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 The result was a miserable failure, and the Magister was quickly withdrawn from combat after a number of downings resulted in the loss of several experienced pilots, including the squadron commmander.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.
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.
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.
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.