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

The Rocketeers

In the midst of the strategic acquisitions it is easy to get locked in on the choice of platform, whether it is the HX fighter or the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes. But someone has to supply the teeths to make them able to bite, and this is where companies such as MBDA come in to the picture.

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A Dassault Rafale being armed. Picture courtesy of: © Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa

MBDA is yet another of the numerous joint ventures created in Europe in a time when not even the major regional powers can muster enough of a demand to warrant developing their own high-performance weaponry. However, the company is something of an outlier in that several of the products they have on their shelf have a good reputation both when it comes to project management and the cost/capability ratio of the final product.

Arming HX

Our basic philosphy is that we are platform agnostic, we serve everybody

MBDA has a product integrated or somewhere down the propsed upgrade paths on most HX-candidates. The flagship is without doubt the very-long range Meteor, largely held to be the most capable weapon in beyond-visual range engagments against fighter-sized targets currently operational. The introduction in service aboard the JAS 39C Gripen as part of the MS20 upgrade “changed the behaviour over the Baltic Sea”, both on the part of the Swedish fighters carrying them as well as for the Russian aircrafts they meet there. Courtesy of the ramjet engine and the 100+ km range, it provide “at least three times the no-escape zone” of current medium range missile (read: AIM-120C AMRAAM). The missile will find itself under the wings and fuselages of the Rafale and Typhoon within the next few years in addition to Gripen (both Charlie and Echo), creating an interesting dilemma for a manufacturer supplying highly complex equipment which is to be integrated into competing platforms. MBDA’s solution is to assign each aircraft and country it’s own manager, making sure that there are watertight bulkheads between any platform specific information entering the company.

For Gripen in HX, that man is Peter Bäckström, MBDA’s director exports for the Nordic region. An engineer by trade, he worked on a number of subsystems for the Meteor and TAURUS KEPD 350 before moving into sales. He has a clear view about what made the Meteor different from so many other projects. “It was born out of a requirement, a need for a 100+ km capable missile”, he notes, before continuing. “Game changer is a worn-out term, but this really is. It establishes a new set of rules.”

For the Gripen E, the Meteor and the increased number of hardpoints changes what has often been decried as a light fighter into a serious BVR-force, with a maximum load of seven Meteor and two short-range IRIS-T on the wingtips. While the maximum load might not be suitable for everyday carriage (if nothing else then due to budgetary constraints), it still places the air-to-air weapons load more or less on par with e.g. the Rafale.

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The fulls-scale Gripen ‘Echo’ mock-up showing three belly-mounted Meteors. Source: Own picture

But Meteor is far from the only thing MBDA has to offer for HX. ASRAAM is also found in their arsenal, a rather unique missile in being designed for ranges which are usually the realm of radar-guided ones. Given this, I have to ask Bäckström if there is any truth to the rumours that it can outrange the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Bäckström just smiles, and simply quips “It’s a very good missile”. In roughly the same class, the MICA-family (with both IR- and radar-guided versions) is set to be upgraded within the next decade. Unlike the Meteor, from the viewpoint of HX MICA is tied to Rafale. If Finland buys Rafale, we will likely get the MICA as well, but if any other aircraft takes home HX the MICA likely won’t make it’s way into the Finnish inventory (though it isn’t ruled out).

For heavy cruise-missiles, there’s not one but two options. The best known is likely the combat-proven SCALP/Storm Shadow, sporting inertial/GPS/terrain reference guidance and an IIR-seeker for terminal guidance. The different parameters which can be set include fusing (air burst, impact, or penetration) and dive angle. The missile is designed to feature a very high level of automation on the part of the pilot, meaning that it is suitable for single-seat fighters as well as twin-seaters.

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A TAURUS KEPD350 being loaded onto a Sapnish F/A-18 Hornet (C.15). Source: Ejército del Aire Ministerio de Defensa España via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Taurus KEPD 350E is the other alternative, being built to a different requirement for the German and Swedish Air Forces (though Sweden is yet to acquire and put the weapon into operational use). The ‘350’ in the name comes from the requirement of 350 km range in all conditions at all drop heights. In practice, this means that the range when dropped from height is well above 500 km. It can be dropped from as low as 100 meters, which often is little more than a gimmick for stand-off weapons. However, for Finland this might actually be a useful feature, as there is value in staying below the radar horizon of the Russian ground based air surveillance radars. The 480 kg MEPHISTO penetrating warhead with pre-charge is also described in grand terms.

This is a real penetrator, not a ‘put down it down in a hole and blow it up’-warhead

TAURUS actually did compete for the contract which was won by the JASSM regarding integration into the Finnish Air Force F/A-18C Hornets. It is hard to tell what made the TAURUS come in second back then, whether there were particular political considerations or ease of integration (US fighter – US missile, though ROKAF has opted for the TAURUS for their F-15K Strike Eagles and Spain is integrating it on the Hornet) which played into the decision, or whether it was purely based on performance of the missile in question. In any case, the TAURUS is set to be integrated on Typhoons and not completely unlikely to appear on the 39E Gripen, so it wouldn’t be altogether surprising for it to fill that JASSM-shaped void after the retirement of the Hornet.

Ground-/Ship-based

While the airborne systems grabs all the attention, the question of air defence system for the Pohjanmaa-class (Squadron 2020) is still unresolved. The last of the major weapon systems open, it will pit ESSM against the CAMM-ER (Barak 8 has been mentioned in the speculations, but is likely too large. I-Derby might be on offer instead). CAMM and CAMM-ER shares some of the same ancestry as the ASRAAM, but has developed into a rather different beast. The weapon feature a newly developed radar seeker, and is able to be quad-packed into a Mk 41 (or the smaller and lighter ExLS) just as the ESSM. From there the CAMM+family is soft-launched, and sports ranges in the 25 to 45 km class, depending on exact version and target. Interestingly enough, packed into the launcher it is completely maintenance free for a decade. This also ensures that once Finland has gotten the missiles, it is possible to operate them completely independently from the supplier. Or as Bäckström describes it:

A sovereign supply solution.

The weapon is already operational with the Royal Navy (and has been sold to other nations), but perhaps even more interesting is that the British Army performed their first firings of the Land Ceptor (known as EMADS in mainland Europe) earlier this year. If MBDA manages to get the CAMM-ER chosen as the main air defence weapon for the Finnish Navy, MBDA could suddenly claim synergy effects in the race for a longer-ranged ground-based air defence system for the Finnish Army. So far the ability of the NASAMS systems (already in Finnish service as the ITO12) to fire the longer-ranged AMRAAM-ER has made it a favourite, but questions has also been raised if that would mean putting too many eggs in the same basket. Notably the CAMM-ER would also provided the altitude coverage the Finnish Army is looking for following the retirement of the Buk-M1. A Land Ceptor solution able to use a joint missile stock with the Navy’s corvettes might suddenly be a very interesting proposition.

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Land Ceptor during test fires in Sweden earlier this year. The time lapse shows the cold launch sequence in which the missile is flung upwards out of the tube, and only then firing its engine. Source: UK MoD (Crown copyright/OGL)

Another interesting thing to note is that MBDA is quick to point out that the missile would fit nicely into the Swedish organisation as well, as an all-weather mid-tier missile between the Patriot and the IRIS-T. While currently all light is on the Patriot-deal, it is clear that two understrength air defence battalions won’t provide the air defence coverage needed by the Swedish Army, and MBDA raising the benefits of a joint Finnish-Swedish buy (either of whole systems or missiles) might be worth keeping an eye on. Normal caveat about companies liking to market that they are in negotiations/close to a deal applies…

The draft text has been read through by MBDA, to make certain that it only contain non-classified information and general comments. Minor changes followed as part of the feedback received from them.