Beyond NASAMS

In the shadow of the HX-fighter competition, the state of the ground based air defences in Finland has again appeared in the headlines. The short story is that in the mid-90’s Finland acquired the Russian Buk-M1 air defence system as part of Russia paying off the Soviet balance of the clearing accounts. However, while the system certainly is competent, questions soon arose if it was wise to operate a high-tech system which the main adversary had built? Especially as knowing the exact capabilities of the radar and missile is of crucial importance when it comes to defeating radar-guided missiles.

By the mid-00’s training new conscripts on the Buk stopped, and the system was phased out (never trust a Finn who says something is retired, the last conscripts who trained on the system most likely had another ten years in the reserve, during which they were assigned to a wartime unit operating the missiles, giving a ‘real’ retirement date around 2015) and replaced by the NASAMS II.

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The launcher of the NASAMS, sporting six canister mounted AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles. Source: Maavoimat FB

The NASAMS is a controversial system in Finnish service. Not because it is bad, it is very much amongst the most modern ones available, but because it is of significantly shorter range than the Buk it replaced. Most crucially it has a ceiling of around 10,000 meters, meaning that most modern fighter aircraft can simply operate above this. This isn’t necessarily as big a drawback as it is often portrayed to be. Operating above 10,000 meters place high demands on sensors and weapons if you are to hit anything, and it means that you are easily spotted by air surveillance radars, meaning that the advantage of surprise is long gone by the time the target is overflown.

Still, this has left Finland without a long-range surface-to-air missile for the first time since the late 70’s, and talk about the need for something heavier has been going since the decision to procure NASAMS instead of Aster. The big question is what?

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An Iskander TEL raising one of its missiles into firing position. Source: Vitaly Kuzmin/Wikimedia Commons

One issue which has been raised is the defence against ballistic missiles, i.e. missiles which are fired at a high angle, fly up to significant heights, and then ‘fall’ down at extreme speeds to hit a target. The Russian 9K270 Iskander-M is the embodiment of this threat, and comes equipped with either a conventional warhead (usually quoted at around 500 kg, but possibly with an option for a heavy penetrating warhead above 1,000 kg) or a nuclear one. The big improvement of the Iskander compared to the 9K79 Tochka U it replaced is the significant improvement of accuracy, which for the Iskander is quoted at a circular error probability of below 10 meters (i.e. half of the Iskanders will land within 10 meters of the intended target), meaning that it can reliably be assumed to hit individual buildings or bridges. As such, many has voiced the opinion that Finland need a system capable of shooting down ballistic missiles.

…and it is in the crossroad of these ideas that we find some of the most common misconceptions, which warrant a slight detour before looking at the latest developments.

To begin with, the ballistic missile threat is not new to Finland, nor is the associated A2/AD-problem, but these have been a part of the Soviet/Russian arsenal for decades. Even with the improved accuracy of the Iskander, it is not a war-winning weapon, as the limited number of missiles available and the rather limited damage caused by a single hit makes it impossible to take out dispersed targets. In other words, while it is possible to hit the command centre of a unit, it is not possible to wipe out the unit itself. The Iskander also needs target information before launch, meaning that it is best used against stationary targets.

Another issue often overlooked is how hard it is to shoot down a ballistic missile. Crucially, while a modern long-range air defence system can sport ranges of over 100 km against air targets (at high altitude, at lower altitude the earth’s curvature creates shadows), the corresponding ranges when trying to intercept a ballistic missile approaching at very high speed and steep angle are significantly shorter. While the exact performance is secret, some sources state that the maximum range is a few tens of kilometers, creating a significant problem with regards to how to base air defence batteries to be able to protect a certain target. The implications of this is that a single battery might have a hard time defending both the Upinniemi naval base and central Helsinki, depending on the parameters of the intercept.

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A Patriot battery from the US Army deployed in Sweden during exercise Aurora 17 last autumn. Source: Astrid Amtén Skage/Forsvarsmakten

As such, it is no surprise that Finnish officers are focusing on dispersion and hardening strategic targets instead of acquiring anti-ballistic missile capabilities. This is in marked contrast to Sweden’s decision to acquire the Patriot. Here, while the decision is not yet finalised, the ability to field the PAC-3 missile (or potentially the upcoming PAAC-4/Stunner/SkyCeptor) to take down ballistic missiles has played a key role. However, the capability doesn’t come cheap, as the total price tag of approximately 1 to 1.2 billion Euro will buy three to four batteries, each with a single radar and three to four launchers. However, the amount and types of missiles acquired will also play a huge role when it comes to cost, and the preliminary request, described as being “generous in size”, lists 200 PAC-3 (for anti-ballistic missile use) and 100 PAC-2 for use against aircraft, for an additional 1.5 billion Euro. The exact kind of combat management system involved will also play a role, as it seen in the case of the 8.6 billion Euro Polish deal for a comparable number of firing units (four batteries with four launchers each, with 208 PAC-3 missiles) as the Swedish order.

All things considered, any kind of anti-ballistic missile coverage is probably outside of the scope of the Finnish Army’s wishlist, with the focus being solely on the ability to shoot down aircraft at longer and higher ranges than what the current equipment is capable of. However, even within these bounds, there are still a significant number of different options available on the market. With this in mind the Logistics Command has now issued a Request for Information to “around ten” companies. Interestingly enough, the interview with brigadier general Renko, deputy chief of the Logistics Command, says that he would like the new missile to be part of the current NASAMS systems. At the same time, he notes that this is not purely about introducing a new missile to old launchers, but that there needs to be more batteries out in the field to improve coverage.

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This unremarkable looking little truck is the Fire Distribution Centre (FDC), the ‘brains’ of the NASAMS II. Source: MKFI/Wikimedia Commons

The obvious choice which has figured in reporting is the AMRAAM-ER. Where the basic NASAMS uses the same AMRAAM missile as found on e.g. the Finnish F/A-18 Hornets, the AMRAAM-ER marries the basic AMRAAM seeker (with improved steering code) to the engine of the ESSM (Evolved Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missile), giving a significant increase in both range and ceiling (50 and 70% respectively according to Raytheon). This means that both goals of the RFI could be met by buying more NASAMS batteries, and having both baseline and ER-versions of the AMRAAM in service. The big problem for the AIM-120 AMRAAM is that it is something of a victim of its own success. It is operated by a stunning 37 countries, meaning that no small amount of Russian research is likely going into how to defeat it. Especially if the AMRAAM will continue to be a key part of the Finnish airborne air defences as well, which is likely to be the case unless Rafale takes home the HX-competition, it might be good to ask whether all air defence eggs should be placed in the same basket?

At this point it should be remembered that one of the key points of the NASAMS is its modularity. It is unclear exactly which parts are integrated into the Finnish NASAMS systems, e.g if our ITO 05 (RBS 70 BOLIDE) are able to plug into the NASAMS’s Fire Distribution Center (FDC), something which Kongsberg claim is possible. However, if the Army really likes the current AN/MPQ-64F1 Improved Sentinel radar and associated systems, another missile could potentially be integrated into it. It is hard to see the reasoning behind this, and I am tempted to believe that the journalist misunderstood the general, who instead expressed a wish for the new system to be part of the current Finnish integrated air defences, i.e. sharing the same air picture as well as command and control structures.

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A French SAMP/T launcher being readied. Picture from Swedish exercise Aurora 17 last year. Source: Astrid Amtén Skage/Forsvarsmakten

If we assume this is what the Logistics Command means, it opens up a vast number of possibilities. One is the very same SAMP/T-system which competed (and lost) against the NASAMS ten years ago. The SAMP/T, also known as ASTER, is the closest competitor to the Patriot, and is also available both with “normal” and anti-ballistic missile missiles. As was the case last time around, both it and Patriot will probably be judged to be too expensive (although the Swedish deal is controversial at it turned out the SAMP/T offer was 150 million Euro cheaper than the Patriot one).

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The launcher of the Israeli SPYDER-MR system. Source: Pritishp333/Wikimedia Commons

However, below the high-end Patriot and SAMP/T there are still plenty to choose from. MBDA, the company behind SAMP/T, offers the CAMM-ER and ASPIDE 2000, and while information is somewhat scarce, both are likely superior when it comes to range and height compared to the baseline AMRAAM. Saab has the SRSAM BAMSE, which offer an altitude coverage of 15,000 meters, and the benefit of operating on a different wavelength, Ka-band as opposed to X-band, than the NASAMS, making it harder to jam both at the same time. Israeli company Rafael offer the SPYDER-MR featuring their Derby-missile with a range of 50 km and a ceiling of 16,000 meters. A more exotic (and highly unlikely) option is the Japanese Type 11 missile system built by Toshiba, of which very limited information is available. Still, it does look like it could potentially fit the bill, and during the last years Japan has opened up for potential arms exports. South African Denel Systems has a number of different versions of the Umkhonto, the basic IR-version of which is currently in service with the Finnish Navy. Some of the more advanced concepts might be able to compete with the baseline AMRAAM, though it is doubtful if they will have enough reach to satisfy the demands of the current RFI. Still, Denel does offer a ground-based launcher, and is probably included amongst the companies receiving the RFI.

The winner of the eventual RFQ which is to follow the current RFI is likely found amongst those mentioned above. The defence forces would like to sign a deal in 2020, and notes that this is tied to HX and Squadron 2020, as all three programs play significant roles in the overall air defence of Finland. If e.g. the CAMM in its sea-going version is adopted for SQ2020, it might increase the chances for CAMM-ER being adopted as the ground-based solution. In the meantime, it does feel like the AMRAAM-ER is the favourite, with the big question being whether relying too much on a single missile seeker for both air and ground-based is too high a risk compared to the synergies it would give?

And as it happens, Kongsberg and Patria a week ago announced that they will open a Missile Competence Centre in Tampere, specifically mentioning their work NASAMS in the press release. Funny how these things come together sometimes.

Naval Air Defence – The Finnish Way

One of the signs of spring in Kokkola is the arrival of a small flotilla of naval vessels to the local port. Seeing the Finnish Navy operating in the northern parts of the Gulf of Bothnia is uncommon, as all three main formations and the Naval Academy are based along the southern shores of the country. What brings the Navy here is the spring edition of IPH, the twice annually held air defence exercise where the Navy join the Army and Air Force in practicing the whole chain of modern ground-based air defences. This starts with creating situational awareness for the air defence network, and ends with the use of appropriate weapons systems engaging the targets. This year, minelayer FNS Uusimaa (‘05’) lead fast-attack crafts FNS Tornio (‘81’) and FNS Hanko (‘82’) into the port of Kokkola on 17 May for approximately a week of intensive exercises.

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FNS Uusimaa (‘05’) at dusk. Source: @JHggblom

Contrary to a number of other navies which operate dedicated air defence ships, air defence isn’t one of the Finnish Navy’s core tasks. Rather, the ability to protect the own vessel and nearby ships is needed to be able to perform other tasks, including escorting merchant shipping but also naval missions such as mining. Currently, the two Hämeenmaa-class minelayers and the four Hamina-class FAC all feature the same Cassidian TRS-3D radar and a VLS-battery of eight Umkhonto-IR (local designation ITO 2004) short-range IR-homing missile. As noted, half of the Navy’s ships with an air defence capability took part in IPH117.

But the air defence mission starts long before the missiles are let loose. The naval vessels, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, play a significant role in peacetime air policing. The TRS-3D are respectable sensors in its own right, and on the vessels they are backed up by other systems and sensors which make the vessels able to make considerable contributions to the Finnish air picture. The Navy maintain alert vessels 24/7 as part of their policing of Finnish maritime areas (as has been demonstrated), and an added benefit is that these are able to contribute sensor data regarding air movements as well. Here, the older Rauma-class and the Border Guard’s flagship VL Turva are also able to lend a hand, as while they aren’t armed with SAM’s, they still sport search radars (TRS-3D in the case of Turva, while the Rauma-class is equipped with the Saab Sea Giraffe 9GA 208, a relatively old iteration of the Giraffe-family).

There are a number of features which make the Navy punch above its paper stats when it comes to contributing to the air defence and air surveillance network. One is the fact that the vessels are further south than any radars found on the mainland. This is especially valuable for any air traffic coming from the direction of the Baltic Sea, where the Navy can be assumed to be the first one to pick up any movements. Another thing is the mobility offered by the platforms, with the ships being able to travel at speed, up to 30 knots (55 km/h) for the Haminas, while constantly emitting. Compared to ground-based radars which need to be lowered for travelling and set up again at their new location, this eliminates the gap in information that takes place when changing position. The other is the high readiness of the Navy compared to the Army’s air defence units. The vessels not only bring their complete sensor package with them. They also bring the command central, battle management tools, and firing units with them. The vessels need to be able to not only fight as part of an integrated air defence network, but they also need to be able to solve any of their missions independently in case communications with higher command suddenly goes down. This means that the vessels are able to not only see what is up in the air, but also to take independent action against any threat at a moment’s notice.

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FNS Tornio (‘81’) left and FNS Hamina (‘82’) right. Source: Own picture

Being able to actually shoot down anything naturally requires that they are sailing around with the missiles loaded, something which the Navy does not comment upon. One of the benefits of the VLS is in fact this ambiguity, as an external observer is unable to tell how many weapons are carried (the same is the case with internal carriage on fighters, feel free to ponder upon this as an issue for HX).

From an air defence point of view, the six Umkhonto-equipped vessels are in effect mobile surface-to-air missile batteries with their own search radars (though with a very limited number of missiles), maintained at a high level of readiness and staffed (almost) exclusively by professionals. This makes them well-suited as counters to a Crimea-style coup attempt, where they together with the Air Force would counter airborne movements in the opening stages of a conflict before the ground based batteries have had time to mobilise and set up.

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FNS Uusimaa (‘05’) firing an Umkhonto-IR short-range surface-to-air missile during IPH117. Source: Merivoimat

The introduction of Squadron 2020 will further strengthen the Navy’s role in the joint air defence network. New radars and sensors, and getting access to mounting them higher as a benefit of the larger vessel size, will offer better situational awareness, and while the exact surface-to-air weapon fit is still undecided, it seems highly likely that the missiles will be of a greater number and capability than the current vessels have. What is also often forgotten is that while the overall number of surface combatants will go down from eleven to eight, the number of air defence capable vessels will in fact go up from six to eight.

While the Navy might see air defence as something of a necessary evil, something that one needs to do to be able to perform the core missions, that doesn’t mean it is a mission taken lightly. Compared to mining operations where time is calculated in hours and days, air defence is a question of seconds and minutes. The demanding nature of it means that it needs to be trained properly, and nowhere in Finland is the training environment better than in the Bothnian Gulf during the last weeks of May. The importance placed on the mission is seen by the fact that the Navy dispatched three vessels for a week, vessels which barely have time get back to Pansio for a quick turnaround before heading out to sea again as part of this spring’s main coastal defence exercise, exercise MTH-17 Lyydia.

9K33 Osa in Vladivostok

Due to the increased tension on the Korean peninsula, a short video clip showing a convoy of seven [see Edit below] vehicles travelling through a city has caused some raised eye brows.

The vehicles in question are 9K33 Osa (NATO designation SA-8 GECKO) surface-to-air missile TELARs, meaning that a single vehicle transports the missiles in their launch containers and is equipped with a radar allowing it to acquire and fire upon any targets without outside assistance. At least six of the vehicles in the convoy are Osas, the lead vehicle is too blurry for an accurate identification, and could be a command vehicle.

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9K33 Osa-AKM. Source: Wikimedia Commons/DonSimon

The video is indeed shot in Vladivostok, at the western end of Russkaya Ulitsa, at a relatively recent date. The geolocation is based on the building to the left, visible at the very beginning of the clip, which holds a V-Laser store, as well as the small kiosk in front of it.

The Google Street-view image above is from 2013, and it seems some changes has been made to the area between the road lanes.

To the right, a large building with a slightly smaller one behind it is briefly visible. This is not found on Google Street-view, but Yandex somewhat newer imagery shows it under construction. The building in question houses the Mall Druzba Center.

All in all, the location seems quite certain, and while it is hard to say for certain how old the clip is, the inclusion of Mall Druzba Center means that really old footage can be ruled out.

The location is intriguing. As mentioned, this is at the very end of Russkaya, and there does not seem to be any logical place from where the vehicles would have come, unless they have been transported to Vladivostok by rail or sea, and are now choosing this somewhat low-key road to get out from the city.

As for the presence of Osas in Vladivostok, that in itself is no reason to worry. The movement of a handful of medium-ranged SAMs is well within normal routines. However, this does constitute a small piece of a pattern of current events and troop movements on and around the Korean peninsula which on the whole do give reason for concern.

Edit 15 April 09:40 (GMT +2):

Zvezda state that three motorized infantry brigades in the Far East has moved out. The Osas could very well be related to this.

Edit 15 April 10:50 (GMT +2):

A second video clip shows the forward part of the convoy, and together the clips seem to indicate that a total 13 vehicles are included in the convoy. Eight of these are 9K33 Osa TELARs, with a further two being the 9T217 missile transporter and loader, which carries reloads for the TELARs. The last three are then some kind of unidentified BTR armored vehicles, likely being PU-12M command vehicles. This setup does make sense, as it would mean that the convoy is made up of two batteries with four TELARs and command vehicles each, though the number of 9T217 does seem a bit on the low side.

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9T217 missile transporter and loader. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Wistula

IPH 2/16

The sound of cannon fire echoes through the forest, as I follow captain Laitinen towards the low tower protruding at the treeline. We are at the media tour of IPH 2/16, the latest edition of the twice-annually held exercise where soldiers from all of the ground-based air defense units come together for two weeks of intensive training at the Vattaja firing range. I smile as I spot the ZIL-131 trucks parked under the trees next to the dirt road. Soviet trucks are getting rarer in the defence forces, but if there’s somewhere one could expect to find them, it is within earshot of the trusty ZU-23-2 Sergei.

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The Sergei themselves soon come into sight. Grouped below the tower is a row of the light anti-aircraft guns. The older 23 ITK 61 are placed to the left, with the modernised 23 ITK 95 to the right. The difference between them is that the newer ones got an aiming computer, thermal camera, and laser range-finder to enhance their accuracy. “The larger ones are aimed remotely, so they are being zeroed in at the moment,” captain Laitinen explains and points towards the ends of the lines, where the Oerlikon GDF’s can be made out. I nod and pull out the camera to start taking pictures.

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While the army is the most visible service, the exercise is actually lead by the Air Force Academy. Captain Joni Laitinen is from the Academy, and works as the Leader of Exercise and Aerial Target Team. As such, he was the one responsible for the briefing we received before getting out in the field. The exercise trains both the air defence units themselves and their supporting units in all steps of their wartime tasks, he explained. This start with them moving to the area of operations a few hundred kilometres from their respective homebases. On location, they take up positions, with their wartime logistics and signals units supporting the combat elements. The first week is then all about the live firings of the systems at different aerial targets. After this, the combat stage takes place, where the air force and army aviation fly different scenarios over the firing range. This later phase is highly realistic, with the air defence network being met with targets ranging from unmanned systems, via helicopters, to fighter jets at different altitudes. The task is further complicated by the attackers employing jamming and releasing countermeasures, as the air force practices operations within an air defence zone. For a successful intercept, the air defences will first have to pick up the attackers on their radars, and then relay the information to the command network, which in turn direct the responses and alert the individual weapons systems as needed.

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It might not be immediately visible to the individual gun or missile crew, but behind every engagement, there is a long chain of events that are rehearsed and repeated time after time to make sure that everyone knows what they are doing, and feel comfortable in their own task. “The focus isn’t on shots fired, but on successful repetitions,” as captain Laitinen put it.

Today the focus is on live firings, with the autocannons taking the front stage. It is set to be a busy day, as bad weather had hampered operations the first day of the exercise. “Some of our aerial targets and air defence systems have a weather limit, which meant that yesterday was something of a low-ops day,” colonel Ari Grönroos explained. The colonel is the Inspector of Ground Based Air Defence at the Army Staff, and functions as the head of the exercise. “That’s the way it is in ‘real life’ as well,” he continued with a shrug.

At the moment the weather is better, and soon the small remotely controlled plane that functions as the target started buzzing the row of guns. The guns follow the red target and opens up in turns, firing bursts after burst towards it. The plane is equipped with a pressure sensor, which in real time tells the leader of the gunnery exercise how many shots passed within four meters of it. “If we have one or two 23 mm grenades pass within that distance, we can be quite confident that they would at least have damaged a fighter-sized target,” Laitinen explains. “The Sergei works by covering a relatively large area. That one instead works by accuracy,” he continues and points towards one of the Oerlikons, or 35 ITK 88 as it is known locally.

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Colonel Grönroos also makes sure to mention the excellent cooperation he feels exists between the defence forces and the local community. The same week that IPH2/16 took place, the latest in a row of meetings had taken place, in which the defence forces shared their plans for the upcoming years, and discussed these with the people living in the area near the firing range. The exercise is large for being such a specialised one, with over 200 reservists, 1000 conscripts, and 400 professionals taking part. While the latter aren’t necessarily the ones pulling the trigger, the exercise provides valuable training for them as well, including leading their units during the combat phase and renewing needed qualifications. During the live firings we witnessed two different reservist units alternate in firing the guns, allowing for more efficient training compared to if they only employed their own ones. 

During the springtime the Navy usually take part in the live firings with their vessels, but this time their presence was limited to providing security and emergency teams. In addition to the rapid response boat, a NH90 helicopter was temporarily based at the range as well, performing patrol flights and MEDEVAC if the need would arise. A field hospital is also set up for the duration of the exercise. The live firings were more limited compared to the spring as well, with the ITO 15 (FIM-92 Stinger RMP-I) being the only missile system to see action. “In the spring we are expecting to be performing live firings with four or five different missile systems,” Laitinen discloses.

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As we are about to move on, a sudden streak of light shoots across the sky, and destroys an aerial target further away. What immediately strikes me is the sheer speed of the Stinger missile, which admittedly comes as something of a surprise to me. Laitinen promises to get us a demonstration of the weapon, and after a short drive we meet up with tykkimies (gunner) Happonen who was the one to fire the missile we had seen. Bringing a training missile, he shows the proper handling, and admits that he didn’t see much of the live event due to the liberal amount of smoke the missile kicked up.

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A big thank you to Päivi Visuri at the Karelia Brigade, as well as colonel Grönroos and captain Laitinen for hosting our visit! A special thank you to gunner Happonen as well. More pictures from the tour are found at the Corporal Frisk Facebook-page.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Crotale
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).

Contrails
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.

FNS Tornio
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.

Stinger
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).

Saab
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.

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

Squadron 2020 – Made for the Finnish Coastline

laivue2020_uusi_logoThe acquisition of four multi-purpose corvettes by the Finnish Navy as part of the Squadron 2020 (fi. Laivue 2020) program received some serious flak by BGen (ret.) Lauri Kiianlinna in Helsingin Sanomat last Friday, of exactly the kind I warned would become widespread due to the Navy’s somewhat lacking marketing of the project. While I agree with Kiianlinnas assessment that the Army need further funds and that the ground based air defence needs to be fleshed out, many of the points raised in opposition of the project are either based on misunderstanding or in some instances flat-out wrong. As noted, this is partly a failure on the part of the Navy, who in today’s economy more than ever has to explain not only what they need, but also why. A simple “Trust us, we’ve checked the issue” (while correct) is no longer enough to the public or the other cash-strapped branches of the defence forces.

Finland is for all practical purposes an island, and the only way we will keep our supply lines open for any extended time is through cargo vessels that enter the Baltic Sea in the Danish Straits, before sailing up the length of the Swedish coast until arriving in Finnish ports. This means that while the navy cannot win any wars for Finland, it can certainly lose them.

As such, Finland will need a navy to escort our merchant vessels at the very least until they reach Swedish waters. Currently this is done by a number of smaller vessels operating together to perform different individual roles:

  • The Hämeenmaa-class minelayers are operating as the squadron leader/flagship, while having a limited ASW- and anti-air capability
  • The Hamina-class FAC provide anti-ship missiles and a limited anti-air capability
  • The Rauma-class FAC provide ASW-capability in the form of the only dedicated submarine-hunting sensor in the Finnish Navy as well as featuring limited ASW-weaponry. If the towed array is left home, it can instead use anti-ship missiles

It should be noted that a three-ship squadron like this faces a number of tough choices:

  • A total of no more than 16 ITO 04 (‘Umkhonto’) surface-to-air missiles featuring a short 14 km range are available for air cover
  • For the Rauma to find a submarine it needs to listen for it, meaning that it would prefer to keep some distance to the other ships. However, doing so lessens the protection offered by the short-range ITO 04 mounted on the other vessels
  • None of the vessels sport any torpedoes, so If a submarine is found the vessels will attack it by driving towards it well within torpedo range while firing ASW-mortars

These ships, especially the Haminas, are very potent for their class. However, there is only so much equipment that can be fitted into the limited hull sizes available. Both of the FAC-classes also lack the ability to operate in ice, due to their light (and vulnerable) aluminium hulls. Their small size also seriously hamper their endurance, forcing them to return to port at short intervals. For a navy in which hiding in the cluttered archipelago is a central part of the doctrine, having to frequently return to fixed points to bunker up on fuel, supplies, and weapons, is far from ideal.

Lohtaja 1-10 144
The Finnish idea regarding how to kill a submarine is drive towards it at speed, fire of a salvo of these at 400 meters, and hope the submarine doesn’t figure out a firing solution for their  18+ km ranged torpedoes. Saab Elma ASW-600 on a Rauma-class FAC. Source: own picture

The need for bigger hulls

The size is not a product of the urge to venture further into the Southern Baltic Sea or on international missions, but of the need to provide vessels that are able to operate in Finnish waters year-round, able to handle the varied threats they may encounter.

This is where the main problems of the opinion piece are. The new ships will not further strain the limited air defence resources available, they will not be sitting ducks, and they will not be restricted by ice. On the contrary, they will be able to hide better than the current fleet due to being less reliant on visiting known locations, they will carry their own air defence, and their big steel hulls will offer them ice-going capability as well as better resistance in the face of battle damage.

Of great interest is the vertical launch system (VLS) seen on the render pictures released by the navy. I have discussed these in greater detail on the blog earlier, but the conclusion is that they would bring a marked increase in the air defence of not only the ship themselves, but also of the general area of operations. In fact, in the best of world’s we might even get to see the Aster 30 onboard the corvettes, which would finally give the (southern parts of the) country a measure of protection against ballistic missiles. As such, the claim that these would tie up valuable air defence resources is wrong, and instead they might actually free up army units.

The discussion regarding the range of the weaponry is somewhat simplified. The max practical range is nowadays rarely reliant on what the sales material claim the missiles are capable of. Instead, the main question is how far out the enemy can be accurately located. Another issue that one rarely want to fire all missiles straight at the enemy, because A) it makes it easier to defend against compared to if the salvo is routed to come in from different angles at the same time, and B) it gives the enemy a vector to follow back to the location of our firing battery. To sum it up, the Navy wont fire anti-ship missiles, either from trucks or naval vessels, to Gotland any time soon, regardless of how the range rings look on the map.

Isometrinen
One of the concept renders presented by the navy. Note hatch for towed array at stern(?) and VLS-array at the front. Source: Finnish Navy

When it comes to anti-submarine weapons, it seems like we will finally get a ship armed with torpedoes and proper sensors, which will make it possible to locate and fight off one of the most elusive threats our shipping lanes currently face. This is especially important as we currently lack any kind of airborne ASW-capability, and the only way to find submarines lurking outside of our archipelago is through the use of ships.

The other possibility is to assume that we can keep our waters protected without own ships, which is an interesting concept on paper. By employing shore-based anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles we would be able to ward off any intruders, or so the theory goes. However, by the very nature of these systems, they lack the operational mobility to keep up with merchant vessels moving in Finnish waters along the coast, and as such need to be pre-positioned so that they can cover the expected enemy attack vectors. They then need to be fed target data, and feature a redundancy in both firing units and sensors, so that the enemy isn’t able to create a gap in our defences where they can strike at our lifeline with impunity simply by knocking out a battery or two.

This can all be done, but to be fair it is highly doubtful if this advanced network of mutually supporting coastal sensors, truck-mounted anti-ship batteries, submarine hunting helicopters, and surface-to-air missiles, would be any cheaper than the corvettes. Crucially, the system would lack the flexibility offered by a surface squadron of multirole vessels, which are able to move with the merchant convoys, carrying their own sensors as well as weapons to fend of air, surface, and sub-surface threats. The similarities to the discussions regarding ground based air defences contra getting new fighters are striking. This isn’t a case of “either/or”, but rather that a strong defence will have to be made up of multiple layers of different systems with their own strengths and weaknesses working in unison, and I fully expect the Navy to start looking into replacing the truck-mounted MTO 85M at some point in the future.

When it comes to coastal defence, I would like to see Squadron 2020 and ground units being networked with our HX-fighters, to let the fighters provide accurate target data through the use of a modern data link while letting the others act as silent ‘shooters’ with their radars turned off.  This is a concept which for example Saab already has as an option for which includes both their air units and naval command and control systems, and one would assume that there is a requirement for HX and Squadron 2020 to be able to communicate with each other.

It isn’t about the Navy against the Army or the Air Force. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

Epilogue: The Panssarilaivat – White Elephants of the 1930’s

The Väinämöinen-class of two coastal defence ships (fi. Panssarilaivat) has long been regarded as the schoolbook example of wasted money. Being expensive and manpower intensive, they took almost no part in the Second World War, and the navy still managed to lose one of them with a large loss of men during one of their few wartime sorties.

However, while I agree that it was a strange decision to invest in major surface units when the army lacked anti-tank weaponry and artillery shells, the other side of the story is often forgotten. The war did play out in an extremely surprising way. The Winter War was fought almost entirely while the sea was frozen, and when the Continuation War broke out it didn’t take long until the Germans had occupied the whole southern coast of the Baltic Sea from the Danish Straits up to the outskirts of Leningrad. This made the relatively strong and modern Baltic Fleet trapped in their bases around the city until the end of the Continuation War. The exception was the submarine fleet, which every summer broke out to try and wreak havoc amongst Finnish and German shipping in the face of Finnish and German subchasers and submarines (until the Germans and Finns installed two nets over the entire Gulf of Finland!).

If things would have played out differently, and Finland would have had to stand alone, two floating coastal fortresses could suddenly have proved to be rather useful after all.