By the end of 2021, the Finnish ministry of defense is due to have selected a new multi-role fighter to replace the F/A-18C/D Hornet aircraft of the Suomen Ilmavoimat (Finnish air force) by 2030. As part of the selection process for the program, known as HX, the five contenders have been invited to Finland to take part in what has been dubbed the “HX Challenge,” a series of in-country evaluations.
On January 9, the Challenge began when two Eurofighter Typhoons landed at the Pirkkala airbase, near Tampere in southeastern Finland. A media day followed. The aircraft—a single-seat FGR.Mk 4 and two-seat T.Mk 3—came from the RAF’s No. 41 Squadron, which acts as the service's Typhoon test and evaluation unit. BAE Systems is the lead Eurofighter partner for the Finland campaign.
The Typhoon’s test period is due to end on January 17, after which the other contenders will undergo similar evaluations. The Dassault Rafale is scheduled for January 20-28, and the Saab Gripen for January 29 to February 6. The two U.S. contenders follow, with the Lockheed Martin F-35A assigned the period from February 7 to 17, and the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet from February 18 to 26.
Under the HX Challenge, the five types will be put through a series of trials centered around Pirkkala that will amount to seven test-flying days each. Air-to-air missions will be performed against Ilmavoimat Hornets and Hawks. The planning and execution of the HX Challenge is being handled by the Air Combat Center of the Satakunta Air Command. Army and navy agencies are also involved to assess the contenders' ability to support land and maritime operations. The specific requirements for HX call for the aircraft to be capable of conducting counter-air, counter-land, counter-sea, and long-range strike missions, as well as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and target acquisition.
Basing the evaluation in Finland not only allows the defense ministry to design the tests to be fair to all bidders but also assesses each candidate’s performance and capabilities in the Finnish winter environment. While the aircraft themselves have all been proven for cold-weather operations, sustained activities in combinations of freezing temperatures, snow, rain and sleet inevitably have some adverse effects, and can also affect the performance of electro-optical and other sensors.
Additional tests may be performed subsequently by manufacturers in their own countries, and other metrics will be evaluated through the use of simulators. Overall, the HX Challenge is designed to verify the claimed performance of each candidate, rather than pit them against each other in a five-way fly-off.
The HX Challenge represents the first phase of the performance evaluation process. The second phase will be conducted in simulators to assess the success of four-aircraft flights in the key missions set out in the requirement, based on the performance values verified in the flying assessment. A third phase will see how the contenders fare in a long-term wargaming evaluation.
Finland’s government first issued a request for information in April 2016, followed by a request for quotation (RFQ) in October 2019. A best and final offer is due to be delivered later this year following responses to the RFQ. Although fighter capability and performance is a critically important factor in the selection decision, procurement and life-cycle costs, security of supply, domestic industry benefits, and national security/defense policy impact are also major considerations.