Under Scottish Skies – The Path Forward

‘Seek and Destroy’. That’s the motto of the RAF’s 41(R) test and evaluation squadron currently residing at RAF Coningsby. Operating six Typhoons (as well as a few Tornados set for retirement next year), the squadron is responsible for testing updates to RAF’s Typhoons and looking into the best ways of employing new capabilities in the field, before these are rolled-out to the frontline squadrons of the service. This summer, the squadron will start testing a new and highly destructive tool, as the first operational Typhoons will receive the P2E-upgrade (Phase 2 Enhancements). The most obvious change to RAF Typhoon operations this brings is the introduction of the Meteor very-long range air-to-air missile, though internally the there will also be major improvements to the data link and sensor fusion.

Smith

“Meteor [on Typhoon] will feature a two-way datalink, which is quite different to Rafale”Paul Smith, BAE Systems Test Pilot

Meteor is something both RAF and BAE Systems like to talk about. RAF Lossiemouth station commander group captain Paul Godfrey notes that the real life roll-out has been preceded by a significant amount of test in simulators, focused on looking into the tactics the new weapon will allow for. “I am hugely looking forward to it”, he says. BAE test pilot Paul Smith shows a slide highlighting the different velocity pattern of the ramjet-driven missile compared to traditional rocket-powered ones. Rocket engines accelerate faster out of the gate, but once the rocket has burned out the missile will coast towards the target, meaning that long-range shots will have relatively little energy left for maneuvering close to the target. The Meteor’s ramjet engine is able to cruise at an economical setting and then throttle up when it closes in on the target, giving it a huge boost to the no-escape zone compared to rocket-powered missiles. It is no surprise that the Meteor is set to complement or in some cases replace the AIM-120 AMRAAM and MICA medium- and long-range missiles on all HX-contenders with the exception of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, though there are differences to exactly how it is being implemented. Both the Eurofigher and the Gripen will feature a two-way datalink, which allows the missile to send data back to the aircraft, further increasing accuracy as well as situational awareness.

Godfrey talking

“We already know how we’ll operate the Meteor”GROUP CAPTAIN PAUL GODFREY OBE, STATION COMMANDER AT RAF LOSSIREMOUTH

But P2E is only part of what RAF calls the the Centurion staircase, a series of phased enhancements aimed at making sure no capabilities will disappear with the retirement of the Tornado in 2019. The P3E(a) is in the works for RAF, which will bring the Brimstone to the Typhoon. Officially described as a low-collateral high precision air-to-surface weapon, the anti-tank/anti-vehicle missile is probably best described as an AGM-65 Maverick for the 21st century. It has been used with great success in all combat operation RAF has taken part in during recent years. Godfrey highlighted its performance in Libya, where RAF Tornados used it to take out a pro-Gaddafi T-72 which was shooting at a crowd in an urban environment. The Brimstone penetrated the tank, and the explosion was violent enough to cause the turret to bounce from its mount, while the people standing besides it were unhurt. The Brimstone has also quite a lot of potential against lighter naval vessels, and being carried on triple-racks a nice number of missiles can be carried by the Typhoon.

Yes, that is the kind of stuff that gives landing craft skippers nightmares.

The other weapon being integrated with P3E(a) is the Storm Shadow stealthy cruise missile, called SCALP in French service. In the event of the Eurofighter (or Rafale) actually winning the HX-program, this would likely be acquired to replace the AGM-158 JASSM in Finnish service (the 15 year shelf-life of the missiles nicely matches the retirement date of the F/A-18C Hornet). In parallel the P3E(b) is being developed for the Kuwait Air Force, and includes the Enhanced GBU-16 (GBU-48) 1,000 pound laser/GPS-guided bomb, as well as the CAPTOR E AESA radar and the Sniper advanced targeting pod in place of RAF’s Litening III pods.

There has been much talk about the fact that the Eurofighter still relies on the CAPTOR M mechanically scanned radar, which, despite being more or less as good as it gets when it comes to mechanical scanning, is still not an electronically scanned array. Godfrey admits that while the current radar is very good, he would like to get the CAPTOR E.  “Would I like to have an AESA? Sure. Why? Because of versatility.” While his wish will be granted, in the case of RAF, the CAPTOR E is still some time out in the future.

Before HX deliveries the plan is that yet another major upgrade will have taken place. The P4E is currently in the negotiation phase, and as such its exact scope is yet undecided. The plan is that the upgrade will include full operational capability for the CAPTOR E, upgrades to the PIRATE infrared search and track sensor, as well as the integration of SPEAR long-range anti-tank/anti-vehicle weapon (and/or the Small Diameter Bomb in some version). The SPEAR will, together with a planned major improvement to the DASS and sensor integration, be at the core of allowing the Typhoon to take up the SEAD/DEAD mission. This is a most welcome addition for RAF, as they lack a dedicated SAM-hunting capability after the retirement of the ALARM anti-radiation missile in 2013. In addition, a number of anti-ship missiles are currently being evaluated. These include the Marte ER, of which there is currently a feasibility study ongoing for integrating it onto the Typhoon, as well as the JSM and Harpoon (of which the JSM is further along). A contract for the P4E is expected within the next 12 months.

Pair of Tiffies

“The Centurion staircase is what’s driving the UK Typhoon program”JOHN BROMEHEAD, GENERAL MANAGER BAE SYSTEMS

What won’t see a direct replacement is the RAPTOR reconnaissance pod, the British version of the Goodrich DB-110. Instead, advanced targeting pods will take over the role of dedicated reconnaissance pods for the Typhoon.

The P4E would likely form the basis of the Eurofighter Typhoon’s HX-bid. Still, it is important to remember that just because an aircraft is certified for a certain weapon, it does not mean that Finland would get these (case in point the current F/A-18C Hornet is able to carry the better part of the US Navy’s arsenal, while in Finnish service the weapons used goes on the fingers of one hand). In the case of the Eurofighter, while the weapons integration is part of the core package, ‘unlocking’ a certain weapon or capability means buying it from the nation(s) that have originally paid for it’s integration. In this way, costs for popular weapons are brought down through sharing, but you only pay for the ones you plan on buying. Realistically, this means that Finland e.g. would buy either IRIS-T (likely) or the ASRAAM short-ranged air-to-air missiles to complement the longer-ranged Meteor, and not both. In the same way, exactly which ground attack weapons would be bought is open. To replace the capabilities of the current F/A-18C Hornet the Storm Shadow would likely replace the JASSM, with SPEAR and some suitable GPS/LGB being other likely candidates. Brimstone and an anti-ship missile would add significant punch to the Air Force, but while the Air Force Command has confirmed they are looking into the anti-shipping mission for HX, it is unlikely that the funds will be found for these (at least not in the initial buy).

What will then follow after P4E? The Typhoon is set to stay RAF’s primary air superiority fighter for the foreseeable time, and the current plan is that it will stay in RAF service beyond 2050. Integration with unmanned platforms operating is a hot topic. A large area display for the cockpit has also been proposed to customers, but currently the interest from the users has instead focused on the Striker II helmet mounted sight, which will provide a full-colour, fully digital night/day sight. While the exact development path is still open, it is clear that the development will continue. As BAE Systems Mark Parkinson notes: “There is simply nothing else on the horizon.”

A Catalogue of Arms: The Weapons of the HX-project

A subject which I’ve touched upon in my earlier posts, is the fact that the choice of fighter for HX also largely dictates which weapons the Finnish Air Force will use. Naturally, any weapon can be certified on any fighter, as long as they are within weight and size restrictions, but the process is neither simple nor cheap. As such, the large operators usually call the shots, their choices usually being domestic weapons suitable for the missions they prioritise. There are also a number of special cases, such as e.g. Saab and Boeing producing both aircrafts and some of their weaponry.

So, what would Finland then get with each of the different HX-candidates? Below is a simple table I’ve collected, with weapons integrated on each aircraft. The weapons are divided by type, and include both weapons currently available as well as planned weapons. For the future weapons I’ve only included weapons that the manufacturer or operator states will be integrated (edit: note that some of these planned integrations, especially in the case of the F-35, are still unfunded). The exception is for Gripen, where the Brazilian Air Force has not yet disclosed which weapons they’ve chosen for the aircraft. In this case, the weapons listed are based on those displayed on the mock-up, when it toured in Brazil this spring.

Some weapons are likely to appear on certain aircraft sometime in the future, such as the Meteor being integrated on the F-35, but as long as these aren’t officially confirmed, I’ve left them out. As said, if Ilmavoimat really wants something, it can most probably be added for an extra cost, but this table is what we would get “for free” with each aircraft.

HX-weaponsA few comments:

Incendiary bombs are largely similar to napalm, but aren’t called that as their chemical composition is different. Cluster bombs are available in a number of different variants, where the Mk-20 (247 submunitions) is meant for anti-tank work, and the CBU-59 (717 submunitions) and CBU-101/-105 are used against ‘soft’ targets (unarmoured vehicles, troops). Many of the modern laser- and GPS-guided bombs feature wings, which means that they can be dropped from some distance, and then glide towards the target. Cruise-missiles differ from these, in that they have some kind of engine that lets them fly further than the unpowered glide bombs. Some cruise missiles can also be used as anti-shipping missiles, and the other way around. As sending a large cruise missile dimensioned to blow up a reinforced bunker to take out a single tank is a waste of money and explosives, some planes carry smaller missiles that can be used against vehicles. Anti-radiation missiles are specialised weapons made to home in on enemy radars, to knock out the enemy’s groundbased air defences.

The Eurofighter reflects its international pedigree in that some nations, especially Great Britain, want their own weapons on it, and as such it has two options in a number of slots. The Rafale is an example of the opposite, featuring almost exclusively French weapons. Due to their small production runs, these are sometime very costly, with e.g. the AASM (the French equivalent to a JDAM) rumoured to cost up to twelve times as much as its US counterpart.

A British Eurofighter Typhoon featuring 1,000 lbs Paveway laser-guided bombs and air-to-air missiles taking off during operations over Libya. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Sgt Pete Mobbs/MOD

Gripen features an interesting mix of Brazilian and European weapons. Of note is that if Finland would buy the Gripen, we would be one of the larger operators, giving better leverage if we wanted to integrate new weaponry onto it (this is not to say that they would come for free, only that our leverage would be better). The main drawback of the Gripen is the (current) lack of a dedicated anti-vehicle missile, with earlier versions having featured the AGM-65 Maverick.

Edit 24-07-2015: After having received input from Twitter-handles Gripen News and Obby Noxus, I’ve updated the table and texts accordingly. Sorry for the incorrect data given earlier, it was completly due to my own fault, and thank you to Gripen News and Obby Noxus for their help!

With regards to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, it seems like the US Navy decided to simply certify the aircraft for more or less every weapon in their arsenal. A number of these, marked with *, are already retired, and others are on their way out (such as the AIM-7 Sparrow). Of interest is that it is the sole platform with a mining capability. The ability to have two aircraft take off and after a few minutes close a strategic sea lane by dropping four heavy sea mines would be of marked value for Finnish defence planning, especially with the reduction in hulls with a mining capability that the navy is facing. In fact, it is interesting that the Finnish Air Force has not bought Quick Strike mines for the current Hornet-fleet, as they are also certified to carry it.

The F-35 is something in between, with a number of different options, although not quite as many as the Super Hornet. Its anti-shipping missile is a bit special, the Norwegian Joint Strike Missile featuring an infrared seeker instead of radar as all the others anti-shipping missiles in the tables. The IR-seeker is harder to distract than radar seekers, but feature a shorter range a poorer performance in adverse weather (rain, snow, and fog).

Does any single aircraft then have a marked advantage? I would say no. The Rafale is at a disadvantage, due to its reliance on uniquely French weapons, with their higher cost and poorer availability. The Super Hornet brings some interesting options to the table, but I find it hard to believe that Finland would buy either rocket pods or incendiary bombs, so the only real difference is the sea mines. The overall differences are small, and if mining capability suddenly is a must-have, it could probably quite easily be integrated on any of the other platforms. In fact, I would imagine that the US Navy is already thinking about getting it for the F-35C.

As is the case with the aircrafts themselves, their weapons suites all have their own strengths and weaknesses. In the end, these are but one of the many factors that will have to be compared and judged, before it can be decided which of the potential HX-fighters is the best choice.