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.
As usual, there is a number of recent events concerning the fighters involved in the HX-program as well as the program itself.
The Rafale is currently having its F3R standard being evaluated, which will be fully certified during 2018, and last week Dassault got the order for the follow-on F4 standard. The main focus of the F4 will likely be on upgrades to the software, including the SPECTRA EW-suite, as well as a new short/medium-range air-to-air missiles (or possibly new versions of the current MICA). The F4 is slated to fly by 2023.
Saab got an order for an upgraded version of their RBS15 anti-ship missile, the two versions ordered being a ship-mounted RBS15 Mk3+ and an air-launched RBS 15F-ER (including integration onto the JAS 39E Gripen). The weapon is developed in cooperation with Diehl, and according to Saab it features “improved combat range, an upgraded target seeker, and a lower mass compared to the earlier system. It also has an ability to combat a wide spectrum of naval and land-based targets.”.
The Eurofighter is continuing with both the Phase 2 and Phase 3 Enhancement programs in parallels, with the latest milestone having been a series of flight trials with the Brimstone anti-vehicle missile. The Royal Air Force is keen to keep the current schedule, as the Tornado is soon about to bow out. Currently, this seems to hold, which should mean that any capability gaps are avoided.
The Finnish Defence Forces’ Logistics Command sent out a preliminary RFI for weapons and other external stores for the HX. This is to be followed by a ‘proper’ RFI later this summer, The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might first seem. The capabilities of the aircrafts are tied to their weaponry (and external stores), the cost of which also makes up a significant part of the whole project. For a fair comparison of how the fighters will perform in Finnish service, the evaluation need to be performed only with the weapons which are likely to be acquired by the Finnish Air Force. E.g. the Eurofighter feature both the ASRAAM and the IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missiles, but no user has adopted both. In other words, the final cost and capability is highly dependent on which weapon is used in the evaluation. The RFI is also set to investigate the integration cost in the cases where an aircraft doesn’t yet have a suitable weapon integrated.
The Finnish Air Force Command (ILMAVE) has confirmed that the possibility of the HX getting an anti-ship capability is being looked into. This is in line with the recent Finnish defence white paper.
The air show-season, also known as ‘summer’ amongst non-avgeeks, is fast approaching. BAE and Saab have confirmed the presence of the Eurofighter and JAS 39C Gripen respectively flying on both Kaivari and Seinäjoki Air Shows, with Boeing/USN having confirmed that the Super Hornet will come to Kaivari. So far Rafale and F-35 is missing from both, though Lockheed-Martin has promised to show up with some kind of a stand.
The HX-program is moving forward, and several of the programs have seen significant changes, in many cases caused by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s new resident.
F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
Things are looking up for the ‘Rhino’ (or ‘Super Bug’ if you want) for the moment. The Kuwaiti deal is finally looking like it could secure a second export order for the aircraft, and the Canadians seem like they could actually lease or buy a small amount as a stop-gap to cover for the cancelled F-35 buy. This move has been discussed for years, but in the last year it has moved from speculation to government policy.
But the twist that has caused most buzz is without doubt the announcement that the new US leadership has ordered a review of the carrier-based version of the F-35C against the Advanced Super Hornet concept. While I find it unlikely that the ‘all-inclusive’ most advanced form of the Advanced Super Hornet would be ordered, this review will likely provide an updated concept (with price tags) that can be employed for future (more limited) USN updates as well as for export drives such as the HX.
Boeing, somewhat surprisingly, has kept a low profile in Finland. It remains to be seen if this will change with this summer’s air shows.
F-35 Lightning II
The F-35 has been under quite some pressure following the tweets of President (then elect) Trump, who was happy to trash the cost of the program.
The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.
Lockheed Martin quickly recovered their posture (though not their stock price), and explained that they will certainly look into this, and that they have a plan ready to reduce costs further.
Now, it is uncertain to what extent Lockheed Martin and (especially) Trump are honest and to what extent they simply figured out that this theatre is just what they need. It is no secret that the unit price of the F-35 is on a healthy downward trend following the troubled early years of the program. It is also no secret that Lockheed Martin has been pushing for larger block buys, as these would make it possible for the company to achieve higher efficiency in their production lines. This is an excellent opportunity to enlist the support of the White House for the larger block buys, and in the meantime the president can happily boast about getting a better deal by getting the low-rate lots cheaper than his predecessor. Win-win, at least until some troublesome aviation journalists starts looking it…
Let's remember the JPO/Lockheed was already planning to cut about that much in Lot 10, negotiations long pre-date Trump https://t.co/gttoUwWgya
Regardless of the politics behind it, the F-35A is now officially and for the first time below the 100 million USD threshold. This came as part of the LRIP 10 agreement, and Lockheed Martin indeed thought it prudent to credit ‘President Trump’s personal involvement’ with accelerating the negotiations and sharpening Lockheed-Martin’s focus on driving down the price. Despite the recent issues with the landing gear of the F-35C carrier-based version, the F-35A version is moving forward and meeting milestones according to plan, and the above-mentioned F-35C review against the Advanced Super Hornet will likely result in yet another paper explaining the need for stealth and sensor fusion on the modern battlefield. In other words, the mid- to long-term prospects for the F-35 look good, perhaps even slightly better than they did before Trump got involved.
In January BAE (finally) launched their official Finnish Twitter-account, quite some time after BAE Systems Belgium got theirs. On the whole, BAE has significantly heightened their profile, and isn’t the least bit shy about the fact that they thinks the Typhoon would be the best answer to the needs of the Finnish Air Force.
While BAE still hasn’t explained exactly why they think that’s the case, they have been happy to announce that the acquisition could be funded through the UK Export Finance.
What is often forgotten is that the Typhoon does indeed have an impressive service record in the harsh semi-subarctic climate of the South Atlantic, having been responsible for the air cover of the Falkland Islands since 2009. Of note is that while the aircrews assigned to RAF Mount Pleasant have been rotated, the aircrafts haven’t. The original four aircraft maintained a constant 24/7 QRA flight for over five years, before finally being relieved a while back. Honouring the traditions of the Hal Far Fighter Flight based in Malta during World War 2, the Typhoons wear tailcodes matching the names of the Gladiators of the original flight.
Eight months ago I sat and listened to a presentation by a representative of Dassault, who happily explained the value of the fighter and (almost) all of its subsystems being French. I smiled and nodded politely, thinking to myself that while I understand the value of this from a domestic point of view, I am unsure whether this is a plus or minus in the case of HX. My worry was based on the sometimes volatile state of French politics, especially compared to the relatively stable state of US ones.
Let’s just say I have revised that opinion.
While France certainly has their share of pro-Russian politicians of different colours, Donald Trump has very efficiently demonstrated that the political risks associated with buying French is no larger than buying from the US.
Saab JAS 39E Gripen
The first flight of the ‘Dash Eight’ prototype is still some time away. Though this was originally slated for Q4 2016, representatives of Saab are adamant that the program as a whole is still on track, and that the delay is due to moving around different parts of the test and development program.
While this might be true, and not flying for the sake of just flying might be the proper decision from a program point of view, this is still something of a PR-loss for Saab, who has been pushing the “on time and budget” narrative. 2017 will be an important year for Saab’s new fighter.
Seinäjoki International Air Show 2017
Contrary to what usually is the case, the Finnish Aeronautical Association’s air show will receive some competition for the Finnish aviation crowds, in that another major air show will take place in Helsinki the day before. Still, the organisers are clear with that they try to get as many HX-competitors attending as possible, and that they hope to see them “both in the air and on the ground“. Last year the JAS 39C Gripen was flying, with the Eurofighter Typhoon being found on static display. Hopefully this year will bring some new players to the Finnish airspace.
In 1980 Canada declared the F/A-18A Hornet the winner of their New Fighter Aircraft program, which meant it would be brought into service as the CF-18 to replace three different fighters as the country’s sole fast jet. In doing so it beat a number of other fighters, crucially the F-16A. It is important to remember that the F-16 back in those days wasn’t a multirole aircraft, but rather a within visual range fighter with a limited secondary ground attack capability. The F/A-18 with its AIM-7 Sparrow medium-range missiles was arguably the more competent aircraft, and one of the main worries of the Canadian air force was Soviet bombers and cruise missiles swooping down over the Arctic. Canada is also a large and sparsely populated country that include large swaths of land were bailing out does not necessarily mean you’re in for a happy landing. This combination of BVR capability, longer range, and twin-engine safety in the end meant that Canada went with the more expensive option of the F/A-18 over the F-16 (it has to be mentioned that the government did claim that the economic incentives was better for the Hornet, making it cheaper for the Canadian economy. However, these kinds of arguments usually have a tendency to depend upon who’s making the calculations).
Thirteen years after Canada received their first F/A-18’s, the first four Hornets for Finland landed at Tampere-Pirkkala. Finland, though markedly smaller than Canada, had a largely similar set of requirements, including cold-weather capability, twin-engine safety, long-range, and focus on the interceptor role. In the end, both Canada and Finland have been very happy members of the Hornet club, but the end of that era looms at the horizon.
Now the alert reader interrupts, if Finland has to replace its Hornets by 2025 due to their lifespan being up, Canada, having bought theirs ten years earlier, by the same logic should have replaced theirs already?
Yes and no. Finland operated the Hornet up until now as a single-role fighter, have placed a higher focus on traditional dogfighting maneuvers, which are extremely taxing on the airframe. In other words, not all flight hours are created equal, and not all aircraft fly the same amount of yearly hours. Also, the Canadian Hornets have been through a number of upgrade programs. Currently they seem to be looking at another set of programs which will take the aircraft up to and past 2025, not bad considering that the original lifespan was envisioned as 20 years (i.e. up to 2002). Canada also did have the replacement figured out, having been a partner of the F-35/JSF program since its beginning, and is currently a Level 3 Partner, i.e. the ‘normal’ level of partnership (only the UK, the Netherlands, and Italy are ranked higher).
Still, the F-35 has been beset by delays, and the project has been something of a hot potato in Canadian politics. The latest major turn was when Justin Trudeau led the Liberal Party to a victory in the federal elections last year, with the party’s position having been that they will ditch the F-35 and instead launch an open tender for a new fighter (with the F-35 being banned from participating). However, Canada have continued to make the required payments to stay a partner in the program while reviewing how the Hornet should be replaced.
Enter July, and amidst it becoming increasingly clear that there is an urgent need to replace, or at least supplement, the Canadian Hornets, the Canadian government launched what can best be described as a non-binding Request for Information. The aircrafts under consideration are the usual suspects: Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed-Martin F-35 (which is back in the running), and Saab JAS 39 Gripen.
Now, the interesting thing here is the schedule, with the answers to the questionnaire having been requested within three weeks (compare to the eight months allocated for the RFI issued by the Finnish HX). The details are rather sketchy, mainly because the questionnaire is “neither a Call for Tenders nor a Request for Proposals”. The background information provided also emphasises that “no procurement decision has been made“ and that “no summary or final report will be issued following the collection of information from industry”. The schedule for replacing the Hornets is literally given as “as soon as possible”, which ought to make things interesting. The whole thing feels like it is done under extreme time pressure.
Interestingly enough, the flight scenarios in the attached file requires the respondent to use “actual aircraft configuration (utilize systems which are operational with Armed Services today only – non-developmental)”. This requirement pans out very differently. While Saab currently is the only one to sport the Meteor operationally, they only operate the 39C Gripen and not the longer-ranged 39E which would add considerably to their odds when flying intercepts far out over the Arctic. On the other hand, the F-35 is currently only operational in the V/STOL F-35B version, and if the Canadians decide to interpret the requirement literally, this is effectively a way to make certain the F-35 is a non-starter without explicitly writing so. Another problem for the F-35A is the bases used in the scenario. As fellow blogger Doug Allen noted over at Best Fighter 4 Canada, the 6,000 feet runways are too short for comfort. The Typhoon in turn is designed for exactly the scenario described in the evaluation, transiting high and fast to meet an enemy aircraft far out, but is a few years from getting an AESA radar and the Meteor. The Rafale does feature supersonic drop tanks and a potent AESA set, but the repeated requests for “seamless” integration with Five Eyes ISTAR and other tactical and strategic assets might not play to its strengths. The weapons are also uniquely French.
Enter the Super Hornet, which features the AN/APG-79 AESA radar, is seamlessly integrated into the US-Canadian NORAD air defence network, and carries the same munitions and missiles that the ‘legacy’ Hornet does. The last part is explicitly asked for in the questionnaire, something which is not the case in any documents regarding the HX which are openly available. The Super Hornet manufacturing line is also struggling with having too few aircraft to produce each year, so quickly ramping up to supply the RCAF with a limited number of stop-gap aircraft would be *relatively* easy. Boeing also has an established partnership with the Canadian defence forces and aviation industry. All in all, the stage seems set for Boeing’s fighter, and Canada is indeed one of the countries for which stealth isn’t necessarily a big deal, at least not for their homeland defence/NORAD contribution. Noteworthy is also that the questionnaire does mention cost for 100 pilots being trained, which would imply that the information could serve as a base for the complete Hornet replacement program (though one should remember that there isn’t a procurement decision for anything as of yet).
Another possibility is that, despite his continued official anti-F-35 view, Trudeau is trying to set the stage for a F-35 purchase, by creating the foundations for a competition, which the F-35 then can sweep clean (compare to Kampfly in Denmark). For Canada, a mix of Super Hornets (or Typhoons) for NORAD duties combined with F-35A’s for expeditionary work under NATO and UN commitments might actually be the ideal solution. Only time will tell if this will be the final outcome.
A big thanks to Karl Rieder for the link to the Canadian source material! Do follow him on Twitter if you don’t already.
Next weekend will see this year’s main air show in Finland. This will see a lot of focus on the HX, with the different manufacturers trying to sell in why their aircraft is the best fit for Finland in particular. In anticipation of the posts which no doubt will come out of that, a short recap of the recent developments that have taken place is in order.
As noted earlier, the Danish Kampfly-program was won by the F-35A in a spectacular fashion, with the fighter beating its contenders on all points, something which Boeing and Airbus haven’t taken lightly. A number of clarifications have been made by to questions asked by Boeing, and Airbus issued a very interesting request for clarifications (PDF) with 43 numbered quotes and questions, dealing with issues ranging from risk assessment, fixed price offers, evaluated aircraft standards, and even down to questioning if the competition really met all requirements. However, yesterday (9 June 2016) news broke that the Danish government has secured a broad enough coalition to push through the F-35 deal through parliament, and the deal seems set (for now at least). The eventual buy will include 27 to 21 fighters.
The everlasting story of the French fighter’s big push to India is ever evolving. With the original MRCA-contract scrapped, the smaller (but still considerable) 36 aircraft order has proved to be an equally lengthy process, and despite reports in early April of a signing ‘within three weeks’, the deal is still open.
For the fighter program as a whole, much focus is on the update to the next F-3R standard, which is slated for service entry in early 2019 and qualifications the year before. The new standard will amongst other things see integration of the long-range Meteor air-to-air missile, but also an assorted range of improvements to the sensors and avionics, as well as the new Thales PDL-NG targeting pod.
Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
The ‘Rhino’ continues to be pushed for a number of export contracts, the most promising perhaps of which currently is Canada. The Canadians are realising that pushing back the time scale for their CF-188 Hornet replacement will make it hard to sustain a viable fleet of fighter aircraft in the meantime (the Canadian Hornets are of the older F/A-18A/B versions compared to those operated by Finland), and a small number of Super Hornets is now marketed as the logical stop-gap replacement until the ‘proper’ replacement has been determined. This would be very much along the same lines as how the Royal Australian Air Force reasoned when they brought in the Super Hornet in anticipation of the coming F-35A which they also have on order.
For the US Navy, Boeing is again actively pushing for an Advanced Super Hornet, though in a slightly scaled back (‘matured’, in the words of Boeing’s marketing department) configuration compared to the initial prospects put forward three years ago. The concept include a number of different enhancements, with some (e.g. conformal fuel-tanks) being rather low cost and low risk, while others (e.g. an enhanced engine) being much more complex. At least a number of these, if not all, will probably be offered for HX, regardless of whether the US adopts them or not.
The Kuwaiti export order still seems to be on track, but hampered by slow bureaucracy in the US, while the Super Hornet is also trying to push for contracts in Asia, crucially under the Make in India-initiative as well as for Malaysia.
The Eurofigther is coming to Kuopio, and with two British and two German aircraft, the fighter returns to the Finnish skies in style. This is only its second appearance in Finland, and quite possibly a sign of increased interest by BAE (which is the manufacturer responsible for marketing it to HX, unlike Kampfly where Airbus held the reins) towards the Finnish contract.
For Eurofighter, their Kuwaiti export deal has been successfully signed, and the 8 billion Euro deal is to include not only 28 fighters, but also significant infrastructure investments. The later makes the aircrafts’ cost hard to judge, a point which traditionally has been one of the weaker for the Eurofighter. Of interest is that the Kuwaiti air force has opted for the new E-Scan radar, which finally provides a launch customer for an AESA-equipped Eurofighter. Having secured deliveries of this new configuration should prove a boost for the fighter in future competitions, including HX.
Saab JAS 39E Gripen
Saab has finally rolled out the first Gripen in what is the full 39E-configuration, and is continuing to aggressively market the fighter, with Finland being one of the more important deals currently up for grabs. One of the more memorable statements of the roll-out was when Deputy Managing Director of Saab International Finland Oy, Anders Gardberg, in an interview pounced on the notion that stealth equals invisibility.
“The hype should start to fade away by now.”
The program is largely moving on according to the plans discussed earlier here on the blog, with the 39C now flying with the Meteor long-range missile in Swedish service, this making it the first fighter to employ the weapon operationally.
The F-35 is moving along more or less according to plans, with the upcoming USAF F-35A initial operational capability being the next big milestone. The software being used for this has been switched from the ‘final’ Block 3F to the Block 3IR6, which is described as being ‘only 89% of the [Block 3F] full warfighting code’. Still, the 3IR6 allows for carrying both air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, although the full weapons integration (amongst a few other things) is still someway off. In light of the criticism directed against the standards, or rather lack thereof, employed by the USMC when declaring the F-35B IOC last summer, the air force seems set on making sure that the airplane really does provide operational capabilities when the IOC is announced, something which should happen later this year, with the Joint Program Office aiming for August.
In the meantime the first Dutch F-35A’s have arrived in the Netherlands for a series of noise level tests, as well as the first public display of the aircraft on this side of the Atlantic. The real big bang in this sense will come at Farnborough, with up to five F-35A and B taking part in both flying and static displays.
Boeing and Lockheed-Martin have, unsurprisingly, decided not to offer their older F-15E Strike Eagle and F-16V Viper.
The HX program office will also accept responses including mixes of unmanned platforms and fighters. While several of the companies involved in the HX does have some plans or even flying technology demonstrators in this field, it seems unlikely that their level of maturity would be sufficient to play a large role in the tender. However, some kind of ‘fitted for but not with’-capability allowing for the inclusion of unmanned systems at a later date might be plausible.
Denmark, having been one of the original European partner nations of the F-16 program and having operated a shrinking fleet of F-16’s ever since, is facing roughly the same issue as Finland, with a US teen-series fighter nearing the end of it life. To remedy this, the Danish launched the Kampfly-program (literally “Fighter aircraft”), with the aim of finding a suitable replacement. Now, what is interesting is that the Danish did this despite already being a F-35 tier 3 partner nation. The idea was that a fair and relatively open competition, not unlike the HX-program, would show which fighter was the right choice for replacing the Danish F-16AM/BM mix, and if this wasn’t the F-35A, the Danish would withdraw from the program.
Few people believed that would ever be the case.
In fact, so few people believed in it, that of the F-35’s four main competitors, two, Dassault with the Rafale and Saab with the Gripen E, decided to withdraw from the competition at an early stage. When asked about the issue during the HX Gripen-presentation in February, Saab avoided calling the competition unfair or predetermined, but noted that “one has to focus attention on where one’s chances of winning are the best”. This left the Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet in the running against the F-35A Lightning II.
Especially Boeing went all-in, including launching a serious marketing campaign promoting itself as the low-risk high-tech solution, an argument being especially useful in Denmark, which a few years back was the site of a disastrous attempt at introducing a new and unproven high-speed train. After a series of technical issues, both the price and delivery schedules were seriously derailed, and the affair took on a slightly absurd twist when a complete train set went missing before delivery, only to turn up on satellite images of the outskirts of Tripoli! The whole affair also became something of a political issue.
Examples of adverts directly referencing the IC4-debacle. Note that these are for illustrative purposes only, and I have not received any compensation for featuring them on the blog.
During the recent weeks, the outcome (and part of the selection criteria) have slowly been leaking out, and unsurprisingly the F-35A was declared the winner in more or less all categories, with the Eurofighter Typhoon scoring low points throughout. The choice is justified in an open report, which include an abstract also available in English. The abstract covers the description of the criteria, the deciding panel, source material (but no individual notes confirming which sources were used where), and the points scored on different criteria. Still, the information given on why a certain fighter scored a certain point value doesn’t feel exhaustive.
The lack of transparency in the Danish report makes it hard to judge the fairness of the competition. However, there are a number of issues that cast a shadow on the process. One is that the Super Hornet is evaluated only in the two-seat F/A-18F configuration. It is unclear whether this is a request on the part of Boeing or not, however, it places the Super Hornet at a drawback, as the report correctly notes that maintaining two persons proficient for each aircraft will increase the total amount of flight hours needed, without apparently accounting for the added flexibility of having a dedicated weapons and sensor operator in the back seat.
The real strange part is the table of projected life-cycle costs. This is of particular interest, as it is one of the few places were solid numbers are provided. The Danish life-cycle costs is calculated based on procurement costs, sustainment costs (i.e. actually operating the aircrafts bought), as well as an overhead titled ‘Risk’. The last one is described as ‘quantifiable risks over a period of 30 years’, but the interesting part is that despite the Super Hornet being ranked highest in the earlier military ‘non-quantifiable risk’-subcategory, when risk is quantified and getting a price tag the tables are turned and the Super Hornet scores a markedly higher price tag than the F-35A. This is mainly blamed on the risk associated with the DKK-USD exchange rate. The report notes that as the F-35A is designed for a service life span of 8,000 flight hours compared to 6,000 flight hours for the other two, only 28 F-35A’s are needed to perform the same missions as 34 Eurofighters and 38 Super Hornets respectively over a 30 year time span.
This is an extreme oversimplification.
Using this model does not take into account e.g. the fact that fewer airframes in total leads to fewer available airframes, as there will at any given time be a number of aircrafts undergoing maintenance, repairs, or upgrades. That you are flying fewer aircraft harder usually doesn’t add up to having a higher availability rate either, but on the contrary might even lead to a shorter mean-time between failures, further putting added strain on a small fleet. It is also hard to quantify whether a smaller number of more capable aircraft will be able to provide the same overall capability as a slightly higher number of less capable aircraft. Strength in numbers, and so forth. The idea that you will only need a certain number of flight hours, as opposed to aircraft, add to the feeling that an all-out war is not on the agenda in Copenhagen.
However, the lifetime given for the airframes are also controversial. Both Boeing and Eurofighter have also protested the choice of 6,000 flight hours. Boeing notes that the number refers to taxing carrier-based operations, with the aircraft easily being able to reach 9,500 flight hours during landbased operations, while Eurofighter states that their aircraft can reach 8,300 flight hours in the kind of operations envisioned by Denmark. It is entirely possible that they are correct, as how demanding a flight hour is varies greatly with factors such as height, loadout, and g-forces (something which Finnish Hawks and Hornets have demonstrated, when the high proportion of air combat maneuvering in the Finnish flight schedule have caused structural problems even at relatively low flight hours).
Also, no mention is made of the service life extension program (SLEP) launched by Boeing and the US Navy, aimed at lengthening the service life of their Super Hornets up from the original 6,000 hours. The exact scope of the program is still unclear, but as a point of reference the US Marine Corps’ F/A-18C/D legacy Hornets are already looking at 10,000 flight hours through a similar SLEP-program.
Ironically, the need for these extensions have arisen due to delays in the F-35 program.
The eventual unit price for a series-produced F-35A is one of the most hotly debated topics in defence aviation today, and the issue has featured on the blog as well. Suffice to say, the Danish report uses 83.6 million USD per aircraft, being 10 million USD over the unit flyaway cost predicted by manufacturer Lockheed-Martin,while the ptice today is a tad over 100 million USD (though this is sinking rapidly). For the Super Hornet, the price is 124 million USD, which is 14-17 million USD over both the quoted cost for the current deliveries to the US Navy and, more importantly, the export deal to Kuwait (110 and ~107 million USD respectively). For the Eurofighter, there isn’t much to say. The heavy twin-engined fighter is expensive, both to acquire and operate, and its main selling point will always be its brute force, advanced sensors, and, most importantly, impressive room for growth. However, the report also gives it the highest ‘Risk-cost’, which is surprising given that the aircraft has an impressive track record in the service of multiple air forces for well over a decade, including combat deployments. The price set for the Eurofighter is 126 million USD per aircraft, which matches nicely with the average price tag of 124.9 million USD per aircraft that the British RAF has paid for their aircraft. However, this does not take into account the fact that for the Eurofighter as well, the price has continuously come down, and BAE has been quoted as saying they are now producing the aircraft for 20% less than they used to.
The fact that all aircraft are priced over the current, or in the case of the F-35A, projected, unit flyaway cost, is likely due to the acquisition topic also covering associated costs such as supporting material, simulators, and so forth. The unit flyaway costs given by the manufacturers have been censored from the open version of the report.
For the other categories, much less concrete information is given. For strategic aspects, the F-35 outscore the other candidates as the “broad scope of […] users will foster both Denmark’s transatlantic ties and the country’s collaborative relations with a range of European partners.” The Eurofighter score some points for opening up the possibility of cooperating with a number of European partners as well, with Germany standing out. The Super Hornet benefits from the transatlantic aspect, but defence and security cooperation with Kuwait and Australia is not high on the Danish agenda.
This is probably the most truthful part of the evaluation, and it is hard to argue against it. The big question is how important this aspect of an arms deal is, something we will get back to later.
The military category is made up of the areas of survivability, mission effectiveness, future development potential, and the earlier mentioned (non-quantifiable) candidate risk. These have been scored based on a number of evaluation missions, which haven’t been released to the public. However, they have been leaked, and described as “probably the closest thing to a ‘smoking gun’” we are likely to see, referring to the suspicion that the program has been tuned to suit the F-35. Of the six missions, four are against well-equipped and relatively modern adversaries, featuring strong air-defence assets and/or modern fighters, with the sixth being a deployment to the Greenland (which curiously enough currently isn’t home to any Danish fighters as part of the Danish decision to not further ‘militarise’ the Arctic). Perhaps the thoughest scenario is the defensive counter air setup against ten Su-30MK and MiG-29SMT escorting four Su-24’s and a single 3M14 Kalibr cruise missile (SS-N-30A), the fighters all having jammer pods, with the whole package being supported by an additional two Su-30MK operating as jammer aircraft (while still holding a serious air-to-air load) and a Beriev A-50 airborne early warning aircraft.
An interesting details is that for the air interdiction mission, the report indicates that F-16AM would have the same (low) chance of survival as the Eurofighter and Super Hornet!
It can be argued that the evaluation should be benchmarked against the most demanding mission the aircrafts are expected to fly. However, it is a rather strange notion that the Danish fighters would be expected to penetrate advanced enemy defences without the support of other NATO-allies, especially as the prospects of strategic cooperation is scored as a category of its own. All in all, it does seem that there is a tilt towards the high-end spectrum of missions which doesn’t match the mission scope set out in the beginning of the Danish version of the report.
The F-35 also wins the Industrial aspects-category, despite the fact that there is a “particular element of uncertainty associated with the fact that the Joint Strike Fighter will not be subject to an industrial cooperation requirement”, and that the realization of the industrial initiatives are “conditioned upon the ability of the Danish defence industry to win contracts in accordance with the ‘best-value’ principle”.
The tragicomic thing is that the F-35A might very well be the best fit for the Danish fighter requirement, either based on military aspects alone or thanks to the strategic impact the choice has. A sensible case can also be made for joining the F-35 program at an early stage, trading risk-management for being able to influence the program from the get-go. However, the lack of transparency unfortunately make it seem like the Danish officials had settled on the F-35A before the evaluation, but weren’t ready to defend this decision. Instead, launching the “fair and open competition”, which was in fact anything but.
This also means that in the same way as the two runner-ups, the F-35 didn’t get a chance to prove itself. Instead, it will probably go down in history as a very potent fighter, but one that landed in Denmark due to events that weren’t quite fit to see the daylight. One can only hope that the Finnish HX-competition will not follow this unfortunate example, but instead continue with the transparent and well-argued information sharing culture adopted so far.