The Future Finnish Air Force, Pt.2: Two Fighters for the Air Force?

The HX-project is often treated as a stand-alone program to replace the gap left by the upcoming retirement of Finland’s legacy F/A-18C/D Hornets. However, recent developments have opened up the field for a complete remake of the Finnish Air Force, something which, while unlikely, deserves a closer look. To capture the larger picture, this is the second post of a short series. Expect the next post within the coming days.

In the end, it probably comes down to money. As a number of countries have realized, fighters are getting more expensive all the time. Lockheed-Martin is still claiming that their F-35 will be no more expensive than the current fighters (presumable compared to the same company’s F-16), while Saab is also maintaining that the 39E will be cheaper to buy and operate than the older 39C. Still, several countries have been unable, or unwilling, to replace their current fleets on a 1:1 basis. Examples include Sweden going from around 100 39C/D’s to 60 (possibly 70) 39E’s, and the Netherlands going from 68 (out of the original 213) F-16’s to 37 F-35’s (planned, not ordered).

For the Finnish Air Force, this is not a route they would like to take. The preliminary report was clear about the fact that the size of the current Hornet-fleet is based on economics and not on operational demands, and is in fact too small. That the air force would be able to buy more than 64 HX-fighters is unlikely, but they just might be able to convince the political leadership that they have to replace the fighters on a 1:1 basis. Jäämeri noted that the RFI will probably include “a number of differently sized packages”, showing that the final number of airframes is yet to be set.

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Danish F-16BM, one of a total of 77 F-16A/B bought by Denmark, to be replaced by 30 fighters in a ongoing procurement program. Source: Author.

This is where the two-fighter solution might come in. If the fighter of choice proves to be prohibitively expensive, let’s say that the F-35 is declared the winner of the HX-evaluation, but only 48 instead of 64 F-35‘s fit inside the given budget, what will the air force do? Buy a too small number of fighters? Buy the second best thing? Or, will the air force buy 24 F-35’s, coupled with 48 additional fighters of a cheaper design, either one of the other primary HX-candidates, or a modernized 4th generation fighter, such as the F-16V Block 60+?

Obviously, some mixes feel more natural than others. Beefing up a JAS 39E (Super) Gripen force with a squadron or two of JAS 39C Gripen would be a relatively (keyword) simple task from a maintenance point of view, especially as a number of subsystems developed for the 39E probably would be retrofitted to the 39C. This would also offer the benefit of making the 39D available for type familiarization. Another possibility is that Finland would buy only 39D’s and no C’s to supplement the 39E, with trained backseaters (WSO/RIO) for strike missions. However, it should be noted that the commonality between the baseline 39C/D and the 39E is far smaller than a quick look at the aircrafts would have you believe, with the 39E more or less a new aircraft, being bigger, heavier, and with a stronger engine.The most straightforward mix is the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (E being the single-seater and F the two-seater) and the EA-18G Growler, the latter being a specialized development of the F/A-18F, tailored for electronic warfare missions (jamming enemy sensors and communications, intercepting enemy signals for intelligence purposes, neutralizing or destroying enemy air defences). As has been discussed on the blog, these capabilities are highly valued during international operations, and would provide Finland with a capability that only a handful of western countries have (USA, Germany, Italy, and Australia). Buying a Growler squadron to support a Super Hornet fleet, however, will not lead to any savings compared to an equally sized “pure” Super Hornet fleet, but rather provide more capability for an added cost.

An interesting detail here is the fact that the JAS 39E Gripen and the super Hornet/Growler feature the same engine, the General-Electric F414-GE, in the F414-GE-400 and F414-GE-39E versions respectively. The latter version differs mainly in a few modifications made to ensure safe operations of the engine in a single-engined airframe, as opposed to the twin-engined Super Hornet. A mixed fleet of Gripens and Super Hornet would be an extremely interesting concept, with the two aircrafts complementing each other well. However, it is most likely a solution that is far too costly for Finland.

The Future Finnish Air Force, pt. 1: Preliminary letters and basic trainers

The HX-project is often treated as a stand-alone program to replace the gap left by the upcoming retirement of Finland’s legacy F/A-18C/D Hornets. However, recent developments have opened up the field for a complete remake of the Finnish Air Force, something which, while unlikely, deserves a closer look. To capture the larger picture, this is the first post of a short series. Expect the next post within the coming days.

The HX-project aimed at finding a replacement for Finland’s F/A-18C Hornets (and a small number of F/A-18D two-seaters) is moving forward at a steady pace. A few new details have surfaced since my last post on the project.

A preliminary letter describing the project has been sent out. This is not the proper Request for Information (RFI), which is slated for February 2016, but rather a letter describing the HX-projects current status and how it will proceed. Of interest is the fact that General Jäämeri, commander of the air force, explained that the letter will go to the five companies (Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, BAE, Dassault, and Saab) which will receive the RFI. The companies are the ones that have been mentioned earlier, but in a surprise move the general also stated that the RFI will not stipulate which fighters are in the run for the program. This is important, as three of the companies, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and Saab, also offer older aircraft, so called Generation 4 fighters, namely modernized version of the F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16C/D Block 50+, and JAS 39C/D Gripen.

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JAS 39C Gripen in Turku last summer. Source: author.

The F/A-18C/D Hornet is another prime example of a fourth generation fighter, so why would Finland show any interest in acquiring another one to replace it? Wouldn’t it be better (and cheaper) to simply upgrade our current Hornet-fleet, if a fourth generation fighter would be enough (and didn’t the preliminary report already state fourth generation capability isn’t)?

There are two different issues here: One is that the legacy Hornet in its current form is about to be withdrawn, and Finland would have to support it alone (or upgrade it according to a given standard, i.e. the USMC one). Finnish Hornets are also nearing the end of their flight hours, and the Finnish emphasis on air combat training has placed great strain on the structures of the aircraft. The metal is simply starting to give up. As such, keeping the Hornets in flying shape and at an acceptable level of modernity will probably be prohibitively expensive.

The second issue is that Jäämeri opened up for a new round of speculation, by announcing that it is possible that Finland would buy two different planes, in the same way that we operated both the MiG-21Bis and the Saab 35 Draken before replacing both with the Hornet. However, he noted, while getting two different aircraft isn’t ruled out, it would be an “extraordinary” move, as two aircraft would require two different maintenance and support systems.

At this point aircraft aficionados should shout “F414-GE”. Patience, my friends, we’ll get to that!

The Missing Link – The Cancelled VX-trainer

In the meantime, in a move which have passed almost completely under the radar, the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command (PVLOGL) has cancelled the VX-program for a replacement to the venerable VL Vinka, the basic trainer used by the air force. The Vinka is old, and the taxing training program involving aerobatics have caused extensive metal fatigue (sounds familiar…), and the aircrafts have already once had their lifespan lengthened by an extensive overhaul. The problem is that the air force would like to stick the current curriculum, in which a cheap aerobatic-capable piston-engined trainer is used for basic flight training and early maneuvering as well as formation flights. After this, the student move on to the Hawk advanced jet trainer, where he/she learns air combat and jet engines, before transitioning to the F/A-18D Hornet for familiarization flights in the two-seater Hornet, until finally being cleared for solo-flights and operational missions in the F/A-18C Hornet.

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VL (Valmet) L-70 Vinka at Kauhava. Source: author.

This is the traditional, bordering on conservative, way of setting of flight training (the reason behind the cancelling of the VX was simply that no suitable aircraft was produced anymore!), and a number of countries has in recent years chosen to do things differently:

  • The piston-engined trainers have lost ground to vastly more powerful turbine-powered aircrafts, providing almost jet-like performance. This makes it possible to transfer part of the advanced training curriculum from a dedicated advanced trainer to the same aircraft that is handling the basic training. Turbine-powered aircrafts are more expensive than their piston-engined brethren, but they are still cheaper to operate than jets, meaning that they can provide savings in overall training costs.
  • More and more training is “downloaded” to simulators. Flight simulators are not a new thing, but they are constantly becoming better and more realistic, and can today offer complex scenarios involving multiple linked units. This means that an ever larger part of flight training can be performed on the simulators, offering significant savings compared to “real” flying.
  • The rise of simulators has led to the demise of two-seaters dedicated to training. Of the current aircraft in the running for HX, both JAS 39E Gripen and notably the F-35 are only available as single-seaters, with type familiarization being handled in simulators. There is the possibility that a 39F Gripen will become available if Finland insists on the need for one, but no twin-stick F-35 is in the plans.
  • As newer fighters are ever more expensive to operate, and as minituarisation is allowing ever more competent avionics to be fitted into ever smaller airframes, the Lead-In Fighter Trainer has risen in popularity. The LIFT is an aircraft that is taking the place of the advanced trainer, but in a similar way that the turbine-powered basic trainer is pushing the envelope, so too is the LIFT capable of providing training that earlier was in the realm of “real” fighters, such as high-performance maneuvers/air combat training, weapons deliveries, and sensor operations. Aircraft such as the M-346 Master and the Hawk T.2 offer near-fighter like performance, but for a fraction of the price per flight hour.
  • Having a training location in another country, in some cases as a joint program with other countries, in other cases as a service bought from a civilian company, is becoming more popular with more countries starting to feel the pressure of rising operational cost, needing fewer new pilots as their air forces shrink in size, and struggling to find large enough empty airspaces to properly train in.

The question is: is the air force correct in asking for more of the same, or should it shake up the roles of the basic trainer/advanced trainer/fighter-classes? Notably, Finland was one of the first customers of the BAE Hawk, buying the first generation Mk.51 (roughly corresponding to the RAF T.1). These are starting to show signs of metal fatigue in the wings due to the demanding use in training fighter pilots, and the fleet have been bolstered by the arrival of surplus low-hour ex-Swiss Hawk Mk.66 (interestingly, the Swiss Air Force let a turbine-powered prop trainer take over the training formerly handled by the Hawks). However, this is only a temporary solution, and the Hawk will have to be replaced somewhere around the same time as the HX enters into service.

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‘Original’ Finnish BAE Hawk Mk.51 (grey) with ex-Swiss Mk.66 behind it. Source: author.

 

In other words: within an extremely short span of time, the air force will have to replace both its trainers and fast jets. It is important to keep this in mind when discussing why Jäämeri has seemingly opened up for the possibility of acquiring more than one kind of fighter.

Replacing the (Capabilities of) the F-18C/D Hornet: The Minor Candidates

Much has been written about the different options Finland has when it comes down to replacing the F-18 Hornet with a new fighter, but as my last post on the issue proved quite popular, I decided to yet again add my opinions to the discussion.

I believe there are only two main candidates for the HX-program, namely the Swedish JAS-39E/F (Super) Gripen, and the US/somewhat international F-35 Lightning II. However, let us first look at some of the less likely candidates before moving on to the two main candidates in a post that will be published on Monday.

Eurofighter Typhoon

The Eurofighter Typhoon is the spiritual successor to the PANAVIA Tornado, a purely European fighter designed and built by a consortium of European aerospace companies (Airbus Group 46%, BAE Systems 33%, Alenia Aermacchi 21%), capable of meeting the best that the Soviet Union/Russia could throw at it, while being able to compete on equal terms on the export market with US and French designs.

A British Eurofighter Typhoon. The ‘ball’ immediatley below and in front of the canopy is the IRST, an infra-red camera used to detect enemy aircraft with. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Sgt Ralph Merry ABIPP RAF/MOD

There is no denying that the Eurofighter is a very competent fighter, being able to perform both air-to-air, air-to-ground, and reconnaissance missions. With the IRST-sensor and the coming addition of the CAPTOR AESA-radar the plane will have a very potent sensor suite, and the plane is cleared for a large number of today’s most popular air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons.

On the downside, the big Eurofighter is expensive to order and operate, and the failure to attract large exports means the production line is about to shut down before 2020. However, if the current trend continues, there might be quite a number of low-hour airframes available on the second-hand market in 2020, as cash-strapped air forces tries to make room for F-35 squadrons and further force reductions.

Dassault Rafale

Dassault Rafale on the flight deck of the USN carrier USS John C. Stennis. Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell

After over forty years, Dassault eventually ditched the Mirage-name for their fighters. The Rafale is currently only in operation with France, and is notable for being available in a strengthened carrier-capable version, which would provide an interesting option for operations from Finnish road bases. While no doubt being a beautiful airplane, and every bit as capable as the Eurofighter, it is hampered by the lack of international support due to a lack of exports, and as all twin-engine designs it has a higher operating cost than corresponding single-engine jets. If no export orders are forthcoming, its production line is also set to close before the HX-fighters will be produced.

Boeing F-18E/F Super Hornet

The Finnish Air Force has always been proud of their Hornets, and thus the obvious step would be to upgrade to the second generation of the successful aircraft, right?

Australian F-18F Super Hornet showing the large square air intakes that are one of the main external differences compared to ‘legacy’ Hornets. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Robert Frola

Not so, as the Super Hornet, despite being a marked upgrade over the ‘legacy’ F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornets, has failed to score the kind of success on the export markets it pre-runner did. When no less than seven export nations bought the A/B/C/D-Hornets in addition to the US Navy and Marine Corps, the sole customers for the Super Hornet are USN and the Royal Australian Air Force, meaning that a total of 24 aircrafts have been exported so far. It is a telling sign that the USMC decided not to upgrade, instead choosing to wait for the F-35B/C.

While the Super Hornet will remain a potent multirole fighter well into the time span of the HX-project, the small number in use makes continued support an issue. Simply put, more or less any kind of weapons integration, new software, updated sensors, or other major upgrades are reliant on how long the USN chooses to see the Super Hornet as an important platform. The day they decide that they don’t need the ‘Super Bug’ anymore, any export customers are set for some major headaches.

And yes, without any major exports, the production line is set to close sometime during the coming years.

Boeing F-15/Lockheed-Martin F-16

If you today would receive either an F-15 or an F-16 with all bells and whistles, you could make a convincing argument that you ae flying the most advanced multirole fighter operational bar none. As a matter of fact, it has been argued that when the United Arab Emirates bought the Block 60 F-16E/F Desert Falcon, the US actually exported a multirole fighter more advanced than it currently operated in its armed forces, something which had not happened since early 1942 when the British RAF made the first operational sorties with the Mustang Mk I.

A mixed formation with two F-15E Strike Eagles, an F-15C, and an F-16C. Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald

Still, while the addition of new sensors and features gives these classic fighters excellent capabilities for a relatively cheap cost, the fact is that the basic designs are over forty years old, and while they remain competitive today, they will reach the end of the way sooner than their younger competitors. The F-35 will probably be a force to reckon with in forty years from now. The F-15 and F-16 most probably won’t.

From Russia with Love (or at least big bombs and smoky engines)

An alternative that can’t be ignored is the possibility of buying Russian fighters. Both the MiG-29/33/35 and the Su-27/31/33/35 have evolved into extremely competent aircrafts, and on the horizon the brand new T-50 looms.

The Mikoyan MiG-35D. latest in a long line of MiG-29 derivatives. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Oleg V. Belyakov

While there is no denying that on specifications alone, these could compete on equal terms with most western designs, the fact is that the world is more complicated than that. Questions arise around topics such as support, maintenance, and the problem of operating an aircraft whose sensor suite has been designed by the potential enemy. The combination of these worries made Minister of Defence Carl Haglund state that he can’t see a Russian fighter as a replacement for the Hornet.

Sukhoi Su-35S, simply one of the best multirole aircrafts currently in service. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin

Neither can I, though the Russians might make a very tempting offer in their desperate hunt for European friends.

Mitsubishi F-3

A real high-stakes bet for HX would be the projected Japanese Mitsubishi F-3. Japan has a large indigenous defense sector, and has recently started to open up for the potential of actually exporting arms. The F-3 is yet only in the early stages of the program, with the Mitsubishi ATD-X technical demonstrator scheduled for its first flight later this year, but if priced competitively (unlikely), and if the project doesn’t hit any major complications (unlikely), the F-3 could be a serious competitor by 2025/2030.

Shenyang J-31

The Chinese aircraft industry has long been known for exporting cheap copies of Soviet-era designs to countries where cutting-edge technology is less important than pricing and ease of operation. This has changed with the introduction of a number of modern designs into the service of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force, including the Chengdu J-10 and the Xian JH-7. Still more impressive aircrafts are in flight testing, such as the Chengdu J-20 and the Shenyang J-31, the latter perhaps the true black horse of the HX-project.

J-31 about to take off during its first public apperance last year. Source: Wikimedia Commons/wc

The J-20 is best referred to as a Chinese F-22 Raptor, being rather large and apparently employing the very best the Chinese industry can offer when it comes to sensors, avionics, and aerodynamics. Only the future will tell how good it really is, but it has some western experts worried. The J-31 is usually compared to the F-35, and while some experts doubt whether the J-20 is ever to be exported, the J-31 most probably will. While the current prototype, which was unveiled publicly last autumn, seems more akin to a technology demonstrator than a fully-fledged prototype, China is on the road to offer a light-ish stealth fighter for those that can’t or won’t buy the F-35.

It is entirely plausible that China, eager to score a major high-profile success in the form of a large deal with a Western European country would offer the J-31 to Finland in a very lucrative deal, complete with large offset buys and possible technology transfers in certain areas. It is harder to envision the Finnish government actually accepting this deal. Another major question mark is whether China would see Finland as too close to the US to allow us to operate such an advanced aircraft in the joint exercises that would take place sooner or later.

Still, if one looks at the changes to world politics and the Chinese aviation industry that has taken place during the last ten to fifteen years, the J-31 cannot be ruled out completely.

In Brief

Most Western designs risk having their production lines shut down before having a chance to participate in the HX-program. The Eurofighter and perhaps the Super Hornet can potentially get around this by offering second-hand airframes with low flying hours, but the problem is high operating costs and uncertain support for the Eurofighter and Super Hornet respectively. This might leave the field open for such up-and-coming countries as Japan and China, but it would be a major political shift if the next fighter for the Finnish Air Force would be built in Asia. A Russian fighter as HX is not likely.