No Finnish Harpoon/ESSM-order (at least for now)

As the headline says, yesterday’s big news from the naval sector is not that Finland has ordered the Harpoon and/or the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM). In fact, what has happened is that the US offers for two major Finnish naval programs have become open knowledge. This happened as the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency has requested clearance for the sale of 112 RGM-84Q-4 Harpoon Block II+ ER anti-ship missiles (of which twelve are of the older RGM-84L-4 Harpoon Block II version which will be upgraded) and 68 ESSM missiles. These kinds of pre-clearances are not uncommon, and allow for a rapid deal following a (potential) procurement decision by a foreign customer (thanks to Aaron Mehta for providing insights about US export).

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One of the latest renders, showing the refined corvette concept. Source: Finnish Defence Forces / Insinööriupseeriliitto

The background is two ongoing Finnish projects: the Pohjanmaa-class multirole corvettes and the PTO 2020 heavy surface-to-surface missile. The PTO 2020 will be found aboard the Pohjanmaa-class as well as replacing the current MTO 85M (roughly a RBS 15 Mk II) on the Hamina-class as part of their MLU as well as in truck-mounted batteries. As the MLU for the Hamina is very much underway already, the winner of the PTO 2020 will be announced during the first half of this year. I am still standing by my opinion that the RBS 15 Mk 3+ and the NSM are the two frontrunners, and would be somewhat surprised if Harpoon won the trophy (and even more so if the Exocet MM40 Block 3 did, though everything is possible).

The Pohjanmaa-class is still in the design stage, with the main contract(s) to be signed this year, and the building phase to start next year. The armament shown on renders include two quadruple mounts of PTO 2020 amidships, the new lightweight torpedo from Saab, the BAE/Bofors 57 mm Mk II deck-gun, and a battery of vertical launch system-cells (VLS). The two main VLS-systems on the market are the French Sylver and the US Mk 41 (a modernized version called Mk 57 is also available, and mounted on the Zumwalt-class). Both are available in different lengths, with the shortest Sylver, the A43 (an earlier A35 concept seems to have been dropped), being around 4.3 m long (or rather, high), and the shortest Mk 41 being 5.2 m long. The 8-cell module of the Sylver is also smaller and lighter than the corresponding 8-cell Mk 41 module, in part because the silos themselves are a few centimeters smaller. For a full run-through of the differences, see this post by the UK Armed Forces Commentary-blog, where the differences are discussed with a keen eye to the pros and cons for the British Type 26 Frigate.

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An ESSM leaving a Mk 41 cell. Source: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons

Now, while some vessels, such as the current Finnish Hamina-class and the upcoming British Type 26, feature dedicated cells to their main air-defence assets, the VLS on the Pohjanmaa will likely be home to the ships main air defence weapons. This becomes evident as the ESSM offer is for the weapon quad-packed in Mk 25 modules, designed to fit the Mk 41-system. If the ESSM would be chosen, the Pohjanmaa-class would be by far the smallest vessel to feature the system. The decision to offer the Mk 41 is interesting, as there is a dedicated Mk 56 ESSM VLS-system if the sole use would be for the ESSM.

The ESSM is certainly a competent weapon, and shows what the Navy is aiming for. 8-16 cells with quad packs would provide for 32-64 medium-ranged missiles, a huge boost compared to the current 8 short-range Umkhontos found on the Hamina. While the Mk 41 is too big for the Hamina, the Mk 56 mean that half a dozen ESSM’s could potentially be fitted as part of the MLU if the Navy choose to go down that (unlikely) route. More interesting is that the ESSM could be fired from the Army’s NASAMS surface-to-air batteries, letting the Navy and Army use the same missile stock. The upcoming ESSM Block 2 will feature an active seeker based on that of the AMRAAM, and is potentially the version offered to the Pohjanmaa.

Interestingly, the AMRAAM-ER is a AMRAAM married to the engine of the ESSM, and no, I don’t know what exactly is the difference between an AMRAAM seeker married to an ESSM engine and an ESSM engine married to an AMRAAM seeker.

I am still inclined to believe that the Sylver might be the Navy’s preferred VLS due to the smaller footprint. However, as with the PTO 2020, we will just have to wait and see.

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Naval Air Defence – The Finnish Way

One of the signs of spring in Kokkola is the arrival of a small flotilla of naval vessels to the local port. Seeing the Finnish Navy operating in the northern parts of the Gulf of Bothnia is uncommon, as all three main formations and the Naval Academy are based along the southern shores of the country. What brings the Navy here is the spring edition of IPH, the twice annually held air defence exercise where the Navy join the Army and Air Force in practicing the whole chain of modern ground-based air defences. This starts with creating situational awareness for the air defence network, and ends with the use of appropriate weapons systems engaging the targets. This year, minelayer FNS Uusimaa (‘05’) lead fast-attack crafts FNS Tornio (‘81’) and FNS Hanko (‘82’) into the port of Kokkola on 17 May for approximately a week of intensive exercises.

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FNS Uusimaa (‘05’) at dusk. Source: @JHggblom

Contrary to a number of other navies which operate dedicated air defence ships, air defence isn’t one of the Finnish Navy’s core tasks. Rather, the ability to protect the own vessel and nearby ships is needed to be able to perform other tasks, including escorting merchant shipping but also naval missions such as mining. Currently, the two Hämeenmaa-class minelayers and the four Hamina-class FAC all feature the same Cassidian TRS-3D radar and a VLS-battery of eight Umkhonto-IR (local designation ITO 2004) short-range IR-homing missile. As noted, half of the Navy’s ships with an air defence capability took part in IPH117.

But the air defence mission starts long before the missiles are let loose. The naval vessels, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, play a significant role in peacetime air policing. The TRS-3D are respectable sensors in its own right, and on the vessels they are backed up by other systems and sensors which make the vessels able to make considerable contributions to the Finnish air picture. The Navy maintain alert vessels 24/7 as part of their policing of Finnish maritime areas (as has been demonstrated), and an added benefit is that these are able to contribute sensor data regarding air movements as well. Here, the older Rauma-class and the Border Guard’s flagship VL Turva are also able to lend a hand, as while they aren’t armed with SAM’s, they still sport search radars (TRS-3D in the case of Turva, while the Rauma-class is equipped with the Saab Sea Giraffe 9GA 208, a relatively old iteration of the Giraffe-family).

There are a number of features which make the Navy punch above its paper stats when it comes to contributing to the air defence and air surveillance network. One is the fact that the vessels are further south than any radars found on the mainland. This is especially valuable for any air traffic coming from the direction of the Baltic Sea, where the Navy can be assumed to be the first one to pick up any movements. Another thing is the mobility offered by the platforms, with the ships being able to travel at speed, up to 30 knots (55 km/h) for the Haminas, while constantly emitting. Compared to ground-based radars which need to be lowered for travelling and set up again at their new location, this eliminates the gap in information that takes place when changing position. The other is the high readiness of the Navy compared to the Army’s air defence units. The vessels not only bring their complete sensor package with them. They also bring the command central, battle management tools, and firing units with them. The vessels need to be able to not only fight as part of an integrated air defence network, but they also need to be able to solve any of their missions independently in case communications with higher command suddenly goes down. This means that the vessels are able to not only see what is up in the air, but also to take independent action against any threat at a moment’s notice.

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FNS Tornio (‘81’) left and FNS Hamina (‘82’) right. Source: Own picture

Being able to actually shoot down anything naturally requires that they are sailing around with the missiles loaded, something which the Navy does not comment upon. One of the benefits of the VLS is in fact this ambiguity, as an external observer is unable to tell how many weapons are carried (the same is the case with internal carriage on fighters, feel free to ponder upon this as an issue for HX).

From an air defence point of view, the six Umkhonto-equipped vessels are in effect mobile surface-to-air missile batteries with their own search radars (though with a very limited number of missiles), maintained at a high level of readiness and staffed (almost) exclusively by professionals. This makes them well-suited as counters to a Crimea-style coup attempt, where they together with the Air Force would counter airborne movements in the opening stages of a conflict before the ground based batteries have had time to mobilise and set up.

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FNS Uusimaa (‘05’) firing an Umkhonto-IR short-range surface-to-air missile during IPH117. Source: Merivoimat

The introduction of Squadron 2020 will further strengthen the Navy’s role in the joint air defence network. New radars and sensors, and getting access to mounting them higher as a benefit of the larger vessel size, will offer better situational awareness, and while the exact surface-to-air weapon fit is still undecided, it seems highly likely that the missiles will be of a greater number and capability than the current vessels have. What is also often forgotten is that while the overall number of surface combatants will go down from eleven to eight, the number of air defence capable vessels will in fact go up from six to eight.

While the Navy might see air defence as something of a necessary evil, something that one needs to do to be able to perform the core missions, that doesn’t mean it is a mission taken lightly. Compared to mining operations where time is calculated in hours and days, air defence is a question of seconds and minutes. The demanding nature of it means that it needs to be trained properly, and nowhere in Finland is the training environment better than in the Bothnian Gulf during the last weeks of May. The importance placed on the mission is seen by the fact that the Navy dispatched three vessels for a week, vessels which barely have time get back to Pansio for a quick turnaround before heading out to sea again as part of this spring’s main coastal defence exercise, exercise MTH-17 Lyydia.