More Than Half Of Finland’s F-18 Hornets Take Part In An “Elephant Walk” Readiness Drill
These types of exercises show off an air force’s ability to launch large numbers of aircraft quickly in a crisis.
So-called 'elephant walks,' air readiness exercises that involve large numbers of fixed and rotary-wing aircraft that are meant to demonstrate the ability to rapidly get significant numbers of planes and helicopters into the air during a major contingency, have become increasingly common within the U.S. military in recent years. It's far rarer to see similar displays from other air forces around the world, many of which are simply exponentially smaller than their American counterparts. So it's interesting to see the Finnish Air Force conduct one of these drills with more than half of its F-18C/D Hornet fleet.
The Finnish Air Force, or Ilmavoimat, announced that the exercise had taken place on June 4, 2020, and said it had involved a total of 32 Hornets. Pictures the service released only show 16 of the fighter jets together at Kuopio Air Base, which shares its runway with Kuopio Airport, in the central part of the country. Kuopio is home to Fighter Squadron 31, one of two Finnish squadrons that fly Hornets, so it is possible that Fighter Squadron 11, based at Rovaniemi Air Base further to the north, also launched additional 16 aircraft as part of the exercise.
"A total of 32 F/A-18 Hornet multi-purpose fighters demonstrated the Air Force's readiness to defend the whole of Finland in honor of the Defense Forces' flag day," the Finnish Air Force explained in social media posts on Twitter and Facebook. "The Hornets, which flew in eight flocks of four planes, crossed several locations from Helsinki to Ivalo."
The Ilmavoimat has 54 single-seat F-18Cs and another seven twin-seat F-18Ds, in total, which it first began acquiring in the mid-1990s. Finland bought the aircraft primarily for air defense missions, so Boeing did not refer to them by the “fighter-attack” or “F/A” nomenclature that it has applied to other Hornets, including those the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operate. The Finnish Air Force has since upgraded its jets to have a full ground-attack capability.
Though smaller than many U.S. military elephant walks, this Finnish exercise was still a significant display of the country's combat airpower. Finland, which is not a member of the NATO alliance, occupies an immensely strategic position between Russia and the rest of Scandinavia to the West and the Baltic Sea region to the south.
Finland regularly scrambles its Hornets to intercept Russian aircraft near its land and sea borders and has accused them of violating its sovereign airspace on multiple occasions in recent years. Finnish authorities have also had to deal GPS jamming emanating from Russia, ostensibly linked to major exercises, as well other provocative Russian drills.
Though not a member of the Warsaw Pact and officially neutral, Finland was still tied in many ways to the Soviet Union during the Cold War through the 1948 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, despite its long, tense, and often outright acrimonious relationship with Moscow. The country has grown ever closer to NATO and West since the 1990s. There has even been talk about it joining the alliance in the future, which has, in turn, drawn sharp criticism and threats from officials in Russia.
In 2018, there was also a moment of James Bond-esque intrigue after Finnish security forces raided the private island of a shady Russian businessman, officially as part an investigation into various financial crimes, but which led many to wonder about whether there were potential connections to Russia's intelligence services. You can read more about that incident in this past War Zone piece.
Given its proximity to Russia, in any major conflict between the two countries, it would be important for the Ilmavoimat to get as many aircraft in the air as rapidly as possible to shield them from stand-off attacks on Kuopio and Rovaniemi, which would certainly be prime targets. With those same concerns in mind, the Ilmavoimat routinely trains to use highways as runways, should their established bases get destroyed or otherwise become unavailable.
Beyond air defense, the Hornets would be Finland's most capable stand-off strike asset. The jets are capable of launching AGM-154 Joint Stand Off Weapon (JSOW) glide bombs and AGM-158A Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) cruise missiles, both of which have stealthy features and would be essential for penetrating Russia's dense integrated air defenses in order to engage targets, as well as neutralizing those defenses themselves.
This exercise also comes as Finland is working steadily toward acquiring a fleet of 64 new fighter jets to replace these Hornets, which are aging and becoming more difficult to operate and maintain. In addition, despite the substantial upgrades they've received over the years, simply do not reflect the most modern capabilities available on the open market. The Finnish Air Force issued a formal request for proposals as part of its fighter jet replacement program, also known simply as HX, in 2018.
American firms Boeing and Lockheed Martin have offered their F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, respectively. French firm Dassault has pitched its Rafale, while the European consortium behind the Eurofighter Typhoon has proposed that aircraft. Sweden's Saab is also in the running with its Gripen E. In February, Finland began conducting in-country evaluations of these aircraft and it hopes to make a final selection in 2021.
Until any replacement jets arrive, however, the F-18C/Ds will continue to form the backbone of Finland's combat airpower and the elephant walk underscored the Finnish Air Force's ability to rapidly get a large number of these jets into action to defend the country when called upon.
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