The next phase of HX has started, and things are starting to get serious. Last Thursday the revised call for tenders was sent out, with a deadline for answers until 31 January 2020.
A crucial point here is that this is a planned continuation of earlier negotiations, and not a restart. The manufacturers are asked to refine their earlier offers, providing a clear package, including any potential updates that has taken place and generally improving their offers. While the original call for tenders was generic, this round all five have received individualised RFQs based on their earlier tenders.
Two notable developments have taken place this fall. The first is the allowance for different numbers of aircraft than the originally envisioned 64. This provide room for anyone able to squeeze in a few extra hulls, but also for anyone wanting to argue that higher availability and/or increased combat capability compared to the current legacy-Hornets allows for a smaller fleet. At the same time, the 10 Bn Euro ceiling has officially been approved by the government. As has been discussed earlier, the plan has throughout HX been not to ask “How much for this package?”, but rather “What’s the best package you can offer under a set budget ceiling?” Major General (Eng.) Renko also went on record last week to say that all five manufacturers experience “difficulties” fitting their offers under the ceiling. In the end, we will see five bids for just under 10 Bn Euro, with the difference between them likely being no more than change (relatively speaking).
We also finally have more details on the verification flight tests. The flight test programme, dubbed HX Challenge, will take place out of Tampere-Pirkkala in January-February. The field is home to Satakunta Air Command and the Finnish Air Force’s Air Combat Centre sorting under it. ACC is responsible for both flight testing as well as for participating in the development of air combat tactics and doctrines.
The aircraft will not be put in order at this event, but rather only verification of performance and subsystems will take place. This includes ensuring that the manufacturers haven’t supplied incorrect information to the simulations used for the evaluation, but also to test how e.g. electro-optical sensors work in Finnish conditions. In cases where both single- and twin-seaters are available, Finnish pilots flying as backseaters will also take part in the tests. While failure to show up for HX Challenge won’t by default disqualify a contender, it would weaken their chances moving forward in the competition. Considering the costs of flight tests this will be a serious test of how invested the contenders are, and by extension how fair the competition is felt to be amongst the industry. A few odd-birds are found in the field. F-35A is the sole single-seat only fighter, while the yet to fly 39F will likely be represented by the revamped 39-7 testbed. While Saab declines to discuss GlobalEye in relation to HX Challenge at this time, they more generally confirm that a verification scheme has been devised and presented to the Finnish Air Force. EA-18G Growler obviously can’t showcase it’s full capability in the region, so it will likely be verified in other ways as well.
HX Challenge is part of the first step in evaluating the combat capability of the aircraft, by ensuring that the input data for the later modelling is done correctly. After this is done, simulated scenarios from the RFQ will be run with four-aircraft strong flights (fun fact, Finland was one of the pioneers in developing two pairs as the basic air combat element in the 1930’s). The aim here is to judge the survivability, ability to perform set missions, and the effectiveness in destroying enemy assets. As this is the Finnish Air Force, air-to-air capabilities will be the most important facto. An interesting question is how exactly simulations will be run. The word virtuaalisimulaattori (virtual simulator) is used, which seems to indicate a full man-in-the-loop simulation (think DCS on steroids, video by Jonathan Lundkvist). This is interesting in many ways, and should give a more correct picture as the value of sub-systems such as helmet-mounted displays and wide-angle displays are included in the evaluation. A good is example is how Gripen pilots like to talk about the benefit their man-machine interface provide compared to more traditional presentations of data which rely heavily on numerical values, and how this isn’t evident in traditional Monte Carlo-style simulations. With HX Challenge and a full-blown simulation the four-ship combat value should be found as accurately as possible without actually leasing four-ships and having them blow stuff up.
These data will then provide the input for a round of grand wargames taking place in the later part of 2020. Here the HX contenders will be simulated as parts of the complete Finnish defence system. This third stage will be the sole stage following which the contenders will be place in any kind of order. Based on this picture of the fighting capability of the aircrafts in their 2025-configuration together with input from an study into the development potential of the system (it’s never just about the individual aircraft) up until the end of the 2050’s the final warfighting capability-ranking will be made, and this should then in turn dictate which aircraft will be bought (the rest of the conditions being pass/fail-style).
For several months rumors have been claiming that Saab and Sweden will be (or already are) a partner in the British Team Tempest for a new ‘sixth generation’ fighter. For UK, Sweden in essence remains one of two European country with a serious aviation industry that still isn’t tied to the competing Franco-German project (the other being Italy), and would thus represent a rare opportunity for burden sharing.
News from RIAT – Sweden not joining UK #TeamTempest 6th gen fighter project – but signs MoU with Britain on co-operation on future combat air systems. "Saab views the agreement as a starting point for exploring the opportunity for joint development of FCAS" #avgeek#RIAT19pic.twitter.com/3dq60SPmZU
However, for the Gripen programme, Sweden acquiring the Tempest would represent the kiss of death, as Sweden hardly could afford to operate the Gripen alongside a new replacement type. This is especially problematic for the 39E/F-programme as the Tempest is scheduled for some kind of IOC as early as 2035 (certainly an ambitious target, to put it diplomatically). In turn, this would mean that the chances of Gripen would dramatically drop in the Finnish HX-fighter programme, as the Finnish Air Force and MoD officials have repeatedly expressed that the one thing Finland can’t afford is to be left the sole operator of an aircraft type (a situation which was one of the key drivers behind the decisions not to put forward a MLU3-programme but instead retire the Hornet-fleet as planned).
However, during the official signing ceremony at RIAT yesterday it turned out that this was all a tempest in a teacup*, and Saab dodged a seriously sized bullet in HX.
It turns out Sweden is not joining Team Tempest, but rather signed an MoU on “agreeing to examine the possibilities for joint development of future combat aircraft capabilities and combat aircraft systems.” In other words, rather than jointly developing the Tempest with the UK, Sweden (and crucially, it is the Swedish Minister of Defense Hultqvist that signed the MoU on behalf of the country) will join in developing sub-systems and capabilities (propulsion, sensors, and weapons are some obvious areas). What will Sweden then use these new capabilities and technologies for? Well, as the MoD notes in their presser: “This collaboration offers the opportunity to further insert advanced technologies into JAS 39 Gripen.”
In the end, it will be down to the industry to actually put the MoU into effect, and in the words of Saab, they “will contribute with […] experience of advanced technology development, system integration of complete combat air systems and related areas including sensors, missile systems and support”, though they also note that they still haven’t gotten any order related to the MoU (though they have been involved in the preliminary studies leading up to the signing, meaning that an order is likely just a quesiton of time).
This kind of technology sharing isn’t unheard of, as the small number of avionics companies means that already today the JAS 39E/F and Typhoon operate related versions of many key technologies, with the IRST-scanner being the most high-profile ones.
As such, rather than signalling the death of the 39E even before it has seriously gotten off the ground, the MoU indicates a plan on the part of the Swedish government to ensure that the 39E/F will remain modern and viable in the mid- to long-term. Notably, the MoU is only in force for ten years, and it leave all doors open for Sweden, including joining the Tempest at a later date, or opting for another way. While another new all-Swedish fighter might be prohibitively expensive, obvious alternatives include joining France, Germany, and Spain on their fighter, or going fighter shopping on the other side of the Atlantic for the first time since the J 26 Mustang. However, the schedule for this is completely open, and with Gripen staying in service “for the foreseeable future” and the joint studies with Team Tempest likely providing new input, it does seem that we are closer to JAS 39G/H than we are to JAS 40. For Gripen in HX, things just started to look a little brighter.
The news that a Finnish 39E/F Gripen order would include two GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft has lead to varied reactions, some better argued (and more reality-based) than others.
The first thing to address is that the inclusion of additional assets and the claim that they make the fighter better is not proof of a design flaw on the part of the fighter. This is true for Super Hornet and Growler, and it is true for Gripen and GlobalEye. Secondly, the recent fighter competitions the Gripen has lost have mostly been smaller contracts where the 39C has lost out against aircraft such as surplus F-16s. The Swiss decision to disqualify the 39E based on the criteria of evaluation flights this summer is in no way an indicator of how the aircraft will perform in five to ten years when HX is set to achieve IOC. There simply isn’t today a clear evaluation available in open sources that would have been apolitical enough that we can say that we know how a 2030-vintage 39E stack up against Rafale F4, F-35A Block 4, and the rest of the competition. This becomes especially true once the particulars of the Finnish Air Force and the way it operates are taken into account. It should also be remembered that the GlobalEye was included in the offer sent in months ago (and prepared last year), so trying to tie it to recent events isn’t realistic.
When it comes to AEW&C in general it can be said that any fighter will perform better with support from one compared to without. That hold true even as data links and sensor fusion means that individual fighters get access to significantly better situational awareness. AEW&C provide the possibility of the fighters operating with passive sensors until an opportune moment. The idea that a fighter can work as a mini-AEW, most often associated with the F-35 but by no means unique to it, has some credibility but should not be confused with a real AEW. The reasons are two-fold: size matters, as Saab’s competition has been happy to point out over the years, and the bigger power and bigger array sizes of a dedicated larger platform will translate into better performance (i.e. longer detection ranges). The second reason is the dedicated mission crew (the ‘C’-component of the AEW&C). These enjoy ergonomic working conditions and dedicated tools and training to direct the flow of battle and relay important information to the fighter pilots, who are in a stressed situation and more susceptible to information overload. As a side-note, the spotter/shooter-teaming of fighters, surface ships, and airborne sensors which F-35 (spotter) and US Navy ships (shooter) has been demonstrating is also something that Saab has been studying. My understanding is that no other contry besides the US has yet to actually demonstrate the capability in practice. However, with the choice of Saab’s 9LV combat managment system for all Finnish surface combatants, the combination of Pohjanmaa-class corvettes, Hamina-class FAC, and JAS 39E/F Gripen fighters acting as shooters with a GlobalEye AEW&C acting as the sensor(s) looks tempting.
The question which undoubtedly caused most discussion was that of survivability. While the GlobalEye have some passive sensors, when it is operating it will be transmitting with it’s radar at a relatively high power. AESA radars aren’t as easy to locate as conventional ones, but if a GlobalEye is up in the sky, the enemy will likely know that it is there and have an approximate bearing on it’s location. However, the step from spotting a GlobalEye to actually shooting it down is quite a bit. To begin with the aircraft is equipped with significant EW-capabilities, but most importantly the range of the EriEye-ER radar allows it to sit back quite some way from the action. This has caused some discussion about whether the strategic depth Finland has is enough. The answer is that if Finland has any kind of own fighter presence in the air it should be. To better get a picture of the situation, let’s temporarily forego my principles and draw some circles on a map.
All the normal caveats apply. Circles on a map should never be treated as the objective truth. These are examples of ranges, the eventual detection and weapon distances will depend on a huge number of factors. However, in this particular example I do feel that this aid somewhat in understanding the distances at play.
To our aid we’ll bring in CMANO, which is widely regarded as the best tactical/operational level air and sea warfare simulator available to the general public (enough so that it has a professional edition on offer). Again, the circles aren’t exact because OPSEC and the laws of physics, but they are good enough for our purpose. The scenario used is named Code Name: Red Island, 2016, and feature a Russian amphibious assault on the Åland Islands. That is partly irrelevant, because we will simply use it to look at a few examples of sensor and weapon ranges.
Here we have a number of ground based surveillance systems. For the Russians the white fat dotted line represents a Kasta 2E2 radar (NATO-designation ‘FLAT FACE’), which is a modern Russian long-range air surveillance system. The wider white dotted line is the S-200 associated 5N87 ‘BACK NET’. Remember that the earth’s curvature will cause significant shadows at longer ranges. The two Finnish Air Force bases are Tampere-Pirkkala and Kupio-Rissala. Note the orange circles designating Finnish SAM-systems, mainly the NASAMS. Note that even in a best case-scenario from the Russian point of view, they have no picture of what’s happening over the Finnish west coast coming from their ground based systems.
Here we bring in the fighters. In this case we have a number of Russian Su-35S, featuring the powerful Irbis-E PESA radar. From the Karelian ishmuts the fighters could theoretically spot Finnish fighters taking-off from Pirkkala and Kuopio, roughly corresponding to the 5N87, but as the radars are airborne they offer a better coverage of lower altitudes. However, a key point here is the significantly shorter orange circle, which is the max-range of the R-27 missiles the Su-35 (and other Russian fighters) are armed with.
Enter corresponding picture from the Finnish point of view. The white sector is the search area of the legacy-Hornet’s AN/APG-73 radar, with the orange circle representing the max range of the AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM.
Here we bring in the stand-off sensors. East of Gotland we have a Russian A-50U ‘MAINSTAY’ AEW&C aircraft, flying circles approximately 200 nm south-southwest of Turku. Note the huge search range, with the dotted white circle almost stretching all the way to Vaasa despite the aircraft sitting quite far back. Naturally, if Finland would have an AEW&C sitting over Vaasa, one can easily imagine a similar circle stretching down to Gotland (remember, what you actually see depends on the radar-cross section and EW capabilities of the target).
The other interesting aircraft in the picture above is the C-295 Dragon Shield SIGINT/ELINT aircraft which sits over the Gulf of Bothnia on a southbound course. The passive sensors have picked up the emissions from the Russian squadron which is still quite a bit south of the Åland Islands. As is nicely illustrated, the bearings to the ships can be quite well read from the passive sensors alone, but judging range is significantly harder.
What then, if anything, can be shown by consulting a high-fidelity computer game? The most important point is that while Finland might be narrow, it isn’t indefensibly narrow even from the air. There is still ample of air space left for stand-off sensors before we start intruding on Swedish territory (with that said, having access to Swedish air space would certainly be a plus). It also shows the huge benefit of having an airborne surveillance radar, especially once the radar shadows found at lower altitudes are taken into the picture. It should also be remebered that the Global 6500 has a ‘high-cruise’ of Mach 0.88, which means that if an enemy fighter got through, the GlobalEye would have a decent chance of if not exactly outrunning the enemy, then at least keeping the distance until the fighter needs to head back home. As such, with the current arsenal found on both sides of the border, I believe it is fair to say that the GlobalEye would be rather survivable once in the air (as long as the total collapse of the Finnish Air Force is avoided, but if that happens things are seriously going south in any case). Which brings us to a more important point.
Two is a small number. The current reliability of business jets means that in peacetime it should be enough, but it leaves next to no room for operational losses. While the aircraft are rather defensible once airborne, their high-value means that they need protection while on the ground. A nightmare scenario would see them being taken out in the opening salvo of a war, either by long-distance weapons or special forces. A prime example is the 2012 terror attack on Minhas AFB in Pakistan, which crippled the country’s fleet of four Saab Erieye aircraft, leaving one destroyed and two damaged. Still, even a single GlobalEye would provide extremely valuable service to all three services in case of a conflict, and not having valuable stuff because someone might destroy them isn’t really a workable solution in war. The obvious solution here is closer integration with the Swedish AEW&C fleet, which likely will transfer from ASC 890 to GlobalEye at some point in the medium term, which would give higher redundancy in case either party suffer combat losses.
One last issue which need to be addressed is the possibility of extremely long-range missiles being used to target the aircraft from stand-off ranges. Currently this is a capability that Russia lacks, with the longest range missile in any kind of service, likely IOC, is the K-37M carried by the MiG-31BM long-range interceptor. It is envisioned that this weapon would also be carried by other fighters, but currently this does not seem to be the case. The weapon has a 200 km range from a head-on position ‘against some targets’. This is much more than a R-27, but the actual operational range is likely significantly less than advertised. A newer missile is in development for the Su-57 under the designation Izdeliye 810. The design has apparently beaten the competing K-100 (based on the second stage of the 3M83 missile from the S-300V), and the range will be in excess of 300 km. Passive homing on (fighter) radars will reportedly be a feature in the future. Coupled with the stealth characteristics of the Su-57 allowing the launching aircraft to get closer before it is discovered, this could potentially be a threat. However, considering the issues encountered with the development of the Su-57 and other air-launched weapons the final performance is a major question mark, as is the schedule for when they could enter operational service. China has a corresponding ‘AWACS’-killer in the form of the PL-X project, which was test-fired in November 2016 from a J-16. The weapon reportedly also is in the 300 km class. While further along than the 810, it is unlikely that it will ever make a showing around the Baltic Sea. In any case, very long range missiles won’t change the equation, but rather will alter the numbers involved in a significant but not revolutionary way.
This segways nicely into the most important point: to accurately forecast the impact of developments such as new weapons over the next few decades is difficult, and this is just one aspect that needs to be evaluated. Future-proofing HX for the 2050’s is hard, with key questions such as sensor development versus stealth being extremely difficult to evaluate. However, the GlobalEye (and corresponding systems) are likely to maintain their relevance over the decades. Will a Gripen backed up by a GlobalEye beat an F-35 without AEW&C support? By 2021 we should have the answer.
Saab stood for the biggest surprise so far in the HX-program, when it announced that the offer does not only include 52 single-seat 39E Gripen and 12 two-seat 39F Gripen, but two GlobalEye airborne early warning and control aircraft as well.
It’s hard to describe exactly how bizarre, and exactly how astute, the move is.
The background is obviously the way that the Finnish Air Force and MoD has written the Request for Quotations. To ensure a tough and fair competition, the quotation only sets the widest of boundaries to the delivered package (64 fighters, 7-10 billion Euros in one-time acquisition costs, annual costs to operate no bigger than current 64 aircraft strong Hornet-fleet), and then goes on to describe the concept of operations and the missions the fighters are expected to perform. This gives the companies free hands to tailor the packages offered when it comes to questions such as versions offered, sensors and weapon packages, and so forth. Apparently, it also leave open the possibility to squeeze in aircrafts other than the fighters as long as the budget allows for it. It is a daring approach from the authorities, but one that now pays off with these kinds of unconventional offers including force multipliers such as EA-18G Growlers in the Boeing package and now GlobalEyes in Saab’s.
The money game is indeed the interesting part. While Gripen is universally regarded as a cheap fighter (mind you, cheap isn’t the same thing as costing little money when it comes to fighters), it is still nothing short of shocking that Saab is able to squeeze in not only two brand new aircraft, but also the whole support structure needed to bring a new aircraft type into service and initiate training of both the flying crew and mission crew. The big question is indeed what it costs to phase in a completely new aircraft type in the Finnish Air Force? The two aircraft themselves will have a price tag measured in hundreds of millions of euros. Saab naturally isn’t sharing their calculations, but assure that this fits inside the HX-budget.
It deserve to be reiterated: it is bizarre that Saab can make a comparable offer with the same number of aircraft as the competition, and still have room for two modern AEW&C aircraft with everything they need.
But things get really strange, or rather, really elegant, once life-cycle costs are being discussed. The idea is namely not only that the GlobalEye will improve the combat effectiveness of the Gripen (and the other services, more on this below), but also that the aircraft will provide a cost-offloading effect on Air Force operations as a whole.
This cost-offloading effect, in other words, it has a positive long-term effect on the life-cycle cost from the operator’s point of view.
Fredrik Follin, GlobalEye Campaign Manager
As the GlobalEye can perform certain peacetime missions more cost effectively than fighters (and other systems it complements), Saab argues it will bring down the life-cycle cost for the Air Force as a whole by reducing the need for HX flight hours (and ensuring that they can be spent more efficiently). Is this actually possible? Considering that Saab has decided to present this possibility to the Air Force both in the preliminary RFI (presumably) and now in the RFQ, they seem rather confident. The Air Force has also likely already given some kind of tacit approval that they will take a serious look at the GlobalEye, as in case they had planned on dismissing the AEW&C out of hand this would likely have been communicated to Saab already and we would not see it in the tender at this relatively late stage.
A really interesting detail which got a somewhat ring to it following yesterday’s announcement is the blog post made by program manager major general (res.) and former Finnish Air Force commander Lauri Puranen earlier this week. Puranen discusses the cost of the project, and strongly reiterates that following the original buy, everything, and he puts further emphasis on everything, and he strongly cautions against trying to estimate any kind of acquisition costs based on publicly available figures.
It may not be credible if the flight hour costs for a modern multirole fighter are lower than those of a Hawk-trainer. In Finland, the cost of a flight hour covers everything from the salary of the Air Force Commander and the upkeep of air bases to maintenance tools and jet fuel.
He also points out that Finland won’t accept any costs at face value, but will calculate life-cycle costs based on a domestic template used, which has been proved to be correct for the current Hornet-fleet. Following Saab’s rather unconventional ideas, the question about how to calculate life-cycle costs suddenly gets renewed attention, and it isn’t difficult to see the text as an attempt at squashing the misconceptions about this topic.
What then does the GlobalEye do? In essence it is a Bombardier Global 6000, going for around 40 million USD for the normal business jet version, heavily modified and fitted with a number of sensors and operator stations in place of the normal lavish interior. The single most important sensor of these are the EriEye ER radar in the distinct ski box-installation that has become a trademark of the Swedish radar family.
The history of the EriEye deserves a short mention. Long having been involved in radar technology, Sweden, like most countries, lacked an airborne surveillance system in the 80’s. The few available where mostly large, often four-engined, aircraft with large rotating mushroom-style antennas. The only medium-sized modern aircraft was the E-2 Hawkeye, which had scored some success on the export market (and then ‘modern’ deals with an aircraft that first flew in the 1960’s). The Swedes decided that if they wanted a light airborne AEW platform, they would have to do it themselves, and the first prototype was installed aboard a surplus Metroliner they had used as a transport. This was followed by a number of orders for ever more complex installation, with both Saab 340 and 2000, and later the Embraer EMB-145 acting as platforms depending on the customer was. Of these, the Swedish Air Force operate the Saab 340-based Argus. Notably, Pakistan reportedly used their Saab 2000 EriEye to great effect during the recent clashes that lead to the downing of an Indian MiG-21. The ASC 890 Argus is no stranger to the Finnish Air Force, as it has been used both with and against Finnish Hornets in several bilateral exercises during recent years.
However, over time the EriEye has evolved. Having originally been little more than an a flying air surveillance radar, the GlobalEye is a true ‘joint’-capability, or as Saab likes to describe it: a ‘swing-role surveillance system’. This means that the aircraft is able to keep an eye not only on the air domain, but can perform sea and ground surveillance as well. Here the ErieEye ER is backed up by two secondary sensors, the ventrally-mounted Leonardo Selex ES SeaSpray 7500E AESA maritime surveillance radar with a full 360° field of vision, and the electro-optical sensor in front of it. However, the S-band EriEye ER has some new tricks up it’s sleeve as well, and when asking if it can perform JSTARS-style ground surveillance, I got the answer that the aircraft feature the:
Erieye ER with specific features for ground surveillance.
Make of that what you will, but it seems clear that the aircraft is able to simultaneously create and maintain both air, sea, and ground situational pictures, and share them with friendly forces. It is also able to command these friendly forces, in particular the fighters. This is an extremely valuable force multiplier, both in peace and in war, and something which likely everyone in the Air Force has felt was way out of our price range. The jointness of the HX-program would also be greatly supported by the GlobalEye, as e.g. the Navy’s new missiles have a range far beyond the horizon of the firing ships, creating the need for sensors with longer ranges (and there aren’t too many currently around).
Aren’t there any drawbacks then? Obviously, the biggest of which is the low number. Two is a very small number for a high-value asset such as these. The GlobalEye has a high cruise speed and an extremely long endurance, meaning that two aircraft could theoretically provide even 24/7 surveillance. Still, the loss of even one airframe would halve the force, giving poor redundancy. On the other hand, even one is still significant more than zero… The other question is if Finnish air space is too shallow for an AEW&C aircraft to be used effectively without placing it in undue risk. Here the natural answer is to place the station further back inside Swedish air space, but while it seems an obvious answer now, it might or might not be politically feasible if things turn rough. Does the Air Force want a new aircraft type in it’s inventory is another question? The Global 6000 is a reputable aircraft, and as such can be considered low risk, but it is still a significant undertaking, and not something you usually get thrown in as an extra in a fighter deal.
For the first time in the competition, someone has managed to pull an ace that I honestly feel could decide the whole thing (the aforementioned Growler came close, though).
If Saab can show that the calculations surrounding the life-cycle cost really hold true.
If the Finnish Air Force conclude that stealth isn’t a must.
P.s. Gripen really must be dirt-cheap for a modern fighter…
The HX program has shifted gear into the next phase, as all five contenders returned their answers to the first round of the RFQ (for those needing a primer on the process, see this post). As noted all five are still in the race, but a few notable events have taken place.
On the Air Force-side of things, the Chief of Defence (and former Air Force CinC) was quite outspoken in an interview back in December, where he amongst other things highlighted the need for Finland to ensure that we aren’t the sole operator of the HX towards the end of it’s operational life. This is in essence nothing new, it was noted as an issue for the continued operation of the Hornet-fleet past 2030 in the original HX pre-study, and could in all honesty been seen from a mile away. Still, it was felt that the decision to speak openly about one of the key points that set the F-35 aside from the rest of the bunch (i.e. a widespread international userbase which will operate the aircraft as their prime combat aircraft past 2060) was surprising given the continued emphasis on the competition still being wide open. However, given the obvious nature of the issue, I find it difficult to get too excited over the quote.
There will however be some personnel changes, as a scandal has rocked the Air Force with a wing commander being under investigation for less than proper conduct while drunk during an Air Force-sponsored trip with local stakeholders. This has also raised questions about how the investigation has been conducted by his superiors, something which has likely played a part in both the Air Force chief and the chief of defence declining to apply for extensions of their respective terms, instead opting to retire when their current terms are up. This likely won’t affect the HX program in any meaningful way.
Back to the F-35, preciously little has come out regarding the offer. This is due to Lockheed Martin not being allowed to comment upon anything, as the offer is made by the US Government. That means we still haven’t gotten confirmation that it is the F-35A that is on offer, leaving the door open for the odd chance that the carrier-based F-35C would be seen as better suitable tp Finnish requirements. That detail will likely become clear soon enough, but in the meantime we can note that the F-35C declared IOC recently, meaning that all three versions of the F-35 now are operational. The F-35B recently finished it’s first combat cruise, and scored a 75% availability rate. That number is perhaps the most impressive metric to come out of the F-35 program during the last year in my opinion, as that availability rate would be acceptable for mature operational fighters operating from their home base. Now it was achieved by a brand new STOVL aircraft operating in combat from a small carrier, clocking twice the hours of its predecessor. While questions surrounding the ALIS and other parts of the program still exist, this is a strong sign of maturity. The F-35 still in many ways remain the fighter to beat for anyone aiming for the HX-contract.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, while the F-35 is still undefeated in combat, it is no longer so on the market. This is following the German decision to drop it from their Tornado-replacement program, where the Eurofighter Typhoon and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet will now go head to head for the deal. The undoubtedly political decision to drop the F-35 at this early stage has received widespread criticism, including from not one but two former chiefs of the German Air Force (and as opposed to how the HX-debate looks in Finland, both of the generals have recent experience, having retired in 2009 and 2018 respectively). However, the decision isn’t quite as far-out as some would like to make it, as both the Typhoon and the Super Hornet actually hold significant selling points. Crucially, Germany already operate the Typhoon, making it easier to just raise the number of aircraft than to integrate a new fighter. For the Super Hornet, it should be remembered that Germany besides the ground-attack Tornado IDS also operate the SEAD/DEAD-variant Tornado ECR, one of very ‘Wild Weasel’ aircraft currently in service anywhere in the world. And the only modern Wild Weasel aircraft found on the market is the Super Hornet-based EA-18G Growler (we’ll get to that shortly). Will the German decision affect HX? Yes, although mainly indirectly by securing another reference to either fighter, and likely to a lesser extent than another recent German decision.
Germany decided to despite considerable British and French pressure continue to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the War in Yemen and the brutal murder of journalist Khashoggi. The actions are certainly correct in my personal opinion, the War in Yemen and the murder were both particularly brutal (even considering the fact that wars and murders in general are brutal), but it also points to a willingness of Germany to pull the brakes on arms exports contrary to the wishes of other major European countries. In itself that isn’t necessary worrying, but Germany has also shown a worrying tendency of running their own show when it comes to relations with Russia (case in point: Nord Stream 2). Taken together, especially when considering Russia’s usual taste for false flag operations and trying to shape the narrative of any conflict, the risk of Germany stalling orders and urging both sides to de-escalate in a potential Russo-Finnish crisis is probably being analysed in Helsinki. It’s hard to quantify the risk (especially with Trump having demonstrated that rapid political swings can take place elsewhere), but it likely didn’t improve the prospect of Typhoon taking home HX.
What might have improved the odds was the Spanish Air Force showing how an operator can both develop their own upgrade path and benefit from cooperation with the other partner countries. In the case of Spain, the country follows the common upgrade path with the Tranche 2 and 3 Eurofighters. At the same time, being unhappy with the roadmap for the Tranche 1 fighters, it has independently embarked on a more ambitious program for those aircraft. The big cloud still hanging over the Eurofighter program is whether any operator will be invested in it as their primary platform up to 2060, or whether they all will have moved on with the upgrade funds of their air forces largely being allocated to whatever comes next.
If Lockheed Martin is unable to talk much about their offers, Saab is more outspoken and even flew a bunch of journalists to Sweden to inform them about the offer. The big news was that Saab offers a domestic production line, and that the fleet would be a mix of 52 JAS 39E single-seaters with 12 JAS 39F two-seaters. The Finnish Hornet-order was 57 F/A-18C single-seaters and 7 F/A-18D two-seaters, so this would be a remarkable shift from a ratio of 8:1 to 4:1. While it is well-known that the Finnish Air Force in hindsight would have wanted more two-seater Hornets for the conversion training role, Saab is open with the fact that training needs isn’t the main reason behind the inclusion of a squadron of two-seaters.
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.
Magnus Skogberg, program Director of Saab’s HX-bid
In essence this means that Saab is arguing that the needs of the Finnish Air Force is best met by a squadron of two-seaters backing up the single-seaters for certain missions, while at the same time the two-seaters can obviously provide benefits for the OCU-mission i peacetime. The 39E and 39F are more or less similar, with the cockpit setup being the same in the front and rear cockpits of the 39F, as well as in the sole cockpit of the 39E. This means that all will be equipped with the same wide-angle display that will be found in both Swedish and Brazilian fighters. Any Finland-specific details, configurations, or equipment will also be the same for both versions. The only major difference is that the 39F does not feature the internal gun. Both versions sport an onboard electronic warfare system, which include electronic attack capabilities, and which can be further supplemented by podded jammers and sensors. This is where the second crewman comes into the picture, as there’s a real risk that the human brain will run out of bandwidth before the options of the EW-system does.
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.
Magnus Skogberg, program Director of Saab’s HX-bid
The same can be said for advanced long-range strike missions, and in the air-to-air role the use of modern data links even makes it possible to have an aircraft with the backseater working as something akin to the Fighter Allocator of an AWACS, concentrating on staying up to date with the situational picture and issuing orders to other airborne friendly fighters. Is there a benefit of moving the fighter controller from the ground to the backseat of a fighter? Possibly, in general the Finnish Defence Forces likes to have the one calling the shots to be situated close to the action, though the benefit is likely smaller than when it comes to EW and strike missions. While Saab maintains that two-seaters offer significant flexibility in multiple roles, it seems that the main focus is on the 39F as a SEAD/DEAD asset.
Boeing is in essence bound by the same non-disclosure issues as Lockheed Martin. However, they have managed to get permission to discuss some aspects of their offer, and happily fill in any blank spots by referencing how the US Navy (and to a lesser extent the other flying services) perform their mission. The big deal was that Boeing is now officially offering not only the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in the most modern Block 3 configuration, but the EA-18G Growler dedicated SEAD/DEAD version as well (though ‘dedicated’ should be interpreted carefully, as it can do everything the F/A-18E/F can do, with the exception of sporting two wingtip short-range air-to-air missiles). Boeing could not speak about the Super Hornet/Growler ratio to Finland, but notes that on a US carrier it is currently 44 Super Hornets to 5-7 Growler, with the intention being to raise that to 10-12 Growlers. In the case of Finland, that would mean 10 to 15 Growlers out of the total of 64 fighters.
Boeing isn’t one to downplay the importance of this move. The release for export took place in extremely short time (comparisons to the ~10 years it took to clear the AGM-158 JASSM were made), and this is a tangible example of the strong Finnish-US bilateral bond when it comes to national security. A bond which kicked off in earnest with the acquisition of the F/A-18C/D ‘legacy’ Hornet back in the 90’s (though you might argue that correlation doesn’t equal causation here, as it also coincided with the end of the Cold War). The US sees a Finnish acquisition of modern airborne capabilities as another way of improving stability around the Baltic Sea through improving Finland’s conventional deterrence. The Growler would add significantly to Finland’s “Tröskelförmåga“, threshold capability, as senior advisor (and retired admiral) Juhani Kaskeala explained using the Swedish word, and as such is nicely in line with US strategic interests.
You can trust the Super Hornet
Juhani Kaskeala, senior advisor at Blic
The Super Hornet Block 3 may be one of the most advanced versions of any fighter available, but Boeing also makes an important point of the fact that all cards are already on the table. They know “exactly” what it costs to operate the fighter, a sum which is lower than that of Finland’s current Hornet’s despite the Super Hornet being heavier, and they know how many hours they can get out of any given aircraft. The current lifespan is 10,000 flight hours per aircraft, compared to just 6,000 flight hours of the legacy ones (Finland has experienced issues reaching that number, due to the larger proportion of heavy-G air combat maneuvers flown by the Finnish Air Force). Boeing’s package is within the budget of the program, though they aren’t able to comment upon the cost of the package in any detail. The question of cost is interesting, as Boeing has gone three for three in the last major US defence contracts (T-X, MH-139, MQ-25), in a move that has largely been described as Boeing buying the deals. What you lose on the swings, you make up for on the roundabouts, and the fact that Boeing in essence is the world’s largest civil aviation business with a sizeable defence division makes it able to manage the cashflow issues this would cause to dedicated defence companies. Boeing might not be as aggressive in the pricing for the kind of smaller order that HX represents, but they are likely the only company that even has the option.
The question about the lifespan of the program lurks in the background. While admiral Richardson might want to phase out the Super Hornet by 2040, there is currently no sunset plan for the Super Hornet, and with the NGAD nowhere to be seen, the idea of having replaced the last Super Hornet with a new design in just twenty years sounds impossible rather than improbable. Also, even without any additional Super Hornet orders from the US Navy, the service will accept their last new fighters as late as 2034, and these are unlikely to be phased out in just six years.
Regardless of the risk to be left alone in the timespan past 2050, what is clear is that the Super Hornet/Growler combo would bring impressive capabilities to the Finnish Air Force. The Growler is also far more versatile than simply being the world’s best SAM-killer (which in itself would be valuable to the Air Force), as it is also an extremely potent ELINT asset with impressive non-kinetic capabilities. The ability to ‘listen to’ or jam different signals as the need arises without firing shots in anger could prove very useful in countering a “gray” or “hybrid” scenario. In US service, the Growlers are seen as a “truly joint aircraft”, able to assist and support not only other combat aircrafts, but ground and sea forces as well. As such it is able to shape the electronic battlefield, and is expected to be operating closely with F-35s of all branches in case of a peer- or near-peer conflict.
The answer to what makes the Growler unqiue in the EW-role
The secret sauce is simple, the Growler sports two of the same F414-engines that propel the single-engined 39E/F Gripen, giving plenty of raw power to the EW-suite, including jammers. The aircraft is also described as “by far the most winter-qualified” of all HX-contenders, which is a statement I guess some of the other contenders might want to fight. The same goes for the notion that the sensor fusion on the Block 3 is “exactly the same capability” as that of the F-35. What is objectively clear though is that the Super Hornet currently sports the best availability numbers of all US tactical jets, and Boeing is happy to assure Finland that not only can all maintenance and upgrades be done locally, but it is also possible to build the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet locally if Finland so wishes. Still, it does sound like Boeing isn’t as keen on the idea of a local assembly line as Saab is.
Kaskeala also points out that the current buying wave of F-35s is made up of F-16 operators. Australia is indeed the sole export customer that is switching from the ‘legacy’ Hornet to the F-35A, and they are in turn a bit of an outlier in that they operate both the Super Hornet and the F-35A. Last time around Finland identified a different need compared to e.g. Denmark and Norway, and went with a different fighter. Will the same be true this time around? What is obvious to any observer is that the legacy of the Hornet-deal is strong in Boeing’s organisation. Boeing is able to host press conferences in Finnish, thanks to the fact that not only their local advisors but key persons inside the company speak Finnish as their mother tongue. It is also evident that Boeing understands how Finland works, both as a society and as a customer. Of the companies involved in HX, only Saab comes close with their local organisation having a relatively large footprint on the ground in Finland and with the Swedish way of doing business being very similar to the Finnish one. While cultural differences in theory shouldn’t affect the outcome of HX, at the end of the day everyone involved are still just humans, and it is hard to shake the feeling that Boeing and Saab have a nonquantifiable but significant advantage in this field.
Dassault has kept a low profile in media, but in late January Dassault sent a single Rafale B up to the home base of Lappi Fighter Wing for a week of cold weather testing. Ostensibly this was just normal company testing, but it is hard not to think that the choice of location was dictated by a willingness to show the aircraft to a potential customer. In any case, the 30-person big testing team is said to have been happy with both the tests and their stay at the air force base.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.