Finnish defence discussions have a few topics that quickly tend to derail into a somewhat unhealthy fandom, but few does so more readily than anything that has to do with the Ilmatorjuntaohjus 96, or Buk M1 as it is known internationally.
The Buk M1 had a rather short career in Finnish service, as the FDF quickly realised that having a system designed by the potential enemy might not be the best idea when it comes to such a technical arm as air defence – there’s a reason anything related to electronic warfare, radars, missiles, or SEAD/DEAD usually are among the most well-guarded secrets of any nation. The search for a replacement saw the NASAMS and SAMP/T face off, with the NASAMS taking home the price and becoming the new top-dog in Finnish ground-based air defences.
Let’s be clear, the NASAMS is simply a better air defence system than the Buk it replaced, there really is no discussion. However, as often is the case on the internet, discussions on capability has a tendency to be reduced to a top trumps comparison of specifications that are easy to describe with numerical values. And the top ceiling of the Buk is higher than that of the NASAMS.
Exactly how much of a difference is open to discussion. Most sources quote the ceiling of the NASAMS at around 10,000 meters, while others speak of 15,000 meters. The Buk M1 in turn is often quoted as going up to 22,000 meters (though some give a rather lower one, e.g. 12,000 meters). I personally have a hard time understanding the nostalgia for the semi-active radar homing 9M38 M1-missile that had turned 25 by the time conscript training in Finland stopped (something that does not mean it left the wartime forces at that time) and is well over 40 years old by now (I mean, if we really wanted something with altitude, we’d start shopping around on the second-hand market for the impressive S-200VE with it’s 29,000 meter ceiling and 240 km range…). It also deserves to be said that the F/A-18 Hornet-fleet is more than capable of taking on targets that attempt to sneakily fly above the NASAMS ceiling.
Still, air defence usually is best served by a layered approach, and it has been an ambition for the FDF to get back into the ground-based high-altitude air defence-game for quite some time. In 2018 an RFI was issued, which was followed up with an RFQ to five companies in 2020. The plan at that stage was to finalise the procurement before the end of 2022, but that schedule was adjusted last year – partly due to the pandemic having caused issues.
However, last week we were treated to a surprise down-select, and it provided a rather surprising outcome. Gone were not only Diehl and always-bridesmaid-never-the-bride MBDA who keeps having a hard time securing Finnish contracts, but also favourite Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace and their NASAMS-ER. Instead we were left with two offers, both from Israel: the David’s Sling of Rafael and the BARAK MX of IAI. Neither system is bad, in fact they are both extremely competent according to all available public sources, but for the Finnish procurement there has been a feeling that they are simply too competent – and by extension too costly. An outspoken goal with the current procurement has been to get enough batteries to provide geographical coverage (it is easy to imagine coverage increasing through increased range, but for air defence that is to some extent a faulty line of reasoning as the difference in effective area coverage between two batteries with differently ranged missiles is rather small compared to what can be achieved through the ability to place more batteries in different key locations – remember that as opposed to e.g. anti-tank weapons the targets for the air defences are also constantly moving around and covering significant distances, at any point in time during which they can run into your air defences).
However, it is now evident that the FDF was more ambitious than just getting an average solution. Considering the timing, you would be forgiven to imagine the FDF having changed the scope somewhat following the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine. The force however denies that that would be case, and states that throughout the program capability has been the primary concern, which do makes you feel a bit sad for Diehl who tried to take on missile systems that sport some of the most advanced endoatmospheric interceptors on the market with their IRIST-T SLM.
As mentioned the two systems left in the running are the BARAK MX from IAI and the David’s Sling of Rafael. The BARAK MX traces its roots to the ship-based family of BARAK 8-missiles. These originally kicked off as a joint Israeli-Indian project, though nowadays the missile family has forked off into two distinct national lines of Israeli and Indian versions respectively. The BARAK MX (with MX standing for ‘Mix’) is the Israeli land-based version and can hold a number of different missiles. While in Israeli service the BARAK is only used as a shipboard weapon, the weapon has been exported in land-based versions to a limited number of countries, best known of which is Azerbaijan.
The Azeri setup comes with both truck-mounted TELs and palletized firing units, truck-mounted BMCs (BARAK Management Centre, the solution is possibly containerised but I’m unsure based on the available pictures. Both container and truck-mounted versions are offered), and ELTA’s palletized ELM-2288 AD-STAR radars. There are also reports that Azerbaijan have acquired the ELM-2080 Green Pine radar (which sports one of the cooler code names around, more on this one shortly). The layout is rather conventional for a modern system. Everything goes on wheeled trucks (unless you want a hardened BMC), and when you arrive at your preferred location the trucks either point their missiles towards the sky or deploy their palletized missiles racks, both setups of which can handle eight missiles ready to fire. The radar is set up and everything is connected to the BMC which is the brains of the systems. Here it is also possible to connect the system to other sensors, to ensure that you have a situational picture that is up to date and allowing e.g. for ambushing enemy aircraft by turning on the fire-control radar only once the enemy target is within range.
There are no details about the Finnish offer besides the MX being paired with an ELTA-radar. The ELM-2288 AD-STAR in some version is certainly the expected candidate, though other details are likely to differ compared to the Azeri setup. When contacted, IAI kindly declined to comment due to the sensitivity of the acquisition program, so there is some guesswork involved here. An interesting detail is that the Finnish Defence Forces refer to the missile on offer as the LRAD ER. IAI in turn talk about having three different missiles: the point-defence MRAD (30 km range), the medium-range LRAD (70 km), and the booster-equipped ER (150 km range). The missiles are hot-launched, but still described as having a “low launch signature” – YMMV. When I contacted FDF they confirmed that LRAD ER is one missile and not an offer that include both LRAD- and ER-missiles. I tried to ask IAI if they have more than three missiles integrated – i.e. if the LRAD ER would be a new-version of the LRAD – but they referred only to three above. As the ER is an LRAD with a booster (think they same principle as the Aster-family), I tend to believe that the Finnish designation refer to the ER. This performance is more or less on par with the 160 km range PAC-2 GEM-T missile of the Patriot system (Robot 103A in Swedish service). However, there are two key difference in that the BARAK is equipped with an active radar seeker (i.e. the missile carries its own radar and will continue to home on to the target even if the main radar goes silent) while the PAC-2 is a semi-active radar homing missile (i.e. it relies on the ground radar lighting up the target). The second important difference is that while the PAC-2 is a single-stage missile (i.e. it burns until it no longer does so, and then it coasts along until running out of speed), the BARAK ER is in effect a two-stage three-pulse missile in that we first have the booster kicking off the whole thing, and the LRAD missile mounted on top of the booster then has a dubble-pulse engine, giving significantly more energy during the later stages of the interception compared to traditional missiles. The BARAK also has a vertical launch which gives the ability to cover 360°, though in practice the Patriot batteries are usually deployed so as to minimize the impact of their ‘blind’ sector – it is rare to find locations where you can be jumped on from any direction, unless you deploy on top of the highest hill in the area, and then everyone will see you.
There are reports that the BARAK MX took part in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Few Armenien air losses were documented during the conflict, none of which are attributed to the system. However, there are persistent reporting that during the final stage of the conflict Armenia would have fired a single 9M723 Iskander against the Azeri capital of Baku, and this would have been intercepted by a BARAK. The claims are rightly questioned, as to the best of my knowledge all reporting of the incident go back to a single story by a Turkish journalist, and there have been no independent verification. Verification of successful intercepts of ballistic missiles are also notoriously hard to make even in the best of conditions, and it is unclear whether Azerbaijan actually has the ER with its enhanced theatre-ballistic missile defence (TBMD or BMD for short) capability in service or whether it is relying on the shorter-legged missiles. As such, I would be careful with the ‘Combat Proven’ label for now, though the missile has since successfully intercepted ballistic missiles in trials.
But wait a minute, readers of the blog will say. Finland wasn’t supposed to get a BMD capability!
The answer is “Yes” (and just wait until you see the other guy).
Back in 2019, Finnish Chief of Defence general Timo Kivinen gave the following statement to the Finnish newspaper Kaleva:
No minor country has the resources to develop and maintain an active missile defence system. […] Finland has a passive missile defence system, based on an analysed and identified threat. The concept is based on protection, movement, and decentralized operations.
This statement was by no means unique, but rather one in the line of statements to media and in press releases where the same principle has been stated time and time again. Finland does not have any interest in ballistic missile defence through shooting down incoming missiles. So what is up with that, has the FDF changed priorities now under influence from the war in Ukraine and the liberal amount of missiles fired?
(Note that while that’s a serious number of missiles quoted in the tweet below, there has also been a serious number of airstrikes during the war, and of the ones mentioned only the Iskanders and Tochkas are ballistic missiles)
The short answer is “No”. The longer answer is still the same as it always has been:
The ability to defeat ballistic missiles has not been one of the project’s objectives. We have compared the performance of different systems against traditional targets.
In short, the BARAK ER and David’s Sling with its Stunner missile are simply better at killing aircraft and cruise missiles than the competition, and that’s why they are shortlisted.
But there will be an Iskander-killing capability, right?
Not necessarily. Having a missile capable of hitting the incoming ballistic missile is an important step, but only part of the equation. Since the target is ridiculously quick, getting pre-warning is key (remember the Green Pine-radar rumoured to have gone to Azerbaijan? That’s a radar that is dedicated to long range detection and acquisition of TBMs, exactly the kind of additional – and very expensive – sensor you need if you want to enter the BMD-game for real). That in turn means you want to know where it comes from so you can set up you sensors to detect it at optimal range (see excellent linked thread below by Simon Petersen, who as opposed to yours truly actually is a professional when it comes to these kinds of things), and that is a very different setup of sensors and deployment patterns compared to if you are planning on taking on aircraft or helicopters. This is also a key reason why BMD makes more sense for Sweden than for Finland, as the obvious firing location for Iskanders heading toward Sweden is from the rather limited direction of Kaliningrad, while Finland has a rather large sector of potential enemy TBM firing locations.
So, when the FDF is buying a BMD-capable system and still says they aren’t aiming for a BMD-capability, that’s what they mean. The missile might be there, and if someone is dropping an Iskander on their block they might be able to kill it. But if it is headed to the next district you are probably out of luck.
But if you were impressed by the BARAK MX (and you probably should be), wait until you see what Rafael brings to the table.
David’s Sling is system that resemble a Patriot battery that has decided to enter the near-vertical launch game. It is jointly developed with Raytheon, and is very different from, well, most everything found on the market.
The two-stage missile called Stunner has a distinct ‘dolphin-nose’ look, using the asymmetry to manoeuvre and to fit several sensors. Good manoeuvrability is a must, since the missile is a hit-to-kill one. This means that as opposed to most air defence missiles which flies close to their targets and then detonate to create a cloud of shrapnel, the Stunner will ram into whatever it is targeting at high speed. This is obviously a sure-fire way to bring down most everything, but also a very unforgiving way of operating in that a near-miss doesn’t give you much except disturbed air. To achieve the desired accuracy, the Stunner is a two-stage three-pulse missile as well, with the third pulse providing the speed needed to manoeuvre at the final stages of the intercept. The guidance is provided by several different modes of tracking, including an active radar seeker as well as a multi-function electro-optical sensor sporting IIR-capability. The batteries in Israeli service feature the ELM-2084 MMR S-band radar, which is a step up in capability from the ELM-2288 AD-STAR of the BARAK MX. Of interest, one of the smaller members of the MMR-family is the Compact-Multi Mission Radar ELM-2311 C-MMR which Finland bought and received last year for the counter-artillery role (though they do offer a secondary air-surveillance capability as well). The missiles are transported around on a trailer-type TEL (which might or might not be called a MEL, depending on your level of geekiness), which apparently sports twelve missiles ready to launch. During the test firings the combat management centre seemed to be a containerised solution, and while it certainly seems likely there’s really no telling for sure whether that is the solution used for operational batteries.
As opposed to the BARAK MX, David’s Sling is in Israeli service. The primary purpose is as the mid-tire defence against incoming missiles and heavy rockets, sorting between the short-range Iron Dome and the larger Arrow. Despite the original design purpose being solidly in the BMD-role, the weapon is obviously more than capable of bringing down more conventional targets as well. The performance is largely classified, with some sources stating the range at 160+ km (note that corresponds to a very round “above 100 miles”) while others give 300 km as the maximum. In any case, it is safe to say the range is longer than BARAK ER. An interesting detail is that the missile is being looked at as a possible replacement for/alternative to PAC-3 missiles for the Patriot under the PAAC-4 program, where the additional ‘A’ stands for ‘Affordable’. That is an interesting notion, as while the batteries themselves certainly cost, the munitions add up as well. It would be easy to imagine the Stunner as being a prohibitively expensive missile due to its performance, highly specialised role, and fancy sensors, but apparently that isn’t the case (though in air defence, “cheap” doesn’t equal “small amounts of money”). An interesting detail is that the US so far has been reluctant to let Israel export it directly, meaning that this offer certainly shows the trust and importance Washington places in Finland and the FDF. So far the only almost-confirmed export customer is Poland, which is planning to acquire it for their Wisła-program. The initial package will however sport the PAC-3 MSE, and the program has ran into some issues as the cost of integration into the Polish C3-system has caused the budget to expand considerably compared to e.g. the Swedish Patriot-order.
A really interesting side-track is that Israel, who by the way also happens to be a serious F-35-user, has test-flown the Stunner without the booster on an F-16. The possibility of having a highly-manoeuvrable air-to-air missile with multi-seeker capability is certainly interesting when going after small and/or stealthy targets such as cruise missiles, drones, and Su-57s. While so far no decision has been made to integrate the Stunner on the F-35 and the FDF is currently not looking at the possibility of acquiring a joint-use GBAD/A2A-missile in the same way as the AIM-120 AMRAAM currently is being operated, it is certainly not something that is a negative in the books for Rafael’s offering. It certainly would be an interesting development, and let’s remember that the decision on what to get after the AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM is still open for the FinAF.
So where does that leave us? Both systems are reportedly easy to integrate into legacy systems, are already in operational service, and sport performance that would propel FDF GBAD into a world-class integrated air defence system on all altitudes and against all conventional targets (drones, cruise missiles, helicopters, aircraft). The big question is whether there is the budget to acquire enough batteries and missiles? So far the FDF isn’t telling, but in an interview the budget is described as “significant but below the threshold of strategic acquisitions”. Considering the Squadron 2020 program was a strategic program and came in at an original budget of 1.2 Bn EUR, a safe guess is that we are talking about several hundred million euros, but below a billion. As a comparison, that would be below the Swedish Patriot-acquisition which is valued at approximately 1.1 Bn EUR, though that did include modernisations to the general sensors and C3-networks. The Swedish program include two battalions of two batteries each, both capable of independent operations but mainly used together to protect a single area. Depending on the Finnish doctrine and pairings with other air defence systems, something similar might be able to fit inside the Finnish budget, but that is largely down to how much other stuff will have to be paid for. As is well-known, the so-called ITSUKO which deals with the high-altitude capability is part of the larger air-defence framework that include a number of other projects, and as such the budget for the batteries themselves might be surprisingly similar for Finland and Sweden. If I had to guess, we will see the BARAK MX take home this one based on the versatility and the smaller footprint leading to greater mobility, but David’s Sling is certainly an impressive system and as we have seen performance matters in this one. It will be highly interesting to see what the next year brings for ITSUKO.