Meripuolustuspäivä 2016 – Maritime Defense Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The panel assembled. Source: own picture

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

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

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

The quest for MTO XX

The main anti-ship weapon in the current Finnish arsenal is the MTO 85M long-range anti-ship missile. This is a version of the widespread Saab RBS15 surface-to-surface missile named RBS15 SF-III (often this designation “Third version of the RBS15 for Suomi/Finland” is mixed up with the RBS15 Mk3 designation, which denotes a newer version, more on this below).

The MTO 85M is found on both the Rauma- and Hamina-class FAC, as well as on truck-mounted batteries firing from land. Notably, Finland has not acquired the air-launched version of the missile. The MTO 85M with its 100 km range make up the outer ring of defence against enemy surface units, and is then backed up with the 130 TK turret-mounted coastal guns firing 130 mm anti-ship grenades at ranges over 30 km and short-range RO2006 (Eurospike-ER) missiles being carried by infantry squads. The short range of the latter, around 8 km maximum, is made up for by the fact that the infantry squads are extremely small and mobile, and as such can move around in the archipelago to set up ambushes at choke points or guard minefields from being swept. However, when push comes to shove, it will be the MTO 85M that will have to do much of the heavy lifting.

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One of the early renders of the upcoming corvette, featuring twin quadruple launchers mounted just aft of the mast. Source: Defmin.fi
With the launch of the Squadron 2020 project, one of the main issues will be what (or which) weapons it will feature for the anti-ship role. Preliminary renders have shown twin quadruple launchers mounted amidships, not unlike those used for the US Harpoon anti-ship missile. The Harpoon has, in a number of variants, been a sort of de-facto NATO standard (together with more famous Exocet), and new versions keep being rolled out. In many ways, the Harpoon, Exocet and RBS15 are comparable. All feature a radar seeker in the nose, are comparatively large, and uses an attack profile where they approach the target at high subsonic speeds at very low altitude, skimming just a few meters over the waves. All three are available in truck, ships, and air launched variants, with the Exocet and Harpoon also being found in submarine launched variants (this obviously being a largely academic talking point in the case of Finland). A new version of one of these three could very well provide the main striking power on Finland’s upcoming corvettes, and would be in line with Finland’s rather conservative view on defence acquisitions, preferring evolutionary rather than revolutionary increments.

The joker of the pack is the NSM provided by Kongsberg, and selected (in its air-launched JSM-version) to be the prime anti-shipping weapon for the F-35. The Norwegians has a reputable reference in the AGM-119 Penguin, which is a short-ranged IR-seeker missile that has seen significant export sales, crucially as a helicopter-launched weapon to the US Navy. The system was also operated by the Swedish Navy as the Rbs 12. The NSM is altogether different though, and its performance and size places it in the same category as the above-mentioned missiles, with one crucial difference: it uses a passive IIR-seeker, making it worse at handling adverse weather conditions but potentially better at coping with modern countermeasures which have heavily focused on spoofing radar seekers. It might also have an easier time in the cluttered archipelagos of the Finnish coast.

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A Harpoon missile blasts off from a US cruiser. Source: Wikimedia Commons/DoD
Another noteworthy “western” (with the word used in a very loose sense) missile is the Japanese XASM-3. Where most western manufacturers have preferred high-subsonic speeds, Soviet/Russian missiles have in several instances instead aimed at very high speeds, including up to Mach 3. The XASM-3, currently undergoing testing, is one of the few western projects specifically aiming for a high top-speed, with Mach 3 having been mentioned. The Japanese do have a history of successful locally-produced subsonic missiles, with the anti-shipping mission naturally being of high priority for the island nation. While this certainly brings something unique to the table, I still see it as unlikely that this Japanese ship-killer would find its way into the Baltic Sea.

For Finland, a number of pieces are bound to move around within the near future. As mentioned, the RBS15 SF-III is not the RBS15 Mk3 used by Poland, Germany, and Sweden, and will need to be replaced at some point. The system itself celebrated 35 years since the first launch this summer, and while it might sound much, by then both Harpoon and Exocet were already tried and proven systems in service. The important part is that the basic missiles of all three families have been continuously updated, and current versions share little except name and outward appearance with their brethren of the 80’s.

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The Finnish truck-based launcher mounting the MTO 85M. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI
What happens if one fails to keep abreast with current development has been clearly shown by the attacks on USS Mason during the last weeks, where the Iranian C-802/Noor missiles apparently have scored nought for six in their attempts at targeting a modern destroyer. Important is also to recognise that while many associate anti-ship missiles with the attack on HMS Sheffield in the Falkland’s War, where the 4,800 ton destroyer was sunk by a single Exocet, history have also shown that a 150+ kg warhead isn’t necessarily enough. Four years after HMS Sheffield, the USS Stark was hit by two Exocets while sailing in the Persian Gulf, but the 4,100 ton frigate managed to stay afloat despite the damage done by the impact and ensuing fire.

For Finland, the MTO 85M is bound to receive a one-for-one replacement, and not only is it likely to be introduced on the new corvettes, but it is likely that the same missile will be implemented on the Hamina-class following their MLU and to the vehicle-mounted batteries as well. The great question is the third part of what logically would be a triad, namely an air-launched weapon. Currently the Finnish Air Force is in the situation that it feature a naval fighter, but lacks any serious anti-shipping capability. There would be a seemingly simple solution, as while the JASSM has been the flagship of the newfound Finnish air-to-ground capability, another missile has also been introduced: the AGM-154C JSOW. While the missile originally was conceived as a ‘pure’ cruise missile, the latest Block III version (C-1) is able to be used in the anti-shipping role as well. The first JSOW C-1 was test-fired from a F/A-18F Super Hornet earlier this year, and upgrading to this version could provide the Finnish Defence Forces with a diverse anti-shipping capability.

While getting anti-shipping missiles for the Hornet might not be realistic, the talk about giving HX an expanded range of capabilities compared to its predecessor gives some reason for optimism. The question then is should HX be allowed to influence the choice of new AShM?

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A Rafale M takes off with a single Exocet mounted on the centre-line pylon. Source: © Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa
For the current HX candidates, they all have their local weapons of choice. In short, the F-35 comes with JSM/NSM, Gripen with the RBS15F, Rafale with the AM.39 Exocet, Eurofighter with the Marte-ER, and the Super Hornet has a whole battery of alternatives lined up, including Harpoon, LRASM (essentially an anti-ship development based on the JASSM), JSM/NSM, and JSOW C-1. Note that for several of these, the missiles aren’t integrated yet, but in different stages between coming at some point/unfounded decision/funded/scheduled/undergoing testing.

At first glance, stating that the Navy follow the cues of the Air Force to get what they’re having might seem tempting. However, there are a number of issues with that thought. To begin with, the air- and sea-launched versions not necessarily share enough components and similarities in handling to create any measurable synergies in acquisition or training. The HX and Squadron 2020 timelines are also somewhat conflicting. The main issue is that as HX likely will get a fighter with a missile already integrated, this would create a situation where a secondary weapon system of the Air Force would determine the main striking power of the Navy. While this would equate to putting the cart in front of the horse, the alternative is that Finland would pay for the integration of the Navy’s missile of choice onto the Air Force’s fighter of choice, or that the Navy and Air Force use different weapons. This is not necessarily a bad thing, sporting different weapons makes it harder for the target to know how it should respond to a threat, but the question is if this politically will be a harder sell, regardless of whether it actually is more expensive or not.

An interesting alternative is the launchers recently sold by MBDA to Qatar. The coastal launchers are remarkable in that they can employ both the Exocet MM.40 and the lighter MARTE ER. This could be an interesting solution especially for the upcoming Finnish coastal batteries, where a hi-low missile mix could make room for more reloads while still sticking with a single launcher.  The MARTE can also be employed by the NH 90, though in the Finnish case this would probably not be cost effective. To begin with, the TTH version lack a suitable search radar, and would have to rely on outside targeting data. On today’s networked battlefield this isn’t necessarily a big deal, but the bigger issue is the fact that the Army will need every single one of their helicopters for tactical transports.

So, which missile will it be that finds its way onto our new corvettes? Harpoon is slowly on the way out for the US Navy, and while it probably will still see use for the next few decades, adopting it as a new system at this point doesn’t make much sense. The JSM with its IIR-seeker probably won’t make the cut due to its limited all-weather capability, though it could be an interesting complement as an air-launched weapon, and the apparent positive experience with Kongsberg’s NASAMS and the recent acquisition of Patria by Kongsberg might well come into play when discussing this option (especially if the F-35 bags the HX-contract). This leaves the updated RBS15 Mk3 and the Exocet MM40 Block 3. With Saab’s strong position as the current supplier of both the MTO 85M and the 9LV combat management system, they seem like the favourite. Saab has also started the marketing campaign already.

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A NSM being test-fired from LCS USS Coronado. Source: Wikimedia Commons/US Navy by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Zachary D. Bell
But while Saab might be the favourite, MBDA should not be underestimated. The company has a wide and varied portfolio when it comes to missiles, and has the ability to offer a one-stop-shop solution for the whole missile-package for the corvettes as shown by the recent deal in which MBDA sold long-range anti-ship missiles as well as long- and short-range air-to-surface missiles to four new Qatari corvettes under a 1 billion euro deal. The deal covered Exocet MM40, Aster 30, and VL Mica missiles, which is a combination that would fit the Finnish requirements very well, and significantly boost the air defence network covering southern parts of Finland (including Helsinki). It would also supply the Finnish forces with an anti-ballistic missile capability on a platform with higher operational mobility compared to a ground-based system. Saab crucially lacks the VLS-based surface-to-air missiles, but can on the other hand bring both a state-of-the-art anti-ship missile and a modern anti-submarine torpedo developed for littoral conditions.