Boeing arrives in Finland for HX Challenge

Boeing has landed at Pirkkala air base, near Tampere, Finland, to begin flight trials under the nation’s HX Challenge – which seeks to find a replacement for the Ilmavoimat’s (Finnish Air Force’s) fleet of F/A-18C/D Hornets.

The company arrived at the Finnish air base on February 19, bringing two Hornets and a Growler. Boeing is offering a combination of single-seat F/A-18E and two-seat F/A-18F Block III Super Hornet multi-role fighters and two-seat EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft.

Maria Laine, vice president of International Strategic Partnership for Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said: “The strong Boeing-Finland partnership started nearly 30 years ago, when the first F/A-18s entered service with the Finnish Air Force.

“We are confident that our current offering – a mix of Super Hornet Block IIIs and Growlers – is the right choice for the [Ilmavoimat] and Finnish industry and will support a mutually beneficial partnership for decades to come,” she added.

Finnish Air Force EA-18G and F/A-18E Concept [Boeing Defence]
Concept art depicting an F/A-18E Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler in flight, wearing Finnish Air Force colours. Boeing Defense

According to Boeing, the Super Hornet’s Block III configuration provides capability upgrades for the platform and includes a technology insertion plan for its operators to keep it ahead of future threats. Boeing states that the F/A-18E/F is “a great fit for Finland’s remote operation requirements”, being designed to successfully carry out missions in the harshest of environments.

In terms of lifecycle costs, the F/A-18E/F can reportedly leverage up to 60% of Finland’s already established infrastructure and support equipment used for the air arm’s existing F/A-18C/D fleet. Boeing claims the EA-18G shares more than 90% of common components and systems with the Super Hornet, meaning that acquiring it should not make much difference to the overall lifecycle costs and operational infrastructure development. The company adds that the Growler would support the F/A-18E/F fleet in providing electronic attack protection to the fighters in a sophisticated and dense threat environment.

Boeing is also offering Finland what it describes as a robust sustainment and training programme built on the air arm’s existing capabilities and more than 20 years of services support, to provide an easy transition from existing Hornet pilots and maintainers to the Super Hornet and Growler. Converting F/A-18C/D Hornet aircrews to the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G would not be difficult, the firm states, considering the commonality between the legacy Hornets and Super Hornets/Growlers. The programme is also intended to support isolated and roadside operations with repairs taking place in-country when possible.

Finnish F/A-18C Hornet [Khalem Chapman]
Boeing F/A-18C Hornet - registration HN-406 (c/n 1307/FNC006) - of the Finnish Air Force's Hävittäjälentolaivue 11 (Fighter Squadron 11), lines up to depart RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, after taking part in the Royal International Air Tattoo in July 2019. Khalem Chapman

 

The HX Competition

Finland’s HX competition serves as a useful barometer of success and potential across the five aircraft involved. Finland has run an impressive campaign for its €10 billion ($11.1 billion) HX requirement to replace its F/A-18s between 2025-30. A preliminary request for quotation was issued in April 2018 and this launched the opening negotiation phase, during which preliminary candidate-specific procurement packages were set out. A second negotiation phase in 2019 saw the final procurement packages fine-tuned for each candidate. This will continue this summer, after which the five companies tendering for HX will submit their best and final offer (BAFO) in July. The Finnish government will then take the HX project findings and decide in 2021.

Each aircraft - those that have already participated and those still to come - will follow the same schedule, arriving to Pirkkala AB on the first day of the evaluation period. The second day features briefings in the morning and optional ground testing in the afternoon. Day three focuses on the aircraft’s sensor kits, with Finland evaluating the platform’s air-to-air and air-to-ground sensors. The fourth day will see Finland assess the competing aircraft’s counter air and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Night operations will also take place. On the fifth day, evaluation will take place on the platform’s anti-surface warfare, long-range strike (LRS) and counter land capabilities. Day six acts as a back-up day for the assessment if one of the other days is called off due to adverse weather or aircraft serviceability. On day seven, the fighters leave Pirkkala AB as the next contender to be assessed arrives.

EA-18G [USAF/SA Brandon Cribelar] #1
Growler on the prowl. An EA-18G flies over the US Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility in the Middle East on February 5. USAF/SA Brandon Cribelar

Finland has listed requirements that it will validate when evaluating each platform. In terms of operational requirements, the country will assess the candidate’s individual mission performance, its ability to provide agile combat support and capacity to conduct operational-level wargames. In terms of capability requirements, the HX Challenge will assess task performance, the platform’s strengths and weaknesses and its ability to provide live and kill chain analysis (Ps/Pk). Finally, Finland will assess contending aircraft in line with the system requirements outlined by the HX Challenge. This will see validation and verification of each platform’s system functionality and capabilities.

The requirement categories (system, capability and operational) – will be assessed individually in three separate phases. The results from each will add up to the aircraft’s overall ranking in the HX Challenge. The platform which tops that will be recommended for procurement going forward.

The country has pledged €10bn to providing the air force with a next-generation fighter aircraft. The budget includes aircraft and armament procurement, infrastructure development and training. Finland is looking for a platform with life support costs that are “about the same” as its air arm’s current F/A-18C/D Hornet fleet. The procurement follows a decision-making model, which places security of supply and affordability above the platform’s overall military capability.

F/A-18E Supersonic Pass [US Navy/PO2C Cameron Stoner] #1
Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet - BuNo 169644 - conducts a supersonic pass next to the USS Gridley (DDG 101) in August 2019. The aircraft, operated by Strike Fighter Squadron 34 (VFA-34) 'Blue Blasters', was being flown by LCDR Benjamin Orloff. US Navy/ PO2C Cameron Stoner

The HX Challenge’s decision-making model will define and negotiate a solution and procurement package with each tendered, then identify whether Finland can operate the solution independently, followed by the affordability of the platform – both in procurement and in operational costs. After confirming a secure industrial participation, the platform’s performance and future growth potential defines whether the platform fits best for Finland’s capability requirements. The best fit will go through security and defence policy analysis before the Finnish government makes a final decision. 

The next phase of the HX Challenge will see a revised Request for Quotation - which allows the potential suppliers the opportunity to competitively cost the final chosen solution - followed by a negotiation round. A best and final offer (BAFO) request is expected to be issued in July with a scheduled response by Finland in December.

The F/A-18E/F and Growler will complete flight trials in Finland on February 26 and are the last aircraft to take part in the HX Challenge, following the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, Saab Gripen E (with the GlobalEye airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft) and Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II.