Finnish Hornets at Red Flag Alaska 19-1

Yesterday I had the opportunity to comment upon the Finnish participation in Red Flag Alaska for Finnish TV-show YLE A-studio, and while I feel I got to bring up the most important points there I realise that it is in Finnish and that a few of the points warrant further inspection. As far as I see it, there are four main point regarding why the Finnish Air Force decided to scrap what is usually the annual main exercise and instead fly over with half a dozen F/A-18C Hornets to Alaska.

The need to train hard

As with a sports team, if you only face the same opposition time after time, at some point you stop progressing. You need to shake things up, get new ideas into your training and meet new competition (and preferably competition that is better than you) to continue developing. Red Flag is hands-down the best full-scale air exercise in the world, and getting to meet the trained aggressor units of the USAF on an instrumented range is extremely valuable. Especially when it comes to the air-to-ground role which is new to the Finnish Air Force, getting to practice with experienced ground-pounders is of immense value.

Your run-of-the-mill US F-16 with a serious amount of mission markings. Source: Joni Malkamäki / Ilmavoimat

Northern Flag

The declaration of intent of raising the level of the Arctic Challenge Exercise-series to ‘Flag’-status, preliminarily named Northern Flag, would provide a boost in training capacity at home. As such, studying how the Red Flag exercises are led and handled provide valuable experience for the Finnish Air Force’s exercise leaders and planners.

International Cooperation

On the whole participating in international exercises strengthens Finnish ties to the west, is part of strategic signalling in peacetime and (hopefully) assists in setting up working inter-coalition ways of operating for wartime. Here Red Flag is just the latest in a long line of exercises taking place at home, in Europe, and now overseas as well.

A Finnish F/A-18C Hornet taking-off towards Alaskan skies. Source: Jouni Malkamäki / Ilmavoimat


The timing of the first Finnish participation in Red Flag coincides nicely with the Finnish fighter procurement programme. Yes, planning for participating in Red Flag has been going on for years, but it’s not like HX suddenly appeared out of thin air either. While the main reasons behind Finland’s Red Flag-participation are likely found above, the insight into how modern air war looks in practice will without doubt be used as a data point when setting up the missions used in the evaluation of the HX contenders. A special point of interest is the participation of US Navy EA-18G Growlers. Getting to see first-hand how they integrate into a modern high-end scenario is extremely valuable, as they differ quite significantly from the rest of the HX-contenders in their role, making them harder to evaluate.

A USN EA-18G Growler taxiing past the tower at Eielson AFB. Source: Jouni Malkamäki / Ilmavoimat

Quickstrike for HX?

An interesting piece caught my eye this morning, describing how the US Navy is putting JDAM-ER kits on their Quickstrike series of mines. These are in effect naval mines based on the Mk 80-series of general-purpose bombs, and the combination of a modular warhead with a modular guidance and glide kit makes so much sense that the first reaction is why no-one has put the together earlier?

The linked story gives a good primer for the concept, but the too long, didn’t read version is that the Quickstrike mine is dropped by an aircraft, glides tens of kilometres (depending on release altitude) to a pre-set target location, where it sinks to the bottom of the sea and becomes a ‘smart’ bottom mine.

A 1,000 lbs Mk 63 Quickstrike mine being checked prior to loading onto an F/A-18C Hornet belonging to VFA-113. This is the traditional baseline version of the mine, being a free-fall weapon with a retarding tail. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Tyler Orsburn via Wikimedia Commons

For HX this suddenly opens up interesting possibilities. Mining is traditionally a key interest of the Finnish Navy, as our waters are shallow and the number of usable sea lanes to reach any given port is severely limited by the cluttered archipelago. However, if the enemy enters the area and manages to sweep a sea lane, going in to mine it again is usually not to be recommended. Mining is also a time-consuming task, putting the vessels performing it in danger.

The Quickstrike/JDAM-ER combination offers a solution as it makes it possible to mine from a stand-off distance and to release the whole minefield more or less simultaneously, and with the exact location of the mines already logged. A pair of fighters could easily and in a very short time span shut down a key chokepoint or scatter their load over a more general area to force the enemy to conduct time-consuming sweeping operations.

GHWB is the flagship of Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 2, which is comprised of the staff of CSG-2, GHWB, the nine squadrons and staff of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8, Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 22 staff and guided-missile destroyers USS Laboon (DDG 58) and USS Truxton (DDG 103), and Mayport-based guided-missile cruisers USS Philippine Sea (CG 58) and USS Hue City (CG 66).
F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to VFA-87 sporting eight GBU-32 1,000 lbs JDAM. Note that this is a combat load, and not a demonstrator aircraft being loaded up. The same amount of JDAM-ERs or Quickstrike mines could likely be carried. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matt Matlage via Wikimedia Commons

The obvious platform here is the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. It is already using the JDAM-ER in Australian service, and chances are that the USN will focus any effort to integrate the Quickstrike on it much sooner than they will get around to the F-35C (not to mention how long it would take before the F-35A picks up the load). The ‘Rhino’ has flown impressive JDAM sans suffix loads in Syria, including slugging it out with two 2,000 lbs (900 kg) GBU-31 JDAMs under each wing, or eight of the lighter 1,000 lbs GBU-32. A pair of Super Hornets could likely drop eight heavy or sixteen lighter sea mines in a single mission, and could do so deep behind enemy lines. In fact, this is something of an unique selling point for the ‘Rhino’.

This opens up completely new tactical possibilities, including quickly shutting down a strategic sea lane if an enemy task force seems to be able to avoid Finnish surface units or coastal defences (a scenario becoming increasingly likely as the number of ships decrease). Another possibility is cutting off an enemy amphibious landing by mining the sea lanes used to supply the bridgehead, or even offensively dropping mines in or in the very vicinity of enemy ports and bases.

A B-52 dropping a dummy Quickstrike mine during exercise BALTOPS 2017. Traditionally the US has prioritised mining with heavy bombers and maritime patrol aircraft, but in a modern air defence environment the use of tactical strike aircraft increases survivability, and modern guidance kits allows for greater precision meaning that fewer mines can be used to create an effective minefield. Source: US Navy Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet via Wikimedia Commons

The best part is the cost. This is largely an off-the-shelf system, with (relatively) cheap components and requiring little specialised training on the part of the flight crews to operate. While I find it unlikely that we will see a true maritime strike capability on the HX anytime soon, this would allow the air force to support the navy and shape the maritime battlefield in a cost effective way. The JDAM-ER guidance kits, mines, and regular Mk 80s could even be bought separately, and combined as appropriate during wartime depending on if the mines are needed or if the weapons are better used in a land-strike role. This does seem to be low-hanging fruit for an interesting and unique joint capability at a low price.

The Rocketeers

In the midst of the strategic acquisitions it is easy to get locked in on the choice of platform, whether it is the HX fighter or the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes. But someone has to supply the teeths to make them able to bite, and this is where companies such as MBDA come in to the picture.

© Dassault Aviation - V. Almansa
A Dassault Rafale being armed. Picture courtesy of: © Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa

MBDA is yet another of the numerous joint ventures created in Europe in a time when not even the major regional powers can muster enough of a demand to warrant developing their own high-performance weaponry. However, the company is something of an outlier in that several of the products they have on their shelf have a good reputation both when it comes to project management and the cost/capability ratio of the final product.

Arming HX

Our basic philosphy is that we are platform agnostic, we serve everybody

MBDA has a product integrated or somewhere down the propsed upgrade paths on most HX-candidates. The flagship is without doubt the very-long range Meteor, largely held to be the most capable weapon in beyond-visual range engagments against fighter-sized targets currently operational. The introduction in service aboard the JAS 39C Gripen as part of the MS20 upgrade “changed the behaviour over the Baltic Sea”, both on the part of the Swedish fighters carrying them as well as for the Russian aircrafts they meet there. Courtesy of the ramjet engine and the 100+ km range, it provide “at least three times the no-escape zone” of current medium range missile (read: AIM-120C AMRAAM). The missile will find itself under the wings and fuselages of the Rafale and Typhoon within the next few years in addition to Gripen (both Charlie and Echo), creating an interesting dilemma for a manufacturer supplying highly complex equipment which is to be integrated into competing platforms. MBDA’s solution is to assign each aircraft and country it’s own manager, making sure that there are watertight bulkheads between any platform specific information entering the company.

For Gripen in HX, that man is Peter Bäckström, MBDA’s director exports for the Nordic region. An engineer by trade, he worked on a number of subsystems for the Meteor and TAURUS KEPD 350 before moving into sales. He has a clear view about what made the Meteor different from so many other projects. “It was born out of a requirement, a need for a 100+ km capable missile”, he notes, before continuing. “Game changer is a worn-out term, but this really is. It establishes a new set of rules.”

For the Gripen E, the Meteor and the increased number of hardpoints changes what has often been decried as a light fighter into a serious BVR-force, with a maximum load of seven Meteor and two short-range IRIS-T on the wingtips. While the maximum load might not be suitable for everyday carriage (if nothing else then due to budgetary constraints), it still places the air-to-air weapons load more or less on par with e.g. the Rafale.

The fulls-scale Gripen ‘Echo’ mock-up showing three belly-mounted Meteors. Source: Own picture

But Meteor is far from the only thing MBDA has to offer for HX. ASRAAM is also found in their arsenal, a rather unique missile in being designed for ranges which are usually the realm of radar-guided ones. Given this, I have to ask Bäckström if there is any truth to the rumours that it can outrange the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Bäckström just smiles, and simply quips “It’s a very good missile”. In roughly the same class, the MICA-family (with both IR- and radar-guided versions) is set to be upgraded within the next decade. Unlike the Meteor, from the viewpoint of HX MICA is tied to Rafale. If Finland buys Rafale, we will likely get the MICA as well, but if any other aircraft takes home HX the MICA likely won’t make it’s way into the Finnish inventory (though it isn’t ruled out).

For heavy cruise-missiles, there’s not one but two options. The best known is likely the combat-proven SCALP/Storm Shadow, sporting inertial/GPS/terrain reference guidance and an IIR-seeker for terminal guidance. The different parameters which can be set include fusing (air burst, impact, or penetration) and dive angle. The missile is designed to feature a very high level of automation on the part of the pilot, meaning that it is suitable for single-seat fighters as well as twin-seaters.

A TAURUS KEPD350 being loaded onto a Sapnish F/A-18 Hornet (C.15). Source: Ejército del Aire Ministerio de Defensa España via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Taurus KEPD 350E is the other alternative, being built to a different requirement for the German and Swedish Air Forces (though Sweden is yet to acquire and put the weapon into operational use). The ‘350’ in the name comes from the requirement of 350 km range in all conditions at all drop heights. In practice, this means that the range when dropped from height is well above 500 km. It can be dropped from as low as 100 meters, which often is little more than a gimmick for stand-off weapons. However, for Finland this might actually be a useful feature, as there is value in staying below the radar horizon of the Russian ground based air surveillance radars. The 480 kg MEPHISTO penetrating warhead with pre-charge is also described in grand terms.

This is a real penetrator, not a ‘put down it down in a hole and blow it up’-warhead

TAURUS actually did compete for the contract which was won by the JASSM regarding integration into the Finnish Air Force F/A-18C Hornets. It is hard to tell what made the TAURUS come in second back then, whether there were particular political considerations or ease of integration (US fighter – US missile, though ROKAF has opted for the TAURUS for their F-15K Strike Eagles and Spain is integrating it on the Hornet) which played into the decision, or whether it was purely based on performance of the missile in question. In any case, the TAURUS is set to be integrated on Typhoons and not completely unlikely to appear on the 39E Gripen, so it wouldn’t be altogether surprising for it to fill that JASSM-shaped void after the retirement of the Hornet.


While the airborne systems grabs all the attention, the question of air defence system for the Pohjanmaa-class (Squadron 2020) is still unresolved. The last of the major weapon systems open, it will pit ESSM against the CAMM-ER (Barak 8 has been mentioned in the speculations, but is likely too large. I-Derby might be on offer instead). CAMM and CAMM-ER shares some of the same ancestry as the ASRAAM, but has developed into a rather different beast. The weapon feature a newly developed radar seeker, and is able to be quad-packed into a Mk 41 (or the smaller and lighter ExLS) just as the ESSM. From there the CAMM+family is soft-launched, and sports ranges in the 25 to 45 km class, depending on exact version and target. Interestingly enough, packed into the launcher it is completely maintenance free for a decade. This also ensures that once Finland has gotten the missiles, it is possible to operate them completely independently from the supplier. Or as Bäckström describes it:

A sovereign supply solution.

The weapon is already operational with the Royal Navy (and has been sold to other nations), but perhaps even more interesting is that the British Army performed their first firings of the Land Ceptor (known as EMADS in mainland Europe) earlier this year. If MBDA manages to get the CAMM-ER chosen as the main air defence weapon for the Finnish Navy, MBDA could suddenly claim synergy effects in the race for a longer-ranged ground-based air defence system for the Finnish Army. So far the ability of the NASAMS systems (already in Finnish service as the ITO12) to fire the longer-ranged AMRAAM-ER has made it a favourite, but questions has also been raised if that would mean putting too many eggs in the same basket. Notably the CAMM-ER would also provided the altitude coverage the Finnish Army is looking for following the retirement of the Buk-M1. A Land Ceptor solution able to use a joint missile stock with the Navy’s corvettes might suddenly be a very interesting proposition.

Land ceptor
Land Ceptor during test fires in Sweden earlier this year. The time lapse shows the cold launch sequence in which the missile is flung upwards out of the tube, and only then firing its engine. Source: UK MoD (Crown copyright/OGL)

Another interesting thing to note is that MBDA is quick to point out that the missile would fit nicely into the Swedish organisation as well, as an all-weather mid-tier missile between the Patriot and the IRIS-T. While currently all light is on the Patriot-deal, it is clear that two understrength air defence battalions won’t provide the air defence coverage needed by the Swedish Army, and MBDA raising the benefits of a joint Finnish-Swedish buy (either of whole systems or missiles) might be worth keeping an eye on. Normal caveat about companies liking to market that they are in negotiations/close to a deal applies…

The draft text has been read through by MBDA, to make certain that it only contain non-classified information and general comments. Minor changes followed as part of the feedback received from them.

Schrödinger’s Griffin

The JAS 39E Gripen is something of a paradox. It’s at the same time both a mature concept dating back to the late 80’s and a fighter so new the first deliveries aren’t planned until next year. The program is still reportedly on schedule while the first flight was pushed back and there are persistent rumours that the following 39-9 and 39-10 have been delayed due to the recent upgrades. While the two-seat Foxtrot-version is developed by Brazil for the needs of the Brazilian Air Force, any Finnish order for conversion trainers would be assembled at the normal production line in Sweden. And despite all of this, the Echo is still happily continuing as one of the favourites for the HX-program.

Grip 290
JAS 39C (cn 39290) demonstrating one of the key issues with the Charlie-generation of the Gripen – the limited number of stations available to weapons and external stores such as fuel tanks and sensors. This is being adressed with an increase in the number of hardpoints for the Echo-generation. Source: Own picture

The answer to the latest paradox is multi-facetted. One of the key factors is size. The small(ish) Gripen is the sole single-engined fighter in the HX-competition besides the F-35, and small size means fewer parts, lower fuel consumption, and overall lower acquisition and operating costs (ceteris paribus). Saab is confident that this will play a major part in the equation, or as country manager Magnus Skogberg puts it:

We can deliver with margin within 7 to 10 billion Euros

But as we have discussed earlier, with a set budget and a cap on the number of aircrafts, the interesting part is how much combat capability can be delivered within these two? On paper, this does seem to favour bigger and more capable aircraft, but that would be to overlook how tight the 10 billion Euro cap actually is as well as overlooking a number of the Gripen’s stronger cards.

39-8, the first ‘Echo’, flies with IRIS-T wingtip mounted missiles and several weapons pylons. Picture courtesy of Saab.

The whole concept behind the Gripen, the earlier A/B/C/D as well as the current E/F versions, is operations against a numerically superior peer-level enemy. This puts significant demands upon the ability to get the most out of every single aircraft, from the ground up. To begin with the aircrafts get a large number of flight hours during combat operations, thanks to the quick turnaround time. This is something the Swedish jets demonstrated to their Finnish hosts at exercise Ruska 2017 last autumn. The same exercise also demonstrated the ability of the Gripen to seamlessly fit into the Finnish air combat system. This is no surprise, as the development of the Finnish and Swedish air combat doctrines have been heavily influenced by each other, including dispersed basing and operations with limited support equipment.

At the other end of the spectrum, Saab has put significant works into making the OODA-loop as short as possible. The key issue here is to make the man-machine-interface as effective as possible, providing the (outnumbered) pilot with the information he or she needs in a way that he or she can quickly process it and make the necessary split-second decisions. This is made possible by the completely fused sensor and sensor control system, which includes not only the Selex ES-05 Raven AESA radar, but also an IRST (the smaller sister of the Typhoon’s PIRATE), the passive electronic warfare sensors, as well as datalinks. The combination of IRST and passive EW sensors is of special interest, as they are both Saab’s answer regarding how to counter stealth fighters as well as the key to executing completely ‘silent’ intercepts.

J35J wings
Not too long ago, the fighter that made up half the Finnish Air Force was built by Saab. These kinds of traditions have a tendency to echo. Note that the Draken was a pioneer in IRST-sensors as well. Source: Own picture

As Skogberg briefs the gathered Finnish media at the Finnish Air Force 100 anniversary air show, he is interrupted by a roar as J 35J Draken ‘Johan 56‘ of the Swedish Air Force Historical Flight does it’s practice run, a physical reminder that less than 20 years ago it was a Saab-built fighter that defended the Finnish skies. This obviously points to another key aspect. Back in the Cold War Sweden stored surplus Draken-versions, ready to send them over to Finland in case of conflict (Finland was bound by the Paris Peace Treaty to have a cap on the number of fighters operated, but had instead trained a surplus number of pilots). While the same exact procedure is unlikely to be relevant today, Sweden is still arguably Finland’s closest partner, and having fighters which can use the exactly same munitions and support equipment would be a significant benefit.

Försvarsmakten, the Swedish Defence Forces, is the single most important partner of the Finnish Defence Forces. This simple fact is bound to be reflected both in the national security evaluation, but also when looking into what kind of operational capabilities can be expected from the 39E Gripen in HX. Source: Own picture

Crucially, much of this fits right into the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Finnish and Swedish ministers of defence earlier this month. The MoU outlines that Finland and Sweden “will achieve increased operational effect through combined use of resources, [and] increased interoperability” in a “defence cooperation [that] covers peace, crises and war.” This is all based on the fact that “the ability to act jointly also raises the threshold against incidents and armed attacks”.

However, when the Finnish Air Force is looking for an operational fighter to fill the gap left by the Hornets the question is if the Swedish fighter is just a bit too far into the future. The first deliveries to FMV, the Swedish Defence Material Administration, will take place next year. However, the first deliveries from FMV to the Swedish Air Force are only set for 2021, the year of the HX decision, where they will reach full operational capability only in 2025, the year of the first HX deliveries. Saab insists that the Echo is a very mature and proven system, and it is true that FMV will handle parts of the test and evaluation which in other nations would be part of the air force’s T&E program. Still, there’s little room for error if the Finnish Air Force is to be able to evaluate any kind of operational configuration of the Echo. Saab is trusting that they will be able to do this thanks to the complete decoupling of hardware and software which they have made. So far it seems to be working, and Saab’s stated goal is to push upgrades for the operational Echo at even shorter intervals (and hence smaller in scope) compared to Charlie’s three-year cycles.

As far as we understand, no-one is doing avionics architecture as we are

Rafale going for HX

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

We have over 30,000 flight hours in combat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The odd bird – EA-18G Growler

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

Flying the front-seat is the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every aircraft require a Growler going into an advanced threat.

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

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

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

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

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

On Rhinos and Growlers

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

CAG bird.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

We want to continue that relationship [with Finnish partners]

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

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

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