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.

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Rafale going for HX

In a world where the transatlantic link is looking surprisingly shaky, the French charm offensive is continuing. And as some of the competition are fighting delays, cost overruns, and uncertainties, the Rafale is steaming on ahead seamingly without any major hiccups. In the short term, that means rolling out the F3R standard which will sport AGCAS (Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System), introduction of the MBDA Meteor long-range missile, and a host of other less noticeable upgrades to the aircraft. The F3R is an intermediate step, building on the current F3 model. The big step will then be the F4, which is expected in the 2023 to 2025 timespan, coinciding with the deliveries of the first HX-fighters in initial operational capability, which is set to happen in 2025.

 

Rafale single
Rafale B ‘4-HP’ from SPA 37 “Charognard” of EC 1/91 “Gascogne”. EC 1/91 has been actively taking part in most recent French operations, including combat over Libya, Mali, and Syria/Iraq. The two-seat B-version is every bit as combat capable as the single-seater. Source: Own picture

If Rafale would win HX, it is the F4 standard which would be delivered to the Finnish Air Force. Dassault is expecting that the French baseline will suit Finland just fine, though they leave the door open for the Finnish aircrafts to have unique weapons and external sensors if so required. Dassault is keen to point out the benefits of this model, making sure the Rafale is sporting mature but modern technologies through incremental upgrades according to the roadmap laid forward by the DGA, the French Directorate General of Armaments.

Everyone can improve technology, but you can’t change the concept […] France can’t operate dedicated aircraft

The benefit from a Finnish viewpoint is that besides the Swedish Air Force JAS 39E Gripen, the French offer will be the only one which will be operated by the host country’s single-aircraft air force (though both the JAS 39C/D and Mirage 2000 will linger on for a few years more). The lack of dedicated fast jets for different roles ensures full support for the multirole capability from the host, something which certainly would make the Finnish Logistics Command sleep easier at night.

Rafale pair topside
At the heart of the Rafale’s impressive low-level performance is the huge delta wing and close-coupled canard. Source: Own picture

One point which Dassault brings up when I meet them at this year’s air show which wasn’t discussed last year is the capability per aircraft. While the ‘how much bang can you create for 10 billions?’-approach of the HX-tender might hand an edge to some contenders, the politically motivated decision to acquire exactly 64 aircraft will on the other hand favour more capable aircraft. This is where Dassault see their strengths. The Rafale is largely assumed to be second only to the F-35 when it comes to signature reduction amongst the HX contenders. At the same time the Rafale is from the outset designed to be able to operate with limited support and low maintenance hours, a feature stemming both from the requirement to be able to operate from the relatively small French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle as well as from replacing the sturdy Jaguar and Mirage F1 in operations in austere conditions, often in Africa and in the Middle East. The latter is in marked contrast to some other contenders, and Dassault likes to point out that this is not just a design concept, but something the aircraft does every day.

We have over 30,000 flight hours in combat

When it comes to combat, the keyword is ‘agile’. Rafale is able to adapt to different scenarios and conflict levels, thanks to the multitude of sensors and weapons available to the pilot (and WSO in the case of the Rafale B). These capabilities goes all the way to peacetime, where the Rafale has provided assistance to emergency authorities by documenting natural disasters and floods with their dedicated reconnaissance pods. But while peacetime assistance is a nice bonus, HX will be bought for its combat potential.

And here the Rafale is able to provide serious hours of combat potential, both on a daily basis as well as for prolonged periods of time. The Rafale can do 10 hour CAP-missions, and is able to surge over 150 monthly flight hours per aircraft. The latter has been demonstrated repeatedly during combat operations such as Operation Chammal, the French strikes in Syria and Iraq. The single most high-profile mission in the area is without doubt the strike on Syrian regime chemical warfare installations earlier this year. Here, the Rafale demonstrated the “seamless plug and play” capability of the Rafale to integrate with other NATO-assets to carry out a complex long-range mission. Five Rafales, including two-seaters, flew out of bases in France to strike two facilities at Him Shinshar, one of which was targeted together with US Navy, Royal Air Force, and the French Navy, while the other was struck solely by the Rafales. As was noted in the immediate aftermath of the strikes, they took out all intended targets without interference from neither the Russian nor the Syrian air defences.

Another benefit the Rafale brings to the table is the second engine. While the benefit of twin engines for normal flight safety redundancy is limited these days, in combat the ability to lose an engine and still limp home is an asset. “It’s more comfortable,” as a former Mirage 2000-pilot puts it.

Rafale pair
The Rafale dynamic duo display at the Finnish Air Force 100 year air show in Tikkakoski. Source: Own picture

Last time around the Mirage 2000 was the only fighter other than the F/A-18C Hornet to meet the requirements of the Finnish Air Force, but suffered from what the evaluation thought of as a “maintenance system which would be difficult for us”. This is not something Dassault expects will be repeated, as the maintenance requirements for the Rafale is one of the areas which have seen vast improvement. The Rafale feature a fully digital mock-up which has provided the basis for the maintenance studies. These theoretical calculations have then been validated by comparison to an airframe which has been tortured in Dassault’s laboratory. The final outcome is a maintenance program centered around on-condition maintenance rather than the traditional by flight hour system, and a scheduled airframe maintenance which is halved compared to that of the current F/A-18C/D Hornets. While the Rafale is not unique amongst the HX-contenders in taking maintenance to the next level, it is hard to see the aircraft being dropped on what was a weak point for the Mirage 2000.

In the end, talk about the Rafale always comes back to the ‘here and now’. This is an aircraft that is immediately available, ‘fly before you buy’ as Dassault puts it, and keeps balancing nicely on the edge between maturity and cutting edge. The key role it plays in French defence also means that it will continue to be kept updated throughout the lifespan of HX. Like Eurofighter, Dassault is keen to point out that Rafale will also play a part in the Franco-German Future Combat Air System (FCAS), which true to it name is a system and not just a new fighter. The Rafale stands out in many ways from the competition, offering a number of unique solutions and concepts. Time will tell if these will catch the interest of the Finnish Air Force, or if a more conservative solution will be sought.

© Dassault Aviation - A. Paringaux
A pair of Rafale’s being prepared in their light shelters at the Jordanian Prince Hassan air force base during Operation Chammal, French the strikes against IS. Source: © Dassault Aviation – A. Paringaux

The path forward for HX

The preliminary request for quotations for the HX-program is now out, and the process is kicking into the next gear. The manufacturers will have about three-quarters of a year from when it was sent out before they will have to return their answers early next year. However, what happens after that is the really interesting part.

The offers will be evaluated according to a stepped ladder of requirements, where all stages except the last one are of the go/no-go nature. If the preliminary bid doesn’t meet the requirements of a step it is back to go and the negotiation table (note, this is where the ‘preliminary’ comes into the process), and the Defence Forces will discuss with the manufacturer how their bid can be tuned to meet the requirements so that an updated bid can pass the step and move on to the top of the ladder. The goal is not to shake down the field, but to get the best possible offer from all five companies when it is time for the final and legally binding offers.

The first requirement is maintenance and security of supply. The supplier will have to present a plan for how the aircrafts are able to keep operating both during peacetime and in war. This will require plans for in-country spares and training for maintainers.

2018-01-11 JS-3039
The unique and highly centralised maintenance model of the F-35 Lightning II has raised questions whether the aircraft can meet the requirements for security of supply for militarily non-aligned Finland. Source: Jonas Selim / Forsvaret

Moving on from here comes the life-cycle costs. The project is receiving a start-up sum of up to 10 Bn Euros, but after this is used up the operating costs of the system will have to be covered under the defence budget as it stands today. In other words, the cost of training pilots and ground crew, renewing weapon stocks, maintaining the aircrafts, refuelling – everything will have to be covered by a sum similar to that used for keeping the F/A-18C Hornets in the air. Naturally this ties in to the first requirement, as an aircraft requiring vast amounts of spares and maintenance will have a hard time meeting both the security of supply and the LCC requirements at the same time.

Industrial cooperation will then be the third step. 30% of the total acquisition value will have to be traded back into the country, as a way of making sure that the necessary know-how to maintain the aircrafts in wartime is found domestically (and as such this requirement ties into the two earlier requirements). Notably, current sets of rules require that the industrial cooperation is indeed cooperation directly related to the HX-program. Sponsoring tours of symphonic orchestras might buy you brownie points, but not industrial cooperation.

Following these go/no-go criterias comes wartime performance. This is the only requirement which will be graded. The Defence Forces will run a number of simulations of how the aircraft would perform in different missions and scenarios, gather information from the field, and possibly do flight trials. All of this will then come together to give a picture of how a given aircraft would perform as part of the greater Finnish Defence Forces in wartime.

Yes, wartime performance as part of the whole FDF is the sole factor that will rank the aircrafts in the acquisition proposal put forward to the MoD by the Finnish Defence Forces.

Coalition forces refuel over Iraq between airstrikes against ISIL
The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, both Australian and US birds, have been busy flying missions over Syria and Iraq as part of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, making it one of the more combat proven competitors. Source: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz via Wikimedia Commons

“But wait!” I hear you say. “Doesn’t economic considerations count for anything?”

Yes, indeed they do. Wartime performance require more than just 64 aircraft. If you can squeeze the price on the aircraft and its maintenance costs, the pilots will be able to receive more flight hours, and the Defence Forces will be able to stock more advanced weaponry (the low stocks of which is identified as a key issue in the latest Puolustusselonteko). Thus a cheaper aircraft allows the Defence Forces will provide more room for other things, which in the end make it more dangerous to the enemy.

Having received the acquisition proposal from the Defence Forces, the MoD takes over, and their job is to bring in the national security policy aspect into the equation. The national security evaluation coupled with the evaluation of wartime performance is then used to create the final acquisition proposal made by the MoD and put forward to the then government (i.e. the one which will take over following the next parliamentary elections). The final decision will then take place in 2021.

That the MoD will make a national security evaluation is interesting as it leaves room for politics overruling the wartime performance (though likely only to a certain extent). At first glance this would seem to favour the US contenders, however the situation might be more complex than that, thanks to the law of diminishing marginal utility. To what extent would a fighter deal actually deepen the already strong Finnish-US bilateral relations? There are already eleven confirmed export customers for the F-35, and a double-digit number of countries have bought into other US fighter programs as well, so would Finland’s inclusion (or absence) from that group be noticed in Washington? The US is also already Finland’s premier arms exporter (2015 numbers, unfortunately I didn’t find newer ones), and while this in parts comes from weapons for the Hornet-program, a number of other potential deals are on the horizon.

39E cockpit
The Wide Area Display is one of many features which makes the JAS 39E Gripen a quantum leap over the older C/D-generation. But how will the wartime performance of the relatively light fighter measure up against the larger competitors? Source: Own picture

The Swedish offering has understandably not gathered quite the same number of export customers, but here as well even without a fighter deal the bilateral Finnish-Swedish cooperation is reaching levels that make one wonder whether significant improvements are possible? Geography and shared history also seems to dictate that the relation would survive Gripen failing to secure the HX order (though Charly might disagree). The benefits of operating the same aircraft is obvious when it comes to interoperability, but for political benefits it is doubtful how much 10 Bn (in the short term) actually would buy.

Enter France, a European powerhouse with an army still measured in divisions, a permanent seat at the UN security council, a nuclear strike force, a rather low threshold for military interventions, and a marked disinterest in what takes place on the northern shores of the Baltic Sea. The Finnish fighter order would be a big deal for Dassault, accounting for 40% of the total number of Rafale’s exported (96 firm orders to date plus 64 aircrafts for HX). It is also eye catching that a large percentage of the whole sum would go to France, compared to the larger amounts of foreign content in the Eurofighter Typhoon and the JAS 39E Gripen.

© Dassault Aviation - S. Randé
Dassault Rafale, a French take on the Eurocanard. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

10 Bn Euros would not buy Finland a French expeditionary corps brimming with Leclercs in case of a Russian invasion. However, they just might ensure that Paris starts paying more attention to what happens in the European far north, courtesy of increased exchanges of people, experiences, and arms deals. If Finland would face an attack, having France as a political ally in Brussels and in the UNSC would be significant, even if the support would stop short of a military intervention. Another element is that as Washington is proving to be a more unreliable ally, the importance of the EU security cooperation is bound to increase (though granted from a low level to a somewhat less-low one), and with “the other European power” (Germany) showing limited appetite for anything resembling a confrontation with Russia over eastern Europe, the role of France in the greater Finnish security picture seems set to increase.

While Finnish security policy is famed for being slow in altering course and likely to favour trying to cash in further political points with Sweden or the USA, the question deserves to be asked:

Might it just be that we would gain more by having this investment go into our relationship with France?

A Gust from the South

Like the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Dassault Rafale made a rare visit to Finland earlier this year. However, a significant difference between the two visits was that while the ‘Super Bugs’ were leased by Boeing to take part in two air shows and a short stay at the Finnish Air Force’s research and evaluation facilities at Tampere-Pirkkala, the French fighters arrived as part of normal Armée de l’air operations when they participated in the international Arctic Challenge Exercise. The French contribution was made up by six single-seat Mirage 2000 and three two-seat Rafale B, all of which were based at Rovaniemi AFB in the northern parts of the country for the duration of the exercise.

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Rafale B from Escadron de chasse 1/4 ‘Gascogne’ at Rovaniemi during the first day of flight operations of ACE17. Source: Ilmavoimat / Minna Piirainen

The decision to send two-seaters was something which raised my curiosity already as the first pictures of the aircraft touching down started to appear. Luckily, while the Dassault did not bring an aircraft to this year’s Finnish air shows, they did have a nicely sized stand in Helsinki, where I got to sit down and have a chat with company representatives.

Dassault was keen to point out that ACE17 was an air force exercise that they as a manufacturer had no real connection to, they did confirm that the decision was made by AdA to send two-seaters in order to provide familiarisation opportunities. The three Rafales seems to have flown most of the time with a foreign pilot as a backseater, providing a “good opportunity” to show off the aircraft, as Dassault put it.

The choice of squadrons were also interesting. ETR 3/4 ‘Aquitaine’ is the operational conversion unit, responsible for training both AdA and Marine Nationale Rafale air crews, while EC 1/4 ‘Gascogne’ is the land-based strike squadron of the Force de Dissuasion, the French nuclear strike force. The third and final aircraft bore the badge of legendary fighter squadron EC 2/30 ‘Normandie-Niemen’, which is nominally a single-seat Rafale C squadron (focused on ground-attack) but which is known to have operated a handful of two-seaters to assist in the training of younger pilots. Especially the inclusion of the inclusion of the ‘Gascogne’-fighter is interesting. The nuclear strike role means that the squadron places a high emphasis on operations at low level and high speed (down to 60 meters over land and 30 meter over water, at speeds up to Mach 0.9 / 600 knots). While the Rafale’s automatic terrain following system wasn’t likely pushed quite to these limits during ACE17 (due to having a foreign backseater, lack of terrain data of Lappi, and height restrictions during the exercise), it certainly gave an opportunity to show of one of the strong points of the Rafale.

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A Rafale being cleared while a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet takes off in the background. Note the MICA IR missile on the port wingtip. The data from the seeker head of this can be fused with the onboard sensors of the aircraft. Source: Ilmavoimat

Dassault assured that the fighter operated without issue over the Finnish north, with the most dramatic episode being a bird strike experienced during a sortie with a French pilot and a foreign backseater. Even this wasn’t too much of an story, as it was only noticed once the plane had landed.

Back to Dassault: While they naturally weren’t able to comment on the details of the request for information related to the Finnish HX-program, they did describe it as “very interesting as far as the opposing power goes”, noting the high-end threat environment the HX has to be able to operate in. As discussed at length last summer in a series of posts, Dassault’s solution to the Finnish request is to emphasise the complete package. “It is not a question of just technical capability”, as Dassault explains. “There’s no golden solution, but a mix of capabilities is needed.” In practice, this means that Dassault strives to develop all parts of the aircraft in conjunction with each other. With an eye towards the other eurocanards adopting the Meteor very-long range missile before integrating AESA-radars, Dassault’s representatives pointed out that they first focus on the sensors, and then integrate the weapons which can take advantage of sensor developments. A complete concept, multirole, and flexibility are the keywords when Dassault tries to sell their fighters.

However, all is not unicorns and roses for the French fighter. Early July, Finnish tabloid Iltalehti published a long article on the earlier Finnish fighter program which eventually lead to the choice of the F/A-18C Hornet. While the analysis was rather poor (see Twitter rant), it did for the first time provide access to the secret memo presented to the politicians outlining the reasoning behind the Air Force favouring the Hornet. Dassault’s offering back then was the Mirage 2000-5, which was the only fighter besides the F/A-18C/D Hornet that was deemed to fulfil the requirements of the Air Force. The MiG-29, JAS 39A/B, and F-16 (my understanding is that the C/D was offered, but I am unsure about exact version) failed to meet the mark. The Mirage 2000-5 is described in the brief as follows:

Mirage 2000-5 fulfils the requirements of the Air Force, but the aircraft’s maintenance system is difficult for us, and life-cycle costs are probably in the higher-end owing to the small user base.

At around the same time as the article was published, impeached Brazilian president Rousseff gave her testimony on the choice of JAS 39E/F Gripen for the Brazilian Air Force. At 1:25 and forward in the video below, she describes the Rafale as having “extremely high” maintenance costs (compared to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and JAS 39E Gripen).

The Rafale is significantly easier to maintain compared to the Mirage 2000, mainly thanks to the automated fault detection software and smarter component layout of the Rafale. In practice, maintenance tasks are further in between and each individual task takes roughly half the time they did on the Mirage. Depot-level maintenance has also disappeared altogether. The Finnish comment from 25 years ago puzzles me. It seems this would indicate some kind of major difference in how maintenance was handled between the US Navy (for the Hornet) and the Armée de l’air (for the Mirage). I am unsure what kind of difference this would have been, and whether it still exists and affects the chances of the Rafale in HX.

Dassault is also looking over how the maintainers are trained, bringing something as rare as a maintenance simulator into play. The Oculus Rift-based software was demonstrated in Finland at the Kaviopuisto Air Show. The idea is that an instructor together with up to ten trainees can inspect a complete colour coded Rafale in virtual reality, where it is possible to move around freely and look at the components being discussed, without being restricted by the size of how many pairs of eyes can look through an open maintenance hatch at the same time. Being able to pass through structures and look at how different components connect together to form the complete system is also a significant benefit. The system has been pioneered on the Dassault Falcon-series of business jets, and is currently being rolled out for Rafale training.

For Rousseff, she obviously has an interest in painting the decision to buy Gripen as a clear-cut case. However, together the two reports does create the impression that this might not be the French fighter’s strongest point after all. I tried to contact Dassault for a comment, but have unfortunately not received a reply (possibly due to summer vacations). This will likely be a point that the blog will return to in the future.

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A Rafale undergoing landing gear tests during maintenance. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa.

Another point of great interest is the recent carrier-based operations over Syria and Iraq. A great write up on these can be found at the Liveifst-blog by Shiv Aroor who visited the homebase of 11F, one of three Rafale M units, at Landivisiau. An interesting tidbit is the description of a mission by two Rafale M to intercept and record the attack mode of the Su-33’s N001K radar when the carrier-borne fighters were operating of the Admiral Kuznetsov over Syria in 2016. The mission eventually ended in success, with the Rafale’s integrated SPECTRA electronic warfare system now featuring yet another radar mode in it’s library.

HX Update Q1 2017

As usual, there is a number of recent events concerning the fighters involved in the HX-program as well as the program itself.

The Rafale is currently having its F3R standard being evaluated, which will be fully certified during 2018, and last week Dassault got the order for the follow-on F4 standard. The main focus of the F4 will likely be on upgrades to the software, including the SPECTRA EW-suite, as well as a new short/medium-range air-to-air missiles (or possibly new versions of the current MICA). The F4 is slated to fly by 2023.

Saab got an order for an upgraded version of their RBS15 anti-ship missile, the two versions ordered being a ship-mounted RBS15 Mk3+ and an air-launched RBS 15F-ER (including integration onto the JAS 39E Gripen). The weapon is developed in cooperation with Diehl, and according to Saab it features “improved combat range, an upgraded target seeker, and a lower mass compared to the earlier system. It also has an ability to combat a wide spectrum of naval and land-based targets.”.

The Eurofighter is continuing with both the Phase 2 and Phase 3 Enhancement programs in parallels, with the latest milestone having been a series of flight trials with the Brimstone anti-vehicle missile. The Royal Air Force is keen to keep the current schedule, as the Tornado is soon about to bow out. Currently, this seems to hold, which should mean that any capability gaps are avoided.

The Finnish Defence Forces’ Logistics Command sent out a preliminary RFI for weapons and other external stores for the HX. This is to be followed by a ‘proper’ RFI later this summer, The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might first seem. The capabilities of the aircrafts are tied to their weaponry (and external stores), the cost of which also makes up a significant part of the whole project. For a fair comparison of how the fighters will perform in Finnish service, the evaluation need to be performed only with the weapons which are likely to be acquired by the Finnish Air Force. E.g. the Eurofighter feature both the ASRAAM and the IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missiles, but no user has adopted both. In other words, the final cost and capability is highly dependent on which weapon is used in the evaluation. The RFI is also set to investigate the integration cost in the cases where an aircraft doesn’t yet have a suitable weapon integrated.

The Finnish Air Force Command (ILMAVE) has confirmed that the possibility of the HX getting an anti-ship capability is being looked into. This is in line with the recent Finnish defence white paper.

The air show-season, also known as ‘summer’ amongst non-avgeeks, is fast approaching. BAE and Saab have confirmed the presence of the Eurofighter and JAS 39C Gripen respectively flying on both Kaivari and Seinäjoki Air Shows, with Boeing/USN having confirmed that the Super Hornet will come to Kaivari. So far Rafale and F-35 is missing from both, though Lockheed-Martin has promised to show up with some kind of a stand.

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#BringTheNoise2017

 

HX Trumped

The HX-program is moving forward, and several of the programs have seen significant changes, in many cases caused by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s new resident.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

Things are looking up for the ‘Rhino’ (or ‘Super Bug’ if you want) for the moment. The Kuwaiti deal is finally looking like it could secure a second export order for the aircraft, and the Canadians seem like they could actually lease or buy  a small amount as a stop-gap to cover for the cancelled F-35 buy. This move has been discussed for years, but in the last year it has moved from speculation to government policy.

But the twist that has caused most buzz is without doubt the announcement that the new US leadership has ordered a review of the carrier-based version of the F-35C against the Advanced Super Hornet concept. While I find it unlikely that the ‘all-inclusive’ most advanced form of the Advanced Super Hornet would be ordered, this review will likely provide an updated concept (with price tags) that can be employed for future (more limited) USN updates as well as for export drives such as the HX.

Boeing, somewhat surprisingly, has kept a low profile in Finland. It remains to be seen if this will change with this summer’s air shows.

F-35 Lightning II

The F-35 has been under quite some pressure following the tweets of President (then elect) Trump, who was happy to trash the cost of the program.

Lockheed Martin quickly recovered their posture (though not their stock price), and explained that they will certainly look into this, and that they have a plan ready to reduce costs further.

Now, it is uncertain to what extent Lockheed Martin and (especially) Trump are honest and to what extent they simply figured out that this theatre is just what they need. It is no secret that the unit price of the F-35 is on a healthy downward trend following the troubled early years of the program. It is also no secret that Lockheed Martin has been pushing for larger block buys, as these would make it possible for the company to achieve higher efficiency in their production lines. This is an excellent opportunity to enlist the support of the White House for the larger block buys, and in the meantime the president can happily boast about getting a better deal by getting the low-rate lots cheaper than his predecessor. Win-win, at least until some troublesome aviation journalists starts looking it…

Regardless of the politics behind it, the F-35A is now officially and for the first time below the 100 million USD threshold. This came as part of the LRIP 10 agreement, and Lockheed Martin indeed thought it prudent to credit ‘President Trump’s personal involvement’ with accelerating the negotiations and sharpening Lockheed-Martin’s focus on driving down the price. Despite the recent issues with the landing gear of the F-35C carrier-based version, the F-35A version is moving forward and meeting milestones according to plan, and the above-mentioned F-35C review against the Advanced Super Hornet will likely result in yet another paper explaining the need for stealth and sensor fusion on the modern battlefield. In other words, the mid- to long-term prospects for the F-35 look good, perhaps even slightly better than they did before Trump got involved.

Eurofighter Typhoon

In January BAE (finally) launched their official Finnish Twitter-account, quite some time after BAE Systems Belgium got theirs. On the whole, BAE has significantly heightened their profile, and isn’t the least bit shy about the fact that they thinks the Typhoon would be the best answer to the needs of the Finnish Air Force.

While BAE still hasn’t explained exactly why they think that’s the case, they have been happy to announce that the acquisition could be funded through the UK Export Finance.

What is often forgotten is that the Typhoon does indeed have an impressive service record in the harsh semi-subarctic climate of the South Atlantic, having been responsible for the air cover of the Falkland Islands since 2009. Of note is that while the aircrews assigned to RAF Mount Pleasant have been rotated, the aircrafts haven’t. The original four aircraft maintained a constant 24/7 QRA flight for over five years, before finally being relieved a while back. Honouring the traditions of the Hal Far Fighter Flight based in Malta during World War 2, the Typhoons wear tailcodes matching the names of the Gladiators of the original flight.

Dassault Rafale

Eight months ago I sat and listened to a presentation by a representative of Dassault, who happily explained the value of the fighter and (almost) all of its subsystems being French. I smiled and nodded politely, thinking to myself that while I understand the value of this from a domestic point of view, I am unsure whether this is a plus or minus in the case of HX. My worry was based on the sometimes volatile state of French politics, especially compared to the relatively stable state of US ones.

Let’s just say I have revised that opinion.

While France certainly has their share of pro-Russian politicians of different colours, Donald Trump has very efficiently demonstrated that the political risks associated with buying French is no larger than buying from the US.

#MAGA.

Saab JAS 39E Gripen

The first flight of the ‘Dash Eight’ prototype is still some time away. Though this was originally slated for Q4 2016, representatives of Saab are adamant that the program as a whole is still on track, and that the delay is due to moving around different parts of the test and development program.

While this might be true, and not flying for the sake of just flying might be the proper decision from a program point of view, this is still something of a PR-loss for Saab, who has been pushing the “on time and budget” narrative. 2017 will be an important year for Saab’s new fighter.

Seinäjoki International Air Show 2017

Contrary to what usually is the case, the Finnish Aeronautical Association’s air show will receive some competition for the Finnish aviation crowds, in that another major air show will take place in Helsinki the day before. Still, the organisers are clear with that they try to get as many HX-competitors attending as possible, and that they hope to see them “both in the air and on the ground“. Last year the JAS 39C Gripen was flying, with the Eurofighter Typhoon being found on static display. Hopefully this year will bring some new players to the Finnish airspace.

 

The Canadian connection – Hornets in need of replacement

In 1980 Canada declared the F/A-18A Hornet the winner of their New Fighter Aircraft program, which meant it would be brought into service as the CF-18 to replace three different fighters as the country’s sole fast jet. In doing so it beat a number of other fighters, crucially the F-16A. It is important to remember that the F-16 back in those days wasn’t a multirole aircraft, but rather a within visual range fighter with a limited secondary ground attack capability. The F/A-18 with its AIM-7 Sparrow medium-range missiles was arguably the more competent aircraft, and one of the main worries of the Canadian air force was Soviet bombers and cruise missiles swooping down over the Arctic. Canada is also a large and sparsely populated country that include large swaths of land were bailing out does not necessarily mean you’re in for a happy landing. This combination of BVR capability, longer range, and twin-engine safety in the end meant that Canada went with the more expensive option of the F/A-18 over the F-16 (it has to be mentioned that the government did claim that the economic incentives was better for the Hornet, making it cheaper for the Canadian economy. However, these kinds of arguments usually have a tendency to depend upon who’s making the calculations).

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CF-18A visiting Farnborough during its early years of service. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Andrew Thomas

Thirteen years after Canada received their first F/A-18’s, the first four Hornets for Finland landed at Tampere-Pirkkala. Finland, though markedly smaller than Canada, had a largely similar set of requirements, including cold-weather capability, twin-engine safety, long-range, and focus on the interceptor role. In the end, both Canada and Finland have been very happy members of the Hornet club, but the end of that era looms at the horizon.

Now the alert reader interrupts, if Finland has to replace its Hornets by 2025 due to their lifespan being up, Canada, having bought theirs ten years earlier, by the same logic should have replaced theirs already?

Yes and no. Finland operated the Hornet up until now as a single-role fighter, have placed a higher focus on traditional dogfighting maneuvers, which are extremely taxing on the airframe. In other words, not all flight hours are created equal, and not all aircraft fly the same amount of yearly hours. Also, the Canadian Hornets have been through a number of upgrade programs. Currently they seem to be looking at another set of programs which will take the aircraft up to and past 2025, not bad considering that the original lifespan was envisioned as 20 years (i.e. up to 2002). Canada also did have the replacement figured out, having been a partner of the F-35/JSF program since its beginning, and is currently a Level 3 Partner, i.e. the ‘normal’ level of partnership (only the UK, the Netherlands, and Italy are ranked higher).

Canadian Hornets in operation against ISIL as part of Operation IMPACT

Still, the F-35 has been beset by delays, and the project has been something of a hot potato in Canadian politics. The latest major turn was when Justin Trudeau led the Liberal Party to a victory in the federal elections last year, with the party’s position having been that they will ditch the F-35 and instead launch an open tender for a new fighter (with the F-35 being banned from participating). However, Canada have continued to make the required payments to stay a partner in the program while reviewing how the Hornet should be replaced.

Enter July, and amidst it becoming increasingly clear that there is an urgent need to replace, or at least supplement, the Canadian Hornets, the Canadian government launched what can best be described as a non-binding Request for Information. The aircrafts under consideration are the usual suspects: Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed-Martin F-35 (which is back in the running), and Saab JAS 39 Gripen.

Now, the interesting thing here is the schedule, with the answers to the questionnaire having been requested within three weeks (compare to the eight months allocated for the RFI issued by the Finnish HX). The details are rather sketchy, mainly because the questionnaire is “neither a Call for Tenders nor a Request for Proposals”. The background information provided also emphasises that “no procurement decision has been made“ and that “no summary or final report will be issued following the collection of information from industry”. The schedule for replacing the Hornets is literally given as “as soon as possible”, which ought to make things interesting. The whole thing feels like it is done under extreme time pressure. 

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A F-35 mock-up in Canadian colours. The only way the Lightning II will ever wear the maple leaf? Source: Wikimedia Commons/Alan Rioux

Interestingly enough, the flight scenarios in the attached file requires the respondent to use “actual aircraft configuration (utilize systems which are operational with Armed Services today only – non-developmental)”. This requirement pans out very differently. While Saab currently is the only one to sport the Meteor operationally, they only operate the 39C Gripen and not the longer-ranged 39E which would add considerably to their odds when flying intercepts far out over the Arctic. On the other hand, the F-35 is currently only operational in the V/STOL F-35B version, and if the Canadians decide to interpret the requirement literally, this is effectively a way to make certain the F-35 is a non-starter without explicitly writing so. Another problem for the F-35A is the bases used in the scenario. As fellow blogger Doug Allen noted over at Best Fighter 4 Canada, the 6,000 feet runways are too short for comfort. The Typhoon in turn is designed for exactly the scenario described in the evaluation, transiting high and fast to meet an enemy aircraft far out, but is a few years from getting an AESA radar and the Meteor. The Rafale does feature supersonic drop tanks and a potent AESA set, but the repeated requests for “seamless” integration with Five Eyes ISTAR and other tactical and strategic assets might not play to its strengths. The weapons are also uniquely French.

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The only non-carrier operator of the Super Hornet, Australia bought a batch of F/A-18F Super Hornets to supplement their ‘legacy’ Hornets while waiting for the F-35A. Sounds familiar? Source: Wikimedia Commons/Robert Frola

Enter the Super Hornet, which features the AN/APG-79 AESA radar, is seamlessly integrated into the US-Canadian NORAD air defence network, and carries the same munitions and missiles that the ‘legacy’ Hornet does. The last part is explicitly asked for in the questionnaire, something which is not the case in any documents regarding the HX which are openly available. The Super Hornet manufacturing line is also struggling with having too few aircraft to produce each year, so quickly ramping up to supply the RCAF with a limited number of stop-gap aircraft would be *relatively* easy. Boeing also has an established partnership with the Canadian defence forces and aviation industry. All in all, the stage seems set for Boeing’s fighter, and Canada is indeed one of the countries for which stealth isn’t necessarily a big deal, at least not for their homeland defence/NORAD contribution. Noteworthy is also that the questionnaire does mention cost for 100 pilots being trained, which would imply that the information could serve as a base for the complete Hornet replacement program (though one should remember that there isn’t a procurement decision for anything as of yet).

Another possibility is that, despite his continued official anti-F-35 view, Trudeau is trying to set the stage for a F-35 purchase, by creating the foundations for a competition, which the F-35 then can sweep clean (compare to Kampfly in Denmark). For Canada, a mix of Super Hornets (or Typhoons) for NORAD duties combined with F-35A’s for expeditionary work under NATO and UN commitments might actually be the ideal solution. Only time will tell if this will be the final outcome.

A big thanks to Karl Rieder for the link to the Canadian source material! Do follow him on Twitter if you don’t already.