The True Face of the Baltic Fleet

In the domestic critique of the Pohjanmaa-class, an often repeated claim is that with the Russian focus on light vessels, the few corvettes will simply be overwhelmed by the swarming vessels launching barrages of anti-ship missiles. Rarely however does anyone discuss this claim more in detail, including which small vessels would fire the barrages, whether the Russian fondness for light craft really exist, and what the geography in the Baltic Sea dictates. As it turns out, these oft-repeated truths aren’t necessarily truths at all.

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

To begin with the geographic realities of the Baltic Fleet needs to be acknowledged. The main base, Baltiysk, sits in Kaliningrad. There it is not only within artillery distance from a NATO-country, but it also lacks a land connection to the Russian mainland, and any ship wanting to exit the port to reach the Baltic Sea has to do so by transiting the two kilometer long and 400 meter wide Strait of Baltiysk which cuts through the Vistula Spit. The second base is located in Kronstadt, just outside of St Petersburg. While the base is located closer to the Russian mainland and more easily defendable, it comes at cost of any vessel wanting to head over to the Baltic Sea proper having to run the full 400 km length of the 40 km wide Gulf of Finland. The Gulf of Finland is also shallow, making submarine operations with conventional submarines challenging. It is often forgotten in the Finnish discussions exactly how bad the geostrategic realities are for the Russian Baltic Fleet in the grand scheme of things.

The Russian Baltic Fleet feature a varied fleet, made up of a significant number of vessels of Cold War designs, including a single destroyer, frigates, light corvettes, and FACs. In addition, seven modern corvettes of three(!) different classes are found. If you are the kind of person who really want to pick the details and look into numbers, at the bottom is a somewhat lengthy go-through of the individual classes and their weapon systems.

In short, the majority of the Baltic Fleet is far from any kind of swarming wunderwaffe. The lightest vessels, the Molnaya, still displace almost twice that of the Hamina-class. The majority of the missiles carried by these vessels are old bordering on obsolete, though getting hit with a 300 kg warhead still hurts if the seeker works. As of writing, the Baltic Fleet operate seven modern vessels with any kind of surface warfare capability (and a single modern minesweeper of the Project 12700 Alexandrit-class), these being the four Steregushchiy, two Buyan-M, and single Karakurt corvettes. Notable is also that the endurance of the vessels are somewhat limited, usually around ten to fifteen days. As was seen during the fleet parades of 2018 reinforcements can come from the outside, though such movements risk alerting the adversary and the number of modern vessels in the Northern and Black Sea Fleets are limited as well.

A key point of the Russian fleet programmes is that the current focus is on frigates and corvettes, as opposed to swarming light vessels. However, it should be noted that this is also not due to a lack of interest in larger vessels. Many of the older destroyers and cruisers are undergoing long and difficult modernisation programs and overhauls, and there are longtime ambitions to launch new large surface combatants. However, the decade long gap in newbuilding has left its mark on the capability of Russia to build modern warships, making it hard to live up to these ambitions. Anders Puck Nielsen recently published an interesting study into the state of the Baltic Fleet, where he points out that the median age of ships above 300 tons in the Baltic Fleet is a full five years older than the average age of the same (29 compared to 24 years), clearly illustrating this split. Within the next five years it is likely that we will see the first new destroyers laid down, but considering the building time of frigates and the Ivan Gren-class LST, it will likely be more than a decade before these are operational. By that time Nastoychivyy will be approaching 40 years in service.

Through exercises such as the Northern Coasts and BALTOPS serieses, the Western navies ensure interoperability should the worst come.

In a conflict between NATO and Russia, the Baltic Fleet’s main mission would likely be sea denial. Especially the modern vessels are well-suited for the mission, though the poor basing options make them vulnerable. In a conflict between Finland and Russia, the Baltic Fleet’s base at Kaliningrad would on the other hand provide a safe haven 600 km from the Finnish coast, and the first step would likely be to regroup vessels from Kronstadt to the open waters in the northern parts of the Baltic Sea. However, with the Finnish Navy operating according to the policy that they know the identity of “all vessels passing close to our waters”, such a move would risk giving away the element of strategic surprise. Granted it is possible to mask fleet movements as an exercise, and/or to try and dash through the Gulf of Finland with the Kronstadt squadron in the immediate aftermath of a first strike, but achieving strategic surprise against an adversary that maintain a 24/7 readiness even with a limited number of vessels is hard.

In absolute numbers, the current Finnish Navy with eight FAC hiding in the archipelago backed up by significant coastal artillery assets, including truck-mounted anti-ship missiles, would be a tough enemy for the Russian fleet of about a dozen (mostly light) corvettes, six FAC, and a maximum of two heavier vessels. With the exception of the Kalibr-equipped vessels, the Russian vessels would have no range advantage, and in most cases would operate with significantly older vessels, weapons, and sensors. They would also be unable to rely on any kind of terrain masking, coming from the open sea. Their limited endurance would also mean that any kind of blockade or attempt at exercising sea control over the Archipelago Sea would require a rotating presence with squadrons taking turn on station, being in transit, and replenishing in Kaliningrad.

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

The best opportunity the Baltic Fleet would have is interdicting merchant shipping passing the open waters of the Sea of Åland as well as to a smaller extent Kihti (Skiftet) either by surface weapon or by mines laid by Dmitrov in suitable locations closer to shore. This would face the Finnish Navy with the choice of allowing the country to be under siege or coming out from the archipelago and taking up battle. This is a scenario for which the Pohjanmaa-class is well-suited, with the advanced sensor suite giving it superior situational awareness against the smaller and older Russian vessels, and with the endurance to stay at sea and choose the time and place of the battle. The Baltic Fleet is expected to grow in capability, both through new vessels such as the second Karakurt-class corvette Serpukhov as well as through modernisation programs, but through the introduction of PTO 2020, Hamina MLU, and the Pohjanmaa-class the relative power balance at sea is expected to remain roughly the same. Of the modernisation programmes, the most important is perhaps the replacement of the six P-120 Malakhit missiles on Project 12341 corvettes with up to sixteen Kh-35 Uragan. The first such modified vessel (of the Pacific Fleet) test-fired its missiles in February this year. However, it should be noted that while this would be a huge leap in capability for the Baltic Fleet, it is still just replacing a fifty year old missile with a twenty year old one.

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

In the end, the Russian Baltic Fleet still is a serious adversary and should not be underestimated if the Finnish Navy ever was to face it alone. However, the maritime domain is still significantly more evenly matched than the air or land domains. There are some significant headaches, such as the possibility of Russia imposing a naval blockade on ships heading to Finland in the southern parts of the Baltic Sea or using submarines to lay mines to create a crisis below the treshold of war. The idea that Russia will be able to overpower the Finnish Navy by employing a vast number of light craft firing volleys of modern anti-ship missiles is however not backed up by the order of battle of the Baltic Fleet, nor by current or envisioned Russian shipbuilding programs.

The vessels of the Baltic Fleet

The flagship of the Baltic Fleet is the destroyer Nastoychivyy (‘610’), a Project 965A class destroyer (NATO-designation Sovremenny). The vessel was laid down as the Moskovskiy Komsomolets in 1987, and entered service in 1993. The vessel has a serious gun-battery in the form of two twin-130 mm gun turrets, as well as a number of 30 mm gatling AA-guns. The naval version of the Buk is also carried for air-defence. The weaker point of the vessel is the ASW-suite, which is mainly meant for self-defence (the Project 11551/Udaloy-II and 1155R/Udaloy were supposed to take care of that part). Mine rails are also found.

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

The main punch is provided by the twin quadruple launchers for the long-range P-270 Moskit or the even longer-ranged P-100 Moskit-M (SS-N-22 Sunburn) anti-ship missiles. The missile design dates back to the early/mid-1980’s, and the last missiles apparently rolled off the production lines in 1994. The missiles has a total weight of 3,950 kg, flies at Mach 2.5 and has a range of 100 km for the baseline-Moskit and 129 km for the Moskit-M, of which “only a few were made” according to USNI. The missiles use an active radar seeker, and carries a 300 kg warhead (of which half the weight is made up off the explosives). An interesting detail is that the design was sold to Boeing, for use as target drones.

Nastoychivyy is currently undergoing overhauls, including a renewal of the propulsion system. This is based on two sets of geared steam turbines driving two propeller shafts. However, naval propulsion is a big headache throughout Russia, as they went to war with the country producing their (relatively) modern gas turbines, while at the same time are having serious trouble in producing modern high-powered diesel engines suitable for naval use. It remains to be seen if and when the Nastoychivyy will get moving again.

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

Another large vessel of the Baltic Fleet from the same era is the frigate Yaroslav Mudry (‘777’), second and final vessel of the Neustrashimyy-class (Project 11540). Mudry had the bad luck of getting stuck in the turbulence following the fall of the Soviet Union, and took 21 years from being laid down in 1988 until she actually entered service in 2009. The design is optimised for ASW-duty, including through carrying a Ka-27 ASW-helicopter, and the combat system sports the distinction of being the first fully integrated computerised system in use by the Russian Navy. Yaroslav Mudry has done a number of long voyages, and just recently passed through the English Channel heading south. Sister and leadship of the class Nesutrashimyy (‘712’) is currently in the final stages of a five year overhaul. These repairs saw a serious fire, and at times the sleek vessel looked like it might never get back to sea. However, reports are now stating that she will be able to join the Baltic Fleet before the end of the year.

In the anti-ship role, the Neustrashimyy-class can carry up to sixteen Kh-35 Uran (SS-N-25 Switchblade) anti-ship missiles in four quadruple launchers, though the usual complement is half that number. The Kh-35 reminds more of typical western designs, carrying a 145 kg warhead at high-subsonic speeds and with a range of up to 130 km. The radar seeker is able to operate in both active and passive modes, and the weapon entered service in the late 90’s.

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

Significantly more modern vessels are found in the form of the four Steregushchiy-class (Project 20380) multi-purpose corvettes. Carrying up to eight Kh-35 Uran, the most impressive feature is still the Redut-air defence system. Redut is a VLS-system related to the S-400-family, and reportedly uses three different missiles with 15 km/40 km/120 km max range respectively. The system is reported to receive a new longer-ranged missile with ABM-capability in the near future, and integration with the new Poliment-radar is reportedly operational since the first half of the year. The Steregushchiy is however far from a one-trick-pony, and also feature a serious ASW-capability. The class is roughly comparable to the Pohjanmaa-class, being about 105 meters long, with a shallow draft and a top speed somewhere in the order of 27 to 30 knots. The big difference is the lack of the dedicated mine hull of the Pohjanmaa, and the significantly lighter full load displacement of 2,100 ton.

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

Moving down the ladder in size, the most modern vessels of the Russian Baltic Fleet are the two Buyan-M (Project 21631) and upcoming Karakurt (Project 22800) corvettes. The Buyan-M corvettes Zeleny Dol (‘562’) and Serpukhov (‘563’) entered the Baltic Sea in 2016, and caused quite a stir due to their VLS being able to handle up to eight Kalibr-cruise or anti-ship missiles. The range of the 3M-14 cruise missile version of the Kalibr allow the vessels to strike targets anywhere in the greater Baltic Sea region, while the 3M-54 anti-ship version is charachterised by its very high speed in the final attack run, reaching up to 3.0 Mach. However, the vessels are in certain aspects closer to large FAC than corvettes, as they completely lack ASW-capability and have a very limited anti-air capability featuring 30 mm CIWS and a single short-range Gibka-launcher firing navalised versions of the late-80’s era Strela-3.

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

For the Karakurt-class, the first vessel Mystischi (‘567’) was declared operational during late 2019, with a number of sisters expected to follow the vessel into service in the Baltic Sea. However, the build rate has been delayed due to lack of suitable M507 diesels. Compared to the Buyan-M, the Karakurt feature the same eight-cell VLS for Kalibr-missiles, but employs the moder modern short-range navalised Pantsir-M system instead of the Gibka. The endurance is also longer, at fifteen days compared to ten days for the Buyan-M. A more in-depth comparison is found here. The main gun has also gone down in calibre from 100 mm on the Buyan-M to 76.2 mm on the Karakurt.

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

The last surface vessels with a serious anti-surface capability are all Soviet-era designs. Four Project 12341 (Nanuchka III) class corvettes date to the last years of the Soviet Union, and carry six P-120 Malakhit (SS-N-9 Siren) heavy anti-ship missiles. The missiles have a rather limited range of 56 km unless they are assisted by a forward observer and flies at high subsonic speed. In addition the vessels have a short-range SAM-system in the form of the Osa-M, a 76.2 mm deck gun, and one of the ubiqous 30 mm gatling CIWS. The vessels sport a ten day endurance. The smaller FACs are represented by two Project 12411T Molnaya (Tarantul II) and four of the sligthly newer Project 12411 Molnaya-M (Tarantul III). In this case ‘newer’ means of the same age as the 12341s, as opposed to the original Monayas which both date to the first half of the 80’s. The Molnaya feature four of the outdated P-15M Termit (SS-N-2C Styx), while the Molnaya-M have four of the P-270 Moskit that are also carried by the Nastoychivyy. Both classes employ a 76.2 mm deck gun, Strela-3 short-range SAM launchers, and single-barreled 30 mm CIWS systems. Both classes share the 10 day endurance with the larger Project 12341. The vessels have been in and out of dry dock during 2019, but apparently none of them have undergone any larger upgrades for the time being.

The final vessel that would play a key part in any naval battle is the sole submarine of the fleet, the B-806 Dmitrov. Dmitrov is a Project 877EKM (Kilo) class submarine, and was laid down in 1985 and entered service two years later. The Dmitrov was refitted in St Petersburg during 2001 and 2002, and has often been used to train foreign crews for export Project 877s. With a 45 day endurance the submarine can not only carry up to 18 torpedoes, but also up to 24 mines, or a mix of the two. The sligthly older B-227 Vyborg has recently been retired.

The rest of the Baltic Fleet is made up of landing crafts, amphibious vessels, single-role mine warfare and ASW-vessels, as well as auxilliaries. In addition a number of ground and air units sort under the fleet.

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”.

Pohjanmaa-class Contracts Announced

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

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

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

A convincing combination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reach out and touch someone – at 40 km

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s worth having a look at.

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Modern Chinese Warplanes – Chinese Army Aviation – Aircraft and Units

In December last year I reviewed two Harpia books, the publisher’s sister volumes on the current state of Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation. I then commented that “the role of Army Aviation is never quite explained, and I was left somewhat wondering what exactly they do, and how it differs from the rotary-winged units of the Air Force. I can only assume this would have been clearer if all three volumes had been read together.” This spring the third volume was released (ISBN 978-0-9973092-8-7), and it did indeed clear things up.

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The basic premise of the book is rather similar to the two earlier volumes, dealing first with the history and current trends of the force as a whole, briefly describing the markings and serial number system, then going through the platforms (aircrafts, helicopters, and UAVs) and weapons used, before fielding a brief overview of the training syllabus. A complete overview of the PLA Army aviation order of battle the occupies the next 30 pages, before describing the aviation assets of the People’s Armed Police Force, and ending with two paragraphs on the enigmatic aviation units of the Border Defense Corps.

However, it isn’t just the status of the WIG-craft of the Border Defense Corps that is enigmatic, but on the whole the Chinese Army Aviation is rather secretive and mysterious. Here the book deviates strongly from many of the other Harpia books. Usually the offerings are the ultimate guides, but since the topic is so poorly documented the Army Aviation-volume in many places notes that different details are unconfirmed. The whole chapter on training syllabus for example is rather short, spanning just over two pages as “barely any hard data is available”.

This will naturally come down to personal preference, but in my opinion when an acknowledged expert such as Rupprecht gives his best understanding of a topic, and crucially is open with where the line between confirmed and unconfirmed details run, I will gladly take that over having a book half as thick dealing only with confirmed facts.

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I will admit that I have a soft spot for Chinese aviation, with their unique and sometimes strange (at least for someone used to Western doctrines) solutions. I mean, who else create a dedicated short-range air-to-air missile for helicopter-to-helicopter combat? And then load up eight on a light transport? As such I did find it a very enjoyable read. While the OOB-chapter certainly is of great value to many analysts, I personally find the equipment chapters to be the most interesting. I was naturally happy to find that the helicopter chapter was dealing with the systems in more depth, partly because the book was “probably” the first ever to deal with the topic, as the author put it. For anyone having a problem recognising their Z-8WJ from their Z-8G, this is the book to get.

Otherwise there actually isn’t much to say. The quality of the book, including the glue binding, is top-notch as always with Harpia. Pictures and illustrations are in colour and excellent as usual. You might not get the definitive monograph as usually is the case with Harpia, but that will be the case with anything written on the topic due to the level of operational security surrounding the Chinese Army Aviation. This is still the book to get if you are interested in the topic, and highly recommended for anyone interested in Chinese helicopters and UAVs.

The book was kindly sent to me free of charge by Harpia for review.

Bv 206 meets Mercedes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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