The Rocketeers

In the midst of the strategic acquisitions it is easy to get locked in on the choice of platform, whether it is the HX fighter or the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes. But someone has to supply the teeths to make them able to bite, and this is where companies such as MBDA come in to the picture.

© Dassault Aviation - V. Almansa
A Dassault Rafale being armed. Picture courtesy of: © Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa

MBDA is yet another of the numerous joint ventures created in Europe in a time when not even the major regional powers can muster enough of a demand to warrant developing their own high-performance weaponry. However, the company is something of an outlier in that several of the products they have on their shelf have a good reputation both when it comes to project management and the cost/capability ratio of the final product.

Arming HX

Our basic philosphy is that we are platform agnostic, we serve everybody

MBDA has a product integrated or somewhere down the propsed upgrade paths on most HX-candidates. The flagship is without doubt the very-long range Meteor, largely held to be the most capable weapon in beyond-visual range engagments against fighter-sized targets currently operational. The introduction in service aboard the JAS 39C Gripen as part of the MS20 upgrade “changed the behaviour over the Baltic Sea”, both on the part of the Swedish fighters carrying them as well as for the Russian aircrafts they meet there. Courtesy of the ramjet engine and the 100+ km range, it provide “at least three times the no-escape zone” of current medium range missile (read: AIM-120C AMRAAM). The missile will find itself under the wings and fuselages of the Rafale and Typhoon within the next few years in addition to Gripen (both Charlie and Echo), creating an interesting dilemma for a manufacturer supplying highly complex equipment which is to be integrated into competing platforms. MBDA’s solution is to assign each aircraft and country it’s own manager, making sure that there are watertight bulkheads between any platform specific information entering the company.

For Gripen in HX, that man is Peter Bäckström, MBDA’s director exports for the Nordic region. An engineer by trade, he worked on a number of subsystems for the Meteor and TAURUS KEPD 350 before moving into sales. He has a clear view about what made the Meteor different from so many other projects. “It was born out of a requirement, a need for a 100+ km capable missile”, he notes, before continuing. “Game changer is a worn-out term, but this really is. It establishes a new set of rules.”

For the Gripen E, the Meteor and the increased number of hardpoints changes what has often been decried as a light fighter into a serious BVR-force, with a maximum load of seven Meteor and two short-range IRIS-T on the wingtips. While the maximum load might not be suitable for everyday carriage (if nothing else then due to budgetary constraints), it still places the air-to-air weapons load more or less on par with e.g. the Rafale.

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The fulls-scale Gripen ‘Echo’ mock-up showing three belly-mounted Meteors. Source: Own picture

But Meteor is far from the only thing MBDA has to offer for HX. ASRAAM is also found in their arsenal, a rather unique missile in being designed for ranges which are usually the realm of radar-guided ones. Given this, I have to ask Bäckström if there is any truth to the rumours that it can outrange the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Bäckström just smiles, and simply quips “It’s a very good missile”. In roughly the same class, the MICA-family (with both IR- and radar-guided versions) is set to be upgraded within the next decade. Unlike the Meteor, from the viewpoint of HX MICA is tied to Rafale. If Finland buys Rafale, we will likely get the MICA as well, but if any other aircraft takes home HX the MICA likely won’t make it’s way into the Finnish inventory (though it isn’t ruled out).

For heavy cruise-missiles, there’s not one but two options. The best known is likely the combat-proven SCALP/Storm Shadow, sporting inertial/GPS/terrain reference guidance and an IIR-seeker for terminal guidance. The different parameters which can be set include fusing (air burst, impact, or penetration) and dive angle. The missile is designed to feature a very high level of automation on the part of the pilot, meaning that it is suitable for single-seat fighters as well as twin-seaters.

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A TAURUS KEPD350 being loaded onto a Sapnish F/A-18 Hornet (C.15). Source: Ejército del Aire Ministerio de Defensa España via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Taurus KEPD 350E is the other alternative, being built to a different requirement for the German and Swedish Air Forces (though Sweden is yet to acquire and put the weapon into operational use). The ‘350’ in the name comes from the requirement of 350 km range in all conditions at all drop heights. In practice, this means that the range when dropped from height is well above 500 km. It can be dropped from as low as 100 meters, which often is little more than a gimmick for stand-off weapons. However, for Finland this might actually be a useful feature, as there is value in staying below the radar horizon of the Russian ground based air surveillance radars. The 480 kg MEPHISTO penetrating warhead with pre-charge is also described in grand terms.

This is a real penetrator, not a ‘put down it down in a hole and blow it up’-warhead

TAURUS actually did compete for the contract which was won by the JASSM regarding integration into the Finnish Air Force F/A-18C Hornets. It is hard to tell what made the TAURUS come in second back then, whether there were particular political considerations or ease of integration (US fighter – US missile, though ROKAF has opted for the TAURUS for their F-15K Strike Eagles and Spain is integrating it on the Hornet) which played into the decision, or whether it was purely based on performance of the missile in question. In any case, the TAURUS is set to be integrated on Typhoons and not completely unlikely to appear on the 39E Gripen, so it wouldn’t be altogether surprising for it to fill that JASSM-shaped void after the retirement of the Hornet.

Ground-/Ship-based

While the airborne systems grabs all the attention, the question of air defence system for the Pohjanmaa-class (Squadron 2020) is still unresolved. The last of the major weapon systems open, it will pit ESSM against the CAMM-ER (Barak 8 has been mentioned in the speculations, but is likely too large. I-Derby might be on offer instead). CAMM and CAMM-ER shares some of the same ancestry as the ASRAAM, but has developed into a rather different beast. The weapon feature a newly developed radar seeker, and is able to be quad-packed into a Mk 41 (or the smaller and lighter ExLS) just as the ESSM. From there the CAMM+family is soft-launched, and sports ranges in the 25 to 45 km class, depending on exact version and target. Interestingly enough, packed into the launcher it is completely maintenance free for a decade. This also ensures that once Finland has gotten the missiles, it is possible to operate them completely independently from the supplier. Or as Bäckström describes it:

A sovereign supply solution.

The weapon is already operational with the Royal Navy (and has been sold to other nations), but perhaps even more interesting is that the British Army performed their first firings of the Land Ceptor (known as EMADS in mainland Europe) earlier this year. If MBDA manages to get the CAMM-ER chosen as the main air defence weapon for the Finnish Navy, MBDA could suddenly claim synergy effects in the race for a longer-ranged ground-based air defence system for the Finnish Army. So far the ability of the NASAMS systems (already in Finnish service as the ITO12) to fire the longer-ranged AMRAAM-ER has made it a favourite, but questions has also been raised if that would mean putting too many eggs in the same basket. Notably the CAMM-ER would also provided the altitude coverage the Finnish Army is looking for following the retirement of the Buk-M1. A Land Ceptor solution able to use a joint missile stock with the Navy’s corvettes might suddenly be a very interesting proposition.

Land ceptor
Land Ceptor during test fires in Sweden earlier this year. The time lapse shows the cold launch sequence in which the missile is flung upwards out of the tube, and only then firing its engine. Source: UK MoD (Crown copyright/OGL)

Another interesting thing to note is that MBDA is quick to point out that the missile would fit nicely into the Swedish organisation as well, as an all-weather mid-tier missile between the Patriot and the IRIS-T. While currently all light is on the Patriot-deal, it is clear that two understrength air defence battalions won’t provide the air defence coverage needed by the Swedish Army, and MBDA raising the benefits of a joint Finnish-Swedish buy (either of whole systems or missiles) might be worth keeping an eye on. Normal caveat about companies liking to market that they are in negotiations/close to a deal applies…

The draft text has been read through by MBDA, to make certain that it only contain non-classified information and general comments. Minor changes followed as part of the feedback received from them.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

IPH 2/16

The sound of cannon fire echoes through the forest, as I follow captain Laitinen towards the low tower protruding at the treeline. We are at the media tour of IPH 2/16, the latest edition of the twice-annually held exercise where soldiers from all of the ground-based air defense units come together for two weeks of intensive training at the Vattaja firing range. I smile as I spot the ZIL-131 trucks parked under the trees next to the dirt road. Soviet trucks are getting rarer in the defence forces, but if there’s somewhere one could expect to find them, it is within earshot of the trusty ZU-23-2 Sergei.

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The Sergei themselves soon come into sight. Grouped below the tower is a row of the light anti-aircraft guns. The older 23 ITK 61 are placed to the left, with the modernised 23 ITK 95 to the right. The difference between them is that the newer ones got an aiming computer, thermal camera, and laser range-finder to enhance their accuracy. “The larger ones are aimed remotely, so they are being zeroed in at the moment,” captain Laitinen explains and points towards the ends of the lines, where the Oerlikon GDF’s can be made out. I nod and pull out the camera to start taking pictures.

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While the army is the most visible service, the exercise is actually lead by the Air Force Academy. Captain Joni Laitinen is from the Academy, and works as the Leader of Exercise and Aerial Target Team. As such, he was the one responsible for the briefing we received before getting out in the field. The exercise trains both the air defence units themselves and their supporting units in all steps of their wartime tasks, he explained. This start with them moving to the area of operations a few hundred kilometres from their respective homebases. On location, they take up positions, with their wartime logistics and signals units supporting the combat elements. The first week is then all about the live firings of the systems at different aerial targets. After this, the combat stage takes place, where the air force and army aviation fly different scenarios over the firing range. This later phase is highly realistic, with the air defence network being met with targets ranging from unmanned systems, via helicopters, to fighter jets at different altitudes. The task is further complicated by the attackers employing jamming and releasing countermeasures, as the air force practices operations within an air defence zone. For a successful intercept, the air defences will first have to pick up the attackers on their radars, and then relay the information to the command network, which in turn direct the responses and alert the individual weapons systems as needed.

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It might not be immediately visible to the individual gun or missile crew, but behind every engagement, there is a long chain of events that are rehearsed and repeated time after time to make sure that everyone knows what they are doing, and feel comfortable in their own task. “The focus isn’t on shots fired, but on successful repetitions,” as captain Laitinen put it.

Today the focus is on live firings, with the autocannons taking the front stage. It is set to be a busy day, as bad weather had hampered operations the first day of the exercise. “Some of our aerial targets and air defence systems have a weather limit, which meant that yesterday was something of a low-ops day,” colonel Ari Grönroos explained. The colonel is the Inspector of Ground Based Air Defence at the Army Staff, and functions as the head of the exercise. “That’s the way it is in ‘real life’ as well,” he continued with a shrug.

At the moment the weather is better, and soon the small remotely controlled plane that functions as the target started buzzing the row of guns. The guns follow the red target and opens up in turns, firing bursts after burst towards it. The plane is equipped with a pressure sensor, which in real time tells the leader of the gunnery exercise how many shots passed within four meters of it. “If we have one or two 23 mm grenades pass within that distance, we can be quite confident that they would at least have damaged a fighter-sized target,” Laitinen explains. “The Sergei works by covering a relatively large area. That one instead works by accuracy,” he continues and points towards one of the Oerlikons, or 35 ITK 88 as it is known locally.

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Colonel Grönroos also makes sure to mention the excellent cooperation he feels exists between the defence forces and the local community. The same week that IPH2/16 took place, the latest in a row of meetings had taken place, in which the defence forces shared their plans for the upcoming years, and discussed these with the people living in the area near the firing range. The exercise is large for being such a specialised one, with over 200 reservists, 1000 conscripts, and 400 professionals taking part. While the latter aren’t necessarily the ones pulling the trigger, the exercise provides valuable training for them as well, including leading their units during the combat phase and renewing needed qualifications. During the live firings we witnessed two different reservist units alternate in firing the guns, allowing for more efficient training compared to if they only employed their own ones. 

During the springtime the Navy usually take part in the live firings with their vessels, but this time their presence was limited to providing security and emergency teams. In addition to the rapid response boat, a NH90 helicopter was temporarily based at the range as well, performing patrol flights and MEDEVAC if the need would arise. A field hospital is also set up for the duration of the exercise. The live firings were more limited compared to the spring as well, with the ITO 15 (FIM-92 Stinger RMP-I) being the only missile system to see action. “In the spring we are expecting to be performing live firings with four or five different missile systems,” Laitinen discloses.

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As we are about to move on, a sudden streak of light shoots across the sky, and destroys an aerial target further away. What immediately strikes me is the sheer speed of the Stinger missile, which admittedly comes as something of a surprise to me. Laitinen promises to get us a demonstration of the weapon, and after a short drive we meet up with tykkimies (gunner) Happonen who was the one to fire the missile we had seen. Bringing a training missile, he shows the proper handling, and admits that he didn’t see much of the live event due to the liberal amount of smoke the missile kicked up.

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A big thank you to Päivi Visuri at the Karelia Brigade, as well as colonel Grönroos and captain Laitinen for hosting our visit! A special thank you to gunner Happonen as well. More pictures from the tour are found at the Corporal Frisk Facebook-page.