This week’s post was supposed to be about F-35 in HX. Then the need for a primer on Finnish unmanned systems appeared and caused a change of plans. Then Russia built a heliport on Gogland, and here we are.
TASS yesterday provided some details. A Mi-26, the Soviet C-130 sized helicopter, flew in the required special equipment including the surface plating. The heliport was then made by the “engineering and aerodrome service of the Leningrad Air Force and Air Defense Army”. Exactly how long it took to get the heliport up and running is uncertain, but on satellite imagery nothing is seen on 2 July, while the base looks finished by 26 July. Incidentally, Putin visited the island on 27 July, so it would seem reasonable to assume the works were finished by then. Notable is that TASS describes the work as a “tactical exercise”, indicating that the capability to airlift the men and equipment needed to build a permanent heliport is seen as a capability for wartime scenarios.
Gogland is a bit of a sore spot for Finnish nostalgics. The beautiful island in the middle of the Gulf of Finland held a thriving Finnish community dating back through the centuries, and was a popular tourist destination before the Second World War. Held by the Finnish forces in the face of a German attack in 1944, it was occupied by the Red Army only after the truce. It is situated well west of the Karelian land border, and close enough to the city of Kotka that the inhabitants define clear weather as when the mountaintops of the island are visible from the Finnish mainland. The military presence on the island has largely made it off-limits to tourists, further adding to the ‘paradise lost’-narrative. For a nice pictorial look at the island today, check out this piece by journalist Magnus Londen who got permission to visit it in 2006.
The island’s strategic location, the westernmost point of continuous Russia and guarding the approaches to St Petersburg, means it has seen steady military use. The exact garrison is uncertain as far as I am aware, but radars and different EW and SIGINT/ELINT sensors are regularly documented on the island.
In recent years several special forces exercises have taken place on the island. In 2015 an amphibious landing by a small naval SOF-party was made, after which the soldiers stormed a “pirate base” located in the ruins of the old Finnish casino. A more high-profile case was when Russian airborne forces staged an exercise raid days before the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki last year. The exercise began with the team being inserted by steerable parachutes from Mi-8AMTSh multipurpose helicopters, jumping out at 2,500 meters height. Having touched down they hid the parachutes, and proceeded to conduct reconnaissance missions and destroy a number of strategic targets, before they prepared a helicopter landing zone and where exfiltrated by helicopter. A total of 50 soldiers and four helicopters were involved in the exercise according to Russian sources.
Throughout this time there has been a small landing spot next to the natural harbour at the site of the former Suurkylä village, on the northeastern shore of the island. However, neither the harbour nor the helicopter facilities have been much to write home about, something that is noteworthy considering the frequent helicopter flights to and from the island, and the general need of having a reliable supply route for the garrison. As such, an improved infrastructure for helicopter operations is not a surprise in and by itself, but as a source with professional insight on the matter told me, “It tells more about their tactical capabilities (and lack of resources) that it was done only now”.
The scope of the heliport should also be noted. It apparently consists of five helipads made of prefabricated plates, landing lights, some kind of flight control, a refuelling station, and some basic maintenance capability. Absent are any kind of shelter from weather and wind (not to mention shrapnel protection), parking spaces, taxiways, or other permanent facilities associated with an air base. While TASS notes that the structures are “permanent”, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that helicopters will be based permanently on the island. In essence, this is a refuelling stop and an attempt at improving the supply route to the island itself. Or as the source described it:
A permanent landing spot has been prepared, but there’s no way that it deserves to be labelled a ‘base’
What are then the potential uses of the heliport? Granted it does offer longer reach for helicopters operating over the Gulf of Finland, but it’s hard to see this extra reach being a game-changer strategically or even tactically. It does allow for helicopters transferring between mainland bases and ships operating in the western Gulf of Finland to top up their fuel levels, but the benefits are rather minor compared to the earlier situation.
Neither does it provide any kind of crucial edge for airborne operations against targets further west, such as e.g. the much-discussed Åland islands-scenario. In the case of a surprise airborne attack on Åland, even if the helicopters would fly the shortest route, passing directly over Helsinki, they would still lack the fuel for the return trip.*
A larger issue when functioning as a staging ground for an airborne assault is however the lack of landing space available. With just five landing spots an air assault could lift just 120 soldiers in one go, or less if the transport helicopters would be escorted by dedicated attack helicopters. For an air assault on targets on either shore of the Gulf of Finland, operating from the larger bases on the mainland still provide greater tactical and operational flexibility. Especially considering the fact that keeping eyes on low-flying helicopters in the archipelago is rather difficult as it stands.
However, the main drawback of the base is the fact that it is well within range of Finnish artillery, both 155 mm guns as well as the M270 MLRS with their M30A1 Alternative Warheads (in essence a precision-guided 70 km shotgun), a rocket that would be excellent for taking out the whole heliport and the helicopters standing tightly grouped together in one go. The same issue is probably the reason why the island isn’t host to any Russian long-range air defence systems.
The island is nicely within range. Our neighbor has no illusions about that.
The one military benefit operating from Gogland could offer is for maritime patrol helicopters scanning the sea or looking for underwater activities in peacetime. Still, even these operations would be somewhat weather dependent due to the lack of shelters on the island.
However, when it comes to maritime operations, what the heliport does offer is significantly increased time on station for helicopters involved in search and rescue missions in case of a maritime accident in the eastern Gulf of Finland.
Honestly, the biggest “operational” change is that the capacity for sea rescue missions over the eastern Gulf of Finland increases. Our helicopters as well can land there now, if the need arises.
The sentiment is echoed by professor Lt.Col. Petteri Lalu on Twitter:
2(3) Ennemmin kuin miettisin sotilaallisia vastatoimia moiseen uhkaan, kysyisin naapurin viranomaisilta: "kuinka Suursaaren uuden lentopaikan käytettävyys pelastustoimiin mahdollisessa merellisessä onnettomuudessa on varmistettu?”
However, as professor Lalu also noted, while the ability to build a FOB with airlifted parts (over the time of a few weeks?) is interesting, the big picture here isn’t about Gogland. Instead it is the general growth in military capacity in Russia’s northwestern corner. From a Finnish point of view, more worrying than five landing spots on Gogland is the 15th Army Aviation Brigade at Ostrov, Pskov Oblast, which currently has a squadron each of Mi-28N, Ka-52, and Mi-35M attack helicopters (the number of Mi-35M possibly being less than a full squadron), as well as a strong squadron of Mi-8MTV-5 air assault helicopters and four Mi-26 heavy transport helicopters, as well as a small number of Mi-8MTPR-1 Rychag electronic warfare helicopters. The unit was set up as a brand new unit in 2013, and is equipped with the most modern helicopters available to the Russian army aviation. Another base that has received more love in recent years is Gromovo (located in former Finnish Karelia, and formerly known as Sakkola). The field currently sort under the 33rd Independent Transport Composite Aviation Regiment (33 OTSAP) based at Levashovo. While Gromovo doesn’t have any units permanently attached, the former fighter base has hosted several major detachments during larger exercises in recent years, including helicopter units and naval fighters(!).
As these kinds of investments in major infrastructure take place over time they tend to generate fewer headlines than smaller and more sudden events. However, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. The Gogland heliport in itself does not deteriorate the Finnish security environment, but the major trend of increased military capability in general and airborne infrastructure in particular does present the Finnish Defence Forces with new threat scenarios that might need to be countered in case of an armed conflict. In particular the need for the ability to react swiftly to a surprising first strike, possibly taking place deep within Finnish territory, is emphasized, something that has been a general theme since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
*For those interested in the details: a Mi-8MTV-5 (a version roughly corresponding to the AMTSh but built by the competing Kazan plant instead of at Ulan-Ude) travelling the shortest possible route from Gogland to Åland would be left with just 665 litres for the return flight, i.e. less than half of what’s needed to get back to Gogland. These numbers are adapted from the Kaliningrad to Slite scenario presented by Jan Åkerberg in his article “Det ryska armeflyget 2017” in The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences’ Proceeding and Journal no. 3/2019.
The Swedish Defence Materiel Administration, FMV, has issued a briefing on the ground forces’ part of their Materiel Plan 20 (hat-tip to HenrikJ on Twitter, FF as we say over there). In short, this is a look at a number of weapons and systems the Army will need in the next few year. Notable is that they are funded inside the current budget and quantities correspond to the current size of the Swedish Defence Forces. And because everyone loves a spirited calibre war, the thing that caught my eye was the plan to swap out all firearms at the squad level.
The weapons includes Ak 4 (H&K G3), Ak 5 (FN FNC), Psg 90 (AI Arctic Warfare/L96A1), and the Ksp 90 (FN Minimi). In addition, a designated marksman rifle is to be acquired. Of these, the Ak 4 is the old main service rifle, currently it is mainly used by the Home Guard. The other four weapons are the main squad level weapons of the regular force.
The most prolific weapon of the Swedish forces is without doubt the Ak 5. Contrary to the earlier FN FAL, the 5.56 NATO chambered FNC was a limited success, with Sweden being the only western country to acquire it outside of its native Belgium. In Swedish trials the FNC beat a modified Galil SAR and was adopted in the winter of 1986/1987, making Sweden a pioneer when it came to switching from 7.62 mm to 5.56 mm. The Ak 5 was license-produced in Eskilstuna, and from the get go it has been featuring unique Swedish modifications, spawning a family of it’s own compared to the baseline FNC. In total, approximately 27,500 of the latest version Ak 5C/D were ordered.
The other weapons have scored more notable export successes. The Minimi, or M249 SAW which it is still best known as (although the ‘SAW’ has officially been changed), was the outcome of the decision to create a light machine gun able to use the same ammunition as the rest of the squad, i.e. the 5.56 NATO round. It is not a bad weapon per se, but it certainly lack the firepower of light machine guns chambered in 7.62 NATO. The Arctic Warfare is your basic sniper rifle in 7.62 NATO. Accurate, big power optics, costs an arm and a leg, but crucially makes it possible for a trained sniper to hit individual targets out to 1,000 meters.
The interesting part is that the briefing emphasised that the requirements are to be focused on the “system”. While this shouldn’t be read as a single weapon doing everything, it does offer an edge to any supplier able to cater to all or several of the four weapons needed (assault rifle, designated marksman rifle, light machine gun, and sniper rifle). However, a split buy likely isn’t ruled out (especially when it comes to the sniper rifle). The programme, including trials, will take place during 2019 to 2024 with the main deliveries starting in 2025. A total of 2.2 billion SEK (210 million Euro) is allocated for the 2021 to 2030 period.
If we start from the most basic weapon, the assault rifle (likely in full-length and carbine length versions) will likely be a new 5.56 NATO weapon. For quite some time there has been new wonder-rounds appearing with tiresome regularity, but despite the praise calibres such as .300 BLK or 6.8 SPC has garnered from firearms aficionados, love is waiting to blossom out when it comes to these wildcat(ish) rounds and the greater defence community. The reason is not that they would be bad, but rather that the task of switching away from 5.56 NATO which has become the de facto western standard to something else causes major disruptions when it comes to logistics and interoperability. As such, I don’t foresee a shift away from the 5.56 NATO for most Swedish soldiers.
In the same way it would be very surprising if the designated marksman rifle is anything else than a 7.62 NATO weapon. The round excels in combining a relatively manageable recoil and a reach out beyond that of the 5.56 NATO, while at the same time being in widespread use both amongst military, law enforcement, and civilian users.
The light machine gun is a more interesting one. The FN MAG is in Swedish use as the Ksp 58, though the versions available are quite old (read: heavy), and in its current guise likely won’t migrate down to fill the squad level-role. However, stepping up from 5.56 NATO to 7.62 NATO is entirely possible, especially as the designated marksman weapon likely will bring the calibre into widespread use anyhow (though sharing ammunition between the DM and the machine gunner will likely stay an emergency measure only).
For the sniper rifle, while 7.62 NATO has long been the standard round, I find it highly likely that the new weapon will follow international trends a go up a notch to .338 LM. It does allow for longer shots compared to the 7.62 NATO, but the big benefit is that it is more forgiving at the ranges beyond a few hundred meters, thanks to the better ballistics and higher hitting power. On the downside both weapons and rounds are significantly more expensive, and it would mean adopting a completely new round into Swedish service.
To begin with, let’s not pretend that there is any single obvious choice for any single one of the weapons. With that said, some weapons certainly would be less surprising than others. Notable is the fact that there are no Swedish gunmaker able of handling even license production of the order following the closure of the Eskilstuna rifleworks in 2012.
FN Herstal has an interesting arsenal to offer. The FN-SCAR is widely seen as one of the best assault rifles currently in use. It is offered in numerous configurations, including the basic SCAR-L (available with both 14.5” and 10” barrels) and the sub-compact SCAR SC (7.5” barrel), as well as the SCAR-H in 7.62 NATO (available in the PR designated marksman/semi-auto sniper version). FN Herstal also has a number of options for the machine gun, offering the modernised MINIMI Mk3 in both 5.56 NATO and 7.62 NATO as well as numerous versions of the earlier mentioned FN MAG in 7.62 NATO. The SCAR has received several orders, but mostly from elite units (including the Finnish Special Jaegers) and scoring noticeably worse when it comes to larger orders for general service rifles.
In the same way, Heckler & Koch has an impressive array. The HK416 (5.56 NATO) and HK417 (7.62 NATO) is a duet that has secured an impressive string of orders. The biggest gem in this string of pearls is without doubt the decision by France to replace their homemade FAMAS with the German design. Closer to home, Norway has adopted them as well. The weapons are based on the classic AR-design, but feature a short-stroke piston. For the German G36C replacement, H&K has offered the newer HK433 instead, which is available in numerous configurations. So far it has failed to receive any orders, but in case it does become the main German assault rifle the outlook for the rifle could change overnight. HK also have the MG4 in 5.56 NATO and MG5 in 7.62 NATO when it comes to machine guns, and the G28 designated marksman rifle version of the HK417.
Haenel MK 556 is the other contender for the German contract. The company has a more civilian portfolio, with machine guns being absent. They do however, offer a number of 7.62 NATO chambered rifles which are suitable for marksman duty.
Other obvious contenders are more traditional versions of the AR-family which are available from numerous manufacturers, including the Lewis Machine & Tool Company which recently secured the contract to replace Estonia’s Ak 4s (though the order has been challenged in court).
As is evident from the rundown above, the one weapon missing is a bolt-action sniper rifle, with the others usually having the option of being found from a single manufacturer. Quite a number of .338 LM sniper rifles are found on the market, with the Sako TRG-42 likely being the market leader, but there are several others in use such as the AWM in British service as the L115A3 (the AWM is now replaced by the AXMC, which likely will be the contender for a Swedish order) or the McMillian TAC-338.
Meanwhile, in Finland
Tumbleweeds. Crickets. The ghosts of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid riding by in the distance.
During a century of Finnish Defence Forces, a total of two platforms have been the main weapons of the Finnish infantry: the Mosin-Nagant M91 (that’s 1891) and the AK-family of assault rifles. And while the M91-family is slowly being retired (a sniper rifle built on the original receivers is still around), the AK-clones are set to overdo their stay.
“But wait”, my trusty old Rk 62 says. “Don’t you remember when we scored a perfect 20 on the rifle qualification? That was how I made you love me!”
The Rk 62 and the newer Rk 95 TP are arguably some of the best AK-clones available in 7.62×39 mm, being machined and featuring details such as the rear sight being moved further back for a more accurate sight picture thanks to tighter tolerances. The weapon is accurate enough when you have time to find a good firing stance and shoot at 75 meters. Still, there’s no denying that both the platform and calibres are getting old. The updated Rk 62M is better, especially thanks to the improved stock and the Aimpoint Comp M4Micro T-2sight combining to make quick shots and recoil management easier. Still, it is largely a question of coating a dated design in a liberal amount of sugar and calling it sweet. And to make matters worse, a large number of wartime Finnish troops would not get a Finnish-built weapon, but one of any number of East German and Chinese AKM-copies which have been bought in droves to equip the second and third line troops. Edit: It seems I was wrong on this one, and while there are significant stocks of AKM-copies left, the current size of the Finnish wartime force is covered (with some margin) by the estimated number of Finnish-built weapons available.
For a long time I have been arguing against introducing a new assault weapon for the Finnish Defence Forces. Rifles generally age well, and if one has to choose between introducing a new rifle with a new main calibre against something like the 155 K9 Moukari artillery system, the new SPGs are the obvious choice. However, we are moving towards the point in time when waiting is no longer an option. As such, we could certainly do worse than ensuring an option to piggyback off the Swedish firearms trials in the same way the Estonian Defence Forces bought their K9s under the same contract as the Finnish artillery. Buying the same assault rifles, designated marksman rifles, and machine guns as Sweden would allow us to phase out a large number of the worst AK-clones, the Dragunovs and possibly the last 7.62 TKIV 85, as well as the 7.62 KvKK 62 light machine guns. The 7.62 PKM is still a modern weapon, so there is no need to replace those. However, additional buys are a no-no after Crimea.
I hereby suggest a study into how piggybacking upon the Swedish firearms program with a 450 million Euro program of our own could increase the lethality of the Finnish infantry. This ought to be funded outside of the normal defence budgets, in line with other ongoing strategic acquisitions.
Few modern weapon systems have the power to captivate popular imagination the way the Iskander does. Partly this stems from the lack of a clear specification, both for operational security reasons and because the system violates the (recently deceased) INF-treaty. Another reason for the allure is that the system represents a new capability, which so far has not been found in the Russian (nor in too many other countries’) arsenal, and lastly but not least the simple fact that it can carry nuclear warheads.
In addition, there is widespread confusion amongst non-defence geeks about how exactly the Iskander and other ballistic missiles differ from the more widespread cruise missiles, and how to defend against enemy Iskander-attacks. This blog will strive to sort out some of these misconceptions, and give a picture of how the Iskander threat should be evaluated.
The basic Iskander, Iskander-M, is a ballistic missile. For those into the details, the system’s official GRAU designation is 9K720 while the missile itself is designated 9M723. The word “ballistic” means that the missile roughly follows a ballistic trajectory, i.e. the path an object would take if you would throw it. A big rocket engine propels the Iskander up in the air, after which it will fall down onto the target. It isn’t a pure ballistic trajectory, the missile is guided and can make course changes, but it can’t e.g. regain height once it has started diving.
As said, the exact performance is shrouded in secrecy. The most often quoted figures is a range of 400-500 km, and a warhead of 700 kg. However, professor Stefan Forss already in 2012 noted that the official numbers doesn’t quite add up, and calculated a range of 500-750 km, while also noting that some Russian sources “could imply a heavy penetrating warhead weighing about 1,300 kg.” Note though that 700+ km ranges aren’t possible with such a heavy warhead in current configuration (the range calculations were made based on a 400 kg nuclear warhead). The missile likely has a CEP better than 10 meter under ideal circumstances, i.e. half of the missiles will fall within that distance of the target. A 700 kg warhead hitting within 10 meters, especially considering the kinetic energy of the approaching missile, does make the weapon viable to use against individual buildings with a conventional (i.e. non-nuclear) warhead, something which was not the case with Cold War missiles such as the SCUD or Tochka. However, like the earlier missiles, the Iskander is only capable of attacking fixed targets.
It is obvious that if you are supposed to reach a target hundreds of kilometers away with a ballistic trajectory you will need to go fast or high, preferably both. This is what makes shooting down ballistic missiles so hard. The Iskander missile dives towards the target at speeds of 2-3 kilometer per second. Trying to shoot down a maneuvering target falling towards the earth at eight times the speed of sound is extremely difficult, and require a very fast missile placed close to the target of the Iskander. The Patriot system does feature missiles capable of intercepting Iskanders (though their efficiency is questioned), and this is what the Swedish Army is in the process of acquiring. Needless to say, the capability doesn’t come cheap: the Swedish deal is valued at 2-3 billion Euros, which will give four batteries with anti-ballistic missile and anti-aircraft missiles.
However, the Iskander isn’t exactly cheap either. A missile brigade, there are ten to twelve in total in the Russian Armed Forces, feature twelve launchers meaning that the opening salvo of all Russian operational Iskanders would have a hard cap of 288 missiles. This would likely be lower as 100% availability is usually restricted to utopia and all brigades wouldn’t be directed against a single target anymore than all armoured brigades would.
Now, a hundred unstoppable conventional warheads raining down on Finland would cause issues. Targeting strategic sites such as bridges, headquarters, utilities such as power and water plants, would very quickly make things complicated. However, this is not in and by itself a war-winning weapon. Granted there could be a second wave, possibly even a third, but the supply of missiles aren’t endless. High-end weapons comes with a cost, even if you’re trading in rubles. In the end destruction caused by traditional air strikes coupled with cruise missiles will quickly become a bigger issue.
A short note on the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal. This is a large missile carried by the MiG-31 heavy fighter. It is part of the family of recently unveiled Russian “super-weapons” aimed at ensuring a Russian nuclear deterrent in the face of developments when it comes to missile defences. The Kinzhal seems to be a modified version of the Iskander-M missile, which thanks to higher launch speed and height gives it a range of over 800 km (1,000 to 3,000 km is often quoted, but it seems that these numbers include the combat range of the aircraft). Kinzhal seems to be a more realistic option compared to several other of the unveiled systems, but exact specifications and whether Russia will field a conventionally armed version are still unclear.
Cruise missiles are a completely different breed of beasts. They are in essence unmanned aircraft carrying a warhead to a target. The size, range, operating methods, launching platforms, and warhead types varies, but in essence they have an engine and wings to allow them to fly long distances, and then crash into whatever their target is. Often the cruise missiles fly towards their targets at very low altitude, using the terrain to mask their approach. The Finnish Air Force operate the AGM-158 JASSM cruise missile, while the Navy’s current and upcoming anti-ship missiles both exhibit similar traits (it is largely a question of nomenclature/taxonomy rather than any practical differences if anti-ship missiles should be counted amongst cruise missiles or as a detached family of their own).
Now, as the cruise missile flies like an aircraft towards its target it can also be shot down like one, using the regular means of fighters and ground based air defences. Cruise missiles can make tricky targets due to their low altitude, speed, and (in some cases) stealthiness, but a modern SAM-system such as the NASAMS of the Finnish Army should have no problem in bringing down one, provided it is located in the appropriate spot.
As opposed to ballistic missiles, cruise missiles have shown a nasty tendency to proliferate. In part this is due to the low(er) cost compared to modern ballistic missiles of the same class as the Iskander. The most famous example of a modern Russian cruise missile is the 3M14 Kalibr land-attack missile (think Tomahawk/TLAM), which sports a range of 2,000 km and comes in at a unit cost of 1.1 million Euro. The weapon is officially in use aboard a number of modern Russian warships (including submarines), and likely it is this very missile that is carried by the Iskander-K under the designation 9M729. Yes, confusingly enough there is both a ballistic missile-carrying version of the Iskander and a cruise missile-carrying version. Generally, if people refer to something simply as the “Iskander”, it is the ballistic missile-carrying Iskander-M they mean.
The 9M729 is also at the centre of the INF-controversy which led to the US declaring the treaty void (INF doesn’t cover sea-based missiles, but as soon as the Kalibr was brought ashore it became illegal under the INF-treaty).
If it is the unstoppable nature of the ballistic missile that makes the Iskander-M a threat, it is the large number of missiles coupled with the vast range that makes the Kalibr/Iskander-K one. Finland is within range of the Kalibr of both the Baltic as well as the Northern Fleet, where the vessels of the Northern Fleet effectively are beyond the reach of the anti-ship weapons of the Finnish Defence Forces.
The Iskander-M is a threat. So is the Kalibr/Iskander-K and other cruise missiles. However, they have very little common with each other, besides the fact that they transport warheads into enemy territory (as does strike aircraft). Phrases such as “the ability to defend against Iskander and Kalibr-missiles” are sometimes thrown around as if they are referring to a single capability, when in fact they are vastly separate issues. We already have the capability to defend against cruise missiles in all three services, with weapons such as the NASAMS, Umkhonto, and the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Acquiring point-defence capabilities against the Iskander for four possible targets would be a project comparable in cost to two Squadron 2020-projects. Not vessels, but two complete projects of eight vessels in total. As such, it is hard to argue with the official Finnish position that we’ll simply have to disperse and be prepared to suffer a number of Iskander hits, while at the same time investing further in medium-range air defence capabilities to defend against cruise missiles and enemy aircraft. The combination of Squadron 2020, HX, and the Army’s new GBAD-program will make the skies over Finland much deadlier for an attacker in the upcoming decades. Just not for their ballistic missiles.
A few weeks ago a blog post discussing Swedish artillery at the brigade level caught my eye. As I noted last year,Finland is looking at the retirement of a significant portion of our brigade level assets in the near future, and which system should replace these is far from obvious. The post by Öhman was also of the kind of outside the box thinking I like to bring forward, so I contacted him and asked for permission to run an English translation. The translation is my own, and all faults when it comes to jargon are my own work as well.
The author Peter Öhman is a Swedish officer with a solid knowledge of anything armour or artillery who currently works at the Swedish Defence Material Administration. You will find him on Twitter and on his blog.
In a future growing Army there are many who feel that Haubits 08 ‘Archer’ would be optimally used as a divisional asset. It is a sensible idea which has been discussed in many places, but which won’t be developed further here.
With Haubits 08 as a divisional asset there would appear a void on the brigade level, as we don’t have any towed Haubits 77 mothballed. What should then be the remedy?
If one looks at the different requirements for a brigade-level artillery system they could look something like this:
Instantaneous firepower that allows a unit of size X to fire a fire mission in under 10 seconds,
Accuracy that allows the fire mission to hit the target location,
The ability to maintain sustained fire for X amount of time,
Protection which allows the artillery unit to operate together with the rest of the brigade,
Mobility which allows the artillery unit to move with the brigade’s battle,
In practice this means that the artillery piece must have a certain rate of fire, especially initially. The ability to sustain fire over time is created by bringing lots of ammunition, having the ability to reload rapidly, having an efficient logistics chain, and sporting a high resistance to the barrel heating.
Protection means protection against shrapnel, but also signature reduction and the ability to rapidly move to a new position after firing. When discussing mobility it is easy to get dragged into a discussion about tracks or wheels, which is a balance between the ability to quickly transfer between battalions and cross-country mobility to reach suitable firing positions in the terrain. Very few today consider using towed pieces, due to the longer time to get them into position.
High availability may be technical reliability, but it may also be based on mobility, and perhaps most of all range.
As the requirements are broken down into details, sooner or later the question about what calibre should be used will become the topic of the day.
Of what calibre should a future system be?
155 mm is of course the NATO-standard and a calibre which has been working well since at least the Second World War. We can’t abandon a NATO-standard by ourselves, and we have old ammunition stocks which we need to be able to use. That’s how easy the analysis can be. Now is when I will be unreasonable and question this train of thought. Is 155 mm really an obvious choice for supporting the fighting formations of a brigade? The following text should be treated as something of a “military satire”.
If we look at the specifications for a number of common artillery systems in 152 and 155 mm we get the following table:
Ranges given are for standard rounds, i.e. not including base bleed or similar technologies.
When looking at even large calibers such as 203 mm the big benefit of 155 mm is that it is easier to handle both for humans and machines. A 155 mm shell weighs around 45 kg, compared to at least twice as much for a 203 mm one. The recoil forces are also about twice as big, leading to an unreasonably large gun. The range will also be short unless one want a barrel that is 2.5 m longer than the already long 155 mm L/52 barrels. Big and heavy ammunition also leads to a low rate of fire. The US M110 howitzer with an L/25 barrel has a range of 17 km with standard ammunition. Weighing 28 tons it only carry two rounds. This means a continuous supply of ammunition is required, and even in the best case scenario the rate of fire is around 1 shot/min.
The Russian 2S7 is bigger and weighs a staggering 46.5 ton, have a L/56.2 barrel which gives a V0 of 960 m/s and gives the 110 kg shell an impressive 37.5 km range. However, it only carries 8 rounds and can at best handle a rate of fire of 2.5 shots/min. 2S7 is 13 meters long and has a crew of seven.
These kinds of calibres are unreasonable for highly-mobile artillery that supports the combat units of a brigade, and are better suited to hammering fortifications.
Eastern countries also employ 122 mm. The most common vehicle is the 2S1 (122 PsH 74 in Finnish service) which fire a 21.7 kg shell out to 15.3 km from a L/36 barrel, it weighs 16 ton, has a crew of four, and carries 40 rounds.
A modernised version of the 2S1 is known as the 2S34 Khosta which sports a 120 mm gun/mortar with a range of 14 km. The same gun is found in the 2S31 Vena which carries 70 rounds and weighs 19.5 tons.
In Sweden we had the 12/80, a 120 mm version of Haubits 77. With a L/55 barrel it had the same range with load 2 that the L/38 Haubits 77 had as its maximum range.
Calibre 105 mm is something that usually has been found on the battalion level. An example of a modern system is Hawkeye which is based on the HMMWV. The weight is just 4.4 ton. With a L/27 barrel is has a range of 11.5 km with a 15 kg shell. According to one source 8 rounds are carried.
There are also long-ranged 105 mm systems. The Swedish turreted automatic 105/50 with L/54 barrel had a range of 20 km. It is especially interesting that a number of other countries still cling to and develop 120 mm-class guns. I will therefore make a comparison between 120 and 155 mm weapons when it comes to a few specifications I regard as critical for brigade artillery.
Range, less is more!
Upon a quick comparison 155 mm seems to have the edge when it comes to range. 15.3 km from a L/36 barrel compared to 24 km from an L/39 when comparing 2S1 and M109. However, 2S1 uses a rather modest 3.8 kg powder charge to reach a V0 of 680 m/s and 15.3 km. At the other end of the spectrum, Swedish 120 mm Tornautomatpjäs 9101 (12/70) uses a L/62 barrel to reach 27 km with a V0 of 880 m/s. The earlier mentioned 120 mm 9501 (12/80 Karin) can reach 21.1 km with charge no 2 with a V0 of 800 m/s. 155 mm guns with a 800 m/s V0 can reach around 22 km, meaning that the difference is rather small. 120 mm as a calibre has good ballistic properties. With a barrel length of around L/50 a 120 mm gun will use 5-6 kg and a 155 mm one 12-15 kg of powder to reach a V0 of 800 m/s. A 120 mm L/62 is also 60 cm shorter than a 155 mm L/52. In other words a rather small potential edge in range for the 155 mm is balanced against having a long barrel that’s still easily handled for the 120 mm.
Another aspect of the range question plays a major role in the discussion, and this is where less is more. The fact is that when the range approaches or pushes beyond 20 km, the shells will follow a trajectory that is so high, and spend such a long time airborne that the weather makes accuracy unacceptably poor. The reason is partly because it becomes hard to reach the desired effect without ranging shots and/or the need for additional rounds in target, and partly because the increased dispersion increases the danger for the friendly units one tries to support. Base bleed and rocket assisted projectiles (RAP) which are used to increase the ranges also further diminish accuracy and increase cost. To counter this increase in dispersion once the range is edging towards 40 km technical aids such as precision-guided rounds and course correcting fuzes are used. These are very expensive, and ill-suited to the massed fires required to support ground combat. Firing at ranges between 30 and 40 km also has other consequences. At least double the gas pressure and V0 close to 1,000 m/s leads to increased strain on the equipment and faster wear. My opinion is that if the laws of physics makes it a bad, or at the very least an expensive, idea to use supporting fires at ranges above 20 km, then we shouldn’t invest too much money and effort into such a capability for systems acquired to support ground combat. To reach 20+ km 120 mm is plenty enough.
Presume a fire mission of 24 155 mm rounds would be replaced by a single round with the same weight of just over 1,000 kg in the middle of the target area. It is obvious that the effect would be poor in the majority of the target area and unnecessary good close to the giant round. Ordinarily one strives to spread the effect evenly over the whole target area. Case in point being the use of submunitions. Before the Convention on Cluster Munitions there was even a project on introducing 120 mm mortar rounds with submunitions, and in Russia who doesn’t give a damn about the ban on submunitions their use is increasing. Against fortified targets heavier rounds do however maintain the edge.
In a comparison between a big bang and thousands of submunitions one can compare the weights of 24 rounds of 155 mm, 45 rounds of 120 mm, and 72 rounds of 105 mm. The superior effect would in this case come from 72 rounds of 105 mm. A good indication is that a Swedish fire mission of 24 120 mm mortar rounds is treated as the equal to 18 155 mm rounds. The weight of a mortar round is in fact more closely equal to that of a 105 mm howitzer round. The effect of a single 120 mm howitzer round matches very closely that of a 155 mm one. The issue is that one reaches further with a heavy round, but preferably would split it up in many smaller units when reaching the target area to get superior effect. As long as we uphold a ban on submunitions the importance of choosing a calibre that gives good effect in the target increases. Scientific advances also make it possible to fit a seeker in smaller rounds than before, though it would be difficult to get as good effect e.g. out of a 120 mm BONUS-round as out of a 155 mm one.
To compare the logistics footprint I make the assumption that 24 155 mm rounds equals 30 120 mm rounds when it comes to effect. A complete 155 mm round has a weight of around 60 kg, made up of a 45 kg shell and a 15 kg charge. Similarly, a complete 120 mm round weighs around 32 kg, of which 25 kg is the shell and 7 kg the charge. The fire mission of the 120 mm gun would then come in at two-thirds the total weight of the 155 mm fire mission. If you include a casing to allow for the automatic handling of the ammunition a complete 120 mm round comes in at approximately 40 kg, meaning the fire mission is just 83% of the weight of the 155 mm one. However, fixed ammunition require more space, and the 120 mm fire mission with fixed ammunition will take up approximately 20% more space. However, comparing against fixed 155 mm ammunition the latter will weigh 70% more and take up 40% more space. The benefit of fixed ammunition is that in the same way as with Bkan and 120/80 it is possible to have a higher degree of automation when firing and handling the rounds. This in turn leads to a higher rate of fire and better effect in target. The conclusion is that with fixed 120 mm ammunition you get a similar logistic footprint, but with a round that is more easy to handle and you will be able to get off more rounds which will give as good or better effect in target compared to 155 mm. In real terms, a full charge 120 mm round with a fixed casing will weigh less than 40 kg, and can easily be carried from vehicle to vehicle by a single soldier. A 155 mm round with a fixed casing will come in at 85 kg and will need two persons to carry it, not the least due to the uneven weight distribution. If an autoloader could use the kind of combustible casings that tank rounds use, it should be possible to shave a few additional kilograms of the 120 mm round.
Autoloading versus manual
To achieve good effect in target a high rate of fire is a good tool, and to reach a high rate of fire the ammunition and its handling plays a big role. 155 mm howitzers usually have a rate of fire that varies between 3 to 10 rounds per minute with separate loading ammunition. These are usually either completely manual or equipped with different kinds of automatic handling and loading aids. Some have the ability to fire off a few quick rounds, before settling in for a lower sustained rate of fire. E.g. Haubits 77A was able to fire three shots in less than ten seconds. This is possible as the charges are put in a casing, which allows for the use of a very quick vertically sliding breech block. The shell and the casing is then loaded with a hydraulic rammer. To fire really quickly fixed casings are needed. E.g. Bkan 1 has a technical rate of fire of 18 rounds/min. The 12/80 is another example albeit with 120 mm calibre. With an autoloader the 12/80 fires off 16 rounds/min. There are even faster Swedish guns. 120 mm anti-aircraft gun 4501 has a rate of fire of no less than 80 rounds/min. The 23 ton heavy gun carries 52 rounds.
Another Swedish rapid-firing gun, although in 105 mm, is the Strv 103. As far as I remember, the technical rate of fire is 26-27 rounds/min and the tank carries 50 rounds. To note is that the sole 155 mm field artillery piece amongst these was the Bkan 1. The reason behind this is, amongst other things, that the mechanism becomes large and heavy. It is also unable to bring along more than 14 rounds. This is likely one of the reasons why modern 155 mm guns almost universally have separate loading munitions. The second, and perhaps even more important issue, is that one wants to be able to set the charge size for each round, and not be limited to a pre-set number of each charge that is set already when the ammunition is manufactured. In 120 mm it should however be possible to benefit from the carefree handling of fixed ammunition and bring more rounds, without the rounds becoming overly large.
Autoloaders is however not an end in itself, except when it comes to the firing. As mentioned earlier, 120 mm is considerably easier to move by hand. This includes fixed case 120 mm ammunition, which thanks to its below 40 kg weight can be moved in the same way ammunition was replenished in Strv 103.
Will there be something else than 155 mm if we buy a new system?
I have a hard time believing that, 155 mm is in all essence even more standard than 7.62 mm. That is why I describe this as an unreasonable brigade artillery. If one would start from a clean sheet, it is however entirely possible that with the technological advances of today the conclusion would be that another calibre would be better suited for supporting the brigades. Perhaps based on some of the reasoning found above.
But we just have to accept that we do not begin with a blank sheet, instead there are several limiting factors that affect the outcome. At the same time, evident truths need to be questioned every now and then. E.g. the miniaturisation of electronics allow for ever smaller rounds to become “smart”. If the reasoning behind 155 mm was the need for precision guided munitions the choice of calibre could be reevaluated now. However, over time factors such as standardisation have become important and will lead to the continued use of 155 mm.
Are we in the West looking for the right capabilities?
As a short sidetrack to the discussion on calibre choice I would like to touch upon two topics that I believe are receiving too much attention: the race for range and extreme precision.
With each new gun there are new solutions to push the range out even further, from L/39 barrels to L/52 as the new standard, and now barrels out to L/58 are discussed even for guns such as the M777.
Base bleed, RAP, and ramjet projectiles are other ways of reaching further. It is easy to see the benefit of reaching longer, and easy to quantify range as a requirement or selling point, which is why it is often in the spotlight. But range threatens to become the “24 cm higher cabin” of the artillery, an extreme cost driver. Longer range also places indirect requirements on extreme accuracy, no longer is just “rather accurate” good enough. The technology behind the increased accuracy is and will continue to be expensive. This means that the ammunition used to fire far away and with high accuracy becomes too expensive to use for massed fires. The most extreme example is the 155 mm guns of the Zumwalt-class which were supposed to receive rounds capable of reaching 153 km. The price tag became close to 1,000,000 USD/round as opposed to the planned 35,000 USD. The contract was revoked and the destroyers now lack a suitable round for their guns.
There need to be an analysis regarding the missions of individual systems. For a multitool, which is the role one can say that the Haubits 08 has been forced into, long range is a must. If it is a battalion-level asset, the conclusion might be that the 8 km range of a mortar is enough. If the mission is to support the fighting battalions of a brigade, the requirements need to be in sync with those demands, and not necessarily with those of the multitool. Was the reasoning behind the 150 km range of the Zumwalt’s 155 mm guns really correct? Should one have opted for another system if 150 km range was demanded?
The quest for accuracy partly comes from the increased range, but also from some kind of engineering bewitchment for perfection. Accuracy is very nice when the enemy headquarters is located or when the enemy has put their fighting positions close to a hospital. But at the end of the day, artillery is an area effect weapon, and to achieve effect it is enough to hit the target area instead of aiming for the bullseye with every round. I am worried that we in the West is forgetting this. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “Isn’t it jolly good to have better accuracy, that we can get the same effect with fewer rounds.” I have tried to explain that it is enough to be in the right area and that it is more important to be able to fire large volumes in many places, which increases the odds that the enemy will be suppressed in many different spots. Often the fire mission is based on an estimate on the enemy and the terrain, and not on an observation. If one can see the enemy both we and the enemy can use direct fire, and it is the losses that causes which we wish to avoid. Why then aim for a few expensive bullseyes and completely overlook massed fires? Making this case is often like talking to the wall. I will however persist, gutta cavat lapidem.
The Finnish Army learned to love artillery during the Second World War. There never seemed to be enough of it to cover all needs, and the Red Army always seemed to have plenty enough. At the same time, air support was even scarcer, meaning that if you wanted to produce any kind of effect on the other side of the hill, you either had to send in someone on foot or bring the artillery to bear. Like conscription, massed artillery was one of those ideas the Finnish Defence Forces clinged to even when it seemed obsolete to most western observers.
Artillery is also wonderful in that working artillery pieces have an extremely long lifespan. Sure there are developments, but getting hit by 130 mm shrapnel hurts as much today as it did in Golan 1973. Still, everything comes to an end, and unfortunately for the Finnish Army quite a lot of things are coming to an end at roughly the same time.
For much of the Cold War the stalwart of the Finnish Defence Forces was made up of Soviet artillery systems, with a number of wartime British and German pieces thrown in for good measure. After the German reunification Finland also bought large number of 152 mm field guns and howitzers from ex-DDR stocks. However, dwindling and aging ammunition stocks have meant that all howitzers are withdrawn, with two battalions of 152 mm 2A36 guns and six battalions of 130 mm M-46 being left in service (note that the figures of wartime strengths should be taken with a grain of salt, as the Finnish Army rarely acknowledges the number of individual systems. These figures are the ones found in a trusted open source for 2018).
Both of these are expected to be phased out within the next few years, effectively reducing the number of Finnish towed heavy artillery by 45%. Left in service will be the 155 K 83-97 and 155 K 98, two domestic field guns firing NATO-standard 155 mm rounds. The K 83-97 is an 80’s design featuring an L/39 barrel, while the K 98 is a more modern piece with a L/52 barrel and an APU, a small engine allowing the gun to drive short distances under own power and thereby significantly aiding in the handling of the gun.
Amongst the self-propelled pieces 48 modern K9 Thunder 155 mm SPGs are being introduced. These highly efficient weapons will replace the already retired 2S5 Giatsint-S 152 mm SPGs and the still serving 2S1 Gvozdika 122 mm SPHs. However, the number is low enough that non-mechanised units are unlikely to see any self-propelled artillery. As such there is a gap evident amongst the mid-tier (regional) units of the wartime Finnish Army, where the retirement of the Soviet guns will be felt most keenly at the brigade level and above.
The obvious solution is to buy more guns. However, this is not necessarily as simple as it sounds, as heavy towed guns have rapidly fallen out of fashion. The few guns found in production, such as the US M777 and the Pegasus of Singapore, are often tailored toward expeditionary roles requiring them being airmobile. This leads to extremely low weight, but while lightweight guns generally are more fun and easy for the crews to operate, manufacturing gun parts from titanium comes at a price. A hefty price. The Australian DCSA request from 2008 comes in at 4.35 million USD a piece for 57 howitzers of the newest M777A2 version, though that included a SINCGARS radio for each set as well. The following year BAE bagged an order for 63 more M777A2 for USMC and Canada at a unit cost of a more decent 1.9 million USD. Still, that’s a far cry from the 500,000 Euro that the Finnish Defence Forces paid for its 155 K 98 ten years earlier.
The big factor as noted is the weight. The K 98 comes in at 14.6 tonnes, over 10 tonnes more than the 4.2 tonnes of the M777. However, the comparison isn’t a direct one, as the K 98 is a hybrid gun-howitzer while the M777 is a ‘pure’ howitzer sporting the somewhat shorter L/39 barrel length. However, thanks to developments in ammunition the M777 can also push out its rounds to the coveted 40 km range, making the difference in performance smaller (at least on paper, you won’t see accuracy figures of the two systems in open sources anytime soon).
At close to two millions a piece and requiring a towing vehicle (in theory the M777 can be towed by a HMMWV though in practice this is often handled by a 6×6 truck), a single gun system with gun and tower likely comes in at close to 2.5 million euros. And at that price-point something else appears.
Enter the Nexter Camion équipé d’un système d’artillerie, or CAESAR 8X8 for short, a 155 mm L/52 gun on a Tatra chassis. The 16 systems bought by the launch customer Denmark, including initial spares and a 10 year service agreement, comes in below 2.7 million euros a piece. While critics have decried the baseline CAESAR 6×6 as not offering any protection for the gun crew I feel the comparison is unfair. After all, at the price point the system is found the real competition is not the K9 or PzH 2000, but rather towed systems. And being mounted on an all-terrain truck it offers superior mobility without the need for a dedicated towing vehicle, while the lack of crew protection is the same. Replacing the Soviet designs with more 155 mm systems would simplify logistics, as all heavy systems would employ the same 155 mm NATO standard munitions. As such the question is raised if we shouldn’t just place an order for 100 CAESARs to replace the retired guns starting in 2020?
Well, the first issue is money. Even considering economics of scale the order would like come in at 200 million Euros, money which is hard though not necessarily impossible to come by. The other question is – perhaps somewhat unexpectedly – whether a self-propelled system is objectively “better” than a towed one? Not necessarily, especially not in the tight confines of Finnish terrain (i.e. forests). Handling the gun when you can’t get rid of the truck quickly can be more difficult, while the difference in height is evident from the pictures above. Protection of the system (as opposed to the crew) does become something of an issue. While the better part of a towed weapon can be hidden by a berm the height of a standing person, the truck needs, well, a truck-height of cover. These obstacles aren’t impossible to overcome, but for a traditional role towed systems might actually offer some benefits.
But what about avoiding counter-battery fire, I hear you say? Well, up until now the answer has been that when the guns in an individual battery are spread out so that there’s 400 to 800 metres between each gun counter-battery fire becomes ‘difficult enough’, with no need for shoot-and-scoot tactics. Also, even if there’s no need for a towing vehicle, the amount of rounds carried by a CAESAR is limited, and there would quickly appear a need for a ammunition truck. Towing trucks are also nice in that they are versatile, and you can replace lost towing trucks from general stocks (or use trucks who lost their guns as general cargo carriers) as the need arises.
Everything in the reasoning above is obviously also relevant for other wheeled SPGs of the same class, such as the Israeli ATMOS.
Could a new domestic gun come into the picture? Possibly, Patria has been pushing for a ‘Finnish CAESAR‘ as a way of maintaining artillery know-how in-country. However, while it is certainly true that the proud Finnish tradition of manufacturing high-end artillery is threatened, the question is if it is too late already? The last newly developed weapon was twenty years ago, and even if one wanted to avoid developing something new and instead simply restarted the 155 K 98-line it is seldom a simple and straightforward process to restart production lines which have laid dormant for 15+ years. At least if we want a competitive price, going abroad might be the only option, at which point license production can then be discussed to maintain domestic know-how.
So are there no options left that would offer Finland 100 guns for less than 200 millions?
Well, Nexter has noticed that there is a gap in the market, not the least because the Indian Army has a requirement for 1,400 towed 155 mm L/52 guns. To answer this they have launched the Trajan, based heavily on the gun used by the CAESAR. Little information is available, but the gun pushes the range out even further with 52 km range being given for specialised shells, it has an APU, and the weight comes in at 13.0 tonnes. Not a lightweight by any standard, but no worse than the 155 K 98. The rough price for the Indian order would be 714,000 Euros per gun. The main issue is that the Trajan is still just a prototype, and the Indian connection unfortunately makes it somewhat suspicious. It is unclear whether non-Indian exports would be ‘pure’ Nexter systems.
In the same competition Elbit is also offering a corresponding system, called ATHOS. Few hard details are known about the system, which is closely related to the wheeled SPG ATMOS that beat CAESAR in the original Danish competition (more than one commentator has questioned whether the rerun which lead to the CAESAR being ordered was based on facts or politics). The weapon does feature an automatic laying capability and an automated ammunition handling system (i.e. a hydraulic crane/lift). From a Finnish viewpoint, there’s the added twist of the Tampella-ancestry.
But the headaches of the Finnish Defence Forces doesn’t end there. There are quite literally hundreds of 122 mm D-30 light howitzers that are still filling the role as battalion level assets throughout most Army units. They will stay on longer than the heavier Soviet stuff, but they are also heading out as 2030 approaches.
But if the market for 155 mm howitzers is small, the market for light howitzers is next to non-existent. Certain light guns and mountain howitzers are still found, but the answer to what should replace the 122 mm howitzer is not necessarily another light howitzer.
The D-30 provides basic indirect fire with high-explosive shells, smoke, and illumination. They also provide an anti-tank capability, though it is questionable to what extent an 122 mm howitzer shell, even an armour-piercing one, actually can damage anything heavier than an APC. At the same time the introduction of hard-kill systems on tanks means that indirect and direct fire artillery is becoming more interesting again in the AT-role.
The obvious answer is getting more 120 mm heavy mortars. Lots of mortars. The range is not quite the same as the D-30, but on the other hand the lower muzzle velocity allows for thinner walls in the round, which leads to a 120 mm round packing almost the same explosive power as some 155 mm rounds. And while direct fire isn’t possible, the AT-role can be handled with Pansarsprängvinggranat m/94, or STRIX as everyone except the Swedish calls Saab’s endphase-guided anti-tank mortar round. Mortars, due to their steeper trajectory, require more open space to fire to make sure they don’t hit any trees overhead, but are also lighter and more easily moved compared to howitzers. As such they just might provide the answer to the loss of light howitzers, even if that would be a step back capability-wise in some aspects.
Artillery remains a priority amongst the Finnish Defence Forces, but there are some serious gaps coming up within the next decade. Besides the Soviet guns and howitzers on their way out, the RM-70 light rocket launchers are also about to be retired. In addition, modern rounds aren’t cheap, with guided once such as the Excalibur costing tens of thousands a piece (60,480 Euro a piece for the Excalibur to be exact). To be able to maintain a modern and large artillery arm, the Finnish Defence Forces will have to invest considerable sums during the 2020’s.
After the strategic acquisitions for the Navy and Air Force, I will argue that the Army should initiate a study for the best complete package of indirect fires to replace outgoing systems, followed by a strategic acquisition program along the lines of HX and Squadron 2020 to try and secure extra-budgetary funds to implement the program. This certainly won’t come easy, but even 1/20th-part of what HX is getting could prove to be the difference between massed enemy casualties and a repeat of the Winter War situation if we would face a war in 2030. As such, this would thoroughly be a strategic acquisition, though with artillery being less sexy than jet fighters, it might require more communication to get through the parliament.
Big thanks to Luke O’Brien who provided useful insights into the world of artillery and patiently answered my questions regarding the general state of modern artillery. All mistakes and groundless speculations are all my own making.
The Polish Army is expanding again, with their mechanized units catching the headlines during the last few months.
Last December it was announced that Poland was planning on upgrading 300 T-72M1 and T-72M1D tanks to a modernised standard. While the most modern tanks of the Polish Army is the mix of German-built Leopard 2A4’s and 2A5’s, T-72’s and their derivatives make up the bulk of the force. Around 230 of the T-72’s have been upgraded already earlier to the PT-91 Twardy standard, but there are also significant numbers of the obsolete T-72M1 left in service. While new tanks would have been a preferred option, it now seems that the Polish Army will instead upgrade 300 of these.
Keeping up the heritage of the Twardy, Polish companies have been presenting a number of T-72 upgrade options over the years. These have largely failed to attract orders up until now, with the major exception being the order from Malaysia for the PT-91M Pendekar for the Malaysian Army. The most radical suggestion is probably the PT-17, which sports a new turret with composite armour, laser warners, new sights and optics, a Ukrainian-built 120 mm smoothbore gun (firing NATO-standard ammunitions), and options for a new drive-train (either based on the Pendekar or a completely new one with a Scania-diesel). However, while the capabilities of the PT-17 is approaching that of new(ish) western tanks, the price tag does as well, and it now seems that the Polish Army is settling for a minor update based on the PT-91M2.
The exact scope is somewhat unclear, as the designation PT-91M2 has been used for a few different set-ups. The core of the upgrade is likely digital radios and communication equipment, new sights and electro-optical sensors (possibly Safran’s SAVAN 15 package), a new auto-loader for the main gun, ERA blocks, and additional smoke launchers. New ammunition for the 125 mm gun is also to be introduced, but a change of the main weapon is unlikely. The Slovak 2A46MS 125 mm L/46 has been mentioned in speculations, but currently it looks like this has been cut due to costs. While a far cry from a modern MBT, the PT-91M2 still represents a significant upgrade over the T-72M1 both when it comes to protection and firepower. All in all, the carry-over of technology from the Pendekar seems to be solid.
On the other end of the Polish tank spectrum, the Leopard 2A4’s are being upgraded to the 2PL standard. Here as well the focus is on increased protection and upgraded firepower. A new bolt on armor package with composite armor blocks changes the outlook of the flat 2A4 turret to a more wedged design, while modification to the Rheinmetall 120 mm L/44 gun allows it to accept modern high-pressure munitions. New sensors are also included in the package. The original order was for 128 upgraded tanks with an option for 14 more. The option was exercised this summer shortly after delivery of the first upgraded tanks to Poland, bringing the total number of Leopard 2PL up to 142.
More divisions, more brigades
But perhaps more interesting is that the Polish Army will expand with another mechanised division. This will be the 18. ‘Żelazna‘ (“Iron”) Division, officially standing up on Monday 17 September, and taking up the traditions of the similarly named infantry division which formed part of the Narew group in the early stages of the Second World War.
The order of battle is partly based on current brigades. The 1. ‘Warszawska’ Armoured Brigade currently stationed in the Wesoła district on the eastern outskirts of Warsaw will be transferred from the 16. ‘Pomorska‘ Mechanised Division. The 16. Division is, as the name implies, largely positioned in the northeastern part of Poland, with the 1. Brigade having been something of an outlier being held further to south. The 16. Division has also been the only of the Polish divisions to have a square structure with two armoured and two mechanised brigades, meaning that the downsizing to three brigades (9. Armoured, 15. and 20. Mechanised) makes the structure a copy of that of the 12. ‘Szczecin’ Mechanised Division. In addition the formerly independent 21. ‘Podhalańskich‘ Rifles (often the English name “Podhale” is used in English texts) will be added to the 18. Division. The 21. Rifles is interesting in that it is the Polish mountain infantry unit, being based in the southeastern parts of the country. However, the “mountain”-part of their mission easily leads a western observer astray. They are in fact not a light infantry unit, but a mechanised brigade equipped with BMP-1 (locally designated BWP-1) and a single tank battalion, the 1. Tank Battalion with T-72’s. There are indications that the BMP-1’s of the brigade will be replaced by KTO Rosomak’s (license-produced Patria AMV’s), and if the T-72’s of the battalion are amongst those to be brought up to PT-91M2 standard this would make the 21. Rifles a considerably more capable unit on the modern battlefield than it currently is. The third brigade of the 18. Division will be a new motorised/mechanised unit, the details of which are so far unknown.
A quick look at the map confirms that this is a shift to increase the readiness of the Polish Army to meet attacks on the eastern parts of the country. This includes the Brest-Warsaw axis, which as I have earlier discussed on the blog is the route used last time around when an attacker came for the Polish capital.
It remains to be seen to what extent the creation of 18. Division actually increases the amount of well-equipped troops in the field compared to the modernisation plans revealed earlier. However, the creation of a divisional HQ on the ‘right side’ of both the Bug and the Vistula with a plan for leading higher-level operations in Masovia is in itself important, and in case of a larger conflict it would be an extremely valuable resource thanks to its local knowledge.
In the midst of the strategic acquisitions it is easy to get locked in on the choice of platform, whether it is the HX fighter or the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes. But someone has to supply the teeths to make them able to bite, and this is where companies such as MBDA come in to the picture.
MBDA is yet another of the numerous joint ventures created in Europe in a time when not even the major regional powers can muster enough of a demand to warrant developing their own high-performance weaponry. However, the company is something of an outlier in that several of the products they have on their shelf have a good reputation both when it comes to project management and the cost/capability ratio of the final product.
Our basic philosphy is that we are platform agnostic, we serve everybody
MBDA has a product integrated or somewhere down the propsed upgrade paths on most HX-candidates. The flagship is without doubt the very-long range Meteor, largely held to be the most capable weapon in beyond-visual range engagments against fighter-sized targets currently operational. The introduction in service aboard the JAS 39C Gripen as part of the MS20 upgrade “changed the behaviour over the Baltic Sea”, both on the part of the Swedish fighters carrying them as well as for the Russian aircrafts they meet there. Courtesy of the ramjet engine and the 100+ km range, it provide “at least three times the no-escape zone” of current medium range missile (read: AIM-120C AMRAAM). The missile will find itself under the wings and fuselages of the Rafale and Typhoon within the next few years in addition to Gripen (both Charlie and Echo), creating an interesting dilemma for a manufacturer supplying highly complex equipment which is to be integrated into competing platforms. MBDA’s solution is to assign each aircraft and country it’s own manager, making sure that there are watertight bulkheads between any platform specific information entering the company.
For Gripen in HX, that man is Peter Bäckström, MBDA’s director exports for the Nordic region. An engineer by trade, he worked on a number of subsystems for the Meteor and TAURUS KEPD 350 before moving into sales. He has a clear view about what made the Meteor different from so many other projects. “It was born out of a requirement, a need for a 100+ km capable missile”, he notes, before continuing. “Game changer is a worn-out term, but this really is. It establishes a new set of rules.”
For the Gripen E, the Meteor and the increased number of hardpoints changes what has often been decried as a light fighter into a serious BVR-force, with a maximum load of seven Meteor and two short-range IRIS-T on the wingtips. While the maximum load might not be suitable for everyday carriage (if nothing else then due to budgetary constraints), it still places the air-to-air weapons load more or less on par with e.g. the Rafale.
But Meteor is far from the only thing MBDA has to offer for HX. ASRAAM is also found in their arsenal, a rather unique missile in being designed for ranges which are usually the realm of radar-guided ones. Given this, I have to ask Bäckström if there is any truth to the rumours that it can outrange the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Bäckström just smiles, and simply quips “It’s a very good missile”. In roughly the same class, the MICA-family (with both IR- and radar-guided versions) is set to be upgraded within the next decade. Unlike the Meteor, from the viewpoint of HX MICA is tied to Rafale. If Finland buys Rafale, we will likely get the MICA as well, but if any other aircraft takes home HX the MICA likely won’t make it’s way into the Finnish inventory (though it isn’t ruled out).
For heavy cruise-missiles, there’s not one but two options. The best known is likely the combat-proven SCALP/Storm Shadow, sporting inertial/GPS/terrain reference guidance and an IIR-seeker for terminal guidance. The different parameters which can be set include fusing (air burst, impact, or penetration) and dive angle. The missile is designed to feature a very high level of automation on the part of the pilot, meaning that it is suitable for single-seat fighters as well as twin-seaters.
The Taurus KEPD 350E is the other alternative, being built to a different requirement for the German and Swedish Air Forces (though Sweden is yet to acquire and put the weapon into operational use). The ‘350’ in the name comes from the requirement of 350 km range in all conditions at all drop heights. In practice, this means that the range when dropped from height is well above 500 km. It can be dropped from as low as 100 meters, which often is little more than a gimmick for stand-off weapons. However, for Finland this might actually be a useful feature, as there is value in staying below the radar horizon of the Russian ground based air surveillance radars. The 480 kg MEPHISTO penetrating warhead with pre-charge is also described in grand terms.
This is a real penetrator, not a ‘put down it down in a hole and blow it up’-warhead
TAURUS actually did compete for the contract which was won by the JASSM regarding integration into the Finnish Air Force F/A-18C Hornets. It is hard to tell what made the TAURUS come in second back then, whether there were particular political considerations or ease of integration (US fighter – US missile, though ROKAF has opted for the TAURUS for their F-15K Strike Eagles and Spain is integrating it on the Hornet) which played into the decision, or whether it was purely based on performance of the missile in question. In any case, the TAURUS is set to be integrated on Typhoons and not completely unlikely to appear on the 39E Gripen, so it wouldn’t be altogether surprising for it to fill that JASSM-shaped void after the retirement of the Hornet.
While the airborne systems grabs all the attention, the question of air defence system for the Pohjanmaa-class (Squadron 2020) is still unresolved. The last of the major weapon systems open, it will pit ESSM against the CAMM-ER (Barak 8 has been mentioned in the speculations, but is likely too large. I-Derby might be on offer instead). CAMM and CAMM-ER shares some of the same ancestry as the ASRAAM, but has developed into a rather different beast. The weapon feature a newly developed radar seeker, and is able to be quad-packed into a Mk 41 (or the smaller and lighter ExLS) just as the ESSM. From there the CAMM+family is soft-launched, and sports ranges in the 25 to 45 km class, depending on exact version and target. Interestingly enough, packed into the launcher it is completely maintenance free for a decade. This also ensures that once Finland has gotten the missiles, it is possible to operate them completely independently from the supplier. Or as Bäckström describes it:
A sovereign supply solution.
The weapon is already operational with the Royal Navy (and has been sold to other nations), but perhaps even more interesting is that the British Army performed their first firings of the Land Ceptor (known as EMADS in mainland Europe) earlier this year. If MBDA manages to get the CAMM-ER chosen as the main air defence weapon for the Finnish Navy, MBDA could suddenly claim synergy effects in the race for a longer-ranged ground-based air defence system for the Finnish Army. So far the ability of the NASAMS systems (already in Finnish service as the ITO12) to fire the longer-ranged AMRAAM-ER has made it a favourite, but questions has also been raised if that would mean putting too many eggs in the same basket. Notably the CAMM-ER would also provided the altitude coverage the Finnish Army is looking for following the retirement of the Buk-M1. A Land Ceptor solution able to use a joint missile stock with the Navy’s corvettes might suddenly be a very interesting proposition.
Another interesting thing to note is that MBDA is quick to point out that the missile would fit nicely into the Swedish organisation as well, as an all-weather mid-tier missile between the Patriot and the IRIS-T. While currently all light is on the Patriot-deal, it is clear that two understrength air defence battalions won’t provide the air defence coverage needed by the Swedish Army, and MBDA raising the benefits of a joint Finnish-Swedish buy (either of whole systems or missiles) might be worth keeping an eye on. Normal caveat about companies liking to market that they are in negotiations/close to a deal applies…
The draft text has been read through by MBDA, to make certain that it only contain non-classified information and general comments. Minor changes followed as part of the feedback received from them.