Saab stood for the biggest surprise so far in the HX-program, when it announced that the offer does not only include 52 single-seat 39E Gripen and 12 two-seat 39F Gripen, but two GlobalEye airborne early warning and control aircraft as well.
It’s hard to describe exactly how bizarre, and exactly how astute, the move is.
The background is obviously the way that the Finnish Air Force and MoD has written the Request for Quotations. To ensure a tough and fair competition, the quotation only sets the widest of boundaries to the delivered package (64 fighters, 7-10 billion Euros in one-time acquisition costs, annual costs to operate no bigger than current 64 aircraft strong Hornet-fleet), and then goes on to describe the concept of operations and the missions the fighters are expected to perform. This gives the companies free hands to tailor the packages offered when it comes to questions such as versions offered, sensors and weapon packages, and so forth. Apparently, it also leave open the possibility to squeeze in aircrafts other than the fighters as long as the budget allows for it. It is a daring approach from the authorities, but one that now pays off with these kinds of unconventional offers including force multipliers such as EA-18G Growlers in the Boeing package and now GlobalEyes in Saab’s.
The money game is indeed the interesting part. While Gripen is universally regarded as a cheap fighter (mind you, cheap isn’t the same thing as costing little money when it comes to fighters), it is still nothing short of shocking that Saab is able to squeeze in not only two brand new aircraft, but also the whole support structure needed to bring a new aircraft type into service and initiate training of both the flying crew and mission crew. The big question is indeed what it costs to phase in a completely new aircraft type in the Finnish Air Force? The two aircraft themselves will have a price tag measured in hundreds of millions of euros. Saab naturally isn’t sharing their calculations, but assure that this fits inside the HX-budget.
Which also include a “significant arms and sensors package” for the Gripens.
It deserve to be reiterated: it is bizarre that Saab can make a comparable offer with the same number of aircraft as the competition, and still have room for two modern AEW&C aircraft with everything they need.
But things get really strange, or rather, really elegant, once life-cycle costs are being discussed. The idea is namely not only that the GlobalEye will improve the combat effectiveness of the Gripen (and the other services, more on this below), but also that the aircraft will provide a cost-offloading effect on Air Force operations as a whole.
This cost-offloading effect, in other words, it has a positive long-term effect on the life-cycle cost from the operator’s point of view.
Fredrik Follin, GlobalEye Campaign Manager
As the GlobalEye can perform certain peacetime missions more cost effectively than fighters (and other systems it complements), Saab argues it will bring down the life-cycle cost for the Air Force as a whole by reducing the need for HX flight hours (and ensuring that they can be spent more efficiently). Is this actually possible? Considering that Saab has decided to present this possibility to the Air Force both in the preliminary RFI (presumably) and now in the RFQ, they seem rather confident. The Air Force has also likely already given some kind of tacit approval that they will take a serious look at the GlobalEye, as in case they had planned on dismissing the AEW&C out of hand this would likely have been communicated to Saab already and we would not see it in the tender at this relatively late stage.
A really interesting detail which got a somewhat ring to it following yesterday’s announcement is the blog post made by program manager major general (res.) and former Finnish Air Force commander Lauri Puranen earlier this week. Puranen discusses the cost of the project, and strongly reiterates that following the original buy, everything, and he puts further emphasis on everything, and he strongly cautions against trying to estimate any kind of acquisition costs based on publicly available figures.
It may not be credible if the flight hour costs for a modern multirole fighter are lower than those of a Hawk-trainer. In Finland, the cost of a flight hour covers everything from the salary of the Air Force Commander and the upkeep of air bases to maintenance tools and jet fuel.
He also points out that Finland won’t accept any costs at face value, but will calculate life-cycle costs based on a domestic template used, which has been proved to be correct for the current Hornet-fleet. Following Saab’s rather unconventional ideas, the question about how to calculate life-cycle costs suddenly gets renewed attention, and it isn’t difficult to see the text as an attempt at squashing the misconceptions about this topic.
What then does the GlobalEye do? In essence it is a Bombardier Global 6000, going for around 40 million USD for the normal business jet version, heavily modified and fitted with a number of sensors and operator stations in place of the normal lavish interior. The single most important sensor of these are the EriEye ER radar in the distinct ski box-installation that has become a trademark of the Swedish radar family.
The history of the EriEye deserves a short mention. Long having been involved in radar technology, Sweden, like most countries, lacked an airborne surveillance system in the 80’s. The few available where mostly large, often four-engined, aircraft with large rotating mushroom-style antennas. The only medium-sized modern aircraft was the E-2 Hawkeye, which had scored some success on the export market (and then ‘modern’ deals with an aircraft that first flew in the 1960’s). The Swedes decided that if they wanted a light airborne AEW platform, they would have to do it themselves, and the first prototype was installed aboard a surplus Metroliner they had used as a transport. This was followed by a number of orders for ever more complex installation, with both Saab 340 and 2000, and later the Embraer EMB-145 acting as platforms depending on the customer was. Of these, the Swedish Air Force operate the Saab 340-based Argus. Notably, Pakistan reportedly used their Saab 2000 EriEye to great effect during the recent clashes that lead to the downing of an Indian MiG-21. The ASC 890 Argus is no stranger to the Finnish Air Force, as it has been used both with and against Finnish Hornets in several bilateral exercises during recent years.
However, over time the EriEye has evolved. Having originally been little more than an a flying air surveillance radar, the GlobalEye is a true ‘joint’-capability, or as Saab likes to describe it: a ‘swing-role surveillance system’. This means that the aircraft is able to keep an eye not only on the air domain, but can perform sea and ground surveillance as well. Here the ErieEye ER is backed up by two secondary sensors, the ventrally-mounted Leonardo Selex ES SeaSpray 7500E AESA maritime surveillance radar with a full 360° field of vision, and the electro-optical sensor in front of it. However, the S-band EriEye ER has some new tricks up it’s sleeve as well, and when asking if it can perform JSTARS-style ground surveillance, I got the answer that the aircraft feature the:
Erieye ER with specific features for ground surveillance.
Make of that what you will, but it seems clear that the aircraft is able to simultaneously create and maintain both air, sea, and ground situational pictures, and share them with friendly forces. It is also able to command these friendly forces, in particular the fighters. This is an extremely valuable force multiplier, both in peace and in war, and something which likely everyone in the Air Force has felt was way out of our price range. The jointness of the HX-program would also be greatly supported by the GlobalEye, as e.g. the Navy’s new missiles have a range far beyond the horizon of the firing ships, creating the need for sensors with longer ranges (and there aren’t too many currently around).
Aren’t there any drawbacks then? Obviously, the biggest of which is the low number. Two is a very small number for a high-value asset such as these. The GlobalEye has a high cruise speed and an extremely long endurance, meaning that two aircraft could theoretically provide even 24/7 surveillance. Still, the loss of even one airframe would halve the force, giving poor redundancy. On the other hand, even one is still significant more than zero… The other question is if Finnish air space is too shallow for an AEW&C aircraft to be used effectively without placing it in undue risk. Here the natural answer is to place the station further back inside Swedish air space, but while it seems an obvious answer now, it might or might not be politically feasible if things turn rough. Does the Air Force want a new aircraft type in it’s inventory is another question? The Global 6000 is a reputable aircraft, and as such can be considered low risk, but it is still a significant undertaking, and not something you usually get thrown in as an extra in a fighter deal.
For the first time in the competition, someone has managed to pull an ace that I honestly feel could decide the whole thing (the aforementioned Growler came close, though).
If Saab can show that the calculations surrounding the life-cycle cost really hold true.
If the Finnish Air Force conclude that stealth isn’t a must.
P.s. Gripen really must be dirt-cheap for a modern fighter…