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A 1,300 km border with Russia means Finland lives under a constant threat from its big neighbour. But unlike other European nations that share common airspace, Finland is not a NATO country. For now, the Finnish Government is treading the fine line between NATO membership and the Russian bear.

During the Cold War, Finland acted as a border state between the West and the Soviet Union. In exchange for staying neutral, Russia did not meddle with Finnish domestic affairs and for now Finland continues to walk that fine line. During the 1990s, when peace between Russia and NATO was breaking out, Finland stayed stubborn. The military has never been reduced and there is still conscription.

The Air Force has approximately 2,000 uniformed and non-uniformed service members, as well as around 1,300 conscripts each year. However, there is a reserve force of around 38,000 personnel if the need arises, and the commander is Major General Pasi Jokinen.

As with any credible air force, the Finnish Air Force monitors Finland’s air space on a 24/7 basis. An air picture compiled of data from surveillance radars and other sensors covers Finland’s territory and adjacent areas and is the key enabler of the Air Force’s air policing mission. Thales long range and medium range surveillance radars, originally purchased in 1988, are now being upgraded to meet the increasing demands of monitoring today’s threats. They play a significant part in the Air Force’s overall capability.

Most air policing missions are executed by the Boeing F/A-18C/D HORNET multirole fighters standing on quick-reaction alert rotation. In a crisis, the Air Force shifts the focus on defensive counter air fighter missions and air defence fire control for all three services. Under peacetime conditions, air force aircraft are normally located at the service’s main operating bases – Lapland Air Command’s Rovaniemi Air Base, Karelia Air Command’s Rissala AB, Satakunta Air Command’s Pirkkala AB and Air Force Academy’s Tikkakoski AB. If a need arises to adjust readiness level, either in peacetime or in the event of a crisis, aircraft may be dispersed to road bases and other remote operating locations.

Finnish HORNETs

A batch of 18 former Swiss Air Force HAWKs, upgraded with new avionics by Patria, has been in service since 2011.

With the continuous threat from Russia, it is no surprise air defence plays a major part in the Air Force’s philosophy, and with a fleet of 62 F/A-18C/D HORNETs the Russian military are continuously monitored. Finland believes in a strong military, and the Finnish Air Force is an extremely capable one. In 1992, Finland ordered 65 F-18C/D HORNETs (they were not initially designated F/A-18s as they did not have an attack mission) which were delivered between 1996 and 2000. The HORNETs continue to serve with two units: Lapland Wing’s 11th Fighter Squadron at Rovaniemi Air Base and the Satakuntas Wing’s 31st Fighter Squadron at Kuopio-Rissala Air Base. While a third unit, the Air Combat Centre also operates some HORNETs at Tampere-Pirkkala.

Since being introduced into service, the jets have been subjected to systematic upgrades between 2006–2010 and 2012-2016. The upgrades were carried out in conjunction with scheduled maintenance visits at the Patria’s Halli facility. The focal point of the first upgrade (MLU 1) was to revamp the aircraft’s air-to-air capability, which involved the integration of a helmet-mounted sighting system with the AIM-9X Sidewinder infrared guided missile. MLU 2 enabled the integration of a wide range of air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities. The air-to-ground weapon suite includes the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) precision-guided bomb, Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW) medium-range glide bomb and Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off Missile (JASSM) long-range standoff missile. The electro-optical LITENING targeting pod was also fitted. MLU 2 also saw the introduction of modern self-protection, communication, and information distribution systems.

H-X

But the HORNETs´ end is now in sight and they are expected to be retired by 2030. Now the Finnish MoD has launched a HORNET replacement (HX) programme, with a budget of between €7Bn and €10Bn. The objective is to find a multirole fighter solution best suited for Finland’s circumstances. Fighters play an essential part of the air defence system and defence force’s capability in engaging land and sea-based targets. They also supplement the defence force’s intelligence, surveillance and command environment. Former Finnish Air Force Commander, Major General, Lauri Puranen is the H-X programme director at the Finnish MoD and told the author in early 2019: “It’s critical we get the best military capability for Finland.”

The types under consideration are the Boeing F/A-18E/F SUPER HORNET; Dassault RAFALE; Eurofighter TYPHOON (with BAE Systems taking the lead), Saab GRIPEN E and the Lockheed Martin F-35 LIGHTNING II Joint Strike Fighter. The new fighter is expected to be purchased next year with deliveries commencing in 2025. The Finnish Air Force has organised a HX Challenge test and evaluation phase at Tampere-Pirkkala Air Base, from 9 January to 26 February when all five aircraft to be checked out over seven days.

The Eurofighter TYPHOON was the first to begin the process, with two RAF jets deployed from the UK from 9-17 January. The Dassault RAFALE followed from 20-28 January, then Saab GRIPEN E (29 January – 6 February), Lockheed Martin F-35A (7-17 February) and Boeing’s F/A-18E/F SUPER HORNET (February 18-26).

In his blog, Puranen recently explained why: “The Finnish operating environment and operating methods may differ from other users’ weather and lighting conditions.” Adding, “Winter conditions may affect the operation of the multifunction fighter and especially the performance of electro-optical systems, but possibly other active and passive systems as well.”

A further evaluation activity to be conducted later in 2020 “will look at the operational effectiveness of each candidate’s HX system by simulating a long-running war game [as] part of the Finnish defence system,” Puranen continued.

The purpose of the HX Challenge is not to rank the candidates, but to make sure the performance values reported in the bidders’ responses apply in the Finnish operating environment. The hub of the HX Challenge is taking place at Tampere-Pirkkala Air Base, the main operating base of the Satakunta Air Command, but evaluation flights will take place all across Finland. In the air, the candidates will face Finnish Air Force F/A-18s and HAWK jet trainers. The Air Combat Centre of the Satakunta Air Command will play an important role in the execution of the testing and evaluation event. Within the Finnish Air Force, the Air Combat Centre is tasked with flight-testing as well as the research and development of air warfare tactics and doctrines.

The HX negotiation process will progress step-by-step. The tenderer-specific revised Request for Quotation (RFQ), based on the initial tenders and the first phase of HX Programme negotiations with the candidates, was sent to the manufacturers in October 2019 with responses due by 31 January 2020. The revised RFQ launched the second phase of the HX Programme negotiations, in which the content of the HX solution will be finalised with each tenderer. The request for the Best and Final Offer (BAFO) will be sent to the tenderers in 2020 at the end of the second phase of the HX Programme negotiations. The Government of Finland will decide on the procurement in 2021.

Industrial Participation (IP)

The Finnish MoD will evaluate how cooperation between HX tenderers and domestic industry would be realised. It doesn’t mean an assembly line will be set up because that could be too expensive according to Puranen.

An industrial participation obligation for the HX Programme is set at 30% minimum of the total contract value. Puranen said: “We aim to rely on existing infrastructure and build as little as possible.”

That could be a major stumbling block for the F-35. Operational F-35 bases in Italy, Norway and the UK have been through considerable reconstruction. Security is being given as a major reason and with Finland sharing such a long border with Russia that will be paramount in the foreign company’s bids.

Saab’s Magnus Skogberg, Campaign Director H-X, believes, the GRIPEN has the advantage: “In Finland they use the road base concept as well as the harsh Nordic climates. GRIPEN has been built to cope with these conditions, and to be easily maintained by conscript mechanics [Finland is one of only a handful of European forces operating fighters that still use conscript mechanics] in a very short turnaround time. One technician and five mechanics can turnaround a GRIPEN in ten minutes, while an engine change will take less than an hour.”

Exercises

The Training Air Wing at Tikkakoski has 28 Grob G115Es that formerly served the RAF. Like the HAWKs they were modernised before entry into service between 2016 and 2018.

In 2018, Finland and its neighbour Sweden entered into a formal bilateral defence agreement. The treaty has seen both of the country’s air forces participate regularly in each other’s main air operations exercises, focused on national defence. Politicians from both sides are keen to foster a closer military relationship, because of Russia’s increasingly aggressive posture in recent years. There is also the need to foster stronger working relationship with outside forces. Last May, the two along with Norway hosted Exercise Arctic Challenge Exercise (ACE) which saw a lot of foreign aircraft involved, and included eight USMC F/A-18C HORNETs deploy to Rovaniemi.

In October, the Swedish and Finnish air forces worked together again in Finland’s largest air exercise of 2019. The objective of the annual Ruska exercise is to enhance the readiness of the Finnish Air Force, and to train the Finnish defence forces’ personnel, conscripts and reservists for air defence tasks under emergency conditions. The manoeuvres involved 4,500 personnel, including approximately 2,000 reservists and over 50 aircraft including up to 28 F/A-18C/Ds, 14 HAWKs transport and liaison aircraft. The Swedish Air Force participated with eight JAS 39C/D GRIPENs and an S100 ARGUS airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. Missions were flown primarily out of the Tampere, Kuopio, Rovaniemi and Jyväskylä air bases. In accordance with Finnish Air Force doctrine, aircraft were also dispersed to temporary bases, established at the airports of Halli, Joensuu, Kajaani, Oulu, Pori and Vaasa. The Swedish aircraft operated mainly from Kuopio Air Base in Finland and Luleå Air Base in Sweden.

LIFT and other Assets

While the Finnish Air Force is looking for HORNET replacement, a new lead in fighter trainer is not on the cards. The HAWKs are scheduled to remain in service until the 2030s or beyond. Puranen told the author in 2019: “We acquired [18] low-houred HAWK jet trainers from Switzerland in 2007 then upgraded them between 2011 and 2013 with two-way datalink systems.” He continued: “We also transferred a lot of the training from HORNETs to HAWKs.”

From 2019 onwards, FAF will fly a fleet of 31 HAWKs with upgraded digital cockpits. The jet trainers are operated by the Training Air Wing at Tikkakoski Air Base, alongside the relatively new Grob G115E TUTORs. Air Force pilots until recently trained on the fleet of 28 indigenous Valmet L-70 VINKA primary trainers delivered from 1980. However, they were replaced between 2016-2018 by 28 Grob G 115Es, acquired from Babcock Aerospace, that were surplus to RAF needs. Before entering service, they received an avionic and communication systems upgrade. State-of-the art digital displays will also be fitted to bring the cockpit layout compatible with the other aircraft operated by the Finnish Defence Forces. The Midnight HAWKs display team is also based at Tikkakoski. Patria Aviation was awarded a €4.7M contract in December 2018 for the procurement of preliminary and basic pilot training services and additionally, the contract covers maintenance of aircraft.
The medium airlift capability is fulfilled by three Airbus C295M tactical transports, although one of them is used as an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence)/COMINT (Communication Intelligence) platform for eavesdropping. On 12 February 2018, the Finnish Air Force announced the Lockheed Martin’s DRAGON SHIELD system was now operational on the aircraft. Lockheed Martin modified an Airbus CASA C-295 cargo aircraft to accommodate the containerised surveillance system that rolls on and off the aircraft. Lockheed Martin provided the Finnish defence forces with ground stations and communication terminals to support the airborne system. There are also three Learjet 35s, with one dedicated to ELINT and the other two to target towing, aerial cartography, and light transport duties, while six Pilatus PC-12NGs fly light personnel and cargo missions. The C295Ms, PC-12NGs and Learjet 35As are all operated by the Air Support Wing which is part of the Satakunta Wing at Tampere-Pirkkala Air Base.

Alan Warnes is a journalist specialising in military aviation and has travelled to over 60 countries researching articles and taking action photos for his work. For 12 years, he was the Editor of AirForces Monthly. He has also written several books, including two on the Pakistan Air Force (in 2008 and 2017), and most recently on 100 years of Aero Vodochody.