Guest Post: Accuracy of Freefall Aerial Bombing

Topias Uotila @THUotila is an active reservist and a student of warfare and security politics. Image: Excerpt with freefall aerial bombs. Original.

Accuracy of Freefall Aerial Bombing

It is said that freefall bombing is inaccurate, but that’s a very inaccurate thing to say – all pun intended.

Introduction

This article estimates with two methods how accurate modern freefall aerial bombing is. The methods don’t meet scientific standards, as the intent is rather to find a good rule of thumb for, for example, defense planning. We come to a conclusion that for bombs dropped from a non-harassed modern bomber at high altitude, for example over 5000 meters, a reasonable rule of thumb for CEP is 50 meters. The article consists of a literature study and an OSINT piece verifying the former.

My interest in the subject started when I gathered a crude dataset of different air launched weapons with, for example, ranges, carrying aircraft, weather requirements and accuracy. Most of the data is listed right on Wikipedia, but the accuracy of modern freefall bombing efforts was very elusive. It was unclear whether this is due to secrecy or the complex dependencies of accuracy to multiple variables.

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Most of the easy to find material handles the Second World War, but even then, the measures were more about mission success in total rather than accuracy of the bombing run.

Aerial Bombing

If you drop a stone, it will hit the point directly beneath it. But if you drop a shaped bomb from a freely moving airplane in conditions with varying wind and air pressure, calculating the point of impact becomes increasingly hard. If the wind and pressure conditions change during the flight path, calculating the trajectory beforehand becomes downright impossible. In reality there are even more sources for variance. Manually choosing the time of release is error prone, as is flying the aircraft at a constant level path and even the bombs may not be uniform or released at exactly the same moment. Sometimes dispersion is also sought after. It’s better to have eight bombs hit different parts of an area target than a single point.

To give an understanding of how much these variables affect the accuracy, let’s stop for two data points. During World War Two it was estimated that a three-degree change in heading at release lead to a 200-meter deviation at impact and a flight speed deviation from calculated of just a couple of kilometers per hour led the bombs astray for tens of meters.

Despite the complexities, I believed it has to be possible to have at least a statistical estimate of bombing accuracy or alternatively an accuracy function with a couple of the most important explaining variables, for example, drop altitude. These didn’t seem too secret, so I suspected that by asking on Twitter I would get at least mediocre sources. Naturally, I got more than I bargained for. To verify these further, I suspected I’d need to do some calculations of my own. Enter video footage from Syria, where Russia has used massive amounts of freefall bombs. I focused on a case study of two popular show reels of UAV recorded videos. The first video has likely one Su-25 run and one Su-24 run and the second video was presumably several Tu-22M3 only missions. The latter video was especially interesting as, since the plane type is a bomber, the strikes are certainly all from a relatively high altitude. My assumption is from 5.000 to 8.000 meters. By happenstance, Tu-22 is also the plane type I was most interested in to begin with.

Literature Study

During the past years USA has replaced almost all free fall bombs with JDAMs. The JDAM is a kit that is installed onto a conventional bomb. It makes the combination many times as expensive, but doesn’t differ in explosive or fragmentation potential. Conventional bombs cost a couple of thousands and a JDAM kit about 26.000 dollars. Thus, the JDAM has to be better in some other way. While there are a few possibilities, it’s relatively safe to assume the JDAM is more precise. With GPS the JDAM achieves a 5-meter CEP and without it a 30-meter. Thus, we get a lower boundary for the CEP of freefall bombing. If freefall bombing would be as accurate as a JDAM, JDAMs wouldn’t be used.

The Russian solution to the same need is the SVP-24, which is not an addition to the bomb, but rather a bombing computer added to the airplane. Thus, bombing with SVP-24 fulfills the definition of freefall bombing. Some Russian sources claim that they can achieve GPS guided JDAM level accuracies e.g. 3 to 7 meters with the SVP-24 in ideal conditions. They further claim, that even in battle conditions the accuracy would be on the level of 20 to 25 meters. While it is unclear if these accuracies mean the CEP, weaker accuracy measures are seldom used. Thus, these are very challenging claims to achieve. Personally, I find them hard to believe, but at least they add to our understanding and confidence of the maximum freefall bombing accuracy estimate.

Interestingly the same source estimates that bombing without such a computer has accuracies between 150 to 400 meters. Here, the high end, for a change, feels intuitively too large, as it corresponds to the maximums estimated in World War Two.

So, let’s look at that more historic data and begin from World War Two. The earliest estimate gives us a figure that only forty percent of the bombs hit a circle with radius of about 450 meters. This was before 1944 when the CEP was even introduced as the standard way of measuring accuracy in the US. When the new measure was introduced, the CEP accuracy had already improved to around 300 meters from the altitude of 5.000 meters using the B-17 and B-24 bombers.

One major invention behind accuracy improvement was likely the Norden bombsight. We can find a lot of data for it starting from testing in the 1930s. From an altitude of 1.200 meters a CEP of 11 meters was achieved in training. From higher up, they managed to achieve a 23-meter CEP. And when the set-up was moved to actual war, Air Corps achieved a 120-meter CEP from the altitude of 4.600 meters. Still zooming out and taking into account the whole attack, the bombs ended up on average 300 to 400 meters from the intended targets varying especially by unit and bombing altitude. Ending up on average 300 meters from the target is the practically the same thing as a 300-meter CEP – perfectly in line with the earlier measure for the B-17 and B-24.

During the war this inaccuracy made dive bombing an interesting choice for all belligerents. The Germans trained their crews for a CEP of 25 meters compared to 50 to 75 meters for level bombing. Both of these measures were expected to at least double in the heat of the battle. American efforts for dive bombing were on a similar level. As these figures for level bombing can roughly be stated as a CEP of 100 to 225 meters, they are a lot better than the ones presented for the Norden bombsight in the previous sources. This is likely due to combat being more challenging than what the bombing schools estimated.

The next data point that we have is a US estimate on the capabilities the Soviets could develop by the mid-60s. It’s a pretty safe assumption these are close to or slightly better compared to their own capabilities during the time of the writing. The best thing about these estimates is that they are presented as a function of bombing altitude making us able to draw that function.

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How accurate could the Soviets become by the mid-60s?

To summarize, the visual bombing improves with lower altitude a lot more than radar directed bombing and the best estimated accuracy is about 122 meters from an altitude of 3.000 meters. This gives us a total estimated range for CEP of 120 to 900 meters with CEP more than doubling when the altitude doubles.

Fast forward another decade to Vietnam and the bombs dropped by the F-105s achieved a CEP of 111 meters. This was when the airplanes were not shot at. The CEP increased to 136 meters under anti-aircraft artillery fire. Another report gives the A-1 a 90-meter and the F-4 a 150-meter CEP, when bombing from 600 meters of altitude. The difference is attributed to the faster speed of the F-4. The accuracy reverts back to World War Two levels of 300 meters during the night time or during adverse weather conditions. Yet another source states both this huge variance and my research problem painstakingly clearly by saying that the daily accuracy average ranges from 30 to 300 meters depending on tactics, target and weather. With radar bombing they managed to control some of the variance and get the accuracy to about 150 meters. The surprising thing is that this was considered as good as dive bombing accuracy, although the figures from World War Two for dive bombing already looked better.

Finally, the book “The Precision Revolution” gives a direct estimate of 61 meters for the CEP of US freefall bombing in 1990. Haven’t personally read the book, but Tuomo Rusila pointed this out in the previously mentioned Twitter discussion. It is good to keep in mind how dominant the US was in Iraq. However, it is quite probable, that the technology and techniques did improve dramatically from the Vietnam era. The rate of improvement has probably slowed down since the 90’s. Both due to diminishing marginal returns, but also due to the diminishing importance of freefall bombing.

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Summary of the data found in the literature study. There’s a lot of variance.

In conclusion, it’s difficult to believe any modern freefall bombing would achieve a lower than 25-meter CEP and on the other hand it seems quite proven that a 60-meter CEP can be achieved. Everything is naturally highly dependent on the conditions, skill and technology used.

OSINT

Next, we’ll compare these figures to what Russia has documented for us in Syria.

 

For the first strike, that I’m presuming to be done by a Su-25, we can identify three points of impact. The distances between the points range from 102 to 257 pixels in my original. At the same time, what I believe is a truck, is about 18 pixels long. If the truck is 8 meters in reality, the distances between the impacts are 45 and 114 meters. Calculating an exact CEP is not very fruitful with only three impact points. This is the only one of the strikes that I have currently geolocated and it’s at 36.407257°, 37.153259°. Looking at the distances Google gives, we get a rough validation for my estimates and subsequently proof that the truck is quite close to 8 meters.

In the second strike we can identify six points of impact. Using the road width as a reference point with presumably approximately 6 meters of width, we get a 68-meter distance between the furthest separated points of impact. However, looking at the location of the buildings, it’s likely that the aim point is close to the center of the frame or to the left from it, so all of the impacts are to the right and up from the aim point. I’m assuming this strike was carried out by a Su-24.

Let’s move on to the next video.

In the third strike, we finally see that in reality the CEP doesn’t describe how several freefall bombs behave, if dropped from the same airplane. Naturally, they do not disperse circularly, but elliptically. Before jumping to conclusions, it’s good to note that the second highest impact point is struck the last and noticeably later than the others. This is also why you can’t yet see an explosion in the still frame. Thus, it isn’t clear that the bombs would disperse a little, but are just spread out due to the movement of the dropping airplane and sequential release from the bombing shaft of the Tu-22.

Unfortunately, this image has no terrain features I could recognize and measure against. But since the explosions looks comparably the same size as in the other strikes and the different freefall bombs used by Russia shouldn’t differ much in that sense, I’m inclined to believe this strike has about the same dispersion as the others.

The next two images are from a large strike against an area target. Since the images are from two different segments of the video, it’s possible they are not even from the same day. At least one can’t see some of the smoke from the first segment in the following one. In addition to these images, there were several other runs on the target. While in the case of an area target, dispersion might be sought after, it’s notable how large the dispersion is. The building marked with the red line in both images is in fact quite huge. This can be seen from the following zoom in.

My estimate is that it should be at least 40 meters in length, which makes the distances between the individual explosions in each of the bombings to be at least 100 meters and up to 300 meters.

Fifth strike is again hard to measure due to lack of measurable features. The lines might be trenches making them about 1 meter wide. Again, the dispersion feels to be on a familiar level. The actual target of the strike might be some pillboxes or sandbag fortifications.

In the final strike we have another area target with low accuracy. Again, this may be intentional. However, the building in the middle looks like some kind of an industrial hall, which should be at least 20 meters in length. In the image it is 55 pixels long. As the maximum distance between two impact points is 629 pixels, these are then approximately 229 meters apart. As we have at least eight impact points, it’s finally somewhat meaningful to also approximate the CEP for this particular strike. We can fit half, i.e. four of the impact points, within about 80 meters of an imaginary aim point somewhere in the average of these impacts.

Conclusion and Discussion on Errors and Further Studies

Looks like in the videos the Russians aren’t quite achieving the 61-meter CEP USA claims to have achieved in 1990. The equipment may be worse, the dispersion may be intentional or USA might have inflated their accuracies. However, it’s clear there’s no magical 3-meter accurate SVP-24 in play. I’m still inclined to believe that the Americans’ achievement could be surpassed now almost 30 years after. Also, as it is better to be safe than sorry in the context of defense planning, I’m advocating a 50-meter CEP as a good rule of thumb for freefall aerial bombings.

Whole different question is then how accurate you need to be? Depends not just on the bomb, but also on the target. If you don’t score a direct hit on a tank, it’s going to be very difficult to harm it. If you get within tens of meters from an unarmored fellow standing upright, he’s pretty much dead. Fragments from a modern bomb can fly for hundreds of meters, but it’s always also random whether you get hit by one. Then again, the attacker might deploy a cluster or an incendiary bomb, making the calculation totally different.

There were several sources of error and inaccuracies in this study that would need to be eliminated for a scientific article. The sources in the literature study may be motivated to lie in either direction, but especially the OSINT-part would benefit from more analysis. First of all, the Russians are certainly selecting only successful mission videos to publish. Second, several of the frames are so tight that far away misses are outside the camera angle. Like mentioned, we’d need to know the aim point to estimate not just the relative dispersion but the actual deviation and CEP from the target. I’m pretty sure, we can’t assume the UAV camera crosshairs are pointed at the target point. These errors mostly make the strikes look more accurate in this study than they are in reality.

Third area of errors is the level of effort I personally put into the analysis. In many of the strikes it looks like there are more impacts close to each other that might be discerned with a frame by frame analysis. Taking these into account would generally improve the CEP. Also, I could’ve used real math in finding out the weighted averages of the impact points instead of just measuring the maximum distances between them. Similarly, real OSINT geolocation could’ve been used in finding out the real dimensions of the distance reference features. These errors could change the end result in either direction. Unfortunately, I could find only one of the strikes from the Bellingcat database of geolocated Russian strikes in Syria. Also I didn’t quickly find anything on Google Maps around Palmyra matching the second video.

In conclusion, I suggest using the mentioned 50-meter CEP in your work as a rule of thumb. It’s a conservative estimate from the defender’s viewpoint. However, if you still need more accuracy in accuracy estimates, please go on with the research and let me know of your results, too!

BYOT (Bring your own turret)

The Patria AMV continues its run as the greatest Finnish defence export success since, well, the Sisu/Patria XA-series it replaced. Latest in the run is an agreement with Slovakia, which aims to procure 81 vehicles based on the latest AMVXP version equipped with a locally-manufactured unmanned turret, the Turra 30. The Turra isn’t new to the AMV, as a joint Slovak-Polish project in the form of the Scipio concept married the Turra 30 to a Polish Rosomak back in 2015.

The agreement now signed covers a “testing phase in Slovakia, and after the Slovakian test period the vehicle will be tested in Finland during this winter”, following which the eventual procurement decision will be made. However, the interesting part is that Patria’s land business unit’s president Mika Kari stated that the aim is “a new version of an amphibious AMVXP integrated with Turra weapon system fulfilling requirements of both Slovakian and Finnish Defence Forces”.

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Finnish Patria AMV with a remote weapons station sporting a heavy machine gun. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI

The proper armament of modern wheeled armoured personnel carriers is an evergreen debate, which has been up here on the blog as well. One school argues for equipping them with heavy weaponry, which allows them to become infantry fighting vehicles in the vein of tracked compatriots such as the classic BMP-2 or more modern M2 Bradley and CV90. Others see this as a waste of money and added weight (i.e. loss of mobility), and argue for keeping them as “battle taxis” instead, allowing the infantry to reach the battlefield at speed while staying protected from shrapnel and light weapons. So far the Finnish Defence Forces has stuck with not arming wheeled platforms with anything heavier than heavy machine guns, while the tracked BMP-2 and CV9030 are able to stay in the fight and support their dismounted infantry with 30 mm rounds.

Slovakia apparently wants to go another route, and the Turra is able to bring a 30 mm gun backed up by a 7.62 mm machine gun and anti-tank missiles, either of western or Russian design (the combinations being Mk 44 Bushmaster II/FN Minimi/Spike or 2A42/PKT/9M113 Konkurs respectively). There is nothing out of the ordinary with this, but what is interesting is the reference to the “Finnish requirement”.

So far there has been no official requirement from the Finnish Defence Forces to get an upgunned AMV, nor have any money been allocated for such a deal, and frankly one would believe there are more pressing demands/better returns on investment (aka more bang for buck). As such, the promised winter testing and vague talk about fulfilling Finnish requirements does feel like marketing talk.

The big question is if Finland eventually would decide to buy an upgunned AMV, either for homeland defence or in small numbers for international operations, would the Turra 30 be the right choice? On paper it is a nice piece of kit, but it is hard not notice the fact that it is entering a very crowded market. For heavy firepower, the AMV has so far been fielded operationally with the Leonardo HITFIST turret in Polish service, the Denel MCT-30 in South African service, the Slovenians use the Elbit UT30 on their AMV’s, and it is currently being evaluated for the Australian Land 400 program with the BAE E35 mounting a 35 mm gun. There is also the more exotic marriage of a BMP-3 turret to a lengthened AMV-hull, which provide coaxially mounted 100 mm and 30 mm guns, a light machine gun, and the ability to fire ATGM’s. In short, everyone wants to integrate their own solution to their autocannon requirements, really putting the ‘M’ in ‘AMV’ to the test.

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Of these, the obvious choice for a Finnish requirement would be the BAE-Hägglunds E-series turret, which is in essence the one fitted to all export CV90’s, and then in the slightly lighter E30-form with the 30 mm Bushmaster and not the heavier 35 mm favoured by a handful of countries. This would allow for significant commonality with the Finnish CV9030-vehicles, and while the AMV and CV9030 aren’t expected to serve in the same unit, spares commonality has never hurt.

The Turra 30 might certainly be a very capable system, but in the case we suddenly end up with it in Finnish service, it is hard to see it as anything but a poorly veiled case of industrial offset commitments.

Meripuolustuspäivä 2017 – Maritime Defence Day

The annual Finnish maritime defence day jointly arranged by the Navy and the Naval Reserve took place in Turku this year, and with a record-breaking audience. The program followed the established form, with lectures on the state of the Navy and the Reserve, as well as a panel discussion on current topics. On the whole, the Baltic Sea has become more important strategically and militarily over the last decade, but the current year has so far been relatively calm when compared to the last few ones.

Vice admiral Veijo Taipalus, commander of the Finnish Navy. Source: Own picture

As readers of the blog all know by now, the Navy is living in exciting times. The Pansio-class MLU is finishing up, after which the focus will shift to the MLU of the four Hamina-class fast attack craft. As has been reported earlier, the vessels will gain a serious anti-submarine capability in the form of light torpedoes. The big problem is still their lack of endurance and a room for growth, and I haven’t seen an answer to whether the needed ASW sensors and weaponry can be carried together with a full complement of missiles. The limited ice-going capability also won’t be going anywhere, which nicely brings us back to Squadron 2020 and it’s design.
 

Some ask if it’s too big for our archipelago.

It isn’t.

The noteworthy thing about the project was in many ways the lack of any spectacular news, in that everything seems to be fine. The acquisition enjoys broad political support, and is moving on according to schedule. This in turn means that the upcoming year will bring quite a number of interesting developments, with a number of key contracts awaiting awardment as well as procurement decisions to be made. Bigger news was perhaps last week’s speech by the chief of defence, general Lindberg, who noted that the Navy’s identified need was for six to eight vessels. Still, I won’t be holding my breath for a political decision to increase the size of the project.

The coat of arms of Pohjanmaa, here seen on the walls of Heikkilä sotilaskoti, will soon grace the first SQ2020-vessel. Source: Own picture

In the mid-term, the last fixed coastal guns are closing in on their due date. The 130 TK is a highly advanced weapon for it’s class, with a surprisingly high level of protection thanks to being embedded in the granite of the Finnish archipelago. Still, there’s no way around the fact that their fixed positions hamper their survivability. Following their eventual retirement there will be a gap between the long-range surface-to-surface missiles of the ongoing PTO2020 procurement and the short-range RO2006 (Eurospike-ER). Exactly how this firepower gap for intermediate range and/or targets of medium size will be solved is still open, though it was noted (without further details) that there are some “impressive capabilities” found amongst modern anti-tank missiles. Might this be a reference to the Spike-NLOS as a replacement for the 130 TK? The quoted range of “up to 30 km” isn’t too far off from that of the 130 TK.

Like the rest of the defence forces, the Navy is placing ever bigger importance on international cooperation. Sweden, being the main partner, received considerable praise, but also the increased cooperation with other Baltic Sea States was noted, with Estonia being singled out as a partner of growing importance. Next year’s main focus is obviously the major international exercise Northern Coasts, or NOCO18, which will be hosted by Finland during the autumn.  Turku is the main base of operations, and will also host the main event earlier next year when the Navy celebrate its centennial.

Second after readiness, NOCO is the main focus of the Navy at the moment.

For the Naval Reserve, things are moving on in a steady but unspectacular fashion. The umbrella organisation itself celebrated 20 years in 2017, though several of the member organisations outrank it in seniority. Oldest is the Rannikkosotilaskotiyhdistys, responsible for the soldiers’ canteens of the Navy, coming in at a respectable 99 years.

Rannikkosotilaskotiyhdistys has saved the day for many a young conscripts with a cup of coffee and a munkki (sweet doughnut). Their work for maintaining the morale of the troops should not be underestimated. Source: Own picture

Originally modelled after the German Soldatenheim, the Finnish sotilaskoti have been around since the very early days of independence, and the naval branch got deservedly decorated for their stellar service to the Navy and its servicemen and -women.

In the end, it’s probably good that we haven’t got anything more exciting to tell you about…

Until next year!

Review: 2017 War with Russia

When I first heard of this book last year, I was immediately thrilled. A senior officer with recent insight into NATO’s inner workings writing a modern-day techno thriller of all-out war in the Baltic states, this was bound to be a great read! Right?

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The preface promised great things as well. The author reflects upon the Russian invasion of Ukraine and how this transformed the European security order. At the time, he was Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR), in short NATO’s number two military officer in Europe, offering a unique insight into how this monumental moment was viewed from inside the organisation.

As my fellow commander and I watched, we all knew who those vehicles belonged to and who was operating them. But proving it was another thing […] and we couldn’t even consider doing anything to counter it as Ukraine was not a member of NATO.

Unfortunately, the preface is probably the strongest part of the book in my opinion. My understanding is that this is sir Shirreff’s first book, and unfortunately the storytelling of the novel is not up there amongst the classics of the genre. The general outline is interesting, but when it comes to execution many of the characters and attempts to flesh out the story feels like cliches we’ve all seen before.

But while the hero might be predictable, all women beatiful, and all British politicians scheming and uninterested in national security, the book retains one undisputable quality which kept me hooked to the end: this is likely the best non-academic look into the inner workings of NATO available at the moment. While reading the book, I constantly reflected upon what the retired general is trying to tell his audience, and how much of the thoughts expressed by the characters at the strategic level reflect those found at Number 10, in the White House, and Casteau. Perhaps even more interesting is the picture painted of Putin’s personality, presumably mirroring rather closely how his personality is seen amongst the higher echelons of NATO. Certainly sir Shirreff is leaving some things out to maintain OPSEC and putting his own personal spin on others, but at the same time the purpose of his writing does shine through and is nicely summed up in the subtitle: “An urgent warning from senior military command”. I appreciate that by putting this warning in the form of a novel, he achieves two things he would otherwise not have done: reaching new audiences, and being able to “go for it” in a way he would not have been able to if he had written a non-fiction text.

In the end, I don’t regret spending a few euros to get the Kindle-edition of the novel, and I did highlight quite a few passages when reading. If you belong to the (arguably not huge) group of people interested in national security and related questions, you might very well find it an interesting read. But as a novel, I would unfortunately not recommend it. However, if you are still interested in what general sir Shirreff has to say (and I highly recommend that you do), head over to Youtube where a number of interesting interviews and speeches are found, such as this one by the Brookings Institute.

Ørland’s new birds

Two years ago I sat in my car on the parking lot of a supermarket in Oulu watching the unveiling of the first Norwegian F-35A on my phone. Last week I again sat glued to the phone, this time in my kitchen, watching the first three F-35’s land at Ørland hovedflystasjon (Ørland main air force base), located close to Trondheim in central Norway.

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RNoAF F-35A before take off from Fort Worth for the 10+ hour flight to Norway. Source: Lockheed Martin / Forsvaret

Why the obsession with the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s new fighter? Well, for anyone interested in the Finnish HX-program, Norway’s new fighter will be an important pointer. As with the F-16 program, Norway decided to be a program partner from the outset, with the F-35 beating the (then very much paper-plane) Gripen NG in a competition, which to be fair has been criticised as having been pure political theatre. Possible dishonesty aside, it is clear that Norway was happy with their experience with being a launch partner of the F-16, and wanted to recreate the success story with the F-35.

What is also clear is that the Finnish way of buying already operational solutions rely on countries ready to take the proverbial leap of faith. What sets Norway aside from most other F-35 customers is that the Norwegian Air Force is a well-known quantity for their Finnish colleagues thanks to the more or less continuous cross-border training the two countries (and Sweden) take part in, and having airfields next to the Atlantic at the 64th parallel means that snow and icy runways are no strangers to the Norwegians.

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An F-16B forming up with the three F-35’s as they approach the Norwegian coastline. Source: Helge Hopen / Forsvaret

So far the Norwegians have been happy to share their experience with the fighter, with major Morten ‘Dolby’ Hanchen being one of the most prominent voices of the growing F-35 community. He not only briefed Finnish media representatives when they visited Luke AFB this year, but has also written extensive and very informative texts explaining the criticism found in DOT&E reports.

As such, the Finnish Air Force is likely to keep a keen eye on the Norwegian experiences with operating and maintaining the stealth fighter in subarctic conditions. While a reduction in the force structure means that the northern F-16 base at Bodø was closed and the fighters will be consolidated to Ørland, a forward QRA detachment at Evenes AFB outside of Narvik will certainly put the planes to the test. Expect some high profile visitors to Norway in 2018.

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One of Ørland’s new birds resting at their new home. Source: Torbjørn Kjosvold / Forsvaret

 

Finnish Recognition of Catalan Independence

 

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Source: Jordi Rovira via Wikimedia Commons

The unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan authorities naturally has continued to fan the flames of the conflict. A surprising sidetrack appeared when Finnish MP Mikko Kärnä congratulated the Catalans and declared his intent to bring the question before the Finnish parliament next week.

Kärnä’s support for Catalan independence is nothing new, and he has earlier been on the receiving end of threats by the Spanish ambassador, who threatened that Spain wouldn’t support Finland in case the country would one day need “solidarity”.

The tweet was quickly blown out of proportion, with a number of media outlets declaring Finland being ready to go against the stated EU policy of giving Madrid their full support. These include Sunday Express, who seems to have been the first to headline with Finland preparing to go against EU, as well as Scottish The National.

It is understandable that a non-Finnish news outlet would find the story plausible upon first inspection. Kärnä is a member of the Finnish PM Sipilä’s Centre Party, and due to Finnish history the principle of right to national self-determination enjoys broad support amongst the population.

This superficial look however misses the larger picture. To begin with the Finnish government has throughout the crisis expressed it’s clear support for the Spanish government, with FM Soini usually being the one who does the talking. Kärnä isn’t a heavyweight in Finnish politics (he only entered parliament upon the decision by fellow party member Paavo Väyrynen to remain in Brussels as a MEP), and that he could muster enough support to force the government’s hand against his own party leadership seems unlikely. Finnish popular support for a Catalan state is harder to judge, as most people treat the question with indifference, but there seems to be no room for whipping up a popular movement to force the hand of the Finnish government.

However, what makes the whole thing even less likely is the fact that the decision to recognise the independence of countries does not rest with the Finnish parliament, but with the president himself, who does so in consultation with the government. Kärnä recognises this, and is himself open with the purpose of his move being to put pressure on the government to raise the issue with president Niinistö.

President Niinistö in turn is known for not making hasty or controversial decisions when it comes to foreign policy. Considering the important role EU solidarity occupies in Finnish national security thinking, it is doubtful if he would go ahead with a move that is so clearly contrary to the wishes of the EU leadership even in case of support from the government. That he would do such a move against the wishes of the government is more or less unthinkable.

Cruise Missiles for HX

From the outset the Finnish Defence Forces have been stating that they are not replacing a multirole fighter (and thus buying a new one), but instead they are replacing the capabilities of it (and thus buying a new one to provide the same capabilities as the old one). This might look like semantics, but was suddenly brought to the forefront when the RFI for weapons and external sensors was sent out.

Short background: the current Finnish Hornet-fleet sport five different weapon types (plus an internal gun). The AIM-9 Sidewinder (in L- and X-versions) provide short-range air-to-air capability, while the AIM-120C provide medium-range air-to-air capability. With the MLU2 air-to-ground weapons have been brought in as well. The JDAM-series of guidance kits are fitted to ordinary 225, 450, and 900 kg bombs (official designations then being GBU-38, GBU-32, and GBU-31 respectively). These use a combination of internal navigation (INS) and GPS to provide accurate hits on the target. The main problem is that hitting moving targets doesn’t really work, which have prompted the creation of other guidance kits sporting laser guidance in combination with INS and/or GPS. These have however not been acquired by Finland. Also, the range is short, and in practice the fighter has to overfly the target. Still, the JDAM is cheap and reliable, and has proved a favourite in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Time will tell if the recent GPS-jamming incidents will cause issues for weapons which rely on GPS for navigation and/or target acquisition.

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Finnish F/A-18C Hornet upgraded to the MLU2-standard displaying AIM-9X and AIM-120C air-to-air missiles as well as JDAM and AGM-158 JASSM air-to-surface weapons. Source: Ilmavoimat
A solution to getting more range out of a bomb is to fit it with wings, which leads to the AGM-154 JSOW. The JSOW feature folding wings which deploys after launch, letting the weapon glide towards the target. Three different versions are found, of which two hold submunitions (‘cluster bombs’), while the third is a single BROACH-warhead. The BROACH feature a two-stage warhead where a small(ish) shaped charge first blows a hole in the target, which the main warhead the flies through and detonates on the inside of (see this Australian clip of a live-fire test, the slow-motion entry is found at the 0:54 mark). For improved accuracy the AGM-154C with the BROACH feature an infrared seeker for terminal guidance. In Finnish service the JSOW is something of an enigma, with both the number of weapons and version acquired being unclear to me. I had originally thought the JSOW had been acquired in a very limited number for test and evaluation purposes only in case the JASSM wouldn’t be cleared for export, but during Ruska17 it was mentioned as part of the Finnish arsenal. It seems likely that a small number of AGM-154C JSOW are found as a cheaper mid-range solutions for targets which might be too well-defended for a JDAM-run. The big problem with the JSOW is that as it lacks an engine, its range is highly dependent on the speed and height of the aircraft when launched.

The silver bullet in the Finnish airborne arsenal is the AGM-158 JASSM. The JASSM feature a 450 kg penetrating warhead in the form of the WDU-42/B, and is powered by a small jet engine giving it significantly longer range than the JDAM and JSOW. The cruise missile is stealthy, and navigates by combining GPS and INS during flight, before switching on a IR-seeker for terminal guidance. It is a smart weapon even by modern standards, and dives towards the target at different angles depending on the amount of penetration needed (steeper for harder targets such as bunkers). All this also makes the weapon rather expensive, with the DSCA listing the Finnish request for up to 70 weapons at an estimated value of 255 million USD.

These are the capabilities to be replaced: the ability to shoot down enemy aircraft at different ranges, and to strike hard but not necessarily moving targets at all ranges.

It is important to remember that the weapons work already before release, in that any potential attacker has to calculate with the Finnish Air Force being able to launch a strike taking out key installations such as bridges and command bunkers deep behind enemy lines without ever being close to these. The psychological effect of the nagging knowledge that when getting inside a few hundred kilometers of the frontline you are always under threat should not be underestimated.

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An F-35C Lighting II conducts separation tests of an AGM-154 JSOW. The white dots are photo calibration markings. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Dane Wiedmann via Wikimedia Commons
The press release on the RFI was rather bland, but Jarmo Huhtanen of Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat had an interesting interview with engineering brigadier general Kari Renko. Renko dropped a very interesting comment, which will have huge consequences for the HX-program.

We won’t go down the route of starting to develop the integration of machine and weapon. We’re buying missiles, their documentation, transportation containers, training, and so forth.

He also mentions that the weapons and sensors will account for roughly a tenth of the total budget, i.e. in the neighbourhood of 700 million to 1 billion Euros. A second interview with program manager Lauri Puranen (retired FiAF major general) in Finnish paper Talouselämä takes a slightly different view, putting the total weapon cost at 10-20% of the total value, i.e. 700 million to 2 billion Euros, though he notes that there is no idea in buying the whole stock immediately upon ordering the fighters, as the weapons have limited shelf life (this might explain the difference their estimates). This sounds about right for providing a small stock of short- and medium-ranged air-to-air missiles and a few different air-to-ground weapons. A short mention of DSCA cost estimates for similar weapons from recent years.

It must be said that this is a very Finnish way of making defence acquisitions. Buying just behind the cutting edge, at the (hopefully) sweet spot where the R&D work is done and the true costs are known while still modern enough to be considered high-tech. The package above comes in at 1.08 billion Euros and would be something of a bare minimum (e.g. 64 fighters would get an average of 4.7 AMRAAMS each, meaning that after the first wave was launched there wouldn’t be any reloads to talk about). The Finnish order is also likely to be more air-to-air heavy than the mix above would be.

It also means that if Renko (who have his roots in the Air Force) is to be taken literally, the HX-field will be turned upside down.

The air-to-air part is no problem, all contenders have sufficient missiles integrated. Guided bombs are also found, though in most cases not JDAM’s but rather laser or hybrid laser/GPS/INS-guided ones. It is questionable if the JSOW is actually needed as the Goldilock-solution between a guided bomb and a cruise missile, and if it is a priority to be bought at the beginning of the project. In any case, it is fully integrated on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, while the Rafale feature the AASM ‘Hammer’-series of modular guidance/propulsion kits which include interesting versions that also exist in the middle ground between guided bombs and ‘true’ missiles.

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A Rafale C in flight equiped with wingtip Mica IR air-to-air missiles, 2000 ltr drop tank on inboard station and SCALP-EG (Storm Shadow in British service) cruise missile on the outer station. Source: © Alex Paringaux courtesy of Dassault Aviation
The big dealbreaker is the cruise missile. If Renko means business, that the HX need to have a long-range cruise missile with a serious penetrating warhead ready by the time it reaches full operational capability in the 2029-2031 time span, two of the top-contenders have a problem at their hands.

The Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon both sport the joint-French/English SCALP/Storm Shadow. This is a highly potent weapon in the same class as the JASSM, including a stealthy design, and is combat proven over Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The Rafale already carry the weapon, while the Typhoon is about to get it as part of the P3E upgrade currently underway. As such, both should welcome the news that this is a requirement.

The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet just might get a pass, as it sport the Harpoon-based SLAM-ER with a 360 kg WDU-40/B titanium-reinforced penetrating blast warhead. The SLAM-ER feature many of the same capabilities as the JASSM (though being lighter and shorter-legged), and is the US Navy’s answer to the gap created in their inventory when they dropped out of the JASSM-program. The fighter is also in the process of getting the AGM-158C LRASM, the anti-shipping derivative of the JASSM, which might offer a possibility to fast-track AGM-158A/B integration once complete.

JAS 39C/D Gripen have no long-range ground attack capability. This will be remedied by the upcoming Rb 15F-ER which while developed from the RBS15F anti-ship missile will also have a secondary land-attack capability. However, the weapons main use and roots are shown by the warhead which is a 200 kg blast fragmentation one. Excellent for ships, but despite having delayed fusing options this likely lacks the penetration to be able to take on hardened targets.

The F-35 is the other big question mark, with the JASSM not confirmed for the fighter. It has been cancelled for the Block 4, with one spokeswoman saying they “expect it” in the Block 5 timeframe which “is expected to begin in 2024”. The scope of Block 5 is still undecided, with one aviation journalist describing it’s status as “just a collection of tech that didn’t make the cut for Block 4“. RAF/RN had originally planned for the Storm Shadow to equip their F-35’s, but has since dropped it. As such, the F-35 have no confirmed cruise missile for hardened targets at the moment. The one missile which is confirmed is the JSM, which like the Rb 15F-ER is an anti-ship missile with secondary land-attack capability, and which also feature a 200 kg combined blast and fragmentation warhead. Manufacturing partner Raytheon is happy to call it “the only fifth-generation cruise missile that will be integrated on the F-35”, which is likely more of a marketing line than an indication of the company sitting on information that the JASSM has been cancelled for the F-35.

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Taurus KEPD 350 displayed together with the JAS 39D Gripen at the Tour de Sky airshow in Kuopio, Finland, back in 2016. Source: Own picture
The answer to the Gripen’s woes would have been the Taurus KEPD 350. The joint Swedish-German missile is carried by German Tornadoes, Spanish EF-18 Hornets, and (soon) South Korean F-15 Eagles. Preliminary flights have been undertaken by the Gripen (and the Eurofighter for Spanish and German needs), but the missile was never integrated on the 39C/D, and it’s future as part of the 39E’s arsenal is still unclear. The Swedish then-government/now-opposition signalled back in 2014 that they “want cruise missiles on the new Gripen”, though it has never been clear whether this means the RBS15F or some heavier land-attack missile. In any case, no firm order for KEPD 350 integration onto the Gripen has been made, and it is difficult to see a Brazilian requirement for it. The KEPD 350 is however actively marketed as an option for the Gripen by Saab.

While Puranen’s cost estimate of the weapon package might be higher than Renko’s, he is of the same opinion when it comes to integration costs.

Our position is that the aircraft suppliers are responsible for the integration of the weapons found in their offers, and that the costs for this are included in the offer.

This leaves Lockheed-Martin and Saab with something of a conundrum. Unless JASSM or another suitable missile is confirmed for integration before 2030 by another paying customer, and unless this confirmation comes before the final offers are made in 2021, the companies will have to include the complete integration costs when calculating their bids to Finland. Obviously the majority of the costs will be funneled back directly to their HX-bid (TANSTAAFL), while the Rafale and the Typhoon will be able to make their offers without this additional cost (or at the very least with a significantly reduced one). It also raises the question which missile they should choose to offer. While there has been much speculation about keeping the JASSM’s, their shelf-life does in fact end about the time the Hornets are withdrawn.

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Gripen E model in Finnish colours displayed by Saab at a Finnish air show. The model is armed with Rb 15F, Irist-T air-to-air missiles, and JASSM. Source: Own picture
Saab has been marketing a willingness to integrate the JASSM if Finland requests so. However, if they are free to offer the long-range strike option in whichever form they want, doing so by integrating their own Taurus instead of Lockheed-Martin’s JASSM might certainly be tempting, especially as the Taurus offer some unique gimmicks such as the ability to detonate at a specific pre-set floor. Another possible solution which might be tempting for both manufacturers would be to develop penetrating 500-lbs warheads for the JSM and Rb 15F-ER, as this might turn out to be a cheaper solution than integrating a completely new weapon. Still, when it comes to penetrating warheads, mass matters, and it is clear that this would be an inferior solution compared to heavyweights such as the JASSM, Storm Shadow/SCALP, or Taurus.