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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep on Rockin’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eurofighter goes Electric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The approach is two-pronged:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HX Challenge on the Horizon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Western Heliport

This week’s post was supposed to be about F-35 in HX. Then the need for a primer on Finnish unmanned systems appeared and caused a change of plans. Then Russia built a heliport on Gogland, and here we are.

TASS yesterday provided some details. A Mi-26, the Soviet C-130 sized helicopter, flew in the required special equipment including the surface plating. The heliport was then made by the “engineering and aerodrome service of the Leningrad Air Force and Air Defense Army”. Exactly how long it took to get the heliport up and running is uncertain, but on satellite imagery nothing is seen on 2 July, while the base looks finished by 26 July. Incidentally, Putin visited the island on 27 July, so it would seem reasonable to assume the works were finished by then. Notable is that TASS describes the work as a “tactical exercise”, indicating that the capability to airlift the men and equipment needed to build a permanent heliport is seen as a capability for wartime scenarios.

Gogland is a bit of a sore spot for Finnish nostalgics. The beautiful island in the middle of the Gulf of Finland held a thriving Finnish community dating back through the centuries, and was a popular tourist destination before the Second World War. Held by the Finnish forces in the face of a German attack in 1944, it was occupied by the Red Army only after the truce. It is situated well west of the Karelian land border, and close enough to the city of Kotka that the inhabitants define clear weather as when the mountaintops of the island are visible from the Finnish mainland. The military presence on the island has largely made it off-limits to tourists, further adding to the ‘paradise lost’-narrative. For a nice pictorial look at the island today, check out this piece by journalist Magnus Londen who got permission to visit it in 2006.

What once was, a Finnish wartime colour photo of the main village Suurkylä and the harbour there, taken on 18 June 1943. The heliport was built on the shore of the bay closer to the camera, roughly in the middle of the picture. Source: SA-kuva

The island’s strategic location, the westernmost point of continuous Russia and guarding the approaches to St Petersburg, means it has seen steady military use. The exact garrison is uncertain as far as I am aware, but radars and different EW and SIGINT/ELINT sensors are regularly documented on the island.

 

In recent years several special forces exercises have taken place on the island. In 2015 an amphibious landing by a small naval SOF-party was made, after which the soldiers stormed a “pirate base” located in the ruins of the old Finnish casino. A more high-profile case was when Russian airborne forces staged an exercise raid days before the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki last year. The exercise began with the team being inserted by steerable parachutes from Mi-8AMTSh multipurpose helicopters, jumping out at 2,500 meters height. Having touched down they hid the parachutes, and proceeded to conduct reconnaissance missions and destroy a number of strategic targets, before they prepared a helicopter landing zone and where exfiltrated by helicopter. A total of 50 soldiers and four helicopters were involved in the exercise according to Russian sources.

Mi-8AMTSh is a highly modernized version of the venerable Mi-8 transport helicopter. It’s main mission is airborne assaults, for which it can be armed with a combination of rocket pods, bombs, gunpods, and missiles. Here a single Mi-8AMTSh (closest to the camera) takes part in exercise Vostok 2018 together with more basic Mi-8 versions. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout this time there has been a small landing spot next to the natural harbour at the site of the former Suurkylä village, on the northeastern shore of the island. However, neither the harbour nor the helicopter facilities have been much to write home about, something that is noteworthy considering the frequent helicopter flights to and from the island, and the general need of having a reliable supply route for the garrison. As such, an improved infrastructure for helicopter operations is not a surprise in and by itself, but as a source with professional insight on the matter told me, “It tells more about their tactical capabilities (and lack of resources) that it was done only now”.

The scope of the heliport should also be noted. It apparently consists of five helipads made of prefabricated plates, landing lights, some kind of flight control, a refuelling station, and some basic maintenance capability. Absent are any kind of shelter from weather and wind (not to mention shrapnel protection), parking spaces, taxiways, or other permanent facilities associated with an air base. While TASS notes that the structures are “permanent”, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that helicopters will be based permanently on the island. In essence, this is a refuelling stop and an attempt at improving the supply route to the island itself. Or as the source described it:

A permanent landing spot has been prepared, but there’s no way that it deserves to be labelled a ‘base’

What are then the potential uses of the heliport? Granted it does offer longer reach for helicopters operating over the Gulf of Finland, but it’s hard to see this extra reach being a game-changer strategically or even tactically. It does allow for helicopters transferring between mainland bases and ships operating in the western Gulf of Finland to top up their fuel levels, but the benefits are rather minor compared to the earlier situation.

Neither does it provide any kind of crucial edge for airborne operations against targets further west, such as e.g. the much-discussed Åland islands-scenario. In the case of a surprise airborne attack on Åland, even if the helicopters would fly the shortest route, passing directly over Helsinki, they would still lack the fuel for the return trip.*

A larger issue when functioning as a staging ground for an airborne assault is however the lack of landing space available. With just five landing spots an air assault could lift just 120 soldiers in one go, or less if the transport helicopters would be escorted by dedicated attack helicopters. For an air assault on targets on either shore of the Gulf of Finland, operating from the larger bases on the mainland still provide greater tactical and operational flexibility. Especially considering the fact that keeping eyes on low-flying helicopters in the archipelago is rather difficult as it stands.

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However, the main drawback of the base is the fact that it is well within range of Finnish artillery, both 155 mm guns as well as the M270 MLRS with their M30A1 Alternative Warheads (in essence a precision-guided 70 km shotgun), a rocket that would be excellent for taking out the whole heliport and the helicopters standing tightly grouped together in one go. The same issue is probably the reason why the island isn’t host to any Russian long-range air defence systems.

The island is nicely within range. Our neighbor has no illusions about that.

The one military benefit operating from Gogland could offer is for maritime patrol helicopters scanning the sea or looking for underwater activities in peacetime. Still, even these operations would be somewhat weather dependent due to the lack of shelters on the island.

However, when it comes to maritime operations, what the heliport does offer is significantly increased time on station for helicopters involved in search and rescue missions in case of a maritime accident in the eastern Gulf of Finland.

Honestly, the biggest “operational” change is that the capacity for sea rescue missions over the eastern Gulf of Finland increases. Our helicopters as well can land there now, if the need arises.

The sentiment is echoed by professor Lt.Col. Petteri Lalu on Twitter:

However, as professor Lalu also noted, while the ability to build a FOB with airlifted parts (over the time of a few weeks?) is interesting, the big picture here isn’t about Gogland. Instead it is the general growth in military capacity in Russia’s northwestern corner. From a Finnish point of view, more worrying than five landing spots on Gogland is the 15th Army Aviation Brigade at Ostrov, Pskov Oblast, which currently has a squadron each of Mi-28N, Ka-52, and Mi-35M attack helicopters (the number of Mi-35M possibly being less than a full squadron), as well as a strong squadron of Mi-8MTV-5 air assault helicopters and four Mi-26 heavy transport helicopters, as well as a small number of Mi-8MTPR-1 Rychag electronic warfare helicopters. The unit was set up as a brand new unit in 2013, and is equipped with the most modern helicopters available to the Russian army aviation. Another base that has received more love in recent years is Gromovo (located in former Finnish Karelia, and formerly known as Sakkola). The field currently sort under the 33rd Independent Transport Composite Aviation Regiment (33 OTSAP) based at Levashovo. While Gromovo doesn’t have any units permanently attached, the former fighter base has hosted several major detachments during larger exercises in recent years, including helicopter units and naval fighters(!).

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Mil Mi-28N attack helicopters of the 15 Br AA in Ostrov. Source: Ostrow1341 via Wikimedia Commons

As these kinds of investments in major infrastructure take place over time they tend to generate fewer headlines than smaller and more sudden events. However, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. The Gogland heliport in itself does not deteriorate the Finnish security environment, but the major trend of increased military capability in general and airborne infrastructure in particular does present the Finnish Defence Forces with new threat scenarios that might need to be countered in case of an armed conflict. In particular the need for the ability to react swiftly to a surprising first strike, possibly taking place deep within Finnish territory, is emphasized, something that has been a general theme since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

*For those interested in the details: a Mi-8MTV-5 (a version roughly corresponding to the AMTSh but built by the competing Kazan plant instead of at Ulan-Ude) travelling the shortest possible route from Gogland to Åland would be left with just 665 litres for the return flight, i.e. less than half of what’s needed to get back to Gogland. These numbers are adapted from the Kaliningrad to Slite scenario presented by Jan Åkerberg in his article “Det ryska armeflyget 2017” in The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences’ Proceeding and Journal no. 3/2019.

No Tempest for Sweden (at least not yet)

For several months rumors have been claiming that Saab and Sweden will be (or already are) a partner in the British Team Tempest for a new ‘sixth generation’ fighter. For UK, Sweden in essence remains one of two European country with a serious aviation industry that still isn’t tied to the competing Franco-German project (the other being Italy), and would thus represent a rare opportunity for burden sharing.

However, for the Gripen programme, Sweden acquiring the Tempest would represent the kiss of death, as Sweden hardly could afford to operate the Gripen alongside a new replacement type. This is especially problematic for the 39E/F-programme as the Tempest is scheduled for some kind of IOC as early as 2035 (certainly an ambitious target, to put it diplomatically). In turn, this would mean that the chances of Gripen would dramatically drop in the Finnish HX-fighter programme, as the Finnish Air Force and MoD officials have repeatedly expressed that the one thing Finland can’t afford is to be left the sole operator of an aircraft type (a situation which was one of the key drivers behind the decisions not to put forward a MLU3-programme but instead retire the Hornet-fleet as planned).

However, during the official signing ceremony at RIAT yesterday it turned out that this was all a tempest in a teacup*, and Saab dodged a seriously sized bullet in HX.

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On 18 July, Minister for Defence Peter Hultqvist and the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defence Penny Mordaunt signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in London. Photo: Adriana Haxhimustafa/Government Offices

It turns out Sweden is not joining Team Tempest, but rather signed an MoU on “agreeing to examine the possibilities for joint development of future combat aircraft capabilities and combat aircraft systems.” In other words, rather than jointly developing the Tempest with the UK, Sweden (and crucially, it is the Swedish Minister of Defense Hultqvist that signed the MoU on behalf of the country) will join in developing sub-systems and capabilities (propulsion, sensors, and weapons are some obvious areas). What will Sweden then use these new capabilities and technologies for? Well, as the MoD notes in their presser: “This collaboration offers the opportunity to further insert advanced technologies into JAS 39 Gripen.”

In the end, it will be down to the industry to actually put the MoU into effect, and in the words of Saab, they “will contribute with […] experience of advanced technology development, system integration of complete combat air systems and related areas including sensors, missile systems and support”, though they also note that they still haven’t gotten any order related to the MoU (though they have been involved in the preliminary studies leading up to the signing, meaning that an order is likely just a quesiton of time).

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39E Gripen prototype 39-8 airborne armed with a Meteor very-long range air-to-air missile. The weapon was jointly developed for a number of European aircraft, including Gripen and Typhoon, showing one way of countries tapping into potential synergies despite operating different fighters. Picture courtesy of Saab

This kind of technology sharing isn’t unheard of, as the small number of avionics companies means that already today the JAS 39E/F and Typhoon operate related versions of many key technologies, with the IRST-scanner being the most high-profile ones.

As such, rather than signalling the death of the 39E even before it has seriously gotten off the ground, the MoU indicates a plan on the part of the Swedish government to ensure that the 39E/F will remain modern and viable in the mid- to long-term. Notably, the MoU is only in force for ten years, and it leave all doors open for Sweden, including joining the Tempest at a later date, or opting for another way. While another new all-Swedish fighter might be prohibitively expensive, obvious alternatives include joining France, Germany, and Spain on their fighter, or going fighter shopping on the other side of the Atlantic for the first time since the J 26 Mustang. However, the schedule for this is completely open, and with Gripen staying in service “for the foreseeable future” and the joint studies with Team Tempest likely providing new input, it does seem that we are closer to JAS 39G/H than we are to JAS 40. For Gripen in HX, things just started to look a little brighter.

*I really had to go there, didn’t I…

Survivability of a Finnish AEW&C

The news that a Finnish 39E/F Gripen order would include two GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft has lead to varied reactions, some better argued (and more reality-based) than others.

The first thing to address is that the inclusion of additional assets and the claim that they make the fighter better is not proof of a design flaw on the part of the fighter. This is true for Super Hornet and Growler, and it is true for Gripen and GlobalEye. Secondly, the recent fighter competitions the Gripen has lost have mostly been smaller contracts where the 39C has lost out against aircraft such as surplus F-16s. The Swiss decision to disqualify the 39E based on the criteria of evaluation flights this summer is in no way an indicator of how the aircraft will perform in five to ten years when HX is set to achieve IOC. There simply isn’t today a clear evaluation available in open sources that would have been apolitical enough that we can say that we know how a 2030-vintage 39E stack up against Rafale F4, F-35A Block 4, and the rest of the competition. This becomes especially true once the particulars of the Finnish Air Force and the way it operates are taken into account. It should also be remembered that the GlobalEye was included in the offer sent in months ago (and prepared last year), so trying to tie it to recent events isn’t realistic.

The first GlobalEye rolled out. Any Finnish order will be basedon the higher powered Global 6500 as opposed to the 6000. Picture courtesy of Saab

When it comes to AEW&C in general it can be said that any fighter will perform better with support from one compared to without. That hold true even as data links and sensor fusion means that individual fighters get access to significantly better situational awareness. AEW&C provide the possibility of the fighters operating with passive sensors until an opportune moment. The idea that a fighter can work as a mini-AEW, most often associated with the F-35 but by no means unique to it, has some credibility but should not be confused with a real AEW. The reasons are two-fold: size matters, as Saab’s competition has been happy to point out over the years, and the bigger power and bigger array sizes of a dedicated larger platform will translate into better performance (i.e. longer detection ranges). The second reason is the dedicated mission crew (the ‘C’-component of the AEW&C). These enjoy ergonomic working conditions and dedicated tools and training to direct the flow of battle and relay important information to the fighter pilots, who are in a stressed situation and more susceptible to information overload. As a side-note, the spotter/shooter-teaming of fighters, surface ships, and airborne sensors which F-35 (spotter) and US Navy ships (shooter) has been demonstrating is also something that Saab has been studying. My understanding is that no other contry besides the US has yet to actually demonstrate the capability in practice. However, with the choice of Saab’s 9LV combat managment system for all Finnish surface combatants, the combination of Pohjanmaa-class corvettes, Hamina-class FAC, and JAS 39E/F Gripen fighters acting as shooters with a GlobalEye AEW&C acting as the sensor(s) looks tempting.

The question which undoubtedly caused most discussion was that of survivability. While the GlobalEye have some passive sensors, when it is operating it will be transmitting with it’s radar at a relatively high power. AESA radars aren’t as easy to locate as conventional ones, but if a GlobalEye is up in the sky, the enemy will likely know that it is there and have an approximate bearing on it’s location. However, the step from spotting a GlobalEye to actually shooting it down is quite a bit. To begin with the aircraft is equipped with significant EW-capabilities, but most importantly the range of the EriEye-ER radar allows it to sit back quite some way from the action. This has caused some discussion about whether the strategic depth Finland has is enough. The answer is that if Finland has any kind of own fighter presence in the air it should be. To better get a picture of the situation, let’s temporarily forego my principles and draw some circles on a map.

All the normal caveats apply. Circles on a map should never be treated as the objective truth. These are examples of ranges, the eventual detection and weapon distances will depend on a huge number of factors. However, in this particular example I do feel that this aid somewhat in understanding the distances at play.

To our aid we’ll bring in CMANO, which is widely regarded as the best tactical/operational level air and sea warfare simulator available to the general public (enough so that it has a professional edition on offer). Again, the circles aren’t exact because OPSEC and the laws of physics, but they are good enough for our purpose. The scenario used is named Code Name: Red Island, 2016, and feature a Russian amphibious assault on the Åland Islands. That is partly irrelevant, because we will simply use it to look at a few examples of sensor and weapon ranges.

Radar ranges

Here we have a number of ground based surveillance systems. For the Russians the white fat dotted line represents a Kasta 2E2 radar (NATO-designation ‘FLAT FACE’), which is a modern Russian long-range air surveillance system. The wider white dotted line is the S-200 associated 5N87 ‘BACK NET’. Remember that the earth’s curvature will cause significant shadows at longer ranges. The two Finnish Air Force bases are Tampere-Pirkkala and Kupio-Rissala. Note the orange circles designating Finnish SAM-systems, mainly the NASAMS. Note that even in a best case-scenario from the Russian point of view, they have no picture of what’s happening over the Finnish west coast coming from their ground based systems.

Su-35 Vyborg

Here we bring in the fighters. In this case we have a number of Russian Su-35S, featuring the powerful Irbis-E PESA radar. From the Karelian ishmuts the fighters could theoretically spot Finnish fighters taking-off from Pirkkala and Kuopio, roughly corresponding to the 5N87, but as the radars are airborne they offer a better coverage of lower altitudes. However, a key point here is the significantly shorter orange circle, which is the max-range of the R-27 missiles the Su-35 (and other Russian fighters) are armed with.

Hornet ranges

Enter corresponding picture from the Finnish point of view. The white sector is the search area of the legacy-Hornet’s AN/APG-73 radar, with the orange circle representing the max range of the AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM.

A-50U Mainstay

Here we bring in the stand-off sensors. East of Gotland we have a Russian A-50U ‘MAINSTAY’ AEW&C aircraft, flying circles approximately 200 nm south-southwest of Turku. Note the huge search range, with the dotted white circle almost stretching all the way to Vaasa despite the aircraft sitting quite far back. Naturally, if Finland would have an AEW&C sitting over Vaasa, one can easily imagine a similar circle stretching down to Gotland (remember, what you actually see depends on the radar-cross section and EW capabilities of the target).

The other interesting aircraft in the picture above is the C-295 Dragon Shield SIGINT/ELINT aircraft which sits over the Gulf of Bothnia on a southbound course. The passive sensors have picked up the emissions from the Russian squadron which is still quite a bit south of the Åland Islands. As is nicely illustrated, the bearings to the ships can be quite well read from the passive sensors alone, but judging range is significantly harder.

What then, if anything, can be shown by consulting a high-fidelity computer game? The most important point is that while Finland might be narrow, it isn’t indefensibly narrow even from the air. There is still ample of air space left for stand-off sensors before we start intruding on Swedish territory (with that said, having access to Swedish air space would certainly be a plus). It also shows the huge benefit of having an airborne surveillance radar, especially once the radar shadows found at lower altitudes are taken into the picture. It should also be remebered that the Global 6500 has a ‘high-cruise’ of Mach 0.88, which means that if an enemy fighter got through, the GlobalEye would have a decent chance of if not exactly outrunning the enemy, then at least keeping the distance until the fighter needs to head back home. As such, with the current arsenal found on both sides of the border, I believe it is fair to say that the GlobalEye would be rather survivable once in the air (as long as the total collapse of the Finnish Air Force is avoided, but if that happens things are seriously going south in any case). Which brings us to a more important point.

The second GlobalEye coming in for landing. Picture courtesy of Saab

Two is a small number. The current reliability of business jets means that in peacetime it should be enough, but it leaves next to no room for operational losses. While the aircraft are rather defensible once airborne, their high-value means that they need protection while on the ground. A nightmare scenario would see them being taken out in the opening salvo of a war, either by long-distance weapons or special forces. A prime example is the 2012 terror attack on Minhas AFB in Pakistan, which crippled the country’s fleet of four Saab Erieye aircraft, leaving one destroyed and two damaged. Still, even a single GlobalEye would provide extremely valuable service to all three services in case of a conflict, and not having valuable stuff because someone might destroy them isn’t really a workable solution in war. The obvious solution here is closer integration with the Swedish AEW&C fleet, which likely will transfer from ASC 890 to GlobalEye at some point in the medium term, which would give higher redundancy in case either party suffer combat losses.

One last issue which need to be addressed is the possibility of extremely long-range missiles being used to target the aircraft from stand-off ranges. Currently this is a capability that Russia lacks, with the longest range missile in any kind of service, likely IOC, is the K-37M carried by the MiG-31BM long-range interceptor. It is envisioned that this weapon would also be carried by other fighters, but currently this does not seem to be the case. The weapon has a 200 km range from a head-on position ‘against some targets’. This is much more than a R-27, but the actual operational range is likely significantly less than advertised. A newer missile is in development for the Su-57 under the designation Izdeliye 810. The design has apparently beaten the competing K-100 (based on the second stage of the 3M83 missile from the S-300V), and the range will be in excess of 300 km. Passive homing on (fighter) radars will reportedly be a feature in the future. Coupled with the stealth characteristics of the Su-57 allowing the launching aircraft to get closer before it is discovered, this could potentially be a threat. However, considering the issues encountered with the development of the Su-57 and other air-launched weapons the final performance is a major question mark, as is the schedule for when they could enter operational service. China has a corresponding ‘AWACS’-killer in the form of the PL-X project, which was test-fired in November 2016 from a J-16. The weapon reportedly also is in the 300 km class. While further along than the 810, it is unlikely that it will ever make a showing around the Baltic Sea. In any case, very long range missiles won’t change the equation, but rather will alter the numbers involved in a significant but not revolutionary way.

This segways nicely into the most important point: to accurately forecast the impact of developments such as new weapons over the next few decades is difficult, and this is just one aspect that needs to be evaluated. Future-proofing HX for the 2050’s is hard, with key questions such as sensor development versus stealth being extremely difficult to evaluate. However, the GlobalEye (and corresponding systems) are likely to maintain their relevance over the decades. Will a Gripen backed up by a GlobalEye beat an F-35 without AEW&C support? By 2021 we should have the answer.