Finnish Maritime Patrol

A small note in the Finnish government programme hot off the press is the first official schedule for a small but interesting aircraft procurement programme.

The capability of the Border Guard in a changing environment is ensured. The Border Guard technical surveillance systems and two aircraft are being replaced by 2022.

Own translation

The two aircraft in question are two Dornier Do 228-212 built in 1995 and in Finnish Border Guard service as maritime surveillance platforms ever since. At the heart of their capabilities are the Swedish MSS 6000 system, which integrate sensors, communication equipment, and two operator consoles. Following a mid-life update in 2009-2013 and further upgrades back in 2017, the main sensors are two radars (a 360° search radar in the front underfuselage bulb as well as a side-looking radar, SLAR, on the fuselage side), electro-optical sensors (with a laser illuminator), AIS, and a radio direction finder. Handheld cameras are also integrated into the system.

OH-MVO radars
OH-MVO with it’s two radars, the search radar in the bulb under the fuselage and the SLAR in the black pipe. Source: Own picture

The aircraft are completely unarmed, and as the rest of the Border Guard organisation they sort under the Ministry of Interior in peacetime, but are transferred to the Finnish Defence Forces in times of war. Much of their peacetime duties are centred around peaceful missions such as looking for oil spill, fisheries protection, counting seals, and border surveillance. More high-profile missions the aircraft have been part of are deployments at the EU’s southern border as part of FRONTEX, and a showing by OH-MVO during the raid on Airiston Helmi last year.

The Finnish Navy unsurprisingly lack a naval aviation branch, and neither does the Air Force have much in the way of maritime surveillance capabilities. The three Learjets operated are sometimes seen with a 360° search radar, but are few in numbers and also heavily tasked with numerous other missions. As such the Dorniers are a vital source of information whenever the Navy wants to know what’s on the other side of the horizon.

Especially in the grey zone of heightened tension but below the threshold of war, maintaining an accurate situational picture of the movements in the northern Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland would be crucial, and here the cooperation between the flying units of the Border Guard and the Navy would come into play. Note that these kinds of periods potentially could last months.

So what could replace the Dorniers? To begin with we need to kill the idea that HX could do it. The HX winner will undoubtedly feature vastly superior sensors compared to the current Hornet-fleet, including when it comes to the maritime domain. However, loitering time is low compared to dedicated platforms, and having a nose-mounted radar means you need to be flying roughly in the direction of the target to keep your most important all-weather sensors on it. The lack of a dedicated mission crew, though possible to handle with a backseater in some HX-candidates, is also a drawback. As such, a dedicated platform is going to offer superior intelligence gathering capabilities, especially if you want to stand back from the action. Using unarmed platforms also lessen the provocative aspect.

The same can be given as the reason why the two GlobalEye included in Saab’s HX-package won’t replace the need for Border Guard fixed-wing aviation. The service has been clear that they want civilian unarmed aircraft, as these will significantly ease international cooperation. Also, while the GlobalEye has significant maritime surveillance capabilities, in the same way as with the Learjets their main use would be something else, in this case assisting the Air Force in the battle for air superiority. All in all, while they would assist in maintaining the maritime picture, in wartime the need for a Dornier-replacement would still present itself. The whole GlobalEye-package is enough of a bombshell to warrant a post of it’s own.

C295
One of three Finnish C-295, two of which are used as airlifters while the last one is configured for SIGINT-duty. Note the paratroopers’ eagle head emblem on the tail. Source: Own picture

The most prolific maritime patrol aircraft today is the Boeing P-8 Poseidon, coming in at well over ten times the maximum take-off weight of the 6.5 ton Do 228. Needless to say, it is way too large and complex for the Rajavartiolaitos. The ATR 42MP is a tried and tested design, and is found in configurations close to what we need. However, it is still almost three times the size of the Do 228. The C295 Persuader is another surveillance version of an aircraft of the same size as the ATR 42, however it has the benefit of commonality with the transport fleet of the Finnish Air Force. This could potentially be a winning factor, promising fewer surprises and maintenance synergies. Yes, there’s a C-27J based MPA as well, but in Finnish service that offers the drawbacks of the Persuader without it’s benefits.

A really interesting contender is the light twin-engined Diamond DA62-MSA. This was recently unveiled, and although smaller than the Do 228, still offer a four person crew and an impressive sensor and mission suite. A yet more radical choice would be the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton, which is a large maritime surveillance drone, based on the more widely used RQ-4 Global Hawk. Is the Border Guard prepared to go unmanned for their most important maritime surveillance platform? Probably not, but it remain a possibility. Granted, there are also some other, some rather stylish, alternatives, but I would be surprised if the eventual winner isn’t found amongst those above.

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A Dawn Raid in the Archipelago

The day started with what sounded like a rare but not unique message on Twitter by the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation, the KRP:

The current search by the KRP in the premises of a company located in the Turku Archipelago may attract attention amongst boaters and holidaymakers.

However, the archipelago has seen some interesting developments during the last few years, and the innocent sounding tweet quickly caught the attention of Finnish security wonks. The developments of the day would soon show that the knee-jerk reaction was warranted.

But let’s start from the beginning: Airiston Helmi Oy was founded in 2007 as a non-public stock company for trading in real estate, and a number of the key persons behind the company were Russian nationals. The company has had just a handful of employees, and has consistently been showing figures in the red (as far as I know, it has never managed a single positive year). What has set the company aside from other failing attempts is however that a number of the real estate deals have taken place at strategic locations in the archipelago outside of Turku in southwestern Finland. The main location is Ybbersnäs in Pargas on the Finnish mainland, with another key location being the island of Säckilot.

Location of Säckilot

The sea lane to Turku and Naantali passes just four kilometers south of the island, with a direct line of sight in the south-east. The ports of Turku and Naantali are of vital importance to Finland in peacetime, but would be of even greater importance in wartime thanks to their location as far away as possible from the Russian border. Naantali also houses one of Finland’s two petroleum refineries, with a daily production capacity of 50,000 barrels.

naantalin_jalostamo2c_naantali2c_29-12-20082c_panoramakuva
Naantali refinery. Source: Markus Rantala/Wikimedia Commons

However, companies and individuals buying houses in the Finnish archipelago for vacation homes are nothing out of the ordinary, and the large archipelago coupled with winding sea lanes means that quite a number of these are situated “strategically close” to the routes. Russian investments in Finnish real estate has also been rather high, owing to a number of reasons including Finland being a popular destination for Russian tourists and the stable markets coupled with rule of law making Finnish real estate an attractive investment opportunity for what used to be described as the emerging Russian middle class. The level of investment has gone down with the oil price, but numerous objects are found all over the country. 2016 an official report noted that a large number of Russian-owned real estate were situated in strategic locations and/or had other suspicious indicators connected to them. These included not only the real estate in the archipelago, but also locations close to airports and key mobilisation routes. The term “Hybrid War” was mentioned.

hessu_helsinki_2015_01
M/S Hessu, former Kala 5, transporting a concrete mixer. Note decidedly non-naval colouring and new name. Source: MKFI/Wikimedia Commons

However, for Airiston Helmi things had turned even stranger when they in 2010 through the Finnish company Rederi Ab Fakir (part of the Alfons Håkans Group, a major player in Finnish towage and general shipping) bought two surplus Finnish naval vessels, the workboat Kala 4 and the launch Hakuni. When the Finnish Navy sells older vessels, they demand that the buyer repaint the vessel and change the name to avoid people mistaking them for active duty vessels. This is even a requirement when the vessels are operated by the naval reserve, but in this case Airiston Helmi was in a hurry and Rederi Ab Fakir left the vessels unpainted. The name was also kept, as Airiston Helmi “preferred it” over Rederi Ab Fakir’s suggested Kronos. Notable here is that in this case Airiston Helmi did nothing illegal, as the contract with the Navy only bound Rederi Ab Fakir to change the colour and name (it wouldn’t be the last time the Alfons Håkans Group and the Navy had a bit of a quarrel). Kala has however been modified and stripped of paint since, as is visible in photographs from today’s raid.

But things didn’t stop there. Airiston Helmi soon got into trouble with the local authorities, as the single-family homes they were building in Ybbersnäs and another location in Pargas both featured eight bedrooms each with their own bathroom, in what looked suspiciously much like a small hotel layout. The fact that one of the houses was actually marketed as one further raised eyebrows, and the company had to give official explanations to the city. The helicopter traffic between Ybbersnäs and other locations, mainly Latvia and Helsinki airport, in turn caused the neighbors to complain, but the complaints were dismissed. In addition questions have been raised regarding the exemptions that the company has received for buildings and dredging (though it should be noted that Finnish building exemption policies are notoriously chancy), as well as if they actually have permission to do some of the works that have been performed. And where does the money come from, considering that the company can’t show anything close to a profit?

Cue today’s dawn raid, executed by over 100 persons from the KRP, local police, Tax Administration, Border Guard, and Finnish Defence Forces. Simultaneously a numbered of locations were searched, and a no-fly zone was created over a sizeable area including both Säckilot and Ybbersnäs. No-one is saying much.

Searches are a normal part when investigating financial crimes. Assistance from other authorities has been required due to the geographical locations and the number of places where the search is conducted. Everything has gone smoothly and according to the plans. We have seized such material as is usually seized in searches investigating financial crime.

KRP doesn’t even mention the Finnish Defence Forces in the press release quoted above, but the Finnish Defence Forces confirm that they have “certain skill sets” which they are assisting with. The crimes investigated are money laundering valued at “millions of Euros” and serious tax fraud. The Finnish Defence Forces spokesperson denies that they have any interests in Airiston Helmi, but an anonymous military source contradicted the statement when asked by Helsingin Sanomat. According to the source, both FDF and SUPO (the Finnish Security Intelligence Service) have been keeping an eye on the company for years.

Again, operations of this scope are rare, but entirely plausible.

The Border Guard regularly cooperate with the Police, both sort under the Ministry of Interior in peacetime, and it is not far-fetched that the former would assist with boats and helicopters if there is an operation with several targets in the archipelago. The Finnish Defence Forces also have tight cooperation with the Police, often providing vehicles and special equipment when the need arises.

But it is hard to come up with a suitable need for FDF know-how or equipment in a white-collar raid. And what about the (unconfirmed) reports of the Border Guard having one of their two maritime reconnaissance aircrafts patrol the area of operations? And why is the no-fly zone in effect until Monday?

OH-MVO
OH-MVO, one of two Dornier Do-228 operated by the Finnish Border Guard in the maritime patrol role. Was she in the area today? Source: Own picture

Edit 230918 1100 GMT+2: It turns out that OH-MVO did visit the location before landing in Helsinki in the early afternoon.

Happy enthusiasts have already decided that Airiston Helmi is a GRU-run operation, complete with vessels for false-flag operations and barracks for spetsnaz units to stay in after infiltrating the country prior to war. It is a possibility, but I am unconvinced.

It is clear that GRU is far from the omnipotent force some authors would like them to be, if nothing else then Salisbury is the final proof. As such the hap-hazard nature of Airiston Helmi isn’t proof of them not being involved. However, it should also be remembered that money laundering is in itself a lucrative business, and there are a numerous reasons for people to want somewhere to stay for a night or two without having to sign a hotel ledger. And if you run a lucrative but highly illegal business, you might want to have some firearms handy in case the competition suddenly comes knocking. This would explain why the KRP chose to ensure that they have the necessary tools to subdue any resistance, including heavier protection and personal firearms (and FDF backup). On the other hand, the Russian cleptocracy makes the dividing lines between crooks, spies, and businessmen somewhat blurred, and even if Airiston Helmi would prove to be a non-political criminal enterprise (it should be noted that no-one is convicted of anything as of yet), it isn’t beyond the realms of imagination for the GRU to call in a favour every now and then (the smuggling case which lead to the abduction of Eston Kohver by the FSB comes to mind).

In any case, don’t expect any clear-cut answers from the authorities within the next few days. And if anyone says they know for certain what’s going on, chances are they are as honest as Airiston Helmi’s bookkeeping.