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.

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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.

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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.

F-35 and the Cost Increase that really Wasn’t

The Lockheed-Martin F-35, the program everybody loves to hate, recieved some bad headlines recently, with Bloomberg proclaiming that “F-35’s $1 Trillion Support Cost Ticks Up as More Flights Seen” and The Wall Street Journal headlining their piece “Air Force to Extend Life of F-35 Combat Jets, Adding to Cost”. Looking at the numbers presented, however, meant a somewhat more complex picture emerged. Complex enough that I decided to contact Hill+Knowlton Strategies Helsinki-office to ask for some clarifications, with an emphasis on the less-covered F-35C variant (which I personally hold as the most likely F-35 candidate for HX).

Selected Acquisition Report 2015

What happened last week was that the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office (JPO), the body responsible for the program as a whole, published their annual Selected Acquisition Report (SAR) with updated cost data for the program. Notably this only covers the US part of the program, but it does adjust the US costs to account for the savings (and potential cost increases) stemming from the participation of the international partners and other exports, so the data should be quite representative for the HX-program as well. The estimates reflect the program as of December last year, while taking into account the US budget for 2017.

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F-35C on the deck of USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Seaman Anderson W. Branch, US Navy

Compared to the earlier SAR 14, the new SAR 15 includes some money moving around, 300 mil. USD going from procurement to Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E), without causing any changes to the total cost of the program. However, the whole cost for the program did go up with 1.7 % or 16 billion USD (inflation adjusted to 2012 USD) compared to the SAR 14, which was what caused the headlines quoted.

The reason behind this increase was the decision to delay the planned retirement date of the F-35A in USAF service to 2070, coupled with all services (USAF, USMC, and USN) adding flight hours to the projected life span of their aircraft. This obviously grows the maintenance cost for the total lifespan of the program, and in fact SAR 15 would have shown a decrease in operating and support costs as well had this not been the case (minus 22 billion USD compared to the current increase by 23 billion USD, both in 2012 USD). Of interest is the fact that the projected flight hour cost have come down with 2.2 % per flight hour for the F-35A, 3.33 % for the F-35B, and 4.2 % for the F-35C, while the expected unit flyaway cost for series produced F-35A and C has fallen from 76.8 to 75.0 and from 89.1 to 88.1 million USD (2012) respectively relative to SAR 14. Especially the continued creep downwards for the F-35C is interesting, as I have earlier questioned whether this rare bird will benefit from economics of scale in the same way as the baseline F-35A. The C is thus set to come down significantly (14 %) in price compared to the current low-rate initial production batch 8 (LRIP 8).

All in all, interesting times up ahead for the Lightning II.

“The F-35 is now a 60-year program, with production through 2038 and operations through 2070. […] There is still much work to do, but the F-35 Joint Program Office continues to make significant progress in reducing the cost of designing, buying, fielding, operating, and sustaining F-35s for the warfighter.”

L t. Gen. Chris Bogdan, F-35 Program Executive Officer

The Future Finnish Air Force, Pt.2: Two Fighters for the Air Force?

The HX-project is often treated as a stand-alone program to replace the gap left by the upcoming retirement of Finland’s legacy F/A-18C/D Hornets. However, recent developments have opened up the field for a complete remake of the Finnish Air Force, something which, while unlikely, deserves a closer look. To capture the larger picture, this is the second post of a short series. Expect the next post within the coming days.

In the end, it probably comes down to money. As a number of countries have realized, fighters are getting more expensive all the time. Lockheed-Martin is still claiming that their F-35 will be no more expensive than the current fighters (presumable compared to the same company’s F-16), while Saab is also maintaining that the 39E will be cheaper to buy and operate than the older 39C. Still, several countries have been unable, or unwilling, to replace their current fleets on a 1:1 basis. Examples include Sweden going from around 100 39C/D’s to 60 (possibly 70) 39E’s, and the Netherlands going from 68 (out of the original 213) F-16’s to 37 F-35’s (planned, not ordered).

For the Finnish Air Force, this is not a route they would like to take. The preliminary report was clear about the fact that the size of the current Hornet-fleet is based on economics and not on operational demands, and is in fact too small. That the air force would be able to buy more than 64 HX-fighters is unlikely, but they just might be able to convince the political leadership that they have to replace the fighters on a 1:1 basis. Jäämeri noted that the RFI will probably include “a number of differently sized packages”, showing that the final number of airframes is yet to be set.

F-16 and crew chief
Danish F-16BM, one of a total of 77 F-16A/B bought by Denmark, to be replaced by 30 fighters in a ongoing procurement program. Source: Author.

This is where the two-fighter solution might come in. If the fighter of choice proves to be prohibitively expensive, let’s say that the F-35 is declared the winner of the HX-evaluation, but only 48 instead of 64 F-35‘s fit inside the given budget, what will the air force do? Buy a too small number of fighters? Buy the second best thing? Or, will the air force buy 24 F-35’s, coupled with 48 additional fighters of a cheaper design, either one of the other primary HX-candidates, or a modernized 4th generation fighter, such as the F-16V Block 60+?

Obviously, some mixes feel more natural than others. Beefing up a JAS 39E (Super) Gripen force with a squadron or two of JAS 39C Gripen would be a relatively (keyword) simple task from a maintenance point of view, especially as a number of subsystems developed for the 39E probably would be retrofitted to the 39C. This would also offer the benefit of making the 39D available for type familiarization. Another possibility is that Finland would buy only 39D’s and no C’s to supplement the 39E, with trained backseaters (WSO/RIO) for strike missions. However, it should be noted that the commonality between the baseline 39C/D and the 39E is far smaller than a quick look at the aircrafts would have you believe, with the 39E more or less a new aircraft, being bigger, heavier, and with a stronger engine.The most straightforward mix is the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (E being the single-seater and F the two-seater) and the EA-18G Growler, the latter being a specialized development of the F/A-18F, tailored for electronic warfare missions (jamming enemy sensors and communications, intercepting enemy signals for intelligence purposes, neutralizing or destroying enemy air defences). As has been discussed on the blog, these capabilities are highly valued during international operations, and would provide Finland with a capability that only a handful of western countries have (USA, Germany, Italy, and Australia). Buying a Growler squadron to support a Super Hornet fleet, however, will not lead to any savings compared to an equally sized “pure” Super Hornet fleet, but rather provide more capability for an added cost.

An interesting detail here is the fact that the JAS 39E Gripen and the super Hornet/Growler feature the same engine, the General-Electric F414-GE, in the F414-GE-400 and F414-GE-39E versions respectively. The latter version differs mainly in a few modifications made to ensure safe operations of the engine in a single-engined airframe, as opposed to the twin-engined Super Hornet. A mixed fleet of Gripens and Super Hornet would be an extremely interesting concept, with the two aircrafts complementing each other well. However, it is most likely a solution that is far too costly for Finland.

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

As I stated in my previous post, I see only two real competitors for the HX fighter program; the SAAB JAS 39E/F Gripen and the Lockheed Martin F-35A(C?) Lightning II. Here is a short presentation of these.

SAAB JAS 39E/F Gripen

JAS 39E/F Gripen is the latest in a long line of Swedish fighters. It is small for a modern fighter jet, making it cheap to operate, but also meaning its weapons load and range is not quite up to that of some of its competitors. After a somewhat difficult start on the export market, including the failed bid to Finland when the Hornet was chosen, it has picked up pace, and scored a number of successes. The numbers exported are modest, a total of 66 airplanes operated by four foreign air forces, to which a further 36 to Brazil will be added in the near future. However, this still compares well with the corresponding numbers for its major European competitors, at 99 planes in three countries for the Eurofighter and no exports at all for the Rafale.

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

When Finland last time chose to get the F-18 Hornet instead of the JAS 39A/B Gripen, it was a very different aircraft that was offered. The Gripen was just starting to get into operational service, and the memory of the troubled early development phase was still fresh in memory. Compared to this, the F-18C/D Hornet offered a tried and tested airframe, and the CF-188 Hornet had provided stellar service in the harsh Canadian climate for a number of years. To this was added the political dimensions of buying a US-designed fighter in the immediate post-Cold War era.

Now, the tables are turned, with SAAB offering a mature design that is starting to show its true potential. The Gripen has overcome its teething troubles, and is today considered a very safe aircraft to operate, with the last major mishap being when a pilot forgot to lower his gear before landing in 2010. Compared to this, the US offering in the form of the F-35 is the tabula rasa.

The coming JAS 39E/F Gripen will feature most of the things expected by a modern fighter, including AESA radar, IRST, Helmet Mounted Display, and a state-of-the-art cockpit. The last feature is something which pilots with first-hand experience of the Gripen likes to talk about, how the Gripen cockpit is designed with the user in mind. For more details about the user-experience in Gripen and “how air combat works on a techno-psychological level”, a sentence I could never have come up with, I recommend contacting former fighter pilot and Libya-veteran Mikael Grev (twitter, blog).

While the Gripen wields an impressive sensor array and is cleared for an adequate arsenal of modern weapons, there is no denying that it is an older design than F-35 (although it is a generation newer than the rest of the US competition in the form of F-15/F-16/F-18). Most notably, it is not stealth. One of the main questions for the HX-program will be what kind of an impact stealth will have in a future air war, and what price the Finnish Air Force is prepared to pay for it. Everything points towards the fact that the Gripen will be cheaper to buy and to operate, and that Finland will have a greater influence over its future development compared to the F-35. However, the radar cross-section of the F-35 is noticeably smaller than Gripen’s.

As I mentioned in my last post on the HX program, operating the same fighter as our Swedish neighbours (our allies to be?), would give a number of benefits in the form of commonality during joint exercises/deployments. In times of crises, a re-deployment of Finnish fighters to Swedish bases is also more or less a must (if we have that opportunity), as Russian long-range surface-to-air missiles situated on the Russian side of the border cover most of Finland. In such a scenario, operating the same figher is certainly a big plus.

Interlude: Stealth and non-Stealth

Stealth is often treated as something you’ve either got, or then you’ve don’t. The reality is more complex.

The area ‘seen’ by a radar is usually quoted as the aircraft’s radar cross-section, RCS. This imaginatively named characteristic is given as the area of a surface in m2 (or some other suitable area unit). If the number is small, it makes the target harder to detect on radar. Planes with a small enough RCS are defined as stealth aircraft, while those with a lower than average RCS are described along the lines of “having stealth features”. As such, there are no hard numbers that dictate when the RCS is small enough to make an aircraft stealth.

This is all nice and fine, but to make things more complicated the RCS depends on a number of things, including angle of the aircraft relative to the radar, wavelength and type of the radar, weapons load on the aircraft, and so forth.

An aircraft is visible on the radar when a large enough amount of the emitted energy is echoing back to the aircraft. This means that any aircraft, regardless of the RCS, will sooner or later be visible. The trick is therefore to make certain that you see your enemy, and preferably kill or disable them, before they see you. As such, while stealth doesn’t make you invisible, it will make it possible to get the first shot/first kill.

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

To get around stealth, a number of options are available, including using radars operating on certain unusual wavelengths, or employing other means of detection, such as IRST-sensors (infrared cameras). To counter this, stealth aircraft are usually designed to have small ‘footprints’ also in other categories, e.g. a small infra-red profile.

Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II (JSF)

The F-35 is the outcome of the Joint Strike Fighter program, with the aim of creating a single aircraft for the US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, where it will replace the F-16, A-10, F/A-18A/B/C/D, and the AV-8B Harrier. To perform these vastly different tasks, three distinct version are constructed, namely the ‘normal’ F-35A, the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) F-35B, and the carrier-capable F-35C.

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

On paper, the F-35 is the world’s finest multirole fighter in all aspects (with the exception of the US-only F-22 Raptor in the air-to-air role), being able to load a vast amount of different munitions in both internal weapons bays and on external hardpoints, and then to penetrate deep into enemy airspace to deliver these on target without being spotted. In short, it “represents a quantum leap in air dominance capability”, at least according to Lockheed Martin’s project web page.

This sounds good and nice, but the program has also attracted a huge amount of criticism. Much of this is directed towards the demand for a VTOL-version, which created the need for a wide fuselage that significantly affects the aerodynamics of the airplane (ie. it flies poorly compared to many other fighters) and caused major extra development costs. The program has been plagued by cost-overruns and delays, and there is a great debate about the final cost of the production aircrafts, with Lockheed Martin stating that a F-35A delivered in 2020 will have a unit cost of 66 million EUR (USD converted to EUR according to today’s currency rate, non-inflation adjusted). This is a comparable price to today’s fighters, the unit cost for the Finnish Hornets were around 49 million EUR. However, critics are questioning whether these projections aren’t overly optimistic, and some have pointed out that it seems that some of the cost-overruns are put in the account of the F-35B/C-variants, to keep the price of the export-friendly F-35A down. This might not help Finland, as the F-35C is a major candidate for us, being the sturdier variant, and hence more suited to dispersed basing.

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

Apart from cost, the performance of the aircraft has been widely criticized. It doesn’t turn as well as an F-16, it isn’t as durable as the A-10, and if it is to remain stealthy, it can’t carry more weapons than what fits onto the internal weapons bays’ four pylons, of which two are for air-to-air missiles only.

One important point of criticism is that the USA have been less than happy to share the ‘inner secrets’ of the F-35. In the most extreme cases, there have been talk about only a handful of top-tier maintenance sites being allowed to perform the most demanding types of maintenance. I am unsure about the current plans for how the F-35 fleets of different countries would be serviced, but if sending the planes to Italy for major checks is the way forward imagined by Lockheed Martin, this is one major problem. On the upside, quite a number of European nations (including Norway and Denmark) seems set on getting the F-35 in one variant or another, and as such one could imagine that pooling spares and information would give benefits in the form of economics of scale. If we were to join NATO, the use of the de facto NATO-standard in fighter design would be a plus.

Of note is that all F-35 variants are single-seaters, as opposed to the Gripen which comes in the single-seat JAS 39E and the twin-seat JAS 39F variants. Choosing the F-35 would mean that the flight training program used by the Finnish Air Force, wherein pilots are introduced to the Hornet via the small fleet of two-seater F-18D before moving on to fly the single-seat F-18C variant, would have to be scrapped. In practice, more flights in the Hawk (or in a new lead-in fighter trainer) and more simulator hours would probably be the answer.

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

There are quite a number of valid points of criticism with regards to the F-35. Still, I believe that the negative hype surrounding the airplane is out of proportion. Or rather, it is way too early to judge what kind of a legacy the F-35 will be having by 2025.

Interlude: A brief look into the history of criticized aircraft

  • The F-16 was a ‘second-choice’ fighter when it was clear that a cheaper alternative to the F-15 was needed, and received criticism for draining money from more important projects. The navy also felt that the order was launched too soon, and cancelled its part of the project. Today, it is perhaps the most successful jet fighter ever created.
  • The F-14 went way over budget, and both its engine (in the most numerous F-14A variant) and radar was known for being unreliable. This did not stop it from becoming a true classic.
  • The F-18 was the loser of the LWF program that the F-16 won, and had to fight to earn its place alongside the beloved F-14 on the USN carrier decks. Today, the F-14 is long since retired, while more Super Hornets are promoted as a possible solution to delays for the F-35.
  • The Eurofighter was plagued by technical problems, cost overruns, and delays, but eventually became the first fighter ever in German service not to suffer a single hull-loss during its first 10 years in operation.
  • The AH-64 Apache was extremely close to being cancelled due to rising costs, but is today one of the most widely serving attack helicopters anywhere in the world, with a stellar record in a number of conflicts.

In other words: while there obviously have been quite a number of aircraft that truly were bad, the F-111B comes to mind as a good analogy for the F-35, I am reluctant to trash the F-35 aircraft just yet.

In Brief

While I personally would go for the JAS 39E/F based on information found in open sources, the fact is that, all other things being equal, the F-35 will always be harder to spot on radar than any competing offer (the Russian T-50 being the possible exception). How important will stealth be in a future air war? Only time will tell. Another important question is whether we want commonality with Sweden (as well as the Czech Republic and Hungary), or with NATO. The answer depends on major strategic decisions, that has to be taken at the political level.