Advent Calendar #19: A Tank (or not)

You sometimes encounter defence acquisitions that make you shake your head in disbelief. However, most nations does not in fact acquire their systems through random acts of management, meaning that there’s usually a not insignificant amount of reasoning behind even the stranger ones – even if they might require a bit of explaining before one understands them.

This was most certainly the case with the Latvian decision to acquire the FV107 Scimitar (of the CVR(T)-family). While I have nothing in general against acquiring armoured fighting vehicles from the surplus market, the old British reconnaissance vehicle seemed an unlikely choice as the sole tracked AFV for a force undergoing modernisation and mechanisation. However, as usual there is method to the madness, and I was in luck to some time ago get to talk to a person who had insight into how the procurement decision was made. Thinking outside of the box is the key phrase.

When starting to plan the mechanisation of the force, it was clear that the Latvian Army wouldn’t have the funds to start fielding tanks of such an age and on such as scale that they could compete with the Russian units. But infantry likes to have direct fire support, so something was needed. This could be handled e.g. by infantry fighting vehicles such as the CV9035 bought by Estonia, or by arming wheeled APCs such as Lithuania had done with their Boxers. However, Latvia chose another path. The CVR(T) was available on the cheap, which was a key factor. Tracked AFVs are useful in other situations as well, as simply the sight and sound of tracks can have a psychological effect on your enemies. It’s not a tank, but on the positive side it is light and small enough to be carried around by normal trucks as opposed to requiring heavy loaders, meaning the logistics train required to give the vehicle operational and strategic mobility is also rather cheap. And did I mention, the CVR(T) is cheap?

The bottomline is that for a country with a limited budget – stopping tanks means infantry weapons and anti-tank missiles. Buying the dirt-cheap CVR(T) meant that there were more money left for Spike-missiles and enhancing the mobility of the infantry in the mechanised brigade, while still enabling the force to get a fire support vehicle. And while the CVR(T) isn’t much of tank, it actually isn’t much worse than the CV9035 or Boxer when it comes to providing fire support. Granted it has a 30 mm RARDEN which isn’t up to pair with the Orbital ATK Mk 44 of the Lithuanian vehicles, but the profile is quite a bit lower than the Boxer or the CV9035.

Unconventional thinking lead the Latvians to a 70’s designed light reconnaissance vehicle which became their heaviest land system. And with more than one analyst having called for different countries to think outside of the box to ensure that their force structures aren’t simply chosen based on old concepts, I have to say I respect the Latvians for actually doing so. Picture source: Latvian Armed Forces Flickr / vrsž. Gatis Indrevics and srž. Ēriks Kukutis

Advent Calendar #17: Abatis

Finnish officer cadets learn how to create a giant abatis as part of their countermobility course. The trees are felled at a 45° angle over the road from alternating sides which makes the interlock. In a country covered by forests many secondary roads are suitable for abatises, and while it is far from unbreachable, properly done it can cause significant delays for an advancing enemy. The fact that no additional building material is needed also means that it is one of few means an infantry unit can employ to quickly create a serious obstacle without the need for heavy machinery. Picture source: KAIPR FB

Advent Calendar #16: Hawk turns 40

Finland, the first export customer of the Hawk, got it’s first jet 40 years ago today. The aircraft beat Dassault-Breguet Alpha Jet, Saab 105, Aermachi MB.339 and Aero L-39 Albatros to become the new advanced trainer back in the late 1970’s, with first delivery 16 December 1980. The Finnish Air Force now decided to celebrate this event with a striking anniversary scheme, and as such, today’s picture will be of this jet, HW-340. The aircraft is one of the original Finnish Mk.51 Hawks, and is no stranger to a touch of blue and white as it has been one of the aircrafts of the Midnight Hawks display team that received large Finnish flags a few years ago. In the current scheme, the first Finnish jet with an official ‘whole-body’ special scheme, HW-340 will make appearances on the display circuit next year. The Hawk-fleet is made up of a mix of Mk.51 and slightly differing Mk.51A, as well as ex-Swiss Mk.66. All have now been upgraded to a newer standard with glass cockpits to better serve the modern training environment, and the fleet will continue to serve well into the HX-era. Picture source: Ilmavoimat Twitter

Advent Calendar #15: Brownout

An NH90 from the Finnish Army landing at UPM Kaukas paper mill, demonstrating that brownout isn’t only a problem during international deployments. All FDF rotary aviation is operated by the Army aviation which is part of the Utti Jaeger Regiment, the home of Army paras and contracted SOF. The main workhorse is the NH90 TTH, which following delays and teething troubles have become reliable workhorses for all three services as well as for providing support to civilian agencies according to need. In addition, a small force of MD500 are used for a number of mission ranging from training to reconnaissance and working as sniper platforms. Source: Utin Jääkärirykmentti Twitter

Advent Calendar #14: Walking on Sunshine

In Finland the Border Guards occupy an interesting place in the total defence concept. In peacetime, the FBG reports to the Interior Ministry, as does the Police. However, come a crisis, and the FBG would mobilise into wartime units which differ from the peacetime organisation and transfer over to the FDF. As such, it is possible to do your conscript service in the FBG, though seeing the conscripts one would be forgiven for not realising they belong to a civilian agency.

The ‘basic’ Rajajääkäri, border jaeger or border ranger, are trained at two companies, one in Lappland in Ivalo and one in Northern Karelia in Onttola. It is conscripts from the latter that in the picture above are seen marching through the wilderness of Koli. The rajajääkärit are trained as light infantry with reconnaissance as their main mission, and as such a premium is placed on the ability to operate in small units over long distances with everything one needs carried on one’s back. Picture source: Pojhois-Karjalan Rajavartiosto’s Twitter

Advent Calendar #13: Naval Aviation

Today we have a brand image, released by the Coastal Fleet today and showing FNS Tornio cooperating with a H215 Super Puma of the Finnish Border Guards. This individual, OH-HVP, is one of two new Super Pumas of the AS332L1e-version that were bought in 2015 to replace outgoing Agusta Bell AB412, and were followed by the FBG’s three older Super Pumas being retrofitted to the same standard. While the Finnish Navy lacks any aviation capabilities of its own, it regularly trains with rotary-winged assets of both the Border Guards and the Finnish Army, as well as with the two maritime patrol aircraft of the FBG and the fast jets of the Finnish Air Force. The importance of cooperation with the Finnish Air Force seems set to increase, as under the HX-programme one of the five key capabilities is cooperation with the Navy (possibly including kinetic anti-ship missions). At the same time, the Navy is exploring the possibilities of starting to use unmanned air systems, which is seen for example in the inclusion of a small hangar aboard the new Pohjanmaa-class corvettes. While the Navy still is tight-lipped about the potential role of any upcoming UAS, it does seem natural to first expect them to be used as an additional sensor, possibly giving longer range compared to the vessel’s own sensor suite and allowing the vessel to stay silent in the EW-domain. Picture source: Rannikkolaivasto Twitter

Review: Modern USMC Air Power

I have been known to review Harpia Publishing volumes with the words “it is certainly possible to read the books cover-to-cover, though I find it more enjoyable to head straight for the aircraft I am currently interested in”. However, while it could be reasonable to assume that this review as well is heading down that path, when it comes Joe Copalman’s “Modern USMC Air Power” I must confess I just opened it at the beginning and kept turning pages over the next few days until they ran out.

The book opens with ten pages on the history of USMC aviation, after which it describes the complete current ORBAT and structure as well as training arrangements, before getting to the meat of the book. This is a rather detailed overview of everything the USMC has that has flown at some point during the 2000’s (including both manned and unmanned systems). As is well known, that includes the Great War on Terror, where different Marine Corps assets have played important roles in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and a number of other locations.

The book takes an interesting approach in that it goes through the force by squadron type, starting with the HMH (heavy helicopters) and running through the whole list (HMH, HMLA, HMM/VMM, VMA, VMAQ, VMFA, VMFT, VMGR, VMR/H&HS, VMU, and HMX/VMX, for those that were wondering what that includes). For each squadron, it discusses the state of the fleet in that particular kind of squadron at the turn of the millennium, before going in largely chronological order through their missions (naturally with a solid focus on operational missions, be they in combat or e.g. as part of disaster relief efforts), upgrades, changes in organisation and tactics, and keeps doing so until it reaches the very present day. And by that I mean the very present day, the book goes well into this year, including discussing the implications of general Berger’s visions for a new and leaner force structure. Granted there is something of an issue here, as always when writing about current forces there is a risk that parts of the book will become aged rather soon. Still, having been able to include the plans of Force Design 2030 means that there is a good chance that the overall trends for the near future are understood, and unless the whole concept suddenly is ditched it makes the book rather well-placed in time.

Note large pictures in excellent print quality. One of my main talking points about Harpia Publishing is how sturdy their paperbacks are for being large-format books. I have never had the feeling that you sometimes get with paperbacks that if you aren’t careful the spine will pop.

Part of what makes the book so enjoyable to an aviation geek like myself is the unique nature of the USMC air arm. It is often seen as the little brother in comparison to USAF and USN aviation, but that largely says more about just how large the two former are. In fact, the USMC is a rather large and well-rounded force in and by itself, and the specialised nature of the Corps as a whole means that the aviation it has to support the key missions is similarly optimised. Everything from the helicopters to the KC-130 fleet is tailored to support the ground component as effectively as possible, often while operating from ships, and this leads to a host of rare or even unique solutions that (at least to me) isn’t immediately obvious. GPS-guided manoeuvring parachute retarded pallet-dropped supply packages coming out over the rear ramp of a Hercules? Sure thing! It is called Joint Precision Air Delivery System (JPADS) by the way, and as the name says is a joint system.

As the story of Marine Corps aviation can’t be told without some insight into how the aircraft are cooperating with the ground units, much is also spent on how exactly missions such as forward air control (nowadays often JTAC) takes place, including the changes brought in by digitalisation and linked video feeds. It is also interesting to follow the development of the less often discussed world of electronics and signals, which plays an important role on today’s battlefield and has changed greatly over the last two decades.

As said in the beginning, what easily could have become a great reference work but not-so-great for page turning kind of book positively surprised me in actually telling a coherent story despite splitting it up according to unit type. Much of the thanks for this goes to Copalman, who manages to keep the story flowing in a smooth and interesting way, intermixing technical details and abbreviations with eyewitness accounts and personal experiences from the people who flew these machines. Coupled with a very high overall quality of the book, nice pictures (modellers will need to check out a very nice picture of a heavily weathered green CH-53E from VMX-1 at low level, it also sports mismatching grey engine panels!), I might actually have to go as far as to say that this is my favourite Harpia-volume to date.

Highly recommended!

The book was kindly provided by Harpia Publishing free of charge for review. The ISBN is 978-1-950394-02-9

Advent Calendar #12: All Quiet on the Eastern Front?

The lack of transparency and communications with regards to the Finnish operation in Afghanistan (closing in on two decades by now) is one of my pet peeves – an operation that was supposed to be roughly as dangerous and complex as KFOR evolved into something completely else, and most importantly there’s still no complete narrative in open sources on A) what FDF has been doing there all these years, B) what are the political goals, and C) how has the operation changed over the years? I should emphasise that I’m not against the operation per se and by all accounts the vast majority of those that have served seems to have done a stellar job, but it does feel strange that after all these years anyone wanting to get a comprehensive picture of what Finland has been doing in Afghanistan will need to piece it together from numerous open sources (some of which are non-trivial to get hold of) that each hold a small piece of the puzzle. In the picture above it seems like the Germans are coming in to provide a lift. Picture source: Maavoimat Twitter

Advent Calendar #11: Under a Distant Sky

While Finland never switched the majority of the forces to light expeditionary ones, international operations still plays an important role. With the increasing complexity of many modern operations, such as ISAF/Resolute Support in Afghanistan and Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, the training for all personnel being sent out has also increased in complexity and in the level of professionalism. The key unit here is the Pori Brigade, which hosts both the Crisis Management Centre providing training before missions, as well as the Finnish Rapid Deployment Forces (Fi. SKVJ) which trains conscripts in the basics of international operations. In essence, if a conscript plan on becoming a peacekeeper or otherwise serving abroad as a reservist, FRDF is the main way to get there. Here a convoy of FRDF rolls out during training. Picture source: Pori Brigade Twitter