HX Challenge continues with Gripen E

Finland commenced its HX Challenge in January, the latest phase in its comprehensive search for a new fighter aircraft that will replace the Ilmavoimat’s (Finnish Air Force’s) fleet of F/A-18C/D Hornets.

The first contender into this evaluation was the Eurofighter Typhoon, with BAE Systems leading this bid at a crucial time for the fighter. The HX Challenge is all about proving the credentials that have been laid out in the five separate bids for Finland from the teams hoping to sell the Eurofighter, the Dassault Rafale, Saab JAS 39 Gripen E, Boeing F/A-18E/F Block III and the Lockheed Martin F-35. 

Gripen E First Flight [Saab/Linus Svensson]
Saab Gripen E - serial 39-10 - during its maiden flight in 2019. Saab AB/Linus Svensson

The HX Challenge sees the respective aircraft deploying in pairs to Pirkkala Air Base, near Tampere, and being required to fly missions alongside Finnish aircraft in several different combat scenarios to demonstrate the ability for the aircraft to handle each of these specific and carefully planned exercises. These encompassed the full range of mission sets from close air support (CAS) to offensive counter air (OCA).

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 make a decision in 2021.

Gripen E [Saab/Marcus Wandt]
The first serial production Gripen E for the Swedish Air Force - serial 396002 (c/n 39-6002) in flight wearing a grey splinter camouflage. Saab AB/Marcus Wandt

This week, Key.Aero is back in Tampere to look at Saab’s HX Challenge with the Gripen E. HX is almost impossible to call when it comes to the winning candidate. All of the aircraft meet some of the requirements, and none would appear to meet all of the criteria. The ability to operate from austere road bases in often-poor weather conditions is an important consideration for a nation that takes military capability very seriously. The Gripen undoubtedly holds the cards in this domain as it’s ingrained in Sweden’s concept of operations (CONOPS). Short turnaround times with a small ground team at an austere base is what Gripen is all about. Saab is also offering its GlobalEye airborne early warning system in the package, which is likely to be extremely competitive on overall cost. Moreover, the bilateral defense co-operation between Sweden and Finland would be far easier if both countries operated the same aircraft. Finland would be able to fall back to Swedish bases in times of conflict, for example, should it decide on commonality through Gripen.

Dispersed operations, GlobalEye, cost and industrial offset should be a good offering, plus it is a politically popular choice for Finland in times of increasing defence cooperation with Sweden. Gripen E now needs to demonstrate that it offers the full suite of capabilities it promises in the HX Challenge.

GlobalEye [Saab AB]
Saab is also offering its GlobalEye AEW&C solution to Finland. Pictured here is SE-RMY during the type's first flight on March 14, 2018. Saab AB