Review: Joint Force Harrier

In preparations for my visit to RAF Lossiemouth I wanted to read up on how RAF conduct operations on the modern battlefield, and started looking for a book that would provide an account of some of the many tours the force has made to Afghanistan and the Middle East. However, the genre was surprisingly thin, and in the end what ended up on my Kindle was the next best thing: an account of the Fleet Air Arm in Afghanistan.

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Commander Adrian ‘Ade’ Orchard was the officer in command when the 800 Naval Air Squadron was recommissioned in 2006 as a part of the Joint Force Harrier, the program which saw the FAA operate ground attack Harriers jointly with the RAF. This was partly seen as a stop-gap measure to maintain a fixed-wing force within the Navy following the withdrawal of the Sea Harrier in 2004, but a similar(ish) program is also envisioned for the F-35B in British service. Orchard had in fact flown the Harrier GR7 with RAF as part of the JFH already in Iraq in 2003, and as such was a natural choice to command the recommissioned naval squadron.

But 2006 was a busy year for the British armed forces, and it was clear that if the Navy wanted to get in on to the Harrier, it would also be tasked with supporting the British forces operating in Afghanistan. And the tempo was indeed hectic. Immediately following the recommissioning, the squadron deployed to the HMS Illustrious for a tour to the Mediterranean and the bombing ranges of Oman to work up their proficiency in ground attack and close air support, before heading out to Kandahar less than six months after standing up.

Writing a book that portrays a war from the viewpoint of a pilot is hard. While being strapped to cockpit over a war zone undoubtedly is a tense experience, the similarities of one sortie compared to the next one lends itself poorly to the writing of a compelling story. Another common pitfall is how to balance the need to explain technical details and jargon with the need to keep the story flowing without skipping over important aspects of how the missions are flown. The book is attributed to ‘commander Ade Orchard RN with James Barrington’, where Orchard naturally contributed the first-hand experience and the story, with Barrington being the professional writer. I don’t know how their writing process looked, but it worked!

The book mixes missions with accounts of the daily life of a detachment where no-one is allowed to leave the airfield during the whole stay. The challenges that inter-service rivalry create in a joint force are discussed, both when it comes to good-natured bantering and more severe conflicts. Here the fact that the author was the squadron commander provides added interest, as he not only retell what has happened, but also has to try and work out any issues before they start to threaten unit morale. Importantly, the reader also gets insight into how it is to fly the Harrier and the weapons and sensors used, without getting the feeling that you’re reading a technical manual.

Harrier Testing in the Rain
A Harrier from 800 NAS in Afghanistan with engines running whilst a ground crew member inspects it. Picture taken during detachment covered in book. Source: POA(Phot) Sean Clee via Wikimedia Commons

Over all I must say this is a highly enjoyable book. The strange life enjoyed by the squadron on their airfield was an eyeopener to me, as was the challenges the aircrews faced when trying to figure out if the gathering of people in a village was the preparations for an ambush or the market day. On the whole, it offers valuable insight into close air support operations in today’s small wars, and although some predictions on the future of Afghanistan has been overtaken by the events, on the whole it feels contemporary and up to date. The book also feature a nice collection of black and white photographs.

Highly recommended.

Review: Tornio ’44

The sheer scope of the Second World War means that there is a vast number of less-known operations. Amongst these, the amphibious landing and following battle between the Finnish and German forces in the Tornio area in the autumn of 1944 is amongst the most obscure. The battle was the single most important part of the so called Lapland War, during which Finnish forces drove out the German units from Finnish territory in accordance with the requirements of the Finnish-Soviet armistice signed during the late summer of that year.

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The iconic picture of two Finnish soldiers with their Panzerschreck along the Kemi-Tornio road. Source: SA-Kuva

The battle wasn’t particularly large, none of the individual skirmishes it was made up of numbered more than a few battalions, and was characterised by poor intelligence, a lack of communication, and the general confusion which followed these. The close proximity to the (neutral) Swedish border and the fact that the two sides up until recently had been brothers in arms and good friends also added to the flavour.

A Finnish-Swedish company called Mikugames has created a boardgame to represent the battle. The hex-and-counter style game covers the whole battle from 1 to 8 of October, with the map stretching from Ajos up to Ylivojakkala. The counters are company-sized units, the being printed on both sides, with the second side representing the unit at half-strength.

At first glance, the game looks like your standard run-of-the-mill wargame, with attack factors being summed and ratios being compared, before the dice resolve the outcome. Upon closer inspection it becomes clear that this is only partly correct, and that the game in fact feature a number of novel approaches to capture the unique nature of the Tornio campaign. While ‘flavour’ has a tendency to mean ‘complexity’ in many wargames, in Tornio ’44 the opposite is in fact true, and they instead make the game highly suitable for beginners. This is mainly due to two factors: the pace at which the battle develops, and the fact that this was almost exclusively an infantry affair.

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A German counterattack from the direction of Kemi has managed to recapture parts of Tornio, including the vital supply depot in ‘Little Berlin’. Visible is the sole German tank company, 2. Panzer-Abteilung 211.

When the battle kicks off, very few units are actually on the map, meaning that the first few turns are rather straightforward and let the players build confidence and become familiar with the sequence of play. After this, the scope of the game gradually increases as more Finnish reinforcements are landed and the German command dispatches more units to the area.

The gameplay itself boil down to a few simple mechanics. Each unit is either motorised or not, which affect the cost of it moving through different kinds of terrain. For the combat value, each unit has an attack and a defence value, reflecting that defence is usually stronger than attack. For the supporting units (i.e. artillery and mortars), they instead get a range and support value (representing how hard they hit), as well as a close-defence value, representing how good they are at defending themselves if they get attacked. While all units are correct according to the historical order of battle, you don’t have to worry about whether you are commanding a Waffen-SS mountain company, a bunch of Finnish light tanks, or a second-rate Ersatz unit if you don’t like. For practical purposes, the only differences actually making a difference is their different mobility and combat values. The few exceptions to this rule are the special abilities of engineers to support river crossings (and blow bridges in the case of the Germans), as well as some simple optional rules dealing with antitank and antiaircraft units.

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The engineers of the Gebirgsjäger-Brigade 139’s 17. company tries to blow the large combined rail and road bridge over the Kemijoki river.

Where the game really shines is in the asymmetric nature of the fighting. To reflect the differing goals of the Finnish and German forces, a single point-track is used, where the Finnish player score their victory points, and the German player tries to subtract the Finnish points. The Finnish player gains their points by capturing key areas, inflicting losses to the Germans (preferably after encircling them in a motti), and for any Finnish units exiting the map along the roads heading north. Reversely, the German player subtracts points by recapturing objectives, destroying the bridges over Torniojoki and Kemijoki rivers (with more points being awarded the longer they can wait before blowing the charges), and for any units exiting the board northward during the last two turns.

This creates a set of extremely interesting tactical dilemmas. How long will the German player try and maintain control of the Kemijoki bridge before retreating northwards? The German player will initially have more troops on the board, with the initiative slowly transferring to the Finnish player, so trying to score a few early victories might be tempting. However, as all German losses are scored, being overly aggressive will soon come back to haunt the point-track. The Finnish player in turn has a major choice in deciding whether the troops will land in Kemi (as per the original plan), on Ajos, or at Röyttä south of Tornio (where the landing historically happened). Of these, Kemi is the most centrally located, followed by Ajos, and then Röyttä. This is turn influences how quickly the German command in Lapland reacts to the threat, with the German forces arriving significantly faster if the first two landing spots are used. The Finnish player can thereby determine the pace of the game by controlling the alert level. This can also be changed mid-game, by diverting some of the later waves of Finnish landings to a landing spot with a higher alert level.

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Finnish troops in the Kemi skijumping hill watches helplessly as the German troops blow the Kemijoki bridge in the distance, creating an impressive pillar of smoke. Source: SA-kuva

These differing objectives and the steady stream of troops trickling in from different corners of the battlefield create a surprisingly gripping game. There never seem to be quite enough troops to make that last decisive move, and reinforcements can suddenly alter the force balance on a certain part of the battlefield, while a sudden change in weather might delay the Finnish reinforcements for a crucial turn.

The largest single issue I have with the game is probably that in some places the wording of the manual isn’t completely clear, with key words being used before they have been explained. The map is nicely done, but isn’t mounted and feature a number of prominent folds which require some pressure to straighten out. Otherwise the cardboard counters risk sliding around. However, this is usually the case with games at this price point, and an unmounted rolled map (delivered in a tube) can be bought from the publisher for a reasonable price.

Tornio ’44 is highly recommended to anyone interested in the northern front of World War II or looking for a suitable first game to try hex-and-counter wargaming. While designed for two players, it does work well for single-player as well (with the player playing both sides), with only some minor features being absent. If boardgames doesn’t interest you, but the conflict itself does (and you read Finnish or Swedish), Mika Kulju’s book on the battle is probably the authoritative work on it, and is well worth a read.

Kevyen osaston polkupyöriä lastataan laivaan Tornioon vietäväksi.
The Finnish Light Detachment (Kevyt osasto) load their bicycles onto a Finnish steamer in the port of Toppila, Oulu. Ironically, next to Toppila is the Alppila district, named after the large depot the German mountain troops created there. No ‘real’ landing tonnage was available, and the Finnish troops were ferried by civilian merchant vessels. Source: SA-kuva

AAR – Operation Gudrun

For some Friday night off-topic, I’ve played a game of Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations. The game is best described as Harpoon on steroids, though the developer doesn’t think that catches the huge improvements found under the hood (“Only in the sense that each new FPS is a new version of Wolfenstein3D”). Anyhow, if it’s good enough for RAeS to blog about, it’s good enough for me.

The scenario in question is the later two-thirds of Swedish author/blogger Lars Wilderängs techno-thriller “Midvintermörker“, a Swedish “Red Storm Rising” set in Gotland during the last shivering days of 2012. This post will certainly contain spoilers, so if you are a Swedish-speaker who hasn’t read the book, go do so before reading any further.

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“Midvintermörker” was Wilderäng’s debut novel, and while the grand story might not be that innovative, it is still a very enjoyable battlefield description. The sequel “Midsommargryning” features a more complex and interesting story set in a ’round two’-scenario a few years after the first book, and the only real downside of the book is that the storytelling suffer a bit from the author taking the opportunity to sneak in a few political visions (those who have read Clancy’s later works knows what I’m talking about), such as an updated model for how conscription could work. On the whole, I personally find Wilderäng’s style of writing enjoyable, though I wouldn’t be surprised if some are irritated by his continued use of irony.

Still, the novel’s greatest achievement isn’t its literary merits, but the fact it played an important part in lifting the Gotland-question out of the #säkpol-blogosphere, and into the everyday political discussion in Sweden.

Operation Gudrun

(Gudrun was a storm that caused widespread destruction in Sweden during the early days of 2005, let’s hope that this time around the destruction is amongst the Russians and not the Swedish forces)

When we roll in, the Russians have landed in Slite, a small town on the eastern shores of Gotland, and are starting to unload their heavy equipment from a 18,000 DWT ro-ro ship. Our main objective is to sink this vessel, which should seriously delay the invasion. As the invasion took us completely by surprise, our radar networks are down, and the air force has suffered considerable losses. Our main forces are as followings:

We have a mechanised force (including Leopard 2A5’s and CV 9040’s) on Visby airport, which also holds two JAS 39C Gripen which was the islands QRA detachment before the outbreak of the hostilities. A number of infantry recon platoons are found on the island, as well as four mortar platoons, equipped with heavy mortars and STRIX anti-tank mortar rounds. On a wartime base (with practically no reloads) we have a number of Gripen’s armed with AIM-120B AMRAAM’s and IRIS-T missiles, and the main Gripen force is found north of Stockholm. Here we also have three Gripen’s armed with RB 15F anti-ship missiles, which will be my best bet in taking out the ro-ro. Outside of Slite one of our submarines lurk. I also have two C-130 Hercules transports loaded with special forces for an air drop, and some CB 90 H fast assault craft with Hellfire-armed marines aboard.

The enemy currently has air superiority (or to be precise, we have no idea what is found in the skies above the Baltic Sea, as our radar network is down), and two batteries of Tor (SA-15) SAM’s are in the area. In addition, they have superior ground forces, so we can’t just throw them out by racing headlong into Slite. This leads to a complex plan, given by the in-game objectives:

Objectives:

  1. Secure Tingstäde with ground units in order to stop any Russian ground forces from passing this point.
  2. Secure the airspace on and around Gotland enough to for a safe air drop. The drop may have to be done even if the airspace is not 100% in our hands.
  3. Bring the Tp 84’s* over the designated landing zone to the west of Slite.
  4. Find SA-15’s and have them destroyed using STRIX mortars or other weapons available.
  5. Destroy the RoRo ship before it is able to unload the majority of the landing force.

*Tp 84 is the Swedish designation for the Hercules.

While the plan is complex, it probably represents my best shot at getting things done, so I start by sending all mechanised units securing the airport towards Tingstäde. My forces are so small, I decide that keeping some units at the airport probably means spreading them too thin. Two of my three infantry recon platoons starts to head for the LZ, to check that the area is clear and, hopefully, get the location of the SAM’s even before we bring in the lumbering Hercules. My submarine meanwhile gets orders to patrol outside of Slite, and the CB 90’s start moving to take up position west of Fårö. If the sea outside of Slite is cleared, we might be able to sneak them close enough to get to a landing zone just north of the harbour, from where they can target the landing force with their Hellfires.

AAR first moves.JPG

The sub quickly locate three contacts outside the port, and identifies the southernmost (SKUNK #61) as a light frigate. Since we are talking about a non-Swedish naval ship just outside of an occupied Swedish port, I decide to manually mark it as hostile. Shortly thereafter, my northernmost recon infantry spots the other two contacts, and can confirm that SKUNK #62 and #67 are Parchim-II class light frigates. These have some ASW capability, with suitable sensors as well as weapons (torpedoes and RBU-6000). It seems the Russians have set up a picket chain of light frigates to protect the beachhead from unwanted visitors. Still, if there are no further surprises awaiting closer to shore, we should be able to handle them.

AAR Parchim.JPG

Our Norwegian friends decides to supply us with AWACS-data from the NATO-network over Link 16. Mange takk!

The infantry also makes another sighting, a single Su-25SM and two attack helicopters, a Mi-28N and a Mi-24V respectively, are airborne. As I completely lack any kind of ground based air defences, these could potentially make short work of my troops and plans. I decide to launch Gator #1 and #2, the two Gripen’s I have based in Gotland.

The plan is simple: get airborne, fire of all of my eight AMRAAM’s, and then land as fast as possible before enemy fighters or SAM’s wake up.

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The result is a disaster. The aircrafts can’t get a single shot to connect, and while trying to get back to base, Gator #2 is brought down by a Tor, followed by Gator #1 by a R-27R launched by a Su-27 circling over the southern parts of the island (how did AWACS miss that one!?!). In the meantime, the Mi-24’s and Su-25’s target the mortars with missiles and bombs, wiping out one platoon completely and causing losses to another. The only positive thing with the sortie was that the aircraft identified the approximate location of the Tor-M1K’s, as well as the ships in Slite harbour. We also got confirmation that there are in fact two each of the helicopters, and a total of three Su-25’s over Gotland.

A four-ship JAS 39C’s from Aquila flight on the warbase is dispatched to take up the anti-CAS mission while I still have some mortars left…

The Mi-24’s then go for the Leopard’s, and knocks out one while another is hit but survives. The Mi-28’s in turn engages the remaining mortars with rockets but misses, and I send the mortars east into the LZ to get within firing range of the SAM’s approximate locations. Having expended all their munitions, the helicopters return to Slite and the Sukhoi’s depart for Kaliningrad.

In the meantime, our submarine has fired on FFL #61, the southernmost of the frigates, but misses. This causes the other Parchim’s to move north, away from Slite, but into the path the CB 90’s have to take if they are to attack the harbour.

However, while Gator flight was ultimately unsuccessful, surprisingly few enemy fighters are in the area. I decide that now is as good a time as any to dispatch my special forces. The Hercules pair depart for Gotland, ordered to fly as fast and as low as possible to the landing zone just west of the SAM sites.

AAR Aquila.JPG

One of the few Su-27S airborne over southern Gotland has turned towards the approaching Aquila flight, and come in over the Swedish mainland. The first AMRAAM salvo misses, but second finally brings it down.

The submarine takes a max-range shot at the north-eastern Parchim, while the northernmost recon infantry manages to report on ships in Slite. Seems it is a single ro-ro surrounded by four Ropucha LST. A pair of Su-24MP ELINT planes that have been flying west of the island are intercepted, with the first being brought down by an AMRAAM. The second turns east and tries to escape out over the sea.

The Parchim outruns the two torpedoes. Ought for four shots so far.

Two ground units are spotted to the southeast of the mortars. If these turn out to be anything more serious than light infantry, they will crush my mortars if they start moving north. One of the mortar batteries is sent further northwards to avoid having my whole stock of STRIX-grenades knocked out in one go, and a tank platoon supported by a mechanized infantry platoon are dispatched from Tingstäde to intercept the enemy forces. I keep most of my forces at Tingstäde, as I have a gap between the mortar units and my recon unit on the northern flank, and I don’t want some unspotted enemy platoons to sneak through there and take Tingstäde in my rear.

The second Su-24MP is finally brought down by an IRIS-T after having evaded several AMRAAM’s. In the chase one of the JAS 39C’s actually overflies the Tor-batteries (despite my effort to try and route them further south), but the radars are silent. Out of missiles?

AAR CAP.JPG

Turning south, a minor air battle evolves between two Su-27S and all four Gripen’s currently operating over Gotland. The Sukhoi’s make a clean sweep, including in one instance dodging an IRIS-T, and then downing the JAS 39C at close range with a R-27R…

AAR ground battle.JPG

In the meantime, the advancing tank platoon locates the position of the two SAM batteries, and identifies the two mobile contacts as two armour platoons (T-90A).  STRIX are called in on both batteries (knocking out one and damaging the other) and one armour platoon (damaged). The Leo’s then get permission to fire, and make quick work of the T-90’s, with the mortars finishing off the last SAM battery with traditional HE-rounds.

More CAP aircraft are slowly inbound, which hopefully should get to Gotland in time before the Herc’s do, and I decide to finally authorise the anti-ship mission. Three Gripen with Rb 15F anti-ship missiles will target the ro-ro, while three Gripen with Mjölner stand-off munitions dispenser will target the four Ropuchas. I have no idea what kind of damage the Mjölners will do to the ships, but it is worth a try.

A mechanised infantry unit is spotted on the outskirts of Slite, followed by two more units closer to the city.

AAR Parchim

The submarine has finally started to line up some shots, and bags two of the Parchim II’s.

In the next air encounter, a Su-27S dodges eight AMRAAM’s, and while another Su-24MP is brought down by an IRIS-T, a Su-25SM manages to bag Aquila #8 with an R-60T. There seems to be something wrong with our missiles today.

AAR Endgame

However, the first two RB 15F hits the ro-ro vessels, and the ships is a total loss.

Conclusion

With the ro-ro ship destroyed, the primary invasion force has been significantly reduced, and the scenario ended.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about the scenario. It was great fun to play the storyline from the book, but there was a few issues with the implementation. The main problem was that the Russian ground units didn’t fire upon my forces. I don’t know if this was caused by limitations to the game, it is called ‘modern air/naval combat’ for a reason, or if the scenario designer had forgot to mark a checkbox somewhere. The Russian naval force was also markedly weaker than in the book, and I believe it might even have been possible to just launch the air attack without first taking out the SAM’s. I also couldn’t get the ‘Hercules over the LZ’-trigger to fire, but this might have been due to the Tor’s already having been taken out, and when starting the mission some Russian mission areas were set up wrongly. Other than that, and ‘Romeo’ being misspelled ‘Romio’ in all instances, it worked out rather nicely.

On my part, my single largest mistake was sending Gator straight for the enemy, which lead them to having to overfly the SAM’s on their way home. A better idea would have been to send them out west over the sea, turn around and fire, and then land on the airport without actually overflying the battlefield at any point. I also was unable to take advantage of the fact that I had local numerical superiority in almost all dogfights, as well as having active medium-range missiles against an enemy equipped only with semi-active ones. In a perfect world, I should have been able to use my AMRAAM’s to force the Sukhoi’s to turn away before the R-27R’s could impact. For those wanting to try out the scenario, it is found here

For the game itself, it is a blast to play! Granted, the learning curve is quite steep, and such seemingly simple things as setting up a patrol zone can be daunting if you have many border points. The execution is however good for the scale, and small touches like actually showing the probability of hit, modifiers, and RNG roll for each weapon engagement makes a surprisingly big difference for accepting outcomes that goes against what one feels should be the case (such as AMRAAM’s consistently missing ~50-75 % PH shots). There are some (minor) issues, especially with the ground units. The Leopards were able to identify boogies as fighters at longer ranges than the Gripen, which doesn’t feel right. Also, as the player sees everything his or her forces see, this gives too much information to certain units, and the possibility to game the system. Note however that while this helps with tactics, all platforms have their individual sensors modelled, so for the most part platforms still need to get the proper sensor lock (which can be anything from Eyeball Mk.1 to a specific radar) before they can target hostile units within range. For recommendations regarding what scenario to play, I recommend this one, where the player gets to command the Finnish Navy and Air Force in defense of the Åland Islands against the approaching Baltic Fleet. 

Admittedly, watching blue and red symbols move over a map isn’t everyone’s idea of a nice pastime, but for the readers of the blog, this might be one game simulator to look into!

Final score card

SIDE: Sweden

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LOSSES:

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5x 120mm Mortar [STRIX]

7x JAS 39C Gripen

1x Leopard 2A5 Main Battle Tank

EXPENDITURES:

——————

8x Tp 613

9x RB 98 IRIS-T [AIM-2000A]

40x RB 99 AMRAAM [AIM-120B]

4x Generic Flare Salvo [2x Cartridges, Single Spectral]

4x Generic Flare Salvo [4x Cartridges, Single Spectral]

15x Generic Chaff Salvo [8x Cartridges]

120x 120mm STRIX Mortar HE

16x 120mm Rheinmetall APFSDS-T

180x 120mm Mortar HE

2x RB 15F Mk2

 

SIDE: Russia

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LOSSES:

——————————-

1x Su-25SM Frogfoot A

2x Su-27S Flanker B

4x Su-24MP Fencer F

3x SA-15b Gauntlet [9A331] TELAR

8x T-90A Main Battle Tank

2x SKR Parchim II [Pr.1331]

1x Commercial RO/RO Vessel [18,000t DWT]

EXPENDITURES:

——————

16x AA-10 Alamo A [R-27R, MR SARH]

5x Generic Flare Salvo [4x Cartridges, Single Spectral]

37x Generic Chaff Salvo [4x Cartridges]

384x S-5K 57mm Rocket

8x AT-6 Spiral [9M114 Sturm-V]

3x AA-8 Aphid [R-60TM]

10x SA-15b Gauntlet [9M331]

8x RBK-250-PTAB CB [30 x PTAB-2.5 Anti-Tank Bomblets]

8x AA-10 Alamo C [R-27RE, LR SARH]