The next phase of HX has started, and things are starting to get serious. Last Thursday the revised call for tenders was sent out, with a deadline for answers until 31 January 2020.
A crucial point here is that this is a planned continuation of earlier negotiations, and not a restart. The manufacturers are asked to refine their earlier offers, providing a clear package, including any potential updates that has taken place and generally improving their offers. While the original call for tenders was generic, this round all five have received individualised RFQs based on their earlier tenders.
Two notable developments have taken place this fall. The first is the allowance for different numbers of aircraft than the originally envisioned 64. This provide room for anyone able to squeeze in a few extra hulls, but also for anyone wanting to argue that higher availability and/or increased combat capability compared to the current legacy-Hornets allows for a smaller fleet. At the same time, the 10 Bn Euro ceiling has officially been approved by the government. As has been discussed earlier, the plan has throughout HX been not to ask “How much for this package?”, but rather “What’s the best package you can offer under a set budget ceiling?” Major General (Eng.) Renko also went on record last week to say that all five manufacturers experience “difficulties” fitting their offers under the ceiling. In the end, we will see five bids for just under 10 Bn Euro, with the difference between them likely being no more than change (relatively speaking).
We also finally have more details on the verification flight tests. The flight test programme, dubbed HX Challenge, will take place out of Tampere-Pirkkala in January-February. The field is home to Satakunta Air Command and the Finnish Air Force’s Air Combat Centre sorting under it. ACC is responsible for both flight testing as well as for participating in the development of air combat tactics and doctrines.
The aircraft will not be put in order at this event, but rather only verification of performance and subsystems will take place. This includes ensuring that the manufacturers haven’t supplied incorrect information to the simulations used for the evaluation, but also to test how e.g. electro-optical sensors work in Finnish conditions. In cases where both single- and twin-seaters are available, Finnish pilots flying as backseaters will also take part in the tests. While failure to show up for HX Challenge won’t by default disqualify a contender, it would weaken their chances moving forward in the competition. Considering the costs of flight tests this will be a serious test of how invested the contenders are, and by extension how fair the competition is felt to be amongst the industry. A few odd-birds are found in the field. F-35A is the sole single-seat only fighter, while the yet to fly 39F will likely be represented by the revamped 39-7 testbed. While Saab declines to discuss GlobalEye in relation to HX Challenge at this time, they more generally confirm that a verification scheme has been devised and presented to the Finnish Air Force. EA-18G Growler obviously can’t showcase it’s full capability in the region, so it will likely be verified in other ways as well.
HX Challenge is part of the first step in evaluating the combat capability of the aircraft, by ensuring that the input data for the later modelling is done correctly. After this is done, simulated scenarios from the RFQ will be run with four-aircraft strong flights (fun fact, Finland was one of the pioneers in developing two pairs as the basic air combat element in the 1930’s). The aim here is to judge the survivability, ability to perform set missions, and the effectiveness in destroying enemy assets. As this is the Finnish Air Force, air-to-air capabilities will be the most important facto. An interesting question is how exactly simulations will be run. The word virtuaalisimulaattori (virtual simulator) is used, which seems to indicate a full man-in-the-loop simulation (think DCS on steroids, video by Jonathan Lundkvist). This is interesting in many ways, and should give a more correct picture as the value of sub-systems such as helmet-mounted displays and wide-angle displays are included in the evaluation. A good is example is how Gripen pilots like to talk about the benefit their man-machine interface provide compared to more traditional presentations of data which rely heavily on numerical values, and how this isn’t evident in traditional Monte Carlo-style simulations. With HX Challenge and a full-blown simulation the four-ship combat value should be found as accurately as possible without actually leasing four-ships and having them blow stuff up.
These data will then provide the input for a round of grand wargames taking place in the later part of 2020. Here the HX contenders will be simulated as parts of the complete Finnish defence system. This third stage will be the sole stage following which the contenders will be place in any kind of order. Based on this picture of the fighting capability of the aircrafts in their 2025-configuration together with input from an study into the development potential of the system (it’s never just about the individual aircraft) up until the end of the 2050’s the final warfighting capability-ranking will be made, and this should then in turn dictate which aircraft will be bought (the rest of the conditions being pass/fail-style).
Twelve years ago, about this time of the year, I was charging down a sea lane in the outer archipelago as the helmsman and engineer of a Jurmo-class landing craft. On my left side one of my fellow conscripts sat and focused on navigating, as he was working as the skipper of the vessel that day. Both of us were also keeping a lookout around the vessel. We had both received the same training, allowing to us serve as helmsman/engineer or as the skipper/navigator of the Jurmo, and when out on longer exercises we usually rotated between positions every other day. Following a sharp left-hand turn which took us straight towards an island I spotted a Pansio-class mineferry. Just before the island we were headed towards we would turn sharply to the right, and the large vessel now sat directly at the turning point, in front of the island. As we got closer, I noticed that it seemed like the skipper might not have noticed the mineferry, so a couple of hundred meters out, with plenty enough time for us to take the turn safely, I drew his attention to the vessel and asked how close he wanted to go. “Oh fuck, I did not see that one coming,” he said. “Helm to the right.” I acknowledged the ordered and we used the fact that we had plenty of water under the keel to our advantage to cut the corner slightly to maintain a safe distance without having to slow down for the passage.
Just over eight years ago, I was on my first ‘real’ job in the maritime industry working the summer at local boatyard Kewatec Aluboat. Much of the job revolved around the Pilot 1500-class of fast pilot vessels which were just being finished and delivered to the Finnish pilotage service Finnpilot Pilotage Oy. Despite being a green mechanical engineer roughly halfway through university I got to do some fairly interesting stuff, such as riding along on the sea trials to keep book on results such as RPM relative to speed and noise level measurements. Eventually Kewatec would be my first full-time employer, and I spent a few really interesting years there before moving on to what was then Rolls-Royce’s waterjet division (now Kongsberg Maritime Finland).
Both of these experiences came vividly back when I last week got a Twitter DM with the Finnish Safety Investigation Authority’s report on an incident where the Pilot 1500-class fast pilot vessel L239 had come close to colliding with the Hamina-class fast attack craft Hanko last December. Out of curiosity I did a quick glance through the abstract of the report, and might have left it at that if it wasn’t for the fact that the newspaper headlines that came out of Finnish daily Turun Sanomat over the next days didn’t square with the impression I had been left with.
In fact, the report does not lay the blame on the lack of AIS on the part of the Hanko. Nor is AIS some kind of magic safety beacon. But let’s start from the beginning.
In the early hours of 1 December 2018 Hanko was transiting southwards in the Sköldvik sea lane. The weather and visibility was generally good (considering it was pitch-black with clouds), but the wind was near gale at an average speed of 16 m/s (note that in the narrow waters this meant a wave height of 2.4 meters). At the same time, L239 left Emäsalo pilot station and entered the same lane heading north. Hanko picked up the vessel as soon as she left port, and started tracking her using normal procedures. Notably, Hanko that had been steaming down the lane to the left of the midline (her left) altered course slightly to get over to the right side of the lane to allow for a standard passing where both vessels hold to starboard (i.e. right-hand traffic as is the international standard on the seas). Hanko, in accordance with standard procedures of the Finnish Navy, did not have her AIS switched on, but had reported her general area of operating to the local Vessel Traffic Service (VTS), which informed the pilot vessel that a naval vessel was operating in the area. L239 did however not spot the Hanko when she left port, and a radar echo of the vessel was dismissed as a flock of birds.
The route was a standard run for the L239, and when the lane was empty the pilot vessels usually took the shortest (and somewhat more sheltered) route in the interest of saving time and fuel. This put the pilot vessel well to the left of the middle line, i.e. heading straight for the Hanko. While Hanko was cruising at a moderate speed of about ten knots, the L239 was doing close to 25 knots with the wind at its back. A few minutes later the crew on the bridge of the Hanko realised that the pilot vessel hadn’t noticed them and immediately stopped (as the vessel is equipped with waterjets, it is able to quickly stop even from a considerable speed). At the same time the skipper of the pilot vessel noticed something in front of him, and turned on the spotlight. This showed an unidentified vessel right in their course, so he quickly reduced speed and turned right towards the midline of the sea lane. The two vessels passed each other at approximately 40 meters distance. The whole incident had taken place in less than seven minutes from L239 leaving the port.
Here we’ll take a short interlude to discuss what AIS is and isn’t. AIS is an automatic transponder system that sends data over the normal VHF-band. This usually include the vessel’s name, position, heading/course, speed, and potentially a number of other pieces of information (turn rate, heel, destination, ETA, current mode of operation, …). On the positive side it is inexpensive, simple, and when combined with other systems such as radars and chart plotters it provide a situational picture that is easy to read and interpret. It is mandatory equipment for a number of vessels, including merchant and passenger vessels. Crucially, it is not mandatory for neither pilot vessels nor for naval vessels.
AIS has been in the headlines a number of times in recent years, including its role in the collisions of Norwegian frigate KNMS Helge Ingstad and the two US Navy destroyers that collided in separate incidents in the Pacific in 2017. However, it is crucial to note that not only is AIS susceptible to spoofing, it can also simply be switched off at the flick of a button. In Finnish waters, as opposed to out on the high seas is the majority of vessels moving around are not fitted with AIS due to their small size. Pleasure crafts might not be moving around in the Sköldvik area in the middle of the night in two meter high waves in December in any huge numbers, but there’s always the risk that some local is heading out to check on his summer cottage. As such, AIS is not God-mode view on a bridge display, but just another (very good) source of information to build up situational awareness. As a matter of fact, navigating solely on electronic aids such as AIS, or radar for that matter, is not allowed under international rules, as all vessels are required to keep a proper lookout.
Going back to my opening story from 2007, there were a few issues that could have led to it ending badly. The first was that we were under a tight schedule. We were part of an exercise scenario with several moving parts, and it was crucial that our vessel were at the designated point at the designated time. The second issue was that the timing of us and the Pansio-class crossing paths was very unfortunate, with it coming from an unexpected angle and with our vessel turning towards it at a time window measured in mere minutes when it wasn’t silhouetted against the horizon but completely in front of an island. The vessel, like the Hamina-class, is also painted to easily hide in the archipelago, and the colours work extremely well. However, the Navy doesn’t just throw enlisted conscripts into a fifteen meter vessel with a thousands horsepowers to work with and see what happens. There are clear cut roles and procedures to follow to ensure safe operations, and before one gets to sign the line next to the word “Skipper” in the logbook there’s a number of steps and certifications that you need to meet.
As mentioned, these procedures include that both crewmembers keep a lookout. The reason is simple: the skipper will need to keep one eye on the navigation, including the paper chart, chart plotter, and the radar, while the helmsman will need to keep one eye on the engine instruments. If something starts to go ever so slightly off the rails, it is easy for either crew member to be distracted and spend too little time looking out the windows, and as mr. Murphy dictates, that always happens at the worst possible time. As such, having both crew members keep their eyes open is a necessity. In our case, the training showed its worth, and the situation was solved safely and without incident.
As such, reading the report, the most baffling detail for me personally is that the pilot vessel always operate with two certified skippers aboard, of which one function as the vessel crew and the other is the safety guy when the pilot is transiting between the vessel and the ship. This isn’t baffling in itself, but the safety guy has no duties whatsoever while the vessel is underway, not even a general recommendation to keep looking out the windows! While the vessel is built to be able to be operated by a single crew member, not using the available resources is a strange decision to say the least.
The Hanko on the other hand was naturally operating with a significantly larger crew. The persons on the bridge included not only an officer of the watch, but also a navigator, a assistant navigator, and a dedicated lookout working outside of the vessel. As noted, the crew noticed the L239 as soon as it put out to sea, and assumed that the pilot vessel had noticed them in turn.
This was likely the single largest shortcoming on the part of the crew of the Hanko. Having a very good situational awareness thanks to good working procedures, it’s easy to start assuming this is how all professionals at sea operates. Giving a short radio call to the L239 to confirm that Hanko switches from left to right side of the sea lane for a standard meeting would have ensured that both vessels knew of each other’s presence. Hindsight 20/20, as they say.
However, the actions of the pilot vessel is harder to explain. The skipper knew that there was a naval vessel in the area but apparently did not try to locate it. There doesn’t seem to have been any discussion that the safety man would assist in keeping a lookout, nor any decision to slow down or keep in the correct part of the lane in case someone else was moving in the night. Granted the Pilot 1500 series is well-equipped to be handled by a single crew member, it sports two large displays for the radar and the chart plotter placed in front of the skipper to allow for a minimum of head movement when switching between checking them and looking out the windows. However, the rule (both written and unwritten) is that electronic aids support looking out the windows, not the other way around. This is especially true in cases where getting a clean radar picture is difficult, such as in rain or rough waves, where one easily end up either getting the screen overtly cluttered or filtering away real echos. While the report doesn’t mention it, the fact that such as large radar target as the Hanko was mistaken for a flock of birds does indicate that the radar didn’t provide a good and easy to read radar picture at the time of the incident.
Stealth interlude: Yes, Hanko feature signature reduction measures, but it isn’t invisible to radar by any stretch of imagination. In a later reconstruction the pilot vessel’s radar was able to pick up the FAC well beyond two nautical miles (beyond 3,700 meters), the VTS also got a clear radar echo of the vessel, despite the tracking algorithm having some issues tracking Hanko correctly at the time of the incident.
The report by the authorities notes five conclusions, of which two are related to the reporting processes for incidents and accidents on a national level. The three others are:
The tracking of non-AIS transmitting vessels require use of radar and particular care by the VTS-operators,
The resources of the pilot vessel were not used optimally considering the conditions,
The crew aboard vessels that try to avoid detection don’t necessarily recognise the risks this create.
In other words, the report does not blame the Hanko, nor the lack of transmitting AIS on it’s part. The standard procedure of the Finnish Navy is to have the AIS turned off due to operational security considerations. Navies around the world have varied views on the use of AIS, with some having it always off, some having it on without IDs, and some having it on close to shore but off when at sea. Steffan Watkins has a good overview, but as usual things are different between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Finland.
A key difference is that Finnish vessels don’t transit. The operating area often starts when the quay is left behind. Another is that the Finnish Navy uses dispersed and wartime infrastructure, which you don’t necessarily want to show on the internet. And while fixed infrastructure likely is known to the adversary, the usage isn’t as easy to judge considering the concealed nature of the archipelago. Space based sensors are one possibility, but they don’t either provide the kind of continuous tracking that AIS creates. Switching it on and off also degrades OPSEC, as it shows when and where a mission has started. Just as when observing a black hole, you can glean things from observing what isn’t there in the same way as observing what actually is visible.
Without having insight in the finer details of how the Finnish Navy bridge crew works, I find it plausible that the report might have a point in that the risks of not being noticed might be underestimated and deserve more attention. However, as the Navy will never be able to maintain OPSEC and spend significant time with the AIS active, the way forward for the Navy is likely to be a bit more proactive with hailing approaching vessels on the VHF and using lights more liberally, as there always will be people on the seas that aren’t quite alert enough.
Another important detail is that as mentioned, in the archipelago as opposed to out on the Atlantic Ocean one can’t assume that all vessels in the area are of the size that they are equipped with AIS. Granted, the pleasure craft traffic is concentrated to good weather days in July, but there’s always the village fanatic who is out with his nets regardless of time of the year and weather. And if you keep a good enough lookout and have adjusted your speed appropriately that you will spot someone kayaking in time to take evasive actions, you will spot a Hamina-class vessel as well, AIS or not.
A year has passed, and for the 19th time the Finnish Navy and Naval Reserve invited a number of stakeholders to come together and discuss all matters related to questions of maritime defence. This year over 80 persons met up at the Naval Academy in Suomenlinna on a rainy Saturday to ponder over questions such as the current state and the future of both the professional and reserve parts of Finnish naval defences, what’s the deal with Russia, and whether the security situation in the Baltic Sea region really has deteriorated?
The answer to the last question was easy, at least if one compare to the post-Cold War world of the 90’s or early 00’s – yes, we are worse off than we were back then. At the same time, ensuring security of supply has never been more important. The answer to this multifaceted challenge is the Pohjanmaa-class, which together with the completely revamped Hamina-class provide the Navy with the ability to operate in two directions simultaneously, and also represents something of the sought after baseline when shipowners judge if they can take the risk of sending their merchant vessels into a high-risk region.
If the Maritime Defence Day earlier years have seen significant discussion on ongoing and upcoming vessel and equipment projects, these were relegated to a secondary role this year. There was a general feeling in the air that the question of “what” has been at least partly solved with the signing of the Pohjanmaa-class contracts and the roll-out of FNS Tornio, and with laws and doctrines providing the “why”, the focus is now on the “how”. The scope of the modernisation the Navy will undergo over the next few years is significant, with e.g. the PTO 2020 (Gabriel) providing a significant increase in capability over the current MTO 85M (RBS 15), and it is clear that the Navy will have to change their ways of operating to get the full benefit of their new capabilities. However, this is not only the case for the individual systems, but the change is even more radical when zooming out and looking at the capabilities on a vessel- or squadron-level. Importantly, the question was raised if the officer corps in general, and the cadets about to enter training in particular, will receive training for the world as it looks today or for the battlefield of 2030? The obvious answer is that there is a need to prepare for the future, but unlearning old habits that once held true but have now turned if not obsolete then at least suboptimal can prove difficult. In the end, all involved need to look themselves in the mirror and ask if they really are preparing for the crisis of tomorrow, or if they just keep doing what they have always done while cruising forward on autopilot.
Coming from the corporate world, I could not help but feel like the concept of Lean is entering the Navy. The Navy has a clear-cut mission, the surveillance of our waters, repelling territorial violations and maritime attacks, and protecting sea lines of communication. Anything that isn’t related to this core mission is a waste of time and precious resources, and this thinking needs to cascade down throughout not only the Navy but the reserve organisations as well. The operational planning needs to drive readiness planning, which in turn needs to drive the plans for unit production, which in turn dictates the exercises held. Gone are the days of voluntary reservists just “going somewhere and doing something”. This also need to take into account local and regional differences, as well as differences between units. If we train the same way in the southern border region as we do in the Archipelago Sea or in the Gulf of Bothnia, we are likely doing something wrong.
However, while there obviously is waste (to use lean-terminology), there is also much that is good in the system. This includes both the grassroots operations of the L-series of boats by the Naval Reserve and the National Defence Training Association, as well as the high-level refresher exercises. The evacuation of ‘wounded’ by the reservists of the Nyland Brigade was described as an example of the latter, with the scenario apparently running in accordance with the real deal all the way from the battlefield to the field hospital, with the exception of the surgeon not starting to cut into the simulated casualty. “You might imagine the surprise of the wounded when they were asked for permission to practice application of intravenous lines, and in the cases where this was granted they quickly where hooked up to peripheral lines in both hands before they were carried aboard the vessel that took them to the field hospital.” Being married to a physician, I can sympathise (though I’ve never actually had IV-lines)…
But what about Russia? Russia is the driver behind much of the instability in the Baltic Sea region. Much of this is apparently driven not only by a desire to recreate any historical grandness or regain superpower status (the latter of which Putin actually has more or less succeeded with despite the poor hand he was dealt), but also by a desire to maintain freedom to maneuver by effectively blocking Western attempts at boxing in Russia (i.e. getting Russia to adhere to international rules and human rights). This takes many forms, including wars in the information and cyber spaces, and relies heavily on the ability of the authoritarian state to take rapid ad hoc-actions to maintain the initiative. The west has tried to answer, but it is unclear to what extent the deterrence work bears fruit, especially as strong political voices are calling for appeasement.
The Baltic Sea is the new divided Germany
With the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union, the Baltic Sea region has become the fault line and a stage for provocations. This include issues such as the harassment of merchant shipping, further highlighting the potential vulnerabilities of the supply lines traversing the narrow sea. With the three Baltic countries safely inside NATO, there is always a risk that the countries in the grey zone, Finland and Sweden, will have to provide the real estate for a more or less serious Russian provocation. This naturally raises uncomfortable questions, including the role of the major islands in the Baltic Sea, as well as the vulnerability of the sea-based trade to different kinds of hybrid actions. The issue with Gotland-scenarios (either at Gotland or at another location such as Bornholm or the Åland Islands) have been discussed at great length elsewhere, but suffice to say they can play both a political role as well as provide additional range for the somewhat overhyped Russian A2/AD-bubble (yes, everyone’s favourite FOI-report was mentioned).
For the hybrid scenarios, an emphasis was placed on the use of the market forces to deal serious damage to a country’s maritime infrastructure. Granted you can sink a small freighter in a suitably narrow strategic sea lane, but you can also simply pay the vessels to go somewhere else. If there’s a market demand that pays better than sending your vessels to the Baltic Sea, suddenly the Finnish waters might face a serious shortage of tonnage, even if the supply lines notionally stays open. Globalised ownership patterns also makes questions such as how many vessels fly Finnish flags largely irrelevant, as a foreign owner might quickly change flag if it is felt that operating under Finnish rules might be less than optimal. A similar issue can be seen when it comes to port infrastructure, where key pieces of equipment (including large systems such as cranes), can be owned by stevedoring companies and not the port itself. With these companies then possibly being under international ownership and able to ship out their machinery in a matter of days if they feel they can get more money somewhere else, ownership of the port itself can quickly become a secondary question if the “port” turns out to be just a plot of land with quays and empty warehouses, void of any loading/unloading equipment. In short, cash is still king, and the invisible hand is susceptible to bribery.
However, while a crisis below the threshold of war is the more likely scenario if tensions were to flare up in the Baltic Sea region, a full-scale war in the Baltic cannot be ruled out. In that case Sweden would be involved due to it’s strategic location right on the US reinforcement route to the Baltic states. The Finnish situation is less certain, as while Finland sees the 1,300 km border with Russia largely as a liability from a defence point of view, the same is likely the case for Russia, with Kremlin’s appetite for having to divert forces to conduct offensive operations (or even just to hold the line) north of the Gulf of Finland likely being limited. On the other hand, wars have a tendency to escalate according to their own logic, and it is safe to say that a large conflict in the region would have a seriously deteriorating effect on Finnish national security, regardless of whether Finland would be able to stay out of the firing line or not (it can even be argued that trying to stay out of the firing line at any cost might be suboptimal in certain cases). For the Navy, being prepared for all contingencies is paramount, and this is something that clearly is top of mind of the service. Currently the situation is described as “satisfactory”, and with the equipment now being acquired and training being adjusted to meet the demands of the future, it seems set to continue that way.
Skipper is a well-recognized voice in Swedish discussions on defence and national security. Following the questionable reporting on details surrounding the subhunt of 2014, reporting that now has been quoted in Finnish media as well, he wrote a blog post on his personal blog which I have received permission to translate into English. Any errors in the translation are fully my own.
I practically never write blog posts any longer, but sometimes I feel the demand to do so. The following is due to SvD’s damaging reporting on the submarine question published yesterday.
I will not in any way comment upon the substance of the article. The only thing I will discuss in this post is the unquestioning attitude of the media. Conclusions presented in headlines and introductions to articles are flat out damaging for Sweden and cannot be seen as anything but pure disinformation. Where then lies the problem?
The headline and introduction used by SvD is phrased in a way that a reader not familiar with the issue cannot be expected to understand in any way other than that there never was any foreign submarine activity at all in Swedish waters in October 2014. This conclusion is utterly incorrect. Even worse is the fact that all other media repeat this statement without further questions.
This narrative constitutes direct disinformation, and was quickly established through national Swedish media during yesterday evening, and soon all established national news-channels sported a rewrite of the article, none of which showed any signs of questioning the narrative. All featured the same or similar misleading and erroneous headlines. [Today Finnish media has also repeated the claims.]
Even public service in the form of Sveriges Radio and Sveriges Television did such rewrites in blind trust, and as such played their part in spreading disinformation. SR and SVT that are trusted to continue working in times of war and serious crises, and as such form “protection” against influence and information operations directed against Sweden.
Following a social media storm against this both SvD and SVT, as well as other media, have rewritten their headlines and introductions. The problem is that the damage is already done. The narrative is set, and the man on the street now lives with a picture that all that was written by SvD and the others were correct, and that there was no foreign submarine activity in October 2014.
This morning several editorial boards have responded and corrected their headlines and introductions (see below).
If media had bothered to check the facts before publication none of this would have had to happen. The facts on the ground have not changed since September 2015, something that SvD knows while still deciding to make a grand fuss about this.
To get the facts one can read the Swedish Defence Forces article from 23 September 2015 with the headline “Beyond all reasonable doubt“. Some extracts from the text (my bold):
The Defence Forces’ final analysis shows that, as was stated last autumn, it is beyond all reasonable doubt that the Swedish internal territorial waters were violated in the Stockholm archipelago in October 2014.
The basis for this conclusion is now a significantly larger material than what was available in the immediate aftermath of the intelligence operation [i.e. the subhunt].
Of the roughly 300 reports that came in approximately 150 has been analysed in further detail of which 21 were judged to be particularly interesting.
Following the analysis several of these have now received a higher classification compared to the earlier analysis. The combined evaluation based on the amount of observations in the area provide a very high level of confidence.
The observation that last autumn was judged to be of the highest level of confidence has been reevaluated. Here additional information have come to light that give this particular observation another explanation, and as such it is not included in the basis for the combined evaluation. Despite this the conclusion remain that through the analysis work it is concluded beyond reasonable doubt that the Swedish internal waters have been violated.
The conclusion that media should have identified is that the “news” SvD built its article on wasn’t part of the final analysis work and combined evaluation. This was obvious already four years ago, but still media tries to spin this to mean that this news should be taken as proof that there was no underwater activity.
As such, this is pure disinformation, and it is regrettable that next to all media without question jumped the bandwagon on this sensation piece. It would – as many have pointed out – be interesting if SR medierna [an investigative public service radio show] would look into this reporting and investigate it from the point of view of source criticism.
That SVT did a rewrite of the article without looking into the sources with a critical mind is particularly interesting as SVT themselves recently launched a campaign for increased media literacy and critical evaluation of sources.
Starting today, SVT launches a new campaign about the role of public service in the modern media landscape. The first film discusses the need for fact-based journalism.
The film “Hen out of a feather” [Swedish expression meaning to make a mountain out of a molehill] focuses on the great importance of fact-based journalism in a world where rumors easily become truths, and information risks being corrupted. Where the border between opinion and fact becomes ever more fluid, and the current fast digital media landscape contribute to making a hen out of a feather.
The campaign has also been heavily criticized, including by the comedy show Svenska Nyheter.
A significantly more nuanced text has been written by Mikael Holmström (DN).
A well-written editorial is found in Expressen by Linda Jernek with the headline “Don’t spread the spin that the submarine was just a bouy”
In the domestic critique of the Pohjanmaa-class, an often repeated claim is that with the Russian focus on light vessels, the few corvettes will simply be overwhelmed by the swarming vessels launching barrages of anti-ship missiles. Rarely however does anyone discuss this claim more in detail, including which small vessels would fire the barrages, whether the Russian fondness for light craft really exist, and what the geography in the Baltic Sea dictates. As it turns out, these oft-repeated truths aren’t necessarily truths at all.
To begin with the geographic realities of the Baltic Fleet needs to be acknowledged. The main base, Baltiysk, sits in Kaliningrad. There it is not only within artillery distance from a NATO-country, but it also lacks a land connection to the Russian mainland, and any ship wanting to exit the port to reach the Baltic Sea has to do so by transiting the two kilometer long and 400 meter wide Strait of Baltiysk which cuts through the Vistula Spit. The second base is located in Kronstadt, just outside of St Petersburg. While the base is located closer to the Russian mainland and more easily defendable, it comes at cost of any vessel wanting to head over to the Baltic Sea proper having to run the full 400 km length of the 40 km wide Gulf of Finland. The Gulf of Finland is also shallow, making submarine operations with conventional submarines challenging. It is often forgotten in the Finnish discussions exactly how bad the geostrategic realities are for the Russian Baltic Fleet in the grand scheme of things.
The Russian Baltic Fleet feature a varied fleet, made up of a significant number of vessels of Cold War designs, including a single destroyer, frigates, light corvettes, and FACs. In addition, seven modern corvettes of three(!) different classes are found. If you are the kind of person who really want to pick the details and look into numbers, at the bottom is a somewhat lengthy go-through of the individual classes and their weapon systems.
In short, the majority of the Baltic Fleet is far from any kind of swarming wunderwaffe. The lightest vessels, the Molnaya, still displace almost twice that of the Hamina-class. The majority of the missiles carried by these vessels are old bordering on obsolete, though getting hit with a 300 kg warhead still hurts if the seeker works. As of writing, the Baltic Fleet operate seven modern vessels with any kind of surface warfare capability (and a single modern minesweeper of the Project 12700 Alexandrit-class), these being the four Steregushchiy, two Buyan-M, and single Karakurt corvettes. Notable is also that the endurance of the vessels are somewhat limited, usually around ten to fifteen days. As was seen during the fleet parades of 2018 reinforcements can come from the outside, though such movements risk alerting the adversary and the number of modern vessels in the Northern and Black Sea Fleets are limited as well.
FLOTPROM reports that the planned displacement of the Project 23560 Leader-class destroyer has grown to 19 tons, and will be nuclear-powered. The other option previously mentioned was 10-12 ton displacement with a gas turbine power-plant. 1/https://t.co/MwdosyTrw5pic.twitter.com/IBxQZ3n4u5
A key point of the Russian fleet programmes is that the current focus is on frigates and corvettes, as opposed to swarming light vessels. However, it should be noted that this is also not due to a lack of interest in larger vessels. Many of the older destroyers and cruisers are undergoing long and difficult modernisation programs and overhauls, and there are longtime ambitions to launch new large surface combatants. However, the decade long gap in newbuilding has left its mark on the capability of Russia to build modern warships, making it hard to live up to these ambitions. Anders Puck Nielsen recently published an interesting study into the state of the Baltic Fleet, where he points out that the median age of ships above 300 tons in the Baltic Fleet is a full five years older than the average age of the same (29 compared to 24 years), clearly illustrating this split. Within the next five years it is likely that we will see the first new destroyers laid down, but considering the building time of frigates and the Ivan Gren-class LST, it will likely be more than a decade before these are operational. By that time Nastoychivyy will be approaching 40 years in service.
Through exercises such as the Northern Coasts and BALTOPS serieses, the Western navies ensure interoperability should the worst come.
In a conflict between NATO and Russia, the Baltic Fleet’s main mission would likely be sea denial. Especially the modern vessels are well-suited for the mission, though the poor basing options make them vulnerable. In a conflict between Finland and Russia, the Baltic Fleet’s base at Kaliningrad would on the other hand provide a safe haven 600 km from the Finnish coast, and the first step would likely be to regroup vessels from Kronstadt to the open waters in the northern parts of the Baltic Sea. However, with the Finnish Navy operating according to the policy that they know the identity of “all vessels passing close to our waters”, such a move would risk giving away the element of strategic surprise. Granted it is possible to mask fleet movements as an exercise, and/or to try and dash through the Gulf of Finland with the Kronstadt squadron in the immediate aftermath of a first strike, but achieving strategic surprise against an adversary that maintain a 24/7 readiness even with a limited number of vessels is hard.
In absolute numbers, the current Finnish Navy with eight FAC hiding in the archipelago backed up by significant coastal artillery assets, including truck-mounted anti-ship missiles, would be a tough enemy for the Russian fleet of about a dozen (mostly light) corvettes, six FAC, and a maximum of two heavier vessels. With the exception of the Kalibr-equipped vessels, the Russian vessels would have no range advantage, and in most cases would operate with significantly older vessels, weapons, and sensors. They would also be unable to rely on any kind of terrain masking, coming from the open sea. Their limited endurance would also mean that any kind of blockade or attempt at exercising sea control over the Archipelago Sea would require a rotating presence with squadrons taking turn on station, being in transit, and replenishing in Kaliningrad.
The best opportunity the Baltic Fleet would have is interdicting merchant shipping passing the open waters of the Sea of Åland as well as to a smaller extent Kihti (Skiftet) either by surface weapon or by mines laid by Dmitrov in suitable locations closer to shore. This would face the Finnish Navy with the choice of allowing the country to be under siege or coming out from the archipelago and taking up battle. This is a scenario for which the Pohjanmaa-class is well-suited, with the advanced sensor suite giving it superior situational awareness against the smaller and older Russian vessels, and with the endurance to stay at sea and choose the time and place of the battle. The Baltic Fleet is expected to grow in capability, both through new vessels such as the second Karakurt-class corvette Serpukhov as well as through modernisation programs, but through the introduction of PTO 2020, Hamina MLU, and the Pohjanmaa-class the relative power balance at sea is expected to remain roughly the same. Of the modernisation programmes, the most important is perhaps the replacement of the six P-120 Malakhit missiles on Project 12341 corvettes with up to sixteen Kh-35 Uragan. The first such modified vessel (of the Pacific Fleet) test-fired its missiles in February this year. However, it should be noted that while this would be a huge leap in capability for the Baltic Fleet, it is still just replacing a fifty year old missile with a twenty year old one.
In the end, the Russian Baltic Fleet still is a serious adversary and should not be underestimated if the Finnish Navy ever was to face it alone. However, the maritime domain is still significantly more evenly matched than the air or land domains. There are some significant headaches, such as the possibility of Russia imposing a naval blockade on ships heading to Finland in the southern parts of the Baltic Sea or using submarines to lay mines to create a crisis below the treshold of war. The idea that Russia will be able to overpower the Finnish Navy by employing a vast number of light craft firing volleys of modern anti-ship missiles is however not backed up by the order of battle of the Baltic Fleet, nor by current or envisioned Russian shipbuilding programs.
The vessels of the Baltic Fleet
The flagship of the Baltic Fleet is the destroyer Nastoychivyy (‘610’), a Project 965A class destroyer (NATO-designation Sovremenny). The vessel was laid down as the Moskovskiy Komsomolets in 1987, and entered service in 1993. The vessel has a serious gun-battery in the form of two twin-130 mm gun turrets, as well as a number of 30 mm gatling AA-guns. The naval version of the Buk is also carried for air-defence. The weaker point of the vessel is the ASW-suite, which is mainly meant for self-defence (the Project 11551/Udaloy-II and 1155R/Udaloy were supposed to take care of that part). Mine rails are also found.
The main punch is provided by the twin quadruple launchers for the long-range P-270 Moskit or the even longer-ranged P-100 Moskit-M (SS-N-22 Sunburn) anti-ship missiles. The missile design dates back to the early/mid-1980’s, and the last missiles apparently rolled off the production lines in 1994. The missiles has a total weight of 3,950 kg, flies at Mach 2.5 and has a range of 100 km for the baseline-Moskit and 129 km for the Moskit-M, of which “only a few were made” according to USNI. The missiles use an active radar seeker, and carries a 300 kg warhead (of which half the weight is made up off the explosives). An interesting detail is that the design was sold to Boeing, for use as target drones.
Nastoychivyy is currently undergoing overhauls, including a renewal of the propulsion system. This is based on two sets of geared steam turbines driving two propeller shafts. However, naval propulsion is a big headache throughout Russia, as they went to war with the country producing their (relatively) modern gas turbines, while at the same time are having serious trouble in producing modern high-powered diesel engines suitable for naval use. It remains to be seen if and when the Nastoychivyy will get moving again.
Another large vessel of the Baltic Fleet from the same era is the frigate Yaroslav Mudry (‘777’), second and final vessel of the Neustrashimyy-class (Project 11540). Mudry had the bad luck of getting stuck in the turbulence following the fall of the Soviet Union, and took 21 years from being laid down in 1988 until she actually entered service in 2009. The design is optimised for ASW-duty, including through carrying a Ka-27 ASW-helicopter, and the combat system sports the distinction of being the first fully integrated computerised system in use by the Russian Navy. Yaroslav Mudry has done a number of long voyages, and just recently passed through the English Channel heading south. Sister and leadship of the class Nesutrashimyy (‘712’) is currently in the final stages of a five year overhaul. These repairs saw a serious fire, and at times the sleek vessel looked like it might never get back to sea. However, reports are now stating that she will be able to join the Baltic Fleet before the end of the year.
.@hms_mersey shadowed the Russian frigate Yaroslav Mudryy, support tanker Yelnya & tug Viktor Konetsky from the North Sea and through the English Channel this weekend pic.twitter.com/acXC6TeprJ
In the anti-ship role, the Neustrashimyy-class can carry up to sixteen Kh-35 Uran (SS-N-25 Switchblade) anti-ship missiles in four quadruple launchers, though the usual complement is half that number. The Kh-35 reminds more of typical western designs, carrying a 145 kg warhead at high-subsonic speeds and with a range of up to 130 km. The radar seeker is able to operate in both active and passive modes, and the weapon entered service in the late 90’s.
Significantly more modern vessels are found in the form of the four Steregushchiy-class (Project 20380) multi-purpose corvettes. Carrying up to eight Kh-35 Uran, the most impressive feature is still the Redut-air defence system. Redut is a VLS-system related to the S-400-family, and reportedly uses three different missiles with 15 km/40 km/120 km max range respectively. The system is reported to receive a new longer-ranged missile with ABM-capability in the near future, and integration with the new Poliment-radar is reportedly operational since the first half of the year. The Steregushchiy is however far from a one-trick-pony, and also feature a serious ASW-capability. The class is roughly comparable to the Pohjanmaa-class, being about 105 meters long, with a shallow draft and a top speed somewhere in the order of 27 to 30 knots. The big difference is the lack of the dedicated mine hull of the Pohjanmaa, and the significantly lighter full load displacement of 2,100 ton.
Moving down the ladder in size, the most modern vessels of the Russian Baltic Fleet are the two Buyan-M (Project 21631) and upcoming Karakurt (Project 22800) corvettes. The Buyan-M corvettes Zeleny Dol (‘562’) and Serpukhov (‘563’) entered the Baltic Sea in 2016, and caused quite a stir due to their VLS being able to handle up to eight Kalibr-cruise or anti-ship missiles. The range of the 3M-14 cruise missile version of the Kalibr allow the vessels to strike targets anywhere in the greater Baltic Sea region, while the 3M-54 anti-ship version is charachterised by its very high speed in the final attack run, reaching up to 3.0 Mach. However, the vessels are in certain aspects closer to large FAC than corvettes, as they completely lack ASW-capability and have a very limited anti-air capability featuring 30 mm CIWS and a single short-range Gibka-launcher firing navalised versions of the late-80’s era Strela-3.
For the Karakurt-class, the first vessel Mystischi (‘567’) was declared operational during late 2019, with a number of sisters expected to follow the vessel into service in the Baltic Sea. However, the build rate has been delayed due to lack of suitable M507 diesels. Compared to the Buyan-M, the Karakurt feature the same eight-cell VLS for Kalibr-missiles, but employs the moder modern short-range navalised Pantsir-M system instead of the Gibka. The endurance is also longer, at fifteen days compared to ten days for the Buyan-M. A more in-depth comparison is found here. The main gun has also gone down in calibre from 100 mm on the Buyan-M to 76.2 mm on the Karakurt.
The last surface vessels with a serious anti-surface capability are all Soviet-era designs. Four Project 12341 (Nanuchka III) class corvettes date to the last years of the Soviet Union, and carry six P-120 Malakhit (SS-N-9 Siren) heavy anti-ship missiles. The missiles have a rather limited range of 56 km unless they are assisted by a forward observer and flies at high subsonic speed. In addition the vessels have a short-range SAM-system in the form of the Osa-M, a 76.2 mm deck gun, and one of the ubiqous 30 mm gatling CIWS. The vessels sport a ten day endurance. The smaller FACs are represented by two Project 12411T Molnaya (Tarantul II) and four of the sligthly newer Project 12411 Molnaya-M (Tarantul III). In this case ‘newer’ means of the same age as the 12341s, as opposed to the original Monayas which both date to the first half of the 80’s. The Molnaya feature four of the outdated P-15M Termit (SS-N-2C Styx), while the Molnaya-M have four of the P-270 Moskit that are also carried by the Nastoychivyy. Both classes employ a 76.2 mm deck gun, Strela-3 short-range SAM launchers, and single-barreled 30 mm CIWS systems. Both classes share the 10 day endurance with the larger Project 12341. The vessels have been in and out of dry dock during 2019, but apparently none of them have undergone any larger upgrades for the time being.
The final vessel that would play a key part in any naval battle is the sole submarine of the fleet, the B-806 Dmitrov. Dmitrov is a Project 877EKM (Kilo) class submarine, and was laid down in 1985 and entered service two years later. The Dmitrov was refitted in St Petersburg during 2001 and 2002, and has often been used to train foreign crews for export Project 877s. With a 45 day endurance the submarine can not only carry up to 18 torpedoes, but also up to 24 mines, or a mix of the two. The sligthly older B-227 Vyborg has recently been retired.
The rest of the Baltic Fleet is made up of landing crafts, amphibious vessels, single-role mine warfare and ASW-vessels, as well as auxilliaries. In addition a number of ground and air units sort under the fleet.
The Finnish naval news keeps dropping at a high rate following the contract signing ceremonies two weeks ago. A few further details have emerged on the Pohjanmaa-class, while the FNS Tornio is currently undergoing acceptance tests as the first of the four Hamina-class sisters to pass through their mid-life update.
Saab released a video highlighting the different systems they supply to the Pohjanmaa-class. An interesting detail is the inclusion of a grey-painted NH 90 on the helicopter deck. It nicely illustrates the size of the Finnish Army’s main helicopter relative to the ship, showing that while it can touch down on the deck, it is too large for the hangar and won’t be based aboard. The fact that the helicopter is grey is curious. All Finnish NH 90s are painted in a three-colour green-black camouflage, so either the color is an oversight (likely) or it may portray one of the Swedish Air Force’s maritime Hkp 14F on a visit. This will likely be a somewhat regular occurrence beginning in the last years of the next decade, considering the tight cooperation between the two navies. The Hkp 14F are also the sole non-Russian ASW-capable helicopters of the northern Baltic Sea region, meaning that once they have achieved FOC they will certainly be welcome visitors.
Speaking of sub-hunting, it had escaped my attention (or memory) that a rather detailed description of the propulsion arrangement had been found in Maanpuolustuksen osto-opas 2/2018. The system will be twin-shafts with controllable-pitch propellers (CPP), powered by combined diesel-electric and gas turbine (CODLAG). Four diesel engines will be working as generators, producing electricity to two electric motors which power the vessel during normal operations. When requiring max speed the gas turbine is fired up, and it will be connected through gearboxes to the two shafts. The total power will be around 30 MW (40,200 hp). An interesting comparison is the German F125-class frigates which sport a very similar CODLAG arrangement rated at 31.6 MW, and consisting of a single LM2500 gas turbine from General Electric (20 MW), four 20V 4000 M53B diesel gensets from MTU Friedrichshafen (totalling 12 MW), two electrical motors (totalling 9 MW), and Renk gearboxes. For those wondering where the rest of the power from the gensets go, there’s quite a bit of electronics aboard a modern warship, as well as a 1 MW bow thruster in the bow of the F125. While no manufacturers have been announced for the Pohjanmaa-class, the F125-suppliers can be considered low-odds candidates. The Rolls-Royce MT30 has scored a few impressive references recently, including replacing the LM2500 on the ROK FFX Batch II, but it might be a tad too big for the Pohjanmaa. For sub-hunting, two of the gensets on the Pohjanmaa will receive additional signature reducing features (acoustic and vibration). This allows slow-speed operations in extreme silence, in essence providing the corvettes with a trolling mode to use a boating analogy (even if the gamefish is on the bigger side in this case). The Pohjanmaa-class is also equipped with twin bow thrusters, a crucial feature to ensure that the vessels can get around unassisted in the narrow waterways of the archipelago, including when mooring at the spartan infrastructure used for dispersed operations.
Commodore Harju, CinC of the Finnish Navy, also published a blog post on the Finnish Defence Forces’ blog discussing the vessels. While giving few details, the blog hints at an endurance of at least two full weeks at sea, quite possibly longer. Considering that the operational environment will rarely sees the vessels being further than half a day of sailing away from the nearest friendly port, this is a significant number and a game-changer compared to the Hamina-class.
Perhaps the most significant message of the post was that the commodore acknowledges the strain currently being placed on the servicemen and -women of the fleet. The service has seen the workload increase with the increased level of readiness that has become a staple of the Finnish Defence Forces post-Crimea. This has hit the small number of vessel crews particularly hard, especially when coupled with the fact that few of the vessels are available during wintertime as well as the prolonged absence of the Rauma-class during their MLU and while dealing with the issues caused by hull cracks following it. This has placed even higher demands on the crews serving aboard the mineships and the Hamina-class FAC. With the change over from the Hämenmaa- and Rauma-classes to the Pohjanmaa-class, crews will have to be trained for the new vessels in parallel with keeping up the operational tempo with ever older vessels. It is most welcome that the Navy leadership already at this early stage of the Pohjanmaa-project acknowledges this, and are making plans to handle this additional requirement.
The Hamina-class MLU this has also seen improvements in this regard. The cabins and berthings of both the sailors and the command have been revamped and moved, allowing for more space. In addition the crews will increase by a few persons, though mostly caused by new functions being added. However, the introduction of newer systems will allow for longer rest periods for the crew members. The ergonomics of the bridge has also been improved. Hopefully these changes will together play their part in lowering the workload aboard the vessels. However, for the Navy as a whole there is unlikely to be any quick fixes, but rather a long and dedicated process is needed to bring the workload down throughout the force. The signs now point to the work having begun, hopefully it will prove successful.
As has been mentioned earlier, the Hamina-class post-MLU will be small but highly competent ships, employing many of the same sub-systems as their larger corvette sisters. The replacement of the large 57 mm deck guns with the smaller 40 mm Bofors in their truncated hexagonal trapezohedron-shaped turrets has freed up weight to allow for the Kongsberg towed arrays to be installed, something that together with the torpedoes (TP 45 for the time being, to be replaced with the NLWT/TP 47 in a few years) gives the vessels serious sub-hunting capabilities. The physical installation of the PTO 2020 (Gabriel) on the other hand proved a bit challenging, with the ceiling having to be raised and new doors being installed. This further underscores exactly how significant an improvement the new missiles has to be, as the RBS 15 Gungnir they beat would have been a drop-in solution when it comes to the physical dimensions. The vessels will get the same combat management system, the 9LV, as the Pohjanmaa-class, allowing for synergies in training and joint operations. The ITO 04 (Umkhonto) in their individual VLS-tubes remain the primary air defence weapon, but the Saab Trackfire has made it onto the rear part of the superstructure. Likely to be fitted with the NSV heavy machine-gun as standard, the remote weapon station allows for better close-range defence against small targets such as small craft, drones, or low and slow aircraft and helicopters compared to the earlier pintle-mounted versions of the same weapon.
Speaking of the Navy’s favorite RWS, the inclusion of two Trackfires on the Pohjanmaa instead of any dedicated hard-kill CIWS raised some eyebrows. The exact capabilities of the Trackfire naturally depend on the sensors and weapon carried, but I decided to place the hypothetical question to Saab: if the RWS carried a suitable weapon and was hooked up to a suitable sensor, would it be able to bring down incoming anti-ship missiles?
In an impressively long answer, the Swedish defence company explained that the system is “designed for very high stabilisation and fire control requirements”. This provide the system with “extremely good performance” when tracking and engaging airborne targets. However, it also notes that the system is set to receive new counter-missiles capabilities in the future, upgrades that will “commensurately increase” the system’s capacity for engaging incoming missiles. In short, Trackfire isn’t yet a mature CIWS-platform against incoming missiles, but the technical possibility is there. Another question is if the Finnish Navy is interested in getting yet another calibre in its arsenal, as the CIWS role would require at least a 20 mm gun, but preferably a 25 or 30 mm one. Something like the 30 mm M230LF could likely be fitted to the Trackfire, but it is questionable if the Finnish Navy would find such an integration project worthwhile. The more likely path is to continue with the NSV, and once the money is available fit a dedicated autocannon (likely as part of a future MLU, which would also include the fitting of a second Mk 41 VLS-module to increase the number of cells to 16).
For the time being, the defence against incoming missiles rests largely on soft-kill systems based on electronic countermeasures and decoy launchers. This isn’t necessarily a purely budgetary decision, as the value of small calibre cannons against incoming missiles at high speeds have been questioned. In essence, if three tons of metal and explosives are hurling towards you at Mach 2, even if you hit it and break something you still have a good chance of getting hit by a lump of scrap metal weighing three tons and bringing a healthy dose of energy (around 706 MJ in our example) into your superstructure. Since that energy transfer is undesirable, having the missile go somewhere else in the first place is preferable.
And what about it being a frigate? To quote commodore Harju’s post:
Some of those who have recently analysed the class have stated that the Pohjanmaa-class corvette is the same size as a frigate and has almost destroyer-like weaponry. A frigate is generally understood as a vessel capable of operating in oceanic conditions […] For us in the Navy, more important than the orthodox definition of the ship class is the military capabilities of the vessels […] And finally, the Pohjanmaa-class is part of our defense system, meaning that evaluating the performance of an individual vessel does not give the whole picture of the vessel, nor the significance and impact of the acquired package.
Journalist Jarmo Huhtanen of Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat stirred up a little controversy yesterday, by publishing an article where he lays out the case that the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes in the form they were ordered in are not corvettes at all, but frigates.
Now, at the outset it has to be noted that Huhtanen is probably the single most experienced and knowledgeable defence journalist employed by any Finnish non-specialised media, and he has been covering the Pohjanmaa-class from its humble beginning as the MTA 2020. As such he is well-placed to raise the question, and he certainly has some points.
It is certainly true that the vessels have grown throughout the project. The original size was given as about 90 meters back in 2015. This now currently stands at 114 meters, a sizeable increase. It is also true that the size makes it questionable whether the vessels really are “the most capable corvettes in the world”, as commodore Harju stated, or more accurately “decently sized frigates”. Huhtanen also notes that internationally the classification of surface warships is imprecise and partly overlapping when it comes to tonnage.
Let’s address the first part first. While it is impossible for an outsider to know exactly what has been going on behind the scenes, as the Navy has been notoriously tight-lipped about the details of the project. In general terms, having seen and been part of a few vessel design projects I can note that it isn’t rare for a vessel to grow between design iterations. The reasons are many, but in general it is better to start small, as smaller generally means cheaper, and then to add space once it is clear it really is needed. Considering the lifespan of the Pohjanmaa-class, room for growth is also a serious considerations, and something which often in hindsight hasn’t been emphasised enough on military vessels (see Hamina-class going from 57 mm to 40 mm deck guns to save weight during MLU). Bad planning on the part of the Navy? Not necessarily, it might just be the correct decision once the detailed design has matured.
At the same time the fixed budget has grown by 8 %. As I noted in my last post, the total still seems very low, although direct comparisons with other similarly sized ships are difficult to make. MoD Kaikkonen attributed the increase to an increase in the budget for the building of the ship, something that naturally correlates with an increase in vessel size. This obviously again raises questions about the quality of the information available upon project launch and what happened between 2015 and today, but in the grand scheme of things (remember that the oft-quoted 1.2 Bn Eur isn’t the full project cost, but rather only the additional funds allocated outside of the normal FDF budget) I find it difficult to be overtly excited if the budget overruns stay at this.
Huhtanen’s article include a few rhetorical leaps I don’t quite follow or agree with. One thing is the comparison to the Swedish Visby-class, and noting that they are 40 meter shorter than the Finnish vessels and significantly lighter (Visby being rated at 640 tons). The comparison is about as useful as comparing the specifications of our new K9 self-propelled howitzers to those of the Swedish Strv 122 tanks. Yes, both vessels are grey, sail the seas, and are called corvettes, but the design concepts (and the doctrines behind these design concepts) are different enough that a direct comparison is of little use. I have earlier written about the topic over at the blog of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences, but in short compared to Pohjanmaa the Visby trades ice-going capabilities, air-defence missiles, mining capability, a helicopter hangar, and economics for stealth and speed. Neither approach is wrong, but they are very different and stems from the different concepts of operations the Swedish and Finnish Navies employ. However, it can be noted that the Swedish plan is that the next series of surface vessels will grow, even if they will still remain significantly lighter than the Pohjanmaa-class.
Mentioning that the Pohjanmaa-class are of the same displacement as the Freedom-class LCS is to be considered a red herring, and Huhtanen himself notes that this is likely a coincidence. An old article from 2016 by Olli Ainola is also linked, and while Ainola was no mean writer when it came to defence topics, that particular article was frankly little more than a hit piece, which I discussed in detail shortly after its publication.
I still hold it likely that if the Pohjanmaa-class eventually join the Navy in the shape currently envisioned and under the adjusted budget, the Finnish Navy will not only operate the strongest single warships currently based in the Baltic Sea, but they will do so at a bargain. I do fear that there is a risk that the budget is still too tight, and that some key systems will be ‘fitted for but not with’. However, the Navy has so far shown to be able to focus on the important, and make the cuts where they will least impact the effectiveness of the vessels. The Finnish concept of operations is also clearly visible in these compromises, such as the small calibre of the main gun (the vessels aren’t expected to provide naval gunfire support) and the decision to go with a medium-range air defence system as opposed to trying to fit a long-range bluewater system. Importing the combat systems and having an internationally established defence supplier provide integration will also significantly reduce the risks associated with the project, as the combat systems package is almost certain to be the weakest part of RMC’s know-how. In the end, the Pohjanmaa-class is clearly intended as a fighting weapon, and not as a fleet in being as Huhtanen suggests. They will play an important part in deterring hostile aggression throughout the spectrum from peace to war, and in doing so provide a flexibility found in few other systems. Their main issue is the low number, which causes redundancy issues and makes them vulnerable to losses.
But are they really corvettes?
During the age of sail warships were simply rated by how many guns they had. Granted some where faster than others, and some had longer endurance, but in the end you could simply count the number of guns and tell if something was a frigate. Both the corvette and frigate designations date to these times, with the dividing line between the corvette and the frigate usually being drawn somewhere between 20 and 30 guns.
Then came the steamships and a requirement for more specialised roles. The advent of submarines and aircraft created the modern three-dimensional naval battlefield. The first modern corvettes were the British Flower-class, which were light ships intended to escort convoys and fight German U-boats on the Atlantic, and not much else. The frigate designation also saw a renaissance during WWII, as the Royal Navy started calling their slightly larger subhunting convoy escorts for frigates. Confusingly enough, the same kind of vessels were designated destroyer escorts by the US Navy, and the Royal Navy also operated sloops which were roughly of the same size and capability.
After the war things got still more confusing. Generally vessel sizes grew, and suddenly there were cruiser-sized ships hunting submarines. But since cruisers don’t hunt submarines, these were clearly just very large destroyers (except in the Soviet Union, where they were “large anti-submarine warfare ship”). At the same time more and more navies started to move away from single-purpose ships to multipurpose ones. Developments such as increased range for aircraft and the lower number of available hulls meant that ships expected to operate in narrow seas such as the Baltic Sea no longer could count on being able to choose which kinds of enemies they could encounter (for armoured people, this is pretty much the same kind of development pattern that eventually brought us the main battle tank to replace different armoured fighting vehicles tailored for different roles).
Long story short, today multipurpose vessels start with corvettes being the smallest, then moving up in size through frigates and on to destroyers. Where exactly the lines are drawn is an open question, and also varies with country. In US nomenclature, FFL (the abbreviation coming from “frigate, light”, in itself an interesting statement) designates a corvette, which is between 1,000 and 1,500 tons full load displacement. In Europe, any warship larger than a patrol craft but smaller than a frigate can be called a corvette, if the navy in question is so inclined. Frigates are between 1,500 to over 6,000 tons full load displacement according to USNI, who also note that due to “internal political reasons”, some navies mislabel their frigates as destroyers, or vice versa. This is often based on budgetary considerations and/or naval traditions. Here it could be noted that if one has received budgetary funds for a corvette, and is from a country that traditionally only operate lighter surface combatants, any vessel straddling the corvette/frigate-line would likely be designated a corvette for political reasons. Conversely, the British Type 31e, the low-end frigate in their high-low frigate mix, at times during the tendering process looked closer to a high-sea corvette than a frigate. But since it was designed to compensate for a shortfall in the number of frigates, and since the visuals of having cut the funding of the Royal Navy to the extent that they were buying corvettes instead of frigates didn’t fit British politics, they have never officially been described as anything but “affordable” frigates.
In the end, Navies can usually get away with calling their vessels more or less what they want, and generally these designations have been accepted by the outside world. The British Type 45 are destroyers, but their cousins in the Horizon-class in French and Italian service are frigates.
However, simply discussing displacement doesn’t give the whole picture, as much is related to the capabilities of a vessel. Yet another factor is that some countries have doctrines differing from established western thinking to the extent that the vessels these result in aren’t possible to fit in any of the given designations. You can get entertainment for a whole evening if you can get two naval historians with opposite views arguing over whether the German WWII-era Scharnhorst-class are battlecruisers or battleships, an issue that stems from the battlecruiser and battleship division being based on British vessels. The Soviet large anti-submarine warfare ship has been mentioned already, but the Soviet and Russian Baltic Fleet has also seen e.g. the Project 1234 Ovod (Nanuchka-class in NATO-parlance), which is a “small missile ship” if you ask the Russians, and either a fast attack craft or a corvette if you ask the West. A key issue here is the size and endurance which makes it corvette-like, but the lack of any serious armament except a heavy anti-ship missile battery is generally seen as a defining feature of a FAC. Another interesting case from the Baltic Sea is the Swedish Navy, which used to operate 400-ton vessels with significant capabilities in all three dimensions, but sacrificed endurance and seakeeping capabilities in doing so. These used the Swedish designation kustkorvett, or coastal corvette, but since the late 90’s the surviving vessels are simply called corvettes. The 250-ton Hamina-class will provide something along the same lines post-MLU, being able to fight subsurface, surface, and air threats, but being too small to be classed as a corvette.
So what about the Pohjanmaa? The displacement is on the larger side for a corvette, the capabilities are at the very high end for being a corvette, and are in fact higher than many relatively modern frigates. Is there anything then that stops them from being frigates?
The one thing so far absent from the discussion is their shallow draught, which likely will lead to less than ideal seakeeping when operating in bluewater conditions. This is a compromise, and one which has been a hallmark for large Finnish-designed vessels for decades. Frigates are often associated with the open waters of the oceans, or at the very least the North Sea, and while Pohjanmaa certainly could hunt submarines in the GIUK-gap, that’s not where she will be able to play to her strengths. Instead, that would be in the narrow waters close to the shores of the Baltic Sea, waters more often associated with, well, corvettes. However, living in a stable does not make one a horse, at least not in and by itself.
Is she then a frigate? I personally would have to answer with “Yes, but not that kind of a frigate.” Designating her a corvette isn’t necessarily wrong either, but that would also have to be accompanied by the same asterisk. Ironically, it does seem that today’s Pohjanmaa-class will inherit not only the name but also a difficulty in straightforward classification from the original Pojama-class of the late 18th century. I guess we’ll simply have to resurrect the phrase “archipelago frigate”.