HX Trumped

The HX-program is moving forward, and several of the programs have seen significant changes, in many cases caused by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s new resident.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

Things are looking up for the ‘Rhino’ (or ‘Super Bug’ if you want) for the moment. The Kuwaiti deal is finally looking like it could secure a second export order for the aircraft, and the Canadians seem like they could actually lease or buy  a small amount as a stop-gap to cover for the cancelled F-35 buy. This move has been discussed for years, but in the last year it has moved from speculation to government policy.

But the twist that has caused most buzz is without doubt the announcement that the new US leadership has ordered a review of the carrier-based version of the F-35C against the Advanced Super Hornet concept. While I find it unlikely that the ‘all-inclusive’ most advanced form of the Advanced Super Hornet would be ordered, this review will likely provide an updated concept (with price tags) that can be employed for future (more limited) USN updates as well as for export drives such as the HX.

Boeing, somewhat surprisingly, has kept a low profile in Finland. It remains to be seen if this will change with this summer’s air shows.

F-35 Lightning II

The F-35 has been under quite some pressure following the tweets of President (then elect) Trump, who was happy to trash the cost of the program.

Lockheed Martin quickly recovered their posture (though not their stock price), and explained that they will certainly look into this, and that they have a plan ready to reduce costs further.

Now, it is uncertain to what extent Lockheed Martin and (especially) Trump are honest and to what extent they simply figured out that this theatre is just what they need. It is no secret that the unit price of the F-35 is on a healthy downward trend following the troubled early years of the program. It is also no secret that Lockheed Martin has been pushing for larger block buys, as these would make it possible for the company to achieve higher efficiency in their production lines. This is an excellent opportunity to enlist the support of the White House for the larger block buys, and in the meantime the president can happily boast about getting a better deal by getting the low-rate lots cheaper than his predecessor. Win-win, at least until some troublesome aviation journalists starts looking it…

Regardless of the politics behind it, the F-35A is now officially and for the first time below the 100 million USD threshold. This came as part of the LRIP 10 agreement, and Lockheed Martin indeed thought it prudent to credit ‘President Trump’s personal involvement’ with accelerating the negotiations and sharpening Lockheed-Martin’s focus on driving down the price. Despite the recent issues with the landing gear of the F-35C carrier-based version, the F-35A version is moving forward and meeting milestones according to plan, and the above-mentioned F-35C review against the Advanced Super Hornet will likely result in yet another paper explaining the need for stealth and sensor fusion on the modern battlefield. In other words, the mid- to long-term prospects for the F-35 look good, perhaps even slightly better than they did before Trump got involved.

Eurofighter Typhoon

In January BAE (finally) launched their official Finnish Twitter-account, quite some time after BAE Systems Belgium got theirs. On the whole, BAE has significantly heightened their profile, and isn’t the least bit shy about the fact that they thinks the Typhoon would be the best answer to the needs of the Finnish Air Force.

While BAE still hasn’t explained exactly why they think that’s the case, they have been happy to announce that the acquisition could be funded through the UK Export Finance.

What is often forgotten is that the Typhoon does indeed have an impressive service record in the harsh semi-subarctic climate of the South Atlantic, having been responsible for the air cover of the Falkland Islands since 2009. Of note is that while the aircrews assigned to RAF Mount Pleasant have been rotated, the aircrafts haven’t. The original four aircraft maintained a constant 24/7 QRA flight for over five years, before finally being relieved a while back. Honouring the traditions of the Hal Far Fighter Flight based in Malta during World War 2, the Typhoons wear tailcodes matching the names of the Gladiators of the original flight.

Dassault Rafale

Eight months ago I sat and listened to a presentation by a representative of Dassault, who happily explained the value of the fighter and (almost) all of its subsystems being French. I smiled and nodded politely, thinking to myself that while I understand the value of this from a domestic point of view, I am unsure whether this is a plus or minus in the case of HX. My worry was based on the sometimes volatile state of French politics, especially compared to the relatively stable state of US ones.

Let’s just say I have revised that opinion.

While France certainly has their share of pro-Russian politicians of different colours, Donald Trump has very efficiently demonstrated that the political risks associated with buying French is no larger than buying from the US.

#MAGA.

Saab JAS 39E Gripen

The first flight of the ‘Dash Eight’ prototype is still some time away. Though this was originally slated for Q4 2016, representatives of Saab are adamant that the program as a whole is still on track, and that the delay is due to moving around different parts of the test and development program.

While this might be true, and not flying for the sake of just flying might be the proper decision from a program point of view, this is still something of a PR-loss for Saab, who has been pushing the “on time and budget” narrative. 2017 will be an important year for Saab’s new fighter.

Seinäjoki International Air Show 2017

Contrary to what usually is the case, the Finnish Aeronautical Association’s air show will receive some competition for the Finnish aviation crowds, in that another major air show will take place in Helsinki the day before. Still, the organisers are clear with that they try to get as many HX-competitors attending as possible, and that they hope to see them “both in the air and on the ground“. Last year the JAS 39C Gripen was flying, with the Eurofighter Typhoon being found on static display. Hopefully this year will bring some new players to the Finnish airspace.

 

AAR – Operation Gudrun

For some Friday night off-topic, I’ve played a game of Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations. The game is best described as Harpoon on steroids, though the developer doesn’t think that catches the huge improvements found under the hood (“Only in the sense that each new FPS is a new version of Wolfenstein3D”). Anyhow, if it’s good enough for RAeS to blog about, it’s good enough for me.

The scenario in question is the later two-thirds of Swedish author/blogger Lars Wilderängs techno-thriller “Midvintermörker“, a Swedish “Red Storm Rising” set in Gotland during the last shivering days of 2012. This post will certainly contain spoilers, so if you are a Swedish-speaker who hasn’t read the book, go do so before reading any further.

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“Midvintermörker” was Wilderäng’s debut novel, and while the grand story might not be that innovative, it is still a very enjoyable battlefield description. The sequel “Midsommargryning” features a more complex and interesting story set in a ’round two’-scenario a few years after the first book, and the only real downside of the book is that the storytelling suffer a bit from the author taking the opportunity to sneak in a few political visions (those who have read Clancy’s later works knows what I’m talking about), such as an updated model for how conscription could work. On the whole, I personally find Wilderäng’s style of writing enjoyable, though I wouldn’t be surprised if some are irritated by his continued use of irony.

Still, the novel’s greatest achievement isn’t its literary merits, but the fact it played an important part in lifting the Gotland-question out of the #säkpol-blogosphere, and into the everyday political discussion in Sweden.

Operation Gudrun

(Gudrun was a storm that caused widespread destruction in Sweden during the early days of 2005, let’s hope that this time around the destruction is amongst the Russians and not the Swedish forces)

When we roll in, the Russians have landed in Slite, a small town on the eastern shores of Gotland, and are starting to unload their heavy equipment from a 18,000 DWT ro-ro ship. Our main objective is to sink this vessel, which should seriously delay the invasion. As the invasion took us completely by surprise, our radar networks are down, and the air force has suffered considerable losses. Our main forces are as followings:

We have a mechanised force (including Leopard 2A5’s and CV 9040’s) on Visby airport, which also holds two JAS 39C Gripen which was the islands QRA detachment before the outbreak of the hostilities. A number of infantry recon platoons are found on the island, as well as four mortar platoons, equipped with heavy mortars and STRIX anti-tank mortar rounds. On a wartime base (with practically no reloads) we have a number of Gripen’s armed with AIM-120B AMRAAM’s and IRIS-T missiles, and the main Gripen force is found north of Stockholm. Here we also have three Gripen’s armed with RB 15F anti-ship missiles, which will be my best bet in taking out the ro-ro. Outside of Slite one of our submarines lurk. I also have two C-130 Hercules transports loaded with special forces for an air drop, and some CB 90 H fast assault craft with Hellfire-armed marines aboard.

The enemy currently has air superiority (or to be precise, we have no idea what is found in the skies above the Baltic Sea, as our radar network is down), and two batteries of Tor (SA-15) SAM’s are in the area. In addition, they have superior ground forces, so we can’t just throw them out by racing headlong into Slite. This leads to a complex plan, given by the in-game objectives:

Objectives:

  1. Secure Tingstäde with ground units in order to stop any Russian ground forces from passing this point.
  2. Secure the airspace on and around Gotland enough to for a safe air drop. The drop may have to be done even if the airspace is not 100% in our hands.
  3. Bring the Tp 84’s* over the designated landing zone to the west of Slite.
  4. Find SA-15’s and have them destroyed using STRIX mortars or other weapons available.
  5. Destroy the RoRo ship before it is able to unload the majority of the landing force.

*Tp 84 is the Swedish designation for the Hercules.

While the plan is complex, it probably represents my best shot at getting things done, so I start by sending all mechanised units securing the airport towards Tingstäde. My forces are so small, I decide that keeping some units at the airport probably means spreading them too thin. Two of my three infantry recon platoons starts to head for the LZ, to check that the area is clear and, hopefully, get the location of the SAM’s even before we bring in the lumbering Hercules. My submarine meanwhile gets orders to patrol outside of Slite, and the CB 90’s start moving to take up position west of Fårö. If the sea outside of Slite is cleared, we might be able to sneak them close enough to get to a landing zone just north of the harbour, from where they can target the landing force with their Hellfires.

AAR first moves.JPG

The sub quickly locate three contacts outside the port, and identifies the southernmost (SKUNK #61) as a light frigate. Since we are talking about a non-Swedish naval ship just outside of an occupied Swedish port, I decide to manually mark it as hostile. Shortly thereafter, my northernmost recon infantry spots the other two contacts, and can confirm that SKUNK #62 and #67 are Parchim-II class light frigates. These have some ASW capability, with suitable sensors as well as weapons (torpedoes and RBU-6000). It seems the Russians have set up a picket chain of light frigates to protect the beachhead from unwanted visitors. Still, if there are no further surprises awaiting closer to shore, we should be able to handle them.

AAR Parchim.JPG

Our Norwegian friends decides to supply us with AWACS-data from the NATO-network over Link 16. Mange takk!

The infantry also makes another sighting, a single Su-25SM and two attack helicopters, a Mi-28N and a Mi-24V respectively, are airborne. As I completely lack any kind of ground based air defences, these could potentially make short work of my troops and plans. I decide to launch Gator #1 and #2, the two Gripen’s I have based in Gotland.

The plan is simple: get airborne, fire of all of my eight AMRAAM’s, and then land as fast as possible before enemy fighters or SAM’s wake up.

AAR anti-CAS.JPG

The result is a disaster. The aircrafts can’t get a single shot to connect, and while trying to get back to base, Gator #2 is brought down by a Tor, followed by Gator #1 by a R-27R launched by a Su-27 circling over the southern parts of the island (how did AWACS miss that one!?!). In the meantime, the Mi-24’s and Su-25’s target the mortars with missiles and bombs, wiping out one platoon completely and causing losses to another. The only positive thing with the sortie was that the aircraft identified the approximate location of the Tor-M1K’s, as well as the ships in Slite harbour. We also got confirmation that there are in fact two each of the helicopters, and a total of three Su-25’s over Gotland.

A four-ship JAS 39C’s from Aquila flight on the warbase is dispatched to take up the anti-CAS mission while I still have some mortars left…

The Mi-24’s then go for the Leopard’s, and knocks out one while another is hit but survives. The Mi-28’s in turn engages the remaining mortars with rockets but misses, and I send the mortars east into the LZ to get within firing range of the SAM’s approximate locations. Having expended all their munitions, the helicopters return to Slite and the Sukhoi’s depart for Kaliningrad.

In the meantime, our submarine has fired on FFL #61, the southernmost of the frigates, but misses. This causes the other Parchim’s to move north, away from Slite, but into the path the CB 90’s have to take if they are to attack the harbour.

However, while Gator flight was ultimately unsuccessful, surprisingly few enemy fighters are in the area. I decide that now is as good a time as any to dispatch my special forces. The Hercules pair depart for Gotland, ordered to fly as fast and as low as possible to the landing zone just west of the SAM sites.

AAR Aquila.JPG

One of the few Su-27S airborne over southern Gotland has turned towards the approaching Aquila flight, and come in over the Swedish mainland. The first AMRAAM salvo misses, but second finally brings it down.

The submarine takes a max-range shot at the north-eastern Parchim, while the northernmost recon infantry manages to report on ships in Slite. Seems it is a single ro-ro surrounded by four Ropucha LST. A pair of Su-24MP ELINT planes that have been flying west of the island are intercepted, with the first being brought down by an AMRAAM. The second turns east and tries to escape out over the sea.

The Parchim outruns the two torpedoes. Ought for four shots so far.

Two ground units are spotted to the southeast of the mortars. If these turn out to be anything more serious than light infantry, they will crush my mortars if they start moving north. One of the mortar batteries is sent further northwards to avoid having my whole stock of STRIX-grenades knocked out in one go, and a tank platoon supported by a mechanized infantry platoon are dispatched from Tingstäde to intercept the enemy forces. I keep most of my forces at Tingstäde, as I have a gap between the mortar units and my recon unit on the northern flank, and I don’t want some unspotted enemy platoons to sneak through there and take Tingstäde in my rear.

The second Su-24MP is finally brought down by an IRIS-T after having evaded several AMRAAM’s. In the chase one of the JAS 39C’s actually overflies the Tor-batteries (despite my effort to try and route them further south), but the radars are silent. Out of missiles?

AAR CAP.JPG

Turning south, a minor air battle evolves between two Su-27S and all four Gripen’s currently operating over Gotland. The Sukhoi’s make a clean sweep, including in one instance dodging an IRIS-T, and then downing the JAS 39C at close range with a R-27R…

AAR ground battle.JPG

In the meantime, the advancing tank platoon locates the position of the two SAM batteries, and identifies the two mobile contacts as two armour platoons (T-90A).  STRIX are called in on both batteries (knocking out one and damaging the other) and one armour platoon (damaged). The Leo’s then get permission to fire, and make quick work of the T-90’s, with the mortars finishing off the last SAM battery with traditional HE-rounds.

More CAP aircraft are slowly inbound, which hopefully should get to Gotland in time before the Herc’s do, and I decide to finally authorise the anti-ship mission. Three Gripen with Rb 15F anti-ship missiles will target the ro-ro, while three Gripen with Mjölner stand-off munitions dispenser will target the four Ropuchas. I have no idea what kind of damage the Mjölners will do to the ships, but it is worth a try.

A mechanised infantry unit is spotted on the outskirts of Slite, followed by two more units closer to the city.

AAR Parchim

The submarine has finally started to line up some shots, and bags two of the Parchim II’s.

In the next air encounter, a Su-27S dodges eight AMRAAM’s, and while another Su-24MP is brought down by an IRIS-T, a Su-25SM manages to bag Aquila #8 with an R-60T. There seems to be something wrong with our missiles today.

AAR Endgame

However, the first two RB 15F hits the ro-ro vessels, and the ships is a total loss.

Conclusion

With the ro-ro ship destroyed, the primary invasion force has been significantly reduced, and the scenario ended.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about the scenario. It was great fun to play the storyline from the book, but there was a few issues with the implementation. The main problem was that the Russian ground units didn’t fire upon my forces. I don’t know if this was caused by limitations to the game, it is called ‘modern air/naval combat’ for a reason, or if the scenario designer had forgot to mark a checkbox somewhere. The Russian naval force was also markedly weaker than in the book, and I believe it might even have been possible to just launch the air attack without first taking out the SAM’s. I also couldn’t get the ‘Hercules over the LZ’-trigger to fire, but this might have been due to the Tor’s already having been taken out, and when starting the mission some Russian mission areas were set up wrongly. Other than that, and ‘Romeo’ being misspelled ‘Romio’ in all instances, it worked out rather nicely.

On my part, my single largest mistake was sending Gator straight for the enemy, which lead them to having to overfly the SAM’s on their way home. A better idea would have been to send them out west over the sea, turn around and fire, and then land on the airport without actually overflying the battlefield at any point. I also was unable to take advantage of the fact that I had local numerical superiority in almost all dogfights, as well as having active medium-range missiles against an enemy equipped only with semi-active ones. In a perfect world, I should have been able to use my AMRAAM’s to force the Sukhoi’s to turn away before the R-27R’s could impact. For those wanting to try out the scenario, it is found here

For the game itself, it is a blast to play! Granted, the learning curve is quite steep, and such seemingly simple things as setting up a patrol zone can be daunting if you have many border points. The execution is however good for the scale, and small touches like actually showing the probability of hit, modifiers, and RNG roll for each weapon engagement makes a surprisingly big difference for accepting outcomes that goes against what one feels should be the case (such as AMRAAM’s consistently missing ~50-75 % PH shots). There are some (minor) issues, especially with the ground units. The Leopards were able to identify boogies as fighters at longer ranges than the Gripen, which doesn’t feel right. Also, as the player sees everything his or her forces see, this gives too much information to certain units, and the possibility to game the system. Note however that while this helps with tactics, all platforms have their individual sensors modelled, so for the most part platforms still need to get the proper sensor lock (which can be anything from Eyeball Mk.1 to a specific radar) before they can target hostile units within range. For recommendations regarding what scenario to play, I recommend this one, where the player gets to command the Finnish Navy and Air Force in defense of the Åland Islands against the approaching Baltic Fleet. 

Admittedly, watching blue and red symbols move over a map isn’t everyone’s idea of a nice pastime, but for the readers of the blog, this might be one game simulator to look into!

Final score card

SIDE: Sweden

===========================================================

LOSSES:

——————————-

5x 120mm Mortar [STRIX]

7x JAS 39C Gripen

1x Leopard 2A5 Main Battle Tank

EXPENDITURES:

——————

8x Tp 613

9x RB 98 IRIS-T [AIM-2000A]

40x RB 99 AMRAAM [AIM-120B]

4x Generic Flare Salvo [2x Cartridges, Single Spectral]

4x Generic Flare Salvo [4x Cartridges, Single Spectral]

15x Generic Chaff Salvo [8x Cartridges]

120x 120mm STRIX Mortar HE

16x 120mm Rheinmetall APFSDS-T

180x 120mm Mortar HE

2x RB 15F Mk2

 

SIDE: Russia

===========================================================

LOSSES:

——————————-

1x Su-25SM Frogfoot A

2x Su-27S Flanker B

4x Su-24MP Fencer F

3x SA-15b Gauntlet [9A331] TELAR

8x T-90A Main Battle Tank

2x SKR Parchim II [Pr.1331]

1x Commercial RO/RO Vessel [18,000t DWT]

EXPENDITURES:

——————

16x AA-10 Alamo A [R-27R, MR SARH]

5x Generic Flare Salvo [4x Cartridges, Single Spectral]

37x Generic Chaff Salvo [4x Cartridges]

384x S-5K 57mm Rocket

8x AT-6 Spiral [9M114 Sturm-V]

3x AA-8 Aphid [R-60TM]

10x SA-15b Gauntlet [9M331]

8x RBK-250-PTAB CB [30 x PTAB-2.5 Anti-Tank Bomblets]

8x AA-10 Alamo C [R-27RE, LR SARH]

The Canadian connection – Hornets in need of replacement

In 1980 Canada declared the F/A-18A Hornet the winner of their New Fighter Aircraft program, which meant it would be brought into service as the CF-18 to replace three different fighters as the country’s sole fast jet. In doing so it beat a number of other fighters, crucially the F-16A. It is important to remember that the F-16 back in those days wasn’t a multirole aircraft, but rather a within visual range fighter with a limited secondary ground attack capability. The F/A-18 with its AIM-7 Sparrow medium-range missiles was arguably the more competent aircraft, and one of the main worries of the Canadian air force was Soviet bombers and cruise missiles swooping down over the Arctic. Canada is also a large and sparsely populated country that include large swaths of land were bailing out does not necessarily mean you’re in for a happy landing. This combination of BVR capability, longer range, and twin-engine safety in the end meant that Canada went with the more expensive option of the F/A-18 over the F-16 (it has to be mentioned that the government did claim that the economic incentives was better for the Hornet, making it cheaper for the Canadian economy. However, these kinds of arguments usually have a tendency to depend upon who’s making the calculations).

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CF-18A visiting Farnborough during its early years of service. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Andrew Thomas

Thirteen years after Canada received their first F/A-18’s, the first four Hornets for Finland landed at Tampere-Pirkkala. Finland, though markedly smaller than Canada, had a largely similar set of requirements, including cold-weather capability, twin-engine safety, long-range, and focus on the interceptor role. In the end, both Canada and Finland have been very happy members of the Hornet club, but the end of that era looms at the horizon.

Now the alert reader interrupts, if Finland has to replace its Hornets by 2025 due to their lifespan being up, Canada, having bought theirs ten years earlier, by the same logic should have replaced theirs already?

Yes and no. Finland operated the Hornet up until now as a single-role fighter, have placed a higher focus on traditional dogfighting maneuvers, which are extremely taxing on the airframe. In other words, not all flight hours are created equal, and not all aircraft fly the same amount of yearly hours. Also, the Canadian Hornets have been through a number of upgrade programs. Currently they seem to be looking at another set of programs which will take the aircraft up to and past 2025, not bad considering that the original lifespan was envisioned as 20 years (i.e. up to 2002). Canada also did have the replacement figured out, having been a partner of the F-35/JSF program since its beginning, and is currently a Level 3 Partner, i.e. the ‘normal’ level of partnership (only the UK, the Netherlands, and Italy are ranked higher).

Canadian Hornets in operation against ISIL as part of Operation IMPACT

Still, the F-35 has been beset by delays, and the project has been something of a hot potato in Canadian politics. The latest major turn was when Justin Trudeau led the Liberal Party to a victory in the federal elections last year, with the party’s position having been that they will ditch the F-35 and instead launch an open tender for a new fighter (with the F-35 being banned from participating). However, Canada have continued to make the required payments to stay a partner in the program while reviewing how the Hornet should be replaced.

Enter July, and amidst it becoming increasingly clear that there is an urgent need to replace, or at least supplement, the Canadian Hornets, the Canadian government launched what can best be described as a non-binding Request for Information. The aircrafts under consideration are the usual suspects: Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed-Martin F-35 (which is back in the running), and Saab JAS 39 Gripen.

Now, the interesting thing here is the schedule, with the answers to the questionnaire having been requested within three weeks (compare to the eight months allocated for the RFI issued by the Finnish HX). The details are rather sketchy, mainly because the questionnaire is “neither a Call for Tenders nor a Request for Proposals”. The background information provided also emphasises that “no procurement decision has been made“ and that “no summary or final report will be issued following the collection of information from industry”. The schedule for replacing the Hornets is literally given as “as soon as possible”, which ought to make things interesting. The whole thing feels like it is done under extreme time pressure. 

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A F-35 mock-up in Canadian colours. The only way the Lightning II will ever wear the maple leaf? Source: Wikimedia Commons/Alan Rioux

Interestingly enough, the flight scenarios in the attached file requires the respondent to use “actual aircraft configuration (utilize systems which are operational with Armed Services today only – non-developmental)”. This requirement pans out very differently. While Saab currently is the only one to sport the Meteor operationally, they only operate the 39C Gripen and not the longer-ranged 39E which would add considerably to their odds when flying intercepts far out over the Arctic. On the other hand, the F-35 is currently only operational in the V/STOL F-35B version, and if the Canadians decide to interpret the requirement literally, this is effectively a way to make certain the F-35 is a non-starter without explicitly writing so. Another problem for the F-35A is the bases used in the scenario. As fellow blogger Doug Allen noted over at Best Fighter 4 Canada, the 6,000 feet runways are too short for comfort. The Typhoon in turn is designed for exactly the scenario described in the evaluation, transiting high and fast to meet an enemy aircraft far out, but is a few years from getting an AESA radar and the Meteor. The Rafale does feature supersonic drop tanks and a potent AESA set, but the repeated requests for “seamless” integration with Five Eyes ISTAR and other tactical and strategic assets might not play to its strengths. The weapons are also uniquely French.

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The only non-carrier operator of the Super Hornet, Australia bought a batch of F/A-18F Super Hornets to supplement their ‘legacy’ Hornets while waiting for the F-35A. Sounds familiar? Source: Wikimedia Commons/Robert Frola

Enter the Super Hornet, which features the AN/APG-79 AESA radar, is seamlessly integrated into the US-Canadian NORAD air defence network, and carries the same munitions and missiles that the ‘legacy’ Hornet does. The last part is explicitly asked for in the questionnaire, something which is not the case in any documents regarding the HX which are openly available. The Super Hornet manufacturing line is also struggling with having too few aircraft to produce each year, so quickly ramping up to supply the RCAF with a limited number of stop-gap aircraft would be *relatively* easy. Boeing also has an established partnership with the Canadian defence forces and aviation industry. All in all, the stage seems set for Boeing’s fighter, and Canada is indeed one of the countries for which stealth isn’t necessarily a big deal, at least not for their homeland defence/NORAD contribution. Noteworthy is also that the questionnaire does mention cost for 100 pilots being trained, which would imply that the information could serve as a base for the complete Hornet replacement program (though one should remember that there isn’t a procurement decision for anything as of yet).

Another possibility is that, despite his continued official anti-F-35 view, Trudeau is trying to set the stage for a F-35 purchase, by creating the foundations for a competition, which the F-35 then can sweep clean (compare to Kampfly in Denmark). For Canada, a mix of Super Hornets (or Typhoons) for NORAD duties combined with F-35A’s for expeditionary work under NATO and UN commitments might actually be the ideal solution. Only time will tell if this will be the final outcome.

A big thanks to Karl Rieder for the link to the Canadian source material! Do follow him on Twitter if you don’t already.

Tour de Sky 2016 -Return of the ‘Balalaika’

This year’s main flying event in Finland has just been held in the form of Tour de Sky at Kuopio-Rissala, a joint civilian and military airfield. In the later form, it is home to half of Finland’s fast jets as the legendary 31 Fighter Squadron resides there.

LanceR

Bearing the traditions of the wartime 24 squadron and their Brewsters, post-war the squadron operated the MiG-21 in the F-13 and Bis variants for several decades up until they were withdrawn from Finnish service in 1998. This year the MiG returned in style, with two Romanian MiG-21 LanceR C being present (together with a supporting Alenia G.222), one of which performed a very spirited flying display. The LanceR C was an upgrade program launched by Romanian Aerostar and Israeli avionics company ELBIT, and included amongst other things fitting the aircraft with a modern multimode radar in the form of ELBIT’s EL/M-2032, installing two multi-function displays in the cockpit, and clearing the aircraft for the carriage of new short-range missiles such as Python 3, Magic 2, and R-73. Still, the program was completed in 2002, so even with the upgrades the aircraft is on the verge of obsolescence. However, considering that the fighter first flew sixty years ago, it is hard not to be impressed by its longevity. Looking at the lifespan and capabilities upgrade of the LanceR compared to the original MiG-21F is also sobering when considering that today’s new fighters will have a lifespan at least as long, with all the changes that entails.

LanceR II

Gripen

Saab’s ‘legacy’ Gripen was well-represented as usual, with two 39C (solo display plane and backup), as well as a 39D at static display opposite one of the Eurofighters. The 39D sported an impressive array of inert display weapons, including the imposing Taurus KEPD 350 cruise missile. Also interesting was a scale model of the 39E in Finnish colours which Saab had mounted on the wall next to the entrance to their Skybar. As kindly pointed out by their representatives, what was featured on the model’s inner wing station was decidedly not a Taurus…

JASSMed

Rafale C

Dassault was heavily present throughout the weekend, as, despite not bringing an aircraft, they brought a serious amount of brightly orange baseball caps, whit my guess being these easily outnumbered the total amount of caps handed away by all four other HX-hopefuls together. There will be more info on the Rafale with regards to the HX in a later post (as will be the case for Lockheed-Martin’s offering as well).

Hornet

The solo-Hornet was another crowd-pleaser, with the wet conditions providing for an impressive amount of vapour during its hard turns. While the IOC for HX might still seem far away, there isn’t too many air shows left before the F/A-18 will be relegated to second place.

OH-HVP

The first of the Finnish Border Guards new AS332L1e Super Puma helicopters demonstrating the Bambi-bucket.

TRD

The Eurofighter Typhoon returned to Finland for what is only their second visit here so far. The unremarkable looking pod on the wingtip actually holds, amongst other things, two Towed Radar Decoys, which can be streamed after the aircraft to fool radar-seeking missiles. Contrary to my first guess, the system is actually robust enough that deploying them does not incur any kind of restrictions to the aircrafts flight envelope. The deployment of these can be controlled either manually or automatically by the integrated DASS EW-system.

Choppers

The Swedish Hkp 14 next to its Finnish cousin the NH 90 TTH.

MC-130J

The weather…

 

A Brief Update on HX

Next weekend will see this year’s main air show in Finland. This will see a lot of focus on the HX, with the different manufacturers trying to sell in why their aircraft is the best fit for Finland in particular. In anticipation of the posts which no doubt will come out of that, a short recap of the recent developments that have taken place is in order.

Kampfly

As noted earlier, the Danish Kampfly-program was won by the F-35A in a spectacular fashion, with the fighter beating its contenders on all points, something which Boeing and Airbus haven’t taken lightly. A number of clarifications have been made by to questions asked by Boeing, and Airbus issued a very interesting request for clarifications (PDF) with 43 numbered quotes and questions, dealing with issues ranging from risk assessment, fixed price offers, evaluated aircraft standards, and even down to questioning if the competition really met all requirements. However, yesterday (9 June 2016) news broke that the Danish government has secured a broad enough coalition to push through the F-35 deal through parliament, and the deal seems set (for now at least). The eventual buy will include 27 to 21 fighters.

Dassault Rafale

The everlasting story of the French fighter’s big push to India is ever evolving. With the original MRCA-contract scrapped, the smaller (but still considerable) 36 aircraft order has proved to be an equally lengthy process, and despite reports in early April of a signing ‘within three weeks’, the deal is still open.

For the fighter program as a whole, much focus is on the update to the next F-3R standard, which is slated for service entry in early 2019 and qualifications the year before. The new standard will amongst other things see integration of the long-range Meteor air-to-air missile, but also an assorted range of improvements to the sensors and avionics, as well as the new Thales PDL-NG targeting pod.

Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

The ‘Rhino’ continues to be pushed for a number of export contracts, the most promising perhaps of which currently is Canada. The Canadians are realising that pushing back the time scale for their CF-188 Hornet replacement will make it hard to sustain a viable fleet of fighter aircraft in the meantime (the Canadian Hornets are of the older F/A-18A/B versions compared to those operated by Finland), and a small number of Super Hornets is now marketed as the logical stop-gap replacement until the ‘proper’ replacement has been determined. This would be very much along the same lines as how the Royal Australian Air Force reasoned when they brought in the Super Hornet in anticipation of the coming F-35A which they also have on order.

For the US Navy, Boeing is again actively pushing for an Advanced Super Hornet, though in a slightly scaled back (‘matured’, in the words of Boeing’s marketing department) configuration compared to the initial prospects put forward three years ago. The concept include a number of different enhancements, with some (e.g. conformal fuel-tanks) being rather low cost and low risk, while others (e.g. an enhanced engine) being much more complex. At least a number of these, if not all, will probably be offered for HX, regardless of whether the US adopts them or not.

The Kuwaiti export order still seems to be on track, but hampered by slow bureaucracy in the US, while the Super Hornet is also trying to push for contracts in Asia, crucially under the Make in India-initiative as well as for Malaysia.

Eurofighter Typhoon

The Eurofigther is coming to Kuopio, and with two British and two German aircraft, the fighter returns to the Finnish skies in style. This is only its second appearance in Finland, and quite possibly a sign of increased interest by BAE (which is the manufacturer responsible for marketing it to HX, unlike Kampfly where Airbus held the reins) towards the Finnish contract.

For Eurofighter, their Kuwaiti export deal has been successfully signed, and the 8 billion Euro deal is to include not only 28 fighters, but also significant infrastructure investments. The later makes the aircrafts’ cost hard to judge, a point which traditionally has been one of the weaker for the Eurofighter. Of interest is that the Kuwaiti air force has opted for the new E-Scan radar, which finally provides a launch customer for an AESA-equipped Eurofighter. Having secured deliveries of this new configuration should prove a boost for the fighter in future competitions, including HX.

Saab JAS 39E Gripen

Saab has finally rolled out the first Gripen in what is the full 39E-configuration, and is continuing to aggressively market the fighter, with Finland being one of the more important deals currently up for grabs. One of the more memorable statements of the roll-out was when Deputy Managing Director of Saab International Finland Oy, Anders Gardberg, in an interview pounced on the notion that stealth equals invisibility.

“The hype should start to fade away by now.”

The program is largely moving on according to the plans discussed earlier here on the blog, with the 39C now flying with the Meteor long-range missile in Swedish service, this making it the first fighter to employ the weapon operationally.

Lockheed-Martin F-35

The F-35 is moving along more or less according to plans, with the upcoming USAF F-35A initial operational capability being the next big milestone. The software being used for this has been switched from the ‘final’ Block 3F to the Block 3IR6, which is described as being ‘only 89% of the [Block 3F] full warfighting code’. Still, the 3IR6 allows for carrying both air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, although the full weapons integration (amongst a few other things) is still someway off. In light of the criticism directed against the standards, or rather lack thereof, employed by the USMC when declaring the F-35B IOC last summer, the air force seems set on making sure that the airplane really does provide operational capabilities when the IOC is announced, something which should happen later this year, with the Joint Program Office aiming for August.

In the meantime the first Dutch F-35A’s have arrived in the Netherlands for a series of noise level tests, as well as the first public display of the aircraft on this side of the Atlantic. The real big bang in this sense will come at Farnborough, with up to five F-35A and B taking part in both flying and static displays.

General HX

Boeing and Lockheed-Martin have, unsurprisingly, decided not to offer their older F-15E Strike Eagle and F-16V Viper.

The HX program office will also accept responses including mixes of unmanned platforms and fighters. While several of the companies involved in the HX does have some plans or even flying technology demonstrators in this field, it seems unlikely that their level of maturity would be sufficient to play a large role in the tender. However, some kind of ‘fitted for but not with’-capability allowing for the inclusion of unmanned systems at a later date might be plausible.

HX marketing videos – the good, the bad, and the stock footage

When sending out the Request for Information regarding the HX-program the Finnish Ministry of Defence also offered the companies an opportunity to send in a short video marketing themselves and their product. While the impact of these on the evaluation process in marginal (probably an overstatement…), they do tell something about the level of commitment from the companies in question. It also indicates the focus of the campaign and their selling points. As such, these deserve to be reviewed, and to get a non-avgeek viewpoint, I’ve brought Mrs. Frisk along as a guest reviewer (though to be honest, she has probably involuntarily acquired more insight into the HX-program than your average aircraft spotter).

And yes, this all is massively off-topic, and strictly movies-only, with no take on which fighter is the best one for HX.

virmalised
Polar lights, what 60% of the world’s aircraft manufacturers think off when they hear the word “Finland”. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Reio Rada
  1. Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II

This was by far the weakest showing off the lot. Not that it was bad, but the video was apparently the standard marketing video for the program, first showing off the varied aircraft in the Lockheed-Martin portfolio, after following up with video of the F-35 in all three versions. Seriously, we are planning to invest up to 10 billion Euros, and Lockheed-Martin weren’t bothered to even slightly alter the marketing material to speak to Finnish needs?

+Showing the broad portfolio

+Generally nice footage

No mention of Finland/HX/any customization at all

Mrs. Frisk: “The whole video feels old, and I’m not too sold on the stripes along the sides or the name-carrying banner appearing over the aircrafts. The vertical landing was neat.”

  1. Tied: Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and BAE Eurofighter Typhoon

Boeing’s ‘Super Bug’ and BAE’s take on the eurocanard-concept ties for third, both doing some things right and some things less so.

Boeing offers a very Finnish video, beginning with green polar lights and computer-generated Finnish flags, before quickly skipping to stock footage (and music) of Super Hornets flying around, accompanied by a Finnish flag decorated by the Hornet-logo and selling points. While they certainly score no points for artistic creativity, they have at least bothered to read through the requirements, and in a clear and concise manner explain why they feel that they’re the best fit for HX. Points for mentioning suitability of dispersed operations.

Mrs. Frisk: “This feels like a mixture, more info than the Eurofighter one, but more ‘Woosh’ than Saab’s offering. They manage to emphasise ‘Safe’ without sounding like they’re trying to sell you a Volvo. Though I personally dislike hornets (or anything resembling them). The bug ones, that is… ;-)”

+Informative

+Relevant for HX

Stock footage not overly impressive

The video by Eurofighter feels like they’ve used a stock intro, and then pasted on this a tailored ending, talking mainly about the fact that BAE already is a thrusted partner of the Finnish Air Force with Hawk advanced trainer, and that it would be natural to build upon this with the world’s “most advanced” multi-roll fighter for HX. The flying over snow clip feels more relevant than that of Middle Eastern naval vessels, but all in all a nice looking video. The main issue was the lack of selling points for the Typhoon with regards to the specifics of the HX-program.

Mrs. Frisk: “This one’s nicely done, it feels very much like an advertisement, and has less direct info than the Super Hornet, but they do bring up BAE’s other branches, which promises good integration across the board, as well as their current cooperation with Finland.”

+Very nice video and soundtrack

+Ties in with earlier BAE activities in Finland

Information regarding HX not on par with other videos

  1. Saab JAS 39E/F Gripen

Saab goes all in for the Finnish theme, and is the only one to feature a narrator speaking Finnish. Unfortunately, while the video is choke-full of information, most of which is addressed directly towards the Finnish HX-requirements, the narrator’s matter-of-fact attitude becomes a little bit too matter-of-fact, and coupled with the lack of fancy weapons’ releases, the whole thing gets a bit too reminiscent of Avara luonto (Finnish nature documentaries, think sir Attenborough, but without a peerage). However, it features some really nice video, including the obligatory green polar lights, much of which benefits from being shot in Sweden and thus very close to HX’s future environment. The final product is nice enough that one might even forgive the sometimes illogical jumps between “you” and “we” in the narrative.

Mrs. Frisk: “Safe and reliable are certainly nice features also for a fighter, however, this lacks the action element in trying to market a fighter. It feels like they’re trying to sell me a family car, and the whole thing is a bit boring. Brings up the Finnish demands in a very good way, though!”

+Nice video, featuring a very Finnish-like setting

+Finnish narrator

+Very informative, and relevant to HX

A bit slow compared to Dassault’s and BAE’s offerings

  1. Dassault Rafale

Dassault Rafale skipped the narrator all together, and instead starts off with Finnish composer Sibelius, green polar lights, and a quote from our national epic, Kalevala.

“Tulta iski ilman lintu, valahutti valkeaista.”

” Quickly then this bird of heaven, kindled fire among the branches.”

Kalevala, second poem

We Finns love when people recognise Sibelius and Kalevala.

The video doesn’t dwell on its purpose. Dassault is here to sell their fighter to a snowy Finland (though they aren’t quite aware of our lack of proper ravines), and they can not only offer a load of different weapons for it, the plane is already tested in a number of conflicts. To top it up, they promise technology transfers and all the other bells and whistles. And as an engineer, I just love the shot of the SCALP dropping from the aircraft, popping out its wings and then speeding of.

Much (all) of this is promoted by other candidates as well, but Dassault manages to provide it all in an extremely attractive package, offering both the current selling points and the Top Gun-feeling you expect from a fighter jet.

Mrs. Frisk: “This is nice! It’s speed and action, and ‘combat proven’. This gives the impression that when others just fly around, the Rafale is busy reducing buildings to dust. Best one of the lot!”

+Extremely nice video, with some (computerised) snow

+Finnish feeling

+Information relevant to HX

 


On a serious note, while Saab’s strong video was expected, Dassault was a positive surprise. That Lockheed-Martin couldn’t be bothered to even paste some texts or Finnish flags onto their video were perhaps the most unforeseen deal. Of note is that neither F-16V nor F-15E was marketed in any way, and it seems like both companies will follow in Saab’s footsteps and only offer their latest bird.

Saab Gripen seminar 2016

Saab held its annual Gripen seminar earlier this month, and during the rather brief presentation a couple of interesting points surfaced.

To begin with, Saab seems very confident regarding future exports, aiming to be the market leader in their segment. They have successfully competed and won against both ends of the spectrum, F-16C/D in Europe and F-35/Rafale/Eurofighter in Brazil, and especially the latter has placed the Gripen on the map as a serious contender. A couple of new opportunities in Europe are evident in the form of Croatia and Bulgaria looking for a replacement to their small forces of updated Soviet-era fighters, with the Swedish state being in the later stages of discussions regarding eight Gripens to Slovakia. As noted earlier on the blog, Saab has a number of half-assembled 39C/D’s, to facilitate fast deliveries exactly for this kind of orders. While no orders have yet been signed, it seems clear that the earlier programs to Hungary and the Czech Republic for very similar orders have provided good references. In Asia, a number of countries including Malaysia and Indonesia (“Don’t believe everything you read in the news”) are also very active.

IMG_4261

More surprisingly, India seems to be a very hot topic, especially after the top-level diplomatic visit by the Swedish prime minister earlier this year. Saab declined to say if the Indian interest is a restarted MMRCA-competition, a smaller stop-gap order similar to the Rafale-order currently in discussions, or Sea Gripens for the Indian carrier(s), stating that the next step is up to the customer. Sea Gripen is very much alive, and preliminary studies have been concluded. If India would suddenly lose interest in the MiG-29K and/or the (as yet paperplane) naval Tejas, there obviously is a possibility to start the product development phase with India as launch customer, either singly or in unison with Brazil. These are more or less the only two countries that might have a serious interest in buying a foreign conventional take-off carrier fighter.

An interesting comment was also made with regards to the Finnish HX-program, where Saab said they expected it to be in the 40+ aircraft category. From the preliminary work report we know that the air force would want a 1:1 replacement of the current fleet (57 fighters and 7 two-seat conversion aircraft), but we also know that the RFI will be covering “differently sized packages”. So far those in the know have declined to specify what this would mean in practice, and it might be that this was the first concrete indication about what the smaller package might mean.

If the air force would be shrunk to 40 fighters, it would be a huge blow. As the preliminary report noted, the current size is already dictated by economics and not operational needs, and it would diminish the air force’s warfighting ability dangerously much.

However, one has to admit that slashing the air force with a third would be elegantly in line with cuts to the army and surface fleet