HX Challenge pt. 1: Complete Independence

HX Challenge kicked off for real this week, with the Eurofighter Typhoon being the first contender (the sales team uses the Eurofighter designation, but I sincerely hope any Finnish buy would include us switching the British name. One possibility I might accept is translating it to Pyörremyrsky).

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The Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4 of the RAF’s No. 41 Squadron (with the awesome motto of Seek and Destroy) takes off from Tampere-Pirkkala airport. As part of the same launch the T.3 got airborne with a Finnish Air Force backseater. Picture courtesy of BAE Systems/Kalle Parkkinen

Did we learn anything groundbreaking yesterday? Not really, but the media day did provide a comprehensive insight into what the consortium in general and BAE Systems in particular believe is their strong cards in a competition that is steadily moving towards the contract announcement next year.

The key word is “independence”. You buy it, you own it, and you decide exactly how you want to use it. These are notions repeated throughout the press material and briefings, and it is clear that they are aimed at differentiating the European project against the US competitors. The Eurofighter is described as providing an “unique opportunity” when it comes to taking control of the country’s security. The “no closed black boxes”-policy provides the ability to independently operate, maintain, and control the aircraft, also when it comes to questions such as mission data and upgrade paths. Full control of mission data is described (in the Finnish press release) as “indispensable” for operating a modern combat aircraft, and something that provide an information advantage that will only become more important as time goes*.

However, this should not be interpreted as BAE Systems pushing the “buy second best but get full control”-line. The aircraft is described as being the “most advanced multi-role aircraft on the market”, with the potential Finnish aircraft being given as ‘Tranche 4’-standard, i.e. one notch above anything produced up until this point. This is roughly the same configuration as the German order under Project Quadriga, importantly sporting the E-Scan Mk. 1 AESA radar, an upgrade compared to the Kuwaiti-standard featuring the export Mk. 1A. Another interesting detail when it comes to sensors is that of the two Eurofighters taking part in HX Challenge, a single-seat FGR.4 and a twin-seat T.3, one carried the current standard Litening 3 pod, while the other had the brand new Litening 5 which is currently on offer to Germany and expected to be acquired by RAF in the near future. The Litening 5 is also offered in an updated version with a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) integrated into the body of the otherwise electro-optical targeting and reconnaissance-pod. As a side-note, the Finnish Hornets received the most advanced version of the Litening II, the Litening AT, as part of their MLU2-upgrade.

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To further emphasise the pan-European aspect of the Eurofighter project, all of the partner nations embassies were represented at the media day. It also clearly shows the big advantage in the number of significant operators the aircraft enjoys over the competition (with the exception of the F-35A) in this regard. Left to right: Luis Garcia Lumbreras, of the Spanish Embassy in Finland, Hans Werner Koeppel, of the Germany Embassy in Finland, Tom Dodd, British Ambassador to Finland, and Gabriele Altana, Italian Ambassador to Finland. Picture courtesy of BAE Systems

When it comes to weapons, the Eurofighters in Tampere-Pirkkala came equipped with ASRAAM short-range air-to-air missiles. Interestingly enough, the short-range air-to-air capability is not amongst the weapon systems described as ‘best-in-class’ in the press release. Instead, the weapon suite is described as offering “the widest range of weapons in the HX competition”, with beyond visual range air-to-air, deep strike, and high precision air-to-surface capabilities being best-in-class. It’s easy to see the close cooperation with MBDA playing a role here, as the weapons alluded to are the company’s Meteor, Storm Shadow, and Brimstone/SPEAR 3 respectively. The claim certainly seems tailored to meet the Finnish focus on the air-to-air role as well as deep strike, and while it is marketing, it is difficult to find weapons currently on the market that based on open sources can be stated to be objectively superior to the Meteor and the Storm Shadow, with the Brimstone and SPEAR 3 lacking direct competitors in most western arsenals.

But the HX Challenge isn’t just about flying around and punching holes in the air, a key part of the testing is the performance on the ground. This include not only studying how the aircraft function when the temperature is hovering around the freezing point, e.g. whether moisture getting into small crevices and freezing there will break stuff, but also what happens when the maintenance takes place outdoors or when the runway isn’t nice and dry (Finavia is cooperating with the evaluation by not maintaining the runways to their usual standard to simulate winter operations from dispersed bases). In fact, the ground testing will likely be more revealing than the air sorties, which in essence should only confirm data received in the offer and already verified in laboratory conditions.

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Three Italian Eurofighters during their Icelandic Air Policing rotation last year. Picture courtesy of BAE Systems

It is no surprise then that BAE Systems has also answered to this requirement, emphasising the robustness of the aircraft and the ease of maintaining it in similar conditions, such as during the Italian Air Force rotation to the Icelandic Air Policing mission and the RAF detachment operating in the Falklands. In Iceland the aircraft encountered exactly the kind of low temperature and wet conditions that the Finnish Air Force is interested in, and still were able to launch for all available missions. The squadron commander attributed this to the professionalism of the maintenance crews, as well as the fact that the aircraft is “very simple to maintain”.

The impact Tempest and FCAS will have on the development path still hangs as a cloud over the Eurofighter, regardless of promises that it will continue to be upgraded into the 2060’s. Still, the large number of operators gives the promise more credibility compared to corresponding promises by the other two eurocanards. With TyTAN going smoothly, the consortium is also confident enough that they have declared the cost of acquiring the aircraft to be “fixed and affordable”, going as far as stating the aircraft to be “the world’s most cost-efficient multi-role fighter”. The marketing plan seems simple enough – the Eurofighter is already here and working, it would increase Finnish cooperation with most of the major European security players, it allows fully independent planning of operations, upgrade paths, and maintenance (looking at you, F-35), and comes with a serious package of industrial cooperation benefits that would give Finnish aerospace and defence companies ample opportunities of cooperation with their European peers. How much of these talking points is backed up by real world prestanda is an open question, and one to be decided over the next twelve months.

The game just got serious.

*Interestingly, the information advantage-point is only found in the English version of the press release, and not in the Finnish one

The European Fighter, Pt. 2

25 years ago Finland was looking for an air superiority fighter to replace the ageing J 35 Draken and MiG-21Bis which dominated the ranks of the air force. As is well known, the choice fell on the F/A-18C Hornet, which for the first two decades served solely in the air-to-air role (officially designated F-18C by the Finnish Air Force). But the times they are a-changin’, and with MLU2 the multirole potential was finally brought into play in the Finnish Air Force as well. This also means that for HX to meet the matching set of capabilities, it must be able to fulfill different roles, including air-to-air, air-to-ground, ISR, maritime strike, and stand-off precision strike. The last is treated as a unique requirement by the Finnish Defence Forces, as it requires a completely different setup compared to ‘ordinary’ air-to-ground missions.

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A crew chief from the Finnish Border Guard’s AW119 Koala watches as an Italian F-2000 Eurofighter touches down in Finland for the first time ever. Source: Own picture

However, while the aircraft will certainly occupy a host of roles, there’s little question that air defence still is and will remain the core mission of the Finnish Air Force. The ample availability of indirect fire, coupled with the planned acquisition of more accurate and longer-ranged munitions for both barrel and rocket artillery, means that there are several ways to kill anything moving on the ground. But even with the upcoming GBAD program, getting proper air defence coverage at medium and high altitudes is another issue. Here the teamwork between air and ground-based systems is a must, and HX will be the air component at least past 2050.

This suits the Eurofighter consortium just fine. While the marketing slogan might be that it is “a platform for any weapon, any mission”, it is clear that the concept owes much to the requirement of an air defence fighter that emerged a number of decades ago. This is most visible in the thrust-to-weight ratio of 1.15, well above both the F-15 and the F-16, which together with the aerodynamically rather clean design gives the aircraft an edge over the competition when it comes to raw speed and altitude performance. Over Syria and Iraq, Typhoon packages handle deconfliction of the air space by simply transiting above the rest of the aircrafts operating in the area, using their speed and endurance to quickly transit between holding areas and targets.

The speed is and obvious benefit in the QRA role as well, a key part in the life of both the Finnish as well as for the partner nations. This is where the Typhoon really shines. Being airborne in just over 1,000 feet (305 meters), the fighter is supersonic within two minutes from scramble. Importantly, even a light air-to-air load includes four semi-recessed Meteor and two ASRAAM or Iris-T, with the full load of six Meteors and two short-range missiles (or four plus four) already starting to put hurt into the arms budget of most air forces if more than a handful of fighters are to be launched. Compared to the current full F-35 load (including external stores) of four shorter-ranged AIM-120C AMRAAM and two AIM-9X, that is a significant difference both in quantity and quality (the F-35 is slated to receive upgrades to the capacity at some point in the future).

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Part of the German delegation watches as the Finnish F/A-18C Hornet solo display passes above. Source: Own picture

Meanwhile, the Typhoon is proving to be no hangar queen (Germany being the exception, but that is a reflection of the readiness of the German Defence Forces as a whole). The preceding Italian Typhoon rotation to BAP which took place in 2015 sported a 99,4% availability rate, and during the recent NATO Tiger Meet the Eurofighter had the best mission availability rate of all involved fighters. As test pilot Paul Smith puts it:

If you put fuel and weapons on it, it just keeps flying.

The combination of large amounts of advanced weapons carried, long-ranged sensors, and a significant endurance (further improved by the large drop tanks routinely carried on stations 3 and 11) means that the aircraft in high-end exercises often is the first aircraft in and the last aircraft out. The semi-recessed Meteors and light outer stations (no. 1 and 13) also mean that even in a heavy air-to-ground load, the aircraft has four long-range and two short-range air-to-air missiles to defend itself or other parts of the airspace.

But while the fighter has a clear air-to-air pedigree, recent upgrades has made it a true multirole platform. The British Typhoons have currently been hard at work employing the light Brimstone anti-vehicle/low-collateral damage missile and the Paveway IV laser/GPS/INS-guided 500 lbs (230 kg) bomb over Iraq and Syria. The Brimstone is carried on triple launchers, while the Paveway IV can be carried on single- or twin-launchers, leading to an impressive amount of weapons a single aircraft can bring to the battlefield. Instead of the Paveway IV, the German Air Force carry the corresponding GBU-48 Enhanced Paveway II.

However, Finland has never seen the prime role of the Air Force as being that of quashing large amounts of enemy armour, so the Brimstone might not be high on the wishlist. More interesting are the cruise missiles of the aircraft, with BAE Systems marketing both the Storm Shadow (used by RAF in the recent Syrian strikes) and the Taurus KEPD 350 (integrated onto the German Typhoons). Both are very much the kind of weapon that will be acquired to fill the void left by the AGM-158 JASSM. The really interesting weapon is however the SPEAR 3, which is currently in flight testing on the Typhoon.

Outwardly, the SPEAR looks rather like the Brimstone, but while the Brimstone has a rocket engine to boost it up to speed after which it coasts along until hitting something, the SPEAR is a cruise missile with pop-out wings and a small turbojet. This gives it significantly more range and the ability to fly at low altitudes, and while the Brimstone is a AGM-65 Maverick replacement and Storm Shadow is a JASSM replacement, the SPEAR is something completely new. The low weight (100 kg) and triple racks means that they can be used in larger numbers compared to the ‘silver bullet’-role that traditional cruise missiles occupy. At the same time, their stand-off range and smart attack modes (such as synchronised attacks from multiple directions) means that they can reach targets which earlier would have been considered too far away or too well defended. The warhead might be too small for hardened buildings, but will nicely take out vehicles, light buildings, and small vessel (or disable elements of capital ships).

Good examples of these kinds of sub-strategic targets are command posts, air defence radars, and high-value vehicles (armoured or soft-skinned). To further highlight the interest from the Finnish Defence Forces for this kind of ability to “shape the battlefield”, as the BAE Systems marketing line goes, it is notable that the targets for the Finnish JASSM living firings earlier this year were shaped suspiciously like Russian Iskander ballistic missile launchers or long-ranged SAM-launchers. While the cost of JASSM likely make it prohibitively expensive in a SAM-busting role, the SPEAR would be highly efficient. RAF is already planning on taking up the SEAD/DEAD role with the Typhoon/SPEAR-combination. The flexibility of the weapon would mean that the SPEAR would provide the Finnish Defence Forces with a SEAD, anti-armour, and anti-ship capability in a single stroke. All of these are mentioned as capabilities which the Finnish Air Force is looking at for HX, but which might prove too niche for dedicated single-role weapons.

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The dream – at least for BAE Systems and their partners. Source: Own picture

But from where does a small country such as Finland get adequate targeting data for long-range cruise missile strikes? Here the Eurofighter consortium plays one of their unique selling points, in that the varied partner companies sport a large number of different capabilities, one of which is the Airbus Intelligence Defense and Space-division. This is one of the prime suppliers of satellite imagery, including synthetic-aperture radar ones. BAE Systems notes that a Finnish Typhoon-buy could include an unspecified satellite intelligence package. This shines an interesting light on one of the more curious air show-tweets made by any of the HX-contenders.

Under Scottish Skies – Selling the Typhoon

As part of a Finnish media tour I had the opportunity to spend a day at RAF Lossiemouth, where BAE Systems and RAF briefed us on why they think the Eurofighter Typhoon would be the right choice for Finland. No discussion on the Typhoon is complete without mentioning the cost, so lets start with a look at the business side of things.

The large twin-engined fighter has so far struggled to secure export orders outside of the wealthy Gulf states, something which is often attributed to the price tab. BAE Systems regional manager Mark Parkinson doesn’t deny that the fighter is expensive. “It’s a large aircraft, which means it has more parts than some of the competitors,” he notes. “That’s certainly visible in the unit cost.” But beyond the outright acquisition cost, the Eurofighter is remarkably competitive, with the current ten-year support agreement signed between BAE and RAF stipulating a support cost per flying hour that is on level with that of the F-16.

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“None of these aircrafts are cheap”
Mark Parkinson, Regional Manager BAE Systems

At the heart of this agreement from last summer is the Typhoon Total Availability eNterprise, or TyTAN for short, a support package aiming at closer co-operation between BAE Systems and RAF, who both share the common aim of making sure the operating costs are kept low and availability high for the Typhoon fleet. In essence, BAE tries to react proactively to any upcoming issues and provide for an increased level of training amongst the front-line mechanics of the air force, while RAF in turn strives to clearly communicate their needs and expectations back to BAE. In the words of John Bromehead, “The beauty of TyTAN is us sitting on the same side of table”, and contrasted this to the more traditional customer-supplier relationship which in the past has caused unnecessary friction over contractual issues. As a whole, the role of BAE as the prime contractor for British Typhoon support is not unlike how the Finnish Defence Forces and Millog are handling their strategic partnership in some areas.

Bromehead is the general manager of BAE Systems at Lossiemouth, meaning he oversees a team of some sixty persons that are responsible for not only the maintenance of the aircrafts and the supply chain associated with it, but also for the Typhoon Training Facility (North), an on-site simulator facility where six senior instructors lead the training of the operational fighter pilots. Of his team, only about half are actually BAE employees, with RAF providing a third of the work force, and Leonardo (ex-Selex), Thales, and other subcontractors making up the rest. In the same way as RAF is making resources available to BAE, Bromehead has a single BAE engineer posted to each of the squadrons operating at the base. “These are my ears and eyes,” he explains. The role of the engineers is to get a clear picture of how the operational squadrons perceive the aircraft, what kinds of demands and expectations they place upon it, and then communicate these back to the BAE. As noted, BAE is contractually bound to the ambitious goal of 40% reduction in support costs, and while this still is some way out in the future, a number of relatively simple improvements such as ensuring proper diagnostics not leading to unnecessary swapping out of healthy aircraft parts has meant that already in its first nine months TyTAN has seen reductions in flight hour costs.

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“Typhoon is a step-change in technology for the RAF”
John Bromehead, General Manager BAE Systems

For HX, Parkinson noted that the exact package is still open, and that BAE is in a dialogue with relevant Finnish authorities to get a better picture of what the Air Force and the MoD wants. This includes questions such as whether the contract will be in Euros or Pounds, and what kind of a support package is to be included. “The aircraft does come as a kit of parts,” Parkinson explained, meaning that a final assembly line could be set up in Finland with relative ease. In addition to the question of final assembly, he also revealed that the RFI included questions on whether it is possible to provide test rigs and/or an instrumented aircraft. The answer to both questions is yes, and in the end proper test rigs (and potentially a fully instrumented flight test aircraft) could be of more interest to the Finnish Air Force than a production line. Already under current orders and production rate, a potential Finnish order would fit in well with the large production schedule, and BAE has their scope set on a number of “promising” prospective orders, both new and returning customers. The general message was that while nothing is decided when it comes to the exact scope of the industrial cooperation, more or less anything requested by the Finnish Ministry of Defence can be provided. It is just a question of, you guessed it, cost.

I was invited for a Finnish media event to RAF Lossiemouth. The one-day event included briefings by both RAF and BAE Systems personnel (with the travelling taking places on the days before and after), and BAE kindly offered to cover the travel and stay in Scotland. Neither BAE nor RAF has put any restrictions or requests regarding what I do with the information given, nor have they reviewed (or asked for permission to review) any of my texts before publication. Instead, all involved were very forthcoming with providing us with information and answering questions we had regarding the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter program and how it is operated by the RAF. As RAF Lossiemouth is an active air force base, photography was naturally restricted to certain locations and angles.