HX goes DSCA

One of the more anticipated milestones of the HX-process took place this week with the publication of the DSCA-notifications. These somewhat poorly understood bureaucratic processes caused some waves in the PTO 20200-tender. This time the Finnish MoD has done its best to avoid similar jumps to conclusion by media and other observers, but there has still been some less-than-helpful interpretations of what the notifications says. In short, the US regulations require that the congress is informed about important upcoming arms deals as a matter of oversight, something that happens through the DSCA-notifications. In the case of HX (and the Swiss AIR2030/NFA which made headlines a short while ago) the potential tenders are being pre-cleared, i.e. congress is notified about an upcoming potential sale. This allows for quicker turn-around if and when a contract is signed, and ensures that the supplier actually can deliver what they’ve promised. The most important points that sometimes get lost are:

  • The fact that this isn’t an order, nor are they necessarily corresponding to what is included in the final order (in fact, often they aren’t as it makes sense to clear the possible maximum amount of items in one go instead of having to go back and request a second clearance in case the requirements changes),
  • The negotiations of the HX-program is still ongoing, and as such neither the buyer nor the seller knows for certain the details of the final offer,
  • The value quoted for the DSCA-notifications usually aren’t that helpful in determining the contract value,
  • Most crucially, the notifications are ridiculously detailed in some ways, but glossing over major items in others. See “40 inch wing release lanyard” getting its own row, but “Spares” being a single line item.

To sum it up, long-term aviation journalist Gareth Jennings commenting on the AIR2030 put words to how everyone covering the process feels.

With that said, let’s jump into what information can be gleaned from the notifications.

Numbers don’t lie

The first obvious issue is the number of aircraft. With programme director Lauri Puranen on record stating that 64 aircraft seems impossible, it is noteworthy that the Lockheed Martin notification is for 64 F-35A and the Boeing has a total of 72 aircraft, made up of 50 F/A-18E Super Hornet, 8 twin-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet, and 14 EA-18G Growler. While it is still within the realms of possibilities, if unlikely, that we would see a 64 fighter buy, I don’t see how 72 could fit within the operating budget. As such, the 72 aircraft notification is a good indication for the fact that the final mix of the Boeing offer is still up in the air. 40 F/A-18E, 8 F/A-18F, and 12 EA-18G for a 62 aircraft fleet would be my personal guess.

Another place where the final offer is evidently still not set in the Boeing offer is the targeting pods (the F-35 notably not requiring one, as it has an internal electro-optical sensor based on the technology of the Sniper pod). The notification includes 32 ATFLIR, 32 Sniper (of an undisclosed version, but likely the XR), and an undisclosed number of the Litening (notable is that Finland currently uses an earlier version of the Litening-pod, the version now on offer would likely be the Litening 5). The ATFLIR was the one brought over for HX Challenge, but on the other hand the Litening was brought over hanging under an Eurofighter, so Finland has verified data on that one as well. I won’t comment on which pod would provide the best solution, as the details are A) classified, and B) I’m not familiar enough with the pod-world to say if there’s any kind of significant differences found in open sources. I will note that the ATFLIR has had teething troubles, but those seems (maybe?) to have since been overcome, and that the Litening 5 is being developed to sport a SAR-module, which is something of an unique selling point, but one likely to be of secondary value.

The single-seat F/A-18E Super Hornet getting airborne from Tampere-Pirkkala AFB during HX Challenge earlier this year. The notification confirms that if Boeing wins, the single-seater will be by far the most common version. Source: Own picture

In the same way, it can be noted that a total of 25 IRST-pods are cleared for the Hornet-bid. The Super Hornet’s IRST solution with a centre-line has been criticised for being less elegant than the integration on the competitors, though it in fact suffers from a relatively small blind spot. What is interesting is that the numbers for both the targeting pod (presuming that only one model is bought) and the IRST both are offered in numbers covering approximately half of the fleet. This is in general one of the strong points of the F-35, every aircraft gets its own ‘pod’ thanks to the sensor being internal, while for the rest budgetary restraints often causes some aircraft to be left without. Exactly how the Super Hornet operations would look is an interesting question, but one alternative could be one aircraft of a pair flying with a pod and the other with an IRST.

As noted, with security of supply being a key factor and the ability to overhaul the aircraft locally from local stocks a key item here, the spare parts packages are naturally of great interest. Here, however, we’re more or less completely out of luck, as these crucial items are reduced to the single line of “provisioning, spares and repair parts”. It is, however, notable that this is a rather different wording compared to the Swiss notifications that only include “aircraft spares”. However, there is another place where spares catch the eye, and that is on the line discussing engines. The F-35A bid lists two spare P&W F-135 engines, while the F/A-18E/F/G offer lists 22 spare F414-GE-400 (interestingly enough, here the Swiss notifications for 40 aircraft listed six and 16 respectively). Good arguments can be made for the F-35 needing fewer complete spare engines for a given fleet size, including both during peacetime (single-engined aircraft having half the number of engines compared to twin-engined ones, the more modern design potentially having longer life and more replaceable subassemblies) and wartime use (an engine damaged enough to warrant replacement likely will lead to the loss of the aircraft). However, for a country obsessing about security of supply and with the supply of spare parts being one the major questions surrounding the F-35 in the HX-programme, it does strike one as an oddly low number, and makes the question about what really is found in the spare package even more interesting.

Like the spares, the amount of supporting equipment found amongst the rows isn’t straightforward to judge. There are a number of interesting rows, including training equipment, as well as numerous test vehicles for the weaponry. Key terms are also differing if compared to AIR2030 notifications, though considering the somewhat erratic template through which the notifications are pushed it is difficult to say how much weight should be placed on these differences. Still, there’s a few interesting discrepancies, such as the inclusion of the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN, to replace the much maligned ALIS which is on the way out) in the Finnish notification, a system that isn’t found the Swiss one. “Weapons system software” is also found in both Finnish notifications but in neither Swiss one, something that might simply have to do with the inclusion of more complex weaponry. An interesting row is found on the personnel needed to support the F-35.

U.S. contractor representatives will be required in Finland to conduct Contractor Engineering Technical Services (CETS) and Autonomic Logistics and Global Support (ALGS) for after-aircraft delivery

As noted, everything that includes the word “Global” is something of a red flag to the Finnish security of supply requirements, but at the same time it is obvious that during normal peacetime operations it makes sense to leverage the significant savings that can be found in operating what is rapidly turning out to be the next joint European fighter. However, there is little in the notification to indicate what kinds of additional steps have been taken to ensure that Finland has the required level of control over the security of supply compared to other more traditional customers. This might or might not mean something, as noted many of the crucial items in the notification doesn’t provide much in the way of details.

EW

Everyone, myself included, is obviously counting weapons cleared for sale, but let’s start with the more obscure but no less important side of things. Electronic warfare.

It is important to note that we in essence are talking of three very different platforms, something that is visible in the notifications. The electronic warfare suite of the F-35A is highly integrated into the aircraft, and as such relatively few lines are dealing with it. There’s simply a mention of “Electronic warfare system”, as well as related systems such as C4I and the “F-35 unique infrared flares” (to the best of knowledge the aircraft does not carry chaff dispensers Edit: The F-35 is in the process of getting chaff. Thanks to JoJo for flagging it in the comments!) and access to the reprogramming centre. Compared to the long list of the Super Hornet that seems a bit cheap, but that is most likely simply because you can’t buy an F-35 without getting the whole package. As such, there’s no reason to mention particular details such as the ALE-70 towed decoy for the F-35, while in the case of the Super Hornet, the corresponding ALE-55 does get it’s own row.

The NGJ mock-up together with an AGM-88E AARGM anti-radiation missile (i.e. it locks onto a radar and flies into it) under the wing of the EA-18G Growler taking part in HX Challenge. The capabilities of the NGJ will be evaluated in the US, due to sensitive nature of the capability and the need for a large testing range. Source: Own picture

Another good pointer to the fact that Boeing isn’t in fact preparing a 72 aircraft bid is the fact that only 65 pieces of the AN/ALR-67(V)3 EW countermeasures receiving sets and the AN/ALQ-214 integrated countermeasures systems are included. The more cryptic “Advanced Electronic Attack Kit for EA-18G” is more along the lines of how the F-35 is described, with a single line referring to more or less the whole package.

With an important exception.

Eight (8) Next Generation Jammer Mid-Band (NGJ-MB) sets

I’ve discussed the NGJ-MB earlier, the long story short version is that it is an extremely powerful system able to go after enemy air defences, but also enemy communication networks. On the flip side, it costs an arm and a leg, but in many ways it is a key piece of the Growler’s wartime capabilities post-2030, and getting eight systems would provide Finland with one of the best airborne escort as well as stand-in jamming capabilities in Europe. Note the reference to “sets”, which would seem to indicate that there will be a total of sixteen pods delivered, with the aircraft having one under each wing. Currently the Growler flies with three AN/ALQ-99 pods in different configurations for different bands. The new NGJ-MB replaces the two underwing units, with the third centre-line mounted one being slated for replacement by the low-band NGJ-LB. If Finland opts for the Growler, the NGJ-LB can make its entry at some point further down the line (as can the eventual high-band pod which will come yet later). However, the utility against current threats is greatest for the NGJ-MB, especially if Finland continues on with a non-stealthy force meaning that the proliferation of new low-band radars aren’t as big a threat scenario as it is for the US forces. It is also notable that the greatest criticism leveraged against the NGJ-MB so far (decreasing the range of the Growler due to high drag when the pod is active and the doors to the ram air turbine are open) is less of an issue for Finland compared to the China-scenario which is the main driver behind current USN development.

Weapons

One thing we do know, however, is that Puranen didn’t exaggerate when he talked about the comprehensive weapons packages pushing the budget. The notifications include sizeable amounts of JDAMs, both thermally insensitive HE (i.e. the stuff shouldn’t explode if your ammunition storage is on fire) as well as bunker buster rounds, GBU-53/B SDB II’s small glide bombs, AGM-154C-1 JSOW stealthy glide weapons with a secondary anti-ship capability, AGM-158B JASSM-ER long-range heavy cruise missiles, AIM-9X Block II+ and Block II respectively, as well as JSM integration in the case of the F-35A and HARM/AARGM-rails in the case of the Super Hornet/Growler. Curiously absent are the JSM and anti-radiation missiles themselves, as well as any air-to-air missiles with a longer reach than the Sidewinder.

JTAC directing a Hornet dropping a JDAM on a target that already was under artillery fire as part of last year’s KAAKKO19 exercise

The air-to-ground package is interesting, as it continues as well as expands upon the air-to-ground capabilities currently operated by the Finnish Air Force. The JDAM is a weapon currently found in the Finnish inventory in the form of Mk 84-based GBU-31V1, the Mk 83-based GBU-32, the Mk 82-based GBU-38 and the BLU-109-penetrator based GBU-31V3 (commonly known as a ‘bunker buster’). The Mk 84 and BLU-109 is a 1,000 kg class weapon, with the Mk 83 and Mk 82 being 500 kg and 250 kg class weapons respectively. It is more of the same weapons that are requested this time around, with exception that the F-35A has skipped the GBU-32 and loaded up with more GBU-38s. The Super Hornet is cleared for 102 GBU-38, 51 GBU-32, 120 HE GBU-31, and 30 bunker-busting GBU-31, with the corresponding numbers being 150 GBU-38, 120 HE GBU-31, and 30 bunker-busting GBU-31 for the F-35. Are there situations where you want a 500 kg weapon instead of a 250 kg or a 1,000 kg one? Sure, if nothing else the 500 kg provides a bit of margin with regards to accuracy compared to a 250 kg one, in particular if you go after semi-hard targets. Is it enough of a difference to say that the Super Hornet has the edge here? I doubt it, the acquisition as a whole is complex enough that the 50 JDAMs most likely won’t provide a decisive edge. However, they might indicate that Boeing feel they have that small extra wiggle room when it comes to how their package is built, something that might also be seen in the next weapon. Or not.

The JSOW is also found in (limited) numbers in the Finnish arsenal. Originally envisioned largely as a back-up plan in case the JASSM sans-ER wasn’t cleared for export, it apparently has found enough of a use as to be requested this time around as well. The notifications include 100 JSOW for the F-35A, and 160 for the Super Hornet. The JSOW is unpowered (at least for the time being), and as such is highly reliant on release speed and altitude when it comes to range. Once released the weapon pops out a pair of wings on which it glides towards the target. The basic navigation is GPS-assisted inertial navigation, but the C-1 also has an IIR seeker for terminal guidance which has given the weapon better accuracy, and the ability to strike moving ships. The two-stage penetrating BROACH warhead can also be set to a one-stage mode which is more effective against soft targets, such as ships or unarmoured vehicles. The question of maritime strike for HX has been left somewhat open by the authorities, with the aircraft required to be able to support the Navy in the maritime domain, but not necessarily through kinetic means (e.g. systems such as the Growler or the GlobalEye could certainly be of great value when it comes to supporting the Navy in the electronic warfare domain and in building the situational picture). The JSOW could potentially provide a middle-ground, providing the Finnish Air Force with an important capability the primary use of which is in the land domain, but which also could be used against enemy vessels. The JSM is on the other hand a dedicated anti-ship missile with a secondary ground attack role. Thanks to it being powered it has a significantly longer range. However, the JSM might be included as an option for another role as well, as we saw in the Dassault marketing material that it seems destined to be the SEAD/DEAD weapon of choice for the French offer. Boeing and Lockheed Martin reading different levels of importance into the maritime strike mission can obviously be one explanation, but another is that LM feel they need a powered weapon of a lighter class than the JASSM to go SAM-hunting with, and there felt that they can kill two birds with one stone (or rather, both SAMs and ships with the same missile). In any case, the JSM, if acquired, would provide a seriously improved ship-killing capability, and with the JSM being stealthy and equipped with an IIR seeker (as opposed to the radar seeker of the Navy’s PTO 2020/Gabriel V), it would create the need for an enemy to be prepared to defend against two very different kinds of threats. I am unsure how Raytheon and Kongsberg have split up the market for the JSM (again, my time at Kongsberg was spent far away from the Defence & Aerospace-division, so I have no insider knowledge of the project), but it is possible that somewhere outside the US-package there is a separate offer for 60 JSM from Kongsberg for the F-35 package, which would explain the smaller number of JSOW.

The somewhat awkwardly named GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb increment II (it is in fact renamed to StormBreaker, but that one hasn’t stuck. At least not yet) would represent a completely new capability for the Finnish Air Force, in that it is a light glide bomb that can be used to take out individual vehicles, including moving ones. The fact that it is unpowered causes the range to be dependent on release height and speed, but on the positive side the small size means a large number can be carried, and it has a seeker with no less than three modes of operating. In the words of Raytheon:

• Millimeter wave radar — provides all-weather capability and the ability to quickly detect and track moving or stationary targets.
• IIR sensor — uncooled IIR sensor provides three categories of classification capability and aim point refinement.
• Semi-active laser sensor — tracks a laser spot from the launch platform or third-party designators.

This would give the HX the ability to go after tanks or artillery positions, including moving ones, but also to provide close air support by striking individual positions designated by ground troops or other platforms. And with the small size of the weapon allowing for large numbers to be carried on each station, the notification include up to 500 live weapons for either offer. The weapon follows on the highly successful original GBU-39 SDB, and is currently cleared for the F-15E Strike Eagle and since this year on the Super Hornet.

A Finnish F/A-18D Hornet loaded with two (training) AGM-158A JASSM during exercise TOUHU17. Note the decision to use a twin-seat aircraft for the long-range strike mission, something that together with earlier self-critique about having too few twin-seaters for operational conversion led many (myself included) to speculate that a larger number of F/A-18F might be included in the offer, something the notification now proved wrong. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

The big stick, however, remains the JASSM. Finland currently operate a limited number of the original AGM-158A JASSM. This has to the best of my knowledge been completely replaced on the production line by the longer-legged (but otherwise sharing a high-degree of commonality) AGM-158B JASSM-ER, 200 of which are now being offered to Finland. This is in turn set to be overtaken by the even longer-ranged AGM-158D JASSM-XR in the next few years (the missing AGM-158C being the LRASM anti-ship version). I would not read too much into the fact that Finland is about to switch from JASSM to JASSM-ER if we end up buying a US fighter. More range is nice, but it is likely also the cheaper (or even the only) option compared to the rest of the family as the ER-production line is currently hot.

Notable is that the JASSM in Finnish service is a weapon described as having a deterrence role, a somewhat controversial notion, but one that apparently has some support in Russian doctrine. However, the low number of weapons has always been the main Achilles heel when it comes to the doctrine of heavy conventional precision-guided munitions being able to function as a deterrent. 200 JASSM-ER backed up by 100-160 JSOW are certainly numbers that are starting to be felt. Especially if the current JASSM stocks are refurbished.

This brings us on to another point. There’s some rumours going on in Finnish defence forums that the ability to employ weapons from current Finnish stocks won’t be factored into the eventual deciding wargame. While I don’t have any insight into the finer details of the wargame, I have not been able to find any support for that idea in the official communication, nor is it in line with what has been communicated earlier. The Finnish Defence Forces is (in)famous for not throwing things away that can be put to use, and Puranen has confirmed to Lännen Media that the possibility of keeping the current JASSM for use on the eventual HX-winner is being studied. While there is no requirement for the winner to be able to employ the Hornet-arsenal, considering that the stated goal of the wargame is to evaluate how well the total package offered would perform as part of the FDF and the Finnish defence concept, removing a potential benefit of one package (such as the ability to keep using the current stocks of AGM-158A JASSM or AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM after overhauling these) in the name of “fairness” does run contrary to both that aim and the nature of war, which famously isn’t fair.

To use a hypothetical example to make things really clear: the Finnish Air Force says they need 200 precision-guided free-fall bombs of a 250 kg class. Eurofighter brings 200 Paveway IV in their offer, but Boeing and Lockheed Martin knows that the Finnish Air Force already has 50 GBU-38 in their current stocks, so they offer 150 new GBU-38 and an engineer that comes over with a toolbox and some spares to ensure that the old stock is good to go for another decade or two. As the whole competition is based on the design to cost method, this allows for the inclusion of more stuff elsewhere in the package. What package would then be evaluated in the wargame? A US fighter with only three quarters of the number of light bombs compared to the competition? A hypothetical package that include 200 new-built bombs but skips on the extra? So far everything we’ve seen and heard from the Finnish LOGCOM indicate that they aren’t interested in playing games, but that they want to evaluate what is on offer. If that include continued life for some current equipment, then I am quite sure that that is what is evaluated.

In any case, there will be medium-ranged air-to-air missiles operational on any aircraft that ends up winning HX, and the options on the table for the American ones include either a separate notification and order before IOC (order in 2025 and delivery 2026/2027 would probably be the approximate timeline) or the continued use of the current AMRAAM stocks. The shelf-life left for these naturally vary highly depending on whether the weapons have been stored or flown, but with the DSCA notification for 300 missiles coming in 2008 and deliveries probably stretching out over at least a few years after that, the newest missiles are likely fit to serve into the early 2030’s if maintained and overhauled. The C-7 version of the AMRAAM is also still rather close to the state of the art when it comes to medium-ranged missiles, and is regularly carried by not only US fighters, but by the Eurofighter and Gripen as well to complement the long-range Meteor. The Meteor is unlikely to enter service on a US fighter, but that doesn’t mean that the US fighters are set to remain looking on while the Europeans (and crucially, the Chinese) have all the fun at longer ranges. When asked about the situation at HX Challenge, Boeing representatives noted that “There’s an opportunity for an advanced air-to-air missile within our offer to address that need”. Exactly what it is wasn’t said, and apparently it won’t be part of the original package. However, both the newest AIM-120D AMRAAM and the upcoming AIM-260 JATM, and possibly other parts of the more opaque LREW-program, are all possible candidates to enter the field at a later date.

One of the visitng F-35As that took part in HX Challenge airborne together with a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

For the anti-radiation missiles, my personal guess is that they would be acquired as a separate package in the early 2030’s if Boeing wins. The capability is completely new to the Finnish Air Force, and with the Growler-unit busy learning the tricks of the trade I could imagine a timeline where the first few years are spent dealing with the non-kinetic methods, with the DEAD-part of SEAD/DEAD being introduced after the HX has reached FOC by 2030.

Conclusions

The notifications were largely on par with what was expected, though I will say that if the requested numbers found in the weapons packages are close to what eventually will be acquired their sheer number came as a surprise to me (and certainly explains the comment Puranen made about the difference in cost between the early calculations and the eventual budget). Even “comprehensive packages” comes in different scales, let’s just put it at that.

The large number of SDB IIs and JSOWs requested were also a bit of a surprise, and shows the expanding mission set of the Finnish Air Force is set to continue. Personally I am still a bit sad, though not necessarily surprised, about the fact that even under the current budget it was possible to squeeze in a small number of the Quickstrike naval mine/JDAM ER combination, but these are obviously possible to acquire later as well.

Some have noticed the large number of aircraft and notification price tags going over (10.6 billion EUR for the F-35 and 12.4 billion EUR for the SH/Growler), and question whether the HX budget will grow eventually (as was the case with the Squadron 2020 one). As said, the value given on DSCA notifications are usually not much to go by at the best of times, but here is a number of other issues at play as well.

Let’s begin by saying that I personally don’t believe there will be significant increases, though even an index-increase if the program is delayed with a year will be a lot of money when we’re talking about a 10 billion package. However, the crucial issue is that there is little room for increase when it comes to the eventual operating budgets, and so far there seems to be little indication that the Air Force will be allowed to increase it’s share of the annual budget, either through an increase in the defence budget or by shrinking the budgets of the Navy and/or Army.

The other issue is that this isn’t a question of the budget being a few hundred millions over 10 billion, but rather it should be remembered that a significant part of the 10 billion allocated will be spent outside the items found in the DSCA notifications. To begin with, around 700 MEur will be spent of other stuff (infrastructure, the work of the procurement agency, early training, etc.). In addition, the operations from first aircraft delivery until IOC/FOC will in part be covered by the 10 billion as the Hornets continue to fund their operations out of the Air Force’s annual operating budget. There are also infrastructure changes and possibly other significant investments that will be made outside of the contract that is covered by the notification, including non-listed equipment and equipment from third countries. As such, if one were to take the number quoted in the notification at face value, and I repeat – one shouldn’t, the question wouldn’t be if the Air Force can sneak in a budget increase of a few hundred millions, but whether they can pull off an increase of the programme value that is spelled out in a ten-digit figure. I don’t believe they can, and don’t believe they are going to try. Following the release of the notifications, Puranen also noted that they feel confident they are able to deliver the required capabilities within the current budget.

It should, however, be acknowledged that there are some worrying signs that the budget really is tight, just having two spare engines for the F-35 and no HARM/AARGM for the Super Hornet/Growler comes to mind. Even if those two items can be sorted out, the question lingers if they are only the tip of the iceberg, and what more is hidden under the surface when it comes to missing or low quantities of crucial items?

On German Nukes and Tornadoes

Few fighter procurements go completely without a hitch these days, and the German Tornado-replacement program is no exception. Critics have decried it as the worst of all options, questioned the idea of a small Super Hornet/Growler-fleet, asked why the Eurofighter ECR doesn’t get any love, and whether nuclear strike really should be included at all in the German mission set.

In reality, things are usually more complex that they seem, and outrageously stupid decisions are rarer than a quick look in the tabloids would have you believe. So what’s the method to the German madness?

To begin with, it is first necessary to look at the capabilities about to be replaced. Germany is in fact looking at three different replacement projects, which include a number of different roles.

The first is Project Quadriga, which looks at replacing 38 Tranche 1 Eurofighters. These early Eurofighters lack several of the more modern systems of the later Tranche 2 and 3 versions, systems that crucially allow for the relatively easy upgrading of these. Due to this, most countries have opted against upgrading the Tranche 1’s (Spain being the exception). The logical solution, which has been reported to be in the work for quite some time, is a one-to-one replacement with new-built Eurofighters. These are to be of the top-notch standard currently offered, with E-Scan AESA radar and other niceties. While Germany officially calls them Tranche 3, the Eurofighter consortium refers to them as Tranche 4 to distinguish them from the earlier Tranche 3’s which are of a lesser configuration. The Project Quadriga jets are roughly corresponding to the standard offered to Finland, which also share the Tranche 4 designation.

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A German Tornado ECR with two AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles under the fuselage. Source: bomberpilot via Wikimedia Commons

More controversial is the Tornado replacement program, which is actually made up of two different parts. Besides the Tornado IDS fleet (more on this later), Germany operate the survivors of 35 Tornado ECR. These are specialised electronic warfare aircraft, flying the SEAD/DEAD (or more popularly the ‘Wild Weasel’) mission of taking out enemy air defences and radars. This is an extremely rare capability for any air force to have, besides Germany only Italy (also with a small Tornado ECR fleet), the US Navy, and Australia sport dedicated tactical SEAD jets, both of the latter doing so in the form of the EA-18G Growler (an Israeli dedicated SEAD-variant of the F-16D is rumoured to exist, but especially after the introduction of the F-16I I am unsure what to make of this claim). This is part of the issue – if Germany is to buy a stop-gap SEAD-jet, there is just a single alternative on the market today, namely the Growler. There are other multirole aircraft with the capability to carry out the mission to varying degrees, including jets sporting anti-radiation missiles and advanced EW-systems. However, the only true SEAD-platform able to do the escort jammer mission which Germany specifically spells out, is the Growler. The Eurofighter consortium last year rolled out the Eurofighter ECR concept, which I discussed on the blog earlier. To reiterate:

The Eurofighter ECR concept is tailored to meet the German requirements, and include signal-homing missiles in the form of the AGM-88E AARGM, new large podded jammers, two more ‘wet’ stations to allow the drop tanks to move out of the way for said jammers, and a new decoupled rear cockpit for the WSO. The ECR as such is not part of the offer to Finland, but “as with any technology developed by the Eurofighter consortium, the option of an ECR will be available to Finland as a future growth option.” The options also include picking just the parts of the concept deemed suitable for Finnish needs. This could e.g. translate into acquiring just the jammers without the new ‘wet’ stations and accepting the range and endurance limitations it causes.

However, the Eurofighter ECR is still a paper product, at a time when the Growler is already a mature and combat proven design.

The majority of the Tornado-fleet is made up by the IDS variant (interdictor/strike, designated GR.x in RAF service), with the German Luftwaffe and Marineflieger acquiring a total of over 300 aircraft, of which just under a third are still in service with the Luftwaffe. The Interdictor-designation refers to strikes deep behind enemy lines, aimed at affecting the battlefield by e.g. stopping enemy supplies from reaching the front lines. The Tornado IDS was one of the best dedicated platforms for the role during the later part of the Cold War, being known for the ability to slung a serious combat load at high speed and very low level to avoid enemy air defences. While still a potent airframe, the basic design is rapidly heading towards obsolescence, and the age of the aircraft are starting to show, already causing significant headaches to the maintenance personnel.

The Eurofighter has already replaced the Tornado in British service, and isn’t necessarily a bad choice. The aircraft can sling two heavy cruise missiles (in RAF service the Storm Shadow is used), as well as a sizeable load of precision-guided bombs and smaller missiles such as the Brimstone for precision targets and anti-vehicle use. On the horizon, the SPEAR light cruise missile is about to open up some new interesting options as well.

However, what isn’t found in the arsenal of the Eurofighter is the B61 free-fall tactical nuclear weapon. The German Tornado-fleet form part of NATO’s nuclear sharing agreement, under which Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey have US tactical nuclear weapons stored in their country for delivery by their Air Forces.

Now, to grasp why the German decision played out the way it did (or seemingly is about to do, more on this later), it is extremely important to understand a few things:

  1. The nuclear weapons aren’t exactly uncontroversial. The general population in most of the host countries are divided at best and directly hostile at worst to the sharing agreement. Germany is no exception,
  2. The idea that NATO is a nuclear alliance is generally seen as a key part in it’s strategy to deter other nuclear-armed states (i.e. Russia) from using nuclear weapons against the member states. The sharing agreement is an attempt to ensure that decoupling doesn’t happen (“Will the US trade New York for Paris?“, as De Gaulle famously questioned), to make sure that the NATO allies keeps retain their trust in US and the alliance (and doesn’t try to acquire their own weapons, as De Gaulle did),
  3. You don’t just sling along a tactical nuke on any aircraft, but the integration and certification is quite a complex process, and relies on the country owning the nukes being ready to share some of their most highly classified military secrets.
    © Dassault Aviation
    In the event of a major war, France would use it’s land- and carrier-based Rafales to launch a limited number of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles as a final warning that France has identified threats against its vital interests, in an attempt to make the enemy to back off before France feels it has to go all-out nuclear with air- and submarine-launched strikes. The Rafales would each carry a single ASMP-A cruise missile on the centre station, which in the picture is occupied by an ASM.39 Exocet. Source: © Dassault Aviation

If you only look at the destructive power of nuclear weapons, the multirole fighter you want today is the Dassault Rafale with the impressive ASMP-A nuclear cruise missile. The Rafale is designed from the outset to be able to perform the nuclear strike mission, being “entry first-capable” as the French puts it, and there’s little denying that the ASMP-A offers a significantly greater chance than the B61-12 of getting through and putting your bucket of sunshine on whatever it is you don’t want to exist anymore. And indeed there has been an argument for a German nuclear deterrent, either in the form of Franco-German sharing or as an independent arm developed with French aid. However, this overlooks the simple fact that the majority of Germans aren’t too keen on nuclear weapons to begin with, and while it would solve the potential military need of putting nukes on a target, it does not adress decoupling (as a matter of fact, it can be argued to make the risk of decoupling US from its European NATO-allies higher). For the time being, the militarily less-effective US B61 free-fall tactical nuclear weapon might on a strategic scale actually be a better option than a German (or Franco-German) bomb. Crucially, it is also most likely the only option that has any hope of getting through the German parliament.

This brings the key question to the Tornado replacement program of what aircraft to certify for the B61. The Eurofighter is, at least according to Airbus, technically able to start lobbing nukes. However, this would obviously require the US to play along. The argument has been put forward that the nuclear sharing is important enough to the US that they would have no choice but to agree to integrating the B61 on any platform Germany wishes. There is probably some truth to this, but on the other hand it is likely that integration on a non-European platform could both require more work (i.e. it would take longer) and not receive the priority integration on a new US platform would get (i.e. it would take longer). This makes the Eurofighter less than ideal for the nuclear delivery mission, an in addition the German Air Force would like to avoid a single type fleet due to the risk of a safety issue grounding the whole fleet.

Which brings us back to the quest for a US solution. Some have voiced concern whether Germany would be interested in a US platform at all, and while it is true that currently Germany has an impressively European fleet, the country has been a prolific user of US fast jets up until rather recently in the form of both the F-4F Phantom II (retired in 2013) and F-104G Starfighter before that (retired in 1987). In addition, much of the current arsenal of weapons, including the AIM-9L Sidewinder, AIM-120 AMRAAM, and GBU-series of laser/GPS-guided bombs are all US made. While a new US-built fighter would likely add to the list of in-service weapons, it is hard to argue this would be any kind of a serious issue to an air force the size of Germany’s (especially considering the obsolescence issues currently facing the continued operation of the Tornado with it’s Cold War-era technology).

Having kicked out the F-35 due to political considerations, there are three more fighters being built in the US today: the F-15 Eagle, F-16, and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. As noted, the F-16 has seen service in Europe in the nuclear strike role, but the light multirole aircraft isn’t really the obvious place to go looking for a Tornado replacement, and in any case Lockheed Martin haven’t been interested in offering it to countries that are potential F-35 buyers. Boeing manufacture both the F-15 Eagle and the F/A-18 family, and the ‘Mudhen’, as the F-15E Strike Eagle is affectionately known, does hold a number of benefits over the ‘Rhino’. Crucially, the F-15E is already certified for the B61, including the latest B61-12 version, something that none of the other aircraft discussed here (including the F-35) currently is. The integrated conventional weapons also matches the current German arsenal more closely, including the Taurus KEPD-350 heavy cruise missile that is integrated on the Korean F-15K variant. The aircraft is also already based in Europe, as the USAF operate F-15E units from UK bases, and as such German Strike Eagles would slot directly into current NATO tactics. However, while the latest F-15E(X) is a very potent strike aircraft, it does suffer from the lack of a SEAD/DEAD-variant.

2012.11.10_eb8c80ed959cebafbceab5ad_eab3b5eab5b0_rep.of_korea_air_force_28818381914529
The F-15K Slam Eagle of the South Korean Air Force is a good example of the modern Strike Eagle family. Able to carry a lot of ordnance and go far, as opposed to the Tornado it can also hold it’s own in an air-to-air fight. Source: Republic of Korea Armed Forces via Wikimedia Commons

The issue can obviously be solved in a number of ways. Roger Näbig over at Konflikte & Sicherheit argues for the F-15E(X) for nuclear strike with the Eurofighter ECR taking over in the SEAD-role. This would probably be the simplest solution when it comes to getting the nuclear strike role sorted, but it is highly doubtful if the Eurofighter ECR would be ready by 2025, even if the German order was placed today.

And that is another piece in the puzzle that doesn’t get the attention it would need – the order isn’t exactly placed yet. While everyone seems to agree that the Tornado replacement really needs to happen (especially since it has already been delayed a number of times), the junior coalition partner SPD is decidedly unhappy with how the MoD has handled the issue, including bringing up a number of talking points:

  • The importance of the Eurofighter for German work,
  • Whether the nuclear sharing should continue at all,
  • The decision making process itself,
  • Why isn’t the F-35 under consideration, as it is used by the Netherlands for nuclear strike?

It is obviously not the same people asking the last two questions, but it shows how deeply torn the party on the issue. A real can of worms is what would happen if Germany would retire from the nuclear sharing altogether, as the former frontline state abandoning the politically tiring duty of hosting nukes would most likely not sit well with the current frontline states, several of whom already have varying degrees of trust issues when it comes to how strong Germany’s commitment to solidarity in case of an attack on Poland or the Baltic countries really is. Something of a nightmare scenario would be a German withdrawal followed by Poland (another F-35 buyer) requesting nuclear weapons on their soil instead, which would have all kinds of “interesting” political and deterrence effects. And if we see Trump reelected this autumn, I don’t hold it completely beyond the realms of possibility that some kind of bilateral US-Polish agreement could be worked out, with or without (likely the later) the approval of the other NATO countries.

The whole Tornado replacement deal obviously leaves ample room for political manoeuvring in Germany, especially considering the rather messy state that German domestic politics currently find itself in. As such, while there is a clear official line – Gareth Jennings had the very nice graphic capturing it all – it is far from certain that the deal will get through parliament any time soon.

In principle, the idea isn’t bad. A joint Eurofighter- (55 aircraft) and Super Hornet-fleet (30 aircraft) with the Super Hornets being dual-roled conventional and nuclear strike and the Eurofighters focusing on replacing the Tornado’s interdiction and reconnaissance capabilities, and 15 EA-18G Growlers in the escort jammer/SEAD role under the luWES program does solve the most pressing military and political issues. A key thing here is that, in the same way as with the current Tornado IDS/ECR-fleet, the EA-18G Growler and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet share a very high degree of commonality, meaning that the 45 Boeing fighters could all be served by the same ground equipment and maintenance organisation. While some have questioned the ability of the German Air Force to get a meaningful contribution out of 15 EA-18G Growlers, that’s two to three times the number of Growlers serving aboard any US Navy carrier at any given time. Especially considering the aforementioned synergies and economics of scale with the regular Super Hornets, I don’t see this as an issue. Both the Super Hornet and the Eurofighter are also fully multirole, although their designs are optimised somewhat differently, meaning that with the exception of the nuclear strike and EW-missions, they could stand in for each other if the need arises. A combined 45 aircraft fleet is also the size of a number of smaller air forces, so it is hard to see that as an argument against the split buy.

What does this mean for HX then? With the caveat that this is based on actually getting an inked German order before the HX decision is made, it would be a small additional credit for the two aircraft. For Eurofighter it further assures continued investment in the aircraft for the next few decades (though in this case it doesn’t help with the post-2050 part of the timeline), and as the German fleet likely will likely mean that the Taurus KEPD-350 is finally fully integrated and potentially some other new capabilities might be unlocked as well, it might be possible to squeeze some of these into the best and final offer at a cheaper price than what would otherwise have been the case. For the Super Hornet the difference is more marked, as the addition of another operator in the Baltic Sea region with deliveries under the same time frame open up possibilities for joint training and test and evaluation opportunities. While this is marketed as a stop-gap solution, Germany has had a tendency of keeping their fast jets in service for quite a while, and there is obviously a risk (or opportunity, if you are looking at this from Boeing’s angle) that the Super Hornet-era might stretch on quite a bit longer than currently envisioned (which likely was part of why France saw the F-35 as such a threat to the FCAS). However, over all the effects are largely marginal for the Finnish competition, and perhaps the most important is the hard-to-measure but still present factor of the idea that an aircraft has momentum on the market.

HX Challenge pt. 5: Bigger, Better, Stronger

“I prefer to have two engines over just one.” Yes dear readers, even in the 21st century, the single- versus twin-engined debate isn’t dead. Sorry Pratt & Whitney, but once that one engine catches a flock of birds (or a 30 mm round) down in the weeds, having two is an advantage. How much of an advantage is an open question, and one for the HX-team to ponder upon. Let’s just note that while the Finnish Air Force hasn’t lost any Hornets to birdstrikes, it has lost a Hawk.

However, that wasn’t Boeing’s main selling point when they held their media event as part of HX Challenge this week. Instead, it was about a total package. The Super Hornet as the most versatile and reliable multirole fighter available, offering the greatest suitability to the Finnish concept of operations (read: dispersed operations), having a proven track record as a reliable partner when it comes to customer support and industrial offset, and with the EA-18G Growler bringing unique capabilities to the fight. In essence, Boeings pitch isn’t necessarily that the Super Hornet is miles in front of the competition in any particular field, but rather that the package as a whole will offer the flexibility and cost-to-benefit ratio needed to win the deal.

Family picture
Boeing brought all three aircraft on offer to HX Challenge, starting with the F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets closer to the camera, and the EA-18G Growler towards the rear. Source: Own picture

There is much to be said for that approach. The Finnish Air Force is very happy with the legacy Hornet (or ‘Classic’, as Boeing likes to call it), and the transition to Super Hornet makes sense in many ways. The carrier pedigree is still valuable in many ways besides the obvious short take-off and landing distances. The US Navy carrier air wing is in fact a good analogy for the Finnish Air Force. You find yourself in a taxing environment, having roughly fifty to sixty fighters and whatever spares and stocks you’ve brought with you. You might or might not be fighting alongside allied assets, so you need to be able to both go alone and have the interoperability to link up with friends. Hence the need for high rates of readiness, quick turnaround times, high sortie generation, as well as the ability to keep operating with a minimal amount of support equipment and a small logistical footprint.

“The most proven and affordable multirole platform out there”

That’s how Jennifer Tebo, Director of Development for both the Super Hornet and the Growler programs, opened her presentation. This was a sentiment echoed throughout the presentation, and Boeing was keen to point out that they don’t have to project operating costs or look at trends in cost-saving programs — they know what the aircraft cost to operate. “Particularly suite for Finland” was another phrase used. For a cost-conscious customer, this is something that will earn them a few points extra in the evaluation. Another thing is the cost-savings Boeing experiences during the phasing in of the aircraft. While the final checks of current infrastructure hasn’t been made yet, they are due for next week, Boeing estimate up to 60 % of current infrastructure, including both facilities, maintenance equipment, ground support, and dispersed bases, can be used with the Super Hornet (the remaining percentage also include equipment that can be either refurbished or replaced, depending on the Air Force’s view). Considering the large amount of support equipment needed due to the dispersed operations, this might easily turn into a significant saving. The Super Hornet can also continue to carry the weapons currently found in the Finnish arsenal, with some added tricks up it’s sleeve. The aircraft is fitted for tactical aerial refuelling, and it is easily to imagine a scenario during fluid dispersed operations where the fuel isn’t in the correct place relative to the fighters. At such a time, having a Super Hornet configured for tanker duty linking up somewhere can save valuable time. In peacetime, being able to practice air-to-air refuelling without a tanker having to fly in from RAF Mildenhall will also significantly ease training routines.

One thing that was touched upon in the weapons department was the fact that the Super Hornet is the only HX contender not slated for Meteor integration. “There’s an opportunity for an advanced air-to-air missile within our offer to adress that need,” was the line we were given. While obviously not confirmed by Boeing, initial deliveries sporting the AIM-120D AMRAAM and later buys of AIM-260 once that comes online is the most likely scenario here.

Finally, the transition time would be easier and faster. Captain Brian Becker, commodore of US Navy’s Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, noted that a six month transition period was enough to switch Hornet squadrons to Super Hornets. It should be pointed out that this is for the squadron as a whole, and includes not only teaching the pilots to fly the aircraft, but also transitioning the support personnel, changing out equipment, and getting everyone up to speed on the new aircraft to the level that it is a functioning unit able to perform operational missions. The sentiment was echoed by colonel Aki Heikkinen, commander of Satakunta Air Wing, who noted transitioning a pilot was largely a matter of hours rather than weeks if strictly talking about flying the aircraft safely (colonel Heikkinen also shot down the idea that some of the contenders would struggle with landing or taking off from road bases. “We’ve flown Draken from them”, he said, alluding to the Saab-built interceptor that the Hornet replaced in Finnish service). It should be remembered that the 10 Bn Euro budget isn’t available as such to the fighter manufacturer, but parts of it will also finance the reconstruction of air bases as well as part of the everyday operations of the aircraft during the first five years (as the Hornet operations are using the Air Forces’ normal budget until their retirement). As such, Boeing has a crucial advantage when it comes to saving money on these indirect costs, money that can be used to include one of the premier force multipliers of the fighter world in their bid.

Tebo
Jennifer Tebo, Director of Development for F/A-18 and EA-18G, ascertains that the Super Hornet production line is “alive and well” with an “active and healthy supply chain”. Source: Own picture

The EA-18G Growler is a serious asset to any operator. The Growler is in essence a combination of a SIGINT-platform gathering data from anything that is emitting, as well as a jamming platform blocking any system from emitting anything useful, be it communications or radars. While stealth platforms currently does a nice job of denying the enemy the ability to close the kill chain by making it hard to get a fire-control solution on the radar, the Growler has the ability to take it further by jamming the electronic spectrum from the VHF-band to the Ku-band, denying the enemy all parts of the chain (early warning, acquisition, and fire control radar bands). If need be, the Growler can also take out the transmitting radars by employing the latest AGM-88E AARGM-missile, or just feed the information to the nearest Super Hornet slinging a suitable weapon to form a classic hunter-killer team.

All this means that the Growler is a highly appreciated asset, and not just by the US Navy. In fact, the USAF is funding part of the Growler-force, that include five expeditionary squadrons. It is not unusual to find Growlers assisting some of the Air Forces’ stealthiest platforms with both situational awareness and jamming. The Growler is growing with the Super Hornet, with both aircraft introducing technologies that filter over to the other. But while the aircraft maintain 90% commonality with each other, it is the remaining 10% that makes the Growler really venomous. The wingtip ALQ-218 RF Receivers, perhaps the most obvious external recognising feature, are described as “extremely good” and tell the pilot not only what is out there, but also where it is. The crew can then decide what to do with that information, whether to engage with weapons, avoid, or jam.

Alain Garcia
Alain Garcia is Capture Team Lead for Finland and Switzerland, and like many of Boeing’s people involved in the Super Hornet program he has a background flying the aircraft. He also has a cool jacket, and really like the ALQ-218 RF Receiver System. Source: Own picture

A key part of the jamming system is the two large ALQ-249 Next Generation Jammers (NGJ) for the mid-band. These are amongst the most advanced US electronic warfare capabilities, and just the fact that they have been released for export to Finland even before the US Navy has accepted them into operational use tells something about the US-Finnish bilateral relation. Ernie Winston from Raytheon, the developer and manufacturer of the pods, was happy to confirm that the development program is moving forward according to plan, and that the first pre-production batches are expected to join the program this year, which also will see the first mission system flight testing. The first series production deliveries will take place in 2022.

What exactly makes the NGJ different from the current generation then? A lot, as it turns out. The big thing is that it is capable of hitting numerous targets simultaneously, thanks to AESA features and “extremely high power”. To counter modern radars, it is also able to switch modes very quickly. The pod is designed from the bottom up to be modular and easily upgradable. Winston describe the system as providing “transformative electronic attack capability”, while the more modest HX-programme manager colonel Keränen just noted that the Growler represents a capability currently not found in the Finnish Air Force

NGJ
The NGJ mock-up together with an AGM-88E AARGM anti-radiation missile (i.e. it locks onto a radar and flies into it) under the wing of the EA-18G Growler taking part in HX Challenge. The capabilities of the NGJ will be evaluated in the US, due to the sensitive nature of the capability and the need for a large testing range. Source: Own picture

The versatility of the Growler also means that they can be used in a number of different ways. The US Navy likes to use the superior intelligence gathering and presence of a backseater to allow the aircraft to stand back a bit from the fight (the high power of it’s  jammers ensure that it can perform stand-off as well as stand-in jamming), sharing it’s tactical picture with the rest of the flight and having the Growler’s WSO (backseater) play the role of a mission commander, directing the fight. ‘Quarterbacking it’, as Boeing put it with a good analogy that will be meaningless for a majority of Finns.

The RAAF on the other hand has a more hands-on approach, and isn’t afraid to use their Growlers up close and personal. This is aided by the fact that the Growler in essence has all the air-to-air capabilities of a F/A-18F Super Hornet (minus the wingtip AIM-9 Sidewinders), coupled with vastly superior jamming capabilities. While a Growler preferably shouldn’t get involved in the air-to-air fight, it certainly is capable of defending itself.

The Australian connection is interesting. While there are lot of difference between Finland and Australia, there are surprising similarities when looking at the air forces. Both were major operators of the ‘legacy’ Hornet (sorry Boeing, the designation has stuck already), and were the first two (and for a long time, only) export customers of the AGM-158 JASSM which gave their respective fleets a precision deep strike capability. Both also operate in the grey zone of being somewhat non-aligned but enjoying close bilateral relations with the US (though Australia has a significantly more expeditionary approach). This closeness of the respective US-relations is what makes deals such as the JASSM or Growler possible. And if Finland chooses the Super Hornet, there is something very interesting brewing down under.

Recently Boeing made headlines by flying three Growlers simultaneously, with one controlling the other remotely two (they were often referred to as ‘unmanned’ by the press, something that wasn’t strictly true as they had a back-up crew aboard to take control if something would have gone wrong). The news wasn’t that a Growler can be flown remotely, but rather that Boeing had successfully demonstrated that without modifying the cockpit hardware, it is possible to effectively command unmanned wingmen from a Growler or Super Hornet using currently available data links (Link 16 or ATDL). The software part is included on both the Growler and Super Hornet road maps, and is expected to be rolled out sometime during the latter half of the decade (i.e. when Finland is receiving its HX-fighters). The question is then what would you control? Granted you can use the Growler (or a ‘legacy’ Hornet using Link 16, though that is suboptimal due to bandwidth and security concerns), but a smarter way is to use a purpose-built platform. Such as the Loyal Wingman.

FA-18E take-off
The larger wing make the take-off and landing distance shorter compared to the legacy Hornet, despite the higher take-off weight. Source: Own picture

The Loyal Wingman is currently being developed in Australia, something that has the added benefit of ensuring it stays ITAR-free. In other words, ensuring that it can be exported through direct commercial sales from Australia without the need to go through the sometimes tiresome US bureaucracy. To a certain extent, the current Loyal Wingman is a solution looking for a problem. It is highly modular, meaning that it can take up a number of payloads. While the system in its first configuration is likely to play the role of ISR platform and/or forward active sensor, it can be armed as well. And importantly, it is built from the ground up to be cheap enough that it is attritable. With a first flight slated for later this year, this isn’t a hypothetical MLU-capability, but rather something that very well might be operational by the time Finland declare FOC for the HX-fleet. Having an unmanned (the plan is for the Loyal Wingman to have the ability to operate independently using AI or to be remotely controlled) ISR-platform with a huge range, 3,700+ km has been mentioned, would be a very interesting option. However, when it comes to HX specifically, Boeing might have outwitted themselves, as the Australian Loyal Wingman can’t be included in the US Foreign Military Sales-package that is being offered for HX. With the relatively low price tag, it is instead found in the “Future capabilities”-column with a detailed description, and treated as a possible arms sale for the time post 2030.

But the Loyal Wingman is just one piece of the puzzle making the Super Hornet-family “networked and survivable”, to use Boeing’s phrasing. The key here is the Advanced Tactical Datalink, or ATDL, that allows for vastly increased amounts of data being sent between the aircrafts (and other friendlies, including ground and ship units). To be able to cope with this increased amount data received, as well as the increased amount of data from the Block III’s own sensors (including the ATFLIR targeting pod and the long-range IRST pod), the aircraft has received the increased processing power of the DTP-N (a “big computer”, as it was described). This in turn makes the creation of a common tactical picture (CTP) possible, which is presented to the pilot on the new wide-angled display that is the most visible part of the Advanced Cockpit System, vastly increasing the situational awareness of the pilots. In essence, what Boeing does is linking together the aircraft to get a clear situational picture even in complex high-treat environments. The new cockpit coupled with the CTP also lower the pilot workload, providing a “huge step up” when it comes to how the information is presented to the crew, and helps avoid overloading the pilot with data.

The rhino in the room is the as yet undefined date when the US Navy will withdraw the Super Hornet from service. Despite the recent news of the death of the Super Hornet being seriously overblown, the fact is that when captain Becker describes the future of the Super Hornet in the Navy, the timeline is two decades plus in US service.

“Regardless of other platforms coming out, F/A-18 will be the cornerstone for many years to come”

That all sounds nice and plausible, probably even slightly conservative considering there are no plans for the F-35C to replace large number of Super Hornets and that the NGAD is still just in the study stage of the program, but the gap from 2040+ to 2060+ is still significant. And the day the US Navy pulls the plug on the Super Hornet the continued development of the aircraft can quickly become prohibitively expensive for Finland. As said, a sunset before the late 2040’s is unlikely, especially given the 500+ aircraft upgrade program that will continue to push out refurbished Block III’s past 2030 and the unique nature of the Growler. However, the last ten years of the HX winner’s service life are uncertain, there is simply no way around it.

This is Boeing’s main weakness in the current offer, and to be fair one they share with much of the rest of the competition (especially Rafale and Gripen, Eurofighter to a somewhat lesser extent). France at least has officially stated that the Rafale will fly in French service into the 2070’s, but on the other hand the value of such promises might not be particularly high if FCAS suddenly encounter cost overruns that need to be covered (on the other hand, if FCAS encounter delays to the in-service date, the Rafale might suddenly have to soldier on longer). Gripen is even more vulnerable than the Rafale and Super Hornet, considering the smaller fleet and that the Swedish Air Force as opposed to AdA or USN is unlikely to run a multi-type fleet for any considerable time. Will Boeing be able to convince the Finnish Air Force that it is a risk worth taking? That is perhaps the biggest hurdle facing the Boeing sales team, and we won’t know the answer for a year. A German decision during 2020 on getting the Super Hornet as a Tornado replacement could easily be a deciding factor, but considering the decision was to have been made before the end of 2018, this could easily slip beyond the HX decision date of Q1 2021. Another key piece missing is the US Navy’s Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment that was expected in January, but has since been postponed. The current one dates to 2016 and is the basis for the (in)famous 355-ship force. The new INFAS could easily change the future of the Super Hornet fleet in one direction or the other.

Hangar door
The F/A-18E Super Hornet being admired by the assembled media. Note the left wing armament, which if mirrored on the right wing would give the aircraft seven AIM-120 AMRAAM and two AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles. On the centerline the podded IRST is visible. Note the badges on the hangar, celebrating the history of now disbanded fighter squadron HävLLv 21 and 44,500+ flight hours of the Hornet, the latter nicely summing up why the Super Hornet is one of the front runners in HX. Source: Own picture

One area were Boeing on the other hand has an edge is in their industrial cooperation program. The company has already once successfully performed a 3.5 Bn USD offset program in Finland. Though it might not have been quite as happy an affair as Boeing lyrically described it, there’s little doubt that the close cooperation with a number of Finnish companies, including key partners such as Patria and Insta Group, enabled the domestic handling of the Hornet MLU-programs. As such, there’s little doubt that Boeing’s presence on the ground in Finland give the company a serious edge when it comes to the creation of a trustworthy and executable industrial participation program of the same size as what they did last time around. Like most of the competition, Boeing declines to go into details at the moment. However, one interesting detail is that while Saab has already offered a final assembly line of the F414 engine to Finland, Geoff Hanson representing GE Aviation at the Boeing media event would not speculate in whether the F414 line (yes, the Super Hornet and Gripen share engine) would come to Finland in case of a Super Hornet order.

“It’s a bit early to commit to that”

Crucially, Geoff noted that the question of what exactly “final assembly” means is unanswered. There are certainly some assembly steps that relatively easily could be transferred, and which would provide know-how that is useful from a maintenance point of view. On the other hand, major assembly steps requiring check-out and factory acceptance tests is an undertaking of a different scale.

Maria Laine, Vice President International Strategic Partnerships, first entered Boeing during the original Hornet industrial cooperation program. As such, it is no surprise that she emphasised the ability to leverage the existing partnerships stemming from the old program. Finland and Boeing represents a “true, genuine partnership”.

“We understand Finland”

There’s a few other who claim to do so. Boeing might have a better basis for the claim than most, but if that is enough to ensure that Super Hornet will be the aircraft protecting Finnish skies in 2060 remains to be seen. One of the open questions surrounding the US aircraft have been that of mission data. Finland’s requirement is simple: we need to be able to operate the aircraft even if the supply lines are cut. This include both the physical lines of communication, but also data cables. Alain Garcia of Boeing doesn’t shy away from the topic when I bring it up. It is a challenge, he acknowledges, as US government requirements include a requirement for new signals to be processed at a US facility before being inserted into an updated version of the data set. The solution is to embed Finnish personnel at a suitable US facility. Once Finnish (or allied) assets would identify a new signature the data would be supplied to these Finns who would process it, before it would be sent back to Finland. The whole process would result in a turnaround time of less than 24 hours from collecting the raw data until having the updated mission data in the aircraft. As I mention the requirement for cut data cables that colonel Keränen had described at the beginning of the media day, Garcia nods.

“We have methods to get them back into country”

Boeing kindly paid for my hotel stay in Tampere (a single night), all other costs (including travel) being covered by myself. Neither Boeing nor any of their partners have seen, nor requested to see, this text or the illustrations used before posting.

Keep on Rockin’

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

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A Finnish block III F/A-18E Super Hornet (closer) and an EA-18G Growler flying over a decidedly northern Finnish landscape in this render. Picture courtesy of Boeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HX Shifting Gears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can trust the Super Hornet

Juhani Kaskeala, senior advisor at Blic

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

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

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

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

Enough power.

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

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

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

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

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

Finnish Hornets at Red Flag Alaska 19-1

Yesterday I had the opportunity to comment upon the Finnish participation in Red Flag Alaska for Finnish TV-show YLE A-studio, and while I feel I got to bring up the most important points there I realise that it is in Finnish and that a few of the points warrant further inspection. As far as I see it, there are four main point regarding why the Finnish Air Force decided to scrap what is usually the annual main exercise and instead fly over with half a dozen F/A-18C Hornets to Alaska.

The need to train hard

As with a sports team, if you only face the same opposition time after time, at some point you stop progressing. You need to shake things up, get new ideas into your training and meet new competition (and preferably competition that is better than you) to continue developing. Red Flag is hands-down the best full-scale air exercise in the world, and getting to meet the trained aggressor units of the USAF on an instrumented range is extremely valuable. Especially when it comes to the air-to-ground role which is new to the Finnish Air Force, getting to practice with experienced ground-pounders is of immense value.

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Your run-of-the-mill US F-16 with a serious amount of mission markings. Source: Joni Malkamäki / Ilmavoimat

Northern Flag

The declaration of intent of raising the level of the Arctic Challenge Exercise-series to ‘Flag’-status, preliminarily named Northern Flag, would provide a boost in training capacity at home. As such, studying how the Red Flag exercises are led and handled provide valuable experience for the Finnish Air Force’s exercise leaders and planners.

International Cooperation

On the whole participating in international exercises strengthens Finnish ties to the west, is part of strategic signalling in peacetime and (hopefully) assists in setting up working inter-coalition ways of operating for wartime. Here Red Flag is just the latest in a long line of exercises taking place at home, in Europe, and now overseas as well.

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A Finnish F/A-18C Hornet taking-off towards Alaskan skies. Source: Jouni Malkamäki / Ilmavoimat

HX

The timing of the first Finnish participation in Red Flag coincides nicely with the Finnish fighter procurement programme. Yes, planning for participating in Red Flag has been going on for years, but it’s not like HX suddenly appeared out of thin air either. While the main reasons behind Finland’s Red Flag-participation are likely found above, the insight into how modern air war looks in practice will without doubt be used as a data point when setting up the missions used in the evaluation of the HX contenders. A special point of interest is the participation of US Navy EA-18G Growlers. Getting to see first-hand how they integrate into a modern high-end scenario is extremely valuable, as they differ quite significantly from the rest of the HX-contenders in their role, making them harder to evaluate.

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A USN EA-18G Growler taxiing past the tower at Eielson AFB. Source: Jouni Malkamäki / Ilmavoimat

The odd bird – EA-18G Growler

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

Flying the front-seat is the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every aircraft require a Growler going into an advanced threat.

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

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

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

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

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

On Rhinos and Growlers

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

CAG bird.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

We want to continue that relationship [with Finnish partners]

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

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

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

The New Bug in Town – Versions for Finland

One issue that has been open to much speculation is exactly which version(s) of the Super Hornet will be offered to Finland. The answer was simple, with Bryan Crutchfield explaining that it was up to the customer, and: “As a mainly single-seat air force, I would expect Finland to primarily be interested in F/A-18E.” This lead to the natural follow-up question, why the equally mainly single-seat Royal Danish Air Force was offered only the two-seat F/A-18F, a decision which proved to be something of a decisive issue in the Kampfly-program. “Because they only asked for the two-seater,” Bryan explained. On the question of why, he had no direct answer, but this is yet another strange data point in the already rather murky Danish affair.

CAG bird
The CAG-bird of VFA-103 ‘Jolly Rogers’. The squadron operates two-seat F/A-18F, with a focus on different kinds of ground attack missions where a second crew member comes in handy. For Finland, a small number of F/A-18F would likely be acquired for advanced training, with a secondary fighter/strike tasking. Source: Own picture

More interesting then was that Boeing seemed to assume that Finland would be interested in a number of Growlers as well. In the case of the US Navy, roughly 20% of the Super Hornets bought are of the electronic warfare version, meaning that a potential Finnish mix of Super Hornets could be something along the lines of 40 F/A-18E single-seaters, 12 F/A-18F two-seaters, and 12 EA-18G Growlers, for a combined fleet of 64 fighters. When asked about if the ‘full-spec’ Growler is likely to be released for sale to Finland, Crutchfield was careful not to make any promises, noting that any sale would be a government-to-government deal. However, he went on to say that Finland appears to be a “very trusted” partner in Washington, and pointed to JASSM-deal as an indication that if Finland wants the Growler, there likely wouldn’t be any issues.

The Growler in many ways is an unrivalled platform in the electronic warfare role, being able to not only jam and destroy enemy radars and air-defence systems, but also having a significant capability when it comes to intercepting and jamming enemy communications and signals. The latter has made it a valuable resource in the operations against ISIS, and it is safe to assume that if Finland would acquire a handful of dedicated EW-platforms, it would make us a sought after coalition partner in the kind of low-intensity conflicts we have participated in in Afghanistan and Iraq. The question then is largely about the price of acquiring and operating the Growlers, as well as what kind of a loss having only 40 instead of 52 F/A-18E’s would be in the eyes of the Air Force Command. While the size reduction in ‘true’ fighters is significant, the role of the Growlers as force multipliers might provide a huge enough boost for both the Air Force and, crucially, to the ground forces to warrant this. As said, this is not solely a question of providing SEAD, but also of the Growlers being able to increase the fog of war for the enemy at crucial moments.

“Envelop the enemy in the fog of war, sow confusion while providing time and space for one’s own forces. Jam the adversaries’ radars. Disrupt his communications. Induce indecision; make the enemy question his own equipment and make mistakes.”The mission of the Growler as described by the Growler Industry Team

But even without the Growler, the baseline F/A-18E/F is a highly versatile multirole aircraft. “The most capable combat-proven multi-role aircraft”, as Boeing likes to put it (a statement that will upset the French). In addition to ‘normal’ air-to-air and air-to-ground work, the aircraft is able to handle both the maritime strike (Boeing did feature a scale model of a Harpoon anti-ship missile in their stand) as well as SEAD, two missions discussed at length in the Finnish report at the launch of the HX-project. What makes the SEAD-mission possible is the Integrated Defensive Electronic Countermeasures (IDECM)-package, currently in its Block IV state, coupled with the ‘leakage’ of technology developed for the Growler back into the fighter version of the aircraft.

“Physics matter,” Crutchfield sums up the sensor package, and point towards the large nose of the F/A-18E parked behind us during the interview. The nose hoses the AN/APG-79 AESA radar built by Raytheon, and Crutchfield isn’t shy when talking about the capabilities of the radar, stating that it is ‘generations’ in front of the competition, with rolling upgrades being introduced every two years. It should be remembered that the AN/APG-79 did experience some rather significant teething troubles when first introduced into service, though things seems to have gotten better since. One of the key features of the AESA is that it allows the pilot of the F/A-18F to stay fully focused on the air-to-air picture, while the weapon system operator (WSO) in the aft seat works on the air-to-ground view, with both having access to the radar modes they want.

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Deployment
A colorful EA-18G Growler of Electronic Attack Squadron 130 (VAQ-130) “Zappers” onboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) in the Arabian Sea. The squadron operated in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the operations against ISIS. Note the large jammer on the centreline station, the carriage of which is one of the distinguishing features of the Growler compared to the baseline F/A-18F. Source: USN / Seaman Dartez C. Williams via Wikimedia Commons

Like the ‘legacy’ Hornet before it, the Super Hornet is qualified for a large number of weapons, including the most recent versions of the venerable AIM-9 Sidewinder, the AGM-88 HARM, and the AIM-120 AMRAAM (these being the AIM-9X, AGM-88E AARGM, and the AIM-120D respectively). On the horizon the SDB-II and the LRASM looms, while more exotic munitions include the Quickstrike-series of air-dropped mines. Which of these would be of interest to the Finnish Air Force is uncertain, but a continued reliance on ever more advanced versions of the AIM-9/-120 combination would be a natural choice for the immediate future. The big deficit is the lack of the very-long range Meteor ramjet-powered missile, which all other HX-contenders are set to have received prior to HX’s IOC date. The US Navy seems content with traditional rocket-powered air-to-air weapons at the moment, and while Finland naturally could pay for Meteor integration on its own, that would still make be a considerable sum. Going for the Super Hornet could then mean having to get closer to the enemy before firing, as there is a significant difference in the size of the no-escape zones of the throttleable ramjet motor compared to traditional rockets.

The New Bug in Town – Back in the Game

When first starting to cover the HX-program, I held the JAS 39E Gripen and F-35A Lightning II as the favourites, with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as the potential black horse. Since that, I have questioned the chances of the ‘Super Bug’, mainly based on two different issues.

The first has been the lack of a major road map or upgrade. The first Advanced Super Hornet-concept was displayed already in 2013 with a company-funded prototype. This was then gradually replaced by less ambitious proposals and talk about integrating only some of the features demonstrated by the Advanced Super Hornet. The US Navy, however, didn’t seem too interested in either the 2013 or the 2016 version of the concepts.

The other has been the seemingly low priority given to the Finnish program by Boeing. Compared to the Danish Kampfly-program where Boeing launched a serious marketing effort (and eventually took the whole thing to court), Boeing has been remarkably absent from the public spotlight in Finland.

Both of these changed last week, with the US Navy ordering the Block III-upgrade to the fleet’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers, and Boeing making a high-profile appearance at two Finnish air shows in Helsinki on Friday and Seinäjoki on Saturday and Sunday. Not only did Boeing manage to bring two Super Hornets to Finland, but I also got the opportunity to have a chat with senior manager Bryan Crutchfield to get a better picture of the company’s effort to keep their position as Finland’s supplier of fighter aircraft.

The two fighters brought to Finland were a F/A-18F two-seater and a F/A-18E single-seater. While the single-seater was from the distinguished US Navy squadron VFA-143 Pukin’ Dogs of Vietnam MiG-killer fame, it was the two-seater that really got the heads turning. This was nothing less than the brightly-painted CAG-bird of VFA-103 Jolly Rogers, perhaps the most famous naval fighter aircraft in the world. Getting the opportunity to see both the F/A-18E and the F/A-18F in low-level formation was something many Finnish aviation enthusiasts were happy to experience.

Super Bug Formation
Two Super Hornets in formation over the Gulf of Finland. A rare sight, at least for now. Source: Own picture

Back on the ground, the F/A-18E spent Saturday as a Boeing demonstrator with temporary markings and mock-up conformal fuel tanks, before reverting back to a Block II F/A-18E for Sunday, and continuing on to Pirkkala AFB (Tampere) where they spent the early part of the week offering the Air Force an opportunity to study the aircraft closer. Pirkkala is home to Satakunta Air Command, responsible for the development of tactics and air doctrines as well as handling flight testing and playing a “pivotal role in the development and fielding of new systems”. This is something of a marketing victory for Boeing, as they are the first to offer the Air Force this kind of a chance to get to explore the aircraft on their home turf and according to their own wishes, guided by the company’s own test pilots.

While the Block III might be toned down when it comes to RCS reduction compared to the original Advanced Super Hornet, this is a calculated decision by Boeing. “The Super Hornet Block I reached initial operational capability back in 2001, when stealth was the hot stuff”, Bryan Crutchfield explains. “This means that the aircraft is designed with stealth features, but so are all the other contenders, so that’s nothing special.” Instead, Boeing likes to focus their energy on other measures, such as jamming. According to their view, jamming provides a flexibility that stealth does not, i.e. you are not restricted to a certain waveband, while at the same time avoiding compromises when it comes to aerodynamics and space restrictions. This means that while stealth might hold significant benefits today, the question whether it will in 2050 is far more uncertain given the current development of sensors with the specific goal of countering X-band stealth.

The US Navy also seems to be happy with this dual-pronged approach, as there are currently no plans to let the F-35 replace the Super Hornet. Instead, the two will keep operating side-by-side into the foreseeable future, with the F-35C replacing the ‘legacy’ F/A-18A through D Hornets currently sharing the carrier decks with the Super Hornet. Exactly how long this will last is anyone’s guess, as the US Navy only forecasts around 25 years into the future (contrary to many other air arms), and there’s currently no retirement date set. Boeing, however, expects the Super Hornet to continue in US Navy service to around 2060, in line with (and then some) the plans for HX. In part this is based on a forecasted need for 100+ new Super Hornets being bought by the Navy within then next five years, with these being expected to serve their full lifespan.

What does Block III then hold? The biggest external change is the conformal fuel tanks, which provide added fuel capacity at a lower drag and RCS compared to traditional external fuel tanks, and without occupying hardpoints that could be used for weapons or other pods. However, as is usually the case with these kinds of upgrades, the main changes are on the inside. One major improvement is the increase in bandwidth when transmitting and receiving data to and from other aircraft. This has become an increasingly important issue, as more and more sensor data and imagery are being transmitted between not only fighters, but other friendly units and installations as well.

Block 3.JPG
The Pukin’ Dogs F/A-18E Super Hornet as a makeshift Block III demonstrator, sporting mock-up conformal fuel tanks. Source: Own picture

Another important upgrade is the fitting of an IRST. IR-sensors are nothing new to US Navy fighters, having featured them on a number of occasions throughout history. However, it is only now they really start to come into their own as mature sensor systems. Part of this is because the sensors themselves have matured, but a part also comes from sensor fusion making it easier for the pilot to take in data not coming from the aircraft’s primary sensor.

And speaking of taking in data, a huge improvement is the new large area display replacing the earlier smaller multi-function displays. The display not only means more surface area on which to show information to the pilot, but also makes a higher degree of customisation possible, based on either individual preferences or the type of mission currently being flown. It is as an example possible to now have both the air-to-air and air-to-ground pictures up on the screen at the same time, thanks to the AN/APG-79 AESA radar and the huge screen area available.

The customisation also makes changes to the human-machine interface quicker, a key focus as the increasing number of sensors and data received from other platforms puts ever increasing demands on the pilots to be able to process large amounts of information. Boeing described how they run simulator tests with a group of around sixty active pilots who came in and tested an upcoming update. After having gathered their feedback, Boeing sent them out for lunch, and the software engineers started to make quick changes which allowed for a second run of testing by the same pilots the very same afternoon. Adaptability is the name of Boeing’s game, and they are increasingly moving away from bigger occasional updates to regular smaller ones.