A Western Heliport

This week’s post was supposed to be about F-35 in HX. Then the need for a primer on Finnish unmanned systems appeared and caused a change of plans. Then Russia built a heliport on Gogland, and here we are.

TASS yesterday provided some details. A Mi-26, the Soviet C-130 sized helicopter, flew in the required special equipment including the surface plating. The heliport was then made by the “engineering and aerodrome service of the Leningrad Air Force and Air Defense Army”. Exactly how long it took to get the heliport up and running is uncertain, but on satellite imagery nothing is seen on 2 July, while the base looks finished by 26 July. Incidentally, Putin visited the island on 27 July, so it would seem reasonable to assume the works were finished by then. Notable is that TASS describes the work as a “tactical exercise”, indicating that the capability to airlift the men and equipment needed to build a permanent heliport is seen as a capability for wartime scenarios.

Gogland is a bit of a sore spot for Finnish nostalgics. The beautiful island in the middle of the Gulf of Finland held a thriving Finnish community dating back through the centuries, and was a popular tourist destination before the Second World War. Held by the Finnish forces in the face of a German attack in 1944, it was occupied by the Red Army only after the truce. It is situated well west of the Karelian land border, and close enough to the city of Kotka that the inhabitants define clear weather as when the mountaintops of the island are visible from the Finnish mainland. The military presence on the island has largely made it off-limits to tourists, further adding to the ‘paradise lost’-narrative. For a nice pictorial look at the island today, check out this piece by journalist Magnus Londen who got permission to visit it in 2006.

What once was, a Finnish wartime colour photo of the main village Suurkylä and the harbour there, taken on 18 June 1943. The heliport was built on the shore of the bay closer to the camera, roughly in the middle of the picture. Source: SA-kuva

The island’s strategic location, the westernmost point of continuous Russia and guarding the approaches to St Petersburg, means it has seen steady military use. The exact garrison is uncertain as far as I am aware, but radars and different EW and SIGINT/ELINT sensors are regularly documented on the island.

 

In recent years several special forces exercises have taken place on the island. In 2015 an amphibious landing by a small naval SOF-party was made, after which the soldiers stormed a “pirate base” located in the ruins of the old Finnish casino. A more high-profile case was when Russian airborne forces staged an exercise raid days before the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki last year. The exercise began with the team being inserted by steerable parachutes from Mi-8AMTSh multipurpose helicopters, jumping out at 2,500 meters height. Having touched down they hid the parachutes, and proceeded to conduct reconnaissance missions and destroy a number of strategic targets, before they prepared a helicopter landing zone and where exfiltrated by helicopter. A total of 50 soldiers and four helicopters were involved in the exercise according to Russian sources.

Mi-8AMTSh is a highly modernized version of the venerable Mi-8 transport helicopter. It’s main mission is airborne assaults, for which it can be armed with a combination of rocket pods, bombs, gunpods, and missiles. Here a single Mi-8AMTSh (closest to the camera) takes part in exercise Vostok 2018 together with more basic Mi-8 versions. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout this time there has been a small landing spot next to the natural harbour at the site of the former Suurkylä village, on the northeastern shore of the island. However, neither the harbour nor the helicopter facilities have been much to write home about, something that is noteworthy considering the frequent helicopter flights to and from the island, and the general need of having a reliable supply route for the garrison. As such, an improved infrastructure for helicopter operations is not a surprise in and by itself, but as a source with professional insight on the matter told me, “It tells more about their tactical capabilities (and lack of resources) that it was done only now”.

The scope of the heliport should also be noted. It apparently consists of five helipads made of prefabricated plates, landing lights, some kind of flight control, a refuelling station, and some basic maintenance capability. Absent are any kind of shelter from weather and wind (not to mention shrapnel protection), parking spaces, taxiways, or other permanent facilities associated with an air base. While TASS notes that the structures are “permanent”, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that helicopters will be based permanently on the island. In essence, this is a refuelling stop and an attempt at improving the supply route to the island itself. Or as the source described it:

A permanent landing spot has been prepared, but there’s no way that it deserves to be labelled a ‘base’

What are then the potential uses of the heliport? Granted it does offer longer reach for helicopters operating over the Gulf of Finland, but it’s hard to see this extra reach being a game-changer strategically or even tactically. It does allow for helicopters transferring between mainland bases and ships operating in the western Gulf of Finland to top up their fuel levels, but the benefits are rather minor compared to the earlier situation.

Neither does it provide any kind of crucial edge for airborne operations against targets further west, such as e.g. the much-discussed Åland islands-scenario. In the case of a surprise airborne attack on Åland, even if the helicopters would fly the shortest route, passing directly over Helsinki, they would still lack the fuel for the return trip.*

A larger issue when functioning as a staging ground for an airborne assault is however the lack of landing space available. With just five landing spots an air assault could lift just 120 soldiers in one go, or less if the transport helicopters would be escorted by dedicated attack helicopters. For an air assault on targets on either shore of the Gulf of Finland, operating from the larger bases on the mainland still provide greater tactical and operational flexibility. Especially considering the fact that keeping eyes on low-flying helicopters in the archipelago is rather difficult as it stands.

Screenshot 2019-08-08 at 15.34.58

However, the main drawback of the base is the fact that it is well within range of Finnish artillery, both 155 mm guns as well as the M270 MLRS with their M30A1 Alternative Warheads (in essence a precision-guided 70 km shotgun), a rocket that would be excellent for taking out the whole heliport and the helicopters standing tightly grouped together in one go. The same issue is probably the reason why the island isn’t host to any Russian long-range air defence systems.

The island is nicely within range. Our neighbor has no illusions about that.

The one military benefit operating from Gogland could offer is for maritime patrol helicopters scanning the sea or looking for underwater activities in peacetime. Still, even these operations would be somewhat weather dependent due to the lack of shelters on the island.

However, when it comes to maritime operations, what the heliport does offer is significantly increased time on station for helicopters involved in search and rescue missions in case of a maritime accident in the eastern Gulf of Finland.

Honestly, the biggest “operational” change is that the capacity for sea rescue missions over the eastern Gulf of Finland increases. Our helicopters as well can land there now, if the need arises.

The sentiment is echoed by professor Lt.Col. Petteri Lalu on Twitter:

However, as professor Lalu also noted, while the ability to build a FOB with airlifted parts (over the time of a few weeks?) is interesting, the big picture here isn’t about Gogland. Instead it is the general growth in military capacity in Russia’s northwestern corner. From a Finnish point of view, more worrying than five landing spots on Gogland is the 15th Army Aviation Brigade at Ostrov, Pskov Oblast, which currently has a squadron each of Mi-28N, Ka-52, and Mi-35M attack helicopters (the number of Mi-35M possibly being less than a full squadron), as well as a strong squadron of Mi-8MTV-5 air assault helicopters and four Mi-26 heavy transport helicopters, as well as a small number of Mi-8MTPR-1 Rychag electronic warfare helicopters. The unit was set up as a brand new unit in 2013, and is equipped with the most modern helicopters available to the Russian army aviation. Another base that has received more love in recent years is Gromovo (located in former Finnish Karelia, and formerly known as Sakkola). The field currently sort under the 33rd Independent Transport Composite Aviation Regiment (33 OTSAP) based at Levashovo. While Gromovo doesn’t have any units permanently attached, the former fighter base has hosted several major detachments during larger exercises in recent years, including helicopter units and naval fighters(!).

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Mil Mi-28N attack helicopters of the 15 Br AA in Ostrov. Source: Ostrow1341 via Wikimedia Commons

As these kinds of investments in major infrastructure take place over time they tend to generate fewer headlines than smaller and more sudden events. However, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. The Gogland heliport in itself does not deteriorate the Finnish security environment, but the major trend of increased military capability in general and airborne infrastructure in particular does present the Finnish Defence Forces with new threat scenarios that might need to be countered in case of an armed conflict. In particular the need for the ability to react swiftly to a surprising first strike, possibly taking place deep within Finnish territory, is emphasized, something that has been a general theme since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

*For those interested in the details: a Mi-8MTV-5 (a version roughly corresponding to the AMTSh but built by the competing Kazan plant instead of at Ulan-Ude) travelling the shortest possible route from Gogland to Åland would be left with just 665 litres for the return flight, i.e. less than half of what’s needed to get back to Gogland. These numbers are adapted from the Kaliningrad to Slite scenario presented by Jan Åkerberg in his article “Det ryska armeflyget 2017” in The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences’ Proceeding and Journal no. 3/2019.

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No Tempest for Sweden (at least not yet)

For several months rumors have been claiming that Saab and Sweden will be (or already are) a partner in the British Team Tempest for a new ‘sixth generation’ fighter. For UK, Sweden in essence remains one of two European country with a serious aviation industry that still isn’t tied to the competing Franco-German project (the other being Italy), and would thus represent a rare opportunity for burden sharing.

However, for the Gripen programme, Sweden acquiring the Tempest would represent the kiss of death, as Sweden hardly could afford to operate the Gripen alongside a new replacement type. This is especially problematic for the 39E/F-programme as the Tempest is scheduled for some kind of IOC as early as 2035 (certainly an ambitious target, to put it diplomatically). In turn, this would mean that the chances of Gripen would dramatically drop in the Finnish HX-fighter programme, as the Finnish Air Force and MoD officials have repeatedly expressed that the one thing Finland can’t afford is to be left the sole operator of an aircraft type (a situation which was one of the key drivers behind the decisions not to put forward a MLU3-programme but instead retire the Hornet-fleet as planned).

However, during the official signing ceremony at RIAT yesterday it turned out that this was all a tempest in a teacup*, and Saab dodged a seriously sized bullet in HX.

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On 18 July, Minister for Defence Peter Hultqvist and the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defence Penny Mordaunt signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in London. Photo: Adriana Haxhimustafa/Government Offices

It turns out Sweden is not joining Team Tempest, but rather signed an MoU on “agreeing to examine the possibilities for joint development of future combat aircraft capabilities and combat aircraft systems.” In other words, rather than jointly developing the Tempest with the UK, Sweden (and crucially, it is the Swedish Minister of Defense Hultqvist that signed the MoU on behalf of the country) will join in developing sub-systems and capabilities (propulsion, sensors, and weapons are some obvious areas). What will Sweden then use these new capabilities and technologies for? Well, as the MoD notes in their presser: “This collaboration offers the opportunity to further insert advanced technologies into JAS 39 Gripen.”

In the end, it will be down to the industry to actually put the MoU into effect, and in the words of Saab, they “will contribute with […] experience of advanced technology development, system integration of complete combat air systems and related areas including sensors, missile systems and support”, though they also note that they still haven’t gotten any order related to the MoU (though they have been involved in the preliminary studies leading up to the signing, meaning that an order is likely just a quesiton of time).

Saab @Linus Svensson
39E Gripen prototype 39-8 airborne armed with a Meteor very-long range air-to-air missile. The weapon was jointly developed for a number of European aircraft, including Gripen and Typhoon, showing one way of countries tapping into potential synergies despite operating different fighters. Picture courtesy of Saab

This kind of technology sharing isn’t unheard of, as the small number of avionics companies means that already today the JAS 39E/F and Typhoon operate related versions of many key technologies, with the IRST-scanner being the most high-profile ones.

As such, rather than signalling the death of the 39E even before it has seriously gotten off the ground, the MoU indicates a plan on the part of the Swedish government to ensure that the 39E/F will remain modern and viable in the mid- to long-term. Notably, the MoU is only in force for ten years, and it leave all doors open for Sweden, including joining the Tempest at a later date, or opting for another way. While another new all-Swedish fighter might be prohibitively expensive, obvious alternatives include joining France, Germany, and Spain on their fighter, or going fighter shopping on the other side of the Atlantic for the first time since the J 26 Mustang. However, the schedule for this is completely open, and with Gripen staying in service “for the foreseeable future” and the joint studies with Team Tempest likely providing new input, it does seem that we are closer to JAS 39G/H than we are to JAS 40. For Gripen in HX, things just started to look a little brighter.

*I really had to go there, didn’t I…

PMPV looks towards the future

The Finnish Army recently took delivery of the first of four Protolab PMPV which have been ordered for operational testing. I wrote about the contract back when it was signed, and the short version is that the AMV might be the best of the best, but it is too expensive to be the wholesale replacement of the Finnish fleet of XA-180/200 series of 6×6 APCs which make up the majority of the Finnish Defence Forces’ protected mobility.

PMPV climbing
One of the PMPV prototypes sporting the four-colour camouflage used by the Finnish Army. Picture courtesy of Protolab Oy

But the PMPV, or Misu as it is also referred to, is not unchallenged when it comes to replacing these APCs. Patria, the manufacturer of both the XA-series and AMVs, recently launched their take on a modern but affordable 6×6 in the form of the Patria 6X6. It might be as close to ungooglable as a modern vehicle gets, but the solid pedigree and the company’s long history of close cooperation with the Finnish Defence Forces shouldn’t be underestimated (full disclosure: I work for KONGSBERG Maritime Finland Oy, whose parent company KONGSBERG Gruppen ASA owns a significant stake in Patria).

But while the 6X6 is a logical next generation development of the XA-series, the PMPV offers a refreshingly new take. It is often referred to as a MRAP, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, after the US military program that created thousands of protected vehicles to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq to improve the level of protection that US (and allied) forces enjoyed when faced with a growing threat from IEDs and ambushes that included anti-vehicle and anti-armour weapons. It is true that the PMPV employ several of the design features included in the program, such as placing the front wheels in front of the driver’s cabin and a high and heavily angled V-hull. However, other design features borrow more heavily from traditional APCs or all-terrain trucks.

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Cougar MRAP in the Al Anbar-province, Iraq, hit by an IED weighing several hundred kilograms. All aboard survived the blast and where out on the patrol the very next day. Source: US DoD via Wikimedia Commons

The last part is important. Besides the future requirement to replace the XA-series there is a seemingly growing requirement that missions currently handled by unarmoured trucks will have to be taken over by protected vehicles in the near to immediate future. These include transport of soldiers outside of the immediate combat area and logistics transportations. If this is to be implemented, it naturally raises the number of armoured vehicles needed even further, putting pressure on the cost.

On paper both vehicles emphasise many of the same points, including use of commercial off the shelf parts and solutions, modularity to adapt the vehicle for different roles, the ability to up-armour the vehicle to higher protection levels, and the ability to mount different kinds of weapons solutions. However, the different design philosophies shines through in the external measurements: the PMPV is only 2.5 meters wide, something that together with steering on the front and rear axles allows for a (relative to its size) very nimble vehicle. On the flip side the raised hull and MRAP pedigree causes it to be 2.7 meters high. The 6X6 is on the other hand only 2.5 meters high, but 2.9 meters wide. On the battlefield those 20 centimeters in height might make it harder to find cover, but on an ordinary road or in an urban environment having a vehicle 40 centimeters narrower means the difference between driving a truck-sized vehicle or an oversized one. The height might also be the biggest downside when used as a cargo carrier, with the floor level rather high above the ground and the door opening being relatively narrow.

Interestingly enough, both vehicles are closely matched when it comes to max weight, tipping the scale roughly at 24,000 kg. However, an empty PMPV comes in at just 14,000 kg, allowing for 10,000 kg of cargo (in addition to fuel). This gives it a measurable edge over the 8,500 kg of cargo the 6X6 can handle.

PMPV goes to town
A PMPV prototype visiting the Finnish MoD as part of earlier trials. While the size of the vehicle is evident compared to the civilian cars, it is still small enough that it can blend in with ordinary traffic without causing too much of a fuss. Picture courtesy of Protolab Oy

Another significant difference is the powertrain, where the PMPV relies on a 213 kW Cummins diesel as opposed to the 294 kW Scania of the 6X6. Having 38% more power likely is significant when venturing off-road with a full cargo load, but also comes at a cost in terms of pure Euros. Without having seen any comparative trials it is hard to tell if this is a case of good-enough coupled with a cheaper price tag beating raw power, but Protolab is confident:

My personal opinion is that we have succeeded very well. The car [sic!] has received excellent feedback from people who participated in the test drives, both from FDF personnel and others. Its mobility off-road is top notch.

It is somehow telling that the company refers to it as a “car” (fi. Auto) rather than the more official “vehicle” (fi. Ajoneuvo) generally used about APCs in the FDF. It certainly tells something about the ease of handling.

In the end, it is hard to say for certain what the future holds for the PMPV, or for the Patria 6X6 for that matter. It is no secret that the Finnish Army faces a headache where several different vehicles, including not only the APCs but also vehicles such as the MT-LB-families and older articulated all-terrain vehicles (NA-series and older BV-206), will need to be replaced. The changing face of the battlefield, such as the increased use of thermobaric warheads and loitering munitions, also raises questions about what should be the protection level of vehicles used in different roles. It is likely that the look of many units, especially regional and maneuver units in the FDF, will change significantly in the next two decades, and e.g. replacing tracked vehicles with another tracked vehicle won’t necessarily be the case. From a customer point of view, the luxury of having a choice between several domestic products is certainly a big plus, especially as they provide different design solutions to the same basic need. Added to the mix is also the slightly smaller 4×4 Sisu GTP, which recently won a Latvian contract (the decision has since been nullified in a court battle). In the end, it seems likely that the Finnish Army will continue to roll out protected by Finnish armoured vehicles once the XA is retired. But what company builds them and how ubiquitous they will be remains to be seen.

Survivability of a Finnish AEW&C

The news that a Finnish 39E/F Gripen order would include two GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft has lead to varied reactions, some better argued (and more reality-based) than others.

The first thing to address is that the inclusion of additional assets and the claim that they make the fighter better is not proof of a design flaw on the part of the fighter. This is true for Super Hornet and Growler, and it is true for Gripen and GlobalEye. Secondly, the recent fighter competitions the Gripen has lost have mostly been smaller contracts where the 39C has lost out against aircraft such as surplus F-16s. The Swiss decision to disqualify the 39E based on the criteria of evaluation flights this summer is in no way an indicator of how the aircraft will perform in five to ten years when HX is set to achieve IOC. There simply isn’t today a clear evaluation available in open sources that would have been apolitical enough that we can say that we know how a 2030-vintage 39E stack up against Rafale F4, F-35A Block 4, and the rest of the competition. This becomes especially true once the particulars of the Finnish Air Force and the way it operates are taken into account. It should also be remembered that the GlobalEye was included in the offer sent in months ago (and prepared last year), so trying to tie it to recent events isn’t realistic.

The first GlobalEye rolled out. Any Finnish order will be basedon the higher powered Global 6500 as opposed to the 6000. Picture courtesy of Saab

When it comes to AEW&C in general it can be said that any fighter will perform better with support from one compared to without. That hold true even as data links and sensor fusion means that individual fighters get access to significantly better situational awareness. AEW&C provide the possibility of the fighters operating with passive sensors until an opportune moment. The idea that a fighter can work as a mini-AEW, most often associated with the F-35 but by no means unique to it, has some credibility but should not be confused with a real AEW. The reasons are two-fold: size matters, as Saab’s competition has been happy to point out over the years, and the bigger power and bigger array sizes of a dedicated larger platform will translate into better performance (i.e. longer detection ranges). The second reason is the dedicated mission crew (the ‘C’-component of the AEW&C). These enjoy ergonomic working conditions and dedicated tools and training to direct the flow of battle and relay important information to the fighter pilots, who are in a stressed situation and more susceptible to information overload. As a side-note, the spotter/shooter-teaming of fighters, surface ships, and airborne sensors which F-35 (spotter) and US Navy ships (shooter) has been demonstrating is also something that Saab has been studying. My understanding is that no other contry besides the US has yet to actually demonstrate the capability in practice. However, with the choice of Saab’s 9LV combat managment system for all Finnish surface combatants, the combination of Pohjanmaa-class corvettes, Hamina-class FAC, and JAS 39E/F Gripen fighters acting as shooters with a GlobalEye AEW&C acting as the sensor(s) looks tempting.

The question which undoubtedly caused most discussion was that of survivability. While the GlobalEye have some passive sensors, when it is operating it will be transmitting with it’s radar at a relatively high power. AESA radars aren’t as easy to locate as conventional ones, but if a GlobalEye is up in the sky, the enemy will likely know that it is there and have an approximate bearing on it’s location. However, the step from spotting a GlobalEye to actually shooting it down is quite a bit. To begin with the aircraft is equipped with significant EW-capabilities, but most importantly the range of the EriEye-ER radar allows it to sit back quite some way from the action. This has caused some discussion about whether the strategic depth Finland has is enough. The answer is that if Finland has any kind of own fighter presence in the air it should be. To better get a picture of the situation, let’s temporarily forego my principles and draw some circles on a map.

All the normal caveats apply. Circles on a map should never be treated as the objective truth. These are examples of ranges, the eventual detection and weapon distances will depend on a huge number of factors. However, in this particular example I do feel that this aid somewhat in understanding the distances at play.

To our aid we’ll bring in CMANO, which is widely regarded as the best tactical/operational level air and sea warfare simulator available to the general public (enough so that it has a professional edition on offer). Again, the circles aren’t exact because OPSEC and the laws of physics, but they are good enough for our purpose. The scenario used is named Code Name: Red Island, 2016, and feature a Russian amphibious assault on the Åland Islands. That is partly irrelevant, because we will simply use it to look at a few examples of sensor and weapon ranges.

Radar ranges

Here we have a number of ground based surveillance systems. For the Russians the white fat dotted line represents a Kasta 2E2 radar (NATO-designation ‘FLAT FACE’), which is a modern Russian long-range air surveillance system. The wider white dotted line is the S-200 associated 5N87 ‘BACK NET’. Remember that the earth’s curvature will cause significant shadows at longer ranges. The two Finnish Air Force bases are Tampere-Pirkkala and Kupio-Rissala. Note the orange circles designating Finnish SAM-systems, mainly the NASAMS. Note that even in a best case-scenario from the Russian point of view, they have no picture of what’s happening over the Finnish west coast coming from their ground based systems.

Su-35 Vyborg

Here we bring in the fighters. In this case we have a number of Russian Su-35S, featuring the powerful Irbis-E PESA radar. From the Karelian ishmuts the fighters could theoretically spot Finnish fighters taking-off from Pirkkala and Kuopio, roughly corresponding to the 5N87, but as the radars are airborne they offer a better coverage of lower altitudes. However, a key point here is the significantly shorter orange circle, which is the max-range of the R-27 missiles the Su-35 (and other Russian fighters) are armed with.

Hornet ranges

Enter corresponding picture from the Finnish point of view. The white sector is the search area of the legacy-Hornet’s AN/APG-73 radar, with the orange circle representing the max range of the AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM.

A-50U Mainstay

Here we bring in the stand-off sensors. East of Gotland we have a Russian A-50U ‘MAINSTAY’ AEW&C aircraft, flying circles approximately 200 nm south-southwest of Turku. Note the huge search range, with the dotted white circle almost stretching all the way to Vaasa despite the aircraft sitting quite far back. Naturally, if Finland would have an AEW&C sitting over Vaasa, one can easily imagine a similar circle stretching down to Gotland (remember, what you actually see depends on the radar-cross section and EW capabilities of the target).

The other interesting aircraft in the picture above is the C-295 Dragon Shield SIGINT/ELINT aircraft which sits over the Gulf of Bothnia on a southbound course. The passive sensors have picked up the emissions from the Russian squadron which is still quite a bit south of the Åland Islands. As is nicely illustrated, the bearings to the ships can be quite well read from the passive sensors alone, but judging range is significantly harder.

What then, if anything, can be shown by consulting a high-fidelity computer game? The most important point is that while Finland might be narrow, it isn’t indefensibly narrow even from the air. There is still ample of air space left for stand-off sensors before we start intruding on Swedish territory (with that said, having access to Swedish air space would certainly be a plus). It also shows the huge benefit of having an airborne surveillance radar, especially once the radar shadows found at lower altitudes are taken into the picture. It should also be remebered that the Global 6500 has a ‘high-cruise’ of Mach 0.88, which means that if an enemy fighter got through, the GlobalEye would have a decent chance of if not exactly outrunning the enemy, then at least keeping the distance until the fighter needs to head back home. As such, with the current arsenal found on both sides of the border, I believe it is fair to say that the GlobalEye would be rather survivable once in the air (as long as the total collapse of the Finnish Air Force is avoided, but if that happens things are seriously going south in any case). Which brings us to a more important point.

The second GlobalEye coming in for landing. Picture courtesy of Saab

Two is a small number. The current reliability of business jets means that in peacetime it should be enough, but it leaves next to no room for operational losses. While the aircraft are rather defensible once airborne, their high-value means that they need protection while on the ground. A nightmare scenario would see them being taken out in the opening salvo of a war, either by long-distance weapons or special forces. A prime example is the 2012 terror attack on Minhas AFB in Pakistan, which crippled the country’s fleet of four Saab Erieye aircraft, leaving one destroyed and two damaged. Still, even a single GlobalEye would provide extremely valuable service to all three services in case of a conflict, and not having valuable stuff because someone might destroy them isn’t really a workable solution in war. The obvious solution here is closer integration with the Swedish AEW&C fleet, which likely will transfer from ASC 890 to GlobalEye at some point in the medium term, which would give higher redundancy in case either party suffer combat losses.

One last issue which need to be addressed is the possibility of extremely long-range missiles being used to target the aircraft from stand-off ranges. Currently this is a capability that Russia lacks, with the longest range missile in any kind of service, likely IOC, is the K-37M carried by the MiG-31BM long-range interceptor. It is envisioned that this weapon would also be carried by other fighters, but currently this does not seem to be the case. The weapon has a 200 km range from a head-on position ‘against some targets’. This is much more than a R-27, but the actual operational range is likely significantly less than advertised. A newer missile is in development for the Su-57 under the designation Izdeliye 810. The design has apparently beaten the competing K-100 (based on the second stage of the 3M83 missile from the S-300V), and the range will be in excess of 300 km. Passive homing on (fighter) radars will reportedly be a feature in the future. Coupled with the stealth characteristics of the Su-57 allowing the launching aircraft to get closer before it is discovered, this could potentially be a threat. However, considering the issues encountered with the development of the Su-57 and other air-launched weapons the final performance is a major question mark, as is the schedule for when they could enter operational service. China has a corresponding ‘AWACS’-killer in the form of the PL-X project, which was test-fired in November 2016 from a J-16. The weapon reportedly also is in the 300 km class. While further along than the 810, it is unlikely that it will ever make a showing around the Baltic Sea. In any case, very long range missiles won’t change the equation, but rather will alter the numbers involved in a significant but not revolutionary way.

This segways nicely into the most important point: to accurately forecast the impact of developments such as new weapons over the next few decades is difficult, and this is just one aspect that needs to be evaluated. Future-proofing HX for the 2050’s is hard, with key questions such as sensor development versus stealth being extremely difficult to evaluate. However, the GlobalEye (and corresponding systems) are likely to maintain their relevance over the decades. Will a Gripen backed up by a GlobalEye beat an F-35 without AEW&C support? By 2021 we should have the answer.

GlobalEye for HX

Saab stood for the biggest surprise so far in the HX-program, when it announced that the offer does not only include 52 single-seat 39E Gripen and 12 two-seat 39F Gripen, but two GlobalEye airborne early warning and control aircraft as well.

It’s hard to describe exactly how bizarre, and exactly how astute, the move is.

The background is obviously the way that the Finnish Air Force and MoD has written the Request for Quotations. To ensure a tough and fair competition, the quotation only sets the widest of boundaries to the delivered package (64 fighters, 7-10 billion Euros in one-time acquisition costs, annual costs to operate no bigger than current 64 aircraft strong Hornet-fleet), and then goes on to describe the concept of operations and the missions the fighters are expected to perform. This gives the companies free hands to tailor the packages offered when it comes to questions such as versions offered, sensors and weapon packages, and so forth. Apparently, it also leave open the possibility to squeeze in aircrafts other than the fighters as long as the budget allows for it. It is a daring approach from the authorities, but one that now pays off with these kinds of unconventional offers including force multipliers such as EA-18G Growlers in the Boeing package and now GlobalEyes in Saab’s.

GlobalEye AEW&C
The first GlobalEye airborne with temporary Swedish registrations and the Saab logo on the tail. Picture courtesy of Saab AB

The money game is indeed the interesting part. While Gripen is universally regarded as a cheap fighter (mind you, cheap isn’t the same thing as costing little money when it comes to fighters), it is still nothing short of shocking that Saab is able to squeeze in not only two brand new aircraft, but also the whole support structure needed to bring a new aircraft type into service and initiate training of both the flying crew and mission crew. The big question is indeed what it costs to phase in a completely new aircraft type in the Finnish Air Force? The two aircraft themselves will have a price tag measured in hundreds of millions of euros. Saab naturally isn’t sharing their calculations, but assure that this fits inside the HX-budget.

Which also include a “significant arms and sensors package” for the Gripens.

It deserve to be reiterated: it is bizarre that Saab can make a comparable offer with the same number of aircraft as the competition, and still have room for two modern AEW&C aircraft with everything they need.

But things get really strange, or rather, really elegant, once life-cycle costs are being discussed. The idea is namely not only that the GlobalEye will improve the combat effectiveness of the Gripen (and the other services, more on this below), but also that the aircraft will provide a cost-offloading effect on Air Force operations as a whole.

This cost-offloading effect, in other words, it has a positive long-term effect on the life-cycle cost from the operator’s point of view.

Fredrik Follin, GlobalEye Campaign Manager

As the GlobalEye can perform certain peacetime missions more cost effectively than fighters (and other systems it complements), Saab argues it will bring down the life-cycle cost for the Air Force as a whole by reducing the need for HX flight hours (and ensuring that they can be spent more efficiently). Is this actually possible? Considering that Saab has decided to present this possibility to the Air Force both in the preliminary RFI (presumably) and now in the RFQ, they seem rather confident. The Air Force has also likely already given some kind of tacit approval that they will take a serious look at the GlobalEye, as in case they had planned on dismissing the AEW&C out of hand this would likely have been communicated to Saab already and we would not see it in the tender at this relatively late stage.

A really interesting detail which got a somewhat ring to it following yesterday’s announcement is the blog post made by program manager major general (res.) and former Finnish Air Force commander Lauri Puranen earlier this week. Puranen discusses the cost of the project, and strongly reiterates that following the original buy, everything, and he puts further emphasis on everything, and he strongly cautions against trying to estimate any kind of acquisition costs based on publicly available figures.

It may not be credible if the flight hour costs for a modern multirole fighter are lower than those of a Hawk-trainer. In Finland, the cost of a flight hour covers everything from the salary of the Air Force Commander and the upkeep of air bases to maintenance tools and jet fuel.

He also points out that Finland won’t accept any costs at face value, but will calculate life-cycle costs based on a domestic template used, which has been proved to be correct for the current Hornet-fleet. Following Saab’s rather unconventional ideas, the question about how to calculate life-cycle costs suddenly gets renewed attention, and it isn’t difficult to see the text as an attempt at squashing the misconceptions about this topic.

Second GlobalEye
The second GlobalEye for UAE taking off on its maiden flight. Picture courtesy of Saab

What then does the GlobalEye do? In essence it is a Bombardier Global 6000, going for around 40 million USD for the normal business jet version, heavily modified and fitted with a number of sensors and operator stations in place of the normal lavish interior. The single most important sensor of these are the EriEye ER radar in the distinct ski box-installation that has become a trademark of the Swedish radar family.

The history of the EriEye deserves a short mention. Long having been involved in radar technology, Sweden, like most countries, lacked an airborne surveillance system in the 80’s. The few available where mostly large, often four-engined, aircraft with large rotating mushroom-style antennas. The only medium-sized modern aircraft was the E-2 Hawkeye, which had scored some success on the export market (and then ‘modern’ deals with an aircraft that first flew in the 1960’s). The Swedes decided that if they wanted a light airborne AEW platform, they would have to do it themselves, and the first prototype was installed aboard a surplus Metroliner they had used as a transport. This was followed by a number of orders for ever more complex installation, with both Saab 340 and 2000, and later the Embraer EMB-145 acting as platforms depending on the customer was. Of these, the Swedish Air Force operate the Saab 340-based Argus. Notably, Pakistan reportedly used their Saab 2000 EriEye to great effect during the recent clashes that lead to the downing of an Indian MiG-21. The ASC 890 Argus is no stranger to the Finnish Air Force, as it has been used both with and against Finnish Hornets in several bilateral exercises during recent years.

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Swedish Air Force ASC 890 Argus coming in for landing during exercise ACE 17. Source: Hampus Hagstedt/Försvarsmakten

However, over time the EriEye has evolved. Having originally been little more than an a flying air surveillance radar, the GlobalEye is a true ‘joint’-capability, or as Saab likes to describe it: a ‘swing-role surveillance system’. This means that the aircraft is able to keep an eye not only on the air domain, but can perform sea and ground surveillance as well. Here the ErieEye ER is backed up by two secondary sensors, the ventrally-mounted Leonardo Selex ES SeaSpray 7500E AESA maritime surveillance radar with a full 360° field of vision, and the electro-optical sensor in front of it. However, the S-band EriEye ER has some new tricks up it’s sleeve as well, and when asking if it can perform JSTARS-style ground surveillance, I got the answer that the aircraft feature the:

Erieye ER with specific features for ground surveillance.

Make of that what you will, but it seems clear that the aircraft is able to simultaneously create and maintain both air, sea, and ground situational pictures, and share them with friendly forces. It is also able to command these friendly forces, in particular the fighters. This is an extremely valuable force multiplier, both in peace and in war, and something which likely everyone in the Air Force has felt was way out of our price range. The jointness of the HX-program would also be greatly supported by the GlobalEye, as e.g. the Navy’s new missiles have a range far beyond the horizon of the firing ships, creating the need for sensors with longer ranges (and there aren’t too many currently around).

Aren’t there any drawbacks then? Obviously, the biggest of which is the low number. Two is a very small number for a high-value asset such as these. The GlobalEye has a high cruise speed and an extremely long endurance, meaning that two aircraft could theoretically provide even 24/7 surveillance. Still, the loss of even one airframe would halve the force, giving poor redundancy. On the other hand, even one is still significant more than zero… The other question is if Finnish air space is too shallow for an AEW&C aircraft to be used effectively without placing it in undue risk. Here the natural answer is to place the station further back inside Swedish air space, but while it seems an obvious answer now, it might or might not be politically feasible if things turn rough. Does the Air Force want a new aircraft type in it’s inventory is another question? The Global 6000 is a reputable aircraft, and as such can be considered low risk, but it is still a significant undertaking, and not something you usually get thrown in as an extra in a fighter deal.

GlobalEye and Gripen
The sharp end of the Finnish Air Force in 2030? 39E Gripen and GlobalEye. Picture courtesy of Saab

For the first time in the competition, someone has managed to pull an ace that I honestly feel could decide the whole thing (the aforementioned Growler came close, though).

If Saab can show that the calculations surrounding the life-cycle cost really hold true.

If the Finnish Air Force conclude that stealth isn’t a must.

P.s. Gripen really must be dirt-cheap for a modern fighter…

Finnish Maritime Patrol

A small note in the Finnish government programme hot off the press is the first official schedule for a small but interesting aircraft procurement programme.

The capability of the Border Guard in a changing environment is ensured. The Border Guard technical surveillance systems and two aircraft are being replaced by 2022.

Own translation

The two aircraft in question are two Dornier Do 228-212 built in 1995 and in Finnish Border Guard service as maritime surveillance platforms ever since. At the heart of their capabilities are the Swedish MSS 6000 system, which integrate sensors, communication equipment, and two operator consoles. Following a mid-life update in 2009-2013 and further upgrades back in 2017, the main sensors are two radars (a 360° search radar in the front underfuselage bulb as well as a side-looking radar, SLAR, on the fuselage side), electro-optical sensors (with a laser illuminator), AIS, and a radio direction finder. Handheld cameras are also integrated into the system.

OH-MVO radars
OH-MVO with it’s two radars, the search radar in the bulb under the fuselage and the SLAR in the black pipe. Source: Own picture

The aircraft are completely unarmed, and as the rest of the Border Guard organisation they sort under the Ministry of Interior in peacetime, but are transferred to the Finnish Defence Forces in times of war. Much of their peacetime duties are centred around peaceful missions such as looking for oil spill, fisheries protection, counting seals, and border surveillance. More high-profile missions the aircraft have been part of are deployments at the EU’s southern border as part of FRONTEX, and a showing by OH-MVO during the raid on Airiston Helmi last year.

The Finnish Navy unsurprisingly lack a naval aviation branch, and neither does the Air Force have much in the way of maritime surveillance capabilities. The three Learjets operated are sometimes seen with a 360° search radar, but are few in numbers and also heavily tasked with numerous other missions. As such the Dorniers are a vital source of information whenever the Navy wants to know what’s on the other side of the horizon.

Especially in the grey zone of heightened tension but below the threshold of war, maintaining an accurate situational picture of the movements in the northern Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland would be crucial, and here the cooperation between the flying units of the Border Guard and the Navy would come into play. Note that these kinds of periods potentially could last months.

So what could replace the Dorniers? To begin with we need to kill the idea that HX could do it. The HX winner will undoubtedly feature vastly superior sensors compared to the current Hornet-fleet, including when it comes to the maritime domain. However, loitering time is low compared to dedicated platforms, and having a nose-mounted radar means you need to be flying roughly in the direction of the target to keep your most important all-weather sensors on it. The lack of a dedicated mission crew, though possible to handle with a backseater in some HX-candidates, is also a drawback. As such, a dedicated platform is going to offer superior intelligence gathering capabilities, especially if you want to stand back from the action. Using unarmed platforms also lessen the provocative aspect.

The same can be given as the reason why the two GlobalEye included in Saab’s HX-package won’t replace the need for Border Guard fixed-wing aviation. The service has been clear that they want civilian unarmed aircraft, as these will significantly ease international cooperation. Also, while the GlobalEye has significant maritime surveillance capabilities, in the same way as with the Learjets their main use would be something else, in this case assisting the Air Force in the battle for air superiority. All in all, while they would assist in maintaining the maritime picture, in wartime the need for a Dornier-replacement would still present itself. The whole GlobalEye-package is enough of a bombshell to warrant a post of it’s own.

C295
One of three Finnish C-295, two of which are used as airlifters while the last one is configured for SIGINT-duty. Note the paratroopers’ eagle head emblem on the tail. Source: Own picture

The most prolific maritime patrol aircraft today is the Boeing P-8 Poseidon, coming in at well over ten times the maximum take-off weight of the 6.5 ton Do 228. Needless to say, it is way too large and complex for the Rajavartiolaitos. The ATR 42MP is a tried and tested design, and is found in configurations close to what we need. However, it is still almost three times the size of the Do 228. The C295 Persuader is another surveillance version of an aircraft of the same size as the ATR 42, however it has the benefit of commonality with the transport fleet of the Finnish Air Force. This could potentially be a winning factor, promising fewer surprises and maintenance synergies. Yes, there’s a C-27J based MPA as well, but in Finnish service that offers the drawbacks of the Persuader without it’s benefits.

A really interesting contender is the light twin-engined Diamond DA62-MSA. This was recently unveiled, and although smaller than the Do 228, still offer a four person crew and an impressive sensor and mission suite. A yet more radical choice would be the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton, which is a large maritime surveillance drone, based on the more widely used RQ-4 Global Hawk. Is the Border Guard prepared to go unmanned for their most important maritime surveillance platform? Probably not, but it remain a possibility. Granted, there are also some other, some rather stylish, alternatives, but I would be surprised if the eventual winner isn’t found amongst those above.

Combat Boats and Landing Craft

One of the earliest aspects of the current wave of close Finnish-Swedish military cooperation has been that between the marine infantry in the two countries. This was formalised as the Swedish Finnish Amphibious Task Unit (SFATU), which originally was envisaged as a crisis management tool for the littorals. In later years the scope has been increased, as can be seen during the upcoming weeks when the unit will be training in Finnish waters. Parallel to the Navy’s main exercise Silja, the unit will perform a short pre-exercise which started 27 May, and on 3 June SFATU will switch over to the main exercise and take part in Silja together with the better part of the Finnish Navy (including the marines and coastal units). The Swedish marines are joining in the fun with a total force numbering around 400 personnel and around 40 boats.

jehu and cb90 Silja Merivoimat piste fi
Finnish Jehu-class in the foreground with a Swedish CB 90H in the background. Note the differences in profile. Source: Merivoimat.fi

As usually when the two forces operate next to each other the differences in equipment has raised some questions, especially in this case where both units are tailored to operate in the same niche environment that make up the Northern and Western coastline of the Baltic Sea. The most striking difference is the combat boats used, which don’t show much of a resemblance to each other. It should be noted here that in my line of work at Kongsberg Maritime Finland Oy, formerly Rolls-Royce Oy Ab, I have come into contact with both vessels. However, all information in this post is based purely on open sources (as is all my writing). In addition, I won’t discuss concepts of operations or similar details covered by OPSEC in this post, even in cases where such information is available in open sources.

The CB 90H is a truly iconic vessel. The development work took place in the late 80’s, and the first vessels entered operational service in late 1990 under the designation Stridsbåt 90. The Swedish designation literally means Combat Boat 90, and in the same way as Strf 90 thanks to it’s export success is universally known as CV 90 the boat quickly went from StrB 90 to CB 90 internationally. From the outset the vessel was known as CB 90H (‘H’ coming from its ability to transport half a platoon) to distinguish it from the somewhat similarly looking but smaller and simpler 90E (‘E’ standing for Enkel, the Swedish word for simple).

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A CB 90H showing the twin mounted 12.7 mm FN M2 heavy machine guns next to the bow doors. Source: Joel Thungren/Försvarsmakten

CB 90 was an almost instant success both domestically and on the export market. At a time when many navies still used open landing crafts powered by traditional propeller/rudder-arrangements or outboards it employed twin waterjets to give superior maneuverability and a very good acceleration and top speed. The vessel also came armed with heavy machine guns which could support the landing, and the possibility to lay mines or drop depth charges over the stern. But perhaps the most visually striking detail is the extremely low profile. This is made possible by moving the control station to the very front of the vessel, allowing the crew a good view over the bow despite being placed low inside the hull. The vessel scored a number of export deals, including to Norway, Mexico, Malaysia, and the US Navy (known locally as Riverine Command Boat, RCB). Both for the export market and for domestic use a number of different versions have been developed, including versions sporting ballistic protection. The latest version is the Stridsbåt 90HSM for the Swedish marines, which feature better protection, a new driveline, and provisions for a remote weapon station. The latest order means that Dockstavarvet, nowadays owned by Saab, will be able to celebrate 20 years of CB 90 production (though not continuously).

Swedish CB 90s of the 2. battalion of Amf 1 forming up during exercise Aurora 17. Source: Mats Nyström/Försvarsmakten

The general layout has been successful enough that it has been adopted by a number of foreign projects, none of which have enjoyed the same success of the original design. It isn’t completely without drawbacks though. The most important drawback is that the placement of the crew stations in front of the passenger compartment leads to a chokepoint when the marines exit between the navigator and the helmsman. Sitting close to the bow also means that the crew will experience heavier loads on their bodies when encountering waves (especially at speed in rougher conditions). Rearward vision also suffers, and in general keeping a low profile means that there are certain limitations once it comes to situational awareness and the ability to mount sensors and weapons high. Still, these are of secondary importance to a vessel whose main purpose is to get marines ashore, and fast.

Jurmo Merivoimat FB
A Jurmo under way in the Finnish archipelago. From the picture it is easy to see that the pivot point around which the hull moves when encountering a wave is rather far aft, meaning that the pitch when encountering waves in a planning vessel will be worse in the bow compared to further aft. Source: Merivoimat FB

At the same time as the Swedish Navy was busy driving around in combat boats, the Finnish marines had to make do with open and semi-open landing crafts. These weren’t necessarily bad landing crafts, but they offered little combat potential (no, a pintle-mounted 12.7 mm NSV doesn’t make a combat boat) and worse protection for both the crew and the embarked marines. On the positive side, their conventional layout meant that loading larger cargo was possible, and swiftly getting marines out of the passenger compartment was relatively easy. Having the crew at the rear also meant that slamming the bow in heavy weather doesn’t affect the crew in the same way, instead letting the unfortunate few marines closest to the bow take the beating. Especially the Jurmo-class was a very good ‘truck’ for the marines. But it was still a truck, and the Swedish marines were driving around in (light) APCs.

The answer to the demands of the Finnish marines came to be the Jehu-class, where much of the focus is placed on combat ability. The Jehu, or Watercat M18 AMC as it is known to its builder Marine Alutech, comes with both ballistic- and CBRN-protection, a roof-mounted RWS (Saab’s Trackfire RWS in Finnish service), and a serious communications suite. Following on the Finnish traditions, the passenger compartment is close to the bow, meaning that the control stations are in a raised deckhouse found midships. This means that the vessel in general will be higher (adding weight), but also offers more space for the crew working area. To compensate for being larger, the vessel has some serious power, with the twin engines being rated at 1,150 hp (compared to two times 625 hp on the original CB 90H and two times 900 hp in ‘operational‘ setting on the 90HSM).

Bigger isn’t always better, but the increased size of the Jehu compared to both CB 90H as well as earlier Finnish designs opens up new possibilities, such as the fitting of a 120 mm NEMO mortar turret (with a direct fire ability). This is a capability the Finnish Navy urgently needs, and something which almost gave the Swedish marines their SB 2010 a decade ago. In the end, SB 2010 remained a paper product, cancelled by overzealous politicians, but the concept had called for a larger combat boat, with a general layout not completely unlike that of the Jehu.

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Finnish marines disembarking from a Jehu-class landing craft. Note the Trackfire RWS which is mounted high with an excellent field of fire. Source: Merivoimat FB

In the end, the CB 90H and Jehu are examples of the principle that the same operational environment can lead to rather different solutions, all depending on how you prioritise between the inevitable trade-offs.