The sound of cannon fire echoes through the forest, as I follow captain Laitinen towards the low tower protruding at the treeline. We are at the media tour of IPH 2/16, the latest edition of the twice-annually held exercise where soldiers from all of the ground-based air defense units come together for two weeks of intensive training at the Vattaja firing range. I smile as I spot the ZIL-131 trucks parked under the trees next to the dirt road. Soviet trucks are getting rarer in the defence forces, but if there’s somewhere one could expect to find them, it is within earshot of the trusty ZU-23-2 Sergei.
The Sergei themselves soon come into sight. Grouped below the tower is a row of the light anti-aircraft guns. The older 23 ITK 61 are placed to the left, with the modernised 23 ITK 95 to the right. The difference between them is that the newer ones got an aiming computer, thermal camera, and laser range-finder to enhance their accuracy. “The larger ones are aimed remotely, so they are being zeroed in at the moment,” captain Laitinen explains and points towards the ends of the lines, where the Oerlikon GDF’s can be made out. I nod and pull out the camera to start taking pictures.
While the army is the most visible service, the exercise is actually lead by the Air Force Academy. Captain Joni Laitinen is from the Academy, and works as the Leader of Exercise and Aerial Target Team. As such, he was the one responsible for the briefing we received before getting out in the field. The exercise trains both the air defence units themselves and their supporting units in all steps of their wartime tasks, he explained. This start with them moving to the area of operations a few hundred kilometres from their respective homebases. On location, they take up positions, with their wartime logistics and signals units supporting the combat elements. The first week is then all about the live firings of the systems at different aerial targets. After this, the combat stage takes place, where the air force and army aviation fly different scenarios over the firing range. This later phase is highly realistic, with the air defence network being met with targets ranging from unmanned systems, via helicopters, to fighter jets at different altitudes. The task is further complicated by the attackers employing jamming and releasing countermeasures, as the air force practices operations within an air defence zone. For a successful intercept, the air defences will first have to pick up the attackers on their radars, and then relay the information to the command network, which in turn direct the responses and alert the individual weapons systems as needed.
It might not be immediately visible to the individual gun or missile crew, but behind every engagement, there is a long chain of events that are rehearsed and repeated time after time to make sure that everyone knows what they are doing, and feel comfortable in their own task. “The focus isn’t on shots fired, but on successful repetitions,” as captain Laitinen put it.
Today the focus is on live firings, with the autocannons taking the front stage. It is set to be a busy day, as bad weather had hampered operations the first day of the exercise. “Some of our aerial targets and air defence systems have a weather limit, which meant that yesterday was something of a low-ops day,” colonel Ari Grönroos explained. The colonel is the Inspector of Ground Based Air Defence at the Army Staff, and functions as the head of the exercise. “That’s the way it is in ‘real life’ as well,” he continued with a shrug.
At the moment the weather is better, and soon the small remotely controlled plane that functions as the target started buzzing the row of guns. The guns follow the red target and opens up in turns, firing bursts after burst towards it. The plane is equipped with a pressure sensor, which in real time tells the leader of the gunnery exercise how many shots passed within four meters of it. “If we have one or two 23 mm grenades pass within that distance, we can be quite confident that they would at least have damaged a fighter-sized target,” Laitinen explains. “The Sergei works by covering a relatively large area. That one instead works by accuracy,” he continues and points towards one of the Oerlikons, or 35 ITK 88 as it is known locally.
Colonel Grönroos also makes sure to mention the excellent cooperation he feels exists between the defence forces and the local community. The same week that IPH2/16 took place, the latest in a row of meetings had taken place, in which the defence forces shared their plans for the upcoming years, and discussed these with the people living in the area near the firing range. The exercise is large for being such a specialised one, with over 200 reservists, 1000 conscripts, and 400 professionals taking part. While the latter aren’t necessarily the ones pulling the trigger, the exercise provides valuable training for them as well, including leading their units during the combat phase and renewing needed qualifications. During the live firings we witnessed two different reservist units alternate in firing the guns, allowing for more efficient training compared to if they only employed their own ones.
During the springtime the Navy usually take part in the live firings with their vessels, but this time their presence was limited to providing security and emergency teams. In addition to the rapid response boat, a NH90 helicopter was temporarily based at the range as well, performing patrol flights and MEDEVAC if the need would arise. A field hospital is also set up for the duration of the exercise. The live firings were more limited compared to the spring as well, with the ITO 15 (FIM-92 Stinger RMP-I) being the only missile system to see action. “In the spring we are expecting to be performing live firings with four or five different missile systems,” Laitinen discloses.
As we are about to move on, a sudden streak of light shoots across the sky, and destroys an aerial target further away. What immediately strikes me is the sheer speed of the Stinger missile, which admittedly comes as something of a surprise to me. Laitinen promises to get us a demonstration of the weapon, and after a short drive we meet up with tykkimies (gunner) Happonen who was the one to fire the missile we had seen. Bringing a training missile, he shows the proper handling, and admits that he didn’t see much of the live event due to the liberal amount of smoke the missile kicked up.
A big thank you to Päivi Visuri at the Karelia Brigade, as well as colonel Grönroos and captain Laitinen for hosting our visit! A special thank you to gunner Happonen as well. More pictures from the tour are found at the Corporal Frisk Facebook-page.