Nenonen’s heritage, pt 3: The Heavies

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

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firing on its former owners during the Soviet summer offensive of 1944. 63 years later the last guns would finally be withdrawn from Finnish service.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s obviously just a few problems:

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

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

Nenonen’s heritage, pt 1: The Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bv 206 meets Mercedes

In a wide variety of different terrain types, wheels simply aren’t an option. This has led to militaries as far apart as Finland and Singapore operating all-terrain tracked vehicles in a bewildering array of roles. In essence, when you need infantry in terrain too rough for wheeled platforms, you throw in an all-terrain vehicle for whatever mission you ordinarily would see a truck perform. The terrain can then be made up of bogs, meter-deep snow, or other kinds of soft and/or rough spots. What matters is that you need the lowest possible ground pressure, or even amphibious capabilities.

Bv 206 MLU
The Bv 206 MLE at AMBLE Baltic in Wilhelmshaven last Thursday. Source: Own Picture

For a long time the field has been dominated by the ubiquitous Bv 206 from Hägglunds (today BAE Systems Hägglunds), which has seen use by the armed forces of 25 different countries (if Wikipedia is to be trusted), including not only Finland, Sweden, and Norway, but the German airborne and mountain troops, the British Royal Marines, and the Dutch Korps Mariniers as well.

The Bv 206 is a sturdy vehicle, with the basic chassis and the compartments generally not really being worn out. The biggest downside is the complete lack of protection, the vehicle front compartment and trailer basically being two big boxes of fiberglass reinforced plastic, capable of stopping thrown rocks, but not much else. The 80’s technology in the drivetrain and other parts of the vehicle are also starting to show their age, with spare parts being increasingly difficult to find.

This has made the question of finding a replacement one that interest a number of countries throughout Europe, with not only the Bv 206 but also other older vehicles of the same class starting to need replacing. To that end Germany organised a multinational meeting for European users last February to look into the alternatives.

Several modern vehicles are found on the market, including BAE System Hägglund’s BvS10 Viking Mk 2 and ST Engineering’s Bronco ATTC, which underwent snow mobility testing in Finland last winter. However, for a country like Finland which has over 600 Bv 206 and a number of older indigenous Sisu NA-series (as well as a handful of the lightly protected Bv 308), getting a similar number of modern protected all terrain vehicles is probably overly expensive. The BvS10 Viking is found in an unarmoured (and likely cheaper) version designated BvS10 BEOWULF, but with modern military vehicles ‘cheap’ doesn’t necessarily equal ‘little money’.

Enter Millog’s Bv 206 MLE concept, a simple drop-in lifetime extension developed by Hellgeth engineering Spezialfahrzeugbau GmbH in Germany. The core of the upgrade is a completely new drivetrain centred around a Mercedes-Benz OM651, a modern 4-cylinder CDI engine, together with an equally new ZF 6 HP 28 gearbox with six forward gears (as opposed to four in the original Bv 206). Some other changes are also included in the MLE, such as a new radiator and fan, new steering/hydraulics, a new exhaust gas recirculation system, a new CAN bus based electric system, and a new control panel on the dashboard. When the MLE testbed isn’t doing laps around the Neue Jadewerft in Wilhelmshaven, it is in regular use by the Jääkäriprikaati in Sodankylä, in the far north of Finland.

Based on the last one and a half years of service with the Bv 206 MLE, which include over 5000 km, the new drivetrain does what can be expected of this kind of mid-life upgrade. The fuel consumption has been lowered by 30% compared to the regular Bv 206 D6N with its 6-cylinder Daimler Benz Ag OM603 A diesel. It has a lower heat signature, higher torque at low engine speed, and reduced maintenance needs. If anyone is wondering about the noise level in the video clip above, there’s a KMW APVT doing laps out of view, with the Bv 206 being quite low noise. However, the most important benefit might be that using a current commercial off-the-shelf engine and gearbox means spare parts are readily available at short notice, significantly improving downtime during scheduled and unscheduled maintenance stops.

TRJE 15
A German protected Bv 206S during Exercise Trident Juncture 2015. Source: Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum via Wikimedia Commons

Millog is clear with their aim. “We aren’t competing with new vehicles,” as a company representative explains. But as all terrain vehicles are the sole alternative for the roadless country found up north in Finland, there will be a continued requirement for serious numbers of these kinds of platforms. And as “the basic vehicle is a solid design”, this kind of low-cost and decidedly low-tech lifetime extension for the larger part of the fleet coupled with a buy of a smaller number of modern protected vehicles for use as APCs would be a very Finnish solution. At the moment the future of the Finnish fleet is undecided, but Millog is ready to modify significant parts of the Finnish Bv 206-fleet in-country if the Finnish Defence Forces decides to go down that route.

This is one alternative for the FDF, time will tell which route the service chooses

But what then causes Millog to ship the Bv 206 MLE demonstrator to AMBLE Baltic in Germany? Millog mentions the general need for these kinds of amphibious all terrain vehicles for marine forces around the world, but word on the street has it that there’s a more direct connection between the German marines and the potential for a Bv 206 upgrade as well. As mentioned the German airborne and mountain forces use Bv 206S (a protected version closely related to the Bv 308 in use by e.g. Finland and Sweden). However, especially the Gebirgsjäger would like to upgrade to the BvS10 Viking, while the Seebatallion has a requirement for an all terrain vehicle, of which they currently have none. It is speculated one likely solution would be that the mountain troops get new vehicles, while their Bv 206 are passed on to the marines. They would then require some kind of a mid-life update, such as the Bv 206 MLE. The German-designed drive train with a German engine and gearbox could certainly be a tempting option, especially as the upgrade has proven itself to be more than just a paper product.

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.

Screenshot 2019-08-08 at 15.34.58

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(!).

d09ed181d182d180d0bed0b25
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.

Weapons & Ammunition

The Swedish Defence Materiel Administration, FMV, has issued a briefing on the ground forces’ part of their Materiel Plan 20 (hat-tip to HenrikJ on Twitter, FF as we say over there). In short, this is a look at a number of weapons and systems the Army will need in the next few year. Notable is that they are funded inside the current budget and quantities correspond to the current size of the Swedish Defence Forces. And because everyone loves a spirited calibre war, the thing that caught my eye was the plan to swap out all firearms at the squad level.

20111201_nicgus03_MOUT_005.jpg
A half-squad from the 422. Company at the MOUT training facility in Kvarn showing the current weapons of Swedish regular units. Left to right: Ksp 90, Psg 90 (on back), and Ak 5C with and without grenade launcher. Source: Nicklas Gustafsson/Swedish Defence Forces

The weapons includes Ak 4 (H&K G3), Ak 5 (FN FNC), Psg 90 (AI Arctic Warfare/L96A1), and the Ksp 90 (FN Minimi). In addition, a designated marksman rifle is to be acquired. Of these, the Ak 4 is the old main service rifle, currently it is mainly used by the Home Guard. The other four weapons are the main squad level weapons of the regular force.

The most prolific weapon of the Swedish forces is without doubt the Ak 5. Contrary to the earlier FN FAL, the 5.56 NATO chambered FNC was a limited success, with Sweden being the only western country to acquire it outside of its native Belgium. In Swedish trials the FNC beat a modified Galil SAR and was adopted in the winter of 1986/1987, making Sweden a pioneer when it came to switching from 7.62 mm to 5.56 mm. The Ak 5 was license-produced in Eskilstuna, and from the get go it has been featuring unique Swedish modifications, spawning a family of it’s own compared to the baseline FNC. In total, approximately 27,500 of the latest version Ak 5C/D were ordered. 

ak-5-at-lohtaja-1-10
Swedish sailor standing guard with his short-barreled Ak 5D aboard a Swedish corvette during a port call in Finland in 2010. Source: Own picture

The other weapons have scored more notable export successes. The Minimi, or M249 SAW which it is still best known as (although the ‘SAW’ has officially been changed), was the outcome of the decision to create a light machine gun able to use the same ammunition as the rest of the squad, i.e. the 5.56 NATO round. It is not a bad weapon per se, but it certainly lack the firepower of light machine guns chambered in 7.62 NATO. The Arctic Warfare is your basic sniper rifle in 7.62 NATO. Accurate, big power optics, costs an arm and a leg, but crucially makes it possible for a trained sniper to hit individual targets out to 1,000 meters.

The interesting part is that the briefing emphasised that the requirements are to be focused on the “system”. While this shouldn’t be read as a single weapon doing everything, it does offer an edge to any supplier able to cater to all or several of the four weapons needed (assault rifle, designated marksman rifle, light machine gun, and sniper rifle). However, a split buy likely isn’t ruled out (especially when it comes to the sniper rifle). The programme, including trials, will take place during 2019 to 2024 with the main deliveries starting in 2025. A total of 2.2 billion SEK (210 million Euro) is allocated for the 2021 to 2030 period.

If we start from the most basic weapon, the assault rifle (likely in full-length and carbine length versions) will likely be a new 5.56 NATO weapon. For quite some time there has been new wonder-rounds appearing with tiresome regularity, but despite the praise calibres such as .300 BLK or 6.8 SPC has garnered from firearms aficionados, love is waiting to blossom out when it comes to these wildcat(ish) rounds and the greater defence community. The reason is not that they would be bad, but rather that the task of switching away from 5.56 NATO which has become the de facto western standard to something else causes major disruptions when it comes to logistics and interoperability. As such, I don’t foresee a shift away from the 5.56 NATO for most Swedish soldiers.

In the same way it would be very surprising if the designated marksman rifle is anything else than a 7.62 NATO weapon. The round excels in combining a relatively manageable recoil and a reach out beyond that of the 5.56 NATO, while at the same time being in widespread use both amongst military, law enforcement, and civilian users.

The light machine gun is a more interesting one. The FN MAG is in Swedish use as the Ksp 58, though the versions available are quite old (read: heavy), and in its current guise likely won’t migrate down to fill the squad level-role. However, stepping up from 5.56 NATO to 7.62 NATO is entirely possible, especially as the designated marksman weapon likely will bring the calibre into widespread use anyhow (though sharing ammunition between the DM and the machine gunner will likely stay an emergency measure only).

SPOL tarkamp
Finnish military police sniper covering a helicopter landing zone. The weapon is the Sako TRG-42 chambered in .338 LM, or 8.6 TKIV 2000 as it is locally known. Source: Maavoimat FB

For the sniper rifle, while 7.62 NATO has long been the standard round, I find it highly likely that the new weapon will follow international trends a go up a notch to .338 LM. It does allow for longer shots compared to the 7.62 NATO, but the big benefit is that it is more forgiving at the ranges beyond a few hundred meters, thanks to the better ballistics and higher hitting power. On the downside both weapons and rounds are significantly more expensive, and it would mean adopting a completely new round into Swedish service.

The Contenders

To begin with, let’s not pretend that there is any single obvious choice for any single one of the weapons. With that said, some weapons certainly would be less surprising than others. Notable is the fact that there are no Swedish gunmaker able of handling even license production of the order following the closure of the Eskilstuna rifleworks in 2012.

SFG_SFAUC
Belgian special forces operator with a SCAR-L. Source: Lithiummm01 via Wikimedia Commons

FN Herstal has an interesting arsenal to offer. The FN-SCAR is widely seen as one of the best assault rifles currently in use. It is offered in numerous configurations, including the basic SCAR-L (available with both 14.5” and 10” barrels) and the sub-compact SCAR SC (7.5” barrel), as well as the SCAR-H in 7.62 NATO (available in the PR designated marksman/semi-auto sniper version). FN Herstal also has a number of options for the machine gun, offering the modernised MINIMI Mk3 in both 5.56 NATO and 7.62 NATO as well as numerous versions of the earlier mentioned FN MAG in 7.62 NATO. The SCAR has received several orders, but mostly from elite units (including the Finnish Special Jaegers) and scoring noticeably worse when it comes to larger orders for general service rifles.

In the same way, Heckler & Koch has an impressive array. The HK416 (5.56 NATO) and HK417 (7.62 NATO) is a duet that has secured an impressive string of orders. The biggest gem in this string of pearls is without doubt the decision by France to replace their homemade FAMAS with the German design. Closer to home, Norway has adopted them as well. The weapons are based on the classic AR-design, but feature a short-stroke piston. For the German G36C replacement, H&K has offered the newer HK433 instead, which is available in numerous configurations. So far it has failed to receive any orders, but in case it does become the main German assault rifle the outlook for the rifle could change overnight. HK also have the MG4 in 5.56 NATO and MG5 in 7.62 NATO when it comes to machine guns, and the G28 designated marksman rifle version of the HK417.

Haenel MK 556 is the other contender for the German contract. The company has a more civilian portfolio, with machine guns being absent. They do however, offer a number of 7.62 NATO chambered rifles which are suitable for marksman duty.

Other obvious contenders are more traditional versions of the AR-family which are available from numerous manufacturers, including the Lewis Machine & Tool Company which recently secured the contract to replace Estonia’s Ak 4s (though the order has been challenged in court).

As is evident from the rundown above, the one weapon missing is a bolt-action sniper rifle, with the others usually having the option of being found from a single manufacturer. Quite a number of .338 LM sniper rifles are found on the market, with the Sako TRG-42 likely being the market leader, but there are several others in use such as the AWM in British service as the L115A3 (the AWM is now replaced by the AXMC, which likely will be the contender for a Swedish order) or the McMillian TAC-338.

Meanwhile, in Finland

PlantaRodadora
Source: EriKolaborator via Wikimedia Commons

Tumbleweeds. Crickets. The ghosts of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid riding by in the distance.

During a century of Finnish Defence Forces, a total of two platforms have been the main weapons of the Finnish infantry: the Mosin-Nagant M91 (that’s 1891) and the AK-family of assault rifles. And while the M91-family is slowly being retired (a sniper rifle built on the original receivers is still around), the AK-clones are set to overdo their stay.

“But wait”, my trusty old Rk 62 says. “Don’t you remember when we scored a perfect 20 on the rifle qualification? That was how I made you love me!”

The Rk 62 and the newer Rk 95 TP are arguably some of the best AK-clones available in 7.62×39 mm, being machined and featuring details such as the rear sight being moved further back for a more accurate sight picture thanks to tighter tolerances. The weapon is accurate enough when you have time to find a good firing stance and shoot at 75 meters. Still, there’s no denying that both the platform and calibres are getting old. The updated Rk 62M is better, especially thanks to the improved stock and the Aimpoint Comp M4 Micro T-2 sight combining to make quick shots and recoil management easier. Still, it is largely a question of coating a dated design in a liberal amount of sugar and calling it sweet. And to make matters worse, a large number of wartime Finnish troops would not get a Finnish-built weapon, but one of any number of East German and Chinese AKM-copies which have been bought in droves to equip the second and third line troops. Edit: It seems I was wrong on this one, and while there are significant stocks of AKM-copies left, the current size of the Finnish wartime force is covered (with some margin) by the estimated number of Finnish-built weapons available.

For a long time I have been arguing against introducing a new assault weapon for the Finnish Defence Forces. Rifles generally age well, and if one has to choose between introducing a new rifle with a new main calibre against something like the 155 K9 Moukari artillery system, the new SPGs are the obvious choice. However, we are moving towards the point in time when waiting is no longer an option. As such, we could certainly do worse than ensuring an option to piggyback off the Swedish firearms trials in the same way the Estonian Defence Forces bought their K9s under the same contract as the Finnish artillery. Buying the same assault rifles, designated marksman rifles, and machine guns as Sweden would allow us to phase out a large number of the worst AK-clones, the Dragunovs and possibly the last 7.62 TKIV 85, as well as the 7.62 KvKK 62 light machine guns. The 7.62 PKM is still a modern weapon, so there is no need to replace those. However, additional buys are a no-no after Crimea.

I hereby suggest a study into how piggybacking upon the Swedish firearms program with a 450 million Euro program of our own could increase the lethality of the Finnish infantry. This ought to be funded outside of the normal defence budgets, in line with other ongoing strategic acquisitions.

The Iskander Threat

Few modern weapon systems have the power to captivate popular imagination the way the Iskander does. Partly this stems from the lack of a clear specification, both for operational security reasons and because the system violates the (recently deceased) INF-treaty. Another reason for the allure is that the system represents a new capability, which so far has not been found in the Russian (nor in too many other countries’) arsenal, and lastly but not least the simple fact that it can carry nuclear warheads.

Iskander-M being launched. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

In addition, there is widespread confusion amongst non-defence geeks about how exactly the Iskander and other ballistic missiles differ from the more widespread cruise missiles, and how to defend against enemy Iskander-attacks. This blog will strive to sort out some of these misconceptions, and give a picture of how the Iskander threat should be evaluated.

The basic Iskander, Iskander-M, is a ballistic missile. For those into the details, the system’s official GRAU designation is 9K720 while the missile itself is designated 9M723. The word “ballistic” means that the missile roughly follows a ballistic trajectory, i.e. the path an object would take if you would throw it. A big rocket engine propels the Iskander up in the air, after which it will fall down onto the target. It isn’t a pure ballistic trajectory, the missile is guided and can make course changes, but it can’t e.g. regain height once it has started diving.

As said, the exact performance is shrouded in secrecy. The most often quoted figures is a range of 400-500 km, and a warhead of 700 kg. However, professor Stefan Forss already in 2012 noted that the official numbers doesn’t quite add up, and calculated a range of 500-750 km, while also noting that some Russian sources “could imply a heavy penetrating warhead weighing about 1,300 kg.” Note though that 700+ km ranges aren’t possible with such a heavy warhead in current configuration (the range calculations were made based on a 400 kg nuclear warhead). The missile likely has a CEP better than 10 meter under ideal circumstances, i.e. half of the missiles will fall within that distance of the target. A 700 kg warhead hitting within 10 meters, especially considering the kinetic energy of the approaching missile, does make the weapon viable to use against individual buildings with a conventional (i.e. non-nuclear) warhead, something which was not the case with Cold War missiles such as the SCUD or Tochka. However, like the earlier missiles, the Iskander is only capable of attacking fixed targets.

It is obvious that if you are supposed to reach a target hundreds of kilometers away with a ballistic trajectory you will need to go fast or high, preferably both. This is what makes shooting down ballistic missiles so hard. The Iskander missile dives towards the target at speeds of 2-3 kilometer per second. Trying to shoot down a maneuvering target falling towards the earth at eight times the speed of sound is extremely difficult, and require a very fast missile placed close to the target of the Iskander. The Patriot system does feature missiles capable of intercepting Iskanders (though their efficiency is questioned), and this is what the Swedish Army is in the process of acquiring. Needless to say, the capability doesn’t come cheap: the Swedish deal is valued at 2-3 billion Euros, which will give four batteries with anti-ballistic missile and anti-aircraft missiles.

However, the Iskander isn’t exactly cheap either. A missile brigade, there are ten to twelve in total in the Russian Armed Forces, feature twelve launchers meaning that the opening salvo of all Russian operational Iskanders would have a hard cap of 288 missiles. This would likely be lower as 100% availability is usually restricted to utopia and all brigades wouldn’t be directed against a single target anymore than all armoured brigades would.

Now, a hundred unstoppable conventional warheads raining down on Finland would cause issues. Targeting strategic sites such as bridges, headquarters, utilities such as power and water plants, would very quickly make things complicated. However, this is not in and by itself a war-winning weapon. Granted there could be a second wave, possibly even a third, but the supply of missiles aren’t endless. High-end weapons comes with a cost, even if you’re trading in rubles. In the end destruction caused by traditional air strikes coupled with cruise missiles will quickly become a bigger issue.

MiG-31 with Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile at the Moscow Victory Day parade 2018. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A short note on the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal. This is a large missile carried by the MiG-31 heavy fighter. It is part of the family of recently unveiled Russian “super-weapons” aimed at ensuring a Russian nuclear deterrent in the face of developments when it comes to missile defences. The Kinzhal seems to be a modified version of the Iskander-M missile, which thanks to higher launch speed and height gives it a range of over 800 km (1,000 to 3,000 km is often quoted, but it seems that these numbers include the combat range of the aircraft). Kinzhal seems to be a more realistic option compared to several other of the unveiled systems, but exact specifications and whether Russia will field a conventionally armed version are still unclear.

Cruise Missiles

Cruise missiles are a completely different breed of beasts. They are in essence unmanned aircraft carrying a warhead to a target. The size, range, operating methods, launching platforms, and warhead types varies, but in essence they have an engine and wings to allow them to fly long distances, and then crash into whatever their target is. Often the cruise missiles fly towards their targets at very low altitude, using the terrain to mask their approach. The Finnish Air Force operate the AGM-158 JASSM cruise missile, while the Navy’s current and upcoming anti-ship missiles both exhibit similar traits (it is largely a question of nomenclature/taxonomy rather than any practical differences if anti-ship missiles should be counted amongst cruise missiles or as a detached family of their own).

The firing unit of the NASAMS, sporting six canister mounted AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles. Source: Maavoimat FB

Now, as the cruise missile flies like an aircraft towards its target it can also be shot down like one, using the regular means of fighters and ground based air defences. Cruise missiles can make tricky targets due to their low altitude, speed, and (in some cases) stealthiness, but a modern SAM-system such as the NASAMS of the Finnish Army should have no problem in bringing down one, provided it is located in the appropriate spot.

As opposed to ballistic missiles, cruise missiles have shown a nasty tendency to proliferate. In part this is due to the low(er) cost compared to modern ballistic missiles of the same class as the Iskander. The most famous example of a modern Russian cruise missile is the 3M14 Kalibr land-attack missile (think Tomahawk/TLAM), which sports a range of 2,000 km and comes in at a unit cost of 1.1 million Euro. The weapon is officially in use aboard a number of modern Russian warships (including submarines), and likely it is this very missile that is carried by the Iskander-K under the designation 9M729. Yes, confusingly enough there is both a ballistic missile-carrying version of the Iskander and a cruise missile-carrying version. Generally, if people refer to something simply as the “Iskander”, it is the ballistic missile-carrying Iskander-M they mean.

The 9M729 is also at the centre of the INF-controversy which led to the US declaring the treaty void (INF doesn’t cover sea-based missiles, but as soon as the Kalibr was brought ashore it became illegal under the INF-treaty).

An Iskander-K with one of it’s two cruise missile containers raised. Source: Vadim Grishankin via Wikimedia Commons

If it is the unstoppable nature of the ballistic missile that makes the Iskander-M a threat, it is the large number of missiles coupled with the vast range that makes the Kalibr/Iskander-K one. Finland is within range of the Kalibr of both the Baltic as well as the Northern Fleet, where the vessels of the Northern Fleet effectively are beyond the reach of the anti-ship weapons of the Finnish Defence Forces.

Conclusions

The Iskander-M is a threat. So is the Kalibr/Iskander-K and other cruise missiles. However, they have very little common with each other, besides the fact that they transport warheads into enemy territory (as does strike aircraft). Phrases such as “the ability to defend against Iskander and Kalibr-missiles” are sometimes thrown around as if they are referring to a single capability, when in fact they are vastly separate issues. We already have the capability to defend against cruise missiles in all three services, with weapons such as the NASAMS, Umkhonto, and the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Acquiring point-defence capabilities against the Iskander for four possible targets would be a project comparable in cost to two Squadron 2020-projects. Not vessels, but two complete projects of eight vessels in total. As such, it is hard to argue with the official Finnish position that we’ll simply have to disperse and be prepared to suffer a number of Iskander hits, while at the same time investing further in medium-range air defence capabilities to defend against cruise missiles and enemy aircraft. The combination of Squadron 2020, HX, and the Army’s new GBAD-program will make the skies over Finland much deadlier for an attacker in the upcoming decades. Just not for their ballistic missiles.