9K33 Osa in Vladivostok

Due to the increased tension on the Korean peninsula, a short video clip showing a convoy of seven [see Edit below] vehicles travelling through a city has caused some raised eye brows.

The vehicles in question are 9K33 Osa (NATO designation SA-8 GECKO) surface-to-air missile TELARs, meaning that a single vehicle transports the missiles in their launch containers and is equipped with a radar allowing it to acquire and fire upon any targets without outside assistance. At least six of the vehicles in the convoy are Osas, the lead vehicle is too blurry for an accurate identification, and could be a command vehicle.

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9K33 Osa-AKM. Source: Wikimedia Commons/DonSimon

The video is indeed shot in Vladivostok, at the western end of Russkaya Ulitsa, at a relatively recent date. The geolocation is based on the building to the left, visible at the very beginning of the clip, which holds a V-Laser store, as well as the small kiosk in front of it.

The Google Street-view image above is from 2013, and it seems some changes has been made to the area between the road lanes.

To the right, a large building with a slightly smaller one behind it is briefly visible. This is not found on Google Street-view, but Yandex somewhat newer imagery shows it under construction. The building in question houses the Mall Druzba Center.

All in all, the location seems quite certain, and while it is hard to say for certain how old the clip is, the inclusion of Mall Druzba Center means that really old footage can be ruled out.

The location is intriguing. As mentioned, this is at the very end of Russkaya, and there does not seem to be any logical place from where the vehicles would have come, unless they have been transported to Vladivostok by rail or sea, and are now choosing this somewhat low-key road to get out from the city.

As for the presence of Osas in Vladivostok, that in itself is no reason to worry. The movement of a handful of medium-ranged SAMs is well within normal routines. However, this does constitute a small piece of a pattern of current events and troop movements on and around the Korean peninsula which on the whole do give reason for concern.

Edit 15 April 09:40 (GMT +2):

Zvezda state that three motorized infantry brigades in the Far East has moved out. The Osas could very well be related to this.

Edit 15 April 10:50 (GMT +2):

A second video clip shows the forward part of the convoy, and together the clips seem to indicate that a total 13 vehicles are included in the convoy. Eight of these are 9K33 Osa TELARs, with a further two being the 9T217 missile transporter and loader, which carries reloads for the TELARs. The last three are then some kind of unidentified BTR armored vehicles, likely being PU-12M command vehicles. This setup does make sense, as it would mean that the convoy is made up of two batteries with four TELARs and command vehicles each, though the number of 9T217 does seem a bit on the low side.

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9T217 missile transporter and loader. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Wistula

9 April 1940 – Reclaiming the initiative

Operation Weserübung, the German surprise assault on Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940, was in many a resounding German success. This is often attributed to the complete strategic surprise achieved, leaving the Norwegian leadership scrambling to get to grips with the rapidly developing situation, something they never quite succeeded with (the strategically insignificant capture of Narvik being one of few successful Allied offensive operations).

But in this chaos, a few memorable exceptions showed that the commander in the field has the ability to react in time to sudden developments, and even to wrestle the initiative from the enemy.

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Oscarsborg Fortress under air attack by Luftwaffe bombers on 9 April 1940, after the sinking of the Blücher. Source: Norwegian Defence Forces via Wikimedia Commons

The best known example of this is oberst (colonel) Eriksen, who commanded Oscarsborg Fortress, and whose decision to open fire upon the unidentified warships that sailed past the fortress on their way to Oslo in the early hours of the morning halted the German invasion fleet.

Visst fanden skal der skytes med skarpt!

Sure as hell we’ll use live rounds!

Col. Eriksen when asked if they really were to open fire

A less well-known story, especially outside of Norway, is that of sekondløytnant Hannevig, and his Telemark regiment.

At the outbreak of hostilities sekondløytnant (2nd Lt.) Thor Olaf Hannevig’s only military background came from having passed an eight-month course to get his commission as an officer in the reserve in 1915. By 1940 he was a close to 50 year old business man with interests in such diverse fields as ship-owning, banking, farming and distilleries. On the whole, he was described as a colourful adventurer.

Upon mobilization he reported for duty at Telemark infanteriregiment nr. 3 (Telemark Infantry Regiment no. 3) in Heistadmoen west of Oslo. There he was turned away at the gate, as the regimental commander saw continued resistance as a lost cause. Hannevig, however, refused to give up without a fight, and travelled west to set up defences there. By raiding military depots in the area he acquired (without permission) light arms for his unit, while at the same time he sent out a new mobilisation order through the local constabulary. By mid-April he had assembled and trained a 150-300 men strong force of volunteers in the western parts of the Telemark, defiantly labelling his new unit as the Telemark regiment.

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The Colt M/27 was a localised version of the Browning M1917 in 7.92 mm. These were together with 81 mm mortars the only heavy weapons available to Hannevig’s regiment. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hannevig’s plan was to fight a delaying action, hoping for reinforcements from the west. The first battle of the “regiment” took place at the bridge of Åmot, where it ambushed a German unit on the 21 April. The Germans halted their offensive until 1 May, while waiting for reinforcements which brought up their strength to two battalions. In a series of skirmishes during the following days, the Norwegians incurred further losses to the Germans, while blowing bridges and destroying the roads to slow the attackers.

On 3 May reports of the surrender of the Norwegian 4th Division in Vestlandet brought an end to the hopes of reinforcements, and Hannevig entered into negotiations with the Germans about surrendering. Due to demands that any surrender be unconditional, he instead “disbanded” the regiment two days later, with most of the 75 soldiers left simply reverting to civilian clothes and going home. After this he waited for the German advance to catch up to his position, and on 8 May he surrendered together with a few of his closest men. By then the 28 German POW’s held outnumbered the Norwegians, which consisted of four soldiers (including Hannevig) and six female auxiliaries.

It can be argued that both Hannevig and Eriksen fought in vain. Neither operation had any lasting effect on the campaign, as German paratroopers captured Oslo without the help of the amphibious force and Hannevig’s operation was way too small to have any impact other than dragging two German battalions into an area of secondary importance. However, what both show is the importance of local leadership at all levels taking charge and leading to the best of their ability, especially if there is a general breakdown in communications. In light of the Crimean invasion and the importance placed upon airborne troops and strategic surprise by the Russian Armed Forces, this is still today a valuable lesson for both active duty and reserve soldiers, NCO’s, and officers.

Review: Tornio ’44

The sheer scope of the Second World War means that there is a vast number of less-known operations. Amongst these, the amphibious landing and following battle between the Finnish and German forces in the Tornio area in the autumn of 1944 is amongst the most obscure. The battle was the single most important part of the so called Lapland War, during which Finnish forces drove out the German units from Finnish territory in accordance with the requirements of the Finnish-Soviet armistice signed during the late summer of that year.

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The iconic picture of two Finnish soldiers with their Panzerschreck along the Kemi-Tornio road. Source: SA-Kuva

The battle wasn’t particularly large, none of the individual skirmishes it was made up of numbered more than a few battalions, and was characterised by poor intelligence, a lack of communication, and the general confusion which followed these. The close proximity to the (neutral) Swedish border and the fact that the two sides up until recently had been brothers in arms and good friends also added to the flavour.

A Finnish-Swedish company called Mikugames has created a boardgame to represent the battle. The hex-and-counter style game covers the whole battle from 1 to 8 of October, with the map stretching from Ajos up to Ylivojakkala. The counters are company-sized units, the being printed on both sides, with the second side representing the unit at half-strength.

At first glance, the game looks like your standard run-of-the-mill wargame, with attack factors being summed and ratios being compared, before the dice resolve the outcome. Upon closer inspection it becomes clear that this is only partly correct, and that the game in fact feature a number of novel approaches to capture the unique nature of the Tornio campaign. While ‘flavour’ has a tendency to mean ‘complexity’ in many wargames, in Tornio ’44 the opposite is in fact true, and they instead make the game highly suitable for beginners. This is mainly due to two factors: the pace at which the battle develops, and the fact that this was almost exclusively an infantry affair.

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A German counterattack from the direction of Kemi has managed to recapture parts of Tornio, including the vital supply depot in ‘Little Berlin’. Visible is the sole German tank company, 2. Panzer-Abteilung 211.

When the battle kicks off, very few units are actually on the map, meaning that the first few turns are rather straightforward and let the players build confidence and become familiar with the sequence of play. After this, the scope of the game gradually increases as more Finnish reinforcements are landed and the German command dispatches more units to the area.

The gameplay itself boil down to a few simple mechanics. Each unit is either motorised or not, which affect the cost of it moving through different kinds of terrain. For the combat value, each unit has an attack and a defence value, reflecting that defence is usually stronger than attack. For the supporting units (i.e. artillery and mortars), they instead get a range and support value (representing how hard they hit), as well as a close-defence value, representing how good they are at defending themselves if they get attacked. While all units are correct according to the historical order of battle, you don’t have to worry about whether you are commanding a Waffen-SS mountain company, a bunch of Finnish light tanks, or a second-rate Ersatz unit if you don’t like. For practical purposes, the only differences actually making a difference is their different mobility and combat values. The few exceptions to this rule are the special abilities of engineers to support river crossings (and blow bridges in the case of the Germans), as well as some simple optional rules dealing with antitank and antiaircraft units.

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The engineers of the Gebirgsjäger-Brigade 139’s 17. company tries to blow the large combined rail and road bridge over the Kemijoki river.

Where the game really shines is in the asymmetric nature of the fighting. To reflect the differing goals of the Finnish and German forces, a single point-track is used, where the Finnish player score their victory points, and the German player tries to subtract the Finnish points. The Finnish player gains their points by capturing key areas, inflicting losses to the Germans (preferably after encircling them in a motti), and for any Finnish units exiting the map along the roads heading north. Reversely, the German player subtracts points by recapturing objectives, destroying the bridges over Torniojoki and Kemijoki rivers (with more points being awarded the longer they can wait before blowing the charges), and for any units exiting the board northward during the last two turns.

This creates a set of extremely interesting tactical dilemmas. How long will the German player try and maintain control of the Kemijoki bridge before retreating northwards? The German player will initially have more troops on the board, with the initiative slowly transferring to the Finnish player, so trying to score a few early victories might be tempting. However, as all German losses are scored, being overly aggressive will soon come back to haunt the point-track. The Finnish player in turn has a major choice in deciding whether the troops will land in Kemi (as per the original plan), on Ajos, or at Röyttä south of Tornio (where the landing historically happened). Of these, Kemi is the most centrally located, followed by Ajos, and then Röyttä. This is turn influences how quickly the German command in Lapland reacts to the threat, with the German forces arriving significantly faster if the first two landing spots are used. The Finnish player can thereby determine the pace of the game by controlling the alert level. This can also be changed mid-game, by diverting some of the later waves of Finnish landings to a landing spot with a higher alert level.

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Finnish troops in the Kemi skijumping hill watches helplessly as the German troops blow the Kemijoki bridge in the distance, creating an impressive pillar of smoke. Source: SA-kuva

These differing objectives and the steady stream of troops trickling in from different corners of the battlefield create a surprisingly gripping game. There never seem to be quite enough troops to make that last decisive move, and reinforcements can suddenly alter the force balance on a certain part of the battlefield, while a sudden change in weather might delay the Finnish reinforcements for a crucial turn.

The largest single issue I have with the game is probably that in some places the wording of the manual isn’t completely clear, with key words being used before they have been explained. The map is nicely done, but isn’t mounted and feature a number of prominent folds which require some pressure to straighten out. Otherwise the cardboard counters risk sliding around. However, this is usually the case with games at this price point, and an unmounted rolled map (delivered in a tube) can be bought from the publisher for a reasonable price.

Tornio ’44 is highly recommended to anyone interested in the northern front of World War II or looking for a suitable first game to try hex-and-counter wargaming. While designed for two players, it does work well for single-player as well (with the player playing both sides), with only some minor features being absent. If boardgames doesn’t interest you, but the conflict itself does (and you read Finnish or Swedish), Mika Kulju’s book on the battle is probably the authoritative work on it, and is well worth a read.

Kevyen osaston polkupyöriä lastataan laivaan Tornioon vietäväksi.
The Finnish Light Detachment (Kevyt osasto) load their bicycles onto a Finnish steamer in the port of Toppila, Oulu. Ironically, next to Toppila is the Alppila district, named after the large depot the German mountain troops created there. No ‘real’ landing tonnage was available, and the Finnish troops were ferried by civilian merchant vessels. Source: SA-kuva

HX Update Q1 2017

As usual, there is a number of recent events concerning the fighters involved in the HX-program as well as the program itself.

The Rafale is currently having its F3R standard being evaluated, which will be fully certified during 2018, and last week Dassault got the order for the follow-on F4 standard. The main focus of the F4 will likely be on upgrades to the software, including the SPECTRA EW-suite, as well as a new short/medium-range air-to-air missiles (or possibly new versions of the current MICA). The F4 is slated to fly by 2023.

Saab got an order for an upgraded version of their RBS15 anti-ship missile, the two versions ordered being a ship-mounted RBS15 Mk3+ and an air-launched RBS 15F-ER (including integration onto the JAS 39E Gripen). The weapon is developed in cooperation with Diehl, and according to Saab it features “improved combat range, an upgraded target seeker, and a lower mass compared to the earlier system. It also has an ability to combat a wide spectrum of naval and land-based targets.”.

The Eurofighter is continuing with both the Phase 2 and Phase 3 Enhancement programs in parallels, with the latest milestone having been a series of flight trials with the Brimstone anti-vehicle missile. The Royal Air Force is keen to keep the current schedule, as the Tornado is soon about to bow out. Currently, this seems to hold, which should mean that any capability gaps are avoided.

The Finnish Defence Forces’ Logistics Command sent out a preliminary RFI for weapons and other external stores for the HX. This is to be followed by a ‘proper’ RFI later this summer, The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might first seem. The capabilities of the aircrafts are tied to their weaponry (and external stores), the cost of which also makes up a significant part of the whole project. For a fair comparison of how the fighters will perform in Finnish service, the evaluation need to be performed only with the weapons which are likely to be acquired by the Finnish Air Force. E.g. the Eurofighter feature both the ASRAAM and the IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missiles, but no user has adopted both. In other words, the final cost and capability is highly dependent on which weapon is used in the evaluation. The RFI is also set to investigate the integration cost in the cases where an aircraft doesn’t yet have a suitable weapon integrated.

The Finnish Air Force Command (ILMAVE) has confirmed that the possibility of the HX getting an anti-ship capability is being looked into. This is in line with the recent Finnish defence white paper.

The air show-season, also known as ‘summer’ amongst non-avgeeks, is fast approaching. BAE and Saab have confirmed the presence of the Eurofighter and JAS 39C Gripen respectively flying on both Kaivari and Seinäjoki Air Shows, with Boeing/USN having confirmed that the Super Hornet will come to Kaivari. So far Rafale and F-35 is missing from both, though Lockheed-Martin has promised to show up with some kind of a stand.

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#BringTheNoise2017

 

Flotilla 2020 – A Strategic Acquistion

The Finnish corvette program is steadily moving forward, and it is nice to see that the Navy is also becoming more open regarding the project. A while back the Navy published a 20-page long document which in quite some detail went through the background of the project, and how it ended up with four multipurpose corvettes being the vessels of choice for Flotilla 2020. This was followed up by a four page article by captain (N) Valkamo, the Navy’s Assistant Chief of Staff / Plans, published in the personnel magazine Rannikon puolustaja (fi. Defender of the Coast). The latter provide a good overlook over the project, including the background research and some further nuggets of information compared to the longer text.

While the program seems to enjoy broad support amongst the Navy (unsurprising) and politicians, it continues to be something of a hot topic amongst parts of the general population and other service branches. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that both texts place a heavy focus on the solid groundwork made before the decision to focus on four multipurpose corvettes was made.

First, the nature of the future naval battlefield was predicted, and yes, that include the presence of K-300 Bastion anti-ship missile system. After this, the question of how to cost-effectively solve the missions of the Finnish Navy in this threat environment was looked into, including a number of different configurations with vessels of different sizes and roles and in different combinations. Unsurprisingly, it was concluded that due to operational and tactical flexibility as well as economic factors (including both acquisition and life-cycle costs) a single class of multipurpose vessels was preferable over numerous different designs specialising in one or two roles and operating together. I’ve earlier discussed the issue of trying to coordinate different ships into a working unit, ensuring that the right one is always in the right place. A metaphor could be the merger of light, medium, heavy, infantry, and cavalry tanks as well as the tank destroyer into the jack-of-all-trades Main Battle Tank. Other alternatives that were looked into was transferring whole or part of the missions to air- or ground-based systems, but this was also deemed impossible to implement cost-effectively. Especially as e.g. mining require vessels out at sea in any case.

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An infographic depicting the timeline for all major surface units, including scheduled service date, MLU, decommisiong, as well as roles and capabilities. Source: Finnish MoD

This then caused the slight growth in size compared to the current mine ships, as the vessel needs to be able to fit numerous weapons and their sensors, as well as maintaining the crew complement and provisions needed for prolonged stays out at sea during escort or surveillance missions. Something which hasn’t been widely discussed is the need for speed. While the light fast attack crafts have impressive sprint speed, their ability to transit a high speeds over longer distances isn’t stellar, especially if you encounter adverse weather. In the same way, while a Ferrari might be faster than a Land Rover on the Nürburgring, the roles would quickly be reversed if they set off on a bumpy dirt road through the Finnish forests. The larger size does also allow for the ability to operate in ice, as well as better resistance to combat damage due to compartmentalisation.

Still, the size won’t grow too much. Partly because larger vessels aren’t an end in itself, and partly because both acquisition and life-cycle costs grow with the hull size. The Navy also face an issue with having a limited number of crew members with which to man the vessels. All of these factor in, and has lead to the current design. Importantly, keeping the total length around 100 meters and the draft low means that the vessels can use the current naval infrastructure in the Finnish archipelago, including the current network of secondary bases and the extensive network of inshore waterways.

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The 7 meter long and 900 kg heavy 1:15 scale hull model is pushed through the ice as part of the test program. Source: Finnish MoD

The hull form has been finalised, and scale test have been performed with an eye on different requirements. These include both resistance, manoeuvring, and ice-going capability. In addition, the new propeller design has been tested in full scale on the Navy’s auxilliary FNS Louhi. As was expected, the vessels will have a drop of MEKO-blood in them, as the concept has been fine-tuned by German design bureau MTG-Marinetechnik GmbH.

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FNS Hämeenmaa (02) showing the 57 mm Bofors Mk I. Source: Puolustusvoimat

For the weapons and sensors, the RFI resulted in a number of suitable packages being identified, all fitting within the budget. One of these will then be chosen, with the (foreign) main supplier being responsible for providing an integrated warfighting capability (sensors, weapons, C3I, battlefield management, and so forth). One interesting change which I did not expect was the renaming of the anti-ship missiles from meritorjuntaohjus (sea-defence missile) to pintatorjuntaohjus (surface-defence missile), with the Navy’s new missile being slated to become PTO2020. It is possible that this change reflects the secondary land-attack capability many modern missiles have. The PTO2020 program is handled as its own program as it is destined for both the updated Hamina, the corvettes, and the land-based launchers. As such it is not included in the 1.2 billion Euro price tag of the corvettes, as is the case with the new light ASW-torpedo which will be acquired as part of the Hamina MLU.

In addition to these systems, several systems will also be transferred from the Rauma- and Hämeenmaa-classes, as well as from the already decommissioned Pohjanmaa. These include the deck guns, towed arrays, decoy launchers, mine-laying equipment, and fire control director. The deck gun is an interesting issue, as the Rauma is equipped with the Bofors 40 mm, of which there are four, while the Hämeenmaa feature the 57 mm Bofors Mk I, a considerably more suitable weapon for a corvette. Still, the Mk I is quite a bit older than the corresponding 57 mm Bofors Mk 3 which is found on the Hamina, and as we all know there are only two Hämeenmaa vessels in service. However, it is possible that there are more guns in storage, as the two scrapped Helsinki-class vessels as well as the Pohjanmaa also had a single 57 mm Bofors Mk I each, and the Finnish Defence Forces is famous for not throwing away something that might prove useful further down the line. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the current guns mounted on the Hämeenmaa-class are these recycled Helsinki-class guns… In any case, I expect to see the 57 mm Bofors L/70 mounted on the corvettes, and probably upgrade to a Mk 3-ish standard in order to be able to fire smart ammunition remotely.

The decoy launcher is more straightforward, as both classes feature the modern Rheinmetall MASS. The towed arrays currently in service are the active Kongsberg ST2400 variable-depth sonar and the SONAC PTA passive sonar. Very little information is available on the latter, but it is understood to be a rather conventional system well suited for littoral operations with both narrow- and broadband waterfall displays. As the current number of arrays has been quite small, and as the Hamina will also take up the ASW-role as part of their MLU, it is entirely possible that more arrays will be acquired. It is also unclear if all corvettes will get both active and passive arrays, or whether they will be limited to either mode of operation.

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The scale model shown by Saab at Euronaval 2016, featuring a Giraffe 4A and a 1X above it in the cut-outs. This combination of shrouded rotating radars (the cut-outs are for illustrative purposes only) gives both long-range search capability and short-range tracking of rapidly closing targets. Photo: Saab, used with permission

Interestingly, the fire-control sensor is the Saab CEROS 200 radar and optronic tracking fire control director. This will likely strengthen Saab’s already strong offering, as they already have a tried solution for integrating the CEROS into their 9LV combat managment system, together with their RBS15 MK3 missile and Sea Giraffe radars. The 9LV is already a familiar product to the Finnish Navy, and it would come as no surprise if Saab would be the prime contractor for systems integration. Other companies likely in the running include Atlas Elektroniks (prime contractor for the ongoing Pansio-class MLU), Kongsberg (best known for the NSM anti-ship missile, but has a wide portfolio of naval products), and Raytheon (sporting strong references).

Has the F-35 gone to war?

A surprising Twitter-thread by Le Figaro‘s Georges Malbrunot Tuesday stated that the F-35 made its combat debut already in January, when it would have taken part in an Israeli raid on Damascus.

Unfortunately, I do not read French, but Air Forces Monthly published a nice overview of the info, found here.

The raid has been known from before, and was directed against Mezze Air Base (alternative spellings include ‘Mazzeh’ and ‘Mezzeh’) in the western outskirts of Damascus, around 45 km from the armistice line marking de facto Israeli territory post-1973. The base is clearly visible in Google Maps. Notable observations include:

  • The base seems to house mainly military helicopters, though a few fast jets are visible,
  • A number of hardened-aircraft shelters are found, naturally it is impossible to tell if more aircraft are housed in these,
  • Several of the revetments at the ‘amoeba’-area in the middle of the field seems to have been hit. Several small marks could indicate either cluster munitions, secondary explosions/shrapnel/fires from aircraft standing there being hit, or salvos of (light) mortar fire.

The base has been hit several times by the Israelis, including in December last year. Then the alleged weapon of choice according to Syrian news agency SANA was a surface-to-surface missile system fired from a position close to Mount Avital (or Tal Abu Nada). As a side-note, I find the claimed firing position somewhat dubious. SANA claimed in the January attack as well that the weapon used was a surface-to-surface missile, but fired from close to Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee). Another interesting raid allegedly took place in December 2015. Here, a Syrian source claimed that the Israelis fired four Spice-2000 stand-off precision guided munitions from inside Israeli airspace, to take out the convicted Hezbollah-associated terrorist Samir Kuntar in his sixth-floor apartment in Damascus. While it seems certain Kuntar died in an explosion at his apartment, the exact circumstances are unclear to say the least.

What is certain is that in the 1982 Lebanon War, the Israeli Air Force completely dismantled the Syrian ground-based air defence network, and then followed it up by destroying the fighters that the Syrian Arab Air Force scrambled. After this, the Israelis has proved a number of times that they can operate inside Syrian airspace more or less with impunity. The single most famous raid was Operation Orchard, the raid that destroyed a Syrian nuclear site in 2007, and which included both fighter jets and helicopter inserted special forces. This haven’t changed despite the Russians bringing modern surface-to-air missile systems to Syria, though whether this is due to Israel only operating outside their range, the systems not being as capable as they are rumoured to be, or due to behind-the-scenes politics between Russia and Israel over the head of the Syrian government is unclear.

Air Mobility Command enables delivery of Israel’s first F-35s
One of the first two F-35’s being refuelled by a Tennessee Air National Guard KC-135 During their trans-Atlantic flight. Source: U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Erik D. Anthony via Wikimedia Commons

The first two F-35’s arrived in Israel last December, and they have seen heavy use by the Golden Eagle Squadron based at Nevatim Air Force Base in the Negev desert. Officially the aircraft undertook their first night flight on the evening of 16 January (or 15 January, the wording is somewhat unclear).

The IAF article on the event is interesting in many ways. The squadron commander, Lt. Col. Yotam, has nothing but praise for the aircraft. “We are performing a night flight very quickly in comparison to other aircraft that were integrated in the IAF”, he notes, while at the same time maintaining that they “in every mission, we operate slowly and in a supervised manner, while performing in-depth risk management”.

This event took place a few days after the alleged use of the Adir over Syria.

“The ‘Adir’s ability to fly in threatened areas is allowed not only thanks to the dark”, explained Lt. Col. Yotam. “We plan to fly without constraints of time or space, so it is a scenario we want and need to train for”.

Despite the aircraft officially still being in test and evaluation use in Israeli service, the IAF has built up a reputation as just the kind of force to throw out the rulebook and go with a ‘whatever gets the job done’-philosophy. The ability to penetrate air defence networks to hit high-value targets is certainly there for the F-35, with the F-35A having the ability to do so (against static targets) already with the current state of software and weapons integration.

However, there are numerous things speaking against an early combat debut. The aircrafts would have spent barely a single month in Israel at the time of the raid, which despite the previous testing done in the US and the mission-centric philosophy of the IAF is a very short timespan. They also lack proper integration into the Israeli combat network, as the IAF will fit a number of indigenous systems into the aircraft on top of the aircraft’s own code (the changes are large enough that several sources, including the IAF, refer to the Israeli F-35A as the F-35I). This job has not been done yet, making some question whether the IAF would risk operating the fighters over enemy airspace outside of the Israeli command and control network.

Perhaps the main issue is the fact that Israel demonstrably has no urgent need to push the Adir into harms way. The Air Force, as well as some ground based systems, can reach Mezze even from within Israeli territory, and even if there would be a need to get closer for better precision, this has been shown to be possible with ‘legacy’ fighters such as the F-15I and F-16I as well.

It is of course possible that the Israelis saw the use of the Adir as a means in itself, showing not only Syria but other potential adversaries as well that the Israel’s newest tool is a true weapon system bringing new capabilities to the Air Force and not just an expensive toy (or perhaps to convince doubters high enough in the Israeli command structure/politics that they receive access to info on the raid). It might also have been decided to use the Adir as part of its test program, to measure its current capability.

Still, at the end of the day, there is no denying that the schedule simply seems too tight, and I find the claim that the Adir would have seen combat a month after its in-country arrival too far-fetched.

Another question is whether it would have made a difference if the Adir had taken part in the raid or not? In theory it wouldn’t. The baseline F-35A reached IOC last year with the USAF, and considering its performance both during the evaluations and in post-IOC exercises a mission 50 km into a relatively lightly defended airspace such as this is nothing spectacular. In practice however, the marketing value of the ‘Combat Proven’-stamp shouldn’t be underestimated. After all, it was Israeli combat use fifty years ago that provided some of the groundwork for the huge export success enjoyed by on of the truly classic fighters of the last century.

Review: Ryska elitförband och specialvapen

Unless you have stumbled upon this blog by pure coincidence, chances are you have an idea about what spetsnaz is. But how much do you really know about their history and current status, not to mention the different units which at one time or another have been described by the word? A Swedish book by historians Joakim von Braun and Lars Gyllenhaal clear up the picture, and tell the story of Russian (and Soviet) elite units from the birth of the Soviet Union to the present day.

Ryska elitförband och specialvapen (Russian elite units and special weapons) first came out a few years ago, but was rather quickly followed by a significantly revised and expanded second edition which was published by Fischer & Co in 2016. It is this edition which is the subject of this review.

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J v. Braun & L Gyllenhaal: “Ryska elitförband och specialvapen”. Second edition published in 2016, 231 pages in hardcover. Swedish.

As the name implies, the book covers the whole spectrum of Russian military and paramilitary forces, stretching from the naval OMRP combat divers and the Vityaz of the MVD, to larger specialised forces such as the airborne VDV and naval infantry.

The book follows a roughly chronological order, starting with two pages dedicated to pre-1917 units such as oprichnina and the korvolant, before moving on to the main focus of the book with a chapter on the earliest Soviet special units. To cover the bewildering array of different units that has passed through the ranks during the last hundred years, the book mixes big and small stories, featuring smaller anecdotes and case studies in between the major developments. In part this is also due to the secretive nature of the topic, there are cases where there simply aren’t much information available!

One example of the latter is the spetsnaz units operating on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War. However, this chapter also provide an example of the unique nature of the book: by combining the sparse Russian and German sources available with interviews made with the relatively large number of Swedish volunteers who served in the units, a picture can be made of a largely forgotten part of the Spanish conflict. The sabotage missions behind enemy lines are also interesting in that they provide insight into the way communist sabotage rings were expected to operate in other countries as well, an example being the rather large operation that was active in Sweden during WWII.

As can be expected from a Swedish book, much attention is given to Swedish individuals serving in Soviet units, as well as to Soviet (and DDR!) units operating in Sweden. While these at times fail to spike my interest as a non-Swede, the use of Swedish sources does add significant value especially to the chapters dealing with developments around the Baltic Sea and the aforementioned Spanish Civil War chapter. Underwater incursions into Swedish waters and their role in Soviet military planning also gets covered in depth, and reading the chapters on these raises interesting questions with regards to Finnish Cold War history.

But back to the book. As VDV and different special forces were the preferred tools of trade in any interventions abroad, the book also deals with the Soviet foreign adventures of the Cold War. Some of these are largely forgotten today, like the Soviet-led Ethiopian operation that turned the tide of the Ogaden War by airlanding large amounts of light armour behind Somali lines. Others are well-known operations, but the role played by elite units in these might be overlooked. This is the case with Operation Danube, the invasion of Czechoslovakia 1968. The case-study of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is especially interesting, showing that little-green men is far from a new phenomenon.

Speaking of little green men, the book goes right up til early 2016 in Ukraine and Syria. Though to be fair, if your interest is the use of Russian special forces in these two conflicts in particular, you are better served elsewhere.

Where this book does shine then, is by providing a bird’s-eye view of more or less all Russian and Soviet elite units post-1917. Without getting caught up in minute details, you get a good overview of not only what kind of units have been created over the years, but also their use, equipment, and further developments. In some cases I wish there were more details given, but considering the sheer number of units raised by the armed forces, intelligence services, borders guards, and ministry of internal affairs, covering everything in depth in a 200-page book is simply impossible. In general I think the amount of time spent on each topic is fairly well balanced, though this naturally varies with taste. While the book can be read cover-to-cover, something I enjoyed doing as part of this review, this really is one of those books you want to have in your bookshelf to be able to pull out and use as a reference when encountering yet another Russian acronymed unit. The chapters are clearly defined and structured in a way that if you want to know the difference between the different combat divers of the navy or get an overview of the presidential guard, you can quickly skip to that chapter and get the answers you need. Some of the more interesting units presented include not only the brief history of the sole Soviet unit to feature jaegers (created by two Finns), but also a close look at the secretive deep-water research agency GUGI and its hydronauts. From a Finnish point of view, the fact that GUGI (like other underwater spetsnaz) extensively trains and performs evaluations and developments projects in the Baltic Sea and Lake Ladoga is of special interest.

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The shifted signature. Unfortunate, but not bad enough that I personally would consider it a deal-breaker.

Edit: Having heard of my issue with the binding, the publisher contacted me and expressed their surprise at the issue. According to them, this was very rare, and they offered to ship a replacement at no cost. The new book has now come, and I am happy to report that as far as I can tell there are no issues whatsoever with the quality of this one.

One unfortunate issue I had was that the quality of the binding left to be desired, and already during the first reading I noticed that one of the signatures had started to shift. It still holds together, and doesn’t seem about to loosen further. Naturally, I can’t say if this is representative of the edition as a whole, or if I was just unlucky (or if one of my kids somehow managed to have a stab at it without me noticing…).

What else is there to say? The book is well illustrated, largely in colour, and features both a timeline and an extensive source list (though, as always, I would have loved to see end-notes). As the title indicates, the special weaponry used is also covered, including some exotic pieces of gear like underwater grenade launchers. I dare say that some of the info included, especially those parts that are based on Swedish and/or untranslated Russian sources, is previously unpublished material not only in Swedish, but in the west as a whole. If you are able to read Swedish and interested in Russian (or Soviet) armed forces, this is the book for you.

Highly recommended.

Starting now I will be posting reviews every first Friday of the month. The book in this case was kindly provided for review by Fischer & Co. And Lars, wouldn’t a revised and expanded edition of Elitförband i Norden be an excellent companion to this one?