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?

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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.

Rumble at the AMBLE

The face of amphibious operations are changing, while at the same time remaining as difficult as ever. Both of these facts were evident at the inaugural Amphibious Live Exhibit, or AMBLE Baltic for short, held this week in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. The country might not have a strong tradition of naval infantry, but the relatively young Seebatallion (Sea Battalion) has quickly proved itself as a provider of a wide range of different capabilities to not only the German Navy, but the German Defence Forces as a whole (more on that in a later post). At the same time it is still in continuous development, and with military technology moving swiftly, the Freundeskreis Seebatallion (the guild of the friends of the Sea Battalion) decided that a marine infantry specific event modelled after the annual KSK Symposium was required. This led to a host of different defence and security company ranging from small niche suppliers to international giants such as KMW all turning up at Wilhelmshaven’s Nordhafen last Thursday, bringing along an amphibious APC (more on that in a later post), a modified BV 206 (more on that as well in a later post), three boats, and a jetski whose main mission was to be stopped by Diehl’s HPEM boatStop electronic pulse system.

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The exhibit being opened by Bernhard Saß-Möbus (middle left). Source: Own picture

The underlying issue is that while amphibious units are in high demand, their missions and capabilities aren’t always understood by those outside the military. Bernhard Saß-Möbus, 1st chairman of the Freundeskreis noted this discrepancy at the opening of the exhibit:

People hear ‘amphibious operations’ and immediately think of Omaha Beach and Saving Private Ryan. It’s not. Today they’re often in urban areas.

The general rise of the urban battlefield naturally is as prominent along the coast as it is inland, but in addition the role played by ports as the crucial logistical nodes of today’s modern society further increases the strategic importance of coastal urban centres. The importance of the ports are evident both in peacetime for society as a whole as well for any military operations conducted in times of war. And all ports aren’t created equal. “A port cannot be substituted one-to-one for another port”, as Mathias Lüdicke of Niedersachsen Ports GmbH & Co. KG explained in his introductionary speech, comparing the particularities of Wilhelmshaven to nearby ports such as Bremerhaven and Hamburg. The pressure is also coming from the navy, for whom the littoral environment is becoming increasingly interesting. This also creates a demand for uniquely maritime missions, such as visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) and naval force protection. Combined these trends are what makes countries such as Germany look at units that not only can fight in these kinds of varied mission sets, but who can get there (or away) over the water. “Vom Land zum Meer – Vom Meer zum Land“, as the official motto of the Seebatallion puts it. Even for non-expeditionary forces such as the Finnish Defence Forces, it isn’t hard to envisage a scenario along the Finnish southern flank where the coastal jaeger battle group might find itself in a decidedly urban environment.

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Rheinmetall Defence showing their integrated solutions for the modern infantry. Source: Own picture

Some of the defining features of the amphibious units are then that they need to be familiar with the particularities of sea transport, including by small craft, and that their equipment need to be suitable for maritime environment. The latter part can obviously be solved in different ways, if a rifle corrode too fast you can simply issue more oil and cleaning rags instead of using chrome parts for manufacturing. However, at some point the maritime environment and the special tasks only found in and around the maritime domain will require unique equipment, and this is where AMBLE comes into the picture. The exhibition featured maritime specific items such as boarding ladders and personal flotation devices, but also systems that would interest any light infantry unit, such as man-portable fire support and anti-tank weapons. Perhaps most importantly it provided a natural meeting place for the industry and the armed forces, with the invitation-only format ensuring that everyone was focused on the particularities of the amphibious fight.

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Augmented reality training was demonstrated in the form of the RE-liON BLACKSUIT system demoing the clearing of a bulding. The system can also be set up to provide force-on-force training, and naturally provide a host of debriefing tools to ensure the best possible training benefit. Source: Own picture

A major system present was the Marine Alutech Jehu, or Watercat M18 AMC, combat boat*, making it’s first public apperance in Germany. The vessel also made demo rides throughout the day. The Jehu in question was there on behalf of the manufacturer, but was a fully operational vessel normally used by the Finnish Navy’s marines at the Nyland Brigade. At the exhibit it was crewed by two senior NCO’s from the NYLBR.

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The inside of the Jehu combat boat. The Dutch Korps Mariniers is another unit for which a modern combat boat would provide added capabilities. Source: Own picture

I have been discussing the vessel on the blog earlier, so without going into details one can note that the naval infantry and naval special units in several countries still mainly use open fast craft for their fast transport needs. The ability to transport troops under cover and in relatively cosy conditions significantly improve the combat efficiency of the troops once the actual mission starts, and the larger hulls of vessels such as Jehu and CB 90 provide better seakeeping and longer time on station, allowing more equipment to be brought along and providing for more rested passengers. The use of modern remote weapon stations with heavy machine guns and 40 mm automatic grenade launchers also adds missions such as fire support and patrol to the repertoire. As such they certainly would fit the “Multitool”-moniker of the Seebatallion. Time will tell if a modern combat boat will become a common sight in German ports.

A big thank you to Freundeskreis Seebatallion for inviting me along and getting me to and from the airport!

*Full disclosure, Kongsberg Maritime Finland whom I work for provide the waterjets for both the Jehu and the CB 90