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.

North.JPG

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.

Simulator.JPG

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.

plaaf_sukhoi_su-30mkk_at_lipetsk-2
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.

13064528_10206179307348640_4046130047974873559_o
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.