HX goes DSCA

One of the more anticipated milestones of the HX-process took place this week with the publication of the DSCA-notifications. These somewhat poorly understood bureaucratic processes caused some waves in the PTO 20200-tender. This time the Finnish MoD has done its best to avoid similar jumps to conclusion by media and other observers, but there has still been some less-than-helpful interpretations of what the notifications says. In short, the US regulations require that the congress is informed about important upcoming arms deals as a matter of oversight, something that happens through the DSCA-notifications. In the case of HX (and the Swiss AIR2030/NFA which made headlines a short while ago) the potential tenders are being pre-cleared, i.e. congress is notified about an upcoming potential sale. This allows for quicker turn-around if and when a contract is signed, and ensures that the supplier actually can deliver what they’ve promised. The most important points that sometimes get lost are:

  • The fact that this isn’t an order, nor are they necessarily corresponding to what is included in the final order (in fact, often they aren’t as it makes sense to clear the possible maximum amount of items in one go instead of having to go back and request a second clearance in case the requirements changes),
  • The negotiations of the HX-program is still ongoing, and as such neither the buyer nor the seller knows for certain the details of the final offer,
  • The value quoted for the DSCA-notifications usually aren’t that helpful in determining the contract value,
  • Most crucially, the notifications are ridiculously detailed in some ways, but glossing over major items in others. See “40 inch wing release lanyard” getting its own row, but “Spares” being a single line item.

To sum it up, long-term aviation journalist Gareth Jennings commenting on the AIR2030 put words to how everyone covering the process feels.

With that said, let’s jump into what information can be gleaned from the notifications.

Numbers don’t lie

The first obvious issue is the number of aircraft. With programme director Lauri Puranen on record stating that 64 aircraft seems impossible, it is noteworthy that the Lockheed Martin notification is for 64 F-35A and the Boeing has a total of 72 aircraft, made up of 50 F/A-18E Super Hornet, 8 twin-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet, and 14 EA-18G Growler. While it is still within the realms of possibilities, if unlikely, that we would see a 64 fighter buy, I don’t see how 72 could fit within the operating budget. As such, the 72 aircraft notification is a good indication for the fact that the final mix of the Boeing offer is still up in the air. 40 F/A-18E, 8 F/A-18F, and 12 EA-18G for a 62 aircraft fleet would be my personal guess.

Another place where the final offer is evidently still not set in the Boeing offer is the targeting pods (the F-35 notably not requiring one, as it has an internal electro-optical sensor based on the technology of the Sniper pod). The notification includes 32 ATFLIR, 32 Sniper (of an undisclosed version, but likely the XR), and an undisclosed number of the Litening (notable is that Finland currently uses an earlier version of the Litening-pod, the version now on offer would likely be the Litening 5). The ATFLIR was the one brought over for HX Challenge, but on the other hand the Litening was brought over hanging under an Eurofighter, so Finland has verified data on that one as well. I won’t comment on which pod would provide the best solution, as the details are A) classified, and B) I’m not familiar enough with the pod-world to say if there’s any kind of significant differences found in open sources. I will note that the ATFLIR has had teething troubles, but those seems (maybe?) to have since been overcome, and that the Litening 5 is being developed to sport a SAR-module, which is something of an unique selling point, but one likely to be of secondary value.

The single-seat F/A-18E Super Hornet getting airborne from Tampere-Pirkkala AFB during HX Challenge earlier this year. The notification confirms that if Boeing wins, the single-seater will be by far the most common version. Source: Own picture

In the same way, it can be noted that a total of 25 IRST-pods are cleared for the Hornet-bid. The Super Hornet’s IRST solution with a centre-line has been criticised for being less elegant than the integration on the competitors, though it in fact suffers from a relatively small blind spot. What is interesting is that the numbers for both the targeting pod (presuming that only one model is bought) and the IRST both are offered in numbers covering approximately half of the fleet. This is in general one of the strong points of the F-35, every aircraft gets its own ‘pod’ thanks to the sensor being internal, while for the rest budgetary restraints often causes some aircraft to be left without. Exactly how the Super Hornet operations would look is an interesting question, but one alternative could be one aircraft of a pair flying with a pod and the other with an IRST.

As noted, with security of supply being a key factor and the ability to overhaul the aircraft locally from local stocks a key item here, the spare parts packages are naturally of great interest. Here, however, we’re more or less completely out of luck, as these crucial items are reduced to the single line of “provisioning, spares and repair parts”. It is, however, notable that this is a rather different wording compared to the Swiss notifications that only include “aircraft spares”. However, there is another place where spares catch the eye, and that is on the line discussing engines. The F-35A bid lists two spare P&W F-135 engines, while the F/A-18E/F/G offer lists 22 spare F414-GE-400 (interestingly enough, here the Swiss notifications for 40 aircraft listed six and 16 respectively). Good arguments can be made for the F-35 needing fewer complete spare engines for a given fleet size, including both during peacetime (single-engined aircraft having half the number of engines compared to twin-engined ones, the more modern design potentially having longer life and more replaceable subassemblies) and wartime use (an engine damaged enough to warrant replacement likely will lead to the loss of the aircraft). However, for a country obsessing about security of supply and with the supply of spare parts being one the major questions surrounding the F-35 in the HX-programme, it does strike one as an oddly low number, and makes the question about what really is found in the spare package even more interesting.

Like the spares, the amount of supporting equipment found amongst the rows isn’t straightforward to judge. There are a number of interesting rows, including training equipment, as well as numerous test vehicles for the weaponry. Key terms are also differing if compared to AIR2030 notifications, though considering the somewhat erratic template through which the notifications are pushed it is difficult to say how much weight should be placed on these differences. Still, there’s a few interesting discrepancies, such as the inclusion of the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN, to replace the much maligned ALIS which is on the way out) in the Finnish notification, a system that isn’t found the Swiss one. “Weapons system software” is also found in both Finnish notifications but in neither Swiss one, something that might simply have to do with the inclusion of more complex weaponry. An interesting row is found on the personnel needed to support the F-35.

U.S. contractor representatives will be required in Finland to conduct Contractor Engineering Technical Services (CETS) and Autonomic Logistics and Global Support (ALGS) for after-aircraft delivery

As noted, everything that includes the word “Global” is something of a red flag to the Finnish security of supply requirements, but at the same time it is obvious that during normal peacetime operations it makes sense to leverage the significant savings that can be found in operating what is rapidly turning out to be the next joint European fighter. However, there is little in the notification to indicate what kinds of additional steps have been taken to ensure that Finland has the required level of control over the security of supply compared to other more traditional customers. This might or might not mean something, as noted many of the crucial items in the notification doesn’t provide much in the way of details.

EW

Everyone, myself included, is obviously counting weapons cleared for sale, but let’s start with the more obscure but no less important side of things. Electronic warfare.

It is important to note that we in essence are talking of three very different platforms, something that is visible in the notifications. The electronic warfare suite of the F-35A is highly integrated into the aircraft, and as such relatively few lines are dealing with it. There’s simply a mention of “Electronic warfare system”, as well as related systems such as C4I and the “F-35 unique infrared flares” (to the best of knowledge the aircraft does not carry chaff dispensers Edit: The F-35 is in the process of getting chaff. Thanks to JoJo for flagging it in the comments!) and access to the reprogramming centre. Compared to the long list of the Super Hornet that seems a bit cheap, but that is most likely simply because you can’t buy an F-35 without getting the whole package. As such, there’s no reason to mention particular details such as the ALE-70 towed decoy for the F-35, while in the case of the Super Hornet, the corresponding ALE-55 does get it’s own row.

The NGJ mock-up together with an AGM-88E AARGM anti-radiation missile (i.e. it locks onto a radar and flies into it) under the wing of the EA-18G Growler taking part in HX Challenge. The capabilities of the NGJ will be evaluated in the US, due to sensitive nature of the capability and the need for a large testing range. Source: Own picture

Another good pointer to the fact that Boeing isn’t in fact preparing a 72 aircraft bid is the fact that only 65 pieces of the AN/ALR-67(V)3 EW countermeasures receiving sets and the AN/ALQ-214 integrated countermeasures systems are included. The more cryptic “Advanced Electronic Attack Kit for EA-18G” is more along the lines of how the F-35 is described, with a single line referring to more or less the whole package.

With an important exception.

Eight (8) Next Generation Jammer Mid-Band (NGJ-MB) sets

I’ve discussed the NGJ-MB earlier, the long story short version is that it is an extremely powerful system able to go after enemy air defences, but also enemy communication networks. On the flip side, it costs an arm and a leg, but in many ways it is a key piece of the Growler’s wartime capabilities post-2030, and getting eight systems would provide Finland with one of the best airborne escort as well as stand-in jamming capabilities in Europe. Note the reference to “sets”, which would seem to indicate that there will be a total of sixteen pods delivered, with the aircraft having one under each wing. Currently the Growler flies with three AN/ALQ-99 pods in different configurations for different bands. The new NGJ-MB replaces the two underwing units, with the third centre-line mounted one being slated for replacement by the low-band NGJ-LB. If Finland opts for the Growler, the NGJ-LB can make its entry at some point further down the line (as can the eventual high-band pod which will come yet later). However, the utility against current threats is greatest for the NGJ-MB, especially if Finland continues on with a non-stealthy force meaning that the proliferation of new low-band radars aren’t as big a threat scenario as it is for the US forces. It is also notable that the greatest criticism leveraged against the NGJ-MB so far (decreasing the range of the Growler due to high drag when the pod is active and the doors to the ram air turbine are open) is less of an issue for Finland compared to the China-scenario which is the main driver behind current USN development.

Weapons

One thing we do know, however, is that Puranen didn’t exaggerate when he talked about the comprehensive weapons packages pushing the budget. The notifications include sizeable amounts of JDAMs, both thermally insensitive HE (i.e. the stuff shouldn’t explode if your ammunition storage is on fire) as well as bunker buster rounds, GBU-53/B SDB II’s small glide bombs, AGM-154C-1 JSOW stealthy glide weapons with a secondary anti-ship capability, AGM-158B JASSM-ER long-range heavy cruise missiles, AIM-9X Block II+ and Block II respectively, as well as JSM integration in the case of the F-35A and HARM/AARGM-rails in the case of the Super Hornet/Growler. Curiously absent are the JSM and anti-radiation missiles themselves, as well as any air-to-air missiles with a longer reach than the Sidewinder.

JTAC directing a Hornet dropping a JDAM on a target that already was under artillery fire as part of last year’s KAAKKO19 exercise

The air-to-ground package is interesting, as it continues as well as expands upon the air-to-ground capabilities currently operated by the Finnish Air Force. The JDAM is a weapon currently found in the Finnish inventory in the form of Mk 84-based GBU-31V1, the Mk 83-based GBU-32, the Mk 82-based GBU-38 and the BLU-109-penetrator based GBU-31V3 (commonly known as a ‘bunker buster’). The Mk 84 and BLU-109 is a 1,000 kg class weapon, with the Mk 83 and Mk 82 being 500 kg and 250 kg class weapons respectively. It is more of the same weapons that are requested this time around, with exception that the F-35A has skipped the GBU-32 and loaded up with more GBU-38s. The Super Hornet is cleared for 102 GBU-38, 51 GBU-32, 120 HE GBU-31, and 30 bunker-busting GBU-31, with the corresponding numbers being 150 GBU-38, 120 HE GBU-31, and 30 bunker-busting GBU-31 for the F-35. Are there situations where you want a 500 kg weapon instead of a 250 kg or a 1,000 kg one? Sure, if nothing else the 500 kg provides a bit of margin with regards to accuracy compared to a 250 kg one, in particular if you go after semi-hard targets. Is it enough of a difference to say that the Super Hornet has the edge here? I doubt it, the acquisition as a whole is complex enough that the 50 JDAMs most likely won’t provide a decisive edge. However, they might indicate that Boeing feel they have that small extra wiggle room when it comes to how their package is built, something that might also be seen in the next weapon. Or not.

The JSOW is also found in (limited) numbers in the Finnish arsenal. Originally envisioned largely as a back-up plan in case the JASSM sans-ER wasn’t cleared for export, it apparently has found enough of a use as to be requested this time around as well. The notifications include 100 JSOW for the F-35A, and 160 for the Super Hornet. The JSOW is unpowered (at least for the time being), and as such is highly reliant on release speed and altitude when it comes to range. Once released the weapon pops out a pair of wings on which it glides towards the target. The basic navigation is GPS-assisted inertial navigation, but the C-1 also has an IIR seeker for terminal guidance which has given the weapon better accuracy, and the ability to strike moving ships. The two-stage penetrating BROACH warhead can also be set to a one-stage mode which is more effective against soft targets, such as ships or unarmoured vehicles. The question of maritime strike for HX has been left somewhat open by the authorities, with the aircraft required to be able to support the Navy in the maritime domain, but not necessarily through kinetic means (e.g. systems such as the Growler or the GlobalEye could certainly be of great value when it comes to supporting the Navy in the electronic warfare domain and in building the situational picture). The JSOW could potentially provide a middle-ground, providing the Finnish Air Force with an important capability the primary use of which is in the land domain, but which also could be used against enemy vessels. The JSM is on the other hand a dedicated anti-ship missile with a secondary ground attack role. Thanks to it being powered it has a significantly longer range. However, the JSM might be included as an option for another role as well, as we saw in the Dassault marketing material that it seems destined to be the SEAD/DEAD weapon of choice for the French offer. Boeing and Lockheed Martin reading different levels of importance into the maritime strike mission can obviously be one explanation, but another is that LM feel they need a powered weapon of a lighter class than the JASSM to go SAM-hunting with, and there felt that they can kill two birds with one stone (or rather, both SAMs and ships with the same missile). In any case, the JSM, if acquired, would provide a seriously improved ship-killing capability, and with the JSM being stealthy and equipped with an IIR seeker (as opposed to the radar seeker of the Navy’s PTO 2020/Gabriel V), it would create the need for an enemy to be prepared to defend against two very different kinds of threats. I am unsure how Raytheon and Kongsberg have split up the market for the JSM (again, my time at Kongsberg was spent far away from the Defence & Aerospace-division, so I have no insider knowledge of the project), but it is possible that somewhere outside the US-package there is a separate offer for 60 JSM from Kongsberg for the F-35 package, which would explain the smaller number of JSOW.

The somewhat awkwardly named GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb increment II (it is in fact renamed to StormBreaker, but that one hasn’t stuck. At least not yet) would represent a completely new capability for the Finnish Air Force, in that it is a light glide bomb that can be used to take out individual vehicles, including moving ones. The fact that it is unpowered causes the range to be dependent on release height and speed, but on the positive side the small size means a large number can be carried, and it has a seeker with no less than three modes of operating. In the words of Raytheon:

• Millimeter wave radar — provides all-weather capability and the ability to quickly detect and track moving or stationary targets.
• IIR sensor — uncooled IIR sensor provides three categories of classification capability and aim point refinement.
• Semi-active laser sensor — tracks a laser spot from the launch platform or third-party designators.

This would give the HX the ability to go after tanks or artillery positions, including moving ones, but also to provide close air support by striking individual positions designated by ground troops or other platforms. And with the small size of the weapon allowing for large numbers to be carried on each station, the notification include up to 500 live weapons for either offer. The weapon follows on the highly successful original GBU-39 SDB, and is currently cleared for the F-15E Strike Eagle and since this year on the Super Hornet.

A Finnish F/A-18D Hornet loaded with two (training) AGM-158A JASSM during exercise TOUHU17. Note the decision to use a twin-seat aircraft for the long-range strike mission, something that together with earlier self-critique about having too few twin-seaters for operational conversion led many (myself included) to speculate that a larger number of F/A-18F might be included in the offer, something the notification now proved wrong. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

The big stick, however, remains the JASSM. Finland currently operate a limited number of the original AGM-158A JASSM. This has to the best of my knowledge been completely replaced on the production line by the longer-legged (but otherwise sharing a high-degree of commonality) AGM-158B JASSM-ER, 200 of which are now being offered to Finland. This is in turn set to be overtaken by the even longer-ranged AGM-158D JASSM-XR in the next few years (the missing AGM-158C being the LRASM anti-ship version). I would not read too much into the fact that Finland is about to switch from JASSM to JASSM-ER if we end up buying a US fighter. More range is nice, but it is likely also the cheaper (or even the only) option compared to the rest of the family as the ER-production line is currently hot.

Notable is that the JASSM in Finnish service is a weapon described as having a deterrence role, a somewhat controversial notion, but one that apparently has some support in Russian doctrine. However, the low number of weapons has always been the main Achilles heel when it comes to the doctrine of heavy conventional precision-guided munitions being able to function as a deterrent. 200 JASSM-ER backed up by 100-160 JSOW are certainly numbers that are starting to be felt. Especially if the current JASSM stocks are refurbished.

This brings us on to another point. There’s some rumours going on in Finnish defence forums that the ability to employ weapons from current Finnish stocks won’t be factored into the eventual deciding wargame. While I don’t have any insight into the finer details of the wargame, I have not been able to find any support for that idea in the official communication, nor is it in line with what has been communicated earlier. The Finnish Defence Forces is (in)famous for not throwing things away that can be put to use, and Puranen has confirmed to Lännen Media that the possibility of keeping the current JASSM for use on the eventual HX-winner is being studied. While there is no requirement for the winner to be able to employ the Hornet-arsenal, considering that the stated goal of the wargame is to evaluate how well the total package offered would perform as part of the FDF and the Finnish defence concept, removing a potential benefit of one package (such as the ability to keep using the current stocks of AGM-158A JASSM or AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM after overhauling these) in the name of “fairness” does run contrary to both that aim and the nature of war, which famously isn’t fair.

To use a hypothetical example to make things really clear: the Finnish Air Force says they need 200 precision-guided free-fall bombs of a 250 kg class. Eurofighter brings 200 Paveway IV in their offer, but Boeing and Lockheed Martin knows that the Finnish Air Force already has 50 GBU-38 in their current stocks, so they offer 150 new GBU-38 and an engineer that comes over with a toolbox and some spares to ensure that the old stock is good to go for another decade or two. As the whole competition is based on the design to cost method, this allows for the inclusion of more stuff elsewhere in the package. What package would then be evaluated in the wargame? A US fighter with only three quarters of the number of light bombs compared to the competition? A hypothetical package that include 200 new-built bombs but skips on the extra? So far everything we’ve seen and heard from the Finnish LOGCOM indicate that they aren’t interested in playing games, but that they want to evaluate what is on offer. If that include continued life for some current equipment, then I am quite sure that that is what is evaluated.

In any case, there will be medium-ranged air-to-air missiles operational on any aircraft that ends up winning HX, and the options on the table for the American ones include either a separate notification and order before IOC (order in 2025 and delivery 2026/2027 would probably be the approximate timeline) or the continued use of the current AMRAAM stocks. The shelf-life left for these naturally vary highly depending on whether the weapons have been stored or flown, but with the DSCA notification for 300 missiles coming in 2008 and deliveries probably stretching out over at least a few years after that, the newest missiles are likely fit to serve into the early 2030’s if maintained and overhauled. The C-7 version of the AMRAAM is also still rather close to the state of the art when it comes to medium-ranged missiles, and is regularly carried by not only US fighters, but by the Eurofighter and Gripen as well to complement the long-range Meteor. The Meteor is unlikely to enter service on a US fighter, but that doesn’t mean that the US fighters are set to remain looking on while the Europeans (and crucially, the Chinese) have all the fun at longer ranges. When asked about the situation at HX Challenge, Boeing representatives noted that “There’s an opportunity for an advanced air-to-air missile within our offer to address that need”. Exactly what it is wasn’t said, and apparently it won’t be part of the original package. However, both the newest AIM-120D AMRAAM and the upcoming AIM-260 JATM, and possibly other parts of the more opaque LREW-program, are all possible candidates to enter the field at a later date.

One of the visitng F-35As that took part in HX Challenge airborne together with a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

For the anti-radiation missiles, my personal guess is that they would be acquired as a separate package in the early 2030’s if Boeing wins. The capability is completely new to the Finnish Air Force, and with the Growler-unit busy learning the tricks of the trade I could imagine a timeline where the first few years are spent dealing with the non-kinetic methods, with the DEAD-part of SEAD/DEAD being introduced after the HX has reached FOC by 2030.

Conclusions

The notifications were largely on par with what was expected, though I will say that if the requested numbers found in the weapons packages are close to what eventually will be acquired their sheer number came as a surprise to me (and certainly explains the comment Puranen made about the difference in cost between the early calculations and the eventual budget). Even “comprehensive packages” comes in different scales, let’s just put it at that.

The large number of SDB IIs and JSOWs requested were also a bit of a surprise, and shows the expanding mission set of the Finnish Air Force is set to continue. Personally I am still a bit sad, though not necessarily surprised, about the fact that even under the current budget it was possible to squeeze in a small number of the Quickstrike naval mine/JDAM ER combination, but these are obviously possible to acquire later as well.

Some have noticed the large number of aircraft and notification price tags going over (10.6 billion EUR for the F-35 and 12.4 billion EUR for the SH/Growler), and question whether the HX budget will grow eventually (as was the case with the Squadron 2020 one). As said, the value given on DSCA notifications are usually not much to go by at the best of times, but here is a number of other issues at play as well.

Let’s begin by saying that I personally don’t believe there will be significant increases, though even an index-increase if the program is delayed with a year will be a lot of money when we’re talking about a 10 billion package. However, the crucial issue is that there is little room for increase when it comes to the eventual operating budgets, and so far there seems to be little indication that the Air Force will be allowed to increase it’s share of the annual budget, either through an increase in the defence budget or by shrinking the budgets of the Navy and/or Army.

The other issue is that this isn’t a question of the budget being a few hundred millions over 10 billion, but rather it should be remembered that a significant part of the 10 billion allocated will be spent outside the items found in the DSCA notifications. To begin with, around 700 MEur will be spent of other stuff (infrastructure, the work of the procurement agency, early training, etc.). In addition, the operations from first aircraft delivery until IOC/FOC will in part be covered by the 10 billion as the Hornets continue to fund their operations out of the Air Force’s annual operating budget. There are also infrastructure changes and possibly other significant investments that will be made outside of the contract that is covered by the notification, including non-listed equipment and equipment from third countries. As such, if one were to take the number quoted in the notification at face value, and I repeat – one shouldn’t, the question wouldn’t be if the Air Force can sneak in a budget increase of a few hundred millions, but whether they can pull off an increase of the programme value that is spelled out in a ten-digit figure. I don’t believe they can, and don’t believe they are going to try. Following the release of the notifications, Puranen also noted that they feel confident they are able to deliver the required capabilities within the current budget.

It should, however, be acknowledged that there are some worrying signs that the budget really is tight, just having two spare engines for the F-35 and no HARM/AARGM for the Super Hornet/Growler comes to mind. Even if those two items can be sorted out, the question lingers if they are only the tip of the iceberg, and what more is hidden under the surface when it comes to missing or low quantities of crucial items?

HX Shifting Gears

The HX program has shifted gear into the next phase, as all five contenders returned their answers to the first round of the RFQ (for those needing a primer on the process, see this post). As noted all five are still in the race, but a few notable events have taken place.

On the Air Force-side of things, the Chief of Defence (and former Air Force CinC) was quite outspoken in an interview back in December, where he amongst other things highlighted the need for Finland to ensure that we aren’t the sole operator of the HX towards the end of it’s operational life. This is in essence nothing new, it was noted as an issue for the continued operation of the Hornet-fleet past 2030 in the original HX pre-study, and could in all honesty been seen from a mile away. Still, it was felt that the decision to speak openly about one of the key points that set the F-35 aside from the rest of the bunch (i.e. a widespread international userbase which will operate the aircraft as their prime combat aircraft past 2060) was surprising given the continued emphasis on the competition still being wide open. However, given the obvious nature of the issue, I find it difficult to get too excited over the quote.

There will however be some personnel changes, as a scandal has rocked the Air Force with a wing commander being under investigation for less than proper conduct while drunk during an Air Force-sponsored trip with local stakeholders. This has also raised questions about how the investigation has been conducted by his superiors, something which has likely played a part in both the Air Force chief and the chief of defence declining to apply for extensions of their respective terms, instead opting to retire when their current terms are up. This likely won’t affect the HX program in any meaningful way.

F-35C Lightning II from VFA-101 ‘Grim Reapers’ taking off from USS George Washington (CVN-73) during F-35C Development Test III. Picture courtesy of Lockheed Martin, photo by Todd R. McQueen

Back to the F-35, preciously little has come out regarding the offer. This is due to Lockheed Martin not being allowed to comment upon anything, as the offer is made by the US Government. That means we still haven’t gotten confirmation that it is the F-35A that is on offer, leaving the door open for the odd chance that the carrier-based F-35C would be seen as better suitable tp Finnish requirements. That detail will likely become clear soon enough, but in the meantime we can note that the F-35C declared IOC recently, meaning that all three versions of the F-35 now are operational. The F-35B recently finished it’s first combat cruise, and scored a 75% availability rate. That number is perhaps the most impressive metric to come out of the F-35 program during the last year in my opinion, as that availability rate would be acceptable for mature operational fighters operating from their home base. Now it was achieved by a brand new STOVL aircraft operating in combat from a small carrier, clocking twice the hours of its predecessor. While questions surrounding the ALIS and other parts of the program still exist, this is a strong sign of maturity. The F-35 still in many ways remain the fighter to beat for anyone aiming for the HX-contract.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, while the F-35 is still undefeated in combat, it is no longer so on the market. This is following the German decision to drop it from their Tornado-replacement program, where the Eurofighter Typhoon and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet will now go head to head for the deal. The undoubtedly political decision to drop the F-35 at this early stage has received widespread criticism, including from not one but two former chiefs of the German Air Force (and as opposed to how the HX-debate looks in Finland, both of the generals have recent experience, having retired in 2009 and 2018 respectively). However, the decision isn’t quite as far-out as some would like to make it, as both the Typhoon and the Super Hornet actually hold significant selling points. Crucially, Germany already operate the Typhoon, making it easier to just raise the number of aircraft than to integrate a new fighter. For the Super Hornet, it should be remembered that Germany besides the ground-attack Tornado IDS also operate the SEAD/DEAD-variant Tornado ECR, one of very ‘Wild Weasel’ aircraft currently in service anywhere in the world. And the only modern Wild Weasel aircraft found on the market is the Super Hornet-based EA-18G Growler (we’ll get to that shortly). Will the German decision affect HX? Yes, although mainly indirectly by securing another reference to either fighter, and likely to a lesser extent than another recent German decision.

Germany decided to despite considerable British and French pressure continue to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the War in Yemen and the brutal murder of journalist Khashoggi. The actions are certainly correct in my personal opinion, the War in Yemen and the murder were both particularly brutal (even considering the fact that wars and murders in general are brutal), but it also points to a willingness of Germany to pull the brakes on arms exports contrary to the wishes of other major European countries. In itself that isn’t necessary worrying, but Germany has also shown a worrying tendency of running their own show when it comes to relations with Russia (case in point: Nord Stream 2). Taken together, especially when considering Russia’s usual taste for false flag operations and trying to shape the narrative of any conflict, the risk of Germany stalling orders and urging both sides to de-escalate in a potential Russo-Finnish crisis is probably being analysed in Helsinki. It’s hard to quantify the risk (especially with Trump having demonstrated that rapid political swings can take place elsewhere), but it likely didn’t improve the prospect of Typhoon taking home HX.

Italian Eurofighter touching down at Tikkakoski Air Base last summer. Source: Own picture

What might have improved the odds was the Spanish Air Force showing how an operator can both develop their own upgrade path and benefit from cooperation with the other partner countries. In the case of Spain, the country follows the common upgrade path with the Tranche 2 and 3 Eurofighters. At the same time, being unhappy with the roadmap for the Tranche 1 fighters, it has independently embarked on a more ambitious program for those aircraft. The big cloud still hanging over the Eurofighter program is whether any operator will be invested in it as their primary platform up to 2060, or whether they all will have moved on with the upgrade funds of their air forces largely being allocated to whatever comes next.

The second 39E, 39-9, taking off. Picture courtesy of Saab AB

If Lockheed Martin is unable to talk much about their offers, Saab is more outspoken and even flew a bunch of journalists to Sweden to inform them about the offer. The big news was that Saab offers a domestic production line, and that the fleet would be a mix of 52 JAS 39E single-seaters with 12 JAS 39F two-seaters. The Finnish Hornet-order was 57 F/A-18C single-seaters and 7 F/A-18D two-seaters, so this would be a remarkable shift from a ratio of 8:1 to 4:1. While it is well-known that the Finnish Air Force in hindsight would have wanted more two-seater Hornets for the conversion training role, Saab is open with the fact that training needs isn’t the main reason behind the inclusion of a squadron of two-seaters.

Often there are other drivers for and needs of a two-seat aircraft configuration that, in combination with the more traditional training-related benefits, makes it relevant to procure two-seat fighters. 

Magnus Skogberg, program Director of Saab’s HX-bid

In essence this means that Saab is arguing that the needs of the Finnish Air Force is best met by a squadron of two-seaters backing up the single-seaters for certain missions, while at the same time the two-seaters can obviously provide benefits for the OCU-mission i peacetime. The 39E and 39F are more or less similar, with the cockpit setup being the same in the front and rear cockpits of the 39F, as well as in the sole cockpit of the 39E. This means that all will be equipped with the same wide-angle display that will be found in both Swedish and Brazilian fighters. Any Finland-specific details, configurations, or equipment will also be the same for both versions. The only major difference is that the 39F does not feature the internal gun. Both versions sport an onboard electronic warfare system, which include electronic attack capabilities, and which can be further supplemented by podded jammers and sensors. This is where the second crewman comes into the picture, as there’s a real risk that the human brain will run out of bandwidth before the options of the EW-system does.

Gripen F with its two seats, naturally provides additional flexibility to handle very advanced missions where it may be advantageous to have an additional pilot or operator on-board. Examples are Electronic Warfare Officer, Mission Commander and/or a Weapon System Officer in the rear-seat.

Magnus Skogberg, program Director of Saab’s HX-bid

The same can be said for advanced long-range strike missions, and in the air-to-air role the use of modern data links even makes it possible to have an aircraft with the backseater working as something akin to the Fighter Allocator of an AWACS, concentrating on staying up to date with the situational picture and issuing orders to other airborne friendly fighters. Is there a benefit of moving the fighter controller from the ground to the backseat of a fighter? Possibly, in general the Finnish Defence Forces likes to have the one calling the shots to be situated close to the action, though the benefit is likely smaller than when it comes to EW and strike missions. While Saab maintains that two-seaters offer significant flexibility in multiple roles, it seems that the main focus is on the 39F as a SEAD/DEAD asset.

The EA-18G Growler in flight. Note the size of the AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missile under the left wing compared to the AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles under the air intakes. Picture courtesy of / All rights reserved – Boeing / Aviation PhotoCrew

Boeing is in essence bound by the same non-disclosure issues as Lockheed Martin. However, they have managed to get permission to discuss some aspects of their offer, and happily fill in any blank spots by referencing how the US Navy (and to a lesser extent the other flying services) perform their mission. The big deal was that Boeing is now officially offering not only the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in the most modern Block 3 configuration, but the EA-18G Growler dedicated SEAD/DEAD version as well (though ‘dedicated’ should be interpreted carefully, as it can do everything the F/A-18E/F can do, with the exception of sporting two wingtip short-range air-to-air missiles). Boeing could not speak about the Super Hornet/Growler ratio to Finland, but notes that on a US carrier it is currently 44 Super Hornets to 5-7 Growler, with the intention being to raise that to 10-12 Growlers. In the case of Finland, that would mean 10 to 15 Growlers out of the total of 64 fighters.

Boeing isn’t one to downplay the importance of this move. The release for export took place in extremely short time (comparisons to the ~10 years it took to clear the AGM-158 JASSM were made), and this is a tangible example of the strong Finnish-US bilateral bond when it comes to national security. A bond which kicked off in earnest with the acquisition of the F/A-18C/D ‘legacy’ Hornet back in the 90’s (though you might argue that correlation doesn’t equal causation here, as it also coincided with the end of the Cold War). The US sees a Finnish acquisition of modern airborne capabilities as another way of improving stability around the Baltic Sea through improving Finland’s conventional deterrence. The Growler would add significantly to Finland’s “Tröskelförmåga“, threshold capability, as senior advisor (and retired admiral) Juhani Kaskeala explained using the Swedish word, and as such is nicely in line with US strategic interests.

You can trust the Super Hornet

Juhani Kaskeala, senior advisor at Blic

The Super Hornet Block 3 may be one of the most advanced versions of any fighter available, but Boeing also makes an important point of the fact that all cards are already on the table. They know “exactly” what it costs to operate the fighter, a sum which is lower than that of Finland’s current Hornet’s despite the Super Hornet being heavier, and they know how many hours they can get out of any given aircraft. The current lifespan is 10,000 flight hours per aircraft, compared to just 6,000 flight hours of the legacy ones (Finland has experienced issues reaching that number, due to the larger proportion of heavy-G air combat maneuvers flown by the Finnish Air Force). Boeing’s package is within the budget of the program, though they aren’t able to comment upon the cost of the package in any detail. The question of cost is interesting, as Boeing has gone three for three in the last major US defence contracts (T-X, MH-139, MQ-25), in a move that has largely been described as Boeing buying the deals. What you lose on the swings, you make up for on the roundabouts, and the fact that Boeing in essence is the world’s largest civil aviation business with a sizeable defence division makes it able to manage the cashflow issues this would cause to dedicated defence companies. Boeing might not be as aggressive in the pricing for the kind of smaller order that HX represents, but they are likely the only company that even has the option.

The question about the lifespan of the program lurks in the background. While admiral Richardson might want to phase out the Super Hornet by 2040, there is currently no sunset plan for the Super Hornet, and with the NGAD nowhere to be seen, the idea of having replaced the last Super Hornet with a new design in just twenty years sounds impossible rather than improbable. Also, even without any additional Super Hornet orders from the US Navy, the service will accept their last new fighters as late as 2034, and these are unlikely to be phased out in just six years.

EA-18G Growler folding it’s wings following a display flight at last summer’s Finnish Air Force 100-anniversary air show. Source: Own picture

Regardless of the risk to be left alone in the timespan past 2050, what is clear is that the Super Hornet/Growler combo would bring impressive capabilities to the Finnish Air Force. The Growler is also far more versatile than simply being the world’s best SAM-killer (which in itself would be valuable to the Air Force), as it is also an extremely potent ELINT asset with impressive non-kinetic capabilities. The ability to ‘listen to’ or jam different signals as the need arises without firing shots in anger could prove very useful in countering a “gray” or “hybrid” scenario. In US service, the Growlers are seen as a “truly joint aircraft”, able to assist and support not only other combat aircrafts, but ground and sea forces as well. As such it is able to shape the electronic battlefield, and is expected to be operating closely with F-35s of all branches in case of a peer- or near-peer conflict.

Enough power.

The answer to what makes the Growler unqiue in the EW-role

The secret sauce is simple, the Growler sports two of the same F414-engines that propel the single-engined 39E/F Gripen, giving plenty of raw power to the EW-suite, including jammers. The aircraft is also described as “by far the most winter-qualified” of all HX-contenders, which is a statement I guess some of the other contenders might want to fight. The same goes for the notion that the sensor fusion on the Block 3 is “exactly the same capability” as that of the F-35. What is objectively clear though is that the Super Hornet currently sports the best availability numbers of all US tactical jets, and Boeing is happy to assure Finland that not only can all maintenance and upgrades be done locally, but it is also possible to build the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet locally if Finland so wishes. Still, it does sound like Boeing isn’t as keen on the idea of a local assembly line as Saab is.

Kaskeala also points out that the current buying wave of F-35s is made up of F-16 operators. Australia is indeed the sole export customer that is switching from the ‘legacy’ Hornet to the F-35A, and they are in turn a bit of an outlier in that they operate both the Super Hornet and the F-35A. Last time around Finland identified a different need compared to e.g. Denmark and Norway, and went with a different fighter. Will the same be true this time around? What is obvious to any observer is that the legacy of the Hornet-deal is strong in Boeing’s organisation. Boeing is able to host press conferences in Finnish, thanks to the fact that not only their local advisors but key persons inside the company speak Finnish as their mother tongue. It is also evident that Boeing understands how Finland works, both as a society and as a customer. Of the companies involved in HX, only Saab comes close with their local organisation having a relatively large footprint on the ground in Finland and with the Swedish way of doing business being very similar to the Finnish one. While cultural differences in theory shouldn’t affect the outcome of HX, at the end of the day everyone involved are still just humans, and it is hard to shake the feeling that Boeing and Saab have a nonquantifiable but significant advantage in this field.

Rafale B undergoing cold-weather testing in the last week of January. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

Dassault has kept a low profile in media, but in late January Dassault sent a single Rafale B up to the home base of Lappi Fighter Wing for a week of cold weather testing. Ostensibly this was just normal company testing, but it is hard not to think that the choice of location was dictated by a willingness to show the aircraft to a potential customer. In any case, the 30-person big testing team is said to have been happy with both the tests and their stay at the air force base.

Under Scottish Skies – Red Flag and the Middle East

The Eurofighter Typhoon is probably the most misunderstood aircraft of the HX program. The public perception of it, especially outside of Finland, is surprisingly negative. Much of this is based on the early teething troubles experienced by the program. “There were absolutely issues to starts with”, group captain Paul Godfrey, OBE, concedes. The former Harrier pilot is the station commander of RAF Lossiemouth, the larger of Britain’s two Typhoon-bases, and one of the original pilots to transition to the multirole fighter when it first entered service with the RAF a decade ago, something he was chosen for partly because he had multirole experience from flying the F-16CJ ‘Wild Weasel’-variant during an exchange tour with the USAF. Of his current mount, he has (almost) nothing but praise. “It’s like an F-16 on steroids”, he compares the two, talking about the similar philosophy of the aircrafts, with both focusing on performance and multirole capability. Fully coming to grip with the multirole tasking has required some new thinking for the RAF, who up until recently operated a large variety of single-role aircraft. This was one of the reasons pilots with exchange experience were common in the first Typhoon units. Today, there’s naturally a considerable number of ex-single role pilots, especially as the Tornado is approaching the end of it’s service life in the RAF.

Godfrey

“When I first flew Typhoon, I knew it was gonna be a game changer.”
Group Captain Paul Godfrey OBE, Station Commander at RAF Lossiremouth

But while the early Typhoons were plagued by a number of different issues and a decided lack of interest on the part of British politicians when it came to funding the necessary development programs needed to unlock the fighters full potential, today it is in many ways a mature system. This was something Godfrey got to experience first hand. Only in the second week of his new job as station commander, he was faced with the order to dispatch six Typhoons from 1(F) Squadron down to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, from where they were to conduct strikes over Iraq and Syria. Within twenty-four hours of receiving the mission, the Typhoons touched down at their new operating base, and within a further twenty-four hours the first combat-loaded aircrafts were already flying operational missions over the battlefield. After 1(F) Squadron was ready with their tour, fellow Lossiemouth squadron 6 Squadron took over. In total, Lossiemouth based Typhoons alone have dropped closed to 700 Paveway IV laser/GPS-guided bombs during Operation Shader, as the British anti-ISIL air operation is known.

The missions flown in Syria and Iraq include air interdiction, close air support (CAS), and strike coordination and reconnaissance (SCAR). Cue lasting debate over value of fast jets as opposed to classic single-role aircraft such as the A-10 Warthog or Su-25 flying the CAS mission. For wing Commander Billy Cooper, the squadron commander of 6 Squadron, the answer is clear. The old way of doing CAS was created out of necessity, as the only way of acquiring a target accurately was by looking out of the window, which meant you had to be close to the target and flying slow. With today’s advanced sensors and precision guided munitions, that need is gone, and using faster and more advanced aircraft will provide significant benefits, including e.g. survivability and transit time from loitering area to the battlefield. Originally a Tornado F.3 pilot, Cooper is also a Qualified Weapons Instructor with over 3,000 flying hours on fighters. The RAF QWI course roughly corresponds to the US Navy’s TOPGUN program, but strives to give a broader understanding of the aircraft, it’s weapons and capabilities. Earlier this year, he lead the squadron in exercise Red Flag 17-1 in Nevada, an exercise which created quite some buzz for being the first time the F-35A participated in a Red Flag exercise.

Cooper under plane

“We were working quite closely with the F-35.”
Wing Commander Billy Cooper, Officer Commanding 6 Squadron

While it was heavily reported that the F-35A had achieved a 20:1 kill ratio, the details of the exercise has naturally been kept under wraps. As such, it was very interesting to hear Cooper describe his first-hand experience of operating Typhoons together with the F-35’s. As could be expected, he described the F-35 regularly operating within the engagement zones of the REDFOR air defences. Compared to other non-stealthy fighters, the Typhoon was in turn able to achieve greater stand-off range for its weapons, thanks to its ability to operate higher and faster. This allowed it to lay further back, often remaining outside of the threat range. What all seemed to agree on, was that the the F-35 transmitting sensor data on Link 16 provided a huge boost in situational awareness for the rest of the fleet.

When asked about the RAF acquiring both aircraft, none of the pilots were prepared to pick one over the other. “You need stealth to be able to go forward,” Cooper argued. His personal opinion was that the future lies in the mix of capabilities provided by different platforms, echoing the sentiment expressed by his commander at an earlier briefing. “Both airplanes are fantastic airplanes,” Godfrey had said. “A mix would always be better [than operating only F-35’s or Typhoons].” When pressed further for which one he would choose if he could only get one, Godfrey had smiled and just said “Both”.

While a puzzled group of Finnish media representatives started to wonder if the fighter pilots were arguing for the stealthy F-35 as the right choice for HX, further discussion revealed the complexity of the issue. The big thing in the mind of the pilots was not so much stealth in and by itself, but the superior situational awareness the F-35 got by combining the ability to get in close while carrying a good sensor suite, and which it then shared with the rest of the team. By teaming up with the Typhoons and their heavy load of long-ranged weapons, the F-35 in turn got around it’s main weakness in Red Flag, namely its very limited load of internal weapons. Some participants in the exercise jokingly referred to the stealth fighter as the ‘cheerleader’, always present providing data and cheering the other ones on, but often unable to take the shots themselves having already expended all their missiles.

It also seemed that for an air force used to operating a wide variety of tactical single-role jets the Finnish problem of only being able to afford a single type while not being able to count on the support of allies was hard to relate to. BAE test pilot Paul Smith, a former squadron mate of Cooper, agreed with the operational pilots that he saw a future need for a stealthy platform providing increased situational awareness, but rather than going for a stealth fighter he talked about replicating the successful hunter/killer-teams of Red Flag with an unmanned stealthy wingman getting in close and the Typhoon bringing its firepower to bear from stand-off range (yes, a picture of Taranis had managed to sneak its way into one of the briefings).

But while going into heavily defended airspace with a non-stealthy platform might not be optimal, Red Flag did also see the Typhoon do just that and come out on the other side to live to tell the tale. While the exact details aren’t open information, we were briefed that the fighters took out targets being covered by layered defences of “double and triple digit SAM’s”, indicating systems entering service in the early 80’s and later, likely including at least the S-300. What made this possible was two things. To begin with, the Typhoon’s self-defence DASS suite received nothing but praise. The system not only automatically scans for threats and autonomously uses jamming and countermeasures to defeat them, it also provide visual cues for the pilot on how to best outmanoeuvre any threats encountered. The other factor that increased the survivability of the Typhoon was again its performance. The combination of a manoeuvrable aircraft with an impressive thrust-to-weight ratio gave the pilots the ability to defeat the missiles encountered. It might not be as nice as having stealth, but BAE puts enough trust in the concept to plan for the upcoming P4E enhancement to include a SEAD/DEAD-ability (more on the upgrade path in an upcoming post).

In the end, no-one was willing to tell us which aircraft we were supposed to buy, though for the RAF, the operational concept is clear. Typhoon is set to stay the force’s air superiority platform past 2050, while “F-35 is a Tornado [GR.4] replacement,” as BAE’s John Bromehead explained. None of the pilots seemed interested in trading their Typhoons for F-35’s, but they just might be willing to swap out the Typhoons of the squadron next door.

Typhoon 320

“I’ll never gonna give up speed”
Gp Capt Godfrey

Has the F-35 gone to war?

A surprising Twitter-thread by Le Figaro‘s Georges Malbrunot Tuesday stated that the F-35 made its combat debut already in January, when it would have taken part in an Israeli raid on Damascus.

Unfortunately, I do not read French, but Air Forces Monthly published a nice overview of the info, found here.

The raid has been known from before, and was directed against Mezze Air Base (alternative spellings include ‘Mazzeh’ and ‘Mezzeh’) in the western outskirts of Damascus, around 45 km from the armistice line marking de facto Israeli territory post-1973. The base is clearly visible in Google Maps. Notable observations include:

  • The base seems to house mainly military helicopters, though a few fast jets are visible,
  • A number of hardened-aircraft shelters are found, naturally it is impossible to tell if more aircraft are housed in these,
  • Several of the revetments at the ‘amoeba’-area in the middle of the field seems to have been hit. Several small marks could indicate either cluster munitions, secondary explosions/shrapnel/fires from aircraft standing there being hit, or salvos of (light) mortar fire.

The base has been hit several times by the Israelis, including in December last year. Then the alleged weapon of choice according to Syrian news agency SANA was a surface-to-surface missile system fired from a position close to Mount Avital (or Tal Abu Nada). As a side-note, I find the claimed firing position somewhat dubious. SANA claimed in the January attack as well that the weapon used was a surface-to-surface missile, but fired from close to Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee). Another interesting raid allegedly took place in December 2015. Here, a Syrian source claimed that the Israelis fired four Spice-2000 stand-off precision guided munitions from inside Israeli airspace, to take out the convicted Hezbollah-associated terrorist Samir Kuntar in his sixth-floor apartment in Damascus. While it seems certain Kuntar died in an explosion at his apartment, the exact circumstances are unclear to say the least.

What is certain is that in the 1982 Lebanon War, the Israeli Air Force completely dismantled the Syrian ground-based air defence network, and then followed it up by destroying the fighters that the Syrian Arab Air Force scrambled. After this, the Israelis has proved a number of times that they can operate inside Syrian airspace more or less with impunity. The single most famous raid was Operation Orchard, the raid that destroyed a Syrian nuclear site in 2007, and which included both fighter jets and helicopter inserted special forces. This haven’t changed despite the Russians bringing modern surface-to-air missile systems to Syria, though whether this is due to Israel only operating outside their range, the systems not being as capable as they are rumoured to be, or due to behind-the-scenes politics between Russia and Israel over the head of the Syrian government is unclear.

Air Mobility Command enables delivery of Israel’s first F-35s
One of the first two F-35’s being refuelled by a Tennessee Air National Guard KC-135 During their trans-Atlantic flight. Source: U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Erik D. Anthony via Wikimedia Commons

The first two F-35’s arrived in Israel last December, and they have seen heavy use by the Golden Eagle Squadron based at Nevatim Air Force Base in the Negev desert. Officially the aircraft undertook their first night flight on the evening of 16 January (or 15 January, the wording is somewhat unclear).

The IAF article on the event is interesting in many ways. The squadron commander, Lt. Col. Yotam, has nothing but praise for the aircraft. “We are performing a night flight very quickly in comparison to other aircraft that were integrated in the IAF”, he notes, while at the same time maintaining that they “in every mission, we operate slowly and in a supervised manner, while performing in-depth risk management”.

This event took place a few days after the alleged use of the Adir over Syria.

“The ‘Adir’s ability to fly in threatened areas is allowed not only thanks to the dark”, explained Lt. Col. Yotam. “We plan to fly without constraints of time or space, so it is a scenario we want and need to train for”.

Despite the aircraft officially still being in test and evaluation use in Israeli service, the IAF has built up a reputation as just the kind of force to throw out the rulebook and go with a ‘whatever gets the job done’-philosophy. The ability to penetrate air defence networks to hit high-value targets is certainly there for the F-35, with the F-35A having the ability to do so (against static targets) already with the current state of software and weapons integration.

However, there are numerous things speaking against an early combat debut. The aircrafts would have spent barely a single month in Israel at the time of the raid, which despite the previous testing done in the US and the mission-centric philosophy of the IAF is a very short timespan. They also lack proper integration into the Israeli combat network, as the IAF will fit a number of indigenous systems into the aircraft on top of the aircraft’s own code (the changes are large enough that several sources, including the IAF, refer to the Israeli F-35A as the F-35I). This job has not been done yet, making some question whether the IAF would risk operating the fighters over enemy airspace outside of the Israeli command and control network.

Perhaps the main issue is the fact that Israel demonstrably has no urgent need to push the Adir into harms way. The Air Force, as well as some ground based systems, can reach Mezze even from within Israeli territory, and even if there would be a need to get closer for better precision, this has been shown to be possible with ‘legacy’ fighters such as the F-15I and F-16I as well.

It is of course possible that the Israelis saw the use of the Adir as a means in itself, showing not only Syria but other potential adversaries as well that the Israel’s newest tool is a true weapon system bringing new capabilities to the Air Force and not just an expensive toy (or perhaps to convince doubters high enough in the Israeli command structure/politics that they receive access to info on the raid). It might also have been decided to use the Adir as part of its test program, to measure its current capability.

Still, at the end of the day, there is no denying that the schedule simply seems too tight, and I find the claim that the Adir would have seen combat a month after its in-country arrival too far-fetched.

Another question is whether it would have made a difference if the Adir had taken part in the raid or not? In theory it wouldn’t. The baseline F-35A reached IOC last year with the USAF, and considering its performance both during the evaluations and in post-IOC exercises a mission 50 km into a relatively lightly defended airspace such as this is nothing spectacular. In practice however, the marketing value of the ‘Combat Proven’-stamp shouldn’t be underestimated. After all, it was Israeli combat use fifty years ago that provided some of the groundwork for the huge export success enjoyed by on of the truly classic fighters of the last century.

HX Trumped

The HX-program is moving forward, and several of the programs have seen significant changes, in many cases caused by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s new resident.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

Things are looking up for the ‘Rhino’ (or ‘Super Bug’ if you want) for the moment. The Kuwaiti deal is finally looking like it could secure a second export order for the aircraft, and the Canadians seem like they could actually lease or buy  a small amount as a stop-gap to cover for the cancelled F-35 buy. This move has been discussed for years, but in the last year it has moved from speculation to government policy.

But the twist that has caused most buzz is without doubt the announcement that the new US leadership has ordered a review of the carrier-based version of the F-35C against the Advanced Super Hornet concept. While I find it unlikely that the ‘all-inclusive’ most advanced form of the Advanced Super Hornet would be ordered, this review will likely provide an updated concept (with price tags) that can be employed for future (more limited) USN updates as well as for export drives such as the HX.

Boeing, somewhat surprisingly, has kept a low profile in Finland. It remains to be seen if this will change with this summer’s air shows.

F-35 Lightning II

The F-35 has been under quite some pressure following the tweets of President (then elect) Trump, who was happy to trash the cost of the program.

Lockheed Martin quickly recovered their posture (though not their stock price), and explained that they will certainly look into this, and that they have a plan ready to reduce costs further.

Now, it is uncertain to what extent Lockheed Martin and (especially) Trump are honest and to what extent they simply figured out that this theatre is just what they need. It is no secret that the unit price of the F-35 is on a healthy downward trend following the troubled early years of the program. It is also no secret that Lockheed Martin has been pushing for larger block buys, as these would make it possible for the company to achieve higher efficiency in their production lines. This is an excellent opportunity to enlist the support of the White House for the larger block buys, and in the meantime the president can happily boast about getting a better deal by getting the low-rate lots cheaper than his predecessor. Win-win, at least until some troublesome aviation journalists starts looking it…

Regardless of the politics behind it, the F-35A is now officially and for the first time below the 100 million USD threshold. This came as part of the LRIP 10 agreement, and Lockheed Martin indeed thought it prudent to credit ‘President Trump’s personal involvement’ with accelerating the negotiations and sharpening Lockheed-Martin’s focus on driving down the price. Despite the recent issues with the landing gear of the F-35C carrier-based version, the F-35A version is moving forward and meeting milestones according to plan, and the above-mentioned F-35C review against the Advanced Super Hornet will likely result in yet another paper explaining the need for stealth and sensor fusion on the modern battlefield. In other words, the mid- to long-term prospects for the F-35 look good, perhaps even slightly better than they did before Trump got involved.

Eurofighter Typhoon

In January BAE (finally) launched their official Finnish Twitter-account, quite some time after BAE Systems Belgium got theirs. On the whole, BAE has significantly heightened their profile, and isn’t the least bit shy about the fact that they thinks the Typhoon would be the best answer to the needs of the Finnish Air Force.

While BAE still hasn’t explained exactly why they think that’s the case, they have been happy to announce that the acquisition could be funded through the UK Export Finance.

What is often forgotten is that the Typhoon does indeed have an impressive service record in the harsh semi-subarctic climate of the South Atlantic, having been responsible for the air cover of the Falkland Islands since 2009. Of note is that while the aircrews assigned to RAF Mount Pleasant have been rotated, the aircrafts haven’t. The original four aircraft maintained a constant 24/7 QRA flight for over five years, before finally being relieved a while back. Honouring the traditions of the Hal Far Fighter Flight based in Malta during World War 2, the Typhoons wear tailcodes matching the names of the Gladiators of the original flight.

Dassault Rafale

Eight months ago I sat and listened to a presentation by a representative of Dassault, who happily explained the value of the fighter and (almost) all of its subsystems being French. I smiled and nodded politely, thinking to myself that while I understand the value of this from a domestic point of view, I am unsure whether this is a plus or minus in the case of HX. My worry was based on the sometimes volatile state of French politics, especially compared to the relatively stable state of US ones.

Let’s just say I have revised that opinion.

While France certainly has their share of pro-Russian politicians of different colours, Donald Trump has very efficiently demonstrated that the political risks associated with buying French is no larger than buying from the US.

#MAGA.

Saab JAS 39E Gripen

The first flight of the ‘Dash Eight’ prototype is still some time away. Though this was originally slated for Q4 2016, representatives of Saab are adamant that the program as a whole is still on track, and that the delay is due to moving around different parts of the test and development program.

While this might be true, and not flying for the sake of just flying might be the proper decision from a program point of view, this is still something of a PR-loss for Saab, who has been pushing the “on time and budget” narrative. 2017 will be an important year for Saab’s new fighter.

Seinäjoki International Air Show 2017

Contrary to what usually is the case, the Finnish Aeronautical Association’s air show will receive some competition for the Finnish aviation crowds, in that another major air show will take place in Helsinki the day before. Still, the organisers are clear with that they try to get as many HX-competitors attending as possible, and that they hope to see them “both in the air and on the ground“. Last year the JAS 39C Gripen was flying, with the Eurofighter Typhoon being found on static display. Hopefully this year will bring some new players to the Finnish airspace.

 

The Canadian connection – Hornets in need of replacement

In 1980 Canada declared the F/A-18A Hornet the winner of their New Fighter Aircraft program, which meant it would be brought into service as the CF-18 to replace three different fighters as the country’s sole fast jet. In doing so it beat a number of other fighters, crucially the F-16A. It is important to remember that the F-16 back in those days wasn’t a multirole aircraft, but rather a within visual range fighter with a limited secondary ground attack capability. The F/A-18 with its AIM-7 Sparrow medium-range missiles was arguably the more competent aircraft, and one of the main worries of the Canadian air force was Soviet bombers and cruise missiles swooping down over the Arctic. Canada is also a large and sparsely populated country that include large swaths of land were bailing out does not necessarily mean you’re in for a happy landing. This combination of BVR capability, longer range, and twin-engine safety in the end meant that Canada went with the more expensive option of the F/A-18 over the F-16 (it has to be mentioned that the government did claim that the economic incentives was better for the Hornet, making it cheaper for the Canadian economy. However, these kinds of arguments usually have a tendency to depend upon who’s making the calculations).

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CF-18A visiting Farnborough during its early years of service. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Andrew Thomas

Thirteen years after Canada received their first F/A-18’s, the first four Hornets for Finland landed at Tampere-Pirkkala. Finland, though markedly smaller than Canada, had a largely similar set of requirements, including cold-weather capability, twin-engine safety, long-range, and focus on the interceptor role. In the end, both Canada and Finland have been very happy members of the Hornet club, but the end of that era looms at the horizon.

Now the alert reader interrupts, if Finland has to replace its Hornets by 2025 due to their lifespan being up, Canada, having bought theirs ten years earlier, by the same logic should have replaced theirs already?

Yes and no. Finland operated the Hornet up until now as a single-role fighter, have placed a higher focus on traditional dogfighting maneuvers, which are extremely taxing on the airframe. In other words, not all flight hours are created equal, and not all aircraft fly the same amount of yearly hours. Also, the Canadian Hornets have been through a number of upgrade programs. Currently they seem to be looking at another set of programs which will take the aircraft up to and past 2025, not bad considering that the original lifespan was envisioned as 20 years (i.e. up to 2002). Canada also did have the replacement figured out, having been a partner of the F-35/JSF program since its beginning, and is currently a Level 3 Partner, i.e. the ‘normal’ level of partnership (only the UK, the Netherlands, and Italy are ranked higher).

Canadian Hornets in operation against ISIL as part of Operation IMPACT

Still, the F-35 has been beset by delays, and the project has been something of a hot potato in Canadian politics. The latest major turn was when Justin Trudeau led the Liberal Party to a victory in the federal elections last year, with the party’s position having been that they will ditch the F-35 and instead launch an open tender for a new fighter (with the F-35 being banned from participating). However, Canada have continued to make the required payments to stay a partner in the program while reviewing how the Hornet should be replaced.

Enter July, and amidst it becoming increasingly clear that there is an urgent need to replace, or at least supplement, the Canadian Hornets, the Canadian government launched what can best be described as a non-binding Request for Information. The aircrafts under consideration are the usual suspects: Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed-Martin F-35 (which is back in the running), and Saab JAS 39 Gripen.

Now, the interesting thing here is the schedule, with the answers to the questionnaire having been requested within three weeks (compare to the eight months allocated for the RFI issued by the Finnish HX). The details are rather sketchy, mainly because the questionnaire is “neither a Call for Tenders nor a Request for Proposals”. The background information provided also emphasises that “no procurement decision has been made“ and that “no summary or final report will be issued following the collection of information from industry”. The schedule for replacing the Hornets is literally given as “as soon as possible”, which ought to make things interesting. The whole thing feels like it is done under extreme time pressure. 

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A F-35 mock-up in Canadian colours. The only way the Lightning II will ever wear the maple leaf? Source: Wikimedia Commons/Alan Rioux

Interestingly enough, the flight scenarios in the attached file requires the respondent to use “actual aircraft configuration (utilize systems which are operational with Armed Services today only – non-developmental)”. This requirement pans out very differently. While Saab currently is the only one to sport the Meteor operationally, they only operate the 39C Gripen and not the longer-ranged 39E which would add considerably to their odds when flying intercepts far out over the Arctic. On the other hand, the F-35 is currently only operational in the V/STOL F-35B version, and if the Canadians decide to interpret the requirement literally, this is effectively a way to make certain the F-35 is a non-starter without explicitly writing so. Another problem for the F-35A is the bases used in the scenario. As fellow blogger Doug Allen noted over at Best Fighter 4 Canada, the 6,000 feet runways are too short for comfort. The Typhoon in turn is designed for exactly the scenario described in the evaluation, transiting high and fast to meet an enemy aircraft far out, but is a few years from getting an AESA radar and the Meteor. The Rafale does feature supersonic drop tanks and a potent AESA set, but the repeated requests for “seamless” integration with Five Eyes ISTAR and other tactical and strategic assets might not play to its strengths. The weapons are also uniquely French.

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The only non-carrier operator of the Super Hornet, Australia bought a batch of F/A-18F Super Hornets to supplement their ‘legacy’ Hornets while waiting for the F-35A. Sounds familiar? Source: Wikimedia Commons/Robert Frola

Enter the Super Hornet, which features the AN/APG-79 AESA radar, is seamlessly integrated into the US-Canadian NORAD air defence network, and carries the same munitions and missiles that the ‘legacy’ Hornet does. The last part is explicitly asked for in the questionnaire, something which is not the case in any documents regarding the HX which are openly available. The Super Hornet manufacturing line is also struggling with having too few aircraft to produce each year, so quickly ramping up to supply the RCAF with a limited number of stop-gap aircraft would be *relatively* easy. Boeing also has an established partnership with the Canadian defence forces and aviation industry. All in all, the stage seems set for Boeing’s fighter, and Canada is indeed one of the countries for which stealth isn’t necessarily a big deal, at least not for their homeland defence/NORAD contribution. Noteworthy is also that the questionnaire does mention cost for 100 pilots being trained, which would imply that the information could serve as a base for the complete Hornet replacement program (though one should remember that there isn’t a procurement decision for anything as of yet).

Another possibility is that, despite his continued official anti-F-35 view, Trudeau is trying to set the stage for a F-35 purchase, by creating the foundations for a competition, which the F-35 then can sweep clean (compare to Kampfly in Denmark). For Canada, a mix of Super Hornets (or Typhoons) for NORAD duties combined with F-35A’s for expeditionary work under NATO and UN commitments might actually be the ideal solution. Only time will tell if this will be the final outcome.

A big thanks to Karl Rieder for the link to the Canadian source material! Do follow him on Twitter if you don’t already.

The Grey Ghost

”Whichever one you want!”

That was the answer a smiling Gary North gave to the (literal) billion-dollar question regarding which version of the F-35 they were planning on offering to the Finnish Air Force. Gary North, retired fighter pilot (F-4G, F-16, F-15C) and Air Force General, was present at Tour de Sky in his position as Lockheed Martin’s Vice President Customer Requirements, meaning that he is the one ensuring that the company meets customer requirements and strategic milestones across a number of aeronautics programs, including the F-35. It should probably be seen as a measure of the importance Lockheed Martin places on the Finnish fighter program that he had been chosen to lead the delegation that arrived at the air force base in a rainy Savo.

None of the other candidates in the HX-program stirs people’s emotions quite the way the F-35 does. But love it or hate it, the current situation is that the F-35 is undefeated in all procurement program it has been present in. However, the Finnish requirements have a number of marked differences compared to e.g. the Danish Kampfly, and many (including myself) has questioned whether some of these, such as the requirement for dispersed basing or localized maintenance and overhauls, effectively will eliminate the stealth fighter to the benefit of the more traditional designs.

On this, North was adamant. The plane will have no problem operating  from austere road bases in sub-zero conditions, having been tested in temperatures down to -40oC. “Absolutely, we are basing this on 40 years of experience with stealth”, he explained, and went on to note that the average age of the people  working the flight deck of a US Navy carrier is 19 years old[1], so having the aircraft run by conscript mechanics won’t be a problem. The aircraft is designed “with the maintainer in mind”. For the maintenance requirement, Lockheed Martin is well aware of the Finnish wish to handle these in-country, and the company seems to have softened its stance on the issue of centralized maintenance and spares somewhat. The message sent was that this won’t be a problem, and that Finland is free to tailor its own spares package, based on the considerable experience the company will have of the need for spares created by different usage profiles of the aircraft, as well as any additional spares Finland judges might be necessary to keep the fleet operational in wartime.

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Back to the question of which variant should be offered, North declined to give any direct answer regarding which one he thought best fit the Finnish requirements. Instead, he noted that all three have different strengths and weaknesses, with the ‘basic’ F-35A being closest to the current F/A-18C Hornets, featuring an internal gun and being a +9 G rated fighter. The STOVL capable F-35B certainly offers some interesting operational concepts, but does so at a higher cost and serious reduction in internal fuel (and thus range). The carrier-based F-35C does offer a longer range, sturdier undercarriage, and the ability to use the tail hook as part of normal operations (the emergency tail hook on the F-35A needs to be raised manually from outside the aircraft after deployment), and the sturdy undercarriage makes it possibly to fly a more aggressive carrier-type approach when landing. However, the large wingspan might also cause problems on narrow road bases and in legacy hangars, as the aircraft will need more space to maneuver around. The aircraft is also, together with the F-35B, rated for lower G’s than the F-35A, and comes at a higher price.

Speaking of price, the issue has been discussed at the blog earlier as well, and is probably one of the single most heavily covered topics in the whole field of defence and security today. The current forecast is that an F-35A ordered in 2019 will cost 80-85 million (then-year) US dollars, in other words around 71-75 Euro with today’s exchange rate. This price is the unit cost, and include the aircraft, engine (bought by the US government directly from Pratt & Whitney and then handed over to Lockheed Martin), and all the sensors. The current flight hour cost is 53,000 Euro, though as was noted in the aftermath of the Kampfly-evaluation this is a number that should be treated with care when used for evaluations.

Capability wise, the aircraft is made for operations inside modern air defence bubbles of the kind that will most likely cover the majority of Finnish airspace by 2025. Besides the stealth characteristics, this is done through the advanced sensor array, which has a very high degree of fusion to provide the pilot with a single tactical picture (a map with all other activity in the area shown in real-time), as well as net-enabled operations. The networking is handled both through the ‘legacy’ standard Link 16 as well as through an F-35-only secure datalink that allows for up to four aircraft to share data with a very low chance of intercept. The latter is designed to provide all data needed to keep all the pilots in the formation updated with tactical information without the need for communicating over the radio. This includes not only sending information regarding own sensor data to the wingmen, but also information such as which targets are targeted by which fighter, and which of these is the designated priority target. For a fighter designed to excel at getting the first shot away before being seen, the tactical advantages of this when setting up an ambush are obvious.

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With regards to trying out the simulator, the first thing that strikes one is the extremely clean design of the cockpit. Gone is the myriad of buttons, switches and levers that dominate the cockpits of today’s fighters. Even with my limited knowledge of simulator flying, getting the aircraft, which constantly auto-trims to keep the nose pointed in the direction chosen by the pilot, off the ground was easy, and the basic combat maneuvers, a BVR-engagement against a two-ship of MiG-29’s and planting a JDAM on a Buk, was easily executed with support from the simulator engineer present. Contrary to the engineer, my virtual wingman took very little part in the fighting, only being present to show the functions of the datalink. Perhaps the single most impressive feature (one that is probably solely of academic interest for HX) was how easy the F-35B was to control in VTOL-mode.

The F-35 program is moving along nicely, with 185 aircraft flying today, and despite the headlines the program has started to show a steady trend of meeting requirements and major milestones in a reassuring manner. There certainly still are open questions, such as the rather limited armament options when comparing to some of its candidates and the performance of the electro-optical sensor when compared to dedicated pods. However, at the end of the day, the F-35 will always have the benefit of, for any given load condition, sporting a smaller radar-cross section than the competition[2].

[1] Before someone points it out: Yes, I believe he meant median and not average, but it is still an impressive number that correlates more or less directly with the Finnish AF organisation

[2] Yes, this is for X-band, but that is where we stand for the foreseeable future when it comes to air-to-air radars in fighters

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.

How not to choose your fighter – The Danish Kampfly

Denmark, having been one of the original European partner nations of the F-16 program and having operated a shrinking fleet of F-16’s ever since, is facing roughly the same issue as Finland, with a US teen-series fighter nearing the end of it life. To remedy this, the Danish launched the Kampfly-program (literally “Fighter aircraft”), with the aim of finding a suitable replacement. Now, what is interesting is that the Danish did this despite already being a F-35 tier 3 partner nation. The idea was that a fair and relatively open competition, not unlike the HX-program, would show which fighter was the right choice for replacing the Danish F-16AM/BM mix, and if this wasn’t the F-35A, the Danish would withdraw from the program.

Few people believed that would ever be the case.

In fact, so few people believed in it, that of the F-35’s four main competitors, two, Dassault with the Rafale and Saab with the Gripen E, decided to withdraw from the competition at an early stage. When asked about the issue during the HX Gripen-presentation in February, Saab avoided calling the competition unfair or predetermined, but noted that “one has to focus attention on where one’s chances of winning are the best”. This left the Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet in the running against the F-35A Lightning II.

Especially Boeing went all-in, including launching a serious marketing campaign promoting itself as the low-risk high-tech solution, an argument being especially useful in Denmark, which a few years back was the site of a disastrous attempt at introducing a new and unproven high-speed train. After a series of technical issues, both the price and delivery schedules were seriously derailed, and the affair took on a slightly absurd twist when a complete train set went missing before delivery, only to turn up on satellite images of the outskirts of Tripoli! The whole affair also became something of a political issue.

Examples of adverts directly referencing the IC4-debacle. Note that these are for illustrative purposes only, and I have not received any compensation for featuring them on the blog.

During the recent weeks, the outcome (and part of the selection criteria) have slowly been leaking out, and unsurprisingly the F-35A was declared the winner in more or less all categories, with the Eurofighter Typhoon scoring low points throughout. The choice is justified in an open report, which include an abstract also available in English. The abstract covers the description of the criteria, the deciding panel, source material (but no individual notes confirming which sources were used where), and the points scored on different criteria. Still, the information given on why a certain fighter scored a certain point value doesn’t feel exhaustive.

The lack of transparency in the Danish report makes it hard to judge the fairness of the competition. However, there are a number of issues that cast a shadow on the process. One is that the Super Hornet is evaluated only in the two-seat F/A-18F configuration. It is unclear whether this is a request on the part of Boeing or not, however, it places the Super Hornet at a drawback, as the report correctly notes that maintaining two persons proficient for each aircraft will increase the total amount of flight hours needed, without apparently accounting for the added flexibility of having a dedicated weapons and sensor operator in the back seat.

The real strange part is the table of projected life-cycle costs. This is of particular interest, as it is one of the few places were solid numbers are provided. The Danish life-cycle costs is calculated based on procurement costs, sustainment costs (i.e. actually operating the aircrafts bought), as well as an overhead titled ‘Risk’. The last one is described as ‘quantifiable risks over a period of 30 years’, but the interesting part is that despite the Super Hornet being ranked highest in the earlier military ‘non-quantifiable risk’-subcategory, when risk is quantified and getting a price tag the tables are turned and the Super Hornet scores a markedly higher price tag than the F-35A. This is mainly blamed on the risk associated with the DKK-USD exchange rate. The report notes that as the F-35A is designed for a service life span of 8,000 flight hours compared to 6,000 flight hours for the other two, only 28 F-35A’s are needed to perform the same missions as 34 Eurofighters and 38 Super Hornets respectively over a 30 year time span.

This is an extreme oversimplification.

Using this model does not take into account e.g. the fact that fewer airframes in total leads to fewer available airframes, as there will at any given time be a number of aircrafts undergoing maintenance, repairs, or upgrades. That you are flying fewer aircraft harder usually doesn’t add up to having a higher availability rate either, but on the contrary might even lead to a shorter mean-time between failures, further putting added strain on a small fleet. It is also hard to quantify whether a smaller number of more capable aircraft will be able to provide the same overall capability as a slightly higher number of less capable aircraft. Strength in numbers, and so forth. The idea that you will only need a certain number of flight hours, as opposed to aircraft, add to the feeling that an all-out war is not on the agenda in Copenhagen.

However, the lifetime given for the airframes are also controversial. Both Boeing and Eurofighter have also protested the choice of 6,000 flight hours. Boeing notes that the number refers to taxing carrier-based operations, with the aircraft easily being able to reach 9,500 flight hours during landbased operations, while Eurofighter states that their aircraft can reach 8,300 flight hours in the kind of operations envisioned by Denmark. It is entirely possible that they are correct, as how demanding a flight hour is varies greatly with factors such as height, loadout, and g-forces (something which Finnish Hawks and Hornets have demonstrated, when the high proportion of air combat maneuvering in the Finnish flight schedule have caused structural problems even at relatively low flight hours).

Also, no mention is made of the service life extension program (SLEP) launched by Boeing and the US Navy, aimed at lengthening the service life of their Super Hornets up from the original 6,000 hours. The exact scope of the program is still unclear, but as a point of reference the US Marine Corps’ F/A-18C/D legacy Hornets are already looking at 10,000 flight hours through a similar SLEP-program.

Ironically, the need for these extensions have arisen due to delays in the F-35 program.

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The main enemy in the report is the Su-30MK, one of the most advanced Russian-built fighters currently available. The report gives the PL-12 as the OPFOR’s BVR-missile, which indicates the Chinese Su-30MKK version illustrated here. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Dmitriy Pichugin

The eventual unit price for a series-produced F-35A is one of the most hotly debated topics in defence aviation today, and the issue has featured on the blog as well. Suffice to say, the Danish report uses 83.6 million USD per aircraft, being 10 million USD over the unit flyaway cost predicted by manufacturer Lockheed-Martin,while the ptice today is a tad over 100 million USD (though this is sinking rapidly). For the Super Hornet, the price is 124 million USD, which is 14-17 million USD over both the quoted cost for the current deliveries to the US Navy and, more importantly, the export deal to Kuwait (110 and ~107 million USD respectively). For the Eurofighter, there isn’t much to say. The heavy twin-engined fighter is expensive, both to acquire and operate, and its main selling point will always be its brute force, advanced sensors, and, most importantly, impressive room for growth. However, the report also gives it the highest ‘Risk-cost’, which is surprising given that the aircraft has an impressive track record in the service of multiple air forces for well over a decade, including combat deployments. The price set for the Eurofighter is 126 million USD per aircraft, which matches nicely with the average price tag of 124.9 million USD per aircraft that the British RAF has paid for their aircraft. However, this does not take into account the fact that for the Eurofighter as well, the price has continuously come down, and BAE has been quoted as saying they are now producing the aircraft for 20% less than they used to.

The fact that all aircraft are priced over the current, or in the case of the F-35A, projected, unit flyaway cost, is likely due to the acquisition topic also covering associated costs such as supporting material, simulators, and so forth. The unit flyaway costs given by the manufacturers have been censored from the open version of the report.

For the other categories, much less concrete information is given. For strategic aspects, the F-35 outscore the other candidates as the “broad scope of […] users will foster both Denmark’s transatlantic ties and the country’s collaborative relations with a range of European partners.” The Eurofighter score some points for opening up the possibility of cooperating with a number of European partners as well, with Germany standing out. The Super Hornet benefits from the transatlantic aspect, but defence and security cooperation with Kuwait and Australia is not high on the Danish agenda.

This is probably the most truthful part of the evaluation, and it is hard to argue against it. The big question is how important this aspect of an arms deal is, something we will get back to later.

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A typical scenario in the evaluation missions, with air defence systems “widely distributed” and “radars and ground controlled intercept networks intact”. Source: Nytkampfly.dk

The military category is made up of the areas of survivability, mission effectiveness, future development potential, and the earlier mentioned (non-quantifiable) candidate risk. These have been scored based on a number of evaluation missions, which haven’t been released to the public. However, they have been leaked, and described as “probably the closest thing to a ‘smoking gun’” we are likely to see, referring to the suspicion that the program has been tuned to suit the F-35. Of the six missions, four are against well-equipped and relatively modern adversaries, featuring strong air-defence assets and/or modern fighters, with the sixth  being a deployment to the Greenland (which curiously enough currently isn’t home to any Danish fighters as part of the Danish decision to not further ‘militarise’ the Arctic). Perhaps the thoughest scenario is the defensive counter air setup against ten Su-30MK and MiG-29SMT escorting four Su-24’s and a single 3M14 Kalibr cruise missile (SS-N-30A), the fighters all having jammer pods, with the whole package being supported by an additional two Su-30MK operating as jammer aircraft (while still holding a serious air-to-air load) and a Beriev A-50 airborne early warning aircraft.

An interesting details is that for the air interdiction mission, the report indicates that F-16AM would have the same (low) chance of survival as the Eurofighter and Super Hornet!

It can be argued that the evaluation should be benchmarked against the most demanding mission the aircrafts are expected to fly. However, it is a rather strange notion that the Danish fighters would be expected to penetrate advanced enemy defences without the support of other NATO-allies, especially as the prospects of strategic cooperation is scored as a category of its own. All in all, it does seem that there is a tilt towards the high-end spectrum of missions which doesn’t match the mission scope set out in the beginning of the Danish version of the report.

Report snapshot
The planned mission scope according to the report: maintaining a national QRA readiness, support to other government agencies, such as the police, and international tasks in support of NATO. The last in the form of up to four aircraft being deployed for up to 12 months every third year, as well as periodic detachments as part of NATO Air Policing missions.

 

The F-35 also wins the Industrial aspects-category, despite the fact that there is a “particular element of uncertainty associated with the fact that the Joint Strike Fighter will not be subject to an industrial cooperation requirement”, and that the realization of the industrial initiatives are “conditioned upon the ability of the Danish defence industry to win contracts in accordance with the ‘best-value’ principle”.

The tragicomic thing is that the F-35A might very well be the best fit for the Danish fighter requirement, either based on military aspects alone or thanks to the strategic impact the choice has. A sensible case can also be made for joining the F-35 program at an early stage, trading risk-management for being able to influence the program from the get-go. However, the lack of transparency unfortunately make it seem like the Danish officials had settled on the F-35A before the evaluation, but weren’t ready to defend this decision. Instead, launching the “fair and open competition”, which was in fact anything but.

This also means that in the same way as the two runner-ups, the F-35 didn’t get a chance to prove itself. Instead, it will probably go down in history as a very potent fighter, but one that landed in Denmark due to events that weren’t quite fit to see the daylight. One can only hope that the Finnish HX-competition will not follow this unfortunate example, but instead continue with the transparent and well-argued information sharing culture adopted so far.

HX marketing videos – the good, the bad, and the stock footage

When sending out the Request for Information regarding the HX-program the Finnish Ministry of Defence also offered the companies an opportunity to send in a short video marketing themselves and their product. While the impact of these on the evaluation process in marginal (probably an overstatement…), they do tell something about the level of commitment from the companies in question. It also indicates the focus of the campaign and their selling points. As such, these deserve to be reviewed, and to get a non-avgeek viewpoint, I’ve brought Mrs. Frisk along as a guest reviewer (though to be honest, she has probably involuntarily acquired more insight into the HX-program than your average aircraft spotter).

And yes, this all is massively off-topic, and strictly movies-only, with no take on which fighter is the best one for HX.

virmalised
Polar lights, what 60% of the world’s aircraft manufacturers think off when they hear the word “Finland”. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Reio Rada

  1. Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II

This was by far the weakest showing off the lot. Not that it was bad, but the video was apparently the standard marketing video for the program, first showing off the varied aircraft in the Lockheed-Martin portfolio, after following up with video of the F-35 in all three versions. Seriously, we are planning to invest up to 10 billion Euros, and Lockheed-Martin weren’t bothered to even slightly alter the marketing material to speak to Finnish needs?

+Showing the broad portfolio

+Generally nice footage

No mention of Finland/HX/any customization at all

Mrs. Frisk: “The whole video feels old, and I’m not too sold on the stripes along the sides or the name-carrying banner appearing over the aircrafts. The vertical landing was neat.”

  1. Tied: Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and BAE Eurofighter Typhoon

Boeing’s ‘Super Bug’ and BAE’s take on the eurocanard-concept ties for third, both doing some things right and some things less so.

Boeing offers a very Finnish video, beginning with green polar lights and computer-generated Finnish flags, before quickly skipping to stock footage (and music) of Super Hornets flying around, accompanied by a Finnish flag decorated by the Hornet-logo and selling points. While they certainly score no points for artistic creativity, they have at least bothered to read through the requirements, and in a clear and concise manner explain why they feel that they’re the best fit for HX. Points for mentioning suitability of dispersed operations.

Mrs. Frisk: “This feels like a mixture, more info than the Eurofighter one, but more ‘Woosh’ than Saab’s offering. They manage to emphasise ‘Safe’ without sounding like they’re trying to sell you a Volvo. Though I personally dislike hornets (or anything resembling them). The bug ones, that is… ;-)”

+Informative

+Relevant for HX

Stock footage not overly impressive

The video by Eurofighter feels like they’ve used a stock intro, and then pasted on this a tailored ending, talking mainly about the fact that BAE already is a thrusted partner of the Finnish Air Force with Hawk advanced trainer, and that it would be natural to build upon this with the world’s “most advanced” multi-roll fighter for HX. The flying over snow clip feels more relevant than that of Middle Eastern naval vessels, but all in all a nice looking video. The main issue was the lack of selling points for the Typhoon with regards to the specifics of the HX-program.

Mrs. Frisk: “This one’s nicely done, it feels very much like an advertisement, and has less direct info than the Super Hornet, but they do bring up BAE’s other branches, which promises good integration across the board, as well as their current cooperation with Finland.”

+Very nice video and soundtrack

+Ties in with earlier BAE activities in Finland

Information regarding HX not on par with other videos

  1. Saab JAS 39E/F Gripen

Saab goes all in for the Finnish theme, and is the only one to feature a narrator speaking Finnish. Unfortunately, while the video is choke-full of information, most of which is addressed directly towards the Finnish HX-requirements, the narrator’s matter-of-fact attitude becomes a little bit too matter-of-fact, and coupled with the lack of fancy weapons’ releases, the whole thing gets a bit too reminiscent of Avara luonto (Finnish nature documentaries, think sir Attenborough, but without a peerage). However, it features some really nice video, including the obligatory green polar lights, much of which benefits from being shot in Sweden and thus very close to HX’s future environment. The final product is nice enough that one might even forgive the sometimes illogical jumps between “you” and “we” in the narrative.

Mrs. Frisk: “Safe and reliable are certainly nice features also for a fighter, however, this lacks the action element in trying to market a fighter. It feels like they’re trying to sell me a family car, and the whole thing is a bit boring. Brings up the Finnish demands in a very good way, though!”

+Nice video, featuring a very Finnish-like setting

+Finnish narrator

+Very informative, and relevant to HX

A bit slow compared to Dassault’s and BAE’s offerings

  1. Dassault Rafale

Dassault Rafale skipped the narrator all together, and instead starts off with Finnish composer Sibelius, green polar lights, and a quote from our national epic, Kalevala.

“Tulta iski ilman lintu, valahutti valkeaista.”

” Quickly then this bird of heaven, kindled fire among the branches.”

Kalevala, second poem

We Finns love when people recognise Sibelius and Kalevala.

The video doesn’t dwell on its purpose. Dassault is here to sell their fighter to a snowy Finland (though they aren’t quite aware of our lack of proper ravines), and they can not only offer a load of different weapons for it, the plane is already tested in a number of conflicts. To top it up, they promise technology transfers and all the other bells and whistles. And as an engineer, I just love the shot of the SCALP dropping from the aircraft, popping out its wings and then speeding of.

Much (all) of this is promoted by other candidates as well, but Dassault manages to provide it all in an extremely attractive package, offering both the current selling points and the Top Gun-feeling you expect from a fighter jet.

Mrs. Frisk: “This is nice! It’s speed and action, and ‘combat proven’. This gives the impression that when others just fly around, the Rafale is busy reducing buildings to dust. Best one of the lot!”

+Extremely nice video, with some (computerised) snow

+Finnish feeling

+Information relevant to HX

 


On a serious note, while Saab’s strong video was expected, Dassault was a positive surprise. That Lockheed-Martin couldn’t be bothered to even paste some texts or Finnish flags onto their video were perhaps the most unforeseen deal. Of note is that neither F-16V nor F-15E was marketed in any way, and it seems like both companies will follow in Saab’s footsteps and only offer their latest bird.