges and more power when needed. Source: Own picture

While electronic warfare capabilities are difficult to judge based on open sources (we are basically left to trusting that the manufacturers don’t stretch the truth too much) one thing that Saab is sure to have in their favour is the solid presence on the ground in Finland. Saab already has a serious research and development unit in Tampere, the importance of which is set to grow in the coming years thanks to Saab receiving the contract for the combat management system of the Pohjanmaa-class. As such, they are well positioned to reach the stated 30% of contract value in industrial cooperation, the vast majority of which will be directed towards direct cooperation according to the company. The program is very ambitious, and in what is something of a surprise still include not only component manufacturing and final assembly of the aircraft, but of the engines as well. Granted most manufacturers stated that a domestic final assembly line was possible at the outset of the HX programme, but there has been relatively little talk of the topic since, and my impression has been that the interest towards the idea from both the manufacturers and Finnish industry have in fact been lukewarm.

Saab is of a different opinion, and stated that it is the best method of ensuring that Finland actually has the ability to overhaul and maintain the aircraft if the supply lines are cut (which is the requirement of the RFQ). Production of aircraft engines is something that hasn’t taken place in Finland for a long time, but Saab expressed confidence in that Patria’s Linnavuori plant is up to the job. Negotiations are currently ongoing regarding the details of the proposal, and the fact that the Hornet’s F404 engine (on which Patria does qualified maintenance) serve as the basis for the Gripen’s F414GE would probably aid in the transition.

Speaking of transitions, Saab stated that the Gripen would require only “minor adaptations” of the existing infrastructure, and that they foresee a “very smooth integration effort”. A key point was also that no additional noise pollution or environmental impact was expected relative to the legacy-Hornet fleet, an issue that has been highlighted as some other fighter acquisitions has created the need for expensive remodelling of air bases. Here one might note that colonel Keränen also provided some further details on the timeline for the transition. By 2025 the first deliveries are to take place, so that Finnish Air Force personnel can start training on the aircraft. This might take place abroad or in Finland, key point is that the training starts, because by late 2027 the IOC should be declared, with the first HX squadron replacing a Hornet squadron in early 2028. By 2030 the last Hornets leave Finnish service, and HX declare FOC. Notable here is that up until IOC, the training and operating costs of the HX will at least partly come from the 10 Bn Euro additional funding that is allocated for the acquisition. This is due to the fact that normal Hornet operations continue in parallel, and the funds for these will claim the Air Force’s daily operating budget.

But did it fly? No, it didn’t. Was there a perfectly reasonable explanation. Yes, there was.

39-10 didn’t leave Sweden for the first time ever just to impress Finnish (and international) media, but rather to run a verification program. As the Finnish Air Force has stated a number of times, this isn’t about cold weather tests, but verifying the numbers and capabilities provided by the manufacturers in a Finnish setting. The weather conditions did not match any of the planned verification sorties, so the aircraft stayed on the ground. GlobalEye on the other hand had suitable verification flights that could take place, so it appeared in the skies over southern Finland with a mixed Saab/Finnish Air Force crew aboard.

Being a mechanical engineer I saw nothing strange in this. In my earlier work I’ve been present when the weather has been either too good or too bad for planned sea trials. Then the boat stays in the harbour. Not because of the vessel in question isn’t able to go to sea, but because the only thing you would achieve by doing so is burn diesel and kill time. Granted it would have been nice to get to see the aircraft take-off today, but c’est la vie.

However, populists gonna populist. Self-proclaimed defender of Lapland (with friends like these…) Mikko Kärnä in a single tweet manages to 1) describe the purpose of HX Challenge incorrectly, 2) give false (or at least out of context) quote by Saab as to the reason for not flying, and 3) draw faulty conclusions based on those two incorrect statements. Unfortunately, the story about Gripen not being able to fly in snow will likely endure in some fringes of the Finnish political discussion. The influence long-term will likely be minor, but I can already feel how tiresome it will be to hear these talking points making rounds on social media and around coffee tables.

For those interested in whether the Gripen can fly in snow, just ask Antti Virolainen.

Russian A2/AD: Overrated, underrated, *and* poorly understood

Quite a few readers will likely make the connection between the headline and a recent post by Michael Kofman over at his Russian Military Analysis blog. The post, titled “Russian A2/AD: It is not overrated, just poorly understood”, has received quite a bit of both praise and pushback in the few days since it was published, and certainly deserve a closer look.

To begin with, last autumn Kofman published a long read over at War on the Rocks. Titled “It’s time to talk about A2/AD: Rethinking the Russian Military Challenge”, it was without doubt one of last year’s best texts on the topic. I recommend anyone not familiar with it to go over there and read it, as it gives a very good overview of why the adoption of terminology originally dealing with a Chinese concept of operations and inserting it into an unrelated Russian context will lead us deep into the land of wrong conclusions. It also details well how the Russian long-range systems fit into the Russian operational concept.

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A 9A83 TELAR of the S-300V system operated by the 202nd Air Defence Brigade. The unit is co-located with the 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Armoured Division in Naro-Fominsk outside Moscow. The system a good example of a high-end capability found within the Russian Ground Forces structure, as opposed to the VKS/V PVO PRO. Source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin via Wikimedia Commons

“Russian A2/AD: It is not overrated, just poorly understood” instead looks at the question on a tactical level, and takes issue with what Kofman describes as “technology fetishism and threat inflationism [seemingly] giving way to a dismissive attitude”. There often exist a very real possibility of overcompensating when the first wave of panic-induced threat inflationism is receding, but I am not quite convinced that is what is happening here. Before starting, it should also be pointed out that whenever discussing the “general consensus” or “the discussion” as I do here, it can easily qualify as debating a strawman, since the average opinion, much as the average person, doesn’t exist.

There are several valid points in Kofman’s piece, perhaps the most important of which is that the focus on the strategic long-range systems* of the Aerospace Forces (VKS), which control the Air and Missile Defence Troops (V PVO PRO), leave out a sizeable number of Russian Air Defence assets. This include not only the Russian Air Force, but also the vast number of air defence systems of all kinds and ranges, some of which are very capable, that are subordinated to the Russian Ground Forces’ air defence units (PVO-SV). Another issue is whether Russia in a conventional war against NATO really would think in terms of a limited war, or whether the smallest size would be something along the lines of a conflict stretching along the full span of Russia’s western land border. Perhaps the most important point raised is the importance of discussing how well the Russian systems would work in a Western setting. As was evident especially during the post-Cold War thaw of the 1990’s when Russia shared the thinking behind their weapons programs more openly (though it frankly should have been evident both before and after), the Russian concept of operations differs from NATO’s CONOPS. This in turn means that their development and procurement decision are driven towards solutions that might seem strange or underperfoming in a Western context, but match the requirements of the Russian Armed Forces (ask yourself where all the Russian targeting pods are, just to give one brief example).

However, other issues raised by Kofman aren’t quite as clear-cut in my opinion. Yes, the Russian Air Force did receive 402 new tactical fighters and strike aircraft between 2008 and the end of 2019 (88 of which were Su-35 and 125 of which were Su-34). However, that ten-year run can be contrasted to the deliveries of 134 F-35 in 2019 alone (a year in which the Russian Air Force received 20 new fast jets), with another 140+ planned for next year, not to mention the production figures of other western fighter programs currently running. It should also be noted that the Russian Air Force of 2008 was sorely outdated, and that the aircraft since delivered, while modern, dosen’t necessarily provide the Russian Air Force with a qualitative edge compared to the current western inventory. Big questions surround the Russian fighters when it comes to key areas such as sensor fusion and man-machine interfaces, two fields that have grown in importance over the last decade with the increased amount of information available to the pilots.

The most serious issue for the Russian Air Force however is their weapons. For decades nothing much happened in the field, to the extent that the main air-to-air weapons still are the R-27 family of medium-range and the R-73 short-range missiles, both of which entered service well before the end of the Cold War. The situation is so dire that when the Russian Air Force first went to Syria, they had to resort to the ‘export-only’ RVV-SD to get a medium-ranged missile with an active radar seeker. Deliveries of updated weapons such as the R-77-1 (on which the RVV-SD is based) and the R-74M have now started (though the R-74M is still somewhat uncertain as far as I am aware), but it will take time until they have become the standard load of the fighters.

For air-to-ground, a more or less similar situation exists, not aided by the fact that Russian ‘dumb’ bombs aren’t easily kitable to become smart due to their general construction. The most common air-to-surface missile is the laser-guided Kh-25ML, a weapon with a 10 km range that was in production between 1982 and 1997. Several other air-to-ground systems exist, in fact the Russian arsenal include more diverse weapons/seeker capabilities than the NATO air forces, but the numbers for modern systems are generally low.

This is not to suggest that the air component of a NATO-Russian clash would be easy, especially once considering the possibility of preemptive strikes against NATO air bases and the low stocks of weapons held by the western air forces. It certainly would be a complex and messy affair, of which the SEAD/DEAD mission would be just one aspect.

EA-18G Wingfold

While much has been written about the Russian focus on electronic warfare, there are still a number of very capable platforms in the west as well. The EA-18G Growler would be a key asset in any US air campaign within the foreseeable future that was faced with modern air defences. Source: Own picture

I do agree that the greatest benefit of ground-based air defences often aren’t their kinetic capabilities, but the fact that their presence on the battlefield causes the enemy to alter tactics and divert resources to managing the threat from these long range systems (or, as Kofman put it, they become McGuffins). There is an inherent value in these systems, but the question is if we haven’t left A2/AD territory a long time ago by this point, and are back to the issue of how to pick apart a multi-layered air defence system made up of multiple components, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. This in itself is nothing new, Vietnam and the Yom Kippur War are probably the two most well-known examples, both in part due to the seemingly superior air force suffering serious losses when trying to get around one kind of threat and running into another one. However, it should be pointed out that the examples to the contrary are also found. The Lebanon War of 1982 and Operation Desert Storm both saw seemingly robust integrated air defence systems supported by serious fighter and interceptor components destroyed with fairly limited losses.

How the Russian air defences stand up against a concentrated air offensive is anyone’s guess. One of the key questions is who really dominates the electronic warfare spectrum? The Russian capabilities have been on test in Ukraine and Syria, but while the focus in west can be said to have been elsewhere during the post-9/11 period, there is still several capable systems and platforms in operational service. The effect they would have on the modular structure of the high-end Russian air defence assets is one of the key unanswered questions.

In the end, if I would have to guess, I find the high-end Russian systems such as the S-400 to likely be overrated. The same goes for the capabilities of active seekers of individual missiles, especially as their ranges grow. The medium-range systems such as the latest versions of the Buk and the Tor, are likely underrated, due to their combination of being easier to hide while still packing a serious punch. The whole A2/AD bastion concept makes little sense for most of Russia (the Murmansk area being the exception). What is completely open to me is how modular the Russian ground-based air defences really are, and how robust this modularity is in the face of a squadron of Growlers. In general, it can also be noted that history hasn’t been kind to ground controlled intercept-based tactics post-WWII.

*These are the S-300PM1 and S-300PM2, S-400, and their close-defence 96K6 Pantsir-systems, as well as the A-135 anti-ballistic missile system defending Moscow.

HX Challenge pt. 2: Born Joint

When two French fighters landed at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB this week it was the underdog that arrived. While last week’s eurocanard might not be a favourite, the Rafale is an even less likely candidate according to most analysts.

But truth be told it is difficult to tell how much of that perception is based on the lack of an active marketing campaign compared to the rest of the competition. The HX process might have received international praise for its transparency, but that only extends to how the process is being run, and not how the contenders are doing. The current ranking, to the extent there is one at this stage, is well and truly hidden from view.

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Rafale B ‘301’, DGA’s and Dassault’s testbed, shown here airborne during earlier tests. The aircraft carries six AASM boosted precision-guided bombs, two Meteor very-long range air-to-air missiles, two MICA IR short-range air-to-air missiles, two large drop tanks, and a Talios targeting and reconnaissance pod. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – A. Pecchi

The fact that the two Rafales touched down on Pirkkala does however tell us something – Dassault still thinks they have a non-trivial chance of winning. Flight tests are expensive, even a moderate estimate puts the costs for a manufacturer to participate in HX Challenge at something like 1.5 million Euro (it could easily be double that even in direct costs). The fact that Dassault, and the rest, are coming shows they believe the potential benefits to be worth it. This is in stark contrast to most of the recent fighter competitions held in Europe (Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland…), where roughly half the field have usually dropped out before final offers are sent in. That is a big show of confidence in the fairness of HX, and big kudos to the MoD, LOGL, and the Air Force for that!

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Rafale B ‘301’ (rear) and ‘352’ (front). The reason why Dassault didn’t bring a single-seat C-version was to maximise the number of flight hours they are able to provide to Finnish Air Force personnel, but is also a testimony to how closely related the B and C models are to each other. Note the white bulge behind the blade antenna on ‘301’, likely associated with some F4-standard subsystem, the missile warning sensor on the tailfin (looking like a black dot), and the different coloured covers for the EW sensors on the front of the canard root and on the air intakes. Source: Joni Malkamäki/Ilmavoimat

But back to the French offer. Many of the themes can be recognised from last week. The Rafale would “protect Finland’s integrity”, further strengthen a strong European partnership, and the aircraft is being offered “with the full support of the French government”, to use the words of ambassador Serge Tomas. The aircraft would also be delivered with “no performance restrictions” compared to the French version, and there will be “lots of open books” and technology transfers.

But there were also notable differences in tone when compared to the Eurofighter. The production lines will stay open “for the next decades”, as opposed to the Eurofighter lines that are slowly cooling down. And while the Eurofighter is being sold as the great cooperative project, the French are well-known in security policy circles for their reluctance to trust in others. This is also what they are selling to the Finnish Air Force.

We understand your concept

Those simple words contain a lot. We know you don’t trust in allies to step in and save the day, we understand your wish to be able to go alone if the need arises. The Rafale is the tool that allows you to do so.

French and Finnish national security policy might not have much in common, but Dassault certainly has found the common denominators there are, and they are running with them.

A sobering reminder of just how ready to go alone France is found in the fact that one of the two Rafales currently in Tampere is an operational Rafale B F3R from SPA 81 Lévrier (Greyhound) of EC 2/4 La Fayette. The main mission of the unit is nuclear strike as part of the Forces aériennes stratégiques, the land based air component of France’s completely independent nuclear deterrent. However, like sister unit EC 1/4 Gascogne, they do also fly conventional missions, including operationally over Libya, Mali, and in the Middle East. The F3R is the current standard, and was delivered ahead of schedule, meeting performance targets while staying inside the budget. Any Finnish order would be of the F4 standard that is currently in development, and which has an added focus on connectivity, further developed electronic-warfare capabilities, as well as new weapons. The other Rafale, ‘301’, is a joint-DGA and Dassault testbed, and is equipped with numerous subsystems associated with the F4.

The F4, and the upcoming F5 standard, will also allow the Rafale to remain a key part of the FCAS-system, ensuring that the Rafale stays in French service well into 2060’s*.

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Rafale B ‘352’ 4-FU having just arrived at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB. Note the greyhound of SPA 81 on the tail, Talios pod on the right side of the fuselage, FSO bulges in front of the canopy, as well as wingtip MICA IR missiles. Source: Joni Malkamäki/Ilmavoimat

Another good example of where French and Finnish national security interests align, and one pushed heavily at yesterday’s media day, is the emphasis on European solidarity. “France is leading the process to build a solid, European defence policy,” as ambassador Serge expressed it. This was also the point he came back to when questioned about what France can offer on the national security side that the other eurocanards cannot, and he does have a point. Finland’s stance on Article 42.7 might be ambiguous (and set to remain that way for the foreseeable future), but Finland most certainly is interested in a deepening European defence cooperation in a way that few other countries are. Except France.

It is a strange world when the country that has given us the gilet jaunes can market themselves as “the reliable and predictable national security partner”, but this is where we are in 2020. In part this is also due to the difference in French domestic and foreign politics. While French internal matters might be seeing quite a bit of turmoil, their foreign policy has been remarkably consistent during the last few decades. And that policy include a willingness to mobilise the sizeable force that is the French military whenever French interests are threatened. This is not only seen in Syria and Libya, but also in Mali and, crucially, in how France has stepped up their presence in the Baltic Sea region following Crimea. This includes ground troops, but also a sizeable contribution to Baltic Air Policing. The trick then is to ensure that French interests align with ours, something that is easier said than done. However, I would like to note that we are rapidly approaching diminishing returns in our already very deep cooperation with Sweden and the USA, something that isn’t the case for the Finnish-French relationship.

Ilmavoimat FB Rafale
It apparently needs to be repeated: HX Challenge is not a cold-weather test, but a verification of sensor and other prestanda as reported by the manufacturer. As a matter of fact, ‘301’ did separate winter tests for Dassault a year ago at Rovaniemi AFB. Source: Ilmavoimat FB

The French willingness to act on their security interests in turns leads to the next point that Dassault likes to make, namely that the Rafale is combat proven. Crucially, this isn’t just about dropping bombs in COIN operations, but include having “been tasked to go into very contested environments”. Famously, Rafale did fly missions into Libya during the early stages of the campaign when Gaddafi’s air defences were still operational, and it has also performed missions over Syria in the face of the air defences found there. The weapons suite used is also interesting, as not only does it feature the same cruise missile as the Eurofighter, the MBDA Storm Shadow/SCALP, but it also sports the unique French AASM-family of boosted precision-guided bombs. These allow for stand-off range attacks (60 km range reportedly being “not too far from the truth“, but obviously depending on launch height and speed), and come with a number of different seeker heads including INS/GPS, INS/GPS/IR, and INS/GPS/laser. As such, the Rafale is well-equipped to take out any of the targets envisioned in the Finnish RFQ.

© Dassault Aviation - K. Tokunaga
A single-seat Rafale C of 1/7 Provence in air-to-air configuration at BA 113 Saint-Dizier-Robinson, that also happens to be the home of the 1/4 La Fayette. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

Traditionally one of the weaker parts of Rafale’s sensor suite has been the Damocles targeting pod. This was recognised as lagging behind the competition already a number of years ago, and the Thales Talios has been brought online as part of the F3R standard. The performance of the pod, capable of both reconnaissance and lasing, is likely one of the things that the Finnish Air Force will be eager to test. Unfortunately the huge AREOS strategic reconnaissance pod has not been brought to HX Challenge (at least not by air), which likely indicate that it isn’t being included in the offer at this stage. Unsurprising, but still a bit sad as it would have offered a really interesting step-change in capability. Another sensor that likely will attract a lot of attention as well is the Front Sector Optronics, the FSO. The FSO is made up of two modules, an IR- and a TV-sensor. As part of the F3/F3R program the TV-sensor has been upgraded, and the performance is rumoured to be very good thanks to high magnification and near-IR wavelengths. The IR-sensor is currently going through its update programme, but for the time being it is likely that the setup tested at HX Challenge feature the old IR-sensors. In addition, a laser rangefinder is also included, and the whole set can be slewed by the other active or passive sensors to find and identify an airborne target. This is in line with the Rafale putting great emphasise on passive intercepts of enemy targets through the use of several different passive sensors and fusing the data to present the air crew with a single threat picture. Whether it works in the cloudy skies of Finland is exactly the kind of question HX Challenge is designed to answer, and unfortunately this interesting answer will go straight into the folder marked “SECRET”.

*Often the FCAS designation is erroneously used for the new joint Franco-German fighter currently in development, while in fact the FCAS is an umbrella term to cover numerous air- and ground-based system making up the Future Combat Air System. Or as Airbus puts it, a system of systems “composed of connected, manned and unmanned air platforms, enhanced by different sensors and effectors. They will be part of an open, scalable system architecture that enables the inclusion of future platforms and new technologies”

2019 in Review

As has become my own little tradition, I publish my year in review on the blog on the anniversary of the first post and not around the new year. Today’s that day, so happy sixth anniversary to myself!

2019 was in many a challenging year for me personally, but the end of the year also saw me come up with a clear plan for how to move forward from here. Without going into details, I am currently in a much better place than I was a year ago.

Naturally this also had some effects on the frequency of my blogging, which declined compared to year before. The year was also the first that the annual readership declined, both measured in views and visitors. The key reason is quite easy to find, as while the baseline is still healthy (the monthly median was actually higher in 2019 than 2018), the year lacked the kind of single hit post that has given the blog a boost earlier years by drawing in people from outside the regular readership. To look at things from the bright side: as these usually are tied to some less than pleasant development in the region (such as the Airiston Helmi-case of 2018 or the earlier sub-hunts), it isn’t just a bad thing that last year’s month-to-month viewership was more stable than earlier year.

2019 was also the year I tried to monetize the blog by running generic adds on it. Let’s just say I’m not thrilled about the cost/reward ratio, but I have yet to decide if I will continue with them or take them down again.

IMG_1361
Visiting AMBLE Baltic and seeing the first public outing of the APVT was one of the high point of the Corporal Frisk-year of 2019! Source: Own picture

As for who the readers are and where they come from, there’s no major surprises. Search engines and Twitter still dominate the referrer-stats, with the largest forums being Finnish Maanpuolustus.net and Estonian Militaar.net, with Swedish SoldF.com coming in as third. A newcomer was Hungarian HTKA.hu, which was a pleasant surprise to see! Land topics seems to be of particular interest to our Hungarian friends. As for where people read Corporalfrisk.com, Finland and Sweden are unexpectedly in a class of their own (with Finland being largest by a healthy margin this year), followed by the USA, the UK, Norway, France, Germany, Canada, and Australia in that order.

The most popular new post of 2019 was The True Face of the Baltic Fleet, which despite being published in the later half of the year got quite a nice readership. HX in general and GlobalEye in particular was another very popular topic, and of the older posts Gabriel 5 (PTO 2020) did very well. A number of interesting trips also fit into my calendar last year, including going back to Germany for the first time in a decade when I visited the first ever AMBLE, getting to speak at the FOI workshop on Russian A2/AD capabilities in the Baltic Sea region in Stockholm in December (proceedings should be out soon!), and finally receiving the Naval Reserve Medal of Merit at the Finnish Naval Academy during the Maritime Defence Day held there.

For 2020, the focus of the next few weeks will obviously be on HX Challenge. Unfortunately, with Corporal Frisk being just a sideshow, I won’t be able to skip work for all five media days, but I will attend one or possibly two in person, and will obviously report on any new (or not so new) details that emerge from the rest of them as well. Next up is Rafale, and it will be really interesting to see what message they bring! Following that, HX is likely to be on the back burner for the next year and a half, as few major twists are expected to take place before the eventual announcement of the winner in 2021. However, that doesn’t mean that the blog will be empty, as there are quite a few other interesting projects in the pipeline that I hope to be able to share with you all during the first half of the year, most of which are naval related.

As always, a big thank you to all of you readers! You are what make this blog! Oh, and did seriously no-one of you (especially you Swedes) catch the Easter egg in Weapons & Ammunition?