Torped 47 – Steel fishes back into Finnish service

On the evening of 18 November 1942, three Finnish motor torpedo boats entered the Soviet port at Moschny Island (Fi. Lavansaari) and fired four torpedoes which sank the Soviet 1,700 ton gun boat Krasnoye Znamya at its moorings, after which they sped away unscathed. The daring raid is the high point in the history of Finnish torpedoes, and five years later torpedoes were effectively banned from Finnish use with the Paris Peace Treaty.

Like the case with guided missiles, the ban would in the end give way to Soviet weapon exports. In this case torpedoes reappeared on the (official) Finnish TOE with the acquisition of two Project 50 ‘Gornostay’ (NATO-designation ‘Riga’-class) frigates in the mid-1960’s, both of which sported heavy torpedoes (533 mm). The local renaissance of the torpedo was however cut short by the fact that the ships themselves weren’t overly successful, and importantly they were too manpower intensive for the small Finnish Navy. In the end, they were retired in 1979 and 1985 respectively.

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Saab’s render of the NLWT in full ‘warpaint’. Picture courtesy of Saab

Now, while the heavy torpedo slowly gave way to the anti-ship missile as the premier weapon in ship-to-ship combat, the lightweight torpedo became the anti-submarine weapon of choice for most navies in the world. In Finland things were a bit different, mainly because of the shallow and constrained waters which dominate the northern shore of the Gulf of Finland. However, things slowly started to change with the introduction of ever more capable diesel-electric submarines and different kinds of midget submarines in the Russian Baltic Fleet. While running towards the enemy at speed and throwing depth charges might have worked against a Project 641 ‘Foxtrot’-class, it was very doubtful whether it would against more modern designs such as the current Project 877/636 ‘Kilo’ or the upcoming Project 677 ‘Lada’.

With these developments under the surface in combination with the Finnish Navy shifting more and more priority from defence against enemy amphibious landings/naval movements to protection of merchant shipping, it was clear that the ASW-capability needed a boost. There simply needed to be more ships capable of performing ASW, and they needed a longer reach to avoid being sunk outside of the range of their own ASW-weapons. Enter the second reintroduction of torpedoes into Finnish service, with the decision that the Hamina-class and the upcoming Pohjanmaa-class (Squadron 2020) would both get light torpedoes.

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Håkan Ekström, Saab’s sales director for underwater systems. Source: Own picture

The choice of torpedoes was revealed early January this year, with the announcement that Saab’s new lightweight torpedo (NLWT) had been chosen. As a matter of fact, the torpedo is so new that it hasn’t got a company name yet. “There is a name in the works”, Saab’s sales director for underwater systems Håkan Ekström discloses. In the meantime, the Swedish Defence Forces has already named the new weapon Torped 47 (sans-o, as that’s how the word is written in Swedish).

That Finland would opt for the NLWT was rather unsurprising, considering that it is highly optimised for the kind of littoral environment that any Finnish submarine hunt would take place in. Compared to ‘blue waters’ (open seas), looking for submarines is vastly different in the Baltic Sea. Detection ranges, and combat ranges for that matter, can easily be much greater than the depth, leaving the combat taking place in what the product manager for torpedoes, Thomas Petersson, described as a “Thin slice of water”. This causes issues for active sonars, as in the oceans anything spotted by them is usually either a submarine or some kind of sealife. In the Baltic Sea, most echoes are simply coming from the seabed, leading to a more difficult discrimination problem. The water also has some interesting behaviors, part of which comes from the many rivers flowing into the sea. These bring fresh water of various temperatures and significant amounts of sediments into the sea, leading to sound waves in some cases experiencing refraction in two directions (see this short and nice primer on how different temperatures messes up submarine hunting). In short together with the cluttered seabed detection becomes difficult, leading to relatively short engagement ranges.

Saab’s answer is the NLWT, which sports a number of niche features which combine to address the problems of subhunting in littoral waters. To begin with the torpedo is wire-guided, meaning that the operator aboard the ship can easily control the torpedo throughout its course. This also allows it to be used like a forward-deployed sensor, in that the operator can use its active sonar to look for targets, at different depths, as the torpedo is happily moving towards the suspected submarine location. The torpedo also has a very low slowest possible speed, allowing it to run very silently, further increasing the effectiveness of its sonars (the torpedo can be fired in both active and passive modes). One crucial difference is that the active sonar is operating at a somewhat higher frequency than usual for light torpedoes, giving it better resolution on the sonar picture as a tradeoff for somewhat shorter viewing range. The torpedo also has a quick launch sequence and rapidly goes into stable running, to ensure that it doesn’t touch the bottom and can handle the earlier mentioned short engagement ranges efficiently.

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The earlier Torped 45 being fired of a ship during an ASW exercise. Note the two unshrouded screws, the most obvious external difference compared to the NLWT. Source: Jimmie Adamsson/Försvarsmakten

For the technical specifications, NLWT is made out of aluminium, and sports a pump jet with a single rotating impeller and a stator in place of the earlier Torped 45’s two unshrouded coaxial counter-rotating screws. The battery has also been upgraded, with lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) batteries replacing the earlier silver-oxide. This allows the torpedo to stay launch-ready for longer times in the launch tube, which also functions as the plug-and-play storage tube. The launch tube also include pressurised air to eject the torpedo and a spool of the same wire as is found inside the torpedo. If the torpedo moves, the torpedo spools out wire, and if the vessel moves the launch tube spools out wire. This ensures that the wire stays stationary in the water after the first few meters of the torpedo run, making sure that it doesn’t tangle or break. In the case of a wire break the torpedo will either abort or continue in fire-and-forget mode, depending on the mode chosen before launch. After a torpedo has been launched, the whole empty launch tube is switched out to a new tube with a launch ready torpedo inside it. This switch takes around 15-30 minutes for a trained crew and doesn’t require any specific equipment other than a suitable crane to handle the load. As such, it could conceivably be handled at sea (sea state allowing). The used launch tube is then sent back to a naval base to be reloaded. The direct drive DC-motor together with the new batteries provide a range measured in “tens of kilometers”, the exact number being both classified and highly dependent upon the speed of the torpedo.

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The first prototype of the NLWT during tests at Motala. Note orange dummy warhead, wire being retrieved in the bucket aft of the torpedo, and the grey disc on top of the torpedo immediately behind the warhead which marks the location of the proximity fuse. Picture courtesy of Saab

The active sensor provides a detailed enough picture that it can measure the length of the target, and any major features such as the conning tower can be made out. During the run the torpedo maps all return echoes, run validity checks, and reports on valid targets. If allowed it will then intercept the closest valid target inside the search box, and in case of a miss it will re-acquire for another attack. The seeker has been used successfully during live-fire exercises against targets the size of midget submarines, and Saab is confident that it can handle these kinds of targets as well as regular submarines. An interesting feature is the anti-ship capability, and though the small warhead (Saab declines to give the size, but notes that most light torpedoes carry a warhead weighing “about 50 kilograms”) won’t sink any major surface units, it does punch above its weight in that it has a dedicated ASuW-attack mode going beneath the vessel and using an upwards-looking proximity fuse to detonate under the keel. The combined effect of the gas-bubble which removes the water that carries that part of the vessel combined with the impact of water rushing back to fill the hole is enough to literally break ships in two when employed by larger torpedoes, and while the NLWT won’t repeat that, it will most likely send any corvette limping back to base with the hull distorted and propulsion shafts out of alignment.

Part of this performance comes from the Swedish requirement to be able to use the torpedo from both surface ships, submarines, coastal launchers, and aircrafts/helicopters. For the submarines, the light torpedo plays an important role as a self-defence weapon, as well as for hunting other submarines. For the Hamina-class, they will sport a single fixed twin launcher on the rear deck, allowing enough space for the RIB-launch to remain in its current position. Looking at the future, the contract with Saab also include an option for the four Pohjanmaa-class corvettes, and everything points towards this option being exercised within the next year or so when the acquisition of weapons for the corvette program starts to take place.

The current Finnish contract for the torpedoes include the systems for the Hamina-class and an undisclosed number of torpedoes, as well as training at the torpedo research and development center in Motala. This is also where we are shown the first prototype of the weapon, which is just about to finish its part of the development program. The production of the units themselves, and prototype number two which is currently in production, takes place in Linköping. Deliveries to both Finland and Sweden will start in 2023, and FNS Tornio, the first of the Hamina-class to undergo MLU, will be ready to go to sea with the launchers fitted already next year. Notable is that the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration, FMV, is closely involved in the project and is the launch customer that has contracted Saab to develop a new torpedo. However, the Finnish contract with Saab does not include any research and developments, but is purely for production and supply (including torpedoes, hardware needed for their operation, documentation, and training). However, at the same time the Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command, PVLOGL, has signed an agreement with the FMV regarding cooperation and loans of Torped 45 to cover the period 2019 to 2023 when the Finnish Navy will have torpedo capable ships but no torpedoes.

‘Borrowing’ something that is literally worth millions of Euros sounded a bit suspicious to me, so I decided to contact FMV to confirm that it wasn’t just a case of Saab spelling ‘leasing’ wrong. However, FMV confirmed that it is indeed the case that the Finnish Defence Forces gets to borrow a non-disclosed number of torpedoes for free, as long as they are used and maintained according to official documentation. The aim of this agreement is that Finland will be able to operate with the Torped 45 aboard FNS Tornio already next autumn. Part of why this generosity is bestowed upon the Finnish Navy is no doubt that torpedoes occupy a rather unique role amongst modern munitions in that after launch they can be retrieved (the training warhead sports a flotation device in the form a inflatable ‘balloon’), and after the wire has been respooled and the battery recharged they are good to go again. As such, this is quite different compared to e.g. borrowing artillery rounds.

However, another angle is without doubt the value for Sweden of having Finland as an operator of the same system. Not only will this offer benefits when jointly performing ASW missions as part of the Swedish-Finnish Naval Task Group (the SFNTG), but a second cooperation deal signed at the same time between FMV and PVLOGL concern the future of the NLWT. Under this the two nations will cooperate around the acquisition and continued development of the torpedo system. By creating these kinds of synergies the costs for operating and keeping the system up to date will hopefully be lower for both users, and the agreement also open up the doors for increased cooperation around the ASW-mission as a whole.

The first draft of the text and pictures, with the exception of those parts based on information given by FMV, has been provided to Saab for screening to ensure that no classified, export controlled, or company confidential information is included.

RBS15 – on the road to the Next Generation

“Psychedelic” is the word I hear someone standing next to me use to describe the room. I agree. We are standing inside what is roughly a 13 m long cube, with all the surfaces being covered with soft blue spikes of different sizes. The room is completely void of echoes, and they say that if you stand here alone, you will eventually hear your heart beating. Loudly. The only objects standing out is a large frame mounted halfway up one wall, and a pattern of blank discs mounted opposite the frame, these being the flight motion simulator and the antenna wall respectively.  We are in the anechoic chamber at ELSI, and I almost expect GLaDOS to start talking to us.

ELSI, or the Electrical Warfare Simulator, is at the hearth of Saab’s anti-ship missile program. The seeker-head of the RBS15 missile is mounted on the flight motion simulator, which moves the seeker in 3-axises as it ‘flies’. On the other end of the room the antennas sends out signals corresponding to what the seeker would see at any given moment during its course. This includes not only target signatures, environmental effects, and countermeasures in the form of false targets and active jammers. All this, coupled with the seekers simulated position and real-world direction, are then used to create the model, which is fed to the antenna wall’s signal generator which creates artificial radar returns for the seeker head. As noted, it is very much a case of the actual hardware being in the loop during testing.

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RBS15, sporting a 200 kilogram warhead to dissuade enemy ships from getting within 200 kilometers of your waters. Source: Own picture

The story of ELSI goes back to the early 90’s, when the board decided upon the investment, partly to ensure that Saab would be able to expand their share of the export market in an age of shrinking defence budgets. 1994 the site was running its first tests, and four years later it was operating at the desired level, a host of teething problems having been fixed.

Finland is no stranger to the RBS15, having operated the first generation of the missile from ship and shorebased batteries under the local designation MTO-85 since the late eighties. As such, a Finnish delegation visited ELSI early on in 1999, with the latest Finnish threat pictures. The purpose was to run a comprehensive round of tests with the MTO-85 seeker, which then provided the basis for an upgrade program launched at Saab. The upgraded seeker was then run through the same set of tests the following year. The tests can’t have gone too bad, as two years later the upgraded RBS15 SFIII, a customised RBS15 MkII, was introduced in Finnish service as the MTO 85M.

Now the RBS15 is a hot topic again for Finland. The anti-ship missile is one of the candidates for the PTO2020-program, the current acquisition to replace the MTO 85M on the Hamina-class following their ongoing MLU and in the truckmounted batteries, as well as becoming the main surface-to-surface weapon for the new Pohjanmaa-class corvettes (Squadron 2020). And Saab is confident that the RBS15 will be a prime candidate this time as well.

Saab has two distinct versions on the table. Noting that the baseline version was nearing the end of its life, Saab embarked on an ambitious upgrade program. While the step from MkI to MkII was an upgrade, the Mk3 was a radical redesign resulting in what was basically a completely new missile. Following a four-year test program it was adopted by the German Navy, and shortly after that by the Poles. The Swedish Navy is still soldiering on with the MkII, and would have been happy to adopt the Mk3. However, the Swedish Air Force had other thoughts, and had a requirement for the weapon to be lighter to allow four missiles to be carried simultaneously by the upcoming 39E Gripen. The result was the RBS15 ‘Next Generation’ (still lacking an official designation, though Mk4 wouldn’t come as a surprise), which is an upgraded Mk3 with a lighter launch weight, longer range, and generally improved performance. The weapon is contracted for introduction into Swedish service for both the Navy and the Air Force during the next decade, and Saab doesn’t mince words: “It is the most capable and advanced anti-ship missile on the market”, as was explained to us during a briefing.

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The new launch tubes for the RBS15 Mk3 are seemingly of a more complex shape than the older ones, but under the surface ease of manufacture actually means they are cheaper. Source: Own picture

The new launchers are a chapter for themselves, with the original box-like launcher having been replaced by octagonal tubes. The reason behind this is cost-savings, as the original box held the missile tilted 45° to one side, meaning that the railings holding the missile inside the box have very demanding tolerances. The newer launch tube instead holds the missile level, which is somewhat more forgiving on the structures. But it in turn leads to new questions. “The Visby-class will fit the NG, but we have already cut square holes in the side for the MkII, so in that case we will use the old launcher,” a technical sales support engineer explained. “The missile itself doesn’t really care, it can handle both positions.”

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The humble MSU (Missile switching unit) is the only major piece of hardware except the launch container that is needed aboard a vessel to be able to fire RBS15. Source: Own picture

What then is so special about the RBS15? From a Finnish standpoint, the Baltic Sea as the design environment of choice is interesting. The often poor weather combined with a cluttered archipelago and lots of civilian traffic makes for a challenging battlefield, and Saab is one of very few companies designing their anti-ship missiles from the outset for littoral waters as opposed to the open sea. This is also where ELSI comes into play. allowing for advanced simulations of the performance of the seeker, something which plays a key role in evaluating parameters such as ECCM and target discrimination. The weapon is also capable of performing the land-attack role against ‘soft’ targets, though it is not optimised for the role in the same way as ‘true’ land-attack cruise missiles.

The ships we are firing against are not that keen on being hit.

The flight path of the missile is guided through a number of pre-set 3D waypoints, and the missile then navigates using both GPS and inertial navigation to make sure it hits all waypoints on time. Timing is key for features such as simultaneous time-on-target, a default feature for the RBS15, and as such the missile will throttle up and down in flight as needed to hit all waypoints on the exact time given. The exact height of the sea-skimming part of the trajectory also varies according to sea state, with larger waves naturally forcing the missile to fly at higher altitude. And in case the missile misses its target, it will swing around and do a reattack. If no target is found at all, it will eventually head off to a pre-set destruction point, which can be altered by the operator to make sure the missile doesn’t fly off and self-destruct over the nearest town.

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Saab’s technology demonstrator 39-7 displaying the capability to carry two RBS15 under each wing, giving a four-ship of Gripen E an almost unrivalled firepower against enemy shipping. A full salvo will be devastating against enemy warships, but also comes at a hefty price. Picture courtesy of Saab Ab

For PTO2020, Saab hasn’t offered a specific variant, but instead opened the shop and described the Mk3 available today and the NG available tomorrow. The systems will also be interoperable, with NG launchers able to fire Mk3 and Mk3 launchers able (after a software update) to launch NG missiles. Customisation, as has been the case with the earlier Finnish versions, is also an option, but Saab notes that less and less countries are willing to pay the premium of having a customised missile. From a Finnish perspective, the supply chain is interesting. Diehl in Germany handles final assembly, with Saab building many major subassemblies and handling much of the development work and testing in Linköping. However, a new location on the map is Saab’s brand new technology centre, the STC, in Tampere, which is heavily involved in the electronic warfare side of the technology for the RBS15 NG.

The first draft of the text and pictures has been provided to Saab for screening to ensure that no classified, export controlled, or company confidential information is included.

Saab Bound for Naval Grand Slam?

As the modernisation of the Finnish Navy’s surface fleet continues, Saab has managed to secure two key contracts. Earlier, it was announced that Saab would provide the new anti-submarine torpedoes set to be fielded by both the modernised Hamina-class FAC as well as the new Pohjanmaa-class corvettes (Squadron 2020). In many ways this was the low hanging fruit for Saab. Not only is development of their new torpedo well underway with Sweden as the launch customer, it is also based on proved technology in the form of the earlier Torped 45, making it possible to operate the older version from the installed tubes until the new Torped 47 is ready. Perhaps crucially, it is one of few weapons of its class designed with an eye to use in littoral and brackish waters, key features of the operating environment of the Finnish Navy.

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Leadship of the class, FNS Hamina (’80’) two years ago. Note forward 57 mm main gun, roof-mounted CEROS 200, and 12.7 mm NSV heavy machine gun behind bridge. Source: Merivoimat FB

This week Saab landed a bigger fish, as it was announced that they will provide the combat management system, fire-control system, integrated communication systems, as well as optronic sensors for the Hamina MLU. The odd bird out is the fact that the order include the CEROS 200 optronic sensor, which is already fitted to the vessels. Either these are worn out to the extent that buying newer is cheaper from a maintenance point of view, or there have been internal upgrades of the CEROS 200 since the original deliveries almost twenty years ago that have not been reflected in the name of the product, but are extensive enough to warrant buying complete units and not simply giving the CEROS its own MLU.

Another interesting inclusion is the Trackfire remote weapon station, with the Hamina now being the third class in the Finnish Navy to receive the RWS. The use of the Trackfire on the Hamina isn’t specified, but the wording in the press release does seem to indicate a single system per ship. As such, while it is possible that two stations per vessel will replace the port and starboard manually operated 12.7 mm NSV heavy machine guns mounted amidships, the likelier scenario is that they will take the place of  the main armament. There has been talk (so far unconfirmed?) that the main 57 mm guns (Bofors Mk 3) of the Hamina vessels will be removed as weight saving measures and transferred to the four Pohjanmaa-class vessels, and this would fit right in. While the Trackfire is usually seen fitted with a heavy machine gun as the main armament, it is capable of holding “lightweight medium calibre cannons”, i.e. weapons up to and including low-pressure 30 mm ones. This is not an unheard of solution, with e.g. the Israeli Typhoon RWS being used with a number of the different Bushmaster-series of cannons as the main or secondary gun on a number of different naval vessels out there. A 30 mm Bushmaster, the Mk 44, is already found in Finnish service on the CV 9030 IFV, but before anyone gets too enthusiastic it should be noted that this uses a longer high-pressure round, so there is no synergy to be had. Instead, something like the M230LF, based on the chain gun found on the Apache helicopter, is the more likely candidate.

Dropping down in calibre from 57 to 30 mm is not necessarily a bad thing, as the main use of the weapon will likely be air defence and intercepting light craft. Modern 30 mm rounds will do quite some damage against soft targets such as warships as well, though naturally you won’t win a gun fight against a large vessel sporting a 3 or 5 inch gun anytime soon (to be fair, if you find your FAC up against a destroyer at gun range something has likely gone very wrong already at an earlier stage of the battle).

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Jehu-class landing craft with a Trackfire RWS on top of the superstructure. For the landing crafts the usual mount is either a 12.7 mm NSV or a 40 mm GMG, with a 7.62 mm PKM as a co-axial weapon. Source: Merivoimat FB

At the heart of the Hamina order is the 9LV, an open architecture system which allows integration of different sub-systems, sensors, and weapons into a single integrated package. As such, different building blocks can be integrated into CMS systems from other manufacturers, or other manufacturers’ subsystems can be integrated into the 9LV CMS. That Saab gets this kind of a complete deal including both the CMS, FCS, integrated communication systems, and part of the weaponry is significant, especially when looking towards the soon to be decided contract for a main systems integrator for the Pohjanmaa-class, a job which will likely be of significantly higher value than the Hamina MLU.

The main implications is that this makes Saab the front-runner for the Pohjanmaa-class CMS. Earlier the Rauma-class FAC received the 9LV during its MLU, and now on the Hamina 9LV is replacing Atlas Elektronik’s ANCS 2000-system. While the requirements for the CMS of the Hamina and the Pohjanmaa are not completely identical, there certainly is something to be said when the former replaces one of the shortlisted CMS’s with the another one, instead of simply upgrading it. It should also be remembered that several subsystems, including most weapons, will be the same for both vessels.

Yet another noteworthy development is that Saab recently announced a new fixed face version of their Sea Giraffe, in the form of the Sea Giraffe 4A FF. I have earlier questioned whether Saab’s twin rotating mast solution would satisfy the requirements of the Navy, and it seems clear that the 4A FF is a possible solution for the Pohjanmaa’s main long-distance sensor. As Saab is also well positioned to secure the order for the new PTO2020 surface-to-surface missile, they just might be on track to secure all major Finnish naval contracts they are bidding for.

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FNS Pori (’83’), the newest of the four Hamina-class vessels, underway. Source: Merivoimat FB

Fire among the dunes – Air defence exercise 1/16

At first glance, Vattaja firing range looks like an anachronism in the Finnish Defence Forces. At a time when the force as a whole has largely disappeared from the greater Ostrobothnian area, the location of a minor firing range at the coast seems strange.

However, looking closer, the reasons become clearer. Featuring a considerable stretch of coastline facing the open sea, it allows for joint exercises involving not only ground based units, but fast jets and surface ships as well. Its location far from the Russian listening posts at Gogland (and potential ‘trawlers’ running around in the Gulf of Finland) is also beneficial when practicing emission heavy scenarios, such as anti-air warfare.

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A Crotale NG system mounted on a Patria XA-181 chassis (local designation ITO90M) awaits the next wave of enemies during the battle phase. Source: author

These benefits are utilised in the twice-yearly series of air defence exercises, simply named “Ilmapuolustusharjoitus” (Air defence exercise), having been renamed for the first edition this year from the earlier “Ilmatorjuntaharjoitus” (Anti-air exercise). The reason for this renaming is unknown, but one guess is that the exercise has evolved to become more of a joint exercise as opposed to a pure ground-based air defence event. The first exercise kicks off in May each year, and IPH 1/16 has been taking place for the last two weeks. The first week, the so called “Firing phase”, emphasizes live firing against both towed and sub-scale targets, while the second week is the “Battle phase” and pits the air force against the ground and surface units in different scenarios (obviously, no live ammunition is used during this phase).

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Three ‘bogeys’ at one staging area east of the training area proper. Source: author

For the ground forces, forces from three differnt brigades brought more or less everything from the humble NSV 12.7 mm heavy machine gun to the NASAMS 2, including Crotale and Stinger missiles, as well as ZU-23-2 ‘Sergei’ and Oerlikon KD/GDF anti-aircraft guns. The air force, which has overall responsibility for the exercise, brought its F/A-18C Hornet’s, both for their own live firings as well as for target duty/practicing operations against enemy air defence networks. The navy, busy with several exercises during the second half of May and preparing for the upcoming BALTOPS 16 kicking off early June, sent a single Hamina-class FAC, which also performed live firings with its Umkhonto-IR missile system. In addition, the navy brought a small landing craft, probably for SAR duty and for policing the safety zone.

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Fast attack craft FNS Tornio (’81’), the main contribution of the Navy, visible in the haze off the coast. Source: author

The current state of the Finnish air defence is a hot topic, especially after the launching of the HX-fighter program and the withdrawal of the Buk M1 in favour of the shorter-ranged NASAMS 2. The majority of the gunbased anti-air assets are also approaching the end of their lifespans, and although the Marksman system got reintroduced into action after being transferred from T-55AM to Leopard 2A4 hulls, the air defence is looking worrisomely thin on a longer horizon. Partly to offset this coming reduction in lighter AAA systems and partly to replace older Soviet MANPADS, a considerable (but undisclosed) quantity of FIM-92C Stingers where bought, with the first having been fired last year at ITH 2/15, and more being employed this year. A Finnish particular is the tactics to use cherry pickers as launch platforms. These are employed to get above the treetops to secure a good enough line of fire. As Finland is heavily forested and relatively flat, launching the missiles from the ground gives little time for spotting and acquiring a firing solution when hostile aircraft approach at low level and high speed.

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Conscript with Stinger launcher in a cherry picker, catching a break after a low-level pass by two Hornets. Source: author

An interesting visitor this year was Saab’s Special Flight Operations’ Learjet 35 which flew target flights. The aircraft can perform both target towing and different electronic warfare missions, missions which have earlier been handled by the air force’s own Learjets. The plane has the ability to fly “adversary flight profiles with or without Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) for AA and AD systems”, and it did employ aggressive flight tracks at low altitude over the training range. While Saab won’t comment on exactly which EW systems are mounted aboard at any given time, the aircraft did feature two unspecified (and different) pods, and it is interesting to note that Gripen’s active EW suit is one of its stronger sales points, with already the 39C apparently being able to give “nasty shocks” to RAF Typhoon pilots. It is entirely possible that the air force took the opportunity to get a feel for Saab’s EW know-how in advance of the proper HX evaluation (or that Saab took the opportunity to demonstrate their products, whichever way one looks upon it).

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One of Saab’s Learjets, SE-DHP, during a low pass over the training area. Source: author

A closing statement on the pictures taken during the exercise: all pictures were taken from outside the exercise area, and in several instances there were officers standing close by, apparently okay with me running around with a tele lens. A few of the pictures were taken so that they show part of the area declared off limits to the general public for the duration of the exercise. Despite reading through the notice posted at the site and checking for signs in the terrain, I found no indication that photography was prohibited or restricted (with the exception of flying targets due to safety hazards). Still, I have used my own judgement and left out certain observations/pictures from this post, due to the potentially revealing nature of these.

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A ‘Sergei’ blasting away at an incoming Hornet. Source: author

Saab Gripen seminar 2016

Saab held its annual Gripen seminar earlier this month, and during the rather brief presentation a couple of interesting points surfaced.

To begin with, Saab seems very confident regarding future exports, aiming to be the market leader in their segment. They have successfully competed and won against both ends of the spectrum, F-16C/D in Europe and F-35/Rafale/Eurofighter in Brazil, and especially the latter has placed the Gripen on the map as a serious contender. A couple of new opportunities in Europe are evident in the form of Croatia and Bulgaria looking for a replacement to their small forces of updated Soviet-era fighters, with the Swedish state being in the later stages of discussions regarding eight Gripens to Slovakia. As noted earlier on the blog, Saab has a number of half-assembled 39C/D’s, to facilitate fast deliveries exactly for this kind of orders. While no orders have yet been signed, it seems clear that the earlier programs to Hungary and the Czech Republic for very similar orders have provided good references. In Asia, a number of countries including Malaysia and Indonesia (“Don’t believe everything you read in the news”) are also very active.

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More surprisingly, India seems to be a very hot topic, especially after the top-level diplomatic visit by the Swedish prime minister earlier this year. Saab declined to say if the Indian interest is a restarted MMRCA-competition, a smaller stop-gap order similar to the Rafale-order currently in discussions, or Sea Gripens for the Indian carrier(s), stating that the next step is up to the customer. Sea Gripen is very much alive, and preliminary studies have been concluded. If India would suddenly lose interest in the MiG-29K and/or the (as yet paperplane) naval Tejas, there obviously is a possibility to start the product development phase with India as launch customer, either singly or in unison with Brazil. These are more or less the only two countries that might have a serious interest in buying a foreign conventional take-off carrier fighter.

An interesting comment was also made with regards to the Finnish HX-program, where Saab said they expected it to be in the 40+ aircraft category. From the preliminary work report we know that the air force would want a 1:1 replacement of the current fleet (57 fighters and 7 two-seat conversion aircraft), but we also know that the RFI will be covering “differently sized packages”. So far those in the know have declined to specify what this would mean in practice, and it might be that this was the first concrete indication about what the smaller package might mean.

If the air force would be shrunk to 40 fighters, it would be a huge blow. As the preliminary report noted, the current size is already dictated by economics and not operational needs, and it would diminish the air force’s warfighting ability dangerously much.

However, one has to admit that slashing the air force with a third would be elegantly in line with cuts to the army and surface fleet

 

A Visit to the Griffin’s Nest – The Pilot

One of the more interesting encounters during my visit to Saab was with one of the seven test pilots Saab has. André Brännström is a former Swedish Air Force pilot, who started his career flying the J 35 Draken in the early 90’s, before moving on to the JA 37 Viggen and eventually the JAS 39 Gripen. Having been part of the air force’s OT&E (Operational Test and Evaluation) unit charged with testing out new upgrades and procedures and developing tactics and practices to account for these, he eventually transitioned over to Saab three years ago. Flight testing at Saab includes both ‘technical’ (the testing all aircrafts have to go through) as well as ‘tactical’ flight testing (testing out new weapons and improvements to the sensors and avionics of the aircraft). For the latter, Saab has a complete assortment of the dummy versions of Gripen’s weapons. This places demands on the pilots to keep up to date with how the air force operates their fighters, and Brännström still occasionally flies for the air force to keep in touch with the operator’s point of view.

The pilot

One example of the later was the exercise ACE15 last year, where he amongst other things got to meet a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet in a 1-vs-1 scenario in the skies over Lapland, something which we Finnish visitors were eager to hear more about.

“Well” he explained, “the Hornet is a good aircraft. But this was a rather young pilot, and I know where I want my Gripen to be. Speed, altitude, if I get him there, well…”

We decided to leave the topic there.

In the hangar were we met, a single JAS 39C stood parked. ‘39214’ sported the cat paw of the Såtenäs-based F 7 Skaraborg Wing, and represented the latest standard in 39C development, what Saab calls the Edition 20. In practice, this means that the aircraft features improvements to the radar and adds the capability to employ METEOR long-range air-to-air missiles and GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs, a 110 kg guided bomb with pop-out wings that give it the ability to glide towards it target, both of which will be key weapons in the arsenal of the 39E when it enters service. The Edition 20 is to be introduced in regular service within the next few weeks.

39214

The editions represent the Saab way of handling upgrades to the aircraft. Instead of taking major leaps in the form of one or two mid-life updates during the lifetime of an aircraft, they roll out smaller updates at regular intervals. The idea behind this is that the fighter should be at its best all the time, and not only during the first years after the update, as well as to lessen the technological risk. The pressure to include new features of uncertain long-term value and unproven technology becomes smaller when both customer and supplier knows that it is a shorter time to the next round of improvements. This is made possible due to the tight cooperation between the Air Force, the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV), and Saab, as evident by the fact that Saab is able to “borrow” (there are certainly both money and contractual issues involved) operational aircraft such as ‘39214’ for testing, while the air force can borrow test pilots if the need arises. Nowhere is this close collaboration more visible than in Linköping itself, which houses not only Saab (at the Linköping City Airport), but also FMV’s Flight Test Centre Linköping (co-located with the Swedish Air Force’s Helicopter Wing at the Malmen Airbase).

Besides the aircraft lay two dummy IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missiles. The IRIS-T belongs to the new generation of highly agile missile, making shots over the shoulder possible with the use of a helmet-mounted display, a piece of gear described by Brännström as “great”. When talking about the impact of high off-boresight missiles such as the IRIS-T and the AIM-9X currently used by Finnish F/A-18C, it was clear that they were game changers:

“No longer can you be safe just because you’re here”, explained Brännström and indicated one fighter behind another one. “There are certain differences I can’t talk about [between the AIM-9X and the IRIS-T], but this [the IRIS-T] is the one I’d buy.” Presumably the proliferation of agile air-to-air missiles have also lead to the fact that sustained turn rate, one of Gripen’s strong points, have increased in importance relative to instantaneous turn rate. The Gripen, like most modern fighters, is built so that the pilot doesn’t have to move his hands at any point during air combat maneuvers, with all necessary switches and controls being found on the throttle lever and control stick. Hard maneuvers are further simplified by the control systems, which automatically limits steering and throttle output based on the current load condition to make sure that the aircraft (or external stores) isn’t overstressed, allowing the pilot to pull the stick and lever as hard as he wants to, knowing that he won’t break anything.

The data link capability is something Saab is very proud of, and while many fighters today can share information through the use of systems such as Link 16, the Gripen has some further unspecified additional capability as well, causing Brännström to reflect that in a mixed formation with different fighters, “I believe I’d be the happiest one.”

Piloting again

A Visit to the Griffin’s Nest – The Plane

The JAS 39E Gripen is one of the foremost candidates for replacing the F/A-18C Hornet in the Finnish Air Force under the HX-program. As such, I was naturally interested when I was approached by Saab about joining in on a visit by Finnish media to the Gripen production line in Linköping.

Interestingly enough, this is not the first time Gripen is offered to Finland. Back in the early 90’s, the original 39A (and corresponding two-seater 39B) was offered as a replacement for Finland’s aging fleet of MiG-21Bis and J35 Draken, another product out of Saab’s Linköping-factory. It eventually lost out to the Hornet, for a number of different reasons. Will it be second time lucky for “The Smart Fighter”?

Since then, the Gripen has passed through a number of iterations, including the major change from the ‘Swedish’ 39A/B, via the internationalised 39C/D version, to the brand new 39E/F set to fly later this year. It is this version, and only this version, that will be offered to Finland. Despite the Finnish Air Force opening up for alternatives such as more than one fighter being offered, Saab confirmed that they will not offer the C/D, or a mixed package of 39C’s and E’s, despite planning to keep the production line for the older version up in parallel with the newer one past 2020. This is due to a number of reasons, mainly the threats the HX would be expected to face in case of a conflict (i.e. late-versions of the Su-27/30/35-family and the T-50), as well as the Finnish range requirements.

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The 39E Gripen mock-up ‘002’ showing the broadened lower fuselage allowing for the carriage of three METEOR long-range air-to-air missiles and a targeting pod. Source: author

The 39E is in many ways a brand new fighter, despite sharing an outward similarity to the older versions. The main landing gear have been moved outwards, making room for a considerably more internal fuel and extra weapon stations in a broader lower fuselage. The upper part of the fuselage has a smoother transition between the fuselage and the wing root, which is now structurally a part of the main fuselage element, unlike earlier versions where the whole wing was bolted onto the fuselage.

However, the core of the new aircraft is in the sensors and electronics. The heart of the combat systems is a brand new active-electronically scanned (AESA) radar called Raven ES-05 with a ‘swashplate’, a fancy name for a tilting device that makes it possible to get better coverage at greater offset angles by turning the radar antenna towards the target. This represents the cutting edge in radar technology, and information from the radar is fused with data from other sensors onboard the aircraft, as well as information received over the data link from friendly aircraft and ground/surface units. The information is then presented on a new wide-angle display as a single pre-processed picture of who else is moving about in the neighbourhood. This is in stark contrast to the current way of having to constantly cross-reference different sensors on smaller multi-function displays to maintain the ‘fused picture’ in ones head.

All of this is powered by the General-Electric F414-GE-39E, a larger and stronger derivative of the F404 that powers the Hornet and, in the form of the RM12, the legacy Gripen. Compared to the RM12, the F414 provides roughly 20% higher max thrust, meaning that the new version should have the extra power needed to handle the additional avionics and sensors, as well as to keep the aircraft as nimble as it predecessor in spite of the significant increase in max take-off weight.

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The Dash Seven carrying a mixed load of air-to-air missiles and laser-guided bombs. Source: Stefan Kalm/Copyright Saab AB

An interesting thing is that the Gripen NG Demo, a modified 39D used as a technology demonstrator for the upcoming 39E, has demonstrated not only the new avionics, but the new lower fuselage, landing gear, and engine as well. This aircraft, named ‘Dash Seven’, first flew back in 2008, and has played a key role in the test program for the 39E. This should considerably lower the technological risk, especially as Saab already has managed to break the cost curve and deliver the JAS 39A/B at a lower life-cycle cost than the earlier Fpl 37 Viggen, with the 39C/D version being better still.

All of this is nice and well, but there is no avoiding the elephant in the room: stealth. Gripen is not designed to be stealthy. Though it features some signature reducing measures, such as a “good paintwork” with radar absorbing characteristics in undisclosed areas of the aircraft (presumably e.g. the wing leading edges), this is in contrast to the Lockheed-Martin F-35.

As discussed earlier here on the blog, stealth is not an on-off issue, but rather a reduction in the radar cross section (and other fields, such as heat signature). If this reduction is good, the radar echo of the aircraft will be small enough that it will be able to ‘see’ (and fire upon) its enemy long before being seen. When working as intended, it makes it possible for a stealthy aircraft to fight with impunity against other fighters who are unable to see it. However, reality is seldom this simple.

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The IRST mock-up on ‘002’. Source: author

To begin with, there have been huge advances in the field of infra-red search and track systems (IRST), and the Gripen will be fitted with the Selex SkyWard-G. While stealth fighters usually have some measure of heat-signature reduction, it is usually much harder to pull off than RCS-reduction, as the friction of the air resistance on the aircraft skin causes heat to build up.

The other issue for a stealth fighter is the need to find its own targets. If it uses its own radar for this, the radar emission from it can be detected at longer ranges than it can provide a readable echo, meaning that, although its adversaries can’t get a radar lock to confirm the exact location of the enemy, they will know that it is out there, as well as getting the general direction it is to be found in. The alternatives are either using an IRST, which levels the playing field, or relying on information from other aircrafts (or ground units) sent via data link.

The strategy Saab has in place for the Gripen is that a combination of better sensors, and sensor fusing, a top-notch data link allowing the aircraft to operate in ‘silent’ mode a larger part of time, a brand new integrated electronic warfare/self-defence suite, as well as the lower cost and lack of numerous trade-offs required from a stealth fighter will make the aircraft viable throughout the lifespan of the HX. This strategy seems viable on paper, but the simple truth is that we do not have a clear idea of how the introduction of stealth fighters will affect air combat beyond 2030. However, the first study performed by the Finnish Air Force as part of the HX program seems to lend some credit to the idea. The main report is secret, but the public abstract provided notes that stealth features are usually optimised for a set radar band, and that new technology, such as MIMO-radars (basically many radars that are linked together to look at a single target) as well as radars operating at diverse amplitudes, could degrade the benefit of stealth.

Regarding the visit to Saab Linköping, I was invited for a one day event centred on the 39E/F Gripen (arriving the evening before) organised for Finnish media, and Saab kindly offered to cover the travel costs. As was made clear already before the trip, the company has put no restrictions or requests regarding what I do with the information given, nor have they reviewed (or asked for permission to review) any of my texts before publication. Instead, the company representatives were very forthcoming with providing us with information and answering questions we had regarding the Gripen or any other of Saab’s projects. Photography was naturally restricted to certain locations and angles.