Swiss decision rolls in F-35’s favour

Let’s begin by the obvious: Finland isn’t Switzerland, and HX isn’t AIR2030.

It still would be wrong to say that the Swiss decision, and especially the way it was made, wouldn’t have bearing on the Finnish evaluation. The odds of the stealth bird just went up.

A Finnish F/A-18C Hornet and an Italian Air Force F-35A teaming up during Exercise Ramstein Alloy 21-2. Source: Finnish Air Force Twitter

I will leave the finer details of Swiss politics to those better versed in that topic, but let’s start by looking at why the Swiss decision matters for HX.

Something a number of commentators have missed is why the Swiss evaluators felt the aircraft was the right choice:

It includes entirely new, extremely powerful and comprehensively networked systems for protecting and monitoring airspace. The F-35A is able to ensure information superiority; this means pilots benefit from a higher situational awareness in all task areas when compared with the other candidates.

The following sentences then goes on to discuss that the aircraft is designed “to be especially difficult for other weapons systems to detect”. The debate about whether Switzerland need a stealth fighter misses the point. The main reason why the Swiss appreciate its effectiveness isn’t the stealth features, but the networked nature and integrated sensors giving the pilots a higher situational awareness. Oh, and by the way: it’s stealthy which is a nice bonus. And it seems set to stay in service the longest. The last two points arguably in of higher importance in HX, but even then F-35 took home AIR2030.

The point about staying in service further resonates with the product support question. ALIS gets good points, the maintenance system is modern and simple, and the large number of both fighters produced in general and European operators in particular ensure cooperation opportunities in both training and operational usage.

Crucially, the calculations made by the Swiss also showed that the aircraft was significantly cheaper compared to the second lowest bid when calculating full life-cycle costs (i.e. acquisition and 30 years of operations), coming in at approximately 2.0 Bn CHF cheaper (3.2 Bn EUR).

The big deal here is that as opposed to several of the recent wins for the F-35 where it has been the favourite from the outset, in Switzerland the F-35 is most likely the most difficult political choice. That the evaluation still found that the F-35 won three out of four categories including combat capability, product support, and cooperation opportunities is significant, as if the race would have been close the temptation to fudge the numbers a bit to ensure a more politically acceptable winner could certainly have been there. And crucially, unlike some other evaluations, the fact that the F-35 wasn’t the bestest and greatest in all measurable ways ironically lends a bit more credibility to the evaluation.

That’s the good news for the F-35, and it would be naive to think that the Swiss findings are taken out of thin air. The grey fighter again cements its position as the new European standard fighter in a way the F-16 did decades ago.

An interesting aspect is the worries about ownership of data and cyber security. I’ve discussed the topic before, especially with regards to the ALIS/ODIN, but the full quote is interesting.

All candidates were able to guarantee data autonomy. In the case of the F-35A, the system’s cyber management, the security of its computer architecture and its cyber protection measures combine to ensure an especially high level of cyber security. As with all other candidates, with the F-35A Switzerland controls which information to exchange with other air forces via data link, and what logistics information to report back to the manufacturer.

This is also certainly a good sign for F-35 from a Finnish point of view, as the cyber security and sovereignty aspect are among the questions still lingering with regards to the fighter. While Lockheed Martin has stressed that it isn’t an issue, it is one of those things that are next to impossible to judge based on open sources. However, that Switss evaluators has reached the conclusion is certainly promising.

But there’s also a few flies in the ointment.

The cheapness is… strange.

I could write a long-winding paragraph about it, but Steve Trimble summed it up perfectly in 280 characters:

A few key points still deserve to be reiterated. There is a significant difference between those struggling with whether to upgrade early blocks and export customers now jumping aboard and getting what presumably will be TR-3 hardware (slated for introduction in 2023) from the start. Especially considering the significant maturity the program has achieved in the past few years it is likely that the maintenance and operating costs will continue on a downward spiral.

However, the GAO isn’t overly impressed, and while originally deliveries from 2026 should have been Block 4, that standard is pushed back, and GAO isn’t sure that the current schedule will hold either.

In 2020, the program added a year to its Block 4 schedule and now expects to extend Block 4 development into fiscal year 2027. We found, however, that the program office did not formulate its revised schedule based on the contractor’s demonstrated past performance. Instead, the schedule is based on estimates formulated at the start of the Block 4 effort, increasing the likelihood that the scheduled 2027 completion date is not achievable.

Perhaps more worrying is how the aircraft became 3 billion euros cheaper to operate – by offloading flight hours into simulators. This is certainly one of those ‘Yes, but…’-arguments. Modern simulators are very good, and with a continued emphasis on things like electronic warfare and advanced (expensive) weaponry, it certainly makes sense to do more training in simulators. The Finnish Air Force is a good example of this, with HX seemingly largely skipping two-seaters for operational conversion, going Hawk->simulator->HX single-seater instead. However, there still are things that differ between simulators than the real thing. A key thing to note is the lack of cues which pilots learn to fly with, everything from vibrations to G-forces which are very difficult to model. Former Hornet-pilot C W Lemoine flew DCS a few years ago, and in the video discussed how flying the real jet differs from high-end commercial and military simulators and how the armed forces are using them. The DCS-specific issues obviously doesn’t apply when you have a properly modelled cockpit, the other issues do.

More crucially, the German longer version of the presser include further details on the process (and overall could function as a good template for the eventual HX releases) and discuss how that part of the calculations were done.

Diese basieren auf den Angaben der jeweiligen Luftwaffen respektive der Marine in den Herstellerländern, wie sie im Rahmen der Offertanfrage bei allen Kandidaten identisch angefragt wurden. Die Antworten der Kandidaten wurden mit den Erfahrungen der Luftwaffe mit dem F/A-18C/D und den Erkenntnissen aus der Evaluation verglichen.

In other words, seems the Swiss have asked main operators about simulators versus real flight hours, and the USAF has returned with a 20% lower number compared to the USN, AdA, and LW. There is preciously little in open sources to explain this difference in real terms. Yes, the F-35’s simulators are good, but the rest are no slouches either. I can see no clear reason why it wouldn’t be possible to run a simulation-heavy training curriculum for the rest of the fighters as well, if that is what you want.

Another key number thrown around is that the F-35 would require 50% fewer take-offs and landings compared to the current F-5E Tiger II/F/A-18C Hornet-fleet. This honestly doesn’t feel overly impressive, as it is unclear to me how much the old and short-legged F-5E pushes up the current number, and it is unclear to me if the comparison is between 36 F-35A and the total fleet of 66 F-5E/F Tiger II and F/A-18C/D Hornets or an interpolated 36 to 36. However, notable is that the Finnish Air Force reportedly has had issues meeting the NATO-standard of 180 flight hours per pilot and year, and while there are some redeeming features of Finnish operations (such as short transits to training areas), cutting 20% of the flight hours while at the same time increasing the complexity of the mission sets and bringing in new roles won’t happen. At least not in a good way…

Which brings us to the numbers. The Swiss are looking at a procurement cost of 5.068 Bn CHF for 36 fighters, which converted to Euros and extrapolated to 64 gives us the figure of 8.2 Bn EUR, well below the 9.6 Bn EUR maximum of HX. So far so good, until you realise that the 10.432 Bn CHF cost of operating the aircraft over 30 years gives 16.9 Bn EUR extrapolated to 64, giving you an annual operating cost of 563.3 MEUR, which is significantly over the FinAF 270 MEUR annual budget.

With 20% less flying hours than the competition.

…and that brings us back to the fact that Finland isn’t Switzerland.

The mission set which 36 F-35A are supposed to handle is described as follows:

As far as fleet size is concerned, for all four candidates a fleet of 36 aircraft would be large enough to cover Switzerland’s airspace protection needs over the longer term in a prolonged situation of heightened tensions. The Air Force must be able to ensure that Swiss airspace cannot be used by foreign parties in a military conflict.

Which is a realistic threat scenario in my opinion. As long as the French suddenly doesn’t get revanchist over the dissolution of the Helvetic Republic, there’s little direct threat.

Swiss government infographic describing how the integrity of own airspace is protected. Source: Swiss MoD

The stated aim for the Finnish forces in a ground war is to:

Making it possible to slow down and wear out the aggressor’s
land attack in selected terrain and ultimately defeat him. All
services and civilian authorities as well as the Border Guard
participate in land defence.

…which can be described by this fancy infographic of the battlefield in 2030.

The multi-domain battlefield in 2030. Source: FDF Homepage

This difference is evident in the DSCA-notices as well, were the Swiss DSCA-notification include a grand-total of 40 AIM-9X Sidewinders, 12 Mk 82 500-lb bombs with JDAM-guidance kits, and 12 SDB-II small glide-bombs. You do not fight a war with that kind of stock, although the possibility to carry on the weapons currently used by the Hornets are there. As has been discussed for Finland, the weapons and spares bought will be a huge part of the overall acquisition costs, suddenly making the 8.2 Bn EUR Swiss pricetag look less than stellar (although granted the Swiss DSCA-notification included more spare engines compared to the Finnish bid). Comparing costs is a case of apples against pears against olives with the occasional mango thrown into the mix, but the resulting smoothie evidently tastes like Finland won’t be able to acquire and operate 64 F-35As at Swiss prices.

More confusingly, if that is 20% cheaper than everything else, there’s some serious discrepancies between what the Swiss asked for and the five packages offered to Finland for 9.6 Bn Euros.