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.