Collisions at Sea

Following two separate high-profile collisions of USN destroyers in the Asia-Pacific, there has been a host of theories and questions regarding how these tie in together. This post is not an attempt at determining the cause of the collisions, but rather a general comment on similarities and factors differing between the USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62)/ACX Crystal and USS John S. McCain (DDG 56)/Alnic MC collisions, and some of theories thrown around. I won’t provide any conclusions, but rather ‘Food for thought’, as my high-school teacher would have put it.

To begin with, both destroyers are of the same Flight I sub-variant of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which make up roughly the first third of the destroyers produced in the series. Both were operating in the western parts of the Pacific when being hit by civilian vessels in the side. There are however important differences as well.

  • USS Fitzgerald was hit in the starboard side, while sailing somewhat south of the main sea lane leading into the Bay of Tokyo from the west,
  • USS John S. McCain was hit in the port side, while roughly at the eastern entrance of the Singapore Strait.

While the waters around Japan are far from deserted, they still pale in comparison to how busy the seas around Singapore are.

When discussing collisions at sea, it is important to understand one basic difference between maritime traffic and the rules of the roads: as long as as you have water under the keel, you are more or less allowed to go anywhere you want. As there are no road signs or traffic lights, issues such as right of way are instead dependent on the position of vessels relative to one another. These guidelines are found in an international document entitled ‘Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972‘, though understandably it is usually referred to by its abbreviation: COLREG (or COLREGs).

USN illustration of the collision between USS Fitzgerald and the ACX Crystal. Via Wikimedia Commons.
The most basic of the rules are that a ship coming from starboard (right) has the right of way, and a ship coming from port (left) has to give way. If two vessels meet head-on, both will generally hold to starboard (i.e. the seas feature right-hand traffic), though there are also a number of readily available signals which can be used to tell a nearby vessel that you will pass on their port side.

As such, a first thought is that the USS Fitzgerald would have had to give way to the ACX Crystal, while the Alnic MC would need to give way to the USS John S. McCain. However, it needs to be remembered that large ships take considerable time to turn or bring to a halt. For the collisions discussed here, it should be remembered that the destroyers are considerably more nimble than large container ships and tankers. There’s no cutting in front of a tanker just because you in theory have the right of way!

For the USS John S. McCain/Alnic MC-collision, the Singapore Strait feature a traffic separation area which adds another factor into the equation. This can be described as a highway of the sea, where westbound traffic all flow in a northern lane, with eastbound flowing in a southern lane, and in between there is a off-limits separation zone (virtual roundabouts allows vessels to enter ports in the area). These are found in other narrow areas with relatively heavy shipping as well, including the Gulf of Finland. The collision seems to have taken place just at the entrance to the traffic separation area. It is possible that these special arrangements would have caused one of the vessels to make unexpected course adjustments, or that a third vessel did something which caught the attention of the bridge watch to the extent that they did not notice the more immediate danger.

There has been a number of speculations in that there would be foul-play such as GPS-spoofing or hacking of key systems would have caused the accidents. However, as described above the COLREG does not depend on the position of your vessel, nor does it allow the bridge watch to depend upon systems such as AIS for watchkeeping. Regardless of if some of these were out of order, the watch need to observe the position of the other vessels around it and react accordingly (i.e. keep a safe distance and give way to vessels according to relevant rules). Even if something was hacked or the GPS was out of order, and to my understanding there is no indication of this being the case, this should not cause a collision in and by itself.

The helm of the USS Fitzgerald, manned by Cmdr. Velez, then commanding officer of the destroyer. Source: U.S. Navy photo by MCS 1st Class Jennifer A. Villalovos via Wikimedia Commons
There has also been claims that the McCain would have temporarily lost steering, only to regain it later. This could be a number of issues, ranging from running into something physically obstructing the movements of the rudder, to something being wrong with the equipment operated by the helmsman, or anything in between the two. It is also unclear to me what exactly the ‘loss of steering’ include. For warships, there are usually multiple steering stations and some kind of last-ditch emergency steering which overrides any steering commands from the helm stations. However, if the loss of steering was only temporary, it might be that there were no time to initiate emergency steering procedures. It is also not uncommon for sudden and unexplained steering issues to eventually be traced back to the helmsman not fully understanding the workings of the system, e.g. how to properly switch between autopilot and manual control.

This brings us back to an issue which has been raised, and which I believe might very well explain the issues at play. The US 7th Fleet is severely overworked, with no time being allocated for training in the deployment schedule of the destroyers and cruisers. This in turn means that much of the training is handled while on deployment, with the older crew members likely overseeing younger ones during time they otherwise would be off-duty. In the end, this likely leads to the crew as a whole being less rested. The background to this is obviously the lack of any frigates or corvettes in the US Navy, meaning that the destroyers and cruisers has to do a host of tasks which they are overqualified for, and with tensions with China increasing the need for qualified ships are going up as well. The LCS-project was meant to solve part of this issue, providing a light ship for patrol and flag-waving duties were a destroyer isn’t needed, but as is well-known this has run into problems and delays.


A Squadron from the North

Few readers of the blog are likely to have missed the fact that the world’s largest submarine and sole survivor of the Akula (NATO-nickname ‘Typhoon’) class recently paid a visit to the Baltic Sea for the Russian Navy Day parade. TK-208 Dmitriy Donskoy grabbed most of the headlines, but as with all good tricks, it’s when you watch the ball too closely that the magic happens.

Hieronymus Bosch: “The Conjurer” (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the Baltic Sea the submarine completely lacked suitable weaponry, sensors, and quite frankly space to move around. However, the world’s largest surface combatant, Pyotr Velikiy (‘099’), travelled together with the submarine. In addition, the cruiser Marshal Ustinov (‘055’) and destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov (‘626’) both travelled to the Baltic Sea to join in the festivities from the Northern Fleet, with the frigate Admiral Makarov (‘799’) joining from the Black Sea Fleet. These surface combatants stood for the real increase in firepower, and deserve a closer look:

Note hatches for vertically launched weapons on foredeck. Source: FLVFOT, Flyvevåbnets Taktiske Stab

Pyotr Velikiy: at 251 meter long and 24,300 tons standard displacement, she is a huge vessel by any standard. Often referred to as a battlecruiser, because she packs significant firepower but lacks the armour associated with ‘real’ battleships. The Kirov-class was launched in the 80’s, with the goal of intercepting and destroying the carrier task forces of the US Navy by unleashing a barrage of P-700 Granit missiles. Originally named Yuri Andropov, she is currently the only vessel of the class in operational service. Powered by two KN-3 nuclear reactors supplemented by oil-fired boilers.

Source: via Wikimedia Commons

Marshal Ustinov: the Slava-class of cruisers are the little sisters (186 m and 9,380 tons) of the Velikiy, and are made to perform the same missions of targeting enemy surface vessels (with the P-500 Bazalt) and functioning as flagships. The Ustinov was launched in 1982, making it seven years older than the Velikiy.

Source: Brian Burnell via Wikimedia Commons

Vice-Admiral Kulakov: the Udaloy-class are specialised anti-submarine destroyers with secondary air defence and anti-ship capabilities. While the destroyer is significantly smaller (163 m and 6,930 tons) and somewhat older (launched 1980) than the cruisers, she still represents a vessel of the same size as the current flagship of the Baltic Fleet, the air defence destroyer Nastoychivyy.

Source: via Wikimedia Commons

Admiral Makarov: The odd bird out, Makarov not only comes from Sevastopol instead of Murmansk, she is also one of the few really modern warships of the Russian Navy. While the frigate is the lightest of the kvartet (125 m and 3,300 tons), she packs a considerable punch for her size with moderns sensors and weaponry (including the long-range Kalibr-cruise missile), and also feature some amount of signature reduction.

Notable is that Granit, Bazalt, and Kalibr all can come equipped either with conventional or nuclear warheads.

As noted, the current flagship of the Russian Baltic Fleet is the Sovremennyy-class destroyer Nastoychivyy, which is the sole operational destroyer of any country permanently stationed in the Baltic Sea. In addition, her sister Bespokoynyy is in reserve/long-term storage. It is hard to overstate the boost the four vessels dispatched brought to Russia’s Baltic Fleet, traditionally one of the smaller fleets in the Soviet/Russian Navy. While all except Makarov are starting to show their age, they brought significant increases to the air defences available. Ustinov feature both the medium ranged Osa-MA and the long-range S-300F Fort surface-to-air missile systems, which are naval derivatives of the 9K33 Osa and the S-300. The Fort employs the original semi-active 5V55 missiles, while the Veliky in turn feature the upgrade S-300FM Fort-M system, which is longer ranged and sporting the newer 48N6E and 48N6E2 missiles. The Veliky also has the medium-range 3K95 Kinzhal (a naval derivative of the 9K330 Tor) and the Kashtan close-in weapons systems with autocannons and short-range missiles (easiest described as 2K22 Tunguska derivatives). The Kinzhal is found on the Kulakov as well. Makarov in turn has the Kashtan for short-range work and the Shtil-1, which in essence consists of Buk-M1 missiles in vertical launch tubes, for medium-range work.

In short: that is a serious amount of different air defence systems, and should have been of note for anyone interesting in drawing A2/AD-bubbles on maps.

The open-water anti-submarine capability was also given a considerable increase by Kulakov and Makarov. Up until now, the main sub-hunting force has been the six coastal ASW-corvettes of the Parchim-class, with open water capability largely resting on the shoulders of the fleet’s sole submarine Vyborg (an early Project 877 ‘Kilo’-class sub from the early 80’s) and the four Steregushchiy-class (light) frigates. This is a relatively small force, considering that the Baltic Sea is home to two of the world’s most modern AIP-submarine forces: the Swedish (Gotland– and Södermanland-classes) and the German (Type 212) submarine squadrons.

The escorts

The vessels arrived well in time before the parade, and the small squadron of Donskoy, Veliky, and the tug Nikolay Chiker was followed closely by both defence forces and media. NATO-vessels escorted the vessels throughout their journey, with the Norwegian Coast Guard shadowing them along the Norwegian coast, and then handing over to HDMS Diana and the Royal Danish Navy. The Danish Defence Forces had earlier stated that the passage of the vessels was business as usual, and that they would dispatch an escort. In hindsight it might not have been quite as usual, as the passage under the Great Belt bridge was escorted by no less than three Diana-class patrol vessels and a single standby vessel positioned just south of the bridge.

After this, the Russians got the attention of, well, everyone. The German Elbe-class tender Main followed them for a while, before the Poles showed up with landing craft/minelayer ORP Gniezno. The Swedes then tried to get the price for most creative solution, by having the Naval Reserve’s Hoburg (ex-ASW hunter Krickan of the Ejdern-class) intercept the formation (granted, there was probably a submarine lurking somewhere for more serious intelligence work). The Estonian’s in turn sent the joint flagship of the border guards and the police force, the Kindral Kurvits.

The Finnish reaction, or rather, the fact that there didn’t seem to be one, caused some people to voice opinions about Finlandisation and the Navy sleeping on their stations. While I am usually quick to argue for clear signalling rather than anything resembling Finlandisation (due to the risk of misinterpretation given our history), I do feel that this is uncalled for. On the contrary: it is painstakingly clear that the appearance of the Donskoy in particular was a PR-stunt, and the considerable buzz caused was quite likely an end in itself. The measured Finnish response was in my opinion a balanced way to acknowledge their existence, without giving them undue attention.

It is perfectly possible to maintain watch over surface vessels in the Gulf of Finland without venturing out to sea (especially in peacetime conditions when no one is targeting or jamming your sensors), and this is particularly true for a vessel with the radar cross section of the Velikiy. So the Finnish Navy seems to have decided that the squadron was not interesting enough to receive an escort.

Note however that the Navy did venture out to sea to get picture of the vessels, and not only that: the Finnish vessel has circled around to a position south of the Russian units (I have gotten confirmation that the pictures are taken from a Finnish naval vessel, and aren’t from Estonian sources). In my opinion, this measured response was likely the best one available. The Navy showed that they knew where the Russian units where, and that they weren’t afraid of maneuvering around in their vicinity to get the best pictures, without showing too much attention (easily interpreted as fear in the face of the Russian show of force).

Exit… Stage Left

The vessels again caused something of a buzz when the question was raised how many of them actually had left the Baltic Sea. According to Russian sources, all Northern Fleet vessels had headed North again, but the pictures used to show this were actually Finnish press photos from the Gulf of Finland. Eventually it became clear that Veliky and Donskoy had left (hat tip to Cornucopia?/Lars Wilderäng), and were indeed northbound. The Kulakov, however, was intercepted by Belgian and British forces while heading south, and no one seems to know where the cruiser Ustinov and the frigate Makarov have went (no one who is ready to tell, that is, I fully expect the defence forces of the countries bordering the Baltic Sea to have proper info on the movement of what might be the strongest vessels currently deployed to our pond). As is well known, the Baltic Fleet has received some significant reinforcements from the Black Sea Fleet earlier as well, and while unlikely, a (semi-)permanent deployment here can’t be ruled out.

Naval Air Defence – The Finnish Way

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

Uusimaa (3).JPG
FNS Uusimaa (‘05’) at dusk. Source: @JHggblom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flotilla 2020 – A Strategic Acquistion

The Finnish corvette program is steadily moving forward, and it is nice to see that the Navy is also becoming more open regarding the project. A while back the Navy published a 20-page long document which in quite some detail went through the background of the project, and how it ended up with four multipurpose corvettes being the vessels of choice for Flotilla 2020. This was followed up by a four page article by captain (N) Valkamo, the Navy’s Assistant Chief of Staff / Plans, published in the personnel magazine Rannikon puolustaja (fi. Defender of the Coast). The latter provide a good overlook over the project, including the background research and some further nuggets of information compared to the longer text.

While the program seems to enjoy broad support amongst the Navy (unsurprising) and politicians, it continues to be something of a hot topic amongst parts of the general population and other service branches. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that both texts place a heavy focus on the solid groundwork made before the decision to focus on four multipurpose corvettes was made.

First, the nature of the future naval battlefield was predicted, and yes, that include the presence of K-300 Bastion anti-ship missile system. After this, the question of how to cost-effectively solve the missions of the Finnish Navy in this threat environment was looked into, including a number of different configurations with vessels of different sizes and roles and in different combinations. Unsurprisingly, it was concluded that due to operational and tactical flexibility as well as economic factors (including both acquisition and life-cycle costs) a single class of multipurpose vessels was preferable over numerous different designs specialising in one or two roles and operating together. I’ve earlier discussed the issue of trying to coordinate different ships into a working unit, ensuring that the right one is always in the right place. A metaphor could be the merger of light, medium, heavy, infantry, and cavalry tanks as well as the tank destroyer into the jack-of-all-trades Main Battle Tank. Other alternatives that were looked into was transferring whole or part of the missions to air- or ground-based systems, but this was also deemed impossible to implement cost-effectively. Especially as e.g. mining require vessels out at sea in any case.

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An infographic depicting the timeline for all major surface units, including scheduled service date, MLU, decommisiong, as well as roles and capabilities. Source: Finnish MoD

This then caused the slight growth in size compared to the current mine ships, as the vessel needs to be able to fit numerous weapons and their sensors, as well as maintaining the crew complement and provisions needed for prolonged stays out at sea during escort or surveillance missions. Something which hasn’t been widely discussed is the need for speed. While the light fast attack crafts have impressive sprint speed, their ability to transit a high speeds over longer distances isn’t stellar, especially if you encounter adverse weather. In the same way, while a Ferrari might be faster than a Land Rover on the Nürburgring, the roles would quickly be reversed if they set off on a bumpy dirt road through the Finnish forests. The larger size does also allow for the ability to operate in ice, as well as better resistance to combat damage due to compartmentalisation.

Still, the size won’t grow too much. Partly because larger vessels aren’t an end in itself, and partly because both acquisition and life-cycle costs grow with the hull size. The Navy also face an issue with having a limited number of crew members with which to man the vessels. All of these factor in, and has lead to the current design. Importantly, keeping the total length around 100 meters and the draft low means that the vessels can use the current naval infrastructure in the Finnish archipelago, including the current network of secondary bases and the extensive network of inshore waterways.

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The 7 meter long and 900 kg heavy 1:15 scale hull model is pushed through the ice as part of the test program. Source: Finnish MoD

The hull form has been finalised, and scale test have been performed with an eye on different requirements. These include both resistance, manoeuvring, and ice-going capability. In addition, the new propeller design has been tested in full scale on the Navy’s auxilliary FNS Louhi. As was expected, the vessels will have a drop of MEKO-blood in them, as the concept has been fine-tuned by German design bureau MTG-Marinetechnik GmbH.

FNS Hämeenmaa (02) showing the 57 mm Bofors Mk I. Source: Puolustusvoimat

For the weapons and sensors, the RFI resulted in a number of suitable packages being identified, all fitting within the budget. One of these will then be chosen, with the (foreign) main supplier being responsible for providing an integrated warfighting capability (sensors, weapons, C3I, battlefield management, and so forth). One interesting change which I did not expect was the renaming of the anti-ship missiles from meritorjuntaohjus (sea-defence missile) to pintatorjuntaohjus (surface-defence missile), with the Navy’s new missile being slated to become PTO2020. It is possible that this change reflects the secondary land-attack capability many modern missiles have. The PTO2020 program is handled as its own program as it is destined for both the updated Hamina, the corvettes, and the land-based launchers. As such it is not included in the 1.2 billion Euro price tag of the corvettes, as is the case with the new light ASW-torpedo which will be acquired as part of the Hamina MLU.

In addition to these systems, several systems will also be transferred from the Rauma- and Hämeenmaa-classes, as well as from the already decommissioned Pohjanmaa. These include the deck guns, towed arrays, decoy launchers, mine-laying equipment, and fire control director. The deck gun is an interesting issue, as the Rauma is equipped with the Bofors 40 mm, of which there are four, while the Hämeenmaa feature the 57 mm Bofors Mk I, a considerably more suitable weapon for a corvette. Still, the Mk I is quite a bit older than the corresponding 57 mm Bofors Mk 3 which is found on the Hamina, and as we all know there are only two Hämeenmaa vessels in service. However, it is possible that there are more guns in storage, as the two scrapped Helsinki-class vessels as well as the Pohjanmaa also had a single 57 mm Bofors Mk I each, and the Finnish Defence Forces is famous for not throwing away something that might prove useful further down the line. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the current guns mounted on the Hämeenmaa-class are these recycled Helsinki-class guns… In any case, I expect to see the 57 mm Bofors L/70 mounted on the corvettes, and probably upgrade to a Mk 3-ish standard in order to be able to fire smart ammunition remotely.

The decoy launcher is more straightforward, as both classes feature the modern Rheinmetall MASS. The towed arrays currently in service are the active Kongsberg ST2400 variable-depth sonar and the SONAC PTA passive sonar. Very little information is available on the latter, but it is understood to be a rather conventional system well suited for littoral operations with both narrow- and broadband waterfall displays. As the current number of arrays has been quite small, and as the Hamina will also take up the ASW-role as part of their MLU, it is entirely possible that more arrays will be acquired. It is also unclear if all corvettes will get both active and passive arrays, or whether they will be limited to either mode of operation.

The scale model shown by Saab at Euronaval 2016, featuring a Giraffe 4A and a 1X above it in the cut-outs. This combination of shrouded rotating radars (the cut-outs are for illustrative purposes only) gives both long-range search capability and short-range tracking of rapidly closing targets. Photo: Saab, used with permission

Interestingly, the fire-control sensor is the Saab CEROS 200 radar and optronic tracking fire control director. This will likely strengthen Saab’s already strong offering, as they already have a tried solution for integrating the CEROS into their 9LV combat managment system, together with their RBS15 MK3 missile and Sea Giraffe radars. The 9LV is already a familiar product to the Finnish Navy, and it would come as no surprise if Saab would be the prime contractor for systems integration. Other companies likely in the running include Atlas Elektroniks (prime contractor for the ongoing Pansio-class MLU), Kongsberg (best known for the NSM anti-ship missile, but has a wide portfolio of naval products), and Raytheon (sporting strong references).

Meripuolustuspäivä 2016 – Maritime Defense Day

Once a year the Finnish Navy and Naval Reserve together arrange an invitation only seminar under the name of Meripuolustuspäivä (Maritime defense day). The purpose is to keep up to date with current trends in the field, as well as to enhance contacts and information sharing between the active-duty and reservist members of the Finnish naval community. This year’s edition was held at the Naval Academy in Suomenlinna outside of Helsinki, and was attended by approximately 100 persons, stretching from flag rank officers (active and retired) to cadets, with the civilians coming from the Naval Reserve, marine and defense industry, and other stakeholders. The information in this post comes from both presentations and informal discussions.

Robin Elfving, chairman of the Naval Reserve, during his presentation dealing with the current state and future of the organisation. Source: own picture

The Navy is certainly going places, and while the continued development of Squadron 2020 naturally grabs much of the spotlight, a number of other developments are taking place in the background. The Hamina-class is set to undergo their MLU in the 2018-2021 timespan, and it will mean a significant upgrade in capability for the vessels. Key amongst the changes are the introduction of ASW-capability. This is to mitigate the shortfall in ASW-capable hulls that will take place with the withdrawal of the older Rauma-class. The MTO 85M will also be replaced as discussed in an earlier post, with the new missile being installed on both the Hamina and the corvettes, as well as replacing the truck batteries before 2025. The plan seems to be that the updated Hamina will be the ‘little sister’ of the corvettes, sporting some of the same weapons and capabilities, which will allow for better interoperability between them. The introduction of a proper ASW capability in particular is most welcome, as sub-hunting is a field where search ranges are very limited, making the number of hulls available a key factor. The Navy will now also be able to work up proficiency on new capabilities on the first modified Haminas while waiting for the first corvette to reach operational capacity. In the meantime, further procurements have been made for a number of weapon systems destined to stay in service, and part of the Jurmo-fleet is also destined for a MLU in the near-future.

The last Katanpää-class mine-hunter is set to be handed over by the yard in Italy on the 1 November. The vessel, like its sisters already in Finland, will receive some minor changes to bring it up to standard. On the whole, the Navy is very happy with the class, with representatives noting that the delays and issues during the build phase largely have been related to the handling of the project, and not the vessels themselves.

Squadron 2020 is on track, and enjoys broad political support. Notably the final acquisition decision is not yet taken, as the project is still in the concept phase with the Navy going through the responses received for the RFI. The renders released are described as “artists impressions”, something which Saab’s representative was happy to latch on to and explain that instead of the fixed radarpanels on the latest renders a stealthy radar installation can be created by putting a spinning radar inside the mast. I can see that this is a less expensive solution, but tracking of fast-moving targets such as missiles will naturally suffer. I guess we’ll have to wait and see…

The scale model shown by Saab at Euronaval 2016, featuring a Giraffe 4A and a 1X above it in the cut-outs. This combination of shrouded rotating radars (the cut-outs are for illustrative purposes only) gives both long-range search capability and short-range tracking of rapidly closing targets. Photo: Saab, used with permission

The increased tensions around the Baltic are visible in the everyday work of the Navy. Not only is the Russian Baltic Fleet more active, but also the increased number of vessels being built for export by Russian yards bring traffic to the Gulf of Finland as they undertake sea trials here. The Finnish Defence Forces identify every single vessel moving on the northern Baltic Sea and in the Gulf of Finland, employing whatever method is the most suitable for each individual situation. The Navy is also further increasing its emphasis on readiness, not only as a technical requirement, but also as a state of mind for all personnel involved. This include not only active duty soldiers and seamen, but also conscripts which are now allowed to take part in such readiness operations for which they have received proper training. The Navy of today is first and foremost a readiness organisation.

For the Navy, international cooperation is a must. “We lack the capability to do certain things”, as one officer put it, and this hole is plugged through international cooperation, with Sweden as our single most important partner. The most important initiative is the joint Finnish-Swedish Naval Task Group, which is consistently improved and also the framework under which Finnish and Swedish units participate together in larger multinational exercises.

For the Naval Reserve, it continues its work as a link between the Navy and its reservists, as well as the common denominator for naval reservists throughout the country (including reservists from the coast guard). While the brand amongst active reservists is strong and holds a certain sense of pride, the organisation has now also been making a conscious push to heighten awareness of the naval reserve and its activities outside of currently active reservists, which has included a new website and increased presence in social media. To further enhance discussions in social media, the Naval Reserve also launched its Twitter-guide, including tips on how to take part in the defense and national security debate on said forum. At the same time, equipment-wise the training capabilities have been increased with introduction of more L-class vessels and new canoes for the training of coastal jaegers.

The theme of the panel was Hybrid Warfare, a topic which is as current as it is unclear. Defining what exactly constitutes hybrid war was a challenge in itself, with one definition being the employment of whatever methods work best, regardless of whether they are in line with traditions or any kind of legal/chivalric code. Another definition put forward focused on the use of unconventional methods by conventional actors (i.e. armies or other organised units) OR the use of conventional methods and weapons by irregular actors. A prime example of the first one is the Russian assault on Crimea and further operations in Eastern Ukraine, while the recent attack on Swift by Yemeni rebels (with or without the help of foreign ‘advisers’) using a modern complex weapon system such as a sea-skimming missile is an example of the later. It was also noted that hybrid warfare is a relatively new term in western discussions, and only after its widespread adoption here has Russian sources started using it, and then only as a description of how the west analyses Russia’s operations.

The threat of the unexpected is hard to guard against. Like a cartoon figure not noticing the saw cutting through the floor surrounding you, hybrid warfare works best when the target doesn’t notice that it’s foundation is being weakened. This can be achieved e.g. through the use of knowingly breaking international agreements or codes, such as falsely declaring emergencies to gain access to ports.

The term information warfare was also debated, as the use of (dis)information is a crucial part of any hybrid operation. However, as war usually involves more than one part, if someone is waging an information war against Finland, wouldn’t that mean that we are also conducting a war by defending us? Can we say that Finland is engaged in defensive information warfare? Our current defense largely consists of meeting false accusations and oversimplifications with correct information and facts, but is this also an information operation that qualifies as a kind of warfare?

The panel assembled. Source: own picture

For the information part, it is clear that an orchestrated campaign aimed at tarnishing Finland’s reputation is being waged by Russia. The goal here might be to isolate our country internationally, with a good example of what can happen when your reputation is low being Ukraine’s reputation as suffering from a high rate of corruption, which in turn lessens the willingness of the international community to come to its aid. Another point was made regarding Hungary, with the rhetorical question ‘Who would want to come to their aid if a crises occurred?” being asked. This is reminiscent of smear campaigns being directed against individuals, which e.g. can focus on addressing (often false) discrediting information to their employers or partners, with the aim of silencing or isolating a person.

This then transits over into the fact that the concept of nationalism is seemingly changing. With the increased polarisation and diversification of the Finnish society, the big question is how will “Finnish” be defined in the future? If the only thing defining it is a passport, that will inevitably threaten the unity of our society. With the younger generation seemingly less open to traditional Finlandisation, this seems like a likely target for hostile propaganda.

…and speaking of propaganda: what is really the PR-value of the Admiral Kuznetsov task force slowly heading south under a cloud of black smoke? Because one thing is sure, and that is that the military value the air wing can offer for the Syrian regime forces is limited at best.

Further Developments of Squadron 2020

The Finnish Navy has released further details on the upcoming corvettes. To begin with, RMC of Rauma has signed a letter of intent with the Finnish Defence Forces for the construction of the vessels. This has been expected, as of the three shipyards in the country capable of producing ships of this size, Artech Helsinki is Russian-owned and Meyer Turku has filled their production capacity for the foreseeable future. RMC has also teamed up with Patria to ensure that the newly-founded company has the economic and logistical muscle behind them to manage a project of this size. This might be crucial, as if RMC would fail the reviews currently being undertaken, there exists a very real risk that the vessels will have to be built abroad. A special arrangement is that the Finnish Defence Forces remains responsible for the design work, with the yard handling only the building process. This is to make possible the fast delivery schedule.

An interesting article in this year’s edition of Finnish Defence Force’s Insinööriupseri, a publication published yearly by the Engineer Officers’ Association (engineer as in “practitioner of engineering”, not sappers/pioneers). This includes not only articles on the subject, but also new renders and pictures from the research program.

One of the new renders, showing the refined corvette concept. Source: Finnish Defence Forces / Insinööriupseeriliitto

Unlike the earlier renders, the concept is shown only from the sea level, meaning that several of the details that could be made out from the earlier bird’s eye views are not visible. Still, a number of important changes can be made out.

The most obvious one is that the single-panel rotating radar of the earlier renders have been replaced by a multi-panel fixed installation on a large mast of a truncated pyramid shape. This would mark a significant step up in detection capability and response time, as well as offering better stealth characteristics. Notably, the TRS-4D, successor to the TRS-3D currently found on the Hamina- and Hämeenmaa-classes, is available in both configurations.

76 mm OTO Melara Super Rapid of the Norwegian Nansen-class frigates. A possible future Finnish deck gun? Source: Wikimedia Commons/Ketil

The only weapon system visible is the fore-mounted gun, which is reminiscent of the BAE 5” (127 mm) Mk 45 Mod 4 turret. If so, this would be the smallest class to be equipped with this weapon, and while not impossible, more likely the turret in the picture is just a generic placeholder, with a 3” (76 mm) weapon being the likely choice.

All four sisters moving in column in their home waters. Source: Finnish Defence Forces / Insinööriupseeriliitto

The general design has also received a more pronounced twin mast setup, with the front mast holding the four-panel radar and sporting what seems to be an ESM-antenna on top. The rear masts holds an additional array of different antennas, and probably shrouds the funnel to reduce the IR-signature. This is a setup suspiciously similar to that employed by TKMS in recent MEKO-designs, including on the upcoming German F125-frigates and the (failed) MEKO-D bid to Australia. This is not to say that TKMS necessarily is involved in the design, the basic principle of splitting up prioritised systems for greater redundancy by physically separating them is common sense and not uniquely German. However, TKMS would be a logical partner for the “international cooperation and technology sharing [that] has occupied an important role in the project”, and the truncated front mast does bear a strong resemblance of the designs used for an early F125 draft and the aforementioned Australian concept. For the F125 concept, note not only the truncated pyramid form, but also the ESM-antenna on top of it, and wire antennas stretching from the front to the rear mast.

It is also mentioned that the US Navy has been the single most important partner up to this point, and that this is a natural continuation of a collaboration that has been taking place for close to ten years already.

Propeller testing for Squadron 2020 showing cavitation on the propeller tips. Source: Finnish Defence Force / Insinööriupseeriliitto

The hull shape seems more or less finished, with tank testing having been performed in 1:15 scale, both as towed and self-propelled model. The propulsion will be of a traditional kind, with two shaft lines sporting a single propeller each. The propellers are a minor project on their own, and are set to be of a highly advanced design. This is due to the somewhat conflicting demands of high top-speed, small diameter (due to overall draught requirement),  and low noise (and high cavitation margin). All this, while at the same time being strong enough to cope with ice. This creates significant metallurgic and hydrodynamic challenges, but high-level propeller design is also an area of expertise found both in Finland and amongst our close friends abroad (including Sweden). Suffice to say, this isn’t on my top-five lists of things to be worried about in the program.

Also check out there earlier posts on the programme, including my discussion on the use of vertical-launch systems (VLS) for some serious surface-to-air capability and the general need for corvettes.

The Attack on Swift

During the night of 1 October, the UAE operated vessel Swift was attacked outside the Yemeni coast. News of the attack quickly spread on social media, and the first indication was that the vessel had been attacked by an anti-ship missile launched from land, which struck the ship and caused a fire, with some reporting the vessel to have sunk.

The official reports downplayed the incident, referring to it as an “accident“, and claiming that the attack on a civilian MEDEVAC ship caused no casualties. Later this was reclassified as a terrorist attack, but that the naval and air units operating in the area had chased away the terrorists boats without own losses.

The vessel in question was the 98 m long wave-piercing catamaran Swift, built by Incat Tasmania in 2003. Together with a number of other vessels, she was built as a proof of concept for the US Joint High Speed Vessel-program, which eventually became the Spearhead-class. The vessel is based on the yard’s civilian fast ferries, and built to civilian standards. This is important to remember when assessing the damage done, as the damage control requirements differ between civilian and military vessels, especially with regards to external sources such as battle damage. The Swift was owned by Sealift Inc. and chartered to the US Military Sealift Command for a number of years with the pennant HSV-2 (High-speed vessel). After this the vessel spent some time back at the yard, presumably for a refit, before heading to UAE where the National Marine Dredging Company leased the vessel.

The vessel has since been a frequent visitor to Yemeni waters, where she has been making round trips between the Ethiopian port Assab and the Yemeni ports of Aden and Al-Mukalla, the later which have been a key battleground during the ongoing war. The exact nature of the operation is uncertain, as is the question whether or not she is operated as a naval vessel or simply chartered as a civilian transport. It is however crucial to note that regardless of whether the crew is consisting of civilian or naval sailors, the vessel is in essence a grey-painted fast ferry. According to coalition press releases, she has operated in the humanitarian role, bringing food and supplies to Yemen and evacuating wounded and sick people on the return trip. This is to the best of my knowledge neither confirmed nor disproved by independent observers.

Apparently the rebel forces/Houthis/Ansar Allah have kept their eyes on the vessel for quite some time, as evident by the opening shot of the Swift in daylight and the close shot of the missile striking the Swift. After nightfall they then tracked it by radar after nightfall, until firing what seems to have been a single C-802 anti-ship missile. The C-802 is a Chinese radar-seeking missile, the first of which where developed with some help from France in the mid-80’s. Production has since switched away from foreign components, including the original French TRI-60 engine (the same one used by e.g. Saab’s RBS-15/MTO-85), and to Chinese equivalents. The missile is roughly corresponding to the Exocet when it comes to behaviour, size, and performance. Crucially, the Iranians have developed their own version called the Noor.

A Noor being fired from a truck mounted launcher during an Iranian exercise. Note the search radar. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Mohammad Sadegh Heydari

The Noor has seen action in the Middle East earlier as well, most famously during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when two or three missiles where fired at Israeli vessels outside of Beirut. The target was the corvette/light frigate INS Hanit, which was hit by a single missile. The other missile sank the small Egyptian/Kampuchean freighter MV Moonlight, while a third missile apparently exploded upon or shortly after launch. It seems highly likely that the missiles where operated by Iranian forces, and not Hezbollah themselves. The attack gives valuable clues to how the attack on Swift was conducted. The following is based largely on Commander Ville Vänskä’s Merisota and Christopher Carlson’s Attack on INS Hanit.

Sa’ar 5-class vessel. Note the white ‘R2-D2’ dome in front of the bridge, housing the CIWS. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Israeli Navy Spokesperson

At the time of the attack, INS Hanit was stationed approximately 10 nautical miles of the Lebanese coast (~18.5 km), and her movements had been followed for quite some time by the Iranian/Hezbollah forces operating the missiles. The INS Hanit is equipped with an automatic CIWS system, but due to unconfirmed reasons it did not intercept the missile. One reason is that the missile struck straight from the rear, another that it seems that Israeli intelligence was not aware of the fact that the enemy had anti-ship missiles in the area. It also seems that the system was not operating in automatic mode, due to the INS Hanit conducting air operations at the time of the attack. In fact, it seems like the spotters had observed the vessel for a long time, and waited for air operations to take place before launching. The missiles received targeting data from an commercial off-the-shelf navigational radar mounted on the truck functioning as the TEL, as such not alerting the electronic warfare personnel on the INS Hanit to its sinister nature. The missiles where then launched in sequence, apparently with different flight profiles and seeker settings to maximise the probability of scoring a hit. It seems the missile that hit actually hit a robust steel crane situated on the flight deck behind the superstructure (not mounted in the picture above), which saved the vessel from far worse damage that would have been the case if the missile had been able to penetrate the aluminium hull or superstructure and detonat its 165 kg warhead inside. In the end, INS Hanit came away relatively lightly, suffering moderate damage but still being able to continue under own power and return to service in only 10-20 days after the attack. Four Israelis died as a result of the attack. The missile that hit was the second of the salvo, with the first said to have overflown the INS Hanit before locking onto the unfortunate MV Moonlight, which sank within minutes of being hit, but luckily without any loss of life.

The attack against Swift is likely to have followed the same pattern, with the spotters tracking it visually and with the help of a standard navigational radar. It seems that it was more or less ambushed near the straits of Bab el-Mandab, where the southern Red Sea is at its narrowest. As the vessel lacked any kind of self-defense systems, and most likely any specialised electronic countermeasures or early warning systems, detecting the missile visually in darkness must have been virtually impossible. Most likely the first indication that something was wrong was when the missile impacted in the starboard side of the bow.

The detonation caused a fire, which rapidly engulfed the bridge. Unlike in the case of the INS Hanit, the vessel was put out of action, and despite the preliminary report of no fatalities, it seems likely that the missile and fire would have caused considerable loss of life, especially if the vessel was serving in a MEDEVAC-role. It is a testimony to the seamanship of the crew that they were able to extinguish the fire and save the ship. However, this is also an indication that the warhead of a modern anti-ship missile isn’t necessarily large enough to sink even a moderately sized vessel. As noted earlier, the vessel is aluminium built to civilian specifications, and as such fires are notoriously difficult to put out. That the fire is a greater danger the warhead themselves is also evident in the case of the HMS Sheffield (D80), probably the most famous instance of a warship being hit by an anti-ship missile. The HMS Sheffield was sunk after a single Exocet hit it during the Falkland’s War, and while it seems the warhead failed to detonate, the engine caused a fire that eventually sank the ship. Modern warships are often built of aluminium due to the weight savings it brings, but in case of fire this causes additional problems compared to steel. Of note is that the Royal Navy as a rule require aluminium used to be in annealed condition (O-temper), giving it lower strength but the highest ductility possible, giving  a better ability to withstand battle damage compared to the more usual higher strengths grades used in the civilian sector.

The long-term effect of the attack remains to be seen, but as said, it seems that unlike in the case of the INS Hanit, only a single missile was fired. Quite possibly there are two missiles left on the TEL, and a battle-proven crew waiting for the opportunity to strike again.