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Finland seeks bids for €10bn fighter jet purchase

A massive investment in new warplanes must be made in the next few years – but a possible announcement about a new joint venture option at this week’s Berlin Air Show could complicate Finland’s decision.

Jas 39 Gripenin E-versio julkistettiin Linkopingissä toukokuussa 2016.
Sweden's Jas Gripen E is one of the contenders. Image: Anders Wiklund / EPA
Wif Stenger

Finnish officials are about to send out requests for bids for one of the country’s biggest investments ever: some 7-10 billion euros to buy multi-role fighter aircraft. They are to replace the current ageing fleet of 64 F/A-18 Hornet jets.

Yle has learned that letters will be sent imminently to five airplane manufacturers asking for bids. It will be up to the next government, set to take office next spring, to decide which type of aircraft to procure.

The five planes now in the running include three from EU companies and two from the United States: the British-made Eurofighter Typhoon, France’s Dassault Rafale, Sweden’s Saab Gripen E and the US planes Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-35.

The selection also includes many other elements, including assembly, interoperability, operating systems and weapons. And the impact will reach far into the future, as Finland hopes to use the new planes into the 2050s.

Sticker price only 1/3 of total investment

The purchase price of 7-10 billion euros will probably only represent about one third of the overall costs to be incurred during the airplanes’ lifetime. The cost of buying, maintaining and upgrading the aircraft will depend partly on how many of Finland’s allies and neighbours are using the same model.

"The more users there are, the more opportunities there are to find other countries with interests similar to those of Finland,” says Jyri Raitasalo, Military Professor of War Studies at the Finnish National Defence University.

The security policy stand of the other nations using the same plane is also a relevant question, particularly for the politicians who are setting Finland’s policy and will decide on the procurement in the early 2020s.

Trump erroneously announced Hornet buy

Yle has learned that Finnish defence officials have been closely monitoring the progress of the Gripen E, made by neighbouring Sweden – a close ally which, like Finland, has an ‘enhanced membership’ in NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme.

The latest version of the plane, known as the Gripen JAS 39E/F, was first tested last year. So far fewer than 100 of the planes have been sold, only to Sweden and Brazil.

In comparison, the American planes are sold in vast numbers and are assured of a long future. For instance the US Navy plans to fly Boeing’s Super Hornets into the 2040s, so service and support for the planes will not be phased out anytime soon.

Rival Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, has sold fewer than 300 of its F-35, but many orders for the plane are pending – including from European countries including neighbouring Norway.

During the Cold War years, non-aligned Finland sought to carefully balance military procurements from the East and West, but since the fall of the USSR, it has had a freer hand.

In 1992, Finland decided to buy Boeing Hornets and has been flying them since 1995, the year it joined the EU. So clearly they would be strong contenders to replace the existing fleet.

However last August President Sauli Niinistö hastened to deny a claim by US President Donald Trump that Finland would buy new Boeing fighter jets.

New Eurofighter on the horizon?

Meanwhile the fighter jet sector may be shaken up by France and Germany’s plans to team up to produce a new type of Eurofighter jet. So far there is only a political plan, not an actual industrial venture.

Yle has learned from French sources that the two countries plan to make a major joint announcement about military aviation at the Berlin Air Show, which opens on Wednesday.

French reports indicate it could replace both the Rafale and the current Eurofighter. However no new French-German Eurofighter is expected before 2035. Therefore it is unclear how the plan might affect Finland, which needs new aircraft by the middle of the next decade, says Raitasalo. There are also reports that Sweden’s Saab might join a new Eurofighter project.

All the candidate planes are now at the same starting line, says Lauri Puranen, who is coordinating the project at the Defence Ministry. He says it is important that other countries besides Finland will be using the planes through their entire lifespan.

"It is difficult to say, for instance, whether this European venture will bring uncertainty,” Puranen says.

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