Syrian Chase

From the perspective of the Kremlin, Syria has been a great success. Following the surprisingly successful organisation of a transatlantic response to the Russian invasions of Crimea and the Donbas, the Russian intervention in Syria not only managed to prop up the Assad regime and reverse the course of the civil war, it also made sure that the Russian Navy would get a naval base in the Mediterranean. And most importantly: it forced the West to again talk directly with the Kremlin.

This was not only a case of Russia playing a rather mediocre hand very well, but also of several events outside of Putin’s control lining up favourably. These include both Iran and Hezbollah intervening, as well as the Turkish turn-around following the failed coup of 2016. The introduction of Russian long-range air-defence system, including the S-400, into Syria caused further alarm amongst western observers, with some going as far as stating that no assets in theatre beyond the F-22 Raptor “has any ability to operate and survive” inside the 400 km range of the system’s 40N6 missile.

Red: Iskander-M ballistic missile range (700 km). Blue: S-400 with 40N6 SAM-range (400 km). Source: Wikimedia Commons/VictorAnyakin

I have earlier on the blog cautioned against drawing rings on maps and stating that they are any kind of steel domes inside which anything and everything will be shot down, and this is very much the case for the SAM’s at Khmeimim Air Base as well. The latest strikes on targets in western Syria, including those well-within 100 km of Khmeimim AB, showed that coalition aircraft can strike presumably protected targets without issue. And not only that, if one looks closely at the map, the 400 km range extends well beyond Cyprus. The very same Cyprus which was the base of the RAF aircraft participating in the strikes. In other words, British aircraft took off and landed inside the stated range of the system, and all cruise missiles, both ship- and air-launched, penetrated the bubble without seemingly any of them having been intercepted.

The short answer is that Russia, according to Washington, didn’t try. There is said to have be no indication that the S-400 was fired against anything, and most likely this was a political decision. However, it does tell you something.

If Russia had the magical steel dome that some lay out A2/AD to be, why didn’t they at least swat down some of the cruise missiles, even if they decided to leave the aircrafts themselves (or rather, their pilots) alone? At the crucial moment, Russia decided not to try to protect the assets of their ally. Whatever the reason, the result is a razed block in the Syrian capital.

However, while there without doubt are intelligence services around the world plotting the decision as yet another data point, the immediate outcome isn’t necessarily too dramatic. As TD noted, the West will continue to act like Russia didn’t blink, and Russia will continue to claim that they control the skies over (western) Syria.

The problem is that while Russia might be the great power on location in Syria, the other actors, including Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah, all have their own agendas as well. More importantly, it is highly doubtful that any of them would hesitate to jump the Russian ship if they saw more benefits to be gained elsewhere.

Enter Israel, which is likely the western state that has been cooperating most effortlessly with Russia. In part this stems from a pragmatism that is a strong part of Israeli foreign policy, but it should also be noted that current defence minister Lieberman (and a sizeable Israeli minority) is in fact born in the Soviet Union. By most accounts the Israeli-Russian deconfliction agreement is working nicely, with Russia more or less accepting Israeli strikes on targets in Syria.

Israel has on the whole tried to stay out of the Syrian conflict, in no small part likely based on the experiences from the Lebanese civil war. However, a red line has always been drawn at the “transfer of advanced weaponry” from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. What exactly constitutes “advanced weapons” is left open, but it is usually taken to include long-range rockets and ballistic missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-ship missiles. The Israeli answer to transfers has been air strikes, often carried out with stand-off weaponry from Lebanese or Israeli airspace.

As the war has been dragging on, the Israeli involvement has deepened at the same time as the Iranian impact on the ground has increased. While Assad constitutes a know quantity, Israel has been extremely wary of the long-term impact of allowing Iran a foothold in the region. And while brig. gen. (res.) Shafir of the Israeli Air Force a decade ago confidently could say that Iran is isolated in the Muslim world, recent developments have opened up avenues of approach for Teheran on a broader scale than has been seen before. The recent downing of an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace and the following air raids (including the first downing of an Israeli fast jet in a very long time) has increased the temperature further.

A very worrying detail was the fact that Israeli media claims that the aftermath of the raid left Israeli prime minister Netanyahu with the impression that Russia has no real ability to contain Iran in Syria. The problem here then is that the logical conclusion is that Israel will have to deal with the Iranian presence in Syria alone, and while I doubt that anyone inside the IDF is dusting off the plans for a drive to Damascus just yet, a more comprehensive air campaign aimed at severely crippling the Iranian forces in Syria might be in the cards.

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S-300PMU-2 TEL. Source: Vitaly Kuzmin

While this kind of Israeli-Iranian showdown is bad enough in and by itself, the big kicker is how that would reflect upon Russia. Having two gangs fight it out on what should ostensibly be your backyard does not leave the onlookers with the feeling that you are in control, no matter how often you say so. In addition, if Russia goes through with the idea to supply the S-300PMU-2 to Assad, this opens up further risks of losing face. While the S-300 is one notch below the S-400, the system is vastly superior to anything currently in operation by the Syrians themselves. As such, it would likely be a prime target in any Israeli air campaign, and echoing the aerial battles of 1982, it would likely be destroyed sooner rather than later.

This all would leave Russia in a bad light, and erase much of the gains in prestige and diplomacy that the Syrian intervention has so far given Russia (in certain places, one should add, as others are less impressed by people regularly bombing hospitals and supporting dictators who use chemical weapons). While attempts at predicting Putin’s next moves are notoriously hard, it is safe to say that he has not shown an inclination to count his losses and leave the table. Instead, when the rest of the players believe him to have overplayed his hand, what usually happens seems to be that Putin will press on regardless. And there’s no telling whether his next move would come in Syria, or somewhere else.

 

Syrian Strikes

“They had three buildings there [Barzah scientific research center] and a parking deck,” McKenzie said.
“Now they don’t.” via USNI.

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French frigate firing off one of the three MdCN cruise missiles that were part of the strike. Source: Marine Nationale

As information about yesterday’s strikes against targets in Syria has been slowly to trickling out throughout the weekend, it is by now possible to piece together a picture of the raid. Perhaps the single most informative piece was the press briefing held by Pentagon.

In short, the following units were involved:

Armée de l’Air

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Two-seater Rafale B launching with twin SCALP EG cruise missiles under the wings. Source: French MoD

5x Dassault Rafale, launching 9 SCALP EG cruise missiles

4x Mirage 2000-5, escort

E-3FR AWACS and KC-135R/C-135F aerial refuelling aircraft

All aircraft operated out of bases in France

Royal Air Force

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Tornado GR.4 sporting two Storm Shadow cruise missiles under the fuselage. Source: British MoD / © Crown copyright 2013 (unmodified news item)

4x Tornado GR.4, launching 8 Storm Shadow cruise missiles

?x Typhoon FGR.4, escort

Operating out of RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus

USAF

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B-1B preparing to launch for the raid from Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Source: US AFCENT

2x B-1B, launching 19 AGM-158A JASSM cruise missiles

?x F-16, escort

?x F-15, escort

?x F-22 Raptors, escort

Numerous supporting assets, including RQ-4B Global Hawk UAV’s for intelligence gathering, E-3 AWACS, KC-135 and KC-10 aerial refuelling aircraft, and likely a single E-11B relay aircraft

Bombers operating out of Al Udeid AB in Qatar, fighters from both Al Udeid and European bases

Edit: updated information corrected the JASSM version from -ER to the baseline version which is also in Finnish use, and included the presence of F-22’s as escort.

USMC

VMAQ-2 Transits Souda Bay
No image of the EA-6B from VMAQ-2 which was part of the raid has been released as far as I know. Here is a similar aircraft from the same squadron during a stopover in Crete, Greece, back in 2007. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mr. Paul Farley via Wikimedia Commons

1x EA-6B Prowler, ECM escort

Operated out of Ahmad al-Jaber Air Base, Kuwait

Marine National

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FREMM-class frigate Aquitaine (D650), likely the vessel that fired the MdCN missiles. Source: Marine National

1x FREMM-class frigate, launching 3 MdCN

Operating in the Mediterranean

US Navy

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Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Monterey (CG-61) launching TLAM missiles from the Red Sea. Source: US Navy via USNI

1x Ticonderoga-class cruiser

1x Arleigh Burke-class destroyer

Operating in the Red Sea, launching a total of 37 TLAM cruise missiles

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USS Higgins (DDG 76) which launched the strikes from the Persian Gulf. Source: US Navy/Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Frederick McCahan

1x Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, launching 23 TLAM cruise missiles

Operating in the Persian Gulf

USS California at sea during sea trials.
Virgina-class SSN underway. Source: Chris Oxley/U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons

1x Virgina-class attack submarine, launching 6 TLAM cruise missiles

Operating in the Mediterranean

Alert readers will note that the total amount given is 105 cruise missiles (36 air-launched, 63 ship-launched, and 6 sub-launched), coming in two above the 103 given by Russian sources. The missiles hit the following targets:

Barzah/Barzeh Scientific Research Center

Situated in the western parts of Damascus, the center was hit by 57 TLAM and 19 JASSM missiles.

Sputnik published a video reportedly shot at the scene, which seems to match the location below. It also matches the description given by the Pentagon, in that three large buildings have been completely destroyed.

Interestingly, the dual weapons used says something about the nature of the target. While the TLAM has a rather standard 1,000 lb (454 kg) class blast/fragmentation warhead (i.e. it explodes and creates shrapnel), the JASSM sports what Lockheed Martin calls a “2,000-pound [908 kg] class weapon with a dual-mode penetrator and blast fragmentation warhead” (i.e. it is made to penetrate hardened structures such as bunker before then exploding and creating shrapnel). Another thing to note is that the number 57 does not correspond to any possible combination of the salvos from individual ships, meaning that at least one vessel targeted two different sites.

Him Shinsar chemical weapons storage facility

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BDA pictures of the Him Shinshar. Source: Pentagon

The bunkers and facilities used for storing chemical weapons were hit by 22 weapons, these being 9 TLAM, 8 Storm Shadow, 2 SCALP EG, and 3 MdCN. This clearly shows the different nature of the target compared to the research center, as the number of missiles is much smaller, but also the fact that 13 out of 20 missiles were bunker-busting Storm Shadow/SCALP EG/MdCN (which are simply different local designations for the same missile, with MdCN being the ship-launched version). The Pentagon briefing described the target as ‘destroyed’, and while it is harder to verify when it comes to underground installations, significant damage is visible in the satellite imagery posted since.

Him Shinshar command facility

The final target was a command facility associated with the Him Shinshar site. This was hit by the last 7 SCALP EG. Pentagon described the facility as having taken ‘damage’, as opposed to the two others which were rated as ‘destroyed’. It is unclear if this is a failure, or simply representative of the different nature of the target. Command facilities might be able to continue to function to some extent even if key buildings are wiped out, which is not the case with a storage facility in which the storage buildings are hit.

In any case, satellite imagery shows what looks like two larger and one smaller hardened building having been targeted and destroyed.

Conclusions

Despite wild claims of the majority of the missiles having been intercepted and the rest having missed, it is clear that the raid was an unequivocal success on the tactical level. The targeted sites have all suffered heavy damage. If the description of the nature of the targets is correct, it is highly possible that the use of sarin has been made harder by the strikes. Obviously, this does not stop the regime from using a whole number of other ghastly weapons and tactics, including barrel bombs, starvation through sieges, and quite possibly industry grade chlorine (which has been featured in numerous attacks in Syria).

Notable is also the fact that several of the weapons and systems used were making their combat debuts. These include the JASSM and MdCN, as well as the Virgina-class SSN. From a Finnish viewpoint, the combat launch of JASSM (albeit not in the exact version used by the Finnish Air Force) was certainly of interest. However, it should be noted that ‘damaging’ a single command facility virtually undefended by air defences required 7 missiles of the same class as the JASSM, something which puts the Finnish acquisition of (a maximum) of 70 JASSM into perspective.

When it comes to the defences, it is clear that the talk of the S-400 deployment in Syria creating an impenetrable A2/AD-bubble stopping western strikes was not correct. While many of the earlier Israeli strikes had taken place in areas which present difficulties for the S-400 (and supporting shorter-ranged systems) to see and intercept the targets, the strike waves approaching over the eastern Mediterranean would be more or less the perfect scenario for long-ranged SAM-systems, and is very similar to the setup of systems operating from Kaliningrad which often are described as being able to deny NATO access to the Baltic Sea. While it likely was political will that stopped the Russian air defence systems from being activated, the Syrians did their best, with around 40 missiles having been reported by Pentagon as fired. While it is not impossible that some of the cruise missiles were intercepted, it is clear from the pictures linked above that even this barrage of air defence missiles was unable to serious lessen the damage suffered by the Syrians. A significant issue was likely that all missiles struck their targets within an extremely short time span, leaving the individual air defence batteries saturated.

Review: Carrier Aviation in the 21st Century

Carrier aviation has always had a tendency to interest people. After all, flying aircraft of ships sounds crazy enough than one wouldn’t think it was a viable plan of operations if not for the very fact that a number of navies does so on a regular basis. Interestingly, quite a number of important changes have taken place when it comes to worldwide carrier operations in the last decade or so. This includes several new carriers being commissioned, and new aircrafts coming into service, making much of what is written on the subject out of date.

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Enter Harpia’s Carrier Aviation in the 21st Century – Aircraft carriers and their units in detail. The book goes through all navies currently sporting a commissioned carrier and fixed wing aircraft, and with “currently” that means the end of 2017. In short, the Royal Navy and Queen Elizabeth is included, but the Thai Navy is not following the retirement of their Harriers. Navies with more or less suitable ships but not having fixed wing aircraft, e.g. the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, are left out.

Readers can, and most likely will, have opinions about this line. Some will undoubtedly feel that it is a stretch to include Brazil considering the state of the NAe São Paulo (ex-Foch) or the Royal Navy considering that shipboard F-35 operations are yet to commence. Others will likely argue for a inclusion of a number of big-deck helicopter carriers and amphibious ships which arguably sport more shipbased aviation than some of the smaller ‘Harrier carriers’. Personally I would have liked to see some discussion around the feasibility of F-35B operations from a number of ships that have been speculated to be more or (usually) less ready to handle the V/STOL bird, such as the Japanese Izumo-class, the Australian Canberra-class, and the Dokdo-class of the ROKN. Still, I get that the line has to be drawn somewhere, and the basis of who’s included and who’s left out is clearly stated, which is nice.

One interesting feature of the book is that it puts the carriers and their aircraft into context. While chances are you have read a text or two about the INS Vikramaditya and its MiG-29K’s before, the book does not only (briefly) discuss the history of Indian naval aviation to put the latest program(s) into context, it also explains the contemporary doctrine and what role the carrier plays in today’s Indian armed forces, the likely composition of a carrier battlegroup, and not only lists but describes all embarked aviation units, fixed and rotary winged.

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More or less the same is the case with each and every country-specific chapter of the book. I say more or less, because every chapter is written by a country-specific expert (hence the ‘editor’ after Newdick’s name), and the setup and sub-headings vary slightly. While purists might find this irritating, I personally find it good that the authors have been given some leeway, as the unique situations in different navies are better served by getting more custom fit descriptions compared to being shoehorned into a ‘one size fits all’ template. I was a bit worried upon opening the book that the variances would be so big that the book wouldn’t feel like a coherent work, but having read it I don’t feel that is the case.

Over all the book is a very enjoyable read, though the Italy-chapter does suffer from the same kind of language-issues that I mentioned in my review of Harpia’s Tucano-book. However, I am also happy to say that the good points of the Tucano-book carries over as well. These include highly enjoyable pictures and top-notch full-colour illustrations, as well as excellent build-quality of the book. In fact, I am yet to manage to break any single one of my Harpia-books, and that include bringing an earlier review book along for a camping trip in the archipelago.

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The gorilla in the room when writing about carrier aviation worldwide is the completely outsized role of the US Navy. In short, the US Navy fields more and larger carriers and carrier air groups than the rest of the world together. How do you tackle this, without the book feeling unbalanced? The USN does indeed get a longer chapter than the rest of the countries. However, US carrier aviation is also remarkably homogeneous, being built around two clear templates: the Nimitz (and now Ford) with a carrier air wing and the smaller amphibious ships with their aviation elements, and the number of flying platforms has shrunk considerably compared to the classic cold war wings. This means that there is no need to give ten times the space for the USN compared to e.g. the French just because they have ten times the number of carriers. This makes the book feel balanced, and laid the last of my worries to rest. The sole issue I foresee is that developments in carrier aviation is moving rapidly in several countries at the moment (USA, UK, China, India, …), and that means that parts of the book run the risk of becoming outdated quite fast. Still, that will be the case with any book on the topic released during the next five to ten years (at least), and there is certainly enough ‘longlasting information’ to make sure that the package as a whole isn’t going anywhere soon.

Compared to the Tucano-review which I was very excited for, I was somewhat more lukewarm to the prospect of what felt like yet another carrier book. However, the book surprised me, and certainly grabbed my attention. The chapters are deep enough to include plenty new information to me, and of such a length that it is easy to pick up and read through a single chapter if you suddenly have a need for a quick rundown of the current status of Spanish carrier aviation (yes, such things do happen to me occasionally). Harpia’s telltale illustrations and tables are also found in abundance.

Highly recommended for anyone looking for an update of carrier aviation worldwide!

The book was kindly provided free of charge for review by Harpia Publishing.

Of Helicopters and High Costs

The NH90 was supposed to become the gold-standard of military transport helicopters, utilising composite structures and high-tech avionics to provide a modern workhorse for the airlift needs in a host of European countries.

Almost immediately the grand vision hit rough waters, with significant teething troubles and delays. A chapter in itself was the joint Nordic helicopter program, which eventually ended up with the different countries all going more or less their own ways. In the end, Denmark and ordered the larger AW101 (ex-EH101), Norway got both the AW101 and the NH90 NFH (naval version), while Finland ordered the NH90 TTH and Sweden opted for two modified versions of the NH90, designated HKP 14E and 14F locally.

Choppers
Swedish HKP 14E visiting Kuopio, Finland, in 2016. Source: Own picture

In addition to the “baseline” teething troubles experienced by the project as a whole, the Swedes in a highly-publicised move decided that they wanted a higher cabin. This lead to a significant redesign, which brought added costs and delays. In the background also loomed persistent rumors that the evaluation made by the Swedish Defence Forces had been won by another contender (the Sikorsky S-92), and that the NH90 had been bought due to political considerations.

While the Finnish helicopter program also suffered delays, at one point forcing the once-retired Mi-8’s back into service, the Finnish Army rather quickly regained their footing. In part thanks to the delays, Patria was negotiated to take a bigger role in the overhaul of not only the Finnish but also of foreign helicopters, and by not requiring all documentation and systems to be fully operational immediately, the Army was able to phase the NH90-fleet into use at a relatively fast pace (still years late compared to the original plan). One of the breakthrough moments was the major exercise Pyörremyrsky 2011, which saw a formation of 9 helicopters perform an airlift operations. A first, also by international standards.

In the meantime Sweden was still suffering from issues with regards to the localisation, and the attitude towards incomplete or temporary paperwork was not as forgiving. To make matters more urgent, like in Finland, Sweden was also in the process of retiring their earlier helicopters. In this case, the retirement of the Hkp 10B (Super Puma) meant that the forces in Afghanistan would be without a MEDEVAC helicopter for the foreseeable future, something which was deemed unacceptable. To solve the issue an urgent order for 15 UH-60M Blackhawk was placed in 2011 as a stop-gap solution. Influenced by the troublesome HKP 14 program, the helicopters were ordered according to US standards, with one of the chief programme executives being rumoured to have summed up the order with “I don’t care if it reads ‘US ARMY’ on their sides, just get them here!”.

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Swedish HKP 16 (UH-60M Blackhawk) in joint operations with the ground elements of NBG 15. In an ironic twist, the Finnish detachment to the battle group was a NH90 MEDEVAC unit. Source: Alexander Karlsson/Försvarsmakten

The new Blackhawks provided stellar service in Afghanistan, and once the operation winded down they were integrated into the Swedish Air Force’s Helicopter Wing as part of the medium lift capability of the defence forces. By all accounts the helicopters, locally designated HKP 16, have performed well, and the deal is a prime example of something acquired outside of original plans quickly finding its place in the greater scheme of things. At the same time the transport version HKP 14E was slowly getting introduced into service, but still the critique didn’t let up. The marine version HKP 14F (not to be confused with the international naval version NH90 NFH) was being delayed further until 2015, and entered service both without any kind of anti-submarine torpedo as well as without a working data link to relay information to and from other units.

NH 90 on show
Finnish NH90 during an aerial display in Vaasa in early 2018. Source: Own picture

The latest blow came when it was clear that the Air Force had looked into mothballing all nine HKP 14E, due to the extremely high operating costs, over 19,000 EUR per flight hour. At the heart of the issue lies accounting. The majority of the costs does not come from fuel, but from fixed costs such as yearly overhauls. The high cost means that the Air Force prefer to use the Blackhawks whenever possible, as they sport a flight hour cost one-fifth of that of the HKP 14 . This in turns leads to even lower usage for the HKP 14, further pushing up the cost per hour. To make matters worse, there is speculation that part of the fixed costs are depreciation, i.e. accounting for the fact that the value of the helicopter diminishes per year. A handy tool when it comes to calculating investments in regular companies, a not-so-handy one when it comes to defence budgets.

This is in stark contrast to the Finnish numbers, where the flight hour cost is on a steady downwards trajectory. For 2017 the budgeted flight hour cost was 15,900 EUR, while for 2018 it is down in the neighborhood of around 10,000 EUR. This was confirmed by colonel Jaro Kesänen, Commanding Officer of Utti Jaeger Regiment which is home to the Helicopter Battalion. Speaking as a private citizen, Kesänen noted in a non-formal Twitter exchange that the NH90 is an appreciated asset in the Finnish Defence Forces and that the flight hour cost is within the range envisioned when the helicopters were acquired. Notable is that in the case of Finland the NH90 is the sole transport helicopter available to the Defence Forces (though a limited number of Border Guard helicopters can also be called upon by the authorities), and the caveat should be made that rarely does the Finnish Defence Forces openly voice negative opinions about their own systems.

In the last weeks two major reports on the future of the Swedish Defence Forces have been released. The first was SOU 2018:7 which looked at the long-term needs for new equipment to the Swedish Defence Forces (also known as “Wahlbergs review”). The review looked into mothballing either all HKP 14 or only the army cooperation HKP 14E to make budgetary saving. The conclusions presented was that few to none savings would be made if the HKP 14E was retired, and in case all HKP 14 were retired this would have too large negative effects in the maritime domain. The second report was the Defence Forces’ outlook at how to expand up until 2035 (known as PerP). The report only deals with the Helicopter Wing in passing, and does not mention individual systems. What it does note is identify the need to grow the organisation and its capabilities, in part due to the need for airmobile units. As such, the career of the HKP 14 seems set to continue in the Swedish Defence Forces. Time will tell if it will grow into a beautiful swan, or whether it is destined to stay the ugly duckling of the Helicopter Wing.

Review: Next War: Poland

Chances are that if you are a reader of the blog, you have spent some amount of time thinking about NATO’s northeastern flank. The defence of the Baltics has become an issue of considerable debate, with the Suwałki gap doing its best to become the Fulda gap of the 21st century. At some point one start to wonder how a confrontation would play out? What difference would it e.g. make if NATO sent reinforcements into northern Poland?

NWP

Enter Next War: Poland, an old-school hex-and-counter wargame with all the bells and whistles to warrant an interest also from the professionals. It arrives in a nicely sized box, which is packed full with two maps, plenty of countersheets, and all the rule and scenario books you need. For a full review of what’s in the box, check out this video on GMT Games’ YouTube channel.

…and, yes, the box isn’t one of their better-looking ones. I have a hard time figuring out why GMT chose the mix of pictures of completely different styles. It is especially puzzling as they have some quite spectacular boxarts amongst their offerings, such as Labyrinth or Pendragon.

The maps consist of two completely different ones, one of which is the hex (‘operational’) map which cover the northern part of Poland and into the southern corner of Lithuania. Here the main battle is fought, where brigade and division level units (and the occasional battalions) run around and collide into each other. However, as we all know a major part of the fight would be to get units into theatre. This takes place on the second map, the strategic display. In essence, this cover the Baltic Sea and surrounding land areas, and consists of land and sea regions, as well as holding boxes representing out of area assets (naval units in the North Sea and long-range air units). Here it is possible to fight the battle for sea superiority in the Baltic Sea, to conquer the Baltic states, and to drop a bunch of airborne units on Gotland to exercise control of the shipping lanes and air space if you are so inclined.

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Nice A2/AD bubble you’ve got there, would be a shame if something happened to it…

There are a basic and advanced rules, as well as basic and advanced air rules. The basic rules are rather straightforward for a wargame, while the advanced ones are close to a full-on simulation. Under the advanced rules, the strategic display, a detailed logistics system, and a host of support weapons ranging from short-range ballistics missiles to artillery makes it possible to simulate the Russian A2/AD-bubble and NATO attempts to breach it in all its glory.

The game is complex, there’s no denying it. Multiple factors are at play throughout the turns, and keeping track of everything does feel slightly overwhelming at times. Part of this is due to the modularity of the system. The Next War-system, Poland is the fourth volume, is based on a set of common rules, some of which are shared between basic and standard games, some of which are differing. Then comes the game specific rules, which as the name implies cover things specific for the Polish theatre, as well as the scenario rules. This leads to quite some browsing between the different booklets at times. On the other hand, the modularity is without doubt one of the strengths of the game. In essence, it is one great sandbox, and while it does feature a number of different scenarios with varying levels of NATO reinforcements forward-deployed to the area, there’s nothing stopping you from gaming out different scenarios according to your own liking. The same can be said about the rules, where it is rather easy to pick and choose, e.g. to combine a full set of logistics rules with the basic air war.

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The sheer number of rules can make the game feel a bit overwhelming at times. Still, the gaming aids are top-notch, and help considerably once the game starts going!

The fighting follows a rather standard pattern, with units from one side attacking a neighbouring hex, possible support being allocated, and a number of modifiers come into play depending on everything from how well units cooperate to the type of terrain. A single die roll then resolves each battle, with the result being cross-referenced with the final combat ratio on a combat results table, which sports both die-roll modifiers and column shifts. The advanced air rules are a blast to play, and lets you pit individual squadrons against each other, while the naval rules are by far the most abstracted, and in my opinion, weakest ones. It very much feels like the navy is only included because NATO need to be able to leverage the carrier strength of the US Navy and to have a means of transport for the US Marine expeditionary force headed for the beaches of Kaliningrad or a nice Polish harbour.

An interesting concept is the initiative mechanics, whereby one of the players might have the initiative for the whole turn. This provides additional movement and combat phases, representing an attacker having the momentum, but can also easily lead to overstretching as the game also simulates the downsides of pushing the units hard to try and keep up the momentum. If the initiative player isn’t able to keep up the steam, judged by the amount of victory points during the last turn, the turns becomes contested until either player manages to secure the initiative again. This is a prime example of how complex real-world effects are taken into account and integrated into the game by relatively straightforward means.

There are some weaknesses with the game. The maps are nice, but they are printed on thick paper and not mounted. This is the usual way when it comes to wargames, and it is a nice paper quality. Still, it is something worth noting for any non-wargamers stumbling upon this. The player aids are also printed on the same thicker paper, and are in full colour. The main issue for me personally is however the scope of the hex map. As it sits now, it covers the majority of the Kaliningrad exclave, but not quite up to its northern border. In the same way, the southern part of the Suwałki gap is covered, but the battle for its northern end will take place solely on the strategic display. And if the player wants to do a Bagration 2.0 and head for Warszawa from the south, that would be outside the scope of both maps. I understand the reasoning though, because it ties in with another issue.

The game is huge.

The maps are 56 x 61 cm and 56 x 86 cm respectively. In addition you will have a number of cups with all counters that doesn’t happen to be on the board at any given moment, and it is usually a good idea to have the rule books and player aids nearby. All in all, this might not be the game for you if live in a small flat. Effectively doubling the size of the operational map by extending it towards Vilnius to the north and Krakow to the south would mean that any game would require quite a bit of property to be properly set up (with that said, if a double size map covering Vilnius to Krakow would be offered as an add-on, I would certainly buy it!).

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A Russian armoured unit have broken through a gap in the lines and is heading west, but risks a potential supply shortage as Polish infantry dug in in the main cities still control the road network.

The observant reader will notice that a pattern emerges. The scope and complexity of the game is intense, but at the same time its greatest strength. Already with the relatively limited playing time I’ve had with it I’ve learnt new things with regards to the real world situation. It should be stressed that the complexity is based on the fact that modern conflicts are complex and multifaceted, and it never feels like the rules are complex just for the sake of it. Instead, while I am a novice when it comes to hex-and-counter games (my sole earlier experience is described here) I felt that my understanding of real-world conflicts helped me get going with the game. The rules felt logical, and it was easy to grasp what the designer was going after with any single point (though as noted memorising the whole lot was quite something else!). I also never felt like I encountered any significant case of a real-world factor missing (there’s even rules for refugees clogging the roads during the early stages of the conflict), which is high praise for a wargame in my books.

The game isn’t for anyone, but neither is this blog, so I have no qualms about highly recommending it to any of my blog readers with an interest in conflict simulation!

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There’s no lack of counters, and I highly recommend some kind of storage solution if you invest in this game, as sorting through the whole bunch is *not* and ideal way to start your gaming session…

…and before anyone asks: Finland isn’t included, Sweden joins NATO with their Air Force and SOF units if Russia invades Gotland (P 18 is missing), Norway is missing, while Denmark is a fully featured though minor NATO-country.

Oh, and we certainly need a volume in the series situated in northern Finland/Sweden/Norway. Please, GMT?

Ballistic Missile Defence for Pohjanmaa?

As was noted earlier Finland has requested the export of quad-packed ESSM surface-to-air missiles for fitting in the Mk 41 vertical launch system (VLS). In itself the request was rather unsurprising, but I did find it odd that the Navy was asking about the canister designed for the Mk 41 and not the dedicated Mk 56 ESSM VLS.

Operation Iraqi Freedom is the multi-national coalition effort to liberate the Iraqi people, eliminate IraqÕs weapons of mass destruction, and end the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Mk 41 Strike length launchers in action, as the destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) fires a TLAM cruise missile against Iraqi targets in 2003. Source: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons

This week a key part of the answer was revealed, as the DCSA report for the Mk 41’s themselves was released. The Finnish request is for four 8-cell Mk 41, of the full-long ‘Strike length’ version. This is the same as carried by US Navy (and Japanese) destroyers and cruisers, as well as by a number of NATO frigates. The options for the strike length launcher include a large variety of US-built surface-to-air missiles, as well as the TLAM (Tomahawk) long-range cruise missile and the VL-ASROC anti-submarine weapon (a rocket which carries a parachute-retarded anti-submarine torpedo out to a considerable range). The downside is the size. To fit the large missiles, the cells are 7.6 m long. The logical choice if one want to fit Mk 41 solely for use with ESSM’s into a corvette is the 5.2 m Self-defense module. In between the two is the 6.7 m Tactical length cells, which add the SM-2 long-range SAM and the ASROC, but is unable to fit the TLAM or the SM-6/SM-3/SM-2 Blk IV (SM-2 with a booster). The SM-2 Blk IV and SM-3 are able to target ballistic missiles, while the SM-6 is a longer-range missile against airborne targets.

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Concept render showing the key combat systems of the vessel. Note the placement of the surface-to-air missiles. Source: Finnish MoD

Now, as late as last week I said in a discussion that it is not possible to fit the Strike length cells on the Pohjanmaa-class, as they are too long for a corvette. In all renders so far the VLS cells have been fitted in front of the superstructure, on deck level. Considering the low draft of the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes, just over 3 meters, it is doubtful whether the cells can be fitted within the confines of the bow. However, if the single cell is mounted along the centreline as opposed to across it, and if it gets a stepped platform a’la Type 26, it just might be doable (or a reshuffle with the Mk 41’s moving into the superstructure and the SSM’s moving to the foredeck/mission bay/further forward/aft/somewhere else).

So why would the Navy be interested in a cell that is two sizes larger than the missile they are planning on pairing it with? The answer is likely that they want to keep all options open. While I very much doubt that the ASROC would fit Finnish doctrine, the TLAM could open up new possibilities. However, if the Defence Forces want more cruise missiles, buying more of whatever will replace the JASSM on the winner of the HX-program is likely the better option (or alternatively buying a long-range weapon for the M270 MLRS). However, the possibility to provide some measure of protection against ballistic missiles might be of interest. While it certainly would be a major undertaking, the vessels will be in service for a long time and “fitted for but not with” is a time-honored tradition when it comes to naval shipbuilding. It should be noted that all kinds of ballistic missile defences are politically highly sensitive. Analysts have noted the similarities to the acquisition of the multirole F/A-18 Hornet back in the day, where even if the fighters were capable of flying ground attack missions, political considerations meant that the capability was only taken into use at a later stage, with the MLU2 mid-life upgrade.

The strike length cells also open up the possibility to fit some interesting anti-ship missiles in the future, as both the LRASM and the JSM are currently being tested in configurations suitable for launch from the Mk 41. Being able to swap out a number of SAM’s for more anti-ship missiles might be an interesting option at some point down the road (or at least interesting enough that the Navy doesn’t want to close the door just yet).

I will admit that the latest development have taken me by surprise. However, it does seem like the Navy is serious about fitting the vessels with systems that will allow them to field firepower to rival some significantly larger vessels. The question is whether the budget will live up to the ambitions?

A Little Something about “Jägare”

While the Finnish and Swedish armed forces in general are rather similar, the languages they speak differ. And not only in the obvious difference between Swedish and Finnish (and Swedish), but key words and phrases differ as well. While the difference between engineers (ingenjörer) and pioneers (pioneerit) is largely quaint and shouldn’t cause too much trouble, the word jaeger (jägare/jääkäri) is another matter completely. In the Finnish Defence Forces the word has several different, sometimes slightly contradictory meanings. My personal rank is that of a jääkäri, which simply translates to private. But it is also used to describe different kinds of infantry, such as mechanised (panssarijääkäri), rangers (erikoisrajajääkäri), or urban (kaartinjääkäri). Historically, it has also described the original Finnish jääkärit trained in Germany during WWI.

In Swedish the word has much narrower use, describing ranger-style army special forces. However, there has also been a significant shift in both the mission and tactics used compared to the pre-2000 Swedish jägare, so when Swedish defence blogger Jägarchefen wrote a post describing the modern Arméns Jägarbataljon, I asked for permission to run the translated version as a guest post.

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An interesting discussion took place on Twitter 10FEB2018, a discussion I followed from the side. Part of the discussion came to focus on how airmobile and ranger units could be used in an armed conflict. Airmobile units I will happily leave to the professional officers of the 31. Battalion to recount. However, it might be suitable to describe how today’s, sole, ranger battalion would operate in, i.e. Arméns Jägarbataljon (AJB, the Swedish Army Ranger Battalion), the wartime 193. Ranger Battalion.

The, unfortunately, stubborn picture in the Swedish Defence Forces in general and in the Army in particular regarding how the rangers fight is based on how the Norrlandsjägarbataljon’s (NjBat’s) and Jägarbataljon syd (Jbat Syd) would have fought during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Their battle would take the form of direct action followed by a decisive battle behind enemy lines. In other words, the battalions were given a geographical area, which was further divided into company-, platoon-, and squad areas. Within these the so called direct action would take place, simply put different forms of ambushes against predetermined targets such as supply vehicles during a prolonged time. The battle would then transform to interdiction once the divisions of the Swedish Army would launch their all-out offensive aimed at destroying the enemy formations. During this interdiction-phase the ranger battalion would stop all enemy movements within their given area, and thereby support the main corps-level effort.

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A ranger squad from the Ranger Battalion in terrain typical to Northern Sweden. Source: Jimmy Croona/Försvarsmakten

The overarching thought with NJbat and Jbat Syd was partly to ‘tax’ the predetermined targets, and partly to create a threat that the enemy would need to allocate resources to counter, thereby reducing the units available at the actual frontline. Together, this would allow for own combat units to, possibly, achieve numerical superiority in their battles.

This idea is unfortunately very much alive in schools, centras, and commands. In different kinds of wargames the symbol for ranger battalion is often placed in a number of squares on the map, where it then spends the rest of the time while the tactics is played out elsewhere. In principle this is correct for the tactics of days gone by, but in no way corresponding to today’s sole ranger battalion. Today’s ranger battalion is in no way tied to a certain geographical area as NjBat or Jbat Syd were, but is instead used where the capabilities of the unit provides the greatest benefit to the common fight.

How does the operations then benefit the common fight? Before solving more complex missions, i.e. those on high tactical, operational, or strategic levels, a thorough analysis of the coming enemy is always conducted. Own vulnerabilities are always identified, so that they can be protected, but also the vulnerabilities of the adversary is mapped out. These include so called critical vulnerabilities, which might have to be influenced. Obviously, the adversary will in some cases, like us, be aware of his vulnerabilities, while in other cases, like us, he will be unaware of these. If he is aware of his critical vulnerabilities, he will naturaly allocate resources to protect these.

If these critical vulnerabilities are influenced they will create ripples, which makes other parts of the enemy vulnerable. An interesting fact, which often but not always hold true, is that the critical vulnerabilities found deep within terrain held by the opposing force usually create bigger ripple effects if influenced than those closer to the frontline. It is these targets, critical vulnerabilities deep behind enemy lines, that today’s Swedish Ranger Battalion is set to work against. This also means that the targets might be highly prioritised, and that the enemy might allocate sophisticated and sometimes extensive resources to their protection.

As such, today’s sole ranger battalion is miles apart from its predecessors. The unit isn’t tied to specific geographic areas, but is used deep behind enemy lines against the critical vulnerabilities that have been identified as having the potential to affect the outcome of the battle. How the battle is fought and with what unit size is not defined in set doctrinal rules, but rather decided on the basis of the specific target in question (the critical vulnerability). It follows that the unit isn’t meant to be used in the role it’s often wargamed in in schools, centras, and commands, i.e. direct action along roads during prolonged times.

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All Swedish rangers get basic mountain warfare training, provided by the officers of the dedicated Mountain Platoon. Source: Jimmy Croona/Försvarsmakten

A secondary effect of influencing the critical vulnerabilities is that the enemy will have to allocate resources to protect their rear areas, perhaps in even larger numbers than before. This is due to the fact that it isn’t possible to predict where and how the rangers will operate in the same way as earlier. This will indirectly tie down resources to counter the threat and create a more beneficial numerical situation along the frontline, in addition to the direct effect on the critical vulnerabilities.

I will argue that the lack of this knowledge means future higher level officers, and to a certain extent current ones, will fail to understand how a highly capable instrument should be used in their planning and in the conduct of the battle. An instrument that in my opinion can play a part in deciding the outcome of the common fight.

Finally, it should be noted that this post is written in a very general way to not disclose strengths, weaknesses, or tactics. As such, no classified information is touched upon in this post.

Have a good one! // Jägarchefen