Uncertain Future for Swedish Silent Service

Operating submarines is expensive business. However, they do offer significant benefits, ensuring that many countries are willing to pay the cost. But one thing even more expensive than operating submarines is building up your submarine service from scratch because you had to spend a decade or so without suitable boats. That is what the Polish Navy is desperate to avoid.

The Baltic Sea proper offer an excellent stomping ground for littoral submarines (as opposed to the gulfs and straits in the Baltic that are quite narrow and shallow), and as such it comes as no surprise that several of the coastal states have submarine fleets. Sweden and Germany are the two leading submarine operators in the sea, with Russia and Poland playing second fiddle. The Polish Navy has had a few though decades recently, and the submarine fleet is no exception. The ORP Orzeł is a Project 877 ‘Kilo’-class submarine and has been in Polish service since 1986, sporting the distinction of being the first exported Kilo. The plan was for her to be joined by more sisters, but budgetary constraints led to two Project 641 ‘Foxtrot’-class submarines being leased from Soviet surplus stocks instead. These were retired in the early 00’s, while the Orzeł seem destined to serve another decade according to information that surfaced earlier this year. To keep the Orzeł company following the retirement of the Project 641’s, the Polish Navy acquired ex-Norwegian Type 207 ‘Kobben’-class. The vessels were originally built to replace a varied fleet of ex-Royal Navy and Kriegsmarine boats, and are in fact of the same generation as the Project 641’s. However, the West German submarine class is a better submarine in more or less all possible ways, and the class has undergone significant upgrades. Still, there’s no denying that their age is starting to show, and the Polish Navy already retired the first vessel of the class back in 2017.

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A significant part of the Polish surface and subsurface fleet in port in Gdynia. Note the size difference between the four Kobben-class and the ORP Orzeł. Source: Joymaster via Wikimedia Commons

The solution was to have been the Orka-program, which has included all the twists and turns that have come to be expected from large Polish defence procurements. The original timeline was to have included deliveries taking place this year, but already in 2014 it was reported that the program had ran into delays. Currently, there is a large amount of uncertainty surrounding the program, with the timeline last year being said to include deliveries between 2024 and 2026 while at the same time TKMS gave the first delivery of their Type 212CD offer as taking place in 2027.

In any case, it is starting to become clear that a stop-gap solution is needed if the Polish submarine fleet isn’t to shrink to a single thirty-five year old hull. However, used submarines aren’t exactly floating around on the market in significant numbers, making the task of finding a few vessels to bridge the gap between the Kobben and Orka difficult.

On the other side of the Baltic Sea, former submarine powerhouse Sweden is down to five operational vessels in the form of the two Södermanland- and three Gotland-class submarines (this can be compared to the twelve submarines that were on strength as late as 1995). The Södermanlands are the two remaining of the originally four-strong A-17 Västergötland-class built in the late 1980’s, and underwent a serious MLU that included conversion from diesel-electric to AIP (Stirling) propulsion in the early 00’s. These are still competent boats, and as a side-note the vessels still likely hold the world-record in wire-guided torpedo salvo firing, being able to fire and simultaneously guide up to twelve 400 and 530 mm torpedoes at different targets (a nice party-trick, but likely of limited operational use to be honest). The Stirling-powered A19 Gotland-class was launched in the mid-90’s, and made headlines when the leadship was leased with crew to the US Navy for OPFOR duty, with quite some success.

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Second A19 Gotland-class boat HMS Uppland being prepared for the relaunch following her MLU, that included a lengthening of the hull. Picture courtesy of Saab

The Gotland-class was quite possibly the best littoral submarine worldwide when it entered service, but things have moved on. As such, the new A26 Blekinge-class is currently being built for the Swedish Navy, and as part of the phased renewal of the Swedish submarine force the Gotland-class receives a serious MLU that include several features and subsystems of the upcoming A26 to lessen the technological risk of the newbuilds, increase synergies when operating A19 alongside A26, and to increase the lifespan of the A19.

The problem is money.

Only two MLUs have been ordered by the Swedish Navy, with HMS Gotland and HMS Uppland having been modified. So far no order has been secured to upgrade the third sister, HMS Halland, despite this being a stated priority of the outgoing Swedish CinC of the Navy. Cutting another hull from the force would likely leave the Navy unable to hold two submarines out on patrol simultaneously over prolonged times, and for a potential adversary there is a serious difference in having to worry about two submarines in the Baltic compared to one (think of it as squaring the size of the issue). But in a situation were all three services are struggling to get the funds to cover the capabilities ordered by the government, and with the surface fleet being in even worse shape, who would pay for the upgrade?

The Poles, perhaps?

According to the Polish MoD, they are currently in negotiations with the Swedish government (Saab has confirmed they aren’t involved in the negotiations at this stage) to acquire the two Södermanland-class boats as a stop-gap to replace the Type 207 Kobben-class while waiting for the Orka-class. The vessels would be updated by Saab Kockums before delivery, which potentially could fit in nicely with the fact that there are currently no submarine MLUs ongoing and the two Gävle-class corvettes should be out of MLU sometime during next year. As such there should be free docks and slipways available and engineering resources available. To cover the shortfall in Swedish submarine capability the Swedes would buy back the other two A17 vessels, that are currently in service in Singapore as the Archer-class, having undergone an MLU in the early 2010’s and another round of upgrades in recent years. This castling move would ensure that Sweden has a five-strong fleet of submarines, give Poland two relatively modern boats to replace the Kobben, and potentially bring in some much-needed cash that could be diverted (if the government is so inclined) to the upgrade of the HMS Halland.

The only problem is that there is no indication that Singapore is interested in playing along.

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A crew-member inspects the no. 2 torpedo tube aboard HMS Södermanland. Note the smaller 400 mm torpedo tube below the 530 mm ones, a Swedish specialty to allow for lighter weapons being used against other submarines and lighter surface vessels which are prominent in the littorals. Source: Mattias Nurmela/Försvarsmakten

The Singaporean submarine fleet consists of the two Archer-class vessels as well as two older ex-Swedish submarines, these Challenger-class being upgraded A-11 Sjöormen-class boats. In addition, the German-built Type 218SG Invincible-class is currently being built, but none have so far entered service. Those familiar with the RSN seriously question that it would be prepared to part with the Archer-class before at least the first two, or perhaps more likely all four, of the Type 218SG are in service. If the RSN would be ready to part with something, it would likely be the Challengers, and it’s highly doubtful if Sweden would be interested in such a downgrade in capability.

Is the Polish A17 deal then dead? Quite possibly not.

The deal makes a lot of sense from a Swedish point of view. Kockums’ submarine know-how is seen as a vital strategic asset, and readers might remember the dramatic headlines when Swedish authorities assisted by soldiers from the P 7 Södra Skånska regiment in 2014 entered the facilities and left with a cargo of ‘sensitive equipment’ as part of an ongoing dispute with then-owner TKMS. The yard was sold to Saab in 2015 to ensure Swedish ownership and that they could be tasked with building the new A26-class. However, the low number of Swedish operated submarines means that keeping the know-how alive purely based on domestic orders is ever more challenging, and the export market hasn’t been kind to Swedish submarines since the controversies surrounding the Australian Collins-class. Selling the Södermanland-class to Poland would not only mean Saab getting to upgrade the two boats, but also ensuring that Saab would be well-positioned in the eventual Orka-project. If the Navy would play its cards well, it could also make the argument that the funds from the sale should be funneled to the upgrade of the last Gotland-class, ensuring all three staying in service alongside the upcoming A26-class.

And before the delivery of the A26, the Swedish submarine force would be down to three boats.

This would be a serious blow to Swedish naval capabilities, especially when it comes to intelligence gathering and more intangible effects such as threshold effects and the creation of uncertainty regarding the kinetic capabilities the Swedish Navy possess at any given time in specific parts of the Baltic Sea. This would also directly affect the Finnish intelligence picture, as Finland and Sweden cooperate closely on the establishment of the maritime situational picture in the Baltic Sea. The submarines can be assumed to be amongst the single most important assets in either the Swedish or Finnish arsenal when it comes to keeping an eye Baltiysk, the main base of the Russian Baltic Fleet, thanks to their range, endurance, sensors, and ability to remain hidden. If Sweden would go down to three submarines for a period spanning years, both Finland and Sweden would be left with a poorer picture of the whereabouts and capabilities of the Baltic Fleet.

Naval News interview with Saab from this summer about the latest status of the A26 Blekinge class

But is it a gamble worth taking?

The situation for the Swedish Navy is already dire. In effect, if HMS Halland isn’t upgraded and no more A26 are ordered, the future Swedish fleet will be down to four boats. If letting go of the Södermanlands prematurely would allow for an upgrade of all A19, and possibly the ordering of a third A26 following economics of scale thanks to A26 securing the Orka-order, gambling on a serious crisis not taking place before the delivery of the Blekinge-class again has brought the submarine force back to strength in 2026 might start to feel tempting. An important detail is also that an Orka-order would mean that the A26 would get cruise missiles, an interesting option for later integration into the Swedish submarine force as well.

After all, temporarily scrapping all artillery pieces worked out nicely. Right?

A further look at the Gabriel 5

The field of advanced weaponry such as anti-ship missiles is rarely a transparent one. Still, the new PTO 2020 is turning out to be quite something, being about as opaque as your favourite Ostrobothnian river following heavy spring rains.

The ANAM / Gabriel 5

The best source on the ANAM that is currently available is likely the single cutaway found on IAI’s homepage. This can then be compared to the dimensions of the Harpoon, which are well-known. Under the assumption that the diameter of the ANAM and Harpoon are similar(ish), which seems reasonable considering their very similar layout, a closer comparison can be made.

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Comparison between non-ER RGM-84 Harpoon (cyan) and ANAM (dark blue). Notably the ANAM has the engine sligthly more forward, but otherwise the two match surprisingly closely both when looking at internal compartments and external features. Source: Own picture based on available cutaways

My original impression which I voiced in the last blog was that ANAM is longer and with a slightly different arrangement of the fins. Having compared the cutaway of the ANAM with that of the Harpoon (see e.g. Think Defence’s piece on the Harpoon), it does seem clear that this was a mistake, and the ANAM is in fact almost impossible to externally differentiate from the Harpoon. It should be noted that this conclusion rests on the assumption that A) the ANAM cutaway supplied by IAI is at least remotely correct, and B) that the diameter of the missiles are indeed the same. On the first account there does exist a possibility that the supplier isn’t completely honest when it comes to marketing material, but it is an OSINT-risk I am prepared to live with for the time being. On the second account, there seems to be little reason to produce a new weapon so closely modeled after the layout of the Harpoon, unless it is designed to fit the current logistics chain, including storage containers and possibly the launchers themselves. This is as I see it the only possible explanation why the Israelis chose the exact same layout and size of fins to the exact same external body. Small caveat here that the inlet might differ, as it is shrouded by the fins in the cutaway, and a retractable scoop a’la BGM-109G GLCM is a possibility. Something like this is visible in the Skimmer-video referenced in the last post, though it is unclear if that is the ANAM or a generic anti-ship missile (it does look somewhat like IMI’s Delilah HL, but the configuration of the fins is different).

One interesting point that stands out in the cutaway, however, is the internal component layout compared to the non-ER versions of the Harpoon. Crucially, the warhead occupies more or less exactly the same space as the 500 lbs (227 kg) warhead of the Harpoon. If the cutaway is correct, this would indicate that Finland has decided against downsizing the warhead compared to the current MTO 85M. The size of the fuel tank would also likely indicate a range in the 150 km class rather than the 200+ km ranges of the RBS 15 Gungnir, NSM, and Harpoon Block II+ ER. Crucially, as 150 km is more than “about 100 km“, this does not contradict that the PTO 2020 has longer range than the MTO 85M, one of the few capability details revealed by the Finnish authorities (this being confirmed by captain Valkamo).

For the sensors available to the Finnish Navy and for the relatively limited firing ranges of the Baltic Sea, blast size for range isn’t an unexpected trade-off. However, in a field where only the RBS 15 and Gabriel had a 500 lbs warhead, this might certainly have been one of the deciding factors. Notably, the traditionally conservative Finnish Defence Forces seems to continue favouring radar-seeking missiles with large warheads, operating at high-subsonic speeds.

All in all, it does seem likely that at some point after the introduction of the RGM-84D into Israeli service, the Israelis were not happy by the continued development path of the Harpoon, and decided to make a better version on their own (note that “better” might be in the narrow sense of better suiting Israeli requirements). This is not unheard of when it comes to Israeli weapons development (see e.g. Magach contra M60 Patton, or Kfir compared to Mirage V), and would make Gabriel 5 something of a cousin to the Harpoon Block II+ ER.

The DCSA-request

The Harpoon DSCA-request was discussed when it arrived, and while the Harpoon wasn’t picked, it does give some interesting pointers regarding the scope of the Gabriel-deal. It covered 112 live missiles and eight exercise ones, for a total sum of 622 million USD (532 million Euro). This is likely the absolute maximum, and corresponds to the Gabriel order including options. The quoted sum for the latter was 162 million Euros for the firm order and options for an additional 193 million Euros, for a total of 355 millions. In other words, the Israeli offer including options was 40% cheaper than the DSCA-request. Even if there are discrepancies between the two offers, the difference is big enough that the Israeli offer must have been objectively cheaper by all standards.

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Israeli Sa’ar 5-class corvette sporting the Israeli stealthy Harpoon-launchers behind the forward tower. Here only a single quadruple launcher is mounted, but two can be carried (one pointing port and one pointing starboard). Source: IDF via Wikimedia Commons

In Israeli Service

As noted the last time around, the Israeli decision not to upgrade their RGM-84D Harpoons to even -84L standard is rather revealing. In an article from 2014, a ‘senior naval source’ discusses the improvements to the anti-air and land-strike capabilities of the Navy, and reveals that “planned upgrades are also scheduled for sea-to-sea missiles.” These are all part of the “overall strategic vision in which the navy plays a growing role in the IDF’s integrated warfare capabilities.”

In 2017 INS Hanit, an Israeli Sa’ar 5-class vessel, took part in the international exercise ‘Novel Dina 17‘ with a single quadrupel-launcher of a new design (note that at least one of the pictures described as showing the INS Hanit in fact shows a Sa’ar 4.5-class vessel). This was captured on picture by AP press photographer Jack Guez, and labelled as the ‘Missile boxes Gabriel’. The box-shaped launchers have to the best of my knowledge not been seen either before or since. This is not surprising, as their unstealthy and generally crude look does give the impression of them being a test-installation rather than the final mount.

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Israeli Sa’ar 5-class corvette with striped launchers. Source: Israeli Navy YouTube-channel

The Sa’ar 5 employs their Harpoons in two stealthy launchers, each holding four missiles. As discussed above, it is possible that the Gabriel can be fired from the same launcher, with only the missile control unit inside the vessel being switched out. As such, identifying which missile is carried based on the launcher is hard to impossible. However, in a YouTube-video posted by the Israeli Navy on their channel in the spring of 2017 a launcher with two longitudinal ‘stripes’ is visible. These might be vents, but in any case they differ compared to the standard version. If they are related to the Gabriel or not is impossible to tell, but there seems to be an upgraded version of the launcher introduced into service within the last year(s).

…and abroad

When Svenska Yle asked the Armed Forces about which other countries use the system, they could only confirm that other countries also use the system. Individual countries could not be mentioned because the information is classified.

An interesting question is where the Gabriel is in operational use. There is a small caveat that since this isn’t a direct quote and the interview might have been conducted in the secondary language of either the journalist or the Defence Forces’ representative, it is possible that this was a misunderstanding. However, the quote above, from an article by the Finnish public broadcasting company YLE, gives the impression that more than one country uses the missile. This obviously raises the question which country that might be?

Books can, and indeed have been, written on Israeli arms trade. In oversimplified terms, Israel is ready to export their weaponry to most anyone who can guarantee that it doesn’t end up in the hands of any of the countries actively promoting the destruction of the Israeli state. In effect, this has lead Israel to exporting arms to numerous countries in Africa, Asia, and South/Central Americas. Deals to western countries usually go through local partners (see today’s announcement about Lockheed Martin cooperating on the SPICE guidance kit). Export of earlier versions of the Gabriel have usually been tied to the export of Israeli surplus naval vessels, something which isn’t the case with the Gabriel 5 as it is so new.

In recent years, three countries stand out when it comes to Israeli exports: India, Vietnam, and Azerbaijan.

The missing link between the jewish democracy of Israel and the muslim dictatorship of Azerbaijan is Iran. Azerbaijan is in fact somewhat western-aligned, in part as neighbours Armenia and Iran are aligned towards Russia, and operate an impressive array of Israeli equipment. This includes Israeli Shaldag-class fast patrol craft and Sa’ar 62-class offshore patrol vessels. The latter are based on the Israeli Sa’ar 4.5-class fast attack crafts, and can likely lay claim to the title of the world’s most heavily armed coast guard vessels. Interestingly, Azerbaijan’s Turan news agency reported in 2011 that the country was buying an unspecified version of the Gabriel (secondary source, primary link broken). As the Sa’ar 4.5 in Israeli service is armed with the Harpoon, it is plausible that the missile system was destined for the Sa’ar 62. However, there are no indication of the system ever having been delivered to Azerbaijan, and the Sa’ar 62 currently operate with the SPIKE-NLOS (as seen in the infamous music video which confirmed the presence of Harop in Azerbaijani service). As such, it seems likely that the Gabriel was axed and replaced by the SPIKE-NLOS in the arms package.

India has bought Barak surface-to-air missiles for their newer vessels, and Vietnam is in the midst of a naval expansion program. While there are reports that some Vietnamese vessels are set to get improved firepower, nothing tangible indicate that the Gabriel would have been exported to either country.

Enter the Singaporean Formidable-class frigates. These are based on the French La Fayette-class, and is certainly one of the most formidable classes in operation in Asia. However, one odd feature is the fact that most sources list their main armament as being the outdated RGM-84C Harpoon, first introduced in 1982 and only marginally better than the original 70’s design of the -84A. While the Singaporean Navy isn’t exactly open with their armament choices, it seems that the assumption is that they share the RGM-84C version with the older Victory- and Sea Wolf-classes (the latter now retired, and curiously enough originally fitted with the Gabriel 2). The continued use of the RGM-84C would place the vessels at something of a drawback in a neighborhood featuring Exocet MM40 Block 2 and NSM, and would seem a strange decision considering the considerable cost sunk into the frigates.

There has been some rumours* that IAI participated in and lost the tender to arm the Formidable-class. Looking back, it might just be that they did participate, but in fact won. And no-one even noticed.

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RSS Intrepid, second vessel of the Formidable-class. Source: Rjv25 via Wikimedia Commons
*The post reporting the rumours also discusses an Israeli missile shot showing a slender and fast missile, and speculates this could be a scramjet powered Gabriel 5. If that is the case, it is something completely else than the ANAM. My personal opinion is still that the ANAM is the likely Gabriel sold to the Finnish Navy.