With Sweden looking at replacing all of their squad firearms, and Finland looking at acquiring a new sniper rifle/designated marksman rifle, the news of Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation that included assault rifles among a number of other weapons understandably raised some questions earlier this year. To shed some light on the issue, I contacted the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV), where brigadier general Mikael Frisell (Director Land Systems) and lieutenant-colonel Per Norgren (Head of Weapons and Protection department, Land Systems) were happy to talk over the phone and explain where the Swedish project is currently, where they expect it to go next, as well as how the cooperation with Finland plays into the needs of the Swedish Armed Forces in this field.
While there is a need to replace the current armoury, this is also happening as the Swedish Armed Forces in general and the Army in particular is growing. Four new regiments (two infantry, one artillery, and a ranger regiment) are being created this fall, and that directly impacts the Land Systems division. “There’s lots of funding, lots of things to be acquired,”Frisell explains. “We are under pressure to deliver as our funding is increasing.” So far this has been visible in a number of different places, with the squad weapons now being one of the major focus areas as simply removing worn weapons from usage isn’t possible when the need for weapons grows. Instead a complete redo of all carried weapons is set to take place. This has in fact already kicked off with the acquisition of the Carl-Gustaf M4 recoilless rifle to replace the older versions in Swedish service back in 2019, and the program is now set to continue until almost all firearms have been replaced during the next ten years.
And this is where cooperation with Finland comes into the picture.
“At the end of the day it is about security of supply,” Frisell explains, noting that while Sweden doesn’t have their own rifle manufacturer any longer, the extremely close cooperation between the Finnish and Sweden armed forces allow them to look at the picture from the somewhat unusual angle of treating Finnish companies as almost domestic ones from a security supply point of view.
But let us start from the beginning.
Sweden has during the last few decades been very much at the cutting edge of small arms acquisitions. The country was second only to the USA in adopting the 5.56 mm NATO as their main calibre (with the FN FNC), was jointly second with Norway after Austria to adopt the Glock 17, was second only to the UK in getting the Accuracy International PM/AW sniper rifle, and in fact beat the USA to adopting the Barrett M82 heavy sniper/anti-materiel rifle as they became the company’s first large-scale customer. However, most of these systems were originally acquired back in the late 80’s or early 90’s, meaning that more or less all systems are in need of replacement by now. Even the FN MAG (locally designated KSP 58) is starting to show its age, though Frisell notes that it is at the back of the queue since “that one is built for eternity”. More or less the only thing not being slated for replacement for the time being is the Barrett.
The original plan based on the needs identified by the Army was to first acquire a personal defence weapon (PDW), in other words a modern weapon to fill the role formerly allocated to sub-machine guns. This would then be followed by all assault rifles (including both the FNC/AK 5 and the older G3/AK 4 which is still in widespread use in second-line units) and sniper rifles, and support weapons such as machine guns being at the end of the line with the FN Minimi (KSP 90) going first and the FN MAG following dead last. However, recognising the possibility of teaming up with Finland has lead to a certain amount of reshuffling, with the PDW being pushed back and the sniper rifle as well as the designated marksman rifle (currently a role filled by a modded Heckler & Koch G3 designated AK 4D) instead jumping to the front. This is done on the basis of tagging along on the Finnish K22 project which has seen Finland decide upon the Sako Semi-Automatic Sniper Rifle to be adopted as the new designated marksman rifle and as the new light sniper rifle. However, the plan is significantly more ambitious than simply buying the same designated marksman rifle as Finland.
All categories of weapons have been divided up between the two countries, with either country taking the lead for any individual category. The lead country will lead the development work including specification, testing, and signing the first order which will then include the option for the other country to place corresponding orders at similar terms. Frisell acknowledges that the specifications of both countries are very similar, but he also still sees a need for a more limited set of tests and development work done by the non-lead locally to ensure suitability and to get the userbase aboard – a key feature to ensure that this isn’t felt among the soldiers to be a political choice forcing a system of secondary quality into service. But why bother to begin with, trying to coordinate acquisitions across two countries?
Cross-develop, cross-buy, cross-use – Build trust and security of supply
That’s the guiding principle of the program. On the military side, the ability to cross-buy and cross-develop the weapons saves on cost, while the cross-use ability makes wartime logistics easier. Not necessarily through individual soldiers throwing a spare magazine to their foreign ally in the next foxhole – something that makes for good Hollywood-stuff but rarely is done in practice – but rather through the possibility at the operational and strategic level to redistribute ammunition, weapons, and spare parts according to need. Security of supply is also ensured through creating the critical mass of orders that is large enough to ensure that domestic (kind off) manufacturing is possible to begin with. Obviously, to reach this desired end-state, cooperating already during the development phase is key, as it not only helps push the cost down but also ensures the suitability for both countries. But besides the purely military benefits, the building of trust between the two countries is also important from the wider national security point of view, and here cooperating on this project is yet another building block.
In line with that, Sweden has acknowledged that Finland is ahead in the sniper and designated marksman game. Finland has therefore taken the lead here, while Sweden is preparing to do the cross-develop/cross-buy part of the equation. In essence, that means that the eventual Finnish contract will include the option for Sweden to tag along, and that Sweden is doing their own limited tests as we speak. While in Finland the SASR (which I assume will be the abbreviation) will replace the SVD Dragunov and the majority of the locally-built TKIV 85 (a Mosin-Nagant derivative), and in a version with simpler accessories the designated marksman versions of the standard-issue RK-assault rifles, Sweden has somewhat different plans. The plan currently is that the SASR in 7.62×51 mm will replace the AK 4D in the designated marksman role, while at the same time they are doing tests on the Sako TRG 10M in .338 LM as an AW (Psg 90) replacement. This also provide an excellent example as to how the end result might look, with similar weapons but possibly with different accessories and for slightly different roles (Sweden likely not acquiring any of the more highly-kitted out SASR that Finland is looking at for the light sniper role). Notable is that Finland already operate the somewhat older Sako TRG 42 in .338, meaning that both countries would standardise on that in addition to 7.62×51 mm for their accurate rifles. As mentioned, during the signing of the firearms technology MoU this spring Sweden also bought a number of Sako rifles for tests, which have now arrived and are out in the field. The TRG has been tested for roughly a month already, while the SASR tests have just kicked off.
But this is where it gets interesting, as Sweden is looking at the next step in their ten-year plan: the assault rifles.
Let’s give the news up front: at the moment the most likely candidate is a Finnish-built AR-platform in 7.62×51 mm.
Both Frisell and Norberg take care to point out that this is still in the planning stages and no decision has been made on either manufacturer or calibre, but as both the Swedish Armed Forces and FMV have spent considerable time and effort researching the question over the last few years (including no doubt looking into the state of ballistic protection in… certain countries) there are some paths that are looking more probable than others. What tips the scale in the direction of 7.62×51 mm is that the round is seen as having more development potential compared to the lighter 5.56×45 mm. The view is also that most high-quality service-grade AR-pattern rifles are more or less equal once you bring them out in the field, so the need for a big shoot-out is smaller than it used to be when the field of service rifles was more varied (while it wasn’t said explicitly that some designs had been ruled out, the discussion very much centred around the AR). Which brings you back to the question of security of supply. Sako might not be Swedish, but looking at the situation from Karlsborg it is certainly the next-best thing. Frisell notes that any orders require that Sako work out a model for how they will support the Swedish Armed Forces throughout the lifespan of any potential order, but he didn’t sound too worried and I got the impression that it was more a case of working out the details that a serious obstacle.
A few cases of non-AK pattern rifles in Finnish use does exist. Most notable is the use by the professional FDF SOF of the FN SCAR, but another instance is the professional readiness unit of the paramilitary Finnish Border Guard, here shown sporting the HK 416.
An obvious question is whether the Swedes have noticed that there is quite some developments taking place in the US with the NGSW-program set to replace the assault rifles and squad automatic weapons (i.e. the Minimi/KSP 90) with a new family of weapons in a new 6.8 mm calibre? The answer is ‘Yes’, with those involved from the Swedish side having good contacts with their US counterparts both on an agency- as well as on a personal level. The NGSW and associated developments have indeed been followed closely from Sweden, including being briefed directly by their US counterparts. In the end, the technological risk was judged too great for a small country to seek to join the program at this stage. Norgren also noted that “We don’t quite have that time to wait”, as the majority of the FN FNC (AK 5) and G3 in use are getting worn down. However, one thing that is being looked into is the possibility of having the new rifle being modular enough to allow for potentially changing calibre later – or even mid-production as the expected production run for any new assault rifle is expected to be measured in years – in case the 6.8 mm turn out to be a game changer.
Oh, and about that PDW the Army wanted. Sorry to make gun aficionados disappointed, but it seems like the MP7 won’t be coming (besides the ones already in use). For the time being a (really) short AR in 5.56 mm is the frontrunner.
But getting back to the Finnish angle, on the surface this looks like a great opportunity for Sako, and that it undoubtedly is. However, Frisell also made clear that Sweden has expectations other than just getting a bunch of new weapons. As explained, the deal is seen from a security of supply point of view, and that is a two-way street. “We’re not just going to talk about Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation, but actually going out and doing it,” Frisell emphasises. This means that not only has Sako to be able to step up and show that they can deliver the expected quality and volumes, but also that both countries will have to look at the common good instead of at individual benefit. The decision to postpone the PDW and go for the sniper and designated marksmen rifles shows that Sweden is already doing their part, but the bigger question is if Finland will be able to step up when it comes to the assault rifles? As Frisell put it, “We had to adjust the schedule a bit to build the trust […] we hope that the FDF also will have that flexibility”. For some time already the official Finnish line has been that the current AK-pattern rifles can stay in service until 2035 with a decision on the replacement to be made in the first half of the 2020’s. However, those dates originate in a statement made some time ago, and in an interview last month Lt.General Hulkko, the commander of the Finnish Army, stated that continued rebuilds beyond the current number of 20,000 modernised RK 62M “no longer is a cost-effective way forward” for the rest of the Finnish Defence Forces. While still some way out from any hard promises on the part of the FDF, it does sound like Frisell might be getting his wish.
Edit 07-11-2021: It seems the idea is so unexpected that I wasn’t quite clear enough about what the paragraph above actually means:
- This isn’t a Swedish project to replace their assault rifles, it is a joint Finnish-Swedish project with Sweden as the lead nation,
- In other words, while neither country has made procurement decision, the expected outcome of any acquisition program is that those involved acquire what the program is all about, i.e. in this case a 7.62 NATO assault rifle (or battle rifle, if you will),
- It’s easy to forget, but the battle rifle was (and still is in the Swedish home guard) what most western soldiers carried for decades during the Cold War. With modern ergonomics and developments, an AR-10-pattern design (using the designation loosely here, we didn’t talk piston vs DI or anything like that) would likely be miles ahead compared to your regular FAL or G3 when it comes to handling,
- Yes, there’s a number of reasons why the 7.62 NATO was ditched back in the days. As noted it isn’t yet decided that this will be the outcome, but if FMV after years of studies and weighing the pros and cons say they lean towards going back to it, the message certainly is that based on all available information they feel the benefits outweigh (heh) the disadvantages – the ability to actually kill your enemies also in 2030 most likely key among these.
All in all the development is very interesting, and while both parties are keen to stress that no firm commitments have been made and no orders placed – in fact, the sole FDF comment I got when reaching out was “A mechanism has been created, i.e. the documents have been signed between Finland and Sweden, which enable joint procurements to be made later, but we are still in the planning stage and no decisions on possible procurements have been made” (the statement is still one step above Sako who didn’t answer at all) – the plans does seem to be further along than has been assumed in some quarters (including on this blog) and they look well-thought out both from a national security policy as well as from a military capability point of view. Crucially, while I’ve earlier voiced caution against plans to buy ‘second best’-solutions due to political considerations, modern well-built firearms are generally all more or less on the same level when it comes to lethality. As such this is a field suited to policy cooperation, and the logistical and cost benefits are obvious. Interestingly enough, while there is a certain group of Finnish social media warriors who spend their days questioning whether we can trust the Swedes or whether they just pretend to be out friends to try to coax us into buying Swedish defence equipment, this is very much a case of the opposite. A Swedish buy of assault rifles from Sako would indeed require trust from the Swedes that we Finns won’t leave them out to dry once we’ve cashed in on the export market. Hopefully I read Hulkko’s statement correctly that that is indeed where we are headed – I would very much like to be able to maintain a view of us Finns as a people that can be trusted, both as business partners as well as when it comes to matters of national security.
Oh, and before we go there’s one question all Finnish shooters want to know the answer to: How did Frisell – who by the way has a background as a national level competition shooter – find the SASR to shoot?
Easy to shoot, good quality […] robust, simple, and with high accuracy