Scandinavian Sniper – Finnish and Swedish Marksmen

By an interesting coincidence, both the Finnish Defence Forces’ official podcast Radio Kipinä as well as Sweidsh author/historian Lars Gyllenhaal’s Militärt med Gyllenhaal-podcast dealt with today’s snipers in their respective defence forces. As such, this felt like a good opportunity to compare and contrast the training, equipment, and employment of these.

A short note on the podcasts. The links above go to their respective iTunes-pages, but they are also found e.g. on YouTube. The language is Finnish for Radio Kipinä and Swedish for Militärt med Gyllenhaal. For their sniper episodes, both interviewed an officer who has a long background as a sniping instructor, Major Tapio Saarelainen  of the Finnish Army Academy and Captain Håkan Jorsell of the Swedish Army Ranger Battalion (AJB).

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A Swedish sniper from the army ranger battalion during an exercise in Gotland last year. Source: Mats Nyström/Försvarsmakten
Let’s first get Simo Häyhä out of the way before continuing on towards the modern day. Arguably a prime contender for the title of best known Finnish soldier, Häyhä fought as a sniper at the Kollaa front during the Winter War, and is widely credited with being the most lethal sniper throughout history. Needless to say, there is quite a lot of  legends surrounding Häyhä’s short but spectacular career. Saarelainen addresses quite a number of these during the podcast, and has also written a brand new biography on Häyhä. Having met Häyhä “roughly two dozen times”, Saarelainen notes that Häyhä usually aimed for the target centre and scored most of his kills at around 150 meter range, downplaying the importance of his longer shots (his longest record hit was at 450 meter), and that he never fired from up in trees. The experiences gathered by Häyhä still influences Finnish army snipers today, and much of the basic trade remains the same. However, some specific parts of Häyhä’s tactics have become obsolete, such as using iron sights to keep a lower profile. Saarelainen notes that optics gives a decisive advantage in speed, while Jorsell agrees that while learning to employ iron sights is an importance step and a good foundation for becoming a proficient marksman, out in the field optics still take the price.

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Simo Häyhä during the Winter War. Source: Wikimedia Commons/SA-Kuva
The road to becoming a sniper is vastly different in the Swedish and Finnish defence forces, due to the basic difference of Sweden fielding a professional all-volunteer force compared to Finland’s model based on general conscription followed by reservist duty. It should also be noted that the Finnish force does not differentiate between snipers and designated marksmen, instead only using the term tarkka-ampuja (literally ‘sharpshooter’) for both, while Sweden differentiates between skarpskytt (designated marksman) and prickskytt (sniper). The Swedish designated marksmen are found in infantry squads, where they provide accurate supporting fire at ranges out to 300 meters. The Swedish snipers are on the other hand part of the Swedish elite units, such as the marines, army rangers, the air force’s base security units, and the special forces. Here, the snipers are trained to operate in independent pairs at ranges up to and including 1,000 meters, during all weather conditions and all times of the year. Both the spotter and the shooter in the sniper team are trained snipers, with Jorsell noting that roles may change depending on who has the better capacity that day. For Finnish snipers, while they also always operate with a pair, he may or may not be a trained sniper.

To get into sniper training, the soldier must first accepted into the basic units, after which he (or she) can volunteer to receive sniper training. This means that to e.g. become one of Jorsell’s army snipers, one must first pass the basic (but demanding) tests to be accepted into the Army Ranger Battalion, followed by a 11 month long basic military training held in Arvidsjaur, in the northernmost parts of Sweden. After this, one can volunteer for sniper training, which requires slightly higher physical and psychological marks than a normal ranger (or jaeger, as the Swedish army calls them). On this follows an eight to ten week long sniper course, followed by a grand exam being held out in the field and lasting a few days. The test covers all aspects of sniper training, and if the sniper passes he is allowed to wear the sniper badge as proof that he is a qualified sniper.

Amongst the Finnish soldiers, all units training conscripts offer sniper training. The prospective sniper starts out with the normal eight week basic course, which trains basic soldier skills (including use of standard issue assault rifles). Following this, the snipers are trained in their particular field for nine weeks, with the final seven weeks focusing on the soldiers role as part of the greater unit.

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A Finnish sniper from KAIPR securing a landing zone during exercise METSO 16. Source. Finnish Defence Forces
Needless to say, the Finnish sniper being sent into the reserve is not up to par with a professional soldier such as the Swedish ones, something that Saarelainen readily admits. While the Swedish sniper fires approximately 1,000 rounds during a service year, a Finnish conscript fires approximately 300 7.62 mm rounds, and even less if employing a larger calibre. This is purely due to a lack of funds, and Saarelainen states that the bare minimum a sniper would need is 500 rounds.

This difference is also seen in the emphasise placed on prior knowledge. While Saarelainen wants snipers who are both hunters and have some basic competition results to show (air rifle, rimfire, …), Jorsell has trained skater boys from downtown Stockholm,  although he also confirms that a solid hunting background naturally helps. Both officers agree that no-one is born a crack shot, but it takes hard and determined work to become one, and it is a skill that requires consistent training if it is to be maintained. For the Finnish snipers, this creates an additional challenge. In practice, for the reservist to maintain his proficiency, he has to acquire his own rifle and put his own time and effort into making sure he trains adequately. The big issue here is firing ranges, as firing ranges over 100 meters long are few and far between, especially those where a civilian can stop by to fire off a few rounds. MPK arranges a few courses each year, which gives access to the defence force’s own ranges. Also, Tarkka-ampujakilta, the snipers’ guild, provides a framework for those reservists that wish to maintain their know-how. Still, it is by no means a cheap hobby, and while both officers note that no amount of equipment and technology can replace the basic skill of marksmanship, long-range shooting certainly is a practice that rewards the use of high-end equipment. The current Finnish gun laws places very little restrictions on the ownership of medium-bore bolt-action rifles and their accessories, so as long as you aren’t looking for your personal Barrett M82 you should be good to go. And, yes, you are allowed to bring your own sniper rifle to war, as long as you make sure you bring the ammunition as well (or use army standard rounds).

When it comes to equipment, the standard Finnish sniper rifles are the 7.62 TKIV 85 and the 7.62 TKIV Dragunov, both chambered in the 7.62x54r, a rimmed cartridge dating back to Czarist-Russia and the Mosin-Nagant M91 (as in 1891). The M91 was adopted in different locally modified versions as the Finnish army’s standard rifle up until the introduction of the AKM in the early 60’s. The TKIV 85 is the last of this line, and is based on refurbished receivers. The exact age of the receivers employed is unknown, but the rifles very likely have a shot at the title of oldest operational small arm still in active service. The rest of the rifle is completely reworked, including using the somewhat tighter tolerances of the 7.62x53r standard (a Finnish version of the 7.62x54r developed during the interwar years). The Dragunov is the ubiquitous Soviet semi-automatic designated marksman rifle, and doesn’t require any further introduction. The most modern design in use is the 8.6 TKIV 2000, a Sako TRG-42 chambered in .338LM, with a Zeiss Diavari V 3-12 x 56 T mounted on top. For anti-material work, the Barrett M82 in .50 BMG is found. This highly-specialised rifle is known as the 12.7 RSTKIV 2000. The effective range increases with the calibre, with snipers equipped with 7.62 mm weapons being seen as having an effective max range of 5-600 meters, .338LM being able to achieve max ranges of up to 1,000 meters, and the .50 being effective beyond 1,500 meters if the conditions allow. However, due to the Finnish geography (read: forests), in practice shots above 350 meters are rare.

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The last in a long line of Mosin-Nagant based rifles, the 7.62 TKIV 85. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI
For the Swedish forces, there is basically two rifles in use. The larger is the Barrett, which the Swedish forces call the Ag 90. While the Barrett is today widely found in western forces around the world, it was in fact the Swedish Army which was the launch customer, narrowly beating the US Marine Corps with their order. The current Swedish version is the Ag 90C, which features a number of modifications to improve the overall quality of the weapon. Besides its use in the anti-material role using armour-piercing bullets at ranges up to and including 1,000 meters, the rifle is also used by the engineering corps for clearing explosives. The other rifle is the Psg 90, a locally modified version of Accuracy International’s Arctic Warfare, chambered in 7.62×51 mm NATO. The weapon is also commonly known by its British designations L96 or L118A1. The ballistics of the round very closely match those of the slightly longer round used by the Finnish weapons, something which further shows the demands placed on the Swedish snipers who are trained to use their Psg’s out to the 1,000 meter distance. For self-defence, the snipers are also equipped with Ak 5 (FN FNC) assault rifles. All snipers are trained on all weapons, but naturally the exact load-out is mission specific.

When it comes to additional equipment, the Swedish snipers are better off than their Finnish compatriots. Most Finnish snipers lack such basic equipment as range-finders and wind gauges, tools which are standard issue for Swedish snipers. Still, both countries place emphasis on the snipers being able to function with the bare necessities, going back to mildot charts, maps, home-made ghillie suits, and open sights if the need arise. When it comes to their employment in combat, the Finnish snipers are subordinated to the company commander. The company commander then sets the mission (destroy, disrupt, gather intelligence, …), with the sniper deciding how the mission is to be performed. This usually places geographic restrictions on the sniper (i.e. he can’t wander off into the neighbouring company’s zone of responsibility), but otherwise he has a high degree of freedom. For the Swedish snipers, my understanding is that as the jaeger units themselves often operate in front of their own lines, their snipers more often operate as part of and subordinated to their squad compared to the Finnish ones.

The other island

In the shadow of Sweden re-militarising Gotland, the focus of the Finnish discussion rapidly turned to two things: Why is the Finnish government cutting defence spending in the budget proposal presented this week, and what to do with our own blank spot, the Åland islands?

The Åland islands have been demilitarised since the (First) Crimean War of the mid-19th century. The Russian Empire, to which the Grand-Duchy of Finland belonged back then, had built an impressive coastal fortress at Bomarsund, which an Anglo-French force captured in 1854. The whole siege cost both sides less than a 100 dead each, and would probably have been all but forgotten if not for two aspects: The first ever Victoria Cross was awarded for gallantry shown during the battle, and the fact that the peace Treaty of Paris (not to be confused with the 1947 edition) that ended the conflict declared the islands demilitarised (though not the surrounding waters).

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The final assault on Bomarsund. Source: Wikimedia Commons
It should be noted that the legal status is far from clear-cut. The islands have been dealt with in a number of treaties, including the above-mentioned Paris Treaty of 1856, but also by the League of Nation decision of 1921 (expanding the demilitarisation to include surrounding waters), and the treaties with the Soviet Union following the Winter and Continuation Wars. Col. (ret.) Anders Gardberg has written a study on the islands, including the legal aspects, found here.  The questions it deals with are largely unchanged over time, keeping the 20 year old paper highly relevant. Of note is that the 1921 Convention allows for Finland to, if  “‘exceptional circumstances demand’ send into the zone and keep there temporarily such armed forces that are ‘strictly necessary for the maintenance of order'” (as quoted in Gardberg’s paper). A piece of interesting trivia is that unlike what is often stated, the inhabitants of the islands can actually be called up for conscript duty, but only in the Pilot- and Lighthouse authority. This in turn was quickly disbanded and turned into the Finnish Maritime Administration following Finnish independence, making this something of a moot point…

If we however leave the legal fine print aside, and accept the fact that there is currently nothing that points towards the Finnish politicians mustering the willpower to let the needs of the defense of this strategic area prevail over the political inertia of status quo and significant local (and Russian) opposition to an even partial re-militarisation, the question appears how much of a problem this really is?

There is little doubt that today there exists plans for the Navy to conduct a updated version of the WWII-era Operation Regatta, wherein a naval convoy at the outbreak of hostilities quickly shipped the necessary forces to the Åland Islands.

The problem, as is generally the case with the Finnish Defence Forces, is that the number of standing marine units (not counting the ships) ready to intervene at a short notice is negligible. In practice, this means that for Operation Regatta 2.0 to succeed, the crises needs to have escalated over time to the extent that a mobilisation of reservists have been initiated, and the first act of hostilities need to be something else than a ro-ro vessel heading out of St Petersburg suddenly altering its course and unloading a reinforced mechanised battalion in Mariehamn. The absolute nightmare is a coordinated surprise assault by sea and air, allowing rapid transfer of a brigade (or possibly even a reinforce one) to occupy the Åland mainland, something which could easily come out of one of the Russian snap exercises. This would be extremely hard to dislodge, and would effectively cut off Finland from the rest of world, with regards to both military room to manoeuvre and the flow of vital goods such as food and fuel for the society as a whole. This would either require Finland to give in to any demands placed by the Kremlin, let the Finnish society literally starve, or defeat the Russian force on the battlefield.

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The new Jehu-class fast assault craft of the Finnish Navy. In effect, it upgrades the coastal jaegers’ mode of  transport from ‘truck’ to ‘IFV’ to use a land forces metaphor. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI
The later need not necessarily be by a frontal assault. The major difference between Gotland and Åland is that the former is a largely continuous landmass, while the latter is made up by 6,700 named (and a further 13,000 unnamed) islands and skerries. The archipelago is a battlefield unlike any other. It is virtually impossible to control all islands, leading to the forces being grouped on the ones deemed strategically important from where they can then extend zones of control over the lesser ones. Naturally, this calls for a very delicate balance between overextending and leaving gaps in the defence. As any kind of retreat or bringing in of reinforcements during an ongoing fight is extremely hazardous, operations are usually characterised by swift and determined assaults where the attacker tries to throw the defender into the sea by asserting man- and firepower superiority. If the first attack fails, the only option left is usually to try and withdraw under fire. The Hanko campaign of 1941 is probably the best historical case study to shine light on the dilemmas.

The issue for any Russian troops sitting on Åland is that they are too few to hold all major entryways at any given point. This would be the case even if this was the single main offensive operation in the Baltic Sea region, which would in turn mean that the occupiers would include the 336. Marine Brigade and the 76. Air Assault Division in Pskov (note that this is an understrength divsion). Any Russian occupation would still leave potential weak spots which would allow Finnish coastal jaegers and special forces to set up their own position in close vicinity to the Russian positions.

Finnish marine forces in action

In case the conflict started according to the Crimea-blueprint, where the Russians have deployed forces to protect their (shipping) interests in the area but the different forces aren’t actually shooting at each other, the Finnish troops could theoretically play to the strengths provided by their supply lines being short and well-protected, and create a counter-siege where the occupiers are cut off from the Russian supply bases in the St Petersburg area and the Kaliningrad exclave. This would force the Russians to either escalate the conflict into a real shooting war (one in which they have lost the element of surprise and would clearly be the attacker) or back down. If the shooting war is already a fact, the ability to use long-range anti-shipping missiles from the mainland’s archipelago and light infantry units to operate in the Åland archipelago in hit-and-run attacks and as spotters would create a race to the bottom, where both Finland and the occupying force are under siege, and the question is which one breaks faster.

However, even if the possibility of bouncing back from a strategic surprise is there, this is dependent upon the Finnish government exhibiting the required determination to realise the strategic importance of the islands and put up a fight to defend these. Sadly, this is the single part of the whole Åland question which I feel is questionable.

Back in Control

This morning the Swedish Commander in Chief surprised the better part of the Nordic defence community by announcing that the mechanised company recently deployed to Gotland as part of a readiness check won’t go back to Skövde where its parent unit, P4 Skaraborg Regiment, is based. Instead, active as of 0700 this morning, it is stationed on Gotland in defence of the island.

This is a drastic move. The new 18. Battlegroup, a mechanised battalion with a mechanised and an armoured company plus support units, is already in training on the Swedish mainland. However, it was planned to become active in 2018. This has now been changed to mid-2017, which together with the decision to transfer one of the existing companies to the island to cover part of the interim year is a major step (the company won’t have to cover the whole time alone, but the duty will be transferred to another unit at some point). Not only is there an economic issue at stake, with already the original Battlegroup Gotland putting added strain on an already stretched defence force, but also the personnel factor. Soldiers and officers with their homes and families in Skövde woke up to the news that they will be staying on the island until further notice. In a time when the defence forces has had a hard time filling its personnel needs, this is certainly not a decision taken lightly.

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The already classic picture of Swedish SOG operators running towards their Blackhawk helicopter taken during last year’s major exercise held in Gotland. Source: Jimmy Croona/Försvarsmakten

The unit has been laughed at, including being called “The Kamikaze Company” on behalf of its small size (150 persons), and Russian propaganda noting with poorly hidden contempt that the soldiers aren’t yet allowed to use the local firing range.

However, the situation isn’t as desperate as it seems at first glance. For anyone planning to invade the island, there is a huge difference having to meet no active soldiers at all, or having to do with mechanised infantry including their CV 9040’s. These modern infantry fighting vehicles come equipped with the classic 40 mm Bofors sporting a mix of modern APDS and HE ammunition. In effect, it is no longer enough to land an airliner full of paras on Visby airport, but the invaders need to bring more men and heavier weaponry. This means further preparations involving more people, leading to a lower likelihood of achieving surprise, in turn allowing the defenders greater notice and the possibility to further strengthen their defences with more units. Even in the face of a full-blown amphibious invasion, the unit together with the local Home Guard should be able to conduct a fighting retreat towards Visby, making sure the harbour is in Swedish hands long enough to allow the rest of the regiment time to arrive.

What is worrying, however, is the fact that the temperature around the Baltic Sea seems to have dropped drastically in just a few weeks. Swedish blogger Jägarchefen notes that the last three weeks have featured a number of stern statements by both Swedish, US, and Russian officials. This has now culminated in the Swedish decision not to stand down after a readiness exercise. What exactly has caused this development is not publicly known, but at the same time US vice-president Biden gave Sweden some form of security guarantees in the face of Russian aggression, Swedish officials have quietly upgraded the risk of an “isolated attack on Sweden” from “improbable” to “low”. Rumours are also circulating that the recent Russian exercise caused the Swedish Defence Force to very nearly raise their readiness, something which has not happened since the Russian invasion of Crimea. From the Finnish viewpoint, there is a natural question that deserves to be asked:

What does the Swedish Commander-in-Chief know, that our politicians pretend they don’t?

An outstretched hand

Yesterday the news spread that the largest reservist organization in Finland, Reserviläisliitto, offered to help Sweden re-build their Army again. This has caused a number of different reactions, ranging from surprise to outright glee.
To begin with, a short recap of what Mikko Savola actually said: Sweden made huge cuts in their defense during the post-Cold War years, and the invasion of Crimea caught them with their “pants down”. Now they are urgently looking for ways to rebuild “the kind of abilities needed to fight a conventional war”.

Swedish soldiers of the 191. Mechanised Battalion moving a heavy mortar during exercise Vintersol 2016 held in northern Sweden last winter. Source: Jesper Sundström/Försvarsmakten

This include a return to general conscription, which last week’s report on how to solve the personnel question advocated. The proposal is now being discussed in the higher echelons of Swedish politics. However, rebuilding dismantled capabilities will take years, and as such the situation is “somewhat along the same lines” as when Estonia had to rebuild their defense forces from scratch following their restoration of independence.
In this work, Finnish reservists played an important part by providing instructors and consultants. Savola believes that there is “ample know-how” amongst the Finnish reserve that would benefit the Swedish Defense Forces, as well as volunteers for similar training and consulting arrangements that were set up in Estonia.

Savola’s proposal is no doubt made with the best of intentions, with the goal of strengthening general security in the Nordic region within the framework of Finnish-Swedish defense cooperation. Unfortunately, the basic premises are wrong.

To begin with, Sweden is not going back to general conscription. The report in question isn’t ready yet, and certainly wasn’t published last week. The most likely outcome seems to be a mixed system similar to that of Norway. In any case, the professional Swedish Army is here to stay.

Finnish reservists taking part in a voluntary training day at their local firing range. Source: own picture

Neither has the Swedish Army lost their focus on how to fight a conventional war, the armed forces having placed ever greater focus on national defense especially since the drawdown in Afghanistan started. Currently it is a competent force, though small and lacking in key support functions. This, however, will not be solved by anything else than the Swedish government providing additional funds to the defense budget.

I wholeheartedly agree that further deepening of cooperation is a great way of strengthening both our countries’ defense forces through the exchange of ideas and experiences as well as increased interoperability. Including the active reservists of the Finnish Defense Forces and the Swedish Home Guard in these kinds of exchanges would also be most welcome. The proposal by Savola is however unsuitable to the current situation, mainly due to the fact that there seems to be a basic misunderstanding regarding the current and future state of the Swedish Army.

On Research Vessels and AIS-tracking

The appearance of Russian research vessel Akademik Nikolaj Strakhov (named for the 19th century philosopher with the same name) just outside of the Swedish island of Gotland last week caused some discussions on social media. In this blog post I will address two topics that caused discussion, controversy, and sometimes, misunderstandings: The vessel itself, and the AIS-system used for tracking its whereabouts.

Akademik Nikolaj Strakhov

To start with the vessel is built in Finland in the mid-80’s as one of four sisterships of the Akademik Boris Petrov-class. It is government owned, and apparently operated in a geological research role. Interestingly enough, the vessel seems to have spent over a year broken down in the Indian Ocean, due to bureaucracy and a lack of funds. It is however now back in business, and homeported in Kaliningrad.

The towing of the vessel following it breaking down outside of the Maldives in 2013

To be clear, the vessel behaves exactly as a geological research vessel would. It reported restricted maneuverability, and slowly coasted along on a general North-South course just outside of Swedish waters. “Restricted maneuverability” is a defined term that refers to a vessel “which from the nature of her work is restricted in her ability to manoeuvre as required by these Rules [COLREG] and is therefore unable to keep out of the way of another vessel”. This can be due to e.g. the vessel conducting dredging, cable-laying, towing, mine-clearing, or launching aircrafts. What it doesn’t include is vessels that have broken down, which instead use the signals associated with “not under command”. However, general research work often do fall under the restricted maneuverability, and e.g. survey work would certainly require the vessel operating at slow speed while unable to deviate from the planned course.

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Akademik Strakhov’s sistership Akademik M. A. Lavrentyev being intercepted by Japanese Chikugo class frigate JS Tokachi (DE-218) and the US Navy while operating in the Sea of Japan in 1987. Source: Wikimedia Commons/US Navy/PH2 (NAC) Paul Self

The problem obviously is that the Soviet Union and Russia has a long tradition of using civilian vessels such as trawlers and research vessels for more or less clandestine intelligence gathering. It is telling that the only picture of an Akademik Boris Petrov-class ship on Wikimedia is of Strakhov’s sister Lavrentyev being intercepted by Japanese and US forces. And with the Russians regularly employing all parts of the state apparatus in their full-spectrum conflict approach, it would be naive to believe that this scheme hasn’t continued. Is the Akademik a spy ship? That is impossible to say. FVÖ16, this year’s largest exercise conducted by the Swedish Air Force, saw Gotland having being host to a number of units. Also, the Nynäshman-Ventspils and Stockholm-Fårö-Ventspils subsea cables are found in the area, as well as the brand new Markgrafenheide-Helsinki cable, meaning that even if the vessel would only be conducting bottom mapping, the research would indirectly produce data which would be of some value for the Russian Armed Forces.

AIS

The AIS system is best thought of as the maritime equivalent to the frequently discussed transponders carried (or not) by aircraft. For the technical part, it sends packets of data over the normal VHF-band, which usually include the vessel’s name, position, heading/course, speed, and potentially a number of other pieces of information (turn rate, heel, destination, ETA, current mode of operation, …). The system provides a simple and inexpensive way of keeping track of traffic in an area, as well as quickly recognising important features of other ships operating in your area (such as restricted maneuverability). It is also employed in distress transmitters, with AIS-SART transmitters being small self-contained AIS-transmitters  that can either be brought along in a survival craft or, in the worst case, be left floating when a vessel sinks.

However, it is important to be aware of the limitations of AIS.

To begin with, as noted the AIS signal is basically just a pre-programmed and automatic VHF-radio. It has limited range, which can be limited further by bad weather or atmospheric conditions. It is also possibly to turn it off by the flick off a switch, in case you are heading somewhere you don’t want to be seen. There are legitimate scenarios where this is the case, with e.g. merchant ships turning off their transmitters if they fear they are at risk for a pirate attack.

The system has also started to show its age, and while this contributes in making it affordable, it also means that it is designed with openness prioritised over security. As such, it can relatively easily be compromised by hackers, which can feed false data into the system. This can include drawing fake tracks, creating non-existent vessels, or making existing ones disappear. While this caused quite a stir when a publicised case took place a few years back, there has so far not been any major incidents caused by hacking the system. One issue working against any malicious use being successful is that there are a number of happy amateurs, commercial, and state actors following up the marine traffic around the globe, so any attempt would be discovered in a relatively short span. Part of the reason behind this is that there regularly appear faulty information on the AIS system due to broken sensors or operator error. However, in the same way that transponders shouldn’t be seen as telling the whole truth on airliner traffic, AIS shouldn’t be trusted to convey the whole picture of maritime traffic.

Leopards on the Prowl

The Finnish Army has always been largely infantry-based. This has come naturally, as not only is armour expensive, but it has also been seen as poorly suited for the Finnish terrain (a challenged notion) which in large parts of the country is dominated by forests and lakes, with differently sized streams connecting the latter. As such, there has been a single unit operating our tanks, known either as the Armoured Company/Battalion/Brigade/Division depending on the number of tanks in service at any given time. For the past decades, the Armoured Brigade (PSPR) has been based in Parolannummi, Hattula.

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Finnish Leopard 2A4. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Vestman

Here, an interesting variety of tanks have come and gone, with the last years being dominated by a fleet of Leopard 2A4 backed up by the venerable T-55 in small (and diminishing) numbers. 139 Leopard 2A4’s have been bought by Finland, some of which have been converted to bridge-layers (2L for ‘Leguan’) and engineering vehicles (2R for ‘Raivaaja’, Finnish for mine-clearing), as well as some hulls being cannibalised for spares. The eventual number of operational main battle tanks is secret, but assumed to be somewhere around 100.

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Leopard 2L with the Leguan-bridge system. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI

The acquisition of 100 ex-Dutch Leopard 2A6’s effectively doubled the amount of MBT’s in Finnish service, as well as providing a considerable upgrade over the 2A4. The 2A6 is easily recognisable by the wedge-shaped spaced armour attached to the turret (introduced on the 2A5), as well as the longer Rheinmetall 120 mm L/55 smoothbore gun. A number of other less evident improvements are also found on the tank, ranging from upgraded sights for the gunner and commander to a new hatch for the driver.

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Finnish Leopard 2A6, flying the black and silver flag of the Armoured Brigade. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI

This obviously raised the question what to do with the large number of 2A4’s? To begin with, it allowed the upgrading of some of the older supporting AFV’s, with the Marksman SPAAG being the most evident example. The 35 mm anti-aircraft system mounted on T-55AM hulls had already been mothballed, but was now brought back in service mounted on Leopard hulls. In addition, it opened up the possibility to increase the fighting value and/or number of Detached Armour Companies that are to be set up in case of mobilisation.

The latest decision was announced yesterday, with a number of Leopard 2A4’s moving out of Parolannummi.

Edit: As Capt. Mäenpää explained in his comment below, my interpretation of the press release was less than optimal.

Conscripts from four different brigades and the Army Academy will indeed get trained as tank crews on the Leopard 2A4 starting with I/17, with the stated aim being to provide a higher level of proficiency in working with armoured and mechanised units, as well as providing the opportunity for more varied training in different parts of the country. However, these units haven’t been complete strangers to MBT’s earlier, as limited numbers of T-54/55’s have served in the OPFOR role at the Jaeger  and Kainuu Brigades as well as in the Army Academy. The Karelia Brigade has included some Leopard’s in their wartime units’ TOE earlier as well, so these tanks have trained at the brigade earlier. The main news here is therefore that the OPFOR equipment is being upgraded (and possibly expanded in numbers?), which certainly is welcome, but not the kind of dramatic change that my first reading of the press release pointed to. Also, the CV9030 in Finnish service is unique to the Karelia Brigade.

In what I believe is a first in the history of the Finnish armoured forces, conscripts will from four different brigades and the Land Battle School will serve as tank crews, starting with the next contingent to step into service, I/17. This will provide a higher level of proficiency in working with armoured and mechanised units to the soldiers serving in the units now getting tanks, as well as providing the opportunity for more varied training in different parts of the country.With regards to the former, the Karelia and Kainuu Brigades train mechanised infantry with CV 9030 IFV’s, and the addition of integrated tank units are probably a welcome addition for them. Granted, there has been a small number of T-55’s attached to the units earlier (and some engineering vehicles), but no tank crews have been trained on them, and the T-55 is a far cry from the Leopard when it comes to sensors (and more or less any other aspect). The Jaeger Brigade and Land Battle School Army Academy probably places a higher importance on the possibility to vary their training, with e.g. the Jaeger Brigade’s anti-tank unit now being able to train against modern tanks on a regular basis in their home environment.

While not explicitly stated as a goal, the move will also make it possible to mobilise (small) tank units in different parts of the country, which increases resilience to surprise attacks, the importance of which has been emphasised by the Russian invasion of Crimea. All in all, the move will provide a number of benefits to the armed forces, both with regards to peacetime training and wartime service.

A tank target at Rovajärvi in the late 90’s, soon to be supplemented with the real deal. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Methem


Lectures in Kokkola – Frisk goes Live!

I am happy to announce that I will be holding two lectures in my hometown of Kokkola this autumn. These will be held as part of the courses provided by the National Defence Training Association of Finland (MPK), in particular its training and support unit in Middle-Ostrobothnia (Keski-Pohjanmaan KOTU). A well-trained and motivated reserve is one of the key pillars of the Finnish Defence Forces, and unfortunately the recent budget cuts have left a significant hole in the defence force’s ability to maintain the training level of the reserve. Partly to compensate for this, motivated reservists, simply called aktiiviressuja (“active reservists”) in Finnish, can apply to any of the varied courses MPK provides. These include everything from taking part in full-blown military exercises to civil defense courses such as first aid, oil-spill cleanup, and prepping (or why not try Operating and maintaining a chainsaw for women?). MPK does a stellar job in providing efficient and varied training of a high-quality despite having a very limited budget, and it is a great honour for me to be a small part of this important work!

My lectures will deal with topics familiar to the readers of the blog, with the first one held 13 October and covering Kaliningrad and the Baltic states. Those who have read my earlier post on the topic will undoubtedly recognise some of the material, but I will also aim to include enough new material to make it interesting, something which shouldn’t be too hard considering the rapid pace of development currently affecting defence and security in the greater Baltic region. One sub-topic which was not featured in the post at all is how a potential crises in the region would affect Finland, something which I believe will be of great interest to my listeners.

Information about the lecture and registration is found here, under the name “Kaliningrad ja Suwalkin aukko – Baltian avain / luentotilaisuus”.

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The second lecture, held on 10 November, will be a general overview of the future of the Finnish Navy. Naturally, a lot of focus will be on Squadron 2020. But while the reintroduction of large surface combatants into the Finnish Navy rightfully takes a lot of the limelight, a number of other interesting projects are also ongoing. These include the mid-life updates of the Hamina-class FAC and Pansio-class mineferries, as well as naval applications of the Patria NEMO. My stated goal is that the audience will get a picture not only of what will change for the navy in the near- and mid-term, but crucially why these changes will be implemented. Oh, and I can almost promise that the word panssarilaiva will be mentioned.

Information about the lecture and registration is found here, under the name “Laivue 2020 ja Merivoimien kehitysnäkymät / luentotilaisuus”.

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Both lectures are free of charge, and I will make sure to reserve time for questions and some discussion towards the end. I have received questions if the material will be available somewhere, and the short answer is “I hope so”. This depends on in what form I will have my speaking notes, but if I reckon that they can be of use in a stand-alone format, I will post them here on the blog afterwards.

Being aware that both topics are rather specialised, I will keep the baseline so that no background knowledge of the specific topic is required, and then build from there. Let’s put it like this: if you enjoy the blog, I believe you will enjoy the lectures as well.

P.s. RUMINT suggests that there just *might* be some coffee involved.