Reach out and touch someone – at 40 km

While the Finnish Navy is undergoing a visible transformation with the acquisition of the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes and the Hamina-class MLU, away from the headlines an era is about to end. The Finnish Defence Forces had the luck of inheriting the unfinished but still impressive Peter the Great’s Naval Fortress when the country became independent in 1917, making it a major player in fixed coastal artillery. But now the end is approaching for the 130 TK, the last fixed guns of the country.

The glorious life of a gun crew on the 130 TK. Source: Merivoimat FB

The 130 TK is the mid-sized coastal defence system in Finnish service, wedged between the MTO 85M (RBS 15, to be replaced by PTO 2020) and the RO 2006 (Spike ER). Being the sole artillery system, it has a few unique features compared to the missiles.

fb_img_1568215359603.jpg
Artillery observers directing fire from the 130 TK during exercise Silja earlier this year. Source: Merivoimat FB

The most important difference is cost of the rounds. Modern artillery rounds aren’t necessarily cheap, but they’re certainly cheaper than missiles. They also provide the ability to target vessels where a PTO 2020 might be overkill (such as minehunters, landing craft, and small auxiliaries), and to maintain suppressive fire over prolonged time (both against vessels and against units that have come ashore). A key feature is also the ability to fire a warning shot, something that might come in handy in a ‘hybrid’ scenario where you don’t necessarily want to put a missile in a suspicious vessel. However, the Navy has let go off their towed systems, meaning that replacing the 130 TK with mobile artillery would require reintroducing the artillery branch in the Navy (or asking really nicely if the Army would have a few wartime batteries to spare). The Navy’s standing comment is that they are still looking at all alternatives, including both missiles and artillery.

But where better to ask about what those alternatives can be than at AMBLE Baltic?

The new Nammo 155 mm extended range family. Already in Finnish service, might it be the kind of versatile low-cost solution that the FDF loves? Picture courtesy of Nammo (all rights reserved/media license)

First stop is Nammo’s booth. The Norwegian/Finnish company is a well known supplier of artillery to Finnish heavy guns, and the company representative is happy to discuss the potential of using 155 mm rounds for coastal defence. While the mission isn’t part of the current mission set, “there’s lots of possibilities”. This includes not only extended range HE-rounds which push 40 km with base bleed from a L/52 gun, but also rocket-assisted projectiles with 70+ km range from L/52 guns as well as different kinds of precision guidance kits. Against a target such as a vessel 7 kg of explosives from a RAP round might well be plenty enough to achieve at least a mission kill. Fire direction against a moving target will present some challenges, but Nammo is certainly interested in having a go at it. Or as the company representative sum it up:

It’s worth having a look at.

But if Nammo isn’t in the coastal artillery game at the moment, two tables away is someone who is. Eurospike GmbH supply the Finnish Navy with the Spike ER (RO 2006) for the coastal defence role, as well as the Finnish Army with the Spike MR and LR for the anti-tank role (as the PSTOHJ 2000 and 2000M respectively). The oldest batches of the RO 2006 are approaching the end of their shelf-life, which brings a further twist to the 130 TK replacement. The RO 2006 has a range of 8 km, and the logical follow-up is currently in qualification.

RO 2006 being fired during exercise Silja. Source: Merivoimat FB

Spike ER2 adds another two kilometers of range and non-line of sight ability compared to the current ER. The seeker head is also able to use both the IR and the daylight mode simultaneously, making it harder to spoof the tracking. The anti-tank warhead is also promising 30% higher penetration, something that is largely of academic interest for the anti-ship role. While not directly discussing the coastal defence role, the company representative confirm that they are in discussions with the Finnish Defence Forces regarding new anti-tank concepts for all ranges. The Spike does have a trump card, as it makes it “possible to have everything in one family”. A dual-Spike solution for the Navy could potentially be in the cards, with the Spike NLOS allowing for 30 km range currently, and “more in a few years”. There’s also “solutions for even higher ranges”, but the company won’t go into further details as to what those are. Eurospike also notes that the coastal defence role might require a lighter solution than the current vehicle-mounted NLOS platforms, and suggests that UGVs with NLOS might be a suitable concept.

The size difference between the Spike ER2 (left) and the LR2 (right). Source: Own picture

Could Eurospike score a missile grand slam with more and newer anti-tank missiles to the Army and a dual-buy of ER2 and NLOS to the short- and medium-range coastal defence needs of the Navy? Possibly, but the introduction of NLOS would require quite a bit of new infrastructure in the form of suitable transport vessels to get the missiles moving in the archipelago, somewhat leveling the playing field compared to the investment an artillery-based solution would require. Perhaps adding a few batteries to the buy of whatever replaces the outgoing east-built guns will still turn out as the prefered solution?

Advertisements

Review: Modern Chinese Warplanes – Chinese Army Aviation – Aircraft and Units

In December last year I reviewed two Harpia books, the publisher’s sister volumes on the current state of Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation. I then commented that “the role of Army Aviation is never quite explained, and I was left somewhat wondering what exactly they do, and how it differs from the rotary-winged units of the Air Force. I can only assume this would have been clearer if all three volumes had been read together.” This spring the third volume was released (ISBN 978-0-9973092-8-7), and it did indeed clear things up.

Screenshot 2019-09-07 at 20.23.16

The basic premise of the book is rather similar to the two earlier volumes, dealing first with the history and current trends of the force as a whole, briefly describing the markings and serial number system, then going through the platforms (aircrafts, helicopters, and UAVs) and weapons used, before fielding a brief overview of the training syllabus. A complete overview of the PLA Army aviation order of battle the occupies the next 30 pages, before describing the aviation assets of the People’s Armed Police Force, and ending with two paragraphs on the enigmatic aviation units of the Border Defense Corps.

However, it isn’t just the status of the WIG-craft of the Border Defense Corps that is enigmatic, but on the whole the Chinese Army Aviation is rather secretive and mysterious. Here the book deviates strongly from many of the other Harpia books. Usually the offerings are the ultimate guides, but since the topic is so poorly documented the Army Aviation-volume in many places notes that different details are unconfirmed. The whole chapter on training syllabus for example is rather short, spanning just over two pages as “barely any hard data is available”.

This will naturally come down to personal preference, but in my opinion when an acknowledged expert such as Rupprecht gives his best understanding of a topic, and crucially is open with where the line between confirmed and unconfirmed details run, I will gladly take that over having a book half as thick dealing only with confirmed facts.

Screenshot 2019-09-07 at 20.23.43

I will admit that I have a soft spot for Chinese aviation, with their unique and sometimes strange (at least for someone used to Western doctrines) solutions. I mean, who else create a dedicated short-range air-to-air missile for helicopter-to-helicopter combat? And then load up eight on a light transport? As such I did find it a very enjoyable read. While the OOB-chapter certainly is of great value to many analysts, I personally find the equipment chapters to be the most interesting. I was naturally happy to find that the helicopter chapter was dealing with the systems in more depth, partly because the book was “probably” the first ever to deal with the topic, as the author put it. For anyone having a problem recognising their Z-8WJ from their Z-8G, this is the book to get.

Otherwise there actually isn’t much to say. The quality of the book, including the glue binding, is top-notch as always with Harpia. Pictures and illustrations are in colour and excellent as usual. You might not get the definitive monograph as usually is the case with Harpia, but that will be the case with anything written on the topic due to the level of operational security surrounding the Chinese Army Aviation. This is still the book to get if you are interested in the topic, and highly recommended for anyone interested in Chinese helicopters and UAVs.

The book was kindly sent to me free of charge by Harpia for review.

Bv 206 meets Mercedes

In a wide variety of different terrain types, wheels simply aren’t an option. This has led to militaries as far apart as Finland and Singapore operating all-terrain tracked vehicles in a bewildering array of roles. In essence, when you need infantry in terrain too rough for wheeled platforms, you throw in an all-terrain vehicle for whatever mission you ordinarily would see a truck perform. The terrain can then be made up of bogs, meter-deep snow, or other kinds of soft and/or rough spots. What matters is that you need the lowest possible ground pressure, or even amphibious capabilities.

Bv 206 MLU
The Bv 206 MLE at AMBLE Baltic in Wilhelmshaven last Thursday. Source: Own Picture

For a long time the field has been dominated by the ubiquitous Bv 206 from Hägglunds (today BAE Systems Hägglunds), which has seen use by the armed forces of 25 different countries (if Wikipedia is to be trusted), including not only Finland, Sweden, and Norway, but the German airborne and mountain troops, the British Royal Marines, and the Dutch Korps Mariniers as well.

The Bv 206 is a sturdy vehicle, with the basic chassis and the compartments generally not really being worn out. The biggest downside is the complete lack of protection, the vehicle front compartment and trailer basically being two big boxes of fiberglass reinforced plastic, capable of stopping thrown rocks, but not much else. The 80’s technology in the drivetrain and other parts of the vehicle are also starting to show their age, with spare parts being increasingly difficult to find.

This has made the question of finding a replacement one that interest a number of countries throughout Europe, with not only the Bv 206 but also other older vehicles of the same class starting to need replacing. To that end Germany organised a multinational meeting for European users last February to look into the alternatives.

Several modern vehicles are found on the market, including BAE System Hägglund’s BvS10 Viking Mk 2 and ST Engineering’s Bronco ATTC, which underwent snow mobility testing in Finland last winter. However, for a country like Finland which has over 600 Bv 206 and a number of older indigenous Sisu NA-series (as well as a handful of the lightly protected Bv 308), getting a similar number of modern protected all terrain vehicles is probably overly expensive. The BvS10 Viking is found in an unarmoured (and likely cheaper) version designated BvS10 BEOWULF, but with modern military vehicles ‘cheap’ doesn’t necessarily equal ‘little money’.

Enter Millog’s Bv 206 MLE concept, a simple drop-in lifetime extension developed by Hellgeth engineering Spezialfahrzeugbau GmbH in Germany. The core of the upgrade is a completely new drivetrain centred around a Mercedes-Benz OM651, a modern 4-cylinder CDI engine, together with an equally new ZF 6 HP 28 gearbox with six forward gears (as opposed to four in the original Bv 206). Some other changes are also included in the MLE, such as a new radiator and fan, new steering/hydraulics, a new exhaust gas recirculation system, a new CAN bus based electric system, and a new control panel on the dashboard. When the MLE testbed isn’t doing laps around the Neue Jadewerft in Wilhelmshaven, it is in regular use by the Jääkäriprikaati in Sodankylä, in the far north of Finland.

Based on the last one and a half years of service with the Bv 206 MLE, which include over 5000 km, the new drivetrain does what can be expected of this kind of mid-life upgrade. The fuel consumption has been lowered by 30% compared to the regular Bv 206 D6N with its 6-cylinder Daimler Benz Ag OM603 A diesel. It has a lower heat signature, higher torque at low engine speed, and reduced maintenance needs. If anyone is wondering about the noise level in the video clip above, there’s a KMW APVT doing laps out of view, with the Bv 206 being quite low noise. However, the most important benefit might be that using a current commercial off-the-shelf engine and gearbox means spare parts are readily available at short notice, significantly improving downtime during scheduled and unscheduled maintenance stops.

TRJE 15
A German protected Bv 206S during Exercise Trident Juncture 2015. Source: Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum via Wikimedia Commons

Millog is clear with their aim. “We aren’t competing with new vehicles,” as a company representative explains. But as all terrain vehicles are the sole alternative for the roadless country found up north in Finland, there will be a continued requirement for serious numbers of these kinds of platforms. And as “the basic vehicle is a solid design”, this kind of low-cost and decidedly low-tech lifetime extension for the larger part of the fleet coupled with a buy of a smaller number of modern protected vehicles for use as APCs would be a very Finnish solution. At the moment the future of the Finnish fleet is undecided, but Millog is ready to modify significant parts of the Finnish Bv 206-fleet in-country if the Finnish Defence Forces decides to go down that route.

This is one alternative for the FDF, time will tell which route the service chooses

But what then causes Millog to ship the Bv 206 MLE demonstrator to AMBLE Baltic in Germany? Millog mentions the general need for these kinds of amphibious all terrain vehicles for marine forces around the world, but word on the street has it that there’s a more direct connection between the German marines and the potential for a Bv 206 upgrade as well. As mentioned the German airborne and mountain forces use Bv 206S (a protected version closely related to the Bv 308 in use by e.g. Finland and Sweden). However, especially the Gebirgsjäger would like to upgrade to the BvS10 Viking, while the Seebatallion has a requirement for an all terrain vehicle, of which they currently have none. It is speculated one likely solution would be that the mountain troops get new vehicles, while their Bv 206 are passed on to the marines. They would then require some kind of a mid-life update, such as the Bv 206 MLE. The German-designed drive train with a German engine and gearbox could certainly be a tempting option, especially as the upgrade has proven itself to be more than just a paper product.

Rumble at the AMBLE

The face of amphibious operations are changing, while at the same time remaining as difficult as ever. Both of these facts were evident at the inaugural Amphibious Live Exhibit, or AMBLE Baltic for short, held this week in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. The country might not have a strong tradition of naval infantry, but the relatively young Seebatallion (Sea Battalion) has quickly proved itself as a provider of a wide range of different capabilities to not only the German Navy, but the German Defence Forces as a whole (more on that in a later post). At the same time it is still in continuous development, and with military technology moving swiftly, the Freundeskreis Seebatallion (the guild of the friends of the Sea Battalion) decided that a marine infantry specific event modelled after the annual KSK Symposium was required. This led to a host of different defence and security company ranging from small niche suppliers to international giants such as KMW all turning up at Wilhelmshaven’s Nordhafen last Thursday, bringing along an amphibious APC (more on that in a later post), a modified BV 206 (more on that as well in a later post), three boats, and a jetski whose main mission was to be stopped by Diehl’s HPEM boatStop electronic pulse system.

GIMP IMG_1225
The exhibit being opened by Bernhard Saß-Möbus (middle left). Source: Own picture

The underlying issue is that while amphibious units are in high demand, their missions and capabilities aren’t always understood by those outside the military. Bernhard Saß-Möbus, 1st chairman of the Freundeskreis noted this discrepancy at the opening of the exhibit:

People hear ‘amphibious operations’ and immediately think of Omaha Beach and Saving Private Ryan. It’s not. Today they’re often in urban areas.

The general rise of the urban battlefield naturally is as prominent along the coast as it is inland, but in addition the role played by ports as the crucial logistical nodes of today’s modern society further increases the strategic importance of coastal urban centres. The importance of the ports are evident both in peacetime for society as a whole as well for any military operations conducted in times of war. And all ports aren’t created equal. “A port cannot be substituted one-to-one for another port”, as Mathias Lüdicke of Niedersachsen Ports GmbH & Co. KG explained in his introductionary speech, comparing the particularities of Wilhelmshaven to nearby ports such as Bremerhaven and Hamburg. The pressure is also coming from the navy, for whom the littoral environment is becoming increasingly interesting. This also creates a demand for uniquely maritime missions, such as visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) and naval force protection. Combined these trends are what makes countries such as Germany look at units that not only can fight in these kinds of varied mission sets, but who can get there (or away) over the water. “Vom Land zum Meer – Vom Meer zum Land“, as the official motto of the Seebatallion puts it. Even for non-expeditionary forces such as the Finnish Defence Forces, it isn’t hard to envisage a scenario along the Finnish southern flank where the coastal jaeger battle group might find itself in a decidedly urban environment.

Gimp IMG_2257
Rheinmetall Defence showing their integrated solutions for the modern infantry. Source: Own picture

Some of the defining features of the amphibious units are then that they need to be familiar with the particularities of sea transport, including by small craft, and that their equipment need to be suitable for maritime environment. The latter part can obviously be solved in different ways, if a rifle corrode too fast you can simply issue more oil and cleaning rags instead of using chrome parts for manufacturing. However, at some point the maritime environment and the special tasks only found in and around the maritime domain will require unique equipment, and this is where AMBLE comes into the picture. The exhibition featured maritime specific items such as boarding ladders and personal flotation devices, but also systems that would interest any light infantry unit, such as man-portable fire support and anti-tank weapons. Perhaps most importantly it provided a natural meeting place for the industry and the armed forces, with the invitation-only format ensuring that everyone was focused on the particularities of the amphibious fight.

Re-Lion
Augmented reality training was demonstrated in the form of the RE-liON BLACKSUIT system demoing the clearing of a bulding. The system can also be set up to provide force-on-force training, and naturally provide a host of debriefing tools to ensure the best possible training benefit. Source: Own picture

A major system present was the Marine Alutech Jehu, or Watercat M18 AMC, combat boat*, making it’s first public apperance in Germany. The vessel also made demo rides throughout the day. The Jehu in question was there on behalf of the manufacturer, but was a fully operational vessel normally used by the Finnish Navy’s marines at the Nyland Brigade. At the exhibit it was crewed by two senior NCO’s from the NYLBR.

Jehu hytt
The inside of the Jehu combat boat. The Dutch Korps Mariniers is another unit for which a modern combat boat would provide added capabilities. Source: Own picture

I have been discussing the vessel on the blog earlier, so without going into details one can note that the naval infantry and naval special units in several countries still mainly use open fast craft for their fast transport needs. The ability to transport troops under cover and in relatively cosy conditions significantly improve the combat efficiency of the troops once the actual mission starts, and the larger hulls of vessels such as Jehu and CB 90 provide better seakeeping and longer time on station, allowing more equipment to be brought along and providing for more rested passengers. The use of modern remote weapon stations with heavy machine guns and 40 mm automatic grenade launchers also adds missions such as fire support and patrol to the repertoire. As such they certainly would fit the “Multitool”-moniker of the Seebatallion. Time will tell if a modern combat boat will become a common sight in German ports.

A big thank you to Freundeskreis Seebatallion for inviting me along and getting me to and from the airport!

*Full disclosure, Kongsberg Maritime Finland whom I work for provide the waterjets for both the Jehu and the CB 90

A Western Heliport

This week’s post was supposed to be about F-35 in HX. Then the need for a primer on Finnish unmanned systems appeared and caused a change of plans. Then Russia built a heliport on Gogland, and here we are.

TASS yesterday provided some details. A Mi-26, the Soviet C-130 sized helicopter, flew in the required special equipment including the surface plating. The heliport was then made by the “engineering and aerodrome service of the Leningrad Air Force and Air Defense Army”. Exactly how long it took to get the heliport up and running is uncertain, but on satellite imagery nothing is seen on 2 July, while the base looks finished by 26 July. Incidentally, Putin visited the island on 27 July, so it would seem reasonable to assume the works were finished by then. Notable is that TASS describes the work as a “tactical exercise”, indicating that the capability to airlift the men and equipment needed to build a permanent heliport is seen as a capability for wartime scenarios.

Gogland is a bit of a sore spot for Finnish nostalgics. The beautiful island in the middle of the Gulf of Finland held a thriving Finnish community dating back through the centuries, and was a popular tourist destination before the Second World War. Held by the Finnish forces in the face of a German attack in 1944, it was occupied by the Red Army only after the truce. It is situated well west of the Karelian land border, and close enough to the city of Kotka that the inhabitants define clear weather as when the mountaintops of the island are visible from the Finnish mainland. The military presence on the island has largely made it off-limits to tourists, further adding to the ‘paradise lost’-narrative. For a nice pictorial look at the island today, check out this piece by journalist Magnus Londen who got permission to visit it in 2006.

What once was, a Finnish wartime colour photo of the main village Suurkylä and the harbour there, taken on 18 June 1943. The heliport was built on the shore of the bay closer to the camera, roughly in the middle of the picture. Source: SA-kuva

The island’s strategic location, the westernmost point of continuous Russia and guarding the approaches to St Petersburg, means it has seen steady military use. The exact garrison is uncertain as far as I am aware, but radars and different EW and SIGINT/ELINT sensors are regularly documented on the island.

 

In recent years several special forces exercises have taken place on the island. In 2015 an amphibious landing by a small naval SOF-party was made, after which the soldiers stormed a “pirate base” located in the ruins of the old Finnish casino. A more high-profile case was when Russian airborne forces staged an exercise raid days before the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki last year. The exercise began with the team being inserted by steerable parachutes from Mi-8AMTSh multipurpose helicopters, jumping out at 2,500 meters height. Having touched down they hid the parachutes, and proceeded to conduct reconnaissance missions and destroy a number of strategic targets, before they prepared a helicopter landing zone and where exfiltrated by helicopter. A total of 50 soldiers and four helicopters were involved in the exercise according to Russian sources.

Mi-8AMTSh is a highly modernized version of the venerable Mi-8 transport helicopter. It’s main mission is airborne assaults, for which it can be armed with a combination of rocket pods, bombs, gunpods, and missiles. Here a single Mi-8AMTSh (closest to the camera) takes part in exercise Vostok 2018 together with more basic Mi-8 versions. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout this time there has been a small landing spot next to the natural harbour at the site of the former Suurkylä village, on the northeastern shore of the island. However, neither the harbour nor the helicopter facilities have been much to write home about, something that is noteworthy considering the frequent helicopter flights to and from the island, and the general need of having a reliable supply route for the garrison. As such, an improved infrastructure for helicopter operations is not a surprise in and by itself, but as a source with professional insight on the matter told me, “It tells more about their tactical capabilities (and lack of resources) that it was done only now”.

The scope of the heliport should also be noted. It apparently consists of five helipads made of prefabricated plates, landing lights, some kind of flight control, a refuelling station, and some basic maintenance capability. Absent are any kind of shelter from weather and wind (not to mention shrapnel protection), parking spaces, taxiways, or other permanent facilities associated with an air base. While TASS notes that the structures are “permanent”, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that helicopters will be based permanently on the island. In essence, this is a refuelling stop and an attempt at improving the supply route to the island itself. Or as the source described it:

A permanent landing spot has been prepared, but there’s no way that it deserves to be labelled a ‘base’

What are then the potential uses of the heliport? Granted it does offer longer reach for helicopters operating over the Gulf of Finland, but it’s hard to see this extra reach being a game-changer strategically or even tactically. It does allow for helicopters transferring between mainland bases and ships operating in the western Gulf of Finland to top up their fuel levels, but the benefits are rather minor compared to the earlier situation.

Neither does it provide any kind of crucial edge for airborne operations against targets further west, such as e.g. the much-discussed Åland islands-scenario. In the case of a surprise airborne attack on Åland, even if the helicopters would fly the shortest route, passing directly over Helsinki, they would still lack the fuel for the return trip.*

A larger issue when functioning as a staging ground for an airborne assault is however the lack of landing space available. With just five landing spots an air assault could lift just 120 soldiers in one go, or less if the transport helicopters would be escorted by dedicated attack helicopters. For an air assault on targets on either shore of the Gulf of Finland, operating from the larger bases on the mainland still provide greater tactical and operational flexibility. Especially considering the fact that keeping eyes on low-flying helicopters in the archipelago is rather difficult as it stands.

Screenshot 2019-08-08 at 15.34.58

However, the main drawback of the base is the fact that it is well within range of Finnish artillery, both 155 mm guns as well as the M270 MLRS with their M30A1 Alternative Warheads (in essence a precision-guided 70 km shotgun), a rocket that would be excellent for taking out the whole heliport and the helicopters standing tightly grouped together in one go. The same issue is probably the reason why the island isn’t host to any Russian long-range air defence systems.

The island is nicely within range. Our neighbor has no illusions about that.

The one military benefit operating from Gogland could offer is for maritime patrol helicopters scanning the sea or looking for underwater activities in peacetime. Still, even these operations would be somewhat weather dependent due to the lack of shelters on the island.

However, when it comes to maritime operations, what the heliport does offer is significantly increased time on station for helicopters involved in search and rescue missions in case of a maritime accident in the eastern Gulf of Finland.

Honestly, the biggest “operational” change is that the capacity for sea rescue missions over the eastern Gulf of Finland increases. Our helicopters as well can land there now, if the need arises.

The sentiment is echoed by professor Lt.Col. Petteri Lalu on Twitter:

However, as professor Lalu also noted, while the ability to build a FOB with airlifted parts (over the time of a few weeks?) is interesting, the big picture here isn’t about Gogland. Instead it is the general growth in military capacity in Russia’s northwestern corner. From a Finnish point of view, more worrying than five landing spots on Gogland is the 15th Army Aviation Brigade at Ostrov, Pskov Oblast, which currently has a squadron each of Mi-28N, Ka-52, and Mi-35M attack helicopters (the number of Mi-35M possibly being less than a full squadron), as well as a strong squadron of Mi-8MTV-5 air assault helicopters and four Mi-26 heavy transport helicopters, as well as a small number of Mi-8MTPR-1 Rychag electronic warfare helicopters. The unit was set up as a brand new unit in 2013, and is equipped with the most modern helicopters available to the Russian army aviation. Another base that has received more love in recent years is Gromovo (located in former Finnish Karelia, and formerly known as Sakkola). The field currently sort under the 33rd Independent Transport Composite Aviation Regiment (33 OTSAP) based at Levashovo. While Gromovo doesn’t have any units permanently attached, the former fighter base has hosted several major detachments during larger exercises in recent years, including helicopter units and naval fighters(!).

d09ed181d182d180d0bed0b25
Mil Mi-28N attack helicopters of the 15 Br AA in Ostrov. Source: Ostrow1341 via Wikimedia Commons

As these kinds of investments in major infrastructure take place over time they tend to generate fewer headlines than smaller and more sudden events. However, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. The Gogland heliport in itself does not deteriorate the Finnish security environment, but the major trend of increased military capability in general and airborne infrastructure in particular does present the Finnish Defence Forces with new threat scenarios that might need to be countered in case of an armed conflict. In particular the need for the ability to react swiftly to a surprising first strike, possibly taking place deep within Finnish territory, is emphasized, something that has been a general theme since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

*For those interested in the details: a Mi-8MTV-5 (a version roughly corresponding to the AMTSh but built by the competing Kazan plant instead of at Ulan-Ude) travelling the shortest possible route from Gogland to Åland would be left with just 665 litres for the return flight, i.e. less than half of what’s needed to get back to Gogland. These numbers are adapted from the Kaliningrad to Slite scenario presented by Jan Åkerberg in his article “Det ryska armeflyget 2017” in The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences’ Proceeding and Journal no. 3/2019.

No Tempest for Sweden (at least not yet)

For several months rumors have been claiming that Saab and Sweden will be (or already are) a partner in the British Team Tempest for a new ‘sixth generation’ fighter. For UK, Sweden in essence remains one of two European country with a serious aviation industry that still isn’t tied to the competing Franco-German project (the other being Italy), and would thus represent a rare opportunity for burden sharing.

However, for the Gripen programme, Sweden acquiring the Tempest would represent the kiss of death, as Sweden hardly could afford to operate the Gripen alongside a new replacement type. This is especially problematic for the 39E/F-programme as the Tempest is scheduled for some kind of IOC as early as 2035 (certainly an ambitious target, to put it diplomatically). In turn, this would mean that the chances of Gripen would dramatically drop in the Finnish HX-fighter programme, as the Finnish Air Force and MoD officials have repeatedly expressed that the one thing Finland can’t afford is to be left the sole operator of an aircraft type (a situation which was one of the key drivers behind the decisions not to put forward a MLU3-programme but instead retire the Hornet-fleet as planned).

However, during the official signing ceremony at RIAT yesterday it turned out that this was all a tempest in a teacup*, and Saab dodged a seriously sized bullet in HX.

undertecknande-webb
On 18 July, Minister for Defence Peter Hultqvist and the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defence Penny Mordaunt signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in London. Photo: Adriana Haxhimustafa/Government Offices

It turns out Sweden is not joining Team Tempest, but rather signed an MoU on “agreeing to examine the possibilities for joint development of future combat aircraft capabilities and combat aircraft systems.” In other words, rather than jointly developing the Tempest with the UK, Sweden (and crucially, it is the Swedish Minister of Defense Hultqvist that signed the MoU on behalf of the country) will join in developing sub-systems and capabilities (propulsion, sensors, and weapons are some obvious areas). What will Sweden then use these new capabilities and technologies for? Well, as the MoD notes in their presser: “This collaboration offers the opportunity to further insert advanced technologies into JAS 39 Gripen.”

In the end, it will be down to the industry to actually put the MoU into effect, and in the words of Saab, they “will contribute with […] experience of advanced technology development, system integration of complete combat air systems and related areas including sensors, missile systems and support”, though they also note that they still haven’t gotten any order related to the MoU (though they have been involved in the preliminary studies leading up to the signing, meaning that an order is likely just a quesiton of time).

Saab @Linus Svensson
39E Gripen prototype 39-8 airborne armed with a Meteor very-long range air-to-air missile. The weapon was jointly developed for a number of European aircraft, including Gripen and Typhoon, showing one way of countries tapping into potential synergies despite operating different fighters. Picture courtesy of Saab

This kind of technology sharing isn’t unheard of, as the small number of avionics companies means that already today the JAS 39E/F and Typhoon operate related versions of many key technologies, with the IRST-scanner being the most high-profile ones.

As such, rather than signalling the death of the 39E even before it has seriously gotten off the ground, the MoU indicates a plan on the part of the Swedish government to ensure that the 39E/F will remain modern and viable in the mid- to long-term. Notably, the MoU is only in force for ten years, and it leave all doors open for Sweden, including joining the Tempest at a later date, or opting for another way. While another new all-Swedish fighter might be prohibitively expensive, obvious alternatives include joining France, Germany, and Spain on their fighter, or going fighter shopping on the other side of the Atlantic for the first time since the J 26 Mustang. However, the schedule for this is completely open, and with Gripen staying in service “for the foreseeable future” and the joint studies with Team Tempest likely providing new input, it does seem that we are closer to JAS 39G/H than we are to JAS 40. For Gripen in HX, things just started to look a little brighter.

*I really had to go there, didn’t I…

PMPV looks towards the future

The Finnish Army recently took delivery of the first of four Protolab PMPV which have been ordered for operational testing. I wrote about the contract back when it was signed, and the short version is that the AMV might be the best of the best, but it is too expensive to be the wholesale replacement of the Finnish fleet of XA-180/200 series of 6×6 APCs which make up the majority of the Finnish Defence Forces’ protected mobility.

PMPV climbing
One of the PMPV prototypes sporting the four-colour camouflage used by the Finnish Army. Picture courtesy of Protolab Oy

But the PMPV, or Misu as it is also referred to, is not unchallenged when it comes to replacing these APCs. Patria, the manufacturer of both the XA-series and AMVs, recently launched their take on a modern but affordable 6×6 in the form of the Patria 6X6. It might be as close to ungooglable as a modern vehicle gets, but the solid pedigree and the company’s long history of close cooperation with the Finnish Defence Forces shouldn’t be underestimated (full disclosure: I work for KONGSBERG Maritime Finland Oy, whose parent company KONGSBERG Gruppen ASA owns a significant stake in Patria).

But while the 6X6 is a logical next generation development of the XA-series, the PMPV offers a refreshingly new take. It is often referred to as a MRAP, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, after the US military program that created thousands of protected vehicles to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq to improve the level of protection that US (and allied) forces enjoyed when faced with a growing threat from IEDs and ambushes that included anti-vehicle and anti-armour weapons. It is true that the PMPV employ several of the design features included in the program, such as placing the front wheels in front of the driver’s cabin and a high and heavily angled V-hull. However, other design features borrow more heavily from traditional APCs or all-terrain trucks.

cougar_hit_by_ied
Cougar MRAP in the Al Anbar-province, Iraq, hit by an IED weighing several hundred kilograms. All aboard survived the blast and where out on the patrol the very next day. Source: US DoD via Wikimedia Commons

The last part is important. Besides the future requirement to replace the XA-series there is a seemingly growing requirement that missions currently handled by unarmoured trucks will have to be taken over by protected vehicles in the near to immediate future. These include transport of soldiers outside of the immediate combat area and logistics transportations. If this is to be implemented, it naturally raises the number of armoured vehicles needed even further, putting pressure on the cost.

On paper both vehicles emphasise many of the same points, including use of commercial off the shelf parts and solutions, modularity to adapt the vehicle for different roles, the ability to up-armour the vehicle to higher protection levels, and the ability to mount different kinds of weapons solutions. However, the different design philosophies shines through in the external measurements: the PMPV is only 2.5 meters wide, something that together with steering on the front and rear axles allows for a (relative to its size) very nimble vehicle. On the flip side the raised hull and MRAP pedigree causes it to be 2.7 meters high. The 6X6 is on the other hand only 2.5 meters high, but 2.9 meters wide. On the battlefield those 20 centimeters in height might make it harder to find cover, but on an ordinary road or in an urban environment having a vehicle 40 centimeters narrower means the difference between driving a truck-sized vehicle or an oversized one. The height might also be the biggest downside when used as a cargo carrier, with the floor level rather high above the ground and the door opening being relatively narrow.

Interestingly enough, both vehicles are closely matched when it comes to max weight, tipping the scale roughly at 24,000 kg. However, an empty PMPV comes in at just 14,000 kg, allowing for 10,000 kg of cargo (in addition to fuel). This gives it a measurable edge over the 8,500 kg of cargo the 6X6 can handle.

PMPV goes to town
A PMPV prototype visiting the Finnish MoD as part of earlier trials. While the size of the vehicle is evident compared to the civilian cars, it is still small enough that it can blend in with ordinary traffic without causing too much of a fuss. Picture courtesy of Protolab Oy

Another significant difference is the powertrain, where the PMPV relies on a 213 kW Cummins diesel as opposed to the 294 kW Scania of the 6X6. Having 38% more power likely is significant when venturing off-road with a full cargo load, but also comes at a cost in terms of pure Euros. Without having seen any comparative trials it is hard to tell if this is a case of good-enough coupled with a cheaper price tag beating raw power, but Protolab is confident:

My personal opinion is that we have succeeded very well. The car [sic!] has received excellent feedback from people who participated in the test drives, both from FDF personnel and others. Its mobility off-road is top notch.

It is somehow telling that the company refers to it as a “car” (fi. Auto) rather than the more official “vehicle” (fi. Ajoneuvo) generally used about APCs in the FDF. It certainly tells something about the ease of handling.

In the end, it is hard to say for certain what the future holds for the PMPV, or for the Patria 6X6 for that matter. It is no secret that the Finnish Army faces a headache where several different vehicles, including not only the APCs but also vehicles such as the MT-LB-families and older articulated all-terrain vehicles (NA-series and older BV-206), will need to be replaced. The changing face of the battlefield, such as the increased use of thermobaric warheads and loitering munitions, also raises questions about what should be the protection level of vehicles used in different roles. It is likely that the look of many units, especially regional and maneuver units in the FDF, will change significantly in the next two decades, and e.g. replacing tracked vehicles with another tracked vehicle won’t necessarily be the case. From a customer point of view, the luxury of having a choice between several domestic products is certainly a big plus, especially as they provide different design solutions to the same basic need. Added to the mix is also the slightly smaller 4×4 Sisu GTP, which recently won a Latvian contract (the decision has since been nullified in a court battle). In the end, it seems likely that the Finnish Army will continue to roll out protected by Finnish armoured vehicles once the XA is retired. But what company builds them and how ubiquitous they will be remains to be seen.