Fall Colours and Bugs

Ruska: (ʁus.ka) noun. 1) Finnish word denoting the leaves changing colours during fall, autumn foliage 2) Finnish Air Force exercise focused on operations in times of crises and wartime, measured in the number of involved servicemen and -women the largest Finnish Air Force exercise of 2017.

War is unpredictable. Some things are however more predictable than others. These include enemy strikes on runways and installations of the air bases used by the only two fighter wings in the country. The solution is easy: to be somewhere else when the cruise missiles strike.

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A Finnish F/A-18C Hornet touching down at the civilian Kokkola-Pietarsaari airport in the evening rain. Source: Author

Dispersed basing is at the heart of Finnish Air Force operations. The concept not only means that the aircraft are spread out, but it also means that they keep moving. Upon the order to disperse, the air force sends out ground units to road bases and civilian airfields. These units are capable of independent operations, not only taking care of the aircraft themselves, but also of handling necessary supporting functions such as providing base security. Having taken up positions, they then wait for word from higher command about if and when they will get customers. Keeping the fighters moving between bases makes it much harder to catch them on the ground, where they are at their most vulnerable.

Often this mode of operations is associated with road bases, likely because road basing is only practiced by a handful of countries (Finland, Sweden, Taiwan), and because fast jets landing and taking off in a forest makes for really nice pictures. As important however is the use of civilian fields for military use. “There are no clear advantages in using a road base as opposed to a civilian field. The usability and benefits of a base instead largely depends on the ground units found there”, Lt col Ville Hakala of the Air Force Command explains.

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Taxiing away from the main apron and onto the taxiway used for the exercise. Source: Author

The casual observer would be excused to fail to notice the fact that Kokkola-Pietarsaari airport is a working military base during Ruska17. An ultralight from the local flying club is doing touch and goes, and the passenger flights to Helsinki and Stockholm make their schedules as normal. Minimizing the impact on civilian aviation is not only part of keeping the local population in a good mood, but also how it is envisioned to work in times of crisis. For society as a whole to function, it is important that the airports stay open even if the air force decides to use them. So the ground crew discreetly wait in the background, while the military police patrol the perimeter and politely check up on people who loiter in the area. Especially those who sport a camera with a decent sized tele lens.

Then the call comes, a pair of Hornets are inbound, and the ground crew takes up position by the taxiway. But as the exercise is a complex one with a fully functioning red side operating out of bases in northern Finland and Sweden, things doesn’t always go as expected, and no sooner have the Hornets appeared overhead than an air raid alarm is issued, and the blue force fighters speed away to a destination unknown to us at the airfield. A while later the situation is cleared up, and the two fighters touch down on the rainsoaked runway, and immediately taxi over to the waiting fuel trucks. The fighters stay on the field for a while, giving the passengers arriving with the evening flight from Stockholm something to look at, before eventually taking off into the night sky.

Refuel
The fighter is undertaking a ‘hot’ refuelling, keeping the engines running throughout the procedure. Note the black lynx, currently emblem of 31. Squadron of Karelian Air Command, with a heritage dating back to WWII and the elite 24. Squadron. Source: Author

The turnaround is indeed a sight to see. While it is hard not to think of a caravan park or travelling circus when the train of specialised trucks appear, the impression stops as soon as the work starts. There is none of the frantic running or shouting of orders which are often associated with the armed forces. Instead, the small crew made up of conscripts, reservists, and regular staff move efficiently around the aircraft, each confidently handling his or her task. The fuel tanks might not be topped up in a matter of seconds and the wheels stay on, but otherwise the closest analogy that comes to mind is that of a Formula 1 pit stop. When asked about what the biggest challenges associated with operating away from the home base are, Lt col Hakala’s answer is confident: “There are no major challenges when operating from an unfamiliar airfield, our pilots are constantly practicing operations from different airports.” Looking at the refuelling operation, his confidence seems well-placed.

Seeing the fighters being serviced, it is clear that this unique way of operating the aircrafts will have implications for the HX-program. With all infrastructure being truck-mounted and handled by a motley crew stretching from teenagers to professionals with decades of experience, very special demands are placed on the aircraft. When out camping away from home, small details such as the integrated boarding ladder make a significant difference.

Ladder
The integrated ladder of the Hornet folds out from under the port leadin-edge wing extension. Though the Finnish Hornets have taken up the air-to-ground mission following MLU2, the pair arriving sported a light air superiority load with wingtip AIM-9X Sidewinders and empty underwing twin-racks for the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Source: Author

Ruska is a large exercise by most standards. Over 60 aircraft, including roughly half the Finnish Hornet-fleet is taking part, including all three Finnish Air Commands. On the ground, over 5,000 servicemen and -women are taking part, of which 2,900 are reservists. For the first time ever, the Swedish Air Force joins in to practice defending Finnish airspace together with the Finnish Air Force in a major exercise of this kind (though it should be noted that they have done it for real once before). A detachment of JAS 39 Gripen supported by a ASC 890 airborne early warning and control aircraft deployed to Kuopio-Rissala AFB as part of the blue force, with another detachment from F 21 making a re-run of last year’s role as part of the red force from their home base at Kallax AFB (Luleå).

While an important step politically in signalling the ability (and intention?) to fight together in case of an armed aggression, it is a surprisingly straightforward step from a military point of view. “Cooperation with the Swedish Air Force already have long traditions,” Lt col Hakala explains. “The Swedish Gripen is interoperable with the Finnish air defence system. The Gripens participating in the exercise are one part of the complete air defences and work together with Finnish Hornets.”

Huge thanks to all involved that helped me with the post!

Take-off
The fighting doesn’t stop just because the night falls, and the fighters head off into the darkness. Source: Author

Little Green Tanks

An unidentified foreign aircraft touches down at Oulunsalo Airport. As the Finnish Border Guard personnel close in on the now parked aircraft, the situation escalates. A firefight erupts, leaving one border guard wounded and causing a hostage situation. Soon some of the mysterious intruders spread out and try to take over the control tower at the airport. The local border guards realise that the situation is getting out of control, and call for support. The Army and the police (arriving in a borrowed Pasi APC) manage to turn the table, first evacuating the casualty and then storming the tower.

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Soldiers taking positions before storming the control tower. Note the use of two-way simulators, showing that the enemy is supposed to shoot back. Source: Maavoimat FB

This is a textbook example of so called hybrid war, the kind of operation that has occupied western military thinkers since the Russian invasion of Crimea in the early days of 2014. The scenario described above was the one used for local defence exercise OULU17 in March 2017. The sudden appearance of little green men in unsuspecting locations deep behind the borders have rightfully been seen as a new(ish) threat which require new solutions to counter efficiently.

But what if the counters are in place? If the defence forces have the required units on standby, establishing superiority over a handful of soldiers cut off from their homeland is far from an impossible task. Of course, landing more little green men is a possibility, but sooner or later you reach the point when you just have to ask if the whole “hybrid” thing is really worth it compared to a traditional all-out strategic strike?

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The Finnish readiness units taking part in the local defence exercise KYMI217. Note winged arrow-patch of the readiness units and the dismounted tanker. Source: Maavoimat FB

The Finnish hard-counter has been the creation of the Army’s new readiness units (Fi. valmiusyksiköt), as well as an update to Finnish laws earlier this summer, meaning unmarked military units entering the country are nowadays treated as criminals, and the local police will arrest any survivors of a scenario such as the one described above.

The readiness units were born out of the realisation that the Army’s dependence on mobilising reserves to counter a rapidly developing situation might simply not be fast enough, and that the professional Erikoisjääkärit special operations forces at Utti Jaeger Regiment might not have the numbers to deal with an incursion. Finnish law does allow for the use of serving conscripts for live missions, provided that they have adequate training for the mission at hand (this in itself constitutes a reinterpretation of earlier laws which took place post-Crimea). The issue comes down to the fact that the majority of Finnish privates serve the minimum time of just short of half a year. Combined with the fact that new conscripts enter service twice annually (in January and July) there are clear time gaps during which there are no adequately trained conscripts (roughly the first and third quarters). In many cases your run-of-the-mill company designed to work as a part of a bigger unit on the conventional battlefield might also not be ideally suited for independent operations of the kind required here.

Enter the readiness unit, a unit in which volunteer conscripts get training in additional weapons systems, advanced small unit tactics, urban operations, and heliborne insertion/extraction. The service time is 347 days (the longest possible for conscripts), and the units are lead by regular professional staff.

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Different authorities combine to take care of a mass casualty incident during exercise KAJAANI17. Source: Maavoimat FB

What is interesting is that while much of the focus has been on their role as light airmobile force to provide fire support to the police in case of little green men popping up on the Åland Islands, the fact is that they are indeed fully functioning army units. This includes the full range of weaponry in use by Finnish infantry, such as anti-tank missiles, but also support from other branches such as armoured units.

The armour is an especially interesting case, as both Leopard 2A4’s and CV 9030’s played a prominent role during exercise KYMI217 recently. Readers of the blog will remember that the Army transferred a number of older 2A4’s from the Armoured Brigade to other units last year following the introduction of the 2A6. Ostensibly, these were mainly meant for OPFOR duty and to provide an in-house ability to train combined arms operations, but it is also clear that they provide the capability to quickly raise armoured units in different geographical areas.

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A presumably ‘local’ Leopard 2A4 during exercise KYMI217. Source: Maavoimat FB

If the readiness units represent the high-end when it comes to meeting a hybrid war, the lower end of the spectrum include the local units (Fi. Maakuntajoukot and Paikallisjoukot). While the local forces take a longer time to mobilise than the readiness units and feature older and lighter equipment, they provide geographical coverage throughout the country (with the exception of the Åland Islands) and enough firepower to be able to quickly take up the fight with any enemy forces suddenly appearing behind the lines, and thus buy time until the cavalry arrives (which could very well be a readiness unit).

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Reservists of Keski-Pohjanmaan Maakuntakomppania (the local volunteer company of central Ostrobothnia) stretching their legs during exercise PAUHA16 at the Vattaja training range. Picture courtesy of Jouko Liikanen

To sum it up, far from just being light fire brigades to take down little green men, the readiness units are equipped to be able to counter the whole spectrum of modern military threats. When also including the local forces, the Finnish Army is able to field a layered approach to any threat which might appear suddenly and in unexpected locations, be they hybrid or traditional.

Review: Russia’s Warplanes (Vol. 1 & 2)

If last month’s review was a unique book covering a rarely seen topic, this month’s double have it tougher when it comes to defending their necessity – do we really need yet another book on the same MiG’s, Sukhoi’s, and Tupolev’s?

Spoiler alert: Yes, we do.

But let’s take it from the beginning. As the subtitle indicate, the topic is the aircrafts and helicopters of today’s modern Russian Armed Forces and export derivatives of these. You will not find the MiG-21 here, but instead what is probably the most up to date go-through of all Su-30 versions found throughout the world. The books are complementary volumes, were Volume 1 deals with tactical combat aircraft (up to Su-24 and -34), transport and attack helicopters, reconnaissance, surveillance, and special missions platforms (including aircrafts, helicopters, and balloons!). Volume 2 takes on strategic bombers, maritime aircraft, transports, tankers, and trainer aircraft. In addition, volume 2 also covers developments regarding the aircraft presented in volume 1 which took place during the year between the two volumes (August 2015 to August 2016). It also feature a chapter on the Russian air war in Syria.

The books are divided into chapters according to the role of the aircrafts, and each aircraft get their own sub-chapter. In cases where significant changes has been made, new generations get their own sub-chapters, such as the MiG-29 being split into the early air superiority line and the multirole MiG-29K/29M/35 line. All data is given in running text, with no data tables or similar. This makes the book highly readable, with clearly structured sub-sections making it possible to easily find any data point you might be looking for. It is certainly possible to read the books cover-to-cover, though I find it more enjoyable to head straight for the aircraft I am currently interested in. The books do provide an excellent one-stop shop for well-researched information on the Russian Air Force of today, making them invaluable when you suddenly feel like checking up the capabilities of that Il-20M spotted at pictures of Hmeymim air base.

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While the stars of the book certainly comes as no surprise to anyone, the Su-27/30/33/34/35-family e.g. occupy 30+ pages of the first volume, the books leave ample room for less well-known systems as well. The trainer versions of the Tu-134 get their own sub-chapter, and I didn’t even know about the existence of Russian tethered balloons before I read about them here! In short, if it flies and there is a reasonable connection to the Russian armed forces, it is represented in the books.

As with the book on Russia’s air-launched weapons, it certainly feels well-researched. Without losing the big picture, Piotr Butowski provide valuable insight into details. This is the first time I have encountered the fact that Sukhoi differentiates between the Vietnamese Su-30MK2V and the Venezuelan Su-30MK2V by writing the former with a Cyrillic Ve (Су-30МК2В) while the later is written with a Latin V (Су-30МК2V), just to give a small example on the level of detail.

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I actually struggle to find any major faults with the two volumes. Compared to the earlier review, these come in at a solid length of 252 and 251 pages respectively. The soft-cover books hold up well (though my examples did have a corner being slightly damaged in the mail), and I have experienced no issues with the binding despite at times leaving the book opened for some time. I like the fact that the books provide both a suitably deep (obviously a subjective measure) overview of the famous aircraft in use, but perhaps even more I value the fact that I now have a trusted source for easily looking up more obscure systems such as UAV’s and some of the newer sub-variants of older designs. The fact that the books are so new certainly provide added value, as they cover the recent period of modernization of the Russian Air Force.

Highly recommended!

Both books were provided free of charge for review by Harpia Publishing. The contents of this review has not been discussed with or revealed to Harpia before posting.

Reflections on Catalonia

Amongst the host of feudal fiefdoms and titles gathered under the Spanish crown by the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile were the counties of Catalonia. The region has had a somewhat shaky relation to the monarchy since, including revolts and uprisings in the area taking place 1640 to 1659, 1687 to 1689, 1693, 1706 to 1714, 1833 to 1840, and obviously during the civil war of 1936 to 1939. Several of these were fought against the backdrop of larger conflicts, either as part of internal Spanish struggles or as part of wars with other European powers.

Before getting into what happened in Catalonia on Sunday, a number of things should be noticed. To begin with, no poll that I have seen have given Catalan independence more than 40% popular support in the region, most polling somewhat lower. The whole issue has also been a non-question amongst politicians or general populations outside of Spain. Few Europeans were likely to even have heard about the separatism, let alone the fact that a non-binding referendum had been held back in 2014. There is precious little to indicate that this new one would have made anything more than temporary waves in the news as well. In fact, many of the same reactions and one-liners used then from both Madrid, Barcelona, and the international community could be cut-pasted into the current debate.

If not for the police violence.

It should be remembered that Spain only returned to democracy in 1976 following the death of Franco, and that the last (failed) military coup took place in 1981 (a planned one being foiled before put into place the following year). As such, a considerably part of the Spanish population have personal memories of living in an authoritarian state. This makes the scenes showed even more powerful amongst the Catalans, and it is hard not to think that the scenes are exactly what could sway large swaths of the population to a pro-independence stance.

But perhaps of even greater importance is the impact it will have on the image held by the international community. People are sharing pictures of riot police beating old and young apparently indiscriminate, and politicians are asked to denounce the actions of the Spanish government.

As is usually the case, some of the pictures are old, some faked, and some doesn’t tell the whole story. Still, there are certainly enough real ones to cause quite an outrage, and they portray a powerful story of peaceful protesters being denied their right to make democratic choices.

Now, strictly legally there is no justification to the Catalan referendum. It goes against both domestic and international law, as unilateral declarations of independence doesn’t actually hold any intrinsic value (regardless of how democratic the process leading up to them has been). As such, getting the recognition from other states are key, something which the Catalan cause has seemed hard-pressed to get (with the exception of certain countries which have an interest in getting the favour back in another place, or which generally like to destabilise Europe).

And this is why the actions of the Spanish government is so mind boggling. Everyone must have realised that there would be violence if small(ish) groups of outnumbered riot police would try and stop the voting. Madrid, not Barcelona, has managed to lift the question of Catalan independence to the forefront of European politics. Voters who earlier hadn’t had any particular opinion about it are suddenly discussing it with colleagues and friends, and are calling for their governments to condemn the violence. It is also important to note that a large number of EU-countries cherish memories of how they have broken free from larger countries, and it isn’t difficult to imagine e.g. current ministers in the Baltic States remembering their own personal experiences from the break-up of the Soviet Union. Spanish attempts to persuade foreign politicians to stay out of their “domestic affairs” also run a serious risk of backfiring, with e.g. the email to Finnish MP Kärnä by the Spanish ambassador likely not furthering its intended aim. The seeds to international recognition might have been planted by pictures of police beating the very people they are sworn to protect.

It is hard to see Sunday’s referendum as anything but a major victory for Catalan independence. This is regardless of the fact that any numbers quoted by the local government are next to impossible to verify independently. How the story continues from here is anyone’s guess, but I dare say that next week will begin without a de facto independent Catalonia. However, I will also make the guess that unless Madrid radically reverse how they tackle the separatism, the Iberian wedding might soon be headed for a divorce.

Missiles and Machining

My wife’s grandfather was a mechanical engineer. The handbook he used during the fifties include a sizeable chapter on how to correctly dimension flat belt drives for power transmission, using leather as the material of choice. When I took up the same trade half a century later, the corresponding literature had abandon leather belts, computer-controlled manufacturing methods such as CNC milling receiving much coverage instead. This simple fact is something most people would acknowledge without further questions when confronted with, but it’s impact when discussing the North Korean weapons program is rarely discussed.

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Picture of a centralised flat belt drive powering a weavery in the early 1930’s. Via Wikimedia Commons

But let’s take it from the beginning. The speed of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs have shocked a number of commentators. How could a country best known for being dirt poor and ruled by a madman be able to master some of the world’s most powerful weaponry? While understandable, this reaction overlooks three fundamental issues: the strength of the driving forces behind the program, the nature of the regime, and the technical advances which has taken place in the last decades.

It is easy to dismiss the North Korean regime as a modern-day version of Game of Thrones with Chairman Kim in the leading role. However, there is preciously little to indicate that Kim Jong-un would be mad in the sense that he is crazy. Evil, yes. Ruthless, certainly. Ruling a bizarre country, without a doubt. But in the end, his actions are sensible and valid if his main goal is the survival of himself and the regime. The fate of recently deposed dictators does give ample room for concern for those still in power. Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević died in his prison cell in The Hague during a trial lasting several years, Saddam Hussein was hanged, Hosni Mubarak was only saved by the 2013 coup by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Muammar Gaddafi was lynched in a particularly gruesome way. The fate of Mubarak also shows that even purportedly friendly autocrats should be careful to trust the US administration when it comes to having their back in the case of an overthrow attempt.

That the US supports democratic movements and that crimes against humanity are punished are certainly positive factors for anyone believing in a society based on human rights combined with law and order. However, if you happen to be a vile despot, this is bad news, and should compel you to find a solution to deter any external attempts at your ouster. For Kim, the natural answer was nuclear weapons, and the surest way of delivering them unintercepted is long-range missiles.

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An Atlas ICBM in their later form being used as a orbital launcher. Source: RyanCrierie via Wikimedia Commons

But how could Pyongyang ever afford such a venture? It is true that the state of the North Korean economy is deplorable. At a gross-domestic product of $28.50 billion, it is a mere fraction of that of its southerly neighbour, with Seoul coming in at $1.34 trillion. Perhaps more relevant is the fact that according to U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis numbers, the US economy grew from around $300 to over $500 billions (today-dollars) between 1950 and 1959, the decade when the first US ICBM was developed in the form of the SM-65 Atlas. The comparison however overlook the fact that the underlying societies are fundamentally different. The US was and is a free market economy with only a part of the GDP being available for the state to allocate, and the state having to heavily factor in public opinion when deciding on how to spend its piece of the cake. In contrast, the North Korean regime exercises control over a vastly larger relative share of the economy, and has shown that it’s prepared to starve its own population if it judges the resources to be better allocated elsewhere. If Kim judges that a nuclear deterrence placing the continental US at risk is what guarantees him from suffering Gaddafi’s fate, there is no telling how big a share of the country’s (arguably limited) resources that are routed to the program.

However, what really sets the North Korean program apart from those of the recognised nuclear weapons states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is the fact that neither intercontinental missiles nor nuclear weapons are modern inventions any more. It is easy to forget due to their limited service numbers, but the ICBM is actually a sixty year old invention, with the fission bomb being a decade older still. That doesn’t mean that they are easy to design and manufacture, but the work is considerably easier today than in the fifties. To begin with, while the detailed designs of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles are highly guarded secrets (which occasionally does leak), many of the basic concepts are known to researchers and academics through open sources. It is also close to certain that North Korea has actively at least tried to gather non-open information through either friendly sources or espionage. As such, even if Pyongyang wouldn’t have gotten complete blueprints or complete pieces of equipment, there would still be a number of healthy pointers to direct where to focus the research for maximum effect.

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The RD-250 engines of a Soviet R-36 ICBM. The design seems to be related to the engine of the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 missiles in the North Korean missile program. Source: US DoD via Wikimedia Commons

This is also where the radical change in manufacturing comes into play. Modern materials and high-performance alloys available on the open market makes the production of highly advanced assemblies possible. To make full use of these materials, advances in manufacturing machinery means that even small machine shops are nowadays able to produce machine parts with tolerances measured to the fourth decimal of a millimeter. Computer-aided design, CAD, simplifies the design process, and makes it possible to model both the manufacturing processes (e.g. modelling if a casting form fills up correctly) and how the final assembly will operate. It is hard to overstate the impact this has had on how complex machines are designed and manufactured. The ability to simulate the behavior of the finished machine in such varied fields as strength, aerodynamics, and heat propagation gives valuable insight into the performance that can be expected (though it should be noted that exactly modelling something as complex as an ICBM in flight is hard, and the quality of the simulations highly dependent on how skillful the engineers are). Again, suitable hardware and software are available on the open market.

No rogue state is an island, and as such it is clear that part of the know-how behind North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction has been acquired abroad, either from willing channels (state or individual actors) or through outright espionage. However, writing off the country as stuck in the fifties and hence unable to produce anything more advanced than copies of Soviet tanks is an oversimplification. It does seem like Kim Jong-un feels the nuclear-armed ICBM is of crucial importance to be able to both deter the US from forcing regime change and to give Pyongyang more room to push its own agenda on the international scene. In addition, due to the nature of the North Korean society he is free to allocate significant parts of the country’s limited resources to the military (it might in fact be argued that the allocation of resources to the military is in part to blame for the rest of country being on the verge of starvation). Most importantly, the resources allocated provide significantly larger returns on investment due to the leap in manufacturing technology and being able to base their research on cues coming from earlier successful programs. Considering all of this, the speed of the North Korean ICBM and nuclear programs aren’t necessarily out of the ordinary.

Return to Gävle

 

Readers of the blog will remember the Gävle-incident in July, when Swedish media reported that an unidentified object had been recorded by a survey vessel in the port of Gävle. Back then I argued that the likely culprit was a swimmer delivery vehicle from the Swedish Defence Forces. The case then more or less died down, with the Swedish Defence Forces eventually issuing a (half-hearted?) denial that they had operated in the area at the time.

Today the story resurfaced after Swedish media published news about a private report detailing that the incident should be classified as a “serious intentional violation”, and that foreign underwater activity had taken place in the port. The two authors of the report are a far cry from your everyday happy blogger, and consist of Nils-Ove Jansson (former deputy chief of the Swedish military intelligence agency MUST and with work experience in naval intelligence analysis) as well as Nils Engström (retired naval officer). While they are unable to determine the nationality of the intruder, they point to “certain similarities” between the pictures and Triton-NN, a Russian SDV. The report has been sent to the Swedish Defence Forces and the Port Authority of Gävle.

What makes the whole thing more interesting is the comment by the Swedish Defence Forces when confronted with the findings. To Swedish Daily SvD they point to their own investigation, which they “are confident in”, and conclude that there are “no indications of this being foreign underwater activity”.

Note choice word “foreign”.

Naturally, it is possible (even likely) that there are details not mentioned in the media abstract of the report (which certainly would make for interesting reading), but when one put the pieces together it does seem that we have a situation where:

  • Two independent experts have confirmed the presence of underwater activity in Gävle,
  • The Swedish Defence Forces denies it is the work of foreign special forces,
  • We know from before that the Swedish Defence Forces has a policy of not commenting on issues dealing with how their own special forces train or operate.

As such, I would still argue that the most likely explanation is a Swedish SDV with associated special forces either training or performing a live mission in the port.

The sources are found here and here (both paywalled), with a shorter version for free here.

Video of the JFD SEAL Carrier being demonstrated during DSEI this month. The class is in use by the Swedish special forces.

Aurora 17 – To aid a brother

Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die

Tithonus cries out to Aurora, the goddess of dawn

Alfred, Lord Tennyson – “Tithonus”

Perhaps the final sign to show that Sweden has now moved out of the notorious ‘strategic blackout’ is the major exercise Aurora 17 currently underway in the southern parts of the country. In absolute numbers this is the largest Swedish exercise in over twenty years, while in relative numbers this is the largest share of the country’s defence forces ever to simultaneously take part in a single exercise.

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Source: Astrid Amtén Skage/Forsvarsmakten
The scenario should not be unheard of to readers of the blog: Country A situated in Kaliningrad and on the Russian mainland gets into a conflict with Country B situated in Russian Karelia. To cut off Country B from international reinforcements, Country A occupies Gotland, from where they will launch an assault on the Swedish mainland to put further pressure on the Swedish defences.

No points to the one who figures out which country would play the part of Country A or which three would be Country B in a potential real-world scenario.

The exercise is vastly more complex than the above would suggest. The first part of the exercise is the transportation of the forces of Country A (the main OPFOR of the exercise) to Gotland. A significant part of these are foreign detachments, including heavy US forces and a Finnish mechanised rapid deployment company from the Pori Brigade. The Swedish Home Guard (Hemvärnet) protects key transports, not as an exercise, but providing security to their foreign guests by patrolling with loaded weapons. This is the host nation support agreement in reality, providing for the needs of foreign reinforcements arriving to help (in this case Sweden) in the defence of one’s country.

The decision regarding which forces get to play OPFOR is revealing, as it is highly likely that they represent the kind of forces the Swedish headquarters expect could be offered as assistance in case of an escalated crises in the Baltic region. These include both the Finnish mechanised company, a US Marine Corps company, US airborne/airmobile forces, and the premier Swedish light units in the form of their Army Ranger battalion (Arméns jägarbataljon) and the 31. Airmobile battalion (31. Luftburna).

The interesting thing here is obviously that this works both ways: the “invaders” get to practice how to rapidly get to Gotland, while the local Swedish forces present there get to practice defending against light mechanised and airmobile forces.

As has been discussed earlier on the blog, the defence of Gotland is crucial for Finland as well as for the Baltic states. MoD Jussi Niinistö makes no secret that what the Finnish Defence Forces practice in the exercise is how to provide support to Sweden, while also noting that the lessons are readily transferable to a scenario where Sweden would support us instead. This is in line with his speech last week, where he noted that Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation aims at being able to, amongst other things, jointly defend “some place”. Feel free to speculate which region(s) that “some” might be.

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Source: Maavoimat FB
The main Finnish unit is from the International Rapid Deployment Forces of the Pori Brigade. The RDF is also part of the recently established readiness units of the Army. In these, conscripts volunteering to serve longer and in more demanding positions are part of the first line of defence and wear the brand-new winged arrow patch as a testimony. As such, the unit is the given first choice as it is both readily available and trained for international missions.

What is clear is that in the shadow of everything else taking place during Aurora 17 Finland is not simply practicing joint international operations with Swedish (and US) forces. Instead, we are openly practicing defending Swedish territory against an enemy invader, and how to do this together with Swedish forces. We are also doing this with the very units that would be involved. If things suddenly would turn bad, the Finnish officers at the head of the units sent to aid our western ally would be familiar with the peculiarities of the terrain of Gotland, and would be able to recognise both the local forces and the light Swedish forces likely to make up the first wave of reinforcements, knowing their strengths and weaknesses and how to best cooperate with them.

While no promises have yet been made, politicians on both sides are currently making sure that they will at least have all options available to them if the gathering clouds would turn into a tempest.

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Source: Maavoimat FB