A Visit to the Griffin’s Nest – The Pilot

One of the more interesting encounters during my visit to Saab was with one of the seven test pilots Saab has. André Brännström is a former Swedish Air Force pilot, who started his career flying the J 35 Draken in the early 90’s, before moving on to the JA 37 Viggen and eventually the JAS 39 Gripen. Having been part of the air force’s OT&E (Operational Test and Evaluation) unit charged with testing out new upgrades and procedures and developing tactics and practices to account for these, he eventually transitioned over to Saab three years ago. Flight testing at Saab includes both ‘technical’ (the testing all aircrafts have to go through) as well as ‘tactical’ flight testing (testing out new weapons and improvements to the sensors and avionics of the aircraft). For the latter, Saab has a complete assortment of the dummy versions of Gripen’s weapons. This places demands on the pilots to keep up to date with how the air force operates their fighters, and Brännström still occasionally flies for the air force to keep in touch with the operator’s point of view.

The pilot

One example of the later was the exercise ACE15 last year, where he amongst other things got to meet a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet in a 1-vs-1 scenario in the skies over Lapland, something which we Finnish visitors were eager to hear more about.

“Well” he explained, “the Hornet is a good aircraft. But this was a rather young pilot, and I know where I want my Gripen to be. Speed, altitude, if I get him there, well…”

We decided to leave the topic there.

In the hangar were we met, a single JAS 39C stood parked. ‘39214’ sported the cat paw of the Såtenäs-based F 7 Skaraborg Wing, and represented the latest standard in 39C development, what Saab calls the Edition 20. In practice, this means that the aircraft features improvements to the radar and adds the capability to employ METEOR long-range air-to-air missiles and GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs, a 110 kg guided bomb with pop-out wings that give it the ability to glide towards it target, both of which will be key weapons in the arsenal of the 39E when it enters service. The Edition 20 is to be introduced in regular service within the next few weeks.

39214

The editions represent the Saab way of handling upgrades to the aircraft. Instead of taking major leaps in the form of one or two mid-life updates during the lifetime of an aircraft, they roll out smaller updates at regular intervals. The idea behind this is that the fighter should be at its best all the time, and not only during the first years after the update, as well as to lessen the technological risk. The pressure to include new features of uncertain long-term value and unproven technology becomes smaller when both customer and supplier knows that it is a shorter time to the next round of improvements. This is made possible due to the tight cooperation between the Air Force, the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV), and Saab, as evident by the fact that Saab is able to “borrow” (there are certainly both money and contractual issues involved) operational aircraft such as ‘39214’ for testing, while the air force can borrow test pilots if the need arises. Nowhere is this close collaboration more visible than in Linköping itself, which houses not only Saab (at the Linköping City Airport), but also FMV’s Flight Test Centre Linköping (co-located with the Swedish Air Force’s Helicopter Wing at the Malmen Airbase).

Besides the aircraft lay two dummy IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missiles. The IRIS-T belongs to the new generation of highly agile missile, making shots over the shoulder possible with the use of a helmet-mounted display, a piece of gear described by Brännström as “great”. When talking about the impact of high off-boresight missiles such as the IRIS-T and the AIM-9X currently used by Finnish F/A-18C, it was clear that they were game changers:

“No longer can you be safe just because you’re here”, explained Brännström and indicated one fighter behind another one. “There are certain differences I can’t talk about [between the AIM-9X and the IRIS-T], but this [the IRIS-T] is the one I’d buy.” Presumably the proliferation of agile air-to-air missiles have also lead to the fact that sustained turn rate, one of Gripen’s strong points, have increased in importance relative to instantaneous turn rate. The Gripen, like most modern fighters, is built so that the pilot doesn’t have to move his hands at any point during air combat maneuvers, with all necessary switches and controls being found on the throttle lever and control stick. Hard maneuvers are further simplified by the control systems, which automatically limits steering and throttle output based on the current load condition to make sure that the aircraft (or external stores) isn’t overstressed, allowing the pilot to pull the stick and lever as hard as he wants to, knowing that he won’t break anything.

The data link capability is something Saab is very proud of, and while many fighters today can share information through the use of systems such as Link 16, the Gripen has some further unspecified additional capability as well, causing Brännström to reflect that in a mixed formation with different fighters, “I believe I’d be the happiest one.”

Piloting again

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A Visit to the Griffin’s Nest – The Plane

The JAS 39E Gripen is one of the foremost candidates for replacing the F/A-18C Hornet in the Finnish Air Force under the HX-program. As such, I was naturally interested when I was approached by Saab about joining in on a visit by Finnish media to the Gripen production line in Linköping.

Interestingly enough, this is not the first time Gripen is offered to Finland. Back in the early 90’s, the original 39A (and corresponding two-seater 39B) was offered as a replacement for Finland’s aging fleet of MiG-21Bis and J35 Draken, another product out of Saab’s Linköping-factory. It eventually lost out to the Hornet, for a number of different reasons. Will it be second time lucky for “The Smart Fighter”?

Since then, the Gripen has passed through a number of iterations, including the major change from the ‘Swedish’ 39A/B, via the internationalised 39C/D version, to the brand new 39E/F set to fly later this year. It is this version, and only this version, that will be offered to Finland. Despite the Finnish Air Force opening up for alternatives such as more than one fighter being offered, Saab confirmed that they will not offer the C/D, or a mixed package of 39C’s and E’s, despite planning to keep the production line for the older version up in parallel with the newer one past 2020. This is due to a number of reasons, mainly the threats the HX would be expected to face in case of a conflict (i.e. late-versions of the Su-27/30/35-family and the T-50), as well as the Finnish range requirements.

39E underside.JPG
The 39E Gripen mock-up ‘002’ showing the broadened lower fuselage allowing for the carriage of three METEOR long-range air-to-air missiles and a targeting pod. Source: author

The 39E is in many ways a brand new fighter, despite sharing an outward similarity to the older versions. The main landing gear have been moved outwards, making room for a considerably more internal fuel and extra weapon stations in a broader lower fuselage. The upper part of the fuselage has a smoother transition between the fuselage and the wing root, which is now structurally a part of the main fuselage element, unlike earlier versions where the whole wing was bolted onto the fuselage.

However, the core of the new aircraft is in the sensors and electronics. The heart of the combat systems is a brand new active-electronically scanned (AESA) radar called Raven ES-05 with a ‘swashplate’, a fancy name for a tilting device that makes it possible to get better coverage at greater offset angles by turning the radar antenna towards the target. This represents the cutting edge in radar technology, and information from the radar is fused with data from other sensors onboard the aircraft, as well as information received over the data link from friendly aircraft and ground/surface units. The information is then presented on a new wide-angle display as a single pre-processed picture of who else is moving about in the neighbourhood. This is in stark contrast to the current way of having to constantly cross-reference different sensors on smaller multi-function displays to maintain the ‘fused picture’ in ones head.

All of this is powered by the General-Electric F414-GE-39E, a larger and stronger derivative of the F404 that powers the Hornet and, in the form of the RM12, the legacy Gripen. Compared to the RM12, the F414 provides roughly 20% higher max thrust, meaning that the new version should have the extra power needed to handle the additional avionics and sensors, as well as to keep the aircraft as nimble as it predecessor in spite of the significant increase in max take-off weight.

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The Dash Seven carrying a mixed load of air-to-air missiles and laser-guided bombs. Source: Stefan Kalm/Copyright Saab AB

An interesting thing is that the Gripen NG Demo, a modified 39D used as a technology demonstrator for the upcoming 39E, has demonstrated not only the new avionics, but the new lower fuselage, landing gear, and engine as well. This aircraft, named ‘Dash Seven’, first flew back in 2008, and has played a key role in the test program for the 39E. This should considerably lower the technological risk, especially as Saab already has managed to break the cost curve and deliver the JAS 39A/B at a lower life-cycle cost than the earlier Fpl 37 Viggen, with the 39C/D version being better still.

All of this is nice and well, but there is no avoiding the elephant in the room: stealth. Gripen is not designed to be stealthy. Though it features some signature reducing measures, such as a “good paintwork” with radar absorbing characteristics in undisclosed areas of the aircraft (presumably e.g. the wing leading edges), this is in contrast to the Lockheed-Martin F-35.

As discussed earlier here on the blog, stealth is not an on-off issue, but rather a reduction in the radar cross section (and other fields, such as heat signature). If this reduction is good, the radar echo of the aircraft will be small enough that it will be able to ‘see’ (and fire upon) its enemy long before being seen. When working as intended, it makes it possible for a stealthy aircraft to fight with impunity against other fighters who are unable to see it. However, reality is seldom this simple.

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The IRST mock-up on ‘002’. Source: author

To begin with, there have been huge advances in the field of infra-red search and track systems (IRST), and the Gripen will be fitted with the Selex SkyWard-G. While stealth fighters usually have some measure of heat-signature reduction, it is usually much harder to pull off than RCS-reduction, as the friction of the air resistance on the aircraft skin causes heat to build up.

The other issue for a stealth fighter is the need to find its own targets. If it uses its own radar for this, the radar emission from it can be detected at longer ranges than it can provide a readable echo, meaning that, although its adversaries can’t get a radar lock to confirm the exact location of the enemy, they will know that it is out there, as well as getting the general direction it is to be found in. The alternatives are either using an IRST, which levels the playing field, or relying on information from other aircrafts (or ground units) sent via data link.

The strategy Saab has in place for the Gripen is that a combination of better sensors, and sensor fusing, a top-notch data link allowing the aircraft to operate in ‘silent’ mode a larger part of time, a brand new integrated electronic warfare/self-defence suite, as well as the lower cost and lack of numerous trade-offs required from a stealth fighter will make the aircraft viable throughout the lifespan of the HX. This strategy seems viable on paper, but the simple truth is that we do not have a clear idea of how the introduction of stealth fighters will affect air combat beyond 2030. However, the first study performed by the Finnish Air Force as part of the HX program seems to lend some credit to the idea. The main report is secret, but the public abstract provided notes that stealth features are usually optimised for a set radar band, and that new technology, such as MIMO-radars (basically many radars that are linked together to look at a single target) as well as radars operating at diverse amplitudes, could degrade the benefit of stealth.

Regarding the visit to Saab Linköping, I was invited for a one day event centred on the 39E/F Gripen (arriving the evening before) organised for Finnish media, and Saab kindly offered to cover the travel costs. As was made clear already before the trip, the company has put no restrictions or requests regarding what I do with the information given, nor have they reviewed (or asked for permission to review) any of my texts before publication. Instead, the company representatives were very forthcoming with providing us with information and answering questions we had regarding the Gripen or any other of Saab’s projects. Photography was naturally restricted to certain locations and angles.

United we stand?

Things are moving fast with regards to the national security policy of Finland (and Sweden). Late yesterday came the first reports that Hollande actually planned on activating article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty, requesting “other Member States shall [come to the] aid and assistance by all the means in their power”.

Article 42.7 is probably one of the most debated and studied of all EU treaties, as it includes a very strong first sentence, followed by what feels like an apologizing statement:

If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States.

Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those States which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.

Now, exactly what the second sentence means is very much open for debate. For Finland, it has often been quoted as an example of why we won’t stand alone if attacked, even if we continue to stay outside of NATO. At the same time, no one in the higher political echelons seems to have been really interested in discussing what kind of a commitment it really is.

When it now suddenly is activated, it apparently took the Finnish leading politicians by surprise. Minister of Defence Jussi Niinistö (PS) declined to comment at first, but 9 o’clock Finnish time (GMT+2) he tweeted out that Finland supports France, and that now he was off to see what France requested.

Prime Minister Juha Sipilä (K) was even more elusive, having caught the cold, and therefore taken a sick day. In the meantime, state media Yle, who had run the French request as their main story since late Sunday evening, had managed to get former Minister of Foreign Affairs and current head of the government’s defence committee Ilkka Kanerva (Kok) to comment on the issue. He reminded the journalists that Finland according to current laws can’t provide military help, an issue with was raised in a report titled Report of the working group on needs for legislative amendments related to crisis management and other international co-operation, 2014, which recommended that:

The working group also assessed the needs for legislative amendments related to the granting of and requests for international assistance, especially in applying the solidarity clause and the mutual assistance clause of the European Union. The group analysed different options that would, if necessary, be applicable to decisions on granting and requesting assistance also in other situations of international co-operation.

Finnish law does not feature a Japanese style explicit ban on military operations abroad. Instead there is an unclear situation, in which the current consensus amongst politicians is that Finland can’t directly provide support. The issue has been discussed since at least 2008, and got a new urgency last autumn, when it was suggested that the Finnish Navy would help Sweden in their search for the midget submarine that intruded on their waters, to which the Minister of Defence answered that it was not possible. A change of the laws to remove this problem and harmonise Finnish national laws with the Lisbon Treaty is in the works, and is set to be finished early next year.

It should be noted that while this consensus seems unchallenged amongst high-ranking politicians, it is not a clear-cut case, and it is hard to see that it couldn’t be worked around, if the political will to do so was there…

Around 1 o’clock, Prime Minister Sipilä eventually made his voice heard through Twitter, saying that:

Before that, however, Mogherini had already came out of the EU Defence Ministers’ meeting declaring that all countries had confirmed that article 42.7 was now in use, so any other message from the PM would have been remarkable to say the least.

Later in the afternoon, it was the President’s turn to speak, and President Sauli Niinistö held a short speech and answered a few questions for the gathered press. Given the short notice, the amount of journalists present was impressive (at least in the eyes of a layman). On the whole, the continuous stream of article and interviews that Finnish media provided throughout the day was in stark contrast to the almost complete silence of their Swedish colleagues. This is especially interesting, given that Sweden is not only bound by the EU treaties, but also by their unilateral declaration of solidarity.

The President’s speech not only repeated what Kanerva, Sipilä, and Niinistö had said, but also emphasised that Finland from the beginning had said that we support France, and that any other answer had never been thought of. Still, when faced with a direct question, he admitted that it was somewhat embarrassing that seven years into the Lisbon Treaty Finland still couldn’t provide military help to our EU allies, due to a legal technicality. He also mentioned the migrant crisis, and Russia’s role in defeating ISIS and bringing back peace to Syria. Comparing the resolve of both Hollande and Putin when they had promised to go after those who were behind the Paris Attack and the bombing of the Metrojet airliner, he was hopeful that west and Russia in cooperation perhaps could bring an end to the conflict, although he added that this might as well lead to nothing.

Regarding the prospect of Finnish help, Niinistö found it unlikely that France would request soldiers or policemen, but noted that we can provide intelligence. I find this view somewhat bothering. As the Lisbon Treaty is an important part of Finland’s national security strategy, it would be important that we go beyond the bare minimum requested. If military power is out of the question, we could either provide policemen or border guards. The Finnish border guards are trained and equipped to basically the same standard as the regular army, but is organised under the Ministry of Interior in peace time, and as such would provide an option. Of special interest could be the Erikoisrajajääkärit, the special forces of the border guards. A unit of these sent to assist French border police would send a strong message to anyone doubting Finland’s commitment to EU’s common security.

Niinistö seems to have completely forgotten (or chose not to bring up…) the simple fact that most Syrian refugees are trying to escape Assad and not ISIS, the very same Assad who with Russian air and artillery support is wreaking havoc on non-ISIS rebels in Syria. Even if Russia could be brought on-board to seriously fight ISIS, it is hard to see how this would stop the migrant streams, especially considering that the majority of people coming to the EU through Turkey are from Iraq and Afghanistan…

Speaking of Russia, they seems to finally have launched some serious strikes on ISIS, this time bringing in cruise missiles from the Mediterranean, indicating the use of submarines as launch platforms, as well as reportedly employing all three strategic bomber types in use, the Tu-22M3, Tu-95MS, and Tu-160, in strikes. It is hard to see any tactical need for these types of platforms in this kind of a conflict, so the emphasis is probably on politics. In a video released that purportedly shows the air raids carried out by the Tu-22M3’s, two planes in level flight at altitude drop a large number of relatively small unguided (so called ‘dumb’) bombs. This is a tactic known from the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and is very safe for the planes against an opponent lacking proper air defence systems, but also woefully inaccurate and good for little else than levelling small villages or city blocks.

And finally, a quote that pretty well sums up my view on today’s twists and turns…

Is Finland About to Betray the Baltic States?

During last week, a speech by the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, has received a considerable amount of press and social media coverage. “Finland won’t fight for it Baltic neighbours” the headlines have screamed, with even normally cool-headed people asking what he means, and why he would have gone and said so something like that. Is he trying to say that Finland wants to stay out of a possible war between NATO and Russia?

It seems apparent that most people have only read the quote itself, and not the speech as a whole. To give a bit of background, the speech was held to a gathering of ambassadors, which is a yearly event in Finland, and is available in Finnish and Swedish on the official homepage (note that the Swedish version include some slightly strange translations in key passages), and is too long for me to translate in its full length here. However, a short recap is in order:

The Second World War ended 70 years ago, and the Cold War that followed was a conflict, but at least it over time developed its own set of rules. The times after that promised eternal summer (although he notes that we Finns never really trusted that promise), which proved to be wrong. Today, the international community is being reshaped, and the current day is marked by towering threats and great uncertainty.

After this, he moves on to Ukraine, Russia, the Middle East, the migrant crises, Greece, the Euro, and nationalism, until he eventually comes to the Finnish philosopher J.V. Snellman. Snellman represents a realist view on foreign politics, and in the quote used by Niininstö, he notes that while young people dream of nations working for the good of humanity, in  reality all nations first and foremost look after themselves. This, the President notes, does not mean that we should strive towards non-alignment or nationalistic narrow-mindedness, but accept reality and plan according to it.

Towards the end, he notes that our security rests on four pillars: national defence, Finland’s integration into the geopolitical West, bilateral relations to Russia, and the international order. The strength of each of these differs with time, and currently we are seeing that three of the pillars are getting weaker.

President Niinistö argues that we have to strengthen all pillars we can, and deeper cooperation in the fields of defence and security with Sweden and our partners in NATO is one of his core points.

Still, he says, while sometimes it is argued that Finland has a share in the responsibility of defending the Baltic countries, this is not the case:

“I have had to be rather precise in this question. For the simple reason that Finland is not in a position where we can provide to others such military security guarantees, which we don’t have ourselves. We are not a superpower that has spare ‘ammunition’ to hand out.”

Own translation.

This question, he notes, is directly connected to the military security guarantees of the European Union (through the Treaty of Lisbon). Some say this is a dead letter, while others say that it makes it our responsibly to defend other EU countries, including the Baltic countries.

“One shouldn’t unnecessarily inflate the importance of the EU military security guarantees. But this does not mean that one shouldn’t try and strengthen them.”

What then does the Treaty of Lisbon say in its (in)famous 42nd article? Paragraph 7 is the passage in question:

“7. If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States.

Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those States which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.”

Article 51 of the UN Charter in turn says.

“Article 51

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.“

In other words: The Treaty of Lisbon states that if a member is attacked, the other states shall aid and assist “by all means in their power”, and shall report to the UN Security Council what actions have been taken.

What President Niinistö has said, is that if Russia was to invade a Baltic country, it is not in our power to participate militarily in its defence. This boils down to some straightforward facts: Finland is a large country (64th largest in the world), with a small population (114th most populous), meaning we are one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world (201st in population density). We also have a land border with Russia that is longer than the current border between NATO-countries and Russia taken together. To defend ourselves, we will need more or less all of the 230,000 soldiers we plan to mobilize in case of war. As we can’t be sure of foreign assistance, we can’t promise to come to the aid of others.

However, Niinistö does not state that Finland won’t aid our neighbours, if we have the opportunity to do so. This might include supplies, vehicles, materials, or even troops, but it is all dependent on how the situation would develop. In the case of a NATO-Russian conflict that Finland gets dragged into, Finnish naval and air units would almost certainly be integrated into the NATO+1 alliance’s grander schemes, and receive missions aimed at safeguarding Estonia and parts of Latvia, while the Norwegian Air Force would help secure our northern flank.

Noteworthy here is the reaction from the Baltic countries themselves, which have been rather unspectacular. Estonia’s permanent representative to the North Atlantic Council, Ambassador Lauri Lepik, is apparently also a follower of the realist school of foreign politics, and commented the news on twitter:

The only other high-ranking politician from any of the Baltic countries I’ve seen commenting on the issue is Lithuanian Minister of Defence, Juozas Olekas, who in a radio show said that Lithuania, in turn, has no direct obligation to defend Finland, but if something was to happen, he believed Lithuania and the other NATO countries would try to assist in some way.

“With Finland, Sweden, and other non-NATO countries, especially the other EU countries, we are developing our military co-operation, but we have no direct defense commitment. I think we would try to support Finland in some way, where it is relevant. But it is not part of our direct defensive commitment.”

This interview was then naturally turned into a Sputnik propaganda-piece, under the headline: “Tiny Baltic State Takes Offense at Finland Over Much-Feared Russian Threat”

The bottom line is that it seems that it is mostly non-Baltic western media that has taken offense. In the Finnish defence debate the concensus seems to be that most agree on the issue, but opinions differ about whether the President should express it publicly. In my personal opinion, the speech, and especially the passage about the Baltic States, is somewhat muddled, and not one of Niininstö’s best. Still, there is nothing new to get excited over, which is also seen in the way the Baltic States have acknowledged the statement.

Ending note: the Finnish stance on a responsibility to defend its neighbours is different compared to Sweden’s, which unilaterally has declared that they will come to the aid of others, and expect others to come to their aid (point 4.4).

Ocean X Team and the Midget Submarine that wasn’t

The mysterious submarine found inside Swedish waters this week (27.07) has turned out to be the Imperial Russian submarine Som, lead ship of its class. The vessel sank in a collision with the Swedish steamer Ångermanland (also reported incorrectly as being named Ingermanland). In a bizarre twist of fate, Ångermanland was coming from the port of Mäntyluoto, Pori, in what was at the time the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland, carrying packages for Russian POW’s held in Germany. The Som was originally laid down as the Fulton by the legendary Electric Boat Company, and served as the prototype for one of the US Navy’s first submarine classes, the Plunger-class, . The details of the sinking have been known [1, 2, 3], but the exact location of the wreck has so far not been determined.

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Som during happier times. Photo via Alexey Loginov / Timothy Choi

During the first few hours after the find was publicised there was a host of speculation about the location, origin, and age of the wreck. This was largely created by the fact that the Ocean X Team gave very limited info to media:

The submarine looked “modern”, but could be from the 80’s, it was found roughly 1.5 nautical miles (2.75 km) from the coast, clearly inside Swedish waters, and the hatches were closed. No to very little damage was visible externally. The vessel was roughly 20 meters in length, and around 3 meters wide. And there were what looked like Cyrillic signs on the wreck.

Added to this, a small amount of video clips were released, without any comments regarding which part of the hull was in picture at any given moment. A single multibeam sonar picture of the wreck in its entirety was also released.

All in all, the original picture given was that the submarine was a midget submarine, dating from the time of the great Swedish subhunts, or newer. This, coupled with the Cyrillic lettering, made the wreck politically sensitive.

However, things soon started to fall apart for Ocean X Team.

Age, identity, and origin

Submarine designs have varied greatly over the 100+ years they have been in active service. The early submarines had usually a somewhat cigar-shaped hull, with the conning towers being either completly absent or very low (the terms ‘sail’ and ‘conning tower’ are often used interchangeably in English, although this is technically incorrect). The leading designer of this time was John P. Holland of the abovementioned Electric Boat Company, which either directly through exported designs or indirectly by influencing other designers set the pattern for these early vessels. Som is an example of the former, with Hajen, Sweden’s first submarine, is an example of the latter. Hajen was designed and built in Sweden, but clearly patterned after Holland’s designs. It currently resides as a museum ship in Marinmuseum in Karlskrona.

Sweden’s first submarine Hajen next to the modern-pattern Neptun. The boat-like bow on Hajen was added during a refit in 1916, with the new part being easily distinguishable as having been simply welded on. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Daderot

In the years leading up to and during the WWI, the hull form started to evolve, with the top of the hull becoming flatter and the bow and stern becoming more ‘shiplike’, first with straight plumb bows, and later with different kinds of raked or angled bows. The submarines started growing larger, and the sails became higher and more pronounced. The large amounts of railings used on the early designs started to be replaced by removable railings mainly used when the vessels lay at anchor. Welding also started to be used more and more instead of traditional rivets, until eventually the submarines became of all-welded construction in the years leading up to WWII. These boats, optimised for performance on the surface, would reach their climax in the early 40’s. The classic German U-boats of the Type VII and Type IX classes belong to this group.

The German U-boat U-995 of the Type VII-class in Kiel. Note the large tower, boat-like bow and level upper deck. Suorce: Wikimedia Commons/Darkone

During the war and in the immediate post-war period, advances in propulsion for submarines, and in search radars for the submarine’s adversaries, meant that the focus shifted from surface to sub-surface operations. As such, the hull forms started to shift yet again, with the decks becoming smaller (relative to the hull size), and everything started to become rounded to lower drag and avoid turbulences. All kinds of fixed railings disappeared.

USS Albacore, launched in 1953, pioneered the drop-shaped hull which gives superior underwater performance compared to earlier slender hullforms. Note the complete absence of sharp angles and pointed features. Source: Wikimedia Commons/US Navy

As a general rule of thumb, midget submarines (which started to appear during WWII) have followed roughly the same pattern as the conventional submarines, but are smaller.

In other words, in the same way as a car-enthusiast finding the remains of a rusted car in a backyard would have no problem in telling whether it’s a fifties American muscle car or an eighties Japanese compact, no one with even a basic knowledge of submarines should have any problem with determining the wreck of a Holland-type submarine such as Som from that of a post-WWII midget submarine. Especially if the hull is “largely intact and not showing any signs of damage”.

With regards to the lack of vegetation and sediments, several people, most notably Ola Oskarsson, noted that more or less all wrecks in the Baltic Sea that are found at depths deeper than 40 meters shows very little growth or sediments, and as such this is not an indication that the wreck is new. Who is Ola Oskarsson then? He’s the founder, member of the board, and Market Developer of MMT, a Swedish diving and sea survey company that has found numerous wrecks, including submarines of varying age and the Swedish Air Force DC-3 downed by Soviet fighters in the fifties (however, unlike Ocean X Team, MMT have never found an UFO…).

Within hours of the discovery it was soon clear that the most likely candidate for the wreck was Som. It was one of relatively few submarine-classes ever built to measure around 20 meters in length (Som having an LOA of 19.3 m), with even WWI submarines often measuring 30 meters and above, and midget submarines usually (to the extent that one can generalise a midget submarine) being 10-15 meters in length. Several details also matched, and the Som was supposed to have sunk in Swedish waters west of the Åland Islands. As it was a Tsarist-submarine, the pre-1918 spelling, “Сомъ”, would also have included the hard sign ‘Ъ’, which was visible in the videos released from the wreck.

The scam is revealed

The really interesting part was when it started to become clear that Ocean X Team had deliberately been searching for the Som for at least a year.

In July 2014, Peter Lindberg (confirmed to be the same Peter Lindberg that’s part of Ocean X Team through cross-matching e-mail addresses used) asked for details about the fate of Som, and received the general story and the location of the wreck “between SwartklubbenArholma”. In both Finnish and Danish news, iXplorer Ocean Research, the Russian/Icelandic team that was revealed to have been the source which found the coordinates in a Russian archive before handing them to Ocean X Team, confirmed that they had been looking for the Som:

“We’ve been looking for it for about two years now. Ocean X Team is one of the companies we have been working quite a lot with.”

Did Ocean X Team know that it was the Som you were looking for?

“Yes.”

Kristján Eldjárn Jóhannesson in DR.dk

 

“Maybe some in our team decided to conspire a bit, I don’t know why. Anyway, it is clear that this is a Russian vessel, but it is far from being a modern one.”

Alexey Mikhailov (aka “Max Rite”) in Helsingin Sanomat

Of added interest was the fact that the videos shown had the date stamp 15.07, i.e. the Ocean X Team had twelve days to shift through the material before presenting it to media. Note that while we do not know the full scope of the material available to Ocean X Team, it is most probably far longer than the short second clip shown publicly, and includes video of the nameplate.

Ocean X Team’s response when faced with the allegations that they had knowingly concealed the age and identity of the submarine to get added publicity, was to state that they thought Som would be “much further south”, that they haven’t been able to compare the sail with any pictures to be certain of the ID of the class (the Som had an extensive rebuild in 1914, and there are apparently no detailed drawings of the final outcome), that the picture of the nameplate found by Peter Krantz had evaded them (a fact Lindberg admitted was “embarrassing”), and that they had received “very limited information” from iXplorer.

Peter Lindberg is trying to tell us that a professional team with years of experience diving in the Baltic Sea:

  • Didn’t know about the special conditions in the Baltic Sea that preserves old wrecks really well,
  • Were so sure of the reported position of where the Som went down, that they, despite the relatively primitive navigational aids found on board a coastal steamer in 1916, didn’t even consider the possibility it could be wrong,
  • That Ocean X Team during almost two weeks of analysing the material and comparing it to their research, wasn’t able to come up with a plausible ID of the wreck,
  • That the above is true despite them capturing the nameplate of the ship on film,
  • That iXplorer is lying when they affirm that Ocean X Team knew that the coordinates sent should lead to Som,
  • That when they themselves were unable to confirm what wreck they had found, they didn’t ask iXplorer what they thought the coordinates should lead to,
  • That they did not find it odd that the the damage of the wreck (some “pipes” in the sail being bent, the vessel otherwise looking intact) exactly matched the damage Som suffered according to the master of S/S Ångermanland (“[T]he submarine [probably] received a light push, damaging the periscope, but not the vessel itself”, article in DN 24.05.1916, found by historian Lars Gyllenhaal),
  • That they were not able to distinguish the classic lines of a Holland-type vessel from a modern midget submarine despite the team having researched the Som for at least a year and having twelve days to go through the pictures of the wreck,
  • Despite knowing there was a submarine confirmed to have sunk in the general area, they still found it more likely that the wreck was from an unknown “modern” midget submarine, even when there were no indication that any midget submarine would have sunk in the area,
  • And finally, they didn’t even care to mention the Som in the opening speculations, despite it fitting the description of the wreck on numerous points.

Except for the point about iXplorer lying about whether or not they had forwarded the info that the coordinates given should lead to Som, I find all of the bullet points above highly questionable. I am no diver, but I find wreck hunting extremely interesting, and have a general picture of how this is usually conducted. Any diver looking for a wreck will tell you that the lion’s share of the work is the background research, spending hours and hours in archives and scanning old newspapers and official reports. This also seems to be the case here, with at least a year, probably more, of background work going into this project before the wreck was actually found. That they during this year would have missed such basic facts as the name Som being spelled with a hard sign, or the general shape of a Holland-class submarine, means that the Ocean X Team is either sloppy, incompetent, or lying. In light of their earlier successes, I find the first two rather unlikely.

John P. Holland in the tower of one of his designs. Notice the small size of the submarine. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A far more likely explanation than ineptitude is that the whole thing is a PR-stunt made to bring publicity and hard cash to the team, something that is supported by the poor financial state of the company. The sums taken for publishing the material might also be of interest: 10 seconds of video goes for 35,000 SEK (~3 700 EUR), while still pictures go for 10,000 SEK (1 055 EUR) a piece according to DR.

Info-ops?

Much has been made about the Russian connections, and how the borderline hysteria the initial reports created has been used by Russian state-controlled media to discredit the Swedish subhunt which last year was able to confirm foreign underwater activity deep inside Swedish waters.

Still, to say that Ocean X Team is on Putin’s payroll is to jump to conclusions. It may well be that the idea of presenting the find as a potential modern-day intruder stemmed from Russia, and was proposed to Ocean X Team by iXplorer as a great way (or so it seemed at the time) to get more publicity out of an otherwise very niched find. If this is the case, one can safely assume that Ocean X Team believed iXplorer would support the story, and not throw them under the bus at first opportunity. It may also be that the idea came from Ocean X Team themselves, and that Russian state propaganda simply decided to take advantage of the opportunity.

Wherever the idea originated, it was ruthlessly used by the Kremlin for their own purposes. I find it entirely possible that Mikhailov, having served as a diver in the Russian Northern Fleet, was sincere in wanting to find the submarine and the last resting place of his brothers in arms, and that either he or someone closer to one of Kremlin’s intelligence agencies somewhere along the way realised that the project could also provide an opportunity for a propaganda coup as well. This would be supported by the time scale: we know that Ocean X Team, and presumably iXplorer as well, has worked on finding Som at least for a year, probably longer. The need for a submarine-based propaganda story aimed at Sweden was far smaller/non-existent last July, not to mention two years ago in the pre-Crimean age of European security.

At this point, the best Ocean X Team could do is probably to come clean, admit they tried to enlarge the public interest in the story by leaving out certain details, and apologies to the media, the public, and the experts they misled. Admitting to having been outsmarted by iXplorer might hurt, but trying to stick with a story that’s basically telling the world that they don’t know how/didn’t care to do proper research will probably hurt even more in the long run. Naturally, if there have been undeclared money transfers involved as some has hinted at, coming out might not be possible unless they are prepared to have a talk with the Swedish tax agency (bad case) or SÄPO (worse case).

…And on a lighter note, it seems Finnish media has greater trust in the amazing powers of crowd-source information gathering than Swedish 😉

Sunken Midget Submarine in Swedish Waters

Edit: This was a very early post, written during the unfolding of the event. If you are looking for information regarding the true nature of the submarine, and how the Ocean X Team cleverly played the media, possibly with Russian backing, see this post.

Swedish underwater survey company Ocean X Team has today announced that they’ve found a midget submarine in Swedish waters. This has raised a number of questions, which has been met by more or less informed speculation. The information released so far is very limited:

  • Ocean X Team received a location from an Icelandic company, and when searching there they found the wreck,
  • The wreck has seemingly very little damage, none of which seems to indicate that it has been damaged in combat,
  • It has very little growth on it, some have speculated that it has been on the bottom for around a year or less,
  • In size, the vessel is around 20 meters long, and around 3 meters in width,
  • There seems to be Cyrillic signs on it, namely the letter ‘Ъ’ (jer, the hard sign), and what looks like a ‘I’ in front of it,
  • The hatches are closed, leading to speculation that the crew is dead inside.

To take it from the top, it is an open guess how the Icelanders knew about it, but there are certainly contacts between Icelandic and Russian companies. With regards to the amount of growth, this is hard to judge, as the rate of growth is dependent on a number of different factors, such as water quality, depth, salinity, temperature, and so forth. A number of submarines have spent long times under water in similar conditions in the Baltic Sea, such as a Soviet Whiskey-class submarine that spent roughly 20-25 years on the bottom outside of Gotland, as well as Swedish submarine Springaren that was raised after 11 years on the bottom as a training item. Both show surprisingly little growth.

Ex-German, ex-French, Seehund-class midget submarine. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Rama

With regards to type, midget submarines are usually built in small numbers, and their very existence is often a state secret. The aft part of the coning towers of German WWII-era Seehund midget submarines shows a surprising similarity to some of the pictures seen. However, the Seehund is shorter in length (12 m) than the reported length (20 m). Of interest is that a number of Seehund submarines, as well as a number of ex-Italian CB-class submarines, are reported to have been in Soviet service post-war.

The Cyrillic writing might be some kind of hull letter, but this is pure speculation. Whether the crew is inside or not is an open question so far. Until more information is released, there exist a few major possibilities:

1) The submarine sunk during WWII, when a number of submarines disappeared without a trace,
2) The submarine has been out on a covert operation that went wrong, hence no emergency signal,
3) Some readers will recall the rumours last autumn that a submarine had sent an emergency signal to a station in Kaliningrad. However, Ocean X Team has stated that they do not believe this submarine is connected to last year’s Red October incident.

Edit: While writing, a more credible source than the small Seehund has appeared: Nameship of Imperial Russian Som-class sank in a collision with a Swedish steamer in 1916. Its measurements are very close to those given by the survey team. Credits to Skipper.

The Navies of the Baltic Sea

This blog post started from the rather innocent sounding question whether an illustration used by a Finnish news source described the number of warships operated by the countries bordering the Baltic Sea correctly. The short answer is “For some countries, yes, for others, no.” However, this answer doesn’t really add too much to the discussion, so I felt a proper look into the issue was needed.

A few notes on my methodology: I have only counted warships featuring some kind of missile armament, be it anti-ship or air-defence missiles. The Parchim-class corvettes technically do not fit this description (as they feature anti-submarine rockets and torpedoes, but no missiles), but as they clearly are designed for combat and not patrol duties, they are still included. Germany and Russia base parts of their navies outside of the Baltic Sea, and in these cases I have tried to count only those that are homeported in the Baltic Sea. In the case of Denmark, all naval units are based in the Baltic Sea, but I have decided to exclude the Knud Rasmussen-class arctic patrol vessels, due to their main area of operation being outside of the Baltic Sea. In practice, large parts of the Danish navy would probably be operating in the North Atlantic as part of mixed NATO task forces in case of war, something which further underlines the problems of a comparison like this.

A third problem is that counting units skews the comparison in favour of smaller vessels. E.g. the ten small Finnish vessels rank higher than the eight Swedish (all of which are larger than the Finnish fast attack crafts). Generally, larger ship will have a greater “combat value”, so I have included the approximate total displacement of the surface vessels for each navy. While this is far from perfect, e.g. the Hämeenmaa-class scoring higher than it should, this gives a slightly more nuanced picture of the situation (compare e.g. the ten Finnish vessels to the five Danish). For submarines, the variations in size are not as dramatic, with all submarines based in the Baltic Sea being of roughly the same size. Midget submarines and/or diver delivery units are probably operated by Russia and potentially by some of the major NATO-countries (Germany, Poland,… ?), but these are highly secretive projects, and little to no information is available.

Finland: 10 surface units (3,800 t) + no submarines

The Finnish Navy is centred around the Hamina- and Rauma-classes of light fast attack crafts (FAC) with four units of each, supported by two Hämeenmaa-class minelayers that are able to fulfil secondary roles as surface combatants or tenders.

Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania: No missile armed surface units + no submarines

The Baltic States all operate small fleets of patrol crafts of various age and capabilities, including retired vessels from Finland, UK, and the Scandinavian countries. None of these are armed with surface-to-surface or air defence missiles. Compared to the Finnish vessels, the combat value of these naval vessels are closer to those of the Finnish Border Guards than the earlier mentioned fast attack crafts.

Sweden: 8 surface units (4,220 t) + 4 submarines

The pride of the Swedish Navy is the five stealth-corvettes of the Visby-class. Of the earlier corvette-classes, two Stockholm-class and one Göteborg-class corvette are also in service. The Swedish submarine force with one Södermanland- and three Gotland-class AIP-submarines are amongst the most modern and lethal littoral submarine forces in the world. Current plans calls for conversion of two of the corvettes to patrol vessels, without missile or anti-submarine capability.

Poland: 6 surface units (7,640 t) + 5 submarines

Poland fields a mixed force of modernised material from the Cold War (one Kaszub-class corvette + three Orkan-class FAC’s) as well as two ex-US Navy Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. The modern MEKO A-100 Gawron-class corvette program would have made the Polish Navy one of the most modern green-water navies in the world, but was cancelled a few years ago, with the sole completed hull slated to be commissioned as a patrol vessel. The mixed submarine fleet is made up of a sole Kilo-class submarine and four ex-Norwegian Kobben/Type 207-class submarines (a fifth hull serves as a spares source/moored training facility).

Germany: 14 surface units (12,320 t) + 4 submarines

The German Bundesmarine is divided between the Baltic and the North Sea. Naturally, units can be regrouped from one to the other with ease, but even the ones stationed permanently in the Baltic Sea make it a force to be reckoned with. The vessels all belong to Einsatzflottille 1, of which 1. Korvettengeschwader with its five Braunschweig-class corvettes constitutes NATO’s single most powerful surface strike unit in the Baltic Sea. These are backed up by eight Gepard-class FAC’s (and their two tenders, which lack any meaningful value as combat vessels). Four Type 212 A submarines are also based in the Baltic Sea, which makes up a submarine force to rival the Swedish one.

Denmark: 5 surface units (21,000 t) + no submarines

Denmark is a special case amongst these countries as they hold Greenland. Thus, the Danish fleet include two purpose-built arctic patrol vessels, but a number of other surface vessels also undertake regular patrols to Greenland and the Faroe Islands in the North Sea. All Danish units are large by standard of the Baltic Sea, with the lead ships being the three Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates. The Navy field two interesting hybrid frigates/tenders/transport ships in the form of the Absalon-class, as well as four StanFlex 3000/Thetis-class ocean patrol vessels/light frigates and the two (a third is on order) earlier mentioned Knud Rasmussen-class patrol vessels optimised for the North Atlantic. How many of the Danish warships should be counted as based in the Baltic is therefore an open question. Even if only the five ‘proper’ frigates are counted, leaving the patrol vessels free to prowl the North Atlantic, the Danish navy is one of the larger in the Baltic Sea. Denmark is currently without submarines, having retired the last ones during the last decade, but the possibility remains they will acquire new ones.

As a side-note, the Danish ice-reinforce patrol vessels/frigates have several of the features sought after in the Finnish MTA 2020 concept, and a developed version of these might have been the choice if an existing vessel had been chosen for the program.

Russia: 26 surface units (39,450 t) + 2 submarines

Russia fields four fleets (Northern, Baltic, Pacific, and the Black Sea Fleet), of which the Northern Fleet is the main one. The exact number of vessels operational at any given time requires a certain amount of guesswork, as vessel can be rebased, and the age of several important classes means that some vessels are in reserve and/or unavailable due to major overhauls.

Of the 50+ vessels of the Baltic Fleet, around 25 can be included in our comparison, with the rest being minehunters/-sweepers, landing ships, patrol crafts, or belonging to any one of numerous auxiliary vessel classes. The Baltic Fleet has two Sovremennyy-class destroyers, the largest surface combatants based in the Baltic Sea, and two large frigates of the Neustrashimy-class. Four smaller Steregushchy-class heavy corvettes/light frigates are also available, and are by far the most modern vessels of the Baltic Fleet’s major surface units. Considerable numbers of older vessels are still in use, including Parchim-class anti-submarine corvettes (six vessels), as well as Nanuchka- (four vessels) and Tarantul-class FAC’s (eight vessels, including the single heavily moderinzed Project 12421 Molniya). Two Kilo-class submarines are also in use, but in addition to these one or more new-built submarines may be conducting sea acceptance trials in the Baltic Sea at any given time. The midget submarines/diver delivery units may include the Triton in different versions (namely Triton 1, 2, and/or NN), the revived Losos/Pirhana-class, the Sirena-class, or something completely different. Here is a brief introduction to the different Russian/Soviet designs known to have been in service at some point.

Sources for this post include USNI’s Combat Fleet’s of the World (16th Ed.), the official homepages of Bundesmarine and Søværnet, Skipper’s well-timed post on the current status of the Swedish Navy, as well as this page, recommended by Jägarchefen.

…And Wikipedia, of course.