A Western Heliport

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Combat Boats and Landing Craft

One of the earliest aspects of the current wave of close Finnish-Swedish military cooperation has been that between the marine infantry in the two countries. This was formalised as the Swedish Finnish Amphibious Task Unit (SFATU), which originally was envisaged as a crisis management tool for the littorals. In later years the scope has been increased, as can be seen during the upcoming weeks when the unit will be training in Finnish waters. Parallel to the Navy’s main exercise Silja, the unit will perform a short pre-exercise which started 27 May, and on 3 June SFATU will switch over to the main exercise and take part in Silja together with the better part of the Finnish Navy (including the marines and coastal units). The Swedish marines are joining in the fun with a total force numbering around 400 personnel and around 40 boats.

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Finnish Jehu-class in the foreground with a Swedish CB 90H in the background. Note the differences in profile. Source: Merivoimat.fi

As usually when the two forces operate next to each other the differences in equipment has raised some questions, especially in this case where both units are tailored to operate in the same niche environment that make up the Northern and Western coastline of the Baltic Sea. The most striking difference is the combat boats used, which don’t show much of a resemblance to each other. It should be noted here that in my line of work at Kongsberg Maritime Finland Oy, formerly Rolls-Royce Oy Ab, I have come into contact with both vessels. However, all information in this post is based purely on open sources (as is all my writing). In addition, I won’t discuss concepts of operations or similar details covered by OPSEC in this post, even in cases where such information is available in open sources.

The CB 90H is a truly iconic vessel. The development work took place in the late 80’s, and the first vessels entered operational service in late 1990 under the designation Stridsbåt 90. The Swedish designation literally means Combat Boat 90, and in the same way as Strf 90 thanks to it’s export success is universally known as CV 90 the boat quickly went from StrB 90 to CB 90 internationally. From the outset the vessel was known as CB 90H (‘H’ coming from its ability to transport half a platoon) to distinguish it from the somewhat similarly looking but smaller and simpler 90E (‘E’ standing for Enkel, the Swedish word for simple).

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A CB 90H showing the twin mounted 12.7 mm FN M2 heavy machine guns next to the bow doors. Source: Joel Thungren/Försvarsmakten

CB 90 was an almost instant success both domestically and on the export market. At a time when many navies still used open landing crafts powered by traditional propeller/rudder-arrangements or outboards it employed twin waterjets to give superior maneuverability and a very good acceleration and top speed. The vessel also came armed with heavy machine guns which could support the landing, and the possibility to lay mines or drop depth charges over the stern. But perhaps the most visually striking detail is the extremely low profile. This is made possible by moving the control station to the very front of the vessel, allowing the crew a good view over the bow despite being placed low inside the hull. The vessel scored a number of export deals, including to Norway, Mexico, Malaysia, and the US Navy (known locally as Riverine Command Boat, RCB). Both for the export market and for domestic use a number of different versions have been developed, including versions sporting ballistic protection. The latest version is the Stridsbåt 90HSM for the Swedish marines, which feature better protection, a new driveline, and provisions for a remote weapon station. The latest order means that Dockstavarvet, nowadays owned by Saab, will be able to celebrate 20 years of CB 90 production (though not continuously).

Swedish CB 90s of the 2. battalion of Amf 1 forming up during exercise Aurora 17. Source: Mats Nyström/Försvarsmakten

The general layout has been successful enough that it has been adopted by a number of foreign projects, none of which have enjoyed the same success of the original design. It isn’t completely without drawbacks though. The most important drawback is that the placement of the crew stations in front of the passenger compartment leads to a chokepoint when the marines exit between the navigator and the helmsman. Sitting close to the bow also means that the crew will experience heavier loads on their bodies when encountering waves (especially at speed in rougher conditions). Rearward vision also suffers, and in general keeping a low profile means that there are certain limitations once it comes to situational awareness and the ability to mount sensors and weapons high. Still, these are of secondary importance to a vessel whose main purpose is to get marines ashore, and fast.

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A Jurmo under way in the Finnish archipelago. From the picture it is easy to see that the pivot point around which the hull moves when encountering a wave is rather far aft, meaning that the pitch when encountering waves in a planning vessel will be worse in the bow compared to further aft. Source: Merivoimat FB

At the same time as the Swedish Navy was busy driving around in combat boats, the Finnish marines had to make do with open and semi-open landing crafts. These weren’t necessarily bad landing crafts, but they offered little combat potential (no, a pintle-mounted 12.7 mm NSV doesn’t make a combat boat) and worse protection for both the crew and the embarked marines. On the positive side, their conventional layout meant that loading larger cargo was possible, and swiftly getting marines out of the passenger compartment was relatively easy. Having the crew at the rear also meant that slamming the bow in heavy weather doesn’t affect the crew in the same way, instead letting the unfortunate few marines closest to the bow take the beating. Especially the Jurmo-class was a very good ‘truck’ for the marines. But it was still a truck, and the Swedish marines were driving around in (light) APCs.

The answer to the demands of the Finnish marines came to be the Jehu-class, where much of the focus is placed on combat ability. The Jehu, or Watercat M18 AMC as it is known to its builder Marine Alutech, comes with both ballistic- and CBRN-protection, a roof-mounted RWS (Saab’s Trackfire RWS in Finnish service), and a serious communications suite. Following on the Finnish traditions, the passenger compartment is close to the bow, meaning that the control stations are in a raised deckhouse found midships. This means that the vessel in general will be higher (adding weight), but also offers more space for the crew working area. To compensate for being larger, the vessel has some serious power, with the twin engines being rated at 1,150 hp (compared to two times 625 hp on the original CB 90H and two times 900 hp in ‘operational‘ setting on the 90HSM).

Bigger isn’t always better, but the increased size of the Jehu compared to both CB 90H as well as earlier Finnish designs opens up new possibilities, such as the fitting of a 120 mm NEMO mortar turret (with a direct fire ability). This is a capability the Finnish Navy urgently needs, and something which almost gave the Swedish marines their SB 2010 a decade ago. In the end, SB 2010 remained a paper product, cancelled by overzealous politicians, but the concept had called for a larger combat boat, with a general layout not completely unlike that of the Jehu.

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Finnish marines disembarking from a Jehu-class landing craft. Note the Trackfire RWS which is mounted high with an excellent field of fire. Source: Merivoimat FB

In the end, the CB 90H and Jehu are examples of the principle that the same operational environment can lead to rather different solutions, all depending on how you prioritise between the inevitable trade-offs.

With the Swedish Navy towards the Future

“Be there early and stay”

That is what the Swedish Navy strives to do. With the Baltic Sea becoming busier and busier, maintaining situational awareness require not only information sharing with partners and a solid chain of land-based sensors, but also a presence out in the thick of it. And this is tied to the biggest challenge the force faces today – out of an estimated need of 24 vessels, the fleet currently consist of 7 units. And while stealth and the ability to choose when to be visible is a force multiplier, it can only improve the situation so much. As such, increasing the number of vessels is described as “vital”.

But this leads to the next round of issues – “personnel, personnel, personnel.” On the whole recruitment is going “rather well”, but there are some difficulties. Still, if the Navy is to grow, having fully trained crews for the high-end platforms such as corvettes and submarines will take time. For the time being, no conscripts serve aboard the vessels, though this might change if the Navy starts growing rapidly.

Leadship of one of the world’s most advanced corvette classes, HMS Visby, being escorted by a Finnish Jurmo-class landing craft during exercise Northern Coasts 2018. Source: Merivoimat FB.

But in the meantime cooperation with the Finnish Navy provide added capabilities. The point was raised that cooperation between the two navies are deeper compared to the Armies and the Air Forces. This stems from the fact that the first steps are relatively easy to take, as the ships can meet in the middle of the sea, avoiding high-profile invitations and vehicle convoys passing through the territory of the host nation. This in turn gave the two navies a head start, once the drive for deeper FISE-cooperation kicked off in earnest. In a region where incidents or mishaps could escalate and increase uncertainty, both navies view the FISE-cooperation as increasing stability and security in the region.

The introduction of new Russian vessels such as the Buyan-M and the Karakourt-class corvettes provide the Baltic Fleet with “quite good capabilities”, while at the same time the Russian exercises of 2018 have been held further out at sea and farther away from the Russian bases in Kaliningrad. This is something that the Swedish Navy keeps an eye on, to determine if this is the new normal or just an outlier. What is clear is that the famed Kaliningrad A2/AD-bubble will become “even more flexible” if it is sea-based compared to being restricted to Russian land territory. However, this brings us back to the original point: with the growing range of modern weapons, the demands placed on targeting data increases, which will require presence. But presence works both ways, and the Baltic Sea is a “good spot” for a maritime hybrid operation.

Will we know if it will be war before it start? I’m not so sure

So the Swedish Navy will have to grow, and the plan is clear: it will be an evolutionary growth. The best example of this method in practice is the currently ongoing MLU of the Gotland-class submarines, where sub-systems and lessons learned will be integrated into the upcoming A26-class. In the same way the Navy plans to use the MLU on the Visby-class of corvettes as a proof-of-concept for the projected Visby Gen 2.

Soldiers of the 205. Rifle company catching some rest while a CB 90 landing craft takes them to their next destination during exercise AURORA 17. Source: Mats Nyström/Försvarsmakten

Another hot topic is the creation of a second amphibious regiment, i.e. marines. While the current Amf 1 is something of a “and the kitchen sink” unit which include several support functions which belonged to earlier iterations of the Coastal Artillery/Amphibious Corps, the new unit will be a fighting unit, centered around marine infantry and aimed towards high-end combat. As such, it will also be smaller, numbering around 800 personnel compared to the 1,200 of Amf 1. This unit will be in place by 2025, and the Navy don’t expect any recruitment issues. “Marines are the easiest to recruit, any vacancies are filled within 72 hours.”

The post is based on a briefing held under Chatham House-rules at the Meripuolustuspäivä/Naval Defence Day in November 2018. General approval for the publishing of a post based on the briefing was received, but the final text has not been shown to anyone connected with the Swedish Navy (active or retired).

Naval Defence Day 2018 – Only Change is Constant

The annual Finnish Naval Defence Day was held a week ago, with the usual crowd of Naval officers, reservists, and stakeholders meeting up for a day of lectures and discussion on the current state of the Navy and its reserve, as well as topics of general interest to the crowd.

The Finnish Navy and the Baltic Sea

The year so far has seen the continuation of several of the programmes initiated earlier. Two Haminas are currently undergoing their MLU, with the other two awaiting their turn. The programme is largely on schedule, with the small delay in the PTO 2020 anti ship missile programme translating into a slight setback for the Hamina-upgrade. The other major new weapon system, the light torpedo, is on the other hand on schedule, with the first batch of Finnish Naval personnel currently in Sweden undergoing training. The training deal both with the particular system (or rather systems, as Finland first will lease and operate the current Torp 45 before switching to the acquired Torp 47 once they start coming of the production line), as well as general ASW tactics which is something of a new field for the Finnish Navy.

The New Lightweight Torpedo, still awaiting its Finnish designation, will provide a giant leap in Finnish ASW-capabilities. Picture courtesy of Saab Ab

For the Gabriel, the Navy remains as tight-lipped as they were when first announcing the decision. The message that Gabriel was the overall best performer in all categories was reiterated, with a comment that the fact that it did so at a very competitive price was an important additional factor. And while no new information was given, the excitement amongst the officer corps regarding the new system was palpable every time one brought up the topic.

Squadron 2020 is moving on slowly but steadily, with the contract date with the yard being planned for January/February 2019. This has dragged on a bit, due to the demanding situation of there being only one supplier. As this means there are no pressure on price and risk-taking from the competition, the negotiations have proved trickier than expected, but the Navy is confident that a good contract will be signed. For the combat management system the situation is more traditional with three suppliers shortlisted, and here the tender has been delayed a bit to be in lockstep with the shipbuilding negotiations. On the whole the project is moving along more or less as expected, the delays in signing the shipbuilding deal aside.

The inside of the TK 130 gun barbette during operation. It is the most modern turreted coastal defence gun worldwide and more survivable than generally perceived, but it is still approaching retirement. Source: Merivoimat FB

Past Squadron 2020 and the Hamina MLU further modernisation programs awaits. The 130 TK fixed coastal artillery will have to be replaced during the second half of the 20’s, and as some batches of the manportable short-range coastal defence missiles (Eurospike ER / RO2006) will start to reach the end of their shelf-life in the same timespan the Navy is taking a look at the larger picture when it comes to coastal defence and what possibilities there currently are on the market to replace the outgoing guns and missiles.

Another topic is new vessels, where the logistics of supporting troops in the archipelago holds its own challenges. One topic is how these smaller auxiliaries should be acquired, as the tendering process naturally differs from how corvettes and fast attack crafts are planned and bought. And speaking of buying fast attack crafts, on the horizon the first studies for the eventual Hamina-replacement are starting to take place.

The export variants of the 3M-14 land-attack and 91R1 ASW versions of the Kalibr-family. Source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin via Wikimedia Commons

But it is not only Finland that is actively modernising and practicing. The Russian Baltic Fleet is receiving new equipment, and the Baltic Sea is also home to many temporary high-end visitors when newbuilds are performing sea trials here. Amongst the systems mentioned by name we had the Steregushchiy-class corvettes and Project 636 “Kilo II”-class submarines, as well as the 3M-54 and 3M-14 Kalibr (which are the anti ship- and land-attack versions of the same missile) and the Redut-family of surface-to-air missiles. The Kalibr-family it was noted is in fact an issue for the whole of the Finnish Defence Forces and not the Navy alone, considering the fact that the range from Kaliningrad and the Barents Sea puts large parts of southern and northern Finland respectively inside the strike range of the ship- and sub-launched cruise missiles.

On the other hand 2018 has been largely uneventful in the Baltic Sea when it comes to major incidents, and while Russian activity remain at a high level, Northern Coasts 18 as an example took place without anything out of the ordinary. While the increased level of readiness has been taxing on the Finnish Navy, they are proud of their work in not letting any vessel move in waters “close to us” without being identified (no word on how far out the “close” reaches). To ensure this the Navy is employing a range of measures, including not only own vessels and sensors, but also cooperation with the Border Guards and the NH90 helicopters of the Army Aviation.

Unmanned technology underutilised?

Unmanned and autonomous systems was the main topic of discussion, with a particular focus on the utilisation of these technologies in the maritime domain. The rapid minituarisation and commercialisation throughout the field means that even smaller countries such as Finland are able to start investing in unmanned technology on a broader scale. It is also notable that this will not, or at least should not, simply lead to pulling people out of today’s systems and replacing them with computers. Rather a completely new set of options open up, with the ability to have platforms measured in centimeters and decimeters instead of tens of meters. Additionally endurance isn’t necessarily a limiting factor anymore, especially for surface and subsurface platforms which can wait and float freely for prolonged periods of time. On the other hand, even with improved machine learning and autonomy amongst machines, robots are still extremely good at handling a specific task or scenario but significantly poorer at reacting to surprises. As such we are increasingly entering an age where the human player is needed not for the expected tasks, but as the flexible element to take control when the unexpected happens.

Saab’s AUV62 AT is an underwater target which can mimic different submarines. As part of ASW exercises the AUV62 is let loose, after which it operates fully independently for several hours, relying on dead reckoning and reacting intelligently to enemy actions, all while recording everything that happens. Imagining a reconnaissance role for a similar system is not difficult. Picture courtesy of Saab

While drones currently are sub-systems rather than main systems, their revolutionary nature shouldn’t be underestimated. In the naval domain, getting a lightweight synthetic aperture radar up in the sky aboard a lightweight drone is suddenly a serious alternative to the traditional mast-mounted surface search radar, providing both over-the-horizon range and having the added benefit of letting the host vessel’s sensors remain silent. An interesting example is Israel who has retired manned maritime patrol aircraft and completely replaced them with remotely piloted ones.

On the other end of the scale we have commercial off-the-shelf systems which has seen use in both Ukraine and Syria both to provide targeting data, perform reconnaissance, and for direct attacks with grenades or fixed warheads (the later use starting to blur the border between UAS/UAV and cruise missile). In the Ukrainian case, the targeted attacks against ammunition depots have shown that simple and cheap system can take on operational/strategic roles (Yes, this is something that the Finnish Defence Forces have recognised in their current operational planning. No, you won’t get further details).

But while everyone recognises that unmanned systems are here to stay and will only increase in both numbers and importance, in many ways the final breakthrough has not necessarily taken place. Comparisons were made to the state of aircraft at the outbreak of the First World War, where no-one really knew what worked and what didn’t, but after a few years of fighting the air war had reached a form which it would keep for decades. Similarly, at the outbreak of the Second World War much of the technology that would transform the battlefield between 1939 and 1945 was already available, but only the outbreak of the war led to inventions such as the jet engine being rushed into service. Currently a number of unmanned technology demonstrators are making rather slow progress in getting into widespread use, partly because lack of funding, and partly because of questions regarding artificial intelligence and the authorisation of use of force. If a significant peer-vs-peer conflict would take place, it is likely that a rapid roll-out of these existing cutting-edge technologies into operational systems would take place.

The killer robots amongst us? Here PM04, a smart impulse sea mine in operational use by the Finnish Navy since well over a decade ago. Source: MKFI via Wikimedia Commons

But as we consider the moral implications of ‘killer robots’, are we just overlooking the developments that has already taken place? What is the principal difference between an autonomous armed UAV, and modern impulse mines? These have sensors and a certain level of logic allowing them to discern between targets, and once deployed they will fully autonomously perform their mission, no surrenders accepted. Did we actually deploy armed killer robots over a decade ago, without ever noticing?

A Squadron from the North

Few readers of the blog are likely to have missed the fact that the world’s largest submarine and sole survivor of the Akula (NATO-nickname ‘Typhoon’) class recently paid a visit to the Baltic Sea for the Russian Navy Day parade. TK-208 Dmitriy Donskoy grabbed most of the headlines, but as with all good tricks, it’s when you watch the ball too closely that the magic happens.

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Hieronymus Bosch: “The Conjurer” (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the Baltic Sea the submarine completely lacked suitable weaponry, sensors, and quite frankly space to move around. However, the world’s largest surface combatant, Pyotr Velikiy (‘099’), travelled together with the submarine. In addition, the cruiser Marshal Ustinov (‘055’) and destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov (‘626’) both travelled to the Baltic Sea to join in the festivities from the Northern Fleet, with the frigate Admiral Makarov (‘799’) joining from the Black Sea Fleet. These surface combatants stood for the real increase in firepower, and deserve a closer look:

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Note hatches for vertically launched weapons on foredeck. Source: FLVFOT, Flyvevåbnets Taktiske Stab

Pyotr Velikiy: at 251 meter long and 24,300 tons standard displacement, she is a huge vessel by any standard. Often referred to as a battlecruiser, because she packs significant firepower but lacks the armour associated with ‘real’ battleships. The Kirov-class was launched in the 80’s, with the goal of intercepting and destroying the carrier task forces of the US Navy by unleashing a barrage of P-700 Granit missiles. Originally named Yuri Andropov, she is currently the only vessel of the class in operational service. Powered by two KN-3 nuclear reactors supplemented by oil-fired boilers.

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Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

Marshal Ustinov: the Slava-class of cruisers are the little sisters (186 m and 9,380 tons) of the Velikiy, and are made to perform the same missions of targeting enemy surface vessels (with the P-500 Bazalt) and functioning as flagships. The Ustinov was launched in 1982, making it seven years older than the Velikiy.

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Source: Brian Burnell via Wikimedia Commons

Vice-Admiral Kulakov: the Udaloy-class are specialised anti-submarine destroyers with secondary air defence and anti-ship capabilities. While the destroyer is significantly smaller (163 m and 6,930 tons) and somewhat older (launched 1980) than the cruisers, she still represents a vessel of the same size as the current flagship of the Baltic Fleet, the air defence destroyer Nastoychivyy.

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Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

Admiral Makarov: The odd bird out, Makarov not only comes from Sevastopol instead of Murmansk, she is also one of the few really modern warships of the Russian Navy. While the frigate is the lightest of the kvartet (125 m and 3,300 tons), she packs a considerable punch for her size with moderns sensors and weaponry (including the long-range Kalibr-cruise missile), and also feature some amount of signature reduction.

Notable is that Granit, Bazalt, and Kalibr all can come equipped either with conventional or nuclear warheads.

As noted, the current flagship of the Russian Baltic Fleet is the Sovremennyy-class destroyer Nastoychivyy, which is the sole operational destroyer of any country permanently stationed in the Baltic Sea. In addition, her sister Bespokoynyy is in reserve/long-term storage. It is hard to overstate the boost the four vessels dispatched brought to Russia’s Baltic Fleet, traditionally one of the smaller fleets in the Soviet/Russian Navy. While all except Makarov are starting to show their age, they brought significant increases to the air defences available. Ustinov feature both the medium ranged Osa-MA and the long-range S-300F Fort surface-to-air missile systems, which are naval derivatives of the 9K33 Osa and the S-300. The Fort employs the original semi-active 5V55 missiles, while the Veliky in turn feature the upgrade S-300FM Fort-M system, which is longer ranged and sporting the newer 48N6E and 48N6E2 missiles. The Veliky also has the medium-range 3K95 Kinzhal (a naval derivative of the 9K330 Tor) and the Kashtan close-in weapons systems with autocannons and short-range missiles (easiest described as 2K22 Tunguska derivatives). The Kinzhal is found on the Kulakov as well. Makarov in turn has the Kashtan for short-range work and the Shtil-1, which in essence consists of Buk-M1 missiles in vertical launch tubes, for medium-range work.

In short: that is a serious amount of different air defence systems, and should have been of note for anyone interesting in drawing A2/AD-bubbles on maps.

The open-water anti-submarine capability was also given a considerable increase by Kulakov and Makarov. Up until now, the main sub-hunting force has been the six coastal ASW-corvettes of the Parchim-class, with open water capability largely resting on the shoulders of the fleet’s sole submarine Vyborg (an early Project 877 ‘Kilo’-class sub from the early 80’s) and the four Steregushchiy-class (light) frigates. This is a relatively small force, considering that the Baltic Sea is home to two of the world’s most modern AIP-submarine forces: the Swedish (Gotland– and Södermanland-classes) and the German (Type 212) submarine squadrons.

The escorts

The vessels arrived well in time before the parade, and the small squadron of Donskoy, Veliky, and the tug Nikolay Chiker was followed closely by both defence forces and media. NATO-vessels escorted the vessels throughout their journey, with the Norwegian Coast Guard shadowing them along the Norwegian coast, and then handing over to HDMS Diana and the Royal Danish Navy. The Danish Defence Forces had earlier stated that the passage of the vessels was business as usual, and that they would dispatch an escort. In hindsight it might not have been quite as usual, as the passage under the Great Belt bridge was escorted by no less than three Diana-class patrol vessels and a single standby vessel positioned just south of the bridge.

After this, the Russians got the attention of, well, everyone. The German Elbe-class tender Main followed them for a while, before the Poles showed up with landing craft/minelayer ORP Gniezno. The Swedes then tried to get the price for most creative solution, by having the Naval Reserve’s Hoburg (ex-ASW hunter Krickan of the Ejdern-class) intercept the formation (granted, there was probably a submarine lurking somewhere for more serious intelligence work). The Estonian’s in turn sent the joint flagship of the border guards and the police force, the Kindral Kurvits.

The Finnish reaction, or rather, the fact that there didn’t seem to be one, caused some people to voice opinions about Finlandisation and the Navy sleeping on their stations. While I am usually quick to argue for clear signalling rather than anything resembling Finlandisation (due to the risk of misinterpretation given our history), I do feel that this is uncalled for. On the contrary: it is painstakingly clear that the appearance of the Donskoy in particular was a PR-stunt, and the considerable buzz caused was quite likely an end in itself. The measured Finnish response was in my opinion a balanced way to acknowledge their existence, without giving them undue attention.

It is perfectly possible to maintain watch over surface vessels in the Gulf of Finland without venturing out to sea (especially in peacetime conditions when no one is targeting or jamming your sensors), and this is particularly true for a vessel with the radar cross section of the Velikiy. So the Finnish Navy seems to have decided that the squadron was not interesting enough to receive an escort.

Note however that the Navy did venture out to sea to get picture of the vessels, and not only that: the Finnish vessel has circled around to a position south of the Russian units (I have gotten confirmation that the pictures are taken from a Finnish naval vessel, and aren’t from Estonian sources). In my opinion, this measured response was likely the best one available. The Navy showed that they knew where the Russian units where, and that they weren’t afraid of maneuvering around in their vicinity to get the best pictures, without showing too much attention (easily interpreted as fear in the face of the Russian show of force).

Exit… Stage Left

The vessels again caused something of a buzz when the question was raised how many of them actually had left the Baltic Sea. According to Russian sources, all Northern Fleet vessels had headed North again, but the pictures used to show this were actually Finnish press photos from the Gulf of Finland. Eventually it became clear that Veliky and Donskoy had left (hat tip to Cornucopia?/Lars Wilderäng), and were indeed northbound. The Kulakov, however, was intercepted by Belgian and British forces while heading south, and no one seems to know where the cruiser Ustinov and the frigate Makarov have went (no one who is ready to tell, that is, I fully expect the defence forces of the countries bordering the Baltic Sea to have proper info on the movement of what might be the strongest vessels currently deployed to our pond). As is well known, the Baltic Fleet has received some significant reinforcements from the Black Sea Fleet earlier as well, and while unlikely, a (semi-)permanent deployment here can’t be ruled out.

Air and Sea Traffic in the Gulf of Finland 6 October

It seems evident that 6 October was a day of heavy Russian military air traffic in the Gulf of Finland, reminiscent of certain episodes during the second half of 2014. Unfortunately, another episode also reminded of 2014, in that the Russians twice intruded on Finnish airspace. The first intruder was a single Su-27P, ‘red 42’ (RF-92414), which briefly entered Finnish airspace over the sea south of Porvoo 16:43 local time. It was intercepted by Finnish QRA, which duly photographed the armed Russian fighter.

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The first intruder. Source: Puolustusvoimat

The Russians had time to deny this incident, before the next intrusion took place at exactly the same place a few hours later. Another Su-27P in the ‘Red 4x’ sequence flew the same route inside Finnish airspace, and was documented by Finnish QRA at 21:33.

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The second intruder. Source: Puolustusvoimat

Both aircraft carry a mix of short-range highly manoeuvrable R-73 IR-missiles, mid-range R-27T IR-missiles, as well as long-range R-27ER semi-active radar-seeking missiles. This varied load-out is nothing new, and e.g. on this photo taken by US fighters during the Cold War the same missiles (though in older versions) are found on the same stations.

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Su-27 with same variety of missiles, photographed in 1988. Source: US DoD

In theory the mix gives the Su-27 and unprecedented ability to target different airborne targets near and far, though in reality the different versions of the R-27 are starting to show their age. The lack of an active radar seeker on the R-27ER is also a significant handicap.

As noted, both intrusions took place at the same location, outside of Porvoo. A map released by the Finnish Border Guards leave little doubt that the intrusions were intentional, as both fighters flew the same track with a few hours in between. Both fighters entered Finnish airspace flying straight towards Kallbådagrund lighthouse (and in the general direction of Helsinki), and then turning parallel to the border just inside of it, before dashing out at the same location.

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The flight path of the first intruder in red, the track of the second intruder in blue, and the extent of Finnish airspace in green. Source: Rajavartiolaitos

Notable is that while earlier intrusions have often been by cargo planes, and have often been blamed on the weather (in the cases where the Russians have conceded that they indeed have intruded on Finnish airspace), the weather during 6 October was good, with no reason to deviate. It is extremely rare that Russia have made these ‘visits’ with fighters, and the use of armed fighters to send a message like this is a step up in rhetoric.

An interesting question is related to the general state of readiness for the Finnish fighters. The closest permanent QRA is stationed at Kuopio-Rissala airbase in the central parts of Finland, from where the flight time would seem prohibitively long (especially as there has been no reports of supersonic flights by the Finnish Air Force).

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A pair of armed F/A-18C Hornets parked at Kuopio-Rissala airport earlier this year. Source: own picture

The air force naturally refuses to give any details regarding the alert level and where the fighters that intercepted the Russian air traffic were based. During 2014 it was acknowledged that the air force temporarily based Hornets on civilian air fields in the southern parts of the country, including Helsinki-Vantaa international airport, to reduce intercept times. Finnish MoD Jussi Niinistö praised the reaction times of the Hornets, and noted that in addition to the two intruding Su-27P’s an unspecified number (‘several’) of identification flights were made. He also noted that this took place on the same day that Finland signed the bilateral defence cooperation deal with the US, and that the Russian behavior did not affect this in any way. It seems likely that the Finnish Air Force had some kind of prior knowledge, or that they were able to change their stance and react very quickly to the sudden increase in air traffic.

The Finnish authorities have asked the Russian ambassador to explain the intrusions.

In yet another twist, Estonian airspace was intruded upon a couple of hours after the second Porvoo-incident.

The QRA duty for the Estonian airspace is currently handled by a detachment of German Eurofighters, which, like their Finnish colleagues, had flown a number of identification flights during 6 October. If the intruder was photographed is not yet known. The Eurofighters currently operating out of Ämari air base are five aircraft from TaktLwG 74, homebased in Neuburg. The raw performance of the Eurofighter when it comes to climb rate and acceleration makes it right at home when it comes to these kinds of intercepts, and according to open sources the German fighters reached 848 knots (~1.3 Mach) during their missions, the highest speed noted in any intercept over the Gulf of Finland during 6 October.

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An intercept from last month where German Eurofighters identified a Russian Su-27. Note drop tanks and air-to-air missiles on Eurofighter, as well as lighter missile load on Su-27 compared to what was carried this time. Source: Bundeswehr

Another part of the puzzle came on 7 October, when Estonian sources claimed that the ro-ro vessel Ambal then in transit was carrying Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad. The vessel is operated by Anrusstrans, which sports a small and varied fleet of cargo vessels and tugs. The vessel arrived in Baltiysk on the evening of 7 October. Crucially, she had been transiting the Gulf of Finland during 6 October, leading some to speculate that the Russian fighters had been escorting her. It is possible that the air and sea traffic was part of an exercise aimed at practising how to transfer reinforcements to Kaliningrad, an operation which would require air superiority over the Gulf of Finland and eastern parts of the Baltic Sea during the transit, though a traditional escort mission where fighters would follow a lumbering merchantman at (relatively) close range seems unlikely. It is also unclear if the Iskanders are the only units moved to the exclave during the last days, or if other units have been transferred as well.

Of further interest is the fact that on 5 October it was reported that two Buyan-M class corvettes that had transited the Bosphorus seemingly heading towards Syria, instead could be heading for the Baltic Sea. The introduction of these highly capable corvettes armed with Kalibr cruise missiles in the Baltic Sea would add significant fire power to the Russian Baltic Fleet.

 

The other island

In the shadow of Sweden re-militarising Gotland, the focus of the Finnish discussion rapidly turned to two things: Why is the Finnish government cutting defence spending in the budget proposal presented this week, and what to do with our own blank spot, the Åland islands?

The Åland islands have been demilitarised since the (First) Crimean War of the mid-19th century. The Russian Empire, to which the Grand-Duchy of Finland belonged back then, had built an impressive coastal fortress at Bomarsund, which an Anglo-French force captured in 1854. The whole siege cost both sides less than a 100 dead each, and would probably have been all but forgotten if not for two aspects: The first ever Victoria Cross was awarded for gallantry shown during the battle, and the fact that the peace Treaty of Paris (not to be confused with the 1947 edition) that ended the conflict declared the islands demilitarised (though not the surrounding waters).

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The final assault on Bomarsund. Source: Wikimedia Commons
It should be noted that the legal status is far from clear-cut. The islands have been dealt with in a number of treaties, including the above-mentioned Paris Treaty of 1856, but also by the League of Nation decision of 1921 (expanding the demilitarisation to include surrounding waters), and the treaties with the Soviet Union following the Winter and Continuation Wars. Col. (ret.) Anders Gardberg has written a study on the islands, including the legal aspects, found here.  The questions it deals with are largely unchanged over time, keeping the 20 year old paper highly relevant. Of note is that the 1921 Convention allows for Finland to, if  “‘exceptional circumstances demand’ send into the zone and keep there temporarily such armed forces that are ‘strictly necessary for the maintenance of order'” (as quoted in Gardberg’s paper). A piece of interesting trivia is that unlike what is often stated, the inhabitants of the islands can actually be called up for conscript duty, but only in the Pilot- and Lighthouse authority. This in turn was quickly disbanded and turned into the Finnish Maritime Administration following Finnish independence, making this something of a moot point…

If we however leave the legal fine print aside, and accept the fact that there is currently nothing that points towards the Finnish politicians mustering the willpower to let the needs of the defense of this strategic area prevail over the political inertia of status quo and significant local (and Russian) opposition to an even partial re-militarisation, the question appears how much of a problem this really is?

There is little doubt that today there exists plans for the Navy to conduct a updated version of the WWII-era Operation Regatta, wherein a naval convoy at the outbreak of hostilities quickly shipped the necessary forces to the Åland Islands.

The problem, as is generally the case with the Finnish Defence Forces, is that the number of standing marine units (not counting the ships) ready to intervene at a short notice is negligible. In practice, this means that for Operation Regatta 2.0 to succeed, the crises needs to have escalated over time to the extent that a mobilisation of reservists have been initiated, and the first act of hostilities need to be something else than a ro-ro vessel heading out of St Petersburg suddenly altering its course and unloading a reinforced mechanised battalion in Mariehamn. The absolute nightmare is a coordinated surprise assault by sea and air, allowing rapid transfer of a brigade (or possibly even a reinforce one) to occupy the Åland mainland, something which could easily come out of one of the Russian snap exercises. This would be extremely hard to dislodge, and would effectively cut off Finland from the rest of world, with regards to both military room to manoeuvre and the flow of vital goods such as food and fuel for the society as a whole. This would either require Finland to give in to any demands placed by the Kremlin, let the Finnish society literally starve, or defeat the Russian force on the battlefield.

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The new Jehu-class fast assault craft of the Finnish Navy. In effect, it upgrades the coastal jaegers’ mode of  transport from ‘truck’ to ‘IFV’ to use a land forces metaphor. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI
The later need not necessarily be by a frontal assault. The major difference between Gotland and Åland is that the former is a largely continuous landmass, while the latter is made up by 6,700 named (and a further 13,000 unnamed) islands and skerries. The archipelago is a battlefield unlike any other. It is virtually impossible to control all islands, leading to the forces being grouped on the ones deemed strategically important from where they can then extend zones of control over the lesser ones. Naturally, this calls for a very delicate balance between overextending and leaving gaps in the defence. As any kind of retreat or bringing in of reinforcements during an ongoing fight is extremely hazardous, operations are usually characterised by swift and determined assaults where the attacker tries to throw the defender into the sea by asserting man- and firepower superiority. If the first attack fails, the only option left is usually to try and withdraw under fire. The Hanko campaign of 1941 is probably the best historical case study to shine light on the dilemmas.

The issue for any Russian troops sitting on Åland is that they are too few to hold all major entryways at any given point. This would be the case even if this was the single main offensive operation in the Baltic Sea region, which would in turn mean that the occupiers would include the 336. Marine Brigade and the 76. Air Assault Division in Pskov (note that this is an understrength divsion). Any Russian occupation would still leave potential weak spots which would allow Finnish coastal jaegers and special forces to set up their own position in close vicinity to the Russian positions.

Finnish marine forces in action

In case the conflict started according to the Crimea-blueprint, where the Russians have deployed forces to protect their (shipping) interests in the area but the different forces aren’t actually shooting at each other, the Finnish troops could theoretically play to the strengths provided by their supply lines being short and well-protected, and create a counter-siege where the occupiers are cut off from the Russian supply bases in the St Petersburg area and the Kaliningrad exclave. This would force the Russians to either escalate the conflict into a real shooting war (one in which they have lost the element of surprise and would clearly be the attacker) or back down. If the shooting war is already a fact, the ability to use long-range anti-shipping missiles from the mainland’s archipelago and light infantry units to operate in the Åland archipelago in hit-and-run attacks and as spotters would create a race to the bottom, where both Finland and the occupying force are under siege, and the question is which one breaks faster.

However, even if the possibility of bouncing back from a strategic surprise is there, this is dependent upon the Finnish government exhibiting the required determination to realise the strategic importance of the islands and put up a fight to defend these. Sadly, this is the single part of the whole Åland question which I feel is questionable.