The Curious Case of the AMRAAM

The recent DSCA notifications for the Finnish HX programme included one particular oddity, in that they did not sport any longer-ranged air-to-air weapons than the AIM-9X. For an Air Force that swears by the supreme importance of the air-to-air mission above anything else, it was a surprising detail, and one which I in my post on the release commented as follows:

In any case, there will be medium-ranged air-to-air missiles operational on any aircraft that ends up winning HX, and the options on the table for the American ones include either a separate notification and order before IOC (order in 2025 and delivery 2026/2027 would probably be the approximate timeline) or the continued use of the current AMRAAM stocks.

And I wasn’t the only one thinking about the lack of serious air-to-air firepower. Turns out the issue caused enough of ripples to warrant a blog post by programme director Lauri Puranen.

A Finnish F/A-18C Hornet sporting wingtip AIM-9X Sidewinder and underfuselage AIM-120C AMRAAM refuelling from a RAF Mildenhall-based KC-135R Stratotanker. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

In his post, Puranen starts with rehashing the same things that he has commented on a few times earlier as well, namely that the offers are far from ready, that they can’t comment on details of any particular offer, and that speculation on what is included in the DSCA notifications and what isn’t isn’t helpful for the competition. However, there are a few issues that warrants clear comments to avoid confusion.

The first point is, as he said in his earlier post which was published when the notifications came out, that they are confident that they will be able to build five offers that fills all the requirements within the current budget, and that these packages obviously will include air-to-air missiles. He also points out that there is a twelve year window during which acquisitions can be made as part of the HX-specific funding, and that all offers will include parts of the package, e.g. sensors and weapons, that will come online later than 2025. Nothing strange there, but might be good repeating it once more for those in the back.

He also reiterates that the Finnish Air Force Command still stands by the memo published last summer that lifespan of the current air-to-air missiles largely is planned to correspond to the lifespan of the current Hornet-fleet, and that the current air-to-air missiles will have to be replaced as part of the HX-programme. These acquisitions are paid for by the same funding that pays for everything else in the HX-programme. This makes sense (and for anyone questioning how this lines up with the JASSM-quotes he has made earlier, it should be noted that he strictly talks about air-to-air missiles in the post).

So far so good, until he finishes of with the following statement:

The air-to-air missiles of the Finnish Defence Forces remain an asset for the Finnish Air Force and air defences throughout their lifespan, but the removal of the older missile stocks will require new acquisitions for the HX-programme.

Make of that what you will.

Edit: Commander of the Finnish Air Force, major general Jokinen, gave further details in a tweet. There is a “small number” of AMRAAMs that have shelf-life left into the 2030’s, which in theory could be used “by US HX-contenders” (something of a simplification, as in fact all contenders except Rafale have the AMRAAM integrated). However, as “another system” (read: NASAMS) also uses these, it has been decided that these will be earmarked for ground-based use. This will even the playing field for HX somewhat, but also generally makes sense to me as it then means savings for the Army and it is likely possible to maximise getting lifespan out of these as they aren’t exposed to the G-forces and elements involved in aircraft carriage.

HX goes DSCA

One of the more anticipated milestones of the HX-process took place this week with the publication of the DSCA-notifications. These somewhat poorly understood bureaucratic processes caused some waves in the PTO 20200-tender. This time the Finnish MoD has done its best to avoid similar jumps to conclusion by media and other observers, but there has still been some less-than-helpful interpretations of what the notifications says. In short, the US regulations require that the congress is informed about important upcoming arms deals as a matter of oversight, something that happens through the DSCA-notifications. In the case of HX (and the Swiss AIR2030/NFA which made headlines a short while ago) the potential tenders are being pre-cleared, i.e. congress is notified about an upcoming potential sale. This allows for quicker turn-around if and when a contract is signed, and ensures that the supplier actually can deliver what they’ve promised. The most important points that sometimes get lost are:

  • The fact that this isn’t an order, nor are they necessarily corresponding to what is included in the final order (in fact, often they aren’t as it makes sense to clear the possible maximum amount of items in one go instead of having to go back and request a second clearance in case the requirements changes),
  • The negotiations of the HX-program is still ongoing, and as such neither the buyer nor the seller knows for certain the details of the final offer,
  • The value quoted for the DSCA-notifications usually aren’t that helpful in determining the contract value,
  • Most crucially, the notifications are ridiculously detailed in some ways, but glossing over major items in others. See “40 inch wing release lanyard” getting its own row, but “Spares” being a single line item.

To sum it up, long-term aviation journalist Gareth Jennings commenting on the AIR2030 put words to how everyone covering the process feels.

With that said, let’s jump into what information can be gleaned from the notifications.

Numbers don’t lie

The first obvious issue is the number of aircraft. With programme director Lauri Puranen on record stating that 64 aircraft seems impossible, it is noteworthy that the Lockheed Martin notification is for 64 F-35A and the Boeing has a total of 72 aircraft, made up of 50 F/A-18E Super Hornet, 8 twin-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet, and 14 EA-18G Growler. While it is still within the realms of possibilities, if unlikely, that we would see a 64 fighter buy, I don’t see how 72 could fit within the operating budget. As such, the 72 aircraft notification is a good indication for the fact that the final mix of the Boeing offer is still up in the air. 40 F/A-18E, 8 F/A-18F, and 12 EA-18G for a 62 aircraft fleet would be my personal guess.

Another place where the final offer is evidently still not set in the Boeing offer is the targeting pods (the F-35 notably not requiring one, as it has an internal electro-optical sensor based on the technology of the Sniper pod). The notification includes 32 ATFLIR, 32 Sniper (of an undisclosed version, but likely the XR), and an undisclosed number of the Litening (notable is that Finland currently uses an earlier version of the Litening-pod, the version now on offer would likely be the Litening 5). The ATFLIR was the one brought over for HX Challenge, but on the other hand the Litening was brought over hanging under an Eurofighter, so Finland has verified data on that one as well. I won’t comment on which pod would provide the best solution, as the details are A) classified, and B) I’m not familiar enough with the pod-world to say if there’s any kind of significant differences found in open sources. I will note that the ATFLIR has had teething troubles, but those seems (maybe?) to have since been overcome, and that the Litening 5 is being developed to sport a SAR-module, which is something of an unique selling point, but one likely to be of secondary value.

The single-seat F/A-18E Super Hornet getting airborne from Tampere-Pirkkala AFB during HX Challenge earlier this year. The notification confirms that if Boeing wins, the single-seater will be by far the most common version. Source: Own picture

In the same way, it can be noted that a total of 25 IRST-pods are cleared for the Hornet-bid. The Super Hornet’s IRST solution with a centre-line has been criticised for being less elegant than the integration on the competitors, though it in fact suffers from a relatively small blind spot. What is interesting is that the numbers for both the targeting pod (presuming that only one model is bought) and the IRST both are offered in numbers covering approximately half of the fleet. This is in general one of the strong points of the F-35, every aircraft gets its own ‘pod’ thanks to the sensor being internal, while for the rest budgetary restraints often causes some aircraft to be left without. Exactly how the Super Hornet operations would look is an interesting question, but one alternative could be one aircraft of a pair flying with a pod and the other with an IRST.

As noted, with security of supply being a key factor and the ability to overhaul the aircraft locally from local stocks a key item here, the spare parts packages are naturally of great interest. Here, however, we’re more or less completely out of luck, as these crucial items are reduced to the single line of “provisioning, spares and repair parts”. It is, however, notable that this is a rather different wording compared to the Swiss notifications that only include “aircraft spares”. However, there is another place where spares catch the eye, and that is on the line discussing engines. The F-35A bid lists two spare P&W F-135 engines, while the F/A-18E/F/G offer lists 22 spare F414-GE-400 (interestingly enough, here the Swiss notifications for 40 aircraft listed six and 16 respectively). Good arguments can be made for the F-35 needing fewer complete spare engines for a given fleet size, including both during peacetime (single-engined aircraft having half the number of engines compared to twin-engined ones, the more modern design potentially having longer life and more replaceable subassemblies) and wartime use (an engine damaged enough to warrant replacement likely will lead to the loss of the aircraft). However, for a country obsessing about security of supply and with the supply of spare parts being one the major questions surrounding the F-35 in the HX-programme, it does strike one as an oddly low number, and makes the question about what really is found in the spare package even more interesting.

Like the spares, the amount of supporting equipment found amongst the rows isn’t straightforward to judge. There are a number of interesting rows, including training equipment, as well as numerous test vehicles for the weaponry. Key terms are also differing if compared to AIR2030 notifications, though considering the somewhat erratic template through which the notifications are pushed it is difficult to say how much weight should be placed on these differences. Still, there’s a few interesting discrepancies, such as the inclusion of the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN, to replace the much maligned ALIS which is on the way out) in the Finnish notification, a system that isn’t found the Swiss one. “Weapons system software” is also found in both Finnish notifications but in neither Swiss one, something that might simply have to do with the inclusion of more complex weaponry. An interesting row is found on the personnel needed to support the F-35.

U.S. contractor representatives will be required in Finland to conduct Contractor Engineering Technical Services (CETS) and Autonomic Logistics and Global Support (ALGS) for after-aircraft delivery

As noted, everything that includes the word “Global” is something of a red flag to the Finnish security of supply requirements, but at the same time it is obvious that during normal peacetime operations it makes sense to leverage the significant savings that can be found in operating what is rapidly turning out to be the next joint European fighter. However, there is little in the notification to indicate what kinds of additional steps have been taken to ensure that Finland has the required level of control over the security of supply compared to other more traditional customers. This might or might not mean something, as noted many of the crucial items in the notification doesn’t provide much in the way of details.

EW

Everyone, myself included, is obviously counting weapons cleared for sale, but let’s start with the more obscure but no less important side of things. Electronic warfare.

It is important to note that we in essence are talking of three very different platforms, something that is visible in the notifications. The electronic warfare suite of the F-35A is highly integrated into the aircraft, and as such relatively few lines are dealing with it. There’s simply a mention of “Electronic warfare system”, as well as related systems such as C4I and the “F-35 unique infrared flares” (to the best of knowledge the aircraft does not carry chaff dispensers Edit: The F-35 is in the process of getting chaff. Thanks to JoJo for flagging it in the comments!) and access to the reprogramming centre. Compared to the long list of the Super Hornet that seems a bit cheap, but that is most likely simply because you can’t buy an F-35 without getting the whole package. As such, there’s no reason to mention particular details such as the ALE-70 towed decoy for the F-35, while in the case of the Super Hornet, the corresponding ALE-55 does get it’s own row.

The NGJ mock-up together with an AGM-88E AARGM anti-radiation missile (i.e. it locks onto a radar and flies into it) under the wing of the EA-18G Growler taking part in HX Challenge. The capabilities of the NGJ will be evaluated in the US, due to sensitive nature of the capability and the need for a large testing range. Source: Own picture

Another good pointer to the fact that Boeing isn’t in fact preparing a 72 aircraft bid is the fact that only 65 pieces of the AN/ALR-67(V)3 EW countermeasures receiving sets and the AN/ALQ-214 integrated countermeasures systems are included. The more cryptic “Advanced Electronic Attack Kit for EA-18G” is more along the lines of how the F-35 is described, with a single line referring to more or less the whole package.

With an important exception.

Eight (8) Next Generation Jammer Mid-Band (NGJ-MB) sets

I’ve discussed the NGJ-MB earlier, the long story short version is that it is an extremely powerful system able to go after enemy air defences, but also enemy communication networks. On the flip side, it costs an arm and a leg, but in many ways it is a key piece of the Growler’s wartime capabilities post-2030, and getting eight systems would provide Finland with one of the best airborne escort as well as stand-in jamming capabilities in Europe. Note the reference to “sets”, which would seem to indicate that there will be a total of sixteen pods delivered, with the aircraft having one under each wing. Currently the Growler flies with three AN/ALQ-99 pods in different configurations for different bands. The new NGJ-MB replaces the two underwing units, with the third centre-line mounted one being slated for replacement by the low-band NGJ-LB. If Finland opts for the Growler, the NGJ-LB can make its entry at some point further down the line (as can the eventual high-band pod which will come yet later). However, the utility against current threats is greatest for the NGJ-MB, especially if Finland continues on with a non-stealthy force meaning that the proliferation of new low-band radars aren’t as big a threat scenario as it is for the US forces. It is also notable that the greatest criticism leveraged against the NGJ-MB so far (decreasing the range of the Growler due to high drag when the pod is active and the doors to the ram air turbine are open) is less of an issue for Finland compared to the China-scenario which is the main driver behind current USN development.

Weapons

One thing we do know, however, is that Puranen didn’t exaggerate when he talked about the comprehensive weapons packages pushing the budget. The notifications include sizeable amounts of JDAMs, both thermally insensitive HE (i.e. the stuff shouldn’t explode if your ammunition storage is on fire) as well as bunker buster rounds, GBU-53/B SDB II’s small glide bombs, AGM-154C-1 JSOW stealthy glide weapons with a secondary anti-ship capability, AGM-158B JASSM-ER long-range heavy cruise missiles, AIM-9X Block II+ and Block II respectively, as well as JSM integration in the case of the F-35A and HARM/AARGM-rails in the case of the Super Hornet/Growler. Curiously absent are the JSM and anti-radiation missiles themselves, as well as any air-to-air missiles with a longer reach than the Sidewinder.

JTAC directing a Hornet dropping a JDAM on a target that already was under artillery fire as part of last year’s KAAKKO19 exercise

The air-to-ground package is interesting, as it continues as well as expands upon the air-to-ground capabilities currently operated by the Finnish Air Force. The JDAM is a weapon currently found in the Finnish inventory in the form of Mk 84-based GBU-31V1, the Mk 83-based GBU-32, the Mk 82-based GBU-38 and the BLU-109-penetrator based GBU-31V3 (commonly known as a ‘bunker buster’). The Mk 84 and BLU-109 is a 1,000 kg class weapon, with the Mk 83 and Mk 82 being 500 kg and 250 kg class weapons respectively. It is more of the same weapons that are requested this time around, with exception that the F-35A has skipped the GBU-32 and loaded up with more GBU-38s. The Super Hornet is cleared for 102 GBU-38, 51 GBU-32, 120 HE GBU-31, and 30 bunker-busting GBU-31, with the corresponding numbers being 150 GBU-38, 120 HE GBU-31, and 30 bunker-busting GBU-31 for the F-35. Are there situations where you want a 500 kg weapon instead of a 250 kg or a 1,000 kg one? Sure, if nothing else the 500 kg provides a bit of margin with regards to accuracy compared to a 250 kg one, in particular if you go after semi-hard targets. Is it enough of a difference to say that the Super Hornet has the edge here? I doubt it, the acquisition as a whole is complex enough that the 50 JDAMs most likely won’t provide a decisive edge. However, they might indicate that Boeing feel they have that small extra wiggle room when it comes to how their package is built, something that might also be seen in the next weapon. Or not.

The JSOW is also found in (limited) numbers in the Finnish arsenal. Originally envisioned largely as a back-up plan in case the JASSM sans-ER wasn’t cleared for export, it apparently has found enough of a use as to be requested this time around as well. The notifications include 100 JSOW for the F-35A, and 160 for the Super Hornet. The JSOW is unpowered (at least for the time being), and as such is highly reliant on release speed and altitude when it comes to range. Once released the weapon pops out a pair of wings on which it glides towards the target. The basic navigation is GPS-assisted inertial navigation, but the C-1 also has an IIR seeker for terminal guidance which has given the weapon better accuracy, and the ability to strike moving ships. The two-stage penetrating BROACH warhead can also be set to a one-stage mode which is more effective against soft targets, such as ships or unarmoured vehicles. The question of maritime strike for HX has been left somewhat open by the authorities, with the aircraft required to be able to support the Navy in the maritime domain, but not necessarily through kinetic means (e.g. systems such as the Growler or the GlobalEye could certainly be of great value when it comes to supporting the Navy in the electronic warfare domain and in building the situational picture). The JSOW could potentially provide a middle-ground, providing the Finnish Air Force with an important capability the primary use of which is in the land domain, but which also could be used against enemy vessels. The JSM is on the other hand a dedicated anti-ship missile with a secondary ground attack role. Thanks to it being powered it has a significantly longer range. However, the JSM might be included as an option for another role as well, as we saw in the Dassault marketing material that it seems destined to be the SEAD/DEAD weapon of choice for the French offer. Boeing and Lockheed Martin reading different levels of importance into the maritime strike mission can obviously be one explanation, but another is that LM feel they need a powered weapon of a lighter class than the JASSM to go SAM-hunting with, and there felt that they can kill two birds with one stone (or rather, both SAMs and ships with the same missile). In any case, the JSM, if acquired, would provide a seriously improved ship-killing capability, and with the JSM being stealthy and equipped with an IIR seeker (as opposed to the radar seeker of the Navy’s PTO 2020/Gabriel V), it would create the need for an enemy to be prepared to defend against two very different kinds of threats. I am unsure how Raytheon and Kongsberg have split up the market for the JSM (again, my time at Kongsberg was spent far away from the Defence & Aerospace-division, so I have no insider knowledge of the project), but it is possible that somewhere outside the US-package there is a separate offer for 60 JSM from Kongsberg for the F-35 package, which would explain the smaller number of JSOW.

The somewhat awkwardly named GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb increment II (it is in fact renamed to StormBreaker, but that one hasn’t stuck. At least not yet) would represent a completely new capability for the Finnish Air Force, in that it is a light glide bomb that can be used to take out individual vehicles, including moving ones. The fact that it is unpowered causes the range to be dependent on release height and speed, but on the positive side the small size means a large number can be carried, and it has a seeker with no less than three modes of operating. In the words of Raytheon:

• Millimeter wave radar — provides all-weather capability and the ability to quickly detect and track moving or stationary targets.
• IIR sensor — uncooled IIR sensor provides three categories of classification capability and aim point refinement.
• Semi-active laser sensor — tracks a laser spot from the launch platform or third-party designators.

This would give the HX the ability to go after tanks or artillery positions, including moving ones, but also to provide close air support by striking individual positions designated by ground troops or other platforms. And with the small size of the weapon allowing for large numbers to be carried on each station, the notification include up to 500 live weapons for either offer. The weapon follows on the highly successful original GBU-39 SDB, and is currently cleared for the F-15E Strike Eagle and since this year on the Super Hornet.

A Finnish F/A-18D Hornet loaded with two (training) AGM-158A JASSM during exercise TOUHU17. Note the decision to use a twin-seat aircraft for the long-range strike mission, something that together with earlier self-critique about having too few twin-seaters for operational conversion led many (myself included) to speculate that a larger number of F/A-18F might be included in the offer, something the notification now proved wrong. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

The big stick, however, remains the JASSM. Finland currently operate a limited number of the original AGM-158A JASSM. This has to the best of my knowledge been completely replaced on the production line by the longer-legged (but otherwise sharing a high-degree of commonality) AGM-158B JASSM-ER, 200 of which are now being offered to Finland. This is in turn set to be overtaken by the even longer-ranged AGM-158D JASSM-XR in the next few years (the missing AGM-158C being the LRASM anti-ship version). I would not read too much into the fact that Finland is about to switch from JASSM to JASSM-ER if we end up buying a US fighter. More range is nice, but it is likely also the cheaper (or even the only) option compared to the rest of the family as the ER-production line is currently hot.

Notable is that the JASSM in Finnish service is a weapon described as having a deterrence role, a somewhat controversial notion, but one that apparently has some support in Russian doctrine. However, the low number of weapons has always been the main Achilles heel when it comes to the doctrine of heavy conventional precision-guided munitions being able to function as a deterrent. 200 JASSM-ER backed up by 100-160 JSOW are certainly numbers that are starting to be felt. Especially if the current JASSM stocks are refurbished.

This brings us on to another point. There’s some rumours going on in Finnish defence forums that the ability to employ weapons from current Finnish stocks won’t be factored into the eventual deciding wargame. While I don’t have any insight into the finer details of the wargame, I have not been able to find any support for that idea in the official communication, nor is it in line with what has been communicated earlier. The Finnish Defence Forces is (in)famous for not throwing things away that can be put to use, and Puranen has confirmed to Lännen Media that the possibility of keeping the current JASSM for use on the eventual HX-winner is being studied. While there is no requirement for the winner to be able to employ the Hornet-arsenal, considering that the stated goal of the wargame is to evaluate how well the total package offered would perform as part of the FDF and the Finnish defence concept, removing a potential benefit of one package (such as the ability to keep using the current stocks of AGM-158A JASSM or AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM after overhauling these) in the name of “fairness” does run contrary to both that aim and the nature of war, which famously isn’t fair.

To use a hypothetical example to make things really clear: the Finnish Air Force says they need 200 precision-guided free-fall bombs of a 250 kg class. Eurofighter brings 200 Paveway IV in their offer, but Boeing and Lockheed Martin knows that the Finnish Air Force already has 50 GBU-38 in their current stocks, so they offer 150 new GBU-38 and an engineer that comes over with a toolbox and some spares to ensure that the old stock is good to go for another decade or two. As the whole competition is based on the design to cost method, this allows for the inclusion of more stuff elsewhere in the package. What package would then be evaluated in the wargame? A US fighter with only three quarters of the number of light bombs compared to the competition? A hypothetical package that include 200 new-built bombs but skips on the extra? So far everything we’ve seen and heard from the Finnish LOGCOM indicate that they aren’t interested in playing games, but that they want to evaluate what is on offer. If that include continued life for some current equipment, then I am quite sure that that is what is evaluated.

In any case, there will be medium-ranged air-to-air missiles operational on any aircraft that ends up winning HX, and the options on the table for the American ones include either a separate notification and order before IOC (order in 2025 and delivery 2026/2027 would probably be the approximate timeline) or the continued use of the current AMRAAM stocks. The shelf-life left for these naturally vary highly depending on whether the weapons have been stored or flown, but with the DSCA notification for 300 missiles coming in 2008 and deliveries probably stretching out over at least a few years after that, the newest missiles are likely fit to serve into the early 2030’s if maintained and overhauled. The C-7 version of the AMRAAM is also still rather close to the state of the art when it comes to medium-ranged missiles, and is regularly carried by not only US fighters, but by the Eurofighter and Gripen as well to complement the long-range Meteor. The Meteor is unlikely to enter service on a US fighter, but that doesn’t mean that the US fighters are set to remain looking on while the Europeans (and crucially, the Chinese) have all the fun at longer ranges. When asked about the situation at HX Challenge, Boeing representatives noted that “There’s an opportunity for an advanced air-to-air missile within our offer to address that need”. Exactly what it is wasn’t said, and apparently it won’t be part of the original package. However, both the newest AIM-120D AMRAAM and the upcoming AIM-260 JATM, and possibly other parts of the more opaque LREW-program, are all possible candidates to enter the field at a later date.

One of the visitng F-35As that took part in HX Challenge airborne together with a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet. Source: Finnish Air Force FB

For the anti-radiation missiles, my personal guess is that they would be acquired as a separate package in the early 2030’s if Boeing wins. The capability is completely new to the Finnish Air Force, and with the Growler-unit busy learning the tricks of the trade I could imagine a timeline where the first few years are spent dealing with the non-kinetic methods, with the DEAD-part of SEAD/DEAD being introduced after the HX has reached FOC by 2030.

Conclusions

The notifications were largely on par with what was expected, though I will say that if the requested numbers found in the weapons packages are close to what eventually will be acquired their sheer number came as a surprise to me (and certainly explains the comment Puranen made about the difference in cost between the early calculations and the eventual budget). Even “comprehensive packages” comes in different scales, let’s just put it at that.

The large number of SDB IIs and JSOWs requested were also a bit of a surprise, and shows the expanding mission set of the Finnish Air Force is set to continue. Personally I am still a bit sad, though not necessarily surprised, about the fact that even under the current budget it was possible to squeeze in a small number of the Quickstrike naval mine/JDAM ER combination, but these are obviously possible to acquire later as well.

Some have noticed the large number of aircraft and notification price tags going over (10.6 billion EUR for the F-35 and 12.4 billion EUR for the SH/Growler), and question whether the HX budget will grow eventually (as was the case with the Squadron 2020 one). As said, the value given on DSCA notifications are usually not much to go by at the best of times, but here is a number of other issues at play as well.

Let’s begin by saying that I personally don’t believe there will be significant increases, though even an index-increase if the program is delayed with a year will be a lot of money when we’re talking about a 10 billion package. However, the crucial issue is that there is little room for increase when it comes to the eventual operating budgets, and so far there seems to be little indication that the Air Force will be allowed to increase it’s share of the annual budget, either through an increase in the defence budget or by shrinking the budgets of the Navy and/or Army.

The other issue is that this isn’t a question of the budget being a few hundred millions over 10 billion, but rather it should be remembered that a significant part of the 10 billion allocated will be spent outside the items found in the DSCA notifications. To begin with, around 700 MEur will be spent of other stuff (infrastructure, the work of the procurement agency, early training, etc.). In addition, the operations from first aircraft delivery until IOC/FOC will in part be covered by the 10 billion as the Hornets continue to fund their operations out of the Air Force’s annual operating budget. There are also infrastructure changes and possibly other significant investments that will be made outside of the contract that is covered by the notification, including non-listed equipment and equipment from third countries. As such, if one were to take the number quoted in the notification at face value, and I repeat – one shouldn’t, the question wouldn’t be if the Air Force can sneak in a budget increase of a few hundred millions, but whether they can pull off an increase of the programme value that is spelled out in a ten-digit figure. I don’t believe they can, and don’t believe they are going to try. Following the release of the notifications, Puranen also noted that they feel confident they are able to deliver the required capabilities within the current budget.

It should, however, be acknowledged that there are some worrying signs that the budget really is tight, just having two spare engines for the F-35 and no HARM/AARGM for the Super Hornet/Growler comes to mind. Even if those two items can be sorted out, the question lingers if they are only the tip of the iceberg, and what more is hidden under the surface when it comes to missing or low quantities of crucial items?

The Big Dance that wasn’t to be

It was supposed to be the last big dance of the HX contenders in Finland, with a final air show in the unpredictable June-weather before the decision was to be announced not even a year later in early 2021. But then COVID happened.

The air show was first moved to August, and then the whole program schedule was pushed back with the decision now expected Q4 2021 due to the inability to hold the final pre-BAFO talks in person last spring. As such, the air show in Kauhava this weekend is set to be a somewhat muted affair compared to the expectations. This is obviously a pity, especially as the local enthusiasts in Kauhava were set to have the biggest celebration of the towns aviation heritage since the closure of the air force base in 2014.

Compared to earlier years, the late stage of the program is visible in the fact that few breaking news were published, though there were some interesting stories.

First out in the spotlight was the Finnish Defence Forces and MoD themselves, who published a rather long and surprisingly open interview interview with colonel Keränen (FinAF A3) and Lauri Puranen (MoD program manager for strategic capability projects) in their Radio Kipinä-podcast. The theme was “The HX-program – Mythbusters”, and they spent quite a bit of time explaining why it isn’t possible to replace the fighters with ground-based systems or UAVs, the extremely close cooperation between the politicians making the eventual decisions and the soldiers and officials providing the groundwork, as well as how there are no favourites at this stage. All of these are issues that have been raised in the domestic discussion in Finland, with more or less populist undertones depending on the issue and who’s making the point. However, there were some interesting nuggets for the avgeek community as well.

Keränen made a direct point that the Air Force is not planning on going even in case of war, but that they will strive for a serious kill ratio.

We want something like the Brewster, [which] had 32:1 during the Second World War. Of course that is the kind of thing we are aiming for, whether it’s realistic or not is another thing, but if we can reach for example 10:1 that is 600 fighters that we can shoot down. Or bombers, depending on whatever comes.

You’d be excused for feeling this comes off as arrogant, but a quick look into the history books shows that during the jet age such numbers have been well within the realms of possibility. The USAF F-86 experience in the Korean War is given as between 10.5 to 2:1. The Israeli Air Force is also well-known for having extremely high numbers during the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars, and while the exact numbers are debated (figures like 50:1 in 1973 and 80:0 in 1982 are frequently given), even if they feature some serious inflation they should be well over the 10:1 threshold. The Royal Navy in the Falklands War also famously reached 19:0 with the Sea Harrier (although a small number were lost in accidents and to ground fire), and in this case the kills and losses are largely confirmed from sources on both sides. Operation Desert Storm also saw a kill ratio above 30:1 for the coalition. As such, the goal of reaching double-digit kill ratios is perfectly achievable with the right combination of training, equipment, and doctrine. In fact it can be argued to be something of a requirement for overall success in modern wars.

The interview also confirmed that the idea of a 64 aircraft fleet is effectively dead, as Puranen noted that all first round offers for 64-aircraft packages were “significantly over 10 billion Euros”. However, the requirement is still for a fleet of around 60 aircraft. The reasons are simple and well-known to followers of the project, in that the aircraft now included in the HX program aren’t really faster or have significantly better endurance compared to the current Hornet-fleet. Coupled with the fact that Finnish territory hasn’t gotten smaller (or rather, not significantly smaller) since the Hornet was bought, the same air defence capability will require more or less the same number of aircraft.

The interview crucially also included a declaration that they are happy with the planned service lives of all aircraft, and see them continuing in service into 2060 and beyond. If that really is the case, it certainly is good news to, well, everyone besides F-35A (which we all knew would not have an issue with the lifespan requirement).

Boeing did not have any aircraft beside the Finnish Air Force’s three F/A-18C/D Hornets on location at the air show this year, but their tent continued to heavily push the manned-unmanned teaming concept. Source: Own picture

The last significant detail given was that the Growler will show its active systems at a test range in the US during a test period there, and that the passive systems were evaluated during HX Challenge which Boeing attended with a three-aircraft fleet that included not only the Growler but also single- and two-seat Super Hornets. Since then, Boeing confessed that their testing program had been hit with some delays, but that as time goes and the safety measures are put into place everything is starting to ramp back up again. With both the Block 3 and the NGJ now flying, it was a bullish team that was on location in Kauhava yesterday. Despite the issues facing Boeing’s civilian sector, the defence, space and security-part of the company was described as “healthy”, with the international side being “more active than ever”. This include the Canadian program, where Boeing recently sent in their offer, the Swiss program, as well as the ongoing German program where Boeing has been downselected for luWES and together with Eurofighter to provide the solution for the Tornado Replacement Program. The ATS and manned-unmanned teaming was also mentioned, and Boeing was quick to point out that while they are happy with the progress the ATS-platform itself is making down in Australia, that is only part of the complete system. The technology and software part of the program is to some extent a different track running in parallel, large parts of which are already in place.

Finland is a user organisation, not a developer organisation

Boeing’s main sales pitch hasn’t moved anywhere, it is still the proven and mature option, two words that has worked well in Finnish defence procurement earlier. The one thing that didn’t excite the company was Saab’s announcement of the Lightweight Air-launched Decoy Missile (LADM), the representative sounding almost confused when he recounted an earlier question:

We got a question if we have anything similar. We’ve been doing that thing for years, first with the TALD and now with the MALD. I really don’t know what else to say.

The US launched over a hundred of the original (in turn based on earlier missiles of the same concept used by the Israelis) ADM-141 TALD during the opening night of Operation Desert Storm. Here two of the TALDs that were later launched into Iraqi airspace are shown under the wing of a Hornet. Source: iflyfa18 via Wikimedia Commons

As said, Saab had one of the few (only?) breaking story of the show, with the announcement that they are developing a lightweight decoy. Despite the seeming similarity to the US ADM-160C MALD-J and the SPEAR EW, the Saab-version has a few things going for it. To begin with, it is “largely” developed in Finland and as such (probably?) should be ITAR-free. Secondly, while Saab won’t discuss at what stage they are in the development (usually a sign that there’s not much in the way of hardware yet to be shown), there’s likely significant synergies between the internal EW-suite of the Gripen E/F, the EAJP jamming pod, and the electronic warfare capabilities of the GlobalEye.

The third GlobalEye built for the UAE, here with Swedish civilian registration SE-RMU. Source: Own picture

Saab continues to emphasis the overall package, with security of supply and the close relationship with Sweden adding to the performance of the JAS 39E/F Gripen and GlobalEye combination. 39E made its air show debut at Kauhava, and it was backed up by no less than three 39C/D Gripen of the Swedish Air Force and a GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft. An interesting aspect of Saab’s presentation was the inclusion of colonel Carl-Fredrik Edström, Swedish Air Force A3, who spoke warmly about Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation, and noted that this will continue regardless of the outcome of HX. However, if Finland would end up choosing Gripen, there’s certain possibilities opening up that the Swedish Air Force would be happy to provide. These include e.g. the possibility of embedding Finnish flying personnel into the test and evaluation program at an early stage, as well as the potential of cooperating not only on research and development of the fighter, but also e.g. handling the advanced training/OCU as a joint unit which likely would be a cost saver for both countries.

For the first time ever the 39E Gripen took part in an air show. The aircraft in question was ‘6002’, the first series production aircraft for the Swedish Air Force. She will join the verification and validation programme together with the Swedish Armed Forces and FMV. Source: Own picture

The star of the four Gripen on location was the ‘6002’ which is the first series produced JAS 39E, and feature a really nice three-tone camo to commemorate this fact. Making its air show debut, the aircraft featured a serious air-to-ground load of four SDB on the centreline rack, two Taurus KEPD 350 heavy cruise missiles, and two Enhanced Paveway II (believe that is the GBU-49 227 kg version), as well as two IRIS-T air-to-air missiles for self-defence. That Saab managed to convince the Swedish Air Force to let their precious fighter come over for an air show is yet another sign of the wholehearted support Saab’s export push enjoys from the operator.

Another fighter in special paint was the Dassault Rafale solo. Unfortunately it (and the other two Rafales) were parked a bit offside, so I wasn’t able to get any nice shots of it yesterday. But rest assured it looked the part, both on the ground and in the air.

Edit 02 September 2020 – I managed to get my hands on this video that Dassault used as marketing material during the weekend, and got permission to republish it here, courtesy of Dassault Aviation.

Speaking of air forces supporting export pushes, the RAF sent over the Red Arrows to celebrate forty years of Finnish Hawk-operations. While in theory this had nothing to do with BAES trying to sell the Typhoon to Finland, it is obvious that there are some overlap. In particular, BAES tries to use their long experience working together with Patria on the Hawk-program as a template to build onto for a Finland as a Eurofighter operator. This isn’t something to laugh at, as besides Boeing they are the only operator to be able to claim experience on this side of 2000 to have cooperated with the Finnish Air Force (and Finnish industry) on an operational fast jet. And it should be remembered that while the Hawk is a much simpler platform compared to the Hornet, there still has been some significant projects based around the aircraft in Finnish service, including the Hawk MLU-project.

The BAES-lead consortium have their game plan ready. The key part is taking a holistic approach to the gate-check requirements of industrial participation, affordability, and security of supply. In simple words this starts with ensuring Finnish industrial participation from the get-go (read: domestic production line), which provide a base for thirty years of sustainment. This allows for a TyTAN-style program where the industry is handling maintenance and support on location, which in turn saves money as moving aircraft around for service is expensive. As has been discussed earlier, TyTAN won’t be coming to Finland as a copy-paste solution, but as it bears a strong resemblance to the FDF way of working with strategic partners and with the experience of BAES and Patria working together on the Hawk, it will provide lessons for how to produce a tailored way of working for the HX. Crucially, TyTAN provide an already proven operational way of working that shows how the costs can be managed, something that at least two other aircraft in the field currently lack. And with BAES confident enough to sign a fixed-price ten year contract on the Typhoon, the life-cycle cost gauntlet certainly has been thrown down.

The Large Area Display simulator for Eurofighter which is in development. Picture courtesy of BAES

But while much talk is centered on the European aspect, Finnish ownership of mission data, lack of sealed black boxes and “independence“, it is when discussing the aircraft itself that the superlatives really start to come out. An interesting talking point at the BAES presser was that the upcoming large area display will enable the pilot to take a step back and get more information than just the fused picture by seeing also the raw data from individual sensors. While sensor fusion has been one of the main themes of most of the HX-contenders, the theory that you can get additional value from being able to see raw data as well as to sort through ambiguities and anomalies does make sense on paper. The question about how valuable this is depends on how good each individual fusion method is, and that is something that we won’t know based on open sources. Still, I couldn’t help but reflect on whether we are seeing the hype cycle in action, or is this is just a PR-talking point for the use of a large display?

But while the value of non-fused data to complement the fused picture is ambiguous, the raw performance of the Eurofighter is uncontested. The aircraft’s ability to supercruise is seen as a key for the QRA mission, and it has been demonstrated to the Finnish Air Force (naturally it is dependent on height and environment).

It is without peer in the sense it can supercruise, and it can supercuise with air to air stores.

This is coupled with the Striker and upcoming Striker II helmet, which allows the weapons cuing through the cockpit amongst a host of other nice features. In short the company believes that they “already have a helmet advantage”, and that it will only get better with the introduction of the Striker II with full colour and picture-in-picture.

The Black Horse(s)

I have on a number of occasions stated that the outcome of the HX programme is far from certain, despite the F-35 probably being the fighter to beat. While waiting for the sprint to the finish line to start of in earnest, there are two things that probably are worth keeping in mind.

To begin with, the unlikely doesn’t equal the impossible. Betsson earlier this year placed odds on the outcome, and while I don’t condone gambling generally and in particular not with questions of national security, the odds given weren’t too controversial. At the point of Finnish tabloid Iltalehti reporting on the live odds, they were:

  • F-35 2.15 (i.e. 35 % of being chosen)
  • F/A-18E/F Super Hornet 3.00 (25 %)
  • JAS 39E/F Gripen 3.75 (20 %)
  • Eurofighter Typhoon 6.25 (12 %)
  • Rafale 9.35 (8 %)

It is easy to read 8 % as “never”, but it deserves to be remembered that this is not the case. As a comparison, if you sit down with your Monopoly board and bring out the two dice, the odds of you rolling the dreaded ‘snake eyes’ or 1-1 is just 2,78 %. Does that mean that things are looking bright for the Rafale? Not really. The reason you can remember rolling snake eyes in board games is that you have a large numbers of die rolls per game, while the HX is a single event. Granted, you still do roll snake eyes on your first roll sometimes, but it is rare. And since someone is bound to comment on it, yes, Leicester City F.C. won the Premier League.

Hornet Elephant March FinAF 2020
The Finnish Air Force earlier this summer launched over half of the 62 aircraft strong Hornet-fleet simultaneously in what was a show of strength when it comes to readiness and the ability to temporarily surge, but also a stark reminder that the country hasn’t gotten smaller since the 90’s (a trend we’d very much like to

…which brings us to our second point, which is a more serious concern for the odds favourites. Last time around the details surrounding the choice of the F/A-18C/D Hornet were largely confidential for a long time, but back in 2017 twenty-five years after the event Olli Ainola of Iltalehti got the memo circulated amongst the ministers back then released (it had been classified as ‘Salainen’ or ‘Secret’, i.e. the second-highest classification on the four-tier system). It provide a good lesson to keep in mind when discussing the expected outcome for the current programme.

Of the five contenders left (the more fanciful offer to sell Finland the MiG-31 had already been discarded at this point), two were outright disqualified as not meeting the Air Force’s requirement. These included the MiG-29 (not meeting requirements related to “avionics nor lifespan, nor the maintenance setup”) and more surprisingly the popular favourite, the F-16C/D (failing both on the technical aspect as well as on industrial cooperation). The JAS 39 Gripen and its subsystems were felt to be not mature enough, leading to unacceptable risks. This left just two of the five contenders, the Mirage 2000-5 and the F/A-18C/D Hornet, to battle it out in the end.

In short, in the early 90’s the Finnish Air Force and MoD were not afraid to disregard offers they felt weren’t up to standard, and that might have a serious effect on the outcome this time around. And note, at least based on open sources, it is the favourites that seem to have the biggest reason to worry.

F-35 has a long and troubled development history. Some questions linger on, such as the ALIS/ODIN logistics system, but on the whole the F-35A is starting to look like a highly competent multirole fighter at a nice level of maturity (especially considering that we are still ten years away from HX FOC). However, the big questions are to be found in other aspects of the tender. One major issue is the question of how and to what extent the though industrial cooperation requirements can be met considering the unique international nature of the F-35 program. Lockheed Martin’s press briefing at HX Challenge unfortunately did little to bring clarity to the question, instead causing further confusion about what might and might not be on the table.

Another serious question that refuses to die is the one regarding costs, and in particular operating costs. While comparing acquisition costs is largely a fool’s errand, the fact that none if any of the DSCA notices or reported signed contract values are anywhere close to fitting inside the Finnish budget is cause for concern. Perhaps even more damning is the Danish life-cycle cost estimates. A report out of the Centre for Military Studies of the University of Copenhagen written by Gary Schaub Jr and Hans Peter H. Michaelsen published in late 2018 (h/t Charles Forrester who drew my attention to it on Twitter) discusses the possibility of increasing the number of F-35s in Danish service, and quotes the annual operating cost of the current fleet as 70 million DKK per aircraft (or approximately 9.4 million EUR). The numbers are taken from the original authorisation to buy the F-35 (referred to as “Aktstykke 31” in the report), and as such is likely the best available open source number found for the RDAF. The Danish concept of operations is naturally somewhat different from the way Finland would operate the aircrafts, but on average I believe it is an acceptable point of reference (smaller number of aircraft and single base vs. economics of scale and dispersed operations). Toying around with numbers, if we accept the Danish annual operating cost to be a good fit for Finnish annual operating cost per aircraft (i.e. 9.43 MEur), that would mean that Finland was able to afford between 26.5 and 35.7 aircraft, depending on how you calculate (26.5 if the annual total operating cost is 250 MEur, and the MLU isn’t included in that, and 35.7 if the annual operating cost is 270 MEur + the MLU reservations spread out over 30 years).

lockheed-martin_f-35a_lightning_ii_e280985209e28099_284930561163829
Like their Danish allies, Norway is converting over to a single base for its fast jets with the introduction of the F-35A, the air defence of the northern parts of the country being handled by a QRA detachment rotating in to Evenes Air Station (outside Narvik) from the main base at Ørland. Here an aircraft of the 332 Squadron visits Bodø for an airshow in 2019, the city that used to host the two northern F-16 squadrons. Source: Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons

In practice, this would mean that one of the Finnish Air Force’s two fighter squadrons would be slashed, and we’d likely see a Norwegian model in which one of the current two bases would host a QRA detachment of four to six aircraft instead. The upper boundary of that calculation also aligns with the lower limit of what long-term aviation journalist Tony Osborne of Aviation Week stated on Twitter last week, when he estimated that the eventual offer to Finland would be for “36-40 aircraft”. If correct, it would be an extremely bitter pill for the Finnish Air Force to swallow, and one that very well might prove politically unacceptable (in particular to the agrarian Centre Party that currently holds the MoD seat).

As it happens, on the Finnish Defence Forces Flag Day June 4 the Air Force launched eight four-ships of Hornets, a total of 32 aircraft to celebrate the occasion. This also provide a nice reminder of what it actually takes to cover an area as large as the Finnish airspace. And if your fleet is 40 aircraft, you don’t get to surge to launching 32 at a time…

But the F-35 is far from the only favourite that is facing some serious risks. Both the Super Hornet and the JAS 39E Gripen rests on a single major operator. One of the major talking points that the FDF and MoD has raised when asked about what issues other than straight out performance can become deciding factors is the risk of becoming the sole user:

By no means do we want to be the last and sole user.

Lauri Puranen, in Suomenmaa 2019

The US Navy has been reluctant to lock down exactly how the future of their carrier air wing will look past 2030, to the point that the US congress last month actually pounded the table and demanded a plan. The issue here is obviously that any plan won’t be out before HX is decided, and if the plan then is to scrap all Super Hornets by 2035 and go all in for the NGAD and F-35C, Finland will be left standing in the corner looking stupid. The fact that the USN is still planning on rolling more or less the whole F/A-18E/F fleet through the Block 3 upgrade program which will give the airframes a significantly longer lifespan together with the unique role of the EA-18G Growler and the likely-looking German buy does lend some credibility to Boeing’s claims of them anticipating a service life for the Super Hornet in US service significantly past 2040, but it certainly is far from set in stone.

For Sweden the situation is roughly similar, with the recent decades not instilling much in the way of trust with regards to political long-term planning for the Swedish Defence Forces. Currently Sweden has 60 Gripens on order (all of the single-seat 39E-version), which ironically enough would make Finland the world’s largest operator of the 39E/F if 64 aircraft were to be acquired. At the same time, while the aircraft is moving through the development program and meeting milestones at an impressive pace, the words that doomed the original 39A/B offer to Finland in 1992 does echo through history.

JAS 39 Gripen and in particular some of its systems are currently still at the prototype-stage, and the schedule of the project with its uncertainty factors include significant risks.

The 39E is maturing nicely, but it certainly is not yet on par with the competition. Is that an issue? Probably not, but the risk of Sweden pulling the plug on the 39E in 2040 and moving on to something else (Tempest?) is there. Especially as the next stage of long-term planning for the Swedish Air Force is only about to kick off next year.

How is it then with the two dark horses? Surprisingly well, to be honest. The Eurofighter Typhoon has a solid user base, including four major European countries having invested heavily in the system, which provide a depth that significantly improves the chances of it staying in service up to 2060 even if the FCAS and Tempest are already looming at the horizon. The Rafale has a more limited user base, despite scoring three notable export orders recently. Still, France can generally be considered a rather stable user country, and has traditionally held onto its platforms for a long time. Recent examples include the Super Étendard (retired in 2016), the Mirage F1 (retired from the reconnaissance role in 2014), and the Mirage 2000 (still happily serving on in both the ground-attack 2000D and fighter 2000-5 versions). Karl Rieder joked on Twitter when discussing the future of the Super Hornet that buying French is safer, since there’s no budget to change plans. It’s a joke for sure, but there’s also a grain of truth buried within that statement.

© Dassault Aviation - K. Tokunaga
Will 2021 be the year of the biggest Rafale export order to date? Likely not, but don’t say I didn’t warn you! Source: © Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

So, will 2021 see a showdown between the Rafale and Eurofighter for the HX-prize, the rest having failed the gate checks? Probably not, though I would not be surprised if there is at least someone in the anticipated top-three being kicked out (which based on earlier information, we might know the details of in 2046). At the same time, I am certainly open for the possibility of us getting a surprise winner, and I do not believe anyone who claims they knows the outcome.

On German Nukes and Tornadoes

Few fighter procurements go completely without a hitch these days, and the German Tornado-replacement program is no exception. Critics have decried it as the worst of all options, questioned the idea of a small Super Hornet/Growler-fleet, asked why the Eurofighter ECR doesn’t get any love, and whether nuclear strike really should be included at all in the German mission set.

In reality, things are usually more complex that they seem, and outrageously stupid decisions are rarer than a quick look in the tabloids would have you believe. So what’s the method to the German madness?

To begin with, it is first necessary to look at the capabilities about to be replaced. Germany is in fact looking at three different replacement projects, which include a number of different roles.

The first is Project Quadriga, which looks at replacing 38 Tranche 1 Eurofighters. These early Eurofighters lack several of the more modern systems of the later Tranche 2 and 3 versions, systems that crucially allow for the relatively easy upgrading of these. Due to this, most countries have opted against upgrading the Tranche 1’s (Spain being the exception). The logical solution, which has been reported to be in the work for quite some time, is a one-to-one replacement with new-built Eurofighters. These are to be of the top-notch standard currently offered, with E-Scan AESA radar and other niceties. While Germany officially calls them Tranche 3, the Eurofighter consortium refers to them as Tranche 4 to distinguish them from the earlier Tranche 3’s which are of a lesser configuration. The Project Quadriga jets are roughly corresponding to the standard offered to Finland, which also share the Tranche 4 designation.

panavia_tornado_28luftwaffe29_28873631339729
A German Tornado ECR with two AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles under the fuselage. Source: bomberpilot via Wikimedia Commons

More controversial is the Tornado replacement program, which is actually made up of two different parts. Besides the Tornado IDS fleet (more on this later), Germany operate the survivors of 35 Tornado ECR. These are specialised electronic warfare aircraft, flying the SEAD/DEAD (or more popularly the ‘Wild Weasel’) mission of taking out enemy air defences and radars. This is an extremely rare capability for any air force to have, besides Germany only Italy (also with a small Tornado ECR fleet), the US Navy, and Australia sport dedicated tactical SEAD jets, both of the latter doing so in the form of the EA-18G Growler (an Israeli dedicated SEAD-variant of the F-16D is rumoured to exist, but especially after the introduction of the F-16I I am unsure what to make of this claim). This is part of the issue – if Germany is to buy a stop-gap SEAD-jet, there is just a single alternative on the market today, namely the Growler. There are other multirole aircraft with the capability to carry out the mission to varying degrees, including jets sporting anti-radiation missiles and advanced EW-systems. However, the only true SEAD-platform able to do the escort jammer mission which Germany specifically spells out, is the Growler. The Eurofighter consortium last year rolled out the Eurofighter ECR concept, which I discussed on the blog earlier. To reiterate:

The Eurofighter ECR concept is tailored to meet the German requirements, and include signal-homing missiles in the form of the AGM-88E AARGM, new large podded jammers, two more ‘wet’ stations to allow the drop tanks to move out of the way for said jammers, and a new decoupled rear cockpit for the WSO. The ECR as such is not part of the offer to Finland, but “as with any technology developed by the Eurofighter consortium, the option of an ECR will be available to Finland as a future growth option.” The options also include picking just the parts of the concept deemed suitable for Finnish needs. This could e.g. translate into acquiring just the jammers without the new ‘wet’ stations and accepting the range and endurance limitations it causes.

However, the Eurofighter ECR is still a paper product, at a time when the Growler is already a mature and combat proven design.

The majority of the Tornado-fleet is made up by the IDS variant (interdictor/strike, designated GR.x in RAF service), with the German Luftwaffe and Marineflieger acquiring a total of over 300 aircraft, of which just under a third are still in service with the Luftwaffe. The Interdictor-designation refers to strikes deep behind enemy lines, aimed at affecting the battlefield by e.g. stopping enemy supplies from reaching the front lines. The Tornado IDS was one of the best dedicated platforms for the role during the later part of the Cold War, being known for the ability to slung a serious combat load at high speed and very low level to avoid enemy air defences. While still a potent airframe, the basic design is rapidly heading towards obsolescence, and the age of the aircraft are starting to show, already causing significant headaches to the maintenance personnel.

The Eurofighter has already replaced the Tornado in British service, and isn’t necessarily a bad choice. The aircraft can sling two heavy cruise missiles (in RAF service the Storm Shadow is used), as well as a sizeable load of precision-guided bombs and smaller missiles such as the Brimstone for precision targets and anti-vehicle use. On the horizon, the SPEAR light cruise missile is about to open up some new interesting options as well.

However, what isn’t found in the arsenal of the Eurofighter is the B61 free-fall tactical nuclear weapon. The German Tornado-fleet form part of NATO’s nuclear sharing agreement, under which Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey have US tactical nuclear weapons stored in their country for delivery by their Air Forces.

Now, to grasp why the German decision played out the way it did (or seemingly is about to do, more on this later), it is extremely important to understand a few things:

  1. The nuclear weapons aren’t exactly uncontroversial. The general population in most of the host countries are divided at best and directly hostile at worst to the sharing agreement. Germany is no exception,
  2. The idea that NATO is a nuclear alliance is generally seen as a key part in it’s strategy to deter other nuclear-armed states (i.e. Russia) from using nuclear weapons against the member states. The sharing agreement is an attempt to ensure that decoupling doesn’t happen (“Will the US trade New York for Paris?“, as De Gaulle famously questioned), to make sure that the NATO allies keeps retain their trust in US and the alliance (and doesn’t try to acquire their own weapons, as De Gaulle did),
  3. You don’t just sling along a tactical nuke on any aircraft, but the integration and certification is quite a complex process, and relies on the country owning the nukes being ready to share some of their most highly classified military secrets.
    © Dassault Aviation
    In the event of a major war, France would use it’s land- and carrier-based Rafales to launch a limited number of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles as a final warning that France has identified threats against its vital interests, in an attempt to make the enemy to back off before France feels it has to go all-out nuclear with air- and submarine-launched strikes. The Rafales would each carry a single ASMP-A cruise missile on the centre station, which in the picture is occupied by an ASM.39 Exocet. Source: © Dassault Aviation

If you only look at the destructive power of nuclear weapons, the multirole fighter you want today is the Dassault Rafale with the impressive ASMP-A nuclear cruise missile. The Rafale is designed from the outset to be able to perform the nuclear strike mission, being “entry first-capable” as the French puts it, and there’s little denying that the ASMP-A offers a significantly greater chance than the B61-12 of getting through and putting your bucket of sunshine on whatever it is you don’t want to exist anymore. And indeed there has been an argument for a German nuclear deterrent, either in the form of Franco-German sharing or as an independent arm developed with French aid. However, this overlooks the simple fact that the majority of Germans aren’t too keen on nuclear weapons to begin with, and while it would solve the potential military need of putting nukes on a target, it does not adress decoupling (as a matter of fact, it can be argued to make the risk of decoupling US from its European NATO-allies higher). For the time being, the militarily less-effective US B61 free-fall tactical nuclear weapon might on a strategic scale actually be a better option than a German (or Franco-German) bomb. Crucially, it is also most likely the only option that has any hope of getting through the German parliament.

This brings the key question to the Tornado replacement program of what aircraft to certify for the B61. The Eurofighter is, at least according to Airbus, technically able to start lobbing nukes. However, this would obviously require the US to play along. The argument has been put forward that the nuclear sharing is important enough to the US that they would have no choice but to agree to integrating the B61 on any platform Germany wishes. There is probably some truth to this, but on the other hand it is likely that integration on a non-European platform could both require more work (i.e. it would take longer) and not receive the priority integration on a new US platform would get (i.e. it would take longer). This makes the Eurofighter less than ideal for the nuclear delivery mission, an in addition the German Air Force would like to avoid a single type fleet due to the risk of a safety issue grounding the whole fleet.

Which brings us back to the quest for a US solution. Some have voiced concern whether Germany would be interested in a US platform at all, and while it is true that currently Germany has an impressively European fleet, the country has been a prolific user of US fast jets up until rather recently in the form of both the F-4F Phantom II (retired in 2013) and F-104G Starfighter before that (retired in 1987). In addition, much of the current arsenal of weapons, including the AIM-9L Sidewinder, AIM-120 AMRAAM, and GBU-series of laser/GPS-guided bombs are all US made. While a new US-built fighter would likely add to the list of in-service weapons, it is hard to argue this would be any kind of a serious issue to an air force the size of Germany’s (especially considering the obsolescence issues currently facing the continued operation of the Tornado with it’s Cold War-era technology).

Having kicked out the F-35 due to political considerations, there are three more fighters being built in the US today: the F-15 Eagle, F-16, and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. As noted, the F-16 has seen service in Europe in the nuclear strike role, but the light multirole aircraft isn’t really the obvious place to go looking for a Tornado replacement, and in any case Lockheed Martin haven’t been interested in offering it to countries that are potential F-35 buyers. Boeing manufacture both the F-15 Eagle and the F/A-18 family, and the ‘Mudhen’, as the F-15E Strike Eagle is affectionately known, does hold a number of benefits over the ‘Rhino’. Crucially, the F-15E is already certified for the B61, including the latest B61-12 version, something that none of the other aircraft discussed here (including the F-35) currently is. The integrated conventional weapons also matches the current German arsenal more closely, including the Taurus KEPD-350 heavy cruise missile that is integrated on the Korean F-15K variant. The aircraft is also already based in Europe, as the USAF operate F-15E units from UK bases, and as such German Strike Eagles would slot directly into current NATO tactics. However, while the latest F-15E(X) is a very potent strike aircraft, it does suffer from the lack of a SEAD/DEAD-variant.

2012.11.10_eb8c80ed959cebafbceab5ad_eab3b5eab5b0_rep.of_korea_air_force_28818381914529
The F-15K Slam Eagle of the South Korean Air Force is a good example of the modern Strike Eagle family. Able to carry a lot of ordnance and go far, as opposed to the Tornado it can also hold it’s own in an air-to-air fight. Source: Republic of Korea Armed Forces via Wikimedia Commons

The issue can obviously be solved in a number of ways. Roger Näbig over at Konflikte & Sicherheit argues for the F-15E(X) for nuclear strike with the Eurofighter ECR taking over in the SEAD-role. This would probably be the simplest solution when it comes to getting the nuclear strike role sorted, but it is highly doubtful if the Eurofighter ECR would be ready by 2025, even if the German order was placed today.

And that is another piece in the puzzle that doesn’t get the attention it would need – the order isn’t exactly placed yet. While everyone seems to agree that the Tornado replacement really needs to happen (especially since it has already been delayed a number of times), the junior coalition partner SPD is decidedly unhappy with how the MoD has handled the issue, including bringing up a number of talking points:

  • The importance of the Eurofighter for German work,
  • Whether the nuclear sharing should continue at all,
  • The decision making process itself,
  • Why isn’t the F-35 under consideration, as it is used by the Netherlands for nuclear strike?

It is obviously not the same people asking the last two questions, but it shows how deeply torn the party on the issue. A real can of worms is what would happen if Germany would retire from the nuclear sharing altogether, as the former frontline state abandoning the politically tiring duty of hosting nukes would most likely not sit well with the current frontline states, several of whom already have varying degrees of trust issues when it comes to how strong Germany’s commitment to solidarity in case of an attack on Poland or the Baltic countries really is. Something of a nightmare scenario would be a German withdrawal followed by Poland (another F-35 buyer) requesting nuclear weapons on their soil instead, which would have all kinds of “interesting” political and deterrence effects. And if we see Trump reelected this autumn, I don’t hold it completely beyond the realms of possibility that some kind of bilateral US-Polish agreement could be worked out, with or without (likely the later) the approval of the other NATO countries.

The whole Tornado replacement deal obviously leaves ample room for political manoeuvring in Germany, especially considering the rather messy state that German domestic politics currently find itself in. As such, while there is a clear official line – Gareth Jennings had the very nice graphic capturing it all – it is far from certain that the deal will get through parliament any time soon.

In principle, the idea isn’t bad. A joint Eurofighter- (55 aircraft) and Super Hornet-fleet (30 aircraft) with the Super Hornets being dual-roled conventional and nuclear strike and the Eurofighters focusing on replacing the Tornado’s interdiction and reconnaissance capabilities, and 15 EA-18G Growlers in the escort jammer/SEAD role under the luWES program does solve the most pressing military and political issues. A key thing here is that, in the same way as with the current Tornado IDS/ECR-fleet, the EA-18G Growler and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet share a very high degree of commonality, meaning that the 45 Boeing fighters could all be served by the same ground equipment and maintenance organisation. While some have questioned the ability of the German Air Force to get a meaningful contribution out of 15 EA-18G Growlers, that’s two to three times the number of Growlers serving aboard any US Navy carrier at any given time. Especially considering the aforementioned synergies and economics of scale with the regular Super Hornets, I don’t see this as an issue. Both the Super Hornet and the Eurofighter are also fully multirole, although their designs are optimised somewhat differently, meaning that with the exception of the nuclear strike and EW-missions, they could stand in for each other if the need arises. A combined 45 aircraft fleet is also the size of a number of smaller air forces, so it is hard to see that as an argument against the split buy.

What does this mean for HX then? With the caveat that this is based on actually getting an inked German order before the HX decision is made, it would be a small additional credit for the two aircraft. For Eurofighter it further assures continued investment in the aircraft for the next few decades (though in this case it doesn’t help with the post-2050 part of the timeline), and as the German fleet likely will likely mean that the Taurus KEPD-350 is finally fully integrated and potentially some other new capabilities might be unlocked as well, it might be possible to squeeze some of these into the best and final offer at a cheaper price than what would otherwise have been the case. For the Super Hornet the difference is more marked, as the addition of another operator in the Baltic Sea region with deliveries under the same time frame open up possibilities for joint training and test and evaluation opportunities. While this is marketed as a stop-gap solution, Germany has had a tendency of keeping their fast jets in service for quite a while, and there is obviously a risk (or opportunity, if you are looking at this from Boeing’s angle) that the Super Hornet-era might stretch on quite a bit longer than currently envisioned (which likely was part of why France saw the F-35 as such a threat to the FCAS). However, over all the effects are largely marginal for the Finnish competition, and perhaps the most important is the hard-to-measure but still present factor of the idea that an aircraft has momentum on the market.

HX Challenge pt. 5: Bigger, Better, Stronger

“I prefer to have two engines over just one.” Yes dear readers, even in the 21st century, the single- versus twin-engined debate isn’t dead. Sorry Pratt & Whitney, but once that one engine catches a flock of birds (or a 30 mm round) down in the weeds, having two is an advantage. How much of an advantage is an open question, and one for the HX-team to ponder upon. Let’s just note that while the Finnish Air Force hasn’t lost any Hornets to birdstrikes, it has lost a Hawk.

However, that wasn’t Boeing’s main selling point when they held their media event as part of HX Challenge this week. Instead, it was about a total package. The Super Hornet as the most versatile and reliable multirole fighter available, offering the greatest suitability to the Finnish concept of operations (read: dispersed operations), having a proven track record as a reliable partner when it comes to customer support and industrial offset, and with the EA-18G Growler bringing unique capabilities to the fight. In essence, Boeings pitch isn’t necessarily that the Super Hornet is miles in front of the competition in any particular field, but rather that the package as a whole will offer the flexibility and cost-to-benefit ratio needed to win the deal.

Family picture
Boeing brought all three aircraft on offer to HX Challenge, starting with the F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets closer to the camera, and the EA-18G Growler towards the rear. Source: Own picture

There is much to be said for that approach. The Finnish Air Force is very happy with the legacy Hornet (or ‘Classic’, as Boeing likes to call it), and the transition to Super Hornet makes sense in many ways. The carrier pedigree is still valuable in many ways besides the obvious short take-off and landing distances. The US Navy carrier air wing is in fact a good analogy for the Finnish Air Force. You find yourself in a taxing environment, having roughly fifty to sixty fighters and whatever spares and stocks you’ve brought with you. You might or might not be fighting alongside allied assets, so you need to be able to both go alone and have the interoperability to link up with friends. Hence the need for high rates of readiness, quick turnaround times, high sortie generation, as well as the ability to keep operating with a minimal amount of support equipment and a small logistical footprint.

“The most proven and affordable multirole platform out there”

That’s how Jennifer Tebo, Director of Development for both the Super Hornet and the Growler programs, opened her presentation. This was a sentiment echoed throughout the presentation, and Boeing was keen to point out that they don’t have to project operating costs or look at trends in cost-saving programs — they know what the aircraft cost to operate. “Particularly suite for Finland” was another phrase used. For a cost-conscious customer, this is something that will earn them a few points extra in the evaluation. Another thing is the cost-savings Boeing experiences during the phasing in of the aircraft. While the final checks of current infrastructure hasn’t been made yet, they are due for next week, Boeing estimate up to 60 % of current infrastructure, including both facilities, maintenance equipment, ground support, and dispersed bases, can be used with the Super Hornet (the remaining percentage also include equipment that can be either refurbished or replaced, depending on the Air Force’s view). Considering the large amount of support equipment needed due to the dispersed operations, this might easily turn into a significant saving. The Super Hornet can also continue to carry the weapons currently found in the Finnish arsenal, with some added tricks up it’s sleeve. The aircraft is fitted for tactical aerial refuelling, and it is easily to imagine a scenario during fluid dispersed operations where the fuel isn’t in the correct place relative to the fighters. At such a time, having a Super Hornet configured for tanker duty linking up somewhere can save valuable time. In peacetime, being able to practice air-to-air refuelling without a tanker having to fly in from RAF Mildenhall will also significantly ease training routines.

One thing that was touched upon in the weapons department was the fact that the Super Hornet is the only HX contender not slated for Meteor integration. “There’s an opportunity for an advanced air-to-air missile within our offer to adress that need,” was the line we were given. While obviously not confirmed by Boeing, initial deliveries sporting the AIM-120D AMRAAM and later buys of AIM-260 once that comes online is the most likely scenario here.

Finally, the transition time would be easier and faster. Captain Brian Becker, commodore of US Navy’s Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, noted that a six month transition period was enough to switch Hornet squadrons to Super Hornets. It should be pointed out that this is for the squadron as a whole, and includes not only teaching the pilots to fly the aircraft, but also transitioning the support personnel, changing out equipment, and getting everyone up to speed on the new aircraft to the level that it is a functioning unit able to perform operational missions. The sentiment was echoed by colonel Aki Heikkinen, commander of Satakunta Air Wing, who noted transitioning a pilot was largely a matter of hours rather than weeks if strictly talking about flying the aircraft safely (colonel Heikkinen also shot down the idea that some of the contenders would struggle with landing or taking off from road bases. “We’ve flown Draken from them”, he said, alluding to the Saab-built interceptor that the Hornet replaced in Finnish service). It should be remembered that the 10 Bn Euro budget isn’t available as such to the fighter manufacturer, but parts of it will also finance the reconstruction of air bases as well as part of the everyday operations of the aircraft during the first five years (as the Hornet operations are using the Air Forces’ normal budget until their retirement). As such, Boeing has a crucial advantage when it comes to saving money on these indirect costs, money that can be used to include one of the premier force multipliers of the fighter world in their bid.

Tebo
Jennifer Tebo, Director of Development for F/A-18 and EA-18G, ascertains that the Super Hornet production line is “alive and well” with an “active and healthy supply chain”. Source: Own picture

The EA-18G Growler is a serious asset to any operator. The Growler is in essence a combination of a SIGINT-platform gathering data from anything that is emitting, as well as a jamming platform blocking any system from emitting anything useful, be it communications or radars. While stealth platforms currently does a nice job of denying the enemy the ability to close the kill chain by making it hard to get a fire-control solution on the radar, the Growler has the ability to take it further by jamming the electronic spectrum from the VHF-band to the Ku-band, denying the enemy all parts of the chain (early warning, acquisition, and fire control radar bands). If need be, the Growler can also take out the transmitting radars by employing the latest AGM-88E AARGM-missile, or just feed the information to the nearest Super Hornet slinging a suitable weapon to form a classic hunter-killer team.

All this means that the Growler is a highly appreciated asset, and not just by the US Navy. In fact, the USAF is funding part of the Growler-force, that include five expeditionary squadrons. It is not unusual to find Growlers assisting some of the Air Forces’ stealthiest platforms with both situational awareness and jamming. The Growler is growing with the Super Hornet, with both aircraft introducing technologies that filter over to the other. But while the aircraft maintain 90% commonality with each other, it is the remaining 10% that makes the Growler really venomous. The wingtip ALQ-218 RF Receivers, perhaps the most obvious external recognising feature, are described as “extremely good” and tell the pilot not only what is out there, but also where it is. The crew can then decide what to do with that information, whether to engage with weapons, avoid, or jam.

Alain Garcia
Alain Garcia is Capture Team Lead for Finland and Switzerland, and like many of Boeing’s people involved in the Super Hornet program he has a background flying the aircraft. He also has a cool jacket, and really like the ALQ-218 RF Receiver System. Source: Own picture

A key part of the jamming system is the two large ALQ-249 Next Generation Jammers (NGJ) for the mid-band. These are amongst the most advanced US electronic warfare capabilities, and just the fact that they have been released for export to Finland even before the US Navy has accepted them into operational use tells something about the US-Finnish bilateral relation. Ernie Winston from Raytheon, the developer and manufacturer of the pods, was happy to confirm that the development program is moving forward according to plan, and that the first pre-production batches are expected to join the program this year, which also will see the first mission system flight testing. The first series production deliveries will take place in 2022.

What exactly makes the NGJ different from the current generation then? A lot, as it turns out. The big thing is that it is capable of hitting numerous targets simultaneously, thanks to AESA features and “extremely high power”. To counter modern radars, it is also able to switch modes very quickly. The pod is designed from the bottom up to be modular and easily upgradable. Winston describe the system as providing “transformative electronic attack capability”, while the more modest HX-programme manager colonel Keränen just noted that the Growler represents a capability currently not found in the Finnish Air Force

NGJ
The NGJ mock-up together with an AGM-88E AARGM anti-radiation missile (i.e. it locks onto a radar and flies into it) under the wing of the EA-18G Growler taking part in HX Challenge. The capabilities of the NGJ will be evaluated in the US, due to the sensitive nature of the capability and the need for a large testing range. Source: Own picture

The versatility of the Growler also means that they can be used in a number of different ways. The US Navy likes to use the superior intelligence gathering and presence of a backseater to allow the aircraft to stand back a bit from the fight (the high power of it’s  jammers ensure that it can perform stand-off as well as stand-in jamming), sharing it’s tactical picture with the rest of the flight and having the Growler’s WSO (backseater) play the role of a mission commander, directing the fight. ‘Quarterbacking it’, as Boeing put it with a good analogy that will be meaningless for a majority of Finns.

The RAAF on the other hand has a more hands-on approach, and isn’t afraid to use their Growlers up close and personal. This is aided by the fact that the Growler in essence has all the air-to-air capabilities of a F/A-18F Super Hornet (minus the wingtip AIM-9 Sidewinders), coupled with vastly superior jamming capabilities. While a Growler preferably shouldn’t get involved in the air-to-air fight, it certainly is capable of defending itself.

The Australian connection is interesting. While there are lot of difference between Finland and Australia, there are surprising similarities when looking at the air forces. Both were major operators of the ‘legacy’ Hornet (sorry Boeing, the designation has stuck already), and were the first two (and for a long time, only) export customers of the AGM-158 JASSM which gave their respective fleets a precision deep strike capability. Both also operate in the grey zone of being somewhat non-aligned but enjoying close bilateral relations with the US (though Australia has a significantly more expeditionary approach). This closeness of the respective US-relations is what makes deals such as the JASSM or Growler possible. And if Finland chooses the Super Hornet, there is something very interesting brewing down under.

Recently Boeing made headlines by flying three Growlers simultaneously, with one controlling the other remotely two (they were often referred to as ‘unmanned’ by the press, something that wasn’t strictly true as they had a back-up crew aboard to take control if something would have gone wrong). The news wasn’t that a Growler can be flown remotely, but rather that Boeing had successfully demonstrated that without modifying the cockpit hardware, it is possible to effectively command unmanned wingmen from a Growler or Super Hornet using currently available data links (Link 16 or ATDL). The software part is included on both the Growler and Super Hornet road maps, and is expected to be rolled out sometime during the latter half of the decade (i.e. when Finland is receiving its HX-fighters). The question is then what would you control? Granted you can use the Growler (or a ‘legacy’ Hornet using Link 16, though that is suboptimal due to bandwidth and security concerns), but a smarter way is to use a purpose-built platform. Such as the Loyal Wingman.

FA-18E take-off
The larger wing make the take-off and landing distance shorter compared to the legacy Hornet, despite the higher take-off weight. Source: Own picture

The Loyal Wingman is currently being developed in Australia, something that has the added benefit of ensuring it stays ITAR-free. In other words, ensuring that it can be exported through direct commercial sales from Australia without the need to go through the sometimes tiresome US bureaucracy. To a certain extent, the current Loyal Wingman is a solution looking for a problem. It is highly modular, meaning that it can take up a number of payloads. While the system in its first configuration is likely to play the role of ISR platform and/or forward active sensor, it can be armed as well. And importantly, it is built from the ground up to be cheap enough that it is attritable. With a first flight slated for later this year, this isn’t a hypothetical MLU-capability, but rather something that very well might be operational by the time Finland declare FOC for the HX-fleet. Having an unmanned (the plan is for the Loyal Wingman to have the ability to operate independently using AI or to be remotely controlled) ISR-platform with a huge range, 3,700+ km has been mentioned, would be a very interesting option. However, when it comes to HX specifically, Boeing might have outwitted themselves, as the Australian Loyal Wingman can’t be included in the US Foreign Military Sales-package that is being offered for HX. With the relatively low price tag, it is instead found in the “Future capabilities”-column with a detailed description, and treated as a possible arms sale for the time post 2030.

But the Loyal Wingman is just one piece of the puzzle making the Super Hornet-family “networked and survivable”, to use Boeing’s phrasing. The key here is the Advanced Tactical Datalink, or ATDL, that allows for vastly increased amounts of data being sent between the aircrafts (and other friendlies, including ground and ship units). To be able to cope with this increased amount data received, as well as the increased amount of data from the Block III’s own sensors (including the ATFLIR targeting pod and the long-range IRST pod), the aircraft has received the increased processing power of the DTP-N (a “big computer”, as it was described). This in turn makes the creation of a common tactical picture (CTP) possible, which is presented to the pilot on the new wide-angled display that is the most visible part of the Advanced Cockpit System, vastly increasing the situational awareness of the pilots. In essence, what Boeing does is linking together the aircraft to get a clear situational picture even in complex high-treat environments. The new cockpit coupled with the CTP also lower the pilot workload, providing a “huge step up” when it comes to how the information is presented to the crew, and helps avoid overloading the pilot with data.

The rhino in the room is the as yet undefined date when the US Navy will withdraw the Super Hornet from service. Despite the recent news of the death of the Super Hornet being seriously overblown, the fact is that when captain Becker describes the future of the Super Hornet in the Navy, the timeline is two decades plus in US service.

“Regardless of other platforms coming out, F/A-18 will be the cornerstone for many years to come”

That all sounds nice and plausible, probably even slightly conservative considering there are no plans for the F-35C to replace large number of Super Hornets and that the NGAD is still just in the study stage of the program, but the gap from 2040+ to 2060+ is still significant. And the day the US Navy pulls the plug on the Super Hornet the continued development of the aircraft can quickly become prohibitively expensive for Finland. As said, a sunset before the late 2040’s is unlikely, especially given the 500+ aircraft upgrade program that will continue to push out refurbished Block III’s past 2030 and the unique nature of the Growler. However, the last ten years of the HX winner’s service life are uncertain, there is simply no way around it.

This is Boeing’s main weakness in the current offer, and to be fair one they share with much of the rest of the competition (especially Rafale and Gripen, Eurofighter to a somewhat lesser extent). France at least has officially stated that the Rafale will fly in French service into the 2070’s, but on the other hand the value of such promises might not be particularly high if FCAS suddenly encounter cost overruns that need to be covered (on the other hand, if FCAS encounter delays to the in-service date, the Rafale might suddenly have to soldier on longer). Gripen is even more vulnerable than the Rafale and Super Hornet, considering the smaller fleet and that the Swedish Air Force as opposed to AdA or USN is unlikely to run a multi-type fleet for any considerable time. Will Boeing be able to convince the Finnish Air Force that it is a risk worth taking? That is perhaps the biggest hurdle facing the Boeing sales team, and we won’t know the answer for a year. A German decision during 2020 on getting the Super Hornet as a Tornado replacement could easily be a deciding factor, but considering the decision was to have been made before the end of 2018, this could easily slip beyond the HX decision date of Q1 2021. Another key piece missing is the US Navy’s Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment that was expected in January, but has since been postponed. The current one dates to 2016 and is the basis for the (in)famous 355-ship force. The new INFAS could easily change the future of the Super Hornet fleet in one direction or the other.

Hangar door
The F/A-18E Super Hornet being admired by the assembled media. Note the left wing armament, which if mirrored on the right wing would give the aircraft seven AIM-120 AMRAAM and two AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles. On the centerline the podded IRST is visible. Note the badges on the hangar, celebrating the history of now disbanded fighter squadron HävLLv 21 and 44,500+ flight hours of the Hornet, the latter nicely summing up why the Super Hornet is one of the front runners in HX. Source: Own picture

One area were Boeing on the other hand has an edge is in their industrial cooperation program. The company has already once successfully performed a 3.5 Bn USD offset program in Finland. Though it might not have been quite as happy an affair as Boeing lyrically described it, there’s little doubt that the close cooperation with a number of Finnish companies, including key partners such as Patria and Insta Group, enabled the domestic handling of the Hornet MLU-programs. As such, there’s little doubt that Boeing’s presence on the ground in Finland give the company a serious edge when it comes to the creation of a trustworthy and executable industrial participation program of the same size as what they did last time around. Like most of the competition, Boeing declines to go into details at the moment. However, one interesting detail is that while Saab has already offered a final assembly line of the F414 engine to Finland, Geoff Hanson representing GE Aviation at the Boeing media event would not speculate in whether the F414 line (yes, the Super Hornet and Gripen share engine) would come to Finland in case of a Super Hornet order.

“It’s a bit early to commit to that”

Crucially, Geoff noted that the question of what exactly “final assembly” means is unanswered. There are certainly some assembly steps that relatively easily could be transferred, and which would provide know-how that is useful from a maintenance point of view. On the other hand, major assembly steps requiring check-out and factory acceptance tests is an undertaking of a different scale.

Maria Laine, Vice President International Strategic Partnerships, first entered Boeing during the original Hornet industrial cooperation program. As such, it is no surprise that she emphasised the ability to leverage the existing partnerships stemming from the old program. Finland and Boeing represents a “true, genuine partnership”.

“We understand Finland”

There’s a few other who claim to do so. Boeing might have a better basis for the claim than most, but if that is enough to ensure that Super Hornet will be the aircraft protecting Finnish skies in 2060 remains to be seen. One of the open questions surrounding the US aircraft have been that of mission data. Finland’s requirement is simple: we need to be able to operate the aircraft even if the supply lines are cut. This include both the physical lines of communication, but also data cables. Alain Garcia of Boeing doesn’t shy away from the topic when I bring it up. It is a challenge, he acknowledges, as US government requirements include a requirement for new signals to be processed at a US facility before being inserted into an updated version of the data set. The solution is to embed Finnish personnel at a suitable US facility. Once Finnish (or allied) assets would identify a new signature the data would be supplied to these Finns who would process it, before it would be sent back to Finland. The whole process would result in a turnaround time of less than 24 hours from collecting the raw data until having the updated mission data in the aircraft. As I mention the requirement for cut data cables that colonel Keränen had described at the beginning of the media day, Garcia nods.

“We have methods to get them back into country”

Boeing kindly paid for my hotel stay in Tampere (a single night), all other costs (including travel) being covered by myself. Neither Boeing nor any of their partners have seen, nor requested to see, this text or the illustrations used before posting.

HX Challenge pt. 4: More of Everything

Unfortunately, Finnish daily Aamulehti which so far has openly shared recordings of the main press event at the HX Challenge media events has decided to put these behind a paywall. As such, this post is based upon secondary sources (i.e. published articles). Sorry for the inconvenience, but these are the unfortunate facts. Next week we will be back to primary sources (as I will attend the Boeing briefing in person).

From the outset, the F-35 has been the aircraft to beat in HX. It isn’t impossible that it will end up beaten, but the string of successes throughout the world (marred only by the highly politicised German failure to be allowed to bid) and unique selling points makes it the gold standard in Western fighter design at the moment. As such, anyone wishing to better Lockheed Martin’s stealth fighter will have to put in some serious effort to show why their bid is better for the Finnish Defence Forces’ concept of operations.

F-35 at Pirkkala FinAF FB Joni Malkamäki
The two F-35A’s from that eventually came over from 308th FS were described as being amongst the latest jets in use at Luke AFB, which should mean that they are of the Block 3F, i.e. ready for combat use. Source: Finnish Air Force FB/Joni Malkamäki

At least from the outside, that task hasn’t become any easier from the start of the competition. While Lockheed Martin might have seemed a bit too certain of success in the early days of the competition, this week’s media event has shown that they are listening to the customer and not just offering a copy-paste version of offers made to other countries.

Few doubt the combat capability of the F-35A. The advanced sensor suite and fusion coupled with low-observability features make it a formidable foe for anyone, and the large number of aircraft on order makes it future proof in a way none of the other contenders are. The biggest questions has been surrounding security of supply, sovereignty of data, and industrial cooperation. It is important to note that this does not mean that the Air Force is ready to buy the second best just to ensure that they will get these secondary benefits, but rather that the Air Force has judged these issues to be of crucial importance in allowing a fighter to be combat capable. As has been repeated throughout the last few years: the bids are only ranked on their overall combat capability as part of the overall Finnish defence solution.

And there’s plenty of combat capability in Lockheed Martin’s offer. While the contenders aren’t allowed to comment on the number of aircraft offered, Steve Sheehy, Lockheed Martin’s Director of Sustainment Strategies and Campaigns, appeared to accidentally disclose that it would be a case of 1-to-1 replacement of the Hornets.

“The requirement is 64, we are at 64”*

This was later walked back to the more politically acceptable line of “‘If the requirement is for 64, we are at 64.’ Lockheed Martin will not comment publicly on the number of fighter jets in its response to the call for tenders.” Considering the fact that we have known since last autumn that 64 isn’t in fact a set requirement any longer, my personal belief is that the offer is for 64 aircraft. Make of it what you will, but a 64-ship strong F-35A force would be an impressive one by any measure. It would conceivably make Finland the seventh largest operator of the F-35 (all marks included), leaving behind Tier 2 and 3 contributors such as the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark, as well as making the Finnish Air Force the third largest European operator after the UK and Italy (both of which will likely be operating joint F-35A/B fleets). While this might seem like a bold step, it should be remembered that when Finland bought the F/A-18C Hornet it was an order on a similar scale (the early 90’s seeing the AIM-120 equipped Hornet second only to the F-15C Eagle in the air-to-air role). As long as the aircraft can fit within the price tag, the Finnish Air Force is unlikely to shy away from capability. In fact, a serious F-35A order does hold deterrence value in and of itself, as it would highlight the determination to invest in a credible high-end defence as well as the close bilateral defence cooperation with the US.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the press release was the part on how Lockheed Martin plans to ensure security of supply and industrial cooperation.

Edited 17/02/2020 22:50 GMT+2

Originally it was reported that not only the aircraft, but the F135 engine as well would reportedly be produced in-country.*

This would have represented a significant development in an area that has traditionally been viewed as a weak part of the Lockheed Martin offer, and would be a significant step away from the current production chain which is responsible for pushing the price of the aircraft down to the extent that 64 aircraft could fit inside the Finnish budget. Such an offer would by it’s very nature include a rather large amount of tech transfer, and ensure Finnish industrial know-how stays up to date when it comes to maintaining and overhauling the aircraft, and would solve what otherwise might represent a significant issue in meeting the 30% industrial cooperation target.

However, upon contacting Lockheed Martin, it became clear that this was a case of serious misreporting. Upon a direct question, John Neilson, Director of International Communications for Europe and Israel, stated in no uncertain terms that no mention was made of final assembly of the F-35 aircraft or engine manufacturing. When asked what the industrial participation may look like, I received the following quote:

“Industrial participation forms an important element of our F-35 proposal for Finland but at this stage of the process, for reasons of competitive sensitivity, it would be inappropriate for is to give any further information and wrong to speculate on the details.”

End of edit.

Perhaps a harder thing swallow for the Finnish Air Force was the scheme drawn up for the management of spare parts. This would include peacetime stocks stored in-country for normal operations, with a different set for times of heightened tensions being stored internationally and transferred to Finland when needed. While this kind of centralised spare hubs likely play a significant role in ensuring a low operating cost, not having complete control over the necessary wartime spares will likely be a no-go. However, it is important to remember that this second offer currently being referenced by Lockheed Martin isn’t the same as their best and final offer, which will come only after the approximately six months of negotiations with the Finnish MoD and Defence Forces that are now starting. Lockheed Martin also acknowledges that the sizes of both the in-country and the international stocks aren’t locked, but are currently being discussed. It does however feel that this is one area where the company’s normal ‘tailored for NATO’-options still clashes with the Finnish thinking surrounding wartime operations.

The stealth capability is the defining feature that sets the aircraft apart from the rest of the competition, and while much has been said about the limitations of stealth in the form the word applies to the F-35, you are still better off with a lower radar cross-section in the X-band than with a larger one (which is the aspect where the difference in observability is the largest). The same goes for the carriage of external stores. Granted the RCS will go up compared to when the F-35 carries only internal weapons, but in all likelihood** an F-35 with external stores will still exhibit a lower RCS than competing fighters with external stores (even if the difference is narrower). And while many countries are investing significant resources in detecting VLO aircraft in general and the F-35 in particular, for the immediate future it will likely remain easier to complete the kill chain against a traditional aircraft than against a VLO one (think of it as armour in ground combat – there are weapons and munitions able to defeat armoured vehicles, but still most soldiers prefer riding into combat under armour than in soft-skinned vehicles). The question mark here is whether some of the contenders can mitigate this difference either through the use of different concepts of operations and/or heavy reliance on electronic warfare? It is a tall order, especially considering that the F-35 isn’t exactly lacking in EW-capabilities either, but it isn’t impossible. What is impossible is discerning that difference in EW-capability based purely on open sources, so we will just have to wait and see when it comes to the final decision in 2021.

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F-35A during tests with four externally mounted GBU-31 JDAM. One benefit of the F-35A from a Finnish point of view would be the ability to carry over numerous weapons, such as the JDAM-family and the air-to-air missiles, from the current inventory and into the HX-era. Picture courtesy of Lockheed Martin/photo by Darin Russell

It needs to be emphasised just how far beyond the competition the F-35 is when it comes to future proofing the production of the aircraft. The numbers ordered dwarf those of any of the competition, with the F-35A alone having over 2,300 aircraft on order or in the plans of the current customers. This is the only aircraft of the five that beyond any shadow of a doubt will not only be kept in operation but crucially kept up to date outside of Finland well beyond 2060. The need for having other operators also towards the end of the career of HX has been emphasised by those involved in the procurement process several times, and here the F-35 really shines.

The maturity of the aircraft has been questioned, especially as it seems to be followed by a string of bad news. However, it should be noted that the US has a somewhat unique reporting system, which means that many of the minor setbacks (such as the recent issues with the 25 mm gun) are reported in a more open fashion than would be case in most other countries. Colonel Keränen also noted in an interview that if the aircraft is mature enough for Norway to declare IOC, it’s mature enough for us as well. Notable is that the huge number of aircraft flying, 240,000+ flight hours to date, also allow for a rapid pace of development, including the tracking down of any teething troubles at an fast rate.

The GBU-53/B SDB II will be a key weapon of the F-35A Block 4

Like most of the competition, the aircraft being demonstrated doesn’t fully correspond to what would be delivered in five years time. The current F-35A Block 3F standard will give way to the Block 4, which will bring a serious step-up in capability. Most visible are the inclusion of new weapons, such as the JSM anti-ship missile, the GBU-53/B Small-Diameter Bomb II, and the ASRAAM and Meteor for UK use. However, many important changes are simultaneously taking place inside the airframe, which will play a perhaps even larger role than individual weapons when it comes to ensuring that the F-35A of 2025 will be more combat capable, both in absolute and relative terms, than the aircraft now evaluated. Still, it should be pointed out that the inclusion of the GBU-53/B will add a serious anti-vehicle capability to the F-35A, the question then being if the Finnish Air Force in wartime could spare any aircraft for the mission or if all are tied up in the air-to-air role?

Much still remains open. Absent from the reporting from the press event was the promises of complete ownership over the mission data that was repeated by all European manufacturers, and the flight hour costs and changes to infrastructure needed are somewhat open. The F-35 still remain the aircraft to beat though, and the competition have their work cut out for them.

* F-35:n valmistaja lupaa Suomelle hävittäjän tuotantoa – “Emme kerro, kuinka häive rakennetaan, mutta kerromme miten se ylläpidetään” 

** I can in theory envision a scenario where some kind of strange reflector phenomenon would increase the RCS with external stores ridiculously much and make it larger than some of the other contenders, but that is more along the lines of technical possibilities than anything I would call likely

HX Challenge pt. 3: Head start for Future Growth

The snow finally arrived to central Finland this week, and with it came the last eurocanard to take part in HX Challenge. 39-10, the latest of the pre-production JAS 39E Gripens, touched down on Tampere-Pirkkala airport in a landscape that looked decidedly different compared to the weeks before when the Eurofighter and the Rafale had been visiting.

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The 39-10 today at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB, carrying not only the wingtip IRIS-T missiles, but also Meteor very-long range air-to-air missiles and the new EAJP jammer pod. Source: Own picture

Someone that didn’t show up was anyone working at the Swedish embassy in Helsinki, a marked difference from the media days of the other two eurocanards. The reason was simple: “I don’t think anyone doubts that Finland and Sweden has a close bilateral cooperation.” As such the focus was placed on the aircraft instead of the strategic partnership, though the offer was described as being prepared in close cooperation with both the Swedish Air Force and the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV). This is also crucial, as besides the limited Brazilian order Sweden is so far the only major buyer of the 39E-version. Any Finnish order will rest on how reliable the Swedish long-term (i.e. into the 2060’s) commitment to the 39E as a platform is judged to be.

Saab has decidedly taken the Air Force at their word when they said they want the best capability that can fit inside the budget, with an offer that include not only the 39E/F Gripen, but also the GlobalEye airborne early warning and control platform. As reported last summer the idea behind is that not only does it improve the overall combat capability of the Finnish Air Force, but it also saves the fighter fleet by off-loading part of the missions that would otherwise have been flown by the HX fighters. This not only saves money and airframes, but crucially helps in ensuring a high-level of readiness for the fighter fleet. Anders Carp, head of Saab’s Surveillance business unit explained that they are happy to be able to offer HX “a true force multiplier”, and that he expects the Finnish Air Force to be happy about it as well. Unfortunately, the poker faces of the FinAF colonels present held, so we have to wait until 2021 to see if that is a correct conclusion.

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Colonel Keränen, head of the HX Programme, outlining how the programme is continuing. Source: Own picture

However, colonel Keränen in his briefing prior to Saab’s presentation did note that ISTAR is a capability that will be required from the HX-package, and that it is a new capability compared to the current Hornet-fleet. This is interesting in that it shows that the capability sought is something more than what the Hornet currently offer by flying around with their AN/APG-73 radars and Litening-targeting pods. Here the GlobalEye really shines, as it not only provides a superior air-to-air picture (especially against targets operating at low heights) compared to the current Finnish ground-based network, but also provide air-to-surface radar pictures and signal intelligence from passive sensors. The range of sensors, both passive EW-sensors and possible EO/IR-sensors, can be tailored towards the specifications of the customer. However, in general it could be noted that the aircraft would not only be a valuable sensor in wartime, but would provide a serious benefit in peacetime as well through its ability to gather information far beyond the Finnish borders. As such, it would complement the Air Force’s single C-295 SIGINT-aircraft and the Border Guards’ maritime patrol aircraft.

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Magnus Skogberg discussing the vast range of the GlobalEye’s sensors, describing the aircraft as a “substantial contribution to the joint operational capabilities of the Finnish Defence Forces”. Source: Own picture

For the Gripen, much of the focus was on the adaptability and electronic warfare side of things. The differentiation of flight critical software, and to some extent hardware as well, from the mission software ensures that it can be upgraded in short increments, avoiding the traditional larger but less frequent MLUs. This is incremental upgrade approach is in effect already now with the current 39C/D-fleet, but the steps would take place in even shorter increments for the 39E/F. “This is unique”, according to Saab, who also pointed out that when the first 39E flew, it did so with a fully certified software. This is also exploited in the form of the 39-7 two-seat aircraft demonstrating the capabilities of the 39F for HX Challenge. The aircraft has a full set of 39E/F mission systems in the backseat, while the flight control software is based on that of the 39C/D.

When faced with the question of how the aircraft that currently is in the test and verification phase, Saab’s view was that since the aircraft is mature enough and will meet the Finnish deadlines with time to spare, it’s recent appearance on the market is simply a benefit. Being the newest of the contenders ensure that the technology is new, and allow the company to take advantage of the latest developments in a way older platforms can’t.

I guess you can make the arguement that the glass is half full.

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The smart fighter – now in Finnish as well. Source: Own picture

For the electronic warfare side, according to Saab the aircraft is providing capabilities close to those of dedicated platforms (read: EA-18G Growler). It is “probably the most advanced EW-suite” carried by a fighter, and provide a full spherical coverage from all directions. This include not only missile approach warning systems, but also internal jammers, chaff/flare dispensers, and so forth. When that isn’t enough, the brand new Electronic Attack Jammer Pod (EAJP) can also be carried, a fully functioning version of which was carried by 39-10 in Tampere. At this point, Saab notes that the 39F does provide superior performance in the electronic warfare (and SEAD/DEAD) role, as the combined suite is powerful enough that to get out the maximum use of it a dedicated systems operator is needed.

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The EAJP is utilising some of the “same kind of technology” as found in the internal EW systems of 39E, but provide broader frequency ranges and more power when needed. Source: Own picture

While electronic warfare capabilities are difficult to judge based on open sources (we are basically left to trusting that the manufacturers don’t stretch the truth too much) one thing that Saab is sure to have in their favour is the solid presence on the ground in Finland. Saab already has a serious research and development unit in Tampere, the importance of which is set to grow in the coming years thanks to Saab receiving the contract for the combat management system of the Pohjanmaa-class. As such, they are well positioned to reach the stated 30% of contract value in industrial cooperation, the vast majority of which will be directed towards direct cooperation according to the company. The program is very ambitious, and in what is something of a surprise still include not only component manufacturing and final assembly of the aircraft, but of the engines as well. Granted most manufacturers stated that a domestic final assembly line was possible at the outset of the HX programme, but there has been relatively little talk of the topic since, and my impression has been that the interest towards the idea from both the manufacturers and Finnish industry have in fact been lukewarm.

Saab is of a different opinion, and stated that it is the best method of ensuring that Finland actually has the ability to overhaul and maintain the aircraft if the supply lines are cut (which is the requirement of the RFQ). Production of aircraft engines is something that hasn’t taken place in Finland for a long time, but Saab expressed confidence in that Patria’s Linnavuori plant is up to the job. Negotiations are currently ongoing regarding the details of the proposal, and the fact that the Hornet’s F404 engine (on which Patria does qualified maintenance) serve as the basis for the Gripen’s F414GE would probably aid in the transition.

Speaking of transitions, Saab stated that the Gripen would require only “minor adaptations” of the existing infrastructure, and that they foresee a “very smooth integration effort”. A key point was also that no additional noise pollution or environmental impact was expected relative to the legacy-Hornet fleet, an issue that has been highlighted as some other fighter acquisitions has created the need for expensive remodelling of air bases. Here one might note that colonel Keränen also provided some further details on the timeline for the transition. By 2025 the first deliveries are to take place, so that Finnish Air Force personnel can start training on the aircraft. This might take place abroad or in Finland, key point is that the training starts, because by late 2027 the IOC should be declared, with the first HX squadron replacing a Hornet squadron in early 2028. By 2030 the last Hornets leave Finnish service, and HX declare FOC. Notable here is that up until IOC, the training and operating costs of the HX will at least partly come from the 10 Bn Euro additional funding that is allocated for the acquisition. This is due to the fact that normal Hornet operations continue in parallel, and the funds for these will claim the Air Force’s daily operating budget.

But did it fly? No, it didn’t. Was there a perfectly reasonable explanation. Yes, there was.

39-10 didn’t leave Sweden for the first time ever just to impress Finnish (and international) media, but rather to run a verification program. As the Finnish Air Force has stated a number of times, this isn’t about cold weather tests, but verifying the numbers and capabilities provided by the manufacturers in a Finnish setting. The weather conditions did not match any of the planned verification sorties, so the aircraft stayed on the ground. GlobalEye on the other hand had suitable verification flights that could take place, so it appeared in the skies over southern Finland with a mixed Saab/Finnish Air Force crew aboard.

Being a mechanical engineer I saw nothing strange in this. In my earlier work I’ve been present when the weather has been either too good or too bad for planned sea trials. Then the boat stays in the harbour. Not because of the vessel in question isn’t able to go to sea, but because the only thing you would achieve by doing so is burn diesel and kill time. Granted it would have been nice to get to see the aircraft take-off today, but c’est la vie.

However, populists gonna populist. Self-proclaimed defender of Lapland (with friends like these…) Mikko Kärnä in a single tweet manages to 1) describe the purpose of HX Challenge incorrectly, 2) give false (or at least out of context) quote by Saab as to the reason for not flying, and 3) draw faulty conclusions based on those two incorrect statements. Unfortunately, the story about Gripen not being able to fly in snow will likely endure in some fringes of the Finnish political discussion. The influence long-term will likely be minor, but I can already feel how tiresome it will be to hear these talking points making rounds on social media and around coffee tables.

For those interested in whether the Gripen can fly in snow, just ask Antti Virolainen.

HX Challenge pt. 2: Born Joint

When two French fighters landed at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB this week it was the underdog that arrived. While last week’s eurocanard might not be a favourite, the Rafale is an even less likely candidate according to most analysts.

But truth be told it is difficult to tell how much of that perception is based on the lack of an active marketing campaign compared to the rest of the competition. The HX process might have received international praise for its transparency, but that only extends to how the process is being run, and not how the contenders are doing. The current ranking, to the extent there is one at this stage, is well and truly hidden from view.

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Rafale B ‘301’, DGA’s and Dassault’s testbed, shown here airborne during earlier tests. The aircraft carries six AASM boosted precision-guided bombs, two Meteor very-long range air-to-air missiles, two MICA IR short-range air-to-air missiles, two large drop tanks, and a Talios targeting and reconnaissance pod. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – A. Pecchi

The fact that the two Rafales touched down on Pirkkala does however tell us something – Dassault still thinks they have a non-trivial chance of winning. Flight tests are expensive, even a moderate estimate puts the costs for a manufacturer to participate in HX Challenge at something like 1.5 million Euro (it could easily be double that even in direct costs). The fact that Dassault, and the rest, are coming shows they believe the potential benefits to be worth it. This is in stark contrast to most of the recent fighter competitions held in Europe (Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland…), where roughly half the field have usually dropped out before final offers are sent in. That is a big show of confidence in the fairness of HX, and big kudos to the MoD, LOGL, and the Air Force for that!

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Rafale B ‘301’ (rear) and ‘352’ (front). The reason why Dassault didn’t bring a single-seat C-version was to maximise the number of flight hours they are able to provide to Finnish Air Force personnel, but is also a testimony to how closely related the B and C models are to each other. Note the white bulge behind the blade antenna on ‘301’, likely associated with some F4-standard subsystem, the missile warning sensor on the tailfin (looking like a black dot), and the different coloured covers for the EW sensors on the front of the canard root and on the air intakes. Source: Joni Malkamäki/Ilmavoimat

But back to the French offer. Many of the themes can be recognised from last week. The Rafale would “protect Finland’s integrity”, further strengthen a strong European partnership, and the aircraft is being offered “with the full support of the French government”, to use the words of ambassador Serge Tomas. The aircraft would also be delivered with “no performance restrictions” compared to the French version, and there will be “lots of open books” and technology transfers.

But there were also notable differences in tone when compared to the Eurofighter. The production lines will stay open “for the next decades”, as opposed to the Eurofighter lines that are slowly cooling down. And while the Eurofighter is being sold as the great cooperative project, the French are well-known in security policy circles for their reluctance to trust in others. This is also what they are selling to the Finnish Air Force.

We understand your concept

Those simple words contain a lot. We know you don’t trust in allies to step in and save the day, we understand your wish to be able to go alone if the need arises. The Rafale is the tool that allows you to do so.

French and Finnish national security policy might not have much in common, but Dassault certainly has found the common denominators there are, and they are running with them.

A sobering reminder of just how ready to go alone France is found in the fact that one of the two Rafales currently in Tampere is an operational Rafale B F3R from SPA 81 Lévrier (Greyhound) of EC 2/4 La Fayette. The main mission of the unit is nuclear strike as part of the Forces aériennes stratégiques, the land based air component of France’s completely independent nuclear deterrent. However, like sister unit EC 1/4 Gascogne, they do also fly conventional missions, including operationally over Libya, Mali, and in the Middle East. The F3R is the current standard, and was delivered ahead of schedule, meeting performance targets while staying inside the budget. Any Finnish order would be of the F4 standard that is currently in development, and which has an added focus on connectivity, further developed electronic-warfare capabilities, as well as new weapons. The other Rafale, ‘301’, is a joint-DGA and Dassault testbed, and is equipped with numerous subsystems associated with the F4.

The F4, and the upcoming F5 standard, will also allow the Rafale to remain a key part of the FCAS-system, ensuring that the Rafale stays in French service well into 2060’s*.

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Rafale B ‘352’ 4-FU having just arrived at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB. Note the greyhound of SPA 81 on the tail, Talios pod on the right side of the fuselage, FSO bulges in front of the canopy, as well as wingtip MICA IR missiles. Source: Joni Malkamäki/Ilmavoimat

Another good example of where French and Finnish national security interests align, and one pushed heavily at yesterday’s media day, is the emphasis on European solidarity. “France is leading the process to build a solid, European defence policy,” as ambassador Serge expressed it. This was also the point he came back to when questioned about what France can offer on the national security side that the other eurocanards cannot, and he does have a point. Finland’s stance on Article 42.7 might be ambiguous (and set to remain that way for the foreseeable future), but Finland most certainly is interested in a deepening European defence cooperation in a way that few other countries are. Except France.

It is a strange world when the country that has given us the gilet jaunes can market themselves as “the reliable and predictable national security partner”, but this is where we are in 2020. In part this is also due to the difference in French domestic and foreign politics. While French internal matters might be seeing quite a bit of turmoil, their foreign policy has been remarkably consistent during the last few decades. And that policy include a willingness to mobilise the sizeable force that is the French military whenever French interests are threatened. This is not only seen in Syria and Libya, but also in Mali and, crucially, in how France has stepped up their presence in the Baltic Sea region following Crimea. This includes ground troops, but also a sizeable contribution to Baltic Air Policing. The trick then is to ensure that French interests align with ours, something that is easier said than done. However, I would like to note that we are rapidly approaching diminishing returns in our already very deep cooperation with Sweden and the USA, something that isn’t the case for the Finnish-French relationship.

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It apparently needs to be repeated: HX Challenge is not a cold-weather test, but a verification of sensor and other prestanda as reported by the manufacturer. As a matter of fact, ‘301’ did separate winter tests for Dassault a year ago at Rovaniemi AFB. Source: Ilmavoimat FB

The French willingness to act on their security interests in turns leads to the next point that Dassault likes to make, namely that the Rafale is combat proven. Crucially, this isn’t just about dropping bombs in COIN operations, but include having “been tasked to go into very contested environments”. Famously, Rafale did fly missions into Libya during the early stages of the campaign when Gaddafi’s air defences were still operational, and it has also performed missions over Syria in the face of the air defences found there. The weapons suite used is also interesting, as not only does it feature the same cruise missile as the Eurofighter, the MBDA Storm Shadow/SCALP, but it also sports the unique French AASM-family of boosted precision-guided bombs. These allow for stand-off range attacks (60 km range reportedly being “not too far from the truth“, but obviously depending on launch height and speed), and come with a number of different seeker heads including INS/GPS, INS/GPS/IR, and INS/GPS/laser. As such, the Rafale is well-equipped to take out any of the targets envisioned in the Finnish RFQ.

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A single-seat Rafale C of 1/7 Provence in air-to-air configuration at BA 113 Saint-Dizier-Robinson, that also happens to be the home of the 1/4 La Fayette. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

Traditionally one of the weaker parts of Rafale’s sensor suite has been the Damocles targeting pod. This was recognised as lagging behind the competition already a number of years ago, and the Thales Talios has been brought online as part of the F3R standard. The performance of the pod, capable of both reconnaissance and lasing, is likely one of the things that the Finnish Air Force will be eager to test. Unfortunately the huge AREOS strategic reconnaissance pod has not been brought to HX Challenge (at least not by air), which likely indicate that it isn’t being included in the offer at this stage. Unsurprising, but still a bit sad as it would have offered a really interesting step-change in capability. Another sensor that likely will attract a lot of attention as well is the Front Sector Optronics, the FSO. The FSO is made up of two modules, an IR- and a TV-sensor. As part of the F3/F3R program the TV-sensor has been upgraded, and the performance is rumoured to be very good thanks to high magnification and near-IR wavelengths. The IR-sensor is currently going through its update programme, but for the time being it is likely that the setup tested at HX Challenge feature the old IR-sensors. In addition, a laser rangefinder is also included, and the whole set can be slewed by the other active or passive sensors to find and identify an airborne target. This is in line with the Rafale putting great emphasise on passive intercepts of enemy targets through the use of several different passive sensors and fusing the data to present the air crew with a single threat picture. Whether it works in the cloudy skies of Finland is exactly the kind of question HX Challenge is designed to answer, and unfortunately this interesting answer will go straight into the folder marked “SECRET”.

*Often the FCAS designation is erroneously used for the new joint Franco-German fighter currently in development, while in fact the FCAS is an umbrella term to cover numerous air- and ground-based system making up the Future Combat Air System. Or as Airbus puts it, a system of systems “composed of connected, manned and unmanned air platforms, enhanced by different sensors and effectors. They will be part of an open, scalable system architecture that enables the inclusion of future platforms and new technologies”

HX Challenge pt. 1: Complete Independence

HX Challenge kicked off for real this week, with the Eurofighter Typhoon being the first contender (the sales team uses the Eurofighter designation, but I sincerely hope any Finnish buy would include us switching the British name. One possibility I might accept is translating it to Pyörremyrsky).

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The Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4 of the RAF’s No. 41 Squadron (with the awesome motto of Seek and Destroy) takes off from Tampere-Pirkkala airport. As part of the same launch the T.3 got airborne with a Finnish Air Force backseater. Picture courtesy of BAE Systems/Kalle Parkkinen

Did we learn anything groundbreaking yesterday? Not really, but the media day did provide a comprehensive insight into what the consortium in general and BAE Systems in particular believe is their strong cards in a competition that is steadily moving towards the contract announcement next year.

The key word is “independence”. You buy it, you own it, and you decide exactly how you want to use it. These are notions repeated throughout the press material and briefings, and it is clear that they are aimed at differentiating the European project against the US competitors. The Eurofighter is described as providing an “unique opportunity” when it comes to taking control of the country’s security. The “no closed black boxes”-policy provides the ability to independently operate, maintain, and control the aircraft, also when it comes to questions such as mission data and upgrade paths. Full control of mission data is described (in the Finnish press release) as “indispensable” for operating a modern combat aircraft, and something that provide an information advantage that will only become more important as time goes*.

However, this should not be interpreted as BAE Systems pushing the “buy second best but get full control”-line. The aircraft is described as being the “most advanced multi-role aircraft on the market”, with the potential Finnish aircraft being given as ‘Tranche 4’-standard, i.e. one notch above anything produced up until this point. This is roughly the same configuration as the German order under Project Quadriga, importantly sporting the E-Scan Mk. 1 AESA radar, an upgrade compared to the Kuwaiti-standard featuring the export Mk. 1A. Another interesting detail when it comes to sensors is that of the two Eurofighters taking part in HX Challenge, a single-seat FGR.4 and a twin-seat T.3, one carried the current standard Litening 3 pod, while the other had the brand new Litening 5 which is currently on offer to Germany and expected to be acquired by RAF in the near future. The Litening 5 is also offered in an updated version with a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) integrated into the body of the otherwise electro-optical targeting and reconnaissance-pod. As a side-note, the Finnish Hornets received the most advanced version of the Litening II, the Litening AT, as part of their MLU2-upgrade.

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To further emphasise the pan-European aspect of the Eurofighter project, all of the partner nations embassies were represented at the media day. It also clearly shows the big advantage in the number of significant operators the aircraft enjoys over the competition (with the exception of the F-35A) in this regard. Left to right: Luis Garcia Lumbreras, of the Spanish Embassy in Finland, Hans Werner Koeppel, of the Germany Embassy in Finland, Tom Dodd, British Ambassador to Finland, and Gabriele Altana, Italian Ambassador to Finland. Picture courtesy of BAE Systems

When it comes to weapons, the Eurofighters in Tampere-Pirkkala came equipped with ASRAAM short-range air-to-air missiles. Interestingly enough, the short-range air-to-air capability is not amongst the weapon systems described as ‘best-in-class’ in the press release. Instead, the weapon suite is described as offering “the widest range of weapons in the HX competition”, with beyond visual range air-to-air, deep strike, and high precision air-to-surface capabilities being best-in-class. It’s easy to see the close cooperation with MBDA playing a role here, as the weapons alluded to are the company’s Meteor, Storm Shadow, and Brimstone/SPEAR 3 respectively. The claim certainly seems tailored to meet the Finnish focus on the air-to-air role as well as deep strike, and while it is marketing, it is difficult to find weapons currently on the market that based on open sources can be stated to be objectively superior to the Meteor and the Storm Shadow, with the Brimstone and SPEAR 3 lacking direct competitors in most western arsenals.

But the HX Challenge isn’t just about flying around and punching holes in the air, a key part of the testing is the performance on the ground. This include not only studying how the aircraft function when the temperature is hovering around the freezing point, e.g. whether moisture getting into small crevices and freezing there will break stuff, but also what happens when the maintenance takes place outdoors or when the runway isn’t nice and dry (Finavia is cooperating with the evaluation by not maintaining the runways to their usual standard to simulate winter operations from dispersed bases). In fact, the ground testing will likely be more revealing than the air sorties, which in essence should only confirm data received in the offer and already verified in laboratory conditions.

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Three Italian Eurofighters during their Icelandic Air Policing rotation last year. Picture courtesy of BAE Systems

It is no surprise then that BAE Systems has also answered to this requirement, emphasising the robustness of the aircraft and the ease of maintaining it in similar conditions, such as during the Italian Air Force rotation to the Icelandic Air Policing mission and the RAF detachment operating in the Falklands. In Iceland the aircraft encountered exactly the kind of low temperature and wet conditions that the Finnish Air Force is interested in, and still were able to launch for all available missions. The squadron commander attributed this to the professionalism of the maintenance crews, as well as the fact that the aircraft is “very simple to maintain”.

The impact Tempest and FCAS will have on the development path still hangs as a cloud over the Eurofighter, regardless of promises that it will continue to be upgraded into the 2060’s. Still, the large number of operators gives the promise more credibility compared to corresponding promises by the other two eurocanards. With TyTAN going smoothly, the consortium is also confident enough that they have declared the cost of acquiring the aircraft to be “fixed and affordable”, going as far as stating the aircraft to be “the world’s most cost-efficient multi-role fighter”. The marketing plan seems simple enough – the Eurofighter is already here and working, it would increase Finnish cooperation with most of the major European security players, it allows fully independent planning of operations, upgrade paths, and maintenance (looking at you, F-35), and comes with a serious package of industrial cooperation benefits that would give Finnish aerospace and defence companies ample opportunities of cooperation with their European peers. How much of these talking points is backed up by real world prestanda is an open question, and one to be decided over the next twelve months.

The game just got serious.

*Interestingly, the information advantage-point is only found in the English version of the press release, and not in the Finnish one