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).

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

Eurofighter Typhoon

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

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

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

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

Dassault Rafale

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

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

Boeing F-18E/F Super Hornet

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

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

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

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

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

Boeing F-15/Lockheed-Martin F-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitsubishi F-3

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

Shenyang J-31

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

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

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

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

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

In Brief

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

A Ground-based Air Defence System for Finland

There has been quite some debate about what fighter is best for the Finnish HX-project, aimed at replacing the capabilities of the Finnish F-18C/D Hornet-fleet. As stated in my earlier post, in principle, the same capabilities could be provided by acquiring a large ground-based air defence network, a number of surface-to-surface missiles, as well as a small fleet of light fighter aircraft which would provide QRA in peacetime. This would in a stroke be the most radical realignment of the Finnish Defence Forces since at least the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty in 1948, and as such I find it highly unlikely. One of the reasons is that the cost would probably be on par or higher compared to getting a new fighter. To explain this in further detail, here comes a short mathematical exercise:

A ground-based air defence system for Finland

A thought to begin with: when dealing with given ranges, these are always to be taken with a grain of salt, as at maximum range the lower altitudes are most likely not seen on radar, while the higher altitudes require a longer traveling distance due to the added vertical distance. Still, SAM’s does two things: 1) they kill stuff, and, 2) they force aircraft to adjust their tactics, i.e. fly lower, carry less ordnance, spend time searching for the enemy anti-air batteries, and so forth. This means that even if no kills are scored, their presence alone might mean that they are doing their job.

Coverage of four SM-6 batteries. Source. Google maps (background)/author
Coverage of four SM-6 batteries. Source. Google maps (background)/author

The new SM-6 provides the long-range anti-air cover for the US Navy, as well for a number of close US allies in the Pacific area. It has a range of roughly 240 km. Above is a picture showing four batteries grouped in Hanko, Joensuu, Kajaani, and Rovaniemi. They cover the better part of Finnish airspace, as well as quite a bit of Estonia’s and some Russian and Latvian too. The downside: they have a fly-away cost of 3,5 million Euros per missile. I haven’t found the cost for a ground-based launcher, but from the French numbers for the SAMP/T, 10 launchers + 575 Aster 30/15 missiles cost 4,1 billion Euros, we can make a rough estimate that its launchers cost around 300 million Euros per battery, with the SM-6 probably not cheaper.

Coverage of 12 NASAMS 2 batteries. Sou
Coverage of 12 NASAMS 2 batteries. Source. Google maps (background)/author

The SM-6 would force enemy aircraft down to lower altitudes, were a system such as the ASTER or the NASAMS 2 (known as ItO 12 in Finnish service) could then shoot them down. The NASAMS 2 have a maximum range of around 15-20 km, of which Finland currently operates 24 firing units bought for 366 million Euros. To this, the cost of missiles will have to be added, and these comes in at a price of 1,45 million Euros each. The firing units can then be networked into batteries, so the total number of batteries is harder to give, but a quick look at the map says that around 12 batteries would be needed to protect key cities, harbours, and the four SM-6 batteries. To this would then have to be added the number of batteries needed to protect the major military units out in the field, as well as some key points in the direction of the battlefield, such as railway lines and bridges.

To these then comes the short-ranged shoulder launched missiles. Stinger missiles for everybody, right? Well, the latest deal included ‘hundreds’ of missiles which Finland bought from ex-US Army stocks, for the price of 90 million Euros. However, for new missiles the price is quite something else, as the earlier Finnish request for 600 Stinger FIM-92C RMP missiles with related equipment and support showed. This whole deal was valued at 265 million Euros, or 440 000 per missile.

Range of 10 SAMP/T launchers with Aster 30 missiles. Source. Google maps (background)/author
Coverage of 10 SAMP/T launchers with Aster 30 missiles. Source. Google maps (background)/author

The estimated 6 billion Euro program for replacing the Hornets with new fighters suddenly doesn’t look as expensive as it used to. We could buy the French SAMP/T-package with ten batteries and a few hundred missiles, and to this then add 1500-2000 Stinger missiles, for a grand total of around 5 billion Euros. We’d then have approximately 1 billion Euro left to buy a handful of cheap fighters for QRA, as well as cruise missiles and recce UAV’s to be able to attack pinpoint targets deep behind enemy lines, by which time we would be in a rather tight spot not go over the original cost.

Naturally, this is a thought experiment simplified to the extreme. The need for anti-air missiles or unmanned reconnaissance vehicles does not go away if we acquire a new fighter. It can also be debated whether ten SAMP/T really would provide the same level of protection that the more mobile fighters would. A third argument is the difference in life-cycle costs in peacetime, training flights with fighters are extremely expensive compared to a SAM-battery driving out into the woods and setting up camp for a week or two. Still, even this basic calculation shows the simple fact that SAM’s are not the dirt cheap solution to our air defence needs they sometimes are portrayed to be.

Replacing the ”capabilities of the Hornet fighter aircraft”

This week’s biggest defence related news from Finland is without doubt the announcement from the Ministry of Defence that a preliminary committee has been created to prepare the launching of an assessment about how the capabilities of the F-18C/D Hornet is to be replaced in Finnish service. The press release is found in both Finnish and Swedish, but so far no English release has been made. Note the keyword, “capabilities”.

The Finnish Air Force operates a mixed fleet of 55 single-seat F-18C (two out of the original 57 having been lost in accidents) and seven two-seat F-18D. The D-variant is fully combat capable, but its primary use in Finnish service is as a dual-control trainer for pilots practicing their skills. These are the sole combat jets of the air force, but in times of crises the Hawk Mk.51/51A/66 jet trainers can be employed as light fighter or attack aircraft with a limited combat capability during conditions of good visibility. In times of war, the Hornets would play a key role in protecting own troops from enemy air attacks, as well as attacking enemy ground targets. A rough picture of the main missions of the Finnish Hornets in times of war can be acquired from the weapons they are equipped with.

The Weapons

For air-to-air work, long the sole official role of the Finnish Hornet-fleet, the AIM-9X short range IR-guided missile is used in conjunction with the JCHMCS helmet-mounted sight. For longer ranges, the AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM medium-ranged active radar-guided missile is used. The use of these constitutes no surprise, as they have been the weapons of choice for most west-oriented countries for quite some time. It is notable, however, that the Finnish Air Force employs some of the latest versions of both the AIM-9 and AIM-120 available.

F-18C Hornet MLU2, notice JDAM and LITENING-pod. Source: Finnish Defence Forces/mil.fi

For air-to-ground work, three different weapons are in use: the GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), the AGM-154C Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW), and the ‘silver bullet’ in the form of the AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile). These are guided by the state-of-the-art AN/AAQ-28 LITENING AT Block-2 targeting pod.

The JDAM is basically a kit that is fitted to any Mk-80-series ‘dumb’ bomb, and turns it into a short-ranged GPS-guided weapon. Due to its vastly improved precision over unguided munitions and its (relatively) low price, it has quickly become the weapon of choice for air forces the world over, and has seen extensive use in a number of low-intensity conflicts, up to and including the latest campaign in Syria.

The JSOW is a gliding bomb, guided through the initial stages of flight by GPS coupled with inertial guidance, and in the terminal phase of the flight by an IR-seeker. The C-version is fitted with a specially designed two-stage warhead that first employs a smaller shaped-charge warhead to blast a passage through walls or armor, allowing the main charge to pass through and detonate inside the target. As it lacks propulsion, the range of the JSOW varies greatly with launch altitude, being roughly 20 to 130 km. The current state of the JSOW program in Finnish use is somewhat unclear to me. It seems plans for large scale operational use might have been abandoned as the JASSM was cleared for sale to Finland.

The JASSM is one of the most advanced stand-off weapons in service anywhere in the world today. It has a low radar cross-section, giving it somewhat stealthy characteristics, and is powered by a small turbojet, giving it a maximum range of well over 350 km (depending on launching height). It navigates in the same way as the JSOW, with GPS-assisted inertial guidance and an IR-seeker, but it also employs a data-link, being able to transmit data back to the launching aircraft. The fact that Finland as only the second foreign country in the world was allowed to buy these missiles from the USA is a strong political signal, an aspect I won’t delve further into, but for those interested Charly Salonius-Pasternak has written a very interesting briefing paper under the name Not just another arms deal: The security policy implications of the United States selling advanced missiles to Finland for the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

What is striking here is the complete lack of variety in the arsenal of the Hornet. There is no anti-vehicle weapon like the venerable AGM-65 Maverick or the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, no area weapon in the form of cluster munitions or even rocket pods, no anti-shipping missile, no anti-radiation missile. In a nutshell, all three acquired weapons are pinpoint weapons, designed to take out single high-value (hardened) targets. To put it bluntly, their main differences are in range and price only, with longer range demanding a higher price tag.

JAS-39C with AShM Rb15. Source: Flygvapenbloggen/Mikael Olsson

As a side-note, this can be contrasted with the weapons employed by the JAS-39C/D Gripen in Swedish service, about which Swedish blogger and air force pilot Wiseman wrote last fall (in Swedish only). The Swedish Air Force uses a mix of the Rb 15 indigenous anti-shipping missile and the laser-guided GBU-12/49 Enhanced Paveway II 227 kg bomb for their ground work, with AGM-65 and DWS-39/BK90 having been retired (Add. The BK90 was a gliding stand-off submunitions dispenser with 72 submunitions. Not unlike the A-version of the JSOW, it was cancelled due to political pressure on cluster weapons). Although it seems like the choice of weapons on the Gripen has had as much to do with politics as with operational requirements, it is interesting to note that the Gripen flies with the weapons the Hornets lack, and vice versa.

The Mission

Back to Finland, it is rather clear that in the ground attack role, the Hornets will not perform close-air support or go hunting after enemy tanks and ground troops. They carry a highly specialized payload, and will be used to take out key targets behind enemy lines, such as bridges, command and control centers, communication hubs, and so forth. This mission is known as air interdiction, and there are a number of historical cases where it has been instrumental in tilting the balance of ground operations (and a number of cases where it has failed miserably). The use of stand-off weapons allows the Hornets to perform the mission from within Finnish air space, which should enhance their chance of survival.

Finnish 130 mm field gun firing. Source: Finnish Defence Forces/mil.fi

It is also notable that the army has a large artillery park in comparison with many other countries, including both towed and self-propelled guns, as well as medium and heavy rocket launchers. While close air support no doubt can be devastating, artillery strikes on enemy troop concentrations can perform very much the same mission, given that they receive accurate target data and are protected from enemy countermeasures (mainly air attacks and counter-battery fire). Note that the MGM-140B ATACMS surface-to-surface missile, which Finland asked for and received permission to buy but then decided against, was not directly comparable to the JASSM, as it was not fitted with a large single warhead but 275 smaller submunitions.

The capabilities the Hornet provide the Finnish Defence Forces with during times of war are thus two-fold: anti-air operations, and attacking key enemy ground targets.

The Replacement

The obvious way to replace these capabilities is to buy a new fighter. The last Hornets are scheduled for retirement by 2030, with the first leaving in 2025. In the same 2025-2030 time span the replacing fighter would be produced and delivered. However, modern fighters are not cheap. The F-35C Joint Strike Fighter has a price tag somewhere around 91 million Euros if you ask the manufacturer, but this may be way higher (the naval version likely being a better fit than the F-35A for Finnish use due to the requirement of operating from dispersed basing). While the “list price” of a Hornet is given by the US Navy as 23 million Euros, for Finland, the price of our Hornets jumped due to fluctuations in the exchange rate and a number of administrative fees, leading to a unit price of around 49 million Euros. Still, this leaves the Hornet at roughly half the inflation adjusted price of the F-35. Another alternative is obviously the Swedish JAS-39E/F Gripen. The first Swedish order for 60 “refurbished” planes is at a flyaway cost of 33 million Euros per unit. Notably, the cost for flight hours during the life cycle is considerably smaller for the Gripen than corresponding figure for twin-engined aircrafts such as the Rafale or the Super Hornet.

Another thing to remember is that the production lines for a number of fighters currently in production will likely close during the coming years, including the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (2017?), the Rafale (2018?), and the Eurofighter (2017?). This would leave the F-35 and Gripen as the only western fighters available by 2025. A more exotic alternative is the upcoming Japanese F-3, the technology demonstrator of which was recently unveiled. With the Japanese showing signs of opening up their arms industry for exports, it might be available on the export market by 2025. However, Japanese high-tech weapons systems such as the Type 10 tank and the F-2 (support) fighter have been notorious for their high unit price.

The main problem in replacing the Hornet with another fighter is the development of ever more accurate and maneuverable long-range surface-to-air missiles. I discussed this in an earlier post, where I noted that more or less all of Finland’s air space would be controlled by Russian SAM’s. This naturally begs the question, whether it is worth investing 5-7 billion Euros (based on the 3.5 billion for Brazil’s 36 planes) in an air force which would operate in the face of a numerically and quite possibly technologically superior force, and then only at minimum height?

Approximate range of Russian long-range surface-to-air missile systems. Note that due to the curvature of the earth and “rough” surface it is not possible to pick up and target aircrafts flying at low altitude in the outer spectrum of the engagement zone. Graphic by Kauko Kyöstiö from p. 6 of FIIA Briefing Paper 112 (2012) by Charly Salonius-Pasternak: Not just another arms deal: The security policy implications of the United States selling advanced missiles to Finland.
Approximate range of Russian long-range surface-to-air missile systems. Source: Graphic by Kauko Kyöstiö from p. 6 of FIIA Briefing Paper 112 (2012) by Charly Salonius-Pasternak: Not just another arms deal: The security policy implications of the United States selling advanced missiles to Finland

The obvious answer then seems to be that what we need is more ground based anti-air systems. The medium-ranged NASAMS 2/ITO12 system bought by Finland a few years back had a total price tag (excluding missiles) of around 366 million Euros. This gives a price tag of around 61 million per battery, which actually is in the middle ground between a Hornet and an F-35C. Of course, once deployed, the battery can maintain (or at least contest) air superiority over a certain area for an indefinite time as long as it receives needed supplies, but the difference in price is not as big as one could assume. Also, the benefit of the fighter jet is its flexibility, being able to move at high speeds between different areas of the battle field, and perform numerous different missions.

It is also important to remember that no single anti-air system can function effectively alone. The medium-ranged systems needs to be complemented by short-ranged MANPADS for use against attack helicopters and planes operating at tree-top height, as well as long-ranged sensors and C3-systems to give a correct situational picture. All in all, this kind of layered defence will probably cost as much as or more than a new fighter. However, the question is, can we afford not to employ a layered ground based anti-air network, even if we would acquire a new fighter jet? The question can also be turned the other way, who will protect our skies during peace time, if we lack fighters to scramble and identify intruders with? A minimum force of 15-30 planes is needed for normal air policing duties, and as long as Finland isn’t a member of a military alliance, we have to pay for these ourselves. A solution could be to try and source a number of low-hour F-16’s, to use for the air policing mission in peace time, and rely on ground based sensors and weapon systems in times of war.

An interesting note here is that Brigadier general (ret.) Lauri Puranen who leads the current project is known as promoting the “spirit of ‘joint’”, having been both the commander of the air force as well as the section commander of the army aviation. As such, he just might be the man to advocate such unorthodox solutions, although a new fighter is still the most likely route.

I am personally of the opinion that in the best of worlds, Finland and Sweden would both be members of NATO, and Finnish JAS-39E’s would be able to operate from bases in Norrland in case of war. However, neither of us are, and it then follows that the committee has some very tough decisions coming up, with no clear answer being provided.