HX Home Stretch

Yesterday we got to see another HX presser, this time dealing with the final year of the competition. Held by the usual suspects – Minister of Defence Antti Kaikkonen, major general (engineering) Kari Renko of the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command, and Program Director Lauri Puranen – there were no big shifts in the messaging. However, there were some interesting comments, and a confirmation of the current schedule.

Current schedule, including the ‘silent period’

Beginning with the schedule, the request for Best and Final Offers (BAFO, or RFBAFO) will be sent out “within January”. For those without a calendar nearby, that means sometime during next week. The legally binding offers will then be returned before the end of April. The speakers acknowledged that this is a tight schedule, but as no major changes are expected compared to the packages currently discussed all manufacturers have confirmed that they should be able to meet the deadline. It is however notable that while the Air Force/MoD/LOGCOM have been negotiating with the manufacturers about what would be the offer FDF wishes for, the manufacturer is still free to offer exactly what they want. In reality, as the purpose is to get chosen, the two will probably align quite well.

The bids will be made up of a single short physical cover letter, and approximately 50 digital documents/files dealing with the offer itself. The Finnish authorities will then start going through them and evaluating the combat capabilities of the offers, a job which by the fall (October) should have led to a recommendation that will be sent to the MoD. According to Kaikkonen the MoD and government will look at the national security and foreign policy aspects. After this, the government will present their suggestion for new fighter to the parliament, which will vote on the matter. Note that as opposed to certain other fighter procurement programs, Finland has a) a strong tradition of majority governments, b) a strong tradition of MPs following the party lead when voting, and c) a strong support throughout the parliament for the program, which means that this is expected to be something of a formality. Edit: the parliament won’t hold any further votes, as they already approved the acquisition budget. The government will however present their findings for the relevant parliamentary committees before the contract is signed. After this, the final negotiations with the preferred bidder will take place, leading to a major signing ceremony where a number of small and large contracts dealing with the overall acquisition are signed. This ceremony will take place before the end of the year.

Having been part of some minor contract negotiation processes in the maritime sector, this is probably the part where the schedule feels most strained in my opinion. Even after the return of a legally binding offer to a (semi-)public tendering process, there’s usually a surprising number of details to work out. If the recommendation spends even a month going through the MoD and parliament, time will quickly start to run out regarding the end of the year deadline. On the other hand, much depends on how controversial the suggestion by the MoD will be. If everything goes smooth and the BAFO is largely unambiguous, it certainly is possible to keep up the pace, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some last minute delays.

The pillars of the process – equality, non-discrimination, and transparency

To understand the messaging, there will be no talks between the Finnish authorities and the manufacturers following the return of the BAFOs. Another more interesting detail is that Finnish authorities won’t comment on the bids until the papers are signed. I’m not quite sure how this will be handled in practice, whether the winning bidder will be announced when the recommendations are being made to the parliament, or whether the general public won’t know who has won until the doors to the signing ceremony are flung open and the journalists sees who sits at the opposite side of the table?

Another interesting aspect is to what extent the manufacturers can keep discussing their bids with media and the public? In theory, once the BAFOs have been returned the bidders can no longer influence the process directly, and as such could potentially be given freer hands to lobby the benefits of their bid. However, this would on the other hand seem to run contrary to the decision to keep a lid on the details until the signing. Earlier interviews have made clear that the BAFO will include details on what the manufacturers can say and when, so I guess we will get our first idea of the new playing field within a week or so.

For the platform itself, some new details could be seen. One is that the language has indeed changed significantly from the early briefings when it comes to the joint air-sea domain. While the early briefings usually talked about “supporting the maritime domain” with those involved explicitly refusing to say whether that included kinetic anti-ship missions, Puranen now split up the naval support mission to include not only ISR and providing targeting information, but also maritime strike.

The obvious question is in which direction the wind is currently blowing? The answer is that it’s rather turbulent. Renko was rather open with that the winning bid hasn’t yet been drafted:

The competition is very close, all contenders still have challenges in some decisive areas.

While he obviously didn’t start pointing fingers, he mentioned a number of key areas including contract terms, life-cycle costs, the technology readiness levels, and industrial participation arrangements. Tempting as it might be to start to slot different contenders into some of the points above, the complexity of the overall program makes it a largely useless task. Just to give an example, while most probably start thinking about the F-35 Block 4 and JAS 39E Gripen when discussing technology readiness issues, it could very well be related to some key systems of the other contenders as well where the FDF or MoD has questions regarding timelines and performances (Radar Two, the NGJ-family, and the whole Rafale F4-standard comes to mind). Similarly, speculations on who is weak and who is strong on the other issues is largely just that – speculation.

One comment that went largely unnoticed as far as I can tell but which will have a significant impact on the outcome was made by Puranen. While running through all the things looked at as part of the evaluation, he mentioned that they are evaluating:

If they [the armament] start to run out, from where do one get more?

While the requested armaments package is significant, it still will likely run low rather quickly in any kind of serious shooting war (based on the historical fact that no matter how much ammunition any force has gone to war with, usually it will run into shortages rather quickly). And at that point, there’s quite a bit more weapons from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon found in warehouses around the world than those made by MBDA or Safran. In my opinion, this is probably one of the stronger cards of the US contenders, even if both Gripen and Eurofighter are also happily slinging AMRAAMs and US-built smart bombs (and Rafale carrying some US-made air-to-ground weapons such as the GBU-49 and GBU-16).

Otherwise, the messages were largely along the same lines as has been heard before during the last five years. The aircraft will be operated into the early 2060’s, and there will need to be “other users as well” (Puranen). This time it was Kaikkonen who got to use the classic line of “We’re not going to buy an aircraft we can’t afford to operate”. Speaking of which, the operational costs per year will be capped at 250 MEUR (in 2021 Euros), roughly corresponding to 10% of the defence budget, while the MLU costs will be routed in through the normal FDF acquisition budget as was done with the Hornets.

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For the additional funds provided for the acquisition, not one but two pie charts were included to show the breakdown of the funding. Of the 10 Bn EUR, 21 MEUR are going to the expenses of doing the competitive tender, and 579 MEUR will go to the costs of the FDF during the five-year transition period. This include infrastructure changes, personnel expenses, C4I integration costs, costs of potential contract changes, and everything else that’s needed. The remaining 9.4 Bn EUR will then be allocated to buying the aircraft, engines, weapons, sensors, spares and replacement parts, maintenance support, and additional training needed outside of the scope of normal FinAF training routines. However, of this sum some (approximately 400 MEUR) will have to go to expenses paid by the Finnish state, and won’t be available for the bidder to use. This includes e.g. project management costs and government furbished equipment, as well as part of the industrial participation costs. As such, the total money that can be used by the manufacturer for tailoring their bid is around 9 Bn EUR. The amount varies somewhat due to the differences in costs for the national part of any given tender, e.g. if your aircraft will fit inside current hangars you’ll have a bit more to spend on your part of the package to take an obvious example. Still, Renko took time to underscore several times that the amounts available are “very close to each other”.

Let’s all take a moment to realise what this means for Saab’s bid – the company is able to include all the added costs associated with introducing a brand new aircraft type in the form of the GlobalEye 6500 alongside their primary bid of a competitive package of fighters and the equipment they need, and still remain “very close” to the competition. Granted Boeing’s feat of including the Growler with associated equipment is also impressive, but while the jamming pods are expensive revamping the training, maintenance, and infrastructure to include a pair of 30 meter long aircraft with a 45 ton max take-off weight is quite something. Just to put things in perspective, the Learjet 35 that the Finnish Air Force currently flies is about half as long and has a MTOW of 8 tons, with the C-295 transports having a somewhat smaller footprint while operating at a marginally higher MTOW. And despite the costs of introducing what would be the largest aircraft in FinAF inventory, Saab’s bid apparently is “very close” to the competition.

JAS 39E Gripen and GlobalEye – apparently a surprisingly cheap combination. Source: Own picture

It is also obvious that Renko is not amused by the hints, and is some cases outright accusations, that those involved in the program have their own agendas and would be operating outside of normal civilian and political oversight. He took a strong stance by making a point of publicly and clearly praising the team that he described as highly competent and taking great pride in their professionalism, and also noted that everyone strongly believe that they are working towards the best solution for Finland. He also noted that while the COVID pandemic had not caused significant delays and the procurement decision will be taken this year as originally planned, it had required considerable additional effort (and let’s remember that it is in fact a rather small core team) to mitigate the issue and ensure that what at its lowest point was a 6 month slippage in the schedule was clawed back. In the same vein, Kaikkonen reiterated that there is no alternative to multirole fighters, regardless of what some have claimed.