The Finnish Defence Forces are experiencing a time of great changes. Finland gaining NATO membership in April has been the main story, but much more is going on. The Commander of the Finnish Air Force, Major General Juha-Pekka Keränen, talks about what is currently happening in the F-35 programme.
After the procurement decision made in December 2021 and the first contractsLink to an external website signed in February 2022, the F-35 programme has seemed to be fairly quiet from an outsider’s perspective, but underneath things are happening. Work is carried out both in Finland and in the United States, and the integration of the joint capability of the Finnish Defence Forces – Joint Fighter – has progressed to the performance-building stage.
The F-35 programme is being prepared by a separate body, but the results of the programme will be visible in a defence-oriented manner. An F-35 programme organisation has been established in the Finnish Air Force, but otherwise the defence administration’s rules of procedure have remained the same for the programme, being largely the same as in the HX Programme during the evaluation of the fighter candidates.
“Generally speaking, the implementation of the F-35 programme is progressing as planned. In practice, we have continued with the same division of labour as during the evaluation of the HX Programme’s fighter candidates. The Finnish Air Force Command directs the integration of the F-35 capability. This means that the Air Force Command directs the building and achievement of capability. In other words, their task is to make sure that the framework required for the operation of the F-35 is completed and the combat-efficiency is achieved on time,” says the Commander of the Finnish Air Force, Major General Juha-Pekka Keränen.
The Finnish Ministry of DefenceLink to an external websiteOpens in a new tab is responsible for industrial cooperation as a whole. Industrial cooperation agreements are built under the direction of the ministry. The ministry negotiates and supervises the whole in such a way that the 30 per cent share of the total value of the procurement set as a requirement for the value of industrial cooperation during the tendering phase of the programme is realised.
According to Keränen, keeping to the schedule is crucial to the F-35 programme.
“It is important to ensure that we keep to the planned schedule. That all parties of the programme, including the partners, adhere to the planned and agreed schedule and that the contracts on the content of the tenders will keep to what has been promised to us. In this transitional phase, it is important for us to plan and prepare for operational use as much as possible in advance.”
However, the global situation also has an impact on the F-35 programme.
“Of course, Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine and the resulting inflation are all worrisome issues. The so-called race for defence materiel has increased the prices exceptionally, especially last year. The defence industry has a seller’s market, and of course we monitor the availability and prices of weapons.”
Global and Finnish economic prospects have not been very glamorous in recent years. The F-35 programme is prepared for changes in the economies of the United States and Finland.
“We are constantly monitoring the economic situation. The procurements of the F-35 programme will take place over several years. The economic situation will probably normalise before long. The programme has prepared for economic changes by reimbursing the index costs accumulated over the years on top of the purchase price in accordance with the European calculation method, to give an example. If the costs increase faster than the index to be compensated, then we have to react, but we are constantly monitoring this. I wouldn’t worry too much about this yet,” Keränen comments.
In addition to the economic situation, the F-35 programme has also monitored the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. According to Keränen, there is no need to change the F-35 programme plan or the operations of the Air Force on the basis of the observations made during the war.
“The same principles defined for the evaluation phase of the HX Programme continue to apply: The Air Force must have dispersed operations, the ability to react quickly, and we must be able to support the Army and the Navy in terms of situational awareness, intelligence and fire use in real time. It is essential to fit air, ground and sea combat into the whole, especially as the Army will be gaining new ground-based air defence systems within the next decade, such as the David’s Sling already in this decade.”
The system development of the F-35 has been occasionally highlighted in international and domestic media. The points of interest have been, among other things, what kind of radar and engine the F-35 fighters acquired by Finland will have. The production details of the F-35 are being negotiated in the United States through FMS procedures. Foreign customers trading with the US Government are so-called Foreign Military Sales (FMS) customers. In the United States, there is an F-35 programme office, JPOLink to an external websiteOpens in a new tab (Joint Program Office), through which all customers do business related to their F-35 programmes. Finland has a small liaison office on site to promote the implementation of the Finnish programme.
“The Air Force does not negotiate directly with Lockheed Martin, but with the US Government in accordance with the FMS rules. We can count on JPO to negotiate the best solutions for us, the same solutions that the US Air Force has,” Keränen says.
The JPO programme office serves as a link between the customer, the supplier and the US Government. The JPO manages and negotiates matters related to the Finnish F-35 programme with Lockheed Martin and the US Government. Consequently, the personnel of the Finnish F-35 programme only have to deal with the Finnish liaison office.
“The Defence Forces are represented at the JPO Liaison Office by Colonel Aki Heikkinen, who functions as the messenger of the Finnish F-35 programme in the United States. As far as product development in the F-35 programme is concerned, our aim is to monitor the F-35 system administrator, the US Air Force, as closely as possible. This is cost-effective, as the administrator also pays for most of the system development work. However, I would not go too far here to speculate on the impacts of F-35’s development work on the Finnish fighters, such as whether there will be divergent development paths or something else,” says Keränen.
Information on development and production does not serve any surprises to the Finnish Air Force, as cooperation and exchange of information with the United States is continuous. In addition to internal communications, information from the U.S. Government is disseminated by the U.S. Government Accountability Office GAOLink to an external websiteOpens in a new tab. Keränen considers the Accountability Office’s reporting related to the F-35 programme to be transparent.
In addition to the development, the F-35 programme keeps a constant eye on the horizon, as the capability replacing the Hornet is expected to serve until the 2060s. During the life cycle of the system, upgrades will be made as planned.
“The planning criteria for the programme allocates EUR 2 billion for in-service upgrades of the selected fighter system. This will be covered by the defence budget in due course. In other words, we will be upgrading the F-35 during its life cycle,” says Keränen.
Moving forward together – keeping to the schedule
According to the Commander of the Finnish Air Force, the schedule of the F-35 programme looks currently promising.
“The programme is proceeding as planned. Certain milestones have been set, and an important time limit is the launch of domestic training in Rovaniemi in early autumn 2026, beginning with simulator training. Keeping to the schedule requires that we are on the same wavelength with our partners, so to speak. I believe that we share a strong common desire and understanding with our partners of what needs to be achieved and in what timeframe.”
The schedule for the F-35 programme for Finland has been called ambitious. The Commander of the Finnish Air Force understands the logical reasons behind the firm schedule.
“In the Air Force, the HX Programme lasted seven years, and at the time of the tendering process, we already carried out a lot of research in the evaluation process of the fighter candidates, for example in terms of safety requirements, which has had an impact on the fact that we have now been able to cut one to two years from the integration stage of the programme. The Finnish planning mechanism progresses well once it has been launched,” explains Keränen.
Like all programmes, the schedule of the F-35 programme also takes into account unexpected delays.
“There can always be an unexpected problem which delays the programme. We must always be prepared for unexpected things.”
When asked about the timing of the next weapons procurements, the Commander of the Finnish Air Force remains moderate.
“The first weapons contracts have been concluded, and now we will take our time. It remains to be seen whether decisions on the next weapons procurements will be made this year. In the future, decisions will probably be made every year on one thing or another.”
Decisions on the procurement of weapons for F-35 fighters are scheduled over several years and stretched to the future in order to enable the supply of up-to-date and modern weapons. According to Keränen, there is no need to worry about the availability of weapons.
“The US Congress’s exemptions for weapons sold to Finland have, as it were, placed us in the queue for the acquisition of those weapons. There is no rush to procure weapons, and we are deliberately stretching procurement decisions into the future so that we can follow the trends in weapons development and ensure that we can, if we wish, acquire the most up-to-date weapons with the longest possible lifecycle. In addition, the weapons used in the Hornet are also suitable for the F-35 fighters, which will enable us the use of weapons in stock also on the F-35s.”
Although the F-35 programme is about the usual long-term strategic planning of the Finnish Defence Forces and the replacement of ageing capabilities, it is nevertheless the most valuable defence materiel procurement in the history of Finland. How does it feel to be the Commander of the Finnish Air Force during these historic moments?
“This is an interesting period, of course. In addition to the F-35 programme, the Air Force and the Finnish Defence Forces are experiencing other major changes, such as Finland’s NATO membership, which was ratified in the spring, and the related requirements to harmonise Finland as a part of NATO. Preparations are being made in working groups so that the programmes and the NATO integration can be finalised. Once capacity is implemented, the results will be visible to everyone. All services will have access to the F-35 and IITVJ’s capabilities as well as to the interesting tasks available in the NATO organisation. So yes, there is plenty to do, but I am sure it will be interesting for everyone. Times are indeed interesting,” says Keränen.
The progress of the F-35 programme has become more real this year not only in construction but also in production. The first Finnish F-35 fighter is in production at the Lockheed Martin’s plant in Forth Worth, Texas, USA. Small details tell of the start of production: in the summer of 2023, Major General Keränen was ceremoniously handed a piece of Finland’s first F-35 aircraft at the Turku Air Show. It is a physically small metal spiral, but symbolically a significant step in the progress of the F-35 programme.
“It certainly feels great and makes the progress of the programme more evident when one has received a piece of Finland’s first F-35. This also makes real the fact that the finished product is slowly starting to come together and that we are progressing towards the target on schedule.”