Another Syrian Pantsir lost

Yesterday Sunday 20 January Israel again struck targets close to Damascus International Airport. Much is still unconfirmed about the raid, but it is clear that it included significant numbers of Syrian missiles fired in response, at least one of which led to two Iron Dome-missiles being fired from an Israeli battery close to Mt Hermon as it was on track to enter Israeli airspace (the missiles are usually fired in pairs to ensure intercept). It is not confirmed whether the missile was intercepted or not.


https://twitter.com/NTarnopolsky/status/1087082330047410176

A video has also surfaced of a single Buk being fired from a confirmed SAM-site close to the airport, but while the Russians and Syrians were their usual bombastic selves, ” strike on airport in Damascus caused no damage, seven missiles intercepted by Buk, Pantsir systems“, reality once again seems to be in poor agreement.


The Israeli Defense Forces has released a new video showing SAM-sites being targeted. The most interesting part of the clip shows a Pantsir-S1 (likely the S1E-version) being intercepted by what looks like a Delilah cruise missile.
Keen Syria-watchers will recognise  that this isn’t the first encounter between the Pantsir-S1 and the Delilah. For details how to recognise the Pantsir-S1 and Delilah footage, see the post from last time. While the Israeli modus operandi hasn’t seemingly changed, neither has the incompetence of the Syrian air defence crews. The radar is raised, but not rotating and pointing in the wrong direction, while the missiles are in the transport-position and not ready to be fired. Despite the vehicle being an obvious high-value target, it is left sitting out in the open with no attempt at camouflage or anyone trying to move it into cover.

Still showing the Buk shortly before it fires a single missile in a western direction.

The bottom line is that we still lack any proof of the Pantsir-S1 being of much use. It is possible that the missiles were used (successfully?) to intercept decoys launched before the strike itself, there are rumours of the Israelis using this tactic dating back to Operation Mole Cricket 19, though as with many aspects of these raids confirmed information is scarce.
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Corporal Frisk – Half a decade on

19 January 2014 I officially launched my blog and associated Twitter-handle. The world was rather different back then, this being before both the Russian invasion of Crimea and the spectacular rise of ISIS. This was also before the official launch of both the HX and the Squadron 2020 program. Suffice to say, it’s been quite a journey so far!

Your’s truly on my first HX-themed trip, here in the cockpit of the JAS 39E Gripen in Linköping.

This is true in the literal sense of the word, as the blog has been the reason for my first ever visits to Estonia, Scotland, and, not to forget, Motala. But perhaps even more fascinating has been the people I have gotten to learn to know and the knowledge I have been fortunate enough to glean from them. I am a strong believer in the idea that to develop you need to surround yourself with people that are smarter than yourself, and I am happy to say that the blog has enabled me to do just that. This is true both for in-person meetings as well as on Twitter. The ability to ask questions directly to experts in varied fields is without doubt one of the strengths of Twitter as a medium, and I will gladly admit that many of my most successful posts would not have been possible without the feedback from a number of different people, including scholars, officers, and numerous other professionals and enthusiastic laymen. Many of you I am happy to count among my friends, regardless of whether we’ve ever met or not. A big thank you to all of you!

While my goal with the blog has always been to influence discussions on the topics I write about (and partly because I think it is fun to write down my musings!), what I have come to find out is that it has been a good influence on myself as well. Writing about topics I find interesting are a great way to force oneself to learn more and stay up to date. If you go back to my earlier posts you will see that there are topics I see differently today, and some where I have changed my mind completely (BMD capability for Squadron 2020 is one of those). Turns out few things are as efficient for learning as when you try to teach others.

Being based in Ostrobothnia means being far away from most of the national security and defence related action. However, once a year the Navy comes to visit. Source: Own picture

But writing has also been challenging at times. Dealing with topics of national security demand a careful balance between the need for operational security as well as openness and public discussion. This is something where I believe that it is impossible to have a template solution for all situations, and with posts such as the one on the Finnish wartime army order of battle I have spent quite some time thinking about how, if at all, to cover the topic. The feedback I have gotten over the years seems to confirm that I’ve struck a good balance.

A few notes on the blog this year and going forward.

The blog has grown year for year, and last year was no exception, with the number of views and visitors increasing 50% and 40% respectively compared to 2017. Last year’s most popular post was by far that regarding Airiston Helmi, which almost could compete with the evergreen Spitfire vs Bf 109. A surprise hit was the review of GMT Games’ Next War: Poland, which is an excellent board game. Go ahead and check it out if you haven’t already! As for where the traffic came from, social media and search engines reign supreme, but an interesting development is that Estonian Militaar.net now is the second largest forum when it comes to directing traffic to the blog, having passed Swedish SoldF.com.

Meeting Boeing Defence at Seinäjoki Air Show 2017 to hear about their offer for HX. Source: J. Häggblom

Keen readers might have noted that the advertisements are back. This is another decision I have been contemplating for quite a while, but in short while this in many ways still is a hobby of mine, I also strive to make sure that Corporal Frisk – Analysis and Consulting isn’t loss-making. The decision to monetize the blog is one additional step to ensure that this is the case.

As a final note, the blog roll is updated for the first time in 5 years! It now includes a couple of new-comers, including entries in Finnish, Swedish, German, and English, while some older ones have had to stand aside.

With the Swedish Navy towards the Future

“Be there early and stay”

That is what the Swedish Navy strives to do. With the Baltic Sea becoming busier and busier, maintaining situational awareness require not only information sharing with partners and a solid chain of land-based sensors, but also a presence out in the thick of it. And this is tied to the biggest challenge the force faces today – out of an estimated need of 24 vessels, the fleet currently consist of 7 units. And while stealth and the ability to choose when to be visible is a force multiplier, it can only improve the situation so much. As such, increasing the number of vessels is described as “vital”.

But this leads to the next round of issues – “personnel, personnel, personnel.” On the whole recruitment is going “rather well”, but there are some difficulties. Still, if the Navy is to grow, having fully trained crews for the high-end platforms such as corvettes and submarines will take time. For the time being, no conscripts serve aboard the vessels, though this might change if the Navy starts growing rapidly.

Leadship of one of the world’s most advanced corvette classes, HMS Visby, being escorted by a Finnish Jurmo-class landing craft during exercise Northern Coasts 2018. Source: Merivoimat FB.

But in the meantime cooperation with the Finnish Navy provide added capabilities. The point was raised that cooperation between the two navies are deeper compared to the Armies and the Air Forces. This stems from the fact that the first steps are relatively easy to take, as the ships can meet in the middle of the sea, avoiding high-profile invitations and vehicle convoys passing through the territory of the host nation. This in turn gave the two navies a head start, once the drive for deeper FISE-cooperation kicked off in earnest. In a region where incidents or mishaps could escalate and increase uncertainty, both navies view the FISE-cooperation as increasing stability and security in the region.

The introduction of new Russian vessels such as the Buyan-M and the Karakourt-class corvettes provide the Baltic Fleet with “quite good capabilities”, while at the same time the Russian exercises of 2018 have been held further out at sea and farther away from the Russian bases in Kaliningrad. This is something that the Swedish Navy keeps an eye on, to determine if this is the new normal or just an outlier. What is clear is that the famed Kaliningrad A2/AD-bubble will become “even more flexible” if it is sea-based compared to being restricted to Russian land territory. However, this brings us back to the original point: with the growing range of modern weapons, the demands placed on targeting data increases, which will require presence. But presence works both ways, and the Baltic Sea is a “good spot” for a maritime hybrid operation.

Will we know if it will be war before it start? I’m not so sure

So the Swedish Navy will have to grow, and the plan is clear: it will be an evolutionary growth. The best example of this method in practice is the currently ongoing MLU of the Gotland-class submarines, where sub-systems and lessons learned will be integrated into the upcoming A26-class. In the same way the Navy plans to use the MLU on the Visby-class of corvettes as a proof-of-concept for the projected Visby Gen 2.

Soldiers of the 205. Rifle company catching some rest while a CB 90 landing craft takes them to their next destination during exercise AURORA 17. Source: Mats Nyström/Försvarsmakten

Another hot topic is the creation of a second amphibious regiment, i.e. marines. While the current Amf 1 is something of a “and the kitchen sink” unit which include several support functions which belonged to earlier iterations of the Coastal Artillery/Amphibious Corps, the new unit will be a fighting unit, centered around marine infantry and aimed towards high-end combat. As such, it will also be smaller, numbering around 800 personnel compared to the 1,200 of Amf 1. This unit will be in place by 2025, and the Navy don’t expect any recruitment issues. “Marines are the easiest to recruit, any vacancies are filled within 72 hours.”

The post is based on a briefing held under Chatham House-rules at the Meripuolustuspäivä/Naval Defence Day in November 2018. General approval for the publishing of a post based on the briefing was received, but the final text has not been shown to anyone connected with the Swedish Navy (active or retired).

A Northern Heavy-lift

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


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

Vertical Movement

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

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

Nordic Operations

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case for Heavy Lift

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

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

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

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

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

The Questions to be Solved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended.

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

Naval Defence Day 2018 – Only Change is Constant

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

The Finnish Navy and the Baltic Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unmanned technology underutilised?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Developing: Skirmishes in the Sea of Azov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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