Survivability of a Finnish AEW&C

The news that a Finnish 39E/F Gripen order would include two GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft has lead to varied reactions, some better argued (and more reality-based) than others.

The first thing to address is that the inclusion of additional assets and the claim that they make the fighter better is not proof of a design flaw on the part of the fighter. This is true for Super Hornet and Growler, and it is true for Gripen and GlobalEye. Secondly, the recent fighter competitions the Gripen has lost have mostly been smaller contracts where the 39C has lost out against aircraft such as surplus F-16s. The Swiss decision to disqualify the 39E based on the criteria of evaluation flights this summer is in no way an indicator of how the aircraft will perform in five to ten years when HX is set to achieve IOC. There simply isn’t today a clear evaluation available in open sources that would have been apolitical enough that we can say that we know how a 2030-vintage 39E stack up against Rafale F4, F-35A Block 4, and the rest of the competition. This becomes especially true once the particulars of the Finnish Air Force and the way it operates are taken into account. It should also be remembered that the GlobalEye was included in the offer sent in months ago (and prepared last year), so trying to tie it to recent events isn’t realistic.

The first GlobalEye rolled out. Any Finnish order will be basedon the higher powered Global 6500 as opposed to the 6000. Picture courtesy of Saab

When it comes to AEW&C in general it can be said that any fighter will perform better with support from one compared to without. That hold true even as data links and sensor fusion means that individual fighters get access to significantly better situational awareness. AEW&C provide the possibility of the fighters operating with passive sensors until an opportune moment. The idea that a fighter can work as a mini-AEW, most often associated with the F-35 but by no means unique to it, has some credibility but should not be confused with a real AEW. The reasons are two-fold: size matters, as Saab’s competition has been happy to point out over the years, and the bigger power and bigger array sizes of a dedicated larger platform will translate into better performance (i.e. longer detection ranges). The second reason is the dedicated mission crew (the ‘C’-component of the AEW&C). These enjoy ergonomic working conditions and dedicated tools and training to direct the flow of battle and relay important information to the fighter pilots, who are in a stressed situation and more susceptible to information overload. As a side-note, the spotter/shooter-teaming of fighters, surface ships, and airborne sensors which F-35 (spotter) and US Navy ships (shooter) has been demonstrating is also something that Saab has been studying. My understanding is that no other contry besides the US has yet to actually demonstrate the capability in practice. However, with the choice of Saab’s 9LV combat managment system for all Finnish surface combatants, the combination of Pohjanmaa-class corvettes, Hamina-class FAC, and JAS 39E/F Gripen fighters acting as shooters with a GlobalEye AEW&C acting as the sensor(s) looks tempting.

The question which undoubtedly caused most discussion was that of survivability. While the GlobalEye have some passive sensors, when it is operating it will be transmitting with it’s radar at a relatively high power. AESA radars aren’t as easy to locate as conventional ones, but if a GlobalEye is up in the sky, the enemy will likely know that it is there and have an approximate bearing on it’s location. However, the step from spotting a GlobalEye to actually shooting it down is quite a bit. To begin with the aircraft is equipped with significant EW-capabilities, but most importantly the range of the EriEye-ER radar allows it to sit back quite some way from the action. This has caused some discussion about whether the strategic depth Finland has is enough. The answer is that if Finland has any kind of own fighter presence in the air it should be. To better get a picture of the situation, let’s temporarily forego my principles and draw some circles on a map.

All the normal caveats apply. Circles on a map should never be treated as the objective truth. These are examples of ranges, the eventual detection and weapon distances will depend on a huge number of factors. However, in this particular example I do feel that this aid somewhat in understanding the distances at play.

To our aid we’ll bring in CMANO, which is widely regarded as the best tactical/operational level air and sea warfare simulator available to the general public (enough so that it has a professional edition on offer). Again, the circles aren’t exact because OPSEC and the laws of physics, but they are good enough for our purpose. The scenario used is named Code Name: Red Island, 2016, and feature a Russian amphibious assault on the Åland Islands. That is partly irrelevant, because we will simply use it to look at a few examples of sensor and weapon ranges.

Radar ranges

Here we have a number of ground based surveillance systems. For the Russians the white fat dotted line represents a Kasta 2E2 radar (NATO-designation ‘FLAT FACE’), which is a modern Russian long-range air surveillance system. The wider white dotted line is the S-200 associated 5N87 ‘BACK NET’. Remember that the earth’s curvature will cause significant shadows at longer ranges. The two Finnish Air Force bases are Tampere-Pirkkala and Kupio-Rissala. Note the orange circles designating Finnish SAM-systems, mainly the NASAMS. Note that even in a best case-scenario from the Russian point of view, they have no picture of what’s happening over the Finnish west coast coming from their ground based systems.

Su-35 Vyborg

Here we bring in the fighters. In this case we have a number of Russian Su-35S, featuring the powerful Irbis-E PESA radar. From the Karelian ishmuts the fighters could theoretically spot Finnish fighters taking-off from Pirkkala and Kuopio, roughly corresponding to the 5N87, but as the radars are airborne they offer a better coverage of lower altitudes. However, a key point here is the significantly shorter orange circle, which is the max-range of the R-27 missiles the Su-35 (and other Russian fighters) are armed with.

Hornet ranges

Enter corresponding picture from the Finnish point of view. The white sector is the search area of the legacy-Hornet’s AN/APG-73 radar, with the orange circle representing the max range of the AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM.

A-50U Mainstay

Here we bring in the stand-off sensors. East of Gotland we have a Russian A-50U ‘MAINSTAY’ AEW&C aircraft, flying circles approximately 200 nm south-southwest of Turku. Note the huge search range, with the dotted white circle almost stretching all the way to Vaasa despite the aircraft sitting quite far back. Naturally, if Finland would have an AEW&C sitting over Vaasa, one can easily imagine a similar circle stretching down to Gotland (remember, what you actually see depends on the radar-cross section and EW capabilities of the target).

The other interesting aircraft in the picture above is the C-295 Dragon Shield SIGINT/ELINT aircraft which sits over the Gulf of Bothnia on a southbound course. The passive sensors have picked up the emissions from the Russian squadron which is still quite a bit south of the Åland Islands. As is nicely illustrated, the bearings to the ships can be quite well read from the passive sensors alone, but judging range is significantly harder.

What then, if anything, can be shown by consulting a high-fidelity computer game? The most important point is that while Finland might be narrow, it isn’t indefensibly narrow even from the air. There is still ample of air space left for stand-off sensors before we start intruding on Swedish territory (with that said, having access to Swedish air space would certainly be a plus). It also shows the huge benefit of having an airborne surveillance radar, especially once the radar shadows found at lower altitudes are taken into the picture. It should also be remebered that the Global 6500 has a ‘high-cruise’ of Mach 0.88, which means that if an enemy fighter got through, the GlobalEye would have a decent chance of if not exactly outrunning the enemy, then at least keeping the distance until the fighter needs to head back home. As such, with the current arsenal found on both sides of the border, I believe it is fair to say that the GlobalEye would be rather survivable once in the air (as long as the total collapse of the Finnish Air Force is avoided, but if that happens things are seriously going south in any case). Which brings us to a more important point.

The second GlobalEye coming in for landing. Picture courtesy of Saab

Two is a small number. The current reliability of business jets means that in peacetime it should be enough, but it leaves next to no room for operational losses. While the aircraft are rather defensible once airborne, their high-value means that they need protection while on the ground. A nightmare scenario would see them being taken out in the opening salvo of a war, either by long-distance weapons or special forces. A prime example is the 2012 terror attack on Minhas AFB in Pakistan, which crippled the country’s fleet of four Saab Erieye aircraft, leaving one destroyed and two damaged. Still, even a single GlobalEye would provide extremely valuable service to all three services in case of a conflict, and not having valuable stuff because someone might destroy them isn’t really a workable solution in war. The obvious solution here is closer integration with the Swedish AEW&C fleet, which likely will transfer from ASC 890 to GlobalEye at some point in the medium term, which would give higher redundancy in case either party suffer combat losses.

One last issue which need to be addressed is the possibility of extremely long-range missiles being used to target the aircraft from stand-off ranges. Currently this is a capability that Russia lacks, with the longest range missile in any kind of service, likely IOC, is the K-37M carried by the MiG-31BM long-range interceptor. It is envisioned that this weapon would also be carried by other fighters, but currently this does not seem to be the case. The weapon has a 200 km range from a head-on position ‘against some targets’. This is much more than a R-27, but the actual operational range is likely significantly less than advertised. A newer missile is in development for the Su-57 under the designation Izdeliye 810. The design has apparently beaten the competing K-100 (based on the second stage of the 3M83 missile from the S-300V), and the range will be in excess of 300 km. Passive homing on (fighter) radars will reportedly be a feature in the future. Coupled with the stealth characteristics of the Su-57 allowing the launching aircraft to get closer before it is discovered, this could potentially be a threat. However, considering the issues encountered with the development of the Su-57 and other air-launched weapons the final performance is a major question mark, as is the schedule for when they could enter operational service. China has a corresponding ‘AWACS’-killer in the form of the PL-X project, which was test-fired in November 2016 from a J-16. The weapon reportedly also is in the 300 km class. While further along than the 810, it is unlikely that it will ever make a showing around the Baltic Sea. In any case, very long range missiles won’t change the equation, but rather will alter the numbers involved in a significant but not revolutionary way.

This segways nicely into the most important point: to accurately forecast the impact of developments such as new weapons over the next few decades is difficult, and this is just one aspect that needs to be evaluated. Future-proofing HX for the 2050’s is hard, with key questions such as sensor development versus stealth being extremely difficult to evaluate. However, the GlobalEye (and corresponding systems) are likely to maintain their relevance over the decades. Will a Gripen backed up by a GlobalEye beat an F-35 without AEW&C support? By 2021 we should have the answer.

Advertisements

GlobalEye for HX

Saab stood for the biggest surprise so far in the HX-program, when it announced that the offer does not only include 52 single-seat 39E Gripen and 12 two-seat 39F Gripen, but two GlobalEye airborne early warning and control aircraft as well.

It’s hard to describe exactly how bizarre, and exactly how astute, the move is.

The background is obviously the way that the Finnish Air Force and MoD has written the Request for Quotations. To ensure a tough and fair competition, the quotation only sets the widest of boundaries to the delivered package (64 fighters, 7-10 billion Euros in one-time acquisition costs, annual costs to operate no bigger than current 64 aircraft strong Hornet-fleet), and then goes on to describe the concept of operations and the missions the fighters are expected to perform. This gives the companies free hands to tailor the packages offered when it comes to questions such as versions offered, sensors and weapon packages, and so forth. Apparently, it also leave open the possibility to squeeze in aircrafts other than the fighters as long as the budget allows for it. It is a daring approach from the authorities, but one that now pays off with these kinds of unconventional offers including force multipliers such as EA-18G Growlers in the Boeing package and now GlobalEyes in Saab’s.

GlobalEye AEW&C
The first GlobalEye airborne with temporary Swedish registrations and the Saab logo on the tail. Picture courtesy of Saab AB

The money game is indeed the interesting part. While Gripen is universally regarded as a cheap fighter (mind you, cheap isn’t the same thing as costing little money when it comes to fighters), it is still nothing short of shocking that Saab is able to squeeze in not only two brand new aircraft, but also the whole support structure needed to bring a new aircraft type into service and initiate training of both the flying crew and mission crew. The big question is indeed what it costs to phase in a completely new aircraft type in the Finnish Air Force? The two aircraft themselves will have a price tag measured in hundreds of millions of euros. Saab naturally isn’t sharing their calculations, but assure that this fits inside the HX-budget.

Which also include a “significant arms and sensors package” for the Gripens.

It deserve to be reiterated: it is bizarre that Saab can make a comparable offer with the same number of aircraft as the competition, and still have room for two modern AEW&C aircraft with everything they need.

But things get really strange, or rather, really elegant, once life-cycle costs are being discussed. The idea is namely not only that the GlobalEye will improve the combat effectiveness of the Gripen (and the other services, more on this below), but also that the aircraft will provide a cost-offloading effect on Air Force operations as a whole.

This cost-offloading effect, in other words, it has a positive long-term effect on the life-cycle cost from the operator’s point of view.

Fredrik Follin, GlobalEye Campaign Manager

As the GlobalEye can perform certain peacetime missions more cost effectively than fighters (and other systems it complements), Saab argues it will bring down the life-cycle cost for the Air Force as a whole by reducing the need for HX flight hours (and ensuring that they can be spent more efficiently). Is this actually possible? Considering that Saab has decided to present this possibility to the Air Force both in the preliminary RFI (presumably) and now in the RFQ, they seem rather confident. The Air Force has also likely already given some kind of tacit approval that they will take a serious look at the GlobalEye, as in case they had planned on dismissing the AEW&C out of hand this would likely have been communicated to Saab already and we would not see it in the tender at this relatively late stage.

A really interesting detail which got a somewhat ring to it following yesterday’s announcement is the blog post made by program manager major general (res.) and former Finnish Air Force commander Lauri Puranen earlier this week. Puranen discusses the cost of the project, and strongly reiterates that following the original buy, everything, and he puts further emphasis on everything, and he strongly cautions against trying to estimate any kind of acquisition costs based on publicly available figures.

It may not be credible if the flight hour costs for a modern multirole fighter are lower than those of a Hawk-trainer. In Finland, the cost of a flight hour covers everything from the salary of the Air Force Commander and the upkeep of air bases to maintenance tools and jet fuel.

He also points out that Finland won’t accept any costs at face value, but will calculate life-cycle costs based on a domestic template used, which has been proved to be correct for the current Hornet-fleet. Following Saab’s rather unconventional ideas, the question about how to calculate life-cycle costs suddenly gets renewed attention, and it isn’t difficult to see the text as an attempt at squashing the misconceptions about this topic.

Second GlobalEye
The second GlobalEye for UAE taking off on its maiden flight. Picture courtesy of Saab

What then does the GlobalEye do? In essence it is a Bombardier Global 6000, going for around 40 million USD for the normal business jet version, heavily modified and fitted with a number of sensors and operator stations in place of the normal lavish interior. The single most important sensor of these are the EriEye ER radar in the distinct ski box-installation that has become a trademark of the Swedish radar family.

The history of the EriEye deserves a short mention. Long having been involved in radar technology, Sweden, like most countries, lacked an airborne surveillance system in the 80’s. The few available where mostly large, often four-engined, aircraft with large rotating mushroom-style antennas. The only medium-sized modern aircraft was the E-2 Hawkeye, which had scored some success on the export market (and then ‘modern’ deals with an aircraft that first flew in the 1960’s). The Swedes decided that if they wanted a light airborne AEW platform, they would have to do it themselves, and the first prototype was installed aboard a surplus Metroliner they had used as a transport. This was followed by a number of orders for ever more complex installation, with both Saab 340 and 2000, and later the Embraer EMB-145 acting as platforms depending on the customer was. Of these, the Swedish Air Force operate the Saab 340-based Argus. Notably, Pakistan reportedly used their Saab 2000 EriEye to great effect during the recent clashes that lead to the downing of an Indian MiG-21. The ASC 890 Argus is no stranger to the Finnish Air Force, as it has been used both with and against Finnish Hornets in several bilateral exercises during recent years.

20170524_hamhag01_F21_ACE17_landningar_0251
Swedish Air Force ASC 890 Argus coming in for landing during exercise ACE 17. Source: Hampus Hagstedt/Försvarsmakten

However, over time the EriEye has evolved. Having originally been little more than an a flying air surveillance radar, the GlobalEye is a true ‘joint’-capability, or as Saab likes to describe it: a ‘swing-role surveillance system’. This means that the aircraft is able to keep an eye not only on the air domain, but can perform sea and ground surveillance as well. Here the ErieEye ER is backed up by two secondary sensors, the ventrally-mounted Leonardo Selex ES SeaSpray 7500E AESA maritime surveillance radar with a full 360° field of vision, and the electro-optical sensor in front of it. However, the S-band EriEye ER has some new tricks up it’s sleeve as well, and when asking if it can perform JSTARS-style ground surveillance, I got the answer that the aircraft feature the:

Erieye ER with specific features for ground surveillance.

Make of that what you will, but it seems clear that the aircraft is able to simultaneously create and maintain both air, sea, and ground situational pictures, and share them with friendly forces. It is also able to command these friendly forces, in particular the fighters. This is an extremely valuable force multiplier, both in peace and in war, and something which likely everyone in the Air Force has felt was way out of our price range. The jointness of the HX-program would also be greatly supported by the GlobalEye, as e.g. the Navy’s new missiles have a range far beyond the horizon of the firing ships, creating the need for sensors with longer ranges (and there aren’t too many currently around).

Aren’t there any drawbacks then? Obviously, the biggest of which is the low number. Two is a very small number for a high-value asset such as these. The GlobalEye has a high cruise speed and an extremely long endurance, meaning that two aircraft could theoretically provide even 24/7 surveillance. Still, the loss of even one airframe would halve the force, giving poor redundancy. On the other hand, even one is still significant more than zero… The other question is if Finnish air space is too shallow for an AEW&C aircraft to be used effectively without placing it in undue risk. Here the natural answer is to place the station further back inside Swedish air space, but while it seems an obvious answer now, it might or might not be politically feasible if things turn rough. Does the Air Force want a new aircraft type in it’s inventory is another question? The Global 6000 is a reputable aircraft, and as such can be considered low risk, but it is still a significant undertaking, and not something you usually get thrown in as an extra in a fighter deal.

GlobalEye and Gripen
The sharp end of the Finnish Air Force in 2030? 39E Gripen and GlobalEye. Picture courtesy of Saab

For the first time in the competition, someone has managed to pull an ace that I honestly feel could decide the whole thing (the aforementioned Growler came close, though).

If Saab can show that the calculations surrounding the life-cycle cost really hold true.

If the Finnish Air Force conclude that stealth isn’t a must.

P.s. Gripen really must be dirt-cheap for a modern fighter…