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On October 9, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency authorized Finland to purchase dozens of Boeing
Both documents also authorized sale of hundreds of munitions, including 200 AGM-158B JASSM-ER stealth cruise missiles that could reach Moscow when launched from Finnish airspace, as well as JDAM, JSOW and GBU-39 precision guided air-to-ground munitions and AIM-9X short-range air-to-air missiles (though curiously, no additional medium/long-range AIM-120 air-to-air missiles).
However, the authorization doesn’t mean Finland is committed to purchasing fighters from either company for its HX Challenge program, which seeks to procure 64 multi-role jet fighters to replace its current fleet of FA-18C/D Hornets due for retirement between 2025 and 2030.
The American jets still face competition from the Swedish Saab JAS 39 Gripen-E, the French Dassault Rafale and the multinational Eurofighter Typhoon. Helsinki is expected to announce its choice late in 2021.
Furthermore, the $14.7 billion and $12.4 billion authorizations for the Boeing and Lockheed aircraft, respectively, exceed the €10 billion ($11.7 billion) price cap Helsinki has set for the program.
More broadly, there’s reason to believe the HX fighters’ projected total life cycle cost of €20 billion is also unrealistically optimistic, and project manager Lauri Puranen has admitted that Finland’s eventual order could end up counting below the initially stipulated 64 aircraft.
Nonetheless, despite the economic pain dealt by the Covid-19 pandemic, Helsinki has inflated its annual defense budget by 54% to $5.8 billion to prepare for the initial costs of the HX jets.
Earlier, the FAF concluded that drones and ground-based air defense missiles couldn’t replace the full spectrum of capabilities offered by manned multi-role fighters.
Helsinki has emphasized that is seeking jets that can endure harsh weather and low temperature extremes while performing diverse missions including offensive and defensive air superiority, anti-ship and air-to-ground strike, networked surveillance/reconnaissance capabilities, and deep strikes beyond Finnish borders to deter against foreign attack (hence the JASSM cruise missiles).
Because Finnish airbases are themselves exposed to attack, it even prefers to procure jets capable of taking off from rough forward air strips or even civilian highways.
Finland maintain polite but wary relations with neighboring Russia, and Helsinki has begun cooperating increasingly closely with NATO despite not being a member state. For examples, Finnish airbases and Hornet fighters participated in the huge 2018 Trident Juncture air/sea/land military exercise, which simulated a NATO defense of Norway from amphibious invasion.
Helsinki also is seeking a significant degree of industrial cooperation so that some of the costs for components, assembly and maintenance of the HX fighters can be funneled into Finnish companies, and to lessen its dependency on overseas suppliers and contractors.
Indeed, European manufacturers have particularly touted the “independence” and “sovereignty” of their aircraft from political strings compared to purchases from the U.S.—particularly the F-35, the computer systems of which requires continuous contractor support from Lockheed to remain useable.
Nonetheless, bettors perceive the 5th-generation F-35 stealth jet to be the frontrunner in the competition, followed by the Super Hornet and Gripen, with the Typhoon and then Rafale trailing further behind in the odds.
All five HX Challenge contestants underwent cold weather trials in Finland early in 2020, the results of which remain undisclosed. However, Puranen did cast a little shade in an interview, noting that only two of four expected F-35 stealth jets arrived for evaluation, one of which promptly broke down and could not fly in the tests.
He also observed that Saab’s Gripen-E jet remains in the prototype stage, and thus has further to go in terms of system integration compared to other competitors.
On a separate occasion, Puranen also stated FAF hopes its next fighter will enable Finnish pilots to achieve a 10:1 kill ration in air-to-air combat in a potential conflict. In fact, Finnish pilots in the past have surpassed such a lopsided success rate using castaway fighters no less.
American Buffalos and Hornets Over Finland
Finland relationship with U.S. fighter aircraft dates back to World War II. During the Soviet invasion of the winter of 1939-1940, Finland purchased 44 “surplus” B-239E model Brewster Buffalos from the United States at $54,000 apiece.
Today, the Buffalo is considered one of the worst U.S. fighter planes to see combat, with a reputation for being overweight yet under-armed and -armored, as well as generally unstable and sluggish.
But starting in 1941—when Finland sought to profit from Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union to take back territory it had ceded in the Winter War—Finnish Buffalo pilots went on to claim 477 Soviet aircraft destroyed for just 19 losses, a 1:25 kill ratio!
Admittedly, the B-239E export model had a more powerful engine, and the Finns fitted an additional machine gun and extra armor to the Buffalo and corrected a flaw in the engine design. But the technical qualities pf the Taivaan helmi (“Sky Pearls”) were undoubtedly less decisive than the superior tactics and training of Finnish units, which for example flew in more flexible “finger four” formations.
Indeed, Finnish units equipped with second-string warplanes imported from France, Holland, Germany, Italy and the U.K. also performed well.
In 1944, Helsinki reached an armistice with the Soviets and turned on the Nazis. Then in a post war treaty Finland was capped to an air force with just 60 fighters. To maintain diplomatic neutrality during the Cold War, the FAF acquired jet fighters from both Western Europe and the Soviet Union.
But as the Soviet Union collapsed, in the 1990s Finland moved ahead to procure 64 then state-of-the-art FA-18C/D Hornet fighters from the United States—conveniently establishing compatibility with NATO systems in the process.
Currently, the FAF’s combat strength consists of 55 upgraded FA-18Cs and seven two-seat FA-18Ds serving in Fighter Squadrons 31 and 11 based in central and northern Finland respectively. A third training squadron of BAE Hawk jets could serve in the light attack role in an emergency.
The second half of this article considers the pros and cons of the competitors in the HX challenge.
Boeing FA-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler
The DSCA has authorized a package worth $14.7 billion for 50 single-seat FA-18Es, eight two-seat FA-18Fs, and 14 EA-18G Growlers electronic attack jets.
As the 72-jet authorization significantly exceeds the price and quantity stipulated by Helsinki, its likely those numbers are meant to allow for flexibility in negotiating the mix of aircraft in a final, less expensive deal.
The Super Hornet is a significantly enlarged and modernized evolution of the Hornet fighters currently flown by Finland, so familiarity and continuity are top selling points. Boeing has an established presence in Finland, and claims up to 60% of the infrastructure supporting Finnish Hornet would be compatible with Super Hornets.
The Growler variant of the Super Hornet is equipped with powerful jammers and AGM-88 anti-radar missiles with which to suppress surface-to-air defenses so the Super Hornets can penetrate hostile airspace.
Designed to operate from U.S. Navy carriers, the Super Hornet/Growler combo brings to the table mature multi-role capabilities , excellent low-speed and low-altitude performance, low radar-cross section for a non-stealth jet, and good rough landing capability. The latest Block III variant also flaunts advanced sensors and networking capability, while the Growler is set to receive advanced Next Generation Jammers.
On the downside, the Super Hornet is relatively short-ranged and doesn’t match the sustained speed and high-altitude performance of rival land-based designs.
Lockheed F-35A Lightning II
Lockheed has been authorized to offer 64 F-35A stealth jets to Finland.
The F-35A offers Finland a potential technological leap, as its combination of stealth characteristics and advanced sensors allow it to penetrate hostile air space in comparative safety, and theoretically enable it to detect and engage enemy fighters before it can be detected in return. Stealth characteristics are particularly valuable given that Russia can monitor and interdict most of Finland’s airspace with long-range surface-to-air missile batteries at the border.
However, the F-35A isn’t as optimized for within-visual range dogfights as its rivals in the competition. Still, the U.S. Air Force claims that results from air combat exercises validate the notion that the F-35’s stealth and sensors advantage outweigh the higher speed and super-maneuverable flight characteristics of 4.5-generation jets like Russia’s Su-35S Flanker-E.
The huge economy of scale in 2,300 F-35s currently on order has allowed Lockheed to lower unit price to below that of many advanced non-stealth jets. However, that must be weighed versus significantly higher operating costs and lower readiness rates linked to teething issues and shortages of spare parts. That means Helsinki may only be able to sustain a smaller fleet of F-35s, even if it could pay for more airframes up front.
The F-35, which also is in service with the Norwegian Air Force, has ostensibly been designed and tested for low temperature performance, though it has exhibited some flaws in its battery life indicators when flying in extreme cold weather conditions.
Saab JAS 39 Gripen-E
In the past, Finland operated double delta wing J 35 Draken jets built by the Swedish firm Saab. Now Saab is pitching the only single-engine jet in the HX Challenge: 52 single-seat JAS-39 Gripen-E, 12 two-seat Gripen-Fs—and two GlobalEye airborne early warning and control planes for a good measure.
The pitch for the Gripen-E is that it comes at a lower operating cost than its rivals yet still sports state-of-the-art trimmings including AESA radar, infrared-search and track sensors, and a reputedly powerful electronic warfare self-defense system.
Indeed, Saab claims that the Gripen’s price advantage is such that it falls comfortably within budget, making it feasible to offer the GlobalEyes pas part of the package.
The Saab GlobalEye is a Bombardier Global 6000 long-range business jet with an Erieye AESA radar on its spine with an air search range of 280 miles, as well as signals intercept and ground and maritime reconnaissance capabilities. Besides enhancing the effectiveness of fighters, Saab claims the GlobalEye could be used to reduce the flight hours demanded of them.
That said, the Gripen has not quite yet completed development, with service entry due in 2021 and “full capability’ not schedule until 2025. That and that type’s comparatively smaller user base may be counted against the apparent value advantage.
The Rafale is a 4.5-generation jet fighter noted for its agility (it can sustain supersonic speeds without using afterburners) and flexible multi-role capabilities.
Finland may particularly appreciate that the Rafale is designed for takeoff and landing from austere airfields. It also has an advanced (and combat-tested) SPECTRA electronic warfare system which can enable it to operate in airspace interdicted by hostile surface-to-air missile batteries.
Dassault hasn’t mounted a huge publicity campaign for the Rafale, though it has emphasized that Finland would be offered the capacity to independently support its own Rafale fleet.
Comparable in sophistication and agility to the Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon (built by a British/German/Italian consortium) has a slight edge in high-altitude, high-speed air-to-air combat, particularly in forthcoming Tranche 3 model equipped with Captor-E radar.
However, the Typhoon is not as optimized in the air-to-surface role and lacks the penetrating strike capabilities found in other aircraft in the competition. It also does not appear destined to remain in production much longer, though a reportedly generous offer for production in Finland is being offered.
One selling point for the Typhoon may be its lead in integration of advanced European missiles, notably the superb Meteor long-range air-to-air missile and the Storm Shadow cruise missile, though some of these weapons have been or will be integrated into the Rafale, Gripen and even the F-35.