Finland Chooses F-35 As Its Next Fighter: Report
The Joint Strike Fighter looks to have emerged successfully from its latest fighter competition, to replace Finland’s F/A-18 Hornets.
The F-35A stealth jet looks to have secured Finland’s highly anticipated tender for a new multirole fighter, according to initial media reports from the country. While the Finnish Ministry of Defense has yet to comment, an official decision on the roughly $12 billion competition is due before the end of the year, with signs already pointing to another victory for the Joint Strike Fighter, which was selected by Switzerland earlier this year.
The Finnish newspaper Iltalehti reported yesterday that “several foreign and security policy sources” had confirmed the Finnish Defense Forces’ recommendation of the F-35 as Finland’s next fighter. Apparently, the same sources pointed to the F-35’s “capability and expected long lifespan” as key reasons for it winning through in favor of the rival Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Aviation Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, and the Saab Gripen E. Final quotes from each of these manufacturers were received in April. While there is no fixed figure on the number of jets to be acquired, it seems this will be in the region of 64 aircraft.
The reports suggest that, now that the Finnish Defense Forces have made their decision, the country’s Ministry of Defense will prepare a procurement proposal for the government to approve. This is expected to be a formality, although lawmakers could theoretically still try and push for an alternative. Nevertheless, sources have told Iltalehti that the government is set to formally confirm the F-35 decision within the next 10 days, after having informed the U.S. government.
Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, Program Executive Officer for the F-35 Joint Program Office, confirmed that the Finnish government had not yet notified its U.S. counterpart about the decision but said he would contact the Finnish government today.
Last month, a senior representative from the Swiss Ministry of Defense visited Finland, apparently to discuss F-35 costs with the head of the Resource Policy Department at the Finnish Ministry of Defense, Raimo Jyväsjärvi. In both countries, the new aircraft would replace existing F/A-18C/D fighter fleets.
The Iltalehti report states that annual operating costs “are within the framework set by the tender, according to which operating costs should not exceed 10 percent of the Defense Forces’ peacetime budget. In that case, they should not exceed 250 million Euros,” or just under $282 million at the present rate of conversion.
But at this stage, it’s not clear how Finnish officials assessed the operating costs. Compared to similar figures from Norway and Switzerland, however, there would appear to be some question marks about the calculation, which may have involved buying a smaller number of jets or reducing flying hours in favor of in-simulator training. The operating cost issue has long been a matter of intense discussion for Finland and a growing concern for existing Joint Strike Fighter operators, including the United States and other new customers.
Finland’s tender to acquire a new fighter, to replace the current fleet of upgraded F/A-18C/D “legacy” Hornets — 55 single-seaters and seven two-seaters — is known as HX. Launched in 2015, it has been characterized by efforts to make it transparent and fair. The apparent leak that revealed the selection of the F-35 is therefore somewhat surprising. The timing is interesting as well, coming on Sunday, ahead of Finland’s December 6 Independence Day, when government and Ministry of Defense officials will not be in their offices.
Arguably, the F-35 was always the most likely candidate for Finland’s new fighter.
The Super Hornet, while making sense from the point of view of commonality with the current legacy Hornet, is perhaps hamstrung by the fact the U.S. Navy, as its largest customer, is already looking to cease ordering the jets. The Navy’s fiscal year 2021 budget submission called for Super Hornet purchases to end after that budget year, overturning previous plans to continue with multi-year procurement from FY 2022 to FY 2024. Instead, the Navy is looking to direct funds to the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, among others. The Super Hornet had also included the option of the EA-18G Growler, which would have provided Finland with a new dedicated electronic attack capability. In its favor, the Super Hornet has a growing export base, with deliveries to Kuwait due shortly, and the possibility of a German order in the coming months.
The Rafale and Typhoon, despite recent lucrative orders in the Middle East, represent previous-generation types and, despite their undoubted qualities, like the Super Hornet, they lack some of the high-end capabilities of the fifth-generation F-35.
Perhaps the contender with the most to be disappointed about is Saab. The Swedish firm’s Gripen E was seen as having a good chance to win in Finland, the two countries sharing a border, a neutral position outside of NATO, and their air forces undertaking regular joint exercises, sharing each other’s facilities and airspaces. The Saab offer also included the same company’s GlobalEye Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft.
“We have handed a very strong and competitive offer to Finland consisting of 64 Gripen E aircraft, two GlobalEyes, an extensive weapons package, and an industrial participation program that will ensure a security of supply for Finland over time,” Jonas Hjelm, Saab’s Senior Vice President and head of Saab Business Area, Aeronautics, said earlier this year.
Should Finland move forward with its reported F-35 plans, it will be buying into a multinational military and industrial effort that’s gearing up to ensure the aircraft remains in service and viable well beyond the middle of this century. The Finnish Air Force, despite being outside NATO, already trains alongside the alliance and, with the Hornet, has an established industrial relationship with the United States.
While the legacy Hornet was originally procured by Finland as a pure air-defense fighter, the fleet has been successively upgraded to include a potent long-range air-to-ground capability. This is seen as vital to defending the country’s extensive territory against any possible aggression, from peacetime aerial incursion all the way up to a large-scale invasion, especially considering the small size of Finland’s standing army compared to Russia’s, for example.
A decision in favor of the F-35 also points to wider strategic concerns within Finland, a country that borders Russia, with its own fast-developing military capabilities and growing geopolitical interests in the Nordic and Arctic regions, and in the Baltic. Due to its geography, parts of Finland fall within, or could fall within, Russian anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) ‘bubbles,’ providing another argument for the procurement of a stealthy fighter.
Expanding these capabilities has very likely been a key factor in the HX decision-making.
With that in mind, the F-35 package prepared for Finland by the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) includes, among others, 100 AGM-154C-1 Joint Standoff Weapons (JSOW), 200 AGM-158B-2 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles — Extended Range (JASSM-ER), plus 120 guidance kits for the GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM).
While these same weapons are already available to the Finnish legacy Hornet and were also included in the Super Hornet offer, the ability to launch all of them but the JASSM-ER from a stealth jet adds a significant new dimension, one that’s unique to the F-35 among types currently on the market. For Finland in particular, the combination of stealthy long-range weapons and a low-observable platform with which to deliver them arguably provides a more robust potential means to break down, or at least seriously degrade a hostile A2/AD network. This can be done without a high degree of low-observability as well, especially with the help of high-end electronic warfare support, but the proximities to Russia at play could still put fourth-generation fighters at greater risk.
F-35As from Hill Air Force make the first visit to Finland by any stealth fighter, during the Turku Airshow in 2019:
The same package outlined the sale of up to 64 conventional take-off and landing F-35A variants, with a total estimated cost of $12.5 billion. While this figure is above the limit imposed on the total cost of the program, such DSCA packages often include additional products or services that aren’t ultimately procured.
With the HX decision looming, the Finnish government in September approved an increase to its 2022 defense procurement budget to cover preliminary costs associated with buying the new fighters.
Officially speaking, key criteria for the HX decision comprise the following: military capability, security of supply, industrial cooperation, procurement and life-cycle costs, and security and defense policy implications. Considering that the F-35 apparently met the life-cycle cost requirement, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Lockheed Martin product seems to have won the backing of the Finnish Defense Forces.
Apparent success for the Joint Strike Fighter in the Finnish tender comes just days after Canada’s future fighter competition became a two-horse race between the F-35A and the Gripen E after the Super Hornet was knocked out of the running to find a replacement for the existing CF-18 Hornet fleet.
While we await confirmation from the Finnish authorities as to the outcome of the HX competition, there are strong indications at this stage that indeed the F-35 will be the jet that replaces Finland’s legacy Hornet, the last examples of which are scheduled to be retired by 2030.
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