I have on a number of occasions stated that the outcome of the HX programme is far from certain, despite the F-35 probably being the fighter to beat. While waiting for the sprint to the finish line to start of in earnest, there are two things that probably are worth keeping in mind.
To begin with, the unlikely doesn’t equal the impossible. Betsson earlier this year placed odds on the outcome, and while I don’t condone gambling generally and in particular not with questions of national security, the odds given weren’t too controversial. At the point of Finnish tabloid Iltalehti reporting on the live odds, they were:
F-35 2.15 (i.e. 35 % of being chosen)
F/A-18E/F Super Hornet 3.00 (25 %)
JAS 39E/F Gripen 3.75 (20 %)
Eurofighter Typhoon 6.25 (12 %)
Rafale 9.35 (8 %)
It is easy to read 8 % as “never”, but it deserves to be remembered that this is not the case. As a comparison, if you sit down with your Monopoly board and bring out the two dice, the odds of you rolling the dreaded ‘snake eyes’ or 1-1 is just 2,78 %. Does that mean that things are looking bright for the Rafale? Not really. The reason you can remember rolling snake eyes in board games is that you have a large numbers of die rolls per game, while the HX is a single event. Granted, you still do roll snake eyes on your first roll sometimes, but it is rare. And since someone is bound to comment on it, yes, Leicester City F.C. won the Premier League.
…which brings us to our second point, which is a more serious concern for the odds favourites. Last time around the details surrounding the choice of the F/A-18C/D Hornet were largely confidential for a long time, but back in 2017 twenty-five years after the event Olli Ainola of Iltalehti got the memo circulated amongst the ministers back then released (it had been classified as ‘Salainen’ or ‘Secret’, i.e. the second-highest classification on the four-tier system). It provide a good lesson to keep in mind when discussing the expected outcome for the current programme.
Of the five contenders left (the more fanciful offer to sell Finland the MiG-31 had already been discarded at this point), two were outright disqualified as not meeting the Air Force’s requirement. These included the MiG-29 (not meeting requirements related to “avionics nor lifespan, nor the maintenance setup”) and more surprisingly the popular favourite, the F-16C/D (failing both on the technical aspect as well as on industrial cooperation). The JAS 39 Gripen and its subsystems were felt to be not mature enough, leading to unacceptable risks. This left just two of the five contenders, the Mirage 2000-5 and the F/A-18C/D Hornet, to battle it out in the end.
In short, in the early 90’s the Finnish Air Force and MoD were not afraid to disregard offers they felt weren’t up to standard, and that might have a serious effect on the outcome this time around. And note, at least based on open sources, it is the favourites that seem to have the biggest reason to worry.
F-35 has a long and troubled development history. Some questions linger on, such as the ALIS/ODIN logistics system, but on the whole the F-35A is starting to look like a highly competent multirole fighter at a nice level of maturity (especially considering that we are still ten years away from HX FOC). However, the big questions are to be found in other aspects of the tender. One major issue is the question of how and to what extent the though industrial cooperation requirements can be met considering the unique international nature of the F-35 program. Lockheed Martin’s press briefing at HX Challenge unfortunately did little to bring clarity to the question, instead causing further confusion about what might and might not be on the table.
Another serious question that refuses to die is the one regarding costs, and in particular operating costs. While comparing acquisition costs is largely a fool’s errand, the fact that none if any of the DSCA notices or reported signed contract values are anywhere close to fitting inside the Finnish budget is cause for concern. Perhaps even more damning is the Danish life-cycle cost estimates. A report out of the Centre for Military Studies of the University of Copenhagen written by Gary Schaub Jr and Hans Peter H. Michaelsen published in late 2018 (h/t Charles Forrester who drew my attention to it on Twitter) discusses the possibility of increasing the number of F-35s in Danish service, and quotes the annual operating cost of the current fleet as 70 million DKK per aircraft (or approximately 9.4 million EUR). The numbers are taken from the original authorisation to buy the F-35 (referred to as “Aktstykke 31” in the report), and as such is likely the best available open source number found for the RDAF. The Danish concept of operations is naturally somewhat different from the way Finland would operate the aircrafts, but on average I believe it is an acceptable point of reference (smaller number of aircraft and single base vs. economics of scale and dispersed operations). Toying around with numbers, if we accept the Danish annual operating cost to be a good fit for Finnish annual operating cost per aircraft (i.e. 9.43 MEur), that would mean that Finland was able to afford between 26.5 and 35.7 aircraft, depending on how you calculate (26.5 if the annual total operating cost is 250 MEur, and the MLU isn’t included in that, and 35.7 if the annual operating cost is 270 MEur + the MLU reservations spread out over 30 years).
In practice, this would mean that one of the Finnish Air Force’s two fighter squadrons would be slashed, and we’d likely see a Norwegian model in which one of the current two bases would host a QRA detachment of four to six aircraft instead. The upper boundary of that calculation also aligns with the lower limit of what long-term aviation journalist Tony Osborne of Aviation Week stated on Twitter last week, when he estimated that the eventual offer to Finland would be for “36-40 aircraft”. If correct, it would be an extremely bitter pill for the Finnish Air Force to swallow, and one that very well might prove politically unacceptable (in particular to the agrarian Centre Party that currently holds the MoD seat).
As it happens, on the Finnish Defence Forces Flag Day June 4 the Air Force launched eight four-ships of Hornets, a total of 32 aircraft to celebrate the occasion. This also provide a nice reminder of what it actually takes to cover an area as large as the Finnish airspace. And if your fleet is 40 aircraft, you don’t get to surge to launching 32 at a time…
But the F-35 is far from the only favourite that is facing some serious risks. Both the Super Hornet and the JAS 39E Gripen rests on a single major operator. One of the major talking points that the FDF and MoD has raised when asked about what issues other than straight out performance can become deciding factors is the risk of becoming the sole user:
By no means do we want to be the last and sole user.
The US Navy has been reluctant to lock down exactly how the future of their carrier air wing will look past 2030, to the point that the US congress last month actually pounded the table and demanded a plan. The issue here is obviously that any plan won’t be out before HX is decided, and if the plan then is to scrap all Super Hornets by 2035 and go all in for the NGAD and F-35C, Finland will be left standing in the corner looking stupid. The fact that the USN is still planning on rolling more or less the whole F/A-18E/F fleet through the Block 3 upgrade program which will give the airframes a significantly longer lifespan together with the unique role of the EA-18G Growler and the likely-looking German buy does lend some credibility to Boeing’s claims of them anticipating a service life for the Super Hornet in US service significantly past 2040, but it certainly is far from set in stone.
For Sweden the situation is roughly similar, with the recent decades not instilling much in the way of trust with regards to political long-term planning for the Swedish Defence Forces. Currently Sweden has 60 Gripens on order (all of the single-seat 39E-version), which ironically enough would make Finland the world’s largest operator of the 39E/F if 64 aircraft were to be acquired. At the same time, while the aircraft is moving through the development program and meeting milestones at an impressive pace, the words that doomed the original 39A/B offer to Finland in 1992 does echo through history.
JAS 39 Gripen and in particular some of its systems are currently still at the prototype-stage, and the schedule of the project with its uncertainty factors include significant risks.
The 39E is maturing nicely, but it certainly is not yet on par with the competition. Is that an issue? Probably not, but the risk of Sweden pulling the plug on the 39E in 2040 and moving on to something else (Tempest?) is there. Especially as the next stage of long-term planning for the Swedish Air Force is only about to kick off next year.
How is it then with the two dark horses? Surprisingly well, to be honest. The Eurofighter Typhoon has a solid user base, including four major European countries having invested heavily in the system, which provide a depth that significantly improves the chances of it staying in service up to 2060 even if the FCAS and Tempest are already looming at the horizon. The Rafale has a more limited user base, despite scoring three notable export orders recently. Still, France can generally be considered a rather stable user country, and has traditionally held onto its platforms for a long time. Recent examples include the Super Étendard (retired in 2016), the Mirage F1 (retired from the reconnaissance role in 2014), and the Mirage 2000 (still happily serving on in both the ground-attack 2000D and fighter 2000-5 versions). Karl Rieder joked on Twitter when discussing the future of the Super Hornet that buying French is safer, since there’s no budget to change plans. It’s a joke for sure, but there’s also a grain of truth buried within that statement.
So, will 2021 see a showdown between the Rafale and Eurofighter for the HX-prize, the rest having failed the gate checks? Probably not, though I would not be surprised if there is at least someone in the anticipated top-three being kicked out (which based on earlier information, we might know the details of in 2046). At the same time, I am certainly open for the possibility of us getting a surprise winner, and I do not believe anyone who claims they knows the outcome.
“Russia paid for attacks agains US forces in Afghanistan” Finnish public broadcaster YLE headlined a week ago when the New York Times first broke the news. “Trump under pressure on Russian bounty for US soldiers” was the headline Swedish public broadcaster SVT used only yesterday. Both are representative for the general vibe of the reporting on the affair. It is seen as another step in the increased US-Russian competition, and one that will affect Trump’s ability to be re-elected this autumn. It is a frankly bizarre take on what should be one of the more significant pieces of local foreign policy news.
YLE does it a tad better than their Swedish counterparts, and in the text notes that the reward covers “US and allied forces”, while SVT seems to have overlooked that part completely. What neither recognises is that two of these “allies” (or “coalition partners”, as is the more commonly used term in English) are Finland and Sweden. Sweden has approximately 25 soldiers near Mazar-e-Sharif and in Kabul, while Finland has no more than 60 soldiers in the same two locations. These are soldiers that, if they had been killed, Russian military intelligence would have awarded their killers for.
I find it hard to understand how this angle has been absent from Finnish and Swedish reporting so far.
If the reports are correct, and so far most indications seem to be that they are, one would imagine that this would require a response from the Finnish authorities at a suitably high level, i.e. either the Prime Minister’s office, the MoD, or the highest levels of the Finnish Defence Forces. However, when I raised the question on Twitter earlier this week, two different journalists stated that all questions had so far gone unanswered. I am not necessarily surprised, as there are three different issues making any Finnish reaction somewhat “problematic”:
The Finnish political and public discussions have never quite gotten to grips with the changed nature of the peacekeeping operations conducted in Afghanistan, first in the form of ISAF and now under Operation Resolute Support. In short, any comment about the reward being applied to Finnish soldiers as well as US ones leads to the conclusion that Finland is participating in a conflict on the same side as the US, and that is not a discussion that many Finnish politicians are keen on having,
Finnish national security rests heavily on having a good bilateral Finnish-US relationship, and starting to make a fuss about this would work counter to that purpose. Especially if the opposition (or Finnish media) would start asking why the US (apparently) wasn’t sharing the information with it’s coalition partners,
Most importantly, Finland is not keen on rocking the boat vis-a-vis Russia. It’s an unfair world, and bringing up the fact that Russia was paying people to kill our soldiers would not sit well with the Kremlin.
All these things considered, I still find it hard to believe that no official statement whatsoever has been made. The men and women of the Finnish (and Swedish) Resolute Support contingents serve in uniform abroad because we the people through our democratically elected governments have decided that it furthers our national interests that they spend their days in a significantly more dangerous environment than their home garrisons or everyday jobs. At the very least, some kind of expression of support and concern for their well-being would seem appropriate when it appears that the threat picture they face have been impacted negatively by a foreign power. This could easily be done in such a way that the question regarding whether Finnish intelligence believe the reports or not and the question about when Finland first received knowledge of the allegations are left unanswered. Even a short “We naturally have the safety of our personnel as one of our highest concerns, and continually monitor and evaluate the situation based on both own intelligence gathered and that received from partners. If the unverified reports are correct this is a serious issue,” would be a significant step up from the current “No comment”-line.
Crucially, the FDF is already facing some difficulty in finding people ready to volunteer for peace keeping operations, and only last month YLE published news about steps being taken by the government to try and mitigate these issues. I have a hard time seeing the lack of visible support to our peacekeepers currently serving aiding with that goal.
Big news in the Finnish small arms industry this week, as Sako and the Finnish Defence Forces announced that they have signed a letter of intent “regarding research and development of a family of rifles and preparation of the procurement of a rifle system. The rifle system is intended to consist of two different system configurations including a sniper rifle for sniper use and a semi- automatic rifle for the squad’s designated marksman.” Ruotuväki then got some further details, while Seura got a comment from Sako.
The first obvious thing to note is that Sako is back to producing (semi-)automatic military rifles for the first time in more than twenty years, Sako having exited that market segment following the delivery of the last batch of the 7.62 Rk 95 TP assault rifles to the FDF in the later half of the 90’s. Since, Sako has built up quite a reputation in the defence field with the TRG-family of high-end bolt-action sniper rifles. These have proved especially popular in the form of the .338 LM chambered TRG 42 found in Finnish service as the 8.6 TKIV 2000. However, the weapon is far from the only scoped firearm in Finnish service.
Two weapons that relatively seldom are seen but still feature in the FDF firearms guide are the SVD (7.62 TKIV DRAGUNOV) and the 7.62 TKIV 85, chambered in the closely related calibres of 7.62×54 R and 7.62×53 R respectively (the later being a Finnish derivative of the former). The Dragunov is in many ways closer to a designated marksman rifle, even if in Finnish service the designation ‘TKIV’ for sniper rifle is used. Part of the reason behind this designation is likely that until recently regular Finnish squads did not sport designated marksmen. The 7.62 TKIV 85 is a rather basic no-frills bolt-action sniper rifle, sporting an adjustable wooden stock and relatively nice optics (either the Zeiss Diavari 1.5-6 x 42 or the Schmidt & Bender 4 x 36). It’s main (sole) claim to fame is that the receivers are refurbished Mosin-Nagant ones, potentially making some of the metal rank amongst the oldest in regular service anywhere on the globe. It is these two that will be replaced by the new K 22, the Dragunov being completely phased out while the TKIV 85 is “mostly” replaced. And yes, as the designation indicates, the weapons should be ready for delivery by 2022.
The current job description of the Finnish designated marksman, locally known as tukiampuja (supporting rifleman), is:
The designated marksman is a rifleman whose assault rifle is equipped with magnifying optics. He/she is able to perform accurate fire at longer ranges than other riflemen (300-500 m), as well as being able to better discover and identify targets compared to others. The designated marksman can function as a pathfinder, assistant machine gunner, or close-in anti-tank gunner.
Internationally, the idea that at least some members of the squad need longer range fire power has quickly grown in popularity during the last two decades, with the weapons usually being either older scoped battle rifles chambered in 7.62×51 (.308 WIN) or assault rifles more or less moded to fit the purpose (in some cases this is just a case of putting a scope on an accurate rifle, in other cases free-floating handguards, bipods, and heavier barrels can be included). As the versatility of the designated marksman on the modern battlefield has become ever more obvious, the weapons have also evolved and become more tailored to the mission. While few are completely clean-sheet designs, weapons such as the M110 differ quite significantly from the run-of-the-mill ARs seeing more widespread use.
Crucially, the designated marksman is not a sniper, and that’s not only because the ranges are shorter. The designated marksman might lack the particular training associated with the things a sniper does besides shooting, but on the other hand the designated marksman is supposed to be able to travel and fight as a part of the squad. This means also being able to e.g. fight at close quarters in urban operations, making the semi-auto action more or less a must.
Going back to the description of the letter of intent, the reference to a “family” is interesting, as that easily can give the picture of two different weapons sharing some components. In fact, the two versions will be identical when it comes to the rifles themselves, but will differ in that the sniper version will feature a dedicated long-range scope as well as more and better sniper-specific kit. The rifle will come in one calibre (at least for the time being), the venerable 7.62×51.
This has raised some eyebrows. Sniper rifles are frequently bolt-action due to their inherent better accuracy. This is however not a definite, as weapons such as the aforementioned M110 or the H&K PSG1 shows. The calibre is perhaps more of a surprise, as the combination Sako and .338 LM has proved very successful, and certainly gives the sniper added reach. At the same time, the .338 LM is overly heavy/powerful/expensive for a DMR that is supposed to shine at ranges between 300 and 500 meters. However, not too long ago the 7.62×51 was the most popular western sniper calibre, and by quite a bit. Especially when considering that the weapon it replaces is the 7.62 TKIV 85, buying a sniper rifle chambered in a medium rifle calibre isn’t as outrageous as it may sound.
From the earlier source, the Finnish sniper “can in favourable conditions take out individual targets from more than a kilometer away”, but it also deserves to be remembered that while the snipers usually are cherished for their very long range one shot-one kill engagements, the role include a number of other missions as well. Nevertheless, the quoted range is a serious requirement for anyone using the current 7.62 TKIV 85 or the future K 22, but keen readers will remember that in a podcast not too long ago major Tapio Saarelainen of the Finnish Army Academy noted that the 7.62 TKIV 85 has an effective max range of 500 to 600 meters, while shots in general are at ranges up to 350 meters due to the Finnish geography. That is partly a training issue, as Saarelainen notes that there simply isn’t money to fund the number of rounds he feels is needed to properly train a sniper. As such, while the K 22 kit and capabilities will be rather different from those of snipers equipped with the 8.6 TKIV 2000, it certainly seems like K 22 will have a slot to fill on the Finnish battlefield. Especially as the ergonomics are likely to be far superior to those found on the 7.62 TKIV 85, further aiding in hitting targets at longer ranges. In Sweden, where the more modern L96A1 AW is in service as the Psg 90, the snipers train out to 1,000 meters with the 7.62×51.
Sweden is interesting, as the press release about the letter of intent notes that the option is available for other countries to become involved. As noted last year, Sweden is in the process of acquiring a number of new weapons, including both a sniper rifle and a DMR. As Sweden currently lacks a military small arms manufacturer, cooperation with Finland could very well be in the cards. While security of supply is one of the driving factors for the K 22 from a Finnish point of view, helping the Finnish production line stay open might certainly benefit Sweden as well in the long run.
Italian paratrooper during ex. Immediate Response in 🇸🇮. Beretta ARX-200 with adjustable stock and Steiner ICS (Intelligent Combat Sight) pic.twitter.com/ZLoIdo3z07
One of the more interesting tidbits about the rifle is found in the article by Seura. Sako is owned by Beretta, and the company has relatively recently (2015) launched a DMR-variant of its ARX-series of assault rifles, designated the ARX-200. This is in 7.62×51, and you would be excused to think that a localised version of the ARX-200 might be the upcoming K 22. However, Sako denies this, and states that the rifle will be a clean-sheet design. There is one small caveat, though:
Certainly the development takes into consideration popular solutions
While this doesn’t necessarily mean much, rumours have been going around about a Sako-made AR-style rifle for some time already. I will point out that I have no idea about the source of these rumours, but an AR-patterned rifle certainly is a “popular solution”. What Seura also noted is the fact that following the rework of the old 7.62 RK 62 to the 62M-standard(s), the lifespan of the current Finnish AK-pattern rifles is expected to stretch out to approximately 2035. As the wholesale replacement of something along the lines of 200,000+ weapons will be a massive operation that takes time, a decision about the replacement will likely have to be made within the next five years. Here, a successful semi-auto K 22 might well work as a basis for a new Sako assault rifle. At the same time, waiting for the outcome of the US NGSW program would likely be a smart move, considering the impact it will have on the field. And as it just happens, 2022 is not only the year that the K 22 will start rolling off the production line, but also when the first US Army units will start taking delivery of the NGSW weapons. Funny how that works out sometimes.
Every leader in an INDOPACOM-aligned unit needs to be intimately familiar with the Falklands War. A fight over disputed islands, characterized by long LOCs and A2AD challenges seems relevant. https://t.co/V2YmCsI3vH
The basic premise is sound and straightforward, and it is hard to argue with. It also quickly spawned a discussion about which other operations should be included, with some cases more well-known than others.
However, while I personally find the Falklands War very interesting, and while it certainly provide several universal lessons to any student of modern wars, not even an amphibious enthusiast such as myself can deny that from a Finnish point of view (or Swedish for that matter) it most likely isn’t the mostrelevant conflict to study. Which begs the question, which conflicts are the ones most relevant for an understanding how a war involving Finland would play out?
Having given the question some thought, I have come up with the following list of conflicts I would recommend for study. This is far from an attempt at anything resembling the objective truth on this issue, but rather at providing some food for thought. So, without further ado, here they are:
The Yom Kippur War (1973)
The Six-Day War of 1967 is often portrayed as the pinnacle of Israeli warfighting, and on the surface it’s hard to disagree – beating numerous enemies on several fronts in under a week is impressive, and the more so when looking at the prepared positions and often numerical and/or qualitative superiority of the defenders.
However, the Yom Kippur War on the other hand shows the Israeli way of war when things does not go according to plan. The war kicked off with a two-front assault on the Israelis who were caught off-guard with their reserves unmobilised, leading to a race for the Israelis to bring the brunt of their largely reservist-based Army to the frontlines before the Egyptian and Syrians had advanced too far.
Surprise is one thing. Being caught completely off-guard when it comes to enemy tactics and doctrines is another issue, and one that would cost the Israelis dearly over the coming days. In one of my all-time favourite quotes, Abraham Rabinovich in his excellent overview of the war (simply named “The Yom Kippur War”) wryly notes that:
The Arabs were now doing a lot of things the Israelis had not expected.
The best example is likely that the IDF hadn’t bothered to adress the fact that the Arab armies had superior night-fighting equipment, because based on earlier conflicts it was assumed that they wouldn’t be interested in night-time operations. The same tendency to overlook glaring issues was the reliance on air superiority to offset the lack of artillery, and severely underestimating the influence of modern anti-tank weapons on the battlefield (especially considering how tank-heavy the Israeli Army was).
In the end, however, the IDF proved why it is generally regarded as one of the premier fighting forces in the world. The higher quality of the Israeli soldiers on the individual and small-unit levels started to be felt on the battlefield, and the adaptability and daring ‘can do’-attitude that characterised the IDF throughout the organisation eventually turned the tide. The decision to not try and simply push the two Egyptian armies back over the Suez Canal, but instead strike in the seam between them, cross the canal over to the African side, and completely encircle the Egyptian Third Army (while at the same time having armoured units destroy the SAM-batteries that had been such an issue for the Israeli Air Force) remains among the most impressive post-war operations conducted by any fighting force. It was also marked by the kind of daring-bordering-on-foolhardy planning and stretching-your-luck-almost-(but only almost)-to-the-breaking-point that really spectacular military successes tend to exhibit.
One of the key features of the IDF in the Yom Kippur War was the way things just got done. When the war broke out, the command post of Northern Command responsible for the Syrian Front was lacking its commander, his deputy, chief of staff, and the division commanders. Technically that meant that one of the two brigade commanders, Col. Ben-Shoham of the 188th Armoured, was in charge. However, as he was at the front, busy commanding his brigade, the Northern Command operations officer, Lt.Col. Uri Simhoni, figured that he was the one with the best situational picture and the resources to lead the overall battle. As a result, he took charge of what was a command position reserved for a major general, and made the crucial decisions in the early hours of the war that came to shape the fighting on the Syrian front until the ceasefire. This included the decision to commit all reserves to the front from the outset to stop the breakthrough attempts, and identifying the northern flank as the more vulnerable area. To this day it is argued if the decisions were correct, but the notable thing here is that the decisions were made in a position were many other armies would have been stuck waiting without leadership.
The lessons of the conflict include the importance of the speed of decision-making, buying time to get the reserves mobilised, getting the lessons learned at the front transferred to fresh units, and the importance of not underestimating the enemy. The experiences of the war is still reflected in Israeli doctrine to this day, and the reasons behind many of the quirks of the IDF and its equipment is found in the conflict (the most obvious example being the design of the Merkava main battle tank and how it differs from other contemporary designs).
As is often the case, while you can learn from success, perhaps even more can be learned from failure. For the hypothetical “what is the one conflict to study”, I would recommend the Yom Kippur War due to its focus on facing a numerically superior (and partly better equipped) enemy, buying time to mobilise, adapting to the circumstances, the focus on mission command in the IDF, and the text-book examples of how friction affect all levels of fighting a war. However, there are a number of other conflicts that also can provide valuable lessons.
Operation Storm (1995)
When was the last time a large-scale ‘Blitzkrieg‘-style manoeuvre warfare operation was conducted in Europe? Depending on your definition, the answer may vary, but not a few historians have given it as the early days of August 1995. It was then that the young independent Croatian Army launched its last major offensive of the Croatian War of Independence, and completely overran SAO Krajina, the largest of the three regions that made up the self-proclaimed Republic of Serb Krajina.
Following the outbreak of the Croatian War of Independence the Serb regions had declared their own state (largely similar to the situation in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina). As said, the largest of its three regions was the SAO Krajina, controlling large parts of central Croatia, including roughly a third of the border towards Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as isolating Dalmatia from the rest of Croatian territory.
The fiercest fighting of the Croatian War of Independence had taken place within a year of the conflict, with cities such as Vukovar and Dubrovnik seeing heavy fighting before the frontline largely stabilised itself. In 1994 however, the winds began to turn as the Croatian Army was starting to be able to harvest the benefits of years of trying to form the former national guard into an effective fighting force. At the same time the Washington Agreement between the Bosnian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia made cooperation with anti-Serb forces across the Bosnian border possible for the Croatian government. The US was also shifting into a position of more openly providing support to the young Croat state, and the scene was slowly being set for a final showdown between the Croats and the Serb Krajina.
During early 1995 it was starting to become clear that the Serbian government in Belgrade was losing interest in supporting the Krajina, and the Croatian Army started moving to recapture lost territory. In May, the most isolated of the three SAO’s, that of Western Slavonia, was quickly overrun in Operation Flash. This was followed by the Croatian Army making smaller offensives to capture strategic staging positions for the all-out offensive against SAO Krajina in the summer, including a push in the south-east on the Bosnian side of the border (the creatively named Operation Summer ’95).
In early August it was then time for the big dance. Bosnian forces in the Bihać pocket tied up the few available Serbian reserves, while Croatian forces broke through weak sectors of the frontline, before continuing at speed deep into the rear of the Serbian region. The stronger Serb positions along the front were simply ignored, and were mopped up later after the strategic goals had been met. The offensive was supported by air strikes and raids behind the lines, with targets including Serbian command and control infrastructure.
The fighting was largely over in just four days, and the effects on the politics in the region were profound. The leadership of the last remaining SAO, SAO Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Syrmia, in the northeastern parts of Croatia realised that the possibility of a Serbian authority in Croatia was largely dead, and would eventually sign the Erdut Agreement transferring the region back into Croatian hands in 1998. The capture of the North-Western corner of the Croatian-Bosnian border also meant that the long siege of Bihać ended, which in turn had a significant effect on the outcome of the Bosnian War. The Serbian population fleeing the Croatian offensive (something that was investigated by the ICJ) also had a significant effect on the internal power balance of independent Croatia.
The Russo-Georgian War (2008)
Studying Russia, really the only potential aggressor in any conflict directly involving Finland, the performance of Russian and Russia-associated units in Ukraine and Syria naturally gets much of the attention. However, there is a strong case to be made that with the exception of equipment performance (a field were several important changes have taken place in the last twelve years) the war in August of 2008 will in fact provide a better baseline from where to begin studies of the modern Russian art of war.
Crucially, the semi-covert nature of the Russian invasion of Ukraine means that a number of high-end features are curtailed, such as the Russian air force and large-scale mechanised units. At the same time, while the Russian invasion of Georgia largely took place before the implementation of the significant reforms of the Russian armed forces, the reforms were heavily influenced by the experiences. Needless to say, when looking at where the Russian armed forces are today and where they strive to be tomorrow, it is of value to look at where they got those ideas in the first place (not unlike the Israeli experience of the Yom Kippur War).
The relative lack of English-language source material and being overtaken by the events in Ukraine and the Middle East has largely left the 2008 war as something of a niche field of study compared to the more recent conflicts. Still, in many ways it is a better representation of the kind of confrontation that is the worst-case scenario for scenario planners around the Baltic Sea.
The Continuation War (1941-1944)
Finland remains Finland, and while much has changed, the experiences during the Second World War still offer many valuable lessons. Of the different parts of the war, the Continuation War is probably the one with most relevance to a modern study, both the Winter War and the Lapland War being serious outliers in many ways.
While much has changed the effects of terrain and climate, as well as the general geography as part of the wider region still remain largely relevant. At the same time, care should be taken not to draw too far reaching conclusions, as the general danger of planning for the last war remains well-known.
Finnish contribution to ISAF (2002-2014)
While Finland remains Finland, and Finnish soldiers remain Finnish soldiers, there’s no denying that Finnish society has seen significant changes in the last eight decades. As such, the combat experiences from Afghanistan can provide valuable input when it comes to identifying the particularities of Finnish soldiers in combat today.
While Finnish soldiers have taken part in complex peacekeeping operations for the better part of the post-war period, there’s no denying that the operations in Afghanistan are unique both in that they have taken place recently with the very equipment used by the Finnish Defence Forces today, and the fact that the operation eventually evolved into a war. A far cry from the kind of mechanised peer-level conflict that could affect Finland or the general Baltic Sea region, but a war nevertheless.
Significant lessons have been drawn from the conflict already, which have had effects both when it comes to equipment but also to less visible aspects of the FDF. Still, the Finnish ISAF contribution probably remains the premier place to study how modern Finnish units behave and perform in combat, acknowledging the fact that the people chosen for peacekeeping operations and the units they make up aren’t necessarily directly comparable to the average wartime unit and reservist.
Bonus round – Amphibious operations:
It is more difficult to find operations that correspond to the fighting that would take place in the Finnish archipelago, but there are two obvious examples that comes to mind:
The fighting around the Hanko peninsula in the summer of 1941 does provide valuable lessons, especially when it comes to the importance of mobility and securing local superiority, as well as the relative weakness of the defender compared to the attacker which is something that sets archipelagic island hopping apart from normal ground operations.
For the larger operational and strategic levels, the German Operation Albion during the First World War highlights the interplay between naval units, coastal defences, and ground units operating in the littorals, and also offer timely reminders about both the utilities and vulnerabilities of fleets operating in the confined waters of the Baltic Sea. A recent episode of the CIMSEC podcast ‘Sea Control’ is a good place to get a general view of what happened in what was one of the decisive battles of the Baltic Sea theatre in the First World War.
Since some have asked, it deserves to be reiterated for readers who might not have followed the series from the start: this post, like all of my posts, is based entirely on open source data. I have no inside information, either through documents or other sources, about the wartime doctrine and order of battle of the Finnish forces. Where I describe these, they are based on the rather broad descriptions that are used by sources whose judgement regarding what should be open information I trust, such as the writings of reputable officers or governmental publications. For artillery specific issues, besides what is described in the officially sanctioned 100-year anniversary book mentioned in the first post, most sources are generic international (Western) artillery ones, as the same general trends affecting these can be assumed to be in play when it comes to the Finnish forces as well. With that out of the way, it’s time to get on with the last part.
Finland currently sport two very different multiple-rocket launcher systems in service: the tracked US-built M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (often abbreviated MLRS, which causes some headaches as that can also be used a generic term for all rocket launchers with more than a single rocket) and the wheeled Slovak RM-70/85 (originally built in Czechoslovakia). It should come as no surprise that neither system was bought new, but were acquired through surplus buys from Dutch/Danish- and ex-NVA-stocks respectively. In Finnish service, they are locally known as 298RSRAKH06 and 122RAKH89 in a designation system sporting calibre and year of entering service with the Finnish abbreviation for ‘rocket launcher’ (fi. Raketinheitin, RAKH) in between. The M270 in addition has the letters RS to denote it as a ‘heavy’ (fi. raskas) system, something which also makes the designation impossible to pronounce smoothly. Note that in keeping with the US designation system, the 298RSRAKH06 uses the 298 mm from “Rocket Pod, 298 mm” and not the actual 227 mm rocket diameter as the calibre designation.
The M270 isn’t going anywhere. The system is still modern and has plenty of life left in Finnish service. According to the Finnish Defence Forces’ homepage, their main mission is to support the higher tactical formations, something they usually do in the area that is the centre of gravity of the battlefield. Kesseli more clearly gives their role as handling operational fires:
For operational fire missions heavy rocket launchers, the artillery of the operational forces, electronic warfare units, sensors able to provide targeting, and those heavy batteries of the regional forces that can use special munitions, are used.
The main changes affecting the heavy launchers in Finnish service has been (and likely will continue to be) the introduction of new munitions together with internal modifications to the launch platforms to make them able to employ these new munitions to their full effect. The most recent addition was the guided M30A1 GMLRS AW (Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System Alternative Warhead) which is capable of precision fires out to 80 km, where the pre-fragmented tungsten warhead provide an area-effect (especially considering that each launcher can fire up to twelve rockets in a single salvo). Finland also has acquired the unitary warhead version of the GMLRS family. For potential future upgrades, it can safely be assumed that Finland is keeping an eye on the US PrSM currently being developed. Before the decision to acquire the GMLRS was made, Finland had filed a DSCA request for the ATACMS which provided a similar 500 km range precision strike capability as the PrSM, but eventually decided against ordering the weapon due to the high cost. If the costs of the capability is brought down compared to the earlier generation, it might certainly renew Finnish interest in getting an even longer reach for the ground-based fires (however, note that while the INF is out of the window, the MTCR is still alive and might create issues once ranges start climbing over 500 km).
The lighter end of the rocket spectrum is more troublesome. As noted, Finland acquired a number of RM-70 (specifically of the Mod 70/85 version) rocket launchers from ex-NVA stocks following the German reunification. These replaced the older Soviet BM-21 ‘Grad‘, which had been fielded under the designation 122 RAKH 76 in Finnish service. You would be excused for mistaking the RM-70 for a Soviet design, as it best can be described as a Grad-launcher mounted on a Tatra T815 8×8 (yes, the same chassis that is used for the Danish CAESAR). It also fire the same 9M22 rockets as the BM-21, with a range of just over 20 km. The rockets are something of a headache due to their Soviet origin. According to Kesseli, the light batteries are used for tactical fires, which makes sense considering their limited range.
Compared to traditional artillery, the rocket launcher is nice as it provides a huge volume of fire in a short amount of time. A six-vehicle battery of 122RAKH89 is able to put 234 rockets downrange in just twenty seconds (following the firing of a single ranging rocket from each of the vehicles). The downside is obviously the lack of endurance, as once the rockets are fired the vehicles will have to pull back and reload. However, with the increased importance of shoot and scoot-style tactics, the rocket launcher seems set to keep their place on the battlefield, and the prevalence of podded solutions in modern systems has significantly sped up the loading times.
Finland is far from the only country that is invested in the 122 mm as a rocket calibre and that now is finding sourcing new rockets to be something of an issue. Some have countered this by indigenous projects, such as Poland. Poland is both upgrading their BM-21 (though the ‘upgrade’ is rather reminiscent of the ship of Theseus, as they are replacing the chassis, rockets, and FCS) and producing a new family of 122 mm rockets. The latter include the the M-21 FHD which sport a pre-fragmented HE warhead designated F-M-21 OB attached to the new Fenix engine, giving it a stated 41 km range (these are official range figures quoted by Jane’s, though some have questioned the veracity of them). In the same family a stated 36 km range cargo rocket has also been developed with the F-M-21 MK and K1 warheads with five scatterable anti-tank mines or 42 anti-tank submunitions (HEAT-FRAG) respectively, though these do not appear to have entered Polish service (at least not yet). This upgraded WR-40 Langusta will in time be accompanied by the larger HIMARS, which beat the Israeli Lynx to win the WR-300 Homar program. The Polish contract signed last year is for a battalion of 18 HIMARS (plus two vehicles for training duties), and curiously will be of a US standard and not fitted with the usual Polish C2 system for artillery.
The aforementioned LYNX is interesting, as it is the latest in a long line of Israeli rocket launchers. Israel is one of few Western countries that throughout the Cold War kept a varied arsenal that included both domestic and imported MLRS systems, including the M270. Much like the Russian arsenal, Israel has invested in a number of different sizes of rockets, though Israel has also invested considerable resources in ensuring that they all fit the same basic launcher. This means that multi-calibre systems such as the LYNX can be used to fit two 40-rocket pods of Grad-rockets, two 13-rocket pod of 160 mm rockets, two 4-rocket pods of heavy 306 mm rockets, or two 2-rocket pods of the Predator Hawk 370 mm rocket. In the smaller calibres, both guided and unguided versions are available, while the larger versions are generally all guided. Without going into detail of all possible rockets, in general it can be noted that HE, penetrator, and cargo (cluster) warheads are available in most sizes, and that the guidance usually rely on GPS supported by INS (similar to the GMLRS). The LYNX system can be mounted on a number of platforms, starting with 6×6 trucks. There has been some success on the export market for Israeli rocket systems, with the older LAR-160 having sold well mainly in South America but also seeing service in the Georgian Army during the Russian invasion of 2008. A mixed-calibre version is in Romanian service as the LAROM 160. This is in effect a conversion of the local Romanian BM-21-wannabe (Aerostar APRA), allowing it to fire both 122 and 160 mm rockets that also include the guided ACCULAR-family. However, the newest exported Israeli rocket systems are found in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in the form of the LYNX (the Kazakh version being called Naiza) and in Vietnam where the EXTRA is used for defence of the Spratly Islands.
The really neat trick on the Israeli side is that the pods are made to be able to be used on the M270 as well. Exactly to what extent this modularity works is unclear to me, but if it really is something approaching plug-and-play throughout the series, it certainly would offer interesting possibilities for a joint-LYNX/M270-force to have a wide assortment of fireworks that could be used throughout the fleet. In essence this would create a similar situation as what is aimed for with the Finnish field artillery standardising on 155 mm as the main calibre, with a large number of batteries being able to perform either tactical or operational fires depending on what munitions they use (though they would still retain one as a main role depending on where in the organisation they sit).
Obviously the Israelis aren’t the only ones to have realised that there are a lot of flexibility to come from being able to fire different kinds of munitions, or that the 122 mm is a bit light in certain cases. Diehl and the Slovak company Konstrukta Defense converted 26 of the Slovakian Army’s RM-70s to something called RM-70 MODULAR which is able to swap out the original 40-round 122 mm launcher to a single M270-style 6-round 227 mm pod (the designation MORAK is also used, though my understanding is that this refers to the more general modernisation program of the vehicles). The system isn’t actively marketed, and it is questionable if it would make sense from a Finnish point of view as making the 122RAKH89 able to fire 227 mm rockets wouldn’t necessarily be of great utility in their current role of providing tactical fires (though the new FCS might be nice).
Another artillery-happy country that has developed their own answers to the question is South Korea. Their sledgehammer is the Chun-Mu, which sports a modular design mounted on the back of an 8×8 truck, capable of carrying two at a time of the following pods:
eight 239 mm HE-rockets with 80 km range and GPS/INS guidance. The warhead is able to be set to delayed action, giving the 4 meter long rocket a certain capability in penetrating hard targets (concrete),
eight 227 mm rockets, range up to 45 km. Presumably these are from the M26 family of unguided rockets used by the M270,
twenty 130 mm unguided HE-rockets, with the K33 having a maximum range of 36 km and the K30 having a maximum range of 30 km.
It isn’t clear to what extent the system is compatible with the M270, many sources seem to agree that it can accept the MLRS pods while Jane’s is a bit more careful and just notes that they “in appearance are very similar to the 227 mm (12-round) MRL, also deployed by South Korea.” It seems safe to assume that while the high-end systems such as ATACMS and GMLRS might not be integrated at this point in time due to the domestic 239 mm rocket filling that role, the basic pod design and M26 rockets can be used. Whether the modularity works both ways, i.e. if the Korean pods could be integrated onto the M270, is more uncertain.
For those wanting something different, Hanwha has also made a light MLRS system that hasn’t been accepted into service. This is a 70 mm system mounted on the back of a KIA KM45 4×4 light truck, either sporting 40 or 32 launch tubes (the 32-tube one having a faster rate of fire at 4 rds/s). The system feature two different rocket engines, with the standard Mk4 having a range of 8 km, being improved to 10.4 km when using the K223. The warheads include HE, dual-purpose HE (armour and personnel), as well as a cargo rocket with nine submunitions against soft or lightly armoured targets. Guided versions are reportedly also in development. The concept is interesting in a world where military systems tend to just grow in size and weight, as it offers short-ranged tactical fires in a 4.2 ton package (including loaded rockets). However, it is difficult to envision a role for a system with such a limited range and small warhead on the modern battlefield, and it seems set to remain a curiosity (or niche capability at best).
As discussed when it comes to tube artillery, having heavy tracked vehicles operating together with units not normally associated with tracked behemoths is bound to cause issues. As such, the need for a wheeled platform was evident in the homeland of the M270 as well The answer was the M142 HIMARS which was developed during the 90’s, with the first deliveries taking place in 2001. Both the US Army and Marine Corps have used the system to great effect in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, where it has built up a reputation especially for long-range pinpoint strikes with guided missiles. In essence, the system is a 6×6 wheeled truck with a single pod from the M270-family. While this obviously means it only has half the firepower compared to a M270, this is balanced by the higher (strategic and operational) mobility, as well as having a generally lighter logistics chain due to being truck-based. Granted, while this is a benefit compared to the M270 when discussing a replacement for the Finnish 122RAKH89, it doesn’t set it aside from competitors such as the Chun-Mu and the Lynx. What does however, is the fact that it is a US-built product making it a given buddy to accompany the M270. Exactly to what extent the two systems sync together is unclear to me, but a safe guess is that synergies are at least not worse than for the non-US competition when it comes to questions such as C2 and supporting equipment. The heavy US investment in the system, especially if the USMC is cleared to go forward with their plan of converting serious numbers of tube artillery battalions to HIMARS, also ensures that it will stay relevant and up to date for the foreseeable future. On the flip-side, the single-pod design and reliance on US munitions means it doesn’t have the firepower and flexibility of the Chun-Mu or the LYNX. However, it should be noted that it is notably lighter and smaller than both the modern competition as well as the 122RAKH89.
For once, the FDF has actually has quite a few routes open when it comes to replacing old ex-NVA indirect fires. Depending on the state of the trucks themselves, modernisation certainly might be an option with different options covering everything from new non-Soviet rockets and minor changes to the FCS up to basically outfitting them to LYNX standard. If, however, the trucks themselves are also starting to show their (considerable) age, a tender for a new platform is likely to see a three-way battle between the LYNX, Chun-Mu, and HIMARS. Which one is the favourite would depend on the future role of the light rocket launcher batteries in Finnish doctrine, and as we have seen earlier as well the Army isn’t necessarily looking for one-to-one replacements for aging systems. The question of optimal calibre, few guided rockets per salvo versus classic massed fire of unguided ones, and not at least cost to procure and operate the systems, will all come into play. The unique capabilities and role in Finnish doctrine of the light multiple-rocket launcher does however mean that we are unlikely to see the 122RAKH89 retire without a replacement.
While the light howitzers might be numerous, there’s no denying that it is their larger counterparts that are supposed to do the heavy lifting, especially in the key sectors of the battlefield. Up until some fifteen years ago, the mainstay in the Finnish heavy brigade artillery was something designated 152 H 88. This was in fact the common name for a modernisation program that had been applied to a number of different WWII-era howitzers, that had been refitted with a new 152 mm L32 barrel and generally brought up to speed. Two of these were the Soviet 152 mm obr. 1937 howitzer (ML-20) and the 122 mm obr. 1931/37 field gun (A-19) that shared the same carriage, while the third was based on the German Immergrün, the 15 cm sFH 18. In total, well over 120 were modified, being designated 152 H 88-37, H-31, and H-40 respectively. In the early 90’s they got company from a similar number of 152 mm D-20 howitzers (152 H 55) bought from ex-NVA stocks, solidifying the Soviet 152 mm as the mainstay of Finnish heavy indirect fire.
The impact of the large artillery buys from the recently unified Germany can hardly be overemphasised. The total number of field artillery pieces grew by 25 % (the number of rocket launchers tripled), the first self-propelled guns arrived in the form of the light 2S1 and the heavier 2S5, and crucially the ratio of heavy to light batteries shifted. 42 % of the Finnish batteries were heavy following the introduction of the large number of D-20s, and the number of batteries per brigade grew to six (i.e. a regiment with one heavy and one light artillery battalion, both with 18 guns). The ratio of heavy to light batteries continued to rise as the decade went on. However, and this was a key factor, as the millennium changed, almost a third of the Finnish heavy batteries consisted of brigade artillery equipped with old Soviet 152 mm howitzers with a range of approximately 16 to 18 km. While they still could provide tactical fires, they were largely unable to perform operational fire missions. Their weight also made mobility, never a strong suit of towed artillery, abysmal. What finally broke the camel’s back was the fact that the shelf-life of the rounds were starting to run out. Finland usually bought packages of artillery that included rounds and other necessary equipment, and the NVA rounds were starting to run out of time.
First to go was the 152 H 88, which was retired in 2007, which it has to be said was not a bad run for a number of guns developed seven decades earlier. In recent years the 152 H 55 has also been struck from record, leaving a total gap of approximately 200 to 250 heavy howitzers compared to twenty years ago. As noted, the material was old and sported a short range, and at the same time there has been a drawdown in the number of infantry units that needed support. Still, the loss of firepower was felt.
An even bigger loss was the 130 K 54 (M-46). The gun was one of the stars of the Soviet Cold War arsenal, being known for it’s range and accuracy. The ability to send a 130 mm HE-shell over 27 km was no mean feat for a gun that entered production in 1951, and it played an important role in Finnish service as a counterbattery and operational fires weapon. The last of the nine battalions delivered to Finland were retired a short while ago, leaving just a single heavy Russian weapon in service.
The 152 mm 2A36 Giatsint is probably better known in it’s self-propelled version 2S5 (a battery of which was found in Finnish service, but is since retired), and 24 are found in Finnish service as the 152K89. In Soviet service these replaced the M-46 as a higher-level asset for roles such as counterbattery fire. However, the 152 mm is a “difficult” calibre for Finland as the 152K89 is the sole weapon using it, and these guns are also on their way out once the ammunition reaches the end of their shelf-life.
To understand what this all means we must go back to the first post of the series that discussed the role of the different guns and their fire missions. In short, Finland has lost 13 heavy batteries handling tactical fires, and another 9 heavy batteries (one of which was self-propelled) handling operational fires and counterbattery missions, with a tenth over-strength operational fires battery soon to join these. As noted, the situation is not as bad as it looks, as the capabilities of the majority of outgoing equipment were quite poor and developments in related fields have improved the quality of fires overall. However, somewhere there is bound to be a gap, and the Finnish Defence Forces wants to plug it.
To begin with we have the K9 order, which will bring 48 top-notch self-propelled heavy howitzers into Finnish service. It’s hard to overstate the impact these will have on Finnish indirect fires, especially in the higher end of the spectrum. The K9 (possibly 155PSH17, though I can’t remember seeing that designation in official FDF sources) will be organised into heavy armoured howitzer batteries, which are a completely new unit type. The fact that they are 48 would seem to indicate two battalions of 24, finally giving the Army the elusive eight-gun battery that is able to perform the shoot-and-scoot carousel where one battery is constantly on the move while two fire (or then there is just a few extras to cover for when some vehicles are on maintenance, but twelve spares for 36 regulars sounds a bit much).
Another key part of the significantly increased operational fires relative to when the 130K54 and 152K89 were first brought into Finnish service is the 41 M270 heavy rocket launchers (officially designated 289 RSRAKH 06). The range and varied munitions they can bring to bear is in a class of their own in the Finnish arsenal.
The K9 being dressed up according to Finnish doctrine and customs.
Together, the K9 and the M270 quite nicely cover the gap in operational fires left by the 130K54 and the 152K89. At the same time, the 132 Finnish-built towed 155 mm guns (about two-thirds of which are the older 155K83-97 with the L39 barrel and the rest being the newer 155K98 with L52 barrel and APU) are also able to do operational fire missions, so there doesn’t seem to be too much of gap in the higher end of the indirect fire capability (especially once the air-to-ground capability of the Hornet-fleet and the upcoming HX-fleet are added to the equation, though they will probably have no shortage of wartime missions so the ground-pounding will probably be somewhat limited).
Side note: at this point someone might ask if one really should do OSINT on the number of own artillery pieces. The answer is that the FDF report them to the world as part of the OSCE’s Vienna Document undertakings, so this isn’t really OSINT as much as basic googling-skills
The problem then is the tactical fires, which as we have now seen largely rest with the to-be-retired 122H63 light howitzer, the Finnish-built 155K83-97 and 155K98, and a limited number of 122 mm RM-70 rocket-launchers (122RAKH89, also from ex-NVA stocks). The exception is the mechanised and heavy motorised (tracked) battlegroups which have a total of 74 self-propelled light howitzers in the form of the 2S1 Gvozdika (122PSH74) for their tactical fire support. The number nicely matches the reported 2+2 battlegroups all getting a battalion of 18 guns each. There has been speculation that the first K9s would replace the 122PSH74, but that seem unlikely for a number of reasons. To begin with, the role of the 122PSH74 is squarely tactical fires, it is in essence a mobile D-30 that provide some cover to the crew. Granted if the battlegroups have the equipment, their artillery batteries could be allocated operational fire missions, but permanently allocating the most powerful guns available to the Finnish Army to individual reinforced battalions does not seem to guarantee the greatest use of them, and fits poorly with the concept of modularity found in the Finnish artillery doctrine. It should also be noted that the unit type is described as “completely new”, and that then-MoD Jussi Niinistö in his official blog clearly mentioned that they are to replace towed equipment.
These are replacing towed artillery that is becoming obsolete and retired during the next decade [the 2020’s]
In addition, it rhymes poorly with the relatively recent modifications to bring up at least part of the 122PSH74 fleet to the new 122PSH74M-standard, which is described in Panssari 2/2014 as including a serious overhaul of the communications equipment as well as various C2-systems, all meant to increase the speed of operations (the upgrade also feature a light-machine gun on the roof of the vehicle, as the importance of being able to fend of enemy infantry has grown with the increased fragmentation of the battlefield).
It is important to note exactly how different the two self-propelled guns are. The 122PSH74 tips the scale at 15.4 tons and has a footprint of 7.3 x 2.9 meters, while the K9 weighs in at 46.3 tons with a footprint of 12.0 x 3.4 meters (hull length being 7.4 m). While the 122PSH74 isn’t exactly an off-road jeep, the light gun vs. heavy gun comparisons certainly are at play here as well as for their towed counterparts, with the operational mobility being quite a bit simpler to handle when you need a trailer rated for 16 tons compared to one rated for 45+ tons.
So then we are back to a situation where there are a number of modern 155 mm guns (and some heavy rocket launchers) handling the operational fires and a large number of light guns being responsible for tactical fires. With the light ones being on their way out, bringing us back to the questions asked in last post.
The light guns, including both 122H63 and 122PSH74, currently make up something between 75 to 80 % of the total force (depending on how many K9 have arrived and whether you count the 152K89 or not). Using current equipment, as discussed in the last post the towed 155K83-97 could trickle down to cover up the 122H63-gap, and the 155K98 could continue to provide firepower for the operational brigades. However, there is still a few places were things are looking thin:
The four battalions of 122PSH74 that support the mechanised and motorised battlegroups,
The reduction by perhaps 85 % in the number of guns supporting regional and local troops following the withdrawal of the 122H63,
Whether the towed 155K98 really is the weapon of choice for the operational brigades.
The answer to the first is probably more K9s, at least partly. Finland has an option for more vehicles, which would simply continue deliveries after the current batch of 48 vehicles have been shipped. How many is an open question, as another four battalions (especially if they are 24-gun strong) seem prohibitively expensive. Getting two battalions (i.e. another 48 guns) for the two mechanised battlegroups might be doable.
And that leaves two motorised battlegroups and either the operational brigades or the regional units needing more firepower. Looking at the requirements, getting a new towed piece (or transferring the 155K98) to the motorised battlegroups likely doesn’t cut it. The same can probably in all honesty be said for the operational brigades. At least once it is clear something new has to enter the organisation at some level, one can do worse than insert the new stuff at the top and let the old cascade down.
Which brings us back to everyone’s favourite emperor-acronym, Nexter’s CAESAR (CAmion Equipé d’un Système d’ARtillerie). The idea is rather simple, and there is something very Finnish about of marrying what is in essence a tested gun (the towed TRF1) to a truck chassis to give the gun shoot-and-scoot capability. I discussed the system at length in an earlier artillery post, so without rehashing everything again:
It is a proven design, including having seen combat in harsh conditions,
It offers the firepower expected from modern 155 mm L52 systems,
The ability to relocate on it’s own wheels adds significantly to both strategic and operational mobility,
The French decision to over time let the CAESAR replace all 155 mm systems in service (i.e. the tracked AUF-1TA and the towed TRF1) means that there is a long-term commitment from France to keep the production line (as well as modernisation programs) up and going.
This combination, including the last part, is important, as surely someone will point out the benefits of the Israeli ATMOS, the Mandus Group BRUTUS, and the Swedish Archer. The ATMOS is most closely related to the CAESAR when it comes to the basic concept, while the Archer is a more high-end system with it’s 21 pre-loaded rounds in the magasin. The BRUTUS is the bigger brother to the 105 mm Hawkeye we discussed last time around, and sport a low-recoil 155 mm howitzer which allows the carrier platform to be smaller (and the company to make the obvious #IdesofMarch-jokes). All systems, including the Archer as was shown at DSEI last year, are modular and to a certain extent carrier agnostic. While the differences between the systems are small enough that it will come down to how their respective strengths and weaknesses are evaluated rather than to one of them being objectively better than the rest, for some there isn’t the kind of long-term commitment to the projects by the host countries as is enjoyed by the CAESAR, while others are just now entering service/being tested.
The general drive towards wheeled platforms for artillery is interesting, and something that Watling spent quite a bit of time on in theRUSI report:
However, for every eight [tracked] AS90 howitzers, there are a further six command and support tracked vehicles in the battery, a tactical group of at least five vehicles and the necessary CSS [combat service support] to maintain the guns, repair them when they throw tracks, or recover them when damaged. An Armoured Infantry Brigade meanwhile includes 56 Challenger 2 MBTs, while the brigade also needs to move bridging equipment, its infantry fighting vehicles and CSS assets. The British Army has between 71 and 92 HETs [M1070F tank transporters] available.
There is a trade-off between wheeled systems, which can self-deploy and have significant strategic mobility, versus tracked platforms, which retain much greater tactical mobility, especially in wet and uneven terrain. It is important to note that the differences between these platforms are declining […] This has led the IDF – despite fighting in a small area – to conclude that the operational reach of wheeled artillery is disproportionately valuable to the tactical mobility of tracked guns. It must be noted that they face a much less significant counter-battery threat, and therefore can have less protection. Wheeled platforms, however, require fewer specialised CSS elements and can therefore move with a smaller logistical tail. As a result, they reduce the overall number of chassis needed to deliver an effect.
What Watling doesn’t mention in the quote above is that this translate directly into money. The difference between the new-built Danish CASESARs coming in at 2.7 million Euro per piece compared to the Finnish ex-ROK K9s at 3.0 million Euro a piece isn’t huge, usual caveats about these not being apples-to-apples comparisons apply (though this is also a good time to point out what a good price PVLOGL got). However, the difference in operational costs most likely are very different (no-one’s going to release anything resembling comparable figures for those, so this is an educated guess based on training requirements, maintenance needs, weight, supporting vehicles/heavy loaders, …). The decision to use a truck-based resupply solution for the K9s also make the argument of the superior tactical mobility of tracks compared to wheels somewhat less persuasive.
One interesting aspect of the CAESAR is the difference between the baseline French (and earlier export) versions, and the latest Danish vehicle that is mounted on the significantly larger classic Tatra T815 8×8 compared to earlier 6×6 carriers. This gives the vehicle not only significantly better off-road mobility, but also a larger number of rounds being carried on the gun (30 being the new standard as opposed to 18 on the French 6×6 version. This can be further increased if a lower number of charges are carried), a new protected cabin (STANAG 4569 Level 2a/2b), and the munitions handling system seen in action in the video above. A new muzzle velocity radar and a thermal imaging sight for direct fire are also fitted.
The CAESAR is in many ways the epitome of the kind of good-enough system that the Finnish Defence Forces likes. Especially in cases where the rest of the unit also runs largely on wheels, the tracks and size of the K9 is making things somewhat complicated. An interesting comparison is the Leguan-bridge, which the Finnish Army uses on the Leopard 2-chassis for heavier units and mounted on a Sisu all-terrain truck for lighter ones. There’s no doubt that a CAESAR, or another wheeled self-propelled gun, would feel right at home in the Satakunta Artillery Regiment of the Pori Brigade.
To sum it up, in such a scenario the Army would eventually post-122 mm howitzers (~2030) sport a tube artillery consisting of 48 K9 dedicated to higher-level operational fires, 36 K9 for supporting two mechanised battlegroups, 72 to 108 wheeled SPGs (four to six batteries) for supporting the other operational battlegroups and brigades, and 130-ish Finnish-built towed 155 mm guns to provide the heavy hitting power of the regional troops. The bottom end would then need further 120 mm mortars or a new light gun, as per the last post.
And just when things started to look quite straightforward – wholesale K9-introduction is too expensive while no-one builds a basic towed gun anymore, let’s go wheeled – there suddenly just might appear the possibility for another cheap surplus buy, as the USMC proposes that they get rid of the majority of their tube artillery. Provided that the suggestion passes through the political hurdles (something that is far from certain) and that the equipment isn’t just mothballed for future use, it might suddenly mean that there is 96 surplus M777A2 towed howitzers up for sale. And there aren’t necessarily too many interested buyers.
The M777 is one of those modern towed howitzers that are built to be as light as possible, which is reflected in the price. 2009 the USMC bought a batch of guns (together with the Canadian Army the total order was 63 M777A2) for 1.9 million USD per gun. If, and this is quite a big “if”, the whole or better part of the 96 gun batch eventually are sold as surplus, they would nicely make up the replacement for the heavy brigade firepower lost with the short-ranged 152 mm howitzers. Buying more towed artillery at this point certainly does sound like something of a step back. However, swapping out the 152H55 for the M777 would certainly still be an improvement when it comes to mobility, based on the simple fact that the M777 weighs in at 4,100 kg, well below the 5,700 kg of the 152H55 (and just above a quarter of the 16,000 kg of the longer-ranged 155K98). The M777 with it’s L39 can also throw unassisted HE projectiles out to 24,700 meters compared to the 17,400 meters of the 152H55, which though still short of the 27,000 meter range of the 155K98 would provide a serious boost in brigade-level firepower. Swapping towed howitzers to (lighter) towed howitzers would also be a relatively simple change in the OOB.
In this scenario, the domestic 155K98 and 155K83-97 would be used by the operational brigades, with the M777 replacing the outgoing regional brigade artillery and possibly a handful of the most important of the 122H63 batteries. This still leaves the question of a 122PSH74 replacement open (self-propelled heavy mortars, anyone?), and is dependent on the highly speculative possibility of a cheap buy of the better part of the USMC guns that might be retired in the near future. However, the underlying conclusion is that there is bound to be a gap in firepower somewhere, and I would be highly surprised if there are no new 155 mm systems that enter Finnish service within this decade.
Looking purely at numbers, the most important Finnish artillery piece is the 122 mm D-30 (or 2A18 as the GRAU-designation goes), 471 of which are found in the Finnish arsenal. Finland was amongst the first waves of export customers when the then brand new light howitzer was acquired in the early 1960’s. At that time it was seen as a brigade-level asset and constituted the first modern post-war artillery system of the Finnish Army. The gun came with a host of new capabilities, including the ability to fire at very steep angles of attack, giving it significantly greater capabilities in urban terrain, as well as the innovative base that allowed a full 360° firing arch, the latter especially useful when using the gun in the direct firing role to fight of any enemy’s that might have been able to sneak up on the gun position from an unexpected direction.
Things have changed, however, and today the venerable light howitzer is relegated to the battalion support role. Here it soldiers on, the 122 mm being the sole Soviet-era calibre not to be counted amongst the “difficult” calibres that the FDF has been trying to replace for quite some time already. It looks like the current schedule is that “at least part of the towed 122 H 1963 howitzers” will stay in service towards the end of the decade. However, while the gun currently handles “fire support of infantry and jaeger brigades as well battlegroups”, especially in the case of the regional and operational units time is running out. 15,400 meter range just doesn’t cut it for a towed system if one tries to keep maintaining mutually supportive coverage of a number of moving companies and battalions according to the current Finnish infantry doctrine.
Before discussing possible replacements, one need to remember why the Army has light guns to begin with, as on the surface everything is better in 155 mm. The answer boils down to a number of factors. One is undeniably cost. The 122H63 was and is cheap. It’s cheap to acquire, cheap to operate, and fire cheap rounds. This ties in with the logistical footprint, as the rounds are smaller, a significantly larger number of rounds can be ferried around for any given volume and weight compared to 155 mm. Granted the effect per round is smaller, but in several fire missions, especially when doing suppressive fire, the number of rounds available counts more than the size of the individual bang. As current Finnish artillery doctrine dictates that the guns need an abundance of rounds stored in the forward gun positions, this is an area where the smaller 122 round shines.
Overall, it is seldom recognised just how big a difference the smaller size makes for the whole logistical chain. It’s not just that the gun is smaller, but the vehicle towing it can be smaller as well (or, alternatively, go places where it couldn’t with a heavier towed cargo). The ammunition supply train can be lighter throughout, either translating into more rounds carried per supply run or by having lighter vehicles do the runs. This further brings down the operating cost, and yet again contributes to a smoother logistical flow, which is felt also indirectly in issues such as mobility (in the sense of where one can go with the battery and still have an adequate supply train).
The issues are, however, obvious. The short range was already mentioned, and while the upper end of the spectrum has seen significant leaps in firepower through the improvement of both the guns and the rounds they fire, similar developments have been largely absent in the lower tiers of the artillery. In part this is driven by the simple fact that it makes sense that new technological developments are first introduced in the higher-end systems, from where they usually then trickle down. However, this trickling down has been curiously absent, leaving systems such as the 1970’s vintage British 105 mm gun L118 (M119 in US service) as amongst the most modern guns in service. One reason is likely that several of the benefits of the light gun over the heavier ones – ease of handling, affordability, and lack of complexity – run contrary to developments such as longer barrels and auxiliary power plants. Developments in rounds, including both guidance and sensor kits as well as sub-munitions, are usually size-restricted in that the “extras” are of the same size regardless of whether you try to squeeze them into a 122 mm shell with a 14 km range or into a 155 mm one with 30 km range. Crucially, that leaves less room for the exploding stuff that is supposed to provide the effect, so while it isn’t necessarily impossible to create guided light gun rounds, their drop in effect compared to ‘dumb’ HE-rounds in their calibre is significantly larger than what is the case for 155 mm rounds.
Regardless of the reason, the fact is that the gap in firepower between light and heavy systems is widening both in absolute and relative terms. And as several countries struggle with having a harder time funding and manning their armed forces in general (and with the artillery arms being no exceptions) the light guns have in many cases struggled to justify their existence (especially when it comes to upgrade and acquisition programs).
Nothing of this is particularly new, but rather the trend has been going for quite some time. The Finnish Army has been able to kick the can forward through the large starting number of 122H63s, relatively recent surplus buys in the 90’s, and allowing the retirement of the most worn ones as the total number of batteries has shrunk. Still, everything has an end, and there simply isn’t an obvious replacement.
As noted, buying a new towed gun to replace like-for-like is difficult even without considering the value of a towed gun on the battlefield of 2040. That’s because there are extremely few offerings. Denel of South Africa produced a technology demonstrator 105 mm gun called Light Experimental Ordnance (LEO, with a series produced gun being designated G7) that started test firing in 2001. The system is probably the most impressive weapon of its class, sporting ranges of 24,600 meters with standard ammunition while keeping a light total weight. The main issue is that it is not a ready operational weapon, and Denel has been open with the fact that quite a bit of work remain until it can be one. Coupled with the somewhat uncertain future of Denel and the South African arms industry in general, these are likely factors that significantly lowers any potential Finnish interest in acquiring the system.
Another of the very few countries that offer modern-ish towed guns is Serbia, which politically isn’t the first choice for a major Finnish arms contract, but still might be doable. While they offer a number of upgraded versions of the D-30 and the US M101, they also sport a domestic 105 mm howitzer which in the newest version is designated M56-2. The weapon traces it’s lineage to concepts found in the German leFH 18/40 (yes, this sounds bad, but it’s not quite as bad as it sounds), but fitted with a new L33 barrel it can push HE-rounds some pretty impressive distances downrange. Besides the basic US-pattern ammunitions, a number of longer-ranged rounds exist. These include a boat-tailed round with 2.85 kg of TNT and a maximum range of 15 km, and a base-bleed round capable of putting the same amount of TNT at a target 18 km away. The standard M1 HE-round has a maximum range of 14.5 km, with a new locally developed charge.
I would be, and I can’t stress this enough, highly surprised if the M56-2 would enter Finnish service. At the same time, this comes with the caveat that it wouldn’t be the first procurement decision to surprise me, and if the Army decide that they just want a basic (if crude) solution they can drop into the current organisation, there aren’t that many alternatives.
The obvious alternative instead is the British L118/M119 105 mm light gun. Despite it’s age, it is still quite a bit younger than the D-30, and, crucially, in service with a number of Western countries that have spent time and resources on keeping it up to date. It does beat the D-30 in the number game as well, being shorter and slightly narrower in transport configuration, having a faster rate of fire, and a longer range. With a combat weight of just under 2,000 kg, it is also quite a bit lighter than the D-30 than tips the scale at around 3,200 kg (somewhat depending on configuration). And while I decried the lack of great innovations on the scale we’ve seen amongst the heavy hitters in the start of this post, there’s no denying that the latest versions of the L118 is vastly superior to those rolling of the assembly lines in 1975.
A key part of this was the US upgrades to M119A2/A3-standard, (the A3 differing from the A2 in having a digital fire control system that uses “90% of the software derived from the 155 mm M777A2”) as well as an MLU-project and the fitting of the Selex ES LINAPS artillery pointing system (yes, really) on the UK guns. The LINAPS is mounted on the barrel and include an integrated INS/GPS system, a large touch-screen to control the software, an odometer keeping track on the distance travelled, and a muzzle velocity radar. In essence, it is a small computer that keeps track on where the gun is, where it is pointing, and then tells the crew where to shoot in order to hit the target they want to shoot at. In essence, this is roughly similar to what the new FCS of the M119A3 does, and what both does in the field is that they allow the crews to start shooting (and hitting) significantly quicker than what has been the case earlier when the position of the gun has been decided by external means.
The nicest part about the L118/M119 is without doubt the sheer number of units, with over 1,100 guns having been produced (though observant readers will note that a Finnish one-for-one replacement of 122H63 would mean increasing the total number of L118/M119 production with 43%, further highlighting just how unique the Finnish artillery park is). The status as the de facto standard light gun in the Western world means that there are ample upgrades and improvements being offered for it, including both for the gun itself and for the rounds it fire. The UK version has a stated max range of 17,200 meters with HE-shells and charge “Super” (15,300 meters with charge number five), while the US has adopted the M1130 HE FRAG with base-bleed as their standard HE-round going forward. This South African Rheinmetall Denel Munitions developed round is capable of reaching out to 17,500 meters. The airmobility and widespread use, including in a number of export countries, means that even if the regular Army units of the US and UK were to start replacing the system, it would still have a considerable user base for years to come.
But is another towed gun really what is needed? This is a surprisingly hard question to answer, and more so for the light guns than for the heavy ones. As noted, much of the benefit of the lighter platforms stem from the fact that they are small, cheap, and lack the complexity of the larger ones. Sticking the gun on a vehicle can easily defeat the purpose of having light guns. This is especially true for tracked platforms, as they will add not only the complexity of a vehicle, but the added complexity of tracks and the need for a transporter, adding several layers of maintenance and manning requirements that especially the less prioritised units of the Finnish Army can ill afford.
For a wheeled platform, the trade-off isn’t as bad. In theory at least, the towing vehicle can be replaced (though depending on the setup, a truck might be needed for ammunition and crew transport), leaving the same number of wheeled platforms in the unit as before. The platform also is likely to be of roughly the same size and mobility as the current tower, meaning integration is easier than for a tracked one. The big benefit is obviously the survivability that comes from being able to quickly move in and out of firing positions, which is a big benefit, especially in more contested sectors of the front.
Finland’s new best friend when it comes to artillery, the South Korean company Hanwha Techwin, has the EVO-105 which in essence is a 6×6 truck featuring an M101 105 mm howitzer on top. Despite the somewhat archaic outlook, it is actually just on the verge of entering service. For the standard M1 HE-round the maximum range is 11,300 meters, which can be described as lacklustre. However, there is a remedy as the company also has an upgraded version of the weapon itself on offer, designated KH178. Changing out the baseline M101 to the KH178 with a L34 barrel it is possible to achieve ranges of up to 14,700 meters for the M1, or 18,000 meters using rocket assisted projectiles. The KH178 is an old upgrade program dating to the 80’s, and unless a really nice deal can be had on surplus howitzers coming from the large South Korean stocks, there is little use in getting the towed version. On the EVO it is marginally more interesting, but truth be told this isn’t the most elegant solution out there, and since it’s unlikely to be the cheapest, it is likely not a serious contender.
Our aforementioned Serbian friends pushes a number of different configurations through the Yugoimport brand, including putting the M56 into an armoured turret and calling it the M09, as well as putting different derivatives of the D-30 on truck chassis in both turreted and unprotected configurations. The idea of putting D-30’s on truck to give them mobility is widespread, and if Finland decided to go down that road Serbia just might be a possible partner (though in that case the Finnish version would probably be based on a domestic, or Swedish, chassis). At least it makes more sense than Sudan and the Khalifa…
Political considerations effectively take out a number of other designs as well. China and Russia are obviously both still very much in the business of both towed and self-propelled guns of all classes, including in western calibres for export purposes, but neither country won’t receive any RFI’s any time soon. One company that probably will, however, is Mandus Group.
The Hawkeye is a soft-recoiling 105 mm gun mounted on a M1152A1 HMMWV, giving the light gun a significantly smaller platform than the 6×6 used by most other examples. Early versions shown used the M102, but a more recent demonstrator has been fitted with the M119. This could potentially be a really nice way of handling the need for light fires, marrying a tried-and-tested 105 mm gun to a tried-and-tested chassis, offering high mobility and a small logistical footprint. The shorter range compared to the current 122H63, just 11,600 m with the standard M1 HE shell (it can reach 19,500 meters with a M193 HE RAP), it partially offset with the higher mobility.
The big deal here is obviously that no-one has bothered buying the concept, at least not yet. And a Finnish launch order for a few hundred Hawkeyes doesn’t seem likely. We are quickly approaching the space where the only current Finnish indirect fire system comes into play.
The Patria NEMO is a 120 mm turreted mortar system, and while mortars aren’t exactly light guns, they do offer a number of qualities on their own. The NEMO is the lighter single-barrelled brother to the AMOS that is currently in service in limited number with the Finnish Army, and could potentially be integrated into a number of different platforms (8×8 or 6×6). While the range is shorter, typically just over 10,000 meters, the mortar shells does offer more explosives thanks to their thinner casings (3.1 kg in the case of the MEHRE round marketed for AMOS/NEMO use). The advantage of turreted mortars is also that they allow for direct-firing as a self-defence option. There is also a clear logistics chain for mortars already in place, and adding more towed and self-propelled mortars might provide the lo-hi mix needed to fit inside the (limited) funds available to replace the 122 mm howitzers.
Because lets face it – there’s likely not a one-size-fits-all solutions to the retirement of the 122H63. Some units will likely see their light batteries converted to towed heavy mortars, while for others that simply won’t cut it and something heavier hitting and/or more mobile will be needed. I would not be surprised if a number of L118/M119 are bought at some point, but their number likely won’t be anything near 470. If so, these would likely occupy the middle ground, being used in light battalions for some of the regional forces, with a number of towed mortars acquired to the less lucky ones. If mobility is seen as an absolute requirement for a future mid-range system, a 120 mm mortar on the back of a truck is probably the answer. Hawkeye and NEMO would be nice, but I just don’t see the money for any major buys of these (though the possibility of acquiring them in small numbers for prioritised battlegroups as was done with the AMOS remains, see e.g. my ongoing grievance about the lack of a boatmounted indirect fire system for the coastal jaeger battlegroup).
One of the issues occupying the minds of the Finnish artillery planners is also the inability of light guns to fire special munitions, including precision guided shells and dedicated sensor-fused anti-tank munitions such as BONUS II. If this capability is to be rolled out wider, either more heavy battalions are needed, or mixed battalions with one heavy and two light batteries will start to appear among the infantry brigades.
Which brings us to one last interesting example. Singapore, another country known for their domestic artillery production, used to rely on the Nexter (formerly GIAT) 105 mm LG1 light gun for their light fires up until this side of the year 2000. These have however been replaced by the lightweight ST Kinetics Pegasus, a towed 155 mm gun sporting a L39 barrel and an APU to move the system into firing positions. While acquiring a new-built towed 155 mm gun with a L39 length barrel does sound like an anachronism in a world of self-propelled L52-systems, it is important to remember that the comparison here is with the towed 122 mm. The Pegasus has all the niceties expected of a modern 155 mm gun, including a powered ammunition loading system allowing for a burst of three rounds in 24 seconds (or a sustained rate of 4 rounds/min for three minutes, after which it drops to one round every half minute) and as mentioned an APU. The gun has an interesting design, sitting on a box-shaped base when in firing mode rather than using a split tail, further adding to it’s compact nature. The L39 barrel does suffer a bit when it comes to range, but at 19,000 meters for a standard HE shell and 30,000 meters for a base-bleed HE it’s still vastly superior to any light guns out there. The weapon is designed to be able to fire “all kinds of 155 mm projectiles and charges”, a key detail as it is the last piece of the puzzle to convert the Singapore artillery to an 155 mm-only force (following the towed 155 mm L52 FH-2000 and L39 FH-88 as well as the self-propelled Primus).
The Pegasus might not be the answer to the Finnish artillery needs, as while I haven’t been able to find a quoted price for it, words like ‘lightweight’ and ‘titanium’ are usually indicators that it won’t be cheap. However, the general idea of shifting 155 mm guns down in the hierarchy to replace light batteries might well be part of the eventual solution. The obvious candidate here is the 100+ of the older 155K83-97 which is a Finnish-built rather conventional L39 gun. In mixed batteries with either a new light gun or those 122H63 that are in best condition, 48 of the heavier guns would give six battalions an eight-gun heavy battery, giving them a serious increase in firepower (mixed battalions probably would require at least the heavy battery to be eight-gun to allow it to be used for independent fire missions).
There’s obviously just a few problems:
The issue with finding firing positions for dispersed eight-gun batteries,
The added logistical complexity of mixed-calibre battalions,
The fact that 48 heavier guns would replace just ten to twenty (very generously calculated) percent of the soon-to-be-retired 122H63-force,
The fact that something then would need to replace at least part of the 155K83-97 in their current role to free them for the move to the current light battalions.
The first two have so far stopped mixed battalions from appearing in the Finnish OOB, while the third point goes back to the lack of a one-size-fits-all solution. The fourth is rather complex, and we’ll get back to that one.
The future of Finnish artillery is a topic I’ve touched upon earlier as well, in particular this post from a few years back. Much of what I wrote back then is still valid, but as the topic is complex, and certainly deserving of deeper study than a single post thrown together on a train provides, the time has come to revisit it. The two key sources here will be The Future of Fires, a RUSI report by Jack Watling from last year that looks at the situation from a UK-angle but with several aspects that carry over to the general artillery discussion, and Tykistö taistelee tulellaan, a Finnish book from 2017 on the first century of Finnish artillery tactics written by colonel (ret.) Pasi Kesseli, PhD. As is usual with Finland, there are serious gaps in open sources due to the strict focus on operational security, but Kesseli does cover the development from 1990 and up until the current day in approximately ten pages, which provide some interesting insights into Finnish artillery doctrine and organisation, information that can then be fitted into the more general picture provided by Watling.
The current Finnish doctrine divide fires into tactical and operational levels. The tactical fires aim at directly influencing the flow of battle either immediately or within a very short time span. In practice, this means that the firing ranges are often shorter, and the fire missions include both destruction as well as suppression of targets. The missions are usually handled by the organic artillery and mortar units available at the brigade level or below, though support by for example light rocket launchers (122 mm RM-70, locally know as 122 RAKH 89) can also fill the role if so required. Fire direction is also usually handled by the organic C2, sensors, observers, and reconnaissance assets. See Eyeonscandinavia’s post for a more detailed discussion on the role of the observers.
Operational fires on the other hand deals with the critical systems and nodes of the enemy, meaning that if they can be affected the capabilities of the enemy to carry out successful military operations are suffering. These are often found further back from the frontline, but it is important to note that as opposed to earlier Finnish doctrine which did differentiate between tactical and operational fires based on range, the difference is now based purely on the value of the target. This is roughly in line with Watling’s report, which grapple with the question of fires based on four different mission sets:
Breaking up enemy force concentrations,
Providing fire support to enable manoeuvre,
Suppression of enemy fires (counterbattery fire),
Striking high-value targets.
Of these, the first two can be seen as tactical fires according to Finnish doctrine, while the second two are operational level missions.
The Finnish Army is decidedly artillery heavy, featuring a serious amount of organic indirect fires at all levels starting with the battalion. The core unit in the artillery is the 18-gun battalion, consisting of three 6-gun batteries. These are either light (122 mm D-30 howitzer, locally designated 122H63) or heavy ones (using either Soviet-built 152 mm or Finnish 155 mm equipment), with the whole artillery battalion always using the same calibre. The battalion is treated as a single firing unit, though certain fire missions can be handled by either a single or two of the battalion’s batteries. A key detail is that the battalion has a robust enough C2-system that it can control fire from several battalions. This is based on the M18 combat engagement system provided by domestic supplier Bittium, and which is seen as a key enabler in allowing the Army to conduct dispersed operations at a rapid pace, something which the artillery arm is taking advantage of. Already as part of the now obsolete Brigade 2005 structure any artillery battalion could direct fire from not only it’s own guns, but from another two tube or rocket artillery battalions as well. How many firing units can be controlled by a single battalion’s fire direction centre under the current organisation is not open information.
This modularity is obviously not unique to the artillery, but is part of a more general trend in the Finnish Defence Forces to be able to react to changing situations by tailoring the forces under a given command to meet any particular situation, including combining different capabilities and unit levels (local, regional, operational) to produce the desired order of battle to meet requirements. The switch to more robust baseline units to be able to handle missions at lower levels and be able to absorb some losses without losing combat capability is not unique either, but is also mirrored in how infantry units have grown in size.
The towed batteries which make up the vast majority of Finnish indirect firepower rely on dispersion for protection, spreading out the artillery battalion over an area that can be as wide as 15 by 40 kilometers, with individual guns preferably at least 500 meters from each other. In practice, this reduces the battery from a single high-value target to a number of individual targets of lesser value. Another key aspect in improving the survivability of the batteries have been the continuous improvement of the organic entrenchment capabilities of the units, including heavy vehicles to prepare gun positions and close-in defence positions for the riflemen. The latter is also increasingly important as under the most recent doctrine (Maavoimien uudistettu taistelutapa) there is a focus on having the guns placed close to the front and having stored “an abundance of rounds” in these forward fire positions, to be able to cause the enemy a large number of casualties and disruptions from the get go. The obvious downside to dispersed positions and forward locations is the risk of the individual guns being overrun by advancing enemy units, as their location makes them vulnerable and a concentrated defence becomes more difficult.
While many of the concepts presented in Watling’s paper largely correspond to current Finnish artillery doctrine and the general trends identified in Finland, there is a key difference, namely the relatively narrow frame of reference provided in looking at a UK division fighting in a defensive expeditionary war as part of a NATO corps structure. While this is comparable to the question of what kinds of fires Finland might have a need for in the direction(s) that is the focus of operations, the broader Finnish question include what kind of fires are needed in secondary directions as well. The modularity is also more critical from a Finnish point of view, to be able to quickly create a concentration of fires in a certain area. Here it should also be noted that the Finnish force structure above the brigade level is not public information, and hence it would be incorrect/uncertain to talk about division or corps assets within a Finnish framework. However, the Finnish system does sport a number of high-end systems which are described as not being part of the brigade structure, and the role of these higher-level assets correspond to those associated with the British division and corps assets (including both providing additional tactical firepower when the need arises as well as providing operational fires). The most probable Finnish organisation is that these higher level assets are found in independent battalions, which are then attached to higher level formations as appropriate.
The current British top-of-the-line tube artillery is the two regiments of AS90 self-propelled 155 mm howitzers. As opposed to many newer systems such as the K9 and the PzH 2000, the AS-90 is equipped with a shorter L39 barrel. A British artillery regiment is in fact corresponding to battalions in other countries, although the British Army uses an eight-gun battery structure, giving the regiment 24 guns. This is something that the Finnish Army also has studied in detail, and the idea was given serious thought in the late 90’s as it would have made it possible to keep performing fire missions while constantly having one of the battalion’s three batteries on the move. In the end, it was opted against this setup, amongst other things due to the difficulty in finding suitable firing positions for a dispersed eight gun battery.
Watling envisions a very similar kind of tactic for the British regiments, although he calculates with firing ranges for 52-calibre howitzers and not for the current AS90:
Across the 24-gun group, with two guns firing on each fire mission, and the firing pair handing over at two-minute intervals, the group could prosecute four separate fire missions delivering eight rounds per minute to each, and sustaining this rate of fire – assuming a magazine capacity of 40 rounds per gun – for 30 minutes. If the battery is reduced to three sustained fire missions then six guns can replenish their magazines so that the rate of fire can be sustained as long as ammunition continues to be moved forward, as per the existing carousel system for resupply. The elegance of this system is that for an enemy artillery commander, they would only observe two isolated firing positions at any given time, which would change frequently.
If such a regiment were deployed 12km behind the contested zone, its rearmost gun would be able to deliver effects 24km into the contested zone, while the regiment could deliver MRSI 16km into the contested zone, thereby remaining able to deliver – given a six-round salvo per gun – between 144 simultaneously impacting and 3 salvos of 48 155-mm shells to any point within the operating area of an opposing MRB.
Watling’s conclusions are that no high-readiness brigade can operate on the modern battlefield with less than 24 155 mm self-propelled guns, as these are the bare minimum for the tactical fire missions that can be expected when operating within a NATO structure where additional divisional and corps fires can be expected to handle the counterbattery role and other operational level missions. For a whole divisional support group that also would handle some of these operational tasks, the need would be a minimum of 72 guns, as well as a regiment (battalion) of heavy rocket launchers. For these to be able to go toe to toe and match the Russian capabilities, different kinds of modern area effect and sensor-fused (sub-)munitions are required to achieve a higher effect than traditional unitary warheads. The latter notion isn’t uncontroversial, as it partly runs counter to the Oslo Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), of which the UK is a signatory (as opposed to Finland, Russia, and the USA). However, it is notable that if encountering a corresponding Russian unit, a British division of today would be outgunned both in numbers as well as firing ammunition that produces a less lethal effect compared to their Russian counterparts.
However, with 72 heavy guns providing operational fire missions, Watling feel that 155 mm is overkill for the tactical supporting fires. Currently the light fires in UK units comes from the ubiquitous 105 mm L118 light gun, which is towed. As Watling argues for all guns to be self-propelled, and as the battalion support gun in British service will need to be airmobile (i.e. below the eight-tonne lift capacity of a Chinook), he notes that the most viable solution would likely be that battalion-level fires would be provided by a 120 mm mortar on a light vehicle such as the Supacat. The firepower of this solution is not completely unlike the Swedish solution to provide battalion fires with a twin-barrelled 120 mm mortar mounted on a CV90 chassis, though the reasoning behind is rather different (Sweden having arrived at the solution by focusing tactical mobility as part of the mechanised battlegroup rather than higher level mobility). As there is no Finnish requirement for airmobility for the battalion fires, especially not for the local forces, this line of reasoning has less relevance for the Finnish situation. However, if we for a moment stays with the UK divisional example, Watling end up with the following total:
• One battery of anti-tank guided weapons per battlegroup.
• One battery of 120-mm mortars per battlegroup.
• 72 155-mm 52-calibre howitzers with anti-armour area-effect munitions or DPICM.
• A regiment of MLRS with a compliment of sensor-fused sub-munition dispensing
rockets, and LRPF.
These are then supported by corps-level assets, but contrary to many NATO-centred analyses Watling actually does not expect much in the way of support from the air during the early stages of the conflict, a starting assumption that does mirror the Finnish situation.
As noted, it isn’t possible to make an apples-to-apples comparison for a Finnish order of battle as the Finnish wartime OOB is a) secret, and b) less formal in nature than a British expeditionary force would be. However, it is notable that during the first decennium of the millennium (newer numbers are secret) the standard according to Finnish doctrine was that an attacking brigade would be supported by an additional 72 to 108 guns or rocket-launchers from higher assets in addition to the brigade’s organic 18 gun battery, numbers that come very close to the divisional support group argued by Watling. 72 is by the way an interesting number in that it is a multiple of both 18 and 24. We’ll be back to multiples of 24 in a week or two, as one has appeared in an unexpected place.
The highest Finnish decoration for military service is the Mannerheim Cross, which was introduced as part of the Knighthood of the Cross of Liberty following the Winter War. A total of 191 servicemen received the order during the Second World War, of which only four received it twice. Of these, colonel Martti Aho spent the last years of his life in my hometown Kokkola, and it is here that he was laid to rest in 1968. The Mannerheim Cross is somewhat unusual in that it can be issued both for exceptional bravery, but also for the conduct of especially successful combat operations, meaning that it was found throughout the ranks of the Finnish Defence Forces, which also was the expressed purpose when the cross was created. Martti Aho’s both crosses belonged to the second category, but that is not to say that he would have been lacking in courage.
Aho was born in 1896 in the countryside outside of Kemi in the northern parts of the country. He begun his military career by volunteering as a rifleman in the Civil War of 1918, where he advanced to squad leader and fought in both his home region as well as in Karelia. Following the end of the war, he joined the unsuccessful Olonets Expedition serving in different battalion and regimental logistics functions, before he returned following the failure of the attempt to extend Finnish rule into Eastern Karelia. It wouldn’t however be the last time he visited the forests of Karelia. Back in Finland, he passed reserve officer training in 1921, and joined the Border Guards two years later. Steadily rising through the ranks, he was swiftly appointed battalion commander once the Winter War started and sent to the Olonets Ishmuts. He ended the war as the commander of Osasto Karpalo, part of the 13. Division, and was wounded twice during the fighting in January and February.
The interim peace saw Aho return to the Border Guards where he worked a number of different staff positions and a short stint as a commander of the Border Guard training unit, before he was transferred to the Defence Forces in 1941. When hostilities broke out, he served as the head of operations in the divisional staff of 11. Division, but quickly received command of infantry regiment JR 50, the unit which was to be most closely associated with him.
JR 50 would have an eventful war, and Aho would lead it throughout. Once the offensive east started, the regiment quickly became known for it’s speed and stamina. 19 August the foot infantry unit broke through the enemy positions at Ignoila, despite the Soviet’s having been supported by tanks and direct firing guns, Aho having personally led the offensive from the front of the unit. Having broken through, he pushed onward “skilfully and with ruthless speed”, to use the words of the citation of his first Mannerheim Cross, and captured the strategically important, and hence heavily defended, railway and road bridges over Suojoki before the enemy managed to blow them. Not stopping, he continued in the front, twice having to use his personal light machine gun (yes, that apparently was a thing in JR 50) to chase away enemies from their positions before capturing Suvilahti on the 21 of August. Having appeared in the flank and rear of the enemy position at Näätäjoki, these were forced to retreat with the Finnish forces causing significant losses to the escaping units.
Four days later JR 50 was on the move again, Aho’s regiment first encircling and then crushing the enemy positions at Kurmoila so swiftly that they after this managed to capture the prepared Soviet positions on the hilly Essoila isthmus before they had a chance to man these. This was followed by another short stop, before the unit in early September marched through the forests and swamps around Teru, charged into the position protecting the enemy’s southern flank, broke these, and continued with speed to capture another strategic bridge over Suojujoki before the enemy managed to blow it. He again personally led the first two platoons to cross over. In the end, the successful campaign of JR 50 played a key role in paving the way for the Finnish occupation of Petrozavodsk. This had not gone unnoticed, and Aho was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in October and received his first Mannerheim Cross in March the following year, becoming knight number 52.
The next few years saw limited movements along the front, and JR 50 spent much of the time along the Svir River. When the Soviet summer offensive of 1944 started steamrolling the Finnish positions on the Karelian Isthmus, JR 50 was sent south and met the enemy juggernaut at Portinhoikka during the battle of Tali-Ihantala. Here Aho was wounded the third time, and the regiment suffered devastating losses during the fighting 28 and 29 June. It was then pulled back and placed in reserve for just over a month, before it again was sent to the front in early August. Aho returned to again take command of his regiment on the first day of September, just three days before the armistice. The end of the Continuation War did not spell the end of fighting for the regiment, however.
As part of the armistice agreement, Finland was to ensure that the Germans left Finnish territory. The German’s weren’t about to go nicely though, and the Lapland War was the result. On 5 October the regiment landed in Röyttä, the outer port of Tornio, just a short distance from Aho’s childhood home. The fighting had already been going for a few days, and the Finnish forces were hard-pressed to defend themselves against the German counteroffensives. The pendulum was about to swing, however, as more and more Finnish forces arrived. And once again, JR 50 received the order to go on the offensive.
The counteroffensive by JR 50 is probably the second most well-known episode of the battle for Tornio (following the unfortunate episode with the alcohol depot in Little-Berlin). The regiment left much of it’s heavy equipment in Röyttä and marched into swamps and forests through a gap in the front to flank the main German force consisting of three battalions, and encircled them against the River Tornio. While post-war research has shown that significant parts of the encircled did manage to break out, the motti was a significant success and would play an important role in the political games surrounding the Lappland War. Just eight days after the last encircled Germans surrendered, both Aho and his superior major general Aaro Pajari received what in both cases was their second Mannerheim Crosses.
While it can be argued that political considerations weighed more heavily than usual in the decision to hand Aho his second Mannerheim Cross, there is little doubt that he had done more than his share in ensuring Finland’s independence through his participation in four wars. After the war, he spent six weeks arrested when the plans to hide weapons caches in anticipation of a Soviet invasion. Following a few more years in uniform, he retired from active service in 1949.
At this point, he moved to Kokkola and worked at the local stevedoring company until his retirement, also owning a share in it. Today, a commemorative plaque of the double-knight was unveiled at the offices of Rauanheimo, the company still continuing the same line of trade under the original name in the port of Kokkola. Considering his long and remarkable career, it does feel overdue to see him memorialised in his final home town.
As it happens, my grandmother worked at Rauanheimo during Aho’s final years in the company. She recalled that he was ever the gentleman, each morning making a point out of stopping at every desk and wishing everyone a good morning. The personality that had made him rank amongst Finland’s most decorated soldiers did shine through as well. Once the chain smoker occupying the desk opposite of Aho had left the room for a short break when the remnants in the ashtray set fire to the paperwork he had left on the desk. Aho calmly watched flames, until the smoker came rushing back and started putting out the flames, shouting at Aho why he didn’t do something? Aho, without moving from behind his desk, just answered “It isn’t my fire,” and continued to calmly watch the firefighting efforts. For someone who had faced hostile fire in five wars, some scorched paperwork didn’t qualify as a crisis.
“I prefer to have two engines over just one.” Yes dear readers, even in the 21st century, the single- versus twin-engined debate isn’t dead. Sorry Pratt & Whitney, but once that one engine catches a flock of birds (or a 30 mm round) down in the weeds, having two is an advantage. How much of an advantage is an open question, and one for the HX-team to ponder upon. Let’s just note that while the Finnish Air Force hasn’t lost any Hornets to birdstrikes, it has lost a Hawk.
However, that wasn’t Boeing’s main selling point when they held their media event as part of HX Challenge this week. Instead, it was about a total package. The Super Hornet as the most versatile and reliable multirole fighter available, offering the greatest suitability to the Finnish concept of operations (read: dispersed operations), having a proven track record as a reliable partner when it comes to customer support and industrial offset, and with the EA-18G Growler bringing unique capabilities to the fight. In essence, Boeings pitch isn’t necessarily that the Super Hornet is miles in front of the competition in any particular field, but rather that the package as a whole will offer the flexibility and cost-to-benefit ratio needed to win the deal.
There is much to be said for that approach. The Finnish Air Force is very happy with the legacy Hornet (or ‘Classic’, as Boeing likes to call it), and the transition to Super Hornet makes sense in many ways. The carrier pedigree is still valuable in many ways besides the obvious short take-off and landing distances. The US Navy carrier air wing is in fact a good analogy for the Finnish Air Force. You find yourself in a taxing environment, having roughly fifty to sixty fighters and whatever spares and stocks you’ve brought with you. You might or might not be fighting alongside allied assets, so you need to be able to both go alone and have the interoperability to link up with friends. Hence the need for high rates of readiness, quick turnaround times, high sortie generation, as well as the ability to keep operating with a minimal amount of support equipment and a small logistical footprint.
“The most proven and affordable multirole platform out there”
That’s how Jennifer Tebo, Director of Development for both the Super Hornet and the Growler programs, opened her presentation. This was a sentiment echoed throughout the presentation, and Boeing was keen to point out that they don’t have to project operating costs or look at trends in cost-saving programs — they know what the aircraft cost to operate. “Particularly suite for Finland” was another phrase used. For a cost-conscious customer, this is something that will earn them a few points extra in the evaluation. Another thing is the cost-savings Boeing experiences during the phasing in of the aircraft. While the final checks of current infrastructure hasn’t been made yet, they are due for next week, Boeing estimate up to 60 % of current infrastructure, including both facilities, maintenance equipment, ground support, and dispersed bases, can be used with the Super Hornet (the remaining percentage also include equipment that can be either refurbished or replaced, depending on the Air Force’s view). Considering the large amount of support equipment needed due to the dispersed operations, this might easily turn into a significant saving. The Super Hornet can also continue to carry the weapons currently found in the Finnish arsenal, with some added tricks up it’s sleeve. The aircraft is fitted for tactical aerial refuelling, and it is easily to imagine a scenario during fluid dispersed operations where the fuel isn’t in the correct place relative to the fighters. At such a time, having a Super Hornet configured for tanker duty linking up somewhere can save valuable time. In peacetime, being able to practice air-to-air refuelling without a tanker having to fly in from RAF Mildenhall will also significantly ease training routines.
One thing that was touched upon in the weapons department was the fact that the Super Hornet is the only HX contender not slated for Meteor integration. “There’s an opportunity for an advanced air-to-air missile within our offer to adress that need,” was the line we were given. While obviously not confirmed by Boeing, initial deliveries sporting the AIM-120D AMRAAM and later buys of AIM-260 once that comes online is the most likely scenario here.
Finally, the transition time would be easier and faster. Captain Brian Becker, commodore of US Navy’s Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, noted that a six month transition period was enough to switch Hornet squadrons to Super Hornets. It should be pointed out that this is for the squadron as a whole, and includes not only teaching the pilots to fly the aircraft, but also transitioning the support personnel, changing out equipment, and getting everyone up to speed on the new aircraft to the level that it is a functioning unit able to perform operational missions. The sentiment was echoed by colonel Aki Heikkinen, commander of Satakunta Air Wing, who noted transitioning a pilot was largely a matter of hours rather than weeks if strictly talking about flying the aircraft safely (colonel Heikkinen also shot down the idea that some of the contenders would struggle with landing or taking off from road bases. “We’ve flown Draken from them”, he said, alluding to the Saab-built interceptor that the Hornet replaced in Finnish service). It should be remembered that the 10 Bn Euro budget isn’t available as such to the fighter manufacturer, but parts of it will also finance the reconstruction of air bases as well as part of the everyday operations of the aircraft during the first five years (as the Hornet operations are using the Air Forces’ normal budget until their retirement). As such, Boeing has a crucial advantage when it comes to saving money on these indirect costs, money that can be used to include one of the premier force multipliers of the fighter world in their bid.
The EA-18G Growler is a serious asset to any operator. The Growler is in essence a combination of a SIGINT-platform gathering data from anything that is emitting, as well as a jamming platform blocking any system from emitting anything useful, be it communications or radars. While stealth platforms currently does a nice job of denying the enemy the ability to close the kill chain by making it hard to get a fire-control solution on the radar, the Growler has the ability to take it further by jamming the electronic spectrum from the VHF-band to the Ku-band, denying the enemy all parts of the chain (early warning, acquisition, and fire control radar bands). If need be, the Growler can also take out the transmitting radars by employing the latest AGM-88E AARGM-missile, or just feed the information to the nearest Super Hornet slinging a suitable weapon to form a classic hunter-killer team.
DETERRENCE | Check out the view from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 as it refuels F-22 Raptors and U.S. Navy EA-18G Growlers over northern Iraq. U.S. Air Forces Central Command operations deter adversaries and demonstrate support for allies and partners in the region. #AirPowerpic.twitter.com/UcEkh8l9tR
All this means that the Growler is a highly appreciated asset, and not just by the US Navy. In fact, the USAF is funding part of the Growler-force, that include five expeditionary squadrons. It is not unusual to find Growlers assisting some of the Air Forces’ stealthiest platforms with both situational awareness and jamming. The Growler is growing with the Super Hornet, with both aircraft introducing technologies that filter over to the other. But while the aircraft maintain 90% commonality with each other, it is the remaining 10% that makes the Growler really venomous. The wingtip ALQ-218 RF Receivers, perhaps the most obvious external recognising feature, are described as “extremely good” and tell the pilot not only what is out there, but also where it is. The crew can then decide what to do with that information, whether to engage with weapons, avoid, or jam.
A key part of the jamming system is the two large ALQ-249 Next Generation Jammers (NGJ) for the mid-band. These are amongst the most advanced US electronic warfare capabilities, and just the fact that they have been released for export to Finland even before the US Navy has accepted them into operational use tells something about the US-Finnish bilateral relation. Ernie Winston from Raytheon, the developer and manufacturer of the pods, was happy to confirm that the development program is moving forward according to plan, and that the first pre-production batches are expected to join the program this year, which also will see the first mission system flight testing. The first series production deliveries will take place in 2022.
What exactly makes the NGJ different from the current generation then? A lot, as it turns out. The big thing is that it is capable of hitting numerous targets simultaneously, thanks to AESA features and “extremely high power”. To counter modern radars, it is also able to switch modes very quickly. The pod is designed from the bottom up to be modular and easily upgradable. Winston describe the system as providing “transformative electronic attack capability”, while the more modest HX-programme manager colonel Keränen just noted that the Growler represents a capability currently not found in the Finnish Air Force
The versatility of the Growler also means that they can be used in a number of different ways. The US Navy likes to use the superior intelligence gathering and presence of a backseater to allow the aircraft to stand back a bit from the fight (the high power of it’s jammers ensure that it can perform stand-off as well as stand-in jamming), sharing it’s tactical picture with the rest of the flight and having the Growler’s WSO (backseater) play the role of a mission commander, directing the fight. ‘Quarterbacking it’, as Boeing put it with a good analogy that will be meaningless for a majority of Finns.
The RAAF on the other hand has a more hands-on approach, and isn’t afraid to use their Growlers up close and personal. This is aided by the fact that the Growler in essence has all the air-to-air capabilities of a F/A-18F Super Hornet (minus the wingtip AIM-9 Sidewinders), coupled with vastly superior jamming capabilities. While a Growler preferably shouldn’t get involved in the air-to-air fight, it certainly is capable of defending itself.
The Australian connection is interesting. While there are lot of difference between Finland and Australia, there are surprising similarities when looking at the air forces. Both were major operators of the ‘legacy’ Hornet (sorry Boeing, the designation has stuck already), and were the first two (and for a long time, only) export customers of the AGM-158 JASSM which gave their respective fleets a precision deep strike capability. Both also operate in the grey zone of being somewhat non-aligned but enjoying close bilateral relations with the US (though Australia has a significantly more expeditionary approach). This closeness of the respective US-relations is what makes deals such as the JASSM or Growler possible. And if Finland chooses the Super Hornet, there is something very interesting brewing down under.
Recently Boeing made headlines by flying three Growlers simultaneously, with one controlling the other remotely two (they were often referred to as ‘unmanned’ by the press, something that wasn’t strictly true as they had a back-up crew aboard to take control if something would have gone wrong). The news wasn’t that a Growler can be flown remotely, but rather that Boeing had successfully demonstrated that without modifying the cockpit hardware, it is possible to effectively command unmanned wingmen from a Growler or Super Hornet using currently available data links (Link 16 or ATDL). The software part is included on both the Growler and Super Hornet road maps, and is expected to be rolled out sometime during the latter half of the decade (i.e. when Finland is receiving its HX-fighters). The question is then what would you control? Granted you can use the Growler (or a ‘legacy’ Hornet using Link 16, though that is suboptimal due to bandwidth and security concerns), but a smarter way is to use a purpose-built platform. Such as the Loyal Wingman.
The Loyal Wingman is currently being developed in Australia, something that has the added benefit of ensuring it stays ITAR-free. In other words, ensuring that it can be exported through direct commercial sales from Australia without the need to go through the sometimes tiresome US bureaucracy. To a certain extent, the current Loyal Wingman is a solution looking for a problem. It is highly modular, meaning that it can take up a number of payloads. While the system in its first configuration is likely to play the role of ISR platform and/or forward active sensor, it can be armed as well. And importantly, it is built from the ground up to be cheap enough that it is attritable. With a first flight slated for later this year, this isn’t a hypothetical MLU-capability, but rather something that very well might be operational by the time Finland declare FOC for the HX-fleet. Having an unmanned (the plan is for the Loyal Wingman to have the ability to operate independently using AI or to be remotely controlled) ISR-platform with a huge range, 3,700+ km has been mentioned, would be a very interesting option. However, when it comes to HX specifically, Boeing might have outwitted themselves, as the Australian Loyal Wingman can’t be included in the US Foreign Military Sales-package that is being offered for HX. With the relatively low price tag, it is instead found in the “Future capabilities”-column with a detailed description, and treated as a possible arms sale for the time post 2030.
But the Loyal Wingman is just one piece of the puzzle making the Super Hornet-family “networked and survivable”, to use Boeing’s phrasing. The key here is the Advanced Tactical Datalink, or ATDL, that allows for vastly increased amounts of data being sent between the aircrafts (and other friendlies, including ground and ship units). To be able to cope with this increased amount data received, as well as the increased amount of data from the Block III’s own sensors (including the ATFLIR targeting pod and the long-range IRST pod), the aircraft has received the increased processing power of the DTP-N (a “big computer”, as it was described). This in turn makes the creation of a common tactical picture (CTP) possible, which is presented to the pilot on the new wide-angled display that is the most visible part of the Advanced Cockpit System, vastly increasing the situational awareness of the pilots. In essence, what Boeing does is linking together the aircraft to get a clear situational picture even in complex high-treat environments. The new cockpit coupled with the CTP also lower the pilot workload, providing a “huge step up” when it comes to how the information is presented to the crew, and helps avoid overloading the pilot with data.
The rhino in the room is the as yet undefined date when the US Navy will withdraw the Super Hornet from service. Despite the recent news of the death of the Super Hornet being seriously overblown, the fact is that when captain Becker describes the future of the Super Hornet in the Navy, the timeline is two decades plus in US service.
“Regardless of other platforms coming out, F/A-18 will be the cornerstone for many years to come”
That all sounds nice and plausible, probably even slightly conservative considering there are no plans for the F-35C to replace large number of Super Hornets and that the NGAD is still just in the study stage of the program, but the gap from 2040+ to 2060+ is still significant. And the day the US Navy pulls the plug on the Super Hornet the continued development of the aircraft can quickly become prohibitively expensive for Finland. As said, a sunset before the late 2040’s is unlikely, especially given the 500+ aircraft upgrade program that will continue to push out refurbished Block III’s past 2030 and the unique nature of the Growler. However, the last ten years of the HX winner’s service life are uncertain, there is simply no way around it.
This is Boeing’s main weakness in the current offer, and to be fair one they share with much of the rest of the competition (especially Rafale and Gripen, Eurofighter to a somewhat lesser extent). France at least has officially stated that the Rafale will fly in French service into the 2070’s, but on the other hand the value of such promises might not be particularly high if FCAS suddenly encounter cost overruns that need to be covered (on the other hand, if FCAS encounter delays to the in-service date, the Rafale might suddenly have to soldier on longer). Gripen is even more vulnerable than the Rafale and Super Hornet, considering the smaller fleet and that the Swedish Air Force as opposed to AdA or USN is unlikely to run a multi-type fleet for any considerable time. Will Boeing be able to convince the Finnish Air Force that it is a risk worth taking? That is perhaps the biggest hurdle facing the Boeing sales team, and we won’t know the answer for a year. A German decision during 2020 on getting the Super Hornet as a Tornado replacement could easily be a deciding factor, but considering the decision was to have been made before the end of 2018, this could easily slip beyond the HX decision date of Q1 2021. Another key piece missing is the US Navy’s Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment that was expected in January, but has since been postponed. The current one dates to 2016 and is the basis for the (in)famous 355-ship force. The new INFAS could easily change the future of the Super Hornet fleet in one direction or the other.
One area were Boeing on the other hand has an edge is in their industrial cooperation program. The company has already once successfully performed a 3.5 Bn USD offset program in Finland. Though it might not have been quite as happy an affair as Boeing lyrically described it, there’s little doubt that the close cooperation with a number of Finnish companies, including key partners such as Patria and Insta Group, enabled the domestic handling of the Hornet MLU-programs. As such, there’s little doubt that Boeing’s presence on the ground in Finland give the company a serious edge when it comes to the creation of a trustworthy and executable industrial participation program of the same size as what they did last time around. Like most of the competition, Boeing declines to go into details at the moment. However, one interesting detail is that while Saab has already offered a final assembly line of the F414 engine to Finland, Geoff Hanson representing GE Aviation at the Boeing media event would not speculate in whether the F414 line (yes, the Super Hornet and Gripen share engine) would come to Finland in case of a Super Hornet order.
“It’s a bit early to commit to that”
Crucially, Geoff noted that the question of what exactly “final assembly” means is unanswered. There are certainly some assembly steps that relatively easily could be transferred, and which would provide know-how that is useful from a maintenance point of view. On the other hand, major assembly steps requiring check-out and factory acceptance tests is an undertaking of a different scale.
Maria Laine, Vice President International Strategic Partnerships, first entered Boeing during the original Hornet industrial cooperation program. As such, it is no surprise that she emphasised the ability to leverage the existing partnerships stemming from the old program. Finland and Boeing represents a “true, genuine partnership”.
“We understand Finland”
There’s a few other who claim to do so. Boeing might have a better basis for the claim than most, but if that is enough to ensure that Super Hornet will be the aircraft protecting Finnish skies in 2060 remains to be seen. One of the open questions surrounding the US aircraft have been that of mission data. Finland’s requirement is simple: we need to be able to operate the aircraft even if the supply lines are cut. This include both the physical lines of communication, but also data cables. Alain Garcia of Boeing doesn’t shy away from the topic when I bring it up. It is a challenge, he acknowledges, as US government requirements include a requirement for new signals to be processed at a US facility before being inserted into an updated version of the data set. The solution is to embed Finnish personnel at a suitable US facility. Once Finnish (or allied) assets would identify a new signature the data would be supplied to these Finns who would process it, before it would be sent back to Finland. The whole process would result in a turnaround time of less than 24 hours from collecting the raw data until having the updated mission data in the aircraft. As I mention the requirement for cut data cables that colonel Keränen had described at the beginning of the media day, Garcia nods.
“We have methods to get them back into country”
Boeing kindly paid for my hotel stay in Tampere (a single night), all other costs (including travel) being covered by myself. Neither Boeing nor any of their partners have seen, nor requested to see, this text or the illustrations used before posting.