Rafale going for HX

In a world where the transatlantic link is looking surprisingly shaky, the French charm offensive is continuing. And as some of the competition are fighting delays, cost overruns, and uncertainties, the Rafale is steaming on ahead seamingly without any major hiccups. In the short term, that means rolling out the F3R standard which will sport AGCAS (Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System), introduction of the MBDA Meteor long-range missile, and a host of other less noticeable upgrades to the aircraft. The F3R is an intermediate step, building on the current F3 model. The big step will then be the F4, which is expected in the 2023 to 2025 timespan, coinciding with the deliveries of the first HX-fighters in initial operational capability, which is set to happen in 2025.

 

Rafale single
Rafale B ‘4-HP’ from SPA 37 “Charognard” of EC 1/91 “Gascogne”. EC 1/91 has been actively taking part in most recent French operations, including combat over Libya, Mali, and Syria/Iraq. The two-seat B-version is every bit as combat capable as the single-seater. Source: Own picture

If Rafale would win HX, it is the F4 standard which would be delivered to the Finnish Air Force. Dassault is expecting that the French baseline will suit Finland just fine, though they leave the door open for the Finnish aircrafts to have unique weapons and external sensors if so required. Dassault is keen to point out the benefits of this model, making sure the Rafale is sporting mature but modern technologies through incremental upgrades according to the roadmap laid forward by the DGA, the French Directorate General of Armaments.

Everyone can improve technology, but you can’t change the concept […] France can’t operate dedicated aircraft

The benefit from a Finnish viewpoint is that besides the Swedish Air Force JAS 39E Gripen, the French offer will be the only one which will be operated by the host country’s single-aircraft air force (though both the JAS 39C/D and Mirage 2000 will linger on for a few years more). The lack of dedicated fast jets for different roles ensures full support for the multirole capability from the host, something which certainly would make the Finnish Logistics Command sleep easier at night.

Rafale pair topside
At the heart of the Rafale’s impressive low-level performance is the huge delta wing and close-coupled canard. Source: Own picture

One point which Dassault brings up when I meet them at this year’s air show which wasn’t discussed last year is the capability per aircraft. While the ‘how much bang can you create for 10 billions?’-approach of the HX-tender might hand an edge to some contenders, the politically motivated decision to acquire exactly 64 aircraft will on the other hand favour more capable aircraft. This is where Dassault see their strengths. The Rafale is largely assumed to be second only to the F-35 when it comes to signature reduction amongst the HX contenders. At the same time the Rafale is from the outset designed to be able to operate with limited support and low maintenance hours, a feature stemming both from the requirement to be able to operate from the relatively small French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle as well as from replacing the sturdy Jaguar and Mirage F1 in operations in austere conditions, often in Africa and in the Middle East. The latter is in marked contrast to some other contenders, and Dassault likes to point out that this is not just a design concept, but something the aircraft does every day.

We have over 30,000 flight hours in combat

When it comes to combat, the keyword is ‘agile’. Rafale is able to adapt to different scenarios and conflict levels, thanks to the multitude of sensors and weapons available to the pilot (and WSO in the case of the Rafale B). These capabilities goes all the way to peacetime, where the Rafale has provided assistance to emergency authorities by documenting natural disasters and floods with their dedicated reconnaissance pods. But while peacetime assistance is a nice bonus, HX will be bought for its combat potential.

And here the Rafale is able to provide serious hours of combat potential, both on a daily basis as well as for prolonged periods of time. The Rafale can do 10 hour CAP-missions, and is able to surge over 150 monthly flight hours per aircraft. The latter has been demonstrated repeatedly during combat operations such as Operation Chammal, the French strikes in Syria and Iraq. The single most high-profile mission in the area is without doubt the strike on Syrian regime chemical warfare installations earlier this year. Here, the Rafale demonstrated the “seamless plug and play” capability of the Rafale to integrate with other NATO-assets to carry out a complex long-range mission. Five Rafales, including two-seaters, flew out of bases in France to strike two facilities at Him Shinshar, one of which was targeted together with US Navy, Royal Air Force, and the French Navy, while the other was struck solely by the Rafales. As was noted in the immediate aftermath of the strikes, they took out all intended targets without interference from neither the Russian nor the Syrian air defences.

Another benefit the Rafale brings to the table is the second engine. While the benefit of twin engines for normal flight safety redundancy is limited these days, in combat the ability to lose an engine and still limp home is an asset. “It’s more comfortable,” as a former Mirage 2000-pilot puts it.

Rafale pair
The Rafale dynamic duo display at the Finnish Air Force 100 year air show in Tikkakoski. Source: Own picture

Last time around the Mirage 2000 was the only fighter other than the F/A-18C Hornet to meet the requirements of the Finnish Air Force, but suffered from what the evaluation thought of as a “maintenance system which would be difficult for us”. This is not something Dassault expects will be repeated, as the maintenance requirements for the Rafale is one of the areas which have seen vast improvement. The Rafale feature a fully digital mock-up which has provided the basis for the maintenance studies. These theoretical calculations have then been validated by comparison to an airframe which has been tortured in Dassault’s laboratory. The final outcome is a maintenance program centered around on-condition maintenance rather than the traditional by flight hour system, and a scheduled airframe maintenance which is halved compared to that of the current F/A-18C/D Hornets. While the Rafale is not unique amongst the HX-contenders in taking maintenance to the next level, it is hard to see the aircraft being dropped on what was a weak point for the Mirage 2000.

In the end, talk about the Rafale always comes back to the ‘here and now’. This is an aircraft that is immediately available, ‘fly before you buy’ as Dassault puts it, and keeps balancing nicely on the edge between maturity and cutting edge. The key role it plays in French defence also means that it will continue to be kept updated throughout the lifespan of HX. Like Eurofighter, Dassault is keen to point out that Rafale will also play a part in the Franco-German Future Combat Air System (FCAS), which true to it name is a system and not just a new fighter. The Rafale stands out in many ways from the competition, offering a number of unique solutions and concepts. Time will tell if these will catch the interest of the Finnish Air Force, or if a more conservative solution will be sought.

© Dassault Aviation - A. Paringaux
A pair of Rafale’s being prepared in their light shelters at the Jordanian Prince Hassan air force base during Operation Chammal, French the strikes against IS. Source: © Dassault Aviation – A. Paringaux

The odd bird – EA-18G Growler

In the HX program full of multi-role fighters, the EA-18G Growler seems like the odd bird out, being a highly specialised electronic warfare platform. However, the first thing to note is that the Growler in fact can do both. “It operates and flies the same [as the F/A-18F Super Hornet], it has the same weapons except the two wingtip AIM-9 Sidewinders” Boeing’s representative explains. “It is a fully multirole platform.”

Flying the front-seat is the same.

But let’s not kid ourselves. While it is nice for a small air force to know that any airframes allocated to the electronic warfare role aren’t automatically taken away from the air superiority mission, no-one will pay the premium the Growler requires to just get another multirole aircraft. But perhaps the first question is why anyone would pay for the Growler in the first place, considering that the other contenders are happy to fly the SEAD mission with multirole fighters equipped with jamming pods.

EA-18G take off
EA-18G Growler of VAQ-129 ‘Vikings’ taking off during its display at Tikkakoski air show. Note the decision to fly with a partial external load (twin AIM-120 AMRAAM, twin droptanks, and a single AGM-88E AARGM). Source: Own picture

But while the Growler externally looks like just another F/A-18F with jamming pods, looks can be deceiving. The Growler shares 90% commonality of parts with the baseline F/A-18F Super Hornet, the rest is made up of a fully integrated active/passive electronic warfare suite, based on a pedigree of decades of experience of the electronic attack role. The industrial team behind the Growler include both Raytheon (sensors), Northrop-Grumman (the company behind the EA-6B Prowler), and Boeing themselves (who’s own electronic attack portfolio dates back to the AD-1Q Skyraider), providing a solid background for what soon will be the sole tactical electronic warfare aircraft in the US inventory.

[Growler is] full spectrum. Pods cover part of the spectrum, this covers all of it.

The Growler is far from just a flying SAM-jammer. It gathers data from and analyses all electronic emissions in the area, and then share it via its high-capacity datalink (which as discussed in the last post, is now coming to the basic Super Hornet as well). It’s also able to jam a large number of bandwidths, making it able to perform such diverse missions as denial of communications (jamming enemy military and/or civilian networks), counter-IED patrols, and the traditional SEAD-mission most closely associated with the “E for electronic warfare”-designation. Notably, the disruption of communications is just the kind of joint capability that the Finnish Defence Forces is looking for with HX, allowing the Air Force to directly support the Army (and Navy) by means other than simply sweeping the skies clear of enemy strike aircraft. The sharing of information about enemy emissions in the full electromagnetic spectrum also provides a huge boost to friendly forces when it comes to piecing together the situational picture of the battlefield.

AARGM.JPG
AGM-88E AARGM next to an AIM-9X under the wing of one of the two EA-18G Growlers that made the types first visit to Finland. Source: Own picture

In the SEAD-role the main weapons are the signal-seeking AGM-88 HARM and its newer cousin, the imposing AGM-88E AARGM. The later sport a number of upgrades, including longer range and a wider seeker band, but also GPS/INS navigation and a millimeter wave radar for terminal guidance. This means that even if you switch off your radar after launch, there is a good chance that the missile will find and kill you (or at least your radar).

But it’s not only in the air-to-surface domain that the Growler is an interesting option. While it is less commonly discussed, having a Growler feeding information and disrupting enemy units provides a huge advantage in the air-to-air role as well (“game changing” are the words used by Boeing). While electronic warfare is one of the most secretive fields when it comes to precise capabilities, making it hard to differentiate marketing talk from pure capability, it is notable that the introduction of the F-35C into US Navy does not spell the end for either the Super Hornet or the Growler. Neither aircraft has any set retirement date, and it does seem clear that the F-35C as well will rely on support from the Growler if faced with an high-end scenario. This certainly says something about the level of trust the US Navy places in the aircraft.

Every aircraft require a Growler going into an advanced threat.

The tactical value of having Growlers as part of the Finnish Defence Forces’ inventory would certainly be significant, but is the Growler a realistic alternative for Finland? The short answer is that no one knows for certain (yet), but those in the know seems to think so. Minister of Defence Jussi Niinistö was clear on the HX press conference when answering questions about a split HX-buy that while a two-fighter force wasn’t an option, a Super Hornet/Growler-mix certainly was. The US government also seem to think so, as they readily allowed Boeing to lease two Growlers for the Finnish 100 anniversary air show (it has to be remembered that the Super Hornet-deal would be a government to government one). As this was effectively marketing for HX (with a touch of national security diplomacy), sending the Growler only makes sense if that is part of the product-package. The choice of unit was interesting as well, as the Growler came from VAQ-129, the sole training unit for Growler pilots and WSO’s. In other words, this is the very unit which in just a few years time could be training the first batch of Finnish Growler backseaters.

It largely then comes down to money, and this is an interesting one. The US Navy fact file lists the unit cost of the Growler at a very reasonable 67 million USD (a price tag they haven’t updated since 2011). However, things start to look more opaque once the Australian export order is brought up. The plan was for twelve of the RAAF’s 24 F/A-18F to be brought up to Growler standard for a price tag of 1.5 billion AUD (950 million EUR), or 79 million EUR per aircraft for the upgrade alone. However, that was without the crucial ALQ-99 jamming pods, which for a full set of pods for twelve aircraft would have added a further 1.4 billion AUD (890 million EUR). Furthermore, the currently ongoing 20 year upgrade program for “the EA-18G platform as well as those Fundamental Inputs to Capability [ALQ-99 and associated weapons support and training systems]” has a price tag of 5 to 6 billion AUD (3.2 to 3.8 billion EUR), or over 25 million EUR per aircraft and year until it reaches full operational capability by 2031. A key part of this is replacing the old ALQ-99 jammers with the new Next Generation Jammer (NGJ), a multi-billion dollar program in which Australia is a partner. However, the seemingly outrageous operating price tag isn’t undisputed. Exactly how the cost for the Australian Growler-upgrade will be spent is unsure, e.g. what part is spent on actual new hardware and what part, if any, is spent on what would normally be seen as operating costs. As a counterpoint, some years ago Forbes listed the per flight hour cost for the Growler as being slightly lower than that of the basic F/A-18F (9.2k USD compared to 10.5k USD). Another question which significantly would change Finnish operating costs is how the Finnish cooperation agreement with US Navy would look. As noted, the Growler-crews would likely head over to the states to get part of their training there. But also when it comes to e.g. the jamming pods one possibility is to instead of outright buying them a lend (or lease) might be possible. The bottomline is that it is extremely hard to get a clear picture of what the acquisition and operating cost for the Growler would be, though it is safe to say that introducing this kind of completely new capability would come at an additional cost. What should be remembered is that in the opening buy the Super Hornet will have a significantly smaller transition cost for re-training the whole Finnish Air Force from one fighter to another, meaning that Boeing might have more room to throw in something extra, such as a bunch of kitted-out Growlers.

EA-18G turning.JPG
EA-18G Growler turning away from the crowd. Source: Own picture

The number of Growlers in a potential Finnish mix is open, and here Boeing themselves are unable to give a direct answer. The final and best offer will include a mix based on the outcome of the capability scenario simulations which the FDF has set for all fighters to meet. Some of these naturally favour a higher Super Hornet to Growler-ratio, some a smaller one. Based on these the customer will then make a request for how many Growlers would be fit inside the 64 fighter package, or as Boeing puts it:

It is interesting what we have to say, but in some ways also irrelevant.

On Rhinos and Growlers

After something of a slow start, Boeing kicked off their HX-campaign with a bang last year, bringing two Super Hornets to both major Finnish air shows. One of these was the classic VFA-103 ‘Jolly Rogers’ CAG-bird, while the other was from VFA-143 ‘Pukin’ Dogs’ and played the role of Block 3 demonstrator at Seinäjoki air show. This was followed up with a visit to Tampere-Pirkkala AFB where the fighters were shown to the Air Force’s Air Combat Centre.

CAG bird.JPG

Since then it has been an eventful year for Boeing’s ‘Rhino’, with the US Navy having signed a contract for 134 new F/A-18E/F Super Hornets over the next few years. These newbuilds will be of the Block 3 standard from the get-go, and will be produced at a production line in the company’s St. Louis factory. At the same time, another 450 fighters will be upgraded during the coming ten years from Block 2 to Block 3 standard, with the work taking place both at a second production line in St. Louis as well as in San Antonio, Texas. Having several scalable production lines is a conscious decision by Boeing, who likes to have some headroom available for added Super Bug-production.

We predict significant international orders. There’s interest from Germany, Poland, India, Spain, Switzerland… Oh, and Canada.

The long-awaited Kuwaiti order was mentioned as a category of its own, and was finalised today, a few weeks after the interview.

While the Rhino is sometimes decried for its lack of success on the export market, it is important to remember the scope of the US Navy orders. While the Eurofighter consortium is rightfully proud of the almost 500 aircraft in service throughout Europe, the recent Block 3 orders means the US Navy alone will outnumber those, with a total of 584 Block 3 Super Hornets to be operated by the service. To this number then comes 36 Australian and now 28 Kuwaiti fighters.

Tower
“Sorry, Goose, but it’s time to buzz the tower!” (that was the last Top Gun quote, I promise). Source: Own picture

Having the Block 3 finally confirmed and fully funded with the production lines open well past the 2025-mark is significant for Boeing when it comes to HX. The Block 3 will give the aircrafts a 9,000 flight hour airframe, but the big change comes to the combat ability of the aircraft. The new wide-area multifunction display will create what Boeing calls “the most advanced cockpit” currently operational, and the TTNT (Tactical Targeting Network Technology) will make significantly increase the amounts of data transfer possible over the data link. TTNT is an example of what used to be niche technology on the EA-18G Growler being transferred to the baseline Super Hornet. Significantly more processing power is also in the works, which will facilitate a much quicker upgrade cycle going forward. The addition of conformal fuel tanks, the first HX contender to sport CFT’s, will also provide a big boost by allowing the aircraft to go faster with the same fuel load, or alternatively carry more weapons for the same range (a third option which is more interesting from a carrier viewpoint than for Finland is getting even more range out of the aircraft by using both CFT’s and drop tanks).

Something Boeing talks openly about is stealth, though their angle is rather different from that of certain other contenders. The IRST included in the Block 3 is “counter-stealth technology”, while the talk about fifth generation fighters is a “marketing scheme”. The decrease in radar-cross section of the Block 3 compared to Block 2, which has received significant coverage from some, is rather modestly described as “a little bit more coating”.

Block 3 II
An F/A-18E in mock-up Block 3 configuration. Note the large conformal fuel tanks above the wing roots. Source: Own picture

 

The HX competition and the Finnish hosts receive high marks. The competition for HX might be fierce, but both the Finnish Defence Forces and the Finnish MoD are “very transparent”. On the whole HX is both “fair”, “well-run”, and “documented in all the right ways”. And going through the HX-ladder of requirements, Boeing is confident that they will pass with flying colours.

We can prove life-cycle costs on mean-time between failures and so forth. Real data, not engineering reference data and assumptions.

Notably, due to the US openness when it comes to budget numbers, the flight hour costs are open information (usual caveat for different operating environments and budgeting methods apply). Hovering around 9,000 USD per flight hour, the cost for the Super Hornets have been lower than that of the aging legacy F/A-18 Hornet in recent years. At the same time, the F-35 and Eurofighter both aims for ‘F-16 like levels’ within the next decade, but neither are there quite yet (the F-35A currently needing a 38% cut in operation and sustainment costs to reach that target).

We want to continue that relationship [with Finnish partners]

One of the real trump cards of Boeing is their current close cooperation with the Finnish authorities as well as with the Finnish industry. Maximising industrial cooperation with Finnish partners might prove to be a challenge for some, but Boeing has already been there. Contrary to normal procedure the MLU2 of the Finnish F/A-18C/D Hornets were performed locally by Patria and not in the states, a point raised by Boeing. Even more importantly, Boeing’s offset responsibilities in conjunction with MLU2 were met either on time or early.

EA-18G Wingfold
An EA-18G Growler from VAQ-129 ‘Vikings’ taxiing while folding its wings during the aircraft’s first visit to Finland earlier this month. Source: Own picture

Crucially, by now Boeing understands the Finnish business and administrative culture to an extent unmatched by any of the rivals (with the exception of Saab), having dealt with the customer on a continuous basis for the last two decades. The current sales organisation even include some veterans who were part of the winning team last time around. While the capabilities of the offers will be the determining factor, there is no denying that understanding how to present those capabilities to your customer plays an important role in dealmaking.

The European Fighter, Pt. 2

25 years ago Finland was looking for an air superiority fighter to replace the ageing J 35 Draken and MiG-21Bis which dominated the ranks of the air force. As is well known, the choice fell on the F/A-18C Hornet, which for the first two decades served solely in the air-to-air role (officially designated F-18C by the Finnish Air Force). But the times they are a-changin’, and with MLU2 the multirole potential was finally brought into play in the Finnish Air Force as well. This also means that for HX to meet the matching set of capabilities, it must be able to fulfill different roles, including air-to-air, air-to-ground, ISR, maritime strike, and stand-off precision strike. The last is treated as a unique requirement by the Finnish Defence Forces, as it requires a completely different setup compared to ‘ordinary’ air-to-ground missions.

F-2000
A crew chief from the Finnish Border Guard’s AW119 Koala watches as an Italian F-2000 Eurofighter touches down in Finland for the first time ever. Source: Own picture

However, while the aircraft will certainly occupy a host of roles, there’s little question that air defence still is and will remain the core mission of the Finnish Air Force. The ample availability of indirect fire, coupled with the planned acquisition of more accurate and longer-ranged munitions for both barrel and rocket artillery, means that there are several ways to kill anything moving on the ground. But even with the upcoming GBAD program, getting proper air defence coverage at medium and high altitudes is another issue. Here the teamwork between air and ground-based systems is a must, and HX will be the air component at least past 2050.

This suits the Eurofighter consortium just fine. While the marketing slogan might be that it is “a platform for any weapon, any mission”, it is clear that the concept owes much to the requirement of an air defence fighter that emerged a number of decades ago. This is most visible in the thrust-to-weight ratio of 1.15, well above both the F-15 and the F-16, which together with the aerodynamically rather clean design gives the aircraft an edge over the competition when it comes to raw speed and altitude performance. Over Syria and Iraq, Typhoon packages handle deconfliction of the air space by simply transiting above the rest of the aircrafts operating in the area, using their speed and endurance to quickly transit between holding areas and targets.

The speed is and obvious benefit in the QRA role as well, a key part in the life of both the Finnish as well as for the partner nations. This is where the Typhoon really shines. Being airborne in just over 1,000 feet (305 meters), the fighter is supersonic within two minutes from scramble. Importantly, even a light air-to-air load includes four semi-recessed Meteor and two ASRAAM or Iris-T, with the full load of six Meteors and two short-range missiles (or four plus four) already starting to put hurt into the arms budget of most air forces if more than a handful of fighters are to be launched. Compared to the current full F-35 load (including external stores) of four shorter-ranged AIM-120C AMRAAM and two AIM-9X, that is a significant difference both in quantity and quality (the F-35 is slated to receive upgrades to the capacity at some point in the future).

HN och EF
Part of the German delegation watches as the Finnish F/A-18C Hornet solo display passes above. Source: Own picture

Meanwhile, the Typhoon is proving to be no hangar queen (Germany being the exception, but that is a reflection of the readiness of the German Defence Forces as a whole). The preceding Italian Typhoon rotation to BAP which took place in 2015 sported a 99,4% availability rate, and during the recent NATO Tiger Meet the Eurofighter had the best mission availability rate of all involved fighters. As test pilot Paul Smith puts it:

If you put fuel and weapons on it, it just keeps flying.

The combination of large amounts of advanced weapons carried, long-ranged sensors, and a significant endurance (further improved by the large drop tanks routinely carried on stations 3 and 11) means that the aircraft in high-end exercises often is the first aircraft in and the last aircraft out. The semi-recessed Meteors and light outer stations (no. 1 and 13) also mean that even in a heavy air-to-ground load, the aircraft has four long-range and two short-range air-to-air missiles to defend itself or other parts of the airspace.

But while the fighter has a clear air-to-air pedigree, recent upgrades has made it a true multirole platform. The British Typhoons have currently been hard at work employing the light Brimstone anti-vehicle/low-collateral damage missile and the Paveway IV laser/GPS/INS-guided 500 lbs (230 kg) bomb over Iraq and Syria. The Brimstone is carried on triple launchers, while the Paveway IV can be carried on single- or twin-launchers, leading to an impressive amount of weapons a single aircraft can bring to the battlefield. Instead of the Paveway IV, the German Air Force carry the corresponding GBU-48 Enhanced Paveway II.

However, Finland has never seen the prime role of the Air Force as being that of quashing large amounts of enemy armour, so the Brimstone might not be high on the wishlist. More interesting are the cruise missiles of the aircraft, with BAE Systems marketing both the Storm Shadow (used by RAF in the recent Syrian strikes) and the Taurus KEPD 350 (integrated onto the German Typhoons). Both are very much the kind of weapon that will be acquired to fill the void left by the AGM-158 JASSM. The really interesting weapon is however the SPEAR 3, which is currently in flight testing on the Typhoon.

Outwardly, the SPEAR looks rather like the Brimstone, but while the Brimstone has a rocket engine to boost it up to speed after which it coasts along until hitting something, the SPEAR is a cruise missile with pop-out wings and a small turbojet. This gives it significantly more range and the ability to fly at low altitudes, and while the Brimstone is a AGM-65 Maverick replacement and Storm Shadow is a JASSM replacement, the SPEAR is something completely new. The low weight (100 kg) and triple racks means that they can be used in larger numbers compared to the ‘silver bullet’-role that traditional cruise missiles occupy. At the same time, their stand-off range and smart attack modes (such as synchronised attacks from multiple directions) means that they can reach targets which earlier would have been considered too far away or too well defended. The warhead might be too small for hardened buildings, but will nicely take out vehicles, light buildings, and small vessel (or disable elements of capital ships).

Good examples of these kinds of sub-strategic targets are command posts, air defence radars, and high-value vehicles (armoured or soft-skinned). To further highlight the interest from the Finnish Defence Forces for this kind of ability to “shape the battlefield”, as the BAE Systems marketing line goes, it is notable that the targets for the Finnish JASSM living firings earlier this year were shaped suspiciously like Russian Iskander ballistic missile launchers or long-ranged SAM-launchers. While the cost of JASSM likely make it prohibitively expensive in a SAM-busting role, the SPEAR would be highly efficient. RAF is already planning on taking up the SEAD/DEAD role with the Typhoon/SPEAR-combination. The flexibility of the weapon would mean that the SPEAR would provide the Finnish Defence Forces with a SEAD, anti-armour, and anti-ship capability in a single stroke. All of these are mentioned as capabilities which the Finnish Air Force is looking at for HX, but which might prove too niche for dedicated single-role weapons.

Typhoon scale model.JPG
The dream – at least for BAE Systems and their partners. Source: Own picture

But from where does a small country such as Finland get adequate targeting data for long-range cruise missile strikes? Here the Eurofighter consortium plays one of their unique selling points, in that the varied partner companies sport a large number of different capabilities, one of which is the Airbus Intelligence Defense and Space-division. This is one of the prime suppliers of satellite imagery, including synthetic-aperture radar ones. BAE Systems notes that a Finnish Typhoon-buy could include an unspecified satellite intelligence package. This shines an interesting light on one of the more curious air show-tweets made by any of the HX-contenders.

The European Fighter, Pt. 1

So BAE Systems had a problem. They had managed to create some buzz in Finnish media by bringing the Eurofighter Typhoon to the Finnish capital last summer and taking part in a major airshow there. However, the fact that BAE Systems is the lead of the HX-marketing program was starting to give the picture of the aircraft as being a British fighter. And with the whole Brexit-mess ongoing, the idea of investing in closer ties with Britain might not sound tempting to the Finnish public. Something had to be done to bring the “Euro” in the “Eurofighter” firmly into view of the Finnish public.

Enter the main Finnish air show of 2018. Lockheed-Martin brought a mock-up, Saab two JAS 39C (one flying and one static) and a 39E mock-up, Dassault three Rafale (two flying and a spare), and Boeing brought two EA-18G Growlers (one flying and one static).

Eurofighter brought six Typhoons, with five aircraft (representing all four partner nations) on static display, and one for the RAF flying display. In addition both BAE Systems and Airbus had their own stands next to each other, with one of the two Spanish Eurofighters parked in front of them.

Spanish Tiffie
The Spanish Air Force operates their Eurofighters alongside their EF-18 Hornets, which are currently upgraded to a standard close to the US F/A-18C/D. As such, the Spanish experience will likely be studied closely by the Finnish Defence Forces. Source: Own picture

Raffael Klaschka, former Luftwaffe Typhoon-pilot and current head of marketing for Eurofighter GmbH, flew in from his office in Munich to attend the air show. And the message is clear: The Eurofighter is a core air defence system for Europe, with almost 500 aircraft responsible for the air defence of half the population of the European Union, and it is set to remain that way past 2050. That includes the time after the Future Air Combat System is rolled out, as the Eurofighter representatives are keen to point out that the FCAS is much more than just a new stealth fighter, being a complete concept which will include an important role for the Typhoon as well (a similar point was raised by Dassault with regards to the future of the Rafale).

Raffael.JPG
Raffael Klaschka began his career in the German Air Force as a F-4F Phantom II pilot, before converting to the Eurofighter. However, he also has experience from the F/A-18 Hornet, no doubt valuable knowledge when dealing with the HX. Source: Own picture

Another issue which was heavily emphasized in the discussions in Tikkakoski was that a Finnish Eurofighter-buy would effectively land Finland many of the benefits enjoyed by the original four partner nations. This includes full access to all aircraft systems and subsystems, as well as representation amongst the partners at the Munich headquarters. “There’s no closed black boxes for European partners,” BAE Systems test pilot Paul Smith notes, a clear reference to a number of transatlantic systems where sealed black boxes have to be shipped back to the manufacturer for maintenance. For the HX-programme where security of supply and an indigenous industrial base able to support the aircraft in peace and war has been one of the main themes, this is exactly the message the Finnish Defence Logistics Command wants to hear.

And the good news doesn’t end there. “Finland will get the E-scan, the very latest version of the E-scan,” Paul assures the gathered crowd of journalists. He refers to the AESA-radar which is currently being flight tested on the Typhoon. Next to him he has a full-scale cutaway model of the nose, with the PIRATE IRST-sensor and the E-scan, together with a number of black boxes representative of the units driving the sensors. “Size does matter” is another of the lines pushed by the company, as the Typhoon has ample room for growth both when it comes to power output for subsystems as well as the physical size of the sensors.

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The German two-seat Eurofighter from Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 71 “Richthofen” which attended the air show. Source: Own picture

However, while the fighter is a decidedly European in build and concept, the Typhoon is fully interoperable with US fighters. This goes beyond just sporting a NATO-standard Link 16, but the Typhoon has shown to be a plug-and-play asset in stateside Red Flag-exercises where several of the partner nations have ‘fought’ both with and against the best US assets, including both F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning. While some of the more spectacular accounts are disputed,  it is clear that the Typhoon has emerged as a both flexible and highly valued multirole fighter to BLUFOR, and one that indeed is able to be seamlessly integrated into any NATO-led coalition out there.

F-35 taking aim on HX

F-35 is in many ways the fighter to beat in the HX-program, having been chosen by both Norway and Denmark, and sports a perfect record in all fighter programs where it has competed (though in a number of cases not without controversy). This fits Lockheed-Martin perfectly, as the company representatives are confident in their fighter.

The way you operate the F/A-18 today, you can operate the F-35 tomorrow

That’s the response from Mark Pranke, the Finland F-35 Campaign Manager, when I raise the ever present question if the stealth fighter really can operate from road bases in subarctic conditions. He goes on to describe how the stealth coatings earlier known for being extremely maintenance intensive have taken quantum leaps when it comes to robustness. The aircraft is designed for a lifespan of 8,000 hrs in all versions (in other words, the harsh naval requirements likely sets the standard for operating environment), and Lockheed-Martin are already confident that it can handle two, likely even three times that.

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The EOTS (Electro-Optical Targeting System) is one of the core sensors of the F-35. Here seen on the full-scale mock-up. Source: Own picture

However, stealth is not the only unique selling point of the F-35 if you ask Billie Flynn, Lockheed-Martin’s longtime test pilot (who also happens to have considerable CF-18 Hornet experience from the Canadian Air Force, including as commander of the Canadian Hornets in Operation Allied Force). In his words, sensor fusion increases the pilots situational awareness with “orders of magnitude”, and is the second defining feature of the fifth generation. Notably, major general (eng.) Renko of the Finnish Defence Logistics Command downplayed the importance of stealth when faced with the question at the presser following the release of the RFQ, and instead labelled significant improvements in sensors and sensor fusion as the defining feature of modern fighters, and went on to note that all HX-candidates have them. Flynn doesn’t quite agree.

We do sensor fusion, the others have sensor correlation

The way F-35 presents information from a multitude of sensors covering an area stretching hundreds of kilometers in all directions is nothing less than a “paradigm shift” according to Flynn. “AWACS would gather data we get everyday with the F-35”, he explains. He gets backed up by Yung Lee, Director International Business Development Northern Europe, who notes that “more sensors means more data”. Looking forward, the company expects that intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) will be an important role for the aircraft in the future, thanks to its advanced sensor suite.

The F-35 full-scale mock-up at the Finnish Air Force 100 year anniversary air show. Source: Own picture
The F-35 *almost* visiting Finland for the first time, here in the form of the full-scale mock-up at the Finnish Air Force 100 anniversary air show. Source: Own picture

And if Renko isn’t necessarily impressed by stealth (at least not openly), Flynn maintains its importance on the modern battlefield. “It’s not Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility” (a clear comeback in Saab’s direction), but it makes the aircraft difficult enough to see that it allows the F-35 to operate with impunity, and the best measure of its importance is the results at Red Flag.

Best we ever did [with earlier fighters] was 2:1, now we are 20:1 [in air-to-air kills]

Looking forward, the plan is for the fighter to go through so called tech refresh cycles every fourth year, where both hardware and software are renewed to keep the F-35 up to date. The funding for the research and development is largely covered by the US, with Finland only having to fund the new hardware (mainly increases in processing power). This way of working harnesses the power of economics of scale to produce a common baseline for the aircraft, with local changes mainly coming down to different weapons, threat libraries, and mission data files. While the approach saves money, it also leaves Finland with relatively limited possibilities to influence the developments of the program as a whole. But as said, Lockheed-Martin is confident that they have the right model for Finland. And the slot is available. “Deliveries to the partner nations will largely have finished by 2021,” Pranke notes. “We will have no problem fitting in a Finnish order.”

The path forward for HX

The preliminary request for quotations for the HX-program is now out, and the process is kicking into the next gear. The manufacturers will have about three-quarters of a year from when it was sent out before they will have to return their answers early next year. However, what happens after that is the really interesting part.

The offers will be evaluated according to a stepped ladder of requirements, where all stages except the last one are of the go/no-go nature. If the preliminary bid doesn’t meet the requirements of a step it is back to go and the negotiation table (note, this is where the ‘preliminary’ comes into the process), and the Defence Forces will discuss with the manufacturer how their bid can be tuned to meet the requirements so that an updated bid can pass the step and move on to the top of the ladder. The goal is not to shake down the field, but to get the best possible offer from all five companies when it is time for the final and legally binding offers.

The first requirement is maintenance and security of supply. The supplier will have to present a plan for how the aircrafts are able to keep operating both during peacetime and in war. This will require plans for in-country spares and training for maintainers.

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The unique and highly centralised maintenance model of the F-35 Lightning II has raised questions whether the aircraft can meet the requirements for security of supply for militarily non-aligned Finland. Source: Jonas Selim / Forsvaret

Moving on from here comes the life-cycle costs. The project is receiving a start-up sum of up to 10 Bn Euros, but after this is used up the operating costs of the system will have to be covered under the defence budget as it stands today. In other words, the cost of training pilots and ground crew, renewing weapon stocks, maintaining the aircrafts, refuelling – everything will have to be covered by a sum similar to that used for keeping the F/A-18C Hornets in the air. Naturally this ties in to the first requirement, as an aircraft requiring vast amounts of spares and maintenance will have a hard time meeting both the security of supply and the LCC requirements at the same time.

Industrial cooperation will then be the third step. 30% of the total acquisition value will have to be traded back into the country, as a way of making sure that the necessary know-how to maintain the aircrafts in wartime is found domestically (and as such this requirement ties into the two earlier requirements). Notably, current sets of rules require that the industrial cooperation is indeed cooperation directly related to the HX-program. Sponsoring tours of symphonic orchestras might buy you brownie points, but not industrial cooperation.

Following these go/no-go criterias comes wartime performance. This is the only requirement which will be graded. The Defence Forces will run a number of simulations of how the aircraft would perform in different missions and scenarios, gather information from the field, and possibly do flight trials. All of this will then come together to give a picture of how a given aircraft would perform as part of the greater Finnish Defence Forces in wartime.

Yes, wartime performance as part of the whole FDF is the sole factor that will rank the aircrafts in the acquisition proposal put forward to the MoD by the Finnish Defence Forces.

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The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, both Australian and US birds, have been busy flying missions over Syria and Iraq as part of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, making it one of the more combat proven competitors. Source: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz via Wikimedia Commons

“But wait!” I hear you say. “Doesn’t economic considerations count for anything?”

Yes, indeed they do. Wartime performance require more than just 64 aircraft. If you can squeeze the price on the aircraft and its maintenance costs, the pilots will be able to receive more flight hours, and the Defence Forces will be able to stock more advanced weaponry (the low stocks of which is identified as a key issue in the latest Puolustusselonteko). Thus a cheaper aircraft allows the Defence Forces will provide more room for other things, which in the end make it more dangerous to the enemy.

Having received the acquisition proposal from the Defence Forces, the MoD takes over, and their job is to bring in the national security policy aspect into the equation. The national security evaluation coupled with the evaluation of wartime performance is then used to create the final acquisition proposal made by the MoD and put forward to the then government (i.e. the one which will take over following the next parliamentary elections). The final decision will then take place in 2021.

That the MoD will make a national security evaluation is interesting as it leaves room for politics overruling the wartime performance (though likely only to a certain extent). At first glance this would seem to favour the US contenders, however the situation might be more complex than that, thanks to the law of diminishing marginal utility. To what extent would a fighter deal actually deepen the already strong Finnish-US bilateral relations? There are already eleven confirmed export customers for the F-35, and a double-digit number of countries have bought into other US fighter programs as well, so would Finland’s inclusion (or absence) from that group be noticed in Washington? The US is also already Finland’s premier arms exporter (2015 numbers, unfortunately I didn’t find newer ones), and while this in parts comes from weapons for the Hornet-program, a number of other potential deals are on the horizon.

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The Wide Area Display is one of many features which makes the JAS 39E Gripen a quantum leap over the older C/D-generation. But how will the wartime performance of the relatively light fighter measure up against the larger competitors? Source: Own picture

The Swedish offering has understandably not gathered quite the same number of export customers, but here as well even without a fighter deal the bilateral Finnish-Swedish cooperation is reaching levels that make one wonder whether significant improvements are possible? Geography and shared history also seems to dictate that the relation would survive Gripen failing to secure the HX order (though Charly might disagree). The benefits of operating the same aircraft is obvious when it comes to interoperability, but for political benefits it is doubtful how much 10 Bn (in the short term) actually would buy.

Enter France, a European powerhouse with an army still measured in divisions, a permanent seat at the UN security council, a nuclear strike force, a rather low threshold for military interventions, and a marked disinterest in what takes place on the northern shores of the Baltic Sea. The Finnish fighter order would be a big deal for Dassault, accounting for 40% of the total number of Rafale’s exported (96 firm orders to date plus 64 aircrafts for HX). It is also eye catching that a large percentage of the whole sum would go to France, compared to the larger amounts of foreign content in the Eurofighter Typhoon and the JAS 39E Gripen.

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Dassault Rafale, a French take on the Eurocanard. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

10 Bn Euros would not buy Finland a French expeditionary corps brimming with Leclercs in case of a Russian invasion. However, they just might ensure that Paris starts paying more attention to what happens in the European far north, courtesy of increased exchanges of people, experiences, and arms deals. If Finland would face an attack, having France as a political ally in Brussels and in the UNSC would be significant, even if the support would stop short of a military intervention. Another element is that as Washington is proving to be a more unreliable ally, the importance of the EU security cooperation is bound to increase (though granted from a low level to a somewhat less-low one), and with “the other European power” (Germany) showing limited appetite for anything resembling a confrontation with Russia over eastern Europe, the role of France in the greater Finnish security picture seems set to increase.

While Finnish security policy is famed for being slow in altering course and likely to favour trying to cash in further political points with Sweden or the USA, the question deserves to be asked:

Might it just be that we would gain more by having this investment go into our relationship with France?