Where are the Finnish Submarines?

Where are the Finnish Submarines?

Submarines have naturally been something of a hot topic in Sweden during the last year, with Saab buying ThyssenKrupp’s Swedish submarine division, the design stage of the new A26 submarine well under way, and last but not least, the incursion by a foreign midget submarine deep into Swedish waters. During all of this, the related question as to why Finland doesn’t operate submarines has been raised more than once.

The Finnish Submarine Force that Was

The first submarines that almost served in the Finnish Navy were a number of ex-Russian AG-class (Holland) submarines that had been scuttled when the Imperial Russian Navy retreated from Finnish ports in 1918. There were plans to return one or two of these to service, but the cash-strapped navy of the interwar years found the cost of the associated works to be too big, and as such the project was abandoned.

Instead a number of new-built submarines were acquired during the years leading up to the Second World War. This small but potent force consisted of three Vetehinen-class (500 t) boats, as well as the single-ships Saukko (114 t) and Vesikko (254 t). Of these, Saukko has the distinction of being the only military submarine purpose built for service in a lake (although in the end it was never used as such), while Vesikko was the prototype for the Kriegsmarine’s wartime Type II-class. Vesikko is the only one remaining of these, as well as being the sole survivor of all 51 Type II’s built.

The Finnish submarine service that was: light submarine Vesikko surfacing sometime during the war years. Source: SA-kuva
The Finnish submarine service that was: light submarine Vesikko surfacing sometime during the war years. Source: SA-kuva

With the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947 came restrictions regarding what kinds of “offensive weaponry” Finland was allowed to operate, and Article 17 states that “Finland shall not possess, construct or experiment with any […] torpedoes capable of being manned, submarines or other submersible craft, motor torpedo boats, or specialised types of assault craft.” The demands of the treaty were loosened over time, with e.g. “defensive missiles” being allowed in the 60’s when Finland bought the first batch of MiG-21F fighters with associated air-to-air missiles from the Soviet Union. Finally, after the reunification of Germany, Finland in 1990 unilaterally took the decision that the restrictions of the treaty did no longer apply (with the nuclear weapons ban being the sole exception, as Finland is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty). Thus, the possibility of operating submarines was again open for the Finnish Navy.

A New Generation of Submariners?

The question about whether or not to get submarines was a hot topic during the 90’s, especially as Sweden offered a number of older submarines cheap. These would probably have been of the Sjöormen-class, which in the end were instead sold to Singapore as the Challenger-class in 1997. Although the Sjöormen-class was a 60’s design, they were very advanced for their day, which, together with the extensive half-life modification carried out before the transfer, makes them viable even today. The Singaporean Navy was apparently happy with the arrangement, as they in a similar deal bought two retired Västergötland-class submarines in 2005, which were accepted into service as the Archer-class in 2011 and 2013.

The Finnish submarine service that could have been: R.S.S. Chieftain (ex-HMS Sjöhunden II) of the Sjöormen/Challenger-class in Singaporean service in 2007. Souce: Wikimedia Commons/Erik Sevilla Estrada

Still, while the submarines themselves would have been cheap (a relative term when discussing submarines), the creation of a submarine service wouldn’t. The new training and basing facilities, a whole new logistics chain, as well as the day-to-day operating costs of running a fleet of three to four submarines, was deemed prohibitively expensive, and the rebirth of the Finnish submarine service was called off. As the basic premises have not changed since the late 90’s, the question has not been brought up again since.

The discussion whether this was the right decision or not pops up from time to time, but with the current budget an expansion in the number of naval vessels seems unlikely. On the contrary, with the arrival of the MTA 2020, the number of surface combatants is to be reduced. With the current funding of the navy, getting submarines would mean retiring at least an equal number of major vessels, corresponding to e.g. all four Hamina fast attack craft. Coupled with the upcoming decrease in the number of hulls with the introduction of the MTA 2020, this would mean slicing the number of surface combat vessels of the navy to half of its current level.

The Capabilities

As I noted in an earlier post, the Finnish Navy should be able to make certain that the NW corner of the Baltic Sea is safe for friendly merchant shipping, but from there on out to the North Sea, we would have to rely on friendly states (including at least Sweden and Denmark, and to a lesser extent, Norway, Germany, and Poland). In this planned area of operations, submarines are of a somewhat limited value, due to the shallow waters and cluttered archipelagoes that dominate both the Gulf of Finland and the Archipelago Sea. Here, the current combination of mine fields and FAC’s capable of countering enemy air and sea threats provides a good basis upon which to build a layered defence together with supporting ground and air units.

In such a scenario, where the main mission of the wartime fleet is to escort own merchant shipping to Swedish waters, as well as to counter enemy naval movements trying to enter our waters, a Finnish submarine fleet would in my opinion be of secondary value. Tactically, the submarines would be able to intercept, shadow, and attack enemy warships heading for our shores while they are further offshore than what would be the case with the FAC’s. Their presence would also dictate that the enemy make adjustments to meet the threat, i.e. deploy anti-submarine ships and air assets to protect own units. Still, it is hard to justify the acquisition of submarines from a purely tactical perspective if the trade-off is an equal number of surface units that could also offer protection from airborne threats.

The largest benefits of a submarine force would instead come in the strategic field, where modern AIP submarines could loiter in the southern/central parts of the Baltic Sea, and as such provide early warning of enemy sorties, gather intelligence, and even insert special forces if that was deemed necessary.

The Finnish submarine service that could be: Next-generation Swedish submarine of the Kockums A26-class. Source: Saab/Kockums Naval Solutions.

There is no denying that the acquisition of three modern submarines would significantly increase the intelligence gathering capabilities not only of the Finnish Navy, but of the Defence Forces and the Finnish intelligence community as a whole. They would also provide new capabilities in taking the battle closer to the enemy’s home ports, and as such giving greater defensive depth in the maritime scene as a whole. Currently, the Swedish A26 or the slightly smaller German/Italian Type 212 are the obvious candidates.

As an indicator of the price level, for the current Italian program of four Type 212/Todaro submarines a total project cost of 1.9 billion Euros is given, with a unit cost of roughly 350 million Euros per boat. While the total project cost include a certain amount of research and development that wouldn’t be included in an export order, the Italian Navy has a long tradition of operating submarines, and as such the investments in basing/logistics/training are considerably smaller compared to those needed if Finland was to acquire a handful of submarines. With the current situation, this cost is far too large for the Defence Forces to bear, let alone the Navy in itself. Unless they were to form part of a (very unlikely) vast multi-billion increase in the defence budget, which would also cover a number of more pressing deficits/ageing materials, I do not believe that submarines have a place in the Finnish Navy.

Some Reflections on the Stockholm “Subhunt”

In the media the current intelligence operation south of Stockholm has been described as the Swedish Navy searching for (or even hunting) “a Russian submarine”. I would like to point out that the picture might be quite a bit more complex. As said earlier, out of respect for the fact that it is an ongoing operation and the possible need for OPSEC, I will not include any attempts at an OOB.

The Swedish Defence Forces yesterday (Friday the 17th of October) stated that during the day they had received information from a reliable source about “foreign underwater activity”. As a response to this, the Swedish Defence Forces have decided to conduct an intelligence gathering operation in the area, with sea, air and land units.

The “foreign underwater activity” was immediately translated into “Russian submarine” by the media. There are Russian submarines in the Baltic Sea, namely the two ‘Kilo’-class submarines B-227 Vyborg and B-806 Dmitrov of Projects 877 and 877EKM respectively.

However, there are a number of other possible explanations.

The possibility of Russian divers and/or light underwater equipment has to be accounted for. This could include midget submarines or diver propulsion vehicles, with either a supporting land-based unit, or support from ships/submarines in international waters. Possible missions include intelligence gathering, e.g. with regards to the ability of the Swedish units to detect and respond to incursions of this kind. This kind of mission would most probably go to Russian naval Spetsnaz units, which made headline during the 2008 war in Georgia when they apparently entered into the port of Poti and destroyed the majority of the surface units of the small Georgian Navy.

Another possibility is that some other country sent a submarine into the area.

Polish Project 877E ‘Kilo’-class submarine ORP Orzeł (291), outwardly similar to the submarines of Russia’s Baltic Fleet. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Poland operates a single Project 877E ’Kilo’-class as well as four German-designed Ex-Norwegian Type 207 ’Kobben’-class submarines. All are of the diesel-electric type, meaning they are extremely quiet when submerged, but have to go up to the surface and recharge their batteries every now and then. Although the submarines are somewhat dated, they still constitute a very proficient striking force.

Germany has continued its long and proud tradition as builder of submarines. Currently its submarine force consists of four Type 212 A submarines based in Eckernförde, close to Kiel. These are some of the most modern submarines in the world, being so called AIP-submarines (air independent), meaning that thanks to their hydrogen fuel-cells they don’t have to surface regularly.

Neither the three Baltic countries nor Denmark has any submarines left. Sweden has three Gotland-class and two Södermanland-class AIP-submarines, but these are naturally not part of the equation. However, the Netherlands currently has a single Walrus-class submarine in the Baltic Sea, which has taken part in exercise Northern Archer together with the Swedish units now scanning the waters south of Stockholm. As far as I know, no details about its route home have been published.

It is possible that some of these countries have decided to test the Swedish response to underwater incursions. It could have been a unilateral decision by the country in question, or as a proposal/request/idea from some kind of higher-level NATO forum. The purpose in that case would most probably be intelligence gathering, to get a validated picture of the Swedish response and capabilities in case of a Russian incursion, where the secondary goals could include highlighting these deficits in capability to the Swedish politicians and general public. The Navy is already well aware of its (lack of) capabilities.

This would naturally be a very high-risk operation politically, as getting publicly caught with your submarine in the territorial waters of a friendly country is not desirable, to put it mildly. To lessen the risk, a similar operation could naturally be launched with divers as discussed above in the case of Russian units.

I will not rank any of these scenarios as to what is most likely, but bear in mind, there are a lot of things happening under the surface of the Baltic Sea about which we know very little.

Edit 18/10/2014 18:15 (GMT +2): On the press conference that just finished, it became clear that the Swedish navy increases number of units involved in intelligence operation outside Stockholm, stresses focus is on intelligence NOT on subhunt. They still believe the original intel about foreign underwater activity was “very reliable”, and declines to comment on “What further circumstantial evidence we have received”. No further specifics were revealed.