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.

Screenshot 2017-03-21 at 19.52.23
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.

Screenshot 2017-03-21 at 19.53.11
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.

Sumua
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.

img_4914
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).

Advertisements

An Analysis Flawed

The post is also found in a Finnish translation made by James Mashiri on his blog Somesotilas.

Finnish daily Iltalehti published an analysis regarding the Squadron 2020-program, and like most analyses, if your baseline data is incorrect, your conclusion is likely to go wrong. This is what happened here as well.

The analysis is a hodgepodge of correct information leading to false conclusions, unrelated anecdotes, strange non sequiturs, and plain wrong information, all being presented in a package that is more akin to an opinion piece directed against the Navy and the leadership of the Defence Forces. While any major shipbuilding program for the Navy will lead to a number of more or less ill-informed pieces on the “but Panssarilaivat“-subject, this is a particularly poor example of the genre. Some of the most glaring errors:

  • Claiming that the Finnish steel-hulled corvette would be related to the US aluminium-hulled patrol vessels of the LCS-program
  • That this relation would cause any issues the LCS has to carry over to the corvettes
  • That stationing Bastion anti-ship missiles in Kaliningrad(!) would make the Finnish ships “easy targets”
  • Claiming that the A2/AD-bubble in Kaliningrad creates an impenetrable “steel dome” (see earlier post)
  • That recent developments in radar technology (“spotting seagulls at long ranges”) is a disruptive event that makes stealthy warships useless
  • That the vessels would be “effortlessly” distinguishable against the horizon
  • That the Finnish coastal defence ships ate the whole defence budget prior to WWII, and was the reason the Army had to go to war under-equipped (see earlier post)
  • That the ships are big to be able to cope with deployments on the high seas during international missions (see earlier post)
  • Claiming that the Navy wants to lay mines on the high seas (certainly not the case, see page 15)
  • That it is impossible to judge the effectiveness of the vessel before launch, due to expected teething troubles (this is an insult to all engineers in the marine industry)
  • That corvettes, sporting a heavy battery of surface-to-air missiles, would need more air cover from the Air Force’s fighters than the current fast attack crafts, or the host of other high-priority targets being found in the southern parts of country (see earlier post)
  • The article brings up Patria’s recent concept of a containerised version of the NEMO-mortar system, apparently in an attempt to show that missiles can be land-based, overlooking the fact that there actually are truck-based system in service in the Finnish Defence Forces (as opposed to containerised mortars), and that these and the warships are seen as supporting and not replacing each other (see earlier post)
  • That the whole of the Baltic Sea could be closed by Russian missiles bringing down the Øresund Bridge (not the case, the amount of rubble would be relatively minor relative to water depth and easily cleared)
  • The deal would likely overheat the Finnish shipyard industry and hurt the competitiveness of the Turku yard (utter rubbish, the closure of the Rauma yard cost 600 persons their job, with the re-started RMC having created around 450 jobs, and crucially within a short enough time-span that retraining hasn’t been a major factor)
  • That the NATO-countries bordering the Baltic Sea sports a vastly larger fleet than the Russian Baltic Fleet (see earlier post), making the Finnish ships redundant, somehow forgetting that we’re not a NATO-member (and that the inlet to the Baltic Sea was supposed to have been cut)
  • That the new Finnish Katanpää-class mine countermeasure vessels are failures (see earlier post) and lack any meaningful role in a future war (see earlier post)

The final conclusion is that the Navy doesn’t need the new corvettes, which are useless, and now we must hope that the politicians overrule the admirals to force a time-out and re-evaluation of the future needs of the Navy. As is evident from the links above, the arguments he bases this assertion on are either false, misunderstood, or completely irrelevant for Squadron 2020. Most have been addressed on the blog before, but a few deserve a closer review.

The LCS – an unrelated vessel for an unrelated mission

The text makes a big deal about the fact that the Squadron 2020 is based on the US Littoral Combat Ship, and the issues faced by that project.

The major issue here, is the fact that the notion that the two projects would be in any way related is completely false. The secondary issue is that the article completely overlooks the planned role for the LCS.

The LCS came about largely as a result of the withdrawal of the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. These were the smallest ocean-going combat vessels of the US Navy, and this lead to an increased demand for the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. It was quickly recognised that for a number of the missions these high-tech destroyers were overkill, and a smaller (i.e. cheaper) solution had to be found for flag-waving and patrol missions where asymmetric threats was the main thing to worry about. The problem for the LCS, and especially for the Freedom-class, is that they look like full-blown corvettes or light frigates, but are in fact large patrol ships (‘PS’, according to the USNI Ship Designation System). This means that they are not to be seen as one-for-one replacements for the earlier frigates, but to take over some low-end missions from larger surface vessels at a low(ish) cost. However, they have received a far share of critique for being lightly armed and having less ability to withstand combat when compared to the 1970’s OPH-frigate. This has in turn lead to demands for increasing the weapons load and resilience of the ships’ systems, to make them true corvettes/light frigates. An upgraded ‘LCS-frigate’ is also offered for export, and Saudi Arabia has expressed interest in this design.

Army 25th Combat Aviation Brigade earns deck landing qualifications abaord Littoral Combat Ship USS Fort Worth (LCS-3)
USS Fort Worht (LCS-3), looking too much like a proper warship for its own good. Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy/MCS 2nd Class Antonio P. Turretto Ramos

Long story short: that the new US patrol vessel isn’t as damage resistant as combat vessels doesn’t have anything to do with the new Finnish corvette.

Anti-shipping missiles in Kaliningrad – Come again?

The article claims that the new Finnish vessels will be sunk as soon as they appear at sea, because the Russians have created their A2/AD-fortress around Kaliningrad, including basing the K-300P Bastion-P in the exclave.

I do not understand the leap Ainola does here. The Bastion can’t reach anywhere near Finnish waters from Kaliningrad, so despite the fact that it is a matter of serious concern for the Poles and Lithuanians, and to a lesser extent the rest of the Baltic states and Germany, it doesn’t affect Finland directly. In other places, he sternly states that the southern parts of the Baltic Sea is none of Finland’s concern, but the tactical picture there apparently is? Especially out of place is the mention of Kaliningrad, as fired from Russian territory bordering the Gulf of Finland, the system covers roughly all Finnish waters east of Hanko.

As mentioned earlier, the Bastion is a potent weapon, but far from a ‘silver bullet’. It still needs targeting data, and the high speed is something of a mixed blessing, as it creates lots of heat for passive shipborne sensors to pick up and presumably also has an adverse effect on the final stages of target acquisition and interception.

Radars, seagulls, and jamming

Radar technology has made huge progress in recent years, but in all fairness, it isn’t a question about finding a seagull at range. To begin with, radar-cross sections can be widely detached from the area and volume of an object (ask the B-2 Spirit). In addition, there is the major issue with how to discern the relevant radar returns (i.e. ships) from irrelevant ones (i.e. seagulls). This isn’t anything new, and modern radars are very good at processing the myriad of returns. However, in the same way, modern countermeasures are very good at hiding these relevant returns. It is a continuous game of hide-and-seek, and while details are classified, it is safe to say that any kind of disruptive leap has not happened. Especially when you throw in the Finnish archipelago.

giraffe_afb-radar
An example of a seagull-spotting radar, the Giraffe AMB. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Duch.Seb

The alternative

What would the alternative then be to the four corvettes? It is safe to say that this has probably been looked into by the Navy, and as mentioned I have discussed the question in my earlier post on why the increase in hull size is needed, but a short recap is in place.

One issue that is often glossed over is how radically the threat picture changed for the Finnish Navy with the end of the Cold War. The Navy has two ‘hard’ main missions in case of war: protecting Finnish shipping lanes and covering the southern flank. During the Cold War, any Soviet flotilla could rapidly depart the Estonian coast, and in a matter of hours have crossed the narrow Gulf of Finland to launch an amphibious assault to threaten major Finnish cities and installations, including the capital. With Estonia re-establishing its independence, this threat has decreased radically. The 336th Naval Infantry Brigade which is the main striking force of the Baltic Fleet is also based in Kaliningrad and not Kronstadt. However, while the threat of amphibious assaults have diminished, the threat to shipping has increased. This is due to the increased dependence on imports following the general trend of globalisation in society as a whole, and for the defence forces in particular. Also, the striking power of submarines and especially aircrafts have increased. This threat requires more than a number of shore-based missile launchers. It require constant presence, and a readiness to counter surface, sub-surface, and airborne threats.

Would it be possible to meet this without corvettes?

Certainly.

Would it be cheaper, and more efficient?

Probably not.

Finland could continue down the current road, featuring smaller, basically single-role warships. But getting four hulls (3D-capability and a mineship) for every corvette would not be cheaper, and would certainly lack the tactical flexibility offered by the corvettes.

Would it be possible to replace some of the roles with other systems?

It might be. Shore-based missile batteries can take over part of the air- and anti-shipping tasks, though these would lack some of the operational flexibility provided by the highly movable corvettes. The sub-hunting role is harder, with helicopters being the obvious choice. However, helicopters have their limits. They are excellent at locating and attacking a target when its presence and general area has been determined, usually by a shipborne system, but are poor tools when it comes to escorting ships, due to their relatively short endurance. One alternative would be to follow the Norwegian example, and buy a squadron of maritime patrol aircraft. 5 Boeing P-8A Poseidon for the RoNAF came in at around 1.1 billion Euro, so getting a meaningful number wouldn’t be cheap. Operating costs are hard to compare between aircrafts and corvettes, but it is safe to say getting the infrastructure (and mountain of sonobuoys needed) would effectively burn through any ‘excess’ money saved by scrapping the corvettes. A smaller aircraft might do, but it’s hard to see that this would cause any savings given the increased demand for shore-based missile systems that would follow this approach. And seriously, if you are concerned about the survivability of a corvette in the Baltic Sea, a converted airliner probably won’t fare better…

boeing_p-8a_poseidon_168763_282643680970229
Boeing P-8 Poseidon, ranking ‘High’ on the Coolness-scale and ‘Low’ on the Bang-for-buck-in-Baltic-Sea-scale. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Trevor Hannant

While it is no secret that I have voiced opinions about how the Navy, especially at the start of the program, handled its public relations and how the project was marketed to the broader public, there is really no excuse for an experienced journalist to produce an analysis so basically flawed as has been the case here. I am confident the Navy will rise to the challenge, and provide the information needed for our politicians to make the right choice and approve the crucial program that is Squadron 2020. If anything, Finland need more, not less, corvettes than planned.

James Mashiri also made an excellent overview of some of the articles and press releases related to the program. Note that most are in Finnish. 

The Articles and Press Releases related to this post (newest to oldest)

Other articles related to Squadron 2020

The Defence Forces, Ministry of Defence, and other authorities