Torped 47 – Steel fishes back into Finnish service

On the evening of 18 November 1942, three Finnish motor torpedo boats entered the Soviet port at Moschny Island (Fi. Lavansaari) and fired four torpedoes which sank the Soviet 1,700 ton gun boat Krasnoye Znamya at its moorings, after which they sped away unscathed. The daring raid is the high point in the history of Finnish torpedoes, and five years later torpedoes were effectively banned from Finnish use with the Paris Peace Treaty.

Like the case with guided missiles, the ban would in the end give way to Soviet weapon exports. In this case torpedoes reappeared on the (official) Finnish TOE with the acquisition of two Project 50 ‘Gornostay’ (NATO-designation ‘Riga’-class) frigates in the mid-1960’s, both of which sported heavy torpedoes (533 mm). The local renaissance of the torpedo was however cut short by the fact that the ships themselves weren’t overly successful, and importantly they were too manpower intensive for the small Finnish Navy. In the end, they were retired in 1979 and 1985 respectively.

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Saab’s render of the NLWT in full ‘warpaint’. Picture courtesy of Saab

Now, while the heavy torpedo slowly gave way to the anti-ship missile as the premier weapon in ship-to-ship combat, the lightweight torpedo became the anti-submarine weapon of choice for most navies in the world. In Finland things were a bit different, mainly because of the shallow and constrained waters which dominate the northern shore of the Gulf of Finland. However, things slowly started to change with the introduction of ever more capable diesel-electric submarines and different kinds of midget submarines in the Russian Baltic Fleet. While running towards the enemy at speed and throwing depth charges might have worked against a Project 641 ‘Foxtrot’-class, it was very doubtful whether it would against more modern designs such as the current Project 877/636 ‘Kilo’ or the upcoming Project 677 ‘Lada’.

With these developments under the surface in combination with the Finnish Navy shifting more and more priority from defence against enemy amphibious landings/naval movements to protection of merchant shipping, it was clear that the ASW-capability needed a boost. There simply needed to be more ships capable of performing ASW, and they needed a longer reach to avoid being sunk outside of the range of their own ASW-weapons. Enter the second reintroduction of torpedoes into Finnish service, with the decision that the Hamina-class and the upcoming Pohjanmaa-class (Squadron 2020) would both get light torpedoes.

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Håkan Ekström, Saab’s sales director for underwater systems. Source: Own picture

The choice of torpedoes was revealed early January this year, with the announcement that Saab’s new lightweight torpedo (NLWT) had been chosen. As a matter of fact, the torpedo is so new that it hasn’t got a company name yet. “There is a name in the works”, Saab’s sales director for underwater systems Håkan Ekström discloses. In the meantime, the Swedish Defence Forces has already named the new weapon Torped 47 (sans-o, as that’s how the word is written in Swedish).

That Finland would opt for the NLWT was rather unsurprising, considering that it is highly optimised for the kind of littoral environment that any Finnish submarine hunt would take place in. Compared to ‘blue waters’ (open seas), looking for submarines is vastly different in the Baltic Sea. Detection ranges, and combat ranges for that matter, can easily be much greater than the depth, leaving the combat taking place in what the product manager for torpedoes, Thomas Petersson, described as a “Thin slice of water”. This causes issues for active sonars, as in the oceans anything spotted by them is usually either a submarine or some kind of sealife. In the Baltic Sea, most echoes are simply coming from the seabed, leading to a more difficult discrimination problem. The water also has some interesting behaviors, part of which comes from the many rivers flowing into the sea. These bring fresh water of various temperatures and significant amounts of sediments into the sea, leading to sound waves in some cases experiencing refraction in two directions (see this short and nice primer on how different temperatures messes up submarine hunting). In short together with the cluttered seabed detection becomes difficult, leading to relatively short engagement ranges.

Saab’s answer is the NLWT, which sports a number of niche features which combine to address the problems of subhunting in littoral waters. To begin with the torpedo is wire-guided, meaning that the operator aboard the ship can easily control the torpedo throughout its course. This also allows it to be used like a forward-deployed sensor, in that the operator can use its active sonar to look for targets, at different depths, as the torpedo is happily moving towards the suspected submarine location. The torpedo also has a very low slowest possible speed, allowing it to run very silently, further increasing the effectiveness of its sonars (the torpedo can be fired in both active and passive modes). One crucial difference is that the active sonar is operating at a somewhat higher frequency than usual for light torpedoes, giving it better resolution on the sonar picture as a tradeoff for somewhat shorter viewing range. The torpedo also has a quick launch sequence and rapidly goes into stable running, to ensure that it doesn’t touch the bottom and can handle the earlier mentioned short engagement ranges efficiently.

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The earlier Torped 45 being fired of a ship during an ASW exercise. Note the two unshrouded screws, the most obvious external difference compared to the NLWT. Source: Jimmie Adamsson/Försvarsmakten

For the technical specifications, NLWT is made out of aluminium, and sports a pump jet with a single rotating impeller and a stator in place of the earlier Torped 45’s two unshrouded coaxial counter-rotating screws. The battery has also been upgraded, with lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) batteries replacing the earlier silver-oxide. This allows the torpedo to stay launch-ready for longer times in the launch tube, which also functions as the plug-and-play storage tube. The launch tube also include pressurised air to eject the torpedo and a spool of the same wire as is found inside the torpedo. If the torpedo moves, the torpedo spools out wire, and if the vessel moves the launch tube spools out wire. This ensures that the wire stays stationary in the water after the first few meters of the torpedo run, making sure that it doesn’t tangle or break. In the case of a wire break the torpedo will either abort or continue in fire-and-forget mode, depending on the mode chosen before launch. After a torpedo has been launched, the whole empty launch tube is switched out to a new tube with a launch ready torpedo inside it. This switch takes around 15-30 minutes for a trained crew and doesn’t require any specific equipment other than a suitable crane to handle the load. As such, it could conceivably be handled at sea (sea state allowing). The used launch tube is then sent back to a naval base to be reloaded. The direct drive DC-motor together with the new batteries provide a range measured in “tens of kilometers”, the exact number being both classified and highly dependent upon the speed of the torpedo.

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The first prototype of the NLWT during tests at Motala. Note orange dummy warhead, wire being retrieved in the bucket aft of the torpedo, and the grey disc on top of the torpedo immediately behind the warhead which marks the location of the proximity fuse. Picture courtesy of Saab

The active sensor provides a detailed enough picture that it can measure the length of the target, and any major features such as the conning tower can be made out. During the run the torpedo maps all return echoes, run validity checks, and reports on valid targets. If allowed it will then intercept the closest valid target inside the search box, and in case of a miss it will re-acquire for another attack. The seeker has been used successfully during live-fire exercises against targets the size of midget submarines, and Saab is confident that it can handle these kinds of targets as well as regular submarines. An interesting feature is the anti-ship capability, and though the small warhead (Saab declines to give the size, but notes that most light torpedoes carry a warhead weighing “about 50 kilograms”) won’t sink any major surface units, it does punch above its weight in that it has a dedicated ASuW-attack mode going beneath the vessel and using an upwards-looking proximity fuse to detonate under the keel. The combined effect of the gas-bubble which removes the water that carries that part of the vessel combined with the impact of water rushing back to fill the hole is enough to literally break ships in two when employed by larger torpedoes, and while the NLWT won’t repeat that, it will most likely send any corvette limping back to base with the hull distorted and propulsion shafts out of alignment.

Part of this performance comes from the Swedish requirement to be able to use the torpedo from both surface ships, submarines, coastal launchers, and aircrafts/helicopters. For the submarines, the light torpedo plays an important role as a self-defence weapon, as well as for hunting other submarines. For the Hamina-class, they will sport a single fixed twin launcher on the rear deck, allowing enough space for the RIB-launch to remain in its current position. Looking at the future, the contract with Saab also include an option for the four Pohjanmaa-class corvettes, and everything points towards this option being exercised within the next year or so when the acquisition of weapons for the corvette program starts to take place.

The current Finnish contract for the torpedoes include the systems for the Hamina-class and an undisclosed number of torpedoes, as well as training at the torpedo research and development center in Motala. This is also where we are shown the first prototype of the weapon, which is just about to finish its part of the development program. The production of the units themselves, and prototype number two which is currently in production, takes place in Linköping. Deliveries to both Finland and Sweden will start in 2023, and FNS Tornio, the first of the Hamina-class to undergo MLU, will be ready to go to sea with the launchers fitted already next year. Notable is that the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration, FMV, is closely involved in the project and is the launch customer that has contracted Saab to develop a new torpedo. However, the Finnish contract with Saab does not include any research and developments, but is purely for production and supply (including torpedoes, hardware needed for their operation, documentation, and training). However, at the same time the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command, PVLOGL, has signed an agreement with the FMV regarding cooperation and loans of Torped 45 to cover the period 2019 to 2023 when the Finnish Navy will have torpedo capable ships but no torpedoes.

‘Borrowing’ something that is literally worth millions of Euros sounded a bit suspicious to me, so I decided to contact FMV to confirm that it wasn’t just a case of Saab spelling ‘leasing’ wrong. However, FMV confirmed that it is indeed the case that the Finnish Defence Forces gets to borrow a non-disclosed number of torpedoes for free, as long as they are used and maintained according to official documentation. The aim of this agreement is that Finland will be able to operate with the Torped 45 aboard FNS Tornio already next autumn. Part of why this generosity is bestowed upon the Finnish Navy is no doubt that torpedoes occupy a rather unique role amongst modern munitions in that after launch they can be retrieved (the training warhead sports a flotation device in the form a inflatable ‘balloon’), and after the wire has been respooled and the battery recharged they are good to go again. As such, this is quite different compared to e.g. borrowing artillery rounds.

However, another angle is without doubt the value for Sweden of having Finland as an operator of the same system. Not only will this offer benefits when jointly performing ASW missions as part of the Swedish-Finnish Naval Task Group (the SFNTG), but a second cooperation deal signed at the same time between FMV and PVLOGL concern the future of the NLWT. Under this the two nations will cooperate around the acquisition and continued development of the torpedo system. By creating these kinds of synergies the costs for operating and keeping the system up to date will hopefully be lower for both users, and the agreement also open up the doors for increased cooperation around the ASW-mission as a whole.

The first draft of the text and pictures, with the exception of those parts based on information given by FMV, has been provided to Saab for screening to ensure that no classified, export controlled, or company confidential information is included.

Saab Bound for Naval Grand Slam?

As the modernisation of the Finnish Navy’s surface fleet continues, Saab has managed to secure two key contracts. Earlier, it was announced that Saab would provide the new anti-submarine torpedoes set to be fielded by both the modernised Hamina-class FAC as well as the new Pohjanmaa-class corvettes (Squadron 2020). In many ways this was the low hanging fruit for Saab. Not only is development of their new torpedo well underway with Sweden as the launch customer, it is also based on proved technology in the form of the earlier Torped 45, making it possible to operate the older version from the installed tubes until the new Torped 47 is ready. Perhaps crucially, it is one of few weapons of its class designed with an eye to use in littoral and brackish waters, key features of the operating environment of the Finnish Navy.

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Leadship of the class, FNS Hamina (’80’) two years ago. Note forward 57 mm main gun, roof-mounted CEROS 200, and 12.7 mm NSV heavy machine gun behind bridge. Source: Merivoimat FB

This week Saab landed a bigger fish, as it was announced that they will provide the combat management system, fire-control system, integrated communication systems, as well as optronic sensors for the Hamina MLU. The odd bird out is the fact that the order include the CEROS 200 optronic sensor, which is already fitted to the vessels. Either these are worn out to the extent that buying newer is cheaper from a maintenance point of view, or there have been internal upgrades of the CEROS 200 since the original deliveries almost twenty years ago that have not been reflected in the name of the product, but are extensive enough to warrant buying complete units and not simply giving the CEROS its own MLU.

Another interesting inclusion is the Trackfire remote weapon station, with the Hamina now being the third class in the Finnish Navy to receive the RWS. The use of the Trackfire on the Hamina isn’t specified, but the wording in the press release does seem to indicate a single system per ship. As such, while it is possible that two stations per vessel will replace the port and starboard manually operated 12.7 mm NSV heavy machine guns mounted amidships, the likelier scenario is that they will take the place of  the main armament. There has been talk (so far unconfirmed?) that the main 57 mm guns (Bofors Mk 3) of the Hamina vessels will be removed as weight saving measures and transferred to the four Pohjanmaa-class vessels, and this would fit right in. While the Trackfire is usually seen fitted with a heavy machine gun as the main armament, it is capable of holding “lightweight medium calibre cannons”, i.e. weapons up to and including low-pressure 30 mm ones. This is not an unheard of solution, with e.g. the Israeli Typhoon RWS being used with a number of the different Bushmaster-series of cannons as the main or secondary gun on a number of different naval vessels out there. A 30 mm Bushmaster, the Mk 44, is already found in Finnish service on the CV 9030 IFV, but before anyone gets too enthusiastic it should be noted that this uses a longer high-pressure round, so there is no synergy to be had. Instead, something like the M230LF, based on the chain gun found on the Apache helicopter, is the more likely candidate.

Dropping down in calibre from 57 to 30 mm is not necessarily a bad thing, as the main use of the weapon will likely be air defence and intercepting light craft. Modern 30 mm rounds will do quite some damage against soft targets such as warships as well, though naturally you won’t win a gun fight against a large vessel sporting a 3 or 5 inch gun anytime soon (to be fair, if you find your FAC up against a destroyer at gun range something has likely gone very wrong already at an earlier stage of the battle).

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Jehu-class landing craft with a Trackfire RWS on top of the superstructure. For the landing crafts the usual mount is either a 12.7 mm NSV or a 40 mm GMG, with a 7.62 mm PKM as a co-axial weapon. Source: Merivoimat FB

At the heart of the Hamina order is the 9LV, an open architecture system which allows integration of different sub-systems, sensors, and weapons into a single integrated package. As such, different building blocks can be integrated into CMS systems from other manufacturers, or other manufacturers’ subsystems can be integrated into the 9LV CMS. That Saab gets this kind of a complete deal including both the CMS, FCS, integrated communication systems, and part of the weaponry is significant, especially when looking towards the soon to be decided contract for a main systems integrator for the Pohjanmaa-class, a job which will likely be of significantly higher value than the Hamina MLU.

The main implications is that this makes Saab the front-runner for the Pohjanmaa-class CMS. Earlier the Rauma-class FAC received the 9LV during its MLU, and now on the Hamina 9LV is replacing Atlas Elektronik’s ANCS 2000-system. While the requirements for the CMS of the Hamina and the Pohjanmaa are not completely identical, there certainly is something to be said when the former replaces one of the shortlisted CMS’s with the another one, instead of simply upgrading it. It should also be remembered that several subsystems, including most weapons, will be the same for both vessels.

Yet another noteworthy development is that Saab recently announced a new fixed face version of their Sea Giraffe, in the form of the Sea Giraffe 4A FF. I have earlier questioned whether Saab’s twin rotating mast solution would satisfy the requirements of the Navy, and it seems clear that the 4A FF is a possible solution for the Pohjanmaa’s main long-distance sensor. As Saab is also well positioned to secure the order for the new PTO2020 surface-to-surface missile, they just might be on track to secure all major Finnish naval contracts they are bidding for.

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FNS Pori (’83’), the newest of the four Hamina-class vessels, underway. Source: Merivoimat FB

Flotilla 2020 – A Strategic Acquistion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meripuolustuspäivä 2016 – Maritime Defense Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The panel assembled. Source: own picture

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

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

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

Squadron 2020 – Made for the Finnish Coastline

laivue2020_uusi_logoThe acquisition of four multi-purpose corvettes by the Finnish Navy as part of the Squadron 2020 (fi. Laivue 2020) program received some serious flak by BGen (ret.) Lauri Kiianlinna in Helsingin Sanomat last Friday, of exactly the kind I warned would become widespread due to the Navy’s somewhat lacking marketing of the project. While I agree with Kiianlinnas assessment that the Army need further funds and that the ground based air defence needs to be fleshed out, many of the points raised in opposition of the project are either based on misunderstanding or in some instances flat-out wrong. As noted, this is partly a failure on the part of the Navy, who in today’s economy more than ever has to explain not only what they need, but also why. A simple “Trust us, we’ve checked the issue” (while correct) is no longer enough to the public or the other cash-strapped branches of the defence forces.

Finland is for all practical purposes an island, and the only way we will keep our supply lines open for any extended time is through cargo vessels that enter the Baltic Sea in the Danish Straits, before sailing up the length of the Swedish coast until arriving in Finnish ports. This means that while the navy cannot win any wars for Finland, it can certainly lose them.

As such, Finland will need a navy to escort our merchant vessels at the very least until they reach Swedish waters. Currently this is done by a number of smaller vessels operating together to perform different individual roles:

  • The Hämeenmaa-class minelayers are operating as the squadron leader/flagship, while having a limited ASW- and anti-air capability
  • The Hamina-class FAC provide anti-ship missiles and a limited anti-air capability
  • The Rauma-class FAC provide ASW-capability in the form of the only dedicated submarine-hunting sensor in the Finnish Navy as well as featuring limited ASW-weaponry. If the towed array is left home, it can instead use anti-ship missiles

It should be noted that a three-ship squadron like this faces a number of tough choices:

  • A total of no more than 16 ITO 04 (‘Umkhonto’) surface-to-air missiles featuring a short 14 km range are available for air cover
  • For the Rauma to find a submarine it needs to listen for it, meaning that it would prefer to keep some distance to the other ships. However, doing so lessens the protection offered by the short-range ITO 04 mounted on the other vessels
  • None of the vessels sport any torpedoes, so If a submarine is found the vessels will attack it by driving towards it well within torpedo range while firing ASW-mortars

These ships, especially the Haminas, are very potent for their class. However, there is only so much equipment that can be fitted into the limited hull sizes available. Both of the FAC-classes also lack the ability to operate in ice, due to their light (and vulnerable) aluminium hulls. Their small size also seriously hamper their endurance, forcing them to return to port at short intervals. For a navy in which hiding in the cluttered archipelago is a central part of the doctrine, having to frequently return to fixed points to bunker up on fuel, supplies, and weapons, is far from ideal.

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The Finnish idea regarding how to kill a submarine is drive towards it at speed, fire of a salvo of these at 400 meters, and hope the submarine doesn’t figure out a firing solution for their  18+ km ranged torpedoes. Saab Elma ASW-600 on a Rauma-class FAC. Source: own picture

The need for bigger hulls

The size is not a product of the urge to venture further into the Southern Baltic Sea or on international missions, but of the need to provide vessels that are able to operate in Finnish waters year-round, able to handle the varied threats they may encounter.

This is where the main problems of the opinion piece are. The new ships will not further strain the limited air defence resources available, they will not be sitting ducks, and they will not be restricted by ice. On the contrary, they will be able to hide better than the current fleet due to being less reliant on visiting known locations, they will carry their own air defence, and their big steel hulls will offer them ice-going capability as well as better resistance in the face of battle damage.

Of great interest is the vertical launch system (VLS) seen on the render pictures released by the navy. I have discussed these in greater detail on the blog earlier, but the conclusion is that they would bring a marked increase in the air defence of not only the ship themselves, but also of the general area of operations. In fact, in the best of world’s we might even get to see the Aster 30 onboard the corvettes, which would finally give the (southern parts of the) country a measure of protection against ballistic missiles. As such, the claim that these would tie up valuable air defence resources is wrong, and instead they might actually free up army units.

The discussion regarding the range of the weaponry is somewhat simplified. The max practical range is nowadays rarely reliant on what the sales material claim the missiles are capable of. Instead, the main question is how far out the enemy can be accurately located. Another issue that one rarely want to fire all missiles straight at the enemy, because A) it makes it easier to defend against compared to if the salvo is routed to come in from different angles at the same time, and B) it gives the enemy a vector to follow back to the location of our firing battery. To sum it up, the Navy wont fire anti-ship missiles, either from trucks or naval vessels, to Gotland any time soon, regardless of how the range rings look on the map.

Isometrinen
One of the concept renders presented by the navy. Note hatch for towed array at stern(?) and VLS-array at the front. Source: Finnish Navy

When it comes to anti-submarine weapons, it seems like we will finally get a ship armed with torpedoes and proper sensors, which will make it possible to locate and fight off one of the most elusive threats our shipping lanes currently face. This is especially important as we currently lack any kind of airborne ASW-capability, and the only way to find submarines lurking outside of our archipelago is through the use of ships.

The other possibility is to assume that we can keep our waters protected without own ships, which is an interesting concept on paper. By employing shore-based anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles we would be able to ward off any intruders, or so the theory goes. However, by the very nature of these systems, they lack the operational mobility to keep up with merchant vessels moving in Finnish waters along the coast, and as such need to be pre-positioned so that they can cover the expected enemy attack vectors. They then need to be fed target data, and feature a redundancy in both firing units and sensors, so that the enemy isn’t able to create a gap in our defences where they can strike at our lifeline with impunity simply by knocking out a battery or two.

This can all be done, but to be fair it is highly doubtful if this advanced network of mutually supporting coastal sensors, truck-mounted anti-ship batteries, submarine hunting helicopters, and surface-to-air missiles, would be any cheaper than the corvettes. Crucially, the system would lack the flexibility offered by a surface squadron of multirole vessels, which are able to move with the merchant convoys, carrying their own sensors as well as weapons to fend of air, surface, and sub-surface threats. The similarities to the discussions regarding ground based air defences contra getting new fighters are striking. This isn’t a case of “either/or”, but rather that a strong defence will have to be made up of multiple layers of different systems with their own strengths and weaknesses working in unison, and I fully expect the Navy to start looking into replacing the truck-mounted MTO 85M at some point in the future.

When it comes to coastal defence, I would like to see Squadron 2020 and ground units being networked with our HX-fighters, to let the fighters provide accurate target data through the use of a modern data link while letting the others act as silent ‘shooters’ with their radars turned off.  This is a concept which for example Saab already has as an option for which includes both their air units and naval command and control systems, and one would assume that there is a requirement for HX and Squadron 2020 to be able to communicate with each other.

It isn’t about the Navy against the Army or the Air Force. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

Epilogue: The Panssarilaivat – White Elephants of the 1930’s

The Väinämöinen-class of two coastal defence ships (fi. Panssarilaivat) has long been regarded as the schoolbook example of wasted money. Being expensive and manpower intensive, they took almost no part in the Second World War, and the navy still managed to lose one of them with a large loss of men during one of their few wartime sorties.

However, while I agree that it was a strange decision to invest in major surface units when the army lacked anti-tank weaponry and artillery shells, the other side of the story is often forgotten. The war did play out in an extremely surprising way. The Winter War was fought almost entirely while the sea was frozen, and when the Continuation War broke out it didn’t take long until the Germans had occupied the whole southern coast of the Baltic Sea from the Danish Straits up to the outskirts of Leningrad. This made the relatively strong and modern Baltic Fleet trapped in their bases around the city until the end of the Continuation War. The exception was the submarine fleet, which every summer broke out to try and wreak havoc amongst Finnish and German shipping in the face of Finnish and German subchasers and submarines (until the Germans and Finns installed two nets over the entire Gulf of Finland!).

If things would have played out differently, and Finland would have had to stand alone, two floating coastal fortresses could suddenly have proved to be rather useful after all.

MTA 2020 – Bigger Hulls and Added Capabilities

While the growth in size from the current fast attack craft to the upcoming MTA 2020 has been noted by many, there seems to be a lack of appreciation for the added possibilities that comes with this.

Background

Currently, the two Finnish classes of fast attack crafts have different secondary roles, where the Rauma-class has the possibility to equip a towed array for hunting submarines, and the Hamina-class sports (a very limited number of) Umkhonto surface-to-air missiles. In practice, this means that any task force, either a pure naval squadron or one escorting a convoy of merchant shipping, will have to feature at least one vessel from each class in order to have even a theoretical capability of meeting both threats. However, even in that case, the possibility of offering any kind of mutual protection remains limited, as the Rauma-class preferably would have to scout in front of the task force to be able to notice submarines laying in ambush (and this means a distance measured in kilometres to get a noise-free environment for its towed array), while the rather limited 12 km range of the Umkhonto means that any venturing subhunter or larger convoy will have an air defence cover only in their immediate vicinity. The limited number of missiles also means that it is entirely possible for a single Hamina to expand all its missiles trying to fend off just one or two airstrikes, after which the sole air defence weapon left is the 57 mm Bofors gun with proximity or time fused shells.

In practice, at least two vessels with Umkhontos are needed to provide any sort of air defence umbrella, either Hamina-class FAC’s or the far larger Hämeenmaa-class minelayers which also feature a similar eight-round launcher. This is both due to the low number of missiles and to get better coverage. This means that we would need to employ a third of all vessels featuring air defence capability for any given task force. A similar situation arises in the case of the ASW-capable Rauma-class.

The bottom line is that currently the Finnish Navy can’t be expected create more than two effective task forces at any given time, and even then, their effective endurance in combat will be limited by the relatively small supply of on-board weapons. Their ability to stay at sea for any prolonged time (i.e. longer than a few days) is also limited due to the small size of the crews. The fast attack craft also lack the capability to operate in ice, which is a significant drawback given the fact that the sea is often frozen over for at least four months each year.

Squadron 2020

It is to remedy these deficits that the new Laivue 2020 (Finnish for Sqaudron 2020) will be made up of corvettes, and not fast attack craft. This is a shift in a long-standing tradition of employing light vessels to deliver shoot-and-scoot style attacks on enemy fleets, but also gives the Finnish Navy serious new capabilities that will heighten the total effect of not only the navy, but the Finnish Defence Forces as a whole.

Sveaborg
Concept render of MTA 2020 in front of Suomenlinna. Source: Ministry of Defence/Merivoimat
To begin with, the employment of larger steel hulls, gives the ability to operate a serious naval task force in ice for the first time in decades. This in itself is a major shift, though not necessarily a game changer, as it can be assumed that enemy fleet movements will also be drastically reduced during the winter.

Of far greater importance is the fact that the navy can now create a task force also for mission that require extended stays at sea, such as escorting friendly shipping or hunting submarines further out at in the Baltic Sea (currently, the Finnish ASW-strategy is that our chains of underwater listening posts will detect any intruders, after which our units on call will rush to the scene and either drive away the intruder or sink it), before they can take up positions outside of our main ports. While it is easy to dismiss the need for extended operations with the swift nature of most newer conventional wars, such as Georgia and Crimea, the capability could come in handy in prolonged times of heightened tensions, where solid intelligence is a must for the political decision makers. This endurance is heavily tied to having larger crews, as well as larger supplies of fuel, food, munitions, and other basic goods.

VLS – The Big Deal

The upgraded armament is of huge importance. The numbers below is based on the concept shown to the general public at last week’s press release, and is to be taken as an early draft (this is emphasized by the Navy). Still, while the details of the armament can and probably will differ when the vessels are launched, the general capability will probably be as shown.

The number of anti-shipping missiles is set double compared to the Hamina and Rauma-classes, which gives some added tactical opportunities. Also, while the thought of hunting submarines with depth charges and rockets/mortars is optimistic at best and suicidal at worst, the likely reintroduction of torpedoes into the arsenal of the navy would provide a much needed boost to the Finnish anti-submarine capability. However, most importantly, the vessels are set to feature a vertical launch system, VLS, in the bow.

The VLS-system in the picture seems to be around 4-5 meter in width and around 2-3 meters in length. This corresponds to two Sylver VLS-cells. The Sylver VLS is a French system, in use with a number of navies around the world. The basic layout is that each cell consists of eight tubes, and is available in four different lengths. The lengths provide rooms for progressively longer (obviously) and more complex missiles, so that while the shortest Sylver A35 only holds “traditional” short- to medium-range surface-to-air missiles, the full-length A70 already offers land-attack capability through the SCALP N and BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The A70 is however too large for a corvette, and I have a hard time seeing cruise missiles being a priority for the navy (especially as some modern anti-shipping missiles, such as the Saab RBS15 Mk III, has a secondary land-attack capability). The interesting versions are the midsize A43 and A50, which provide the ability to employ the Aster 15 and Aster 30 (A50 only).

Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer HMS Diamond firing a Aster (Sea Viper) surface-to-air missile for the first time. The missile leaves the Sylver silo at three times the speed of sound. Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Ben Sutton – Defence Imagery
The Aster missile has been offered to the Finnish Defence Forces before. Some ten years ago, the Finnish Army sought a new surface-to-air missile to replace the Buk. Eventually, the NASAMS II was chosen, with the runner up being the SAMP/T-system (fr. Sol-Air Moyenne Portée Terrestre), featuring the Aster missile mounted on a transporter erector launcher coupled with a mobile Arabel-radar and assorted control and guidance systems. Unlike the NASAMS, the Aster 30 provides the ability to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles such as the (in)famous Iskander, and then Chief of Defence Admiral Juhani Kaskeala was clear about the reasoning behind the choice of NASAMS over Aster:

“Instead of one Cadillac, we bought 4 Volvos. Now we are getting more missiles than with the other option.”

The NASAMS is a very good medium-ranged system, and the increased number of batteries compared to the SAMP/T was very much needed for a country the size of Finland. Still, the fact that Finland completely lacks any kind of even theoretical defence against ballistic missiles left something of a bad taste. With the announcement by Rear Admiral Takanen that Laivue 2020 will be able to provide area defence with the use of their surface-to-air missiles, one can ask if the defence forces are about to get the highly anticipated anti-ballistic missile capability after all? The modular nature of the Sylver means that with a “small” extra cost, the flexibility of the system increases drastically. A brief recollection of the missiles available to the Sylver:

The A35 can employ the following missiles:

  • VT1: French IR-seeking short-range missile for self-defence. The corresponding ground-based version of the Crotale missile is in use with the Finnish Army (ITO90M), so would provide some degree of commonality (although it can be discussed if it gives any synergy effects worth mentioning). The unique aspect of the VT1 is that no less than four missiles can be crammed into a single Sylver launching tube, providing ample supply of close-range missiles,
  • Umkhonto: South African IR-seeking short-range missile for self-defence (a radar-guided version with slightly longer range is also available). In use with the Finnish Navy as ITO04,
  • CAMM: IR-seeking short-range missile for self-defence, based on the British ASRAAM air-to-air missile,
  • MICA: The MICA is a medium-range missile with an active-radar seeker. In its air-to-air versions it is performing much the same role on the Rafale and Mirage 2000 as the AMRAAM is on our Hornets.

In addition to the above, the A43 can employ:

  • Aster 15: An advanced medium-range missile, providing local area defence at somewhat longer ranges than the MICA.

In addition to the above, the A50 can employ:

  • Aster 30: Similar to the Aster 15, but featuring a much larger booster, providing longer range and an anti-ballistic missile capability. The capabilities of the Aster 30 is currently being expanded upon through the new Block 1NT and Block 2 missiles, which will provide significantly better anti-ballistic missile performance.

An SM-2ER in the magazine area onboard USS Mahan (DDG-42) showing the size of the missile. Source: Wikimedia Commons/US Navy
In addition to the above, the A70 can employ:

  • SM-2ER Block IV: The Standard Missile-2 Extended Range is an American long-range surface-to-air missile, which also has a terminal phase ballistic missile defence and secondary anti-shipping ability,
  • SCALP N: The SCALP N is a ship-launched cruise missile for attacking ground targets at long (over 1,000 km) range. It is based on the air-launched Storm Shadow/SCALP,
  • TLAM: The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile is a US ship-launched cruise missile for attacking ground targets at long (over 1,000 km) range.

The nice thing with a VLS-system like Sylver, or the larger US Mk 41 VLS for that matter, are their versatility. When traditional launchers have often been weapon specific, leaving little room for variety based on tactical needs, the loadout of the VLS-cells can be tailored to suite the expected threat scenario of individual missions. And if Laivue 2020 get (even a limited) anti-ballistic missile capability, this would plug what is perhaps the largest single capability gap in the current order of battle of the Finnish Defence Forces. As said, the A70 is likely out of reach for a vessel this size (though one should never underestimate the Navy that put four 10’’ guns on a 3,900 ton ship), but the A50 just might fit in.

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With that said, it would certainly be great if suddenly an additional billion appeared, that we could replace the ships on a 1:1 basis…

Korean Sabre Rattling

It has probably escaped no-one that things are heating up along the 38th parallel in Korea. All began when earlier this month (04.08.2015) two South Korean soldiers were wounded by landmines placed by the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea (which certainly doesn’t warrant any of those titles, except ‘Korea’). Last Thursday (20.08) the DPRK fired artillery over the demilitarised zone, DMZ for short, aiming on propaganda loudspeakers set up by the Republic of (South) Korea, which promptly answered with a few salvos of 155 mm long range artillery. This evening (24.08) there seems to have been some sort of agreement reached, but the situation remains tense. This warrants a few observations.

North Korea is quite possibly the most militarised country on the planet. A large part of its equipment, including vehicles and weapons, are old bordering on antique. This includes fighter jets developed in the 50’s and apparently tanks that saw service in WWII (if rumours about T-34’s and Su-100’s still being active are correct). Still, while the main force would rely on numbers more than quality in any renewal of fighting, there are a couple of branches that may make things nasty for the South.

170 mm Koksan self-propelled gun. This is an ex-Irani gun captured first by Iraq in the 80’s and later by US forces. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Albert F. Hunt, U.S. Marine Corps

The first is the North Korean artillery. The number of artillery pieces, calibres ranging from 3’’/76.2 mm up to 170 mm, are unknown, but is measured in thousands, possibly up to 10,000. Some of these are stationed in hardened shelters dug into the mountains along the DMZ, reportedly with pre-determined targets on the Southern side of the border, including Seoul in the case of the mighty (but slow-firing) 170 mm Koksan self-propelled gun. Added to these are a few thousand (4-5,000?) multiple rocket launchers, as well as thousands of light, medium, and heavy mortars. The lethality of these are somewhat overrated, with graphic descriptions of Seoul being levelled by a wall of fire during the first hour of a possible conflict. In practice, only the heaviest systems, 200 mm rocket launchers and the 170 mm guns, have the range to reach Seoul, and due to their size they have a very long reload time. Also, the use of fixed positions makes them easy targets for the sizeable air force and artillery units operated by South Korea and the US forces on the peninsula, the main mission of the latter being counter-battery fire. However, the sheer number and protection of these gun emplacements mean that their destruction will take time, and while a Dresden-style complete destruction of Seoul is out of the question, they will still cause considerable damage during their short life spans.

Another much reported arm of the DPRK forces is the submarine fleet, which is one of the oldest and largest in the world. It is mainly made up of old Chinese copies of the obsolete Soviet Project 633 ‘Romeo’-class diesel-electric submarines, around 20 of which are currently in service. These are then backed up by a plethora of smaller vessels of the Sang-O/Sang-O II, Yugo, and Yono-classes, which are either used for insertion of Special Forces or for “traditional” ship-hunting missions. The latter was demonstrated when a Yono-class submarine fired a torpedo that sunk the South Korean corvette Cheonan back in 2010, becoming only the third submarine to have sunk a surface vessel since the Second World War. The US Naval Institute claims that as many as 90 of these smaller vessels might be in service, but also notes that serviceability is poor and many vessels are in reserve. Yesterday (24.08.2015) South Korean sources reported that 50 submarines of unspecified classes have gone to sea in an unprecedented move, and that these make up 70% of the entire submarine force (i.e. the ROK places the number of active submarines at 71 compared to USNI’s ~110). In response, South Korea has stepped up its air patrols to try and locate the submarines.

Sang-O class submarine which ran aground while attempting to insert commands into South Korea in 1996. Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Forces Korea

While the submarine force is severely outdated, the Romeo is largely based on a hull-design pioneered by the Germans during WWII in the form of their Type XXI coupled with early-Cold War Soviet technology, they should not be underestimated. Diesel-electric submarines are extremely quiet, and as such hard to detect. If the submarines are able to take up positions before a conflict erupts, as their sheer number means that it is impossible for South Koreas 16 anti-submarine aircraft to keep track of them all. Even many of the lighter submarines feature heavy 533 mm torpedo tubes, being able to load a number of different Chinese and indigenous torpedoes, including wake-homing and passive/active seekers, making them extremely deadly if they can lie silently in ambush and wait for a target to pass by, as was evident in the case of the sinking of the Cheonan.

All in all however, the South Korean armed forces should be able to make up for their smaller size by vastly more modern equipment and training. There are uncertainties, such as the morale of the conscripts serving long times in remote (and unpopular) locations, and the whole system of conscription has been questioned. Still, in a fight for the survival of the country, one would assume that morale would not be an issue.

The big problem with Korea is that it is next door to China. And that there are a considerable number of US troops in the country. As was evident in 1950, while China might not be overjoyed by the seemingly dicey behaviour of their neighbours in Pyongyang, they vastly prefer it to having an US ally on the border. In fact, the response during the Korean War was so strong, it was one of the very few instances since the Second World War in which an US force have been decisively beaten on the battlefield. Still today, it is hard to imagine Beijing letting Pyongyang fall, no matter their opinions of Kim Jong-un and his regime.

Obviously, there is also the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons. They don’t have many, but even a single warhead aimed at Seoul, or any other target on the peninsula for that matter, would in a stroke transform the conflict. Some have stated that the treat of the US nuclear arsenal and a retaliatory attack by Washington makes this option unlikely, but I am less than certain. To begin with, Obama has so far proved to be a leader that likes to err on the side of caution in matters of foreign policy. Also, whether there would be a popular opinion in the US supporting even a defensive nuclear war on the Korean peninsula is highly dubious, especially with the possibility of the Chinese being dragged into it with their nuclear arsenal.

It might however be that Washington has no choice. With the amount of US troops in the area, there is a very real risk that they will be dragged into the fighting, and suffer casualties, before Obama even has time to gather his aides to discuss the war.

There are also a couple of interesting developments in the general area, none of which are by themselves really worrying, but they deserve to be taken into consideration:

  • China has apparently moved PTZ-89 tank destroyers to the border. These are specialised vehicle, featuring light armour but powerful guns, meant to take out massed tank units,
  • China and Russia are conducting a joint marine/naval exercise in the area, the highlight of which will be a joint amphibious and air landing,
  • The US Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, normally features the sole US aircraft carrier to be permanently forward based, i.e. having a non-US homeport. Currently, we are in the short window of time where no such carrier is in place, as the USS Georg Washington (CVN-73) which has been homeported in Yokosuka since 2008, has left Japan for San Diego. She arrived in the US two weeks ago (10.08), and her replacement, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) has yet to leave for Japan. In other words, the US forces that rapidly could take part in a conflict in Korea is missing the equivalent of a decently sized (larger than Finland’s) air force,
  • An explosion occurred late yesterday at the US Army base close to Yokosuka, Camp Zama. While the reason behind this latest incident is unclear, a suspected attack on the base by Japanese extreme-leftist was investigated earlier this year. This incident also places further strain on the relations between local Japanese authorities and the US forces in Japan,
  • This was followed by a huge fire at a nearby steel plant, which closed Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.