Finland has gone on a bit of a shopping spree when it comes to munitions recently. Finally, one might add, as low stocks of advanced munitions has been quoted in defence white papers as a serious issue. Following the developments of this year, the FDF has received a serious amount of more funding both immediately available and for the coming years. The amounts to be spent on acquisitions is somewhat unclear to me due to the numerous changes and some funding being “new” while others are related to covering equipment having been sent to Ukraine, but we are talking about more than a billion euros of additional funds (i.e. above the originally planned level for 2022 and assuming a similar level in 2023) spread out over this year and the next.
While most of the deals are classified, the US congressional notices through the DSCA provide certain insight – though with the usual caveat that these represent possible maximums (i.e. everything between zero and the quoted number can be acquired, and that one shouldn’t look at the figures next to the dollar signs for any kind of confirmation of the contract cost.
One of the big media stars of the war in Ukraine has been the HIMARS with the GMLRS-guided missiles. In Finnish service the weapon has been used by the M270 MLRS already earlier, and a follow-on request for longer-ranged ER GMLRS was approved in 2021 and ordered just before the invasion of February. The approval covered 25 M30A2 ER GMLRS-AW pods and 10 M31A2 ER GMLRS-U pods, of which the AW (Alternative Warhead) uses pre-fragmented tungsten fragments to spread destruction over a bigger area while the U (Unitary) relies on blast and pressure effects to destroy individual targets. Each pod sports six missiles, and while the cost quoted in the DSCA notice is 91.2 million USD, the eventual contract value for an undisclosed number of pods was approximately 70 million EUR.
This is all nice and good, and then the FDF brought the big sack of money to Grand Prairie.
150 M30A1 GMLRS AW or M30A2 GMLRS AW with Insensitive Munitions Propulsion System (IMPS), or a combination of both, and 250 M31A1 GMLRS-U or M31A2 GMLRS-U IMPS, or a combination of both. The total estimated cost: 535 million USD (509.7 MEUR).
The reason behind the mix in versions between the A1 and A2 is due to there being a parallel request for diversion of 50% of this procurement from US stock.
To get an idea of how insanely large the order is, the total US production of GMLRS pods during the first two decades reached 8,334 pods in February last year. 400 pods is roughly a years worth of production at that rate, though currently the annual production rate is 1,250 pods with the ability to go up to 1,670 pods. Still, even with production at full speed that means Finland would like close to a quarter of Lockheed Martin’s annual production (though as noted, part of these could come from US stocks which then could be topped up later).
Safe to say, while the media discourse might be overly eager to jump on a single weapon system as the silver bullet, it does seem safe to say that the GMLRS has proven itself to the extent that a serious investment in missiles seems to be in the cards for Finland.
AIM-9X Sidewinder and AGM-154 JSOW
Then followed a somewhat unlikely mix of air-launched weapons, with the short-range air-to-air AIM-9X Sidewinder (40 missiles) and the advanced air-to-ground guided glide-bomb AGM-154 JSOW (48 weapons). The immediate reaction by some was that we are seeing the first order for weapons (outside of the original package) for Finland’s coming F-35A-fleet, which does operate both weapons. However, it is notable that both weapons are also used by the current F/A-18C/D Hornets. The number of JSOW in service is believed to be limited, and it is certainly possible that in the same discussion as that of more GMLRS it has become evident that a larger number of precision-guided air-to-ground weapons are needed. The JSOW is an interesting capability in that it is significantly cheaper than cruise missiles (such as the AGM-158 JASSM), in parts thanks to it being unpowered. At the same time, it offers significantly greater range compared to traditional guided bombs such as the JDAM.
But why do we suddenly need more Sidewinders? One possibility is simply that there has always been too few in stock. Another is that experiences from Ukraine has shown the value in being able to hunt down cruise missiles and helicopters, and it might be that the analysis of the FinAF is that Sidewinders provide a better return on investment in that role compared to the AIM-120 AMRAAM (it is also possible that AMRAAMs are being ordered through another package to supply both the NASAMS-batteries as well as the fighters).
With the F/A-18C/D getting to serve on in Finnish service as the primary ground-pounder until the second fighter wing converts and F-35A reaches FOC by 2030, topping up the stocks with both Sidewinders (an important weapon in the self-defence role as well) and heavy-hitting guided weapons that provide a measure of stand-off capability certainly would make sense.
The latest news was that Finland has its sights set on additional Stingers. Finland has the FIM-92E Stinger RMP Block I (this particular upgrade is possibly designated FIM-92F, the designations are somewhat messy as many Stinger-variants are upgrade programs for older variants) in service as the primary MANPADS, with the clearance having come already back in 2011 for up to 600 missiles and the eventual order for an undisclosed number (Janes estimate is 200) of refurbished ex-US missiles being signed in 2014. Again it would be easy to make assumptions on the purpose of the weapon – Finland topping up stocks, of which some might or might not have been included in deliveries to Ukraine.
Except the tiny detail that this time around the quoted version was the FIM-92K.
While the FIM-92E was the latest and greatest for a while, the years since has seen the introduction of the FIM-92J with added capability against small unmanned targets (thanks to a proximity fuse) as well as upgrades allowing for longer shelf-life. However, in parallel to the FIM-92J our friend the FIM-92K was developed which is a version featuring an improved datalink for lock-on after launch capability (LOAL) and the ability to feed cooling and power from an external source.
To put it in clear writing, the FIM-92K is the version for vehicle-mounted launchers. While my understanding is you can in theory put a FIM-92K through a normal MANPADS tube, it is questionable why Finland would opt for a specialised version if there weren’t plans to hook them up to something feeding either the target location and/or power and cooling.
While there are people who without doubt would like to see the Avenger in Finnish service (mainly scale modellers, if we are honest), more likely is that we will have some platform more related to the current vehicles in service. Perhaps the most notable thing is that the ASRAD currently in service as the ITO05 with the SAAB BOLIDE-missile is in fact set up from the beginning to be able to take a number of different missiles, such as the RBS 70/BOLIDE, Mistral, Igla, and the Stinger. In fact, of the three current operators, Finland with the ASRAD-R is the only one not to use the Stinger in the current setup, with both Germany and Greece having the Stinger as their big (okay, rather small) stick.
Will Finland create a new TELAR in the style of the current BOLIDE-carrying vehicles, strip the current ones of the BOLIDE to replace them with Stingers, or some other solution? Who knows, even tying the FIM-92K to ASRAD-R is speculation at this stage. It might simply be that Finland was able to get a better price on the FIM-92K instead of the -92J due to component costs or by leveraging a hot production line. However, if I had to guess, analysis of the war has shown that there is a need to get more firing units to cover against the UAS and cruise missile threat, and with both ASRAD and Stinger being known and apparently well-liked systems, combining the two would make perfect sense for a quick and cheap(ish) solution. Notable is that the beam-riding nature of the BOLIDE and the heat-seeking Stinger means that anyone facing a Finnish ASRAD would be unsure about the nature of the threat, which certainly would benefit the Finnish air defence units. Will we see an ASRAD-adaption on a Zetros-chassis with Stinger-missiles? Time will tell, but in my opinion that would certainly be less of a surprise than if a battalion of Avengers suddenly appeared in Karelia.
The world of military defence and national security isn’t standing still, so for the next three days we will take a look on a current topic from each of the three countries that make up NATO’s northern flank, kicking off with the northernmost one: Norway.
Norway needs modern tanks.
In my world, the statement is obvious enough that I had not thought I would write a post on the topic, but here we are.
Readers of the blog might be familiar with the fact that Norway has been running an acquisition program simply called “Nye stridsvogner” – which literally means “New tanks”. The international interest has largely come down to the fact that it has been a rather thorough one, including local trials pitting Europe’s main battle tank the Leopard 2 against South Korea’s K2 Black Panther, something that is quite rare in the world of tank procurement these days.
The current Norwegian tanks are ex-Dutch Leopard 2A4, sporting a rather limited amount of local modifications compared to your standard 2A4. This includes a larger storage box on the back of the turret, two added antennas (one of which is for the GPS), and sporting some non-standard side skirt configurations (including borrowing Leopard 1 light skirts from older spare stocks), as well as sporting the Dutch-standard FN MAG light machine gun on the turret roof instead of the MG 3 (the smoke dispenser were converted to German standard upon delivery). In line with other non-upgraded 2A4s, what once was one of the best tanks in the world is showing serious signs of obsolescence (T-62 making sad noises). The original plan was for a serious upgrade program to take place, aiming for something close to the 2A7V-standard. However, like many Leopard-operators, it was eventually found to be more cost-efficient to just buy new tanks.
The expectation was that the Leopard 2A7NO would beat the K2NO Black Panther, an order would be placed late this year or early 2023, and in a few years time the new tanks would have replaced the ex-Dutch vehicles. That expectation has hit a bump already earlier, with reports coming out that the K2NO did in fact perform rather well in the winter trials. This was followed by the Polish order for the K2 and K2PL, which meant a K2NO-order would not make Norway the sole operator of the exotic tank in NATO. At the same time, Germany was making a mess of its grand Zeitenwende in the eyes of many European countries while accompanying its aid to Ukraine with a significant amount of squabbling, eroding its status as the obvious solid supplier of tanks to western countries.
With the significant political and supply base/synergy benefits of the Leopard called into question, it suddenly it seemed we had a real race on our hands. It wasn’t necessarily that K2NO was significantly better than the 2A7NO, but as opposed to the 2A7NO which had a lot of capabilities bolted on to the original Cold War-era design, the K2NO benefited from having been designed with these in mind. That in turn provide significant benefits to growth potential for the future, as well as weight savings which are a non-trivial matter in a snowy mountainous country such as the Republic of Kor… I mean, Norway.
And then in late November, the curveball hit hard. Norwegian Chief of Defence, general Eirik Kristoffersen, recommended to the Norwegian government that the tank procurement should be cancelled, and the freed up funds should be channelled to fund helicopters and long-range fires for the Army. This was rather quickly leaked and confirmed by the general to the press, and was followed up by a rather spectacular in-fighting in full glare of publicity, with the Chief of Operational Headquarters lieutenant-general Yngve Odlo publicly stating that he does not see any alternative to tanks and want the procurement to go through. He gets backed up by the commander of the sole Norwegian brigade Brigade Nord, brigadier Pål Eirik Berglund, who talked to Norwegian daily and paper of record Aftenposten and stated that “Without new tanks, we will be missing an essential component of the combat capability we need.” While the commander of the Army, major-general Lars S. Lervik, is said to oppose the proposal made by Kristoffersen but in public remains loyal (at least to the extent that he declines to comment and stated that he gives his advice to the general, who then gets to say what he wants to the government), the commander of the armoured battalion (Panserbateljonen) lieutenant colonel Lars Jansen said that the first he heard of the whole thing was when media broke the story.
The kind way to put it, and I’ve seen some make that argument, is that this isn’t a big deal, but normal discussion among professionals when money is limited and choices need to be made about where to spend it, with what can best be described as pitting a 21st century land version of the Jeune École arguing for firepower and mobility against a more traditional school of thinking emphasising taking and holding terrain. However, it is hard to see that such a deep and open split between many of the most senior commanders of the force would be a sign of healthy debate – the question is after all about one of the most important acquisition programs of the joint force which has reached a very late stage, in particular when coupled with the readiness displayed by other senior officers to publicly go against their commander.
The idea to cancel the tanks and place the bet on long-range fires is somewhat in line with the media speculation fuelled by the Instagram Wars of the last few years, in which videos of UACs and loitering munitions or light infantry with anti-tank weapons hunting enemy tanks have spread like wildfire and led some to declare the tank as being dead (again, one might add). However, what experiences from Ukraine seem to indicate is that the increased lethality on the battlefield means what you really need to survive is more, not less, protection. This takes the shape both in heavier protection for infantry protection vehicles, logistics vehicles, and so forth, but also a need for tanks to spearhead assaults and perform the numerous roles they have done on the battlefield since at least the Second World War. While the Ukrainian defensive victories of the first months of the war might have been driven by comparatively light forces, there is a reason why Ukraine is begging for all tanks they can get their hands on.
However, there is a second part to the argument in the case of Norway which is geography, and that deserves to be looked at.
The Norwegian border region in the far north is called Finnmark, and like the areas south of the border in Finland and Sweden it is dominated by wilderness, relatively sparse infrastructure, and a population density which makes talking to plants seem like a reasonable past-time: 1.55/km2 in the case of Finnmark. Opposite the border in Northern Russia sits the Russia Northern Fleet, responsible for an important part of the Russian nuclear deterrent – and in particular for the majority of the ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) responsible for the second-strike capability – as well as air defences stretching out over the Arctic which are to try and stop US strategic bombers and cruise missiles in case of all-out (nuclear) war. The notion by some is that in case of war, Russia would want to push NATO forces further away from the border either through use of long-range fires or by invasion, that the Norwegian forces would be unable to stop the Russians from doing this without dying, and that the solution is to attrit the forces before stopping them, and counterattacking when NATO reinforcements have arrived.
I'm not sure about 2). It seems to me that he argues they would push their A2/AD capabilities into Finmark. This would require some land forces.
Keen readers of the blog know that I do find the idea of Russia trying to push the front westwards in the region a reasonable one. However, the Russian juggernaut is somewhat questionable, as the amount of Russian forces in the area relatively limited, sporting two motorised brigades (200th and 80th) as well as a marine infantry brigade, and Russia can’t risk overly large losses as that would open up the region to counterattacks. Of course, the Russians have shown the ability to mass forces in prioritised operational directions, but the north isn’t an easy place to fight in in the best of times, and in winter (which is long and really dark) it will become directly hostile unless you have trained and equipped for it.
Which two Finnish, a Swedish, and a Norwegian brigades has done (notable here that the Finnish brigades are peacetime training units, and there’s no telling how many and what kind of wartime units they are tasked to mobilise in case of war).
As such, an important thing here to begin with is that Norway is not going to fight alone. This is not something new, but the new part is that from day one Norway isn’t going to fight alone, but rather alongside Finnish and Swedish soldiers. This means that force levels can be expected to be more or less equal on both sides of the border – as long as Norway contribute the heavy brigade NATO has asked for. And while a strategic surprise might catch the Norwegian brigades in Troms (the country next-door to the west), any Russian advance would see angry Finns and Swedes charging down their flank.
Interlude: If Russia shifts troops north they can obviously outmatch the locals, but in that case NATO is also freed up to concentrate more of their forces in the region.
However, I have not seen the Norwegian debate reflect upon what it means to wait for reinforcements. The USMC is going tank-less (which might be an idea for a dedicated amphibious force, but not for a ground force), and the number of heavy armoured units available in NATO are in fact rather limited and can be expected to have their hands full further south. There simply aren’t many available. But perhaps even more questionable, the plan to rely on long-range fires and having someone else spearhead the counterattack in effect means that someone else will have to take the largest share of losses in the battle for Finnmark.
It is difficult to see this leading to anything but the it being Finnish and Swedish sons and daughters in the first line dying to protect the civilians of Vardø. And that raises the question which I have not seen in the Norwegian debate.
Can Norway morally choose to go to war in the high north without tanks? In particular if it is allied with Finland and Sweden?
And it must be said, if the Norwegian politicians and soldiers would be ready to simply let the population of eastern Finnmark suffer under occupation until someone else comes to their aid – and as we have seen that means torture, rape, and killings in the same vein of the Red Army of old – that decision is odd in the extreme.
The call for cancelling the tank program has so far been met with mixed responses from the politicians. The Norwegian minority government has stated that they indeed to continue with the process, while from the opposition there has been calls for more information.
Which is somewhat strange, as it isn’t like the idea to invest millions in new tanks is a whim by the minister of defence, but rather based on years of studies and recommendations. The basis for the process is the white paper Landmaktsutredningen from 2017-2018 on the future of the ground forces, and in the latest Fagmilitært råd of 2019 the then-Chief of Defence provided four different ambition levels with additional directions for land- or sea-emphasised recommendations for the future of the Norwegian forces, he did explicitly write that the addition of new tanks is seen as crucial regardless of which level of ambition and funding the politicians agree upon. While a new edition of Fagmilitært råd is in the works, it’s difficult to see which changes would have affected the tank-part of things to the extent that new information would suddenly appear.
Norway needs modern tanks, and the only thing waiting for more information or cancelling the deal would mean is higher cost, a more uncertain deterrence situation in the high north, and a spot on Norway’s reputation among allies.
In 2007 I did my conscript service with the Finnish marines of the Nyland Brigade. As a conscript, I didn’t see overly much of our battalion commander, though I do remember him holding a lecture on national security and defence as well as him beginning his answer to my post-lecture question with a content “Well, seems at least someone was paying attention”. Last week I again had the opportunity to meet him, though this time we met in a North Karelian forested bog which had been my home for the last few nights. Far from the archipelago in the archetypical sissi-terrain, the now-brigadier general noted with the same smile he had shown back in the days that it’s a small world. But how did I end up in this decidedly non-naval setting? Let’s back up a bit, because the story is a good example of how the Finnish Defence Forces goes about training their reservists and setting up a capable wartime force.
The majority of the FDF wartime force is based on reservists, and that include sizeable numbers of officers and NCOs in the reserve. The path to any (uniformed) role in the FDF (or the Finnish Border Guard for that matter) starts with conscript service. Annually around 21,000 conscripts are trained for a host of different roles, including NCO and officer training. The first six weeks is basic recruit training, followed by six week of general service branch training. Approximately ten weeks into the conscript service those destined for leadership roles get chosen, and once the general service branch training is over after twelve weeks the first NCO course kicks off – no prices for guessing this is also a six week period. This course, designated AU1 or AUK1, is common for all leaders, after which soon-to-be reserve officers are sent to Reserve Officer School for a fourteen week course while those destined for NCO-training take part in another six week course – AU2 or AUK2.
The beauty of the system is that as the FDF take conscripts onboard twice annually – early January and early July – the AU2 course finishes at the same time as the next group of conscripts enter the building. As such, the newly minted corporals will be responsible for the training of the enlisted soldiers over the next 165 days, with the reserve officer candidates joining the fun two months later in the middle stages of the general service branch training. The general service branch training for enlisted conscripts is followed by specialisation for six weeks, and then finally six weeks of honing your skills in working together as a unit. To translate this into an example, a conscript picked for infantry does six weeks of general infantry training, followed by six weeks of training to become e.g. a machine gunner, followed by six weeks of practicing what it means to function as a machine gunner in their wartime unit. The trained unit made up of enlisted, NCOs, and reserve officers, is then sent home into the reserve, and in case of being mobilised the majority of faces around you would likely be recognisable from your time as a conscript. Obviously, this would be fleshed out with professional officers and NCOs (who have also started their career as military leaders with AU1 and AU2 or RUK before applying to the National Defence University once out in the reserve), but in general you wouldn’t expect to see many professionals (outside of highly technical roles) in positions outside of headquarters. For a quick back of the envelope example using Janes’ numbers: the Army is sporting roughly 3,500 full-time personnel, while the wartime mobilised strength is approximately 160,000, i.e. less than 2.5 % of the mobilised force would be professionals. Take that ratio, and in a 300-strong company you are looking at less than eight professional officers and NCOs.
The example above is purposefully crude in the extreme – we are not going to start discussing classified details on wartime OOBs of the FDF here – but gives a hint on the importance of the trained wartime leaders in the reserve.
Personally I had my sights set on the landing craft skipper role when I first passed through the doors of the old czarist-era buildings of the brigade, but I would certainly have liked to combine that with the NCO course as well (combining skipper and reserve officer training is not an option available, at least back then). Unfortunately, I was not picked for one of the two slots then reserved for skippers on the marine NCO-course, which meant that after a year of service I went into the reserve with the rank of private and an experience that eventually would prove highly useful in getting a foot through the door into the workboat industry.
However, the overall wartime order of battle for the FDF is obviously a living creature. As a general rule of thumb, a decade can be thought of as a rough lifespan for any unit once transferred into the reserve. Within that lifespan, life happens for the individual reservists. People get educated or acquire life experience that can prove highly valuable, they can get positions in the civilian life where they have an important role in keeping society turning, or they get sick/hurt/die which means they no longer can fulfil their original roles. All of this means that people are regularly transferred between wartime roles, either due to changes in the unit they are placed in or due to changes in their own skill set. Dedicate all your free time to long-range shooting and sniper competitions, and suddenly you might find yourself a wartime sniper rather truck driver.
This obviously raises an issue for the FDF, as what do you do with people who served as enlisted when nineteen year old, but suddenly have invested enough time in voluntary defence or acquired civilian skill sets that would now make them suitable for leadership roles? Or with reservist NCOs that have acquired enough experience to warrant a shift to reserve officer service?
The answer for well over a decade has been complementary reservist courses, where every second year approximately 35 enlisted volunteers are hand-picked to undergo training to NCO, and every second year approximately 35 volunteering reservist NCOs are picked to undergo training to qualify as reserve officers.
And now we are getting back to why I was standing around in swamp in North Karelia.
The people handpicked to the courses are done so based on the needs of the FDF. “I want to get promoted” might work as an internal driver, but the opportunity is exclusive enough that the FDF has taken a strict line on the purpose of the course being to serve the needs of the service and not necessarily those of individual applicants. The stated aim is to train reservists so that they can be placed in more demanding wartime positions according to the needs of the FDF. As such, any application kicks off with having a suitable wartime duty and/or reservist “career path”, and getting letters of recommendation from your wartime superiors is certainly a benefit when applying.
In my case, having applied and failed to get accepted to the 2020 NCO course, a second try led to me getting accepted late last year to this year’s edition of the course, MIEHAU22.
The course has been handled by the Kainuu Brigade for some time already, and each course include three refresher exercises spread out over the year as well as a number of remote learning activities which included writing memos and preparing training checkpoints for the other students (as noted, the Finnish model means that any wartime leader is expected to be able to both train their unit and lead it into battle). The first exercise period also included a 12 minute running test (walking test for the older participants) to ensure an adequate level of fitness. ‘Adequate’ is the key word, as the limit for being allowed to take part in the course was 2,300 meters in 12 minutes. The focus on the course was decidedly not on building up the physical fitness, as while a number of physical tests did play a role in the final grading and a certain basic level of fitness is required to get through the course, the relatively sparse time available was dedicated to tasks more difficult to take care of in your (civilian) spare time.
The important part to understand here is that once you are out in the reserve with the NCO-label stamped next to your name in the FDF database, there will be no difference in the minds of the Defence Forces as to whether you went the conscript or reservist NCO-track. As such, there is the requirement to pack twelve weeks of conscript training into a significantly more compact package. There is also no unique “Reservist-NCO”-course, but the curriculum is that of the standard infantry one. This means that exams and grading are lifted straight out of the conscript course, and the days on the brigade are optimised to provide both ample training and leadership opportunities as well as theoretical lectures. It also means that include is not only the NCO-part of things, but also learning how the Finnish infantry platoon fights, as whoever pulls out your personal file and looks at the note ‘NCO – infantry’ has to be able to trust that you can execute on everything that designation holds – including both the ‘Infantry’ and the ‘NCO’ part of the job. The service branch training included not only theory and a written exam, but also taking part in a major exercise hosted by the Kainuu Brigade – METSO 22 – where the students got to put theory into practice both when it comes to leadership and infantry skills.
And it was in the midst of this that the general decided to come and take a look at our tent.
A few days later I then officially graduated together with another 30 students of our group, and is now qualified as infantry NCOs within the FDF. Notable is that for both conscript- and reservist-trained NCOs the NCO-qualification is the big thing, and in case the FDF want you to do something else as an NCO they will just throw in an appropriate mode of retraining. Whether or not you are an NCO is however a deal-breaker for many postings and work opportunities within the FDF.
So how was the experience? As said, it was a rather intensive one. But perhaps the most significant impression was that of being acutely aware of being in a room full of hand-picked individuals determined to make the most out of what is a rather unique opportunity. This not only was a strong motivation for me on a personal level, but also fed into an excellent esprit de corps where everyone was helping each other and wishing each other on. This was also evident in what became our unofficial motto – “It’s always possible to give up” (“Cedere SemperPotest”, according to people with more Latin skills than I possess). Taking part in a volunteer course, no-one will force you to go through with it. At the end of the day, you just have to decide whether you will carry on or just give up and go home. And we carried on.
I must also mention that the Kainuu Brigade really did an excellent job and put some serious effort and resources into the course, with us having a surprising number of officers teaching our motley crew the ropes when it came to leadership, training, and infantry skills. It was evident that having run the course several times already, they knew what worked and what didn’t. Getting to see my ‘local’ brigade and learning how they plan to fight in the harsh conditions of the North (which keen readers know is a topic of interest to me) was an added bonus on a personal level.
For those thinking about signing up, I certainly can recommend it. There are planned changes up ahead with MPK taking a larger role, something possibly leading to more spots opening up and changes to the structure, so keep your eyes open. Ensuring you got the fitness to run the required distance is a no-brainer, and while there wasn’t any single obvious factor determining who had been accepted, getting the reference letters from one’s wartime superior(s) does seem to help. And as mentioned the first step is getting a wartime NCO/officer posting, so start with trying to get that part sorted out before dropping off your application!
Den nationella underofficerskursen för manskap i reserven 2022 avslutades i Kajana idag.
The Finnish NCO-corps in the reserve has a proud history, and following the course I’m not only proud and humble to be part of that chain, but also happy to say my trust in the quality of the lower echelons of our military leadership is strong. The heritage obligates.
(and as a side-note, it’s always nice when a general compliments how well your squad has managed to camouflage your tent)
The tanks might have been the big part of the Polish-Korean framework agreement and the overall discussions about increased cooperation in general, but they weren’t the only thing in there. As tanks never are better than the combined arms supporting them, the role of artillery and infantry fighting vehicles in the overall package is worth a look.
672 K9 Thunder 155 mm self-propelled artillery pieces were included in the framework, at a cost of approximately three billion Euros (including supporting vehicles). If the K2 Black Panther is breaking new ground, the K9 Thunder has on the other hand a solid market share in the SPG-market over the last decade, including being ordered by Finland, Estonia, and Norway in the northern half of Europe. Interestingly, the current Polish AHS Krab is half K9 Thunder and half AS-90 Braveheart. In the glass half-full scenario, this scenario this is great because the new artillery share chassis with the old one, allowing for easier maintenance and logistics. In the glass half-empty scenario, this raises the question why they just don’t build more of those?
The answer is the upgrade path. Since the British never got around to actually buying the Braveheart, the Poles are the sole users of the turret (Marksman in Finnish service comes to mind…), and would have to pay for any upgrades themselves. At the same time, the improved K9A1 has now become the new standard in ROK service, which include an upgraded fire control system (with improvements to both hardware and software), an auxiliary power unit (APU) which allows for operating the vehicles without using the main diesel, integration of GPS to the INS for faster and more accurate positioning data, as well as the integration of new ammunition for longer ranges (up 54 km according to official figures). Safety features not allowing the turret to rotate over an open hatch is also included, as well as improved vision systems including for night-driving and reversing. Some of these improvement are certainly more important than others (the APU, safety features, and FCS improvements are the ones that comes to mind), and as mentioned these are not concepts but rather things that are found in the current production standard.
As such, very much in-line with the K2 Black Panther project, Poland will acquire 48 K9A1 Thunder from Korean production lines with the first 18 delivered already this year (again, let’s remember this is still only a framework deal, and as far as I understand will still require the signing of the contract proper for this to actually happen). These will form two battalions (squadrons or Dywizjon in Polish terminology), presumably made up of three 8-gun batteries for a total of 24 guns per battalion (notable that this means all guns would have a position within the wartime OOB, as opposed to the situation for the tanks).
However, as with the K2PL, the real meat of the dish comes in the form of an additional 624 K9PL based on the improved and planned K9A2, and which from 2026 will be license produced locally. The K9A2 will bring a serious change in the form of dropping two crew members to go to a three-man crew with a fully automated turret. This also allows for an increased rate of fire thanks to the autoloader functioning as a small assembly line with the next charge and round already being readied before the shot has gone. A more detailed CGI-version of the workings of the new unmanned turret is found in the video below.
While the growth in numbers isn’t as remarkable as for the tanks, we are still looking at more than double the current inventory of the self-propelled artillery that is being replaced (this is a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation based on approximately 360 2S1 Gvozdika and 100 Dana retiring while the planned 122 AHS Krab are delivered and kept in service). In essence, if the Wikipedia-numbers are roughly correct we’ll see a growth from 23 artillery battalions to a combined force of 33 battalions (5 of which are AHS Krab). However, a key detail is that this is missing the AHS Kryl, a local wheeled self-propelled gun based on the Israeli ATMOS 2000, for which there had been plans that between four and seven battalions (96 to 168 guns) worth of AHS Kryl would be acquired to replace the Dana – just for the Rosomak-equipped brigades in the lower plan, and for all units operating Danas in the higher one. Whether the AHS Kryl now is dead remains to be seen, but it would likely be a better match for a Rosomak-brigade than the K9PL, so throw in another four battalions for a total Polish force of 37 artillery battalions, and you might not be too far off (120 AHS Krab, 96 AHS Kryl, and 672 K9A1/K9PL) – though again it should be remembered that the Polish forces have seen several rather ambitious materiel plans that have not come to fruition over the last decade, so we’ll wait for the contracts until calling this one.
Looking at these number, the choice of the autoloading K9A2 as the base for the majority of the future artillery force is notable. While the crew for the howitzers themselves is far from the only personnel needed to run an artillery battalion, the difference between five or three soldiers aboard every one of the 672 K9 is still 1,344 persons. Added to this, there’s an additional 1,000 tankers less in the K2 Black Panthers compared to if the non-autoloading Leopard 2A7 or M1A2 Abrams had been bought. For an Army that is growing at a serious rate and in a climate when many armed forces struggle with being competitive on the labour market, these are non-trivial numbers. It also obviously raises the question about whether the AHS Krab hulls could receive the autoloading turret and in essence become K9PL at some point during their career (and for Finland, whether we could see Polish turrets on our K9FIN Moukari at some point in the distant future)?
An interesting detail in the Polish order is that it include not only the K10 ammunition resupply vehicle which is in use with the ROK and has proved rather popular among export customers (though it did fail to sell to Finland), but also the K11 Fire Direction Control Vehicle (FDCV), a command vehicle developed for the Egyptian order. The story of Hanwha’s attempts at selling a command vehicle for the K9 is a somewhat complex and confusing one. The K9 replaced the M109A2K/K55 in ROK service. This had been produced under license, and a local command vehicle was developed on the chassis, designated K77. My understanding is that the K77 is still serving on as the command vehicle for the K9-units, and a number of internet sources have been passing around pictures of the K77, wrongly labelling it as the K11. To further complicate things, there has been a K10C2-variant being offered, which like the K11 uses the K10 ARV as its baseline, but is a more advanced vehicle than what the K11 turned out to be.
(9/n) K10C2 is a battery command vehicle based on K10. Once you strip out K10 you have a huge space to play with – 8 standing work-stations plus associated C4 kit. Automotive and mobility match with K9/K(X)10. They also suggest you could have one with a counterbattery radar too. pic.twitter.com/F1wPORl8yn
As one of the key details in the localisation of the Polish vehicles is the ability to work with the Polish Topaz-battle management system, how literal one should read the announcement of the K11 being the Polish C2-vehicle is an open question. It is entirely possible that it is yet a third member in the K10FDCV/K11-family, not really being more closely related to the K11 than to the K10FDCV-proposal, but that Hanwha has simply re-branded the C2-line. However, as details on the Egyptian K11 are scarce enough, any deeper analysis between what are essentially a paper concept, a yet undelivered version, and a version that’s probably only now being properly defined is bound to be pure guesswork more than anything else. The one question this does open up is whether ROK will eventually get around to replacing their K77 with K11 (of some version) now when the vehicle has achieved launch customers and as the framework agreement does include development work of new versions going both ways.
The final tracked vehicles in discussion with the Koreans, and which currently are still outside of the framework agreement is the tracked infantry fighting vehicles, a role which in Polish service is handled by the obsolete BWP-1, in essence the basic BMP-1 which has served since the early 1970’s. The Poles have been moving forward with a domestic design under the Borsuk-program, which currently is undergoing trials and is aiming for an amphibious IFV with the mobility to keep up with main battle tanks. A key feature of the Borsuk is the unmanned ZSSW-30 turret. This is also locally developed and sport a 30 mm Bushmaster Mk 44 gun as well as a Spike ATGM launcher. The turret is also seen as a potential solution for the Rosomak, and as such would offer some benefits of synergy between the wheeled and tracked infantry fighting vehicles of the Polish forces.
However, the discussions about increased Polish-Korean cooperation means that a new contender has appeared in the discussion, the AS-21 Redback currently on offer to Australia (the Redback for those wondering being “one of the few spider species that can be seriously harmful to humans, and its liking for habitats in built structures has led it to being responsible for a large number of serious spider bites in Australia”. Nice little fellow…). The plan is apparently for a mix of Redbacks, Borsuks, and presumably Rosomaks, to be the battle taxis of the Polish Army.
Compared to the Borsuk, the Redback is heavier and not amphibious, features which make it likely that it is indeed better protected than the Polish vehicle (giving some credibility to the marketing slogan “Best protected IFV with lethal firepower“). A key detail is that it can take an eight-man squad (in addition to the crew of three), while the Borsuk is only able to fit six soldiers in the rear. Exactly how the units would be set up in the future six divisions of the Polish Army and what the breakdown between Borsuks and Redbacks would be is open, but notable is that if the full-strength of a Polish armoured division really is 360 tanks, the current 1,360 tanks on order won’t allow for six armoured divisions. A more likely OOB would then be something along the lines of two armoured and four mechanised (120-180 tanks) divisions, of which some (based in wetter regions) would potentially be well-served by lighter systems such as the Borsuk and AHS Kryl. However, it deserves to be emphasised that this is just speculation on my part, and the reasoning behind both Borsuk and Redback might simply be down to the Redback being cheaper and/or better, but there still being a need to keep domestic industry running by buying a serious number of IFVs from them as well. Would not be the first time that has happened to a country.
Edit: Seems the plan for now is that the Borsuk will be the main IFV, with the AS-21 going to the M1A2-units (i.e. the 18. Division if the current plans/speculation will hold true). Thanks to Damian for the input!
In terms of IFVs. Borsuk will be primary IFV that will cooperate with K2PL tanks. AS21 Redback derived heavy IFV will cooperate with M1A2SEPv3 tanks.
In any case, as was the case with the tanks, even if just half or three-fourths of the projected artillery and IFVs are acquired, the Polish Army will be the premier NATO-land force in Europe based on the level and number of its equipment. It is, however, worth noting that during times of rapid expansion there is always a risk of falling into a trap of not achieving required levels of training due to the huge influx of new people and rapid promotions, as well as the materiel account eating up a disproportionate part of the overall defence budget, allowing too little funding for exercises. Let us hope that this won’t be the fate of the Polish Army, because the free world needs a strong armoured force west of the Bug.
Poland has been a regular feature on the blog, largely due to it being one of the few European and the sole western country bordering the Baltic Sea to actually count the strength of its ground forces in divisions and not brigades (or battalions…). Poland is also a country that has extremely bad memories of Russia during the last few centuries, and as such has taken a prominent role in the response to the war in Ukraine. Crucially, this include the transfer of quite a few tanks and self-propelled guns to Ukraine, leading to a renewed hurry to rearm the Polish Army with modern equipment.
A brief summary for those who don’t have keeping track of Polish tanks on the top of their to-do-list. The Polish Army sport four divisions, one of which is the 11th ‘Lubuska‘ Armoured Cavalry Division, with the other three being the three mechanized ones: the 18th ‘Żelazna‘, 12th ‘Szczecińska‘, and 16th ‘Pomorska‘. There has been quite a bit of cut and paste and general moving around of units and equipment in recent years, so with the caveat that I certainly might have missed something, the 11th and 18th operate mixes of Leopard 2 and older tanks (T-72 for 11th, PT-91 for 18th), while the 16th uses a mix of T-72 and PT-91. Despite the name, the 12th is a motorised unit based around the Rosomak (local version of the Patria AMV) rather than a true mechanised division. The PT-91 is a locally upgraded T-72, while the ‘real’ T-72 that are in use are made up of a combination of T-72M1 and the lightly upgraded T-72M1R. For IFV, the BWP-1 (BMP-1) soldier on, while the Rosomak is in use alongside tracked vehicles in the 11th and as mentioned a key vehicle for the 12th. For artillery, the venerable 2S1 Gvozdika 122 mm SPG is slowly on the way out, while the Krab is on the way in. This is a unique Polish hybrid sporting the chassis of the South Korean K9 Thunder but with a British AS-90M Braveheart turret. The Braveheart traces its roots to a cancelled upgrade-program for the British standard AS-90 SPG, crucially fitted with a modern 52-calibre gun instead of the 39-calibre one used by the UK.
Edit:Turns out the 12th also is a mechanized division, and I was just fooled by their homepage which prefer to show off the modern wheeled brigade and not the old Soviet-designed iron. Funny that. Thanks to Piekarski for pointing that out!
Just one thing about Rosomak and 12th division has one (12th MechBde) wheeled brigade the other ones are tracked (BMP-1). 2th Mech Bde is typical heavy brigade (one tank Bn, two mechanized) and the third brigade (7th Coastal Defence Bde) has only BMPs, no tanks 1/n
Now, Poland and Germany has had a somewhat complicated relationship over the years (mild understatement), and the Polish Army and political leadership has not been happy with their recent dealings with the German defence industry (another mild understatement). This is to the extent that the planned Leopard 2PL upgrade program has been cancelled, and instead all Leopard 2A4 and 2A5 are to be withdrawn from service. Edit: I was under the impression that the severely delayed 2PL-program had been cancelled with the decision to withdraw the Leopards from service, but apparently it (at least) for now continues, with the goal of converting another 20+ tanks this year. Good catch by nonameplease! At the same time, you do not need to be a genius to realise that the T-72M1 and PT-91 really ought to have preceded the Leopard 2 into the greener pastures beyond, meaning that the Polish Armed Forces are looking at replacing all tanks in the current inventory, an inventory which as mentioned is one of the largest in Europe.
What has made the situation even more urgent for both generations of tanks is the war in Ukraine, which for the Leopard 2 has seen the faith in Germany as an arms supplier take a serious hit, while for the T-72/PT-91 an undisclosed but significant number – it could eventually be possibly 240 T-72M1 and all 230 PT-91 – have suddenly found themselves on a train heading east. Add the 140+ Leopard 2A4 (perhaps two companies of which are converted to 2PL-standard) and 105 Leopard 2A5 which are all to head out, and Poland is looking at replacing something in the order of 700 tanks in total. One possibility has been to temporarily increase the number of Leopards in service, and Poland has been in discussion with Germany about getting another Leopard battalion (44 tanks), but German officials have stated there simply isn’t that amount of tanks available and has instead offered 20. The whole thing is something of a mess, and while it is unlikely that this is (just) about German reluctance to meaningfully help Ukraine in a serious – if indirect – way, it has certainly further widened the gap between Warsaw and Berlin (interlude: go read this excellent piece on the background to the German mindset. It doesn’t help Ukraine that we know why the system is broken, but it offers a refreshing take from the inside).
So the Polish Leopard is dead – as much from industrial issues and politics as from anything else. What to do instead?
Back in April Poland received approval for the purchase of up to 250 M1A2 SEPv3 tanks from US authorities. Not 700, but still a sizeable number. However, building 250 tanks will take time, and time is obviously something Warsaw feel they are a bit tight on at the moment. As such, this was followed up by the announcement that they will procure an additional 116 M1A1 SA tanks, which thanks to being used US tanks are available for if not immediate then at least rapid delivery. The M1A1 SA is an upgrade program from 2006, which saw older vehicles equipped with newer sensors, improvements to the engine and armour, as well as generally overhauling the old vehicles to give them longer life. It might not be the newest and greatest, but it is certainly a huge step above any of the Soviet designs rolling around. The M1A2 SEPv3 is on the other hand currently the latest and greatest of US tank designs, sporting things such as improved armour, the CROWS-LP remote-weapon station, and an under-armour auxiliary power unit which allows the vehicle to produce power without using the notoriously thirsty gas turbine. It has been stated that the M1A1 SA vehicles will also be upgraded to M1A2 SEPv3 standard once things are starting to fall into place.
An interesting detail is that Poland has indicated that all 366 Abrams tanks will go to the 18th, which alert readers will remember is a mechanised and not an armoured division (at least for the time being). However, the OOB is somewhat non-standard, with the single armoured brigade operating the Leopard 2A4/2A5, and with the 21st infantry brigade and the 19th mechanised brigade both operating a single battalion of ex-Soviet tanks – despite one supposedly being mountain infantry and the other a mechanised unit.
Let’s pause for a moment and think about this number – because 366 tanks deserve to be put into perspective.
A US Army armoured brigade combat team sports 87 M1A2 tanks, with three battalions of 29 tanks each (a total of six 14-tank companies and a single tank attached to each battalion headquarter company). This means that a traditional US armoured division with three armoured brigades would put a grand total of 261 tanks in the field. That’s just over 100 tanks less than the 18th division would field, but perhaps more striking is the fact that it’s significantly more than twicethe 148 tanks the whole of the British Army will be able to muster. ‘Żelazna’ means ‘iron’, and the division will certainly field plenty of that. In essence the division will either sport three very heavy (122 tank) armoured brigades, which each have 40% more tanks than a US ABCT, or there will be four 90 tank brigades. The Poles have earlier experience of four-brigade divisions, as the 16th used to have control of the 1st armoured brigade before the 18th was stood up as a new division, so it is not impossible to imagine that being the plan. However, as we will get to eventually, there is also talk about 60-tank battalions in the Polish Army, which would mean that 366 tanks would give a nice even six battalions Edit: Seems a Polish battalion is 58 tanks to be exact, so that leaves about a dozen in reserve. In that case, the division would likely be built around three brigades with two armoured battalions each.
But that still leaves at least one armoured and one – or possibly two – mechanised divisions without replacement tanks for outgoing ones (even if it is a low-stakes bet that in the short-term the Leopards of the 18th will replace the T-72M1 of the 34rd brigade in the 11th division, bringing the unit back into an all-Leopard division until the withdrawal of the Leopard). The solution for this was found in a somewhat less likely direction.
Eurosatory saw some interesting developments when it comes to western tank designs – a field which honestly hasn’t seen an overly impressive pace for the last few decades. Are we finally moving into a stage of more than incremental developments? Possibly, although I believe it is fair to say we are not there quite yet.
Following a period of the tank having been relatively hard to kill without the use of another tank, we are back in a place where tanks can be killed by a number of different systems. This is nothing particularly new, but throughout history we have seen the ebb and flow of the relative vulnerability of the tank on the battlefield. Still, nothing has quite been able to provide the mix of protection, mobility, and (direct) firepower, and this unique mix of capabilities is the key driver explaining why countries keep investing in the increasingly expensive and complex system that is the modern main battle tank. At the same time, most tanks in service today are based on late-Cold War designs, and already for a few years the question of what’s next has been on the mind of mechanised forces in the west.
The answer for Europe has so far been MGCS, a new joint Franco-German tank which will be designed and built by KNDS (the merged European land-defence giant consisting of Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Nexter Systems) and Rheinmetall. However, as usual there does seem to be questions regarding the workshare and the role of the different companies within the larger setting, and for the time being rather than a nice clean-sheet design the most tangible result has been the EMBT (Enhanced or European Main Battle Tank, depending on who you ask). This debuted on Eurosatory back in 2018, and back then was in essence a Leclerc-turret on a Leopard 2-chassis. What exactly made that tank better than just buying either of the original ones was a bit unclear, unless you absolutely positively must have a Leopard with an autoloading 120 mm gun, so it was largely seen as a case of just proving that the different branches of KNDS really could work together.
The EMBT made a renewed appearance at this year’s show, but it has been rather heavily reworked. It still sports the 120 mm autoloader with 22 rounds (capable of taking Nexter’s latest SHARD APFSDS-round), but the tank has gotten quite the update. This include a RWS clearly tailored to provide anti UAV-capability in the form of Nexter’s ARX 30 sporting the 30 mm 30M781 gun also found on the Eurocopter Tiger, which has air-burst capable rounds. UAV-intergration on the tank is also a big deal, and the whole concept is built around a four-crew setup, with gunner and commander in the turret, and a driver flanked by a systems operator handling the UAV/RWS/BMS-side of things. The new drive-by-wire and digitalisation of other systems are also made with an eye on future reduced crews or fully-unmanned operations. Notable is that it seems apparent that very few of the systems employed are new, but rather this is a technological low-risk approach that combine a number of existing technologies to provide something new and better. A detail that a Swedish tanker caught was that the turret is wider than the hull, which might not be what you want in a dense forest.
-> det INTE funnits 2 friktioner: 1. Pjäsen är fortfarande en 120mm, och även om Leclerc testats med 140 är det ingen garanti för att det funkar med denna vagn. 2. Tornet sticker utanför chassit. Kan verka vara en skitsak, men det betyder väldigt mkt när föraren väljer väg i -> pic.twitter.com/8QO9jDEDdY
My understanding is that KNDS does not try and market the EMBT, but that this is a pure technology demonstrator to keep up the momentum of the MGCS at a time when it seems to be facing the frankly expected issues of joint-projects of this scale.
Rheinmetall is left out of the EMBT-fun, and the company is likely questioning whether there is meaningful room for two German companies in MGCS. At the same time, much of the extremely lucrative Leopard 2 upgrade work as well as current new-builds are heading to KMW, including the latest 2A7-based variants which have found a place both in Germany as well as for export customers such as Qatar and Hungary. However, Rheinmetall is far from ready to give up on the MBT-market just yet, and has launched a counter-attack in the form of the Panther KF51.
The Panther is described as a new tank and not a Leopard-upgrade, although the situation might not be quite as straightforward as Rheinmetall’s marketing department would want us to believe. The turret is indeed new, however, the hull is a more open question. Rheinmetall states that it borrows the “mobility” part from the Leopard 2, which is confirmed to mean the whole tracks (suspension, tracks, rollers, …) as well as the powerpack. This is reported as consisting of an unspecified 1,100 kW engine – almost certainly the MTU MB 873 – and the HSWL-354 gearbox. Whether the hull itself is a Leopard 2 hull is more unclear. Early rumours were talking about a refurbished Leopard 2A4-hull, and from the outside there isn’t much in the way of differences that couldn’t be put down to a bit of laser-cut plates and a visit to the welding shop to ensure a more streamlined look with the new turret. The latest word seem to be that it is indeed a newbuilt hull, albeit one that borrows heavily from the Leopard. However, Rheinmetall also discuss it along the lines of the Panther being of interest to current Leopard 2 users as “this could mean that the existing chassis could continue being used, even if a change of calibre became necessary”.
Interestingly enough, despite being all-new-ish the Panther does in some ways feel like a more conservative approach to tank design compared to the EMBT. As an example, the tank does not come as standard with the fourth crew-member, but is designed to be able to facilitate one in case the user want a systems operator. The remote-weapon station is also a rather more bland affair, being a 7.62 mm Natter on the tank shown in Paris (although Rheinmetall is keen to point out they are flexible on this point). The Natter with the 7.62 mm is said to offer counter-drone capability, but to be honest while 7.62 mm is better than just keeping your head down and praying, it is so only by the tiniest of margins.
The most eye-catching specification is obviously the new 130 mm main gun, which really is a beast. It is an in-house product marketed as the Future Gun System, and has earlier been seen on a Challenger 2-testbed (the seemingly unlikely choice of platform was related to the UK modernisation program, which eventually opted for the 120 mm L55A1). It is described as sporting “a 50 per cent longer kill range” compared to an unspecified 120 mm gun, and doing so with “an unrivalled rate of fire due to the autoloader performance”. The second point certainly sounds like it deserves some caveats – although I haven’t seen any confirmed numbers for the rate of fire I would be surprised if the autoloader is able to match a trained loader on a Leopard 2 or Abrams. Still, even with those caveats, it does seem clear that the 130 mm offer significantly more energy in the anti-tank role, and allows for quite a bit more punch when packing explosives in HE-shells.
The obvious downside is that the rounds take up space. The tanks fit two 10-round magazines in the turret, and an additional 10 rounds in the hull for a total of 30 rounds maximum. While this is eight more than the EMBT, it is less than the roughly 40 which is the current standard for most western tanks. Everything is a compromise, and the question of how few is too few is obviously open for debate, but it needs to be remembered that if the tanks wants to use either of two of the main marketing points – the ability to have a four-round launcher for HERO 120 loitering munitions or the fourth crew member as a systems operator – these would replace one of the two magazines in the turret and the rounds stored in the hull respectively. In other words, the tank would be down to just ten rounds, at which point the tank would in effect be a heavily armed sensor/reconnaissance vehicle with a 130 mm self-defence weapon. Don’t get me wrong, there certainly might be a role for a small number of such vehicles in the mechanised units of the future, but you won’t do much traditional tanking with just ten rounds. One detail which is notable is that Rheinmetall has fitted a 12.7 mm heavy machine gun as the co-axial buddy of the main gun, meaning that for some lighter targets where a normal 120 mm/7.62 mm tank would spend a 120 mm round, heavy machine gun fire might do the job and allow the Panther to save a few of precious rounds. How big the target set is that is A) too hard for 7.62 mm, B) soft enough for 12.7 mm, and C) so soft that 120/130 mm is overkill, is up for anyone to ponder but that will certainly be part of the answer if you approach a Rheinmetall sales-representative and ask about the 30 round maximum capacity.
Of course, anything you can do with the 12.7 mm, you can most certainly do even better with the 30 mm of the EMBT, which is a calibre that really open up the possibility of engaging lightly protected vehicles and wreaking havoc in urban terrain without wasting main gun shells, so while the 12.7 mm is nice compared to current tanks, it isn’t really a selling point compared to the EMBT (unless the Panther is fitted with a 30 mm RWS as well).
While 120 mm is plenty enough today – especially in the most modern form with uprated maximum pressure and latest ammunition – on the horizon looms better protected vehicles such as the T-14 Armata. A key detail is that while it is entirely possible that 120 mm APFSDS can penetrate the Armata, going up in size to a 130 or 140 mm gun ensures more margins in circumstances where the 120 mm can struggle (such as hits in highly protected spots) and allow the same performance as the 120 mm at longer ranges (hence Rheinmetall’s statement that the 130 mm “enables a 50 per cent longer kill range”).
As a side-note, Israel – the country with the most experience of successful peer-level armoured combat after World War II – has consistently ensured that their Merkava-series of tanks have been among the western ones carrying most rounds. The Merkava-series overall has some interesting and rather specific design choices to match the unique Israeli requirements, and it is open for debate which lessons can be generalised, but this is something I fell is worth noting when discussing two tanks sporting 22 and 10-30 rounds respectively for their main guns.
However, what really caught my eye with the KF51 was not the weapons or seating arrangements, but the weight and mobility. The combat weight is stated to be below 59 (metric) ton, which is a lot, but significantly less than any modern competitor. The latest version of the M1 Abrams, the M1A2SEPV3, tips the scale at almost 67 ton (66.77 to be exact), while the similarly heavy 66.7 ton Leopard 2A7V has had to receive changes to its gearbox, lowering the top speed to 63 km/h, to ensure being able to accelerate as the does 2A4. The EMBT sits in the comfortable middle ground, at 61.5 ton. In short, with the Panther we have a vehicle sporting the engine, transmission, tracks, suspensions, and weight of a ‘legacy’ Leopard 2 (2A4 is 55.1 t, 2A6 is 59.9 t), and it is a quite safe bet that the mobility of the Panther KF51 is on par with those. Rheinmetall goes as far as calling it a medium tank, but outside of the marketing world this is still well and truly a main battle tank, even if it is on the lighter side in today’s world. This also grants it a 500+ km range (compared to 460 km for the EMBT), and in addition the dimensions are set to ensure “it also fits the tunnel profile AMovP-4L without preparation: a requirement that no current MBT upgrade fulfils” – a marketing line I have no idea about the significance of (tunnels are a curiosity in our very flat part of the world, so profile AMovP-4L does not tell me anything).
The question is obviously how this affect protection, as armour has a tendency to add weight. Rheinmetall describe the tank as sporting “a ground-breaking, fully integrated, comprehensive, weight-optimised survivability concept”, a statement which include too many descriptive phrases to pass as good writing. However, they do open up on the details a bit more, stating that the tank is protected through a combination of active, reactive, and passive technologies, including a top-attack protection system, smoke launchers, pre-shot detection capability, and the holy grail of active protection systems: a large-calibre KE APS, which supposedly can disrupt incoming tank-calibre anti-tank rounds. If they have nailed the technology, that is really an outstanding feature. Designing the tank from the ground-up (more or less…) does indeed allow for more weight-efficient protection compared to just bolting on more modules as is done during upgrades of old designs, but it is notable that Rheinmetall does not make any claims on the passive armour being world-beating. It seems safe to assume it is good, but not outstanding.
Another key element of both the EMBT and the Panther KF51 is that they are built around fully digital systems, allowing for greater integration with new sensors, weaponised commander sights, and seriously improved ability to share information between both other tanks as well as other systems, such as offboard UAVs. An interesting step with the Panther is that the digitalisation allows for sensor and weapon control being passed between crew members, in theory letting any workstation take over any task or role. This is obviously also a major step in the direction of allowing for unmanned turrets or vehicles.
But is there a market for the Panther (besides the obvious “let’s battle-test it at Kursk”-joke)? At first look the answer might seem to be “No”. The Leopard 2 is still offering plenty of tank for the money on today’s battlefield in a tried and tested format, while if you want to buy into the next-gen hype there will almost certainly be something coming out of the MGCS/EMBT and the 140 mm ASCALON gun (offered as an option for the EMBT) even if I wouldn’t be surprised to see it go the way of the MBT-70/KPz 70 and split into two distinct national projects borrowing technology from the common predecessor. Why then would anyone want to buy a tank with a non-standard gun that might end up as just a niche calibre, and where several of the key components seem to be incremental upgrades rather than radically new? The Panther might trace its lineage to the older MBT Revolution concept – Rheinmetall’s earlier modular upgrade package – but in many ways the Panther is an evolution rather than a revolution, especially when put side-by-side with the EMBT (which as noted I fell is a bit more radical in its design choices and concepts of operation, even if it as well largely rests on proven sub-systems).
But to be honest that is also the strength of Rheinmetall’s proposal. The Panther KF51 is still quite a bit from an operational vehicle, including questions being raised about seemingly mundane but operationally extremely important stuff such as storage lockers, but many of the more modest aspects of it might sit better with smaller and more risk-averse customers found along Europe’s more eastern countries, from Greece to central and Eastern Europe. Take for example the obvious difference with the gun. If the 120 mm is to be replaced as the main gun due to a need for better anti-armour performance, the 140 mm ASCALON obviously will deliver the biggest bang on the market. But it also will eat up the round count even further, which on the EMBT that already is constrained to 22 rounds in 120 mm almost certainly means a drops to sub-twenty rounds in 140 mm. On the other hand, if the 130 mm round is good enough, the Panther allow for a significantly heavier round than your everyday 120 mm while still keeping 30 rounds aboard the tank. So is the 130 mm FGS a half-measure that gets you an unwieldy non-standard round without being the best tank-killer in town, or a good compromise between effect and round count? The jury is still out.
The same principle goes for the fourth crewmember which comes as standard on the EMBT but optional on the Panther. Is it worth ten rounds, or do you take the loss in situational awareness for 50% more ammunition?
So where would we find the Panther? The obvious answer is countries who feel that they need more killing power, and who wants it now. This is a key selling point, as while KNDS seems to have their sights squarely set on the MGCS which is still well over a decade away – the current plan being that “the commissioning of the MGCS should take place between 2035 and 2040 if the Armée de Terre and the Bundeswehr agree on a common requirement and if industrial companies find a fair workshare” – Rheinmetall seems to be more focused on offering something here and now. To put it bluntly, if you want a new tank by 2030, you are not going to order the MGCS.
Another key detail is that as it seems one can indeed rework a Leopard 2 hull for most or all of the systems involved, this could offer a radical upgrade path for current users of older Leopard 2-variants. This is likely of particular interest to those sporting the shorter 120 mm Lh-120 L44 and thereby being unable to benefit from the latest advances when it comes to 120 mm ammunition. These include vehicles such as the 2A4 and 2A5 (including the Swedish Strv 122). An interesting detail in the case of Finland is also found in an interview with then-commander of the Finnish Army, Gen.Lt. Petri Hulkko back in 2021. In the article in Finnish paper Ilta-Sanomat, Hulkko briefly discusses the current and future state of the Leopard 2-family, and states in no uncertain terms that the 2A7V is not an interesting option, because of the weight leading to lowered mobility and as Finland is not particularly interested in an APS-system capable of defeating incoming anti-tank missiles. “Our protection isn’t based on armour alone, but also mobility,” the general stated. Finland is, however, following the development of the Leopard-family to see if it will bring something interesting in the future.
Say for example a tank that is lighter than the current 2A6 while sporting heavier weaponry. Or a fully digital 2A4.
Finland managed to get the ex-Dutch 2A6s approximately ten years ago for roughly the same cost as the planned 2A4 MLU, raising the number of Finnish main battle tanks back closer to 200. The current line is that the Leo 2A4 stays in Finnish service until their usage becomes prohibitively expensive, although they have indeed undergone some upgrades recently. Considering the current situation, as well as the fact that the 2A6 in Finnish service will soldier on for at least twenty years more into the 2040s, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to expect the discussion about a possible MLU-program for the 2A4s to pop up again. A Panther-based solution could certainly then be in the cards as a way of getting a serious boost in combat capability without trading mobility if there is seen to be a need for a tank with a larger gun than the 2A6.
A middle of the ground but still significant upgrade could see a mixed fleet with the majority of modernised Leopard 2A4s retaining their 120 mm guns but including other improvements – such as the digitalised systems and crew stations – and a smaller number also switching to the larger calibre. While mixed tank units have become a rarity following the development of the main battle tank, back in WWII and during the immediate post-war era sporting a smaller number of tanks with better firepower was not an uncommon feature of armoured units – such as the 17 pdr-armed A30 Challenger and Sherman Firefly of the UK forces in WWII, or the heavy M103 that accompanied US M48 Pattons in the 60’s and early 70’s. For that to be a feasible option, a few things need to align, the most important of which is the presence on the battlefield of an enemy vehicle that is heavily armoured enough that it is not reasonable to equip most tanks with a weapon that can defeat it – either due to cost, weight, or poor performance in other aspects (such as overly large rounds or poor performance against other targets).
Are we heading into that perfect storm again after over half a century of the main battle tank reigning supreme? I wouldn’t say it’s a likely scenario, but it isn’t impossible either. In general the modularity of platforms such as EMBT and Panther might open up for greater diversity among the tanks, as weight and space restrictions in all likelihood will ensure that no single tank will be fitted with all the optional extras. This could see e.g. the aforementioned recce tank with unmanned systems/loitering munitions and a dedicated systems operator operating alongside more traditional MBTs, or say one tank in each platoon having enhanced anti-UAV/loitering munitions capability in the form of heavier RWS.
Regardless of the outcome, both the EMBT and the Panther shows that there is still surprisingly much life in the old Leopard 2 chassis, and while the Panther KF51 might struggle to find buyers in the current form, I would not be surprised to find some of the technology demonstrated in the two tanks to eventually end up in either a Swedish Strv 122 MLU or a restarted Finnish Leopard 2A4 MLU.
I recently wrote an article over at Swedish defence website “Militär Debatt” discussing which Swedish capabilities would be of greatest interest to Finland. To the surprise of some, instead of fancy systems such as submarines and AEW&C aircraft, the capability I picked above the rest was the possibility of getting the Swedish mechanized brigade built around the units trained by the peacetime I 19 Norrbottens regemente (the Norrbotten regiment) in Boden, which would be a significant addition to the defence of the vast and sparsely populated northern Finland. While how many Finnish units would mobilised in the region during wartime as well as how many units would be deployed there during different scenarios is obviously a secret, it is safe to assume that in most cases the number of units would be rather limited as the larger part of the Finnish Army would be used to defend the Finnish population and industrial centras in the south and central parts of the country.
In the Finnish north there are two army units spread over three garrisons: Kainuun prikaati (KAIPR, the Kajani brigade) in Kajani, and Jääkäriprikaati (JPR, the Jaeger brigade) in Sodankylä and Rovaniemi. Of these, KAIPR sits just south of the classic Raate – Suomussalmi – Oulu line of advance, while JPR is further north. As geography changes slowly, the strategic value of the east-west axis of advance aimed at Oulu and cutting through Finland at its narrowest point remains, meaning that a significant proportion of the Finnish forces trained in the subarctic wilderness likely will be concentrated on the Kuusamo-Suomussalmi-Kuhmo line, leaving fewer troops to cover the roughly 250 km from Salla to Vätsäri. As such, it is easy to imagine that a Swedish mechanised brigade would at least double the amount of troops capable of conducting high-end offensive operations in the area north of Kuusamo.
However, as we all know, Finland and Sweden won’t be the only countries in Sápmi that are NATO-members (as soon as the Turkey-situation is dealt with), and any defence planning will be conducted jointly with Norway. Any defence planning will also be conducted within the broader scope of NATO, and as is well-known while NATO obviously doesn’t dictate how the individual countries handle their defence, the alliance isn’t shy of asking and in general has stated that it “needs, now more than ever, modern, robust, and capable forces at high readiness […] in order to meet current and future challenges”, as the 64. paragraph of the Wales Summit Declaration expressed it. That doesn’t mean that all forces need to be fully mobilised here and now, but it will provide some food for thought for the Finnish strategic culture.
…which leads us to an interesting idea: what NATO really needs is a tri-national standing division in the high north.
I will admit that whenever I see the words ‘standing unit’ and ‘Finnish Army’ in the same sentence, the first reaction is to try and explain how the Finnish conscript-reservist system works. However, new times calls for new measures, and as we will have units from three nations fighting side-by-side in the area – which is a single geographical theatre of operations as I have earlier noted – this calls for close cooperation and joint training already in peacetime. Few things would raise the combat capability as much as having at least a number of the units in place already during peacetime. As such, I present to you my very rough concept for the 6. Division, a tri-national mechanised unit for the defence of the high North.
I picked the name 6. Division, as it has a historical connection to some of the region’s most notable military formations in the case of all three armies.
While the German attack on Norway in 1940 for the most part was a huge success for the attackers, the one major allied victory was the liberation of Narvik. The city had been captured in the initial assault, but was retaken by a joint French – UK – Norwegian – Polish attack in May. The key Norwegian unit of the battle was the 6. divisjon. The unit was disbanded following the Allied retreat, but was reformed post-war and stationed in northern Norway from 1954 until it was disbanded again this side of the millenium.
The Swedish VI. armé-fördelningen was first created in Östersund in 1893, were it spent the next 34 years until the northern Swedish division was renamed as the Norra arméfördelningen, only tochange to II. armé-fördelningen in 1937. At the same time, the Boden garrison had set up their own division as XV. arméfördelningen, which remained as such until the two units where merged in 1994 with Boden taking lead and renumbering as the 6. armé-fördelning, keeping this until disbandment in 2000.
The Finnish 6. divisioona was set up in 1941 with soldiers from the northern districts. The unit enjoyed a somewhat spotty history, including taking part in the failed Unternehmen Polarfuchs with the Nazi-German forces and having soldiers robbing the Kajaani liqueur store under riot-like forms in 1942, until it turned up at Ihantala in 1944 and formed a key part in what was one of the crucial battles of the summer of 1944. After this, the unit went north to fight their former German allies, a campaign which saw them liberate Rovaniemi.
The key Norwegian unit is the Brigade Nord (Brigade North), which is a fully mechanised unit made up of three mechanised battalions, the Telemark Bataljon, the 2. Bataljon, and the Panserbataljon, as well as supporting units. Of these, the Telemark battalion is stationed further south as the name implies, and is the only fully contracted battalion, the rest including conscripts in their manning. The Telemark and Panser (armoured) battalion include both tanks and CV 9030 infantry fighting vehicles among their numbers, while the 2. battalion lack tanks and only has CV 9030-vehicles (and in fact is only now undergoing transition from light infantry to mechanised, a process which will be ready by 2023). Among the supporting units there are e.g. artillery (K9 Thunder) and engineering battalions, meaning that the brigade has all the organic capabilities needed.
I 19 in Sweden has up until now been responsible for the creation of a number of units which can be pieced together according to need under the command of the Tredje brigadstaben, an independent brigade HQ set up by the regiment. However, the wartime forces set up by the unit is now undergoing transformation into a fixed brigade structure, under which the 19. Mekaniserade norrlandsbrigaden (NMekB 19, also known as Norrbottensbrigaden) will see some important changes. This new wartime unit will reach full operational capability in 2026. Like their Norwegian brethren, the two main combat systems are the Leopard 2 and the CV 90 – though Sweden has a newer Leopard (Strv 122/Leo 2A5 compared to Leo 2A4) and an older CV 90 (Strf 9040 compared to CV 9030 Mk I and III). The current two wartime combat battlions are the 191:a and 192:a mekaniserade bataljonen, och which the former sport both full-time and part-time serving soldiers while the latter is made up of soldiers serving part-time. Note that the Swedish mechanised battalions are tank heavy, sporting two tank and two mechanised companies each, actually making them armoured rather than mechanised battalions, something which also is evident in at least one of the plans on the table which would see a wartime NMekB 19 made up of 191. pansarbataljonen as a standing unit and 192. pansarbataljonen and 193. mekaniserade bataljonen as part-time units (also note the inability of the Swedish Armed Forces to decide upon a single way of writing numbers before units, causing headaches to innocent bloggers).
The key Finnish unit as mentioned is the Jääkäriprikaati which is specialised in (sub)arctic conditions and air defence. While air defence units are nice, the interesting part here is the Sodankylä garrison and the Lapin jääkäripataljoona which with a focus on light infantry is responsible for an unknown number of units to be mobilised in wartime. However, for our standing 6. division there is the post-Crimean detail of the Finnish Army’s new standing units created under the designation Valmiusyksikköor readiness unit – manned by a combination of longer-serving conscripts and contracted soldiers, NCOs, and officers. The readiness battalion of JPR is most likely currently not ideal for high-intensity warfare, but it certainly provide a baseline for how a Finnish standing unit could be created without breaking the bank.
Note here that I am not arguing for trashing the conscript system or other similar complete overhauls. It is notable that of the Norwegian battalions two out of three are manned by conscripts, while two out of three Swedish battalions would also need mobilisation from part-time soldiers. Finland could well offer a brigade with a single standing battalion and two reserve ones, where in line with the current structure the standing battalion would be made up of conscripts volunteering for an additional six months of service, after which the unit rotate into reserve and takes up the place of one of the two reserve battalions. It is however clear that if the standing battalion is supposed to be able to conduct joint operations within the scope of a multinational brigade, the training for the first six months will have to include high-end international training within that frame of reference.
So that is the current situation, how could this patchwork of units and capabilities, almost all of which are currently in the process of being reformed, be brought together for a functioning division?
To begin with a common divisional HQ is created, which is staffed and up and running already in peacetime, is obviously needed. Exactly where it is located is an open question, though I’d imagine for example either Boden or Rovaniemi could be suitable locations, depending on where there are suitable office spaces without windows. With regards to the three brigades, Brigade Nord will likely fit in more or less as is, especially once the current reforms are finished. While it is unfortunate that the Telemark battalion is deployed so far south, it is also part of the Norwegian Army’s rapid reaction forces (HRS), and as such it should be able to deploy quickly if need be. Neither Sweden nor Finland likely have the budget to keep their whole brigades standing – as unlike Norway their armed forces include several wartime brigades – so the solution is to have at least some units immediately ready. This would include the brigade headquarters and the 191. armoured for NMekB 19 as well as an arctic infantry battalion built around the current JPR readiness unit, with 192. armoured and two Finnish infantry battalions being manned by part-timers/reservists and mobilised if and when need be. While the infantry battalions obviously lack the offensive firepower of their mechanised brethren, infantry certainly has a role to play in the wilderness of the region. However, it needs to be emphasised that even if the infantry units are trained to fight dismounted they will need the mobility (and protection during transports) to be able to keep up with the other brigades. Winter war-nostalgia will only take you as far during modern combat.
To compensate for setting up a lighter (and cheaper) brigade, Finland which is known to sport an impressive number of artillery pieces and whose territory include the largest part of the immediate operating area of the division could be expected to provide a disproportionate number of division level-assets. This includes indirect fires, air defences, engineering, and logistics resources. This obviously would put pressure on the current Finnish force structure, as in essence there would need to be supporting arms for two more brigades than is currently found in the Finnish force structure (which, again, is secret, but it does seem a safe guess that there isn’t surplus artillery and bridging vehicles gathering dust in some warehouse). More K9 Thunder as well as potentially a modern rocket artillery unit would certainly do wonders to aid the artillery situation, and while the wartime needs of the other supporting units is more open, more engineering vehicles (including bridges, it’s a wet region) and air defences are a safe bet. A potential order of battle could in other words look like this.
While this is all largely a thought experiment spun from an interesting Twitter-discussion, I do feel it is a valuable and (very hands-on) example of what it actually means that our defence planning will no longer be just about ourselves. It also highlights the fact that while the current general ways of operating are expected to remain in place, even the “small” adjustments needed will cost money or alternatively pull units and capabilities from other places in the wartime force structure, in both cases leading to tough choices. If the upcoming changes for the FDF in the North takes the form of 6. division or something else is another question, but don’t be surprised if the NATO structure plans suddenly start calling for a more fixed structure when it comes to how the northern flank is supposed to be defended.
With the war in Ukraine looking nowhere near resolved and both sides apparently gearing up for the next round of fighting, one thing is clear.
Finland could do more.
This is true for a number of cases, including sanctions on people, goods, and companies, as well as for medical aid through both transporting Ukrainians here for healthcare and supplying equipment to Ukraine, but this blog being this blog, let’s focus on heavy weapons.
There’s a list of caveats long as seven years of famine since much of the details rest on classified information which I don’t have access to – a fact which incidentally is a reason why I am able to write this text – but the idea that Finland can’t supply more equipment is false.
It should be noted that any armed force could always do with more equipment and troops, and it is an almost universal truth that all forces faced with a serious war have experienced shortages in weapons and ammunition – in particular items seeing heavy use such as artillery rounds and expensive items such as guided munitions and advanced systems. Any defence force budget and stocks of equipment and ammunition are the outcome of an analysis leading to what is felt to be an acceptable risk, i.e. at what stage is deterrence and combat capability credible without the defence budget putting undue pressure on the national budget.
This equation is never straightforward, and constantly changes. At the same time, the changes might come faster than it is possible to course correct (i.e. things get worse quicker than industry can supply more stuff or more troops can be trained), meaning that it will require foresight and careful balancing. However, at times it will also require risk-taking, as is evident by the Swedish support to Finland during the Winter War which saw Sweden send significant amounts of their then rather small (and often aged) pool of equipment as well as volunteers, and a large part of their air force to Finland. This was done not because they wouldn’t have been needed at home, but because the risk calculation favoured it:
A Soviet victory would seriously have worsened Sweden’s geopolitical situation.
There probably was at least a small window of time before any of the major powers would attack Sweden.
There were more equipment on order that hopefully would be delivered and pressed into service during that window of time.
…and while international relations realists won’t like this, supporting the democracy against the dictatorship is the morally right thing to do.
While the Winter War-analogies are getting tiring already, I will argue Finland is seeing a very similar situation as Sweden saw then. With one crucial exception, our ground force are in the best shape they’ve been in during peacetime (Lt.Gen. Hulkko said since the end of WWII, but I’d argue that they weren’t better in the 1918 to 1939-period either). That we at this stage wouldn’t be able to spare more than 2,500 old AKM-clones, 60 rounds to each of these, and 1,500 M72A5 LAWs does sound empty and counterproductive from a grand strategy point of view.
Granted, I fully understand that if we ask people within the defence forces they might very well argue that if we aren’t to diminish the combat capability of the FDF there isn’t much to spare, and the argument that countries that doesn’t share a long land border with Russia are better positioned to take those kinds of risks at this stage does hold true. The officers, NCOs, and civilians of the Finnish Defence Forces can be expected to answer honestly when asked regarding what is best for Finland’s military defence, and as the current crisis shows many of the choices made in this regards over the years have been correct.
However, that is not the question in this case.
Rather it is what would be the most beneficial outcome for Finnish national security as a whole, understanding both the added risks involved as well as the importance of Ukrainian successes for Finland as a nation. As such while the question will eventually land on the table of the MoD and the defence forces, the question of whether we can afford to send more aid is first and foremost one for the prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry.
So what are the areas where we could take calculated risks to provide more aid to the Ukrainians?
152 mm 2A36 Giatsint-B (152K89)
Finland has made away with almost all Soviet-calibre systems from the artillery (we will get around to the other exceptions shortly), but one system stands out: the sole heavy guns in the Finnish arsenal that aren’t 155 mm ones, namely the 152 mm 2A36 Giatsint-B. A single battalion of 24 guns is found on strength under the local designation 152K89.
Finland has been retiring a number of heavy batteries in recent times, mainly older converted 152 mm ones and all 130 mm M-46 (130 K 54), but the Finnish artillery is still very strong by European standards, and having a single battalion operate a unique calibre is an “interesting” choice from a wartime point of view. The guns are most probably excellent for training purposes, but it is still hard to not see them as having a limited value in wartime. In addition, heavy guns is one of the places where Finland has the opportunity to cover any transfers relatively quickly, with there being open options to acquire 38 additional K9 Moukari self-propelled 155 mm guns (options for 10 of the original 48 having already been exercised).
With the 2A36 already being in widespread Ukrainian service, Janes listing 287 in service in 2019-2020 (at least nine having been lost in the war), these could be put into Ukrainian service immediately without additional training required. It also seems possible that the system is in fact a key capability for Ukraine in that it can be used to fire laser-guided shells, and the locally developed Kvitnyk (often transcribed Kvitnik, but Ukroboronprom uses the ‘y’ in their marketing) being a prime suspect behind videos in which Ukrainians reportedly fire artillery that hit single vehicles with high accuracy.
All in all, shipping the last 152 mm guns to Ukraine together with whatever stocks of heavy Soviet-calibre rounds we have left should be a no-brainer. I also believe – though I am not 100% certain – that these are bought directly from the Soviet stocks and are not ex-DDR guns, and as such the export should be politically straightforward (in case anyone is unclear, we do not ask permission from Moscow to send these to Ukraine, in case they want to make a mess, we point to the fact that the war itself is illegal and we have a responsibility to support the defender).
122 mm D-30 (122H63)
The other Soviet-calibre gun in Finnish service is the 122 mm light howitzer which is found both in the shape of both the self-propelled 2S1 Gvozdika as well as the towed D-30. The 2S1 is recently modified to the 112PSH74M-standard and found in somewhat limited numbers, with four battalions – 74 guns in total – being available to provide indirect fire to mobile units. Shipping away any one of these would likely leave some of the key wartime units without organic fire support that is able to keep up with the unit they are supporting, leaving us in a bad spot (note that more or less all of this is speculation, as the wartime OOB and TOE are all classified). However, the towed D-30 is available in significant numbers and generally assumed to be assigned to less-important units. With the risk of getting a lot of angry fan mail from people who will explain that a 122 mm howitzer is not the same as a mortar, some of these are likely local units where indirect fire isn’t a key requirement (instead focus being on rear-guard duties and anti-SOF missions) and you could trade away some weapons for 120 mm or even 81 mm mortars. It obviously will mean a less capable unit, but as discussed above, the geostrategic considerations aren’t guided solely by what makes the FDF as capable as possible.
How many D-30s and how many rounds for these could be spared is an open question, but as the system is already in Ukrainian use even small batches are useful additions. A number of the guns in service are ex-DDR ones, and as such will need German approval, something which the Estonians already have ensured there is a precedent for.
122 mm RM-70/85 (122RAKH89)
The 122 mm light multiple rocket launch system RM-70/85 is the Finnish light rocket system of choice. The system is easily mistaken for the Soviet Grad-system, and uses the same rockets, but it is in fact of Czechoslovak origin. The Czech republic is reported to already have shipped at least 20 launchers, and with ability to share munitions with the BM-21 Grad these are relatively easy to integrate even if the exact versions differ somewhat. Does Finland have any to spare? These are certainly more difficult to replace than the Giatsint and aren’t available in the numbers of the D-30, but it should be noted that Finland apparently recently has been looking at a possible replacement system.
Okay, this caught me a bit by surprise. Swedish #artillery-people have been to Israel for a live-fire demo of loitering munitions and rocket artillery, but based on the flags of the video so have the Finnish ones as well! #turpo=#säkpolhttps://t.co/YnQQWXFnm6
The delivery time for new launchers is anyone’s guess, but if a swift deal can be made with the Israelis this might be the time to get rid off at least some RM-70s, or if that is deemed impossible then at least ship some rockets – a six-vehicle battery will do away with 240 rockets in a single salvo, so it does seem like a safe bet that Ukraine is interested in getting any 122 mm rockets they can find for their current launchers.
RBS 15SF-III (MTO 85M)
Speaking of quick deals with the Israelis, the current heavy anti-ship missile of the Finnish Navy is the Saab RBS 15 in the somewhat unique Finnish SF-III version (most likely this is a somewhat hotter RBS 15 Mk. II). These are already on their way out with the Gabriel V being inbound as the PTO 2020. Among the systems being replaced are truck-mounted batteries, which would be an excellent complement to the apparently rather low number of Neptune-batteries in Ukrainian service for the sea denial and coastal defence missions.
The PTO 2020 will in the first phase replace the ship-launched systems aboard the Hamina-class FAC as part of their MLU, but in the next phase they will also replace the truck-mounted ones. While not having access to the shore-based systems for a while would be a significant issue for the Navy, this might be another case of us simply having to accept a temporary capability gap in order to ensure Ukraine has the capabilities they need. A caveat here is that if the stories about the UK sending Harpoons is correct, the RBS 15 might not make much of a difference, but as the latest angle seem to be that the UK is sending some other (i.e. lighter and shorter-legged) anti-ship missile, the RBS 15 would certainly be needed alongside the apparently more limited domestic production (yes, I know the UK launchers aren’t ground-based versions, but that has never stopped a desperate country with a dedicated welder in their ranks). While the system would require some training, the fact that Ukraine already successfully operate corresponding domestic systems shows that they have the know-how to integrate and operate the system as well as a cadre of professionals around which to build up more anti-ship units. With Finland also currently enjoying a good reputation in the national security field in Sweden thanks to our more clear NATO-approach, it also seems likely the needed export permissions could be granted more easily than what would have been the case a month ago.
Buk-M1 (ItO 96)
Finland did operate the BUk-M1 system, having acquired it in the mid-90’s. According to most sources the system is now withdrawn for real and it is uncertain if any useable vehicles or missiles remain. One of the really low-hanging fruits of heavy weapons aid is to ship anything that remain in storage – be they spares, tools, or even functioning missiles and vehicles – over to Ukraine quicker than one can say ‘Novator’.
However, as said my understanding is that useful items might be few and far between, which brings us to the next point.
Crotale NG (ItO 90M)
Finland acquired 20 XA-180 equipped with radars, EO-sensors, and eight Crotale-missiles each in the early 90’s. Back in the 2004-2012 timespan these systems were modernised and brought up to what locally is known as the ITO 90M standard. These are still highly competent systems, and their mobile nature and ability to operate quasi-independently (a single vehicle can complete the whole kill chain, but for best effect you obviously want to use them as part of an integrated air defence system) means that they would be of serious value for the Ukrainian forces. The approximately 6,000 meter ceiling and up to 11 km range also means that they would outrange the STARStreak which with the exception of the single ex-Slovak S-300 battery is the heaviest air defence system so far exported to Ukraine during the war, and as such the Crotale would offer a welcome addition in both capability and numbers.
It should be acknowledged that these play a big role in Finnish ground-based air defences, despite their somewhat low numbers and lesser absolute capability compared to the NASAMS II. There are also few if any quick options when it comes to replacing them, and as such sending even a limited number of them to Ukraine need serious evaluation of the impact such a move would have in Finland and Ukraine respectively. But it is an alternative that I do feel ought to be on the table when discussing all options.
There are indeed other options as well. The Stinger is already in Ukrainian service and even small batches would likely be accepted with open arms. Anti-tank weapons might or might not be available as well. Mortars, both light and heavy, are found in serious numbers in the Finnish inventory, and it is difficult to see that all would be irreplaceable.
For heavier equipment, the Air Force is basically a no-go. There’s little use in sending small numbers of Hornets which would cause a serious dent in Finnish capability but which would be a dead-end for the long-term rejuvenation of the Ukrainian Air Force which really need to go down the F-16 (or possibly the F-15) route. For other aircraft, the Ukrainians are really better off just getting money and permission to go shopping than getting a Pilatus or two.
For the Navy, while sending two-three-four Rauma class FAC overland to Odesa in a covert operation would be an epic story worthy of the best naval small craft traditions of Finland, in practice cutting the Finnish anti-surface combat capability by 25-50% for a five-ten year period does not seem like a viable option. Better in that case to focus on the truck-based batteries.
Armour is also rather more difficult. The Leopards are too few in number to make a serious contribution for the trouble it would be to integrate them into the Ukrainian force without Finland in essence giving away half the armoured force. For the IFVs, going over to a CV 9030-only fleet would probably be everyone’s dream, but there is no quick way to achieve that, even if one would be prepared to throw significant amounts of money after it (that would also still leave a split IFV-fleet, as any CV 9030 rolling off the production line today would be vastly different compared to the Finnish ones currently in service, but of course they would still be more related than the current BMP-2 and the CV 9030 are). The BMP-2M/MD that could be transferred would also be significantly different compared to the ones currently in Ukrainian service, though obviously integrating them would be easier than say the Marders they have been trying to buy from Germany. As such, while a transfer of Soviet-designed armoured vehicles aren’t completely out of the question, it must be understood that any such move would leave the Finnish Defence Forces significantly weaker when it comes to the ability to conduct combat operations in general and offensive operations in particular.
As a finishing note, accepting the kind of risk we are talking about here – and at some point we will have to come around to the understanding that we have to accept greater risk-taking in order to further our national interests and national security – would be significantly easier if we were part of an alliance of western democracies that we would have conducted joint operational planning with and on whom we could rely on for support in case of war. Sending away a battalion worth of IFVs doesn’t sting half as much compared to what the situation is right now if one knew that a Swedish armoured brigade with British air support would immediately roll in over the border and take up positions in the defence of Finland until the transferred vehicles have been replaced.
As there’s quite a lot happening in Ukraine at the moment, several things of which deserve a bit deeper analysis than is fitting to a Twitter-thread, I decided to do a short (no, I’m not kidding anyone but myself) post on three topics from the past week: the helicopter strike on the Rosneft fuel depot in Belgorod, the ability of Russia to replace losses in equipment (in particular tanks), and the idea of shipping advanced Western systems to Ukraine (in particular fighters and air defence systems).
The helicopter strike in Belgorod
One of the more spectacular single events of the past week was without a doubt the dawn raid on the Rosneft fuel depot in Belgorod, a city sitting just opposite the Russian border from Kharkiv.
What we more or less know is that during the dawn of April 1 two Mi-24 (NATO-codename HIND) struck a fuel depot in eastern Belgorod with S-8 rockets, before then rapidly exiting the area at very low level. A number of storage tanks burst into flames.
That is basically what we know for certain. The storage depot has been geolocated both using traditional means as well as through NASA’s FIRMS fire monitoring satellites. The depot is apparently operated by Rosneft’s subsidiary AO Belgorodnefteprodukt, and hold 22 larger and five smaller storage tanks. TASS helpfully reported the size of the larger tanks, which come in at 2,000 cubic meters each, meaning that just the 22 larger tanks can store 44,000 cubic meters (i.e. 44 million litres) of fuel, and of these eight were on fire meaning a loss of 16,000 cubic meters of storage capacity as well as any fuel currently stored inside them. Other damage, such as e.g. to transfer lines, pumps, and so forth, are more difficult to asses, but one theory is that the first helicopter did not aim for the tanks but for what looks like it could potentially be the main office building on the site. Another possibility is that it simply didn’t hit anything as flammable as the second helicopter did.
In any case, the target is of strategic value to Russia. As is well-known, the Russian offensive has suffered from a lack of of supplies in general, and fuel is no exception. While the Belgorod depot is a civilian one – to the extent we can differ between civilian and state/military infrastructure in Russia – the location of Belgorod at the infrastructure node opposite Kharkiv means that it can be expected to have played a role in trying to fuel the stalled offensive on Kharkiv. This clearly was a target of strategic importance, and will hurt the ability of the Russian forces in the greater Kharkiv-region to conduct operations – be they offensive or defensive. Some have compared this to the Doolittle raid of 1942, but in truth this is rather different as there seems to have been serious material damage done in Belgorod which will have some kind of effect on the continued Kharkiv-campaign.
A short interlude: there has been some discussion that the strike would have been a false flag-operation by Russian Mi-24s to somehow stir up further hatred against Ukraine, and while it can’t be ruled out, I sincerely doubt it. To begin with, the enemy being able to strike strategic target on Russian soil after the Kremlin has declared that the Ukrainian air assets are wiped out and Russia enjoys total control of the skies isn’t exactly helpful for the Russian propaganda effort. If you really want to launch a false flag operation, going after something more war crime-y would also help (such as hitting a school or similar, we’ve seen that Russia is not beyond killing own civilians, and if they would be averse to own losses they could have struck early enough that no people would have been present).
The usage of helicopters is interesting. Most often these kinds of interdiction strikes are left to fixed-wing aircraft or long-range missiles, but there are instances of helicopters being successfully used to carry out long-range strikes – the most famous being the raid by AH-64 Apaches of Task Force Normandy firing the opening salvo of Operation Desert Storm. While helicopters often are lamented as being vulnerable on the modern battlefield – and the conflict so far has indeed seen a number of losses – they are significantly more difficult to kill than many expect, in particular if used at speed and at low level. Many of the Russian helicopters lost have been operating at surprisingly high altitude, making them easily visible (and thereby targetable by air defences). Contrary to that, the Mi-24s seems to have left the area at tree-top height. This would give significantly less time for any air defences to react, and would make it extremely hard for ground-based radars to pick up the helicopters. Still, the complete inability of the Russian air defences to hunt them down is telling, as a layered air defence with sensors, people on the ground reporting observations, fighters on alert, and crucially at least some kind of close-range air defences around strategic targets (such as a fuel depot 60 km from the frontline…) should be able to put at least some amount of lead into the air. One possible explanation is people observing the helicopters being hesitant to fire or report them onwards for fear of causing a friendly fire incident, which is an ironic outcome of having air superiority but not supremacy.
While this isn’t the first strike on Russian territory during the war – we’ve seen e.g. the Millerovo air base having been struck by what presumably was a Tochka-U ballistic missile – this does seem to be the first air raid on Russian territory since the Korean War. It also seems to have been executed close to perfection, with a somewhat unconventional but extremely effective plattform being chosen to perform a surprise lightning raid against a target of real strategic value, without causing any serious collateral damage. The last part is important, as the Russian political leadership has accused Ukraine of escalating, a statement that is difficult to take seriously given that it would mean a Ukrainian limited strike on a militarily relevant target is the issue here when Russia started the war by invading Ukraine, and has followed up by systematically targeting civilian infrastructure – including hospitals and agreed upon humanitarian convoys and corridors of safe passage – as well as the widespread raping and looting done by Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
Covering the losses
There has been some discussion surrounding the significant losses to Russian equipment, but quite a few have pointed to the vast size of the Russian Armed Forces as providing a healthy equipment pool from which to draw troop reinforcements as long as the personnel losses can be covered – and notable is that e.g. when it comes to tank losses approximately half the confirmed losses are destroyed or damaged, with the rest being captured or damaged, something which might indicate that the equipment losses are quite a bit worse than the personnel losses.
However, that does overlook the sheer scope of the equipment losses suffered. A good place to start is looking at the tank losses, as the tank is the key offensive weapon system in case Russia plan on succeeding with their regrouping and upcoming Donbas-offensive.
The exact number of operational Russian tanks in service is obviously somewhat obscure. However, there does seem to be a convergence around a number in the 2,500 to 3,000 range. A rather solid estimate from 2019 is this one which is based on the numbers from IISS, which list 2,750 tanks. An interesting detail is that pro-Kremlin “suspicious information operation” (in the words of Jessikka Aro) SouthFront lands extremely close, listing 2,609 tanks in combat units in 2021 (note that there can be operational tank in other places than combat units, such as schools or research units, which might explain why the number is lower). Both also list roughly half of the tanks as being modern versions (T-72B3 in all versions, T-90A and M, as well as T-80BVM), with the rest being older T-72 versions and T-80BV/U. In addition, there is a sizeable amount of tanks in long-term storage, let’s get back to them.
To start with the losses, Oryx lists 389 destroyed, damaged, abandoned, and captured tanks. As such, that represent 14.1 % of the operational tank force if we stick with the IISS numbers (which we will do for the rest of this post). Of course, that is bound to be somewhat off, due to a number of things. One is that the Russian tank force has not been staying stagnant since 2019 – e.g. last year TASS published a report that 65 T-90M “would be” (note future tense) handed over to the Army during that year. Another is that the tanks operated by the so called People’s Republics in Donbas aren’t included in the Russian total. However, these are likely to be balanced out against not all losses being confirmed, and at the end of the day we are looking for a trend rather than a bean count.
An interesting detail with the confirmed losses is that they match the 1:1 ratio of modern tanks, with 165 of the 345 identified tanks lost being modern ones, i.e. 47.8 % to be precise. Going back to the 14.1 % of operational tanks having been lost, for the individual tanks versions things are somewhat more varied. The T-90 family has so far suffered relatively small losses, with just 4.9 % of the operational force having been knocked out.
Let’s pause for a while and think about that statement. The modern tank that has fared best has seen roughly one in twenty of the total operational force available in 2019 having been either destroyed, damaged, or otherwise left on the battlefield, and all that in just over a month of fighting. That is bad.
For the others the issues are worse. The exact number of T-80BVM is not listed by IISS, but going from SouthFront we are looking at 72 in operational combat units. With 18 lost, that’s a solid 25 %, or one in four. The reason is obviously unclear at this point in time, it might just be that we are seeing T-80BVM units in areas from where there are lots of images, but we also have reports that e.g. the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade (Pechenga) which is a prolific user of the upgraded version has been extremely hard hit around Kharkiv.
The T-72B3 in all versions fare somewhere in between, with 10.8 % of the vehicles being lost. Again, it’s too soon to draw major conclusions about the survivability of the T-90 compared to the T-80BVM or T-72B3, but it is crucial to note that among the most modern Russian tanks available, we are seeing losses in excess of one in ten operational tank. Even if a number of crews have dismounted and marched back to Russia ready to grab a new tank and get back into the fray, that’s not something even a force of Russia’s size will just shrug off.
But what about the tanks in storage? Most reports place the number of tanks in storage at approximately 10,000 (I will argue that the nice roundness of the figure says something about how accurate it is, but it gives us something to work with, and again, we are looking for trends, not individual tanks). However, obviously the tanks in reserve are mainly older versions, and pulling out a T-72A from storage to replace a T-72B3 or a T-80U to replace a T-80BVM will mean a loss of capability in absolute terms.
There is however an argument that on the surface makes sense, that as the Ukrainians have had no issues penetrating the most modern tanks the increased protection these sport is in fact of limited practical value, and that the increased firepower (gun, ammunition, sights, gun handling, FCS, …) they have is of limited value as there has seemingly been relatively little tank versus tank combat and the Ukrainian armed force is also mainly made up of older tanks (the vast majority of identified losses so far being the 1985-vintage 1-64BV with the rather dated Kontakt-1 ERA “bricks”). As such, the 10,000 tanks in reserve are very much valid replacements for the losses
However, there is a number of issues with that line of reasoning. To begin with, while a tank has splendid mobility, firepower, and protection – the features which has meant that tanks has dominated the battlefields of the world since at least the Second World War – there are obviously some drawback to being locked inside a tin can. One of them is situational awareness, which naturally is somewhat limited if you are in a vehicle compared to moving on foot. To fight this drawback, modern armoured fighting vehicles have an array of technology to help them, allowing them to fight at long distances and during night. It’s not a perfect solution, as we have seen in Ukraine it is still possible for infantry to sneak up on tanks not operating with their own infantry, but a modern sighting unit does provide a huge benefit compared to for example the 1K13-49 installed on the late 80’s versions of the T-72B, not to mention the kit fitted to the even older T-72A and related versions. And if you thought a tank with a modern thermal sight is vulnerable to infantry sneaking around, just wait until your main night vision device is an IR-searchlight. It might have been cutting edge in the Golan in 1973, but those days are long gone. Poor situational awareness gets you killed on the modern battlefield, and that is what you get with 80’s technology.
Similarly, while an NLAW or Javelin will make the same sized hole in a T-72A as in an T-72B3 (surprisingly often it turns out that it is a turret-ring sized hole), there are a lot of other weapons floating around on the Ukrainian battlefield. These include lighter weapons such versions of AT4 and LAW delivered from western sources, as well as a whole host of Soviet-designed weapons, all of which might or might not be able to take out an enemy tank depending on a number of different parameters in the engagement. However, one thing is clear, and that is that the likelihood of doing so significantly goes up with the age of the target. And in the best case, the target will be a tank built in the early 80’s lacking its ERA-blocks.
Because this is another major issue with the stored vehicles. Most pictures that have come out of Russian depots seems to indicate that the storage conditions often are less than optimal, with vehicles in several cases lacking pieces of removable equipment, and instead having a liberal amount of rust. Now, it is important to note that there is probably some amount of bias involved, as the facilities most visible on the web likely are those most poorly guarded, and as such likely not the most high-priority storage units. Still, anyone who has tried to take a machine into service that has been standing for a few years knows that it seldom is a straightforward task. So how many tanks could be pulled out of storage within say a month or two? No one knows, most likely not even the Russian general staff, but it is safe to assume that number is significantly lower than 10,000.
Obviously, Ukraine has similar issues with lost tanks being hard to replace, and Russia might certainly win a war of attrition. But the losses suffered right now are certainly on a scale that even if Russia would be able to supply trained crews to cover the personnel losses, the combat capability of the units will still suffer significantly.
The long game
This leads us on to the third topic: the Ukrainian requests for military equipment which grows fancier and fancier. At this stage, there are talk both about getting Patriot and NASAMS air defence systems, F-15 and F-16 fighters, as well as NSM anti-ship missiles.
The Ukrainian frustration is understandable, and there is no doubt that a few Patriot batteries with well-trained crews would make a significant impact on the battlefield. However, there are two major issues: delivery speed and training.
It is possible that Ukraine has reached a stage of the conflict where they can afford to pull units from the frontline for retraining, that’s something we see e.g. with the delivery of the Starstreak which included a (forced) training program before the system was delivered to the front. The issue, even allowing for the fact that in wartime you will accept higher risk-taking and longer working hours, will become even more pronounced as you move into higher and higher levels of complexity, and a long-range air defence battery or anti-ship missile battery are among the most complex individual systems in service today. Pulling an air defence battalion from the frontlines to re-equip with Patriot would mean them being out of service for a month at the very minimum, most likely more depending on the experience level of the unit in question as well as the acceptable level of proficiency after the training has been concluded. It might be that Ukraine sees this as an acceptable trade-off, especially as we’ve seen equipment losses to e.g. their S-300 batteries which might mean that they have trained crews without vehicles.
FIAF flew F-18 with metric system for few years. When we transfered from metric system, we also changed to english comms. You were safe in few weeks, but being effective tactically took several months.
The same is true for the fighter requests as well, where retraining of pilots would have to take time. Again, there are certainly corners to be cut when looking at this from the wartime versus peacetime angle, but even then miracles are difficult to achieve. Especially when realising that most everything is different in an F-16 compared to a MiG-29, down to how the human-machine-interface works and what kind of a doctrine the aircraft is built around to be as effective as possible (the same can be said about the discussion of supplying western-made tanks to Ukraine, but here the possible supply of stored T-72 of different versions is looking more promising if the political will is present).
This brings us to the other issue, namely that while older anti-tank systems (and some newer ones) are found in storage units across numerous countries in Europe and the US, modern high-end systems are rarely bought in significant numbers to begin with, and they are usually needed in service. Yes, I understand that “need” is a relative term, but few countries would be willing to send away significant numbers of their key systems if they aren’t able to get them replaced in a short time. And the delivery times for high-end systems is long.
Granted there F-16s available surplus in some numbers with e.g. Norway having recently retired its fleet, and the Ukrainians likely would not be upset with the aircraft having relatively few flight hours left. The famous US “boneyard” in Arizona also have a host of different aircraft that might be brought into service under more or less swift schedules. Operating a US fighter would also mean that there are munition stocks available, so if a completely new system is to be brought into Ukrainian service the F-16 – most likely the European MLU-standard – would be the prime candidate. That would however take vastly more time than the 2-3 weeks the Ukrainian Air Force talks about, not to mention such basic logistics tasks as getting the aircraft to a suitable base (most likely outside of Ukraine) and setting up some kind of training program there already taking some time. Considering the issues even with getting the Polish MiG-29s over to Ukraine and the lack of political will to do that, a Ukrainian F-16 conversion unit in Germany or Poland followed by ferry flights to Ukraine does seem like a dream at this stage, and one that would be hard-pressed to be achievable in anything less than a month from the moment all involved parties have signed the papers (though I will say that I can’t quite understand why the MiG-29s were felt to be an escalation compared to the numerous other systems provided).
There are obviously some middle ground to be achieved in some areas, with e.g. the Finnish RBS 15-batteries being replaced with the Gabriel within the next few years. If a quicker delivery schedule could be agreed upon and possibly even a Finnish NATO-membership allowing for additional naval firepower in the Gulf of Finland in case of war these might be freed up. It would be a significantly greater political commitment from both Finland and Sweden (as the original manufacturer) than what we have seen so far, but would also mean that Odesa would be vastly more secure and the Ukrainian forces could start thinking about some local sea denial missions close to the shore. Similarly, there are some older medium-range air defence systems in Europe that might be up for grabs that would offer at least comparable performance to what the Ukrainians currently have. However, even under the best of conditions none of these systems would have an impact on the battlefield during April, and this is in sharp contrast to the numerous simpler systems delivered.
This obviously brings us to the question of how long the war will take? If someone a month ago would not have taken the decision that it was worth shipping the Starstreak despite it being a month away from Ukrainian service, one more Mi-28UB would be flying around killing Ukrainians than what currently is the case. Similarly, any decision not taken today because a month is too long a delivery time might prove to have been faulty in a month from now if the war continues to rage on, and if nothing else Ukraine will indeed also need to rebuild its forces once the conflict is over. With the Russian attempt at a poorly executed lightning strike having stalled, switching to ensuring the Kremlin can’t win a war of attrition might certainly be the best strategic move the West can do right now, especially considering we do seem set for something of a calm before the storm as Russia tries to regroup forces to focus on more limited aims in the Donbas.
I have a hard time seeing Patriot, NASAMS, or F-15 deliveries to Ukraine right now, but we certainly should start looking at the systems a step above the Starstreak in complexity. Because this is starting to turn into a long one.
Finnish defence discussions have a few topics that quickly tend to derail into a somewhat unhealthy fandom, but few does so more readily than anything that has to do with the Ilmatorjuntaohjus 96, or Buk M1 as it is known internationally.
The Buk M1 had a rather short career in Finnish service, as the FDF quickly realised that having a system designed by the potential enemy might not be the best idea when it comes to such a technical arm as air defence – there’s a reason anything related to electronic warfare, radars, missiles, or SEAD/DEAD usually are among the most well-guarded secrets of any nation. The search for a replacement saw the NASAMS and SAMP/T face off, with the NASAMS taking home the price and becoming the new top-dog in Finnish ground-based air defences.
Let’s be clear, the NASAMS is simply a better air defence system than the Buk it replaced, there really is no discussion. However, as often is the case on the internet, discussions on capability has a tendency to be reduced to a top trumps comparison of specifications that are easy to describe with numerical values. And the top ceiling of the Buk is higher than that of the NASAMS.
Exactly how much of a difference is open to discussion. Most sources quote the ceiling of the NASAMS at around 10,000 meters, while others speak of 15,000 meters. The Buk M1 in turn is often quoted as going up to 22,000 meters (though some give a rather lower one, e.g. 12,000 meters). I personally have a hard time understanding the nostalgia for the semi-active radar homing 9M38 M1-missile that had turned 25 by the time conscript training in Finland stopped (something that does not mean it left the wartime forces at that time) and is well over 40 years old by now (I mean, if we really wanted something with altitude, we’d start shopping around on the second-hand market for the impressive S-200VE with it’s 29,000 meter ceiling and 240 km range…). It also deserves to be said that the F/A-18 Hornet-fleet is more than capable of taking on targets that attempt to sneakily fly above the NASAMS ceiling.
Still, air defence usually is best served by a layered approach, and it has been an ambition for the FDF to get back into the ground-based high-altitude air defence-game for quite some time. In 2018 an RFI was issued, which was followed up with an RFQ to five companies in 2020. The plan at that stage was to finalise the procurement before the end of 2022, but that schedule was adjusted last year – partly due to the pandemic having caused issues.
However, last week we were treated to a surprise down-select, and it provided a rather surprising outcome. Gone were not only Diehl and always-bridesmaid-never-the-bride MBDA who keeps having a hard time securing Finnish contracts, but also favourite Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace and their NASAMS-ER. Instead we were left with two offers, both from Israel: the David’s Sling of Rafael and the BARAK MX of IAI. Neither system is bad, in fact they are both extremely competent according to all available public sources, but for the Finnish procurement there has been a feeling that they are simply too competent – and by extension too costly. An outspoken goal with the current procurement has been to get enough batteries to provide geographical coverage (it is easy to imagine coverage increasing through increased range, but for air defence that is to some extent a faulty line of reasoning as the difference in effective area coverage between two batteries with differently ranged missiles is rather small compared to what can be achieved through the ability to place more batteries in different key locations – remember that as opposed to e.g. anti-tank weapons the targets for the air defences are also constantly moving around and covering significant distances, at any point in time during which they can run into your air defences).
However, it is now evident that the FDF was more ambitious than just getting an average solution. Considering the timing, you would be forgiven to imagine the FDF having changed the scope somewhat following the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine. The force however denies that that would be case, and states that throughout the program capability has been the primary concern, which do makes you feel a bit sad for Diehl who tried to take on missile systems that sport some of the most advanced endoatmospheric interceptors on the market with their IRIST-T SLM.
As mentioned the two systems left in the running are the BARAK MX from IAI and the David’s Sling of Rafael. The BARAK MX traces its roots to the ship-based family of BARAK 8-missiles. These originally kicked off as a joint Israeli-Indian project, though nowadays the missile family has forked off into two distinct national lines of Israeli and Indian versions respectively. The BARAK MX (with MX standing for ‘Mix’) is the Israeli land-based version and can hold a number of different missiles. While in Israeli service the BARAK is only used as a shipboard weapon, the weapon has been exported in land-based versions to a limited number of countries, best known of which is Azerbaijan.
The Azeri setup comes with both truck-mounted TELs and palletized firing units, truck-mounted BMCs (BARAK Management Centre, the solution is possibly containerised but I’m unsure based on the available pictures. Both container and truck-mounted versions are offered), and ELTA’s palletized ELM-2288 AD-STAR radars. There are also reports that Azerbaijan have acquired the ELM-2080 Green Pine radar (which sports one of the cooler code names around, more on this one shortly). The layout is rather conventional for a modern system. Everything goes on wheeled trucks (unless you want a hardened BMC), and when you arrive at your preferred location the trucks either point their missiles towards the sky or deploy their palletized missiles racks, both setups of which can handle eight missiles ready to fire. The radar is set up and everything is connected to the BMC which is the brains of the systems. Here it is also possible to connect the system to other sensors, to ensure that you have a situational picture that is up to date and allowing e.g. for ambushing enemy aircraft by turning on the fire-control radar only once the enemy target is within range.
There are no details about the Finnish offer besides the MX being paired with an ELTA-radar. The ELM-2288 AD-STAR in some version is certainly the expected candidate, though other details are likely to differ compared to the Azeri setup. When contacted, IAI kindly declined to comment due to the sensitivity of the acquisition program, so there is some guesswork involved here. An interesting detail is that the Finnish Defence Forces refer to the missile on offer as the LRAD ER. IAI in turn talk about having three different missiles: the point-defence MRAD (30 km range), the medium-range LRAD (70 km), and the booster-equipped ER (150 km range). The missiles are hot-launched, but still described as having a “low launch signature” – YMMV. When I contacted FDF they confirmed that LRAD ER is one missile and not an offer that include both LRAD- and ER-missiles. I tried to ask IAI if they have more than three missiles integrated – i.e. if the LRAD ER would be a new-version of the LRAD – but they referred only to three above. As the ER is an LRAD with a booster (think they same principle as the Aster-family), I tend to believe that the Finnish designation refer to the ER. This performance is more or less on par with the 160 km range PAC-2 GEM-T missile of the Patriot system (Robot 103A in Swedish service). However, there are two key difference in that the BARAK is equipped with an active radar seeker (i.e. the missile carries its own radar and will continue to home on to the target even if the main radar goes silent) while the PAC-2 is a semi-active radar homing missile (i.e. it relies on the ground radar lighting up the target). The second important difference is that while the PAC-2 is a single-stage missile (i.e. it burns until it no longer does so, and then it coasts along until running out of speed), the BARAK ER is in effect a two-stage three-pulse missile in that we first have the booster kicking off the whole thing, and the LRAD missile mounted on top of the booster then has a dubble-pulse engine, giving significantly more energy during the later stages of the interception compared to traditional missiles. The BARAK also has a vertical launch which gives the ability to cover 360°, though in practice the Patriot batteries are usually deployed so as to minimize the impact of their ‘blind’ sector – it is rare to find locations where you can be jumped on from any direction, unless you deploy on top of the highest hill in the area, and then everyone will see you.
There are reports that the BARAK MX took part in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Few Armenien air losses were documented during the conflict, none of which are attributed to the system. However, there are persistent reporting that during the final stage of the conflict Armenia would have fired a single 9M723 Iskander against the Azeri capital of Baku, and this would have been intercepted by a BARAK. The claims are rightly questioned, as to the best of my knowledge all reporting of the incident go back to a single story by a Turkish journalist, and there have been no independent verification. Verification of successful intercepts of ballistic missiles are also notoriously hard to make even in the best of conditions, and it is unclear whether Azerbaijan actually has the ER with its enhanced theatre-ballistic missile defence (TBMD or BMD for short) capability in service or whether it is relying on the shorter-legged missiles. As such, I would be careful with the ‘Combat Proven’ label for now, though the missile has since successfully intercepted ballistic missiles in trials.
But wait a minute, readers of the blog will say. Finland wasn’t supposed to get a BMD capability!
The answer is “Yes” (and just wait until you see the other guy).
Back in 2019, Finnish Chief of Defence general Timo Kivinen gave the following statement to the Finnish newspaper Kaleva:
No minor country has the resources to develop and maintain an active missile defence system. […] Finland has a passive missile defence system, based on an analysed and identified threat. The concept is based on protection, movement, and decentralized operations.
This statement was by no means unique, but rather one in the line of statements to media and in press releases where the same principle has been stated time and time again. Finland does not have any interest in ballistic missile defence through shooting down incoming missiles. So what is up with that, has the FDF changed priorities now under influence from the war in Ukraine and the liberal amount of missiles fired?
(Note that while that’s a serious number of missiles quoted in the tweet below, there has also been a serious number of airstrikes during the war, and of the ones mentioned only the Iskanders and Tochkas are ballistic missiles)
🇺🇦Ukraine’s military: Russia has fired 154 Iskander missiles, 97 Kalibrs, 21 Tochka Us, 56 X-type missiles, against Ukrainian cities.
The short answer is “No”. The longer answer is still the same as it always has been:
The ability to defeat ballistic missiles has not been one of the project’s objectives. We have compared the performance of different systems against traditional targets.
In short, the BARAK ER and David’s Sling with its Stunner missile are simply better at killing aircraft and cruise missiles than the competition, and that’s why they are shortlisted.
But there will be an Iskander-killing capability, right?
Not necessarily. Having a missile capable of hitting the incoming ballistic missile is an important step, but only part of the equation. Since the target is ridiculously quick, getting pre-warning is key (remember the Green Pine-radar rumoured to have gone to Azerbaijan? That’s a radar that is dedicated to long range detection and acquisition of TBMs, exactly the kind of additional – and very expensive – sensor you need if you want to enter the BMD-game for real). That in turn means you want to know where it comes from so you can set up you sensors to detect it at optimal range (see excellent linked thread below by Simon Petersen, who as opposed to yours truly actually is a professional when it comes to these kinds of things), and that is a very different setup of sensors and deployment patterns compared to if you are planning on taking on aircraft or helicopters. This is also a key reason why BMD makes more sense for Sweden than for Finland, as the obvious firing location for Iskanders heading toward Sweden is from the rather limited direction of Kaliningrad, while Finland has a rather large sector of potential enemy TBM firing locations.
The big issue, is that the system cannot launch an interceptor until the sensor has detected that threat, which happens when at the point where the blue line (sensor track line) meets the red ballistic trajectory. While the interceptor is flying out, the threat is moving too… pic.twitter.com/sFlhWyW8NU
So, when the FDF is buying a BMD-capable system and still says they aren’t aiming for a BMD-capability, that’s what they mean. The missile might be there, and if someone is dropping an Iskander on their block they might be able to kill it. But if it is headed to the next district you are probably out of luck.
But if you were impressed by the BARAK MX (and you probably should be), wait until you see what Rafael brings to the table.
David’s Sling is system that resemble a Patriot battery that has decided to enter the near-vertical launch game. It is jointly developed with Raytheon, and is very different from, well, most everything found on the market.
The two-stage missile called Stunner has a distinct ‘dolphin-nose’ look, using the asymmetry to manoeuvre and to fit several sensors. Good manoeuvrability is a must, since the missile is a hit-to-kill one. This means that as opposed to most air defence missiles which flies close to their targets and then detonate to create a cloud of shrapnel, the Stunner will ram into whatever it is targeting at high speed. This is obviously a sure-fire way to bring down most everything, but also a very unforgiving way of operating in that a near-miss doesn’t give you much except disturbed air. To achieve the desired accuracy, the Stunner is a two-stage three-pulse missile as well, with the third pulse providing the speed needed to manoeuvre at the final stages of the intercept. The guidance is provided by several different modes of tracking, including an active radar seeker as well as a multi-function electro-optical sensor sporting IIR-capability. The batteries in Israeli service feature the ELM-2084 MMR S-band radar, which is a step up in capability from the ELM-2288 AD-STAR of the BARAK MX. Of interest, one of the smaller members of the MMR-family is the Compact-Multi Mission Radar ELM-2311 C-MMR which Finland bought and received last year for the counter-artillery role (though they do offer a secondary air-surveillance capability as well). The missiles are transported around on a trailer-type TEL (which might or might not be called a MEL, depending on your level of geekiness), which apparently sports twelve missiles ready to launch. During the test firings the combat management centre seemed to be a containerised solution, and while it certainly seems likely there’s really no telling for sure whether that is the solution used for operational batteries.
As opposed to the BARAK MX, David’s Sling is in Israeli service. The primary purpose is as the mid-tire defence against incoming missiles and heavy rockets, sorting between the short-range Iron Dome and the larger Arrow. Despite the original design purpose being solidly in the BMD-role, the weapon is obviously more than capable of bringing down more conventional targets as well. The performance is largely classified, with some sources stating the range at 160+ km (note that corresponds to a very round “above 100 miles”) while others give 300 km as the maximum. In any case, it is safe to say the range is longer than BARAK ER. An interesting detail is that the missile is being looked at as a possible replacement for/alternative to PAC-3 missiles for the Patriot under the PAAC-4 program, where the additional ‘A’ stands for ‘Affordable’. That is an interesting notion, as while the batteries themselves certainly cost, the munitions add up as well. It would be easy to imagine the Stunner as being a prohibitively expensive missile due to its performance, highly specialised role, and fancy sensors, but apparently that isn’t the case (though in air defence, “cheap” doesn’t equal “small amounts of money”). An interesting detail is that the US so far has been reluctant to let Israel export it directly, meaning that this offer certainly shows the trust and importance Washington places in Finland and the FDF. So far the only almost-confirmed export customer is Poland, which is planning to acquire it for their Wisła-program. The initial package will however sport the PAC-3 MSE, and the program has ran into some issues as the cost of integration into the Polish C3-system has caused the budget to expand considerably compared to e.g. the Swedish Patriot-order.
A really interesting side-track is that Israel, who by the way also happens to be a serious F-35-user, has test-flown the Stunner without the booster on an F-16. The possibility of having a highly-manoeuvrable air-to-air missile with multi-seeker capability is certainly interesting when going after small and/or stealthy targets such as cruise missiles, drones, and Su-57s. While so far no decision has been made to integrate the Stunner on the F-35 and the FDF is currently not looking at the possibility of acquiring a joint-use GBAD/A2A-missile in the same way as the AIM-120 AMRAAM currently is being operated, it is certainly not something that is a negative in the books for Rafael’s offering. It certainly would be an interesting development, and let’s remember that the decision on what to get after the AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM is still open for the FinAF.
So where does that leave us? Both systems are reportedly easy to integrate into legacy systems, are already in operational service, and sport performance that would propel FDF GBAD into a world-class integrated air defence system on all altitudes and against all conventional targets (drones, cruise missiles, helicopters, aircraft). The big question is whether there is the budget to acquire enough batteries and missiles? So far the FDF isn’t telling, but in an interview the budget is described as “significant but below the threshold of strategic acquisitions”. Considering the Squadron 2020 program was a strategic program and came in at an original budget of 1.2 Bn EUR, a safe guess is that we are talking about several hundred million euros, but below a billion. As a comparison, that would be below the Swedish Patriot-acquisition which is valued at approximately 1.1 Bn EUR, though that did include modernisations to the general sensors and C3-networks. The Swedish program include two battalions of two batteries each, both capable of independent operations but mainly used together to protect a single area. Depending on the Finnish doctrine and pairings with other air defence systems, something similar might be able to fit inside the Finnish budget, but that is largely down to how much other stuff will have to be paid for. As is well-known, the so-called ITSUKO which deals with the high-altitude capability is part of the larger air-defence framework that include a number of other projects, and as such the budget for the batteries themselves might be surprisingly similar for Finland and Sweden. If I had to guess, we will see the BARAK MX take home this one based on the versatility and the smaller footprint leading to greater mobility, but David’s Sling is certainly an impressive system and as we have seen performance matters in this one. It will be highly interesting to see what the next year brings for ITSUKO.