Naval Air Defence – The Finnish Way

One of the signs of spring in Kokkola is the arrival of a small flotilla of naval vessels to the local port. Seeing the Finnish Navy operating in the northern parts of the Gulf of Bothnia is uncommon, as all three main formations and the Naval Academy are based along the southern shores of the country. What brings the Navy here is the spring edition of IPH, the twice annually held air defence exercise where the Navy join the Army and Air Force in practicing the whole chain of modern ground-based air defences. This starts with creating situational awareness for the air defence network, and ends with the use of appropriate weapons systems engaging the targets. This year, minelayer FNS Uusimaa (‘05’) lead fast-attack crafts FNS Tornio (‘81’) and FNS Hanko (‘82’) into the port of Kokkola on 17 May for approximately a week of intensive exercises.

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FNS Uusimaa (‘05’) at dusk. Source: @JHggblom

Contrary to a number of other navies which operate dedicated air defence ships, air defence isn’t one of the Finnish Navy’s core tasks. Rather, the ability to protect the own vessel and nearby ships is needed to be able to perform other tasks, including escorting merchant shipping but also naval missions such as mining. Currently, the two Hämeenmaa-class minelayers and the four Hamina-class FAC all feature the same Cassidian TRS-3D radar and a VLS-battery of eight Umkhonto-IR (local designation ITO 2004) short-range IR-homing missile. As noted, half of the Navy’s ships with an air defence capability took part in IPH117.

But the air defence mission starts long before the missiles are let loose. The naval vessels, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, play a significant role in peacetime air policing. The TRS-3D are respectable sensors in its own right, and on the vessels they are backed up by other systems and sensors which make the vessels able to make considerable contributions to the Finnish air picture. The Navy maintain alert vessels 24/7 as part of their policing of Finnish maritime areas (as has been demonstrated), and an added benefit is that these are able to contribute sensor data regarding air movements as well. Here, the older Rauma-class and the Border Guard’s flagship VL Turva are also able to lend a hand, as while they aren’t armed with SAM’s, they still sport search radars (TRS-3D in the case of Turva, while the Rauma-class is equipped with the Saab Sea Giraffe 9GA 208, a relatively old iteration of the Giraffe-family).

There are a number of features which make the Navy punch above its paper stats when it comes to contributing to the air defence and air surveillance network. One is the fact that the vessels are further south than any radars found on the mainland. This is especially valuable for any air traffic coming from the direction of the Baltic Sea, where the Navy can be assumed to be the first one to pick up any movements. Another thing is the mobility offered by the platforms, with the ships being able to travel at speed, up to 30 knots (55 km/h) for the Haminas, while constantly emitting. Compared to ground-based radars which need to be lowered for travelling and set up again at their new location, this eliminates the gap in information that takes place when changing position. The other is the high readiness of the Navy compared to the Army’s air defence units. The vessels not only bring their complete sensor package with them. They also bring the command central, battle management tools, and firing units with them. The vessels need to be able to not only fight as part of an integrated air defence network, but they also need to be able to solve any of their missions independently in case communications with higher command suddenly goes down. This means that the vessels are able to not only see what is up in the air, but also to take independent action against any threat at a moment’s notice.

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FNS Tornio (‘81’) left and FNS Hamina (‘82’) right. Source: Own picture

Being able to actually shoot down anything naturally requires that they are sailing around with the missiles loaded, something which the Navy does not comment upon. One of the benefits of the VLS is in fact this ambiguity, as an external observer is unable to tell how many weapons are carried (the same is the case with internal carriage on fighters, feel free to ponder upon this as an issue for HX).

From an air defence point of view, the six Umkhonto-equipped vessels are in effect mobile surface-to-air missile batteries with their own search radars (though with a very limited number of missiles), maintained at a high level of readiness and staffed (almost) exclusively by professionals. This makes them well-suited as counters to a Crimea-style coup attempt, where they together with the Air Force would counter airborne movements in the opening stages of a conflict before the ground based batteries have had time to mobilise and set up.

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FNS Uusimaa (‘05’) firing an Umkhonto-IR short-range surface-to-air missile during IPH117. Source: Merivoimat

The introduction of Squadron 2020 will further strengthen the Navy’s role in the joint air defence network. New radars and sensors, and getting access to mounting them higher as a benefit of the larger vessel size, will offer better situational awareness, and while the exact surface-to-air weapon fit is still undecided, it seems highly likely that the missiles will be of a greater number and capability than the current vessels have. What is also often forgotten is that while the overall number of surface combatants will go down from eleven to eight, the number of air defence capable vessels will in fact go up from six to eight.

While the Navy might see air defence as something of a necessary evil, something that one needs to do to be able to perform the core missions, that doesn’t mean it is a mission taken lightly. Compared to mining operations where time is calculated in hours and days, air defence is a question of seconds and minutes. The demanding nature of it means that it needs to be trained properly, and nowhere in Finland is the training environment better than in the Bothnian Gulf during the last weeks of May. The importance placed on the mission is seen by the fact that the Navy dispatched three vessels for a week, vessels which barely have time get back to Pansio for a quick turnaround before heading out to sea again as part of this spring’s main coastal defence exercise, exercise MTH-17 Lyydia.

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