Wargames

A recent discussion on Twitter caught my eye. In short, fellow blogger ‘IsoT’ had made a scenario in Command: Modern Operations where he ran HX-contenders in strike missions against Russian targets. What raised eyebrows was that a combined Super Hornet/Growler-force had little issues with cleaning out enemy aircraft, they struggled in the face of the Russian IADS. Perhaps most surprisingly, the suppression reportedly worked rather well, but few kills against enemy radars/other GBAD-systems were scored. This peeked my interest, and I got intrigued enough to start doing my own wargaming. But let’s start from the beginning.

What is Command: Modern Operations?

Command: Modern Operations (CMO) is the follow-on to the older Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations (COMANO), itself the spiritual successor to the old Harpoon-series. The basic version is based on open sources and meant largely for entertainment purposes (though granted you need a bit of an unconventional definition of “entertainment” to enjoy it, but I figure most of my readers will fit that description). There is also a professional edition, which sport an impressive list of references (including, ironically enough, both Boeing and Lockheed Martin, as well as a number of services). CMO is widely billed as the best simulator available to the general public for this kind of scenarios, though obviously it being based on open information will lead to a certain amount of guesswork when it comes to the most classified capabilities (such as stealth and EW). As such, while you shouldn’t treat the results as gospel, it does provide some interesting pointers.

Note that there for all aircraft are some omissions/less than ideal loadouts in the database for the rather particular Finnish case. These will have an effect on the outcome. I also generally prefer to create the missions and then let the AI play them out instead of directing individual aircraft and shots. With that said, I have not played the scenarios completely hands-off, but have intervened a few times when e.g. the automated waypoints are placed straight on top of known enemy air defence sites.

So what’s the situation?

For my scenario I imagine us being a bit into a conflict taking place roughly in 2031, with Russian forces advancing on the Vyborg-Hamina and Vyborg-Lappeenranta routes, as well as holding force being located in Niirala/Värtsilä. At this stage the Finnish Air Force decides that cutting a bunch of bridges in the enemy’s rear will slow things down for the aggressor, and as such a coordinated strike is mounted.

The Russian forces are made up of fighters, IADS, Army air defence units, as well as small surface action group operating between Gogland and St Petersburg. In the interest of keeping things manageable and staying with the large coordinated strike-theme I decided to not model enemy air strikes which could be presumed to take place at the same time. As such, no Russian air-to-ground aircraft or helicopters are included in the scenario, and a number of Finnish fighters are deducted to represent fighters on stand-by for other missions (such as defensive counter air).

So how many fighters do Finland have free for this mission? A very rough calculation starts with 64 HX fighters, of which say 12 are unavailable due to maintenance, another 12 shot-down, destroyed, or damaged so that they are unavailable, and 12 being used for other missions. That leaves 28 available for what would be the main offensive air operation, which does sound like a number that is in the right neighbourhood. You can argue it up or down, but in the end that is largely a question of details. As this is the Finnish Air Force we’re talking about, the fighters are dispersed over a number of bases, with the most obviously being found on the main air force bases (Tampere-Pirkkala, Jyväskylä-Tikkakoski, and Kuopio-Rissala in this case, as Rovaniemi is too far north to be of much importance for this operation). The Finnish forces also has their trusty C-295 Dragon Shield SIGINT platform airborne, and there are a number of Finnish GBAD and air surveillance systems spread out (NASAMS-ER isn’t found in the database, so we presume CAMM has won the ITSUKO award).

Sweden and other countries are friendly but not involved in the fighting. That means that BAP (made up of four Italian Eurofighters, of which three are serviceable) and Sweden (operating a GlobalEye and escorting JAS 39E Gripens out of F 16 Uppsala) share their situational picture with Finland. You may argue this is unrealistic, but it felt like a suitable middle ground between modelling a full-scale Baltic Sea-wide conflict on one side and a completely isolated Finland on the other.

The Russians

Perhaps the biggest question for the scenario is the Russian order of battle. I have made a number of assumptions based on the current Russian OOB, in essence assuming upgrades are taking place, a number of units are pulled from other districts to support the conflict, and that modern weaponry (R-77 being key here) are available in numbers (this last point has proved a surprisingly big hurdle when it comes to modernising Russian air power, but in another ten years I am going to give them the assumption of finally having a modern active MRAAM).

The basic view at the start of the scenario on the Russian side. Note the civilian bogey in the north-east, one of a handful of civilian aircraft flying around.

With regards to the units, the following will be doing the fighting and the changes I’ve made:

  • 159 IAP in Besovets (Petrozavodsk) will have received another Su-35S squadron to replace it’s current Su-27SM one, bringing their total strength up to three squadrons of Su-35S,
  • 790 IAP at Kohtilovo replaces their last Su-27SM with Su-35S, bringing their total strength up to two squadrons of MiG-31BM and one of Su-35S. The Su-35S squadron is forward-deployed to Pushkin (St Petersburg), while the two MiG-31BM squadrons provide escort to the AEW&C aircrafts and fly CAP with a prosecution area over St Petersburg while patrolling a bit further back,
  • The naval air arm will have converted both squadrons to MiG-29K (with a small number of MiG-29KUBR), and both 279 KIAP and 100 KIAP are forward-deployed to Gromovo, which have been used by the units earlier,
  • AEW&C is provided by the 610 TsBP out of Ivanovo Severnyi with a small number of A-100 (the unit currently operating variants of the A-50),
  • Current plans call for three squadrons of Su-57 to have been delivered by then. I have based two of these at Pushkin and Besovets respectively, being designated 31 IAP and 14 IAP respectively. The designations are more and indication that these are reinforcements deployed north for this particular conflict rather than me betting that A) these will be among the first three units two set up squadrons of Su-57, and B) that these two wings would provide the squadrons used to reinforce a Finnish conflict.

Again, there are lots of arguments to be made with regards to which particular units would come to support, whether there would be more or less or units, and how many would be available to meet a Finnish air strike and how many would be tied up with other tasks (such as escort missions) in the same way a number of Finnish aircraft are (again, we are only looking at the Finnish strike and the Russian response, which is an oversimplification, but one that hopefully strikes a balance between engagements too small to provide useful data and those too large to be able to run properly).

The Russian Air Force (and Naval Aviation) will fly three main CAP-boxes in addition to the air defence missions the MiG-31s are tasked with. One box roughly cover the Karelian Ishmuts and inner parts of the Gulf of Finland. This is covered by the Pushkin-based units, and at T=0 there are one flight of Su-35S and two of Su-57 taking off (each flight consisting of two fighters), with a third Su-57 flight and two Su-35S flights being ready at T+60 and another 10+10 aircraft in reserve.

The central CAP-box cover the Karelian Isthmus and Lake Ladoga as well as the immediate shoreline of it to the north and north-east. This is the responsibility of the naval fighters, launching three flights of MiG-29K at T=0, followed by another two flights at T+60, and 15 MiG-29K plus 4 MiG-29KUB in reserve.

The Northern CAP-box stretches roughly from the centreline of Lake Ladoga and up to the centreline of Onega. This is the responsibility of the Besovets-based fighters, which launches one flight of Su-57 and two flights of Su-35S at T=0, with a second Su-57 flight at T+30 and two Su-35S flights at T+60, with another 5+18 aircraft in reserve.

The Navy would likely mainly operate out of Baltiysk, but I included a small surface action group made up of one Project 2235 Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate and two Project 22800 Karakurt-class corvettes.

The integrated air defences consist of a number of units, spread out over both regions:

  • Four battalions of S-400 providing general air defence coverage,
  • Six 9K330Tor-M2KM platoons, defending installations such as radars, bridges, and airfields,
  • Seven 9K37M1-2 Buk-M1-2 platoons, defending different areas and key targets,
  • Four Pantsir-SM platoons,
  • Five 1L257 Krasuha-4 and three 1L267 Moskva-1 jammers/ELINT-platforms,
  • One 55Zh6M Nebo-M (Tall Rack) VHF-band radar at Valamo in Lake Ladoga,
  • One 36D6 (Tin Shield B) air surveillance radar on Gogland.

In all cases I’ve strived to place the units at local high spots to provide ample coverage.

In addition, the army units are obviously supported by their own air defence units:

  • Two S-300V4 Antey battalions supporting the main thrust, being placed close to the bridges over the Bay of Vyborg,
  • Five 9K22M1 Tunguska-M1 platoons,
  • Eleven ZSU-23-4 Shilka platoons.

In a real-world scenario there obviously would be a ground-war going on, hiding the GBAD-platforms among a number of other radar blips. To provide for something to that effect without having the processor try to smoke itself, I’ve inserted a total of 30 generic T-72BM platoons (four MBTs in each). In this scenario, their only mission is to mask the important units.

Again, it is entirely possible to argue for any number of changes to the setup presented above, but at the end of the day I believe there should be enough fireworks to separate the wheat from the chaff.*

F-35A – Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes

IsoT reportedly flew with bombs. My spontaneous reaction was that that felt like literally begging for flak, but I was certainly not going to skip over testing that. Especially as Lockheed Martin has argued for the F-35 having an edge over the competition in being able to use cost-effective weapons (i.e. bombs) when others will have to use longer-ranged (i.e. more expensive) munitions. So to begin with, let’s see if the F-35A can bring down a bunch of highly defended bridges with GBU-31!

The F-35A strikes kicking off. Note how the detailed sensor modelling means that one of the vessels in the SAG shows up on both the radar and the AN/ASQ-239 Barracuda of ‘Villisika One’, providing a good fix on the position, while the slightly greater bearing angle to the other vessel means that the radar can’t see it, making the distance to the target more uncertain.

The idea is simple. Four F-35A north and six F-35A south of Lake Ladoga will clean up the ground-based air defence in their respective areas with GBU-53/B SDB II, while the strikes will take place with eight F-35As towards Olonets (plus two escorting) and four F-35As towards the Vyborg-bridges (plus four escorting). All aircraft carries only internal loadouts.

The escorting fighters on the Vyborg strike have no issue cleaning up the enemy fighters with their AIM-120D (AIM-120C-8 wasn’t available in the loadout options), but the ships have noticed them.

This isn’t working out too well. The F-35s dive towards the deck, but both get bagged by the ship-launched SAMs (9M96D, fired from the naval version of the S-350 found aboard Admiral Gorshkov).

The lead is going down in flames, soon to be followed by the wingman. ‘F-22’ in the background refer to ‘Freighter 22’, a Boeing 777 slowly cruising over Pskov, and not a USAF stealth fighter

The northern battle is rather tense, with the enemy fighters making more of a showing.

A number of fighters and missiles from both sides flying around over the border north of Lake Ladoga.

An interesting detail is that the air battle to the north pull away most fighters from the Karelian Isthmus, leaving the door open for the incoming strike aircraft (well, with the exception of the ground-based systems…). It can be mentioned that at this stage the two F-35As have been joined by no less than 13 enemy fighters in the ‘Lost’-column (5 MiG-29K, 4 Su-35S, 4 Su-57). Also worth mentioning that the Finnish fighters have already fired no more than 35 AIM-120D AMRAAMs (against 23 R-77 and eight 9M96D for the Russians), showing the value of large weapon stocks.

However, things take a turn for the worse, and there’s only so many active radarseekers one can outrun. Both the fighters and the Admiral Gorshkov start to take their toll. At the same time the SEAD-efforts and strikes are starting to create some havoc.

The end-result are somewhat surprising. Pushing in to use JDAMs prove though, with 13 out of 28 F-35As not coming home. On the enemy side, more or less the whole first wave of fighters is brought down, with 18 downed aircraft shared equally between MiG-29K, Su-35S, and Su-57. The SEAD-mission is something of a failure, with a large number of the 59 GBU-53/Bs being dropped in-flight by enemy fire. In the end, two Buk TELARs and one Buk LLV as well as a handfull of Shilkas are wiped out. Five bridges are brought down, including one of the heavily defended ones next to Vyborg. Most surprising was the relatively low number of kills for the GBADs, with a Buk and a S-300V4 scoring a single kill each with the fighters and in particular the Admiral Gorshkov proving highly effective. Of course, the large number of missiles in the air that force the F-35s to bleed energy means that the larger systems might have played a more important role in ensuring the kills than the statistics seem to indicate, but considering the large number of missiles fired (10 9M338K from the Tor, 24 9M317 from the Buk, 19 9M311-M1 from the Tungushka, 33 40N6 from the S-400, 48 9M83M from the S-300V4, and 32 9M96D from the Gorshkov), the probability of a kill isn’t overly impressive for the ground-based systems. In part, the F-35s operating at altitude and the flanking position of the Gorshkov probably explain its success compared to the other systems.

Two reruns – including one where I try to actively target the Gorshkov in the first wave of strikes – gives roughly the same result. Yes, you can achieve the target, but there will be significant blood. It feels like it should be doable, but somehow there’s always too much stuff flying around in the air for the aircraft to make it out. The issues with internal loads, especially for the strike- and SEAD-aircraft, is also evident in that two AMRAAMs simply isn’t enough for a serious fight, and if they get cut off from their escorts (who still only sling six AMRAAMs a piece) they will quickly run out off options that aren’t spelled RTB.

But there’s a reason Finland wants JASSMs.

This time with less Finns in the skies of Russia.

The JASSM-strike looks impressive, but the results are surprisingly mixed. The strike aircraft can launch from the safety of staying right above their airfield, but the missiles are vulnerable and need escorting. In the north, the horde of enemy fighters jump on the missiles and the CAP escorts get overwhelmed and shot down trying to protect the missiles. Ironically, this opens up the south, and the lack of fighter cover there means that more or less all weapons get through, reducing four out of five of the key bridges to rubble. But the losses among the CAP and SEAD aircraft that got a bit too close actually means that the Russians achieve a 2:1 kill ratio when eight F-35As are brought down from a combination of fighters and SAMs (including the Gorshkov, which I am really starting to worry about). Still, this was for sure the most effective way of killing bridges, and a one-two-punch of first dragging the fighters north with a four-ship taking off and pretending to pick a fight before turning and running for Rovaniemi while in the south the bridges of Vyborg are bombarded, followed by a second wave after the enemy fighters have returned to their main CAP-boxes might be the holy grail of bridge-hunting.

A quick re-run seems to indicate this is indeed the way forward. The four-ship flying bait does suffer losses (three aircraft shot down, of which one pilot got out), but the enemy losses are serious: nine bridges, 6 MiG-29K, 6 Su-35S, and 4 Su-57. Even despite this not being the out-and-out success I should be possible by making the turn north timed better, this is still a kill:loss ratio in excess of 5:1, and bringing down nine bridges with a combined firing of 24 JASSM isn’t bad. The one thing that was more interesting was the relative lack of success for the SEAD-birds, with both GBU-53s and AGM-88E AARGM-ER (the latter which notably hasn’t been mentioned in Finnish F-35 discussion) being swatted out of the air at comfortable distance by the enemy air defences (again, Gorshkov played a major role).

Typhoon – High and fast

The Eurofighter would in Finnish service align with the UK model, and as such we sprinkle 28 Typhoons with CAPTOR-E radars on the Finnish airfields. Again, let’s first see if we can go out with bombs.

The first step is to launch a four-ship loaded with Meteors from a westerly base to try and sweep away fighters by being able to come in with speed and altitude. The large amount of Meteors pay dividends, as the four Typhoons manage to fight of a number of Su-57 and Su-35S and score five for the loss of a single aircraft.

The Typhoons continue to do well in the air-to-air arena, dodging streams of enemy missiles (including the feared S-300V4) while keeping dropping enemy aircraft. A first wave of SEAD-aircraft causes chaos as enemy fighters and air defences keep hunting swarms of Spear-EW jammers, but the destruction of air defences fail as the strike pair equipped with Spear-missiles fail to properly identify their targets. Still, with a kill:loss ratio at 8:1 things are looking rather promising. Now about those bridges…

The bombers are unable to close on their targets as streams of SAMs force them to keep dodging in the skies above Utti. The combination of DASS and aerodynamics is impressive, and it feels like the aircraft are in fact better able to dodge missile fire than the F-35 was. One possible explanation is that the missiles are fired at longer ranges, allowing for more time to react.

The huge number of Spear EW released by any single Typhoon is a very nice feature. Unfortunately the database doesn’t allow for mixed loadouts, as in reality a SEAD-bird would likely carry a mix of kinetic and EW SPEARs

The whole thing is a bit of a mixed bag. As said, the enemy missiles are largely punching air, but that also means that there’s preciously little in the way of moving forward in the face of combined Buk and S-300V4 fires. Eventually I take manual control and try to push the bombers into firing range of the Vyborg bridges, leading to all four being shot down. The Spears are however a really nice capability, as with the short-ranged loads allowing for four hardpoints dedicated to three each, a pair of Typhoons can bring 24 missiles to the fight. In a fight where volume is crucial, having four aircraft launch 24 jammers/false targets followed by 24 missiles actually allows for some kills, including the Nebo-radar, a 9A83M TELAR and a 9A84 LLV from the S-300V4 batteries, a single Shilka, and five T-72BM as collateral damage during the SEAD-strikes. The Meteors also by far outshine the R-77s, and despite me pushing the bombers too far (leaving 12 Typhoons as craters in the ground) the exchange ratio is somewhat positive with 10 MiG-29K, 10 Su-35S, 4 Su-57, and a single MiG-31BM joining them in the lawn dart-club, netting the Finnish Air Force just over 2:1 in kills-ratio.

Again, the pure amount of munitions fired is enough to make the budget weep:

  • 16x AIM-120C-5 AMRAAM P3I.2
  • 8x GBU-24E/B Paveway III GPS/LGB [BLU-109A/B] (somehow there wasn’t an option for a serious bombload with Paveway IVs in the database, would have been interesting to see how those would have fared against bridges)
  • 70x Meteor
  • 3x Sky Sabre [Land Ceptor]
  • 56x SPEAR 3
  • 72x SPEAR EW

For the Russian side, the expenditure was even worse:

  • 2x R-73M
  • 9x R-74M2
  • 105x R-77-1/R-77M (!)
  • 8x R-37M
  • 6x 9M338K (Tor)
  • 30x 9M317 (Buk)
  • 4x 9M311-M1 (Tunguska)
  • 48x 9M83M (S-300V4)
  • 32x 9M96D (Gorshkov S-350), i.e. the whole complement of missiles
  • 4x 57E6 (Gorshkov Pantsir)
  • …and a ton of rounds ranging from 23 mm to 130 mm in diameter

So where does that leave us?

Well, the Typhoons did better than the F-35 with both the air-to-air ratio and the number of bridges hit roughly similar – though the Typhoons did not manage to get through to hurt any of the bridges at Vyborg, of which the F-35s brought down one. Would it be possible to bomb the bridges in Olonets and use Storm Shadows to get the southern ones?

The first four CAP birds do an excellent job, bagging eleven enemy fighters with their 28 Meteors, and escaping the enemy hail of missiles (25 R-77M/R-77-1 and 10 9M96D) – I must say that if the survivability of the Typhoons in the face of enemy missile fire is anything like this in the real world, I am highly impressed. An interesting detail is that the Typhoons are able to pick out the Su-57 at roughly max weapons range (Meteor) through a combination of Pirate and DASS, i.e. not by using the E-SCAN radar.

After that, things get more harsh. The SEAD-birds and second CAP-wave push deep into enemy territory, and manage to temporarily achieve something resembling air dominance in the airspace covering the whole operational area. Unfortunately it is rather temporary, and poor timing on my part between bomber wave and the overconfident fighters means that the second enemy fighter wave manage to bag a number of Typhoons. However, the bombers managed to get through without issue and bring down four bridges on the Olonets Isthmus (before being shot down by chasing enemy fighters) and with the earlier losses of aircraft that penetrated deep into enemy territory a total of eleven Typhoons were lost. While that is just one better than the earlier case, four out of five bridges around Vyborg was brought down by just eight Storm Shadows (I fired double missiles per bridge, turns out all got through and half the missiles found an empty spot on the map upon arrival) to add to the four bombed bridges, the enemy losses to both aircraft and ground systems was also significant (4x MiG-29K, 8x Su-35S, 7x Su-57, 6x MiG-31BM plus the Nebo, 2x 9A331 TELAR (Tor), 3 9A83M TELAR and a 9A84 LLV (S-300V4), 4x T-72BM).

The Typhoon being able to hit the deck and then take the elevator back up again is a huge benefit when it comes to evading incoming missiles

The Typhoon did surprise me. There’s lots of talk about how it shines in the air-to-air role but suffers in the air-to-ground compared to some of the competition, but the wargaming really drives home the point about how the combination of serious sensors and stellar aerodynamics means that even when the first layer of the survivability onion is penetrated, failing at “don’t be seen” doesn’t mean all that much if the enemy struggle with “don’t be hit”. I also know that quite a few of the losses in the last run could have been avoided if I had had a better handle on things, so even if the final score sheet wasn’t as impressive as I was aiming for, I certainly feel that the aircraft is a solid performer.

Rafale- Everyone gets a dual-seeker

The first thing that strike me when sending out a four-ship of Rafales from the north to try and drag aircraft away is that RBE-2AA radar is able to pick out and identify vehicles on the ground. Not sure if this is indicative of the radar being better than some of the alternatives, or whether there is some checkbox that I’ve marked differently (CMO has quite a few…), but it certainly helps with the situational awareness considering both the F-35 and the Typhoon (to a lesser extent, but still) struggled with creating a proper picture of which enemy ground units are where.

The RBE2 AESA-radar is instrumental in getting a good picture on the ground. In the end it lead to all struck ground targets being either bridges or GBAD-related, with no munitions “wasted” on tanks.

Another interesting detail is that the CAP-birds first choose to use their MICA NG (both IR- and active radar-versions), saving the Meteors.

The Rafales aren’t as overwhelming when it comes to air-to-air as the Typhoon was, and in the intial engagement two of the four fighters are brought down in the first exchange. That’s also where the good news ends for the Russians, as seven of their own are brought down (2x MiG-29K, 4x Su-35S, and a single Su-57). The weapons and sensor range means that only eight R-77M are fired by the enemies, before they have their hands full with evading the incoming MICA and Meteors.

The rather complex main strike

However, the main strike with the SEAD-birds pushing out in front fare significantly better when it comes do dodging incoming missiles. My guess is that  having a larger number of friendly shooters leave the enemy unable to provide proper mid-course guidance, making their fire less accurate, when they have to keep dodging incoming weapons. It is also notable that as opposed to the Typhoon’s ASRAAM – which in effect never was used in the runs I did – the MICA is frequently used by the Rafales thanks to its range.

With no JSM for the Rafale in the database, the main SEAD-weapon is the SBU-54 AASM which sport a 250-kg bomb equipped with glide kit and dual-mode GPS/IIR-seeker. The number carried per aircraft is smaller compared to SPEAR 3 or the SDB-family of weapons, but the bang is still nice and the dual-mode seeker means that mobile targets are valid. Two MiG-31 appear and create a bit of a bad feeling at very-long range, downing a strike aircraft and a SEAD-bird, but the SEAD-effort is by far the best seen so far.

The range of the MICA NG is rather impressive, as is evident here with strike aircraft going feet wet over northern Lake Ladoga (note that Tacview doesn’t draw water in lakes) firing on a fighter heading south over the outskirts of St Petersburg

The end result I dare say is the best seen so far, despite the feared long-range GBAD batteries finally managing to score a few successes against escorts pushing deep and the SCALP-EG somehow seemingly having worse luck with defensive fire compared to the Storm Shadow. The air-to-air game isn’t as impressive, with “only” 17 fighters brought down (6x MiG-29K, 7x Su-35S, and 4x Su-57) against a loss of seven Rafales, but in the air-to-ground arena a total of 13 targets are wiped out (including three of the Vyborg bridges) and the SEAD-side is by far the best yet (the Nebo is dead, as are four 9A331 TELAR (Tor), two 9A310M1-2 TELAR and a 9A39M1-2 LLV (Buk), and four Shilkas. The usefulness of the presumably cheaper MICA (65 fired) also means that just 13 Meteors had to be used for that effect, and the air-to-ground munitions was dominated by the AASM (27 1,000 kg ones for bridges and 30 250 kg ones for SEAD) with an additional eight SCALP-EG for the best defended bridges.

Super Hornet/Growler – Hear me roar

So getting back to where it all started, with the Super Hornet and Growlers. I assume that the losses earlier in the conflict would have been smaller for the Growler-fleet, and that they would have been prioritised in this major strike mission, so the order of battle is 10 EA-18G Growlers and 18 F/A-18E Super Hornets. It is immediately obvious that sending four-ships of Super Hornets out on CAP just isn’t doable, as that occupies too many strike aircraft. At the same time, the plan is to ensure that they stick close to the Growlers for self-protection, better situational picture, and for added firepower. Note that while a Growler in real-life can be used for regular strike missions, the database does not allow for non-SEAD/DEAD-associated lodas.

The first step is simple: put a pair of Growlers escorted by a pair of Super Hornets over south-eastern Finland to get a good overview of the situation.

The Growlers take off, and the magic happens.

You emit, the Growler knows you are there

Immediately they start getting fixes on the different fighters and ships in the area. The “I know everything”-feeling Michael Paul talked about is certainly there.

The only problem with the feeling is that we are feeling slightly overwhelmed, with at least 17 enemy fighters currently airborne. I decide to launch more fighters and temporarily withdraw my current two northwest of Jyväskylä. The fighters trade positively, scoring 11 kills (and forcing a Su-57 down within range of a Land Ceptor battery, which score a twelfth kill!), but lose seven aircraft of their own. Clearly more firepower is needed in the first wave.

Trying to seize whatever momentum I have, I launch an all-out strike with SEAD-escorts. Unfortunately, most of the SEAD-escort figure the SAG is the most menacing target for AARGMs, and while they aren’t exactly wrong, the ships easily swat the missiles out of the air with a Pk close to 1.0. On the positive side, JSOW C-1 turn out to be a surprisingly effective weapon even in the face of the heavily defended bridges of Vyborg, and four are brought down in quick succession. Killing bridges without the need for cruise missiles is nice!

With sixteen own aircraft lost (against 15 enemies, plus the aforementioned four bridges), it’s time for another run to see what could be done better.

The biggest conclusion from the Super Hornet run is that you do need a combination of better situational awareness and longer range to be able to reach the large positive kill ratios wanted by the Finnish Air Force. The AIM-120D doesn’t cut it unless you are able to hide, but the combination of AIM-260 and ATFLIR ensures that the Super Hornet is right back in the game

A few runs later and it’s clear I can’t get the AIM-120D equipped Super Hornet to work as I want it to. The issue isn’t the ground threat as much as the fighters, and compared to the Meteor-equipped eurocanards it simply can’t take on the Russian Air Force and come out with the same kind of kills. This is interesting, as it runs counter to what IsoT said, who claimed that the enemy fighters weren’t an issue. A notable difference was that he used the AIM-260 JATM, which might or might not be coming by 2030.

Just changing the long-range weaponry on two of the four-ships that are flying CAP  while letting the rest soldier on with the AIM-120D made a world of difference. The Super Hornets and Growlers scored 18 kills (6x MiG-29K, 3x MiG-31BM, 5x Su-35S, 4x Su-57) for a total loss of six Super Hornets and no Growlers. Despite the majority of the aircraft flying around with the AIM-120D, twice the amount of JATMs were used (24 vs 12), which tells something about how many earlier shots can be taken and how much a difference that makes also when it comes to the amount and accuracy of the return fire taken. With 16 JSOW, 16 AARGM-ER, and 8 GBU-31 (1,000 kg JDAM) a total of six bridges were brought down (four at Vyborg) and the enemy air defences were seriously reduced (2x Shilka, 2x Pantsir-SM, 3x 9A83M TELAR, 2x 9A82M TELAR and one 9A85 LLV from the S-300V4).  The combination of JSOW and AARGM turned out to be a winning concept against SAMs that stuck to their EMCON and relied upon neighbouring batteries providing the radar picture.

My findings does run rather contrary to those of IsoT. I struggled more with the enemy air than ground defences, and while I didn’t see much in the way of highly effective jamming (though to be honest that might simply be down to not having perfect information, it might be that the enemy operators were sweating and had to rely on secondary systems), the Growlers and Super Hornets were quite able to kill off enemy SAMs if not at will then at least reliably.

Gripen – I have a skibox

As soon as the GlobalEye turn on its radar, it is evident that the situational picture is on another level. I have a full picture of not just where the enemy is, but of who the enemy is as well. This is certainly a step up above the earlier aircraft, and the rather strict EMCON the enemy has been clinging to won’t help.

The level of detail picked out is just on another level compared to everything else tested in this series of scenarios

Unfortunately, the database for the Gripen does not reflect the air-to-ground weaponry offered to Finland in the slightest. No SPEAR, no Taurus KEPD, no LADM, no bombs heavier than 250 kg. Instead I get the BK-90, the AGM-65B Maverick, the RB 15F (Mk 2), and 135 mm unguided rockets – all of which are either already withdrawn or about to be replaced. The original SDB is available in the form of the GBU-39. The available pod is the Litening III, also most likely not what is offered for HX. The air-to-air arena is better, but there’s no option for the seven Meteor short-range loadout, with six and a drop tank being the maximum.

This causes some issues to be perfectly honest, but let’s see if the 39E can bring enough Meteors to the fight to clear away the enemy fighters, and then we’ll see if we can take it from there.

The AI is a bit slow to react to the enemies entering the prosecution area (I believe this being due to the Gripens first having to enter the designated CAP-patrol box before they begin actively looking for intruders), but soon missiles start flying in both directions

The Su-57 turn out to be something of an issue, as to begin with they have a bit of headstart from how the mission is set up, but also because of the inability of either the GlobalEye or the Gripens to get a good long-range radar lock. It isn’t a major issue, the combination of ESM and IRST systems do pick them out at comfortable distances, but it does give the enemy the first shots.

A quick reset to give the AI somewhat more sensible instructions, and we’re off to the races.

As has been seen in a few scenarios, taking off from Helsinki-Vantaa isn’t necessarily a great idea. The lead fighter is quickly brought down, leaving the wingman to temporarily fight off twelve enemies, half of which are Su-57s. It goes surprisingly well, and the Meteors bring down four MiG-29K before a Su-57 manages to close in and finally take it down with a R-77M at close range.

Launching from Helsinki in the middle of a bunch of Russian fighters rushing north is a bad idea

The rest of the battle is somewhat divided, as both sides lose aircraft. An interesting detail is that the Meteor-evading enemy fighters get down to lower altitudes, where two Finnish SAM-batteries combine to bag two fighters. Still, 3:7 is not the kill ratio we were looking for.

With the enemy fighters at least temporarily pushed back, I launch the strikes. As I have a good fix on the GBAD-positions around the bridges at Vyborg, I task the SEAD there with greater detail, while further north I again rely on a more general Wild Weasel-y thing of going there trolling for SAMs and then trying to kill them. Again, with nothing more lethal than GBU-39 for SAMs and GBU-49 for the bridges I don’t have particularly high hopes of actually get anything nailed down on the score card. However, sending fighters into harms way should say something about the survivability of the Gripen.

It doesn’t begin particularly well, with two Su-57 jumping the four northern SEAD-birds immediately after take off before their escorts have been able to form up. After that things temporarily get better as the CAP-fighters bag a few enemy aircraft, before they quickly turn south again. The Vyborg SEAD-strike with GBU-39s is surprisingly effective, bagging two Pantsir-SM and a total of six different TELAR and LLV in the S-300V4 battery. At the end of the day, there is no denying however, that with none of the strike aircraft carrying Meteors, they are simply too vulnerable to enemy air, and in the end the enemy not only manage to protect all their bridges, but also achieve an impressive 13:22 score (for those interested, the GlobalEye which some state will be shot down the minute the fighting start actually survived).

I feel like the main issue is the inability to fly mixed loadouts with a few Meteors in addition to the strike weapons, which really hurt the survivability of the strike aircraft. The answer for round two is obviously to fly a smaller number of strike aircraft per target, instead letting a number fly heavy Meteor loadouts as escorts (and not let the Helsinki-pair take off in the middle of the enemy fighters).

The SEAD-strike close to Vyborg does go rather well, but there really is a need to launch large number of weapons to ensure some get through

This run works out better. Meteors are nice, although the Gripen does seem to be the aircraft which struggle most with the Su-57. The second time around enemy fighters notice the stream of GBU-39 heading toward the S-300V4 battery, and fire away all their weapons as well as giving the SAM-sites the heads up to turn on their radars and join in the fray. A large number of weapons are shot down, but three TELARS and a LLV are still turned into scrap metal. The northern SEAD mission is able to take down a Buk-unit, nailing two TELARs and an LLV. Unsurprisingly, that still isn’t enough to get through to the Vyborg-bridges, but two of the northern bridges are brought down by the two strike aircraft sent north. The air war land on a 2:1 kill ratio for the Finnish Air Force (11 Gripen against 6x MiG-29K, 3x MiG-31BM, 6x Su-35S, and 7x Su-57). The Gripen was able to avoid missiles at an acceptable rate, though it certainly was no Typhoon.

This would be the place where I would do the final run, combining cruise missiles and bombs and putting everything I’ve picked up so far into practice. However, as noted the Gripen armoury in the database lacks a heavy cruise missile, so there’s nothing to see here. However, considering the similar performance of the JASSM and SCALP/Storm Shadow above, I believe it is safe to say that we would have lost 2-4 aircraft less, and brought down a few more bridges. Similarly, having mixed loadouts would probably have allowed for a second pair of striking aircraft to the north downing another bridge or two. The SEAD might also have turned out better with SPEARs than with SDB, but to be honest the difference likely wouldn’t have been game changing. Yes, a few TELARs more would have been nice, but for this scenario that would probably have been neither here nor there.

Conclusions

So where does that leave us? Neither here nor there to be honest, this is a commercial simulator based on open data, I am a happy enthusiast with no major knowledge on the inner workings of how to set up intelligent air strikes, and there were a number of weapons and loadout options missing from the database. But lets put down a few short notes:

  • To win the air war and get the kind of kill ratio the Finnish Air Force want and need, a combination of better situational awareness and long-ranged weapons is needed. The Super Hornet/AIM-120D struggled in this scenario, but bringing even a moderate number of AIM-260 JATM into the mix turned the tables,
  • Large weapon stocks is a must. Especially in the air-to-air and SEAD-missions the expenditures of weapons is huge. At the same time, the enemy will face similar issues. The impact this will have is difficult to model in this kind of single mission scenarios, but it is notable that e.g. the extremely deadly Admiral Gorshkov in several scenarios ran out of long-ranged missiles half-way into the scenario,
  • The ability to avoid the kinds of missile volleys that the scenarios saw from both fighters and ground-based systems really is key. At the end of the day the Typhoon being able to rely on its superior aerodynamics to avoid missile after missile was one of the big eye-openers to me personally when running the scenarios,
  • MICA NG is nice. It was the only mid-ranged weapon to be really useful (besides the AIM-120D when carried by the F-35A which could use its stealth to get close enough), with next to no IRIS-T, ASRAAM, or AIM-9X having been used. Without knowing the sticker cost compared to the Meteor, I do believe it would be a big benefit in a real scenario,
  • The F-35A managed to get by with the AIM-120D to a much better extent than the Super Hornet, but the small number of weapons really hurt the aircraft when faced with hordes of enemies. It also wasn’t able to strike the most highly defended targets with bombs without suffering serious losses. At the end of the day it was a solid performance, but one not quite as outstanding as one could have imagined,
  • The GlobalEye wasn’t particularly vulnerable, and the Casa didn’t in fact get hit in a single mission! At least in this scenario, as long as there are own fighters it was possible to operate large aircraft in western Finland,
  • There was a number of surprises to me personally when it comes to details. The Typhoon and Rafale performed better than expected (especially considering the lack of JSM for the Rafale), the Gripen somewhat worse, and the Super Hornet being a mixed bag (poor with AIM-120D, good with AIM-260) but no single aircraft was a clear failure or winner.

There’s an endless number of details one could discuss when it comes to whether the scenario was set up correctly, and feel free to run your own scenarios if you have CMO installed, but these were my findings. Again, I probably can’t stress enough that this was done largely for fun and with very limited insight into Finnish Air Force CONOPS and the finer details of the bids now on the table, but it certainly was an interesting challenge!

*Pun very much intended, we are after all discussing SEAD/DEAD-options here.

The Wasp that Refused to Die

The famous (misquotation) of “reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated” comes to mind when speaking to Boeing. The Super Hornet is certainly undergoing a rough patch, with the SECNAV Carlos Del Toro trying to kill off the plans to keep building brand-new Super Hornets in the next few years, and instead wanting to focus on the F-35C (and to a lesser extent F-35B) which was described as “a far more significantly capable aircraft”. This is something of different message compared to the earlier one which has been making rounds, where people such as the US Navy’s chief of the naval operation’s air warfare directorate, Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, have expressed that he would prefer to focus more on the mid-life update (Block III) instead of on new-builds because any new-built Super Hornet with their 10,000 hour airframe will fly past 2055, and they don’t see “a lot of analysis out there that supports fourth-generation viability against any threat in that timeframe“.

Boeing readily admits neither message is particularly helpful for their export campaigns.

However, one has to give Boeing a point in that it is clear that at least some of the messaging is clearly directed a result of domestic politics. The US Navy has been struggling to fit all of its priorities into a defence budget that is flat or potentially even falling, with new classes of submarines and destroyers (to replace both early Arleigh Burkes as well as the Ticonderoga-class cruisers) competing with the Super Hornet-replacement-to-be NGAD for funds. The risk of a delay to NGAD is obvious, especially as the force struggles with how to close a “fighter gap” and the house having thrown out the latest set of USN calculations this summer (this is part of a rather longstanding pattern of the politicians not trusting the US Navy to make sound long-term planning decisions and run projects efficiently, which unfortunately isn’t completely unfounded). At the same time, it is rather obvious that some of the Super Hornet’s greatest friends on the hill are representing Boeing-strongholds and might not be guided solely by strategic insights…

Regardless of the outcome, the stated goal of replacing the Super Hornet during the 2030’s does seem optimistic considering the reported state of the NGAD. Crucially, for the time being there also doesn’t seem to be a plan for how to replace the EA-18G Growler with its unique set of capabilities (this is the place where visionaries usually throws in a slide showing a bunch of networked unmanned platforms shooting lightning-shaped datalinks and electronic attack effects between allied forces and against enemies respectively like a latter-day Zeus, but I would again like to state my scepticism of there actually being something resembling a practical plan buried in those slides. The USMC has something a bit more real in the works, but so far that doesn’t include a true Growler-replacement either).

The Juan Carlos I (L 61), an unlikely but apparently not impossible candidate for future Super Hornet operations. Source: Armada Española Twitter

But what is really interesting is the second wind of export interest in the aircraft. Granted Canada apparently has kicked out the fighter (though it has to be said it hasn’t been particularly well-loved north of the border after Boeing dragged Canadian aerospace company Bombardier to court over their jetliners), but the German Super Hornet/Growler-buy seems to have survived the change in government and is reportedly moving forward, and as is well-known there is a strong push to try and get the Indian Navy to see the light and acquire the Super Hornet for their carrier operations. More interesting was Boeing disclosing that they are in talks with Spain about the Super Hornet (almost certainly related to the same EF-18A/B Hornet and EAV-8B Matador/Harrier II as the recently revealed F-35 discussions), as well as stating that the UK have expressed interest in Super Hornet STOBAR testing conducted for the Indian Navy efforts (and where this  testing could lead). Notable is that the flight deck of the Queen Elizabeth-class compares rather well with that of the the INS Vikramaditya when it comes to length and area (though the designs obviously differ), and while it isn’t angled, the Juan Carlos I with its 201.9 m long and 32 m wide flight deck actually matches the 198 m long and 30 m wide angled recovery deck and 195 m long take-off run of the INS Vikramaditya. Speculations about a STOBAR-carrier in Spanish service may hereby commence (though I will warn you that the step from discussing the theoretical possibility to actually converting the vessel is a rather drastic one).

Regardless, there is a non-trivial risk that any Finnish Super Hornets will be the last new-built rhinos rolling off the production line, and the Finnish Air Force has been strongly stating the importance of being aligned with the main user (to the extent that the Swedish Air Force threw out their own long-term planning and instead adopted the Finnish set of requirements in order to ensure that the JAS 39E remained a viable alternative). So how is Boeing intending to work around this issue?

To begin with, while the Super Hornet likely will bow out of USN service before the Finnish Air Force retire HX, as mentioned the Growler will likely soldier on for a bit longer (again, compare the A-6 Intruder retiring 22 years before the EA-6B Prowler), allowing for updates made to keep that platform modern to support exported Super Hornets. The German order is also a key piece of the puzzle (I mean, does anyone really think that the Germans will retire any platform acquired before having worn it down? We are after all talking about the country that flew F-4F Phantoms in central Europe until 2013).

But the big news is the Open Mission Systems, which allows for what Boeing describes as containerised software. Behind the jargon lies a principle through which the software is written once, put into a so called fusion app (the ‘container’ in ‘containerised software’), which then allows it to be pushed out to a number of platforms – manned, unmanned, fixed-wing, rotary, you name it – simultaneously through making the software hardware (and even manufacturer) agnostic.

Illustration from Boeing’s International Fighter Conference briefing describing the principle. No surprises regarding the platforms included. Courtesy of Boeing

While the principle is significantly easier to implement on a PowerPoint-slide than in real-life, successful lab testing with containerised fusion algorithms in the F/A-18 Block III and the F-15EX has taken place, and plans are progressing for flight demonstrations. If the program develops as expected, it would provide the opportunity to piggy-back F/A-18E development onto that of e.g. the F-15E(X), which would grow the user base and spread development costs significantly.

But it’s not just the aircraft itself that are easily upgradable. Michael Paul of Raytheon Intelligence & Space is happy to explain how the NGJ-MB pods are not only cutting-edge today, but that their open design ensure they will stay that way.

The current ALQ-99 jammers made their combat debut in Vietnam, and although it has undergone numerous upgrades and still is a competent system according to most accounts, there’s no denying that it’s greatest days are already behind. The new family of jammers, the mid-band unit of which will be first one out and which passed Milestone C (current version accepted as production standard) earlier this summer, will bring a serious improvement. Trying to find a suitable comparison, Paul struggles a bit. “It’s a level above going from mechanically scanned radars to AESA-technology,” he explains. “It’s a significant leap just because of its AESA-technology, but then you add the power.”

The EA-18G Growler at Tampere-Pirkkala during HX Challenge. Note the large (mock-up) NGJ-MB under the wing. Source: Own picture

And while having an AESA-array means that you can do all sort of nice stuff – both Lockheed Martin and BAES are pushing the fact that they are doing some serious electronic warfare stuff with their arrays – the power and dedicated subsystem really takes things to another level. While a modern AESA-radar for a fighter can give self-protection at levels earlier only dedicated platforms could provide, it is still very much a case of self-protection. Because the dedicated platforms have also stepped up their game. The fact that the NGJ isn’t just a Naval program but sorting under joint oversight in the DoD structure speaks volumes as to the importance the Pentagon places on the program, even while at the same time discussing the need for fifth generation aircraft (the push to integrate the pod on USAF fighters is another datapoint). The NGJ allow the Growler to do what Raytheon describe as “force-level protection”, and while the exact capabilities of the pod are classified, it is significant to note that the Pentagon has been placing an ever increased importance on the electro-magnetic spectrum (EMS), and being able to treat it in the same way as other more familiar terrain – doing manoeuvres and conducting fires in it, so to speak.

This is what modern day air operations looks like

Achieving EMS-superiority will be a key mission for any air force in the future, and the Growler is well-poised to support any force attempting to do so.

What the design of the pod brings with its increased power output is the ability to handle wider spectrums and go straight to the key nodes, which in an integrated air defence systems might or might not be the shooter – it might as well be a surveillance system standing way back, feeding information to silent SAM-batteries operating missiles with their own guidance systems (active radar or IIR). But while the pod is great, the integration of the two-pod shipset with the mission systems of the aircraft really is where the magic happens. The “incredibly integrated” nature of the shipset means that the Growler and the pods are sharing data back forth, including from their own sensors but also from third-party sources (including via satellite), together creating the situational awareness that the Growler is known for, the “I know everything”-feeling as 9-year Growler veteran (and Prowler before that) Michael Paul puts it. The location of the arrays on the pods also means that the aircraft is able to cover the strikes throughout their mission – either from stand-off ranges or as penetrating platforms.

A ‘red shirt’ checking a Sidewinder mounted on the wingtip of a F/A-18E Super Hornet of VFA-106 ‘Gladiators’ aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. For the time being the Supers still occupy a prominent role on the flight deck of any US carrier. Source: @FlyNavy Twitter

While the days of the Super Hornet might be numbered, no one quite seem to know the exact number for sure. It also has to be remembered that many of the particular drawbacks quoted by the US Navy center on how it would like to operate in a China-scenario. The situation in Finland is markedly different in a number of ways, including the significantly lower emphasis placed on range. The very real risk of losing support from the main user toward the last decade or two of the aircraft’s career is no doubt a significant drawback, but at the same time the offer here and now would fit the Finnish Air Force extremely well both as a capability but also in the FDF’s general culture of being somewhat risk averse and preferring mature systems and a continuous iterative development rather than radical steps. And as icing on the cake comes the Growler, which not only would be a strategic assets for both the political and military leadership throughout the span from peace through crisis and into war, but also a huge political signal of the close bond between Finland and the US.

As Paul noted:

It likely wouldn’t have been possible to offer this ten years ago.

One Last Hurrah – Finnish Media visits an HX-contender

It’s getting difficult to remember how it all started back when HX was just a working group thinking about if Finland needed a new fighter, but seven years later here we are, perhaps a month away from the decision.

But there was still room for one last media trip, this time by Saab who used their corporate Saab 2000 (the particular example, SE-LTV, being the last civilian airliner ever built by the company) to fly a whole bunch of media representatives for a day-trip to Linköping to one more time share the details about their bid, with the GlobalEye getting much of the attention.

And it’s hard to argue with this. Yes, the Gripen sport a number of nice features from a Finnish point of view, but what really sets Saab’s offer apart from the rest is the inclusion of not one but two airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. The capability in itself would bring a huge shift in Finnish air operations regardless of whichever fighter would be at the other end of the chain (no, your favourite fighter isn’t a “mini-AWACS” just because it has a nice radar, you still won’t leisurely be cruising around on 10 hour missions gathering intelligence and keeping an up to date air picture while paying biz-jet operating costs). The value of the kind of persistent situational picture provided by a modern AEW&C platform is hard to overstate, especially in a Finnish scenario where the attacker will have numerical superiority (meaning that the decision about when and where to send Finnish fighters will have to be calculated carefully to ensure it is possible for them to do something that actually has an impact on the battle), the flat and forested nature of the country (meaning that there is a lack of suitable mountaintops on which to place groundbased sensors, instead anyone operating at very low levels will enjoy lots of radar shadows from which they can sneak up on Finnish targets), and the very joint nature of any major conflict stemming from the long land-border and the right flank and rear being composed of water (meaning that any higher-level situational picture need to take into account all three domains).

It is difficult to express exactly how much of an asset a modern AEW&C platform would be for Finland, and that include both the Air Force but also the FDF as a whole as well as the government. And for the foreseeable future, the only realistic option for a Finnish AEW&C platform would be if Saab takes home HX. Picture courtesy of Saab

Crucially, the value of the GlobalEye as an intelligence gathering platform for everything from the operational level commanders to the highest levels of political leadership is unprecedented in HX (and arguably within the FDF as a whole, the SIGINT CASA is nice, but it fills a more niched role). With two GlobalEyes, building a baseline situational picture in peacetime is possible (even more so if data is shared with the two Swedish aircraft coming), and that include both airborne and ground traffic, as the aircraft sports a ground moving target indicator mode (GMTI) making it possible to see any vehicles moving on the ground (the cut-off being rather low, in the neighbourhood of 20 km/h). The GMTI doesn’t create individual tracks for every echo due to the huge amount of vehicles moving at most roads during any given time (though it is possible to manually start tracks for interesting vehicles) but instead the operator will follow general flows and densities. Needless to say, keeping an eye on vehicle movements around garrisons and on exercise fields or counting trains (feel free to start measuring how much of the Oktyabrskaya Railway is within say 300 km of the border) would be a huge boost to the Finnish intelligence gathering work and a huge benefit for all branches of the FDF and the government it supports. Having this baseline situational picture and being able to detect changes in it would be of immeasurable value to both the civilian and military leadership in any kind of crisis, and there is no other single measure that would provide as much bang for buck as getting an AEW&C when it comes to this aspect – and the only way to get it into the budget is through Saab’s HX offer.

(The EA-18G Growler does share some of the same traits in this regards in raising the peacetime intelligence gathering capabilities to a significantly higher degree than ‘ordinary’ fighters, but when stuff stops emitting the value decreases rapidly)

This is an aspect that – even if not completely forgotten – has received surprisingly little attention in media. It might be that the inclusion of the completely new capability and the ramifications it has have been difficult to grasp, but in any case it is likely to have a significant impact on the wargames.

Interlude: in some of the darker places of aviation forums there have been people claiming that Saab is trying to sell a fighter that in fact isn’t the best one out there through packaging it with an AEW&C platform. Regardless of whether it is correct or not, that is a completely moot point. The Finnish Air Force isn’t looking for the best fighter, the Finnish Defence Forces is looking for the best capability they can get for 10 billion Euro (and 250 MEUR in annual operating costs), and if pairing 64 JAS 39E Gripen with two GlobalEyes provide a greater combat capability than the competing packages, how Gripen fares in one-on-one air combat against some other fighter isn’t interesting in the slightest to Puranen or his team.

The GlobalEye is more or less everything you would expect from it. Based on the Global 6000, it leverages the comfort of the airliner to ensure that crew can handle the missions that can go “well above” 11 hours. This means a rest area for the relief crew members, as well as cabin pressure and noise levels on par with the regular business jet. The top speed is slightly reduced due to drag from the radar, but the range is in fact more or less the same as the lower and more economic cruising speed roughly cancels out the increased drag. The business jet philosophy of the baseline Global 6000 also brings with it a lot of other nice details, such as dispersed operations being aided by a very high redundancy of key systems and small logistical footprint (the airliner is e.g. equipped with four generators to ensure that it isn’t stopped by a generator failure. On the GlobalEye that means that no additional power sources are required, and the aircraft can in fact remain fully mission capable even if one generator is lost). For a Finnish scenario, a key detail is that the sensors can be initiated already on the ground, meaning that the aircraft is operating as soon as the wheels are up. The five operators can either do general work or specialise in different roles, such as air surveillance, sea surveillance, the aforementioned GMTI-mointoring, ESM/SIGINT, and so forth. Displays in the relief area and in the cockpit allow for the relief crew and pilots to follow the situation, which is valuable e.g. if new threats appear. The exact sensor setup can be changed according to customer needs, but can include everything from the ErieEye-ER radar, a dedicated maritime radar, AIS, DSB, IFF, and classified ESM systems.

Now, an AEW&C alone doesn’t win any wars, but the Gripen is no slouch either. Much has already been said on this blog, but the baseline fact that Gripen from the outset is made for the very same concept of operations that Finland employs certainly gives it something of an edge. Worries about size and range are also of relatively minor importance in a Finnish scenario, and instead factors such as 40% less fuel consumption compared to legacy Hornets (and with that obviously also significantly reduced exhaust emissions, which should make certain government parties happier) play a significant role when laying out the budget for the upcoming years.

While the usage of a very much originally naval fighter has proved a great success in Finland, and  while several other countries have had good luck operating “normal” fighters in the high north, there’s no denying that Gripen is the only fighter (honourable mention to the MiG-31, but we’re not getting that one) from the outset made to feel at home in the subarctic conditions. Picture courtesy of Saab

Saab was happy to go into some detail about how they envision missions to be flown, illustrating with a typical high-end SEAD/DEAD mission against S-400 batteries where the aim was to take out two 92N6E “Grave Stone” radars. The batteries where in turn protected by a number of other ground-based air defence systems, including a Nebo-M (no doubt chosen for the express purpose of raising questions about the viability of the F-35 in the same scenario), Pantsirs, and a pop-up Buk-M1-2 (or M2, just the ‘SA-17’ designation was shown). In addition two pairs of Su-35s were flying CAP under the guiding eye of an A-100. The approach for this mission was rather straightforward. Two Gripens did a hook to the north where they feigned an attack through using the EAJP EW-pods and swarms of LADM cruising around presenting jamming and false targets, thereby drawing two Su-35s north.

At the same time the main striking force consisting of a four-ship Gripen with 7 Meteors and 2 IRIS-T on each acting as fighter escort and two additional Gripens doing the actual strikes with six SPEAR and six LADM each (plus pairs of Meteors and IRIS-T for self-defence) headed east towards the target. With the LADM and the internal EW-systems providing jamming and the escorting Gripens dealing with the fighters (of which one pair was out of position, as you might remember), the strike pair launches their  full dozen of SPEARs which, together with escorting LADMs, go out and hunt down the two radars. Not even the pop-up Buk appearing behind the strike aircraft can ruin the day.

Now, the scenario above is both rather fascinating in that Saab was ready to go into such detail, and not at all surprising since that is more or less exactly how nine aviation geeks out of ten would have set up the mission given what we known about Saab’s talking points and the weapons and stores offered to Finland. Perhaps the most interesting detail is that Saab thinks six SPEAR are enough to take down a defended S-400 radar (when escorted by EW-missiles). However, what on the other hand was interesting was who was telling the story.

Mikko Koli in a 39E Gripen simulator, note the large WAD-display up front. In real aircrafts, he has now also logged time in the front-seat of the JAS 39D two-seater. Picture courtesy of Saab

Meet Mikko Koli, pilot and operational advisor to Saab since this spring when he retired from his job as test pilot for the Finnish Air Force. As a retired major, he may be outranked by many of the other advisors involved in different parts of the HX circus, but he brings some serious street cred instead. Most of his career was spent doing a fifteen year posting as an air force test pilot, mainly focused on the F/A-18 C/D Hornet and the upgrades it went through in Finnish service. This include different roles in both MLUs, but also being among the key players in the AGM-158A JASSM integration project, which culminated in him being the first Finnish pilot to release a live JASSM.

Which definitely is cool, but don’t let that distract you from the main story: he is a seasoned test pilot who has spent years studying and implementing how to get the best out of a fighter in a Finnish context. When Koli decides to spend his retirement days at Saab, that says something. And when he says that he trusts that their bid is “extremely strong”, that is something else compared to Saab’s regular sales guys.

What Koli decided to focus on, in addition to guiding the assembled Finnish media through the scenario described above (together with retired Swedish Air Force pilot Jussi Halmetoja) was certainly things we have heard before, but with a bit of a different emphasis. The “superior situational awareness” thanks to advanced networking and “excellent” human-machine communication of the aircraft are talking points we’ve heard from Saab before, but they often take something of a back seat when non-pilots talk. Discussing the “live chain” is also a refreshing change to just talking about the kill chain, because as we all know actually living and flying a working aircraft is the first step to being able to actually do something useful. And Koli also in no uncertain words explained what he thinks about the GlobalEye.

GlobalEye pays itself back at any level of a crisis, both for military as well as for political decisionmakers [… It is also] a very capable SIGINT-platform

The JAS 39E Gripen is rapidly approaching operational service, but so is the scheduled date for first aircraft delivery under HX. Picture courtesy of Saab

Speaking of JASSM-integrations, I would be wrong not to mention Saab’s latest talking point when describing the size of their weapons package. Readers of the blog might remember that I had some questions regarding the numbers presented during the BAFO release, when it sounded like the weapons offered were worth 1.8+ Bn EUR, until you read the fine print, at which point it sounded more like 1.35+ Bn EUR. Now Saab was back with the comparison “more than ten times the total publicly quoted costs of the Finnish JASSM-project”, which they confirmed referred to 170 MEUR for the JASSM integration and missiles, making the weapons package coming with the Gripen worth 1.7+ Bn EUR. That is a lot, and considering the 9 Bn EUR acquisition cost also include the aforementioned two GlobalEyes, puts things into scale. An interesting detail is that the JASSM-project as mentioned included the integration costs as well, with Saab now taking care to point out that all weapons integration costs are found under other budgetary lines, and the 1.7+ Bn EUR figure just covers the series production and delivery of the munitions.

Modern weapons are expensive, but that is indeed an arsenal you can go to war with without having to worry about every single missile. At least not initially.

With the Norwegian budget figures having raised more questions than the Swiss decision answered for the F-35, and the US Navy trying to kill off the Super Hornet production line faster than you can get a hornets nest fully cleaned out from a redcurrant shrub (which for me is approximately two weeks of time based on empirical testing), the Finnish skies are perhaps looking ready to accept a non-US fighter again. In that scenario, the Gripen is certainly a more likely choice than the two larger eurocanards, but at the same time questions of maturity surround the aircraft that is bound to reach IOC with an operational unit only in 2025 – the same year the first HX fighters are to be delivered. Basing the 39E on the proven 39C/D-platform certainly helps, and the decoupling of flight critical software from other systems seems to have been a winning concept considering the pace at which the test program has advanced (this includes software updates on flying aircraft every four weeks on average up to this point of the program). However, with nine aircraft operational and the first Batch 2 (series production standard) already off the production line, Saab just might be able to cut it in time.

And there’s always the GlobalEye.

An interesting detail is that as the GlobalEye is optimised for endurance, the aircraft is expected to most of the time operate with a 4.8° angle of attack, meaning that the radar is tilted downwards the same amount to keep it horizontal for optimal performance (as are the operator positions inside aircraft, including chairs, desks, and displays). Picture courtesy of Saab

A big thank you to Saab for the travel arrangements.

Aiming for a Joint Target

With Sweden looking at replacing all of their squad firearms, and Finland looking at acquiring a new sniper rifle/designated marksman rifle, the news of Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation that included assault rifles among a number of other weapons understandably raised some questions earlier this year. To shed some light on the issue, I contacted the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV), where brigadier general Mikael Frisell (Director Land Systems) and lieutenant-colonel Per Norgren (Head of Weapons and Protection department, Land Systems) were happy to talk over the phone and explain where the Swedish project is currently, where they expect it to go next, as well as how the cooperation with Finland plays into the needs of the Swedish Armed Forces in this field.

While there is a need to replace the current armoury, this is also happening as the Swedish Armed Forces in general and the Army in particular is growing. Four new regiments (two infantry, one artillery, and a ranger regiment) are being created this fall, and that directly impacts the Land Systems division. “There’s lots of funding, lots of things to be acquired,”Frisell explains. “We are under pressure to deliver as our funding is increasing.” So far this has been visible in a number of different places, with the squad weapons now being one of the major focus areas as simply removing worn weapons from usage isn’t possible when the need for weapons grows. Instead a complete redo of all carried weapons is set to take place. This has in fact already kicked off with the acquisition of the Carl-Gustaf M4 recoilless rifle to replace the older versions in Swedish service back in 2019, and the program is now set to continue until almost all firearms have been replaced during the next ten years.

And this is where cooperation with Finland comes into the picture.

“At the end of the day it is about security of supply,” Frisell explains, noting that while Sweden doesn’t have their own rifle manufacturer any longer, the extremely close cooperation between the Finnish and Sweden armed forces allow them to look at the picture from the somewhat unusual angle of treating Finnish companies as almost domestic ones from a security supply point of view.

But let us start from the beginning.

Sweden has during the last few decades been very much at the cutting edge of small arms acquisitions. The country was second only to the USA in adopting the 5.56 mm NATO as their main calibre (with the FN FNC), was jointly second with Norway after Austria to adopt the Glock 17, was second only to the UK in getting the Accuracy International PM/AW sniper rifle, and in fact beat the USA to adopting the Barrett M82 heavy sniper/anti-materiel rifle as they became the company’s first large-scale customer. However, most of these systems were originally acquired back in the late 80’s or early 90’s, meaning that more or less all systems are in need of replacement by now. Even the FN MAG (locally designated KSP 58) is starting to show its age, though Frisell notes that it is at the back of the queue since “that one is built for eternity”. More or less the only thing not being slated for replacement for the time being is the Barrett.

A Swedish designated marksman in Mali with the AK 4D variant of the G3. Note adjustable stock from Spuhr, Atlas bipod, Aimpoint magnifying kit and CS. This particular weapon also has a Steiner DBAL-A2 (AN/PEQ-15A) laser designator. Source: Joel Thungren/Försvarsmakten

The original plan based on the needs identified by the Army was to first acquire a personal defence weapon (PDW), in other words a modern weapon to fill the role formerly allocated to sub-machine guns. This would then be followed by all assault rifles (including both the FNC/AK 5 and the older G3/AK 4 which is still in widespread use in second-line units) and sniper rifles, and support weapons such as machine guns being at the end of the line with the FN Minimi (KSP 90) going first and the FN MAG following dead last. However, recognising the possibility of teaming up with Finland has lead to a certain amount of reshuffling, with the PDW being pushed back and the sniper rifle as well as the designated marksman rifle (currently a role filled by a modded Heckler & Koch G3 designated AK 4D) instead jumping to the front. This is done on the basis of tagging along on the Finnish K22 project which has seen Finland decide upon the Sako Semi-Automatic Sniper Rifle to be adopted as the new designated marksman rifle and as the new light sniper rifle. However, the plan is significantly more ambitious than simply buying the same designated marksman rifle as Finland.

All categories of weapons have been divided up between the two countries, with either country taking the lead for any individual category. The lead country will lead the development work including specification, testing, and signing the first order which will then include the option for the other country to place corresponding orders at similar terms. Frisell acknowledges that the specifications of both countries are very similar, but he also still sees a need for a more limited set of tests and development work done by the non-lead locally to ensure suitability and to get the userbase aboard – a key feature to ensure that this isn’t felt among the soldiers to be a political choice forcing a system of secondary quality into service. But why bother to begin with, trying to coordinate acquisitions across two countries?

Cross-develop, cross-buy, cross-use – Build trust and security of supply

That’s the guiding principle of the program. On the military side, the ability to cross-buy and cross-develop the weapons saves on cost, while the cross-use ability makes wartime logistics easier. Not necessarily through individual soldiers throwing a spare magazine to their foreign ally in the next foxhole – something that makes for good Hollywood-stuff but rarely is done in practice – but rather through the possibility at the operational and strategic level to redistribute ammunition, weapons, and spare parts according to need. Security of supply is also ensured through creating the critical mass of orders that is large enough to ensure that domestic (kind off) manufacturing is possible to begin with. Obviously, to reach this desired end-state, cooperating already during the development phase is key, as it not only helps push the cost down but also ensures the suitability for both countries. But besides the purely military benefits, the building of trust between the two countries is also important from the wider national security point of view, and here cooperating on this project is yet another building block.

Trials with the Sako TRG M10 in .338 LM (8.6 mm) at the FMV site in Karlsborg earlier this fall. Picture courtesy of BGen. Frisell

In line with that, Sweden has acknowledged that Finland is ahead in the sniper and designated marksman game. Finland has therefore taken the lead here, while Sweden is preparing to do the cross-develop/cross-buy part of the equation. In essence, that means that the eventual Finnish contract will include the option for Sweden to tag along, and that Sweden is doing their own limited tests as we speak. While in Finland the SASR (which I assume will be the abbreviation) will replace the SVD Dragunov and the majority of the locally-built TKIV 85 (a Mosin-Nagant derivative), and in a version with simpler accessories the designated marksman versions of the standard-issue RK-assault rifles, Sweden has somewhat different plans. The plan currently is that the SASR in 7.62×51 mm will replace the AK 4D in the designated marksman role, while at the same time they are doing tests on the Sako TRG 10M in .338 LM as an AW (Psg 90) replacement. This also provide an excellent example as to how the end result might look, with similar weapons but possibly with different accessories and for slightly different roles (Sweden likely not acquiring any of the more highly-kitted out SASR that Finland is looking at for the light sniper role). Notable is that Finland already operate the somewhat older Sako TRG 42 in .338, meaning that both countries would standardise on that in addition to 7.62×51 mm for their accurate rifles. As mentioned, during the signing of the firearms technology MoU this spring Sweden also bought a number of Sako rifles for tests, which have now arrived and are out in the field. The TRG has been tested for roughly a month already, while the SASR tests have just kicked off.

But this is where it gets interesting, as Sweden is looking at the next step in their ten-year plan: the assault rifles.

Let’s give the news up front: at the moment the most likely candidate is a Finnish-built AR-platform in 7.62×51 mm.

Both Frisell and Norberg take care to point out that this is still in the planning stages and no decision has been made on either manufacturer or calibre, but as both the Swedish Armed Forces and FMV have spent considerable time and effort researching the question over the last few years (including no doubt looking into the state of ballistic protection in… certain countries) there are some paths that are looking more probable than others. What tips the scale in the direction of 7.62×51 mm is that the round is seen as having more development potential compared to the lighter 5.56×45 mm. The view is also that most high-quality service-grade AR-pattern rifles are more or less equal once you bring them out in the field, so the need for a big shoot-out is smaller than it used to be when the field of service rifles was more varied (while it wasn’t said explicitly that some designs had been ruled out, the discussion very much centred around the AR). Which brings you back to the question of security of supply. Sako might not be Swedish, but looking at the situation from Karlsborg it is certainly the next-best thing. Frisell notes that any orders require that Sako work out a model for how they will support the Swedish Armed Forces throughout the lifespan of any potential order, but he didn’t sound too worried and I got the impression that it was more a case of working out the details that a serious obstacle.

A few cases of non-AK pattern rifles in Finnish use does exist. Most notable is the use by the professional FDF SOF of the FN SCAR, but another instance is the professional readiness unit of the paramilitary Finnish Border Guard, here shown sporting the HK 416.

An obvious question is whether the Swedes have noticed that there is quite some developments taking place in the US with the NGSW-program set to replace the assault rifles and squad automatic weapons (i.e. the Minimi/KSP 90) with a new family of weapons in a new 6.8 mm calibre? The answer is ‘Yes’, with those involved from the Swedish side having good contacts with their US counterparts both on an agency- as well as on a personal level. The NGSW and associated developments have indeed been followed closely from Sweden, including being briefed directly by their US counterparts. In the end, the technological risk was judged too great for a small country to seek to join the program at this stage. Norgren also noted that “We don’t quite have that time to wait”, as the majority of the FN FNC (AK 5) and G3 in use are getting worn down. However, one thing that is being looked into is the possibility of having the new rifle being modular enough to allow for potentially changing calibre later – or even mid-production as the expected production run for any new assault rifle is expected to be measured in years – in case the 6.8 mm turn out to be a game changer.

Oh, and about that PDW the Army wanted. Sorry to make gun aficionados disappointed, but it seems like the MP7 won’t be coming (besides the ones already in use). For the time being a (really) short AR in 5.56 mm is the frontrunner.

But getting back to the Finnish angle, on the surface this looks like a great opportunity for Sako, and that it undoubtedly is. However, Frisell also made clear that Sweden has expectations other than just getting a bunch of new weapons. As explained, the deal is seen from a security of supply point of view, and that is a two-way street. “We’re not just going to talk about Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation, but actually going out and doing it,” Frisell emphasises. This means that not only has Sako to be able to step up and show that they can deliver the expected quality and volumes, but also that both countries will have to look at the common good instead of at individual benefit. The decision to postpone the PDW and go for the sniper and designated marksmen rifles shows that Sweden is already doing their part, but the bigger question is if Finland will be able to step up when it comes to the assault rifles? As Frisell put it, “We had to adjust the schedule a bit to build the trust […] we hope that the FDF also will have that flexibility”. For some time already the official Finnish line has been that the current AK-pattern rifles can stay in service until 2035 with a decision on the replacement to be made in the first half of the 2020’s. However, those dates originate in a statement made some time ago, and in an interview last month Lt.General Hulkko, the commander of the Finnish Army, stated that continued rebuilds beyond the current number of 20,000 modernised RK 62M “no longer is a cost-effective way forward” for the rest of the Finnish Defence Forces. While still some way out from any hard promises on the part of the FDF, it does sound like Frisell might be getting his wish.

Edit 07-11-2021: It seems the idea is so unexpected that I wasn’t quite clear enough about what the paragraph above actually means:

  • This isn’t a Swedish project to replace their assault rifles, it is a joint Finnish-Swedish project with Sweden as the lead nation,
  • In other words, while neither country has made procurement decision, the expected outcome of any acquisition program is that those involved acquire what the program is all about, i.e. in this case a 7.62 NATO assault rifle (or battle rifle, if you will),
  • It’s easy to forget, but the battle rifle was (and still is in the Swedish home guard) what most western soldiers carried for decades during the Cold War. With modern ergonomics and developments, an AR-10-pattern design (using the designation loosely here, we didn’t talk piston vs DI or anything like that) would likely be miles ahead compared to your regular FAL or G3 when it comes to handling,
  • Yes, there’s a number of reasons why the 7.62 NATO was ditched back in the days. As noted it isn’t yet decided that this will be the outcome, but if FMV after years of studies and weighing the pros and cons say they lean towards going back to it, the message certainly is that based on all available information they feel the benefits outweigh (heh) the disadvantages – the ability to actually kill your enemies also in 2030 most likely key among these.
In a strange twist of faith – the FN Minimi which originally was created with the selling point of being a light machine gun in the same calibre as the rest of the weapons of the squad now seem set to spend its final years in Swedish service as the only 5.56 mm weapon in their infantry squads. Source: Joel Thungren/Försvarsmakten

All in all the development is very interesting, and while both parties are keen to stress that no firm commitments have been made and no orders placed – in fact, the sole FDF comment I got when reaching out was “A mechanism has been created, i.e. the documents have been signed between Finland and Sweden, which enable joint procurements to be made later, but we are still in the planning stage and no decisions on possible procurements have been made” (the statement is still one step above Sako who didn’t answer at all) – the plans does seem to be further along than has been assumed in some quarters (including on this blog) and they look well-thought out both from a national security policy as well as from a military capability point of view. Crucially, while I’ve earlier voiced caution against plans to buy ‘second best’-solutions due to political considerations, modern well-built firearms are generally all more or less on the same level when it comes to lethality. As such this is a field suited to policy cooperation, and the logistical and cost benefits are obvious. Interestingly enough, while there is a certain group of Finnish social media warriors who spend their days questioning whether we can trust the Swedes or whether they just pretend to be out friends to try to coax us into buying Swedish defence equipment, this is very much a case of the opposite. A Swedish buy of assault rifles from Sako would indeed require trust from the Swedes that we Finns won’t leave them out to dry once we’ve cashed in on the export market. Hopefully I read Hulkko’s statement correctly that that is indeed where we are headed – I would very much like to be able to maintain a view of us Finns as a people that can be trusted, both as business partners as well as when it comes to matters of national security.

Oh, and before we go there’s one question all Finnish shooters want to know the answer to: How did Frisell – who by the way has a background as a national level competition shooter – find the SASR to shoot?

Easy to shoot, good quality […] robust, simple, and with high accuracy

Meripuolustuspäivä 2021 – Maritime Defence Day

For the 20th time stakeholders within Finnish maritime defence have gathered to discuss current events and trends in the field, and as usual there was lot to talk about.

The elephant in the room was obviously COVID-19. Not only has it affected the Navy, but it struck at a time when major changes to how voluntary defence exercises are organised was just being rolled out. For the Navy, while the creation of bubbles within the regular conscript training has been the most talked about move, the force has been doing quite a bit more. The key was identifying which are the capabilities that are absolutely crucial to maintain at any given time, and ensuring that these are kept running (lets face it: the FDF could survive a short break in the training of conscripts without any major long-term issues, but the fleet needs to be combat capable and able to sail 24/7 to ensure the integrity of Finnish waters). I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out what this might have entailed in practice.

The headline message was that things have worked out. “The Navy is extremely flexible”, as it was expressed, and everyone from the top down to the individual conscripts have understood the size of the challenge, and embraced it. An interesting detail is that the polling of the conscripts transferring to reserve actually shows higher grades when evaluating their services compared to earlier years, a trend visible both in the Navy as well as in the FDF as a whole.

However, even in the midst of the pandemic the sight is set on the future. The leadership of the Navy has taken a number of steps to ensure that the Navy maintains its combat capability and ability to perform the missions it has received into the coming decades. At the core of everything is the missions – anything that does not advance the missions won’t be accepted under the current leadership. This goes for both training as well as developing doctrines fit for the battlefield of the future as well as for the equipment the Navy will bring to it. As an obvious example, the new Gabriel V (PTO 2020) won’t just be a drop-in replacement to the RBS 15 (MTO 85M), as the capabilities of the new missiles are significantly improved and dictates changes to the tactics and concepts of operations to get the best effect out of it. The goal is that in 2032 the Navy will fight according to four core principles:

  • A good situational picture, with both the tools used to create it and the command structure employing it able to withstand the demands of combat,
  • Decentralised operations, with concentrated effect,
  • Mobile operational forces with great firepower and well-trained local forces, both of which are able to withstand the demands of combat,
  • National and international connectivity allowing for common operations.

None of these ideas are exactly new, but on the other hand there isn’t a need to reinvent the wheel. What is new is the realisation that all services – including the Navy – will need organic capability to take the fight to all domains, including not only the traditional three of air, land, sea, but also the information domain and cyber. Another is connecting the Arctic to the Baltic Sea as one operational theatre, in which anything that happens in one will reflect upon the other.

The aggressive attitude present in the principles above are also expressed in the Navy’s desire to maintain the initiative through an active conduct on the battlefield, ensuring that the Navy stays proactive instead of reactive and gets the most out of its resources. This obviously require a highly trained force, and one of the key questions is how to ensure that the force gets an inflow of competent and motivated personnel and conscripts. The challenge is in part a common issue for the FDF as a whole as the number of suitable conscripts is in decline as part of more general societal trends, but the Navy has a special twist to it as it in large parts of the country the least-known of the services.

Which in turn means you have to make sure that the ones you get become – and stay – top-notch.

As the Finnish Naval Reserve and the Navy co-host the event, much of the focus was obviously on the reserve component. The Navy expects the field of reserve organisations to play a key part in ensuring that the capacity of the individual reservists are upheld, and not only in the physical sense, but as important is maintaining the mental and ethical game. Side-note: while FDF has talked about the importance of the first two a number of times, it is refreshing to see the Navy stating the importance of ethical behaviour by their soldiers and sailors, as recent events have shown that even amongst some of the world’s most elite forces when you promote an aggressive can-do attitude and a willingness to take initiative and judge the situation out in the field – extremely valuable traits in any combat unit – there comes a very real risk of not just pushing up to the line, but actually stepping over it.

The other side of what the Navy expects help with is:

Maintaining a naval espirit the corps and a healthy pride

Which sounds jolly nice.

The plan is also to develop further the local forces and their provincial components, to get these further involved in the everyday action as well as in the strategic signalling (the ability to send messages through a show of force without causing an escalation was by the way also mentioned as a crucial capability, and one that places high demands on the flexibility of the naval capabilities and a political willingness to employ these). To allow for this and ensure a motivated reserve force a number of steps are being taken to create interesting positions for reservists within the naval force structure and creating associated training programs to ensure that the know-how continues to grow within the reserve. This include for example looking into the ability to open up training events scheduled for full-time personnel also to reservists. Much of this, like the mantra of being better at taking into account the “civilian” knowledge of the reserve, are things that have been discussed for years, but I did leave the seminar with a feeling that it might indeed be different this time around and that things are really moving forward.

Sunken Costs and Good Enough – the A26 Blekinge-class

Let me start by being absolutely clear: everything points to that the A26 Blekinge-class submarine will be a stellar piece of engineering, highly adept at its mission, and by quite a margin the submarine class in the world best suited to the narrow waters of the Baltic Sea.

Having said that, the Swedish decision to acquire two vessels of the class unfortunately seem to be a blow to Sweden’s defence capability, threatening to crowd out key capabilities and investments from a naval budget that is already far too small for the country and its 81,435 square kilometres of sea.

The first modern Swedish submarine design, sporting a teardrop hull-shape inspired by the USS Albacore and an X-rudder, was the A-11 class (also known as Sjöormen or Sjöormen II). These entered service in the late 1960’s, and the five boats meant that Sweden had an impressive fleet of 20+ submarines in the first half of the 1970’s. The withdrawal of the modernised WWII-era Kustubåtar/Jaktubåtar left a fleet of 17 submarines going into the next decades. The 1980’s saw the withdrawal of the A-12 (Draken II-class), which despite the number was an older and simpler design compared to the ambitious A-11. At this time, the fleet stabilised at a dozen submarines, with the A-14 (Näcken II) and the A-17 (Västergötland) covering for the six outgoing vessels. However, the five A-11 were sold to Singapore (as the Challenger-class) starting in 1995, and 1998 saw the A-14 being withdrawn. After the turn of the millennium, two of the A-17 were retired and eventually sold to Singapore (the Archer-class), with the other two returning to service highly modified as the Södermanland-class. Here they joined the three submarines of the A19 (Gotland-class), meaning Sweden had five submarines in service. Of these five, HMS Östergötland (the last A-17) has since been retired, leaving Sweden with four submarines in its fleet.

HMS Halland, the youngest submarine in Swedish service, which now seems set to get an MLU. Eventually. Picture from BALTOPS 2016. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Daniel Foose/Wikimedia Commons

Of the four serving submarines, two of the A19 have recently undergone an MLU to extend their lifespan “beyond 2030”, while the third (HMS Halland) originally was set to just receive a general overhaul aimed at “ensuring seaworthiness and handling pressing obsolescence issues in certain systems“. It was decided in last year’s white paper to order an MLU for HMS Halland as well, though as far as I am aware of no such contract has yet been signed.

Those who can read between the lines will quickly realise that means that HMS Södermanland is not expected to serve on “beyond 2030”, meaning that if Sweden isn’t going to become a three-boat service, something else needs to come.

Enter the A26 Blekinge-class.

As I said in the ingress, the A26 is set to become an extremely capable submarine, tailored to meet the demanding requirements of the shallow and narrow waters of the Baltic Sea. This include being able to handle a number of different mission sets, including anti-submarine warfare, attacking surface vessels, intelligence gathering, SOF insertion/extraction, and so forth. And it is more and more looking like a seriously failed investment on the part of the Swedish Armed Forces in general and the Navy in particular.

To begin with, let us take a step back and look at the general situation for the Swedish Armed Forces, now (finally) trying to grow again after decades of decline. This include the decision to go from four to five submarines by retiring HMS Södermanland and ordering two new A26: HMS Blekinge and HMS Skåne. The long-term plan also identifies the possibility of further growth post-2025, when “In conjunction with the planning for the replacement of the [A19] Gotland-class the acquisition of further submarines could be considered, in addition to the three submarines required to replace the Gotland-class” (page 173). The two A26 submarines will in the meantime replace HMS Södermanland and HMS Östergötland, which by 2024-2025 “will have served for approximately 35 years”.

The last sentence contain two issues.

To begin with, HMS Östergötland has already left service, and my calendar says it is only 2021.

And secondly, the A26 sisters are now expected to arrive in the 2027-2028 timespan.

The mess deck of HMS Uppland, showing the cramped conditions inside submarines optimised for the littorals. The vessel is currently the most modern submarine in Swedish service, and following the MLU last year is set to continue in service for at least a decade. Source: Henrik Lundqvist Rådmark/Försvarsmakten

There’s an obvious gap there, and it is increasingly looking like HMS Södermanland will either be run until it is starting to fall apart, or there will be a period with a three-boat fleet. Even in the best of cases, the fleet won’t see much of a increase until 2030. However, the bigger question is about the cost in cold hard cash.

The original price tag was 8.2 Bn SEK in 2014 value (approximately 9.2 Bn SEK in 2021, or 910 MEUR). However – and this one is strikingly stupid as well as a prime example of political obfuscation – the price was based on securing export customers. That a budget is made on the assumption of securing export orders in a highly competitive niche markets within defence can’t be considered planning in good faith.

In this case, it is particularly bad due to two issues:

  • The high complexity of the submarine as a weapon system, meaning that a significant part of the value goes into non-recurring costs such as research and development,
  • The small size of the Swedish order – just two vessels – means that there will be no real series production, but rather two handcrafted vessels.

Combined these will cause the non-recurring part of the price tag per submarine to be particularly high. And as no export order has been signed (though the Netherlands in particular is still looking promising), the chicken eventually came home to roost earlier this fall when Saab and FMV announced that the project was late and above budget. The fact that no new submarine has been built in Sweden between the launching of HMS Halland in 1996 and HMS Bleking being launched perhaps 30 years later also appears to have come into play, as the yard “was in worse shape” than anticipated back in 2014, meaning that the project will have to include further infrastructure costs.

A classic early picture of HMS Gotland, showing the full-colour Swedish insignia. The vessel is still highly capable, especially after the MLU, but it deserves to remember that she is a product of the mid-90’s. Source: Kockums/Wikimedia Commons

Bear with me for a moment.

In 2016, the Swedish public broadcaster SR did an interview with Saab, where the company confirmed that the project would stay within budget, regardless of whether there would be export orders or not.

In 2018, the Minister of Defence got an official request for information regarding the status of the project and the budget from an opposition MP. The somewhat evasive answer was that government would continue to keep the parliament informed.

In 2019, the situation was repeated, and again the answer was that the government would keep the parliament informed.

In 2021, the contract was revised upwards with an additional 5.2 Bn SEK to land at approximately 14 Bn SEK in total (approximately 1.4 Bn EUR). In Saab’s messaging, the focus is on “new capabilities that are to be added to the A26 will give an additional edge within the weapon system and stealth technology among other things”, while FMV is more frank and openly talk about the infrastructure failings and more generally issues including “a delay in the development work“.

Now, if we are to believe the poor shape of the yard in 2014 as being among the main culprits here, the story is that for six-seven years – a time that also saw the MLU of two submarines at the yard in question- neither party realised that the yard wasn’t in fact fit for building new submarines in its current state. The Minister of Defence also hadn’t noticed that the A26 was almost 60% above budget and three years late, or at the very least didn’t feel this detail was among the things the government should inform parliament about.

Concept for A26 version with a VLS-module for cruise missiles. Note the larger tube in the bow which allows for easier extraction of combat swimmers as well as UUVs. Picture courtesy of H.I Sutton/Covert Shores

Exactly which part of the cost increase stems from the “increased capability” and additional spare parts is obviously hard to tell, but the sole example of the added capability given is integration of Saab’s new lightweight torpedo – Torped 47 – which was ordered by the Swedish government in 2016, and the development of which had been decided upon in 2010. Again, I do find it somewhat strange that no one in the A26 project figured out that they needed to include some money in the budget for the integration of the standard Swedish arsenal of submarine-launched weapons onto the new submarine – mind you, the submarine was ordered well after the development of what would become TP 47 was launched. Something that has been speculated about is that the new capability might include the fitting of VLS-cells, an option Saab has offered for export. However, for the time being the complete lack of any official Swedish interest in the niche capability of a dedicated cruise missile module aboard the submarine as well as the complete lack of suitable weapons makes this unlikely. The limited benefit in a Baltic Sea-scenario also stem from the fact that the submarine is not able to manoeuvre into a position from where it can launch an off-axis attack from behind the enemy defences. Besides, the fact that tube-launched cruise missiles are available and the recent decision to equip the Swedish Gripen-fleet with long-range land-attack both also point to the VLS-module being an unlikely candidate for the Swedish submarines.

The Issue at Hand

At the current price tag the A26 still seem to be roughly at the same price level as competing designs (the uncertainties are significant, though, as no two submarine deals are exactly the same when it comes to what’s included in the package). But there are significant questions that seemingly are glossed over, in part because there are sensible answers to all of the questions, but not not necessarily ones making sense when looking at the holistic picture of Swedish defence.

The basic issue is that creating a completely new submarine class from scratch is extremely expensive at the best of times. Doing that and ordering just two is quickly at risk of becoming prohibitively so as the technology and budget risks are more concentrated.

The Italian Todaro-class submarine Scire (S527) during mooring operations. We’ll get back to this one shortly.  Source: U.S. Navy photo by Machinist Mate Casey Kinkade/Wikimedia Commons

However, submarines have long been a staple of Swedish defence industry, and the country has been at the cutting edge of submarine design at least since the A-11 was launched. The political decision to build and design the A26 in Sweden is understandable from that point of view – security of supply is a very real concern – but it harken back to a day of bigger orders. The obvious solution is to buy more submarines.

But this leads us back to the basic issue of there not being enough money to go around for the Swedish Armed Forces. The Navy is cash-strapped, and while it is a real worry that the submarine force despite talk of growing to five vessels in practice is set to remain at four, or even shrink to three in the years leading up 2028, the silent service is in fact one of the better arms of the Navy. The newest of the few surface units are the Visby-class corvettes which have celebrated 20 years, with the remaining four surface combatants being over ten years older still. And the long-term plan foresee the beginning of preliminary design work for two vessels before 2025, meaning that most of the fleet will have to serve on past 2030. At the same time, the Navy is trying to get their new (old) mobile logistics concept up and running, perhaps the single most important change envisioned for the Navy in the latest white paper, and a second marine regiment has been stood up which also will require an increase in funding.

And that is just the Navy, in August the Swedish Riksrevisionen (think GAO) published a report where they noted that the Army was unable to meet their goals, with lack of funding being a key detail. Oh, and in particular they noted that:

In addition the costs for the critical defence interests JAS 39E and the new generation submarine (A26) have been difficult to make cuts to, and these projects have crowded out other acquisition projects.

With the funding for the A26 coming from the regular defence budget and not from any kind of additional funding made available to ensure that this “critical defence interest” is secured and domestic submarine knowledge are retained, the 60% growth in the budget means that something else has to give. And it is currently very difficult to find any kind of slack in the Swedish defence budget.

The solution

What is then the solution? Well, the obvious solution is that the Swedish government quickly need to start funnelling more funds to the defence budget, one possibility being through recognising its unique status and breaking out the A26 and funding it from a combination of defence funding and economic stimulus to secure the continuation of the shipyard.

However, there have been preciously little in the way of political will to pay for the defence ordered, and this solution seems unlikely in the short term.

The other possibility, and this is perhaps even harder, is to ask the question whether Sweden should just accept the fact that at some point the jack plane simply isn’t working, and the low numbers of the submarine force makes it unsustainable – or, rather, that the same defence capabilities can be had cheaper through a combination of other systems. Most of the missions can be solved in other ways. Giving the Swedish maritime NH 90 the long-required upgrades to their ASW-capability would bring a significant benefit, and investing more in the ageing surface vessels could support both the ASW- and the ASuW-mission. The Air Force can also lend a hand in the surveillance role, as well as bringing more RBS 15 as a potent ship-killing capability. Both naval and air assets can also be used to support the SOF. On the horizon, unmanned systems are also set to bring increased capabilities, though they are likely not going to be the end all be all some make them out to be in the near- and mid-term.

Supporting special forces is a key mission of any modern submarine force. Here combat divers of the Swedish 1. Marine regiment (AMF 1) are out on a training mission. Source: Antonia Sehlstedt/Försvarsmakten

Have anyone dared to honestly ask whether submarines are really the best solution under the current budgetary constraints and as a part of the overall Swedish Armed Forces? Let us hope so, and it certainly is true that the uncertainty caused by submarines operating in the dark waters of the Baltic Sea is difficult to match through any other means. And there is few things that are as effective in creating a deterring effect as capabilities that are known unknowns, and which are hard to keep track of and take out in a first strike.

So we will trust the professionals that the submarines are needed and that the decision hasn’t been made on autopilot, and that the A26 is the submarine best suited for the Swedish needs. Still, it is hard not to feel that the opportunity for Sweden somewhat passed with HDW (later part of TKMS) buying Kockums in 1999 and not launching any new subs in the next few decades (the blame obviously largely goes to the Swedish government again, which maintain that the yard is a critical national interest despite first selling it to a foreign owner and then not placing any orders to ensure that the know-how is kept up to date). As noted, the combination of A26 being ordered as just a two-vessel class coupled with the complete inability to get a grip of both the cost and the timeline eleven years after order also sends alarm bells going off, and further bad news feel like a very real possibility.

Which brings us to what in hindsight probably should have been the correct way forward. Foreign turn-key submarines.

The sound you just heard was the choir of Swedish naval geeks singing the praises of 400 mm torpedoes, Stirling-engines, and a number of other unique Swedish features in the confined waters of the Baltic Sea, and how none of these could be had in a foreign design.

Yes, as I’ve said twice already, the A26 is probably the most capable design available when it comes to the Swedish demands. However, it is also late, and the final price tag is a big question mark. Sometimes, getting the second best of any individual capability is worth it to ensure that you get working stuff on schedule, and that no single capability crowd out the other capabilities needed to keep a well-balanced and working defence force. So let us look at the options.

Foreign submarines

The number of available designs isn’t overly large. Spain’s S-80 has had some, eh, interesting teething troubles, but after lengthening it it is now able to float (yes, really). At the same time, it is now an 80 meter / 3,000 ton boat, rather on the large side compared to the 65 meter / 2,000 ton of the A26. Let us quickly move on.

The elephant in the room is that TKMS (ex-HDW) which by a margin is the most important supplier of export submarines in the world is out of the question following the rather spectacular break-up with Kockums (which saw the Swedish Armed Forces, and reportedly also the Swedish Security Service, enter the premises to secure certain equipment, after which the whole yard suddenly was sold to Saab). A derivative of the Type 212 or the related Type 214 would probably be an excellent choice, these being something of a European standard with Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Greece all operating different versions, with Norway also having a number of vessels on order. The Type 212 has sported a number of different versions, with the latest Type 212CD ordered by Norway and Germany being quite a bit larger than the original vessels.

The upcoming Italian NFS will likely be the most advanced submarine in the 1,750 ton class. Picture courtesy of H.I Sutton / Covert Shores

The best fit, and likely the only that even has a theoretical chance (though I like to stress that as well is purely theoretical) is likely the latest Italian design, the Near Future Submarine (NFS), also known as Todaro II. Italy has a long history as a competent designer and builder of post-war subs, and despite the original Type 212A Todaro being largely a HDW-design, the Italian and German boats have diverged as additional batches have been ordered. The NFS will introduce Lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries which will provide a significant boost and a ‘first’ in European waters. Besides the Black Shark Advanced-torpedoes, the boat will also have a number of nifty SOF-features (naval special operations being an Italian speciality) as well as a land-attack capability. Delivery schedule and cost is roughly in line with A26, with the crucial difference that it is based on a tried and tested design, and there already is an Italian order for 2+2 vessels of the NFS-design providing for risk-sharing. The NFS isn’t as well-suited for the Baltic Sea as the A26, but it is a 95 % capability at a significantly reduced risk, and sometimes that is the kind of trade-off one need to make. The high-level of Italian input also means that it perhaps could be sold to the public as a Italian submarine rather than a German one.

The Chilean Scorpène-class submarine General O’Higgins is able to fire both the Black Shark-family of torpedoes as well as the Exocet anti-ship missile. Like the Gotland-class, the boats have been used in ASW-training by the US Navy. Source: SSBN/Wikimedia Commons

A politically even better choice would be the French Scorpène-class, which also has received a number of export orders around the world (though none in Europe). Following AUKUS, this certainly could be a good time to get a really nice deal on French submarines. Depending on the version, the Scorpène is found in versions stretching from 60 to 75 meters, and 1,700 to 2,000 tons. The project was hit by a serious leak when a significant amount of classified documents found their way into cyberspace, though it is doubtful that it has compromised the vessel to an extent that would require buyers to stay away from it. Based on some of the numbers quoted, the boat is on the cheaper side (don’t confuse ‘cheap’ with ‘little money’, though) and available for delivery at a relatively short notice, but again – anyone claiming to know the price with any kind of accuracy of a submarine probably shouldn’t be trusted.

In the end, the reality is that the Swedish Navy will stick with the A26, meaning that the unfortunate crew of HMS Södermanland will have to keep their vessel going for quite a bit longer. It also means that any further budget increases certainly can threaten important projects, such as the Navy’s mobile base concept or those of the other services (the Army’s planned increase in engineering capabilities or the Air Force’s need for mobile logistics for the rotary wing assets come to mind as key capabilities that aren’t media-sexy enough to be able to compete with the A26 for funding).

The A26 is great, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great choice for Sweden.

The Cavalry is Coming

Yesterday the Swedish Armed Forces officially stood up the first of their new units announced in the latest defence white paper, as the Norrland Dragoon Regiment was again retook its place as an independent unit. The unit, formerly known as the Army Ranger Battalion, has up until now operated as a semi-independent unit based in Arvidsjaur but sorting under the Norrbotten Regiment based in Boden. Of all the new and reinstated units found in the latest Swedish long-term plan, the Dragoons are without doubt the one most directly beneficial to Finland.

His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden declared the regiment reopened at a ceremony yesterday, 41 years after he did it the first time around when the unit moved to Arvidsjaur from Umeå. Source: Jimmy Croona/Försvarsmakten

But let us start from the beginning. The AJB, as the battalion has been known, should be no stranger readers of the blog. The doctrine of the unit has been described by a person with inside knowledge of its inner workings, and in case you haven’t read that or need to freshen up your memory of it I recommend going back and doing so, as the post isn’t overly long and will be referenced in this text in a number of places.

The reversion to regimental status is to facilitate the growth of the unit to include a second battalion, both of which will also return to their old designation of Norrland Ranger Battalions (Norrlandsjägarbataljoner), though without reverting back to the old doctrine (see the chapter “Special Forces” in this old post for a discussion on the naming conventions). At the risk of slightly oversimplifying the change: by the end of the decade Sweden should be able to put twice as many rangers in the field as they currently can.

It deserves to be reiterated what Jägarchefen wrote in the aforementioned post:

Today’s ranger battalion is in no way tied to a certain geographical area as [the Cold War ranger battalions] NjBat or Jbat Syd were, but is instead used where the capabilities of the unit provides the greatest benefit to the common fight.

However, you don’t have to be a genius to realise that the location of the regiment is influenced by the kind of terrain and climate the unit is to be able to handle. To quote the Swedish Supreme Commander, general Micael Bydén, from yesterday:

The region up here is strategically important from a military point of view. The Cap of the North, the Arctic, many want to be here, and then we need to be able to function and defend ourselves.

To a certain extent it is about the harshest conditions setting the bar. If you can survive and operate in the high north wilderness during winter conditions, you are likely able to do so in southern Sweden as well. However, notable is also how Jägarchefen described the Swedish rangers’ preferred area of operations:

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 front line. It is these targets, critical vulnerabilities deep behind enemy lines, that today’s Swedish Ranger Battalion is set to work against.

A quick look at the map says that any invader in the central-south of Sweden will have to have advanced quite significant distances until this kind of depth has been created. Certainly it is possible to find critical vulnerabilities close to the front line in case of amphibious or air landings, but these are often then better suited for long-range fires, air attacks, or even some of Sweden’s other special forces, such as the SOG or the combat swimmers.

Swedish rangers during an exercise in the subarctic conditions of the long winter typical of the high north. Source: AJB Facebook

Back to the high north. Sweden is situated at a notable distance from the Russian border, but also in a somewhat unhealthy location as northern Finland and Sweden is directly on the quickest route between the Norwegian port city of Narvik and the garrisons of Pechenga (sporting the combat proven troops of the 200th Motorized Infantry Brigade) and Alakurtti (home of the 80th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade). Sweden is also vary of the possibility of an attacker turning south and fighting their way down the coastline to reach the Swedish heartland – a longer route, but one offering safer lines of communications back to Russia compared to a landing directly in the south or central parts of Sweden (though as an interesting side-note, a Finnish Cold War-era map I recently caught sight of seemed to indicate that the FDF did not see the risk of a left-turn after Tornio as a likely scenario, but instead focused on the Schlieffenski plan in which the forces would advance over the River Tornio and sweep up in an arch to the northwest, reaching the coast on a wide front stretching from Tromsø to Bodø and encircling the Norwegian defenders of Finnmarken. No idea if this really was the dominant opinion within the FDF, and if so during which part/parts of the Cold War).

As such, northern Finland is of great interest to both Finland (obviously) and Sweden. However, for Finland the north will always be a secondary direction compared to the southeast, or even a third if the classic Raate-Oulu direction suddenly starts heating up. That’s not to say Finland wouldn’t defend its northern realms, both the Finnish Jaeger Brigade (note that in Finnish jaeger refers to any kind of infantry, in this case light infantry) and the Kainuu Brigade train units that feel right at home in a meter deep of snow. But there is no denying that the region is huge at over 450 km north to south and over 250 km east to west, and the number of troops available to defend the republic as a whole is limited.

In short, if there suddenly start to occur an influx of BTRs over the Finnish border, there would be gaps in the frontline and likely also in the number of eyes on the ground able to spot and create kinetic effects – either directly or through ordering in fires from other systems.

And this is were a bunch of Swedish dragoons could make a huge different.

A combined squad of rangers during an exercise late last year. The squad consisted of two forward observers, two snipers, a signals specialist, and a squad leader. During the exercise in question the unit managed to find an enemy artillery unit, which it then took out through a combination of sniper fire and by directing own counter-battery fire. Source: Mats Carlsson och David Kristiansen/Försvarsmakten

If Sweden sits on two battalions of rangers, trained in this very kind of terrain and climate – and often in exercises which see Finnish and Swedish units train together – the obvious development in the scenario above is to be proactive and send at least part of the force deep into Finland for both reconnaissance and direct action missions (“Thet är helsosammare binda sin häst wijdh sin Fiendes gärdzgårdh, än han binder wijd hans”, as Rudbeckius said). This is also a relatively low-key intervention compared to mobilising the Boden garrison and sending the armoured units east, but could still make a significant difference for both Sweden and Finland (as well as Norway, in case that is the eventual goal for the motorised columns). As such, this could present itself as both the politically easier and a militarily more flexible option. The obvious requirement is for Finnish and Swedish units to keep exercising together, and for the higher levels of command to hone their skills at fighting a common battle. Luckily, for the time being there seems to be both the political will as well as the investment in time and resources from the armed forces to do just that.

All in all, the most important improvement in the Finnish ability to defend Lappi that has happened during 2021 might have taken place three and a half hours of driving from the Finnish border. Because the odds of the cavalry coming just went up.

A Pounding in the Pacific

In a move that sent shock-waves around the Pacific Ocean, Australia is bound to become the third-largest operator of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN’s). But let’s start from the beginning.

Australia has a lot of water surrounding it, and the distances are long. Most countries with that situation rely on nuclear-powered submarines for the simple reason that they offers longer endurance and higher speed. However, Australia doesn’t sport any kind of nuclear infrastructure to speak about (besides a single research reactor and remnants of old UK weapons tests), and nuclear power has generally been seen as not an option. As such, when the current Collins-class, mainly famous for being the largest submarines ever designed in Sweden and for suffering from a significant amount of teething troubles due to being the largest submarines ever designed in Sweden – the physical properties of water scale poorly – was to be replaced, the requirement was for a very large conventionally powered submarine. In the end, Sweden, Germany, and France were confirmed to be in the running for the contract. Sweden offered an enlarged version of their current state-of-the-art submarine, the A26, which was a design principle that worked poorly with the Collins. Germany offered the Type 216, which again was a paper product based on the existing Type 214 – but larger. The French concept was to take the new French SSN-class the Barracuda (or Suffren-class as it is also known after the first boat of the class), and convert it to conventional power. And fit a completely different combat management system in it.

The boat that Australia should have bought, the Japanese Sōryū-class. It has now been replaced with the even more capable Taigei-class, which is an iterative low-risk design. Source: Kaijō Jieitai JMSDF

The fact that none of the submarines proposed actually existed probably tells you all about how unique the Australian requirement is. The one country which is building submarines that would fit the requirement was Japan, and they are among the finest submarines on the market. Or rather, they would be if Japan was interested in exporting defence equipment. The Sōryū-class was by many regarded as the front-runner, but in the end it seems it didn’t make it to the final selection. In any case, it was the one submarine that likely would have made sense to the SEA 1000-programme as the Collins-replacement is officially designated.

The Shortfin Barracuda (an excellent name, by the way) ran into problems quite quickly. The Australian counterpart required a significant amount of work be made locally, and notable is that there is no submarine industry in the country. Undertaking submarine production is one of the most complex engineering tasks found, and this requirement added significantly to the price tag. At the same time, the conversion work from one mode of propulsion to a completely different one proved even harder than it looked, and in essence there wasn’t much left of the original Barracuda once the design started to finalise.

Here a number of people will probably yell “Buy German, they know submarines!”, but while the Type 2xx-boats out of TKMS by all accounts are very good, it should be noted that France for decades has been an international powerhouse when it comes to submarines for both the domestic and the export markets. The submarines include both SSNs and SSKs (and SSBNs for domestic use), and have a very good reputation. (they also lead the post-war tonnage war by 1,450 t – 0 t compared to the German boats, though I wouldn’t read too much into that particular statistic). The eventual issues did not stem from getting a French boat, but from getting a paper product.

If it’s stupid but works it isn’t stupid, but unfortunately for the Shortfin Barracuda the basic project was just stupid and didn’t work. Something had to be done, and the Australians deserve credit for avoiding the alluring trap of the sunken cost fallacy (British Army, take note). And here is where this week’s announcement enter the equation.

The triple pact announced between the US-UK-Australia is far from a submarine deal, but rather a comprehensive security package including a number of practical steps, announced arms deals, and general security cooperation on an increased level (and let’s remember that the parties involved already were extremely close under the Five Eyes agreement). However, while getting Tomahawks is nice, there’s no denying that the SSN is the part that grabbed the headlines.

I didn’t expect the French to be happy about the announcement, but the official reaction has been absolutely positively furious. Some have claimed that France is overreacting to a major deal lost, and that it is largely theatre for domestic political reasons. However, most people with insight into the inner workings of French politics seem to take them at their word in this case, and in my opinion the notion that the French are unhappy because of a failed project is a significant oversimplification.

The American decision, which leads to the exclusion of a European ally and partner like France from a crucial partnership with Australia at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, be it over our values or respect for a multilateralism based on the rule of law, signals a lack of consistency which France can only notice and regret.

As the quote above shows, while there is understandably some anger directed towards Australia for breaking the contract (and doing so a mere two weeks after “Both sides committed to deepen defence industry cooperation and enhance their capability edge in the region. Ministers underlined the importance of the Future Submarine program” during a joint 2+2 ministerial meeting between French and Australian foreign and defence ministers), the main villain in the French eyes seem to be the US who not only outmanoeuvred the French, but brought along the British and left the French out in the cold. Crucially, there seems to have been little to no warning given to the French, who even if they must have known that the Shortfin Barracuda was in trouble, most likely did not anticipate the US and UK unilaterally deciding to trash the long-held non-proliferation convention to not export reactor technology for use aboard SSNs. Interestingly, it does seem that the initiative – as well as the decision to keep the French in the dark – came from the Australians, making the French framing of this being a US diplomatic backstabbing of the higher order seem somewhat misplaced.

The bilateral US-French relation has been growing in importance in recent years, and France – unlike the British – is a serious player in the Indo-Pacific region due to French Polynesia and the military presence based out of that region. La Royale is also by a margin the world’s third most powerful navy (after the USN and the PLAN). All in all, on paper France would seem to be the obvious choice for the role of junior expeditionary partner if you want to create a three-party alliance (let’s stay away from referring to it as the tripartite pact) in the region, with Australia bringing the local basing options and the US bringing their global reach. However, real life international relations are usually more complex than just playing top trumps. There’s little doubt that the Five Eyes/Anglosphere/Commonwealth/Special Relationship-bonds played an important role in ensuring that UK suddenly appeared in what France apparently sees as a US-scheme – note the reference to the “American decision” in the quote above. The UK is also a country that keeps punching above its weight in international relations based on a combination of historical grandeur, soft power, and just enough military force to be credible.

Nations might only have interests and not friends, but France is sometimes too open with that notion. Diplomacy is after all made between people, and people like to feel valued.

What happens now? France has declared this to “only heighten the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy. There is no other credible path for defending our interests and values around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific region”, but truth be told Paris could interpret the sun shining as a sign that the issue of European strategic autonomy needs to be raised. And while the Australians certainly share part in the blame, it is hard not to feel that France dropped the ball utterly and completely, having had one foot in the door of ensuring a long and deep strategic partnership with one of the key players in the region, only to have it utterly trashed by the inability of Naval Group to deliver on promises. The yard stated yesterday that they have “delivered on all its commitments“, but I do believe they are quite alone in their worldview on that point.

As said, the idea of converting an SSN to an SSK was rather hare-brained to begin with, so I don’t blame them for struggling to deliver. However, if it is supposed to be a strategic partnership between countries, I fail to see how the diplomats weren’t involved to a greater extent at an earlier stage and why a greater priority wasn’t assigned? It might certainly have been the Australian partners who struggled, but in that case Naval Group would have been the one who needed to step up and ensure the success, so that isn’t an explanation in my book either. Hindsight might be 20-20, but the only explanation is that it wasn’t evident in France exactly how fed up the Australian politicians were with the project falling behind. The Australians doing the sensible thing and openly discussing the issues with the French, before cancelling the order and buying turn-key Taigei-class boats from Japan probably wouldn’t have lead to the same kind of diplomatic outrage. As it currently stands, this will be a setback to diplomatic relations between France and the AUKUS, and not because of the arms deal – people nab those all the time – but due to the backstabbing creation of a strategic partnership which also includes tech transfers that goes against long-standing proliferation conventions.

The Astute-class is extremely good, but comes with a price-tag to match. Source: LA(Phot) J Massey/MOD

But it wouldn’t be an Australian submarine program without the customer getting bright ideas. Now follows an 18-month planning phase, and then at some point Australia will build ‘at least’ eight(!) SSNs in Adelaide. It’s difficult to explain exactly how expensive this is bound to end up being. The boats themselves are expensive, even if they would end up buying either the Austute- or Virginia-class straight unmodified from the shelf (and we all know odds are they will be modified), and it’s notable that neither the British nor the French plan for eight boats in their respective fleet. However, building nuclear-powered attack submarines is bound to be one of the few things that will be even more difficult and expensive than building large conventional ones.

There are of course the even more expensive option left, namely to get surplus vessels as a stop-gap and try to keep them operational.

Side-note: The big winner here is Saab Kockums, since the Collins seem bound to stay in service for quite a bit longer than originally intended, needing service and updates along the way.

An SSN makes perfect sense for Australia, but what is unclear to me is how on earth they have managed to drag the US into this diplomatic mess, when the whole thing could have been a rather straightforward rerouted arms deal and all partners involved share the fear of China as a rising threat. To manage to convert that into something that has the potential to lead to a ‘Freedom Fries 2.0’-moment is quite the diplomatic achievement.

But in conclusion, several things can be true at the same time:

  • SSNs are the obvious operational choice for Australia,
  • Building them themselves will be horrendously expensive and likely lead to poor quality of workmanship on at least the first few vessels, something that might prove deadly if it ever comes to combat as the silence which submarines rely on require skilled workers,
  • The Shortfin Barracuda program was a disaster in the making, and while both parties certainly share part of the blame, cutting the losses was a wise move by the Australians,
  • While the French are sad that they’ve lost the deal, there is reason to start with a look in the mirror before criticising that part,
  • At the same time, the completely opaque launching of the AUKUS and having that include nuclear tech-transfer is what seemingly draw the most ire in Paris, and here they certainly are justified,
  • While not counter to the letter of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the way in which this is done does see the US and the UK unilaterally break old non-proliferation standards, something that tend to have the ability to come back to bite you later.

Review: Modern Taiwanese Air Power

Harpia Publishing has turned out to have a serious feeling for nailing the release date of their books to ensure they are highly relevant upon release, and their book Modern Taiwanese Air Power (ISBN 978-1-950394-03-6) continues this trend. The island republic (yes, that’s the reality, feel free to express differing opinions in some other comment field) has featured heavily in the headlines this summer, and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has further increased the discussions surrounding the politics of the hotspot.

This isn’t a book about the greater political questions, but as these have shaped the ROCAF the general trends are discussed in both the six-page overview (brief but effective) of the history of the air force as well as mentioned when dealing with individual projects. From an aviation geek point of view, the varying political trends and shifting partnerships have lead to a fascinating mix of modern and outdated equipment from a number of different sources, domestic as well as foreign.

But while it is interesting to read up on the F-CK-1 (you there in the back! Yes, you, stop giggling!), the book is more than just a description of the different aircraft and systems in Taiwanese service. It also dives into the overall strategic and operational picture an air war would see, such as discussing the threat from mainland long-range missiles as well as Taiwanese ground-based air defences and offensive missile systems. Also discussed are the air surveillance and C3I-systems and datalinks involved. The authors, Roy Choo and Peter Ho, manages to provide a surprisingly hefty information package despite the book being on the thinner side for a Harpia volume (84 pages plus an appendix with all unit badges of the ROCAF). Featured is also a short discussion on the “Grey-zone warfare” conducted against the island and what it means for the ROCAF to have to keep scrambling aircraft in order to keep an eye on their ADIZ.

In general I’ve been very happy with the books put out by Harpia, even if there’s some cases where I’ve questioned some editorial choices. I am happy to say that Modern Taiwanese Air Power is an excellent addition to their current line-up not only for anyone interested in the motley collection of aircraft and capabilities the ROCAF has assembled, but also anyone more generally interested in the conflict stretching across the Taiwan Strait as the book provide a compact brief into how these capabilities are shaped by and in turn keep shaping the overall geostrategic situation. The biggest surprise was indeed how much information the authors managed to fit inside the relatively brief book, without making it feel like something obvious was being left out or that I am left with only half the picture. The book also sport excellent illustrations with high-class colour pictures and illustrations. And obviously, the book is an excellent companion to Harpia’s earlier books covering the different aviation arms of the mainland (see earlier reviews: [1], [2], and [3]).

Highly recommended.

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

CAVS Rolling On

While HX has cemented its place in the spotlight during the last few years, in the background a number of other important acquisition programs have been moving forward without making too much of a fuss – just as you want your major projects to do.

One of these is the CAVS, the Common Armoured Vehicle System, in which Finland, Latvia, and since April 2020 also Estonia, has been aiming to procure a new common armoured vehicle system. The baseline will be Patria’s ungoogleable 6X6 armoured personnel carrier.

The 6×6 prototype being shown at the Ādažu base in Latvia this spring. Source: Gatis Dieziņš / Latvian MoD

At the first stage the aim is to bring into service the standard armoured personnel carrier as well as a command post vehicle, though naturally the family can be expected to be expanded into further versions if and when the platform matures. To understand exactly what is happening, a brief look back at Finnish APC development is needed.

The ubiquitous Finnish armoured vehicle is the originally Sisu (later Patria) XA-180 series and the closely related XA-200 series of vehicles. These rather unassuming 6x6s are rather typical of late Cold War designs, and has achieved a comfortable number of export successes as well as a solid reputation in international operations. The Pasi, as it is widely known, does however suffer from the basic issue of being designed in the early 1980’s, and there is only so much you can do to upgrade it before you run into the obvious question of whether a clean-sheet design isn’t the better option.

‘Shadow’, one of the original Rosomak still painted in green and lacking later upgrades, on patrol in the Ghazni province back in 2010. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Mark O’Donald via Wikimedia Commons

Enter Patria AMV, or XA-360. If the Pasi is your basic Cold War APC, the AMV is your typical early 2000’s design, being larger, 8×8, heavily protected, and able to carry both significant firepower and protection into battle. Now, the AMV is by all accounts an excellent vehicle, and has scored a number of export successes during the first decade of its service. It also continued the tradition from the Pasi of building up a solid reputation in international service, in this case with the Poles in Afghanistan. However, this performance didn’t come cheap, and in a twist of irony Finland is in fact one of the lesser users of the platform, with the majority of the vehicles having been produced in Poland under license as the KTO Rosomak. In fact, reports surfaced a few years ago that Polish company PGZ was interested in acquiring the whole land division of Patria.

At home, with the large-scale acquisition of AMV being ruled out (at least for the time being), the FDF instead launched a limited mid-life upgrade programme of the XA-180, bringing the vehicle up to the XA-180M standard and allocating the vehicles to the manoeuvre forces of the Army (these are responsible for creating the centre of gravity of the defence and fighting the decisive battles). It was however clear that this wasn’t a long-term solution.

Exactly what the FDF is up to has been somewhat unclear. A few pre-production vehicles of the Protolab PMPV/Misu have been acquired, but while these obviously can do the job of an APC they are closer to armoured trucks. The same has been the case with the Sisu GTP 4×4, six vehicles of which have been acquired for tests, but these are too small to work as XA-180 replacements. As such, neither is really a direct Pasi-replacement.

The obvious case was to bring the XA-concept into the 21’st century, something which Patria was quick to do once it became clear that the pendulum was slowly swinging back and the 8×8-market was starting to become cramped while at the same time many armed forces wanted a modern wheeled APC that didn’t break the bank.

Latvian Minister of Defence Dr. Artis Pabriks and Janis Garisons, State Secretary of the MoD of Latvia, in front of the 6X6 during this week’s ceremony. Note the additional equipment compared to the prototype, such as shield and mount for a heavy machine gun. Source: Armīns Janiks / Latvian MoD

Enter the 6X6, building on the components of the AMV with the pedigree of the XA. The vehicle sports room for two crew and up to ten dismounts as well as their equipment for a 72-hour mission (or alternatively, three crew and 8-9 dismounts if you want to bring along a gunner). Protection is STANAG 2-level (roughly protection from 7.62 x 39 mm armoured piercing rounds or a 155 mm HE round exploding 80 meters from the vehicle) as standard, but can be increased to STANAG 4-level if the customer so wishes (roughly protection from a 14.5 mm armoured piercing rounds or a 155 mm HE round exploding 30 meters from the vehicle). I’m gonna make an educated guess that you will sacrifice your “optional amphibious capability” if you choose to go down the STANAG 4-route. The vehicle has all the niceties that can be expected, with fully individual suspension, all-wheel drive, ABS brakes, and so forth. As noted, the vehicle ended up chosen as the baseline for the CAVS-programme, and this week the first orders have been placed.

Latvia went all-in, ordering ‘over 200’ vehicles in a joint ceremony in which Finland signed a Letter of Intent for 160 armoured personnel carriers. Estonian plans are still somewhat unclear, but notable is that with the Finnish schedule of placing the main order only in 2023 (with an order for pre-production vehicles this year) the Estonians still have plenty of time to get aboard. A key note on the Finnish decision is that the 6X6 (which by the way locally is known as PSAJON2020, in case you need more designations to keep track off) won’t actually replace the XA-180M in service, but rather allows the manoeuvre forces to trade in their XA-180M for the 6X6 and send the XA-180M to the third-tier local forces (responsible for participating in battle and providing security, surveillance and support to the manoeuvre and second-tier regional forces in their area and assisting them in maintaining contact with the other authorities). The addition of a significant number of armoured vehicles will provide a serious boost to the tactical and operational mobility of these units, but also raises an interesting question about whatever happens with the regional forces, which certainly have an even higher need for APCs? The missing link might be explained by the middle ground of the XA-203 series vehicles, but their number in Finnish service is significantly smaller than the XA-180 series of vehicles, and a number of these are used for other purposes where the heavier and more powerful vehicle is more suitable than the original XA-180, such as vehicles with dedicated signals- or C3-roles. In any case, we know that there are further vehicle programs coming in the form of e.g. replacements for the all-terrain vehicles used by the more northerly units (Bv 206 and NASU) which will be replaced by significantly faster all-terrain vehicles allowing the tracked vehicles to keep up with the wheeled ones of the units, and on the horizon the MLU proper of the CV 9030 looms (for those looking even further, the BMP-2M/MD and MT-LBV-family are also bound to wear out eventually). Whether further 6X6 buys are bound to follow for the needs of the regional forces remain to be seen.