MTA 2020 – is it a (cheap) Corvette?

The autumn has shed a bit of light on the MTA 2020-project, and while much is still shrouded in secrecy, enough new information have become official to warrant a revisit to one of the more popular topics I have written about on the blog.

In an article in Helsingin Sanomat published mid-October, Cdr Veli-Pekka Heinonen stated that they had issued a Request for Information with regards to the new ship class. He also stressed that neither the exact timetable nor the number of hulls are yet determined, but that the vessels should be in use in the middle of the 2020’s. However, with regards to the number of new ships, last year outgoing C-in-C of the Navy, Counter admiral Veli-Jukka Pennala, stated that the number of ships is to be in the range of two to four. If so, this would mean a marked reduction in the number of ships operated by the Finnish navy, as the MTA is meant to replace three outgoing mine ships and four fast attack crafts of the Rauma-class.

Currently, the core surface combatants of the Finnish navy are eight FAC(M) of two different classes (Hamina and Rauma), two large mine ships of the Hämeenmaa-class (mine ship and former flag ship Pohjanmaa already having been retired last year), and three ungainly but purposeful mine ferries of the Pansio-class. If this total of 14 ships (counting Pohjanmaa) would be reduced to 9 (corresponding to only two MTA 2020 replacing Pohjanmaa as well as the Hämeenmaa- and Rauma-classes), this would effectively rob the navy of its ability to operate two task forces simultaneously. Even the larger number of four MTA 2020’s would mean a 21% cut in the number of hulls with offensive and/or mining capability compared to the current situation. My personal opinion is that, although yhis is a likely move giving the current economic situation and the pressing needs of other branches of the defence forces, this would be a dangerous cut if it goes unmatched by an increase in capabilities in other areas, e.g. strengthened air- and groundbased surveillance. This spring, current C-in-C of the Navy, Counter admiral Kari Takanen, stated that with the current funding they “cannot even dream” about seven ships, but that the final number is still completely open.

Firdtjof Nansen-class frigate KNM Otto Svedrup (F312) near Trondheim. Note the CB90 in the background, giving a sense of scale to the ship. Sorce: Wikimedia Commons/beagle84

For the ships themselves, the size is still unclear, but Cdr Heinonen noted that the Fridtjof Nansen-class frigates of the Norweigan navy were “unnecessary large” for Finnish conditions. These 134 m long warships have a fully loaded displacement of 5,290 tons, which would have made them by far the largest combat vessels in the history of the Finnish navy. The reason these high-sea ASW-frigates came up in the interview, was that one of the alternatives discussed had been acquiring little-used ships second hand. The Norwegian navy is rumored to have a deficit in the number of crews available, being able to operate only one or two of the frigates at the same time, meaning that two or three potentially could have been for sale. While Cdr Heinonen dismissed this due to the size and a lack in their ability to handle ice, the mention of the ships as candidates for the MTA 2020 is surprising, as Adm Pennala the year before had stated that ships main armament will be mines. The Fridtjof Nansen-class is mainly designed for ASW work, with a powerful secondary anti-air and anti-surface capability. However, they completely lack mine rails. Of interest is the price, the five ships had a total project cost of around 500 million Euros a piece.

With regards to existing classes, Cdr Heinonen gloomily notes that none offers all the capabilities sought for. Presumably the ability of operating in ice is the main problem here. With specific regards to the Swedish Visby-class of stealth corvettes, he states that they are “too expensive”. Elsewhere, the price tag is usually stated to be around 200-250 million Euros a piece, with some estimates going higher.

Lead ship of the class, Swedish corvette HMS Visby (K31) visiting Turku earlier this year. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI

In brief, Finland seems to be looking for a custom-built class of ice-classed corvettes with a large mine-carrying capacity, for a price tag of less than 200 million Euros. I have earlier expressed doubts about whether the navy is trying to fit too much into the same ship. Now a further cause of concern seems to be if the price tag envisioned is realistic, and if we are facing a >20% cut in the number of combat ships allocated to the navy. On the bright side, the Hamina-class did make headlines exactly due to the fact that they cram quite a lot of potential into a small hull at an affordable price.

As an ending thought, the navy is promoting the fact that the MTA 2020 could be built at a Finnish shipyard, but the Rauma yard which has handled earlier newbuilds for the navy closed down last year. A new company, under the name of Rauma Marine Constructions, currently has great plans for the yard, but whether they have managed to hold onto the know-how and key people needed for a project of this size remains to be seen.

MTA2020 and its Swedish connection – Pt 3. Cooperation

The following is part three of three, discussing the possibilities of Finnish-Swedish cooperation in the field of new support ships. Part one (published Thursday) dealt mainly with the Swedish plans, with part two (published yesterday) focusing on the Finnish MTA2020, and part three trying to wrap it up. As mentioned, I have no inside information on the MTA2020 or L10, but everything is based on open sources.

Takanen stopped short of saying that Sweden and Finland would pursue a joint design, only saying that they are “exchanging information about possible co-operation”. As an unrelated issue, he also denies any rumors that Finland would be interested in buying Visby-class corvettes, noting that they are too expensive.

An interesting detail is found in the legislative documents covering the blast test conducted on the decommissioned nameship of the Helsinki-class fast attack craft in 2010-11.

The blast test were made in cooperation with German and US authorities, and part of the deal was of such a nature that in Finland it fell under legislation as opposed to the armed force’s jurisdiction. This means that the tests are rather well described in open sources (including these document in Finnish/Swedish [1], [2], [3]). The testing took place in the Örö test and training range west of Hanko in the Gulf of Finland, and included detonating TNT and PENO plastic explosives charges, ranging in size from under a kilogram up to and including a “full size sea mine” (or several?).

The aim was to study the aluminum construction and its durability, with a focus on battle damage. Aside from the live fire tests, simulations and laboratory experiments were also included, and in the documents it is stated that “for Finland, the project forms part of the MTA2020 study”.

This is the interesting part, as it seems like the Finnish MTA2020 is drafted with an aluminum hull, while the L10, as far as I know, is a traditional steel hulled ship with an aluminum superstructure. Most probably the Swedish ship is considerably larger than what Finland has in mind (~6 000 t compared to ~4 000 t?).

There exists the possibility that the connection between MTA2020 and the test were mainly a clever idea from someone in the navy to be able to transfer funds from one budget to another without the politicians making a fuss about it (presumably from Merivoimien materiaalilaitos to Merisotakoulun tutkimuskeskus)… Note that this is pure speculation, the only thing that might point in this direction is the fact that for a support ship operating in the Indian Ocean, a steel hull would seem a more traditional choice (depending, however, on the overall size of the vessel).

So, what is left then to cooperate about, if the two classes are built of different materials, in different sizes, and to different specs?

Quite naturally, different systems and sub-systems can be rather similar, even though the platform themselves are differing. These include replenishment stations, flight facilities, weapons, and so forth. However, perhaps aside from outright joint acquisitions, the sharing of information which Takanen mentions might be of even greater importance.

Thus, while the projects seems to be heading their own ways, this “cross-border brainstorming” might in the end lead to better ships for both navies.