The HX-project Preliminary Report, pt. 1: Reports, Politics, and Money

The preliminary working group created last year to look into different solutions for replacing the capabilities of the F/A-18C Hornets (and the small number of F/A-18D two-seaters) in Finnish service have now published its report. The whole report can be found here, and while it is largely in Finnish it also include single page summaries in Swedish and English. In general, it is an extremely well-written document, which not only gives the “what is needed”, but also the “why this is needed”. The argumentation in the report is thorough, the working group has e.g. studied and exchanged information with the current fighter programs of Denmark, Norway, and Canada, as well as arranged a seminar with a number of the key persons involved in the original Finnish Hornet-program, to draw upon the experiences acquired then. One can only hope for a similarly well-written lobbying document from the Navy whit regards to the MTA2020 and other major procurements.

Many of the major points are well-known by now, and includes few surprise (see e.g. my earlier blog posts on the issue: 1, 2, 3, 4). The bottom line is that the working group recommends that the Hornets are to be replaced by a new multirole fighter, which isn’t surprising. Some of the nuances in the report are rather interesting. Of note is the fact that the conclusions and recommendations in the report are unanimous.

Generally, the two big themes that stand out are stealth and local maintenance.

In a number of places it is noted that while stealth is not equal to invisible (nor does it grant an automatic win in air-to-air combat), it still means that the stealthy fighter has an advantage the non-stealthy fighter hasn’t got. The big question is how long this advantage will last, as there are already a number of projects looking into how to work around stealth, e.g. by using infra-red sensors or linked radars. A research project has been launched (with a tight deadline) to determine the importance of stealth in the future. The focus is on how big the difference in detectability can be assumed to be between “true” stealth aircraft and so called 4+ generation fighters during the operational life of the HX-fighter. In the case of Finland, the only true stealth aircraft in the area are the F-35, which is one of the main candidates of the HX-project, and the Russian Sukhoi T-50, while all the other candidates can roughly be regarded as generation 4+-fighters.

Sukhoi’s T-50 is the upcoming fighter for the Russian Air Force. It is safe to assume it constitutes the defining foe for the HX-fighter. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Alex Beltyukov

The other hot issue is reliable maintenance is to be assured, especially in the light of European legislation governing acquisitions. This issue receives a lot of attention, especially with regards to direct offset agreements, see below.

The Politics

The report begins by noting the far-reaching implications the acquisition of the Hornet held for the credibility of the Finnish Defence Forces, and how it took part in cementing Finland as a part of the West in the immediate post-Cold War world. In the same way, the new HX-project will have a significant effect on Finland’s relations and capabilities in the fields of national security and defence policy. The very size and nature of the HX-project means that the country of origin will become an important partner in these fields, as well as with regards to the trade balance.

Russia’s new military doctrine and the Ukrainian crises have showed that Russia have both the capabilities and political will to use force. The changes in our security environment are happening at a faster rate, and with the increased uncertainty comes the fact that “strategic surprises are possible”. With the growth in importance of the Baltic Sea and the Baltic countries, the strategic importance of controlling the inlet to the Gulf of Finland has also increased. All in all, the report is outspoken with the fact that Russia is growing more aggressive, and that this together with the Russian arms program and the renewed doctrine is one of the main threats Finland faces. The importance of the air force in “hybrid wars” and “renegade situations” (such as hijackings) has grown, as has the need for ever more complex peacekeeping and –enforcing operations.

When it comes to international collaboration, the current model gives Finland no guarantees that anyone would come to our aid in times of war (fi: turvatakuut), but provides a foundation for getting political support and possibly accepting military aid if such a situation would arise. It is also an important tool for our national security policy. Still, Finland has to be prepared to fight alone, and as such we will need to be self-sufficient whit regards to all necessary capabilities.

Of interest is that the report clearly states that the number of Hornets ordered by the Finnish Air Force, 57 F/A-18C and seven F/A-18D, is based on economics, and is in fact too small from an operational standpoint. This is a clear indication that the Air Force is not willing to go further down in numbers with the introduction of the HX. However, in the end it will come down to politics, and what the government is prepared to pay for.

The Administration/Legislation

The report goes into detail how the program should be managed, which I won’t discuss here. Of interest is the fact that the report clearly gives alternatives for how it is possible to circumvent normal procurement procedures thanks to directive 2009/81/EC on defence and sensitive security procurement, and thus include direct offset agreements to make certain that a sufficient maintenance organisation is kept in Finland to allow the aircrafts to be maintained and overhauled here (this could include some kind of production line). It also makes it possible to circumvent public tendering, and e.g. keep part of the procurement process secret, which is more or less a given, due to this being a key system for the Finnish Defence Forces.

The Timeline

The rough timeline of the project is as follows:

The project should be officially started no later than the incoming autumn (2015), after which a request for information (RFI) should be sent out in February 2016, with answers being received in October the same year. The request for quotations (RFQ) should then be issued in February 2018, after which the quotations should be sent in a year after that (February 2019). Final negotiations and evaluations then follows, after which a decision is to be made in February 2021, and the first planes should be operational in Finland starting in 2025 (Initial Operating Capability, IOC).

Replacing the ”capabilities of the Hornet fighter aircraft”

This week’s biggest defence related news from Finland is without doubt the announcement from the Ministry of Defence that a preliminary committee has been created to prepare the launching of an assessment about how the capabilities of the F-18C/D Hornet is to be replaced in Finnish service. The press release is found in both Finnish and Swedish, but so far no English release has been made. Note the keyword, “capabilities”.

The Finnish Air Force operates a mixed fleet of 55 single-seat F-18C (two out of the original 57 having been lost in accidents) and seven two-seat F-18D. The D-variant is fully combat capable, but its primary use in Finnish service is as a dual-control trainer for pilots practicing their skills. These are the sole combat jets of the air force, but in times of crises the Hawk Mk.51/51A/66 jet trainers can be employed as light fighter or attack aircraft with a limited combat capability during conditions of good visibility. In times of war, the Hornets would play a key role in protecting own troops from enemy air attacks, as well as attacking enemy ground targets. A rough picture of the main missions of the Finnish Hornets in times of war can be acquired from the weapons they are equipped with.

The Weapons

For air-to-air work, long the sole official role of the Finnish Hornet-fleet, the AIM-9X short range IR-guided missile is used in conjunction with the JCHMCS helmet-mounted sight. For longer ranges, the AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM medium-ranged active radar-guided missile is used. The use of these constitutes no surprise, as they have been the weapons of choice for most west-oriented countries for quite some time. It is notable, however, that the Finnish Air Force employs some of the latest versions of both the AIM-9 and AIM-120 available.

F-18C Hornet MLU2, notice JDAM and LITENING-pod. Source: Finnish Defence Forces/mil.fi

For air-to-ground work, three different weapons are in use: the GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), the AGM-154C Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW), and the ‘silver bullet’ in the form of the AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile). These are guided by the state-of-the-art AN/AAQ-28 LITENING AT Block-2 targeting pod.

The JDAM is basically a kit that is fitted to any Mk-80-series ‘dumb’ bomb, and turns it into a short-ranged GPS-guided weapon. Due to its vastly improved precision over unguided munitions and its (relatively) low price, it has quickly become the weapon of choice for air forces the world over, and has seen extensive use in a number of low-intensity conflicts, up to and including the latest campaign in Syria.

The JSOW is a gliding bomb, guided through the initial stages of flight by GPS coupled with inertial guidance, and in the terminal phase of the flight by an IR-seeker. The C-version is fitted with a specially designed two-stage warhead that first employs a smaller shaped-charge warhead to blast a passage through walls or armor, allowing the main charge to pass through and detonate inside the target. As it lacks propulsion, the range of the JSOW varies greatly with launch altitude, being roughly 20 to 130 km. The current state of the JSOW program in Finnish use is somewhat unclear to me. It seems plans for large scale operational use might have been abandoned as the JASSM was cleared for sale to Finland.

The JASSM is one of the most advanced stand-off weapons in service anywhere in the world today. It has a low radar cross-section, giving it somewhat stealthy characteristics, and is powered by a small turbojet, giving it a maximum range of well over 350 km (depending on launching height). It navigates in the same way as the JSOW, with GPS-assisted inertial guidance and an IR-seeker, but it also employs a data-link, being able to transmit data back to the launching aircraft. The fact that Finland as only the second foreign country in the world was allowed to buy these missiles from the USA is a strong political signal, an aspect I won’t delve further into, but for those interested Charly Salonius-Pasternak has written a very interesting briefing paper under the name Not just another arms deal: The security policy implications of the United States selling advanced missiles to Finland for the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

What is striking here is the complete lack of variety in the arsenal of the Hornet. There is no anti-vehicle weapon like the venerable AGM-65 Maverick or the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, no area weapon in the form of cluster munitions or even rocket pods, no anti-shipping missile, no anti-radiation missile. In a nutshell, all three acquired weapons are pinpoint weapons, designed to take out single high-value (hardened) targets. To put it bluntly, their main differences are in range and price only, with longer range demanding a higher price tag.

JAS-39C with AShM Rb15. Source: Flygvapenbloggen/Mikael Olsson

As a side-note, this can be contrasted with the weapons employed by the JAS-39C/D Gripen in Swedish service, about which Swedish blogger and air force pilot Wiseman wrote last fall (in Swedish only). The Swedish Air Force uses a mix of the Rb 15 indigenous anti-shipping missile and the laser-guided GBU-12/49 Enhanced Paveway II 227 kg bomb for their ground work, with AGM-65 and DWS-39/BK90 having been retired (Add. The BK90 was a gliding stand-off submunitions dispenser with 72 submunitions. Not unlike the A-version of the JSOW, it was cancelled due to political pressure on cluster weapons). Although it seems like the choice of weapons on the Gripen has had as much to do with politics as with operational requirements, it is interesting to note that the Gripen flies with the weapons the Hornets lack, and vice versa.

The Mission

Back to Finland, it is rather clear that in the ground attack role, the Hornets will not perform close-air support or go hunting after enemy tanks and ground troops. They carry a highly specialized payload, and will be used to take out key targets behind enemy lines, such as bridges, command and control centers, communication hubs, and so forth. This mission is known as air interdiction, and there are a number of historical cases where it has been instrumental in tilting the balance of ground operations (and a number of cases where it has failed miserably). The use of stand-off weapons allows the Hornets to perform the mission from within Finnish air space, which should enhance their chance of survival.

Finnish 130 mm field gun firing. Source: Finnish Defence Forces/mil.fi

It is also notable that the army has a large artillery park in comparison with many other countries, including both towed and self-propelled guns, as well as medium and heavy rocket launchers. While close air support no doubt can be devastating, artillery strikes on enemy troop concentrations can perform very much the same mission, given that they receive accurate target data and are protected from enemy countermeasures (mainly air attacks and counter-battery fire). Note that the MGM-140B ATACMS surface-to-surface missile, which Finland asked for and received permission to buy but then decided against, was not directly comparable to the JASSM, as it was not fitted with a large single warhead but 275 smaller submunitions.

The capabilities the Hornet provide the Finnish Defence Forces with during times of war are thus two-fold: anti-air operations, and attacking key enemy ground targets.

The Replacement

The obvious way to replace these capabilities is to buy a new fighter. The last Hornets are scheduled for retirement by 2030, with the first leaving in 2025. In the same 2025-2030 time span the replacing fighter would be produced and delivered. However, modern fighters are not cheap. The F-35C Joint Strike Fighter has a price tag somewhere around 91 million Euros if you ask the manufacturer, but this may be way higher (the naval version likely being a better fit than the F-35A for Finnish use due to the requirement of operating from dispersed basing). While the “list price” of a Hornet is given by the US Navy as 23 million Euros, for Finland, the price of our Hornets jumped due to fluctuations in the exchange rate and a number of administrative fees, leading to a unit price of around 49 million Euros. Still, this leaves the Hornet at roughly half the inflation adjusted price of the F-35. Another alternative is obviously the Swedish JAS-39E/F Gripen. The first Swedish order for 60 “refurbished” planes is at a flyaway cost of 33 million Euros per unit. Notably, the cost for flight hours during the life cycle is considerably smaller for the Gripen than corresponding figure for twin-engined aircrafts such as the Rafale or the Super Hornet.

Another thing to remember is that the production lines for a number of fighters currently in production will likely close during the coming years, including the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (2017?), the Rafale (2018?), and the Eurofighter (2017?). This would leave the F-35 and Gripen as the only western fighters available by 2025. A more exotic alternative is the upcoming Japanese F-3, the technology demonstrator of which was recently unveiled. With the Japanese showing signs of opening up their arms industry for exports, it might be available on the export market by 2025. However, Japanese high-tech weapons systems such as the Type 10 tank and the F-2 (support) fighter have been notorious for their high unit price.

The main problem in replacing the Hornet with another fighter is the development of ever more accurate and maneuverable long-range surface-to-air missiles. I discussed this in an earlier post, where I noted that more or less all of Finland’s air space would be controlled by Russian SAM’s. This naturally begs the question, whether it is worth investing 5-7 billion Euros (based on the 3.5 billion for Brazil’s 36 planes) in an air force which would operate in the face of a numerically and quite possibly technologically superior force, and then only at minimum height?

Approximate range of Russian long-range surface-to-air missile systems. Note that due to the curvature of the earth and “rough” surface it is not possible to pick up and target aircrafts flying at low altitude in the outer spectrum of the engagement zone. Graphic by Kauko Kyöstiö from p. 6 of FIIA Briefing Paper 112 (2012) by Charly Salonius-Pasternak: Not just another arms deal: The security policy implications of the United States selling advanced missiles to Finland.
Approximate range of Russian long-range surface-to-air missile systems. Source: Graphic by Kauko Kyöstiö from p. 6 of FIIA Briefing Paper 112 (2012) by Charly Salonius-Pasternak: Not just another arms deal: The security policy implications of the United States selling advanced missiles to Finland

The obvious answer then seems to be that what we need is more ground based anti-air systems. The medium-ranged NASAMS 2/ITO12 system bought by Finland a few years back had a total price tag (excluding missiles) of around 366 million Euros. This gives a price tag of around 61 million per battery, which actually is in the middle ground between a Hornet and an F-35C. Of course, once deployed, the battery can maintain (or at least contest) air superiority over a certain area for an indefinite time as long as it receives needed supplies, but the difference in price is not as big as one could assume. Also, the benefit of the fighter jet is its flexibility, being able to move at high speeds between different areas of the battle field, and perform numerous different missions.

It is also important to remember that no single anti-air system can function effectively alone. The medium-ranged systems needs to be complemented by short-ranged MANPADS for use against attack helicopters and planes operating at tree-top height, as well as long-ranged sensors and C3-systems to give a correct situational picture. All in all, this kind of layered defence will probably cost as much as or more than a new fighter. However, the question is, can we afford not to employ a layered ground based anti-air network, even if we would acquire a new fighter jet? The question can also be turned the other way, who will protect our skies during peace time, if we lack fighters to scramble and identify intruders with? A minimum force of 15-30 planes is needed for normal air policing duties, and as long as Finland isn’t a member of a military alliance, we have to pay for these ourselves. A solution could be to try and source a number of low-hour F-16’s, to use for the air policing mission in peace time, and rely on ground based sensors and weapon systems in times of war.

An interesting note here is that Brigadier general (ret.) Lauri Puranen who leads the current project is known as promoting the “spirit of ‘joint’”, having been both the commander of the air force as well as the section commander of the army aviation. As such, he just might be the man to advocate such unorthodox solutions, although a new fighter is still the most likely route.

I am personally of the opinion that in the best of worlds, Finland and Sweden would both be members of NATO, and Finnish JAS-39E’s would be able to operate from bases in Norrland in case of war. However, neither of us are, and it then follows that the committee has some very tough decisions coming up, with no clear answer being provided.

Tour de Sky, pt. 1

Last Sunday I went to Tour de Sky, this year’s main event of the Finnish Aviation Association (SIL). Here come a few pics of the fighters that took part in the event.

The weather and direction of the setting sun relative to the aircraft and the crowd made photography quite challenging, especially during the latter part of the day when most of the flying displays took place.

F-16 afterburner

F-16 smoke

The RNLAF/KNLM F-16 Demo Team was best in show in my opinion (with the “homegrown” NH-90 taking second place).

F-16 and crew chief

A Danish crew chief (?) looking like he owns the plane. Wait, he does…

Hornet contrails

Hornet take off

Finnish Air Force F-18C Hornet solo display. The Hornet taking part in the ground display was loaded up with two JDAM’s in addition to AAM’s. First time I’ve seen it in person.

MiG-29 Low

MiG-29 vertical

MiG-29 9.12 of Polish Air Force performed a spirited display with liberal amounts of flares and afterburner. The paint scheme with Polish fighter aces on the inside of vertical stabilizers was very nice!