The Finnish Navy is passionate about naval mines. This includes both laying mines – as evident by the liberal amount of minerails found on not only the dedicated minelayers but also on surface combatants and auxiliaries – as well as hunting for them. This has its natural explanation, as the Finnish coastline (and the Baltic Sea in general) is well suited to mine warfare, with the waters being shallow and many port facilities being found inside the archipelago where thousands of islands and skerries form narrow sea lanes and obvious chokepoints. Keeping the Finnish waters free from hostile mines is at the end of the day not a nice-to-have to capability, but is crucial if Finnish society is to function and the FDF is to be able to keep fighting for any prolonged period in a wartime scenario.
Mine countermeasures can be done in a number of ways. The easiest and most cost-efficient is usually to ensure that no mines are laid, preferably through simply blowing up the enemy stocks of naval mines while they are still portside, but in real life things seldom prove this easy. And even in the best case, ensuring that areas used for friendly traffic really are minefree is usually a must. This leads us to the two main ways in which already sown mines can be rendered harmless: minehunting and minesweeping. Minehunting is the use of sensors to find mine-like objects, which then can be studies in more detail either with other sensors or with clearance divers, and if found to be a mine the object can then be neutralised through a number of different ways – most commonly through simply blowing it to pieces. The other option is sweeping, which is probably what most people think about when hearing about clearing naval mines. This is done through towing wires to cut moored mines so that they may float free (and preferably be destroyed by something once they breach the surface) or through towing magnetic or acoustic generators which then create signatures that cause influence mines to detonate.
In case anyone didn’t already figure out the main issue with sweeping: towing means that your ship is in front of the thing you use to disable the mines with, a decidedly bad place to be at. Different solutions have been tried to remedy this, including the use of helicopters for towing the sweeps, but at the end of the day these have all proved either costly or unreliable. Instead, the stoic men and women plying the sea to ensure it is safe for other ships to go there has adopted a simple maxim:
Hunt where you can; Sweep where you must
But why would anyone sweep if that’s so dangerous? The answer is time. A general rule of thumb is that a typical minehunter is able to clear approximately one nautical square mile (1,852 x 1,852 meters) every 24 hours, while a typical mechanical sweeper should be able to clear between 4 to 6 nautical square miles. Remotely manned systems usually log approximately the same figures as their manned counterparts. This also brings up one of the other issues with mine clearing, namely that it will require hulls. And every hull can only be in one location at any single time.
(For a more detailed discussion on everything naval minewarfare, I recommend picking up captain Chris O’Flaherty’s “Naval Minewarfare: Politics to Practicalities“, which I reviewed behind the link above)
When combined, these factors add together to explain the somewhat curious order of battle for the Finnish 4. Mine countermeasures squadron of the Coastal Fleet (Fi. 4. Miinantorjuntalaivue and Rannikkolaivasto respectively). From their homeport at the Pansio naval base just outside of Turku, the unit operate a motley collection of three state-of-the-art minehunters of the Katanpää-class, as well as six small (16 meters LOA and 20 tons) Kiiski-class minesweepers built in the 1980’s and four of the larger (32 meters LOA and 150 tons) Kuha-class minesweepers built back in the 1970’s (but lengthened and modernised around the turn of the millennium). Both are built with GRP-hulls to minimise their magnetic signature (i.e. to try and ensure that they don’t trigger magnetic mines), and can sweep both impulse and contact (moored) mines. The Kiiski-class was built to be optionally manned – the nature of minesweeping meaning that the field has a long and storied history with small optionally manned vessels being controlled from larger sweepers (the German Seehund-class being the best-known internationally) – though my understanding is that feature is no longer used. An interesting detail when it comes to operating the vessels is that a single Kuha (Kuha 26) and five Kiiski (Kiiski 3 through 7) are operated by the regional defence unit Clearance Detachment Osprey (Fi. Raivaajaosasto Sääksi) which is made up of reservists volunteering to do more frequent refresher exercises compared to the regular reserve.
Edit 15/02/2022: Swedish YLE has gotten an update from the Navy, and it turns out the number of operational vessels has shrunk further in the last few years, currently standing at two Kuha and four Kiiski.
However, nothing lasts forever, not even lengthened GRP-hulls, and Naval News this week broke the story that the Finnish Navy has issued a tender for a new minesweeping capability under the designation Minesweeping Capability 2030 (MSC2030, or Raivaamiskyky 2030 / RAKY2030). A new class of vessels will replace both of the older classes of sweepers, which will retire before the end of the decade.
The vessel will sit between the Kiiski and Kuha in size, but being closer to the latter by having a maximum length of approximately 24 meters and sporting a galley as well as accommodation and sanitary spaces. In true Finnish fashion, the mechanical sweeping gear will be transferred from the current vessels on to the new class. The integrated influence sweep systems will however be new, and should cover “all relevant signatures (e.g. acoustic, magnetic, electric)”. This might in other words spell the end of the line for Patria’s domestic sweepers, though the details are obviously unconfirmed as of yet. As was the case with HX, the tender is design to cost, with the expected budget being in the 18 to 20 MEUR range with an additional 15 MEUR reserved for options which might or might not be exercised. The number of hulls, however, is not mentioned in the tender, something that the Finnish Navy confirms isn’t an oversight but rather something they have left open to the bidders (at least for now).
The schedule given include a call for interested yards to report their interest before mid-March, the RFQ will then follow during Q2 this year, and the negotiations to find a prime contractor will kick off during Q3. Contract signing is not yet given, but with an FOC date of 2030 it can be expected to come quite rapidly (my personal guess would be during the first half of 2023). If a supplier can be found.
Because it deserves to be said: nothing like this has been built in the last decade or two.
Few navies are as passionate about mines as the Finnish ones, and those that still run serious mine countermeasure capabilities have largely transited to minehunting instead of sweeping, with most sweepers left in service being rather old. In addition, most new vessels are also on the bigger side compared to the 24 meters of the new class. Perhaps the most recent example of anything resembling the Finnish requirement is found in the Danish Navy which operate the MRD- (or MRD-STOR) and MRF-classes of optionally manned minesweepers. Telling however is that both are old enough (20+ years) that the builder Danyard has since folded.
So who will be competing for the job? The obvious Finnish yard to build a displacing 24 meter craft for any Finnish authorities is Uudenkaupungin Työvene (or Uki Workboat for short), though they are solidly a aluminium/steel-yard. Marine Alutech, supplier of landing craft and fast patrol boats to the Finnish Navy and Border Guards, is also a contender, though the size of the vessel is on the larger side for them and they usually prefer planing hulls. They do however have experience with composite hulls following their order for patrol craft to Oman. My alma mater Kewatec AluBoat has also recently bagged an order from the Finnish Navy, though they are also a pure aluminium yard. They do however sport some interesting designs that would fit the general requirements for the vessel.
A key note, however, is that the Navy isn’t prepared to comment on whether they are looking for a Finnish yard as prime contractor or for building some or all of the vessels locally on license, at least not “at this stage of the process”. This obviously opens up the field even more, and you can expect more or less all the major players in Europe to step up to the plate ready to have a swing at it. This include both smaller players for whom this would be a really nice fit (such as Swedeship Composite and Intermarine), but also the big players for whom this might be a bit on the small side (such as Naval Group, TKMS, Lürssen, or FINCANTIERI) who possibly might outsource the building of the vessels to a smaller yard and do the outfitting and technology integration themselves. Saab occupies something of a special spot in this discussion, as they have both the GRP know-how (over at Kockums) and a dedicated small craft yard (Docksta). Saab confirms that the project obviously is of interest to them, but said it is too early to tell whether they will be making an offer.
Trying to state which yard (or yards) are the favourites at this stage is tough, and depends somewhat on the equipment level of the vessels. As a very general rule of thumb, the larger yards with recent experience of mine countermeasure vessels such as Naval Group (with the MCM for the Dutch and Belgian navies) and Intermarine (with the large number of Lerici-class derivatives) will benefit from a more tech-heavy approach, while smaller yards with less overhead and leaner structures will benefit from a more bare-bones approach. With that said, Intermarine might be in for a tough race considering the delays with the Katanpää-class probably not having been forgotten quite yet.
The general layout of the vessel is likely to be rather conventional, mirroring both Kiiski and Kuha in sporting an open deck aft for the handling of the sweeping gear and a superstructure towards the bow. The tender notes that they need to be capable of being optionally manned, which as noted is nothing new or revolutionary in the field of minesweeping. One interesting question that could alter the general layout is if a twin-hull design would prove feasible, as these certainly would provide ample of deckspace and a stable working platform for the rather limited overall length. The Norwegian Navy operate two related classes of mine countermeasure vessels, the Alta-class sweepers and the Oksøy-class minehunters, which sport catamaran hulls of surface effect ship design. SES as a technology is overkill for the Finnish requirement, but shows that unconventional designs are possible within the field of mine countermeasure vessels.
This obviously also ties back to the design to cost and the question of capability versus number of hulls. For a stripped vessel the size of the Kiiski-class, one might get away with paying around a million for the vessel itself, plus whatever the sweeping gear will cost. However, while the 24 meter is a maximum, it certainly gives an indication that the vessel are expected to be 20+ meters in LOA, which together with the navalisation of the design will add to the cost. I also asked the Navy to clarify what exactly the thought behind the options are, which for the time being represent a sum corresponding to 75 to 83 % of the primary contract. Unfortunately they declined to comment on that question. In my mind, there are two prime alternatives: more hulls, or equipment that would go onto the ‘fitted for but not with’-list in case the options aren’t used. This could include defensive weapons (dual-purpose guns or anti-aircraft systems) or anti-submarine weapons, but also upgrades to the mine sweeping equipment, including things such as better sensors, more ROVs, or equipment to assist in case clearance divers are to be used from the vessels. More hulls is a more straightforward option, as even in the best of cases replacing the current 4+6 vessels on a one-to-one basis seems unattainable with 20 MEUR as that leaves an average of 2 MEUR per vessel, including project management costs and sweep equipment. However, five vessels of a rather basic design might be attainable for 20 MEUR (i.e. 4 MEUR per vessel), dropping the non-recurring costs might mean that another four or five vessels could be squeezed in for an additional 15 MEUR in options. This is just pure speculation at this point, but says something about the scope of the contract. Notable is that the Navy on a direct question stated that Raivaajaosasto Sääksi through the implementation of MSC2030 will have “their materiel renewed and the activities developed”, meaning that the complexity of the vessels will need to be kept at a level where reservists can make a meaningful contribution.
To give a bit of perspective, the three Katanpää-class minehunters came in at 81.7 MEUR a piece, giving a hint at just how stripped an – arguably significantly smaller – minesweeper would have to be to fit the 4 MEUR unit price. However, the aforementioned 23 meter long survey vessels recently ordered by a Swedish company from Kewatec AluBoats came in at 3 MEUR per vessel, so it certainly is doable. At the end of the day, if we could see six or seven new sweepers fit in under the contract while still ensuring that the needed capability is there, I would be rather happy.
Speaking of Swedish companies, an interesting question is obviously whether someone else might be interested in acquiring a few (presumably) dirt cheap minesweepers? I asked the Navy, and got the following line:
The Finnish Navy interact regularly and actively with several countries and take part in international research activities in the field of mine countermeasures, but the MSC2030-project is handled as a national project.
So no export customers for the time being. On the other hand, if the vessels turn out to be good and economical ships, I would not be overtly surprised to see some version of them going on export to some of the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. Sweden is a good example of a country that has a solid minehunting capability, but lack in the number of hulls available and currently doesn’t operate a dedicated minesweeper. The Swedish Navy did in fact acquire and briefly operate one ex-Danish MRD-class vessel, HMS Sökaren (MRF01), for tests and trials as part of the deal to lease a surplus submarine to the Danish Navy, but no operational program came out of the so called SAM II-trials. With the Swedish Navy in general being short on hulls and having the same kind of geographical issue as Finland with numerous ports covered by narrow approaches, a small fleet of sweepers could certainly have a role to fill (in particular if Saab makes a successful bid for the program). But for the time being, MSC2030 stays a purely Finnish program, and one that will certainly be interesting to follow, despite it not being as media sexy as Squadron 2020.