After half a decade of talking fighters under the auspice of the HX-programme, much has already been said. Which meant that ironically enough, the most interesting piece of kit at the Kaivari 21 air show wasn’t anything flying, but a green Volvo truck. Meet the Finnish Land Ceptor.
MBDA was shortlisted in the high-altitude effort of ITSUKO last year, a designation which I believe comes from Ilmatorjunnan suorituskyvyn kehittämisohjelma (literally “the development programme for the capabilities of the ground-based air defences). At the time I wrote that I felt they would have a hard time in face of the competition. However, there certainly is no lack of trying, and the company was eager to come to Helsinki to demonstrate the tricks that could set their offering apart from the competition.
The system shown at the air show was designated the Finnish Land Ceptor, and while based on the British (and to a lesser extent the Italian) Land Ceptor system, the Finnish offering is customised our particular needs by sporting a combination of:
- Volvo FMX 8×8, a rather popular heavy-duty truck in Finland,
- Saab Giraffe 4A, which in its navalised form won the contract for the main radar of the Pohjanmaa-class (SQ2020), and
- CAMM/CAMM-ER family of missiles, in operational service with a number of countries both on land and afloat.
Those familiar with FDF acquisitions will spot the pattern: some of the best yet still mature systems in their own field. This is usually a popular formula when you knock on the door to the FDF Logistics Command, so let’s go through things step by step, before we look at why the offer could be a stronger contender than I originally anticipated.
The Volvo FMX series of trucks was launched just over a decade ago with an eye to heavy-duty earthmoving, a field that earlier had seen the use of a combination of different variants of the baseline FM- and FH-series of vehicles. The FMX sports generally more rugged equipment, including a serious tow point up front, a proper skid plate, as well as steering and gear box optimised for the task (people might remember the viral commercial in which Charlie the hamster drew a truck up from a Spanish quarry). In the eleven years since its introduction, around 1,000 FMX have been sold in Finland, which is no mean feat for a niche vehicle considering that the total number of newly registered trucks above 16 tons (gross weight) has been hovering between 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles annually in Finland during that time. With the vehicle being so common, it’s no surprise that the spares are relatively easy to come by, and finding a Finnish mechanic who knows the model is relatively easy compared to e.g. for the MAN HX-77 used by the British to transport their systems. It might also be worth noting that Volvo Trucks isn’t owned by the Chinese, as is the case with Volvo Cars. MBDA also notes that truck could be any model capable of carrying the 15-ton missile pallet, and that they are happy to change it out if FDF would prefer some other platform. However, FMX certainly looks like a solid choice, and unless there’s logistical reasons for something else I don’t expect them to do so.
The Giraffe 4A is an S-band radar that combine the functions of acquisition/surveillance-radars as well as fire control-radars into a single system. It builds upon Saab’s experience with the earlier Giraffe AMB and ARTHUR (MAMBA in British service) counter-artillery radar, to have a single AESA-based radar that can support the whole battery. As noted, it is the key sensor of the Finnish Navy’s upcoming corvettes, where it will be paired with the ESSM-missiles to provide air defence. The radar is also on order to the Swedish Defence Forces as part of their integrated air defence system. The basic specifications of the Giraffe 4A – the fact that it’s a GaN-based AESA system – means that it is able to track a significant number of targets effectively and also follow small and difficult to see ones, such as UAS, cruise missiles, artillery projectiles, as well as being able to handle detection and tracking of jammer strobes. And yes, since it operates in S-band and many flying stealth aircraft are optimised for the X-band, it will have an easier time detecting them at longer ranges than if it was a classic X-band radar. However, any such statement is bound to include a number of caveats and quickly degenerate into a mud fight. Will it spot stealth aircraft? Any radar does, as long as the target is close enough. Will it do so at a useful range? That depends on how stealthy your target is from that particular angle. Still, the Giraffe 4A is about as good as they come in this day and age, and while MBDA is happy to change out the radar if the FDF wants something else, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is in fact their first choice (a number of older Giraffes are also in FDF service, most notably the Giraffe 100 AAA as the LÄVA movable short-range air-surveillance system, though their relationship to the Giraffe 4A is rather distant).
The big deal here is the CAMM family of missiles, and in particular the big brother CAMM-ER. The CAMM does share a number of components with the ASRAAM air-to-air missile, though it would be wrong to see it as a ground-launched version of the latter. The missile is designed from the beginning as a dedicated ground-based air defence one, and as such MBAD is really pushing the fact that the optimisation work in the design phase has done wonders.
To begin with, the missile is soft-launched. In other words, instead of the rocket engine just firing and powering the missile into the air, a gas generator causes the missile to pop out of the VLS-tube. Or rather, it doesn’t just pop out, it flings it 20 meters up into air above the launch canister. There thrusters fire to point the missile in the right direction, and only after that does the main rocket fire. The test firings from HMS Argyll of the naval Sea Ceptor-version of the CAMM shows the principle rather well.
Now, why go through all that mess when it is easier to just light the rocket and off you go? There are a number of benefits. To begin with, the stress on the launcher is significantly lower, as there is no blast of fire and hot gases inside the small compartment of the launch tube. Not having to fireproof stuff means cheaper launcher. However, there’s also the benefit that since the missile hasn’t warmed up everything, there is no lingering heat signature from a missile launch, which makes it easier to keep your firing unit hidden. Hiding the launcher with nets and similar is also easier, since you don’t have to worry about them catching fire.
Another positive is the use of a VLS without wasting energy and time to course correct. In theory, a traditional missile will be faster on the target since it starts accelerating immediately. However, that require the launcher being pointed roughly in the right direction. For VLS systems, such as the very popular Mk 41 found aboard most western-built frigates and destroyers, the missile will actually waste a bunch of time accelerating out of the tube straight upwards, and then it has to trade energy to be able to turn toward its target on a less than optimal course. Everything in life is trade-offs and compromises, so which system is the most beneficial depends on your scenario, but the cold-launch means that by the time your rocket kicks off, the missile is already roughly pointing where it’s supposed to go. MBDA is claiming that in total this saves a whooping 30% in nominal launch weight compared to having the missile accelerate out from the tube (I would have to get a rocket scientist to check their maths before I’m ready to confirm that number), which in the case of the CAMM-family directly translates into an added usable energy which allow it to manoeuvre effectively at long-ranges or, crucially, at high altitudes. The profile of the weapons are such that the effective high-altitude performance is a priority, and MBDA describe the principle as the difference between a fence and a bubble. How big an area the fence covers and how high it goes are obviously classified data, but the official figures given is that at 45 km for the CAMM-ER and 25 km for the CAMM-sans suffix there is still usable energy for a high probability of kill, with the max ranges being further still.
A feature that definitely falls in the “Cool”-category is that the soft-launch can take place from inside a building provided that there’s a hole in the roof and the roof is less than 20 meters above the top of the launch tubes. A more serious benefit is that it allows firing positions in forested or urban terrain to be used (again, provided the location meets the the 20 meter + launcher height limit), and the ability to fire in all directions gives added flexibility to the system as well.
For anybody wondering about the current situation, the NASAMS II-system in use by the FDF sports angled hot-launch cells, meaning that there will be a rocket firing inside a box and the missile will leave the launch cell under its own power headed towards wherever the launcher is pointed. As such, you don’t want to put up your NASAMS-launcher in a small clearing in the middle of the forest.
The basic firing battery for the Finnish Land Ceptor consists of six TELs running around with eight missiles each, a tactical operations center (TOC), and the aforementioned radar which function as the units main organic sensor. In addition there is obviously a number of supporting vehicles such as those carrying reloads and personal equipment for the battery personnel. The TOC is the brains of the unit, and functions as the command and communications node. Here targets are identified and engagement decisions made, with firing units being chosen and launches ordered. The whole system can be fed targeting data via the datalink from any number of sources as long as the location data quality is up to par. This include the organic radar of the battery, but also those of neighbouring batteries, other radars, ships, aircraft, and so forth. This can come either directly to the TEL or, preferably, through the TOC. The TELs are the aforementioned FMX trucks with the complete firing unit as a single palletized unit. They lack their own radars, but can be fitted with an optional electro-optical sensors in a mast which allows for independent passive targeting at ranges of up to approximately 20 km. As such, the TELs are able to operate independently to a certain extent, relying on the datalink and/or own sensor to get targeting data. Crucially, MBDA has already demonstrated their ability to successfully integrate TOCs and TELs with Insta’s C2-network.
In practice, the TELs would drive to a given firing location, where the truck would park, lower the jacks, raise the missiles and masts, and the crew would push a few ‘On’-buttons and start connecting cables. The whole thing would be ready to fire within ten minutes, but a more realistic time for a fully integrated IADS-position is in the ten to twenty minutes range. A two-person crew could handle the whole system, but to ensure 24-hour continuous operations a squad of eight is the standard. The complete missile unit is palletized, and in case a position is expected to be static for a longer time the jacks can be heightened to allow the truck to drive away, after which it is lowered to lay flat on the ground a’la NASAMS. This allows for a smaller footprint and is more easily camouflaged compared to the full vehicle. In a static position (something the British Land Ceptors will employ on the Falklands) it is also possible to start pulling power and communications cables between a fortified TOC and the firing units, though in case of a more fluid scenario where one wants to stay mobile the missile unit has its own onboard power unit in the form of a diesel generator and can take care of the communications via the datalink mast mentioned earlier. This flexibility to allow the same system to be either in full shoot-and-scoot mode or as a fortified solution (as mentioned, you could in fact fortify the launcher as well thanks to it being cold-launched) is quite something.
Reloading take a handful of minutes and the whole missile set can be changed out via a flat-rack and cargo hook system. Alternatively, individual launch tubes can be switched out with a crane. The tubes are both the storage and launch containers, meaning the munitions are next to maintenance free. Once the fire command is given, the frangible top-cover is simply torn apart by the missile heading upwards. Any single TEL can quickly change between CAMM and CAMM-ER simply by switching out the flat racks, with the CAMM-ER being identified by its longer tube. Both missiles sport a new active radar-seeker with a low-RCS capability, meaning that they are able to operate in fire-and-forget mode once they’ve left the TEL.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that MBDA is onto something here. While they decline to discuss the specific FDF requirements and projects in much detail – the official line is that that is something best left to the customer – it is rather obvious that the CAMM-ER would give the FDF the wanted high-altitude capability for a ground-based system, while the baseline CAMM would seem to fit the area coverage-requirement rather well. The modularity, mobility, and ability to integrate into current networks are also obviously a big deal. And it is hard to not notice just how well the combination of systems seem to fit the FDF’s Goldilock’s approach of proven but yet cutting edge. With the UK and Italy both having acquired the Land Ceptor-system, it certainly is far from a paper product. This is also something that MBDA like to point out, the benefit of sharing a common system with such a strategic partner as the British Army. The UK might not be first in line when Finland is discussing strategic partners in the defence sector, but it is certainly coming just behind the front-runners thanks to initiatives such as JEF. An interesting aspect is also the possibility of MBAD cooperating with Finnish industry on the Land Ceptor as part of an indirect industrial cooperation package in case some of the eurocanards would win HX (ground- and air-based air defences are obviously all part of the same attempt at increasing FDF’s overall air defence capabilities). Already now, Finnish industry has reportedly been involved in the development of the Land Ceptor proposal. MBDA is also happy to declare that it truly would be a Finnish system, with full sovereign capability and freedom of use, as well as local maintenance. “We give you the keys, and you use it”, as it was explained during our discussions.
But the competition is though, and MBDA has had a surprisingly hard time landing a large Finnish order. Part of this likely comes down to price where the shorter production runs typical of European systems compared to US ones have been an issue. This time they are up against not only the Israelis which have beaten the more traditional suppliers to FDF twice in recent acquisitions, but also Kongsberg with a developed version of the NASAMS which would bring significant synergies to the table. However, might the NASAMS-ER be too much of a case of putting all the eggs in the same basket – especially if we see an AMRAAM-equipped fighter taking home HX? When I ask him about the though competition they face, Jim Price, MBDA Vice President Europe, is confident.
We’re always in though competitions. [But] we have a unique military capability.
You can indeed come a long way with that when dealing with the FDF, and it certainly sounds like a combined force of NASAMS and Land Ceptor batteries each playing to their respective strengths could provide a well-balanced mix to support the Air Force and the FDF as a whole in their quest for air superiority. According to the latest info, we will get to know if the FDF agrees sometime during 2022.
Oh, and you really didn’t think I could write the whole post without embedding The Hamster Stunt, did you?