Reach out and touch someone – at 40 km

While the Finnish Navy is undergoing a visible transformation with the acquisition of the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes and the Hamina-class MLU, away from the headlines an era is about to end. The Finnish Defence Forces had the luck of inheriting the unfinished but still impressive Peter the Great’s Naval Fortress when the country became independent in 1917, making it a major player in fixed coastal artillery. But now the end is approaching for the 130 TK, the last fixed guns of the country.

The glorious life of a gun crew on the 130 TK. Source: Merivoimat FB

The 130 TK is the mid-sized coastal defence system in Finnish service, wedged between the MTO 85M (RBS 15, to be replaced by PTO 2020) and the RO 2006 (Spike ER). Being the sole artillery system, it has a few unique features compared to the missiles.

Artillery observers directing fire from the 130 TK during exercise Silja earlier this year. Source: Merivoimat FB

The most important difference is cost of the rounds. Modern artillery rounds aren’t necessarily cheap, but they’re certainly cheaper than missiles. They also provide the ability to target vessels where a PTO 2020 might be overkill (such as minehunters, landing craft, and small auxiliaries), and to maintain suppressive fire over prolonged time (both against vessels and against units that have come ashore). A key feature is also the ability to fire a warning shot, something that might come in handy in a ‘hybrid’ scenario where you don’t necessarily want to put a missile in a suspicious vessel. However, the Navy has let go off their towed systems, meaning that replacing the 130 TK with mobile artillery would require reintroducing the artillery branch in the Navy (or asking really nicely if the Army would have a few wartime batteries to spare). The Navy’s standing comment is that they are still looking at all alternatives, including both missiles and artillery.

But where better to ask about what those alternatives can be than at AMBLE Baltic?

The new Nammo 155 mm extended range family. Already in Finnish service, might it be the kind of versatile low-cost solution that the FDF loves? Picture courtesy of Nammo (all rights reserved/media license)

First stop is Nammo’s booth. The Norwegian/Finnish company is a well known supplier of artillery to Finnish heavy guns, and the company representative is happy to discuss the potential of using 155 mm rounds for coastal defence. While the mission isn’t part of the current mission set, “there’s lots of possibilities”. This includes not only extended range HE-rounds which push 40 km with base bleed from a L/52 gun, but also rocket-assisted projectiles with 70+ km range from L/52 guns as well as different kinds of precision guidance kits. Against a target such as a vessel 7 kg of explosives from a RAP round might well be plenty enough to achieve at least a mission kill. Fire direction against a moving target will present some challenges, but Nammo is certainly interested in having a go at it. Or as the company representative sum it up:

It’s worth having a look at.

But if Nammo isn’t in the coastal artillery game at the moment, two tables away is someone who is. Eurospike GmbH supply the Finnish Navy with the Spike ER (RO 2006) for the coastal defence role, as well as the Finnish Army with the Spike MR and LR for the anti-tank role (as the PSTOHJ 2000 and 2000M respectively). The oldest batches of the RO 2006 are approaching the end of their shelf-life, which brings a further twist to the 130 TK replacement. The RO 2006 has a range of 8 km, and the logical follow-up is currently in qualification.

RO 2006 being fired during exercise Silja. Source: Merivoimat FB

Spike ER2 adds another two kilometers of range and non-line of sight ability compared to the current ER. The seeker head is also able to use both the IR and the daylight mode simultaneously, making it harder to spoof the tracking. The anti-tank warhead is also promising 30% higher penetration, something that is largely of academic interest for the anti-ship role. While not directly discussing the coastal defence role, the company representative confirm that they are in discussions with the Finnish Defence Forces regarding new anti-tank concepts for all ranges. The Spike does have a trump card, as it makes it “possible to have everything in one family”. A dual-Spike solution for the Navy could potentially be in the cards, with the Spike NLOS allowing for 30 km range currently, and “more in a few years”. There’s also “solutions for even higher ranges”, but the company won’t go into further details as to what those are. Eurospike also notes that the coastal defence role might require a lighter solution than the current vehicle-mounted NLOS platforms, and suggests that UGVs with NLOS might be a suitable concept.

The size difference between the Spike ER2 (left) and the LR2 (right). Source: Own picture

Could Eurospike score a missile grand slam with more and newer anti-tank missiles to the Army and a dual-buy of ER2 and NLOS to the short- and medium-range coastal defence needs of the Navy? Possibly, but the introduction of NLOS would require quite a bit of new infrastructure in the form of suitable transport vessels to get the missiles moving in the archipelago, somewhat leveling the playing field compared to the investment an artillery-based solution would require. Perhaps adding a few batteries to the buy of whatever replaces the outgoing east-built guns will still turn out as the prefered solution?

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.

One of the early renders of the upcoming corvette, featuring twin quadruple launchers mounted just aft of the mast. Source:
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.

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.

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?

© Dassault Aviation - V.Almansa
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.

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.