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

The Real Joint Strike Fighter – Weaponry

The arsenal available to the Rafale is naturally one of the talking points when discussing the fighter. To begin with, it should be pointed out that there is nothing that blocks the integration of non-French weapons onto the aircraft, something which the French themselves have shown with the rapid integration of different members of the US Paveway-series of laser-guided bombs. “Everything is possible,” was Dassault Aviation’s answer when asked the question of integrating weapons such as the AGM-158 JASSM. Still, the main weapons of the Rafale are French, and Dassault likes to emphasize self-reliance as a selling point. I am not quite convinced the Finnish authorities will see things the same way, but regardless, there are some really interesting options currently featured. A key note is that of the aircraft’s fourteen hardpoints, five are of the ‘wet/heavy’ type (meaning they can carry external fuel tanks and/or heavy loads such as air-to-ground weapons). An interesting thing for long-term readers of the blog is that a surprising number of the missiles mentioned here have also featured in my earlier post on the weapons alternatives available for the Squadron 2020 corvettes.

AASM

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© Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

The AASM (fr. Armement Air-Sol Modulaire), also marketed as ‘Hammer’, is a modular French guidance kit that is fitted to different sizes of normal ‘dumb’ bombs, to give them greater accuracy. The AASM is highly modular, and can include either laser- or electro-optical tracking, as well as a GPS-receiver, and is available in powered or unpowered versions. With all the bells and whistles, the weapon is closer to a guided missile than a traditional ‘smart bomb’. The issue is obviously that with the increase in capability comes a higher price, but that is a cost the French have been happy to pay for the ability to employ the weapon against high-priority targets. The AASM proved its worth when it allowed Rafales to fly the SEAD/DEAD mission over Libya and hunt down and destroy air defence assets. After full integration, which is set to become operational within the next few years, the ability to use the AASM for long-range high-off boresight attacks will become available to the Rafale.

Paveway

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© Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

A number of laser-guided Paveways are integrated onto the Rafale, including the 227 kg GBU-12 Paveway II, GBU-22 Paveway III, and GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway, as well as the 454 kg GBU-16 Paveway II and the 908 kg Paveway III. Some of these very integrated at a very short notice, due to combat needs in Afghanistan and Mali.

Exocet

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© Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa

A weapon currently only used by Aéronavale is the latest version of the legendary AM 39 Exocet. The latest Block 2 Mod 2 is a far cry from the weapons that wreaked havoc on the Royal Navy in the Falklands War, and the ability to employ Link 16 for targeting data allows the aircraft to acquire the target ‘silently’. Currently a single missile is carried on the centre-line, but the ability to carry up to three missiles is there.

SCALP

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© Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

The joint French-British SCALP, called Storm Shadow in the UK, is a stealthy long-range cruise missile. The missile is in many aspects similar to the JASSM currently employed by the Finnish Air Force, and it is not unlikely that the SCALP would replace the JASSM in the case either the Rafale or the Eurofighter would be chosen as our next fighter. A high-resolution IIR-seeker provides terminal guidance, and a number of different modes of operation can be set, including fusing (air burst, impact, or penetration) and dive angle. The weapon has also been successfully used in both Libya and Iraq. Navigation is via inertial, GPS, or terrain reference. The missile is designed to feature a very high level of automation on the part of the pilot, meaning that it is suitable for single-seat fighters as well as twin-seaters. It does currently lack a data-link, though future versions might include this feature.

Mica IR

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© Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

The Mica IR is the current standard heat-seeking missile of the Rafale, and as mentioned in the earlier post it is moonlighting as an IR-sensor fused with the rest of the fighter’s sensor suite. As an IR-missile, the MICA is something of an in-between, not being quite as manoeuvrable as ‘proper’ high-off boresight missiles such as the IRIS-T, and not featuring quite the range that the ASRAAM has. Still, it is able to perform lock-on after launch, and over-the-shoulder firings at targets behind the firing aircraft has been demonstrated, with the targeting data being provided by datalink.

Mica RF

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© Dassault Aviation – S. Fort

The single major weak spot in the arsenal of the Rafale is the current beyond visual range missile, which is simply a Mica with an active radar seeker. The missile lacks the range and punching power of the AIM-120 AMRAAM, and as a matter of fact the above mentioned ASRAAM also has a higher kinetic energy at longer ranges. The sole benefit it has over the AMRAAM is that the US missile is something of a victim of its own success, with any potential adversary having spent serious resources studying how to defeat the AMRAAM, something which isn’t necessarily true for the Mica.

Meteor

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© Dassault Aviation – DR

The Meteor is the most advanced very-long range air-to-air missile available today. Having only entered operational service (with the 39C Gripen) this spring. The Eurofighter and Rafale are next in line to be armed with this exceptional ramjet-powered weapon, which promises to become the new ‘gold standard’ of its class. In particular for the Rafale, the Meteor promises to solve the lack of a ‘proper’ BVR-missile, and will mean that the pilots are able to take full benefit of the aircrafts powerful AESA radar. The initial load will be limited to two Meteors, but two more can be cleared if an export customer so requires. To note is that, as the Meteor will employ the same datalink as the MICA does, it will feature only one-way communication with the Rafale. This is unlike the integration on the Eurofighter and Gripen, which both will feature full two-way datalinks. It remains to be seen how large of a deficit this is.

 

All in all, the Rafale already in its current configuration provides weapons alternatives not only corresponding to but surpassing those currently available to the Finnish Air Force’s Hornets. The addition of AASM and Exocet would also mean that the possibility of new missions would be opened up, such as close air support and anti-ship missions.

The Real Joint Strike Fighter – The Legacy of the Mirage IV

The legacy of the Mirage IV has vast implications for the design of the Rafale. When the Mirage IVP was retired in 2005, it meant the end of one of the very few strategic reconnaissance aircraft operated by any European air force. To fill this gap, the Rafale has been wired to carry not only the Damoclès targeting/intelligence gathering pod (to be replaced by the Talios in the upcoming years), but also the impressive one-tonne AREOS (or Thales Pod Reco NG) stand-off reconnaissance observation pod. The later features a dual infrared/visible light sensor mounted in a swivel mount, providing what Dassault Aviation describe as “stand-off pre-strategic reconnaissance capability”. The intelligence gathering capability was shown in action during the operations against Libya, where the first wave of Rafales linked live images to the carrier Charles de Gaulle (‘R91’), which then relayed the information back to the aircrafts’ home base in France. The second wave of Rafales then launched with the updated info.

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The huge AEROS recce pod mounted on the Rafale centre station. Picture courtesy of Dassault Aviation / ©Alex Paringaux

However, the original purpose of the Mirage IV was as a single-role strategic bomber to deliver French nuclear weapons deep behind the iron curtain. The nuclear deterrence mission was then transferred first to the dedicated Mirage 2000N (Nucléaire), with the Rafale also destined from the outset to become part of the Force de dissuasion (literally Deterring Force). This means that the Rafale is designed to be “Entry first-capable” as Dassault Aviation puts it, meaning it should be able to operate far behind enemy lines, to carry out strikes in the face of the strong air defences, including both fighters and ground based-systems, that can be expected to protect high-value targets, and that this ability is a French national strategic interest.

The obvious question that comes to mind is how they plan to do this with a non-stealthy aircraft. The answer is the larger concept of survivability. The value of stealth stems from the fact that not being seen dramatically increases your survivability. However, as Dassault Aviation likes to point out, “Survivability is more than just stealth”. In the case of the Rafale, it features a combination of a number of things to increase its survivability:

  • Low-observability features such as radar absorbent material and shielding the engine intakes
  • Relying on passive sensors instead of active ones
  • Hands-off low-level flight providing terrain masking. This can be done either by using the radar for altitude data or by relying on the inbuilt terrain database, which makes it possible to fly at extremely low-level and high speed without any emission
  • Two engines provide added redundancy in case of battle damage or a bird strike
  • Carefree handling, to the extent that “everybody can fly the Rafale” according to Dassault Aviation
  • The integrated electronic warfare suite SPECTRA

The SPECTRA received a near-mythical reputation in Libya, where it was a key component in allowing the French Air Force to perform some of the first strikes launched while the Libyan air defence network was still largely intact. These missions included hunting Libyan air defence assets with the French AASM powered glide bomb, more on which in the next part.

The SPECTRA is far from just an advanced jammer and automated chaff/flare popper. Instead, it combines the self-defence jamming and electronic countermeasures with missile and laser warning systems, and also functions as one of the sensors integrated to provide the pilot with a single tactical picture. In this role, it relies on a comprehensive threat library, one which the users are free to update according to their needs and available information on enemy dispositions.

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A Rafale C (closer to the camera) showing of an air-to-air load with 6 MICA, of which the wingtip ones are MICA IR with their seekers sensor fused with the other systems of the aircraft. The other Rafale is a two-seater Rafale B in an air-to-ground configuration with two SCALP cruise missiles. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

Besides the SPECTRA, the other sensors integrated are the AESA radar, the internal Front Sector Optronics (which include not only a tele-lens camera but a laser range-finder as well), data links (Link 16 or national links), as well as the IR seeker heads on any MICA IR air-to-air missiles carried. These are then presented on one large tactical display placed high for easy reference. This can either show a single large map of the tactical picture, or be split between individual sensor pictures. There are also two somewhat smaller multi-function displays on the sides of the main screen. While Dassault Aviation are very proud of this setup, it is hard to not feel that, while a significant improvement compared to current fourth generation fighters, the setup isn’t quite up to par with the single large displays offered in the F-35 and JAS 39E Gripen.

All in all, Dassault Aviation was confident that the aircraft will be able to operate in the face of the modern Russian air defences set to cover most of the Finnish air space by the time HX enters service.

The long-range interdiction requirement is also evident in the huge carrying capacity of the Rafale. The aircraft is relatively small for being a twin-engined fighter, at 10 ton its empty weight is only 2/3 that of a Super Hornet, but on top of internal fuel it can bring an impressive 9.5 tonnes of external stores with it, for a maximum take-off weight of 24.5 tonnes. The Super Hornet can carry “only” 8 tonnes of external stores, which interestingly enough is the same amount that the considerably larger Russian Sukhoi Su-30 can carry as well. However, the empty weight of the mighty Su-30 is close to 18 tonnes, and if aiming for a full external load, it isn’t able to carry the full internal amount of fuel available to it.

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A heavily-armed Rafale, with six precision-guided AASM bombs, four MICA air-to-air missiles, two very long range METEOR missiles, as well as three 2,000 liter fuel tanks. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – A. Pecchi

While it might be argued that lifting your own weight in external stores is more of a gimmick than an actual combat load, the huge amount of lift is not without benefits. It makes it possible to lift normal combat loads with ease, and is a key point in giving the aircraft the margins that makes it excel in carrying out missions at high speed and extremely low level. It is also an important feature in providing the short field performance that is critical around carriers, or makeshift road bases for that matter.

The Real Joint Strike Fighter – Commonality and Maintenance

Operating a fleet of seven different tactical jets is a daunting task when it comes to logistics and the cost of keeping all of them relevant and up to date in an ever changing combat environment. The answer is, on paper, simple: design a single fighter that will replace all seven, being able to perform a host of different missions, including air-to-air, air-to-ground, and reconnaissance. This aircraft would be a joint design operated by both the Navy and the Air Force, from land bases as well as carriers, and used for both the strike and fighter mission by both. A real joint strike-fighter.

There has been a few aircraft capable of this feat, mainly the legendary F-4 Phantom II and the F/A-18 Hornet currently in Finnish service, and as is well known the F-35 is set out to be the next fighter built according to this concept. However, for the F-35 the differences between the versions are so large they only share 20-25 percent commonality, leading to critique that the basic idea is flawed.

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Rafale displaying at RIAT in 2013, in my opinion the most beautiful aircraft amongst the HX-contenders. Picture courtesy of © HESJA

Enter the Dassault Rafale, an aircraft actually able to replace seven different tactical aircraft with a single airframe[1], featuring only small modifications to create single- and two-seater land based versions as well as a single-seat carrier based fighter. “They are all the same,” Dassault Aviation explained. “It’s the same aircraft, same engines, same wing. The only differences are the strengthened landing gear and tail hook, as well as the integrated boarding ladder in the Rafale M, as the navy don’t want to have ladders standing on the flight deck.” Crucially, many of the particularities that the Finnish Air Force is looking for in HX are found in the Rafale as a consequence of the design decision to create a minimal-change navalised version:

  • The compact size of the aircraft, which allows straightforward operations on crowded carrier decks or narrow taxiways
  • Ease of maintenance, all service can be done without fixed installations and “in the shadow of the aircraft”
  • Low approach speed and good short field performance

The maintenance need should be discussed a bit further in detail. The engine can be swapped in under an hour, and requires no further testing before the aircraft is ready to go. The aircraft can also stand on the deck of a carrier or parked out in the open for prolonged times without any external connections (such as power supplies or A/C).

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Engine change in the crowded hangars aboard the French nuclear carrier Charles de Gaulle (‘R91’). Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

France has a long history of interventions in the former colonies in Africa, often including operations with minimal support in arid conditions. Earlier the rugged Jaguar and Mirage F1 had been the tools of choice for these missions, and questions were raised if the much more complex Rafale would be able to continue their legacy. However, the fighter proved the doubters wrong, with e.g. Operation Serval showing their ability to operate from austere conditions, where nothing but tents were available to protect the aircraft during maintenance. Similarly, the aircrafts have operated in harsh conditions from a number of bases, including during the recent campaigns in Syria and Iraq, as well as in Djibouti and Afghanistan. However, it is one thing that the aircraft can keep up a high tempo of operations in the dry and dusty Sahel, it is another thing to do so in the Finnish winter. Dassault Aviation readily admits they have “less experience in very cold [conditions]”, but Rafale was successfully evaluated in the Swiss winter, and have deployed to Kandahar in sub-zero conditions for combat operations. Overall, the company seems confident that the proven durability of the aircraft during long deployments on carrier decks and from austere field bases will add up to excellent availability also in the sub-arctic.

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French Air Force Rafale at Kandahar AFB in Afghanistan during Opération Serpentaire, fitted with GBU-12 laser guided bombs. Picture courtesy of © Alex Paringaux

[1] For those counting, I am referring to the F-8 Crusader, Jaguar, Super Etendard, Mirage F1, Mirage IV, Mirage 2000 in the fighter versions (C/RDI, and -5), as well as the Mirage 2000D/N strike versions. The exact number of different aircraft replaced can be anything between six and nine depending on how you count.

Tour de Sky 2016 -Return of the ‘Balalaika’

This year’s main flying event in Finland has just been held in the form of Tour de Sky at Kuopio-Rissala, a joint civilian and military airfield. In the later form, it is home to half of Finland’s fast jets as the legendary 31 Fighter Squadron resides there.

LanceR

Bearing the traditions of the wartime 24 squadron and their Brewsters, post-war the squadron operated the MiG-21 in the F-13 and Bis variants for several decades up until they were withdrawn from Finnish service in 1998. This year the MiG returned in style, with two Romanian MiG-21 LanceR C being present (together with a supporting Alenia G.222), one of which performed a very spirited flying display. The LanceR C was an upgrade program launched by Romanian Aerostar and Israeli avionics company ELBIT, and included amongst other things fitting the aircraft with a modern multimode radar in the form of ELBIT’s EL/M-2032, installing two multi-function displays in the cockpit, and clearing the aircraft for the carriage of new short-range missiles such as Python 3, Magic 2, and R-73. Still, the program was completed in 2002, so even with the upgrades the aircraft is on the verge of obsolescence. However, considering that the fighter first flew sixty years ago, it is hard not to be impressed by its longevity. Looking at the lifespan and capabilities upgrade of the LanceR compared to the original MiG-21F is also sobering when considering that today’s new fighters will have a lifespan at least as long, with all the changes that entails.

LanceR II

Gripen

Saab’s ‘legacy’ Gripen was well-represented as usual, with two 39C (solo display plane and backup), as well as a 39D at static display opposite one of the Eurofighters. The 39D sported an impressive array of inert display weapons, including the imposing Taurus KEPD 350 cruise missile. Also interesting was a scale model of the 39E in Finnish colours which Saab had mounted on the wall next to the entrance to their Skybar. As kindly pointed out by their representatives, what was featured on the model’s inner wing station was decidedly not a Taurus…

JASSMed

Rafale C

Dassault was heavily present throughout the weekend, as, despite not bringing an aircraft, they brought a serious amount of brightly orange baseball caps, whit my guess being these easily outnumbered the total amount of caps handed away by all four other HX-hopefuls together. There will be more info on the Rafale with regards to the HX in a later post (as will be the case for Lockheed-Martin’s offering as well).

Hornet

The solo-Hornet was another crowd-pleaser, with the wet conditions providing for an impressive amount of vapour during its hard turns. While the IOC for HX might still seem far away, there isn’t too many air shows left before the F/A-18 will be relegated to second place.

OH-HVP

The first of the Finnish Border Guards new AS332L1e Super Puma helicopters demonstrating the Bambi-bucket.

TRD

The Eurofighter Typhoon returned to Finland for what is only their second visit here so far. The unremarkable looking pod on the wingtip actually holds, amongst other things, two Towed Radar Decoys, which can be streamed after the aircraft to fool radar-seeking missiles. Contrary to my first guess, the system is actually robust enough that deploying them does not incur any kind of restrictions to the aircrafts flight envelope. The deployment of these can be controlled either manually or automatically by the integrated DASS EW-system.

Choppers

The Swedish Hkp 14 next to its Finnish cousin the NH 90 TTH.

MC-130J

The weather…

 

A Brief Update on HX

Next weekend will see this year’s main air show in Finland. This will see a lot of focus on the HX, with the different manufacturers trying to sell in why their aircraft is the best fit for Finland in particular. In anticipation of the posts which no doubt will come out of that, a short recap of the recent developments that have taken place is in order.

Kampfly

As noted earlier, the Danish Kampfly-program was won by the F-35A in a spectacular fashion, with the fighter beating its contenders on all points, something which Boeing and Airbus haven’t taken lightly. A number of clarifications have been made by to questions asked by Boeing, and Airbus issued a very interesting request for clarifications (PDF) with 43 numbered quotes and questions, dealing with issues ranging from risk assessment, fixed price offers, evaluated aircraft standards, and even down to questioning if the competition really met all requirements. However, yesterday (9 June 2016) news broke that the Danish government has secured a broad enough coalition to push through the F-35 deal through parliament, and the deal seems set (for now at least). The eventual buy will include 27 to 21 fighters.

Dassault Rafale

The everlasting story of the French fighter’s big push to India is ever evolving. With the original MRCA-contract scrapped, the smaller (but still considerable) 36 aircraft order has proved to be an equally lengthy process, and despite reports in early April of a signing ‘within three weeks’, the deal is still open.

For the fighter program as a whole, much focus is on the update to the next F-3R standard, which is slated for service entry in early 2019 and qualifications the year before. The new standard will amongst other things see integration of the long-range Meteor air-to-air missile, but also an assorted range of improvements to the sensors and avionics, as well as the new Thales PDL-NG targeting pod.

Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

The ‘Rhino’ continues to be pushed for a number of export contracts, the most promising perhaps of which currently is Canada. The Canadians are realising that pushing back the time scale for their CF-188 Hornet replacement will make it hard to sustain a viable fleet of fighter aircraft in the meantime (the Canadian Hornets are of the older F/A-18A/B versions compared to those operated by Finland), and a small number of Super Hornets is now marketed as the logical stop-gap replacement until the ‘proper’ replacement has been determined. This would be very much along the same lines as how the Royal Australian Air Force reasoned when they brought in the Super Hornet in anticipation of the coming F-35A which they also have on order.

For the US Navy, Boeing is again actively pushing for an Advanced Super Hornet, though in a slightly scaled back (‘matured’, in the words of Boeing’s marketing department) configuration compared to the initial prospects put forward three years ago. The concept include a number of different enhancements, with some (e.g. conformal fuel-tanks) being rather low cost and low risk, while others (e.g. an enhanced engine) being much more complex. At least a number of these, if not all, will probably be offered for HX, regardless of whether the US adopts them or not.

The Kuwaiti export order still seems to be on track, but hampered by slow bureaucracy in the US, while the Super Hornet is also trying to push for contracts in Asia, crucially under the Make in India-initiative as well as for Malaysia.

Eurofighter Typhoon

The Eurofigther is coming to Kuopio, and with two British and two German aircraft, the fighter returns to the Finnish skies in style. This is only its second appearance in Finland, and quite possibly a sign of increased interest by BAE (which is the manufacturer responsible for marketing it to HX, unlike Kampfly where Airbus held the reins) towards the Finnish contract.

For Eurofighter, their Kuwaiti export deal has been successfully signed, and the 8 billion Euro deal is to include not only 28 fighters, but also significant infrastructure investments. The later makes the aircrafts’ cost hard to judge, a point which traditionally has been one of the weaker for the Eurofighter. Of interest is that the Kuwaiti air force has opted for the new E-Scan radar, which finally provides a launch customer for an AESA-equipped Eurofighter. Having secured deliveries of this new configuration should prove a boost for the fighter in future competitions, including HX.

Saab JAS 39E Gripen

Saab has finally rolled out the first Gripen in what is the full 39E-configuration, and is continuing to aggressively market the fighter, with Finland being one of the more important deals currently up for grabs. One of the more memorable statements of the roll-out was when Deputy Managing Director of Saab International Finland Oy, Anders Gardberg, in an interview pounced on the notion that stealth equals invisibility.

“The hype should start to fade away by now.”

The program is largely moving on according to the plans discussed earlier here on the blog, with the 39C now flying with the Meteor long-range missile in Swedish service, this making it the first fighter to employ the weapon operationally.

Lockheed-Martin F-35

The F-35 is moving along more or less according to plans, with the upcoming USAF F-35A initial operational capability being the next big milestone. The software being used for this has been switched from the ‘final’ Block 3F to the Block 3IR6, which is described as being ‘only 89% of the [Block 3F] full warfighting code’. Still, the 3IR6 allows for carrying both air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, although the full weapons integration (amongst a few other things) is still someway off. In light of the criticism directed against the standards, or rather lack thereof, employed by the USMC when declaring the F-35B IOC last summer, the air force seems set on making sure that the airplane really does provide operational capabilities when the IOC is announced, something which should happen later this year, with the Joint Program Office aiming for August.

In the meantime the first Dutch F-35A’s have arrived in the Netherlands for a series of noise level tests, as well as the first public display of the aircraft on this side of the Atlantic. The real big bang in this sense will come at Farnborough, with up to five F-35A and B taking part in both flying and static displays.

General HX

Boeing and Lockheed-Martin have, unsurprisingly, decided not to offer their older F-15E Strike Eagle and F-16V Viper.

The HX program office will also accept responses including mixes of unmanned platforms and fighters. While several of the companies involved in the HX does have some plans or even flying technology demonstrators in this field, it seems unlikely that their level of maturity would be sufficient to play a large role in the tender. However, some kind of ‘fitted for but not with’-capability allowing for the inclusion of unmanned systems at a later date might be plausible.

HX marketing videos – the good, the bad, and the stock footage

When sending out the Request for Information regarding the HX-program the Finnish Ministry of Defence also offered the companies an opportunity to send in a short video marketing themselves and their product. While the impact of these on the evaluation process in marginal (probably an overstatement…), they do tell something about the level of commitment from the companies in question. It also indicates the focus of the campaign and their selling points. As such, these deserve to be reviewed, and to get a non-avgeek viewpoint, I’ve brought Mrs. Frisk along as a guest reviewer (though to be honest, she has probably involuntarily acquired more insight into the HX-program than your average aircraft spotter).

And yes, this all is massively off-topic, and strictly movies-only, with no take on which fighter is the best one for HX.

virmalised
Polar lights, what 60% of the world’s aircraft manufacturers think off when they hear the word “Finland”. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Reio Rada
  1. Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II

This was by far the weakest showing off the lot. Not that it was bad, but the video was apparently the standard marketing video for the program, first showing off the varied aircraft in the Lockheed-Martin portfolio, after following up with video of the F-35 in all three versions. Seriously, we are planning to invest up to 10 billion Euros, and Lockheed-Martin weren’t bothered to even slightly alter the marketing material to speak to Finnish needs?

+Showing the broad portfolio

+Generally nice footage

No mention of Finland/HX/any customization at all

Mrs. Frisk: “The whole video feels old, and I’m not too sold on the stripes along the sides or the name-carrying banner appearing over the aircrafts. The vertical landing was neat.”

  1. Tied: Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and BAE Eurofighter Typhoon

Boeing’s ‘Super Bug’ and BAE’s take on the eurocanard-concept ties for third, both doing some things right and some things less so.

Boeing offers a very Finnish video, beginning with green polar lights and computer-generated Finnish flags, before quickly skipping to stock footage (and music) of Super Hornets flying around, accompanied by a Finnish flag decorated by the Hornet-logo and selling points. While they certainly score no points for artistic creativity, they have at least bothered to read through the requirements, and in a clear and concise manner explain why they feel that they’re the best fit for HX. Points for mentioning suitability of dispersed operations.

Mrs. Frisk: “This feels like a mixture, more info than the Eurofighter one, but more ‘Woosh’ than Saab’s offering. They manage to emphasise ‘Safe’ without sounding like they’re trying to sell you a Volvo. Though I personally dislike hornets (or anything resembling them). The bug ones, that is… ;-)”

+Informative

+Relevant for HX

Stock footage not overly impressive

The video by Eurofighter feels like they’ve used a stock intro, and then pasted on this a tailored ending, talking mainly about the fact that BAE already is a thrusted partner of the Finnish Air Force with Hawk advanced trainer, and that it would be natural to build upon this with the world’s “most advanced” multi-roll fighter for HX. The flying over snow clip feels more relevant than that of Middle Eastern naval vessels, but all in all a nice looking video. The main issue was the lack of selling points for the Typhoon with regards to the specifics of the HX-program.

Mrs. Frisk: “This one’s nicely done, it feels very much like an advertisement, and has less direct info than the Super Hornet, but they do bring up BAE’s other branches, which promises good integration across the board, as well as their current cooperation with Finland.”

+Very nice video and soundtrack

+Ties in with earlier BAE activities in Finland

Information regarding HX not on par with other videos

  1. Saab JAS 39E/F Gripen

Saab goes all in for the Finnish theme, and is the only one to feature a narrator speaking Finnish. Unfortunately, while the video is choke-full of information, most of which is addressed directly towards the Finnish HX-requirements, the narrator’s matter-of-fact attitude becomes a little bit too matter-of-fact, and coupled with the lack of fancy weapons’ releases, the whole thing gets a bit too reminiscent of Avara luonto (Finnish nature documentaries, think sir Attenborough, but without a peerage). However, it features some really nice video, including the obligatory green polar lights, much of which benefits from being shot in Sweden and thus very close to HX’s future environment. The final product is nice enough that one might even forgive the sometimes illogical jumps between “you” and “we” in the narrative.

Mrs. Frisk: “Safe and reliable are certainly nice features also for a fighter, however, this lacks the action element in trying to market a fighter. It feels like they’re trying to sell me a family car, and the whole thing is a bit boring. Brings up the Finnish demands in a very good way, though!”

+Nice video, featuring a very Finnish-like setting

+Finnish narrator

+Very informative, and relevant to HX

A bit slow compared to Dassault’s and BAE’s offerings

  1. Dassault Rafale

Dassault Rafale skipped the narrator all together, and instead starts off with Finnish composer Sibelius, green polar lights, and a quote from our national epic, Kalevala.

“Tulta iski ilman lintu, valahutti valkeaista.”

” Quickly then this bird of heaven, kindled fire among the branches.”

Kalevala, second poem

We Finns love when people recognise Sibelius and Kalevala.

The video doesn’t dwell on its purpose. Dassault is here to sell their fighter to a snowy Finland (though they aren’t quite aware of our lack of proper ravines), and they can not only offer a load of different weapons for it, the plane is already tested in a number of conflicts. To top it up, they promise technology transfers and all the other bells and whistles. And as an engineer, I just love the shot of the SCALP dropping from the aircraft, popping out its wings and then speeding of.

Much (all) of this is promoted by other candidates as well, but Dassault manages to provide it all in an extremely attractive package, offering both the current selling points and the Top Gun-feeling you expect from a fighter jet.

Mrs. Frisk: “This is nice! It’s speed and action, and ‘combat proven’. This gives the impression that when others just fly around, the Rafale is busy reducing buildings to dust. Best one of the lot!”

+Extremely nice video, with some (computerised) snow

+Finnish feeling

+Information relevant to HX

 


On a serious note, while Saab’s strong video was expected, Dassault was a positive surprise. That Lockheed-Martin couldn’t be bothered to even paste some texts or Finnish flags onto their video were perhaps the most unforeseen deal. Of note is that neither F-16V nor F-15E was marketed in any way, and it seems like both companies will follow in Saab’s footsteps and only offer their latest bird.

A Catalogue of Arms: The Weapons of the HX-project

A subject which I’ve touched upon in my earlier posts, is the fact that the choice of fighter for HX also largely dictates which weapons the Finnish Air Force will use. Naturally, any weapon can be certified on any fighter, as long as they are within weight and size restrictions, but the process is neither simple nor cheap. As such, the large operators usually call the shots, their choices usually being domestic weapons suitable for the missions they prioritise. There are also a number of special cases, such as e.g. Saab and Boeing producing both aircrafts and some of their weaponry.

So, what would Finland then get with each of the different HX-candidates? Below is a simple table I’ve collected, with weapons integrated on each aircraft. The weapons are divided by type, and include both weapons currently available as well as planned weapons. For the future weapons I’ve only included weapons that the manufacturer or operator states will be integrated (edit: note that some of these planned integrations, especially in the case of the F-35, are still unfunded). The exception is for Gripen, where the Brazilian Air Force has not yet disclosed which weapons they’ve chosen for the aircraft. In this case, the weapons listed are based on those displayed on the mock-up, when it toured in Brazil this spring.

Some weapons are likely to appear on certain aircraft sometime in the future, such as the Meteor being integrated on the F-35, but as long as these aren’t officially confirmed, I’ve left them out. As said, if Ilmavoimat really wants something, it can most probably be added for an extra cost, but this table is what we would get “for free” with each aircraft.

HX-weaponsA few comments:

Incendiary bombs are largely similar to napalm, but aren’t called that as their chemical composition is different. Cluster bombs are available in a number of different variants, where the Mk-20 (247 submunitions) is meant for anti-tank work, and the CBU-59 (717 submunitions) and CBU-101/-105 are used against ‘soft’ targets (unarmoured vehicles, troops). Many of the modern laser- and GPS-guided bombs feature wings, which means that they can be dropped from some distance, and then glide towards the target. Cruise-missiles differ from these, in that they have some kind of engine that lets them fly further than the unpowered glide bombs. Some cruise missiles can also be used as anti-shipping missiles, and the other way around. As sending a large cruise missile dimensioned to blow up a reinforced bunker to take out a single tank is a waste of money and explosives, some planes carry smaller missiles that can be used against vehicles. Anti-radiation missiles are specialised weapons made to home in on enemy radars, to knock out the enemy’s groundbased air defences.

The Eurofighter reflects its international pedigree in that some nations, especially Great Britain, want their own weapons on it, and as such it has two options in a number of slots. The Rafale is an example of the opposite, featuring almost exclusively French weapons. Due to their small production runs, these are sometime very costly, with e.g. the AASM (the French equivalent to a JDAM) rumoured to cost up to twelve times as much as its US counterpart.

A British Eurofighter Typhoon featuring 1,000 lbs Paveway laser-guided bombs and air-to-air missiles taking off during operations over Libya. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Sgt Pete Mobbs/MOD

Gripen features an interesting mix of Brazilian and European weapons. Of note is that if Finland would buy the Gripen, we would be one of the larger operators, giving better leverage if we wanted to integrate new weaponry onto it (this is not to say that they would come for free, only that our leverage would be better). The main drawback of the Gripen is the (current) lack of a dedicated anti-vehicle missile, with earlier versions having featured the AGM-65 Maverick.

Edit 24-07-2015: After having received input from Twitter-handles Gripen News and Obby Noxus, I’ve updated the table and texts accordingly. Sorry for the incorrect data given earlier, it was completly due to my own fault, and thank you to Gripen News and Obby Noxus for their help!

With regards to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, it seems like the US Navy decided to simply certify the aircraft for more or less every weapon in their arsenal. A number of these, marked with *, are already retired, and others are on their way out (such as the AIM-7 Sparrow). Of interest is that it is the sole platform with a mining capability. The ability to have two aircraft take off and after a few minutes close a strategic sea lane by dropping four heavy sea mines would be of marked value for Finnish defence planning, especially with the reduction in hulls with a mining capability that the navy is facing. In fact, it is interesting that the Finnish Air Force has not bought Quick Strike mines for the current Hornet-fleet, as they are also certified to carry it.

The F-35 is something in between, with a number of different options, although not quite as many as the Super Hornet. Its anti-shipping missile is a bit special, the Norwegian Joint Strike Missile featuring an infrared seeker instead of radar as all the others anti-shipping missiles in the tables. The IR-seeker is harder to distract than radar seekers, but feature a shorter range a poorer performance in adverse weather (rain, snow, and fog).

Does any single aircraft then have a marked advantage? I would say no. The Rafale is at a disadvantage, due to its reliance on uniquely French weapons, with their higher cost and poorer availability. The Super Hornet brings some interesting options to the table, but I find it hard to believe that Finland would buy either rocket pods or incendiary bombs, so the only real difference is the sea mines. The overall differences are small, and if mining capability suddenly is a must-have, it could probably quite easily be integrated on any of the other platforms. In fact, I would imagine that the US Navy is already thinking about getting it for the F-35C.

As is the case with the aircrafts themselves, their weapons suites all have their own strengths and weaknesses. In the end, these are but one of the many factors that will have to be compared and judged, before it can be decided which of the potential HX-fighters is the best choice.

The HX-project Preliminary Report, pt. 2: Capabilities and Fighters

This is part two of my look into the preliminary report on the HX-project, which is aimed at finding a suitable replacement for the F/A-18C Hornet in Finnish service. This part will focus on the interesting stuff: the capabilities to be replaced, and the alternatives that might replace them.

The Capabilities

The capabilities the Hornet provides are, according to the report, as follows:

  • Airspace surveillance and control
  • Defensive counter-air (DCA)
  • Offensive counter-air (OCA)
  • Interdiction strikes
  • Battlefield air interdiction (BAI)
  • Maritime strike
  • Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR)

Of note is here is that when the Hornets were introduced in Finnish service, it was as a pure interceptor/fighter aircraft, and only later (with MLU 2) did the potential for interdiction strikes start to feature prominently. In fact, it can be argued that out of the seven roles described above, the current Finnish Hornet-fleet is oriented towards three (airspace surveillance and control, DCA, and interdiction strike), is capable of handling two somewhat satisfactorily (BAI and ISTAR), with two being more or less outside of the current scope of capabilities (OCA and maritime strike). It is not that the Hornet can’t perform maritime strike and OCA-missions, but rather that a combination of lack of suitable weapons and a focusing in training on other missions leaves gaps to be filled (note: this is based on how air force training is described in open sources, it is possible that e.g. OCA receives more attention than is openly acknowledged).

20150606_155813
Scale model of JAS 39E Gripen as displayed by SAAB at Turku Airshow this spring. The weapons and sensors shown on the model would make the aircraft capable of all missions listed, and are, from the wingtip inwards: IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missile, Meteor long-range air-to-air missile, RBS15F long-range anti-ship missile (with secondary ground-attack capability), GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb precision-guided glide bombs, and an electro-optical sensor/recce-pod. Source: Author

Of interest is especially the focus placed on OCA, which is discussed over multiple pages in the report from chapter 4 and onwards. The reasoning behind this is that air superiority can seldom be achieved through DCA only (i.e. shooting down enemy aircraft entering our air space), but instead this needs to be supplemented with OCA (attacking enemy aircrafts and airbases in their own territory). Traditionally, OCA has meant striking enemy airfields through the use of multiple supporting formations of aircraft (escorts, electronic warfare aircraft supressing enemy air defences, strike packages for taking out enemy runways and hangars, and finally an aircraft doing battle damage assessment by photographing the target after the strike), and as such these kinds of strikes are both high-risk and require specialised weapons and a high level of pilot competence. The number of aircraft involved would also mean that a significant proportion of the whole Finnish air force would be tied up in a single mission.

The increasing capabilities of modern multi-role fighters and the use of stand-off weapons and sensors mean that the absolute number of aircrafts used for an OCA strike can be decreased somewhat. However, I must still admit that I was surprised that this seems to be a prioritised field. It is possible that this is seen as the most demanding of the missions, and that if the air force pilots becomes proficient in multi-package strikes on enemy airbases, this skill set (and weaponry) can easily be used also for the “lesser” missions (such as striking strategic bridges or enemy surface units, neither mission of which is dealt with in any detail in the report).

Another mission that gets a thorough analysis is electronic warfare and especially suppression of enemy air defences. SEAD, as it is usually abbreviated, deals with rendering enemy groundbased air defence systems ineffective, either by jamming their sensors or by outright destroying them. This is usually performed by specially modified aircrafts (the EA-6B Prowler and EA-18G Growler of the US Navy and Marine Corps, as well as the German and Italian Air Force Tornado ECR being mentioned), carrying special sensors and weaponry. The report notes that, even when it comes to stealth aircraft, multirole fighters will remain vulnerable to enemy air defences, and while they can carry some SEAD-weaponry and sensors (such as radar-homing missiles and jamming pods), true SEAD will always be something of a niche-capability that even modern multi-role fighters can only perform “with some restrictions”.

A Rafale M of the French Navy’s Squadron 11F launches from the flight deck of the US aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). During strike operations in Iraq and Syria (this missions was a training flight, hence the lack of weapons). The M model has a strengthened airframe, larger tailhook, and a built-in boarding ladder, all of which would come in handy during road basing. Source: US Navy/Specialist 2nd Class John Philip Wagner, Jr

The possibility that Russia through the use of modern long-range air defence systems could more or less close Finnish air space is not discussed in the report. This would naturally have a huge impact on the needs and priorities of any future fighter, so not discussing it means that the work group believes that:

  1. A) The impact of long-range surface-to-air missiles will be small/manageable (at extreme ranges the system will have trouble engaging low-flying targets due to the radar not seeing over the horizon, and the large missiles needed to get enough range will have poor manoeuvrability against agile fighter-sized targets), or
  2. B) While it is possible to shut down most of Finland’s airspace using long-range surface-to-air missiles, it is not a good idea for Finnish officials to openly admit it.

The Alternative Solutions

A number of alternative solutions have been put forward, including unmanned platforms (UAV/UCAV), a completely ground-based solution (see earlier blog post), as well as extending the lifespan of the current Hornet-fleet.

All three of these are dealt with thoroughly in the report. There are currently no UAV/UCAV capable of performing the same missions as manned multi-role aircraft, especially with regards to air-to-air missions. Also, unmanned platforms tend to have the same cost to operate as manned aircraft of similar complexity and size (due to the fact that they need the same maintenance as an ordinary plane, and while he/she isn’t on board, they also need a trained “pilot”). The report envisions a place for UAV/UCAV’s in supplementing roles, e.g. reconnaissance, performing dangerous strikes, and finding targets on the battlefield and guiding in manned aircraft to strike these (FAC).

BAE Taranis is at the cutting edge of UCAV technology, but is still far from operational, and nowhere ear as versatile as modern multirole fighters. Source: BAE Systems

A ground-based air defence system lacks the operational flexibility of fighters, and cannot rapidly regroup to answer sudden threats in a new area of the country. Due to the vast size of Finland, a complete air defence system would also be extremely costly, and other weapon systems would be needed for striking enemy ground- and naval targets. Peacetime air surveillance is also impossible without own aircraft.

Lengthening the lifespan of the current Hornets is not a realistic option either. The aircrafts would need to be completely overhauled, an expensive process which easily could become even more expensive if some “nasty surprises”, such as cracks in critical structures, were found during the program. After 2020, Finland would also be the sole user responsible for keeping the legacy-Hornets aging mission computer up to date, carrying the whole upgrade cost for the fighter’s core avionics. The relative combat value of the aircraft, especially in air-to-air missions, is also rapidly decreasing with the introduction of new fighter aircraft in our neighbouring countries (F-35A, JAS 39E, T-50, and the latest versions of the Su-27 and MiG-29 families). If the extension would be done, it would cost approximately 1.2 billion Euros, and give the Hornet 5-10 years more in service. This would not give us any more options with regards to eventually replacing it, as no new designs are on the horizon in that timeframe, but rather it would diminish the options, as certain production lines are on the verge of closing.

The Candidates

The candidates have been an open secret, but as far as I am aware of, this is the first time they have been named in an official document. They are the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed-Martin F-35, and the SAAB JAS 39E (Super) Gripen, while all Far Eastern aircrafts are out of the competition. I presented all of the contenders in depth last autumn (here and here), so here I will only look into the few notable changes that have taken place since, as well as their strong and weak points in the light of the report.

Prior to Paris Air Show this month, Boeing declared that they believe they will be able to keep their St Louis production line for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet open until the end of the decade, meaning that they will be in the running for HX after all. Part of this is due to a new export deal for 28 Super Hornets to Kuwait, worth an estimated 3 billion USD. This marks only the second export deal for the Super Hornet, but Boeing is still looking into a number of potential foreign customers, Finland being one of them. An interesting ace the Super Hornet has is the ability to offer a dedicated SEAD version in the form of the EA-18G Growler, a heavily modified F/A-18F. The main problem is that the project is heavily reliant on continued interest (and funding) from a single operator. The day the US Navy decides to prioritise other aircraft, the few exported Super Hornets will become very expensive to maintain and upgrade.

A US Navy Boeing EA-18G Growler from Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ-141 “Shadowhawks” landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73). The aircraft is loaded with jamming pods for jamming enemy radars/air defences and external fuel tanks for longer range/loitering times. The standard F/A-18F Super Hornet is externally very similiar. Source: U.S. Navy/Specialist 3rd Class Ricardo R. Guzman

The interest in SEAD might prove beneficial to the F/A-18E/F, if Finland would opt for an arrangement similar to Australia, who operate a fleet of 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets and have 12 EA-18G Growlers on order. Operating dedicated SEAD aircraft would make Finland a highly sought after partner in international operations, with only a handful of countries being able to offer the same capability (Germany, Italy, and USA), of which only the USA are able to offer more than a handful of airframes. Boeing also has the benefit of being the main supplier for the current F/A-18 Hornet-fleet, which have been a highly successful project from a Finnish point of view. The report talks about “looking into the possibilities of benefitting from current strategic partnerships that exists between Finnish and foreign companies”, and letting Patria and Boeing continue with their collaboration from the Hornet on to the Super Hornet would seem to fit this bill perfectly. The Super Hornet is also developed for the harsh carrier environment, and could be used for dispersed basing (i.e. using purpose-built roads as airfields) in the same way as the current legacy-Hornets are used.

Dassault Rafale has also scored notable successes on the export market, in the form of a 6.3 billion Euro deal for 24 Rafales to Qatar and a similar number of aircraft to Egypt as part of larger arms package including weaponry and warships. The troublesome MRCA deal with India also seems to be moving ahead. All in all, it seems more likely now than it did half a year ago that Dassault could manage to keep the production lines of its beautiful fighter open long enough to take part in the HX-project. Still, it’s hard to say how serious Dassault is about the Finnish fighter program, seemingly being occupied in the Middle East and with the huge Indian deal. Rafale is available in both land-based and carrier versions.

Eurofighter, SAAB, and Lockheed-Martin have not been able to present much new. All programs are moving forward at a steady pace. Interestingly enough, all three were also present at this summer’s main flight show in Finland, Turku Airshow, held earlier this month. SAAB had a JAS 39C Gripen taking part in a flyby with a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet and a Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16AM, as well as performing a solo display. The other two didn’t bring any flying hardware. Neither Boeing nor Dassault took part in the air show in any way.

A Royal Air Force Typhoon takes off for Libya during the intervention of 2011 (Operation Ellamy). The aircraft carries four of the 1000 lb (450 kg) Enhanced Paveway II bombs, which can be guided via the centreline mounted Litening III targeting pod. ASRAAM short-range air-to-air missiles are carried for self-defence. Source: Sgt Pete Mobbs/MOD

Whit regards to the strategic partnerships, it should be noted that while Finland haven’t bought a British fighter since the Folland Gnat in 1958 or a German one since the Messerschmitt Bf 109G, the strategic partnerships are certainly there. The companies behind the Eurofighter consortium (officialy Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH) constitutes some of the key suppliers of the Finnish Defence Forces, through the CASA C-295 transports (by Airbus Defence) and the BAE Hawk trainers (by BAE Systems) of the Finnish Air Force, as well as in the form of the army’s primary transport helicopter, the NHIndustries NH90 (produced by the NHIndustries consortium, in which Airbus Helicopters has a 62.5 % stake). Patria is also supplying parts for a number of Airbus’ civil projects. All in all, the Eurofighter certainly has the local connections to be a serious contender. However, Eurofighter have had a hard time finding exports outside of the original countries, and I personally see the aircraft as the least likely choice for the HX-project. It’s not that it isn’t capable; it just costs too much and doesn’t quite stand out in an extremely competitive crowd.

SAAB seems to be the company that is placing most effort on the HX-project, although the Brazilian order certainly promises to be of an altogether different scale. Gripen is developed from the outset to suit Swedish needs, which are strikingly similar to Finland’s (cold weather operations, ease of maintenance, dispersed basing, and so forth). The Brazilian order and continued Swedish commitment also promises to make certain that the aircraft will have support throughout the lifecycle of the HX. The one stumbling block is its lack of stealth.

Contrary to SAAB, Lockheed-Martin does offer stealth, but there are huge questionmarks with regards to how maintenance of the F-35 will be handled. Cost is also an issue, even if the manufacturer assures everyone that the series produced aircraft will be on par or lower in unit price compared to current generation 4+-fighters. Still, when it comes to life-cycle costs, stealth coatings are notoriously difficult and expensive to maintain in proper working condition. The F-35 is offered in three versions, where the C-version is developed for carrierborne use, and as such could be used for dispersed basing. It is, however, noticeably more expensive than the landbased A-version, and it is questionable if it ever will receive any export orders. Of note is that the F-35 is only offered in single-seat versions, but the report acknowledges that much of the initial training will move to simulators, which lessens the demand for a two-seat lead-in training version.

Tour de Sky 2014 1080
Lockheed-Martin showing of a F-35 simulator to future fighter pilots at last years Tour de Sky airshow in Oulu. Source: Author

The Bottom Line

I would still rank the F-35A/C and the JAS 39E Gripen as the two most likely candidates, with the F/A-18E/F (possibly with a few Growlers on strength) as the black horse. What it will come down to is:

  • What impact can new stealth-cancelling technologies be assumed to offer?
  • How is the F-35 able to cope with demanding cold-weather operations in dispersed conditions?
  • How will a robust maintenance chain be assured (especially in the case of the F-35)?
  • Is dedicated SEAD capability of importance?
  • What will the life-cycle costs of the different aircraft be?