Finnish Weapons for Different Purposes

Finland has gone on a bit of a shopping spree when it comes to munitions recently. Finally, one might add, as low stocks of advanced munitions has been quoted in defence white papers as a serious issue. Following the developments of this year, the FDF has received a serious amount of more funding both immediately available and for the coming years. The amounts to be spent on acquisitions is somewhat unclear to me due to the numerous changes and some funding being “new” while others are related to covering equipment having been sent to Ukraine, but we are talking about more than a billion euros of additional funds (i.e. above the originally planned level for 2022 and assuming a similar level in 2023) spread out over this year and the next.

ASRAD-R during exercises in Lohtaja. This is no Stinger, but might it become? Source: Mil.fi

While most of the deals are classified, the US congressional notices through the DSCA provide certain insight – though with the usual caveat that these represent possible maximums (i.e. everything between zero and the quoted number can be acquired, and that one shouldn’t look at the figures next to the dollar signs for any kind of confirmation of the contract cost.

GMLRS/ER GMLRS

One of the big media stars of the war in Ukraine has been the HIMARS with the GMLRS-guided missiles. In Finnish service the weapon has been used by the M270 MLRS already earlier, and a follow-on request for longer-ranged ER GMLRS was approved in 2021 and ordered just before the invasion of February. The approval covered 25 M30A2 ER GMLRS-AW pods and 10 M31A2 ER GMLRS-U pods, of which the AW (Alternative Warhead) uses pre-fragmented tungsten fragments to spread destruction over a bigger area while the U (Unitary) relies on blast and pressure effects to destroy individual targets. Each pod sports six missiles, and while the cost quoted in the DSCA notice is 91.2 million USD, the eventual contract value for an undisclosed number of pods was approximately 70 million EUR.

M270 in Finnish service, firing a missile during exercise MVH 20 two years ago. The two six-round pods are clearly visible (as opposed the HIMARS single pod). Source: Maavoimat Twitter

This is all nice and good, and then the FDF brought the big sack of money to Grand Prairie.

150 M30A1 GMLRS AW or M30A2 GMLRS AW with Insensitive Munitions Propulsion System (IMPS), or a combination of both, and 250 M31A1 GMLRS-U or M31A2 GMLRS-U IMPS, or a combination of both. The total estimated cost: 535 million USD (509.7 MEUR).

The reason behind the mix in versions between the A1 and A2 is due to there being a parallel request for diversion of 50% of this procurement from US stock.

To get an idea of how insanely large the order is, the total US production of GMLRS pods during the first two decades reached 8,334 pods in February last year. 400 pods is roughly a years worth of production at that rate, though currently the annual production rate is 1,250 pods with the ability to go up to 1,670 pods. Still, even with production at full speed that means Finland would like close to a quarter of Lockheed Martin’s annual production (though as noted, part of these could come from US stocks which then could be topped up later).

Safe to say, while the media discourse might be overly eager to jump on a single weapon system as the silver bullet, it does seem safe to say that the GMLRS has proven itself to the extent that a serious investment in missiles seems to be in the cards for Finland.

AIM-9X Sidewinder and AGM-154 JSOW

Then followed a somewhat unlikely mix of air-launched weapons, with the short-range air-to-air AIM-9X Sidewinder (40 missiles) and the advanced air-to-ground guided glide-bomb AGM-154 JSOW (48 weapons). The immediate reaction by some was that we are seeing the first order for weapons (outside of the original package) for Finland’s coming F-35A-fleet, which does operate both weapons. However, it is notable that both weapons are also used by the current F/A-18C/D Hornets. The number of JSOW in service is believed to be limited, and it is certainly possible that in the same discussion as that of more GMLRS it has become evident that a larger number of precision-guided air-to-ground weapons are needed. The JSOW is an interesting capability in that it is significantly cheaper than cruise missiles (such as the AGM-158 JASSM), in parts thanks to it being unpowered. At the same time, it offers significantly greater range compared to traditional guided bombs such as the JDAM.

A Finnish F/A-18C Hornet showing off the capabilities following the MLU2 upgrade which gave the aircraft a round of new capabilities, most visibly the JDAM, AGM-158 JASSM, and the AGM-154 JSOW. The AIM-9X Sidewinder had come already during the preceding MLU1. Source: Mil.fi

But why do we suddenly need more Sidewinders? One possibility is simply that there has always been too few in stock. Another is that experiences from Ukraine has shown the value in being able to hunt down cruise missiles and helicopters, and it might be that the analysis of the FinAF is that Sidewinders provide a better return on investment in that role compared to the AIM-120 AMRAAM (it is also possible that AMRAAMs are being ordered through another package to supply both the NASAMS-batteries as well as the fighters).

With the F/A-18C/D getting to serve on in Finnish service as the primary ground-pounder until the second fighter wing converts and F-35A reaches FOC by 2030, topping up the stocks with both Sidewinders (an important weapon in the self-defence role as well) and heavy-hitting guided weapons that provide a measure of stand-off capability certainly would make sense.

FIM-92K Stinger

The latest news was that Finland has its sights set on additional Stingers. Finland has the FIM-92E Stinger RMP Block I (this particular upgrade is possibly designated FIM-92F, the designations are somewhat messy as many Stinger-variants are upgrade programs for older variants) in service as the primary MANPADS, with the clearance having come already back in 2011 for up to 600 missiles and the eventual order for an undisclosed number (Janes estimate is 200) of refurbished ex-US missiles being signed in 2014. Again it would be easy to make assumptions on the purpose of the weapon – Finland topping up stocks, of which some might or might not have been included in deliveries to Ukraine.

A Finnish conscript demonstrating a Stinger RMP Block I during exercises in Lohtaja back in 2016. Source: Own picture

Except the tiny detail that this time around the quoted version was the FIM-92K.

While the FIM-92E was the latest and greatest for a while, the years since has seen the introduction of the FIM-92J with added capability against small unmanned targets (thanks to a proximity fuse) as well as upgrades allowing for longer shelf-life. However, in parallel to the FIM-92J our friend the FIM-92K was developed which is a version featuring an improved datalink for lock-on after launch capability (LOAL) and the ability to feed cooling and power from an external source.

To put it in clear writing, the FIM-92K is the version for vehicle-mounted launchers. While my understanding is you can in theory put a FIM-92K through a normal MANPADS tube, it is questionable why Finland would opt for a specialised version if there weren’t plans to hook them up to something feeding either the target location and/or power and cooling.

While there are people who without doubt would like to see the Avenger in Finnish service (mainly scale modellers, if we are honest), more likely is that we will have some platform more related to the current vehicles in service. Perhaps the most notable thing is that the ASRAD currently in service as the ITO05 with the SAAB BOLIDE-missile is in fact set up from the beginning to be able to take a number of different missiles, such as the RBS 70/BOLIDE, Mistral, Igla, and the Stinger. In fact, of the three current operators, Finland with the ASRAD-R is the only one not to use the Stinger in the current setup, with both Germany and Greece having the Stinger as their big (okay, rather small) stick.

A pair of ASRAD-R TELARs under the covers during an exercise back in 2013. The BOLIDE is popular enough in Finnish service that Finland also later acquired the tripod-mounted version of the RBS 70 as the ITO05M. Source: Puolustusvoimat FB

Will Finland create a new TELAR in the style of the current BOLIDE-carrying vehicles, strip the current ones of the BOLIDE to replace them with Stingers, or some other solution? Who knows, even tying the FIM-92K to ASRAD-R is speculation at this stage. It might simply be that Finland was able to get a better price on the FIM-92K instead of the -92J due to component costs or by leveraging a hot production line. However, if I had to guess, analysis of the war has shown that there is a need to get more firing units to cover against the UAS and cruise missile threat, and with both ASRAD and Stinger being known and apparently well-liked systems, combining the two would make perfect sense for a quick and cheap(ish) solution. Notable is that the beam-riding nature of the BOLIDE and the heat-seeking Stinger means that anyone facing a Finnish ASRAD would be unsure about the nature of the threat, which certainly would benefit the Finnish air defence units. Will we see an ASRAD-adaption on a Zetros-chassis with Stinger-missiles? Time will tell, but in my opinion that would certainly be less of a surprise than if a battalion of Avengers suddenly appeared in Karelia.

Swedish Advice

You do have to feel for Swedish defence planners. Following a rather long and arduous journey, Sweden finally got a new long-term defence plan approved in 2020. And less than two years after that, Sweden decides to join NATO and several of the underlying premises flew out of the window. As such, the government asked the Swedish Commander in Chief for new recommendations with priorities under the new situation. This was published a while ago, and in general can be described as “It would be good to do more faster, though we have to keep an eye on not shuffling too much resources and personnel to growth so readiness starts to suffer”. However, there are some changes which are worth a more detailed comment, and I will focus on the changes to key systems in usage as they are easy to get a grip of in this rather limited overview. Several of the major changes envisioned are on the process and organisation side, and getting an accurate take on their potential impact would deserve a significantly longer analysis.

H160M Guépard is almost certainly not HKP 17, but the odds are looking better than they did a year ago. Source: Airbus/Eric Raz

A quick note: these are recommendations provided by the Swedish Armed Forces, and as such have not been decided upon yet. During the process leading up to the 2020 plan the politicians did shift focus and major decisions quite drastically from those supported by the Armed Forces, and can certainly do so again. About the structure of the report, the 2024 to 2030 period is described in some detail, while the 2031 to 2035 is painted with broader strokes of the brush.

Army

In the ground arena we see some significant changes. The three mechanised brigades will all get an additional fourth battalion to allow for greater staying power on the battlefield. Battlegroup Gotland would also receive reinforcements to give it a more well-rounded capability. These changes would come before 2030, while the Battlegroup Mälardalen would be transformed into a full (motorised) infantry brigade (Livgardesbrigaden, IB 1) in the period following that. That unit is tasked with defence of the greater Stockholm-region.

Much has happened since the original Strf 9040A rolled off the production lines, and today’s CV 90 Mk IV is a completely new beast in many ways. The mobility, in particular in snow, of the CV 90 is something the Swedes have always praised, and it is doubtful they would be ready to switch to some of the heavier and bulkier designs that dominate today’s marketplace. Source: BAES Hägglunds

The equipment of the mechanised units is growing old, and a new infantry fighting vehicle is in the cards during this decade. My personal guess is that this would be a new version of the CV 90, or potentially a new design from BAES Hägglunds. The current fleet of Strv 122 (Leopard 2A5 with Swedish modifications) is to undergo an MLU to allow it to serve past 2035. While the paper does not include any details, Frank Lobitz in his grand book on the Leo 2 “Gesamtwerk Leopard 2” (published by Tankograd Publishing earlier this autumn) caused some raised eyebrows by outlining in some detail that Sweden had decided upon an upgrade program. The report now make it seem like Lobitz’s information might be correct, and in that case what we are looking at is the introduction of the Leopard 2A7S as the Strv 123A/B. This would include the conversion of a first batch of 44 tanks with the L/55 A1 gun, updates to the fire control system (including new functionalities with advanced HE-rounds), and an auxiliary power unit (APU). Notable is that there is no mention of an active protection system. More engineering armoured vehicles are also in the plans.

Rocket artillery will be acquired, and in addition there will be studies whether these could be used for the anti-ship mission as well. Significant improvements are envisioned when it comes to the air defence units of the brigades and of the division. Loitering munitions and more UAS are in the cards. With these also come a general increase in ISTAR-capabilities, with more ISR-units and improvements to the sensor capabilities.

In general Sweden will maintain a mix of standing units and units which are to be mobilised, where the former provide the ability to react rapidly and buy time for the mobilisation of the later – which will continue to make up the majority of the force. A single new unit is proposed, a minor detachment in the north to focus on host nation support.

NAVy

The Swedish Navy remains too small and new vessels are too far into the future. I covered it in detail over at Naval News, so go over there to read about the details. I will mention that while some have read the news that YSF 2030 (Visby 2.0/Next-Gen) will sport increased air defence capability making it a part of NATO’s integrated air and missile defence (NATO IAMD) to mean it will have missiles capable of intercepting ballistic missiles, it could also mean missiles in Aster 15-class and a serious radar able to feed the situational picture.

Air Force

The proposal for the Swedish Air Force can be summed up in more airframes, missiles, and capabilities – with one crucial exception, which we will get to. More air-to-air missiles followed by more anti-ship and cruise missiles acquired in the 2031-2035 time span. A decision on the future of the fighters post-2040 will need to be made within this decade, and a new advanced trainer aircraft (ATA) to replace the 39C/D currently used in that role will have to be acquired. Instead, the 39C/D will be kept in service and developed further alongside 39E throughout the whole timespan and beyond 2035 to ensure a fleet of 120 multirole fighters – a significant step up from the ambition level just a few years ago when it seemed like the 39C/D was on its way out as soon as the 39E would be available in numbers.

An additional C-130J to bring the fleet up to five aircraft is also in the cards early in the period, and the Armed Forces is looking into the possibility of cooperating internationally and in particular among the Nordics when it comes to tactical transports. This sounds close enough to what Finnish Air Force commander major general Juha-Pekka Keränen mentioned earlier this autumn that I reached out to the general to ask if we are involved. The answer was that “there’s nothing official on the part of Finland, and we haven’t been discussing it in depth. The other three countries [Sweden, Norway, Denmark] are discussing possible synergies when it comes to training and operations. I’ve said that we are looking into the question, but that it needs to be looked at as a part of integrating with NATO and is more a question of logistics rather than Air Force operations.”

Sweden would also like to look into a further developed airborne sensor- and C2-capability in a Nordic cooperative framework, something they mention in the same sentence as S106 GlobalEye. If this is the Swedish Armed Forces way of saying that it would be nice if Finland would buy the GlobalEye and the Swedish government should contribute towards that goal is unclear to me, but it certainly is one read. The production line is still hot as far as I know since the Swedish order is yet undelivered, making it somewhat plausible that a Finnish order could be handled for a relatively modest price tag, but it would be a bit of a surprise if the money would be found for that kind of investment.

Swedish Armed Forces’ A109 LUH onboard the Dutch Navy’s HNLMS Johan de Witt during the ME 04 deployment to hunt pirates back in 2015. Source. Mats Nyström/Försvarsmakten

The big topic was however the helicopters. The fate of the NH 90 in Swedish service is to be retired early, and that include both the tactical transports and ASW/maritime helicopters. However, the Swedish fleet of Leonardo A109 LUH (locally known as HKP 15) are also to be retired starting during the 2024 to 2030 timespan and finishing up during the next five years. While the A109 is the smallest of the three Swedish helicopters, the fleet still number a total of 20 airframes (12 of the ‘army’-version HKP 15A and 8 of the naval-version HKP 15B). While often described as a training helicopter, Swedish helicopter pilots receive their basic training at the Heeresfliegerwaffenschule in Bückeburg, Germany, a move that has freed up the light helicopters for numerous operational missions where having a light helicopter available is more valuable than not having a medium helicopter. In particular for the Navy, the small fleet of HKP 15B provide important service day in and day out, including for ship-based operations.

For a Swedish Armed Forces that are supposedly growing as fast as they can, it’s hard not to notice the fact that while an additional twelve UH-60M are acquired to cover the nine NH 90TTH (HKP 14E) and nine new maritime helicopters are acquired to cover for the naval NH 90TTH (HKP 14F), that still sees the number of operational helicopters shrink from 53 (18 NH 90, 15 UH-60M, 20 A109) to 36 (27 UH-60M, 9 HKP 17?), meaning almost a third fewer helicopters available (32 %).

The answer is that the new helicopters will be more capable than the A109, but it is still clear that quite a number of missions won’t be carried out in the future. In particular the naval squadron will be hard-hit, as they lose almost half of their fleet during the next ten years. While some missions likely will be transferred to unmanned systems, it is still a significant loss in capability, in particular as the cost of average flight hours probably will rise with the fleet consolidated on larger and more expensive platforms.

As for what will replace the NH 90, as mentioned more UH-60M will be acquired for a total fleet of 27 Blackhawks, most likely equipping two squadrons, based in central and northern Sweden respectively. For the naval side of things, when the project was kicked off a year ago, the talk was that the alternative if the HKP 14F was withdrawn was to acquire MH-60R Seahawks for an all-Hawk-fleet. For this end, trials were to take place with the Romeo in the Baltic Sea to evaluate how the sensor suite works in Swedish conditions, something which as far as I know has not been confirmed to have taken place, but on the other hand the USS Kearsarge brought quite a few opportunities for that to happen during its cruise.

Now however it is stressed that a decision on the new maritime helicopter has not been taken. It might be that the realisation that thanks to US DoD bureaucracy there are no major synergies between an Army and a Navy helicopter has struck, or it might be that the Swedish Armed Forces wants to host a serious competition to get a better price tag on the eventual deal. It is also unclear whether the new helicopter will receive the localised sensor suite and mission systems of the HKP 14F, or whether an existing solution would be sought. In any case, the competition isn’t overly big, in particular as the NH 90NFH is a non-starter. The MH-60R was beat by the AW159 Wildcat in South Korea, while France will acquire the Airbus H160M Guépard for the naval role – though it may arrive a bit too late for the Swedes and I am unsure to what extent it will be ASW-capable in the version actually ordered (there certainly are concepts for fitting it with a sonar). Speaking of sonars, the ALFS of the MH-60R is from the same Thales FLASH-family of sonars as the Sonar 234 (Thales FLASH S) mountedon the HKP 14F, which might or might not be relevant to the discussion.

Since this blog is what it is, someone is bound to ask whether Finland would want additional NH 90? My understanding is that the current fleet is roughly what can fit under the budget, though considering the expected lack of enthusiasm on the market for used NH 90s I can certainly imagine Finland buying a small number of HKP 14E for close to scrap-value to use for spares. When asked the question about the ASW-helicopters last year I very confidently stated that there is no chance we could fit those inside the budget and I haven’t heard anyone even dreaming of getting a naval flying unit for Merivoimat. In the year since, however, I have in fact heard a person with insight voice their personal opinion that the Navy really need to acquire an airborne ASW-capability, so who knows. Hashtag bring back Pommituslentolaivue 6, as the cool kids say.

PLELV 6 – if it dives, we can make it dive even more. Source: SA-kuva

On the positive side, the helicopter squadrons will finally get mobile base units, allowing them to better use the strategic mobility when it comes to basing that is one of the inherent benefits of helicopters compared to fixed-wing aircraft.

Food

While there is significantly more in the 66 pages of the unclassified document that we won’t look at in this short overview, there is one thing I can’t skip as the comments would tear this post apart.

The restaurants and catering on the military installations are planned to be brought back under the ownership and operation of the Swedish Armed Forces.

No Tanks to You

The world of military defence and national security isn’t standing still, so for the next three days we will take a look on a current topic from each of the three countries that make up NATO’s northern flank, kicking off with the northernmost one: Norway.

Norway needs modern tanks.

In my world, the statement is obvious enough that I had not thought I would write a post on the topic, but here we are.

Readers of the blog might be familiar with the fact that Norway has been running an acquisition program simply called “Nye stridsvogner” – which literally means “New tanks”. The international interest has largely come down to the fact that it has been a rather thorough one, including local trials pitting Europe’s main battle tank the Leopard 2 against South Korea’s K2 Black Panther, something that is quite rare in the world of tank procurement these days.

Norwegian Leopard 2A4 further south along NATO’s frontier, here with the eFP Battlegroup in Lithuania. Source: eFP BG Lithuania FB

The current Norwegian tanks are ex-Dutch Leopard 2A4, sporting a rather limited amount of local modifications compared to your standard 2A4. This includes a larger storage box on the back of the turret, two added antennas (one of which is for the GPS), and sporting some non-standard side skirt configurations (including borrowing Leopard 1 light skirts from older spare stocks), as well as sporting the Dutch-standard FN MAG light machine gun on the turret roof instead of the MG 3 (the smoke dispenser were converted to German standard upon delivery). In line with other non-upgraded 2A4s, what once was one of the best tanks in the world is showing serious signs of obsolescence (T-62 making sad noises). The original plan was for a serious upgrade program to take place, aiming for something close to the 2A7V-standard. However, like many Leopard-operators, it was eventually found to be more cost-efficient to just buy new tanks.

The expectation was that the Leopard 2A7NO would beat the K2NO Black Panther, an order would be placed late this year or early 2023, and in a few years time the new tanks would have replaced the ex-Dutch vehicles. That expectation has hit a bump already earlier, with reports coming out that the K2NO did in fact perform rather well in the winter trials. This was followed by the Polish order for the K2 and K2PL, which meant a K2NO-order would not make Norway the sole operator of the exotic tank in NATO. At the same time, Germany was making a mess of its grand Zeitenwende in the eyes of many European countries while accompanying its aid to Ukraine with a significant amount of squabbling, eroding its status as the obvious solid supplier of tanks to western countries.

With the significant political and supply base/synergy benefits of the Leopard called into question, it suddenly it seemed we had a real race on our hands. It wasn’t necessarily that K2NO was significantly better than the 2A7NO, but as opposed to the 2A7NO which had a lot of capabilities bolted on to the original Cold War-era design, the K2NO benefited from having been designed with these in mind. That in turn provide significant benefits to growth potential for the future, as well as weight savings which are a non-trivial matter in a snowy mountainous country such as the Republic of Kor… I mean, Norway.

And then in late November, the curveball hit hard. Norwegian Chief of Defence, general Eirik Kristoffersen, recommended to the Norwegian government that the tank procurement should be cancelled, and the freed up funds should be channelled to fund helicopters and long-range fires for the Army. This was rather quickly leaked and confirmed by the general to the press, and was followed up by a rather spectacular in-fighting in full glare of publicity, with the Chief of Operational Headquarters lieutenant-general Yngve Odlo publicly stating that he does not see any alternative to tanks and want the procurement to go through. He gets backed up by the commander of the sole Norwegian brigade Brigade Nord, brigadier Pål Eirik Berglund, who talked to Norwegian daily and paper of record Aftenposten and stated that “Without new tanks, we will be missing an essential component of the combat capability we need.” While the commander of the Army, major-general Lars S. Lervik, is said to oppose the proposal made by Kristoffersen but in public remains loyal (at least to the extent that he declines to comment and stated that he gives his advice to the general, who then gets to say what he wants to the government), the commander of the armoured battalion (Panserbateljonen) lieutenant colonel Lars Jansen said that the first he heard of the whole thing was when media broke the story.

The kind way to put it, and I’ve seen some make that argument, is that this isn’t a big deal, but normal discussion among professionals when money is limited and choices need to be made about where to spend it, with what can best be described as pitting a 21st century land version of the Jeune École arguing for firepower and mobility against a more traditional school of thinking emphasising taking and holding terrain. However, it is hard to see that such a deep and open split between many of the most senior commanders of the force would be a sign of healthy debate – the question is after all about one of the most important acquisition programs of the joint force which has reached a very late stage, in particular when coupled with the readiness displayed by other senior officers to publicly go against their commander.

The idea to cancel the tanks and place the bet on long-range fires is somewhat in line with the media speculation fuelled by the Instagram Wars of the last few years, in which videos of UACs and loitering munitions or light infantry with anti-tank weapons hunting enemy tanks have spread like wildfire and led some to declare the tank as being dead (again, one might add). However, what experiences from Ukraine seem to indicate is that the increased lethality on the battlefield means what you really need to survive is more, not less, protection. This takes the shape both in heavier protection for infantry protection vehicles, logistics vehicles, and so forth, but also a need for tanks to spearhead assaults and perform the numerous roles they have done on the battlefield since at least the Second World War. While the Ukrainian defensive victories of the first months of the war might have been driven by comparatively light forces, there is a reason why Ukraine is begging for all tanks they can get their hands on.

However, there is a second part to the argument in the case of Norway which is geography, and that deserves to be looked at.

The Norwegian border region in the far north is called Finnmark, and like the areas south of the border in Finland and Sweden it is dominated by wilderness, relatively sparse infrastructure, and a population density which makes talking to plants seem like a reasonable past-time: 1.55/km2 in the case of Finnmark. Opposite the border in Northern Russia sits the Russia Northern Fleet, responsible for an important part of the Russian nuclear deterrent – and in particular for the majority of the ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) responsible for the second-strike capability – as well as air defences stretching out over the Arctic which are to try and stop US strategic bombers and cruise missiles in case of all-out (nuclear) war. The notion by some is that in case of war, Russia would want to push NATO forces further away from the border either through use of long-range fires or by invasion, that the Norwegian forces would be unable to stop the Russians from doing this without dying, and that the solution is to attrit the forces before stopping them, and counterattacking when NATO reinforcements have arrived.

Keen readers of the blog know that I do find the idea of Russia trying to push the front westwards in the region a reasonable one. However, the Russian juggernaut is somewhat questionable, as the amount of Russian forces in the area relatively limited, sporting two motorised brigades (200th and 80th) as well as a marine infantry brigade, and Russia can’t risk overly large losses as that would open up the region to counterattacks. Of course, the Russians have shown the ability to mass forces in prioritised operational directions, but the north isn’t an easy place to fight in in the best of times, and in winter (which is long and really dark) it will become directly hostile unless you have trained and equipped for it.

Which two Finnish, a Swedish, and a Norwegian brigades has done (notable here that the Finnish brigades are peacetime training units, and there’s no telling how many and what kind of wartime units they are tasked to mobilise in case of war).

As such, an important thing here to begin with is that Norway is not going to fight alone. This is not something new, but the new part is that from day one Norway isn’t going to fight alone, but rather alongside Finnish and Swedish soldiers. This means that force levels can be expected to be more or less equal on both sides of the border – as long as Norway contribute the heavy brigade NATO has asked for. And while a strategic surprise might catch the Norwegian brigades in Troms (the country next-door to the west), any Russian advance would see angry Finns and Swedes charging down their flank.

Interlude: If Russia shifts troops north they can obviously outmatch the locals, but in that case NATO is also freed up to concentrate more of their forces in the region.

However, I have not seen the Norwegian debate reflect upon what it means to wait for reinforcements. The USMC is going tank-less (which might be an idea for a dedicated amphibious force, but not for a ground force), and the number of heavy armoured units available in NATO are in fact rather limited and can be expected to have their hands full further south. There simply aren’t many available. But perhaps even more questionable, the plan to rely on long-range fires and having someone else spearhead the counterattack in effect means that someone else will have to take the largest share of losses in the battle for Finnmark.

It is difficult to see this leading to anything but the it being Finnish and Swedish sons and daughters in the first line dying to protect the civilians of Vardø. And that raises the question which I have not seen in the Norwegian debate.

Can Norway morally choose to go to war in the high north without tanks? In particular if it is allied with Finland and Sweden?

And it must be said, if the Norwegian politicians and soldiers would be ready to simply let the population of eastern Finnmark suffer under occupation until someone else comes to their aid – and as we have seen that means torture, rape, and killings in the same vein of the Red Army of old – that decision is odd in the extreme.

A Norwegian Leopard 2A4 during exercises in Alta, the largest town by population in Finnmark. Source: Norwegian Army Twitter

The call for cancelling the tank program has so far been met with mixed responses from the politicians. The Norwegian minority government has stated that they indeed to continue with the process, while from the opposition there has been calls for more information.

Which is somewhat strange, as it isn’t like the idea to invest millions in new tanks is a whim by the minister of defence, but rather based on years of studies and recommendations. The basis for the process is the white paper Landmaktsutredningen from 2017-2018 on the future of the ground forces, and in the latest Fagmilitært råd of 2019 the then-Chief of Defence provided four different ambition levels with additional directions for land- or sea-emphasised recommendations for the future of the Norwegian forces, he did explicitly write that the addition of new tanks is seen as crucial regardless of which level of ambition and funding the politicians agree upon. While a new edition of Fagmilitært råd is in the works, it’s difficult to see which changes would have affected the tank-part of things to the extent that new information would suddenly appear.

Norway needs modern tanks, and the only thing waiting for more information or cancelling the deal would mean is higher cost, a more uncertain deterrence situation in the high north, and a spot on Norway’s reputation among allies.

Ryhmä MIEHAU – Finnish NCO training

In 2007 I did my conscript service with the Finnish marines of the Nyland Brigade. As a conscript, I didn’t see overly much of our battalion commander, though I do remember him holding a lecture on national security and defence as well as him beginning his answer to my post-lecture question with a content “Well, seems at least someone was paying attention”. Last week I again had the opportunity to meet him, though this time we met in a North Karelian forested bog which had been my home for the last few nights. Far from the archipelago in the archetypical sissi-terrain, the now-brigadier general noted with the same smile he had shown back in the days that it’s a small world. But how did I end up in this decidedly non-naval setting? Let’s back up a bit, because the story is a good example of how the Finnish Defence Forces goes about training their reservists and setting up a capable wartime force.

METSO22 was the ultimate test for our course, which saw the whole group out in the field with the opportunity to put everything we’ve learned into practice, functioning in different NCO-positions in an infantry unit.

The majority of the FDF wartime force is based on reservists, and that include sizeable numbers of officers and NCOs in the reserve. The path to any (uniformed) role in the FDF (or the Finnish Border Guard for that matter) starts with conscript service. Annually around 21,000 conscripts are trained for a host of different roles, including NCO and officer training. The first six weeks is basic recruit training, followed by six week of general service branch training. Approximately ten weeks into the conscript service those destined for leadership roles get chosen, and once the general service branch training is over after twelve weeks the first NCO course kicks off – no prices for guessing this is also a six week period. This course, designated AU1 or AUK1, is common for all leaders, after which soon-to-be reserve officers are sent to Reserve Officer School for a fourteen week course while those destined for NCO-training take part in another six week course – AU2 or AUK2.

The beauty of the system is that as the FDF take conscripts onboard twice annually – early January and early July – the AU2 course finishes at the same time as the next group of conscripts enter the building. As such, the newly minted corporals will be responsible for the training of the enlisted soldiers over the next 165 days, with the reserve officer candidates joining the fun two months later in the middle stages of the general service branch training. The general service branch training for enlisted conscripts is followed by specialisation for six weeks, and then finally six weeks of honing your skills in working together as a unit. To translate this into an example, a conscript picked for infantry does six weeks of general infantry training, followed by six weeks of training to become e.g. a machine gunner, followed by six weeks of practicing what it means to function as a machine gunner in their wartime unit. The trained unit made up of enlisted, NCOs, and reserve officers, is then sent home into the reserve, and in case of being mobilised the majority of faces around you would likely be recognisable from your time as a conscript. Obviously, this would be fleshed out with professional officers and NCOs (who have also started their career as military leaders with AU1 and AU2 or RUK before applying to the National Defence University once out in the reserve), but in general you wouldn’t expect to see many professionals (outside of highly technical roles) in positions outside of headquarters. For a quick back of the envelope example using Janes’ numbers: the Army is sporting roughly 3,500 full-time personnel, while the wartime mobilised strength is approximately 160,000, i.e. less than 2.5 % of the mobilised force would be professionals. Take that ratio, and in a 300-strong company you are looking at less than eight professional officers and NCOs.

The example above is purposefully crude in the extreme – we are not going to start discussing classified details on wartime OOBs of the FDF here – but gives a hint on the importance of the trained wartime leaders in the reserve.

Personally I had my sights set on the landing craft skipper role when I first passed through the doors of the old czarist-era buildings of the brigade, but I would certainly have liked to combine that with the NCO course as well (combining skipper and reserve officer training is not an option available, at least back then). Unfortunately, I was not picked for one of the two slots then reserved for skippers on the marine NCO-course, which meant that after a year of service I went into the reserve with the rank of private and an experience that eventually would prove highly useful in getting a foot through the door into the workboat industry.

However, the overall wartime order of battle for the FDF is obviously a living creature. As a general rule of thumb, a decade can be thought of as a rough lifespan for any unit once transferred into the reserve. Within that lifespan, life happens for the individual reservists. People get educated or acquire life experience that can prove highly valuable, they can get positions in the civilian life where they have an important role in keeping society turning, or they get sick/hurt/die which means they no longer can fulfil their original roles. All of this means that people are regularly transferred between wartime roles, either due to changes in the unit they are placed in or due to changes in their own skill set. Dedicate all your free time to long-range shooting and sniper competitions, and suddenly you might find yourself a wartime sniper rather truck driver.

This obviously raises an issue for the FDF, as what do you do with people who served as enlisted when nineteen year old, but suddenly have invested enough time in voluntary defence or acquired civilian skill sets that would now make them suitable for leadership roles? Or with reservist NCOs that have acquired enough experience to warrant a shift to reserve officer service?

The answer for well over a decade has been complementary reservist courses, where every second year approximately 35 enlisted volunteers are hand-picked to undergo training to NCO, and every second year approximately 35 volunteering reservist NCOs are picked to undergo training to qualify as reserve officers.

And now we are getting back to why I was standing around in swamp in North Karelia.

The people handpicked to the courses are done so based on the needs of the FDF. “I want to get promoted” might work as an internal driver, but the opportunity is exclusive enough that the FDF has taken a strict line on the purpose of the course being to serve the needs of the service and not necessarily those of individual applicants. The stated aim is to train reservists so that they can be placed in more demanding wartime positions according to the needs of the FDF. As such, any application kicks off with having a suitable wartime duty and/or reservist “career path”, and getting letters of recommendation from your wartime superiors is certainly a benefit when applying.

In my case, having applied and failed to get accepted to the 2020 NCO course, a second try led to me getting accepted late last year to this year’s edition of the course, MIEHAU22.

The (unofficial) course badge, sporting the colours of Kainuu’s coat of arms, a forest, a LAW, and a checkmark – all a play on words from the Finnish phrase “Takametsän kessirasti” (training on the LAW in the forest out back).

The course has been handled by the Kainuu Brigade for some time already, and each course include three refresher exercises spread out over the year as well as a number of remote learning activities which included writing memos and preparing training checkpoints for the other students (as noted, the Finnish model means that any wartime leader is expected to be able to both train their unit and lead it into battle). The first exercise period also included a 12 minute running test (walking test for the older participants) to ensure an adequate level of fitness. ‘Adequate’ is the key word, as the limit for being allowed to take part in the course was 2,300 meters in 12 minutes. The focus on the course was decidedly not on building up the physical fitness, as while a number of physical tests did play a role in the final grading and a certain basic level of fitness is required to get through the course, the relatively sparse time available was dedicated to tasks more difficult to take care of in your (civilian) spare time.

The important part to understand here is that once you are out in the reserve with the NCO-label stamped next to your name in the FDF database, there will be no difference in the minds of the Defence Forces as to whether you went the conscript or reservist NCO-track. As such, there is the requirement to pack twelve weeks of conscript training into a significantly more compact package. There is also no unique “Reservist-NCO”-course, but the curriculum is that of the standard infantry one. This means that exams and grading are lifted straight out of the conscript course, and the days on the brigade are optimised to provide both ample training and leadership opportunities as well as theoretical lectures. It also means that include is not only the NCO-part of things, but also learning how the Finnish infantry platoon fights, as whoever pulls out your personal file and looks at the note ‘NCO – infantry’ has to be able to trust that you can execute on everything that designation holds – including both the ‘Infantry’ and the ‘NCO’ part of the job. The service branch training included not only theory and a written exam, but also taking part in a major exercise hosted by the Kainuu Brigade – METSO 22 – where the students got to put theory into practice both when it comes to leadership and infantry skills.

And it was in the midst of this that the general decided to come and take a look at our tent.

A few days later I then officially graduated together with another 30 students of our group, and is now qualified as infantry NCOs within the FDF. Notable is that for both conscript- and reservist-trained NCOs the NCO-qualification is the big thing, and in case the FDF want you to do something else as an NCO they will just throw in an appropriate mode of retraining. Whether or not you are an NCO is however a deal-breaker for many postings and work opportunities within the FDF.

Getting the diploma and NCO course badge following the course. The majority of the course graduated with a “Very good” grade, showing the dedication of the all-volunteer group.

So how was the experience? As said, it was a rather intensive one. But perhaps the most significant impression was that of being acutely aware of being in a room full of hand-picked individuals determined to make the most out of what is a rather unique opportunity. This not only was a strong motivation for me on a personal level, but also fed into an excellent esprit de corps where everyone was helping each other and wishing each other on. This was also evident in what became our unofficial motto – “It’s always possible to give up” (“Cedere Semper Potest”, according to people with more Latin skills than I possess). Taking part in a volunteer course, no-one will force you to go through with it. At the end of the day, you just have to decide whether you will carry on or just give up and go home. And we carried on.

I must also mention that the Kainuu Brigade really did an excellent job and put some serious effort and resources into the course, with us having a surprising number of officers teaching our motley crew the ropes when it came to leadership, training, and infantry skills. It was evident that having run the course several times already, they knew what worked and what didn’t. Getting to see my ‘local’ brigade and learning how they plan to fight in the harsh conditions of the North (which keen readers know is a topic of interest to me) was an added bonus on a personal level.

For those thinking about signing up, I certainly can recommend it. There are planned changes up ahead with MPK taking a larger role, something possibly leading to more spots opening up and changes to the structure, so keep your eyes open. Ensuring you got the fitness to run the required distance is a no-brainer, and while there wasn’t any single obvious factor determining who had been accepted, getting the reference letters from one’s wartime superior(s) does seem to help. And as mentioned the first step is getting a wartime NCO/officer posting, so start with trying to get that part sorted out before dropping off your application!

The Finnish NCO-corps in the reserve has a proud history, and following the course I’m not only proud and humble to be part of that chain, but also happy to say my trust in the quality of the lower echelons of our military leadership is strong. The heritage obligates.

(and as a side-note, it’s always nice when a general compliments how well your squad has managed to camouflage your tent)

Kinburn – the Indirect Approach

The Ukrainian liberation of Kherson has been yet another success on the side of the defenders in the war, though it is also easy to assume it will lead to something of a pause on the southern part of the frontline. The withdrawal to the left bank of the Dnipro – even if the losses to heavy equipment are on the scale expected – will still put the battered Russian forces behind one of the more formidable natural obstacles in Europe, and any Ukrainian assault over the river will require either serious amphibious equipment, a lot of luck and daring, or preferably both. The alternative for a continued offensive in the direction of either Crimea or the Sea of Azov is to do so east of where the river turn north and head down the Zaporizhzhia – Melitopol axis.

However, Ukraine just might have found an alternative option. Or at least they might be pretending to have done so, which at the end of the day might in fact prove more or less as useful.

Reports have namely come in that the Ukrainian forces have landed on the Kinburn peninsula, a narrow peninsula stretching out to the west and forming the southernmost part of the Dniprovska gulf, which sees the river outlet situated in the easternmost end of the gulf. Exactly what is happening is somewhat open, but there seem to be Ukrainian light troops on the move, with Herois’ke being reported as having been liberated. And it is a development that causes some major headaches for the Russians. The obvious one is that we have Ukrainians on the left bank of the Dnipro, something that they very much would prefer not to be the case in the south.  If the Ukrainian really are in Herois’ke to stay, it start to open up alternatives.

From the peninsula it is roughly 60 km in a straight line to Olesjky and the southern end of the Antonovskiy Bridge. The bridge is seriously battered, but if the Ukrainians can secure both bridgeheads it is still likely the easiest location to set up a functioning logistics train over the southern stretches of the Dnipro. And coming from southwest would likely flank the Russian positions, as it is safe to assume that these are oriented towards the river banks. An even bolder option which really would get Kremlin worked up is if Ukrainian soldiers started pouring out of the peninsula eastwards, where it is just 130 km to Armjansk and Crimea.

Now, wars have a tendency to be far more complex than just drawing arrows on a map. If Ukraine want to break out of the peninsula with any kind of force, they first need to get it over there, then supply it over the water and by a single road, while advancing along a narrow front which spans at maximum approximately five kilometers across. The Canadian advance on Beveland during the Battle of the Scheldt in 1944 is a good example of the issues that can be expected – though in that case it was an attacker trying to enter a peninsula along a narrow front. As such, is a Ukrainian offensive here even a theoretical possibility?

The Ukrainian 36th Separate Marine Brigade practicing amphibious operations back in 2017, including with light vehicles and APCs. A capability that suddenly could come in handy. Source: ArmyInform

It might be, depending on a number of factors. If the Russian forces in the region are second- and third-tier garrison forces without much in the way of tactical and operational mobility a quick Ukrainian offensive might gather enough momentum to sweep them away. Some have argued that the Ukrainians can’t go on the offensive without armoured or mechanised units, but in this case against an enemy that likely hasn’t had time to entrench themselves the ability to operate quickly and with a limited demand on the stretched supply lines might make light infantry a more interesting option. Infantry certainly is able to conduct offensive operations as demonstrated throughout history in general and this conflict in particular, especially if distances are manageable and the indirect fire support is plentiful. And that’s another interesting issue about Kinburn – the Ukrainian artillery doesn’t have to cross the water to be able to provide fire support. Rather it is possible to stand on the northern shore of the gulf and support the advancing troops for quite some time, including until the frontline would have been pushed well enough east that a supply node in the westernmost part of the peninsula would be relatively safe. This is a huge factor when looking at what kind of supplies Ukraine would have to be able to ferry across the bay to be able to keep going forward.

Another key detail which the possible operation again highlights is the relatively sparse nature of the battlefield. The number of troops involved is huge for a European post-WWII conflict, but so is the length of the frontline. If the Ukrainian light infantry starts moving quickly in gaps behind the frontline, the Russians will have to take action. And that might be the whole point. If Russia starts to shift serious forces south, that might open up possibilities on other fronst, such as finding a nice less-than-well-guarded position for a river crossing. As such, operating against Kinburn might be a fixing attack, or even just a raid in which a limited unit strikes terror and wait for the Russian tanks to come rumbling down the road, before slipping away back over the sea.

It remains to be seen what Ukraine plans to do with the operation, if  there in fact is an operation ongoing at all which so far isn’t completely confirmed. Still, it does seem to indicate that the Ukrainian counteroffensive hasn’t run out off steam just yet, and that they want to capitalise on the momentum in some form or another. It is even possible that the Ukrainians themselves hasn’t decided on the fate of the landing just yet, planning to press the move in case Russia doesn’t respond or then retreat from Kinburn and attack elsewhere in case Russia shifts serious numbers of troops south. In any case this further seem to disprove the somewhat strange notion that the winter would lead to a stop in offensive operations. People living in places where winter occur annually usually have methods to keep performing even if the temperature drops, and as long as other factors doesn’t come into play (such as e.g. ammunition shortages following the fall offensives) winter often can provide better conditions for offensive operations than spring or fall.

A Reliable Partner

Let me get this one out of the way straight away: I would very much like Israel to ship air defence systems (and other lethal weaponry) to Ukraine, much in the same way I would like other countries to keep doing so and increase both volume and complexity of their weapons packages.

However, at the same time I don’t think that necessarily reflect on whether Israel is a reliable supplier of arms and other critical equipment to the Finnish Defence Forces.

Israel’s David’s Sling air defence system stands a good chance of becoming a key weapon for the Finnish Defence Forces, and questions have now been raised if that is a good thing? Here Israel’s 66th “David’s Sling” Battalion take part in a live-fire event. Source: Israeli Air Force

Let’s start with why the question suddenly occupies the mind of a number of Finnish defence-minded people. Finnish-Israeli arms trade stretches back decades, and while during the Cold War much of the trade went from Finland to Israel, with the growth of the Israeli arms industry the trade flows have largely been reversed during the last few decades. Both countries see eye to eye on a number of important issues when it comes to national defence, including the heavy reliance on national conscription, doctrinal similarities emphasising superior training, tactics, and high tempo to take and keep the initiative, as well as a down-to-earth attitude which emphasise things that work (and keep working in field conditions) rather than new and flashy solutions. Both countries have also been rather happy to keep a somewhat low profile when it comes to which capabilities are found and where they are acquired from. This is however changing with an increased openness on the part of the FDF when it comes to strategic signalling as well as a more open policy on the part of the Israelis (partly due to the need for marketing by the companies themselves, partly due to the Israeli state opening up the traditionally very strict secrecy operational systems and units).

Two key acquisitions have thrown the spotlight on Israel as a supplier among Finnish defence analysts: the choice of the Gabriel 5 as the PTO 2020 anti-ship missile and narrowing the ITSUKO high-altitude ground-based air defence program down to two Israeli systems. With both of these programs being of strategic importance for the FDF as a whole, the question of whether Israel can be counted on as a reliable supplier is certainly a valid one.

The controversy over Ukraine stems from a number of issues. Ukraine has already in the years leading up to the February invasion expressed interest in certain Israeli systems, mainly armed drones and the Iron Dome rocket-defence system. These were turned down, as were requests by the Baltic states to ship SPIKE anti-tank missiles to Ukraine in much the same way they had been shipping US-made Javelins. Following the outbreak of hostilities, there has been renewed requests both from third parties wanting to ship Israeli made systems from their own arsenals to Ukraine, as well as directly from Ukraine. The last round was caused by the Russian terror bombings which heavily feature Iranian-made systems. This led to an official Ukrainian request for ground-based air defence systems covering Iron Beam, Iron Dome, Barak-8, Patriot, David’s Sling, and Arrow, which was again turned down by the Israeli MoD.

https://mobile.twitter.com/BarakRavid/status/1582727463179689986

This has turned up the volume with accusations flying that Israel has sided with Putin against the democratic world, and while the questions of security of supply is a relevant one, that statement is plainly false.

Israeli aid has so far included helmets, flak vests, 100+ tons of humanitarian supplies, a field hospital, and there’s rumours about (limited) assistance with intelligence from both the state and private companies. In addition Israel has voted against Russia in UNGA Resolution ES-11/1 as well as in the follow-up ES-11/2, ES-11/3, and ES-11/4. Yes, I would very much like to see direct military aid as well, but the Israeli aid package is in line with what e.g. Japan is doing, and I do not see a big debate on whether Japan is a traitor to the free world, despite Tokyo also having some interesting air defence (and other) systems that would come in handy for Ukraine.

ES-11/3 reached 93 votes in favour and led to Russia’s suspension from the United Nations Human Rights Council following the Bucha massacre. Source: Pilaz – United Nations Digital Library / Wikimedia Commons

It deserve to be kept in mind that the turn in arms policy vis-a-vis Ukraine happened very quickly in the West – a year ago artillery and anti-tank weaponry was largely unthinkable despite a number of people calling for policy reversals either across the board or at least domestically (a position which I quite honestly can’t understand Finland having taken back then, but that’s a topic for another discussion). We still have a less-than-impressive showing in certain supposed powerhouses in Europe, and it’s easy to lose sight of just how Eurocentric the change in fact has been. Besides the European countries, it really is only the US, Canada, and Australia which have pitched in and supplied heavier military equipment. This is despite the fact that many of the ex-Soviet systems employed by Ukraine are in fact found in significant numbers also outside those nations.

Behind the scenes, Israeli refusal to go head-to-head with Russia most likely stems from two factors with a third thrown in for good measure with the advent of Iranian systems on the battlefield. The first is the significant number of Russian jews (as well as Russian non-jews granted citizenship due to marriage) living in Israel. Exactly how many there are depends on how you count as Soviet jews, Russian jews, jews that used to live in Russia, and so forth, aren’t always synonyms. Obviously what they have in common is that for some reason or the other they have chosen to leave Russia for Israel, which means they might or might not have warmer feelings towards Russia than your average Israeli. However, in a country that is currently headed for its seventh election in ten years, potentially upsetting approximately one million citizens is a risk few parties are willing to take. That’s not to say there’s one million who supports Russia, as evident by Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai (born in Jerusalem to parents who had emigrated from Russia and Poland respectively) who went on Twitter and broke ranks to call for arms deliveries, but it certainly puts a bit of a break on things (at least until after the upcoming elections).

A second and possibly even more important issue has been the role of Russia in Syria. Israel and Russia has reached an understanding when it comes to operations in Syria, under which Israel has been able to strike Iranian arms shipments to Syria and Hezbollah without much interference from Russia. The importance of this agreement can be discussed, as it is questionable to what extent Russia would have been able to stop Israel even if they wanted to (in particular following reports of the withdrawal of at least some long-range systems from Syria to cover losses in Ukraine), but it certainly has made Israeli air strikes more convenient.

With Iran appearing as a major supplier of long-range strike systems to Russia – a sentence I did not foresee ever writing – Israeli interests are again at a crossroad. On one hand, Russia cooperating more closely with a country Israel sees as an existential threat could be seen to support Israeli aid to Ukraine. At the same time, the question is what kind of aid and systems could be going from Russia to Iran? Especially in light of the ongoing JCPOA renegotiation (aka the Iran nuclear deal) which Israel is afraid will end poorly from their point of view, trying to ensure any kind of political leverage vis-a-vis Moscow to be able to stop arms transfers to Iran – which might be unlikely as long as the war in Ukraine rages on, but on the other hand Iran is unlikely to send ballistic missiles to Russia just from pure generosity – in particular with regards to e.g. the long-rumoured Su-35 deal is likely a top priority in Jerusalem. That however only works if Israel believes it has enough of a leverage to actually be able to convince Russia to come around to the Israeli point of view, which is far from certain given the Kremlin seem ever more desperate for every passing month (and let’s just say the number of agreements kept by Russia after they no longer seem to serve their intermediate interests is somewhere between ‘none’ and ‘hen’s teeth’). As such, I would not be overly surprised to see an Israeli reversal of its position on arms deliveries to Ukraine within the next twelve months. That might not be the answer Ukraine is hoping for, and as noted I personally don’t believe it to be good policy, but the fact is it isn’t any different from that of most countries.

However, leaving aside the question of proper Ukraine policy for a while (we’ll let the realists and constructivists fight it out on Twitter), and getting back to the question of whether Israel is a reliable arms supplier to Finland, I’m inclined to say they are. Crucially, there’s a significant difference between initiating new deals and follow-on sales/support to existing customers. It is notable that Israeli support to e.g. Azerbaijan was not cut off even when Azerbaijan started the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War against Armenia – which after all was Russia’s treaty-ally (speaking of making deals with Russia…). The morality of that decision can be discussed, but it is in line with Israeli arms trade policy which always has placed a premium on ensuring the customer is satisfied, as when you aren’t overly open about your deals, you can’t rely on glossy paper for marketing. In the particular case of Finland, as mentioned there is also the long ties and understanding issues such as having strong and unpredictable (read: aggressive) neighbours who might or might not want to erase you from the map. The Finnish deals in recent years also hold significant value for reference purposes and as part of their reputation as being able to compete with the best in a country known for valuing capability. With Israeli arms exports being worth 11.3 Bn USD last year (that’s an HX-program each year for my Finnish readers) and making up almost 7% of the total exports of the country, it’s a reputation they can ill afford to lose.

Of course, we are strongly moving into the hypothetical. An argument can certainly be made that there’s nothing guaranteeing that if Finland gets dragged into a conflict there isn’t an Israeli election coming up at the same time as there is a perfect storm with regards to Russian and Israeli regional interests in the Middle East. Still, you can also make an argument to the contrary that the reputational hit taken now and Israel’s slowness in changing policy could actually make deliveries to Finland more likely as the export decision has been made before any crisis, and that even if the worst would come, Finland is known to strive to always procure wartime stocks of munitions and spares, making the impact of any feet-dragging in follow-on supplies smaller. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Sweden bought 72 Fiat CR.42 Falco starting in 1940 – not because they wanted to, but because there wasn’t anything better available at short notice. A lesson that the war in Ukraine has again brought to the fore. Source: Towpilot/Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most important realisation all around during the past eight months is how difficult arms procurement really can be in wartime regardless of where the supplier sits. German behaviour with regards to heavy weapons, the possibility of a Trump 2.0 in the White House, the artisanal production runs of expensive weapons from many suppliers, limited stocks for many countries, and overall policy choices by many countries both in Europe and elsewhere has again raised lessons that really should have been learned in the 40’s – namely that buying weapons when everyone is gearing up for war is difficult. Policy changes can also come quickly in either direction (the controversial Israeli policy was Finnish policy as well right up to 24 February, when it changed literally overnight), raising the question which country really can be seen as a reliable supplier? Inside NATO the situation should hopefully be better than outside, but as mentioned the size of the production runs and ability to scale up production when facing a crisis is unfortunately not where one would want it to be. At the same time, domestic production isn’t as viable as it used to be due to the cost of modern weapons development and the general trend of globally distributed production chains.

There isn’t an easy (and cheap) answer to these question, but my personal opinion is that I do not believe that buying Israeli represent a measurably higher risk compared to most European or US suppliers. The risk might be different, but I believe recent events have shown that risk-free options are few and far between.

For there came that mightiest avenger

While the ink has barely dried on the HX-contract the rumour mill is in full swing about what other flying things the Finnish Defence Forces is about to get next. Will the GlobalEye suddenly make an appearance after all, or is maritime aviation about to be reborn in the form of anti-submarine helicopters? And what about all these drone trials?

And then from nowhere, the C-130 Hercules swoops in and steals the show.

Finland has never been big on airborne transportation. For the better part of the Cold War the main workhorse was the C-47 (one of the examples of which was 42-100646, OH-LCB / DO-7 in Finnish service, which had taken part in Operation Overlord with a certain then-lieutenant Richard “Dick” Winters as the jumpmaster. The aircraft was later sold to the Dutch Dakota Association as PH-DDA and unfortunately crashed in 1996 with multiple fatalities). These were then replaced by the Fokker F27, which in turned were replaced by three Casa (now Airbus) C-295M. These are the first true modern military transports operated by the Finnish Air Force, and two operate in that role with the third being a dedicated SIGINT-platform. By all accounts the platform is well-liked, and if the Air Force need something bigger there is always the C-17 of the Heavy Airlift Wing in Pápa which Finland operate together with a number of other countries.

Finland might never have operated an aircraft the size of the C-130, but it is still far from unfamiliar with the beast. Here a USMC KC-130J Super Hercules visited the country last year. Source: Ilmavoimat / Risto Hyvärinen

This might now be in for a change as major general Juha-Pekka Keränen steps in and states that his personal view is that in the (near) future Finland will need an air mobility solution based on an aircraft in the C-130 Hercules-class. While this is a a personal opinion, since major general Keränen is the commander of the Finnish Air Force, what he thinks in these issues warrants attention.

The reasoning is rather simple to follow. Two C-295M does not an air transport fleet make, but rather it gives the ability to have a single aircraft ready to either transport approximately 60 persons or a corresponding cargo load throughout the country, including to and from austere fields. This is fine looking at the national context which the aircraft was acquired for – as opposed to neighbouring Sweden Finnish airborne/air mobile doctrine has always focused more on small unit operations so we don’t plan for any major air lifts or drops – but then NATO happened. And the Kabul evacuation. And the deliveries of military aid to Ukraine. And a general realisation that you might not get the C-17 flight hours when you want them in case of a sudden crisis that involve more countries than just Finland.

A major difference between the legacy Hercs and the current C-130J Super Hercules is the modern glass cockpit. Here a Norwegian C-130J-30 is approaching the dirt field on Jan Mayen. Source: Torbjørn Kjosvold / Forsvarets mediesenter

As mentioned what Keränen is envisioning is an aircraft corresponding to the C-130 Hercules in size. This measuring stick is not quite unambiguous as not all Herculeses are created equal. Nowadays, there are two major branches of Herculeses rolling of the Lockheed Martin production line. The basic C-130J Super Hercules is a modern version of the workhorse which has served approximately a third of the countries of the world starting in the late 50’s and up to and including the present day. In addition there is the C-130J-30 Super Hercules which has a stretched fuselage meaning the cargo compartment is 35% longer at 16.9 as opposed to 12.5 meters for the unstretched C-130J. The payload is in fact not going up significantly – a modest 900 kg more on the C-130J-30 puts the maximum normal payload at 16,330 kg as opposed to 15,420 kg – but for cargo which takes up space rather than mass (such as soldiers) the difference in internal volume is huge. In essence, when the non-stretched Hercules can bring 90 combat troops to your favourite local dirt strip in one go, the C-130J-30 brings 128. Same goes for the number of pallet (say ‘Hello!’ to Think Defence) which goes up from six to eight.

At the same time, a larger aircraft will be heavier and more costly to operate, and take up more ramp space (the C-295M is already the largest aircraft ever to operate in the Finnish Air Force), so whichever you prefer is down to your requirements. And it is notable that even the unstretched aircraft is plenty long enough to fit e.g. everyone’s favourite truck-mounted firestarter, as demonstrated by a special forces MC-130J Commando II on a stretch of Swedish road last year. Both would also represent huge improvements over the C-295M, and provide important increases to the strategic mobility of the Finnish Army in particular. While being able to quickly shift a platoon from one end of the country to the other seldom is important, being able to do so with a company just might already be so. Same goes for 15 tons of ammunition or spares.

The C-130 isn’t the only game in town, another type Keränen mentions as worth considering is the (K)C-390 which the Netherlands opted for when replacing their C-130 fleet (in the process making the Dutch something along the lines of fourth air force worldwide to have at some point operated the Hercules and retired the type without replacing it with another Herc, a seriously impressive statistic that is hard to match for any aircraft type). However, Keränen notes that with the other Nordic countries going for the C-130J Super Hercules, that is the forerunner in his mind.

A Brazilian C-390 about to begin a paradrop mission. Note the C-130M Hercules (a modernised C-130H) visible at the edge of the picture. Source: Igor Soares/Ministério da Defesa via Wikimedia Commons

Again, it should be stressed that this is a general speaking his personal mind without likely having done much in the way of calculations or detailed analysis of the logistical needs and benefits of what would primarily be a resource for the Army, Special Forces, and civilian crisis response role (including medical evacuations). Still, Keränen goes as far as noting that with Sweden, Denmark, and Norway all either operating or being in the process of acquiring the Super Herc, a joint-Nordic Hercules squadron serving all four countries could be a solution. We are (finally) all going to be treaty allies after all, removing the main question mark that has hung over similar solutions so far. And getting back to the stretched/not-stretched, the current situation seems to be that Sweden will stick with the short-cargo Hercules when stepping up from C-130H to C-130J territory through the acquisition of something between four and six ex-Italian aircraft. Norway and Denmark however both operate four C-130J-30 each. With Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat picking up the story and having a longer interview with both Keränen and Lt.Col. Petteri Kurkien at FDF Logisitics Command (which also handle acquisition programs), we get some further insight into Keränen’s thinking. In particular he states that he doesn’t seem any use in getting single aircraft, as you need a minimum of two to have at least one on call at any given time. Two to four is the number that could be relevant for Finland (as mentioned four is something of a Nordic standard). At the same time, Finland has the Casa which represent a capability that the other Nordic countries lack, so an argument can be made for Finland being able to make do with fewer aircraft. However, a counter-argument can also be made that the Finnish geography and sea to the west and south means that Finland might be interested in having a greater capability if we e.g. suddenly want to shift a Finnish battalion to Estonia or fly a Swedish air defence battery to Kouvola.

One thing to note is that while the C-130 has been converted to the tanker role in a number of configurations – including in Swedish service but most prolifically in the form of the USMC family of KC-130 tankers with the KC-130J as the latest iteration – these have always employed the hose and drogue-system. In essence there are two ways of doing aerial refuelling, of which the hose and drogue is simpler but less efficient in a number of ways compared to the competing flying boom-system. No points for guessing which is the favourite of naval aviation and which has become the USAF standard. As such, KC-130 has been able to refuel the F/A-18 Hornet and the JAS 39 Gripen, but not the F-16 or the F-35A.

Image
Render showing the boom-equipped KC-390. As opposed to with the drogue-equipped USMC KC-130J, it seems you won’t be pushing pallets over the ramp at 250 knots while also refuelling fighters on the same mission, so how interested is Finland in being able to refuel the F-35A in the air? Probably not too much, but that’s what I said about the Hercules as well last year. Source: L3Harris

Enter the KC-390 ‘agile tanker’, a joint project between L3Harris and Embraer announced earlier this year. It would be fitted with a boom, and have the ability to transfer fuel to F-35A. The total fuel capacity of the current KC-390 Millennium is 35,000 kg, which is more or less in line with the 38,300 kg of fuel a KC-130J is able to offer from its internal system, external tanks, and additional cargo compartment fuel tank. The agile tanker is still very much a paper product, but it is something worth keeping in mind when discussing aircraft. At the same time, a boom-tanker is inherently less versatile in the transport role compared to hose-tankers which doesn’t require much in the way of modifications to the rear ramp or cargo compartment.

However, as noted by Keränen there is currently no ongoing program, and this was echoed by Minister of Defence Antti Kaikkonen to YLE this morning, who stated that we have no “immediate need”. So we could just leave this for now, and get back in a few years.

A Hellenic Air Force C-130 Hercules low over tourists at a beach on Samos. The Greek Hercules-fleet is among the oldest in Europe, but still continues to serve the armed forces reliably. Source: Own picture

…but where would be the fun in that?

There’s already been weeks since the last announcement of the trademark FDF surplus deals where Finland suddenly increases military capability through the acquisition of used equipment on the cheap, and while the Swedes have apparently ran off with the Italian C-130J Super Herculeses, another major NATO-country is also preparing to dump a sizeable number of aircraft on the market. Remember that fact about just a handful of countries having ever moved away from the C-130? Well, just over half of those have settled for the Airbus A400M Atlas, an aircraft that is larger, more expensive, generally better in most ways, and one which did not fly the year Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt. It is also a pan-European project plagued by delays and cost-overruns as well as poor availability, but which now seems to be headed in the right direction (if all this makes you think of NH90, you are probably not too far off). Airbus will almost certainly offer the A400M for Finland in case of a formal process taking off, but it is likely to be overkill for any Finnish requirement.

However, over in the country of his majesty king Charles III, his Royal Air Force is about to ditch their whole C-130-fleet to go all in on the A400M. RAF operate a mixed fleet of C-130J (local designation C.5) and C-130J-30 (local designation C.4), of which the better part of the C.5 (yes, the shorter ones) have been sold off to Bangladesh and Bahrain, with a single aircraft becoming the new ‘Fat Albert’ support aircraft of the USN Blue Angels. However, there is a sizeable number (as in, thirteen which is way more than four) stretched C.4 still waiting for what will happen to them post-2023 when they are supposed to be taken out of service. The flight hours for these were published in april last year, and while all were more or less in the 10-15,000 flight hour span then (and you can likely add quite a few hours since) there is still some life left in them. ZH885 had flown 31,888 hours when it went to the US, just to give an example.

Exactly how much life is an open question, and rests on how straining the hours have been, with the number of landings and take-offs (which hopefully are the same) being an important factor as well. It is known that the UK Hercules-fleet was in need of undergoing a centre wing box replacement which would allow them to serve into 2035, and that the fleet-wide contract was worth 110M GBP. While this is obviously a lot of money for something that will still need to be retired in 13 years it needs to be put into perspective: ZH885 apparently went for 29.7M USD back in 2020, which might or might not have included the refurbishment done in the UK before delivery. After a quick inflation adjustment a new-built C-130J should be approximately 94.0M EUR today, approaching three times the 35.0M EUR (adjusted) cost of ZH885. If Finland could get say 15,000 flight hours each out of four ex-RAF C-130J-30 and get them for under 40 million Euro a piece, even with investment in infrastructure and so forth we could be looking at a complete program for say 250M EUR which would ensure a Finnish airlift capability on par with that of our neighbours on short notice and stretching into the next decade (after which we would have gone down the rabbit hole of most operators and realised how much we love having big aircraft and need to buy a bunch of new-built transports, but that’s for another day).

However, we might have to be quick if we want in on the UK aircraft, as Finland isn’t the only one to reflect on the need for bigger transports. Austria this week announced their 10-year plan, which include among other things a replacement for their four current legacy C-130 Hercules. The aircraft’s original owner? Well, glad you asked. The RAF.

Edit: Look what was published on Friday! Thanks for the tip, TD!

Managing the Long-Range Missiles

The massed attacks on Ukraine today again raises the question about different approaches to managing the long-range ballistic and cruise missile threat, and while I don’t claim to have written the book on the issue, I did write a chapter with that headline for a Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) report a few years ago. As such, I have given the topic some thought. The bottom line is, it’s difficult and there’s no single answer.

A Russian Tu-95 heavy bomber sporting a number of Kh-101 cruise missiles, a weapon reportedly used in the strikes on Ukraine today. Source: Dmitry Terekhov/Wikimedia Commons

To begin with, we need to differentiate between ballistic missiles such as Iskanders which are really difficult to shoot down, and cruise missiles which fly towards the target as (often small) unmanned aircraft. While a number of ground-based air defence systems are able to target at least some ballistic missiles, these are of the high-end (and as such expensive) kind, and their coverage against ballistic missiles is significantly smaller than against other flying things due to the ballistic missiles approaching their targets more or less vertically at extreme speeds.

Cruise missiles are easier targets. They come in different shapes and sizes, and rely on a combination of small size, speed, and in some cases stealth and/or electronic countermeasures to avoid interception. However, the most common defensive measure of cruise missiles is the rather straightforward method of keeping low. Flying at low altitude means that the window ground-based systems have to acquire and target them is low, and the problem is further emphasised if the air defence battery is set up in terrain such as forests, hills, or urban areas. But everything is relative. The high cruising speed is still subsonic for the majority of systems, meaning that few missiles are travelling at higher speeds than fighters or strike aircraft do. The size is small compared to fighters, but still comparable to, or larger than, many drones. As such, to make a complex question overly simple – if an air defence system is able to counter fighters and drones, cruise missiles aren’t out of reach. The most extreme version of this is evident in a widely circulated video shot today which appears to show an old Igla MANPADS used to take down a cruise missile.

While this is an extreme case, it also illustrate the point well. Note that the shooter has ample time to figure out what is happening and set up the shot in the flat and open terrain.

The best counter to cruise missiles is however not old MANPADS nor top-of-the-line systems such as Patriot or SAMP/T. Rather it is modern medium-range systems, with NASAMS being the obvious choice here due to Ukrainian familiarity with the system. A number of other systems such as the CAMM would also fit the bill. The key detail is that these provide greater number for a given cost compared to more high-end ones. And when it comes to adding coverage, the number of batteries will always matter more than the range of individual systems. This is of even greater importance in Ukraine’s situation, as the country is large and with Russia resorting to terror bombings the number of potential targets is huge.

However, that is not to say that other air defence systems aren’t of interest to Ukraine. Getting shorter-ranged systems or older ones will free up the more capable ones to the counter-missile mission. With the drone threat also having ticked up recently with the supply of Iranian systems, it is evident that all kinds of air defence systems are extremely valuable to Ukraine for the time being.

A NASAMS-launcher during a Norwegian exercise. The modularity and relatively large number of missiles ready to fire makes the system a prime candidate for anyone wanting to shoot down cruise missiles. Source: Soldatnytt/Wikimedia Commons

Another way to kinetically ensure that missiles aren’t raining down over Ukraine is to hit the systems launching these. This include Russian strike and bomber aircraft, naval vessels including submarines, and launch vehicles such as Iskander units. Obviously, hitting airfields, maritime infrastructure, missile storage sites, and so forth will also achieve the desired effect. Many of these targets are however situated deep inside Russia, and as such Ukraine have difficulties reaching these both due to the lack of suitable weapon systems as well as due to reported Western restrictions on using Western supplied weaponry to reach targets on Russian soil. At this stage of the conflict, providing suitable weapons for Ukrainian long-range strikes on military targets deep inside Russia should be a no-brainer.

But getting complete cover will always be prohibitively expensive and require more resources than Ukraine or anyone else would have available. As such a big part of the answer is usually dispersion, fortification, and creating redundant systems, all of which are naturally more relevant against an enemy actually trying to hit something useful rather than just trying to kill civilians. As such, the real way to stop Russian missiles will be a Ukrainian victory. This will require stepping up support in a number of areas. This includes more of what has already been delivered, including both weapons and financial aid. However, it is also high time to supply new capabilities. This includes finally getting Ukraine those Leopards, as well as starting training on modern western multirole fighters. The F-16 is the obvious candidate, and while it could provide a measure of defence against cruise missiles, the big deal is the general ability to pound targets on the ground with modern weaponry and drastically increase the Ukrainian ability to defend their skies from enemy fighters and helicopters. Because as the war currently sits, the Russian strategy seems largely to be to burn everything they can’t have down to the ground, and the sooner we’ll take the matches from the arsonist, the less damage he’ll be able to cause.

Review: Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles

Harpia Publishing has long been noted for their steady stream of high-quality softcovers which typically feature modern aviation topics with rich illustration. With Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles – Current Types, Ordnance and Operations by Dan Gettinger (ISBN: 978-1-950394-05-0) they are however breaking new terrain. As volume 1 in their Strategic Handbook Series, it sports not only a different cover design, but is also a hardback. At the time of writing I am not aware of any other planned volumes in the series, but time will tell. One thing that does remain, however, is the significant number of colour photographs spread throughout the book.

Unmanned combat aerial vehicles are not a new concept – depending on you choice of definition, a case can be made for them stretching back at least to WWII – but it is safe to say that the Global War on Terror was what really brought the concept to life. Following that, UCAVs and loitering munitions have been a staple of many conflicts, with the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war providing an important window into just how devastating they might be if left uncountered.

The book kicks off with a chapter labelled “Definitions and Analysis”. This does what it says on the lid, defining key terminology used such as the classes of aircraft or munition or what is operational service. You might not agree with all classes, but they provide a useful frame of reference and are used consistently throughout the book. After this it looks at current trends in the field. This all takes place in a dozen pages. The final chapter is “Theatres”, which gives an  overview of operations with loitering munitions and UCAVs grouped according to the theatre of operations, and this one stretches to 19 pages. The 132 pages in between these two is called “Manufacturers”, and goes through country for country more or less every project that has reached mock-up stage or even somewhat convincing renders. Besides the obvious big players in the game, this means that there’s quite a few rarities presented (familiar with Georgia’s TAM T-31? I wasn’t).

This chapter is obviously the main event, so let’s make one thing clear – the book is a reference work rather than something you sit down a read cover to cover. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, but it is something that isn’t immediately obvious going by the cover. With the war in Ukraine and numerous other conflicts large and small seeing ever increased usage of these kinds of systems, the book fits with Harpia’s eerie tendency to publish new titles just before they get rocketed to the top of “current events”-pile. Unmanned systems have never been mine primary focus, and I will readily admit that with the tempo new systems appear if not over the Ukrainian battlefield then at least in the discussions surrounding it, having a handy reference guide is nice. On the flip side, if you are looking for books about the history of the systems and the doctrines behind their use, this isn’t the book for you. Neither is it if you are looking for detailed information on the primary systems in use – the sheer number of systems presented means that any single one will have the basic facts, but not much more. The same can be said for the Theatres-section, which certainly held new information for me – in particular about the less-publicised African conflicts which have seen UCAVs used – but which added little to my understanding of the more well-known conflicts which have featured heavily in other writings.

All in all, the book certainly fills a niche and will likely continue to be the primary reference book on the topic for quite a while. The step from softcover to hardcover is a nice touch, and clearly sets it aside from Harpia’s other offerings. Highly recommended –  with the caveats noted above that if you aren’t looking for a reference work, this one isn’t for you.

The book was received for review free of charge from Harpia Publishing.

Heavy (or rather, light) Metal in the South, Pt. 5 – The Korean Bird Appears

While a relatively minor part of the framework agreement, what surprised defence analysts most was not the huge armour numbers, but the decision by Poland to buy the FA-50 Fighting Eagle light fighter for their Air Force.

A ROKAF FA-50 in front of two USAF A-10. The FA-50 is a true light fighter rather than an armed trainer, and while it might feel like an unlikely fit for Poland, there aren’t in fact many other options on the table. Source: ROKAF FB

The idea of the light fighter is not new. During the Cold War the complexity and cost of top-end fighters rose quickly, and in addition there was a general growth in size which added to operating costs. This was slowly crowding out defence budgets, and while it at first led simply to smaller numbers, by the time the F-4 Phantom came around it was already clear many countries were unable to afford the gold standard. By the time the F-14 Tomcat and F-15 Eagle came along, the number had dropped steadily towards zero. The answer was a lighter and cheaper fighter that could be used to keep numbers at an acceptable level. The most prolific was the F-5 Freedom Fighter/Tiger II-family out of Northrop, which saw huge success on the export market and is still found in (limited) use in a respectable number of air forces. In somewhat the same vein, the F-16 emerged out of the Lightweight Fighter Program which originally envisioned a light and cheap dogfighter able to fill out the numbers as the high-end F-15 grew in size and cost.

However, before the aircraft even was ordered the light Sidewinder-armed dayfighter had turned into a multirole aircraft, and if you state that the F-16s rolling off the production line today are ‘cheap and light’ the reply will likely be ‘compared to what?’ This is part of the issue Poland is facing, being one of the major F-16 users in Europe, and with an ageing fleet of MiG-29 and Su-22 complementing their F-16s. These are to be backed up by 32 F-35A which will start arriving in-country by 2026, but that is only part of the answer. The F-16 fleet is modern, consisting of a total of 48 F-16C and -16D versions of the Block 52 standard. The MiG-29A (9.12) and Su-22M4 that are found are so in dwindling numbers, from original fleets numbering some 40 MiG-29 and some 30 Su-22 (including small numbers of two-seaters of both) around twenty MiG-29 and just over a dozen Su-22 remain in service. Neither have received any serious upgrades, and largely still represent the finest of Soviet engineering from the first half of the 80’s. For those wondering what that means, this interview with an ex-Luftwaffe pilot who flew the aircraft inherited from DDR (and which eventually went to Poland) nicely illustrate the difference between a MiG-29 and anything western.

The F-35A as a MiG-29-replacement should come with a sticker warning for serious cultural shock for the pilots doing the transition, it is a revolutionary step up in capability that is difficult to overstate. 32 fighters replacing the current fleet of 20+ MiG-29s also mean that Poland is one of few air forces to get more F-35A than the number of aircraft they are replacing, so nice job on that one. However, that still leaves the Su-22 fleet, which while only providing rudimentary fair-weather air to ground capability (it’s never a good sign when the fact sheet at ‘Radar’ just goes ‘Nope’) still represent 15-20 % of the total Polish fast jet fleet when it comes to numbers.

The obvious replacement would be more F-16 or F-35, but both are costly and delivery times are not great – Lockheed Martin is also famously not overly interested in selling F-16s to potential F-35-customers, and Poland is obviously in that category. The market for used aircraft is also largely dried up, and while the airframes floating around would certainly be interesting to Ukraine, they are in most cases beat up to the extent that they don’t offer the kind of long-term solution the Polish Air Force is looking for.

So for the final time in this series of posts: Enter the Republic of Korea.

ROKAF’s ‘Black Eagles’ brought the T-50 trainer version to Poland for a show earlier this year in anticipation of the FA-50 coming to Poland next year. Source: Polish Air Force/4 Skrzydło Lotnictwa Szkolnego FB

Poland has already inked a contract for the Italian M-346 advanced trainer, half-sibling to the Yak-130 and fierce rival to the Korean KAI T-50 Golden Eagle. As such, an order for the Korean trainer seemed as unlikely as, well, an order for a 1,000 K2 Black Panther tanks. An order for a light fighter, on the other hand, is something else.

The idea to take an advanced trainer, put a radar in the nose (and often strip out one of the seats) and tailor it to the light multirole fighter-role is not new. The Hawk 200 based on the hugely successful trainer is probably the most famous one, having score orders for between 12 and 23 fighters from three countries (Oman, Indonesia, Malaysia), but closer to home the Czech Aero L-159 ALCA has also reached series production. The FA-50 is however significantly larger than the other two (in fact, the maximum take-off weight is higher than the earlier mentioned F-5E Tiger II at 13.5 tons compared to 11.1 tons), giving it higher combat potential than the earlier two (as well as retaining the second seat, allowing it to continue in the advanced training role as well). This is significant, as air combat is one of the more technical domains of combat, and as opposed to firearms or guns which have a tendency to provide useful service long after having been state of the art, in air combat not having modern equipment is often comparable to fighting with one arm behind your back – and usually end up with you being punched in the face.

So is that the case for Poland as well? The Polish order is planned to be split into two batches, the first 12 of which will be the current Block 10 standard which provide a basic initial operational capability through the usage of AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missiles, JDAM, and unguided Mk 80-series of bombs, as well as the older AIM-9L/M-series of missiles for self-defence.

Let’s be clear, Block 10 is not an impressive combat aircraft, and while still light-years better than the Su-22, serious questions can be raised about its combat value on the modern battlefield. However, this is just a temporary stop, before the train moves on at speed to the eventual destination: FA-50PL Block 20.

If you feel like you’ve read this before, yes, you have. Quick delivery of a basic version, followed by a tailored version developed to meet Polish needs following in the next few years, as well as an upgrade of the earlier delivered ones to the new baseline.

The FA-50PL Block will be a rather more serious beast, including a new AESA-radar, Link 16, NATO-standard IFF, AIM-120 AMRAAM giving it a beyond visual range capability, AIM-9X Sidewinders replacing the older L/M-versions, a Sniper targeting pod (there’s some discussion about whether this is already integrated on the Block 10, but the answer seems to be ‘No’), as well more advanced air-to-ground munitions. Exactly which weapons are to be included is uncertain, but earlier there has been talk about integrating e.g. the JSM or the Korean lightweight version of the KEPD-350 Taurus – the KEPD-350K-2. In essence, the end-result will be an aircraft with F-16-like capability in a smaller package (now, exactly which F-16 it will be comparable to is up to debate). Being lighter the weapons load will be reduced, the radar is likely to be shorter-legged and with lesser power and cooling, giving it overall worse performance, and so forth. However, at the same time the vast majority of F-16s running around are not of the latest generation, so everything depends on your yardstick. What is important to understand is that this is not your armed trainer, a concept which has proved to be of dubious value in a high-intensity conflict (even in the case of the Israelis in the Six-Day War they had to pull their Fouga CM.170 Magisters from combat despite enjoying total air superiority as the losses were too high). Instead, the FA-50 sports the same afterburning GE F404 as is found in the F/A-18 Hornet, giving the small fighter over 78 kN of thrust and a thrust to weight ratio of 0.59 at maximum take-off and 0.90 at full fuel – comparable to the 0.57 and 0.84 for the F-35A or 0.69 and 1.10 for the F-16 Block 52.

The FA-50PL will start arriving in Poland by 2025, and over the next two-three years a total of 36 aircraft will be added to the inventory. Together with the 12 Block 10 – which will be upgraded to ensure a single standard for all Polish FA-50 – that will make 48 light fighters to equip a total of three squadrons. In other words, the current fleet of F-16 (48 aircraft), MiG-29 (~20), and  Su-22 (~15) will be converted into a mix of F-16 (still 48 aircraft), F-35A (32), and FA-50PL (48), giving both a serious increase in capability as well as in numbers (to be honest, even the simple FA-50 Block 10 with AIM-9M might be a closer fought fight against the MiG-29A with R-27 than a quick glance at the numbers might indicate).

Two Polish M-346, an aircraft that apparently isn’t evoking warm feelings in the Polish Air Force despite its solid track record on the export market. Source: Polish Air Force/4 Skrzydło Lotnictwa Szkolnego FB

But again, why the FA-50PL? This interview with Polish defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak gives a quite clear picture of the reasoning behind the decision. The first thing he brings up is how close the FA-50 is to the F-16, and the possibility to introduce a training path for F-16 pilots that passes through the FA-50 – similarly to ROKAF. Apparently the minister is not happy with the M-346 in Polish service, which is interesting to note. The fact that Lockheed Martin isn’t selling F-16s to Poland, and their long delivery times to Slovakia are also ruling out additional orders for the Viper, as at the same time the MiG-29 and Su-22 have become safety hazards for the Polish fighter pilots due to their age. As such, the FA-50 offer a unique combination of training opportunities as well as multirole combat capability at a relatively low cost (it is notable that the Su-22 has been doing some work that would correspond to lead-in fighter training in the later years). But as is the case with the tanks and artillery, it is also important to look at the industrial aspect of the framework agreement. Poland has a long history of a domestic aviation industry, but the jet-side of things have not seen much in the way of development in recent years. The Koreans are here as well promising a serious technology transfer and aiding the Polish industry in setting up a service centre, and in the future looms the Korean stealth fighter, the KF-21 Boramae. Polish involvement in that program is certainly a possibility given the current trend. But it is also notable that there are plans for an additional two multirole squadrons for the Polish Air Force in the near-future. In the interview the possibility of additional F-35A or F-15 Eagles is discussed, while the KF-21 is “monitored”. However, as noted plans can change quickly in the Polish armed forces (and the F-15 feels about as unlikely as the KF-21 to be honest).

All in all, while the FA-50 wasn’t an obvious choice, a combination of tight schedules, Lockheed Martin-policy, industrial considerations, unhappy feelings about the M-346, and old Soviet airframes falling out of the skies all conspired to make it one of the only options left in the game (I hear you Swedish followers asking about the Gripen, but the lack of an JAS 39F outside of Brazil likely is an issue). And suddenly, the serious light fighter is staging a comeback in Europe.