Review: Flashpoint Russia|Russia’s Air Power: Capabilities and Structure

Some books are harder to review than others, and Flashpoint Russia (ISBN 978-0-9973092-7-0) is one of them. It’s Piotr Butowski. On modern Russian military aviation. What more do you really need to know?

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Okay, I realise this might not answer all your questions, so let’s dig into further detail.

This isn’t the first Harpia Publishing volume written by Butowski. I reviewed his books on their aircraft and air-launched weapons, and they are still my go-to references for anything related to the Russian Air Force equipment. However, when writing about the capabilities of the Russian Air Force (as well as Naval Aviation), knowing their equipment is just half the story. The other question is what the order of battle looks like, something that up until now largely has been a case of piecing together different sources and news stories. This is where Butowski’s latest steps in.

The book does start with a short overview of the history of the Russian military aviation post-Cold War, but it swiftly moves on to the main purpose of the book: a complete and well-researched order of battle for not only the Russian Air Force, but the Naval Aviation and the (limited) aviation assets of the three para-military services of the Federal National Guard Service (Rosgvardia), the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the Federal Guard Service (FSO). It should be noted that this means that all military and paramilitary aviation assets available to the Russian state are included, a big benefit for anyone analyzing the overall Russian capabilities. It must be said that given the relatively limited number of pages, the total stands at 142, it is a serious amount of information that Butowski has been able to cram into the book. Missing are however the civilian authorities that would be requested to assist the state, such as the aviation assets of EMERCOM and the Federal Customs Service.

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This isn’t a book for the keen scale modeler looking for walk-arounds of aircraft or numerous colour-profiles. Granted, the book does feature the abundance of high-quality pictures we’ve come to expect form Harpia, but it is a book you get for the text and the maps. The detailed information on regiment-level units is a treasure trove for anyone trying to understand what kinds of capabilities Russia are able to bring to any part of their vast country. It even include details such as the fact that the 3rd Independent Reconnaissance Aviation Squadron (3 ORAE) at Varfolomeyevka (commanded by Lt.Col. Sergey Nomokonov) has around 20 unservicable aircraft at their base! Perhaps the one minor gripe I have is that when discussing the traditions of the units, sometimes there are mentions of details such as “the renowed 3 IAP regiment”. At these times, I would appreciate if half a sentence had been dedicated to explaining why the 3 IAP is famous? But it is a minor issue.

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An interesting part is also the look at military aircraft acquisitions post-2000, that gets its own chapter towards the end of the book. Together with the overview of the structural and command changes in the early parts of the book, these ensure that the reader understands the detailed order of battle descriptions, as these provide a good framework for the main text.

The book is directed towards a niche readership, but so is this blog, so I have no issues highly recommending it! After all – It’s Piotr Butowski. On modern Russian military aviation. What more do you really need to know?

The review sample was received for free from Harpia Publishing for review purposes.

Keep on Rockin’

News recently broke from Denmark that the cost of the new light hangars and other infrastructure being added to Skrydstrup Air Force Base in anticipation of the arrival of the first F-35s has almost doubled from 650 million DKK (87 MEUR) to 1.1 billion DKK (150 MEUR). The news itself isn’t quite as dramatic as it looks, part of the changes stems from a change in the decision of where on the base the buildings will be placed, and it actually matches the savings of 443 million DKK (58 MEUR) that the cost of the aircraft themselves have experienced since the acquisition approval in 2016 (part of which is the drop in price of the F-35A, part of which is a more favorable exchange rate), leaving the 20 billion DKK (2.7 billion EUR) total budget largely unaffected. However, it does highlight an often overlooked issue with fighter programs, namely that a new fighter is seldom just able to drop into the slot left by an outgoing aircraft. No two transitions are exactly alike, but it does offer an interesting perspective that in the case of Denmark, infrastructure representing 5% of the value of the fighter package will have to be built, and it is something to keep in mind in February when two different Boeing-built fighters will touch down at Tampere-Pirkkala to take their turn in HX Challenge.

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A Finnish block III F/A-18E Super Hornet (closer) and an EA-18G Growler flying over a decidedly northern Finnish landscape in this render. Picture courtesy of Boeing

The Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler namely are more or less plug and play when it comes to using the existing Finnish Air Force infrastructure. Granted there are likely some obsolescence issues, general need for modernization, and the simulators will have to be replaced/seriously updated, but in general the Super Hornet can jump right in where the Hornet is currently. Exactly how much that benefit is worth compared to the competitors is unclear, but with all manufacturers having problem squeezing 64 fighters into the 10 Bn Euro budget, that also include these kinds of infrastructure changes, Boeing will have a measurable advantage.

But it doesn’t stop there, as the Super Hornet fleet would be able to utilise many of the weapons currently found in the arsenals of the Finnish Air Force. These include not only the ubiquitous AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM and the somewhat less widely certified AIM-9X, but also the JDAM and JSOW, which aren’t in use by the eurocanards. While the timeline until the retirement of the Hornet is long enough to allow for a bit of planning in arms acquisitions, the savings in weaponry can quickly start adding up, and also ensures that there isn’t a gap in missiles orders but a rolling transition which makes stepped buys of HX-weaponry easier on the budget post-2030. An interesting weapon is the silver bullet AGM-158 JASSM, which reportedly has a shelf-life roughly stretching to the end of the Finnish Hornet-era. As it is safe to assume that any Finnish Super Hornet-fleet would use the JASSM as their long-range strike weapon, this would open up the possibility of a JASSM-overhaul (possibly including some features of the current AGM-158B JASSM-ER model) that likely would be cheaper than acquiring new-built Storm Shadows.

Renders are always an interesting subject, as they provide an indication of what the manufacturer sees as the aircraft’s strong cards. In the render above Boeing has not only included the mid- and low-band NGJ pods (Next-generation jammers) currently undergoing testing and an AGM-88E AARGM anti-radiation missile on the Growler, but the single-seat F/A-18E Super Hornet feature the AARGM as well, in addition to a podded IRST-sensor and a respectable air-to-air load of six AIM-120 AMRAAM and two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. Considering that the Finnish Air Force places an emphasis on the counter air mission, i.e. the “candidate’s capability to perform in combats both with fighters and ground based air defence”, this is a serious combat load for the mission (it might in fact be overtly ambitious as a general load considering the cost of the weapons involved) as it allows the aircraft to not only target enemy aircraft, but to force enemy ground-based radars to either go dark or risk receiving an AARGM-sized hole in their arrays. While the basic F/A-18E isn’t capable of the kind of widespread jamming as the Growler, it does bring more shooters to the SEAD-battle compared to just having a handful of Growlers. For those interested in the lack of external fuel tanks, it should be noted that the aircraft carry conformal fuel tanks, and that this is Finland and not to the USINDOPACOM, so range requirements are rather modest.

In the meantime the Finnish Air Force is building it’s multirole capabilities, which will carry on to the HX. In the clip above from current high-end exercise KAAKKO 19 soldiers of Kymi Jaeger Battalion provide suppressive fire while a JTAC first directs artillery fire onto target, and then directs a live JDAM drop from a Hornet to finish off. While one can discuss the role of the JDAM in contested airspace, the preferred high and fast drop profile isn’t necessarily a great idea if inside enemy SAM coverage, the modern low-density battlefield does provide settings where it could come in handy.

But the low-density battlefield doesn’t just create opportunities for the Air Force to pound enemy ground forces outside of their integrated air defences, it also places high demands on issues such as situational awareness to avoid own losses, both in the air and for the units being supported on the ground. While not the most talked about features of the Block III compared to earlier versions of the Super Hornet, two items brought in with it gives huge improvements in this field: the Distributed Targeting Processor-Networked (DTP-N) and the Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) data link. The short version is that the TTNT gives more bandwidth compared to legacy datalinks, allowing more information to be transferred between aircrafts (and other sensors), while the DTP-N gives the computing power to be able to make sense of this increased data flow by fusing not only data from the aircraft’s own sensors, but from the sensors of other aircraft as well. Together they allow for the creation of a Common Tactical Picture (CTP), ensuring that all aircraft knows what any of them sees.

Now, the CTP could potentially provide the answer to one of the headaches Boeing is likely facing, namely the F/A-18E + F/A-18F + EA-18G mix. The basic fighter in the (approximately) 64 aircraft fleet will be a single-seater, in this case the F/A-18E. In addition, a number of twin-seaters will likely be included to allow for training, in this case the F/A-18F. The Finnish legacy-Hornet fleet was made up of 57 single-seaters and seven twin-seaters, with the Finnish Air Force publicly stating that in hindsight they would have preferred a larger amount of twin-seaters (this led to the unfortunate “frankenfighter”, HN-468). E.g. Saab has solved this by offering a 52 + 12 mix of single- and twin-seaters, noting that twin-seaters offer better performance in a number of missions, including SEAD/DEAD, complex ground-attack scenarios, or with the backseater working as a mission commander.

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A Finnish F/A-18C Hornet during exercise Ruska 17, sporting a single AGM-158 JASSM under the starboard wing. Source: Ilmavoimat

The headache for Boeing is the fact that the EA-18G already takes up precious slots in the fleet. Looking at the typical carrier aircraft wing, it is likely that something along the lines of eight to twelve Growlers are included in the Finnish offer. Twelve standard twin-seaters would leave an Air Force with only 40 single-seaters, and while the twin-seaters are fully combat capable, there are additional costs associated with them (and with training WSOs/mission commanders). The Growlers in particular, while extremely capable and impressive, come with a premium price tag. The question then is whether the number of Fs could be scaled back? Notably the F-35A is offered only as a single-seater, and with modern fighters being easier to fly compared to legacy aircraft has made it possible to shift all or parts of conversion training to simulators and single-seaters. There is also no particular need for SEAD-configured F/A-18Fs, since that is what the EA-18G Growler is all about. The Finnish Air Force also currently flies the majority of the ground-attack missions, including long-range strike missions, with single-seat F/A-18C Hornets. The idea behind a mission commander is interesting on paper, but considering the generally improved situational awareness presented by wide-angled displays and the CTP, it is questionable if it provides enough of an edge to justify a serious buy of F/A-18Fs. Instead, leaving the mission commander role to either ground control or the senior F/A-18E pilot might very well be the desired outcome. The final ratio will likely be decided only once the wargames are over, but don’t be surprised if the number of F/A-18Fs is on the lower end.

Eurofighter goes Electric

When a European country without a domestic candidate looks for a multirole fighter, I usually rank the chances of the Eurofighter somewhere between “low” and “abysmal”. It’s not that it’s a bad aircraft, but the decision by the partner nations to focus on air-to-air performance, and to first roll it out into service for the air-to-air role, has meant that the aircraft has been weighed somewhat differently than what your average F-16AM operator wishes for.

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Often overlooked is the fact that BAE Systems is one of two companies whose fast jets currently are in service with the Finnish Air Force. The humble Hawk might be a far cry from the Typhoon, but it offers BAE Systems decades of experience of working with the Finnish Air Force. Picture courtesy of BAE Systems

However, not every country in Europe is a F-16 operator. Finland is a very happy F/A-18C Hornet operator, and looks at fighters in a somewhat different way from many otherwise comparable European air forces. Part of this is down to history, part of it is the lack of a military alliance, and eventually it all translates into doctrinal differences. The gist of the argument is that the air-to-air mission always comes first, and once that can be handled, the rest will take care of itself. Or as HX programme director col. Keränen puts it:

These scenarios [according to which HX contenders are evaluated] include counter air (air defence), counter land (air to ground), counter sea (air to sea), intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and targeting, and long-range strike.

Out of these five scenarios, counter air is the most critical one and therefore takes precedence. Counter air is where a candidate’s capability to perform in combats both with fighters and ground based air defence is evaluated. This is a critical capability: the HX multirole fighter may get engaged in air combat or be attacked by ground based air defence in addition to other tasks.

The official translation of the Finnish text might not be the best, but you get the point.

For Finland, the Eurofighter actually does make sense in quite a few different ways. The focus on speed and semi-recessed missiles is just what’s needed for the air policing mission, which is the key operational mission of the Air Force in peacetime. Especially after Kuopio-Rissala became the most important base for the intercepts over the Gulf of Finland, cruise speed is of the essence. For the long-range strike role, even operating solely on internal fuel the Eurofighter/Storm Shadow-combination could easily replace the JASSM equipped Hornet. The Eurofighter also has a large number of operators, all with slightly different outlooks on how to meet the need of the modern battlefield, providing several development paths to choose from.

One of the more interesting changes to appear this autumn has been the renewed focus on electronic warfare in general and the SEAD/DEAD-mission set in particular. The Eurofighter feature the DASS (Defensive Aid Sub-System), but it has generally been regarded as inferior to the SPECTRA of the Rafale or to the upcoming Arexis of Gripen E. Whether this is a correct judgement or simply an effect of the focus placed on the EW-part of their aircraft in the marketing by Dassault and Saab is impossible to judge conclusively based on open sources, but it is now clear that the Eurofighter consortium has decided to step up their game in this area.

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Nothing quite says ‘electronic warfare’ as having the shape of the aircraft outlined in turquoise mesh. Image courtesy of BAE System, created by images.art.design. Werbeagentur

A key item here was the announcement of the Praetorian Evolution concept for a thorough upgrade of the DASS. Part of the larger Typhoon Long Term Evolution activity, in the words of a BAE Systems representative the “Praetorian Evolution is a conceptual roadmap that presents a number of options for a future DASS architecture”. As such, it isn’t a set package, but an assortment of options that can be picked by the operating countries to move forward with. A key part enabling this is the the ‘all digital architecture’ of the updated DASS. Elements of this already exist within the current DASS, but Praetorian Evolution would see the digital coverage increased within the system to take advantage of recent advances in the field. The idea is to turn the cranks to eleven, creating what Eurofighter has dubbed “digital stealth”.

Yes, it’s a marketing term. But as Eurofighter has decided to use the moniker for it’s EW-concept, it’s worth looking into what they mean with it to understand how they envision the Eurofighter will operate to stay survivable and lethal on the future battlefield.

The approach is two-pronged:

First, the situational awareness has to be good enough to supply the pilot with an accurate picture of the threat environment to highlight which emitters are where, allowing the pilot to make informed decisions to keep the aircraft out of range from SAMs and enemy fighters. A key part here is the mission data set (including the database allowing the correct identification of emitters), which can be updated within ‘hours’ to ensure that the aircraft understands what the sensors see. On a slightly longer scale, the software behind key subsystems such as the radars will be updated every few months. This is also a feature of the Eurofighter’s lack of locked black boxes and unforgiving IP’s that is a strong selling point compared to the transatlantic competition.

However, it isn’t always possible to simply hide and stay out of harms way. In those situations, the EW suite will do its best to either hide the signature of the aircraft, or create enough noise to make the picture confusing as to deny the enemy a targeting opportunity. For this part, the aircraft not only employ onboard, towed, and podded sensors, but will also feature the upcoming SPEAR EW. This is a stand-in jammer based on the same hardware as found in the BriteCloud expendable active decoy (also integrated on the Eurofighter), but mounted in place of the warhead on a SPEAR missile. This lighter and smaller load compared to the warhead allows for up to three times the range of the normal SPEAR, and ones fired the missile can fly towards the enemy and either simply blind the enemy radars, or spoof them by creating one or several (50 being mentioned) false targets. The triple-carriage of the baseline SPEAR is also available for the EW-variant, and allows the operators to mix and match however they want (a total of twelve can be carried on four hardpoints while still leaving the two ‘wet’ wing stations free for drop tanks). As the SPEAR is the RAF’s SEAD-weapon of choice, this allows for interesting combinations, where a pair of Typhoons can release a SPEAR EW acting as a false target to bait the enemy air defences into action, allowing the fighters to map the current positions of the enemy radars. These are then jammed by a salvo of a few more SPEAR EWs, while at the same time a dozen (or more) standard SPEAR missiles target the radars in saturation attacks. However, the SPEAR EW isn’t just a SEAD/DEAD weapon, but also plays an interesting role in air-to-air scenarios, where the ability to spoof enemy fighters create interesting tactical opportunities. While the SPEAR EW was officially unveiled only this autumn, it is part of the Eurofighter-package for HX.

Electronic combat capability is offered to Finland in our proposal in a different way [compared to the ECR] through developments in electronically-scanning radar technology and the integration of electronic warfare weapons such as SPEAR EW, which is being developed through a UK-funded programme.

Which brings us to another recently unveiled project that caused quite a stir, the Eurofighter ECR concept offered to the German Air Force.

The German Air Force is one of three NATO air forces to operate a dedicated SEAD/DEAD platform, in the form of the Tornado ECR operated by the TaktLwG 51 “Immelmann”. These will bow out together with the rest of the German Tornado-fleet during the next decade, and a replacement for the Tornado IDS and ECR fleet is sought either in the form of more Eurofighters or F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, with EA-18G Growlers providing the Tornado ECR-replacement. The Eurofighter ECR concept is tailored to meet the German requirements, and include signal-homing missiles in the form of the AGM-88E AARGM, new large podded jammers, two more ‘wet’ stations to allow the drop tanks to move out of the way for said jammers, and a new decoupled rear cockpit for the WSO. The ECR as such is not part of the offer to Finland, but “as with any technology developed by the Eurofighter consortium, the option of an ECR will be available to Finland as a future growth option.” The options also include picking just the parts of the concept deemed suitable for Finnish needs. This could e.g. translate into acquiring just the jammers without the new ‘wet’ stations and accepting the range and endurance limitations it causes.

The Eurofighter consortium’s claim is that “digital stealth” is more flexible and adaptable than traditional low-observable technologies which are built into the aircraft itself, and can more easily be adapted to face new threats. This largely follows the same line of reasoning presented by Boeing, Dassault, and Saab, and on paper hold serious merit. If there is a breakthrough in some “anti-stealth” technology, the F-35 might lose it’s most important unique selling point. However, for the foreseeable future the X-band radars will continue to play an important role in most engagements, especially for the crucial step of producing an accurate enough fix on the target’s location that it can be shot down, and here a smaller radar cross section is always smaller than a larger radar cross section. The question is how big a difference that makes compared to other features? Currently the answer is “quite a lot”, but will the same answer hold true in 2035?

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The large number of users is perhaps the best argument for the Eurofighter continuing to be updated into the late 2050’s. Here a Spanish aircraft touches down on Finnish ground. Source: Own picture

The Eurofighter is still an underdog in the HX programme. The largest question continues to be if, and in that case how, BAE Systems can guarantee that Finland won’t be left as the sole operator trying to keep the aircraft at the cutting edge past 2050. The aircraft itself likely isn’t the issue, the space and raw power certainly is there, but the question is if the other operators will be interested in spending money on it after the FCAS and Tempest programs sees new aircraft entering service sometime after 2040. Still, it wouldn’t be the first time an underdog scores big in a Finnish defence programme, and the Eurofighter does have a few really strong cards on hand. Played right, and the competition just might turn out to the benefit of the large eurocanard.

HX Challenge on the Horizon

The next phase of HX has started, and things are starting to get serious. Last Thursday the revised call for tenders was sent out, with a deadline for answers until 31 January 2020.

A crucial point here is that this is a planned continuation of earlier negotiations, and not a restart. The manufacturers are asked to refine their earlier offers, providing a clear package, including any potential updates that has taken place and generally improving their offers. While the original call for tenders was generic, this round all five have received individualised RFQs based on their earlier tenders.

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Much of the operational (including combat) use the HX contenders have seen has taken place in decidedly un-Finnish environments. As such, HX Challenge will verify to what extent data from this usage is transferable. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – A. Paringaux

Two notable developments have taken place this fall. The first is the allowance for different numbers of aircraft than the originally envisioned 64. This provide room for anyone able to squeeze in a few extra hulls, but also for anyone wanting to argue that higher availability and/or increased combat capability compared to the current legacy-Hornets allows for a smaller fleet. At the same time, the 10 Bn Euro ceiling has officially been approved by the government. As has been discussed earlier, the plan has throughout HX been not to ask “How much for this package?”, but rather “What’s the best package you can offer under a set budget ceiling?” Major General (Eng.) Renko also went on record last week to say that all five manufacturers experience “difficulties” fitting their offers under the ceiling. In the end, we will see five bids for just under 10 Bn Euro, with the difference between them likely being no more than change (relatively speaking).

We also finally have more details on the verification flight tests. The flight test programme, dubbed HX Challenge, will take place out of Tampere-Pirkkala in January-February. The field is home to Satakunta Air Command and the Finnish Air Force’s Air Combat Centre sorting under it. ACC is responsible for both flight testing as well as for participating in the development of air combat tactics and doctrines.

The aircraft will not be put in order at this event, but rather only verification of performance and subsystems will take place. This includes ensuring that the manufacturers haven’t supplied incorrect information to the simulations used for the evaluation, but also to test how e.g. electro-optical sensors work in Finnish conditions. In cases where both single- and twin-seaters are available, Finnish pilots flying as backseaters will also take part in the tests. While failure to show up for HX Challenge won’t by default disqualify a contender, it would weaken their chances moving forward in the competition. Considering the costs of flight tests this will be a serious test of how invested the contenders are, and by extension how fair the competition is felt to be amongst the industry. A few odd-birds are found in the field. F-35A is the sole single-seat only fighter, while the yet to fly 39F will likely be represented by the revamped 39-7 testbed. While Saab declines to discuss GlobalEye in relation to HX Challenge at this time, they more generally confirm that a verification scheme has been devised and presented to the Finnish Air Force. EA-18G Growler obviously can’t showcase it’s full capability in the region, so it will likely be verified in other ways as well.

HX Challenge is part of the first step in evaluating the combat capability of the aircraft, by ensuring that the input data for the later modelling is done correctly. After this is done, simulated scenarios from the RFQ will be run with four-aircraft strong flights (fun fact, Finland was one of the pioneers in developing two pairs as the basic air combat element in the 1930’s). The aim here is to judge the survivability, ability to perform set missions, and the effectiveness in destroying enemy assets. As this is the Finnish Air Force, air-to-air capabilities will be the most important facto. An interesting question is how exactly simulations will be run. The word virtuaalisimulaattori (virtual simulator) is used, which seems to indicate a full man-in-the-loop simulation (think DCS on steroids, video by Jonathan Lundkvist). This is interesting in many ways, and should give a more correct picture as the value of sub-systems such as helmet-mounted displays and wide-angle displays are included in the evaluation. A good is example is how Gripen pilots like to talk about the benefit their man-machine interface provide compared to more traditional presentations of data which rely heavily on numerical values, and how this isn’t evident in traditional Monte Carlo-style simulations. With HX Challenge and a full-blown simulation the four-ship combat value should be found as accurately as possible without actually leasing four-ships and having them blow stuff up.

These data will then provide the input for a round of grand wargames taking place in the later part of 2020. Here the HX contenders will be simulated as parts of the complete Finnish defence system. This third stage will be the sole stage following which the contenders will be place in any kind of order. Based on this picture of the fighting capability of the aircrafts in their 2025-configuration together with input from an study into the development potential of the system (it’s never just about the individual aircraft) up until the end of the 2050’s the final warfighting capability-ranking will be made, and this should then in turn dictate which aircraft will be bought (the rest of the conditions being pass/fail-style).

A Long Text about Seven Short Minutes

Twelve years ago, about this time of the year, I was charging down a sea lane in the outer archipelago as the helmsman and engineer of a Jurmo-class landing craft. On my left side one of my fellow conscripts sat and focused on navigating, as he was working as the skipper of the vessel that day. Both of us were also keeping a lookout around the vessel. We had both received the same training, allowing to us serve as helmsman/engineer or as the skipper/navigator of the Jurmo, and when out on longer exercises we usually rotated between positions every other day. Following a sharp left-hand turn which took us straight towards an island I spotted a Pansio-class mineferry. Just before the island we were headed towards we would turn sharply to the right, and the large vessel now sat directly at the turning point, in front of the island. As we got closer, I noticed that it seemed like the skipper might not have noticed the mineferry, so a couple of hundred meters out, with plenty enough time for us to take the turn safely, I drew his attention to the vessel and asked how close he wanted to go. “Oh fuck, I did not see that one coming,” he said. “Helm to the right.” I acknowledged the ordered and we used the fact that we had plenty of water under the keel to our advantage to cut the corner slightly to maintain a safe distance without having to slow down for the passage.

Just over eight years ago, I was on my first ‘real’ job in the maritime industry working the summer at local boatyard Kewatec Aluboat. Much of the job revolved around the Pilot 1500-class of fast pilot vessels which were just being finished and delivered to the Finnish pilotage service Finnpilot Pilotage Oy. Despite being a green mechanical engineer roughly halfway through university I got to do some fairly interesting stuff, such as riding along on the sea trials to keep book on results such as RPM relative to speed and noise level measurements. Eventually Kewatec would be my first full-time employer, and I spent a few really interesting years there before moving on to what was then Rolls-Royce’s waterjet division (now Kongsberg Maritime Finland).

Both of these experiences came vividly back when I last week got a Twitter DM with the Finnish Safety Investigation Authority’s report on an incident where the Pilot 1500-class fast pilot vessel L239 had come close to colliding with the Hamina-class fast attack craft Hanko last December. Out of curiosity I did a quick glance through the abstract of the report, and might have left it at that if it wasn’t for the fact that the newspaper headlines that came out of Finnish daily Turun Sanomat over the next days didn’t square with the impression I had been left with.

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24 October 2019: “SIAF: Attack craft hiding caused incident – requests risk assessment plan from the Navy”
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25 October 2019: “The Navy will continue to sail around with safety signal blacked out – The collision was 8 seconds away”

In fact, the report does not lay the blame on the lack of AIS on the part of the Hanko. Nor is AIS some kind of magic safety beacon. But let’s start from the beginning.

In the early hours of 1 December 2018 Hanko was transiting southwards in the Sköldvik sea lane. The weather and visibility was generally good (considering it was pitch-black with clouds), but the wind was near gale at an average speed of 16 m/s (note that in the narrow waters this meant a wave height of 2.4 meters). At the same time, L239 left Emäsalo pilot station and entered the same lane heading north. Hanko picked up the vessel as soon as she left port, and started tracking her using normal procedures. Notably, Hanko that had been steaming down the lane to the left of the midline (her left) altered course slightly to get over to the right side of the lane to allow for a standard passing where both vessels hold to starboard (i.e. right-hand traffic as is the international standard on the seas). Hanko, in accordance with standard procedures of the Finnish Navy, did not have her AIS switched on, but had reported her general area of operating to the local Vessel Traffic Service (VTS), which informed the pilot vessel that a naval vessel was operating in the area. L239 did however not spot the Hanko when she left port, and a radar echo of the vessel was dismissed as a flock of birds.

The plotted course of the L239 (red) and Hanko (Blue). Source: OTKES

The route was a standard run for the L239, and when the lane was empty the pilot vessels usually took the shortest (and somewhat more sheltered) route in the interest of saving time and fuel. This put the pilot vessel well to the left of the middle line, i.e. heading straight for the Hanko. While Hanko was cruising at a moderate speed of about ten knots, the L239 was doing close to 25 knots with the wind at its back. A few minutes later the crew on the bridge of the Hanko realised that the pilot vessel hadn’t noticed them and immediately stopped (as the vessel is equipped with waterjets, it is able to quickly stop even from a considerable speed). At the same time the skipper of the pilot vessel noticed something in front of him, and turned on the spotlight. This showed an unidentified vessel right in their course, so he quickly reduced speed and turned right towards the midline of the sea lane. The two vessels passed each other at approximately 40 meters distance. The whole incident had taken place in less than seven minutes from L239 leaving the port.

Here we’ll take a short interlude to discuss what AIS is and isn’t. AIS is an automatic transponder system that sends data over the normal VHF-band. This usually include the vessel’s name, position, heading/course, speed, and potentially a number of other pieces of information (turn rate, heel, destination, ETA, current mode of operation, …). On the positive side it is inexpensive, simple, and when combined with other systems such as radars and chart plotters it provide a situational picture that is easy to read and interpret. It is mandatory equipment for a number of vessels, including merchant and passenger vessels. Crucially, it is not mandatory for neither pilot vessels nor for naval vessels.

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AIS has been in the headlines a number of times in recent years, including its role in the collisions of Norwegian frigate KNMS Helge Ingstad and the two US Navy destroyers that collided in separate incidents in the Pacific in 2017. However, it is crucial to note that not only is AIS susceptible to spoofing, it can also simply be switched off at the flick of a button. In Finnish waters, as opposed to out on the high seas is the majority of vessels moving around are not fitted with AIS due to their small size. Pleasure crafts might not be moving around in the Sköldvik area in the middle of the night in two meter high waves in December in any huge numbers, but there’s always the risk that some local is heading out to check on his summer cottage. As such, AIS is not God-mode view on a bridge display, but just another (very good) source of information to build up situational awareness. As a matter of fact, navigating solely on electronic aids such as AIS, or radar for that matter, is not allowed under international rules, as all vessels are required to keep a proper lookout.

Going back to my opening story from 2007, there were a few issues that could have led to it ending badly. The first was that we were under a tight schedule. We were part of an exercise scenario with several moving parts, and it was crucial that our vessel were at the designated point at the designated time. The second issue was that the timing of us and the Pansio-class crossing paths was very unfortunate, with it coming from an unexpected angle and with our vessel turning towards it at a time window measured in mere minutes when it wasn’t silhouetted against the horizon but completely in front of an island. The vessel, like the Hamina-class, is also painted to easily hide in the archipelago, and the colours work extremely well. However, the Navy doesn’t just throw enlisted conscripts into a fifteen meter vessel with a thousands horsepowers to work with and see what happens. There are clear cut roles and procedures to follow to ensure safe operations, and before one gets to sign the line next to the word “Skipper” in the logbook there’s a number of steps and certifications that you need to meet.

As mentioned, these procedures include that both crewmembers keep a lookout. The reason is simple: the skipper will need to keep one eye on the navigation, including the paper chart, chart plotter, and the radar, while the helmsman will need to keep one eye on the engine instruments. If something starts to go ever so slightly off the rails, it is easy for either crew member to be distracted and spend too little time looking out the windows, and as mr. Murphy dictates, that always happens at the worst possible time. As such, having both crew members keep their eyes open is a necessity. In our case, the training showed its worth, and the situation was solved safely and without incident.

As such, reading the report, the most baffling detail for me personally is that the pilot vessel always operate with two certified skippers aboard, of which one function as the vessel crew and the other is the safety guy when the pilot is transiting between the vessel and the ship. This isn’t baffling in itself, but the safety guy has no duties whatsoever while the vessel is underway, not even a general recommendation to keep looking out the windows! While the vessel is built to be able to be operated by a single crew member, not using the available resources is a strange decision to say the least.

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FNS Hamina leading sister FNS Hanko, showing their dark colours optmised for hiding in the archipelago. Source: Own picture

The Hanko on the other hand was naturally operating with a significantly larger crew. The persons on the bridge included not only an officer of the watch, but also a navigator, a assistant navigator, and a dedicated lookout working outside of the vessel. As noted, the crew noticed the L239 as soon as it put out to sea, and assumed that the pilot vessel had noticed them in turn.

This was likely the single largest shortcoming on the part of the crew of the Hanko. Having a very good situational awareness thanks to good working procedures, it’s easy to start assuming this is how all professionals at sea operates. Giving a short radio call to the L239 to confirm that Hanko switches from left to right side of the sea lane for a standard meeting would have ensured that both vessels knew of each other’s presence. Hindsight 20/20, as they say.

However, the actions of the pilot vessel is harder to explain. The skipper knew that there was a naval vessel in the area but apparently did not try to locate it. There doesn’t seem to have been any discussion that the safety man would assist in keeping a lookout, nor any decision to slow down or keep in the correct part of the lane in case someone else was moving in the night. Granted the Pilot 1500 series is well-equipped to be handled by a single crew member, it sports two large displays for the radar and the chart plotter placed in front of the skipper to allow for a minimum of head movement when switching between checking them and looking out the windows. However, the rule (both written and unwritten) is that electronic aids support looking out the windows, not the other way around. This is especially true in cases where getting a clean radar picture is difficult, such as in rain or rough waves, where one easily end up either getting the screen overtly cluttered or filtering away real echos. While the report doesn’t mention it, the fact that such as large radar target as the Hanko was mistaken for a flock of birds does indicate that the radar didn’t provide a good and easy to read radar picture at the time of the incident.

Stealth interlude: Yes, Hanko feature signature reduction measures, but it isn’t invisible to radar by any stretch of imagination. In a later reconstruction the pilot vessel’s radar was able to pick up the FAC well beyond two nautical miles (beyond 3,700 meters), the VTS also got a clear radar echo of the vessel, despite the tracking algorithm having some issues tracking Hanko correctly at the time of the incident.

The report by the authorities notes five conclusions, of which two are related to the reporting processes for incidents and accidents on a national level. The three others are:

  1. The tracking of non-AIS transmitting vessels require use of radar and particular care by the VTS-operators,
  2. The resources of the pilot vessel were not used optimally considering the conditions,
  3. The crew aboard vessels that try to avoid detection don’t necessarily recognise the risks this create.

In other words, the report does not blame the Hanko, nor the lack of transmitting AIS on it’s part. The standard procedure of the Finnish Navy is to have the AIS turned off due to operational security considerations. Navies around the world have varied views on the use of AIS, with some having it always off, some having it on without IDs, and some having it on close to shore but off when at sea. Steffan Watkins has a good overview, but as usual things are different between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Finland.

A key difference is that Finnish vessels don’t transit. The operating area often starts when the quay is left behind. Another is that the Finnish Navy uses dispersed and wartime infrastructure, which you don’t necessarily want to show on the internet. And while fixed infrastructure likely is known to the adversary, the usage isn’t as easy to judge considering the concealed nature of the archipelago. Space based sensors are one possibility, but they don’t either provide the kind of continuous tracking that AIS creates. Switching it on and off also degrades OPSEC, as it shows when and where a mission has started. Just as when observing a black hole, you can glean things from observing what isn’t there in the same way as observing what actually is visible.

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The Finnish archipelago is a crowded place. Source: Cogitato via Wikimedia Commons

Without having insight in the finer details of how the Finnish Navy bridge crew works, I find it plausible that the report might have a point in that the risks of not being noticed might be underestimated and deserve more attention. However, as the Navy will never be able to maintain OPSEC and spend significant time with the AIS active, the way forward for the Navy is likely to be a bit more proactive with hailing approaching vessels on the VHF and using lights more liberally, as there always will be people on the seas that aren’t quite alert enough.

Another important detail is that as mentioned, in the archipelago as opposed to out on the Atlantic Ocean one can’t assume that all vessels in the area are of the size that they are equipped with AIS. Granted, the pleasure craft traffic is concentrated to good weather days in July, but there’s always the village fanatic who is out with his nets regardless of time of the year and weather. And if you keep a good enough lookout and have adjusted your speed appropriately that you will spot someone kayaking in time to take evasive actions, you will spot a Hamina-class vessel as well, AIS or not.

What about us innocents? – Maritime Defence Day 2019

A year has passed, and for the 19th time the Finnish Navy and Naval Reserve invited a number of stakeholders to come together and discuss all matters related to questions of maritime defence. This year over 80 persons met up at the Naval Academy in Suomenlinna on a rainy Saturday to ponder over questions such as the current state and the future of both the professional and reserve parts of Finnish naval defences, what’s the deal with Russia, and whether the security situation in the Baltic Sea region really has deteriorated?

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The 18th century fortress of Suomenlinna outside of Helsinki is home to the Finnish Naval Academy. Source: Own picture

The answer to the last question was easy, at least if one compare to the post-Cold War world of the 90’s or early 00’s – yes, we are worse off than we were back then. At the same time, ensuring security of supply has never been more important. The answer to this multifaceted challenge is the Pohjanmaa-class, which together with the completely revamped Hamina-class provide the Navy with the ability to operate in two directions simultaneously, and also represents something of the sought after baseline when shipowners judge if they can take the risk of sending their merchant vessels into a high-risk region.

If the Maritime Defence Day earlier years have seen significant discussion on ongoing and upcoming vessel and equipment projects, these were relegated to a secondary role this year. There was a general feeling in the air that the question of “what” has been at least partly solved with the signing of the Pohjanmaa-class contracts and the roll-out of FNS Tornio, and with laws and doctrines providing the “why”, the focus is now on the “how”. The scope of the modernisation the Navy will undergo over the next few years is significant, with e.g. the PTO 2020 (Gabriel) providing a significant increase in capability over the current MTO 85M (RBS 15), and it is clear that the Navy will have to change their ways of operating to get the full benefit of their new capabilities. However, this is not only the case for the individual systems, but the change is even more radical when zooming out and looking at the capabilities on a vessel- or squadron-level. Importantly, the question was raised if the officer corps in general, and the cadets about to enter training in particular, will receive training for the world as it looks today or for the battlefield of 2030? The obvious answer is that there is a need to prepare for the future, but unlearning old habits that once held true but have now turned if not obsolete then at least suboptimal can prove difficult. In the end, all involved need to look themselves in the mirror and ask if they really are preparing for the crisis of tomorrow, or if they just keep doing what they have always done while cruising forward on autopilot.

Coming from the corporate world, I could not help but feel like the concept of Lean is entering the Navy. The Navy has a clear-cut mission, the surveillance of our waters, repelling territorial violations and maritime attacks, and protecting sea lines of communication. Anything that isn’t related to this core mission is a waste of time and precious resources, and this thinking needs to cascade down throughout not only the Navy but the reserve organisations as well. The operational planning needs to drive readiness planning, which in turn needs to drive the plans for unit production, which in turn dictates the exercises held. Gone are the days of voluntary reservists just “going somewhere and doing something”. This also need to take into account local and regional differences, as well as differences between units. If we train the same way in the southern border region as we do in the Archipelago Sea or in the Gulf of Bothnia, we are likely doing something wrong.

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“The nation should trust only in itself” – illustrative of the Finnish policy of trying to secure allies but always planning for being able to go alone, this decidedly realist slogan decorate the walls of a fortress made possible by foreign subsidies. Source: Own picture

However, while there obviously is waste (to use lean-terminology), there is also much that is good in the system. This includes both the grassroots operations of the L-series of boats by the Naval Reserve and the National Defence Training Association, as well as the high-level refresher exercises. The evacuation of ‘wounded’ by the reservists of the Nyland Brigade was described as an example of the latter, with the scenario apparently running in accordance with the real deal all the way from the battlefield to the field hospital, with the exception of the surgeon not starting to cut into the simulated casualty. “You might imagine the surprise of the wounded when they were asked for permission to practice application of intravenous lines, and in the cases where this was granted they quickly where hooked up to peripheral lines in both hands before they were carried aboard the vessel that took them to the field hospital.” Being married to a physician, I can sympathise (though I’ve never actually had IV-lines)…

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Janne “Rysky” Riiheläinen, recognised national security authority and communications professional, was back after a few years away from the Maritime Defence Day to discuss security threats in the Baltic Sea region. Source: Own Picture

But what about Russia? Russia is the driver behind much of the instability in the Baltic Sea region. Much of this is apparently driven not only by a desire to recreate any historical grandness or regain superpower status (the latter of which Putin actually has more or less succeeded with despite the poor hand he was dealt), but also by a desire to maintain freedom to maneuver by effectively blocking Western attempts at boxing in Russia (i.e. getting Russia to adhere to international rules and human rights). This takes many forms, including wars in the information and cyber spaces, and relies heavily on the ability of the authoritarian state to take rapid ad hoc-actions to maintain the initiative. The west has tried to answer, but it is unclear to what extent the deterrence work bears fruit, especially as strong political voices are calling for appeasement.

The Baltic Sea is the new divided Germany

With the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union, the Baltic Sea region has become the fault line and a stage for provocations. This include issues such as the harassment of merchant shipping, further highlighting the potential vulnerabilities of the supply lines traversing the narrow sea. With the three Baltic countries safely inside NATO, there is always a risk that the countries in the grey zone, Finland and Sweden, will have to provide the real estate for a more or less serious Russian provocation. This naturally raises uncomfortable questions, including the role of the major islands in the Baltic Sea, as well as the vulnerability of the sea-based trade to different kinds of hybrid actions. The issue with Gotland-scenarios (either at Gotland or at another location such as Bornholm or the Åland Islands) have been discussed at great length elsewhere, but suffice to say they can play both a political role as well as provide additional range for the somewhat overhyped Russian A2/AD-bubble (yes, everyone’s favourite FOI-report was mentioned).

For the hybrid scenarios, an emphasis was placed on the use of the market forces to deal serious damage to a country’s maritime infrastructure. Granted you can sink a small freighter in a suitably narrow strategic sea lane, but you can also simply pay the vessels to go somewhere else. If there’s a market demand that pays better than sending your vessels to the Baltic Sea, suddenly the Finnish waters might face a serious shortage of tonnage, even if the supply lines notionally stays open. Globalised ownership patterns also makes questions such as how many vessels fly Finnish flags largely irrelevant, as a foreign owner might quickly change flag if it is felt that operating under Finnish rules might be less than optimal. A similar issue can be seen when it comes to port infrastructure, where key pieces of equipment (including large systems such as cranes), can be owned by stevedoring companies and not the port itself. With these companies then possibly being under international ownership and able to ship out their machinery in a matter of days if they feel they can get more money somewhere else, ownership of the port itself can quickly become a secondary question if the “port” turns out to be just a plot of land with quays and empty warehouses, void of any loading/unloading equipment. In short, cash is still king, and the invisible hand is susceptible to bribery.

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The Maritime Defence Day is also a day for recognising individuals who have worked for the benefit of maritime defence in different ways, and this year I found myself among those who received the Naval Reserve Medal of Merit. The medal was also awarded to Ari Caselius of Traficom and Visa Jokelainen of Pelikaanikilta ry. The Naval Reserve Cross of Merit was awarded to Kare Vartiainen of Rannikkotykistökerho Johtorengas ry and Antti Jäntti of Helsingin Reservimeriupseerit ry. Source: Robin Elfving

However, while a crisis below the threshold of war is the more likely scenario if tensions were to flare up in the Baltic Sea region, a full-scale war in the Baltic cannot be ruled out. In that case Sweden would be involved due to it’s strategic location right on the US reinforcement route to the Baltic states. The Finnish situation is less certain, as while Finland sees the 1,300 km border with Russia largely as a liability from a defence point of view, the same is likely the case for Russia, with Kremlin’s appetite for having to divert forces to conduct offensive operations (or even just to hold the line) north of the Gulf of Finland likely being limited. On the other hand, wars have a tendency to escalate according to their own logic, and it is safe to say that a large conflict in the region would have a seriously deteriorating effect on Finnish national security, regardless of whether Finland would be able to stay out of the firing line or not (it can even be argued that trying to stay out of the firing line at any cost might be suboptimal in certain cases). For the Navy, being prepared for all contingencies is paramount, and this is something that clearly is top of mind of the service. Currently the situation is described as “satisfactory”, and with the equipment now being acquired and training being adjusted to meet the demands of the future, it seems set to continue that way.

Disinformation!

Skipper is a well-recognized voice in Swedish discussions on defence and national security. Following the questionable reporting on details surrounding the subhunt of 2014, reporting that now has been quoted in Finnish media as well, he wrote a blog post on his personal blog which I have received permission to translate into English. Any errors in the translation are fully my own.

I practically never write blog posts any longer, but sometimes I feel the demand to do so. The following is due to SvD’s damaging reporting on the submarine question published yesterday.

I will not in any way comment upon the substance of the article. The only thing I will discuss in this post is the unquestioning attitude of the media. Conclusions presented in headlines and introductions to articles are flat out damaging for Sweden and cannot be seen as anything but pure disinformation. Where then lies the problem?

The headline and introduction used by SvD is phrased in a way that a reader not familiar with the issue cannot be expected to understand in any way other than that there never was any foreign submarine activity at all in Swedish waters in October 2014. This conclusion is utterly incorrect. Even worse is the fact that all other media repeat this statement without further questions.

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Original SvD headline
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Pure disinformation spread by Omni based on the SvD piece
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Expressen takes it one step further with the seriously wrongful statement that the ASW-budget would have been increased by 10 billion SEK (920 MEUR at today’s rate) following the incident 

This narrative constitutes direct disinformation, and was quickly established through national Swedish media during yesterday evening, and soon all established national news-channels sported a rewrite of the article, none of which showed any signs of questioning the narrative. All featured the same or similar misleading and erroneous headlines. [Today Finnish media has also repeated the claims.]

Even public service in the form of Sveriges Radio and Sveriges Television did such rewrites in blind trust, and as such played their part in spreading disinformation. SR and SVT that are trusted to continue working in times of war and serious crises, and as such form “protection” against influence and information operations directed against Sweden.

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The Swedish Agency for Public Management (Statskontoret) 2017:5 “The agency’s work related to disinformation”

Following a social media storm against this both SvD and SVT, as well as other media, have rewritten their headlines and introductions. The problem is that the damage is already done. The narrative is set, and the man on the street now lives with a picture that all that was written by SvD and the others were correct, and that there was no foreign submarine activity in October 2014.

This morning several editorial boards have responded and corrected their headlines and introductions (see below).

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SvD with their updated headline (corrected the day after publication)
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Original headline (misleading given the facts)
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Corrected headline

If media had bothered to check the facts before publication none of this would have had to happen. The facts on the ground have not changed since September 2015, something that SvD knows while still deciding to make a grand fuss about this.

To get the facts one can read the Swedish Defence Forces article from 23 September 2015 with the headline “Beyond all reasonable doubt“. Some extracts from the text (my bold):

The Defence Forces’ final analysis shows that, as was stated last autumn, it is beyond all reasonable doubt that the Swedish internal territorial waters were violated in the Stockholm archipelago in October 2014.

The basis for this conclusion is now a significantly larger material than what was available in the immediate aftermath of the intelligence operation [i.e. the subhunt].

Of the roughly 300 reports that came in approximately 150 has been analysed in further detail of which 21 were judged to be particularly interesting.

Following the analysis several of these have now received a higher classification compared to the earlier analysis. The combined evaluation based on the amount of observations in the area provide a very high level of confidence.

The observation that last autumn was judged to be of the highest level of confidence has been reevaluated. Here additional information have come to light that give this particular observation another explanation, and as such it is not included in the basis for the combined evaluation. Despite this the conclusion remain that through the analysis work it is concluded beyond reasonable doubt that the Swedish internal waters have been violated.

The conclusion that media should have identified is that the “news” SvD built its article on wasn’t part of the final analysis work and combined evaluation. This was obvious already four years ago, but still media tries to spin this to mean that this news should be taken as proof that there was no underwater activity.

As such, this is pure disinformation, and it is regrettable that next to all media without question jumped the bandwagon on this sensation piece. It would – as many have pointed out – be interesting if SR medierna [an investigative public service radio show] would look into this reporting and investigate it from the point of view of source criticism.

That SVT did a rewrite of the article without looking into the sources with a critical mind is particularly interesting as SVT themselves recently launched a campaign for increased media literacy and critical evaluation of sources.

Starting today, SVT launches a new campaign about the role of public service in the modern media landscape. The first film discusses the need for fact-based journalism.

The film “Hen out of a feather” [Swedish expression meaning to make a mountain out of a molehill] focuses on the great importance of fact-based journalism in a world where rumors easily become truths, and information risks being corrupted. Where the border between opinion and fact becomes ever more fluid, and the current fast digital media landscape contribute to making a hen out of a feather.

The campaign has also been heavily criticized, including by the comedy show Svenska Nyheter.

A significantly more nuanced text has been written by Mikael Holmström (DN).

A well-written editorial is found in Expressen by Linda Jernek with the headline “Don’t spread the spin that the submarine was just a bouy”

Yet another meltdown in the reporting is made by Jonna Andersson (mitti.se), se below.

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