Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 4 – And the Thunder Came Rolling In

The tanks might have been the big part of the Polish-Korean framework agreement and the overall discussions about increased cooperation in general, but they weren’t the only thing in there. As tanks never are better than the combined arms supporting them, the role of artillery and infantry fighting vehicles in the overall package is worth a look.

672 K9 Thunder 155 mm self-propelled artillery pieces were included in the framework, at a cost of approximately three billion Euros (including supporting vehicles). If the K2 Black Panther is breaking new ground, the K9 Thunder has on the other hand a solid market share in the SPG-market over the last decade, including being ordered by Finland, Estonia, and Norway in the northern half of Europe. Interestingly, the current Polish AHS Krab is half K9 Thunder and half AS-90 Braveheart. In the glass half-full scenario, this scenario this is great because the new artillery share chassis with the old one, allowing for easier maintenance and logistics. In the glass half-empty scenario, this raises the question why they just don’t build more of those?

As opposed to the other systems involved in the current discussion, the K9 Thunder has seen combat. Its involvement in the Yeonpyeong skirmish was not a complete success, but the failures have not cast a shadow on the system itself. Source: ROK Armed Forces/Wikimedia Commons

The answer is the upgrade path. Since the British never got around to actually buying the Braveheart, the Poles are the sole users of the turret (Marksman in Finnish service comes to mind…), and would have to pay for any upgrades themselves. At the same time, the improved K9A1 has now become the new standard in ROK service, which include an upgraded fire control system (with improvements to both hardware and software), an auxiliary power unit (APU) which allows for operating the vehicles without using the main diesel, integration of GPS to the INS for faster and more accurate positioning data, as well as the integration of new ammunition for longer ranges (up 54 km according to official figures). Safety features not allowing the turret to rotate over an open hatch is also included, as well as improved vision systems including for night-driving and reversing. Some of these improvement are certainly more important than others (the APU, safety features, and FCS improvements are the ones that comes to mind), and as mentioned these are not concepts but rather things that are found in the current production standard.

As such, very much in-line with the K2 Black Panther project, Poland will acquire 48 K9A1 Thunder from Korean production lines with the first 18 delivered already this year (again, let’s remember this is still only a framework deal, and as far as I understand will still require the signing of the contract proper for this to actually happen). These will form two battalions (squadrons or Dywizjon in Polish terminology), presumably made up of three 8-gun batteries for a total of 24 guns per battalion (notable that this means all guns would have a position within the wartime OOB, as opposed to the situation for the tanks).

However, as with the K2PL, the real meat of the dish comes in the form of an additional 624 K9PL based on the improved and planned K9A2, and which from 2026 will be license produced locally. The K9A2 will bring a serious change in the form of dropping two crew members to go to a three-man crew with a fully automated turret. This also allows for an increased rate of fire thanks to the autoloader functioning as a small assembly line with the next charge and round already being readied before the shot has gone. A more detailed CGI-version of the workings of the new unmanned turret is found in the video below.

While the growth in numbers isn’t as remarkable as for the tanks, we are still looking at more than double the current inventory of the self-propelled artillery that is being replaced (this is a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation based on approximately 360 2S1 Gvozdika and 100 Dana retiring while the planned 122 AHS Krab are delivered and kept in service). In essence, if the Wikipedia-numbers are roughly correct we’ll see a growth from 23 artillery battalions to a combined force of 33 battalions (5 of which are AHS Krab). However, a key detail is that this is missing the AHS Kryl, a local wheeled self-propelled gun based on the Israeli ATMOS 2000, for which there had been plans that between four and seven battalions (96 to 168 guns) worth of AHS Kryl would be acquired to replace the Dana – just for the Rosomak-equipped brigades in the lower plan, and for all units operating Danas in the higher one. Whether the AHS Kryl now is dead remains to be seen, but it would likely be a better match for a Rosomak-brigade than the K9PL, so throw in another four battalions for a total Polish force of 37 artillery battalions, and you might not be too far off (120 AHS Krab, 96 AHS Kryl, and 672 K9A1/K9PL) – though again it should be remembered that the Polish forces have seen several rather ambitious materiel plans that have not come to fruition over the last decade, so we’ll wait for the contracts until calling this one.

Looking at these number, the choice of the autoloading K9A2 as the base for the majority of the future artillery force is notable. While the crew for the howitzers themselves is far from the only personnel needed to run an artillery battalion, the difference between five or three soldiers aboard every one of the 672 K9 is still 1,344 persons. Added to this, there’s an additional 1,000 tankers less in the K2 Black Panthers compared to if the non-autoloading Leopard 2A7 or M1A2 Abrams had been bought. For an Army that is growing at a serious rate and in a climate when many armed forces struggle with being competitive on the labour market, these are non-trivial numbers. It also obviously raises the question about whether the AHS Krab hulls could receive the autoloading turret and in essence become K9PL at some point during their career (and for Finland, whether we could see Polish turrets on our K9FIN Moukari at some point in the distant future)?

An interesting detail in the Polish order is that it include not only the K10 ammunition resupply vehicle which is in use with the ROK and has proved rather popular among export customers (though it did fail to sell to Finland), but also the K11 Fire Direction Control Vehicle (FDCV), a command vehicle developed for the Egyptian order. The story of Hanwha’s attempts at selling a command vehicle for the K9 is a somewhat complex and confusing one. The K9 replaced the M109A2K/K55 in ROK service. This had been produced under license, and a local command vehicle was developed on the chassis, designated K77. My understanding is that the K77 is still serving on as the command vehicle for the K9-units, and a number of internet sources have been passing around pictures of the K77, wrongly labelling it as the K11. To further complicate things, there has been a K10C2-variant being offered, which like the K11 uses the K10 ARV as its baseline, but is a more advanced vehicle than what the K11 turned out to be.

As one of the key details in the localisation of the Polish vehicles is the ability to work with the Polish Topaz-battle management system, how literal one should read the announcement of the K11 being the Polish C2-vehicle is an open question. It is entirely possible that it is yet a third member in the K10FDCV/K11-family, not really being more closely related to the K11 than to the K10FDCV-proposal, but that Hanwha has simply re-branded the C2-line. However, as details on the Egyptian K11 are scarce enough, any deeper analysis between what are essentially a paper concept, a yet undelivered version, and a version that’s probably only now being properly defined is bound to be pure guesswork more than anything else. The one question this does open up is whether ROK will eventually get around to replacing their K77 with K11 (of some version) now when the vehicle has achieved launch customers and as the framework agreement does include development work of new versions going both ways.

The K77 is one of the more rare versions of the M109-family, and is apparently still working well enough that ROK hasn’t seen the need to replace it. It remains to be seen whether the Egyptian and Polish orders for the K9-based K11 will change that. Source: Hanwha Defence

The final tracked vehicles in discussion with the Koreans, and which currently are still outside of the framework agreement is the tracked infantry fighting vehicles, a role which in Polish service is handled by the obsolete BWP-1, in essence the basic BMP-1 which has served since the early 1970’s. The Poles have been moving forward with a domestic design under the Borsuk-program, which currently is undergoing trials and is aiming for an amphibious IFV with the mobility to keep up with main battle tanks. A key feature of the Borsuk is the unmanned ZSSW-30 turret. This is also locally developed and sport a 30 mm Bushmaster Mk 44 gun as well as a Spike ATGM launcher. The turret is also seen as a potential solution for the Rosomak, and as such would offer some benefits of synergy between the wheeled and tracked infantry fighting vehicles of the Polish forces.

The Redback (left) and the KF-41 during trials in Australia. The vehicle is essentially a modernised and non-amphibious version of the K21 IFV which is in ROK service. Source: Australian MoD/Sergeant Jake Sims

However, the discussions about increased Polish-Korean cooperation means that a new contender has appeared in the discussion, the AS-21 Redback currently on offer to Australia (the Redback for those wondering being “one of the few spider species that can be seriously harmful to humans, and its liking for habitats in built structures has led it to being responsible for a large number of serious spider bites in Australia”. Nice little fellow…). The plan is apparently for a mix of Redbacks, Borsuks, and presumably Rosomaks, to be the battle taxis of the Polish Army.

Compared to the Borsuk, the Redback is heavier and not amphibious, features which make it likely that it is indeed better protected than the Polish vehicle (giving some credibility to the marketing slogan “Best protected IFV with lethal firepower“). A key detail is that it can take an eight-man squad (in addition to the crew of three), while the Borsuk is only able to fit six soldiers in the rear. Exactly how the units would be set up in the future six divisions of the Polish Army and what the breakdown between Borsuks and Redbacks would be is open, but notable is that if the full-strength of a Polish armoured division really is 360 tanks, the current 1,360 tanks on order won’t allow for six armoured divisions. A more likely OOB would then be something along the lines of two armoured and four mechanised (120-180 tanks) divisions, of which some (based in wetter regions) would potentially be well-served by lighter systems such as the Borsuk and AHS Kryl. However, it deserves to be emphasised that this is just speculation on my part, and the reasoning behind both Borsuk and Redback might simply be down to the Redback being cheaper and/or better, but there still being a need to keep domestic industry running by buying a serious number of IFVs from them as well. Would not be the first time that has happened to a country.

Edit: Seems the plan for now is that the Borsuk will be the main IFV, with the AS-21 going to the M1A2-units (i.e. the 18. Division if the current plans/speculation will hold true). Thanks to Damian for the input!

The Borsuk with the NSSW-30 turret showing of what in today’s world is the rather compact design for an IFV. Source: Leszek Chemperek CO/MON

In any case, as was the case with the tanks, even if just half or three-fourths of the projected artillery and IFVs are acquired, the Polish Army will be the premier NATO-land force in Europe based on the level and number of its equipment. It is, however, worth noting that during times of rapid expansion there is always a risk of falling into a trap of not achieving required levels of training due to the huge influx of new people and rapid promotions, as well as the materiel account eating up a disproportionate part of the overall defence budget, allowing too little funding for exercises. Let us hope that this won’t be the fate of the Polish Army, because the free world needs a strong armoured force west of the Bug.

Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 3 – A Tank Factory of Your Own

As mentioned in the last post, a big part of the reason behind the Polish decision to go for the K2 Black Panther was the industrial package. Now, it should be emphasised that there really are no bad tanks on the (western) export market today. The competition and continued development of the main platforms has made sure of that, and which tank would come out on top depends heavily on your terrain, doctrine, and a host of other aspects. The differences in combat capability between individual variants of the same tank – such as Leopard 2A4 and 2A7V – are also vastly larger than between different tanks of corresponding vintage – such as M1A2SEPv3, Leopard 2A7V, and K2NO.

K2 Black Panther tanks from the South Korean 11th Mechanised “Hwarang” Division during a combined arms exercise back in January. It seems likely that in addition to getting the WKM-B the eventual K2PL-standard would feature a remote-weapon station for the weapon as opposed to the pintle-mount seen here, as is the case of the K2NO. Source: ROK Army FB/Jung Seung Ik

Obviously, even if Hyundai Rotem would strike gold and bag the Norwegian order, the K2 would be an outlier in Europe. So is it worth the issues that will cause? There was a particularly sour comment made by KMW advisor Nicholas Drummond to CNN, in which he described the tank as “overall less sophisticated with inferior electronic architecture” compared to the Leopard 2, leading the news outlet to sum it up as “essentially a less capable version of the German Leopard 2”. What exactly he based that comment on is unclear to me, as most open sources seems to agree on the K2 being on par with the most modern versions of the M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 when it comes to these things. He eventually took to Twitter to give a more nuanced critique, but even there he repeated the claim that the K2 Black Panther is based on the Leopard 2, and that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Now, if getting the same powerpack and sporting a 120 mm smoothbore gun is using the “Leopard 2 as a model”, the whole argument is spun out of a rather thin thread. In particular when you realise that the plan all along was to move away from the German powerpack to a local replacement. My understanding is that the tanks currently rolling off the production line indeed has a Korean Doosan DV27K engine (interestingly enough a long-stroke design rather than the MTU883 short-stroke), though the transmission still is German after the local replacement experienced issues (the transmission is in many ways the more complex and specialised part of the powerpack).

Still, he has a few valid points – such as the Leopard 2 thanks to its age being a more mature system, and that the 2A7-family of versions sporting many of the key systems that are selling points of the K2 (active protection, integrated BMS/C4I-solutions, and so forth) – and it is true that the huge success of the Leopard 2 on the export market is a significant advantage when it comes to pooling spares and resources, as well as sharing in the R&D costs. However, the situation is not quite as rosy as he would have you believe. While a number of European countries back in the day did set up domestic production lines, many of those have since closed or gone cold, with production of Leopards in recent years becoming a significantly more German affair. He is also overlooking the sheer scope of the Polish framework agreement.

There are currently roughly 1900 Leopard 2 tanks in service in Europe once you remove the 280 or so Norwegian and Polish tanks that are to be retired in the near-future. This is a ball-park figure based on Wikipedia, but should give the correct order of magnitude. You can add another 82 Canadian ones, as well as approximately 550-600 in service or on order from other non-European customers (the question mark being the total number in Singaporean service). With the exception of Austria, the European tanks are operated by NATO-members, so there will indeed be the opportunity to share logistics. At the same time, the numbers aren’t overwhelmingly in favour of the Leopard, as the total NATO-fleet of Leopards is somewhere in the order of magnitude of twice the Polish order – significant, but not the 9:1 Drummond’s thread might give the impression of. Also notable is that with R&D-cost sharing usually being done on a per system-basis, and with ROK sporting a couple of hundred K2s themselves, the situation isn’t looking overly detrimental to what it would have if Poland would have gotten a thousand Leopards and made up a third of NATO’s Leopard-fleet.

A family picture taken at ADEX21 of the Omani-test vehicle, an operational-standard K2, and the K2NO sporting the Kongsberg Protector RWS and Trophy active defence system. Source: Hyundai Rotem

Now, the supply base will be narrower, and Korea as a source for spares and potentially crucial upgrades does raise more questions than a European country would. Any Polish factory will also be within range of more Russian long-range systems than German factories would be, and the work involved in getting spares from South Korea to Poland is bound to be a more complex logistical process than simply driving trucks over the border from Germany.

However, as mentioned there is deep mistrust towards the German arms industry following years of issues with the Leopards (there is room for glancing in the mirror on the side of the Polish authorities, armed forces, and industry as well, that is for sure – however, right or wrong, that does not change the overreaching sentiment in Warsaw). In addition, the inability to find common ground on Ukraine is cementing the split further. Drummond argues that it would be “ridiculous” to suggest that Germany would not support its NATO-ally Poland, and by extent argues that anything relating to arms deliveries to Ukraine is a different beast and shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath.

This might indeed be a correct reading of how Berlin thinks, but unfortunately for Drummond it just underscores the rift between how the strategic picture looks in Warsaw and Berlin respectively. Because while Poles without doubt are nice people who help Ukraine out of their kind hearts, there is also a strong strain of strategic self-interests that goes into arms deliveries to Ukraine (as indeed is the case for a number of countries along NATO’s eastern front). Ukraine’s fight will in many ways determine the security environment Poland will live in for decades to come, and a big part of why Poland is shipping their tanks to Ukraine is because Ukrainians fights not just for their own survival, but for the safety of millions of Poles, Finns, Estonians, and a host of other NATO- and EU-citizens. Berlin’s inability to grasp the Polish sense of urgency and how important they see the deliveries to Ukraine means that the discussions about e.g. the delivery of just 44 used Leopards does raise questions about Germany. And these questions are not just about Berlin’s willingness to aid Ukraine, but as the transfer would bolster Polish security, the questions raised are tied directly to Germany’s willingness to stand by its allies – at least that is how the question is formulated in Warsaw (and in a number of other capitals). Not necessarily because Berlin would make a conscious decision to abandon their allies, but because the strategic picture in Berlin is so remarkably different from that seen further east. And seriously, if me noting this rift makes me a Putin apologist, then that’s a really curious definition of the term (with that said, there certainly are Putinists who try to increase the rift among Western countries by using these talking points for their own purposes. That, however, should not take away from valid criticism).

It also in many ways is a two-way street. The fact that South Korea is still in a state of war with the North and have uneasy feelings about China (and to some extent doesn’t trust Japan, although a direct ROK-Japanese conflict is extremely unlikely) does indeed raise questions about what happens with promised deliveries in case of a renewal of fighting along the 38th parallel? However, at the same time the unease about a massive nuclear-armed adversary on the other side of the border is something Poland and South Korea have in common – and apparently something Germany for all its talk is lacking – and this is were security of supply suddenly is turned on its head. When Warsaw call Seoul and tells them “We need this now, because we worry for our national security”, they speak a language Seoul understands. And while they most likely won’t risk their own national security to meet the Polish needs, short of that one can expect them to show a greater interest than Berlin would. Because Poland isn’t a user among 18, but the largest customer and the bridgehead on the European market. And because the Koreans know themselves what it means to feel like you are living under threat, and understand that sense of urgency and the can-do attitude needed to meet that threat.

Is the risk of a Korean War 2.0 in the next five to ten years or so (after which the local Polish production lines should be up and running) big enough that the whole deal deserve to be questioned? Personally I don’t think so. The challenges in this deal are found elsewhere, and we’ll get to those, but it is good to realise that it is not just about performance of the tanks, but about how the fleet will be kept supplied as well.

So yes, Poland won’t be able to share spares with their NATO-allies (to say they won’t have “interoperability”, as Drummond does, is a stretch), which is a minus. At the same time, as a Finn I certainly understand the feel that one wants to be able to handle production and management of spares in-country. These things are always balanced against each other, and which one will take precedent depends on national needs and industrial policy. Drummond also goes on about the possibility of Poland not being able to support its K2 fleet, and possibly also the K9, overlooking the fact that with Poland a total of five NATO countries will be operating the SPG – all of them in Europe (compared to seven for the PzH 2000).

Clip from the Norwegian tests, starting with the K2 Black Panther showing off the hydropneumatic suspension

From a wider European perspective, while the Leopard 2 is an excellent platform for years to come, and while MGCS looks promising, having another serious contender (or two, with the M1 Abrams finally finding a European customer) and a  new production line in Europe is certainly a net positive in my opinion – even for us Leopard 2-users. Competition will drive the prices down, will force the large European defence companies to stay innovative and efficient, and if the worst comes to play, you certainly can’t have too many tank factories on the continent. Already now Norway is benefitting from this effect, as the Norwegian decision later this year will certainly be made with a better offer from Germany than would have been the case if the K2 wasn’t on the table. If that means one Leopard-user less with whom to share the R&D and spare part costs, I believe we not only can live with that, but that we might even be better off at the end of the day.

With that said, the level of ambition shown by the Poles and the challenges therein should not be underestimated. Just getting license production rolling will pose a challenge, as starting up a production line can easily run into cultural issues with the developer, differences with the supply chains, and teething troubles, all of which tends to increase both delays and costs. That is not to mention bringing along the K2PL-upgrade which so far is only a paper-product (if even that). Once we start looking at the K3PL next-generation tank, we are slowly approaching territory which if not exactly fantasy-land then at least belongs to its neighbour, rather-unlikely-land. Let’s remember that even countries with decades of unbroken production and development of main battle tanks have faced issues once they have started looking at the next generation of things. The challenges inherent in the complete program should not be underestimated!

One of the things supporting a successful joint Polish-Korean endeavour is the history of ROK with the successful K1-project and the proven ability to both design, produce, and maintain the tanks in operational service. Here a K1 is undergoing maintenance at an Army depot. Source: ROK Army/Lt. Kim Bitchan

However, before we start mourning failures that haven’t happened, let’s remember a few details that increase the probability of success. One is the know-how of the Koreans, and this being their best shot at entering the extremely competitive and conservative European market, and at a time when it is bound to grow. Success with the K2PL – and potentially the K3PL – would offer a unique opportunity to court countries that are vary of overreliance on German (and to a lesser extent, French) arms suppliers, and as such might be open to buying from unconventional sources – especially if the product is good. This is a serious driver for the Koreans to go above and beyond when it comes to helping their partners – and crucially, customers – in this endeavour. Similarly, the Polish industry is staffed by people motivated by the national security crisis brought on by Russia, and eager to show the world what they can achieve. A will to perform won’t get you the whole way, but it is a crucial ingredient. In this case it is also backed up by a solid knowledge base acquired over the years through producing, maintaining, and modernising a number of different vehicles. The most notable projects are without doubt the Rosomak and the older PT-91, but also work on other military vehicles have taken place in Poland in recent years. The step-by-step approach with deliveries of ROK-standard vehicles, production of K2PL, and only then a new design, gives significantly more credibility than what would have been the case if Warsaw would just have tried to build a MGCS-competitor on their own.

Still, it is a long way that stretches ahead for the Polish-tank program(s), and caution is a good companion. But as Poland is increasingly becoming the most important European ground power in NATO – and as such a key ally for both Finland and the other allied states around the Baltic Sea – I sincerely hope for the best.

Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 2 – The Asian Jaguar

The Republic of Korea has obviously a long history of being on more or less permanent war-footing, but it was somewhat more recently that they really fired up their own arms industry. For the MBT-side of things, this kicked off with the K1, which entered service in the late-80’s. This was a tank related to the M1 Abrams, although sporting enough differences – most visibly the integration of a combined torsion bar/hydrodynamic suspension as well as a more traditional diesel engine, but also a somewhat different approach when it came to sensors and sights – to ensure it was a new tank a not just a local copy of the M1. The K1 has moved through a number of versions, including following the path of the Abrams of going from a 105 mm rifled main gun to a 120 mm smoothbore one, and by all accounts have provided good service to the ROK Army even if never quite grabbing the headlines. Interestingly, one of the few export attempts was to Malaysia, where it was beaten by the PT-91. It’s a small world…

But there was still room for more tanks to replace old M48 Pattons. One of the solutions was to accept a battalion of T-80U from Russia – apparently as payment for debts owed by the Soviet government. A large-scale order for Russian steel was not, however, in the cards. Instead, development of a new tank started.

A rather wet T-80U in Korean service. The tank has also appeared in a number of other western countries, so ROK isn’t unique in their knowledge of it. However, as opposed to the handful of tanks running around in UK and US (and earlier, Swedish) testing grounds, the Koreans are one of extremely few Western-aligned countries to have operational experience of its usage. Source: Wikimedia Commons/박종훈

There is obviously no proof that the ROK would have used that inside knowledge of what was then one of the most modern non-Western tanks of the battlefield when designing what would become the K2. But I guess it didn’t hurt. Neither probably did the fact that ROK also operate a limited number of (ex-IDF) T-62 and T-72M1 in the aggressor role.

If the K1 had borrowed from the Abrams, the K2 would borrow from the Leclerc. Exactly how much is somewhat open for discussion – one anecdote gives that the autoloader is copied based on ‘YouTube-videos‘, though it should be noted that development work of the K2 was quite far along by the time YouTube was launched, leaving open the option that the term should not be taken literally but rather in general for video-clips on the internet, that a video clip helped iron out the final design at a rather late stage, or that the whole anecdote is fake. In any case, like the Leclerc, the tank is relatively light and sport a three-man crew tanks to the autoloader removing the need for a dedicated loader.

The K2 Black Panther entered service in 2014 – two years after the Japanese Type 10 and as such laying claim to being the newest tank in operational service. This newness has to some extent been exaggerated, as while the tank might be decades newer than much of the competition, the continuous development of the current generation of western tanks means that the latest and greatest version of the Leopard 2 and Abrams are more or less sporting the same level of protection, firepower, and combat management systems as the K2 does. There is without doubt a benefit to being able to integrate 21st century systems from day one of the design instead of bolting them on afterwards, which is seen in e.g. the growth in weight and lower mobility of the latest versions of the Leopard and Abrams, but this is more along the lines of bonus points in the margin than evaluation winners. All in all, it is a good and very modern tank, but it is still a competitor to the current generation of M1A2 SEP-series and Leopard 2A7, rather than to the next generation such as MGCS.

The K2NO during winter tests in Norway. While decidedly the underdog, the fact that Norway already operate the K9 Thunder and the reportedly stellar performance of the vehicle during the winter tests does give the Korean tank some opportunity for an upset. Source: Torbjørn Kjosvold/Forsvaret

South Korea had faced issues with entering the European market for quite a while, the most successful defence export being the world’s greatest Les Misérables parody – Les Militaribles, set at the ROKAF’s 22nd Fighter Wing. However, in the last decade, sales of the K9 Thunder has picked up pace, as has interest in a number of other systems, such as the K21 IFV. The K2 has also showed up in Norway, where the tailored K2NO-variant is competing against the Leopard 2A7NO for the contract as Norway’s next MBT. While the Leopard arguably is the favourite, the K2 is reported to have outperformed the Leopard in recent winter testing, thanks to the advanced suspension and low weight allowing for good mobility (it should be remembered that the Korean peninsula is no stranger to snow).

It deserves to be emphasised that the market for a supplier of a modern tank is really limited, in particular if you aren’t interested in Russian (or rather, Soviet) or Chinese designs. The Leclerc scored a single export order to UAE, who eventually donated a number of tanks to Jordan. The Challenger 2 saw a small order from Oman, while the Ariete never left Italy. As such, all three are more or less out of the game at this stage. Just how dominant the Leopard 2 has been on the export markets is evident when one remember that the M1 Abrams has scored a whooping six export deals before the Polish one – all except Australia being to the Middle East or North Africa. So if you have burned your bridges over the Oder-Neisse line, have been politely declined to come aboard the MGCS in the earlier phases of the project, and still want to get your own tank production line with transfer of technology and the potential of a future tank design, where do you go? To Seoul.

The South Koreans were ready to supply not only tanks to Poland, but to participate in setting up a complete associated infrastructure including technology transfer, license production, development of an improved local version known as K2PL, local production of spare parts, and joint development of a future tank tentatively described as the K3PL. This all weighed heavily in the Polish decision, with some Polish analysts going as far as calling the K2 inferior to the M1A2 SEPv3, but the overall deal making a K2-buy interesting.

After years of rumoured interest, the outbreak of the war ensured that Polish authorities saw the K2 being the preferable way forward, and earlier this week signed a huge framework agreement covering buys and local production of not just the K2, but also K9 howitzers and FA-50 light fighters. In addition there are discussions regarding the IFV-side of things – in practice a further developed version of the K21-version known as AS21 Redback which is currently on offer to Australia –  as well as about the K239 Chunmoo multiple-rocket launch system to complement the HIMARS ordered by Poland.

The scope of the framework agreement is huge. For the K2, it starts with 180 tanks of the current K2-version delivered starting this year and stretching out to 2025. As said, these would cover three battalions of 60 tanks eachEdit: Seems a Polish battalion is 58 tanks to be exact, this changes a few numbers down the line, but nothing drastic. This batch would be followed by an additional 820 tanks built locally to an upgraded K2PL-standard, with deliveries starting in 2026. All in all, that makes it a nice even 1,000 K2 in Polish service, which would fill a total of 17 tank battalions. Looking back at the OOB, that would mean converting all three remaining divisions into more or less the same pattern as the 18th with its six tank battalions, leaving Poland with a full four divisions of around 360 tanks each (one of them being a battalion short).

Image

The cost of the tanks, according to the framework agreement, would come in at approximately 12.86 MEUR per vehicle, which is a lot but not overly expensive. In fact, it ties in rather nicely with the 11.2 MEUR per vehicle that Slovakia reportedly is paying for their CV90 IFVs, as well as with the reported 2009 unit cost of 8.5 MUSD for the Korean production run which inflation-adjusted to 2022 dollars (CPI. Yes, not ideal for military systems) and converted to Euros sits at 11.6 MEUR (and which at the time earned the K2 a Guinness World Record as “Most Expensive Tank”). Now, comparing vehicle costs are always complex and usually  sits somewhere between “As relevant as the price of fish in Goa” and “Moderately useful” on the scale of relevancy to the discussion, but it does not feel like the Poles are paying a lot considering the reported scope – if the 12.86 Bn EUR really cover the whole acquisition program.

Approximately here we ought to stop and acknowledge the fact that Polish defence procurement has a history of not being straightforward, and with the politicians and armed forces having a tendency of being better at presenting plans and concepts rather than actually seeing them through. A framework agreement, even if a signed document and certainly of value, is not and should not be confused with an acquisition contract proper. However, several of the programs now kicked off are not new, but rather ones that have been in the pipeline for years without anyone actually pulling the figurative trigger. The war next-door certainly has given them a renewed importance, and as such it certainly is possible that the framework agreement will lead to serious orders – and fast, if the scheduled first deliveries in 2022 are to be met.

Still, it is difficult to overstate how ambitious the current framework agreement is. One thing that almost certainly will suffer is the ambitious K2PL-variant proposed during the last few years, which would have been a radical redesign that also included a lengthened hull with an additional roadwheel. It does seem unlikely that the currently described K2PL which will be ready for local production in four years would feature all the envisioned improvements, and as such that particular concept is likely dead. More likely, the K2PL is an iterative design on the current chassis, as the variant is said to feature improvements to the armour and observation system, a new active soft-kill/hard-kill protection system (the Elbit ASOP/IFLD), as well as integration of new types of programmable ammunition and the locally built 12.7 mm WKM-B heavy machine gun as the secondary weapon of choice (this is a Polish NSV chambered in .50 BMG).

However, the really interesting side is the industrial aspect, and here we have a true ‘glass half full/empty’-situation.

Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 1 – Mr. Creighton’s Tank

Poland has been a regular feature on the blog, largely due to it being one of the few European and the sole western country bordering the Baltic Sea to actually count the strength of its ground forces in divisions and not brigades (or battalions…). Poland is also a country that has extremely bad memories of Russia during the last few centuries, and as such has taken a prominent role in the response to the war in Ukraine. Crucially, this include the transfer of quite a few tanks and self-propelled guns to Ukraine, leading to a renewed hurry to rearm the Polish Army with modern equipment.

A very busy-looking M1A2 System Enhancement Package (SEP) v2 Abrams exercises in Poland in 2016. The SEPv2 is a step below the v3 Poland is acquiring, but externally the vehicles are rather similarly looking, including the significant amount of turret-mounted stuff compared to the original clean M1 of the Cold War. Source: US Army photo by Sgt. Ashley Marble/Wikimedia Commons

A brief summary for those who don’t have keeping track of Polish tanks on the top of their to-do-list. The Polish Army sport four divisions, one of which is the 11th ‘Lubuska‘ Armoured Cavalry Division, with the other three being the three mechanized ones: the 18th  ‘Żelazna‘,  12th ‘Szczecińska‘, and 16th ‘Pomorska‘. There has been quite a bit of cut and paste and general moving around of units and equipment in recent years, so with the caveat that I certainly might have missed something, the 11th and 18th operate mixes of Leopard 2 and older tanks (T-72 for 11th, PT-91 for 18th), while the 16th uses a mix of T-72 and PT-91. Despite the name, the 12th is a motorised unit based around the Rosomak (local version of the Patria AMV) rather than a true mechanised division. The PT-91 is a locally upgraded T-72, while the ‘real’ T-72 that are in use are made up of a combination of T-72M1 and the lightly upgraded T-72M1R. For IFV, the BWP-1 (BMP-1) soldier on, while the Rosomak is in use alongside tracked vehicles in the 11th and as mentioned a key vehicle for the 12th. For artillery, the venerable 2S1 Gvozdika 122 mm SPG is slowly on the way out, while the Krab is on the way in. This is a unique Polish hybrid sporting the chassis of the South Korean K9 Thunder but with a British AS-90M Braveheart turret. The Braveheart traces its roots to a cancelled upgrade-program for the British standard AS-90 SPG, crucially fitted with a modern 52-calibre gun instead of the 39-calibre one used by the UK.

Edit: Turns out the 12th also is a mechanized division, and I was just fooled by their homepage which prefer to show off the modern wheeled brigade and not the old Soviet-designed iron. Funny that. Thanks to Piekarski for pointing that out!

Now, Poland and Germany has had a somewhat complicated relationship over the years (mild understatement), and the Polish Army and political leadership has not been happy with their recent dealings with the German defence industry (another mild understatement). This is to the extent that the planned Leopard 2PL upgrade program has been cancelled, and instead all Leopard 2A4 and 2A5 are to be withdrawn from service. Edit: I was under the impression that the severely delayed 2PL-program had been cancelled with the decision to withdraw the Leopards from service, but apparently it (at least) for now continues, with the goal of converting another 20+ tanks this year. Good catch by nonameplease!  At the same time, you do not need to be a genius to realise that the T-72M1 and PT-91 really ought to have preceded the Leopard 2 into the greener pastures beyond, meaning that the Polish Armed Forces are looking at replacing all tanks in the current inventory, an inventory which as mentioned is one of the largest in Europe.

The most positive thing that can be said about the T-72M1 on the modern battlefield is that it is no more outdated than many of the Russian tanks it could be expected to meet, and that having an old tank usually is better than not having any tank at all. Here a T-72M1 of the 18th division’s 19th brigade is basking in the Polish sun. Source: 19th brigade FB

What has made the situation even more urgent for both generations of tanks is the war in Ukraine, which for the Leopard 2 has seen the faith in Germany as an arms supplier take a serious hit, while for the T-72/PT-91 an undisclosed but significant number – it could eventually be possibly 240 T-72M1 and all 230 PT-91 – have suddenly found themselves on a train heading east. Add the 140+ Leopard 2A4 (perhaps two companies of which are converted to 2PL-standard) and 105 Leopard 2A5 which are all to head out, and Poland is looking at replacing something in the order of 700 tanks in total. One possibility has been to temporarily increase the number of Leopards in service, and Poland has been in discussion with Germany about getting another Leopard battalion (44 tanks), but German officials have stated there simply isn’t that amount of tanks available and has instead offered 20. The whole thing is something of a mess, and while it is unlikely that this is (just) about German reluctance to meaningfully help Ukraine in a serious – if indirect – way, it has certainly further widened the gap between Warsaw and Berlin (interlude: go read this excellent piece on the background to the German mindset. It doesn’t help Ukraine that we know why the system is broken, but it offers a refreshing take from the inside).

So the Polish Leopard is dead – as much from industrial issues and politics as from anything else. What to do instead?

Back in April Poland received approval for the purchase of up to 250 M1A2 SEPv3 tanks from US authorities. Not 700, but still a sizeable number. However, building 250 tanks will take time, and time is obviously something Warsaw feel they are a bit tight on at the moment. As such, this was followed up by the announcement that they will procure an additional 116 M1A1 SA tanks, which thanks to being used US tanks are available for if not immediate then at least rapid delivery. The M1A1 SA is an upgrade program from 2006, which saw older vehicles equipped with newer sensors, improvements to the engine and armour, as well as generally overhauling the old vehicles to give them longer life. It might not be the newest and greatest, but it is certainly a huge step above any of the Soviet designs rolling around. The M1A2 SEPv3 is on the other hand currently the latest and greatest of US tank designs, sporting things such as improved armour, the CROWS-LP remote-weapon station, and an under-armour auxiliary power unit which allows the vehicle to produce power without using the notoriously thirsty gas turbine. It has been stated that the M1A1 SA vehicles will also be upgraded to M1A2 SEPv3 standard once things are starting to fall into place.

The signing ceremony for the Polish M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams tanks took place at the base of the 18th divisions’s 1st armoured brigade outside of Warsaw, and sported a number of US tanks painted in Polish colours. Source: kpr. Wojciech Król/CO MON

An interesting detail is that Poland has indicated that all 366 Abrams tanks will go to the 18th, which alert readers will remember is a mechanised and not an armoured division (at least for the time being). However, the OOB is somewhat non-standard, with the single armoured brigade operating the Leopard 2A4/2A5, and with the 21st infantry brigade and the 19th mechanised brigade both operating a single battalion of ex-Soviet tanks – despite one supposedly being mountain infantry and the other a mechanised unit.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about this number – because 366 tanks deserve to be put into perspective.

A US Army armoured brigade combat team sports 87 M1A2 tanks, with three battalions of 29 tanks each (a total of six 14-tank companies and a single tank attached to each battalion headquarter company). This means that a traditional US armoured division with three armoured brigades would put a grand total of 261 tanks in the field. That’s just over 100 tanks less than the 18th division would field, but perhaps more striking is the fact that it’s significantly more than twice the 148 tanks the whole of the British Army will be able to muster. ‘Żelazna’ means ‘iron’, and the division will certainly field plenty of that. In essence the division will either sport three very heavy (122 tank) armoured brigades, which each have 40% more tanks than a US ABCT, or there will be four 90 tank brigades. The Poles have earlier experience of four-brigade divisions, as the 16th used to have control of the 1st armoured brigade before the 18th was stood up as a new division, so it is not impossible to imagine that being the plan. However, as we will get to eventually, there is also talk about 60-tank battalions in the Polish Army, which would mean that 366 tanks would give a nice even six battalions Edit: Seems a Polish battalion is 58 tanks to be exact, so that leaves about a dozen in reserve. In that case, the division would likely be built around three brigades with two armoured battalions each.

But that still leaves at least one armoured and one – or possibly two – mechanised divisions without replacement tanks for outgoing ones (even if it is a low-stakes bet that in the short-term the Leopards of the 18th will replace the T-72M1 of the 34rd brigade in the 11th division, bringing the unit back into an all-Leopard division until the withdrawal of the Leopard). The solution for this was found in a somewhat less likely direction.

Panthers and other Beasts

Eurosatory saw some interesting developments when it comes to western tank designs – a field which honestly hasn’t seen an overly impressive pace for the last few decades. Are we finally moving into a stage of more than incremental developments? Possibly, although I believe it is fair to say we are not there quite yet.

Following a period of the tank having been relatively hard to kill without the use of another tank, we are back in a place where tanks can be killed by a number of different systems. This is nothing particularly new, but throughout history we have seen the ebb and flow of the relative vulnerability of the tank on the battlefield. Still, nothing has quite been able to provide the mix of protection, mobility, and (direct) firepower, and this unique mix of capabilities is the key driver explaining why countries keep investing in the increasingly expensive and complex system that is the modern main battle tank. At the same time, most tanks in service today are based on late-Cold War designs, and already for a few years the question of what’s next has been on the mind of mechanised forces in the west.

The reworked EMBT technology demonstrator, showing the completely new(?) turret. Source: KNDS

The answer for Europe has so far been MGCS, a new joint Franco-German tank which will be designed and built by KNDS (the merged European land-defence giant consisting of Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Nexter Systems) and Rheinmetall. However, as usual there does seem to be questions regarding the workshare and the role of the different companies within the larger setting, and for the time being rather than a nice clean-sheet design the most tangible result has been the EMBT (Enhanced or European Main Battle Tank, depending on who you ask). This debuted on Eurosatory back in 2018, and back then was in essence a Leclerc-turret on a Leopard 2-chassis. What exactly made that tank better than just buying either of the original ones was a bit unclear, unless you absolutely positively must have a Leopard with an autoloading 120 mm gun, so it was largely seen as a case of just proving that the different branches of KNDS really could work together.

The EMBT made a renewed appearance at this year’s show, but it has been rather heavily reworked. It still sports the 120 mm autoloader with 22 rounds (capable of taking Nexter’s latest SHARD APFSDS-round), but the tank has gotten quite the update. This include a RWS clearly tailored to provide anti UAV-capability in the form of Nexter’s ARX 30 sporting the 30 mm 30M781 gun also found on the Eurocopter Tiger, which has air-burst capable rounds. UAV-intergration on the tank is also a big deal, and the whole concept is built around a four-crew setup, with gunner and commander in the turret, and a driver flanked by a systems operator handling the UAV/RWS/BMS-side of things. The new drive-by-wire and digitalisation of other systems are also made with an eye on future reduced crews or fully-unmanned operations. Notable is that it seems apparent that very few of the systems employed are new, but rather this is a technological low-risk approach that combine a number of existing technologies to provide something new and better. A detail that a Swedish tanker caught was that the turret is wider than the hull, which might not be what you want in a dense forest.

My understanding is that KNDS does not try and market the EMBT, but that this is a pure technology demonstrator to keep up the momentum of the MGCS at a time when it seems to be facing the frankly expected issues of joint-projects of this scale.

Rheinmetall is left out of the EMBT-fun, and the company is likely questioning whether there is meaningful room for two German companies in MGCS. At the same time, much of the extremely lucrative Leopard 2 upgrade work as well as current new-builds are heading to KMW, including the latest 2A7-based variants which have found a place both in Germany as well as for export customers such as Qatar and Hungary. However, Rheinmetall is far from ready to give up on the MBT-market just yet, and has launched a counter-attack in the form of the Panther KF51.

The Panther KF51 looks somewhat disproportionate with the turret being on the larger side to be able to house the 130 mm FGS. Source: Rheinmetall

The Panther is described as a new tank and not a Leopard-upgrade, although the situation might not be quite as straightforward as Rheinmetall’s marketing department would want us to believe. The turret is indeed new, however, the hull is a more open question. Rheinmetall states that it borrows the “mobility” part from the Leopard 2, which is confirmed to mean the whole tracks (suspension, tracks, rollers, …) as well as the powerpack. This is reported as consisting of an unspecified 1,100 kW engine – almost certainly the MTU MB 873 – and the HSWL-354 gearbox. Whether the hull itself is a Leopard 2 hull is more unclear. Early rumours were talking about a refurbished Leopard 2A4-hull, and from the outside there isn’t much in the way of differences that couldn’t be put down to a bit of laser-cut plates and a visit to the welding shop to ensure a more streamlined look with the new turret. The latest word seem to be that it is indeed a newbuilt hull, albeit one that borrows heavily from the Leopard. However, Rheinmetall also discuss it along the lines of the Panther being of interest to current Leopard 2 users as “this could mean that the existing chassis could continue being used, even if a change of calibre became necessary”.

The powerpack of the Leopard 2 and Panther KF51, with the MB8 73 engine and HSWL-354 transmission combined into one compact package. Source: Sonaz/Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly enough, despite being all-new-ish the Panther does in some ways feel like a more conservative approach to tank design compared to the EMBT. As an example, the tank does not come as standard with the fourth crew-member, but is designed to be able to facilitate one in case the user want a systems operator. The remote-weapon station is also a rather more bland affair, being a 7.62 mm Natter on the tank shown in Paris (although Rheinmetall is keen to point out they are flexible on this point). The Natter with the 7.62 mm is said to offer counter-drone capability, but to be honest while 7.62 mm is better than just keeping your head down and praying, it is so only by the tiniest of margins.

The most eye-catching specification is obviously the new 130 mm main gun, which really is a beast. It is an in-house product marketed as the Future Gun System, and has earlier been seen on a Challenger 2-testbed (the seemingly unlikely choice of platform was related to the UK modernisation program, which eventually opted for the 120 mm L55A1). It is described as sporting “a 50 per cent longer kill range” compared to an unspecified 120 mm gun, and doing so with “an unrivalled rate of fire due to the autoloader performance”. The second point certainly sounds like it deserves some caveats – although I haven’t seen any confirmed numbers for the rate of fire I would be surprised if the autoloader is able to match a trained loader on a Leopard 2 or Abrams. Still, even with those caveats, it does seem clear that the 130 mm offer significantly more energy in the anti-tank role, and allows for quite a bit more punch when packing explosives in HE-shells.

The obvious downside is that the rounds take up space. The tanks fit two 10-round magazines in the turret, and an additional 10 rounds in the hull for a total of 30 rounds maximum. While this is eight more than the EMBT, it is less than the roughly 40 which is the current standard for most western tanks. Everything is a compromise, and the question of how few is too few is obviously open for debate, but it needs to be remembered that if the tanks wants to use either of two of the main marketing points – the ability to have a four-round launcher for HERO 120 loitering munitions or the fourth crew member as a systems operator – these would replace one of the two magazines in the turret and the rounds stored in the hull respectively. In other words, the tank would be down to just ten rounds, at which point the tank would in effect be a heavily armed sensor/reconnaissance vehicle with a 130 mm self-defence weapon. Don’t get me wrong, there certainly might be a role for a small number of such vehicles in the mechanised units of the future, but you won’t do much traditional tanking with just ten rounds. One detail which is notable is that Rheinmetall has fitted a 12.7 mm heavy machine gun as the co-axial buddy of the main gun, meaning that for some lighter targets where a normal 120 mm/7.62 mm tank would spend a 120 mm round, heavy machine gun fire might do the job and allow the Panther to save a few of precious rounds. How big the target set is that is A) too hard for 7.62 mm, B) soft enough for 12.7 mm, and C) so soft that 120/130 mm is overkill, is up for anyone to ponder but that will certainly be part of the answer if you approach a Rheinmetall sales-representative and ask about the 30 round maximum capacity.

Of course, anything you can do with the 12.7 mm, you can most certainly do even better with the 30 mm of the EMBT, which is a calibre that really open up the possibility of engaging lightly protected vehicles and wreaking havoc in urban terrain without wasting main gun shells, so while the 12.7 mm is nice compared to current tanks, it isn’t really a selling point compared to the EMBT (unless the Panther is fitted with a 30 mm RWS as well).

The size-difference of APFSDS in 130 mm (left) and 120 mm (right). Source: Rheinmetall/Wikimedia Commons

While 120 mm is plenty enough today – especially in the most modern form with uprated maximum pressure and latest ammunition – on the horizon looms better protected vehicles such as the T-14 Armata. A key detail is that while it is entirely possible that 120 mm APFSDS can penetrate the Armata, going up in size to a 130 or 140 mm gun ensures more margins in circumstances where the 120 mm can struggle (such as hits in highly protected spots) and allow the same performance as the 120 mm at longer ranges (hence Rheinmetall’s statement that the 130 mm “enables a 50 per cent longer kill range”).

As a side-note, Israel – the country with the most experience of successful peer-level armoured combat after World War II – has consistently ensured that their Merkava-series of tanks have been among the western ones carrying most rounds. The Merkava-series overall has some interesting and rather specific design choices to match the unique Israeli requirements, and it is open for debate which lessons can be generalised, but this is something I fell is worth noting when discussing two tanks sporting 22 and 10-30 rounds respectively for their main guns.

However, what really caught my eye with the KF51 was not the weapons or seating arrangements, but the weight and mobility. The combat weight is stated to be below 59 (metric) ton, which is a lot, but significantly less than any modern competitor. The latest version of the M1 Abrams, the M1A2SEPV3, tips the scale at almost 67 ton (66.77 to be exact), while the similarly heavy 66.7 ton Leopard 2A7V has had to receive changes to its gearbox, lowering the top speed to 63 km/h, to ensure being able to accelerate as the does 2A4. The EMBT sits in the comfortable middle ground, at 61.5 ton. In short, with the Panther we have a vehicle sporting the engine, transmission, tracks, suspensions, and weight of a ‘legacy’ Leopard 2 (2A4 is 55.1 t, 2A6 is 59.9 t), and it is a quite safe bet that the mobility of the Panther KF51 is on par with those. Rheinmetall goes as far as calling it a medium tank, but outside of the marketing world this is still well and truly a main battle tank, even if it is on the lighter side in today’s world. This also grants it a 500+ km range (compared to 460 km for the EMBT), and in addition the dimensions are set to ensure “it also fits the tunnel profile AMovP-4L without preparation: a requirement that no current MBT upgrade fulfils” – a marketing line I have no idea about the significance of (tunnels are a curiosity in our very flat part of the world, so profile AMovP-4L does not tell me anything).

The question is obviously how this affect protection, as armour has a tendency to add weight. Rheinmetall describe the tank as sporting “a ground-breaking, fully  integrated, comprehensive, weight-optimised survivability concept”, a statement which include too many descriptive phrases to pass as good writing. However, they do open up on the details a bit more, stating that the tank is protected through a combination of active, reactive, and passive technologies, including a top-attack protection system, smoke launchers, pre-shot detection capability, and the holy grail of active protection systems: a large-calibre KE APS, which supposedly can disrupt incoming tank-calibre anti-tank rounds. If they have nailed the technology, that is really an outstanding feature. Designing the tank from the ground-up (more or less…) does indeed allow for more weight-efficient protection compared to just bolting on more modules as is done during upgrades of old designs, but it is notable that Rheinmetall does not make any claims on the passive armour being world-beating. It seems safe to assume it is good, but not outstanding.

Despite the size of the gun, the Panther turret allows for -9° – 20° elevation for it, same as the current Leopard 2, just a bit worse than the Abrams and a bit better than the Leclerc. The ability to lower the gun is a key capability when it comes to fighting from hull-down positions. Source: still from Rheinmetall video

Another key element of both the EMBT and the Panther KF51 is that they are built around fully digital systems, allowing for greater integration with new sensors, weaponised commander sights, and seriously improved ability to share information between both other tanks as well as other systems, such as offboard UAVs. An interesting step with the Panther is that the digitalisation allows for sensor and weapon control being passed between crew members, in theory letting any workstation take over any task or role. This is obviously also a major step in the direction of allowing for unmanned turrets or vehicles.

But is there a market for the Panther (besides the obvious “let’s battle-test it at Kursk”-joke)? At first look the answer might seem to be “No”. The Leopard 2 is still offering plenty of tank for the money on today’s battlefield in a tried and tested format, while if you want to buy into the next-gen hype there will almost certainly be something coming out of the MGCS/EMBT and the 140 mm ASCALON gun (offered as an option for the EMBT) even if I wouldn’t be surprised to see it go the way of the MBT-70/KPz 70 and split into two distinct national projects borrowing technology from the common predecessor. Why then would anyone want to buy a tank with a non-standard gun that might end up as just a niche calibre, and where several of the key components seem to be incremental upgrades rather than radically new? The Panther might trace its lineage to the older MBT Revolution concept – Rheinmetall’s earlier modular upgrade package – but in many ways the Panther is an evolution rather than a revolution, especially when put side-by-side with the EMBT (which as noted I fell is a bit more radical in its design choices and concepts of operation, even if it as well largely rests on proven sub-systems).

The 130 mm FGS of the Panther talking. Source: still from Rheinmetall video

But to be honest that is also the strength of Rheinmetall’s proposal. The Panther KF51 is still quite a bit from an operational vehicle, including questions being raised about seemingly mundane but operationally extremely important stuff such as storage lockers, but many of the more modest aspects of it might sit better with smaller and more risk-averse customers found along Europe’s more eastern countries, from Greece to central and Eastern Europe. Take for example the obvious difference with the gun. If the 120 mm is to be replaced as the main gun due to a need for better anti-armour performance, the 140 mm ASCALON obviously will deliver the biggest bang on the market. But it also will eat up the round count even further, which on the EMBT that already is constrained to 22 rounds in 120 mm almost certainly means a drops to sub-twenty rounds in 140 mm. On the other hand, if the 130 mm round is good enough, the Panther allow for a significantly heavier round than your everyday 120 mm while still keeping 30 rounds aboard the tank. So is the 130 mm FGS a half-measure that gets you an unwieldy non-standard round without being the best tank-killer in town, or a good compromise between effect and round count? The jury is still out.

The same principle goes for the fourth crewmember which comes as standard on the EMBT but optional on the Panther. Is it worth ten rounds, or do you take the loss in situational awareness for 50% more ammunition?

So where would we find the Panther? The obvious answer is countries who feel that they need more killing power, and who wants it now. This is a key selling point, as while KNDS seems to have their sights squarely set on the MGCS which is still well over a decade away – the current plan being that “the commissioning of the MGCS should take place between 2035 and 2040 if the Armée de Terre and the Bundeswehr agree on a common requirement and if industrial companies find a fair workshare” – Rheinmetall seems to be more focused on offering something here and now. To put it bluntly, if you want a new tank by 2030, you are not going to order the MGCS.

Another key detail is that as it seems one can indeed rework a Leopard 2 hull for most or all of the systems involved, this could offer a radical upgrade path for current users of older Leopard 2-variants. This is likely of particular interest to those sporting the shorter 120 mm Lh-120 L44 and thereby being unable to benefit from the latest advances when it comes to 120 mm ammunition. These include vehicles such as the 2A4 and 2A5 (including the Swedish Strv 122). An interesting detail in the case of Finland is also found in an interview with then-commander of the Finnish Army, Gen.Lt. Petri Hulkko back in 2021. In the article in Finnish paper Ilta-Sanomat, Hulkko briefly discusses the current and future state of the Leopard 2-family, and states in no uncertain terms that the 2A7V is not an interesting option, because of the weight leading to lowered mobility and as Finland is not particularly interested in an APS-system capable of defeating incoming anti-tank missiles. “Our protection isn’t based on armour alone, but also mobility,” the general stated. Finland is, however, following the development of the Leopard-family to see if it will bring something interesting in the future.

Say for example a tank that is lighter than the current 2A6 while sporting heavier weaponry. Or a fully digital 2A4.

Finland managed to get the ex-Dutch 2A6s approximately ten years ago for roughly the same cost as the planned 2A4 MLU, raising the number of Finnish main battle tanks back closer to 200. The current line is that the Leo 2A4 stays in Finnish service until their usage becomes prohibitively expensive, although they have indeed undergone some upgrades recently. Considering the current situation, as well as the fact that the 2A6 in Finnish service will soldier on for at least twenty years more into the 2040s, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to expect the discussion about a possible MLU-program for the 2A4s to pop up again. A Panther-based solution could certainly then be in the cards as a way of getting a serious boost in combat capability without trading mobility if there is seen to be a need for a tank with a larger gun than the 2A6.

A middle of the ground but still significant upgrade could see a mixed fleet with the majority of modernised Leopard 2A4s retaining their 120 mm guns but including other improvements – such as the digitalised systems and crew stations – and a smaller number also switching to the larger calibre. While mixed tank units have become a rarity following the development of the main battle tank, back in WWII and during the immediate post-war era sporting a smaller number of tanks with better firepower was not an uncommon feature of armoured units – such as the 17 pdr-armed A30 Challenger and Sherman Firefly of the UK forces in WWII, or the heavy M103 that accompanied US M48 Pattons in the 60’s and early 70’s. For that to be a feasible option, a few things need to align, the most important of which is the presence on the battlefield of an enemy vehicle that is heavily armoured enough  that it is not reasonable to equip most tanks with a weapon that can defeat it – either due to cost, weight, or poor performance in other aspects (such as overly large rounds or poor performance against other targets).

A Sherman Firefly of the Irish Guards together with a few standard Shermans sporting the shorter 75 mm gun during the early stages of Operation Market-Garden. Source: Carpenter (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit/IWM Collections/Wikimedia Commons

Are we heading into that perfect storm again after over half a century of the main battle tank reigning supreme? I wouldn’t say it’s a likely scenario, but it isn’t impossible either. In general the modularity of platforms such as EMBT and Panther might open up for greater diversity among the tanks, as weight and space restrictions in all likelihood will ensure that no single tank will be fitted with all the optional extras. This could see e.g. the aforementioned recce tank with unmanned systems/loitering munitions and a dedicated systems operator operating alongside more traditional MBTs, or say one tank in each platoon having enhanced anti-UAV/loitering munitions capability in the form of heavier RWS.

Regardless of the outcome, both the EMBT and the Panther shows that there is still surprisingly much life in the old Leopard 2 chassis, and while the Panther KF51 might struggle to find buyers in the current form, I would not be surprised to find some of the technology demonstrated in the two tanks to eventually end up in either a Swedish Strv 122 MLU or a restarted Finnish Leopard 2A4 MLU.

6. Division to the defence of the common North

I recently wrote an article over at Swedish defence website “Militär Debatt” discussing which Swedish capabilities would be of greatest interest to Finland. To the surprise of some, instead of fancy systems such as submarines and AEW&C aircraft, the capability I picked above the rest was the possibility of getting the Swedish mechanized brigade built around the units trained by the peacetime I 19 Norrbottens regemente (the Norrbotten regiment) in Boden, which would be a significant addition to the defence of the vast and sparsely populated northern Finland. While how many Finnish units would mobilised in the region during wartime as well as how many units would be deployed there during different scenarios is obviously a secret, it is safe to assume that in most cases the number of units would be rather limited as the larger part of the Finnish Army would be used to defend the Finnish population and industrial centras in the south and central parts of the country.

In the Finnish north there are two army units spread over three garrisons: Kainuun prikaati (KAIPR, the Kajani brigade) in Kajani, and Jääkäriprikaati (JPR, the Jaeger brigade) in Sodankylä and Rovaniemi. Of these, KAIPR sits just south of the classic Raate – Suomussalmi – Oulu line of advance, while JPR is further north. As geography changes slowly, the strategic value of the east-west axis of advance aimed at Oulu and cutting through Finland at its narrowest point remains, meaning that a significant proportion of the Finnish forces trained in the subarctic wilderness likely will be concentrated on the Kuusamo-Suomussalmi-Kuhmo line, leaving fewer troops to cover the roughly 250 km from Salla to Vätsäri. As such, it is easy to imagine that a Swedish mechanised brigade would at least double the amount of troops capable of conducting high-end offensive operations in the area north of Kuusamo.

Finnish Leopard 2A4 from the tank company attached to Jääkäriprikaati taking part in exercise Cold Response 22 in Norway earlier this year. Norway is also using the 2A4, though they are in the process of picking a replacement, while the Swedes are employing a localised version of the somewhat newer 2A5. Source: Jääkäriprikaati Twitter

However, as we all know, Finland and Sweden won’t be the only countries in Sápmi that are NATO-members (as soon as the Turkey-situation is dealt with), and any defence planning will be conducted jointly with Norway. Any defence planning will also be conducted within the broader scope of NATO, and as is well-known while NATO obviously doesn’t dictate how the individual countries handle their defence, the alliance isn’t shy of asking and in general has stated that it “needs, now more than ever, modern, robust, and capable forces at high readiness […] in order to meet current and future challenges”, as the 64. paragraph of the Wales Summit Declaration expressed it. That doesn’t mean that all forces need to be fully mobilised here and now, but it will provide some food for thought for the Finnish strategic culture.

…which leads us to an interesting idea: what NATO really needs is a tri-national standing division in the high north.

I will admit that whenever I see the words ‘standing unit’ and ‘Finnish Army’ in the same sentence, the first reaction is to try and explain how the Finnish conscript-reservist system works. However, new times calls for new measures, and as we will have units from three nations fighting side-by-side in the area – which is a single geographical theatre of operations as I have earlier noted – this calls for close cooperation and joint training already in peacetime. Few things would raise the combat capability as much as having at least a number of the units in place already during peacetime. As such, I present to you my very rough concept for the 6. Division, a tri-national mechanised unit for the defence of the high North.

I picked the name 6. Division, as it has a historical connection to some of the region’s most notable military formations in the case of all three armies.

While the German attack on Norway in 1940 for the most part was a huge success for the attackers, the one major allied victory was the liberation of Narvik. The city had been captured in the initial assault, but was retaken by a joint French – UK – Norwegian – Polish attack in May. The key Norwegian unit of the battle was the 6. divisjon. The unit was disbanded following the Allied retreat, but was reformed post-war and stationed in northern Norway from 1954 until it was disbanded again this side of the millenium.

The Swedish VI. armé-fördelningen was first created in Östersund in 1893, were it spent the next 34 years until the northern Swedish division was renamed as the Norra arméfördelningen, only to change to II. armé-fördelningen in 1937. At the same time, the Boden garrison had set up their own division as XV. arméfördelningen, which remained as such until the two units where merged in 1994 with Boden taking lead and renumbering as the 6. armé-fördelning, keeping this until disbandment in 2000.

The Finnish 6. divisioona was set up in 1941 with soldiers from the northern districts. The unit enjoyed a somewhat spotty history, including taking part in the failed Unternehmen Polarfuchs with the Nazi-German forces and having soldiers robbing the Kajaani liqueur store under riot-like forms in 1942, until it turned up at Ihantala in 1944 and formed a key part in what was one of the crucial battles of the summer of 1944. After this, the unit went north to fight their former German allies, a campaign which saw them liberate Rovaniemi.

The key Norwegian unit is the Brigade Nord (Brigade North), which is a fully mechanised unit made up of three mechanised battalions, the Telemark Bataljon, the 2. Bataljon, and the Panserbataljon, as well as supporting units. Of these, the Telemark battalion is stationed further south as the name implies, and is the only fully contracted battalion, the rest including conscripts in their manning. The Telemark and Panser (armoured) battalion include both tanks and CV 9030 infantry fighting vehicles among their numbers, while the 2. battalion lack tanks and only has CV 9030-vehicles (and in fact is only now undergoing transition from light infantry to mechanised, a process which will be ready by 2023). Among the supporting units there are e.g. artillery (K9 Thunder) and engineering battalions, meaning that the brigade has all the organic capabilities needed.

I 19 in Sweden has up until now been responsible for the creation of a number of units which can be pieced together according to need under the command of the Tredje brigadstaben, an independent brigade HQ set up by the regiment. However, the wartime forces set up by the unit is now undergoing transformation into a fixed brigade structure, under which the 19. Mekaniserade norrlandsbrigaden (NMekB 19, also known as Norrbottensbrigaden) will see some important changes. This new wartime unit will reach full operational capability in 2026. Like their Norwegian brethren, the two main combat systems are the Leopard 2 and the CV 90 – though Sweden has a newer Leopard (Strv 122/Leo 2A5 compared to Leo 2A4) and an older CV 90 (Strf 9040 compared to CV 9030 Mk I and III). The current two wartime combat battlions are the 191:a and 192:a mekaniserade bataljonen, och which the former sport both full-time and part-time serving soldiers while the latter is made up of soldiers serving part-time. Note that the Swedish mechanised battalions are tank heavy, sporting two tank and two mechanised companies each, actually making them armoured rather than mechanised battalions, something which also is evident in at least one of the plans on the table which would see a wartime NMekB 19 made up of 191. pansarbataljonen as a standing unit and 192. pansarbataljonen and 193. mekaniserade bataljonen as part-time units (also note the inability of the Swedish Armed Forces to decide upon a single way of writing numbers before units, causing headaches to innocent bloggers).

The key Finnish unit as mentioned is the Jääkäriprikaati which is specialised in (sub)arctic conditions and air defence. While air defence units are nice, the interesting part here is the Sodankylä garrison and the Lapin jääkäripataljoona which with a focus on light infantry is responsible for an unknown number of units to be mobilised in wartime. However, for our standing 6. division there is the post-Crimean detail of the Finnish Army’s new standing units created under the designation Valmiusyksikkö or readiness unit – manned by a combination of longer-serving conscripts and contracted soldiers, NCOs, and officers. The readiness battalion of JPR is most likely currently not ideal for high-intensity warfare, but it certainly provide a baseline for how a Finnish standing unit could be created without breaking the bank.

Note here that I am not arguing for trashing the conscript system or other similar complete overhauls. It is notable that of the Norwegian battalions two out of three are manned by conscripts, while two out of three Swedish battalions would also need mobilisation from part-time soldiers. Finland could well offer a brigade with a single standing battalion and two reserve ones, where in line with the current structure the standing battalion would be made up of conscripts volunteering for an additional six months of service, after which the unit rotate into reserve and takes up the place of one of the two reserve battalions. It is however clear that if the standing battalion is supposed to be able to conduct joint operations within the scope of a multinational brigade, the training for the first six months will have to include high-end international training within that frame of reference.

So that is the current situation, how could this patchwork of units and capabilities, almost all of which are currently in the process of being reformed, be brought together for a functioning division?

To begin with a common divisional HQ is created, which is staffed and up and running already in peacetime, is obviously needed. Exactly where it is located is an open question, though I’d imagine for example either Boden or Rovaniemi could be suitable locations, depending on where there are suitable office spaces without windows. With regards to the three brigades, Brigade Nord will likely fit in more or less as is, especially once the current reforms are finished. While it is unfortunate that the Telemark battalion is deployed so far south, it is also part of the Norwegian Army’s rapid reaction forces (HRS), and as such it should be able to deploy quickly if need be. Neither Sweden nor Finland likely have the budget to keep their whole brigades standing – as unlike Norway their armed forces include several wartime brigades – so the solution is to have at least some units immediately ready. This would include the brigade headquarters and the 191. armoured for NMekB 19 as well as an arctic infantry battalion built around the current JPR readiness unit, with 192. armoured and two Finnish infantry battalions being manned by part-timers/reservists and mobilised if and when need be. While the infantry battalions obviously lack the offensive firepower of their mechanised brethren, infantry certainly has a role to play in the wilderness of the region. However, it needs to be emphasised that even if the infantry units are trained to fight dismounted they will need the mobility (and protection during transports) to be able to keep up with the other brigades. Winter war-nostalgia will only take you as far during modern combat.

To compensate for setting up a lighter (and cheaper) brigade, Finland which is known to sport an impressive number of artillery pieces and whose territory include the largest part of the immediate operating area of the division could be expected to provide a disproportionate number of division level-assets. This includes indirect fires, air defences, engineering, and logistics resources. This obviously would put pressure on the current Finnish force structure, as in essence there would need to be supporting arms for two more brigades than is currently found in the Finnish force structure (which, again, is secret, but it does seem a safe guess that there isn’t surplus artillery and bridging vehicles gathering dust in some warehouse). More K9 Thunder as well as potentially a modern rocket artillery unit would certainly do wonders to aid the artillery situation, and while the wartime needs of the other supporting units is more open, more engineering vehicles (including bridges, it’s a wet region) and air defences are a safe bet. A potential order of battle could in other words look like this.

The main combat units of a hypotethical 6. division. Note that as the Finnish wartime OOB is secret, any unit designations are in place more to give an idea about what the unit might be all about than any real name. Note that there currently is no wheeled heavy rocket launcher in Finnish service, but that hypotethical battery certainly would be a valuable capability (though the other possibility is that the long-range fires will be handled at a higher level). A good argument can be made that it is the Swedes who will bring that with their newfound interest for rockets, but as I noted they already bring bring three heavy battalions so it might be more appropriate that Finland brings the divisional artillery, and it certainly could be that it already is found in the Finnish long-term plan. The Swedes are kind enough to write out the air defence company in their open-source brigade structure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if organic air defence fires show up in other units in the diagram above as well. I also stuck to the mechanised symbol for NMekB 19, despite there being a good case for it in fact being an armoured brigade. The equipment of 193. is unclear, but might be only CV 90 as illustrated here. Note that engineering, recce, and logistics units are not visible in the picture.
A Swedish CV 9040 and a Finnish Leopard 2A4 from a temporary mixed unit during Cold Response 22. A sign of things to come? Source: David Carr/Försvarsmakten

While this is all largely a thought experiment spun from an interesting Twitter-discussion, I do feel it is a valuable and (very hands-on) example of what it actually means that our defence planning will no longer be just about ourselves. It also highlights the fact that while the current general ways of operating are expected to remain in place, even the “small” adjustments needed will cost money or alternatively pull units and capabilities from other places in the wartime force structure, in both cases leading to tough choices. If the upcoming changes for the FDF in the North takes the form of 6. division or something else is another question, but don’t be surprised if the NATO structure plans suddenly start calling for a more fixed structure when it comes to how the northern flank is supposed to be defended.

The non-military issue of Åland

The demilitarisation of the Åland Islands is (again) a hot topic. There are a number of misconceptions regarding the demilitarisation itself and the potential military threat. Let me therefore be very clear: yes, there is some geostrategic value to the islands, but despite this, the question of how to defend the demilitarised islands is first and foremost one of ethics, moral duty, and politics. From a (purely) military point of view, the issue is in fact rather manageable for the time being.

Acknowledging that this runs counter to much of the discussion so far, it need to be stated that several of the individual parts in the traditional picture painted are indeed correct – included the fact that whoever controls the islands controls much of the northern Baltic Sea and can isolate Finland, that a surprise operation through an air transport or two loaded with paratroopers suddenly veering away from the St Petersburg – Kaliningrad run is difficult to stop, as well as the fact that retaking an archipelago is generally much harder than defending it. However, that overlook the basic issue that the three factors above does not combine as the world looks today or for the foreseeable future.

There is exactly two countries able to do prolonged military fighting in the archipelago of Åland without running into a logistical nightmare. Of these, one of them is Sweden, and I trust they won’t do anything stupid. Here the Finnish-speaking Coastal Brigade advances during an exercise, a unit that certainly would be able to provide interesting capabilities to any fight over the islands. Source: Merivoimat FB

Åland is made up by 6,700 named (and a further 13,000 unnamed) islands. You obviously would not need to put people on all of them to control the whole archipelago, but there is a significant number of locations you will need to physically man to actually secure the Åland Islands in the way needed to exert sea control (or just create a level of sea denial) over the norther Baltic Sea and the sea lanes into Finnish ports or Stockholm. To properly defend an archipelago, it is also key to be able to quickly shift defenders from one location to another to meet enemy offensives, meaning an invader on Åland would need to bring either helicopters or small fast craft – preferably both. A good example is the Finnish experience in the face of Soviet raids and tactical offensives coming out of the strategically defensive Hanko (Gangut) naval base in the summer of 1941, where the attacker choosing the field of battle – which being an island was geographically limited – meant that the attacker could more or less always rely on numerical superiority and a successful defence usually rested on the ability to quickly reinforce the battlefield under fire.

So what would happen if a Russian force suddenly decided to steer away from what looked like an ordinary supply run and enter Finnish airspace or territorial waters? There is indeed a chance that they would be able to reach Mariehamn before the FDF has opened fire, in particular in the case of a scenario like a civilian airliner suddenly squawking an emergency and altering course. However, even here the thinking flourishing on social media and in newspapers is somewhat misguided as it usually overlooks the role of both intelligence and QRA/readiness-work. Would an invasion come as a complete surprise? Possibly, but we also know that the FDF is continually adjusting readiness levels in response to Russian movements. If a large Russian convoy was sailing in the Baltic Sea there would be a measured response in Finnish naval readiness, likely including vessels with anti-ship missiles lurking the shadows of the southwestern archipelago.

And here’s the catch which often get overlooked: the larger the first wave the less likely a strategic surprise is. Sure, history has seen some spectacular failures of readiness and as Ukraine has demonstrated knowing when to mobilise reserves is a surprisingly difficult decision, but let’s go back to the point made above.

Actually occupying Åland in a meaningful way in which you are able to do something militarily useful with it will require a significant amount of forces, far more than any emergency-squawking airliner will bring in. And in a difficult balancing act as soon as you start loading your air transports or landing craft with the fast craft needed to be able to shift around reinforcements, the long-range weapon systems to provide air defences and anti-shipping capabilities, and the logistics train to ensure that the troops and systems are able to function you are also looking at a serious decline in the number of troops even a Russian all-out amphibious or airlift effort could bring in.

An S-300 TEL with four missiles going to Syria back in 2015. If you plan on using these to defend your invasion of Åland, I hope you choose when to fire them carefully, because four shots won’t last long and those already meant you sacrificed quite a few potential soldiers that otherwise could have fit inside that transport. Source: Russian MoD via Wikimedia Commons

And then we are looking at what would happen after the invasion. Finland could quickly start to make life rather miserable for the occupiers by cutting of their lines of supply and striking locations that aren’t properly defended in an island-hopping campaign inching ever closer to the main islands while all the time forcing Russia to spend ammunition and resources they can’t replace. With Sweden in NATO securing the west and southwestern approaches the Russian situation would look even grimmer, and the Russians trying to bring in enough heavy firepower to keep the Finnish (and Swedish) navies and air forces at bay would mean even fewer forces to reinforce the outer islands being targeted by the Finnish (and Swedish) marines.

In short, a Russian invasion of Åland would quickly turn into a wetter and colder version of Điện Biên Phủ

That is from a purely military point of view. A Russian invasion of Åland within the next decade or so would almost certainly be little more than a nuisance that would be over within a month or two. Compared to several other possible scenarios, Åland is not among the most serious ones.

However, going for the purely military scenario might not be politically or ethically doable. There is a sizeable number of people living in Åland. These are Finnish citizens, peacefully going about with their lives. To leave them under Russian occupation even for a limited time is a difficult moral choice, as that would mean leaving them to suffer through the scenes witnessed throughout Central and Eastern Europe in the late 40’s and Ukraine during the ongoing war. Besides the looting, raping, and killings, it’s evident that once supplies would start running low the last meal and drops of fuel on the island would not go to the civilian population but rather to the invaders.

As such, while not necessarily called for from a strictly military point of view, from a humanitarian point of view ensuring that own forces deny the enemy an easy entry certainly can be seen as the proper course of action. Here we run into the question of demilitarisation, but it also needs to be acknowledged that the legal situation is far more complex than often claimed, with the different treaties (1856, 1921, 1940, 1947, 1991) containing different wordings and restrictions, which might or might not be relevant today depending on who you ask. Crucial is that Finland is responsible for the defence, and under that Finland is able to take a number of steps to ensure the mission can be performed. So far Finland has decided not to e.g. declare that an enhanced forward presence on the islands are warranted. Would Finland legally be able to do so? The harsh answer is that it really doesn’t matter. If a sovereign country opts to state that something is their interpretation of the legal documents they’ve signed it is really difficult for any country thinking otherwise to do anything about it, especially if that country happens to be an international pariah involved in a war of aggression, and something along the lines of temporary rotations of a readiness unit into the island is close enough to the literal wording of the treaties that Finland could get away with it (especially considering that the parties involved in addition to Russia largely consist of our closest partners).

If called upon, I have little doubt that the Finnish reservists would fight to liberate Åland the same as they would any other region. But the fact remain that the current media discussion is painting a picture of Åland standing out as the only region whose inhabitants are ungrateful for the FDF wanting to be able to do so with as few losses as possible, and that is in addition to the islanders already being the only ones not directly taking part in the military defence of the country. Source: Merivoimat FB

The big issue here is the islanders themselves. I will hazard a guess that I am among the majority of Finns in that while the handful of islanders I’ve met have seen like decent enough people, the current behaviour of their political leadership and certain other highly vocal persons are making it look like the islands are inhabited by a bunch of spoiled brats who demand that the mainlanders will come and save them in case of war, but won’t take any part in aiding in that operation or even allowing the FDF to make any preparations to be able to do so. While I and countless of others are prepared to pull on the uniform and risk our lives to defend the homes of our families and those of our fellow citizens, it certainly feels nicer to do so when there is an understanding that these fellow citizens aren’t actively working against us being able to do so as safely and efficiently as possible – my personal goal is after all to be able to return home unhurt to my family after the war. If some ungrateful fellow isn’t going to take part in the defence, I can live with that – there is a bunch of non-military tasks needed to keep society running after all. But if that ungrateful fellow says I can’t prepare properly, leaving me with less of a chance to successfully get home safe and sound, I will admit that my interest in risking life and limb is somewhat diminished. This strange situation where the political leadership of Åland really should be the ones begging FDF to maintain a presence there to avoid unnecessary suffering among their fellow islanders and instead they make themselves look like naive jerks is in honesty somewhat confusing.

Finland could do more

With the war in Ukraine looking nowhere near resolved and both sides apparently gearing up for the next round of fighting, one thing is clear.

Finland could do more.

This is true for a number of cases, including sanctions on people, goods, and companies, as well as for medical aid through both transporting Ukrainians here for healthcare and supplying equipment to Ukraine, but this blog being this blog, let’s focus on heavy weapons.

There’s a list of caveats long as seven years of famine since much of the details rest on classified information which I don’t have access to – a fact which incidentally is a reason why I am able to write this text – but the idea that Finland can’t supply more equipment is false.

It should be noted that any armed force could always do with more equipment and troops, and it is an almost universal truth that all forces faced with a serious war have experienced shortages in weapons and ammunition – in particular items seeing heavy use such as artillery rounds and expensive items such as guided munitions and advanced systems. Any defence force budget and stocks of equipment and ammunition are the outcome of an analysis leading to what is felt to be an acceptable risk, i.e. at what stage is deterrence and combat capability credible without the defence budget putting undue pressure on the national budget.

This equation is never straightforward, and constantly changes. At the same time, the changes might come faster than it is possible to course correct (i.e. things get worse quicker than industry can supply more stuff or more troops can be trained), meaning that it will require foresight and careful balancing. However, at times it will also require risk-taking, as is evident by the Swedish support to Finland during the Winter War which saw Sweden send significant amounts of their then rather small (and often aged) pool of equipment as well as volunteers, and a large part of their air force to Finland. This was done not because they wouldn’t have been needed at home, but because the risk calculation favoured it:

A Soviet victory would seriously have worsened Sweden’s geopolitical situation.

There probably was at least a small window of time before any of the major powers would attack Sweden.

There were more equipment on order that hopefully would be delivered and pressed into service during that window of time.

…and while international relations realists won’t like this, supporting the democracy against the dictatorship is the morally right thing to do.

While the Winter War-analogies are getting tiring already, I will argue Finland is seeing a very similar situation as Sweden saw then. With one crucial exception, our ground force are in the best shape they’ve been in during peacetime (Lt.Gen. Hulkko said since the end of WWII, but I’d argue that they weren’t better in the 1918 to 1939-period either). That we at this stage wouldn’t be able to spare more than 2,500 old AKM-clones, 60 rounds to each of these, and 1,500 M72A5 LAWs does sound empty and counterproductive from a grand strategy point of view.

Granted, I fully understand that if we ask people within the defence forces they might very well argue that if we aren’t to diminish the combat capability of the FDF there isn’t much to spare, and the argument that countries that doesn’t share a long land border with Russia are better positioned to take those kinds of risks at this stage does hold true. The officers, NCOs, and civilians of the Finnish Defence Forces can be expected to answer honestly when asked regarding what is best for Finland’s military defence, and as the current crisis shows many of the choices made in this regards over the years have been correct.

However, that is not the question in this case.

Rather it is what would be the most beneficial outcome for Finnish national security as a whole, understanding both the added risks involved as well as the importance of Ukrainian successes for Finland as a nation. As such while the question will eventually land on the table of the MoD and the defence forces, the question of whether we can afford to send more aid is first and foremost one for the prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry.

So what are the areas where we could take calculated risks to provide more aid to the Ukrainians?

152 mm 2A36 Giatsint-B (152K89)

Finland has made away with almost all Soviet-calibre systems from the artillery (we will get around to the other exceptions shortly), but one system stands out: the sole heavy guns in the Finnish arsenal that aren’t 155 mm ones, namely the 152 mm 2A36 Giatsint-B. A single battalion of 24 guns is found on strength under the local designation 152K89.

A 152K89 of Kainuu Artillery Regiment during a live-fire exercise late 2019. When firing with a full charge such as here, the gun is capable of flinging out the standard OF-29 HE-FRAG round to over 27 km. Picture courtesy of Marko Leppänen

Finland has been retiring a number of heavy batteries in recent times, mainly older converted 152 mm ones and all 130 mm M-46 (130 K 54), but the Finnish artillery is still very strong by European standards, and having a single battalion operate a unique calibre is an “interesting” choice from a wartime point of view. The guns are most probably excellent for training purposes, but it is still hard to not see them as having a limited value in wartime. In addition, heavy guns is one of the places where Finland has the opportunity to cover any transfers relatively quickly, with there being open options to acquire 38 additional K9 Moukari self-propelled 155 mm guns (options for 10 of the original 48 having already been exercised).

With the 2A36 already being in widespread Ukrainian service, Janes listing 287 in service in 2019-2020 (at least nine having been lost in the war), these could be put into Ukrainian service immediately without additional training required. It also seems possible that the system is in fact a key capability for Ukraine in that it can be used to fire laser-guided shells, and the locally developed Kvitnyk (often transcribed Kvitnik, but Ukroboronprom uses the ‘y’ in their marketing) being a prime suspect behind videos in which Ukrainians reportedly fire artillery that hit single vehicles with high accuracy.

All in all, shipping the last 152 mm guns to Ukraine together with whatever stocks of heavy Soviet-calibre rounds we have left should be a no-brainer. I also believe – though I am not 100% certain – that these are bought directly from the Soviet stocks and are not ex-DDR guns, and as such the export should be politically straightforward (in case anyone is unclear, we do not ask permission from Moscow to send these to Ukraine, in case they want to make a mess, we point to the fact that the war itself is illegal and we have a responsibility to support the defender).

122 mm D-30 (122H63)

The other Soviet-calibre gun in Finnish service is the 122 mm light howitzer which is found both in the shape of both the self-propelled 2S1 Gvozdika as well as the towed D-30. The 2S1 is recently modified to the 112PSH74M-standard and found in somewhat limited numbers, with four battalions – 74 guns in total – being available to provide indirect fire to mobile units. Shipping away any one of these would likely leave some of the key wartime units without organic fire support that is able to keep up with the unit they are supporting, leaving us in a bad spot (note that more or less all of this is speculation, as the wartime OOB and TOE are all classified). However, the towed D-30 is available in significant numbers and generally assumed to be assigned to less-important units. With the risk of getting a lot of angry fan mail from people who will explain that a 122 mm howitzer is not the same as a mortar, some of these are likely local units where indirect fire isn’t a key requirement (instead focus being on rear-guard duties and anti-SOF missions) and you could trade away some weapons for 120 mm or even 81 mm mortars. It obviously will mean a less capable unit, but as discussed above, the geostrategic considerations aren’t guided solely by what makes the FDF as capable as possible.

122PSH74M firing during exercise Pohjoinen 18. Source: Maavoimat FB

How many D-30s and how many rounds for these could be spared is an open question, but as the system is already in Ukrainian use even small batches are useful additions. A number of the guns in service are ex-DDR ones, and as such will need German approval, something which the Estonians already have ensured there is a precedent for.

122 mm RM-70/85 (122RAKH89)

The 122 mm light multiple rocket launch system RM-70/85 is the Finnish light rocket system of choice. The system is easily mistaken for the Soviet Grad-system, and uses the same rockets, but it is in fact of Czechoslovak origin. The Czech republic is reported to already have shipped at least 20 launchers, and with ability to share munitions with the BM-21 Grad these are relatively easy to integrate even if the exact versions differ somewhat. Does Finland have any to spare? These are certainly more difficult to replace than the Giatsint and aren’t available in the numbers of the D-30, but it should be noted that Finland apparently recently has been looking at a possible replacement system.

The delivery time for new launchers is anyone’s guess, but if a swift deal can be made with the Israelis this might be the time to get rid off at least some RM-70s, or if that is deemed impossible then at least ship some rockets – a six-vehicle battery will do away with 240 rockets in a single salvo, so it does seem like a safe bet that Ukraine is interested in getting any 122 mm rockets they can find for their current launchers.

RBS 15SF-III (MTO 85M)

Speaking of quick deals with the Israelis, the current heavy anti-ship missile of the Finnish Navy is the Saab RBS 15 in the somewhat unique Finnish SF-III version (most likely this is a somewhat hotter RBS 15 Mk. II). These are already on their way out with the Gabriel V being inbound as the PTO 2020. Among the systems being replaced are truck-mounted batteries, which would be an excellent complement to the apparently rather low number of Neptune-batteries in Ukrainian service for the sea denial and coastal defence missions.

The PTO 2020 will in the first phase replace the ship-launched systems aboard the Hamina-class FAC as part of their MLU, but in the next phase they will also replace the truck-mounted ones. While not having access to the shore-based systems for a while would be a significant issue for the Navy, this might be another case of us simply having to accept a temporary capability gap in order to ensure Ukraine has the capabilities they need. A caveat here is that if the stories about the UK sending Harpoons is correct, the RBS 15 might not make much of a difference, but as the latest angle seem to be that the UK is sending some other (i.e. lighter and shorter-legged) anti-ship missile, the RBS 15 would certainly be needed alongside the apparently more limited domestic production (yes, I know the UK launchers aren’t ground-based versions, but that has never stopped a desperate country with a dedicated welder in their ranks). While the system would require some training, the fact that Ukraine already successfully operate corresponding domestic systems shows that they have the know-how to integrate and operate the system as well as a cadre of professionals around which to build up more anti-ship units. With Finland also currently enjoying a good reputation in the national security field in Sweden thanks to our more clear NATO-approach, it also seems likely the needed export permissions could be granted more easily than what would have been the case a month ago.

Buk-M1 (ItO 96)

Finland did operate the BUk-M1 system, having acquired it in the mid-90’s. According to most sources the system is now withdrawn for real and it is uncertain if any useable vehicles or missiles remain. One of the really low-hanging fruits of heavy weapons aid is to ship anything that remain in storage – be they spares, tools, or even functioning missiles and vehicles – over to Ukraine quicker than one can say ‘Novator’.

However, as said my understanding is that useful items might be few and far between, which brings us to the next point.

Crotale NG (ItO 90M)

Finland acquired 20 XA-180 equipped with radars, EO-sensors, and eight Crotale-missiles each in the early 90’s. Back in the 2004-2012 timespan these systems were modernised and brought up to what locally is known as the ITO 90M standard. These are still highly competent systems, and their mobile nature and ability to operate quasi-independently (a single vehicle can complete the whole kill chain, but for best effect you obviously want to use them as part of an integrated air defence system) means that they would be of serious value for the Ukrainian forces. The approximately 6,000 meter ceiling and up to 11 km range also means that they would outrange the STARStreak which with the exception of the single ex-Slovak S-300 battery is the heaviest air defence system so far exported to Ukraine during the war, and as such the Crotale would offer a welcome addition in both capability and numbers.

The Crotale NG in Finnish service is a highly compact package that is able to drive around and do all sorts of bad stuff to enemy aircraft and helicopters. Source: MPKK.fi

It should be acknowledged that these play a big role in Finnish ground-based air defences, despite their somewhat low numbers and lesser absolute capability compared to the NASAMS II. There are also few if any quick options when it comes to replacing them, and as such sending even a limited number of them to Ukraine need serious evaluation of the impact such a move would have in Finland and Ukraine respectively. But it is an alternative that I do feel ought to be on the table when discussing all options.

Other options

There are indeed other options as well. The Stinger is already in Ukrainian service and even small batches would likely be accepted with open arms. Anti-tank weapons might or might not be available as well. Mortars, both light and heavy, are found in serious numbers in the Finnish inventory, and it is difficult to see that all would be irreplaceable.

For heavier equipment, the Air Force is basically a no-go. There’s little use in sending small numbers of Hornets which would cause a serious dent in Finnish capability but which would be a dead-end for the long-term rejuvenation of the Ukrainian Air Force which really need to go down the F-16 (or possibly the F-15) route. For other aircraft, the Ukrainians are really better off just getting money and permission to go shopping than getting a Pilatus or two.

For the Navy, while sending two-three-four Rauma class FAC overland to Odesa in a covert operation would be an epic story worthy of the best naval small craft traditions of  Finland, in practice cutting the Finnish anti-surface combat capability by 25-50% for a five-ten year period does not seem like a viable option. Better in that case to focus on the truck-based batteries.

Armour is also rather more difficult. The Leopards are too few in number to make a serious contribution for the trouble it would be to integrate them into the Ukrainian force without Finland in essence giving away half the armoured force. For the IFVs, going over to a CV 9030-only fleet would probably be everyone’s dream, but there is no quick way to achieve that, even if one would be prepared to throw significant amounts of money after it (that would also still leave a split IFV-fleet, as any CV 9030 rolling off the production line today would be vastly different compared to the Finnish ones currently in service, but of course they would still be more related than the  current BMP-2 and the CV 9030 are). The BMP-2M/MD that could be transferred would also be significantly different compared to the ones currently in Ukrainian service, though obviously integrating them would be easier than say the Marders they have been trying to buy from Germany. As such, while a transfer of Soviet-designed armoured vehicles aren’t completely out of the question, it must be understood that any such move would leave the Finnish Defence Forces significantly weaker when it comes to the ability to conduct combat operations in general and offensive operations in particular.

As a finishing note, accepting the kind of risk we are talking about here – and at some point we will have to come around to the understanding that we have to accept greater risk-taking in order to further our national interests and national security – would be significantly easier if we were part of an alliance of western democracies that we would have conducted joint operational planning with and on whom we could rely on for support in case of war. Sending away a battalion worth of IFVs doesn’t sting half as much compared to what the situation is right now if one knew that a Swedish armoured brigade with British air support would immediately roll in over the border and take up positions in the defence of Finland until the transferred vehicles have been replaced.

Ukraine successfully burns Moskva

In general, the ships contain a great deal of flammable material and appear to lack adequate damage-control features.

Those are the words of Eric Wertheim describing the Slava-class guided-missile cruisers in the 16th edition of The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World. Being second in size among the Russian surface combatants only to the massive Pyotr Veliky and her sister (also known as the Kirov- or Project 1144 ‘Orlan’-class), the Slava (or Project 1164 ‘Atlant’) was built during the later half of the 1970’s as squadron leaders with heavy anti-ship missiles to be able to fight and sink US carrier battle groups. Of a total of six planned vessels, three had entered service with the Soviet Navy and to this day has remained some of the most important Russian surface combatants – yet again highlighting the failure of post-Soviet Russia to build any surface combatant larger than a frigate. The three vessels operate one each in the three most important fleets – Marshal Ustinov in the Northern Fleet, Varyag in the Pacific Fleet, and leadship of the class Moskva (ex-Slava) in the Black Sea Fleet as the flagship of the fleet. Or rather, she did so until last night (ironically, all four were built in Ukraine, where today the fourth hull still rests in a half-finished state).

Moskva back in Sevastopol bay in 2009, a year after it had successfully taken part in the Russo-Georgian War. Note the sailors on the bow, giving away the ship’s massive size. Source: George Chernilevsky / Wikimedia Commons

As of the time of writing little is known for certain. All sides seem to agree that a serious fire which also reached unspecified ammunition storages has caused the crew to abandon the ship during last night, and that’s about where the details start diverging. Ukrainian sources very early started talking about a successful strike using the homegrown R-360 Neptune anti-ship missile, two missiles which reportedly struck the vessel and caused the fire which lead to the vessel rapidly capsizing and sinking. The Russian version is that the vessel suffered a fire not related to any attack, and that the whole crew was evacuated with the vessel eventually sinking while under tow due to hull damage brought about by the stormy weather conditions. In a somewhat rare instance, it does seem that Russians indeed were somewhat honest and that the vessel might have been floating in a damaged state for quite a while, as Pentagon spokesman John Kirby earlier this afternoon (European time) described Moskva as “afloat but clearly damaged“.

As a side-note, this is the second warship named Moskva to sink in the Black Sea due to enemy action, the first having been a destroyer that hit a mine while being engaged by coastal artillery outside the Romanian coast in 1941.

But let’s start from the top and break down the scenarios involved. The Moskva as mentioned is fitted out to operate as a flagship, i.e. the command and control hub from which orders are given and the situational picture is kept up to date. While there are conflicting reports about whether Moskva has been operating in that role or whether the duty has been taken over by one of the modern frigates operating with the Black Sea Fleet, Shashank Joshi of The Economist got a quote indicating that shed indeed did function as the flagship.

With the Ukrainian Navy all but non-existent, the value of the sixteen huge P-500 Bazalt anti-ship missiles found along the sides of the superstructure has been rather limited in the war (there are reports that they would have upgraded to the P-1000 Vulcan, but most seem to agree that is not the case. Anyhow, as there are no targets for them currently in the Black Sea, the difference at this point is largely academic). The Moskva has however been active in other roles, including being the ship on the receiving end of the famous “Russian warship, go fuck yourself”-radio message over at Snake Island – which it then responded to by blasting the island with the deck gun. Besides providing naval gunfire support, the vessel is also equipped with a three-tiered air defence that although old is still of value. The most serious of these systems are the S-300F Fort long-range system which sport 64 5V55RM semi-active radar homing missiles (the system is called Rif in the export version). In essence, the system roughly corresponds to the ground-based S-300PS/PM and was introduced in the mid-80’s. As such, it is a far cry from the S-400 batteries found ashore today, but still longer-ranged than the otherwise significantly more modern 3S90M Shtil-1 system and its 9M317M missiles found aboard the Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates of the fleet (Shtil-1 can roughly be thought of as a naval version of the Buk-M2E system). For closer defence, it operates the equally old Osa-M system sporting twin-rail launchers of the original 9M33-family of missiles (SA-8A GECKO in NATO-parlance). The short range-defence is then handled by the 130 mm twin AK-130 main gun and six 30 mm AK-630 close-in weapons systems. There are also torpedoes and anti-submarine rockets, which in this case are of even lesser use than the Bazalt.

Russian Navy ship Moskva Hit off Ukraine
The major weapon systems of the Moskva. The radar on top of the rear superstructure just in front of the flight deck is the Volna. Picture courtesy of H.I. Sutton / Covert Shores

An interesting detail is that there are rumours around a Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2 appearing in the area to ‘distract’ the Moskva during the attack. In fact, it is not at all a far-fetched idea. The major issue of the S-300F compared to newer systems is the limited ability to track multiple targets. The system can intercept up to 6 targets at a time, but only within a 60° sector as the system is tied to a single 3R-41 Volna (TOP DOME) radar. Considering the additional circumstances of the vessel having sustained operations on wartime footing for weeks and it being a stormy night, the crew handling the air defence systems becoming fixated on a drone is entirely possible, especially as sea-skimming missiles would have been even harder to detect on the radar than usual among the low-altitude clutter caused by the stormy conditions. The TB2 might certainly have been combining the distraction role with that of feeding position date of the vessel back to the firing battery (let’s remember that a number of the Bayraktars are operated by the Navy). Some really fancy accounts are even saying that the Bayraktar would have taken out the air defence radars before the sea-skimmers came in, but even if theoretically possible I find it extremely unlikely. Let’s remember that the technology level of the air defences is roughly corresponding to the most modern air defence systems the Royal Navy vessels that went to the Falklands back in 1982 were sporting, and the issues they had with picking up Exocet missiles in time are well-known. The shorter-range systems should in theory have been able to intercept the missiles, but there are several explanations as to why they didn’t do so, ranging from poor performance through to not being active due to the crew underestimating the threat from anti-ship missiles (both of which have earlier lead to wartime losses for different navies).

A Tatra-based TEL for four Neptune missiles displayed during a military exhibition last year. Source: VoidWanderer / Wikimedia Commons

As mentioned the weapon reportedly used by the Ukrainians was the home-developed R-350 Neptune, somewhat related to/based upon the Russian Kh-35 Uran. As such, it is a weapon largely comparable to many western weapons, being subsonic, sporting active radar-homing, and a warhead in the 150 kg class. Approaching the target at very low-level, it is difficult to detect, and it would not be surprising if yesterday was close to the limit when it comes to how bad weather it can operate in (you don’t want to fly lower than the maximum wave height). A 150 kg warhead (or two) won’t sink a cruiser, but there are a number of other factors to take into account, including the possibility of starting a fire – as was alluded to in the opening quote and which was the case with HMS Sheffield in the Falklands – as well as the explosive potential of the Bazalts lined up along the side of the vessel. Both the Ukrainian and Russian versions talk about a fire threatening the ammunition storage, which is a somewhat vague term for a vessel were several key systems lack reloads and all missiles are stored launch-ready. The batteries are expected to have their own Mineral-U mobile radars which could have been the system feeding engagement data, and as said the Bayraktar might have been involved as well.

Notable for the Neptune is that it has been absent during the early part of the war despite there being ample targets. One possibility is simply that there are too few missiles to use them against low-value targets or targets where the fire control data wasn’t unambiguous. It is also possible that these were the first missiles available to the battery, as there had been reports that deliveries had slipped a year from 2021 to this spring. If so, someone has likely been working around the clock since February to get the weapons ready, and if this really was their debut, it sure was quite something!

The Mineral-U radar of the Neptune batteries in raised position. For transport it is lowered to point straight back. Source: VoidWanderer / Wikimedia Commons

But was it really a missile strike?

While I questioned whether the Tapir lost earlier was caused by enemy action or just an accident, and while the Russian Navy indeed is no stranger to accidents, there are a few things here that leads me to believe the missile strike scenario is the more likely one in this case. The whole scenario does seem plausible, including the weapons used, the usage of environmental conditions and potentially a drone to mask the attack, the choice of target, and so forth. But the most important indication is the statement by western sources that other Russian vessels have turned south to put a greater distance between themselves and the angry coastline. That would not be the expected reaction in case the Russian commanders thought it an accident.

So how big a loss is this to the Russian war effort?

That impact on the war effort depends very much on your point of view. As mentioned there really are no Ukrainian naval vessels operational, and as such the Russian sea lines are not threatened. The utility of the vessel in the current war -which at the end of the day very much is a land war with a maritime flank – is also somewhat limited compared to the more modern frigates and corvettes that are able to fire land-attack versions of the Kalibr cruise missiles. On the flip-side, the Ukrainians have likely shaken the Russian Navy seriously, and any plans on an amphibious landing near Odesa have likely been shelved permanently. Looking 40 years back into history, the similarities to the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser ARA General Belgrano are astonishing, with both vessels in surprise attacks being put out of action, both serving as the flagship of their respective forces, both being old but still packing a serious punch, and both likely having an impact on morale and operating procedures that extend well beyond the loss of their individual combat capability. The vessels are also surprisingly evenly matched in size, with the Moskva being just under a meter longer and the Belgrano being just a bit heavier in displacement. Which one you will hand the dubious honour of being the largest naval vessel sunk since 1945 largely depends on your metrics, but if pressed I’d say the Argentinians still have it.

In more detail the lack of the S-300F air defence system is felt, but not overly much. Again, it had a range advantage compared to the more modern systems on some of the other vessels, but otherwise it was far from modern. The reduction in the number of combat capable hulls is likely to be felt more severely, with just three frigates (two modern), two corvettes, and three OPVs remaining according to one source. With the blockade line having been pushed further south, it also means that naval gunfire support is unlikely to happen and due to the shape of the Ukrainian coast and the Black Sea the blockade line will be longer, further increasing the amount of real estate any single vessel will have to keep its eyes on.

This also potentially open up the possibility to do something about the illegal blockade Russia is maintaining in the Black Sea. In short, you are allowed to blockade your enemy during war, but there are some set rules for how to go about doing so. One of these is that you are supposed to declare the blockade, something Russia hasn’t done. In the grand scheme of things, the undeclared blockade likely ranks as one of Russia’s lesser war crimes, but it is still something, and crucially (my understanding is) that the undeclared nature would give the West the possibility to seize the opportunity and sail some serious vessels into Odesa as a freedom of navigation operation.

These so called FONOPS to ensure that the rules regarding free use of the sea are kept have mostly been associated with China in recent years, but as Charly Salonius-Pasternak pointed out a while back, a FONOPS into Odesa would certainly be a possibility. And as a FONOPS-squadron preferably would have the firepower to take down the adversaries in case they get any ideas, this is one area in which the loss of the Moskva’s Bazalt-missiles would be felt. Compared to e.g. the suggested no-fly zone over Ukraine, a squadron of western destroyers and frigates loudly declaring their intention and sailing into Odesa would probably constitute a lesser risk of escalation into nuclear war even in the case things would go bad and NATO and Russian forces would start killing each other – the sea just tend to play that kind of a role in international politics where a crisis that happens on land is always more serious than one that takes place on open water. The propaganda value for the Ukrainians and the further loss of face of the Russian Black Sea Fleet would be of measurable value, and the vessels staying in Odesa for a few weeks would significantly lessen the threat of strikes or offensive operations against the port, freeing up Ukrainian resources to the drive on Kherson. It would however require more political bravery than the countries with competent enough vessels have so far been able to muster, and as such we are unlikely to it see it any time soon.

But even if the FONOPS stays a dream, the loss of Moskva adds yet another item to the long list of Russian failures and losses in this war. With a crew usually numbering close to 500 (over 500 if including the additional staff when working in the flagship role) this might turn out to be the most serious single loss of manpower of the Russian Armed Forces so far in the war if it turns out the Russian story of the whole crew having been evacuated was wishful thinking. The symbolic value of Ukraine destroying Moscow is also not lost on anyone, and as noted the operations by the rest of the Black Sea Fleet can be expected to become more limited.

And finally, the symbolic value of getting revenge for the occupation of Snake Island is very real.

The Russian warship did really get fucked.

A Ukrainian Triptych

As there’s quite a lot happening in Ukraine at the moment, several things of which deserve a bit deeper analysis than is fitting to a Twitter-thread, I decided to do a short (no, I’m not kidding anyone but myself) post on three topics from the past week: the helicopter strike on the Rosneft fuel depot in Belgorod, the ability of Russia to replace losses in equipment (in particular tanks), and the idea of shipping advanced Western systems to Ukraine (in particular fighters and air defence systems).

The helicopter strike in Belgorod

One of the more spectacular single events of the past week was without a doubt the dawn raid on the Rosneft fuel depot in Belgorod, a city sitting just opposite the Russian border from Kharkiv.

A Ukrainian Mil Mi-24 attack helicopter sporting the B-8V-20 rocket pods for the S-8 rocket which was used in the attack on the Belgorod fuel depot. This helicopter is of the locally upgraded Mi-24PU-1 version, which feature a number of improvements – crucially including avionics and sighting equipment to allow for better performance in darkness, making the version a prime suspect for the performer of the raid. Source: Bennorey via Wikimedia Commons

What we more or less know is that during the dawn of April 1 two Mi-24 (NATO-codename HIND) struck a fuel depot in eastern Belgorod with S-8 rockets, before then rapidly exiting the area at very low level. A number of storage tanks burst into flames.

That is basically what we know for certain. The storage depot has been geolocated both using traditional means as well as through NASA’s FIRMS fire monitoring satellites. The depot is apparently operated by Rosneft’s subsidiary AO Belgorodnefteprodukt, and hold 22 larger and five smaller storage tanks. TASS helpfully reported the size of the larger tanks, which come in at 2,000 cubic meters each, meaning that just the 22 larger tanks can store 44,000 cubic meters (i.e. 44 million litres) of fuel, and of these eight were on fire meaning a loss of 16,000 cubic meters of storage capacity as well as any fuel currently stored inside them. Other damage, such as e.g. to transfer lines, pumps, and so forth, are more difficult to asses, but one theory is that the first helicopter did not aim for the tanks but for what looks like it could potentially be the main office building on the site. Another possibility is that it simply didn’t hit anything as flammable as the second helicopter did.

Possible location of the camera (left upper corner of the red triangle roughly showing field of view) and location of the building that I speculate might have been the target of the first helicopter (yellow box).

In any case, the target is of strategic value to Russia. As is well-known, the Russian offensive has suffered from a lack of of supplies in general, and fuel is no exception. While the Belgorod depot is a civilian one – to the extent we can differ between civilian and state/military infrastructure in Russia – the location of Belgorod at the infrastructure node opposite Kharkiv means that it can be expected to have played a role in trying to fuel the stalled offensive on Kharkiv. This clearly was a target of strategic importance, and will hurt the ability of the Russian forces in the greater Kharkiv-region to conduct operations – be they offensive or defensive. Some have compared this to the Doolittle raid of 1942, but in truth this is rather different as there seems to have been serious material damage done in Belgorod which will have some kind of effect on the continued Kharkiv-campaign.

A short interlude: there has been some discussion that the strike would have been a false flag-operation by Russian Mi-24s to somehow stir up further hatred against Ukraine, and while it can’t be ruled out, I sincerely doubt it. To begin with, the enemy being able to strike strategic target on Russian soil after the Kremlin has declared that the Ukrainian air assets are wiped out and Russia enjoys total control of the skies isn’t exactly helpful for the Russian propaganda effort. If you really want to launch a false flag operation, going after something more war crime-y would also help (such as hitting a school or similar, we’ve seen that Russia is not beyond killing own civilians, and if they would be averse to own losses they could have struck early enough that no people would have been present).

The usage of helicopters is interesting. Most often these kinds of interdiction strikes are left to fixed-wing aircraft or long-range missiles, but there are instances of helicopters being successfully used to carry out long-range strikes – the most famous being the raid by AH-64 Apaches of Task Force Normandy firing the opening salvo of Operation Desert Storm. While helicopters often are lamented as being vulnerable on the modern battlefield – and the conflict so far has indeed seen a number of losses – they are significantly more difficult to kill than many expect, in particular if used at speed and at low level. Many of the Russian helicopters lost have been operating at surprisingly high altitude, making them easily visible (and thereby targetable by air defences). Contrary to that, the Mi-24s seems to have left the area at tree-top height. This would give significantly less time for any air defences to react, and would make it extremely hard for ground-based radars to pick up the helicopters. Still, the complete inability of the Russian air defences to hunt them down is telling, as a layered air defence with sensors, people on the ground reporting observations, fighters on alert, and crucially at least some kind of close-range air defences around strategic targets (such as a fuel depot 60 km from the frontline…) should be able to put at least some amount of lead into the air. One possible explanation is people observing the helicopters being hesitant to fire or report them onwards for fear of causing a friendly fire incident, which is an ironic outcome of having air superiority but not supremacy.

While this isn’t the first strike on Russian territory during the war – we’ve seen e.g. the Millerovo air base having been struck by what presumably was a Tochka-U ballistic missile – this does seem to be the first air raid on Russian territory since the Korean War. It also seems to have been executed close to perfection, with a somewhat unconventional but extremely effective plattform being chosen to perform a surprise lightning raid against a target of real strategic value, without causing any serious collateral damage. The last part is important, as the Russian political leadership has accused Ukraine of escalating, a statement that is difficult to take seriously given that it would mean a Ukrainian limited strike on a militarily relevant target is the issue here when Russia started the war by invading Ukraine, and has followed up by systematically targeting civilian infrastructure – including hospitals and agreed upon humanitarian convoys and corridors of safe passage – as well as the widespread raping and looting done by Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

Covering the losses

There has been some discussion surrounding the significant losses to Russian equipment, but quite a few have pointed to the vast size of the Russian Armed Forces as providing a healthy equipment pool from which to draw troop reinforcements as long as the personnel losses can be covered – and notable is that e.g. when it comes to tank losses approximately half the confirmed losses are destroyed or damaged, with the rest being captured or damaged, something which might indicate that the equipment losses are quite a bit worse than the personnel losses.

However, that does overlook the sheer scope of the equipment losses suffered. A good place to start is looking at the tank losses, as the tank is the key offensive weapon system in case Russia plan on succeeding with their regrouping and upcoming Donbas-offensive.

The exact number of operational Russian tanks in service is obviously somewhat obscure. However, there does seem to be a convergence around a number in the 2,500 to 3,000 range. A rather solid estimate from 2019 is this one which is based on the numbers from IISS, which list 2,750 tanks. An interesting detail is that pro-Kremlin “suspicious information operation” (in the words of Jessikka Aro) SouthFront lands extremely close, listing 2,609 tanks in combat units in 2021 (note that there can be operational tank in other places than combat units, such as schools or research units, which might explain why the number is lower). Both also list roughly half of the tanks as being modern versions (T-72B3 in all versions, T-90A and M, as well as T-80BVM), with the rest being older T-72 versions and T-80BV/U. In addition, there is a sizeable amount of tanks in long-term storage, let’s get back to them.

One of the Russian Armed Forces most modern tanks, a T-72B3 Obr. 2016, apparently abandoned close to Mariupol. Source: Ukrainian MoD/Wikimedia Commons

To start with the losses, Oryx lists 389 destroyed, damaged, abandoned, and captured tanks. As such, that represent 14.1 % of the operational tank force if we stick with the IISS numbers (which we will do for the rest of this post). Of course, that is bound to be somewhat off, due to a number of things. One is that the Russian tank force has not been staying stagnant since 2019 –  e.g. last year TASS published a report that 65 T-90M “would be” (note future tense) handed over to the Army during that year. Another is that the tanks operated by the so called People’s Republics in Donbas aren’t included in the Russian total. However, these are likely to be balanced out against not all losses being confirmed, and at the end of the day we are looking for a trend rather than a bean count.

An interesting detail with the confirmed losses is that they match the 1:1 ratio of modern tanks, with 165 of the 345 identified tanks lost being modern ones, i.e. 47.8 % to be precise. Going back to the 14.1 % of operational tanks having been lost, for the individual tanks versions things are somewhat more varied. The T-90 family has so far suffered relatively small losses, with just 4.9 % of the operational force having been knocked out.

Let’s pause for a while and think about that statement. The modern tank that has fared best has seen roughly one in twenty of the total operational force available in 2019 having been either destroyed, damaged, or otherwise left on the battlefield, and all that in just over a month of fighting. That is bad.

For the others the issues are worse. The exact number of T-80BVM is not listed by IISS, but going from SouthFront we are looking at 72 in operational combat units. With 18 lost, that’s a solid 25 %, or one in four. The reason is obviously unclear at this point in time, it might just be that we are seeing T-80BVM units in areas from where there are lots of images, but we also have reports that e.g. the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade (Pechenga) which is a prolific user of the upgraded version has been extremely hard hit around Kharkiv.

The T-72B3 in all versions fare somewhere in between, with 10.8 % of the vehicles being lost. Again, it’s too soon to draw major conclusions about the survivability of the T-90 compared to the T-80BVM or T-72B3, but it is crucial to note that among the most modern Russian tanks available, we are seeing losses in excess of one in ten operational tank. Even if a number of crews have dismounted and marched back to Russia ready to grab a new tank and get back into the fray, that’s not something even a force of Russia’s size will just shrug off.

But what about the tanks in storage? Most reports place the number of tanks in storage at approximately 10,000 (I will argue that the nice roundness of the figure says something about how accurate it is, but it gives us something to work with, and again, we are looking for trends, not individual tanks). However, obviously the tanks in reserve are mainly older versions, and pulling out a T-72A from storage to replace a T-72B3 or a T-80U to replace a T-80BVM will mean a loss of capability in absolute terms.

There is however an argument that on the surface makes sense, that as the Ukrainians have had no issues penetrating the most modern tanks the increased protection these sport is in fact of limited practical value, and that the increased firepower (gun, ammunition, sights, gun handling, FCS, …) they have is of limited value as there has seemingly been relatively little tank versus tank combat and the Ukrainian armed force is also mainly made up of older tanks (the vast majority of identified losses so far being the 1985-vintage 1-64BV with the rather dated Kontakt-1 ERA “bricks”). As such, the 10,000 tanks in reserve are very much  valid replacements for the losses

However, there is a number of issues with that line of reasoning. To begin with, while a tank has splendid mobility, firepower, and protection – the features which has meant that tanks has dominated the battlefields of the world since at least the Second World War – there are obviously some drawback to being locked inside a tin can. One of them is situational awareness, which naturally is somewhat limited if you are in a vehicle compared to moving on foot. To fight this drawback, modern armoured fighting vehicles have an array of technology to help them, allowing them to fight at long distances and during night. It’s not a perfect solution, as we have seen in Ukraine it is still possible for infantry to sneak up on tanks not operating with their own infantry, but a modern sighting unit does provide a huge benefit compared to for example the 1K13-49 installed on the late 80’s versions of the T-72B, not to mention the kit fitted to the even older T-72A and related versions. And if you thought a tank with a modern thermal sight is vulnerable to infantry sneaking around, just wait until your main night vision device is an IR-searchlight. It might have been cutting edge in the Golan in 1973, but those days are long gone. Poor situational awareness gets you killed on the modern battlefield, and that is what you get with 80’s technology.

Similarly, while an NLAW or Javelin will make the same sized hole in a T-72A as in an T-72B3 (surprisingly often it turns out that it is a turret-ring sized hole), there are a lot of other weapons floating around on the Ukrainian battlefield. These include lighter weapons such versions of AT4 and LAW delivered from western sources, as well as a whole host of Soviet-designed weapons, all of which might or might not be able to take out an enemy tank depending on a number of different parameters in the engagement. However, one thing is clear, and that is that the likelihood of doing so significantly goes up with the age of the target. And in the best case, the target will be a tank built in the early 80’s lacking its ERA-blocks.

Because this is another major issue with the stored vehicles. Most pictures that have come out of Russian depots seems to indicate that the storage conditions often are less than optimal, with vehicles in several cases lacking pieces of removable equipment, and instead having a liberal amount of rust. Now, it is important to note that there is probably some amount of bias involved, as the facilities most visible on the web likely are those most poorly guarded, and as such likely not the most high-priority storage units. Still, anyone who has tried to take a machine into service that has been standing for a few years knows that it seldom is a straightforward task. So how many tanks could be pulled out of storage within say a month or two? No one knows, most likely not even the Russian general staff, but it is safe to assume that number is significantly lower than 10,000.

Obviously, Ukraine has similar issues with lost tanks being hard to replace, and Russia might certainly win a war of attrition. But the losses suffered right now are certainly on a scale that even if Russia would be able to supply trained crews to cover the personnel losses, the combat capability of the units will still suffer significantly.

The long game

This leads us on to the third topic: the Ukrainian requests for military equipment which grows fancier and fancier. At this stage, there are talk both about getting Patriot and NASAMS air defence systems, F-15 and F-16 fighters, as well as NSM anti-ship missiles.

The Ukrainian frustration is understandable, and there is no doubt that a few Patriot batteries with well-trained crews would make a significant impact on the battlefield. However, there are two major issues: delivery speed and training.

The Starstreak HVM (High Velocity Missile) is an advanced short-range system that require the operator to keep the target in sight throughout the intercept, but on the other hand provide the benefit of being unjammable. Source: British MoD via Wikimedia Commons

It is possible that Ukraine has reached a stage of the conflict where they can afford to pull units from the frontline for retraining, that’s something we see e.g. with the delivery of the Starstreak which included a (forced) training program before the system was delivered to the front. The issue, even allowing for the fact that in wartime you will accept higher risk-taking and longer working hours, will become even more pronounced as you move into higher and higher levels of complexity, and a long-range air defence battery or anti-ship missile battery are among the most complex individual systems in service today. Pulling an air defence battalion from the frontlines to re-equip with Patriot would mean them being out of service for a month at the very minimum, most likely more depending on the experience level of the unit in question as well as the acceptable level of proficiency after the training has been concluded. It might be that Ukraine sees this as an acceptable trade-off, especially as we’ve seen equipment losses to e.g. their S-300 batteries which might mean that they have trained crews without vehicles.

The same is true for the fighter requests as well, where retraining of pilots would have to take time. Again, there are certainly corners to be cut when looking at this from the wartime versus peacetime angle, but even then miracles are difficult to achieve. Especially when realising that most everything is different in an F-16 compared to a MiG-29, down to how the human-machine-interface works and what kind of a doctrine the aircraft is built around to be as effective as possible (the same can be said about the discussion of supplying western-made tanks to Ukraine, but here the possible supply of stored T-72 of different versions is looking more promising if the political will is present).

This brings us to the other issue, namely that while older anti-tank systems (and some newer ones) are found in storage units across numerous countries in Europe and the US, modern high-end systems are rarely bought in significant numbers to begin with, and they are usually needed in service. Yes, I understand that “need” is a relative term, but few countries would be willing to send away significant numbers of their key systems if they aren’t able to get them replaced in a short time. And the delivery times for high-end systems is long.

Granted there F-16s available surplus in some numbers with e.g. Norway having recently retired its fleet, and the Ukrainians likely would not be upset with the aircraft having relatively few flight hours left. The famous US “boneyard” in Arizona also have a host of different aircraft that might be brought into service under more or less swift schedules. Operating a US fighter would also mean that there are munition stocks available, so if a completely new system is to be brought into Ukrainian service the F-16 – most likely the European MLU-standard – would be the prime candidate. That would however take vastly more time than the 2-3 weeks the Ukrainian Air Force talks about, not to mention such basic logistics tasks as getting the aircraft to a suitable base (most likely outside of Ukraine) and setting up some kind of training program there already taking some time. Considering the issues even with getting the Polish MiG-29s over to Ukraine and the lack of political will to do that, a Ukrainian F-16 conversion unit in Germany or Poland followed by ferry flights to Ukraine does seem like a dream at this stage, and one that would be hard-pressed to be achievable in anything less than a month from the moment all involved parties have signed the papers (though I will say that I can’t quite understand why the MiG-29s were felt to be an escalation compared to the numerous other systems provided).

There are obviously some middle ground to be achieved in some areas, with e.g. the Finnish RBS 15-batteries being replaced with the Gabriel within the next few years. If a quicker delivery schedule could be agreed upon and possibly even a Finnish NATO-membership allowing for additional naval firepower in the Gulf of Finland in case of war these might be freed up. It would be a significantly greater political commitment from both Finland and Sweden (as the original manufacturer) than what we have seen so far, but would also mean that Odesa would be vastly more secure and the Ukrainian forces could start thinking about some local sea denial missions close to the shore. Similarly, there are some older medium-range air defence systems in Europe that might be up for grabs that would offer at least comparable performance to what the Ukrainians currently have. However, even under the best of conditions none of these systems would have an impact on the battlefield during April, and this is in sharp contrast to the numerous simpler systems delivered.

This obviously brings us to the question of how long the war will take? If someone a month ago would not have taken the decision that it was worth shipping the Starstreak despite it being a month away from Ukrainian service, one more Mi-28UB would be flying around killing Ukrainians than what currently is the case. Similarly, any decision not taken today because a month is too long a delivery time might prove to have been faulty in a month from now if the war continues to rage on, and if nothing else Ukraine will indeed also need to rebuild its forces once the conflict is over. With the Russian attempt at a poorly executed lightning strike having stalled, switching to ensuring the Kremlin can’t win a war of attrition might certainly be the best strategic move the West can do right now, especially considering we do seem set for something of a calm before the storm as Russia tries to regroup forces to focus on more limited aims in the Donbas.

I have a hard time seeing Patriot, NASAMS, or F-15 deliveries to Ukraine right now, but we certainly should start looking at the systems a step above the Starstreak in complexity. Because this is starting to turn into a long one.