Enter Seahawk – Exit Whitefox?

That Sweden has had a rough time with their NH 90-fleet is no secret. The HKP 14 as it is known locally was delayed to the extent that a batch of 15 UH-60M Blackhawk had to be acquired as a stop-gap for the MEDEVAC-role in Afghanistan due to the Swedish Super Pumas being retired and the NH90 still being quite some way off from entering service. The UH-60M has been a stunning success for the Swedes, becoming a reliable workhorse for the Swedish Armed Forces in general and the airmobile soldiers of the K 3 Livregementets hussarer (Life Regiment Hussars) in particular.

A US Navy MH-60R Seahawk from HSM-78 “Blue Hawks” releases flares during a training exercise. Note the half-full sonobouy dispenser (and lack of port side door), large radar disk under the front fuselage, and aft landing gear being significantly forward compared to a UH-60. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sean M. Castellano via Wikimedia Commons

Now, unlike the situation in Finland where the NH90 eventually overcame the teething troubles to be widely accepted as a fully functioning and integrated part of the Finnish Defence Forces, the NH90 in Sweden has continued to struggle. To the extent that questions about the future of the platform has continued to be raised at regular intervals. A key part of the question is the role of the maritime mission sets which currently is outside the scope of Blackhawk operations. Instead, the Swedish NH 90-fleet sport two different versions: the transport-roled HKP 14E and the maritime-roled HKP 14F. Crucially, the HKP 14F is not an NH90 FFH, but a uniquely Swedish version based on the NH90 TTH (in addition both versions sport a higher cabin to provide a more ergonomic working environment, but the cost impact of that much-maligned feature at this stage is likely minor). The nine HKP 14F are equipped with a “tactical radar” (i.e. a maritime surveillance radar), dipping sonar, as well as sonobuoy launcher and processing capability. Keen readers will note that there are no weapons or datalinks in the description above, and that omission is not by accident.

Somehow, with Sweden being no stranger to neither airborne ASW-operations nor datalinks, it was originally decided against acquiring weapons or datalinks for the NH90, despite the platform being a key integrated part in both the surface and sub-surface warfare plans of the Swedish Navy. The realisation that this is stupid is nothing new, and has been discussed since before the helicopters were delivered. Eventually, common sense prevailed, and the latest long-term plan dictate that the integration of the new lightweight torpedo (TP 47) and a datalink will begin before 2025.

Back in 2018 it was reported that the Swedish Armed Forces looked into mothballing all of the transport-roled HKP 14E operating in northern Sweden to save money. A year later the issues continued, with lack of spares and too few trained technicians leading to fewer (and more costly) flight hours than planned, meaning that the northern Swedish Army units in Arvidsjaur (the recently reinstituted ranger regiment) and Boden have had a hard time getting the flight hours they need.

A HKP 14F, readily identifiable thanks to the large radar disk under the front fuselage. Source: Henrik Rådman/Försvarsmakten

Shortly before Christmas this year, it was reported that the armed forces again are looking at cutting the NH90-fleet. Following preliminary studies, there are two main options: one is to continue with the NH90 and go through with the planned upgrades for the HKP 14F to get the datalink and torpedo, while also ordering another batch of Blackhawks. The second option is to retire all NH90s, and instead go for a joint UH-60 Blackhawk/MH-60 Seahawk-fleet for all the helicopter needs of the Swedish Armed Forces (there is a third helicopter, the light AW109 which is in service as the HKP 15 and seem set for retirement without direct replacement). It is somewhat unclear what is supposed to happen with the HKP 14E, but considering the wish to buy more Blackhawks in both scenarios and the apparent focus on the maritime HKP 14F it does sound like the days of the HKP 14E in the army cooperation role is numbered.

On paper the joint Blackhawk/Seahawk-fleet sounds all nice and simple, and I will say that I am a big proponent of cutting losses and not succumbing to the sunken cost fallacy. At the same time, it is evident that the truth isn’t quite as straightforward.

Another unit which uses the UH-60M is the Swedish SERE- and Personnel Recovery-training unit FÖS, which sort under K 3. Here a UH-60M is out carrying a number of personnel of FÖS earlier this summer. Source: Bezav Mahmod/Försvarsmakten

A key reason why the UH-60M Blackhawk deal was so successful is that it was a rather straightforward need (move healthy and sick people and equipment quickly from point A to B) and that it was accepted to just grab what was already in US service and paint some Swedish crowns on the side (slight exaggeration, but not by much). It is significantly more doubtful if the same is the case for the highly technical ASW-role, case in point being the Danish order for the MH-60R Seahawk (affectionally known as Romeo thanks to the version-letter). Denmark received approval back in 2010 for nine MH-60R, and they achieved IOC in 2017. However, crucially Denmark opted for a non-ASW fitted MH-60R, and decided to include some unique equipment (including the NATO-standard harpoon-hydraulic deck-locking system instead of the US RAST, as well as specific emergency equipment). As such, they have largely operated in the SAR and fisheries protection role, and only now are they being refitted (“during the coming years”) to be able to operate in the ASW-role. This puts it more or less at the same schedule as the Swedish NH90, depending on when exactly “the coming years” is and how long the Swedish integration starting before 2025 takes.

A Danish MH-60R Seahawk in Greenland. Note the additional rescue kit fitted to one of the pylons, and the radar under the forward belly. Source: Forsvaret

Another major question is how the blue-water Romeo works in the brackish littorals of the Baltic Sea? That’s less of an issue for Denmark, where the majority of the time the helicopters will be working out in the North Sea or around Greenland, but for Sweden the Baltic Sea is the main playing field of the Navy. This is acknowledged by the Swedish Armed Forces, and is one of the key reasons why the NH90 NFH wasn’t bought. The plan now is to be able to get a USN helicopter over some time during next summer, and get to see how that performs in Swedish conditions. Obviously, even if the Romeo is chosen, there is a sliding scale between a HKP 16-style off-the-shelf buy and a stripped Romeo fitted with Swedish ASW-equipment and weapons dedicated to the Baltic Sea-environment. Obviously, the most extreme version would be to grab a UH-60M and start installing the extra equipment in that in the same way as is being done with the HKP 14F, something that certainly would be more costly at the outset but would provide a higher degree of synergies and also be based on a simpler platform compared to the navalised MH-60 (there certainly are synergies between the UH-60M and the MH-60R, but there certainly are differences as well). Because for the time being, and unlike Denmark, no Swedish vessel is able to accept either the Blackhawk or the NH90 (the Visby can take aboard the AW109, which honestly might be the feature most sorely missed if it is retired without replacement), meaning that features such as folding blades and tail are just adding extra weight, meaning that a converted Blackhawk might be attractive. A middle of the road alternative that most likely would only combine the worst of the two alternatives would be to use the MH-60S Knighthawk, the multi-role sister to the Romeo, and fit it with an ASW-suite. The Sierra is in essence a navalised version of the UH-60L fitted with the same cockpit and navalised systems as the Romeo (minus the ASW-stuff), and is used for a number of different missions in the US Navy.

Notable is that production for the US Navy has ended for both versions in 2018 (Romeo) and 2015 (Sierra) respectively, though export orders are keeping the production line of the Romeo warm (latest of which is an Australian order for additional Blackhawks and Seahawks to replace their NH90s a decade early in both the transport- and maritime-roles). The Sierra just might be easier to work with if Sweden would want a Seahawk, but with a fully Swedish mission system and if they then would run into some hardware/space-related issues, but the Romeo is by far the most likely alternative (ironically, one of the few prospective MH-60S export orders was for a Qatari contract where a mixed MH-60R/S-fleet lost to the NH90).

However, if we look at the other extreme, and Sweden would simply order nine MH-60R according to USN specifications, there certainly is some interesting options here. To begin with aligning what will be a very small fleet with the standard of a larger operator does provide significant benefits when it comes to operating and upgrade costs, and both spares and weapons would likely be available at a rather cheap rate. The USN training pipeline could potentially also be used, something that might become more of an issue if the AW109 is withdrawn from service.

(Keen readers might notice that several of these points figured prominently during discussions about the HX-program.)

The Romeo and its sensors almost certainly isn’t as well suited to the Baltic Sea as a fully kitted out HKP 14F would be, but here comes the classic question: is a 75 or 90% solution at half the cost the best bang for the buck (note the numbers are pure examples)? A key detail is that finding submarines is extremely difficult, and despite the technological advances is still highly reliant on skilled personnel with a good understanding of local conditions. If switching to a solution that technically might not be the best fit allow the crews to train more, the end result might still be more scrap metal at the bottom of the sea than would otherwise be the case.

The operator stations of the Swedish HKP 14F. While all Swedish Armed Forces helicopters belong to the Air Force, many of those associated with the maritime helicopters have a background in the Navy (including both crew members aboard the helicopters as well as the current commanding officer of the unit). Source: Henrik Rådmark/Försvarsmakten

However – and this is an aspect that the Swedish evaluation will find hard to overlook – ASW is seen as a significant strategic interest for the Swedish defence industry, and killing the HKP 14F with its Saab-designed and built tactical mission system (including domestic sonar) will prove politically difficult. The orders are already far and few between, and with the Armed Forces in general short on funding a decision to acquire a standard Romeo is bound to raise uncomfortable questions. If the Mark 54 is good enough for the heliborne ASW-component, perhaps it is so for the rest of the force as well? What about sensors and processing units? This obviously also ties in with the same questions asked about the small submarine force, as many of the systems rest on a solid knowledge of similar topics (including e.g. Torped 47 as the obvious common weapon system). Giving up the locally developed sensors and weapons on the helicopter might very well come back to bite the Navy at a later stage when it is time for an upgrade of shipboard sensors and systems. As such, the decision on how to proceed with the helicopter part of things shouldn’t be taken lightly.

In the end, a Swedish Romeo-mod might still turn out to the be the best and cheapest option overall. However, the speedy UH-60M buy might not be the best reference point. Rather a highly complex project that hopefully can salvage the lessons (and potentially some hardware) from the current HKP 14F-fleet is to be expected, and I would not be surprised if the FOC date more or less corresponds to what would be the case for a full datalink and torpedo integration for the NH90.

An MH-60R Seahawk (in this case from HSM-73 “Battlecats”) – soon in a littoral theatre near you? Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Logan C. Kellums via Wikimedia Commons

(And since I know you will ask: I don’t foresee Finland acquiring ex-Swedish NH90s to increase the size of the Finnish fleet, though I certainly could imagine some being acquired for cannibalisation in case the spares situation is as poor as the Australian decision seem to indicate)

Meripuolustuspäivä 2021 – Maritime Defence Day

For the 20th time stakeholders within Finnish maritime defence have gathered to discuss current events and trends in the field, and as usual there was lot to talk about.

The elephant in the room was obviously COVID-19. Not only has it affected the Navy, but it struck at a time when major changes to how voluntary defence exercises are organised was just being rolled out. For the Navy, while the creation of bubbles within the regular conscript training has been the most talked about move, the force has been doing quite a bit more. The key was identifying which are the capabilities that are absolutely crucial to maintain at any given time, and ensuring that these are kept running (lets face it: the FDF could survive a short break in the training of conscripts without any major long-term issues, but the fleet needs to be combat capable and able to sail 24/7 to ensure the integrity of Finnish waters). I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out what this might have entailed in practice.

The headline message was that things have worked out. “The Navy is extremely flexible”, as it was expressed, and everyone from the top down to the individual conscripts have understood the size of the challenge, and embraced it. An interesting detail is that the polling of the conscripts transferring to reserve actually shows higher grades when evaluating their services compared to earlier years, a trend visible both in the Navy as well as in the FDF as a whole.

However, even in the midst of the pandemic the sight is set on the future. The leadership of the Navy has taken a number of steps to ensure that the Navy maintains its combat capability and ability to perform the missions it has received into the coming decades. At the core of everything is the missions – anything that does not advance the missions won’t be accepted under the current leadership. This goes for both training as well as developing doctrines fit for the battlefield of the future as well as for the equipment the Navy will bring to it. As an obvious example, the new Gabriel V (PTO 2020) won’t just be a drop-in replacement to the RBS 15 (MTO 85M), as the capabilities of the new missiles are significantly improved and dictates changes to the tactics and concepts of operations to get the best effect out of it. The goal is that in 2032 the Navy will fight according to four core principles:

  • A good situational picture, with both the tools used to create it and the command structure employing it able to withstand the demands of combat,
  • Decentralised operations, with concentrated effect,
  • Mobile operational forces with great firepower and well-trained local forces, both of which are able to withstand the demands of combat,
  • National and international connectivity allowing for common operations.

None of these ideas are exactly new, but on the other hand there isn’t a need to reinvent the wheel. What is new is the realisation that all services – including the Navy – will need organic capability to take the fight to all domains, including not only the traditional three of air, land, sea, but also the information domain and cyber. Another is connecting the Arctic to the Baltic Sea as one operational theatre, in which anything that happens in one will reflect upon the other.

The aggressive attitude present in the principles above are also expressed in the Navy’s desire to maintain the initiative through an active conduct on the battlefield, ensuring that the Navy stays proactive instead of reactive and gets the most out of its resources. This obviously require a highly trained force, and one of the key questions is how to ensure that the force gets an inflow of competent and motivated personnel and conscripts. The challenge is in part a common issue for the FDF as a whole as the number of suitable conscripts is in decline as part of more general societal trends, but the Navy has a special twist to it as it in large parts of the country the least-known of the services.

Which in turn means you have to make sure that the ones you get become – and stay – top-notch.

As the Finnish Naval Reserve and the Navy co-host the event, much of the focus was obviously on the reserve component. The Navy expects the field of reserve organisations to play a key part in ensuring that the capacity of the individual reservists are upheld, and not only in the physical sense, but as important is maintaining the mental and ethical game. Side-note: while FDF has talked about the importance of the first two a number of times, it is refreshing to see the Navy stating the importance of ethical behaviour by their soldiers and sailors, as recent events have shown that even amongst some of the world’s most elite forces when you promote an aggressive can-do attitude and a willingness to take initiative and judge the situation out in the field – extremely valuable traits in any combat unit – there comes a very real risk of not just pushing up to the line, but actually stepping over it.

The other side of what the Navy expects help with is:

Maintaining a naval espirit the corps and a healthy pride

Which sounds jolly nice.

The plan is also to develop further the local forces and their provincial components, to get these further involved in the everyday action as well as in the strategic signalling (the ability to send messages through a show of force without causing an escalation was by the way also mentioned as a crucial capability, and one that places high demands on the flexibility of the naval capabilities and a political willingness to employ these). To allow for this and ensure a motivated reserve force a number of steps are being taken to create interesting positions for reservists within the naval force structure and creating associated training programs to ensure that the know-how continues to grow within the reserve. This include for example looking into the ability to open up training events scheduled for full-time personnel also to reservists. Much of this, like the mantra of being better at taking into account the “civilian” knowledge of the reserve, are things that have been discussed for years, but I did leave the seminar with a feeling that it might indeed be different this time around and that things are really moving forward.

Sunken Costs and Good Enough – the A26 Blekinge-class

Let me start by being absolutely clear: everything points to that the A26 Blekinge-class submarine will be a stellar piece of engineering, highly adept at its mission, and by quite a margin the submarine class in the world best suited to the narrow waters of the Baltic Sea.

Having said that, the Swedish decision to acquire two vessels of the class unfortunately seem to be a blow to Sweden’s defence capability, threatening to crowd out key capabilities and investments from a naval budget that is already far too small for the country and its 81,435 square kilometres of sea.

The first modern Swedish submarine design, sporting a teardrop hull-shape inspired by the USS Albacore and an X-rudder, was the A-11 class (also known as Sjöormen or Sjöormen II). These entered service in the late 1960’s, and the five boats meant that Sweden had an impressive fleet of 20+ submarines in the first half of the 1970’s. The withdrawal of the modernised WWII-era Kustubåtar/Jaktubåtar left a fleet of 17 submarines going into the next decades. The 1980’s saw the withdrawal of the A-12 (Draken II-class), which despite the number was an older and simpler design compared to the ambitious A-11. At this time, the fleet stabilised at a dozen submarines, with the A-14 (Näcken II) and the A-17 (Västergötland) covering for the six outgoing vessels. However, the five A-11 were sold to Singapore (as the Challenger-class) starting in 1995, and 1998 saw the A-14 being withdrawn. After the turn of the millennium, two of the A-17 were retired and eventually sold to Singapore (the Archer-class), with the other two returning to service highly modified as the Södermanland-class. Here they joined the three submarines of the A19 (Gotland-class), meaning Sweden had five submarines in service. Of these five, HMS Östergötland (the last A-17) has since been retired, leaving Sweden with four submarines in its fleet.

HMS Halland, the youngest submarine in Swedish service, which now seems set to get an MLU. Eventually. Picture from BALTOPS 2016. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Daniel Foose/Wikimedia Commons

Of the four serving submarines, two of the A19 have recently undergone an MLU to extend their lifespan “beyond 2030”, while the third (HMS Halland) originally was set to just receive a general overhaul aimed at “ensuring seaworthiness and handling pressing obsolescence issues in certain systems“. It was decided in last year’s white paper to order an MLU for HMS Halland as well, though as far as I am aware of no such contract has yet been signed.

Those who can read between the lines will quickly realise that means that HMS Södermanland is not expected to serve on “beyond 2030”, meaning that if Sweden isn’t going to become a three-boat service, something else needs to come.

Enter the A26 Blekinge-class.

As I said in the ingress, the A26 is set to become an extremely capable submarine, tailored to meet the demanding requirements of the shallow and narrow waters of the Baltic Sea. This include being able to handle a number of different mission sets, including anti-submarine warfare, attacking surface vessels, intelligence gathering, SOF insertion/extraction, and so forth. And it is more and more looking like a seriously failed investment on the part of the Swedish Armed Forces in general and the Navy in particular.

To begin with, let us take a step back and look at the general situation for the Swedish Armed Forces, now (finally) trying to grow again after decades of decline. This include the decision to go from four to five submarines by retiring HMS Södermanland and ordering two new A26: HMS Blekinge and HMS Skåne. The long-term plan also identifies the possibility of further growth post-2025, when “In conjunction with the planning for the replacement of the [A19] Gotland-class the acquisition of further submarines could be considered, in addition to the three submarines required to replace the Gotland-class” (page 173). The two A26 submarines will in the meantime replace HMS Södermanland and HMS Östergötland, which by 2024-2025 “will have served for approximately 35 years”.

The last sentence contain two issues.

To begin with, HMS Östergötland has already left service, and my calendar says it is only 2021.

And secondly, the A26 sisters are now expected to arrive in the 2027-2028 timespan.

The mess deck of HMS Uppland, showing the cramped conditions inside submarines optimised for the littorals. The vessel is currently the most modern submarine in Swedish service, and following the MLU last year is set to continue in service for at least a decade. Source: Henrik Lundqvist Rådmark/Försvarsmakten

There’s an obvious gap there, and it is increasingly looking like HMS Södermanland will either be run until it is starting to fall apart, or there will be a period with a three-boat fleet. Even in the best of cases, the fleet won’t see much of a increase until 2030. However, the bigger question is about the cost in cold hard cash.

The original price tag was 8.2 Bn SEK in 2014 value (approximately 9.2 Bn SEK in 2021, or 910 MEUR). However – and this one is strikingly stupid as well as a prime example of political obfuscation – the price was based on securing export customers. That a budget is made on the assumption of securing export orders in a highly competitive niche markets within defence can’t be considered planning in good faith.

In this case, it is particularly bad due to two issues:

  • The high complexity of the submarine as a weapon system, meaning that a significant part of the value goes into non-recurring costs such as research and development,
  • The small size of the Swedish order – just two vessels – means that there will be no real series production, but rather two handcrafted vessels.

Combined these will cause the non-recurring part of the price tag per submarine to be particularly high. And as no export order has been signed (though the Netherlands in particular is still looking promising), the chicken eventually came home to roost earlier this fall when Saab and FMV announced that the project was late and above budget. The fact that no new submarine has been built in Sweden between the launching of HMS Halland in 1996 and HMS Bleking being launched perhaps 30 years later also appears to have come into play, as the yard “was in worse shape” than anticipated back in 2014, meaning that the project will have to include further infrastructure costs.

A classic early picture of HMS Gotland, showing the full-colour Swedish insignia. The vessel is still highly capable, especially after the MLU, but it deserves to remember that she is a product of the mid-90’s. Source: Kockums/Wikimedia Commons

Bear with me for a moment.

In 2016, the Swedish public broadcaster SR did an interview with Saab, where the company confirmed that the project would stay within budget, regardless of whether there would be export orders or not.

In 2018, the Minister of Defence got an official request for information regarding the status of the project and the budget from an opposition MP. The somewhat evasive answer was that government would continue to keep the parliament informed.

In 2019, the situation was repeated, and again the answer was that the government would keep the parliament informed.

In 2021, the contract was revised upwards with an additional 5.2 Bn SEK to land at approximately 14 Bn SEK in total (approximately 1.4 Bn EUR). In Saab’s messaging, the focus is on “new capabilities that are to be added to the A26 will give an additional edge within the weapon system and stealth technology among other things”, while FMV is more frank and openly talk about the infrastructure failings and more generally issues including “a delay in the development work“.

Now, if we are to believe the poor shape of the yard in 2014 as being among the main culprits here, the story is that for six-seven years – a time that also saw the MLU of two submarines at the yard in question- neither party realised that the yard wasn’t in fact fit for building new submarines in its current state. The Minister of Defence also hadn’t noticed that the A26 was almost 60% above budget and three years late, or at the very least didn’t feel this detail was among the things the government should inform parliament about.

Concept for A26 version with a VLS-module for cruise missiles. Note the larger tube in the bow which allows for easier extraction of combat swimmers as well as UUVs. Picture courtesy of H.I Sutton/Covert Shores

Exactly which part of the cost increase stems from the “increased capability” and additional spare parts is obviously hard to tell, but the sole example of the added capability given is integration of Saab’s new lightweight torpedo – Torped 47 – which was ordered by the Swedish government in 2016, and the development of which had been decided upon in 2010. Again, I do find it somewhat strange that no one in the A26 project figured out that they needed to include some money in the budget for the integration of the standard Swedish arsenal of submarine-launched weapons onto the new submarine – mind you, the submarine was ordered well after the development of what would become TP 47 was launched. Something that has been speculated about is that the new capability might include the fitting of VLS-cells, an option Saab has offered for export. However, for the time being the complete lack of any official Swedish interest in the niche capability of a dedicated cruise missile module aboard the submarine as well as the complete lack of suitable weapons makes this unlikely. The limited benefit in a Baltic Sea-scenario also stem from the fact that the submarine is not able to manoeuvre into a position from where it can launch an off-axis attack from behind the enemy defences. Besides, the fact that tube-launched cruise missiles are available and the recent decision to equip the Swedish Gripen-fleet with long-range land-attack both also point to the VLS-module being an unlikely candidate for the Swedish submarines.

The Issue at Hand

At the current price tag the A26 still seem to be roughly at the same price level as competing designs (the uncertainties are significant, though, as no two submarine deals are exactly the same when it comes to what’s included in the package). But there are significant questions that seemingly are glossed over, in part because there are sensible answers to all of the questions, but not not necessarily ones making sense when looking at the holistic picture of Swedish defence.

The basic issue is that creating a completely new submarine class from scratch is extremely expensive at the best of times. Doing that and ordering just two is quickly at risk of becoming prohibitively so as the technology and budget risks are more concentrated.

The Italian Todaro-class submarine Scire (S527) during mooring operations. We’ll get back to this one shortly.  Source: U.S. Navy photo by Machinist Mate Casey Kinkade/Wikimedia Commons

However, submarines have long been a staple of Swedish defence industry, and the country has been at the cutting edge of submarine design at least since the A-11 was launched. The political decision to build and design the A26 in Sweden is understandable from that point of view – security of supply is a very real concern – but it harken back to a day of bigger orders. The obvious solution is to buy more submarines.

But this leads us back to the basic issue of there not being enough money to go around for the Swedish Armed Forces. The Navy is cash-strapped, and while it is a real worry that the submarine force despite talk of growing to five vessels in practice is set to remain at four, or even shrink to three in the years leading up 2028, the silent service is in fact one of the better arms of the Navy. The newest of the few surface units are the Visby-class corvettes which have celebrated 20 years, with the remaining four surface combatants being over ten years older still. And the long-term plan foresee the beginning of preliminary design work for two vessels before 2025, meaning that most of the fleet will have to serve on past 2030. At the same time, the Navy is trying to get their new (old) mobile logistics concept up and running, perhaps the single most important change envisioned for the Navy in the latest white paper, and a second marine regiment has been stood up which also will require an increase in funding.

And that is just the Navy, in August the Swedish Riksrevisionen (think GAO) published a report where they noted that the Army was unable to meet their goals, with lack of funding being a key detail. Oh, and in particular they noted that:

In addition the costs for the critical defence interests JAS 39E and the new generation submarine (A26) have been difficult to make cuts to, and these projects have crowded out other acquisition projects.

With the funding for the A26 coming from the regular defence budget and not from any kind of additional funding made available to ensure that this “critical defence interest” is secured and domestic submarine knowledge are retained, the 60% growth in the budget means that something else has to give. And it is currently very difficult to find any kind of slack in the Swedish defence budget.

The solution

What is then the solution? Well, the obvious solution is that the Swedish government quickly need to start funnelling more funds to the defence budget, one possibility being through recognising its unique status and breaking out the A26 and funding it from a combination of defence funding and economic stimulus to secure the continuation of the shipyard.

However, there have been preciously little in the way of political will to pay for the defence ordered, and this solution seems unlikely in the short term.

The other possibility, and this is perhaps even harder, is to ask the question whether Sweden should just accept the fact that at some point the jack plane simply isn’t working, and the low numbers of the submarine force makes it unsustainable – or, rather, that the same defence capabilities can be had cheaper through a combination of other systems. Most of the missions can be solved in other ways. Giving the Swedish maritime NH 90 the long-required upgrades to their ASW-capability would bring a significant benefit, and investing more in the ageing surface vessels could support both the ASW- and the ASuW-mission. The Air Force can also lend a hand in the surveillance role, as well as bringing more RBS 15 as a potent ship-killing capability. Both naval and air assets can also be used to support the SOF. On the horizon, unmanned systems are also set to bring increased capabilities, though they are likely not going to be the end all be all some make them out to be in the near- and mid-term.

Supporting special forces is a key mission of any modern submarine force. Here combat divers of the Swedish 1. Marine regiment (AMF 1) are out on a training mission. Source: Antonia Sehlstedt/Försvarsmakten

Have anyone dared to honestly ask whether submarines are really the best solution under the current budgetary constraints and as a part of the overall Swedish Armed Forces? Let us hope so, and it certainly is true that the uncertainty caused by submarines operating in the dark waters of the Baltic Sea is difficult to match through any other means. And there is few things that are as effective in creating a deterring effect as capabilities that are known unknowns, and which are hard to keep track of and take out in a first strike.

So we will trust the professionals that the submarines are needed and that the decision hasn’t been made on autopilot, and that the A26 is the submarine best suited for the Swedish needs. Still, it is hard not to feel that the opportunity for Sweden somewhat passed with HDW (later part of TKMS) buying Kockums in 1999 and not launching any new subs in the next few decades (the blame obviously largely goes to the Swedish government again, which maintain that the yard is a critical national interest despite first selling it to a foreign owner and then not placing any orders to ensure that the know-how is kept up to date). As noted, the combination of A26 being ordered as just a two-vessel class coupled with the complete inability to get a grip of both the cost and the timeline eleven years after order also sends alarm bells going off, and further bad news feel like a very real possibility.

Which brings us to what in hindsight probably should have been the correct way forward. Foreign turn-key submarines.

The sound you just heard was the choir of Swedish naval geeks singing the praises of 400 mm torpedoes, Stirling-engines, and a number of other unique Swedish features in the confined waters of the Baltic Sea, and how none of these could be had in a foreign design.

Yes, as I’ve said twice already, the A26 is probably the most capable design available when it comes to the Swedish demands. However, it is also late, and the final price tag is a big question mark. Sometimes, getting the second best of any individual capability is worth it to ensure that you get working stuff on schedule, and that no single capability crowd out the other capabilities needed to keep a well-balanced and working defence force. So let us look at the options.

Foreign submarines

The number of available designs isn’t overly large. Spain’s S-80 has had some, eh, interesting teething troubles, but after lengthening it it is now able to float (yes, really). At the same time, it is now an 80 meter / 3,000 ton boat, rather on the large side compared to the 65 meter / 2,000 ton of the A26. Let us quickly move on.

The elephant in the room is that TKMS (ex-HDW) which by a margin is the most important supplier of export submarines in the world is out of the question following the rather spectacular break-up with Kockums (which saw the Swedish Armed Forces, and reportedly also the Swedish Security Service, enter the premises to secure certain equipment, after which the whole yard suddenly was sold to Saab). A derivative of the Type 212 or the related Type 214 would probably be an excellent choice, these being something of a European standard with Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Greece all operating different versions, with Norway also having a number of vessels on order. The Type 212 has sported a number of different versions, with the latest Type 212CD ordered by Norway and Germany being quite a bit larger than the original vessels.

The upcoming Italian NFS will likely be the most advanced submarine in the 1,750 ton class. Picture courtesy of H.I Sutton / Covert Shores

The best fit, and likely the only that even has a theoretical chance (though I like to stress that as well is purely theoretical) is likely the latest Italian design, the Near Future Submarine (NFS), also known as Todaro II. Italy has a long history as a competent designer and builder of post-war subs, and despite the original Type 212A Todaro being largely a HDW-design, the Italian and German boats have diverged as additional batches have been ordered. The NFS will introduce Lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries which will provide a significant boost and a ‘first’ in European waters. Besides the Black Shark Advanced-torpedoes, the boat will also have a number of nifty SOF-features (naval special operations being an Italian speciality) as well as a land-attack capability. Delivery schedule and cost is roughly in line with A26, with the crucial difference that it is based on a tried and tested design, and there already is an Italian order for 2+2 vessels of the NFS-design providing for risk-sharing. The NFS isn’t as well-suited for the Baltic Sea as the A26, but it is a 95 % capability at a significantly reduced risk, and sometimes that is the kind of trade-off one need to make. The high-level of Italian input also means that it perhaps could be sold to the public as a Italian submarine rather than a German one.

The Chilean Scorpène-class submarine General O’Higgins is able to fire both the Black Shark-family of torpedoes as well as the Exocet anti-ship missile. Like the Gotland-class, the boats have been used in ASW-training by the US Navy. Source: SSBN/Wikimedia Commons

A politically even better choice would be the French Scorpène-class, which also has received a number of export orders around the world (though none in Europe). Following AUKUS, this certainly could be a good time to get a really nice deal on French submarines. Depending on the version, the Scorpène is found in versions stretching from 60 to 75 meters, and 1,700 to 2,000 tons. The project was hit by a serious leak when a significant amount of classified documents found their way into cyberspace, though it is doubtful that it has compromised the vessel to an extent that would require buyers to stay away from it. Based on some of the numbers quoted, the boat is on the cheaper side (don’t confuse ‘cheap’ with ‘little money’, though) and available for delivery at a relatively short notice, but again – anyone claiming to know the price with any kind of accuracy of a submarine probably shouldn’t be trusted.

In the end, the reality is that the Swedish Navy will stick with the A26, meaning that the unfortunate crew of HMS Södermanland will have to keep their vessel going for quite a bit longer. It also means that any further budget increases certainly can threaten important projects, such as the Navy’s mobile base concept or those of the other services (the Army’s planned increase in engineering capabilities or the Air Force’s need for mobile logistics for the rotary wing assets come to mind as key capabilities that aren’t media-sexy enough to be able to compete with the A26 for funding).

The A26 is great, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great choice for Sweden.

My Mines and those of My Brother

Naval mines have a tendency to stay largely out of sight, until they suddenly pop up to remind everyone about their existence. This goes both for the weapons themselves, as for their role in the grand scheme of things. The Baltic Sea, always a favourable battlefield for mines, has seen a number of interesting development during the last few weeks.

EML Wambola (A 433) has replaced sister EML Tasuja (A 342) in service as the sole Estonian minelayer. Note open stern door. Source: Estonian Defence Force / n-Ltn. Karl Alfred Baumeister

The most significant is that Estonia announced the procurement of a “significant number” of Finnish naval mines. The version isn’t confirmed, but the main suspect is the Forcit “Blocker“, known in Finnish service under the significantly less awe-inspiring moniker of PM16. The mine in question has a strong claim on the title as the world’s most advanced ground influence mine, and is the result of decades of Finnish (open) research into influence mines. Its characteristics also fit rather well with the description used by the Estonian Defence Forces with regards to how the new mine will change their ways of operating:

We haven’t rehearsed many practical skills with regard to how to submerge them in water lately, I admit, at least not in the way we will be doing it now. And this has changed – there are fewer people, and more computers.

The quote above is made by the Commander of the Estonian Navy, Cdre Jüri Saska, in an interview with the Estonian national broadcaster ERR. In the original TV-interview the footage shown is interestingly of the Finnish naval auxiliary FNS Louhi (999) using a containerised system – presumably the 20-foot Forcit SUMICO able to deploy 12 Blockers – to drop the mines. It is unclear whether this is just B-roll, or whether the deployment shows Estonian tests of the containerised solution. Considering the small number of vessels within the Estonian Navy, the ability to use workboats able to handle 20-foot containers for minelaying would be a significant force multiplier.

Screengrab from Estonian broadcaster ERR showing a PM16/Blocker going over the stern of FNS Louhi. Source: ERR

For the time being, the Navy operate a single ex-Danish Lindormen-class minelayer, the EML Wambola. The sister EML Tasuja was retired in 2016 when EML Wambola was taken into service, but depending on the source it seems she might still be held in reserve. The 577-ton vessel, roughly corresponding in size to the Finnish Pansio-class, can take approximately 50-60 mines but has mainly seen work as squadron leader to the Navy’s three minehunters which together with it make up the main unit of the small Estonian Navy: the Miinilaevade Divisjon. It will be interesting to see whether the role of the EML Wambola will change, or if a new class of vessels will take on the role as minelayers.

However, while the changes to Estonian doctrine and naval order of battle are interesting, this is a deal of strategic significance which will have caught the attention of people both in Norfolk as well as in St Petersburg. Because a revitalised Estonian minewarfare capability, especially when taken together with the announced decision to procure land-based anti-ship missiles, certainly provide the basis for a 21st century re-run of the 20th century favourite of armchair admirals studying maps of the Baltic Sea: Czar Peter the Great’s Naval Fortress.

Source: Dmitrii Fedotoff-White – University of Pennsylvania press

Morskaya krepost imperatora Petra Velikogo was what happens when your Navy decides to sail halfway around the world only to get sunk by an up-and-coming naval power. Shortly before WWI, the Russian state started investing heavily in coastal defences to protect the entrance to St Petersburg. Great idea, at least until Estonia and Finland became independent and ran away with most of the heavy fixed guns installed in the half-finished project. The interwar years then saw Finland and Estonia in turn planning how to use these as the backbone in a plan to seal the Gulf of Finland to Soviet shipping, before Estonia was occupied by the Soviets. With the exception of the brief interlude between 1941 and 1944 when Finland and Germany rather successfully bottled up the Soviet Baltic Fleet through a combination of mines, coastal guns, and smaller naval vessels, the Estonian coast spent the rest of the century firstly occupied, and then rather poorly defended. This is now set to change.

Very much in a similar fashion to the situation around Kaliningrad where the (in)famous Suwałki-gap is both a trap and an opportunity for both sides, the waterways from the Gulf of Finland out to the northern parts of the Baltic Sea proper are of serious importance both to NATO as the logistics route to reinforce Estonia and Latvia (either as the last sea-leg for an overland route through Norway and Sweden or as the ports of disembarkation for ships) as well as to Russian planners in a number of different ways. Key among these are not only the military ones, but the route is of great importance to Russian hydrocarbon exports (Ust Luga and Primorsk combined outranking the largest single port for exports, Novorossiysk, which handles basically all of Russia’s Black Sea exports), and the importance of the Gulf of Finland as the route for exports westwards is only set to keep growing. However, by the time one start talking about sea mines, the military considerations will in all likelihood be of greater importance, and here the Gulf of Finland is of both offensive and defensive importance.

Kronstadt in the summer of 2018. In the centre of the picture is decommissioned Project 956-class destroyer Bespokoynyy which is now a museum ship. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

Defensively, while Baltiysk is the main base of the Russian Baltic Fleet, it is also isolated from the Russian mainland. As such, keeping a supply line open not only for the Baltic Fleet to be able to shift units between Kronstadt and Baltiysk according to need, but also to be able to supply the rest of Kaliningrad’s military and civilian needs, is of great importance. Offensively, the ability to operate freely in the northern parts of the Baltic Sea proper would allow for cutting off vital supply lines to both Finland and Estonia, as well as seriously threatening key Swedish interests such as the capital Stockholm and surrounding regions.

As opposed to with its Nordic neighbours, Finland hasn’t been as active in advertising increased defence cooperation with Estonia in recent years. Rather, the headlines have been dominated by a number of if not exactly crises, then at least diplomatic grumblings. Part of this is a natural outcome of the rather different lessons drawn by the very different historical outcomes (read: occupation versus Finlandization) the countries experienced following WWII, but it has nonetheless caused friction. Still, once one start digging below the surface, Finnish soldiers have been actively taking part in key Estonian exercises, and the deepened cooperation between democratic countries in Northern Europe has certainly had a positive effect on Finnish-Estonian military cooperation as well.

In any case, with Finland largely being seen as a part of “The West” in Moscow, any Russian aggression would most likely affect Finnish supply lines and cause a quick alignment of Finnish and Estonian interests (read: keeping the northern Baltic Sea free of Russian vessels and aircraft). As such, the prospect of not one but two countries with modern mining capabilities as well as the ability to protect the minefields with long-range anti-ship weaponry will have an effect on the strategic calculations made by the Kremlin. Further to this, while the Gulf of Finland is narrow enough that even modern long-range artillery can cover it from one shore to the other at the narrowest location, but getting an accurate picture of what happens on the other shore might still prove more of a challenge, the prospect of these countries sharing a maritime situational picture and possibly even cooperating on the operational use of the aforementioned systems further tilt the balance. Notable is also that the ability to use ‘smart’ mines means that the risk to civilian shipping is lower, a not insignificant aspect when it comes to the use of naval mines in waters as heavily trafficked as those of the Baltic Sea.

For the Finnish Navy, mines have always featured heavily in their communication, a method of latent suasion for which mines are well suited (and something that will happen to some extent almost by default the minute one start stockpiling them). However, as usual there are significant ambiguity when it comes to the stockpiles, including not only numbers but also exact models in use. Interestingly, the Finnish Navy has during the last year showed a number of the oldest influence mines acquired by the Finnish Navy back in the 80’s being used in exercises, including both practicing their employment as well their search and recovery. Whether this is just by chance or a conscious decision to raise the awareness that there are many arrows in the quiver is an interesting question, but it certainly shows that Finnish minewarfare consists of more than the Hot Dog-dance.

…and in my own Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam-moment, I will note that there’s further US investment in the Quickstrike-ER. The US Navy has recently placed a 58.3 million USD contract with Boeing for the manufacturing of prototype glide-kits and associated equipment. In essence, the Quickstrike-ER is a JDAM-ER with a dedicated fuse which makes it a sea mine able to deploy at depths of up to 60+ meters (which also happens to match nicely with the depths of the Gulf of Finland). It remains my opinion that the Quickstrike-ER represents the most versatile, effective, and cheapest way of introducing air-launched kinetic effect into the maritime domain for the Finnish Air Force, and that the ability to use a handful of JDAM-ER kitted ‘dumb’ bombs to either resow cleared minefields or to cut strategic narrow waterways in what is a relatively low-risk mission compared to the use of JDAM-ERs in a more traditional ground-combat setting would represent a significant capability addition to Finnish minewarfare.

Swedish readiness operation

The Swedish Armed Forces has started an operation to raise their readiness in the South-east and central Baltic Sea. The behind this being the “extensive military activities” being conducted in the region, which include both Russian and Western activities. According to the Swedish Armed Forces, the exercises being conducted in the region are larger and more complex, and takes place at a swifter pace compared to earlier ones. Coupled with COVID-19 the situation is significantly more volatile and unpredictable. The key focus for the Swedish operation is increased maritime surveillance (including from the air), but Gotland is also being reinforced. Readers will remember that the Battlegroup Gotland is still in the process of being stood up (eventually it will become a battalion-sized battlegroup), but what the reinforcements now consisted of are unconfirmed.

Notable is that two days ago a USAF MC-130J Commando II special forces aircraft landed on a short stop in Visby. The aircraft did not take part in any Swedish exercise, though it was reportedly taking part in an unspecified US one that included the visit to Gotland. This was followed by a three-flight of MC-130Js skirting the Swedish border during a flight from Norway today. As far as I am aware, no details have been released about the flights.

The Russian and Belarusian activities are all significant, with Belarus having initiated a readiness check that aims at raising the armed forces to their highest level of readiness, something that includes calling up the reserve. At the same time, the Russian Western Military District is reportedly home to a major exercise, including the Baltic Fleet and the Baltic Fleet’s Army Corps in Kaliningrad, as well as unspecified units in the St Petersburg area. This in turn is naturally of significant interest to the West, and among the visitors in the area is one of two RC-135U Combat Sent strategic electronic reconnaissance aircraft.

It is important to note here that Swedish Armed Forces are clear that the readiness operation is indeed an operation and not an exercise. However, there are some interesting overlaps in that the main surface striking force of the Swedish Navy, four of their five Visby-class stealth corvettes, earlier today started an air defence exercise in the waters south of Stockholm (Västervik-Nynäshamn). Crucially, the Finnish Navy is also taking part in the exercise with an unidentified mineship. So far no information has been released about what not happens with the exercise, or with the Finnish contribution.

Edit 25/08/20 11:15 GMT+2

While the exact scope of the Swedish operation remain uncertain the morning after the announcement, the fact that it is unprecedented in near-term Swedish history is starting to become clear. Johan Wiktorin, long-term Swedish defence analyst and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences, notes that he hasn’t seen anything similar since the 1991 Soviet coup attempt. At the same time, his colleague in the Academy, Annika Nordgren Christensen points out that the terminology used is new to the Swedish Armed Forces, and has not been used earlier.

The decision not to go with the traditional “readiness check” (Swe. beredskapskontroll) shows that the message the Swedish Armed Forces wishes to communicate isn’t so much that they practice being able to swiftly respond to a sudden crisis, but that they as of today are at a level where they keep an eye on any potentially hostile movements and stand ready to counter these should the need arise. As is usual with these cases, and as is clearly stated in the Swedish press release, the risk for open war remains low, since none of the countries involved are interested in an all-out conflict. However, with the large number of moving parts currently involved, the risk of miscalculations leading to someone getting caught in the machinery is higher than normal. 

Vessel from the Finnish Coastal Fleet conducted artillery firings earlier this month. Farthest away from the camera is FNS Hämeenmaa (’02’), which possibly is the ship currently exercising with the Swedish Navy in the central Baltic Sea. Source: RLAIV Twitter

With the FDF and Finnish government having had some time to react, it does seem clear that we won’t see any Finnish participation in the Swedish operation. This would require a political decision, and as such would most probably be communicated through the appropriate channels. However, as is well known, bilateral exercises and information sharing takes place on a regular basis, and as one of the main themes of the Swedish operation is enhanced information gathering to ensure a correct situational picture over the central and southeastern Baltic Sea, there exist a significant grey zone for what is an exercise, what is an operation, and what is a unilateral Finnish operation that just happens to create information that can be shared with Sweden. As opposed to the Swedish Armed Forces culture of sharing openly and directly what is going on, the Finnish Defence Forces is known to rarely discuss anything directly related to operational activities. As such, unless the air traffic monitorers suddenly catches a Finnish bird outside of Kaliningrad, it is very difficult to tell if Finland has raised the readiness levels in a parallel operation to the Swedish one.

While the Finnish silent culture can be supported from an operational security point of view, and a good argument can be made that the message can be sent to potential adversaries as effectively through actions rather than words, it has also come under increased scrutiny and faces criticism. In particular the question has been raised how to handle this discrepancy between Finnish and Swedish ways of handling strategic communications in the event of a joint response to a serious crisis?

Edit 25/08/20 15:15 GMT+2

The Finnish Navy has now confirmed that it is FNS Uusimaa (’05’) that is taking part in the exercise. 

The exercise develops the vessels’ national capabilities and the interoperability between the Finnish and the Swedish vessels in anti-aircraft warfare at sea.

The exercise is part of the larger cooperation frame between Finnish and Swedish Navies with the aim to maintain the vessels’ interoperability and the capability of the vessels to serve as part of the Finnish-Swedish fleet troops. In the exercise formation the Finnish minelayer will technically operate as part of the Swedish troops but stays under the national lead of the Coastal Fleet. In this exercise there will be no participants from other countries.

The exercise will take place at sea, and minelayer Uusimaa will not moor in Sweden. There will not be any exchange of crew between vessels during the exercise.

This exercise is preplanned among the other exercises between the two countries and it was accepted as an international exercise included in the 2020 programme by the Ministry of Defence.

Uncertain Future for Swedish Silent Service

Operating submarines is expensive business. However, they do offer significant benefits, ensuring that many countries are willing to pay the cost. But one thing even more expensive than operating submarines is building up your submarine service from scratch because you had to spend a decade or so without suitable boats. That is what the Polish Navy is desperate to avoid.

The Baltic Sea proper offer an excellent stomping ground for littoral submarines (as opposed to the gulfs and straits in the Baltic that are quite narrow and shallow), and as such it comes as no surprise that several of the coastal states have submarine fleets. Sweden and Germany are the two leading submarine operators in the sea, with Russia and Poland playing second fiddle. The Polish Navy has had a few though decades recently, and the submarine fleet is no exception. The ORP Orzeł is a Project 877 ‘Kilo’-class submarine and has been in Polish service since 1986, sporting the distinction of being the first exported Kilo. The plan was for her to be joined by more sisters, but budgetary constraints led to two Project 641 ‘Foxtrot’-class submarines being leased from Soviet surplus stocks instead. These were retired in the early 00’s, while the Orzeł seem destined to serve another decade according to information that surfaced earlier this year. To keep the Orzeł company following the retirement of the Project 641’s, the Polish Navy acquired ex-Norwegian Type 207 ‘Kobben’-class. The vessels were originally built to replace a varied fleet of ex-Royal Navy and Kriegsmarine boats, and are in fact of the same generation as the Project 641’s. However, the West German submarine class is a better submarine in more or less all possible ways, and the class has undergone significant upgrades. Still, there’s no denying that their age is starting to show, and the Polish Navy already retired the first vessel of the class back in 2017.

gdynia_z_lotu_ptaka_-_050
A significant part of the Polish surface and subsurface fleet in port in Gdynia. Note the size difference between the four Kobben-class and the ORP Orzeł. Source: Joymaster via Wikimedia Commons

The solution was to have been the Orka-program, which has included all the twists and turns that have come to be expected from large Polish defence procurements. The original timeline was to have included deliveries taking place this year, but already in 2014 it was reported that the program had ran into delays. Currently, there is a large amount of uncertainty surrounding the program, with the timeline last year being said to include deliveries between 2024 and 2026 while at the same time TKMS gave the first delivery of their Type 212CD offer as taking place in 2027.

In any case, it is starting to become clear that a stop-gap solution is needed if the Polish submarine fleet isn’t to shrink to a single thirty-five year old hull. However, used submarines aren’t exactly floating around on the market in significant numbers, making the task of finding a few vessels to bridge the gap between the Kobben and Orka difficult.

On the other side of the Baltic Sea, former submarine powerhouse Sweden is down to five operational vessels in the form of the two Södermanland- and three Gotland-class submarines (this can be compared to the twelve submarines that were on strength as late as 1995). The Södermanlands are the two remaining of the originally four-strong A-17 Västergötland-class built in the late 1980’s, and underwent a serious MLU that included conversion from diesel-electric to AIP (Stirling) propulsion in the early 00’s. These are still competent boats, and as a side-note the vessels still likely hold the world-record in wire-guided torpedo salvo firing, being able to fire and simultaneously guide up to twelve 400 and 530 mm torpedoes at different targets (a nice party-trick, but likely of limited operational use to be honest). The Stirling-powered A19 Gotland-class was launched in the mid-90’s, and made headlines when the leadship was leased with crew to the US Navy for OPFOR duty, with quite some success.

883f2421cfb18087_org
Second A19 Gotland-class boat HMS Uppland being prepared for the relaunch following her MLU, that included a lengthening of the hull. Picture courtesy of Saab

The Gotland-class was quite possibly the best littoral submarine worldwide when it entered service, but things have moved on. As such, the new A26 Blekinge-class is currently being built for the Swedish Navy, and as part of the phased renewal of the Swedish submarine force the Gotland-class receives a serious MLU that include several features and subsystems of the upcoming A26 to lessen the technological risk of the newbuilds, increase synergies when operating A19 alongside A26, and to increase the lifespan of the A19.

The problem is money.

Only two MLUs have been ordered by the Swedish Navy, with HMS Gotland and HMS Uppland having been modified. So far no order has been secured to upgrade the third sister, HMS Halland, despite this being a stated priority of the outgoing Swedish CinC of the Navy. Cutting another hull from the force would likely leave the Navy unable to hold two submarines out on patrol simultaneously over prolonged times, and for a potential adversary there is a serious difference in having to worry about two submarines in the Baltic compared to one (think of it as squaring the size of the issue). But in a situation were all three services are struggling to get the funds to cover the capabilities ordered by the government, and with the surface fleet being in even worse shape, who would pay for the upgrade?

The Poles, perhaps?

According to the Polish MoD, they are currently in negotiations with the Swedish government (Saab has confirmed they aren’t involved in the negotiations at this stage) to acquire the two Södermanland-class boats as a stop-gap to replace the Type 207 Kobben-class while waiting for the Orka-class. The vessels would be updated by Saab Kockums before delivery, which potentially could fit in nicely with the fact that there are currently no submarine MLUs ongoing and the two Gävle-class corvettes should be out of MLU sometime during next year. As such there should be free docks and slipways available and engineering resources available. To cover the shortfall in Swedish submarine capability the Swedes would buy back the other two A17 vessels, that are currently in service in Singapore as the Archer-class, having undergone an MLU in the early 2010’s and another round of upgrades in recent years. This castling move would ensure that Sweden has a five-strong fleet of submarines, give Poland two relatively modern boats to replace the Kobben, and potentially bring in some much-needed cash that could be diverted (if the government is so inclined) to the upgrade of the HMS Halland.

The only problem is that there is no indication that Singapore is interested in playing along.

Befattningar Vapenteknisk officer ubåt
A crew-member inspects the no. 2 torpedo tube aboard HMS Södermanland. Note the smaller 400 mm torpedo tube below the 530 mm ones, a Swedish specialty to allow for lighter weapons being used against other submarines and lighter surface vessels which are prominent in the littorals. Source: Mattias Nurmela/Försvarsmakten

The Singaporean submarine fleet consists of the two Archer-class vessels as well as two older ex-Swedish submarines, these Challenger-class being upgraded A-11 Sjöormen-class boats. In addition, the German-built Type 218SG Invincible-class is currently being built, but none have so far entered service. Those familiar with the RSN seriously question that it would be prepared to part with the Archer-class before at least the first two, or perhaps more likely all four, of the Type 218SG are in service. If the RSN would be ready to part with something, it would likely be the Challengers, and it’s highly doubtful if Sweden would be interested in such a downgrade in capability.

Is the Polish A17 deal then dead? Quite possibly not.

The deal makes a lot of sense from a Swedish point of view. Kockums’ submarine know-how is seen as a vital strategic asset, and readers might remember the dramatic headlines when Swedish authorities assisted by soldiers from the P 7 Södra Skånska regiment in 2014 entered the facilities and left with a cargo of ‘sensitive equipment’ as part of an ongoing dispute with then-owner TKMS. The yard was sold to Saab in 2015 to ensure Swedish ownership and that they could be tasked with building the new A26-class. However, the low number of Swedish operated submarines means that keeping the know-how alive purely based on domestic orders is ever more challenging, and the export market hasn’t been kind to Swedish submarines since the controversies surrounding the Australian Collins-class. Selling the Södermanland-class to Poland would not only mean Saab getting to upgrade the two boats, but also ensuring that Saab would be well-positioned in the eventual Orka-project. If the Navy would play its cards well, it could also make the argument that the funds from the sale should be funneled to the upgrade of the last Gotland-class, ensuring all three staying in service alongside the upcoming A26-class.

And before the delivery of the A26, the Swedish submarine force would be down to three boats.

This would be a serious blow to Swedish naval capabilities, especially when it comes to intelligence gathering and more intangible effects such as threshold effects and the creation of uncertainty regarding the kinetic capabilities the Swedish Navy possess at any given time in specific parts of the Baltic Sea. This would also directly affect the Finnish intelligence picture, as Finland and Sweden cooperate closely on the establishment of the maritime situational picture in the Baltic Sea. The submarines can be assumed to be amongst the single most important assets in either the Swedish or Finnish arsenal when it comes to keeping an eye Baltiysk, the main base of the Russian Baltic Fleet, thanks to their range, endurance, sensors, and ability to remain hidden. If Sweden would go down to three submarines for a period spanning years, both Finland and Sweden would be left with a poorer picture of the whereabouts and capabilities of the Baltic Fleet.

Naval News interview with Saab from this summer about the latest status of the A26 Blekinge class

But is it a gamble worth taking?

The situation for the Swedish Navy is already dire. In effect, if HMS Halland isn’t upgraded and no more A26 are ordered, the future Swedish fleet will be down to four boats. If letting go of the Södermanlands prematurely would allow for an upgrade of all A19, and possibly the ordering of a third A26 following economics of scale thanks to A26 securing the Orka-order, gambling on a serious crisis not taking place before the delivery of the Blekinge-class again has brought the submarine force back to strength in 2026 might start to feel tempting. An important detail is also that an Orka-order would mean that the A26 would get cruise missiles, an interesting option for later integration into the Swedish submarine force as well.

After all, temporarily scrapping all artillery pieces worked out nicely. Right?

What about us innocents? – Maritime Defence Day 2019

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?

Sveaborg
The 18th century fortress of Suomenlinna outside of Helsinki is home to the Finnish Naval Academy. Source: Own picture

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.

Snellman
“The nation should trust only in itself” – illustrative of the Finnish policy of trying to secure allies but always planning for being able to go alone, this decidedly realist slogan decorate the walls of a fortress made possible by foreign subsidies. Source: Own picture

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)…

Rysky
Janne “Rysky” Riiheläinen, recognised national security authority and communications professional, was back after a few years away from the Maritime Defence Day to discuss security threats in the Baltic Sea region. Source: Own Picture

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.

Medaljer
The Maritime Defence Day is also a day for recognising individuals who have worked for the benefit of maritime defence in different ways, and this year I found myself among those who received the Naval Reserve Medal of Merit. The medal was also awarded to Ari Caselius of Traficom and Visa Jokelainen of Pelikaanikilta ry. The Naval Reserve Cross of Merit was awarded to Kare Vartiainen of Rannikkotykistökerho Johtorengas ry and Antti Jäntti of Helsingin Reservimeriupseerit ry. Source: Robin Elfving

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.

Disinformation!

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.

ska25cc2588rmavbild2b2019-10-162bkl.2b08.52.56
Original SvD headline

omni
Pure disinformation spread by Omni based on the SvD piece

exp
Expressen takes it one step further with the seriously wrongful statement that the ASW-budget would have been increased by 10 billion SEK (920 MEUR at today’s rate) following the incident 

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.

ska25cc2588rmavbild2b2019-10-162bkl.2b09.26.25
The Swedish Agency for Public Management (Statskontoret) 2017:5 “The agency’s work related to disinformation”

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).

ska25cc2588rmavbild2b2019-10-162bkl.2b08.53.16
SvD with their updated headline (corrected the day after publication)

ska25cc2588rmavbild2b2019-10-162bkl.2b10.48.16
Original headline (misleading given the facts)

ska25cc2588rmavbild2b2019-10-162bkl.2b10.48.28
Corrected headline

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”

Yet another meltdown in the reporting is made by Jonna Andersson (mitti.se), se below.

ska25cc2588rmavbild2b2019-10-162bkl.2b15.09.05

The True Face of the Baltic Fleet

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.

navy_day_in_baltiysk2c_282015-07-2629_03

Vladimir Putin inspecting the Baltic Fleet during Navy Day in Baltiysk last year. In the immediate background the flagship of the fleet, the destroyer Nastoychivyy. Source: Kremlin.ru via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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.

DN-ST-88-01405
Escorted tankers following attacks on merchant shipping during the so called tanker war in the late 1980’s. Mines and other measures can be difficult to attribute with certainty to individual states, and may cause serious crises below the treshold of war. Shipping in the Baltic Sea region is also vulnerable to such a scenario. Source: US Navy photo by PH2 Elliott

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.

d0a0-11
Two Project 12411T, representative of the oldest surface warfare vessels of the Baltic Fleet. Source: Alex omen via Wikimedia Commons

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.

hydrocosmosera2019-01
The sister Bespokoynyy showing the classic Cold War-look of the Project 965A destroyer. She was long the second destroyer of the Baltic Fleet, but is apparently no longer active. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Baltic Operations 2004 (BALTOPS04)
Frigate Neustrashimyy during BALTOPS 2004. Things have changed in fifteen years. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class George Sisting

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.

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.

10-yearanniversary2018-03
Steregushchiy, leadship of its class, is shown celebrating ten years in service in 2018. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

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.

palace_bridge_spb_28img329
Serpukhov passing through the palace bridge in St Petersburg. Source: Alex ‘Florstein’ Fedorov via Wikimedia Commons

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.

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0638.JPG
Second vessel of the Karakurt-class, Sovetsk is expected to join the leadship in the Baltic Fleet within a year. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

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.

vladimir_putin_naval_parade_in_st._petersburg_282019-07-2829_29
Passat of Project 12341 during Navy Day celebrations. Note the large tripple launchers for the P-120 Malakhit on the side of the superstructure. Source: Kremlin.ru via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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(!).

d09ed181d182d180d0bed0b25
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.