Saab to supply 9LV for Pohjanmaa-class

The Finnish MoD today announced that they have shortlisted Saab as the preferred supplier for the combat management system, CMS, for the upcoming Pohjanmaa-class of corvettes. This does not only mean that Saab’s 9LV CMS will be at the heart of the vessel class, but also that Saab will be the main supplier and integrator of the naval systems of the vessels.

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The operator room aboard the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Perth ANZAC-class frigate, the brains of which is Saab’s 9LV. While the vessel is larger than the Pohjanmaa-class will be and individual systems differ, the picture gives an idea about how the operator room of Pohjanmaa likely will look. Picture courtesy of Saab

Due to Finnish internal politics the contract for the system won’t be signed just yet. As a political stunt, the outgoing prime minister Juha Sipilä dissolved the government shortly before the Finnish parliamentary elections. While the ministers stayed on as caretakers up until the elections held later this week, the main shipbuilding contract as well as the CMS contract were deemed too important to be handled by an acting minister of defence. As such, the formal contract will be signed only once Finland have a new government in place, which likely will take another month or two. However, the decision to name Saab as the preferred bidder after all three shortlisted candidates have made their best and final offers makes it highly unlikely that the decision to hand it to Saab would be overturned at the last moment.

The contract is a significant one from a Finnish point of view, with the total value likely to be in the range of hundreds of millions of Euros. Despite missing out on replacing the outgoing RBS 15SF (MTO 85M) anti-ship missiles, this further cements the position of Saab as the key systems supplier of the Finnish Navy. Not only will Pohjanmaa- and both FAC-classes have the 9LV once the Hamina-class have undergone their MLU, a number of sensors and other weapons have also been acquired from Saab. These include CEROS fire-control sensors, TP 47 light-weight torpedoes, and the Trackfire RWS which will be found on most Finnish surface combatants as well as auxiliaries.

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Jonas Widerström, Saab’s Naval Sales Director Finland, with one of the Multi-Function Consoles which form a key part of the user interface of the 9LV. Source: Own picture

Today’s press release doesn’t further elaborate on why Saab was chosen, but it is highly likely that the reasons mentioned by Saab when they discussed the offer last year eventually where the ones to seal the deal: Price, robustness, a “comprehensive industrial participation package”, “pretty advanced” capabilities when it comes to converting between national and international data links, and having a harmonised C3I system with both the Hamina-class as well as with the Swedish ships of the Swedish-Finnish Naval Task Group (SFNTG).

Saab will now get to integrate the main weapons systems, the Gabriel SSM, ESSM SAM, Bofors 57 mm guns, and the TP 47, as well as all the sensors and data links into a single working platform. Several of the sensors are still unconfirmed, but in accordance with earlier information it seems highly likely that the key sensor will be Saab’s Sea Giraffe 4A FF. This will be part of the SLIM (Saab Integrated Lightweight Mast), which will also feature ESSM equipment and a single rotating Sea Giraffe 1X. Operating on the X-band, the 1X has shorter range but better resolution compared to the S-band of the 4A. The SLIM will be delivered as a complete subassembly to the yard, which can then install it as a module. It is also likely that the vessels will be fitted with the Kongsberg ST2400 towed array for operations in the ASW-role*, as well as the Saab TactiCall integrated communications system.

The final look of the vessels is slowly taking shape, with only a few key pieces still unconfirmed. These include the length of the Mk 41 VLS tubes, though it seems likely they will be of the full ‘Strike Length’-versions, as well as the secondary gun system responsible for close defence against airborne threats and munitions as well as against smaller surface targets. It is probable that by the time we celebrate Navy Day in early July these last pieces of the puzzle will have been confirmed, and the building of the vessels can finally begin in earnest.

*I am working in another, unrelated, division at Kongsberg Maritime. However, all information regarding the ST2400 I have is from open sources. The guess is purely based on the fact that the ST2400 has been ordered for the Hamina MLU, and so far most new systems acquired for the Hamina MLU has also found their way to the Pohjanmaa-class.

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Weapons & Ammunition

The Swedish Defence Materiel Administration, FMV, has issued a briefing on the ground forces’ part of their Materiel Plan 20 (hat-tip to HenrikJ on Twitter, FF as we say over there). In short, this is a look at a number of weapons and systems the Army will need in the next few year. Notable is that they are funded inside the current budget and quantities correspond to the current size of the Swedish Defence Forces. And because everyone loves a spirited calibre war, the thing that caught my eye was the plan to swap out all firearms at the squad level.

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A half-squad from the 422. Company at the MOUT training facility in Kvarn showing the current weapons of Swedish regular units. Left to right: Ksp 90, Psg 90 (on back), and Ak 5C with and without grenade launcher. Source: Nicklas Gustafsson/Swedish Defence Forces

The weapons includes Ak 4 (H&K G3), Ak 5 (FN FNC), Psg 90 (AI Arctic Warfare/L96A1), and the Ksp 90 (FN Minimi). In addition, a designated marksman rifle is to be acquired. Of these, the Ak 4 is the old main service rifle, currently it is mainly used by the Home Guard. The other four weapons are the main squad level weapons of the regular force.

The most prolific weapon of the Swedish forces is without doubt the Ak 5. Contrary to the earlier FN FAL, the 5.56 NATO chambered FNC was a limited success, with Sweden being the only western country to acquire it outside of its native Belgium. In Swedish trials the FNC beat a modified Galil SAR and was adopted in the winter of 1986/1987, making Sweden a pioneer when it came to switching from 7.62 mm to 5.56 mm. The Ak 5 was license-produced in Eskilstuna, and from the get go it has been featuring unique Swedish modifications, spawning a family of it’s own compared to the baseline FNC. In total, approximately 27,500 of the latest version Ak 5C/D were ordered. 

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Swedish sailor standing guard with his short-barreled Ak 5D aboard a Swedish corvette during a port call in Finland in 2010. Source: Own picture

The other weapons have scored more notable export successes. The Minimi, or M249 SAW which it is still best known as (although the ‘SAW’ has officially been changed), was the outcome of the decision to create a light machine gun able to use the same ammunition as the rest of the squad, i.e. the 5.56 NATO round. It is not a bad weapon per se, but it certainly lack the firepower of light machine guns chambered in 7.62 NATO. The Arctic Warfare is your basic sniper rifle in 7.62 NATO. Accurate, big power optics, costs an arm and a leg, but crucially makes it possible for a trained sniper to hit individual targets out to 1,000 meters.

The interesting part is that the briefing emphasised that the requirements are to be focused on the “system”. While this shouldn’t be read as a single weapon doing everything, it does offer an edge to any supplier able to cater to all or several of the four weapons needed (assault rifle, designated marksman rifle, light machine gun, and sniper rifle). However, a split buy likely isn’t ruled out (especially when it comes to the sniper rifle). The programme, including trials, will take place during 2019 to 2024 with the main deliveries starting in 2025. A total of 2.2 billion SEK (210 million Euro) is allocated for the 2021 to 2030 period.

If we start from the most basic weapon, the assault rifle (likely in full-length and carbine length versions) will likely be a new 5.56 NATO weapon. For quite some time there has been new wonder-rounds appearing with tiresome regularity, but despite the praise calibres such as .300 BLK or 6.8 SPC has garnered from firearms aficionados, love is waiting to blossom out when it comes to these wildcat(ish) rounds and the greater defence community. The reason is not that they would be bad, but rather that the task of switching away from 5.56 NATO which has become the de facto western standard to something else causes major disruptions when it comes to logistics and interoperability. As such, I don’t foresee a shift away from the 5.56 NATO for most Swedish soldiers.

In the same way it would be very surprising if the designated marksman rifle is anything else than a 7.62 NATO weapon. The round excels in combining a relatively manageable recoil and a reach out beyond that of the 5.56 NATO, while at the same time being in widespread use both amongst military, law enforcement, and civilian users.

The light machine gun is a more interesting one. The FN MAG is in Swedish use as the Ksp 58, though the versions available are quite old (read: heavy), and in its current guise likely won’t migrate down to fill the squad level-role. However, stepping up from 5.56 NATO to 7.62 NATO is entirely possible, especially as the designated marksman weapon likely will bring the calibre into widespread use anyhow (though sharing ammunition between the DM and the machine gunner will likely stay an emergency measure only).

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Finnish military police sniper covering a helicopter landing zone. The weapon is the Sako TRG-42 chambered in .338 LM, or 8.6 TKIV 2000 as it is locally known. Source: Maavoimat FB

For the sniper rifle, while 7.62 NATO has long been the standard round, I find it highly likely that the new weapon will follow international trends a go up a notch to .338 LM. It does allow for longer shots compared to the 7.62 NATO, but the big benefit is that it is more forgiving at the ranges beyond a few hundred meters, thanks to the better ballistics and higher hitting power. On the downside both weapons and rounds are significantly more expensive, and it would mean adopting a completely new round into Swedish service.

The Contenders

To begin with, let’s not pretend that there is any single obvious choice for any single one of the weapons. With that said, some weapons certainly would be less surprising than others. Notable is the fact that there are no Swedish gunmaker able of handling even license production of the order following the closure of the Eskilstuna rifleworks in 2012.

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Belgian special forces operator with a SCAR-L. Source: Lithiummm01 via Wikimedia Commons

FN Herstal has an interesting arsenal to offer. The FN-SCAR is widely seen as one of the best assault rifles currently in use. It is offered in numerous configurations, including the basic SCAR-L (available with both 14.5” and 10” barrels) and the sub-compact SCAR SC (7.5” barrel), as well as the SCAR-H in 7.62 NATO (available in the PR designated marksman/semi-auto sniper version). FN Herstal also has a number of options for the machine gun, offering the modernised MINIMI Mk3 in both 5.56 NATO and 7.62 NATO as well as numerous versions of the earlier mentioned FN MAG in 7.62 NATO. The SCAR has received several orders, but mostly from elite units (including the Finnish Special Jaegers) and scoring noticeably worse when it comes to larger orders for general service rifles.

In the same way, Heckler & Koch has an impressive array. The HK416 (5.56 NATO) and HK417 (7.62 NATO) is a duet that has secured an impressive string of orders. The biggest gem in this string of pearls is without doubt the decision by France to replace their homemade FAMAS with the German design. Closer to home, Norway has adopted them as well. The weapons are based on the classic AR-design, but feature a short-stroke piston. For the German G36C replacement, H&K has offered the newer HK433 instead, which is available in numerous configurations. So far it has failed to receive any orders, but in case it does become the main German assault rifle the outlook for the rifle could change overnight. HK also have the MG4 in 5.56 NATO and MG5 in 7.62 NATO when it comes to machine guns, and the G28 designated marksman rifle version of the HK417.

Haenel MK 556 is the other contender for the German contract. The company has a more civilian portfolio, with machine guns being absent. They do however, offer a number of 7.62 NATO chambered rifles which are suitable for marksman duty.

Other obvious contenders are more traditional versions of the AR-family which are available from numerous manufacturers, including the Lewis Machine & Tool Company which recently secured the contract to replace Estonia’s Ak 4s (though the order has been challenged in court).

As is evident from the rundown above, the one weapon missing is a bolt-action sniper rifle, with the others usually having the option of being found from a single manufacturer. Quite a number of .338 LM sniper rifles are found on the market, with the Sako TRG-42 likely being the market leader, but there are several others in use such as the AWM in British service as the L115A3 (the AWM is now replaced by the AXMC, which likely will be the contender for a Swedish order) or the McMillian TAC-338.

Meanwhile, in Finland

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Source: EriKolaborator via Wikimedia Commons

Tumbleweeds. Crickets. The ghosts of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid riding by in the distance.

During a century of Finnish Defence Forces, a total of two platforms have been the main weapons of the Finnish infantry: the Mosin-Nagant M91 (that’s 1891) and the AK-family of assault rifles. And while the M91-family is slowly being retired (a sniper rifle built on the original receivers is still around), the AK-clones are set to overdo their stay.

“But wait”, my trusty old Rk 62 says. “Don’t you remember when we scored a perfect 20 on the rifle qualification? That was how I made you love me!”

The Rk 62 and the newer Rk 95 TP are arguably some of the best AK-clones available in 7.62×39 mm, being machined and featuring details such as the rear sight being moved further back for a more accurate sight picture thanks to tighter tolerances. The weapon is accurate enough when you have time to find a good firing stance and shoot at 75 meters. Still, there’s no denying that both the platform and calibres are getting old. The updated Rk 62M is better, especially thanks to the improved stock and the Aimpoint Comp M4 Micro T-2 sight combining to make quick shots and recoil management easier. Still, it is largely a question of coating a dated design in a liberal amount of sugar and calling it sweet. And to make matters worse, a large number of wartime Finnish troops would not get a Finnish-built weapon, but one of any number of East German and Chinese AKM-copies which have been bought in droves to equip the second and third line troops. Edit: It seems I was wrong on this one, and while there are significant stocks of AKM-copies left, the current size of the Finnish wartime force is covered (with some margin) by the estimated number of Finnish-built weapons available.

For a long time I have been arguing against introducing a new assault weapon for the Finnish Defence Forces. Rifles generally age well, and if one has to choose between introducing a new rifle with a new main calibre against something like the 155 K9 Moukari artillery system, the new SPGs are the obvious choice. However, we are moving towards the point in time when waiting is no longer an option. As such, we could certainly do worse than ensuring an option to piggyback off the Swedish firearms trials in the same way the Estonian Defence Forces bought their K9s under the same contract as the Finnish artillery. Buying the same assault rifles, designated marksman rifles, and machine guns as Sweden would allow us to phase out a large number of the worst AK-clones, the Dragunovs and possibly the last 7.62 TKIV 85, as well as the 7.62 KvKK 62 light machine guns. The 7.62 PKM is still a modern weapon, so there is no need to replace those. However, additional buys are a no-no after Crimea.

I hereby suggest a study into how piggybacking upon the Swedish firearms program with a 450 million Euro program of our own could increase the lethality of the Finnish infantry. This ought to be funded outside of the normal defence budgets, in line with other ongoing strategic acquisitions.

ESSM for the Pohjanmaa-class

Yesterday the Finnish MoD announced that the RIM-162 Evolved SeaSparrow Missile (ESSM) has been chosen as the main air defence weapon for the upcoming Pohjanmaa-class corvettes.

The weapon systems already acquired for the Pohjanmaa-class include Torped 47 ASW-torpedoes (Sweden), Gabriel anti-ship missiles (Israel), and ESSM surface-to-air missiles (USA). Source: Finnish MoD

The DSCA cleared the ESSM for export already a year ago, and crucially this was for the quad-packed Mk 25 launcher. This is fitted into the Mk 41 VLS launch system, which is a module of eight box-shaped shafts in which the missiles are stored until launch. The Pohjanmaa-class will be the smallest operational vessel fitted with the system by some margin (Taiwanese test bed LCC-1 Kao Hsiung is roughly same size), and interestingly enough it seems the full strike-length cells will be fitted.

This will give the corvettes a total of 32 ESSM per vessel (the astute observer will notice that the DSCA request only cover 68 missiles, meaning that further orders are to be expected), a significant upgrade in both range and numbers compared to the Hamina-class. While the Hamina’s Umkhonto have an IR-seeker, the ESSM have a passive radar seeker, which gives better performance in bad weather. When it comes to active versus passive radar seekers, unlike the situation in air-to-air combat where requiring the launching platform to keep it’s radar on target conflicts with the need to evade incoming fire, on a surface ship it isn’t necessarily as much of a problem as the radar stays active in a 360° search sector throughout the engagement.

Range is another major factor. The increase in range from 12 to 50 km gives a 17 times greater theoretical area covered. It has also been announced that the vessels, both as sensors and as shooters, will be integrated as part of the joint air defence network of the Finnish Defence Forces. This will give a significant boost to the air defences around the southern coastline, a key area for the country due to its concentration of population centres, ports, and heavy industry. This would be of particular importance in the early stages of a conflict, where the ground based systems of the Army might not have had time to deploy in the field.

The Mk 41 also allows for significantly larger missiles to be used, including the Standard-family of the US Navy and land-attack weapons such as the TLAM. However, with only eight available cells per corvette, swapping out a quad-pack of ESSM for a single longer-ranged SAM has serious effects on the ability of the vessel to fend off prolonged attacks. The Mk 41 could be used as a platform for missile defences to target systems such as the Iskander. E.g. Denmark is planning on doing this, but this would effectively tie up our limited number of corvettes in point defence missions along the southern shore.

An important factor in the choice was likely the widespread use of the Mk 41 and ESSM-combination, which ensure the ability to quickly fill up stocks if the need arises (i.e. we can hopefully get more missiles from US or even Norwegian stocks if we get dragged into a war).

The choice of ESSM will also have indirect effects on the Army’s GBAD program for a medium-range SAM-system. The inability of MBDA to secure a naval CAMM-order from Finland will likely impact the chances for the same missile on land as well. The NASAMS-compatible AMRAAM-ER in turn got a further boost, as it share some parts commonality with the ESSM (the ESSM can also be fired from the NASAMS launcher, though it is dubious if the Army wants a passive seeker head). Overall, MBDA has had a surprisingly hard time in securing any kind of orders in Finland. Time will tell if HX changes this.

On a final note, it is nice to finally see the MoD and Navy fully switch to referring to the vessels as the Pohjanmaa-class. The name has been known for quite some time, and in building a connection between the general public and the project it certainly has a nicer ring to it than the formal Squadron 2020.

Naval Defence Day 2018 – Only Change is Constant

The annual Finnish Naval Defence Day was held a week ago, with the usual crowd of Naval officers, reservists, and stakeholders meeting up for a day of lectures and discussion on the current state of the Navy and its reserve, as well as topics of general interest to the crowd.

The Finnish Navy and the Baltic Sea

The year so far has seen the continuation of several of the programmes initiated earlier. Two Haminas are currently undergoing their MLU, with the other two awaiting their turn. The programme is largely on schedule, with the small delay in the PTO 2020 anti ship missile programme translating into a slight setback for the Hamina-upgrade. The other major new weapon system, the light torpedo, is on the other hand on schedule, with the first batch of Finnish Naval personnel currently in Sweden undergoing training. The training deal both with the particular system (or rather systems, as Finland first will lease and operate the current Torp 45 before switching to the acquired Torp 47 once they start coming of the production line), as well as general ASW tactics which is something of a new field for the Finnish Navy.

The New Lightweight Torpedo, still awaiting its Finnish designation, will provide a giant leap in Finnish ASW-capabilities. Picture courtesy of Saab Ab

For the Gabriel, the Navy remains as tight-lipped as they were when first announcing the decision. The message that Gabriel was the overall best performer in all categories was reiterated, with a comment that the fact that it did so at a very competitive price was an important additional factor. And while no new information was given, the excitement amongst the officer corps regarding the new system was palpable every time one brought up the topic.

Squadron 2020 is moving on slowly but steadily, with the contract date with the yard being planned for January/February 2019. This has dragged on a bit, due to the demanding situation of there being only one supplier. As this means there are no pressure on price and risk-taking from the competition, the negotiations have proved trickier than expected, but the Navy is confident that a good contract will be signed. For the combat management system the situation is more traditional with three suppliers shortlisted, and here the tender has been delayed a bit to be in lockstep with the shipbuilding negotiations. On the whole the project is moving along more or less as expected, the delays in signing the shipbuilding deal aside.

The inside of the TK 130 gun barbette during operation. It is the most modern turreted coastal defence gun worldwide and more survivable than generally perceived, but it is still approaching retirement. Source: Merivoimat FB

Past Squadron 2020 and the Hamina MLU further modernisation programs awaits. The 130 TK fixed coastal artillery will have to be replaced during the second half of the 20’s, and as some batches of the manportable short-range coastal defence missiles (Eurospike ER / RO2006) will start to reach the end of their shelf-life in the same timespan the Navy is taking a look at the larger picture when it comes to coastal defence and what possibilities there currently are on the market to replace the outgoing guns and missiles.

Another topic is new vessels, where the logistics of supporting troops in the archipelago holds its own challenges. One topic is how these smaller auxiliaries should be acquired, as the tendering process naturally differs from how corvettes and fast attack crafts are planned and bought. And speaking of buying fast attack crafts, on the horizon the first studies for the eventual Hamina-replacement are starting to take place.

The export variants of the 3M-14 land-attack and 91R1 ASW versions of the Kalibr-family. Source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin via Wikimedia Commons

But it is not only Finland that is actively modernising and practicing. The Russian Baltic Fleet is receiving new equipment, and the Baltic Sea is also home to many temporary high-end visitors when newbuilds are performing sea trials here. Amongst the systems mentioned by name we had the Steregushchiy-class corvettes and Project 636 “Kilo II”-class submarines, as well as the 3M-54 and 3M-14 Kalibr (which are the anti ship- and land-attack versions of the same missile) and the Redut-family of surface-to-air missiles. The Kalibr-family it was noted is in fact an issue for the whole of the Finnish Defence Forces and not the Navy alone, considering the fact that the range from Kaliningrad and the Barents Sea puts large parts of southern and northern Finland respectively inside the strike range of the ship- and sub-launched cruise missiles.

On the other hand 2018 has been largely uneventful in the Baltic Sea when it comes to major incidents, and while Russian activity remain at a high level, Northern Coasts 18 as an example took place without anything out of the ordinary. While the increased level of readiness has been taxing on the Finnish Navy, they are proud of their work in not letting any vessel move in waters “close to us” without being identified (no word on how far out the “close” reaches). To ensure this the Navy is employing a range of measures, including not only own vessels and sensors, but also cooperation with the Border Guards and the NH90 helicopters of the Army Aviation.

Unmanned technology underutilised?

Unmanned and autonomous systems was the main topic of discussion, with a particular focus on the utilisation of these technologies in the maritime domain. The rapid minituarisation and commercialisation throughout the field means that even smaller countries such as Finland are able to start investing in unmanned technology on a broader scale. It is also notable that this will not, or at least should not, simply lead to pulling people out of today’s systems and replacing them with computers. Rather a completely new set of options open up, with the ability to have platforms measured in centimeters and decimeters instead of tens of meters. Additionally endurance isn’t necessarily a limiting factor anymore, especially for surface and subsurface platforms which can wait and float freely for prolonged periods of time. On the other hand, even with improved machine learning and autonomy amongst machines, robots are still extremely good at handling a specific task or scenario but significantly poorer at reacting to surprises. As such we are increasingly entering an age where the human player is needed not for the expected tasks, but as the flexible element to take control when the unexpected happens.

Saab’s AUV62 AT is an underwater target which can mimic different submarines. As part of ASW exercises the AUV62 is let loose, after which it operates fully independently for several hours, relying on dead reckoning and reacting intelligently to enemy actions, all while recording everything that happens. Imagining a reconnaissance role for a similar system is not difficult. Picture courtesy of Saab

While drones currently are sub-systems rather than main systems, their revolutionary nature shouldn’t be underestimated. In the naval domain, getting a lightweight synthetic aperture radar up in the sky aboard a lightweight drone is suddenly a serious alternative to the traditional mast-mounted surface search radar, providing both over-the-horizon range and having the added benefit of letting the host vessel’s sensors remain silent. An interesting example is Israel who has retired manned maritime patrol aircraft and completely replaced them with remotely piloted ones.

On the other end of the scale we have commercial off-the-shelf systems which has seen use in both Ukraine and Syria both to provide targeting data, perform reconnaissance, and for direct attacks with grenades or fixed warheads (the later use starting to blur the border between UAS/UAV and cruise missile). In the Ukrainian case, the targeted attacks against ammunition depots have shown that simple and cheap system can take on operational/strategic roles (Yes, this is something that the Finnish Defence Forces have recognised in their current operational planning. No, you won’t get further details).

But while everyone recognises that unmanned systems are here to stay and will only increase in both numbers and importance, in many ways the final breakthrough has not necessarily taken place. Comparisons were made to the state of aircraft at the outbreak of the First World War, where no-one really knew what worked and what didn’t, but after a few years of fighting the air war had reached a form which it would keep for decades. Similarly, at the outbreak of the Second World War much of the technology that would transform the battlefield between 1939 and 1945 was already available, but only the outbreak of the war led to inventions such as the jet engine being rushed into service. Currently a number of unmanned technology demonstrators are making rather slow progress in getting into widespread use, partly because lack of funding, and partly because of questions regarding artificial intelligence and the authorisation of use of force. If a significant peer-vs-peer conflict would take place, it is likely that a rapid roll-out of these existing cutting-edge technologies into operational systems would take place.

The killer robots amongst us? Here PM04, a smart impulse sea mine in operational use by the Finnish Navy since well over a decade ago. Source: MKFI via Wikimedia Commons

But as we consider the moral implications of ‘killer robots’, are we just overlooking the developments that has already taken place? What is the principal difference between an autonomous armed UAV, and modern impulse mines? These have sensors and a certain level of logic allowing them to discern between targets, and once deployed they will fully autonomously perform their mission, no surrenders accepted. Did we actually deploy armed killer robots over a decade ago, without ever noticing?

The Long and the Short of Finnish Guns

The Finnish Army learned to love artillery during the Second World War. There never seemed to be enough of it to cover all needs, and the Red Army always seemed to have plenty enough. At the same time, air support was even scarcer, meaning that if you wanted to produce any kind of effect on the other side of the hill, you either had to send in someone on foot or bring the artillery to bear. Like conscription, massed artillery was one of those ideas the Finnish Defence Forces clinged to even when it seemed obsolete to most western observers.

Artillery is also wonderful in that working artillery pieces have an extremely long lifespan. Sure there are developments, but getting hit by 130 mm shrapnel hurts as much today as it did in Golan 1973. Still, everything comes to an end, and unfortunately for the Finnish Army quite a lot of things are coming to an end at roughly the same time.

The Heavy-hitters

For much of the Cold War the stalwart of the Finnish Defence Forces was made up of Soviet artillery systems, with a number of wartime British and German pieces thrown in for good measure. After the German reunification Finland also bought large number of 152 mm field guns and howitzers from ex-DDR stocks. However, dwindling and aging ammunition stocks have meant that all howitzers are withdrawn, with two battalions of 152 mm 2A36 guns and six battalions of 130 mm M-46 being left in service (note that the figures of wartime strengths should be taken with a grain of salt, as the Finnish Army rarely acknowledges the number of individual systems. These figures are the ones found in a trusted open source for 2018).

130 K 54, as the 130 mm M-46 field gun is known locally, during live firings in Northern Finland 2015. Source: Maavoimat FB

Both of these are expected to be phased out within the next few years, effectively reducing the number of Finnish towed heavy artillery by 45%. Left in service will be the 155 K 83-97 and 155 K 98, two domestic field guns firing NATO-standard 155 mm rounds. The K 83-97 is an 80’s design featuring an L/39 barrel, while the K 98 is a more modern piece with a L/52 barrel and an APU, a small engine allowing the gun to drive short distances under own power and thereby significantly aiding in the handling of the gun.

Amongst the self-propelled pieces 48 modern K9 Thunder 155 mm SPGs are being introduced. These highly efficient weapons will replace the already retired 2S5 Giatsint-S 152 mm SPGs and the still serving 2S1 Gvozdika 122 mm SPHs. However, the number is low enough that non-mechanised units are unlikely to see any self-propelled artillery. As such there is a gap evident amongst the mid-tier (regional) units of the wartime Finnish Army, where the retirement of the Soviet guns will be felt most keenly at the brigade level and above.

155 K 98 during the celebrations marking the 100 year anniversary of the return of the Jaegers, held in Vaasa in February 2018. Source: E. Häggblom

The obvious solution is to buy more guns. However, this is not necessarily as simple as it sounds, as heavy towed guns have rapidly fallen out of fashion. The few guns found in production, such as the US M777 and the Pegasus of Singapore, are often tailored toward expeditionary roles requiring them being airmobile. This leads to extremely low weight, but while lightweight guns generally are more fun and easy for the crews to operate, manufacturing gun parts from titanium comes at a price. A hefty price. The Australian DCSA request from 2008 comes in at 4.35 million USD a piece for 57 howitzers of the newest M777A2 version, though that included a SINCGARS radio for each set as well. The following year BAE bagged an order for 63 more M777A2 for USMC and Canada at a unit cost of a more decent 1.9 million USD. Still, that’s a far cry from the 500,000 Euro that the Finnish Defence Forces paid for its 155 K 98 ten years earlier.

The big factor as noted is the weight. The K 98 comes in at 14.6 tonnes, over 10 tonnes more than the 4.2 tonnes of the M777. However, the comparison isn’t a direct one, as the K 98 is a hybrid gun-howitzer while the M777 is a ‘pure’ howitzer sporting the somewhat shorter L/39 barrel length. However, thanks to developments in ammunition the M777 can also push out its rounds to the coveted 40 km range, making the difference in performance smaller (at least on paper, you won’t see accuracy figures of the two systems in open sources anytime soon).

At close to two millions a piece and requiring a towing vehicle (in theory the M777 can be towed by a HMMWV though in practice this is often handled by a 6×6 truck), a single gun system with gun and tower likely comes in at close to 2.5 million euros. And at that price-point something else appears. 

Enter the Nexter Camion équipé d’un système d’artillerie, or CAESAR 8X8 for short, a 155 mm L/52 gun on a Tatra chassis. The 16 systems bought by the launch customer Denmark, including initial spares and a 10 year service agreement, comes in below 2.7 million euros a piece. While critics have decried the baseline CAESAR 6×6 as not offering any protection for the gun crew I feel the comparison is unfair. After all, at the price point the system is found the real competition is not the K9 or PzH 2000, but rather towed systems. And being mounted on an all-terrain truck it offers superior mobility without the need for a dedicated towing vehicle, while the lack of crew protection is the same. Replacing the Soviet designs with more 155 mm systems would simplify logistics, as all heavy systems would employ the same 155 mm NATO standard munitions. As such the question is raised if we shouldn’t just place an order for 100 CAESARs to replace the retired guns starting in 2020?

The original French CAESAR 6×6 during a live firing exercise in Afghanistan in 2009. Source: Teddy Wade, U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons

Well, the first issue is money. Even considering economics of scale the order would like come in at 200 million Euros, money which is hard though not necessarily impossible to come by. The other question is – perhaps somewhat unexpectedly – whether a self-propelled system is objectively “better” than a towed one? Not necessarily, especially not in the tight confines of Finnish terrain (i.e. forests). Handling the gun when you can’t get rid of the truck quickly can be more difficult, while the difference in height is evident from the pictures above. Protection of the system (as opposed to the crew) does become something of an issue. While the better part of a towed weapon can be hidden by a berm the height of a standing person, the truck needs, well, a truck-height of cover. These obstacles aren’t impossible to overcome, but for a traditional role towed systems might actually offer some benefits.

But what about avoiding counter-battery fire, I hear you say? Well, up until now the answer has been that when the guns in an individual battery are spread out so that there’s 400 to 800 metres between each gun counter-battery fire becomes ‘difficult enough’, with no need for shoot-and-scoot tactics. Also, even if there’s no need for a towing vehicle, the amount of rounds carried by a CAESAR is limited, and there would quickly appear a need for a ammunition truck. Towing trucks are also nice in that they are versatile, and you can replace lost towing trucks from general stocks (or use trucks who lost their guns as general cargo carriers) as the need arises.

Everything in the reasoning above is obviously also relevant for other wheeled SPGs of the same class, such as the Israeli ATMOS. 

The suggested marriage of a 155 K 98 to a Sisu 8×8 chassis. Source: Patria briefing to the Parliamentary Defence Committee 

Could a new domestic gun come into the picture? Possibly, Patria has been pushing for a ‘Finnish CAESAR‘ as a way of maintaining artillery know-how in-country. However, while it is certainly true that the proud Finnish tradition of manufacturing high-end artillery is threatened, the question is if it is too late already? The last newly developed weapon was twenty years ago, and even if one wanted to avoid developing something new and instead simply restarted the 155 K 98-line it is seldom a simple and straightforward process to restart production lines which have laid dormant for 15+ years. At least if we want a competitive price, going abroad might be the only option, at which point license production can then be discussed to maintain domestic know-how.

So are there no options left that would offer Finland 100 guns for less than 200 millions? 

Well, Nexter has noticed that there is a gap in the market, not the least because the Indian Army has a requirement for 1,400 towed 155 mm L/52 guns. To answer this they have launched the Trajan, based heavily on the gun used by the CAESAR. Little information is available, but the gun pushes the range out even further with 52 km range being given for specialised shells, it has an APU, and the weight comes in at 13.0 tonnes. Not a lightweight by any standard, but no worse than the 155 K 98. The rough price for the Indian order would be 714,000 Euros per gun. The main issue is that the Trajan is still just a prototype, and the Indian connection unfortunately makes it somewhat suspicious. It is unclear whether non-Indian exports would be ‘pure’ Nexter systems.

In the same competition Elbit is also offering a corresponding system, called ATHOS. Few hard details are known about the system, which is closely related to the wheeled SPG ATMOS that beat CAESAR in the original Danish competition (more than one commentator has questioned whether the rerun which lead to the CAESAR being ordered was based on facts or politics). The weapon does feature an automatic laying capability and an automated ammunition handling system (i.e. a hydraulic crane/lift). From a Finnish viewpoint, there’s the added twist of the Tampella-ancestry.

The D-30

But the headaches of the Finnish Defence Forces doesn’t end there. There are quite literally hundreds of 122 mm D-30 light howitzers that are still filling the role as battalion level assets throughout most Army units. They will stay on longer than the heavier Soviet stuff, but they are also heading out as 2030 approaches.

But if the market for 155 mm howitzers is small, the market for light howitzers is next to non-existent. Certain light guns and mountain howitzers are still found, but the answer to what should replace the 122 mm howitzer is not necessarily another light howitzer.

The flatter trajectory of the howitzers and guns compared to mortars makes it easier to hide the firing positions at the edge of forests. Here the venerable 122 mm D-30 in action. Source: Maavoimat FB

The D-30 provides basic indirect fire with high-explosive shells, smoke, and illumination. They also provide an anti-tank capability, though it is questionable to what extent an 122 mm howitzer shell, even an armour-piercing one, actually can damage anything heavier than an APC. At the same time the introduction of hard-kill systems on tanks means that indirect and direct fire artillery is becoming more interesting again in the AT-role.

The obvious answer is getting more 120 mm heavy mortars. Lots of mortars. The range is not quite the same as the D-30, but on the other hand the lower muzzle velocity allows for thinner walls in the round, which leads to a 120 mm round packing almost the same explosive power as some 155 mm rounds. And while direct fire isn’t possible, the AT-role can be handled with Pansarsprängvinggranat m/94, or STRIX as everyone except the Swedish calls Saab’s endphase-guided anti-tank mortar round. Mortars, due to their steeper trajectory, require more open space to fire to make sure they don’t hit any trees overhead, but are also lighter and more easily moved compared to howitzers. As such they just might provide the answer to the loss of light howitzers, even if that would be a step back capability-wise in some aspects.

The Headache

Artillery remains a priority amongst the Finnish Defence Forces, but there are some serious gaps coming up within the next decade. Besides the Soviet guns and howitzers on their way out, the RM-70 light rocket launchers are also about to be retired. In addition, modern rounds aren’t cheap, with guided once such as the Excalibur costing tens of thousands a piece (60,480 Euro a piece for the Excalibur to be exact). To be able to maintain a modern and large artillery arm, the Finnish Defence Forces will have to invest considerable sums during the 2020’s.

After the strategic acquisitions for the Navy and Air Force, I will argue that the Army should initiate a study for the best complete package of indirect fires to replace outgoing systems, followed by a strategic acquisition program along the lines of HX and Squadron 2020 to try and secure extra-budgetary funds to implement the program. This certainly won’t come easy, but even 1/20th-part of what HX is getting could prove to be the difference between massed enemy casualties and a repeat of the Winter War situation if we would face a war in 2030. As such, this would thoroughly be a strategic acquisition, though with artillery being less sexy than jet fighters, it might require more communication to get through the parliament.

Big thanks to Luke O’Brien who provided useful insights into the world of artillery and patiently answered my questions regarding the general state of modern artillery. All mistakes and groundless speculations are all my own making.

A Northern Battlefield

Following the ongoing debate over at the Royal Swedish Academy of War Science’s blog regarding what role infantry could have in fighting a mechanised attacker in Norrland, a Twitter-exchange erupted following a comment to the end of who the mechanised attacker would be? Surely the Russians would have better things to do with their mechanised units than to try and capture vast expanses of forests, fells, and bogs? The question deserves a closer look, as the answer by default holds significant importance to the defence planning of not only Sweden, but Finland and Norway as well.
Norrland is not of interest to the Russians due to anything found there (no, not even the Kiruna iron ore), Russia has enough undisturbed wilderness of its own. But the region is very interesting due to the proximity to the Kola Peninsula.

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Finnish Jaeger Brigade units out in the field during exercise in the northern parts of the country. Source: Finnish Defence Forces

The Kola Peninsula, and more generally the Murmansk-Arkhangelsk-Naryan-Mar area, are of immense strategic importance to Russian defence planning due to their role as the sole route from where to break out into the Atlantic to intercept the transatlantic supply lines of NATO, as well as providing the basing area for the majority of the Russian strategic nuclear forces. In particular the Russian second-strike capability is centered around the ballistic-missile submarines of the Northern Fleet (though a limited number is also found in the Pacific Fleet), and they would take up position in the Barents Sea from where they would fire their missiles in case of an all-out nuclear attack on the USA. In addition, the shortest airborne route between the US and Russia passes over the Arctic, meaning that the area plays a role in long-range aviation as well.
This leads to the Cap of the North (or Sápmi) being the left flank of the Russian strategic deterrent and the frontline of any attempt at stopping the US from reinforcing Europe. Geopolitics plays an interesting role as well, as Norway is the sole NATO country in the region. While it is highly unlikely that Norway or other NATO forces would try and attack the northwestern corner of Russia due to the risk of escalating a conflict into full-scale nuclear war, Russia could conceivably want to push the frontline westward. As far as Russia is concerned, for the moment there is no real strategic depth to protect their bases. The Norwegian town of Kirkenes lies only 150 km from Severomorsk, the main base of the Northern Fleet. This is well within firing range of the MGM-140 ATACMS used by the US M270 MLRS and M142 HIMARS systems. And once the front is being pushed westwards, the question where to stop remains open. Capturing e.g. Narvik and Bodø would significantly hamper the ability of NATO to recapture Norwegian territory, while at the same time providing forward bases from which to operate against the transatlantic supply lines (compare German plans for submarine bases in Norway during WWII, rendered utterly insignificant by the fall of France).

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Map of northern Europe, giving a somewhat different perspective of the region compared to the usual projections. Source: Google Maps

But Norway is a tricky battlefield. The country is relatively narrow and heavily mountainous, handing a relative small defending force near-perfect conditions to defend against a more numerous attacker.

Which makes flanking tempting.

There are three possible ways to flank the Norwegian Army, either by amphibious and/or airborne landings, or by marching through Finnish Lappi and Swedish Norrland to reach (or threaten) the Norwegian coast.
Now, cutting through Finland and Sweden to reach the Atlantic coast is no simple endeavour, the shortest way from Severomorsk to Narvik is a nice even 1,000 km, passing through Sodankylä, Pajala, and Kiruna, before following the Iron Ore Line to Narvik, the northernmost railway in western Europe. The roads are of varied quality, and getting any kind of a workable supply line through the region will be a challenge. The railroad networks are a chapter of their own, with the Finnish tracks not being connected to the Russian ones north of the Vartius-Kostamus crossing, and there being a gauge break between the Finnish and Swedish railroads.
However, the most distinguishing feature of the region is the sheer amount of real estate. Combined with the fact that for none of the involved countries, with the possible exception of Norway, will the northern theatre be their main front. While a Russian offensive undoubtedly could allocate more forces than the opposition, it is still highly doubtful if they would be able to muster a large enough number that they could lay down a solid frontline and protect the rear areas and supply lines. As such a likely scenario is that the Russian spearheads would be able to make some impressive mileage while battling bigger and smaller skirmishes, while the real decisive fight will be a drawn-out one between security forces and smaller Finnish and Swedish units blowing bridges and targeting enemy supply units.

Jyvälahden valtaus 3.1.1942: Viestimiehet kirkasjohdon kimpussa.
Finnish communication specialists at work following the battle for Jyvälahti, near Uhtua, in January 1942. Source: SA-Kuva

This is not without precedent as the fragmented battlefield is nothing new to northern Europe. In January 1942 two Finnish battalions (1,900 men in total) infiltrated 75 kilometer through enemy territory to May Guba, burned a major supply depot, and skied back to own lines with a total loss of 3 killed in actions and 10 wounded (in addition to scores of frostbitten soldiers). During the whole of the Continuation War large parts of the frontline north of Lake Onega were if not fragmented then leaking, and as it is likely that the main Finnish and Swedish units will be concentrated towards the population centras in the southern parts of their respective countries, a return to the same scenario would not be unlikely in case of an armed conflict.

A Dawn Raid in the Archipelago

The day started with what sounded like a rare but not unique message on Twitter by the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation, the KRP:

The current search by the KRP in the premises of a company located in the Turku Archipelago may attract attention amongst boaters and holidaymakers.

However, the archipelago has seen some interesting developments during the last few years, and the innocent sounding tweet quickly caught the attention of Finnish security wonks. The developments of the day would soon show that the knee-jerk reaction was warranted.

But let’s start from the beginning: Airiston Helmi Oy was founded in 2007 as a non-public stock company for trading in real estate, and a number of the key persons behind the company were Russian nationals. The company has had just a handful of employees, and has consistently been showing figures in the red (as far as I know, it has never managed a single positive year). What has set the company aside from other failing attempts is however that a number of the real estate deals have taken place at strategic locations in the archipelago outside of Turku in southwestern Finland. The main location is Ybbersnäs in Pargas on the Finnish mainland, with another key location being the island of Säckilot.

Location of Säckilot

The sea lane to Turku and Naantali passes just four kilometers south of the island, with a direct line of sight in the south-east. The ports of Turku and Naantali are of vital importance to Finland in peacetime, but would be of even greater importance in wartime thanks to their location as far away as possible from the Russian border. Naantali also houses one of Finland’s two petroleum refineries, with a daily production capacity of 50,000 barrels.

naantalin_jalostamo2c_naantali2c_29-12-20082c_panoramakuva
Naantali refinery. Source: Markus Rantala/Wikimedia Commons

However, companies and individuals buying houses in the Finnish archipelago for vacation homes are nothing out of the ordinary, and the large archipelago coupled with winding sea lanes means that quite a number of these are situated “strategically close” to the routes. Russian investments in Finnish real estate has also been rather high, owing to a number of reasons including Finland being a popular destination for Russian tourists and the stable markets coupled with rule of law making Finnish real estate an attractive investment opportunity for what used to be described as the emerging Russian middle class. The level of investment has gone down with the oil price, but numerous objects are found all over the country. 2016 an official report noted that a large number of Russian-owned real estate were situated in strategic locations and/or had other suspicious indicators connected to them. These included not only the real estate in the archipelago, but also locations close to airports and key mobilisation routes. The term “Hybrid War” was mentioned.

hessu_helsinki_2015_01
M/S Hessu, former Kala 5, transporting a concrete mixer. Note decidedly non-naval colouring and new name. Source: MKFI/Wikimedia Commons

However, for Airiston Helmi things had turned even stranger when they in 2010 through the Finnish company Rederi Ab Fakir (part of the Alfons Håkans Group, a major player in Finnish towage and general shipping) bought two surplus Finnish naval vessels, the workboat Kala 4 and the launch Hakuni. When the Finnish Navy sells older vessels, they demand that the buyer repaint the vessel and change the name to avoid people mistaking them for active duty vessels. This is even a requirement when the vessels are operated by the naval reserve, but in this case Airiston Helmi was in a hurry and Rederi Ab Fakir left the vessels unpainted. The name was also kept, as Airiston Helmi “preferred it” over Rederi Ab Fakir’s suggested Kronos. Notable here is that in this case Airiston Helmi did nothing illegal, as the contract with the Navy only bound Rederi Ab Fakir to change the colour and name (it wouldn’t be the last time the Alfons Håkans Group and the Navy had a bit of a quarrel). Kala has however been modified and stripped of paint since, as is visible in photographs from today’s raid.

But things didn’t stop there. Airiston Helmi soon got into trouble with the local authorities, as the single-family homes they were building in Ybbersnäs and another location in Pargas both featured eight bedrooms each with their own bathroom, in what looked suspiciously much like a small hotel layout. The fact that one of the houses was actually marketed as one further raised eyebrows, and the company had to give official explanations to the city. The helicopter traffic between Ybbersnäs and other locations, mainly Latvia and Helsinki airport, in turn caused the neighbors to complain, but the complaints were dismissed. In addition questions have been raised regarding the exemptions that the company has received for buildings and dredging (though it should be noted that Finnish building exemption policies are notoriously chancy), as well as if they actually have permission to do some of the works that have been performed. And where does the money come from, considering that the company can’t show anything close to a profit?

Cue today’s dawn raid, executed by over 100 persons from the KRP, local police, Tax Administration, Border Guard, and Finnish Defence Forces. Simultaneously a numbered of locations were searched, and a no-fly zone was created over a sizeable area including both Säckilot and Ybbersnäs. No-one is saying much.

Searches are a normal part when investigating financial crimes. Assistance from other authorities has been required due to the geographical locations and the number of places where the search is conducted. Everything has gone smoothly and according to the plans. We have seized such material as is usually seized in searches investigating financial crime.

KRP doesn’t even mention the Finnish Defence Forces in the press release quoted above, but the Finnish Defence Forces confirm that they have “certain skill sets” which they are assisting with. The crimes investigated are money laundering valued at “millions of Euros” and serious tax fraud. The Finnish Defence Forces spokesperson denies that they have any interests in Airiston Helmi, but an anonymous military source contradicted the statement when asked by Helsingin Sanomat. According to the source, both FDF and SUPO (the Finnish Security Intelligence Service) have been keeping an eye on the company for years.

Again, operations of this scope are rare, but entirely plausible.

The Border Guard regularly cooperate with the Police, both sort under the Ministry of Interior in peacetime, and it is not far-fetched that the former would assist with boats and helicopters if there is an operation with several targets in the archipelago. The Finnish Defence Forces also have tight cooperation with the Police, often providing vehicles and special equipment when the need arises.

But it is hard to come up with a suitable need for FDF know-how or equipment in a white-collar raid. And what about the (unconfirmed) reports of the Border Guard having one of their two maritime reconnaissance aircrafts patrol the area of operations? And why is the no-fly zone in effect until Monday?

OH-MVO
OH-MVO, one of two Dornier Do-228 operated by the Finnish Border Guard in the maritime patrol role. Was she in the area today? Source: Own picture

Edit 230918 1100 GMT+2: It turns out that OH-MVO did visit the location before landing in Helsinki in the early afternoon.

Happy enthusiasts have already decided that Airiston Helmi is a GRU-run operation, complete with vessels for false-flag operations and barracks for spetsnaz units to stay in after infiltrating the country prior to war. It is a possibility, but I am unconvinced.

It is clear that GRU is far from the omnipotent force some authors would like them to be, if nothing else then Salisbury is the final proof. As such the hap-hazard nature of Airiston Helmi isn’t proof of them not being involved. However, it should also be remembered that money laundering is in itself a lucrative business, and there are a numerous reasons for people to want somewhere to stay for a night or two without having to sign a hotel ledger. And if you run a lucrative but highly illegal business, you might want to have some firearms handy in case the competition suddenly comes knocking. This would explain why the KRP chose to ensure that they have the necessary tools to subdue any resistance, including heavier protection and personal firearms (and FDF backup). On the other hand, the Russian cleptocracy makes the dividing lines between crooks, spies, and businessmen somewhat blurred, and even if Airiston Helmi would prove to be a non-political criminal enterprise (it should be noted that no-one is convicted of anything as of yet), it isn’t beyond the realms of imagination for the GRU to call in a favour every now and then (the smuggling case which lead to the abduction of Eston Kohver by the FSB comes to mind).

In any case, don’t expect any clear-cut answers from the authorities within the next few days. And if anyone says they know for certain what’s going on, chances are they are as honest as Airiston Helmi’s bookkeeping.