Sunken Costs and Good Enough – the A26 Blekinge-class

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

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

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 However, the five A-11 were sold to Singapore (as the Challenger-class) starting in 1995, and 1998 saw the A-14 being withdrawn.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

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

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

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

Enter the A26 Blekinge-class.

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

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

The last sentence contain two issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bear with me for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Issue at Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foreign submarines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pounding in the Pacific

In a move that sent shock-waves around the Pacific Ocean, Australia is bound to become the third-largest operator of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN’s). But let’s start from the beginning.

Australia has a lot of water surrounding it, and the distances are long. Most countries with that situation rely on nuclear-powered submarines for the simple reason that they offers longer endurance and higher speed. However, Australia doesn’t sport any kind of nuclear infrastructure to speak about (besides a single research reactor and remnants of old UK weapons tests), and nuclear power has generally been seen as not an option. As such, when the current Collins-class, mainly famous for being the largest submarines ever designed in Sweden and for suffering from a significant amount of teething troubles due to being the largest submarines ever designed in Sweden – the physical properties of water scale poorly – was to be replaced, the requirement was for a very large conventionally powered submarine. In the end, Sweden, Germany, and France were confirmed to be in the running for the contract. Sweden offered an enlarged version of their current state-of-the-art submarine, the A26, which was a design principle that worked poorly with the Collins. Germany offered the Type 216, which again was a paper product based on the existing Type 214 – but larger. The French concept was to take the new French SSN-class the Barracuda (or Suffren-class as it is also known after the first boat of the class), and convert it to conventional power. And fit a completely different combat management system in it.

The boat that Australia should have bought, the Japanese Sōryū-class. It has now been replaced with the even more capable Taigei-class, which is an iterative low-risk design. Source: Kaijō Jieitai JMSDF

The fact that none of the submarines proposed actually existed probably tells you all about how unique the Australian requirement is. The one country which is building submarines that would fit the requirement was Japan, and they are among the finest submarines on the market. Or rather, they would be if Japan was interested in exporting defence equipment. The Sōryū-class was by many regarded as the front-runner, but in the end it seems it didn’t make it to the final selection. In any case, it was the one submarine that likely would have made sense to the SEA 1000-programme as the Collins-replacement is officially designated.

The Shortfin Barracuda (an excellent name, by the way) ran into problems quite quickly. The Australian counterpart required a significant amount of work be made locally, and notable is that there is no submarine industry in the country. Undertaking submarine production is one of the most complex engineering tasks found, and this requirement added significantly to the price tag. At the same time, the conversion work from one mode of propulsion to a completely different one proved even harder than it looked, and in essence there wasn’t much left of the original Barracuda once the design started to finalise.

Here a number of people will probably yell “Buy German, they know submarines!”, but while the Type 2xx-boats out of TKMS by all accounts are very good, it should be noted that France for decades has been an international powerhouse when it comes to submarines for both the domestic and the export markets. The submarines include both SSNs and SSKs (and SSBNs for domestic use), and have a very good reputation. (they also lead the post-war tonnage war by 1,450 t – 0 t compared to the German boats, though I wouldn’t read too much into that particular statistic). The eventual issues did not stem from getting a French boat, but from getting a paper product.

If it’s stupid but works it isn’t stupid, but unfortunately for the Shortfin Barracuda the basic project was just stupid and didn’t work. Something had to be done, and the Australians deserve credit for avoiding the alluring trap of the sunken cost fallacy (British Army, take note). And here is where this week’s announcement enter the equation.

The triple pact announced between the US-UK-Australia is far from a submarine deal, but rather a comprehensive security package including a number of practical steps, announced arms deals, and general security cooperation on an increased level (and let’s remember that the parties involved already were extremely close under the Five Eyes agreement). However, while getting Tomahawks is nice, there’s no denying that the SSN is the part that grabbed the headlines.

I didn’t expect the French to be happy about the announcement, but the official reaction has been absolutely positively furious. Some have claimed that France is overreacting to a major deal lost, and that it is largely theatre for domestic political reasons. However, most people with insight into the inner workings of French politics seem to take them at their word in this case, and in my opinion the notion that the French are unhappy because of a failed project is a significant oversimplification.

The American decision, which leads to the exclusion of a European ally and partner like France from a crucial partnership with Australia at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, be it over our values or respect for a multilateralism based on the rule of law, signals a lack of consistency which France can only notice and regret.

As the quote above shows, while there is understandably some anger directed towards Australia for breaking the contract (and doing so a mere two weeks after “Both sides committed to deepen defence industry cooperation and enhance their capability edge in the region. Ministers underlined the importance of the Future Submarine program” during a joint 2+2 ministerial meeting between French and Australian foreign and defence ministers), the main villain in the French eyes seem to be the US who not only outmanoeuvred the French, but brought along the British and left the French out in the cold. Crucially, there seems to have been little to no warning given to the French, who even if they must have known that the Shortfin Barracuda was in trouble, most likely did not anticipate the US and UK unilaterally deciding to trash the long-held non-proliferation convention to not export reactor technology for use aboard SSNs. Interestingly, it does seem that the initiative – as well as the decision to keep the French in the dark – came from the Australians, making the French framing of this being a US diplomatic backstabbing of the higher order seem somewhat misplaced.

The bilateral US-French relation has been growing in importance in recent years, and France – unlike the British – is a serious player in the Indo-Pacific region due to French Polynesia and the military presence based out of that region. La Royale is also by a margin the world’s third most powerful navy (after the USN and the PLAN). All in all, on paper France would seem to be the obvious choice for the role of junior expeditionary partner if you want to create a three-party alliance (let’s stay away from referring to it as the tripartite pact) in the region, with Australia bringing the local basing options and the US bringing their global reach. However, real life international relations are usually more complex than just playing top trumps. There’s little doubt that the Five Eyes/Anglosphere/Commonwealth/Special Relationship-bonds played an important role in ensuring that UK suddenly appeared in what France apparently sees as a US-scheme – note the reference to the “American decision” in the quote above. The UK is also a country that keeps punching above its weight in international relations based on a combination of historical grandeur, soft power, and just enough military force to be credible.

Nations might only have interests and not friends, but France is sometimes too open with that notion. Diplomacy is after all made between people, and people like to feel valued.

What happens now? France has declared this to “only heighten the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy. There is no other credible path for defending our interests and values around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific region”, but truth be told Paris could interpret the sun shining as a sign that the issue of European strategic autonomy needs to be raised. And while the Australians certainly share part in the blame, it is hard not to feel that France dropped the ball utterly and completely, having had one foot in the door of ensuring a long and deep strategic partnership with one of the key players in the region, only to have it utterly trashed by the inability of Naval Group to deliver on promises. The yard stated yesterday that they have “delivered on all its commitments“, but I do believe they are quite alone in their worldview on that point.

As said, the idea of converting an SSN to an SSK was rather hare-brained to begin with, so I don’t blame them for struggling to deliver. However, if it is supposed to be a strategic partnership between countries, I fail to see how the diplomats weren’t involved to a greater extent at an earlier stage and why a greater priority wasn’t assigned? It might certainly have been the Australian partners who struggled, but in that case Naval Group would have been the one who needed to step up and ensure the success, so that isn’t an explanation in my book either. Hindsight might be 20-20, but the only explanation is that it wasn’t evident in France exactly how fed up the Australian politicians were with the project falling behind. The Australians doing the sensible thing and openly discussing the issues with the French, before cancelling the order and buying turn-key Taigei-class boats from Japan probably wouldn’t have lead to the same kind of diplomatic outrage. As it currently stands, this will be a setback to diplomatic relations between France and the AUKUS, and not because of the arms deal – people nab those all the time – but due to the backstabbing creation of a strategic partnership which also includes tech transfers that goes against long-standing proliferation conventions.

The Astute-class is extremely good, but comes with a price-tag to match. Source: LA(Phot) J Massey/MOD

But it wouldn’t be an Australian submarine program without the customer getting bright ideas. Now follows an 18-month planning phase, and then at some point Australia will build ‘at least’ eight(!) SSNs in Adelaide. It’s difficult to explain exactly how expensive this is bound to end up being. The boats themselves are expensive, even if they would end up buying either the Austute- or Virginia-class straight unmodified from the shelf (and we all know odds are they will be modified), and it’s notable that neither the British nor the French plan for eight boats in their respective fleet. However, building nuclear-powered attack submarines is bound to be one of the few things that will be even more difficult and expensive than building large conventional ones.

There are of course the even more expensive option left, namely to get surplus vessels as a stop-gap and try to keep them operational.

Side-note: The big winner here is Saab Kockums, since the Collins seem bound to stay in service for quite a bit longer than originally intended, needing service and updates along the way.

An SSN makes perfect sense for Australia, but what is unclear to me is how on earth they have managed to drag the US into this diplomatic mess, when the whole thing could have been a rather straightforward rerouted arms deal and all partners involved share the fear of China as a rising threat. To manage to convert that into something that has the potential to lead to a ‘Freedom Fries 2.0’-moment is quite the diplomatic achievement.

But in conclusion, several things can be true at the same time:

  • SSNs are the obvious operational choice for Australia,
  • Building them themselves will be horrendously expensive and likely lead to poor quality of workmanship on at least the first few vessels, something that might prove deadly if it ever comes to combat as the silence which submarines rely on require skilled workers,
  • The Shortfin Barracuda program was a disaster in the making, and while both parties certainly share part of the blame, cutting the losses was a wise move by the Australians,
  • While the French are sad that they’ve lost the deal, there is reason to start with a look in the mirror before criticising that part,
  • At the same time, the completely opaque launching of the AUKUS and having that include nuclear tech-transfer is what seemingly draw the most ire in Paris, and here they certainly are justified,
  • While not counter to the letter of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the way in which this is done does see the US and the UK unilaterally break old non-proliferation standards, something that tend to have the ability to come back to bite you later.

My Mines and those of My Brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Dmitrii Fedotoff-White – University of Pennsylvania press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continued Imbalances – The Swedish Defence Forces towards 2030

The long-term planning of the Swedish Defence Forces, SVFM, has been in quite some flux during recent years. The short version of a complex dynamic is that prior to Crimea the Swedish Defence Forces were focusing rather heavily on international missions and peacekeeping abroad, including serious contributions to a number of missions in Europe and Africa, as well as in Afghanistan. Following Crimea the homeland defence mission again took centre-stage, and a growth process was started.

The latest plans describe growth when it comes to the Army, relative stagnation for the Air Force, and a slow decline for the Navy.

A bit of background is needed to understand exactly which papers we are looking at. Last spring the parliamentary working group for defence (Försvarsberedningen) that was tasked with developing a long-term plan for how to grow the Swedish Defence Forces broke down, as in the final stages it became clear that while everyone was in agreement on the plan itself, the ruling Social Democratic party refused to confirm their willingness to fund it. Upon this, the centre-right opposition refused to sign the final report “Värnkraft“, though they still agreed with the way forward presented by the document. This has led to an unresolved political quarrel, and as cherry on top leadership of the SVFM is not particularly keen on all details in Värnkraft.

The events got complicated yet further with the SVFM returning the supporting budgetary documents in February this year outlining what they would be able to do during 2021 to 2025 (with the period 2026-2030 being broadly described as well). The government in turn wasn’t happy with these plans, and SVFM got the order to redo the plans earlier this summer, and this time with a list of which projects were not to be touched. The new supporting documents were published last week, and include some key changes to the schedule, and it is these that I am going to open up in this post.

(As this is a long one, feel free to scroll to whatever part interests you)

The Swedish Air Force

The Swedish Air Force had originally planned to phase out the current generation JAS 39C/D Gripen-fleet rather quickly (it is a bit more complicated than that, but for the sake of brevity let’s pretend this was the whole story). This has now changed, and the current Gripens will be kept in service alongside the JAS 39E Gripen up until 2030 (possibly beyond that). This allows the Air Force to keep operating six squadrons of multi-role fighters. In the period 2026 to 2030 the preliminary work on the future air combat capability will kick off in earnest (though Saab is quick to state that current cooperation as part of/together with Team Tempest does not mean that 39E will be phased out anytime soon). To keep the fighter fleet up to date, a new reconnaissance pod is to be acquired before 2030, and advanced munitions will also be acquired in the 2026 to 2030 time span. The February documents included an explicit mention of Sweden acquiring a long-range cruise missile to the Gripen-fleet, but this has been removed from the July version (likely due to a lack of funds).

Another thing that has been pushed back is the replacement of the ASC 890, the current Swedish AEW&C platform. This is based on the Saab 340 propliner equipped with the Erieye-radar, and in February the plan was to replace these old airframes before 2030. Under the current plan, the replacement process is “begun” before 2030.

Something that apparently will keep going forever is the Swedish fleet of first-generation C-130 Hercules. Sweden operates six C-130H (originally delivered in the mid-60’s as C-130E) under the Tp 84 designation, with the aircraft being amongst the oldest still operational in Europe. These will now undergo a serious overhaul to get more flight-hours out of them, with no replacement being planned before 2030.

Another veteran is the Saab 105 (Sk 105), which is used for training. The old jets have started to show signs of their age, including having been temporarily grounded in both Swedish and Austrian service late last year. A new modern turboprop trainer is to be acquired for basic training before 2025, with the 39D getting a larger role in the advanced training syllabus.

The helicopter force will continue to use the current equipment (with assorted updates during the next decade), but will be reorganised into four wartime squadrons. Changes to operational doctrine and the support function will also make them better suited to support the Army and Navy in a high-end conflict. The unique Swedish naval version of the NH 90, the Hkp 14F, will receive some important changes, though the exact nature and timeline of these are more obscure in the July papers than they were in February. It is no secret that integration of tactical naval datalinks and the new light-weight torpedo (NLWT/Torped 47) is high on the wish-list.

Other organisational changes are also to be rolled out, including splitting up the fixed-wing heavies into individual squadrons based on their roles, as well the (re)forming of the F 16 Upplands flygflottilj as an independent air wing. It is unclear to me if and to what extent these changes will impact how the SwAF operates, and to what extent it is a question of administration.

The Swedish Navy

The Swedish Navy was the one to draw the short straw in Värnkraft, and the July documents further reinforce this. In February two new surface ships were to be operational before 2030, which would replace the ageing Gävle-class, with the construction on vessels three and four of the new series also being started before 2030. Ships three and four have now been pushed past 2030, by which time the Swedish Navy’s surface warfare vessels will be five Visby-class corvettes (launched between 2000 and 2006) and two modern corvettes. The Visby-class will start rotating through their MLU between 2021 and 2025, which will include getting air-defence missiles, the Torped 47 replacing the current Torped 45, and a new anti-ship missile (Saab RBS15 Gungnir‎ not being mentioned but certainly the most likely candidate). This will allow them to serve until 2040, by which time they will be 35 to 40 years old. Those that remember the last two sentences of the text will realise that if the Visby-class is to retire in 2040 and the building of it’s replacement hasn’t even started by 2030, that leaves less than ten years in which to build the replacement class.

A key decision which also will impact the Navy heavily is that the work on converting the current base structures so that in wartime there would be two mobile units responsible for maritime logistics (i.e. allowing for dispersed basing in the archipelago) has been delayed in the July papers.

For the marines the situation is looking better. One of the main roles of the Swedish marines is the coastal anti-ship mission which they handle with a version of the anti-tank HELLFIRE-missile. This will be replaced by a new system (a new heavy missile system will also replace the current truck-mounted RBS 15). The marines will also get a new man-portable surface-to-air missile, as well as Minigun 7.62 mm gatling machine guns for their vessels. On the flip side, the earlier announced second marine battalion (Amf 4) will be delayed from 2022 to 2025. There will also be less funding available to replace the boats of the marines, which is bad news as the majority of the Stridsbåt 90 (and some larger vessels) are starting to reach the age when small aluminium hulls usually are retired. However, a boat-mounted mortar system is to be in service by 2030.

The Swedish Army

The Army is the one seeing the biggest organisational changes. For a brief primer, I recommend my old post on the Swedish wartime order of battle, which roughly corresponds to the current baseline.

Starting from the top, the divisional level of command is brought back in the form of the 1. Division. The division will not be of fixed composition, but instead will be a command function with certain higher level assets. This “modular HQ”-model is not completely unlike the current Swedish brigade HQ’s, and will be needed as the size of the Army grows to a point where a single brigade HQ no longer is able to effectively direct all units involved in a single battle. At the same time, the Army headquarters should not have tactical responsibilities, and as such the higher tactical level is brought back into the force structure.

Artillery

Perhaps the most visible new equipment will be the acquisition of divisional artillery. I spent quite some time on the blog discussing higher-level fires in my earlier series on the future of Finnish fires. The current Swedish plans are still to be nailed down, but currently it seems like 12 new guns will be acquired in the 2026 to 2030 time-span (i.e. a battalion under Swedish doctrine), but the SVFM is also seriously contemplating acquiring a proven multiple rocket system (of which quite a few are found on the market).

Artillery in general will receive a boost, with all 48 Archers being included in the wartime organisation, as well as a second artillery regiment being created in the central parts of Sweden (most likely A 9 Bergslagens artilleriregemente will reform in Kristinehamn). Considering the three brigade force envisioned, it’s still not exactly an artillery-heavy force, but coupled with the introduction of self-propelled mortars the Swedish Army will have a serious increase in indirect firepower available by 2030.

Special Forces

The special forces are also seeing changes. The most visible is that AJB, the Swedish Army Ranger Battalion, which is currently subordinated to I 19 in Boden will become an independent regiment through the reformation of K4 Norrlands dragonregemente. The battalion will transform from a Jägarbataljon (ranger battalion) to a Norrlandsjägarbataljon (Norrland ranger battalion), and a second battalion will be added to the regiment starting in 2025 and being fully operational by 2030. The Norrlandsjägarbataljon is an old designation from the Cold War-era when Sweden operated two different kinds of ranger battalions, the NjBat and their southern cousin Jägarbataljon Syd (ranger battalion south), which differed mainly in equipment choices. However, these battalions had very different doctrines compared to the current unit, as was explained in a guest post by Jägarchefen a while back:

The battalions were given a geographical area, which was further divided into company-, platoon-, and squad areas. Within these the so called direct action would take place, simply put different forms of ambushes against predetermined targets such as supply vehicles during a prolonged time. The battle would then transform to interdiction once the divisions of the Swedish Army would launch their all-out offensive aimed at destroying the enemy formations.

[…]

Today’s sole ranger battalion is miles apart from its predecessors. The unit isn’t tied to specific geographic areas, but is used deep behind enemy lines against the critical vulnerabilities that have been identified as having the potential to affect the outcome of the battle. How the battle is fought and with what unit size is not defined in set doctrinal rules, but rather decided on the basis of the specific target in question (the critical vulnerability).

The reintroduction of the old designation apparently doesn’t herald a major change in doctrine, but rather a greater focus on the current role in the unique environment that K4’s home region offer. Looking at the long-term plan presented in the SVFM’s PerP-report, the geography of Upper Norrland (i.e. the northernmost part of Sweden) is such that a defence in depth is possible. This would rest on two ranger battalions that together with defensive works and increased long-range fires can slow down the advancing enemy and attrit their rear units. While the units obviously can be used in other locations as well, the tactic works particularly well in this region thanks to it featuring relatively little infrastructure and being heavily forested. Still, in case Norrland wasn’t directly threatened but an enemy landing was made in the southern or central parts of Sweden one should likely expect the NjBats to quickly head south.

The NjBat designation is also needed to differentiate the units from the other major change in the organisation of the SOF force, namely that the airmobile 31. battalion will be converted to a ranger-style battalion and designated simply as a jägarbataljon (i.e. what the AJB’s current wartime organisation 193. jägarbataljonen is designated as). Their mission will “amongst other things” be to provide support to the Swedish SOF-units (i.e. SOG and the Navy’s special forces found in Amf 1’s coastal ranger company). Internationally, the best comparison is probably to the UK’s Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), which “serves as a quick-reaction force to assist Special Forces missions. This might include large supporting offensives, blocking enemy counter-attacks or guarding areas of operation” (quote from here). Notable is that these mission sets aren’t in fact widely different from the current missions of the airmobile battalion, which also include operations behind enemy lines and emphasise the rapid reaction made possible by the unit being relatively light and moved around by helicopter, and in fact the unit already does cooperate with SOG when the need arises. The wording about “amongst other things” obviously leaves room for other mission sets as well. Time will tell how big the change compared to the current role is for the 31.

Swedish Army main units 2020
The peacetime bases of the main units of the Swedish Defence Forces by 2030 according to the latest plan presented by the Swedish Defence Forces. Note that some icons are shifted slightly to allow for a clearer picture. Source: Own illustration

Brigades and Battlegroups

For the main combat units of the Swedish Army the changes are dramatic. Going from the current two brigades that would be built upon modular blocks being moved around the country, the new structures will be fixed and emphasise the major peacetime regiments all mobilising into their own brigade.

P4 and I19 will both create a brigade each, the 4. mechanised brigade and the 19. mechanised Norrland brigade. On paper these are similar in force structure, with two armoured and one mechanised battalion each as their manoeuvre elements, being backed up by an engineering battalion, an artillery battalion (currently these have 12 wheeled Archer 155 mm SPGs each), an air defence company, and a reconnaissance company, amongst other. Again, the question arises whether the designation “Norrland” will denote anything else than the northern brigade being more accustomed to snow and bogs due to it being located in Boden? It is certainly possible, although as of yet unconfirmed, that there will be differences in equipment, such as tracked all-terrain vehicles replacing trucks in some roles. However, in both cases the main equipment will be the local variant of the Leopard 2A5, the Strv 122, and the CV 90 fitted with the 40 mm Bofors, the Strf 9040.

The third brigade will be the completely new one, and will be based in the southern parts of the country. P7 Södra skånska regementet is currently home to half of the Swedish Patria AMV-fleet in the form of the 71. motorised rifle battalion. These will be sent to Stockholm, and the battalion will convert to become the 71. armoured battalion by receiving the Strv 122 and other assorted equipment from the sister battalion, the 72. mechanised battalion. The conversion should be completed by 2025. This will leave the eventual 7. mechanised brigade lighter than the other two, having a single armoured and two mechanised battalions (the supporting units likely being similar). The reason behind all three brigades not being carbon copies is simply that there aren’t enough tanks. There are a number of CV 90s currently mothballed though, so they are available. The decision to make the brigade positioned in the open flat terrain of Skåne, the stereotypical tank country, is interesting. An optimist would say that it is as MekB 7 will be the first to receive new tanks when they are ordered sometimes post-2030, though there is currently no funds or direct plans for a renewal of the Strv 122/Strf 9040-combination.

As mentioned, the AMVs will be sent to Stockholm, where the other major new combat formation is created. Stridsgrupp Mälardalen (SG MÄL, literally Battelgroup Mälaren Valley) will be a reduced motorised infantry brigade centred around three infantry battalions of which two will sport the AMV – the current 12. motorised rifle battalion (being re-designated 1. motorised rifle battalion) and the new 2. motorised rifle battalion (set up with the equipment from the 71.). In addition, the Livbataljonen (Life battalion) will be included in the battlegroup, though they will likely remain rather lightly equipped when it comes to vehicles. The battlegroup will be responsible for the defence of the greater Stockholm region, and will have relatively light organic support functions. There will be a single artillery company and a single air defence company, with no higher level engineering or logistical assets. However, if the capital really is threatened, my guess it that it would not be long until e.g. MekB 4 would arrive on scene.

The other independent battlegroup is Stridsgrupp Gotland on the island with the same name. This is built around a single mechanised battalion, the 181. battalion, and will receive an artillery company and an engineering company as well as a logistics company to support it. In addition, there is an air defence unit already operational on the island that will be integrated into the battlegroup.

Local Defence Battalions

One of the features of the current Swedish Army is the lack of a “middle level” between the highly mobile and often heavily protected key units and the home guard battalions. This will now be addressed with the creation of local defence battalions (Lokalförsvarsskyttebataljon), of which five new battalions will be in production by 2030 (three will be fully operational by then, the first coming in 2028). These will be mobilised from new regiments, of which I5 Jämtlands fältjägarregemente in Östersund will be the first (the fältjägar-designation in this case is used due to the traditions of the reactivated regiment, and should not be taken to indicate a ranger/SOF-role).

The kicker here is that while the middle level certainly is needed to flesh out the ranks and ensure that there is the required mass allowing the tip of the spear to be pointing at the key locations, the political decision to create new regiments in cities currently lacking garrisons is the one single issue that most heavily eats up the funds needed for a serious and well-balanced force. It was also in the schedule for these that the leadership of the defence forces clashed most directly with the politicians.

Continued imbalances

As noted, several delays are caused by the inclusion of the new regiments on an aggressive timeline. The ones mentioned for the Army include reduced funds for the acquisition of new personal firearms, a project that was launched last year and is urgently needed according to Twitter-rumours that describe many of the current rifles starting to be worn out. Less sexy but vital acquisitions of “trucks, trailers, and other vehicles” are also being delayed, as is the Telekrigsbataljonen (signals and EW battalion) of the new divisional setup. New C3-equipment for the ground forces are also delayed.

The overall situation is also described in rather stern words in the documents:

“In addition to this, there is an extensive need for support from the rest of the total defence [i.e. the civilian sector] as an imbalance, in terms of operational units and
supporting functions, will remain until 2030. “

In short, the political drive now is to score easy points that can be waved around in the TV debates before next election, pointing at new regiments and brigades as signs of growth. At the same time, basics such as the increased logistical footprint to go with it and personal firearms are put on hold or kicked towards the future.

The Political Game

However, whether the plan will be implemented remains to be seen.

Several politicians of the centre-right opposition (which crucially has a parliamentary majority) are openly stating that come the budgetary rounds in parliament this autumn, they will force the budgetary increase needed for SVFM to implement Värnkraft in full upon the left-leaning government. Whether they actually will make good on their threat or whether a last-minute compromise will be reached remains to be seen, as if the budget really is forced upon the government by the opposition it would constitute a serious political crisis. At the same time, sticking to the limited increases currently envisioned by the government in the current troubling times while notionally trying to increase the fighting power of the SVFM will likely lead to the serious issues and imbalances described above. As such, this is in many ways a litmus test to whether the Swedish political line of growing their defence forces and becoming a serious contributor to stability in the Baltic Sea region is true or just empty promises.

Unmanned Underwater Vehicle in the defence of the Gulf of Finland

The videoclip below is interesting.

At the 1:57 time stamp, the Finnish Navy is seen launching one of the world’s most advanced autonomous weapons systems in its class. Having been deployed, it slips below the surface where it will lay in wait. Silent. Deadly. Not giving away its presence in any way, but constantly monitoring its surroundings. Waiting. Every movement is registered, and evaluated against the profiles stored in its database. And once there’s a match, it strikes, mercilessly.

I am obviously referring to the Finnish Navy’s PM16 (fi. Pohjamiina for bottom mine, confusingly enough a designation also used for the Finnish Army’s sensor-fused anti-tank mines), the newest addition to the Finnish family of influence mines that started with the PM90, and has since seen the addition of both the PM04 and the PM16 visible above (the PM90 has also been updated to PM90MOD status with an all-new “brain” and sensor-suite). In addition, the Navy has operated British Stonefish (as the PM-85E) and two different kinds of Soviet mines as the PM83-1 and PM83-2 (possibly the MDM-4 and UDM), though these are likely retired by now. Mines are seen as a strategic threshold capability in Finnish doctrine. They can seal off the chokepoints an aggressor needs to enter Finnish territory from the sea, and they will cause significant stress for anyone forced to operate within areas potentially mined. The very shallow nature of both the Gulf of Finland as well as the Archipelago Sea also lend themselves well to both traditional moored mines as well as influence mines. Obviously, history has also shown that in case war would break out, mines can be used to seal of the Gulf of Finland completely. This would make it impossible for vessels to transit between the Russian Baltic Fleet’s main base Baltiysk in Kaliningrad and the Russian mainland, and isolating St Petersburg from the Baltic Sea.

The influence mine is usually not included in discussions regarding autonomous weapons, though there really is no reason why it shouldn’t. After all, it is a system that does all decision making completely on its own once it is released into the wild, with no human in or on the loop. However, the main issue with the mines is that they do not move*, and once a minefield is cleared that area is free to use**. Wouldn’t it be even better if the weapon could move around, suddenly appear in areas previously thought of as safe, or quickly be despatched to areas where control over an area protected by a minefield has been lost?

low-cost-xluuv-cutaway
The original artwork of H I Sutton’s XLUUV concept. Picture courtesy of H I Sutton/Covert Shores

Naval analyst H I Sutton presented an interesting concept on his homepage recently. In short, he asked himself why the concept of operations for the Iranian Ghadir-class of midget submarines – stay hidden close to shipping lanes, wait for surface targets, and then torpedo them – couldn’t conceivably be automated. Wouldn’t an extra-large unmanned underwater vehicle in the class of the US Navy’s Orca-program be a good fit for the mission. Most XLUUVs at the moment are designed for modularity and the possibility of taking up a number of different roles. By focusing on the single relatively straightforward mission of ambushing surface vessels, the complexity and cost becomes lower (to get a feeling for the costs, the current Orca-program has seen Boeing bag a recent order “for the fabrication, test, and delivery of four Orca” worth 43 million USD, following on a roughly equally large contract covering the design phase of the competition).

The XLUUV envisioned by Sutton would sport air-independent propulsion in the form of a stirling engine, and two pre-loaded 533 mm torpedo tubes would provide the sting. An endurance in excess of a week could be achieved, and further cost-savings could be had by restricting the requirements when it comes to performance, including max-depth.

It is easy to see how beneficial a system such as that described by Sutton could be for Finland. A handful of vessels could easily cover the Finnish coastline, and they would be at their strongest outside of the archipelago, a place where the Finnish Navy prefers to spend a relatively limited part of their time. It is also easy to see the value of a remote sensor function where the XLUUVs occasionally send back particularly interesting sensor tracks to the mainland, though this naturally has to be balanced against the value of staying completely silent.

However, it is also easy to see why the Finnish Navy likely won’t pursue this line of development. The Gulf of Finland is shallow enough that more or less any part of it, including the open waters, can likely by mined with bottom mines (and in any case traditional moored mines remain in use as well), and as has been discussed earlier the narrow straight means that any vessel moving in the open waters will be spotted and could be targeted by both artillery and land-based anti-ship missiles. As noted earlier, what the XLUUV option would bring to the Gulf of Finland would not be so much the capability to close of the gulf, that is already possible, but to do so with systems that are extremely difficult to track and take out. The relatively limited firepower of two tubes would also mean that the main threat of any single vessel would be in the psychological realm rather than purely kinetic capability (though considering the limited number of vessels in the Russian Baltic Fleet, XLUUVs that only strike once they match the profile of e.g. LSTs would present a serious headache for the aggressor).

Echo Voyager
The 15.5 meter long Echo Voyager is the basis for Boeing’s Orca XLUUV. Note the worker standing on the platform behind the vessel, providing scale. Source: Picture courtesy of Boeing

Another question is whether they actually might hold more use in the ASW role, as getting the sensors and weapons for the mission out to open waters without taking undue risks is something of an issue currently. This could also see a step-down to tube-launched 400 mm torpedoes (something the Swedish submarines currently use), making room for a larger number of torpedoes. The choice of only attacking underwater targets would also ensure a significantly smaller risk of collateral damage, something that certainly would aid in public acceptance of the system. Because let’s face it: it might be argued to be intellectually dishonest as I did at the start of this text, but the general public stills sees the sea mine as an explosive round and an autonomous XLUUV as a ‘killer robot’. Any procurement of the latter will first have to overcome this political hurdle.

* There are obviously self-propelled mines, combining the features of the torpedo and sea mine (somewhat ironically, as the term “torpedo” originally referred to mines, with today’s torpedoes being “self-propelled torpedoes”). Saab and Naval Group are both working on development projects aimed at producing modern solutions blurring the torpedo/UUV/mine definitions

** This is only true as long as the area really is clear, something that has proven to be surprisingly difficult to validate. Solutions such as the JDAM-ER with Quickstrike could also quickly change the situation, with e.g. two Super Hornets being able to swiftly put sixteen 450 kg mines on individual pinpoint locations

Sources:

Concept for low-cost autonomous anti-ship submarine

Laivaston sanomat 5/2018

Herätemiinojen kehitystyö Merivoimissa

The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World, 16th Ed.

A Long Text about Seven Short Minutes

Twelve years ago, about this time of the year, I was charging down a sea lane in the outer archipelago as the helmsman and engineer of a Jurmo-class landing craft. On my left side one of my fellow conscripts sat and focused on navigating, as he was working as the skipper of the vessel that day. Both of us were also keeping a lookout around the vessel. We had both received the same training, allowing to us serve as helmsman/engineer or as the skipper/navigator of the Jurmo, and when out on longer exercises we usually rotated between positions every other day. Following a sharp left-hand turn which took us straight towards an island I spotted a Pansio-class mineferry. Just before the island we were headed towards we would turn sharply to the right, and the large vessel now sat directly at the turning point, in front of the island. As we got closer, I noticed that it seemed like the skipper might not have noticed the mineferry, so a couple of hundred meters out, with plenty enough time for us to take the turn safely, I drew his attention to the vessel and asked how close he wanted to go. “Oh fuck, I did not see that one coming,” he said. “Helm to the right.” I acknowledged the ordered and we used the fact that we had plenty of water under the keel to our advantage to cut the corner slightly to maintain a safe distance without having to slow down for the passage.

Just over eight years ago, I was on my first ‘real’ job in the maritime industry working the summer at local boatyard Kewatec Aluboat. Much of the job revolved around the Pilot 1500-class of fast pilot vessels which were just being finished and delivered to the Finnish pilotage service Finnpilot Pilotage Oy. Despite being a green mechanical engineer roughly halfway through university I got to do some fairly interesting stuff, such as riding along on the sea trials to keep book on results such as RPM relative to speed and noise level measurements. Eventually Kewatec would be my first full-time employer, and I spent a few really interesting years there before moving on to what was then Rolls-Royce’s waterjet division (now Kongsberg Maritime Finland).

Both of these experiences came vividly back when I last week got a Twitter DM with the Finnish Safety Investigation Authority’s report on an incident where the Pilot 1500-class fast pilot vessel L239 had come close to colliding with the Hamina-class fast attack craft Hanko last December. Out of curiosity I did a quick glance through the abstract of the report, and might have left it at that if it wasn’t for the fact that the newspaper headlines that came out of Finnish daily Turun Sanomat over the next days didn’t square with the impression I had been left with.

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24 October 2019: “SIAF: Attack craft hiding caused incident – requests risk assessment plan from the Navy”
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25 October 2019: “The Navy will continue to sail around with safety signal blacked out – The collision was 8 seconds away”

In fact, the report does not lay the blame on the lack of AIS on the part of the Hanko. Nor is AIS some kind of magic safety beacon. But let’s start from the beginning.

In the early hours of 1 December 2018 Hanko was transiting southwards in the Sköldvik sea lane. The weather and visibility was generally good (considering it was pitch-black with clouds), but the wind was near gale at an average speed of 16 m/s (note that in the narrow waters this meant a wave height of 2.4 meters). At the same time, L239 left Emäsalo pilot station and entered the same lane heading north. Hanko picked up the vessel as soon as she left port, and started tracking her using normal procedures. Notably, Hanko that had been steaming down the lane to the left of the midline (her left) altered course slightly to get over to the right side of the lane to allow for a standard passing where both vessels hold to starboard (i.e. right-hand traffic as is the international standard on the seas). Hanko, in accordance with standard procedures of the Finnish Navy, did not have her AIS switched on, but had reported her general area of operating to the local Vessel Traffic Service (VTS), which informed the pilot vessel that a naval vessel was operating in the area. L239 did however not spot the Hanko when she left port, and a radar echo of the vessel was dismissed as a flock of birds.

The plotted course of the L239 (red) and Hanko (Blue). Source: OTKES

The route was a standard run for the L239, and when the lane was empty the pilot vessels usually took the shortest (and somewhat more sheltered) route in the interest of saving time and fuel. This put the pilot vessel well to the left of the middle line, i.e. heading straight for the Hanko. While Hanko was cruising at a moderate speed of about ten knots, the L239 was doing close to 25 knots with the wind at its back. A few minutes later the crew on the bridge of the Hanko realised that the pilot vessel hadn’t noticed them and immediately stopped (as the vessel is equipped with waterjets, it is able to quickly stop even from a considerable speed). At the same time the skipper of the pilot vessel noticed something in front of him, and turned on the spotlight. This showed an unidentified vessel right in their course, so he quickly reduced speed and turned right towards the midline of the sea lane. The two vessels passed each other at approximately 40 meters distance. The whole incident had taken place in less than seven minutes from L239 leaving the port.

Here we’ll take a short interlude to discuss what AIS is and isn’t. AIS is an automatic transponder system that sends data over the normal VHF-band. This usually include the vessel’s name, position, heading/course, speed, and potentially a number of other pieces of information (turn rate, heel, destination, ETA, current mode of operation, …). On the positive side it is inexpensive, simple, and when combined with other systems such as radars and chart plotters it provide a situational picture that is easy to read and interpret. It is mandatory equipment for a number of vessels, including merchant and passenger vessels. Crucially, it is not mandatory for neither pilot vessels nor for naval vessels.

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AIS has been in the headlines a number of times in recent years, including its role in the collisions of Norwegian frigate KNMS Helge Ingstad and the two US Navy destroyers that collided in separate incidents in the Pacific in 2017. However, it is crucial to note that not only is AIS susceptible to spoofing, it can also simply be switched off at the flick of a button. In Finnish waters, as opposed to out on the high seas is the majority of vessels moving around are not fitted with AIS due to their small size. Pleasure crafts might not be moving around in the Sköldvik area in the middle of the night in two meter high waves in December in any huge numbers, but there’s always the risk that some local is heading out to check on his summer cottage. As such, AIS is not God-mode view on a bridge display, but just another (very good) source of information to build up situational awareness. As a matter of fact, navigating solely on electronic aids such as AIS, or radar for that matter, is not allowed under international rules, as all vessels are required to keep a proper lookout.

Going back to my opening story from 2007, there were a few issues that could have led to it ending badly. The first was that we were under a tight schedule. We were part of an exercise scenario with several moving parts, and it was crucial that our vessel were at the designated point at the designated time. The second issue was that the timing of us and the Pansio-class crossing paths was very unfortunate, with it coming from an unexpected angle and with our vessel turning towards it at a time window measured in mere minutes when it wasn’t silhouetted against the horizon but completely in front of an island. The vessel, like the Hamina-class, is also painted to easily hide in the archipelago, and the colours work extremely well. However, the Navy doesn’t just throw enlisted conscripts into a fifteen meter vessel with a thousands horsepowers to work with and see what happens. There are clear cut roles and procedures to follow to ensure safe operations, and before one gets to sign the line next to the word “Skipper” in the logbook there’s a number of steps and certifications that you need to meet.

As mentioned, these procedures include that both crewmembers keep a lookout. The reason is simple: the skipper will need to keep one eye on the navigation, including the paper chart, chart plotter, and the radar, while the helmsman will need to keep one eye on the engine instruments. If something starts to go ever so slightly off the rails, it is easy for either crew member to be distracted and spend too little time looking out the windows, and as mr. Murphy dictates, that always happens at the worst possible time. As such, having both crew members keep their eyes open is a necessity. In our case, the training showed its worth, and the situation was solved safely and without incident.

As such, reading the report, the most baffling detail for me personally is that the pilot vessel always operate with two certified skippers aboard, of which one function as the vessel crew and the other is the safety guy when the pilot is transiting between the vessel and the ship. This isn’t baffling in itself, but the safety guy has no duties whatsoever while the vessel is underway, not even a general recommendation to keep looking out the windows! While the vessel is built to be able to be operated by a single crew member, not using the available resources is a strange decision to say the least.

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FNS Hamina leading sister FNS Hanko, showing their dark colours optmised for hiding in the archipelago. Source: Own picture

The Hanko on the other hand was naturally operating with a significantly larger crew. The persons on the bridge included not only an officer of the watch, but also a navigator, a assistant navigator, and a dedicated lookout working outside of the vessel. As noted, the crew noticed the L239 as soon as it put out to sea, and assumed that the pilot vessel had noticed them in turn.

This was likely the single largest shortcoming on the part of the crew of the Hanko. Having a very good situational awareness thanks to good working procedures, it’s easy to start assuming this is how all professionals at sea operates. Giving a short radio call to the L239 to confirm that Hanko switches from left to right side of the sea lane for a standard meeting would have ensured that both vessels knew of each other’s presence. Hindsight 20/20, as they say.

However, the actions of the pilot vessel is harder to explain. The skipper knew that there was a naval vessel in the area but apparently did not try to locate it. There doesn’t seem to have been any discussion that the safety man would assist in keeping a lookout, nor any decision to slow down or keep in the correct part of the lane in case someone else was moving in the night. Granted the Pilot 1500 series is well-equipped to be handled by a single crew member, it sports two large displays for the radar and the chart plotter placed in front of the skipper to allow for a minimum of head movement when switching between checking them and looking out the windows. However, the rule (both written and unwritten) is that electronic aids support looking out the windows, not the other way around. This is especially true in cases where getting a clean radar picture is difficult, such as in rain or rough waves, where one easily end up either getting the screen overtly cluttered or filtering away real echos. While the report doesn’t mention it, the fact that such as large radar target as the Hanko was mistaken for a flock of birds does indicate that the radar didn’t provide a good and easy to read radar picture at the time of the incident.

Stealth interlude: Yes, Hanko feature signature reduction measures, but it isn’t invisible to radar by any stretch of imagination. In a later reconstruction the pilot vessel’s radar was able to pick up the FAC well beyond two nautical miles (beyond 3,700 meters), the VTS also got a clear radar echo of the vessel, despite the tracking algorithm having some issues tracking Hanko correctly at the time of the incident.

The report by the authorities notes five conclusions, of which two are related to the reporting processes for incidents and accidents on a national level. The three others are:

  1. The tracking of non-AIS transmitting vessels require use of radar and particular care by the VTS-operators,
  2. The resources of the pilot vessel were not used optimally considering the conditions,
  3. The crew aboard vessels that try to avoid detection don’t necessarily recognise the risks this create.

In other words, the report does not blame the Hanko, nor the lack of transmitting AIS on it’s part. The standard procedure of the Finnish Navy is to have the AIS turned off due to operational security considerations. Navies around the world have varied views on the use of AIS, with some having it always off, some having it on without IDs, and some having it on close to shore but off when at sea. Steffan Watkins has a good overview, but as usual things are different between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Finland.

A key difference is that Finnish vessels don’t transit. The operating area often starts when the quay is left behind. Another is that the Finnish Navy uses dispersed and wartime infrastructure, which you don’t necessarily want to show on the internet. And while fixed infrastructure likely is known to the adversary, the usage isn’t as easy to judge considering the concealed nature of the archipelago. Space based sensors are one possibility, but they don’t either provide the kind of continuous tracking that AIS creates. Switching it on and off also degrades OPSEC, as it shows when and where a mission has started. Just as when observing a black hole, you can glean things from observing what isn’t there in the same way as observing what actually is visible.

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The Finnish archipelago is a crowded place. Source: Cogitato via Wikimedia Commons

Without having insight in the finer details of how the Finnish Navy bridge crew works, I find it plausible that the report might have a point in that the risks of not being noticed might be underestimated and deserve more attention. However, as the Navy will never be able to maintain OPSEC and spend significant time with the AIS active, the way forward for the Navy is likely to be a bit more proactive with hailing approaching vessels on the VHF and using lights more liberally, as there always will be people on the seas that aren’t quite alert enough.

Another important detail is that as mentioned, in the archipelago as opposed to out on the Atlantic Ocean one can’t assume that all vessels in the area are of the size that they are equipped with AIS. Granted, the pleasure craft traffic is concentrated to good weather days in July, but there’s always the village fanatic who is out with his nets regardless of time of the year and weather. And if you keep a good enough lookout and have adjusted your speed appropriately that you will spot someone kayaking in time to take evasive actions, you will spot a Hamina-class vessel as well, AIS or not.

What about us innocents? – Maritime Defence Day 2019

A year has passed, and for the 19th time the Finnish Navy and Naval Reserve invited a number of stakeholders to come together and discuss all matters related to questions of maritime defence. This year over 80 persons met up at the Naval Academy in Suomenlinna on a rainy Saturday to ponder over questions such as the current state and the future of both the professional and reserve parts of Finnish naval defences, what’s the deal with Russia, and whether the security situation in the Baltic Sea region really has deteriorated?

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

The answer to the last question was easy, at least if one compare to the post-Cold War world of the 90’s or early 00’s – yes, we are worse off than we were back then. At the same time, ensuring security of supply has never been more important. The answer to this multifaceted challenge is the Pohjanmaa-class, which together with the completely revamped Hamina-class provide the Navy with the ability to operate in two directions simultaneously, and also represents something of the sought after baseline when shipowners judge if they can take the risk of sending their merchant vessels into a high-risk region.

If the Maritime Defence Day earlier years have seen significant discussion on ongoing and upcoming vessel and equipment projects, these were relegated to a secondary role this year. There was a general feeling in the air that the question of “what” has been at least partly solved with the signing of the Pohjanmaa-class contracts and the roll-out of FNS Tornio, and with laws and doctrines providing the “why”, the focus is now on the “how”. The scope of the modernisation the Navy will undergo over the next few years is significant, with e.g. the PTO 2020 (Gabriel) providing a significant increase in capability over the current MTO 85M (RBS 15), and it is clear that the Navy will have to change their ways of operating to get the full benefit of their new capabilities. However, this is not only the case for the individual systems, but the change is even more radical when zooming out and looking at the capabilities on a vessel- or squadron-level. Importantly, the question was raised if the officer corps in general, and the cadets about to enter training in particular, will receive training for the world as it looks today or for the battlefield of 2030? The obvious answer is that there is a need to prepare for the future, but unlearning old habits that once held true but have now turned if not obsolete then at least suboptimal can prove difficult. In the end, all involved need to look themselves in the mirror and ask if they really are preparing for the crisis of tomorrow, or if they just keep doing what they have always done while cruising forward on autopilot.

Coming from the corporate world, I could not help but feel like the concept of Lean is entering the Navy. The Navy has a clear-cut mission, the surveillance of our waters, repelling territorial violations and maritime attacks, and protecting sea lines of communication. Anything that isn’t related to this core mission is a waste of time and precious resources, and this thinking needs to cascade down throughout not only the Navy but the reserve organisations as well. The operational planning needs to drive readiness planning, which in turn needs to drive the plans for unit production, which in turn dictates the exercises held. Gone are the days of voluntary reservists just “going somewhere and doing something”. This also need to take into account local and regional differences, as well as differences between units. If we train the same way in the southern border region as we do in the Archipelago Sea or in the Gulf of Bothnia, we are likely doing something wrong.

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

However, while there obviously is waste (to use lean-terminology), there is also much that is good in the system. This includes both the grassroots operations of the L-series of boats by the Naval Reserve and the National Defence Training Association, as well as the high-level refresher exercises. The evacuation of ‘wounded’ by the reservists of the Nyland Brigade was described as an example of the latter, with the scenario apparently running in accordance with the real deal all the way from the battlefield to the field hospital, with the exception of the surgeon not starting to cut into the simulated casualty. “You might imagine the surprise of the wounded when they were asked for permission to practice application of intravenous lines, and in the cases where this was granted they quickly where hooked up to peripheral lines in both hands before they were carried aboard the vessel that took them to the field hospital.” Being married to a physician, I can sympathise (though I’ve never actually had IV-lines)…

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

But what about Russia? Russia is the driver behind much of the instability in the Baltic Sea region. Much of this is apparently driven not only by a desire to recreate any historical grandness or regain superpower status (the latter of which Putin actually has more or less succeeded with despite the poor hand he was dealt), but also by a desire to maintain freedom to maneuver by effectively blocking Western attempts at boxing in Russia (i.e. getting Russia to adhere to international rules and human rights). This takes many forms, including wars in the information and cyber spaces, and relies heavily on the ability of the authoritarian state to take rapid ad hoc-actions to maintain the initiative. The west has tried to answer, but it is unclear to what extent the deterrence work bears fruit, especially as strong political voices are calling for appeasement.

The Baltic Sea is the new divided Germany

With the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union, the Baltic Sea region has become the fault line and a stage for provocations. This include issues such as the harassment of merchant shipping, further highlighting the potential vulnerabilities of the supply lines traversing the narrow sea. With the three Baltic countries safely inside NATO, there is always a risk that the countries in the grey zone, Finland and Sweden, will have to provide the real estate for a more or less serious Russian provocation. This naturally raises uncomfortable questions, including the role of the major islands in the Baltic Sea, as well as the vulnerability of the sea-based trade to different kinds of hybrid actions. The issue with Gotland-scenarios (either at Gotland or at another location such as Bornholm or the Åland Islands) have been discussed at great length elsewhere, but suffice to say they can play both a political role as well as provide additional range for the somewhat overhyped Russian A2/AD-bubble (yes, everyone’s favourite FOI-report was mentioned).

For the hybrid scenarios, an emphasis was placed on the use of the market forces to deal serious damage to a country’s maritime infrastructure. Granted you can sink a small freighter in a suitably narrow strategic sea lane, but you can also simply pay the vessels to go somewhere else. If there’s a market demand that pays better than sending your vessels to the Baltic Sea, suddenly the Finnish waters might face a serious shortage of tonnage, even if the supply lines notionally stays open. Globalised ownership patterns also makes questions such as how many vessels fly Finnish flags largely irrelevant, as a foreign owner might quickly change flag if it is felt that operating under Finnish rules might be less than optimal. A similar issue can be seen when it comes to port infrastructure, where key pieces of equipment (including large systems such as cranes), can be owned by stevedoring companies and not the port itself. With these companies then possibly being under international ownership and able to ship out their machinery in a matter of days if they feel they can get more money somewhere else, ownership of the port itself can quickly become a secondary question if the “port” turns out to be just a plot of land with quays and empty warehouses, void of any loading/unloading equipment. In short, cash is still king, and the invisible hand is susceptible to bribery.

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

However, while a crisis below the threshold of war is the more likely scenario if tensions were to flare up in the Baltic Sea region, a full-scale war in the Baltic cannot be ruled out. In that case Sweden would be involved due to it’s strategic location right on the US reinforcement route to the Baltic states. The Finnish situation is less certain, as while Finland sees the 1,300 km border with Russia largely as a liability from a defence point of view, the same is likely the case for Russia, with Kremlin’s appetite for having to divert forces to conduct offensive operations (or even just to hold the line) north of the Gulf of Finland likely being limited. On the other hand, wars have a tendency to escalate according to their own logic, and it is safe to say that a large conflict in the region would have a seriously deteriorating effect on Finnish national security, regardless of whether Finland would be able to stay out of the firing line or not (it can even be argued that trying to stay out of the firing line at any cost might be suboptimal in certain cases). For the Navy, being prepared for all contingencies is paramount, and this is something that clearly is top of mind of the service. Currently the situation is described as “satisfactory”, and with the equipment now being acquired and training being adjusted to meet the demands of the future, it seems set to continue that way.

Disinformation!

Skipper is a well-recognized voice in Swedish discussions on defence and national security. Following the questionable reporting on details surrounding the subhunt of 2014, reporting that now has been quoted in Finnish media as well, he wrote a blog post on his personal blog which I have received permission to translate into English. Any errors in the translation are fully my own.

I practically never write blog posts any longer, but sometimes I feel the demand to do so. The following is due to SvD’s damaging reporting on the submarine question published yesterday.

I will not in any way comment upon the substance of the article. The only thing I will discuss in this post is the unquestioning attitude of the media. Conclusions presented in headlines and introductions to articles are flat out damaging for Sweden and cannot be seen as anything but pure disinformation. Where then lies the problem?

The headline and introduction used by SvD is phrased in a way that a reader not familiar with the issue cannot be expected to understand in any way other than that there never was any foreign submarine activity at all in Swedish waters in October 2014. This conclusion is utterly incorrect. Even worse is the fact that all other media repeat this statement without further questions.

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Original SvD headline
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Pure disinformation spread by Omni based on the SvD piece
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Expressen takes it one step further with the seriously wrongful statement that the ASW-budget would have been increased by 10 billion SEK (920 MEUR at today’s rate) following the incident 

This narrative constitutes direct disinformation, and was quickly established through national Swedish media during yesterday evening, and soon all established national news-channels sported a rewrite of the article, none of which showed any signs of questioning the narrative. All featured the same or similar misleading and erroneous headlines. [Today Finnish media has also repeated the claims.]

Even public service in the form of Sveriges Radio and Sveriges Television did such rewrites in blind trust, and as such played their part in spreading disinformation. SR and SVT that are trusted to continue working in times of war and serious crises, and as such form “protection” against influence and information operations directed against Sweden.

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The Swedish Agency for Public Management (Statskontoret) 2017:5 “The agency’s work related to disinformation”

Following a social media storm against this both SvD and SVT, as well as other media, have rewritten their headlines and introductions. The problem is that the damage is already done. The narrative is set, and the man on the street now lives with a picture that all that was written by SvD and the others were correct, and that there was no foreign submarine activity in October 2014.

This morning several editorial boards have responded and corrected their headlines and introductions (see below).

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SvD with their updated headline (corrected the day after publication)
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Original headline (misleading given the facts)
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Corrected headline

If media had bothered to check the facts before publication none of this would have had to happen. The facts on the ground have not changed since September 2015, something that SvD knows while still deciding to make a grand fuss about this.

To get the facts one can read the Swedish Defence Forces article from 23 September 2015 with the headline “Beyond all reasonable doubt“. Some extracts from the text (my bold):

The Defence Forces’ final analysis shows that, as was stated last autumn, it is beyond all reasonable doubt that the Swedish internal territorial waters were violated in the Stockholm archipelago in October 2014.

The basis for this conclusion is now a significantly larger material than what was available in the immediate aftermath of the intelligence operation [i.e. the subhunt].

Of the roughly 300 reports that came in approximately 150 has been analysed in further detail of which 21 were judged to be particularly interesting.

Following the analysis several of these have now received a higher classification compared to the earlier analysis. The combined evaluation based on the amount of observations in the area provide a very high level of confidence.

The observation that last autumn was judged to be of the highest level of confidence has been reevaluated. Here additional information have come to light that give this particular observation another explanation, and as such it is not included in the basis for the combined evaluation. Despite this the conclusion remain that through the analysis work it is concluded beyond reasonable doubt that the Swedish internal waters have been violated.

The conclusion that media should have identified is that the “news” SvD built its article on wasn’t part of the final analysis work and combined evaluation. This was obvious already four years ago, but still media tries to spin this to mean that this news should be taken as proof that there was no underwater activity.

As such, this is pure disinformation, and it is regrettable that next to all media without question jumped the bandwagon on this sensation piece. It would – as many have pointed out – be interesting if SR medierna [an investigative public service radio show] would look into this reporting and investigate it from the point of view of source criticism.

That SVT did a rewrite of the article without looking into the sources with a critical mind is particularly interesting as SVT themselves recently launched a campaign for increased media literacy and critical evaluation of sources.

Starting today, SVT launches a new campaign about the role of public service in the modern media landscape. The first film discusses the need for fact-based journalism.

The film “Hen out of a feather” [Swedish expression meaning to make a mountain out of a molehill] focuses on the great importance of fact-based journalism in a world where rumors easily become truths, and information risks being corrupted. Where the border between opinion and fact becomes ever more fluid, and the current fast digital media landscape contribute to making a hen out of a feather.

The campaign has also been heavily criticized, including by the comedy show Svenska Nyheter.

A significantly more nuanced text has been written by Mikael Holmström (DN).

A well-written editorial is found in Expressen by Linda Jernek with the headline “Don’t spread the spin that the submarine was just a bouy”

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

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Big and Small Sisters

The Finnish naval news keeps dropping at a high rate following the contract signing ceremonies two weeks ago. A few further details have emerged on the Pohjanmaa-class, while the FNS Tornio is currently undergoing acceptance tests as the first of the four Hamina-class sisters to pass through their mid-life update.

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Still from Saab’s system video, featuring a NH 90 on the helideck. Source: Saab

Saab released a video highlighting the different systems they supply to the Pohjanmaa-class. An interesting detail is the inclusion of a grey-painted NH 90 on the helicopter deck. It nicely illustrates the size of the Finnish Army’s main helicopter relative to the ship, showing that while it can touch down on the deck, it is too large for the hangar and won’t be based aboard. The fact that the helicopter is grey is curious. All Finnish NH 90s are painted in a three-colour green-black camouflage, so either the color is an oversight (likely) or it may portray one of the Swedish Air Force’s maritime Hkp 14F on a visit. This will likely be a somewhat regular occurrence beginning in the last years of the next decade, considering the tight cooperation between the two navies. The Hkp 14F are also the sole non-Russian ASW-capable helicopters of the northern Baltic Sea region, meaning that once they have achieved FOC they will certainly be welcome visitors.

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The Hkp 14F showing its whole-grey look and search radar. Source: Lasse Jansson/Försvarsmakten

Speaking of sub-hunting, it had escaped my attention (or memory) that a rather detailed description of the propulsion arrangement had been found in Maanpuolustuksen osto-opas 2/2018. The system will be twin-shafts with controllable-pitch propellers (CPP), powered by combined diesel-electric and gas turbine (CODLAG). Four diesel engines will be working as generators, producing electricity to two electric motors which power the vessel during normal operations. When requiring max speed the gas turbine is fired up, and it will be connected through gearboxes to the two shafts. The total power will be around 30 MW (40,200 hp). An interesting comparison is the German F125-class frigates which sport a very similar CODLAG arrangement rated at 31.6 MW, and consisting of a single LM2500 gas turbine from General Electric (20 MW), four 20V 4000 M53B diesel gensets from MTU Friedrichshafen (totalling 12 MW), two electrical motors (totalling 9 MW), and Renk gearboxes. For those wondering where the rest of the power from the gensets go, there’s quite a bit of electronics aboard a modern warship, as well as a 1 MW bow thruster in the bow of the F125. While no manufacturers have been announced for the Pohjanmaa-class, the F125-suppliers can be considered low-odds candidates. The Rolls-Royce MT30 has scored a few impressive references recently, including replacing the LM2500 on the ROK FFX Batch II, but it might be a tad too big for the Pohjanmaa. For sub-hunting, two of the gensets on the Pohjanmaa will receive additional signature reducing features (acoustic and vibration). This allows slow-speed operations in extreme silence, in essence providing the corvettes with a trolling mode to use a boating analogy (even if the gamefish is on the bigger side in this case). The Pohjanmaa-class is also equipped with twin bow thrusters, a crucial feature to ensure that the vessels can get around unassisted in the narrow waterways of the archipelago, including when mooring at the spartan infrastructure used for dispersed operations.

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Principal view of a twin-shaft CODLAG system with one gas turbine, twin electrical motors, and four diesel generators. Source: Alureiter via Wikimedia Commons

Commodore Harju, CinC of the Finnish Navy, also published a blog post on the Finnish Defence Forces’ blog discussing the vessels. While giving few details, the blog hints at an endurance of at least two full weeks at sea, quite possibly longer. Considering that the operational environment will rarely sees the vessels being further than half a day of sailing away from the nearest friendly port, this is a significant number and a game-changer compared to the Hamina-class.

Perhaps the most significant message of the post was that the commodore acknowledges the strain currently being placed on the servicemen and -women of the fleet. The service has seen the workload increase with the increased level of readiness that has become a staple of the Finnish Defence Forces post-Crimea. This has hit the small number of vessel crews particularly hard, especially when coupled with the fact that few of the vessels are available during wintertime as well as the prolonged absence of the Rauma-class during their MLU and while dealing with the issues caused by hull cracks following it. This has placed even higher demands on the crews serving aboard the mineships and the Hamina-class FAC. With the change over from the Hämenmaa- and Rauma-classes to the Pohjanmaa-class, crews will have to be trained for the new vessels in parallel with keeping up the operational tempo with ever older vessels. It is most welcome that the Navy leadership already at this early stage of the Pohjanmaa-project acknowledges this, and are making plans to handle this additional requirement.

The Hamina-class MLU this has also seen improvements in this regard. The cabins and berthings of both the sailors and the command have been revamped and moved, allowing for more space. In addition the crews will increase by a few persons, though mostly caused by new functions being added. However, the introduction of newer systems will allow for longer rest periods for the crew members. The ergonomics of the bridge has also been improved. Hopefully these changes will together play their part in lowering the workload aboard the vessels. However, for the Navy as a whole there is unlikely to be any quick fixes, but rather a long and dedicated process is needed to bring the workload down throughout the force. The signs now point to the work having begun, hopefully it will prove successful.

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FNS Hanko (’82’) showing the pre-MLU configuration with the large deck gun and small tower on the rear part of the superstructure. Here the vessel is escorting ro-ro ship Kvitbjørn as part of the buildup to Exercise Arrow 19, a mission that works well close to port and as long as there is no ice. Source: Merivoimat FB

As has been mentioned earlier, the Hamina-class post-MLU will be small but highly competent ships, employing many of the same sub-systems as their larger corvette sisters. The replacement of the large 57 mm deck guns with the smaller 40 mm Bofors in their truncated hexagonal trapezohedron-shaped turrets has freed up weight to allow for the Kongsberg towed arrays to be installed, something that together with the torpedoes (TP 45 for the time being, to be replaced with the NLWT/TP 47 in a few years) gives the vessels serious sub-hunting capabilities. The physical installation of the PTO 2020 (Gabriel) on the other hand proved a bit challenging, with the ceiling having to be raised and new doors being installed. This further underscores exactly how significant an improvement the new missiles has to be, as the RBS 15 Gungnir they beat would have been a drop-in solution when it comes to the physical dimensions. The vessels will get the same combat management system, the 9LV, as the Pohjanmaa-class, allowing for synergies in training and joint operations. The ITO 04 (Umkhonto) in their individual VLS-tubes remain the primary air defence weapon, but the Saab Trackfire has made it onto the rear part of the superstructure. Likely to be fitted with the NSV heavy machine-gun as standard, the remote weapon station allows for better close-range defence against small targets such as small craft, drones, or low and slow aircraft and helicopters compared to the earlier pintle-mounted versions of the same weapon.

Speaking of the Navy’s favorite RWS, the inclusion of two Trackfires on the Pohjanmaa instead of any dedicated hard-kill CIWS raised some eyebrows. The exact capabilities of the Trackfire naturally depend on the sensors and weapon carried, but I decided to place the hypothetical question to Saab: if the RWS carried a suitable weapon and was hooked up to a suitable sensor, would it be able to bring down incoming anti-ship missiles?

In an impressively long answer, the Swedish defence company explained that the system is “designed for very high stabilisation and fire control requirements”. This provide the system with “extremely good performance” when tracking and engaging airborne targets. However, it also notes that the system is set to receive new counter-missiles capabilities in the future, upgrades that will “commensurately increase” the system’s capacity for engaging incoming missiles. In short, Trackfire isn’t yet a mature CIWS-platform against incoming missiles, but the technical possibility is there. Another question is if the Finnish Navy is interested in getting yet another calibre in its arsenal, as the CIWS role would require at least a 20 mm gun, but preferably a 25 or 30 mm one. Something like the 30 mm M230LF could likely be fitted to the Trackfire, but it is questionable if the Finnish Navy would find such an integration project worthwhile. The more likely path is to continue with the NSV, and once the money is available fit a dedicated autocannon (likely as part of a future MLU, which would also include the fitting of a second Mk 41 VLS-module to increase the number of cells to 16).

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FNS Tornio (’81’) with her new and significantly smaller deck gun. Also note some minor changes to the rear parts of the superstructure. Source: Merivoimat.fi

For the time being, the defence against incoming missiles rests largely on soft-kill systems based on electronic countermeasures and decoy launchers. This isn’t necessarily a purely budgetary decision, as the value of small calibre cannons against incoming missiles at high speeds have been questioned. In essence, if three tons of metal and explosives are hurling towards you at Mach 2, even if you hit it and break something you still have a good chance of getting hit by a lump of scrap metal weighing three tons and bringing a healthy dose of energy (around 706 MJ in our example) into your superstructure. Since that energy transfer is undesirable, having the missile go somewhere else in the first place is preferable.

And what about it being a frigate? To quote commodore Harju’s post:

Some of those who have recently analysed the class have stated that the Pohjanmaa-class corvette is the same size as a frigate and has almost destroyer-like weaponry. A frigate is generally understood as a vessel capable of operating in oceanic conditions […] For us in the Navy, more important than the orthodox definition of the ship class is the military capabilities of the vessels […] And finally, the Pohjanmaa-class is part of our defense system, meaning that evaluating the performance of an individual vessel does not give the whole picture of the vessel, nor the significance and impact of the acquired package.

The Importance of Being a Corvette

A trivial question for serious navies.

Journalist Jarmo Huhtanen of Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat stirred up a little controversy yesterday, by publishing an article where he lays out the case that the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes in the form they were ordered in are not corvettes at all, but frigates.

Now, at the outset it has to be noted that Huhtanen is probably the single most experienced and knowledgeable defence journalist employed by any Finnish non-specialised media, and he has been covering the Pohjanmaa-class from its humble beginning as the MTA 2020. As such he is well-placed to raise the question, and he certainly has some points.

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The whole Squadron 2020 in the Finnish archipelago. The Finnish Navy needs to be able to perform surface combat, ASW, convoy escort, and mining missions year-round in any kind of weather, something that dictate the need for larger multipurpose vessels than currently in service. Source: Finnish MoD

It is certainly true that the vessels have grown throughout the project. The original size was given as about 90 meters back in 2015. This now currently stands at 114 meters, a sizeable increase. It is also true that the size makes it questionable whether the vessels really are “the most capable corvettes in the world”, as commodore Harju stated, or more accurately “decently sized frigates”. Huhtanen also notes that internationally the classification of surface warships is imprecise and partly overlapping when it comes to tonnage.

Let’s address the first part first. While it is impossible for an outsider to know exactly what has been going on behind the scenes, as the Navy has been notoriously tight-lipped about the details of the project. In general terms, having seen and been part of a few vessel design projects I can note that it isn’t rare for a vessel to grow between design iterations. The reasons are many, but in general it is better to start small, as smaller generally means cheaper, and then to add space once it is clear it really is needed. Considering the lifespan of the Pohjanmaa-class, room for growth is also a serious considerations, and something which often in hindsight hasn’t been emphasised enough on military vessels (see Hamina-class going from 57 mm to 40 mm deck guns to save weight during MLU). Bad planning on the part of the Navy? Not necessarily, it might just be the correct decision once the detailed design has matured.

At the same time the fixed budget has grown by 8 %. As I noted in my last post, the total still seems very low, although direct comparisons with other similarly sized ships are difficult to make. MoD Kaikkonen attributed the increase to an increase in the budget for the building of the ship, something that naturally correlates with an increase in vessel size. This obviously again raises questions about the quality of the information available upon project launch and what happened between 2015 and today, but in the grand scheme of things (remember that the oft-quoted 1.2 Bn Eur isn’t the full project cost, but rather only the additional funds allocated outside of the normal FDF budget) I find it difficult to be overtly excited if the budget overruns stay at this.

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The last time around Finland operated frigates, they were called ‘escorts’ (‘saattajat’). While there certainly were political considerations behind the designation, it does in fact also align with older nomenclature. Source: Esquilo via Wikimedia Commons

Huhtanen’s article include a few rhetorical leaps I don’t quite follow or agree with. One thing is the comparison to the Swedish Visby-class, and noting that they are 40 meter shorter than the Finnish vessels and significantly lighter (Visby being rated at 640 tons). The comparison is about as useful as comparing the specifications of our new K9 self-propelled howitzers to those of the Swedish Strv 122 tanks. Yes, both vessels are grey, sail the seas, and are called corvettes, but the design concepts (and the doctrines behind these design concepts) are different enough that a direct comparison is of little use. I have earlier written about the topic over at the blog of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences, but in short compared to Pohjanmaa the Visby trades ice-going capabilities, air-defence missiles, mining capability, a helicopter hangar, and economics for stealth and speed. Neither approach is wrong, but they are very different and stems from the different concepts of operations the Swedish and Finnish Navies employ. However, it can be noted that the Swedish plan is that the next series of surface vessels will grow, even if they will still remain significantly lighter than the Pohjanmaa-class.

Mentioning that the Pohjanmaa-class are of the same displacement as the Freedom-class LCS is to be considered a red herring, and Huhtanen himself notes that this is likely a coincidence. An old article from 2016 by Olli Ainola is also linked, and while Ainola was no mean writer when it came to defence topics, that particular article was frankly little more than a hit piece, which I discussed in detail shortly after its publication.

I still hold it likely that if the Pohjanmaa-class eventually join the Navy in the shape currently envisioned and under the adjusted budget, the Finnish Navy will not only operate the strongest single warships currently based in the Baltic Sea, but they will do so at a bargain. I do fear that there is a risk that the budget is still too tight, and that some key systems will be ‘fitted for but not with’. However, the Navy has so far shown to be able to focus on the important, and make the cuts where they will least impact the effectiveness of the vessels. The Finnish concept of operations is also clearly visible in these compromises, such as the small calibre of the main gun (the vessels aren’t expected to provide naval gunfire support) and the decision to go with a medium-range air defence system as opposed to trying to fit a long-range bluewater system. Importing the combat systems and having an internationally established defence supplier provide integration will also significantly reduce the risks associated with the project, as the combat systems package is almost certain to be the weakest part of RMC’s know-how. In the end, the Pohjanmaa-class is clearly intended as a fighting weapon, and not as a fleet in being as Huhtanen suggests. They will play an important part in deterring hostile aggression throughout the spectrum from peace to war, and in doing so provide a flexibility found in few other systems. Their main issue is the low number, which causes redundancy issues and makes them vulnerable to losses.

But are they really corvettes?

During the age of sail warships were simply rated by how many guns they had. Granted some where faster than others, and some had longer endurance, but in the end you could simply count the number of guns and tell if something was a frigate. Both the corvette and frigate designations date to these times, with the dividing line between the corvette and the frigate usually being drawn somewhere between 20 and 30 guns.

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A painting by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg depicting “A Danish Corvette Laying in order to Confer with a Danish Brig”. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Then came the steamships and a requirement for more specialised roles. The advent of submarines and aircraft created the modern three-dimensional naval battlefield. The first modern corvettes were the British Flower-class, which were light ships intended to escort convoys and fight German U-boats on the Atlantic, and not much else. The frigate designation also saw a renaissance during WWII, as the Royal Navy started calling their slightly larger subhunting convoy escorts for frigates. Confusingly enough, the same kind of vessels were designated destroyer escorts by the US Navy, and the Royal Navy also operated sloops which were roughly of the same size and capability.

After the war things got still more confusing. Generally vessel sizes grew, and suddenly there were cruiser-sized ships hunting submarines. But since cruisers don’t hunt submarines, these were clearly just very large destroyers (except in the Soviet Union, where they were “large anti-submarine warfare ship”). At the same time more and more navies started to move away from single-purpose ships to multipurpose ones. Developments such as increased range for aircraft and the lower number of available hulls meant that ships expected to operate in narrow seas such as the Baltic Sea no longer could count on being able to choose which kinds of enemies they could encounter (for armoured people, this is pretty much the same kind of development pattern that eventually brought us the main battle tank to replace different armoured fighting vehicles tailored for different roles).

Long story short, today multipurpose vessels start with corvettes being the smallest, then moving up in size through frigates and on to destroyers. Where exactly the lines are drawn is an open question, and also varies with country. In US nomenclature, FFL (the abbreviation coming from “frigate, light”, in itself an interesting statement) designates a corvette, which is between 1,000 and 1,500 tons full load displacement. In Europe, any warship larger than a patrol craft but smaller than a frigate can be called a corvette, if the navy in question is so inclined. Frigates are between 1,500 to over 6,000 tons full load displacement according to USNI, who also note that due to “internal political reasons”, some navies mislabel their frigates as destroyers, or vice versa. This is often based on budgetary considerations and/or naval traditions. Here it could be noted that if one has received budgetary funds for a corvette, and is from a country that traditionally only operate lighter surface combatants, any vessel straddling the corvette/frigate-line would likely be designated a corvette for political reasons. Conversely, the British Type 31e, the low-end frigate in their high-low frigate mix, at times during the tendering process looked closer to a high-sea corvette than a frigate. But since it was designed to compensate for a shortfall in the number of frigates, and since the visuals of having cut the funding of the Royal Navy to the extent that they were buying corvettes instead of frigates didn’t fit British politics, they have never officially been described as anything but “affordable” frigates.

In the end, Navies can usually get away with calling their vessels more or less what they want, and generally these designations have been accepted by the outside world. The British Type 45 are destroyers, but their cousins in the Horizon-class in French and Italian service are frigates.

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Formerly known as a “coastal corvette”, the 400-ton HMS Sundsvall (K 24) is today known simply as a corvette in Swedish nomenclature. Here visiting Kokkola in 2010. Source: Own picture

However, simply discussing displacement doesn’t give the whole picture, as much is related to the capabilities of a vessel. Yet another factor is that some countries have doctrines differing from established western thinking to the extent that the vessels these result in aren’t possible to fit in any of the given designations. You can get entertainment for a whole evening if you can get two naval historians with opposite views arguing over whether the German WWII-era Scharnhorst-class are battlecruisers or battleships, an issue that stems from the battlecruiser and battleship division being based on British vessels. The Soviet large anti-submarine warfare ship has been mentioned already, but the Soviet and Russian Baltic Fleet has also seen e.g. the Project 1234 Ovod (Nanuchka-class in NATO-parlance), which is a “small missile ship” if you ask the Russians, and either a fast attack craft or a corvette if you ask the West. A key issue here is the size and endurance which makes it corvette-like, but the lack of any serious armament except a heavy anti-ship missile battery is generally seen as a defining feature of a FAC. Another interesting case from the Baltic Sea is the Swedish Navy, which used to operate 400-ton vessels with significant capabilities in all three dimensions, but sacrificed endurance and seakeeping capabilities in doing so. These used the Swedish designation kustkorvett, or coastal corvette, but since the late 90’s the surviving vessels are simply called corvettes. The 250-ton Hamina-class will provide something along the same lines post-MLU, being able to fight subsurface, surface, and air threats, but being too small to be classed as a corvette.

So what about the Pohjanmaa? The displacement is on the larger side for a corvette, the capabilities are at the very high end for being a corvette, and are in fact higher than many relatively modern frigates. Is there anything then that stops them from being frigates?

The one thing so far absent from the discussion is their shallow draught, which likely will lead to less than ideal seakeeping when operating in bluewater conditions. This is a compromise, and one which has been a hallmark for large Finnish-designed vessels for decades. Frigates are often associated with the open waters of the oceans, or at the very least the North Sea, and while Pohjanmaa certainly could hunt submarines in the GIUK-gap, that’s not where she will be able to play to her strengths. Instead, that would be in the narrow waters close to the shores of the Baltic Sea, waters more often associated with, well, corvettes. However, living in a stable does not make one a horse, at least not in and by itself.

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Is it a frigate? Is it a corvette? Is it a minelayer? Yes, and no, on all three accounts. Source: Finnish MoD

Is she then a frigate? I personally would have to answer with “Yes, but not that kind of a frigate.” Designating her a corvette isn’t necessarily wrong either, but that would also have to be accompanied by the same asterisk. Ironically, it does seem that today’s Pohjanmaa-class will inherit not only the name but also a difficulty in straightforward classification from the original Pojama-class of the late 18th century. I guess we’ll simply have to resurrect the phrase “archipelago frigate”.