Two years ago I sat in my car on the parking lot of a supermarket in Oulu watching the unveiling of the first Norwegian F-35A on my phone. Last week I again sat glued to the phone, this time in my kitchen, watching the first three F-35’s land at Ørland hovedflystasjon (Ørland main air force base), located close to Trondheim in central Norway.
Why the obsession with the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s new fighter? Well, for anyone interested in the Finnish HX-program, Norway’s new fighter will be an important pointer. As with the F-16 program, Norway decided to be a program partner from the outset, with the F-35 beating the (then very much paper-plane) Gripen NG in a competition, which to be fair has been criticised as having been pure political theatre. Possible dishonesty aside, it is clear that Norway was happy with their experience with being a launch partner of the F-16, and wanted to recreate the success story with the F-35.
What is also clear is that the Finnish way of buying already operational solutions rely on countries ready to take the proverbial leap of faith. What sets Norway aside from most other F-35 customers is that the Norwegian Air Force is a well-known quantity for their Finnish colleagues thanks to the more or less continuous cross-border training the two countries (and Sweden) take part in, and having airfields next to the Atlantic at the 64th parallel means that snow and icy runways are no strangers to the Norwegians.
So far the Norwegians have been happy to share their experience with the fighter, with major Morten ‘Dolby’ Hanchen being one of the most prominent voices of the growing F-35 community. He not only briefed Finnish media representatives when they visited Luke AFB this year, but has also written extensive and very informative texts explaining the criticism found in DOT&E reports.
As such, the Finnish Air Force is likely to keep a keen eye on the Norwegian experiences with operating and maintaining the stealth fighter in subarctic conditions. While a reduction in the force structure means that the northern F-16 base at Bodø was closed and the fighters will be consolidated to Ørland, a forward QRA detachment at Evenes AFB outside of Narvik will certainly put the planes to the test. Expect some high profile visitors to Norway in 2018.
From the outset the Finnish Defence Forces have been stating that they are not replacing a multirole fighter (and thus buying a new one), but instead they are replacing the capabilities of it (and thus buying a new one to provide the same capabilities as the old one). This might look like semantics, but was suddenly brought to the forefront when the RFI for weapons and external sensors was sent out.
Short background: the current Finnish Hornet-fleet sport five different weapon types (plus an internal gun). The AIM-9 Sidewinder (in L- and X-versions) provide short-range air-to-air capability, while the AIM-120C provide medium-range air-to-air capability. With the MLU2 air-to-ground weapons have been brought in as well. The JDAM-series of guidance kits are fitted to ordinary 225, 450, and 900 kg bombs (official designations then being GBU-38, GBU-32, and GBU-31 respectively). These use a combination of internal navigation (INS) and GPS to provide accurate hits on the target. The main problem is that hitting moving targets doesn’t really work, which have prompted the creation of other guidance kits sporting laser guidance in combination with INS and/or GPS. These have however not been acquired by Finland. Also, the range is short, and in practice the fighter has to overfly the target. Still, the JDAM is cheap and reliable, and has proved a favourite in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Time will tell if the recent GPS-jamming incidents will cause issues for weapons which rely on GPS for navigation and/or target acquisition.
A solution to getting more range out of a bomb is to fit it with wings, which leads to the AGM-154 JSOW. The JSOW feature folding wings which deploys after launch, letting the weapon glide towards the target. Three different versions are found, of which two hold submunitions (‘cluster bombs’), while the third is a single BROACH-warhead. The BROACH feature a two-stage warhead where a small(ish) shaped charge first blows a hole in the target, which the main warhead the flies through and detonates on the inside of (see this Australian clip of a live-fire test, the slow-motion entry is found at the 0:54 mark). For improved accuracy the AGM-154C with the BROACH feature an infrared seeker for terminal guidance. In Finnish service the JSOW is something of an enigma, with both the number of weapons and version acquired being unclear to me. I had originally thought the JSOW had been acquired in a very limited number for test and evaluation purposes only in case the JASSM wouldn’t be cleared for export, but during Ruska17 it was mentioned as part of the Finnish arsenal. It seems likely that a small number of AGM-154C JSOW are found as a cheaper mid-range solutions for targets which might be too well-defended for a JDAM-run. The big problem with the JSOW is that as it lacks an engine, its range is highly dependent on the speed and height of the aircraft when launched.
The silver bullet in the Finnish airborne arsenal is the AGM-158 JASSM. The JASSM feature a 450 kg penetrating warhead in the form of the WDU-42/B, and is powered by a small jet engine giving it significantly longer range than the JDAM and JSOW. The cruise missile is stealthy, and navigates by combining GPS and INS during flight, before switching on a IR-seeker for terminal guidance. It is a smart weapon even by modern standards, and dives towards the target at different angles depending on the amount of penetration needed (steeper for harder targets such as bunkers). All this also makes the weapon rather expensive, with the DSCA listing the Finnish request for up to 70 weapons at an estimated value of 255 million USD.
These are the capabilities to be replaced: the ability to shoot down enemy aircraft at different ranges, and to strike hard but not necessarily moving targets at all ranges.
It is important to remember that the weapons work already before release, in that any potential attacker has to calculate with the Finnish Air Force being able to launch a strike taking out key installations such as bridges and command bunkers deep behind enemy lines without ever being close to these. The psychological effect of the nagging knowledge that when getting inside a few hundred kilometers of the frontline you are always under threat should not be underestimated.
The press release on the RFI was rather bland, but Jarmo Huhtanen of Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat had an interesting interview with engineering brigadier general Kari Renko. Renko dropped a very interesting comment, which will have huge consequences for the HX-program.
We won’t go down the route of starting to develop the integration of machine and weapon. We’re buying missiles, their documentation, transportation containers, training, and so forth.
He also mentions that the weapons and sensors will account for roughly a tenth of the total budget, i.e. in the neighbourhood of 700 million to 1 billion Euros. A second interview with program manager Lauri Puranen (retired FiAF major general) in Finnish paper Talouselämä takes a slightly different view, putting the total weapon cost at 10-20% of the total value, i.e. 700 million to 2 billion Euros, though he notes that there is no idea in buying the whole stock immediately upon ordering the fighters, as the weapons have limited shelf life (this might explain the difference their estimates). This sounds about right for providing a small stock of short- and medium-ranged air-to-air missiles and a few different air-to-ground weapons. A short mention of DSCA cost estimates for similar weapons from recent years.
It must be said that this is a very Finnish way of making defence acquisitions. Buying just behind the cutting edge, at the (hopefully) sweet spot where the R&D work is done and the true costs are known while still modern enough to be considered high-tech. The package above comes in at 1.08 billion Euros and would be something of a bare minimum (e.g. 64 fighters would get an average of 4.7 AMRAAMS each, meaning that after the first wave was launched there wouldn’t be any reloads to talk about). The Finnish order is also likely to be more air-to-air heavy than the mix above would be.
It also means that if Renko (who have his roots in the Air Force) is to be taken literally, the HX-field will be turned upside down.
The air-to-air part is no problem, all contenders have sufficient missiles integrated. Guided bombs are also found, though in most cases not JDAM’s but rather laser or hybrid laser/GPS/INS-guided ones. It is questionable if the JSOW is actually needed as the Goldilock-solution between a guided bomb and a cruise missile, and if it is a priority to be bought at the beginning of the project. In any case, it is fully integrated on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, while the Rafale feature the AASM ‘Hammer’-series of modular guidance/propulsion kits which include interesting versions that also exist in the middle ground between guided bombs and ‘true’ missiles.
The big dealbreaker is the cruise missile. If Renko means business, that the HX need to have a long-range cruise missile with a serious penetrating warhead ready by the time it reaches full operational capability in the 2029-2031 time span, two of the top-contenders have a problem at their hands.
The Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon both sport the joint-French/English SCALP/Storm Shadow. This is a highly potent weapon in the same class as the JASSM, including a stealthy design, and is combat proven over Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The Rafale already carry the weapon, while the Typhoon is about to get it as part of the P3E upgrade currently underway. As such, both should welcome the news that this is a requirement.
The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet just might get a pass, as it sport the Harpoon-based SLAM-ER with a 360 kg WDU-40/B titanium-reinforced penetrating blast warhead. The SLAM-ER feature many of the same capabilities as the JASSM (though being lighter and shorter-legged), and is the US Navy’s answer to the gap created in their inventory when they dropped out of the JASSM-program. The fighter is also in the process of getting the AGM-158C LRASM, the anti-shipping derivative of the JASSM, which might offer a possibility to fast-track AGM-158A/B integration once complete.
JAS 39C/D Gripen have no long-range ground attack capability. This will be remedied by the upcoming Rb 15F-ER which while developed from the RBS15F anti-ship missile will also have a secondary land-attack capability. However, the weapons main use and roots are shown by the warhead which is a 200 kg blast fragmentation one. Excellent for ships, but despite having delayed fusing options this likely lacks the penetration to be able to take on hardened targets.
The F-35 is the other big question mark, with the JASSM not confirmed for the fighter. It has been cancelled for the Block 4, with one spokeswoman saying they “expect it” in the Block 5 timeframe which “is expected to begin in 2024”. The scope of Block 5 is still undecided, with one aviation journalist describing it’s status as “just a collection of tech that didn’t make the cut for Block 4“. RAF/RN had originally planned for the Storm Shadow to equip their F-35’s, but has since dropped it. As such, the F-35 have no confirmed cruise missile for hardened targets at the moment. The one missile which is confirmed is the JSM, which like the Rb 15F-ER is an anti-ship missile with secondary land-attack capability, and which also feature a 200 kg combined blast and fragmentation warhead. Manufacturing partner Raytheon is happy to call it “the only fifth-generation cruise missile that will be integrated on the F-35”, which is likely more of a marketing line than an indication of the company sitting on information that the JASSM has been cancelled for the F-35.
The answer to the Gripen’s woes would have been the Taurus KEPD 350. The joint Swedish-German missile is carried by German Tornadoes, Spanish EF-18 Hornets, and (soon) South Korean F-15 Eagles. Preliminary flights have been undertaken by the Gripen (and the Eurofighter for Spanish and German needs), but the missile was never integrated on the 39C/D, and it’s future as part of the 39E’s arsenal is still unclear. The Swedish then-government/now-opposition signalled back in 2014 that they “want cruise missiles on the new Gripen”, though it has never been clear whether this means the RBS15F or some heavier land-attack missile. In any case, no firm order for KEPD 350 integration onto the Gripen has been made, and it is difficult to see a Brazilian requirement for it. The KEPD 350 is however actively marketed as an option for the Gripen by Saab.
While Puranen’s cost estimate of the weapon package might be higher than Renko’s, he is of the same opinion when it comes to integration costs.
Our position is that the aircraft suppliers are responsible for the integration of the weapons found in their offers, and that the costs for this are included in the offer.
This leaves Lockheed-Martin and Saab with something of a conundrum. Unless JASSM or another suitable missile is confirmed for integration before 2030 by another paying customer, and unless this confirmation comes before the final offers are made in 2021, the companies will have to include the complete integration costs when calculating their bids to Finland. Obviously the majority of the costs will be funneled back directly to their HX-bid (TANSTAAFL), while the Rafale and the Typhoon will be able to make their offers without this additional cost (or at the very least with a significantly reduced one). It also raises the question which missile they should choose to offer. While there has been much speculation about keeping the JASSM’s, their shelf-life does in fact end about the time the Hornets are withdrawn.
Saab has been marketing a willingness to integrate the JASSM if Finland requests so. However, if they are free to offer the long-range strike option in whichever form they want, doing so by integrating their own Taurus instead of Lockheed-Martin’s JASSM might certainly be tempting, especially as the Taurus offer some unique gimmicks such as the ability to detonate at a specific pre-set floor. Another possible solution which might be tempting for both manufacturers would be to develop penetrating 500-lbs warheads for the JSM and Rb 15F-ER, as this might turn out to be a cheaper solution than integrating a completely new weapon. Still, when it comes to penetrating warheads, mass matters, and it is clear that this would be an inferior solution compared to heavyweights such as the JASSM, Storm Shadow/SCALP, or Taurus.
Ruska: (ʁus.ka) noun. 1) Finnish word denoting the leaves changing colours during fall, autumn foliage 2) Finnish Air Force exercise focused on operations in times of crises and wartime, measured in the number of involved servicemen and -women the largest Finnish Air Force exercise of 2017.
War is unpredictable. Some things are however more predictable than others. These include enemy strikes on runways and installations of the air bases used by the only two fighter wings in the country. The solution is easy: to be somewhere else when the cruise missiles strike.
Dispersed basing is at the heart of Finnish Air Force operations. The concept not only means that the aircraft are spread out, but it also means that they keep moving. Upon the order to disperse, the air force sends out ground units to road bases and civilian airfields. These units are capable of independent operations, not only taking care of the aircraft themselves, but also of handling necessary supporting functions such as providing base security. Having taken up positions, they then wait for word from higher command about if and when they will get customers. Keeping the fighters moving between bases makes it much harder to catch them on the ground, where they are at their most vulnerable.
Often this mode of operations is associated with road bases, likely because road basing is only practiced by a handful of countries (Finland, Sweden, Taiwan), and because fast jets landing and taking off in a forest makes for really nice pictures. As important however is the use of civilian fields for military use. “There are no clear advantages in using a road base as opposed to a civilian field. The usability and benefits of a base instead largely depends on the ground units found there”, Lt col Ville Hakala of the Air Force Command explains.
The casual observer would be excused to fail to notice the fact that Kokkola-Pietarsaari airport is a working military base during Ruska17. An ultralight from the local flying club is doing touch and goes, and the passenger flights to Helsinki and Stockholm make their schedules as normal. Minimizing the impact on civilian aviation is not only part of keeping the local population in a good mood, but also how it is envisioned to work in times of crisis. For society as a whole to function, it is important that the airports stay open even if the air force decides to use them. So the ground crew discreetly wait in the background, while the military police patrol the perimeter and politely check up on people who loiter in the area. Especially those who sport a camera with a decent sized tele lens.
Then the call comes, a pair of Hornets are inbound, and the ground crew takes up position by the taxiway. But as the exercise is a complex one with a fully functioning red side operating out of bases in northern Finland and Sweden, things doesn’t always go as expected, and no sooner have the Hornets appeared overhead than an air raid alarm is issued, and the blue force fighters speed away to a destination unknown to us at the airfield. A while later the situation is cleared up, and the two fighters touch down on the rainsoaked runway, and immediately taxi over to the waiting fuel trucks. The fighters stay on the field for a while, giving the passengers arriving with the evening flight from Stockholm something to look at, before eventually taking off into the night sky.
The turnaround is indeed a sight to see. While it is hard not to think of a caravan park or travelling circus when the train of specialised trucks appear, the impression stops as soon as the work starts. There is none of the frantic running or shouting of orders which are often associated with the armed forces. Instead, the small crew made up of conscripts, reservists, and regular staff move efficiently around the aircraft, each confidently handling his or her task. The fuel tanks might not be topped up in a matter of seconds and the wheels stay on, but otherwise the closest analogy that comes to mind is that of a Formula 1 pit stop. When asked about what the biggest challenges associated with operating away from the home base are, Lt col Hakala’s answer is confident: “There are no major challenges when operating from an unfamiliar airfield, our pilots are constantly practicing operations from different airports.” Looking at the refuelling operation, his confidence seems well-placed.
Seeing the fighters being serviced, it is clear that this unique way of operating the aircrafts will have implications for the HX-program. With all infrastructure being truck-mounted and handled by a motley crew stretching from teenagers to professionals with decades of experience, very special demands are placed on the aircraft. When out camping away from home, small details such as the integrated boarding ladder make a significant difference.
Ruska is a large exercise by most standards. Over 60 aircraft, including roughly half the Finnish Hornet-fleet is taking part, including all three Finnish Air Commands. On the ground, over 5,000 servicemen and -women are taking part, of which 2,900 are reservists. For the first time ever, the Swedish Air Force joins in to practice defending Finnish airspace together with the Finnish Air Force in a major exercise of this kind (though it should be noted that they have done it for real once before). A detachment of JAS 39 Gripen supported by a ASC 890 airborne early warning and control aircraft deployed to Kuopio-Rissala AFB as part of the blue force, with another detachment from F 21 making a re-run of last year’s role as part of the red force from their home base at Kallax AFB (Luleå).
While an important step politically in signalling the ability (and intention?) to fight together in case of an armed aggression, it is a surprisingly straightforward step from a military point of view. “Cooperation with the Swedish Air Force already have long traditions,” Lt col Hakala explains. “The Swedish Gripen is interoperable with the Finnish air defence system. The Gripens participating in the exercise are one part of the complete air defences and work together with Finnish Hornets.”
Huge thanks to all involved that helped me with the post!
Like the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Dassault Rafale made a rare visit to Finland earlier this year. However, a significant difference between the two visits was that while the ‘Super Bugs’ were leased by Boeing to take part in two air shows and a short stay at the Finnish Air Force’s research and evaluation facilities at Tampere-Pirkkala, the French fighters arrived as part of normal Armée de l’air operations when they participated in the international Arctic Challenge Exercise. The French contribution was made up by six single-seat Mirage 2000 and three two-seat Rafale B, all of which were based at Rovaniemi AFB in the northern parts of the country for the duration of the exercise.
The decision to send two-seaters was something which raised my curiosity already as the first pictures of the aircraft touching down started to appear. Luckily, while the Dassault did not bring an aircraft to this year’s Finnish air shows, they did have a nicely sized stand in Helsinki, where I got to sit down and have a chat with company representatives.
Dassault was keen to point out that ACE17 was an air force exercise that they as a manufacturer had no real connection to, they did confirm that the decision was made by AdA to send two-seaters in order to provide familiarisation opportunities. The three Rafales seems to have flown most of the time with a foreign pilot as a backseater, providing a “good opportunity” to show off the aircraft, as Dassault put it.
The choice of squadrons were also interesting. ETR 3/4 ‘Aquitaine’ is the operational conversion unit, responsible for training both AdA and Marine Nationale Rafale air crews, while EC 1/4 ‘Gascogne’ is the land-based strike squadron of the Force de Dissuasion, the French nuclear strike force. The third and final aircraft bore the badge of legendary fighter squadron EC 2/30 ‘Normandie-Niemen’, which is nominally a single-seat Rafale C squadron (focused on ground-attack) but which is known to have operated a handful of two-seaters to assist in the training of younger pilots. Especially the inclusion of the inclusion of the ‘Gascogne’-fighter is interesting. The nuclear strike role means that the squadron places a high emphasis on operations at low level and high speed (down to 60 meters over land and 30 meter over water, at speeds up to Mach 0.9 / 600 knots). While the Rafale’s automatic terrain following system wasn’t likely pushed quite to these limits during ACE17 (due to having a foreign backseater, lack of terrain data of Lappi, and height restrictions during the exercise), it certainly gave an opportunity to show of one of the strong points of the Rafale.
Dassault assured that the fighter operated without issue over the Finnish north, with the most dramatic episode being a bird strike experienced during a sortie with a French pilot and a foreign backseater. Even this wasn’t too much of an story, as it was only noticed once the plane had landed.
Back to Dassault: While they naturally weren’t able to comment on the details of the request for information related to the Finnish HX-program, they did describe it as “very interesting as far as the opposing power goes”, noting the high-end threat environment the HX has to be able to operate in. As discussed at length last summer in a series of posts, Dassault’s solution to the Finnish request is to emphasise the complete package. “It is not a question of just technical capability”, as Dassault explains. “There’s no golden solution, but a mix of capabilities is needed.” In practice, this means that Dassault strives to develop all parts of the aircraft in conjunction with each other. With an eye towards the other eurocanards adopting the Meteor very-long range missile before integrating AESA-radars, Dassault’s representatives pointed out that they first focus on the sensors, and then integrate the weapons which can take advantage of sensor developments. A complete concept, multirole, and flexibility are the keywords when Dassault tries to sell their fighters.
However, all is not unicorns and roses for the French fighter. Early July, Finnish tabloid Iltalehti published a long article on the earlier Finnish fighter program which eventually lead to the choice of the F/A-18C Hornet. While the analysis was rather poor (see Twitter rant), it did for the first time provide access to the secret memo presented to the politicians outlining the reasoning behind the Air Force favouring the Hornet. Dassault’s offering back then was the Mirage 2000-5, which was the only fighter besides the F/A-18C/D Hornet that was deemed to fulfil the requirements of the Air Force. The MiG-29, JAS 39A/B, and F-16 (my understanding is that the C/D was offered, but I am unsure about exact version) failed to meet the mark. The Mirage 2000-5 is described in the brief as follows:
Mirage 2000-5 fulfils the requirements of the Air Force, but the aircraft’s maintenance system is difficult for us, and life-cycle costs are probably in the higher-end owing to the small user base.
At around the same time as the article was published, impeached Brazilian president Rousseff gave her testimony on the choice of JAS 39E/F Gripen for the Brazilian Air Force. At 1:25 and forward in the video below, she describes the Rafale as having “extremely high” maintenance costs (compared to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and JAS 39E Gripen).
The Rafale is significantly easier to maintain compared to the Mirage 2000, mainly thanks to the automated fault detection software and smarter component layout of the Rafale. In practice, maintenance tasks are further in between and each individual task takes roughly half the time they did on the Mirage. Depot-level maintenance has also disappeared altogether. The Finnish comment from 25 years ago puzzles me. It seems this would indicate some kind of major difference in how maintenance was handled between the US Navy (for the Hornet) and the Armée de l’air (for the Mirage). I am unsure what kind of difference this would have been, and whether it still exists and affects the chances of the Rafale in HX.
Dassault is also looking over how the maintainers are trained, bringing something as rare as a maintenance simulator into play. The Oculus Rift-based software was demonstrated in Finland at the Kaviopuisto Air Show. The idea is that an instructor together with up to ten trainees can inspect a complete colour coded Rafale in virtual reality, where it is possible to move around freely and look at the components being discussed, without being restricted by the size of how many pairs of eyes can look through an open maintenance hatch at the same time. Being able to pass through structures and look at how different components connect together to form the complete system is also a significant benefit. The system has been pioneered on the Dassault Falcon-series of business jets, and is currently being rolled out for Rafale training.
For Rousseff, she obviously has an interest in painting the decision to buy Gripen as a clear-cut case. However, together the two reports does create the impression that this might not be the French fighter’s strongest point after all. I tried to contact Dassault for a comment, but have unfortunately not received a reply (possibly due to summer vacations). This will likely be a point that the blog will return to in the future.
Another point of great interest is the recent carrier-based operations over Syria and Iraq. A great write up on these can be found at the Liveifst-blog by Shiv Aroor who visited the homebase of 11F, one of three Rafale M units, at Landivisiau. An interesting tidbit is the description of a mission by two Rafale M to intercept and record the attack mode of the Su-33’s N001K radar when the carrier-borne fighters were operating of the Admiral Kuznetsov over Syria in 2016. The mission eventually ended in success, with the Rafale’s integrated SPECTRA electronic warfare system now featuring yet another radar mode in it’s library.
Carrier-based fighters have traditionally had a hard time keeping up with their land-based counterparts. Carrier operations put greater strains on the aircraft, as the shorter take-off and landing places higher stress on the airframe in general and the landing gear in particular. In the same way, the arrestor and catapult gear adds further weight, while space restrictions usually demand folding wings and other mechanisms to allow it to pass through elevators and occupy a smaller footprint while parked.
However, there are a number of classic designs which have been able to defeat this traditional axiom. These include the F-4 Phantom II (which was produced in a number of non-carrier versions) and the A-4 Skyhawk (one of the few modern carrier-based aircraft small enough to not need wing-folding), and crucially for HX, the F/A-18 Hornet.
The background of the Hornet is well-known, having started it’s life as the YF-17 ‘Cobra’, losing the LWF-competition to the F-16, then being developed further to the F/A-18 for the US Navy VFAX program. Interestingly enough, it was soon clear that F-16 (in early versions) didn’t meet the expectations of all potential customers, and a niche for the twin-engined Hornet could be found. A dedicated land-based version was created in the form of the Northrop F-18L, but in the end it was the baseline carrier-versions which came to score a number of export successes, with seven nations ending up choosing the ‘Bug’ over the competition.
For Finland, in an interesting cross-over of requirement, much of the carrier-specific equipment was actually in line with the requirements placed by the Finnish dispersed operations from road bases. Short runways, rough landings, space restrictions, little support equipment, and limited number of ground crew working on the aircraft are all similarities that make the rugged airframes and landing gears more of a benefit than a nuisance. The end result has been that the Hornet has provided stellar service in Finnish colours, having been able to adapt to Finnish road bases with ease. The use of a carrier-spec hook (not to be confused with the emergency hooks used by land-based fighters) to reduce braking distances has also been a big benefit. Somewhat surprisingly both Dassault and Lockheed-Martin have indicated that they will focus on the baseline Rafale C and F-35A respectively, leaving the Super Hornet the only fighter in the game able to use arrestor wires for breaking on a regular basis.
While all manufacturers have stated that their fighters are able to handle road bases without problems, Super Hornet and the JAS 39E Gripen are the ones with the pedigree to put more credibility behind the claims. Boeing is also the one to have their complete organisation already in place, having established working routines with the Finnish Air Force and local industrial partners as part of current Hornet-operations. When discussing the lack of a visible marketing campaign, this was something drawn upon by Boeing, who explained that they like to work closely with the customer and prove the capabilities of the aircraft directly to them. While this “more doing, less talking” attitude is exactly how any marketing executive would explain a perceived lack of publicity, it should not be ruled out that this actually is what Boeing has been doing, given the close association with Boeing Defence and the Finnish Air Force.
Interestingly, the F/A-18E/F shares around 50-60% of their support and maintenance equipment with the ‘legacy’ Hornets. While part of the equipment currently in use by the Finnish Air Force is likely starting to show their age and will have to be replaced in any case, this does still leave room for significant savings as well as for the possibility of staggering the procurements of maintenance equipment. Not having to buy a complete set of tools on day one is not only nice for the initial buy, but also means that throughout the lifespan of the aircraft instances of massed obsolescences amongst the support equipment should be rarer, smoothing out the operating costs during the life cycle. There’s also no need for major investment in fixed infrastructure (such as electrical systems or air supplies), as all Finnish air bases are equipped for handling the F/A-18C/D. As Boeing’s Bryan Crutchfield put it, “If a Hornet flies there today, a Super Hornet can fly there tomorrow”. This has also been practiced by the US Navy, which during carrier operations on occasion has swapped out Hornet-squadrons for Super Hornet ones at short notice (though granted the US Navy does have maintenance equipment for both ‘legacy’ and Super Hornets on their carriers).
Life-cycle costs are something that Boeing likes to talk about. To win the Finnish order the Super Hornet, like the Hornet before it, would have to defeat lighter fighters which have lower flyaway unit costs. The Super Hornet currently has the lowest cost per flight hour for all US tactical aircraft, including the F-16. While the comparison is somewhat skewed to the benefit of the Super Hornet as the Super Hornet fleet generally is the youngest of the active US fighters (with the exception of the F-35), it is still remarkable for a twin-engined naval fighter to top the list. Add in the savings in infrastructure and maintenance, and the life-cycle cost for a Finnish Super Hornet might be very competitive.
The synergies doesn’t stop there, as there is also a clear benefit when it comes to transferring pilots and ground crew from the F/A-18C/D to the F/A-18E/F. Making current Finnish Air Force personnel dual-qualified could be handled in a matter of weeks, and all training could take place in Finland. This is not only a question of transferring the people serving in 2025 when the first HX-fighters are slated to arrive in Finland, but “the Finnish Air Force will have a two aircraft fleet for a number of years”, as Bryan Crutchfield notes. In practice, the current Hornets and their replacement could serve side-by-side for up to five years, if the Air Force decides to maintain the Hornets until HX reaches full operational capability around 2030. This was also the case with the Hornet, where the first F/A-18D and C were delivered to the Finnish Air Force in 1995 and 1996 respectively, with the Draken finally being withdrawn in 2000 (the MiG-21 having left service two years earlier). As such, the argument about ease of transitioning from the Hornet to Super Hornet deserves more credibility than it has usually received, with the benefits tapering off towards 2030 and not 2025 as usually argued.
Of the eight countries which bought the ‘legacy’ Hornet, two already operate the Super Hornet (USA and Australia), two are likely going to operate it (Kuwait and Canada), with Switzerland, Spain and the minor operator Malaysia not looking like likely Super Hornet buyers. This leaves Finland, and many of the arguments which made us choose the Hornet are still perfectly valid today. However, where the F/A-18C Hornet armed with the AIM-120 AMRAAM was clearly the most advanced of the fighters being offered, the Super Hornet faces stiffer competition from both sides of the Atlantic. Traditionally, the Finnish Defence Forces have been rather conservative, favouring tried and tested systems before the new and unproven. Time will tell if Boeing can convince the Air Force that taking what has been a very successful concept and cranking up the dials to eleven is the best way forward, or if a more radical change is warranted.
One issue that has been open to much speculation is exactly which version(s) of the Super Hornet will be offered to Finland. The answer was simple, with Bryan Crutchfield explaining that it was up to the customer, and: “As a mainly single-seat air force, I would expect Finland to primarily be interested in F/A-18E.” This lead to the natural follow-up question, why the equally mainly single-seat Royal Danish Air Force was offered only the two-seat F/A-18F, a decision which proved to be something of a decisive issue in the Kampfly-program. “Because they only asked for the two-seater,” Bryan explained. On the question of why, he had no direct answer, but this is yet another strange data point in the already rather murky Danish affair.
More interesting then was that Boeing seemed to assume that Finland would be interested in a number of Growlers as well. In the case of the US Navy, roughly 20% of the Super Hornets bought are of the electronic warfare version, meaning that a potential Finnish mix of Super Hornets could be something along the lines of 40 F/A-18E single-seaters, 12 F/A-18F two-seaters, and 12 EA-18G Growlers, for a combined fleet of 64 fighters. When asked about if the ‘full-spec’ Growler is likely to be released for sale to Finland, Crutchfield was careful not to make any promises, noting that any sale would be a government-to-government deal. However, he went on to say that Finland appears to be a “very trusted” partner in Washington, and pointed to JASSM-deal as an indication that if Finland wants the Growler, there likely wouldn’t be any issues.
The Growler in many ways is an unrivalled platform in the electronic warfare role, being able to not only jam and destroy enemy radars and air-defence systems, but also having a significant capability when it comes to intercepting and jamming enemy communications and signals. The latter has made it a valuable resource in the operations against ISIS, and it is safe to assume that if Finland would acquire a handful of dedicated EW-platforms, it would make us a sought after coalition partner in the kind of low-intensity conflicts we have participated in in Afghanistan and Iraq. The question then is largely about the price of acquiring and operating the Growlers, as well as what kind of a loss having only 40 instead of 52 F/A-18E’s would be in the eyes of the Air Force Command. While the size reduction in ‘true’ fighters is significant, the role of the Growlers as force multipliers might provide a huge enough boost for both the Air Force and, crucially, to the ground forces to warrant this. As said, this is not solely a question of providing SEAD, but also of the Growlers being able to increase the fog of war for the enemy at crucial moments.
“Envelop the enemy in the fog of war, sow confusion while providing time and space for one’s own forces. Jam the adversaries’ radars. Disrupt his communications. Induce indecision; make the enemy question his own equipment and make mistakes.”The mission of the Growler as described by the Growler Industry Team
But even without the Growler, the baseline F/A-18E/F is a highly versatile multirole aircraft. “The most capable combat-proven multi-role aircraft”, as Boeing likes to put it (a statement that will upset the French). In addition to ‘normal’ air-to-air and air-to-ground work, the aircraft is able to handle both the maritime strike (Boeing did feature a scale model of a Harpoon anti-ship missile in their stand) as well as SEAD, two missions discussed at length in the Finnish report at the launch of the HX-project. What makes the SEAD-mission possible is the Integrated Defensive Electronic Countermeasures (IDECM)-package, currently in its Block IV state, coupled with the ‘leakage’ of technology developed for the Growler back into the fighter version of the aircraft.
“Physics matter,” Crutchfield sums up the sensor package, and point towards the large nose of the F/A-18E parked behind us during the interview. The nose hoses the AN/APG-79 AESA radar built by Raytheon, and Crutchfield isn’t shy when talking about the capabilities of the radar, stating that it is ‘generations’ in front of the competition, with rolling upgrades being introduced every two years. It should be remembered that the AN/APG-79 did experience some rather significant teething troubles when first introduced into service, though things seems to have gotten better since. One of the key features of the AESA is that it allows the pilot of the F/A-18F to stay fully focused on the air-to-air picture, while the weapon system operator (WSO) in the aft seat works on the air-to-ground view, with both having access to the radar modes they want.
Like the ‘legacy’ Hornet before it, the Super Hornet is qualified for a large number of weapons, including the most recent versions of the venerable AIM-9 Sidewinder, the AGM-88 HARM, and the AIM-120 AMRAAM (these being the AIM-9X, AGM-88E AARGM, and the AIM-120D respectively). On the horizon the SDB-II and the LRASM looms, while more exotic munitions include the Quickstrike-series of air-dropped mines. Which of these would be of interest to the Finnish Air Force is uncertain, but a continued reliance on ever more advanced versions of the AIM-9/-120 combination would be a natural choice for the immediate future. The big deficit is the lack of the very-long range Meteor ramjet-powered missile, which all other HX-contenders are set to have received prior to HX’s IOC date. The US Navy seems content with traditional rocket-powered air-to-air weapons at the moment, and while Finland naturally could pay for Meteor integration on its own, that would still make be a considerable sum. Going for the Super Hornet could then mean having to get closer to the enemy before firing, as there is a significant difference in the size of the no-escape zones of the throttleable ramjet motor compared to traditional rockets.
When first starting to cover the HX-program, I held the JAS 39E Gripen and F-35A Lightning II as the favourites, with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as the potential black horse. Since that, I have questioned the chances of the ‘Super Bug’, mainly based on two different issues.
The first has been the lack of a major road map or upgrade. The first Advanced Super Hornet-concept was displayed already in 2013 with a company-funded prototype. This was then gradually replaced by less ambitious proposals and talk about integrating only some of the features demonstrated by the Advanced Super Hornet. The US Navy, however, didn’t seem too interested in either the 2013 or the 2016 version of the concepts.
The other has been the seemingly low priority given to the Finnish program by Boeing. Compared to the Danish Kampfly-program where Boeing launched a serious marketing effort (and eventually took the whole thing to court), Boeing has been remarkably absent from the public spotlight in Finland.
Both of these changed last week, with the US Navy ordering the Block III-upgrade to the fleet’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers, and Boeing making a high-profile appearance at two Finnish air shows in Helsinki on Friday and Seinäjoki on Saturday and Sunday. Not only did Boeing manage to bring two Super Hornets to Finland, but I also got the opportunity to have a chat with senior manager Bryan Crutchfield to get a better picture of the company’s effort to keep their position as Finland’s supplier of fighter aircraft.
The two fighters brought to Finland were a F/A-18F two-seater and a F/A-18E single-seater. While the single-seater was from the distinguished US Navy squadron VFA-143 Pukin’ Dogs of Vietnam MiG-killer fame, it was the two-seater that really got the heads turning. This was nothing less than the brightly-painted CAG-bird of VFA-103 Jolly Rogers, perhaps the most famous naval fighter aircraft in the world. Getting the opportunity to see both the F/A-18E and the F/A-18F in low-level formation was something many Finnish aviation enthusiasts were happy to experience.
Back on the ground, the F/A-18E spent Saturday as a Boeing demonstrator with temporary markings and mock-up conformal fuel tanks, before reverting back to a Block II F/A-18E for Sunday, and continuing on to Pirkkala AFB (Tampere) where they spent the early part of the week offering the Air Force an opportunity to study the aircraft closer. Pirkkala is home to Satakunta Air Command, responsible for the development of tactics and air doctrines as well as handling flight testing and playing a “pivotal role in the development and fielding of new systems”. This is something of a marketing victory for Boeing, as they are the first to offer the Air Force this kind of a chance to get to explore the aircraft on their home turf and according to their own wishes, guided by the company’s own test pilots.
While the Block III might be toned down when it comes to RCS reduction compared to the original Advanced Super Hornet, this is a calculated decision by Boeing. “The Super Hornet Block I reached initial operational capability back in 2001, when stealth was the hot stuff”, Bryan Crutchfield explains. “This means that the aircraft is designed with stealth features, but so are all the other contenders, so that’s nothing special.” Instead, Boeing likes to focus their energy on other measures, such as jamming. According to their view, jamming provides a flexibility that stealth does not, i.e. you are not restricted to a certain waveband, while at the same time avoiding compromises when it comes to aerodynamics and space restrictions. This means that while stealth might hold significant benefits today, the question whether it will in 2050 is far more uncertain given the current development of sensors with the specific goal of countering X-band stealth.
The US Navy also seems to be happy with this dual-pronged approach, as there are currently no plans to let the F-35 replace the Super Hornet. Instead, the two will keep operating side-by-side into the foreseeable future, with the F-35C replacing the ‘legacy’ F/A-18A through D Hornets currently sharing the carrier decks with the Super Hornet. Exactly how long this will last is anyone’s guess, as the US Navy only forecasts around 25 years into the future (contrary to many other air arms), and there’s currently no retirement date set. Boeing, however, expects the Super Hornet to continue in US Navy service to around 2060, in line with (and then some) the plans for HX. In part this is based on a forecasted need for 100+ new Super Hornets being bought by the Navy within then next five years, with these being expected to serve their full lifespan.
What does Block III then hold? The biggest external change is the conformal fuel tanks, which provide added fuel capacity at a lower drag and RCS compared to traditional external fuel tanks, and without occupying hardpoints that could be used for weapons or other pods. However, as is usually the case with these kinds of upgrades, the main changes are on the inside. One major improvement is the increase in bandwidth when transmitting and receiving data to and from other aircraft. This has become an increasingly important issue, as more and more sensor data and imagery are being transmitted between not only fighters, but other friendly units and installations as well.
Another important upgrade is the fitting of an IRST. IR-sensors are nothing new to US Navy fighters, having featured them on a number of occasions throughout history. However, it is only now they really start to come into their own as mature sensor systems. Part of this is because the sensors themselves have matured, but a part also comes from sensor fusion making it easier for the pilot to take in data not coming from the aircraft’s primary sensor.
And speaking of taking in data, a huge improvement is the new large area display replacing the earlier smaller multi-function displays. The display not only means more surface area on which to show information to the pilot, but also makes a higher degree of customisation possible, based on either individual preferences or the type of mission currently being flown. It is as an example possible to now have both the air-to-air and air-to-ground pictures up on the screen at the same time, thanks to the AN/APG-79 AESA radar and the huge screen area available.
The customisation also makes changes to the human-machine interface quicker, a key focus as the increasing number of sensors and data received from other platforms puts ever increasing demands on the pilots to be able to process large amounts of information. Boeing described how they run simulator tests with a group of around sixty active pilots who came in and tested an upcoming update. After having gathered their feedback, Boeing sent them out for lunch, and the software engineers started to make quick changes which allowed for a second run of testing by the same pilots the very same afternoon. Adaptability is the name of Boeing’s game, and they are increasingly moving away from bigger occasional updates to regular smaller ones.