While the ink has barely dried on the HX-contract the rumour mill is in full swing about what other flying things the Finnish Defence Forces is about to get next. Will the GlobalEye suddenly make an appearance after all, or is maritime aviation about to be reborn in the form of anti-submarine helicopters? And what about all these drone trials?
And then from nowhere, the C-130 Hercules swoops in and steals the show.
Finland has never been big on airborne transportation. For the better part of the Cold War the main workhorse was the C-47 (one of the examples of which was 42-100646, OH-LCB / DO-7 in Finnish service, which had taken part in Operation Overlord with a certain then-lieutenant Richard “Dick” Winters as the jumpmaster. The aircraft was later sold to the Dutch Dakota Association as PH-DDA and unfortunately crashed in 1996 with multiple fatalities). These were then replaced by the Fokker F27, which in turned were replaced by three Casa (now Airbus) C-295M. These are the first true modern military transports operated by the Finnish Air Force, and two operate in that role with the third being a dedicated SIGINT-platform. By all accounts the platform is well-liked, and if the Air Force need something bigger there is always the C-17 of the Heavy Airlift Wing in Pápa which Finland operate together with a number of other countries.
This might now be in for a change as major general Juha-Pekka Keränen steps in and states that his personal view is that in the (near) future Finland will need an air mobility solution based on an aircraft in the C-130 Hercules-class. While this is a a personal opinion, since major general Keränen is the commander of the Finnish Air Force, what he thinks in these issues warrants attention.
The reasoning is rather simple to follow. Two C-295M does not an air transport fleet make, but rather it gives the ability to have a single aircraft ready to either transport approximately 60 persons or a corresponding cargo load throughout the country, including to and from austere fields. This is fine looking at the national context which the aircraft was acquired for – as opposed to neighbouring Sweden Finnish airborne/air mobile doctrine has always focused more on small unit operations so we don’t plan for any major air lifts or drops – but then NATO happened. And the Kabul evacuation. And the deliveries of military aid to Ukraine. And a general realisation that you might not get the C-17 flight hours when you want them in case of a sudden crisis that involve more countries than just Finland.
As mentioned what Keränen is envisioning is an aircraft corresponding to the C-130 Hercules in size. This measuring stick is not quite unambiguous as not all Herculeses are created equal. Nowadays, there are two major branches of Herculeses rolling of the Lockheed Martin production line. The basic C-130J Super Hercules is a modern version of the workhorse which has served approximately a third of the countries of the world starting in the late 50’s and up to and including the present day. In addition there is the C-130J-30 Super Hercules which has a stretched fuselage meaning the cargo compartment is 35% longer at 16.9 as opposed to 12.5 meters for the unstretched C-130J. The payload is in fact not going up significantly – a modest 900 kg more on the C-130J-30 puts the maximum normal payload at 16,330 kg as opposed to 15,420 kg – but for cargo which takes up space rather than mass (such as soldiers) the difference in internal volume is huge. In essence, when the non-stretched Hercules can bring 90 combat troops to your favourite local dirt strip in one go, the C-130J-30 brings 128. Same goes for the number of pallet (say ‘Hello!’ to Think Defence) which goes up from six to eight.
At the same time, a larger aircraft will be heavier and more costly to operate, and take up more ramp space (the C-295M is already the largest aircraft ever to operate in the Finnish Air Force), so whichever you prefer is down to your requirements. And it is notable that even the unstretched aircraft is plenty long enough to fit e.g. everyone’s favourite truck-mounted firestarter, as demonstrated by a special forces MC-130J Commando II on a stretch of Swedish road last year. Both would also represent huge improvements over the C-295M, and provide important increases to the strategic mobility of the Finnish Army in particular. While being able to quickly shift a platoon from one end of the country to the other seldom is important, being able to do so with a company just might already be so. Same goes for 15 tons of ammunition or spares.
The C-130 isn’t the only game in town, another type Keränen mentions as worth considering is the (K)C-390 which the Netherlands opted for when replacing their C-130 fleet (in the process making the Dutch something along the lines of fourth air force worldwide to have at some point operated the Hercules and retired the type without replacing it with another Herc, a seriously impressive statistic that is hard to match for any aircraft type). However, Keränen notes that with the other Nordic countries going for the C-130J Super Hercules, that is the forerunner in his mind.
Again, it should be stressed that this is a general speaking his personal mind without likely having done much in the way of calculations or detailed analysis of the logistical needs and benefits of what would primarily be a resource for the Army, Special Forces, and civilian crisis response role (including medical evacuations). Still, Keränen goes as far as noting that with Sweden, Denmark, and Norway all either operating or being in the process of acquiring the Super Herc, a joint-Nordic Hercules squadron serving all four countries could be a solution. We are (finally) all going to be treaty allies after all, removing the main question mark that has hung over similar solutions so far. And getting back to the stretched/not-stretched, the current situation seems to be that Sweden will stick with the short-cargo Hercules when stepping up from C-130H to C-130J territory through the acquisition of something between four and six ex-Italian aircraft. Norway and Denmark however both operate four C-130J-30 each. With Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat picking up the story and having a longer interview with both Keränen and Lt.Col. Petteri Kurkien at FDF Logisitics Command (which also handle acquisition programs), we get some further insight into Keränen’s thinking. In particular he states that he doesn’t seem any use in getting single aircraft, as you need a minimum of two to have at least one on call at any given time. Two to four is the number that could be relevant for Finland (as mentioned four is something of a Nordic standard). At the same time, Finland has the Casa which represent a capability that the other Nordic countries lack, so an argument can be made for Finland being able to make do with fewer aircraft. However, a counter-argument can also be made that the Finnish geography and sea to the west and south means that Finland might be interested in having a greater capability if we e.g. suddenly want to shift a Finnish battalion to Estonia or fly a Swedish air defence battery to Kouvola.
One thing to note is that while the C-130 has been converted to the tanker role in a number of configurations – including in Swedish service but most prolifically in the form of the USMC family of KC-130 tankers with the KC-130J as the latest iteration – these have always employed the hose and drogue-system. In essence there are two ways of doing aerial refuelling, of which the hose and drogue is simpler but less efficient in a number of ways compared to the competing flying boom-system. No points for guessing which is the favourite of naval aviation and which has become the USAF standard. As such, KC-130 has been able to refuel the F/A-18 Hornet and the JAS 39 Gripen, but not the F-16 or the F-35A.
Enter the KC-390 ‘agile tanker’, a joint project between L3Harris and Embraer announced earlier this year. It would be fitted with a boom, and have the ability to transfer fuel to F-35A. The total fuel capacity of the current KC-390 Millennium is 35,000 kg, which is more or less in line with the 38,300 kg of fuel a KC-130J is able to offer from its internal system, external tanks, and additional cargo compartment fuel tank. The agile tanker is still very much a paper product, but it is something worth keeping in mind when discussing aircraft. At the same time, a boom-tanker is inherently less versatile in the transport role compared to hose-tankers which doesn’t require much in the way of modifications to the rear ramp or cargo compartment.
However, as noted by Keränen there is currently no ongoing program, and this was echoed by Minister of Defence Antti Kaikkonen to YLE this morning, who stated that we have no “immediate need”. So we could just leave this for now, and get back in a few years.
…but where would be the fun in that?
There’s already been weeks since the last announcement of the trademark FDF surplus deals where Finland suddenly increases military capability through the acquisition of used equipment on the cheap, and while the Swedes have apparently ran off with the Italian C-130J Super Herculeses, another major NATO-country is also preparing to dump a sizeable number of aircraft on the market. Remember that fact about just a handful of countries having ever moved away from the C-130? Well, just over half of those have settled for the Airbus A400M Atlas, an aircraft that is larger, more expensive, generally better in most ways, and one which did not fly the year Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt. It is also a pan-European project plagued by delays and cost-overruns as well as poor availability, but which now seems to be headed in the right direction (if all this makes you think of NH90, you are probably not too far off). Airbus will almost certainly offer the A400M for Finland in case of a formal process taking off, but it is likely to be overkill for any Finnish requirement.
However, over in the country of his majesty king Charles III, his Royal Air Force is about to ditch their whole C-130-fleet to go all in on the A400M. RAF operate a mixed fleet of C-130J (local designation C.5) and C-130J-30 (local designation C.4), of which the better part of the C.5 (yes, the shorter ones) have been sold off to Bangladesh and Bahrain, with a single aircraft becoming the new ‘Fat Albert’ support aircraft of the USN Blue Angels. However, there is a sizeable number (as in, thirteen which is way more than four) stretched C.4 still waiting for what will happen to them post-2023 when they are supposed to be taken out of service. The flight hours for these were published in april last year, and while all were more or less in the 10-15,000 flight hour span then (and you can likely add quite a few hours since) there is still some life left in them. ZH885 had flown 31,888 hours when it went to the US, just to give an example.
Exactly how much life is an open question, and rests on how straining the hours have been, with the number of landings and take-offs (which hopefully are the same) being an important factor as well. It is known that the UK Hercules-fleet was in need of undergoing a centre wing box replacement which would allow them to serve into 2035, and that the fleet-wide contract was worth 110M GBP. While this is obviously a lot of money for something that will still need to be retired in 13 years it needs to be put into perspective: ZH885 apparently went for 29.7M USD back in 2020, which might or might not have included the refurbishment done in the UK before delivery. After a quick inflation adjustment a new-built C-130J should be approximately 94.0M EUR today, approaching three times the 35.0M EUR (adjusted) cost of ZH885. If Finland could get say 15,000 flight hours each out of four ex-RAF C-130J-30 and get them for under 40 million Euro a piece, even with investment in infrastructure and so forth we could be looking at a complete program for say 250M EUR which would ensure a Finnish airlift capability on par with that of our neighbours on short notice and stretching into the next decade (after which we would have gone down the rabbit hole of most operators and realised how much we love having big aircraft and need to buy a bunch of new-built transports, but that’s for another day).
However, we might have to be quick if we want in on the UK aircraft, as Finland isn’t the only one to reflect on the need for bigger transports. Austria this week announced their 10-year plan, which include among other things a replacement for their four current legacy C-130 Hercules. The aircraft’s original owner? Well, glad you asked. The RAF.
Edit: Look what was published on Friday! Thanks for the tip, TD!