Unmanned Underwater Vehicle in the defence of the Gulf of Finland

The videoclip below is interesting.

At the 1:57 time stamp, the Finnish Navy is seen launching one of the world’s most advanced autonomous weapons systems in its class. Having been deployed, it slips below the surface where it will lay in wait. Silent. Deadly. Not giving away its presence in any way, but constantly monitoring its surroundings. Waiting. Every movement is registered, and evaluated against the profiles stored in its database. And once there’s a match, it strikes, mercilessly.

I am obviously referring to the Finnish Navy’s PM16 (fi. Pohjamiina for bottom mine, confusingly enough a designation also used for the Finnish Army’s sensor-fused anti-tank mines), the newest addition to the Finnish family of influence mines that started with the PM90, and has since seen the addition of both the PM04 and the PM16 visible above (the PM90 has also been updated to PM90MOD status with an all-new “brain” and sensor-suite). In addition, the Navy has operated British Stonefish (as the PM-85E) and two different kinds of Soviet mines as the PM83-1 and PM83-2 (possibly the MDM-4 and UDM), though these are likely retired by now. Mines are seen as a strategic threshold capability in Finnish doctrine. They can seal off the chokepoints an aggressor needs to enter Finnish territory from the sea, and they will cause significant stress for anyone forced to operate within areas potentially mined. The very shallow nature of both the Gulf of Finland as well as the Archipelago Sea also lend themselves well to both traditional moored mines as well as influence mines. Obviously, history has also shown that in case war would break out, mines can be used to seal of the Gulf of Finland completely. This would make it impossible for vessels to transit between the Russian Baltic Fleet’s main base Baltiysk in Kaliningrad and the Russian mainland, and isolating St Petersburg from the Baltic Sea.

The influence mine is usually not included in discussions regarding autonomous weapons, though there really is no reason why it shouldn’t. After all, it is a system that does all decision making completely on its own once it is released into the wild, with no human in or on the loop. However, the main issue with the mines is that they do not move*, and once a minefield is cleared that area is free to use**. Wouldn’t it be even better if the weapon could move around, suddenly appear in areas previously thought of as safe, or quickly be despatched to areas where control over an area protected by a minefield has been lost?

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The original artwork of H I Sutton’s XLUUV concept. Picture courtesy of H I Sutton/Covert Shores

Naval analyst H I Sutton presented an interesting concept on his homepage recently. In short, he asked himself why the concept of operations for the Iranian Ghadir-class of midget submarines – stay hidden close to shipping lanes, wait for surface targets, and then torpedo them – couldn’t conceivably be automated. Wouldn’t an extra-large unmanned underwater vehicle in the class of the US Navy’s Orca-program be a good fit for the mission. Most XLUUVs at the moment are designed for modularity and the possibility of taking up a number of different roles. By focusing on the single relatively straightforward mission of ambushing surface vessels, the complexity and cost becomes lower (to get a feeling for the costs, the current Orca-program has seen Boeing bag a recent order “for the fabrication, test, and delivery of four Orca” worth 43 million USD, following on a roughly equally large contract covering the design phase of the competition).

The XLUUV envisioned by Sutton would sport air-independent propulsion in the form of a stirling engine, and two pre-loaded 533 mm torpedo tubes would provide the sting. An endurance in excess of a week could be achieved, and further cost-savings could be had by restricting the requirements when it comes to performance, including max-depth.

It is easy to see how beneficial a system such as that described by Sutton could be for Finland. A handful of vessels could easily cover the Finnish coastline, and they would be at their strongest outside of the archipelago, a place where the Finnish Navy prefers to spend a relatively limited part of their time. It is also easy to see the value of a remote sensor function where the XLUUVs occasionally send back particularly interesting sensor tracks to the mainland, though this naturally has to be balanced against the value of staying completely silent.

However, it is also easy to see why the Finnish Navy likely won’t pursue this line of development. The Gulf of Finland is shallow enough that more or less any part of it, including the open waters, can likely by mined with bottom mines (and in any case traditional moored mines remain in use as well), and as has been discussed earlier the narrow straight means that any vessel moving in the open waters will be spotted and could be targeted by both artillery and land-based anti-ship missiles. As noted earlier, what the XLUUV option would bring to the Gulf of Finland would not be so much the capability to close of the gulf, that is already possible, but to do so with systems that are extremely difficult to track and take out. The relatively limited firepower of two tubes would also mean that the main threat of any single vessel would be in the psychological realm rather than purely kinetic capability (though considering the limited number of vessels in the Russian Baltic Fleet, XLUUVs that only strike once they match the profile of e.g. LSTs would present a serious headache for the aggressor).

Echo Voyager
The 15.5 meter long Echo Voyager is the basis for Boeing’s Orca XLUUV. Note the worker standing on the platform behind the vessel, providing scale. Source: Picture courtesy of Boeing

Another question is whether they actually might hold more use in the ASW role, as getting the sensors and weapons for the mission out to open waters without taking undue risks is something of an issue currently. This could also see a step-down to tube-launched 400 mm torpedoes (something the Swedish submarines currently use), making room for a larger number of torpedoes. The choice of only attacking underwater targets would also ensure a significantly smaller risk of collateral damage, something that certainly would aid in public acceptance of the system. Because let’s face it: it might be argued to be intellectually dishonest as I did at the start of this text, but the general public stills sees the sea mine as an explosive round and an autonomous XLUUV as a ‘killer robot’. Any procurement of the latter will first have to overcome this political hurdle.

* There are obviously self-propelled mines, combining the features of the torpedo and sea mine (somewhat ironically, as the term “torpedo” originally referred to mines, with today’s torpedoes being “self-propelled torpedoes”). Saab and Naval Group are both working on development projects aimed at producing modern solutions blurring the torpedo/UUV/mine definitions

** This is only true as long as the area really is clear, something that has proven to be surprisingly difficult to validate. Solutions such as the JDAM-ER with Quickstrike could also quickly change the situation, with e.g. two Super Hornets being able to swiftly put sixteen 450 kg mines on individual pinpoint locations

Sources:

Concept for low-cost autonomous anti-ship submarine

Laivaston sanomat 5/2018

Herätemiinojen kehitystyö Merivoimissa

The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World, 16th Ed.

Quickstrike for HX?

An interesting piece caught my eye this morning, describing how the US Navy is putting JDAM-ER kits on their Quickstrike series of mines. These are in effect naval mines based on the Mk 80-series of general-purpose bombs, and the combination of a modular warhead with a modular guidance and glide kit makes so much sense that the first reaction is why no-one has put the together earlier?

The linked story gives a good primer for the concept, but the too long, didn’t read version is that the Quickstrike mine is dropped by an aircraft, glides tens of kilometres (depending on release altitude) to a pre-set target location, where it sinks to the bottom of the sea and becomes a ‘smart’ bottom mine.

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A 1,000 lbs Mk 63 Quickstrike mine being checked prior to loading onto an F/A-18C Hornet belonging to VFA-113. This is the traditional baseline version of the mine, being a free-fall weapon with a retarding tail. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Tyler Orsburn via Wikimedia Commons

For HX this suddenly opens up interesting possibilities. Mining is traditionally a key interest of the Finnish Navy, as our waters are shallow and the number of usable sea lanes to reach any given port is severely limited by the cluttered archipelago. However, if the enemy enters the area and manages to sweep a sea lane, going in to mine it again is usually not to be recommended. Mining is also a time-consuming task, putting the vessels performing it in danger.

The Quickstrike/JDAM-ER combination offers a solution as it makes it possible to mine from a stand-off distance and to release the whole minefield more or less simultaneously, and with the exact location of the mines already logged. A pair of fighters could easily and in a very short time span shut down a key chokepoint or scatter their load over a more general area to force the enemy to conduct time-consuming sweeping operations.

GHWB is the flagship of Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 2, which is comprised of the staff of CSG-2, GHWB, the nine squadrons and staff of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8, Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 22 staff and guided-missile destroyers USS Laboon (DDG 58) and USS Truxton (DDG 103), and Mayport-based guided-missile cruisers USS Philippine Sea (CG 58) and USS Hue City (CG 66).
F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to VFA-87 sporting eight GBU-32 1,000 lbs JDAM. Note that this is a combat load, and not a demonstrator aircraft being loaded up. The same amount of JDAM-ERs or Quickstrike mines could likely be carried. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matt Matlage via Wikimedia Commons

The obvious platform here is the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. It is already using the JDAM-ER in Australian service, and chances are that the USN will focus any effort to integrate the Quickstrike on it much sooner than they will get around to the F-35C (not to mention how long it would take before the F-35A picks up the load). The ‘Rhino’ has flown impressive JDAM sans suffix loads in Syria, including slugging it out with two 2,000 lbs (900 kg) GBU-31 JDAMs under each wing, or eight of the lighter 1,000 lbs GBU-32. A pair of Super Hornets could likely drop eight heavy or sixteen lighter sea mines in a single mission, and could do so deep behind enemy lines. In fact, this is something of an unique selling point for the ‘Rhino’.

This opens up completely new tactical possibilities, including quickly shutting down a strategic sea lane if an enemy task force seems to be able to avoid Finnish surface units or coastal defences (a scenario becoming increasingly likely as the number of ships decrease). Another possibility is cutting off an enemy amphibious landing by mining the sea lanes used to supply the bridgehead, or even offensively dropping mines in or in the very vicinity of enemy ports and bases.

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A B-52 dropping a dummy Quickstrike mine during exercise BALTOPS 2017. Traditionally the US has prioritised mining with heavy bombers and maritime patrol aircraft, but in a modern air defence environment the use of tactical strike aircraft increases survivability, and modern guidance kits allows for greater precision meaning that fewer mines can be used to create an effective minefield. Source: US Navy Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet via Wikimedia Commons

The best part is the cost. This is largely an off-the-shelf system, with (relatively) cheap components and requiring little specialised training on the part of the flight crews to operate. While I find it unlikely that we will see a true maritime strike capability on the HX anytime soon, this would allow the air force to support the navy and shape the maritime battlefield in a cost effective way. The JDAM-ER guidance kits, mines, and regular Mk 80s could even be bought separately, and combined as appropriate during wartime depending on if the mines are needed or if the weapons are better used in a land-strike role. This does seem to be low-hanging fruit for an interesting and unique joint capability at a low price.

MTA2020 and its Swedish connection – Pt 2. Finland

The following is part two of three, discussing the possibilities of Finnish-Swedish cooperation in the field of new support ships. Part one (published yesterday) dealt mainly with the Swedish plans, with this part focusing on the Finnish MTA2020, and in part three (published tomorrow) I will try to wrap it up. As mentioned, I have no inside information on the MTA2020 or L10, but everything is based on open sources.

Finland – MTA2020

The MTA2020 is very vaguely described in the article. As opposed to the Hämenmaa-class, which currently can operate in the Mediterranean but not further afield, the MTA2020 is supposed to be able to operate in the Indian Ocean on international duties, as well as to perform its wartime missions in the Finnish archipelagoes and home waters.

The MTA2020 will most probably be a large ship by Finnish standards. Also, seeing the emphasize placed by the Finnish navy on mines in naval warfare (e.g. the mine rails were kept on the refurbished Hämeenmaa ships, as opposed to the Swedish solution for HMS Carlskrona), the MTA2020 might well feature a combined Ro/Ro and mine deck. For prolonged operations abroad, full flight facilities including a hangar might be wished for, but it is unclear which helicopter would be used, as the Finnish Navy currently does not operate any helicopters of their own.

If the ship would indeed receive full flight facilities, my personal belief is that the use of NH-90, even in its NFH-version, is unlikely, as it is a rather heavy helicopter. An order for a limited number of light marine helicopters, e.g. the AW159 Wildcat or AS565 Panther, would seem logical, and would dramatically boost both the ASW and ASuW capabilities of the navy, by providing stand-off ASW capability and over-the-horizon targeting capability for ship based AShM. However, the cost of such a procurement might well prove to be prohibitive.

Exactly in which way the MTA2020 is supposed to replace the Rauma-class is more uncertain, as weapons will probably be limited to a self-defence SAM-system, one medium caliber dual-purpose gun similar in performance to the Bofors 57 mm currently fitted to the Hämeenmaa, and some kind of anti-submarine weapons (might we see torpedoes aboard a Finnish ship for the first time since WWII?).

The role it could take over from the Rauma is escorting merchant shipping, where it could tackle air and potentially sub-surface threats. Operating a MTO2020 in this way together with a Hamina-class PGG or two might prove a winning combo, being able to take on air, surface and sub-surface threats, with the MTO2020 replenishing the Haminas at sea to provide longer endurance.

However, having heavier equipment on support ships are not unheard of. The Rhein-class depot ships of the Bundesmarine were fitted with two 100 mm DP guns in single turrets, a number of 40 mm AA guns, and up to 70 mines, meaning they could fulfill wartime roles as a mineship or light frigate (this was before guided missiles became the weapons of choice for almost every mission). The heavy armament also meant that they could serve as training ships, benefitting from a larger complement, meaning that more people could be trained per cruise compared to a “real” frigate or missile/torpedo craft.

This later might be an idea that would interest the Finnish navy. Mounting a four-cell AShM launcher on the MTA2020 would provide the navy with a more or less ideal training vessel, having the same(?) weapons and sensors as the Hamina-class (or, whatever the Hamina-class will receive when the time comes for their MLU), as well as mine rails, almost every position on most warships of the navy could be taught onboard the MTA2020.

While the Finnish navy is no stranger to this kind of arrangement, having operated the Bay-class frigate HMS Porlock Bay (‘K650’/’F650’) for over ten years in the training role as Matti Kurki before scrapping her in 1975, as stated above, I find it unlikely that the MTA2020 will get its own AShM-launcher.