HX Update Q1 2017

As usual, there is a number of recent events concerning the fighters involved in the HX-program as well as the program itself.

The Rafale is currently having its F3R standard being evaluated, which will be fully certified during 2018, and last week Dassault got the order for the follow-on F4 standard. The main focus of the F4 will likely be on upgrades to the software, including the SPECTRA EW-suite, as well as a new short/medium-range air-to-air missiles (or possibly new versions of the current MICA). The F4 is slated to fly by 2023.

Saab got an order for an upgraded version of their RBS15 anti-ship missile, the two versions ordered being a ship-mounted RBS15 Mk3+ and an air-launched RBS 15F-ER (including integration onto the JAS 39E Gripen). The weapon is developed in cooperation with Diehl, and according to Saab it features “improved combat range, an upgraded target seeker, and a lower mass compared to the earlier system. It also has an ability to combat a wide spectrum of naval and land-based targets.”.

The Eurofighter is continuing with both the Phase 2 and Phase 3 Enhancement programs in parallels, with the latest milestone having been a series of flight trials with the Brimstone anti-vehicle missile. The Royal Air Force is keen to keep the current schedule, as the Tornado is soon about to bow out. Currently, this seems to hold, which should mean that any capability gaps are avoided.

The Finnish Defence Forces’ Logistics Command sent out a preliminary RFI for weapons and other external stores for the HX. This is to be followed by a ‘proper’ RFI later this summer, The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might first seem. The capabilities of the aircrafts are tied to their weaponry (and external stores), the cost of which also makes up a significant part of the whole project. For a fair comparison of how the fighters will perform in Finnish service, the evaluation need to be performed only with the weapons which are likely to be acquired by the Finnish Air Force. E.g. the Eurofighter feature both the ASRAAM and the IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missiles, but no user has adopted both. In other words, the final cost and capability is highly dependent on which weapon is used in the evaluation. The RFI is also set to investigate the integration cost in the cases where an aircraft doesn’t yet have a suitable weapon integrated.

The Finnish Air Force Command (ILMAVE) has confirmed that the possibility of the HX getting an anti-ship capability is being looked into. This is in line with the recent Finnish defence white paper.

The air show-season, also known as ‘summer’ amongst non-avgeeks, is fast approaching. BAE and Saab have confirmed the presence of the Eurofighter and JAS 39C Gripen respectively flying on both Kaivari and Seinäjoki Air Shows, with Boeing/USN having confirmed that the Super Hornet will come to Kaivari. So far Rafale and F-35 is missing from both, though Lockheed-Martin has promised to show up with some kind of a stand.



Flotilla 2020 – A Strategic Acquistion

The Finnish corvette program is steadily moving forward, and it is nice to see that the Navy is also becoming more open regarding the project. A while back the Navy published a 20-page long document which in quite some detail went through the background of the project, and how it ended up with four multipurpose corvettes being the vessels of choice for Flotilla 2020. This was followed up by a four page article by captain (N) Valkamo, the Navy’s Assistant Chief of Staff / Plans, published in the personnel magazine Rannikon puolustaja (fi. Defender of the Coast). The latter provide a good overlook over the project, including the background research and some further nuggets of information compared to the longer text.

While the program seems to enjoy broad support amongst the Navy (unsurprising) and politicians, it continues to be something of a hot topic amongst parts of the general population and other service branches. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that both texts place a heavy focus on the solid groundwork made before the decision to focus on four multipurpose corvettes was made.

First, the nature of the future naval battlefield was predicted, and yes, that include the presence of K-300 Bastion anti-ship missile system. After this, the question of how to cost-effectively solve the missions of the Finnish Navy in this threat environment was looked into, including a number of different configurations with vessels of different sizes and roles and in different combinations. Unsurprisingly, it was concluded that due to operational and tactical flexibility as well as economic factors (including both acquisition and life-cycle costs) a single class of multipurpose vessels was preferable over numerous different designs specialising in one or two roles and operating together. I’ve earlier discussed the issue of trying to coordinate different ships into a working unit, ensuring that the right one is always in the right place. A metaphor could be the merger of light, medium, heavy, infantry, and cavalry tanks as well as the tank destroyer into the jack-of-all-trades Main Battle Tank. Other alternatives that were looked into was transferring whole or part of the missions to air- or ground-based systems, but this was also deemed impossible to implement cost-effectively. Especially as e.g. mining require vessels out at sea in any case.

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An infographic depicting the timeline for all major surface units, including scheduled service date, MLU, decommisiong, as well as roles and capabilities. Source: Finnish MoD

This then caused the slight growth in size compared to the current mine ships, as the vessel needs to be able to fit numerous weapons and their sensors, as well as maintaining the crew complement and provisions needed for prolonged stays out at sea during escort or surveillance missions. Something which hasn’t been widely discussed is the need for speed. While the light fast attack crafts have impressive sprint speed, their ability to transit a high speeds over longer distances isn’t stellar, especially if you encounter adverse weather. In the same way, while a Ferrari might be faster than a Land Rover on the Nürburgring, the roles would quickly be reversed if they set off on a bumpy dirt road through the Finnish forests. The larger size does also allow for the ability to operate in ice, as well as better resistance to combat damage due to compartmentalisation.

Still, the size won’t grow too much. Partly because larger vessels aren’t an end in itself, and partly because both acquisition and life-cycle costs grow with the hull size. The Navy also face an issue with having a limited number of crew members with which to man the vessels. All of these factor in, and has lead to the current design. Importantly, keeping the total length around 100 meters and the draft low means that the vessels can use the current naval infrastructure in the Finnish archipelago, including the current network of secondary bases and the extensive network of inshore waterways.

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The 7 meter long and 900 kg heavy 1:15 scale hull model is pushed through the ice as part of the test program. Source: Finnish MoD

The hull form has been finalised, and scale test have been performed with an eye on different requirements. These include both resistance, manoeuvring, and ice-going capability. In addition, the new propeller design has been tested in full scale on the Navy’s auxilliary FNS Louhi. As was expected, the vessels will have a drop of MEKO-blood in them, as the concept has been fine-tuned by German design bureau MTG-Marinetechnik GmbH.

FNS Hämeenmaa (02) showing the 57 mm Bofors Mk I. Source: Puolustusvoimat

For the weapons and sensors, the RFI resulted in a number of suitable packages being identified, all fitting within the budget. One of these will then be chosen, with the (foreign) main supplier being responsible for providing an integrated warfighting capability (sensors, weapons, C3I, battlefield management, and so forth). One interesting change which I did not expect was the renaming of the anti-ship missiles from meritorjuntaohjus (sea-defence missile) to pintatorjuntaohjus (surface-defence missile), with the Navy’s new missile being slated to become PTO2020. It is possible that this change reflects the secondary land-attack capability many modern missiles have. The PTO2020 program is handled as its own program as it is destined for both the updated Hamina, the corvettes, and the land-based launchers. As such it is not included in the 1.2 billion Euro price tag of the corvettes, as is the case with the new light ASW-torpedo which will be acquired as part of the Hamina MLU.

In addition to these systems, several systems will also be transferred from the Rauma- and Hämeenmaa-classes, as well as from the already decommissioned Pohjanmaa. These include the deck guns, towed arrays, decoy launchers, mine-laying equipment, and fire control director. The deck gun is an interesting issue, as the Rauma is equipped with the Bofors 40 mm, of which there are four, while the Hämeenmaa feature the 57 mm Bofors Mk I, a considerably more suitable weapon for a corvette. Still, the Mk I is quite a bit older than the corresponding 57 mm Bofors Mk 3 which is found on the Hamina, and as we all know there are only two Hämeenmaa vessels in service. However, it is possible that there are more guns in storage, as the two scrapped Helsinki-class vessels as well as the Pohjanmaa also had a single 57 mm Bofors Mk I each, and the Finnish Defence Forces is famous for not throwing away something that might prove useful further down the line. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the current guns mounted on the Hämeenmaa-class are these recycled Helsinki-class guns… In any case, I expect to see the 57 mm Bofors L/70 mounted on the corvettes, and probably upgrade to a Mk 3-ish standard in order to be able to fire smart ammunition remotely.

The decoy launcher is more straightforward, as both classes feature the modern Rheinmetall MASS. The towed arrays currently in service are the active Kongsberg ST2400 variable-depth sonar and the SONAC PTA passive sonar. Very little information is available on the latter, but it is understood to be a rather conventional system well suited for littoral operations with both narrow- and broadband waterfall displays. As the current number of arrays has been quite small, and as the Hamina will also take up the ASW-role as part of their MLU, it is entirely possible that more arrays will be acquired. It is also unclear if all corvettes will get both active and passive arrays, or whether they will be limited to either mode of operation.

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

Interestingly, the fire-control sensor is the Saab CEROS 200 radar and optronic tracking fire control director. This will likely strengthen Saab’s already strong offering, as they already have a tried solution for integrating the CEROS into their 9LV combat managment system, together with their RBS15 MK3 missile and Sea Giraffe radars. The 9LV is already a familiar product to the Finnish Navy, and it would come as no surprise if Saab would be the prime contractor for systems integration. Other companies likely in the running include Atlas Elektroniks (prime contractor for the ongoing Pansio-class MLU), Kongsberg (best known for the NSM anti-ship missile, but has a wide portfolio of naval products), and Raytheon (sporting strong references).

TKRB – Coastal Defense in Swedish

In a surprise move, Sweden today announced that they will reintroduce truck-based coastal defense batteries equipped with the Saab RBS15 heavy-anti ship missile. This is not a new system for Sweden, which operated exactly such a unit for five years between 1995 and 2000. This was then rapidly disbanded in the general drawdown of the Swedish Defense Forces. The decision was widely criticised, and has since come to be seen as a major mistake (amongst several that took place between 2000 and 2009). Crucially, the equipment was not stored for a possible reactivation, but dispersed without any kind of central plan. Some of the trucks were sold on the civilian market, some were used by Saab, FMV, or the defense forces themselves.

The Finnish truck-based launcher mounting the MTO 85M. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI

The original TKRB (Swe. Tung kustrobot, literally ‘Heavy coastal missile’) was the RBS-15KA based on the baseline RBS 15, later referred to as Mk I. The current version in Swedish naval use is the updated Mk II, which also roughly corresponds to the Finnish MTO 85M. This is starting to show its age, and in the Finnish Navy it is to be replaced in both vessel- and coastal-based roles in the time span of 2018 to 2025. A number of countries around the Baltic Sea already operate the upgraded Mk III, which can be considered a completely new weapon for most intents and purposes.

The interesting part is that Sweden at very short notice has decided to introduce a new(ish) weapon system with a very limited operational life span of just five to ten years, after which it will have to be replaced with a new missile. Granted, this is a low-cost solution, with the weapons themselves already found in the inventory and the drawings for the truck-mount probably based on the original implementation. Still, it has been known for years that this system would significantly increase the deterrence factor, and nothing has happened until now.

The fact that this significantly heightens the Swedish Defense Forces ability to defend their home waters is great news for Finland as well, as this is one place where our supply lines would be vulnerable to intercept without the Finnish Navy or Air Force being able to do something. However, this also causes a very uncomfortable question to pop up again:

What does the Swedish Commander-in-Chief know, that our politicians pretend they don’t?

The quest for MTO XX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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