The famous (misquotation) of “reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated” comes to mind when speaking to Boeing. The Super Hornet is certainly undergoing a rough patch, with the SECNAV Carlos Del Toro trying to kill off the plans to keep building brand-new Super Hornets in the next few years, and instead wanting to focus on the F-35C (and to a lesser extent F-35B) which was described as “a far more significantly capable aircraft”. This is something of different message compared to the earlier one which has been making rounds, where people such as the US Navy’s chief of the naval operation’s air warfare directorate, Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, have expressed that he would prefer to focus more on the mid-life update (Block III) instead of on new-builds because any new-built Super Hornet with their 10,000 hour airframe will fly past 2055, and they don’t see “a lot of analysis out there that supports fourth-generation viability against any threat in that timeframe“.
Boeing readily admits neither message is particularly helpful for their export campaigns.
However, one has to give Boeing a point in that it is clear that at least some of the messaging is clearly directed a result of domestic politics. The US Navy has been struggling to fit all of its priorities into a defence budget that is flat or potentially even falling, with new classes of submarines and destroyers (to replace both early Arleigh Burkes as well as the Ticonderoga-class cruisers) competing with the Super Hornet-replacement-to-be NGAD for funds. The risk of a delay to NGAD is obvious, especially as the force struggles with how to close a “fighter gap” and the house having thrown out the latest set of USN calculations this summer (this is part of a rather longstanding pattern of the politicians not trusting the US Navy to make sound long-term planning decisions and run projects efficiently, which unfortunately isn’t completely unfounded). At the same time, it is rather obvious that some of the Super Hornet’s greatest friends on the hill are representing Boeing-strongholds and might not be guided solely by strategic insights…
Regardless of the outcome, the stated goal of replacing the Super Hornet during the 2030’s does seem optimistic considering the reported state of the NGAD. Crucially, for the time being there also doesn’t seem to be a plan for how to replace the EA-18G Growler with its unique set of capabilities (this is the place where visionaries usually throws in a slide showing a bunch of networked unmanned platforms shooting lightning-shaped datalinks and electronic attack effects between allied forces and against enemies respectively like a latter-day Zeus, but I would again like to state my scepticism of there actually being something resembling a practical plan buried in those slides. The USMC has something a bit more real in the works, but so far that doesn’t include a true Growler-replacement either).
But what is really interesting is the second wind of export interest in the aircraft. Granted Canada apparently has kicked out the fighter (though it has to be said it hasn’t been particularly well-loved north of the border after Boeing dragged Canadian aerospace company Bombardier to court over their jetliners), but the German Super Hornet/Growler-buy seems to have survived the change in government and is reportedly moving forward, and as is well-known there is a strong push to try and get the Indian Navy to see the light and acquire the Super Hornet for their carrier operations. More interesting was Boeing disclosing that they are in talks with Spain about the Super Hornet (almost certainly related to the same EF-18A/B Hornet and EAV-8B Matador/Harrier II as the recently revealed F-35 discussions), as well as stating that the UK have expressed interest in Super Hornet STOBAR testing conducted for the Indian Navy efforts (and where this testing could lead). Notable is that the flight deck of the Queen Elizabeth-class compares rather well with that of the the INS Vikramaditya when it comes to length and area (though the designs obviously differ), and while it isn’t angled, the Juan Carlos I with its 201.9 m long and 32 m wide flight deck actually matches the 198 m long and 30 m wide angled recovery deck and 195 m long take-off run of the INS Vikramaditya. Speculations about a STOBAR-carrier in Spanish service may hereby commence (though I will warn you that the step from discussing the theoretical possibility to actually converting the vessel is a rather drastic one).
Regardless, there is a non-trivial risk that any Finnish Super Hornets will be the last new-built rhinos rolling off the production line, and the Finnish Air Force has been strongly stating the importance of being aligned with the main user (to the extent that the Swedish Air Force threw out their own long-term planning and instead adopted the Finnish set of requirements in order to ensure that the JAS 39E remained a viable alternative). So how is Boeing intending to work around this issue?
To begin with, while the Super Hornet likely will bow out of USN service before the Finnish Air Force retire HX, as mentioned the Growler will likely soldier on for a bit longer (again, compare the A-6 Intruder retiring 22 years before the EA-6B Prowler), allowing for updates made to keep that platform modern to support exported Super Hornets. The German order is also a key piece of the puzzle (I mean, does anyone really think that the Germans will retire any platform acquired before having worn it down? We are after all talking about the country that flew F-4F Phantoms in central Europe until 2013).
But the big news is the Open Mission Systems, which allows for what Boeing describes as containerised software. Behind the jargon lies a principle through which the software is written once, put into a so called fusion app (the ‘container’ in ‘containerised software’), which then allows it to be pushed out to a number of platforms – manned, unmanned, fixed-wing, rotary, you name it – simultaneously through making the software hardware (and even manufacturer) agnostic.
While the principle is significantly easier to implement on a PowerPoint-slide than in real-life, successful lab testing with containerised fusion algorithms in the F/A-18 Block III and the F-15EX has taken place, and plans are progressing for flight demonstrations. If the program develops as expected, it would provide the opportunity to piggy-back F/A-18E development onto that of e.g. the F-15E(X), which would grow the user base and spread development costs significantly.
But it’s not just the aircraft itself that are easily upgradable. Michael Paul of Raytheon Intelligence & Space is happy to explain how the NGJ-MB pods are not only cutting-edge today, but that their open design ensure they will stay that way.
The current ALQ-99 jammers made their combat debut in Vietnam, and although it has undergone numerous upgrades and still is a competent system according to most accounts, there’s no denying that it’s greatest days are already behind. The new family of jammers, the mid-band unit of which will be first one out and which passed Milestone C (current version accepted as production standard) earlier this summer, will bring a serious improvement. Trying to find a suitable comparison, Paul struggles a bit. “It’s a level above going from mechanically scanned radars to AESA-technology,” he explains. “It’s a significant leap just because of its AESA-technology, but then you add the power.”
And while having an AESA-array means that you can do all sort of nice stuff – both Lockheed Martin and BAES are pushing the fact that they are doing some serious electronic warfare stuff with their arrays – the power and dedicated subsystem really takes things to another level. While a modern AESA-radar for a fighter can give self-protection at levels earlier only dedicated platforms could provide, it is still very much a case of self-protection. Because the dedicated platforms have also stepped up their game. The fact that the NGJ isn’t just a Naval program but sorting under joint oversight in the DoD structure speaks volumes as to the importance the Pentagon places on the program, even while at the same time discussing the need for fifth generation aircraft (the push to integrate the pod on USAF fighters is another datapoint). The NGJ allow the Growler to do what Raytheon describe as “force-level protection”, and while the exact capabilities of the pod are classified, it is significant to note that the Pentagon has been placing an ever increased importance on the electro-magnetic spectrum (EMS), and being able to treat it in the same way as other more familiar terrain – doing manoeuvres and conducting fires in it, so to speak.
This is what modern day air operations looks like
Achieving EMS-superiority will be a key mission for any air force in the future, and the Growler is well-poised to support any force attempting to do so.
What the design of the pod brings with its increased power output is the ability to handle wider spectrums and go straight to the key nodes, which in an integrated air defence systems might or might not be the shooter – it might as well be a surveillance system standing way back, feeding information to silent SAM-batteries operating missiles with their own guidance systems (active radar or IIR). But while the pod is great, the integration of the two-pod shipset with the mission systems of the aircraft really is where the magic happens. The “incredibly integrated” nature of the shipset means that the Growler and the pods are sharing data back forth, including from their own sensors but also from third-party sources (including via satellite), together creating the situational awareness that the Growler is known for, the “I know everything”-feeling as 9-year Growler veteran (and Prowler before that) Michael Paul puts it. The location of the arrays on the pods also means that the aircraft is able to cover the strikes throughout their mission – either from stand-off ranges or as penetrating platforms.
While the days of the Super Hornet might be numbered, no one quite seem to know the exact number for sure. It also has to be remembered that many of the particular drawbacks quoted by the US Navy center on how it would like to operate in a China-scenario. The situation in Finland is markedly different in a number of ways, including the significantly lower emphasis placed on range. The very real risk of losing support from the main user toward the last decade or two of the aircraft’s career is no doubt a significant drawback, but at the same time the offer here and now would fit the Finnish Air Force extremely well both as a capability but also in the FDF’s general culture of being somewhat risk averse and preferring mature systems and a continuous iterative development rather than radical steps. And as icing on the cake comes the Growler, which not only would be a strategic assets for both the political and military leadership throughout the span from peace through crisis and into war, but also a huge political signal of the close bond between Finland and the US.
As Paul noted:
It likely wouldn’t have been possible to offer this ten years ago.
It’s getting difficult to remember how it all started back when HX was just a working group thinking about if Finland needed a new fighter, but seven years later here we are, perhaps a month away from the decision.
But there was still room for one last media trip, this time by Saab who used their corporate Saab 2000 (the particular example, SE-LTV, being the last civilian airliner ever built by the company) to fly a whole bunch of media representatives for a day-trip to Linköping to one more time share the details about their bid, with the GlobalEye getting much of the attention.
And it’s hard to argue with this. Yes, the Gripen sport a number of nice features from a Finnish point of view, but what really sets Saab’s offer apart from the rest is the inclusion of not one but two airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. The capability in itself would bring a huge shift in Finnish air operations regardless of whichever fighter would be at the other end of the chain (no, your favourite fighter isn’t a “mini-AWACS” just because it has a nice radar, you still won’t leisurely be cruising around on 10 hour missions gathering intelligence and keeping an up to date air picture while paying biz-jet operating costs). The value of the kind of persistent situational picture provided by a modern AEW&C platform is hard to overstate, especially in a Finnish scenario where the attacker will have numerical superiority (meaning that the decision about when and where to send Finnish fighters will have to be calculated carefully to ensure it is possible for them to do something that actually has an impact on the battle), the flat and forested nature of the country (meaning that there is a lack of suitable mountaintops on which to place groundbased sensors, instead anyone operating at very low levels will enjoy lots of radar shadows from which they can sneak up on Finnish targets), and the very joint nature of any major conflict stemming from the long land-border and the right flank and rear being composed of water (meaning that any higher-level situational picture need to take into account all three domains).
Crucially, the value of the GlobalEye as an intelligence gathering platform for everything from the operational level commanders to the highest levels of political leadership is unprecedented in HX (and arguably within the FDF as a whole, the SIGINT CASA is nice, but it fills a more niched role). With two GlobalEyes, building a baseline situational picture in peacetime is possible (even more so if data is shared with the two Swedish aircraft coming), and that include both airborne and ground traffic, as the aircraft sports a ground moving target indicator mode (GMTI) making it possible to see any vehicles moving on the ground (the cut-off being rather low, in the neighbourhood of 20 km/h). The GMTI doesn’t create individual tracks for every echo due to the huge amount of vehicles moving at most roads during any given time (though it is possible to manually start tracks for interesting vehicles) but instead the operator will follow general flows and densities. Needless to say, keeping an eye on vehicle movements around garrisons and on exercise fields or counting trains (feel free to start measuring how much of the Oktyabrskaya Railway is within say 300 km of the border) would be a huge boost to the Finnish intelligence gathering work and a huge benefit for all branches of the FDF and the government it supports. Having this baseline situational picture and being able to detect changes in it would be of immeasurable value to both the civilian and military leadership in any kind of crisis, and there is no other single measure that would provide as much bang for buck as getting an AEW&C when it comes to this aspect – and the only way to get it into the budget is through Saab’s HX offer.
(The EA-18G Growler does share some of the same traits in this regards in raising the peacetime intelligence gathering capabilities to a significantly higher degree than ‘ordinary’ fighters, but when stuff stops emitting the value decreases rapidly)
This is an aspect that – even if not completely forgotten – has received surprisingly little attention in media. It might be that the inclusion of the completely new capability and the ramifications it has have been difficult to grasp, but in any case it is likely to have a significant impact on the wargames.
Interlude: in some of the darker places of aviation forums there have been people claiming that Saab is trying to sell a fighter that in fact isn’t the best one out there through packaging it with an AEW&C platform. Regardless of whether it is correct or not, that is a completely moot point. The Finnish Air Force isn’t looking for the best fighter, the Finnish Defence Forces is looking for the best capability they can get for 10 billion Euro (and 250 MEUR in annual operating costs), and if pairing 64 JAS 39E Gripen with two GlobalEyes provide a greater combat capability than the competing packages, how Gripen fares in one-on-one air combat against some other fighter isn’t interesting in the slightest to Puranen or his team.
The GlobalEye is more or less everything you would expect from it. Based on the Global 6000, it leverages the comfort of the airliner to ensure that crew can handle the missions that can go “well above” 11 hours. This means a rest area for the relief crew members, as well as cabin pressure and noise levels on par with the regular business jet. The top speed is slightly reduced due to drag from the radar, but the range is in fact more or less the same as the lower and more economic cruising speed roughly cancels out the increased drag. The business jet philosophy of the baseline Global 6000 also brings with it a lot of other nice details, such as dispersed operations being aided by a very high redundancy of key systems and small logistical footprint (the airliner is e.g. equipped with four generators to ensure that it isn’t stopped by a generator failure. On the GlobalEye that means that no additional power sources are required, and the aircraft can in fact remain fully mission capable even if one generator is lost). For a Finnish scenario, a key detail is that the sensors can be initiated already on the ground, meaning that the aircraft is operating as soon as the wheels are up. The five operators can either do general work or specialise in different roles, such as air surveillance, sea surveillance, the aforementioned GMTI-mointoring, ESM/SIGINT, and so forth. Displays in the relief area and in the cockpit allow for the relief crew and pilots to follow the situation, which is valuable e.g. if new threats appear. The exact sensor setup can be changed according to customer needs, but can include everything from the ErieEye-ER radar, a dedicated maritime radar, AIS, DSB, IFF, and classified ESM systems.
Now, an AEW&C alone doesn’t win any wars, but the Gripen is no slouch either. Much has already been said on this blog, but the baseline fact that Gripen from the outset is made for the very same concept of operations that Finland employs certainly gives it something of an edge. Worries about size and range are also of relatively minor importance in a Finnish scenario, and instead factors such as 40% less fuel consumption compared to legacy Hornets (and with that obviously also significantly reduced exhaust emissions, which should make certain government parties happier) play a significant role when laying out the budget for the upcoming years.
Saab was happy to go into some detail about how they envision missions to be flown, illustrating with a typical high-end SEAD/DEAD mission against S-400 batteries where the aim was to take out two 92N6E “Grave Stone” radars. The batteries where in turn protected by a number of other ground-based air defence systems, including a Nebo-M (no doubt chosen for the express purpose of raising questions about the viability of the F-35 in the same scenario), Pantsirs, and a pop-up Buk-M1-2 (or M2, just the ‘SA-17’ designation was shown). In addition two pairs of Su-35s were flying CAP under the guiding eye of an A-100. The approach for this mission was rather straightforward. Two Gripens did a hook to the north where they feigned an attack through using the EAJP EW-pods and swarms of LADM cruising around presenting jamming and false targets, thereby drawing two Su-35s north.
At the same time the main striking force consisting of a four-ship Gripen with 7 Meteors and 2 IRIS-T on each acting as fighter escort and two additional Gripens doing the actual strikes with six SPEAR and six LADM each (plus pairs of Meteors and IRIS-T for self-defence) headed east towards the target. With the LADM and the internal EW-systems providing jamming and the escorting Gripens dealing with the fighters (of which one pair was out of position, as you might remember), the strike pair launches their full dozen of SPEARs which, together with escorting LADMs, go out and hunt down the two radars. Not even the pop-up Buk appearing behind the strike aircraft can ruin the day.
Now, the scenario above is both rather fascinating in that Saab was ready to go into such detail, and not at all surprising since that is more or less exactly how nine aviation geeks out of ten would have set up the mission given what we known about Saab’s talking points and the weapons and stores offered to Finland. Perhaps the most interesting detail is that Saab thinks six SPEAR are enough to take down a defended S-400 radar (when escorted by EW-missiles). However, what on the other hand was interesting was who was telling the story.
Meet Mikko Koli, pilot and operational advisor to Saab since this spring when he retired from his job as test pilot for the Finnish Air Force. As a retired major, he may be outranked by many of the other advisors involved in different parts of the HX circus, but he brings some serious street cred instead. Most of his career was spent doing a fifteen year posting as an air force test pilot, mainly focused on the F/A-18 C/D Hornet and the upgrades it went through in Finnish service. This include different roles in both MLUs, but also being among the key players in the AGM-158A JASSM integration project, which culminated in him being the first Finnish pilot to release a live JASSM.
Which definitely is cool, but don’t let that distract you from the main story: he is a seasoned test pilot who has spent years studying and implementing how to get the best out of a fighter in a Finnish context. When Koli decides to spend his retirement days at Saab, that says something. And when he says that he trusts that their bid is “extremely strong”, that is something else compared to Saab’s regular sales guys.
What Koli decided to focus on, in addition to guiding the assembled Finnish media through the scenario described above (together with retired Swedish Air Force pilot Jussi Halmetoja) was certainly things we have heard before, but with a bit of a different emphasis. The “superior situational awareness” thanks to advanced networking and “excellent” human-machine communication of the aircraft are talking points we’ve heard from Saab before, but they often take something of a back seat when non-pilots talk. Discussing the “live chain” is also a refreshing change to just talking about the kill chain, because as we all know actually living and flying a working aircraft is the first step to being able to actually do something useful. And Koli also in no uncertain words explained what he thinks about the GlobalEye.
GlobalEye pays itself back at any level of a crisis, both for military as well as for political decisionmakers [… It is also] a very capable SIGINT-platform
Speaking of JASSM-integrations, I would be wrong not to mention Saab’s latest talking point when describing the size of their weapons package. Readers of the blog might remember that I had some questions regarding the numbers presented during the BAFO release, when it sounded like the weapons offered were worth 1.8+ Bn EUR, until you read the fine print, at which point it sounded more like 1.35+ Bn EUR. Now Saab was back with the comparison “more than ten times the total publicly quoted costs of the Finnish JASSM-project”, which they confirmed referred to 170 MEUR for the JASSM integration and missiles, making the weapons package coming with the Gripen worth 1.7+ Bn EUR. That is a lot, and considering the 9 Bn EUR acquisition cost also include the aforementioned two GlobalEyes, puts things into scale. An interesting detail is that the JASSM-project as mentioned included the integration costs as well, with Saab now taking care to point out that all weapons integration costs are found under other budgetary lines, and the 1.7+ Bn EUR figure just covers the series production and delivery of the munitions.
Modern weapons are expensive, but that is indeed an arsenal you can go to war with without having to worry about every single missile. At least not initially.
With the Norwegian budget figures having raised more questions than the Swiss decision answered for the F-35, and the US Navy trying to kill off the Super Hornet production line faster than you can get a hornets nest fully cleaned out from a redcurrant shrub (which for me is approximately two weeks of time based on empirical testing), the Finnish skies are perhaps looking ready to accept a non-US fighter again. In that scenario, the Gripen is certainly a more likely choice than the two larger eurocanards, but at the same time questions of maturity surround the aircraft that is bound to reach IOC with an operational unit only in 2025 – the same year the first HX fighters are to be delivered. Basing the 39E on the proven 39C/D-platform certainly helps, and the decoupling of flight critical software from other systems seems to have been a winning concept considering the pace at which the test program has advanced (this includes software updates on flying aircraft every four weeks on average up to this point of the program). However, with nine aircraft operational and the first Batch 2 (series production standard) already off the production line, Saab just might be able to cut it in time.
And there’s always the GlobalEye.
A big thank you to Saab for the travel arrangements.
The difference between success and failure for Boeing in HX is razor thin.
Granted, as there are no prizes for second spot, you can make that argument for all fighters involved, but Boeing still has something of a uniquely deceptive situation. While a favourite of many analysts – and it has to be said, on good grounds – the reliance on US Navy interest in the platform means that the step from favourite to bottom rung is a short one.
Boeing representatives readily admit that the very public battle fought between senior US Navy leadership and politicians over the future of the Super Hornet isn’t helping their marketing. At the same time, they don’t admit to being overly worried in the grand scheme of things. The US Navy fighter shortfall is very real, and even if the service would want to phase out the Super Hornet they will struggle to do so any time soon based on the sheer number of Super Hornets in service and the lack of a viable alternative. While Rear Adm. Gregory Harris, director of the Air Warfare Directorate of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, might say the service “must replace the Super Hornets and the Growlers by the 2030s“, it’s a statement that fits poorly with him saying in the same interview (from April this year) that he “expects the Navy to have “a better idea” within the next two or three years as to whether it will buy a manned or unmanned fighter to follow the Super Hornets”. To put it bluntly: the F-35A declared FOC in 2017, with the concept being more or less clear when the X-32 and X-35 designs were selected as concept demonstrators in 1997. If that point in time is 2023-2024 in the case of NGAD, it would mean FOC in 2043-2044, putting the F/A-XX quite some way off from having replaced the Super Hornet before the end of the 2030’s. Even with a faster development timeline – say reaching FOC by 2035 – building a few hundred new fighters and rolling them out will likely take at least five years even on a rushed schedule. And even then, the more specialised Growler is likely to stay on call for longer. The EA-6B Prowler survived 18 years longer in US Navy service compared to the baseline A-6 Intruder, and a few years even further in the USMC. Even provided for a faster turnaround thanks to developments in electronics and unmanned systems (which frankly hasn’t happened just yet, but conceivably could be the case), the Growler staying in service for five to ten years after the retirement of the Super Hornet doesn’t feel like a stretch.
It’s probably something along these lines of reasoning that leads US politicians to question whether the Navy really can afford to run down the Super Hornet production line and just focus on the Service Life Modifications-program (though it has to be said that in some cases securing jobs in homestates does seem to be the first priority). If the Super Hornet stays in service until 2045, and the Growler until 2050, the final round of US Navy-funded Growler upgrades could then be used to feed into an export-directed Super Hornet “Block X” standard in much the same way that Block 3 rests on many technologies originally developed for the Growler.
It isn’t an implausible scenario, but it is far from certain. And if the Finnish Air Force isn’t prepared to gamble on it, the Boeing supplied BAFO can easily be headed for the metaphorical shredder.
But that’s not something that you will see Boeing worrying over, at least not officially.
They express confidence in all aspects of their bid. It’s suitable to Finnish needs, it provides efficiency, there’s a strong weapons package, it’s affordable and mature, and the industrial participation package is solid and based on their long experience of working with Finnish industry in supporting the current Hornet-fleet to ensure security of supply. Boeing also states that it provide the tools to operate independently in a high-treat environment by constituting “a complete self-sustaining package”. Keen readers will note that “self-sustaining” isn’t the same as “sovereign” promised by Dassault and BAES, but still.
A key point worth keeping in mind is that Boeing is taking the Finnish authorities on their word when they have been repeating that they aren’t buying a fighter but a package of capabilities. The Growler is the obvious example, but Boeing also took the opportunity at Kaivari 21 to release further details on how they see Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUMT) in the future.
Let’s first make something absolutely clear: the ATS is in the BAFO, but it is an option. It’s a potential future capability with a price tag given for the systems and associated infrastructure.
As such it won’t be evaluated in the deciding wargames (at least not in the first point, it is more unclear to me how the second evaluation point played with 2030-standards would treat future growth capabilities). However, it offers some interesting capabilities, especially as the concept is that anything mission-related is put into the nosecone which is easily snapped on or off to install another one. There’s obvious benefits here as the same airframe can fly different missions, but there’s an interesting secondary benefit to a small high-tech country such as Finland as well. It is possible to with a relatively small input develop, either alone or together with other operators, new payloads tailored to Finnish needs. This is based on the fact that one doesn’t need to develop the aircraft itself (as is the case with building a new UAS) nor having to run the traditional integration verification testing done on external stores. The nosecone payloads can then either be offered on the export market (provided exports kick off) or then kept under wraps as a covert Finnish capability.
The payloads that first come to mind are quite naturally ISR once as well as electronic warfare. Different sensors, such as electro-optical ones, SAR, and ESM, are likely among the low-hanging fruit that relatively easily could create a significantly improved intelligence gathering capability to the benefit of both the FDF as a whole but also of the political leadership in times of both peace and war. Crucially, this would fit in well with the EA-18G Growler enhancing the same in the electromagnetic spectrum, and would do so while relying on mass and attritable platforms instead of a few (individually more capable) high-value assets. The relatively easily modified sensor payload also means that the adversary can be kept in the dark regarding what capabilities the Finnish Air Force operates.
In the electronic warfare domain, being able to push large jammers or sensors close to the enemy is an extremely valuable opportunity as well. And as has been discussed on the blog numerous times, size does matter when you discuss arrays and antennas. In essence, having a MALD with a 150 litre payload and the ability to get back in case things goes well is a significant step above just firing jammers in front of you.
Another nice feature is that the ATS can be forward deployed with a relatively limited footprint. As such, keeping the ATS spread out on smaller bases in case of heightened crisis to allow for more rapid reaction can be a viable tactic e.g. in the face of increased QRA alerts, where the ATS can be launched from a civilian field (or even a road base in times of war) and by the time the scrambled Super Hornets are about to link up with the aircraft to be intercepted the ATS can already be on location and have provided an updated situational picture. And as we all know, a better situational picture allows for off-loading flight hours from the fighter fleet. In wartime, pushing the sensors out in front of the fighter can also allow for a better situational picture without breaking stand-off distance, or e.g. for long-range AIM-260 JATM shots where the Super Hornet remains passive at distance and let the ATS which is closer to the target provide fire control and guidance via its own radar and datalink. For the Finnish Navy, which faces something of a sensor gap following the ever growing range of modern weapon systems, having a larger number of flying sensors, some of which could be flown from bases along the southern coast, certainly is an interesting proposition.
But with a fixed budget occupied by the non-option stuff in the BAFO, from where would the ATS be funded?
The obvious place is munitions and upgrades. The Super Hornet BAFO include a sizeable munitions package, but some of the stuff included is things that could be carried over from current stocks. This include bombs, but also e.g. the option to skip or limit the buys of the AIM-120C-8 now included and do a jump from the AIM-120C-7 currently in service to the AIM-260 JATM. It’s a calculated risk to go heavy on the sensors and save on the missiles during the first few years, but it wouldn’t be the first one taken by FDF. Another aspect is that the regular operational budget does include money for upgrades and yet more senors and weapons, at some point these could potentially be routed to sensors who do their own flying. The basic software and hardware as well as interfaces to allow for MUMT will be included as a part of the Super Hornet/Growler baseline by 2030 in any case.
“The timing lines up very well,” Boeing notes with regard to the ATS, and they mention German interest in MUMT for their Super Hornet/Growler-package (while pointing out that Finland is the first country offered ATS as part of a fighter competition). There’s also apparently “higher trust” in Finnish calculations compared to Swiss ones when it comes to the affordability of operating the aircraft, as well as the confidence that stems from the continuation of the trend in which the electromagnetic spectrum is continuously growing in importance (the latest data point being the studies to see whether the F-15EX or some other USAF fighter could employ the NGJ-family of jamming pods), especially in the light of continued Russian investment in the field.
At the same time, the US Navy publicly says they want to move one, and over the waters next to Kaivopuisto the F-35A is busy trying to steal(th) the show. The difference between success and failure for Boeing is HX is razor thin.
Let’s begin by the obvious: Finland isn’t Switzerland, and HX isn’t AIR2030.
It still would be wrong to say that the Swiss decision, and especially the way it was made, wouldn’t have bearing on the Finnish evaluation. The odds of the stealth bird just went up.
I will leave the finer details of Swiss politics to those better versed in that topic, but let’s start by looking at why the Swiss decision matters for HX.
Something a number of commentators have missed is why the Swiss evaluators felt the aircraft was the right choice:
It includes entirely new, extremely powerful and comprehensively networked systems for protecting and monitoring airspace. The F-35A is able to ensure information superiority; this means pilots benefit from a higher situational awareness in all task areas when compared with the other candidates.
The following sentences then goes on to discuss that the aircraft is designed “to be especially difficult for other weapons systems to detect”. The debate about whether Switzerland need a stealth fighter misses the point. The main reason why the Swiss appreciate its effectiveness isn’t the stealth features, but the networked nature and integrated sensors giving the pilots a higher situational awareness. Oh, and by the way: it’s stealthy which is a nice bonus. And it seems set to stay in service the longest. The last two points arguably in of higher importance in HX, but even then F-35 took home AIR2030.
The point about staying in service further resonates with the product support question. ALIS gets good points, the maintenance system is modern and simple, and the large number of both fighters produced in general and European operators in particular ensure cooperation opportunities in both training and operational usage.
Crucially, the calculations made by the Swiss also showed that the aircraft was significantly cheaper compared to the second lowest bid when calculating full life-cycle costs (i.e. acquisition and 30 years of operations), coming in at approximately 2.0 Bn CHF cheaper (3.2 Bn EUR).
The big deal here is that as opposed to several of the recent wins for the F-35 where it has been the favourite from the outset, in Switzerland the F-35 is most likely the most difficult political choice. That the evaluation still found that the F-35 won three out of four categories including combat capability, product support, and cooperation opportunities is significant, as if the race would have been close the temptation to fudge the numbers a bit to ensure a more politically acceptable winner could certainly have been there. And crucially, unlike some other evaluations, the fact that the F-35 wasn’t the bestest and greatest in all measurable ways ironically lends a bit more credibility to the evaluation.
That’s the good news for the F-35, and it would be naive to think that the Swiss findings are taken out of thin air. The grey fighter again cements its position as the new European standard fighter in a way the F-16 did decades ago.
An interesting aspect is the worries about ownership of data and cyber security. I’ve discussed the topic before, especially with regards to the ALIS/ODIN, but the full quote is interesting.
All candidates were able to guarantee data autonomy. In the case of the F-35A, the system’s cyber management, the security of its computer architecture and its cyber protection measures combine to ensure an especially high level of cyber security. As with all other candidates, with the F-35A Switzerland controls which information to exchange with other air forces via data link, and what logistics information to report back to the manufacturer.
This is also certainly a good sign for F-35 from a Finnish point of view, as the cyber security and sovereignty aspect are among the questions still lingering with regards to the fighter. While Lockheed Martin has stressed that it isn’t an issue, it is one of those things that are next to impossible to judge based on open sources. However, that Switss evaluators has reached the conclusion is certainly promising.
But there’s also a few flies in the ointment.
The cheapness is… strange.
I could write a long-winding paragraph about it, but Steve Trimble summed it up perfectly in 280 characters:
There is, I admit, a cognitive dissonance between what USAF chief of staff & HASC chairman say about F-35A's operating cost and evaluation results in international tenders, and I'm not quite able to explain it without access to comparable data from European fighters.
A few key points still deserve to be reiterated. There is a significant difference between those struggling with whether to upgrade early blocks and export customers now jumping aboard and getting what presumably will be TR-3 hardware (slated for introduction in 2023) from the start. Especially considering the significant maturity the program has achieved in the past few years it is likely that the maintenance and operating costs will continue on a downward spiral.
However, the GAO isn’t overly impressed, and while originally deliveries from 2026 should have been Block 4, that standard is pushed back, and GAO isn’t sure that the current schedule will hold either.
In 2020, the program added a year to its Block 4 schedule and now expects to extend Block 4 development into fiscal year 2027. We found, however, that the program office did not formulate its revised schedule based on the contractor’s demonstrated past performance. Instead, the schedule is based on estimates formulated at the start of the Block 4 effort, increasing the likelihood that the scheduled 2027 completion date is not achievable.
Perhaps more worrying is how the aircraft became 3 billion euros cheaper to operate – by offloading flight hours into simulators. This is certainly one of those ‘Yes, but…’-arguments. Modern simulators are very good, and with a continued emphasis on things like electronic warfare and advanced (expensive) weaponry, it certainly makes sense to do more training in simulators. The Finnish Air Force is a good example of this, with HX seemingly largely skipping two-seaters for operational conversion, going Hawk->simulator->HX single-seater instead. However, there still are things that differ between simulators than the real thing. A key thing to note is the lack of cues which pilots learn to fly with, everything from vibrations to G-forces which are very difficult to model. Former Hornet-pilot C W Lemoine flew DCS a few years ago, and in the video discussed how flying the real jet differs from high-end commercial and military simulators and how the armed forces are using them. The DCS-specific issues obviously doesn’t apply when you have a properly modelled cockpit, the other issues do.
More crucially, the German longer version of the presser include further details on the process (and overall could function as a good template for the eventual HX releases) and discuss how that part of the calculations were done.
Diese basieren auf den Angaben der jeweiligen Luftwaffen respektive der Marine in den Herstellerländern, wie sie im Rahmen der Offertanfrage bei allen Kandidaten identisch angefragt wurden. Die Antworten der Kandidaten wurden mit den Erfahrungen der Luftwaffe mit dem F/A-18C/D und den Erkenntnissen aus der Evaluation verglichen.
In other words, seems the Swiss have asked main operators about simulators versus real flight hours, and the USAF has returned with a 20% lower number compared to the USN, AdA, and LW. There is preciously little in open sources to explain this difference in real terms. Yes, the F-35’s simulators are good, but the rest are no slouches either. I can see no clear reason why it wouldn’t be possible to run a simulation-heavy training curriculum for the rest of the fighters as well, if that is what you want.
Another key number thrown around is that the F-35 would require 50% fewer take-offs and landings compared to the current F-5E Tiger II/F/A-18C Hornet-fleet. This honestly doesn’t feel overly impressive, as it is unclear to me how much the old and short-legged F-5E pushes up the current number, and it is unclear to me if the comparison is between 36 F-35A and the total fleet of 66 F-5E/F Tiger II and F/A-18C/D Hornets or an interpolated 36 to 36. However, notable is that the Finnish Air Force reportedly has had issues meeting the NATO-standard of 180 flight hours per pilot and year, and while there are some redeeming features of Finnish operations (such as short transits to training areas), cutting 20% of the flight hours while at the same time increasing the complexity of the mission sets and bringing in new roles won’t happen. At least not in a good way…
Which brings us to the numbers. The Swiss are looking at a procurement cost of 5.068 Bn CHF for 36 fighters, which converted to Euros and extrapolated to 64 gives us the figure of 8.2 Bn EUR, well below the 9.6 Bn EUR maximum of HX. So far so good, until you realise that the 10.432 Bn CHF cost of operating the aircraft over 30 years gives 16.9 Bn EUR extrapolated to 64, giving you an annual operating cost of 563.3 MEUR, which is significantly over the FinAF 270 MEUR annual budget.
With 20% less flying hours than the competition.
…and that brings us back to the fact that Finland isn’t Switzerland.
The mission set which 36 F-35A are supposed to handle is described as follows:
As far as fleet size is concerned, for all four candidates a fleet of 36 aircraft would be large enough to cover Switzerland’s airspace protection needs over the longer term in a prolonged situation of heightened tensions. The Air Force must be able to ensure that Swiss airspace cannot be used by foreign parties in a military conflict.
Which is a realistic threat scenario in my opinion. As long as the French suddenly doesn’t get revanchist over the dissolution of the Helvetic Republic, there’s little direct threat.
The stated aim for the Finnish forces in a ground war is to:
Making it possible to slow down and wear out the aggressor’s
land attack in selected terrain and ultimately defeat him. All
services and civilian authorities as well as the Border Guard
participate in land defence.
…which can be described by this fancy infographic of the battlefield in 2030.
This difference is evident in the DSCA-notices as well, were the Swiss DSCA-notification include a grand-total of 40 AIM-9X Sidewinders, 12 Mk 82 500-lb bombs with JDAM-guidance kits, and 12 SDB-II small glide-bombs. You do not fight a war with that kind of stock, although the possibility to carry on the weapons currently used by the Hornets are there. As has been discussed for Finland, the weapons and spares bought will be a huge part of the overall acquisition costs, suddenly making the 8.2 Bn EUR Swiss pricetag look less than stellar (although granted the Swiss DSCA-notification included more spare engines compared to the Finnish bid). Comparing costs is a case of apples against pears against olives with the occasional mango thrown into the mix, but the resulting smoothie evidently tastes like Finland won’t be able to acquire and operate 64 F-35As at Swiss prices.
More confusingly, if that is 20% cheaper than everything else, there’s some serious discrepancies between what the Swiss asked for and the five packages offered to Finland for 9.6 Bn Euros.
Lockheed Martin’s bid for the HX programme is likely the one that has caused the most speculation, and this blog has seen its fair share of that as well. Scott Davis, Lockheed Martin’s Managing Director for Finland, was happy to chat and clear up some of the remaining confusion.
Let’s begin with the elephant in the room: the offer in their BAFO is for 64 F-35A, and this is most certainly the number the company expects to supply Finland in case they win. The package of weapons they would supply does include an undisclosed number of weapons that include AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM, JSM, and AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER. All of these are included in the BAFO as regular to-be-delivered items, and not as options. Davis acknowledged that he had been unnecessarily vague in his comments at the earlier HX media event, leading to speculation about options to adjust the figures either up or down. However, it is now evident that Lockheed Martin joins Boeing and Saab in the 64 fighter-game.
The JASSM-ER needs no further introduction, as in essence it is an upgrade of the Finnish Air Force current silver bullet. The weapon slings a 450 kg warhead out beyond 900 kilometers, where an IIR-seeker provide terminal guidance. The current weapons sport a one-way datalink, but it seems like the AGM-158B-2 will feature the updated two-way WDL of the AGM-158D JASSM-ER (the missile formerly known as JASSM-XR). Is it better for Finnish requirements than the Taurus KEPD 350? The Finnish Air Force thought so last time around, but as noted in my last post the weapons sport rather different design philosophies, and it isn’t necessarily a question with a straightforward answer.
A weapon in the class of the JASSM is needed to wipe out certain hardened targets, but the smaller weapons also offer interesting capabilities, especially as internal carriage offer other benefits besides stealth as well. As long as the weapons are carried internally an external observer will not be able to say if the aircraft is loaded, and in that case with what kind of weaponry. For an Air Force that cherish ambiguity – perhaps a bit more than really is healthy – being able to both train and perform QRA-missions in peacetime without sneaky plane spotters with diplomatic immunity being able to tell what the aircraft carries is likely to captivate their imagination. This allows for example raising the number of AMRAAMs carried in response to intel you don’t want the adversary to know you have, or even to change the loadout from a pure air-to-air one to a land-attack or anti-shipping one, all depending on the situation (you can obviously also do the classic ‘lets fly by their ship at low altitude with doors open and show that at least one aircraft carries JSM’ to really have them guessing about how many of the F-35s zooming around are ‘just’ fighters and how many are potential threats to maritime forces). It’s not a war-winning feature, but it is a positive secondary effect recognised already during the Cold War when USAF F-102/106 deltas were flying around at potential flashpoints.
Davis understandably was interested in discussing electronic warfare, considering the in his opinion oversimplified illustration that featured on the blog a while back. Showing a generic strike fighter unable to jam anything but the X-band, the impression was that the ‘Strike Fighter’ would have a hard time without its buddy the EA-18G Growler that provide multi-band support. Davis, however, isn’t impressed.
Fourth generation fighters are correctly standing off well outside of the threat rings, as they should. Our threat rings are exponentially smaller. […] I can’t tell what our [jamming] bandwidth is, but it is more than just the X-band.
As has been discussed earlier on the blog, the key jammer on the F-35 is the large AN/APG-81 AESA radar, which thanks to its size produces a thin and accurate jamming beam which is harder for the adversary to detect. Another benefit is the availability of the onboard power (read: engine) and cooling systems, which allows for a very higher jamming output power. This in turn is further enhanced by the F-35 being able to get in closer, or as Davis put it: “Our jamming signal is ten times as powerful as podded systems, so we’re closer because our stealth allows it and more powerful.” However, that still leaves the question of the other bandwidths, such as the low-band radars that are growing in popularity thanks to their better anti-stealth characteristics. But here as well the F-35 has the answer: it will blow them to pieces. The response might come of as arrogant, but isn’t without merit. The antenna arrays tend to grow with wavelength, meaning that the systems outside of the those which the F-35 can jam tend to be rather large and not moving around in the same way as their lighter compatriots. The F-35 signal gathering capability as well as unique datalink and ability to operate as a formation all combine to give it a high situational awareness, which should make the kinetic response a more feasible tactic compared to many other platforms. Granted, while you in the grey zone might possibly jam hostile sensors, you don’t really get to blow them up unless it is a full-blown war, and you don’t block enemy communications through blowing things up, so there is still a lack of flexibility compared to dedicated EW-platforms such as the Growler when discussing manoeuvres in the electromagnetic spectrum (which seems to be the next trend, brace yourself for new and exciting buzzwords!). On the other hand the F/A-18 Hornet-replacing capability the Finnish Air Force asked for in HX didn’t include communications jamming so it remains to be seen how the FinAF judges the value of these.
Another issue raised by the illustration was the question of what happens on the egress, when the aircraft have turned their tails towards the threat. Davis isn’t too worried about that prospect either (and it should be noted that he has actually flown fighters operationally for quite a few years).
I put no great importance in the fact that the jamming is just in front – there are other aircraft in the formation that could support from behind for example
The engineer in me would like to point out that at some point the second pair of fighters in the formation will have to turn around as well, but it is a good reminder of the fact that judging the capabilities on a single fighter vs. fighter rarely gives the complete picture.
Another issue that Davis liked to comment was the notion by Saab that their unnamed competition according to Saab’s analysis would be able to maintain around 35 fighters mission capable in a Finnish scenario. Davis noted that he was unable to say if the comment was directed towards the F-35 (neither am I as Saab didn’t say, though I would think it’s a fair guess to assume so) that in their case it is certainly not correct. Despite the issues still plaguing the F-35, including the engine shortages, the aircraft still reached a 76 % mission capability rate in the USAF during 2020. Crucially this happened while the cost per flight hour continued to come down, meaning that the growth in the mission capability rate was organic, for the lack of a better word, and not just a case of stocking up with more spare parts. So far peacetime rates of over 80 % are routinely seen, with some units even clocking about 90 % at times. More impressive is that a number of Red Flag exercises have seen the participating F-35s pull through the whole three week exercises without losing a single sortie due to maintenance or reliability associated failures. The core message here from Lockheed Martin is that in times of crisis, “almost all” of the 64 Finnish F-35s would be available for service, and there’s an interesting anecdote to back up this claim: recently Eielson AFB (every Finnish F-35 watchers favourite base as it sits at the same latitude as Rovaniemi AFB) had a snap readiness check to get the maximum number of aircraft ready within 24 hours. The end result was that by the end of that deadline 26 out of 26 F-35A were mission capable. While Davis didn’t point it out but stuck to discussing ‘his’ fighter, one thing is evident: he has the anecdotes to back up his readiness claims, something that Saab hasn’t as the 39E isn’t in operational service yet.
As noted in earlier posts, Finland would also receive a “great” security of supply program through the industrial participation package which would include manufacturing of stealth panels and major component assembly, ensuring that in times of crisis there would be local know-how available to ensure that the aircraft stays flying. An interesting detail is that opposed to for example the Danish or Polish F-35 buys, Finland actually have gotten firm commitments for an undisclosed number of components (including panels) not only to the Finnish fleet but to the global F-35 fleet as well. This in turn touches upon perhaps the strongest single selling point of the F-35A, and one that has received surprisingly little attention in Finnish media. The global fleet is significant, or even huge compared to most of the competitors, and a sizeable part of it is found in Europe among our close partners. In the words of Scott Davis:
We offer Finland a platform you won’t be the last user of
While the F/A-18C Hornet has on all accounts been a huge success for Finland, the cost of not being able to align the upgrades with the main user has meant that keeping it relevant has been more expensive than the FDF would have liked to. With 400+ F-35s in Europe by 2030 purely based on already signed contracts, the risk of that happening with the F-35A is negligible. The global F-35 fleet has also been rather busy showcasing its capabilities in the last few weeks, including Norwegian F-35As participating in ACE 21, as well as HMS Queen Elizabeth not only launching RAF and USMC F-35Bs operationally on combat missions over the Middle East, but also seeing RAF aircraft taking part in an austere forward basing exercise with Italian F-35s. While there are levels of austere basing and people might argue about whether the exercise was as demanding as a road base in Finnish winter conditions, the fact is that much of Finnish Air Force dispersed operations would likely take place in roughly similar locations with the use of smaller civilian airfields with limited rather than non-existent infrastructure.
The F-35A is in many ways the fighter which likely would change Finnish Air Force tactics and wider concepts of operations the most, and I ask Scott Davis whether he is worried that the F-35 won’t show its full capability in the Finnish wargames due to those involved using current tactics developed for the Hornet? He confirms that while it is true that the tactics need to be revised due to the increased situational awareness and very-low observability of the F-35, he isn’t worried about the evaluation. The Finnish team has by now ample experience from both briefings and flying the aircraft in simulators aided by both operational USAF pilots and Lockheed Martin personnel, and he is confident that the F-35 will show its best side in the evaluation.
I am impressed by the level of detail the HX-team got into […] We are confident it will be a fair evaluation
As I was quite vocal in questioning the decision of Saab to opt for the Taurus KEPD 350 as their heavy cruise missile, I was not overly surprised when Saab contacted me and asked if I wanted to discuss the choice as well as their bid more generally. It turned into a rather interesting brief, with representatives from both Saab and TAURUS Systems GmbH (owned to 67% by MBDA Deutschland GmbH and 33% by Saab Dynamics AB).
Saab further discussed the extent to which Finnish-Swedish cooperation and possible synergies play into the bid. Saab has not only run all company simulations of scenarios based on the FDF requirements to find the best setup for Finland, but in a step further they have also run the same simulations with Finland and Sweden being allied to see how this setup would work if Finland wouldn’t have to go at it alone. The BAFO includes not only Saab’s offer, but also drafts for a number of political agreements for closer defence cooperation, such as for a shared situational air picture benefiting from both countries operating not only the same aircraft types, but similar versions of these aircraft. With the Finnish requirement to align the configuration of the eventual HX-winner with the main user, this include not only the earlier announced Swedish political decision to align their 39E configurations with the Finnish requests (including long-range precision strike and “enhanced electronic attack capability”), but also operating similar GlobalEye-configurations. In a change compared to earlier announcements, Bombardier keeping the Global 6000 in production allow Saab to use the same platform for both Finland and Sweden as is currently in service with the UAE. This opportunity saves quite a bit of certification and R&D costs compared to the earlier indicated change to Global 6500 as the basic platform for the GlobalEye, which frankly wouldn’t give too much of an improvement. An improved wing and new Rolls-Royce BR710 Pearl gives better hot and high performance as well as better range and endurance for the newer Global 6500, but for a Finnish scenario the Global 6000 should provide plenty enough of performance and the up-front savings can be better spent elsewhere.
Saab is very much in agreement with Lockheed Martin that having a single-configuration fighter fleet is preferable due to the flexibility it offers when it comes to for example fleet management and readiness. The required capability to be able to pull it off is in Saab’s case based on the brand new integral electronic warfare system – which carries on the tradition of the highly respected JAS 39C/D EW-system – as well as the EAJP offering the wider frequencies and high output power needed to counter not only fire control radars but also other parts of the electro-magnetic spectrum. This goes hand in hand with Saab’s (and Sweden’s) long history of advanced datalinks, which means that Swedish fast jet tactics place a very high emphasis on the four-ship formation as a tactical unit as opposed to the traditional focus on the lead-wingman pair, and allowing e.g. for passive triangulation (another area where Saab and Lockheed Martin is in agreement is that this is a very cool and useful feature).
But none if this is really earth-shattering news. What about that cruise missile?
The reason behind the Taurus KEPD 350 losing out to AGM-158A JASSM for integration on the Finnish Hornet-fleet was discussed, and Saab responded in rather general terms.
Many factors were behind the original JASSM choice, how flexible were the US authorities in allowing integration of Taurus on Hornet? I don’t know.
Having said that, Saab wasn’t interested in commenting on how flexible the US might be in integrating JASSM on the 39E Gripen. They did however (correctly) point out that the Finnish JASSM inventory is set for either retirement or a mid-life update by the time the Hornets retire, and that technically there are no issues with integrating the weapon.
Still, there’s no tears shed by Saab over the (forced?) choice of Taurus KEPD 350, as they are quick to point out that the weapon is extremely potent, and offering a rather different design philosophy compared to the US offering. Interestingly many of the design choices actually do mirror the design choices of the Gripen-platform itself, lending some credibility to Saab’s argument that it is the superior weapon for a Gripen-fleet in Finnish service.
The basic idea is that radars evolve, and as such the value of stealth will diminish over time. Physics, however, remain surprisingly constant, and as such flying at very low level under the radar horizon is bound to work equally well in 2060 as it does today. This is then coupled with a highly redundant navigation system based on INS, GPS, a radar altimeter, and an IIR-sensor that together open up for image- and terrain-based navigation. This is couple with an advanced mission planning software to ensure that the weapon will get where it needs to be, which take into consideration the overall situation including threats, terrain, friendly forces, and weather.
The mission planning is actually a really interesting feature, as not only is it reportedly very precise (a requirement for being able to fly at extremely low altitude), but by simulating the entire strike it is able to run detailed Monte Carlo-simulations which take into account for example changes in the weather conditions or how the situation for the later missiles released changes with earlier missiles in the strike hitting their targets. The idea is to ensure economy in weapons use, and avoid wasting missiles in saturation attacks. This is a common theme for the marketing of the weapon, promising “low acquisition costs combined with low run-time costs”.
At the heart of this capability is the 480 kg warhead that sport a dual-charge layout with a pre-charge and a penetrator, resulting in what Taurus claim is “unmatched concrete penetration capability” and crucially allows the missile to stay low and attack also hardened targets at shallow dive angles instead of the more classic pop-up profile. But while the bunker-busting features is what the warhead is best known for, specialised fuzes allow additional flexibility such as overflight airburst modes. And again, flexibility further adds to the cost-efficiency.
In short Taurus claims that several factors add up to ensure that more enemy stuff will go boom for the same amount of money compared to JASSM (and yes, continuing the trend after the BAFOs both Taurus and Saab are naming their competitors as opposed to talking about hypothetical comparable systems). In addition, the weapon reportedly outranges the current AGM-158A JASSM in having approximately 600 km range if released at altitude (usual caveats apply).
Interlude: The saga of the JASSM-ER continues
The #USAF's FY22 BR provides some clarification regarding the designations of the different JASSM versions. Contrary to some unconfirmed media reports from earlier this year, the AGM-158D has not be re-designated as AGM-158B-2; they are two different JASSM-ER versions. pic.twitter.com/8nKIUMHDxi
Back in February it seemed the JASSM-version offered to Finland was the weapon originally designated AGM-158D JASSM-XR. However, turns out there’s another twist in USAF weapons procurement that came to light a while ago, as there are in fact a number of different JASSM-ER and -XR versions. The ‘original’ JASSM-XR apparently is still in development though it is now designated AGM-158D JASSM-ER, but it is pushed back as a version of the -ER designated the AGM-158B-2 is entering production. This weapon which is offered to Finland feature the more advanced datalink of the -XR but lack the improved wing (and hence not reaching the same range). At the same time, the US Navy scrapped the JSOW-ER and is focusing on an JASSM-ER version that will feature some components of the AGM-158C LRASM allowing it to also be used as an anti-ship missile, meaning that in total there seems to be at least six different versions of the JASSM either having reached production status or in different stages of development, four of which are designated JASSM-ER (AGM-158B, AGM-158B-2, AGM-158 ‘Navy-version’, and AGM-158D, with the other two being the AGM-158A and the anti-shipping AGM-158C LRASM). Range numbers of the AGM-158B-2 are somewhat obscure, but likely close to the original AGM-158B at around 930 km.
In any case, both the AGM-158B and Taurus KEPD 350 would offer significant increases to the ranges of Finnish air-launched weapons, and while cutting the Jaroslavl-Vologda railroad might be easier with the AGM-158D, a conflict would see no shortage of potential targets within 500 km of the border.
Back to Gripen, the aircraft has been in the headlines recently in Sweden due to budgetary discussions. Saab played down these, noting that none of the reported cost overruns are directly tied to the development of the 39E, but rather they stem from political infighting, earlier overly-optimistic Swedish Armed Forces budgets, and so forth. Not having seen the original documents behind the headlines it’s hard to comment further, though it arguably wouldn’t be the first time there has been a refusal from Swedish politicians to recognise what defence capabilities actually cost.
However, for HX the question is largely moot, as Saab is very much in agreement with Boeing in that now the best and final offers really are the final offers, and that by now everything is set if not in stone then at least ink. The Swedish proposal is firm with regards to contents, price, as well as delivery, and as such it is somewhat different from the FMS framework. And there won’t be any major changes or ‘up to’-wordings.
We have been puzzled by some of the reactions or comments swallowed by the media, there is not ‘later’
We’ll have to see what Lockheed Martin has to say about that.
Saab also confirmed that there are further weapon types in the offer that haven’t been disclosed. While there certainly are some who would like to believe this to be the RBS 15, in reality it is likely to be about gravity bombs.
A more cut-throat statement was that not only is Saab certain that the robustness and availability of the Gripen ensure that “with margin there will always be more than 50 Gripens available in peacetime”, their business intelligence based on open sources gives that for “the competition” the corresponding number would be about 35 fighters available. And that is before including the fact that Gripen would be flying less due to the GlobalEyes providing a better situational picture.
We’ll have to see what “the competition” has to say about that.
The HX competition continues to provide surprises in the post-BAFO era, and this week’s media event courtesy of the US Embassy was no exception. After a short introduction by the embassy that described the strong partnership that exists between Finland and the US (and which included a note about Finnish exports and know-how finding its way into key US programs, such as the Polar Security Cutter), it was on to the two US fighter manufacturers to discuss their bids. And while they might be taking part in the same media event, the tone certainly tells of the battle heating up. Boeing discarded outright the theory of ordinary fighters working as EW-platforms, noting that an AESA radar will only provide X-band jamming, and only during ingress, leaving you unprotected when exiting the target area, while Lockheed Martin explained how the F-35A doesn’t require support from electronic warfare platforms or ISR assets “as opposed to 4th generation fighters”.
Illustration of the difference between having a dedicated EW-aircraft compared to an unnamed strike fighter (no points for guessing which, though) using its AESA-radar as a giant jammer. The colour coding symbolise different bands, with the underwing pods of the Growler jamming the S-, C-, and X-bands while the centre-line pod handles the VHF, UHF, and L-band part of the spectrum. Picture courtesy of Boeing
Much of the presentation from Boeing should be well-known talking points to readers of the blog, but in short Boeing still sees international opportunities for up to 400 Super Hornets on the international market. This includes everything from Germany, which already has down-selected the aircraft, to less likely cases such as India.The German contract is the most important one from a Finnish point of view and would likely be a minor facor in HX as it would mean another serious European operator, though my expectation is that the deal won’t be inked until the new government is formed and have gotten up to speed (read: 2022, which also seems to be roughly the timeline Boeing is expecting). Some have questioned the future of the programme as a whole with the rise of Die Grünen, but so far the programme is continuing apace and Germany has indeed already invested money in the preparatory studies, which would imply that the MoD is expecting it to survive a change of government. Notable also that while the Greens aren’t particularly keen on nuclear weapons, part of the allure of the Super Hornet in the strike role comes from the synergies of the Growler which is part of the non-controversial luWES Tornado ECR-replacement program. Of the near-future decisions, the Swiss and Canadian decision are expected within June and before the end of the summer respectively. Switzerland and Canada are less likely to end in work for St Louis, but you never know.
[Industrial participation] is an area where we are clearly differentiated, we have an unblemished track record.
The major talking points of Boeing were the Growler and their industrial participation package. There won’t be final assembly of aircraft or engines in Finland in case of a Boeing win, but rather production of major aircraft and engine structures for the Super Hornet/Growler. While less media-sexy than the final assembly promised by BAES and Saab, the devil is in the details and which one is better than the other from economic or military points of view will depend on the level of assembly (i.e. how large parts are being delivered to be assembled?) compared to how major the parts produced are. The direct industrial participation is in total 49 different programs spread out over 20 different companies, and on the US side include not only Boeing themselves but other major partners of the Super Hornet industrial team such as Northrop Grumman, GE Aircraft Engines, and Raytheon. On the indirect side, Boeing is striving to “leverage the breadth of the whole company”, i.e. including the civilian and other divisions and not just Boeing Defence.
Discussing weapons in a later call, Boeing confirmed that their offer include a modern version of the AMRAAM, the AIM-120C-8. This is quite a bit of a step-up from the Finnish Air Force’s current C-7, though exactly how much is unclear. Many sources refer to the C-8 as a rebranded D, which is the weapon responsible for the recent test that the USAF described as “the longest known air-to-air missile shot“. Exact range is obviously both classified and depending on a number of launch parameters, but the F-14 Tomcat/AIM-54 Phoenix combo is known to have downed drones in 200+ km tests, so that should give a good indicator of the ranges we are talking about. However, long-time defence journalist Joseph Trevithick stated that his understanding is that the C-8 is a hybrid-version for export that involve much of the improvements of the AIM-120D, such as third-party targeting datalinks, but not the improved engine (range is still likely somewhat better than C-7 thanks to improved steering economy). In any case, a Boeing spokesperson confirmed that while they are “pretty happy with that [the AIM-120C-8]”, there obviously are “other things” coming in the near future (read: the AIM-260 JATM). While commercial details made it impossible to include the upcoming weapon in the BAFO and Boeing can’t comment on potential weapons buys post-BAFO, it should be noted that the details known include a rather aggressive development timeline that will see the JATM overtake the AMRAAM in production in the mid-20’s, a decision by the US Navy to first integrate it on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, as well as the Finnish Air Force having expressed a wish to stay as close as possible to the standard of the main operator of any fighter they buy. Add these all together, and it starts to seem highly likely that by the time HX reaches FOC in 2030, in case the Super Hornet wins, the Finnish Air Force would be flying around with a mix of AIM-120C-8 and AIM-260. Still, for the time being the C-8 is what’s on offer, and Boeing claim to be “confident in their ability to defeat the high-end threats” presented in the HX-scenarios with it.
The Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile – Extended Range (AARGM-ER) during captive carry tests. The missile is externally rather different from earlier members of the AGM-88 family in that it lacks the characteristic mid-body wings. The Navy is integrating AARGM-ER on the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G, and it will be compatible for integration of the F-35. Picture source: U.S. Navy photo
Another question is what the Growler will carry for their kinetic missions. Here Boeing was more careful, and declined to mention a weapon, but noted that the Growler-offer obviously include both kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities. Add the earlier mentioned FinAF wish to stay close to the US Navy configuration, and the answer is rather clear: a Finnish EA-18G Growler would use the AGM-88G AARGM-ER to kill stuff. Another key question for the Growler is obviously the low- and high-band jammers that weren’t part of the original DSCA-notification. Here again the timeline causes something of a headache for Boeing, as the USN will be flying with at least the NGJ-LB jammer before FOC for a Finnish Growler-fleet, but they can’t be released for export yet as they are still in development. However, the plan would, again referring to the fact that Finland does not want a unique Finnish standard, be for Finland to operate with whatever the main user employs, so expect to see some money set aside for the missing NGJ-pods if Finland gets the Growler. In the meantime, there is the option of using loaned pods (i.e. AN/ALQ-99) to get training started.
Our offer is complete for the Growler.
For Lockheed Martin the big news was that they were finally ready to talk numbers as well as industrial participation, and there were certainly positive news.
64 is the only number in our offer.
In what can only be described as a surprise to me (as well as to a number of other people), Lockheed Martin confirmed that their bid is built around 64 F-35A. The rest of their message was less surprisingly centred on the value of having a single-configuration fleet made up of the most advanced tactical aircraft currently found on the market. In short, having a single aircraft configuration means that everything from training, maintenance, logistics, and support equipment are easier to plan and manage (which makes it cheaper). This also translate into simpler tasking as every aircraft can fly every mission. Regarding the statement that the F-35 “does not require electronic warfare or AEW platforms as a fourth generation fighter”, it certainly is less dependent on force multipliers (all other things equal) than most other platforms out there, but there are certainly room for nuance here. There’s a reason why the USAF is investing in AEW platforms and expeditionary Growler squadrons, while at the same time quite a number of smaller air forces are able to fly fast jets independently without force multipliers (though as the phrase suggests, that solution isn’t optimal).
A Finnish Air Force F/A-18D Hornet sporting two AGM-158A JASSM heavy cruise missiles. The weapon has received almost mythical status in Finnish media, and while some of its reputation is exaggerated, there’s no denying it is a key capability. Source: Finnish Air Force FB
When it comes to weapon, Lockheed Martin doesn’t want to discuss what’s coming after the AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM, though it is safe to assume that the AIM-260 wouldn’t be far away here either (especially considering it is a Lockheed Martin product as opposed to the AIM-120). More interesting is the fact that Lockheed Martin put focus on how a stealthy aircraft is able to get closer to the target and as such is less reliant on expensive long-range weaponry. Coupled with the emphasise on the JSM as a “true fifth generation weapon”, and the fact that at no point has Lockheed Martin discussed the JASSM, the rumour mill is starting to ask a new question.
Is there a heavy cruise missile at all in Lockheed Martin’s best and final offer?
The JSM is a very nice weapon, and it marries extremely well with the F-35. However, the 550+ km range is a far cry from the 1,850+ km range of the AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER which is cleared for export to Finland as part of both US offers, but as noted the JASSM has never been confirmed by Lockheed Martin. Granted the F-35A might be able to operate closer to its intended target than the Super Hornet, but I sincerely doubt the difference is in the 1,300+ km class. And the difference isn’t just in the range (the JSM in fact outranges the current AGM-158A, so it would still be a step up), but the JASSM carries a 450-kg penetrating warhead while the JSM comes with the significantly more tame 125-kg fragmentation one.
To put it bluntly – it might be a cruise missile, but it is not the capability the Finnish Air Force is looking for.
I’d be happy to be proven wrong, but it certainly feels a bit worrying, and it might explain another somewhat strange issue with the wording of Lockheed Martin, namely their stubborn refusal to talk about 64 aircraft without including the phrase “up to” before it. This prompted Iltalehti’s Lauri Nurmi to ask what exactly “up to 64” meant, which lead to the “only number in offer”-quote above. However, the answer also included disclaimers about final negotiations between selection and contract signing as well as exchange rates causing issues. These are certainly valid concerns, the original Finnish F/A-18C Hornet order was cut by three airframes compared to the offer due to the Finnish mark collapsing compared to the US dollar, and everyone expects some tweaking between the BAFO and the eventual contract.
Except for the fact that both Boeing and Saab has committed to 64 fighters, full stop.
Boeing was more than happy to offer some insight into how the exchange rate between euro and US dollar is handled in HX during our call yesterday, and provided the following quote:
The exchange rate utilized for the BAFO was provided to all candidates on the same day. The US competitors are utilizing the same exchange rate for USD vs Euro. With that same exchange rate we are able to provide 64 aircraft (50 Super Hornets and 14 Growler) along with a complete weapons and sustainment package. Also with that same exchange rate, we are able to clearly demonstrate that with our solution, we can fit within the O&S budget provided by the FDF
With regards to the eventual negotiations, Boeing was also confident enough to guarantee 64 fighters:
With our [Boeing’s] offer, should we be down-selected, there is room to negotiate items within the offer to better refine the solution, however, regardless of that, it is guaranteed that Finland will receive 64 aircraft along with a complete weapons and sustainment solution as a baseline.
Now, if there really is some rather significant holes in the F-35 package, such as the lack of a heavy cruise missile, it isn’t far-fetched to see a re-negotiation where say two aircraft are dropped and the cost is converted into JASSMs, as in all fairness the difference between 64 and 62 aircraft would in practice turn out to be rather minor. On the other hand, it is the BAFO package that will be evaluated in the war games that determine the winner, and it would be a high-risk gamble to go in with something else than the optimal solution to the needs of the FDF. A third possibility is that Lockheed Martin is believing that they won’t come out on top, and then it would look better to be able to walk away saying that they were able to fit 64 aircraft in their offer under the budget given, but that they lost on some more particularly Finnish requirement (defence budgets and numbers are rather global phenomenon and affect every future fighter programme in which they wish to compete, dispersed operations in snow doesn’t).
F-35A during HX Challenge last year. Source: Finnish Air Force FB
This is obviously pure speculation, but the insistence on talking about “up to 64” is somewhat puzzling. I am however happy that it turned out the number of fighters offered is serious, and as noted am overall positively surprised by this development (BAES and Dassault, take note). This was also the case with the industrial participation programme, which included guaranteed manufacturing of airframe components up to 2040 as well as external stealth panels within the same time frame. The number of guaranteed panels also exceed the Finnish requirement, meaning that Finland is guaranteed component production to some non-Finnish F-35s. I am not sure how well that will sit with countries that didn’t secure guaranteed production orders, but as noted in the case of the Super Hornet, from a Finnish point of view parts production can certainly be at least as good or even better than final assembly depending on the details of the offer. The key words here are “guaranteed” and “exceeding Finnish requirements”, and we got them, so I believe it is safe to assume the industrial participation package is at the very least adequate.
Much was also made about how the operating and sustainment costs are coming down, and how the aircraft is “living in single digit maintenance hours”. This is certainly good news for Lockheed Martin, as the operating budget will likely prove the toughest hurdle for the company in HX. Another proof of how the aircraft is maturing is the mission capable rate which now is the best of all USAF fast jets. However, while 76 % and pole position is nice, the truth is that the F-35 is a new aircraft largely still unburdened by combat usage. The fact that the F-16C-fleet reaches almost 74 % despite being on average 29 years old on the other hand puts the numbers in perspective. Other old and heavily worked USAF platforms are also hovering around the 70 %-mark, including the F-15C (72 %, 35 years on average) and F-15E (69 %, 27 years on average). As such, this particular metric might not be the huge win the F-35 is looking for, but it is still a nice step in the right direction, especially considering the unexpected engine shortage the aircraft suffered last year.
In general, as has been discussed earlier on the blog, the story of F-35 sustainment issues does feel like a two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance. The latest serious question mark surrounds the replacement of the company-controlled ALIS maintenance software with the government-owned ODIN, which has run into trouble. At the heart of recent discussions have been the extent to which Lockheed Martin is involved in the maintenance and logistics, and how to reach the milestone of “25 by 25”, meaning that by 2025 there would be a ~29,000 USD per flying hour support cost (the name comes from 29,000 USD in 2025 corresponding to 25,000 in base year 2012 dollars). Lockheed Martin’s proposal is more direct involvement and longer contracts, something the USAF isn’t too keen on. It should be noted that for the FDF involving industry to work very closely on maintenance isn’t a new issue, the whole Millog-idea in fact rests on doing business this way. However, government control is very much a key issue for the FDF, which has been seen for example in the other strategic procurement where the decision was made to have the FDF own the design of the Squadron 2020 vessels and then hire a yard to build them. Having a foreign defence company tell the FDF what data about their own aircraft they may (or may not) access might certainly be a red line, and with the US government facing issues renegotiating intellectual property rights, the odds of Finland managing better here are slim.
The Best and Final Offers (BAFO) for the HX tender are in, and from here onwards there’s no adjustments to the offers. Whatever the bidder has promised is what they are legally bound to deliver. Now we as well as the OEMs will just have to wait until the end of the year to hear who have been chosen. This also means that the embargo on disclosing details has been lifted, and the suppliers are free to share further information if they want to. Interestingly, some has chosen not to, though that may be telling in itself. Dassault sticks to their line and hasn’t even said whether they have responded to the BAFO-request, though the Finnish authorities have confirmed that they have received all five responses. Lockheed Martin published a short press release, as did Boeing, who followed up with casually dropping the number of fighters offered when asked about it. BAES and Saab in turn held full-blown media events. So what do we know?
The race is on
The big news is that LOGCOM was able to secure five offers, and apparently five serious ones. I struggle to remember when it would have happened that a country has managed to keep a fighter acquisition program fair and open enough that no-one has decided to drop out prematurely or not supply an offer at all (at least Norway, Denmark, Croatia, Slovakia, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Bulgaria, and India have held fighter tenders within the last few years, all of which have either led to some dropping out mid-way, not responding to quotations, the whole program being cancelled, the invitation to tender being rather narrow, or bids being disqualified). It’s hard to overestimate how significant this achievement is, and how important of a quality certificate it is to the process as a whole. In contrast to what some armchair analysts have argued, that some of the largest defence companies in the world – with business intelligence units to match and arguably somewhat cynical worldviews – believe that they have enough of a fair chance to win the competition that they are prepared to invest heavily into making their bids is a solid indication that the tendering process has been, and still is, open and undecided. This also feels reassuring to me as a taxpayer in ensuring that it really will be the best system offered to Finland that will end up in Finnish colours.
A big congrats to LOGCOM, the Finnish Air Force, and the MoD for this achievement!
The number game is interesting. At their press conference, BAES pointed out that they wouldn’t disclose the numbers as all bids weren’t confirmed to have been returned, as that apparently was the wish of the MoD. This sounded logical enough, until the bids were confirmed by the MoD to all have been returned, and BAES still declined to release any numbers. The full quote by a Eurofighter spokesperson was:
We are confident our offer will deliver sufficient Eurofighter aircraft to meet the challenge set by Finland to fully replace its existing capability. This is a competitive process and we will release further details of our offer as appropriate.
This was echoed by Dassault, who told Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat that the MoD had not given permission to release numbers. At the same time, Boeing was happily telling anyone asking that their offer consisted of 50 F/A-18E Super Hornets and 14 EA-18G Growler, i.e. matching the original 57 F/A-18C Hornet and 7 F/A-18D Hornet Finland bought in the 90’s. A bit later Lockheed Martin confirmed that they had sent in an offer that included:
F-35A fighters as well as a maintenance solution
Saab in turn held a press conference on Friday, which included the news that they were to supply 64 JAS 39E Gripen as well as 2 GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft in case they got chosen.
Those who have been watching the process closely will note that it is the two producers who have been expected to sport the cheapest fighters that have disclosed their numbers, and both match the current 64 fighter figure (or rather, the original 64 fighter, as Finland has lost two Hornets in accidents). Saab was also happy to rub it in, noting that while there was no requirement for a set number of aircraft, there was indeed:
Floating around a general expectation in Finland [of 64 fighters]
I’m not sure there’s quite an expectation for 64 fighters, as a matter of fact I personally expected both Boeing and Saab to land in the 60-64 range, but there’s certainly an expectation for almost 64. This stems from years of writings, interviews, and podcasts in which both the HX programme leadership as well as the senior Air Force personnel commenting on the issue has noted that we need roughly the same number of fighters as A) Finland is still the same size as it was in 1995, B) the speed of the fighters are roughly the same as it was back then, and C) the range of the weapons is roughly the same as it was back then. Yes, on a tactical level supercruise and Meteor provide significant increases, but when it comes to the operational or strategic level those are rather minor changes. There’s still 390,905 km² that needs to be defended.
As the Finnish Air Force demonstrated last year when it surged 32 Hornets for a total of eight four-ship formations (out of a fleet of 62), getting coverage really needs numbers. Even in the best of scenarios, the classic three-to-one ratio is a handy rule-of-thumb for prolonged operations. Let’s imagine a snapshot of a wartime scenario:
We are a few days into the war, the operational tempo is still very high as the first wave of the enemy offensive is still ongoing,
The Finnish Air Force has lost a total of 16 aircraft, including those shot down and damaged in combat, as well as those damaged and destroyed on the ground in opening strikes,
The Air Force currently has one formation airborne as part of an air defence tasking in the south-east,
A second formation is on the ground in dispersed locations in the northern parts of the country, ready to take-off and either relieve the southern formation once it needs to return to base, or to intercept enemies heading north,
Four aircraft are currently returning from a bombing raid on enemy advancing mechanised formations and the bridges they rely on for their movements,
Two aircraft are over the northern Baltic Sea, trying to create an accurate maritime situational picture (i.e. locating enemy vessels) as well as checking for a high-value ISR-platform that is known to occasionally operate out of Kaliningrad,
Two aircraft are being prepared with heavy cruise missiles for a deep strike mission against enemy rail infrastructure,
For each active aircraft there are two others that are either the process of refuelling, being maintained, transferring between dispersed bases, or simply standing on the ground allowing the pilots some rest between missions.
You can obviously argue the details, but that is a scenario that is possible with 64 aircraft (16 active in the missions mentioned, 32 in reserve, 16 lost). If you start out with 40 aircraft, you will quickly run into some “interesting” numbers:
If you’ve lost 16 aircraft, that’s 40% of your force instead of 25% as in the 64 aircraft-scenario. To match 25% losses, you can only afford to lose 10 fighters,
Even if you only lose 25% of the fleet, that still leaves you with just 30 aircraft, of which 10 are available. If you still want one four-ship in the air and one on the ground ready to scramble to perform air defence tasks, that leaves a grand total of *two* aircraft for other missions. Not two formations, but two aircraft.
That’s the tyranny of the numbers, and while they certainly can be mitigated (minimise own losses, have spare pilots on the dispersed bases to avoid rest periods, increase spares availability and maintenance capability on dispersed locations, …) there’s really no way around them. And notable is that during exercise Ruska 20, the opening scenario based on a released map featured no less than thirteen four-ships, one three-ship, and a two-ship, all operating in an area well below half of the country’s surface area (as well as what presumably is a Swedish Hercules soloing straight down through the battlespace). Based on the same picture, my guess is that five of those formations might have been REDFOR, leaving 37 BLUFOR fighters airborne simultaneously to defend the airspace between Rovaniemi and Tampere.
The big question for HX then is whether the three manufacturers that are withholding their numbers are doing so because 58 would look bad when someone else has 64 (and that 9% difference in my opinion is still one where it might be possible to make a case for better overall capability thanks to higher availability and lower losses), or whether it is because the numbers offered are outrageously low (the threshold is somewhere in the low-fifties in my book). It is somewhat surprising – and honestly, rather worrying – that three out of five doesn’t want to talk numbers.
As discussed in an earlier post, the Lockheed Martin-team doesn’t want to discuss their industrial cooperation package in detail, though in their press release they have gone into some further details:
The final offer includes many opportunities for the Finnish defense industry related to the direct manufacture and maintenance of the F-35 that have not been offered before.
“The F-35 offers Finnish industry high-tech jobs that none of our competitors can offer,” says Bridget Lauderdale, director of the F-35 program. “Production collaboration would continue for more than 20 years and F-35 maintenance collaboration until the 2050s. Finland would maintain its own F-35 fighters and also support the global F-35 fleet by manufacturing significant aircraft parts. ”
Outside of F-35 production, Lockheed Martin would build partnerships with Finnish companies and universities to develop and promote defense cooperation in indirect industrial cooperation projects.
This is still vague, but better than what Dassault have been able to produce when it comes to disclosing information about their offer. Boeing’s latest press release is in fact even weaker than L-M’s, though they can at least lean on the fact that last time around L-M was thrown out of the competition due to an inadequate IP-offer while Boeing went on to manage a successful IP-program for the legacy-Hornets. Still, their statement is honestly anaemic:
Boeing’s offer also include an extensive industrial cooperation program that offers significant long-term opportunities for Finnish industry.
On to better news: Saab and BAES are happy to discuss details. Both are promising final assembly lines of both engines and airframes in Finland, as well significant other measures. BAES description includes several details:
The opportunity to perform final assembly of the aircraft including EJ200 engine build and maintenance; a partnership in the future development of primary sensors, including technical transfer and data analytic tools and techniques for mission data generation and electronic warfare; the transfer of extensive maintenance, repair, overhaul capability. And, the transfer of data and authority to make upgrades to the aircraft.
In addition, we are proposing projects that enable transfer and ongoing cooperation in Cyber Security which will build resilience in military assets and networks and Space technologies. And a suite of Research and development projects across a broad range of technologies that is being spearheaded by our partner MBDA. These benefit Finnish industry, including small medium enterprises, and Finnish academia.
The jobs that we are offering as a result are high quality, long term jobs equating to over 20 million man hours over 30 years, with the knock on benefit to the wider economy driving this figure even higher, and I am proud to be part of the team submitting this offer into Finland today.
Alex Zino of Rolls-Royce was also able to produce some numbers related to the impact of the engine production line to show that it wasn’t just about unpacking crates being shipped in from the UK: the tech transfer and engine production would result in a combined workload of approximately 1.5 million man hours over 40 years.
Saab on the other hand has earlier talked about approximately 10,000 workyears. A quick back-of-the-enveloped calculation gives the number of jobs on average as something like in the low three-hundreds for Saab and in the high three-hundreds for BAES (using approximately 1,700 hours per year as a benchmark), but there’s obviously significant uncertainties in how exactly the numbers have been calculated. To put it into perspective, this number corresponds to over a third of the whole of INSTA Group, the second major player in Finnish defence industry after Patria.
In the case of BAES, perhaps the single-most interesting piece of technology transfer is the invitation to join the ECRS Mk2 development programme, which promises to be significant both from a military as well as technological point of view. Despite the ECRS standing for European Common Radar System, it is in fact heavily led by the UK for the time being, presumably providing relatively much room for bringing foreign partners aboard compared to some other joint-systems shared by all four core countries. Another key part is obviously the continued discussion on sovereign mission data capability, where the turnaround times promised are in a completely different league from any US offers.
Based on the Royal Air Force’s extensive operational experience, we will establish a sovereign mission data capability to rapidly update the weapon system with the latest threat identification and countermeasure tactics, sortie-by-sortie, if necessary. Mission data is the life blood of any modern combat system, and security of supply is more than repairing physical components.
The RAF describe this as being how the force currently operate in the Middle East, with new threats and emitters being included in the aircraft libraries from one sortie to the other.
Saab is on the other hand planning on creating a System Centre, which will be responsible both for tactics development as well as the fleet management and data part of things. In essence, this would likely handle the same things as the BAES offered sovereign mission data capability, while also providing support to the FDF LOGCOM and the Air Combat Centre of Satakunta Air Command, all under one (literal of figurative?) roof.
Again, to reiterate Dassault isn’t saying anything, Lockheed Martin is saying something, Boeing is promising to tell more in the future, and Saab and BAES is giving their lists to everyone asking.
As we know from the DSCA requests both the F-35 and the Super Hornet would bring JDAMs (HE as well as bunker buster rounds), GBU-53/B SDB II’s small glide bombs, AGM-154C-1 JSOW stealthy glide weapons with a secondary anti-ship capability, AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER very long-range heavy cruise missiles, and AIM-9X short-range air-to-air missiles. Lockheed Martin now confirms that the offer also include the AIM-120 AMRAAM in an unspecified version as well as the JSM (Joint Strike Missile). Neither of these are particularly unexpected, but the JSM offers a nifty capability in its dual use against sea- and ground-targets, as well as passive seeker and possibility of internal carriage in the F-35, as briefly discussed last time around. The expectation is also that there will be a second DSCA-request for undisclosed versions of the AGM-88 signal-seeking missile (likely the AGM-88E AARGM) as well as for AIM-120 AMRAAMs for Boeing, though these are unconfirmed for the time being.
It has been a busy week for my team, who have conducted several strikes against Daesh.
BAES’s bid would bring what the Royal Air Force Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston KCB CBE ADC, describe as the full suite of weapons employed by the RAF – including the upcoming SPEAR 3 light cruise missile as well as the SPEAR EW version, a loitering stand-in jammer. However, curiously absent from the discussion was the Brimstone anti-tank missile, which has been a staple of the Operation Shader, RAF’s anti-ISIS campaign. However, the other two weapons that has been heavily in use in the Middle East by RAF Tornados and Typhoons are included in the list provided – namely the Storm Shadow heavy cruise missile and the Paveway IV guided bomb. The later is a 227-kg guided bomb with dual-mode anti-jamming GPS/INS as well as laser guidance, meaning that it can be used against moving targets. The weapon comes with both HE and penetrator warheads, though the physics dictate that the penetrator isn’t as efficient as those of heavier weapons. From a Finnish point of view, the Brimstone is likely something of a nice-to-have, as with both the SPEAR 3 and the Paveway IV there isn’t really any target that can’t be countered (although in certain scenarios the SPEAR 3 might be overkill while the Paveway IV might require release inconveniently close. Here the GBU-53/B SDB II has an edge thanks to its gliding properties). However, these missions (read: striking vehicles in massed armoured formations) are likely not the mission sets that are of primarily concern to the Finnish Air Force. Perhaps the most interesting detail would be the change from AIM-9X to ASRAAM as the short-range air-to-air missile of the Finnish Air Force. The ASRAAM, as opposed to both IRIST-T and AIM-9X, prioritise range over manoeuvrability, and while the jury is still out on which is more important by the time (or rather: if) you get into a short-range fight, the ability to fire missiles with passive IIR-seekers out to near-AMRAAM ranges is certainly interesting, especially in case of a heavily degraded EW-environment or against stealthy targets.
Saab’s offer in turn include at least IRIS-T and Meteor in the air-to-air role. This is no surprise, as these are the current staples on the Swedish JAS 39C/D Gripen-fleet, and have proved rather popular in Northern Europe in general. More interesting was the inclusion of SPEAR 3 (the EW-variant is not included, as Saab offers its own LADM that is currently in development and aiming for a similar role), as well as the decision to go with the KEPD 350/Taurus as their heavy cruise missile. Saab started out their HX-campaign actively pushing the fact that they can integrate any weapon they need, with the same message being repeated this week. It certainly might be the case, but somehow they still seemingly ended up basically offering MBDA’s portfolio of air-launched weaponry (complemented by Diehl’s IRIS-T and their own KEPD 350).
While it is extremely difficult to judge the true capabilities of the three heavy cruise missiles on offer, it remains a fact that KEPD 350 lost the Finnish evaluation for a heavy cruise missile against the baseline AGM-158A JASSM the last time around. And this time, it is up against the significantly improved AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ER (formerly known as AGM-158D JASSM-XR). Again, it is hard to say much for certain, the KEPD 350 has also beaten the JASSM and Storm Shadow in certain competitions, but the decision seems strange on paper. There is a new version in the form of the Taurus K-2 in the pipeline, though that is still in development and the improvements seem rather modest compared to the step from AGM-158A to -158B-2.
Saab’s heavy anti-ship missile RBS 15 Gungnir (based on their Mk 4-version of the venerable weapon) is obviously available as it is a key Swedish requirement, but it seems to be left out of at least this original weapons package. On the other hand, it is safe to assume that there are some smart bombs (likely the GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II 227 kg GPS/INS and laser-guided bomb, as well as either GBU-39 SDB or the GBU-53/B SDB II small glide bombs) making up the lower-end of the package as these have featured rather heavily in both US as well as the BAES packages.
The most impressive part of Saab’s weapons package was the statement that the value of the weapons are “>20 % of the proposal price relating to Gripen”. At first glance this looks like 0.2 x 9.0 Bn EUR = 1.8 Bn EUR, which certainly would provide for a massive number of weapons. However, upon looking at the fine print, it does seem like at least the GlobalEye-portion of the offer is left out of the starting number, as may certain other items (Indirect industrial participation? Training?). I have reached out to Saab for a comment, and will update once I get their answer. Edit 3 May 2021: Magnus Skogberg confirmed that the value of the weapons “is above 15 % of the value of the whole offer (i.e. including Globaleye, IP, etc.)”. Presumably that means above approximately 1.35 Bn Eur. In either case, the weapons package does seem to be a sizeable one, though exactly how large is an open question (as a benchmark, the DSCA-clearances were for roughly 300 guided bombs, 150 JSM/JSOW, and 200 JASSM-ER, though obviously there’s no guarantee that the maximum number of weapons will be sought).
While the lack of large stocks for European weapons compared to US ones is one of the strongest arguments for a US fighter, the importance of this argument obviously would decrease with the size of the Finnish Air Force’s weapons stocks increasing.
What became evident is that the days of traditional type conversion being flown in two-seaters seems to be on the way out for the Finnish Air Force. The Boeing offer did not feature a single vanilla-two-seater, with all fourteen two-seaters being Growlers. Saab followed suite and went for 64 single-seat JAS 39E despite their original 2018 proposal having been split between 12 JAS 39F two-seater and 52 JAS 39E. Eurofighter has earlier seemed lukewarm to the idea of including two-seaters, while F-35 obviously does not come in a two-seat model.
For Boeing the decision to leave out the F/A-18F Super Hornets is somewhat surprising as apparently still by the time the DSCA-requests were made late last year the option to include up to eight twin-seaters was still there. A Boeing contact with insight into current Finnish Air Force training procedures notes that despite the lack of flight controls in the backseat of a Growler, the flight characteristics and ability to bring along a backseater means that their use in peacetime training is seen as “quite reasonable”. However, it is obviously down to the Air Force whether they want to use it in that role.
For Saab, the decision was even more of a surprise. As noted, in the last proposal they were allowed to comment on they saw quite a large role for the two-seaters. In the words of Magnus Skogberg, program director for Saab’s HX bid:
Often there are other drivers for and needs of a two-seat aircraft configuration that, in combination with the more traditional training-related benefits, makes it relevant to procure two-seat fighters. […] Gripen F with its two seats, naturally provides additional flexibility to handle very advanced missions where it may be advantageous to have an additional pilot or operator on-board. Examples are Electronic Warfare Officer, Mission Commander and/or a Weapon System Officer in the rear-seat.
This was how it sounded back in March 2019, despite the GlobalEye being well and truly an established part of their bid already back then. In this week’s press briefing, the company took a strong stance that the 39E with its internal EW-suite, EAJP-pod, and LADM-decoys can handle the SEAD-mission without the need for specialised platforms – or, presumably, dedicated crewmembers. Some commentators have pointed to the ability to direct the Gripen’s EW-suite from the GlobalEye through the datalink, though I have not seen that feature mentioned in any of Saab’s material and it would seem to be a less flexible solution compared to formations having their own dedicated EW-operator (in essence having fourteen Growlers for 50 fighters means every four-ship out there could have their own EW-escort).
While it is difficult to say exactly what has caused this change of hearts over at Saab (the wish to harmonize their bid with the Swedish Air Force force structure probably played a part), it shows that the multi-staged HX-process works in that the offers have been tailored and changed even in rather dramatic fashion since the first round of RFPs. What Saab did mention, however, is that there is still included an option for 39F in the bid, presumably either in the form of buying additional airframes or converting a number of the 39E offered to 39F. However, as this bid is based on Saab’s best understanding of what the Finnish Air Force wants following years of discussion, I personally find it highly unlikely that the option would be used.
The large number of Growlers on the other hand is very significant, and I will admit I did not expect 14 aircraft to fit inside the budget. Keen readers will have noted that there wasn’t as many NGJ-MB jammers in the request, these were limited to eight sets. However, while the NGJ is at the heart of the Growler’s electronic attack and jamming capability, a key part of the situational awareness in fact comes from internal sensors, including the the wingtip ALQ-218 RF Receivers. These tell the pilot not only what is out there, but also where it is, and the crew can then decide what to do with that information, whether to engage with weapons, avoid, or jam in case they have brought along their NGJ. As such the value of including Growlers as part of normal formations is significant, both for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. The additional value of a backseater also means that you have an extra person who isn’t busy flying the aircraft, and who potentially could, I don’t know, perhaps function as an “Electronic Warfare Officer, Mission Commander and/or a Weapon System Officer”.
I have mentioned it before, but it continues to be an important point in the greater picture that in my opinion is brought up often enough: the value of having the unique capabilities that the EA-18G Growler brings does not limit themselves to wartime, but they would give our politicians quite a few more options on the escalation ladder prior to full-blown war. This includes both better situational awareness, as well as the ability to meet e.g. GPS-jamming with non-kinetic means that still can hurt hostile operations without causing damage to adversary equipment or losses to their personnel. Another possibility is the ability to support international operations with a key high-profile and high-demand (but internationally rare) capability, and one that require a relative small footprint in and risks for FDF personnel.
The ability of Boeing to offer 14 Growlers and still reach 64 fighters in total is an extremely strong card on their part, although I do have to caution that the crucial question of the future of the Super Hornet-family past 2040 is still unanswered.
With the first Danish F-35 now officially handed over to the Flyvevåbnet, it seems to be a suitable time to look at the aircraft that perhaps arouses the strongest emotions of all HX-contenders. I have earlier criticised the Kampfly-programme under which the F-35 was chosen (though I should note that the F-35 not being able to fairly prove that it is best fit for the Danish requirements doesn’t mean it isn’t), and a number of decisions surrounding Denmark’s future fighter have raised questions about how a potential HX-winning F-35 force would look in practice (*cough*, the RDAF Skrydstrup budget). To get some answers to the questions, I recently had an opportunity to chat with Scott Davis, Lockheed Martin’s Managing Director for Finland.
While few if any analysts doubt that being stealthy is good, or that the F-35 is the stealthiest of the five HX-contenders, questions have been raised about the trade-offs that brings, and whether the same effects can be achieved cheaper and with greater versatility through the use of active electronic warfare systems? However, the F-35 is far from a one-trick pony, and while the marketing is often heavily focused on the passive measures taken to lower the aircraft’s signature, it does in fact sport a state-of-the-art active EW-suite as well. The two key pieces of hardware here are the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 AESA radar with a large number of transmitter/receiver modules, as well as the huge Pratt & Whitney F135-engine pushing the aircraft and, crucially, providing electric power to all the subsystems.
The fact that the EW-suite is built up around internal systems means that all the power and cooling needed can be drawn from the aircraft’s main systems, as well as allowing the AESA radar itself to function as seriously sized jammer. Not only does this mean that the jamming power is more than an order of magnitude greater than those of traditional pods according to Lockheed Martin, but they also note the fact that the large antenna surface allows for a very narrow beam, lessening the risk of detection from enemy passive sensors. Scott acknowledges that podded solutions are easier to tailor for a wide range of threats, but while he won’t disclose the closer specifications of what the AN/APG-81 can do as a jammer, there are some things he can tell:
All things that can kill you […] is within our jamming range.
That includes both hostile aircraft as well as missiles, or in general anything that can give a fire-control quality radar track.
However, the aircraft is also able to use the radar in passive mode, during which it in essence becomes a large listening device. With several aircraft in formation sharing passively acquired data through the high-bandwidth MADL datalink (which is designed to be difficult to detect and jam compared to earlier standards such as Link 16), it can then rapidly triangulate other emitters.
If you’re not transmitting, you’re in effect an electronic sponge.
The nice thing here is obviously the synergies that can be had through having your aircraft naturally being able to operate closer to the adversary without being detected, but also being able to do so either completely passively or only using systems that are relatively hard to detect. In essence, with these capabilities feeding into each other the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Granted, electronic warfare capabilities are among the aspects that are hardest to judge based on open sources. However, if the F-35 even achieves par in the EW domain compared to the competition, it should according to all logic be better off overall in a combat situation due to the aforementioned synergies coupled with the stealth features, all other things being equal.
However, in reality all other things are rarely equal, and while Scott is correct in identifying the F-35 as the “Next European fighter” based on the large number of European air forces acquiring the type, most do so in significantly smaller numbers than the F-16 fleets they are replacing. In the case of Denmark, the plan is to replace the remaining fleet of around 50 left in service from the original of 77 F-16A/B (7 of which were attrition replacements) with just 27 F-35A in a single squadron. In Norway the cut wasn’t as drastic, but it still sees 52 F-35A replacing an original 74-strong F-16A/B fleet (of which 56 were upgraded to MLU-status). Still, Norway is also consolidating operations to a single base, further underlining the fear that a Finnish F-35 order might lead to a 40 aircraft Air Force and the closing of one of the two fighter squadrons.
Programme Director Lauri Puranen has however shot down at least the latter idea, stating that concentrating the Finnish fighter force to a single base hasn’t even been discussed, and Scott Davis is confident that the fear of an F-35 specific infrastructure cost causing issues is overblown. One example often brought up is that of Eielson AFB in Alaska, which has seen huge spending on F-35 infrastructure. However, much of those investments were due to the base not having been home to combat coded fighters in recent years, meaning that it was more of an expansion than a modernisation project.
[Eielson AFB] was a plus up, adding two more squadrons of fighters […] The logistics footprint of the F-35 is actually less than that of the F-16
In general, the aircraft has turned out to work well in colder climates, including not only in Alaska, but also in locations such as Burlington, Vermont, and over in Norway. Asking about whether actually operating the aircraft in cold weather as opposed to ‘just’ doing cold weather tests have revealed some major insights, Scott confirms that this has indeed been the case. “We’ve definitely learned some lessons”, he confirms, but also states that overall it is going very well and that the “Norwegians are very happy”.
And speaking of happy Norwegians, they just did the first drop-test of an JSM from an F-35. The anti-ship missile is stealthy, sports a passive IIR-sensor, a secondary land-attack role, and crucially can be carried internally on the F-35. As such it is more or less a perfect fit to the aircraft in that it is difficult to detect throughout the attack run, and while Lockheed Martin can’t discuss details of the weapons package offered to the Finnish Air Force, we know from the DSCA-notifications that it is on the table. An interesting detail that often is overlooked for the F-35 is that a better capability to close with your enemy will not only give you more accurate information about what is happening and where, but also offer the possibility to use shorter-ranged (read: cheaper) weapons to hit defended ground targets.
Another question which has popped up related to HX is whether the aircraft can be properly dispersed, especially considering the ALIS/ODIN maintenance software which likes to be connected to the international network to which it sends data. There’s also the added question of cybersecurity risks surrounding the data being sent. Scott, however, isn’t concerned, and notes that sovereign data management is already found in the system, with the user filtering what data they want to share. The Portable Maintenance Aids (in essence dedicated laptops, to be replaced by pads come ODIN) also allow maintenance to run smoothly during dispersed operations regardless of whether the system is connected to the main database or not. The rumoured 30 days limit to offline use is also just a rumour, with nothing more dramatic happening than day one falling out of the aircraft’s memory on day 31 if it hasn’t been able to upload the data in between. Interestingly enough from a Finnish point of view, the USAF is also awakening to the need for dispersed basing, largely as a result of the threat from China. This has seen the logistics footprint being tested in recent exercises such as Cope North 21 earlier this year, which saw Eielson-based F-35s deploy from their home in Alaska to remote airstrips in Guam. The US Air Force’s agile combat employment concept (ACE) is based on a hub-and-spooks principle, i.e. a central permanent base supporting austere satellite fields, not completely unlike the Finnish concept of operations. During Cope North, a key base was the unassuming Northwest Field, which saw fighters operating from it for the first time since WWII.
However, even if the F-35 turns out to be both affordable and deployable, there’s still some particular questionmarks hanging over the project. One is regarding sovereign mission data management and exploitation. Things would be routed through the US (not unlike Boeing’s offer), but with the large number of parameters involved in the F-35’s threat library, Lockheed Martin is careful not to make any promises regarding turn-around times for updates (unlike Boeing’s offer).
We are in discussions with numerous Finnish suppliers about multiple opportunities for potential future work on the F-35. Details on the nature of these discussion are competition sensitive so we won’t disclose that information.
Another question that still waits for an answer is the industrial participation aspect of things. With both Saab and BAES/Eurofighter GmbH having promised production of both the aircraft and the engines in Finland in case their respective bids win, and with both having released general numbers for the amount of Statements of Work they have prepared, as well as highlighting key subsystems that are open for cooperation, the answer to my question about the IP-package was surprisingly timid. In particular after the weak showing in the Swiss AIR2030 programme where the offer was for “assembly of major components” of four (!) out of 40 fighters locally, and considering the challenges the rather strict Finnish requirements for industrial participation (3 Bn Euro, of which the majority is direct), it does sound strange that Lockheed Martin isn’t able to provide any details at the time being when they otherwise are rather talkative.
Lockheed Martin's offer to Switzerland yesterday includes an option for local assembly of 4 F-35As at existing RUAG facilities. pic.twitter.com/JzXTcxvrhj
The request for best and final offers has not slowed down the pace of HX, but on the contrary things are seemingly moving at ever higher speed. At the same time, developments in the wider world are also affecting the competition.
F-35 started the year on the wrong footing, with Acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher Miller, giving a bizarre quote where he not only called the F-35 “that’s a piece of…” and called it “the case study” for an acquisition process which is a “wicked problem”, but also stated that “I cannot wait to leave this job, believe me.” While the full quote was headline stuff for the tabloids, I would not ascribe much value regarding the merits of the F-35 to the opinions of someone who responds to the question “I wanted to ask you…Joint Strike Fighter?” with “Which one? F-35?”
The other major headline was that the program was granted its fourth extension to the deadline for when the F-35 evaluation would be finished and the aircraft approved for full-rate production. While this also caused some bad press, truth be told this is largely a non-issue for the aircraft, as the challenges faced are part of the Joint Simulation Environment where the effectiveness against hostile high-end threats will be tested. It is, however, a serious case of civilian oversight being lacking, as either the decision criteria requiring the JSE tests are wrong, or then the civilian leadership has been watching from the sidelines as more than 600 units have been produced of an aircraft they don’t know if they will approve for full-rate production! Spoiler alert – it’s most likely the former, but it is a serious failure of the Civ-Mil process and how the oversight is structured (rather than any fault of the aircraft itself) that the production run before approval is bigger than the total most other fast-jets will see throughout their lifespans.
The aircraft also “flies with 871 flaws“, something that makes for good headlines but is largely a case of the unmatched US transparency rather than indicative of serious troubles.
In addition there has been issues with shortages of the F135 engines that has hit the fleet. Defense News quoted officials stating that it is a “serious readiness problem”, and noted that in next year “roughly 5 to 6 percent” of the aircraft could be without engines due to a combination of scheduled depot maintenance and unscheduled engine removals. Of all four headlines, this is probably the one that holds water, but while it indirectly isn’t good that a supply chain is hit by bad news, the issues will almost certainly be over by the time Finnish HX deliveries starts in 2025.
The most serious news, however, was an interview in Breaking Defense with the outgoing 13th Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Dr Will Roper (understandably often referred to as the “USAF acquisition czar”, and not with his full title). Roper, who while somewhat controversial regarding his methods of working is a highly respected professional in the field, noted that the aircraft isn’t “at a sustainment point that we need”, explaining that “right now the F-35 has a good ‘sticker price,’ but its cost of ownership is not where it needs to be, making the quantities that the Air Force may need to purchase in question”. Roper hinted that this could lead to the NGAD (not to be confused with the USN program of the same name) receiving higher priority, or even ordering new-built F-16s to boost the numbers. This was developed further by USAF Chief of Staff general Brown this week, who denied any plans to buy the F-16, but left the door open for a clean-sheet design of a fighter less complex than the F-35 and affordable enough for the bulk buys needed to replace the F-16 across the field.
Someone who doesn’t believe that the operating costs will come down is, unsurprisingly, rival Boeing, who will happily tell you that once fighters are starting to be flown, their operating costs won’t come down but rather go up due to wear and tear. And that despite the current Super Hornet-fleet having been flown hard in recent decades, including combat use, their numbers are still good.
Our flyaway costs are about the same [as the F-35], our operational costs are about half of that.
While Program Director Lauri Puranen has been clear with that no-one knows the Finnish operational costs due to no-one having the full detailed picture of Finnish Air Force investments, operations, and pricing models, the two contenders that roughly can be compared is the F-35 and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet due to the US DoD publishing their internal flight hour costs (again, thanks to the US transparency). A GAO report released late last year provide these numbers, noting that “From fiscal year 2011 through fiscal year 2018, the O&S costs per aircraft for the F/A-18E/F increased from about $5.58 million to about $6.41 million”. This was due to “sustained high flight hours, which increased the probability of parts failure on the aircraft, and an increasing aircraft inventory, as the F/A-18E/F is still in production. Maintenance costs also increased as the Navy has worked to address extensive maintenance needs associated with extending the service life of the aircraft from 6,000 hours to 10,000 hours”. At the same time, the F-35A total O&S costs per aircraft was $8.84 million in fiscal year 2018. While the numbers doesn’t support the F/A-18E/F having an O&S cost “half” of the F-35A, it still is 72% of it. And here it should be noted that the strain of the workloads placed on the different fleets will skew the cost (i.e. in a like for like scenario where the Super Hornet would operate from landbases with similar loads and flight profiles as the F-35A, the difference would likely be greater).
Another company who doesn’t care that Puranen stated that no-one knows the cost figures is Saab, where campaign director Magnus Skogberg this week declared that:
We know for sure that nobody beats us on cost.
Of course, the question on cost is highly complex, including the issues of how many flight hours will be needed to maintain proficiency on a multi-role fighter. Earlier Finnish pilots have flown relatively few hours, but have still managed to stay proficient due to having in essence been training solely for the air-to-air mission. With the MLU2 unlocking the air-to-ground capabilities and HX bringing in further expansions of the mission sets, the number of flight hours will most likely need to increase, even as advances in simulator technology are offloading some of the training to ground-based systems.
Of the missions, few have received the focus of long-range strike, which has been elevated to its own category in the HX program alongside the more general counter-land. Here it is important to note that the long-range strike role in Finnish doctrine occupies both a military as well as a deterrence role. Very little about how Finland plans the deterrence mission is found in open documents, but based on the realities of international law and capabilities of the systems involved deterrence by denial can safely be assumed to be the concept involved. To use a straightforward definition by David S. Yost, “Deterrence by denial means persuading the enemy not to attack by convincing him that his attack will be defeated – that is, that he will not be able to achieve his operational objectives.” In other words, there’s preciously little differing the role of the JASSM in Finnish service from the other weapons of the FDF – they all aim to deter the enemy from launching an attack by ensuring that he can’t reach his goals without the cost being unacceptably high. The particularity of the long-range strike is exactly the long-range – being able to affect targets that are important for the enemy but which are too far away for other methods. It might also be worth noting that a majority of Finnish MPs thinks “it would be acceptable for Finnish forces as a part of defending the country to strike militarily relevant targets on adversary territory”.
The question of which weapon will fill this role has largely been viewed as a three-way competition between the US AGM-158 JASSM (currently in Finnish service in the since discontinued AGM-158A version, which beat the Taurus KEPD in the last Finnish evaluation) and the European offerings of the Storm Shadow/SCALP and (possibly) the Taurus 350 KEPD. However, it turns out that last year’s DSCA notifications included an overlooked surprise: the JASSM would come with a seriously longer range than the current version.
Since the original AGM-158A, the JASSM has spawned a number of variants. Key among these are the longer-legged AGM-158B JASSM-ER (Extended Range) which is currently in production and in service as the AGM-158A replacement, as well as the AGM-158C LRASM which is an anti-ship variant of the same weapon. Latest of the bunch is a further refined version, earlier called JASSM-XR (for Extreme Range) which brings a number of improvements. Key among these is a range increase from 500 to 1,000 nautical miles compared to the AGM-158B (926 km to 1,852 km). The differences include “missile control unit, changes to the wings, a different paint coating, an Electronic Safe and Arm Fuze, a secure GPS receiver, and program protection requirements” according to Air Force Magazine. The JASSM-XR received an official AGM-158D designation earlier, and production has been confirmed to start with Lot 19 which is expected to be ordered any day now.
However, the designation AGM-158B-2 showed up in the Finnish DSCA-requests last year. This variant of the AGM-158B has up until now not been seen in many documents outside of the requests. After Inside Defense claimed that there has been yet another change of designations, I decided to ask Lockheed Martin (manufacturer of both the F-35A and the AGM-158 JASSM) about it.
AGM-158B2 will be the next variant in the line of JASSM-ER missiles. The USAF is expected to begin procurement of the JASSM-ERB2 beginning in Lot 19.
Turns out the missile expected to handle the long-range strike mission in case Finland chooses either the Super Hornet or the F-35A is the missile formerly known as JASSM-XR. This would mean a huge increase in range, from the current 370 km of the AGM-158A JASSM to 1,852 km of the AGM-158B-2 JASSM-ERB2 (usual caveat that all range figures are based on open sources and comes with a large dose of “it depends” where things such as launch altitude come into play).
Exactly how much range Finland really needs is an interesting question. The current 370 km can certainly be improved upon, though on the other hand it is questionable if Finland really needs the ability to reach Ufa. In theory going from AGM-158A to AGM-158B-2 is the difference between Rissala-St Petersburg and Rissala-Kazakhstan. What it in practice would do is unlock further options for Finnish military planners, including guaranteed stand-off range against all Russian air defences, current and planned, as well as the possibility to route the flight paths of the cruise missiles around hostile defences. The AGM-158B-2 would for example make it possible to stand back and fire missiles from high altitude over the Bothnian Gulf and still reach the same targets as the AGM-158B would do from within S-400 range. As such, added range doesn’t necessarily mean that the Finnish Air Force is looking at new targets. After all, most military relevant targets in a conflict where Finland is involved – such as command centres, transport infrastructure, and staging areas – are found relatively close to the border, but rather that these targets could be destroyed at smaller risk to the Finnish pilots and aircraft. A military relevant target set that likely is of interest and which is found further from the Finnish border is the infrastructure needed to move troops from other military districts towards a conflict zone in (north-)western Russia. Many of the recent large Russian military exercises have showcased the Russian ability to relatively quickly move personnel and equipment over large distances, either by rail or air. Being able to disrupt or delay such movements in a conflict could be an example of a military target outside the range of the current AGM-158A JASSM, and one which might buy valuable days or even weeks for friendly support to reach Finland.
Crucially, the fact that the US contenders have decided to go for the B-2 and not the B does show that they feel that it fits the Finnish requirement best. It could be just a question of which weapon will be rolling of the production lines in 2027, but if there really is a requirement for range, the European contenders might be at a disadvantage when it comes to evaluating their ability to perform the long-range strike mission. And from a purely deterrence point of view, range does indeed open up more targets to be held at risk, and there’s also the fact that buying the best there is helps with cementing the “passive-aggressive” reputation needed for small-state deterrence to work.
An interesting question is obviously what weapon Saab would offer for the long-range strike role? The Taurus KEPD 350 is a joint Saab-MBDA venture, but as the weapon has lost an evaluation for a Finnish contract already once much of the Swedish discussion has been around the possibility to integrate any weapon the customer wants. However, as the only DSCA requests so far related to HX have been for the US contenders, the question remains if Saab plans on first selling the aircraft, and then trusting Finland to receive the correct export clearances? When asked, Saab declined to comment.
Both with respect to the customer and due to competition we do not comment on the details relating to the weapons package of the HX programme.
But if the F-35 had a somewhat poor start of the year, the Super Hornet also had its unwelcome moment in the spotlight with the announcement that the US Navy is thinking about axing the conformal fuel tanks from the Block III upgrade. The CFTs have been seen as an important part of the plans to increase the range of the Super Hornet, which in turn is seen as important for any China-scenario. For Finland, range and endurance isn’t as critical, but the question is how invested the USN is in the future of the Super Hornet-family if they struggle to meet the envisioned increase in range? Boeing is, at least officially, not concerned. The US Navy is still moving forward with the overall plan to convert the fleet to Block III standard (Block II being the corresponding program for the EA-18G Growler), and the current USN plan is that well over half the fast jets of the carrier air wing of 2030 will be from the Super Hornet-family (28 Super Hornets, 5-7 Growlers, and 16 F-35C). “Staying with three Super Hornet squadrons [per air wing] is quite telling,” Alain Garcia said, and noted that development is set to continue well past Block III. “There is a roadmap […] lots of [software] capabilities coming.” Garcia is one of Boeing’s key persons in their campaign aimed at ensuring Finland stays with the Boeing for another generation, and he sports the somewhat unwieldy title of Capture Team Lead for International Sales & Marketing Fighter and Trainer Campaigns in Finland and Switzerland. The roadmap he refers to will include the manned-unmanned teaming updates which are expected to be included as standard by the time Finnish aircraft would be rolling off the production lines, but also new weapons. With regards to MUMT, the question is obviously if the Finnish Air Force could fit unmanned platforms in a budget that will already be strained by trying to replace the manned components? Garcia notes that it obviously is a decision that the Finnish Air Force will make based on their own needs and doctrines, but that so far as they can tell the option remains available. Especially considering potential savings and trade-offs that can be had.
Looking at current operational costs now, we believe that with our offer there’s still some room for operational costs in there.
While USN might not be as certain about the future of the Super Hornet (or the carrier air wing in general), the EA-18G Growler seems to offer rather good protection against an early retirement of the platform. The unique role of the Growler as a dedicated stand-in electronic warfare platform will only continue to grow in importance (something the general Brown also noted recently in a much reported speech that included quotes about USAF being “asleep at the wheel” since Operation Desert Storm, and “We can no longer solely depend on defensive capabilities” which might get the force home, but don’t meet the need to be able to operate offensively in the electromagnetic spectrum). For not only the US Navy, but the joint US force as a whole, this means that the Growler is likely to remain on the flightdeck of the carriers and on expeditionary bases for decades to come, and with the Growler set to remain in service the future of the Super Hornet is also looking rosier than it would if alone. And if the Super Hornet/Growler would go the road of the A-6 Intruder/EA-6 Prowler where the electronic attack variant soldiered on for 22 years after the retirement of the baseline version, the ability to cross-feed new systems from the USN Growler-community to any potential Super Hornet export customers (as happened within the USN fast-jet fleet with the Block III upgrades) would help avoid the current “operating Hornet”-alone situation.
Saab and Boeing are happily in agreement about the importance of the importance of electronic warfare, as is the US DoD. In their new Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy they describe the electromagnetic spectrum as “not a separate domain of military operations because the EMS is inseparable from the domains established in joint doctrine.” Magnus Skogberg of Saab understandably pushed the need to be able to affect the EMS:
The stealth shaping of the aircraft is not enough to handle this [S-400 sensors covering a wide spectrum]
At this point it is notable that the F-35 in fact far from relying solely on stealth also features one of the most advanced integrated electronic warfare systems available, in fact putting them on the same side as Saab – but opposite Boeing – when it comes to the need for a dedicated EW-platform to get the most out of their aircrafts. While Skogberg proclaims that there’s “No need for a dedicated EW-platform when you are a Gripen operator”, Boeing representatives (not without being slightly smug about it) noted that while the UAE last year had requested a large package that included both the F-35A as well as the EA-18G Growler, only the Growler was denied export clearance by the US government on the grounds of it being too advanced and capable, with the F-35 deal being inked just before the change of administration (and now on hold pending review).
The US government has witheld the proposal from being submitted to the customer
The beauty of the Growler is that the dedication of the platform brings not only the computing power of the specified electronic warfare processor unit, but also the dedicated crew member. This means that for example when a new or previously unidentified signal is encountered, the operator can already in-flight start processing it, giving it an ID or other potential identifier. This means that once the aircraft lands the signal intelligence can be downloaded from the aircraft as “useful data” ready for the library, a capability Boeing believe they are alone in the field to provide. While the complete absence of black boxes and total independence of the mission data has been, and continues to be, one of the main selling points of the European contenders, Boeing takes a somewhat different approach out of necessity.
The data is owned by the Finnish government, but the processing of acquired mission data is easiest to handle through US infrastructure where Finnish personnel can be embedded. Fast turnaround (less than 24 hours) can then be achieved through the use of secure channels. Alternatively the whole or parts of the infrastructure can be rebuilt in Finland, but the cost might be prohibitive. Another interesting aspect is whether Finland wants to share the data (especially the data collected by Growlers) or not. There are a number of three-letter agencies interested in the data collected by USN Growlers, and exchange of data between Finland and the US might in turn provide valuable intelligence from these to the Finnish authorities. The amount of data produced by the Growler is indeed huge, with the snapshot of what the Growler visiting during HX Challenge last year managed to capture simply through its passive sensors reportedly being “eye-opening” with regards to the “saturation of information”. This is another place where the dedicated crew members comes into play.
Regardless of from where it originates, electronic warfare is the hot stuff, with a crucial feature being noted in the new US DoD Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy:
Because many EMS capabilities are employed, not expended, concerns about magazine capacity or cost of munitions may be reduced, which in turn affords commanders and decision makers more sustainable options.
For a country where low numbers of advanced munitions has been raised as a concern in official documents, this is of interest. The ability to control the battlespace without blowing things up is certainly interesting also from an escalation management point of view, one of Finland’s key interests in any (limited) conflict.
But Saab has an alternative. Or rather, the Swedish defence establishment and politicians have an alternative. If Finland would buy the 39E Gripen and GlobalEye, the vision is that the Finnish and Swedish Air Force would be a common customer, meeting Saab together. And crucially, we would be the major customer and not a small customer in a bigger project. Saab’s media event this week was telling, in that it featured the Swedish Minister for Defence Peter Hultqvist, the deputy commander of the Swedish Air Force brigadier general Anders Persson, as well as Saab’s own people. While it technically is the governments and not the OEMs that are selling fighters to Finland, none are as clearly involved in the sales effort as the Swedes. MoD Hultqvist underlined the influence Finland would have on the program, stating that Finland would have “direct influence” on the future development path of 39E and GlobalEye if we choose Saab’s offer.
Slides from the media event, not leaving anything left to imagination
Brigadier general Persson didn’t mess around in his presentation, clearly stating that the potential enemy comes from an aggressive and expansive Russia, and that this is what Sweden has tailored their defenses towards.
Gripen is designed for our common environment, our common enemy, with our people in focus.
While Saab’s part of the presentation focused on their EW-suite, ability to field numbers, high availability, and current footprint in Finland (including the LADM decoy missile currently being under development, with much of the work undertaken in Tampere), Hultqvist and Persson spoke about the possibilities of Finnish-Swedish cooperation. This included harmonizing the acquisition of both Air Forces, but also cooperating with basing, training, and maintenance. Crucially, Sweden hasn’t decided to acquire GlobalEye, but according to Hultqvist while “We haven’t made any formal decision to procure GlobalEye, but that is how it should be interpreted”. A strange statement, as the new Swedish Defence Bill for 2021 to 2025 in fact envisions the replacement for the current ASC 890 to come only in the 2026 to 2030 period, with the decision on the platform still being years into the future. And speaking of the Defence Bill, it is far from a certain grand slam for the Swedish Air Force, as the answer to the realisation that cutting the Swedish fighter force to just 60 aircraft (the number of JAS 39E ordered) was a bad idea wasn’t to increase the size of the order, but rather to maintain the current JAS 39C/D fleet for longer. Beside the obvious issue of lower relative quality for the total force when keeping upgraded older aircraft in service instead of ordering more modern platforms, there is also little room for growth among the highly specialised workforce of the Swedish stakeholders when suddenly two fast-jets are to be kept up to date in parallel. An anonymous engineer from the Combat Aircraft department of the Swedish Defence Material Administration raised questions over on Twitter, noting that some of the engineers at the department are looking at 150 to 170% workload for the foreseeable future due to new 39C/D related developments. The optimist sees possibilities for Finnish industry to step in following an HX win for Saab, the pessimist questions if the small and competent Swedish aviation sector can continue to keep pushing out the kind of high-quality high-end solutions they are known for?
More headline grabbing was the speech held by brigadier general Persson. He noted that already now Finland and Sweden cooperate closely and regularly deploy to the other country for exercises. He also noted that this will continue regardless of the outcome of HX, but that choosing Gripen and GlobalEye would open up unique new opportunities. Not only could Finland fly the aircraft for upgrades to Linköping and Saab’s factory there in the morning and get the aircraft back in the evening, but Sweden and the Swedish aircraft infrastructure could be used as a rear logistics area. For basing, according to need Finnish fighters could deploy to Swedish bases behind the moat of the Baltic Sea, while Swedish fighters could use Finnish dispersed bases as forward staging areas for sorties. Integrating training and tactics could be a true force multiplier in the words of the general.
We will be like one air force with two commanders.
…and here the military historian will point out that ever since consuls Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus led the Roman army to the disaster at Cannae in 216 BC, having a single force with two commanders is usually not seen as a great idea. But leaving that perhaps misplaced quote aside, it is clear that the idea has much going for it. It isn’t exactly new, see for example this older guest post, but getting additional strategic depth for basing would certainly be beneficial, and it certainly would be easier to arrange with the same aircraft type than with different ones.
However, the kind of integrated force that brigadier general Persson describe would be something more than just two interoperable forces, something which they are already today (and will continue to be as both countries strive to maintain their ability to plug into NATO and US compatible forces), but it would require them to be true military allies. This is a political decision, and one which I fail to see either parliament going for in the next six months. Finnish commentators like to question whether Sweden is prepared to make firm commitments that they would send their sons and daughters to die for Kouvola or Sodankylä, but truth be told the answer to the question if Finland would be prepared to declare war on Russia in support of Sweden if the dreaded Gotland-grab scenario would take place is even more uncertain.
In fact, building up a rear logistics area outside of the country’s border is exactly what has been described as a potential weak point of the F-35. Ironically, the deputy commander hit the nail on the head when he described the situation for both countries as “We need to be able to take care of ourselves for days, weeks, maybe months”. The possibility of integrating further with the Swedish force is interesting, as is the ability to be the major operator instead of being a smaller operator in a major program. However, it does feel like much of Saab’s sales pitch this time took a detour to a political reality that simply isn’t there, and completely missed the geopolitical realities and defining features of the Finnish concept of operations which the company earlier has been good at selling towards.
Boeing on the other hand has no issues with selling to the Finnish concept of operations.
If you’re already operating the Hornet-fleet, there really is no change to the concept of operations switching to the Super Hornet and Growler.
This might be a bit of stretch considering the capabilities of the Growler, but granted it would fit the way the FDF usually does things (and likely be cheaper!) that instead of major sudden changes the force would get to iteratively developed its doctrine and concepts of operations.