HELSINKI — Finland's center-right government's tightening grip on public spending could result in the acquisition of fewer combat aircraft in the Finnish Air Forces' (FAF) HX Fighter Replacement Program (HX-FRP).

Such a path to procurement strengthens the possibility that that economic and affordability factors could see Finland acquire a fleet of combat drone aircraft to supplement the FAF’s operational needs and support its overall capability.   

The Finnish economy is slowly entering a new growth phase after seven years of recession and austerity-led public spending cuts. Big-ticket capital programs, such as the FRP, are being more closely scrutinized to ensure delivery of optimum value.

The FRP is expected to include an aircraft acquisition cost of between US$7 billion to US$10 billion depending on the aircraft type selected. The budget for the total lifecycle cost for 64 aircraft can be expected to run to an estimated US$25 billion to US$30 billion.

Should the Finnish government bow to pressure from opposition parties critical over the high cost of the FRP, such a development could force a lowering in the level of ambition to 60 fighter aircraft or less.

In such a scenario, it is likely the FAF will advance the need to acquire a large number of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to protect any lost capability.

"While we are seeing growth and recovery in the economy, we still need to control public spending as we expect the general government debt-to-GDP ratio will continue to rise," said Finnish finance minister Alexander Stubb.

Finland's public debt stood at 63.1 percent of GDP at the end of 2015, with central government debt increasing above US$100 billion, or just under 50 percent of GDP. The central government debt is forecast to climb to 67.4 percent of GDP in 2018.

The FAF, under the present plan, expects to be able to order between 60 and 64 multirole aircraft to replace the 64 NATO-compatible McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornets delivered in the 1990s.

The 54 Hornets currently in service with the FAF have undergone two mid-life upgrades since 2010.

The FAF intends to start retiring the first of its fleet of Hornets after 2025, with the aim of completing the process in 2030.

"The fighter acquisition program will become a fundamental component of a strengthened national air-defense system that comprises a robust anti-aircraft defense system," said Jussi Niinistö, Finland's defense minister.

The Finnish Defense Force's (FDF) Logistics Command, on April 22, sent out Requests for Information (RfI) to state defense administrations in the United States, Sweden, France and Britain.

Aircraft types covered by the RFIs include the Boeing F-15 and F/A-18, Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Lockheed Martin F-16 and F-35, and the Saab Gripen.

The deadline for replies to the RfIs is Dec.ember 31, 2016.  The invitation to tender bids to the HX-FRP will be dispatched in 2018. Based on this time-frame, a final decision on procurement will be reached in 2021.

The RfI will precede the final procurement analysis and subsequent decision. The FDF plans to run a parallel program to review and determine what systems, including weapons, training equipment, C2 systems and maintenance arrangements, will be needed to augment the fighter purchase.

According to Niinistö, the RfI also invites manufacturers to present possible solutions that includes several types of UAVs.

"The objective is to look at UAV proposals that would contribute to the capabilities of multi-role fighters," said Niinistö.

In a similar tight-budgeting scenario, Denmark's FRP is expected to deliver a solution that includes a reduced number of fighter aircraft supplemented by armed drones with tactical and extreme climate surveillance capabilities.

The Danish Ministry of Defense (MoD) is expected to reach a decision on its fighter type selection in the second half of 2016.

In both the Danish and the Finnish FRPs, the focus is on affordability and identifying armed UAV types that possess the capability to be used in task-specific and multirole missions, and for operations that are routinely conducted by front-line aircraft at the present time.

The FAF's existing UAV fleet includes Swiss-built Ranger surveillance drones for non- combat missions. The FAF has also acquired Israeli Orbiter surveillance drones.

Leading potential bidders, including Saab and Lockheed Martin, have hired senior former FAF commanders as consultants to their FRP teams.

Saab has added ex- FAF Chief of Staff, Brig.adier Gen. Kari Salmi to its Finnish consultancy team, while retired Col. Ossi Sivén, a former chief of the FAF’s Karelia Air Command, has been recruited by Lockheed Martin. 

Dassault Aviation (Rafale) and Boeing are expected to announce their FRP-consulting teams shortly.

Saab plans to unveil the next-generation upgrade of the JAS Gripen at its main factory in  Linköping, Sweden, on May 18.