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.

Tapir lost

The biggest news from the front-line in Ukraine today is that the Russian Navy has lost one of its major landing ships, a Landing Ship Tank (LST) of the Project 1171 ‘Tapir’-class (NATO: ALLIGATOR). The vessel suffered a catastrophic fire in the port of Berdyansk, an Ukrainian port city approximately 60 km south-west along the shore from Mariupol. The Tapir-class is comparable to the more famous and somewhat newer Project 775 (NATO: ROPUCHA). Of the original 14 Tapirs built, most are decommissioned or in reserve, but two are found in the Black Sea Fleet and a third is in active in the Pacific Fleet. A good clip of the event is found below:

As mentioned the Tapir is old, dating from the mid-60’s, with the two Black Sea Fleet vessels having been commissioned in 1966 and 1968 respectively.

Exactly what caused the fire is unknown. Most reports mention a Ukrainian missile strike, which would be a Tochka-U. The missile system which in Russian service has been more or less fully replaced by the Iskander-M dates from Soviet times and reportedly has a CEP of 95 meters, meaning that you don’t aim for individual ships, but you could conceivably aim for a cluster of vessels tied up port-side together and wish for the best. This ‘fingers crossed’-tactic was apparently tried with some success against the Millerovo air base earlier during the war. Notable is that the Tochka-U can be equipped with a warhead sporting cluster munitions, which depending on your type of target could increase the odds of hitting something (though obviously the damage to whatever is hit would be less). The question has also been raised whether any Tochka-battery could have gotten within range of the port, considering the somewhat limited range of the system (120 km)? Again, lines on a map rarely tell the whole story, but e.g. the front suggested by the Finnish National Defence University would indicate that Berdyansk is within range.

Everyone’s favourite Turkish drone obviously also was included in the speculation, but the weapons used by the Bayraktar TB2 – the MAM-L – sport a very light warhead (the whole weapon tipping the scale at 22 kg). Of course, if you hit something volatile even a small warhead might do the trick, but getting a laser-guided weapon into the cargo hold (the most likely scenario if you are to start a fire with a light weapon) is rather hard due to a combination of factors (such as the discrepancy between the path followed by the laser beam and the bomb, as well as how trigonometry work when you lock a laser spot). Not impossible, but difficult.

A number of vessels from the Black Sea Fleet. Farthest to the right is those of interest to us, with Tapirs Nikolay Filchenkov (‘152’, currently in reserve/not active) and Saratov (‘150’) flanked by Ropucha Novocherkassk (‘142’). Source: Cmapm via Wikimedia Commons

There’s obviously also a number of other possible explanations, including Ukrainian special forces planting explosives or similar, but perhaps the most likely explanation is the boring one that a more or less overworked crew made a mistake that lead to a fire – an all too common event on vessels even without the added stress of being at war. Of course, being at war should also mean that your damage control crew is on rather high alert, especially if you sit within range of enemy ballistic missiles, but here again incompetence or humans being humans can’t be ruled out.

Alert readers might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned which vessel it was that turned into what I believe is the first combat loss of the Russian or Soviet Navy since U-956 sank USSR Deyatelny (ex-HMS Churchill) in January 1945. The reason for this is that both Tapirs of the Black Sea Fleet are possible candidates for the dubious honour. Orsk, the somewhat younger vessel, was seen on the location earlier, unloading BTR-82 armoured personnel carriers, most likely from a naval infantry brigade. However, there are also indications that she had already left the area and her sister Saratov – the lead vessel of the class – had taken her place at the quayside. She would reportedly have been carrying the munitions for the unit unloaded from Orsk earlier this week or late last week.

While I won’t make a definitive call at this stage, the Saratov-theory does make sense, and the fire which sport a number of secondary explosions also seem to fit a fire aboard a munitions vessel. A munitions-handling accident would also not be unheard of as a wartime fire-starter.

Notable is that some port structures, possibly including oil storage on the quay and/or nearby cranes, also seem to have suffered damage. As did at least one of two Ropuchas which successfully sped out from the port during the fire. These are reportedly the Black Sea Fleet-vessels Tsezar Kunikov and Novocherkassk – being true youngsters among the Russian amphibious ships in having been commissioned only in 1986 and 1987 respectively – of which the Kunikov had a quite sizeable fire visible on deck while leaving Berdyansk. This might turn out to be relatively minor damage if it is a case of burning debris having been flung away by the hot air and explosions on the Saratov(?) and then landed on the vessel, though as a rule of thumb you don’t want open flames on a vessel. The status of Novocherkassk is more unclear, but some damage looks likely here as well.

The impact on the war is likely to be modest. If there is half a battalion, especially a fresh elite unit such as naval infantry, now running around without munitions that is obviously bad, especially as Russia so far seem to struggle with their logistics flows even when they aren’t interrupted by massive fires. The loss of the vessel is likely to be felt in the long-run for a country that has seen a total of two LSTs built in the last 30 years, and it will impact the ability to project power in the long run (the Tapir and Ropucha have been regulars on the Syria-run, shipping equipment to Syria to help Assad and the Russian expeditionary forces there). It won’t, however, directly affect the war for the time being as the concentration of six LSTs from the Northern and Baltic Fleets to the Black Sea means Russia should be able to cover the shortfall for now, and the amphibious threat to Odesa remains unchanged. If the port is damaged that is more of a headache for the continued operations against Mariupol and to the north from there, but the extent to which Russia had planned on using Berdyansk as a logistics node is unclear.

An interesting detail is that the earlier video of the Orsk unloading the BTR-82s showed them being hoisted over the side instead of driven off, a procedure that takes significantly longer compared to just rolling out through the bow doors. While it is true that the bow ramp of the vessel is low compared to many larger ro/ro-vessels and as such may not fit the facilities in the port, the low draught of the vessel means that there should be a number of secondary locations available for it to use, one of which you’d imagine would have a ramp that fits. The BTR-82 is also amphibious, so it should even have been possible to let them leave the vessel some ways away from shore and ‘swim’ the last part – something that is regularly seen practised on exercises. If the Russians simply aren’t in a hurry to get the vehicles into combat that would be one thing, but most indications are that there is indeed pressure from the top to get the stalled offensives moving again. Considering that the scene doesn’t show the sense of urgency that is to be expected, but rather it once again seems like ineptitude on behalf of the Russian armed forces.

The things we don’t know

Putin’s war in Ukraine has been described by many as the first live-streamed war, and tuning into Twitter or other social media it certainly feels that way. While we have earlier seen embedded journalists get close access to combat units, this time the journalists – both local and foreign ones showing great courage by choosing to report from Ukraine right now – have received company by any number of Ukrainian civilians sharing images, texts, and videos from their neighbourhoods. However, due to this there is an evident risk that people outside of Ukraine (and to some extent inside the country as well) feel that they know exactly how the war is going.

It is easy to step into this trap. The main bias is that reporters, bloggers, and other people who like to hear their own voice have a tendency to tell stories based on things we know – as opposed to describing the unknown. In a war full of remarkable persons and events there are certainly more stories deserving to be told than there is bandwidth. The other bias is that Ukraine has been remarkably effective in shaping the information space. This stems both from the Ukrainian political and military leadership skilfully setting the agenda, as well as from the Ukrainian civilians being surprisingly OPSEC-savvy and not sharing much in the way of images depicting Ukrainian movements or losses. There is also the obvious issue of the fog of war giving us a false picture of events (i.e. we believe we know something that later turn out to be false).

Despite all of this, there is a number of things we recognise that we don’t know, which in my opinion doesn’t get acknowledged enough in the stream of information out there.

So here it comes, a list of important things we don’t know.

The Ukrainian losses

We don’t know the Ukrainian losses with any kind of certainty. While there have been some official figures published by Ukrainian authorities, these are best treated with a grain of salt. The Russian figures for the Ukrainian losses are simply a joke, and the western intelligence agencies and authorities who supply what probably are the most reliable estimates for Russian losses are less keen to discuss the Ukrainian ones.

Naturally, the Ukrainian losses are a key metric when trying to understand how much of their pre-war combat potential Ukraine has left. Speaking of which…

The Russian losses

We don’t really know the full scope of the Russian losses either. The Ukrainian figures published are almost certainly too high. E.g. the US estimate for total number of troops killed – though notably described as a “conservative” estimate – is at half the number. Again, the Russian figures are a bad joke that is disrespectful towards their own soldiers.

At the same time, the best open-source resource which lists equipment losses – the Oryx-blog post kept by Stijn Mitzer and team – and only looks at visually confirmed losses has listed approximately half the number of tanks and a third the number of rocket launchers as the Ukrainians claim. The methodology is obviously set to give a too low number, as it isn’t an estimate per se, but still point to a discrepancy.

At the end of the day, we probably have a better picture of Russian losses than we have of Ukrainians, but even here we don’t have a comprehensive picture. It is rather unclear what it means for the combat capability of individual units or formations.

The Russian capabilities

That Russia has seriously performed below expectation in this war is well-established by now. There is a solid argument to be made that the initiation of the war was made with suboptimal preparations on the side of the Russians, with little to nothing in the way of preparation for the individual soldiers or tactical formations. There is also the argument that morale among the average Russian soldier fighting NATO or a country that isn’t part of the Russian-proclaimed East-Slavic brotherhood would be higher, which might hold water as well.

At the same time, it is also true that this really should be the ideal situation for Russia. Being the sole aggressor, surrounding Ukraine from three sides, and not fearing any other neighbour taking the opportunity to sort out old wrongs, they literally had all the time they wanted to set up this one perfectly. Was the military leadership hamstrung by the whims of Putin? It certainly looks that way, but at the same time once the shooting starts, you can expect something akin of regression towards the mean when it comes to true combat capability once a unit is sent into combat, regardless of the surrounding circumstances. Instead we see presumed elite units such as VDV, the 4th Guards Tank Divsion (Kantemir), and the Arctic units such as the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade do downright stupid stuff and lose equipment through what looks like a combination of disastrous incompetence, poor logistics, and faltering morale.

At the end of the day, we don’t know the combat capability of the Russian forces. They seem to be a mess on many levels (see points above, the word “seem” might be doing a lot of heavy lifting here), but at the same time it still is the Russians and not the Ukrainians that are advancing.

The level of control

But while Russia is advancing, we also see that in many places the Ukrainians aren’t looking like they are trying to hold a solid frontline. We are instead seeing some key locations, mainly urban areas, being defended determinedly, and in the areas not defended we see continuous attacks by small units, indirect fires, as well as drone and potentially air strikes against smaller Russian units and logistics trains. Exactly how much control the Russian units exert over large areas of the land that they have presumably occupied is an open question. It is also notable that the Russian forces available – including the Rosgvardiya – are way too small to be able to occupy and pacify a country of Ukraine’s size and population according to both most academic measures as well as practical experience post-WWII. So how much of the country is really cleared from Ukrainian troops? We don’t know.

The lessons to learn

The tank is dead. As is light infantry on the offensive. Airborne and airmobile forces are also. And not to mention the amphibious landing.

The limited Ukrainian fleet (20 active drones?) of the Ukrainian armed forces have proved surprisingly resilient. But again, we aren’t sure why that is the case, and how much of an impact they really have on the big picture. Source: Ukrainian Armed Forces via Wikimedia Commons

The truth is that we have a very fragmented picture of the operations so far. Some ideas can indeed be said to have been proven to be less than stellar – such as sending tanks unsupported into urban combat, or airborne operations without adequate support. But truth be told these were disproven numerous times earlier as well. There are some interesting things to note, such as the issue Russia has with establishing air superiority, including stopping the relatively limited force of Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2s (36 vehicles and two fuel trains confirmed hit by the Bayraktars on the Oryx blog so far). However, these are still early days, and we don’t have the full picture of e.g. which weapons have been responsible for the spectacular images of some of Russia’s most modern armoured vehicles being reduced to burnt-out scrap metal.

Again, to some extent we are fed a curated version of the war by the Ukrainians, and it will only be in the years after the conflict when veterans and eyewitnesses on all levels are interviewed that we will start to be able to get a truly comprehensive picture of what worked and what didn’t in Putin’s latest war (and then we can start arguing about which lessons are general and which were due to the particular circumstances of this war). As such, for now we don’t quite know which lessons to learn.

Smooth Stones and Lightning

Finnish defence discussions have a few topics that quickly tend to derail into a somewhat unhealthy fandom, but few does so more readily than anything that has to do with the Ilmatorjuntaohjus 96, or Buk M1 as it is known internationally.

The Buk M1 had a rather short career in Finnish service, as the FDF quickly realised that having a system designed by the potential enemy might not be the best idea when it comes to such a technical arm as air defence – there’s a reason anything related to electronic warfare, radars, missiles, or SEAD/DEAD usually are among the most well-guarded secrets of any nation. The search for a replacement saw the NASAMS and SAMP/T face off, with the NASAMS taking home the price and becoming the new top-dog in Finnish ground-based air defences.

Let’s be clear, the NASAMS is simply a better air defence system than the Buk it replaced, there really is no discussion. However, as often is the case on the internet, discussions on capability has a tendency to be reduced to a top trumps comparison of specifications that are easy to describe with numerical values. And the top ceiling of the Buk is higher than that of the NASAMS.

Exactly how much of a difference is open to discussion. Most sources quote the ceiling of the NASAMS at around 10,000 meters, while others speak of 15,000 meters. The Buk M1 in turn is often quoted as going up to 22,000 meters (though some give a rather lower one, e.g. 12,000 meters). I personally have a hard time understanding the nostalgia for the semi-active radar homing 9M38 M1-missile that had turned 25 by the time conscript training in Finland stopped (something that does not mean it left the wartime forces at that time) and is well over 40 years old by now (I mean, if we really wanted something with altitude, we’d start shopping around on the second-hand market for the impressive S-200VE with it’s 29,000 meter ceiling and 240 km range…). It also deserves to be said that the F/A-18 Hornet-fleet is more than capable of taking on targets that attempt to sneakily fly above the NASAMS ceiling.

Still, air defence usually is best served by a layered approach, and it has been an ambition for the FDF to get back into the ground-based high-altitude air defence-game for quite some time. In 2018 an RFI was issued, which was followed up with an RFQ to five companies in 2020. The plan at that stage was to finalise the procurement before the end of 2022, but that schedule was adjusted last year – partly due to the pandemic having caused issues.

A Stunner-missile shooting away towards the clouds that are hanging over Palmachim Air Base in Israel. The Stunner is perhaps the best endoatmospheric interceptor in the world, and a surprise top-two in the race for a new Finnish GBAD-system. Source: United States Missile Defense Agency via Wikimedia Commons

However, last week we were treated to a surprise down-select, and it provided a rather surprising outcome. Gone were not only Diehl and always-bridesmaid-never-the-bride MBDA who keeps having a hard time securing Finnish contracts, but also favourite Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace and their NASAMS-ER. Instead we were left with two offers, both from Israel: the David’s Sling of Rafael and the BARAK MX of IAI. Neither system is bad, in fact they are both extremely competent according to all available public sources, but for the Finnish procurement there has been a feeling that they are simply too competent – and by extension too costly. An outspoken goal with the current procurement has been to get enough batteries to provide geographical coverage (it is easy to imagine coverage increasing through increased range, but for air defence that is to some extent a faulty line of reasoning as the difference in effective area coverage between two batteries with differently ranged missiles is rather small compared to what can be achieved through the ability to place more batteries in different key locations – remember that as opposed to e.g. anti-tank weapons the targets for the air defences are also constantly moving around and covering significant distances, at any point in time during which they can run into your air defences).

However, it is now evident that the FDF was more ambitious than just getting an average solution. Considering the timing, you would be forgiven to imagine the FDF having changed the scope somewhat following the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine. The force however denies that that would be case, and states that throughout the program capability has been the primary concern, which do makes you feel a bit sad for Diehl who tried to take on missile systems that sport some of the most advanced endoatmospheric interceptors on the market with their IRIST-T SLM.

Indian destroyer INS Kolkata firing a Barak 8 missile during the initial trials of the system back in 2015. Source: Indian Navy via Wikimedia Commons

As mentioned the two systems left in the running are the BARAK MX from IAI and the David’s Sling of Rafael. The BARAK MX traces its roots to the ship-based family of BARAK 8-missiles. These originally kicked off as a joint Israeli-Indian project, though nowadays the missile family has forked off into two distinct national lines of Israeli and Indian versions respectively. The BARAK MX (with MX standing for ‘Mix’) is the Israeli land-based version and can hold a number of different missiles. While in Israeli service the BARAK is only used as a shipboard weapon, the weapon has been exported in land-based versions to a limited number of countries, best known of which is Azerbaijan.

The Azeri setup comes with both truck-mounted TELs and palletized firing units, truck-mounted BMCs (BARAK Management Centre, the solution is possibly containerised but I’m unsure based on the available pictures. Both container and truck-mounted versions are offered), and ELTA’s palletized ELM-2288 AD-STAR radars. There are also reports that Azerbaijan have acquired the ELM-2080 Green Pine radar (which sports one of the cooler code names around, more on this one shortly). The layout is rather conventional for a modern system. Everything goes on wheeled trucks (unless you want a hardened BMC), and when you arrive at your preferred location the trucks either point their missiles towards the sky or deploy their palletized missiles racks, both setups of which can handle eight missiles ready to fire. The radar is set up and everything is connected to the BMC which is the brains of the systems. Here it is also possible to connect the system to other sensors, to ensure that you have a situational picture that is up to date and allowing e.g. for ambushing enemy aircraft by turning on the fire-control radar only once the enemy target is within range.

The BARAK MX TELs used by the Azerbaijani forces during a parade in Baku. Source: Azerbaijan presidential office via Wikimedia Commons

There are no details about the Finnish offer besides the MX being paired with an ELTA-radar. The ELM-2288 AD-STAR in some version is certainly the expected candidate, though other details are likely to differ compared to the Azeri setup. When contacted, IAI kindly declined to comment due to the sensitivity of the acquisition program, so there is some guesswork involved here. An interesting detail is that the Finnish Defence Forces refer to the missile on offer as the LRAD ER. IAI in turn talk about having three different missiles: the point-defence MRAD (30 km range), the medium-range LRAD (70 km), and the booster-equipped ER (150 km range). The missiles are hot-launched, but still described as having a “low launch signature” – YMMV. When I contacted FDF they confirmed that LRAD ER is one missile and not an offer that include both LRAD- and ER-missiles. I tried to ask IAI if they have more than three missiles integrated – i.e. if the LRAD ER would be a new-version of the LRAD – but they referred only to three above. As the ER is an LRAD with a booster (think they same principle as the Aster-family), I tend to believe that the Finnish designation refer to the ER. This performance is more or less on par with the 160 km range PAC-2 GEM-T missile of the Patriot system (Robot 103A in Swedish service). However, there are two key difference in that the BARAK is equipped with an active radar seeker (i.e. the missile carries its own radar and will continue to home on to the target even if the main radar goes silent) while the PAC-2 is a semi-active radar homing missile (i.e. it relies on the ground radar lighting up the target). The second important difference is that while the PAC-2 is a single-stage missile (i.e. it burns until it no longer does so, and then it coasts along until running out of speed), the BARAK ER is in effect a two-stage three-pulse missile in that we first have the booster kicking off the whole thing, and the LRAD missile mounted on top of the booster then has a dubble-pulse engine, giving significantly more energy during the later stages of the interception compared to traditional missiles. The BARAK also has a vertical launch which gives the ability to cover 360°, though in practice the Patriot batteries are usually deployed so as to minimize the impact of their ‘blind’ sector – it is rare to find locations where you can be jumped on from any direction, unless you deploy on top of the highest hill in the area, and then everyone will see you.

There are reports that the BARAK MX took part in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Few Armenien air losses were documented during the conflict, none of which are attributed to the system. However, there are persistent reporting that during the final stage of the conflict Armenia would have fired a single 9M723 Iskander against the Azeri capital of Baku, and this would have been intercepted by a BARAK. The claims are rightly questioned, as to the best of my knowledge all reporting of the incident go back to a single story by a Turkish journalist, and there have been no independent verification. Verification of successful intercepts of ballistic missiles are also notoriously hard to make even in the best of conditions, and it is unclear whether Azerbaijan actually has the ER with its enhanced theatre-ballistic missile defence (TBMD or BMD for short) capability in service or whether it is relying on the shorter-legged missiles. As such, I would be careful with the ‘Combat Proven’ label for now, though the missile has since successfully intercepted ballistic missiles in trials.

But wait a minute, readers of the blog will say. Finland wasn’t supposed to get a BMD capability!

The answer is “Yes” (and just wait until you see the other guy).

Back in 2019, Finnish Chief of Defence general Timo Kivinen gave the following statement to the Finnish newspaper Kaleva:

No minor country has the resources to develop and maintain an active missile defence system. […] Finland has a passive missile defence system, based on an analysed and identified threat. The concept is based on protection, movement, and decentralized operations.

This statement was by no means unique, but rather one in the line of statements to media and in press releases where the same principle has been stated time and time again. Finland does not have any interest in ballistic missile defence through shooting down incoming missiles. So what is up with that, has the FDF changed priorities now under influence from the war in Ukraine and the liberal amount of missiles fired?

(Note that while that’s a serious number of missiles quoted in the tweet below, there has also been a serious number of airstrikes during the war, and of the ones mentioned only the Iskanders and Tochkas are ballistic missiles)

The short answer is “No”. The longer answer is still the same as it always has been:

The ability to defeat ballistic missiles has not been one of the project’s objectives. We have compared the performance of different systems against traditional targets.

In short, the BARAK ER and David’s Sling with its Stunner missile are simply better at killing aircraft and cruise missiles than the competition, and that’s why they are shortlisted.

But there will be an Iskander-killing capability, right?

Not necessarily. Having a missile capable of hitting the incoming ballistic missile is an important step, but only part of the equation. Since the target is ridiculously quick, getting pre-warning is key (remember the Green Pine-radar rumoured to have gone to Azerbaijan? That’s a radar that is dedicated to long range detection and acquisition of TBMs, exactly the kind of additional – and very expensive – sensor you need if you want to enter the BMD-game for real). That in turn means you want to know where it comes from so you can set up you sensors to detect it at optimal range (see excellent linked thread below by Simon Petersen, who as opposed to yours truly actually is a professional when it comes to these kinds of things), and that is a very different setup of sensors and deployment patterns compared to if you are planning on taking on aircraft or helicopters. This is also a key reason why BMD makes more sense for Sweden than for Finland, as the obvious firing location for Iskanders heading toward Sweden is from the rather limited direction of Kaliningrad, while Finland has a rather large sector of potential enemy TBM firing locations.

So, when the FDF is buying a BMD-capable system and still says they aren’t aiming for a BMD-capability, that’s what they mean. The missile might be there, and if someone is dropping an Iskander on their block they might be able to kill it. But if it is headed to the next district you are probably out of luck.

But if you were impressed by the BARAK MX (and you probably should be), wait until you see what Rafael brings to the table.

David’s Sling is system that resemble a Patriot battery that has decided to enter the near-vertical launch game. It is jointly developed with Raytheon, and is very different from, well, most everything found on the market.

The two-stage missile called Stunner has a distinct ‘dolphin-nose’ look, using the asymmetry to manoeuvre and to fit several sensors. Good manoeuvrability is a must, since the missile is a hit-to-kill one. This means that as opposed to most air defence missiles which flies close to their targets and then detonate to create a cloud of shrapnel, the Stunner will ram into whatever it is targeting at high speed. This is obviously a sure-fire way to bring down most everything, but also a very unforgiving way of operating in that a near-miss doesn’t give you much except disturbed air. To achieve the desired accuracy, the Stunner is a two-stage three-pulse missile as well, with the third pulse providing the speed needed to manoeuvre at the final stages of the intercept. The guidance is provided by several different modes of tracking, including an active radar seeker as well as a multi-function electro-optical sensor sporting IIR-capability. The batteries in Israeli service feature the ELM-2084 MMR S-band radar, which is a step up in capability from the ELM-2288 AD-STAR of the BARAK MX. Of interest, one of the smaller members of the MMR-family is the Compact-Multi Mission Radar ELM-2311 C-MMR which Finland bought and received last year for the counter-artillery role (though they do offer a secondary air-surveillance capability as well). The missiles are transported around on a trailer-type TEL (which might or might not be called a MEL, depending on your level of geekiness), which apparently sports twelve missiles ready to launch. During the test firings the combat management centre seemed to be a containerised solution, and while it certainly seems likely there’s really no telling for sure whether that is the solution used for operational batteries.

As opposed to the BARAK MX, David’s Sling is in Israeli service. The primary purpose is as the mid-tire defence against incoming missiles and heavy rockets, sorting between the short-range Iron Dome and the larger Arrow. Despite the original design purpose being solidly in the BMD-role, the weapon is obviously more than capable of bringing down more conventional targets as well. The performance is largely classified, with some sources stating the range at 160+ km (note that corresponds to a very round “above 100 miles”) while others give 300 km as the maximum. In any case, it is safe to say the range is longer than BARAK ER. An interesting detail is that the missile is being looked at as a possible replacement for/alternative to PAC-3 missiles for the Patriot under the PAAC-4 program, where the additional ‘A’ stands for ‘Affordable’. That is an interesting notion, as while the batteries themselves certainly cost, the munitions add up as well. It would be easy to imagine the Stunner as being a prohibitively expensive missile due to its performance, highly specialised role, and fancy sensors, but apparently that isn’t the case (though in air defence, “cheap” doesn’t equal “small amounts of money”). An interesting detail is that the US so far has been reluctant to let Israel export it directly, meaning that this offer certainly shows the trust and importance Washington places in Finland and the FDF. So far the only almost-confirmed export customer is Poland, which is planning to acquire it for their Wisła-program. The initial package will however sport the PAC-3 MSE, and the program has ran into some issues as the cost of integration into the Polish C3-system has caused the budget to expand considerably compared to e.g. the Swedish Patriot-order.

A really interesting side-track is that Israel, who by the way also happens to be a serious F-35-user, has test-flown the Stunner without the booster on an F-16. The possibility of having a highly-manoeuvrable air-to-air missile with multi-seeker capability is certainly interesting when going after small and/or stealthy targets such as cruise missiles, drones, and Su-57s. While so far no decision has been made  to integrate the Stunner on the F-35 and the FDF is currently not looking at the possibility of acquiring a joint-use GBAD/A2A-missile in the same way as the AIM-120 AMRAAM currently is being operated, it is certainly not something that is a negative in the books for Rafael’s offering. It certainly would be an interesting development, and let’s remember that the decision on what to get after the AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM is still open for the FinAF.

So where does that leave us? Both systems are reportedly easy to integrate into legacy systems, are already in operational service, and sport performance that would propel FDF GBAD into a world-class integrated air defence system on all altitudes and against all conventional targets (drones, cruise missiles, helicopters, aircraft). The big question is whether there is the budget to acquire enough batteries and missiles? So far the FDF isn’t telling, but in an interview the budget is described as “significant but below the threshold of strategic acquisitions”. Considering the Squadron 2020 program was a strategic program and came in at an original budget of 1.2 Bn EUR, a safe guess is that we are talking about several hundred million euros, but below a billion. As a comparison, that would be below the Swedish Patriot-acquisition which is valued at approximately 1.1 Bn EUR, though that did include modernisations to the general sensors and C3-networks. The Swedish program include two battalions of two batteries each, both capable of independent operations but mainly used together to protect a single area. Depending on the Finnish doctrine and pairings with other air defence systems, something similar might be able to fit inside the Finnish budget, but that is largely down to how much other stuff will have to be paid for. As is well-known, the so-called ITSUKO which deals with the high-altitude capability is part of the larger air-defence framework that include a number of other projects, and as such the budget for the batteries themselves might be surprisingly similar for Finland and Sweden. If I had to guess, we will see the BARAK MX take home this one based on the versatility and the smaller footprint leading to greater mobility, but David’s Sling is certainly an impressive system and as we have seen performance matters in this one. It will be highly interesting to see what the next year brings for ITSUKO.

A Modest Proposal

It’s healthier to tie up one’s horse at the roundpole fence of one’s enemy, than that he would tie up at ours

Bishop Johannes Rudbeckius

 

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them

Jesus (Matthew 7:12)

The war in Ukraine is raging on, and so far the Finnish political leadership does seem to still be “looking” at what the options are to help Ukraine and to increase Finnish security. Let’s be blunt:

This war has not come as a surprise, but we’ve seen months of Russia moving units into position until it was more a question of when rather than if. As such, that there isn’t a ready plan is something of a failure of planning, as even if the Finnish politicians didn’t think that war was the most likely outcome, it should have been evident months ago that it was at very least a real risk and as such there should have been a contingency plan. Still, here we are, and in the interest of public service, here is what can and should be done:

Closer cooperation with Sweden (and possibly other partners as well)

While Finnish-Swedish defence and foreign policy cooperation is rather deep already, there are a few practical steps that can be taken swiftly and which would both serve operational purposes as well as provide valuable signalling. The lowest hanging fruit is to invite the Swedish Air Force’s intelligence gathering platforms – crucially the S 102B ‘Korpen’ and S 100D ‘Argus’ – to operate in Finnish airspace and potentially even from Finnish bases, Rovaniemi and Tampere-Pirkkala likely being the prime candidates in that case.

One of the two Swedish SIGINT-modified Gulfstream IV, designated S 102B Korpen. The two aircraft are named Hugin and Munin after Oden’s two ravens. Source: Luc Willems / Wikimedia Commons

The S 102B Korpen (Swedish for raven, having gotten its name from the ravens that flew all over the world to bring information to the god Odin in Norse mythology) are SIGINT-equipped Gulfstream G-IVSP, while the S 100D Argus (named for the all-seeing giant in Greek mythology) is the Swedish AEW&C platform, a Saab 340 with an Erieye-radar on top (the designation ASC890 is also used). Both are regularly seen flying over the Baltic Sea towards Kaliningrad, but are also doing regular runs along the Finnish-Swedish border in the north, trying to get a look into Russian airspace. Allowing them to fly in Finnish airspace would significantly increase their reach, and allow the Swedes to gather better information on what Russia is doing. In the best of worlds, they might even be ready to share some of the material with Finnish intelligence, as while the Finnish Air Force does operate a SIGINT-aircraft, there might certainly be some differences in the sensors carried that allow for the Swedes gathering data which we don’t have, and in any case we lack an AEW&C platform. Even if the Swedish intelligence community would not want to share their information with us, helping Sweden to have a better situational picture on which to base their policy decisions is certainly in itself valuable for Finland. The political signalling would also be a value.

Joint buys of ammunition and other materiel would also be something that both would increase the combat capability (and therefore deterrence value) of the armed forces in both countries as well as signal political resolve in both countries. As it so happens, the Swedish CinC has already provided a request to the Swedish parliamentary defence committee requesting permission to buy more ammunition, fuel, food, and medical supplies than planned under the current budget. As Finland and Sweden recently signed a framework agreements for how to jointly acquire ammunition, this is an excellent opportunity to show both resolve and cooperation in practice.

Joint exercises are more difficult to drum up at short notice, but a few things could still be done. Letting key people such as unit commanders and other high-ranking officers meet for discussions (preferably with photo ops of them standing around a table or out in the field and pointing at maps and things to show how serious the discussions are) can be arranged at relatively short notice thanks to their small footprint. Everyone’s busy right now, but clearing out a day in the calendar should still be doable. Having the commanders of the Norrland’s dragoons and the Jaeger brigade stand at the shore in Suomussalmi flanked by their chiefs of staffs and look over towards at Hulkonniemi would be a rather clear message to any potential adversary, and the importance of personal connections between officers at all levels can’t be overestimated. The same can obviously be done at the political level as well.

Similar kinds of things could preferably be done with other partners in the region as well. A high-profile visit by Finnish Air Force personnel to Evenes Air Force Base in the Norwegian high north to discuss F-35 operations in adverse conditions or the decision to jointly acquire more Stingers with Latvia could certainly fit the bill. However, as Finland and Sweden are two of the only European democracies choosing not to be part of a defensive alliance with other fellow democracies, it is certainly possible that many of the other countries are too busy doing internal alliance-stuff, and it might leave Finnish-Swedish cooperation as the most viable path in the near term.

Weapons to ukraine

This really should have taken place back before Russia invaded, and it is outright bizarre that Finland has declined exports to Ukraine – not just decided not to gift weapons to Ukraine, both from allowing them to buy Finnish-made stuff – with the logic that Finland don’t ship weapon to conflict zones. Besides the obvious stuff that this hasn’t been a show-stopper in certain earlier cases – such as the Patria AMVs appearing in Yemen – it is utter stupidity that Finland would play a part in setting a precedent that if Russia threatens war, other countries should not export weapons to the threatened democracy. But that is all water under the bridge, and the next question is what to do now?

The obvious fact still stand. It is in Finland’s interest to aid Ukraine with as much weapons and ammunition as possible. This argument does not rest on altruism – though you can make that argument as well – both on cold hard realism. Finland has only one possible military adversary in today’s world, and that is Putin’s Russia: a country ruled by a dictator that has outright invaded some neighbouring countries, propped up dictators in others, and supported (more or less organic) separatist movements in yet others, and which has as late as this week warned Finland (and Sweden) against us exercising our sovereign right to choose our security solutions. As such, few things would improve Finland’s geopolitical situation as much as a Ukrainian “victory” (whatever that means) in this war.

The cold hard truth is that every T-80BVM tank of the 200th OMB that is knocked out in Ukraine is one less tank in Pechenga, and that means less forces close to the Finnish border, and that in turn means less combat capability that Russia can use to threaten – or if the worst comes, invade – Finland with. It also means less funds for training and more of the training done being at a simpler level, as the focus in the Russian armed forces shifts to replacing lost equipment and personnel.

This is the cold face of war, that securing the upper hand usually means those on the other side of the border will die or otherwise be made to suffer. It is the grim reality we need to keep in mind when discussing these things, but at the end of the day we didn’t choose this any more than the Ukrainians. Instead, Putin did, and we need to be prepared for him actually staying true to his word when he keeps threating the use of force. As such, arming Ukraine builds Finnish deterrence as our relative strength grows, meaning that the Russian leverage to put pressure on us decreases.

So what can we do?

The obvious thing is the old AK-clones in different version. Finland has earlier bought numerous different foreign-made AKs, including from ex-DDR and Chinese stocks. Following the downsizing of the armed forces, word on the street has it that none of these would be used by the 280,000 strong fully mobilised force (with the exception of the rather limited number of foreign-built folding-stock rifles used by AFV crews), and already back in 2006 there was talk that they could be gifted to the Afghan National Army as the FDF didn’t want or need them. It is highly unlikely that the FDF would need them more now than they did back then, and they could certainly fit the requirement of simple weapons that could be handed out to volunteers in the campaign Ukraine has now embarked upon.

One weapon system that has not been mentioned is the sniper rifles that are becoming surplus in the near future with the introduction of the Sako M23 which will replace most 7.62 TKIV 85 (a highly modded Mosin-Nagant) and all 7.62 TKIV Dragunov. These sport calibres that are found in Ukrainian service and rounds which will be surplus to the FDF with the retirement of the rifles. While it is too early to ship away all, I would certainly believe that at least some of them could be declared surplus right away.

But the big deal is the NLAW and Stinger missiles. With armoured vehicles and massed helicopter assaults being among the key threats facing the Ukrainians, providing simple weapon systems that Ukraine already operate would be a significant addition the combat capability of the Ukrainian army. Also, the knowledge of more missiles being on the way will ensure that the Ukrainian defence forces are freer in using the stocks they already have. And from a Finnish perspective, again, tanks that become burning hulks in Ukraine won’t be used to intimidate Finland in half a years time.

But doesn’t Finland need these weapons for ourselves?

Yes, and no. The weapons are needed, but right now we are in a rare situation where Russia actually does not have the capability to perform offensive operations in our neighbourhood thanks to the better part of the units normally stationed nearby being in Ukraine. If Finland is quick (because we might not be the only one who wants to top up our stocks) to call Saab and Raytheon and place orders for more NLAWs and Stingers respectively this could provide a good opportunity to rotate stocks (granted the current stocks probably have plenty of shelf life left, so it isn’t urgent from that perspective), and still be back at having a sizeable stocks of missiles by the time the Russian units are back from Ukraine and have recovered from their losses. Obviously, that would require more funds, but the weapons right now would certainly do more for Finnish security in Ukrainian hands than in Finnish depots. And as mentioned, we have a framework for buying anti-tank munitions jointly with Sweden, so this would fit in with the idea of using that very framework as expressed above.

At least one T-80BVM is not coming back to Pechenga. This is – cynical as it may sound – beneficial to Finnish national security. Illustration by Erik Gustavsson / Public Domain

We are back to political will. If the political leadership is ready to grab the opportunity and prepared to pay for the costs, it certainly is doable (though the scale depends on a number of factors, many of which are classified).

Nato

Yes, we should have joined NATO ages ago. Nothing has changed, besides there now being yet another data point that non-NATO countries get invaded by Russia more frequently than NATO-countries. Why we wouldn’t want to build our security together with or European and trans-atlantic partners is beyond my understanding, and anyone arguing for us being safe from Putin’s anger if we just keep calm has a rather more difficult time making that argument convincingly following this week (though in all honesty this was clear to anyone willing to look at the world and make a sober assessment already in 2008). The exact form and steps taken to join can be discussed, and I leave that to other.

Though She be but Little She is Fierce – Minesweeping Capability 2030

The Finnish Navy is passionate about naval mines. This includes both laying mines – as evident by the liberal amount of minerails found on not only the dedicated minelayers but also on surface combatants and auxiliaries – as well as hunting for them. This has its natural explanation, as the Finnish coastline (and the Baltic Sea in general) is well suited to mine warfare, with the waters being shallow and many port facilities being found inside the archipelago where thousands of islands and skerries form narrow sea lanes and obvious chokepoints. Keeping the Finnish waters free from hostile mines is at the end of the day not a nice-to-have to capability, but is crucial if Finnish society is to function and the FDF is to be able to keep fighting for any prolonged period in a wartime scenario.

Mine countermeasures can be done in a number of ways. The easiest and most cost-efficient is usually to ensure that no mines are laid, preferably through simply blowing up the enemy stocks of naval mines while they are still portside, but in real life things seldom prove this easy. And even in the best case, ensuring that areas used for friendly traffic really are minefree is usually a must. This leads us to the two main ways in which already sown mines can be rendered harmless: minehunting and minesweeping. Minehunting is the use of sensors to find mine-like objects, which then can be studies in more detail either with other sensors or with clearance divers, and if found to be a mine the object can then be neutralised through a number of different ways – most commonly through simply blowing it to pieces. The other option is sweeping, which is probably what most people think about when hearing about clearing naval mines. This is done through towing wires to cut moored mines so that they may float free (and preferably be destroyed by something once they breach the surface) or through towing magnetic or acoustic generators which then create signatures that cause influence mines to detonate.

One of the Kuha-class vessels in the process of handling its acoustic influence sweeper. Source: Finnish Navy Facebook

In case anyone didn’t already figure out the main issue with sweeping: towing means that your ship is in front of the thing you use to disable the mines with, a decidedly bad place to be at. Different solutions have been tried to remedy this, including the use of helicopters for towing the sweeps, but at the end of the day these have all proved either costly or unreliable. Instead, the stoic men and women plying the sea to ensure it is safe for other ships to go there has adopted a simple maxim:

Hunt where you can; Sweep where you must

But why would anyone sweep if that’s so dangerous? The answer is time. A general rule of thumb is that a typical minehunter is able to clear approximately one nautical square mile (1,852 x 1,852 meters) every 24 hours, while a typical mechanical sweeper should be able to clear between 4 to 6 nautical square miles. Remotely manned systems usually log approximately the same figures as their manned counterparts. This also brings up one of the other issues with mine clearing, namely that it will require hulls. And every hull can only be in one location at any single time.

(For a more detailed discussion on everything naval minewarfare, I recommend picking up captain Chris O’Flaherty’s “Naval Minewarfare: Politics to Practicalities“, which I reviewed behind the link above)

When combined, these factors add together to explain the somewhat curious order of battle for the Finnish 4. Mine countermeasures squadron of the Coastal Fleet (Fi. 4. Miinantorjuntalaivue and Rannikkolaivasto respectively). From their homeport at the Pansio naval base just outside of Turku, the unit operate a motley collection of three state-of-the-art minehunters of the Katanpää-class, as well as six small (16 meters LOA and 20 tons) Kiiski-class minesweepers built in the 1980’s and four of the larger (32 meters LOA and 150 tons) Kuha-class minesweepers built back in the 1970’s (but lengthened and modernised around the turn of the millennium). Both are built with GRP-hulls to minimise their magnetic signature (i.e. to try and ensure that they don’t trigger magnetic mines), and can sweep both impulse and contact (moored) mines. The Kiiski-class was built to be optionally manned – the nature of minesweeping meaning that the field has a long and storied history with small optionally manned vessels being controlled from larger sweepers (the German Seehund-class being the best-known internationally) – though my understanding is that feature is no longer used. An interesting detail when it comes to operating the vessels is that a single Kuha (Kuha 26) and five Kiiski (Kiiski 3 through 7) are operated by the regional defence unit Clearance Detachment Osprey (Fi. Raivaajaosasto Sääksi) which is made up of reservists volunteering to do more frequent refresher exercises compared to the regular reserve.

Edit 15/02/2022: Swedish YLE has gotten an update from the Navy, and it turns out the number of operational vessels has shrunk further in the last few years, currently standing at two Kuha and four Kiiski.

Members of Raivaajaosasto Sääksi readying Kiiski 7 during an exercise. Source: Finnish Navy Facebook

However, nothing lasts forever, not even lengthened GRP-hulls, and Naval News this week broke the story that the Finnish Navy has issued a tender for a new minesweeping capability under the designation Minesweeping Capability 2030 (MSC2030, or Raivaamiskyky 2030 / RAKY2030). A new class of vessels will replace both of the older classes of sweepers, which will retire before the end of the decade.

The vessel will sit between the Kiiski and Kuha in size, but being closer to the latter by having a maximum length of approximately 24 meters and sporting a galley as well as accommodation and sanitary spaces. In true Finnish fashion, the mechanical sweeping gear will be transferred from the current vessels on to the new class. The integrated influence sweep systems will however be new, and should cover “all relevant signatures (e.g. acoustic, magnetic, electric)”. This might in other words spell the end of the line for Patria’s domestic sweepers, though the details are obviously unconfirmed as of yet. As was the case with HX, the tender is design to cost, with the expected budget being in the 18 to 20 MEUR range with an additional 15 MEUR reserved for options which might or might not be exercised. The number of hulls, however, is not mentioned in the tender, something that the Finnish Navy confirms isn’t an oversight but rather something they have left open to the bidders (at least for now).

The schedule given include a call for interested yards to report their interest before mid-March, the RFQ will then follow during Q2 this year, and the negotiations to find a prime contractor will kick off during Q3. Contract signing is not yet given, but with an FOC date of 2030 it can be expected to come quite rapidly (my personal guess would be during the first half of 2023). If a supplier can be found.

Because it deserves to be said: nothing like this has been built in the last decade or two.

Few navies are as passionate about mines as the Finnish ones, and those that still run serious mine countermeasure capabilities have largely transited to minehunting instead of sweeping, with most sweepers left in service being rather old. In addition, most new vessels are also on the bigger side compared to the 24 meters of the new class. Perhaps the most recent example of anything resembling the Finnish requirement is found in the Danish Navy which operate the MRD- (or MRD-STOR) and MRF-classes of optionally manned minesweepers. Telling however is that both are old enough (20+ years) that the builder Danyard has since folded.

MSF1 of the MRD-class closest to the camera. The general layout with a large open deck aft and superstructure towards the bow can be expected to feature on the upcoming MSC2030-class. Source: Søværnet Facebook

So who will be competing for the job? The obvious Finnish yard to build a displacing 24 meter craft for any Finnish authorities is Uudenkaupungin Työvene (or Uki Workboat for short), though they are solidly a aluminium/steel-yard. Marine Alutech, supplier of landing craft and fast patrol boats to the Finnish Navy and Border Guards, is also a contender, though the size of the vessel is on the larger side for them and they usually prefer planing hulls. They do however have experience with composite hulls following their order for patrol craft to Oman. My alma mater Kewatec AluBoat has also recently bagged an order from the Finnish Navy, though they are also a pure aluminium yard. They do however sport some interesting designs that would fit the general requirements for the vessel.

A key note, however, is that the Navy isn’t prepared to comment on whether they are looking for a Finnish yard as prime contractor or for building some or all of the vessels locally on license, at least not “at this stage of the process”. This obviously opens up the field even more, and you can expect more or less all the major players in Europe to step up to the plate ready to have a swing at it. This include both smaller players for whom this would be a really nice fit (such as Swedeship Composite and Intermarine), but also the big players for whom this might be a bit on the small side (such as Naval Group, TKMS, Lürssen, or FINCANTIERI) who possibly might outsource the building of the vessels to a smaller yard and do the outfitting  and technology integration themselves. Saab occupies something of a special spot in this discussion, as they have both the GRP know-how (over at Kockums) and a dedicated small craft yard (Docksta). Saab confirms that the project obviously is of interest to them, but said it is too early to tell whether they will be making an offer.

Trying to state which yard (or yards) are the favourites at this stage is tough, and depends somewhat on the equipment level of the vessels. As a very general rule of thumb, the larger yards with recent experience of mine countermeasure vessels such as Naval Group (with the MCM for the Dutch and Belgian navies) and Intermarine (with the large number of Lerici-class derivatives) will benefit from a more tech-heavy approach, while smaller yards with less overhead and leaner structures will benefit from a more bare-bones approach. With that said, Intermarine might be in for a tough race considering the delays with the Katanpää-class probably not having been forgotten quite yet.

Alta-class minesweeper HNoMS Rauma of the Norwegian Navy. Source: BigStuart / Wikimedia Commons

The general layout of the vessel is likely to be rather conventional, mirroring both Kiiski and Kuha in sporting an open deck aft for the handling of the sweeping gear and a superstructure towards the bow. The tender notes that they need to be capable of being optionally manned, which as noted is nothing new or revolutionary in the field of minesweeping. One interesting question that could alter the general layout is if a twin-hull design would prove feasible, as these certainly would provide ample of deckspace and a stable working platform for the rather limited overall length. The Norwegian Navy operate two related classes of mine countermeasure vessels, the Alta-class sweepers and the Oksøy-class minehunters, which sport catamaran hulls of surface effect ship design. SES as a technology is overkill for the Finnish requirement, but shows that unconventional designs are possible within the field of mine countermeasure vessels.

This obviously also ties back to the design to cost and the question of capability versus number of hulls. For a stripped vessel the size of the Kiiski-class, one might get away with paying around a million for the vessel itself, plus whatever the sweeping gear will cost. However, while the 24 meter is a maximum, it certainly gives an indication that the vessel are expected to be 20+ meters in LOA, which together with the navalisation of the design will add to the cost. I also asked the Navy to clarify what exactly the thought behind the options are, which for the time being represent a sum corresponding to 75 to 83 % of the primary contract. Unfortunately they declined to comment on that question. In my mind, there are two prime alternatives: more hulls, or equipment that would go onto the ‘fitted for but not with’-list in case the options aren’t used. This could include defensive weapons (dual-purpose guns or anti-aircraft systems) or anti-submarine weapons, but also upgrades to the mine sweeping equipment, including things such as better sensors, more ROVs, or equipment to assist in case  clearance divers are to be used from the vessels. More hulls is a more straightforward option, as even in the best of cases replacing the current 4+6 vessels on a one-to-one basis seems unattainable with 20 MEUR as that leaves an average of 2 MEUR per vessel, including project management costs and sweep equipment. However, five vessels of a rather basic design might be attainable for 20 MEUR (i.e. 4 MEUR per vessel), dropping the non-recurring costs might mean that another four or five vessels could be squeezed in for an additional 15 MEUR in options. This is just pure speculation at this point, but says something about the scope of the contract. Notable is that the Navy on a direct question stated that Raivaajaosasto Sääksi through the implementation of MSC2030 will have “their materiel renewed and the activities developed”, meaning that the complexity of the vessels will need to be kept at a level where reservists can make a meaningful contribution.

The Danish Navy removing a German mine from the Second World War outside the Estonian coast, a poignant reminder of time frames encountered in mine countermeasure work. Source: Søværnet Facebook

To give a bit of perspective, the three Katanpää-class minehunters came in at 81.7 MEUR a piece, giving a hint at just how stripped an – arguably significantly smaller – minesweeper would have to be to fit the 4 MEUR unit price. However, the aforementioned 23 meter long survey vessels recently ordered by a Swedish company from Kewatec AluBoats came in at 3 MEUR per vessel, so it certainly is doable. At the end of the day, if we could see six or seven new sweepers fit in under the contract while still ensuring that the needed capability is there, I would be rather happy.

Speaking of Swedish companies, an interesting question is obviously whether someone else might be interested in acquiring a few (presumably) dirt cheap minesweepers? I asked the Navy, and got the following line:

The Finnish Navy interact regularly and actively with several countries and take part in international research activities in the field of mine countermeasures, but the MSC2030-project is handled as a national project.

So no export customers for the time being. On the other hand, if the vessels turn out to be good and economical ships, I would not be overtly surprised to see some version of them going on export to some of the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. Sweden is a good example of a country that has a solid minehunting capability, but lack in the number of hulls available and currently doesn’t operate a dedicated minesweeper. The Swedish Navy did in fact acquire and briefly operate one ex-Danish MRD-class vessel, HMS Sökaren (MRF01), for tests and trials as part of the deal to lease a surplus submarine to the Danish Navy, but no operational program came out of the so called SAM II-trials. With the Swedish Navy in general being short on hulls and having the same kind of geographical issue as Finland with numerous ports covered by narrow approaches, a small fleet of sweepers could certainly have a role to fill (in particular if Saab makes a successful bid for the program). But for the time being, MSC2030 stays a purely Finnish program, and one that will certainly be interesting to follow, despite it not being as media sexy as Squadron 2020.

Ready when you are

As several observers on Twitter already have noted, while Finland doesn’t directly shout “We’re raising the readiness!” there’s certainly been a flurry of the – as usual rather low-key – messaging to that effect from the Finnish Defence Forces. However, the messages are opaque enough that they do require a bit of attention to detail to figure out what’s really going on.

Like in this case with the Army Academy and Karelia Brigade going out on exercise. Now, note that the Army Academy (Fi. Maasotakoulu) isn’t exactly loaded with conscripts, so these aren’t the much hyped (and with good reason) Valmiusyksiköt (Readiness units, abbreviated VYKS) made up of long-serving conscripts, but rather the Valmiusosastot (Readiness detachments, VOS) staffed by professionals. You’d be forgiven for not realising that tiny detail, but it certainly is interesting that the Karelia Brigade has not sent out it’s VYKS in the field, but rather the VOS, as confirmed by a second tweet.

A benefit of using professionals is obviously that it is possible to train more, including with other authorities where ROEs and command chains can quickly get a bit complicated. The tweets published by the brigade on Twitter does make it sound like the Police decided to crack down on a criminal gang, realised the weapons stash was something too hot for them to handle, and decided to hand over tactical command to the FDF. I will say that I struggle to remember any similar scenario in real life. Sure the FDF has assisted with e.g. providing transports in the form of helicopters or APCs, or a combat engineer or two to defuse some explosives, but I don’t think the scenario description above quite fit that of taking down your local drug dealing network.

Another unit that seemingly out of the blue decided that it was a good idea to train cooperation with other authorities is the Guard’s Jaeger Regiment in Helsinki, the premier MOUT-unit (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) in the Finnish Defence Forces. They even sent out a presser, around 300 soldiers will be running around in different parts of the greater Helsinki-region practicing a number of different mission sets, supported by APCs and including air operations in some scenarios. The regiment states that the operation is part of the normal training plan, but to be honest it is quite difficult to pinpoint which unit would be running this kind of exercise at this time of the year. Charly Salonius-Pasternak speculate that it might be reservists called up, which certainly would fit with the stated training goals, as well as being a clear indication that the current international situation has not come as a surprise to the Finnish Defence Forces, as the normal call-up time for these kinds of units measure in months rather than days or weeks.

The image chosen to illustrate the exercise in Helsinki. It certainly might be stock footage, but notable is that all soldiers have found it prudent to hang their gas masks on the outside of their equipment. Source: FDF

And then we have the flag officers.

Rear Admiral Harju already last week decided to tweet out a nice little image of one of the mineships at sea, noting that the current ice conditions – which have been on the more severe side during the early parts of this winter – doesn’t stop the Navy from doing their mission.

Which include the ability to drop a bunch of mines in some suitable sea-lane should that be called upon, I assume.

Brigadier General Keränen of the Finnish Air Force in turn spotted a quite sizeable detachment of the NH90 helicopters operated by the army aviation, sorting under the Finnish special forces unit in Utti. Apparently he didn’t know why they had decided to visit Tampere-Pirkkala air base, but still decided to take a picture of them and post it on social media.

To be honest, I’m not sure he’s telling us everything he knows.

Coupled with the decision by the Finnish Chief of Defence and Assistant Chief of Staff – Operations (J3) last week to give rather in-depth interviews to the public broadcaster YLE and the Finnish paper of record Helsingin Sanomat respectively, it seems evident that while the Finnish Defence Forces is sticking to the decision not to publish their state of readiness directly, they have opted to take a more open line compared to what has been the case in some other situations. Crucially, while the general public might not pick up on the details, there is little doubt that the potential adversary will be able to pick up on everything they need to know.

A key takeaway, however, is once again how differently the Swedish and Finnish Defence Forces communicate. At a time when both forces integrate deeper and deeper with each other with the aim of being able to perform joint operations in peace or war, this sticks out and is evidently an area that also will need to be the focus of exercises at the bilateral level. Luckily, as these kinds of strategic decisions are taken rather high up in the chain of command, they should be quite cheap to practice as the number of people and equipment involved is rather small.