As was noted earlier Finland has requested the export of quad-packed ESSM surface-to-air missiles for fitting in the Mk 41 vertical launch system (VLS). In itself the request was rather unsurprising, but I did find it odd that the Navy was asking about the canister designed for the Mk 41 and not the dedicated Mk 56 ESSM VLS.
This week a key part of the answer was revealed, as the DCSA report for the Mk 41’s themselves was released. The Finnish request is for four 8-cell Mk 41, of the full-long ‘Strike length’ version. This is the same as carried by US Navy (and Japanese) destroyers and cruisers, as well as by a number of NATO frigates. The options for the strike length launcher include a large variety of US-built surface-to-air missiles, as well as the TLAM (Tomahawk) long-range cruise missile and the VL-ASROC anti-submarine weapon (a rocket which carries a parachute-retarded anti-submarine torpedo out to a considerable range). The downside is the size. To fit the large missiles, the cells are 7.6 m long. The logical choice if one want to fit Mk 41 solely for use with ESSM’s into a corvette is the 5.2 m Self-defense module. In between the two is the 6.7 m Tactical length cells, which add the SM-2 long-range SAM and the ASROC, but is unable to fit the TLAM or the SM-6/SM-3/SM-2 Blk IV (SM-2 with a booster). The SM-2 Blk IV and SM-3 are able to target ballistic missiles, while the SM-6 is a longer-range missile against airborne targets.
Now, as late as last week I said in a discussion that it is not possible to fit the Strike length cells on the Pohjanmaa-class, as they are too long for a corvette. In all renders so far the VLS cells have been fitted in front of the superstructure, on deck level. Considering the low draft of the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes, just over 3 meters, it is doubtful whether the cells can be fitted within the confines of the bow. However, if the single cell is mounted along the centreline as opposed to across it, and if it gets a stepped platform a’la Type 26, it just might be doable (or a reshuffle with the Mk 41’s moving into the superstructure and the SSM’s moving to the foredeck/mission bay/further forward/aft/somewhere else).
So why would the Navy be interested in a cell that is two sizes larger than the missile they are planning on pairing it with? The answer is likely that they want to keep all options open. While I very much doubt that the ASROC would fit Finnish doctrine, the TLAM could open up new possibilities. However, if the Defence Forces want more cruise missiles, buying more of whatever will replace the JASSM on the winner of the HX-program is likely the better option (or alternatively buying a long-range weapon for the M270 MLRS). However, the possibility to provide some measure of protection against ballistic missiles might be of interest. While it certainly would be a major undertaking, the vessels will be in service for a long time and “fitted for but not with” is a time-honored tradition when it comes to naval shipbuilding. It should be noted that all kinds of ballistic missile defences are politically highly sensitive. Analysts have noted the similarities to the acquisition of the multirole F/A-18 Hornet back in the day, where even if the fighters were capable of flying ground attack missions, political considerations meant that the capability was only taken into use at a later stage, with the MLU2 mid-life upgrade.
The strike length cells also open up the possibility to fit some interesting anti-ship missiles in the future, as both the LRASM and the JSM are currently being tested in configurations suitable for launch from the Mk 41. Being able to swap out a number of SAM’s for more anti-ship missiles might be an interesting option at some point down the road (or at least interesting enough that the Navy doesn’t want to close the door just yet).
I will admit that the latest development have taken me by surprise. However, it does seem like the Navy is serious about fitting the vessels with systems that will allow them to field firepower to rival some significantly larger vessels. The question is whether the budget will live up to the ambitions?
While the growth in size from the current fast attack craft to the upcoming MTA 2020 has been noted by many, there seems to be a lack of appreciation for the added possibilities that comes with this.
Currently, the two Finnish classes of fast attack crafts have different secondary roles, where the Rauma-class has the possibility to equip a towed array for hunting submarines, and the Hamina-class sports (a very limited number of) Umkhonto surface-to-air missiles. In practice, this means that any task force, either a pure naval squadron or one escorting a convoy of merchant shipping, will have to feature at least one vessel from each class in order to have even a theoretical capability of meeting both threats. However, even in that case, the possibility of offering any kind of mutual protection remains limited, as the Rauma-class preferably would have to scout in front of the task force to be able to notice submarines laying in ambush (and this means a distance measured in kilometres to get a noise-free environment for its towed array), while the rather limited 12 km range of the Umkhonto means that any venturing subhunter or larger convoy will have an air defence cover only in their immediate vicinity. The limited number of missiles also means that it is entirely possible for a single Hamina to expand all its missiles trying to fend off just one or two airstrikes, after which the sole air defence weapon left is the 57 mm Bofors gun with proximity or time fused shells.
In practice, at least two vessels with Umkhontos are needed to provide any sort of air defence umbrella, either Hamina-class FAC’s or the far larger Hämeenmaa-class minelayers which also feature a similar eight-round launcher. This is both due to the low number of missiles and to get better coverage. This means that we would need to employ a third of all vessels featuring air defence capability for any given task force. A similar situation arises in the case of the ASW-capable Rauma-class.
The bottom line is that currently the Finnish Navy can’t be expected create more than two effective task forces at any given time, and even then, their effective endurance in combat will be limited by the relatively small supply of on-board weapons. Their ability to stay at sea for any prolonged time (i.e. longer than a few days) is also limited due to the small size of the crews. The fast attack craft also lack the capability to operate in ice, which is a significant drawback given the fact that the sea is often frozen over for at least four months each year.
It is to remedy these deficits that the new Laivue 2020 (Finnish for Sqaudron 2020) will be made up of corvettes, and not fast attack craft. This is a shift in a long-standing tradition of employing light vessels to deliver shoot-and-scoot style attacks on enemy fleets, but also gives the Finnish Navy serious new capabilities that will heighten the total effect of not only the navy, but the Finnish Defence Forces as a whole.
To begin with, the employment of larger steel hulls, gives the ability to operate a serious naval task force in ice for the first time in decades. This in itself is a major shift, though not necessarily a game changer, as it can be assumed that enemy fleet movements will also be drastically reduced during the winter.
Of far greater importance is the fact that the navy can now create a task force also for mission that require extended stays at sea, such as escorting friendly shipping or hunting submarines further out at in the Baltic Sea (currently, the Finnish ASW-strategy is that our chains of underwater listening posts will detect any intruders, after which our units on call will rush to the scene and either drive away the intruder or sink it), before they can take up positions outside of our main ports. While it is easy to dismiss the need for extended operations with the swift nature of most newer conventional wars, such as Georgia and Crimea, the capability could come in handy in prolonged times of heightened tensions, where solid intelligence is a must for the political decision makers. This endurance is heavily tied to having larger crews, as well as larger supplies of fuel, food, munitions, and other basic goods.
VLS – The Big Deal
The upgraded armament is of huge importance. The numbers below is based on the concept shown to the general public at last week’s press release, and is to be taken as an early draft (this is emphasized by the Navy). Still, while the details of the armament can and probably will differ when the vessels are launched, the general capability will probably be as shown.
The number of anti-shipping missiles is set double compared to the Hamina and Rauma-classes, which gives some added tactical opportunities. Also, while the thought of hunting submarines with depth charges and rockets/mortars is optimistic at best and suicidal at worst, the likely reintroduction of torpedoes into the arsenal of the navy would provide a much needed boost to the Finnish anti-submarine capability. However, most importantly, the vessels are set to feature a vertical launch system, VLS, in the bow.
The VLS-system in the picture seems to be around 4-5 meter in width and around 2-3 meters in length. This corresponds to two Sylver VLS-cells. The Sylver VLS is a French system, in use with a number of navies around the world. The basic layout is that each cell consists of eight tubes, and is available in four different lengths. The lengths provide rooms for progressively longer (obviously) and more complex missiles, so that while the shortest Sylver A35 only holds “traditional” short- to medium-range surface-to-air missiles, the full-length A70 already offers land-attack capability through the SCALP N and BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The A70 is however too large for a corvette, and I have a hard time seeing cruise missiles being a priority for the navy (especially as some modern anti-shipping missiles, such as the Saab RBS15 Mk III, has a secondary land-attack capability). The interesting versions are the midsize A43 and A50, which provide the ability to employ the Aster 15 and Aster 30 (A50 only).
The Aster missile has been offered to the Finnish Defence Forces before. Some ten years ago, the Finnish Army sought a new surface-to-air missile to replace the Buk. Eventually, the NASAMS II was chosen, with the runner up being the SAMP/T-system (fr. Sol-Air Moyenne Portée Terrestre), featuring the Aster missile mounted on a transporter erector launcher coupled with a mobile Arabel-radar and assorted control and guidance systems. Unlike the NASAMS, the Aster 30 provides the ability to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles such as the (in)famous Iskander, and then Chief of Defence Admiral Juhani Kaskeala was clear about the reasoning behind the choice of NASAMS over Aster:
“Instead of one Cadillac, we bought 4 Volvos. Now we are getting more missiles than with the other option.”
The NASAMS is a very good medium-ranged system, and the increased number of batteries compared to the SAMP/T was very much needed for a country the size of Finland. Still, the fact that Finland completely lacks any kind of even theoretical defence against ballistic missiles left something of a bad taste. With the announcement by Rear Admiral Takanen that Laivue 2020 will be able to provide area defence with the use of their surface-to-air missiles, one can ask if the defence forces are about to get the highly anticipated anti-ballistic missile capability after all? The modular nature of the Sylver means that with a “small” extra cost, the flexibility of the system increases drastically. A brief recollection of the missiles available to the Sylver:
The A35 can employ the following missiles:
VT1: French IR-seeking short-range missile for self-defence. The corresponding ground-based version of the Crotale missile is in use with the Finnish Army (ITO90M), so would provide some degree of commonality (although it can be discussed if it gives any synergy effects worth mentioning). The unique aspect of the VT1 is that no less than four missiles can be crammed into a single Sylver launching tube, providing ample supply of close-range missiles,
Umkhonto: South African IR-seeking short-range missile for self-defence (a radar-guided version with slightly longer range is also available). In use with the Finnish Navy as ITO04,
CAMM: IR-seeking short-range missile for self-defence, based on the British ASRAAM air-to-air missile,
MICA: The MICA is a medium-range missile with an active-radar seeker. In its air-to-air versions it is performing much the same role on the Rafale and Mirage 2000 as the AMRAAM is on our Hornets.
In addition to the above, the A43 can employ:
Aster 15: An advanced medium-range missile, providing local area defence at somewhat longer ranges than the MICA.
In addition to the above, the A50 can employ:
Aster 30: Similar to the Aster 15, but featuring a much larger booster, providing longer range and an anti-ballistic missile capability. The capabilities of the Aster 30 is currently being expanded upon through the new Block 1NT and Block 2 missiles, which will provide significantly better anti-ballistic missile performance.
In addition to the above, the A70 can employ:
SM-2ER Block IV: The Standard Missile-2 Extended Range is an American long-range surface-to-air missile, which also has a terminal phase ballistic missile defence and secondary anti-shipping ability,
SCALP N: The SCALP N is a ship-launched cruise missile for attacking ground targets at long (over 1,000 km) range. It is based on the air-launched Storm Shadow/SCALP,
TLAM: The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile is a US ship-launched cruise missile for attacking ground targets at long (over 1,000 km) range.
The nice thing with a VLS-system like Sylver, or the larger US Mk 41 VLS for that matter, are their versatility. When traditional launchers have often been weapon specific, leaving little room for variety based on tactical needs, the loadout of the VLS-cells can be tailored to suite the expected threat scenario of individual missions. And if Laivue 2020 get (even a limited) anti-ballistic missile capability, this would plug what is perhaps the largest single capability gap in the current order of battle of the Finnish Defence Forces. As said, the A70 is likely out of reach for a vessel this size (though one should never underestimate the Navy that put four 10’’ guns on a 3,900 ton ship), but the A50 just might fit in.
With that said, it would certainly be great if suddenly an additional billion appeared, that we could replace the ships on a 1:1 basis…