The Rocketeers

In the midst of the strategic acquisitions it is easy to get locked in on the choice of platform, whether it is the HX fighter or the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes. But someone has to supply the teeths to make them able to bite, and this is where companies such as MBDA come in to the picture.

© Dassault Aviation - V. Almansa
A Dassault Rafale being armed. Picture courtesy of: © Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa

MBDA is yet another of the numerous joint ventures created in Europe in a time when not even the major regional powers can muster enough of a demand to warrant developing their own high-performance weaponry. However, the company is something of an outlier in that several of the products they have on their shelf have a good reputation both when it comes to project management and the cost/capability ratio of the final product.

Arming HX

Our basic philosphy is that we are platform agnostic, we serve everybody

MBDA has a product integrated or somewhere down the propsed upgrade paths on most HX-candidates. The flagship is without doubt the very-long range Meteor, largely held to be the most capable weapon in beyond-visual range engagments against fighter-sized targets currently operational. The introduction in service aboard the JAS 39C Gripen as part of the MS20 upgrade “changed the behaviour over the Baltic Sea”, both on the part of the Swedish fighters carrying them as well as for the Russian aircrafts they meet there. Courtesy of the ramjet engine and the 100+ km range, it provide “at least three times the no-escape zone” of current medium range missile (read: AIM-120C AMRAAM). The missile will find itself under the wings and fuselages of the Rafale and Typhoon within the next few years in addition to Gripen (both Charlie and Echo), creating an interesting dilemma for a manufacturer supplying highly complex equipment which is to be integrated into competing platforms. MBDA’s solution is to assign each aircraft and country it’s own manager, making sure that there are watertight bulkheads between any platform specific information entering the company.

For Gripen in HX, that man is Peter Bäckström, MBDA’s director exports for the Nordic region. An engineer by trade, he worked on a number of subsystems for the Meteor and TAURUS KEPD 350 before moving into sales. He has a clear view about what made the Meteor different from so many other projects. “It was born out of a requirement, a need for a 100+ km capable missile”, he notes, before continuing. “Game changer is a worn-out term, but this really is. It establishes a new set of rules.”

For the Gripen E, the Meteor and the increased number of hardpoints changes what has often been decried as a light fighter into a serious BVR-force, with a maximum load of seven Meteor and two short-range IRIS-T on the wingtips. While the maximum load might not be suitable for everyday carriage (if nothing else then due to budgetary constraints), it still places the air-to-air weapons load more or less on par with e.g. the Rafale.

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The fulls-scale Gripen ‘Echo’ mock-up showing three belly-mounted Meteors. Source: Own picture

But Meteor is far from the only thing MBDA has to offer for HX. ASRAAM is also found in their arsenal, a rather unique missile in being designed for ranges which are usually the realm of radar-guided ones. Given this, I have to ask Bäckström if there is any truth to the rumours that it can outrange the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Bäckström just smiles, and simply quips “It’s a very good missile”. In roughly the same class, the MICA-family (with both IR- and radar-guided versions) is set to be upgraded within the next decade. Unlike the Meteor, from the viewpoint of HX MICA is tied to Rafale. If Finland buys Rafale, we will likely get the MICA as well, but if any other aircraft takes home HX the MICA likely won’t make it’s way into the Finnish inventory (though it isn’t ruled out).

For heavy cruise-missiles, there’s not one but two options. The best known is likely the combat-proven SCALP/Storm Shadow, sporting inertial/GPS/terrain reference guidance and an IIR-seeker for terminal guidance. The different parameters which can be set include fusing (air burst, impact, or penetration) and dive angle. The missile is designed to feature a very high level of automation on the part of the pilot, meaning that it is suitable for single-seat fighters as well as twin-seaters.

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A TAURUS KEPD350 being loaded onto a Sapnish F/A-18 Hornet (C.15). Source: Ejército del Aire Ministerio de Defensa España via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Taurus KEPD 350E is the other alternative, being built to a different requirement for the German and Swedish Air Forces (though Sweden is yet to acquire and put the weapon into operational use). The ‘350’ in the name comes from the requirement of 350 km range in all conditions at all drop heights. In practice, this means that the range when dropped from height is well above 500 km. It can be dropped from as low as 100 meters, which often is little more than a gimmick for stand-off weapons. However, for Finland this might actually be a useful feature, as there is value in staying below the radar horizon of the Russian ground based air surveillance radars. The 480 kg MEPHISTO penetrating warhead with pre-charge is also described in grand terms.

This is a real penetrator, not a ‘put down it down in a hole and blow it up’-warhead

TAURUS actually did compete for the contract which was won by the JASSM regarding integration into the Finnish Air Force F/A-18C Hornets. It is hard to tell what made the TAURUS come in second back then, whether there were particular political considerations or ease of integration (US fighter – US missile, though ROKAF has opted for the TAURUS for their F-15K Strike Eagles and Spain is integrating it on the Hornet) which played into the decision, or whether it was purely based on performance of the missile in question. In any case, the TAURUS is set to be integrated on Typhoons and not completely unlikely to appear on the 39E Gripen, so it wouldn’t be altogether surprising for it to fill that JASSM-shaped void after the retirement of the Hornet.

Ground-/Ship-based

While the airborne systems grabs all the attention, the question of air defence system for the Pohjanmaa-class (Squadron 2020) is still unresolved. The last of the major weapon systems open, it will pit ESSM against the CAMM-ER (Barak 8 has been mentioned in the speculations, but is likely too large. I-Derby might be on offer instead). CAMM and CAMM-ER shares some of the same ancestry as the ASRAAM, but has developed into a rather different beast. The weapon feature a newly developed radar seeker, and is able to be quad-packed into a Mk 41 (or the smaller and lighter ExLS) just as the ESSM. From there the CAMM+family is soft-launched, and sports ranges in the 25 to 45 km class, depending on exact version and target. Interestingly enough, packed into the launcher it is completely maintenance free for a decade. This also ensures that once Finland has gotten the missiles, it is possible to operate them completely independently from the supplier. Or as Bäckström describes it:

A sovereign supply solution.

The weapon is already operational with the Royal Navy (and has been sold to other nations), but perhaps even more interesting is that the British Army performed their first firings of the Land Ceptor (known as EMADS in mainland Europe) earlier this year. If MBDA manages to get the CAMM-ER chosen as the main air defence weapon for the Finnish Navy, MBDA could suddenly claim synergy effects in the race for a longer-ranged ground-based air defence system for the Finnish Army. So far the ability of the NASAMS systems (already in Finnish service as the ITO12) to fire the longer-ranged AMRAAM-ER has made it a favourite, but questions has also been raised if that would mean putting too many eggs in the same basket. Notably the CAMM-ER would also provided the altitude coverage the Finnish Army is looking for following the retirement of the Buk-M1. A Land Ceptor solution able to use a joint missile stock with the Navy’s corvettes might suddenly be a very interesting proposition.

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Land Ceptor during test fires in Sweden earlier this year. The time lapse shows the cold launch sequence in which the missile is flung upwards out of the tube, and only then firing its engine. Source: UK MoD (Crown copyright/OGL)

Another interesting thing to note is that MBDA is quick to point out that the missile would fit nicely into the Swedish organisation as well, as an all-weather mid-tier missile between the Patriot and the IRIS-T. While currently all light is on the Patriot-deal, it is clear that two understrength air defence battalions won’t provide the air defence coverage needed by the Swedish Army, and MBDA raising the benefits of a joint Finnish-Swedish buy (either of whole systems or missiles) might be worth keeping an eye on. Normal caveat about companies liking to market that they are in negotiations/close to a deal applies…

The draft text has been read through by MBDA, to make certain that it only contain non-classified information and general comments. Minor changes followed as part of the feedback received from them.

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The quest for MTO XX

The main anti-ship weapon in the current Finnish arsenal is the MTO 85M long-range anti-ship missile. This is a version of the widespread Saab RBS15 surface-to-surface missile named RBS15 SF-III (often this designation “Third version of the RBS15 for Suomi/Finland” is mixed up with the RBS15 Mk3 designation, which denotes a newer version, more on this below).

The MTO 85M is found on both the Rauma- and Hamina-class FAC, as well as on truck-mounted batteries firing from land. Notably, Finland has not acquired the air-launched version of the missile. The MTO 85M with its 100 km range make up the outer ring of defence against enemy surface units, and is then backed up with the 130 TK turret-mounted coastal guns firing 130 mm anti-ship grenades at ranges over 30 km and short-range RO2006 (Eurospike-ER) missiles being carried by infantry squads. The short range of the latter, around 8 km maximum, is made up for by the fact that the infantry squads are extremely small and mobile, and as such can move around in the archipelago to set up ambushes at choke points or guard minefields from being swept. However, when push comes to shove, it will be the MTO 85M that will have to do much of the heavy lifting.

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One of the early renders of the upcoming corvette, featuring twin quadruple launchers mounted just aft of the mast. Source: Defmin.fi
With the launch of the Squadron 2020 project, one of the main issues will be what (or which) weapons it will feature for the anti-ship role. Preliminary renders have shown twin quadruple launchers mounted amidships, not unlike those used for the US Harpoon anti-ship missile. The Harpoon has, in a number of variants, been a sort of de-facto NATO standard (together with more famous Exocet), and new versions keep being rolled out. In many ways, the Harpoon, Exocet and RBS15 are comparable. All feature a radar seeker in the nose, are comparatively large, and uses an attack profile where they approach the target at high subsonic speeds at very low altitude, skimming just a few meters over the waves. All three are available in truck, ships, and air launched variants, with the Exocet and Harpoon also being found in submarine launched variants (this obviously being a largely academic talking point in the case of Finland). A new version of one of these three could very well provide the main striking power on Finland’s upcoming corvettes, and would be in line with Finland’s rather conservative view on defence acquisitions, preferring evolutionary rather than revolutionary increments.

The joker of the pack is the NSM provided by Kongsberg, and selected (in its air-launched JSM-version) to be the prime anti-shipping weapon for the F-35. The Norwegians has a reputable reference in the AGM-119 Penguin, which is a short-ranged IR-seeker missile that has seen significant export sales, crucially as a helicopter-launched weapon to the US Navy. The system was also operated by the Swedish Navy as the Rbs 12. The NSM is altogether different though, and its performance and size places it in the same category as the above-mentioned missiles, with one crucial difference: it uses a passive IIR-seeker, making it worse at handling adverse weather conditions but potentially better at coping with modern countermeasures which have heavily focused on spoofing radar seekers. It might also have an easier time in the cluttered archipelagos of the Finnish coast.

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A Harpoon missile blasts off from a US cruiser. Source: Wikimedia Commons/DoD
Another noteworthy “western” (with the word used in a very loose sense) missile is the Japanese XASM-3. Where most western manufacturers have preferred high-subsonic speeds, Soviet/Russian missiles have in several instances instead aimed at very high speeds, including up to Mach 3. The XASM-3, currently undergoing testing, is one of the few western projects specifically aiming for a high top-speed, with Mach 3 having been mentioned. The Japanese do have a history of successful locally-produced subsonic missiles, with the anti-shipping mission naturally being of high priority for the island nation. While this certainly brings something unique to the table, I still see it as unlikely that this Japanese ship-killer would find its way into the Baltic Sea.

For Finland, a number of pieces are bound to move around within the near future. As mentioned, the RBS15 SF-III is not the RBS15 Mk3 used by Poland, Germany, and Sweden, and will need to be replaced at some point. The system itself celebrated 35 years since the first launch this summer, and while it might sound much, by then both Harpoon and Exocet were already tried and proven systems in service. The important part is that the basic missiles of all three families have been continuously updated, and current versions share little except name and outward appearance with their brethren of the 80’s.

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The Finnish truck-based launcher mounting the MTO 85M. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI
What happens if one fails to keep abreast with current development has been clearly shown by the attacks on USS Mason during the last weeks, where the Iranian C-802/Noor missiles apparently have scored nought for six in their attempts at targeting a modern destroyer. Important is also to recognise that while many associate anti-ship missiles with the attack on HMS Sheffield in the Falkland’s War, where the 4,800 ton destroyer was sunk by a single Exocet, history have also shown that a 150+ kg warhead isn’t necessarily enough. Four years after HMS Sheffield, the USS Stark was hit by two Exocets while sailing in the Persian Gulf, but the 4,100 ton frigate managed to stay afloat despite the damage done by the impact and ensuing fire.

For Finland, the MTO 85M is bound to receive a one-for-one replacement, and not only is it likely to be introduced on the new corvettes, but it is likely that the same missile will be implemented on the Hamina-class following their MLU and to the vehicle-mounted batteries as well. The great question is the third part of what logically would be a triad, namely an air-launched weapon. Currently the Finnish Air Force is in the situation that it feature a naval fighter, but lacks any serious anti-shipping capability. There would be a seemingly simple solution, as while the JASSM has been the flagship of the newfound Finnish air-to-ground capability, another missile has also been introduced: the AGM-154C JSOW. While the missile originally was conceived as a ‘pure’ cruise missile, the latest Block III version (C-1) is able to be used in the anti-shipping role as well. The first JSOW C-1 was test-fired from a F/A-18F Super Hornet earlier this year, and upgrading to this version could provide the Finnish Defence Forces with a diverse anti-shipping capability.

While getting anti-shipping missiles for the Hornet might not be realistic, the talk about giving HX an expanded range of capabilities compared to its predecessor gives some reason for optimism. The question then is should HX be allowed to influence the choice of new AShM?

© Dassault Aviation - V.Almansa
A Rafale M takes off with a single Exocet mounted on the centre-line pylon. Source: © Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa
For the current HX candidates, they all have their local weapons of choice. In short, the F-35 comes with JSM/NSM, Gripen with the RBS15F, Rafale with the AM.39 Exocet, Eurofighter with the Marte-ER, and the Super Hornet has a whole battery of alternatives lined up, including Harpoon, LRASM (essentially an anti-ship development based on the JASSM), JSM/NSM, and JSOW C-1. Note that for several of these, the missiles aren’t integrated yet, but in different stages between coming at some point/unfounded decision/funded/scheduled/undergoing testing.

At first glance, stating that the Navy follow the cues of the Air Force to get what they’re having might seem tempting. However, there are a number of issues with that thought. To begin with, the air- and sea-launched versions not necessarily share enough components and similarities in handling to create any measurable synergies in acquisition or training. The HX and Squadron 2020 timelines are also somewhat conflicting. The main issue is that as HX likely will get a fighter with a missile already integrated, this would create a situation where a secondary weapon system of the Air Force would determine the main striking power of the Navy. While this would equate to putting the cart in front of the horse, the alternative is that Finland would pay for the integration of the Navy’s missile of choice onto the Air Force’s fighter of choice, or that the Navy and Air Force use different weapons. This is not necessarily a bad thing, sporting different weapons makes it harder for the target to know how it should respond to a threat, but the question is if this politically will be a harder sell, regardless of whether it actually is more expensive or not.

An interesting alternative is the launchers recently sold by MBDA to Qatar. The coastal launchers are remarkable in that they can employ both the Exocet MM.40 and the lighter MARTE ER. This could be an interesting solution especially for the upcoming Finnish coastal batteries, where a hi-low missile mix could make room for more reloads while still sticking with a single launcher.  The MARTE can also be employed by the NH 90, though in the Finnish case this would probably not be cost effective. To begin with, the TTH version lack a suitable search radar, and would have to rely on outside targeting data. On today’s networked battlefield this isn’t necessarily a big deal, but the bigger issue is the fact that the Army will need every single one of their helicopters for tactical transports.

So, which missile will it be that finds its way onto our new corvettes? Harpoon is slowly on the way out for the US Navy, and while it probably will still see use for the next few decades, adopting it as a new system at this point doesn’t make much sense. The JSM with its IIR-seeker probably won’t make the cut due to its limited all-weather capability, though it could be an interesting complement as an air-launched weapon, and the apparent positive experience with Kongsberg’s NASAMS and the recent acquisition of Patria by Kongsberg might well come into play when discussing this option (especially if the F-35 bags the HX-contract). This leaves the updated RBS15 Mk3 and the Exocet MM40 Block 3. With Saab’s strong position as the current supplier of both the MTO 85M and the 9LV combat management system, they seem like the favourite. Saab has also started the marketing campaign already.

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A NSM being test-fired from LCS USS Coronado. Source: Wikimedia Commons/US Navy by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Zachary D. Bell
But while Saab might be the favourite, MBDA should not be underestimated. The company has a wide and varied portfolio when it comes to missiles, and has the ability to offer a one-stop-shop solution for the whole missile-package for the corvettes as shown by the recent deal in which MBDA sold long-range anti-ship missiles as well as long- and short-range air-to-surface missiles to four new Qatari corvettes under a 1 billion euro deal. The deal covered Exocet MM40, Aster 30, and VL Mica missiles, which is a combination that would fit the Finnish requirements very well, and significantly boost the air defence network covering southern parts of Finland (including Helsinki). It would also supply the Finnish forces with an anti-ballistic missile capability on a platform with higher operational mobility compared to a ground-based system. Saab crucially lacks the VLS-based surface-to-air missiles, but can on the other hand bring both a state-of-the-art anti-ship missile and a modern anti-submarine torpedo developed for littoral conditions.

The Real Joint Strike Fighter – Weaponry

The arsenal available to the Rafale is naturally one of the talking points when discussing the fighter. To begin with, it should be pointed out that there is nothing that blocks the integration of non-French weapons onto the aircraft, something which the French themselves have shown with the rapid integration of different members of the US Paveway-series of laser-guided bombs. “Everything is possible,” was Dassault Aviation’s answer when asked the question of integrating weapons such as the AGM-158 JASSM. Still, the main weapons of the Rafale are French, and Dassault likes to emphasize self-reliance as a selling point. I am not quite convinced the Finnish authorities will see things the same way, but regardless, there are some really interesting options currently featured. A key note is that of the aircraft’s fourteen hardpoints, five are of the ‘wet/heavy’ type (meaning they can carry external fuel tanks and/or heavy loads such as air-to-ground weapons). An interesting thing for long-term readers of the blog is that a surprising number of the missiles mentioned here have also featured in my earlier post on the weapons alternatives available for the Squadron 2020 corvettes.

AASM

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© Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

The AASM (fr. Armement Air-Sol Modulaire), also marketed as ‘Hammer’, is a modular French guidance kit that is fitted to different sizes of normal ‘dumb’ bombs, to give them greater accuracy. The AASM is highly modular, and can include either laser- or electro-optical tracking, as well as a GPS-receiver, and is available in powered or unpowered versions. With all the bells and whistles, the weapon is closer to a guided missile than a traditional ‘smart bomb’. The issue is obviously that with the increase in capability comes a higher price, but that is a cost the French have been happy to pay for the ability to employ the weapon against high-priority targets. The AASM proved its worth when it allowed Rafales to fly the SEAD/DEAD mission over Libya and hunt down and destroy air defence assets. After full integration, which is set to become operational within the next few years, the ability to use the AASM for long-range high-off boresight attacks will become available to the Rafale.

Paveway

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© Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

A number of laser-guided Paveways are integrated onto the Rafale, including the 227 kg GBU-12 Paveway II, GBU-22 Paveway III, and GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway, as well as the 454 kg GBU-16 Paveway II and the 908 kg Paveway III. Some of these very integrated at a very short notice, due to combat needs in Afghanistan and Mali.

Exocet

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© Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa

A weapon currently only used by Aéronavale is the latest version of the legendary AM 39 Exocet. The latest Block 2 Mod 2 is a far cry from the weapons that wreaked havoc on the Royal Navy in the Falklands War, and the ability to employ Link 16 for targeting data allows the aircraft to acquire the target ‘silently’. Currently a single missile is carried on the centre-line, but the ability to carry up to three missiles is there.

SCALP

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© Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

The joint French-British SCALP, called Storm Shadow in the UK, is a stealthy long-range cruise missile. The missile is in many aspects similar to the JASSM currently employed by the Finnish Air Force, and it is not unlikely that the SCALP would replace the JASSM in the case either the Rafale or the Eurofighter would be chosen as our next fighter. A high-resolution IIR-seeker provides terminal guidance, and a number of different modes of operation can be set, including fusing (air burst, impact, or penetration) and dive angle. The weapon has also been successfully used in both Libya and Iraq. Navigation is via inertial, GPS, or terrain reference. The missile is designed to feature a very high level of automation on the part of the pilot, meaning that it is suitable for single-seat fighters as well as twin-seaters. It does currently lack a data-link, though future versions might include this feature.

Mica IR

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© Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

The Mica IR is the current standard heat-seeking missile of the Rafale, and as mentioned in the earlier post it is moonlighting as an IR-sensor fused with the rest of the fighter’s sensor suite. As an IR-missile, the MICA is something of an in-between, not being quite as manoeuvrable as ‘proper’ high-off boresight missiles such as the IRIS-T, and not featuring quite the range that the ASRAAM has. Still, it is able to perform lock-on after launch, and over-the-shoulder firings at targets behind the firing aircraft has been demonstrated, with the targeting data being provided by datalink.

Mica RF

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© Dassault Aviation – S. Fort

The single major weak spot in the arsenal of the Rafale is the current beyond visual range missile, which is simply a Mica with an active radar seeker. The missile lacks the range and punching power of the AIM-120 AMRAAM, and as a matter of fact the above mentioned ASRAAM also has a higher kinetic energy at longer ranges. The sole benefit it has over the AMRAAM is that the US missile is something of a victim of its own success, with any potential adversary having spent serious resources studying how to defeat the AMRAAM, something which isn’t necessarily true for the Mica.

Meteor

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© Dassault Aviation – DR

The Meteor is the most advanced very-long range air-to-air missile available today. Having only entered operational service (with the 39C Gripen) this spring. The Eurofighter and Rafale are next in line to be armed with this exceptional ramjet-powered weapon, which promises to become the new ‘gold standard’ of its class. In particular for the Rafale, the Meteor promises to solve the lack of a ‘proper’ BVR-missile, and will mean that the pilots are able to take full benefit of the aircrafts powerful AESA radar. The initial load will be limited to two Meteors, but two more can be cleared if an export customer so requires. To note is that, as the Meteor will employ the same datalink as the MICA does, it will feature only one-way communication with the Rafale. This is unlike the integration on the Eurofighter and Gripen, which both will feature full two-way datalinks. It remains to be seen how large of a deficit this is.

 

All in all, the Rafale already in its current configuration provides weapons alternatives not only corresponding to but surpassing those currently available to the Finnish Air Force’s Hornets. The addition of AASM and Exocet would also mean that the possibility of new missions would be opened up, such as close air support and anti-ship missions.