Review: Carrier Aviation in the 21st Century

Carrier aviation has always had a tendency to interest people. After all, flying aircraft of ships sounds crazy enough than one wouldn’t think it was a viable plan of operations if not for the very fact that a number of navies does so on a regular basis. Interestingly, quite a number of important changes have taken place when it comes to worldwide carrier operations in the last decade or so. This includes several new carriers being commissioned, and new aircrafts coming into service, making much of what is written on the subject out of date.

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Enter Harpia’s Carrier Aviation in the 21st Century – Aircraft carriers and their units in detail. The book goes through all navies currently sporting a commissioned carrier and fixed wing aircraft, and with “currently” that means the end of 2017. In short, the Royal Navy and Queen Elizabeth is included, but the Thai Navy is not following the retirement of their Harriers. Navies with more or less suitable ships but not having fixed wing aircraft, e.g. the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, are left out.

Readers can, and most likely will, have opinions about this line. Some will undoubtedly feel that it is a stretch to include Brazil considering the state of the NAe São Paulo (ex-Foch) or the Royal Navy considering that shipboard F-35 operations are yet to commence. Others will likely argue for a inclusion of a number of big-deck helicopter carriers and amphibious ships which arguably sport more shipbased aviation than some of the smaller ‘Harrier carriers’. Personally I would have liked to see some discussion around the feasibility of F-35B operations from a number of ships that have been speculated to be more or (usually) less ready to handle the V/STOL bird, such as the Japanese Izumo-class, the Australian Canberra-class, and the Dokdo-class of the ROKN. Still, I get that the line has to be drawn somewhere, and the basis of who’s included and who’s left out is clearly stated, which is nice.

One interesting feature of the book is that it puts the carriers and their aircraft into context. While chances are you have read a text or two about the INS Vikramaditya and its MiG-29K’s before, the book does not only (briefly) discuss the history of Indian naval aviation to put the latest program(s) into context, it also explains the contemporary doctrine and what role the carrier plays in today’s Indian armed forces, the likely composition of a carrier battlegroup, and not only lists but describes all embarked aviation units, fixed and rotary winged.

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More or less the same is the case with each and every country-specific chapter of the book. I say more or less, because every chapter is written by a country-specific expert (hence the ‘editor’ after Newdick’s name), and the setup and sub-headings vary slightly. While purists might find this irritating, I personally find it good that the authors have been given some leeway, as the unique situations in different navies are better served by getting more custom fit descriptions compared to being shoehorned into a ‘one size fits all’ template. I was a bit worried upon opening the book that the variances would be so big that the book wouldn’t feel like a coherent work, but having read it I don’t feel that is the case.

Over all the book is a very enjoyable read, though the Italy-chapter does suffer from the same kind of language-issues that I mentioned in my review of Harpia’s Tucano-book. However, I am also happy to say that the good points of the Tucano-book carries over as well. These include highly enjoyable pictures and top-notch full-colour illustrations, as well as excellent build-quality of the book. In fact, I am yet to manage to break any single one of my Harpia-books, and that include bringing an earlier review book along for a camping trip in the archipelago.

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The gorilla in the room when writing about carrier aviation worldwide is the completely outsized role of the US Navy. In short, the US Navy fields more and larger carriers and carrier air groups than the rest of the world together. How do you tackle this, without the book feeling unbalanced? The USN does indeed get a longer chapter than the rest of the countries. However, US carrier aviation is also remarkably homogeneous, being built around two clear templates: the Nimitz (and now Ford) with a carrier air wing and the smaller amphibious ships with their aviation elements, and the number of flying platforms has shrunk considerably compared to the classic cold war wings. This means that there is no need to give ten times the space for the USN compared to e.g. the French just because they have ten times the number of carriers. This makes the book feel balanced, and laid the last of my worries to rest. The sole issue I foresee is that developments in carrier aviation is moving rapidly in several countries at the moment (USA, UK, China, India, …), and that means that parts of the book run the risk of becoming outdated quite fast. Still, that will be the case with any book on the topic released during the next five to ten years (at least), and there is certainly enough ‘longlasting information’ to make sure that the package as a whole isn’t going anywhere soon.

Compared to the Tucano-review which I was very excited for, I was somewhat more lukewarm to the prospect of what felt like yet another carrier book. However, the book surprised me, and certainly grabbed my attention. The chapters are deep enough to include plenty new information to me, and of such a length that it is easy to pick up and read through a single chapter if you suddenly have a need for a quick rundown of the current status of Spanish carrier aviation (yes, such things do happen to me occasionally). Harpia’s telltale illustrations and tables are also found in abundance.

Highly recommended for anyone looking for an update of carrier aviation worldwide!

The book was kindly provided free of charge for review by Harpia Publishing.

Of Helicopters and High Costs

The NH90 was supposed to become the gold-standard of military transport helicopters, utilising composite structures and high-tech avionics to provide a modern workhorse for the airlift needs in a host of European countries.

Almost immediately the grand vision hit rough waters, with significant teething troubles and delays. A chapter in itself was the joint Nordic helicopter program, which eventually ended up with the different countries all going more or less their own ways. In the end, Denmark and ordered the larger AW101 (ex-EH101), Norway got both the AW101 and the NH90 NFH (naval version), while Finland ordered the NH90 TTH and Sweden opted for two modified versions of the NH90, designated HKP 14E and 14F locally.

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Swedish HKP 14E visiting Kuopio, Finland, in 2016. Source: Own picture

In addition to the “baseline” teething troubles experienced by the project as a whole, the Swedes in a highly-publicised move decided that they wanted a higher cabin. This lead to a significant redesign, which brought added costs and delays. In the background also loomed persistent rumors that the evaluation made by the Swedish Defence Forces had been won by another contender (the Sikorsky S-92), and that the NH90 had been bought due to political considerations.

While the Finnish helicopter program also suffered delays, at one point forcing the once-retired Mi-8’s back into service, the Finnish Army rather quickly regained their footing. In part thanks to the delays, Patria was negotiated to take a bigger role in the overhaul of not only the Finnish but also of foreign helicopters, and by not requiring all documentation and systems to be fully operational immediately, the Army was able to phase the NH90-fleet into use at a relatively fast pace (still years late compared to the original plan). One of the breakthrough moments was the major exercise Pyörremyrsky 2011, which saw a formation of 9 helicopters perform an airlift operations. A first, also by international standards.

In the meantime Sweden was still suffering from issues with regards to the localisation, and the attitude towards incomplete or temporary paperwork was not as forgiving. To make matters more urgent, like in Finland, Sweden was also in the process of retiring their earlier helicopters. In this case, the retirement of the Hkp 10B (Super Puma) meant that the forces in Afghanistan would be without a MEDEVAC helicopter for the foreseeable future, something which was deemed unacceptable. To solve the issue an urgent order for 15 UH-60M Blackhawk was placed in 2011 as a stop-gap solution. Influenced by the troublesome HKP 14 program, the helicopters were ordered according to US standards, with one of the chief programme executives being rumoured to have summed up the order with “I don’t care if it reads ‘US ARMY’ on their sides, just get them here!”.

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Swedish HKP 16 (UH-60M Blackhawk) in joint operations with the ground elements of NBG 15. In an ironic twist, the Finnish detachment to the battle group was a NH90 MEDEVAC unit. Source: Alexander Karlsson/Försvarsmakten

The new Blackhawks provided stellar service in Afghanistan, and once the operation winded down they were integrated into the Swedish Air Force’s Helicopter Wing as part of the medium lift capability of the defence forces. By all accounts the helicopters, locally designated HKP 16, have performed well, and the deal is a prime example of something acquired outside of original plans quickly finding its place in the greater scheme of things. At the same time the transport version HKP 14E was slowly getting introduced into service, but still the critique didn’t let up. The marine version HKP 14F (not to be confused with the international naval version NH90 NFH) was being delayed further until 2015, and entered service both without any kind of anti-submarine torpedo as well as without a working data link to relay information to and from other units.

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Finnish NH90 during an aerial display in Vaasa in early 2018. Source: Own picture

The latest blow came when it was clear that the Air Force had looked into mothballing all nine HKP 14E, due to the extremely high operating costs, over 19,000 EUR per flight hour. At the heart of the issue lies accounting. The majority of the costs does not come from fuel, but from fixed costs such as yearly overhauls. The high cost means that the Air Force prefer to use the Blackhawks whenever possible, as they sport a flight hour cost one-fifth of that of the HKP 14 . This in turns leads to even lower usage for the HKP 14, further pushing up the cost per hour. To make matters worse, there is speculation that part of the fixed costs are depreciation, i.e. accounting for the fact that the value of the helicopter diminishes per year. A handy tool when it comes to calculating investments in regular companies, a not-so-handy one when it comes to defence budgets.

This is in stark contrast to the Finnish numbers, where the flight hour cost is on a steady downwards trajectory. For 2017 the budgeted flight hour cost was 15,900 EUR, while for 2018 it is down in the neighborhood of around 10,000 EUR. This was confirmed by colonel Jaro Kesänen, Commanding Officer of Utti Jaeger Regiment which is home to the Helicopter Battalion. Speaking as a private citizen, Kesänen noted in a non-formal Twitter exchange that the NH90 is an appreciated asset in the Finnish Defence Forces and that the flight hour cost is within the range envisioned when the helicopters were acquired. Notable is that in the case of Finland the NH90 is the sole transport helicopter available to the Defence Forces (though a limited number of Border Guard helicopters can also be called upon by the authorities), and the caveat should be made that rarely does the Finnish Defence Forces openly voice negative opinions about their own systems.

In the last weeks two major reports on the future of the Swedish Defence Forces have been released. The first was SOU 2018:7 which looked at the long-term needs for new equipment to the Swedish Defence Forces (also known as “Wahlbergs review”). The review looked into mothballing either all HKP 14 or only the army cooperation HKP 14E to make budgetary saving. The conclusions presented was that few to none savings would be made if the HKP 14E was retired, and in case all HKP 14 were retired this would have too large negative effects in the maritime domain. The second report was the Defence Forces’ outlook at how to expand up until 2035 (known as PerP). The report only deals with the Helicopter Wing in passing, and does not mention individual systems. What it does note is identify the need to grow the organisation and its capabilities, in part due to the need for airmobile units. As such, the career of the HKP 14 seems set to continue in the Swedish Defence Forces. Time will tell if it will grow into a beautiful swan, or whether it is destined to stay the ugly duckling of the Helicopter Wing.

F-16 down in Israel

News broke this morning that during the night an Israeli two-seat F-16 had come down in Israel (pictures). This chain of events started with an UAV entering Israeli airspace, which was then intercepted and shot down by an Israeli AH-64 Apache (‘Peten’/‘Saraph’ being the local designations for the AH-64A and D respectively). Four Israeli two-seat F-16’s then launched a retaliatory strike against targets in Syria, said to be the “Iranian control system” responsible for launching the UAV. Most reports seem to agree that this was located at the Syrian T4 airbase, which has played a prominent role in the Syrian war.

So far the official Israeli reports seems to avoid the use of the phrase “shot down”, instead opting for a more general “crashed”. However, while not impossible, it does seem unlikely that the F-16 would have crashed due to other reasons.

The official Israeli statements also include references to Iran being responsible. 20 minutes after the tweet above, IDF spokesperson Lt.Col. Conricus stated that “accurate hits of Iranian UAV control facility confirmed.”

The site of the Israeli crash site is located in the northwestern parts of the country (not close to Golan as some early reports indicated), at the eastern entrance to Kibbutz Harduf. The kibbutz is approximately midway between Haifa and Nazareth, and just 10 kilometers north of the major Israeli air base of Ramat David. One of the squadrons at the base is the 109th “The Valley Squadron”, which flies two-seat F-16D ‘Barak‘. While the crashed aircraft certainly could be from the squadron, it should be remembered that Israel is tiny, and the plane could easily be from another base as well.

Update 11:00 GMT +2: The aircraft is in fact a F-16I ‘Sufa‘, the highly modified Israeli version of the F-16D Block 50/52. This is clear following the publication of AFP pictures by NRK.no.  The F-16I is the IDF/AF’s aircraft of choice for long-distance strikes against ground targets, and the air force operates around 100 fighters of the version (out of an original order for 102). For the past ten years it has been a mainstay of Israeli strikes in Gaza and abroad, and is likely to be the most advanced version of the F-16 in operation anywhere when it comes to the air-to-ground role. That it was chosen for the raid against T4 does not come as a surprise.

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An F-16I ‘Sufa’ in the colours of the 107th “Knights of the Orange Tail” squadron at the Israeli Air Force Museum. Source: Own picture

Syria has earlier been happy to throw up anything they got against Israeli strikes over their territory (including the obsolete S-200), but so far the only tangible results have been the downing of some guided munitions/missiles. Crucially, it seems that the Russian air defence systems have not taken part in the defence of Syrian territory, and that Israel and Russia in fact have a rather working de-escalatory system in place. While intervention by Russian systems can’t be ruled out, a more likely explanation is that throwing up “massive amounts” of anti-aircraft fire and possibly some older SAM’s eventually got lucky.

Edit 12:06 GMT+2: Haaretz journalist quoting anonymous Israeli sources stating that it was a Syrian surface-to-air missile that brought down the F-16I.

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F-16D ‘Barak’ from The Valley Squadron. Source: Aldo Bidini via Wikimedia Commons

In retaliation to the downing of the Israeli aircraft Israel struck 12 targets inside Syria, describing them as including both Syrian air defence installations and Iranian military targets. The nature of the strikes are not described in detail, and could potentially include both ground-based systems (artillery and surface-to-surface missiles) as well as air strikes. While this certainly could escalate, it is unlikely that Syria and/or Iran are interested in a full-blown war with Israel at the current time, considering that the Syrian Civil War is still going on at a quite intense pace. However, as has been seen before, wars can happen despite no one really being interested in them. On the positive side, the fact that both pilots are safe inside Israel probably triggered a significantly more limited retaliation than what would have been the case if they had come down inside Syria and been captured there.

Edit 21:36 GMT+2: So far a number of pictures claimed to show missile debris have appeared, including the ones above. These show a missile fired by some version of the 2K12 Kub (SA-6), a system which scored major successes in the Yom Kippur War 1973, but which was decisively defeated by the Israelis nine years later in operations over Lebanon 1982.

The pictures above, though said to show a S-200, are most likely from S-125 (SA-3 Goa), an even older system which was introduced in the early 1960’s. If either of these two systems were involved in the downing there was probably a significant amount of luck involved. One possibility is that the Israeli aircraft simply ran out of energy trying to dodge a large number of missiles, some sources have stated that more than 20 missiles were fired against the strike package.

Interestingly enough, Israeli sources stated that the air defence sites targeted were S-200 and Buk-sites, though so far no pictures of Buk-missiles have so far surfaced (at least not to my knowledge).

IDF has released video said to show the downing of the Iranian UAV as well as the destruction of the command vehicle. In addition, pictures of parts of the wreckage have also been released. The wreck matches the UAV shown in the released video, and is serialled either ‘006’ or ‘900’.

While the downing of an Israeli aircraft in itself won’t change the balance of the air war, this was shown clearly by the massive wave of strikes against a variety of target following the downing, it is still a significant propaganda victory for Syria/Iran/Hezbollah. As such, the greatest danger is that it could potentially cause one or several of the actors to try and push their luck further, causing a downward spiral no one really want at the moment.

Guest Post: Accuracy of Freefall Aerial Bombing

Topias Uotila @THUotila is an active reservist and a student of warfare and security politics. Image: Excerpt with freefall aerial bombs. Original.

Accuracy of Freefall Aerial Bombing

It is said that freefall bombing is inaccurate, but that’s a very inaccurate thing to say – all pun intended.

Introduction

This article estimates with two methods how accurate modern freefall aerial bombing is. The methods don’t meet scientific standards, as the intent is rather to find a good rule of thumb for, for example, defense planning. We come to a conclusion that for bombs dropped from a non-harassed modern bomber at high altitude, for example over 5000 meters, a reasonable rule of thumb for CEP is 50 meters. The article consists of a literature study and an OSINT piece verifying the former.

My interest in the subject started when I gathered a crude dataset of different air launched weapons with, for example, ranges, carrying aircraft, weather requirements and accuracy. Most of the data is listed right on Wikipedia, but the accuracy of modern freefall bombing efforts was very elusive. It was unclear whether this is due to secrecy or the complex dependencies of accuracy to multiple variables.

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Most of the easy to find material handles the Second World War, but even then, the measures were more about mission success in total rather than accuracy of the bombing run.

Aerial Bombing

If you drop a stone, it will hit the point directly beneath it. But if you drop a shaped bomb from a freely moving airplane in conditions with varying wind and air pressure, calculating the point of impact becomes increasingly hard. If the wind and pressure conditions change during the flight path, calculating the trajectory beforehand becomes downright impossible. In reality there are even more sources for variance. Manually choosing the time of release is error prone, as is flying the aircraft at a constant level path and even the bombs may not be uniform or released at exactly the same moment. Sometimes dispersion is also sought after. It’s better to have eight bombs hit different parts of an area target than a single point.

To give an understanding of how much these variables affect the accuracy, let’s stop for two data points. During World War Two it was estimated that a three-degree change in heading at release lead to a 200-meter deviation at impact and a flight speed deviation from calculated of just a couple of kilometers per hour led the bombs astray for tens of meters.

Despite the complexities, I believed it has to be possible to have at least a statistical estimate of bombing accuracy or alternatively an accuracy function with a couple of the most important explaining variables, for example, drop altitude. These didn’t seem too secret, so I suspected that by asking on Twitter I would get at least mediocre sources. Naturally, I got more than I bargained for. To verify these further, I suspected I’d need to do some calculations of my own. Enter video footage from Syria, where Russia has used massive amounts of freefall bombs. I focused on a case study of two popular show reels of UAV recorded videos. The first video has likely one Su-25 run and one Su-24 run and the second video was presumably several Tu-22M3 only missions. The latter video was especially interesting as, since the plane type is a bomber, the strikes are certainly all from a relatively high altitude. My assumption is from 5.000 to 8.000 meters. By happenstance, Tu-22 is also the plane type I was most interested in to begin with.

Literature Study

During the past years USA has replaced almost all free fall bombs with JDAMs. The JDAM is a kit that is installed onto a conventional bomb. It makes the combination many times as expensive, but doesn’t differ in explosive or fragmentation potential. Conventional bombs cost a couple of thousands and a JDAM kit about 26.000 dollars. Thus, the JDAM has to be better in some other way. While there are a few possibilities, it’s relatively safe to assume the JDAM is more precise. With GPS the JDAM achieves a 5-meter CEP and without it a 30-meter. Thus, we get a lower boundary for the CEP of freefall bombing. If freefall bombing would be as accurate as a JDAM, JDAMs wouldn’t be used.

The Russian solution to the same need is the SVP-24, which is not an addition to the bomb, but rather a bombing computer added to the airplane. Thus, bombing with SVP-24 fulfills the definition of freefall bombing. Some Russian sources claim that they can achieve GPS guided JDAM level accuracies e.g. 3 to 7 meters with the SVP-24 in ideal conditions. They further claim, that even in battle conditions the accuracy would be on the level of 20 to 25 meters. While it is unclear if these accuracies mean the CEP, weaker accuracy measures are seldom used. Thus, these are very challenging claims to achieve. Personally, I find them hard to believe, but at least they add to our understanding and confidence of the maximum freefall bombing accuracy estimate.

Interestingly the same source estimates that bombing without such a computer has accuracies between 150 to 400 meters. Here, the high end, for a change, feels intuitively too large, as it corresponds to the maximums estimated in World War Two.

So, let’s look at that more historic data and begin from World War Two. The earliest estimate gives us a figure that only forty percent of the bombs hit a circle with radius of about 450 meters. This was before 1944 when the CEP was even introduced as the standard way of measuring accuracy in the US. When the new measure was introduced, the CEP accuracy had already improved to around 300 meters from the altitude of 5.000 meters using the B-17 and B-24 bombers.

One major invention behind accuracy improvement was likely the Norden bombsight. We can find a lot of data for it starting from testing in the 1930s. From an altitude of 1.200 meters a CEP of 11 meters was achieved in training. From higher up, they managed to achieve a 23-meter CEP. And when the set-up was moved to actual war, Air Corps achieved a 120-meter CEP from the altitude of 4.600 meters. Still zooming out and taking into account the whole attack, the bombs ended up on average 300 to 400 meters from the intended targets varying especially by unit and bombing altitude. Ending up on average 300 meters from the target is the practically the same thing as a 300-meter CEP – perfectly in line with the earlier measure for the B-17 and B-24.

During the war this inaccuracy made dive bombing an interesting choice for all belligerents. The Germans trained their crews for a CEP of 25 meters compared to 50 to 75 meters for level bombing. Both of these measures were expected to at least double in the heat of the battle. American efforts for dive bombing were on a similar level. As these figures for level bombing can roughly be stated as a CEP of 100 to 225 meters, they are a lot better than the ones presented for the Norden bombsight in the previous sources. This is likely due to combat being more challenging than what the bombing schools estimated.

The next data point that we have is a US estimate on the capabilities the Soviets could develop by the mid-60s. It’s a pretty safe assumption these are close to or slightly better compared to their own capabilities during the time of the writing. The best thing about these estimates is that they are presented as a function of bombing altitude making us able to draw that function.

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How accurate could the Soviets become by the mid-60s?

To summarize, the visual bombing improves with lower altitude a lot more than radar directed bombing and the best estimated accuracy is about 122 meters from an altitude of 3.000 meters. This gives us a total estimated range for CEP of 120 to 900 meters with CEP more than doubling when the altitude doubles.

Fast forward another decade to Vietnam and the bombs dropped by the F-105s achieved a CEP of 111 meters. This was when the airplanes were not shot at. The CEP increased to 136 meters under anti-aircraft artillery fire. Another report gives the A-1 a 90-meter and the F-4 a 150-meter CEP, when bombing from 600 meters of altitude. The difference is attributed to the faster speed of the F-4. The accuracy reverts back to World War Two levels of 300 meters during the night time or during adverse weather conditions. Yet another source states both this huge variance and my research problem painstakingly clearly by saying that the daily accuracy average ranges from 30 to 300 meters depending on tactics, target and weather. With radar bombing they managed to control some of the variance and get the accuracy to about 150 meters. The surprising thing is that this was considered as good as dive bombing accuracy, although the figures from World War Two for dive bombing already looked better.

Finally, the book “The Precision Revolution” gives a direct estimate of 61 meters for the CEP of US freefall bombing in 1990. Haven’t personally read the book, but Tuomo Rusila pointed this out in the previously mentioned Twitter discussion. It is good to keep in mind how dominant the US was in Iraq. However, it is quite probable, that the technology and techniques did improve dramatically from the Vietnam era. The rate of improvement has probably slowed down since the 90’s. Both due to diminishing marginal returns, but also due to the diminishing importance of freefall bombing.

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Summary of the data found in the literature study. There’s a lot of variance.

In conclusion, it’s difficult to believe any modern freefall bombing would achieve a lower than 25-meter CEP and on the other hand it seems quite proven that a 60-meter CEP can be achieved. Everything is naturally highly dependent on the conditions, skill and technology used.

OSINT

Next, we’ll compare these figures to what Russia has documented for us in Syria.

 

For the first strike, that I’m presuming to be done by a Su-25, we can identify three points of impact. The distances between the points range from 102 to 257 pixels in my original. At the same time, what I believe is a truck, is about 18 pixels long. If the truck is 8 meters in reality, the distances between the impacts are 45 and 114 meters. Calculating an exact CEP is not very fruitful with only three impact points. This is the only one of the strikes that I have currently geolocated and it’s at 36.407257°, 37.153259°. Looking at the distances Google gives, we get a rough validation for my estimates and subsequently proof that the truck is quite close to 8 meters.

In the second strike we can identify six points of impact. Using the road width as a reference point with presumably approximately 6 meters of width, we get a 68-meter distance between the furthest separated points of impact. However, looking at the location of the buildings, it’s likely that the aim point is close to the center of the frame or to the left from it, so all of the impacts are to the right and up from the aim point. I’m assuming this strike was carried out by a Su-24.

Let’s move on to the next video.

In the third strike, we finally see that in reality the CEP doesn’t describe how several freefall bombs behave, if dropped from the same airplane. Naturally, they do not disperse circularly, but elliptically. Before jumping to conclusions, it’s good to note that the second highest impact point is struck the last and noticeably later than the others. This is also why you can’t yet see an explosion in the still frame. Thus, it isn’t clear that the bombs would disperse a little, but are just spread out due to the movement of the dropping airplane and sequential release from the bombing shaft of the Tu-22.

Unfortunately, this image has no terrain features I could recognize and measure against. But since the explosions looks comparably the same size as in the other strikes and the different freefall bombs used by Russia shouldn’t differ much in that sense, I’m inclined to believe this strike has about the same dispersion as the others.

The next two images are from a large strike against an area target. Since the images are from two different segments of the video, it’s possible they are not even from the same day. At least one can’t see some of the smoke from the first segment in the following one. In addition to these images, there were several other runs on the target. While in the case of an area target, dispersion might be sought after, it’s notable how large the dispersion is. The building marked with the red line in both images is in fact quite huge. This can be seen from the following zoom in.

My estimate is that it should be at least 40 meters in length, which makes the distances between the individual explosions in each of the bombings to be at least 100 meters and up to 300 meters.

Fifth strike is again hard to measure due to lack of measurable features. The lines might be trenches making them about 1 meter wide. Again, the dispersion feels to be on a familiar level. The actual target of the strike might be some pillboxes or sandbag fortifications.

In the final strike we have another area target with low accuracy. Again, this may be intentional. However, the building in the middle looks like some kind of an industrial hall, which should be at least 20 meters in length. In the image it is 55 pixels long. As the maximum distance between two impact points is 629 pixels, these are then approximately 229 meters apart. As we have at least eight impact points, it’s finally somewhat meaningful to also approximate the CEP for this particular strike. We can fit half, i.e. four of the impact points, within about 80 meters of an imaginary aim point somewhere in the average of these impacts.

Conclusion and Discussion on Errors and Further Studies

Looks like in the videos the Russians aren’t quite achieving the 61-meter CEP USA claims to have achieved in 1990. The equipment may be worse, the dispersion may be intentional or USA might have inflated their accuracies. However, it’s clear there’s no magical 3-meter accurate SVP-24 in play. I’m still inclined to believe that the Americans’ achievement could be surpassed now almost 30 years after. Also, as it is better to be safe than sorry in the context of defense planning, I’m advocating a 50-meter CEP as a good rule of thumb for freefall aerial bombings.

Whole different question is then how accurate you need to be? Depends not just on the bomb, but also on the target. If you don’t score a direct hit on a tank, it’s going to be very difficult to harm it. If you get within tens of meters from an unarmored fellow standing upright, he’s pretty much dead. Fragments from a modern bomb can fly for hundreds of meters, but it’s always also random whether you get hit by one. Then again, the attacker might deploy a cluster or an incendiary bomb, making the calculation totally different.

There were several sources of error and inaccuracies in this study that would need to be eliminated for a scientific article. The sources in the literature study may be motivated to lie in either direction, but especially the OSINT-part would benefit from more analysis. First of all, the Russians are certainly selecting only successful mission videos to publish. Second, several of the frames are so tight that far away misses are outside the camera angle. Like mentioned, we’d need to know the aim point to estimate not just the relative dispersion but the actual deviation and CEP from the target. I’m pretty sure, we can’t assume the UAV camera crosshairs are pointed at the target point. These errors mostly make the strikes look more accurate in this study than they are in reality.

Third area of errors is the level of effort I personally put into the analysis. In many of the strikes it looks like there are more impacts close to each other that might be discerned with a frame by frame analysis. Taking these into account would generally improve the CEP. Also, I could’ve used real math in finding out the weighted averages of the impact points instead of just measuring the maximum distances between them. Similarly, real OSINT geolocation could’ve been used in finding out the real dimensions of the distance reference features. These errors could change the end result in either direction. Unfortunately, I could find only one of the strikes from the Bellingcat database of geolocated Russian strikes in Syria. Also I didn’t quickly find anything on Google Maps around Palmyra matching the second video.

In conclusion, I suggest using the mentioned 50-meter CEP in your work as a rule of thumb. It’s a conservative estimate from the defender’s viewpoint. However, if you still need more accuracy in accuracy estimates, please go on with the research and let me know of your results, too!

Ørland’s new birds

Two years ago I sat in my car on the parking lot of a supermarket in Oulu watching the unveiling of the first Norwegian F-35A on my phone. Last week I again sat glued to the phone, this time in my kitchen, watching the first three F-35’s land at Ørland hovedflystasjon (Ørland main air force base), located close to Trondheim in central Norway.

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RNoAF F-35A before take off from Fort Worth for the 10+ hour flight to Norway. Source: Lockheed Martin / Forsvaret

Why the obsession with the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s new fighter? Well, for anyone interested in the Finnish HX-program, Norway’s new fighter will be an important pointer. As with the F-16 program, Norway decided to be a program partner from the outset, with the F-35 beating the (then very much paper-plane) Gripen NG in a competition, which to be fair has been criticised as having been pure political theatre. Possible dishonesty aside, it is clear that Norway was happy with their experience with being a launch partner of the F-16, and wanted to recreate the success story with the F-35.

What is also clear is that the Finnish way of buying already operational solutions rely on countries ready to take the proverbial leap of faith. What sets Norway aside from most other F-35 customers is that the Norwegian Air Force is a well-known quantity for their Finnish colleagues thanks to the more or less continuous cross-border training the two countries (and Sweden) take part in, and having airfields next to the Atlantic at the 64th parallel means that snow and icy runways are no strangers to the Norwegians.

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An F-16B forming up with the three F-35’s as they approach the Norwegian coastline. Source: Helge Hopen / Forsvaret

So far the Norwegians have been happy to share their experience with the fighter, with major Morten ‘Dolby’ Hanchen being one of the most prominent voices of the growing F-35 community. He not only briefed Finnish media representatives when they visited Luke AFB this year, but has also written extensive and very informative texts explaining the criticism found in DOT&E reports.

As such, the Finnish Air Force is likely to keep a keen eye on the Norwegian experiences with operating and maintaining the stealth fighter in subarctic conditions. While a reduction in the force structure means that the northern F-16 base at Bodø was closed and the fighters will be consolidated to Ørland, a forward QRA detachment at Evenes AFB outside of Narvik will certainly put the planes to the test. Expect some high profile visitors to Norway in 2018.

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One of Ørland’s new birds resting at their new home. Source: Torbjørn Kjosvold / Forsvaret

 

Cruise Missiles for HX

From the outset the Finnish Defence Forces have been stating that they are not replacing a multirole fighter (and thus buying a new one), but instead they are replacing the capabilities of it (and thus buying a new one to provide the same capabilities as the old one). This might look like semantics, but was suddenly brought to the forefront when the RFI for weapons and external sensors was sent out.

Short background: the current Finnish Hornet-fleet sport five different weapon types (plus an internal gun). The AIM-9 Sidewinder (in L- and X-versions) provide short-range air-to-air capability, while the AIM-120C provide medium-range air-to-air capability. With the MLU2 air-to-ground weapons have been brought in as well. The JDAM-series of guidance kits are fitted to ordinary 225, 450, and 900 kg bombs (official designations then being GBU-38, GBU-32, and GBU-31 respectively). These use a combination of internal navigation (INS) and GPS to provide accurate hits on the target. The main problem is that hitting moving targets doesn’t really work, which have prompted the creation of other guidance kits sporting laser guidance in combination with INS and/or GPS. These have however not been acquired by Finland. Also, the range is short, and in practice the fighter has to overfly the target. Still, the JDAM is cheap and reliable, and has proved a favourite in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Time will tell if the recent GPS-jamming incidents will cause issues for weapons which rely on GPS for navigation and/or target acquisition.

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Finnish F/A-18C Hornet upgraded to the MLU2-standard displaying AIM-9X and AIM-120C air-to-air missiles as well as JDAM and AGM-158 JASSM air-to-surface weapons. Source: Ilmavoimat
A solution to getting more range out of a bomb is to fit it with wings, which leads to the AGM-154 JSOW. The JSOW feature folding wings which deploys after launch, letting the weapon glide towards the target. Three different versions are found, of which two hold submunitions (‘cluster bombs’), while the third is a single BROACH-warhead. The BROACH feature a two-stage warhead where a small(ish) shaped charge first blows a hole in the target, which the main warhead the flies through and detonates on the inside of (see this Australian clip of a live-fire test, the slow-motion entry is found at the 0:54 mark). For improved accuracy the AGM-154C with the BROACH feature an infrared seeker for terminal guidance. In Finnish service the JSOW is something of an enigma, with both the number of weapons and version acquired being unclear to me. I had originally thought the JSOW had been acquired in a very limited number for test and evaluation purposes only in case the JASSM wouldn’t be cleared for export, but during Ruska17 it was mentioned as part of the Finnish arsenal. It seems likely that a small number of AGM-154C JSOW are found as a cheaper mid-range solutions for targets which might be too well-defended for a JDAM-run. The big problem with the JSOW is that as it lacks an engine, its range is highly dependent on the speed and height of the aircraft when launched.

The silver bullet in the Finnish airborne arsenal is the AGM-158 JASSM. The JASSM feature a 450 kg penetrating warhead in the form of the WDU-42/B, and is powered by a small jet engine giving it significantly longer range than the JDAM and JSOW. The cruise missile is stealthy, and navigates by combining GPS and INS during flight, before switching on a IR-seeker for terminal guidance. It is a smart weapon even by modern standards, and dives towards the target at different angles depending on the amount of penetration needed (steeper for harder targets such as bunkers). All this also makes the weapon rather expensive, with the DSCA listing the Finnish request for up to 70 weapons at an estimated value of 255 million USD.

These are the capabilities to be replaced: the ability to shoot down enemy aircraft at different ranges, and to strike hard but not necessarily moving targets at all ranges.

It is important to remember that the weapons work already before release, in that any potential attacker has to calculate with the Finnish Air Force being able to launch a strike taking out key installations such as bridges and command bunkers deep behind enemy lines without ever being close to these. The psychological effect of the nagging knowledge that when getting inside a few hundred kilometers of the frontline you are always under threat should not be underestimated.

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An F-35C Lighting II conducts separation tests of an AGM-154 JSOW. The white dots are photo calibration markings. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Dane Wiedmann via Wikimedia Commons
The press release on the RFI was rather bland, but Jarmo Huhtanen of Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat had an interesting interview with engineering brigadier general Kari Renko. Renko dropped a very interesting comment, which will have huge consequences for the HX-program.

We won’t go down the route of starting to develop the integration of machine and weapon. We’re buying missiles, their documentation, transportation containers, training, and so forth.

He also mentions that the weapons and sensors will account for roughly a tenth of the total budget, i.e. in the neighbourhood of 700 million to 1 billion Euros. A second interview with program manager Lauri Puranen (retired FiAF major general) in Finnish paper Talouselämä takes a slightly different view, putting the total weapon cost at 10-20% of the total value, i.e. 700 million to 2 billion Euros, though he notes that there is no idea in buying the whole stock immediately upon ordering the fighters, as the weapons have limited shelf life (this might explain the difference their estimates). This sounds about right for providing a small stock of short- and medium-ranged air-to-air missiles and a few different air-to-ground weapons. A short mention of DSCA cost estimates for similar weapons from recent years.

It must be said that this is a very Finnish way of making defence acquisitions. Buying just behind the cutting edge, at the (hopefully) sweet spot where the R&D work is done and the true costs are known while still modern enough to be considered high-tech. The package above comes in at 1.08 billion Euros and would be something of a bare minimum (e.g. 64 fighters would get an average of 4.7 AMRAAMS each, meaning that after the first wave was launched there wouldn’t be any reloads to talk about). The Finnish order is also likely to be more air-to-air heavy than the mix above would be.

It also means that if Renko (who have his roots in the Air Force) is to be taken literally, the HX-field will be turned upside down.

The air-to-air part is no problem, all contenders have sufficient missiles integrated. Guided bombs are also found, though in most cases not JDAM’s but rather laser or hybrid laser/GPS/INS-guided ones. It is questionable if the JSOW is actually needed as the Goldilock-solution between a guided bomb and a cruise missile, and if it is a priority to be bought at the beginning of the project. In any case, it is fully integrated on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, while the Rafale feature the AASM ‘Hammer’-series of modular guidance/propulsion kits which include interesting versions that also exist in the middle ground between guided bombs and ‘true’ missiles.

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A Rafale C in flight equiped with wingtip Mica IR air-to-air missiles, 2000 ltr drop tank on inboard station and SCALP-EG (Storm Shadow in British service) cruise missile on the outer station. Source: © Alex Paringaux courtesy of Dassault Aviation
The big dealbreaker is the cruise missile. If Renko means business, that the HX need to have a long-range cruise missile with a serious penetrating warhead ready by the time it reaches full operational capability in the 2029-2031 time span, two of the top-contenders have a problem at their hands.

The Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon both sport the joint-French/English SCALP/Storm Shadow. This is a highly potent weapon in the same class as the JASSM, including a stealthy design, and is combat proven over Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The Rafale already carry the weapon, while the Typhoon is about to get it as part of the P3E upgrade currently underway. As such, both should welcome the news that this is a requirement.

The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet just might get a pass, as it sport the Harpoon-based SLAM-ER with a 360 kg WDU-40/B titanium-reinforced penetrating blast warhead. The SLAM-ER feature many of the same capabilities as the JASSM (though being lighter and shorter-legged), and is the US Navy’s answer to the gap created in their inventory when they dropped out of the JASSM-program. The fighter is also in the process of getting the AGM-158C LRASM, the anti-shipping derivative of the JASSM, which might offer a possibility to fast-track AGM-158A/B integration once complete.

JAS 39C/D Gripen have no long-range ground attack capability. This will be remedied by the upcoming Rb 15F-ER which while developed from the RBS15F anti-ship missile will also have a secondary land-attack capability. However, the weapons main use and roots are shown by the warhead which is a 200 kg blast fragmentation one. Excellent for ships, but despite having delayed fusing options this likely lacks the penetration to be able to take on hardened targets.

The F-35 is the other big question mark, with the JASSM not confirmed for the fighter. It has been cancelled for the Block 4, with one spokeswoman saying they “expect it” in the Block 5 timeframe which “is expected to begin in 2024”. The scope of Block 5 is still undecided, with one aviation journalist describing it’s status as “just a collection of tech that didn’t make the cut for Block 4“. RAF/RN had originally planned for the Storm Shadow to equip their F-35’s, but has since dropped it. As such, the F-35 have no confirmed cruise missile for hardened targets at the moment. The one missile which is confirmed is the JSM, which like the Rb 15F-ER is an anti-ship missile with secondary land-attack capability, and which also feature a 200 kg combined blast and fragmentation warhead. Manufacturing partner Raytheon is happy to call it “the only fifth-generation cruise missile that will be integrated on the F-35”, which is likely more of a marketing line than an indication of the company sitting on information that the JASSM has been cancelled for the F-35.

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Taurus KEPD 350 displayed together with the JAS 39D Gripen at the Tour de Sky airshow in Kuopio, Finland, back in 2016. Source: Own picture
The answer to the Gripen’s woes would have been the Taurus KEPD 350. The joint Swedish-German missile is carried by German Tornadoes, Spanish EF-18 Hornets, and (soon) South Korean F-15 Eagles. Preliminary flights have been undertaken by the Gripen (and the Eurofighter for Spanish and German needs), but the missile was never integrated on the 39C/D, and it’s future as part of the 39E’s arsenal is still unclear. The Swedish then-government/now-opposition signalled back in 2014 that they “want cruise missiles on the new Gripen”, though it has never been clear whether this means the RBS15F or some heavier land-attack missile. In any case, no firm order for KEPD 350 integration onto the Gripen has been made, and it is difficult to see a Brazilian requirement for it. The KEPD 350 is however actively marketed as an option for the Gripen by Saab.

While Puranen’s cost estimate of the weapon package might be higher than Renko’s, he is of the same opinion when it comes to integration costs.

Our position is that the aircraft suppliers are responsible for the integration of the weapons found in their offers, and that the costs for this are included in the offer.

This leaves Lockheed-Martin and Saab with something of a conundrum. Unless JASSM or another suitable missile is confirmed for integration before 2030 by another paying customer, and unless this confirmation comes before the final offers are made in 2021, the companies will have to include the complete integration costs when calculating their bids to Finland. Obviously the majority of the costs will be funneled back directly to their HX-bid (TANSTAAFL), while the Rafale and the Typhoon will be able to make their offers without this additional cost (or at the very least with a significantly reduced one). It also raises the question which missile they should choose to offer. While there has been much speculation about keeping the JASSM’s, their shelf-life does in fact end about the time the Hornets are withdrawn.

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Gripen E model in Finnish colours displayed by Saab at a Finnish air show. The model is armed with Rb 15F, Irist-T air-to-air missiles, and JASSM. Source: Own picture
Saab has been marketing a willingness to integrate the JASSM if Finland requests so. However, if they are free to offer the long-range strike option in whichever form they want, doing so by integrating their own Taurus instead of Lockheed-Martin’s JASSM might certainly be tempting, especially as the Taurus offer some unique gimmicks such as the ability to detonate at a specific pre-set floor. Another possible solution which might be tempting for both manufacturers would be to develop penetrating 500-lbs warheads for the JSM and Rb 15F-ER, as this might turn out to be a cheaper solution than integrating a completely new weapon. Still, when it comes to penetrating warheads, mass matters, and it is clear that this would be an inferior solution compared to heavyweights such as the JASSM, Storm Shadow/SCALP, or Taurus.

Fall Colours and Bugs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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