The Finnish Navy has released further details on the upcoming corvettes. To begin with, RMC of Rauma has signed a letter of intent with the Finnish Defence Forces for the construction of the vessels. This has been expected, as of the three shipyards in the country capable of producing ships of this size, Artech Helsinki is Russian-owned and Meyer Turku has filled their production capacity for the foreseeable future. RMC has also teamed up with Patria to ensure that the newly-founded company has the economic and logistical muscle behind them to manage a project of this size. This might be crucial, as if RMC would fail the reviews currently being undertaken, there exists a very real risk that the vessels will have to be built abroad. A special arrangement is that the Finnish Defence Forces remains responsible for the design work, with the yard handling only the building process. This is to make possible the fast delivery schedule.
An interesting article in this year’s edition of Finnish Defence Force’s Insinööriupseri, a publication published yearly by the Engineer Officers’ Association (engineer as in “practitioner of engineering”, not sappers/pioneers). This includes not only articles on the subject, but also new renders and pictures from the research program.
Unlike the earlier renders, the concept is shown only from the sea level, meaning that several of the details that could be made out from the earlier bird’s eye views are not visible. Still, a number of important changes can be made out.
The most obvious one is that the single-panel rotating radar of the earlier renders have been replaced by a multi-panel fixed installation on a large mast of a truncated pyramid shape. This would mark a significant step up in detection capability and response time, as well as offering better stealth characteristics. Notably, the TRS-4D, successor to the TRS-3D currently found on the Hamina- and Hämeenmaa-classes, is available in both configurations.
The only weapon system visible is the fore-mounted gun, which is reminiscent of the BAE 5” (127 mm) Mk 45 Mod 4 turret. If so, this would be the smallest class to be equipped with this weapon, and while not impossible, more likely the turret in the picture is just a generic placeholder, with a 3” (76 mm) weapon being the likely choice.
The general design has also received a more pronounced twin mast setup, with the front mast holding the four-panel radar and sporting what seems to be an ESM-antenna on top. The rear masts holds an additional array of different antennas, and probably shrouds the funnel to reduce the IR-signature. This is a setup suspiciously similar to that employed by TKMS in recent MEKO-designs, including on the upcoming German F125-frigates and the (failed) MEKO-D bid to Australia. This is not to say that TKMS necessarily is involved in the design, the basic principle of splitting up prioritised systems for greater redundancy by physically separating them is common sense and not uniquely German. However, TKMS would be a logical partner for the “international cooperation and technology sharing [that] has occupied an important role in the project”, and the truncated front mast does bear a strong resemblance of the designs used for an early F125 draft and the aforementioned Australian concept. For the F125 concept, note not only the truncated pyramid form, but also the ESM-antenna on top of it, and wire antennas stretching from the front to the rear mast.
It is also mentioned that the US Navy has been the single most important partner up to this point, and that this is a natural continuation of a collaboration that has been taking place for close to ten years already.
The hull shape seems more or less finished, with tank testing having been performed in 1:15 scale, both as towed and self-propelled model. The propulsion will be of a traditional kind, with two shaft lines sporting a single propeller each. The propellers are a minor project on their own, and are set to be of a highly advanced design. This is due to the somewhat conflicting demands of high top-speed, small diameter (due to overall draught requirement), and low noise (and high cavitation margin). All this, while at the same time being strong enough to cope with ice. This creates significant metallurgic and hydrodynamic challenges, but high-level propeller design is also an area of expertise found both in Finland and amongst our close friends abroad (including Sweden). Suffice to say, this isn’t on my top-five lists of things to be worried about in the program.
The acquisition of four multi-purpose corvettes by the Finnish Navy as part of the Squadron 2020 (fi. Laivue 2020) program received some serious flak by BGen (ret.) Lauri Kiianlinna in Helsingin Sanomat last Friday, of exactly the kind I warned would become widespread due to the Navy’s somewhat lacking marketing of the project. While I agree with Kiianlinnas assessment that the Army need further funds and that the ground based air defence needs to be fleshed out, many of the points raised in opposition of the project are either based on misunderstanding or in some instances flat-out wrong. As noted, this is partly a failure on the part of the Navy, who in today’s economy more than ever has to explain not only what they need, but also why. A simple “Trust us, we’ve checked the issue” (while correct) is no longer enough to the public or the other cash-strapped branches of the defence forces.
Finland is for all practical purposes an island, and the only way we will keep our supply lines open for any extended time is through cargo vessels that enter the Baltic Sea in the Danish Straits, before sailing up the length of the Swedish coast until arriving in Finnish ports. This means that while the navy cannot win any wars for Finland, it can certainly lose them.
As such, Finland will need a navy to escort our merchant vessels at the very least until they reach Swedish waters. Currently this is done by a number of smaller vessels operating together to perform different individual roles:
The Hämeenmaa-class minelayers are operating as the squadron leader/flagship, while having a limited ASW- and anti-air capability
The Hamina-class FAC provide anti-ship missiles and a limited anti-air capability
The Rauma-class FAC provide ASW-capability in the form of the only dedicated submarine-hunting sensor in the Finnish Navy as well as featuring limited ASW-weaponry. If the towed array is left home, it can instead use anti-ship missiles
It should be noted that a three-ship squadron like this faces a number of tough choices:
A total of no more than 16 ITO 04 (‘Umkhonto’) surface-to-air missiles featuring a short 14 km range are available for air cover
For the Rauma to find a submarine it needs to listen for it, meaning that it would prefer to keep some distance to the other ships. However, doing so lessens the protection offered by the short-range ITO 04 mounted on the other vessels
None of the vessels sport any torpedoes, so If a submarine is found the vessels will attack it by driving towards it well within torpedo range while firing ASW-mortars
These ships, especially the Haminas, are very potent for their class. However, there is only so much equipment that can be fitted into the limited hull sizes available. Both of the FAC-classes also lack the ability to operate in ice, due to their light (and vulnerable) aluminium hulls. Their small size also seriously hamper their endurance, forcing them to return to port at short intervals. For a navy in which hiding in the cluttered archipelago is a central part of the doctrine, having to frequently return to fixed points to bunker up on fuel, supplies, and weapons, is far from ideal.
The need for bigger hulls
The size is not a product of the urge to venture further into the Southern Baltic Sea or on international missions, but of the need to provide vessels that are able to operate in Finnish waters year-round, able to handle the varied threats they may encounter.
This is where the main problems of the opinion piece are. The new ships will not further strain the limited air defence resources available, they will not be sitting ducks, and they will not be restricted by ice. On the contrary, they will be able to hide better than the current fleet due to being less reliant on visiting known locations, they will carry their own air defence, and their big steel hulls will offer them ice-going capability as well as better resistance in the face of battle damage.
Of great interest is the vertical launch system (VLS) seen on the render pictures released by the navy. I have discussed these in greater detail on the blog earlier, but the conclusion is that they would bring a marked increase in the air defence of not only the ship themselves, but also of the general area of operations. In fact, in the best of world’s we might even get to see the Aster 30 onboard the corvettes, which would finally give the (southern parts of the) country a measure of protection against ballistic missiles. As such, the claim that these would tie up valuable air defence resources is wrong, and instead they might actually free up army units.
The discussion regarding the range of the weaponry is somewhat simplified. The max practical range is nowadays rarely reliant on what the sales material claim the missiles are capable of. Instead, the main question is how far out the enemy can be accurately located. Another issue that one rarely want to fire all missiles straight at the enemy, because A) it makes it easier to defend against compared to if the salvo is routed to come in from different angles at the same time, and B) it gives the enemy a vector to follow back to the location of our firing battery. To sum it up, the Navy wont fire anti-ship missiles, either from trucks or naval vessels, to Gotland any time soon, regardless of how the range rings look on the map.
When it comes to anti-submarine weapons, it seems like we will finally get a ship armed with torpedoes and proper sensors, which will make it possible to locate and fight off one of the most elusive threats our shipping lanes currently face. This is especially important as we currently lack any kind of airborne ASW-capability, and the only way to find submarines lurking outside of our archipelago is through the use of ships.
The other possibility is to assume that we can keep our waters protected without own ships, which is an interesting concept on paper. By employing shore-based anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles we would be able to ward off any intruders, or so the theory goes. However, by the very nature of these systems, they lack the operational mobility to keep up with merchant vessels moving in Finnish waters along the coast, and as such need to be pre-positioned so that they can cover the expected enemy attack vectors. They then need to be fed target data, and feature a redundancy in both firing units and sensors, so that the enemy isn’t able to create a gap in our defences where they can strike at our lifeline with impunity simply by knocking out a battery or two.
This can all be done, but to be fair it is highly doubtful if this advanced network of mutually supporting coastal sensors, truck-mounted anti-ship batteries, submarine hunting helicopters, and surface-to-air missiles, would be any cheaper than the corvettes. Crucially, the system would lack the flexibility offered by a surface squadron of multirole vessels, which are able to move with the merchant convoys, carrying their own sensors as well as weapons to fend of air, surface, and sub-surface threats. The similarities to the discussions regarding ground based air defences contra getting new fighters are striking. This isn’t a case of “either/or”, but rather that a strong defence will have to be made up of multiple layers of different systems with their own strengths and weaknesses working in unison, and I fully expect the Navy to start looking into replacing the truck-mounted MTO 85M at some point in the future.
When it comes to coastal defence, I would like to see Squadron 2020 and ground units being networked with our HX-fighters, to let the fighters provide accurate target data through the use of a modern data link while letting the others act as silent ‘shooters’ with their radars turned off. This is a concept which for example Saab already has as an option for which includes both their air units and naval command and control systems, and one would assume that there is a requirement for HX and Squadron 2020 to be able to communicate with each other.
It isn’t about the Navy against the Army or the Air Force. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.
Epilogue: The Panssarilaivat – White Elephants of the 1930’s
The Väinämöinen-class of two coastal defence ships (fi. Panssarilaivat) has long been regarded as the schoolbook example of wasted money. Being expensive and manpower intensive, they took almost no part in the Second World War, and the navy still managed to lose one of them with a large loss of men during one of their few wartime sorties.
However, while I agree that it was a strange decision to invest in major surface units when the army lacked anti-tank weaponry and artillery shells, the other side of the story is often forgotten. The war did play out in an extremely surprising way. The Winter War was fought almost entirely while the sea was frozen, and when the Continuation War broke out it didn’t take long until the Germans had occupied the whole southern coast of the Baltic Sea from the Danish Straits up to the outskirts of Leningrad. This made the relatively strong and modern Baltic Fleet trapped in their bases around the city until the end of the Continuation War. The exception was the submarine fleet, which every summer broke out to try and wreak havoc amongst Finnish and German shipping in the face of Finnish and German subchasers and submarines (until the Germans and Finns installed two nets over the entire Gulf of Finland!).
If things would have played out differently, and Finland would have had to stand alone, two floating coastal fortresses could suddenly have proved to be rather useful after all.
While the growth in size from the current fast attack craft to the upcoming MTA 2020 has been noted by many, there seems to be a lack of appreciation for the added possibilities that comes with this.
Currently, the two Finnish classes of fast attack crafts have different secondary roles, where the Rauma-class has the possibility to equip a towed array for hunting submarines, and the Hamina-class sports (a very limited number of) Umkhonto surface-to-air missiles. In practice, this means that any task force, either a pure naval squadron or one escorting a convoy of merchant shipping, will have to feature at least one vessel from each class in order to have even a theoretical capability of meeting both threats. However, even in that case, the possibility of offering any kind of mutual protection remains limited, as the Rauma-class preferably would have to scout in front of the task force to be able to notice submarines laying in ambush (and this means a distance measured in kilometres to get a noise-free environment for its towed array), while the rather limited 12 km range of the Umkhonto means that any venturing subhunter or larger convoy will have an air defence cover only in their immediate vicinity. The limited number of missiles also means that it is entirely possible for a single Hamina to expand all its missiles trying to fend off just one or two airstrikes, after which the sole air defence weapon left is the 57 mm Bofors gun with proximity or time fused shells.
In practice, at least two vessels with Umkhontos are needed to provide any sort of air defence umbrella, either Hamina-class FAC’s or the far larger Hämeenmaa-class minelayers which also feature a similar eight-round launcher. This is both due to the low number of missiles and to get better coverage. This means that we would need to employ a third of all vessels featuring air defence capability for any given task force. A similar situation arises in the case of the ASW-capable Rauma-class.
The bottom line is that currently the Finnish Navy can’t be expected create more than two effective task forces at any given time, and even then, their effective endurance in combat will be limited by the relatively small supply of on-board weapons. Their ability to stay at sea for any prolonged time (i.e. longer than a few days) is also limited due to the small size of the crews. The fast attack craft also lack the capability to operate in ice, which is a significant drawback given the fact that the sea is often frozen over for at least four months each year.
It is to remedy these deficits that the new Laivue 2020 (Finnish for Sqaudron 2020) will be made up of corvettes, and not fast attack craft. This is a shift in a long-standing tradition of employing light vessels to deliver shoot-and-scoot style attacks on enemy fleets, but also gives the Finnish Navy serious new capabilities that will heighten the total effect of not only the navy, but the Finnish Defence Forces as a whole.
To begin with, the employment of larger steel hulls, gives the ability to operate a serious naval task force in ice for the first time in decades. This in itself is a major shift, though not necessarily a game changer, as it can be assumed that enemy fleet movements will also be drastically reduced during the winter.
Of far greater importance is the fact that the navy can now create a task force also for mission that require extended stays at sea, such as escorting friendly shipping or hunting submarines further out at in the Baltic Sea (currently, the Finnish ASW-strategy is that our chains of underwater listening posts will detect any intruders, after which our units on call will rush to the scene and either drive away the intruder or sink it), before they can take up positions outside of our main ports. While it is easy to dismiss the need for extended operations with the swift nature of most newer conventional wars, such as Georgia and Crimea, the capability could come in handy in prolonged times of heightened tensions, where solid intelligence is a must for the political decision makers. This endurance is heavily tied to having larger crews, as well as larger supplies of fuel, food, munitions, and other basic goods.
VLS – The Big Deal
The upgraded armament is of huge importance. The numbers below is based on the concept shown to the general public at last week’s press release, and is to be taken as an early draft (this is emphasized by the Navy). Still, while the details of the armament can and probably will differ when the vessels are launched, the general capability will probably be as shown.
The number of anti-shipping missiles is set double compared to the Hamina and Rauma-classes, which gives some added tactical opportunities. Also, while the thought of hunting submarines with depth charges and rockets/mortars is optimistic at best and suicidal at worst, the likely reintroduction of torpedoes into the arsenal of the navy would provide a much needed boost to the Finnish anti-submarine capability. However, most importantly, the vessels are set to feature a vertical launch system, VLS, in the bow.
The VLS-system in the picture seems to be around 4-5 meter in width and around 2-3 meters in length. This corresponds to two Sylver VLS-cells. The Sylver VLS is a French system, in use with a number of navies around the world. The basic layout is that each cell consists of eight tubes, and is available in four different lengths. The lengths provide rooms for progressively longer (obviously) and more complex missiles, so that while the shortest Sylver A35 only holds “traditional” short- to medium-range surface-to-air missiles, the full-length A70 already offers land-attack capability through the SCALP N and BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The A70 is however too large for a corvette, and I have a hard time seeing cruise missiles being a priority for the navy (especially as some modern anti-shipping missiles, such as the Saab RBS15 Mk III, has a secondary land-attack capability). The interesting versions are the midsize A43 and A50, which provide the ability to employ the Aster 15 and Aster 30 (A50 only).
The Aster missile has been offered to the Finnish Defence Forces before. Some ten years ago, the Finnish Army sought a new surface-to-air missile to replace the Buk. Eventually, the NASAMS II was chosen, with the runner up being the SAMP/T-system (fr. Sol-Air Moyenne Portée Terrestre), featuring the Aster missile mounted on a transporter erector launcher coupled with a mobile Arabel-radar and assorted control and guidance systems. Unlike the NASAMS, the Aster 30 provides the ability to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles such as the (in)famous Iskander, and then Chief of Defence Admiral Juhani Kaskeala was clear about the reasoning behind the choice of NASAMS over Aster:
“Instead of one Cadillac, we bought 4 Volvos. Now we are getting more missiles than with the other option.”
The NASAMS is a very good medium-ranged system, and the increased number of batteries compared to the SAMP/T was very much needed for a country the size of Finland. Still, the fact that Finland completely lacks any kind of even theoretical defence against ballistic missiles left something of a bad taste. With the announcement by Rear Admiral Takanen that Laivue 2020 will be able to provide area defence with the use of their surface-to-air missiles, one can ask if the defence forces are about to get the highly anticipated anti-ballistic missile capability after all? The modular nature of the Sylver means that with a “small” extra cost, the flexibility of the system increases drastically. A brief recollection of the missiles available to the Sylver:
The A35 can employ the following missiles:
VT1: French IR-seeking short-range missile for self-defence. The corresponding ground-based version of the Crotale missile is in use with the Finnish Army (ITO90M), so would provide some degree of commonality (although it can be discussed if it gives any synergy effects worth mentioning). The unique aspect of the VT1 is that no less than four missiles can be crammed into a single Sylver launching tube, providing ample supply of close-range missiles,
Umkhonto: South African IR-seeking short-range missile for self-defence (a radar-guided version with slightly longer range is also available). In use with the Finnish Navy as ITO04,
CAMM: IR-seeking short-range missile for self-defence, based on the British ASRAAM air-to-air missile,
MICA: The MICA is a medium-range missile with an active-radar seeker. In its air-to-air versions it is performing much the same role on the Rafale and Mirage 2000 as the AMRAAM is on our Hornets.
In addition to the above, the A35 can employ:
Aster 15: An advanced medium-range missile, providing local area defence at somewhat longer ranges than the MICA.
In addition to the above, the A50 can employ:
Aster 30: Similar to the Aster 15, but featuring a much larger booster, providing longer range and an anti-ballistic missile capability. The capabilities of the Aster 30 is currently being expanded upon through the new Block 1NT and Block 2 missiles, which will provide significantly better anti-ballistic missile performance.
In addition to the above, the A70 can employ:
SM-2ER Block IV: The Standard Missile-2 Extended Range is an American long-range surface-to-air missile, which also has a terminal phase ballistic missile defence and secondary anti-shipping ability,
SCALP N: The SCALP N is a ship-launched cruise missile for attacking ground targets at long (over 1,000 km) range. It is based on the air-launched Storm Shadow/SCALP,
TLAM: The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile is a US ship-launched cruise missile for attacking ground targets at long (over 1,000 km) range.
The nice thing with a VLS-system like Sylver, or the larger US Mk 41 VLS for that matter, are their versatility. When traditional launchers have often been weapon specific, leaving little room for variety based on tactical needs, the loadout of the VLS-cells can be tailored to suite the expected threat scenario of individual missions. And if Laivue 2020 get (even a limited) anti-ballistic missile capability, this would plug what is perhaps the largest single capability gap in the current order of battle of the Finnish Defence Forces. As said, the A70 is likely out of reach for a vessel this size (though one should never underestimate the Navy that put four 10’’ guns on a 3,900 ton ship), but the A50 just might fit in.
With that said, it would certainly be great if suddenly an additional billion appeared, that we could replace the ships on a 1:1 basis…
The Minister of Defence yesterday officially gave the Finnish Defence Forces the go-ahead to start the procurement program of the next squadron of ships for the Finnish Navy. This program, going under the name of Laivue 2020 (fi. Squadron 2020), has as its stated aim the procurement of four (at the moment) corvettes to replace the three minelayers of the Pohjanmaa- and Hämeenmaa-classes, as well as the four light fast attack craft of the Rauma-class.
In general, most of what was said at the press conference held by the Minister of Defence Niinistö and the Commander of the Navy, Rear Admiral Takanen, is known from before. There will be a new class of ships, which will be built with a “high degree of indigenous content”, and which will be capable of performing “all missions the Navy by law is set to handle” (i.e. safeguarding Finnish merchant shipping and protecting our seaside borders from unwanted attention) all year round in all weather conditions. As such, these will feature both anti-air, anti-submarine, as well as anti-shipping capability. While geared towards ‘traditional’ coastal defence missions, they will also feature a secondary capability for international missions. Their most important distinguishing feature will be their size, which will make them some of the largest, if not the largest, warships throughout the history of the Finnish Navy.
Amongst the new information was that the timeline is getting clearer: the Requests for Information will be sent out this year or during the beginning of next, after which the Requests for Quotation will follow in late 2016/early 2017. The order should be finalised in 2018, after which the vessels will be built during 2019 to 2024, with initial operational capability 2025, and the squadron operational as a cohesive unit in 2028.
The rather crude concept renders, indicating either an early design stage or unwillingness to disclose details of the design, were not too telling either. The concept shown features a landing pad with a hangar (!). The hangar seems too small for housing the NH90 TTH used by the Finnish Army, and as the NH90 in any case would provide very limited value for maritime missions, this seems to indicate a readiness to procure a dedicated light maritime helicopter (e.g. the AW159 Wildcat) or unmanned helicopter system (e.g. the MQ-8 Fire Scout) at some point in the future. The weapons consists of a single turret mounted medium-calibre gun, twin quadruple launchers for anti-ship missiles, and a battery of VLS-launchers for air-to-surface missiles. A gun-based CIWS-system is not mounted, but may be an option. In the rear, the transom seems to hold a small hatch for deploying a towed array sonar. Still, as this is one of several designs, too much shouldn’t be read into these pictures (some have noted the similarity of the renders to the US Freedom-class LCS, or the Russian Steregushchy-class corvettes, however, that’s just the way most modern warships look these days, and the comparison could as easily be made to the German MEKO-designs, the Chinese Type 056, or the larger British Type 26 frigate).
The cost for the project is expected to be around 1.2 billion Euros for a unit cost (including R&D) of 300 million Euros. This will be handled outside of the normal defence budget, and while it is smaller than the potentially 10 billion Euro HX fighter-program, it is still a lot of money for a country with a bleak-ish looking economy and several other major programs coming up in the near future for the defence forces. This means that the procurement will meet resistance from certain political circles.
And this is the main gripe I have with the announcement. From the outline it is clear that much thought has gone into the decision to procure four warships of this size and according to the specification outlined. Still, what the general public and journalists are left with is a double-sided A4 and eight (!) PowerPoint slides. The main arguments presented are:
Old ships must be retired
The Navy needs new ones, otherwise it won’t be able to fulfil its duties written in the law
One does not need to be an oracle to foresee the debate that will follow the decision to acquire these (for Finland) large vessels. Do we really need them? Why can’t we make do with more FAC’s (as we have done for the last decades)? Can’t we just order more Hamina-class vessels? What shall we do to counter the loss of three hulls? Why do the Navy get these funds, when the Army anyway will be the one winning or losing any future wars? And so on…
The air force realised this, and the preliminary report made for the HX-program dealt with the similar questions that program will have to face to reach broad acceptance in today’s Finland. On 60+ pages, they explained in detail the background to the need for new fighters, why the capability can’t be solved by another mid-life update, or why can’t we just buy “cheap” UAV’s? They explained why we need at least as many fighters as we have today, and how the new aircraft will have to be fit for several different missions. And most important of all, they did all this in such a way that the reader with a casual interest in these questions understood their arguments, and they were provided nicely packaged for easy access.
The navy did none of this. While I don’t doubt that the navy has made their homework, and while I understand the need for secrecy, I do believe that the navy has taken things a step too far. In today’s society, it is not enough to ‘sell’ a project of this size to the decision makers; you need to sell it to the general public as well. So far, the navy seems reluctant to do this.
As I mentioned on Twitter when publishing my last post, there are two further parts of the MTA 2020 project that deserves attention, but which due to space considerations were left out of the original post: propulsion and the vessels’ country of origin.
The propulsion method has so far not been mentioned. There are basically two kind power sources for corvettes, diesel engines and gas turbines (there are also LNG-powered vessels, but the technology is probably deemed not mature enough for warships). Gas turbines are compact and give much power, but are extremely fuel thirsty. Diesels on the other hand give excellent fuel economy, but doesn’t reach the same power (for any given size) as gas turbines. Gas turbines and diesels can also be installed together in a bewildering array of different methods, with gearboxes allowing them to propel the same shafts, sometimes at the same time, giving a setup where a vessel can cruise on diesels and use the gas turbines for high speed work. In some vessels, the diesels and/or gas turbines don’t drive the shaft directly, but instead work as giant generators, driving electrical engines mounted on the shafts. There are several nice things about an electrical drive, one of which is that instead of a giant turning steel shaft passing from the engine room to the screws, you can use cables. It also allows for a freer placement of the engines, as they don’t have to be in line with the propeller shaft (or gearbox shaft). Yet another option is to have the diesels and gas turbine all driving their own shafts. One of the more innovative is the South African MEKO A-200SAN Valour-class frigate, which features twin diesel engines driving two propellers, and a gas turbine driving a Wärtsilä waterjet.
Needless to say, the more complex the propulsion system, the more space it takes, and while gas turbines might be compact, the need for more fuel and larger air and exhaust ducts usually negates this benefit. As such, my bet is on an all-diesel ( or potentially diesel-electric) drive for the MTA 2020.
The power of the engines can then make the vessel move with propellers (either fixed or controllable pitch), different kinds of azimuth thrusters (pods with propellers), or waterjets. Here, the point needs to be made that waterjets are not engines, do not provide power to the ship, and should not be confused with gas turbines. Instead, in the same way as propellers, they transfer the power from the engine to the water, to make the ship move. Their big benefit compared to normal screws are their higher efficiency at high speeds, superior manoeuvrability at low speed (especially when reversing), lower noise signature, and better resistance to damage. Propellers are the favoured solution amongst ships of this size, but e.g. the new Littoral Combat Ships of the US Navy are equipped with waterjets. Of these, the Independence-class features Wärtsilä waterjets while the Freedom-class is equipped with Rolls-Royce manufactured waterjets. Both of these companies have also provided waterjets for the Finnish Navy; Wärtsilä for the Rauma-class and Rolls-Royce for smaller vessels and the Hamina-class. The big question for waterjets is their use in ice, which theoretically should not be a problem, but this is so far untested in vessels of this class.
With regards to podded solutions, these were chosen for the Finnish Border Guard’s new flagship UVL Turva, which is roughly of the same size as the new corvettes. Her propulsion is of the combined diesel-electric and diesel-type, with two azimuth pod thrusters for normal cruising and a single giant controllable pitch propeller for added speed. I personally find a podded solution less likely for a surface combatant due to the pods leaving too much of the propulsion gear sticking out far under the hull where it is susceptible to damage.
Country of Origin
The vessel itself will be built in Finland, where we traditionally have had three yards capable of producing vessels of this size. These are usually referred to as the Helsinki, Turku, and Rauma yards, due to the fact that their owners have a tendency to change far more often than their location. Of these, Helsinki is out of the equation, as it is owned by Russian interests. Rauma has traditionally been the yard of choice for major warships, but was closed by then-owner STX Finland in 2014 after the production of Turva was finished. A new company, Rauma Marine Constructions, has been formed with the aim of continuing the business. So far it seems that the state believes in the idea, as the new yard has landed a number of important overhaul and modernization contracts during its brief existence.
The Turku yard has also changed hands during the last year, going to German shipyard Meyer Werft. The aptly named Meyer Turku is specialised in cruise ships, and currently has an order book which “contains a high work load until the year 2020” according to the yard. The one thing that does point to Meyer Turku as the eventual builder of MTA 2020 is the fact that unlike the newly created RMC, Meyer is an owner with a long and solid history. Still, while the owner of Rauma might be new, the forces behind it are not, and my guess is that the vessels will be built in Rauma with RMC as the main supplier, possibly with the building of one or two being licensed to Meyer Turku if the workload there is low at the time of building.
However, what is often forgotten is that in the wake of our shipyards, a large industry producing maritime supplies is also found in Finland. The Association of Finnish Defence and Aerospace Industries (fi. PIA ry) published a three-page article on the corvette in a recent number of their paper AFDA News. The larger part of this article is common knowledge; Finland needs its navy to protect the growing trade in the Baltic Sea, we like sea mines, and so forth. The interesting part is a small info box, noting that AFDA together with Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation, has done a research project in 2011-2014 under the SMULAN-name. The project looked into what parts of MTA 2020 that could be supplied by domestic companies, and came to the conclusion that the engineering and building could be done here, while arms and combat systems need to be imported. The rest, including stealth technology, integration of sensors and systems, propulsion, and so forth, is found in Finland.
Here, a small disclaimer is in place: AFDA is obviously not an independent organisation when it comes to questions like these, but has its own goals. Simply that there is a Finnish alternative does not necessarily mean it is the best one. Still, the impressive references of companies like the aforementioned Wärtsilä and Rolls-Royce points to the truth in the SMULAN-project. Rolls-Royce plc. is indeed British, but through the acquisition of Vicker’s marine division, which included classic Finnish companies Rauma-Repola, Hollming, and FF-Jet, it has a rather large presence in Finland through the national subsidiary Rolls-Royce Oy Ab, and the company is currently in the process of moving propulsion production lines (including e.g. production of the Kamewa waterjets powering the Hamina-class) from Sweden to Finland. Another fact that improves the odds for Finnish companies is the fact that the purchase of the three new mine countermeasure vessels of the Katanpää-class from Italian yard Intermarine has been less than stellar. Projects of this scale are usually encountering some teething troubles, but the fact that the third vessel of the class four years after its naming ceremony still hasn’t left Italy has not been looked kindly upon.
The Finnish Navy celebrated its yearly Navy Day (fi. Merivoimien vuosipäivä) last week on the 9th of July, the date being that of the (Second) Battle of Svensksund, outside of modern-day Kotka, where a Swedish (Finland being part of Sweden back then) fleet in 1790 defeated and routed a stronger Russian fleet to turn the tide of the otherwise rather unsuccessful Russo-Swedish War of 1788–90. As part of these celebrations, Counter admiral Takanen, the CO of the Navy, gave a few further details on the status of the MTA 2020 project for new surface vessels.
Let’s begin with a short recap: a few years ago the Finnish flagship FNS Pohjanmaa was retired, the ship having functioned as a dual-purpose minelayer/training vessel. The two similarly sized minelayers of the Hämeenmaa-class (displacing 1,000 t), FNS Hämeenmaa and FNS Uusimaa, as well as the four fast-attack craft of the Rauma-class are all set to follow suit sometime around 2025. The minelayers can, aside from laying mines, act as command vessels for flotillas and have a limited anti-air and anti-submarine tasking, something which was demonstrated when FNS Uusimaa drove away an underwater intruder outside of Helsinki earlier this year.
The Rauma-class are traditional FAC’s, dating from the early 90’s. The small 215 ton vessels feature up to six Saab MTO-85M (RBS15 Mk3) anti-ship missiles, a small number of mines, or a towed array to search for submarines with. They are also armed with anti-submarine rockets, as is the Hämeenmaa-class. The aluminium-hulled vessels are starting to show their age, and they were temporarily removed from service earlier this year due to hull cracks. FNS Naantali has now been modified to cure these, and is back in service. If the modification is a success, the other three vessels will also be modified.
The retirement of these seven vessels would leave the Finnish Navy with four FAC of the slightly larger (235 t) and vastly more modern Hamina-class. These vessels are equipped with four MTO-85M anti-ship missiles, and eight ITO 04 (Denel Umkhonto) surface-to-air missiles, and have a limited mining ability. In other words, a replacement for the outgoing vessels is sorely needed.
The MTA 2020 has been in the plans for quite some time, but very limited information has surfaced so far. The interview with Takanen published in Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat is the most detailed look into the project we have had so far.
The vessels, of which there will be four, will be corvettes of around 90 meters in length. The former Soviet-built Riga-class frigates (1,260 t, called ‘Uusimaa’-class in Finnish service) was mentioned by the Admiral for size-comparison. As such, they will be amongst the longest combat ships ever to have served in the Finnish Navy, and provide a quantum leap in capability and endurance compared to current vessels.
The armament will consist of “modern anti-ship missiles”, as well as lightweight anti-submarine torpedoes. This will be the first time the Finnish Navy operates torpedoes after they were banned during negotiations post-World War II.Edit: The Riga-class was equipped with a tripple-torpedo tube for 533 mm torpedoes during the beginning of their career. Thanks to Mikko Laaksonen for pointing out! As the vessel will be designed to counter surface, sub-surface, as well as airborne threats, it is safe to assume it will be equipped with modern surface-to-air missiles, despite this not being explicitly mentioned in the article. The choice of anti-ship missile is currently being studied.
The vessel will feature the ability to lay mines, and will be built from steel. They will be designed to be able to operate around the year in Finnish conditions, i.e. including in ice, as well as in the warmer climate of international operations.
Currently, the closest vessels in operation with regards to size and capability are the German K130 Braunschweig-class of corvettes, based on the MEKO A100-concept. These corvettes, displacing 1,840 t and measuring 88.75 m in length, feature four RBS15 Mk3 for anti-shipping work and two 21-round SAM-launchers for the RIM-116 surface-to-air missile. Aft they are equipped with flight decks capable of handling helicopters up to the size of the NH90 (currently in use by the Finnish Army), but no hangar for storing these during operations. Two notable differences from the Finnish specification is the lack of anti-submarine capability and ice-going capability. The price for five vessels is given as 1.2 billion Euros (~240 million per vessel). An interesting comparison is the four vessels of the class that Israel has bought, which will be locally known as the Sa’ar 6-class. These will be bought from Germany but have their final outfitting, including installation of armaments, done in Israel, their price tag as delivered from Germany will be around 430 million Euros for four vessels (~107 million per vessel). This goes to show that on a modern warship, the better part of the cost is not the vessel itself, but the combat systems.
What then to make of this new information? The number of vessels, a reduction in hulls almost by half, is a disappointment. Still, considering the cost of the program, it could have been far worse. The striking capability of the navy as whole will get a marked increase both in absolute and relative terms, but that doesn’t mean that the four vessels can be everywhere at once. On the plus side, the Finnish south coast is short, measuring roughly 450 km from the eastern border to the western (maritime) border with Sweden, so with the range of modern sensors and weapons a single squadron can control (or at least contest) a rather large portion of that sea and air space. Sub-surface threats on the other hand still require the vessel to be in close contact to locate and attack them, especially in the demanding conditions of the Baltic Sea, so the number of vessels will have a larger impact on the capability to conduct simultaneous ASW-operations, although the introduction of torpedoes is a marked improvement in this field.
With regards to the anti-shipping missiles, a connection can be drawn to the HX-contenders, many of which feature different anti-shipping missiles. It would seem logical that the same missile that the eventual HX-plane might be equipped with would also be the choice for the navy, in the same way that the Navy currently operates the same missile from ships and trucks (MTO-85M), as well as having the same short-range missile as the Army (RO2006/PstOhj 2000, Eurospike-ER and -MR respecitvely). The time schedule for the MTA 2020 might however be too tight for these considerations.
The autumn has shed a bit of light on the MTA 2020-project, and while much is still shrouded in secrecy, enough new information have become official to warrant a revisit to one of the more popular topics I have written about on the blog.
In an article in Helsingin Sanomat published mid-October, Cdr Veli-Pekka Heinonen stated that they had issued a Request for Information with regards to the new ship class. He also stressed that neither the exact timetable nor the number of hulls are yet determined, but that the vessels should be in use in the middle of the 2020’s. However, with regards to the number of new ships, last year outgoing C-in-C of the Navy, Counter admiral Veli-Jukka Pennala, stated that the number of ships is to be in the range of two to four. If so, this would mean a marked reduction in the number of ships operated by the Finnish navy, as the MTA is meant to replace three outgoing mine ships and four fast attack crafts of the Rauma-class.
Currently, the core surface combatants of the Finnish navy are eight FAC(M) of two different classes (Hamina and Rauma), two large mine ships of the Hämeenmaa-class (mine ship and former flag ship Pohjanmaa already having been retired last year), and three ungainly but purposeful mine ferries of the Pansio-class. If this total of 14 ships (counting Pohjanmaa) would be reduced to 9 (corresponding to only two MTA 2020 replacing Pohjanmaa as well as the Hämeenmaa- and Rauma-classes), this would effectively rob the navy of its ability to operate two task forces simultaneously. Even the larger number of four MTA 2020’s would mean a 21% cut in the number of hulls with offensive and/or mining capability compared to the current situation. My personal opinion is that, although yhis is a likely move giving the current economic situation and the pressing needs of other branches of the defence forces, this would be a dangerous cut if it goes unmatched by an increase in capabilities in other areas, e.g. strengthened air- and groundbased surveillance. This spring, current C-in-C of the Navy, Counter admiral Kari Takanen, stated that with the current funding they “cannot even dream” about seven ships, but that the final number is still completely open.
For the ships themselves, the size is still unclear, but Cdr Heinonen noted that the Fridtjof Nansen-class frigates of the Norweigan navy were “unnecessary large” for Finnish conditions. These 134 m long warships have a fully loaded displacement of 5,290 tons, which would have made them by far the largest combat vessels in the history of the Finnish navy. The reason these high-sea ASW-frigates came up in the interview, was that one of the alternatives discussed had been acquiring little-used ships second hand. The Norwegian navy is rumored to have a deficit in the number of crews available, being able to operate only one or two of the frigates at the same time, meaning that two or three potentially could have been for sale. While Cdr Heinonen dismissed this due to the size and a lack in their ability to handle ice, the mention of the ships as candidates for the MTA 2020 is surprising, as Adm Pennala the year before had stated that ships main armament will be mines. The Fridtjof Nansen-class is mainly designed for ASW work, with a powerful secondary anti-air and anti-surface capability. However, they completely lack mine rails. Of interest is the price, the five ships had a total project cost of around 500 million Euros a piece.
With regards to existing classes, Cdr Heinonen gloomily notes that none offers all the capabilities sought for. Presumably the ability of operating in ice is the main problem here. With specific regards to the Swedish Visby-class of stealth corvettes, he states that they are “too expensive”. Elsewhere, the price tag is usually stated to be around 200-250 million Euros a piece, with some estimates going higher.
In brief, Finland seems to be looking for a custom-built class of ice-classed corvettes with a large mine-carrying capacity, for a price tag of less than 200 million Euros. I have earlier expressed doubts about whether the navy is trying to fit too much into the same ship. Now a further cause of concern seems to be if the price tag envisioned is realistic, and if we are facing a >20% cut in the number of combat ships allocated to the navy. On the bright side, the Hamina-class did make headlines exactly due to the fact that they cram quite a lot of potential into a small hull at an affordable price.
As an ending thought, the navy is promoting the fact that the MTA 2020 could be built at a Finnish shipyard, but the Rauma yard which has handled earlier newbuilds for the navy closed down last year. A new company, under the name of Rauma Marine Constructions, currently has great plans for the yard, but whether they have managed to hold onto the know-how and key people needed for a project of this size remains to be seen.