Nenonen’s heritage, pt 3: The Heavies

While the light howitzers might be numerous, there’s no denying that it is their larger counterparts that are supposed to do the heavy lifting, especially in the key sectors of the battlefield. Up until some fifteen years ago, the mainstay in the Finnish heavy brigade artillery was something designated 152 H 88. This was in fact the common name for a modernisation program that had been applied to a number of different WWII-era howitzers, that had been refitted with a new 152 mm L32 barrel and generally brought up to speed. Two of these were the Soviet 152 mm obr. 1937 howitzer (ML-20) and the 122 mm obr. 1931/37  field gun (A-19) that shared the same carriage, while the third was based on the German Immergrün, the 15 cm sFH 18. In total, well over 120 were modified, being designated 152 H 88-37, H-31, and H-40 respectively. In the early 90’s they got company from a similar number of 152 mm D-20 howitzers (152 H 55) bought from ex-NVA stocks, solidifying the Soviet 152 mm as the mainstay of Finnish heavy indirect fire.

6-tuumaisilla on kiirettä.
The 152 H/37, as the original 152 mm obr. 1937 was known in Finnish service, firing on its former owners during the Soviet summer offensive of 1944. 63 years later the last guns would finally be withdrawn from Finnish service. Source: SA-Kuva

The impact of the large artillery buys from the recently unified Germany can hardly be overemphasised. The total number of field artillery pieces grew by 25 % (the number of rocket launchers tripled), the first self-propelled guns arrived in the form of the light 2S1 and the heavier 2S5, and crucially the ratio of heavy to light batteries shifted. 42 % of the Finnish batteries were heavy following the introduction of the large number of D-20s, and the number of batteries per brigade grew to six (i.e. a regiment with one heavy and one light artillery battalion, both with 18 guns). The ratio of heavy to light batteries continued to rise as the decade went on. However, and this was a key factor, as the millennium changed, almost a third of the Finnish heavy batteries consisted of brigade artillery equipped with old Soviet 152 mm howitzers with a range of approximately 16 to 18 km. While they still could provide tactical fires, they were largely unable to perform operational fire missions. Their weight also made mobility, never a strong suit of towed artillery, abysmal. What finally broke the camel’s back was the fact that the shelf-life of the rounds were starting to run out. Finland usually bought packages of artillery that included rounds and other necessary equipment, and the NVA rounds were starting to run out of time.

First to go was the 152 H 88, which was retired in 2007, which it has to be said was not a bad run for a number of guns developed seven decades earlier. In recent years the 152 H 55 has also been struck from record, leaving a total gap of approximately 200 to 250 heavy howitzers compared to twenty years ago. As noted, the material was old and sported a short range, and at the same time there has been a drawdown in the number of infantry units that needed support. Still, the loss of firepower was felt.

An even bigger loss was the 130 K 54 (M-46). The gun was one of the stars of the Soviet Cold War arsenal, being known for it’s range and accuracy. The ability to send a 130 mm  HE-shell over 27 km was no mean feat for a gun that entered production in 1951, and it played an important role in Finnish service as a counterbattery and operational fires weapon. The last of the nine battalions delivered to Finland were retired a short while ago, leaving just a single heavy Russian weapon in service.

152K89 täyspanos late 2019 Marko Leppänen
A 152K89 of Kainuu Artillery Regiment during a live-fire exercise late last year. When firing with a full charge such as here, the gun is capable of flinging out the standard OF-29 HE-FRAG round to over 27 km. Picture courtesy of Marko Leppänen

The 152 mm 2A36 Giatsint is probably better known in it’s self-propelled version 2S5 (a battery of which was found in Finnish service, but is since retired), and 24 are found in Finnish service as the 152K89. In Soviet service these replaced the M-46 as a higher-level asset for roles such as counterbattery fire. However, the 152 mm is a “difficult” calibre for Finland as the 152K89 is the sole weapon using it, and these guns are also on their way out once the ammunition reaches the end of their shelf-life.

To understand what this all means we must go back to the first post of the series that discussed the role of the different guns and their fire missions. In short, Finland has lost 13 heavy batteries handling tactical fires, and another 9 heavy batteries (one of which was self-propelled) handling operational fires and counterbattery missions, with a tenth over-strength operational fires battery soon to join these. As noted, the situation is not as bad as it looks, as the capabilities of the majority of outgoing equipment were quite poor and developments in related fields have improved the quality of fires overall. However, somewhere there is bound to be a gap, and the Finnish Defence Forces wants to plug it.

To begin with we have the K9 order, which will bring 48 top-notch self-propelled heavy howitzers into Finnish service. It’s hard to overstate the impact these will have on Finnish indirect fires, especially in the higher end of the spectrum. The K9 (possibly 155PSH17, though I can’t remember seeing that designation in official FDF sources) will be organised into heavy armoured howitzer batteries, which are a completely new unit type. The fact that they are 48 would seem to indicate two battalions of 24, finally giving the Army the elusive eight-gun battery that is able to perform the shoot-and-scoot carousel where one battery is constantly on the move while two fire (or then there is just a few extras to cover for when some vehicles are on maintenance, but twelve spares for 36 regulars sounds a bit much).

Another key part of the significantly increased operational fires relative to when the 130K54 and 152K89 were first brought into Finnish service is the 41 M270 heavy rocket launchers (officially designated 289 RSRAKH 06). The range and varied munitions they can bring to bear is in a class of their own in the Finnish arsenal.

 

The K9 being dressed up according to Finnish doctrine and customs.

Together, the K9 and the M270 quite nicely cover the gap in operational fires left by the 130K54 and the 152K89. At the same time, the 132 Finnish-built towed 155 mm guns (about two-thirds of which are the older 155K83-97 with the L39 barrel and the rest being the newer 155K98 with L52 barrel and APU) are also able to do operational fire missions, so there doesn’t seem to be too much of gap in the higher end of the indirect fire capability (especially once the air-to-ground capability of the Hornet-fleet and the upcoming HX-fleet are added to the equation, though they will probably have no shortage of wartime missions so the ground-pounding will probably be somewhat limited).

Side note: at this point someone might ask if one really should do OSINT on the number of own artillery pieces. The answer is that the FDF report them to the world as part of the OSCE’s Vienna Document undertakings, so this isn’t really OSINT as much as basic googling-skills

The problem then is the tactical fires, which as we have now seen largely rest with the to-be-retired 122H63 light howitzer, the Finnish-built 155K83-97 and 155K98, and a limited number of  122 mm RM-70 rocket-launchers (122RAKH89, also from ex-NVA stocks). The exception is the mechanised and heavy motorised (tracked) battlegroups which have a total of 74 self-propelled light howitzers in the form of the 2S1 Gvozdika (122PSH74) for their tactical fire support. The number nicely matches the reported 2+2 battlegroups all getting a battalion of 18 guns each. There has been speculation that the first K9s would replace the 122PSH74, but that seem unlikely for a number of reasons. To begin with, the role of the 122PSH74 is squarely tactical fires, it is in essence a mobile D-30 that provide some cover to the crew. Granted if the battlegroups have the equipment, their artillery batteries could be allocated operational fire missions, but permanently allocating the most powerful guns available to the Finnish Army to individual reinforced battalions does not seem to guarantee the greatest use of them, and fits poorly with the concept of modularity found in the Finnish artillery doctrine. It should also be noted that the unit type is described as “completely new”, and that then-MoD Jussi Niinistö in his official blog clearly mentioned that they are to replace towed equipment.

These are replacing towed artillery that is becoming obsolete and retired during the next decade [the 2020’s]

In addition, it rhymes poorly with the relatively recent modifications to bring up at least part of the 122PSH74 fleet to the new 122PSH74M-standard, which is described in Panssari 2/2014 as including a serious overhaul of the communications equipment as well as various C2-systems, all meant to increase the speed of operations (the upgrade also feature a light-machine gun on the roof of the vehicle, as the importance of being able to fend of enemy infantry has grown with the increased fragmentation of the battlefield).

122PSH74M Pohjoinen 18 Maavoimet FB
122PSH74M firing during exercise Pohjoinen 18. Source: Maavoimat FB

It is important to note exactly how different the two self-propelled guns are. The 122PSH74 tips the scale at 15.4 tons and has a footprint of 7.3 x 2.9 meters, while the K9 weighs in at 46.3 tons with a footprint of 12.0 x 3.4 meters (hull length being 7.4 m). While the 122PSH74 isn’t exactly an off-road jeep, the light gun vs. heavy gun comparisons certainly are at play here as well as for their towed counterparts, with the operational mobility being quite a bit simpler to handle when you need a trailer rated for 16 tons compared to one rated for 45+ tons.

So then we are back to a situation where there are a number of modern 155 mm guns (and some heavy rocket launchers) handling the operational fires and a large number of light guns being responsible for tactical fires. With the light ones being on their way out, bringing us back to the questions asked in last post.

The light guns, including both 122H63 and 122PSH74, currently make up something between 75 to 80 % of the total force (depending on how many K9 have arrived and whether you count the 152K89 or not). Using current equipment, as discussed in the last post the towed 155K83-97 could trickle down to cover up the 122H63-gap, and the 155K98 could continue to provide firepower for the operational brigades. However, there is still a few places were things are looking thin:

  • The four battalions of 122PSH74 that support the mechanised and motorised battlegroups,
  • The reduction by perhaps 85 % in the number of guns supporting regional and local troops following the withdrawal of the 122H63,
  • Whether the towed 155K98 really is the weapon of choice for the operational brigades.

The answer to the first is probably more K9s, at least partly. Finland has an option for more vehicles, which would simply continue deliveries after the current batch of 48 vehicles have been shipped. How many is an open question, as another four battalions (especially if they are 24-gun strong) seem prohibitively expensive. Getting two battalions (i.e. another 48 guns) for the two mechanised battlegroups might be doable.

Conscript driver training oct 19 PSPR FB
The first conscripts started training on the K9 Moukari last year, replacing the 122PSH74 as the training platform at the peacetime Jääkäritykistörykmentti (Jaeger artillery regiment). Note the sheer size of the vehicle compared to the crew. Source: Panssariprikati FB

And that leaves two motorised battlegroups and either the operational brigades or the regional units needing more firepower. Looking at the requirements, getting a new towed piece (or transferring the 155K98) to the motorised battlegroups likely doesn’t cut it. The same can probably in all honesty be said for the operational brigades. At least once it is clear something new has to enter the organisation at some level, one can do worse than insert the new stuff at the top and let the old cascade down.

 

Which brings us back to everyone’s favourite emperor-acronym, Nexter’s CAESAR (CAmion Equipé d’un Système d’ARtillerie). The idea is rather simple, and there is something very Finnish about of marrying what is in essence a tested gun (the towed TRF1) to a truck chassis to give the gun shoot-and-scoot capability. I discussed the system at length in an earlier artillery post, so without rehashing everything again:

  • It is a proven design, including having seen combat in harsh conditions,
  • It offers the firepower expected from modern 155 mm L52 systems,
  • The ability to relocate on it’s own wheels adds significantly to both strategic and operational mobility,
  • The French decision to over time let the CAESAR replace all 155 mm systems in service (i.e. the tracked AUF-1TA and the towed TRF1) means that there is a long-term commitment from France to keep the production line (as well as modernisation programs) up and going.

This combination, including the last part, is important, as surely someone will point out the benefits of the Israeli ATMOS, the Mandus Group BRUTUS, and the Swedish Archer. The ATMOS is most closely related to the CAESAR when it comes to the basic concept, while the Archer is a more high-end system with it’s 21 pre-loaded rounds in the magasin. The BRUTUS is the bigger brother to the 105 mm Hawkeye we discussed last time around, and sport a low-recoil 155 mm howitzer which allows the carrier platform to be smaller (and the company to make the obvious #IdesofMarch-jokes). All systems, including the Archer as was shown at DSEI last year, are modular and to a certain extent carrier agnostic. While the differences between the systems are small enough that it will come down to how their respective strengths and weaknesses are evaluated rather than to one of them being objectively better than the rest, for some there isn’t the kind of long-term commitment to the projects by the host countries as is enjoyed by the CAESAR, while others are just now entering service/being tested.

The general drive towards wheeled platforms for artillery is interesting, and something that Watling spent quite a bit of time on in theRUSI report:

However, for every eight [tracked] AS90 howitzers, there are a further six command and support tracked vehicles in the battery, a tactical group of at least five vehicles and the necessary CSS [combat service support] to maintain the guns, repair them when they throw tracks, or recover them when damaged. An Armoured Infantry Brigade meanwhile includes 56 Challenger 2 MBTs, while the brigade also needs to move bridging equipment, its infantry fighting vehicles and CSS assets. The British Army has between 71 and 92 HETs [M1070F tank transporters] available.

[…]

There is a trade-off between wheeled systems, which can self-deploy and have significant strategic mobility, versus tracked platforms, which retain much greater tactical mobility, especially in wet and uneven terrain. It is important to note that the differences between these platforms are declining […] This has led the IDF – despite fighting in a small area – to conclude that the operational reach of wheeled artillery is disproportionately valuable to the tactical mobility of tracked guns. It must be noted that they face a much less significant counter-battery threat, and therefore can have less protection. Wheeled platforms, however, require fewer specialised CSS elements and can therefore move with a smaller logistical tail. As a result, they reduce the overall number of chassis needed to deliver an effect.

What Watling doesn’t mention in the quote above is that this translate directly into money. The difference between the new-built Danish CASESARs coming in at 2.7 million Euro per piece compared to the Finnish ex-ROK K9s at 3.0 million Euro a piece isn’t huge, usual caveats about these not being apples-to-apples comparisons apply (though this is also a good time to point out what a good price PVLOGL got). However, the difference in operational costs most likely are very different (no-one’s going to release anything resembling comparable figures for those, so this is an educated guess based on training requirements, maintenance needs, weight, supporting vehicles/heavy loaders, …). The decision to use a truck-based resupply solution for the K9s also make the argument of the superior tactical mobility of tracks compared to wheels somewhat less persuasive.

One interesting aspect of the CAESAR is the difference between the baseline French (and earlier export) versions, and the latest Danish vehicle that is mounted on the significantly larger classic Tatra T815 8×8 compared to earlier 6×6 carriers. This gives the vehicle not only significantly better off-road mobility, but also a larger number of rounds being carried on the gun (30 being the new standard as opposed to 18 on the French 6×6 version. This can be further increased if a lower number of charges are carried), a new protected cabin (STANAG 4569 Level 2a/2b), and the munitions handling system seen in action in the video above. A new muzzle velocity radar and a thermal imaging sight for direct fire are also fitted.

Sisu E15 TP-L Leguan bridge Saber Strike 18 - Maavoimat FB
You don’t always need tracked platforms, as the Sisu E15 TP-L Leguan bridge layer shows here at the Saber Strike 18. Source: Maavoimat FB

The CAESAR is in many ways the epitome of the kind of good-enough system that the Finnish Defence Forces likes. Especially in cases where the rest of the unit also runs largely on wheels, the tracks and size of the K9 is making things somewhat complicated. An interesting comparison is the Leguan-bridge, which the Finnish Army uses on the Leopard 2-chassis for heavier units and mounted on a Sisu all-terrain truck for lighter ones. There’s no doubt that a CAESAR, or another wheeled self-propelled gun, would feel right at home in the Satakunta Artillery Regiment of the Pori Brigade.

To sum it up, in such a scenario the Army would eventually post-122 mm howitzers (~2030) sport a tube artillery consisting of 48 K9 dedicated to higher-level operational fires, 36 K9 for supporting two mechanised battlegroups, 72 to 108 wheeled SPGs (four to six batteries) for supporting the other operational battlegroups and brigades, and 130-ish Finnish-built towed 155 mm guns to provide the heavy hitting power of the regional troops. The bottom end would then need further 120 mm mortars or a new light gun, as per the last post.

charlie_battery2c_1st_battalion2c_12th_marine_regiment2c_fire_an_m982_excalibur_round_from_an_m777_howitzer
Marines with Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, fire an M982 Excalibur round from an M777 howitzer during a fire support mission in Afghanistan in 2011. Source: USMC via Wikimedia Commons

And just when things started to look quite straightforward – wholesale K9-introduction is too expensive while no-one builds a basic towed gun anymore, let’s go wheeled – there suddenly just might appear the possibility for another cheap surplus buy, as the USMC proposes that they get rid of the majority of their tube artillery. Provided that the suggestion passes through the political hurdles (something that is far from certain) and that the equipment isn’t just mothballed for future use, it might suddenly mean that there is 96 surplus M777A2 towed howitzers up for sale. And there aren’t necessarily too many interested buyers.

The M777 is one of those modern towed howitzers that are built to be as light as possible, which is reflected in the price. 2009 the USMC bought a batch of guns (together with the Canadian Army the total order was 63 M777A2) for 1.9 million USD per gun. If, and this is quite a big “if”, the whole or better part of the 96 gun batch eventually are sold as surplus, they would nicely make up the replacement for the heavy brigade firepower lost with the short-ranged 152 mm howitzers. Buying more towed artillery at this point certainly does sound like something of a step back. However, swapping out the 152H55 for the M777 would certainly still be an improvement when it comes to mobility, based on the simple fact that the M777 weighs in at 4,100 kg, well below the 5,700 kg of the 152H55 (and just above a quarter of the 16,000 kg of the longer-ranged 155K98). The M777 with it’s L39 can also throw unassisted HE projectiles out to 24,700 meters compared to the 17,400 meters of the 152H55, which though still short of the 27,000 meter range of the 155K98 would provide a serious boost in brigade-level firepower. Swapping towed howitzers to (lighter) towed howitzers would also be a relatively simple change in the OOB.

MVH1 2015 Maavoimat FB
Even when it comes to towed heavy artillery, not all are created equal in terms of mobility and ease of handling, something that is often forgotten in the towed vs. self-propelled debate. Source: Maavoimat FB

In this scenario, the domestic 155K98 and 155K83-97 would be used by the operational brigades, with the M777 replacing the outgoing regional brigade artillery and possibly a handful of the most important of the 122H63 batteries. This still leaves the question of a 122PSH74 replacement open (self-propelled heavy mortars, anyone?), and is dependent on the highly speculative possibility of a cheap buy of the better part of the USMC guns that might be retired in the near future. However, the underlying conclusion is that there is bound to be a gap in firepower somewhere, and I would be highly surprised if there are no new 155 mm systems that enter Finnish service within this decade.

Nenonen’s heritage, pt 2: The Curious Case of the Light Gun

Looking purely at numbers, the most important Finnish artillery piece is the 122 mm D-30 (or 2A18 as the GRAU-designation goes), 471 of which are found in the Finnish arsenal. Finland was amongst the first waves of export customers when the then brand new light howitzer was acquired in the early 1960’s. At that time it was seen as a brigade-level asset and constituted the first modern post-war artillery system of the Finnish Army. The gun came with a host of new capabilities, including the ability to fire at very steep angles of attack, giving it significantly greater capabilities in urban terrain, as well as the innovative base that allowed a full 360° firing arch, the latter especially useful when using the gun in the direct firing role to fight of any enemy’s that might have been able to sneak up on the gun position from an unexpected direction.

122H63 Maavoimat FB Henri Hakulinen
122H63 being fired. Source: Maavoimat FB/Henri Hakulinen

Things have changed, however, and today the venerable light howitzer is relegated to the battalion support role. Here it soldiers on, the 122 mm being the sole Soviet-era calibre not to be counted amongst the “difficult” calibres that the FDF has been trying to replace for quite some time already. It looks like the current schedule is that “at least part of the towed 122 H 1963 howitzers” will stay in service towards the end of the decade. However, while the gun currently handles “fire support of infantry and jaeger brigades as well battlegroups”, especially in the case of the regional and operational units time is running out. 15,400 meter range just doesn’t cut it for a towed system if one tries to keep maintaining mutually supportive coverage of a number of moving companies and battalions according to the current Finnish infantry doctrine.

Before discussing possible replacements, one need to remember why the Army has light guns to begin with, as on the surface everything is better in 155 mm. The answer boils down to a number of factors. One is undeniably cost. The 122H63 was and is cheap. It’s cheap to acquire, cheap to operate, and fire cheap rounds. This ties in with the logistical footprint, as the rounds are smaller, a significantly larger number of rounds can be ferried around for any given volume and weight compared to 155 mm. Granted the effect per round is smaller, but in several fire missions, especially when doing suppressive fire, the number of rounds available counts more than the size of the individual bang. As current Finnish artillery doctrine dictates that the guns need an abundance of rounds stored in the forward gun positions, this is an area where the smaller 122 round shines.

Overall, it is seldom recognised just how big a difference the smaller size makes for the whole logistical chain. It’s not just that the gun is smaller, but the vehicle towing it can be smaller as well (or, alternatively, go places where it couldn’t with a heavier towed cargo). The ammunition supply train can be lighter throughout, either translating into more rounds carried per supply run or by having lighter vehicles do the runs. This further brings down the operating cost, and yet again contributes to a smoother logistical flow, which is felt also indirectly in issues such as mobility (in the sense of where one can go with the battery and still have an adequate supply train).

The issues are, however, obvious. The short range was already mentioned, and while the upper end of the spectrum has seen significant leaps in firepower through the improvement of both the guns and the rounds they fire, similar developments have been largely absent in the lower tiers of the artillery. In part this is driven by the simple fact that it makes sense that new technological developments are first introduced in the higher-end systems, from where they usually then trickle down. However, this trickling down has been curiously absent, leaving systems such as the 1970’s vintage British 105 mm gun L118 (M119 in US service) as amongst the most modern guns in service. One reason is likely that several of the benefits of the light gun over the heavier ones – ease of handling, affordability, and lack of complexity – run contrary to developments such as longer barrels and auxiliary power plants. Developments in rounds, including both guidance and sensor kits as well as sub-munitions, are usually size-restricted in that the “extras” are of the same size regardless of whether you try to squeeze them into a 122 mm shell with a 14 km range or into a 155 mm one with 30 km range. Crucially, that leaves less room for the exploding stuff that is supposed to provide the effect, so while it isn’t necessarily impossible to create guided light gun rounds, their drop in effect compared to ‘dumb’ HE-rounds in their calibre is significantly larger than what is the case for 155 mm rounds.

Regardless of the reason, the fact is that the gap in firepower between light and heavy systems is widening both in absolute and relative terms. And as several countries struggle with having a harder time funding and manning their armed forces in general (and with the artillery arms being no exceptions) the light guns have in many cases struggled to justify their existence (especially when it comes to upgrade and acquisition programs).

Nothing of this is particularly new, but rather the trend has been going for quite some time. The Finnish Army has been able to kick the can forward through the large starting number of 122H63s, relatively recent surplus buys in the 90’s, and allowing the retirement of the most worn ones as the total number of batteries has shrunk. Still, everything has an end, and there simply isn’t an obvious replacement.

As noted, buying a new towed gun to replace like-for-like is difficult even without considering the value of a towed gun on the battlefield of 2040. That’s because there are extremely few offerings. Denel of South Africa produced a technology demonstrator 105 mm gun called Light Experimental Ordnance (LEO, with a series produced gun being designated G7) that started test firing in 2001. The system is probably the most impressive weapon of its class, sporting ranges of 24,600 meters with standard ammunition while keeping a light total weight. The main issue is that it is not a ready operational weapon, and Denel has been open with the fact that quite a bit of work remain until it can be one. Coupled with the somewhat uncertain future of Denel and the South African arms industry in general, these are likely factors that significantly lowers any potential Finnish interest in acquiring the system.

m-56-33_105mm_-_partner_2019_-_1
The M56-2, also designated M56/33, at a trade show last year. The external resemblance to the classic 10.5 cm leFH 18/40 (105 H 33–40 in Finnish service) is evident. Source: Srđan Popović via Wikimedia Commons

Another of the very few countries that offer modern-ish towed guns is Serbia, which politically isn’t the first choice for a major Finnish arms contract, but still might be doable. While they offer a number of upgraded versions of the D-30 and the US M101, they also sport a domestic 105 mm howitzer which in the newest version is designated M56-2. The weapon traces it’s lineage to concepts found in the German leFH 18/40 (yes, this sounds bad, but it’s not quite as bad as it sounds), but fitted with a new L33 barrel it can push HE-rounds some pretty impressive distances downrange. Besides the basic US-pattern ammunitions, a number of longer-ranged rounds exist. These include a boat-tailed round with 2.85 kg of TNT and a maximum range of 15 km, and a base-bleed round capable of putting the same amount of TNT at a target 18 km away. The standard M1 HE-round has a maximum range of 14.5 km, with a new locally developed charge.

I would be, and I can’t stress this enough, highly surprised if the M56-2 would enter Finnish service. At the same time, this comes with the caveat that it wouldn’t be the first procurement decision to surprise me, and if the Army decide that they just want a basic (if crude) solution they can drop into the current organisation, there aren’t that many alternatives.

ISAF Soldiers Fire a 105mm Light Gun
The 7 Parachute Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery, fire their 105 mm L118 in support of patrols from the 3rd Para near Kajaki, Afghanistan, in 2008. Note the Selex ES LINAPS mounted on top of the barrel close to the breech. Source: Sgt Anthony Boocock, RLC/MOD via Wikimedia Commons

The obvious alternative instead is the British L118/M119 105 mm light gun. Despite it’s age, it is still quite a bit younger than the D-30, and, crucially, in service with a number of Western countries that have spent time and resources on keeping it up to date. It does beat the D-30 in the number game as well, being shorter and slightly narrower in transport configuration, having a faster rate of fire, and a longer range. With a combat weight of just under 2,000 kg, it is also quite a bit lighter than the D-30 than tips the scale at around 3,200 kg (somewhat depending on configuration). And while I decried the lack of great innovations on the scale we’ve seen amongst the heavy hitters in the start of this post, there’s no denying that the latest versions of the L118 is vastly superior to those rolling of the assembly lines in 1975.

A key part of this was the US upgrades to M119A2/A3-standard, (the A3 differing from the A2 in having a digital fire control system that uses “90% of the software derived from the 155 mm M777A2”) as well as an MLU-project and the fitting of the Selex ES LINAPS artillery pointing system (yes, really) on the UK guns. The LINAPS is mounted on the barrel and include an integrated INS/GPS system, a large touch-screen to control the software, an odometer keeping track on the distance travelled, and a muzzle velocity radar. In essence, it is a small computer that keeps track on where the gun is, where it is pointing, and then tells the crew where to shoot in order to hit the target they want to shoot at. In essence, this is roughly similar to what the new FCS of the M119A3 does, and what both does in the field is that they allow the crews to start shooting (and hitting) significantly quicker than what has been the case earlier when the position of the gun has been decided by external means.

The nicest part about the L118/M119 is without doubt the sheer number of units, with over 1,100 guns having been produced (though observant readers will note that a Finnish one-for-one replacement of 122H63 would mean increasing the total number of L118/M119 production with 43%, further highlighting just how unique the Finnish artillery park is). The status as the de facto standard light gun in the Western world means that there are ample upgrades and improvements being offered for it, including both for the gun itself and for the rounds it fire. The UK version has a stated max range of 17,200 meters with HE-shells and charge “Super” (15,300 meters with charge number five), while the US has adopted the M1130 HE FRAG with base-bleed as their standard HE-round going forward. This South African Rheinmetall Denel Munitions developed round is capable of reaching out to 17,500 meters. The airmobility and widespread use, including in a number of export countries, means that even if the regular Army units of the US and UK were to start replacing the system, it would still have a considerable user base for years to come.

Operation IRAQI FREEDOMReleased 10 August 06 by Major Bren Workman IO for the 506th Regimental Combat Team, 101st Division
The nice thing about light guns is that their rounds are light, as demonstrated here by the loading of a 105 mm round into a M119A2 of the 320th Field Artillery, 506th Regimental Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. The 101st is one of at least three US Army divisions (together with the 82nd and 10th) that are likely to continue to use light guns for the foreseeable future. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Keith W. DeVinney via Wikimedia Commons

But is another towed gun really what is needed? This is a surprisingly hard question to answer, and more so for the light guns than for the heavy ones. As noted, much of the benefit of the lighter platforms stem from the fact that they are small, cheap, and lack the complexity of the larger ones. Sticking the gun on a vehicle can easily defeat the purpose of having light guns. This is especially true for tracked platforms, as they will add not only the complexity of a vehicle, but the added complexity of tracks and the need for a transporter, adding several layers of maintenance and manning requirements that especially the less prioritised units of the Finnish Army can ill afford.

For a wheeled platform, the trade-off isn’t as bad. In theory at least, the towing vehicle can be replaced (though depending on the setup, a truck might be needed for ammunition and crew transport), leaving the same number of wheeled platforms in the unit as before. The platform also is likely to be of roughly the same size and mobility as the current tower, meaning integration is easier than for a tracked one. The big benefit is obviously the survivability that comes from being able to quickly move in and out of firing positions, which is a big benefit, especially in more contested sectors of the front.

Finland’s new best friend when it comes to artillery, the South Korean company Hanwha Techwin, has the EVO-105 which in essence is a 6×6 truck featuring an M101 105 mm howitzer on top. Despite the somewhat archaic outlook, it is actually just on the verge of entering service. For the standard M1 HE-round the maximum range is 11,300 meters, which can be described as lacklustre. However, there is a remedy as the company also has an upgraded version of the weapon itself on offer, designated KH178. Changing out the baseline M101 to the KH178 with a L34 barrel it is possible to achieve ranges of up to 14,700 meters for the M1, or 18,000 meters using rocket assisted projectiles. The KH178 is an old upgrade program dating to the 80’s, and unless a really nice deal can be had on surplus howitzers coming from the large South Korean stocks, there is little use in getting the towed version. On the EVO it is marginally more interesting, but truth be told this isn’t the most elegant solution out there, and since it’s unlikely to be the cheapest, it is likely not a serious contender.

m09_105mm_sph_02
The M09 sporting the 105 mm M56 howitzer. Another light gun truck that is extremely unlikely to ever enter Finnish service. Source: Srđan Popović via Wikimedia Commons

Our aforementioned Serbian friends pushes a number of different configurations through the Yugoimport brand, including putting the M56 into an armoured turret and calling it the M09, as well as putting different derivatives of the D-30 on truck chassis in both turreted and unprotected configurations. The idea of putting D-30’s on truck to give them mobility is widespread, and if Finland decided to go down that road Serbia just might be a possible partner (though in that case the Finnish version would probably be based on a domestic, or Swedish, chassis). At least it makes more sense than Sudan and the Khalifa

Political considerations effectively take out a number of other designs as well. China and Russia are obviously both still very much in the business of both towed and self-propelled guns of all classes, including in western calibres for export purposes, but neither country won’t receive any RFI’s any time soon. One company that probably will, however, is Mandus Group.

The Hawkeye is a soft-recoiling 105 mm gun mounted on a M1152A1 HMMWV, giving the light gun a significantly smaller platform than the 6×6 used by most other examples. Early versions shown used the M102, but a more recent demonstrator has been fitted with the M119. This could potentially be a really nice way of handling the need for light fires, marrying a tried-and-tested 105 mm gun to a tried-and-tested chassis, offering high mobility and a small logistical footprint. The shorter range compared to the current 122H63, just 11,600 m with the standard M1 HE shell (it can reach 19,500 meters with a M193 HE RAP), it partially offset with the higher mobility.

The big deal here is obviously that no-one has bothered buying the concept, at least not yet. And a Finnish launch order for a few hundred Hawkeyes doesn’t seem likely. We are quickly approaching the space where the only current Finnish indirect fire system comes into play.

The Patria NEMO is a 120 mm turreted mortar system, and while mortars aren’t exactly light guns, they do offer a number of qualities on their own. The NEMO is the lighter single-barrelled brother to the AMOS that is currently in service in limited number with the Finnish Army, and could potentially be integrated into a number of different platforms (8×8 or 6×6). While the range is shorter, typically just over 10,000 meters, the mortar shells does offer more explosives thanks to their thinner casings (3.1 kg in the case of the MEHRE round marketed for AMOS/NEMO use). The advantage of turreted mortars is also that they allow for direct-firing as a self-defence option. There is also a clear logistics chain for mortars already in place, and adding more towed and self-propelled mortars might provide the lo-hi mix needed to fit inside the (limited) funds available to replace the 122 mm howitzers.

Because lets face it – there’s likely not a one-size-fits-all solutions to the retirement of the 122H63. Some units will likely see their light batteries converted to towed heavy mortars, while for others that simply won’t cut it and something heavier hitting and/or more mobile will be needed. I would not be surprised if a number of L118/M119 are bought at some point, but their number likely won’t be anything near 470. If so, these would likely occupy the middle ground, being used in light battalions for some of the regional forces, with a number of towed mortars acquired to the less lucky ones. If mobility is seen as an absolute requirement for a future mid-range system, a 120 mm mortar on the back of a truck is probably the answer. Hawkeye and NEMO would be nice, but I just don’t see the money for any major buys of these (though the possibility of acquiring them in small numbers for prioritised battlegroups as was done with the AMOS remains, see e.g. my ongoing grievance about the lack of a boatmounted indirect fire system for the coastal jaeger battlegroup).

122H62 suora-ammunta Marko Leppänen
The crew of a 122H63 practising direct firing. The possibility to use the gun for close-in-defence against enemy vehicles or infantry is one of the benefits that a towed gun have over mortars, though the weight this factor should have in evaluating the systems is questioned. Picture courtesy of Marko Leppänen

One of the issues occupying the minds of the Finnish artillery planners is also the inability of light guns to fire special munitions, including precision guided shells and dedicated sensor-fused anti-tank munitions such as BONUS II. If this capability is to be rolled out wider, either more heavy battalions are needed, or mixed battalions with one heavy and two light batteries will start to appear among the infantry brigades.

Which brings us to one last interesting example. Singapore, another country known for their domestic artillery production, used to rely on the Nexter (formerly GIAT) 105 mm LG1 light gun for their light fires up until this side of the year 2000. These have however been replaced by the lightweight ST Kinetics Pegasus, a towed 155 mm gun sporting a L39 barrel and an APU to move the system into firing positions. While acquiring a new-built towed 155 mm gun with a L39 length barrel does sound like an anachronism in a world of self-propelled L52-systems, it is important to remember that the comparison here is with the towed 122 mm. The Pegasus has all the niceties expected of a modern 155 mm gun, including a powered ammunition loading system allowing for a burst of three rounds in 24 seconds (or a sustained rate of 4 rounds/min for three minutes, after which it drops to one round every half minute) and as mentioned an APU. The gun has an interesting design, sitting on a box-shaped base when in firing mode rather than using a split tail, further adding to it’s compact nature. The L39 barrel does suffer a bit when it comes to range, but at 19,000 meters for a standard HE shell and 30,000 meters for a base-bleed HE it’s still vastly superior to any light guns out there. The weapon is designed to be able to fire “all kinds of 155 mm projectiles and charges”, a key detail as it is the last piece of the puzzle to convert the Singapore artillery to an 155 mm-only force (following the towed 155 mm L52 FH-2000 and L39 FH-88 as well as the self-propelled Primus).

Singapore Artillery conducts the first live-firing of the Pegasus during Exercise Thunder Warrior Singapore MoD
Two Pegasus during live firings at Exercise Thunder Warrior. Note the low position of the breech as the gun is resting on the base plate. Source: Singapore MoD

The Pegasus might not be the answer to the Finnish artillery needs, as while I haven’t been able to find a quoted price for it, words like ‘lightweight’ and ‘titanium’ are usually indicators that it won’t be cheap. However, the general idea of shifting 155 mm guns down in the hierarchy to replace light batteries might well be part of the eventual solution. The obvious candidate here is the 100+ of the older 155K83-97 which is a Finnish-built rather conventional L39 gun. In mixed batteries with either a new light gun or those 122H63 that are in best condition, 48 of the heavier guns would give six battalions an eight-gun heavy battery, giving them a serious increase in firepower (mixed battalions probably would require at least the heavy battery to be eight-gun to allow it to be used for independent fire missions).

There’s obviously just a few problems:

  • The issue with finding firing positions for dispersed eight-gun batteries,
  • The added logistical complexity of mixed-calibre battalions,
  • The fact that 48 heavier guns would replace just ten to twenty (very generously calculated) percent of the soon-to-be-retired 122H63-force,
  • The fact that something then would need to replace at least part of the 155K83-97 in their current role to free them for the move to the current light battalions.

The first two have so far stopped mixed battalions from appearing in the Finnish OOB, while the third point goes back to the lack of a one-size-fits-all solution. The fourth is rather complex, and we’ll get back to that one.

Nenonen’s heritage, pt 1: The Mission

The future of Finnish artillery is a topic I’ve touched upon earlier as well, in particular this post from a few years back. Much of what I wrote back then is still valid, but as the topic is complex, and certainly deserving of deeper study than a single post thrown together on a train provides, the time has come to revisit it. The two key sources here will be The Future of Fires, a RUSI report by Jack Watling from last year that looks at the situation from a UK-angle but with several aspects that carry over to the general artillery discussion, and Tykistö taistelee tulellaan, a Finnish book from 2017 on the first century of Finnish artillery tactics written by colonel (ret.) Pasi Kesseli, PhD. As is usual with Finland, there are serious gaps in open sources due to the strict focus on operational security, but Kesseli does cover the development from 1990 and up until the current day in approximately ten pages, which provide some interesting insights into Finnish artillery doctrine and organisation, information that can then be fitted into the more general picture provided by Watling.

Observers Arctic Shield 18 KAIPR Maavoimat FB
A Finnish forward observer team made up of conscripts from Kainuu Brigade during exercise Arctic Shield 2018. Source: Maavoimat FB

The current Finnish doctrine divide fires into tactical and operational levels. The tactical fires aim at directly influencing the flow of battle either immediately or within a very short time span. In practice, this means that the firing ranges are often shorter, and the fire missions include both destruction as well as suppression of targets. The missions are usually handled by the organic artillery and mortar units available at the brigade level or below, though support by for example light rocket launchers (122 mm RM-70, locally know as 122 RAKH 89) can also fill the role if so required. Fire direction is also usually handled by the organic C2, sensors, observers, and reconnaissance assets. See Eyeonscandinavia’s post for a more detailed discussion on the role of the observers.

Operational fires on the other hand deals with the critical systems and nodes of the enemy, meaning that if they can be affected the capabilities of the enemy to carry out successful military operations are suffering. These are often found further back from the frontline, but it is important to note that as opposed to earlier Finnish doctrine which did differentiate between tactical and operational fires based on range, the difference is now based purely on the value of the target. This is roughly in line with Watling’s report, which grapple with the question of fires based on four different mission sets:

  • Breaking up enemy force concentrations,
  • Providing fire support to enable manoeuvre,
  • Suppression of enemy fires (counterbattery fire),
  • Striking high-value targets.

Of these, the first two can be seen as tactical fires according to Finnish doctrine, while the second two are operational level missions.

The high-end indirect fire system in Finnish service is the M270 MLRS, locally designated 298 RSRAKH 06. Source: Maavoimat FB

The Finnish Army is decidedly artillery heavy, featuring a serious amount of organic indirect fires at all levels starting with the battalion. The core unit in the artillery is the 18-gun battalion, consisting of three 6-gun batteries. These are either light (122 mm D-30 howitzer, locally designated 122H63) or heavy ones (using either Soviet-built 152 mm or Finnish 155 mm equipment), with the whole artillery battalion always using the same calibre. The battalion is treated as a single firing unit, though certain fire missions can be handled by either a single or two of the battalion’s batteries. A key detail is that the battalion has a robust enough C2-system that it can control fire from several battalions. This is based on the M18 combat engagement system provided by domestic supplier Bittium, and which is seen as a key enabler in allowing the Army to conduct dispersed operations at a rapid pace, something which the artillery arm is taking advantage of. Already as part of the now obsolete Brigade 2005 structure any artillery battalion could direct fire from not only it’s own guns, but from another two tube or rocket artillery battalions as well. How many firing units can be controlled by a single battalion’s fire direction centre under the current organisation is not open information.

This modularity is obviously not unique to the artillery, but is part of a more general trend in the Finnish Defence Forces to be able to react to changing situations by tailoring the forces under a given command to meet any particular situation, including combining different capabilities and unit levels (local, regional, operational) to produce the desired order of battle to meet requirements. The switch to more robust baseline units to be able to handle missions at lower levels and be able to absorb some losses without losing combat capability is not unique either, but is also mirrored in how infantry units have grown in size.

The towed batteries which make up the vast majority of Finnish indirect firepower rely on dispersion for protection, spreading out the artillery battalion over an area that can be as wide as 15 by 40 kilometers, with individual guns preferably at least 500 meters from each other. In practice, this reduces the battery from a single high-value target to a number of individual targets of lesser value. Another key aspect in improving the survivability of the batteries have been the continuous improvement of the organic entrenchment capabilities of the units, including heavy vehicles to prepare gun positions and close-in defence positions for the riflemen. The latter is also increasingly important as under the most recent doctrine (Maavoimien uudistettu taistelutapa) there is a focus on having the guns placed close to the front and having stored “an abundance of rounds” in these forward fire positions, to be able to cause the enemy a large number of casualties and disruptions from the get go. The obvious downside to dispersed positions and forward locations is the risk of the individual guns being overrun by advancing enemy units, as their location makes them vulnerable and a concentrated defence becomes more difficult.

While many of the concepts presented in Watling’s paper largely correspond to current Finnish artillery doctrine and the general trends identified in Finland, there is a key difference, namely the relatively narrow frame of reference provided in looking at a UK division fighting in a defensive expeditionary war as part of a NATO corps structure. While this is comparable to the question of what kinds of fires Finland might have a need for in the direction(s) that is the focus of operations, the broader Finnish question include what kind of fires are needed in secondary directions as well. The modularity is also more critical from a Finnish point of view, to be able to quickly create a concentration of fires in a certain area. Here it should also be noted that the Finnish force structure above the brigade level is not public information, and hence it would be incorrect/uncertain to talk about division or corps assets within a Finnish framework. However, the Finnish system does sport a number of high-end systems which are described as not being part of the brigade structure, and the role of these higher-level assets correspond to those associated with the British division and corps assets (including both providing additional tactical firepower when the need arises as well as providing operational fires). The most probable Finnish organisation is that these higher level assets are found in independent battalions, which are then attached to higher level formations as appropriate.

1280px-1_yorkshire_regiment_281_york29_battlegroup_conducting_live_firing_during_exercise_prairie_lightning._mod_45158826
An AS90 from the King’s Royal Hussars during an exercise in Canada. Note the shorter barrel compared to more modern systems such as PzH 2000 or the K9. Source: Sgt Mark Webster RLC/UK MOD

The current British top-of-the-line tube artillery is the two regiments of AS90 self-propelled 155 mm howitzers. As opposed to many newer systems such as the K9 and the PzH 2000, the AS-90 is equipped with a shorter L39 barrel. A British artillery regiment is in fact corresponding to battalions in other countries, although the British Army uses an eight-gun battery structure, giving the regiment 24 guns. This is something that the Finnish Army also has studied in detail, and the idea was given serious thought in the late 90’s as it would have made it possible to keep performing fire missions while constantly having one of the battalion’s three batteries on the move. In the end, it was opted against this setup, amongst other things due to the difficulty in finding suitable firing positions for a dispersed eight gun battery.

Watling envisions a very similar kind of tactic for the British regiments, although he calculates with firing ranges for 52-calibre howitzers and not for the current AS90:

Across the 24-gun group, with two guns firing on each fire mission, and the firing pair handing over at two-minute intervals, the group could prosecute four separate fire missions delivering eight rounds per minute to each, and sustaining this rate of fire – assuming a magazine capacity of 40 rounds per gun – for 30 minutes. If the battery is reduced to three sustained fire missions then six guns can replenish their magazines so that the rate of fire can be sustained as long as ammunition continues to be moved forward, as per the existing carousel system for resupply. The elegance of this system is that for an enemy artillery commander, they would only observe two isolated firing positions at any given time, which would change frequently.

[…]

If such a regiment were deployed 12km behind the contested zone, its rearmost gun would be able to deliver effects 24km into the contested zone, while the regiment could deliver MRSI 16km into the contested zone, thereby remaining able to deliver – given a six-round salvo per gun – between 144 simultaneously impacting and 3 salvos of 48 155-mm shells to any point within the operating area of an opposing MRB.

Watling’s conclusions are that no high-readiness brigade can operate on the modern battlefield with less than 24 155 mm self-propelled guns, as these are the bare minimum for the tactical fire missions that can be expected when operating within a NATO structure where additional divisional and corps fires can be expected to handle the counterbattery role and other operational level missions. For a whole divisional support group that also would handle some of these operational tasks, the need would be a minimum of 72 guns, as well as a regiment (battalion) of heavy rocket launchers. For these to be able to go toe to toe and match the Russian capabilities, different kinds of modern area effect and sensor-fused (sub-)munitions are required to achieve a higher effect than traditional unitary warheads. The latter notion isn’t uncontroversial, as it partly runs counter to the Oslo Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), of which the UK is a signatory (as opposed to Finland, Russia, and the USA). However, it is notable that if encountering a corresponding Russian unit, a British division of today would be outgunned both in numbers as well as firing ammunition that produces a less lethal effect compared to their Russian counterparts.

Giatsint
The 2A36 Giatsint-B (152 K 89) is the last Russian heavy gun left in Finnish service following the recent withdrawals of the 130 K 54. Source: Kainuu Brigade FB

However, with 72 heavy guns providing operational fire missions, Watling feel that 155 mm is overkill for the tactical supporting fires. Currently the light fires in UK units comes from the ubiquitous 105 mm L118 light gun, which is towed. As Watling argues for all guns to be self-propelled, and as the battalion support gun in British service will need to be airmobile (i.e. below the eight-tonne lift capacity of a Chinook), he notes that the most viable solution would likely be that battalion-level fires would be provided by a 120 mm mortar on a light vehicle such as the Supacat. The firepower of this solution is not completely unlike the Swedish solution to provide battalion fires with a twin-barrelled 120 mm mortar mounted on a CV90 chassis, though the reasoning behind is rather different (Sweden having arrived at the solution by focusing tactical mobility as part of the mechanised battlegroup rather than higher level mobility). As there is no Finnish requirement for airmobility for the battalion fires, especially not for the local forces, this line of reasoning has less relevance for the Finnish situation. However, if we for a moment stays with the UK divisional example, Watling end up with the following total:

• One battery of anti-tank guided weapons per battlegroup.
• One battery of 120-mm mortars per battlegroup.
• 72 155-mm 52-calibre howitzers with anti-armour area-effect munitions or DPICM.
• A regiment of MLRS with a compliment of sensor-fused sub-munition dispensing
rockets, and LRPF.

These are then supported by corps-level assets, but contrary to many NATO-centred analyses Watling actually does not expect much in the way of support from the air during the early stages of the conflict, a starting assumption that does mirror the Finnish situation.

As noted, it isn’t possible to make an apples-to-apples comparison for a Finnish order of battle as the Finnish wartime OOB is a) secret, and b) less formal in nature than a British expeditionary force would be. However, it is notable that during the first decennium of the millennium (newer numbers are secret) the standard according to Finnish doctrine was that an attacking brigade would be supported by an additional 72 to 108 guns or rocket-launchers from higher assets in addition to the brigade’s organic 18 gun battery, numbers that come very close to the divisional support group argued by Watling. 72 is by the way an interesting number in that it is a multiple of both 18 and 24. We’ll be back to multiples of 24 in a week or two, as one has appeared in an unexpected place.

Knight no. 52 – No Bridges Burning

The highest Finnish decoration for military service is the Mannerheim Cross, which was introduced as part of the Knighthood of the Cross of Liberty following the Winter War. A total of 191 servicemen received the order during the Second World War, of which only four received it twice. Of these, colonel Martti Aho spent the last years of his life in my hometown Kokkola, and it is here that he was laid to rest in 1968. The Mannerheim Cross is somewhat unusual in that it can be issued both for exceptional bravery, but also for the conduct of especially successful combat operations, meaning that it was found throughout the ranks of the Finnish Defence Forces, which also was the expressed purpose when the cross was created. Martti Aho’s both crosses belonged to the second category, but that is not to say that he would have been lacking in courage.

Aho was born in 1896 in the countryside outside of Kemi in the northern parts of the country. He begun his military career by volunteering as a rifleman in the Civil War of 1918, where he advanced to squad leader and fought in both his home region as well as in Karelia. Following the end of the war, he joined the unsuccessful Olonets Expedition serving in different battalion and regimental logistics functions, before he returned following the failure of the attempt to extend Finnish rule into Eastern Karelia. It wouldn’t however be the last time he visited the forests of Karelia. Back in Finland, he passed reserve officer training in 1921, and joined the Border Guards two years later. Steadily rising through the ranks, he was swiftly appointed battalion commander once the Winter War started and sent to the Olonets Ishmuts. He ended the war as the commander of Osasto Karpalo, part of the 13. Division, and was wounded twice during the fighting in January and February.

JR. 50:n komentaja majuri Aho neuvottelee saksalaisten upseerien kanssa.
Then-major Aho (second from right closest to the camera) discussing with some German officers in Suvilahti in August 1941. Source: SA-Kuva

The interim peace saw Aho return to the Border Guards where he worked a number of different staff positions and a short stint as a commander of the Border Guard training unit, before he was transferred to the Defence Forces in 1941. When hostilities broke out, he served as the head of operations in the divisional staff of 11. Division, but quickly received command of infantry regiment JR 50, the unit which was to be most closely associated with him.

JR 50 would have an eventful war, and Aho would lead it throughout. Once the offensive east started, the regiment quickly became known for it’s speed and stamina. 19 August the foot infantry unit broke through the enemy positions at Ignoila, despite the Soviet’s having been supported by tanks and direct firing guns, Aho having personally led the offensive from the front of the unit. Having broken through, he pushed onward “skilfully and with ruthless speed”, to use the words of the citation of his first Mannerheim Cross, and captured the strategically important, and hence heavily defended, railway and road bridges over Suojoki before the enemy managed to blow them. Not stopping, he continued in the front, twice having to use his personal light machine gun (yes, that apparently was a thing in JR 50) to chase away enemies from their positions before capturing Suvilahti on the 21 of August. Having appeared in the flank and rear of the enemy position at Näätäjoki, these were forced to retreat with the Finnish forces causing significant losses to the escaping units.

JR. 50 etenee kahlaten vetelällä suolla n. 15km.
Soldiers of JR 50 marching 15 km through the swamps as the operations near Teru commences in the first days of September 1941. Source: SA-kuva

Four days later JR 50 was on the move again, Aho’s regiment first encircling and then crushing the enemy positions at Kurmoila so swiftly that they after this managed to capture the prepared Soviet positions on the hilly Essoila isthmus before they had a chance to man these. This was followed by another short stop, before the unit in early September marched through the forests and swamps around Teru, charged into the position protecting the enemy’s southern flank, broke these, and continued with speed to capture another strategic bridge over Suojujoki before the enemy managed to blow it. He again personally led the first two platoons to cross over. In the end, the successful campaign of JR 50 played a key role in paving the way for the Finnish occupation of Petrozavodsk. This had not gone unnoticed, and Aho was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in October and received his first Mannerheim Cross in March the following year, becoming knight number 52.

The next few years saw limited movements along the front, and JR 50 spent much of the time along the Svir River. When the Soviet summer offensive of 1944 started steamrolling the Finnish positions on the Karelian Isthmus, JR 50 was sent south and met the enemy juggernaut at Portinhoikka during the battle of Tali-Ihantala. Here Aho was wounded the third time, and the regiment suffered devastating losses during the fighting 28 and 29 June. It was then pulled back and placed in reserve for just over a month, before it again was sent to the front in early August. Aho returned to again take command of his regiment on the first day of September, just three days before the armistice. The end of the Continuation War did not spell the end of fighting for the regiment, however.

Everstiluutnantti Aho ja luutnantti Toivonen (JR 50) ovat saaneet rautaristin.
Aho’s achievments weren’t just noticed by the Finnish command. Here he, together with lt Toivonen, has received the German Iron Cross in Kuuttilahti in 1942. Two years later Aho would earn his last victories fighting his former brothers in arms. Source: SA-Kuva

As part of the armistice agreement, Finland was to ensure that the Germans left Finnish territory. The German’s weren’t about to go nicely though, and the Lapland War was the result. On 5 October the regiment landed in Röyttä, the outer port of Tornio, just a short distance from Aho’s childhood home. The fighting had already been going for a few days, and the Finnish forces were hard-pressed to defend themselves against the German counteroffensives. The pendulum was about to swing, however, as more and more Finnish forces arrived. And once again, JR 50 received the order to go on the offensive.

The counteroffensive by JR 50 is probably the second most well-known episode of the battle for Tornio (following the unfortunate episode with the alcohol depot in Little-Berlin). The regiment left much of it’s heavy equipment in Röyttä and marched into swamps and forests through a gap in the front to flank the main German force consisting of three battalions, and encircled them against the River Tornio. While post-war research has shown that significant parts of the encircled did manage to break out, the motti was a significant success and would play an important role in the political games surrounding the Lappland War. Just eight days after the last encircled Germans surrendered, both Aho and his superior major general Aaro Pajari received what in both cases was their second Mannerheim Crosses.

165596
Heavy equipment left behind by the fleeing Germans in the motti north of Tornio. All surviving equipment was sent to the Soviet Union in accordance with the armistice treaty. Source: SA-Kuva

While it can be argued that political considerations weighed more heavily than usual in the decision to hand Aho his second Mannerheim Cross, there is little doubt that he had done more than his share in ensuring Finland’s independence through his participation in four wars. After the war, he spent six weeks arrested when the plans to hide weapons caches in anticipation of a Soviet invasion. Following a few more years in uniform, he retired from active service in 1949.

At this point, he moved to Kokkola and worked at the local stevedoring company until his retirement, also owning a share in it. Today, a commemorative plaque of the double-knight was unveiled at the offices of Rauanheimo, the company still continuing the same line of trade under the original name in the port of Kokkola. Considering his long and remarkable career, it does feel overdue to see him memorialised in his final home town.

Mayor Mattila unveiled the commemorative plaque. Source: own picture

As it happens, my grandmother worked at Rauanheimo during Aho’s final years in the company. She recalled that he was ever the gentleman, each morning making a point out of stopping at every desk and wishing everyone a good morning. The personality that had made him rank amongst Finland’s most decorated soldiers did shine through as well. Once the chain smoker occupying the desk opposite of Aho had left the room for a short break when the remnants in the ashtray set fire to the paperwork he had left on the desk. Aho calmly watched flames, until the smoker came rushing back and started putting out the flames, shouting at Aho why he didn’t do something? Aho, without moving from behind his desk, just answered “It isn’t my fire,” and continued to calmly watch the firefighting efforts. For someone who had faced hostile fire in five wars, some scorched paperwork didn’t qualify as a crisis.

HX Challenge pt. 5: Bigger, Better, Stronger

“I prefer to have two engines over just one.” Yes dear readers, even in the 21st century, the single- versus twin-engined debate isn’t dead. Sorry Pratt & Whitney, but once that one engine catches a flock of birds (or a 30 mm round) down in the weeds, having two is an advantage. How much of an advantage is an open question, and one for the HX-team to ponder upon. Let’s just note that while the Finnish Air Force hasn’t lost any Hornets to birdstrikes, it has lost a Hawk.

However, that wasn’t Boeing’s main selling point when they held their media event as part of HX Challenge this week. Instead, it was about a total package. The Super Hornet as the most versatile and reliable multirole fighter available, offering the greatest suitability to the Finnish concept of operations (read: dispersed operations), having a proven track record as a reliable partner when it comes to customer support and industrial offset, and with the EA-18G Growler bringing unique capabilities to the fight. In essence, Boeings pitch isn’t necessarily that the Super Hornet is miles in front of the competition in any particular field, but rather that the package as a whole will offer the flexibility and cost-to-benefit ratio needed to win the deal.

Family picture
Boeing brought all three aircraft on offer to HX Challenge, starting with the F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets closer to the camera, and the EA-18G Growler towards the rear. Source: Own picture

There is much to be said for that approach. The Finnish Air Force is very happy with the legacy Hornet (or ‘Classic’, as Boeing likes to call it), and the transition to Super Hornet makes sense in many ways. The carrier pedigree is still valuable in many ways besides the obvious short take-off and landing distances. The US Navy carrier air wing is in fact a good analogy for the Finnish Air Force. You find yourself in a taxing environment, having roughly fifty to sixty fighters and whatever spares and stocks you’ve brought with you. You might or might not be fighting alongside allied assets, so you need to be able to both go alone and have the interoperability to link up with friends. Hence the need for high rates of readiness, quick turnaround times, high sortie generation, as well as the ability to keep operating with a minimal amount of support equipment and a small logistical footprint.

“The most proven and affordable multirole platform out there”

That’s how Jennifer Tebo, Director of Development for both the Super Hornet and the Growler programs, opened her presentation. This was a sentiment echoed throughout the presentation, and Boeing was keen to point out that they don’t have to project operating costs or look at trends in cost-saving programs — they know what the aircraft cost to operate. “Particularly suite for Finland” was another phrase used. For a cost-conscious customer, this is something that will earn them a few points extra in the evaluation. Another thing is the cost-savings Boeing experiences during the phasing in of the aircraft. While the final checks of current infrastructure hasn’t been made yet, they are due for next week, Boeing estimate up to 60 % of current infrastructure, including both facilities, maintenance equipment, ground support, and dispersed bases, can be used with the Super Hornet (the remaining percentage also include equipment that can be either refurbished or replaced, depending on the Air Force’s view). Considering the large amount of support equipment needed due to the dispersed operations, this might easily turn into a significant saving. The Super Hornet can also continue to carry the weapons currently found in the Finnish arsenal, with some added tricks up it’s sleeve. The aircraft is fitted for tactical aerial refuelling, and it is easily to imagine a scenario during fluid dispersed operations where the fuel isn’t in the correct place relative to the fighters. At such a time, having a Super Hornet configured for tanker duty linking up somewhere can save valuable time. In peacetime, being able to practice air-to-air refuelling without a tanker having to fly in from RAF Mildenhall will also significantly ease training routines.

One thing that was touched upon in the weapons department was the fact that the Super Hornet is the only HX contender not slated for Meteor integration. “There’s an opportunity for an advanced air-to-air missile within our offer to adress that need,” was the line we were given. While obviously not confirmed by Boeing, initial deliveries sporting the AIM-120D AMRAAM and later buys of AIM-260 once that comes online is the most likely scenario here.

Finally, the transition time would be easier and faster. Captain Brian Becker, commodore of US Navy’s Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, noted that a six month transition period was enough to switch Hornet squadrons to Super Hornets. It should be pointed out that this is for the squadron as a whole, and includes not only teaching the pilots to fly the aircraft, but also transitioning the support personnel, changing out equipment, and getting everyone up to speed on the new aircraft to the level that it is a functioning unit able to perform operational missions. The sentiment was echoed by colonel Aki Heikkinen, commander of Satakunta Air Wing, who noted transitioning a pilot was largely a matter of hours rather than weeks if strictly talking about flying the aircraft safely (colonel Heikkinen also shot down the idea that some of the contenders would struggle with landing or taking off from road bases. “We’ve flown Draken from them”, he said, alluding to the Saab-built interceptor that the Hornet replaced in Finnish service). It should be remembered that the 10 Bn Euro budget isn’t available as such to the fighter manufacturer, but parts of it will also finance the reconstruction of air bases as well as part of the everyday operations of the aircraft during the first five years (as the Hornet operations are using the Air Forces’ normal budget until their retirement). As such, Boeing has a crucial advantage when it comes to saving money on these indirect costs, money that can be used to include one of the premier force multipliers of the fighter world in their bid.

Tebo
Jennifer Tebo, Director of Development for F/A-18 and EA-18G, ascertains that the Super Hornet production line is “alive and well” with an “active and healthy supply chain”. Source: Own picture

The EA-18G Growler is a serious asset to any operator. The Growler is in essence a combination of a SIGINT-platform gathering data from anything that is emitting, as well as a jamming platform blocking any system from emitting anything useful, be it communications or radars. While stealth platforms currently does a nice job of denying the enemy the ability to close the kill chain by making it hard to get a fire-control solution on the radar, the Growler has the ability to take it further by jamming the electronic spectrum from the VHF-band to the Ku-band, denying the enemy all parts of the chain (early warning, acquisition, and fire control radar bands). If need be, the Growler can also take out the transmitting radars by employing the latest AGM-88E AARGM-missile, or just feed the information to the nearest Super Hornet slinging a suitable weapon to form a classic hunter-killer team.

All this means that the Growler is a highly appreciated asset, and not just by the US Navy. In fact, the USAF is funding part of the Growler-force, that include five expeditionary squadrons. It is not unusual to find Growlers assisting some of the Air Forces’ stealthiest platforms with both situational awareness and jamming. The Growler is growing with the Super Hornet, with both aircraft introducing technologies that filter over to the other. But while the aircraft maintain 90% commonality with each other, it is the remaining 10% that makes the Growler really venomous. The wingtip ALQ-218 RF Receivers, perhaps the most obvious external recognising feature, are described as “extremely good” and tell the pilot not only what is out there, but also where it is. The crew can then decide what to do with that information, whether to engage with weapons, avoid, or jam.

Alain Garcia
Alain Garcia is Capture Team Lead for Finland and Switzerland, and like many of Boeing’s people involved in the Super Hornet program he has a background flying the aircraft. He also has a cool jacket, and really like the ALQ-218 RF Receiver System. Source: Own picture

A key part of the jamming system is the two large ALQ-249 Next Generation Jammers (NGJ) for the mid-band. These are amongst the most advanced US electronic warfare capabilities, and just the fact that they have been released for export to Finland even before the US Navy has accepted them into operational use tells something about the US-Finnish bilateral relation. Ernie Winston from Raytheon, the developer and manufacturer of the pods, was happy to confirm that the development program is moving forward according to plan, and that the first pre-production batches are expected to join the program this year, which also will see the first mission system flight testing. The first series production deliveries will take place in 2022.

What exactly makes the NGJ different from the current generation then? A lot, as it turns out. The big thing is that it is capable of hitting numerous targets simultaneously, thanks to AESA features and “extremely high power”. To counter modern radars, it is also able to switch modes very quickly. The pod is designed from the bottom up to be modular and easily upgradable. Winston describe the system as providing “transformative electronic attack capability”, while the more modest HX-programme manager colonel Keränen just noted that the Growler represents a capability currently not found in the Finnish Air Force

NGJ
The NGJ mock-up together with an AGM-88E AARGM anti-radiation missile (i.e. it locks onto a radar and flies into it) under the wing of the EA-18G Growler taking part in HX Challenge. The capabilities of the NGJ will be evaluated in the US, due to the sensitive nature of the capability and the need for a large testing range. Source: Own picture

The versatility of the Growler also means that they can be used in a number of different ways. The US Navy likes to use the superior intelligence gathering and presence of a backseater to allow the aircraft to stand back a bit from the fight (the high power of it’s  jammers ensure that it can perform stand-off as well as stand-in jamming), sharing it’s tactical picture with the rest of the flight and having the Growler’s WSO (backseater) play the role of a mission commander, directing the fight. ‘Quarterbacking it’, as Boeing put it with a good analogy that will be meaningless for a majority of Finns.

The RAAF on the other hand has a more hands-on approach, and isn’t afraid to use their Growlers up close and personal. This is aided by the fact that the Growler in essence has all the air-to-air capabilities of a F/A-18F Super Hornet (minus the wingtip AIM-9 Sidewinders), coupled with vastly superior jamming capabilities. While a Growler preferably shouldn’t get involved in the air-to-air fight, it certainly is capable of defending itself.

The Australian connection is interesting. While there are lot of difference between Finland and Australia, there are surprising similarities when looking at the air forces. Both were major operators of the ‘legacy’ Hornet (sorry Boeing, the designation has stuck already), and were the first two (and for a long time, only) export customers of the AGM-158 JASSM which gave their respective fleets a precision deep strike capability. Both also operate in the grey zone of being somewhat non-aligned but enjoying close bilateral relations with the US (though Australia has a significantly more expeditionary approach). This closeness of the respective US-relations is what makes deals such as the JASSM or Growler possible. And if Finland chooses the Super Hornet, there is something very interesting brewing down under.

Recently Boeing made headlines by flying three Growlers simultaneously, with one controlling the other remotely two (they were often referred to as ‘unmanned’ by the press, something that wasn’t strictly true as they had a back-up crew aboard to take control if something would have gone wrong). The news wasn’t that a Growler can be flown remotely, but rather that Boeing had successfully demonstrated that without modifying the cockpit hardware, it is possible to effectively command unmanned wingmen from a Growler or Super Hornet using currently available data links (Link 16 or ATDL). The software part is included on both the Growler and Super Hornet road maps, and is expected to be rolled out sometime during the latter half of the decade (i.e. when Finland is receiving its HX-fighters). The question is then what would you control? Granted you can use the Growler (or a ‘legacy’ Hornet using Link 16, though that is suboptimal due to bandwidth and security concerns), but a smarter way is to use a purpose-built platform. Such as the Loyal Wingman.

FA-18E take-off
The larger wing make the take-off and landing distance shorter compared to the legacy Hornet, despite the higher take-off weight. Source: Own picture

The Loyal Wingman is currently being developed in Australia, something that has the added benefit of ensuring it stays ITAR-free. In other words, ensuring that it can be exported through direct commercial sales from Australia without the need to go through the sometimes tiresome US bureaucracy. To a certain extent, the current Loyal Wingman is a solution looking for a problem. It is highly modular, meaning that it can take up a number of payloads. While the system in its first configuration is likely to play the role of ISR platform and/or forward active sensor, it can be armed as well. And importantly, it is built from the ground up to be cheap enough that it is attritable. With a first flight slated for later this year, this isn’t a hypothetical MLU-capability, but rather something that very well might be operational by the time Finland declare FOC for the HX-fleet. Having an unmanned (the plan is for the Loyal Wingman to have the ability to operate independently using AI or to be remotely controlled) ISR-platform with a huge range, 3,700+ km has been mentioned, would be a very interesting option. However, when it comes to HX specifically, Boeing might have outwitted themselves, as the Australian Loyal Wingman can’t be included in the US Foreign Military Sales-package that is being offered for HX. With the relatively low price tag, it is instead found in the “Future capabilities”-column with a detailed description, and treated as a possible arms sale for the time post 2030.

But the Loyal Wingman is just one piece of the puzzle making the Super Hornet-family “networked and survivable”, to use Boeing’s phrasing. The key here is the Advanced Tactical Datalink, or ATDL, that allows for vastly increased amounts of data being sent between the aircrafts (and other friendlies, including ground and ship units). To be able to cope with this increased amount data received, as well as the increased amount of data from the Block III’s own sensors (including the ATFLIR targeting pod and the long-range IRST pod), the aircraft has received the increased processing power of the DTP-N (a “big computer”, as it was described). This in turn makes the creation of a common tactical picture (CTP) possible, which is presented to the pilot on the new wide-angled display that is the most visible part of the Advanced Cockpit System, vastly increasing the situational awareness of the pilots. In essence, what Boeing does is linking together the aircraft to get a clear situational picture even in complex high-treat environments. The new cockpit coupled with the CTP also lower the pilot workload, providing a “huge step up” when it comes to how the information is presented to the crew, and helps avoid overloading the pilot with data.

The rhino in the room is the as yet undefined date when the US Navy will withdraw the Super Hornet from service. Despite the recent news of the death of the Super Hornet being seriously overblown, the fact is that when captain Becker describes the future of the Super Hornet in the Navy, the timeline is two decades plus in US service.

“Regardless of other platforms coming out, F/A-18 will be the cornerstone for many years to come”

That all sounds nice and plausible, probably even slightly conservative considering there are no plans for the F-35C to replace large number of Super Hornets and that the NGAD is still just in the study stage of the program, but the gap from 2040+ to 2060+ is still significant. And the day the US Navy pulls the plug on the Super Hornet the continued development of the aircraft can quickly become prohibitively expensive for Finland. As said, a sunset before the late 2040’s is unlikely, especially given the 500+ aircraft upgrade program that will continue to push out refurbished Block III’s past 2030 and the unique nature of the Growler. However, the last ten years of the HX winner’s service life are uncertain, there is simply no way around it.

This is Boeing’s main weakness in the current offer, and to be fair one they share with much of the rest of the competition (especially Rafale and Gripen, Eurofighter to a somewhat lesser extent). France at least has officially stated that the Rafale will fly in French service into the 2070’s, but on the other hand the value of such promises might not be particularly high if FCAS suddenly encounter cost overruns that need to be covered (on the other hand, if FCAS encounter delays to the in-service date, the Rafale might suddenly have to soldier on longer). Gripen is even more vulnerable than the Rafale and Super Hornet, considering the smaller fleet and that the Swedish Air Force as opposed to AdA or USN is unlikely to run a multi-type fleet for any considerable time. Will Boeing be able to convince the Finnish Air Force that it is a risk worth taking? That is perhaps the biggest hurdle facing the Boeing sales team, and we won’t know the answer for a year. A German decision during 2020 on getting the Super Hornet as a Tornado replacement could easily be a deciding factor, but considering the decision was to have been made before the end of 2018, this could easily slip beyond the HX decision date of Q1 2021. Another key piece missing is the US Navy’s Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment that was expected in January, but has since been postponed. The current one dates to 2016 and is the basis for the (in)famous 355-ship force. The new INFAS could easily change the future of the Super Hornet fleet in one direction or the other.

Hangar door
The F/A-18E Super Hornet being admired by the assembled media. Note the left wing armament, which if mirrored on the right wing would give the aircraft seven AIM-120 AMRAAM and two AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles. On the centerline the podded IRST is visible. Note the badges on the hangar, celebrating the history of now disbanded fighter squadron HävLLv 21 and 44,500+ flight hours of the Hornet, the latter nicely summing up why the Super Hornet is one of the front runners in HX. Source: Own picture

One area were Boeing on the other hand has an edge is in their industrial cooperation program. The company has already once successfully performed a 3.5 Bn USD offset program in Finland. Though it might not have been quite as happy an affair as Boeing lyrically described it, there’s little doubt that the close cooperation with a number of Finnish companies, including key partners such as Patria and Insta Group, enabled the domestic handling of the Hornet MLU-programs. As such, there’s little doubt that Boeing’s presence on the ground in Finland give the company a serious edge when it comes to the creation of a trustworthy and executable industrial participation program of the same size as what they did last time around. Like most of the competition, Boeing declines to go into details at the moment. However, one interesting detail is that while Saab has already offered a final assembly line of the F414 engine to Finland, Geoff Hanson representing GE Aviation at the Boeing media event would not speculate in whether the F414 line (yes, the Super Hornet and Gripen share engine) would come to Finland in case of a Super Hornet order.

“It’s a bit early to commit to that”

Crucially, Geoff noted that the question of what exactly “final assembly” means is unanswered. There are certainly some assembly steps that relatively easily could be transferred, and which would provide know-how that is useful from a maintenance point of view. On the other hand, major assembly steps requiring check-out and factory acceptance tests is an undertaking of a different scale.

Maria Laine, Vice President International Strategic Partnerships, first entered Boeing during the original Hornet industrial cooperation program. As such, it is no surprise that she emphasised the ability to leverage the existing partnerships stemming from the old program. Finland and Boeing represents a “true, genuine partnership”.

“We understand Finland”

There’s a few other who claim to do so. Boeing might have a better basis for the claim than most, but if that is enough to ensure that Super Hornet will be the aircraft protecting Finnish skies in 2060 remains to be seen. One of the open questions surrounding the US aircraft have been that of mission data. Finland’s requirement is simple: we need to be able to operate the aircraft even if the supply lines are cut. This include both the physical lines of communication, but also data cables. Alain Garcia of Boeing doesn’t shy away from the topic when I bring it up. It is a challenge, he acknowledges, as US government requirements include a requirement for new signals to be processed at a US facility before being inserted into an updated version of the data set. The solution is to embed Finnish personnel at a suitable US facility. Once Finnish (or allied) assets would identify a new signature the data would be supplied to these Finns who would process it, before it would be sent back to Finland. The whole process would result in a turnaround time of less than 24 hours from collecting the raw data until having the updated mission data in the aircraft. As I mention the requirement for cut data cables that colonel Keränen had described at the beginning of the media day, Garcia nods.

“We have methods to get them back into country”

Boeing kindly paid for my hotel stay in Tampere (a single night), all other costs (including travel) being covered by myself. Neither Boeing nor any of their partners have seen, nor requested to see, this text or the illustrations used before posting.

HX Challenge pt. 4: More of Everything

Unfortunately, Finnish daily Aamulehti which so far has openly shared recordings of the main press event at the HX Challenge media events has decided to put these behind a paywall. As such, this post is based upon secondary sources (i.e. published articles). Sorry for the inconvenience, but these are the unfortunate facts. Next week we will be back to primary sources (as I will attend the Boeing briefing in person).

From the outset, the F-35 has been the aircraft to beat in HX. It isn’t impossible that it will end up beaten, but the string of successes throughout the world (marred only by the highly politicised German failure to be allowed to bid) and unique selling points makes it the gold standard in Western fighter design at the moment. As such, anyone wishing to better Lockheed Martin’s stealth fighter will have to put in some serious effort to show why their bid is better for the Finnish Defence Forces’ concept of operations.

F-35 at Pirkkala FinAF FB Joni Malkamäki
The two F-35A’s from that eventually came over from 308th FS were described as being amongst the latest jets in use at Luke AFB, which should mean that they are of the Block 3F, i.e. ready for combat use. Source: Finnish Air Force FB/Joni Malkamäki

At least from the outside, that task hasn’t become any easier from the start of the competition. While Lockheed Martin might have seemed a bit too certain of success in the early days of the competition, this week’s media event has shown that they are listening to the customer and not just offering a copy-paste version of offers made to other countries.

Few doubt the combat capability of the F-35A. The advanced sensor suite and fusion coupled with low-observability features make it a formidable foe for anyone, and the large number of aircraft on order makes it future proof in a way none of the other contenders are. The biggest questions has been surrounding security of supply, sovereignty of data, and industrial cooperation. It is important to note that this does not mean that the Air Force is ready to buy the second best just to ensure that they will get these secondary benefits, but rather that the Air Force has judged these issues to be of crucial importance in allowing a fighter to be combat capable. As has been repeated throughout the last few years: the bids are only ranked on their overall combat capability as part of the overall Finnish defence solution.

And there’s plenty of combat capability in Lockheed Martin’s offer. While the contenders aren’t allowed to comment on the number of aircraft offered, Steve Sheehy, Lockheed Martin’s Director of Sustainment Strategies and Campaigns, appeared to accidentally disclose that it would be a case of 1-to-1 replacement of the Hornets.

“The requirement is 64, we are at 64”*

This was later walked back to the more politically acceptable line of “‘If the requirement is for 64, we are at 64.’ Lockheed Martin will not comment publicly on the number of fighter jets in its response to the call for tenders.” Considering the fact that we have known since last autumn that 64 isn’t in fact a set requirement any longer, my personal belief is that the offer is for 64 aircraft. Make of it what you will, but a 64-ship strong F-35A force would be an impressive one by any measure. It would conceivably make Finland the seventh largest operator of the F-35 (all marks included), leaving behind Tier 2 and 3 contributors such as the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark, as well as making the Finnish Air Force the third largest European operator after the UK and Italy (both of which will likely be operating joint F-35A/B fleets). While this might seem like a bold step, it should be remembered that when Finland bought the F/A-18C Hornet it was an order on a similar scale (the early 90’s seeing the AIM-120 equipped Hornet second only to the F-15C Eagle in the air-to-air role). As long as the aircraft can fit within the price tag, the Finnish Air Force is unlikely to shy away from capability. In fact, a serious F-35A order does hold deterrence value in and of itself, as it would highlight the determination to invest in a credible high-end defence as well as the close bilateral defence cooperation with the US.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the press release was the part on how Lockheed Martin plans to ensure security of supply and industrial cooperation.

Edited 17/02/2020 22:50 GMT+2

Originally it was reported that not only the aircraft, but the F135 engine as well would reportedly be produced in-country.*

This would have represented a significant development in an area that has traditionally been viewed as a weak part of the Lockheed Martin offer, and would be a significant step away from the current production chain which is responsible for pushing the price of the aircraft down to the extent that 64 aircraft could fit inside the Finnish budget. Such an offer would by it’s very nature include a rather large amount of tech transfer, and ensure Finnish industrial know-how stays up to date when it comes to maintaining and overhauling the aircraft, and would solve what otherwise might represent a significant issue in meeting the 30% industrial cooperation target.

However, upon contacting Lockheed Martin, it became clear that this was a case of serious misreporting. Upon a direct question, John Neilson, Director of International Communications for Europe and Israel, stated in no uncertain terms that no mention was made of final assembly of the F-35 aircraft or engine manufacturing. When asked what the industrial participation may look like, I received the following quote:

“Industrial participation forms an important element of our F-35 proposal for Finland but at this stage of the process, for reasons of competitive sensitivity, it would be inappropriate for is to give any further information and wrong to speculate on the details.”

End of edit.

Perhaps a harder thing swallow for the Finnish Air Force was the scheme drawn up for the management of spare parts. This would include peacetime stocks stored in-country for normal operations, with a different set for times of heightened tensions being stored internationally and transferred to Finland when needed. While this kind of centralised spare hubs likely play a significant role in ensuring a low operating cost, not having complete control over the necessary wartime spares will likely be a no-go. However, it is important to remember that this second offer currently being referenced by Lockheed Martin isn’t the same as their best and final offer, which will come only after the approximately six months of negotiations with the Finnish MoD and Defence Forces that are now starting. Lockheed Martin also acknowledges that the sizes of both the in-country and the international stocks aren’t locked, but are currently being discussed. It does however feel that this is one area where the company’s normal ‘tailored for NATO’-options still clashes with the Finnish thinking surrounding wartime operations.

The stealth capability is the defining feature that sets the aircraft apart from the rest of the competition, and while much has been said about the limitations of stealth in the form the word applies to the F-35, you are still better off with a lower radar cross-section in the X-band than with a larger one (which is the aspect where the difference in observability is the largest). The same goes for the carriage of external stores. Granted the RCS will go up compared to when the F-35 carries only internal weapons, but in all likelihood** an F-35 with external stores will still exhibit a lower RCS than competing fighters with external stores (even if the difference is narrower). And while many countries are investing significant resources in detecting VLO aircraft in general and the F-35 in particular, for the immediate future it will likely remain easier to complete the kill chain against a traditional aircraft than against a VLO one (think of it as armour in ground combat – there are weapons and munitions able to defeat armoured vehicles, but still most soldiers prefer riding into combat under armour than in soft-skinned vehicles). The question mark here is whether some of the contenders can mitigate this difference either through the use of different concepts of operations and/or heavy reliance on electronic warfare? It is a tall order, especially considering that the F-35 isn’t exactly lacking in EW-capabilities either, but it isn’t impossible. What is impossible is discerning that difference in EW-capability based purely on open sources, so we will just have to wait and see when it comes to the final decision in 2021.

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F-35A during tests with four externally mounted GBU-31 JDAM. One benefit of the F-35A from a Finnish point of view would be the ability to carry over numerous weapons, such as the JDAM-family and the air-to-air missiles, from the current inventory and into the HX-era. Picture courtesy of Lockheed Martin/photo by Darin Russell

It needs to be emphasised just how far beyond the competition the F-35 is when it comes to future proofing the production of the aircraft. The numbers ordered dwarf those of any of the competition, with the F-35A alone having over 2,300 aircraft on order or in the plans of the current customers. This is the only aircraft of the five that beyond any shadow of a doubt will not only be kept in operation but crucially kept up to date outside of Finland well beyond 2060. The need for having other operators also towards the end of the career of HX has been emphasised by those involved in the procurement process several times, and here the F-35 really shines.

The maturity of the aircraft has been questioned, especially as it seems to be followed by a string of bad news. However, it should be noted that the US has a somewhat unique reporting system, which means that many of the minor setbacks (such as the recent issues with the 25 mm gun) are reported in a more open fashion than would be case in most other countries. Colonel Keränen also noted in an interview that if the aircraft is mature enough for Norway to declare IOC, it’s mature enough for us as well. Notable is that the huge number of aircraft flying, 240,000+ flight hours to date, also allow for a rapid pace of development, including the tracking down of any teething troubles at an fast rate.

The GBU-53/B SDB II will be a key weapon of the F-35A Block 4

Like most of the competition, the aircraft being demonstrated doesn’t fully correspond to what would be delivered in five years time. The current F-35A Block 3F standard will give way to the Block 4, which will bring a serious step-up in capability. Most visible are the inclusion of new weapons, such as the JSM anti-ship missile, the GBU-53/B Small-Diameter Bomb II, and the ASRAAM and Meteor for UK use. However, many important changes are simultaneously taking place inside the airframe, which will play a perhaps even larger role than individual weapons when it comes to ensuring that the F-35A of 2025 will be more combat capable, both in absolute and relative terms, than the aircraft now evaluated. Still, it should be pointed out that the inclusion of the GBU-53/B will add a serious anti-vehicle capability to the F-35A, the question then being if the Finnish Air Force in wartime could spare any aircraft for the mission or if all are tied up in the air-to-air role?

Much still remains open. Absent from the reporting from the press event was the promises of complete ownership over the mission data that was repeated by all European manufacturers, and the flight hour costs and changes to infrastructure needed are somewhat open. The F-35 still remain the aircraft to beat though, and the competition have their work cut out for them.

* F-35:n valmistaja lupaa Suomelle hävittäjän tuotantoa – “Emme kerro, kuinka häive rakennetaan, mutta kerromme miten se ylläpidetään” 

** I can in theory envision a scenario where some kind of strange reflector phenomenon would increase the RCS with external stores ridiculously much and make it larger than some of the other contenders, but that is more along the lines of technical possibilities than anything I would call likely

HX Challenge pt. 3: Head start for Future Growth

The snow finally arrived to central Finland this week, and with it came the last eurocanard to take part in HX Challenge. 39-10, the latest of the pre-production JAS 39E Gripens, touched down on Tampere-Pirkkala airport in a landscape that looked decidedly different compared to the weeks before when the Eurofighter and the Rafale had been visiting.

IMG_1551
The 39-10 today at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB, carrying not only the wingtip IRIS-T missiles, but also Meteor very-long range air-to-air missiles and the new EAJP jammer pod. Source: Own picture

Someone that didn’t show up was anyone working at the Swedish embassy in Helsinki, a marked difference from the media days of the other two eurocanards. The reason was simple: “I don’t think anyone doubts that Finland and Sweden has a close bilateral cooperation.” As such the focus was placed on the aircraft instead of the strategic partnership, though the offer was described as being prepared in close cooperation with both the Swedish Air Force and the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV). This is also crucial, as besides the limited Brazilian order Sweden is so far the only major buyer of the 39E-version. Any Finnish order will rest on how reliable the Swedish long-term (i.e. into the 2060’s) commitment to the 39E as a platform is judged to be.

Saab has decidedly taken the Air Force at their word when they said they want the best capability that can fit inside the budget, with an offer that include not only the 39E/F Gripen, but also the GlobalEye airborne early warning and control platform. As reported last summer the idea behind is that not only does it improve the overall combat capability of the Finnish Air Force, but it also saves the fighter fleet by off-loading part of the missions that would otherwise have been flown by the HX fighters. This not only saves money and airframes, but crucially helps in ensuring a high-level of readiness for the fighter fleet. Anders Carp, head of Saab’s Surveillance business unit explained that they are happy to be able to offer HX “a true force multiplier”, and that he expects the Finnish Air Force to be happy about it as well. Unfortunately, the poker faces of the FinAF colonels present held, so we have to wait until 2021 to see if that is a correct conclusion.

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Colonel Keränen, head of the HX Programme, outlining how the programme is continuing. Source: Own picture

However, colonel Keränen in his briefing prior to Saab’s presentation did note that ISTAR is a capability that will be required from the HX-package, and that it is a new capability compared to the current Hornet-fleet. This is interesting in that it shows that the capability sought is something more than what the Hornet currently offer by flying around with their AN/APG-73 radars and Litening-targeting pods. Here the GlobalEye really shines, as it not only provides a superior air-to-air picture (especially against targets operating at low heights) compared to the current Finnish ground-based network, but also provide air-to-surface radar pictures and signal intelligence from passive sensors. The range of sensors, both passive EW-sensors and possible EO/IR-sensors, can be tailored towards the specifications of the customer. However, in general it could be noted that the aircraft would not only be a valuable sensor in wartime, but would provide a serious benefit in peacetime as well through its ability to gather information far beyond the Finnish borders. As such, it would complement the Air Force’s single C-295 SIGINT-aircraft and the Border Guards’ maritime patrol aircraft.

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Magnus Skogberg discussing the vast range of the GlobalEye’s sensors, describing the aircraft as a “substantial contribution to the joint operational capabilities of the Finnish Defence Forces”. Source: Own picture

For the Gripen, much of the focus was on the adaptability and electronic warfare side of things. The differentiation of flight critical software, and to some extent hardware as well, from the mission software ensures that it can be upgraded in short increments, avoiding the traditional larger but less frequent MLUs. This is incremental upgrade approach is in effect already now with the current 39C/D-fleet, but the steps would take place in even shorter increments for the 39E/F. “This is unique”, according to Saab, who also pointed out that when the first 39E flew, it did so with a fully certified software. This is also exploited in the form of the 39-7 two-seat aircraft demonstrating the capabilities of the 39F for HX Challenge. The aircraft has a full set of 39E/F mission systems in the backseat, while the flight control software is based on that of the 39C/D.

When faced with the question of how the aircraft that currently is in the test and verification phase, Saab’s view was that since the aircraft is mature enough and will meet the Finnish deadlines with time to spare, it’s recent appearance on the market is simply a benefit. Being the newest of the contenders ensure that the technology is new, and allow the company to take advantage of the latest developments in a way older platforms can’t.

I guess you can make the arguement that the glass is half full.

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The smart fighter – now in Finnish as well. Source: Own picture

For the electronic warfare side, according to Saab the aircraft is providing capabilities close to those of dedicated platforms (read: EA-18G Growler). It is “probably the most advanced EW-suite” carried by a fighter, and provide a full spherical coverage from all directions. This include not only missile approach warning systems, but also internal jammers, chaff/flare dispensers, and so forth. When that isn’t enough, the brand new Electronic Attack Jammer Pod (EAJP) can also be carried, a fully functioning version of which was carried by 39-10 in Tampere. At this point, Saab notes that the 39F does provide superior performance in the electronic warfare (and SEAD/DEAD) role, as the combined suite is powerful enough that to get out the maximum use of it a dedicated systems operator is needed.

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The EAJP is utilising some of the “same kind of technology” as found in the internal EW systems of 39E, but provide broader frequency ranges and more power when needed. Source: Own picture

While electronic warfare capabilities are difficult to judge based on open sources (we are basically left to trusting that the manufacturers don’t stretch the truth too much) one thing that Saab is sure to have in their favour is the solid presence on the ground in Finland. Saab already has a serious research and development unit in Tampere, the importance of which is set to grow in the coming years thanks to Saab receiving the contract for the combat management system of the Pohjanmaa-class. As such, they are well positioned to reach the stated 30% of contract value in industrial cooperation, the vast majority of which will be directed towards direct cooperation according to the company. The program is very ambitious, and in what is something of a surprise still include not only component manufacturing and final assembly of the aircraft, but of the engines as well. Granted most manufacturers stated that a domestic final assembly line was possible at the outset of the HX programme, but there has been relatively little talk of the topic since, and my impression has been that the interest towards the idea from both the manufacturers and Finnish industry have in fact been lukewarm.

Saab is of a different opinion, and stated that it is the best method of ensuring that Finland actually has the ability to overhaul and maintain the aircraft if the supply lines are cut (which is the requirement of the RFQ). Production of aircraft engines is something that hasn’t taken place in Finland for a long time, but Saab expressed confidence in that Patria’s Linnavuori plant is up to the job. Negotiations are currently ongoing regarding the details of the proposal, and the fact that the Hornet’s F404 engine (on which Patria does qualified maintenance) serve as the basis for the Gripen’s F414GE would probably aid in the transition.

Speaking of transitions, Saab stated that the Gripen would require only “minor adaptations” of the existing infrastructure, and that they foresee a “very smooth integration effort”. A key point was also that no additional noise pollution or environmental impact was expected relative to the legacy-Hornet fleet, an issue that has been highlighted as some other fighter acquisitions has created the need for expensive remodelling of air bases. Here one might note that colonel Keränen also provided some further details on the timeline for the transition. By 2025 the first deliveries are to take place, so that Finnish Air Force personnel can start training on the aircraft. This might take place abroad or in Finland, key point is that the training starts, because by late 2027 the IOC should be declared, with the first HX squadron replacing a Hornet squadron in early 2028. By 2030 the last Hornets leave Finnish service, and HX declare FOC. Notable here is that up until IOC, the training and operating costs of the HX will at least partly come from the 10 Bn Euro additional funding that is allocated for the acquisition. This is due to the fact that normal Hornet operations continue in parallel, and the funds for these will claim the Air Force’s daily operating budget.

But did it fly? No, it didn’t. Was there a perfectly reasonable explanation. Yes, there was.

39-10 didn’t leave Sweden for the first time ever just to impress Finnish (and international) media, but rather to run a verification program. As the Finnish Air Force has stated a number of times, this isn’t about cold weather tests, but verifying the numbers and capabilities provided by the manufacturers in a Finnish setting. The weather conditions did not match any of the planned verification sorties, so the aircraft stayed on the ground. GlobalEye on the other hand had suitable verification flights that could take place, so it appeared in the skies over southern Finland with a mixed Saab/Finnish Air Force crew aboard.

Being a mechanical engineer I saw nothing strange in this. In my earlier work I’ve been present when the weather has been either too good or too bad for planned sea trials. Then the boat stays in the harbour. Not because of the vessel in question isn’t able to go to sea, but because the only thing you would achieve by doing so is burn diesel and kill time. Granted it would have been nice to get to see the aircraft take-off today, but c’est la vie.

However, populists gonna populist. Self-proclaimed defender of Lapland (with friends like these…) Mikko Kärnä in a single tweet manages to 1) describe the purpose of HX Challenge incorrectly, 2) give false (or at least out of context) quote by Saab as to the reason for not flying, and 3) draw faulty conclusions based on those two incorrect statements. Unfortunately, the story about Gripen not being able to fly in snow will likely endure in some fringes of the Finnish political discussion. The influence long-term will likely be minor, but I can already feel how tiresome it will be to hear these talking points making rounds on social media and around coffee tables.

For those interested in whether the Gripen can fly in snow, just ask Antti Virolainen.

Russian A2/AD: Overrated, underrated, *and* poorly understood

Quite a few readers will likely make the connection between the headline and a recent post by Michael Kofman over at his Russian Military Analysis blog. The post, titled “Russian A2/AD: It is not overrated, just poorly understood”, has received quite a bit of both praise and pushback in the few days since it was published, and certainly deserve a closer look.

To begin with, last autumn Kofman published a long read over at War on the Rocks. Titled “It’s time to talk about A2/AD: Rethinking the Russian Military Challenge”, it was without doubt one of last year’s best texts on the topic. I recommend anyone not familiar with it to go over there and read it, as it gives a very good overview of why the adoption of terminology originally dealing with a Chinese concept of operations and inserting it into an unrelated Russian context will lead us deep into the land of wrong conclusions. It also details well how the Russian long-range systems fit into the Russian operational concept.

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A 9A83 TELAR of the S-300V system operated by the 202nd Air Defence Brigade. The unit is co-located with the 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Armoured Division in Naro-Fominsk outside Moscow. The system a good example of a high-end capability found within the Russian Ground Forces structure, as opposed to the VKS/V PVO PRO. Source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin via Wikimedia Commons

“Russian A2/AD: It is not overrated, just poorly understood” instead looks at the question on a tactical level, and takes issue with what Kofman describes as “technology fetishism and threat inflationism [seemingly] giving way to a dismissive attitude”. There often exist a very real possibility of overcompensating when the first wave of panic-induced threat inflationism is receding, but I am not quite convinced that is what is happening here. Before starting, it should also be pointed out that whenever discussing the “general consensus” or “the discussion” as I do here, it can easily qualify as debating a strawman, since the average opinion, much as the average person, doesn’t exist.

There are several valid points in Kofman’s piece, perhaps the most important of which is that the focus on the strategic long-range systems* of the Aerospace Forces (VKS), which control the Air and Missile Defence Troops (V PVO PRO), leave out a sizeable number of Russian Air Defence assets. This include not only the Russian Air Force, but also the vast number of air defence systems of all kinds and ranges, some of which are very capable, that are subordinated to the Russian Ground Forces’ air defence units (PVO-SV). Another issue is whether Russia in a conventional war against NATO really would think in terms of a limited war, or whether the smallest size would be something along the lines of a conflict stretching along the full span of Russia’s western land border. Perhaps the most important point raised is the importance of discussing how well the Russian systems would work in a Western setting. As was evident especially during the post-Cold War thaw of the 1990’s when Russia shared the thinking behind their weapons programs more openly (though it frankly should have been evident both before and after), the Russian concept of operations differs from NATO’s CONOPS. This in turn means that their development and procurement decision are driven towards solutions that might seem strange or underperfoming in a Western context, but match the requirements of the Russian Armed Forces (ask yourself where all the Russian targeting pods are, just to give one brief example).

However, other issues raised by Kofman aren’t quite as clear-cut in my opinion. Yes, the Russian Air Force did receive 402 new tactical fighters and strike aircraft between 2008 and the end of 2019 (88 of which were Su-35 and 125 of which were Su-34). However, that ten-year run can be contrasted to the deliveries of 134 F-35 in 2019 alone (a year in which the Russian Air Force received 20 new fast jets), with another 140+ planned for next year, not to mention the production figures of other western fighter programs currently running. It should also be noted that the Russian Air Force of 2008 was sorely outdated, and that the aircraft since delivered, while modern, dosen’t necessarily provide the Russian Air Force with a qualitative edge compared to the current western inventory. Big questions surround the Russian fighters when it comes to key areas such as sensor fusion and man-machine interfaces, two fields that have grown in importance over the last decade with the increased amount of information available to the pilots.

The most serious issue for the Russian Air Force however is their weapons. For decades nothing much happened in the field, to the extent that the main air-to-air weapons still are the R-27 family of medium-range and the R-73 short-range missiles, both of which entered service well before the end of the Cold War. The situation is so dire that when the Russian Air Force first went to Syria, they had to resort to the ‘export-only’ RVV-SD to get a medium-ranged missile with an active radar seeker. Deliveries of updated weapons such as the R-77-1 (on which the RVV-SD is based) and the R-74M have now started (though the R-74M is still somewhat uncertain as far as I am aware), but it will take time until they have become the standard load of the fighters.

For air-to-ground, a more or less similar situation exists, not aided by the fact that Russian ‘dumb’ bombs aren’t easily kitable to become smart due to their general construction. The most common air-to-surface missile is the laser-guided Kh-25ML, a weapon with a 10 km range that was in production between 1982 and 1997. Several other air-to-ground systems exist, in fact the Russian arsenal include more diverse weapons/seeker capabilities than the NATO air forces, but the numbers for modern systems are generally low.

This is not to suggest that the air component of a NATO-Russian clash would be easy, especially once considering the possibility of preemptive strikes against NATO air bases and the low stocks of weapons held by the western air forces. It certainly would be a complex and messy affair, of which the SEAD/DEAD mission would be just one aspect.

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While much has been written about the Russian focus on electronic warfare, there are still a number of very capable platforms in the west as well. The EA-18G Growler would be a key asset in any US air campaign within the foreseeable future that was faced with modern air defences. Source: Own picture

I do agree that the greatest benefit of ground-based air defences often aren’t their kinetic capabilities, but the fact that their presence on the battlefield causes the enemy to alter tactics and divert resources to managing the threat from these long range systems (or, as Kofman put it, they become McGuffins). There is an inherent value in these systems, but the question is if we haven’t left A2/AD territory a long time ago by this point, and are back to the issue of how to pick apart a multi-layered air defence system made up of multiple components, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. This in itself is nothing new, Vietnam and the Yom Kippur War are probably the two most well-known examples, both in part due to the seemingly superior air force suffering serious losses when trying to get around one kind of threat and running into another one. However, it should be pointed out that the examples to the contrary are also found. The Lebanon War of 1982 and Operation Desert Storm both saw seemingly robust integrated air defence systems supported by serious fighter and interceptor components destroyed with fairly limited losses.

How the Russian air defences stand up against a concentrated air offensive is anyone’s guess. One of the key questions is who really dominates the electronic warfare spectrum? The Russian capabilities have been on test in Ukraine and Syria, but while the focus in west can be said to have been elsewhere during the post-9/11 period, there is still several capable systems and platforms in operational service. The effect they would have on the modular structure of the high-end Russian air defence assets is one of the key unanswered questions.

In the end, if I would have to guess, I find the high-end Russian systems such as the S-400 to likely be overrated. The same goes for the capabilities of active seekers of individual missiles, especially as their ranges grow. The medium-range systems such as the latest versions of the Buk and the Tor, are likely underrated, due to their combination of being easier to hide while still packing a serious punch. The whole A2/AD bastion concept makes little sense for most of Russia (the Murmansk area being the exception). What is completely open to me is how modular the Russian ground-based air defences really are, and how robust this modularity is in the face of a squadron of Growlers. In general, it can also be noted that history hasn’t been kind to ground controlled intercept-based tactics post-WWII.

*These are the S-300PM1 and S-300PM2, S-400, and their close-defence 96K6 Pantsir-systems, as well as the A-135 anti-ballistic missile system defending Moscow.

HX Challenge pt. 2: Born Joint

When two French fighters landed at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB this week it was the underdog that arrived. While last week’s eurocanard might not be a favourite, the Rafale is an even less likely candidate according to most analysts.

But truth be told it is difficult to tell how much of that perception is based on the lack of an active marketing campaign compared to the rest of the competition. The HX process might have received international praise for its transparency, but that only extends to how the process is being run, and not how the contenders are doing. The current ranking, to the extent there is one at this stage, is well and truly hidden from view.

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Rafale B ‘301’, DGA’s and Dassault’s testbed, shown here airborne during earlier tests. The aircraft carries six AASM boosted precision-guided bombs, two Meteor very-long range air-to-air missiles, two MICA IR short-range air-to-air missiles, two large drop tanks, and a Talios targeting and reconnaissance pod. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – A. Pecchi

The fact that the two Rafales touched down on Pirkkala does however tell us something – Dassault still thinks they have a non-trivial chance of winning. Flight tests are expensive, even a moderate estimate puts the costs for a manufacturer to participate in HX Challenge at something like 1.5 million Euro (it could easily be double that even in direct costs). The fact that Dassault, and the rest, are coming shows they believe the potential benefits to be worth it. This is in stark contrast to most of the recent fighter competitions held in Europe (Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland…), where roughly half the field have usually dropped out before final offers are sent in. That is a big show of confidence in the fairness of HX, and big kudos to the MoD, LOGL, and the Air Force for that!

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Rafale B ‘301’ (rear) and ‘352’ (front). The reason why Dassault didn’t bring a single-seat C-version was to maximise the number of flight hours they are able to provide to Finnish Air Force personnel, but is also a testimony to how closely related the B and C models are to each other. Note the white bulge behind the blade antenna on ‘301’, likely associated with some F4-standard subsystem, the missile warning sensor on the tailfin (looking like a black dot), and the different coloured covers for the EW sensors on the front of the canard root and on the air intakes. Source: Joni Malkamäki/Ilmavoimat

But back to the French offer. Many of the themes can be recognised from last week. The Rafale would “protect Finland’s integrity”, further strengthen a strong European partnership, and the aircraft is being offered “with the full support of the French government”, to use the words of ambassador Serge Tomas. The aircraft would also be delivered with “no performance restrictions” compared to the French version, and there will be “lots of open books” and technology transfers.

But there were also notable differences in tone when compared to the Eurofighter. The production lines will stay open “for the next decades”, as opposed to the Eurofighter lines that are slowly cooling down. And while the Eurofighter is being sold as the great cooperative project, the French are well-known in security policy circles for their reluctance to trust in others. This is also what they are selling to the Finnish Air Force.

We understand your concept

Those simple words contain a lot. We know you don’t trust in allies to step in and save the day, we understand your wish to be able to go alone if the need arises. The Rafale is the tool that allows you to do so.

French and Finnish national security policy might not have much in common, but Dassault certainly has found the common denominators there are, and they are running with them.

A sobering reminder of just how ready to go alone France is found in the fact that one of the two Rafales currently in Tampere is an operational Rafale B F3R from SPA 81 Lévrier (Greyhound) of EC 2/4 La Fayette. The main mission of the unit is nuclear strike as part of the Forces aériennes stratégiques, the land based air component of France’s completely independent nuclear deterrent. However, like sister unit EC 1/4 Gascogne, they do also fly conventional missions, including operationally over Libya, Mali, and in the Middle East. The F3R is the current standard, and was delivered ahead of schedule, meeting performance targets while staying inside the budget. Any Finnish order would be of the F4 standard that is currently in development, and which has an added focus on connectivity, further developed electronic-warfare capabilities, as well as new weapons. The other Rafale, ‘301’, is a joint-DGA and Dassault testbed, and is equipped with numerous subsystems associated with the F4.

The F4, and the upcoming F5 standard, will also allow the Rafale to remain a key part of the FCAS-system, ensuring that the Rafale stays in French service well into 2060’s*.

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Rafale B ‘352’ 4-FU having just arrived at Tampere-Pirkkala AFB. Note the greyhound of SPA 81 on the tail, Talios pod on the right side of the fuselage, FSO bulges in front of the canopy, as well as wingtip MICA IR missiles. Source: Joni Malkamäki/Ilmavoimat

Another good example of where French and Finnish national security interests align, and one pushed heavily at yesterday’s media day, is the emphasis on European solidarity. “France is leading the process to build a solid, European defence policy,” as ambassador Serge expressed it. This was also the point he came back to when questioned about what France can offer on the national security side that the other eurocanards cannot, and he does have a point. Finland’s stance on Article 42.7 might be ambiguous (and set to remain that way for the foreseeable future), but Finland most certainly is interested in a deepening European defence cooperation in a way that few other countries are. Except France.

It is a strange world when the country that has given us the gilet jaunes can market themselves as “the reliable and predictable national security partner”, but this is where we are in 2020. In part this is also due to the difference in French domestic and foreign politics. While French internal matters might be seeing quite a bit of turmoil, their foreign policy has been remarkably consistent during the last few decades. And that policy include a willingness to mobilise the sizeable force that is the French military whenever French interests are threatened. This is not only seen in Syria and Libya, but also in Mali and, crucially, in how France has stepped up their presence in the Baltic Sea region following Crimea. This includes ground troops, but also a sizeable contribution to Baltic Air Policing. The trick then is to ensure that French interests align with ours, something that is easier said than done. However, I would like to note that we are rapidly approaching diminishing returns in our already very deep cooperation with Sweden and the USA, something that isn’t the case for the Finnish-French relationship.

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It apparently needs to be repeated: HX Challenge is not a cold-weather test, but a verification of sensor and other prestanda as reported by the manufacturer. As a matter of fact, ‘301’ did separate winter tests for Dassault a year ago at Rovaniemi AFB. Source: Ilmavoimat FB

The French willingness to act on their security interests in turns leads to the next point that Dassault likes to make, namely that the Rafale is combat proven. Crucially, this isn’t just about dropping bombs in COIN operations, but include having “been tasked to go into very contested environments”. Famously, Rafale did fly missions into Libya during the early stages of the campaign when Gaddafi’s air defences were still operational, and it has also performed missions over Syria in the face of the air defences found there. The weapons suite used is also interesting, as not only does it feature the same cruise missile as the Eurofighter, the MBDA Storm Shadow/SCALP, but it also sports the unique French AASM-family of boosted precision-guided bombs. These allow for stand-off range attacks (60 km range reportedly being “not too far from the truth“, but obviously depending on launch height and speed), and come with a number of different seeker heads including INS/GPS, INS/GPS/IR, and INS/GPS/laser. As such, the Rafale is well-equipped to take out any of the targets envisioned in the Finnish RFQ.

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A single-seat Rafale C of 1/7 Provence in air-to-air configuration at BA 113 Saint-Dizier-Robinson, that also happens to be the home of the 1/4 La Fayette. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

Traditionally one of the weaker parts of Rafale’s sensor suite has been the Damocles targeting pod. This was recognised as lagging behind the competition already a number of years ago, and the Thales Talios has been brought online as part of the F3R standard. The performance of the pod, capable of both reconnaissance and lasing, is likely one of the things that the Finnish Air Force will be eager to test. Unfortunately the huge AREOS strategic reconnaissance pod has not been brought to HX Challenge (at least not by air), which likely indicate that it isn’t being included in the offer at this stage. Unsurprising, but still a bit sad as it would have offered a really interesting step-change in capability. Another sensor that likely will attract a lot of attention as well is the Front Sector Optronics, the FSO. The FSO is made up of two modules, an IR- and a TV-sensor. As part of the F3/F3R program the TV-sensor has been upgraded, and the performance is rumoured to be very good thanks to high magnification and near-IR wavelengths. The IR-sensor is currently going through its update programme, but for the time being it is likely that the setup tested at HX Challenge feature the old IR-sensors. In addition, a laser rangefinder is also included, and the whole set can be slewed by the other active or passive sensors to find and identify an airborne target. This is in line with the Rafale putting great emphasise on passive intercepts of enemy targets through the use of several different passive sensors and fusing the data to present the air crew with a single threat picture. Whether it works in the cloudy skies of Finland is exactly the kind of question HX Challenge is designed to answer, and unfortunately this interesting answer will go straight into the folder marked “SECRET”.

*Often the FCAS designation is erroneously used for the new joint Franco-German fighter currently in development, while in fact the FCAS is an umbrella term to cover numerous air- and ground-based system making up the Future Combat Air System. Or as Airbus puts it, a system of systems “composed of connected, manned and unmanned air platforms, enhanced by different sensors and effectors. They will be part of an open, scalable system architecture that enables the inclusion of future platforms and new technologies”

2019 in Review

As has become my own little tradition, I publish my year in review on the blog on the anniversary of the first post and not around the new year. Today’s that day, so happy sixth anniversary to myself!

2019 was in many a challenging year for me personally, but the end of the year also saw me come up with a clear plan for how to move forward from here. Without going into details, I am currently in a much better place than I was a year ago.

Naturally this also had some effects on the frequency of my blogging, which declined compared to year before. The year was also the first that the annual readership declined, both measured in views and visitors. The key reason is quite easy to find, as while the baseline is still healthy (the monthly median was actually higher in 2019 than 2018), the year lacked the kind of single hit post that has given the blog a boost earlier years by drawing in people from outside the regular readership. To look at things from the bright side: as these usually are tied to some less than pleasant development in the region (such as the Airiston Helmi-case of 2018 or the earlier sub-hunts), it isn’t just a bad thing that last year’s month-to-month viewership was more stable than earlier year.

2019 was also the year I tried to monetize the blog by running generic adds on it. Let’s just say I’m not thrilled about the cost/reward ratio, but I have yet to decide if I will continue with them or take them down again.

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Visiting AMBLE Baltic and seeing the first public outing of the APVT was one of the high point of the Corporal Frisk-year of 2019! Source: Own picture

As for who the readers are and where they come from, there’s no major surprises. Search engines and Twitter still dominate the referrer-stats, with the largest forums being Finnish Maanpuolustus.net and Estonian Militaar.net, with Swedish SoldF.com coming in as third. A newcomer was Hungarian HTKA.hu, which was a pleasant surprise to see! Land topics seems to be of particular interest to our Hungarian friends. As for where people read Corporalfrisk.com, Finland and Sweden are unexpectedly in a class of their own (with Finland being largest by a healthy margin this year), followed by the USA, the UK, Norway, France, Germany, Canada, and Australia in that order.

The most popular new post of 2019 was The True Face of the Baltic Fleet, which despite being published in the later half of the year got quite a nice readership. HX in general and GlobalEye in particular was another very popular topic, and of the older posts Gabriel 5 (PTO 2020) did very well. A number of interesting trips also fit into my calendar last year, including going back to Germany for the first time in a decade when I visited the first ever AMBLE, getting to speak at the FOI workshop on Russian A2/AD capabilities in the Baltic Sea region in Stockholm in December (proceedings should be out soon!), and finally receiving the Naval Reserve Medal of Merit at the Finnish Naval Academy during the Maritime Defence Day held there.

For 2020, the focus of the next few weeks will obviously be on HX Challenge. Unfortunately, with Corporal Frisk being just a sideshow, I won’t be able to skip work for all five media days, but I will attend one or possibly two in person, and will obviously report on any new (or not so new) details that emerge from the rest of them as well. Next up is Rafale, and it will be really interesting to see what message they bring! Following that, HX is likely to be on the back burner for the next year and a half, as few major twists are expected to take place before the eventual announcement of the winner in 2021. However, that doesn’t mean that the blog will be empty, as there are quite a few other interesting projects in the pipeline that I hope to be able to share with you all during the first half of the year, most of which are naval related.

As always, a big thank you to all of you readers! You are what make this blog! Oh, and did seriously no-one of you (especially you Swedes) catch the Easter egg in Weapons & Ammunition?