A Northern Heavy-lift

I have traditionally been rather sceptic of some of the more innovative new capabilities suggested for the Finnish Defence Forces on Twitter. The issue is usually money, and in particular that with a number of gaping holes in the budget the money available could usually be better spent on more conservative endeavours. Today, however, a rather interesting suggestion appeared.


Now, before you (yes, especially you Army officers) move one to more realistic proposals, hear me out on what make this proposal more interesting than, say, a multi-national amphibious division.

Vertical Movement

It is no secret that both Finland and Sweden like airborne movement of light infantry. Sweden have their own airmobile battalion in the 31. Btn of the Life Regiment Hussars K 3, while in Finland several units, including the special jaegers of the Border Guards (who have their own helicopter wing), the paras of the Utti Jaeger Regiment, and the different readiness units spread out over the country, all regularly train with helicopters. The benefits are obvious. A helicopter will get you from point A to point B quickly, especially through rugged terrain the difference compared to ground transport is significant. It also needs a relatively small open space to be able to land on, and the units transported need relatively little training compared to the traditional way of doing vertical movement by parachuting people out of airplanes.

Of course there are issues as well. Helicopters are relatively squishy (though not as badly as some of their detractors suggest), and expensive to operate. While the units being transported need relatively little training, crewing the helicopters on the other hand is a very complex and demanding task. This means that there will always be a limited number of helicopters available, while at the same time their utility means that they will always be in high demand. The end-result means that it is risky for any commander to count upon having helicopter support when requested.

Nordic Operations

Three Bell 412 SP helicopters of the 339 SQD, Royal Norwegian Air Force. Source: Ole-Sverre Haugli / Forsvaret

Both the Finnish and Swedish Defence Forces use the NH90 for tactical transports, with the Swedish Air Force also use the UH-60M Blackhawk in the same role. While Norway operate both the NH90 and the EH 101 Merlin, they are mainly reserved for maritime roles, with the main tactical transport being the venerable Bell 412 SP. While the Bell 412 certainly is a considerable improvement compared to the Vietnam-era UH-1D, it is still a relatively old and light system, hauling a maximum of 11 passengers and an underslung load of 1,500 kg maximum.

The Finnish Defence Forces officially states that NH90 is capable of transporting 16 passengers and has an underslung capacity of 3,000 kg, while the Swedish Air Force is happy to cram in an even twenty passengers, or half that number if the soldiers bring their gear with them. This highlights an important point in airborne operations: light infantry don’t travel light, and certainly not if they are planning on doing a lot of fighting.

The setup of a regular Finnish jaeger company, sporting 268 or 297 soldiers depending on if it has three or four jaeger platoons on strength. Which boxes do you leave at home if you’re on a lift with a dozen helicopters? Source: Jääkärijoukkueen ja -ryhmän käsikirja 2018

Especially if one starts looking at support weapons or want a serious amount of ammunition and supplies brought along, it quickly becomes evident that ten NH90s or Bell 412s won’t allow for much in the way of Operation Market (though a remake of Operation Deadstick just might be possible).

Increasing the number and/or size of helicopters have always been felt as being too expensive, and it is a great irony that only thanks to the serious delays of the NH90-program the Swedish force actually has the largest inventory of medium transports of the three countries. However, there are a few reasons why a tri-nation heavy lift force could work.

The Case for Heavy Lift

The utility of even a limited number of heavy-lift helicopters is obvious. Case in point being the famous Chinook Bravo November of the Falklands War, where the single surviving Chinook of the British forces, flew 1,500 troops and 550 tons of cargo during the conflict. Less well-known is the fact that this distinguished old lady is still in active use, and has seen service both in Iraq and Afghanistan, though now upgraded to HC.4 standard.

A British Chinook coming in to drop off not one but two 105 mm light guns during an exercise in Oman. Source: MoD / PO[Phot]Lewis.S.J. via Wikimedia Commons

A heavy-lift helicopter is able to significantly add to the combat value of an airmobile unit, either in the form of more soldiers, a single Chinook could lift a platoon of jaegers by itself, or by carrying significantly more supplies to the battlefield. This also includes items too heavy for the NH90, with an underslung load up to and above 10,000 kg being possible (depending on fuel and other cargo).

Crucially, while joint-units outside of an alliance are something of a risk, shared transport assets have proved feasible. The Heavy Airlift Wing at Pápa have proved to be a successful concept, and one which all three countries are involved in. While not a one-to-one comparison, a similar-ish setup with say fifteen helicopters spread over the three countries (five national helicopters each) would allow for on average three being operational in each country at any given time, as well as allowing for dry- or wet-lease of the other countries’ assets in times of need. This could include both during international missions, where heavy helicopters are a sought after capability, or during national emergencies such as the large forest fires which plagued Sweden this summer.

While operating a small force of heavy helicopters alone would quickly become expensive due to the fixed cost, this kind of shared unit would offer economics of scale, and also provide an excellent building block in case an escalating crisis calls for rapid expansion of airborne capabilities. The CH-47 (there are really only two options, so we’ll just predict that the CH-47F and CH-53K would meet in a fly-off were the former would win) is also everything the NH90 wasn’t, being a tried and tested design supported by a large number of flying units, both in Europe and worldwide. This makes international cooperation (and possible expansion) relatively straightforward and cheap.

The Questions to be Solved

What are then the pitfalls that need to be avoided for this to work?

To begin with there’s always the question of workshare. With the NH90 Patria is a major service hub, and it is entirely possible that other actors would place significant pressure on local politicians in the other countries to ensure that they would get more of the work done domestically. Splitting maintenance and other support functions might mean that the envisioned economics of scale evaporate.

An even greater risk is nationalised versions. Very few joint procurements have actually succeeded in producing a situation where the same product is bought by all involved. The nightmare scenario would be one country dropping out, one buying the Chinook, and the other getting the King Stallion.

The biggest question is still the hard numbers. Keen readers will have noted that I haven’t mentioned any sums here, as truth be told I am not in a position to estimate the share each country would have to pay to operate a third of a Chinook-unit. It might very well be overly expensive, and would need some serious calculations before any commitments are made. Some funds would have to come from outside the defence budgets, as all countries’ defence forces are on extremely tight budgets already. As the helicopters would be valuable assets for emergency services and as part of disaster relief efforts domestically and internationally, having the ministries of interior and foreign affairs respectively provide part of the funding would likely be a must for this to work.

All in all it is a long shot. But it just might be worth looking into.

Review: Modern Chinese Warplanes – Chinese Air Force & Naval Aviation

Harpia is doing an update for their Modern Chinese Warplanes-book, something which is certainly needed, considering how things have changed during the last six years. The update also splits the original into several volumes according to branch. The Naval Aviation volume came out during the spring, while the Air Force one is hot off the printers. Army Aviation will then follow in April 2019.

From a Finnish (or even European viewpoint), China is largely a trading partner with a rather poor human rights record. Great power struggles in the Pacific and Thucydides traps are far away both geography-wise and psychologically. As such I will admit that my understanding of Chinese military aviation is rather limited, and the books filled a much needed void in my bookshelf.

In case anyone has missed it, China is rapidly starting to produce modern aircraft in a host of different classes, including both high-profile fighters such as the J-20 and lesser-known projects such as the Y-20 transport. On the other hand, the far-reaching organisational changes and updates to doctrine and training regimes during the last years are likely of even greater importance, and is only now (likely) reaching their final form. The books cover all of these aspects, including aircrafts currently in use (stretching from the An-2 derivative Nanchang Y-5 to the top-modern Chengdu J-20), weapons, doctrine, training curriculum, and last but not least an impressive full order of battle. The order of battle is likely the single most comprehensive and up-to-date one published in non-classified books, and explains both the current organisation as well as the roots it comes from.

As with all Harpia-books, the illustrations are of a very high-quality and (almost always) spot-on.

The big question is if the book is too up-to-date? Especially in the case of the Naval Aviation one, questions still remain which units exactly have been reformed and which are still awaiting change. Operational secrecy and increased internet censorship inside China means that information isn’t always easy to come by. Here as well Rupprecht does a good job, as his long experience with the topic gives him the ability to piece together the available snippets of information to create the bigger picture. Importantly, he also clearly indicates which parts are confirmed, which are unconfirmed, and where there are alternative theories and explanations.

The map of the Eastern Theatre Command Navy at the beginning of the Southern Theatre Command Navy-chapter.

But as always there is some room for improvement. The otherwise excellent maps of the areas of operation for the different theatre commands are placed after their respective chapters, leading to the slightly confusing situation where you’re reading about one theatre command while looking at a map of the bases of another one. Another issue is the appearance of the Army Aviation, which is briefly mentioned in a number of places, especially when discussing the Air Force helicopters in use. The role of Army Aviation is never quite explained, and I was left somewhat wondering what exactly they do, and how it differs from the rotary-winged units of the Air Force. I can only assume this would have been clearer if all three volumes had been read together. As it now stands (and as it would for some other China-rookie only getting a single volume) it all remains rather fuzzy, and I found myself wishing for a few sentences on how the lines are drawn between the three branches. A third issue was that in a handful of places I found myself struggling to get a picture of how exactly the designations had changed during development of aircrafts (this was especially the case with the UAVs), though to be honest I am unsure about to what extent the author is to be blamed, and to what extent the Chinese drone programs simply have been complex. As a counter-balance, the chapters on the rather confusing family of different Soviet/Russian and Chinese ‘FLANKER’-variants is simply the clearest and most straightforward one I’ve come across over the years, and a joy to read.

However, even if there are a few minor things I dislike or would have chosen to do otherwise had I been the editor, there’s no denying that this is yet another great addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in Chinese aviation. Personally I found greatest enjoyment in the descriptions of Chinese aircraft and airborne weaponry, but I certainly can see that anyone interested in developments in the South China Sea or potential Sino-Japanese clashes would find the OOB to be of even greater value. The books are also of the usual high-quality and hold up well to regular use (and abuse), and the illustrations include both a large number of colour photographs of high-quality as well as the excellent maps and tables which one has come to expect from Harpia. Note that the differences in size of the aviation arms are reflected in the books, as the Air Force one is considerably longer at 240 pages compared to 96 for the Naval Aviation.

Recommended.

The books were provided free of charge by Harpia for review. The ISBN numbers are 978-0-9973092-6-3 for the Air Force and 978-0-9973092-5-6 for Naval Aviation.

Naval Defence Day 2018 – Only Change is Constant

The annual Finnish Naval Defence Day was held a week ago, with the usual crowd of Naval officers, reservists, and stakeholders meeting up for a day of lectures and discussion on the current state of the Navy and its reserve, as well as topics of general interest to the crowd.

The Finnish Navy and the Baltic Sea

The year so far has seen the continuation of several of the programmes initiated earlier. Two Haminas are currently undergoing their MLU, with the other two awaiting their turn. The programme is largely on schedule, with the small delay in the PTO 2020 anti ship missile programme translating into a slight setback for the Hamina-upgrade. The other major new weapon system, the light torpedo, is on the other hand on schedule, with the first batch of Finnish Naval personnel currently in Sweden undergoing training. The training deal both with the particular system (or rather systems, as Finland first will lease and operate the current Torp 45 before switching to the acquired Torp 47 once they start coming of the production line), as well as general ASW tactics which is something of a new field for the Finnish Navy.

The New Lightweight Torpedo, still awaiting its Finnish designation, will provide a giant leap in Finnish ASW-capabilities. Picture courtesy of Saab Ab

For the Gabriel, the Navy remains as tight-lipped as they were when first announcing the decision. The message that Gabriel was the overall best performer in all categories was reiterated, with a comment that the fact that it did so at a very competitive price was an important additional factor. And while no new information was given, the excitement amongst the officer corps regarding the new system was palpable every time one brought up the topic.

Squadron 2020 is moving on slowly but steadily, with the contract date with the yard being planned for January/February 2019. This has dragged on a bit, due to the demanding situation of there being only one supplier. As this means there are no pressure on price and risk-taking from the competition, the negotiations have proved trickier than expected, but the Navy is confident that a good contract will be signed. For the combat management system the situation is more traditional with three suppliers shortlisted, and here the tender has been delayed a bit to be in lockstep with the shipbuilding negotiations. On the whole the project is moving along more or less as expected, the delays in signing the shipbuilding deal aside.

The inside of the TK 130 gun barbette during operation. It is the most modern turreted coastal defence gun worldwide and more survivable than generally perceived, but it is still approaching retirement. Source: Merivoimat FB

Past Squadron 2020 and the Hamina MLU further modernisation programs awaits. The 130 TK fixed coastal artillery will have to be replaced during the second half of the 20’s, and as some batches of the manportable short-range coastal defence missiles (Eurospike ER / RO2006) will start to reach the end of their shelf-life in the same timespan the Navy is taking a look at the larger picture when it comes to coastal defence and what possibilities there currently are on the market to replace the outgoing guns and missiles.

Another topic is new vessels, where the logistics of supporting troops in the archipelago holds its own challenges. One topic is how these smaller auxiliaries should be acquired, as the tendering process naturally differs from how corvettes and fast attack crafts are planned and bought. And speaking of buying fast attack crafts, on the horizon the first studies for the eventual Hamina-replacement are starting to take place.

The export variants of the 3M-14 land-attack and 91R1 ASW versions of the Kalibr-family. Source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin via Wikimedia Commons

But it is not only Finland that is actively modernising and practicing. The Russian Baltic Fleet is receiving new equipment, and the Baltic Sea is also home to many temporary high-end visitors when newbuilds are performing sea trials here. Amongst the systems mentioned by name we had the Steregushchiy-class corvettes and Project 636 “Kilo II”-class submarines, as well as the 3M-54 and 3M-14 Kalibr (which are the anti ship- and land-attack versions of the same missile) and the Redut-family of surface-to-air missiles. The Kalibr-family it was noted is in fact an issue for the whole of the Finnish Defence Forces and not the Navy alone, considering the fact that the range from Kaliningrad and the Barents Sea puts large parts of southern and northern Finland respectively inside the strike range of the ship- and sub-launched cruise missiles.

On the other hand 2018 has been largely uneventful in the Baltic Sea when it comes to major incidents, and while Russian activity remain at a high level, Northern Coasts 18 as an example took place without anything out of the ordinary. While the increased level of readiness has been taxing on the Finnish Navy, they are proud of their work in not letting any vessel move in waters “close to us” without being identified (no word on how far out the “close” reaches). To ensure this the Navy is employing a range of measures, including not only own vessels and sensors, but also cooperation with the Border Guards and the NH90 helicopters of the Army Aviation.

Unmanned technology underutilised?

Unmanned and autonomous systems was the main topic of discussion, with a particular focus on the utilisation of these technologies in the maritime domain. The rapid minituarisation and commercialisation throughout the field means that even smaller countries such as Finland are able to start investing in unmanned technology on a broader scale. It is also notable that this will not, or at least should not, simply lead to pulling people out of today’s systems and replacing them with computers. Rather a completely new set of options open up, with the ability to have platforms measured in centimeters and decimeters instead of tens of meters. Additionally endurance isn’t necessarily a limiting factor anymore, especially for surface and subsurface platforms which can wait and float freely for prolonged periods of time. On the other hand, even with improved machine learning and autonomy amongst machines, robots are still extremely good at handling a specific task or scenario but significantly poorer at reacting to surprises. As such we are increasingly entering an age where the human player is needed not for the expected tasks, but as the flexible element to take control when the unexpected happens.

Saab’s AUV62 AT is an underwater target which can mimic different submarines. As part of ASW exercises the AUV62 is let loose, after which it operates fully independently for several hours, relying on dead reckoning and reacting intelligently to enemy actions, all while recording everything that happens. Imagining a reconnaissance role for a similar system is not difficult. Picture courtesy of Saab

While drones currently are sub-systems rather than main systems, their revolutionary nature shouldn’t be underestimated. In the naval domain, getting a lightweight synthetic aperture radar up in the sky aboard a lightweight drone is suddenly a serious alternative to the traditional mast-mounted surface search radar, providing both over-the-horizon range and having the added benefit of letting the host vessel’s sensors remain silent. An interesting example is Israel who has retired manned maritime patrol aircraft and completely replaced them with remotely piloted ones.

On the other end of the scale we have commercial off-the-shelf systems which has seen use in both Ukraine and Syria both to provide targeting data, perform reconnaissance, and for direct attacks with grenades or fixed warheads (the later use starting to blur the border between UAS/UAV and cruise missile). In the Ukrainian case, the targeted attacks against ammunition depots have shown that simple and cheap system can take on operational/strategic roles (Yes, this is something that the Finnish Defence Forces have recognised in their current operational planning. No, you won’t get further details).

But while everyone recognises that unmanned systems are here to stay and will only increase in both numbers and importance, in many ways the final breakthrough has not necessarily taken place. Comparisons were made to the state of aircraft at the outbreak of the First World War, where no-one really knew what worked and what didn’t, but after a few years of fighting the air war had reached a form which it would keep for decades. Similarly, at the outbreak of the Second World War much of the technology that would transform the battlefield between 1939 and 1945 was already available, but only the outbreak of the war led to inventions such as the jet engine being rushed into service. Currently a number of unmanned technology demonstrators are making rather slow progress in getting into widespread use, partly because lack of funding, and partly because of questions regarding artificial intelligence and the authorisation of use of force. If a significant peer-vs-peer conflict would take place, it is likely that a rapid roll-out of these existing cutting-edge technologies into operational systems would take place.

The killer robots amongst us? Here PM04, a smart impulse sea mine in operational use by the Finnish Navy since well over a decade ago. Source: MKFI via Wikimedia Commons

But as we consider the moral implications of ‘killer robots’, are we just overlooking the developments that has already taken place? What is the principal difference between an autonomous armed UAV, and modern impulse mines? These have sensors and a certain level of logic allowing them to discern between targets, and once deployed they will fully autonomously perform their mission, no surrenders accepted. Did we actually deploy armed killer robots over a decade ago, without ever noticing?

Developing: Skirmishes in the Sea of Azov

Russia effectively began blockading Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov earlier today when sealing the Kerch Strait by placing a merchant vessel across the sea lane passing under the Kerch Strait bridge and forcing a small convoy of Ukrainian vessels to head back. The incident included vessels of the two sides making contact with limited damage. However, pictures have surfaced of another Russian Border Guard vessel with damage apparently from a collision, and it is unclear if more vessels than originally reported were involved, if the incident is unrelated, or if the pictures are old.

However, a while ago reports started coming in that a firefight have taken place. Apparently the first casualty was Ukrainian patrol craft (gun) Berdyansk (pennant U175) which reportedly lost propulsion. After that Russian forces tried boarding the vessel, with Berdyansk returning fire.

Berdyansk is a relatively new unit, having been launched only in 2016. Source: Ukraine MoD via Wikimedia Commons

Exactly what has taken place since is even more unclear, but it should be remembered that the closing of the strait lead to a significant number of civilian vessels being stuck in the area waiting for things to clear up that they could continue their journeys. There is a very real risk for these, including both Russian and Ukrainian ones, being caught in crossfire. Significant air activity was also observed throughout the day, including Su-25 attack aircraft and armed Ka-52 attack helicopters. One report stated that following the exchange of fire both Berdyansk, sister Nikopol, and a naval tug has been captured by Russian forces, but currently the word is that six Ukranians are wounded, two vessels are under tow by friendlies, and one vessel is held by Russian forces.

The Kerch Strait after hostilities had started. The connection across is roughly 15 km in length. Source: Marinetraffic.com

Unconfirmed reports have stated that the Ukrainian Navy has left its base in Odessa, but it is very unclear if this indeed has happened, what vessels are at sea, and if there is some battleplan. The Russian Black Sea Fleet together with air and ground units will have no problem stopping the Ukrainian Navy if they try to force passage through the strait. The sole major surface combatant of the Ukrainian Navy is the Krivak III-class frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy (U130). It should be noted that the Krivak III was the coast guard-version of the class, and while very heavily armed for a coast guard vessel, it still lacks any kind of anti-ship missiles. The Ukrainian Navy has a number of older fast attack craft as well, but their operational status is unclear. If this motley flotilla is supposed to survive, let alone do any damage to their Russian counterparts, it will need some serious air support.

Ukrainian flagship Hetman Sahaydachniy. Source: Ukrainian MoD via Wikimedia Commons

Both Ukraine and Russia have large numbers of aircraft in the region, including Su-24M which while old still can do serious damage to surface units, especially as the target vessels in many cases are old as well with limited air defences (though it should be noted that the Russian Black Sea Fleet include a number of modern corvettes and frigates which likely will eat Su-24s for breakfast). For Ukraine the question is where any potential battle would take place, as the Kerch Strait is ‘behind’ occupied Crimea. If Ukraine is to secure even limited air superiority, the battle will likely have to take place somewhere else, which might require the Russian Navy cooperating. Another question is if things could now deescalate as it seems the active battle at the strait has died down following the Russian capture of one of the vessels involved? There is no longer an urgency on the part of the Ukrainian to rush headlong into the waiting Russian forces.

Ukrainian Su-24M armed with unguided rockets. Source: Ukrainian MoD via Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, the wheels might already be in motion, and a serious question is at what level command currently rests on both sides? If the politicians have transferred operational decisions to the military things could keep on escalating. In the same way, decisions by local commanders in the field can have outsized impacts upon the continued developments on the Russo-Ukrainian War as a whole. This would not be the first time that politicians have had to come to grips with the fact that measured escalation is difficult.

In the end, a conflict over Russia blockading the strait has been one of the scenarios discussed numerous times since 2014, and as predicted it shows signs of escalating easily. A crucial factor regarding the timing is that Europe is focused upon Brexit, diminishing the potential of EU to work as a stabilising factor. At the same time, it should be remembered that early reports seldom are to be trusted, and by tomorrow morning we should all be wiser.

The Long and the Short of Finnish Guns

The Finnish Army learned to love artillery during the Second World War. There never seemed to be enough of it to cover all needs, and the Red Army always seemed to have plenty enough. At the same time, air support was even scarcer, meaning that if you wanted to produce any kind of effect on the other side of the hill, you either had to send in someone on foot or bring the artillery to bear. Like conscription, massed artillery was one of those ideas the Finnish Defence Forces clinged to even when it seemed obsolete to most western observers.

Artillery is also wonderful in that working artillery pieces have an extremely long lifespan. Sure there are developments, but getting hit by 130 mm shrapnel hurts as much today as it did in Golan 1973. Still, everything comes to an end, and unfortunately for the Finnish Army quite a lot of things are coming to an end at roughly the same time.

The Heavy-hitters

For much of the Cold War the stalwart of the Finnish Defence Forces was made up of Soviet artillery systems, with a number of wartime British and German pieces thrown in for good measure. After the German reunification Finland also bought large number of 152 mm field guns and howitzers from ex-DDR stocks. However, dwindling and aging ammunition stocks have meant that all howitzers are withdrawn, with two battalions of 152 mm 2A36 guns and six battalions of 130 mm M-46 being left in service (note that the figures of wartime strengths should be taken with a grain of salt, as the Finnish Army rarely acknowledges the number of individual systems. These figures are the ones found in a trusted open source for 2018).

130 K 54, as the 130 mm M-46 field gun is known locally, during live firings in Northern Finland 2015. Source: Maavoimat FB

Both of these are expected to be phased out within the next few years, effectively reducing the number of Finnish towed heavy artillery by 45%. Left in service will be the 155 K 83-97 and 155 K 98, two domestic field guns firing NATO-standard 155 mm rounds. The K 83-97 is an 80’s design featuring an L/39 barrel, while the K 98 is a more modern piece with a L/52 barrel and an APU, a small engine allowing the gun to drive short distances under own power and thereby significantly aiding in the handling of the gun.

Amongst the self-propelled pieces 48 modern K9 Thunder 155 mm SPGs are being introduced. These highly efficient weapons will replace the already retired 2S5 Giatsint-S 152 mm SPGs and the still serving 2S1 Gvozdika 122 mm SPHs. However, the number is low enough that non-mechanised units are unlikely to see any self-propelled artillery. As such there is a gap evident amongst the mid-tier (regional) units of the wartime Finnish Army, where the retirement of the Soviet guns will be felt most keenly at the brigade level and above.

155 K 98 during the celebrations marking the 100 year anniversary of the return of the Jaegers, held in Vaasa in February 2018. Source: E. Häggblom

The obvious solution is to buy more guns. However, this is not necessarily as simple as it sounds, as heavy towed guns have rapidly fallen out of fashion. The few guns found in production, such as the US M777 and the Pegasus of Singapore, are often tailored toward expeditionary roles requiring them being airmobile. This leads to extremely low weight, but while lightweight guns generally are more fun and easy for the crews to operate, manufacturing gun parts from titanium comes at a price. A hefty price. The Australian DCSA request from 2008 comes in at 4.35 million USD a piece for 57 howitzers of the newest M777A2 version, though that included a SINCGARS radio for each set as well. The following year BAE bagged an order for 63 more M777A2 for USMC and Canada at a unit cost of a more decent 1.9 million USD. Still, that’s a far cry from the 500,000 Euro that the Finnish Defence Forces paid for its 155 K 98 ten years earlier.

The big factor as noted is the weight. The K 98 comes in at 14.6 tonnes, over 10 tonnes more than the 4.2 tonnes of the M777. However, the comparison isn’t a direct one, as the K 98 is a hybrid gun-howitzer while the M777 is a ‘pure’ howitzer sporting the somewhat shorter L/39 barrel length. However, thanks to developments in ammunition the M777 can also push out its rounds to the coveted 40 km range, making the difference in performance smaller (at least on paper, you won’t see accuracy figures of the two systems in open sources anytime soon).

At close to two millions a piece and requiring a towing vehicle (in theory the M777 can be towed by a HMMWV though in practice this is often handled by a 6×6 truck), a single gun system with gun and tower likely comes in at close to 2.5 million euros. And at that price-point something else appears. 

Enter the Nexter Camion équipé d’un système d’artillerie, or CAESAR 8X8 for short, a 155 mm L/52 gun on a Tatra chassis. The 16 systems bought by the launch customer Denmark, including initial spares and a 10 year service agreement, comes in below 2.7 million euros a piece. While critics have decried the baseline CAESAR 6×6 as not offering any protection for the gun crew I feel the comparison is unfair. After all, at the price point the system is found the real competition is not the K9 or PzH 2000, but rather towed systems. And being mounted on an all-terrain truck it offers superior mobility without the need for a dedicated towing vehicle, while the lack of crew protection is the same. Replacing the Soviet designs with more 155 mm systems would simplify logistics, as all heavy systems would employ the same 155 mm NATO standard munitions. As such the question is raised if we shouldn’t just place an order for 100 CAESARs to replace the retired guns starting in 2020?

The original French CAESAR 6×6 during a live firing exercise in Afghanistan in 2009. Source: Teddy Wade, U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons

Well, the first issue is money. Even considering economics of scale the order would like come in at 200 million Euros, money which is hard though not necessarily impossible to come by. The other question is – perhaps somewhat unexpectedly – whether a self-propelled system is objectively “better” than a towed one? Not necessarily, especially not in the tight confines of Finnish terrain (i.e. forests). Handling the gun when you can’t get rid of the truck quickly can be more difficult, while the difference in height is evident from the pictures above. Protection of the system (as opposed to the crew) does become something of an issue. While the better part of a towed weapon can be hidden by a berm the height of a standing person, the truck needs, well, a truck-height of cover. These obstacles aren’t impossible to overcome, but for a traditional role towed systems might actually offer some benefits.

But what about avoiding counter-battery fire, I hear you say? Well, up until now the answer has been that when the guns in an individual battery are spread out so that there’s 400 to 800 metres between each gun counter-battery fire becomes ‘difficult enough’, with no need for shoot-and-scoot tactics. Also, even if there’s no need for a towing vehicle, the amount of rounds carried by a CAESAR is limited, and there would quickly appear a need for a ammunition truck. Towing trucks are also nice in that they are versatile, and you can replace lost towing trucks from general stocks (or use trucks who lost their guns as general cargo carriers) as the need arises.

Everything in the reasoning above is obviously also relevant for other wheeled SPGs of the same class, such as the Israeli ATMOS. 

The suggested marriage of a 155 K 98 to a Sisu 8×8 chassis. Source: Patria briefing to the Parliamentary Defence Committee 

Could a new domestic gun come into the picture? Possibly, Patria has been pushing for a ‘Finnish CAESAR‘ as a way of maintaining artillery know-how in-country. However, while it is certainly true that the proud Finnish tradition of manufacturing high-end artillery is threatened, the question is if it is too late already? The last newly developed weapon was twenty years ago, and even if one wanted to avoid developing something new and instead simply restarted the 155 K 98-line it is seldom a simple and straightforward process to restart production lines which have laid dormant for 15+ years. At least if we want a competitive price, going abroad might be the only option, at which point license production can then be discussed to maintain domestic know-how.

So are there no options left that would offer Finland 100 guns for less than 200 millions? 

Well, Nexter has noticed that there is a gap in the market, not the least because the Indian Army has a requirement for 1,400 towed 155 mm L/52 guns. To answer this they have launched the Trajan, based heavily on the gun used by the CAESAR. Little information is available, but the gun pushes the range out even further with 52 km range being given for specialised shells, it has an APU, and the weight comes in at 13.0 tonnes. Not a lightweight by any standard, but no worse than the 155 K 98. The rough price for the Indian order would be 714,000 Euros per gun. The main issue is that the Trajan is still just a prototype, and the Indian connection unfortunately makes it somewhat suspicious. It is unclear whether non-Indian exports would be ‘pure’ Nexter systems.

In the same competition Elbit is also offering a corresponding system, called ATHOS. Few hard details are known about the system, which is closely related to the wheeled SPG ATMOS that beat CAESAR in the original Danish competition (more than one commentator has questioned whether the rerun which lead to the CAESAR being ordered was based on facts or politics). The weapon does feature an automatic laying capability and an automated ammunition handling system (i.e. a hydraulic crane/lift). From a Finnish viewpoint, there’s the added twist of the Tampella-ancestry.

The D-30

But the headaches of the Finnish Defence Forces doesn’t end there. There are quite literally hundreds of 122 mm D-30 light howitzers that are still filling the role as battalion level assets throughout most Army units. They will stay on longer than the heavier Soviet stuff, but they are also heading out as 2030 approaches.

But if the market for 155 mm howitzers is small, the market for light howitzers is next to non-existent. Certain light guns and mountain howitzers are still found, but the answer to what should replace the 122 mm howitzer is not necessarily another light howitzer.

The flatter trajectory of the howitzers and guns compared to mortars makes it easier to hide the firing positions at the edge of forests. Here the venerable 122 mm D-30 in action. Source: Maavoimat FB

The D-30 provides basic indirect fire with high-explosive shells, smoke, and illumination. They also provide an anti-tank capability, though it is questionable to what extent an 122 mm howitzer shell, even an armour-piercing one, actually can damage anything heavier than an APC. At the same time the introduction of hard-kill systems on tanks means that indirect and direct fire artillery is becoming more interesting again in the AT-role.

The obvious answer is getting more 120 mm heavy mortars. Lots of mortars. The range is not quite the same as the D-30, but on the other hand the lower muzzle velocity allows for thinner walls in the round, which leads to a 120 mm round packing almost the same explosive power as some 155 mm rounds. And while direct fire isn’t possible, the AT-role can be handled with Pansarsprängvinggranat m/94, or STRIX as everyone except the Swedish calls Saab’s endphase-guided anti-tank mortar round. Mortars, due to their steeper trajectory, require more open space to fire to make sure they don’t hit any trees overhead, but are also lighter and more easily moved compared to howitzers. As such they just might provide the answer to the loss of light howitzers, even if that would be a step back capability-wise in some aspects.

The Headache

Artillery remains a priority amongst the Finnish Defence Forces, but there are some serious gaps coming up within the next decade. Besides the Soviet guns and howitzers on their way out, the RM-70 light rocket launchers are also about to be retired. In addition, modern rounds aren’t cheap, with guided once such as the Excalibur costing tens of thousands a piece (60,480 Euro a piece for the Excalibur to be exact). To be able to maintain a modern and large artillery arm, the Finnish Defence Forces will have to invest considerable sums during the 2020’s.

After the strategic acquisitions for the Navy and Air Force, I will argue that the Army should initiate a study for the best complete package of indirect fires to replace outgoing systems, followed by a strategic acquisition program along the lines of HX and Squadron 2020 to try and secure extra-budgetary funds to implement the program. This certainly won’t come easy, but even 1/20th-part of what HX is getting could prove to be the difference between massed enemy casualties and a repeat of the Winter War situation if we would face a war in 2030. As such, this would thoroughly be a strategic acquisition, though with artillery being less sexy than jet fighters, it might require more communication to get through the parliament.

Big thanks to Luke O’Brien who provided useful insights into the world of artillery and patiently answered my questions regarding the general state of modern artillery. All mistakes and groundless speculations are all my own making.

Review: Höstsol & Höstregn

Prominent Swedish blogger Lars Wilderäng (Cornucopia?) made something of a splash amongst the Swedish defence community when he released his first novel Midvintermörker in 2011, widely hailed as the best Swedish techno-thriller since the Cold War. This was followed by the final part of the two-book series, before Wilderäng temporarily left near-future wars for other topics. Last year he finally returned to the battlefield with the book Höstsol (ISBN 9789176795439), which received it’s finale earlier this year with Höstregn (ISBN 9789176795842).

As with the earlier series, the books describe how an escalating crisis eventually evolves into war, and how the Swedish Defence Forces and general society respond to the challenge. In typical Clancyesque fashion the narrative follow a number of persons at different positions whose lives are affected by the war in one way or the other. The characters enter and exit the story throughout in varied fashions, and with the exception of a handful of the main cast most remain rather flat to the reader. The decision is understandable, this is a story about a major war, and to try and tell too many stories in-depth at once would quickly have made the books twice as thick as they are. Less well-developed side-characters feels like a fair trade-off to keep the number of pages manageable.

More disturbing is that especially in Höstsol a number of characters feel somewhat dumbed down. Yes Pjotr, you already mentioned that the whole of Gayropa is occupied by fascists, there’s no need to reiterate it at every turn. The portrayal of Swedish media is also a bit over the top in my personal view. These are largely the same issues that I disliked the most about Midvintermörker’s finale Midsommargryning, and they are especially tiresome as Wilderäng clearly is capable of writing interesting characters, Misja and major Bergäng being prime examples.

But to be honest these aren’t books read for the depths of the character gallery, but for the vivid portrayal of how a modern society copes with war, and for possible scenarios leading up to one. While not the first one to raise the topic, Midvintermörker was likely the single most important factor in popularising the ‘Gotland-scenario’, and in the same way Höstsol creates an interesting and plausible scenario for how a crisis involving Sweden could come about. Most fascinating here is the work performed to mask the beginning operations as something other than war, and while I won’t go into details to avoid spoilers, Höstsol’s strength lies largely in the questions raised around the politics and how ‘hybrid’ scenarios could be adopted to a Swedish context.

If much of Höstsol is a slow build-up to disaster, by Höstregn the reader is already in a full-blown shooting war. While the policy questions and study of international relations might not be as interesting, the quicker pace of Wilderäng’s war story makes the book the more enjoyable one from a thriller point of view. Still, there’s really no use in treating the books as two independent works, as the story is a direct continuation to the point that they need to be read together.

I am somewhat torn about my final verdict. I still feel that Midvintermörker is Wilderäng’s strongest foray into the techno-thriller genre, but Höstsol is (by now at least) considerably more thought-provoking from a national security point of view. There is a tendency in both Finland and Sweden to have a rather sharply defined view of what wars are and how they start, and Wilderäng’s latest works serve as (enjoyable) reminders that by now we should have learned to expect the unexpected when it comes to Russian military planning.

Recommended.

A Northern Battlefield

Following the ongoing debate over at the Royal Swedish Academy of War Science’s blog regarding what role infantry could have in fighting a mechanised attacker in Norrland, a Twitter-exchange erupted following a comment to the end of who the mechanised attacker would be? Surely the Russians would have better things to do with their mechanised units than to try and capture vast expanses of forests, fells, and bogs? The question deserves a closer look, as the answer by default holds significant importance to the defence planning of not only Sweden, but Finland and Norway as well.
Norrland is not of interest to the Russians due to anything found there (no, not even the Kiruna iron ore), Russia has enough undisturbed wilderness of its own. But the region is very interesting due to the proximity to the Kola Peninsula.

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Finnish Jaeger Brigade units out in the field during exercise in the northern parts of the country. Source: Finnish Defence Forces

The Kola Peninsula, and more generally the Murmansk-Arkhangelsk-Naryan-Mar area, are of immense strategic importance to Russian defence planning due to their role as the sole route from where to break out into the Atlantic to intercept the transatlantic supply lines of NATO, as well as providing the basing area for the majority of the Russian strategic nuclear forces. In particular the Russian second-strike capability is centered around the ballistic-missile submarines of the Northern Fleet (though a limited number is also found in the Pacific Fleet), and they would take up position in the Barents Sea from where they would fire their missiles in case of an all-out nuclear attack on the USA. In addition, the shortest airborne route between the US and Russia passes over the Arctic, meaning that the area plays a role in long-range aviation as well.
This leads to the Cap of the North (or Sápmi) being the left flank of the Russian strategic deterrent and the frontline of any attempt at stopping the US from reinforcing Europe. Geopolitics plays an interesting role as well, as Norway is the sole NATO country in the region. While it is highly unlikely that Norway or other NATO forces would try and attack the northwestern corner of Russia due to the risk of escalating a conflict into full-scale nuclear war, Russia could conceivably want to push the frontline westward. As far as Russia is concerned, for the moment there is no real strategic depth to protect their bases. The Norwegian town of Kirkenes lies only 150 km from Severomorsk, the main base of the Northern Fleet. This is well within firing range of the MGM-140 ATACMS used by the US M270 MLRS and M142 HIMARS systems. And once the front is being pushed westwards, the question where to stop remains open. Capturing e.g. Narvik and Bodø would significantly hamper the ability of NATO to recapture Norwegian territory, while at the same time providing forward bases from which to operate against the transatlantic supply lines (compare German plans for submarine bases in Norway during WWII, rendered utterly insignificant by the fall of France).

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Map of northern Europe, giving a somewhat different perspective of the region compared to the usual projections. Source: Google Maps

But Norway is a tricky battlefield. The country is relatively narrow and heavily mountainous, handing a relative small defending force near-perfect conditions to defend against a more numerous attacker.

Which makes flanking tempting.

There are three possible ways to flank the Norwegian Army, either by amphibious and/or airborne landings, or by marching through Finnish Lappi and Swedish Norrland to reach (or threaten) the Norwegian coast.
Now, cutting through Finland and Sweden to reach the Atlantic coast is no simple endeavour, the shortest way from Severomorsk to Narvik is a nice even 1,000 km, passing through Sodankylä, Pajala, and Kiruna, before following the Iron Ore Line to Narvik, the northernmost railway in western Europe. The roads are of varied quality, and getting any kind of a workable supply line through the region will be a challenge. The railroad networks are a chapter of their own, with the Finnish tracks not being connected to the Russian ones north of the Vartius-Kostamus crossing, and there being a gauge break between the Finnish and Swedish railroads.
However, the most distinguishing feature of the region is the sheer amount of real estate. Combined with the fact that for none of the involved countries, with the possible exception of Norway, will the northern theatre be their main front. While a Russian offensive undoubtedly could allocate more forces than the opposition, it is still highly doubtful if they would be able to muster a large enough number that they could lay down a solid frontline and protect the rear areas and supply lines. As such a likely scenario is that the Russian spearheads would be able to make some impressive mileage while battling bigger and smaller skirmishes, while the real decisive fight will be a drawn-out one between security forces and smaller Finnish and Swedish units blowing bridges and targeting enemy supply units.

Jyvälahden valtaus 3.1.1942: Viestimiehet kirkasjohdon kimpussa.
Finnish communication specialists at work following the battle for Jyvälahti, near Uhtua, in January 1942. Source: SA-Kuva

This is not without precedent as the fragmented battlefield is nothing new to northern Europe. In January 1942 two Finnish battalions (1,900 men in total) infiltrated 75 kilometer through enemy territory to May Guba, burned a major supply depot, and skied back to own lines with a total loss of 3 killed in actions and 10 wounded (in addition to scores of frostbitten soldiers). During the whole of the Continuation War large parts of the frontline north of Lake Onega were if not fragmented then leaking, and as it is likely that the main Finnish and Swedish units will be concentrated towards the population centras in the southern parts of their respective countries, a return to the same scenario would not be unlikely in case of an armed conflict.