Pohjanmaa-class Contracts Announced

Shortly before half past two this afternoon, two ministers, a general, and commodore marched out to meet the gathered press to announce that the Finnish government had discussed the complete Pohjanmaa-class package, and that they had approved the signing of the contracts. The three key contracts will be signed next week in Turku, with the prime contractor Rauma Marine Construction, Saab for the combat system and integration, and with Aker Arctic Technology for the propellers and shafting,

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Head-on shot of the Pohjanmaa-class. Note un-stealthy location of anchor, single door on starboard side, and VERTREP area painted forward of the 57 mm gun. Source: Finnish MoD

While Minister of Defence Antti Kaikkonen certainly was correct when he at the start of the conference announced that he had “good news to tell”, today’s press conference was actually rather short on actual news. RMC has long been the sole contender for the shipbuilding contract, and shortly after the the Finnish government dissolved last spring it was announced that Saab had been downselected as the sole contender for the combat system and integration contract.

A convincing combination

That was the words used by Kaikkonen to describe the combination of 9LV CMS, ESSM medium-range SAM, TP 47 ASW-torpedoes, and Gabriel anti-ship missiles. The decisions on key systems have been trickling in over the years, and together with the occasionally updated renders released these have made it possible to paint a rather good picture of the coming vessels even before today’s release of the key specifications. Still, it’s always nice to get confirmation.

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The key measurements of the vessel is approximately 114 meter LoA, 16 m BoA, and a draught of approximately 5 meters. The last part is a key design feature as the class need to be able to operate in the shallow Finnish archipelago, using currently existing infrastructure designed for the slightly smaller minelayers which it will replace. At 3,900 tons, it is heavier than most corvettes and frigates of a similar length. The propulsion is by twin ice-capable propellers, being specially designed for the project in cooperation between Aker and the Finnish Defence Forces since 2015. The key issue with the propeller design was the conflicting requirements of small diameter due to limited draught, slow turning speed due to the sound signature, and high vessel speed because, well, it’s a warship. Apparently the development work has been a success, because the top speed is given as 26+ knots. This is a respectable number for a vessel of its size, and only a few knots behind the slightly lighter but longer Valour-class frigates (MEKO 200) of the South African Navy, which sport a full CODAG-arrangement with twin shafts and a booster jet. This is well in line with the message from Minister of Economic Affairs, Katri Kulmuni, who described the pillars of the Finnish maritime sector as “specialisation and renewal”, mentioning low emissions and digitalisations as examples of the later. Buzzwords for sure, but not without the facts to back them up.

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Major general (eng.) Renko, ministers Kulmuni and Kaikkonen, and admiral Harju on today’s press conference. Source: Finnish MoD Twitter

The decision to have RMC as the sole bidder was made based on the yard’s (predecessor’s) experience with naval vessels and most importantly to ensure domestic security of supply of maintenance and overhauls in times of crisis. The small size of the yard has been seen as a potential issue, with many open questions regarding risk sharing between the yard and the state, as well as ensuring that the yard can make a profit on the vessels without the state simply pouring excessive funds into the project. Based on the official lines from today’s press conference, everyone is happy and the yard has been able to confidently prove that they are able to handle both the technical side of the project as well as the financial aspects. It is seldom discussed, but in long and challenging projects such as shipbuilding terms of payment and company cash flow will be of significant importance, and it is no surprise that these apparently proved to be some of the most difficult parts of the contract negotiations. The end result is based on fixed prices (with index adjustments), with the payments to the yard being made at a quicker pace than usually. Major general (eng.) Kari Renko, deputy director of the FDF Logistics Command, was happy with the end result:

It is a good contract which safeguard the interests of the state.

The one cloud on the sky was that the shipbuilding cost was somewhat higher than anticipated, leading to an increase in the budget of the project from 1.2 to 1.3 Bn Euros (with the main weapon systems not being included in that sum). Still, the sticker cost of 325 MEur per corvette is low compared to many international projects, and if the Pohjanmaa-class will be delivered within the new budget it will be an impressive feat.

The one visible feature that has been cut from the vessel compared to earlier renders was the CIWS-weapon on the aft part of the superstructure, likely a 35 mm Rheinmetall Oerlikon Millennium Gun. It has now been replaced by twin Saab Trackfire RWS, a system that has turned out to be a favourite of the Finnish Navy. Depending on which weapon is mounted it can provide a nice increase in firepower against targets such as light craft, but is likely not quite up to the CIWS task against incoming missiles. Four MASS decoy launchers are also found, each covering one of the ship’s four quadrants. These might well come in handy, as while the signatures of the vessels are heavily reduced, they are not stealthy if compared to e.g. the Swedish Visby-class. This is as expected, and much in line with the FDF doctrine that a 85 % solution at half the cost is always worth more than a 100 % solution at twice the cost.

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Key systems of the Pohjanmaa-class. Note hull-mounted sonar in bow, which hasn’t been discussed earlier. Source: Finnish MoD

The renders include a few interesting details. A VERTREP-area is designated in front of the deck gun for helicopters to drop of their cargo. The number of VLS-launchers is up to 16 on the renders, which is double the number I personally was expecting. This could potentially be a case of fitted for but not with, with one eight cell-launcher being installed, and space reserved for a second to be dropped in at a later date. The Navy won’t tell what length they are, but suffice to say is that the vessels will be amongst the most heavily armed corvettes around (cue the ‘corvette vs frigate’-debate). And, no, we likely won’t be able to fire nuclear TLAMs any time soon (seriously, read the linked Twitter-thread if the question ‘but why…?’ comes to your mind right now). Two AUVs are found on the minedeck, one yellow and one orange. Presumably these are generic representations of the Saab Double Eagle Mk II and the Kongsberg HUGIN 1000, both of which are used in the minehunting role aboard the Finnish Katanpää-class. It would be to go a step too far to suggest that these will be a standard loadout on the class, but it is an interesting reminder about the fact that unmanned systems will likely play an important role in the service of the vessel class. In the helicopter hangar an UAS can be seen. It is a generic (?) quadcopter, but it can be pointed out that a Schiebel S-100 was recently tested by the Finnish Border Guard from their flagship Turva. As the Finnish Border Guard in many ways fill the role of Finnish naval aviation, and considering the proven track record of Siebel for, ahem, growing navies, I would not be surprised if the trials would result in S-100s being acquired for both Turva and the Pohjanmaa-class. Of particular importance would be if the UAS can be used for cueing the PTO 2020 (Gabriel) missiles, as they have a range significantly longer than the ship’s sensor horizon.

Cdre Harju in his speech pointed out that the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes are “replacing vessels, but most importantly capabilities”. Besides the obvious ASW-, anti-ship, and air defence missions, the vessels will play important roles in territorial surveillance, ISR, mining, and as flagships. An interesting detail was that the operating costs and personnel needs will closely match the outgoing vessels, i.e. three large mining vessels and four FAC. Of the 70 persons in the crew, half will be professionals and half will be conscripts or reservists, another very Finnish solution. The full operational capability of all four vessels will be achieved by 2028, after which the Rauma- and Hämeenmaa-classes will be retired.

The final words of the day really ought to go to MoD Kaikkonen:

‘Multipurpose’ always mean compromises, but in this case these are good ones

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A render showing the leadship of the class, FNS Pohjanmaa, underway. Source: Finnish MoD

Reach out and touch someone – at 40 km

While the Finnish Navy is undergoing a visible transformation with the acquisition of the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes and the Hamina-class MLU, away from the headlines an era is about to end. The Finnish Defence Forces had the luck of inheriting the unfinished but still impressive Peter the Great’s Naval Fortress when the country became independent in 1917, making it a major player in fixed coastal artillery. But now the end is approaching for the 130 TK, the last fixed guns of the country.

The glorious life of a gun crew on the 130 TK. Source: Merivoimat FB

The 130 TK is the mid-sized coastal defence system in Finnish service, wedged between the MTO 85M (RBS 15, to be replaced by PTO 2020) and the RO 2006 (Spike ER). Being the sole artillery system, it has a few unique features compared to the missiles.

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Artillery observers directing fire from the 130 TK during exercise Silja earlier this year. Source: Merivoimat FB

The most important difference is cost of the rounds. Modern artillery rounds aren’t necessarily cheap, but they’re certainly cheaper than missiles. They also provide the ability to target vessels where a PTO 2020 might be overkill (such as minehunters, landing craft, and small auxiliaries), and to maintain suppressive fire over prolonged time (both against vessels and against units that have come ashore). A key feature is also the ability to fire a warning shot, something that might come in handy in a ‘hybrid’ scenario where you don’t necessarily want to put a missile in a suspicious vessel. However, the Navy has let go off their towed systems, meaning that replacing the 130 TK with mobile artillery would require reintroducing the artillery branch in the Navy (or asking really nicely if the Army would have a few wartime batteries to spare). The Navy’s standing comment is that they are still looking at all alternatives, including both missiles and artillery.

But where better to ask about what those alternatives can be than at AMBLE Baltic?

The new Nammo 155 mm extended range family. Already in Finnish service, might it be the kind of versatile low-cost solution that the FDF loves? Picture courtesy of Nammo (all rights reserved/media license)

First stop is Nammo’s booth. The Norwegian/Finnish company is a well known supplier of artillery to Finnish heavy guns, and the company representative is happy to discuss the potential of using 155 mm rounds for coastal defence. While the mission isn’t part of the current mission set, “there’s lots of possibilities”. This includes not only extended range HE-rounds which push 40 km with base bleed from a L/52 gun, but also rocket-assisted projectiles with 70+ km range from L/52 guns as well as different kinds of precision guidance kits. Against a target such as a vessel 7 kg of explosives from a RAP round might well be plenty enough to achieve at least a mission kill. Fire direction against a moving target will present some challenges, but Nammo is certainly interested in having a go at it. Or as the company representative sum it up:

It’s worth having a look at.

But if Nammo isn’t in the coastal artillery game at the moment, two tables away is someone who is. Eurospike GmbH supply the Finnish Navy with the Spike ER (RO 2006) for the coastal defence role, as well as the Finnish Army with the Spike MR and LR for the anti-tank role (as the PSTOHJ 2000 and 2000M respectively). The oldest batches of the RO 2006 are approaching the end of their shelf-life, which brings a further twist to the 130 TK replacement. The RO 2006 has a range of 8 km, and the logical follow-up is currently in qualification.

RO 2006 being fired during exercise Silja. Source: Merivoimat FB

Spike ER2 adds another two kilometers of range and non-line of sight ability compared to the current ER. The seeker head is also able to use both the IR and the daylight mode simultaneously, making it harder to spoof the tracking. The anti-tank warhead is also promising 30% higher penetration, something that is largely of academic interest for the anti-ship role. While not directly discussing the coastal defence role, the company representative confirm that they are in discussions with the Finnish Defence Forces regarding new anti-tank concepts for all ranges. The Spike does have a trump card, as it makes it “possible to have everything in one family”. A dual-Spike solution for the Navy could potentially be in the cards, with the Spike NLOS allowing for 30 km range currently, and “more in a few years”. There’s also “solutions for even higher ranges”, but the company won’t go into further details as to what those are. Eurospike also notes that the coastal defence role might require a lighter solution than the current vehicle-mounted NLOS platforms, and suggests that UGVs with NLOS might be a suitable concept.

The size difference between the Spike ER2 (left) and the LR2 (right). Source: Own picture

Could Eurospike score a missile grand slam with more and newer anti-tank missiles to the Army and a dual-buy of ER2 and NLOS to the short- and medium-range coastal defence needs of the Navy? Possibly, but the introduction of NLOS would require quite a bit of new infrastructure in the form of suitable transport vessels to get the missiles moving in the archipelago, somewhat leveling the playing field compared to the investment an artillery-based solution would require. Perhaps adding a few batteries to the buy of whatever replaces the outgoing east-built guns will still turn out as the prefered solution?

Bv 206 meets Mercedes

In a wide variety of different terrain types, wheels simply aren’t an option. This has led to militaries as far apart as Finland and Singapore operating all-terrain tracked vehicles in a bewildering array of roles. In essence, when you need infantry in terrain too rough for wheeled platforms, you throw in an all-terrain vehicle for whatever mission you ordinarily would see a truck perform. The terrain can then be made up of bogs, meter-deep snow, or other kinds of soft and/or rough spots. What matters is that you need the lowest possible ground pressure, or even amphibious capabilities.

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The Bv 206 MLE at AMBLE Baltic in Wilhelmshaven last Thursday. Source: Own Picture

For a long time the field has been dominated by the ubiquitous Bv 206 from Hägglunds (today BAE Systems Hägglunds), which has seen use by the armed forces of 25 different countries (if Wikipedia is to be trusted), including not only Finland, Sweden, and Norway, but the German airborne and mountain troops, the British Royal Marines, and the Dutch Korps Mariniers as well.

The Bv 206 is a sturdy vehicle, with the basic chassis and the compartments generally not really being worn out. The biggest downside is the complete lack of protection, the vehicle front compartment and trailer basically being two big boxes of fiberglass reinforced plastic, capable of stopping thrown rocks, but not much else. The 80’s technology in the drivetrain and other parts of the vehicle are also starting to show their age, with spare parts being increasingly difficult to find.

This has made the question of finding a replacement one that interest a number of countries throughout Europe, with not only the Bv 206 but also other older vehicles of the same class starting to need replacing. To that end Germany organised a multinational meeting for European users last February to look into the alternatives.

Several modern vehicles are found on the market, including BAE System Hägglund’s BvS10 Viking Mk 2 and ST Engineering’s Bronco ATTC, which underwent snow mobility testing in Finland last winter. However, for a country like Finland which has over 600 Bv 206 and a number of older indigenous Sisu NA-series (as well as a handful of the lightly protected Bv 308), getting a similar number of modern protected all terrain vehicles is probably overly expensive. The BvS10 Viking is found in an unarmoured (and likely cheaper) version designated BvS10 BEOWULF, but with modern military vehicles ‘cheap’ doesn’t necessarily equal ‘little money’.

Enter Millog’s Bv 206 MLE concept, a simple drop-in lifetime extension developed by Hellgeth engineering Spezialfahrzeugbau GmbH in Germany. The core of the upgrade is a completely new drivetrain centred around a Mercedes-Benz OM651, a modern 4-cylinder CDI engine, together with an equally new ZF 6 HP 28 gearbox with six forward gears (as opposed to four in the original Bv 206). Some other changes are also included in the MLE, such as a new radiator and fan, new steering/hydraulics, a new exhaust gas recirculation system, a new CAN bus based electric system, and a new control panel on the dashboard. When the MLE testbed isn’t doing laps around the Neue Jadewerft in Wilhelmshaven, it is in regular use by the Jääkäriprikaati in Sodankylä, in the far north of Finland.

Based on the last one and a half years of service with the Bv 206 MLE, which include over 5000 km, the new drivetrain does what can be expected of this kind of mid-life upgrade. The fuel consumption has been lowered by 30% compared to the regular Bv 206 D6N with its 6-cylinder Daimler Benz Ag OM603 A diesel. It has a lower heat signature, higher torque at low engine speed, and reduced maintenance needs. If anyone is wondering about the noise level in the video clip above, there’s a KMW APVT doing laps out of view, with the Bv 206 being quite low noise. However, the most important benefit might be that using a current commercial off-the-shelf engine and gearbox means spare parts are readily available at short notice, significantly improving downtime during scheduled and unscheduled maintenance stops.

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A German protected Bv 206S during Exercise Trident Juncture 2015. Source: Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum via Wikimedia Commons

Millog is clear with their aim. “We aren’t competing with new vehicles,” as a company representative explains. But as all terrain vehicles are the sole alternative for the roadless country found up north in Finland, there will be a continued requirement for serious numbers of these kinds of platforms. And as “the basic vehicle is a solid design”, this kind of low-cost and decidedly low-tech lifetime extension for the larger part of the fleet coupled with a buy of a smaller number of modern protected vehicles for use as APCs would be a very Finnish solution. At the moment the future of the Finnish fleet is undecided, but Millog is ready to modify significant parts of the Finnish Bv 206-fleet in-country if the Finnish Defence Forces decides to go down that route.

This is one alternative for the FDF, time will tell which route the service chooses

But what then causes Millog to ship the Bv 206 MLE demonstrator to AMBLE Baltic in Germany? Millog mentions the general need for these kinds of amphibious all terrain vehicles for marine forces around the world, but word on the street has it that there’s a more direct connection between the German marines and the potential for a Bv 206 upgrade as well. As mentioned the German airborne and mountain forces use Bv 206S (a protected version closely related to the Bv 308 in use by e.g. Finland and Sweden). However, especially the Gebirgsjäger would like to upgrade to the BvS10 Viking, while the Seebatallion has a requirement for an all terrain vehicle, of which they currently have none. It is speculated one likely solution would be that the mountain troops get new vehicles, while their Bv 206 are passed on to the marines. They would then require some kind of a mid-life update, such as the Bv 206 MLE. The German-designed drive train with a German engine and gearbox could certainly be a tempting option, especially as the upgrade has proven itself to be more than just a paper product.

PMPV looks towards the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Survivability of a Finnish AEW&C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radar ranges

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

Su-35 Vyborg

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

Hornet ranges

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

A-50U Mainstay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GlobalEye for HX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fredrik Follin, GlobalEye Campaign Manager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20170524_hamhag01_F21_ACE17_landningar_0251
Swedish Air Force ASC 890 Argus coming in for landing during exercise ACE 17. Source: Hampus Hagstedt/Försvarsmakten

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

Erieye ER with specific features for ground surveillance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finnish Maritime Patrol

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

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

Own translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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