The massed attacks on Ukraine today again raises the question about different approaches to managing the long-range ballistic and cruise missile threat, and while I don’t claim to have written the book on the issue, I did write a chapter with that headline for a Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) report a few years ago. As such, I have given the topic some thought. The bottom line is, it’s difficult and there’s no single answer.
To begin with, we need to differentiate between ballistic missiles such as Iskanders which are really difficult to shoot down, and cruise missiles which fly towards the target as (often small) unmanned aircraft. While a number of ground-based air defence systems are able to target at least some ballistic missiles, these are of the high-end (and as such expensive) kind, and their coverage against ballistic missiles is significantly smaller than against other flying things due to the ballistic missiles approaching their targets more or less vertically at extreme speeds.
Cruise missiles are easier targets. They come in different shapes and sizes, and rely on a combination of small size, speed, and in some cases stealth and/or electronic countermeasures to avoid interception. However, the most common defensive measure of cruise missiles is the rather straightforward method of keeping low. Flying at low altitude means that the window ground-based systems have to acquire and target them is low, and the problem is further emphasised if the air defence battery is set up in terrain such as forests, hills, or urban areas. But everything is relative. The high cruising speed is still subsonic for the majority of systems, meaning that few missiles are travelling at higher speeds than fighters or strike aircraft do. The size is small compared to fighters, but still comparable to, or larger than, many drones. As such, to make a complex question overly simple – if an air defence system is able to counter fighters and drones, cruise missiles aren’t out of reach. The most extreme version of this is evident in a widely circulated video shot today which appears to show an old Igla MANPADS used to take down a cruise missile.
#Ukraine: Not all of the cruise missiles fired into Ukraine from Russian aircraft and ships hit their target- here we see extremely rare footage of Igla MANPADS being used to take down a Russian missile on its way to the target. pic.twitter.com/zzajBZljnq
While this is an extreme case, it also illustrate the point well. Note that the shooter has ample time to figure out what is happening and set up the shot in the flat and open terrain.
The best counter to cruise missiles is however not old MANPADS nor top-of-the-line systems such as Patriot or SAMP/T. Rather it is modern medium-range systems, with NASAMS being the obvious choice here due to Ukrainian familiarity with the system. A number of other systems such as the CAMM would also fit the bill. The key detail is that these provide greater number for a given cost compared to more high-end ones. And when it comes to adding coverage, the number of batteries will always matter more than the range of individual systems. This is of even greater importance in Ukraine’s situation, as the country is large and with Russia resorting to terror bombings the number of potential targets is huge.
However, that is not to say that other air defence systems aren’t of interest to Ukraine. Getting shorter-ranged systems or older ones will free up the more capable ones to the counter-missile mission. With the drone threat also having ticked up recently with the supply of Iranian systems, it is evident that all kinds of air defence systems are extremely valuable to Ukraine for the time being.
Another way to kinetically ensure that missiles aren’t raining down over Ukraine is to hit the systems launching these. This include Russian strike and bomber aircraft, naval vessels including submarines, and launch vehicles such as Iskander units. Obviously, hitting airfields, maritime infrastructure, missile storage sites, and so forth will also achieve the desired effect. Many of these targets are however situated deep inside Russia, and as such Ukraine have difficulties reaching these both due to the lack of suitable weapon systems as well as due to reported Western restrictions on using Western supplied weaponry to reach targets on Russian soil. At this stage of the conflict, providing suitable weapons for Ukrainian long-range strikes on military targets deep inside Russia should be a no-brainer.
But getting complete cover will always be prohibitively expensive and require more resources than Ukraine or anyone else would have available. As such a big part of the answer is usually dispersion, fortification, and creating redundant systems, all of which are naturally more relevant against an enemy actually trying to hit something useful rather than just trying to kill civilians. As such, the real way to stop Russian missiles will be a Ukrainian victory. This will require stepping up support in a number of areas. This includes more of what has already been delivered, including both weapons and financial aid. However, it is also high time to supply new capabilities. This includes finally getting Ukraine those Leopards, as well as starting training on modern western multirole fighters. The F-16 is the obvious candidate, and while it could provide a measure of defence against cruise missiles, the big deal is the general ability to pound targets on the ground with modern weaponry and drastically increase the Ukrainian ability to defend their skies from enemy fighters and helicopters. Because as the war currently sits, the Russian strategy seems largely to be to burn everything they can’t have down to the ground, and the sooner we’ll take the matches from the arsonist, the less damage he’ll be able to cause.
In a long-awaited move, the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command yesterday sent out the RFQ for a new ground-based air defence system “with a high ceiling”. The corresponding RFI went out in 2018, and under the current schedule the procurement will be finalised before the end of 2022 and the system will become operational during the latter half of the 20’s.
For a more general overview of the current state of the Finnish high-end ground based air defences (and why we won’t acquire an anti-ballistic missile capability), I recommend that you check out my sub-chapter on Finland in the FOI anthology “Beyond Bursting Bubbles“, but the long story short is that Finland acquired the Buk-M1 in the late 1990’s as part of a deal to cover the Russian debt stemming from the Soviet clearing accounts. Unfortunately, worries about the ability of Russia to counter the system meant that they had to be retired quite soon thereafter, with the last conscripts training on the system in 2005. Exactly when (if?) the system was withdrawn is unclear, but it seems to have survived in (limited?) service past Crimea.
In any case, a replacement system was acquired under what would become the ITO12 procurement, which saw SAMP/T and NASAMS II face off in a competition won by the NASAMS. The reason behind the choice was bluntly described by then Chief of Defence, Admiral Kaskeala:
Do we buy one Cadillac or four Volvos?
In any case, the ‘Volvo’ has scored a number of successes around the world, and is generally seen as a potent system, but one that suffers from short range due to the poor performance of its AIM-120C AMRAAM missile when fired from a ground-based launcher. Janes lists it as having an estimated max range of 20 km, though this is partially offset by the launchers being able to be placed up to 25 km out from the fire direction centre (FDC). The ceiling is rather uncertain, with The Drive mentioning 50,000 feet (15,000+ meters), but on the other hand then-Finnish inspector of the ground-based air defences, colonel Sami-Antti Takamaa, in an interview in 2018 stated that the new system (which should be able to go significantly higher than NASAMS) should have a ceiling of 8,000 to 15,000 meters. There’s likely an apples-to-pears situation in the numbers above, with Takamaa referencing the effective engagement altitudes which are quite a bit below the theoretical maximum.
However, for most situations the maximum specifications isn’t as interesting as other factors. The ability to deploy the systems with the launchers dispersed, the active seeker of the missiles, modularity, and the modern C4I architecture are of greater value. However, the fact that the NASAMS would lose in top trumps against the system it replaced means that there is a gap above the coverage provided by Finnish SAMs, and one that can only be covered by fighters.
This leads us to the current ITSUKO-program, where throughout the focus has been on increasing the air defence capabilities at high altitude. This is interesting, as most countries discuss their different classes of SAM’s in terms of range rather than ceiling, and clearly shows which operational problem the FDF is trying to solve. Obviously, with increased ceiling comes increased range (though one shouldn’t think of the effective engagement zone as a half-sphere above ground, as the routes chosen by modern missiles and the physics involved makes things a bit more complex than that), but this is largely seen as a secondary bonus. In the earlier quoted article, major general (engineering) Kari Renko of the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command explained that “Increased territorial coverage means that we have more batteries operational”, and struck down the notion that a meaningful increase in territorial coverage could be achieved solely by increasing the range. In effect, this is due to the large area of Finland, which means that the difference in coverage between differently ranged systems, especially at low range, is small enough that it is negligible at the operational or strategic level.
Here it is good to remember that as none of the current systems are to be replaced, the number of operational batteries will in fact go up. This in turn means that, in the words of current inspector of the ground-based air defences, colonel Mikko Mäntynen, the “fighters will get a higher degree of freedom”. While this is all good and true, there is a nagging feeling that this might be an attempt to cover for the fact that HX won’t reach 64 fighters. Let’s hope that feeling is unfounded…
The news yesterday was that the field competing has been cut down by half. Of the ten companies that received the RFI in 2018, five are still in the competition bidding for the role as prime contractors. These are Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace (KDA), Diehl Defence, MBDA, Rafael, and IAI. Missing from the list are all American companies, as well as Swedish defence company Saab whose RBS 23 lacks the punch to compete in this race (note though that Janes gives the max altitude as 15,000 meters, again showing that 15,000 meters max doesn’t necessarily mean that your system can effectively handle engagements at 8,000 to 15,000 meters). However, it is entirely possible that Saab appears as a subcontractor in some of the bids, as their Giraffe 4A radar has had a tendency to do so in other places. Raytheon is a long-term active partner to KDA, and it is no surprise that they are confirmed to be working together with them here as well (even if rumours had hinted at them also bidding separately as a prime, presumably with the MIM-104 Patriot). Another of Raytheon’s joint programs might also show up…
Of those bidding, Diehl is without doubt the odd one out. As far as I am aware of, Diehl has nothing bigger than the IRIS-T SLS (which recently entered Swedish service as the RBS 98). Being based on a short-range IIR air-to-air missile, it suffers from a 5,000 meter ceiling (again according to Janes), leaving it even shorter-legged than the NASAMS. To be completely honest, I have no idea about what Diehl is planning to offer.
Yes, it is extremely confusunf, especially with Diehl using SL to refer to both SLS and SLM! Here's a picture of the two missiles side by side to illustrate the differences pic.twitter.com/x2wywmzae0
Edit 30 October: Diehl in fact has a longer-ranged version. There is quite a bit of confusion in their designations in open sources (I’ve e.g. seen SL, SLS, and SLM all refer to just different launchers firing the same IRIS-T missile, and I’ve even seen the Swedish EldE 98 referred to as SLM!). However, Diehl’s SLM is in fact a rather different missile with a seriously longer range thanks to a larger rocket and an aerodynamic nosecone that pops off once the target is within range of the missile’s IIR-seeker. This dual-mode (firing solution and early tracking being provided by radar and datalink until switching to final guidance by IIR) is rather interesting and could potentially be more difficult to spoof compared to more traditional solutions. The missile has been test-fired successfully, but the operational status seems to be rather uncertain. Thanks to f-pole for clearing things up!
KDA is the obvious favourite, being able to offer the AMRAAM-ER for the NASAMS-system. The AMRAAM-ER in essence combine booster of the ESSM and the front unit of the AMRAAM to produce a completely new missile with “50% increase in range and a 70% increase in altitude” compared to the current AIM-120C-7.
In other words, KDA can simply offer more of a system already in service with the Finnish Army, but with ability to use either the shorter-legged AMRAAM or the longer-legged AMRAAM-ER according to need. The modularity of the NASAMS also means that integrating a host of other missiles is possible, should the FDF be so inclined (spoiler alert: they’re probably not). That kind of synergy effects could very well be hard to beat, but the competition isn’t giving up without a fight.
As noted earlier on the blog, MBDA has had a surprisingly difficult time in landing any major contract with the FDF. The obvious system for them to offer is the Land Ceptor/CAMM-ER. The missile is an operational system with the British Army and the specifications on paper seems to be a good match, but it is difficult to see it outmatching the stiff competition.
The question about what the two Israeli companies will offer is more open. Rafael is able to offer the SPYDER, which is a truck running around with a bunch of missiles on its back. It offers the ability to fire both the Python 5 highly-manoeuvrable short-range IIR-missile, but also the Derby longer-ranged missile. The overall concept is rather similar to that of the NASAMS, with a modern C4I architecture and air-to-air missiles adopted for ground-based use, and while not as prolific as the NASAMS it has scored a few export successes from serious customers such as Singapore. However, most numbers found in open sources seem to indicate that the SPYDER lacks the range and ceiling to be able to offer a meaningful improvement over the current NASAMS. This would in turn mean that the system offered is the David’s Sling, which uses a two-stage Stunner-missile (also known as the SkyCeptor). The missile is perhaps best known internationally as the PAAC-4 missile for the US Patriot-system, which is a joint program between Rafael and Raytheon to produce a significantly cheaper missile with better performance compared to the current PAC-3 that is used for anti-ballistic missile work with the Patriot battery. The Stunner is designed from the outset to be able to easily integrate into other systems, meaning that it is possible that the weapon could communicate better than some of the competition with the current systems found in the Finnish integrated air defence network. Still, it does feel that the ABM-capable is a bit of overkill in a competition against missiles such AMRAAM-ER and CAMM-ER (remember that several high-ranking officials and generals at different times have shot down the idea that Finland would be interesting in pursuing a real ABM-capability), unless the offer really is one we can’t refuse.
IAI has a more varied, and at least on paper, more suitable range of weapons, with the BARAK-series being the logical contender. This include a range of missiles, with the BARAK-LRAD missile being the most likely version on offer here. This is part of the general BARAK MX-system, and is developed in parallel with the BARAK 8 for the Indian Navy. Crucially, IAI’s Elta-division has a large portfolio of radars (including the ELM-2311 C-MMR which was recently acquired by the FDF for use as a counter-battery radar), and as such it would be interesting to see which radars they would pair with their interceptor for the bid.
Few modern weapon systems have the power to captivate popular imagination the way the Iskander does. Partly this stems from the lack of a clear specification, both for operational security reasons and because the system violates the (recently deceased) INF-treaty. Another reason for the allure is that the system represents a new capability, which so far has not been found in the Russian (nor in too many other countries’) arsenal, and lastly but not least the simple fact that it can carry nuclear warheads.
In addition, there is widespread confusion amongst non-defence geeks about how exactly the Iskander and other ballistic missiles differ from the more widespread cruise missiles, and how to defend against enemy Iskander-attacks. This blog will strive to sort out some of these misconceptions, and give a picture of how the Iskander threat should be evaluated.
The basic Iskander, Iskander-M, is a ballistic missile. For those into the details, the system’s official GRAU designation is 9K720 while the missile itself is designated 9M723. The word “ballistic” means that the missile roughly follows a ballistic trajectory, i.e. the path an object would take if you would throw it. A big rocket engine propels the Iskander up in the air, after which it will fall down onto the target. It isn’t a pure ballistic trajectory, the missile is guided and can make course changes, but it can’t e.g. regain height once it has started diving.
As said, the exact performance is shrouded in secrecy. The most often quoted figures is a range of 400-500 km, and a warhead of 700 kg. However, professor Stefan Forss already in 2012 noted that the official numbers doesn’t quite add up, and calculated a range of 500-750 km, while also noting that some Russian sources “could imply a heavy penetrating warhead weighing about 1,300 kg.” Note though that 700+ km ranges aren’t possible with such a heavy warhead in current configuration (the range calculations were made based on a 400 kg nuclear warhead). The missile likely has a CEP better than 10 meter under ideal circumstances, i.e. half of the missiles will fall within that distance of the target. A 700 kg warhead hitting within 10 meters, especially considering the kinetic energy of the approaching missile, does make the weapon viable to use against individual buildings with a conventional (i.e. non-nuclear) warhead, something which was not the case with Cold War missiles such as the SCUD or Tochka. However, like the earlier missiles, the Iskander is only capable of attacking fixed targets.
It is obvious that if you are supposed to reach a target hundreds of kilometers away with a ballistic trajectory you will need to go fast or high, preferably both. This is what makes shooting down ballistic missiles so hard. The Iskander missile dives towards the target at speeds of 2-3 kilometer per second. Trying to shoot down a maneuvering target falling towards the earth at eight times the speed of sound is extremely difficult, and require a very fast missile placed close to the target of the Iskander. The Patriot system does feature missiles capable of intercepting Iskanders (though their efficiency is questioned), and this is what the Swedish Army is in the process of acquiring. Needless to say, the capability doesn’t come cheap: the Swedish deal is valued at 2-3 billion Euros, which will give four batteries with anti-ballistic missile and anti-aircraft missiles.
However, the Iskander isn’t exactly cheap either. A missile brigade, there are ten to twelve in total in the Russian Armed Forces, feature twelve launchers meaning that the opening salvo of all Russian operational Iskanders would have a hard cap of 288 missiles. This would likely be lower as 100% availability is usually restricted to utopia and all brigades wouldn’t be directed against a single target anymore than all armoured brigades would.
Now, a hundred unstoppable conventional warheads raining down on Finland would cause issues. Targeting strategic sites such as bridges, headquarters, utilities such as power and water plants, would very quickly make things complicated. However, this is not in and by itself a war-winning weapon. Granted there could be a second wave, possibly even a third, but the supply of missiles aren’t endless. High-end weapons comes with a cost, even if you’re trading in rubles. In the end destruction caused by traditional air strikes coupled with cruise missiles will quickly become a bigger issue.
A short note on the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal. This is a large missile carried by the MiG-31 heavy fighter. It is part of the family of recently unveiled Russian “super-weapons” aimed at ensuring a Russian nuclear deterrent in the face of developments when it comes to missile defences. The Kinzhal seems to be a modified version of the Iskander-M missile, which thanks to higher launch speed and height gives it a range of over 800 km (1,000 to 3,000 km is often quoted, but it seems that these numbers include the combat range of the aircraft). Kinzhal seems to be a more realistic option compared to several other of the unveiled systems, but exact specifications and whether Russia will field a conventionally armed version are still unclear.
Cruise missiles are a completely different breed of beasts. They are in essence unmanned aircraft carrying a warhead to a target. The size, range, operating methods, launching platforms, and warhead types varies, but in essence they have an engine and wings to allow them to fly long distances, and then crash into whatever their target is. Often the cruise missiles fly towards their targets at very low altitude, using the terrain to mask their approach. The Finnish Air Force operate the AGM-158 JASSM cruise missile, while the Navy’s current and upcoming anti-ship missiles both exhibit similar traits (it is largely a question of nomenclature/taxonomy rather than any practical differences if anti-ship missiles should be counted amongst cruise missiles or as a detached family of their own).
Now, as the cruise missile flies like an aircraft towards its target it can also be shot down like one, using the regular means of fighters and ground based air defences. Cruise missiles can make tricky targets due to their low altitude, speed, and (in some cases) stealthiness, but a modern SAM-system such as the NASAMS of the Finnish Army should have no problem in bringing down one, provided it is located in the appropriate spot.
As opposed to ballistic missiles, cruise missiles have shown a nasty tendency to proliferate. In part this is due to the low(er) cost compared to modern ballistic missiles of the same class as the Iskander. The most famous example of a modern Russian cruise missile is the 3M14 Kalibr land-attack missile (think Tomahawk/TLAM), which sports a range of 2,000 km and comes in at a unit cost of 1.1 million Euro. The weapon is officially in use aboard a number of modern Russian warships (including submarines), and likely it is this very missile that is carried by the Iskander-K under the designation 9M729. Yes, confusingly enough there is both a ballistic missile-carrying version of the Iskander and a cruise missile-carrying version. Generally, if people refer to something simply as the “Iskander”, it is the ballistic missile-carrying Iskander-M they mean.
The 9M729 is also at the centre of the INF-controversy which led to the US declaring the treaty void (INF doesn’t cover sea-based missiles, but as soon as the Kalibr was brought ashore it became illegal under the INF-treaty).
If it is the unstoppable nature of the ballistic missile that makes the Iskander-M a threat, it is the large number of missiles coupled with the vast range that makes the Kalibr/Iskander-K one. Finland is within range of the Kalibr of both the Baltic as well as the Northern Fleet, where the vessels of the Northern Fleet effectively are beyond the reach of the anti-ship weapons of the Finnish Defence Forces.
The Iskander-M is a threat. So is the Kalibr/Iskander-K and other cruise missiles. However, they have very little common with each other, besides the fact that they transport warheads into enemy territory (as does strike aircraft). Phrases such as “the ability to defend against Iskander and Kalibr-missiles” are sometimes thrown around as if they are referring to a single capability, when in fact they are vastly separate issues. We already have the capability to defend against cruise missiles in all three services, with weapons such as the NASAMS, Umkhonto, and the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Acquiring point-defence capabilities against the Iskander for four possible targets would be a project comparable in cost to two Squadron 2020-projects. Not vessels, but two complete projects of eight vessels in total. As such, it is hard to argue with the official Finnish position that we’ll simply have to disperse and be prepared to suffer a number of Iskander hits, while at the same time investing further in medium-range air defence capabilities to defend against cruise missiles and enemy aircraft. The combination of Squadron 2020, HX, and the Army’s new GBAD-program will make the skies over Finland much deadlier for an attacker in the upcoming decades. Just not for their ballistic missiles.
As the headline says, yesterday’s big news from the naval sector is not that Finland has ordered the Harpoon and/or the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM). In fact, what has happened is that the US offers for two major Finnish naval programs have become open knowledge. This happened as the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency has requested clearance for the sale of 112 RGM-84Q-4 Harpoon Block II+ ER anti-ship missiles (of which twelve are of the older RGM-84L-4 Harpoon Block II version which will be upgraded) and 68 ESSM missiles. These kinds of pre-clearances are not uncommon, and allow for a rapid deal following a (potential) procurement decision by a foreign customer (thanks to Aaron Mehta for providing insights about US export).
The background is two ongoing Finnish projects: the Pohjanmaa-class multirole corvettes and the PTO 2020 heavy surface-to-surface missile. The PTO 2020 will be found aboard the Pohjanmaa-class as well as replacing the current MTO 85M (roughly a RBS 15 Mk II) on the Hamina-class as part of their MLU as well as in truck-mounted batteries. As the MLU for the Hamina is very much underway already, the winner of the PTO 2020 will be announced during the first half of this year. I am still standing by my opinion that the RBS 15 Mk 3+ and the NSM are the two frontrunners, and would be somewhat surprised if Harpoon won the trophy (and even more so if the Exocet MM40 Block 3 did, though everything is possible).
The Pohjanmaa-class is still in the design stage, with the main contract(s) to be signed this year, and the building phase to start next year. The armament shown on renders include two quadruple mounts of PTO 2020 amidships, the new lightweight torpedo from Saab, the BAE/Bofors 57 mm Mk II deck-gun, and a battery of vertical launch system-cells (VLS). The two main VLS-systems on the market are the French Sylver and the US Mk 41 (a modernized version called Mk 57 is also available, and mounted on the Zumwalt-class). Both are available in different lengths, with the shortest Sylver, the A43 (an earlier A35 concept seems to have been dropped), being around 4.3 m long (or rather, high), and the shortest Mk 41 being 5.2 m long. The 8-cell module of the Sylver is also smaller and lighter than the corresponding 8-cell Mk 41 module, in part because the silos themselves are a few centimeters smaller. For a full run-through of the differences, see this post by the UK Armed Forces Commentary-blog, where the differences are discussed with a keen eye to the pros and cons for the British Type 26 Frigate.
Now, while some vessels, such as the current Finnish Hamina-class and the upcoming British Type 26, feature dedicated cells to their main air-defence assets, the VLS on the Pohjanmaa will likely be home to the ships main air defence weapons. This becomes evident as the ESSM offer is for the weapon quad-packed in Mk 25 modules, designed to fit the Mk 41-system. If the ESSM would be chosen, the Pohjanmaa-class would be by far the smallest vessel to feature the system. The decision to offer the Mk 41 is interesting, as there is a dedicated Mk 56 ESSM VLS-system if the sole use would be for the ESSM.
The ESSM is certainly a competent weapon, and shows what the Navy is aiming for. 8-16 cells with quad packs would provide for 32-64 medium-ranged missiles, a huge boost compared to the current 8 short-range Umkhontos found on the Hamina. While the Mk 41 is too big for the Hamina, the Mk 56 mean that half a dozen ESSM’s could potentially be fitted as part of the MLU if the Navy choose to go down that (unlikely) route. More interesting is that the ESSM could be fired from the Army’s NASAMS surface-to-air batteries, letting the Navy and Army use the same missile stock. The upcoming ESSM Block 2 will feature an active seeker based on that of the AMRAAM, and is potentially the version offered to the Pohjanmaa.
Interestingly, the AMRAAM-ER is a AMRAAM married to the engine of the ESSM, and no, I don’t know what exactly is the difference between an AMRAAM seeker married to an ESSM engine and an ESSM engine married to an AMRAAM seeker.
I am still inclined to believe that the Sylver might be the Navy’s preferred VLS due to the smaller footprint. However, as with the PTO 2020, we will just have to wait and see.
In the shadow of the HX-fighter competition, the state of the ground based air defences in Finland has again appeared in the headlines. The short story is that in the mid-90’s Finland acquired the Russian Buk-M1 air defence system as part of Russia paying off the Soviet balance of the clearing accounts. However, while the system certainly is competent, questions soon arose if it was wise to operate a high-tech system which the main adversary had built? Especially as knowing the exact capabilities of the radar and missile is of crucial importance when it comes to defeating radar-guided missiles.
By the mid-00’s training new conscripts on the Buk stopped, and the system was phased out (never trust a Finn who says something is retired, the last conscripts who trained on the system most likely had another ten years in the reserve, during which they were assigned to a wartime unit operating the missiles, giving a ‘real’ retirement date around 2015) and replaced by the NASAMS II.
The NASAMS is a controversial system in Finnish service. Not because it is bad, it is very much amongst the most modern ones available, but because it is of significantly shorter range than the Buk it replaced. Most crucially it has a ceiling of around 10,000 meters, meaning that most modern fighter aircraft can simply operate above this. This isn’t necessarily as big a drawback as it is often portrayed to be. Operating above 10,000 meters place high demands on sensors and weapons if you are to hit anything, and it means that you are easily spotted by air surveillance radars, meaning that the advantage of surprise is long gone by the time the target is overflown.
Still, this has left Finland without a long-range surface-to-air missile for the first time since the late 70’s, and talk about the need for something heavier has been going since the decision to procure NASAMS instead of Aster. The big question is what?
One issue which has been raised is the defence against ballistic missiles, i.e. missiles which are fired at a high angle, fly up to significant heights, and then ‘fall’ down at extreme speeds to hit a target. The Russian 9K270 Iskander-M is the embodiment of this threat, and comes equipped with either a conventional warhead (usually quoted at around 500 kg, but possibly with an option for a heavy penetrating warhead above 1,000 kg) or a nuclear one. The big improvement of the Iskander compared to the 9K79 Tochka U it replaced is the significant improvement of accuracy, which for the Iskander is quoted at a circular error probability of below 10 meters (i.e. half of the Iskanders will land within 10 meters of the intended target), meaning that it can reliably be assumed to hit individual buildings or bridges. As such, many has voiced the opinion that Finland need a system capable of shooting down ballistic missiles.
…and it is in the crossroad of these ideas that we find some of the most common misconceptions, which warrant a slight detour before looking at the latest developments.
To begin with, the ballistic missile threat is not new to Finland, nor is the associated A2/AD-problem, but these have been a part of the Soviet/Russian arsenal for decades. Even with the improved accuracy of the Iskander, it is not a war-winning weapon, as the limited number of missiles available and the rather limited damage caused by a single hit makes it impossible to take out dispersed targets. In other words, while it is possible to hit the command centre of a unit, it is not possible to wipe out the unit itself. The Iskander also needs target information before launch, meaning that it is best used against stationary targets.
Another issue often overlooked is how hard it is to shoot down a ballistic missile. Crucially, while a modern long-range air defence system can sport ranges of over 100 km against air targets (at high altitude, at lower altitude the earth’s curvature creates shadows), the corresponding ranges when trying to intercept a ballistic missile approaching at very high speed and steep angle are significantly shorter. While the exact performance is secret, some sources state that the maximum range is a few tens of kilometers, creating a significant problem with regards to how to base air defence batteries to be able to protect a certain target. The implications of this is that a single battery might have a hard time defending both the Upinniemi naval base and central Helsinki, depending on the parameters of the intercept.
As such, it is no surprise that Finnish officers are focusing on dispersion and hardening strategic targets instead of acquiring anti-ballistic missile capabilities. This is in marked contrast to Sweden’s decision to acquire the Patriot. Here, while the decision is not yet finalised, the ability to field the PAC-3 missile (or potentially the upcoming PAAC-4/Stunner/SkyCeptor) to take down ballistic missiles has played a key role. However, the capability doesn’t come cheap, as the total price tag of approximately 1 to 1.2 billion Euro will buy three to four batteries, each with a single radar and three to four launchers. However, the amount and types of missiles acquired will also play a huge role when it comes to cost, and the preliminary request, described as being “generous in size”, lists 200 PAC-3 (for anti-ballistic missile use) and 100 PAC-2 for use against aircraft, for an additional 1.5 billion Euro. The exact kind of combat management system involved will also play a role, as it seen in the case of the 8.6 billion Euro Polish deal for a comparable number of firing units (four batteries with four launchers each, with 208 PAC-3 missiles) as the Swedish order.
All things considered, any kind of anti-ballistic missile coverage is probably outside of the scope of the Finnish Army’s wishlist, with the focus being solely on the ability to shoot down aircraft at longer and higher ranges than what the current equipment is capable of. However, even within these bounds, there are still a significant number of different options available on the market. With this in mind the Logistics Command has now issued a Request for Information to “around ten” companies. Interestingly enough, the interview with brigadier general Renko, deputy chief of the Logistics Command, says that he would like the new missile to be part of the current NASAMS systems. At the same time, he notes that this is not purely about introducing a new missile to old launchers, but that there needs to be more batteries out in the field to improve coverage.
The obvious choice which has figured in reporting is the AMRAAM-ER. Where the basic NASAMS uses the same AMRAAM missile as found on e.g. the Finnish F/A-18 Hornets, the AMRAAM-ER marries the basic AMRAAM seeker (with improved steering code) to the engine of the ESSM (Evolved Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missile), giving a significant increase in both range and ceiling (50 and 70% respectively according to Raytheon). This means that both goals of the RFI could be met by buying more NASAMS batteries, and having both baseline and ER-versions of the AMRAAM in service. The big problem for the AIM-120 AMRAAM is that it is something of a victim of its own success. It is operated by a stunning 37 countries, meaning that no small amount of Russian research is likely going into how to defeat it. Especially if the AMRAAM will continue to be a key part of the Finnish airborne air defences as well, which is likely to be the case unless Rafale takes home the HX-competition, it might be good to ask whether all air defence eggs should be placed in the same basket?
At this point it should be remembered that one of the key points of the NASAMS is its modularity. It is unclear exactly which parts are integrated into the Finnish NASAMS systems, e.g if our ITO 05 (RBS 70 BOLIDE) are able to plug into the NASAMS’s Fire Distribution Center (FDC), something which Kongsberg claim is possible. However, if the Army really likes the current AN/MPQ-64F1 Improved Sentinel radar and associated systems, another missile could potentially be integrated into it. It is hard to see the reasoning behind this, and I am tempted to believe that the journalist misunderstood the general, who instead expressed a wish for the new system to be part of the current Finnish integrated air defences, i.e. sharing the same air picture as well as command and control structures.
If we assume this is what the Logistics Command means, it opens up a vast number of possibilities. One is the very same SAMP/T-system which competed (and lost) against the NASAMS ten years ago. The SAMP/T, also known as ASTER, is the closest competitor to the Patriot, and is also available both with “normal” and anti-ballistic missile missiles. As was the case last time around, both it and Patriot will probably be judged to be too expensive (although the Swedish deal is controversial at it turned out the SAMP/T offer was 150 million Euro cheaper than the Patriot one).
However, below the high-end Patriot and SAMP/T there are still plenty to choose from. MBDA, the company behind SAMP/T, offers the CAMM-ER and ASPIDE 2000, and while information is somewhat scarce, both are likely superior when it comes to range and height compared to the baseline AMRAAM. Saab has the SRSAM BAMSE, which offer an altitude coverage of 15,000 meters, and the benefit of operating on a different wavelength, Ka-band as opposed to X-band, than the NASAMS, making it harder to jam both at the same time. Israeli company Rafael offer the SPYDER-MR featuring their Derby-missile with a range of 50 km and a ceiling of 16,000 meters. A more exotic (and highly unlikely) option is the Japanese Type 11 missile system built by Toshiba, of which very limited information is available. Still, it does look like it could potentially fit the bill, and during the last years Japan has opened up for potential arms exports. South African Denel Systems has a number of different versions of the Umkhonto, the basic IR-version of which is currently in service with the Finnish Navy. Some of the more advanced concepts might be able to compete with the baseline AMRAAM, though it is doubtful if they will have enough reach to satisfy the demands of the current RFI. Still, Denel does offer a ground-based launcher, and is probably included amongst the companies receiving the RFI.
The winner of the eventual RFQ which is to follow the current RFI is likely found amongst those mentioned above. The defence forces would like to sign a deal in 2020, and notes that this is tied to HX and Squadron 2020, as all three programs play significant roles in the overall air defence of Finland. If e.g. the CAMM in its sea-going version is adopted for SQ2020, it might increase the chances for CAMM-ER being adopted as the ground-based solution. In the meantime, it does feel like the AMRAAM-ER is the favourite, with the big question being whether relying too much on a single missile seeker for both air and ground-based is too high a risk compared to the synergies it would give?
And as it happens, Kongsberg and Patria a week ago announced that they will open a Missile Competence Centre in Tampere, specifically mentioning their work NASAMS in the press release. Funny how these things come together sometimes.