Naval Air Defence – The Finnish Way

One of the signs of spring in Kokkola is the arrival of a small flotilla of naval vessels to the local port. Seeing the Finnish Navy operating in the northern parts of the Gulf of Bothnia is uncommon, as all three main formations and the Naval Academy are based along the southern shores of the country. What brings the Navy here is the spring edition of IPH, the twice annually held air defence exercise where the Navy join the Army and Air Force in practicing the whole chain of modern ground-based air defences. This starts with creating situational awareness for the air defence network, and ends with the use of appropriate weapons systems engaging the targets. This year, minelayer FNS Uusimaa (‘05’) lead fast-attack crafts FNS Tornio (‘81’) and FNS Hanko (‘82’) into the port of Kokkola on 17 May for approximately a week of intensive exercises.

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FNS Uusimaa (‘05’) at dusk. Source: @JHggblom

Contrary to a number of other navies which operate dedicated air defence ships, air defence isn’t one of the Finnish Navy’s core tasks. Rather, the ability to protect the own vessel and nearby ships is needed to be able to perform other tasks, including escorting merchant shipping but also naval missions such as mining. Currently, the two Hämeenmaa-class minelayers and the four Hamina-class FAC all feature the same Cassidian TRS-3D radar and a VLS-battery of eight Umkhonto-IR (local designation ITO 2004) short-range IR-homing missile. As noted, half of the Navy’s ships with an air defence capability took part in IPH117.

But the air defence mission starts long before the missiles are let loose. The naval vessels, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, play a significant role in peacetime air policing. The TRS-3D are respectable sensors in its own right, and on the vessels they are backed up by other systems and sensors which make the vessels able to make considerable contributions to the Finnish air picture. The Navy maintain alert vessels 24/7 as part of their policing of Finnish maritime areas (as has been demonstrated), and an added benefit is that these are able to contribute sensor data regarding air movements as well. Here, the older Rauma-class and the Border Guard’s flagship VL Turva are also able to lend a hand, as while they aren’t armed with SAM’s, they still sport search radars (TRS-3D in the case of Turva, while the Rauma-class is equipped with the Saab Sea Giraffe 9GA 208, a relatively old iteration of the Giraffe-family).

There are a number of features which make the Navy punch above its paper stats when it comes to contributing to the air defence and air surveillance network. One is the fact that the vessels are further south than any radars found on the mainland. This is especially valuable for any air traffic coming from the direction of the Baltic Sea, where the Navy can be assumed to be the first one to pick up any movements. Another thing is the mobility offered by the platforms, with the ships being able to travel at speed, up to 30 knots (55 km/h) for the Haminas, while constantly emitting. Compared to ground-based radars which need to be lowered for travelling and set up again at their new location, this eliminates the gap in information that takes place when changing position. The other is the high readiness of the Navy compared to the Army’s air defence units. The vessels not only bring their complete sensor package with them. They also bring the command central, battle management tools, and firing units with them. The vessels need to be able to not only fight as part of an integrated air defence network, but they also need to be able to solve any of their missions independently in case communications with higher command suddenly goes down. This means that the vessels are able to not only see what is up in the air, but also to take independent action against any threat at a moment’s notice.

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FNS Tornio (‘81’) left and FNS Hamina (‘82’) right. Source: Own picture

Being able to actually shoot down anything naturally requires that they are sailing around with the missiles loaded, something which the Navy does not comment upon. One of the benefits of the VLS is in fact this ambiguity, as an external observer is unable to tell how many weapons are carried (the same is the case with internal carriage on fighters, feel free to ponder upon this as an issue for HX).

From an air defence point of view, the six Umkhonto-equipped vessels are in effect mobile surface-to-air missile batteries with their own search radars (though with a very limited number of missiles), maintained at a high level of readiness and staffed (almost) exclusively by professionals. This makes them well-suited as counters to a Crimea-style coup attempt, where they together with the Air Force would counter airborne movements in the opening stages of a conflict before the ground based batteries have had time to mobilise and set up.

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FNS Uusimaa (‘05’) firing an Umkhonto-IR short-range surface-to-air missile during IPH117. Source: Merivoimat

The introduction of Squadron 2020 will further strengthen the Navy’s role in the joint air defence network. New radars and sensors, and getting access to mounting them higher as a benefit of the larger vessel size, will offer better situational awareness, and while the exact surface-to-air weapon fit is still undecided, it seems highly likely that the missiles will be of a greater number and capability than the current vessels have. What is also often forgotten is that while the overall number of surface combatants will go down from eleven to eight, the number of air defence capable vessels will in fact go up from six to eight.

While the Navy might see air defence as something of a necessary evil, something that one needs to do to be able to perform the core missions, that doesn’t mean it is a mission taken lightly. Compared to mining operations where time is calculated in hours and days, air defence is a question of seconds and minutes. The demanding nature of it means that it needs to be trained properly, and nowhere in Finland is the training environment better than in the Bothnian Gulf during the last weeks of May. The importance placed on the mission is seen by the fact that the Navy dispatched three vessels for a week, vessels which barely have time get back to Pansio for a quick turnaround before heading out to sea again as part of this spring’s main coastal defence exercise, exercise MTH-17 Lyydia.

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IPH 2/16

The sound of cannon fire echoes through the forest, as I follow captain Laitinen towards the low tower protruding at the treeline. We are at the media tour of IPH 2/16, the latest edition of the twice-annually held exercise where soldiers from all of the ground-based air defense units come together for two weeks of intensive training at the Vattaja firing range. I smile as I spot the ZIL-131 trucks parked under the trees next to the dirt road. Soviet trucks are getting rarer in the defence forces, but if there’s somewhere one could expect to find them, it is within earshot of the trusty ZU-23-2 Sergei.

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The Sergei themselves soon come into sight. Grouped below the tower is a row of the light anti-aircraft guns. The older 23 ITK 61 are placed to the left, with the modernised 23 ITK 95 to the right. The difference between them is that the newer ones got an aiming computer, thermal camera, and laser range-finder to enhance their accuracy. “The larger ones are aimed remotely, so they are being zeroed in at the moment,” captain Laitinen explains and points towards the ends of the lines, where the Oerlikon GDF’s can be made out. I nod and pull out the camera to start taking pictures.

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While the army is the most visible service, the exercise is actually lead by the Air Force Academy. Captain Joni Laitinen is from the Academy, and works as the Leader of Exercise and Aerial Target Team. As such, he was the one responsible for the briefing we received before getting out in the field. The exercise trains both the air defence units themselves and their supporting units in all steps of their wartime tasks, he explained. This start with them moving to the area of operations a few hundred kilometres from their respective homebases. On location, they take up positions, with their wartime logistics and signals units supporting the combat elements. The first week is then all about the live firings of the systems at different aerial targets. After this, the combat stage takes place, where the air force and army aviation fly different scenarios over the firing range. This later phase is highly realistic, with the air defence network being met with targets ranging from unmanned systems, via helicopters, to fighter jets at different altitudes. The task is further complicated by the attackers employing jamming and releasing countermeasures, as the air force practices operations within an air defence zone. For a successful intercept, the air defences will first have to pick up the attackers on their radars, and then relay the information to the command network, which in turn direct the responses and alert the individual weapons systems as needed.

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It might not be immediately visible to the individual gun or missile crew, but behind every engagement, there is a long chain of events that are rehearsed and repeated time after time to make sure that everyone knows what they are doing, and feel comfortable in their own task. “The focus isn’t on shots fired, but on successful repetitions,” as captain Laitinen put it.

Today the focus is on live firings, with the autocannons taking the front stage. It is set to be a busy day, as bad weather had hampered operations the first day of the exercise. “Some of our aerial targets and air defence systems have a weather limit, which meant that yesterday was something of a low-ops day,” colonel Ari Grönroos explained. The colonel is the Inspector of Ground Based Air Defence at the Army Staff, and functions as the head of the exercise. “That’s the way it is in ‘real life’ as well,” he continued with a shrug.

At the moment the weather is better, and soon the small remotely controlled plane that functions as the target started buzzing the row of guns. The guns follow the red target and opens up in turns, firing bursts after burst towards it. The plane is equipped with a pressure sensor, which in real time tells the leader of the gunnery exercise how many shots passed within four meters of it. “If we have one or two 23 mm grenades pass within that distance, we can be quite confident that they would at least have damaged a fighter-sized target,” Laitinen explains. “The Sergei works by covering a relatively large area. That one instead works by accuracy,” he continues and points towards one of the Oerlikons, or 35 ITK 88 as it is known locally.

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Colonel Grönroos also makes sure to mention the excellent cooperation he feels exists between the defence forces and the local community. The same week that IPH2/16 took place, the latest in a row of meetings had taken place, in which the defence forces shared their plans for the upcoming years, and discussed these with the people living in the area near the firing range. The exercise is large for being such a specialised one, with over 200 reservists, 1000 conscripts, and 400 professionals taking part. While the latter aren’t necessarily the ones pulling the trigger, the exercise provides valuable training for them as well, including leading their units during the combat phase and renewing needed qualifications. During the live firings we witnessed two different reservist units alternate in firing the guns, allowing for more efficient training compared to if they only employed their own ones. 

During the springtime the Navy usually take part in the live firings with their vessels, but this time their presence was limited to providing security and emergency teams. In addition to the rapid response boat, a NH90 helicopter was temporarily based at the range as well, performing patrol flights and MEDEVAC if the need would arise. A field hospital is also set up for the duration of the exercise. The live firings were more limited compared to the spring as well, with the ITO 15 (FIM-92 Stinger RMP-I) being the only missile system to see action. “In the spring we are expecting to be performing live firings with four or five different missile systems,” Laitinen discloses.

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As we are about to move on, a sudden streak of light shoots across the sky, and destroys an aerial target further away. What immediately strikes me is the sheer speed of the Stinger missile, which admittedly comes as something of a surprise to me. Laitinen promises to get us a demonstration of the weapon, and after a short drive we meet up with tykkimies (gunner) Happonen who was the one to fire the missile we had seen. Bringing a training missile, he shows the proper handling, and admits that he didn’t see much of the live event due to the liberal amount of smoke the missile kicked up.

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A big thank you to Päivi Visuri at the Karelia Brigade, as well as colonel Grönroos and captain Laitinen for hosting our visit! A special thank you to gunner Happonen as well. More pictures from the tour are found at the Corporal Frisk Facebook-page.

Fire among the dunes – Air defence exercise 1/16

At first glance, Vattaja firing range looks like an anachronism in the Finnish Defence Forces. At a time when the force as a whole has largely disappeared from the greater Ostrobothnian area, the location of a minor firing range at the coast seems strange.

However, looking closer, the reasons become clearer. Featuring a considerable stretch of coastline facing the open sea, it allows for joint exercises involving not only ground based units, but fast jets and surface ships as well. Its location far from the Russian listening posts at Gogland (and potential ‘trawlers’ running around in the Gulf of Finland) is also beneficial when practicing emission heavy scenarios, such as anti-air warfare.

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A Crotale NG system mounted on a Patria XA-181 chassis (local designation ITO90M) awaits the next wave of enemies during the battle phase. Source: author

These benefits are utilised in the twice-yearly series of air defence exercises, simply named “Ilmapuolustusharjoitus” (Air defence exercise), having been renamed for the first edition this year from the earlier “Ilmatorjuntaharjoitus” (Anti-air exercise). The reason for this renaming is unknown, but one guess is that the exercise has evolved to become more of a joint exercise as opposed to a pure ground-based air defence event. The first exercise kicks off in May each year, and IPH 1/16 has been taking place for the last two weeks. The first week, the so called “Firing phase”, emphasizes live firing against both towed and sub-scale targets, while the second week is the “Battle phase” and pits the air force against the ground and surface units in different scenarios (obviously, no live ammunition is used during this phase).

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Three ‘bogeys’ at one staging area east of the training area proper. Source: author

For the ground forces, forces from three differnt brigades brought more or less everything from the humble NSV 12.7 mm heavy machine gun to the NASAMS 2, including Crotale and Stinger missiles, as well as ZU-23-2 ‘Sergei’ and Oerlikon KD/GDF anti-aircraft guns. The air force, which has overall responsibility for the exercise, brought its F/A-18C Hornet’s, both for their own live firings as well as for target duty/practicing operations against enemy air defence networks. The navy, busy with several exercises during the second half of May and preparing for the upcoming BALTOPS 16 kicking off early June, sent a single Hamina-class FAC, which also performed live firings with its Umkhonto-IR missile system. In addition, the navy brought a small landing craft, probably for SAR duty and for policing the safety zone.

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Fast attack craft FNS Tornio (’81’), the main contribution of the Navy, visible in the haze off the coast. Source: author

The current state of the Finnish air defence is a hot topic, especially after the launching of the HX-fighter program and the withdrawal of the Buk M1 in favour of the shorter-ranged NASAMS 2. The majority of the gunbased anti-air assets are also approaching the end of their lifespans, and although the Marksman system got reintroduced into action after being transferred from T-55AM to Leopard 2A4 hulls, the air defence is looking worrisomely thin on a longer horizon. Partly to offset this coming reduction in lighter AAA systems and partly to replace older Soviet MANPADS, a considerable (but undisclosed) quantity of FIM-92C Stingers where bought, with the first having been fired last year at ITH 2/15, and more being employed this year. A Finnish particular is the tactics to use cherry pickers as launch platforms. These are employed to get above the treetops to secure a good enough line of fire. As Finland is heavily forested and relatively flat, launching the missiles from the ground gives little time for spotting and acquiring a firing solution when hostile aircraft approach at low level and high speed.

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Conscript with Stinger launcher in a cherry picker, catching a break after a low-level pass by two Hornets. Source: author

An interesting visitor this year was Saab’s Special Flight Operations’ Learjet 35 which flew target flights. The aircraft can perform both target towing and different electronic warfare missions, missions which have earlier been handled by the air force’s own Learjets. The plane has the ability to fly “adversary flight profiles with or without Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) for AA and AD systems”, and it did employ aggressive flight tracks at low altitude over the training range. While Saab won’t comment on exactly which EW systems are mounted aboard at any given time, the aircraft did feature two unspecified (and different) pods, and it is interesting to note that Gripen’s active EW suit is one of its stronger sales points, with already the 39C apparently being able to give “nasty shocks” to RAF Typhoon pilots. It is entirely possible that the air force took the opportunity to get a feel for Saab’s EW know-how in advance of the proper HX evaluation (or that Saab took the opportunity to demonstrate their products, whichever way one looks upon it).

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One of Saab’s Learjets, SE-DHP, during a low pass over the training area. Source: author

A closing statement on the pictures taken during the exercise: all pictures were taken from outside the exercise area, and in several instances there were officers standing close by, apparently okay with me running around with a tele lens. A few of the pictures were taken so that they show part of the area declared off limits to the general public for the duration of the exercise. Despite reading through the notice posted at the site and checking for signs in the terrain, I found no indication that photography was prohibited or restricted (with the exception of flying targets due to safety hazards). Still, I have used my own judgement and left out certain observations/pictures from this post, due to the potentially revealing nature of these.

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A ‘Sergei’ blasting away at an incoming Hornet. Source: author