The difference between success and failure for Boeing in HX is razor thin.
Granted, as there are no prizes for second spot, you can make that argument for all fighters involved, but Boeing still has something of a uniquely deceptive situation. While a favourite of many analysts – and it has to be said, on good grounds – the reliance on US Navy interest in the platform means that the step from favourite to bottom rung is a short one.
Boeing representatives readily admit that the very public battle fought between senior US Navy leadership and politicians over the future of the Super Hornet isn’t helping their marketing. At the same time, they don’t admit to being overly worried in the grand scheme of things. The US Navy fighter shortfall is very real, and even if the service would want to phase out the Super Hornet they will struggle to do so any time soon based on the sheer number of Super Hornets in service and the lack of a viable alternative. While Rear Adm. Gregory Harris, director of the Air Warfare Directorate of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, might say the service “must replace the Super Hornets and the Growlers by the 2030s“, it’s a statement that fits poorly with him saying in the same interview (from April this year) that he “expects the Navy to have “a better idea” within the next two or three years as to whether it will buy a manned or unmanned fighter to follow the Super Hornets”. To put it bluntly: the F-35A declared FOC in 2017, with the concept being more or less clear when the X-32 and X-35 designs were selected as concept demonstrators in 1997. If that point in time is 2023-2024 in the case of NGAD, it would mean FOC in 2043-2044, putting the F/A-XX quite some way off from having replaced the Super Hornet before the end of the 2030’s. Even with a faster development timeline – say reaching FOC by 2035 – building a few hundred new fighters and rolling them out will likely take at least five years even on a rushed schedule. And even then, the more specialised Growler is likely to stay on call for longer. The EA-6B Prowler survived 18 years longer in US Navy service compared to the baseline A-6 Intruder, and a few years even further in the USMC. Even provided for a faster turnaround thanks to developments in electronics and unmanned systems (which frankly hasn’t happened just yet, but conceivably could be the case), the Growler staying in service for five to ten years after the retirement of the Super Hornet doesn’t feel like a stretch.
It’s probably something along these lines of reasoning that leads US politicians to question whether the Navy really can afford to run down the Super Hornet production line and just focus on the Service Life Modifications-program (though it has to be said that in some cases securing jobs in homestates does seem to be the first priority). If the Super Hornet stays in service until 2045, and the Growler until 2050, the final round of US Navy-funded Growler upgrades could then be used to feed into an export-directed Super Hornet “Block X” standard in much the same way that Block 3 rests on many technologies originally developed for the Growler.
It isn’t an implausible scenario, but it is far from certain. And if the Finnish Air Force isn’t prepared to gamble on it, the Boeing supplied BAFO can easily be headed for the metaphorical shredder.
But that’s not something that you will see Boeing worrying over, at least not officially.
They express confidence in all aspects of their bid. It’s suitable to Finnish needs, it provides efficiency, there’s a strong weapons package, it’s affordable and mature, and the industrial participation package is solid and based on their long experience of working with Finnish industry in supporting the current Hornet-fleet to ensure security of supply. Boeing also states that it provide the tools to operate independently in a high-treat environment by constituting “a complete self-sustaining package”. Keen readers will note that “self-sustaining” isn’t the same as “sovereign” promised by Dassault and BAES, but still.
A key point worth keeping in mind is that Boeing is taking the Finnish authorities on their word when they have been repeating that they aren’t buying a fighter but a package of capabilities. The Growler is the obvious example, but Boeing also took the opportunity at Kaivari 21 to release further details on how they see Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUMT) in the future.
Let’s first make something absolutely clear: the ATS is in the BAFO, but it is an option. It’s a potential future capability with a price tag given for the systems and associated infrastructure.
As such it won’t be evaluated in the deciding wargames (at least not in the first point, it is more unclear to me how the second evaluation point played with 2030-standards would treat future growth capabilities). However, it offers some interesting capabilities, especially as the concept is that anything mission-related is put into the nosecone which is easily snapped on or off to install another one. There’s obvious benefits here as the same airframe can fly different missions, but there’s an interesting secondary benefit to a small high-tech country such as Finland as well. It is possible to with a relatively small input develop, either alone or together with other operators, new payloads tailored to Finnish needs. This is based on the fact that one doesn’t need to develop the aircraft itself (as is the case with building a new UAS) nor having to run the traditional integration verification testing done on external stores. The nosecone payloads can then either be offered on the export market (provided exports kick off) or then kept under wraps as a covert Finnish capability.
The payloads that first come to mind are quite naturally ISR once as well as electronic warfare. Different sensors, such as electro-optical ones, SAR, and ESM, are likely among the low-hanging fruit that relatively easily could create a significantly improved intelligence gathering capability to the benefit of both the FDF as a whole but also of the political leadership in times of both peace and war. Crucially, this would fit in well with the EA-18G Growler enhancing the same in the electromagnetic spectrum, and would do so while relying on mass and attritable platforms instead of a few (individually more capable) high-value assets. The relatively easily modified sensor payload also means that the adversary can be kept in the dark regarding what capabilities the Finnish Air Force operates.
In the electronic warfare domain, being able to push large jammers or sensors close to the enemy is an extremely valuable opportunity as well. And as has been discussed on the blog numerous times, size does matter when you discuss arrays and antennas. In essence, having a MALD with a 150 litre payload and the ability to get back in case things goes well is a significant step above just firing jammers in front of you.
Another nice feature is that the ATS can be forward deployed with a relatively limited footprint. As such, keeping the ATS spread out on smaller bases in case of heightened crisis to allow for more rapid reaction can be a viable tactic e.g. in the face of increased QRA alerts, where the ATS can be launched from a civilian field (or even a road base in times of war) and by the time the scrambled Super Hornets are about to link up with the aircraft to be intercepted the ATS can already be on location and have provided an updated situational picture. And as we all know, a better situational picture allows for off-loading flight hours from the fighter fleet. In wartime, pushing the sensors out in front of the fighter can also allow for a better situational picture without breaking stand-off distance, or e.g. for long-range AIM-260 JATM shots where the Super Hornet remains passive at distance and let the ATS which is closer to the target provide fire control and guidance via its own radar and datalink. For the Finnish Navy, which faces something of a sensor gap following the ever growing range of modern weapon systems, having a larger number of flying sensors, some of which could be flown from bases along the southern coast, certainly is an interesting proposition.
But with a fixed budget occupied by the non-option stuff in the BAFO, from where would the ATS be funded?
The obvious place is munitions and upgrades. The Super Hornet BAFO include a sizeable munitions package, but some of the stuff included is things that could be carried over from current stocks. This include bombs, but also e.g. the option to skip or limit the buys of the AIM-120C-8 now included and do a jump from the AIM-120C-7 currently in service to the AIM-260 JATM. It’s a calculated risk to go heavy on the sensors and save on the missiles during the first few years, but it wouldn’t be the first one taken by FDF. Another aspect is that the regular operational budget does include money for upgrades and yet more senors and weapons, at some point these could potentially be routed to sensors who do their own flying. The basic software and hardware as well as interfaces to allow for MUMT will be included as a part of the Super Hornet/Growler baseline by 2030 in any case.
“The timing lines up very well,” Boeing notes with regard to the ATS, and they mention German interest in MUMT for their Super Hornet/Growler-package (while pointing out that Finland is the first country offered ATS as part of a fighter competition). There’s also apparently “higher trust” in Finnish calculations compared to Swiss ones when it comes to the affordability of operating the aircraft, as well as the confidence that stems from the continuation of the trend in which the electromagnetic spectrum is continuously growing in importance (the latest data point being the studies to see whether the F-15EX or some other USAF fighter could employ the NGJ-family of jamming pods), especially in the light of continued Russian investment in the field.
At the same time, the US Navy publicly says they want to move one, and over the waters next to Kaivopuisto the F-35A is busy trying to steal(th) the show. The difference between success and failure for Boeing is HX is razor thin.
The HX competition continues to provide surprises in the post-BAFO era, and this week’s media event courtesy of the US Embassy was no exception. After a short introduction by the embassy that described the strong partnership that exists between Finland and the US (and which included a note about Finnish exports and know-how finding its way into key US programs, such as the Polar Security Cutter), it was on to the two US fighter manufacturers to discuss their bids. And while they might be taking part in the same media event, the tone certainly tells of the battle heating up. Boeing discarded outright the theory of ordinary fighters working as EW-platforms, noting that an AESA radar will only provide X-band jamming, and only during ingress, leaving you unprotected when exiting the target area, while Lockheed Martin explained how the F-35A doesn’t require support from electronic warfare platforms or ISR assets “as opposed to 4th generation fighters”.
Illustration of the difference between having a dedicated EW-aircraft compared to an unnamed strike fighter (no points for guessing which, though) using its AESA-radar as a giant jammer. The colour coding symbolise different bands, with the underwing pods of the Growler jamming the S-, C-, and X-bands while the centre-line pod handles the VHF, UHF, and L-band part of the spectrum. Picture courtesy of Boeing
Much of the presentation from Boeing should be well-known talking points to readers of the blog, but in short Boeing still sees international opportunities for up to 400 Super Hornets on the international market. This includes everything from Germany, which already has down-selected the aircraft, to less likely cases such as India.The German contract is the most important one from a Finnish point of view and would likely be a minor facor in HX as it would mean another serious European operator, though my expectation is that the deal won’t be inked until the new government is formed and have gotten up to speed (read: 2022, which also seems to be roughly the timeline Boeing is expecting). Some have questioned the future of the programme as a whole with the rise of Die Grünen, but so far the programme is continuing apace and Germany has indeed already invested money in the preparatory studies, which would imply that the MoD is expecting it to survive a change of government. Notable also that while the Greens aren’t particularly keen on nuclear weapons, part of the allure of the Super Hornet in the strike role comes from the synergies of the Growler which is part of the non-controversial luWES Tornado ECR-replacement program. Of the near-future decisions, the Swiss and Canadian decision are expected within June and before the end of the summer respectively. Switzerland and Canada are less likely to end in work for St Louis, but you never know.
[Industrial participation] is an area where we are clearly differentiated, we have an unblemished track record.
The major talking points of Boeing were the Growler and their industrial participation package. There won’t be final assembly of aircraft or engines in Finland in case of a Boeing win, but rather production of major aircraft and engine structures for the Super Hornet/Growler. While less media-sexy than the final assembly promised by BAES and Saab, the devil is in the details and which one is better than the other from economic or military points of view will depend on the level of assembly (i.e. how large parts are being delivered to be assembled?) compared to how major the parts produced are. The direct industrial participation is in total 49 different programs spread out over 20 different companies, and on the US side include not only Boeing themselves but other major partners of the Super Hornet industrial team such as Northrop Grumman, GE Aircraft Engines, and Raytheon. On the indirect side, Boeing is striving to “leverage the breadth of the whole company”, i.e. including the civilian and other divisions and not just Boeing Defence.
Discussing weapons in a later call, Boeing confirmed that their offer include a modern version of the AMRAAM, the AIM-120C-8. This is quite a bit of a step-up from the Finnish Air Force’s current C-7, though exactly how much is unclear. Many sources refer to the C-8 as a rebranded D, which is the weapon responsible for the recent test that the USAF described as “the longest known air-to-air missile shot“. Exact range is obviously both classified and depending on a number of launch parameters, but the F-14 Tomcat/AIM-54 Phoenix combo is known to have downed drones in 200+ km tests, so that should give a good indicator of the ranges we are talking about. However, long-time defence journalist Joseph Trevithick stated that his understanding is that the C-8 is a hybrid-version for export that involve much of the improvements of the AIM-120D, such as third-party targeting datalinks, but not the improved engine (range is still likely somewhat better than C-7 thanks to improved steering economy). In any case, a Boeing spokesperson confirmed that while they are “pretty happy with that [the AIM-120C-8]”, there obviously are “other things” coming in the near future (read: the AIM-260 JATM). While commercial details made it impossible to include the upcoming weapon in the BAFO and Boeing can’t comment on potential weapons buys post-BAFO, it should be noted that the details known include a rather aggressive development timeline that will see the JATM overtake the AMRAAM in production in the mid-20’s, a decision by the US Navy to first integrate it on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, as well as the Finnish Air Force having expressed a wish to stay as close as possible to the standard of the main operator of any fighter they buy. Add these all together, and it starts to seem highly likely that by the time HX reaches FOC in 2030, in case the Super Hornet wins, the Finnish Air Force would be flying around with a mix of AIM-120C-8 and AIM-260. Still, for the time being the C-8 is what’s on offer, and Boeing claim to be “confident in their ability to defeat the high-end threats” presented in the HX-scenarios with it.
The Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile – Extended Range (AARGM-ER) during captive carry tests. The missile is externally rather different from earlier members of the AGM-88 family in that it lacks the characteristic mid-body wings. The Navy is integrating AARGM-ER on the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G, and it will be compatible for integration of the F-35. Picture source: U.S. Navy photo
Another question is what the Growler will carry for their kinetic missions. Here Boeing was more careful, and declined to mention a weapon, but noted that the Growler-offer obviously include both kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities. Add the earlier mentioned FinAF wish to stay close to the US Navy configuration, and the answer is rather clear: a Finnish EA-18G Growler would use the AGM-88G AARGM-ER to kill stuff. Another key question for the Growler is obviously the low- and high-band jammers that weren’t part of the original DSCA-notification. Here again the timeline causes something of a headache for Boeing, as the USN will be flying with at least the NGJ-LB jammer before FOC for a Finnish Growler-fleet, but they can’t be released for export yet as they are still in development. However, the plan would, again referring to the fact that Finland does not want a unique Finnish standard, be for Finland to operate with whatever the main user employs, so expect to see some money set aside for the missing NGJ-pods if Finland gets the Growler. In the meantime, there is the option of using loaned pods (i.e. AN/ALQ-99) to get training started.
Our offer is complete for the Growler.
For Lockheed Martin the big news was that they were finally ready to talk numbers as well as industrial participation, and there were certainly positive news.
64 is the only number in our offer.
In what can only be described as a surprise to me (as well as to a number of other people), Lockheed Martin confirmed that their bid is built around 64 F-35A. The rest of their message was less surprisingly centred on the value of having a single-configuration fleet made up of the most advanced tactical aircraft currently found on the market. In short, having a single aircraft configuration means that everything from training, maintenance, logistics, and support equipment are easier to plan and manage (which makes it cheaper). This also translate into simpler tasking as every aircraft can fly every mission. Regarding the statement that the F-35 “does not require electronic warfare or AEW platforms as a fourth generation fighter”, it certainly is less dependent on force multipliers (all other things equal) than most other platforms out there, but there are certainly room for nuance here. There’s a reason why the USAF is investing in AEW platforms and expeditionary Growler squadrons, while at the same time quite a number of smaller air forces are able to fly fast jets independently without force multipliers (though as the phrase suggests, that solution isn’t optimal).
A Finnish Air Force F/A-18D Hornet sporting two AGM-158A JASSM heavy cruise missiles. The weapon has received almost mythical status in Finnish media, and while some of its reputation is exaggerated, there’s no denying it is a key capability. Source: Finnish Air Force FB
When it comes to weapon, Lockheed Martin doesn’t want to discuss what’s coming after the AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM, though it is safe to assume that the AIM-260 wouldn’t be far away here either (especially considering it is a Lockheed Martin product as opposed to the AIM-120). More interesting is the fact that Lockheed Martin put focus on how a stealthy aircraft is able to get closer to the target and as such is less reliant on expensive long-range weaponry. Coupled with the emphasise on the JSM as a “true fifth generation weapon”, and the fact that at no point has Lockheed Martin discussed the JASSM, the rumour mill is starting to ask a new question.
Is there a heavy cruise missile at all in Lockheed Martin’s best and final offer?
The JSM is a very nice weapon, and it marries extremely well with the F-35. However, the 550+ km range is a far cry from the 1,850+ km range of the AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER which is cleared for export to Finland as part of both US offers, but as noted the JASSM has never been confirmed by Lockheed Martin. Granted the F-35A might be able to operate closer to its intended target than the Super Hornet, but I sincerely doubt the difference is in the 1,300+ km class. And the difference isn’t just in the range (the JSM in fact outranges the current AGM-158A, so it would still be a step up), but the JASSM carries a 450-kg penetrating warhead while the JSM comes with the significantly more tame 125-kg fragmentation one.
To put it bluntly – it might be a cruise missile, but it is not the capability the Finnish Air Force is looking for.
I’d be happy to be proven wrong, but it certainly feels a bit worrying, and it might explain another somewhat strange issue with the wording of Lockheed Martin, namely their stubborn refusal to talk about 64 aircraft without including the phrase “up to” before it. This prompted Iltalehti’s Lauri Nurmi to ask what exactly “up to 64” meant, which lead to the “only number in offer”-quote above. However, the answer also included disclaimers about final negotiations between selection and contract signing as well as exchange rates causing issues. These are certainly valid concerns, the original Finnish F/A-18C Hornet order was cut by three airframes compared to the offer due to the Finnish mark collapsing compared to the US dollar, and everyone expects some tweaking between the BAFO and the eventual contract.
Except for the fact that both Boeing and Saab has committed to 64 fighters, full stop.
Boeing was more than happy to offer some insight into how the exchange rate between euro and US dollar is handled in HX during our call yesterday, and provided the following quote:
The exchange rate utilized for the BAFO was provided to all candidates on the same day. The US competitors are utilizing the same exchange rate for USD vs Euro. With that same exchange rate we are able to provide 64 aircraft (50 Super Hornets and 14 Growler) along with a complete weapons and sustainment package. Also with that same exchange rate, we are able to clearly demonstrate that with our solution, we can fit within the O&S budget provided by the FDF
With regards to the eventual negotiations, Boeing was also confident enough to guarantee 64 fighters:
With our [Boeing’s] offer, should we be down-selected, there is room to negotiate items within the offer to better refine the solution, however, regardless of that, it is guaranteed that Finland will receive 64 aircraft along with a complete weapons and sustainment solution as a baseline.
Now, if there really is some rather significant holes in the F-35 package, such as the lack of a heavy cruise missile, it isn’t far-fetched to see a re-negotiation where say two aircraft are dropped and the cost is converted into JASSMs, as in all fairness the difference between 64 and 62 aircraft would in practice turn out to be rather minor. On the other hand, it is the BAFO package that will be evaluated in the war games that determine the winner, and it would be a high-risk gamble to go in with something else than the optimal solution to the needs of the FDF. A third possibility is that Lockheed Martin is believing that they won’t come out on top, and then it would look better to be able to walk away saying that they were able to fit 64 aircraft in their offer under the budget given, but that they lost on some more particularly Finnish requirement (defence budgets and numbers are rather global phenomenon and affect every future fighter programme in which they wish to compete, dispersed operations in snow doesn’t).
F-35A during HX Challenge last year. Source: Finnish Air Force FB
This is obviously pure speculation, but the insistence on talking about “up to 64” is somewhat puzzling. I am however happy that it turned out the number of fighters offered is serious, and as noted am overall positively surprised by this development (BAES and Dassault, take note). This was also the case with the industrial participation programme, which included guaranteed manufacturing of airframe components up to 2040 as well as external stealth panels within the same time frame. The number of guaranteed panels also exceed the Finnish requirement, meaning that Finland is guaranteed component production to some non-Finnish F-35s. I am not sure how well that will sit with countries that didn’t secure guaranteed production orders, but as noted in the case of the Super Hornet, from a Finnish point of view parts production can certainly be at least as good or even better than final assembly depending on the details of the offer. The key words here are “guaranteed” and “exceeding Finnish requirements”, and we got them, so I believe it is safe to assume the industrial participation package is at the very least adequate.
Much was also made about how the operating and sustainment costs are coming down, and how the aircraft is “living in single digit maintenance hours”. This is certainly good news for Lockheed Martin, as the operating budget will likely prove the toughest hurdle for the company in HX. Another proof of how the aircraft is maturing is the mission capable rate which now is the best of all USAF fast jets. However, while 76 % and pole position is nice, the truth is that the F-35 is a new aircraft largely still unburdened by combat usage. The fact that the F-16C-fleet reaches almost 74 % despite being on average 29 years old on the other hand puts the numbers in perspective. Other old and heavily worked USAF platforms are also hovering around the 70 %-mark, including the F-15C (72 %, 35 years on average) and F-15E (69 %, 27 years on average). As such, this particular metric might not be the huge win the F-35 is looking for, but it is still a nice step in the right direction, especially considering the unexpected engine shortage the aircraft suffered last year.
In general, as has been discussed earlier on the blog, the story of F-35 sustainment issues does feel like a two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance. The latest serious question mark surrounds the replacement of the company-controlled ALIS maintenance software with the government-owned ODIN, which has run into trouble. At the heart of recent discussions have been the extent to which Lockheed Martin is involved in the maintenance and logistics, and how to reach the milestone of “25 by 25”, meaning that by 2025 there would be a ~29,000 USD per flying hour support cost (the name comes from 29,000 USD in 2025 corresponding to 25,000 in base year 2012 dollars). Lockheed Martin’s proposal is more direct involvement and longer contracts, something the USAF isn’t too keen on. It should be noted that for the FDF involving industry to work very closely on maintenance isn’t a new issue, the whole Millog-idea in fact rests on doing business this way. However, government control is very much a key issue for the FDF, which has been seen for example in the other strategic procurement where the decision was made to have the FDF own the design of the Squadron 2020 vessels and then hire a yard to build them. Having a foreign defence company tell the FDF what data about their own aircraft they may (or may not) access might certainly be a red line, and with the US government facing issues renegotiating intellectual property rights, the odds of Finland managing better here are slim.
The Best and Final Offers (BAFO) for the HX tender are in, and from here onwards there’s no adjustments to the offers. Whatever the bidder has promised is what they are legally bound to deliver. Now we as well as the OEMs will just have to wait until the end of the year to hear who have been chosen. This also means that the embargo on disclosing details has been lifted, and the suppliers are free to share further information if they want to. Interestingly, some has chosen not to, though that may be telling in itself. Dassault sticks to their line and hasn’t even said whether they have responded to the BAFO-request, though the Finnish authorities have confirmed that they have received all five responses. Lockheed Martin published a short press release, as did Boeing, who followed up with casually dropping the number of fighters offered when asked about it. BAES and Saab in turn held full-blown media events. So what do we know?
The race is on
The big news is that LOGCOM was able to secure five offers, and apparently five serious ones. I struggle to remember when it would have happened that a country has managed to keep a fighter acquisition program fair and open enough that no-one has decided to drop out prematurely or not supply an offer at all (at least Norway, Denmark, Croatia, Slovakia, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Bulgaria, and India have held fighter tenders within the last few years, all of which have either led to some dropping out mid-way, not responding to quotations, the whole program being cancelled, the invitation to tender being rather narrow, or bids being disqualified). It’s hard to overestimate how significant this achievement is, and how important of a quality certificate it is to the process as a whole. In contrast to what some armchair analysts have argued, that some of the largest defence companies in the world – with business intelligence units to match and arguably somewhat cynical worldviews – believe that they have enough of a fair chance to win the competition that they are prepared to invest heavily into making their bids is a solid indication that the tendering process has been, and still is, open and undecided. This also feels reassuring to me as a taxpayer in ensuring that it really will be the best system offered to Finland that will end up in Finnish colours.
A big congrats to LOGCOM, the Finnish Air Force, and the MoD for this achievement!
The number game is interesting. At their press conference, BAES pointed out that they wouldn’t disclose the numbers as all bids weren’t confirmed to have been returned, as that apparently was the wish of the MoD. This sounded logical enough, until the bids were confirmed by the MoD to all have been returned, and BAES still declined to release any numbers. The full quote by a Eurofighter spokesperson was:
We are confident our offer will deliver sufficient Eurofighter aircraft to meet the challenge set by Finland to fully replace its existing capability. This is a competitive process and we will release further details of our offer as appropriate.
This was echoed by Dassault, who told Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat that the MoD had not given permission to release numbers. At the same time, Boeing was happily telling anyone asking that their offer consisted of 50 F/A-18E Super Hornets and 14 EA-18G Growler, i.e. matching the original 57 F/A-18C Hornet and 7 F/A-18D Hornet Finland bought in the 90’s. A bit later Lockheed Martin confirmed that they had sent in an offer that included:
F-35A fighters as well as a maintenance solution
Saab in turn held a press conference on Friday, which included the news that they were to supply 64 JAS 39E Gripen as well as 2 GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft in case they got chosen.
Those who have been watching the process closely will note that it is the two producers who have been expected to sport the cheapest fighters that have disclosed their numbers, and both match the current 64 fighter figure (or rather, the original 64 fighter, as Finland has lost two Hornets in accidents). Saab was also happy to rub it in, noting that while there was no requirement for a set number of aircraft, there was indeed:
Floating around a general expectation in Finland [of 64 fighters]
I’m not sure there’s quite an expectation for 64 fighters, as a matter of fact I personally expected both Boeing and Saab to land in the 60-64 range, but there’s certainly an expectation for almost 64. This stems from years of writings, interviews, and podcasts in which both the HX programme leadership as well as the senior Air Force personnel commenting on the issue has noted that we need roughly the same number of fighters as A) Finland is still the same size as it was in 1995, B) the speed of the fighters are roughly the same as it was back then, and C) the range of the weapons is roughly the same as it was back then. Yes, on a tactical level supercruise and Meteor provide significant increases, but when it comes to the operational or strategic level those are rather minor changes. There’s still 390,905 km² that needs to be defended.
As the Finnish Air Force demonstrated last year when it surged 32 Hornets for a total of eight four-ship formations (out of a fleet of 62), getting coverage really needs numbers. Even in the best of scenarios, the classic three-to-one ratio is a handy rule-of-thumb for prolonged operations. Let’s imagine a snapshot of a wartime scenario:
We are a few days into the war, the operational tempo is still very high as the first wave of the enemy offensive is still ongoing,
The Finnish Air Force has lost a total of 16 aircraft, including those shot down and damaged in combat, as well as those damaged and destroyed on the ground in opening strikes,
The Air Force currently has one formation airborne as part of an air defence tasking in the south-east,
A second formation is on the ground in dispersed locations in the northern parts of the country, ready to take-off and either relieve the southern formation once it needs to return to base, or to intercept enemies heading north,
Four aircraft are currently returning from a bombing raid on enemy advancing mechanised formations and the bridges they rely on for their movements,
Two aircraft are over the northern Baltic Sea, trying to create an accurate maritime situational picture (i.e. locating enemy vessels) as well as checking for a high-value ISR-platform that is known to occasionally operate out of Kaliningrad,
Two aircraft are being prepared with heavy cruise missiles for a deep strike mission against enemy rail infrastructure,
For each active aircraft there are two others that are either the process of refuelling, being maintained, transferring between dispersed bases, or simply standing on the ground allowing the pilots some rest between missions.
You can obviously argue the details, but that is a scenario that is possible with 64 aircraft (16 active in the missions mentioned, 32 in reserve, 16 lost). If you start out with 40 aircraft, you will quickly run into some “interesting” numbers:
If you’ve lost 16 aircraft, that’s 40% of your force instead of 25% as in the 64 aircraft-scenario. To match 25% losses, you can only afford to lose 10 fighters,
Even if you only lose 25% of the fleet, that still leaves you with just 30 aircraft, of which 10 are available. If you still want one four-ship in the air and one on the ground ready to scramble to perform air defence tasks, that leaves a grand total of *two* aircraft for other missions. Not two formations, but two aircraft.
That’s the tyranny of the numbers, and while they certainly can be mitigated (minimise own losses, have spare pilots on the dispersed bases to avoid rest periods, increase spares availability and maintenance capability on dispersed locations, …) there’s really no way around them. And notable is that during exercise Ruska 20, the opening scenario based on a released map featured no less than thirteen four-ships, one three-ship, and a two-ship, all operating in an area well below half of the country’s surface area (as well as what presumably is a Swedish Hercules soloing straight down through the battlespace). Based on the same picture, my guess is that five of those formations might have been REDFOR, leaving 37 BLUFOR fighters airborne simultaneously to defend the airspace between Rovaniemi and Tampere.
The big question for HX then is whether the three manufacturers that are withholding their numbers are doing so because 58 would look bad when someone else has 64 (and that 9% difference in my opinion is still one where it might be possible to make a case for better overall capability thanks to higher availability and lower losses), or whether it is because the numbers offered are outrageously low (the threshold is somewhere in the low-fifties in my book). It is somewhat surprising – and honestly, rather worrying – that three out of five doesn’t want to talk numbers.
As discussed in an earlier post, the Lockheed Martin-team doesn’t want to discuss their industrial cooperation package in detail, though in their press release they have gone into some further details:
The final offer includes many opportunities for the Finnish defense industry related to the direct manufacture and maintenance of the F-35 that have not been offered before.
“The F-35 offers Finnish industry high-tech jobs that none of our competitors can offer,” says Bridget Lauderdale, director of the F-35 program. “Production collaboration would continue for more than 20 years and F-35 maintenance collaboration until the 2050s. Finland would maintain its own F-35 fighters and also support the global F-35 fleet by manufacturing significant aircraft parts. ”
Outside of F-35 production, Lockheed Martin would build partnerships with Finnish companies and universities to develop and promote defense cooperation in indirect industrial cooperation projects.
This is still vague, but better than what Dassault have been able to produce when it comes to disclosing information about their offer. Boeing’s latest press release is in fact even weaker than L-M’s, though they can at least lean on the fact that last time around L-M was thrown out of the competition due to an inadequate IP-offer while Boeing went on to manage a successful IP-program for the legacy-Hornets. Still, their statement is honestly anaemic:
Boeing’s offer also include an extensive industrial cooperation program that offers significant long-term opportunities for Finnish industry.
On to better news: Saab and BAES are happy to discuss details. Both are promising final assembly lines of both engines and airframes in Finland, as well significant other measures. BAES description includes several details:
The opportunity to perform final assembly of the aircraft including EJ200 engine build and maintenance; a partnership in the future development of primary sensors, including technical transfer and data analytic tools and techniques for mission data generation and electronic warfare; the transfer of extensive maintenance, repair, overhaul capability. And, the transfer of data and authority to make upgrades to the aircraft.
In addition, we are proposing projects that enable transfer and ongoing cooperation in Cyber Security which will build resilience in military assets and networks and Space technologies. And a suite of Research and development projects across a broad range of technologies that is being spearheaded by our partner MBDA. These benefit Finnish industry, including small medium enterprises, and Finnish academia.
The jobs that we are offering as a result are high quality, long term jobs equating to over 20 million man hours over 30 years, with the knock on benefit to the wider economy driving this figure even higher, and I am proud to be part of the team submitting this offer into Finland today.
Alex Zino of Rolls-Royce was also able to produce some numbers related to the impact of the engine production line to show that it wasn’t just about unpacking crates being shipped in from the UK: the tech transfer and engine production would result in a combined workload of approximately 1.5 million man hours over 40 years.
Saab on the other hand has earlier talked about approximately 10,000 workyears. A quick back-of-the-enveloped calculation gives the number of jobs on average as something like in the low three-hundreds for Saab and in the high three-hundreds for BAES (using approximately 1,700 hours per year as a benchmark), but there’s obviously significant uncertainties in how exactly the numbers have been calculated. To put it into perspective, this number corresponds to over a third of the whole of INSTA Group, the second major player in Finnish defence industry after Patria.
In the case of BAES, perhaps the single-most interesting piece of technology transfer is the invitation to join the ECRS Mk2 development programme, which promises to be significant both from a military as well as technological point of view. Despite the ECRS standing for European Common Radar System, it is in fact heavily led by the UK for the time being, presumably providing relatively much room for bringing foreign partners aboard compared to some other joint-systems shared by all four core countries. Another key part is obviously the continued discussion on sovereign mission data capability, where the turnaround times promised are in a completely different league from any US offers.
Based on the Royal Air Force’s extensive operational experience, we will establish a sovereign mission data capability to rapidly update the weapon system with the latest threat identification and countermeasure tactics, sortie-by-sortie, if necessary. Mission data is the life blood of any modern combat system, and security of supply is more than repairing physical components.
The RAF describe this as being how the force currently operate in the Middle East, with new threats and emitters being included in the aircraft libraries from one sortie to the other.
Saab is on the other hand planning on creating a System Centre, which will be responsible both for tactics development as well as the fleet management and data part of things. In essence, this would likely handle the same things as the BAES offered sovereign mission data capability, while also providing support to the FDF LOGCOM and the Air Combat Centre of Satakunta Air Command, all under one (literal of figurative?) roof.
Again, to reiterate Dassault isn’t saying anything, Lockheed Martin is saying something, Boeing is promising to tell more in the future, and Saab and BAES is giving their lists to everyone asking.
As we know from the DSCA requests both the F-35 and the Super Hornet would bring JDAMs (HE as well as bunker buster rounds), GBU-53/B SDB II’s small glide bombs, AGM-154C-1 JSOW stealthy glide weapons with a secondary anti-ship capability, AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER very long-range heavy cruise missiles, and AIM-9X short-range air-to-air missiles. Lockheed Martin now confirms that the offer also include the AIM-120 AMRAAM in an unspecified version as well as the JSM (Joint Strike Missile). Neither of these are particularly unexpected, but the JSM offers a nifty capability in its dual use against sea- and ground-targets, as well as passive seeker and possibility of internal carriage in the F-35, as briefly discussed last time around. The expectation is also that there will be a second DSCA-request for undisclosed versions of the AGM-88 signal-seeking missile (likely the AGM-88E AARGM) as well as for AIM-120 AMRAAMs for Boeing, though these are unconfirmed for the time being.
It has been a busy week for my team, who have conducted several strikes against Daesh.
BAES’s bid would bring what the Royal Air Force Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston KCB CBE ADC, describe as the full suite of weapons employed by the RAF – including the upcoming SPEAR 3 light cruise missile as well as the SPEAR EW version, a loitering stand-in jammer. However, curiously absent from the discussion was the Brimstone anti-tank missile, which has been a staple of the Operation Shader, RAF’s anti-ISIS campaign. However, the other two weapons that has been heavily in use in the Middle East by RAF Tornados and Typhoons are included in the list provided – namely the Storm Shadow heavy cruise missile and the Paveway IV guided bomb. The later is a 227-kg guided bomb with dual-mode anti-jamming GPS/INS as well as laser guidance, meaning that it can be used against moving targets. The weapon comes with both HE and penetrator warheads, though the physics dictate that the penetrator isn’t as efficient as those of heavier weapons. From a Finnish point of view, the Brimstone is likely something of a nice-to-have, as with both the SPEAR 3 and the Paveway IV there isn’t really any target that can’t be countered (although in certain scenarios the SPEAR 3 might be overkill while the Paveway IV might require release inconveniently close. Here the GBU-53/B SDB II has an edge thanks to its gliding properties). However, these missions (read: striking vehicles in massed armoured formations) are likely not the mission sets that are of primarily concern to the Finnish Air Force. Perhaps the most interesting detail would be the change from AIM-9X to ASRAAM as the short-range air-to-air missile of the Finnish Air Force. The ASRAAM, as opposed to both IRIST-T and AIM-9X, prioritise range over manoeuvrability, and while the jury is still out on which is more important by the time (or rather: if) you get into a short-range fight, the ability to fire missiles with passive IIR-seekers out to near-AMRAAM ranges is certainly interesting, especially in case of a heavily degraded EW-environment or against stealthy targets.
Saab’s offer in turn include at least IRIS-T and Meteor in the air-to-air role. This is no surprise, as these are the current staples on the Swedish JAS 39C/D Gripen-fleet, and have proved rather popular in Northern Europe in general. More interesting was the inclusion of SPEAR 3 (the EW-variant is not included, as Saab offers its own LADM that is currently in development and aiming for a similar role), as well as the decision to go with the KEPD 350/Taurus as their heavy cruise missile. Saab started out their HX-campaign actively pushing the fact that they can integrate any weapon they need, with the same message being repeated this week. It certainly might be the case, but somehow they still seemingly ended up basically offering MBDA’s portfolio of air-launched weaponry (complemented by Diehl’s IRIS-T and their own KEPD 350).
While it is extremely difficult to judge the true capabilities of the three heavy cruise missiles on offer, it remains a fact that KEPD 350 lost the Finnish evaluation for a heavy cruise missile against the baseline AGM-158A JASSM the last time around. And this time, it is up against the significantly improved AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER (formerly known as AGM-158D JASSM-XR). Again, it is hard to say much for certain, the KEPD 350 has also beaten the JASSM and Storm Shadow in certain competitions, but the decision seems strange on paper. There is a new version in the form of the Taurus K-2 in the pipeline, though that is still in development and the improvements seem rather modest compared to the step from AGM-158A to -158B-2.
Saab’s heavy anti-ship missile RBS 15 Gungnir (based on their Mk 4-version of the venerable weapon) is obviously available as it is a key Swedish requirement, but it seems to be left out of at least this original weapons package. On the other hand, it is safe to assume that there are some smart bombs (likely the GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II 227 kg GPS/INS and laser-guided bomb, as well as either GBU-39 SDB or the GBU-53/B SDB II small glide bombs) making up the lower-end of the package as these have featured rather heavily in both US as well as the BAES packages.
The most impressive part of Saab’s weapons package was the statement that the value of the weapons are “>20 % of the proposal price relating to Gripen”. At first glance this looks like 0.2 x 9.0 Bn EUR = 1.8 Bn EUR, which certainly would provide for a massive number of weapons. However, upon looking at the fine print, it does seem like at least the GlobalEye-portion of the offer is left out of the starting number, as may certain other items (Indirect industrial participation? Training?). I have reached out to Saab for a comment, and will update once I get their answer. Edit 3 May 2021: Magnus Skogberg confirmed that the value of the weapons “is above 15 % of the value of the whole offer (i.e. including Globaleye, IP, etc.)”. Presumably that means above approximately 1.35 Bn Eur. In either case, the weapons package does seem to be a sizeable one, though exactly how large is an open question (as a benchmark, the DSCA-clearances were for roughly 300 guided bombs, 150 JSM/JSOW, and 200 JASSM-ER, though obviously there’s no guarantee that the maximum number of weapons will be sought).
While the lack of large stocks for European weapons compared to US ones is one of the strongest arguments for a US fighter, the importance of this argument obviously would decrease with the size of the Finnish Air Force’s weapons stocks increasing.
What became evident is that the days of traditional type conversion being flown in two-seaters seems to be on the way out for the Finnish Air Force. The Boeing offer did not feature a single vanilla-two-seater, with all fourteen two-seaters being Growlers. Saab followed suite and went for 64 single-seat JAS 39E despite their original 2018 proposal having been split between 12 JAS 39F two-seater and 52 JAS 39E. Eurofighter has earlier seemed lukewarm to the idea of including two-seaters, while F-35 obviously does not come in a two-seat model.
For Boeing the decision to leave out the F/A-18F Super Hornets is somewhat surprising as apparently still by the time the DSCA-requests were made late last year the option to include up to eight twin-seaters was still there. A Boeing contact with insight into current Finnish Air Force training procedures notes that despite the lack of flight controls in the backseat of a Growler, the flight characteristics and ability to bring along a backseater means that their use in peacetime training is seen as “quite reasonable”. However, it is obviously down to the Air Force whether they want to use it in that role.
For Saab, the decision was even more of a surprise. As noted, in the last proposal they were allowed to comment on they saw quite a large role for the two-seaters. In the words of Magnus Skogberg, program director for Saab’s HX bid:
Often there are other drivers for and needs of a two-seat aircraft configuration that, in combination with the more traditional training-related benefits, makes it relevant to procure two-seat fighters. […] Gripen F with its two seats, naturally provides additional flexibility to handle very advanced missions where it may be advantageous to have an additional pilot or operator on-board. Examples are Electronic Warfare Officer, Mission Commander and/or a Weapon System Officer in the rear-seat.
This was how it sounded back in March 2019, despite the GlobalEye being well and truly an established part of their bid already back then. In this week’s press briefing, the company took a strong stance that the 39E with its internal EW-suite, EAJP-pod, and LADM-decoys can handle the SEAD-mission without the need for specialised platforms – or, presumably, dedicated crewmembers. Some commentators have pointed to the ability to direct the Gripen’s EW-suite from the GlobalEye through the datalink, though I have not seen that feature mentioned in any of Saab’s material and it would seem to be a less flexible solution compared to formations having their own dedicated EW-operator (in essence having fourteen Growlers for 50 fighters means every four-ship out there could have their own EW-escort).
While it is difficult to say exactly what has caused this change of hearts over at Saab (the wish to harmonize their bid with the Swedish Air Force force structure probably played a part), it shows that the multi-staged HX-process works in that the offers have been tailored and changed even in rather dramatic fashion since the first round of RFPs. What Saab did mention, however, is that there is still included an option for 39F in the bid, presumably either in the form of buying additional airframes or converting a number of the 39E offered to 39F. However, as this bid is based on Saab’s best understanding of what the Finnish Air Force wants following years of discussion, I personally find it highly unlikely that the option would be used.
The large number of Growlers on the other hand is very significant, and I will admit I did not expect 14 aircraft to fit inside the budget. Keen readers will have noted that there wasn’t as many NGJ-MB jammers in the request, these were limited to eight sets. However, while the NGJ is at the heart of the Growler’s electronic attack and jamming capability, a key part of the situational awareness in fact comes from internal sensors, including the the wingtip ALQ-218 RF Receivers. These tell the pilot not only what is out there, but also where it is, and the crew can then decide what to do with that information, whether to engage with weapons, avoid, or jam in case they have brought along their NGJ. As such the value of including Growlers as part of normal formations is significant, both for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. The additional value of a backseater also means that you have an extra person who isn’t busy flying the aircraft, and who potentially could, I don’t know, perhaps function as an “Electronic Warfare Officer, Mission Commander and/or a Weapon System Officer”.
I have mentioned it before, but it continues to be an important point in the greater picture that in my opinion is brought up often enough: the value of having the unique capabilities that the EA-18G Growler brings does not limit themselves to wartime, but they would give our politicians quite a few more options on the escalation ladder prior to full-blown war. This includes both better situational awareness, as well as the ability to meet e.g. GPS-jamming with non-kinetic means that still can hurt hostile operations without causing damage to adversary equipment or losses to their personnel. Another possibility is the ability to support international operations with a key high-profile and high-demand (but internationally rare) capability, and one that require a relative small footprint in and risks for FDF personnel.
The ability of Boeing to offer 14 Growlers and still reach 64 fighters in total is an extremely strong card on their part, although I do have to caution that the crucial question of the future of the Super Hornet-family past 2040 is still unanswered.
The request for best and final offers has not slowed down the pace of HX, but on the contrary things are seemingly moving at ever higher speed. At the same time, developments in the wider world are also affecting the competition.
F-35 started the year on the wrong footing, with Acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher Miller, giving a bizarre quote where he not only called the F-35 “that’s a piece of…” and called it “the case study” for an acquisition process which is a “wicked problem”, but also stated that “I cannot wait to leave this job, believe me.” While the full quote was headline stuff for the tabloids, I would not ascribe much value regarding the merits of the F-35 to the opinions of someone who responds to the question “I wanted to ask you…Joint Strike Fighter?” with “Which one? F-35?”
The other major headline was that the program was granted its fourth extension to the deadline for when the F-35 evaluation would be finished and the aircraft approved for full-rate production. While this also caused some bad press, truth be told this is largely a non-issue for the aircraft, as the challenges faced are part of the Joint Simulation Environment where the effectiveness against hostile high-end threats will be tested. It is, however, a serious case of civilian oversight being lacking, as either the decision criteria requiring the JSE tests are wrong, or then the civilian leadership has been watching from the sidelines as more than 600 units have been produced of an aircraft they don’t know if they will approve for full-rate production! Spoiler alert – it’s most likely the former, but it is a serious failure of the Civ-Mil process and how the oversight is structured (rather than any fault of the aircraft itself) that the production run before approval is bigger than the total most other fast-jets will see throughout their lifespans.
The aircraft also “flies with 871 flaws“, something that makes for good headlines but is largely a case of the unmatched US transparency rather than indicative of serious troubles.
In addition there has been issues with shortages of the F135 engines that has hit the fleet. Defense News quoted officials stating that it is a “serious readiness problem”, and noted that in next year “roughly 5 to 6 percent” of the aircraft could be without engines due to a combination of scheduled depot maintenance and unscheduled engine removals. Of all four headlines, this is probably the one that holds water, but while it indirectly isn’t good that a supply chain is hit by bad news, the issues will almost certainly be over by the time Finnish HX deliveries starts in 2025.
The most serious news, however, was an interview in Breaking Defense with the outgoing 13th Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Dr Will Roper (understandably often referred to as the “USAF acquisition czar”, and not with his full title). Roper, who while somewhat controversial regarding his methods of working is a highly respected professional in the field, noted that the aircraft isn’t “at a sustainment point that we need”, explaining that “right now the F-35 has a good ‘sticker price,’ but its cost of ownership is not where it needs to be, making the quantities that the Air Force may need to purchase in question”. Roper hinted that this could lead to the NGAD (not to be confused with the USN program of the same name) receiving higher priority, or even ordering new-built F-16s to boost the numbers. This was developed further by USAF Chief of Staff general Brown this week, who denied any plans to buy the F-16, but left the door open for a clean-sheet design of a fighter less complex than the F-35 and affordable enough for the bulk buys needed to replace the F-16 across the field.
Someone who doesn’t believe that the operating costs will come down is, unsurprisingly, rival Boeing, who will happily tell you that once fighters are starting to be flown, their operating costs won’t come down but rather go up due to wear and tear. And that despite the current Super Hornet-fleet having been flown hard in recent decades, including combat use, their numbers are still good.
Our flyaway costs are about the same [as the F-35], our operational costs are about half of that.
While Program Director Lauri Puranen has been clear with that no-one knows the Finnish operational costs due to no-one having the full detailed picture of Finnish Air Force investments, operations, and pricing models, the two contenders that roughly can be compared is the F-35 and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet due to the US DoD publishing their internal flight hour costs (again, thanks to the US transparency). A GAO report released late last year provide these numbers, noting that “From fiscal year 2011 through fiscal year 2018, the O&S costs per aircraft for the F/A-18E/F increased from about $5.58 million to about $6.41 million”. This was due to “sustained high flight hours, which increased the probability of parts failure on the aircraft, and an increasing aircraft inventory, as the F/A-18E/F is still in production. Maintenance costs also increased as the Navy has worked to address extensive maintenance needs associated with extending the service life of the aircraft from 6,000 hours to 10,000 hours”. At the same time, the F-35A total O&S costs per aircraft was $8.84 million in fiscal year 2018. While the numbers doesn’t support the F/A-18E/F having an O&S cost “half” of the F-35A, it still is 72% of it. And here it should be noted that the strain of the workloads placed on the different fleets will skew the cost (i.e. in a like for like scenario where the Super Hornet would operate from landbases with similar loads and flight profiles as the F-35A, the difference would likely be greater).
Another company who doesn’t care that Puranen stated that no-one knows the cost figures is Saab, where campaign director Magnus Skogberg this week declared that:
We know for sure that nobody beats us on cost.
Of course, the question on cost is highly complex, including the issues of how many flight hours will be needed to maintain proficiency on a multi-role fighter. Earlier Finnish pilots have flown relatively few hours, but have still managed to stay proficient due to having in essence been training solely for the air-to-air mission. With the MLU2 unlocking the air-to-ground capabilities and HX bringing in further expansions of the mission sets, the number of flight hours will most likely need to increase, even as advances in simulator technology are offloading some of the training to ground-based systems.
Of the missions, few have received the focus of long-range strike, which has been elevated to its own category in the HX program alongside the more general counter-land. Here it is important to note that the long-range strike role in Finnish doctrine occupies both a military as well as a deterrence role. Very little about how Finland plans the deterrence mission is found in open documents, but based on the realities of international law and capabilities of the systems involved deterrence by denial can safely be assumed to be the concept involved. To use a straightforward definition by David S. Yost, “Deterrence by denial means persuading the enemy not to attack by convincing him that his attack will be defeated – that is, that he will not be able to achieve his operational objectives.” In other words, there’s preciously little differing the role of the JASSM in Finnish service from the other weapons of the FDF – they all aim to deter the enemy from launching an attack by ensuring that he can’t reach his goals without the cost being unacceptably high. The particularity of the long-range strike is exactly the long-range – being able to affect targets that are important for the enemy but which are too far away for other methods. It might also be worth noting that a majority of Finnish MPs thinks “it would be acceptable for Finnish forces as a part of defending the country to strike militarily relevant targets on adversary territory”.
The question of which weapon will fill this role has largely been viewed as a three-way competition between the US AGM-158 JASSM (currently in Finnish service in the since discontinued AGM-158A version, which beat the Taurus KEPD in the last Finnish evaluation) and the European offerings of the Storm Shadow/SCALP and (possibly) the Taurus 350 KEPD. However, it turns out that last year’s DSCA notifications included an overlooked surprise: the JASSM would come with a seriously longer range than the current version.
Since the original AGM-158A, the JASSM has spawned a number of variants. Key among these are the longer-legged AGM-158B JASSM-ER (Extended Range) which is currently in production and in service as the AGM-158A replacement, as well as the AGM-158C LRASM which is an anti-ship variant of the same weapon. Latest of the bunch is a further refined version, earlier called JASSM-XR (for Extreme Range) which brings a number of improvements. Key among these is a range increase from 500 to 1,000 nautical miles compared to the AGM-158B (926 km to 1,852 km). The differences include “missile control unit, changes to the wings, a different paint coating, an Electronic Safe and Arm Fuze, a secure GPS receiver, and program protection requirements” according to Air Force Magazine. The JASSM-XR received an official AGM-158D designation earlier, and production has been confirmed to start with Lot 19 which is expected to be ordered any day now.
However, the designation AGM-158B-2 showed up in the Finnish DSCA-requests last year. This variant of the AGM-158B has up until now not been seen in many documents outside of the requests. After Inside Defense claimed that there has been yet another change of designations, I decided to ask Lockheed Martin (manufacturer of both the F-35A and the AGM-158 JASSM) about it.
AGM-158B2 will be the next variant in the line of JASSM-ER missiles. The USAF is expected to begin procurement of the JASSM-ERB2 beginning in Lot 19.
Turns out the missile expected to handle the long-range strike mission in case Finland chooses either the Super Hornet or the F-35A is the missile formerly known as JASSM-XR. This would mean a huge increase in range, from the current 370 km of the AGM-158A JASSM to 1,852 km of the AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ERB2 (usual caveat that all range figures are based on open sources and comes with a large dose of “it depends” where things such as launch altitude come into play).
Exactly how much range Finland really needs is an interesting question. The current 370 km can certainly be improved upon, though on the other hand it is questionable if Finland really needs the ability to reach Ufa. In theory going from AGM-158A to AGM-158B-2 is the difference between Rissala-St Petersburg and Rissala-Kazakhstan. What it in practice would do is unlock further options for Finnish military planners, including guaranteed stand-off range against all Russian air defences, current and planned, as well as the possibility to route the flight paths of the cruise missiles around hostile defences. The AGM-158B-2 would for example make it possible to stand back and fire missiles from high altitude over the Bothnian Gulf and still reach the same targets as the AGM-158B would do from within S-400 range. As such, added range doesn’t necessarily mean that the Finnish Air Force is looking at new targets. After all, most military relevant targets in a conflict where Finland is involved – such as command centres, transport infrastructure, and staging areas – are found relatively close to the border, but rather that these targets could be destroyed at smaller risk to the Finnish pilots and aircraft. A military relevant target set that likely is of interest and which is found further from the Finnish border is the infrastructure needed to move troops from other military districts towards a conflict zone in (north-)western Russia. Many of the recent large Russian military exercises have showcased the Russian ability to relatively quickly move personnel and equipment over large distances, either by rail or air. Being able to disrupt or delay such movements in a conflict could be an example of a military target outside the range of the current AGM-158A JASSM, and one which might buy valuable days or even weeks for friendly support to reach Finland.
Crucially, the fact that the US contenders have decided to go for the B-2 and not the B does show that they feel that it fits the Finnish requirement best. It could be just a question of which weapon will be rolling of the production lines in 2027, but if there really is a requirement for range, the European contenders might be at a disadvantage when it comes to evaluating their ability to perform the long-range strike mission. And from a purely deterrence point of view, range does indeed open up more targets to be held at risk, and there’s also the fact that buying the best there is helps with cementing the “passive-aggressive” reputation needed for small-state deterrence to work.
An interesting question is obviously what weapon Saab would offer for the long-range strike role? The Taurus KEPD 350 is a joint Saab-MBDA venture, but as the weapon has lost an evaluation for a Finnish contract already once much of the Swedish discussion has been around the possibility to integrate any weapon the customer wants. However, as the only DSCA requests so far related to HX have been for the US contenders, the question remains if Saab plans on first selling the aircraft, and then trusting Finland to receive the correct export clearances? When asked, Saab declined to comment.
Both with respect to the customer and due to competition we do not comment on the details relating to the weapons package of the HX programme.
But if the F-35 had a somewhat poor start of the year, the Super Hornet also had its unwelcome moment in the spotlight with the announcement that the US Navy is thinking about axing the conformal fuel tanks from the Block III upgrade. The CFTs have been seen as an important part of the plans to increase the range of the Super Hornet, which in turn is seen as important for any China-scenario. For Finland, range and endurance isn’t as critical, but the question is how invested the USN is in the future of the Super Hornet-family if they struggle to meet the envisioned increase in range? Boeing is, at least officially, not concerned. The US Navy is still moving forward with the overall plan to convert the fleet to Block III standard (Block II being the corresponding program for the EA-18G Growler), and the current USN plan is that well over half the fast jets of the carrier air wing of 2030 will be from the Super Hornet-family (28 Super Hornets, 5-7 Growlers, and 16 F-35C). “Staying with three Super Hornet squadrons [per air wing] is quite telling,” Alain Garcia said, and noted that development is set to continue well past Block III. “There is a roadmap […] lots of [software] capabilities coming.” Garcia is one of Boeing’s key persons in their campaign aimed at ensuring Finland stays with the Boeing for another generation, and he sports the somewhat unwieldy title of Capture Team Lead for International Sales & Marketing Fighter and Trainer Campaigns in Finland and Switzerland. The roadmap he refers to will include the manned-unmanned teaming updates which are expected to be included as standard by the time Finnish aircraft would be rolling off the production lines, but also new weapons. With regards to MUMT, the question is obviously if the Finnish Air Force could fit unmanned platforms in a budget that will already be strained by trying to replace the manned components? Garcia notes that it obviously is a decision that the Finnish Air Force will make based on their own needs and doctrines, but that so far as they can tell the option remains available. Especially considering potential savings and trade-offs that can be had.
Looking at current operational costs now, we believe that with our offer there’s still some room for operational costs in there.
While USN might not be as certain about the future of the Super Hornet (or the carrier air wing in general), the EA-18G Growler seems to offer rather good protection against an early retirement of the platform. The unique role of the Growler as a dedicated stand-in electronic warfare platform will only continue to grow in importance (something the general Brown also noted recently in a much reported speech that included quotes about USAF being “asleep at the wheel” since Operation Desert Storm, and “We can no longer solely depend on defensive capabilities” which might get the force home, but don’t meet the need to be able to operate offensively in the electromagnetic spectrum). For not only the US Navy, but the joint US force as a whole, this means that the Growler is likely to remain on the flightdeck of the carriers and on expeditionary bases for decades to come, and with the Growler set to remain in service the future of the Super Hornet is also looking rosier than it would if alone. And if the Super Hornet/Growler would go the road of the A-6 Intruder/EA-6 Prowler where the electronic attack variant soldiered on for 22 years after the retirement of the baseline version, the ability to cross-feed new systems from the USN Growler-community to any potential Super Hornet export customers (as happened within the USN fast-jet fleet with the Block III upgrades) would help avoid the current “operating Hornet”-alone situation.
Saab and Boeing are happily in agreement about the importance of the importance of electronic warfare, as is the US DoD. In their new Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy they describe the electromagnetic spectrum as “not a separate domain of military operations because the EMS is inseparable from the domains established in joint doctrine.” Magnus Skogberg of Saab understandably pushed the need to be able to affect the EMS:
The stealth shaping of the aircraft is not enough to handle this [S-400 sensors covering a wide spectrum]
At this point it is notable that the F-35 in fact far from relying solely on stealth also features one of the most advanced integrated electronic warfare systems available, in fact putting them on the same side as Saab – but opposite Boeing – when it comes to the need for a dedicated EW-platform to get the most out of their aircrafts. While Skogberg proclaims that there’s “No need for a dedicated EW-platform when you are a Gripen operator”, Boeing representatives (not without being slightly smug about it) noted that while the UAE last year had requested a large package that included both the F-35A as well as the EA-18G Growler, only the Growler was denied export clearance by the US government on the grounds of it being too advanced and capable, with the F-35 deal being inked just before the change of administration (and now on hold pending review).
The US government has witheld the proposal from being submitted to the customer
The beauty of the Growler is that the dedication of the platform brings not only the computing power of the specified electronic warfare processor unit, but also the dedicated crew member. This means that for example when a new or previously unidentified signal is encountered, the operator can already in-flight start processing it, giving it an ID or other potential identifier. This means that once the aircraft lands the signal intelligence can be downloaded from the aircraft as “useful data” ready for the library, a capability Boeing believe they are alone in the field to provide. While the complete absence of black boxes and total independence of the mission data has been, and continues to be, one of the main selling points of the European contenders, Boeing takes a somewhat different approach out of necessity.
The data is owned by the Finnish government, but the processing of acquired mission data is easiest to handle through US infrastructure where Finnish personnel can be embedded. Fast turnaround (less than 24 hours) can then be achieved through the use of secure channels. Alternatively the whole or parts of the infrastructure can be rebuilt in Finland, but the cost might be prohibitive. Another interesting aspect is whether Finland wants to share the data (especially the data collected by Growlers) or not. There are a number of three-letter agencies interested in the data collected by USN Growlers, and exchange of data between Finland and the US might in turn provide valuable intelligence from these to the Finnish authorities. The amount of data produced by the Growler is indeed huge, with the snapshot of what the Growler visiting during HX Challenge last year managed to capture simply through its passive sensors reportedly being “eye-opening” with regards to the “saturation of information”. This is another place where the dedicated crew members comes into play.
Regardless of from where it originates, electronic warfare is the hot stuff, with a crucial feature being noted in the new US DoD Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy:
Because many EMS capabilities are employed, not expended, concerns about magazine capacity or cost of munitions may be reduced, which in turn affords commanders and decision makers more sustainable options.
For a country where low numbers of advanced munitions has been raised as a concern in official documents, this is of interest. The ability to control the battlespace without blowing things up is certainly interesting also from an escalation management point of view, one of Finland’s key interests in any (limited) conflict.
But Saab has an alternative. Or rather, the Swedish defence establishment and politicians have an alternative. If Finland would buy the 39E Gripen and GlobalEye, the vision is that the Finnish and Swedish Air Force would be a common customer, meeting Saab together. And crucially, we would be the major customer and not a small customer in a bigger project. Saab’s media event this week was telling, in that it featured the Swedish Minister for Defence Peter Hultqvist, the deputy commander of the Swedish Air Force brigadier general Anders Persson, as well as Saab’s own people. While it technically is the governments and not the OEMs that are selling fighters to Finland, none are as clearly involved in the sales effort as the Swedes. MoD Hultqvist underlined the influence Finland would have on the program, stating that Finland would have “direct influence” on the future development path of 39E and GlobalEye if we choose Saab’s offer.
Slides from the media event, not leaving anything left to imagination
Brigadier general Persson didn’t mess around in his presentation, clearly stating that the potential enemy comes from an aggressive and expansive Russia, and that this is what Sweden has tailored their defenses towards.
Gripen is designed for our common environment, our common enemy, with our people in focus.
While Saab’s part of the presentation focused on their EW-suite, ability to field numbers, high availability, and current footprint in Finland (including the LADM decoy missile currently being under development, with much of the work undertaken in Tampere), Hultqvist and Persson spoke about the possibilities of Finnish-Swedish cooperation. This included harmonizing the acquisition of both Air Forces, but also cooperating with basing, training, and maintenance. Crucially, Sweden hasn’t decided to acquire GlobalEye, but according to Hultqvist while “We haven’t made any formal decision to procure GlobalEye, but that is how it should be interpreted”. A strange statement, as the new Swedish Defence Bill for 2021 to 2025 in fact envisions the replacement for the current ASC 890 to come only in the 2026 to 2030 period, with the decision on the platform still being years into the future. And speaking of the Defence Bill, it is far from a certain grand slam for the Swedish Air Force, as the answer to the realisation that cutting the Swedish fighter force to just 60 aircraft (the number of JAS 39E ordered) was a bad idea wasn’t to increase the size of the order, but rather to maintain the current JAS 39C/D fleet for longer. Beside the obvious issue of lower relative quality for the total force when keeping upgraded older aircraft in service instead of ordering more modern platforms, there is also little room for growth among the highly specialised workforce of the Swedish stakeholders when suddenly two fast-jets are to be kept up to date in parallel. An anonymous engineer from the Combat Aircraft department of the Swedish Defence Material Administration raised questions over on Twitter, noting that some of the engineers at the department are looking at 150 to 170% workload for the foreseeable future due to new 39C/D related developments. The optimist sees possibilities for Finnish industry to step in following an HX win for Saab, the pessimist questions if the small and competent Swedish aviation sector can continue to keep pushing out the kind of high-quality high-end solutions they are known for?
More headline grabbing was the speech held by brigadier general Persson. He noted that already now Finland and Sweden cooperate closely and regularly deploy to the other country for exercises. He also noted that this will continue regardless of the outcome of HX, but that choosing Gripen and GlobalEye would open up unique new opportunities. Not only could Finland fly the aircraft for upgrades to Linköping and Saab’s factory there in the morning and get the aircraft back in the evening, but Sweden and the Swedish aircraft infrastructure could be used as a rear logistics area. For basing, according to need Finnish fighters could deploy to Swedish bases behind the moat of the Baltic Sea, while Swedish fighters could use Finnish dispersed bases as forward staging areas for sorties. Integrating training and tactics could be a true force multiplier in the words of the general.
We will be like one air force with two commanders.
…and here the military historian will point out that ever since consuls Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus led the Roman army to the disaster at Cannae in 216 BC, having a single force with two commanders is usually not seen as a great idea. But leaving that perhaps misplaced quote aside, it is clear that the idea has much going for it. It isn’t exactly new, see for example this older guest post, but getting additional strategic depth for basing would certainly be beneficial, and it certainly would be easier to arrange with the same aircraft type than with different ones.
However, the kind of integrated force that brigadier general Persson describe would be something more than just two interoperable forces, something which they are already today (and will continue to be as both countries strive to maintain their ability to plug into NATO and US compatible forces), but it would require them to be true military allies. This is a political decision, and one which I fail to see either parliament going for in the next six months. Finnish commentators like to question whether Sweden is prepared to make firm commitments that they would send their sons and daughters to die for Kouvola or Sodankylä, but truth be told the answer to the question if Finland would be prepared to declare war on Russia in support of Sweden if the dreaded Gotland-grab scenario would take place is even more uncertain.
In fact, building up a rear logistics area outside of the country’s border is exactly what has been described as a potential weak point of the F-35. Ironically, the deputy commander hit the nail on the head when he described the situation for both countries as “We need to be able to take care of ourselves for days, weeks, maybe months”. The possibility of integrating further with the Swedish force is interesting, as is the ability to be the major operator instead of being a smaller operator in a major program. However, it does feel like much of Saab’s sales pitch this time took a detour to a political reality that simply isn’t there, and completely missed the geopolitical realities and defining features of the Finnish concept of operations which the company earlier has been good at selling towards.
Boeing on the other hand has no issues with selling to the Finnish concept of operations.
If you’re already operating the Hornet-fleet, there really is no change to the concept of operations switching to the Super Hornet and Growler.
This might be a bit of stretch considering the capabilities of the Growler, but granted it would fit the way the FDF usually does things (and likely be cheaper!) that instead of major sudden changes the force would get to iteratively developed its doctrine and concepts of operations.
One of the more anticipated milestones of the HX-process took place this week with the publication of the DSCA-notifications. These somewhat poorly understood bureaucratic processes caused some waves in the PTO 20200-tender. This time the Finnish MoD has done its best to avoid similar jumps to conclusion by media and other observers, but there has still been some less-than-helpful interpretations of what the notifications says. In short, the US regulations require that the congress is informed about important upcoming arms deals as a matter of oversight, something that happens through the DSCA-notifications. In the case of HX (and the Swiss AIR2030/NFA which made headlines a short while ago) the potential tenders are being pre-cleared, i.e. congress is notified about an upcoming potential sale. This allows for quicker turn-around if and when a contract is signed, and ensures that the supplier actually can deliver what they’ve promised. The most important points that sometimes get lost are:
The fact that this isn’t an order, nor are they necessarily corresponding to what is included in the final order (in fact, often they aren’t as it makes sense to clear the possible maximum amount of items in one go instead of having to go back and request a second clearance in case the requirements changes),
The negotiations of the HX-program is still ongoing, and as such neither the buyer nor the seller knows for certain the details of the final offer,
The value quoted for the DSCA-notifications usually aren’t that helpful in determining the contract value,
Most crucially, the notifications are ridiculously detailed in some ways, but glossing over major items in others. See “40 inch wing release lanyard” getting its own row, but “Spares” being a single line item.
To sum it up, long-term aviation journalist Gareth Jennings commenting on the AIR2030 put words to how everyone covering the process feels.
With that said, let’s jump into what information can be gleaned from the notifications.
Numbers don’t lie
The first obvious issue is the number of aircraft. With programme director Lauri Puranen on record stating that 64 aircraft seems impossible, it is noteworthy that the Lockheed Martin notification is for 64 F-35A and the Boeing has a total of 72 aircraft, made up of 50 F/A-18E Super Hornet, 8 twin-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet, and 14 EA-18G Growler. While it is still within the realms of possibilities, if unlikely, that we would see a 64 fighter buy, I don’t see how 72 could fit within the operating budget. As such, the 72 aircraft notification is a good indication for the fact that the final mix of the Boeing offer is still up in the air. 40 F/A-18E, 8 F/A-18F, and 12 EA-18G for a 62 aircraft fleet would be my personal guess.
Another place where the final offer is evidently still not set in the Boeing offer is the targeting pods (the F-35 notably not requiring one, as it has an internal electro-optical sensor based on the technology of the Sniper pod). The notification includes 32 ATFLIR, 32 Sniper (of an undisclosed version, but likely the XR), and an undisclosed number of the Litening (notable is that Finland currently uses an earlier version of the Litening-pod, the version now on offer would likely be the Litening 5). The ATFLIR was the one brought over for HX Challenge, but on the other hand the Litening was brought over hanging under an Eurofighter, so Finland has verified data on that one as well. I won’t comment on which pod would provide the best solution, as the details are A) classified, and B) I’m not familiar enough with the pod-world to say if there’s any kind of significant differences found in open sources. I will note that the ATFLIR has had teething troubles, but those seems (maybe?) to have since been overcome, and that the Litening 5 is being developed to sport a SAR-module, which is something of an unique selling point, but one likely to be of secondary value.
In the same way, it can be noted that a total of 25 IRST-pods are cleared for the Hornet-bid. The Super Hornet’s IRST solution with a centre-line has been criticised for being less elegant than the integration on the competitors, though it in fact suffers from a relatively small blind spot. What is interesting is that the numbers for both the targeting pod (presuming that only one model is bought) and the IRST both are offered in numbers covering approximately half of the fleet. This is in general one of the strong points of the F-35, every aircraft gets its own ‘pod’ thanks to the sensor being internal, while for the rest budgetary restraints often causes some aircraft to be left without. Exactly how the Super Hornet operations would look is an interesting question, but one alternative could be one aircraft of a pair flying with a pod and the other with an IRST.
As noted, with security of supply being a key factor and the ability to overhaul the aircraft locally from local stocks a key item here, the spare parts packages are naturally of great interest. Here, however, we’re more or less completely out of luck, as these crucial items are reduced to the single line of “provisioning, spares and repair parts”. It is, however, notable that this is a rather different wording compared to the Swiss notifications that only include “aircraft spares”. However, there is another place where spares catch the eye, and that is on the line discussing engines. The F-35A bid lists two spare P&W F-135 engines, while the F/A-18E/F/G offer lists 22 spare F414-GE-400 (interestingly enough, here the Swiss notifications for 40 aircraft listed six and 16 respectively). Good arguments can be made for the F-35 needing fewer complete spare engines for a given fleet size, including both during peacetime (single-engined aircraft having half the number of engines compared to twin-engined ones, the more modern design potentially having longer life and more replaceable subassemblies) and wartime use (an engine damaged enough to warrant replacement likely will lead to the loss of the aircraft). However, for a country obsessing about security of supply and with the supply of spare parts being one the major questions surrounding the F-35 in the HX-programme, it does strike one as an oddly low number, and makes the question about what really is found in the spare package even more interesting.
Like the spares, the amount of supporting equipment found amongst the rows isn’t straightforward to judge. There are a number of interesting rows, including training equipment, as well as numerous test vehicles for the weaponry. Key terms are also differing if compared to AIR2030 notifications, though considering the somewhat erratic template through which the notifications are pushed it is difficult to say how much weight should be placed on these differences. Still, there’s a few interesting discrepancies, such as the inclusion of the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN, to replace the much maligned ALIS which is on the way out) in the Finnish notification, a system that isn’t found the Swiss one. “Weapons system software” is also found in both Finnish notifications but in neither Swiss one, something that might simply have to do with the inclusion of more complex weaponry. An interesting row is found on the personnel needed to support the F-35.
U.S. contractor representatives will be required in Finland to conduct Contractor Engineering Technical Services (CETS) and Autonomic Logistics and Global Support (ALGS) for after-aircraft delivery
As noted, everything that includes the word “Global” is something of a red flag to the Finnish security of supply requirements, but at the same time it is obvious that during normal peacetime operations it makes sense to leverage the significant savings that can be found in operating what is rapidly turning out to be the next joint European fighter. However, there is little in the notification to indicate what kinds of additional steps have been taken to ensure that Finland has the required level of control over the security of supply compared to other more traditional customers. This might or might not mean something, as noted many of the crucial items in the notification doesn’t provide much in the way of details.
Everyone, myself included, is obviously counting weapons cleared for sale, but let’s start with the more obscure but no less important side of things. Electronic warfare.
It is important to note that we in essence are talking of three very different platforms, something that is visible in the notifications. The electronic warfare suite of the F-35A is highly integrated into the aircraft, and as such relatively few lines are dealing with it. There’s simply a mention of “Electronic warfare system”, as well as related systems such as C4I and the “F-35 unique infrared flares” (to the best of knowledge the aircraft does not carry chaff dispensers Edit: The F-35 is in the process of getting chaff. Thanks to JoJo for flagging it in the comments!) and access to the reprogramming centre. Compared to the long list of the Super Hornet that seems a bit cheap, but that is most likely simply because you can’t buy an F-35 without getting the whole package. As such, there’s no reason to mention particular details such as the ALE-70 towed decoy for the F-35, while in the case of the Super Hornet, the corresponding ALE-55 does get it’s own row.
Another good pointer to the fact that Boeing isn’t in fact preparing a 72 aircraft bid is the fact that only 65 pieces of the AN/ALR-67(V)3 EW countermeasures receiving sets and the AN/ALQ-214 integrated countermeasures systems are included. The more cryptic “Advanced Electronic Attack Kit for EA-18G” is more along the lines of how the F-35 is described, with a single line referring to more or less the whole package.
With an important exception.
Eight (8) Next Generation Jammer Mid-Band (NGJ-MB) sets
I’ve discussed the NGJ-MB earlier, the long story short version is that it is an extremely powerful system able to go after enemy air defences, but also enemy communication networks. On the flip side, it costs an arm and a leg, but in many ways it is a key piece of the Growler’s wartime capabilities post-2030, and getting eight systems would provide Finland with one of the best airborne escort as well as stand-in jamming capabilities in Europe. Note the reference to “sets”, which would seem to indicate that there will be a total of sixteen pods delivered, with the aircraft having one under each wing. Currently the Growler flies with three AN/ALQ-99 pods in different configurations for different bands. The new NGJ-MB replaces the two underwing units, with the third centre-line mounted one being slated for replacement by the low-band NGJ-LB. If Finland opts for the Growler, the NGJ-LB can make its entry at some point further down the line (as can the eventual high-band pod which will come yet later). However, the utility against current threats is greatest for the NGJ-MB, especially if Finland continues on with a non-stealthy force meaning that the proliferation of new low-band radars aren’t as big a threat scenario as it is for the US forces. It is also notable that the greatest criticism leveraged against the NGJ-MB so far (decreasing the range of the Growler due to high drag when the pod is active and the doors to the ram air turbine are open) is less of an issue for Finland compared to the China-scenario which is the main driver behind current USN development.
One thing we do know, however, is that Puranen didn’t exaggerate when he talked about the comprehensive weapons packages pushing the budget. The notifications include sizeable amounts of JDAMs, both thermally insensitive HE (i.e. the stuff shouldn’t explode if your ammunition storage is on fire) as well as bunker buster rounds, GBU-53/B SDB II’s small glide bombs, AGM-154C-1 JSOW stealthy glide weapons with a secondary anti-ship capability, AGM-158B JASSM-ER long-range heavy cruise missiles, AIM-9X Block II+ and Block II respectively, as well as JSM integration in the case of the F-35A and HARM/AARGM-rails in the case of the Super Hornet/Growler. Curiously absent are the JSM and anti-radiation missiles themselves, as well as any air-to-air missiles with a longer reach than the Sidewinder.
JTAC directing a Hornet dropping a JDAM on a target that already was under artillery fire as part of last year’s KAAKKO19 exercise
The air-to-ground package is interesting, as it continues as well as expands upon the air-to-ground capabilities currently operated by the Finnish Air Force. The JDAM is a weapon currently found in the Finnish inventory in the form of Mk 84-based GBU-31V1, the Mk 83-based GBU-32, the Mk 82-based GBU-38 and the BLU-109-penetrator based GBU-31V3 (commonly known as a ‘bunker buster’). The Mk 84 and BLU-109 is a 1,000 kg class weapon, with the Mk 83 and Mk 82 being 500 kg and 250 kg class weapons respectively. It is more of the same weapons that are requested this time around, with exception that the F-35A has skipped the GBU-32 and loaded up with more GBU-38s. The Super Hornet is cleared for 102 GBU-38, 51 GBU-32, 120 HE GBU-31, and 30 bunker-busting GBU-31, with the corresponding numbers being 150 GBU-38, 120 HE GBU-31, and 30 bunker-busting GBU-31 for the F-35. Are there situations where you want a 500 kg weapon instead of a 250 kg or a 1,000 kg one? Sure, if nothing else the 500 kg provides a bit of margin with regards to accuracy compared to a 250 kg one, in particular if you go after semi-hard targets. Is it enough of a difference to say that the Super Hornet has the edge here? I doubt it, the acquisition as a whole is complex enough that the 50 JDAMs most likely won’t provide a decisive edge. However, they might indicate that Boeing feel they have that small extra wiggle room when it comes to how their package is built, something that might also be seen in the next weapon. Or not.
The JSOW is also found in (limited) numbers in the Finnish arsenal. Originally envisioned largely as a back-up plan in case the JASSM sans-ER wasn’t cleared for export, it apparently has found enough of a use as to be requested this time around as well. The notifications include 100 JSOW for the F-35A, and 160 for the Super Hornet. The JSOW is unpowered (at least for the time being), and as such is highly reliant on release speed and altitude when it comes to range. Once released the weapon pops out a pair of wings on which it glides towards the target. The basic navigation is GPS-assisted inertial navigation, but the C-1 also has an IIR seeker for terminal guidance which has given the weapon better accuracy, and the ability to strike moving ships. The two-stage penetrating BROACH warhead can also be set to a one-stage mode which is more effective against soft targets, such as ships or unarmoured vehicles. The question of maritime strike for HX has been left somewhat open by the authorities, with the aircraft required to be able to support the Navy in the maritime domain, but not necessarily through kinetic means (e.g. systems such as the Growler or the GlobalEye could certainly be of great value when it comes to supporting the Navy in the electronic warfare domain and in building the situational picture). The JSOW could potentially provide a middle-ground, providing the Finnish Air Force with an important capability the primary use of which is in the land domain, but which also could be used against enemy vessels. The JSM is on the other hand a dedicated anti-ship missile with a secondary ground attack role. Thanks to it being powered it has a significantly longer range. However, the JSM might be included as an option for another role as well, as we saw in the Dassault marketing material that it seems destined to be the SEAD/DEAD weapon of choice for the French offer. Boeing and Lockheed Martin reading different levels of importance into the maritime strike mission can obviously be one explanation, but another is that LM feel they need a powered weapon of a lighter class than the JASSM to go SAM-hunting with, and there felt that they can kill two birds with one stone (or rather, both SAMs and ships with the same missile). In any case, the JSM, if acquired, would provide a seriously improved ship-killing capability, and with the JSM being stealthy and equipped with an IIR seeker (as opposed to the radar seeker of the Navy’s PTO 2020/Gabriel V), it would create the need for an enemy to be prepared to defend against two very different kinds of threats. I am unsure how Raytheon and Kongsberg have split up the market for the JSM (again, my time at Kongsberg was spent far away from the Defence & Aerospace-division, so I have no insider knowledge of the project), but it is possible that somewhere outside the US-package there is a separate offer for 60 JSM from Kongsberg for the F-35 package, which would explain the smaller number of JSOW.
The somewhat awkwardly named GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb increment II (it is in fact renamed to StormBreaker, but that one hasn’t stuck. At least not yet) would represent a completely new capability for the Finnish Air Force, in that it is a light glide bomb that can be used to take out individual vehicles, including moving ones. The fact that it is unpowered causes the range to be dependent on release height and speed, but on the positive side the small size means a large number can be carried, and it has a seeker with no less than three modes of operating. In the words of Raytheon:
• Millimeter wave radar — provides all-weather capability and the ability to quickly detect and track moving or stationary targets.
• IIR sensor — uncooled IIR sensor provides three categories of classification capability and aim point refinement.
• Semi-active laser sensor — tracks a laser spot from the launch platform or third-party designators.
This would give the HX the ability to go after tanks or artillery positions, including moving ones, but also to provide close air support by striking individual positions designated by ground troops or other platforms. And with the small size of the weapon allowing for large numbers to be carried on each station, the notification include up to 500 live weapons for either offer. The weapon follows on the highly successful original GBU-39 SDB, and is currently cleared for the F-15E Strike Eagle and since this year on the Super Hornet.
The big stick, however, remains the JASSM. Finland currently operate a limited number of the original AGM-158A JASSM. This has to the best of my knowledge been completely replaced on the production line by the longer-legged (but otherwise sharing a high-degree of commonality) AGM-158B JASSM-ER, 200 of which are now being offered to Finland. This is in turn set to be overtaken by the even longer-ranged AGM-158D JASSM-XR in the next few years (the missing AGM-158C being the LRASM anti-ship version). I would not read too much into the fact that Finland is about to switch from JASSM to JASSM-ER if we end up buying a US fighter. More range is nice, but it is likely also the cheaper (or even the only) option compared to the rest of the family as the ER-production line is currently hot.
Notable is that the JASSM in Finnish service is a weapon described as having a deterrence role, a somewhat controversial notion, but one that apparently has some support in Russian doctrine. However, the low number of weapons has always been the main Achilles heel when it comes to the doctrine of heavy conventional precision-guided munitions being able to function as a deterrent. 200 JASSM-ER backed up by 100-160 JSOW are certainly numbers that are starting to be felt. Especially if the current JASSM stocks are refurbished.
This brings us on to another point. There’s some rumours going on in Finnish defence forums that the ability to employ weapons from current Finnish stocks won’t be factored into the eventual deciding wargame. While I don’t have any insight into the finer details of the wargame, I have not been able to find any support for that idea in the official communication, nor is it in line with what has been communicated earlier. The Finnish Defence Forces is (in)famous for not throwing things away that can be put to use, and Puranen has confirmed to Lännen Media that the possibility of keeping the current JASSM for use on the eventual HX-winner is being studied. While there is no requirement for the winner to be able to employ the Hornet-arsenal, considering that the stated goal of the wargame is to evaluate how well the total package offered would perform as part of the FDF and the Finnish defence concept, removing a potential benefit of one package (such as the ability to keep using the current stocks of AGM-158A JASSM or AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM after overhauling these) in the name of “fairness” does run contrary to both that aim and the nature of war, which famously isn’t fair.
To use a hypothetical example to make things really clear: the Finnish Air Force says they need 200 precision-guided free-fall bombs of a 250 kg class. Eurofighter brings 200 Paveway IV in their offer, but Boeing and Lockheed Martin knows that the Finnish Air Force already has 50 GBU-38 in their current stocks, so they offer 150 new GBU-38 and an engineer that comes over with a toolbox and some spares to ensure that the old stock is good to go for another decade or two. As the whole competition is based on the design to cost method, this allows for the inclusion of more stuff elsewhere in the package. What package would then be evaluated in the wargame? A US fighter with only three quarters of the number of light bombs compared to the competition? A hypothetical package that include 200 new-built bombs but skips on the extra? So far everything we’ve seen and heard from the Finnish LOGCOM indicate that they aren’t interested in playing games, but that they want to evaluate what is on offer. If that include continued life for some current equipment, then I am quite sure that that is what is evaluated.
In any case, there will be medium-ranged air-to-air missiles operational on any aircraft that ends up winning HX, and the options on the table for the American ones include either a separate notification and order before IOC (order in 2025 and delivery 2026/2027 would probably be the approximate timeline) or the continued use of the current AMRAAM stocks. The shelf-life left for these naturally vary highly depending on whether the weapons have been stored or flown, but with the DSCA notification for 300 missiles coming in 2008 and deliveries probably stretching out over at least a few years after that, the newest missiles are likely fit to serve into the early 2030’s if maintained and overhauled. The C-7 version of the AMRAAM is also still rather close to the state of the art when it comes to medium-ranged missiles, and is regularly carried by not only US fighters, but by the Eurofighter and Gripen as well to complement the long-range Meteor. The Meteor is unlikely to enter service on a US fighter, but that doesn’t mean that the US fighters are set to remain looking on while the Europeans (and crucially, the Chinese) have all the fun at longer ranges. When asked about the situation at HX Challenge, Boeing representatives noted that “There’s an opportunity for an advanced air-to-air missile within our offer to address that need”. Exactly what it is wasn’t said, and apparently it won’t be part of the original package. However, both the newest AIM-120D AMRAAM and the upcoming AIM-260 JATM, and possibly other parts of the more opaque LREW-program, are all possible candidates to enter the field at a later date.
For the anti-radiation missiles, my personal guess is that they would be acquired as a separate package in the early 2030’s if Boeing wins. The capability is completely new to the Finnish Air Force, and with the Growler-unit busy learning the tricks of the trade I could imagine a timeline where the first few years are spent dealing with the non-kinetic methods, with the DEAD-part of SEAD/DEAD being introduced after the HX has reached FOC by 2030.
The notifications were largely on par with what was expected, though I will say that if the requested numbers found in the weapons packages are close to what eventually will be acquired their sheer number came as a surprise to me (and certainly explains the comment Puranen made about the difference in cost between the early calculations and the eventual budget). Even “comprehensive packages” comes in different scales, let’s just put it at that.
The large number of SDB IIs and JSOWs requested were also a bit of a surprise, and shows the expanding mission set of the Finnish Air Force is set to continue. Personally I am still a bit sad, though not necessarily surprised, about the fact that even under the current budget it was possible to squeeze in a small number of the Quickstrike naval mine/JDAM ER combination, but these are obviously possible to acquire later as well.
Some have noticed the large number of aircraft and notification price tags going over (10.6 billion EUR for the F-35 and 12.4 billion EUR for the SH/Growler), and question whether the HX budget will grow eventually (as was the case with the Squadron 2020 one). As said, the value given on DSCA notifications are usually not much to go by at the best of times, but here is a number of other issues at play as well.
Let’s begin by saying that I personally don’t believe there will be significant increases, though even an index-increase if the program is delayed with a year will be a lot of money when we’re talking about a 10 billion package. However, the crucial issue is that there is little room for increase when it comes to the eventual operating budgets, and so far there seems to be little indication that the Air Force will be allowed to increase it’s share of the annual budget, either through an increase in the defence budget or by shrinking the budgets of the Navy and/or Army.
The other issue is that this isn’t a question of the budget being a few hundred millions over 10 billion, but rather it should be remembered that a significant part of the 10 billion allocated will be spent outside the items found in the DSCA notifications. To begin with, around 700 MEur will be spent of other stuff (infrastructure, the work of the procurement agency, early training, etc.). In addition, the operations from first aircraft delivery until IOC/FOC will in part be covered by the 10 billion as the Hornets continue to fund their operations out of the Air Force’s annual operating budget. There are also infrastructure changes and possibly other significant investments that will be made outside of the contract that is covered by the notification, including non-listed equipment and equipment from third countries. As such, if one were to take the number quoted in the notification at face value, and I repeat – one shouldn’t, the question wouldn’t be if the Air Force can sneak in a budget increase of a few hundred millions, but whether they can pull off an increase of the programme value that is spelled out in a ten-digit figure. I don’t believe they can, and don’t believe they are going to try. Following the release of the notifications, Puranen also noted that they feel confident they are able to deliver the required capabilities within the current budget.
It should, however, be acknowledged that there are some worrying signs that the budget really is tight, just having two spare engines for the F-35 and no HARM/AARGM for the Super Hornet/Growler comes to mind. Even if those two items can be sorted out, the question lingers if they are only the tip of the iceberg, and what more is hidden under the surface when it comes to missing or low quantities of crucial items?
It was supposed to be the last big dance of the HX contenders in Finland, with a final air show in the unpredictable June-weather before the decision was to be announced not even a year later in early 2021. But then COVID happened.
The air show was first moved to August, and then the whole program schedule was pushed back with the decision now expected Q4 2021 due to the inability to hold the final pre-BAFO talks in person last spring. As such, the air show in Kauhava this weekend is set to be a somewhat muted affair compared to the expectations. This is obviously a pity, especially as the local enthusiasts in Kauhava were set to have the biggest celebration of the towns aviation heritage since the closure of the air force base in 2014.
Compared to earlier years, the late stage of the program is visible in the fact that few breaking news were published, though there were some interesting stories.
First out in the spotlight was the Finnish Defence Forces and MoD themselves, who published a rather long and surprisingly open interview interview with colonel Keränen (FinAF A3) and Lauri Puranen (MoD program manager for strategic capability projects) in their Radio Kipinä-podcast. The theme was “The HX-program – Mythbusters”, and they spent quite a bit of time explaining why it isn’t possible to replace the fighters with ground-based systems or UAVs, the extremely close cooperation between the politicians making the eventual decisions and the soldiers and officials providing the groundwork, as well as how there are no favourites at this stage. All of these are issues that have been raised in the domestic discussion in Finland, with more or less populist undertones depending on the issue and who’s making the point. However, there were some interesting nuggets for the avgeek community as well.
Keränen made a direct point that the Air Force is not planning on going even in case of war, but that they will strive for a serious kill ratio.
We want something like the Brewster, [which] had 32:1 during the Second World War. Of course that is the kind of thing we are aiming for, whether it’s realistic or not is another thing, but if we can reach for example 10:1 that is 600 fighters that we can shoot down. Or bombers, depending on whatever comes.
You’d be excused for feeling this comes off as arrogant, but a quick look into the history books shows that during the jet age such numbers have been well within the realms of possibility. The USAF F-86 experience in the Korean War is given as between 10.5 to 2:1. The Israeli Air Force is also well-known for having extremely high numbers during the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars, and while the exact numbers are debated (figures like 50:1 in 1973 and 80:0 in 1982 are frequently given), even if they feature some serious inflation they should be well over the 10:1 threshold. The Royal Navy in the Falklands War also famously reached 19:0 with the Sea Harrier (although a small number were lost in accidents and to ground fire), and in this case the kills and losses are largely confirmed from sources on both sides. Operation Desert Storm also saw a kill ratio above 30:1 for the coalition. As such, the goal of reaching double-digit kill ratios is perfectly achievable with the right combination of training, equipment, and doctrine. In fact it can be argued to be something of a requirement for overall success in modern wars.
The interview also confirmed that the idea of a 64 aircraft fleet is effectively dead, as Puranen noted that all first round offers for 64-aircraft packages were “significantly over 10 billion Euros”. However, the requirement is still for a fleet of around 60 aircraft. The reasons are simple and well-known to followers of the project, in that the aircraft now included in the HX program aren’t really faster or have significantly better endurance compared to the current Hornet-fleet. Coupled with the fact that Finnish territory hasn’t gotten smaller (or rather, not significantly smaller) since the Hornet was bought, the same air defence capability will require more or less the same number of aircraft.
The interview crucially also included a declaration that they are happy with the planned service lives of all aircraft, and see them continuing in service into 2060 and beyond. If that really is the case, it certainly is good news to, well, everyone besides F-35A (which we all knew would not have an issue with the lifespan requirement).
The last significant detail given was that the Growler will show its active systems at a test range in the US during a test period there, and that the passive systems were evaluated during HX Challenge which Boeing attended with a three-aircraft fleet that included not only the Growler but also single- and two-seat Super Hornets. Since then, Boeing confessed that their testing program had been hit with some delays, but that as time goes and the safety measures are put into place everything is starting to ramp back up again. With both the Block 3 and the NGJ now flying, it was a bullish team that was on location in Kauhava yesterday. Despite the issues facing Boeing’s civilian sector, the defence, space and security-part of the company was described as “healthy”, with the international side being “more active than ever”. This include the Canadian program, where Boeing recently sent in their offer, the Swiss program, as well as the ongoing German program where Boeing has been downselected for luWES and together with Eurofighter to provide the solution for the Tornado Replacement Program. The ATS and manned-unmanned teaming was also mentioned, and Boeing was quick to point out that while they are happy with the progress the ATS-platform itself is making down in Australia, that is only part of the complete system. The technology and software part of the program is to some extent a different track running in parallel, large parts of which are already in place.
Finland is a user organisation, not a developer organisation
Boeing’s main sales pitch hasn’t moved anywhere, it is still the proven and mature option, two words that has worked well in Finnish defence procurement earlier. The one thing that didn’t excite the company was Saab’s announcement of the Lightweight Air-launched Decoy Missile (LADM), the representative sounding almost confused when he recounted an earlier question:
We got a question if we have anything similar. We’ve been doing that thing for years, first with the TALD and now with the MALD. I really don’t know what else to say.
As said, Saab had one of the few (only?) breaking story of the show, with the announcement that they are developing a lightweight decoy. Despite the seeming similarity to the US ADM-160C MALD-J and the SPEAR EW, the Saab-version has a few things going for it. To begin with, it is “largely” developed in Finland and as such (probably?) should be ITAR-free. Secondly, while Saab won’t discuss at what stage they are in the development (usually a sign that there’s not much in the way of hardware yet to be shown), there’s likely significant synergies between the internal EW-suite of the Gripen E/F, the EAJP jamming pod, and the electronic warfare capabilities of the GlobalEye.
Saab continues to emphasis the overall package, with security of supply and the close relationship with Sweden adding to the performance of the JAS 39E/F Gripen and GlobalEye combination. 39E made its air show debut at Kauhava, and it was backed up by no less than three 39C/D Gripen of the Swedish Air Force and a GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft. An interesting aspect of Saab’s presentation was the inclusion of colonel Carl-Fredrik Edström, Swedish Air Force A3, who spoke warmly about Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation, and noted that this will continue regardless of the outcome of HX. However, if Finland would end up choosing Gripen, there’s certain possibilities opening up that the Swedish Air Force would be happy to provide. These include e.g. the possibility of embedding Finnish flying personnel into the test and evaluation program at an early stage, as well as the potential of cooperating not only on research and development of the fighter, but also e.g. handling the advanced training/OCU as a joint unit which likely would be a cost saver for both countries.
The star of the four Gripen on location was the ‘6002’ which is the first series produced JAS 39E, and feature a really nice three-tone camo to commemorate this fact. Making its air show debut, the aircraft featured a serious air-to-ground load of four SDB on the centreline rack, two Taurus KEPD 350 heavy cruise missiles, and two Enhanced Paveway II (believe that is the GBU-49 227 kg version), as well as two IRIS-T air-to-air missiles for self-defence. That Saab managed to convince the Swedish Air Force to let their precious fighter come over for an air show is yet another sign of the wholehearted support Saab’s export push enjoys from the operator.
Another fighter in special paint was the Dassault Rafale solo. Unfortunately it (and the other two Rafales) were parked a bit offside, so I wasn’t able to get any nice shots of it yesterday. But rest assured it looked the part, both on the ground and in the air.
Edit 02 September 2020 – I managed to get my hands on this video that Dassault used as marketing material during the weekend, and got permission to republish it here, courtesy of Dassault Aviation.
Our Managing Director Paul Hitchcock was delighted to present Major General Pasi Jokinen, Commander of the @FinnishAirForce, with a framed technical drawing of the Finnish Hawk from our design archives. Hawk is marking 40 years in service training Finnish pilots. 🇫🇮 🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/S9J4SHheoa
Speaking of air forces supporting export pushes, the RAF sent over the Red Arrows to celebrate forty years of Finnish Hawk-operations. While in theory this had nothing to do with BAES trying to sell the Typhoon to Finland, it is obvious that there are some overlap. In particular, BAES tries to use their long experience working together with Patria on the Hawk-program as a template to build onto for a Finland as a Eurofighter operator. This isn’t something to laugh at, as besides Boeing they are the only operator to be able to claim experience on this side of 2000 to have cooperated with the Finnish Air Force (and Finnish industry) on an operational fast jet. And it should be remembered that while the Hawk is a much simpler platform compared to the Hornet, there still has been some significant projects based around the aircraft in Finnish service, including the Hawk MLU-project.
BAE Systemsin Suomen maajohtaja Paul Hitchcock lahjoittaa ilmavoimien komentaja Pasi Jokiselle Kauhavan lentonäytöksessä muistoksi kuvan ensimmäisestä BAE Systems Hawk-koneen teknisestä piirrustuksesta Suomen ilmavoimien Hawkien 40-vuotisen taipaleen kunniaksi. 🇫🇮 #hxhankepic.twitter.com/KCHdJyAL6A
The BAES-lead consortium have their game plan ready. The key part is taking a holistic approach to the gate-check requirements of industrial participation, affordability, and security of supply. In simple words this starts with ensuring Finnish industrial participation from the get-go (read: domestic production line), which provide a base for thirty years of sustainment. This allows for a TyTAN-style program where the industry is handling maintenance and support on location, which in turn saves money as moving aircraft around for service is expensive. As has been discussed earlier, TyTAN won’t be coming to Finland as a copy-paste solution, but as it bears a strong resemblance to the FDF way of working with strategic partners and with the experience of BAES and Patria working together on the Hawk, it will provide lessons for how to produce a tailored way of working for the HX. Crucially, TyTAN provide an already proven operational way of working that shows how the costs can be managed, something that at least two other aircraft in the field currently lack. And with BAES confident enough to sign a fixed-price ten year contract on the Typhoon, the life-cycle cost gauntlet certainly has been thrown down.
But while much talk is centered on the European aspect, Finnish ownership of mission data, lack of sealed black boxes and “independence“, it is when discussing the aircraft itself that the superlatives really start to come out. An interesting talking point at the BAES presser was that the upcoming large area display will enable the pilot to take a step back and get more information than just the fused picture by seeing also the raw data from individual sensors. While sensor fusion has been one of the main themes of most of the HX-contenders, the theory that you can get additional value from being able to see raw data as well as to sort through ambiguities and anomalies does make sense on paper. The question about how valuable this is depends on how good each individual fusion method is, and that is something that we won’t know based on open sources. Still, I couldn’t help but reflect on whether we are seeing the hype cycle in action, or is this is just a PR-talking point for the use of a large display?
But while the value of non-fused data to complement the fused picture is ambiguous, the raw performance of the Eurofighter is uncontested. The aircraft’s ability to supercruise is seen as a key for the QRA mission, and it has been demonstrated to the Finnish Air Force (naturally it is dependent on height and environment).
It is without peer in the sense it can supercruise, and it can supercuise with air to air stores.
This is coupled with the Striker and upcoming Striker II helmet, which allows the weapons cuing through the cockpit amongst a host of other nice features. In short the company believes that they “already have a helmet advantage”, and that it will only get better with the introduction of the Striker II with full colour and picture-in-picture.
I have on a number of occasions stated that the outcome of the HX programme is far from certain, despite the F-35 probably being the fighter to beat. While waiting for the sprint to the finish line to start of in earnest, there are two things that probably are worth keeping in mind.
To begin with, the unlikely doesn’t equal the impossible. Betsson earlier this year placed odds on the outcome, and while I don’t condone gambling generally and in particular not with questions of national security, the odds given weren’t too controversial. At the point of Finnish tabloid Iltalehti reporting on the live odds, they were:
F-35 2.15 (i.e. 35 % of being chosen)
F/A-18E/F Super Hornet 3.00 (25 %)
JAS 39E/F Gripen 3.75 (20 %)
Eurofighter Typhoon 6.25 (12 %)
Rafale 9.35 (8 %)
It is easy to read 8 % as “never”, but it deserves to be remembered that this is not the case. As a comparison, if you sit down with your Monopoly board and bring out the two dice, the odds of you rolling the dreaded ‘snake eyes’ or 1-1 is just 2,78 %. Does that mean that things are looking bright for the Rafale? Not really. The reason you can remember rolling snake eyes in board games is that you have a large numbers of die rolls per game, while the HX is a single event. Granted, you still do roll snake eyes on your first roll sometimes, but it is rare. And since someone is bound to comment on it, yes, Leicester City F.C. won the Premier League.
…which brings us to our second point, which is a more serious concern for the odds favourites. Last time around the details surrounding the choice of the F/A-18C/D Hornet were largely confidential for a long time, but back in 2017 twenty-five years after the event Olli Ainola of Iltalehti got the memo circulated amongst the ministers back then released (it had been classified as ‘Salainen’ or ‘Secret’, i.e. the second-highest classification on the four-tier system). It provide a good lesson to keep in mind when discussing the expected outcome for the current programme.
Of the five contenders left (the more fanciful offer to sell Finland the MiG-31 had already been discarded at this point), two were outright disqualified as not meeting the Air Force’s requirement. These included the MiG-29 (not meeting requirements related to “avionics nor lifespan, nor the maintenance setup”) and more surprisingly the popular favourite, the F-16C/D (failing both on the technical aspect as well as on industrial cooperation). The JAS 39 Gripen and its subsystems were felt to be not mature enough, leading to unacceptable risks. This left just two of the five contenders, the Mirage 2000-5 and the F/A-18C/D Hornet, to battle it out in the end.
In short, in the early 90’s the Finnish Air Force and MoD were not afraid to disregard offers they felt weren’t up to standard, and that might have a serious effect on the outcome this time around. And note, at least based on open sources, it is the favourites that seem to have the biggest reason to worry.
F-35 has a long and troubled development history. Some questions linger on, such as the ALIS/ODIN logistics system, but on the whole the F-35A is starting to look like a highly competent multirole fighter at a nice level of maturity (especially considering that we are still ten years away from HX FOC). However, the big questions are to be found in other aspects of the tender. One major issue is the question of how and to what extent the though industrial cooperation requirements can be met considering the unique international nature of the F-35 program. Lockheed Martin’s press briefing at HX Challenge unfortunately did little to bring clarity to the question, instead causing further confusion about what might and might not be on the table.
Another serious question that refuses to die is the one regarding costs, and in particular operating costs. While comparing acquisition costs is largely a fool’s errand, the fact that none if any of the DSCA notices or reported signed contract values are anywhere close to fitting inside the Finnish budget is cause for concern. Perhaps even more damning is the Danish life-cycle cost estimates. A report out of the Centre for Military Studies of the University of Copenhagen written by Gary Schaub Jr and Hans Peter H. Michaelsen published in late 2018 (h/t Charles Forrester who drew my attention to it on Twitter) discusses the possibility of increasing the number of F-35s in Danish service, and quotes the annual operating cost of the current fleet as 70 million DKK per aircraft (or approximately 9.4 million EUR). The numbers are taken from the original authorisation to buy the F-35 (referred to as “Aktstykke 31” in the report), and as such is likely the best available open source number found for the RDAF. The Danish concept of operations is naturally somewhat different from the way Finland would operate the aircrafts, but on average I believe it is an acceptable point of reference (smaller number of aircraft and single base vs. economics of scale and dispersed operations). Toying around with numbers, if we accept the Danish annual operating cost to be a good fit for Finnish annual operating cost per aircraft (i.e. 9.43 MEur), that would mean that Finland was able to afford between 26.5 and 35.7 aircraft, depending on how you calculate (26.5 if the annual total operating cost is 250 MEur, and the MLU isn’t included in that, and 35.7 if the annual operating cost is 270 MEur + the MLU reservations spread out over 30 years).
In practice, this would mean that one of the Finnish Air Force’s two fighter squadrons would be slashed, and we’d likely see a Norwegian model in which one of the current two bases would host a QRA detachment of four to six aircraft instead. The upper boundary of that calculation also aligns with the lower limit of what long-term aviation journalist Tony Osborne of Aviation Week stated on Twitter last week, when he estimated that the eventual offer to Finland would be for “36-40 aircraft”. If correct, it would be an extremely bitter pill for the Finnish Air Force to swallow, and one that very well might prove politically unacceptable (in particular to the agrarian Centre Party that currently holds the MoD seat).
As it happens, on the Finnish Defence Forces Flag Day June 4 the Air Force launched eight four-ships of Hornets, a total of 32 aircraft to celebrate the occasion. This also provide a nice reminder of what it actually takes to cover an area as large as the Finnish airspace. And if your fleet is 40 aircraft, you don’t get to surge to launching 32 at a time…
But the F-35 is far from the only favourite that is facing some serious risks. Both the Super Hornet and the JAS 39E Gripen rests on a single major operator. One of the major talking points that the FDF and MoD has raised when asked about what issues other than straight out performance can become deciding factors is the risk of becoming the sole user:
By no means do we want to be the last and sole user.
The US Navy has been reluctant to lock down exactly how the future of their carrier air wing will look past 2030, to the point that the US congress last month actually pounded the table and demanded a plan. The issue here is obviously that any plan won’t be out before HX is decided, and if the plan then is to scrap all Super Hornets by 2035 and go all in for the NGAD and F-35C, Finland will be left standing in the corner looking stupid. The fact that the USN is still planning on rolling more or less the whole F/A-18E/F fleet through the Block 3 upgrade program which will give the airframes a significantly longer lifespan together with the unique role of the EA-18G Growler and the likely-looking German buy does lend some credibility to Boeing’s claims of them anticipating a service life for the Super Hornet in US service significantly past 2040, but it certainly is far from set in stone.
For Sweden the situation is roughly similar, with the recent decades not instilling much in the way of trust with regards to political long-term planning for the Swedish Defence Forces. Currently Sweden has 60 Gripens on order (all of the single-seat 39E-version), which ironically enough would make Finland the world’s largest operator of the 39E/F if 64 aircraft were to be acquired. At the same time, while the aircraft is moving through the development program and meeting milestones at an impressive pace, the words that doomed the original 39A/B offer to Finland in 1992 does echo through history.
JAS 39 Gripen and in particular some of its systems are currently still at the prototype-stage, and the schedule of the project with its uncertainty factors include significant risks.
The 39E is maturing nicely, but it certainly is not yet on par with the competition. Is that an issue? Probably not, but the risk of Sweden pulling the plug on the 39E in 2040 and moving on to something else (Tempest?) is there. Especially as the next stage of long-term planning for the Swedish Air Force is only about to kick off next year.
How is it then with the two dark horses? Surprisingly well, to be honest. The Eurofighter Typhoon has a solid user base, including four major European countries having invested heavily in the system, which provide a depth that significantly improves the chances of it staying in service up to 2060 even if the FCAS and Tempest are already looming at the horizon. The Rafale has a more limited user base, despite scoring three notable export orders recently. Still, France can generally be considered a rather stable user country, and has traditionally held onto its platforms for a long time. Recent examples include the Super Étendard (retired in 2016), the Mirage F1 (retired from the reconnaissance role in 2014), and the Mirage 2000 (still happily serving on in both the ground-attack 2000D and fighter 2000-5 versions). Karl Rieder joked on Twitter when discussing the future of the Super Hornet that buying French is safer, since there’s no budget to change plans. It’s a joke for sure, but there’s also a grain of truth buried within that statement.
So, will 2021 see a showdown between the Rafale and Eurofighter for the HX-prize, the rest having failed the gate checks? Probably not, though I would not be surprised if there is at least someone in the anticipated top-three being kicked out (which based on earlier information, we might know the details of in 2046). At the same time, I am certainly open for the possibility of us getting a surprise winner, and I do not believe anyone who claims they knows the outcome.
Few fighter procurements go completely without a hitch these days, and the German Tornado-replacement program is no exception. Critics have decried it as the worst of all options, questioned the idea of a small Super Hornet/Growler-fleet, asked why the Eurofighter ECR doesn’t get any love, and whether nuclear strike really should be included at all in the German mission set.
In reality, things are usually more complex that they seem, and outrageously stupid decisions are rarer than a quick look in the tabloids would have you believe. So what’s the method to the German madness?
To begin with, it is first necessary to look at the capabilities about to be replaced. Germany is in fact looking at three different replacement projects, which include a number of different roles.
The first is Project Quadriga, which looks at replacing 38 Tranche 1 Eurofighters. These early Eurofighters lack several of the more modern systems of the later Tranche 2 and 3 versions, systems that crucially allow for the relatively easy upgrading of these. Due to this, most countries have opted against upgrading the Tranche 1’s (Spain being the exception). The logical solution, which has been reported to be in the work for quite some time, is a one-to-one replacement with new-built Eurofighters. These are to be of the top-notch standard currently offered, with E-Scan AESA radar and other niceties. While Germany officially calls them Tranche 3, the Eurofighter consortium refers to them as Tranche 4 to distinguish them from the earlier Tranche 3’s which are of a lesser configuration. The Project Quadriga jets are roughly corresponding to the standard offered to Finland, which also share the Tranche 4 designation.
More controversial is the Tornado replacement program, which is actually made up of two different parts. Besides the Tornado IDS fleet (more on this later), Germany operate the survivors of 35 Tornado ECR. These are specialised electronic warfare aircraft, flying the SEAD/DEAD (or more popularly the ‘Wild Weasel’) mission of taking out enemy air defences and radars. This is an extremely rare capability for any air force to have, besides Germany only Italy (also with a small Tornado ECR fleet), the US Navy, and Australia sport dedicated tactical SEAD jets, both of the latter doing so in the form of the EA-18G Growler (an Israeli dedicated SEAD-variant of the F-16D is rumoured to exist, but especially after the introduction of the F-16I I am unsure what to make of this claim). This is part of the issue – if Germany is to buy a stop-gap SEAD-jet, there is just a single alternative on the market today, namely the Growler. There are other multirole aircraft with the capability to carry out the mission to varying degrees, including jets sporting anti-radiation missiles and advanced EW-systems. However, the only true SEAD-platform able to do the escort jammer mission which Germany specifically spells out, is the Growler. The Eurofighter consortium last year rolled out the Eurofighter ECR concept, which I discussed on the blog earlier. To reiterate:
The Eurofighter ECR concept is tailored to meet the German requirements, and include signal-homing missiles in the form of the AGM-88E AARGM, new large podded jammers, two more ‘wet’ stations to allow the drop tanks to move out of the way for said jammers, and a new decoupled rear cockpit for the WSO. The ECR as such is not part of the offer to Finland, but “as with any technology developed by the Eurofighter consortium, the option of an ECR will be available to Finland as a future growth option.” The options also include picking just the parts of the concept deemed suitable for Finnish needs. This could e.g. translate into acquiring just the jammers without the new ‘wet’ stations and accepting the range and endurance limitations it causes.
However, the Eurofighter ECR is still a paper product, at a time when the Growler is already a mature and combat proven design.
The majority of the Tornado-fleet is made up by the IDS variant (interdictor/strike, designated GR.x in RAF service), with the German Luftwaffe and Marineflieger acquiring a total of over 300 aircraft, of which just under a third are still in service with the Luftwaffe. The Interdictor-designation refers to strikes deep behind enemy lines, aimed at affecting the battlefield by e.g. stopping enemy supplies from reaching the front lines. The Tornado IDS was one of the best dedicated platforms for the role during the later part of the Cold War, being known for the ability to slung a serious combat load at high speed and very low level to avoid enemy air defences. While still a potent airframe, the basic design is rapidly heading towards obsolescence, and the age of the aircraft are starting to show, already causing significant headaches to the maintenance personnel.
The Eurofighter has already replaced the Tornado in British service, and isn’t necessarily a bad choice. The aircraft can sling two heavy cruise missiles (in RAF service the Storm Shadow is used), as well as a sizeable load of precision-guided bombs and smaller missiles such as the Brimstone for precision targets and anti-vehicle use. On the horizon, the SPEAR light cruise missile is about to open up some new interesting options as well.
However, what isn’t found in the arsenal of the Eurofighter is the B61 free-fall tactical nuclear weapon. The German Tornado-fleet form part of NATO’s nuclear sharing agreement, under which Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey have US tactical nuclear weapons stored in their country for delivery by their Air Forces.
Now, to grasp why the German decision played out the way it did (or seemingly is about to do, more on this later), it is extremely important to understand a few things:
The nuclear weapons aren’t exactly uncontroversial. The general population in most of the host countries are divided at best and directly hostile at worst to the sharing agreement. Germany is no exception,
The idea that NATO is a nuclear alliance is generally seen as a key part in it’s strategy to deter other nuclear-armed states (i.e. Russia) from using nuclear weapons against the member states. The sharing agreement is an attempt to ensure that decoupling doesn’t happen (“Will the US trade New York for Paris?“, as De Gaulle famously questioned), to make sure that the NATO allies keeps retain their trust in US and the alliance (and doesn’t try to acquire their own weapons, as De Gaulle did),
You don’t just sling along a tactical nuke on any aircraft, but the integration and certification is quite a complex process, and relies on the country owning the nukes being ready to share some of their most highly classified military secrets.
If you only look at the destructive power of nuclear weapons, the multirole fighter you want today is the Dassault Rafale with the impressive ASMP-A nuclear cruise missile. The Rafale is designed from the outset to be able to perform the nuclear strike mission, being “entry first-capable” as the French puts it, and there’s little denying that the ASMP-A offers a significantly greater chance than the B61-12 of getting through and putting your bucket of sunshine on whatever it is you don’t want to exist anymore. And indeed there has been an argument for a German nuclear deterrent, either in the form of Franco-German sharing or as an independent arm developed with French aid. However, this overlooks the simple fact that the majority of Germans aren’t too keen on nuclear weapons to begin with, and while it would solve the potential military need of putting nukes on a target, it does not adress decoupling (as a matter of fact, it can be argued to make the risk of decoupling US from its European NATO-allies higher). For the time being, the militarily less-effective US B61 free-fall tactical nuclear weapon might on a strategic scale actually be a better option than a German (or Franco-German) bomb. Crucially, it is also most likely the only option that has any hope of getting through the German parliament.
This brings the key question to the Tornado replacement program of what aircraft to certify for the B61. The Eurofighter is, at least according to Airbus, technically able to start lobbing nukes. However, this would obviously require the US to play along. The argument has been put forward that the nuclear sharing is important enough to the US that they would have no choice but to agree to integrating the B61 on any platform Germany wishes. There is probably some truth to this, but on the other hand it is likely that integration on a non-European platform could both require more work (i.e. it would take longer) and not receive the priority integration on a new US platform would get (i.e. it would take longer). This makes the Eurofighter less than ideal for the nuclear delivery mission, an in addition the German Air Force would like to avoid a single type fleet due to the risk of a safety issue grounding the whole fleet.
Which brings us back to the quest for a US solution. Some have voiced concern whether Germany would be interested in a US platform at all, and while it is true that currently Germany has an impressively European fleet, the country has been a prolific user of US fast jets up until rather recently in the form of both the F-4F Phantom II (retired in 2013) and F-104G Starfighter before that (retired in 1987). In addition, much of the current arsenal of weapons, including the AIM-9L Sidewinder, AIM-120 AMRAAM, and GBU-series of laser/GPS-guided bombs are all US made. While a new US-built fighter would likely add to the list of in-service weapons, it is hard to argue this would be any kind of a serious issue to an air force the size of Germany’s (especially considering the obsolescence issues currently facing the continued operation of the Tornado with it’s Cold War-era technology).
Having kicked out the F-35 due to political considerations, there are three more fighters being built in the US today: the F-15 Eagle, F-16, and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. As noted, the F-16 has seen service in Europe in the nuclear strike role, but the light multirole aircraft isn’t really the obvious place to go looking for a Tornado replacement, and in any case Lockheed Martin haven’t been interested in offering it to countries that are potential F-35 buyers. Boeing manufacture both the F-15 Eagle and the F/A-18 family, and the ‘Mudhen’, as the F-15E Strike Eagle is affectionately known, does hold a number of benefits over the ‘Rhino’. Crucially, the F-15E is already certified for the B61, including the latest B61-12 version, something that none of the other aircraft discussed here (including the F-35) currently is. The integrated conventional weapons also matches the current German arsenal more closely, including the Taurus KEPD-350 heavy cruise missile that is integrated on the Korean F-15K variant. The aircraft is also already based in Europe, as the USAF operate F-15E units from UK bases, and as such German Strike Eagles would slot directly into current NATO tactics. However, while the latest F-15E(X) is a very potent strike aircraft, it does suffer from the lack of a SEAD/DEAD-variant.
The issue can obviously be solved in a number of ways. Roger Näbig over at Konflikte & Sicherheit argues for the F-15E(X) for nuclear strike with the Eurofighter ECR taking over in the SEAD-role. This would probably be the simplest solution when it comes to getting the nuclear strike role sorted, but it is highly doubtful if the Eurofighter ECR would be ready by 2025, even if the German order was placed today.
And that is another piece in the puzzle that doesn’t get the attention it would need – the order isn’t exactly placed yet. While everyone seems to agree that the Tornado replacement really needs to happen (especially since it has already been delayed a number of times), the junior coalition partner SPD is decidedly unhappy with how the MoD has handled the issue, including bringing up a number of talking points:
The importance of the Eurofighter for German work,
Whether the nuclear sharing should continue at all,
The decision making process itself,
Why isn’t the F-35 under consideration, as it is used by the Netherlands for nuclear strike?
It is obviously not the same people asking the last two questions, but it shows how deeply torn the party on the issue. A real can of worms is what would happen if Germany would retire from the nuclear sharing altogether, as the former frontline state abandoning the politically tiring duty of hosting nukes would most likely not sit well with the current frontline states, several of whom already have varying degrees of trust issues when it comes to how strong Germany’s commitment to solidarity in case of an attack on Poland or the Baltic countries really is. Something of a nightmare scenario would be a German withdrawal followed by Poland (another F-35 buyer) requesting nuclear weapons on their soil instead, which would have all kinds of “interesting” political and deterrence effects. And if we see Trump reelected this autumn, I don’t hold it completely beyond the realms of possibility that some kind of bilateral US-Polish agreement could be worked out, with or without (likely the later) the approval of the other NATO countries.
The whole Tornado replacement deal obviously leaves ample room for political manoeuvring in Germany, especially considering the rather messy state that German domestic politics currently find itself in. As such, while there is a clear official line – Gareth Jennings had the very nice graphic capturing it all – it is far from certain that the deal will get through parliament any time soon.
In principle, the idea isn’t bad. A joint Eurofighter- (55 aircraft) and Super Hornet-fleet (30 aircraft) with the Super Hornets being dual-roled conventional and nuclear strike and the Eurofighters focusing on replacing the Tornado’s interdiction and reconnaissance capabilities, and 15 EA-18G Growlers in the escort jammer/SEAD role under the luWES program does solve the most pressing military and political issues. A key thing here is that, in the same way as with the current Tornado IDS/ECR-fleet, the EA-18G Growler and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet share a very high degree of commonality, meaning that the 45 Boeing fighters could all be served by the same ground equipment and maintenance organisation. While some have questioned the ability of the German Air Force to get a meaningful contribution out of 15 EA-18G Growlers, that’s two to three times the number of Growlers serving aboard any US Navy carrier at any given time. Especially considering the aforementioned synergies and economics of scale with the regular Super Hornets, I don’t see this as an issue. Both the Super Hornet and the Eurofighter are also fully multirole, although their designs are optimised somewhat differently, meaning that with the exception of the nuclear strike and EW-missions, they could stand in for each other if the need arises. A combined 45 aircraft fleet is also the size of a number of smaller air forces, so it is hard to see that as an argument against the split buy.
What does this mean for HX then? With the caveat that this is based on actually getting an inked German order before the HX decision is made, it would be a small additional credit for the two aircraft. For Eurofighter it further assures continued investment in the aircraft for the next few decades (though in this case it doesn’t help with the post-2050 part of the timeline), and as the German fleet likely will likely mean that the Taurus KEPD-350 is finally fully integrated and potentially some other new capabilities might be unlocked as well, it might be possible to squeeze some of these into the best and final offer at a cheaper price than what would otherwise have been the case. For the Super Hornet the difference is more marked, as the addition of another operator in the Baltic Sea region with deliveries under the same time frame open up possibilities for joint training and test and evaluation opportunities. While this is marketed as a stop-gap solution, Germany has had a tendency of keeping their fast jets in service for quite a while, and there is obviously a risk (or opportunity, if you are looking at this from Boeing’s angle) that the Super Hornet-era might stretch on quite a bit longer than currently envisioned (which likely was part of why France saw the F-35 as such a threat to the FCAS). However, over all the effects are largely marginal for the Finnish competition, and perhaps the most important is the hard-to-measure but still present factor of the idea that an aircraft has momentum on the market.
“I prefer to have two engines over just one.” Yes dear readers, even in the 21st century, the single- versus twin-engined debate isn’t dead. Sorry Pratt & Whitney, but once that one engine catches a flock of birds (or a 30 mm round) down in the weeds, having two is an advantage. How much of an advantage is an open question, and one for the HX-team to ponder upon. Let’s just note that while the Finnish Air Force hasn’t lost any Hornets to birdstrikes, it has lost a Hawk.
However, that wasn’t Boeing’s main selling point when they held their media event as part of HX Challenge this week. Instead, it was about a total package. The Super Hornet as the most versatile and reliable multirole fighter available, offering the greatest suitability to the Finnish concept of operations (read: dispersed operations), having a proven track record as a reliable partner when it comes to customer support and industrial offset, and with the EA-18G Growler bringing unique capabilities to the fight. In essence, Boeings pitch isn’t necessarily that the Super Hornet is miles in front of the competition in any particular field, but rather that the package as a whole will offer the flexibility and cost-to-benefit ratio needed to win the deal.
There is much to be said for that approach. The Finnish Air Force is very happy with the legacy Hornet (or ‘Classic’, as Boeing likes to call it), and the transition to Super Hornet makes sense in many ways. The carrier pedigree is still valuable in many ways besides the obvious short take-off and landing distances. The US Navy carrier air wing is in fact a good analogy for the Finnish Air Force. You find yourself in a taxing environment, having roughly fifty to sixty fighters and whatever spares and stocks you’ve brought with you. You might or might not be fighting alongside allied assets, so you need to be able to both go alone and have the interoperability to link up with friends. Hence the need for high rates of readiness, quick turnaround times, high sortie generation, as well as the ability to keep operating with a minimal amount of support equipment and a small logistical footprint.
“The most proven and affordable multirole platform out there”
That’s how Jennifer Tebo, Director of Development for both the Super Hornet and the Growler programs, opened her presentation. This was a sentiment echoed throughout the presentation, and Boeing was keen to point out that they don’t have to project operating costs or look at trends in cost-saving programs — they know what the aircraft cost to operate. “Particularly suite for Finland” was another phrase used. For a cost-conscious customer, this is something that will earn them a few points extra in the evaluation. Another thing is the cost-savings Boeing experiences during the phasing in of the aircraft. While the final checks of current infrastructure hasn’t been made yet, they are due for next week, Boeing estimate up to 60 % of current infrastructure, including both facilities, maintenance equipment, ground support, and dispersed bases, can be used with the Super Hornet (the remaining percentage also include equipment that can be either refurbished or replaced, depending on the Air Force’s view). Considering the large amount of support equipment needed due to the dispersed operations, this might easily turn into a significant saving. The Super Hornet can also continue to carry the weapons currently found in the Finnish arsenal, with some added tricks up it’s sleeve. The aircraft is fitted for tactical aerial refuelling, and it is easily to imagine a scenario during fluid dispersed operations where the fuel isn’t in the correct place relative to the fighters. At such a time, having a Super Hornet configured for tanker duty linking up somewhere can save valuable time. In peacetime, being able to practice air-to-air refuelling without a tanker having to fly in from RAF Mildenhall will also significantly ease training routines.
One thing that was touched upon in the weapons department was the fact that the Super Hornet is the only HX contender not slated for Meteor integration. “There’s an opportunity for an advanced air-to-air missile within our offer to adress that need,” was the line we were given. While obviously not confirmed by Boeing, initial deliveries sporting the AIM-120D AMRAAM and later buys of AIM-260 once that comes online is the most likely scenario here.
Finally, the transition time would be easier and faster. Captain Brian Becker, commodore of US Navy’s Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, noted that a six month transition period was enough to switch Hornet squadrons to Super Hornets. It should be pointed out that this is for the squadron as a whole, and includes not only teaching the pilots to fly the aircraft, but also transitioning the support personnel, changing out equipment, and getting everyone up to speed on the new aircraft to the level that it is a functioning unit able to perform operational missions. The sentiment was echoed by colonel Aki Heikkinen, commander of Satakunta Air Wing, who noted transitioning a pilot was largely a matter of hours rather than weeks if strictly talking about flying the aircraft safely (colonel Heikkinen also shot down the idea that some of the contenders would struggle with landing or taking off from road bases. “We’ve flown Draken from them”, he said, alluding to the Saab-built interceptor that the Hornet replaced in Finnish service). It should be remembered that the 10 Bn Euro budget isn’t available as such to the fighter manufacturer, but parts of it will also finance the reconstruction of air bases as well as part of the everyday operations of the aircraft during the first five years (as the Hornet operations are using the Air Forces’ normal budget until their retirement). As such, Boeing has a crucial advantage when it comes to saving money on these indirect costs, money that can be used to include one of the premier force multipliers of the fighter world in their bid.
The EA-18G Growler is a serious asset to any operator. The Growler is in essence a combination of a SIGINT-platform gathering data from anything that is emitting, as well as a jamming platform blocking any system from emitting anything useful, be it communications or radars. While stealth platforms currently does a nice job of denying the enemy the ability to close the kill chain by making it hard to get a fire-control solution on the radar, the Growler has the ability to take it further by jamming the electronic spectrum from the VHF-band to the Ku-band, denying the enemy all parts of the chain (early warning, acquisition, and fire control radar bands). If need be, the Growler can also take out the transmitting radars by employing the latest AGM-88E AARGM-missile, or just feed the information to the nearest Super Hornet slinging a suitable weapon to form a classic hunter-killer team.
DETERRENCE | Check out the view from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 as it refuels F-22 Raptors and U.S. Navy EA-18G Growlers over northern Iraq. U.S. Air Forces Central Command operations deter adversaries and demonstrate support for allies and partners in the region. #AirPowerpic.twitter.com/UcEkh8l9tR
All this means that the Growler is a highly appreciated asset, and not just by the US Navy. In fact, the USAF is funding part of the Growler-force, that include five expeditionary squadrons. It is not unusual to find Growlers assisting some of the Air Forces’ stealthiest platforms with both situational awareness and jamming. The Growler is growing with the Super Hornet, with both aircraft introducing technologies that filter over to the other. But while the aircraft maintain 90% commonality with each other, it is the remaining 10% that makes the Growler really venomous. The wingtip ALQ-218 RF Receivers, perhaps the most obvious external recognising feature, are described as “extremely good” and tell the pilot not only what is out there, but also where it is. The crew can then decide what to do with that information, whether to engage with weapons, avoid, or jam.
A key part of the jamming system is the two large ALQ-249 Next Generation Jammers (NGJ) for the mid-band. These are amongst the most advanced US electronic warfare capabilities, and just the fact that they have been released for export to Finland even before the US Navy has accepted them into operational use tells something about the US-Finnish bilateral relation. Ernie Winston from Raytheon, the developer and manufacturer of the pods, was happy to confirm that the development program is moving forward according to plan, and that the first pre-production batches are expected to join the program this year, which also will see the first mission system flight testing. The first series production deliveries will take place in 2022.
What exactly makes the NGJ different from the current generation then? A lot, as it turns out. The big thing is that it is capable of hitting numerous targets simultaneously, thanks to AESA features and “extremely high power”. To counter modern radars, it is also able to switch modes very quickly. The pod is designed from the bottom up to be modular and easily upgradable. Winston describe the system as providing “transformative electronic attack capability”, while the more modest HX-programme manager colonel Keränen just noted that the Growler represents a capability currently not found in the Finnish Air Force
The versatility of the Growler also means that they can be used in a number of different ways. The US Navy likes to use the superior intelligence gathering and presence of a backseater to allow the aircraft to stand back a bit from the fight (the high power of it’s jammers ensure that it can perform stand-off as well as stand-in jamming), sharing it’s tactical picture with the rest of the flight and having the Growler’s WSO (backseater) play the role of a mission commander, directing the fight. ‘Quarterbacking it’, as Boeing put it with a good analogy that will be meaningless for a majority of Finns.
The RAAF on the other hand has a more hands-on approach, and isn’t afraid to use their Growlers up close and personal. This is aided by the fact that the Growler in essence has all the air-to-air capabilities of a F/A-18F Super Hornet (minus the wingtip AIM-9 Sidewinders), coupled with vastly superior jamming capabilities. While a Growler preferably shouldn’t get involved in the air-to-air fight, it certainly is capable of defending itself.
The Australian connection is interesting. While there are lot of difference between Finland and Australia, there are surprising similarities when looking at the air forces. Both were major operators of the ‘legacy’ Hornet (sorry Boeing, the designation has stuck already), and were the first two (and for a long time, only) export customers of the AGM-158 JASSM which gave their respective fleets a precision deep strike capability. Both also operate in the grey zone of being somewhat non-aligned but enjoying close bilateral relations with the US (though Australia has a significantly more expeditionary approach). This closeness of the respective US-relations is what makes deals such as the JASSM or Growler possible. And if Finland chooses the Super Hornet, there is something very interesting brewing down under.
Recently Boeing made headlines by flying three Growlers simultaneously, with one controlling the other remotely two (they were often referred to as ‘unmanned’ by the press, something that wasn’t strictly true as they had a back-up crew aboard to take control if something would have gone wrong). The news wasn’t that a Growler can be flown remotely, but rather that Boeing had successfully demonstrated that without modifying the cockpit hardware, it is possible to effectively command unmanned wingmen from a Growler or Super Hornet using currently available data links (Link 16 or ATDL). The software part is included on both the Growler and Super Hornet road maps, and is expected to be rolled out sometime during the latter half of the decade (i.e. when Finland is receiving its HX-fighters). The question is then what would you control? Granted you can use the Growler (or a ‘legacy’ Hornet using Link 16, though that is suboptimal due to bandwidth and security concerns), but a smarter way is to use a purpose-built platform. Such as the Loyal Wingman.
The Loyal Wingman is currently being developed in Australia, something that has the added benefit of ensuring it stays ITAR-free. In other words, ensuring that it can be exported through direct commercial sales from Australia without the need to go through the sometimes tiresome US bureaucracy. To a certain extent, the current Loyal Wingman is a solution looking for a problem. It is highly modular, meaning that it can take up a number of payloads. While the system in its first configuration is likely to play the role of ISR platform and/or forward active sensor, it can be armed as well. And importantly, it is built from the ground up to be cheap enough that it is attritable. With a first flight slated for later this year, this isn’t a hypothetical MLU-capability, but rather something that very well might be operational by the time Finland declare FOC for the HX-fleet. Having an unmanned (the plan is for the Loyal Wingman to have the ability to operate independently using AI or to be remotely controlled) ISR-platform with a huge range, 3,700+ km has been mentioned, would be a very interesting option. However, when it comes to HX specifically, Boeing might have outwitted themselves, as the Australian Loyal Wingman can’t be included in the US Foreign Military Sales-package that is being offered for HX. With the relatively low price tag, it is instead found in the “Future capabilities”-column with a detailed description, and treated as a possible arms sale for the time post 2030.
But the Loyal Wingman is just one piece of the puzzle making the Super Hornet-family “networked and survivable”, to use Boeing’s phrasing. The key here is the Advanced Tactical Datalink, or ATDL, that allows for vastly increased amounts of data being sent between the aircrafts (and other friendlies, including ground and ship units). To be able to cope with this increased amount data received, as well as the increased amount of data from the Block III’s own sensors (including the ATFLIR targeting pod and the long-range IRST pod), the aircraft has received the increased processing power of the DTP-N (a “big computer”, as it was described). This in turn makes the creation of a common tactical picture (CTP) possible, which is presented to the pilot on the new wide-angled display that is the most visible part of the Advanced Cockpit System, vastly increasing the situational awareness of the pilots. In essence, what Boeing does is linking together the aircraft to get a clear situational picture even in complex high-treat environments. The new cockpit coupled with the CTP also lower the pilot workload, providing a “huge step up” when it comes to how the information is presented to the crew, and helps avoid overloading the pilot with data.
The rhino in the room is the as yet undefined date when the US Navy will withdraw the Super Hornet from service. Despite the recent news of the death of the Super Hornet being seriously overblown, the fact is that when captain Becker describes the future of the Super Hornet in the Navy, the timeline is two decades plus in US service.
“Regardless of other platforms coming out, F/A-18 will be the cornerstone for many years to come”
That all sounds nice and plausible, probably even slightly conservative considering there are no plans for the F-35C to replace large number of Super Hornets and that the NGAD is still just in the study stage of the program, but the gap from 2040+ to 2060+ is still significant. And the day the US Navy pulls the plug on the Super Hornet the continued development of the aircraft can quickly become prohibitively expensive for Finland. As said, a sunset before the late 2040’s is unlikely, especially given the 500+ aircraft upgrade program that will continue to push out refurbished Block III’s past 2030 and the unique nature of the Growler. However, the last ten years of the HX winner’s service life are uncertain, there is simply no way around it.
This is Boeing’s main weakness in the current offer, and to be fair one they share with much of the rest of the competition (especially Rafale and Gripen, Eurofighter to a somewhat lesser extent). France at least has officially stated that the Rafale will fly in French service into the 2070’s, but on the other hand the value of such promises might not be particularly high if FCAS suddenly encounter cost overruns that need to be covered (on the other hand, if FCAS encounter delays to the in-service date, the Rafale might suddenly have to soldier on longer). Gripen is even more vulnerable than the Rafale and Super Hornet, considering the smaller fleet and that the Swedish Air Force as opposed to AdA or USN is unlikely to run a multi-type fleet for any considerable time. Will Boeing be able to convince the Finnish Air Force that it is a risk worth taking? That is perhaps the biggest hurdle facing the Boeing sales team, and we won’t know the answer for a year. A German decision during 2020 on getting the Super Hornet as a Tornado replacement could easily be a deciding factor, but considering the decision was to have been made before the end of 2018, this could easily slip beyond the HX decision date of Q1 2021. Another key piece missing is the US Navy’s Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment that was expected in January, but has since been postponed. The current one dates to 2016 and is the basis for the (in)famous 355-ship force. The new INFAS could easily change the future of the Super Hornet fleet in one direction or the other.
One area were Boeing on the other hand has an edge is in their industrial cooperation program. The company has already once successfully performed a 3.5 Bn USD offset program in Finland. Though it might not have been quite as happy an affair as Boeing lyrically described it, there’s little doubt that the close cooperation with a number of Finnish companies, including key partners such as Patria and Insta Group, enabled the domestic handling of the Hornet MLU-programs. As such, there’s little doubt that Boeing’s presence on the ground in Finland give the company a serious edge when it comes to the creation of a trustworthy and executable industrial participation program of the same size as what they did last time around. Like most of the competition, Boeing declines to go into details at the moment. However, one interesting detail is that while Saab has already offered a final assembly line of the F414 engine to Finland, Geoff Hanson representing GE Aviation at the Boeing media event would not speculate in whether the F414 line (yes, the Super Hornet and Gripen share engine) would come to Finland in case of a Super Hornet order.
“It’s a bit early to commit to that”
Crucially, Geoff noted that the question of what exactly “final assembly” means is unanswered. There are certainly some assembly steps that relatively easily could be transferred, and which would provide know-how that is useful from a maintenance point of view. On the other hand, major assembly steps requiring check-out and factory acceptance tests is an undertaking of a different scale.
Maria Laine, Vice President International Strategic Partnerships, first entered Boeing during the original Hornet industrial cooperation program. As such, it is no surprise that she emphasised the ability to leverage the existing partnerships stemming from the old program. Finland and Boeing represents a “true, genuine partnership”.
“We understand Finland”
There’s a few other who claim to do so. Boeing might have a better basis for the claim than most, but if that is enough to ensure that Super Hornet will be the aircraft protecting Finnish skies in 2060 remains to be seen. One of the open questions surrounding the US aircraft have been that of mission data. Finland’s requirement is simple: we need to be able to operate the aircraft even if the supply lines are cut. This include both the physical lines of communication, but also data cables. Alain Garcia of Boeing doesn’t shy away from the topic when I bring it up. It is a challenge, he acknowledges, as US government requirements include a requirement for new signals to be processed at a US facility before being inserted into an updated version of the data set. The solution is to embed Finnish personnel at a suitable US facility. Once Finnish (or allied) assets would identify a new signature the data would be supplied to these Finns who would process it, before it would be sent back to Finland. The whole process would result in a turnaround time of less than 24 hours from collecting the raw data until having the updated mission data in the aircraft. As I mention the requirement for cut data cables that colonel Keränen had described at the beginning of the media day, Garcia nods.
“We have methods to get them back into country”
Boeing kindly paid for my hotel stay in Tampere (a single night), all other costs (including travel) being covered by myself. Neither Boeing nor any of their partners have seen, nor requested to see, this text or the illustrations used before posting.
News recently broke from Denmark that the cost of the new light hangars and other infrastructure being added to Skrydstrup Air Force Base in anticipation of the arrival of the first F-35s has almost doubled from 650 million DKK (87 MEUR) to 1.1 billion DKK (150 MEUR). The news itself isn’t quite as dramatic as it looks, part of the changes stems from a change in the decision of where on the base the buildings will be placed, and it actually matches the savings of 443 million DKK (58 MEUR) that the cost of the aircraft themselves have experienced since the acquisition approval in 2016 (part of which is the drop in price of the F-35A, part of which is a more favorable exchange rate), leaving the 20 billion DKK (2.7 billion EUR) total budget largely unaffected. However, it does highlight an often overlooked issue with fighter programs, namely that a new fighter is seldom just able to drop into the slot left by an outgoing aircraft. No two transitions are exactly alike, but it does offer an interesting perspective that in the case of Denmark, infrastructure representing 5% of the value of the fighter package will have to be built, and it is something to keep in mind in February when two different Boeing-built fighters will touch down at Tampere-Pirkkala to take their turn in HX Challenge.
The Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler namely are more or less plug and play when it comes to using the existing Finnish Air Force infrastructure. Granted there are likely some obsolescence issues, general need for modernization, and the simulators will have to be replaced/seriously updated, but in general the Super Hornet can jump right in where the Hornet is currently. Exactly how much that benefit is worth compared to the competitors is unclear, but with all manufacturers having problem squeezing 64 fighters into the 10 Bn Euro budget, that also include these kinds of infrastructure changes, Boeing will have a measurable advantage.
But it doesn’t stop there, as the Super Hornet fleet would be able to utilise many of the weapons currently found in the arsenals of the Finnish Air Force. These include not only the ubiquitous AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM and the somewhat less widely certified AIM-9X, but also the JDAM and JSOW, which aren’t in use by the eurocanards. While the timeline until the retirement of the Hornet is long enough to allow for a bit of planning in arms acquisitions, the savings in weaponry can quickly start adding up, and also ensures that there isn’t a gap in missiles orders but a rolling transition which makes stepped buys of HX-weaponry easier on the budget post-2030. An interesting weapon is the silver bullet AGM-158 JASSM, which reportedly has a shelf-life roughly stretching to the end of the Finnish Hornet-era. As it is safe to assume that any Finnish Super Hornet-fleet would use the JASSM as their long-range strike weapon, this would open up the possibility of a JASSM-overhaul (possibly including some features of the current AGM-158B JASSM-ER model) that likely would be cheaper than acquiring new-built Storm Shadows.
Renders are always an interesting subject, as they provide an indication of what the manufacturer sees as the aircraft’s strong cards. In the render above Boeing has not only included the mid- and low-band NGJ pods (Next-generation jammers) currently undergoing testing and an AGM-88E AARGM anti-radiation missile on the Growler, but the single-seat F/A-18E Super Hornet feature the AARGM as well, in addition to a podded IRST-sensor and a respectable air-to-air load of six AIM-120 AMRAAM and two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. Considering that the Finnish Air Force places an emphasis on the counter air mission, i.e. the “candidate’s capability to perform in combats both with fighters and ground based air defence”, this is a serious combat load for the mission (it might in fact be overtly ambitious as a general load considering the cost of the weapons involved) as it allows the aircraft to not only target enemy aircraft, but to force enemy ground-based radars to either go dark or risk receiving an AARGM-sized hole in their arrays. While the basic F/A-18E isn’t capable of the kind of widespread jamming as the Growler, it does bring more shooters to the SEAD-battle compared to just having a handful of Growlers. For those interested in the lack of external fuel tanks, it should be noted that the aircraft carry conformal fuel tanks, and that this is Finland and not to the USINDOPACOM, so range requirements are rather modest.
In the meantime the Finnish Air Force is building it’s multirole capabilities, which will carry on to the HX. In the clip above from current high-end exercise KAAKKO 19 soldiers of Kymi Jaeger Battalion provide suppressive fire while a JTAC first directs artillery fire onto target, and then directs a live JDAM drop from a Hornet to finish off. While one can discuss the role of the JDAM in contested airspace, the preferred high and fast drop profile isn’t necessarily a great idea if inside enemy SAM coverage, the modern low-density battlefield does provide settings where it could come in handy.
But the low-density battlefield doesn’t just create opportunities for the Air Force to pound enemy ground forces outside of their integrated air defences, it also places high demands on issues such as situational awareness to avoid own losses, both in the air and for the units being supported on the ground. While not the most talked about features of the Block III compared to earlier versions of the Super Hornet, two items brought in with it gives huge improvements in this field: the Distributed Targeting Processor-Networked (DTP-N) and the Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) data link. The short version is that the TTNT gives more bandwidth compared to legacy datalinks, allowing more information to be transferred between aircrafts (and other sensors), while the DTP-N gives the computing power to be able to make sense of this increased data flow by fusing not only data from the aircraft’s own sensors, but from the sensors of other aircraft as well. Together they allow for the creation of a Common Tactical Picture (CTP), ensuring that all aircraft knows what any of them sees.
Now, the CTP could potentially provide the answer to one of the headaches Boeing is likely facing, namely the F/A-18E + F/A-18F + EA-18G mix. The basic fighter in the (approximately) 64 aircraft fleet will be a single-seater, in this case the F/A-18E. In addition, a number of twin-seaters will likely be included to allow for training, in this case the F/A-18F. The Finnish legacy-Hornet fleet was made up of 57 single-seaters and seven twin-seaters, with the Finnish Air Force publicly stating that in hindsight they would have preferred a larger amount of twin-seaters (this led to the unfortunate “frankenfighter”, HN-468). E.g. Saab has solved this by offering a 52 + 12 mix of single- and twin-seaters, noting that twin-seaters offer better performance in a number of missions, including SEAD/DEAD, complex ground-attack scenarios, or with the backseater working as a mission commander.
The headache for Boeing is the fact that the EA-18G already takes up precious slots in the fleet. Looking at the typical carrier aircraft wing, it is likely that something along the lines of eight to twelve Growlers are included in the Finnish offer. Twelve standard twin-seaters would leave an Air Force with only 40 single-seaters, and while the twin-seaters are fully combat capable, there are additional costs associated with them (and with training WSOs/mission commanders). The Growlers in particular, while extremely capable and impressive, come with a premium price tag. The question then is whether the number of Fs could be scaled back? Notably the F-35A is offered only as a single-seater, and with modern fighters being easier to fly compared to legacy aircraft has made it possible to shift all or parts of conversion training to simulators and single-seaters. There is also no particular need for SEAD-configured F/A-18Fs, since that is what the EA-18G Growler is all about. The Finnish Air Force also currently flies the majority of the ground-attack missions, including long-range strike missions, with single-seat F/A-18C Hornets. The idea behind a mission commander is interesting on paper, but considering the generally improved situational awareness presented by wide-angled displays and the CTP, it is questionable if it provides enough of an edge to justify a serious buy of F/A-18Fs. Instead, leaving the mission commander role to either ground control or the senior F/A-18E pilot might very well be the desired outcome. The final ratio will likely be decided only once the wargames are over, but don’t be surprised if the number of F/A-18Fs is on the lower end.