Two years ago I sat in my car on the parking lot of a supermarket in Oulu watching the unveiling of the first Norwegian F-35A on my phone. Last week I again sat glued to the phone, this time in my kitchen, watching the first three F-35’s land at Ørland hovedflystasjon (Ørland main air force base), located close to Trondheim in central Norway.
Why the obsession with the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s new fighter? Well, for anyone interested in the Finnish HX-program, Norway’s new fighter will be an important pointer. As with the F-16 program, Norway decided to be a program partner from the outset, with the F-35 beating the (then very much paper-plane) Gripen NG in a competition, which to be fair has been criticised as having been pure political theatre. Possible dishonesty aside, it is clear that Norway was happy with their experience with being a launch partner of the F-16, and wanted to recreate the success story with the F-35.
What is also clear is that the Finnish way of buying already operational solutions rely on countries ready to take the proverbial leap of faith. What sets Norway aside from most other F-35 customers is that the Norwegian Air Force is a well-known quantity for their Finnish colleagues thanks to the more or less continuous cross-border training the two countries (and Sweden) take part in, and having airfields next to the Atlantic at the 64th parallel means that snow and icy runways are no strangers to the Norwegians.
So far the Norwegians have been happy to share their experience with the fighter, with major Morten ‘Dolby’ Hanchen being one of the most prominent voices of the growing F-35 community. He not only briefed Finnish media representatives when they visited Luke AFB this year, but has also written extensive and very informative texts explaining the criticism found in DOT&E reports.
As such, the Finnish Air Force is likely to keep a keen eye on the Norwegian experiences with operating and maintaining the stealth fighter in subarctic conditions. While a reduction in the force structure means that the northern F-16 base at Bodø was closed and the fighters will be consolidated to Ørland, a forward QRA detachment at Evenes AFB outside of Narvik will certainly put the planes to the test. Expect some high profile visitors to Norway in 2018.
With the 39-7 Gripen NG DEMO and the upcoming roll-out of the first pre-production 39E in the form of 39-8, Saab has laid the cards on the table for the HX-program. They have a very specific product they will run with, and the 39E Gripen does offer a number of selling points directly matching to needs and requests identified by the Finnish Preliminary Report. Any contender wishing to beat the Gripen to the contract will naturally either have to beat Gripen on these issues, or present rivalling advantages that overshadow these. The key points for the Gripen are:
Dispersed basing in subarctic conditions
Finland employs a very specialized wartime strategy of dispersing the aircraft to satellite bases, some in the form of civilian airfields and some in the form of road bases. Here there aircraft are serviced by a staff largely made up of conscripted mechanics, utilizing a very light and mobile logistics organization. With the Russian army fielding long range precision strike capability in the form of e.g. the Iskander short-/medium range ballistic missile, the importance of dispersing the air assets have grown further, and any aircraft vying for the HX-contract need to show that it can handle operations from rugged road bases in harsh winter conditions.
One of the reasons the F/A-18 Hornet was selected last time was that it had been used successfully by Canada in a similar climate, and that an aircraft built for use aboard aircraft carriers promised to feature the short-field performance and ruggedness needed for this kind of operations. The Hornet has in hindsight proved to be just as good as expected, and the hopes are set high for its successor.
The Gripen in turn was developed when Sweden employed a similar basing strategy that Finland has, and the 39E continues this pedigree. It can be operated without any fixed installations, the total turnaround time in the forest with refuelling and rearming for an air-to-air mission is less than 10 minutes, and a full engine change can be performed in 45 minutes to an hour. Last year the current 39C-version actually took part in a Finnish road base exercise, so there is little doubt that the Gripen will fit into the current Finnish system with little to no modification. The same can probably be said for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, but especially in the case of the F-35 there are doubts over how suitable it would be (ironically, these are mainly due to the very cutting edge technology and stealth coating that makes it stand out in the competition). One possible solution is naturally for Lockheed-Martin to offer the carrier-borne F-35C version, which is sturdier and features a number of key modifications. However, the F-35C is also the most expensive version of the three (currently being 18% more expensive than the standard F-35A), which brings us on to the next point…
As noted, the Gripen is a ‘cheap’ fighter (a term which certainly is relative when it comes to modern jet fighters), and it has successfully reversed the cost increase prevalent amongst jet fighters since the Second World War. According to Saab’s numbers, the production and development costs for Gripen is roughly 80-90 % of that of the 37 Viggen, while the operating and maintenance cost is halved compared to the same. A key feature here is the fact that the aircraft is built to be operated in harsh conditions, which translates into a low maintenance need. The fact that unlike the majority of its competition it is single-engined also lessens the maintenance cost, and the bottom line is that the Gripen has a comparatively low life-cycle cost.
The F-35 promises to do the same, and be of comparable cost to current so called ‘Generation 4’ aircraft such as the F-16. According to the Lockheed-Martin, by the time Finland buys the HX, the price will have come down almost 25% (for the F-35A) compared to today’s low-rate initial production aircrafts. However, there are two (or three) issues: one is that this has yet to happen (although at this point there are promising signs), and the other is that these numbers refer to initial procurement costs and not the life-cycle cost for the F-35, earlier stealth aircrafts having been notoriously difficult to maintain on account of their delicate stealth coatings. The third potential issue is that there are question marks whether the rarer F-35C will benefit from the same drop in cost during its production run as the standard F-35A.
Influence over the program
If Finland were to buy 64 Gripens today, we would be the single largest operator of the 39E/F-variant. While more orders are expected from both Brazil and Sweden before the HX-fighters are delivered, Finland would still be a major partner in the project in a way we would not be in any of the competing programs.
This, coupled with the Saab approach of continuously rolling out incremental improvements in the form of their ‘Editions’ would give the Finnish Air Force an unprecedented opportunity to get an airplane tailored to the specific, and sometime unique, demands stemming from how our fighters are operated. Saab also boasts of being able to integrate weapons from all major Western countries, and for a third of the ‘average cost’ (granted a claim that is hard to verify independently).
Saab also stated that they are ready to operate closely with the Finnish industrial partners that would handle local support and maintenance. As a matter of fact, Saab is already cooperating with e.g. Patria (both as a component supplier and in parallel in the supply chain for Airbus). This is in stark contrast to Lockheed-Martin who demands a very tight control over the maintenance chain for the F-35, and the possibility to overhaul the F-35 locally is indeed one of the main questions raised in light of the preliminary report. The exact form of cooperation Saab is ready to offer is still open, but they are looking into a number of different options, which could include buying components/sub-assemblies from Finnish companies, or even a final assemble line in Finland.
The mission of suppression/destruction of enemy air defences (SEAD/DEAD) got a surprising amount of focus in the preliminary report. This is obviously something Saab is looking into, and a so-called Wild Weasel version of the two-seater 39F is in the cards. However, unlike the Boeing EA-18G Growler which is a different version based on the F/A-18F Super Hornet, Saab believes that the baseline 39F should be able to handle the mission with only modifications to the software and by carrying appropriate pods and weapons. This is due to two factors: firstly, the baseline Gripen features a very advanced integrated electronic warfare suite. The exact performance and specifications of this is largely secret, and comparing different EW-suites based on open sources is next to impossible. Still, those with some insight seem to agree with Saab on that their system is top-notch. The second thing is that the 39F features a backseat with the full set of mission critical equipment. Electronic warfare is an extremely task-intensive mission, and all specialised electronic warfare platforms features (at least) two seats Edit: The F-16CJ (Block 50/52) feature the full HARM Targeting System, giving it the possibility to perform the SEAD/DEAD-mission, however, this is arguably more of a multirole fighter recieving yet another mission than a dedicated electronic warfare aircraft. While the F-35 is less vulnerable to detection thanks to its signature reduction, it is only available as a single-seater, and of interest is the fact that the US Navy is set to continue employing the non-stealthy Growler as their SEAD/DEAD-platform of choice even after the introduction of the F-35C.
The fact that Finland only bought seven F/A-18D two-seaters to support 57 F/A-18C single-seaters has since been openly lamented by high-ranking air force personnel, and it seems likely that the HX will feature a higher number of two-seaters relative to its single-seat companions. If Saab is able to create a 39F which is a potent warrior also in the electronic spectrum (and bag the HX-contract), we might very well see an order for 10+ 39F, which besides serving in the operational conversion role also flies as tactical aircraft with a dedicated weapon/sensor operator in the backseat, most likely in the form of dual-trained pilots (as a side-note: if the Finnish Air Force would feature a 39F unit with SEAD as a secondary task, given their unit history it would have to be LAPLSTO).
The scheduled entry into service of the HX fits very well with the current production plan of the Gripen, with deliveries of the HX starting to take place just as the current orders from Brazil and Sweden are starting to leave empty slots in the production queue. The production schedule of the F-35 is still somewhat more alive, as new orders and confirmations of options are coming in, while some of the other candidates still are struggling with whether their production lines will have closed by the time the HX is supposed to start rolling out of the factory.
However, all is not roses and unicorns for the Gripen. The two main issues, which have been recounted for numerous times, are whether the 30 year old design still has the growth potential to stay relevant for the upcoming forty or so years, as well as whether a non-stealthy aircraft can survive in tomorrow’s threat environment. Saab believe the answer to both questions is ‘Yes’, and the planned lifespan of the HX is fully within the planned service life of the 39E/F.
Is the Gripen the outright best fighter today? The answer has to be ‘No’. It is hard to overlook the growth potential of the Eurofighter with almost twice the thrust and maximum take-off weight, or the state-off-the-art signature reduction employed on the F-35. However, as discussed above, there is a host of other criteria playing in when choosing which fighter is the best fit for a given air force, and for Finland, the answer to that question just might be the Saab 39E Gripen.
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 first post of a short series. Expect the next post within the coming days.
The HX-project aimed at finding a replacement for Finland’s F/A-18C Hornets (and a small number of F/A-18D two-seaters) is moving forward at a steady pace. A few new details have surfaced since my last post on the project.
A preliminary letter describing the project has been sent out. This is not the proper Request for Information (RFI), which is slated for February 2016, but rather a letter describing the HX-projects current status and how it will proceed. Of interest is the fact that General Jäämeri, commander of the air force, explained that the letter will go to the five companies (Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, BAE, Dassault, and Saab) which will receive the RFI. The companies are the ones that have been mentioned earlier, but in a surprise move the general also stated that the RFI will not stipulate which fighters are in the run for the program. This is important, as three of the companies, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and Saab, also offer older aircraft, so called Generation 4 fighters, namely modernized version of the F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16C/D Block 50+, and JAS 39C/D Gripen.
The F/A-18C/D Hornet is another prime example of a fourth generation fighter, so why would Finland show any interest in acquiring another one to replace it? Wouldn’t it be better (and cheaper) to simply upgrade our current Hornet-fleet, if a fourth generation fighter would be enough (and didn’t the preliminary report already state fourth generation capability isn’t)?
There are two different issues here: One is that the legacy Hornet in its current form is about to be withdrawn, and Finland would have to support it alone (or upgrade it according to a given standard, i.e. the USMC one). Finnish Hornets are also nearing the end of their flight hours, and the Finnish emphasis on air combat training has placed great strain on the structures of the aircraft. The metal is simply starting to give up. As such, keeping the Hornets in flying shape and at an acceptable level of modernity will probably be prohibitively expensive.
The second issue is that Jäämeri opened up for a new round of speculation, by announcing that it is possible that Finland would buy two different planes, in the same way that we operated both the MiG-21Bis and the Saab 35 Draken before replacing both with the Hornet. However, he noted, while getting two different aircraft isn’t ruled out, it would be an “extraordinary” move, as two aircraft would require two different maintenance and support systems.
At this point aircraft aficionados should shout “F414-GE”. Patience, my friends, we’ll get to that!
The Missing Link – The Cancelled VX-trainer
In the meantime, in a move which have passed almost completely under the radar, the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command (PVLOGL) has cancelled the VX-program for a replacement to the venerable VL Vinka, the basic trainer used by the air force. The Vinka is old, and the taxing training program involving aerobatics have caused extensive metal fatigue (sounds familiar…), and the aircrafts have already once had their lifespan lengthened by an extensive overhaul. The problem is that the air force would like to stick the current curriculum, in which a cheap aerobatic-capable piston-engined trainer is used for basic flight training and early maneuvering as well as formation flights. After this, the student move on to the Hawk advanced jet trainer, where he/she learns air combat and jet engines, before transitioning to the F/A-18D Hornet for familiarization flights in the two-seater Hornet, until finally being cleared for solo-flights and operational missions in the F/A-18C Hornet.
This is the traditional, bordering on conservative, way of setting of flight training (the reason behind the cancelling of the VX was simply that no suitable aircraft was produced anymore!), and a number of countries has in recent years chosen to do things differently:
The piston-engined trainers have lost ground to vastly more powerful turbine-powered aircrafts, providing almost jet-like performance. This makes it possible to transfer part of the advanced training curriculum from a dedicated advanced trainer to the same aircraft that is handling the basic training. Turbine-powered aircrafts are more expensive than their piston-engined brethren, but they are still cheaper to operate than jets, meaning that they can provide savings in overall training costs.
More and more training is “downloaded” to simulators. Flight simulators are not a new thing, but they are constantly becoming better and more realistic, and can today offer complex scenarios involving multiple linked units. This means that an ever larger part of flight training can be performed on the simulators, offering significant savings compared to “real” flying.
The rise of simulators has led to the demise of two-seaters dedicated to training. Of the current aircraft in the running for HX, both JAS 39E Gripen and notably the F-35 are only available as single-seaters, with type familiarization being handled in simulators. There is the possibility that a 39F Gripen will become available if Finland insists on the need for one, but no twin-stick F-35 is in the plans.
As newer fighters are ever more expensive to operate, and as minituarisation is allowing ever more competent avionics to be fitted into ever smaller airframes, the Lead-In Fighter Trainer has risen in popularity. The LIFT is an aircraft that is taking the place of the advanced trainer, but in a similar way that the turbine-powered basic trainer is pushing the envelope, so too is the LIFT capable of providing training that earlier was in the realm of “real” fighters, such as high-performance maneuvers/air combat training, weapons deliveries, and sensor operations. Aircraft such as the M-346 Master and the Hawk T.2 offer near-fighter like performance, but for a fraction of the price per flight hour.
Having a training location in another country, in some cases as a joint program with other countries, in other cases as a service bought from a civilian company, is becoming more popular with more countries starting to feel the pressure of rising operational cost, needing fewer new pilots as their air forces shrink in size, and struggling to find large enough empty airspaces to properly train in.
The question is: is the air force correct in asking for more of the same, or should it shake up the roles of the basic trainer/advanced trainer/fighter-classes? Notably, Finland was one of the first customers of the BAE Hawk, buying the first generation Mk.51 (roughly corresponding to the RAF T.1). These are starting to show signs of metal fatigue in the wings due to the demanding use in training fighter pilots, and the fleet have been bolstered by the arrival of surplus low-hour ex-Swiss Hawk Mk.66 (interestingly, the Swiss Air Force let a turbine-powered prop trainer take over the training formerly handled by the Hawks). However, this is only a temporary solution, and the Hawk will have to be replaced somewhere around the same time as the HX enters into service.
In other words: within an extremely short span of time, the air force will have to replace both its trainers and fast jets. It is important to keep this in mind when discussing why Jäämeri has seemingly opened up for the possibility of acquiring more than one kind of fighter.
A subject which I’ve touched upon in my earlier posts, is the fact that the choice of fighter for HX also largely dictates which weapons the Finnish Air Force will use. Naturally, any weapon can be certified on any fighter, as long as they are within weight and size restrictions, but the process is neither simple nor cheap. As such, the large operators usually call the shots, their choices usually being domestic weapons suitable for the missions they prioritise. There are also a number of special cases, such as e.g. Saab and Boeing producing both aircrafts and some of their weaponry.
So, what would Finland then get with each of the different HX-candidates? Below is a simple table I’ve collected, with weapons integrated on each aircraft. The weapons are divided by type, and include both weapons currently available as well as planned weapons. For the future weapons I’ve only included weapons that the manufacturer or operator states will be integrated (edit: note that some of these planned integrations, especially in the case of the F-35, are still unfunded). The exception is for Gripen, where the Brazilian Air Force has not yet disclosed which weapons they’ve chosen for the aircraft. In this case, the weapons listed are based on those displayed on the mock-up, when it toured in Brazil this spring.
Some weapons are likely to appear on certain aircraft sometime in the future, such as the Meteor being integrated on the F-35, but as long as these aren’t officially confirmed, I’ve left them out. As said, if Ilmavoimat really wants something, it can most probably be added for an extra cost, but this table is what we would get “for free” with each aircraft.
A few comments:
Incendiary bombs are largely similar to napalm, but aren’t called that as their chemical composition is different. Cluster bombs are available in a number of different variants, where the Mk-20 (247 submunitions) is meant for anti-tank work, and the CBU-59 (717 submunitions) and CBU-101/-105 are used against ‘soft’ targets (unarmoured vehicles, troops). Many of the modern laser- and GPS-guided bombs feature wings, which means that they can be dropped from some distance, and then glide towards the target. Cruise-missiles differ from these, in that they have some kind of engine that lets them fly further than the unpowered glide bombs. Some cruise missiles can also be used as anti-shipping missiles, and the other way around. As sending a large cruise missile dimensioned to blow up a reinforced bunker to take out a single tank is a waste of money and explosives, some planes carry smaller missiles that can be used against vehicles. Anti-radiation missiles are specialised weapons made to home in on enemy radars, to knock out the enemy’s groundbased air defences.
The Eurofighter reflects its international pedigree in that some nations, especially Great Britain, want their own weapons on it, and as such it has two options in a number of slots. The Rafale is an example of the opposite, featuring almost exclusively French weapons. Due to their small production runs, these are sometime very costly, with e.g. the AASM (the French equivalent to a JDAM) rumoured to cost up to twelve times as much as its US counterpart.
Gripen features an interesting mix of Brazilian and European weapons. Of note is that if Finland would buy the Gripen, we would be one of the larger operators, giving better leverage if we wanted to integrate new weaponry onto it (this is not to say that they would come for free, only that our leverage would be better). The main drawback of the Gripen is the (current) lack of a dedicated anti-vehicle missile, with earlier versions having featured the AGM-65 Maverick.
Edit 24-07-2015: After having received input from Twitter-handles Gripen News and Obby Noxus, I’ve updated the table and texts accordingly. Sorry for the incorrect data given earlier, it was completly due to my own fault, and thank you to Gripen News and Obby Noxus for their help!
With regards to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, it seems like the US Navy decided to simply certify the aircraft for more or less every weapon in their arsenal. A number of these, marked with *, are already retired, and others are on their way out (such as the AIM-7 Sparrow). Of interest is that it is the sole platform with a mining capability. The ability to have two aircraft take off and after a few minutes close a strategic sea lane by dropping four heavy sea mines would be of marked value for Finnish defence planning, especially with the reduction in hulls with a mining capability that the navy is facing. In fact, it is interesting that the Finnish Air Force has not bought Quick Strike mines for the current Hornet-fleet, as they are also certified to carry it.
The F-35 is something in between, with a number of different options, although not quite as many as the Super Hornet. Its anti-shipping missile is a bit special, the Norwegian Joint Strike Missile featuring an infrared seeker instead of radar as all the others anti-shipping missiles in the tables. The IR-seeker is harder to distract than radar seekers, but feature a shorter range a poorer performance in adverse weather (rain, snow, and fog).
Does any single aircraft then have a marked advantage? I would say no. The Rafale is at a disadvantage, due to its reliance on uniquely French weapons, with their higher cost and poorer availability. The Super Hornet brings some interesting options to the table, but I find it hard to believe that Finland would buy either rocket pods or incendiary bombs, so the only real difference is the sea mines. The overall differences are small, and if mining capability suddenly is a must-have, it could probably quite easily be integrated on any of the other platforms. In fact, I would imagine that the US Navy is already thinking about getting it for the F-35C.
As is the case with the aircrafts themselves, their weapons suites all have their own strengths and weaknesses. In the end, these are but one of the many factors that will have to be compared and judged, before it can be decided which of the potential HX-fighters is the best choice.
This is part two of my look into the preliminary report on the HX-project, which is aimed at finding a suitable replacement for the F/A-18C Hornet in Finnish service. This part will focus on the interesting stuff: the capabilities to be replaced, and the alternatives that might replace them.
The capabilities the Hornet provides are, according to the report, as follows:
Airspace surveillance and control
Defensive counter-air (DCA)
Offensive counter-air (OCA)
Battlefield air interdiction (BAI)
Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR)
Of note is here is that when the Hornets were introduced in Finnish service, it was as a pure interceptor/fighter aircraft, and only later (with MLU 2) did the potential for interdiction strikes start to feature prominently. In fact, it can be argued that out of the seven roles described above, the current Finnish Hornet-fleet is oriented towards three (airspace surveillance and control, DCA, and interdiction strike), is capable of handling two somewhat satisfactorily (BAI and ISTAR), with two being more or less outside of the current scope of capabilities (OCA and maritime strike). It is not that the Hornet can’t perform maritime strike and OCA-missions, but rather that a combination of lack of suitable weapons and a focusing in training on other missions leaves gaps to be filled (note: this is based on how air force training is described in open sources, it is possible that e.g. OCA receives more attention than is openly acknowledged).
Of interest is especially the focus placed on OCA, which is discussed over multiple pages in the report from chapter 4 and onwards. The reasoning behind this is that air superiority can seldom be achieved through DCA only (i.e. shooting down enemy aircraft entering our air space), but instead this needs to be supplemented with OCA (attacking enemy aircrafts and airbases in their own territory). Traditionally, OCA has meant striking enemy airfields through the use of multiple supporting formations of aircraft (escorts, electronic warfare aircraft supressing enemy air defences, strike packages for taking out enemy runways and hangars, and finally an aircraft doing battle damage assessment by photographing the target after the strike), and as such these kinds of strikes are both high-risk and require specialised weapons and a high level of pilot competence. The number of aircraft involved would also mean that a significant proportion of the whole Finnish air force would be tied up in a single mission.
The increasing capabilities of modern multi-role fighters and the use of stand-off weapons and sensors mean that the absolute number of aircrafts used for an OCA strike can be decreased somewhat. However, I must still admit that I was surprised that this seems to be a prioritised field. It is possible that this is seen as the most demanding of the missions, and that if the air force pilots becomes proficient in multi-package strikes on enemy airbases, this skill set (and weaponry) can easily be used also for the “lesser” missions (such as striking strategic bridges or enemy surface units, neither mission of which is dealt with in any detail in the report).
Another mission that gets a thorough analysis is electronic warfare and especially suppression of enemy air defences. SEAD, as it is usually abbreviated, deals with rendering enemy groundbased air defence systems ineffective, either by jamming their sensors or by outright destroying them. This is usually performed by specially modified aircrafts (the EA-6B Prowler and EA-18G Growler of the US Navy and Marine Corps, as well as the German and Italian Air Force Tornado ECR being mentioned), carrying special sensors and weaponry. The report notes that, even when it comes to stealth aircraft, multirole fighters will remain vulnerable to enemy air defences, and while they can carry some SEAD-weaponry and sensors (such as radar-homing missiles and jamming pods), true SEAD will always be something of a niche-capability that even modern multi-role fighters can only perform “with some restrictions”.
The possibility that Russia through the use of modern long-range air defence systems could more or less close Finnish air space is not discussed in the report. This would naturally have a huge impact on the needs and priorities of any future fighter, so not discussing it means that the work group believes that:
A) The impact of long-range surface-to-air missiles will be small/manageable (at extreme ranges the system will have trouble engaging low-flying targets due to the radar not seeing over the horizon, and the large missiles needed to get enough range will have poor manoeuvrability against agile fighter-sized targets), or
B) While it is possible to shut down most of Finland’s airspace using long-range surface-to-air missiles, it is not a good idea for Finnish officials to openly admit it.
The Alternative Solutions
A number of alternative solutions have been put forward, including unmanned platforms (UAV/UCAV), a completely ground-based solution (see earlier blog post), as well as extending the lifespan of the current Hornet-fleet.
All three of these are dealt with thoroughly in the report. There are currently no UAV/UCAV capable of performing the same missions as manned multi-role aircraft, especially with regards to air-to-air missions. Also, unmanned platforms tend to have the same cost to operate as manned aircraft of similar complexity and size (due to the fact that they need the same maintenance as an ordinary plane, and while he/she isn’t on board, they also need a trained “pilot”). The report envisions a place for UAV/UCAV’s in supplementing roles, e.g. reconnaissance, performing dangerous strikes, and finding targets on the battlefield and guiding in manned aircraft to strike these (FAC).
BAE Taranis is at the cutting edge of UCAV technology, but is still far from operational, and nowhere ear as versatile as modern multirole fighters. Source: BAE Systems
A ground-based air defence system lacks the operational flexibility of fighters, and cannot rapidly regroup to answer sudden threats in a new area of the country. Due to the vast size of Finland, a complete air defence system would also be extremely costly, and other weapon systems would be needed for striking enemy ground- and naval targets. Peacetime air surveillance is also impossible without own aircraft.
Lengthening the lifespan of the current Hornets is not a realistic option either. The aircrafts would need to be completely overhauled, an expensive process which easily could become even more expensive if some “nasty surprises”, such as cracks in critical structures, were found during the program. After 2020, Finland would also be the sole user responsible for keeping the legacy-Hornets aging mission computer up to date, carrying the whole upgrade cost for the fighter’s core avionics. The relative combat value of the aircraft, especially in air-to-air missions, is also rapidly decreasing with the introduction of new fighter aircraft in our neighbouring countries (F-35A, JAS 39E, T-50, and the latest versions of the Su-27 and MiG-29 families). If the extension would be done, it would cost approximately 1.2 billion Euros, and give the Hornet 5-10 years more in service. This would not give us any more options with regards to eventually replacing it, as no new designs are on the horizon in that timeframe, but rather it would diminish the options, as certain production lines are on the verge of closing.
The candidates have been an open secret, but as far as I am aware of, this is the first time they have been named in an official document. They are the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed-Martin F-35, and the SAAB JAS 39E (Super) Gripen, while all Far Eastern aircrafts are out of the competition. I presented all of the contenders in depth last autumn (here and here), so here I will only look into the few notable changes that have taken place since, as well as their strong and weak points in the light of the report.
Prior to Paris Air Show this month, Boeing declared that they believe they will be able to keep their St Louis production line for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet open until the end of the decade, meaning that they will be in the running for HX after all. Part of this is due to a new export deal for 28 Super Hornets to Kuwait, worth an estimated 3 billion USD. This marks only the second export deal for the Super Hornet, but Boeing is still looking into a number of potential foreign customers, Finland being one of them. An interesting ace the Super Hornet has is the ability to offer a dedicated SEAD version in the form of the EA-18G Growler, a heavily modified F/A-18F. The main problem is that the project is heavily reliant on continued interest (and funding) from a single operator. The day the US Navy decides to prioritise other aircraft, the few exported Super Hornets will become very expensive to maintain and upgrade.
The interest in SEAD might prove beneficial to the F/A-18E/F, if Finland would opt for an arrangement similar to Australia, who operate a fleet of 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets and have 12 EA-18G Growlers on order. Operating dedicated SEAD aircraft would make Finland a highly sought after partner in international operations, with only a handful of countries being able to offer the same capability (Germany, Italy, and USA), of which only the USA are able to offer more than a handful of airframes. Boeing also has the benefit of being the main supplier for the current F/A-18 Hornet-fleet, which have been a highly successful project from a Finnish point of view. The report talks about “looking into the possibilities of benefitting from current strategic partnerships that exists between Finnish and foreign companies”, and letting Patria and Boeing continue with their collaboration from the Hornet on to the Super Hornet would seem to fit this bill perfectly. The Super Hornet is also developed for the harsh carrier environment, and could be used for dispersed basing (i.e. using purpose-built roads as airfields) in the same way as the current legacy-Hornets are used.
Dassault Rafale has also scored notable successes on the export market, in the form of a 6.3 billion Euro deal for 24 Rafales to Qatar and a similar number of aircraft to Egypt as part of larger arms package including weaponry and warships. The troublesome MRCA deal with India also seems to be moving ahead. All in all, it seems more likely now than it did half a year ago that Dassault could manage to keep the production lines of its beautiful fighter open long enough to take part in the HX-project. Still, it’s hard to say how serious Dassault is about the Finnish fighter program, seemingly being occupied in the Middle East and with the huge Indian deal. Rafale is available in both land-based and carrier versions.
Eurofighter, SAAB, and Lockheed-Martin have not been able to present much new. All programs are moving forward at a steady pace. Interestingly enough, all three were also present at this summer’s main flight show in Finland, Turku Airshow, held earlier this month. SAAB had a JAS 39C Gripen taking part in a flyby with a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet and a Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16AM, as well as performing a solo display. The other two didn’t bring any flying hardware. Neither Boeing nor Dassault took part in the air show in any way.
Whit regards to the strategic partnerships, it should be noted that while Finland haven’t bought a British fighter since the Folland Gnat in 1958 or a German one since the Messerschmitt Bf 109G, the strategic partnerships are certainly there. The companies behind the Eurofighter consortium (officialy Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH) constitutes some of the key suppliers of the Finnish Defence Forces, through the CASA C-295 transports (by Airbus Defence) and the BAE Hawk trainers (by BAE Systems) of the Finnish Air Force, as well as in the form of the army’s primary transport helicopter, the NHIndustries NH90 (produced by the NHIndustries consortium, in which Airbus Helicopters has a 62.5 % stake). Patria is also supplying parts for a number of Airbus’ civil projects. All in all, the Eurofighter certainly has the local connections to be a serious contender. However, Eurofighter have had a hard time finding exports outside of the original countries, and I personally see the aircraft as the least likely choice for the HX-project. It’s not that it isn’t capable; it just costs too much and doesn’t quite stand out in an extremely competitive crowd.
SAAB seems to be the company that is placing most effort on the HX-project, although the Brazilian order certainly promises to be of an altogether different scale. Gripen is developed from the outset to suit Swedish needs, which are strikingly similar to Finland’s (cold weather operations, ease of maintenance, dispersed basing, and so forth). The Brazilian order and continued Swedish commitment also promises to make certain that the aircraft will have support throughout the lifecycle of the HX. The one stumbling block is its lack of stealth.
Contrary to SAAB, Lockheed-Martin does offer stealth, but there are huge questionmarks with regards to how maintenance of the F-35 will be handled. Cost is also an issue, even if the manufacturer assures everyone that the series produced aircraft will be on par or lower in unit price compared to current generation 4+-fighters. Still, when it comes to life-cycle costs, stealth coatings are notoriously difficult and expensive to maintain in proper working condition. The F-35 is offered in three versions, where the C-version is developed for carrierborne use, and as such could be used for dispersed basing. It is, however, noticeably more expensive than the landbased A-version, and it is questionable if it ever will receive any export orders. Of note is that the F-35 is only offered in single-seat versions, but the report acknowledges that much of the initial training will move to simulators, which lessens the demand for a two-seat lead-in training version.
The Bottom Line
I would still rank the F-35A/C and the JAS 39E Gripen as the two most likely candidates, with the F/A-18E/F (possibly with a few Growlers on strength) as the black horse. What it will come down to is:
What impact can new stealth-cancelling technologies be assumed to offer?
How is the F-35 able to cope with demanding cold-weather operations in dispersed conditions?
How will a robust maintenance chain be assured (especially in the case of the F-35)?
Is dedicated SEAD capability of importance?
What will the life-cycle costs of the different aircraft be?
This week’s biggest defence related news from Finland is without doubt the announcement from the Ministry of Defence that a preliminary committee has been created to prepare the launching of an assessment about how the capabilities of the F-18C/D Hornet is to be replaced in Finnish service. The press release is found in both Finnish and Swedish, but so far no English release has been made. Note the keyword, “capabilities”.
The Finnish Air Force operates a mixed fleet of 55 single-seat F-18C (two out of the original 57 having been lost in accidents) and seven two-seat F-18D. The D-variant is fully combat capable, but its primary use in Finnish service is as a dual-control trainer for pilots practicing their skills. These are the sole combat jets of the air force, but in times of crises the Hawk Mk.51/51A/66 jet trainers can be employed as light fighter or attack aircraft with a limited combat capability during conditions of good visibility. In times of war, the Hornets would play a key role in protecting own troops from enemy air attacks, as well as attacking enemy ground targets. A rough picture of the main missions of the Finnish Hornets in times of war can be acquired from the weapons they are equipped with.
For air-to-air work, long the sole official role of the Finnish Hornet-fleet, the AIM-9X short range IR-guided missile is used in conjunction with the JCHMCS helmet-mounted sight. For longer ranges, the AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM medium-ranged active radar-guided missile is used. The use of these constitutes no surprise, as they have been the weapons of choice for most west-oriented countries for quite some time. It is notable, however, that the Finnish Air Force employs some of the latest versions of both the AIM-9 and AIM-120 available.
For air-to-ground work, three different weapons are in use: the GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), the AGM-154C Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW), and the ‘silver bullet’ in the form of the AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile). These are guided by the state-of-the-art AN/AAQ-28 LITENING AT Block-2 targeting pod.
The JDAM is basically a kit that is fitted to any Mk-80-series ‘dumb’ bomb, and turns it into a short-ranged GPS-guided weapon. Due to its vastly improved precision over unguided munitions and its (relatively) low price, it has quickly become the weapon of choice for air forces the world over, and has seen extensive use in a number of low-intensity conflicts, up to and including the latest campaign in Syria.
The JSOW is a gliding bomb, guided through the initial stages of flight by GPS coupled with inertial guidance, and in the terminal phase of the flight by an IR-seeker. The C-version is fitted with a specially designed two-stage warhead that first employs a smaller shaped-charge warhead to blast a passage through walls or armor, allowing the main charge to pass through and detonate inside the target. As it lacks propulsion, the range of the JSOW varies greatly with launch altitude, being roughly 20 to 130 km. The current state of the JSOW program in Finnish use is somewhat unclear to me. It seems plans for large scale operational use might have been abandoned as the JASSM was cleared for sale to Finland.
The JASSM is one of the most advanced stand-off weapons in service anywhere in the world today. It has a low radar cross-section, giving it somewhat stealthy characteristics, and is powered by a small turbojet, giving it a maximum range of well over 350 km (depending on launching height). It navigates in the same way as the JSOW, with GPS-assisted inertial guidance and an IR-seeker, but it also employs a data-link, being able to transmit data back to the launching aircraft. The fact that Finland as only the second foreign country in the world was allowed to buy these missiles from the USA is a strong political signal, an aspect I won’t delve further into, but for those interested Charly Salonius-Pasternak has written a very interesting briefing paper under the name Not just another arms deal: The security policy implications of the United States selling advanced missiles to Finland for the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
What is striking here is the complete lack of variety in the arsenal of the Hornet. There is no anti-vehicle weapon like the venerable AGM-65 Maverick or the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, no area weapon in the form of cluster munitions or even rocket pods, no anti-shipping missile, no anti-radiation missile. In a nutshell, all three acquired weapons are pinpoint weapons, designed to take out single high-value (hardened) targets. To put it bluntly, their main differences are in range and price only, with longer range demanding a higher price tag.
As a side-note, this can be contrasted with the weapons employed by the JAS-39C/D Gripen in Swedish service, about which Swedish blogger and air force pilot Wiseman wrote last fall (in Swedish only). The Swedish Air Force uses a mix of the Rb 15 indigenous anti-shipping missile and the laser-guided GBU-12/49 Enhanced Paveway II 227 kg bomb for their ground work, with AGM-65 and DWS-39/BK90 having been retired (Add. The BK90 was a gliding stand-off submunitions dispenser with 72 submunitions. Not unlike the A-version of the JSOW, it was cancelled due to political pressure on cluster weapons). Although it seems like the choice of weapons on the Gripen has had as much to do with politics as with operational requirements, it is interesting to note that the Gripen flies with the weapons the Hornets lack, and vice versa.
Back to Finland, it is rather clear that in the ground attack role, the Hornets will not perform close-air support or go hunting after enemy tanks and ground troops. They carry a highly specialized payload, and will be used to take out key targets behind enemy lines, such as bridges, command and control centers, communication hubs, and so forth. This mission is known as air interdiction, and there are a number of historical cases where it has been instrumental in tilting the balance of ground operations (and a number of cases where it has failed miserably). The use of stand-off weapons allows the Hornets to perform the mission from within Finnish air space, which should enhance their chance of survival.
It is also notable that the army has a large artillery park in comparison with many other countries, including both towed and self-propelled guns, as well as medium and heavy rocket launchers. While close air support no doubt can be devastating, artillery strikes on enemy troop concentrations can perform very much the same mission, given that they receive accurate target data and are protected from enemy countermeasures (mainly air attacks and counter-battery fire). Note that the MGM-140B ATACMS surface-to-surface missile, which Finland asked for and received permission to buy but then decided against, was not directly comparable to the JASSM, as it was not fitted with a large single warhead but 275 smaller submunitions.
The capabilities the Hornet provide the Finnish Defence Forces with during times of war are thus two-fold: anti-air operations, and attacking key enemy ground targets.
The obvious way to replace these capabilities is to buy a new fighter. The last Hornets are scheduled for retirement by 2030, with the first leaving in 2025. In the same 2025-2030 time span the replacing fighter would be produced and delivered. However, modern fighters are not cheap. The F-35C Joint Strike Fighter has a price tag somewhere around 91 million Euros if you ask the manufacturer, but this may be way higher (the naval version likely being a better fit than the F-35A for Finnish use due to the requirement of operating from dispersed basing). While the “list price” of a Hornet is given by the US Navy as 23 million Euros, for Finland, the price of our Hornets jumped due to fluctuations in the exchange rate and a number of administrative fees, leading to a unit price of around 49 million Euros. Still, this leaves the Hornet at roughly half the inflation adjusted price of the F-35. Another alternative is obviously the Swedish JAS-39E/F Gripen. The first Swedish order for 60 “refurbished” planes is at a flyaway cost of 33 million Euros per unit. Notably, the cost for flight hours during the life cycle is considerably smaller for the Gripen than corresponding figure for twin-engined aircrafts such as the Rafale or the Super Hornet.
Another thing to remember is that the production lines for a number of fighters currently in production will likely close during the coming years, including the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (2017?), the Rafale (2018?), and the Eurofighter (2017?). This would leave the F-35 and Gripen as the only western fighters available by 2025. A more exotic alternative is the upcoming Japanese F-3, the technology demonstrator of which was recently unveiled. With the Japanese showing signs of opening up their arms industry for exports, it might be available on the export market by 2025. However, Japanese high-tech weapons systems such as the Type 10 tank and the F-2 (support) fighter have been notorious for their high unit price.
The main problem in replacing the Hornet with another fighter is the development of ever more accurate and maneuverable long-range surface-to-air missiles. I discussed this in an earlier post, where I noted that more or less all of Finland’s air space would be controlled by Russian SAM’s. This naturally begs the question, whether it is worth investing 5-7 billion Euros (based on the 3.5 billion for Brazil’s 36 planes) in an air force which would operate in the face of a numerically and quite possibly technologically superior force, and then only at minimum height?
The obvious answer then seems to be that what we need is more ground based anti-air systems. The medium-ranged NASAMS 2/ITO12 system bought by Finland a few years back had a total price tag (excluding missiles) of around 366 million Euros. This gives a price tag of around 61 million per battery, which actually is in the middle ground between a Hornet and an F-35C. Of course, once deployed, the battery can maintain (or at least contest) air superiority over a certain area for an indefinite time as long as it receives needed supplies, but the difference in price is not as big as one could assume. Also, the benefit of the fighter jet is its flexibility, being able to move at high speeds between different areas of the battle field, and perform numerous different missions.
It is also important to remember that no single anti-air system can function effectively alone. The medium-ranged systems needs to be complemented by short-ranged MANPADS for use against attack helicopters and planes operating at tree-top height, as well as long-ranged sensors and C3-systems to give a correct situational picture. All in all, this kind of layered defence will probably cost as much as or more than a new fighter. However, the question is, can we afford not to employ a layered ground based anti-air network, even if we would acquire a new fighter jet? The question can also be turned the other way, who will protect our skies during peace time, if we lack fighters to scramble and identify intruders with? A minimum force of 15-30 planes is needed for normal air policing duties, and as long as Finland isn’t a member of a military alliance, we have to pay for these ourselves. A solution could be to try and source a number of low-hour F-16’s, to use for the air policing mission in peace time, and rely on ground based sensors and weapon systems in times of war.
An interesting note here is that Brigadier general (ret.) Lauri Puranen who leads the current project is known as promoting the “spirit of ‘joint’”, having been both the commander of the air force as well as the section commander of the army aviation. As such, he just might be the man to advocate such unorthodox solutions, although a new fighter is still the most likely route.
I am personally of the opinion that in the best of worlds, Finland and Sweden would both be members of NATO, and Finnish JAS-39E’s would be able to operate from bases in Norrland in case of war. However, neither of us are, and it then follows that the committee has some very tough decisions coming up, with no clear answer being provided.