Ruska: (ʁus.ka) noun. 1) Finnish word denoting the leaves changing colours during fall, autumn foliage 2) Finnish Air Force exercise focused on operations in times of crises and wartime, measured in the number of involved servicemen and -women the largest Finnish Air Force exercise of 2017.
War is unpredictable. Some things are however more predictable than others. These include enemy strikes on runways and installations of the air bases used by the only two fighter wings in the country. The solution is easy: to be somewhere else when the cruise missiles strike.
Dispersed basing is at the heart of Finnish Air Force operations. The concept not only means that the aircraft are spread out, but it also means that they keep moving. Upon the order to disperse, the air force sends out ground units to road bases and civilian airfields. These units are capable of independent operations, not only taking care of the aircraft themselves, but also of handling necessary supporting functions such as providing base security. Having taken up positions, they then wait for word from higher command about if and when they will get customers. Keeping the fighters moving between bases makes it much harder to catch them on the ground, where they are at their most vulnerable.
Often this mode of operations is associated with road bases, likely because road basing is only practiced by a handful of countries (Finland, Sweden, Taiwan), and because fast jets landing and taking off in a forest makes for really nice pictures. As important however is the use of civilian fields for military use. “There are no clear advantages in using a road base as opposed to a civilian field. The usability and benefits of a base instead largely depends on the ground units found there”, Lt col Ville Hakala of the Air Force Command explains.
The casual observer would be excused to fail to notice the fact that Kokkola-Pietarsaari airport is a working military base during Ruska17. An ultralight from the local flying club is doing touch and goes, and the passenger flights to Helsinki and Stockholm make their schedules as normal. Minimizing the impact on civilian aviation is not only part of keeping the local population in a good mood, but also how it is envisioned to work in times of crisis. For society as a whole to function, it is important that the airports stay open even if the air force decides to use them. So the ground crew discreetly wait in the background, while the military police patrol the perimeter and politely check up on people who loiter in the area. Especially those who sport a camera with a decent sized tele lens.
Then the call comes, a pair of Hornets are inbound, and the ground crew takes up position by the taxiway. But as the exercise is a complex one with a fully functioning red side operating out of bases in northern Finland and Sweden, things doesn’t always go as expected, and no sooner have the Hornets appeared overhead than an air raid alarm is issued, and the blue force fighters speed away to a destination unknown to us at the airfield. A while later the situation is cleared up, and the two fighters touch down on the rainsoaked runway, and immediately taxi over to the waiting fuel trucks. The fighters stay on the field for a while, giving the passengers arriving with the evening flight from Stockholm something to look at, before eventually taking off into the night sky.
The turnaround is indeed a sight to see. While it is hard not to think of a caravan park or travelling circus when the train of specialised trucks appear, the impression stops as soon as the work starts. There is none of the frantic running or shouting of orders which are often associated with the armed forces. Instead, the small crew made up of conscripts, reservists, and regular staff move efficiently around the aircraft, each confidently handling his or her task. The fuel tanks might not be topped up in a matter of seconds and the wheels stay on, but otherwise the closest analogy that comes to mind is that of a Formula 1 pit stop. When asked about what the biggest challenges associated with operating away from the home base are, Lt col Hakala’s answer is confident: “There are no major challenges when operating from an unfamiliar airfield, our pilots are constantly practicing operations from different airports.” Looking at the refuelling operation, his confidence seems well-placed.
Seeing the fighters being serviced, it is clear that this unique way of operating the aircrafts will have implications for the HX-program. With all infrastructure being truck-mounted and handled by a motley crew stretching from teenagers to professionals with decades of experience, very special demands are placed on the aircraft. When out camping away from home, small details such as the integrated boarding ladder make a significant difference.
Ruska is a large exercise by most standards. Over 60 aircraft, including roughly half the Finnish Hornet-fleet is taking part, including all three Finnish Air Commands. On the ground, over 5,000 servicemen and -women are taking part, of which 2,900 are reservists. For the first time ever, the Swedish Air Force joins in to practice defending Finnish airspace together with the Finnish Air Force in a major exercise of this kind (though it should be noted that they have done it for real once before). A detachment of JAS 39 Gripen supported by a ASC 890 airborne early warning and control aircraft deployed to Kuopio-Rissala AFB as part of the blue force, with another detachment from F 21 making a re-run of last year’s role as part of the red force from their home base at Kallax AFB (Luleå).
While an important step politically in signalling the ability (and intention?) to fight together in case of an armed aggression, it is a surprisingly straightforward step from a military point of view. “Cooperation with the Swedish Air Force already have long traditions,” Lt col Hakala explains. “The Swedish Gripen is interoperable with the Finnish air defence system. The Gripens participating in the exercise are one part of the complete air defences and work together with Finnish Hornets.”
Huge thanks to all involved that helped me with the post!
Carrier-based fighters have traditionally had a hard time keeping up with their land-based counterparts. Carrier operations put greater strains on the aircraft, as the shorter take-off and landing places higher stress on the airframe in general and the landing gear in particular. In the same way, the arrestor and catapult gear adds further weight, while space restrictions usually demand folding wings and other mechanisms to allow it to pass through elevators and occupy a smaller footprint while parked.
However, there are a number of classic designs which have been able to defeat this traditional axiom. These include the F-4 Phantom II (which was produced in a number of non-carrier versions) and the A-4 Skyhawk (one of the few modern carrier-based aircraft small enough to not need wing-folding), and crucially for HX, the F/A-18 Hornet.
The background of the Hornet is well-known, having started it’s life as the YF-17 ‘Cobra’, losing the LWF-competition to the F-16, then being developed further to the F/A-18 for the US Navy VFAX program. Interestingly enough, it was soon clear that F-16 (in early versions) didn’t meet the expectations of all potential customers, and a niche for the twin-engined Hornet could be found. A dedicated land-based version was created in the form of the Northrop F-18L, but in the end it was the baseline carrier-versions which came to score a number of export successes, with seven nations ending up choosing the ‘Bug’ over the competition.
For Finland, in an interesting cross-over of requirement, much of the carrier-specific equipment was actually in line with the requirements placed by the Finnish dispersed operations from road bases. Short runways, rough landings, space restrictions, little support equipment, and limited number of ground crew working on the aircraft are all similarities that make the rugged airframes and landing gears more of a benefit than a nuisance. The end result has been that the Hornet has provided stellar service in Finnish colours, having been able to adapt to Finnish road bases with ease. The use of a carrier-spec hook (not to be confused with the emergency hooks used by land-based fighters) to reduce braking distances has also been a big benefit. Somewhat surprisingly both Dassault and Lockheed-Martin have indicated that they will focus on the baseline Rafale C and F-35A respectively, leaving the Super Hornet the only fighter in the game able to use arrestor wires for breaking on a regular basis.
While all manufacturers have stated that their fighters are able to handle road bases without problems, Super Hornet and the JAS 39E Gripen are the ones with the pedigree to put more credibility behind the claims. Boeing is also the one to have their complete organisation already in place, having established working routines with the Finnish Air Force and local industrial partners as part of current Hornet-operations. When discussing the lack of a visible marketing campaign, this was something drawn upon by Boeing, who explained that they like to work closely with the customer and prove the capabilities of the aircraft directly to them. While this “more doing, less talking” attitude is exactly how any marketing executive would explain a perceived lack of publicity, it should not be ruled out that this actually is what Boeing has been doing, given the close association with Boeing Defence and the Finnish Air Force.
Interestingly, the F/A-18E/F shares around 50-60% of their support and maintenance equipment with the ‘legacy’ Hornets. While part of the equipment currently in use by the Finnish Air Force is likely starting to show their age and will have to be replaced in any case, this does still leave room for significant savings as well as for the possibility of staggering the procurements of maintenance equipment. Not having to buy a complete set of tools on day one is not only nice for the initial buy, but also means that throughout the lifespan of the aircraft instances of massed obsolescences amongst the support equipment should be rarer, smoothing out the operating costs during the life cycle. There’s also no need for major investment in fixed infrastructure (such as electrical systems or air supplies), as all Finnish air bases are equipped for handling the F/A-18C/D. As Boeing’s Bryan Crutchfield put it, “If a Hornet flies there today, a Super Hornet can fly there tomorrow”. This has also been practiced by the US Navy, which during carrier operations on occasion has swapped out Hornet-squadrons for Super Hornet ones at short notice (though granted the US Navy does have maintenance equipment for both ‘legacy’ and Super Hornets on their carriers).
Life-cycle costs are something that Boeing likes to talk about. To win the Finnish order the Super Hornet, like the Hornet before it, would have to defeat lighter fighters which have lower flyaway unit costs. The Super Hornet currently has the lowest cost per flight hour for all US tactical aircraft, including the F-16. While the comparison is somewhat skewed to the benefit of the Super Hornet as the Super Hornet fleet generally is the youngest of the active US fighters (with the exception of the F-35), it is still remarkable for a twin-engined naval fighter to top the list. Add in the savings in infrastructure and maintenance, and the life-cycle cost for a Finnish Super Hornet might be very competitive.
The synergies doesn’t stop there, as there is also a clear benefit when it comes to transferring pilots and ground crew from the F/A-18C/D to the F/A-18E/F. Making current Finnish Air Force personnel dual-qualified could be handled in a matter of weeks, and all training could take place in Finland. This is not only a question of transferring the people serving in 2025 when the first HX-fighters are slated to arrive in Finland, but “the Finnish Air Force will have a two aircraft fleet for a number of years”, as Bryan Crutchfield notes. In practice, the current Hornets and their replacement could serve side-by-side for up to five years, if the Air Force decides to maintain the Hornets until HX reaches full operational capability around 2030. This was also the case with the Hornet, where the first F/A-18D and C were delivered to the Finnish Air Force in 1995 and 1996 respectively, with the Draken finally being withdrawn in 2000 (the MiG-21 having left service two years earlier). As such, the argument about ease of transitioning from the Hornet to Super Hornet deserves more credibility than it has usually received, with the benefits tapering off towards 2030 and not 2025 as usually argued.
Of the eight countries which bought the ‘legacy’ Hornet, two already operate the Super Hornet (USA and Australia), two are likely going to operate it (Kuwait and Canada), with Switzerland, Spain and the minor operator Malaysia not looking like likely Super Hornet buyers. This leaves Finland, and many of the arguments which made us choose the Hornet are still perfectly valid today. However, where the F/A-18C Hornet armed with the AIM-120 AMRAAM was clearly the most advanced of the fighters being offered, the Super Hornet faces stiffer competition from both sides of the Atlantic. Traditionally, the Finnish Defence Forces have been rather conservative, favouring tried and tested systems before the new and unproven. Time will tell if Boeing can convince the Air Force that taking what has been a very successful concept and cranking up the dials to eleven is the best way forward, or if a more radical change is warranted.
While the Typhoon so far has seen combat solely in the air-to-ground role, there is no mistaking in that the primary role of RAF Lossiemouth lies elsewhere. The base is the northern of RAF’s two quick-reaction alert bases, abbreviated as QRA(N). As such, a pair of armed Typhoons stand guard around the clock, year round. These are airborne within ten minutes of the scramble, often with time to spare. While the usual ‘bogey’ for QRA(S) down at RAF Coningsby is an airliner gone silent (usually due to having the wrong radio frequency), RAF Lossiemouth handles the classic North Sea intercept of any Russian bombers coming down round Norway. This includes “Bears in different versions”, presumably meaning that both the Tu-95 bomber version and the Tu-142 maritime patrol versions has been sighted, as well as the Tu-160 Blackjack. The latter is something of a newcomer in the area, starting to make appearances only post-Crimea. By the time any bomber approaches the British isles, they are always escorted by Norwegian F-16s, which hand over the mission to the Typhoons. Notably, the Typhoons has been on station and escorted the Tu-160 during the strikes in Syria which have been flown along the western route, circumnavigating the UK.
“Deliver QRA(I)N and prepare for global operations”
RAF Lossiemouth mission statement
All QRA flights are armed with a mix of four ASRAAM short-range IR-missiles and four AMRAAM medium-range missiles, of which two ASRAAM would be traded for another two AMRAAM in case of a ‘wartime load’. In addition, the aircraft are sporting two supersonic drop tanks and a full load of 27 mm ammunition for the internal Mauser gun. While RAF’s QRA flights haven’t had to open fire upon intercepted aircrafts in modern times, the risk is always there. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Baltics, where the Typhoon face the most modern fighters that Russia has to offer.
Wing Commander Billy Cooper is the officer commanding 6 Squadron, and an experienced fighter pilot who has logged over 1,300 hours on the Typhoon after transitioning to it from the Tornado F.3, RAF’s earlier QRA jet. Before joining the Lossiemouth based squadron, he took part in a Baltic Air Policing tour with the Coningsby based 3(F) Squadron, being deployed to Šiauliai in Lithuania. The detachment brought some interesting challenges to the RAF, as the facilities of the old Soviet base were overcrowded. A number of portable cabins were shipped out for the personnel to live in, while the Typhoons were allocated unheated soft-skin hangars throughout the stay. While these did offer a measure of protection from the wind and precipitation, this still meant that all maintenance work on the planes were performed in whatever the outside temperature happened to be. While the detachment had “relatively small issues with the climate”, as Cooper put it, a more unexpected issue appeared. Soon after arrival, the British airmen spotted a “large, elk-like creature” towards the far end of the base. Large mammals was not something that RAF was used to operating around, but with the proper procedures in place, air operations could continue.
If the QRA(N) gets scrambled once every few months, BAP is another issue completely. The latest tour by 2(AC) Squadron to Ämari air base in Estonia resulted in 42 intercepted aircraft during their 4 month long stay. In addition to the normal weaponry a targeting pod was often carried, being particularly useful in the identification of ships. Some targets are trickier than others, with Cooper mentioning one of his personal highlights being the intercept of a Kamov Ka-27 helicopter launched from a Russian frigate. After he had intercepted the helicopter, the Finnish Air Force also appeared and closed in to take a look on it.
“We were briefed quite closely to not interact with them too much”
WING COMMANDER BILLY COOPER, OFFICER COMMANDING 6 SQUADRON
The behavior of the Russian pilots varied widely, and while the British pilots where briefed to maintain their cool, Cooper was under the impression that their Russian colleagues were more free to engage their adversaries as they saw fit. This included aggressively turning against any intercepting fighters trying to take pictures of them, and while no-one tries to cause a mid-air collision, the short distances between the aircrafts (Typhoons often closing to within 65 meters of their targets) meant that the risk certainly was there. This kind of behavior was more common if the Russian fighters were flying escort for transport or attack/bomber aircraft, and apparently also depended on the personal style of the pilots. “Sometimes you closed in and thought for yourself ‘isn’t that the one from last week’, and sure enough he starts doing the same kind of things this time around as well,” Cooper explained. When asked whether he had experienced the kind of aggressive flare dumping described by the Swedish Air Force, he commented that he hadn’t personally seen it, “but it wouldn’t surprise me”. Both sides carry flares on a regular basis, and in addition to being defensive countermeasures, their purpose does include (stern) signalling. Some Russian pilots did use other means of less-than-friendly communication, while RAF’s pilots stuck to smiles and occasional waves.
Cooperation with the Finnish Air Force is not uncommon for the BAP, with Finnish Air Force and BAP sharing a common recognised air picture and sharing data over Link 16. During intercepts over the Gulf of Finland, it was not uncommon to have a pair of BAP fighters shadowing a Russian target from the south, with a pair of Finnish F/A-18C Hornets doing the same from the north. Operating together in this manner is no problem, as both the RAF and Finnish Air Force share the same doctrine and has the ability to use the same data link. “It is the same as operating with a NATO-country”, Cooper sums up. In addition to chance encounters on intercepts, the two air forces regularly do schedule joint training missions.
“You need something that can fight long-range and dominate short-range”
WING COMMANDER BILLY COOPER, OFFICER COMMANDING 6 SQUADRON
The nature of aerial combat also was also something which came up. With the advent of a new generation of long-range missiles and sensors, many have concluded that the classic within-visual-range dogfight is (finally) dead. Cooper wasn’t as sure, noting that he could see quite a few scenarios where a fighter would find itself uncomfortably close to its target before being able to open fire. The main question was to what extent the rules of engagement would allow for firing at targets beyond visual range, or if a visual confirmation will be required first. In any case, RAF has taken their Typhoons on exercises against both Indian Sukhoi Su-30MKI and Malaysian Su-30MKM, and contrary to some Indian reports, the “Typhoon did extremely well” against the Su-30MKI at close range, while long range engagements were a matter of “clubbing seals” (an expression BAE was quick to explain is fighter pilot jargon for easy air-to-air kills, in case someone would have misunderstood its use…). In the end, “the Indians weren’t happy”, despite their pilots spending much of their time practicing within visual range combat according to Cooper.
It is no secret that while the Finnish Air Force is looking for a fighter able to handle a range of missions in a full-scale conventional war, the main mission during peacetime is QRA and air policing in the crowded airspace over the Baltic Sea. This is also a point which BAE likes to push, and certainly one of the better selling points of the Typhoon. That isn’t to say that BAE is trying to sell the fighter with its peacetime mission as the argument (arguably not a great idea…), as they are clear with that they think the Typhoon is a great multirole fighter all around. It just happens to be very good at what the Finnish Air Force does in their everyday line of work. At least according to the sales pitch.
The speed is well-known, with the Eurofighter being able to supercruise (though the exact prestanda in supercruise mode is somewhat controversial, with anything between Mach 1.1 to 1.5 being quoted depending on the source and load conditions), but Cooper was also keen to point out the range of the aircraft. Operating alongside the Polish MiG-29’s in BAP, the importance of endurance quickly became evident. While Cooper noted that the Polish Air Force pilots were professional and eager to do a good job, at the same time they did suffer problems due to the notorious short range of their aircraft. At the time these were early production MiG-29 9.12 from ex-DDR stocks, while the Polish detachment which took up the BAP-mission this week is flying F-16’s instead of MiG-29’s. The Typhoon, usually operating with twin supersonic drop tanks, were able to stay on target, despite what appeared to be efforts to shake them off. “Sometimes when the Russian flight came to Kaliningrad, instead of landing they just turned around and headed back north, probably thinking we would have to break off,” Cooper remembered. “We didn’t.”
This year’s main flying event in Finland has just been held in the form of Tour de Sky at Kuopio-Rissala, a joint civilian and military airfield. In the later form, it is home to half of Finland’s fast jets as the legendary 31 Fighter Squadron resides there.
Bearing the traditions of the wartime 24 squadron and their Brewsters, post-war the squadron operated the MiG-21 in the F-13 and Bis variants for several decades up until they were withdrawn from Finnish service in 1998. This year the MiG returned in style, with two Romanian MiG-21 LanceR C being present (together with a supporting Alenia G.222), one of which performed a very spirited flying display. The LanceR C was an upgrade program launched by Romanian Aerostar and Israeli avionics company ELBIT, and included amongst other things fitting the aircraft with a modern multimode radar in the form of ELBIT’s EL/M-2032, installing two multi-function displays in the cockpit, and clearing the aircraft for the carriage of new short-range missiles such as Python 3, Magic 2, and R-73. Still, the program was completed in 2002, so even with the upgrades the aircraft is on the verge of obsolescence. However, considering that the fighter first flew sixty years ago, it is hard not to be impressed by its longevity. Looking at the lifespan and capabilities upgrade of the LanceR compared to the original MiG-21F is also sobering when considering that today’s new fighters will have a lifespan at least as long, with all the changes that entails.
Saab’s ‘legacy’ Gripen was well-represented as usual, with two 39C (solo display plane and backup), as well as a 39D at static display opposite one of the Eurofighters. The 39D sported an impressive array of inert display weapons, including the imposing Taurus KEPD 350 cruise missile. Also interesting was a scale model of the 39E in Finnish colours which Saab had mounted on the wall next to the entrance to their Skybar. As kindly pointed out by their representatives, what was featured on the model’s inner wing station was decidedly not a Taurus…
Dassault was heavily present throughout the weekend, as, despite not bringing an aircraft, they brought a serious amount of brightly orange baseball caps, whit my guess being these easily outnumbered the total amount of caps handed away by all four other HX-hopefuls together. There will be more info on the Rafale with regards to the HX in a later post (as will be the case for Lockheed-Martin’s offering as well).
The solo-Hornet was another crowd-pleaser, with the wet conditions providing for an impressive amount of vapour during its hard turns. While the IOC for HX might still seem far away, there isn’t too many air shows left before the F/A-18 will be relegated to second place.
The first of the Finnish Border Guards new AS332L1e Super Puma helicopters demonstrating the Bambi-bucket.
The Eurofighter Typhoon returned to Finland for what is only their second visit here so far. The unremarkable looking pod on the wingtip actually holds, amongst other things, two Towed Radar Decoys, which can be streamed after the aircraft to fool radar-seeking missiles. Contrary to my first guess, the system is actually robust enough that deploying them does not incur any kind of restrictions to the aircrafts flight envelope. The deployment of these can be controlled either manually or automatically by the integrated DASS EW-system.
The Swedish Hkp 14 next to its Finnish cousin the NH 90 TTH.
Next weekend will see this year’s main air show in Finland. This will see a lot of focus on the HX, with the different manufacturers trying to sell in why their aircraft is the best fit for Finland in particular. In anticipation of the posts which no doubt will come out of that, a short recap of the recent developments that have taken place is in order.
As noted earlier, the Danish Kampfly-program was won by the F-35A in a spectacular fashion, with the fighter beating its contenders on all points, something which Boeing and Airbus haven’t taken lightly. A number of clarifications have been made by to questions asked by Boeing, and Airbus issued a very interesting request for clarifications (PDF) with 43 numbered quotes and questions, dealing with issues ranging from risk assessment, fixed price offers, evaluated aircraft standards, and even down to questioning if the competition really met all requirements. However, yesterday (9 June 2016) news broke that the Danish government has secured a broad enough coalition to push through the F-35 deal through parliament, and the deal seems set (for now at least). The eventual buy will include 27 to 21 fighters.
The everlasting story of the French fighter’s big push to India is ever evolving. With the original MRCA-contract scrapped, the smaller (but still considerable) 36 aircraft order has proved to be an equally lengthy process, and despite reports in early April of a signing ‘within three weeks’, the deal is still open.
For the fighter program as a whole, much focus is on the update to the next F-3R standard, which is slated for service entry in early 2019 and qualifications the year before. The new standard will amongst other things see integration of the long-range Meteor air-to-air missile, but also an assorted range of improvements to the sensors and avionics, as well as the new Thales PDL-NG targeting pod.
Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
The ‘Rhino’ continues to be pushed for a number of export contracts, the most promising perhaps of which currently is Canada. The Canadians are realising that pushing back the time scale for their CF-188 Hornet replacement will make it hard to sustain a viable fleet of fighter aircraft in the meantime (the Canadian Hornets are of the older F/A-18A/B versions compared to those operated by Finland), and a small number of Super Hornets is now marketed as the logical stop-gap replacement until the ‘proper’ replacement has been determined. This would be very much along the same lines as how the Royal Australian Air Force reasoned when they brought in the Super Hornet in anticipation of the coming F-35A which they also have on order.
For the US Navy, Boeing is again actively pushing for an Advanced Super Hornet, though in a slightly scaled back (‘matured’, in the words of Boeing’s marketing department) configuration compared to the initial prospects put forward three years ago. The concept include a number of different enhancements, with some (e.g. conformal fuel-tanks) being rather low cost and low risk, while others (e.g. an enhanced engine) being much more complex. At least a number of these, if not all, will probably be offered for HX, regardless of whether the US adopts them or not.
The Kuwaiti export order still seems to be on track, but hampered by slow bureaucracy in the US, while the Super Hornet is also trying to push for contracts in Asia, crucially under the Make in India-initiative as well as for Malaysia.
The Eurofigther is coming to Kuopio, and with two British and two German aircraft, the fighter returns to the Finnish skies in style. This is only its second appearance in Finland, and quite possibly a sign of increased interest by BAE (which is the manufacturer responsible for marketing it to HX, unlike Kampfly where Airbus held the reins) towards the Finnish contract.
For Eurofighter, their Kuwaiti export deal has been successfully signed, and the 8 billion Euro deal is to include not only 28 fighters, but also significant infrastructure investments. The later makes the aircrafts’ cost hard to judge, a point which traditionally has been one of the weaker for the Eurofighter. Of interest is that the Kuwaiti air force has opted for the new E-Scan radar, which finally provides a launch customer for an AESA-equipped Eurofighter. Having secured deliveries of this new configuration should prove a boost for the fighter in future competitions, including HX.
Saab JAS 39E Gripen
Saab has finally rolled out the first Gripen in what is the full 39E-configuration, and is continuing to aggressively market the fighter, with Finland being one of the more important deals currently up for grabs. One of the more memorable statements of the roll-out was when Deputy Managing Director of Saab International Finland Oy, Anders Gardberg, in an interview pounced on the notion that stealth equals invisibility.
“The hype should start to fade away by now.”
The program is largely moving on according to the plans discussed earlier here on the blog, with the 39C now flying with the Meteor long-range missile in Swedish service, this making it the first fighter to employ the weapon operationally.
The F-35 is moving along more or less according to plans, with the upcoming USAF F-35A initial operational capability being the next big milestone. The software being used for this has been switched from the ‘final’ Block 3F to the Block 3IR6, which is described as being ‘only 89% of the [Block 3F] full warfighting code’. Still, the 3IR6 allows for carrying both air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, although the full weapons integration (amongst a few other things) is still someway off. In light of the criticism directed against the standards, or rather lack thereof, employed by the USMC when declaring the F-35B IOC last summer, the air force seems set on making sure that the airplane really does provide operational capabilities when the IOC is announced, something which should happen later this year, with the Joint Program Office aiming for August.
In the meantime the first Dutch F-35A’s have arrived in the Netherlands for a series of noise level tests, as well as the first public display of the aircraft on this side of the Atlantic. The real big bang in this sense will come at Farnborough, with up to five F-35A and B taking part in both flying and static displays.
Boeing and Lockheed-Martin have, unsurprisingly, decided not to offer their older F-15E Strike Eagle and F-16V Viper.
The HX program office will also accept responses including mixes of unmanned platforms and fighters. While several of the companies involved in the HX does have some plans or even flying technology demonstrators in this field, it seems unlikely that their level of maturity would be sufficient to play a large role in the tender. However, some kind of ‘fitted for but not with’-capability allowing for the inclusion of unmanned systems at a later date might be plausible.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
This is part two of my look into the preliminary report on the HX-project, which is aimed at finding a suitable replacement for the F/A-18C Hornet in Finnish service. This part will focus on the interesting stuff: the capabilities to be replaced, and the alternatives that might replace them.
The capabilities the Hornet provides are, according to the report, as follows:
Airspace surveillance and control
Defensive counter-air (DCA)
Offensive counter-air (OCA)
Battlefield air interdiction (BAI)
Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR)
Of note is here is that when the Hornets were introduced in Finnish service, it was as a pure interceptor/fighter aircraft, and only later (with MLU 2) did the potential for interdiction strikes start to feature prominently. In fact, it can be argued that out of the seven roles described above, the current Finnish Hornet-fleet is oriented towards three (airspace surveillance and control, DCA, and interdiction strike), is capable of handling two somewhat satisfactorily (BAI and ISTAR), with two being more or less outside of the current scope of capabilities (OCA and maritime strike). It is not that the Hornet can’t perform maritime strike and OCA-missions, but rather that a combination of lack of suitable weapons and a focusing in training on other missions leaves gaps to be filled (note: this is based on how air force training is described in open sources, it is possible that e.g. OCA receives more attention than is openly acknowledged).
Of interest is especially the focus placed on OCA, which is discussed over multiple pages in the report from chapter 4 and onwards. The reasoning behind this is that air superiority can seldom be achieved through DCA only (i.e. shooting down enemy aircraft entering our air space), but instead this needs to be supplemented with OCA (attacking enemy aircrafts and airbases in their own territory). Traditionally, OCA has meant striking enemy airfields through the use of multiple supporting formations of aircraft (escorts, electronic warfare aircraft supressing enemy air defences, strike packages for taking out enemy runways and hangars, and finally an aircraft doing battle damage assessment by photographing the target after the strike), and as such these kinds of strikes are both high-risk and require specialised weapons and a high level of pilot competence. The number of aircraft involved would also mean that a significant proportion of the whole Finnish air force would be tied up in a single mission.
The increasing capabilities of modern multi-role fighters and the use of stand-off weapons and sensors mean that the absolute number of aircrafts used for an OCA strike can be decreased somewhat. However, I must still admit that I was surprised that this seems to be a prioritised field. It is possible that this is seen as the most demanding of the missions, and that if the air force pilots becomes proficient in multi-package strikes on enemy airbases, this skill set (and weaponry) can easily be used also for the “lesser” missions (such as striking strategic bridges or enemy surface units, neither mission of which is dealt with in any detail in the report).
Another mission that gets a thorough analysis is electronic warfare and especially suppression of enemy air defences. SEAD, as it is usually abbreviated, deals with rendering enemy groundbased air defence systems ineffective, either by jamming their sensors or by outright destroying them. This is usually performed by specially modified aircrafts (the EA-6B Prowler and EA-18G Growler of the US Navy and Marine Corps, as well as the German and Italian Air Force Tornado ECR being mentioned), carrying special sensors and weaponry. The report notes that, even when it comes to stealth aircraft, multirole fighters will remain vulnerable to enemy air defences, and while they can carry some SEAD-weaponry and sensors (such as radar-homing missiles and jamming pods), true SEAD will always be something of a niche-capability that even modern multi-role fighters can only perform “with some restrictions”.
The possibility that Russia through the use of modern long-range air defence systems could more or less close Finnish air space is not discussed in the report. This would naturally have a huge impact on the needs and priorities of any future fighter, so not discussing it means that the work group believes that:
A) The impact of long-range surface-to-air missiles will be small/manageable (at extreme ranges the system will have trouble engaging low-flying targets due to the radar not seeing over the horizon, and the large missiles needed to get enough range will have poor manoeuvrability against agile fighter-sized targets), or
B) While it is possible to shut down most of Finland’s airspace using long-range surface-to-air missiles, it is not a good idea for Finnish officials to openly admit it.
The Alternative Solutions
A number of alternative solutions have been put forward, including unmanned platforms (UAV/UCAV), a completely ground-based solution (see earlier blog post), as well as extending the lifespan of the current Hornet-fleet.
All three of these are dealt with thoroughly in the report. There are currently no UAV/UCAV capable of performing the same missions as manned multi-role aircraft, especially with regards to air-to-air missions. Also, unmanned platforms tend to have the same cost to operate as manned aircraft of similar complexity and size (due to the fact that they need the same maintenance as an ordinary plane, and while he/she isn’t on board, they also need a trained “pilot”). The report envisions a place for UAV/UCAV’s in supplementing roles, e.g. reconnaissance, performing dangerous strikes, and finding targets on the battlefield and guiding in manned aircraft to strike these (FAC).
BAE Taranis is at the cutting edge of UCAV technology, but is still far from operational, and nowhere ear as versatile as modern multirole fighters. Source: BAE Systems
A ground-based air defence system lacks the operational flexibility of fighters, and cannot rapidly regroup to answer sudden threats in a new area of the country. Due to the vast size of Finland, a complete air defence system would also be extremely costly, and other weapon systems would be needed for striking enemy ground- and naval targets. Peacetime air surveillance is also impossible without own aircraft.
Lengthening the lifespan of the current Hornets is not a realistic option either. The aircrafts would need to be completely overhauled, an expensive process which easily could become even more expensive if some “nasty surprises”, such as cracks in critical structures, were found during the program. After 2020, Finland would also be the sole user responsible for keeping the legacy-Hornets aging mission computer up to date, carrying the whole upgrade cost for the fighter’s core avionics. The relative combat value of the aircraft, especially in air-to-air missions, is also rapidly decreasing with the introduction of new fighter aircraft in our neighbouring countries (F-35A, JAS 39E, T-50, and the latest versions of the Su-27 and MiG-29 families). If the extension would be done, it would cost approximately 1.2 billion Euros, and give the Hornet 5-10 years more in service. This would not give us any more options with regards to eventually replacing it, as no new designs are on the horizon in that timeframe, but rather it would diminish the options, as certain production lines are on the verge of closing.
The candidates have been an open secret, but as far as I am aware of, this is the first time they have been named in an official document. They are the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed-Martin F-35, and the SAAB JAS 39E (Super) Gripen, while all Far Eastern aircrafts are out of the competition. I presented all of the contenders in depth last autumn (here and here), so here I will only look into the few notable changes that have taken place since, as well as their strong and weak points in the light of the report.
Prior to Paris Air Show this month, Boeing declared that they believe they will be able to keep their St Louis production line for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet open until the end of the decade, meaning that they will be in the running for HX after all. Part of this is due to a new export deal for 28 Super Hornets to Kuwait, worth an estimated 3 billion USD. This marks only the second export deal for the Super Hornet, but Boeing is still looking into a number of potential foreign customers, Finland being one of them. An interesting ace the Super Hornet has is the ability to offer a dedicated SEAD version in the form of the EA-18G Growler, a heavily modified F/A-18F. The main problem is that the project is heavily reliant on continued interest (and funding) from a single operator. The day the US Navy decides to prioritise other aircraft, the few exported Super Hornets will become very expensive to maintain and upgrade.
The interest in SEAD might prove beneficial to the F/A-18E/F, if Finland would opt for an arrangement similar to Australia, who operate a fleet of 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets and have 12 EA-18G Growlers on order. Operating dedicated SEAD aircraft would make Finland a highly sought after partner in international operations, with only a handful of countries being able to offer the same capability (Germany, Italy, and USA), of which only the USA are able to offer more than a handful of airframes. Boeing also has the benefit of being the main supplier for the current F/A-18 Hornet-fleet, which have been a highly successful project from a Finnish point of view. The report talks about “looking into the possibilities of benefitting from current strategic partnerships that exists between Finnish and foreign companies”, and letting Patria and Boeing continue with their collaboration from the Hornet on to the Super Hornet would seem to fit this bill perfectly. The Super Hornet is also developed for the harsh carrier environment, and could be used for dispersed basing (i.e. using purpose-built roads as airfields) in the same way as the current legacy-Hornets are used.
Dassault Rafale has also scored notable successes on the export market, in the form of a 6.3 billion Euro deal for 24 Rafales to Qatar and a similar number of aircraft to Egypt as part of larger arms package including weaponry and warships. The troublesome MRCA deal with India also seems to be moving ahead. All in all, it seems more likely now than it did half a year ago that Dassault could manage to keep the production lines of its beautiful fighter open long enough to take part in the HX-project. Still, it’s hard to say how serious Dassault is about the Finnish fighter program, seemingly being occupied in the Middle East and with the huge Indian deal. Rafale is available in both land-based and carrier versions.
Eurofighter, SAAB, and Lockheed-Martin have not been able to present much new. All programs are moving forward at a steady pace. Interestingly enough, all three were also present at this summer’s main flight show in Finland, Turku Airshow, held earlier this month. SAAB had a JAS 39C Gripen taking part in a flyby with a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet and a Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16AM, as well as performing a solo display. The other two didn’t bring any flying hardware. Neither Boeing nor Dassault took part in the air show in any way.
Whit regards to the strategic partnerships, it should be noted that while Finland haven’t bought a British fighter since the Folland Gnat in 1958 or a German one since the Messerschmitt Bf 109G, the strategic partnerships are certainly there. The companies behind the Eurofighter consortium (officialy Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH) constitutes some of the key suppliers of the Finnish Defence Forces, through the CASA C-295 transports (by Airbus Defence) and the BAE Hawk trainers (by BAE Systems) of the Finnish Air Force, as well as in the form of the army’s primary transport helicopter, the NHIndustries NH90 (produced by the NHIndustries consortium, in which Airbus Helicopters has a 62.5 % stake). Patria is also supplying parts for a number of Airbus’ civil projects. All in all, the Eurofighter certainly has the local connections to be a serious contender. However, Eurofighter have had a hard time finding exports outside of the original countries, and I personally see the aircraft as the least likely choice for the HX-project. It’s not that it isn’t capable; it just costs too much and doesn’t quite stand out in an extremely competitive crowd.
SAAB seems to be the company that is placing most effort on the HX-project, although the Brazilian order certainly promises to be of an altogether different scale. Gripen is developed from the outset to suit Swedish needs, which are strikingly similar to Finland’s (cold weather operations, ease of maintenance, dispersed basing, and so forth). The Brazilian order and continued Swedish commitment also promises to make certain that the aircraft will have support throughout the lifecycle of the HX. The one stumbling block is its lack of stealth.
Contrary to SAAB, Lockheed-Martin does offer stealth, but there are huge questionmarks with regards to how maintenance of the F-35 will be handled. Cost is also an issue, even if the manufacturer assures everyone that the series produced aircraft will be on par or lower in unit price compared to current generation 4+-fighters. Still, when it comes to life-cycle costs, stealth coatings are notoriously difficult and expensive to maintain in proper working condition. The F-35 is offered in three versions, where the C-version is developed for carrierborne use, and as such could be used for dispersed basing. It is, however, noticeably more expensive than the landbased A-version, and it is questionable if it ever will receive any export orders. Of note is that the F-35 is only offered in single-seat versions, but the report acknowledges that much of the initial training will move to simulators, which lessens the demand for a two-seat lead-in training version.
The Bottom Line
I would still rank the F-35A/C and the JAS 39E Gripen as the two most likely candidates, with the F/A-18E/F (possibly with a few Growlers on strength) as the black horse. What it will come down to is:
What impact can new stealth-cancelling technologies be assumed to offer?
How is the F-35 able to cope with demanding cold-weather operations in dispersed conditions?
How will a robust maintenance chain be assured (especially in the case of the F-35)?
Is dedicated SEAD capability of importance?
What will the life-cycle costs of the different aircraft be?
As I stated in my previous post, I see only two real competitors for the HX fighter program; the SAAB JAS 39E/F Gripen and the Lockheed Martin F-35A(C?) Lightning II. Here is a short presentation of these.
SAAB JAS 39E/F Gripen
JAS 39E/F Gripen is the latest in a long line of Swedish fighters. It is small for a modern fighter jet, making it cheap to operate, but also meaning its weapons load and range is not quite up to that of some of its competitors. After a somewhat difficult start on the export market, including the failed bid to Finland when the Hornet was chosen, it has picked up pace, and scored a number of successes. The numbers exported are modest, a total of 66 airplanes operated by four foreign air forces, to which a further 36 to Brazil will be added in the near future. However, this still compares well with the corresponding numbers for its major European competitors, at 99 planes in three countries for the Eurofighter and no exports at all for the Rafale.
When Finland last time chose to get the F-18 Hornet instead of the JAS 39A/B Gripen, it was a very different aircraft that was offered. The Gripen was just starting to get into operational service, and the memory of the troubled early development phase was still fresh in memory. Compared to this, the F-18C/D Hornet offered a tried and tested airframe, and the CF-188 Hornet had provided stellar service in the harsh Canadian climate for a number of years. To this was added the political dimensions of buying a US-designed fighter in the immediate post-Cold War era.
Now, the tables are turned, with SAAB offering a mature design that is starting to show its true potential. The Gripen has overcome its teething troubles, and is today considered a very safe aircraft to operate, with the last major mishap being when a pilot forgot to lower his gear before landing in 2010. Compared to this, the US offering in the form of the F-35 is the tabula rasa.
The coming JAS 39E/F Gripen will feature most of the things expected by a modern fighter, including AESA radar, IRST, Helmet Mounted Display, and a state-of-the-art cockpit. The last feature is something which pilots with first-hand experience of the Gripen likes to talk about, how the Gripen cockpit is designed with the user in mind. For more details about the user-experience in Gripen and “how air combat works on a techno-psychological level”, a sentence I could never have come up with, I recommend contacting former fighter pilot and Libya-veteran Mikael Grev (twitter, blog).
While the Gripen wields an impressive sensor array and is cleared for an adequate arsenal of modern weapons, there is no denying that it is an older design than F-35 (although it is a generation newer than the rest of the US competition in the form of F-15/F-16/F-18). Most notably, it is not stealth. One of the main questions for the HX-program will be what kind of an impact stealth will have in a future air war, and what price the Finnish Air Force is prepared to pay for it. Everything points towards the fact that the Gripen will be cheaper to buy and to operate, and that Finland will have a greater influence over its future development compared to the F-35. However, the radar cross-section of the F-35 is noticeably smaller than Gripen’s.
As I mentioned in my last post on the HX program, operating the same fighter as our Swedish neighbours (our allies to be?), would give a number of benefits in the form of commonality during joint exercises/deployments. In times of crises, a re-deployment of Finnish fighters to Swedish bases is also more or less a must (if we have that opportunity), as Russian long-range surface-to-air missiles situated on the Russian side of the border cover most of Finland. In such a scenario, operating the same figher is certainly a big plus.
Interlude: Stealth and non-Stealth
Stealth is often treated as something you’ve either got, or then you’ve don’t. The reality is more complex.
The area ‘seen’ by a radar is usually quoted as the aircraft’s radar cross-section, RCS. This imaginatively named characteristic is given as the area of a surface in m2 (or some other suitable area unit). If the number is small, it makes the target harder to detect on radar. Planes with a small enough RCS are defined as stealth aircraft, while those with a lower than average RCS are described along the lines of “having stealth features”. As such, there are no hard numbers that dictate when the RCS is small enough to make an aircraft stealth.
This is all nice and fine, but to make things more complicated the RCS depends on a number of things, including angle of the aircraft relative to the radar, wavelength and type of the radar, weapons load on the aircraft, and so forth.
An aircraft is visible on the radar when a large enough amount of the emitted energy is echoing back to the aircraft. This means that any aircraft, regardless of the RCS, will sooner or later be visible. The trick is therefore to make certain that you see your enemy, and preferably kill or disable them, before they see you. As such, while stealth doesn’t make you invisible, it will make it possible to get the first shot/first kill.
To get around stealth, a number of options are available, including using radars operating on certain unusual wavelengths, or employing other means of detection, such as IRST-sensors (infrared cameras). To counter this, stealth aircraft are usually designed to have small ‘footprints’ also in other categories, e.g. a small infra-red profile.
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II (JSF)
The F-35 is the outcome of the Joint Strike Fighter program, with the aim of creating a single aircraft for the US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, where it will replace the F-16, A-10, F/A-18A/B/C/D, and the AV-8B Harrier. To perform these vastly different tasks, three distinct version are constructed, namely the ‘normal’ F-35A, the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) F-35B, and the carrier-capable F-35C.
On paper, the F-35 is the world’s finest multirole fighter in all aspects (with the exception of the US-only F-22 Raptor in the air-to-air role), being able to load a vast amount of different munitions in both internal weapons bays and on external hardpoints, and then to penetrate deep into enemy airspace to deliver these on target without being spotted. In short, it “represents a quantum leap in air dominance capability”, at least according to Lockheed Martin’s project web page.
This sounds good and nice, but the program has also attracted a huge amount of criticism. Much of this is directed towards the demand for a VTOL-version, which created the need for a wide fuselage that significantly affects the aerodynamics of the airplane (ie. it flies poorly compared to many other fighters) and caused major extra development costs. The program has been plagued by cost-overruns and delays, and there is a great debate about the final cost of the production aircrafts, with Lockheed Martin stating that a F-35A delivered in 2020 will have a unit cost of 66 million EUR (USD converted to EUR according to today’s currency rate, non-inflation adjusted). This is a comparable price to today’s fighters, the unit cost for the Finnish Hornets were around 49 million EUR. However, critics are questioning whether these projections aren’t overly optimistic, and some have pointed out that it seems that some of the cost-overruns are put in the account of the F-35B/C-variants, to keep the price of the export-friendly F-35A down. This might not help Finland, as the F-35C is a major candidate for us, being the sturdier variant, and hence more suited to dispersed basing.
Apart from cost, the performance of the aircraft has been widely criticized. It doesn’t turn as well as an F-16, it isn’t as durable as the A-10, and if it is to remain stealthy, it can’t carry more weapons than what fits onto the internal weapons bays’ four pylons, of which two are for air-to-air missiles only.
One important point of criticism is that the USA have been less than happy to share the ‘inner secrets’ of the F-35. In the most extreme cases, there have been talk about only a handful of top-tier maintenance sites being allowed to perform the most demanding types of maintenance. I am unsure about the current plans for how the F-35 fleets of different countries would be serviced, but if sending the planes to Italy for major checks is the way forward imagined by Lockheed Martin, this is one major problem. On the upside, quite a number of European nations (including Norway and Denmark) seems set on getting the F-35 in one variant or another, and as such one could imagine that pooling spares and information would give benefits in the form of economics of scale. If we were to join NATO, the use of the de facto NATO-standard in fighter design would be a plus.
Of note is that all F-35 variants are single-seaters, as opposed to the Gripen which comes in the single-seat JAS 39E and the twin-seat JAS 39F variants. Choosing the F-35 would mean that the flight training program used by the Finnish Air Force, wherein pilots are introduced to the Hornet via the small fleet of two-seater F-18D before moving on to fly the single-seat F-18C variant, would have to be scrapped. In practice, more flights in the Hawk (or in a new lead-in fighter trainer) and more simulator hours would probably be the answer.
There are quite a number of valid points of criticism with regards to the F-35. Still, I believe that the negative hype surrounding the airplane is out of proportion. Or rather, it is way too early to judge what kind of a legacy the F-35 will be having by 2025.
Interlude: A brief look into the history of criticized aircraft
The F-16 was a ‘second-choice’ fighter when it was clear that a cheaper alternative to the F-15 was needed, and received criticism for draining money from more important projects. The navy also felt that the order was launched too soon, and cancelled its part of the project. Today, it is perhaps the most successful jet fighter ever created.
The F-14 went way over budget, and both its engine (in the most numerous F-14A variant) and radar was known for being unreliable. This did not stop it from becoming a true classic.
The F-18 was the loser of the LWF program that the F-16 won, and had to fight to earn its place alongside the beloved F-14 on the USN carrier decks. Today, the F-14 is long since retired, while more Super Hornets are promoted as a possible solution to delays for the F-35.
The Eurofighter was plagued by technical problems, cost overruns, and delays, but eventually became the first fighter ever in German service not to suffer a single hull-loss during its first 10 years in operation.
The AH-64 Apache was extremely close to being cancelled due to rising costs, but is today one of the most widely serving attack helicopters anywhere in the world, with a stellar record in a number of conflicts.
In other words: while there obviously have been quite a number of aircraft that truly were bad, the F-111B comes to mind as a good analogy for the F-35, I am reluctant to trash the F-35 aircraft just yet.
While I personally would go for the JAS 39E/F based on information found in open sources, the fact is that, all other things being equal, the F-35 will always be harder to spot on radar than any competing offer (the Russian T-50 being the possible exception). How important will stealth be in a future air war? Only time will tell. Another important question is whether we want commonality with Sweden (as well as the Czech Republic and Hungary), or with NATO. The answer depends on major strategic decisions, that has to be taken at the political level.