The Future Finnish Air Force, Pt.3: From the LIFT to dedicated light combat

One of the basic premises of this short series went out the window Friday, as Patria Aviation bagged a 18.6 million Euro deal for further upgrades of the Finnish Hawk fleet, this time related to the older Mk 51 jets, with the aim of keeping the Hawk as the Finnish advanced trainer up until 2036. In other words, there will be no LIFT added to the Finnish Air Force within the foreseeable future. However, if the size of the HX-program has to be cut, launching a dedicated light fighter/attack aircraft might be a solution.

The obvious solution to flesh out an air force that has too few fighters is to let the advance trainers fill a combat role. This has been a favourite of air forces since the Cold War, with the focus mostly being on letting the trainers perform light ground attack missions. The smaller size makes the trainers harder to hit for enemy ground units, and the slower speed and lack of radar are not as significant drawbacks in the ground attack role as they would be in the fighter role.

However, the experiences so far have been largely negative (not counting COIN-operations). During the Six-Day War, Israel had complete air supremacy, and the enemy armies largely lacked modern air defences. All in all, it was more or less the perfect scenario to employ advanced trainers on light strike missions, and the IDF/AF mobilized its Fouga Magisters according to earlier plans. The result was a miserable failure, and the Magister was quickly withdrawn from combat after a number of downings resulted in the loss of several experienced pilots, including the squadron commmander.

The harsh truth was that the Magister lacked the performance and survivability needed to fight in a conventional war, despite being one of the fastest trainers of the time.

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British Hawk T.1A of the Mixed Fighter Force armed with AIM-9L Sidewinder-missiles. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Mike Freer

Other programs have been set up in which trainers have been used as light fighters, notably the West German air force planned on using their Alpha Jets to hunt down enemy attack helicopters, while RAF planned to use Hawks armed with Sidewinders in concert with Tornado F.3’s to hunt for Soviet bombers and their escorts over the North Sea under a concept known as the ‘Mixed Fighter Force’. The plan was that the Tornado would use its radar and long-range missiles to lead the Hawks to the target and get the target’s attention long enough for the Hawks to close into dogfight range. However, the program seems to have been quietly scrapped sometime during mid 1990’s, most probably due to the short range of the Hawk and the terrifying outlook of trying to tackle a Su-27 with nothing more than two Sidewinders and eyesight as your only sensor.

But is it different this time? As mentioned, the current generation of LIFT’s feature far superior performance, both in relative and absolute terms, compared to trainers such as the Fouga. Could the HX be supported by a strong force of combat-capable trainers?

Maybe, but questions should be raised whether a baseline LIFT really has the combat capability and survivability to operate in a modern warzone. To answer this demand, manufacturers have developed dedicated light multi-role versions, such as the Korean KAI FA-50. This is a development of the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle advanced lead-in fighter trainer (via the combat-capable TA-50 trainer), crucially featuring an afterburning engine in the form of the General Electric F404 (same engine as in the F/A-18 Legacy Hornet), with talks of potentially fitting the uprated F414 of the Super Hornet and JAS 39E Gripen sometime in the future. However, while the FA-50 is a very interesting aircraft, it is rather expensive to operate in a trainer role. But with a price tag of 390 million Euro for a squadron of twelve aircraft, it costs peanuts compared to full-size multi-role fighter. Currently, some of the systems are not completely state-of-the-art, but upgraded versions are being developed. E.g. the current ELTA ELM-2032 radar is nice, but there are plans to fit an AESA (possibly the ELTA ELM-2052). Similarly, the AIM-9L provides an adequate air-to-air capability today, but both the AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X (as well as Derby and Python-5) are mentioned as possibly slated for future upgrades. A host of advanced air-to-ground weaponry is also investigated, ranging from guided bombs to anti-ship and light cruise missiles. Coupled with the F414, the plane would provide matching or somewhat superior capability compared to Finland’s current F/A-18C MLU2 in many aspects.

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Korean TA-50 (slightly simpler version than the FA-50) showing a combat load of AIM-9 Sidewinders, bombs, and AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missiles. Source: Wikimedia Commons/ROKAF

Naturally, no matter how upgraded the FA-50 would be, it is not the fighter that should take the place of the HX. It is simply too small and lacking in combat capability versus a modern ‘real’ multirole fighter. However, with the fighter bought under the HX-program making up the main force, concentrating on air superiority, deep strike, and other strategic tasks, having a sizeable force of lighter but still truly combat capable aircraft performing battlefield interdiction, hunting enemy helicopters, and destroying targets close to the frontline, might not be a bad idea. In practice, these would operate in a somewhat similar role that modern attack helicopters do, taking out enemy troops and vehicles from tree-top height, but also being able to perform air defence missions and to employ bombs to a greater effect. The small size should also translate to a smaller logistical footprint when employing dispersed basing, although there is certainly a trade-off between keeping an aircraft capable of operating with a minimum of support and having it feature the same capabilities as a full-blown multirole aircraft.

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The L-159 ALCA of the Czech Air Force during its visit to Turku. Source: Author.

If (keyword) the HX proves to be prohibitively expensive to acquire in sufficient numbers (i.e. 60+ aircraft), launching a second program for a light multirole fighter for a mixed force of say two squadrons of each at a total of around eighty combat-capable aircraft in the air force, might (second keyword) be a solution. The FA-50 isn’t the only game in town, e.g. the L-159 ALCA that visited Turku last summer is another candidate, and the M-346 Master has been shown with mock Brimstone missiles, but currently the Korean offering is the most advanced. If a second program is to make any kind of sense, it is to be planned so that a follow-up order of a simpler, more trainer-oriented version of the same basic design is to be made when the Hawks finally retire sometime twenty years into the future. Which of today’s advanced trainers are available then is largely up to who wins the US T-X program for possibly up to 1,000 trainers to replace the old T-38 Talon of the US Air Force. Waiting a few years to see how that program plays out, and then thinking through the future training (and light combat) elements of the air force might be a good idea.

The Future Finnish Air Force, pt. 1: Preliminary letters and basic trainers

The HX-project is often treated as a stand-alone program to replace the gap left by the upcoming retirement of Finland’s legacy F/A-18C/D Hornets. However, recent developments have opened up the field for a complete remake of the Finnish Air Force, something which, while unlikely, deserves a closer look. To capture the larger picture, this is the first post of a short series. Expect the next post within the coming days.

The HX-project aimed at finding a replacement for Finland’s F/A-18C Hornets (and a small number of F/A-18D two-seaters) is moving forward at a steady pace. A few new details have surfaced since my last post on the project.

A preliminary letter describing the project has been sent out. This is not the proper Request for Information (RFI), which is slated for February 2016, but rather a letter describing the HX-projects current status and how it will proceed. Of interest is the fact that General Jäämeri, commander of the air force, explained that the letter will go to the five companies (Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, BAE, Dassault, and Saab) which will receive the RFI. The companies are the ones that have been mentioned earlier, but in a surprise move the general also stated that the RFI will not stipulate which fighters are in the run for the program. This is important, as three of the companies, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and Saab, also offer older aircraft, so called Generation 4 fighters, namely modernized version of the F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16C/D Block 50+, and JAS 39C/D Gripen.

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JAS 39C Gripen in Turku last summer. Source: author.

The F/A-18C/D Hornet is another prime example of a fourth generation fighter, so why would Finland show any interest in acquiring another one to replace it? Wouldn’t it be better (and cheaper) to simply upgrade our current Hornet-fleet, if a fourth generation fighter would be enough (and didn’t the preliminary report already state fourth generation capability isn’t)?

There are two different issues here: One is that the legacy Hornet in its current form is about to be withdrawn, and Finland would have to support it alone (or upgrade it according to a given standard, i.e. the USMC one). Finnish Hornets are also nearing the end of their flight hours, and the Finnish emphasis on air combat training has placed great strain on the structures of the aircraft. The metal is simply starting to give up. As such, keeping the Hornets in flying shape and at an acceptable level of modernity will probably be prohibitively expensive.

The second issue is that Jäämeri opened up for a new round of speculation, by announcing that it is possible that Finland would buy two different planes, in the same way that we operated both the MiG-21Bis and the Saab 35 Draken before replacing both with the Hornet. However, he noted, while getting two different aircraft isn’t ruled out, it would be an “extraordinary” move, as two aircraft would require two different maintenance and support systems.

At this point aircraft aficionados should shout “F414-GE”. Patience, my friends, we’ll get to that!

The Missing Link – The Cancelled VX-trainer

In the meantime, in a move which have passed almost completely under the radar, the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command (PVLOGL) has cancelled the VX-program for a replacement to the venerable VL Vinka, the basic trainer used by the air force. The Vinka is old, and the taxing training program involving aerobatics have caused extensive metal fatigue (sounds familiar…), and the aircrafts have already once had their lifespan lengthened by an extensive overhaul. The problem is that the air force would like to stick the current curriculum, in which a cheap aerobatic-capable piston-engined trainer is used for basic flight training and early maneuvering as well as formation flights. After this, the student move on to the Hawk advanced jet trainer, where he/she learns air combat and jet engines, before transitioning to the F/A-18D Hornet for familiarization flights in the two-seater Hornet, until finally being cleared for solo-flights and operational missions in the F/A-18C Hornet.

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VL (Valmet) L-70 Vinka at Kauhava. Source: author.

This is the traditional, bordering on conservative, way of setting of flight training (the reason behind the cancelling of the VX was simply that no suitable aircraft was produced anymore!), and a number of countries has in recent years chosen to do things differently:

  • The piston-engined trainers have lost ground to vastly more powerful turbine-powered aircrafts, providing almost jet-like performance. This makes it possible to transfer part of the advanced training curriculum from a dedicated advanced trainer to the same aircraft that is handling the basic training. Turbine-powered aircrafts are more expensive than their piston-engined brethren, but they are still cheaper to operate than jets, meaning that they can provide savings in overall training costs.
  • More and more training is “downloaded” to simulators. Flight simulators are not a new thing, but they are constantly becoming better and more realistic, and can today offer complex scenarios involving multiple linked units. This means that an ever larger part of flight training can be performed on the simulators, offering significant savings compared to “real” flying.
  • The rise of simulators has led to the demise of two-seaters dedicated to training. Of the current aircraft in the running for HX, both JAS 39E Gripen and notably the F-35 are only available as single-seaters, with type familiarization being handled in simulators. There is the possibility that a 39F Gripen will become available if Finland insists on the need for one, but no twin-stick F-35 is in the plans.
  • As newer fighters are ever more expensive to operate, and as minituarisation is allowing ever more competent avionics to be fitted into ever smaller airframes, the Lead-In Fighter Trainer has risen in popularity. The LIFT is an aircraft that is taking the place of the advanced trainer, but in a similar way that the turbine-powered basic trainer is pushing the envelope, so too is the LIFT capable of providing training that earlier was in the realm of “real” fighters, such as high-performance maneuvers/air combat training, weapons deliveries, and sensor operations. Aircraft such as the M-346 Master and the Hawk T.2 offer near-fighter like performance, but for a fraction of the price per flight hour.
  • Having a training location in another country, in some cases as a joint program with other countries, in other cases as a service bought from a civilian company, is becoming more popular with more countries starting to feel the pressure of rising operational cost, needing fewer new pilots as their air forces shrink in size, and struggling to find large enough empty airspaces to properly train in.

The question is: is the air force correct in asking for more of the same, or should it shake up the roles of the basic trainer/advanced trainer/fighter-classes? Notably, Finland was one of the first customers of the BAE Hawk, buying the first generation Mk.51 (roughly corresponding to the RAF T.1). These are starting to show signs of metal fatigue in the wings due to the demanding use in training fighter pilots, and the fleet have been bolstered by the arrival of surplus low-hour ex-Swiss Hawk Mk.66 (interestingly, the Swiss Air Force let a turbine-powered prop trainer take over the training formerly handled by the Hawks). However, this is only a temporary solution, and the Hawk will have to be replaced somewhere around the same time as the HX enters into service.

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‘Original’ Finnish BAE Hawk Mk.51 (grey) with ex-Swiss Mk.66 behind it. Source: author.

 

In other words: within an extremely short span of time, the air force will have to replace both its trainers and fast jets. It is important to keep this in mind when discussing why Jäämeri has seemingly opened up for the possibility of acquiring more than one kind of fighter.