Tour de Sky 2016 -Return of the ‘Balalaika’

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

LanceR

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post-war the squadron operated the MiG-21 in the F-13 and Bis variants for several decades up until they were withdrawn from Finnish service in 1998.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

LanceR II

Gripen

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

JASSMed

Rafale C

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

Hornet

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

OH-HVP

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

TRD

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

Choppers

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

MC-130J

The weather…

 

A Brief Update on HX

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

Kampfly

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

Dassault Rafale

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

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

Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

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

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

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

Eurofighter Typhoon

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

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

Saab JAS 39E Gripen

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

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

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

Lockheed-Martin F-35

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

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

General HX

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

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

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.

F-16 and crew chief
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.

IMG_4287
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.

Vinka 1
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.

Tour de Sky 2014 010
‘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.

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

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

The Capabilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Alternative Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

The Candidates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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.

Aircraft 39-7 is the demo aircraft for the future JAS 39F two-seater configuration. Source: Saabgroup.com/Stefan Kalm, copyright Saab AB
Aircraft 39-7 is the demo aircraft for the future JAS 39F two-seater configuration. Source: Saabgroup.com/Stefan Kalm, copyright Saab AB

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.

Remains of an F-117 Nighthawk stealth bomber at Belgrade Aviation Museum, an example of the fact that ‘stealth’ does not mean ‘invisible’. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Belgrade Aviation Museum Photo Archive

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.

F-35 heads on during testing. Source: F35.com/Lockheed Martin

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.

The carrier variant F-35C during inflight refuling. Source: F35.com/Lockheed Martin

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.

A representative for Lockheed Martin demonstrating the F-35 simulator to a Finnish Air Force pilot during last years Tour de Sky airshow in Oulu. Source: Author
A representative for Lockheed Martin demonstrating the F-35 simulator to a Finnish Air Force pilot during last years Tour de Sky airshow in Oulu. Source: Author

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.

In Brief

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.