An interesting piece caught my eye this morning, describing how the US Navy is putting JDAM-ER kits on their Quickstrike series of mines. These are in effect naval mines based on the Mk 80-series of general-purpose bombs, and the combination of a modular warhead with a modular guidance and glide kit makes so much sense that the first reaction is why no-one has put the together earlier?
The linked story gives a good primer for the concept, but the too long, didn’t read version is that the Quickstrike mine is dropped by an aircraft, glides tens of kilometres (depending on release altitude) to a pre-set target location, where it sinks to the bottom of the sea and becomes a ‘smart’ bottom mine.
For HX this suddenly opens up interesting possibilities. Mining is traditionally a key interest of the Finnish Navy, as our waters are shallow and the number of usable sea lanes to reach any given port is severely limited by the cluttered archipelago. However, if the enemy enters the area and manages to sweep a sea lane, going in to mine it again is usually not to be recommended. Mining is also a time-consuming task, putting the vessels performing it in danger.
The Quickstrike/JDAM-ER combination offers a solution as it makes it possible to mine from a stand-off distance and to release the whole minefield more or less simultaneously, and with the exact location of the mines already logged. A pair of fighters could easily and in a very short time span shut down a key chokepoint or scatter their load over a more general area to force the enemy to conduct time-consuming sweeping operations.
The obvious platform here is the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. It is already using the JDAM-ER in Australian service, and chances are that the USN will focus any effort to integrate the Quickstrike on it much sooner than they will get around to the F-35C (not to mention how long it would take before the F-35A picks up the load). The ‘Rhino’ has flown impressive JDAM sans suffix loads in Syria, including slugging it out with two 2,000 lbs (900 kg) GBU-31 JDAMs under each wing, or eight of the lighter 1,000 lbs GBU-32. A pair of Super Hornets could likely drop eight heavy or sixteen lighter sea mines in a single mission, and could do so deep behind enemy lines. In fact, this is something of an unique selling point for the ‘Rhino’.
This opens up completely new tactical possibilities, including quickly shutting down a strategic sea lane if an enemy task force seems to be able to avoid Finnish surface units or coastal defences (a scenario becoming increasingly likely as the number of ships decrease). Another possibility is cutting off an enemy amphibious landing by mining the sea lanes used to supply the bridgehead, or even offensively dropping mines in or in the very vicinity of enemy ports and bases.
The best part is the cost. This is largely an off-the-shelf system, with (relatively) cheap components and requiring little specialised training on the part of the flight crews to operate. While I find it unlikely that we will see a true maritime strike capability on the HX anytime soon, this would allow the air force to support the navy and shape the maritime battlefield in a cost effective way. The JDAM-ER guidance kits, mines, and regular Mk 80s could even be bought separately, and combined as appropriate during wartime depending on if the mines are needed or if the weapons are better used in a land-strike role. This does seem to be low-hanging fruit for an interesting and unique joint capability at a low price.
In the HX program full of multi-role fighters, the EA-18G Growler seems like the odd bird out, being a highly specialised electronic warfare platform. However, the first thing to note is that the Growler in fact can do both. “It operates and flies the same [as the F/A-18F Super Hornet], it has the same weapons except the two wingtip AIM-9 Sidewinders” Boeing’s representative explains. “It is a fully multirole platform.”
Flying the front-seat is the same.
But let’s not kid ourselves. While it is nice for a small air force to know that any airframes allocated to the electronic warfare role aren’t automatically taken away from the air superiority mission, no-one will pay the premium the Growler requires to just get another multirole aircraft. But perhaps the first question is why anyone would pay for the Growler in the first place, considering that the other contenders are happy to fly the SEAD mission with multirole fighters equipped with jamming pods.
But while the Growler externally looks like just another F/A-18F with jamming pods, looks can be deceiving. The Growler shares 90% commonality of parts with the baseline F/A-18F Super Hornet, the rest is made up of a fully integrated active/passive electronic warfare suite, based on a pedigree of decades of experience of the electronic attack role. The industrial team behind the Growler include both Raytheon (sensors), Northrop-Grumman (the company behind the EA-6B Prowler), and Boeing themselves (who’s own electronic attack portfolio dates back to the AD-1Q Skyraider), providing a solid background for what soon will be the sole tactical electronic warfare aircraft in the US inventory.
[Growler is] full spectrum. Pods cover part of the spectrum, this covers all of it.
The Growler is far from just a flying SAM-jammer. It gathers data from and analyses all electronic emissions in the area, and then share it via its high-capacity datalink (which as discussed in the last post, is now coming to the basic Super Hornet as well). It’s also able to jam a large number of bandwidths, making it able to perform such diverse missions as denial of communications (jamming enemy military and/or civilian networks), counter-IED patrols, and the traditional SEAD-mission most closely associated with the “E for electronic warfare”-designation. Notably, the disruption of communications is just the kind of joint capability that the Finnish Defence Forces is looking for with HX, allowing the Air Force to directly support the Army (and Navy) by means other than simply sweeping the skies clear of enemy strike aircraft. The sharing of information about enemy emissions in the full electromagnetic spectrum also provides a huge boost to friendly forces when it comes to piecing together the situational picture of the battlefield.
In the SEAD-role the main weapons are the signal-seeking AGM-88 HARM and its newer cousin, the imposing AGM-88E AARGM. The later sport a number of upgrades, including longer range and a wider seeker band, but also GPS/INS navigation and a millimeter wave radar for terminal guidance. This means that even if you switch off your radar after launch, there is a good chance that the missile will find and kill you (or at least your radar).
But it’s not only in the air-to-surface domain that the Growler is an interesting option. While it is less commonly discussed, having a Growler feeding information and disrupting enemy units provides a huge advantage in the air-to-air role as well (“game changing” are the words used by Boeing). While electronic warfare is one of the most secretive fields when it comes to precise capabilities, making it hard to differentiate marketing talk from pure capability, it is notable that the introduction of the F-35C into US Navy does not spell the end for either the Super Hornet or the Growler. Neither aircraft has any set retirement date, and it does seem clear that the F-35C as well will rely on support from the Growler if faced with an high-end scenario. This certainly says something about the level of trust the US Navy places in the aircraft.
Every aircraft require a Growler going into an advanced threat.
The tactical value of having Growlers as part of the Finnish Defence Forces’ inventory would certainly be significant, but is the Growler a realistic alternative for Finland? The short answer is that no one knows for certain (yet), but those in the know seems to think so. Minister of Defence Jussi Niinistö was clear on the HX press conference when answering questions about a split HX-buy that while a two-fighter force wasn’t an option, a Super Hornet/Growler-mix certainly was. The US government also seem to think so, as they readily allowed Boeing to lease two Growlers for the Finnish 100 anniversary air show (it has to be remembered that the Super Hornet-deal would be a government to government one). As this was effectively marketing for HX (with a touch of national security diplomacy), sending the Growler only makes sense if that is part of the product-package. The choice of unit was interesting as well, as the Growler came from VAQ-129, the sole training unit for Growler pilots and WSO’s. In other words, this is the very unit which in just a few years time could be training the first batch of Finnish Growler backseaters.
It largely then comes down to money, and this is an interesting one. The US Navy fact file lists the unit cost of the Growler at a very reasonable 67 million USD (a price tag they haven’t updated since 2011). However, things start to look more opaque once the Australian export order is brought up. The plan was for twelve of the RAAF’s 24 F/A-18F to be brought up to Growler standard for a price tag of 1.5 billion AUD (950 million EUR), or 79 million EUR per aircraft for the upgrade alone. However, that was without the crucial ALQ-99 jamming pods, which for a full set of pods for twelve aircraft would have added a further 1.4 billion AUD (890 million EUR). Furthermore, the currently ongoing 20 year upgrade program for “the EA-18G platform as well as those Fundamental Inputs to Capability [ALQ-99 and associated weapons support and training systems]” has a price tag of 5 to 6 billion AUD (3.2 to 3.8 billion EUR), or over 25 million EUR per aircraft and year until it reaches full operational capability by 2031. A key part of this is replacing the old ALQ-99 jammers with the new Next Generation Jammer (NGJ), a multi-billion dollar program in which Australia is a partner. However, the seemingly outrageous operating price tag isn’t undisputed. Exactly how the cost for the Australian Growler-upgrade will be spent is unsure, e.g. what part is spent on actual new hardware and what part, if any, is spent on what would normally be seen as operating costs. As a counterpoint, some years ago Forbes listed the per flight hour cost for the Growler as being slightly lower than that of the basic F/A-18F (9.2k USD compared to 10.5k USD). Another question which significantly would change Finnish operating costs is how the Finnish cooperation agreement with US Navy would look. As noted, the Growler-crews would likely head over to the states to get part of their training there. But also when it comes to e.g. the jamming pods one possibility is to instead of outright buying them a lend (or lease) might be possible. The bottomline is that it is extremely hard to get a clear picture of what the acquisition and operating cost for the Growler would be, though it is safe to say that introducing this kind of completely new capability would come at an additional cost. What should be remembered is that in the opening buy the Super Hornet will have a significantly smaller transition cost for re-training the whole Finnish Air Force from one fighter to another, meaning that Boeing might have more room to throw in something extra, such as a bunch of kitted-out Growlers.
The number of Growlers in a potential Finnish mix is open, and here Boeing themselves are unable to give a direct answer. The final and best offer will include a mix based on the outcome of the capability scenario simulations which the FDF has set for all fighters to meet. Some of these naturally favour a higher Super Hornet to Growler-ratio, some a smaller one. Based on these the customer will then make a request for how many Growlers would be fit inside the 64 fighter package, or as Boeing puts it:
It is interesting what we have to say, but in some ways also irrelevant.
After something of a slow start, Boeing kicked off their HX-campaign with a bang last year, bringing two Super Hornets to both major Finnish air shows. One of these was the classic VFA-103 ‘Jolly Rogers’ CAG-bird, while the other was from VFA-143 ‘Pukin’ Dogs’ and played the role of Block 3 demonstrator at Seinäjoki air show. This was followed up with a visit to Tampere-Pirkkala AFB where the fighters were shown to the Air Force’s Air Combat Centre.
Since then it has been an eventful year for Boeing’s ‘Rhino’, with the US Navy having signed a contract for 134 new F/A-18E/F Super Hornets over the next few years. These newbuilds will be of the Block 3 standard from the get-go, and will be produced at a production line in the company’s St. Louis factory. At the same time, another 450 fighters will be upgraded during the coming ten years from Block 2 to Block 3 standard, with the work taking place both at a second production line in St. Louis as well as in San Antonio, Texas. Having several scalable production lines is a conscious decision by Boeing, who likes to have some headroom available for added Super Bug-production.
We predict significant international orders. There’s interest from Germany, Poland, India, Spain, Switzerland… Oh, and Canada.
The long-awaited Kuwaiti order was mentioned as a category of its own, and was finalised today, a few weeks after the interview.
While the Rhino is sometimes decried for its lack of success on the export market, it is important to remember the scope of the US Navy orders. While the Eurofighter consortium is rightfully proud of the almost 500 aircraft in service throughout Europe, the recent Block 3 orders means the US Navy alone will outnumber those, with a total of 584 Block 3 Super Hornets to be operated by the service. To this number then comes 36 Australian and now 28 Kuwaiti fighters.
Having the Block 3 finally confirmed and fully funded with the production lines open well past the 2025-mark is significant for Boeing when it comes to HX. The Block 3 will give the aircrafts a 9,000 flight hour airframe, but the big change comes to the combat ability of the aircraft. The new wide-area multifunction display will create what Boeing calls “the most advanced cockpit” currently operational, and the TTNT (Tactical Targeting Network Technology) will make significantly increase the amounts of data transfer possible over the data link. TTNT is an example of what used to be niche technology on the EA-18G Growler being transferred to the baseline Super Hornet. Significantly more processing power is also in the works, which will facilitate a much quicker upgrade cycle going forward. The addition of conformal fuel tanks, the first HX contender to sport CFT’s, will also provide a big boost by allowing the aircraft to go faster with the same fuel load, or alternatively carry more weapons for the same range (a third option which is more interesting from a carrier viewpoint than for Finland is getting even more range out of the aircraft by using both CFT’s and drop tanks).
Something Boeing talks openly about is stealth, though their angle is rather different from that of certain other contenders. The IRST included in the Block 3 is “counter-stealth technology”, while the talk about fifth generation fighters is a “marketing scheme”. The decrease in radar-cross section of the Block 3 compared to Block 2, which has received significant coverage from some, is rather modestly described as “a little bit more coating”.
The HX competition and the Finnish hosts receive high marks. The competition for HX might be fierce, but both the Finnish Defence Forces and the Finnish MoD are “very transparent”. On the whole HX is both “fair”, “well-run”, and “documented in all the right ways”. And going through the HX-ladder of requirements, Boeing is confident that they will pass with flying colours.
We can prove life-cycle costs on mean-time between failures and so forth. Real data, not engineering reference data and assumptions.
Notably, due to the US openness when it comes to budget numbers, the flight hour costs are open information (usual caveat for different operating environments and budgeting methods apply). Hovering around 9,000 USD per flight hour, the cost for the Super Hornets have been lower than that of the aging legacy F/A-18 Hornet in recent years. At the same time, the F-35 and Eurofighter both aims for ‘F-16 like levels’ within the next decade, but neither are there quite yet (the F-35A currently needing a 38% cut in operation and sustainment costs to reach that target).
We want to continue that relationship [with Finnish partners]
One of the real trump cards of Boeing is their current close cooperation with the Finnish authorities as well as with the Finnish industry. Maximising industrial cooperation with Finnish partners might prove to be a challenge for some, but Boeing has already been there. Contrary to normal procedure the MLU2 of the Finnish F/A-18C/D Hornets were performed locally by Patria and not in the states, a point raised by Boeing. Even more importantly, Boeing’s offset responsibilities in conjunction with MLU2 were met either on time or early.
Crucially, by now Boeing understands the Finnish business and administrative culture to an extent unmatched by any of the rivals (with the exception of Saab), having dealt with the customer on a continuous basis for the last two decades. The current sales organisation even include some veterans who were part of the winning team last time around. While the capabilities of the offers will be the determining factor, there is no denying that understanding how to present those capabilities to your customer plays an important role in dealmaking.
From the outset the Finnish Defence Forces have been stating that they are not replacing a multirole fighter (and thus buying a new one), but instead they are replacing the capabilities of it (and thus buying a new one to provide the same capabilities as the old one). This might look like semantics, but was suddenly brought to the forefront when the RFI for weapons and external sensors was sent out.
Short background: the current Finnish Hornet-fleet sport five different weapon types (plus an internal gun). The AIM-9 Sidewinder (in L- and X-versions) provide short-range air-to-air capability, while the AIM-120C provide medium-range air-to-air capability. With the MLU2 air-to-ground weapons have been brought in as well. The JDAM-series of guidance kits are fitted to ordinary 225, 450, and 900 kg bombs (official designations then being GBU-38, GBU-32, and GBU-31 respectively). These use a combination of internal navigation (INS) and GPS to provide accurate hits on the target. The main problem is that hitting moving targets doesn’t really work, which have prompted the creation of other guidance kits sporting laser guidance in combination with INS and/or GPS. These have however not been acquired by Finland. Also, the range is short, and in practice the fighter has to overfly the target. Still, the JDAM is cheap and reliable, and has proved a favourite in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Time will tell if the recent GPS-jamming incidents will cause issues for weapons which rely on GPS for navigation and/or target acquisition.
A solution to getting more range out of a bomb is to fit it with wings, which leads to the AGM-154 JSOW. The JSOW feature folding wings which deploys after launch, letting the weapon glide towards the target. Three different versions are found, of which two hold submunitions (‘cluster bombs’), while the third is a single BROACH-warhead. The BROACH feature a two-stage warhead where a small(ish) shaped charge first blows a hole in the target, which the main warhead the flies through and detonates on the inside of (see this Australian clip of a live-fire test, the slow-motion entry is found at the 0:54 mark). For improved accuracy the AGM-154C with the BROACH feature an infrared seeker for terminal guidance. In Finnish service the JSOW is something of an enigma, with both the number of weapons and version acquired being unclear to me. I had originally thought the JSOW had been acquired in a very limited number for test and evaluation purposes only in case the JASSM wouldn’t be cleared for export, but during Ruska17 it was mentioned as part of the Finnish arsenal. It seems likely that a small number of AGM-154C JSOW are found as a cheaper mid-range solutions for targets which might be too well-defended for a JDAM-run. The big problem with the JSOW is that as it lacks an engine, its range is highly dependent on the speed and height of the aircraft when launched.
The silver bullet in the Finnish airborne arsenal is the AGM-158 JASSM. The JASSM feature a 450 kg penetrating warhead in the form of the WDU-42/B, and is powered by a small jet engine giving it significantly longer range than the JDAM and JSOW. The cruise missile is stealthy, and navigates by combining GPS and INS during flight, before switching on a IR-seeker for terminal guidance. It is a smart weapon even by modern standards, and dives towards the target at different angles depending on the amount of penetration needed (steeper for harder targets such as bunkers). All this also makes the weapon rather expensive, with the DSCA listing the Finnish request for up to 70 weapons at an estimated value of 255 million USD.
These are the capabilities to be replaced: the ability to shoot down enemy aircraft at different ranges, and to strike hard but not necessarily moving targets at all ranges.
It is important to remember that the weapons work already before release, in that any potential attacker has to calculate with the Finnish Air Force being able to launch a strike taking out key installations such as bridges and command bunkers deep behind enemy lines without ever being close to these. The psychological effect of the nagging knowledge that when getting inside a few hundred kilometers of the frontline you are always under threat should not be underestimated.
The press release on the RFI was rather bland, but Jarmo Huhtanen of Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat had an interesting interview with engineering brigadier general Kari Renko. Renko dropped a very interesting comment, which will have huge consequences for the HX-program.
We won’t go down the route of starting to develop the integration of machine and weapon. We’re buying missiles, their documentation, transportation containers, training, and so forth.
He also mentions that the weapons and sensors will account for roughly a tenth of the total budget, i.e. in the neighbourhood of 700 million to 1 billion Euros. A second interview with program manager Lauri Puranen (retired FiAF major general) in Finnish paper Talouselämä takes a slightly different view, putting the total weapon cost at 10-20% of the total value, i.e. 700 million to 2 billion Euros, though he notes that there is no idea in buying the whole stock immediately upon ordering the fighters, as the weapons have limited shelf life (this might explain the difference their estimates). This sounds about right for providing a small stock of short- and medium-ranged air-to-air missiles and a few different air-to-ground weapons. A short mention of DSCA cost estimates for similar weapons from recent years.
It must be said that this is a very Finnish way of making defence acquisitions. Buying just behind the cutting edge, at the (hopefully) sweet spot where the R&D work is done and the true costs are known while still modern enough to be considered high-tech. The package above comes in at 1.08 billion Euros and would be something of a bare minimum (e.g. 64 fighters would get an average of 4.7 AMRAAMS each, meaning that after the first wave was launched there wouldn’t be any reloads to talk about). The Finnish order is also likely to be more air-to-air heavy than the mix above would be.
It also means that if Renko (who have his roots in the Air Force) is to be taken literally, the HX-field will be turned upside down.
The air-to-air part is no problem, all contenders have sufficient missiles integrated. Guided bombs are also found, though in most cases not JDAM’s but rather laser or hybrid laser/GPS/INS-guided ones. It is questionable if the JSOW is actually needed as the Goldilock-solution between a guided bomb and a cruise missile, and if it is a priority to be bought at the beginning of the project. In any case, it is fully integrated on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, while the Rafale feature the AASM ‘Hammer’-series of modular guidance/propulsion kits which include interesting versions that also exist in the middle ground between guided bombs and ‘true’ missiles.
The big dealbreaker is the cruise missile. If Renko means business, that the HX need to have a long-range cruise missile with a serious penetrating warhead ready by the time it reaches full operational capability in the 2029-2031 time span, two of the top-contenders have a problem at their hands.
The Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon both sport the joint-French/English SCALP/Storm Shadow. This is a highly potent weapon in the same class as the JASSM, including a stealthy design, and is combat proven over Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The Rafale already carry the weapon, while the Typhoon is about to get it as part of the P3E upgrade currently underway. As such, both should welcome the news that this is a requirement.
The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet just might get a pass, as it sport the Harpoon-based SLAM-ER with a 360 kg WDU-40/B titanium-reinforced penetrating blast warhead. The SLAM-ER feature many of the same capabilities as the JASSM (though being lighter and shorter-legged), and is the US Navy’s answer to the gap created in their inventory when they dropped out of the JASSM-program. The fighter is also in the process of getting the AGM-158C LRASM, the anti-shipping derivative of the JASSM, which might offer a possibility to fast-track AGM-158A/B integration once complete.
JAS 39C/D Gripen have no long-range ground attack capability. This will be remedied by the upcoming Rb 15F-ER which while developed from the RBS15F anti-ship missile will also have a secondary land-attack capability. However, the weapons main use and roots are shown by the warhead which is a 200 kg blast fragmentation one. Excellent for ships, but despite having delayed fusing options this likely lacks the penetration to be able to take on hardened targets.
The F-35 is the other big question mark, with the JASSM not confirmed for the fighter. It has been cancelled for the Block 4, with one spokeswoman saying they “expect it” in the Block 5 timeframe which “is expected to begin in 2024”. The scope of Block 5 is still undecided, with one aviation journalist describing it’s status as “just a collection of tech that didn’t make the cut for Block 4“. RAF/RN had originally planned for the Storm Shadow to equip their F-35’s, but has since dropped it. As such, the F-35 have no confirmed cruise missile for hardened targets at the moment. The one missile which is confirmed is the JSM, which like the Rb 15F-ER is an anti-ship missile with secondary land-attack capability, and which also feature a 200 kg combined blast and fragmentation warhead. Manufacturing partner Raytheon is happy to call it “the only fifth-generation cruise missile that will be integrated on the F-35”, which is likely more of a marketing line than an indication of the company sitting on information that the JASSM has been cancelled for the F-35.
The answer to the Gripen’s woes would have been the Taurus KEPD 350. The joint Swedish-German missile is carried by German Tornadoes, Spanish EF-18 Hornets, and (soon) South Korean F-15 Eagles. Preliminary flights have been undertaken by the Gripen (and the Eurofighter for Spanish and German needs), but the missile was never integrated on the 39C/D, and it’s future as part of the 39E’s arsenal is still unclear. The Swedish then-government/now-opposition signalled back in 2014 that they “want cruise missiles on the new Gripen”, though it has never been clear whether this means the RBS15F or some heavier land-attack missile. In any case, no firm order for KEPD 350 integration onto the Gripen has been made, and it is difficult to see a Brazilian requirement for it. The KEPD 350 is however actively marketed as an option for the Gripen by Saab.
While Puranen’s cost estimate of the weapon package might be higher than Renko’s, he is of the same opinion when it comes to integration costs.
Our position is that the aircraft suppliers are responsible for the integration of the weapons found in their offers, and that the costs for this are included in the offer.
This leaves Lockheed-Martin and Saab with something of a conundrum. Unless JASSM or another suitable missile is confirmed for integration before 2030 by another paying customer, and unless this confirmation comes before the final offers are made in 2021, the companies will have to include the complete integration costs when calculating their bids to Finland. Obviously the majority of the costs will be funneled back directly to their HX-bid (TANSTAAFL), while the Rafale and the Typhoon will be able to make their offers without this additional cost (or at the very least with a significantly reduced one). It also raises the question which missile they should choose to offer. While there has been much speculation about keeping the JASSM’s, their shelf-life does in fact end about the time the Hornets are withdrawn.
Saab has been marketing a willingness to integrate the JASSM if Finland requests so. However, if they are free to offer the long-range strike option in whichever form they want, doing so by integrating their own Taurus instead of Lockheed-Martin’s JASSM might certainly be tempting, especially as the Taurus offer some unique gimmicks such as the ability to detonate at a specific pre-set floor. Another possible solution which might be tempting for both manufacturers would be to develop penetrating 500-lbs warheads for the JSM and Rb 15F-ER, as this might turn out to be a cheaper solution than integrating a completely new weapon. Still, when it comes to penetrating warheads, mass matters, and it is clear that this would be an inferior solution compared to heavyweights such as the JASSM, Storm Shadow/SCALP, or Taurus.
Carrier-based fighters have traditionally had a hard time keeping up with their land-based counterparts. Carrier operations put greater strains on the aircraft, as the shorter take-off and landing places higher stress on the airframe in general and the landing gear in particular. In the same way, the arrestor and catapult gear adds further weight, while space restrictions usually demand folding wings and other mechanisms to allow it to pass through elevators and occupy a smaller footprint while parked.
However, there are a number of classic designs which have been able to defeat this traditional axiom. These include the F-4 Phantom II (which was produced in a number of non-carrier versions) and the A-4 Skyhawk (one of the few modern carrier-based aircraft small enough to not need wing-folding), and crucially for HX, the F/A-18 Hornet.
The background of the Hornet is well-known, having started it’s life as the YF-17 ‘Cobra’, losing the LWF-competition to the F-16, then being developed further to the F/A-18 for the US Navy VFAX program. Interestingly enough, it was soon clear that F-16 (in early versions) didn’t meet the expectations of all potential customers, and a niche for the twin-engined Hornet could be found. A dedicated land-based version was created in the form of the Northrop F-18L, but in the end it was the baseline carrier-versions which came to score a number of export successes, with seven nations ending up choosing the ‘Bug’ over the competition.
For Finland, in an interesting cross-over of requirement, much of the carrier-specific equipment was actually in line with the requirements placed by the Finnish dispersed operations from road bases. Short runways, rough landings, space restrictions, little support equipment, and limited number of ground crew working on the aircraft are all similarities that make the rugged airframes and landing gears more of a benefit than a nuisance. The end result has been that the Hornet has provided stellar service in Finnish colours, having been able to adapt to Finnish road bases with ease. The use of a carrier-spec hook (not to be confused with the emergency hooks used by land-based fighters) to reduce braking distances has also been a big benefit. Somewhat surprisingly both Dassault and Lockheed-Martin have indicated that they will focus on the baseline Rafale C and F-35A respectively, leaving the Super Hornet the only fighter in the game able to use arrestor wires for breaking on a regular basis.
While all manufacturers have stated that their fighters are able to handle road bases without problems, Super Hornet and the JAS 39E Gripen are the ones with the pedigree to put more credibility behind the claims. Boeing is also the one to have their complete organisation already in place, having established working routines with the Finnish Air Force and local industrial partners as part of current Hornet-operations. When discussing the lack of a visible marketing campaign, this was something drawn upon by Boeing, who explained that they like to work closely with the customer and prove the capabilities of the aircraft directly to them. While this “more doing, less talking” attitude is exactly how any marketing executive would explain a perceived lack of publicity, it should not be ruled out that this actually is what Boeing has been doing, given the close association with Boeing Defence and the Finnish Air Force.
Interestingly, the F/A-18E/F shares around 50-60% of their support and maintenance equipment with the ‘legacy’ Hornets. While part of the equipment currently in use by the Finnish Air Force is likely starting to show their age and will have to be replaced in any case, this does still leave room for significant savings as well as for the possibility of staggering the procurements of maintenance equipment. Not having to buy a complete set of tools on day one is not only nice for the initial buy, but also means that throughout the lifespan of the aircraft instances of massed obsolescences amongst the support equipment should be rarer, smoothing out the operating costs during the life cycle. There’s also no need for major investment in fixed infrastructure (such as electrical systems or air supplies), as all Finnish air bases are equipped for handling the F/A-18C/D. As Boeing’s Bryan Crutchfield put it, “If a Hornet flies there today, a Super Hornet can fly there tomorrow”. This has also been practiced by the US Navy, which during carrier operations on occasion has swapped out Hornet-squadrons for Super Hornet ones at short notice (though granted the US Navy does have maintenance equipment for both ‘legacy’ and Super Hornets on their carriers).
Life-cycle costs are something that Boeing likes to talk about. To win the Finnish order the Super Hornet, like the Hornet before it, would have to defeat lighter fighters which have lower flyaway unit costs. The Super Hornet currently has the lowest cost per flight hour for all US tactical aircraft, including the F-16. While the comparison is somewhat skewed to the benefit of the Super Hornet as the Super Hornet fleet generally is the youngest of the active US fighters (with the exception of the F-35), it is still remarkable for a twin-engined naval fighter to top the list. Add in the savings in infrastructure and maintenance, and the life-cycle cost for a Finnish Super Hornet might be very competitive.
The synergies doesn’t stop there, as there is also a clear benefit when it comes to transferring pilots and ground crew from the F/A-18C/D to the F/A-18E/F. Making current Finnish Air Force personnel dual-qualified could be handled in a matter of weeks, and all training could take place in Finland. This is not only a question of transferring the people serving in 2025 when the first HX-fighters are slated to arrive in Finland, but “the Finnish Air Force will have a two aircraft fleet for a number of years”, as Bryan Crutchfield notes. In practice, the current Hornets and their replacement could serve side-by-side for up to five years, if the Air Force decides to maintain the Hornets until HX reaches full operational capability around 2030. This was also the case with the Hornet, where the first F/A-18D and C were delivered to the Finnish Air Force in 1995 and 1996 respectively, with the Draken finally being withdrawn in 2000 (the MiG-21 having left service two years earlier). As such, the argument about ease of transitioning from the Hornet to Super Hornet deserves more credibility than it has usually received, with the benefits tapering off towards 2030 and not 2025 as usually argued.
Of the eight countries which bought the ‘legacy’ Hornet, two already operate the Super Hornet (USA and Australia), two are likely going to operate it (Kuwait and Canada), with Switzerland, Spain and the minor operator Malaysia not looking like likely Super Hornet buyers. This leaves Finland, and many of the arguments which made us choose the Hornet are still perfectly valid today. However, where the F/A-18C Hornet armed with the AIM-120 AMRAAM was clearly the most advanced of the fighters being offered, the Super Hornet faces stiffer competition from both sides of the Atlantic. Traditionally, the Finnish Defence Forces have been rather conservative, favouring tried and tested systems before the new and unproven. Time will tell if Boeing can convince the Air Force that taking what has been a very successful concept and cranking up the dials to eleven is the best way forward, or if a more radical change is warranted.
One issue that has been open to much speculation is exactly which version(s) of the Super Hornet will be offered to Finland. The answer was simple, with Bryan Crutchfield explaining that it was up to the customer, and: “As a mainly single-seat air force, I would expect Finland to primarily be interested in F/A-18E.” This lead to the natural follow-up question, why the equally mainly single-seat Royal Danish Air Force was offered only the two-seat F/A-18F, a decision which proved to be something of a decisive issue in the Kampfly-program. “Because they only asked for the two-seater,” Bryan explained. On the question of why, he had no direct answer, but this is yet another strange data point in the already rather murky Danish affair.
More interesting then was that Boeing seemed to assume that Finland would be interested in a number of Growlers as well. In the case of the US Navy, roughly 20% of the Super Hornets bought are of the electronic warfare version, meaning that a potential Finnish mix of Super Hornets could be something along the lines of 40 F/A-18E single-seaters, 12 F/A-18F two-seaters, and 12 EA-18G Growlers, for a combined fleet of 64 fighters. When asked about if the ‘full-spec’ Growler is likely to be released for sale to Finland, Crutchfield was careful not to make any promises, noting that any sale would be a government-to-government deal. However, he went on to say that Finland appears to be a “very trusted” partner in Washington, and pointed to JASSM-deal as an indication that if Finland wants the Growler, there likely wouldn’t be any issues.
The Growler in many ways is an unrivalled platform in the electronic warfare role, being able to not only jam and destroy enemy radars and air-defence systems, but also having a significant capability when it comes to intercepting and jamming enemy communications and signals. The latter has made it a valuable resource in the operations against ISIS, and it is safe to assume that if Finland would acquire a handful of dedicated EW-platforms, it would make us a sought after coalition partner in the kind of low-intensity conflicts we have participated in in Afghanistan and Iraq. The question then is largely about the price of acquiring and operating the Growlers, as well as what kind of a loss having only 40 instead of 52 F/A-18E’s would be in the eyes of the Air Force Command. While the size reduction in ‘true’ fighters is significant, the role of the Growlers as force multipliers might provide a huge enough boost for both the Air Force and, crucially, to the ground forces to warrant this. As said, this is not solely a question of providing SEAD, but also of the Growlers being able to increase the fog of war for the enemy at crucial moments.
“Envelop the enemy in the fog of war, sow confusion while providing time and space for one’s own forces. Jam the adversaries’ radars. Disrupt his communications. Induce indecision; make the enemy question his own equipment and make mistakes.”The mission of the Growler as described by the Growler Industry Team
But even without the Growler, the baseline F/A-18E/F is a highly versatile multirole aircraft. “The most capable combat-proven multi-role aircraft”, as Boeing likes to put it (a statement that will upset the French). In addition to ‘normal’ air-to-air and air-to-ground work, the aircraft is able to handle both the maritime strike (Boeing did feature a scale model of a Harpoon anti-ship missile in their stand) as well as SEAD, two missions discussed at length in the Finnish report at the launch of the HX-project. What makes the SEAD-mission possible is the Integrated Defensive Electronic Countermeasures (IDECM)-package, currently in its Block IV state, coupled with the ‘leakage’ of technology developed for the Growler back into the fighter version of the aircraft.
“Physics matter,” Crutchfield sums up the sensor package, and point towards the large nose of the F/A-18E parked behind us during the interview. The nose hoses the AN/APG-79 AESA radar built by Raytheon, and Crutchfield isn’t shy when talking about the capabilities of the radar, stating that it is ‘generations’ in front of the competition, with rolling upgrades being introduced every two years. It should be remembered that the AN/APG-79 did experience some rather significant teething troubles when first introduced into service, though things seems to have gotten better since. One of the key features of the AESA is that it allows the pilot of the F/A-18F to stay fully focused on the air-to-air picture, while the weapon system operator (WSO) in the aft seat works on the air-to-ground view, with both having access to the radar modes they want.
Like the ‘legacy’ Hornet before it, the Super Hornet is qualified for a large number of weapons, including the most recent versions of the venerable AIM-9 Sidewinder, the AGM-88 HARM, and the AIM-120 AMRAAM (these being the AIM-9X, AGM-88E AARGM, and the AIM-120D respectively). On the horizon the SDB-II and the LRASM looms, while more exotic munitions include the Quickstrike-series of air-dropped mines. Which of these would be of interest to the Finnish Air Force is uncertain, but a continued reliance on ever more advanced versions of the AIM-9/-120 combination would be a natural choice for the immediate future. The big deficit is the lack of the very-long range Meteor ramjet-powered missile, which all other HX-contenders are set to have received prior to HX’s IOC date. The US Navy seems content with traditional rocket-powered air-to-air weapons at the moment, and while Finland naturally could pay for Meteor integration on its own, that would still make be a considerable sum. Going for the Super Hornet could then mean having to get closer to the enemy before firing, as there is a significant difference in the size of the no-escape zones of the throttleable ramjet motor compared to traditional rockets.
When first starting to cover the HX-program, I held the JAS 39E Gripen and F-35A Lightning II as the favourites, with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as the potential black horse. Since that, I have questioned the chances of the ‘Super Bug’, mainly based on two different issues.
The first has been the lack of a major road map or upgrade. The first Advanced Super Hornet-concept was displayed already in 2013 with a company-funded prototype. This was then gradually replaced by less ambitious proposals and talk about integrating only some of the features demonstrated by the Advanced Super Hornet. The US Navy, however, didn’t seem too interested in either the 2013 or the 2016 version of the concepts.
The other has been the seemingly low priority given to the Finnish program by Boeing. Compared to the Danish Kampfly-program where Boeing launched a serious marketing effort (and eventually took the whole thing to court), Boeing has been remarkably absent from the public spotlight in Finland.
Both of these changed last week, with the US Navy ordering the Block III-upgrade to the fleet’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers, and Boeing making a high-profile appearance at two Finnish air shows in Helsinki on Friday and Seinäjoki on Saturday and Sunday. Not only did Boeing manage to bring two Super Hornets to Finland, but I also got the opportunity to have a chat with senior manager Bryan Crutchfield to get a better picture of the company’s effort to keep their position as Finland’s supplier of fighter aircraft.
The two fighters brought to Finland were a F/A-18F two-seater and a F/A-18E single-seater. While the single-seater was from the distinguished US Navy squadron VFA-143 Pukin’ Dogs of Vietnam MiG-killer fame, it was the two-seater that really got the heads turning. This was nothing less than the brightly-painted CAG-bird of VFA-103 Jolly Rogers, perhaps the most famous naval fighter aircraft in the world. Getting the opportunity to see both the F/A-18E and the F/A-18F in low-level formation was something many Finnish aviation enthusiasts were happy to experience.
Back on the ground, the F/A-18E spent Saturday as a Boeing demonstrator with temporary markings and mock-up conformal fuel tanks, before reverting back to a Block II F/A-18E for Sunday, and continuing on to Pirkkala AFB (Tampere) where they spent the early part of the week offering the Air Force an opportunity to study the aircraft closer. Pirkkala is home to Satakunta Air Command, responsible for the development of tactics and air doctrines as well as handling flight testing and playing a “pivotal role in the development and fielding of new systems”. This is something of a marketing victory for Boeing, as they are the first to offer the Air Force this kind of a chance to get to explore the aircraft on their home turf and according to their own wishes, guided by the company’s own test pilots.
While the Block III might be toned down when it comes to RCS reduction compared to the original Advanced Super Hornet, this is a calculated decision by Boeing. “The Super Hornet Block I reached initial operational capability back in 2001, when stealth was the hot stuff”, Bryan Crutchfield explains. “This means that the aircraft is designed with stealth features, but so are all the other contenders, so that’s nothing special.” Instead, Boeing likes to focus their energy on other measures, such as jamming. According to their view, jamming provides a flexibility that stealth does not, i.e. you are not restricted to a certain waveband, while at the same time avoiding compromises when it comes to aerodynamics and space restrictions. This means that while stealth might hold significant benefits today, the question whether it will in 2050 is far more uncertain given the current development of sensors with the specific goal of countering X-band stealth.
The US Navy also seems to be happy with this dual-pronged approach, as there are currently no plans to let the F-35 replace the Super Hornet. Instead, the two will keep operating side-by-side into the foreseeable future, with the F-35C replacing the ‘legacy’ F/A-18A through D Hornets currently sharing the carrier decks with the Super Hornet. Exactly how long this will last is anyone’s guess, as the US Navy only forecasts around 25 years into the future (contrary to many other air arms), and there’s currently no retirement date set. Boeing, however, expects the Super Hornet to continue in US Navy service to around 2060, in line with (and then some) the plans for HX. In part this is based on a forecasted need for 100+ new Super Hornets being bought by the Navy within then next five years, with these being expected to serve their full lifespan.
What does Block III then hold? The biggest external change is the conformal fuel tanks, which provide added fuel capacity at a lower drag and RCS compared to traditional external fuel tanks, and without occupying hardpoints that could be used for weapons or other pods. However, as is usually the case with these kinds of upgrades, the main changes are on the inside. One major improvement is the increase in bandwidth when transmitting and receiving data to and from other aircraft. This has become an increasingly important issue, as more and more sensor data and imagery are being transmitted between not only fighters, but other friendly units and installations as well.
Another important upgrade is the fitting of an IRST. IR-sensors are nothing new to US Navy fighters, having featured them on a number of occasions throughout history. However, it is only now they really start to come into their own as mature sensor systems. Part of this is because the sensors themselves have matured, but a part also comes from sensor fusion making it easier for the pilot to take in data not coming from the aircraft’s primary sensor.
And speaking of taking in data, a huge improvement is the new large area display replacing the earlier smaller multi-function displays. The display not only means more surface area on which to show information to the pilot, but also makes a higher degree of customisation possible, based on either individual preferences or the type of mission currently being flown. It is as an example possible to now have both the air-to-air and air-to-ground pictures up on the screen at the same time, thanks to the AN/APG-79 AESA radar and the huge screen area available.
The customisation also makes changes to the human-machine interface quicker, a key focus as the increasing number of sensors and data received from other platforms puts ever increasing demands on the pilots to be able to process large amounts of information. Boeing described how they run simulator tests with a group of around sixty active pilots who came in and tested an upcoming update. After having gathered their feedback, Boeing sent them out for lunch, and the software engineers started to make quick changes which allowed for a second run of testing by the same pilots the very same afternoon. Adaptability is the name of Boeing’s game, and they are increasingly moving away from bigger occasional updates to regular smaller ones.