HX Challenge pt. 5: Bigger, Better, Stronger

“I prefer to have two engines over just one.” Yes dear readers, even in the 21st century, the single- versus twin-engined debate isn’t dead. Sorry Pratt & Whitney, but once that one engine catches a flock of birds (or a 30 mm round) down in the weeds, having two is an advantage. How much of an advantage is an open question, and one for the HX-team to ponder upon. Let’s just note that while the Finnish Air Force hasn’t lost any Hornets to birdstrikes, it has lost a Hawk.

However, that wasn’t Boeing’s main selling point when they held their media event as part of HX Challenge this week. Instead, it was about a total package. The Super Hornet as the most versatile and reliable multirole fighter available, offering the greatest suitability to the Finnish concept of operations (read: dispersed operations), having a proven track record as a reliable partner when it comes to customer support and industrial offset, and with the EA-18G Growler bringing unique capabilities to the fight. In essence, Boeings pitch isn’t necessarily that the Super Hornet is miles in front of the competition in any particular field, but rather that the package as a whole will offer the flexibility and cost-to-benefit ratio needed to win the deal.

Family picture
Boeing brought all three aircraft on offer to HX Challenge, starting with the F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets closer to the camera, and the EA-18G Growler towards the rear. Source: Own picture

There is much to be said for that approach. The Finnish Air Force is very happy with the legacy Hornet (or ‘Classic’, as Boeing likes to call it), and the transition to Super Hornet makes sense in many ways. The carrier pedigree is still valuable in many ways besides the obvious short take-off and landing distances. The US Navy carrier air wing is in fact a good analogy for the Finnish Air Force. You find yourself in a taxing environment, having roughly fifty to sixty fighters and whatever spares and stocks you’ve brought with you. You might or might not be fighting alongside allied assets, so you need to be able to both go alone and have the interoperability to link up with friends. Hence the need for high rates of readiness, quick turnaround times, high sortie generation, as well as the ability to keep operating with a minimal amount of support equipment and a small logistical footprint.

“The most proven and affordable multirole platform out there”

That’s how Jennifer Tebo, Director of Development for both the Super Hornet and the Growler programs, opened her presentation. This was a sentiment echoed throughout the presentation, and Boeing was keen to point out that they don’t have to project operating costs or look at trends in cost-saving programs — they know what the aircraft cost to operate. “Particularly suite for Finland” was another phrase used. For a cost-conscious customer, this is something that will earn them a few points extra in the evaluation. Another thing is the cost-savings Boeing experiences during the phasing in of the aircraft. While the final checks of current infrastructure hasn’t been made yet, they are due for next week, Boeing estimate up to 60 % of current infrastructure, including both facilities, maintenance equipment, ground support, and dispersed bases, can be used with the Super Hornet (the remaining percentage also include equipment that can be either refurbished or replaced, depending on the Air Force’s view). Considering the large amount of support equipment needed due to the dispersed operations, this might easily turn into a significant saving. The Super Hornet can also continue to carry the weapons currently found in the Finnish arsenal, with some added tricks up it’s sleeve. The aircraft is fitted for tactical aerial refuelling, and it is easily to imagine a scenario during fluid dispersed operations where the fuel isn’t in the correct place relative to the fighters. At such a time, having a Super Hornet configured for tanker duty linking up somewhere can save valuable time. In peacetime, being able to practice air-to-air refuelling without a tanker having to fly in from RAF Mildenhall will also significantly ease training routines.

One thing that was touched upon in the weapons department was the fact that the Super Hornet is the only HX contender not slated for Meteor integration. “There’s an opportunity for an advanced air-to-air missile within our offer to adress that need,” was the line we were given. While obviously not confirmed by Boeing, initial deliveries sporting the AIM-120D AMRAAM and later buys of AIM-260 once that comes online is the most likely scenario here.

Finally, the transition time would be easier and faster. Captain Brian Becker, commodore of US Navy’s Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, noted that a six month transition period was enough to switch Hornet squadrons to Super Hornets. It should be pointed out that this is for the squadron as a whole, and includes not only teaching the pilots to fly the aircraft, but also transitioning the support personnel, changing out equipment, and getting everyone up to speed on the new aircraft to the level that it is a functioning unit able to perform operational missions. The sentiment was echoed by colonel Aki Heikkinen, commander of Satakunta Air Wing, who noted transitioning a pilot was largely a matter of hours rather than weeks if strictly talking about flying the aircraft safely (colonel Heikkinen also shot down the idea that some of the contenders would struggle with landing or taking off from road bases. “We’ve flown Draken from them”, he said, alluding to the Saab-built interceptor that the Hornet replaced in Finnish service). It should be remembered that the 10 Bn Euro budget isn’t available as such to the fighter manufacturer, but parts of it will also finance the reconstruction of air bases as well as part of the everyday operations of the aircraft during the first five years (as the Hornet operations are using the Air Forces’ normal budget until their retirement). As such, Boeing has a crucial advantage when it comes to saving money on these indirect costs, money that can be used to include one of the premier force multipliers of the fighter world in their bid.

Tebo
Jennifer Tebo, Director of Development for F/A-18 and EA-18G, ascertains that the Super Hornet production line is “alive and well” with an “active and healthy supply chain”. Source: Own picture

The EA-18G Growler is a serious asset to any operator. The Growler is in essence a combination of a SIGINT-platform gathering data from anything that is emitting, as well as a jamming platform blocking any system from emitting anything useful, be it communications or radars. While stealth platforms currently does a nice job of denying the enemy the ability to close the kill chain by making it hard to get a fire-control solution on the radar, the Growler has the ability to take it further by jamming the electronic spectrum from the VHF-band to the Ku-band, denying the enemy all parts of the chain (early warning, acquisition, and fire control radar bands). If need be, the Growler can also take out the transmitting radars by employing the latest AGM-88E AARGM-missile, or just feed the information to the nearest Super Hornet slinging a suitable weapon to form a classic hunter-killer team.

All this means that the Growler is a highly appreciated asset, and not just by the US Navy. In fact, the USAF is funding part of the Growler-force, that include five expeditionary squadrons. It is not unusual to find Growlers assisting some of the Air Forces’ stealthiest platforms with both situational awareness and jamming. The Growler is growing with the Super Hornet, with both aircraft introducing technologies that filter over to the other. But while the aircraft maintain 90% commonality with each other, it is the remaining 10% that makes the Growler really venomous. The wingtip ALQ-218 RF Receivers, perhaps the most obvious external recognising feature, are described as “extremely good” and tell the pilot not only what is out there, but also where it is. The crew can then decide what to do with that information, whether to engage with weapons, avoid, or jam.

Alain Garcia
Alain Garcia is Capture Team Lead for Finland and Switzerland, and like many of Boeing’s people involved in the Super Hornet program he has a background flying the aircraft. He also has a cool jacket, and really like the ALQ-218 RF Receiver System. Source: Own picture

A key part of the jamming system is the two large ALQ-249 Next Generation Jammers (NGJ) for the mid-band. These are amongst the most advanced US electronic warfare capabilities, and just the fact that they have been released for export to Finland even before the US Navy has accepted them into operational use tells something about the US-Finnish bilateral relation. Ernie Winston from Raytheon, the developer and manufacturer of the pods, was happy to confirm that the development program is moving forward according to plan, and that the first pre-production batches are expected to join the program this year, which also will see the first mission system flight testing. The first series production deliveries will take place in 2022.

What exactly makes the NGJ different from the current generation then? A lot, as it turns out. The big thing is that it is capable of hitting numerous targets simultaneously, thanks to AESA features and “extremely high power”. To counter modern radars, it is also able to switch modes very quickly. The pod is designed from the bottom up to be modular and easily upgradable. Winston describe the system as providing “transformative electronic attack capability”, while the more modest HX-programme manager colonel Keränen just noted that the Growler represents a capability currently not found in the Finnish Air Force

NGJ
The NGJ mock-up together with an AGM-88E AARGM anti-radiation missile (i.e. it locks onto a radar and flies into it) under the wing of the EA-18G Growler taking part in HX Challenge. The capabilities of the NGJ will be evaluated in the US, due to the sensitive nature of the capability and the need for a large testing range. Source: Own picture

The versatility of the Growler also means that they can be used in a number of different ways. The US Navy likes to use the superior intelligence gathering and presence of a backseater to allow the aircraft to stand back a bit from the fight (the high power of it’s  jammers ensure that it can perform stand-off as well as stand-in jamming), sharing it’s tactical picture with the rest of the flight and having the Growler’s WSO (backseater) play the role of a mission commander, directing the fight. ‘Quarterbacking it’, as Boeing put it with a good analogy that will be meaningless for a majority of Finns.

The RAAF on the other hand has a more hands-on approach, and isn’t afraid to use their Growlers up close and personal. This is aided by the fact that the Growler in essence has all the air-to-air capabilities of a F/A-18F Super Hornet (minus the wingtip AIM-9 Sidewinders), coupled with vastly superior jamming capabilities. While a Growler preferably shouldn’t get involved in the air-to-air fight, it certainly is capable of defending itself.

The Australian connection is interesting. While there are lot of difference between Finland and Australia, there are surprising similarities when looking at the air forces. Both were major operators of the ‘legacy’ Hornet (sorry Boeing, the designation has stuck already), and were the first two (and for a long time, only) export customers of the AGM-158 JASSM which gave their respective fleets a precision deep strike capability. Both also operate in the grey zone of being somewhat non-aligned but enjoying close bilateral relations with the US (though Australia has a significantly more expeditionary approach). This closeness of the respective US-relations is what makes deals such as the JASSM or Growler possible. And if Finland chooses the Super Hornet, there is something very interesting brewing down under.

Recently Boeing made headlines by flying three Growlers simultaneously, with one controlling the other remotely two (they were often referred to as ‘unmanned’ by the press, something that wasn’t strictly true as they had a back-up crew aboard to take control if something would have gone wrong). The news wasn’t that a Growler can be flown remotely, but rather that Boeing had successfully demonstrated that without modifying the cockpit hardware, it is possible to effectively command unmanned wingmen from a Growler or Super Hornet using currently available data links (Link 16 or ATDL). The software part is included on both the Growler and Super Hornet road maps, and is expected to be rolled out sometime during the latter half of the decade (i.e. when Finland is receiving its HX-fighters). The question is then what would you control? Granted you can use the Growler (or a ‘legacy’ Hornet using Link 16, though that is suboptimal due to bandwidth and security concerns), but a smarter way is to use a purpose-built platform. Such as the Loyal Wingman.

FA-18E take-off
The larger wing make the take-off and landing distance shorter compared to the legacy Hornet, despite the higher take-off weight. Source: Own picture

The Loyal Wingman is currently being developed in Australia, something that has the added benefit of ensuring it stays ITAR-free. In other words, ensuring that it can be exported through direct commercial sales from Australia without the need to go through the sometimes tiresome US bureaucracy. To a certain extent, the current Loyal Wingman is a solution looking for a problem. It is highly modular, meaning that it can take up a number of payloads. While the system in its first configuration is likely to play the role of ISR platform and/or forward active sensor, it can be armed as well. And importantly, it is built from the ground up to be cheap enough that it is attritable. With a first flight slated for later this year, this isn’t a hypothetical MLU-capability, but rather something that very well might be operational by the time Finland declare FOC for the HX-fleet. Having an unmanned (the plan is for the Loyal Wingman to have the ability to operate independently using AI or to be remotely controlled) ISR-platform with a huge range, 3,700+ km has been mentioned, would be a very interesting option. However, when it comes to HX specifically, Boeing might have outwitted themselves, as the Australian Loyal Wingman can’t be included in the US Foreign Military Sales-package that is being offered for HX. With the relatively low price tag, it is instead found in the “Future capabilities”-column with a detailed description, and treated as a possible arms sale for the time post 2030.

But the Loyal Wingman is just one piece of the puzzle making the Super Hornet-family “networked and survivable”, to use Boeing’s phrasing. The key here is the Advanced Tactical Datalink, or ATDL, that allows for vastly increased amounts of data being sent between the aircrafts (and other friendlies, including ground and ship units). To be able to cope with this increased amount data received, as well as the increased amount of data from the Block III’s own sensors (including the ATFLIR targeting pod and the long-range IRST pod), the aircraft has received the increased processing power of the DTP-N (a “big computer”, as it was described). This in turn makes the creation of a common tactical picture (CTP) possible, which is presented to the pilot on the new wide-angled display that is the most visible part of the Advanced Cockpit System, vastly increasing the situational awareness of the pilots. In essence, what Boeing does is linking together the aircraft to get a clear situational picture even in complex high-treat environments. The new cockpit coupled with the CTP also lower the pilot workload, providing a “huge step up” when it comes to how the information is presented to the crew, and helps avoid overloading the pilot with data.

The rhino in the room is the as yet undefined date when the US Navy will withdraw the Super Hornet from service. Despite the recent news of the death of the Super Hornet being seriously overblown, the fact is that when captain Becker describes the future of the Super Hornet in the Navy, the timeline is two decades plus in US service.

“Regardless of other platforms coming out, F/A-18 will be the cornerstone for many years to come”

That all sounds nice and plausible, probably even slightly conservative considering there are no plans for the F-35C to replace large number of Super Hornets and that the NGAD is still just in the study stage of the program, but the gap from 2040+ to 2060+ is still significant. And the day the US Navy pulls the plug on the Super Hornet the continued development of the aircraft can quickly become prohibitively expensive for Finland. As said, a sunset before the late 2040’s is unlikely, especially given the 500+ aircraft upgrade program that will continue to push out refurbished Block III’s past 2030 and the unique nature of the Growler. However, the last ten years of the HX winner’s service life are uncertain, there is simply no way around it.

This is Boeing’s main weakness in the current offer, and to be fair one they share with much of the rest of the competition (especially Rafale and Gripen, Eurofighter to a somewhat lesser extent). France at least has officially stated that the Rafale will fly in French service into the 2070’s, but on the other hand the value of such promises might not be particularly high if FCAS suddenly encounter cost overruns that need to be covered (on the other hand, if FCAS encounter delays to the in-service date, the Rafale might suddenly have to soldier on longer). Gripen is even more vulnerable than the Rafale and Super Hornet, considering the smaller fleet and that the Swedish Air Force as opposed to AdA or USN is unlikely to run a multi-type fleet for any considerable time. Will Boeing be able to convince the Finnish Air Force that it is a risk worth taking? That is perhaps the biggest hurdle facing the Boeing sales team, and we won’t know the answer for a year. A German decision during 2020 on getting the Super Hornet as a Tornado replacement could easily be a deciding factor, but considering the decision was to have been made before the end of 2018, this could easily slip beyond the HX decision date of Q1 2021. Another key piece missing is the US Navy’s Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment that was expected in January, but has since been postponed. The current one dates to 2016 and is the basis for the (in)famous 355-ship force. The new INFAS could easily change the future of the Super Hornet fleet in one direction or the other.

Hangar door
The F/A-18E Super Hornet being admired by the assembled media. Note the left wing armament, which if mirrored on the right wing would give the aircraft seven AIM-120 AMRAAM and two AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles. On the centerline the podded IRST is visible. Note the badges on the hangar, celebrating the history of now disbanded fighter squadron HävLLv 21 and 44,500+ flight hours of the Hornet, the latter nicely summing up why the Super Hornet is one of the front runners in HX. Source: Own picture

One area were Boeing on the other hand has an edge is in their industrial cooperation program. The company has already once successfully performed a 3.5 Bn USD offset program in Finland. Though it might not have been quite as happy an affair as Boeing lyrically described it, there’s little doubt that the close cooperation with a number of Finnish companies, including key partners such as Patria and Insta Group, enabled the domestic handling of the Hornet MLU-programs. As such, there’s little doubt that Boeing’s presence on the ground in Finland give the company a serious edge when it comes to the creation of a trustworthy and executable industrial participation program of the same size as what they did last time around. Like most of the competition, Boeing declines to go into details at the moment. However, one interesting detail is that while Saab has already offered a final assembly line of the F414 engine to Finland, Geoff Hanson representing GE Aviation at the Boeing media event would not speculate in whether the F414 line (yes, the Super Hornet and Gripen share engine) would come to Finland in case of a Super Hornet order.

“It’s a bit early to commit to that”

Crucially, Geoff noted that the question of what exactly “final assembly” means is unanswered. There are certainly some assembly steps that relatively easily could be transferred, and which would provide know-how that is useful from a maintenance point of view. On the other hand, major assembly steps requiring check-out and factory acceptance tests is an undertaking of a different scale.

Maria Laine, Vice President International Strategic Partnerships, first entered Boeing during the original Hornet industrial cooperation program. As such, it is no surprise that she emphasised the ability to leverage the existing partnerships stemming from the old program. Finland and Boeing represents a “true, genuine partnership”.

“We understand Finland”

There’s a few other who claim to do so. Boeing might have a better basis for the claim than most, but if that is enough to ensure that Super Hornet will be the aircraft protecting Finnish skies in 2060 remains to be seen. One of the open questions surrounding the US aircraft have been that of mission data. Finland’s requirement is simple: we need to be able to operate the aircraft even if the supply lines are cut. This include both the physical lines of communication, but also data cables. Alain Garcia of Boeing doesn’t shy away from the topic when I bring it up. It is a challenge, he acknowledges, as US government requirements include a requirement for new signals to be processed at a US facility before being inserted into an updated version of the data set. The solution is to embed Finnish personnel at a suitable US facility. Once Finnish (or allied) assets would identify a new signature the data would be supplied to these Finns who would process it, before it would be sent back to Finland. The whole process would result in a turnaround time of less than 24 hours from collecting the raw data until having the updated mission data in the aircraft. As I mention the requirement for cut data cables that colonel Keränen had described at the beginning of the media day, Garcia nods.

“We have methods to get them back into country”

Boeing kindly paid for my hotel stay in Tampere (a single night), all other costs (including travel) being covered by myself. Neither Boeing nor any of their partners have seen, nor requested to see, this text or the illustrations used before posting.

HX Challenge pt. 4: More of Everything

Unfortunately, Finnish daily Aamulehti which so far has openly shared recordings of the main press event at the HX Challenge media events has decided to put these behind a paywall. As such, this post is based upon secondary sources (i.e. published articles). Sorry for the inconvenience, but these are the unfortunate facts. Next week we will be back to primary sources (as I will attend the Boeing briefing in person).

From the outset, the F-35 has been the aircraft to beat in HX. It isn’t impossible that it will end up beaten, but the string of successes throughout the world (marred only by the highly politicised German failure to be allowed to bid) and unique selling points makes it the gold standard in Western fighter design at the moment. As such, anyone wishing to better Lockheed Martin’s stealth fighter will have to put in some serious effort to show why their bid is better for the Finnish Defence Forces’ concept of operations.

F-35 at Pirkkala FinAF FB Joni Malkamäki
The two F-35A’s from that eventually came over from 308th FS were described as being amongst the latest jets in use at Luke AFB, which should mean that they are of the Block 3F, i.e. ready for combat use. Source: Finnish Air Force FB/Joni Malkamäki

At least from the outside, that task hasn’t become any easier from the start of the competition. While Lockheed Martin might have seemed a bit too certain of success in the early days of the competition, this week’s media event has shown that they are listening to the customer and not just offering a copy-paste version of offers made to other countries.

Few doubt the combat capability of the F-35A. The advanced sensor suite and fusion coupled with low-observability features make it a formidable foe for anyone, and the large number of aircraft on order makes it future proof in a way none of the other contenders are. The biggest questions has been surrounding security of supply, sovereignty of data, and industrial cooperation. It is important to note that this does not mean that the Air Force is ready to buy the second best just to ensure that they will get these secondary benefits, but rather that the Air Force has judged these issues to be of crucial importance in allowing a fighter to be combat capable. As has been repeated throughout the last few years: the bids are only ranked on their overall combat capability as part of the overall Finnish defence solution.

And there’s plenty of combat capability in Lockheed Martin’s offer. While the contenders aren’t allowed to comment on the number of aircraft offered, Steve Sheehy, Lockheed Martin’s Director of Sustainment Strategies and Campaigns, appeared to accidentally disclose that it would be a case of 1-to-1 replacement of the Hornets.

“The requirement is 64, we are at 64”*

This was later walked back to the more politically acceptable line of “‘If the requirement is for 64, we are at 64.’ Lockheed Martin will not comment publicly on the number of fighter jets in its response to the call for tenders.” Considering the fact that we have known since last autumn that 64 isn’t in fact a set requirement any longer, my personal belief is that the offer is for 64 aircraft. Make of it what you will, but a 64-ship strong F-35A force would be an impressive one by any measure. It would conceivably make Finland the seventh largest operator of the F-35 (all marks included), leaving behind Tier 2 and 3 contributors such as the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark, as well as making the Finnish Air Force the third largest European operator after the UK and Italy (both of which will likely be operating joint F-35A/B fleets). While this might seem like a bold step, it should be remembered that when Finland bought the F/A-18C Hornet it was an order on a similar scale (the early 90’s seeing the AIM-120 equipped Hornet second only to the F-15C Eagle in the air-to-air role). As long as the aircraft can fit within the price tag, the Finnish Air Force is unlikely to shy away from capability. In fact, a serious F-35A order does hold deterrence value in and of itself, as it would highlight the determination to invest in a credible high-end defence as well as the close bilateral defence cooperation with the US.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the press release was the part on how Lockheed Martin plans to ensure security of supply and industrial cooperation.

Edited 17/02/2020 22:50 GMT+2

Originally it was reported that not only the aircraft, but the F135 engine as well would reportedly be produced in-country.*

This would have represented a significant development in an area that has traditionally been viewed as a weak part of the Lockheed Martin offer, and would be a significant step away from the current production chain which is responsible for pushing the price of the aircraft down to the extent that 64 aircraft could fit inside the Finnish budget. Such an offer would by it’s very nature include a rather large amount of tech transfer, and ensure Finnish industrial know-how stays up to date when it comes to maintaining and overhauling the aircraft, and would solve what otherwise might represent a significant issue in meeting the 30% industrial cooperation target.

However, upon contacting Lockheed Martin, it became clear that this was a case of serious misreporting. Upon a direct question, John Neilson, Director of International Communications for Europe and Israel, stated in no uncertain terms that no mention was made of final assembly of the F-35 aircraft or engine manufacturing. When asked what the industrial participation may look like, I received the following quote:

“Industrial participation forms an important element of our F-35 proposal for Finland but at this stage of the process, for reasons of competitive sensitivity, it would be inappropriate for is to give any further information and wrong to speculate on the details.”

End of edit.

Perhaps a harder thing swallow for the Finnish Air Force was the scheme drawn up for the management of spare parts. This would include peacetime stocks stored in-country for normal operations, with a different set for times of heightened tensions being stored internationally and transferred to Finland when needed. While this kind of centralised spare hubs likely play a significant role in ensuring a low operating cost, not having complete control over the necessary wartime spares will likely be a no-go. However, it is important to remember that this second offer currently being referenced by Lockheed Martin isn’t the same as their best and final offer, which will come only after the approximately six months of negotiations with the Finnish MoD and Defence Forces that are now starting. Lockheed Martin also acknowledges that the sizes of both the in-country and the international stocks aren’t locked, but are currently being discussed. It does however feel that this is one area where the company’s normal ‘tailored for NATO’-options still clashes with the Finnish thinking surrounding wartime operations.

The stealth capability is the defining feature that sets the aircraft apart from the rest of the competition, and while much has been said about the limitations of stealth in the form the word applies to the F-35, you are still better off with a lower radar cross-section in the X-band than with a larger one (which is the aspect where the difference in observability is the largest). The same goes for the carriage of external stores. Granted the RCS will go up compared to when the F-35 carries only internal weapons, but in all likelihood** an F-35 with external stores will still exhibit a lower RCS than competing fighters with external stores (even if the difference is narrower). And while many countries are investing significant resources in detecting VLO aircraft in general and the F-35 in particular, for the immediate future it will likely remain easier to complete the kill chain against a traditional aircraft than against a VLO one (think of it as armour in ground combat – there are weapons and munitions able to defeat armoured vehicles, but still most soldiers prefer riding into combat under armour than in soft-skinned vehicles). The question mark here is whether some of the contenders can mitigate this difference either through the use of different concepts of operations and/or heavy reliance on electronic warfare? It is a tall order, especially considering that the F-35 isn’t exactly lacking in EW-capabilities either, but it isn’t impossible. What is impossible is discerning that difference in EW-capability based purely on open sources, so we will just have to wait and see when it comes to the final decision in 2021.

35740456170_57fc23a502_k
F-35A during tests with four externally mounted GBU-31 JDAM. One benefit of the F-35A from a Finnish point of view would be the ability to carry over numerous weapons, such as the JDAM-family and the air-to-air missiles, from the current inventory and into the HX-era. Picture courtesy of Lockheed Martin/photo by Darin Russell

It needs to be emphasised just how far beyond the competition the F-35 is when it comes to future proofing the production of the aircraft. The numbers ordered dwarf those of any of the competition, with the F-35A alone having over 2,300 aircraft on order or in the plans of the current customers. This is the only aircraft of the five that beyond any shadow of a doubt will not only be kept in operation but crucially kept up to date outside of Finland well beyond 2060. The need for having other operators also towards the end of the career of HX has been emphasised by those involved in the procurement process several times, and here the F-35 really shines.

The maturity of the aircraft has been questioned, especially as it seems to be followed by a string of bad news. However, it should be noted that the US has a somewhat unique reporting system, which means that many of the minor setbacks (such as the recent issues with the 25 mm gun) are reported in a more open fashion than would be case in most other countries. Colonel Keränen also noted in an interview that if the aircraft is mature enough for Norway to declare IOC, it’s mature enough for us as well. Notable is that the huge number of aircraft flying, 240,000+ flight hours to date, also allow for a rapid pace of development, including the tracking down of any teething troubles at an fast rate.

The GBU-53/B SDB II will be a key weapon of the F-35A Block 4

Like most of the competition, the aircraft being demonstrated doesn’t fully correspond to what would be delivered in five years time. The current F-35A Block 3F standard will give way to the Block 4, which will bring a serious step-up in capability. Most visible are the inclusion of new weapons, such as the JSM anti-ship missile, the GBU-53/B Small-Diameter Bomb II, and the ASRAAM and Meteor for UK use. However, many important changes are simultaneously taking place inside the airframe, which will play a perhaps even larger role than individual weapons when it comes to ensuring that the F-35A of 2025 will be more combat capable, both in absolute and relative terms, than the aircraft now evaluated. Still, it should be pointed out that the inclusion of the GBU-53/B will add a serious anti-vehicle capability to the F-35A, the question then being if the Finnish Air Force in wartime could spare any aircraft for the mission or if all are tied up in the air-to-air role?

Much still remains open. Absent from the reporting from the press event was the promises of complete ownership over the mission data that was repeated by all European manufacturers, and the flight hour costs and changes to infrastructure needed are somewhat open. The F-35 still remain the aircraft to beat though, and the competition have their work cut out for them.

* F-35:n valmistaja lupaa Suomelle hävittäjän tuotantoa – “Emme kerro, kuinka häive rakennetaan, mutta kerromme miten se ylläpidetään” 

** I can in theory envision a scenario where some kind of strange reflector phenomenon would increase the RCS with external stores ridiculously much and make it larger than some of the other contenders, but that is more along the lines of technical possibilities than anything I would call likely

HX Challenge pt. 3: Head start for Future Growth

The snow finally arrived to central Finland this week, and with it came the last eurocanard to take part in HX Challenge. 39-10, the latest of the pre-production JAS 39E Gripens, touched down on Tampere-Pirkkala airport in a landscape that looked decidedly different compared to the weeks before when the Eurofighter and the Rafale had been visiting.

IMG_1551
The 39-10 today at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB, carrying not only the wingtip IRIS-T missiles, but also Meteor very-long range air-to-air missiles and the new EAJP jammer pod. Source: Own picture

Someone that didn’t show up was anyone working at the Swedish embassy in Helsinki, a marked difference from the media days of the other two eurocanards. The reason was simple: “I don’t think anyone doubts that Finland and Sweden has a close bilateral cooperation.” As such the focus was placed on the aircraft instead of the strategic partnership, though the offer was described as being prepared in close cooperation with both the Swedish Air Force and the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV). This is also crucial, as besides the limited Brazilian order Sweden is so far the only major buyer of the 39E-version. Any Finnish order will rest on how reliable the Swedish long-term (i.e. into the 2060’s) commitment to the 39E as a platform is judged to be.

Saab has decidedly taken the Air Force at their word when they said they want the best capability that can fit inside the budget, with an offer that include not only the 39E/F Gripen, but also the GlobalEye airborne early warning and control platform. As reported last summer the idea behind is that not only does it improve the overall combat capability of the Finnish Air Force, but it also saves the fighter fleet by off-loading part of the missions that would otherwise have been flown by the HX fighters. This not only saves money and airframes, but crucially helps in ensuring a high-level of readiness for the fighter fleet. Anders Carp, head of Saab’s Surveillance business unit explained that they are happy to be able to offer HX “a true force multiplier”, and that he expects the Finnish Air Force to be happy about it as well. Unfortunately, the poker faces of the FinAF colonels present held, so we have to wait until 2021 to see if that is a correct conclusion.

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Colonel Keränen, head of the HX Programme, outlining how the programme is continuing. Source: Own picture

However, colonel Keränen in his briefing prior to Saab’s presentation did note that ISTAR is a capability that will be required from the HX-package, and that it is a new capability compared to the current Hornet-fleet. This is interesting in that it shows that the capability sought is something more than what the Hornet currently offer by flying around with their AN/APG-73 radars and Litening-targeting pods. Here the GlobalEye really shines, as it not only provides a superior air-to-air picture (especially against targets operating at low heights) compared to the current Finnish ground-based network, but also provide air-to-surface radar pictures and signal intelligence from passive sensors. The range of sensors, both passive EW-sensors and possible EO/IR-sensors, can be tailored towards the specifications of the customer. However, in general it could be noted that the aircraft would not only be a valuable sensor in wartime, but would provide a serious benefit in peacetime as well through its ability to gather information far beyond the Finnish borders. As such, it would complement the Air Force’s single C-295 SIGINT-aircraft and the Border Guards’ maritime patrol aircraft.

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Magnus Skogberg discussing the vast range of the GlobalEye’s sensors, describing the aircraft as a “substantial contribution to the joint operational capabilities of the Finnish Defence Forces”. Source: Own picture

For the Gripen, much of the focus was on the adaptability and electronic warfare side of things. The differentiation of flight critical software, and to some extent hardware as well, from the mission software ensures that it can be upgraded in short increments, avoiding the traditional larger but less frequent MLUs. This is incremental upgrade approach is in effect already now with the current 39C/D-fleet, but the steps would take place in even shorter increments for the 39E/F. “This is unique”, according to Saab, who also pointed out that when the first 39E flew, it did so with a fully certified software. This is also exploited in the form of the 39-7 two-seat aircraft demonstrating the capabilities of the 39F for HX Challenge. The aircraft has a full set of 39E/F mission systems in the backseat, while the flight control software is based on that of the 39C/D.

When faced with the question of how the aircraft that currently is in the test and verification phase, Saab’s view was that since the aircraft is mature enough and will meet the Finnish deadlines with time to spare, it’s recent appearance on the market is simply a benefit. Being the newest of the contenders ensure that the technology is new, and allow the company to take advantage of the latest developments in a way older platforms can’t.

I guess you can make the arguement that the glass is half full.

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The smart fighter – now in Finnish as well. Source: Own picture

For the electronic warfare side, according to Saab the aircraft is providing capabilities close to those of dedicated platforms (read: EA-18G Growler). It is “probably the most advanced EW-suite” carried by a fighter, and provide a full spherical coverage from all directions. This include not only missile approach warning systems, but also internal jammers, chaff/flare dispensers, and so forth. When that isn’t enough, the brand new Electronic Attack Jammer Pod (EAJP) can also be carried, a fully functioning version of which was carried by 39-10 in Tampere. At this point, Saab notes that the 39F does provide superior performance in the electronic warfare (and SEAD/DEAD) role, as the combined suite is powerful enough that to get out the maximum use of it a dedicated systems operator is needed.

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The EAJP is utilising some of the “same kind of technology” as found in the internal EW systems of 39E, but provide broader frequency ranges and more power when needed. Source: Own picture

While electronic warfare capabilities are difficult to judge based on open sources (we are basically left to trusting that the manufacturers don’t stretch the truth too much) one thing that Saab is sure to have in their favour is the solid presence on the ground in Finland. Saab already has a serious research and development unit in Tampere, the importance of which is set to grow in the coming years thanks to Saab receiving the contract for the combat management system of the Pohjanmaa-class. As such, they are well positioned to reach the stated 30% of contract value in industrial cooperation, the vast majority of which will be directed towards direct cooperation according to the company. The program is very ambitious, and in what is something of a surprise still include not only component manufacturing and final assembly of the aircraft, but of the engines as well. Granted most manufacturers stated that a domestic final assembly line was possible at the outset of the HX programme, but there has been relatively little talk of the topic since, and my impression has been that the interest towards the idea from both the manufacturers and Finnish industry have in fact been lukewarm.

Saab is of a different opinion, and stated that it is the best method of ensuring that Finland actually has the ability to overhaul and maintain the aircraft if the supply lines are cut (which is the requirement of the RFQ). Production of aircraft engines is something that hasn’t taken place in Finland for a long time, but Saab expressed confidence in that Patria’s Linnavuori plant is up to the job. Negotiations are currently ongoing regarding the details of the proposal, and the fact that the Hornet’s F404 engine (on which Patria does qualified maintenance) serve as the basis for the Gripen’s F414GE would probably aid in the transition.

Speaking of transitions, Saab stated that the Gripen would require only “minor adaptations” of the existing infrastructure, and that they foresee a “very smooth integration effort”. A key point was also that no additional noise pollution or environmental impact was expected relative to the legacy-Hornet fleet, an issue that has been highlighted as some other fighter acquisitions has created the need for expensive remodelling of air bases. Here one might note that colonel Keränen also provided some further details on the timeline for the transition. By 2025 the first deliveries are to take place, so that Finnish Air Force personnel can start training on the aircraft. This might take place abroad or in Finland, key point is that the training starts, because by late 2027 the IOC should be declared, with the first HX squadron replacing a Hornet squadron in early 2028. By 2030 the last Hornets leave Finnish service, and HX declare FOC. Notable here is that up until IOC, the training and operating costs of the HX will at least partly come from the 10 Bn Euro additional funding that is allocated for the acquisition. This is due to the fact that normal Hornet operations continue in parallel, and the funds for these will claim the Air Force’s daily operating budget.

But did it fly? No, it didn’t. Was there a perfectly reasonable explanation. Yes, there was.

39-10 didn’t leave Sweden for the first time ever just to impress Finnish (and international) media, but rather to run a verification program. As the Finnish Air Force has stated a number of times, this isn’t about cold weather tests, but verifying the numbers and capabilities provided by the manufacturers in a Finnish setting. The weather conditions did not match any of the planned verification sorties, so the aircraft stayed on the ground. GlobalEye on the other hand had suitable verification flights that could take place, so it appeared in the skies over southern Finland with a mixed Saab/Finnish Air Force crew aboard.

Being a mechanical engineer I saw nothing strange in this. In my earlier work I’ve been present when the weather has been either too good or too bad for planned sea trials. Then the boat stays in the harbour. Not because of the vessel in question isn’t able to go to sea, but because the only thing you would achieve by doing so is burn diesel and kill time. Granted it would have been nice to get to see the aircraft take-off today, but c’est la vie.

However, populists gonna populist. Self-proclaimed defender of Lapland (with friends like these…) Mikko Kärnä in a single tweet manages to 1) describe the purpose of HX Challenge incorrectly, 2) give false (or at least out of context) quote by Saab as to the reason for not flying, and 3) draw faulty conclusions based on those two incorrect statements. Unfortunately, the story about Gripen not being able to fly in snow will likely endure in some fringes of the Finnish political discussion. The influence long-term will likely be minor, but I can already feel how tiresome it will be to hear these talking points making rounds on social media and around coffee tables.

For those interested in whether the Gripen can fly in snow, just ask Antti Virolainen.

HX Challenge pt. 2: Born Joint

When two French fighters landed at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB this week it was the underdog that arrived. While last week’s eurocanard might not be a favourite, the Rafale is an even less likely candidate according to most analysts.

But truth be told it is difficult to tell how much of that perception is based on the lack of an active marketing campaign compared to the rest of the competition. The HX process might have received international praise for its transparency, but that only extends to how the process is being run, and not how the contenders are doing. The current ranking, to the extent there is one at this stage, is well and truly hidden from view.

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Rafale B ‘301’, DGA’s and Dassault’s testbed, shown here airborne during earlier tests. The aircraft carries six AASM boosted precision-guided bombs, two Meteor very-long range air-to-air missiles, two MICA IR short-range air-to-air missiles, two large drop tanks, and a Talios targeting and reconnaissance pod. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – A. Pecchi

The fact that the two Rafales touched down on Pirkkala does however tell us something – Dassault still thinks they have a non-trivial chance of winning. Flight tests are expensive, even a moderate estimate puts the costs for a manufacturer to participate in HX Challenge at something like 1.5 million Euro (it could easily be double that even in direct costs). The fact that Dassault, and the rest, are coming shows they believe the potential benefits to be worth it. This is in stark contrast to most of the recent fighter competitions held in Europe (Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland…), where roughly half the field have usually dropped out before final offers are sent in. That is a big show of confidence in the fairness of HX, and big kudos to the MoD, LOGL, and the Air Force for that!

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Rafale B ‘301’ (rear) and ‘352’ (front). The reason why Dassault didn’t bring a single-seat C-version was to maximise the number of flight hours they are able to provide to Finnish Air Force personnel, but is also a testimony to how closely related the B and C models are to each other. Note the white bulge behind the blade antenna on ‘301’, likely associated with some F4-standard subsystem, the missile warning sensor on the tailfin (looking like a black dot), and the different coloured covers for the EW sensors on the front of the canard root and on the air intakes. Source: Joni Malkamäki/Ilmavoimat

But back to the French offer. Many of the themes can be recognised from last week. The Rafale would “protect Finland’s integrity”, further strengthen a strong European partnership, and the aircraft is being offered “with the full support of the French government”, to use the words of ambassador Serge Tomas. The aircraft would also be delivered with “no performance restrictions” compared to the French version, and there will be “lots of open books” and technology transfers.

But there were also notable differences in tone when compared to the Eurofighter. The production lines will stay open “for the next decades”, as opposed to the Eurofighter lines that are slowly cooling down. And while the Eurofighter is being sold as the great cooperative project, the French are well-known in security policy circles for their reluctance to trust in others. This is also what they are selling to the Finnish Air Force.

We understand your concept

Those simple words contain a lot. We know you don’t trust in allies to step in and save the day, we understand your wish to be able to go alone if the need arises. The Rafale is the tool that allows you to do so.

French and Finnish national security policy might not have much in common, but Dassault certainly has found the common denominators there are, and they are running with them.

A sobering reminder of just how ready to go alone France is found in the fact that one of the two Rafales currently in Tampere is an operational Rafale B F3R from SPA 81 Lévrier (Greyhound) of EC 2/4 La Fayette. The main mission of the unit is nuclear strike as part of the Forces aériennes stratégiques, the land based air component of France’s completely independent nuclear deterrent. However, like sister unit EC 1/4 Gascogne, they do also fly conventional missions, including operationally over Libya, Mali, and in the Middle East. The F3R is the current standard, and was delivered ahead of schedule, meeting performance targets while staying inside the budget. Any Finnish order would be of the F4 standard that is currently in development, and which has an added focus on connectivity, further developed electronic-warfare capabilities, as well as new weapons. The other Rafale, ‘301’, is a joint-DGA and Dassault testbed, and is equipped with numerous subsystems associated with the F4.

The F4, and the upcoming F5 standard, will also allow the Rafale to remain a key part of the FCAS-system, ensuring that the Rafale stays in French service well into 2060’s*.

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Rafale B ‘352’ 4-FU having just arrived at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB. Note the greyhound of SPA 81 on the tail, Talios pod on the right side of the fuselage, FSO bulges in front of the canopy, as well as wingtip MICA IR missiles. Source: Joni Malkamäki/Ilmavoimat

Another good example of where French and Finnish national security interests align, and one pushed heavily at yesterday’s media day, is the emphasis on European solidarity. “France is leading the process to build a solid, European defence policy,” as ambassador Serge expressed it. This was also the point he came back to when questioned about what France can offer on the national security side that the other eurocanards cannot, and he does have a point. Finland’s stance on Article 42.7 might be ambiguous (and set to remain that way for the foreseeable future), but Finland most certainly is interested in a deepening European defence cooperation in a way that few other countries are. Except France.

It is a strange world when the country that has given us the gilet jaunes can market themselves as “the reliable and predictable national security partner”, but this is where we are in 2020. In part this is also due to the difference in French domestic and foreign politics. While French internal matters might be seeing quite a bit of turmoil, their foreign policy has been remarkably consistent during the last few decades. And that policy include a willingness to mobilise the sizeable force that is the French military whenever French interests are threatened. This is not only seen in Syria and Libya, but also in Mali and, crucially, in how France has stepped up their presence in the Baltic Sea region following Crimea. This includes ground troops, but also a sizeable contribution to Baltic Air Policing. The trick then is to ensure that French interests align with ours, something that is easier said than done. However, I would like to note that we are rapidly approaching diminishing returns in our already very deep cooperation with Sweden and the USA, something that isn’t the case for the Finnish-French relationship.

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It apparently needs to be repeated: HX Challenge is not a cold-weather test, but a verification of sensor and other prestanda as reported by the manufacturer. As a matter of fact, ‘301’ did separate winter tests for Dassault a year ago at Rovaniemi AFB. Source: Ilmavoimat FB

The French willingness to act on their security interests in turns leads to the next point that Dassault likes to make, namely that the Rafale is combat proven. Crucially, this isn’t just about dropping bombs in COIN operations, but include having “been tasked to go into very contested environments”. Famously, Rafale did fly missions into Libya during the early stages of the campaign when Gaddafi’s air defences were still operational, and it has also performed missions over Syria in the face of the air defences found there. The weapons suite used is also interesting, as not only does it feature the same cruise missile as the Eurofighter, the MBDA Storm Shadow/SCALP, but it also sports the unique French AASM-family of boosted precision-guided bombs. These allow for stand-off range attacks (60 km range reportedly being “not too far from the truth“, but obviously depending on launch height and speed), and come with a number of different seeker heads including INS/GPS, INS/GPS/IR, and INS/GPS/laser. As such, the Rafale is well-equipped to take out any of the targets envisioned in the Finnish RFQ.

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A single-seat Rafale C of 1/7 Provence in air-to-air configuration at BA 113 Saint-Dizier-Robinson, that also happens to be the home of the 1/4 La Fayette. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

Traditionally one of the weaker parts of Rafale’s sensor suite has been the Damocles targeting pod. This was recognised as lagging behind the competition already a number of years ago, and the Thales Talios has been brought online as part of the F3R standard. The performance of the pod, capable of both reconnaissance and lasing, is likely one of the things that the Finnish Air Force will be eager to test. Unfortunately the huge AREOS strategic reconnaissance pod has not been brought to HX Challenge (at least not by air), which likely indicate that it isn’t being included in the offer at this stage. Unsurprising, but still a bit sad as it would have offered a really interesting step-change in capability. Another sensor that likely will attract a lot of attention as well is the Front Sector Optronics, the FSO. The FSO is made up of two modules, an IR- and a TV-sensor. As part of the F3/F3R program the TV-sensor has been upgraded, and the performance is rumoured to be very good thanks to high magnification and near-IR wavelengths. The IR-sensor is currently going through its update programme, but for the time being it is likely that the setup tested at HX Challenge feature the old IR-sensors. In addition, a laser rangefinder is also included, and the whole set can be slewed by the other active or passive sensors to find and identify an airborne target. This is in line with the Rafale putting great emphasise on passive intercepts of enemy targets through the use of several different passive sensors and fusing the data to present the air crew with a single threat picture. Whether it works in the cloudy skies of Finland is exactly the kind of question HX Challenge is designed to answer, and unfortunately this interesting answer will go straight into the folder marked “SECRET”.

*Often the FCAS designation is erroneously used for the new joint Franco-German fighter currently in development, while in fact the FCAS is an umbrella term to cover numerous air- and ground-based system making up the Future Combat Air System. Or as Airbus puts it, a system of systems “composed of connected, manned and unmanned air platforms, enhanced by different sensors and effectors. They will be part of an open, scalable system architecture that enables the inclusion of future platforms and new technologies”

HX Challenge pt. 1: Complete Independence

HX Challenge kicked off for real this week, with the Eurofighter Typhoon being the first contender (the sales team uses the Eurofighter designation, but I sincerely hope any Finnish buy would include us switching the British name. One possibility I might accept is translating it to Pyörremyrsky).

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The Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4 of the RAF’s No. 41 Squadron (with the awesome motto of Seek and Destroy) takes off from Tampere-Pirkkala airport. As part of the same launch the T.3 got airborne with a Finnish Air Force backseater. Picture courtesy of BAE Systems/Kalle Parkkinen

Did we learn anything groundbreaking yesterday? Not really, but the media day did provide a comprehensive insight into what the consortium in general and BAE Systems in particular believe is their strong cards in a competition that is steadily moving towards the contract announcement next year.

The key word is “independence”. You buy it, you own it, and you decide exactly how you want to use it. These are notions repeated throughout the press material and briefings, and it is clear that they are aimed at differentiating the European project against the US competitors. The Eurofighter is described as providing an “unique opportunity” when it comes to taking control of the country’s security. The “no closed black boxes”-policy provides the ability to independently operate, maintain, and control the aircraft, also when it comes to questions such as mission data and upgrade paths. Full control of mission data is described (in the Finnish press release) as “indispensable” for operating a modern combat aircraft, and something that provide an information advantage that will only become more important as time goes*.

However, this should not be interpreted as BAE Systems pushing the “buy second best but get full control”-line. The aircraft is described as being the “most advanced multi-role aircraft on the market”, with the potential Finnish aircraft being given as ‘Tranche 4’-standard, i.e. one notch above anything produced up until this point. This is roughly the same configuration as the German order under Project Quadriga, importantly sporting the E-Scan Mk. 1 AESA radar, an upgrade compared to the Kuwaiti-standard featuring the export Mk. 1A. Another interesting detail when it comes to sensors is that of the two Eurofighters taking part in HX Challenge, a single-seat FGR.4 and a twin-seat T.3, one carried the current standard Litening 3 pod, while the other had the brand new Litening 5 which is currently on offer to Germany and expected to be acquired by RAF in the near future. The Litening 5 is also offered in an updated version with a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) integrated into the body of the otherwise electro-optical targeting and reconnaissance-pod. As a side-note, the Finnish Hornets received the most advanced version of the Litening II, the Litening AT, as part of their MLU2-upgrade.

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To further emphasise the pan-European aspect of the Eurofighter project, all of the partner nations embassies were represented at the media day. It also clearly shows the big advantage in the number of significant operators the aircraft enjoys over the competition (with the exception of the F-35A) in this regard. Left to right: Luis Garcia Lumbreras, of the Spanish Embassy in Finland, Hans Werner Koeppel, of the Germany Embassy in Finland, Tom Dodd, British Ambassador to Finland, and Gabriele Altana, Italian Ambassador to Finland. Picture courtesy of BAE Systems

When it comes to weapons, the Eurofighters in Tampere-Pirkkala came equipped with ASRAAM short-range air-to-air missiles. Interestingly enough, the short-range air-to-air capability is not amongst the weapon systems described as ‘best-in-class’ in the press release. Instead, the weapon suite is described as offering “the widest range of weapons in the HX competition”, with beyond visual range air-to-air, deep strike, and high precision air-to-surface capabilities being best-in-class. It’s easy to see the close cooperation with MBDA playing a role here, as the weapons alluded to are the company’s Meteor, Storm Shadow, and Brimstone/SPEAR 3 respectively. The claim certainly seems tailored to meet the Finnish focus on the air-to-air role as well as deep strike, and while it is marketing, it is difficult to find weapons currently on the market that based on open sources can be stated to be objectively superior to the Meteor and the Storm Shadow, with the Brimstone and SPEAR 3 lacking direct competitors in most western arsenals.

But the HX Challenge isn’t just about flying around and punching holes in the air, a key part of the testing is the performance on the ground. This include not only studying how the aircraft function when the temperature is hovering around the freezing point, e.g. whether moisture getting into small crevices and freezing there will break stuff, but also what happens when the maintenance takes place outdoors or when the runway isn’t nice and dry (Finavia is cooperating with the evaluation by not maintaining the runways to their usual standard to simulate winter operations from dispersed bases). In fact, the ground testing will likely be more revealing than the air sorties, which in essence should only confirm data received in the offer and already verified in laboratory conditions.

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Three Italian Eurofighters during their Icelandic Air Policing rotation last year. Picture courtesy of BAE Systems

It is no surprise then that BAE Systems has also answered to this requirement, emphasising the robustness of the aircraft and the ease of maintaining it in similar conditions, such as during the Italian Air Force rotation to the Icelandic Air Policing mission and the RAF detachment operating in the Falklands. In Iceland the aircraft encountered exactly the kind of low temperature and wet conditions that the Finnish Air Force is interested in, and still were able to launch for all available missions. The squadron commander attributed this to the professionalism of the maintenance crews, as well as the fact that the aircraft is “very simple to maintain”.

The impact Tempest and FCAS will have on the development path still hangs as a cloud over the Eurofighter, regardless of promises that it will continue to be upgraded into the 2060’s. Still, the large number of operators gives the promise more credibility compared to corresponding promises by the other two eurocanards. With TyTAN going smoothly, the consortium is also confident enough that they have declared the cost of acquiring the aircraft to be “fixed and affordable”, going as far as stating the aircraft to be “the world’s most cost-efficient multi-role fighter”. The marketing plan seems simple enough – the Eurofighter is already here and working, it would increase Finnish cooperation with most of the major European security players, it allows fully independent planning of operations, upgrade paths, and maintenance (looking at you, F-35), and comes with a serious package of industrial cooperation benefits that would give Finnish aerospace and defence companies ample opportunities of cooperation with their European peers. How much of these talking points is backed up by real world prestanda is an open question, and one to be decided over the next twelve months.

The game just got serious.

*Interestingly, the information advantage-point is only found in the English version of the press release, and not in the Finnish one

HX Challenge on the Horizon

The next phase of HX has started, and things are starting to get serious. Last Thursday the revised call for tenders was sent out, with a deadline for answers until 31 January 2020.

A crucial point here is that this is a planned continuation of earlier negotiations, and not a restart. The manufacturers are asked to refine their earlier offers, providing a clear package, including any potential updates that has taken place and generally improving their offers. While the original call for tenders was generic, this round all five have received individualised RFQs based on their earlier tenders.

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Much of the operational (including combat) use the HX contenders have seen has taken place in decidedly un-Finnish environments. As such, HX Challenge will verify to what extent data from this usage is transferable. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – A. Paringaux

Two notable developments have taken place this fall. The first is the allowance for different numbers of aircraft than the originally envisioned 64. This provide room for anyone able to squeeze in a few extra hulls, but also for anyone wanting to argue that higher availability and/or increased combat capability compared to the current legacy-Hornets allows for a smaller fleet. At the same time, the 10 Bn Euro ceiling has officially been approved by the government. As has been discussed earlier, the plan has throughout HX been not to ask “How much for this package?”, but rather “What’s the best package you can offer under a set budget ceiling?” Major General (Eng.) Renko also went on record last week to say that all five manufacturers experience “difficulties” fitting their offers under the ceiling. In the end, we will see five bids for just under 10 Bn Euro, with the difference between them likely being no more than change (relatively speaking).

We also finally have more details on the verification flight tests. The flight test programme, dubbed HX Challenge, will take place out of Tampere-Pirkkala in January-February. The field is home to Satakunta Air Command and the Finnish Air Force’s Air Combat Centre sorting under it. ACC is responsible for both flight testing as well as for participating in the development of air combat tactics and doctrines.

The aircraft will not be put in order at this event, but rather only verification of performance and subsystems will take place. This includes ensuring that the manufacturers haven’t supplied incorrect information to the simulations used for the evaluation, but also to test how e.g. electro-optical sensors work in Finnish conditions. In cases where both single- and twin-seaters are available, Finnish pilots flying as backseaters will also take part in the tests. While failure to show up for HX Challenge won’t by default disqualify a contender, it would weaken their chances moving forward in the competition. Considering the costs of flight tests this will be a serious test of how invested the contenders are, and by extension how fair the competition is felt to be amongst the industry. A few odd-birds are found in the field. F-35A is the sole single-seat only fighter, while the yet to fly 39F will likely be represented by the revamped 39-7 testbed. While Saab declines to discuss GlobalEye in relation to HX Challenge at this time, they more generally confirm that a verification scheme has been devised and presented to the Finnish Air Force. EA-18G Growler obviously can’t showcase it’s full capability in the region, so it will likely be verified in other ways as well.

HX Challenge is part of the first step in evaluating the combat capability of the aircraft, by ensuring that the input data for the later modelling is done correctly. After this is done, simulated scenarios from the RFQ will be run with four-aircraft strong flights (fun fact, Finland was one of the pioneers in developing two pairs as the basic air combat element in the 1930’s). The aim here is to judge the survivability, ability to perform set missions, and the effectiveness in destroying enemy assets. As this is the Finnish Air Force, air-to-air capabilities will be the most important facto. An interesting question is how exactly simulations will be run. The word virtuaalisimulaattori (virtual simulator) is used, which seems to indicate a full man-in-the-loop simulation (think DCS on steroids, video by Jonathan Lundkvist). This is interesting in many ways, and should give a more correct picture as the value of sub-systems such as helmet-mounted displays and wide-angle displays are included in the evaluation. A good is example is how Gripen pilots like to talk about the benefit their man-machine interface provide compared to more traditional presentations of data which rely heavily on numerical values, and how this isn’t evident in traditional Monte Carlo-style simulations. With HX Challenge and a full-blown simulation the four-ship combat value should be found as accurately as possible without actually leasing four-ships and having them blow stuff up.

These data will then provide the input for a round of grand wargames taking place in the later part of 2020. Here the HX contenders will be simulated as parts of the complete Finnish defence system. This third stage will be the sole stage following which the contenders will be place in any kind of order. Based on this picture of the fighting capability of the aircrafts in their 2025-configuration together with input from an study into the development potential of the system (it’s never just about the individual aircraft) up until the end of the 2050’s the final warfighting capability-ranking will be made, and this should then in turn dictate which aircraft will be bought (the rest of the conditions being pass/fail-style).