The True Face of the Baltic Fleet

In the domestic critique of the Pohjanmaa-class, an often repeated claim is that with the Russian focus on light vessels, the few corvettes will simply be overwhelmed by the swarming vessels launching barrages of anti-ship missiles. Rarely however does anyone discuss this claim more in detail, including which small vessels would fire the barrages, whether the Russian fondness for light craft really exist, and what the geography in the Baltic Sea dictates. As it turns out, these oft-repeated truths aren’t necessarily truths at all.

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Vladimir Putin inspecting the Baltic Fleet during Navy Day in Baltiysk last year. In the immediate background the flagship of the fleet, the destroyer Nastoychivyy. Source: Kremlin.ru via Wikimedia Commons

To begin with the geographic realities of the Baltic Fleet needs to be acknowledged. The main base, Baltiysk, sits in Kaliningrad. There it is not only within artillery distance from a NATO-country, but it also lacks a land connection to the Russian mainland, and any ship wanting to exit the port to reach the Baltic Sea has to do so by transiting the two kilometer long and 400 meter wide Strait of Baltiysk which cuts through the Vistula Spit. The second base is located in Kronstadt, just outside of St Petersburg. While the base is located closer to the Russian mainland and more easily defendable, it comes at cost of any vessel wanting to head over to the Baltic Sea proper having to run the full 400 km length of the 40 km wide Gulf of Finland. The Gulf of Finland is also shallow, making submarine operations with conventional submarines challenging. It is often forgotten in the Finnish discussions exactly how bad the geostrategic realities are for the Russian Baltic Fleet in the grand scheme of things.

The Russian Baltic Fleet feature a varied fleet, made up of a significant number of vessels of Cold War designs, including a single destroyer, frigates, light corvettes, and FACs. In addition, seven modern corvettes of three(!) different classes are found. If you are the kind of person who really want to pick the details and look into numbers, at the bottom is a somewhat lengthy go-through of the individual classes and their weapon systems.

In short, the majority of the Baltic Fleet is far from any kind of swarming wunderwaffe. The lightest vessels, the Molnaya, still displace almost twice that of the Hamina-class. The majority of the missiles carried by these vessels are old bordering on obsolete, though getting hit with a 300 kg warhead still hurts if the seeker works. As of writing, the Baltic Fleet operate seven modern vessels with any kind of surface warfare capability (and a single modern minesweeper of the Project 12700 Alexandrit-class), these being the four Steregushchiy, two Buyan-M, and single Karakurt corvettes. Notable is also that the endurance of the vessels are somewhat limited, usually around ten to fifteen days. As was seen during the fleet parades of 2018 reinforcements can come from the outside, though such movements risk alerting the adversary and the number of modern vessels in the Northern and Black Sea Fleets are limited as well.

A key point of the Russian fleet programmes is that the current focus is on frigates and corvettes, as opposed to swarming light vessels. However, it should be noted that this is also not due to a lack of interest in larger vessels. Many of the older destroyers and cruisers are undergoing long and difficult modernisation programs and overhauls, and there are longtime ambitions to launch new large surface combatants. However, the decade long gap in newbuilding has left its mark on the capability of Russia to build modern warships, making it hard to live up to these ambitions. Anders Puck Nielsen recently published an interesting study into the state of the Baltic Fleet, where he points out that the median age of ships above 300 tons in the Baltic Fleet is a full five years older than the average age of the same (29 compared to 24 years), clearly illustrating this split. Within the next five years it is likely that we will see the first new destroyers laid down, but considering the building time of frigates and the Ivan Gren-class LST, it will likely be more than a decade before these are operational. By that time Nastoychivyy will be approaching 40 years in service.

Through exercises such as the Northern Coasts and BALTOPS serieses, the Western navies ensure interoperability should the worst come.

In a conflict between NATO and Russia, the Baltic Fleet’s main mission would likely be sea denial. Especially the modern vessels are well-suited for the mission, though the poor basing options make them vulnerable. In a conflict between Finland and Russia, the Baltic Fleet’s base at Kaliningrad would on the other hand provide a safe haven 600 km from the Finnish coast, and the first step would likely be to regroup vessels from Kronstadt to the open waters in the northern parts of the Baltic Sea. However, with the Finnish Navy operating according to the policy that they know the identity of “all vessels passing close to our waters”, such a move would risk giving away the element of strategic surprise. Granted it is possible to mask fleet movements as an exercise, and/or to try and dash through the Gulf of Finland with the Kronstadt squadron in the immediate aftermath of a first strike, but achieving strategic surprise against an adversary that maintain a 24/7 readiness even with a limited number of vessels is hard.

In absolute numbers, the current Finnish Navy with eight FAC hiding in the archipelago backed up by significant coastal artillery assets, including truck-mounted anti-ship missiles, would be a tough enemy for the Russian fleet of about a dozen (mostly light) corvettes, six FAC, and a maximum of two heavier vessels. With the exception of the Kalibr-equipped vessels, the Russian vessels would have no range advantage, and in most cases would operate with significantly older vessels, weapons, and sensors. They would also be unable to rely on any kind of terrain masking, coming from the open sea. Their limited endurance would also mean that any kind of blockade or attempt at exercising sea control over the Archipelago Sea would require a rotating presence with squadrons taking turn on station, being in transit, and replenishing in Kaliningrad.

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Escorted tankers following attacks on merchant shipping during the so called tanker war in the late 1980’s. Mines and other measures can be difficult to attribute with certainty to individual states, and may cause serious crises below the treshold of war. Shipping in the Baltic Sea region is also vulnerable to such a scenario. Source: US Navy photo by PH2 Elliott

The best opportunity the Baltic Fleet would have is interdicting merchant shipping passing the open waters of the Sea of Åland as well as to a smaller extent Kihti (Skiftet) either by surface weapon or by mines laid by Dmitrov in suitable locations closer to shore. This would face the Finnish Navy with the choice of allowing the country to be under siege or coming out from the archipelago and taking up battle. This is a scenario for which the Pohjanmaa-class is well-suited, with the advanced sensor suite giving it superior situational awareness against the smaller and older Russian vessels, and with the endurance to stay at sea and choose the time and place of the battle. The Baltic Fleet is expected to grow in capability, both through new vessels such as the second Karakurt-class corvette Serpukhov as well as through modernisation programs, but through the introduction of PTO 2020, Hamina MLU, and the Pohjanmaa-class the relative power balance at sea is expected to remain roughly the same. Of the modernisation programmes, the most important is perhaps the replacement of the six P-120 Malakhit missiles on Project 12341 corvettes with up to sixteen Kh-35 Uragan. The first such modified vessel (of the Pacific Fleet) test-fired its missiles in February this year. However, it should be noted that while this would be a huge leap in capability for the Baltic Fleet, it is still just replacing a fifty year old missile with a twenty year old one.

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Two Project 12411T, representative of the oldest surface warfare vessels of the Baltic Fleet. Source: Alex omen via Wikimedia Commons

In the end, the Russian Baltic Fleet still is a serious adversary and should not be underestimated if the Finnish Navy ever was to face it alone. However, the maritime domain is still significantly more evenly matched than the air or land domains. There are some significant headaches, such as the possibility of Russia imposing a naval blockade on ships heading to Finland in the southern parts of the Baltic Sea or using submarines to lay mines to create a crisis below the treshold of war. The idea that Russia will be able to overpower the Finnish Navy by employing a vast number of light craft firing volleys of modern anti-ship missiles is however not backed up by the order of battle of the Baltic Fleet, nor by current or envisioned Russian shipbuilding programs.

The vessels of the Baltic Fleet

The flagship of the Baltic Fleet is the destroyer Nastoychivyy (‘610’), a Project 965A class destroyer (NATO-designation Sovremenny). The vessel was laid down as the Moskovskiy Komsomolets in 1987, and entered service in 1993. The vessel has a serious gun-battery in the form of two twin-130 mm gun turrets, as well as a number of 30 mm gatling AA-guns. The naval version of the Buk is also carried for air-defence. The weaker point of the vessel is the ASW-suite, which is mainly meant for self-defence (the Project 11551/Udaloy-II and 1155R/Udaloy were supposed to take care of that part). Mine rails are also found.

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The sister Bespokoynyy showing the classic Cold War-look of the Project 965A destroyer. She was long the second destroyer of the Baltic Fleet, but is apparently no longer active. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

The main punch is provided by the twin quadruple launchers for the long-range P-270 Moskit or the even longer-ranged P-100 Moskit-M (SS-N-22 Sunburn) anti-ship missiles. The missile design dates back to the early/mid-1980’s, and the last missiles apparently rolled off the production lines in 1994. The missiles has a total weight of 3,950 kg, flies at Mach 2.5 and has a range of 100 km for the baseline-Moskit and 129 km for the Moskit-M, of which “only a few were made” according to USNI. The missiles use an active radar seeker, and carries a 300 kg warhead (of which half the weight is made up off the explosives). An interesting detail is that the design was sold to Boeing, for use as target drones.

Nastoychivyy is currently undergoing overhauls, including a renewal of the propulsion system. This is based on two sets of geared steam turbines driving two propeller shafts. However, naval propulsion is a big headache throughout Russia, as they went to war with the country producing their (relatively) modern gas turbines, while at the same time are having serious trouble in producing modern high-powered diesel engines suitable for naval use. It remains to be seen if and when the Nastoychivyy will get moving again.

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Frigate Neustrashimyy during BALTOPS 2004. Things have changed in fifteen years. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class George Sisting

Another large vessel of the Baltic Fleet from the same era is the frigate Yaroslav Mudry (‘777’), second and final vessel of the Neustrashimyy-class (Project 11540). Mudry had the bad luck of getting stuck in the turbulence following the fall of the Soviet Union, and took 21 years from being laid down in 1988 until she actually entered service in 2009. The design is optimised for ASW-duty, including through carrying a Ka-27 ASW-helicopter, and the combat system sports the distinction of being the first fully integrated computerised system in use by the Russian Navy. Yaroslav Mudry has done a number of long voyages, and just recently passed through the English Channel heading south. Sister and leadship of the class Nesutrashimyy (‘712’) is currently in the final stages of a five year overhaul. These repairs saw a serious fire, and at times the sleek vessel looked like it might never get back to sea. However, reports are now stating that she will be able to join the Baltic Fleet before the end of the year.

In the anti-ship role, the Neustrashimyy-class can carry up to sixteen Kh-35 Uran (SS-N-25 Switchblade) anti-ship missiles in four quadruple launchers, though the usual complement is half that number. The Kh-35 reminds more of typical western designs, carrying a 145 kg warhead at high-subsonic speeds and with a range of up to 130 km. The radar seeker is able to operate in both active and passive modes, and the weapon entered service in the late 90’s.

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Steregushchiy, leadship of its class, is shown celebrating ten years in service in 2018. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

Significantly more modern vessels are found in the form of the four Steregushchiy-class (Project 20380) multi-purpose corvettes. Carrying up to eight Kh-35 Uran, the most impressive feature is still the Redut-air defence system. Redut is a VLS-system related to the S-400-family, and reportedly uses three different missiles with 15 km/40 km/120 km max range respectively. The system is reported to receive a new longer-ranged missile with ABM-capability in the near future, and integration with the new Poliment-radar is reportedly operational since the first half of the year. The Steregushchiy is however far from a one-trick-pony, and also feature a serious ASW-capability. The class is roughly comparable to the Pohjanmaa-class, being about 105 meters long, with a shallow draft and a top speed somewhere in the order of 27 to 30 knots. The big difference is the lack of the dedicated mine hull of the Pohjanmaa, and the significantly lighter full load displacement of 2,100 ton.

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Serpukhov passing through the palace bridge in St Petersburg. Source: Alex ‘Florstein’ Fedorov via Wikimedia Commons

Moving down the ladder in size, the most modern vessels of the Russian Baltic Fleet are the two Buyan-M (Project 21631) and upcoming Karakurt (Project 22800) corvettes. The Buyan-M corvettes Zeleny Dol (‘562’) and Serpukhov (‘563’) entered the Baltic Sea in 2016, and caused quite a stir due to their VLS being able to handle up to eight Kalibr-cruise or anti-ship missiles. The range of the 3M-14 cruise missile version of the Kalibr allow the vessels to strike targets anywhere in the greater Baltic Sea region, while the 3M-54 anti-ship version is charachterised by its very high speed in the final attack run, reaching up to 3.0 Mach. However, the vessels are in certain aspects closer to large FAC than corvettes, as they completely lack ASW-capability and have a very limited anti-air capability featuring 30 mm CIWS and a single short-range Gibka-launcher firing navalised versions of the late-80’s era Strela-3.

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Second vessel of the Karakurt-class, Sovetsk is expected to join the leadship in the Baltic Fleet within a year. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

For the Karakurt-class, the first vessel Mystischi (‘567’) was declared operational during late 2019, with a number of sisters expected to follow the vessel into service in the Baltic Sea. However, the build rate has been delayed due to lack of suitable M507 diesels. Compared to the Buyan-M, the Karakurt feature the same eight-cell VLS for Kalibr-missiles, but employs the moder modern short-range navalised Pantsir-M system instead of the Gibka. The endurance is also longer, at fifteen days compared to ten days for the Buyan-M. A more in-depth comparison is found here. The main gun has also gone down in calibre from 100 mm on the Buyan-M to 76.2 mm on the Karakurt.

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Passat of Project 12341 during Navy Day celebrations. Note the large tripple launchers for the P-120 Malakhit on the side of the superstructure. Source: Kremlin.ru via Wikimedia Commons

The last surface vessels with a serious anti-surface capability are all Soviet-era designs. Four Project 12341 (Nanuchka III) class corvettes date to the last years of the Soviet Union, and carry six P-120 Malakhit (SS-N-9 Siren) heavy anti-ship missiles. The missiles have a rather limited range of 56 km unless they are assisted by a forward observer and flies at high subsonic speed. In addition the vessels have a short-range SAM-system in the form of the Osa-M, a 76.2 mm deck gun, and one of the ubiqous 30 mm gatling CIWS. The vessels sport a ten day endurance. The smaller FACs are represented by two Project 12411T Molnaya (Tarantul II) and four of the sligthly newer Project 12411 Molnaya-M (Tarantul III). In this case ‘newer’ means of the same age as the 12341s, as opposed to the original Monayas which both date to the first half of the 80’s. The Molnaya feature four of the outdated P-15M Termit (SS-N-2C Styx), while the Molnaya-M have four of the P-270 Moskit that are also carried by the Nastoychivyy. Both classes employ a 76.2 mm deck gun, Strela-3 short-range SAM launchers, and single-barreled 30 mm CIWS systems. Both classes share the 10 day endurance with the larger Project 12341. The vessels have been in and out of dry dock during 2019, but apparently none of them have undergone any larger upgrades for the time being.

The final vessel that would play a key part in any naval battle is the sole submarine of the fleet, the B-806 Dmitrov. Dmitrov is a Project 877EKM (Kilo) class submarine, and was laid down in 1985 and entered service two years later. The Dmitrov was refitted in St Petersburg during 2001 and 2002, and has often been used to train foreign crews for export Project 877s. With a 45 day endurance the submarine can not only carry up to 18 torpedoes, but also up to 24 mines, or a mix of the two. The sligthly older B-227 Vyborg has recently been retired.

The rest of the Baltic Fleet is made up of landing crafts, amphibious vessels, single-role mine warfare and ASW-vessels, as well as auxilliaries. In addition a number of ground and air units sort under the fleet.

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Ivan Gren 2.0 – new capabilities and tactical refinements

The lead ship of the Russian Ivan Gren-class had a long and troubled start of it’s career, requiring over 20 years of work before it finally was accepted into operational service in June 2018. For a while the whole future of the project, including the second sister laid down in 2004, seemed to be in jeopardy. However, the French refusal to deliver the two Mistral-class vessels built for the Russian Navy following the Russian invasion of Crimea suddenly threatened the ability to maintain the amphibious capabilities of the Russian Navy in the medium term. As such, work continued/was restarted on the second vessel, named Pyotr Morgunov, in late 2014.

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Ivan Gren at sea. Note the bow doors. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

The Project 11711 Ivan Gren-class is significant for the Russian Navy in many ways. It is one of very few major warships to be added to the Russian Navy since the end of the Cold War, and as such is important both from an industry and prestige point of view. But that also mean they play a key role in revitalising the amphibious fleet, which currently mainly rests on ex-Soviet Ropucha-class LSTs backed up by the last few Tapir-class LSTs. The newest of these are approaching 30 years in service, with the older ones dating back to the late 60’s. The fleet has also been heavily worked as part of the Russian campaign in Syria, where they have run cargo between Black Sea ports and Syria on a regular basis. As such, a replacement is sorely needed.

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The stern of the Ivan Gren, showing the rear ramp as well as the helicopter platform and hangar in the rear island. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

A short interlude on explaining the different kinds of amphibious ships and what makes them differ from each other:

  • The Landing Ship Tank, LST, is a large landing craft capable of traversing open waters which can be driven onto the beach and unload vehicles through the bow,
  • The Dock Landing Ship, LSD, has a well dock (hence the name) from which it launches landing crafts which then ferry personnel and vehicles to shore,
  • The Landing Platform Dock, LPD, functions as a LSD but has better aviation facilities to be able to support helicopter assaults,
  • The Landing Helicopter Dock, LHD, and Landing Helicopter Assault, LHA, both look like small carriers with full-length flight decks and a focus on helicopter and V/STOL operations. The LHD also has a well dock, while the LHA doesn’t.

Both the LSD and LPD can be found with bow doors similar to the LST, making vessels such as the Ivan Gren hard to classify accurately. This is especially true, as the designations above are based on US naval vessels, and vessels of other nations doesn’t necessarily strictly adhere to the same dividing lines. In the case of the Ivan Gren, it lacks a well dock, but the presence of a hangar is something unheard of in most other LSTs.

The Mistral-class is a typical LHD, which can bring in a 40-tank strong Leclerc battalion, some 900 troops, and some 16 heavy helicopters in shorter operations. To say that by acquiring the significantly smaller Ivan Gren (13 tanks or 36 APCs, 300 troops, 2 helicopters) the Russian Navy replaced the shortfall in amphibious capability would be a lie. In essence they go from being able to lift a tank battalion to being able to lift a reinforced motorised company per ship. However, the vessels still hold great potential, though especially the Ivan Gren has been plagued by technical issues.

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Ropucha-class LST Aleksandr Shabalin unloading a swimming BTR-80 APC which will drive the last part to the shore under it’s own power. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

A notable tactic of the Russian Ropucha-class is that instead of driving all the way to the shore and beaching the bow, they stay some distance out and let amphibious vehicles enter the water through the bow doors and ‘swim’ the last part to the shore. This has certain benefits, as well as some rather significant drawbacks. The obvious benefit is the ability to use shores where the large LST can’t safely beach itself. The requirements for a suitable landing spot are rather strict, as it should be solid enough and at a shallow enough angle to allow the forces to disembark safely, while still being deep enough to allow for safe passage to and from the shoreline. The LST is also kept out of range of most infantry weapons, with the swimming vehicles providing smaller and less valuable targets. The biggest drawback is that it takes significant time for the APCs to reach shore, giving prolonged warning to the waiting defenders. The swimming vehicles are also more vulnerable to bad weather compared to the larger ship, and while their low profile makes them hard targets, their situational awareness is seriously hampered until they can get out of the water. As such a dug-in defender with ample anti-tank weapons can wreak havoc on an incoming wave of swimming APCs.

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A typical modern amphibious assault from NATO exercise Trident Juncture 18 with a heavy CH-53E transport helicopter heading to shore escorted by an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, with landing crafts below and a Mistral-class LHD in the background. Source: Ole-Sverre Haugli/Forsvaret

The obvious solution then is to add speed. This is nothing new, with both the US and the Soviet Union having added some classes of faster landing crafts and, crucially, helicopters to their amphibious forces already during the Cold War. The helicopters give the possibility to secure spots that aren’t reachable from the sea (i.e. in the enemy rear), and provides significantly faster cruise speed compared to any landing crafts found. But if landing a motorised battalion by sea is hard, helicopters aren’t suitable for anything heavier than light infantry, make a serious amount of noise, and have their own set of requirements when it comes to landing locations. As such the need to be able to bring heavy ships close to shore will remain if the landing is to be able to open up a new front (in the long run a harbour with working port facilities will have to be secured, which further opens up interesting tactical and strategic considerations which are too complex to fit inside the scope of this post. Just be aware that securing a beachhead is rarely enough).

The Mistral could thus have landed infantry units by helicopter to secure key spots along the shoreline and protect the beachhead from counterattacks until the main fighting force, including tanks, could be carried ashore by the heavy landing crafts operating out of the Mistral’s well dock. The Ivan Green can try to do a ‘lighter’ version of the same thing, with a total of two Ka-29 transport helicopters carrying two squads each ashore to be followed by infantry in swimming BTRs. The use of helicopters is also evident in how the Russian naval infantry brigades are set up, as one of the three (or possibly four) rifle battalions in any brigade is airmobile.

The other option is to use faster landing crafts. The general arrangement of the Ivan Gren is such that landing crafts can be carried as deck cargo (light craft such as RIBs can also be launched and apparently retrieved over the stern ramp). However, the lack of a well dock means that these have to be carried as deck cargo and then hoisted with a crane over the side of the ship, a time-consuming maneuver which also increases the risks during the transfer of soldiers between the LST and the landing craft compared to using a well dock.

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Project 03160 ‘Raptor’ at sea. Source: FmGo . 111 via Wikimedia Commons

The latest development is that the Russian Navy has ordered two further vessels of a modified Ivan Gren-class. These will be further tailored to provide additional options to the task force commander when it comes to how the forces will be landed, namely with improved aviation facilities and better facilities for handling landing crafts. These are stated to be either of the Project 03160 ‘Raptor’ or the similar looking Project 02510 BK-16 classes. Both of these are best described as combat boats or assault landing craft, being able to transport around twenty marines to shore at high speed, and then support the landing with machine guns and other infantry support weapons from roof-mounted remote weapon stations. The reasoning behind this is clearly stated in an Izvestia-article, where former chief of the General Staff of the Navy, Admiral Valentin Selivanov, was interviewed:

Boats will allow the special forces to quickly and quietly approach the shore to ensure a successful landing of the main wave of the landing. They will destroy the most important firing points, demining approaches to the coast.

The special forces in this case could be ‘true’ SOF such as OMRP, or elite marine infantry such as the separate reconnaissance battalions of the naval infantry brigades (724th Separate Reconnaissance Battalion in the case of the Baltic Fleet’s 336th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade). Another interesting aspect is that modifications to enhance the ability to operate the assault crafts are apparently still unconfirmed, and could include either a dedicated chute or even a well dock instead of the rear ramp. While the latter is unlikely considering the serious modifications to the basic design it would entail (especially considering the projected in-service date of 2024/2025), it would be a significant improvement to the Russian capabilities and in essence make the two vessels of the second batch LPDs rather than LSTs. This would also improve the ability of the Russian Navy to operate far from home both on amphibious assault missions as well as on more peaceful ones, such as disaster relief.

In essence, the non-delivery of the Mistral-class has caused a serious gap in Russian amphibious capabilities in the near- to mid-term, especially when it comes to the ability to conduct stand-off amphibious landings with helicopters and fast landing crafts. Now the Navy is trying to make up for at least part of the shortfall in capability through ordering more vessels of the troubled Ivan Gren-class and trying to adopt the design to better fit the stand-off requirements. Time will tell if this will make a useful workhorse of the class in the vein of the venerable Ropuchas, or if it will be left a poor attempt to beat a square peg into a round hole.

Hat-tip to Robe Lee (@RALee85) who first brought the story to my attention. Head over to Twitter and give him a follow if Russian equipment is of any interest to you!

Another Syrian Pantsir lost

Yesterday Sunday 20 January Israel again struck targets close to Damascus International Airport. Much is still unconfirmed about the raid, but it is clear that it included significant numbers of Syrian missiles fired in response, at least one of which led to two Iron Dome-missiles being fired from an Israeli battery close to Mt Hermon as it was on track to enter Israeli airspace (the missiles are usually fired in pairs to ensure intercept). It is not confirmed whether the missile was intercepted or not.


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A video has also surfaced of a single Buk being fired from a confirmed SAM-site close to the airport, but while the Russians and Syrians were their usual bombastic selves, ” strike on airport in Damascus caused no damage, seven missiles intercepted by Buk, Pantsir systems“, reality once again seems to be in poor agreement.


The Israeli Defense Forces has released a new video showing SAM-sites being targeted. The most interesting part of the clip shows a Pantsir-S1 (likely the S1E-version) being intercepted by what looks like a Delilah cruise missile.
Keen Syria-watchers will recognise  that this isn’t the first encounter between the Pantsir-S1 and the Delilah. For details how to recognise the Pantsir-S1 and Delilah footage, see the post from last time. While the Israeli modus operandi hasn’t seemingly changed, neither has the incompetence of the Syrian air defence crews. The radar is raised, but not rotating and pointing in the wrong direction, while the missiles are in the transport-position and not ready to be fired. Despite the vehicle being an obvious high-value target, it is left sitting out in the open with no attempt at camouflage or anyone trying to move it into cover.

Still showing the Buk shortly before it fires a single missile in a western direction.

The bottom line is that we still lack any proof of the Pantsir-S1 being of much use. It is possible that the missiles were used (successfully?) to intercept decoys launched before the strike itself, there are rumours of the Israelis using this tactic dating back to Operation Mole Cricket 19, though as with many aspects of these raids confirmed information is scarce.

Syrian Chase

From the perspective of the Kremlin, Syria has been a great success. Following the surprisingly successful organisation of a transatlantic response to the Russian invasions of Crimea and the Donbas, the Russian intervention in Syria not only managed to prop up the Assad regime and reverse the course of the civil war, it also made sure that the Russian Navy would get a naval base in the Mediterranean. And most importantly: it forced the West to again talk directly with the Kremlin.

This was not only a case of Russia playing a rather mediocre hand very well, but also of several events outside of Putin’s control lining up favourably. These include both Iran and Hezbollah intervening, as well as the Turkish turn-around following the failed coup of 2016. The introduction of Russian long-range air-defence system, including the S-400, into Syria caused further alarm amongst western observers, with some going as far as stating that no assets in theatre beyond the F-22 Raptor “has any ability to operate and survive” inside the 400 km range of the system’s 40N6 missile.

Red: Iskander-M ballistic missile range (700 km). Blue: S-400 with 40N6 SAM-range (400 km). Source: Wikimedia Commons/VictorAnyakin

I have earlier on the blog cautioned against drawing rings on maps and stating that they are any kind of steel domes inside which anything and everything will be shot down, and this is very much the case for the SAM’s at Khmeimim Air Base as well. The latest strikes on targets in western Syria, including those well-within 100 km of Khmeimim AB, showed that coalition aircraft can strike presumably protected targets without issue. And not only that, if one looks closely at the map, the 400 km range extends well beyond Cyprus. The very same Cyprus which was the base of the RAF aircraft participating in the strikes. In other words, British aircraft took off and landed inside the stated range of the system, and all cruise missiles, both ship- and air-launched, penetrated the bubble without seemingly any of them having been intercepted.

The short answer is that Russia, according to Washington, didn’t try. There is said to have be no indication that the S-400 was fired against anything, and most likely this was a political decision. However, it does tell you something.

If Russia had the magical steel dome that some lay out A2/AD to be, why didn’t they at least swat down some of the cruise missiles, even if they decided to leave the aircrafts themselves (or rather, their pilots) alone? At the crucial moment, Russia decided not to try to protect the assets of their ally. Whatever the reason, the result is a razed block in the Syrian capital.

However, while there without doubt are intelligence services around the world plotting the decision as yet another data point, the immediate outcome isn’t necessarily too dramatic. As TD noted, the West will continue to act like Russia didn’t blink, and Russia will continue to claim that they control the skies over (western) Syria.

The problem is that while Russia might be the great power on location in Syria, the other actors, including Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah, all have their own agendas as well. More importantly, it is highly doubtful that any of them would hesitate to jump the Russian ship if they saw more benefits to be gained elsewhere.

Enter Israel, which is likely the western state that has been cooperating most effortlessly with Russia. In part this stems from a pragmatism that is a strong part of Israeli foreign policy, but it should also be noted that current defence minister Lieberman (and a sizeable Israeli minority) is in fact born in the Soviet Union. By most accounts the Israeli-Russian deconfliction agreement is working nicely, with Russia more or less accepting Israeli strikes on targets in Syria.

Israel has on the whole tried to stay out of the Syrian conflict, in no small part likely based on the experiences from the Lebanese civil war. However, a red line has always been drawn at the “transfer of advanced weaponry” from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. What exactly constitutes “advanced weapons” is left open, but it is usually taken to include long-range rockets and ballistic missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-ship missiles. The Israeli answer to transfers has been air strikes, often carried out with stand-off weaponry from Lebanese or Israeli airspace.

As the war has been dragging on, the Israeli involvement has deepened at the same time as the Iranian impact on the ground has increased. While Assad constitutes a know quantity, Israel has been extremely wary of the long-term impact of allowing Iran a foothold in the region. And while brig. gen. (res.) Shafir of the Israeli Air Force a decade ago confidently could say that Iran is isolated in the Muslim world, recent developments have opened up avenues of approach for Teheran on a broader scale than has been seen before. The recent downing of an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace and the following air raids (including the first downing of an Israeli fast jet in a very long time) has increased the temperature further.

A very worrying detail was the fact that Israeli media claims that the aftermath of the raid left Israeli prime minister Netanyahu with the impression that Russia has no real ability to contain Iran in Syria. The problem here then is that the logical conclusion is that Israel will have to deal with the Iranian presence in Syria alone, and while I doubt that anyone inside the IDF is dusting off the plans for a drive to Damascus just yet, a more comprehensive air campaign aimed at severely crippling the Iranian forces in Syria might be in the cards.

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S-300PMU-2 TEL. Source: Vitaly Kuzmin

While this kind of Israeli-Iranian showdown is bad enough in and by itself, the big kicker is how that would reflect upon Russia. Having two gangs fight it out on what should ostensibly be your backyard does not leave the onlookers with the feeling that you are in control, no matter how often you say so. In addition, if Russia goes through with the idea to supply the S-300PMU-2 to Assad, this opens up further risks of losing face. While the S-300 is one notch below the S-400, the system is vastly superior to anything currently in operation by the Syrians themselves. As such, it would likely be a prime target in any Israeli air campaign, and echoing the aerial battles of 1982, it would likely be destroyed sooner rather than later.

This all would leave Russia in a bad light, and erase much of the gains in prestige and diplomacy that the Syrian intervention has so far given Russia (in certain places, one should add, as others are less impressed by people regularly bombing hospitals and supporting dictators who use chemical weapons). While attempts at predicting Putin’s next moves are notoriously hard, it is safe to say that he has not shown an inclination to count his losses and leave the table. Instead, when the rest of the players believe him to have overplayed his hand, what usually happens seems to be that Putin will press on regardless. And there’s no telling whether his next move would come in Syria, or somewhere else.

 

Zapad 2017: Artillery to Vitebsk?

An interesting train passed Orsha central train station this week.

The location is next to a walkbridge just northwest of the central station, looking west-southwest. The bridge is the major hint, but you can also make out the apothecary with its green roof, the lower market buildings in front of it, and the low trees on the other side of the track.

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The position of the cameraman on the Yandex map. Note the location of the apothecary, Magazin No.127 and Nochnoy Ekspress.

This means that the train is heading east at the time of the filming. However, the railways around Orsha has several interesting features, and nothing certain can be said about the destination. However, the likely target is Vitebsk in northeastern Belarus, where the Losvido training range has been linked to Zapad 2017.

The train holds 12 2S19 Msta-S heavy self-propelled guns. The number is interesting, as a mechanized or armoured brigade would field 18 of these modern artillery pieces. Looking at the rest of the vehicles, the most prominent are the nine different vehicles based on the MT-LBu chassis, most of which seem to be of the 1V12-family of observer vehicles, either the older 1V12-3 “Mashina-M” or the newer 1V12M “Faltset”. A single BMP-based command vehicle is also seen, likely the command vehicle of the whole artillery unit. Suspiciously absent are not only the last third of the artillery pieces, but also the large number of different trucks which accompany artillery units, only four of which are aboard the train.

In conclusion, this leads me to believe that:

  • The last six artillery pieces and most of the trucks are being transported on a second train,
  • The complete heavy artillery of an armoured or mechanised brigade is being transferred to the area of Vitebsk for Zapad.

9K33 Osa in Vladivostok

Due to the increased tension on the Korean peninsula, a short video clip showing a convoy of seven [see Edit below] vehicles travelling through a city has caused some raised eye brows.

The vehicles in question are 9K33 Osa (NATO designation SA-8 GECKO) surface-to-air missile TELARs, meaning that a single vehicle transports the missiles in their launch containers and is equipped with a radar allowing it to acquire and fire upon any targets without outside assistance. At least six of the vehicles in the convoy are Osas, the lead vehicle is too blurry for an accurate identification, and could be a command vehicle.

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9K33 Osa-AKM. Source: Wikimedia Commons/DonSimon

The video is indeed shot in Vladivostok, at the western end of Russkaya Ulitsa, at a relatively recent date. The geolocation is based on the building to the left, visible at the very beginning of the clip, which holds a V-Laser store, as well as the small kiosk in front of it.

The Google Street-view image above is from 2013, and it seems some changes has been made to the area between the road lanes.

To the right, a large building with a slightly smaller one behind it is briefly visible. This is not found on Google Street-view, but Yandex somewhat newer imagery shows it under construction. The building in question houses the Mall Druzba Center.

All in all, the location seems quite certain, and while it is hard to say for certain how old the clip is, the inclusion of Mall Druzba Center means that really old footage can be ruled out.

The location is intriguing. As mentioned, this is at the very end of Russkaya, and there does not seem to be any logical place from where the vehicles would have come, unless they have been transported to Vladivostok by rail or sea, and are now choosing this somewhat low-key road to get out from the city.

As for the presence of Osas in Vladivostok, that in itself is no reason to worry. The movement of a handful of medium-ranged SAMs is well within normal routines. However, this does constitute a small piece of a pattern of current events and troop movements on and around the Korean peninsula which on the whole do give reason for concern.

Edit 15 April 09:40 (GMT +2):

Zvezda state that three motorized infantry brigades in the Far East has moved out. The Osas could very well be related to this.

Edit 15 April 10:50 (GMT +2):

A second video clip shows the forward part of the convoy, and together the clips seem to indicate that a total 13 vehicles are included in the convoy. Eight of these are 9K33 Osa TELARs, with a further two being the 9T217 missile transporter and loader, which carries reloads for the TELARs. The last three are then some kind of unidentified BTR armored vehicles, likely being PU-12M command vehicles. This setup does make sense, as it would mean that the convoy is made up of two batteries with four TELARs and command vehicles each, though the number of 9T217 does seem a bit on the low side.

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9T217 missile transporter and loader. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Wistula

The Finnish Investigation

One of last week’s major stories was the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) presenting their ‘interim results’, again confirming what has been seen as the most likely explanation since the immediate aftermath of the 2014 tragedy: that MH17 was brought down by a Russian-supplied Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile. I won’t discuss the details here, as they have been given in a number of different forums, including by Bellingcat as well the earlier investigative report and now the JIT. Suffice to say, the amount of evidence found in both open and non-open source has reached such levels that the question of whether a Russian supplied Buk shot down MH17 can now be considered a litmus test for whether you are under the influence of Russian propaganda or not.

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Finnish Buk-M1 TELAR with missiles mounted. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Finnish Defence Forces
For Finland, the interesting part came when Dutch newspaper Telegraaf broke the story that Finland had provided data and performed secret tests on our Buk-missiles, which are of the same M1-version as the TELAR used for downing MH17. To begin with, this ‘important contribution’ by the Finnish authorities was cheered by Finnish media (#Suomimainittu), but the party was cut short by the announcement that JIT had in fact not been allowed by Finnish authorities to see the evidence. This in turn caused a minor uproar that was rapidly shaping into a political storm when the Finnish President called a press conference on the issue.

But first, let’s rewind to how the by now infamous SAM-system ended up in Finland. By the end of the Cold War, the Soviet economy was in a very poor shape. This was also seen on the clearing accounts which formed the basis for Finnish-Soviet trade. Under this system, anything exported by Finland was ‘cleared’ from the account when items to a corresponding value were imported by Finland from the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Soviet balance sheet was squarely in the red, i.e. the Soviets owed Finland goods. During the years since, this has gradually been paid off as goods, services, and cash payments, until the last payment was made three years ago.

One of the early payments was the Buk-system, which arrived in Finland in the mid-90’s and replaced the earlier (and outdated) Soviet-made S-125 ‘Neva’ (SA-3 GOA), local designation ItO 79. The Buk-M1 was introduced under the ItO 96-designation (now ITO 96), and served for roughly a decade until concerns over its vulnerability to countermeasures caused its gradual withdrawal in favour of the medium-ranged NASAMS II (ITO 12). The last batch of conscripts trained on the system in 2005, but the system was scheduled to remain in service at least for a further ten years.

Fast forward to 2014, when the Dutch prosecutor’s office contacted Finnish authorities and asked for technical assistance as part of the criminal investigation into the fate of the MH17. Exactly which Finnish authority received the request is unclear, but eventually a small circle of top politicians were the ones who made the decision on whether to answer the call or not. The decision was made to collaborate with the Dutch prosecutor’s office in full,  and to keep the cooperation secret from the general public. The last part was due to the Dutch authorities requesting that this would be the case, and was not seen as anything unusual given the circumstances. Evidence gathering is a tricky matter even in a ‘normal’ case, and as such it was understood that the cooperation would not be disclosed until during the eventual trial, at the earliest.

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The third arrival of the bodies of MH 17 victims. The coffins were transported from Kharkov to the Eindhoven Air Base. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Hille Hillenga – defensie.nl
 

All this was revealed during the press conference, where the President stressed that the decision was not taken lightly. The acquisition document of the Buk, which isn’t public, forbids the disclosure of information concerning the system to third parties. This was then weighted against the UN Security Council Resolution calling upon all parties to provide any requested assistance to the investigation(s). During the investigation a number of requests have been made, with the most ‘special’ one probably being the request to detonate a warhead and collect part of the shrapnel (contrary to some reports, no missile firings seems to have taken place). This was done in an undisclosed location in Finland by the Finnish Defence Forces in the presence of Dutch officials, and the requested shrapnel was handed over to the Dutch authorities.

Key to the story is that throughout it was the Dutch prosecutor’s office that was in contact with the Finnish authorities. According to president Niinistö, Finland has handed over all information requested by the Dutch authorities, and at no single point have the investigators expressed any kind of disappointment that the data wouldn’t have been thorough enough. The current issue came about as a result of the Dutch prosecutor asking permission that the evidence be handed over to JIT. The letter which requested this did not include any time frame for when the answer was needed, and as such it was decided to send a small committee over to the Netherlands to discuss how this change had come about, and exactly which part of the evidence was needed (the president confirmed that it was preferred and legally more straightforward to cooperate with the prosecutor’s office rather than the JIT). Before the Finnish administration had had time to put their plan into action, the JIT published their interim report and the fact that Finland was involved was leaked.

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President Niinistö and Foreign Minister Soini at the MH17 press conference. Source & copyright: Matti Porre/Tasavallan presidentin kanslia
The President was clearly not happy with how the Finnish actions had been portrayed in the media, or with the fact that the Dutch had leaked the info after being the ones who originally requested secrecy.

Enter the follow-up discussion on what the press conference meant, and how Finland’s reactions should be seen (especially in the light of our relations vis-a-vis Russia).

Some have been quick to argue that there are traces of Finlandisation all over the handling of the issue. The simple fact that the decision to supply the evidence was taken by the political leadership and not by the officials normally handling these kinds of requests point in this direction, as do the continued emphasise on how hard the decision was due to the acquisition document forbidding this kind of information sharing. The critics also point to the fact that Finland did inform the Russian authorities of the request for evidence and that we were going to collaborate with the Dutch investigation. ‘We told no-one, except the Kremlin’, does indeed have a somewhat bad ring to it.

On the other hand, there are also a number of issues here that point directly in the opposite direction, perhaps the main point being that Finland decided to inform Russia that we were going to disclose technical details of their SAM system to an investigation that quite likely was going to result in Russian citizens being charged. The key word here is ‘informed’, the government never asked for permission, something the president clearly stated had been decided against when asked about the issue. The investigation has also spanned over the latest set of parliamentary elections, showing that there is broad support for it to continue.

(A third point of view was the pro-Russian trolls who now argued that this shows that the JIT isn’t trustworthy and that the ‘true source’ of the bow tie-shaped fragments now has been revealed. As noted, the disinformation campaign on the MH17 has long since lost all its credibility.)

I am personally a bit torn over the issue, and felt the beginning of the presser emphasised how hard the decision was a bit too much considering the nature of the issue. On the other hand, I find it hard to be too shocked over the fact that the request for assistance wasn’t dealt with as a run-of-the-mill case. It should be noted that as the original acquisition deal for the Buk-missiles was handled through the government-to-government discussions on the clearing account, the ban on publishing the information is not a buyer-supplier NDA, but most likely part of a government-to-government agreement. Pointing to this is also the fact that it indeed was the president and the Foreign Minister who hosted the press conference, showing that this was dealt with as a matter of foreign policy and not one of a strictly legislative nature.

There has also been discussions regarding if the information handed over to the Dutch actually included such data that was covered by the ban in the first place. This is all pure speculation, as no-one in the public has seen neither the acquisition document nor the details on what information has been requested. However, my personal opinion is that if the information was indeed of such a nature that the Dutch prosecutor needed to get it from an operator of the system, it is also likely to be covered by the secrecy clauses.

In the end, while the exact pattern of decision making might or might not have followed the letter of the law to the point, the whole issue was probably best described by FIIA’s Mika Aaltola who noted that the whole issue is a “storm in a teacup”. This has been further confirmed by the Dutch Foreign Minister Koenders apologising to FM Soini for the leaks, as well as by the chair of the JIT, Gerrit Thiry, who clarified that it certainly wasn’t his intention to criticise the Finnish authorities, but that it was an unfortunate misunderstanding between the Finnish journalist and the Dutch police making the statement. Thiry is extremely satisfied with the assistance provided by the Finnish authorities, and as such everything is back to normal.