Sometimes a book catches you by surprise. When Helion reached out and asked if I would like to review a title or two for them, I jumped at the occasion to sink my teeth into “Carrier Killer – China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles and Theater of Operations in the early 21st Century” by Gerry Doyle and Blake Herzinger. However, Helion offered two books, and among the titles on offer was also “Handbrake!” by Alejandro Amendolara and Mariano Sciaroni (ISBN: 9781915070722), dealing with what probably is the most well-known system of the Falklands War: the Super Étendard and its fearsome Exocet missile. In a change of plans, I will review the latter now, because I believe that the majority of those interested in the rather niche topic of Chinese ballistic anti-ship missiles will by now already know that Doyle and Herzinger has written an excellent book on the topic, and instead I will focus on “Handbrake!” which was a pleasant surprise.
(I will be using the standard English name throughout this text, largely due to using both in running text being unwieldy and since the name Falkland Islands is standardised in English).
Now, the Falklands War has been a personal area of interest for me for decades, as it in many ways combine my core interests of naval, aviation, and amphibious operations in a package held together by huge personalities, improvisation, bravery, and a serious amount of ‘can do’-attitude on both sides of the conflict. That was also why I was somewhat sceptical of how much new the book would bring, as I felt I had a rather good picture of the topic, and my fear was that dedicating 98 pages to what amounted to three missions actually seeing missiles fired would either just repeat the well-known story or go into tiresome minutiae. Fortunately, I was wrong.
The book starts with an overview of the Super Étendard and the AM39 Exocet, followed by a brief history of the Segunda Escuadrilla Aeronaval de Caza y Ataque (the Second Naval Fighter and Attack Squadron) of the Argentinian Naval Aviation. This then continues on to the chronology of the acquisition of the aircraft, the training of the pilots, deliveries, and how the IOC to FOC program was set up in Argentina. As is well-known, that nice plan was cut short by the war.
The book discusses the integration work, development of tactics, and the infighting and politics surrounding the usage of the unit – with both the Air Force and more surprisingly the Naval leadership showing surprisingly poor understanding of the capabilities and limitations – before discussing the history of the unit in the war with a focus on the missions flown. It manages to go into detail while still being a very readable text. It also include ample personal accounts not only from the 2de Escuadrilla, but also from those supporting the missions such as the SP-2H Neptune unit as well as from the UK side of the attacks. The last part of the book briefly look at the history of the unit and their aircraft following the war.
As said, while I felt I had a quite good grasp of the situation, but there was still ample detail throughout which were new to me. I knew there were challenges with the integration of the missiles, but the book opens up the nature of these and how they were overcome. In the same way, while I knew the Neptunes were old and worn, it is only after reading “Handbrake!” I understood the nature of these problems and why it wasn’t possible to push them just a bit harder considering it was war. The maps drawn for this book are also among the very best I’ve seen related to not just these strikes but air war in general, capturing not only the facts, but also taking care to point out radar contacts and timestamps which might or might not have been correct, something that makes it possible for the reader to follow not just what happened, but what the people involved in the fighting thought was happening. It is also the most detailed description of the controversial 30 May strike directed against HMS Invincible I’ve come across, and here as well we have not only the classic “they flew this route”-map, but also a detailed look at the Task Force and what was going on inside it during those hectic minutes.
This was my second Helion-book (after “Carrier Killer”), and as said I was positively surprised and impressed by the quality of the book throughout. The writing is excellent, the balance between the eyewitness accounts and the more objective narration that forty years of hindsight provides is spot on, and as mentioned the illustrations – including photographs, colour profiles of the Super Étendards, an SP-2H Neptune, one of the units earlier T-28P Trojans, a Dagger A, a KC-130H, an A-4C Skyhawk, and HMS Sheffield, and the excellent maps – are top notch. Working in the field professionally, I will say that the decision to allow the maps to be a bit cluttered in order to provide more information than what is usually the case was a true home-run.
If you are looking for what just might be the definitive account in English of the Super Étendard operations in the Falklands War, this might just be it. The only thing related which I feel might have been of value to include would be a brief account of the single land-based missile attack on HMS Glamorgan to cover all Exocet-launches, but the book is clearly written around the Super Étendard and the men surrounding the aircraft so I understand that decision – the Glamorgan-attack really doesn’t have any connections to the other besides the weapon used.
I will note that if you are new to the Falklands War, you will probably be better served by some broader work to begin with, to be able to fit the story of the five missile launches into the wider picture. However, if you like me have an unhealthy obses…, ahem, keen interest in the conflict, the book is an excellent addition to any bookshelf. Highly recommended.
The book was provided free of charge (except custom duties which I paid myself) for review by Helion.
Just behind the top-tier air forces of the world is a small choice group of major regional powers who feature most of the capabilities of the great powers, although on a smaller scale. While Israel is perhaps the most obvious example, Harpia Publishing’s Modern South Korean Air Power – The Republic of Korea Air Force Today (ISBN: 978-1-950394-07-4) places the spotlight on another one of the big players.
Harpia’s books are a known concept for readers of my reviews. We are talking about a high-quality sturdy paperback with a liberal amount of pictures. For this volume, Harpia has brought in long-term aviation photographer Robin Polderman as the author, and the result is a really interesting volume on a topic which might certainly have global implications if things turn bad – the Korean peninsula being probably the only flashpoint with not only obvious interest to all three major powers but also a local actor with nuclear weapons and ICBMs.
The book takes a surprisingly broad approach, including not only a short history on the origins of military aviation in pre-war Korea as well as the history of the ROKAF from the humble beginnings up to today, but also a complete overview of all aircraft as well as helicopters and weapons in service today (including the Patriot and KM-SAM air defence systems operated by the service) as well as other podded systems (ELINT, jammers, recce/targeting pods, target towing systems, …). In addition the book deals with training (pilot/air crew training as well as major exercises), the modernisation plans stretching from 2021 to 2035, the surprisingly large and varied domestic aviation industry of the country, as well as the strategic picture including a history of recent developments covering roughly the last five years, as well as the moves of other stakeholders in the region. This include overviews of both US assets in the region as well as a concise but surprisingly exhaustive look at the North Korean Air Force. However, one of the things I felt was not discussed in appropriate detail was the role of the other services’ aviation arms, in particular when it comes to the question of helicopters where the ROK Army Aviation is a sizeable operator (read: they’ve got hundreds of them). As an example I am left somewhat in the dark when it comes to why both the Army and the Air Force flies around with their own Chinooks, and whether they perform similar roles? The title mentioning “air power” as opposed to “Air Force” also make this omission feel a bit strange, although to be fair the air force-focus is clear from the sub-header. At the same time, it is difficult to fault a book that manages to paint such a complete picture, even if my personal choice would have been to drop the part about Taiwan and the ROCAF and dedicate the space freed up to a short discussion on the other flying services. But perhaps we are just waiting for volume two (and three?) in a pattern similar to Harpia’s recent books on Chinese military aviation?
With that said, it really is difficult to stress enough how thorough the book is. How many books on the topic takes time to explain the role and functions of the AN/ASW-55 datalink pod? The many twists and turns that has shaped the modern ROKAF fighter fleet are also discussed, including the cancelled F/A-18 Hornet and F-15 Silent Eagle deals. The development of domestic aircraft have also turned out to be of surprising importance for the European discussion following Poland’s recent framework agreements with the Republic, a development which was not in the cards when the book came out last year. Perhaps most impressive is that Polderman manages to cram all this into 236 pages (followed by an appendix of full-colour unit badges, this is the longer of Harpia’s standards for those familiar with their books) without the text feeling dense. It is in fact a surprisingly easy read if you want to go cover-to-cover, as opposed to some Harpia titles which are more firmly in the reference work-section. With that said, the reference value is immense, both for defence analysts and scale modellers. As mentioned, you don’t get just the aircraft and units, but also weapons, electronic warfare capabilities, and future plans.
I have to say that I personally feel like this is one of the stronger books published by Harpia in the last few years, and as such is highly recommended to anyone interested in the topic.
The book was received free of charge for review from Harpia Publishing
Finland has gone on a bit of a shopping spree when it comes to munitions recently. Finally, one might add, as low stocks of advanced munitions has been quoted in defence white papers as a serious issue. Following the developments of this year, the FDF has received a serious amount of more funding both immediately available and for the coming years. The amounts to be spent on acquisitions is somewhat unclear to me due to the numerous changes and some funding being “new” while others are related to covering equipment having been sent to Ukraine, but we are talking about more than a billion euros of additional funds (i.e. above the originally planned level for 2022 and assuming a similar level in 2023) spread out over this year and the next.
While most of the deals are classified, the US congressional notices through the DSCA provide certain insight – though with the usual caveat that these represent possible maximums (i.e. everything between zero and the quoted number can be acquired, and that one shouldn’t look at the figures next to the dollar signs for any kind of confirmation of the contract cost.
One of the big media stars of the war in Ukraine has been the HIMARS with the GMLRS-guided missiles. In Finnish service the weapon has been used by the M270 MLRS already earlier, and a follow-on request for longer-ranged ER GMLRS was approved in 2021 and ordered just before the invasion of February. The approval covered 25 M30A2 ER GMLRS-AW pods and 10 M31A2 ER GMLRS-U pods, of which the AW (Alternative Warhead) uses pre-fragmented tungsten fragments to spread destruction over a bigger area while the U (Unitary) relies on blast and pressure effects to destroy individual targets. Each pod sports six missiles, and while the cost quoted in the DSCA notice is 91.2 million USD, the eventual contract value for an undisclosed number of pods was approximately 70 million EUR.
This is all nice and good, and then the FDF brought the big sack of money to Grand Prairie.
150 M30A1 GMLRS AW or M30A2 GMLRS AW with Insensitive Munitions Propulsion System (IMPS), or a combination of both, and 250 M31A1 GMLRS-U or M31A2 GMLRS-U IMPS, or a combination of both. The total estimated cost: 535 million USD (509.7 MEUR).
The reason behind the mix in versions between the A1 and A2 is due to there being a parallel request for diversion of 50% of this procurement from US stock.
To get an idea of how insanely large the order is, the total US production of GMLRS pods during the first two decades reached 8,334 pods in February last year. 400 pods is roughly a years worth of production at that rate, though currently the annual production rate is 1,250 pods with the ability to go up to 1,670 pods. Still, even with production at full speed that means Finland would like close to a quarter of Lockheed Martin’s annual production (though as noted, part of these could come from US stocks which then could be topped up later).
Safe to say, while the media discourse might be overly eager to jump on a single weapon system as the silver bullet, it does seem safe to say that the GMLRS has proven itself to the extent that a serious investment in missiles seems to be in the cards for Finland.
AIM-9X Sidewinder and AGM-154 JSOW
Then followed a somewhat unlikely mix of air-launched weapons, with the short-range air-to-air AIM-9X Sidewinder (40 missiles) and the advanced air-to-ground guided glide-bomb AGM-154 JSOW (48 weapons). The immediate reaction by some was that we are seeing the first order for weapons (outside of the original package) for Finland’s coming F-35A-fleet, which does operate both weapons. However, it is notable that both weapons are also used by the current F/A-18C/D Hornets. The number of JSOW in service is believed to be limited, and it is certainly possible that in the same discussion as that of more GMLRS it has become evident that a larger number of precision-guided air-to-ground weapons are needed. The JSOW is an interesting capability in that it is significantly cheaper than cruise missiles (such as the AGM-158 JASSM), in parts thanks to it being unpowered. At the same time, it offers significantly greater range compared to traditional guided bombs such as the JDAM.
But why do we suddenly need more Sidewinders? One possibility is simply that there has always been too few in stock. Another is that experiences from Ukraine has shown the value in being able to hunt down cruise missiles and helicopters, and it might be that the analysis of the FinAF is that Sidewinders provide a better return on investment in that role compared to the AIM-120 AMRAAM (it is also possible that AMRAAMs are being ordered through another package to supply both the NASAMS-batteries as well as the fighters).
With the F/A-18C/D getting to serve on in Finnish service as the primary ground-pounder until the second fighter wing converts and F-35A reaches FOC by 2030, topping up the stocks with both Sidewinders (an important weapon in the self-defence role as well) and heavy-hitting guided weapons that provide a measure of stand-off capability certainly would make sense.
The latest news was that Finland has its sights set on additional Stingers. Finland has the FIM-92E Stinger RMP Block I (this particular upgrade is possibly designated FIM-92F, the designations are somewhat messy as many Stinger-variants are upgrade programs for older variants) in service as the primary MANPADS, with the clearance having come already back in 2011 for up to 600 missiles and the eventual order for an undisclosed number (Janes estimate is 200) of refurbished ex-US missiles being signed in 2014. Again it would be easy to make assumptions on the purpose of the weapon – Finland topping up stocks, of which some might or might not have been included in deliveries to Ukraine.
Except the tiny detail that this time around the quoted version was the FIM-92K.
While the FIM-92E was the latest and greatest for a while, the years since has seen the introduction of the FIM-92J with added capability against small unmanned targets (thanks to a proximity fuse) as well as upgrades allowing for longer shelf-life. However, in parallel to the FIM-92J our friend the FIM-92K was developed which is a version featuring an improved datalink for lock-on after launch capability (LOAL) and the ability to feed cooling and power from an external source.
To put it in clear writing, the FIM-92K is the version for vehicle-mounted launchers. While my understanding is you can in theory put a FIM-92K through a normal MANPADS tube, it is questionable why Finland would opt for a specialised version if there weren’t plans to hook them up to something feeding either the target location and/or power and cooling.
While there are people who without doubt would like to see the Avenger in Finnish service (mainly scale modellers, if we are honest), more likely is that we will have some platform more related to the current vehicles in service. Perhaps the most notable thing is that the ASRAD currently in service as the ITO05 with the SAAB BOLIDE-missile is in fact set up from the beginning to be able to take a number of different missiles, such as the RBS 70/BOLIDE, Mistral, Igla, and the Stinger. In fact, of the three current operators, Finland with the ASRAD-R is the only one not to use the Stinger in the current setup, with both Germany and Greece having the Stinger as their big (okay, rather small) stick.
Will Finland create a new TELAR in the style of the current BOLIDE-carrying vehicles, strip the current ones of the BOLIDE to replace them with Stingers, or some other solution? Who knows, even tying the FIM-92K to ASRAD-R is speculation at this stage. It might simply be that Finland was able to get a better price on the FIM-92K instead of the -92J due to component costs or by leveraging a hot production line. However, if I had to guess, analysis of the war has shown that there is a need to get more firing units to cover against the UAS and cruise missile threat, and with both ASRAD and Stinger being known and apparently well-liked systems, combining the two would make perfect sense for a quick and cheap(ish) solution. Notable is that the beam-riding nature of the BOLIDE and the heat-seeking Stinger means that anyone facing a Finnish ASRAD would be unsure about the nature of the threat, which certainly would benefit the Finnish air defence units. Will we see an ASRAD-adaption on a Zetros-chassis with Stinger-missiles? Time will tell, but in my opinion that would certainly be less of a surprise than if a battalion of Avengers suddenly appeared in Karelia.
While the ink has barely dried on the HX-contract the rumour mill is in full swing about what other flying things the Finnish Defence Forces is about to get next. Will the GlobalEye suddenly make an appearance after all, or is maritime aviation about to be reborn in the form of anti-submarine helicopters? And what about all these drone trials?
And then from nowhere, the C-130 Hercules swoops in and steals the show.
Finland has never been big on airborne transportation. For the better part of the Cold War the main workhorse was the C-47 (one of the examples of which was 42-100646, OH-LCB / DO-7 in Finnish service, which had taken part in Operation Overlord with a certain then-lieutenant Richard “Dick” Winters as the jumpmaster. The aircraft was later sold to the Dutch Dakota Association as PH-DDA and unfortunately crashed in 1996 with multiple fatalities). These were then replaced by the Fokker F27, which in turned were replaced by three Casa (now Airbus) C-295M. These are the first true modern military transports operated by the Finnish Air Force, and two operate in that role with the third being a dedicated SIGINT-platform. By all accounts the platform is well-liked, and if the Air Force need something bigger there is always the C-17 of the Heavy Airlift Wing in Pápa which Finland operate together with a number of other countries.
The reasoning is rather simple to follow. Two C-295M does not an air transport fleet make, but rather it gives the ability to have a single aircraft ready to either transport approximately 60 persons or a corresponding cargo load throughout the country, including to and from austere fields. This is fine looking at the national context which the aircraft was acquired for – as opposed to neighbouring Sweden Finnish airborne/air mobile doctrine has always focused more on small unit operations so we don’t plan for any major air lifts or drops – but then NATO happened. And the Kabul evacuation. And the deliveries of military aid to Ukraine. And a general realisation that you might not get the C-17 flight hours when you want them in case of a sudden crisis that involve more countries than just Finland.
As mentioned what Keränen is envisioning is an aircraft corresponding to the C-130 Hercules in size. This measuring stick is not quite unambiguous as not all Herculeses are created equal. Nowadays, there are two major branches of Herculeses rolling of the Lockheed Martin production line. The basic C-130J Super Hercules is a modern version of the workhorse which has served approximately a third of the countries of the world starting in the late 50’s and up to and including the present day. In addition there is the C-130J-30 Super Hercules which has a stretched fuselage meaning the cargo compartment is 35% longer at 16.9 as opposed to 12.5 meters for the unstretched C-130J. The payload is in fact not going up significantly – a modest 900 kg more on the C-130J-30 puts the maximum normal payload at 16,330 kg as opposed to 15,420 kg – but for cargo which takes up space rather than mass (such as soldiers) the difference in internal volume is huge. In essence, when the non-stretched Hercules can bring 90 combat troops to your favourite local dirt strip in one go, the C-130J-30 brings 128. Same goes for the number of pallet (say ‘Hello!’ to Think Defence) which goes up from six to eight.
At the same time, a larger aircraft will be heavier and more costly to operate, and take up more ramp space (the C-295M is already the largest aircraft ever to operate in the Finnish Air Force), so whichever you prefer is down to your requirements. And it is notable that even the unstretched aircraft is plenty long enough to fit e.g. everyone’s favourite truck-mounted firestarter, as demonstrated by a special forces MC-130J Commando II on a stretch of Swedish road last year. Both would also represent huge improvements over the C-295M, and provide important increases to the strategic mobility of the Finnish Army in particular. While being able to quickly shift a platoon from one end of the country to the other seldom is important, being able to do so with a company just might already be so. Same goes for 15 tons of ammunition or spares.
The C-130 isn’t the only game in town, another type Keränen mentions as worth considering is the (K)C-390 which the Netherlands opted for when replacing their C-130 fleet (in the process making the Dutch something along the lines of fourth air force worldwide to have at some point operated the Hercules and retired the type without replacing it with another Herc, a seriously impressive statistic that is hard to match for any aircraft type). However, Keränen notes that with the other Nordic countries going for the C-130J Super Hercules, that is the forerunner in his mind.
Again, it should be stressed that this is a general speaking his personal mind without likely having done much in the way of calculations or detailed analysis of the logistical needs and benefits of what would primarily be a resource for the Army, Special Forces, and civilian crisis response role (including medical evacuations). Still, Keränen goes as far as noting that with Sweden, Denmark, and Norway all either operating or being in the process of acquiring the Super Herc, a joint-Nordic Hercules squadron serving all four countries could be a solution. We are (finally) all going to be treaty allies after all, removing the main question mark that has hung over similar solutions so far. And getting back to the stretched/not-stretched, the current situation seems to be that Sweden will stick with the short-cargo Hercules when stepping up from C-130H to C-130J territory through the acquisition of something between four and six ex-Italian aircraft. Norway and Denmark however both operate four C-130J-30 each. With Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat picking up the story and having a longer interview with both Keränen and Lt.Col. Petteri Kurkien at FDF Logisitics Command (which also handle acquisition programs), we get some further insight into Keränen’s thinking. In particular he states that he doesn’t seem any use in getting single aircraft, as you need a minimum of two to have at least one on call at any given time. Two to four is the number that could be relevant for Finland (as mentioned four is something of a Nordic standard). At the same time, Finland has the Casa which represent a capability that the other Nordic countries lack, so an argument can be made for Finland being able to make do with fewer aircraft. However, a counter-argument can also be made that the Finnish geography and sea to the west and south means that Finland might be interested in having a greater capability if we e.g. suddenly want to shift a Finnish battalion to Estonia or fly a Swedish air defence battery to Kouvola.
One thing to note is that while the C-130 has been converted to the tanker role in a number of configurations – including in Swedish service but most prolifically in the form of the USMC family of KC-130 tankers with the KC-130J as the latest iteration – these have always employed the hose and drogue-system. In essence there are two ways of doing aerial refuelling, of which the hose and drogue is simpler but less efficient in a number of ways compared to the competing flying boom-system. No points for guessing which is the favourite of naval aviation and which has become the USAF standard. As such, KC-130 has been able to refuel the F/A-18 Hornet and the JAS 39 Gripen, but not the F-16 or the F-35A.
Enter the KC-390 ‘agile tanker’, a joint project between L3Harris and Embraer announced earlier this year. It would be fitted with a boom, and have the ability to transfer fuel to F-35A. The total fuel capacity of the current KC-390 Millennium is 35,000 kg, which is more or less in line with the 38,300 kg of fuel a KC-130J is able to offer from its internal system, external tanks, and additional cargo compartment fuel tank. The agile tanker is still very much a paper product, but it is something worth keeping in mind when discussing aircraft. At the same time, a boom-tanker is inherently less versatile in the transport role compared to hose-tankers which doesn’t require much in the way of modifications to the rear ramp or cargo compartment.
However, as noted by Keränen there is currently no ongoing program, and this was echoed by Minister of Defence Antti Kaikkonen to YLE this morning, who stated that we have no “immediate need”. So we could just leave this for now, and get back in a few years.
…but where would be the fun in that?
There’s already been weeks since the last announcement of the trademark FDF surplus deals where Finland suddenly increases military capability through the acquisition of used equipment on the cheap, and while the Swedes have apparently ran off with the Italian C-130J Super Herculeses, another major NATO-country is also preparing to dump a sizeable number of aircraft on the market. Remember that fact about just a handful of countries having ever moved away from the C-130? Well, just over half of those have settled for the Airbus A400M Atlas, an aircraft that is larger, more expensive, generally better in most ways, and one which did not fly the year Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt. It is also a pan-European project plagued by delays and cost-overruns as well as poor availability, but which now seems to be headed in the right direction (if all this makes you think of NH90, you are probably not too far off). Airbus will almost certainly offer the A400M for Finland in case of a formal process taking off, but it is likely to be overkill for any Finnish requirement.
However, over in the country of his majesty king Charles III, his Royal Air Force is about to ditch their whole C-130-fleet to go all in on the A400M. RAF operate a mixed fleet of C-130J (local designation C.5) and C-130J-30 (local designation C.4), of which the better part of the C.5 (yes, the shorter ones) have been sold off to Bangladesh and Bahrain, with a single aircraft becoming the new ‘Fat Albert’ support aircraft of the USN Blue Angels. However, there is a sizeable number (as in, thirteen which is way more than four) stretched C.4 still waiting for what will happen to them post-2023 when they are supposed to be taken out of service. The flight hours for these were published in april last year, and while all were more or less in the 10-15,000 flight hour span then (and you can likely add quite a few hours since) there is still some life left in them. ZH885 had flown 31,888 hours when it went to the US, just to give an example.
Exactly how much life is an open question, and rests on how straining the hours have been, with the number of landings and take-offs (which hopefully are the same) being an important factor as well. It is known that the UK Hercules-fleet was in need of undergoing a centre wing box replacement which would allow them to serve into 2035, and that the fleet-wide contract was worth 110M GBP. While this is obviously a lot of money for something that will still need to be retired in 13 years it needs to be put into perspective: ZH885 apparently went for 29.7M USD back in 2020, which might or might not have included the refurbishment done in the UK before delivery. After a quick inflation adjustment a new-built C-130J should be approximately 94.0M EUR today, approaching three times the 35.0M EUR (adjusted) cost of ZH885. If Finland could get say 15,000 flight hours each out of four ex-RAF C-130J-30 and get them for under 40 million Euro a piece, even with investment in infrastructure and so forth we could be looking at a complete program for say 250M EUR which would ensure a Finnish airlift capability on par with that of our neighbours on short notice and stretching into the next decade (after which we would have gone down the rabbit hole of most operators and realised how much we love having big aircraft and need to buy a bunch of new-built transports, but that’s for another day).
Das #Bundesheer hat einen 10-jährigen Aufbauplan erstellt, der bis 2032 Investitionen von 16,6 Mrd. Euro vorsieht. Investiert wird ua. in Luftabwehr, Abfangjäger, Transportflugzeuge, Drohnen, Hubschraubern und Kampfpanzern. pic.twitter.com/fuOHrKQAcg
However, we might have to be quick if we want in on the UK aircraft, as Finland isn’t the only one to reflect on the need for bigger transports. Austria this week announced their 10-year plan, which include among other things a replacement for their four current legacy C-130 Hercules. The aircraft’s original owner? Well, glad you asked. The RAF.
The massed attacks on Ukraine today again raises the question about different approaches to managing the long-range ballistic and cruise missile threat, and while I don’t claim to have written the book on the issue, I did write a chapter with that headline for a Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) report a few years ago. As such, I have given the topic some thought. The bottom line is, it’s difficult and there’s no single answer.
To begin with, we need to differentiate between ballistic missiles such as Iskanders which are really difficult to shoot down, and cruise missiles which fly towards the target as (often small) unmanned aircraft. While a number of ground-based air defence systems are able to target at least some ballistic missiles, these are of the high-end (and as such expensive) kind, and their coverage against ballistic missiles is significantly smaller than against other flying things due to the ballistic missiles approaching their targets more or less vertically at extreme speeds.
Cruise missiles are easier targets. They come in different shapes and sizes, and rely on a combination of small size, speed, and in some cases stealth and/or electronic countermeasures to avoid interception. However, the most common defensive measure of cruise missiles is the rather straightforward method of keeping low. Flying at low altitude means that the window ground-based systems have to acquire and target them is low, and the problem is further emphasised if the air defence battery is set up in terrain such as forests, hills, or urban areas. But everything is relative. The high cruising speed is still subsonic for the majority of systems, meaning that few missiles are travelling at higher speeds than fighters or strike aircraft do. The size is small compared to fighters, but still comparable to, or larger than, many drones. As such, to make a complex question overly simple – if an air defence system is able to counter fighters and drones, cruise missiles aren’t out of reach. The most extreme version of this is evident in a widely circulated video shot today which appears to show an old Igla MANPADS used to take down a cruise missile.
#Ukraine: Not all of the cruise missiles fired into Ukraine from Russian aircraft and ships hit their target- here we see extremely rare footage of Igla MANPADS being used to take down a Russian missile on its way to the target. pic.twitter.com/zzajBZljnq
While this is an extreme case, it also illustrate the point well. Note that the shooter has ample time to figure out what is happening and set up the shot in the flat and open terrain.
The best counter to cruise missiles is however not old MANPADS nor top-of-the-line systems such as Patriot or SAMP/T. Rather it is modern medium-range systems, with NASAMS being the obvious choice here due to Ukrainian familiarity with the system. A number of other systems such as the CAMM would also fit the bill. The key detail is that these provide greater number for a given cost compared to more high-end ones. And when it comes to adding coverage, the number of batteries will always matter more than the range of individual systems. This is of even greater importance in Ukraine’s situation, as the country is large and with Russia resorting to terror bombings the number of potential targets is huge.
However, that is not to say that other air defence systems aren’t of interest to Ukraine. Getting shorter-ranged systems or older ones will free up the more capable ones to the counter-missile mission. With the drone threat also having ticked up recently with the supply of Iranian systems, it is evident that all kinds of air defence systems are extremely valuable to Ukraine for the time being.
Another way to kinetically ensure that missiles aren’t raining down over Ukraine is to hit the systems launching these. This include Russian strike and bomber aircraft, naval vessels including submarines, and launch vehicles such as Iskander units. Obviously, hitting airfields, maritime infrastructure, missile storage sites, and so forth will also achieve the desired effect. Many of these targets are however situated deep inside Russia, and as such Ukraine have difficulties reaching these both due to the lack of suitable weapon systems as well as due to reported Western restrictions on using Western supplied weaponry to reach targets on Russian soil. At this stage of the conflict, providing suitable weapons for Ukrainian long-range strikes on military targets deep inside Russia should be a no-brainer.
But getting complete cover will always be prohibitively expensive and require more resources than Ukraine or anyone else would have available. As such a big part of the answer is usually dispersion, fortification, and creating redundant systems, all of which are naturally more relevant against an enemy actually trying to hit something useful rather than just trying to kill civilians. As such, the real way to stop Russian missiles will be a Ukrainian victory. This will require stepping up support in a number of areas. This includes more of what has already been delivered, including both weapons and financial aid. However, it is also high time to supply new capabilities. This includes finally getting Ukraine those Leopards, as well as starting training on modern western multirole fighters. The F-16 is the obvious candidate, and while it could provide a measure of defence against cruise missiles, the big deal is the general ability to pound targets on the ground with modern weaponry and drastically increase the Ukrainian ability to defend their skies from enemy fighters and helicopters. Because as the war currently sits, the Russian strategy seems largely to be to burn everything they can’t have down to the ground, and the sooner we’ll take the matches from the arsonist, the less damage he’ll be able to cause.
While a relatively minor part of the framework agreement, what surprised defence analysts most was not the huge armour numbers, but the decision by Poland to buy the FA-50 Fighting Eagle light fighter for their Air Force.
The idea of the light fighter is not new. During the Cold War the complexity and cost of top-end fighters rose quickly, and in addition there was a general growth in size which added to operating costs. This was slowly crowding out defence budgets, and while it at first led simply to smaller numbers, by the time the F-4 Phantom came around it was already clear many countries were unable to afford the gold standard. By the time the F-14 Tomcat and F-15 Eagle came along, the number had dropped steadily towards zero. The answer was a lighter and cheaper fighter that could be used to keep numbers at an acceptable level. The most prolific was the F-5 Freedom Fighter/Tiger II-family out of Northrop, which saw huge success on the export market and is still found in (limited) use in a respectable number of air forces. In somewhat the same vein, the F-16 emerged out of the Lightweight Fighter Program which originally envisioned a light and cheap dogfighter able to fill out the numbers as the high-end F-15 grew in size and cost.
However, before the aircraft even was ordered the light Sidewinder-armed dayfighter had turned into a multirole aircraft, and if you state that the F-16s rolling off the production line today are ‘cheap and light’ the reply will likely be ‘compared to what?’ This is part of the issue Poland is facing, being one of the major F-16 users in Europe, and with an ageing fleet of MiG-29 and Su-22 complementing their F-16s. These are to be backed up by 32 F-35A which will start arriving in-country by 2026, but that is only part of the answer. The F-16 fleet is modern, consisting of a total of 48 F-16C and -16D versions of the Block 52 standard. The MiG-29A (9.12) and Su-22M4 that are found are so in dwindling numbers, from original fleets numbering some 40 MiG-29 and some 30 Su-22 (including small numbers of two-seaters of both) around twenty MiG-29 and just over a dozen Su-22 remain in service. Neither have received any serious upgrades, and largely still represent the finest of Soviet engineering from the first half of the 80’s. For those wondering what that means, this interview with an ex-Luftwaffe pilot who flew the aircraft inherited from DDR (and which eventually went to Poland) nicely illustrate the difference between a MiG-29 and anything western.
The F-35A as a MiG-29-replacement should come with a sticker warning for serious cultural shock for the pilots doing the transition, it is a revolutionary step up in capability that is difficult to overstate. 32 fighters replacing the current fleet of 20+ MiG-29s also mean that Poland is one of few air forces to get more F-35A than the number of aircraft they are replacing, so nice job on that one. However, that still leaves the Su-22 fleet, which while only providing rudimentary fair-weather air to ground capability (it’s never a good sign when the fact sheet at ‘Radar’ just goes ‘Nope’) still represent 15-20 % of the total Polish fast jet fleet when it comes to numbers.
The obvious replacement would be more F-16 or F-35, but both are costly and delivery times are not great – Lockheed Martin is also famously not overly interested in selling F-16s to potential F-35-customers, and Poland is obviously in that category. The market for used aircraft is also largely dried up, and while the airframes floating around would certainly be interesting to Ukraine, they are in most cases beat up to the extent that they don’t offer the kind of long-term solution the Polish Air Force is looking for.
So for the final time in this series of posts: Enter the Republic of Korea.
Poland has already inked a contract for the Italian M-346 advanced trainer, half-sibling to the Yak-130 and fierce rival to the Korean KAI T-50 Golden Eagle. As such, an order for the Korean trainer seemed as unlikely as, well, an order for a 1,000 K2 Black Panther tanks. An order for a light fighter, on the other hand, is something else.
The idea to take an advanced trainer, put a radar in the nose (and often strip out one of the seats) and tailor it to the light multirole fighter-role is not new. The Hawk 200 based on the hugely successful trainer is probably the most famous one, having score orders for between 12 and 23 fighters from three countries (Oman, Indonesia, Malaysia), but closer to home the Czech Aero L-159 ALCA has also reached series production. The FA-50 is however significantly larger than the other two (in fact, the maximum take-off weight is higher than the earlier mentioned F-5E Tiger II at 13.5 tons compared to 11.1 tons), giving it higher combat potential than the earlier two (as well as retaining the second seat, allowing it to continue in the advanced training role as well). This is significant, as air combat is one of the more technical domains of combat, and as opposed to firearms or guns which have a tendency to provide useful service long after having been state of the art, in air combat not having modern equipment is often comparable to fighting with one arm behind your back – and usually end up with you being punched in the face.
So is that the case for Poland as well? The Polish order is planned to be split into two batches, the first 12 of which will be the current Block 10 standard which provide a basic initial operational capability through the usage of AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missiles, JDAM, and unguided Mk 80-series of bombs, as well as the older AIM-9L/M-series of missiles for self-defence.
Let’s be clear, Block 10 is not an impressive combat aircraft, and while still light-years better than the Su-22, serious questions can be raised about its combat value on the modern battlefield. However, this is just a temporary stop, before the train moves on at speed to the eventual destination: FA-50PL Block 20.
If you feel like you’ve read this before, yes, you have. Quick delivery of a basic version, followed by a tailored version developed to meet Polish needs following in the next few years, as well as an upgrade of the earlier delivered ones to the new baseline.
The FA-50PL Block will be a rather more serious beast, including a new AESA-radar, Link 16, NATO-standard IFF, AIM-120 AMRAAM giving it a beyond visual range capability, AIM-9X Sidewinders replacing the older L/M-versions, a Sniper targeting pod (there’s some discussion about whether this is already integrated on the Block 10, but the answer seems to be ‘No’), as well more advanced air-to-ground munitions. Exactly which weapons are to be included is uncertain, but earlier there has been talk about integrating e.g. the JSM or the Korean lightweight version of the KEPD-350 Taurus – the KEPD-350K-2. In essence, the end-result will be an aircraft with F-16-like capability in a smaller package (now, exactly which F-16 it will be comparable to is up to debate). Being lighter the weapons load will be reduced, the radar is likely to be shorter-legged and with lesser power and cooling, giving it overall worse performance, and so forth. However, at the same time the vast majority of F-16s running around are not of the latest generation, so everything depends on your yardstick. What is important to understand is that this is not your armed trainer, a concept which has proved to be of dubious value in a high-intensity conflict (even in the case of the Israelis in the Six-Day War they had to pull their Fouga CM.170 Magisters from combat despite enjoying total air superiority as the losses were too high). Instead, the FA-50 sports the same afterburning GE F404 as is found in the F/A-18 Hornet, giving the small fighter over 78 kN of thrust and a thrust to weight ratio of 0.59 at maximum take-off and 0.90 at full fuel – comparable to the 0.57 and 0.84 for the F-35A or 0.69 and 1.10 for the F-16 Block 52.
The FA-50PL will start arriving in Poland by 2025, and over the next two-three years a total of 36 aircraft will be added to the inventory. Together with the 12 Block 10 – which will be upgraded to ensure a single standard for all Polish FA-50 – that will make 48 light fighters to equip a total of three squadrons. In other words, the current fleet of F-16 (48 aircraft), MiG-29 (~20), and Su-22 (~15) will be converted into a mix of F-16 (still 48 aircraft), F-35A (32), and FA-50PL (48), giving both a serious increase in capability as well as in numbers (to be honest, even the simple FA-50 Block 10 with AIM-9M might be a closer fought fight against the MiG-29A with R-27 than a quick glance at the numbers might indicate).
But again, why the FA-50PL? This interview with Polish defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak gives a quite clear picture of the reasoning behind the decision. The first thing he brings up is how close the FA-50 is to the F-16, and the possibility to introduce a training path for F-16 pilots that passes through the FA-50 – similarly to ROKAF. Apparently the minister is not happy with the M-346 in Polish service, which is interesting to note. The fact that Lockheed Martin isn’t selling F-16s to Poland, and their long delivery times to Slovakia are also ruling out additional orders for the Viper, as at the same time the MiG-29 and Su-22 have become safety hazards for the Polish fighter pilots due to their age. As such, the FA-50 offer a unique combination of training opportunities as well as multirole combat capability at a relatively low cost (it is notable that the Su-22 has been doing some work that would correspond to lead-in fighter training in the later years). But as is the case with the tanks and artillery, it is also important to look at the industrial aspect of the framework agreement. Poland has a long history of a domestic aviation industry, but the jet-side of things have not seen much in the way of development in recent years. The Koreans are here as well promising a serious technology transfer and aiding the Polish industry in setting up a service centre, and in the future looms the Korean stealth fighter, the KF-21 Boramae. Polish involvement in that program is certainly a possibility given the current trend. But it is also notable that there are plans for an additional two multirole squadrons for the Polish Air Force in the near-future. In the interview the possibility of additional F-35A or F-15 Eagles is discussed, while the KF-21 is “monitored”. However, as noted plans can change quickly in the Polish armed forces (and the F-15 feels about as unlikely as the KF-21 to be honest).
All in all, while the FA-50 wasn’t an obvious choice, a combination of tight schedules, Lockheed Martin-policy, industrial considerations, unhappy feelings about the M-346, and old Soviet airframes falling out of the skies all conspired to make it one of the only options left in the game (I hear you Swedish followers asking about the Gripen, but the lack of an JAS 39F outside of Brazil likely is an issue). And suddenly, the serious light fighter is staging a comeback in Europe.
As there’s quite a lot happening in Ukraine at the moment, several things of which deserve a bit deeper analysis than is fitting to a Twitter-thread, I decided to do a short (no, I’m not kidding anyone but myself) post on three topics from the past week: the helicopter strike on the Rosneft fuel depot in Belgorod, the ability of Russia to replace losses in equipment (in particular tanks), and the idea of shipping advanced Western systems to Ukraine (in particular fighters and air defence systems).
The helicopter strike in Belgorod
One of the more spectacular single events of the past week was without a doubt the dawn raid on the Rosneft fuel depot in Belgorod, a city sitting just opposite the Russian border from Kharkiv.
What we more or less know is that during the dawn of April 1 two Mi-24 (NATO-codename HIND) struck a fuel depot in eastern Belgorod with S-8 rockets, before then rapidly exiting the area at very low level. A number of storage tanks burst into flames.
That is basically what we know for certain. The storage depot has been geolocated both using traditional means as well as through NASA’s FIRMS fire monitoring satellites. The depot is apparently operated by Rosneft’s subsidiary AO Belgorodnefteprodukt, and hold 22 larger and five smaller storage tanks. TASS helpfully reported the size of the larger tanks, which come in at 2,000 cubic meters each, meaning that just the 22 larger tanks can store 44,000 cubic meters (i.e. 44 million litres) of fuel, and of these eight were on fire meaning a loss of 16,000 cubic meters of storage capacity as well as any fuel currently stored inside them. Other damage, such as e.g. to transfer lines, pumps, and so forth, are more difficult to asses, but one theory is that the first helicopter did not aim for the tanks but for what looks like it could potentially be the main office building on the site. Another possibility is that it simply didn’t hit anything as flammable as the second helicopter did.
In any case, the target is of strategic value to Russia. As is well-known, the Russian offensive has suffered from a lack of of supplies in general, and fuel is no exception. While the Belgorod depot is a civilian one – to the extent we can differ between civilian and state/military infrastructure in Russia – the location of Belgorod at the infrastructure node opposite Kharkiv means that it can be expected to have played a role in trying to fuel the stalled offensive on Kharkiv. This clearly was a target of strategic importance, and will hurt the ability of the Russian forces in the greater Kharkiv-region to conduct operations – be they offensive or defensive. Some have compared this to the Doolittle raid of 1942, but in truth this is rather different as there seems to have been serious material damage done in Belgorod which will have some kind of effect on the continued Kharkiv-campaign.
A short interlude: there has been some discussion that the strike would have been a false flag-operation by Russian Mi-24s to somehow stir up further hatred against Ukraine, and while it can’t be ruled out, I sincerely doubt it. To begin with, the enemy being able to strike strategic target on Russian soil after the Kremlin has declared that the Ukrainian air assets are wiped out and Russia enjoys total control of the skies isn’t exactly helpful for the Russian propaganda effort. If you really want to launch a false flag operation, going after something more war crime-y would also help (such as hitting a school or similar, we’ve seen that Russia is not beyond killing own civilians, and if they would be averse to own losses they could have struck early enough that no people would have been present).
The usage of helicopters is interesting. Most often these kinds of interdiction strikes are left to fixed-wing aircraft or long-range missiles, but there are instances of helicopters being successfully used to carry out long-range strikes – the most famous being the raid by AH-64 Apaches of Task Force Normandy firing the opening salvo of Operation Desert Storm. While helicopters often are lamented as being vulnerable on the modern battlefield – and the conflict so far has indeed seen a number of losses – they are significantly more difficult to kill than many expect, in particular if used at speed and at low level. Many of the Russian helicopters lost have been operating at surprisingly high altitude, making them easily visible (and thereby targetable by air defences). Contrary to that, the Mi-24s seems to have left the area at tree-top height. This would give significantly less time for any air defences to react, and would make it extremely hard for ground-based radars to pick up the helicopters. Still, the complete inability of the Russian air defences to hunt them down is telling, as a layered air defence with sensors, people on the ground reporting observations, fighters on alert, and crucially at least some kind of close-range air defences around strategic targets (such as a fuel depot 60 km from the frontline…) should be able to put at least some amount of lead into the air. One possible explanation is people observing the helicopters being hesitant to fire or report them onwards for fear of causing a friendly fire incident, which is an ironic outcome of having air superiority but not supremacy.
While this isn’t the first strike on Russian territory during the war – we’ve seen e.g. the Millerovo air base having been struck by what presumably was a Tochka-U ballistic missile – this does seem to be the first air raid on Russian territory since the Korean War. It also seems to have been executed close to perfection, with a somewhat unconventional but extremely effective plattform being chosen to perform a surprise lightning raid against a target of real strategic value, without causing any serious collateral damage. The last part is important, as the Russian political leadership has accused Ukraine of escalating, a statement that is difficult to take seriously given that it would mean a Ukrainian limited strike on a militarily relevant target is the issue here when Russia started the war by invading Ukraine, and has followed up by systematically targeting civilian infrastructure – including hospitals and agreed upon humanitarian convoys and corridors of safe passage – as well as the widespread raping and looting done by Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
Covering the losses
There has been some discussion surrounding the significant losses to Russian equipment, but quite a few have pointed to the vast size of the Russian Armed Forces as providing a healthy equipment pool from which to draw troop reinforcements as long as the personnel losses can be covered – and notable is that e.g. when it comes to tank losses approximately half the confirmed losses are destroyed or damaged, with the rest being captured or damaged, something which might indicate that the equipment losses are quite a bit worse than the personnel losses.
However, that does overlook the sheer scope of the equipment losses suffered. A good place to start is looking at the tank losses, as the tank is the key offensive weapon system in case Russia plan on succeeding with their regrouping and upcoming Donbas-offensive.
The exact number of operational Russian tanks in service is obviously somewhat obscure. However, there does seem to be a convergence around a number in the 2,500 to 3,000 range. A rather solid estimate from 2019 is this one which is based on the numbers from IISS, which list 2,750 tanks. An interesting detail is that pro-Kremlin “suspicious information operation” (in the words of Jessikka Aro) SouthFront lands extremely close, listing 2,609 tanks in combat units in 2021 (note that there can be operational tank in other places than combat units, such as schools or research units, which might explain why the number is lower). Both also list roughly half of the tanks as being modern versions (T-72B3 in all versions, T-90A and M, as well as T-80BVM), with the rest being older T-72 versions and T-80BV/U. In addition, there is a sizeable amount of tanks in long-term storage, let’s get back to them.
To start with the losses, Oryx lists 389 destroyed, damaged, abandoned, and captured tanks. As such, that represent 14.1 % of the operational tank force if we stick with the IISS numbers (which we will do for the rest of this post). Of course, that is bound to be somewhat off, due to a number of things. One is that the Russian tank force has not been staying stagnant since 2019 – e.g. last year TASS published a report that 65 T-90M “would be” (note future tense) handed over to the Army during that year. Another is that the tanks operated by the so called People’s Republics in Donbas aren’t included in the Russian total. However, these are likely to be balanced out against not all losses being confirmed, and at the end of the day we are looking for a trend rather than a bean count.
An interesting detail with the confirmed losses is that they match the 1:1 ratio of modern tanks, with 165 of the 345 identified tanks lost being modern ones, i.e. 47.8 % to be precise. Going back to the 14.1 % of operational tanks having been lost, for the individual tanks versions things are somewhat more varied. The T-90 family has so far suffered relatively small losses, with just 4.9 % of the operational force having been knocked out.
Let’s pause for a while and think about that statement. The modern tank that has fared best has seen roughly one in twenty of the total operational force available in 2019 having been either destroyed, damaged, or otherwise left on the battlefield, and all that in just over a month of fighting. That is bad.
For the others the issues are worse. The exact number of T-80BVM is not listed by IISS, but going from SouthFront we are looking at 72 in operational combat units. With 18 lost, that’s a solid 25 %, or one in four. The reason is obviously unclear at this point in time, it might just be that we are seeing T-80BVM units in areas from where there are lots of images, but we also have reports that e.g. the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade (Pechenga) which is a prolific user of the upgraded version has been extremely hard hit around Kharkiv.
The T-72B3 in all versions fare somewhere in between, with 10.8 % of the vehicles being lost. Again, it’s too soon to draw major conclusions about the survivability of the T-90 compared to the T-80BVM or T-72B3, but it is crucial to note that among the most modern Russian tanks available, we are seeing losses in excess of one in ten operational tank. Even if a number of crews have dismounted and marched back to Russia ready to grab a new tank and get back into the fray, that’s not something even a force of Russia’s size will just shrug off.
But what about the tanks in storage? Most reports place the number of tanks in storage at approximately 10,000 (I will argue that the nice roundness of the figure says something about how accurate it is, but it gives us something to work with, and again, we are looking for trends, not individual tanks). However, obviously the tanks in reserve are mainly older versions, and pulling out a T-72A from storage to replace a T-72B3 or a T-80U to replace a T-80BVM will mean a loss of capability in absolute terms.
There is however an argument that on the surface makes sense, that as the Ukrainians have had no issues penetrating the most modern tanks the increased protection these sport is in fact of limited practical value, and that the increased firepower (gun, ammunition, sights, gun handling, FCS, …) they have is of limited value as there has seemingly been relatively little tank versus tank combat and the Ukrainian armed force is also mainly made up of older tanks (the vast majority of identified losses so far being the 1985-vintage 1-64BV with the rather dated Kontakt-1 ERA “bricks”). As such, the 10,000 tanks in reserve are very much valid replacements for the losses
However, there is a number of issues with that line of reasoning. To begin with, while a tank has splendid mobility, firepower, and protection – the features which has meant that tanks has dominated the battlefields of the world since at least the Second World War – there are obviously some drawback to being locked inside a tin can. One of them is situational awareness, which naturally is somewhat limited if you are in a vehicle compared to moving on foot. To fight this drawback, modern armoured fighting vehicles have an array of technology to help them, allowing them to fight at long distances and during night. It’s not a perfect solution, as we have seen in Ukraine it is still possible for infantry to sneak up on tanks not operating with their own infantry, but a modern sighting unit does provide a huge benefit compared to for example the 1K13-49 installed on the late 80’s versions of the T-72B, not to mention the kit fitted to the even older T-72A and related versions. And if you thought a tank with a modern thermal sight is vulnerable to infantry sneaking around, just wait until your main night vision device is an IR-searchlight. It might have been cutting edge in the Golan in 1973, but those days are long gone. Poor situational awareness gets you killed on the modern battlefield, and that is what you get with 80’s technology.
Similarly, while an NLAW or Javelin will make the same sized hole in a T-72A as in an T-72B3 (surprisingly often it turns out that it is a turret-ring sized hole), there are a lot of other weapons floating around on the Ukrainian battlefield. These include lighter weapons such versions of AT4 and LAW delivered from western sources, as well as a whole host of Soviet-designed weapons, all of which might or might not be able to take out an enemy tank depending on a number of different parameters in the engagement. However, one thing is clear, and that is that the likelihood of doing so significantly goes up with the age of the target. And in the best case, the target will be a tank built in the early 80’s lacking its ERA-blocks.
Because this is another major issue with the stored vehicles. Most pictures that have come out of Russian depots seems to indicate that the storage conditions often are less than optimal, with vehicles in several cases lacking pieces of removable equipment, and instead having a liberal amount of rust. Now, it is important to note that there is probably some amount of bias involved, as the facilities most visible on the web likely are those most poorly guarded, and as such likely not the most high-priority storage units. Still, anyone who has tried to take a machine into service that has been standing for a few years knows that it seldom is a straightforward task. So how many tanks could be pulled out of storage within say a month or two? No one knows, most likely not even the Russian general staff, but it is safe to assume that number is significantly lower than 10,000.
Obviously, Ukraine has similar issues with lost tanks being hard to replace, and Russia might certainly win a war of attrition. But the losses suffered right now are certainly on a scale that even if Russia would be able to supply trained crews to cover the personnel losses, the combat capability of the units will still suffer significantly.
The long game
This leads us on to the third topic: the Ukrainian requests for military equipment which grows fancier and fancier. At this stage, there are talk both about getting Patriot and NASAMS air defence systems, F-15 and F-16 fighters, as well as NSM anti-ship missiles.
The Ukrainian frustration is understandable, and there is no doubt that a few Patriot batteries with well-trained crews would make a significant impact on the battlefield. However, there are two major issues: delivery speed and training.
It is possible that Ukraine has reached a stage of the conflict where they can afford to pull units from the frontline for retraining, that’s something we see e.g. with the delivery of the Starstreak which included a (forced) training program before the system was delivered to the front. The issue, even allowing for the fact that in wartime you will accept higher risk-taking and longer working hours, will become even more pronounced as you move into higher and higher levels of complexity, and a long-range air defence battery or anti-ship missile battery are among the most complex individual systems in service today. Pulling an air defence battalion from the frontlines to re-equip with Patriot would mean them being out of service for a month at the very minimum, most likely more depending on the experience level of the unit in question as well as the acceptable level of proficiency after the training has been concluded. It might be that Ukraine sees this as an acceptable trade-off, especially as we’ve seen equipment losses to e.g. their S-300 batteries which might mean that they have trained crews without vehicles.
FIAF flew F-18 with metric system for few years. When we transfered from metric system, we also changed to english comms. You were safe in few weeks, but being effective tactically took several months.
The same is true for the fighter requests as well, where retraining of pilots would have to take time. Again, there are certainly corners to be cut when looking at this from the wartime versus peacetime angle, but even then miracles are difficult to achieve. Especially when realising that most everything is different in an F-16 compared to a MiG-29, down to how the human-machine-interface works and what kind of a doctrine the aircraft is built around to be as effective as possible (the same can be said about the discussion of supplying western-made tanks to Ukraine, but here the possible supply of stored T-72 of different versions is looking more promising if the political will is present).
This brings us to the other issue, namely that while older anti-tank systems (and some newer ones) are found in storage units across numerous countries in Europe and the US, modern high-end systems are rarely bought in significant numbers to begin with, and they are usually needed in service. Yes, I understand that “need” is a relative term, but few countries would be willing to send away significant numbers of their key systems if they aren’t able to get them replaced in a short time. And the delivery times for high-end systems is long.
Granted there F-16s available surplus in some numbers with e.g. Norway having recently retired its fleet, and the Ukrainians likely would not be upset with the aircraft having relatively few flight hours left. The famous US “boneyard” in Arizona also have a host of different aircraft that might be brought into service under more or less swift schedules. Operating a US fighter would also mean that there are munition stocks available, so if a completely new system is to be brought into Ukrainian service the F-16 – most likely the European MLU-standard – would be the prime candidate. That would however take vastly more time than the 2-3 weeks the Ukrainian Air Force talks about, not to mention such basic logistics tasks as getting the aircraft to a suitable base (most likely outside of Ukraine) and setting up some kind of training program there already taking some time. Considering the issues even with getting the Polish MiG-29s over to Ukraine and the lack of political will to do that, a Ukrainian F-16 conversion unit in Germany or Poland followed by ferry flights to Ukraine does seem like a dream at this stage, and one that would be hard-pressed to be achievable in anything less than a month from the moment all involved parties have signed the papers (though I will say that I can’t quite understand why the MiG-29s were felt to be an escalation compared to the numerous other systems provided).
There are obviously some middle ground to be achieved in some areas, with e.g. the Finnish RBS 15-batteries being replaced with the Gabriel within the next few years. If a quicker delivery schedule could be agreed upon and possibly even a Finnish NATO-membership allowing for additional naval firepower in the Gulf of Finland in case of war these might be freed up. It would be a significantly greater political commitment from both Finland and Sweden (as the original manufacturer) than what we have seen so far, but would also mean that Odesa would be vastly more secure and the Ukrainian forces could start thinking about some local sea denial missions close to the shore. Similarly, there are some older medium-range air defence systems in Europe that might be up for grabs that would offer at least comparable performance to what the Ukrainians currently have. However, even under the best of conditions none of these systems would have an impact on the battlefield during April, and this is in sharp contrast to the numerous simpler systems delivered.
This obviously brings us to the question of how long the war will take? If someone a month ago would not have taken the decision that it was worth shipping the Starstreak despite it being a month away from Ukrainian service, one more Mi-28UB would be flying around killing Ukrainians than what currently is the case. Similarly, any decision not taken today because a month is too long a delivery time might prove to have been faulty in a month from now if the war continues to rage on, and if nothing else Ukraine will indeed also need to rebuild its forces once the conflict is over. With the Russian attempt at a poorly executed lightning strike having stalled, switching to ensuring the Kremlin can’t win a war of attrition might certainly be the best strategic move the West can do right now, especially considering we do seem set for something of a calm before the storm as Russia tries to regroup forces to focus on more limited aims in the Donbas.
I have a hard time seeing Patriot, NASAMS, or F-15 deliveries to Ukraine right now, but we certainly should start looking at the systems a step above the Starstreak in complexity. Because this is starting to turn into a long one.
Finnish defence discussions have a few topics that quickly tend to derail into a somewhat unhealthy fandom, but few does so more readily than anything that has to do with the Ilmatorjuntaohjus 96, or Buk M1 as it is known internationally.
The Buk M1 had a rather short career in Finnish service, as the FDF quickly realised that having a system designed by the potential enemy might not be the best idea when it comes to such a technical arm as air defence – there’s a reason anything related to electronic warfare, radars, missiles, or SEAD/DEAD usually are among the most well-guarded secrets of any nation. The search for a replacement saw the NASAMS and SAMP/T face off, with the NASAMS taking home the price and becoming the new top-dog in Finnish ground-based air defences.
Let’s be clear, the NASAMS is simply a better air defence system than the Buk it replaced, there really is no discussion. However, as often is the case on the internet, discussions on capability has a tendency to be reduced to a top trumps comparison of specifications that are easy to describe with numerical values. And the top ceiling of the Buk is higher than that of the NASAMS.
Exactly how much of a difference is open to discussion. Most sources quote the ceiling of the NASAMS at around 10,000 meters, while others speak of 15,000 meters. The Buk M1 in turn is often quoted as going up to 22,000 meters (though some give a rather lower one, e.g. 12,000 meters). I personally have a hard time understanding the nostalgia for the semi-active radar homing 9M38 M1-missile that had turned 25 by the time conscript training in Finland stopped (something that does not mean it left the wartime forces at that time) and is well over 40 years old by now (I mean, if we really wanted something with altitude, we’d start shopping around on the second-hand market for the impressive S-200VE with it’s 29,000 meter ceiling and 240 km range…). It also deserves to be said that the F/A-18 Hornet-fleet is more than capable of taking on targets that attempt to sneakily fly above the NASAMS ceiling.
Still, air defence usually is best served by a layered approach, and it has been an ambition for the FDF to get back into the ground-based high-altitude air defence-game for quite some time. In 2018 an RFI was issued, which was followed up with an RFQ to five companies in 2020. The plan at that stage was to finalise the procurement before the end of 2022, but that schedule was adjusted last year – partly due to the pandemic having caused issues.
However, last week we were treated to a surprise down-select, and it provided a rather surprising outcome. Gone were not only Diehl and always-bridesmaid-never-the-bride MBDA who keeps having a hard time securing Finnish contracts, but also favourite Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace and their NASAMS-ER. Instead we were left with two offers, both from Israel: the David’s Sling of Rafael and the BARAK MX of IAI. Neither system is bad, in fact they are both extremely competent according to all available public sources, but for the Finnish procurement there has been a feeling that they are simply too competent – and by extension too costly. An outspoken goal with the current procurement has been to get enough batteries to provide geographical coverage (it is easy to imagine coverage increasing through increased range, but for air defence that is to some extent a faulty line of reasoning as the difference in effective area coverage between two batteries with differently ranged missiles is rather small compared to what can be achieved through the ability to place more batteries in different key locations – remember that as opposed to e.g. anti-tank weapons the targets for the air defences are also constantly moving around and covering significant distances, at any point in time during which they can run into your air defences).
However, it is now evident that the FDF was more ambitious than just getting an average solution. Considering the timing, you would be forgiven to imagine the FDF having changed the scope somewhat following the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine. The force however denies that that would be case, and states that throughout the program capability has been the primary concern, which do makes you feel a bit sad for Diehl who tried to take on missile systems that sport some of the most advanced endoatmospheric interceptors on the market with their IRIST-T SLM.
As mentioned the two systems left in the running are the BARAK MX from IAI and the David’s Sling of Rafael. The BARAK MX traces its roots to the ship-based family of BARAK 8-missiles. These originally kicked off as a joint Israeli-Indian project, though nowadays the missile family has forked off into two distinct national lines of Israeli and Indian versions respectively. The BARAK MX (with MX standing for ‘Mix’) is the Israeli land-based version and can hold a number of different missiles. While in Israeli service the BARAK is only used as a shipboard weapon, the weapon has been exported in land-based versions to a limited number of countries, best known of which is Azerbaijan.
The Azeri setup comes with both truck-mounted TELs and palletized firing units, truck-mounted BMCs (BARAK Management Centre, the solution is possibly containerised but I’m unsure based on the available pictures. Both container and truck-mounted versions are offered), and ELTA’s palletized ELM-2288 AD-STAR radars. There are also reports that Azerbaijan have acquired the ELM-2080 Green Pine radar (which sports one of the cooler code names around, more on this one shortly). The layout is rather conventional for a modern system. Everything goes on wheeled trucks (unless you want a hardened BMC), and when you arrive at your preferred location the trucks either point their missiles towards the sky or deploy their palletized missiles racks, both setups of which can handle eight missiles ready to fire. The radar is set up and everything is connected to the BMC which is the brains of the systems. Here it is also possible to connect the system to other sensors, to ensure that you have a situational picture that is up to date and allowing e.g. for ambushing enemy aircraft by turning on the fire-control radar only once the enemy target is within range.
There are no details about the Finnish offer besides the MX being paired with an ELTA-radar. The ELM-2288 AD-STAR in some version is certainly the expected candidate, though other details are likely to differ compared to the Azeri setup. When contacted, IAI kindly declined to comment due to the sensitivity of the acquisition program, so there is some guesswork involved here. An interesting detail is that the Finnish Defence Forces refer to the missile on offer as the LRAD ER. IAI in turn talk about having three different missiles: the point-defence MRAD (30 km range), the medium-range LRAD (70 km), and the booster-equipped ER (150 km range). The missiles are hot-launched, but still described as having a “low launch signature” – YMMV. When I contacted FDF they confirmed that LRAD ER is one missile and not an offer that include both LRAD- and ER-missiles. I tried to ask IAI if they have more than three missiles integrated – i.e. if the LRAD ER would be a new-version of the LRAD – but they referred only to three above. As the ER is an LRAD with a booster (think they same principle as the Aster-family), I tend to believe that the Finnish designation refer to the ER. This performance is more or less on par with the 160 km range PAC-2 GEM-T missile of the Patriot system (Robot 103A in Swedish service). However, there are two key difference in that the BARAK is equipped with an active radar seeker (i.e. the missile carries its own radar and will continue to home on to the target even if the main radar goes silent) while the PAC-2 is a semi-active radar homing missile (i.e. it relies on the ground radar lighting up the target). The second important difference is that while the PAC-2 is a single-stage missile (i.e. it burns until it no longer does so, and then it coasts along until running out of speed), the BARAK ER is in effect a two-stage three-pulse missile in that we first have the booster kicking off the whole thing, and the LRAD missile mounted on top of the booster then has a dubble-pulse engine, giving significantly more energy during the later stages of the interception compared to traditional missiles. The BARAK also has a vertical launch which gives the ability to cover 360°, though in practice the Patriot batteries are usually deployed so as to minimize the impact of their ‘blind’ sector – it is rare to find locations where you can be jumped on from any direction, unless you deploy on top of the highest hill in the area, and then everyone will see you.
There are reports that the BARAK MX took part in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Few Armenien air losses were documented during the conflict, none of which are attributed to the system. However, there are persistent reporting that during the final stage of the conflict Armenia would have fired a single 9M723 Iskander against the Azeri capital of Baku, and this would have been intercepted by a BARAK. The claims are rightly questioned, as to the best of my knowledge all reporting of the incident go back to a single story by a Turkish journalist, and there have been no independent verification. Verification of successful intercepts of ballistic missiles are also notoriously hard to make even in the best of conditions, and it is unclear whether Azerbaijan actually has the ER with its enhanced theatre-ballistic missile defence (TBMD or BMD for short) capability in service or whether it is relying on the shorter-legged missiles. As such, I would be careful with the ‘Combat Proven’ label for now, though the missile has since successfully intercepted ballistic missiles in trials.
But wait a minute, readers of the blog will say. Finland wasn’t supposed to get a BMD capability!
The answer is “Yes” (and just wait until you see the other guy).
Back in 2019, Finnish Chief of Defence general Timo Kivinen gave the following statement to the Finnish newspaper Kaleva:
No minor country has the resources to develop and maintain an active missile defence system. […] Finland has a passive missile defence system, based on an analysed and identified threat. The concept is based on protection, movement, and decentralized operations.
This statement was by no means unique, but rather one in the line of statements to media and in press releases where the same principle has been stated time and time again. Finland does not have any interest in ballistic missile defence through shooting down incoming missiles. So what is up with that, has the FDF changed priorities now under influence from the war in Ukraine and the liberal amount of missiles fired?
(Note that while that’s a serious number of missiles quoted in the tweet below, there has also been a serious number of airstrikes during the war, and of the ones mentioned only the Iskanders and Tochkas are ballistic missiles)
🇺🇦Ukraine’s military: Russia has fired 154 Iskander missiles, 97 Kalibrs, 21 Tochka Us, 56 X-type missiles, against Ukrainian cities.
The short answer is “No”. The longer answer is still the same as it always has been:
The ability to defeat ballistic missiles has not been one of the project’s objectives. We have compared the performance of different systems against traditional targets.
In short, the BARAK ER and David’s Sling with its Stunner missile are simply better at killing aircraft and cruise missiles than the competition, and that’s why they are shortlisted.
But there will be an Iskander-killing capability, right?
Not necessarily. Having a missile capable of hitting the incoming ballistic missile is an important step, but only part of the equation. Since the target is ridiculously quick, getting pre-warning is key (remember the Green Pine-radar rumoured to have gone to Azerbaijan? That’s a radar that is dedicated to long range detection and acquisition of TBMs, exactly the kind of additional – and very expensive – sensor you need if you want to enter the BMD-game for real). That in turn means you want to know where it comes from so you can set up you sensors to detect it at optimal range (see excellent linked thread below by Simon Petersen, who as opposed to yours truly actually is a professional when it comes to these kinds of things), and that is a very different setup of sensors and deployment patterns compared to if you are planning on taking on aircraft or helicopters. This is also a key reason why BMD makes more sense for Sweden than for Finland, as the obvious firing location for Iskanders heading toward Sweden is from the rather limited direction of Kaliningrad, while Finland has a rather large sector of potential enemy TBM firing locations.
The big issue, is that the system cannot launch an interceptor until the sensor has detected that threat, which happens when at the point where the blue line (sensor track line) meets the red ballistic trajectory. While the interceptor is flying out, the threat is moving too… pic.twitter.com/sFlhWyW8NU
So, when the FDF is buying a BMD-capable system and still says they aren’t aiming for a BMD-capability, that’s what they mean. The missile might be there, and if someone is dropping an Iskander on their block they might be able to kill it. But if it is headed to the next district you are probably out of luck.
But if you were impressed by the BARAK MX (and you probably should be), wait until you see what Rafael brings to the table.
David’s Sling is system that resemble a Patriot battery that has decided to enter the near-vertical launch game. It is jointly developed with Raytheon, and is very different from, well, most everything found on the market.
The two-stage missile called Stunner has a distinct ‘dolphin-nose’ look, using the asymmetry to manoeuvre and to fit several sensors. Good manoeuvrability is a must, since the missile is a hit-to-kill one. This means that as opposed to most air defence missiles which flies close to their targets and then detonate to create a cloud of shrapnel, the Stunner will ram into whatever it is targeting at high speed. This is obviously a sure-fire way to bring down most everything, but also a very unforgiving way of operating in that a near-miss doesn’t give you much except disturbed air. To achieve the desired accuracy, the Stunner is a two-stage three-pulse missile as well, with the third pulse providing the speed needed to manoeuvre at the final stages of the intercept. The guidance is provided by several different modes of tracking, including an active radar seeker as well as a multi-function electro-optical sensor sporting IIR-capability. The batteries in Israeli service feature the ELM-2084 MMR S-band radar, which is a step up in capability from the ELM-2288 AD-STAR of the BARAK MX. Of interest, one of the smaller members of the MMR-family is the Compact-Multi Mission Radar ELM-2311 C-MMR which Finland bought and received last year for the counter-artillery role (though they do offer a secondary air-surveillance capability as well). The missiles are transported around on a trailer-type TEL (which might or might not be called a MEL, depending on your level of geekiness), which apparently sports twelve missiles ready to launch. During the test firings the combat management centre seemed to be a containerised solution, and while it certainly seems likely there’s really no telling for sure whether that is the solution used for operational batteries.
As opposed to the BARAK MX, David’s Sling is in Israeli service. The primary purpose is as the mid-tire defence against incoming missiles and heavy rockets, sorting between the short-range Iron Dome and the larger Arrow. Despite the original design purpose being solidly in the BMD-role, the weapon is obviously more than capable of bringing down more conventional targets as well. The performance is largely classified, with some sources stating the range at 160+ km (note that corresponds to a very round “above 100 miles”) while others give 300 km as the maximum. In any case, it is safe to say the range is longer than BARAK ER. An interesting detail is that the missile is being looked at as a possible replacement for/alternative to PAC-3 missiles for the Patriot under the PAAC-4 program, where the additional ‘A’ stands for ‘Affordable’. That is an interesting notion, as while the batteries themselves certainly cost, the munitions add up as well. It would be easy to imagine the Stunner as being a prohibitively expensive missile due to its performance, highly specialised role, and fancy sensors, but apparently that isn’t the case (though in air defence, “cheap” doesn’t equal “small amounts of money”). An interesting detail is that the US so far has been reluctant to let Israel export it directly, meaning that this offer certainly shows the trust and importance Washington places in Finland and the FDF. So far the only almost-confirmed export customer is Poland, which is planning to acquire it for their Wisła-program. The initial package will however sport the PAC-3 MSE, and the program has ran into some issues as the cost of integration into the Polish C3-system has caused the budget to expand considerably compared to e.g. the Swedish Patriot-order.
A really interesting side-track is that Israel, who by the way also happens to be a serious F-35-user, has test-flown the Stunner without the booster on an F-16. The possibility of having a highly-manoeuvrable air-to-air missile with multi-seeker capability is certainly interesting when going after small and/or stealthy targets such as cruise missiles, drones, and Su-57s. While so far no decision has been made to integrate the Stunner on the F-35 and the FDF is currently not looking at the possibility of acquiring a joint-use GBAD/A2A-missile in the same way as the AIM-120 AMRAAM currently is being operated, it is certainly not something that is a negative in the books for Rafael’s offering. It certainly would be an interesting development, and let’s remember that the decision on what to get after the AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM is still open for the FinAF.
So where does that leave us? Both systems are reportedly easy to integrate into legacy systems, are already in operational service, and sport performance that would propel FDF GBAD into a world-class integrated air defence system on all altitudes and against all conventional targets (drones, cruise missiles, helicopters, aircraft). The big question is whether there is the budget to acquire enough batteries and missiles? So far the FDF isn’t telling, but in an interview the budget is described as “significant but below the threshold of strategic acquisitions”. Considering the Squadron 2020 program was a strategic program and came in at an original budget of 1.2 Bn EUR, a safe guess is that we are talking about several hundred million euros, but below a billion. As a comparison, that would be below the Swedish Patriot-acquisition which is valued at approximately 1.1 Bn EUR, though that did include modernisations to the general sensors and C3-networks. The Swedish program include two battalions of two batteries each, both capable of independent operations but mainly used together to protect a single area. Depending on the Finnish doctrine and pairings with other air defence systems, something similar might be able to fit inside the Finnish budget, but that is largely down to how much other stuff will have to be paid for. As is well-known, the so-called ITSUKO which deals with the high-altitude capability is part of the larger air-defence framework that include a number of other projects, and as such the budget for the batteries themselves might be surprisingly similar for Finland and Sweden. If I had to guess, we will see the BARAK MX take home this one based on the versatility and the smaller footprint leading to greater mobility, but David’s Sling is certainly an impressive system and as we have seen performance matters in this one. It will be highly interesting to see what the next year brings for ITSUKO.
That Sweden has had a rough time with their NH 90-fleet is no secret. The HKP 14 as it is known locally was delayed to the extent that a batch of 15 UH-60M Blackhawk had to be acquired as a stop-gap for the MEDEVAC-role in Afghanistan due to the Swedish Super Pumas being retired and the NH90 still being quite some way off from entering service. The UH-60M has been a stunning success for the Swedes, becoming a reliable workhorse for the Swedish Armed Forces in general and the airmobile soldiers of the K 3 Livregementets hussarer (Life Regiment Hussars) in particular.
Now, unlike the situation in Finland where the NH90 eventually overcame the teething troubles to be widely accepted as a fully functioning and integrated part of the Finnish Defence Forces, the NH90 in Sweden has continued to struggle. To the extent that questions about the future of the platform has continued to be raised at regular intervals. A key part of the question is the role of the maritime mission sets which currently is outside the scope of Blackhawk operations. Instead, the Swedish NH 90-fleet sport two different versions: the transport-roled HKP 14E and the maritime-roled HKP 14F. Crucially, the HKP 14F is not an NH90 FFH, but a uniquely Swedish version based on the NH90 TTH (in addition both versions sport a higher cabin to provide a more ergonomic working environment, but the cost impact of that much-maligned feature at this stage is likely minor). The nine HKP 14F are equipped with a “tactical radar” (i.e. a maritime surveillance radar), dipping sonar, as well as sonobuoy launcher and processing capability. Keen readers will note that there are no weapons or datalinks in the description above, and that omission is not by accident.
Somehow, with Sweden being no stranger to neither airborne ASW-operations nor datalinks, it was originally decided against acquiring weapons or datalinks for the NH90, despite the platform being a key integrated part in both the surface and sub-surface warfare plans of the Swedish Navy. The realisation that this is stupid is nothing new, and has been discussed since before the helicopters were delivered. Eventually, common sense prevailed, and the latest long-term plan dictate that the integration of the new lightweight torpedo (TP 47) and a datalink will begin before 2025.
Back in 2018 it was reported that the Swedish Armed Forces looked into mothballing all of the transport-roled HKP 14E operating in northern Sweden to save money. A year later the issues continued, with lack of spares and too few trained technicians leading to fewer (and more costly) flight hours than planned, meaning that the northern Swedish Army units in Arvidsjaur (the recently reinstituted ranger regiment) and Boden have had a hard time getting the flight hours they need.
Shortly before Christmas this year, it was reported that the armed forces again are looking at cutting the NH90-fleet. Following preliminary studies, there are two main options: one is to continue with the NH90 and go through with the planned upgrades for the HKP 14F to get the datalink and torpedo, while also ordering another batch of Blackhawks. The second option is to retire all NH90s, and instead go for a joint UH-60 Blackhawk/MH-60 Seahawk-fleet for all the helicopter needs of the Swedish Armed Forces (there is a third helicopter, the light AW109 which is in service as the HKP 15 and seem set for retirement without direct replacement). It is somewhat unclear what is supposed to happen with the HKP 14E, but considering the wish to buy more Blackhawks in both scenarios and the apparent focus on the maritime HKP 14F it does sound like the days of the HKP 14E in the army cooperation role is numbered.
On paper the joint Blackhawk/Seahawk-fleet sounds all nice and simple, and I will say that I am a big proponent of cutting losses and not succumbing to the sunken cost fallacy. At the same time, it is evident that the truth isn’t quite as straightforward.
A key reason why the UH-60M Blackhawk deal was so successful is that it was a rather straightforward need (move healthy and sick people and equipment quickly from point A to B) and that it was accepted to just grab what was already in US service and paint some Swedish crowns on the side (slight exaggeration, but not by much). It is significantly more doubtful if the same is the case for the highly technical ASW-role, case in point being the Danish order for the MH-60R Seahawk (affectionally known as Romeo thanks to the version-letter). Denmark received approval back in 2010 for nine MH-60R, and they achieved IOC in 2017. However, crucially Denmark opted for a non-ASW fitted MH-60R, and decided to include some unique equipment (including the NATO-standard harpoon-hydraulic deck-locking system instead of the US RAST, as well as specific emergency equipment). As such, they have largely operated in the SAR and fisheries protection role, and only now are they being refitted (“during the coming years”) to be able to operate in the ASW-role. This puts it more or less at the same schedule as the Swedish NH90, depending on when exactly “the coming years” is and how long the Swedish integration starting before 2025 takes.
Another major question is how the blue-water Romeo works in the brackish littorals of the Baltic Sea? That’s less of an issue for Denmark, where the majority of the time the helicopters will be working out in the North Sea or around Greenland, but for Sweden the Baltic Sea is the main playing field of the Navy. This is acknowledged by the Swedish Armed Forces, and is one of the key reasons why the NH90 NFH wasn’t bought. The plan now is to be able to get a USN helicopter over some time during next summer, and get to see how that performs in Swedish conditions. Obviously, even if the Romeo is chosen, there is a sliding scale between a HKP 16-style off-the-shelf buy and a stripped Romeo fitted with Swedish ASW-equipment and weapons dedicated to the Baltic Sea-environment. Obviously, the most extreme version would be to grab a UH-60M and start installing the extra equipment in that in the same way as is being done with the HKP 14F, something that certainly would be more costly at the outset but would provide a higher degree of synergies and also be based on a simpler platform compared to the navalised MH-60 (there certainly are synergies between the UH-60M and the MH-60R, but there certainly are differences as well). Because for the time being, and unlike Denmark, no Swedish vessel is able to accept either the Blackhawk or the NH90 (the Visby can take aboard the AW109, which honestly might be the feature most sorely missed if it is retired without replacement), meaning that features such as folding blades and tail are just adding extra weight, meaning that a converted Blackhawk might be attractive. A middle of the road alternative that most likely would only combine the worst of the two alternatives would be to use the MH-60S Knighthawk, the multi-role sister to the Romeo, and fit it with an ASW-suite. The Sierra is in essence a navalised version of the UH-60L fitted with the same cockpit and navalised systems as the Romeo (minus the ASW-stuff), and is used for a number of different missions in the US Navy.
Notable is that production for the US Navy has ended for both versions in 2018 (Romeo) and 2015 (Sierra) respectively, though export orders are keeping the production line of the Romeo warm (latest of which is an Australian order for additional Blackhawks and Seahawks to replace their NH90s a decade early in both the transport- and maritime-roles). The Sierra just might be easier to work with if Sweden would want a Seahawk, but with a fully Swedish mission system and if they then would run into some hardware/space-related issues, but the Romeo is by far the most likely alternative (ironically, one of the few prospective MH-60S export orders was for a Qatari contract where a mixed MH-60R/S-fleet lost to the NH90).
However, if we look at the other extreme, and Sweden would simply order nine MH-60R according to USN specifications, there certainly is some interesting options here. To begin with aligning what will be a very small fleet with the standard of a larger operator does provide significant benefits when it comes to operating and upgrade costs, and both spares and weapons would likely be available at a rather cheap rate. The USN training pipeline could potentially also be used, something that might become more of an issue if the AW109 is withdrawn from service.
(Keen readers might notice that several of these points figured prominently during discussions about the HX-program.)
The Romeo and its sensors almost certainly isn’t as well suited to the Baltic Sea as a fully kitted out HKP 14F would be, but here comes the classic question: is a 75 or 90% solution at half the cost the best bang for the buck (note the numbers are pure examples)? A key detail is that finding submarines is extremely difficult, and despite the technological advances is still highly reliant on skilled personnel with a good understanding of local conditions. If switching to a solution that technically might not be the best fit allow the crews to train more, the end result might still be more scrap metal at the bottom of the sea than would otherwise be the case.
However – and this is an aspect that the Swedish evaluation will find hard to overlook – ASW is seen as a significant strategic interest for the Swedish defence industry, and killing the HKP 14F with its Saab-designed and built tactical mission system (including domestic sonar) will prove politically difficult. The orders are already far and few between, and with the Armed Forces in general short on funding a decision to acquire a standard Romeo is bound to raise uncomfortable questions. If the Mark 54 is good enough for the heliborne ASW-component, perhaps it is so for the rest of the force as well? What about sensors and processing units? This obviously also ties in with the same questions asked about the small submarine force, as many of the systems rest on a solid knowledge of similar topics (including e.g. Torped 47 as the obvious common weapon system). Giving up the locally developed sensors and weapons on the helicopter might very well come back to bite the Navy at a later stage when it is time for an upgrade of shipboard sensors and systems. As such, the decision on how to proceed with the helicopter part of things shouldn’t be taken lightly.
In the end, a Swedish Romeo-mod might still turn out to the be the best and cheapest option overall. However, the speedy UH-60M buy might not be the best reference point. Rather a highly complex project that hopefully can salvage the lessons (and potentially some hardware) from the current HKP 14F-fleet is to be expected, and I would not be surprised if the FOC date more or less corresponds to what would be the case for a full datalink and torpedo integration for the NH90.
(And since I know you will ask: I don’t foresee Finland acquiring ex-Swedish NH90s to increase the size of the Finnish fleet, though I certainly could imagine some being acquired for cannibalisation in case the spares situation is as poor as the Australian decision seem to indicate)
Back in 2017 I was fortunate enough to travel to RAF Lossiemouth together with a bunch of Finnish media courtesy of BAE Systems to get up and close with the Eurofighter Typhoon group operating there. When discussing the fact that the RAF was acquiring both the Typhoon and the F-35, Wing Commander Billy Cooper, then-CO of the 6 Squadron, said something that puzzled me.
You need stealth to be able to go forward
It seemed the Wing Commander didn’t understand which aircraft he was supposed to be selling.
After what has been described as perhaps the most fair and transparent fighter acquisition program this side of the Cold War – one that resulted in an unprecedented five serious best and final offers – we finally have a winner, and it certainly was a case of a favourite that held. The F-35A was always the one to beat, and while Finland looked like it could be the place where it would be possible to do so (my personal opinion was that the Super Hornet/Growler-combination was the most likely), it turned out that it was not to be here (either). The much-maligned stealth fighter instead took a rather resounding win in being chosen as the next fighter for the Finnish Air Force. With the FDF traditionally having been known to err on the side of conservative rather than the revolutionary, it certainly adds to the credibility of the claim that the aircraft is maturing nicely.
The strong points of the F-35 are at the same time well-known, but also often somewhat misunderstood (in particular in a Finnish situation). Yes, the aircraft is stealthy, and as Cooper noted that is indeed a big benefit, but it is far from a one-trick-pony. To start with perhaps the most boring factor, simply the sheer amount of F-35s sold is a huge benefit. As has been stressed from the outset, Finland can’t afford to be the sole operator of an aircraft (or even the sole operator of a particular configuration), something which the Hornet MLU-programs have taught the service. The F-35 will be around in numbers in 2060, and there will be users who will be as reliant as Finland on keeping the aircraft up to date. Yes, aircraft spotters will cry a bit as yet another air force convert to the same single-type force, but in the real world that does benefit the operators.
Speaking of which, much of the hesitation about the F-35 has been surrounding how it is from the outset is conceptualised to benefit from being the NATO-standard, with concentrated maintenance and spares supplies. However, in what is a major win for the team behind HX, Lockheed Martin provided a unique tailored solution to Finland – one described in their BAFO-press statement to “includes many opportunities for the Finnish defense industry related to the direct manufacture and maintenance of the F-35 that have not been offered before.” This is in line also with the earlier talking points of Lockheed Martin throughout the past few years, which has focused on the fact that maintenance solutions and spares packages indeed can be altered to meet the needs of the Finnish Air Force (one might also note that Israel had no issue securing far-reaching rights to do stuff themselves, showing that while they arguably are a special case, the rules of the F-35 game aren’t as set as some would like to make them out to be). But while it has been reported earlier that Finland received a “firm commitment” for a number of components and sub-assemblies for not just the Finnish F-35s but for the global fleet as well (itself something significantly more far-reaching than most other countries), today’s presser included information that included a firm commitment that 400 forward fuselage will be assembled in Finland! It’s hard to stress how much of a different league this is compared to e.g. the Danish agreement (and how happy this makes me as a taxpayer).
This is obviously part of building the security of supply. The principle is simple: Finland is to be able to keep the aircraft up in the air even if the borders are shut. To ensure that Finland will have an indigenous maintenance and repair capability for over 100 components (including parts of the fuselage and engine), which is based on the items covered by the industrial cooperation agreement. There will also be significant stockpiles of components that aren’t on the list of items which Finland can repair and overhaul organically (often parts with very long mean time between failures, and for which it aren’t economical to build up an independent repair capability). Notable is also that the Finnish organic repair capability is not just for domestic use, but is also part of the GSS (the global support solution) meaning that they will be used to maintain parts for the global spares pool.
The package is unprecedented, with Lockheed Martin describing it as including opportunities that haven’t been offered to any other country. Company representatives also acknowledged that the road hadn’t been easy.
There were some tense moments.
Their Finnish counterparts had apparently been “very Finnish and upfront with us about where we weren’t meeting their expectations”. It is also evident from both the Finnish authorities and Lockheed Martin that the negotiations have been both tough and thorough, and lead to a significantly better final bid than would have been possible with a more straightforward process. An interesting note in the documentation is that the industrial participation comes with a direct 116 MEUR price-tag, which frankly feels like steal for the capability offered.
The weapons package is at the same time comprehensive and straightforward. The first package which will be signed off at the same time as the fighter contract is for AIM-120C-8 AMRAAMs and AIM-9X Sidewinders. Further down the road the package will most likely include JSM in the joint air-to-ground and anti-ship roles, as well as the AGM-158 JASSM-ER heavy cruise missile, GBU-54 and GBU-56 LJDAM laser-/GPS-guided bombs in the 250 and 1,000 kg class, as well as the GBU-39 SDB and GBU-53/B StormBreaker SDB II small-diameter bombs. Notable is that this will bring serious new capabilities to the Finnish Air Force, such as the ability to hit moving and mobile targets, on land and at sea. The procurement will be staggered to ensure that there won’t be a single huge batch of weapons becoming obsolescent at the same time, and to ensure that developments with new versions of existing weapons or even completely new munitions are kept up with (no-one is officially mentioning the AIM-260 JATM, but we all know it is coming). That the air-to-air missiles will be first comes naturally as the current Hornet-fleet is expected to be viable in the air-to-ground role longer than it will be in the air-to-air role. As such, during the period of transition the plan is that the F-35A is to be able to focus on the fighter role, with the ability to escort the Hornets focusing on the ground-pounding if the need arises. The total arms package is for approximately 1.58 Bn EUR, of which 754.6 MEUR is for the air-to-air missiles to be acquired in the first step, and 823.8 MEUR for later procurement (up to 2030) and which also will provide funding to the reserve in case parts of the contract will have to be renegotiated/or in case there will be technical risks. Notable is that the large number of weapons included had a positive effect on the evaluation.
Money, Money, Money…
Which brings us to what has been the most controversial aspect of the program: cost.
The acquisition cost has come down nicely, and the current contract gives a unit cost of 73.49 MEUR per aircraft for the Finnish aircraft. More controversial is the annual operating costs, and with impeccable timing I last week noted that both the Norwegian and Swiss life-cycle costs were significantly over the Finnish ones, 77.5% and 30% respectively if extrapolated out to 64. Extrapolating never works, but the difference was large enough that I wanted an explanation. Especially as the Finnish number is 37% below the current US annual cost per aircraft (though it actually lines up rather nicely with the stated US target). Luckily, brigadier general Keränen, Deputy Chief of Staff Air Force Operations, was happy to open up the calculations.
The obvious issue is that it never is an apples versus apples comparison. Switzerland famously include VAT in their costings, something that the FDF avoids. The Swiss also present indexed average costs adjusted for inflation, while the Finnish figure is given in 2021 Euros. The USAF also include a number of basing costs in their figures (and notable is that a USAF base include quite a bit more than a Finnish air force base). But Finland is also paradoxically assisted by jumping aboard the train at a relatively late stage, as the US don’t charge for non-recurring costs, and the partner nations – although they get a share of the license cost when fighters are sold abroad – have obviously invested significant sums throughout the program which now show up in their LCC. But there are a number of other key issues as well. Finland will fly approximately 9,000 hours annually, which is in line with the current Hornet flight hours. However, with the relative large number of aircraft that actually mean that the Finnish fleet flies 140 flight hours per aircraft annually – approximately half of what the USAF does. This naturally create less wear and lower maintenance cost per aircraft and year. Notable is also that the 2 Bn EUR in upgrades are placed outside of the 254 MEUR annual operating costs, a relic from the Hornet-era where upgrades were major MLU-style projects. Another key difference between Finnish and many other European air forces is that Finland plan to shift training from the US back to Finland at a relatively early stage – following their good experiences with the current (cost-effective) proptrainer – Hawk – Hornet pipeline. Keeping pilots at home instead of paying for them living abroad usually turns out to be cheaper (have you seen the real estate prices in Rovaniemi lately?), and we haven’t even mentioned the conscript mechanics. At the end of the day, all bids had roughly similar annual operating costs.
Side note: Yes, that means that no Finnish fighters will stay in the US.
The explanations sounds reasonable enough to me, but even more convincing are two other factors. To begin with, the Finnish Defence Forces is small enough that there isn’t much room for infighting and the Air Force can’t afford to start eating the budget of the other services. And while you might argue that I am naive on that point, even more crucially both external audits and calculations made by the MoD has shown nothing out of the ordinary.
All of the major rumoured causes for the cheap operating costs – cutting any of the bases or cutting the flight hours – are thus out of the question.
All bases, both main bases, other air force bases, alternative civilian fields, and road bases, remain in use. The F-35A has no major issues with operating from the current Finnish network. The key detail that is setting the limit is the safety margins required for an aborted take-off. The old ‘hot’ MiG-21 and J 35 Draken have flown from all, including roads, earlier, and while the F-35A (like any modern fighter) is easier when it comes to the ‘flying’ part, it is also quite a bit heavier at maximum take-off weight. To ensure braking in poor conditions, the Finnish aircraft will be fitted with the ‘Norwegian’ braking chute. As such, the whole current base network will continue in service. The upgrades to infrastructure is broken down in further detail in the official documents, with 409 MEUR for buildings and 75 MEUR for upgrades to the C3I-systems. These include the (in)famous upgrades to cybersecurity in line with the US requirements.
There will however indeed be a serious upgrade to the number of simulators, but not to replace flight hours but to increase the number of simulator training opportunities.
A notable detail is that several of the speakers took time to praise the other offers and note the importance of the countries that provided them as ranking among Finland’s most important allies and partners, a notion that was echoed in the official Swedish MoD press release that in no uncertain terms stated that Finland remain the kingdom’s closest partner, and that the defence cooperation is based on shared values and strategic interests rather than on common arms deals. I will admit that I was happy to hear that, as there always is a risk of backlash in these kinds of situations.
When all is said and done
Having passed the gate checks – something that the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale proved unable to do – the F-35A then went on to beat both the Super Hornet/Growler and Gripen/GlobalEye offers in both the combat evaluation and when it comes to the future development potential. The aircraft will be delivered in ‘Block 4 standard’, though the iterative development path of modern aircraft means that things seldom are that simple. What Block 4 mean in this case is that the first Finnish fighters – coming out of Lot 17 in 2025 – will have the TR3 hardware upgrades that are associated with the Block 4 (including the sidekick upgrade that allow for six AMRAAMs in internal carriage) and what Lockheed Martin describes as the “vast majority” of the software upgrades. The final upgrades will come with Lot 18. The exact engine in use by then is unclear, though looking at the timeline it certainly looks like an uprated F135 might be an option.
The evaluation focused on a major war scenario, in which the air to air role was the focus (30%), with 10% weight being allocated to supporting the Finnish Navy (I can happily report that it indeed was a naval officer who was involved in this part of the evaluation), and 20% each to supporting the Army, long-range fires, and ISR. The F-35A ranked first or joint-first in all mission sets.
At the end of the day, the F-35 has beaten some of the toughest competition, including the bureaucracy and inertia, to come out on top. Following the string of victories it has scored throughout Europe and other parts of the world, there seems little doubt that it indeed is the premier fighter for years to come. As such, it certainly is nice to know that it will also be the aircraft protecting Finnish skies, and it is easy to agree with the official line that the procurement shows that Finland is serious about national defence and now is able to increase the threshold of a potential war.