Finland goes GBAD-shopping

In a long-awaited move, the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command yesterday sent out the RFQ for a new ground-based air defence system “with a high ceiling”. The corresponding RFI went out in 2018, and under the current schedule the procurement will be finalised before the end of 2022 and the system will become operational during the latter half of the 20’s.

For a more general overview of the current state of the Finnish high-end ground based air defences (and why we won’t acquire an anti-ballistic missile capability), I recommend that you check out my sub-chapter on Finland in the FOI anthology “Beyond Bursting Bubbles“, but the long story short is that Finland acquired the Buk-M1 in the late 1990’s as part of a deal to cover the Russian debt stemming from the Soviet clearing accounts. Unfortunately, worries about the ability of Russia to counter the system meant that they had to be retired quite soon thereafter, with the last conscripts training on the system in 2005. Exactly when (if?) the system was withdrawn is unclear, but it seems to have survived in (limited?) service past Crimea.

In any case, a replacement system was acquired under what would become the ITO12 procurement, which saw SAMP/T and NASAMS II face off in a competition won by the NASAMS. The reason behind the choice was bluntly described by then Chief of Defence, Admiral Kaskeala:

Do we buy one Cadillac or four Volvos?

In any case, the ‘Volvo’ has scored a number of successes around the world, and is generally seen as a potent system, but one that suffers from short range due to the poor performance of its AIM-120C AMRAAM missile when fired from a ground-based launcher. Janes lists it as having an estimated max range of 20 km, though this is partially offset by the launchers being able to be placed up to 25 km out from the fire direction centre (FDC). The ceiling is rather uncertain, with The Drive mentioning 50,000 feet (15,000+ meters), but on the other hand then-Finnish inspector of the ground-based air defences, colonel Sami-Antti Takamaa, in an interview in 2018 stated that the new system (which should be able to go significantly higher than NASAMS) should have a ceiling of 8,000 to 15,000 meters. There’s likely an apples-to-pears situation in the numbers above, with Takamaa referencing the effective engagement altitudes which are quite a bit below the theoretical maximum.

However, for most situations the maximum specifications isn’t as interesting as other factors. The ability to deploy the systems with the launchers dispersed, the active seeker of the missiles, modularity, and the modern C4I architecture are of greater value. However, the fact that the NASAMS would lose in top trumps against the system it replaced means that there is a gap above the coverage provided by Finnish SAMs, and one that can only be covered by fighters.

The Finnish air defence doctrine places a high emphasise on the joint aspect, with the ground- and sea-based systems supporting the fighters of the Finnish Air Force. Here a NASAMS II battery is deployed in Lohtaja during the Air Forces’ main exercise Ruska 20 earlier this fall. Source: Finnish Air Force FB/Joni Malkamäki

This leads us to the current ITSUKO-program, where throughout the focus has been on increasing the air defence capabilities at high altitude. This is interesting, as most countries discuss their different classes of SAM’s in terms of range rather than ceiling, and clearly shows which operational problem the FDF is trying to solve. Obviously, with increased ceiling comes increased range (though one shouldn’t think of the effective engagement zone as a half-sphere above ground, as the routes chosen by modern missiles and the physics involved makes things a bit more complex than that), but this is largely seen as a secondary bonus. In the earlier quoted article, major general (engineering) Kari Renko of the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command explained that “Increased territorial coverage means that we have more batteries operational”, and struck down the notion that a meaningful increase in territorial coverage could be achieved solely by increasing the range. In effect, this is due to the large area of Finland, which means that the difference in coverage between differently ranged systems, especially at low range, is small enough that it is negligible at the operational or strategic level.

Here it is good to remember that as none of the current systems are to be replaced, the number of operational batteries will in fact go up. This in turn means that, in the words of current inspector of the ground-based air defences, colonel Mikko Mäntynen, the “fighters will get a higher degree of freedom”. While this is all good and true, there is a nagging feeling that this might be an attempt to cover for the fact that HX won’t reach 64 fighters. Let’s hope that feeling is unfounded…

The news yesterday was that the field competing has been cut down by half. Of the ten companies that received the RFI in 2018, five are still in the competition bidding for the role as prime contractors. These are Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace (KDA), Diehl Defence, MBDA, Rafael, and IAI. Missing from the list are all American companies, as well as Swedish defence company Saab whose RBS 23 lacks the punch to compete in this race (note though that Janes gives the max altitude as 15,000 meters, again showing that 15,000 meters max doesn’t necessarily mean that your system can effectively handle engagements at 8,000 to 15,000 meters). However, it is entirely possible that Saab appears as a subcontractor in some of the bids, as their Giraffe 4A radar has had a tendency to do so in other places. Raytheon is a long-term active partner to KDA, and it is no surprise that they are confirmed to be working together with them here as well (even if rumours had hinted at them also bidding separately as a prime, presumably with the MIM-104 Patriot). Another of Raytheon’s joint programs might also show up…

Of those bidding, Diehl is without doubt the odd one out. As far as I am aware of, Diehl has nothing bigger than the IRIS-T SLS (which recently entered Swedish service as the RBS 98). Being based on a short-range IIR air-to-air missile, it suffers from a 5,000 meter ceiling (again according to Janes), leaving it even shorter-legged than the NASAMS. To be completely honest, I have no idea about what Diehl is planning to offer.

Edit 30 October: Diehl in fact has a longer-ranged version. There is quite a bit of confusion in their designations in open sources (I’ve e.g. seen SL, SLS, and SLM all refer to just different launchers firing the same IRIS-T missile, and I’ve even seen the Swedish EldE 98 referred to as SLM!). However, Diehl’s SLM is in fact a rather different missile with a seriously longer range thanks to a larger rocket and an aerodynamic nosecone that pops off once the target is within range of the missile’s IIR-seeker. This dual-mode (firing solution and early tracking being provided by radar and datalink until switching to final guidance by IIR) is rather interesting and could potentially be more difficult to spoof compared to more traditional solutions. The missile has been test-fired successfully, but the operational status seems to be rather uncertain. Thanks to f-pole for clearing things up!

KDA is the obvious favourite, being able to offer the AMRAAM-ER for the NASAMS-system. The AMRAAM-ER in essence combine booster of the ESSM and the front unit of the AMRAAM to produce a completely new missile with “50% increase in range and a 70% increase in altitude” compared to the current AIM-120C-7.

In other words, KDA can simply offer more of a system already in service with the Finnish Army, but with ability to use either the shorter-legged AMRAAM or the longer-legged AMRAAM-ER according to need. The modularity of the NASAMS also means that integrating a host of other missiles is possible, should the FDF be so inclined (spoiler alert: they’re probably not). That kind of synergy effects could very well be hard to beat, but the competition isn’t giving up without a fight.

Land Ceptor during test fires in Sweden in 2018. The time lapse shows the cold launch sequence in which the missile is flung upwards and only then actually firing. Source: Crown copyright

As noted earlier on the blog, MBDA has had a surprisingly difficult time in landing any major contract with the FDF. The obvious system for them to offer is the Land Ceptor/CAMM-ER. The missile is an operational system with the British Army and the specifications on paper seems to be a good match, but it is difficult to see it outmatching the stiff competition.

The question about what the two Israeli companies will offer is more open. Rafael is able to offer the SPYDER, which is a truck running around with a bunch of missiles on its back. It offers the ability to fire both the Python 5 highly-manoeuvrable short-range IIR-missile, but also the Derby longer-ranged missile. The overall concept is rather similar to that of the NASAMS, with a modern C4I architecture and air-to-air missiles adopted for ground-based use, and while not as prolific as the NASAMS it has scored a few export successes from serious customers such as Singapore. However, most numbers found in open sources seem to indicate that the SPYDER lacks the range and ceiling to be able to offer a meaningful improvement over the current NASAMS. This would in turn mean that the system offered is the David’s Sling, which uses a two-stage Stunner-missile (also known as the SkyCeptor). The missile is perhaps best known internationally as the PAAC-4 missile for the US Patriot-system, which is a joint program between Rafael and Raytheon to produce a significantly cheaper missile with better performance compared to the current PAC-3 that is used for anti-ballistic missile work with the Patriot battery. The Stunner is designed from the outset to be able to easily integrate into other systems, meaning that it is possible that the weapon could communicate better than some of the competition with the current systems found in the Finnish integrated air defence network. Still, it does feel that the ABM-capable is a bit of overkill in a competition against missiles such AMRAAM-ER and CAMM-ER (remember that several high-ranking officials and generals at different times have shot down the idea that Finland would be interesting in pursuing a real ABM-capability), unless the offer really is one we can’t refuse.

One of the final test firings of the David’s Sling before the system entered operational use with the IDF. Note the asymmetric nose. Source: United States Missile Defense Agency via Wikimedia Commons

IAI has a more varied, and at least on paper, more suitable range of weapons, with the BARAK-series being the logical contender. This include a range of missiles, with the BARAK-LRAD missile being the most likely version on offer here. This is part of the general BARAK MX-system, and is developed in parallel with the BARAK 8 for the Indian Navy. Crucially, IAI’s Elta-division has a large portfolio of radars (including the ELM-2311 C-MMR which was recently acquired by the FDF for use as a counter-battery radar), and as such it would be interesting to see which radars they would pair with their interceptor for the bid.

ESSM for the Pohjanmaa-class

Yesterday the Finnish MoD announced that the RIM-162 Evolved SeaSparrow Missile (ESSM) has been chosen as the main air defence weapon for the upcoming Pohjanmaa-class corvettes.

The weapon systems already acquired for the Pohjanmaa-class include Torped 47 ASW-torpedoes (Sweden), Gabriel anti-ship missiles (Israel), and ESSM surface-to-air missiles (USA). Source: Finnish MoD

The DSCA cleared the ESSM for export already a year ago, and crucially this was for the quad-packed Mk 25 launcher. This is fitted into the Mk 41 VLS launch system, which is a module of eight box-shaped shafts in which the missiles are stored until launch. The Pohjanmaa-class will be the smallest operational vessel fitted with the system by some margin (Taiwanese test bed LCC-1 Kao Hsiung is roughly same size), and interestingly enough it seems the full strike-length cells will be fitted.

This will give the corvettes a total of 32 ESSM per vessel (the astute observer will notice that the DSCA request only cover 68 missiles, meaning that further orders are to be expected), a significant upgrade in both range and numbers compared to the Hamina-class. While the Hamina’s Umkhonto have an IR-seeker, the ESSM have a passive radar seeker, which gives better performance in bad weather. When it comes to active versus passive radar seekers, unlike the situation in air-to-air combat where requiring the launching platform to keep it’s radar on target conflicts with the need to evade incoming fire, on a surface ship it isn’t necessarily as much of a problem as the radar stays active in a 360° search sector throughout the engagement.

Range is another major factor. The increase in range from 12 to 50 km gives a 17 times greater theoretical area covered. It has also been announced that the vessels, both as sensors and as shooters, will be integrated as part of the joint air defence network of the Finnish Defence Forces. This will give a significant boost to the air defences around the southern coastline, a key area for the country due to its concentration of population centres, ports, and heavy industry. This would be of particular importance in the early stages of a conflict, where the ground based systems of the Army might not have had time to deploy in the field.

The Mk 41 also allows for significantly larger missiles to be used, including the Standard-family of the US Navy and land-attack weapons such as the TLAM. However, with only eight available cells per corvette, swapping out a quad-pack of ESSM for a single longer-ranged SAM has serious effects on the ability of the vessel to fend off prolonged attacks. The Mk 41 could be used as a platform for missile defences to target systems such as the Iskander. E.g. Denmark is planning on doing this, but this would effectively tie up our limited number of corvettes in point defence missions along the southern shore.

An important factor in the choice was likely the widespread use of the Mk 41 and ESSM-combination, which ensure the ability to quickly fill up stocks if the need arises (i.e. we can hopefully get more missiles from US or even Norwegian stocks if we get dragged into a war).

The choice of ESSM will also have indirect effects on the Army’s GBAD program for a medium-range SAM-system. The inability of MBDA to secure a naval CAMM-order from Finland will likely impact the chances for the same missile on land as well. The NASAMS-compatible AMRAAM-ER in turn got a further boost, as it share some parts commonality with the ESSM (the ESSM can also be fired from the NASAMS launcher, though it is dubious if the Army wants a passive seeker head). Overall, MBDA has had a surprisingly hard time in securing any kind of orders in Finland. Time will tell if HX changes this.

On a final note, it is nice to finally see the MoD and Navy fully switch to referring to the vessels as the Pohjanmaa-class. The name has been known for quite some time, and in building a connection between the general public and the project it certainly has a nicer ring to it than the formal Squadron 2020.