Rumble at the AMBLE

The face of amphibious operations are changing, while at the same time remaining as difficult as ever. Both of these facts were evident at the inaugural Amphibious Live Exhibit, or AMBLE Baltic for short, held this week in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. The country might not have a strong tradition of naval infantry, but the relatively young Seebatallion (Sea Battalion) has quickly proved itself as a provider of a wide range of different capabilities to not only the German Navy, but the German Defence Forces as a whole (more on that in a later post). At the same time it is still in continuous development, and with military technology moving swiftly, the Freundeskreis Seebatallion (the guild of the friends of the Sea Battalion) decided that a marine infantry specific event modelled after the annual KSK Symposium was required. This led to a host of different defence and security company ranging from small niche suppliers to international giants such as KMW all turning up at Wilhelmshaven’s Nordhafen last Thursday, bringing along an amphibious APC (more on that in a later post), a modified BV 206 (more on that as well in a later post), three boats, and a jetski whose main mission was to be stopped by Diehl’s HPEM boatStop electronic pulse system.

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The exhibit being opened by Bernhard Saß-Möbus (middle left). Source: Own picture

The underlying issue is that while amphibious units are in high demand, their missions and capabilities aren’t always understood by those outside the military. Bernhard Saß-Möbus, 1st chairman of the Freundeskreis noted this discrepancy at the opening of the exhibit:

People hear ‘amphibious operations’ and immediately think of Omaha Beach and Saving Private Ryan. It’s not. Today they’re often in urban areas.

The general rise of the urban battlefield naturally is as prominent along the coast as it is inland, but in addition the role played by ports as the crucial logistical nodes of today’s modern society further increases the strategic importance of coastal urban centres. The importance of the ports are evident both in peacetime for society as a whole as well for any military operations conducted in times of war. And all ports aren’t created equal. “A port cannot be substituted one-to-one for another port”, as Mathias Lüdicke of Niedersachsen Ports GmbH & Co. KG explained in his introductionary speech, comparing the particularities of Wilhelmshaven to nearby ports such as Bremerhaven and Hamburg. The pressure is also coming from the navy, for whom the littoral environment is becoming increasingly interesting. This also creates a demand for uniquely maritime missions, such as visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) and naval force protection. Combined these trends are what makes countries such as Germany look at units that not only can fight in these kinds of varied mission sets, but who can get there (or away) over the water. “Vom Land zum Meer – Vom Meer zum Land“, as the official motto of the Seebatallion puts it. Even for non-expeditionary forces such as the Finnish Defence Forces, it isn’t hard to envisage a scenario along the Finnish southern flank where the coastal jaeger battle group might find itself in a decidedly urban environment.

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Rheinmetall Defence showing their integrated solutions for the modern infantry. Source: Own picture

Some of the defining features of the amphibious units are then that they need to be familiar with the particularities of sea transport, including by small craft, and that their equipment need to be suitable for maritime environment. The latter part can obviously be solved in different ways, if a rifle corrode too fast you can simply issue more oil and cleaning rags instead of using chrome parts for manufacturing. However, at some point the maritime environment and the special tasks only found in and around the maritime domain will require unique equipment, and this is where AMBLE comes into the picture. The exhibition featured maritime specific items such as boarding ladders and personal flotation devices, but also systems that would interest any light infantry unit, such as man-portable fire support and anti-tank weapons. Perhaps most importantly it provided a natural meeting place for the industry and the armed forces, with the invitation-only format ensuring that everyone was focused on the particularities of the amphibious fight.

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Augmented reality training was demonstrated in the form of the RE-liON BLACKSUIT system demoing the clearing of a bulding. The system can also be set up to provide force-on-force training, and naturally provide a host of debriefing tools to ensure the best possible training benefit. Source: Own picture

A major system present was the Marine Alutech Jehu, or Watercat M18 AMC, combat boat*, making it’s first public apperance in Germany. The vessel also made demo rides throughout the day. The Jehu in question was there on behalf of the manufacturer, but was a fully operational vessel normally used by the Finnish Navy’s marines at the Nyland Brigade. At the exhibit it was crewed by two senior NCO’s from the NYLBR.

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The inside of the Jehu combat boat. The Dutch Korps Mariniers is another unit for which a modern combat boat would provide added capabilities. Source: Own picture

I have been discussing the vessel on the blog earlier, so without going into details one can note that the naval infantry and naval special units in several countries still mainly use open fast craft for their fast transport needs. The ability to transport troops under cover and in relatively cosy conditions significantly improve the combat efficiency of the troops once the actual mission starts, and the larger hulls of vessels such as Jehu and CB 90 provide better seakeeping and longer time on station, allowing more equipment to be brought along and providing for more rested passengers. The use of modern remote weapon stations with heavy machine guns and 40 mm automatic grenade launchers also adds missions such as fire support and patrol to the repertoire. As such they certainly would fit the “Multitool”-moniker of the Seebatallion. Time will tell if a modern combat boat will become a common sight in German ports.

A big thank you to Freundeskreis Seebatallion for inviting me along and getting me to and from the airport!

*Full disclosure, Kongsberg Maritime Finland whom I work for provide the waterjets for both the Jehu and the CB 90

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Combat Boats and Landing Craft

One of the earliest aspects of the current wave of close Finnish-Swedish military cooperation has been that between the marine infantry in the two countries. This was formalised as the Swedish Finnish Amphibious Task Unit (SFATU), which originally was envisaged as a crisis management tool for the littorals. In later years the scope has been increased, as can be seen during the upcoming weeks when the unit will be training in Finnish waters. Parallel to the Navy’s main exercise Silja, the unit will perform a short pre-exercise which started 27 May, and on 3 June SFATU will switch over to the main exercise and take part in Silja together with the better part of the Finnish Navy (including the marines and coastal units). The Swedish marines are joining in the fun with a total force numbering around 400 personnel and around 40 boats.

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Finnish Jehu-class in the foreground with a Swedish CB 90H in the background. Note the differences in profile. Source: Merivoimat.fi

As usually when the two forces operate next to each other the differences in equipment has raised some questions, especially in this case where both units are tailored to operate in the same niche environment that make up the Northern and Western coastline of the Baltic Sea. The most striking difference is the combat boats used, which don’t show much of a resemblance to each other. It should be noted here that in my line of work at Kongsberg Maritime Finland Oy, formerly Rolls-Royce Oy Ab, I have come into contact with both vessels. However, all information in this post is based purely on open sources (as is all my writing). In addition, I won’t discuss concepts of operations or similar details covered by OPSEC in this post, even in cases where such information is available in open sources.

The CB 90H is a truly iconic vessel. The development work took place in the late 80’s, and the first vessels entered operational service in late 1990 under the designation Stridsbåt 90. The Swedish designation literally means Combat Boat 90, and in the same way as Strf 90 thanks to it’s export success is universally known as CV 90 the boat quickly went from StrB 90 to CB 90 internationally. From the outset the vessel was known as CB 90H (‘H’ coming from its ability to transport half a platoon) to distinguish it from the somewhat similarly looking but smaller and simpler 90E (‘E’ standing for Enkel, the Swedish word for simple).

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A CB 90H showing the twin mounted 12.7 mm FN M2 heavy machine guns next to the bow doors. Source: Joel Thungren/Försvarsmakten

CB 90 was an almost instant success both domestically and on the export market. At a time when many navies still used open landing crafts powered by traditional propeller/rudder-arrangements or outboards it employed twin waterjets to give superior maneuverability and a very good acceleration and top speed. The vessel also came armed with heavy machine guns which could support the landing, and the possibility to lay mines or drop depth charges over the stern. But perhaps the most visually striking detail is the extremely low profile. This is made possible by moving the control station to the very front of the vessel, allowing the crew a good view over the bow despite being placed low inside the hull. The vessel scored a number of export deals, including to Norway, Mexico, Malaysia, and the US Navy (known locally as Riverine Command Boat, RCB). Both for the export market and for domestic use a number of different versions have been developed, including versions sporting ballistic protection. The latest version is the Stridsbåt 90HSM for the Swedish marines, which feature better protection, a new driveline, and provisions for a remote weapon station. The latest order means that Dockstavarvet, nowadays owned by Saab, will be able to celebrate 20 years of CB 90 production (though not continuously).

Swedish CB 90s of the 2. battalion of Amf 1 forming up during exercise Aurora 17. Source: Mats Nyström/Försvarsmakten

The general layout has been successful enough that it has been adopted by a number of foreign projects, none of which have enjoyed the same success of the original design. It isn’t completely without drawbacks though. The most important drawback is that the placement of the crew stations in front of the passenger compartment leads to a chokepoint when the marines exit between the navigator and the helmsman. Sitting close to the bow also means that the crew will experience heavier loads on their bodies when encountering waves (especially at speed in rougher conditions). Rearward vision also suffers, and in general keeping a low profile means that there are certain limitations once it comes to situational awareness and the ability to mount sensors and weapons high. Still, these are of secondary importance to a vessel whose main purpose is to get marines ashore, and fast.

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A Jurmo under way in the Finnish archipelago. From the picture it is easy to see that the pivot point around which the hull moves when encountering a wave is rather far aft, meaning that the pitch when encountering waves in a planning vessel will be worse in the bow compared to further aft. Source: Merivoimat FB

At the same time as the Swedish Navy was busy driving around in combat boats, the Finnish marines had to make do with open and semi-open landing crafts. These weren’t necessarily bad landing crafts, but they offered little combat potential (no, a pintle-mounted 12.7 mm NSV doesn’t make a combat boat) and worse protection for both the crew and the embarked marines. On the positive side, their conventional layout meant that loading larger cargo was possible, and swiftly getting marines out of the passenger compartment was relatively easy. Having the crew at the rear also meant that slamming the bow in heavy weather doesn’t affect the crew in the same way, instead letting the unfortunate few marines closest to the bow take the beating. Especially the Jurmo-class was a very good ‘truck’ for the marines. But it was still a truck, and the Swedish marines were driving around in (light) APCs.

The answer to the demands of the Finnish marines came to be the Jehu-class, where much of the focus is placed on combat ability. The Jehu, or Watercat M18 AMC as it is known to its builder Marine Alutech, comes with both ballistic- and CBRN-protection, a roof-mounted RWS (Saab’s Trackfire RWS in Finnish service), and a serious communications suite. Following on the Finnish traditions, the passenger compartment is close to the bow, meaning that the control stations are in a raised deckhouse found midships. This means that the vessel in general will be higher (adding weight), but also offers more space for the crew working area. To compensate for being larger, the vessel has some serious power, with the twin engines being rated at 1,150 hp (compared to two times 625 hp on the original CB 90H and two times 900 hp in ‘operational‘ setting on the 90HSM).

Bigger isn’t always better, but the increased size of the Jehu compared to both CB 90H as well as earlier Finnish designs opens up new possibilities, such as the fitting of a 120 mm NEMO mortar turret (with a direct fire ability). This is a capability the Finnish Navy urgently needs, and something which almost gave the Swedish marines their SB 2010 a decade ago. In the end, SB 2010 remained a paper product, cancelled by overzealous politicians, but the concept had called for a larger combat boat, with a general layout not completely unlike that of the Jehu.

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Finnish marines disembarking from a Jehu-class landing craft. Note the Trackfire RWS which is mounted high with an excellent field of fire. Source: Merivoimat FB

In the end, the CB 90H and Jehu are examples of the principle that the same operational environment can lead to rather different solutions, all depending on how you prioritise between the inevitable trade-offs.

Funding Nemo

The Coastal Jaeger Battlegroup need the Navy Nemo.

That’s the short version of the story. Acquiring the Patria Navy Nemo advanced mortar system mounted on a small vessel that can keep up with the other crafts used by the Coastal Jaeger Battlegroup is exactly the kind of force multiplier that is needed if today’s slimmed version of the Finnish Defence Forces is to be able to not only survive but also to conduct offensive operations on the modern battlefield.

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A prototype Patria Nemo mounted on the earlier U600/Jurmo/Watercat M12-class. Source: Patria
As I touched upon in my post on the Åland islands, the archipelago is a battlefield unlike any other. There is no single frontline, and anyone attempting to control all islands will soon find themselves overextended to the point where they are unable to defend against a determined attacker. Instead, the defender has to concentrate their forces on strategically important islands, from where they can then extend zones of control over the lesser ones. This creates a situation of islands becoming isolated strongholds, with periods of calm being interrupted only by raiding or outright assaults. The fighting is usually swift and brutal, taking place at extremely close ranges, and with a very limited ability to either reinforce or resupply the forces involved, or to evacuate wounded for that matter. Any retreat will usually have to take place over open water under fire, further increasing the determination to stay in the fight for both sides. To only solution for the attacker is therefore to rely on surprise to create local man- and firepower superiority on a single island, throwing the defender literally into the sea. Naturally, on a grander scale this calls for a very delicate balance between overextending and leaving gaps in the defence, with the Hanko campaign of 1941 probably being the best historical case study to shine light on the dilemmas. Here, the Finns continuously stretched their defences too thin, and despite the Soviets strategically being on the defensive, they managed to score a number of operational victories by being active, keeping the initiative, and playing on the strengths of the attacker.

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Pioneers at Porsö, Hanko, during the first days of war in 1941. Source: SA-kuva
In the end, it was the German Army Group North and the fall of Estonia that sealed the fate of Krasnyi Gangut, the Soviet naval base in Hanko. After it became clear that the continued value of occupying the peninsula was limited, the Soviet withdrew the forces to Leningrad to shore up their defences there.

Many things have changed since the summer of 1941, but the basic premises remain the same. The Finnish Operational Forces, the spearhead of the defense forces and the units tasked with fighting the decisive battles, include a Coastal Jaeger Battlegroup, heir to the former wartime Coastal Jaeger Battalion (RANNJP). This is the sole unit in the Finnish wartime TOE which has offensive operations in the archipelago as its main task.

The Finnish Coastal Jaeger is a light infantryman. This is natural, as the archipelago rarely sees anything heavier than what can be carried on the back of the soldiers themselves. No-one is going to drag a MBT onto an island measured in acres, and even if an IFV could potentially be a formidable adversary after having swam out, it would probably soon find itself hampered by the close quarters of the battle. However, to establish the shock and awe needed for an amphibious assault, indirect fire will play a key role. The individual companies of the battlegroup feature light mortar troops with three 81 KRH 71 Y, 81 mm light mortars, and these are carried on two landing crafts. These are relatively light, and need to be set up on a neighbouring island within 5 km of the battlefield to be able to participate in the landing. Alternatively, they can be brought onshore and support the landing from the beach, as long as the island is big enough.

But while 81 mm mortars are a handy weapon for suppressing fire, the battelgroup will need heavier rounds if it is to be able to dig up an entrenched enemy. This is where the heavy mortars come into the picture. The TOE of RANNJP featured a single mortar battery with six heavy 120 KRH 92 mortars, towed by trucks. The basic mortar is a competent if somewhat unspectacular weapon. It is able to fire HE, flare, and smoke rounds, and features a max range of approximately 7.5 km while weighing in at 500 kg in its assembled state. However, it is the sole unit in the battlegroup that is carried on trucks and not on fast landing crafts, significantly reducing its effectiveness and tactical flexibility. This is especially problematic as the archipelago is a prime area for the indirect approach, with tactics such as skipping islands and isolating enemy strongholds by cutting off their supply lines. This becomes vastly harder if any potential targets have to be within ~7 km of controlled mainland where the small convoy of trucks and mortars can pull aside and set up positions. Further complicating the problem is the fact that the once mighty Finnish coastal artillery has been reduced to a shadow of its former self, with most of the fixed installations having been disbanded and the towed pieces having been transferred to the army. In conclusion, the Coastal Jaeger Battlegroup need a organic unit that can keep up with its fast assault crafts, and which can deliver heavy and accurate indirect fire support.

Luckily, the problem isn’t new, and as mentioned Patria has had a solution ready for over a decade. Originally this centred on the joint Finnish-Swedish AMOS twin-barrelled mortar turret. This was originally planned for and tested on the Swedish CB 90 H, but the 15 m long and relatively narrow vessel proved too unstable to carry the turret, and the number of rounds carried was also limited. The Swedish forces started planning for a new vessel, SB 2010, designed around the turret, while the Finnish Navy instead focused on a lighter single-barrel version. The former was eventually destined to remain on the drawing board, while the later became the Patria Nemo, which was successfully tested on a modified Jurmo-class fast landing craft. No order was however placed, and the focus of the Finnish coastal jaegers moved from the 15 m long Jurmo to the larger and significantly more versatile 18 m Jehu-class (also known as U700-class or Watercat M18 AMC).

Compared to the Jurmo, the Jehu marks a significant step up in all-round capability, including firepower (sporting a RWS with E/O-sights and 40 mm grenade-machine gun with a coaxial 7.62 mm PKM), protection (both ballistic and NBC), and mobility. Through and through, the Jehu is simply the best vessel in its (specialised) class worldwide, and has considerable room for up-gunning in the form of weapons fitted for but not with. This includes the Nemo, where the bigger hull would remedy the space and stability issues encountered on smaller vessels.

The Nemo-Jehu is exactly what the coastal jaegers need. Here is a highly mobile system, mounted on the same hull as their primary means of transport. It allows for both direct and indirect fire, and can also fire on the move. The mortar allows for operation of all standard 120 mm rounds, and has all the niceties one can expect from a modern turreted system (quick response time, MRSI with up to five rounds, high rate of fire, full NBC protection, …). While one should always treat the marketing slogans for modern systems with a grain of salt, there’s still plenty of situations where the simple number of barrels count for more than MRSI-capability, there is little to deny that three or four Nemo-Jehu’s would offer significantly better and more flexible indirect fire support than the current setup of six towed 120 mm mortars. The only benefit provided by the later would be the fact that they are easier to replace than the highly specialized vessels.

What it comes down to is, naturally, cost. In today’s cash-strapped defence forces, there are a number of programs that are all urgent and crucial for the units in question. Still, it is hard to argue that we should invest 34 million euros in new assault crafts for the coastal jaegers, and then not go the extra mile to buy three or four additional vessels to be able to effectively support the first twelve during amphibious landings. The unit price for the first twelve Jehu’s, a program cost of 34 million euros split equally over the whole series, is roughly 2.8 million euro per boat. The Nemo-Jehu is probably in the same range, depending on the number of hulls ordered, as the engineering costs are markedly lower. The concept is already here.

The Coastal Jaeger Battlegroup need the Navy Nemo. As the major units of the navy are starting to take shape, forgetting the smaller craft could prove to be a costly mistake.

In the interest of full disclosure, the company I work for is a component supplier for the Jehu-class.  All info given in this post is completely based on open sources, and represents my personal opinion only.