Naval Defence Day 2018 – Only Change is Constant

The annual Finnish Naval Defence Day was held a week ago, with the usual crowd of Naval officers, reservists, and stakeholders meeting up for a day of lectures and discussion on the current state of the Navy and its reserve, as well as topics of general interest to the crowd.

The Finnish Navy and the Baltic Sea

The year so far has seen the continuation of several of the programmes initiated earlier. Two Haminas are currently undergoing their MLU, with the other two awaiting their turn. The programme is largely on schedule, with the small delay in the PTO 2020 anti ship missile programme translating into a slight setback for the Hamina-upgrade. The other major new weapon system, the light torpedo, is on the other hand on schedule, with the first batch of Finnish Naval personnel currently in Sweden undergoing training. The training deal both with the particular system (or rather systems, as Finland first will lease and operate the current Torp 45 before switching to the acquired Torp 47 once they start coming of the production line), as well as general ASW tactics which is something of a new field for the Finnish Navy.

The New Lightweight Torpedo, still awaiting its Finnish designation, will provide a giant leap in Finnish ASW-capabilities. Picture courtesy of Saab Ab

For the Gabriel, the Navy remains as tight-lipped as they were when first announcing the decision. The message that Gabriel was the overall best performer in all categories was reiterated, with a comment that the fact that it did so at a very competitive price was an important additional factor. And while no new information was given, the excitement amongst the officer corps regarding the new system was palpable every time one brought up the topic.

Squadron 2020 is moving on slowly but steadily, with the contract date with the yard being planned for January/February 2019. This has dragged on a bit, due to the demanding situation of there being only one supplier. As this means there are no pressure on price and risk-taking from the competition, the negotiations have proved trickier than expected, but the Navy is confident that a good contract will be signed. For the combat management system the situation is more traditional with three suppliers shortlisted, and here the tender has been delayed a bit to be in lockstep with the shipbuilding negotiations. On the whole the project is moving along more or less as expected, the delays in signing the shipbuilding deal aside.

The inside of the TK 130 gun barbette during operation. It is the most modern turreted coastal defence gun worldwide and more survivable than generally perceived, but it is still approaching retirement. Source: Merivoimat FB

Past Squadron 2020 and the Hamina MLU further modernisation programs awaits. The 130 TK fixed coastal artillery will have to be replaced during the second half of the 20’s, and as some batches of the manportable short-range coastal defence missiles (Eurospike ER / RO2006) will start to reach the end of their shelf-life in the same timespan the Navy is taking a look at the larger picture when it comes to coastal defence and what possibilities there currently are on the market to replace the outgoing guns and missiles.

Another topic is new vessels, where the logistics of supporting troops in the archipelago holds its own challenges. One topic is how these smaller auxiliaries should be acquired, as the tendering process naturally differs from how corvettes and fast attack crafts are planned and bought. And speaking of buying fast attack crafts, on the horizon the first studies for the eventual Hamina-replacement are starting to take place.

The export variants of the 3M-14 land-attack and 91R1 ASW versions of the Kalibr-family. Source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin via Wikimedia Commons

But it is not only Finland that is actively modernising and practicing. The Russian Baltic Fleet is receiving new equipment, and the Baltic Sea is also home to many temporary high-end visitors when newbuilds are performing sea trials here. Amongst the systems mentioned by name we had the Steregushchiy-class corvettes and Project 636 “Kilo II”-class submarines, as well as the 3M-54 and 3M-14 Kalibr (which are the anti ship- and land-attack versions of the same missile) and the Redut-family of surface-to-air missiles. The Kalibr-family it was noted is in fact an issue for the whole of the Finnish Defence Forces and not the Navy alone, considering the fact that the range from Kaliningrad and the Barents Sea puts large parts of southern and northern Finland respectively inside the strike range of the ship- and sub-launched cruise missiles.

On the other hand 2018 has been largely uneventful in the Baltic Sea when it comes to major incidents, and while Russian activity remain at a high level, Northern Coasts 18 as an example took place without anything out of the ordinary. While the increased level of readiness has been taxing on the Finnish Navy, they are proud of their work in not letting any vessel move in waters “close to us” without being identified (no word on how far out the “close” reaches). To ensure this the Navy is employing a range of measures, including not only own vessels and sensors, but also cooperation with the Border Guards and the NH90 helicopters of the Army Aviation.

Unmanned technology underutilised?

Unmanned and autonomous systems was the main topic of discussion, with a particular focus on the utilisation of these technologies in the maritime domain. The rapid minituarisation and commercialisation throughout the field means that even smaller countries such as Finland are able to start investing in unmanned technology on a broader scale. It is also notable that this will not, or at least should not, simply lead to pulling people out of today’s systems and replacing them with computers. Rather a completely new set of options open up, with the ability to have platforms measured in centimeters and decimeters instead of tens of meters. Additionally endurance isn’t necessarily a limiting factor anymore, especially for surface and subsurface platforms which can wait and float freely for prolonged periods of time. On the other hand, even with improved machine learning and autonomy amongst machines, robots are still extremely good at handling a specific task or scenario but significantly poorer at reacting to surprises. As such we are increasingly entering an age where the human player is needed not for the expected tasks, but as the flexible element to take control when the unexpected happens.

Saab’s AUV62 AT is an underwater target which can mimic different submarines. As part of ASW exercises the AUV62 is let loose, after which it operates fully independently for several hours, relying on dead reckoning and reacting intelligently to enemy actions, all while recording everything that happens. Imagining a reconnaissance role for a similar system is not difficult. Picture courtesy of Saab

While drones currently are sub-systems rather than main systems, their revolutionary nature shouldn’t be underestimated. In the naval domain, getting a lightweight synthetic aperture radar up in the sky aboard a lightweight drone is suddenly a serious alternative to the traditional mast-mounted surface search radar, providing both over-the-horizon range and having the added benefit of letting the host vessel’s sensors remain silent. An interesting example is Israel who has retired manned maritime patrol aircraft and completely replaced them with remotely piloted ones.

On the other end of the scale we have commercial off-the-shelf systems which has seen use in both Ukraine and Syria both to provide targeting data, perform reconnaissance, and for direct attacks with grenades or fixed warheads (the later use starting to blur the border between UAS/UAV and cruise missile). In the Ukrainian case, the targeted attacks against ammunition depots have shown that simple and cheap system can take on operational/strategic roles (Yes, this is something that the Finnish Defence Forces have recognised in their current operational planning. No, you won’t get further details).

But while everyone recognises that unmanned systems are here to stay and will only increase in both numbers and importance, in many ways the final breakthrough has not necessarily taken place. Comparisons were made to the state of aircraft at the outbreak of the First World War, where no-one really knew what worked and what didn’t, but after a few years of fighting the air war had reached a form which it would keep for decades. Similarly, at the outbreak of the Second World War much of the technology that would transform the battlefield between 1939 and 1945 was already available, but only the outbreak of the war led to inventions such as the jet engine being rushed into service. Currently a number of unmanned technology demonstrators are making rather slow progress in getting into widespread use, partly because lack of funding, and partly because of questions regarding artificial intelligence and the authorisation of use of force. If a significant peer-vs-peer conflict would take place, it is likely that a rapid roll-out of these existing cutting-edge technologies into operational systems would take place.

The killer robots amongst us? Here PM04, a smart impulse sea mine in operational use by the Finnish Navy since well over a decade ago. Source: MKFI via Wikimedia Commons

But as we consider the moral implications of ‘killer robots’, are we just overlooking the developments that has already taken place? What is the principal difference between an autonomous armed UAV, and modern impulse mines? These have sensors and a certain level of logic allowing them to discern between targets, and once deployed they will fully autonomously perform their mission, no surrenders accepted. Did we actually deploy armed killer robots over a decade ago, without ever noticing?

Meripuolustuspäivä 2016 – Maritime Defense Day

Once a year the Finnish Navy and Naval Reserve together arrange an invitation only seminar under the name of Meripuolustuspäivä (Maritime defense day). The purpose is to keep up to date with current trends in the field, as well as to enhance contacts and information sharing between the active-duty and reservist members of the Finnish naval community. This year’s edition was held at the Naval Academy in Suomenlinna outside of Helsinki, and was attended by approximately 100 persons, stretching from flag rank officers (active and retired) to cadets, with the civilians coming from the Naval Reserve, marine and defense industry, and other stakeholders. The information in this post comes from both presentations and informal discussions.

Robin Elfving, chairman of the Naval Reserve, during his presentation dealing with the current state and future of the organisation. Source: own picture

The Navy is certainly going places, and while the continued development of Squadron 2020 naturally grabs much of the spotlight, a number of other developments are taking place in the background. The Hamina-class is set to undergo their MLU in the 2018-2021 timespan, and it will mean a significant upgrade in capability for the vessels. Key amongst the changes are the introduction of ASW-capability. This is to mitigate the shortfall in ASW-capable hulls that will take place with the withdrawal of the older Rauma-class. The MTO 85M will also be replaced as discussed in an earlier post, with the new missile being installed on both the Hamina and the corvettes, as well as replacing the truck batteries before 2025. The plan seems to be that the updated Hamina will be the ‘little sister’ of the corvettes, sporting some of the same weapons and capabilities, which will allow for better interoperability between them. The introduction of a proper ASW capability in particular is most welcome, as sub-hunting is a field where search ranges are very limited, making the number of hulls available a key factor. The Navy will now also be able to work up proficiency on new capabilities on the first modified Haminas while waiting for the first corvette to reach operational capacity. In the meantime, further procurements have been made for a number of weapon systems destined to stay in service, and part of the Jurmo-fleet is also destined for a MLU in the near-future.

The last Katanpää-class mine-hunter is set to be handed over by the yard in Italy on the 1 November. The vessel, like its sisters already in Finland, will receive some minor changes to bring it up to standard. On the whole, the Navy is very happy with the class, with representatives noting that the delays and issues during the build phase largely have been related to the handling of the project, and not the vessels themselves.

Squadron 2020 is on track, and enjoys broad political support. Notably the final acquisition decision is not yet taken, as the project is still in the concept phase with the Navy going through the responses received for the RFI. The renders released are described as “artists impressions”, something which Saab’s representative was happy to latch on to and explain that instead of the fixed radarpanels on the latest renders a stealthy radar installation can be created by putting a spinning radar inside the mast. I can see that this is a less expensive solution, but tracking of fast-moving targets such as missiles will naturally suffer. I guess we’ll have to wait and see…

The scale model shown by Saab at Euronaval 2016, featuring a Giraffe 4A and a 1X above it in the cut-outs. This combination of shrouded rotating radars (the cut-outs are for illustrative purposes only) gives both long-range search capability and short-range tracking of rapidly closing targets. Photo: Saab, used with permission

The increased tensions around the Baltic are visible in the everyday work of the Navy. Not only is the Russian Baltic Fleet more active, but also the increased number of vessels being built for export by Russian yards bring traffic to the Gulf of Finland as they undertake sea trials here. The Finnish Defence Forces identify every single vessel moving on the northern Baltic Sea and in the Gulf of Finland, employing whatever method is the most suitable for each individual situation. The Navy is also further increasing its emphasis on readiness, not only as a technical requirement, but also as a state of mind for all personnel involved. This include not only active duty soldiers and seamen, but also conscripts which are now allowed to take part in such readiness operations for which they have received proper training. The Navy of today is first and foremost a readiness organisation.

For the Navy, international cooperation is a must. “We lack the capability to do certain things”, as one officer put it, and this hole is plugged through international cooperation, with Sweden as our single most important partner. The most important initiative is the joint Finnish-Swedish Naval Task Group, which is consistently improved and also the framework under which Finnish and Swedish units participate together in larger multinational exercises.

For the Naval Reserve, it continues its work as a link between the Navy and its reservists, as well as the common denominator for naval reservists throughout the country (including reservists from the coast guard). While the brand amongst active reservists is strong and holds a certain sense of pride, the organisation has now also been making a conscious push to heighten awareness of the naval reserve and its activities outside of currently active reservists, which has included a new website and increased presence in social media. To further enhance discussions in social media, the Naval Reserve also launched its Twitter-guide, including tips on how to take part in the defense and national security debate on said forum. At the same time, equipment-wise the training capabilities have been increased with introduction of more L-class vessels and new canoes for the training of coastal jaegers.

The theme of the panel was Hybrid Warfare, a topic which is as current as it is unclear. Defining what exactly constitutes hybrid war was a challenge in itself, with one definition being the employment of whatever methods work best, regardless of whether they are in line with traditions or any kind of legal/chivalric code. Another definition put forward focused on the use of unconventional methods by conventional actors (i.e. armies or other organised units) OR the use of conventional methods and weapons by irregular actors. A prime example of the first one is the Russian assault on Crimea and further operations in Eastern Ukraine, while the recent attack on Swift by Yemeni rebels (with or without the help of foreign ‘advisers’) using a modern complex weapon system such as a sea-skimming missile is an example of the later. It was also noted that hybrid warfare is a relatively new term in western discussions, and only after its widespread adoption here has Russian sources started using it, and then only as a description of how the west analyses Russia’s operations.

The threat of the unexpected is hard to guard against. Like a cartoon figure not noticing the saw cutting through the floor surrounding you, hybrid warfare works best when the target doesn’t notice that it’s foundation is being weakened. This can be achieved e.g. through the use of knowingly breaking international agreements or codes, such as falsely declaring emergencies to gain access to ports.

The term information warfare was also debated, as the use of (dis)information is a crucial part of any hybrid operation. However, as war usually involves more than one part, if someone is waging an information war against Finland, wouldn’t that mean that we are also conducting a war by defending us? Can we say that Finland is engaged in defensive information warfare? Our current defense largely consists of meeting false accusations and oversimplifications with correct information and facts, but is this also an information operation that qualifies as a kind of warfare?

The panel assembled. Source: own picture

For the information part, it is clear that an orchestrated campaign aimed at tarnishing Finland’s reputation is being waged by Russia. The goal here might be to isolate our country internationally, with a good example of what can happen when your reputation is low being Ukraine’s reputation as suffering from a high rate of corruption, which in turn lessens the willingness of the international community to come to its aid. Another point was made regarding Hungary, with the rhetorical question ‘Who would want to come to their aid if a crises occurred?” being asked. This is reminiscent of smear campaigns being directed against individuals, which e.g. can focus on addressing (often false) discrediting information to their employers or partners, with the aim of silencing or isolating a person.

This then transits over into the fact that the concept of nationalism is seemingly changing. With the increased polarisation and diversification of the Finnish society, the big question is how will “Finnish” be defined in the future? If the only thing defining it is a passport, that will inevitably threaten the unity of our society. With the younger generation seemingly less open to traditional Finlandisation, this seems like a likely target for hostile propaganda.

…and speaking of propaganda: what is really the PR-value of the Admiral Kuznetsov task force slowly heading south under a cloud of black smoke? Because one thing is sure, and that is that the military value the air wing can offer for the Syrian regime forces is limited at best.