HX Trumped

The HX-program is moving forward, and several of the programs have seen significant changes, in many cases caused by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s new resident.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

Things are looking up for the ‘Rhino’ (or ‘Super Bug’ if you want) for the moment. The Kuwaiti deal is finally looking like it could secure a second export order for the aircraft, and the Canadians seem like they could actually lease or buy  a small amount as a stop-gap to cover for the cancelled F-35 buy. This move has been discussed for years, but in the last year it has moved from speculation to government policy.

But the twist that has caused most buzz is without doubt the announcement that the new US leadership has ordered a review of the carrier-based version of the F-35C against the Advanced Super Hornet concept. While I find it unlikely that the ‘all-inclusive’ most advanced form of the Advanced Super Hornet would be ordered, this review will likely provide an updated concept (with price tags) that can be employed for future (more limited) USN updates as well as for export drives such as the HX.

Boeing, somewhat surprisingly, has kept a low profile in Finland. It remains to be seen if this will change with this summer’s air shows.

F-35 Lightning II

The F-35 has been under quite some pressure following the tweets of President (then elect) Trump, who was happy to trash the cost of the program.

Lockheed Martin quickly recovered their posture (though not their stock price), and explained that they will certainly look into this, and that they have a plan ready to reduce costs further.

Now, it is uncertain to what extent Lockheed Martin and (especially) Trump are honest and to what extent they simply figured out that this theatre is just what they need. It is no secret that the unit price of the F-35 is on a healthy downward trend following the troubled early years of the program. It is also no secret that Lockheed Martin has been pushing for larger block buys, as these would make it possible for the company to achieve higher efficiency in their production lines. This is an excellent opportunity to enlist the support of the White House for the larger block buys, and in the meantime the president can happily boast about getting a better deal by getting the low-rate lots cheaper than his predecessor. Win-win, at least until some troublesome aviation journalists starts looking it…

Regardless of the politics behind it, the F-35A is now officially and for the first time below the 100 million USD threshold. This came as part of the LRIP 10 agreement, and Lockheed Martin indeed thought it prudent to credit ‘President Trump’s personal involvement’ with accelerating the negotiations and sharpening Lockheed-Martin’s focus on driving down the price. Despite the recent issues with the landing gear of the F-35C carrier-based version, the F-35A version is moving forward and meeting milestones according to plan, and the above-mentioned F-35C review against the Advanced Super Hornet will likely result in yet another paper explaining the need for stealth and sensor fusion on the modern battlefield. In other words, the mid- to long-term prospects for the F-35 look good, perhaps even slightly better than they did before Trump got involved.

Eurofighter Typhoon

In January BAE (finally) launched their official Finnish Twitter-account, quite some time after BAE Systems Belgium got theirs. On the whole, BAE has significantly heightened their profile, and isn’t the least bit shy about the fact that they thinks the Typhoon would be the best answer to the needs of the Finnish Air Force.

While BAE still hasn’t explained exactly why they think that’s the case, they have been happy to announce that the acquisition could be funded through the UK Export Finance.

What is often forgotten is that the Typhoon does indeed have an impressive service record in the harsh semi-subarctic climate of the South Atlantic, having been responsible for the air cover of the Falkland Islands since 2009. Of note is that while the aircrews assigned to RAF Mount Pleasant have been rotated, the aircrafts haven’t. The original four aircraft maintained a constant 24/7 QRA flight for over five years, before finally being relieved a while back. Honouring the traditions of the Hal Far Fighter Flight based in Malta during World War 2, the Typhoons wear tailcodes matching the names of the Gladiators of the original flight.

Dassault Rafale

Eight months ago I sat and listened to a presentation by a representative of Dassault, who happily explained the value of the fighter and (almost) all of its subsystems being French. I smiled and nodded politely, thinking to myself that while I understand the value of this from a domestic point of view, I am unsure whether this is a plus or minus in the case of HX. My worry was based on the sometimes volatile state of French politics, especially compared to the relatively stable state of US ones.

Let’s just say I have revised that opinion.

While France certainly has their share of pro-Russian politicians of different colours, Donald Trump has very efficiently demonstrated that the political risks associated with buying French is no larger than buying from the US.

#MAGA.

Saab JAS 39E Gripen

The first flight of the ‘Dash Eight’ prototype is still some time away. Though this was originally slated for Q4 2016, representatives of Saab are adamant that the program as a whole is still on track, and that the delay is due to moving around different parts of the test and development program.

While this might be true, and not flying for the sake of just flying might be the proper decision from a program point of view, this is still something of a PR-loss for Saab, who has been pushing the “on time and budget” narrative. 2017 will be an important year for Saab’s new fighter.

Seinäjoki International Air Show 2017

Contrary to what usually is the case, the Finnish Aeronautical Association’s air show will receive some competition for the Finnish aviation crowds, in that another major air show will take place in Helsinki the day before. Still, the organisers are clear with that they try to get as many HX-competitors attending as possible, and that they hope to see them “both in the air and on the ground“. Last year the JAS 39C Gripen was flying, with the Eurofighter Typhoon being found on static display. Hopefully this year will bring some new players to the Finnish airspace.

 

The quest for MTO XX

The main anti-ship weapon in the current Finnish arsenal is the MTO 85M long-range anti-ship missile. This is a version of the widespread Saab RBS15 surface-to-surface missile named RBS15 SF-III (often this designation “Third version of the RBS15 for Suomi/Finland” is mixed up with the RBS15 Mk3 designation, which denotes a newer version, more on this below).

The MTO 85M is found on both the Rauma- and Hamina-class FAC, as well as on truck-mounted batteries firing from land. Notably, Finland has not acquired the air-launched version of the missile. The MTO 85M with its 100 km range make up the outer ring of defence against enemy surface units, and is then backed up with the 130 TK turret-mounted coastal guns firing 130 mm anti-ship grenades at ranges over 30 km and short-range RO2006 (Eurospike-ER) missiles being carried by infantry squads. The short range of the latter, around 8 km maximum, is made up for by the fact that the infantry squads are extremely small and mobile, and as such can move around in the archipelago to set up ambushes at choke points or guard minefields from being swept. However, when push comes to shove, it will be the MTO 85M that will have to do much of the heavy lifting.

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One of the early renders of the upcoming corvette, featuring twin quadruple launchers mounted just aft of the mast. Source: Defmin.fi
With the launch of the Squadron 2020 project, one of the main issues will be what (or which) weapons it will feature for the anti-ship role. Preliminary renders have shown twin quadruple launchers mounted amidships, not unlike those used for the US Harpoon anti-ship missile. The Harpoon has, in a number of variants, been a sort of de-facto NATO standard (together with more famous Exocet), and new versions keep being rolled out. In many ways, the Harpoon, Exocet and RBS15 are comparable. All feature a radar seeker in the nose, are comparatively large, and uses an attack profile where they approach the target at high subsonic speeds at very low altitude, skimming just a few meters over the waves. All three are available in truck, ships, and air launched variants, with the Exocet and Harpoon also being found in submarine launched variants (this obviously being a largely academic talking point in the case of Finland). A new version of one of these three could very well provide the main striking power on Finland’s upcoming corvettes, and would be in line with Finland’s rather conservative view on defence acquisitions, preferring evolutionary rather than revolutionary increments.

The joker of the pack is the NSM provided by Kongsberg, and selected (in its air-launched JSM-version) to be the prime anti-shipping weapon for the F-35. The Norwegians has a reputable reference in the AGM-119 Penguin, which is a short-ranged IR-seeker missile that has seen significant export sales, crucially as a helicopter-launched weapon to the US Navy. The system was also operated by the Swedish Navy as the Rbs 12. The NSM is altogether different though, and its performance and size places it in the same category as the above-mentioned missiles, with one crucial difference: it uses a passive IIR-seeker, making it worse at handling adverse weather conditions but potentially better at coping with modern countermeasures which have heavily focused on spoofing radar seekers. It might also have an easier time in the cluttered archipelagos of the Finnish coast.

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A Harpoon missile blasts off from a US cruiser. Source: Wikimedia Commons/DoD
Another noteworthy “western” (with the word used in a very loose sense) missile is the Japanese XASM-3. Where most western manufacturers have preferred high-subsonic speeds, Soviet/Russian missiles have in several instances instead aimed at very high speeds, including up to Mach 3. The XASM-3, currently undergoing testing, is one of the few western projects specifically aiming for a high top-speed, with Mach 3 having been mentioned. The Japanese do have a history of successful locally-produced subsonic missiles, with the anti-shipping mission naturally being of high priority for the island nation. While this certainly brings something unique to the table, I still see it as unlikely that this Japanese ship-killer would find its way into the Baltic Sea.

For Finland, a number of pieces are bound to move around within the near future. As mentioned, the RBS15 SF-III is not the RBS15 Mk3 used by Poland, Germany, and Sweden, and will need to be replaced at some point. The system itself celebrated 35 years since the first launch this summer, and while it might sound much, by then both Harpoon and Exocet were already tried and proven systems in service. The important part is that the basic missiles of all three families have been continuously updated, and current versions share little except name and outward appearance with their brethren of the 80’s.

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The Finnish truck-based launcher mounting the MTO 85M. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI
What happens if one fails to keep abreast with current development has been clearly shown by the attacks on USS Mason during the last weeks, where the Iranian C-802/Noor missiles apparently have scored nought for six in their attempts at targeting a modern destroyer. Important is also to recognise that while many associate anti-ship missiles with the attack on HMS Sheffield in the Falkland’s War, where the 4,800 ton destroyer was sunk by a single Exocet, history have also shown that a 150+ kg warhead isn’t necessarily enough. Four years after HMS Sheffield, the USS Stark was hit by two Exocets while sailing in the Persian Gulf, but the 4,100 ton frigate managed to stay afloat despite the damage done by the impact and ensuing fire.

For Finland, the MTO 85M is bound to receive a one-for-one replacement, and not only is it likely to be introduced on the new corvettes, but it is likely that the same missile will be implemented on the Hamina-class following their MLU and to the vehicle-mounted batteries as well. The great question is the third part of what logically would be a triad, namely an air-launched weapon. Currently the Finnish Air Force is in the situation that it feature a naval fighter, but lacks any serious anti-shipping capability. There would be a seemingly simple solution, as while the JASSM has been the flagship of the newfound Finnish air-to-ground capability, another missile has also been introduced: the AGM-154C JSOW. While the missile originally was conceived as a ‘pure’ cruise missile, the latest Block III version (C-1) is able to be used in the anti-shipping role as well. The first JSOW C-1 was test-fired from a F/A-18F Super Hornet earlier this year, and upgrading to this version could provide the Finnish Defence Forces with a diverse anti-shipping capability.

While getting anti-shipping missiles for the Hornet might not be realistic, the talk about giving HX an expanded range of capabilities compared to its predecessor gives some reason for optimism. The question then is should HX be allowed to influence the choice of new AShM?

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A Rafale M takes off with a single Exocet mounted on the centre-line pylon. Source: © Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa
For the current HX candidates, they all have their local weapons of choice. In short, the F-35 comes with JSM/NSM, Gripen with the RBS15F, Rafale with the AM.39 Exocet, Eurofighter with the Marte-ER, and the Super Hornet has a whole battery of alternatives lined up, including Harpoon, LRASM (essentially an anti-ship development based on the JASSM), JSM/NSM, and JSOW C-1. Note that for several of these, the missiles aren’t integrated yet, but in different stages between coming at some point/unfounded decision/funded/scheduled/undergoing testing.

At first glance, stating that the Navy follow the cues of the Air Force to get what they’re having might seem tempting. However, there are a number of issues with that thought. To begin with, the air- and sea-launched versions not necessarily share enough components and similarities in handling to create any measurable synergies in acquisition or training. The HX and Squadron 2020 timelines are also somewhat conflicting. The main issue is that as HX likely will get a fighter with a missile already integrated, this would create a situation where a secondary weapon system of the Air Force would determine the main striking power of the Navy. While this would equate to putting the cart in front of the horse, the alternative is that Finland would pay for the integration of the Navy’s missile of choice onto the Air Force’s fighter of choice, or that the Navy and Air Force use different weapons. This is not necessarily a bad thing, sporting different weapons makes it harder for the target to know how it should respond to a threat, but the question is if this politically will be a harder sell, regardless of whether it actually is more expensive or not.

An interesting alternative is the launchers recently sold by MBDA to Qatar. The coastal launchers are remarkable in that they can employ both the Exocet MM.40 and the lighter MARTE ER. This could be an interesting solution especially for the upcoming Finnish coastal batteries, where a hi-low missile mix could make room for more reloads while still sticking with a single launcher.  The MARTE can also be employed by the NH 90, though in the Finnish case this would probably not be cost effective. To begin with, the TTH version lack a suitable search radar, and would have to rely on outside targeting data. On today’s networked battlefield this isn’t necessarily a big deal, but the bigger issue is the fact that the Army will need every single one of their helicopters for tactical transports.

So, which missile will it be that finds its way onto our new corvettes? Harpoon is slowly on the way out for the US Navy, and while it probably will still see use for the next few decades, adopting it as a new system at this point doesn’t make much sense. The JSM with its IIR-seeker probably won’t make the cut due to its limited all-weather capability, though it could be an interesting complement as an air-launched weapon, and the apparent positive experience with Kongsberg’s NASAMS and the recent acquisition of Patria by Kongsberg might well come into play when discussing this option (especially if the F-35 bags the HX-contract). This leaves the updated RBS15 Mk3 and the Exocet MM40 Block 3. With Saab’s strong position as the current supplier of both the MTO 85M and the 9LV combat management system, they seem like the favourite. Saab has also started the marketing campaign already.

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A NSM being test-fired from LCS USS Coronado. Source: Wikimedia Commons/US Navy by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Zachary D. Bell
But while Saab might be the favourite, MBDA should not be underestimated. The company has a wide and varied portfolio when it comes to missiles, and has the ability to offer a one-stop-shop solution for the whole missile-package for the corvettes as shown by the recent deal in which MBDA sold long-range anti-ship missiles as well as long- and short-range air-to-surface missiles to four new Qatari corvettes under a 1 billion euro deal. The deal covered Exocet MM40, Aster 30, and VL Mica missiles, which is a combination that would fit the Finnish requirements very well, and significantly boost the air defence network covering southern parts of Finland (including Helsinki). It would also supply the Finnish forces with an anti-ballistic missile capability on a platform with higher operational mobility compared to a ground-based system. Saab crucially lacks the VLS-based surface-to-air missiles, but can on the other hand bring both a state-of-the-art anti-ship missile and a modern anti-submarine torpedo developed for littoral conditions.

The Canadian connection – Hornets in need of replacement

In 1980 Canada declared the F/A-18A Hornet the winner of their New Fighter Aircraft program, which meant it would be brought into service as the CF-18 to replace three different fighters as the country’s sole fast jet. In doing so it beat a number of other fighters, crucially the F-16A. It is important to remember that the F-16 back in those days wasn’t a multirole aircraft, but rather a within visual range fighter with a limited secondary ground attack capability. The F/A-18 with its AIM-7 Sparrow medium-range missiles was arguably the more competent aircraft, and one of the main worries of the Canadian air force was Soviet bombers and cruise missiles swooping down over the Arctic. Canada is also a large and sparsely populated country that include large swaths of land were bailing out does not necessarily mean you’re in for a happy landing. This combination of BVR capability, longer range, and twin-engine safety in the end meant that Canada went with the more expensive option of the F/A-18 over the F-16 (it has to be mentioned that the government did claim that the economic incentives was better for the Hornet, making it cheaper for the Canadian economy. However, these kinds of arguments usually have a tendency to depend upon who’s making the calculations).

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CF-18A visiting Farnborough during its early years of service. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Andrew Thomas

Thirteen years after Canada received their first F/A-18’s, the first four Hornets for Finland landed at Tampere-Pirkkala. Finland, though markedly smaller than Canada, had a largely similar set of requirements, including cold-weather capability, twin-engine safety, long-range, and focus on the interceptor role. In the end, both Canada and Finland have been very happy members of the Hornet club, but the end of that era looms at the horizon.

Now the alert reader interrupts, if Finland has to replace its Hornets by 2025 due to their lifespan being up, Canada, having bought theirs ten years earlier, by the same logic should have replaced theirs already?

Yes and no. Finland operated the Hornet up until now as a single-role fighter, have placed a higher focus on traditional dogfighting maneuvers, which are extremely taxing on the airframe. In other words, not all flight hours are created equal, and not all aircraft fly the same amount of yearly hours. Also, the Canadian Hornets have been through a number of upgrade programs. Currently they seem to be looking at another set of programs which will take the aircraft up to and past 2025, not bad considering that the original lifespan was envisioned as 20 years (i.e. up to 2002). Canada also did have the replacement figured out, having been a partner of the F-35/JSF program since its beginning, and is currently a Level 3 Partner, i.e. the ‘normal’ level of partnership (only the UK, the Netherlands, and Italy are ranked higher).

Canadian Hornets in operation against ISIL as part of Operation IMPACT

Still, the F-35 has been beset by delays, and the project has been something of a hot potato in Canadian politics. The latest major turn was when Justin Trudeau led the Liberal Party to a victory in the federal elections last year, with the party’s position having been that they will ditch the F-35 and instead launch an open tender for a new fighter (with the F-35 being banned from participating). However, Canada have continued to make the required payments to stay a partner in the program while reviewing how the Hornet should be replaced.

Enter July, and amidst it becoming increasingly clear that there is an urgent need to replace, or at least supplement, the Canadian Hornets, the Canadian government launched what can best be described as a non-binding Request for Information. The aircrafts under consideration are the usual suspects: Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed-Martin F-35 (which is back in the running), and Saab JAS 39 Gripen.

Now, the interesting thing here is the schedule, with the answers to the questionnaire having been requested within three weeks (compare to the eight months allocated for the RFI issued by the Finnish HX). The details are rather sketchy, mainly because the questionnaire is “neither a Call for Tenders nor a Request for Proposals”. The background information provided also emphasises that “no procurement decision has been made“ and that “no summary or final report will be issued following the collection of information from industry”. The schedule for replacing the Hornets is literally given as “as soon as possible”, which ought to make things interesting. The whole thing feels like it is done under extreme time pressure. 

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A F-35 mock-up in Canadian colours. The only way the Lightning II will ever wear the maple leaf? Source: Wikimedia Commons/Alan Rioux

Interestingly enough, the flight scenarios in the attached file requires the respondent to use “actual aircraft configuration (utilize systems which are operational with Armed Services today only – non-developmental)”. This requirement pans out very differently. While Saab currently is the only one to sport the Meteor operationally, they only operate the 39C Gripen and not the longer-ranged 39E which would add considerably to their odds when flying intercepts far out over the Arctic. On the other hand, the F-35 is currently only operational in the V/STOL F-35B version, and if the Canadians decide to interpret the requirement literally, this is effectively a way to make certain the F-35 is a non-starter without explicitly writing so. Another problem for the F-35A is the bases used in the scenario. As fellow blogger Doug Allen noted over at Best Fighter 4 Canada, the 6,000 feet runways are too short for comfort. The Typhoon in turn is designed for exactly the scenario described in the evaluation, transiting high and fast to meet an enemy aircraft far out, but is a few years from getting an AESA radar and the Meteor. The Rafale does feature supersonic drop tanks and a potent AESA set, but the repeated requests for “seamless” integration with Five Eyes ISTAR and other tactical and strategic assets might not play to its strengths. The weapons are also uniquely French.

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The only non-carrier operator of the Super Hornet, Australia bought a batch of F/A-18F Super Hornets to supplement their ‘legacy’ Hornets while waiting for the F-35A. Sounds familiar? Source: Wikimedia Commons/Robert Frola

Enter the Super Hornet, which features the AN/APG-79 AESA radar, is seamlessly integrated into the US-Canadian NORAD air defence network, and carries the same munitions and missiles that the ‘legacy’ Hornet does. The last part is explicitly asked for in the questionnaire, something which is not the case in any documents regarding the HX which are openly available. The Super Hornet manufacturing line is also struggling with having too few aircraft to produce each year, so quickly ramping up to supply the RCAF with a limited number of stop-gap aircraft would be *relatively* easy. Boeing also has an established partnership with the Canadian defence forces and aviation industry. All in all, the stage seems set for Boeing’s fighter, and Canada is indeed one of the countries for which stealth isn’t necessarily a big deal, at least not for their homeland defence/NORAD contribution. Noteworthy is also that the questionnaire does mention cost for 100 pilots being trained, which would imply that the information could serve as a base for the complete Hornet replacement program (though one should remember that there isn’t a procurement decision for anything as of yet).

Another possibility is that, despite his continued official anti-F-35 view, Trudeau is trying to set the stage for a F-35 purchase, by creating the foundations for a competition, which the F-35 then can sweep clean (compare to Kampfly in Denmark). For Canada, a mix of Super Hornets (or Typhoons) for NORAD duties combined with F-35A’s for expeditionary work under NATO and UN commitments might actually be the ideal solution. Only time will tell if this will be the final outcome.

A big thanks to Karl Rieder for the link to the Canadian source material! Do follow him on Twitter if you don’t already.

Typhoon starting to unlock growth potential

The Eurofighter Typhoon has long been one of the prime contenders for the title of fighter with the most untapped potential. While the combination of excellent fast/high performance, a sizeable radar dish, and a large battery of ASRAAM and AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles have long made certain that it is one of the best BVR interceptors available, the lack of a AESA radar and limited range of ground attack weaponry available have made it seem lackluster when compared with other multirole fighters, and in some aspects even with the very Tornado it is set to replace.

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The Typhoon in the original F.2 air superiority only version. Picture courtesy of Jussi Seppälä – flyFinland.fi

While this comparison is somewhat unjust and oversimplified, it is also true that there has been a marked lack of interest on the part of the governments of Spain, Italy, Germany, and the UK with regards to keeping the Typhoon at the forefront of technology. In a way this is understandable, as all of the air forces operate older types which already largely have the ground attack capabilities that the Typhoon is lacking. Allocating precious funds from limited defence budgets to unlock capabilities that’s already there in another form have been hard to justify. Especially with two of the four air forces already having received their first F-35’s.

But nothing lasts forever, and that include both Tornadoes and Hornets. After having already had to push back on the retirement date for a number of Tornado squadrons, the RAF in particular have finally decided to put some effort into actually unlocking more of the Eurofighter’s potential.

The current situation is that the RAF is operating their Typhoons in the somewhat ungainly named P1E(B)-standard, which is adding on to the original P1E (the first standard to bring multirole capability) by, amongst other things, introducing the very capable Paveway IV guided bomb. The Paveway IV adds a dual GPS/INS-seeker as well as being aerodynamically more efficient compared to earlier members of the Paveway-family, and has rapidly become the RAF’s weapon of choice when requiring more punch than the Brimstone.

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Eurofighter Typhoon with the upcoming P3E weapons fit. Picture courtesy of BAE Systems/Ray Troll

The past weeks’ major story has been that the Typhoon has performed at RIAT and Farnborough with the upcoming P3E weapons kit, in a configuration that include:

  • Four Meteor very-long range air-to-air missiles
  • Two ASRAAM mid/long range air-to-air missiles
  • Six Brimstone 2 anti-vehicle/low-collateral damage guided missiles
  • Two Paveway IV guided bombs
  • Two external drop tanks

While a single aircraft might be unlikely to employ both Brimstones and Paveways on the same mission, it does show a well-rounded capability to target many different kinds of air and surface threats. What is even more interesting is that the aircraft flies during the airshows with this loadout, further emphasising the impressive thrust and manoeuvrability available to the Typhoon.

“This display will also demonstrate is that Typhoon, even with this weapons fit, loses none of the incredible agility and manoeuvrability for which it is known.”

Nat Makepeace, BAE Systems Typhoon Experimental Test Pilot

Notable is also the fact that of these weapons, only the Brimstone 2 is actually a P3E weapon, with the Meteor being integrated under the earlier Phase 2 Enhancement (together with the Storm Shadow stealthy cruise missile), and the Paveway IV and ASRAAM being available already today. In an export configuration, the Typhoon also benefits from having already integrated both the long-range ASRAAM and the highly-manoeuvrable IRIS-T (used by non-UK Typhoons), giving it an interesting mix of heat-seeking missiles. In addition the brand new SPEAR missile has also been successfully test-fired earlier this year, and though no decision has yet been taken, integrating it would open up even further capabilities. The only piece of the puzzle currently missing is the CAPTOR-E AESA radar, which is currently about to start flight testing as well under the P3E-program. It seems like the Typhoon finally is starting to show its true multirole potential.

The Real Joint Strike Fighter – Our Next Fighter?

Having looked at a number of different aspects of the Rafale in detail, one question remains: should it be the fighter that replaces the Hornets?

To begin with, the aircraft would be suitable for dispersed operations of the kind envisioned by the air force, and the advanced electronic warfare systems coupled with signature reducing features and excellent performance down amongst the treetops means that it might have a shot at operating in the Finnish airspace even after Russian very-long range surface-to-air missile systems have extended their cover here.

The long-range development plan is solid, and the aircraft will stay as France’s main fighter for the foreseeable future, which guarantees that it will receive focus from a major backer. The upgrade path include the F3R currently in testing to become operational in 2018, main features of which are the integration of the Meteor, full integration of the AASM, adding the new TALIOS targeting pod, and a host of upgrades to the AESA radar and Spectra suite. This will also provide the baseline for the Rafale offered to Finland under HX.

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The RBE2 AESA Radar, one of the core sensors of the Rafale. Picture courtesy of Y. Kervel/I3M ©Thales

The F3R will then be followed by F4, which should reach operational service around 2023, and is set to include new air-to-air missiles in place of the Mica, significant improvements to the datalink as well as making the Spectra of different aircraft communicate directly with each other. Improvements to the radar are also planned, potentially including electronic attack modes. Further out are the MLU, to become operational post-2030, where focus is placed upon close co-operation with UCAV’s and radical additions to the sensors (including conformal mutli-band antennas), and the Rafale NG post-2035 which might include a larger and stealthier fuselage coupled with bigger engines.

Looking closer at the Rafale as it stands, there are a host of benefits it would provide already from day one. These include excellent short-field performance and a proven ability of operating in austere conditions. A large and proven array of sensors and weapons are also available, including the Exocet anti-ship missile which would add a significant new capability currently lacking in the Finnish Air Force. The Spectra together with the AEROS recce pod would provide a very interesting combination of IMINT and ELINT capabilities which would be extremely useful already during peacetime for policing the movements of troops and equipment in the areas adjacent to the Finnish border.

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The traditional way of providing longer loitering time for fighters, here in the form of a USAF KC-10. For the Finnish Air Force, large dedicated tankers have never been an option. Picture courtesy of Jussi Seppälä – flyFinland.fi

Another role in which the Rafale is regularly used by the French Navy is for buddy-buddy air refuelling. Fitted with a refuelling pod and lifting 6,500 litres of fuel in external tanks (in addition to the normal internal load) it can provide extended range for the aircrafts carrying combat loads or out on long patrol missions. For Finland, operating a dedicated tanker aircraft has always been considered prohibitively expensive, but there are still cases where the capability would come in handy (not at least as air-refuelling proficiency is a pre-requisite for long deployments and/or international missions which require tanker support).

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© Alex Paringaux

For the question as to which version would be the one to buy, the single-seat C would be the logical choice. The B might add some benefits on complex attack missions, such as long-range interdiction or SEAD, and naturally for providing operational conversion. However, it should be noted that the Armée de l’Air wing currently tasked as centre of excellence for precision ground attack and reconnaissance (with both the Damoclès and AEROS) is the legendary EC 2/30 ‘Normandie-Niemen’, operating the single-seat C-variant.

Another perhaps more boring but still important feature is the fact that the Rafale is sold, and largely built, in euros.When Finland bought the Hornets, they were budgeted for in Finnish marks, while the contract was in US dollars. An unfortunate drop in exchange rates meant that the Hornets came in significantly over budget (in FIM). The euro is significantly more stable than the mark ever was, but the currency risk is still there (coupled with a Finnish purchasing power risk inside the euro zone).

Studying the Rafale further in detail was in many ways an eye-opener, with many of the features presented here being new to me. While I still consider the Rafale an underdog in the HX-evaluation, I would not count it out either. In the end, all five contenders are extremely competent, and regardless of the outcome, the air force is set to receive a great aircraft.

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© HESJA

The Real Joint Strike Fighter – Weaponry

The arsenal available to the Rafale is naturally one of the talking points when discussing the fighter. To begin with, it should be pointed out that there is nothing that blocks the integration of non-French weapons onto the aircraft, something which the French themselves have shown with the rapid integration of different members of the US Paveway-series of laser-guided bombs. “Everything is possible,” was Dassault Aviation’s answer when asked the question of integrating weapons such as the AGM-158 JASSM. Still, the main weapons of the Rafale are French, and Dassault likes to emphasize self-reliance as a selling point. I am not quite convinced the Finnish authorities will see things the same way, but regardless, there are some really interesting options currently featured. A key note is that of the aircraft’s fourteen hardpoints, five are of the ‘wet/heavy’ type (meaning they can carry external fuel tanks and/or heavy loads such as air-to-ground weapons). An interesting thing for long-term readers of the blog is that a surprising number of the missiles mentioned here have also featured in my earlier post on the weapons alternatives available for the Squadron 2020 corvettes.

AASM

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© Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

The AASM (fr. Armement Air-Sol Modulaire), also marketed as ‘Hammer’, is a modular French guidance kit that is fitted to different sizes of normal ‘dumb’ bombs, to give them greater accuracy. The AASM is highly modular, and can include either laser- or electro-optical tracking, as well as a GPS-receiver, and is available in powered or unpowered versions. With all the bells and whistles, the weapon is closer to a guided missile than a traditional ‘smart bomb’. The issue is obviously that with the increase in capability comes a higher price, but that is a cost the French have been happy to pay for the ability to employ the weapon against high-priority targets. The AASM proved its worth when it allowed Rafales to fly the SEAD/DEAD mission over Libya and hunt down and destroy air defence assets. After full integration, which is set to become operational within the next few years, the ability to use the AASM for long-range high-off boresight attacks will become available to the Rafale.

Paveway

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© Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

A number of laser-guided Paveways are integrated onto the Rafale, including the 227 kg GBU-12 Paveway II, GBU-22 Paveway III, and GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway, as well as the 454 kg GBU-16 Paveway II and the 908 kg Paveway III. Some of these very integrated at a very short notice, due to combat needs in Afghanistan and Mali.

Exocet

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© Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa

A weapon currently only used by Aéronavale is the latest version of the legendary AM 39 Exocet. The latest Block 2 Mod 2 is a far cry from the weapons that wreaked havoc on the Royal Navy in the Falklands War, and the ability to employ Link 16 for targeting data allows the aircraft to acquire the target ‘silently’. Currently a single missile is carried on the centre-line, but the ability to carry up to three missiles is there.

SCALP

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© Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

The joint French-British SCALP, called Storm Shadow in the UK, is a stealthy long-range cruise missile. The missile is in many aspects similar to the JASSM currently employed by the Finnish Air Force, and it is not unlikely that the SCALP would replace the JASSM in the case either the Rafale or the Eurofighter would be chosen as our next fighter. A high-resolution IIR-seeker provides terminal guidance, and a number of different modes of operation can be set, including fusing (air burst, impact, or penetration) and dive angle. The weapon has also been successfully used in both Libya and Iraq. Navigation is via inertial, GPS, or terrain reference. The missile is designed to feature a very high level of automation on the part of the pilot, meaning that it is suitable for single-seat fighters as well as twin-seaters. It does currently lack a data-link, though future versions might include this feature.

Mica IR

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© Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

The Mica IR is the current standard heat-seeking missile of the Rafale, and as mentioned in the earlier post it is moonlighting as an IR-sensor fused with the rest of the fighter’s sensor suite. As an IR-missile, the MICA is something of an in-between, not being quite as manoeuvrable as ‘proper’ high-off boresight missiles such as the IRIS-T, and not featuring quite the range that the ASRAAM has. Still, it is able to perform lock-on after launch, and over-the-shoulder firings at targets behind the firing aircraft has been demonstrated, with the targeting data being provided by datalink.

Mica RF

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© Dassault Aviation – S. Fort

The single major weak spot in the arsenal of the Rafale is the current beyond visual range missile, which is simply a Mica with an active radar seeker. The missile lacks the range and punching power of the AIM-120 AMRAAM, and as a matter of fact the above mentioned ASRAAM also has a higher kinetic energy at longer ranges. The sole benefit it has over the AMRAAM is that the US missile is something of a victim of its own success, with any potential adversary having spent serious resources studying how to defeat the AMRAAM, something which isn’t necessarily true for the Mica.

Meteor

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© Dassault Aviation – DR

The Meteor is the most advanced very-long range air-to-air missile available today. Having only entered operational service (with the 39C Gripen) this spring. The Eurofighter and Rafale are next in line to be armed with this exceptional ramjet-powered weapon, which promises to become the new ‘gold standard’ of its class. In particular for the Rafale, the Meteor promises to solve the lack of a ‘proper’ BVR-missile, and will mean that the pilots are able to take full benefit of the aircrafts powerful AESA radar. The initial load will be limited to two Meteors, but two more can be cleared if an export customer so requires. To note is that, as the Meteor will employ the same datalink as the MICA does, it will feature only one-way communication with the Rafale. This is unlike the integration on the Eurofighter and Gripen, which both will feature full two-way datalinks. It remains to be seen how large of a deficit this is.

 

All in all, the Rafale already in its current configuration provides weapons alternatives not only corresponding to but surpassing those currently available to the Finnish Air Force’s Hornets. The addition of AASM and Exocet would also mean that the possibility of new missions would be opened up, such as close air support and anti-ship missions.

The Real Joint Strike Fighter – The Legacy of the Mirage IV

The legacy of the Mirage IV has vast implications for the design of the Rafale. When the Mirage IVP was retired in 2005, it meant the end of one of the very few strategic reconnaissance aircraft operated by any European air force. To fill this gap, the Rafale has been wired to carry not only the Damoclès targeting/intelligence gathering pod (to be replaced by the Talios in the upcoming years), but also the impressive one-tonne AREOS (or Thales Pod Reco NG) stand-off reconnaissance observation pod. The later features a dual infrared/visible light sensor mounted in a swivel mount, providing what Dassault Aviation describe as “stand-off pre-strategic reconnaissance capability”. The intelligence gathering capability was shown in action during the operations against Libya, where the first wave of Rafales linked live images to the carrier Charles de Gaulle (‘R91’), which then relayed the information back to the aircrafts’ home base in France. The second wave of Rafales then launched with the updated info.

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The huge AEROS recce pod mounted on the Rafale centre station. Picture courtesy of Dassault Aviation / ©Alex Paringaux

However, the original purpose of the Mirage IV was as a single-role strategic bomber to deliver French nuclear weapons deep behind the iron curtain. The nuclear deterrence mission was then transferred first to the dedicated Mirage 2000N (Nucléaire), with the Rafale also destined from the outset to become part of the Force de dissuasion (literally Deterring Force). This means that the Rafale is designed to be “Entry first-capable” as Dassault Aviation puts it, meaning it should be able to operate far behind enemy lines, to carry out strikes in the face of the strong air defences, including both fighters and ground based-systems, that can be expected to protect high-value targets, and that this ability is a French national strategic interest.

The obvious question that comes to mind is how they plan to do this with a non-stealthy aircraft. The answer is the larger concept of survivability. The value of stealth stems from the fact that not being seen dramatically increases your survivability. However, as Dassault Aviation likes to point out, “Survivability is more than just stealth”. In the case of the Rafale, it features a combination of a number of things to increase its survivability:

  • Low-observability features such as radar absorbent material and shielding the engine intakes
  • Relying on passive sensors instead of active ones
  • Hands-off low-level flight providing terrain masking. This can be done either by using the radar for altitude data or by relying on the inbuilt terrain database, which makes it possible to fly at extremely low-level and high speed without any emission
  • Two engines provide added redundancy in case of battle damage or a bird strike
  • Carefree handling, to the extent that “everybody can fly the Rafale” according to Dassault Aviation
  • The integrated electronic warfare suite SPECTRA

The SPECTRA received a near-mythical reputation in Libya, where it was a key component in allowing the French Air Force to perform some of the first strikes launched while the Libyan air defence network was still largely intact. These missions included hunting Libyan air defence assets with the French AASM powered glide bomb, more on which in the next part.

The SPECTRA is far from just an advanced jammer and automated chaff/flare popper. Instead, it combines the self-defence jamming and electronic countermeasures with missile and laser warning systems, and also functions as one of the sensors integrated to provide the pilot with a single tactical picture. In this role, it relies on a comprehensive threat library, one which the users are free to update according to their needs and available information on enemy dispositions.

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A Rafale C (closer to the camera) showing of an air-to-air load with 6 MICA, of which the wingtip ones are MICA IR with their seekers sensor fused with the other systems of the aircraft. The other Rafale is a two-seater Rafale B in an air-to-ground configuration with two SCALP cruise missiles. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

Besides the SPECTRA, the other sensors integrated are the AESA radar, the internal Front Sector Optronics (which include not only a tele-lens camera but a laser range-finder as well), data links (Link 16 or national links), as well as the IR seeker heads on any MICA IR air-to-air missiles carried. These are then presented on one large tactical display placed high for easy reference. This can either show a single large map of the tactical picture, or be split between individual sensor pictures. There are also two somewhat smaller multi-function displays on the sides of the main screen. While Dassault Aviation are very proud of this setup, it is hard to not feel that, while a significant improvement compared to current fourth generation fighters, the setup isn’t quite up to par with the single large displays offered in the F-35 and JAS 39E Gripen.

All in all, Dassault Aviation was confident that the aircraft will be able to operate in the face of the modern Russian air defences set to cover most of the Finnish air space by the time HX enters service.

The long-range interdiction requirement is also evident in the huge carrying capacity of the Rafale. The aircraft is relatively small for being a twin-engined fighter, at 10 ton its empty weight is only 2/3 that of a Super Hornet, but on top of internal fuel it can bring an impressive 9.5 tonnes of external stores with it, for a maximum take-off weight of 24.5 tonnes. The Super Hornet can carry “only” 8 tonnes of external stores, which interestingly enough is the same amount that the considerably larger Russian Sukhoi Su-30 can carry as well. However, the empty weight of the mighty Su-30 is close to 18 tonnes, and if aiming for a full external load, it isn’t able to carry the full internal amount of fuel available to it.

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A heavily-armed Rafale, with six precision-guided AASM bombs, four MICA air-to-air missiles, two very long range METEOR missiles, as well as three 2,000 liter fuel tanks. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – A. Pecchi

While it might be argued that lifting your own weight in external stores is more of a gimmick than an actual combat load, the huge amount of lift is not without benefits. It makes it possible to lift normal combat loads with ease, and is a key point in giving the aircraft the margins that makes it excel in carrying out missions at high speed and extremely low level. It is also an important feature in providing the short field performance that is critical around carriers, or makeshift road bases for that matter.