Fighters, Missiles, and Forces

The request for best and final offers has not slowed down the pace of HX, but on the contrary things are seemingly moving at ever higher speed. At the same time, developments in the wider world are also affecting the competition.

F-35 started the year on the wrong footing, with Acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher Miller, giving a bizarre quote where he not only called the F-35 “that’s a piece of…” and called it “the case study” for an acquisition process which is a “wicked problem”, but also stated that “I cannot wait to leave this job, believe me.” While the full quote was headline stuff for the tabloids, I would not ascribe much value regarding the merits of the F-35 to the opinions of someone who responds to the question “I wanted to ask you…Joint Strike Fighter?” with “Which one? F-35?”

Image
The F-35 is followed by dark headlines, most of which are frankly little more than hot air caused by the unmatched media focus and US transparency surrounding the program. At the same time, questions regarding the sustainment costs continue to linger. Source: Norwegian Defence Forces Twitter

The other major headline was that the program was granted its fourth extension to the deadline for when the F-35 evaluation would be finished and the aircraft approved for full-rate production. While this also caused some bad press, truth be told this is largely a non-issue for the aircraft, as the challenges faced are part of the Joint Simulation Environment where the effectiveness against hostile high-end threats will be tested. It is, however, a serious case of civilian oversight being lacking, as either the decision criteria requiring the JSE tests are wrong, or then the civilian leadership has been watching from the sidelines as more than 600 units have been produced of an aircraft they don’t know if they will approve for full-rate production! Spoiler alert – it’s most likely the former, but it is a serious failure of the Civ-Mil process and how the oversight is structured (rather than any fault of the aircraft itself) that the production run before approval is bigger than the total most other fast-jets will see throughout their lifespans.

The aircraft also “flies with 871 flaws“, something that makes for good headlines but is largely a case of the unmatched US transparency rather than indicative of serious troubles.

In addition there has been issues with shortages of the F135 engines that has hit the fleet. Defense News quoted officials stating that it is a “serious readiness problem”, and noted that in next year “roughly 5 to 6 percent” of the aircraft could be without engines due to a combination of scheduled depot maintenance and unscheduled engine removals. Of all four headlines, this is probably the one that holds water, but while it indirectly isn’t good that a supply chain is hit by bad news, the issues will almost certainly be over by the time Finnish HX deliveries starts in 2025.

The most serious news, however, was an interview in Breaking Defense with the outgoing 13th Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Dr Will Roper (understandably often referred to as the “USAF acquisition czar”, and not with his full title). Roper, who while somewhat controversial regarding his methods of working is a highly respected professional in the field, noted that the aircraft isn’t “at a sustainment point that we need”, explaining that “right now the F-35 has a good ‘sticker price,’ but its cost of ownership is not where it needs to be, making the quantities that the Air Force may need to purchase in question”. Roper hinted that this could lead to the NGAD (not to be confused with the USN program of the same name) receiving higher priority, or even ordering new-built F-16s to boost the numbers. This was developed further by USAF Chief of Staff general Brown this week, who denied any plans to buy the F-16, but left the door open for a clean-sheet design of a fighter less complex than the F-35 and affordable enough for the bulk buys needed to replace the F-16 across the field.

Someone who doesn’t believe that the operating costs will come down is, unsurprisingly, rival Boeing, who will happily tell you that once fighters are starting to be flown, their operating costs won’t come down but rather go up due to wear and tear. And that despite the current Super Hornet-fleet having been flown hard in recent decades, including combat use, their numbers are still good.

Our flyaway costs are about the same [as the F-35], our operational costs are about half of that.

While Program Director Lauri Puranen has been clear with that no-one knows the Finnish operational costs due to no-one having the full detailed picture of Finnish Air Force investments, operations, and pricing models, the two contenders that roughly can be compared is the F-35 and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet due to the US DoD publishing their internal flight hour costs (again, thanks to the US transparency). A GAO report released late last year provide these numbers, noting that “From fiscal year 2011 through fiscal year 2018, the O&S costs per aircraft for the F/A-18E/F increased from about $5.58 million to about $6.41 million”. This was due to “sustained high flight hours, which increased the probability of parts failure on the aircraft, and an increasing aircraft inventory, as the F/A-18E/F is still in production. Maintenance costs also increased as the Navy has worked to address extensive maintenance needs associated with extending the service life of the aircraft from 6,000 hours to 10,000 hours”. At the same time, the F-35A total O&S costs per aircraft was $8.84 million in fiscal year 2018. While the numbers doesn’t support the F/A-18E/F having an O&S cost “half” of the F-35A, it still is 72% of it. And here it should be noted that the strain of the workloads placed on the different fleets will skew the cost (i.e. in a like for like scenario where the Super Hornet would operate from landbases with similar loads and flight profiles as the F-35A, the difference would likely be greater).

Another company who doesn’t care that Puranen stated that no-one knows the cost figures is Saab, where campaign director Magnus Skogberg this week declared that:

We know for sure that nobody beats us on cost.

Of course, the question on cost is highly complex, including the issues of how many flight hours will be needed to maintain proficiency on a multi-role fighter. Earlier Finnish pilots have flown relatively few hours, but have still managed to stay proficient due to having in essence been training solely for the air-to-air mission. With the MLU2 unlocking the air-to-ground capabilities and HX bringing in further expansions of the mission sets, the number of flight hours will most likely need to increase, even as advances in simulator technology are offloading some of the training to ground-based systems.

Of the missions, few have received the focus of long-range strike, which has been elevated to its own category in the HX program alongside the more general counter-land. Here it is important to note that the long-range strike role in Finnish doctrine occupies both a military as well as a deterrence role. Very little about how Finland plans the deterrence mission is found in open documents, but based on the realities of international law and capabilities of the systems involved deterrence by denial can safely be assumed to be the concept involved. To use a straightforward definition by David S. Yost, “Deterrence by denial means persuading the enemy not to attack by convincing him that his attack will be defeated – that is, that he will not be able to achieve his operational objectives.” In other words, there’s preciously little differing the role of the JASSM in Finnish service from the other weapons of the FDF – they all aim to deter the enemy from launching an attack by ensuring that he can’t reach his goals without the cost being unacceptably high. The particularity of the long-range strike is exactly the long-range – being able to affect targets that are important for the enemy but which are too far away for other methods. It might also be worth noting that a majority of Finnish MPs thinks “it would be acceptable for Finnish forces as a part of defending the country to strike militarily relevant targets on adversary territory”.

The question of which weapon will fill this role has largely been viewed as a three-way competition between the US AGM-158 JASSM (currently in Finnish service in the since discontinued AGM-158A version, which beat the Taurus KEPD in the last Finnish evaluation) and the European offerings of the Storm Shadow/SCALP and (possibly) the Taurus 350 KEPD. However, it turns out that last year’s DSCA notifications included an overlooked surprise: the JASSM would come with a seriously longer range than the current version.

Since the original AGM-158A, the JASSM has spawned a number of variants. Key among these are the longer-legged AGM-158B JASSM-ER (Extended Range) which is currently in production and in service as the AGM-158A replacement, as well as the AGM-158C LRASM which is an anti-ship variant of the same weapon. Latest of the bunch is a further refined version, earlier called JASSM-XR (for Extreme Range) which brings a number of improvements. Key among these is a range increase from 500 to 1,000 nautical miles compared to the AGM-158B (926 km to 1,852 km). The differences include “missile control unit, changes to the wings, a different paint coating, an Electronic Safe and Arm Fuze, a secure GPS receiver, and program protection requirements” according to Air Force Magazine. The JASSM-XR received an official AGM-158D designation earlier, and production has been confirmed to start with Lot 19 which is expected to be ordered any day now.

However, the designation AGM-158B-2 showed up in the Finnish DSCA-requests last year. This variant of the AGM-158B has up until now not been seen in many documents outside of the requests. After Inside Defense claimed that there has been yet another change of designations, I decided to ask Lockheed Martin (manufacturer of both the F-35A and the AGM-158 JASSM) about it.

AGM-158B2 will be the next variant in the line of JASSM-ER missiles. The USAF is expected to begin procurement of the JASSM-ERB2 beginning in Lot 19.

Turns out the missile expected to handle the long-range strike mission in case Finland chooses either the Super Hornet or the F-35A is the missile formerly known as JASSM-XR. This would mean a huge increase in range, from the current 370 km of the AGM-158A JASSM to 1,852 km of the AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ERB2 (usual caveat that all range figures are based on open sources and comes with a large dose of “it depends” where things such as launch altitude come into play).

A Finnish F/A-18 Hornet sporting two AGM-158A JASSM during exercise Ruska 19. Source: Joni Malkamäki/Ilmavoimat

Exactly how much range Finland really needs is an interesting question. The current 370 km can certainly be improved upon, though on the other hand it is questionable if Finland really needs the ability to reach Ufa. In theory going from AGM-158A to AGM-158B-2 is the difference between Rissala-St Petersburg and Rissala-Kazakhstan. What it in practice would do is unlock further options for Finnish military planners, including guaranteed stand-off range against all Russian air defences, current and planned, as well as the possibility to route the flight paths of the cruise missiles around hostile defences. The AGM-158B-2 would for example make it possible to stand back and fire missiles from high altitude over the Bothnian Gulf and still reach the same targets as the AGM-158B would do from within S-400 range. As such, added range doesn’t necessarily mean that the Finnish Air Force is looking at new targets. After all, most military relevant targets in a conflict where Finland is involved – such as command centres, transport infrastructure, and staging areas – are found relatively close to the border, but rather that these targets could be destroyed at smaller risk to the Finnish pilots and aircraft. A military relevant target set that likely is of interest and which is found further from the Finnish border is the infrastructure needed to move troops from other military districts towards a conflict zone in (north-)western Russia. Many of the recent large Russian military exercises have showcased the Russian ability to relatively quickly move personnel and equipment over large distances, either by rail or air. Being able to disrupt or delay such movements in a conflict could be an example of a military target outside the range of the current AGM-158A JASSM, and one which might buy valuable days or even weeks for friendly support to reach Finland.

Crucially, the fact that the US contenders have decided to go for the B-2 and not the B does show that they feel that it fits the Finnish requirement best. It could be just a question of which weapon will be rolling of the production lines in 2027, but if there really is a requirement for range, the European contenders might be at a disadvantage when it comes to evaluating their ability to perform the long-range strike mission. And from a purely deterrence point of view, range does indeed open up more targets to be held at risk, and there’s also the fact that buying the best there is helps with cementing the “passive-aggressive” reputation needed for small-state deterrence to work.

An interesting question is obviously what weapon Saab would offer for the long-range strike role? The Taurus KEPD 350 is a joint Saab-MBDA venture, but as the weapon has lost an evaluation for a Finnish contract already once much of the Swedish discussion has been around the possibility to integrate any weapon the customer wants. However, as the only DSCA requests so far related to HX have been for the US contenders, the question remains if Saab plans on first selling the aircraft, and then trusting Finland to receive the correct export clearances? When asked, Saab declined to comment.

Both with respect to the customer and due to competition we do not comment on the details relating to the weapons package of the HX programme.

But if the F-35 had a somewhat poor start of the year, the Super Hornet also had its unwelcome moment in the spotlight with the announcement that the US Navy is thinking about axing the conformal fuel tanks from the Block III upgrade. The CFTs have been seen as an important part of the plans to increase the range of the Super Hornet, which in turn is seen as important for any China-scenario. For Finland, range and endurance isn’t as critical, but the question is how invested the USN is in the future of the Super Hornet-family if they struggle to meet the envisioned increase in range? Boeing is, at least officially, not concerned. The US Navy is still moving forward with the overall plan to convert the fleet to Block III standard (Block II being the corresponding program for the EA-18G Growler), and the current USN plan is that well over half the fast jets of the carrier air wing of 2030 will be from the Super Hornet-family (28 Super Hornets, 5-7 Growlers, and 16 F-35C). “Staying with three Super Hornet squadrons [per air wing] is quite telling,” Alain Garcia said, and noted that development is set to continue well past Block III. “There is a roadmap […] lots of [software] capabilities coming.” Garcia is one of Boeing’s key persons in their campaign aimed at ensuring Finland stays with the Boeing for another generation, and he sports the somewhat unwieldy title of Capture Team Lead for International Sales & Marketing Fighter and Trainer Campaigns in Finland and Switzerland. The roadmap he refers to will include the manned-unmanned teaming updates which are expected to be included as standard by the time Finnish aircraft would be rolling off the production lines, but also new weapons. With regards to MUMT, the question is obviously if the Finnish Air Force could fit unmanned platforms in a budget that will already be strained by trying to replace the manned components? Garcia notes that it obviously is a decision that the Finnish Air Force will make based on their own needs and doctrines, but that so far as they can tell the option remains available. Especially considering potential savings and trade-offs that can be had.

Looking at current operational costs now, we believe that with our offer there’s still some room for operational costs in there.

While USN might not be as certain about the future of the Super Hornet (or the carrier air wing in general), the EA-18G Growler seems to offer rather good protection against an early retirement of the platform. The unique role of the Growler as a dedicated stand-in electronic warfare platform will only continue to grow in importance (something the general Brown also noted recently in a much reported speech that included quotes about USAF being “asleep at the wheel” since Operation Desert Storm, and “We can no longer solely depend on defensive capabilities” which might get the force home, but don’t meet the need to be able to operate offensively in the electromagnetic spectrum). For not only the US Navy, but the joint US force as a whole, this means that the Growler is likely to remain on the flightdeck of the carriers and on expeditionary bases for decades to come, and with the Growler set to remain in service the future of the Super Hornet is also looking rosier than it would if alone. And if the Super Hornet/Growler would go the road of the A-6 Intruder/EA-6 Prowler where the electronic attack variant soldiered on for 22 years after the retirement of the baseline version, the ability to cross-feed new systems from the USN Growler-community to any potential Super Hornet export customers (as happened within the USN fast-jet fleet with the Block III upgrades) would help avoid the current “operating Hornet”-alone situation.

Saab and Boeing are happily in agreement about the importance of the importance of electronic warfare, as is the US DoD. In their new Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy they describe the electromagnetic spectrum as “not a separate domain of military operations because the EMS is inseparable from the domains established in joint doctrine.” Magnus Skogberg of Saab understandably pushed the need to be able to affect the EMS:

The stealth shaping of the aircraft is not enough to handle this [S-400 sensors covering a wide spectrum]

At this point it is notable that the F-35 in fact far from relying solely on stealth also features one of the most advanced integrated electronic warfare systems available, in fact putting them on the same side as Saab – but opposite Boeing – when it comes to the need for a dedicated EW-platform to get the most out of their aircrafts. While Skogberg proclaims that there’s “No need for a dedicated EW-platform when you are a Gripen operator”, Boeing representatives (not without being slightly smug about it) noted that while the UAE last year had requested a large package that included both the F-35A as well as the EA-18G Growler, only the Growler was denied export clearance by the US government on the grounds of it being too advanced and capable, with the F-35 deal being inked just before the change of administration (and now on hold pending review).

The US government has witheld the proposal from being submitted to the customer

The beauty of the Growler is that the dedication of the platform brings not only the computing power of the specified electronic warfare processor unit, but also the dedicated crew member. This means that for example when a new or previously unidentified signal is encountered, the operator can already in-flight start processing it, giving it an ID or other potential identifier. This means that once the aircraft lands the signal intelligence can be downloaded from the aircraft as “useful data” ready for the library, a capability Boeing believe they are alone in the field to provide. While the complete absence of black boxes and total independence of the mission data has been, and continues to be, one of the main selling points of the European contenders, Boeing takes a somewhat different approach out of necessity.

The data is owned by the Finnish government, but the processing of acquired mission data is easiest to handle through US infrastructure where Finnish personnel can be embedded. Fast turnaround (less than 24 hours) can then be achieved through the use of secure channels. Alternatively the whole or parts of the infrastructure can be rebuilt in Finland, but the cost might be prohibitive. Another interesting aspect is whether Finland wants to share the data (especially the data collected by Growlers) or not. There are a number of three-letter agencies interested in the data collected by USN Growlers, and exchange of data between Finland and the US might in turn provide valuable intelligence from these to the Finnish authorities. The amount of data produced by the Growler is indeed huge, with the snapshot of what the Growler visiting during HX Challenge last year managed to capture simply through its passive sensors reportedly being “eye-opening” with regards to the “saturation of information”. This is another place where the dedicated crew members comes into play.

An EA-18G Growler from VAQ-132 during heavy snows at Naval Air Facility Misawa, Japan, showing that the aircraft doesn’t stop just because everything turned white. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kenneth G. Takada via Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of from where it originates, electronic warfare is the hot stuff, with a crucial feature being noted in the new US DoD Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy:

Because many EMS capabilities are employed, not expended, concerns about magazine capacity or cost of munitions may be reduced, which in turn affords commanders and decision makers more sustainable options.

For a country where low numbers of advanced munitions has been raised as a concern in official documents, this is of interest. The ability to control the battlespace without blowing things up is certainly interesting also from an escalation management point of view, one of Finland’s key interests in any (limited) conflict.

But Saab has an alternative. Or rather, the Swedish defence establishment and politicians have an alternative. If Finland would buy the 39E Gripen and GlobalEye, the vision is that the Finnish and Swedish Air Force would be a common customer, meeting Saab together. And crucially, we would be the major customer and not a small customer in a bigger project. Saab’s media event this week was telling, in that it featured the Swedish Minister for Defence Peter Hultqvist, the deputy commander of the Swedish Air Force brigadier general Anders Persson, as well as Saab’s own people. While it technically is the governments and not the OEMs that are selling fighters to Finland, none are as clearly involved in the sales effort as the Swedes. MoD Hultqvist underlined the influence Finland would have on the program, stating that Finland would have “direct influence” on the future development path of 39E and GlobalEye if we choose Saab’s offer.

Slides from the media event, not leaving anything left to imagination

Brigadier general Persson didn’t mess around in his presentation, clearly stating that the potential enemy comes from an aggressive and expansive Russia, and that this is what Sweden has tailored their defenses towards.

Gripen is designed for our common environment, our common enemy, with our people in focus.

While Saab’s part of the presentation focused on their EW-suite, ability to field numbers, high availability, and current footprint in Finland (including the LADM decoy missile currently being under development, with much of the work undertaken in Tampere), Hultqvist and Persson spoke about the possibilities of Finnish-Swedish cooperation. This included harmonizing the acquisition of both Air Forces, but also cooperating with basing, training, and maintenance. Crucially, Sweden hasn’t decided to acquire GlobalEye, but according to Hultqvist while “We haven’t made any formal decision to procure GlobalEye, but that is how it should be interpreted”. A strange statement, as the new Swedish Defence Bill for 2021 to 2025 in fact envisions the replacement for the current ASC 890 to come only in the 2026 to 2030 period, with the decision on the platform still being years into the future. And speaking of the Defence Bill, it is far from a certain grand slam for the Swedish Air Force, as the answer to the realisation that cutting the Swedish fighter force to just 60 aircraft (the number of JAS 39E ordered) was a bad idea wasn’t to increase the size of the order, but rather to maintain the current JAS 39C/D fleet for longer. Beside the obvious issue of lower relative quality for the total force when keeping upgraded older aircraft in service instead of ordering more modern platforms, there is also little room for growth among the highly specialised workforce of the Swedish stakeholders when suddenly two fast-jets are to be kept up to date in parallel. An anonymous engineer from the Combat Aircraft department of the Swedish Defence Material Administration raised questions over on Twitter, noting that some of the engineers at the department are looking at 150 to 170% workload for the foreseeable future due to new 39C/D related developments. The optimist sees possibilities for Finnish industry to step in following an HX win for Saab, the pessimist questions if the small and competent Swedish aviation sector can continue to keep pushing out the kind of high-quality high-end solutions they are known for?

More headline grabbing was the speech held by brigadier general Persson. He noted that already now Finland and Sweden cooperate closely and regularly deploy to the other country for exercises. He also noted that this will continue regardless of the outcome of HX, but that choosing Gripen and GlobalEye would open up unique new opportunities. Not only could Finland fly the aircraft for upgrades to Linköping and Saab’s factory there in the morning and get the aircraft back in the evening, but Sweden and the Swedish aircraft infrastructure could be used as a rear logistics area. For basing, according to need Finnish fighters could deploy to Swedish bases behind the moat of the Baltic Sea, while Swedish fighters could use Finnish dispersed bases as forward staging areas for sorties. Integrating training and tactics could be a true force multiplier in the words of the general.

We will be like one air force with two commanders.

…and here the military historian will point out that ever since consuls Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus led the Roman army to the disaster at Cannae in 216 BC, having a single force with two commanders is usually not seen as a great idea. But leaving that perhaps misplaced quote aside, it is clear that the idea has much going for it. It isn’t exactly new, see for example this older guest post, but getting additional strategic depth for basing would certainly be beneficial, and it certainly would be easier to arrange with the same aircraft type than with different ones.

However, the kind of integrated force that brigadier general Persson describe would be something more than just two interoperable forces, something which they are already today (and will continue to be as both countries strive to maintain their ability to plug into NATO and US compatible forces), but it would require them to be true military allies. This is a political decision, and one which I fail to see either parliament going for in the next six months. Finnish commentators like to question whether Sweden is prepared to make firm commitments that they would send their sons and daughters to die for Kouvola or Sodankylä, but truth be told the answer to the question if Finland would be prepared to declare war on Russia in support of Sweden if the dreaded Gotland-grab scenario would take place is even more uncertain.

In fact, building up a rear logistics area outside of the country’s border is exactly what has been described as a potential weak point of the F-35. Ironically, the deputy commander hit the nail on the head when he described the situation for both countries as “We need to be able to take care of ourselves for days, weeks, maybe months”. The possibility of integrating further with the Swedish force is interesting, as is the ability to be the major operator instead of being a smaller operator in a major program. However, it does feel like much of Saab’s sales pitch this time took a detour to a political reality that simply isn’t there, and completely missed the geopolitical realities and defining features of the Finnish concept of operations which the company earlier has been good at selling towards.

Boeing on the other hand has no issues with selling to the Finnish concept of operations.

If you’re already operating the Hornet-fleet, there really is no change to the concept of operations switching to the Super Hornet and Growler.

This might be a bit of stretch considering the capabilities of the Growler, but granted it would fit the way the FDF usually does things (and likely be cheaper!) that instead of major sudden changes the force would get to iteratively developed its doctrine and concepts of operations.

The Big Dance that wasn’t to be

It was supposed to be the last big dance of the HX contenders in Finland, with a final air show in the unpredictable June-weather before the decision was to be announced not even a year later in early 2021. But then COVID happened.

The air show was first moved to August, and then the whole program schedule was pushed back with the decision now expected Q4 2021 due to the inability to hold the final pre-BAFO talks in person last spring. As such, the air show in Kauhava this weekend is set to be a somewhat muted affair compared to the expectations. This is obviously a pity, especially as the local enthusiasts in Kauhava were set to have the biggest celebration of the towns aviation heritage since the closure of the air force base in 2014.

Compared to earlier years, the late stage of the program is visible in the fact that few breaking news were published, though there were some interesting stories.

First out in the spotlight was the Finnish Defence Forces and MoD themselves, who published a rather long and surprisingly open interview interview with colonel Keränen (FinAF A3) and Lauri Puranen (MoD program manager for strategic capability projects) in their Radio Kipinä-podcast. The theme was “The HX-program – Mythbusters”, and they spent quite a bit of time explaining why it isn’t possible to replace the fighters with ground-based systems or UAVs, the extremely close cooperation between the politicians making the eventual decisions and the soldiers and officials providing the groundwork, as well as how there are no favourites at this stage. All of these are issues that have been raised in the domestic discussion in Finland, with more or less populist undertones depending on the issue and who’s making the point. However, there were some interesting nuggets for the avgeek community as well.

Keränen made a direct point that the Air Force is not planning on going even in case of war, but that they will strive for a serious kill ratio.

We want something like the Brewster, [which] had 32:1 during the Second World War. Of course that is the kind of thing we are aiming for, whether it’s realistic or not is another thing, but if we can reach for example 10:1 that is 600 fighters that we can shoot down. Or bombers, depending on whatever comes.

You’d be excused for feeling this comes off as arrogant, but a quick look into the history books shows that during the jet age such numbers have been well within the realms of possibility. The USAF F-86 experience in the Korean War is given as between 10.5 to 2:1. The Israeli Air Force is also well-known for having extremely high numbers during the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars, and while the exact numbers are debated (figures like 50:1 in 1973 and 80:0 in 1982 are frequently given), even if they feature some serious inflation they should be well over the 10:1 threshold. The Royal Navy in the Falklands War also famously reached 19:0 with the Sea Harrier (although a small number were lost in accidents and to ground fire), and in this case the kills and losses are largely confirmed from sources on both sides. Operation Desert Storm also saw a kill ratio above 30:1 for the coalition. As such, the goal of reaching double-digit kill ratios is perfectly achievable with the right combination of training, equipment, and doctrine. In fact it can be argued to be something of a requirement for overall success in modern wars.

The interview also confirmed that the idea of a 64 aircraft fleet is effectively dead, as Puranen noted that all first round offers for 64-aircraft packages were “significantly over 10 billion Euros”. However, the requirement is still for a fleet of around 60 aircraft. The reasons are simple and well-known to followers of the project, in that the aircraft now included in the HX program aren’t really faster or have significantly better endurance compared to the current Hornet-fleet. Coupled with the fact that Finnish territory hasn’t gotten smaller (or rather, not significantly smaller) since the Hornet was bought, the same air defence capability will require more or less the same number of aircraft.

The interview crucially also included a declaration that they are happy with the planned service lives of all aircraft, and see them continuing in service into 2060 and beyond. If that really is the case, it certainly is good news to, well, everyone besides F-35A (which we all knew would not have an issue with the lifespan requirement).

Boeing did not have any aircraft beside the Finnish Air Force’s three F/A-18C/D Hornets on location at the air show this year, but their tent continued to heavily push the manned-unmanned teaming concept. Source: Own picture

The last significant detail given was that the Growler will show its active systems at a test range in the US during a test period there, and that the passive systems were evaluated during HX Challenge which Boeing attended with a three-aircraft fleet that included not only the Growler but also single- and two-seat Super Hornets. Since then, Boeing confessed that their testing program had been hit with some delays, but that as time goes and the safety measures are put into place everything is starting to ramp back up again. With both the Block 3 and the NGJ now flying, it was a bullish team that was on location in Kauhava yesterday. Despite the issues facing Boeing’s civilian sector, the defence, space and security-part of the company was described as “healthy”, with the international side being “more active than ever”. This include the Canadian program, where Boeing recently sent in their offer, the Swiss program, as well as the ongoing German program where Boeing has been downselected for luWES and together with Eurofighter to provide the solution for the Tornado Replacement Program. The ATS and manned-unmanned teaming was also mentioned, and Boeing was quick to point out that while they are happy with the progress the ATS-platform itself is making down in Australia, that is only part of the complete system. The technology and software part of the program is to some extent a different track running in parallel, large parts of which are already in place.

Finland is a user organisation, not a developer organisation

Boeing’s main sales pitch hasn’t moved anywhere, it is still the proven and mature option, two words that has worked well in Finnish defence procurement earlier. The one thing that didn’t excite the company was Saab’s announcement of the Lightweight Air-launched Decoy Missile (LADM), the representative sounding almost confused when he recounted an earlier question:

We got a question if we have anything similar. We’ve been doing that thing for years, first with the TALD and now with the MALD. I really don’t know what else to say.

The US launched over a hundred of the original (in turn based on earlier missiles of the same concept used by the Israelis) ADM-141 TALD during the opening night of Operation Desert Storm. Here two of the TALDs that were later launched into Iraqi airspace are shown under the wing of a Hornet. Source: iflyfa18 via Wikimedia Commons

As said, Saab had one of the few (only?) breaking story of the show, with the announcement that they are developing a lightweight decoy. Despite the seeming similarity to the US ADM-160C MALD-J and the SPEAR EW, the Saab-version has a few things going for it. To begin with, it is “largely” developed in Finland and as such (probably?) should be ITAR-free. Secondly, while Saab won’t discuss at what stage they are in the development (usually a sign that there’s not much in the way of hardware yet to be shown), there’s likely significant synergies between the internal EW-suite of the Gripen E/F, the EAJP jamming pod, and the electronic warfare capabilities of the GlobalEye.

The third GlobalEye built for the UAE, here with Swedish civilian registration SE-RMU. Source: Own picture

Saab continues to emphasis the overall package, with security of supply and the close relationship with Sweden adding to the performance of the JAS 39E/F Gripen and GlobalEye combination. 39E made its air show debut at Kauhava, and it was backed up by no less than three 39C/D Gripen of the Swedish Air Force and a GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft. An interesting aspect of Saab’s presentation was the inclusion of colonel Carl-Fredrik Edström, Swedish Air Force A3, who spoke warmly about Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation, and noted that this will continue regardless of the outcome of HX. However, if Finland would end up choosing Gripen, there’s certain possibilities opening up that the Swedish Air Force would be happy to provide. These include e.g. the possibility of embedding Finnish flying personnel into the test and evaluation program at an early stage, as well as the potential of cooperating not only on research and development of the fighter, but also e.g. handling the advanced training/OCU as a joint unit which likely would be a cost saver for both countries.

For the first time ever the 39E Gripen took part in an air show. The aircraft in question was ‘6002’, the first series production aircraft for the Swedish Air Force. She will join the verification and validation programme together with the Swedish Armed Forces and FMV. Source: Own picture

The star of the four Gripen on location was the ‘6002’ which is the first series produced JAS 39E, and feature a really nice three-tone camo to commemorate this fact. Making its air show debut, the aircraft featured a serious air-to-ground load of four SDB on the centreline rack, two Taurus KEPD 350 heavy cruise missiles, and two Enhanced Paveway II (believe that is the GBU-49 227 kg version), as well as two IRIS-T air-to-air missiles for self-defence. That Saab managed to convince the Swedish Air Force to let their precious fighter come over for an air show is yet another sign of the wholehearted support Saab’s export push enjoys from the operator.

Another fighter in special paint was the Dassault Rafale solo. Unfortunately it (and the other two Rafales) were parked a bit offside, so I wasn’t able to get any nice shots of it yesterday. But rest assured it looked the part, both on the ground and in the air.

Edit 02 September 2020 – I managed to get my hands on this video that Dassault used as marketing material during the weekend, and got permission to republish it here, courtesy of Dassault Aviation.

Speaking of air forces supporting export pushes, the RAF sent over the Red Arrows to celebrate forty years of Finnish Hawk-operations. While in theory this had nothing to do with BAES trying to sell the Typhoon to Finland, it is obvious that there are some overlap. In particular, BAES tries to use their long experience working together with Patria on the Hawk-program as a template to build onto for a Finland as a Eurofighter operator. This isn’t something to laugh at, as besides Boeing they are the only operator to be able to claim experience on this side of 2000 to have cooperated with the Finnish Air Force (and Finnish industry) on an operational fast jet. And it should be remembered that while the Hawk is a much simpler platform compared to the Hornet, there still has been some significant projects based around the aircraft in Finnish service, including the Hawk MLU-project.

The BAES-lead consortium have their game plan ready. The key part is taking a holistic approach to the gate-check requirements of industrial participation, affordability, and security of supply. In simple words this starts with ensuring Finnish industrial participation from the get-go (read: domestic production line), which provide a base for thirty years of sustainment. This allows for a TyTAN-style program where the industry is handling maintenance and support on location, which in turn saves money as moving aircraft around for service is expensive. As has been discussed earlier, TyTAN won’t be coming to Finland as a copy-paste solution, but as it bears a strong resemblance to the FDF way of working with strategic partners and with the experience of BAES and Patria working together on the Hawk, it will provide lessons for how to produce a tailored way of working for the HX. Crucially, TyTAN provide an already proven operational way of working that shows how the costs can be managed, something that at least two other aircraft in the field currently lack. And with BAES confident enough to sign a fixed-price ten year contract on the Typhoon, the life-cycle cost gauntlet certainly has been thrown down.

The Large Area Display simulator for Eurofighter which is in development. Picture courtesy of BAES

But while much talk is centered on the European aspect, Finnish ownership of mission data, lack of sealed black boxes and “independence“, it is when discussing the aircraft itself that the superlatives really start to come out. An interesting talking point at the BAES presser was that the upcoming large area display will enable the pilot to take a step back and get more information than just the fused picture by seeing also the raw data from individual sensors. While sensor fusion has been one of the main themes of most of the HX-contenders, the theory that you can get additional value from being able to see raw data as well as to sort through ambiguities and anomalies does make sense on paper. The question about how valuable this is depends on how good each individual fusion method is, and that is something that we won’t know based on open sources. Still, I couldn’t help but reflect on whether we are seeing the hype cycle in action, or is this is just a PR-talking point for the use of a large display?

But while the value of non-fused data to complement the fused picture is ambiguous, the raw performance of the Eurofighter is uncontested. The aircraft’s ability to supercruise is seen as a key for the QRA mission, and it has been demonstrated to the Finnish Air Force (naturally it is dependent on height and environment).

It is without peer in the sense it can supercruise, and it can supercuise with air to air stores.

This is coupled with the Striker and upcoming Striker II helmet, which allows the weapons cuing through the cockpit amongst a host of other nice features. In short the company believes that they “already have a helmet advantage”, and that it will only get better with the introduction of the Striker II with full colour and picture-in-picture.

Keep on Rockin’

News recently broke from Denmark that the cost of the new light hangars and other infrastructure being added to Skrydstrup Air Force Base in anticipation of the arrival of the first F-35s has almost doubled from 650 million DKK (87 MEUR) to 1.1 billion DKK (150 MEUR). The news itself isn’t quite as dramatic as it looks, part of the changes stems from a change in the decision of where on the base the buildings will be placed, and it actually matches the savings of 443 million DKK (58 MEUR) that the cost of the aircraft themselves have experienced since the acquisition approval in 2016 (part of which is the drop in price of the F-35A, part of which is a more favorable exchange rate), leaving the 20 billion DKK (2.7 billion EUR) total budget largely unaffected. However, it does highlight an often overlooked issue with fighter programs, namely that a new fighter is seldom just able to drop into the slot left by an outgoing aircraft. No two transitions are exactly alike, but it does offer an interesting perspective that in the case of Denmark, infrastructure representing 5% of the value of the fighter package will have to be built, and it is something to keep in mind in February when two different Boeing-built fighters will touch down at Tampere-Pirkkala to take their turn in HX Challenge.

Screenshot_2019-11-23 LHuHrcQI (JPEG Image, 800 × 800 pixels)
A Finnish block III F/A-18E Super Hornet (closer) and an EA-18G Growler flying over a decidedly northern Finnish landscape in this render. Picture courtesy of Boeing

The Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler namely are more or less plug and play when it comes to using the existing Finnish Air Force infrastructure. Granted there are likely some obsolescence issues, general need for modernization, and the simulators will have to be replaced/seriously updated, but in general the Super Hornet can jump right in where the Hornet is currently. Exactly how much that benefit is worth compared to the competitors is unclear, but with all manufacturers having problem squeezing 64 fighters into the 10 Bn Euro budget, that also include these kinds of infrastructure changes, Boeing will have a measurable advantage.

But it doesn’t stop there, as the Super Hornet fleet would be able to utilise many of the weapons currently found in the arsenals of the Finnish Air Force. These include not only the ubiquitous AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM and the somewhat less widely certified AIM-9X, but also the JDAM and JSOW, which aren’t in use by the eurocanards. While the timeline until the retirement of the Hornet is long enough to allow for a bit of planning in arms acquisitions, the savings in weaponry can quickly start adding up, and also ensures that there isn’t a gap in missiles orders but a rolling transition which makes stepped buys of HX-weaponry easier on the budget post-2030. An interesting weapon is the silver bullet AGM-158 JASSM, which reportedly has a shelf-life roughly stretching to the end of the Finnish Hornet-era. As it is safe to assume that any Finnish Super Hornet-fleet would use the JASSM as their long-range strike weapon, this would open up the possibility of a JASSM-overhaul (possibly including some features of the current AGM-158B JASSM-ER model) that likely would be cheaper than acquiring new-built Storm Shadows.

Renders are always an interesting subject, as they provide an indication of what the manufacturer sees as the aircraft’s strong cards. In the render above Boeing has not only included the mid- and low-band NGJ pods (Next-generation jammers) currently undergoing testing and an AGM-88E AARGM anti-radiation missile on the Growler, but the single-seat F/A-18E Super Hornet feature the AARGM as well, in addition to a podded IRST-sensor and a respectable air-to-air load of six AIM-120 AMRAAM and two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. Considering that the Finnish Air Force places an emphasis on the counter air mission, i.e. the “candidate’s capability to perform in combats both with fighters and ground based air defence”, this is a serious combat load for the mission (it might in fact be overtly ambitious as a general load considering the cost of the weapons involved) as it allows the aircraft to not only target enemy aircraft, but to force enemy ground-based radars to either go dark or risk receiving an AARGM-sized hole in their arrays. While the basic F/A-18E isn’t capable of the kind of widespread jamming as the Growler, it does bring more shooters to the SEAD-battle compared to just having a handful of Growlers. For those interested in the lack of external fuel tanks, it should be noted that the aircraft carry conformal fuel tanks, and that this is Finland and not to the USINDOPACOM, so range requirements are rather modest.

In the meantime the Finnish Air Force is building it’s multirole capabilities, which will carry on to the HX. In the clip above from current high-end exercise KAAKKO 19 soldiers of Kymi Jaeger Battalion provide suppressive fire while a JTAC first directs artillery fire onto target, and then directs a live JDAM drop from a Hornet to finish off. While one can discuss the role of the JDAM in contested airspace, the preferred high and fast drop profile isn’t necessarily a great idea if inside enemy SAM coverage, the modern low-density battlefield does provide settings where it could come in handy.

But the low-density battlefield doesn’t just create opportunities for the Air Force to pound enemy ground forces outside of their integrated air defences, it also places high demands on issues such as situational awareness to avoid own losses, both in the air and for the units being supported on the ground. While not the most talked about features of the Block III compared to earlier versions of the Super Hornet, two items brought in with it gives huge improvements in this field: the Distributed Targeting Processor-Networked (DTP-N) and the Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) data link. The short version is that the TTNT gives more bandwidth compared to legacy datalinks, allowing more information to be transferred between aircrafts (and other sensors), while the DTP-N gives the computing power to be able to make sense of this increased data flow by fusing not only data from the aircraft’s own sensors, but from the sensors of other aircraft as well. Together they allow for the creation of a Common Tactical Picture (CTP), ensuring that all aircraft knows what any of them sees.

Now, the CTP could potentially provide the answer to one of the headaches Boeing is likely facing, namely the F/A-18E + F/A-18F + EA-18G mix. The basic fighter in the (approximately) 64 aircraft fleet will be a single-seater, in this case the F/A-18E. In addition, a number of twin-seaters will likely be included to allow for training, in this case the F/A-18F. The Finnish legacy-Hornet fleet was made up of 57 single-seaters and seven twin-seaters, with the Finnish Air Force publicly stating that in hindsight they would have preferred a larger amount of twin-seaters (this led to the unfortunate “frankenfighter”, HN-468). E.g. Saab has solved this by offering a 52 + 12 mix of single- and twin-seaters, noting that twin-seaters offer better performance in a number of missions, including SEAD/DEAD, complex ground-attack scenarios, or with the backseater working as a mission commander.

ilmave_jassmruska17ssc3a4_20171011
A Finnish F/A-18C Hornet during exercise Ruska 17, sporting a single AGM-158 JASSM under the starboard wing. Source: Ilmavoimat

The headache for Boeing is the fact that the EA-18G already takes up precious slots in the fleet. Looking at the typical carrier aircraft wing, it is likely that something along the lines of eight to twelve Growlers are included in the Finnish offer. Twelve standard twin-seaters would leave an Air Force with only 40 single-seaters, and while the twin-seaters are fully combat capable, there are additional costs associated with them (and with training WSOs/mission commanders). The Growlers in particular, while extremely capable and impressive, come with a premium price tag. The question then is whether the number of Fs could be scaled back? Notably the F-35A is offered only as a single-seater, and with modern fighters being easier to fly compared to legacy aircraft has made it possible to shift all or parts of conversion training to simulators and single-seaters. There is also no particular need for SEAD-configured F/A-18Fs, since that is what the EA-18G Growler is all about. The Finnish Air Force also currently flies the majority of the ground-attack missions, including long-range strike missions, with single-seat F/A-18C Hornets. The idea behind a mission commander is interesting on paper, but considering the generally improved situational awareness presented by wide-angled displays and the CTP, it is questionable if it provides enough of an edge to justify a serious buy of F/A-18Fs. Instead, leaving the mission commander role to either ground control or the senior F/A-18E pilot might very well be the desired outcome. The final ratio will likely be decided only once the wargames are over, but don’t be surprised if the number of F/A-18Fs is on the lower end.

HX Shifting Gears

The HX program has shifted gear into the next phase, as all five contenders returned their answers to the first round of the RFQ (for those needing a primer on the process, see this post). As noted all five are still in the race, but a few notable events have taken place.

On the Air Force-side of things, the Chief of Defence (and former Air Force CinC) was quite outspoken in an interview back in December, where he amongst other things highlighted the need for Finland to ensure that we aren’t the sole operator of the HX towards the end of it’s operational life. This is in essence nothing new, it was noted as an issue for the continued operation of the Hornet-fleet past 2030 in the original HX pre-study, and could in all honesty been seen from a mile away. Still, it was felt that the decision to speak openly about one of the key points that set the F-35 aside from the rest of the bunch (i.e. a widespread international userbase which will operate the aircraft as their prime combat aircraft past 2060) was surprising given the continued emphasis on the competition still being wide open. However, given the obvious nature of the issue, I find it difficult to get too excited over the quote.

There will however be some personnel changes, as a scandal has rocked the Air Force with a wing commander being under investigation for less than proper conduct while drunk during an Air Force-sponsored trip with local stakeholders. This has also raised questions about how the investigation has been conducted by his superiors, something which has likely played a part in both the Air Force chief and the chief of defence declining to apply for extensions of their respective terms, instead opting to retire when their current terms are up. This likely won’t affect the HX program in any meaningful way.

F-35C Lightning II from VFA-101 ‘Grim Reapers’ taking off from USS George Washington (CVN-73) during F-35C Development Test III. Picture courtesy of Lockheed Martin, photo by Todd R. McQueen

Back to the F-35, preciously little has come out regarding the offer. This is due to Lockheed Martin not being allowed to comment upon anything, as the offer is made by the US Government. That means we still haven’t gotten confirmation that it is the F-35A that is on offer, leaving the door open for the odd chance that the carrier-based F-35C would be seen as better suitable tp Finnish requirements. That detail will likely become clear soon enough, but in the meantime we can note that the F-35C declared IOC recently, meaning that all three versions of the F-35 now are operational. The F-35B recently finished it’s first combat cruise, and scored a 75% availability rate. That number is perhaps the most impressive metric to come out of the F-35 program during the last year in my opinion, as that availability rate would be acceptable for mature operational fighters operating from their home base. Now it was achieved by a brand new STOVL aircraft operating in combat from a small carrier, clocking twice the hours of its predecessor. While questions surrounding the ALIS and other parts of the program still exist, this is a strong sign of maturity. The F-35 still in many ways remain the fighter to beat for anyone aiming for the HX-contract.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, while the F-35 is still undefeated in combat, it is no longer so on the market. This is following the German decision to drop it from their Tornado-replacement program, where the Eurofighter Typhoon and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet will now go head to head for the deal. The undoubtedly political decision to drop the F-35 at this early stage has received widespread criticism, including from not one but two former chiefs of the German Air Force (and as opposed to how the HX-debate looks in Finland, both of the generals have recent experience, having retired in 2009 and 2018 respectively). However, the decision isn’t quite as far-out as some would like to make it, as both the Typhoon and the Super Hornet actually hold significant selling points. Crucially, Germany already operate the Typhoon, making it easier to just raise the number of aircraft than to integrate a new fighter. For the Super Hornet, it should be remembered that Germany besides the ground-attack Tornado IDS also operate the SEAD/DEAD-variant Tornado ECR, one of very ‘Wild Weasel’ aircraft currently in service anywhere in the world. And the only modern Wild Weasel aircraft found on the market is the Super Hornet-based EA-18G Growler (we’ll get to that shortly). Will the German decision affect HX? Yes, although mainly indirectly by securing another reference to either fighter, and likely to a lesser extent than another recent German decision.

Germany decided to despite considerable British and French pressure continue to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the War in Yemen and the brutal murder of journalist Khashoggi. The actions are certainly correct in my personal opinion, the War in Yemen and the murder were both particularly brutal (even considering the fact that wars and murders in general are brutal), but it also points to a willingness of Germany to pull the brakes on arms exports contrary to the wishes of other major European countries. In itself that isn’t necessary worrying, but Germany has also shown a worrying tendency of running their own show when it comes to relations with Russia (case in point: Nord Stream 2). Taken together, especially when considering Russia’s usual taste for false flag operations and trying to shape the narrative of any conflict, the risk of Germany stalling orders and urging both sides to de-escalate in a potential Russo-Finnish crisis is probably being analysed in Helsinki. It’s hard to quantify the risk (especially with Trump having demonstrated that rapid political swings can take place elsewhere), but it likely didn’t improve the prospect of Typhoon taking home HX.

Italian Eurofighter touching down at Tikkakoski Air Base last summer. Source: Own picture

What might have improved the odds was the Spanish Air Force showing how an operator can both develop their own upgrade path and benefit from cooperation with the other partner countries. In the case of Spain, the country follows the common upgrade path with the Tranche 2 and 3 Eurofighters. At the same time, being unhappy with the roadmap for the Tranche 1 fighters, it has independently embarked on a more ambitious program for those aircraft. The big cloud still hanging over the Eurofighter program is whether any operator will be invested in it as their primary platform up to 2060, or whether they all will have moved on with the upgrade funds of their air forces largely being allocated to whatever comes next.

The second 39E, 39-9, taking off. Picture courtesy of Saab AB

If Lockheed Martin is unable to talk much about their offers, Saab is more outspoken and even flew a bunch of journalists to Sweden to inform them about the offer. The big news was that Saab offers a domestic production line, and that the fleet would be a mix of 52 JAS 39E single-seaters with 12 JAS 39F two-seaters. The Finnish Hornet-order was 57 F/A-18C single-seaters and 7 F/A-18D two-seaters, so this would be a remarkable shift from a ratio of 8:1 to 4:1. While it is well-known that the Finnish Air Force in hindsight would have wanted more two-seater Hornets for the conversion training role, Saab is open with the fact that training needs isn’t the main reason behind the inclusion of a squadron of two-seaters.

Often there are other drivers for and needs of a two-seat aircraft configuration that, in combination with the more traditional training-related benefits, makes it relevant to procure two-seat fighters. 

Magnus Skogberg, program Director of Saab’s HX-bid

In essence this means that Saab is arguing that the needs of the Finnish Air Force is best met by a squadron of two-seaters backing up the single-seaters for certain missions, while at the same time the two-seaters can obviously provide benefits for the OCU-mission i peacetime. The 39E and 39F are more or less similar, with the cockpit setup being the same in the front and rear cockpits of the 39F, as well as in the sole cockpit of the 39E. This means that all will be equipped with the same wide-angle display that will be found in both Swedish and Brazilian fighters. Any Finland-specific details, configurations, or equipment will also be the same for both versions. The only major difference is that the 39F does not feature the internal gun. Both versions sport an onboard electronic warfare system, which include electronic attack capabilities, and which can be further supplemented by podded jammers and sensors. This is where the second crewman comes into the picture, as there’s a real risk that the human brain will run out of bandwidth before the options of the EW-system does.

Gripen F with its two seats, naturally provides additional flexibility to handle very advanced missions where it may be advantageous to have an additional pilot or operator on-board. Examples are Electronic Warfare Officer, Mission Commander and/or a Weapon System Officer in the rear-seat.

Magnus Skogberg, program Director of Saab’s HX-bid

The same can be said for advanced long-range strike missions, and in the air-to-air role the use of modern data links even makes it possible to have an aircraft with the backseater working as something akin to the Fighter Allocator of an AWACS, concentrating on staying up to date with the situational picture and issuing orders to other airborne friendly fighters. Is there a benefit of moving the fighter controller from the ground to the backseat of a fighter? Possibly, in general the Finnish Defence Forces likes to have the one calling the shots to be situated close to the action, though the benefit is likely smaller than when it comes to EW and strike missions. While Saab maintains that two-seaters offer significant flexibility in multiple roles, it seems that the main focus is on the 39F as a SEAD/DEAD asset.

The EA-18G Growler in flight. Note the size of the AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missile under the left wing compared to the AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles under the air intakes. Picture courtesy of / All rights reserved – Boeing / Aviation PhotoCrew

Boeing is in essence bound by the same non-disclosure issues as Lockheed Martin. However, they have managed to get permission to discuss some aspects of their offer, and happily fill in any blank spots by referencing how the US Navy (and to a lesser extent the other flying services) perform their mission. The big deal was that Boeing is now officially offering not only the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in the most modern Block 3 configuration, but the EA-18G Growler dedicated SEAD/DEAD version as well (though ‘dedicated’ should be interpreted carefully, as it can do everything the F/A-18E/F can do, with the exception of sporting two wingtip short-range air-to-air missiles). Boeing could not speak about the Super Hornet/Growler ratio to Finland, but notes that on a US carrier it is currently 44 Super Hornets to 5-7 Growler, with the intention being to raise that to 10-12 Growlers. In the case of Finland, that would mean 10 to 15 Growlers out of the total of 64 fighters.

Boeing isn’t one to downplay the importance of this move. The release for export took place in extremely short time (comparisons to the ~10 years it took to clear the AGM-158 JASSM were made), and this is a tangible example of the strong Finnish-US bilateral bond when it comes to national security. A bond which kicked off in earnest with the acquisition of the F/A-18C/D ‘legacy’ Hornet back in the 90’s (though you might argue that correlation doesn’t equal causation here, as it also coincided with the end of the Cold War). The US sees a Finnish acquisition of modern airborne capabilities as another way of improving stability around the Baltic Sea through improving Finland’s conventional deterrence. The Growler would add significantly to Finland’s “Tröskelförmåga“, threshold capability, as senior advisor (and retired admiral) Juhani Kaskeala explained using the Swedish word, and as such is nicely in line with US strategic interests.

You can trust the Super Hornet

Juhani Kaskeala, senior advisor at Blic

The Super Hornet Block 3 may be one of the most advanced versions of any fighter available, but Boeing also makes an important point of the fact that all cards are already on the table. They know “exactly” what it costs to operate the fighter, a sum which is lower than that of Finland’s current Hornet’s despite the Super Hornet being heavier, and they know how many hours they can get out of any given aircraft. The current lifespan is 10,000 flight hours per aircraft, compared to just 6,000 flight hours of the legacy ones (Finland has experienced issues reaching that number, due to the larger proportion of heavy-G air combat maneuvers flown by the Finnish Air Force). Boeing’s package is within the budget of the program, though they aren’t able to comment upon the cost of the package in any detail. The question of cost is interesting, as Boeing has gone three for three in the last major US defence contracts (T-X, MH-139, MQ-25), in a move that has largely been described as Boeing buying the deals. What you lose on the swings, you make up for on the roundabouts, and the fact that Boeing in essence is the world’s largest civil aviation business with a sizeable defence division makes it able to manage the cashflow issues this would cause to dedicated defence companies. Boeing might not be as aggressive in the pricing for the kind of smaller order that HX represents, but they are likely the only company that even has the option.

The question about the lifespan of the program lurks in the background. While admiral Richardson might want to phase out the Super Hornet by 2040, there is currently no sunset plan for the Super Hornet, and with the NGAD nowhere to be seen, the idea of having replaced the last Super Hornet with a new design in just twenty years sounds impossible rather than improbable. Also, even without any additional Super Hornet orders from the US Navy, the service will accept their last new fighters as late as 2034, and these are unlikely to be phased out in just six years.

EA-18G Growler folding it’s wings following a display flight at last summer’s Finnish Air Force 100-anniversary air show. Source: Own picture

Regardless of the risk to be left alone in the timespan past 2050, what is clear is that the Super Hornet/Growler combo would bring impressive capabilities to the Finnish Air Force. The Growler is also far more versatile than simply being the world’s best SAM-killer (which in itself would be valuable to the Air Force), as it is also an extremely potent ELINT asset with impressive non-kinetic capabilities. The ability to ‘listen to’ or jam different signals as the need arises without firing shots in anger could prove very useful in countering a “gray” or “hybrid” scenario. In US service, the Growlers are seen as a “truly joint aircraft”, able to assist and support not only other combat aircrafts, but ground and sea forces as well. As such it is able to shape the electronic battlefield, and is expected to be operating closely with F-35s of all branches in case of a peer- or near-peer conflict.

Enough power.

The answer to what makes the Growler unqiue in the EW-role

The secret sauce is simple, the Growler sports two of the same F414-engines that propel the single-engined 39E/F Gripen, giving plenty of raw power to the EW-suite, including jammers. The aircraft is also described as “by far the most winter-qualified” of all HX-contenders, which is a statement I guess some of the other contenders might want to fight. The same goes for the notion that the sensor fusion on the Block 3 is “exactly the same capability” as that of the F-35. What is objectively clear though is that the Super Hornet currently sports the best availability numbers of all US tactical jets, and Boeing is happy to assure Finland that not only can all maintenance and upgrades be done locally, but it is also possible to build the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet locally if Finland so wishes. Still, it does sound like Boeing isn’t as keen on the idea of a local assembly line as Saab is.

Kaskeala also points out that the current buying wave of F-35s is made up of F-16 operators. Australia is indeed the sole export customer that is switching from the ‘legacy’ Hornet to the F-35A, and they are in turn a bit of an outlier in that they operate both the Super Hornet and the F-35A. Last time around Finland identified a different need compared to e.g. Denmark and Norway, and went with a different fighter. Will the same be true this time around? What is obvious to any observer is that the legacy of the Hornet-deal is strong in Boeing’s organisation. Boeing is able to host press conferences in Finnish, thanks to the fact that not only their local advisors but key persons inside the company speak Finnish as their mother tongue. It is also evident that Boeing understands how Finland works, both as a society and as a customer. Of the companies involved in HX, only Saab comes close with their local organisation having a relatively large footprint on the ground in Finland and with the Swedish way of doing business being very similar to the Finnish one. While cultural differences in theory shouldn’t affect the outcome of HX, at the end of the day everyone involved are still just humans, and it is hard to shake the feeling that Boeing and Saab have a nonquantifiable but significant advantage in this field.

Rafale B undergoing cold-weather testing in the last week of January. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

Dassault has kept a low profile in media, but in late January Dassault sent a single Rafale B up to the home base of Lappi Fighter Wing for a week of cold weather testing. Ostensibly this was just normal company testing, but it is hard not to think that the choice of location was dictated by a willingness to show the aircraft to a potential customer. In any case, the 30-person big testing team is said to have been happy with both the tests and their stay at the air force base.

The odd bird – EA-18G Growler

In the HX program full of multi-role fighters, the EA-18G Growler seems like the odd bird out, being a highly specialised electronic warfare platform. However, the first thing to note is that the Growler in fact can do both. “It operates and flies the same [as the F/A-18F Super Hornet], it has the same weapons except the two wingtip AIM-9 Sidewinders” Boeing’s representative explains. “It is a fully multirole platform.”

Flying the front-seat is the same.

But let’s not kid ourselves. While it is nice for a small air force to know that any airframes allocated to the electronic warfare role aren’t automatically taken away from the air superiority mission, no-one will pay the premium the Growler requires to just get another multirole aircraft. But perhaps the first question is why anyone would pay for the Growler in the first place, considering that the other contenders are happy to fly the SEAD mission with multirole fighters equipped with jamming pods.

EA-18G take off
EA-18G Growler of VAQ-129 ‘Vikings’ taking off during its display at Tikkakoski air show. Note the decision to fly with a partial external load (twin AIM-120 AMRAAM, twin droptanks, and a single AGM-88E AARGM). Source: Own picture

But while the Growler externally looks like just another F/A-18F with jamming pods, looks can be deceiving. The Growler shares 90% commonality of parts with the baseline F/A-18F Super Hornet, the rest is made up of a fully integrated active/passive electronic warfare suite, based on a pedigree of decades of experience of the electronic attack role. The industrial team behind the Growler include both Raytheon (sensors), Northrop-Grumman (the company behind the EA-6B Prowler), and Boeing themselves (who’s own electronic attack portfolio dates back to the AD-1Q Skyraider), providing a solid background for what soon will be the sole tactical electronic warfare aircraft in the US inventory.

[Growler is] full spectrum. Pods cover part of the spectrum, this covers all of it.

The Growler is far from just a flying SAM-jammer. It gathers data from and analyses all electronic emissions in the area, and then share it via its high-capacity datalink (which as discussed in the last post, is now coming to the basic Super Hornet as well). It’s also able to jam a large number of bandwidths, making it able to perform such diverse missions as denial of communications (jamming enemy military and/or civilian networks), counter-IED patrols, and the traditional SEAD-mission most closely associated with the “E for electronic warfare”-designation. Notably, the disruption of communications is just the kind of joint capability that the Finnish Defence Forces is looking for with HX, allowing the Air Force to directly support the Army (and Navy) by means other than simply sweeping the skies clear of enemy strike aircraft. The sharing of information about enemy emissions in the full electromagnetic spectrum also provides a huge boost to friendly forces when it comes to piecing together the situational picture of the battlefield.

AARGM.JPG
AGM-88E AARGM next to an AIM-9X under the wing of one of the two EA-18G Growlers that made the types first visit to Finland. Source: Own picture

In the SEAD-role the main weapons are the signal-seeking AGM-88 HARM and its newer cousin, the imposing AGM-88E AARGM. The later sport a number of upgrades, including longer range and a wider seeker band, but also GPS/INS navigation and a millimeter wave radar for terminal guidance. This means that even if you switch off your radar after launch, there is a good chance that the missile will find and kill you (or at least your radar).

But it’s not only in the air-to-surface domain that the Growler is an interesting option. While it is less commonly discussed, having a Growler feeding information and disrupting enemy units provides a huge advantage in the air-to-air role as well (“game changing” are the words used by Boeing). While electronic warfare is one of the most secretive fields when it comes to precise capabilities, making it hard to differentiate marketing talk from pure capability, it is notable that the introduction of the F-35C into US Navy does not spell the end for either the Super Hornet or the Growler. Neither aircraft has any set retirement date, and it does seem clear that the F-35C as well will rely on support from the Growler if faced with an high-end scenario. This certainly says something about the level of trust the US Navy places in the aircraft.

Every aircraft require a Growler going into an advanced threat.

The tactical value of having Growlers as part of the Finnish Defence Forces’ inventory would certainly be significant, but is the Growler a realistic alternative for Finland? The short answer is that no one knows for certain (yet), but those in the know seems to think so. Minister of Defence Jussi Niinistö was clear on the HX press conference when answering questions about a split HX-buy that while a two-fighter force wasn’t an option, a Super Hornet/Growler-mix certainly was. The US government also seem to think so, as they readily allowed Boeing to lease two Growlers for the Finnish 100 anniversary air show (it has to be remembered that the Super Hornet-deal would be a government to government one). As this was effectively marketing for HX (with a touch of national security diplomacy), sending the Growler only makes sense if that is part of the product-package. The choice of unit was interesting as well, as the Growler came from VAQ-129, the sole training unit for Growler pilots and WSO’s. In other words, this is the very unit which in just a few years time could be training the first batch of Finnish Growler backseaters.

It largely then comes down to money, and this is an interesting one. The US Navy fact file lists the unit cost of the Growler at a very reasonable 67 million USD (a price tag they haven’t updated since 2011). However, things start to look more opaque once the Australian export order is brought up. The plan was for twelve of the RAAF’s 24 F/A-18F to be brought up to Growler standard for a price tag of 1.5 billion AUD (950 million EUR), or 79 million EUR per aircraft for the upgrade alone. However, that was without the crucial ALQ-99 jamming pods, which for a full set of pods for twelve aircraft would have added a further 1.4 billion AUD (890 million EUR). Furthermore, the currently ongoing 20 year upgrade program for “the EA-18G platform as well as those Fundamental Inputs to Capability [ALQ-99 and associated weapons support and training systems]” has a price tag of 5 to 6 billion AUD (3.2 to 3.8 billion EUR), or over 25 million EUR per aircraft and year until it reaches full operational capability by 2031. A key part of this is replacing the old ALQ-99 jammers with the new Next Generation Jammer (NGJ), a multi-billion dollar program in which Australia is a partner. However, the seemingly outrageous operating price tag isn’t undisputed. Exactly how the cost for the Australian Growler-upgrade will be spent is unsure, e.g. what part is spent on actual new hardware and what part, if any, is spent on what would normally be seen as operating costs. As a counterpoint, some years ago Forbes listed the per flight hour cost for the Growler as being slightly lower than that of the basic F/A-18F (9.2k USD compared to 10.5k USD). Another question which significantly would change Finnish operating costs is how the Finnish cooperation agreement with US Navy would look. As noted, the Growler-crews would likely head over to the states to get part of their training there. But also when it comes to e.g. the jamming pods one possibility is to instead of outright buying them a lend (or lease) might be possible. The bottomline is that it is extremely hard to get a clear picture of what the acquisition and operating cost for the Growler would be, though it is safe to say that introducing this kind of completely new capability would come at an additional cost. What should be remembered is that in the opening buy the Super Hornet will have a significantly smaller transition cost for re-training the whole Finnish Air Force from one fighter to another, meaning that Boeing might have more room to throw in something extra, such as a bunch of kitted-out Growlers.

EA-18G turning.JPG
EA-18G Growler turning away from the crowd. Source: Own picture

The number of Growlers in a potential Finnish mix is open, and here Boeing themselves are unable to give a direct answer. The final and best offer will include a mix based on the outcome of the capability scenario simulations which the FDF has set for all fighters to meet. Some of these naturally favour a higher Super Hornet to Growler-ratio, some a smaller one. Based on these the customer will then make a request for how many Growlers would be fit inside the 64 fighter package, or as Boeing puts it:

It is interesting what we have to say, but in some ways also irrelevant.

On Rhinos and Growlers

After something of a slow start, Boeing kicked off their HX-campaign with a bang last year, bringing two Super Hornets to both major Finnish air shows. One of these was the classic VFA-103 ‘Jolly Rogers’ CAG-bird, while the other was from VFA-143 ‘Pukin’ Dogs’ and played the role of Block 3 demonstrator at Seinäjoki air show. This was followed up with a visit to Tampere-Pirkkala AFB where the fighters were shown to the Air Force’s Air Combat Centre.

CAG bird.JPG

Since then it has been an eventful year for Boeing’s ‘Rhino’, with the US Navy having signed a contract for 134 new F/A-18E/F Super Hornets over the next few years. These newbuilds will be of the Block 3 standard from the get-go, and will be produced at a production line in the company’s St. Louis factory. At the same time, another 450 fighters will be upgraded during the coming ten years from Block 2 to Block 3 standard, with the work taking place both at a second production line in St. Louis as well as in San Antonio, Texas. Having several scalable production lines is a conscious decision by Boeing, who likes to have some headroom available for added Super Bug-production.

We predict significant international orders. There’s interest from Germany, Poland, India, Spain, Switzerland… Oh, and Canada.

The long-awaited Kuwaiti order was mentioned as a category of its own, and was finalised today, a few weeks after the interview.

While the Rhino is sometimes decried for its lack of success on the export market, it is important to remember the scope of the US Navy orders. While the Eurofighter consortium is rightfully proud of the almost 500 aircraft in service throughout Europe, the recent Block 3 orders means the US Navy alone will outnumber those, with a total of 584 Block 3 Super Hornets to be operated by the service. To this number then comes 36 Australian and now 28 Kuwaiti fighters.

Tower
“Sorry, Goose, but it’s time to buzz the tower!” (that was the last Top Gun quote, I promise). Source: Own picture

Having the Block 3 finally confirmed and fully funded with the production lines open well past the 2025-mark is significant for Boeing when it comes to HX. The Block 3 will give the aircrafts a 9,000 flight hour airframe, but the big change comes to the combat ability of the aircraft. The new wide-area multifunction display will create what Boeing calls “the most advanced cockpit” currently operational, and the TTNT (Tactical Targeting Network Technology) will make significantly increase the amounts of data transfer possible over the data link. TTNT is an example of what used to be niche technology on the EA-18G Growler being transferred to the baseline Super Hornet. Significantly more processing power is also in the works, which will facilitate a much quicker upgrade cycle going forward. The addition of conformal fuel tanks, the first HX contender to sport CFT’s, will also provide a big boost by allowing the aircraft to go faster with the same fuel load, or alternatively carry more weapons for the same range (a third option which is more interesting from a carrier viewpoint than for Finland is getting even more range out of the aircraft by using both CFT’s and drop tanks).

Something Boeing talks openly about is stealth, though their angle is rather different from that of certain other contenders. The IRST included in the Block 3 is “counter-stealth technology”, while the talk about fifth generation fighters is a “marketing scheme”. The decrease in radar-cross section of the Block 3 compared to Block 2, which has received significant coverage from some, is rather modestly described as “a little bit more coating”.

Block 3 II
An F/A-18E in mock-up Block 3 configuration. Note the large conformal fuel tanks above the wing roots. Source: Own picture

 

The HX competition and the Finnish hosts receive high marks. The competition for HX might be fierce, but both the Finnish Defence Forces and the Finnish MoD are “very transparent”. On the whole HX is both “fair”, “well-run”, and “documented in all the right ways”. And going through the HX-ladder of requirements, Boeing is confident that they will pass with flying colours.

We can prove life-cycle costs on mean-time between failures and so forth. Real data, not engineering reference data and assumptions.

Notably, due to the US openness when it comes to budget numbers, the flight hour costs are open information (usual caveat for different operating environments and budgeting methods apply). Hovering around 9,000 USD per flight hour, the cost for the Super Hornets have been lower than that of the aging legacy F/A-18 Hornet in recent years. At the same time, the F-35 and Eurofighter both aims for ‘F-16 like levels’ within the next decade, but neither are there quite yet (the F-35A currently needing a 38% cut in operation and sustainment costs to reach that target).

We want to continue that relationship [with Finnish partners]

One of the real trump cards of Boeing is their current close cooperation with the Finnish authorities as well as with the Finnish industry. Maximising industrial cooperation with Finnish partners might prove to be a challenge for some, but Boeing has already been there. Contrary to normal procedure the MLU2 of the Finnish F/A-18C/D Hornets were performed locally by Patria and not in the states, a point raised by Boeing. Even more importantly, Boeing’s offset responsibilities in conjunction with MLU2 were met either on time or early.

EA-18G Wingfold
An EA-18G Growler from VAQ-129 ‘Vikings’ taxiing while folding its wings during the aircraft’s first visit to Finland earlier this month. Source: Own picture

Crucially, by now Boeing understands the Finnish business and administrative culture to an extent unmatched by any of the rivals (with the exception of Saab), having dealt with the customer on a continuous basis for the last two decades. The current sales organisation even include some veterans who were part of the winning team last time around. While the capabilities of the offers will be the determining factor, there is no denying that understanding how to present those capabilities to your customer plays an important role in dealmaking.