Finland's security is now inseparable from its neighbours' and the air force is planning significantly increased operational links with the rest of Europe

After half a century of focusing on developing a highly integrated national air defence architecture, the Finnish air force is to progressively build a coalition operations capability over the coming decade in support of increased European Union defence co-operation.

The expansion of capabilities will include procurement of a medium- to long- range stand-off strike weapon capability, and acquisition of three new transport aircraft with in-flight refuelling capability to support deployment of the air force's Boeing F-18C/D Hornet fighters. The Hornets will also receive the Raytheon AIM-9X missile and a helmet-mounted cueing system by 2008 to complement the recently acquired Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM beyond-visual-range weapon.

Most significantly, a redevelopment or partial replacement of Finland's unique tactical datalink system to provide Link 16-like capabilities is being explored in a reassessment of the country's already highly capable network-centric warfare architecture.

White paper

A new national defence white paper released at the beginning of October justifies the expansion of air power roles beyond pure national air defence missions on the grounds that, while not a NATO member, Finland's security is now inseparable from the broader interests of the European community.

The commander in chief of the Finnish air force, Lt Gen Jouni Pystynen, describes the white paper as making "a big difference...Now we will also equip the Hornet with air-to-ground capacity. It is a historic decision because since the Second World War we really have concentrated on air defence." The Paris Peace Treaties of 1947 prohibited Finland from acquiring or fielding airborne ground strike capabilities.

The air force began preparations for coalition operations in 1997, which included standardising the use of English for all flight activities and the progressive conversion of all measurement systems in the F-18 cockpits from metric to imperial. A prototype conversion of a single BAE Systems Hawk 51 aircraft has recently been completed by Finnish manufacturer Patria Aviation, with this to be progressively implemented across the remaining aircraft as part of intermediate level maintenance activities. Hawks and Hornets will be fully converted by the end of 2005.

"So we are in the same [measurement] units all the other [air forces] are, and we [use] the same language and we have the procedures as well, so now we are quite well off in terms of international co-operation," says Pystynen. While this has allowed the Finnish air force to start training with other European allies, "we have to define how we will operate with others - particularly with the European Union." The Finnish defence staff is now exploring the mechanics of how that multinational co-operation would proceed during operations, with this including how Finland could draw upon European forces to assist in its own defence if required.

Pystynen acknowledges major hurdles still remain to be resolved in terms of how Finnish aircraft would connect into any future coalition with European planners mandating common datalink standards. An interoperability study was launched earlier this year to explore the problem. But datalink funding for the acquisition of a new link system will not be available until 2010, meaning there is a six-year gap dividing the air force from operating with its European allies at an accepted common standard. "We have had a very clear message from NATO and EU countries as well that if we do not have the datalink we are not invited," says Pystynen.

New datalink

Pystynen describes the existing Finnish national datalink system - which has close parallels with GSM-based mobile telephone technology - as "state of the art, but not interoperable with anybody." The link system comprises air data terminals as well as an extensive fixed ground-based terminal network that has covered all of Finland since the 1980s. Patria headed the development of the system with the air force the lead authority for its roll-out to all Finnish service arms.

The current interoperability study is expected to take at least a year "before we know even the basics of what is the new way to go", says Pystynen.

The development of an air-to-air refuelling capability will be synched to white paper requirements for the purchase of three medium transport aircraft to assist with deployment outside of Finland. The requirement is baselined on "something like the [Lockheed Martin] C-130J or equivalent if it exists". Again, funding is not available until after 2010. Pystynen says the larger Airbus Military A400M is inappropriate for the air force's requirements, despite interest in industrial participation in that project from Patria Aviation. "We don't in Finland need any strategic [airlift] capacity".

Scoping studies for the F-18 ground attack requirement were launched earlier this year. Indicative requirements call for a weapon with a range in excess of 100km (55nm). A variety of warhead options are being examined, with both ground and maritime strike missions being assessed. The role may also necessitate purchase of a targeting system for the F-18s, with Pystynen identifying the Raytheon ATFLIR as one option. However, "there is also a plan that the army will buy more capable unmanned air vehicles to help in the targeting".

Man-in-the-loop capability in the terminal phases of weapon flight is unlikely to be sought, but "it is too early to say anything firm because we really now are starting to run down the requirements for the system".

The studies are using the Raytheon Joint Stand Off Weapon (JSOW) fitted with an extended-range folding-wing kit and the Boeing SLAM-ER missile as reference benchmarks. Lockheed Martin's JASSM will be an option, however. "They have to be something which has already integrated into the F-18 because integration is very expensive," says Pystynen. A selection on the preferred weapon types is planned for next year, although government funding for acquisition is not scheduled until 2010. This means a full operational capability is unlikely before 2015-17.

As well as planning for the operational role, Pystynen says the air force is well placed to contribute to general European air forces training through the Eurotraining initiative. A consortium of Patria, the air force and the Finnish ministry of defence last year unveiled proposals to make the service's Hawk aircraft available as an interim solution.

Patria is currently negotiating with the air force to take over all its pilot training activities from early 2005 with a contract planned to be in place by the end of December. The deal would see all Hawks, as well as the service's Valmet Vinka piston-powered trainers, go to Patria, which would then provide a complete turnkey service back to the air force. The aircraft would remain in air force ownership, however, and retain military registration.

Freeing money

Pystynen says that the contracting out of training operations and aircraft support is intended to free up money for re-investment into the F-18 fleet, but acknowledges the move also provides a foundation on which an interim Eurotraining capability could be developed.

The air force is unlikely to fund any further Hawk upgrade work, he says, with the aircraft expected to remain available until at least 2015 through the planned contracting deal with Patria.



Source: Flight International