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.

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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.

© Dassault Aviation - V. Almansa
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.

The Real Joint Strike Fighter – Our Next Fighter?

Having looked at a number of different aspects of the Rafale in detail, one question remains: should it be the fighter that replaces the Hornets?

To begin with, the aircraft would be suitable for dispersed operations of the kind envisioned by the air force, and the advanced electronic warfare systems coupled with signature reducing features and excellent performance down amongst the treetops means that it might have a shot at operating in the Finnish airspace even after Russian very-long range surface-to-air missile systems have extended their cover here.

The long-range development plan is solid, and the aircraft will stay as France’s main fighter for the foreseeable future, which guarantees that it will receive focus from a major backer. The upgrade path include the F3R currently in testing to become operational in 2018, main features of which are the integration of the Meteor, full integration of the AASM, adding the new TALIOS targeting pod, and a host of upgrades to the AESA radar and Spectra suite. This will also provide the baseline for the Rafale offered to Finland under HX.

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The RBE2 AESA Radar, one of the core sensors of the Rafale. Picture courtesy of Y. Kervel/I3M ©Thales

The F3R will then be followed by F4, which should reach operational service around 2023, and is set to include new air-to-air missiles in place of the Mica, significant improvements to the datalink as well as making the Spectra of different aircraft communicate directly with each other. Improvements to the radar are also planned, potentially including electronic attack modes. Further out are the MLU, to become operational post-2030, where focus is placed upon close co-operation with UCAV’s and radical additions to the sensors (including conformal mutli-band antennas), and the Rafale NG post-2035 which might include a larger and stealthier fuselage coupled with bigger engines.

Looking closer at the Rafale as it stands, there are a host of benefits it would provide already from day one. These include excellent short-field performance and a proven ability of operating in austere conditions. A large and proven array of sensors and weapons are also available, including the Exocet anti-ship missile which would add a significant new capability currently lacking in the Finnish Air Force. The Spectra together with the AEROS recce pod would provide a very interesting combination of IMINT and ELINT capabilities which would be extremely useful already during peacetime for policing the movements of troops and equipment in the areas adjacent to the Finnish border.

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The traditional way of providing longer loitering time for fighters, here in the form of a USAF KC-10. For the Finnish Air Force, large dedicated tankers have never been an option. Picture courtesy of Jussi Seppälä – flyFinland.fi

Another role in which the Rafale is regularly used by the French Navy is for buddy-buddy air refuelling. Fitted with a refuelling pod and lifting 6,500 litres of fuel in external tanks (in addition to the normal internal load) it can provide extended range for the aircrafts carrying combat loads or out on long patrol missions. For Finland, operating a dedicated tanker aircraft has always been considered prohibitively expensive, but there are still cases where the capability would come in handy (not at least as air-refuelling proficiency is a pre-requisite for long deployments and/or international missions which require tanker support).

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© Alex Paringaux

For the question as to which version would be the one to buy, the single-seat C would be the logical choice. The B might add some benefits on complex attack missions, such as long-range interdiction or SEAD, and naturally for providing operational conversion. However, it should be noted that the Armée de l’Air wing currently tasked as centre of excellence for precision ground attack and reconnaissance (with both the Damoclès and AEROS) is the legendary EC 2/30 ‘Normandie-Niemen’, operating the single-seat C-variant.

Another perhaps more boring but still important feature is the fact that the Rafale is sold, and largely built, in euros.When Finland bought the Hornets, they were budgeted for in Finnish marks, while the contract was in US dollars. An unfortunate drop in exchange rates meant that the Hornets came in significantly over budget (in FIM). The euro is significantly more stable than the mark ever was, but the currency risk is still there (coupled with a Finnish purchasing power risk inside the euro zone).

Studying the Rafale further in detail was in many ways an eye-opener, with many of the features presented here being new to me. While I still consider the Rafale an underdog in the HX-evaluation, I would not count it out either. In the end, all five contenders are extremely competent, and regardless of the outcome, the air force is set to receive a great aircraft.

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© HESJA