Sunken Costs and Good Enough – the A26 Blekinge-class

Let me start by being absolutely clear: everything points to that the A26 Blekinge-class submarine will be a stellar piece of engineering, highly adept at its mission, and by quite a margin the submarine class in the world best suited to the narrow waters of the Baltic Sea.

Having said that, the Swedish decision to acquire two vessels of the class unfortunately seem to be a blow to Sweden’s defence capability, threatening to crowd out key capabilities and investments from a naval budget that is already far too small for the country and its 81,435 square kilometres of sea.

The first modern Swedish submarine design, sporting a teardrop hull-shape inspired by the USS Albacore and an X-rudder, was the A-11 class (also known as Sjöormen or Sjöormen II). These entered service in the late 1960’s, and the five boats meant that Sweden had an impressive fleet of 20+ submarines in the first half of the 1970’s. The withdrawal of the modernised WWII-era Kustubåtar/Jaktubåtar left a fleet of 17 submarines going into the next decades. The 1980’s saw the withdrawal of the A-12 (Draken II-class), which despite the number was an older and simpler design compared to the ambitious A-11. At this time, the fleet stabilised at a dozen submarines, with the A-14 (Näcken II) and the A-17 (Västergötland) covering for the six outgoing vessels. However, the five A-11 were sold to Singapore (as the Challenger-class) starting in 1995, and 1998 saw the A-14 being withdrawn. After the turn of the millennium, two of the A-17 were retired and eventually sold to Singapore (the Archer-class), with the other two returning to service highly modified as the Södermanland-class. Here they joined the three submarines of the A19 (Gotland-class), meaning Sweden had five submarines in service. Of these five, HMS Östergötland (the last A-17) has since been retired, leaving Sweden with four submarines in its fleet.

HMS Halland, the youngest submarine in Swedish service, which now seems set to get an MLU. Eventually. Picture from BALTOPS 2016. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Daniel Foose/Wikimedia Commons

Of the four serving submarines, two of the A19 have recently undergone an MLU to extend their lifespan “beyond 2030”, while the third (HMS Halland) originally was set to just receive a general overhaul aimed at “ensuring seaworthiness and handling pressing obsolescence issues in certain systems“. It was decided in last year’s white paper to order an MLU for HMS Halland as well, though as far as I am aware of no such contract has yet been signed.

Those who can read between the lines will quickly realise that means that HMS Södermanland is not expected to serve on “beyond 2030”, meaning that if Sweden isn’t going to become a three-boat service, something else needs to come.

Enter the A26 Blekinge-class.

As I said in the ingress, the A26 is set to become an extremely capable submarine, tailored to meet the demanding requirements of the shallow and narrow waters of the Baltic Sea. This include being able to handle a number of different mission sets, including anti-submarine warfare, attacking surface vessels, intelligence gathering, SOF insertion/extraction, and so forth. And it is more and more looking like a seriously failed investment on the part of the Swedish Armed Forces in general and the Navy in particular.

To begin with, let us take a step back and look at the general situation for the Swedish Armed Forces, now (finally) trying to grow again after decades of decline. This include the decision to go from four to five submarines by retiring HMS Södermanland and ordering two new A26: HMS Blekinge and HMS Skåne. The long-term plan also identifies the possibility of further growth post-2025, when “In conjunction with the planning for the replacement of the [A19] Gotland-class the acquisition of further submarines could be considered, in addition to the three submarines required to replace the Gotland-class” (page 173). The two A26 submarines will in the meantime replace HMS Södermanland and HMS Östergötland, which by 2024-2025 “will have served for approximately 35 years”.

The last sentence contain two issues.

To begin with, HMS Östergötland has already left service, and my calendar says it is only 2021.

And secondly, the A26 sisters are now expected to arrive in the 2027-2028 timespan.

The mess deck of HMS Uppland, showing the cramped conditions inside submarines optimised for the littorals. The vessel is currently the most modern submarine in Swedish service, and following the MLU last year is set to continue in service for at least a decade. Source: Henrik Lundqvist Rådmark/Försvarsmakten

There’s an obvious gap there, and it is increasingly looking like HMS Södermanland will either be run until it is starting to fall apart, or there will be a period with a three-boat fleet. Even in the best of cases, the fleet won’t see much of a increase until 2030. However, the bigger question is about the cost in cold hard cash.

The original price tag was 8.2 Bn SEK in 2014 value (approximately 9.2 Bn SEK in 2021, or 910 MEUR). However – and this one is strikingly stupid as well as a prime example of political obfuscation – the price was based on securing export customers. That a budget is made on the assumption of securing export orders in a highly competitive niche markets within defence can’t be considered planning in good faith.

In this case, it is particularly bad due to two issues:

  • The high complexity of the submarine as a weapon system, meaning that a significant part of the value goes into non-recurring costs such as research and development,
  • The small size of the Swedish order – just two vessels – means that there will be no real series production, but rather two handcrafted vessels.

Combined these will cause the non-recurring part of the price tag per submarine to be particularly high. And as no export order has been signed (though the Netherlands in particular is still looking promising), the chicken eventually came home to roost earlier this fall when Saab and FMV announced that the project was late and above budget. The fact that no new submarine has been built in Sweden between the launching of HMS Halland in 1996 and HMS Bleking being launched perhaps 30 years later also appears to have come into play, as the yard “was in worse shape” than anticipated back in 2014, meaning that the project will have to include further infrastructure costs.

A classic early picture of HMS Gotland, showing the full-colour Swedish insignia. The vessel is still highly capable, especially after the MLU, but it deserves to remember that she is a product of the mid-90’s. Source: Kockums/Wikimedia Commons

Bear with me for a moment.

In 2016, the Swedish public broadcaster SR did an interview with Saab, where the company confirmed that the project would stay within budget, regardless of whether there would be export orders or not.

In 2018, the Minister of Defence got an official request for information regarding the status of the project and the budget from an opposition MP. The somewhat evasive answer was that government would continue to keep the parliament informed.

In 2019, the situation was repeated, and again the answer was that the government would keep the parliament informed.

In 2021, the contract was revised upwards with an additional 5.2 Bn SEK to land at approximately 14 Bn SEK in total (approximately 1.4 Bn EUR). In Saab’s messaging, the focus is on “new capabilities that are to be added to the A26 will give an additional edge within the weapon system and stealth technology among other things”, while FMV is more frank and openly talk about the infrastructure failings and more generally issues including “a delay in the development work“.

Now, if we are to believe the poor shape of the yard in 2014 as being among the main culprits here, the story is that for six-seven years – a time that also saw the MLU of two submarines at the yard in question- neither party realised that the yard wasn’t in fact fit for building new submarines in its current state. The Minister of Defence also hadn’t noticed that the A26 was almost 60% above budget and three years late, or at the very least didn’t feel this detail was among the things the government should inform parliament about.

Concept for A26 version with a VLS-module for cruise missiles. Note the larger tube in the bow which allows for easier extraction of combat swimmers as well as UUVs. Picture courtesy of H.I Sutton/Covert Shores

Exactly which part of the cost increase stems from the “increased capability” and additional spare parts is obviously hard to tell, but the sole example of the added capability given is integration of Saab’s new lightweight torpedo – Torped 47 – which was ordered by the Swedish government in 2016, and the development of which had been decided upon in 2010. Again, I do find it somewhat strange that no one in the A26 project figured out that they needed to include some money in the budget for the integration of the standard Swedish arsenal of submarine-launched weapons onto the new submarine – mind you, the submarine was ordered well after the development of what would become TP 47 was launched. Something that has been speculated about is that the new capability might include the fitting of VLS-cells, an option Saab has offered for export. However, for the time being the complete lack of any official Swedish interest in the niche capability of a dedicated cruise missile module aboard the submarine as well as the complete lack of suitable weapons makes this unlikely. The limited benefit in a Baltic Sea-scenario also stem from the fact that the submarine is not able to manoeuvre into a position from where it can launch an off-axis attack from behind the enemy defences. Besides, the fact that tube-launched cruise missiles are available and the recent decision to equip the Swedish Gripen-fleet with long-range land-attack both also point to the VLS-module being an unlikely candidate for the Swedish submarines.

The Issue at Hand

At the current price tag the A26 still seem to be roughly at the same price level as competing designs (the uncertainties are significant, though, as no two submarine deals are exactly the same when it comes to what’s included in the package). But there are significant questions that seemingly are glossed over, in part because there are sensible answers to all of the questions, but not not necessarily ones making sense when looking at the holistic picture of Swedish defence.

The basic issue is that creating a completely new submarine class from scratch is extremely expensive at the best of times. Doing that and ordering just two is quickly at risk of becoming prohibitively so as the technology and budget risks are more concentrated.

The Italian Todaro-class submarine Scire (S527) during mooring operations. We’ll get back to this one shortly.  Source: U.S. Navy photo by Machinist Mate Casey Kinkade/Wikimedia Commons

However, submarines have long been a staple of Swedish defence industry, and the country has been at the cutting edge of submarine design at least since the A-11 was launched. The political decision to build and design the A26 in Sweden is understandable from that point of view – security of supply is a very real concern – but it harken back to a day of bigger orders. The obvious solution is to buy more submarines.

But this leads us back to the basic issue of there not being enough money to go around for the Swedish Armed Forces. The Navy is cash-strapped, and while it is a real worry that the submarine force despite talk of growing to five vessels in practice is set to remain at four, or even shrink to three in the years leading up 2028, the silent service is in fact one of the better arms of the Navy. The newest of the few surface units are the Visby-class corvettes which have celebrated 20 years, with the remaining four surface combatants being over ten years older still. And the long-term plan foresee the beginning of preliminary design work for two vessels before 2025, meaning that most of the fleet will have to serve on past 2030. At the same time, the Navy is trying to get their new (old) mobile logistics concept up and running, perhaps the single most important change envisioned for the Navy in the latest white paper, and a second marine regiment has been stood up which also will require an increase in funding.

And that is just the Navy, in August the Swedish Riksrevisionen (think GAO) published a report where they noted that the Army was unable to meet their goals, with lack of funding being a key detail. Oh, and in particular they noted that:

In addition the costs for the critical defence interests JAS 39E and the new generation submarine (A26) have been difficult to make cuts to, and these projects have crowded out other acquisition projects.

With the funding for the A26 coming from the regular defence budget and not from any kind of additional funding made available to ensure that this “critical defence interest” is secured and domestic submarine knowledge are retained, the 60% growth in the budget means that something else has to give. And it is currently very difficult to find any kind of slack in the Swedish defence budget.

The solution

What is then the solution? Well, the obvious solution is that the Swedish government quickly need to start funnelling more funds to the defence budget, one possibility being through recognising its unique status and breaking out the A26 and funding it from a combination of defence funding and economic stimulus to secure the continuation of the shipyard.

However, there have been preciously little in the way of political will to pay for the defence ordered, and this solution seems unlikely in the short term.

The other possibility, and this is perhaps even harder, is to ask the question whether Sweden should just accept the fact that at some point the jack plane simply isn’t working, and the low numbers of the submarine force makes it unsustainable – or, rather, that the same defence capabilities can be had cheaper through a combination of other systems. Most of the missions can be solved in other ways. Giving the Swedish maritime NH 90 the long-required upgrades to their ASW-capability would bring a significant benefit, and investing more in the ageing surface vessels could support both the ASW- and the ASuW-mission. The Air Force can also lend a hand in the surveillance role, as well as bringing more RBS 15 as a potent ship-killing capability. Both naval and air assets can also be used to support the SOF. On the horizon, unmanned systems are also set to bring increased capabilities, though they are likely not going to be the end all be all some make them out to be in the near- and mid-term.

Supporting special forces is a key mission of any modern submarine force. Here combat divers of the Swedish 1. Marine regiment (AMF 1) are out on a training mission. Source: Antonia Sehlstedt/Försvarsmakten

Have anyone dared to honestly ask whether submarines are really the best solution under the current budgetary constraints and as a part of the overall Swedish Armed Forces? Let us hope so, and it certainly is true that the uncertainty caused by submarines operating in the dark waters of the Baltic Sea is difficult to match through any other means. And there is few things that are as effective in creating a deterring effect as capabilities that are known unknowns, and which are hard to keep track of and take out in a first strike.

So we will trust the professionals that the submarines are needed and that the decision hasn’t been made on autopilot, and that the A26 is the submarine best suited for the Swedish needs. Still, it is hard not to feel that the opportunity for Sweden somewhat passed with HDW (later part of TKMS) buying Kockums in 1999 and not launching any new subs in the next few decades (the blame obviously largely goes to the Swedish government again, which maintain that the yard is a critical national interest despite first selling it to a foreign owner and then not placing any orders to ensure that the know-how is kept up to date). As noted, the combination of A26 being ordered as just a two-vessel class coupled with the complete inability to get a grip of both the cost and the timeline eleven years after order also sends alarm bells going off, and further bad news feel like a very real possibility.

Which brings us to what in hindsight probably should have been the correct way forward. Foreign turn-key submarines.

The sound you just heard was the choir of Swedish naval geeks singing the praises of 400 mm torpedoes, Stirling-engines, and a number of other unique Swedish features in the confined waters of the Baltic Sea, and how none of these could be had in a foreign design.

Yes, as I’ve said twice already, the A26 is probably the most capable design available when it comes to the Swedish demands. However, it is also late, and the final price tag is a big question mark. Sometimes, getting the second best of any individual capability is worth it to ensure that you get working stuff on schedule, and that no single capability crowd out the other capabilities needed to keep a well-balanced and working defence force. So let us look at the options.

Foreign submarines

The number of available designs isn’t overly large. Spain’s S-80 has had some, eh, interesting teething troubles, but after lengthening it it is now able to float (yes, really). At the same time, it is now an 80 meter / 3,000 ton boat, rather on the large side compared to the 65 meter / 2,000 ton of the A26. Let us quickly move on.

The elephant in the room is that TKMS (ex-HDW) which by a margin is the most important supplier of export submarines in the world is out of the question following the rather spectacular break-up with Kockums (which saw the Swedish Armed Forces, and reportedly also the Swedish Security Service, enter the premises to secure certain equipment, after which the whole yard suddenly was sold to Saab). A derivative of the Type 212 or the related Type 214 would probably be an excellent choice, these being something of a European standard with Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Greece all operating different versions, with Norway also having a number of vessels on order. The Type 212 has sported a number of different versions, with the latest Type 212CD ordered by Norway and Germany being quite a bit larger than the original vessels.

The upcoming Italian NFS will likely be the most advanced submarine in the 1,750 ton class. Picture courtesy of H.I Sutton / Covert Shores

The best fit, and likely the only that even has a theoretical chance (though I like to stress that as well is purely theoretical) is likely the latest Italian design, the Near Future Submarine (NFS), also known as Todaro II. Italy has a long history as a competent designer and builder of post-war subs, and despite the original Type 212A Todaro being largely a HDW-design, the Italian and German boats have diverged as additional batches have been ordered. The NFS will introduce Lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries which will provide a significant boost and a ‘first’ in European waters. Besides the Black Shark Advanced-torpedoes, the boat will also have a number of nifty SOF-features (naval special operations being an Italian speciality) as well as a land-attack capability. Delivery schedule and cost is roughly in line with A26, with the crucial difference that it is based on a tried and tested design, and there already is an Italian order for 2+2 vessels of the NFS-design providing for risk-sharing. The NFS isn’t as well-suited for the Baltic Sea as the A26, but it is a 95 % capability at a significantly reduced risk, and sometimes that is the kind of trade-off one need to make. The high-level of Italian input also means that it perhaps could be sold to the public as a Italian submarine rather than a German one.

The Chilean Scorpène-class submarine General O’Higgins is able to fire both the Black Shark-family of torpedoes as well as the Exocet anti-ship missile. Like the Gotland-class, the boats have been used in ASW-training by the US Navy. Source: SSBN/Wikimedia Commons

A politically even better choice would be the French Scorpène-class, which also has received a number of export orders around the world (though none in Europe). Following AUKUS, this certainly could be a good time to get a really nice deal on French submarines. Depending on the version, the Scorpène is found in versions stretching from 60 to 75 meters, and 1,700 to 2,000 tons. The project was hit by a serious leak when a significant amount of classified documents found their way into cyberspace, though it is doubtful that it has compromised the vessel to an extent that would require buyers to stay away from it. Based on some of the numbers quoted, the boat is on the cheaper side (don’t confuse ‘cheap’ with ‘little money’, though) and available for delivery at a relatively short notice, but again – anyone claiming to know the price with any kind of accuracy of a submarine probably shouldn’t be trusted.

In the end, the reality is that the Swedish Navy will stick with the A26, meaning that the unfortunate crew of HMS Södermanland will have to keep their vessel going for quite a bit longer. It also means that any further budget increases certainly can threaten important projects, such as the Navy’s mobile base concept or those of the other services (the Army’s planned increase in engineering capabilities or the Air Force’s need for mobile logistics for the rotary wing assets come to mind as key capabilities that aren’t media-sexy enough to be able to compete with the A26 for funding).

The A26 is great, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great choice for Sweden.

The Cavalry is Coming

Yesterday the Swedish Armed Forces officially stood up the first of their new units announced in the latest defence white paper, as the Norrland Dragoon Regiment was again retook its place as an independent unit. The unit, formerly known as the Army Ranger Battalion, has up until now operated as a semi-independent unit based in Arvidsjaur but sorting under the Norrbotten Regiment based in Boden. Of all the new and reinstated units found in the latest Swedish long-term plan, the Dragoons are without doubt the one most directly beneficial to Finland.

His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden declared the regiment reopened at a ceremony yesterday, 41 years after he did it the first time around when the unit moved to Arvidsjaur from Umeå. Source: Jimmy Croona/Försvarsmakten

But let us start from the beginning. The AJB, as the battalion has been known, should be no stranger readers of the blog. The doctrine of the unit has been described by a person with inside knowledge of its inner workings, and in case you haven’t read that or need to freshen up your memory of it I recommend going back and doing so, as the post isn’t overly long and will be referenced in this text in a number of places.

The reversion to regimental status is to facilitate the growth of the unit to include a second battalion, both of which will also return to their old designation of Norrland Ranger Battalions (Norrlandsjägarbataljoner), though without reverting back to the old doctrine (see the chapter “Special Forces” in this old post for a discussion on the naming conventions). At the risk of slightly oversimplifying the change: by the end of the decade Sweden should be able to put twice as many rangers in the field as they currently can.

It deserves to be reiterated what Jägarchefen wrote in the aforementioned post:

Today’s ranger battalion is in no way tied to a certain geographical area as [the Cold War ranger battalions] NjBat or Jbat Syd were, but is instead used where the capabilities of the unit provides the greatest benefit to the common fight.

However, you don’t have to be a genius to realise that the location of the regiment is influenced by the kind of terrain and climate the unit is to be able to handle. To quote the Swedish Supreme Commander, general Micael Bydén, from yesterday:

The region up here is strategically important from a military point of view. The Cap of the North, the Arctic, many want to be here, and then we need to be able to function and defend ourselves.

To a certain extent it is about the harshest conditions setting the bar. If you can survive and operate in the high north wilderness during winter conditions, you are likely able to do so in southern Sweden as well. However, notable is also how Jägarchefen described the Swedish rangers’ preferred area of operations:

An interesting fact, which often but not always hold true, is that the critical vulnerabilities found deep within terrain held by the opposing force usually create bigger ripple effects if influenced than those closer to the front line. It is these targets, critical vulnerabilities deep behind enemy lines, that today’s Swedish Ranger Battalion is set to work against.

A quick look at the map says that any invader in the central-south of Sweden will have to have advanced quite significant distances until this kind of depth has been created. Certainly it is possible to find critical vulnerabilities close to the front line in case of amphibious or air landings, but these are often then better suited for long-range fires, air attacks, or even some of Sweden’s other special forces, such as the SOG or the combat swimmers.

Swedish rangers during an exercise in the subarctic conditions of the long winter typical of the high north. Source: AJB Facebook

Back to the high north. Sweden is situated at a notable distance from the Russian border, but also in a somewhat unhealthy location as northern Finland and Sweden is directly on the quickest route between the Norwegian port city of Narvik and the garrisons of Pechenga (sporting the combat proven troops of the 200th Motorized Infantry Brigade) and Alakurtti (home of the 80th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade). Sweden is also vary of the possibility of an attacker turning south and fighting their way down the coastline to reach the Swedish heartland – a longer route, but one offering safer lines of communications back to Russia compared to a landing directly in the south or central parts of Sweden (though as an interesting side-note, a Finnish Cold War-era map I recently caught sight of seemed to indicate that the FDF did not see the risk of a left-turn after Tornio as a likely scenario, but instead focused on the Schlieffenski plan in which the forces would advance over the River Tornio and sweep up in an arch to the northwest, reaching the coast on a wide front stretching from Tromsø to Bodø and encircling the Norwegian defenders of Finnmarken. No idea if this really was the dominant opinion within the FDF, and if so during which part/parts of the Cold War).

As such, northern Finland is of great interest to both Finland (obviously) and Sweden. However, for Finland the north will always be a secondary direction compared to the southeast, or even a third if the classic Raate-Oulu direction suddenly starts heating up. That’s not to say Finland wouldn’t defend its northern realms, both the Finnish Jaeger Brigade (note that in Finnish jaeger refers to any kind of infantry, in this case light infantry) and the Kainuu Brigade train units that feel right at home in a meter deep of snow. But there is no denying that the region is huge at over 450 km north to south and over 250 km east to west, and the number of troops available to defend the republic as a whole is limited.

In short, if there suddenly start to occur an influx of BTRs over the Finnish border, there would be gaps in the frontline and likely also in the number of eyes on the ground able to spot and create kinetic effects – either directly or through ordering in fires from other systems.

And this is were a bunch of Swedish dragoons could make a huge different.

A combined squad of rangers during an exercise late last year. The squad consisted of two forward observers, two snipers, a signals specialist, and a squad leader. During the exercise in question the unit managed to find an enemy artillery unit, which it then took out through a combination of sniper fire and by directing own counter-battery fire. Source: Mats Carlsson och David Kristiansen/Försvarsmakten

If Sweden sits on two battalions of rangers, trained in this very kind of terrain and climate – and often in exercises which see Finnish and Swedish units train together – the obvious development in the scenario above is to be proactive and send at least part of the force deep into Finland for both reconnaissance and direct action missions (“Thet är helsosammare binda sin häst wijdh sin Fiendes gärdzgårdh, än han binder wijd hans”, as Rudbeckius said). This is also a relatively low-key intervention compared to mobilising the Boden garrison and sending the armoured units east, but could still make a significant difference for both Sweden and Finland (as well as Norway, in case that is the eventual goal for the motorised columns). As such, this could present itself as both the politically easier and a militarily more flexible option. The obvious requirement is for Finnish and Swedish units to keep exercising together, and for the higher levels of command to hone their skills at fighting a common battle. Luckily, for the time being there seems to be both the political will as well as the investment in time and resources from the armed forces to do just that.

All in all, the most important improvement in the Finnish ability to defend Lappi that has happened during 2021 might have taken place three and a half hours of driving from the Finnish border. Because the odds of the cavalry coming just went up.

AK6, meet K22

The Swedish Armed Forces today did a decent attempt at upstaging Boeing’s PR-coup last week by casually dropping some major news seemingly as an afterthought, when they today announced a joint assault rifle procurement between Finland and Sweden which will kick off in September:

In September another procurement relevant to many within the Armed Forces. Then it will be determined which firearm will replace the AK5 [FN FNC]. The new firearm will be bought together with Finland – which means that in the future the two countries will use the same assault rifle.

The obvious issue: Finland is not currently in the process of acquiring a new assault rifle, following the rather recent upgrade of the current RK 62 to the RK 62M-standard.

But let’s start from the beginning: two years ago the Swedish Armed Forces outlined a plan to introduce a new “firearms system”, intended to replace the personal weapons of their soldiers. This included both assault rifles currently in service (the older H&K G3 as well as the newer FN FNC, AK4 and AK5 respectively in their Swedish designations), as well as the current AI Arctic Warfare/L96A1 sniper rifle (Psg 90) and the FN Minimi (Ksp 90). The plan is also to acquire a designated marksman rifle, a role which currently is filled with scoped assault rifles. The budget for the project would run from 2021 to 2030, with the major procurements being made starting 2025.

A year ago, the Finnish Defence Forces officially announced that they are acquiring a new weapon designated K22 from Sako. The key thing to notice here is that the weapon is a semi-auto in 7.62 NATO, made by a company famous for only doing bolt-action rifles for the last quarter of a century. The weapon would be delivered in two different configurations, as a sniper rifle and as a designated marksman rifle, differing in the equipment it comes with. The weapon would be a clean-sheet design, but based on “popular solutions”.

Yes, it’s an AR-10.

Now, you don’t have to be a business major to imagine that for Sako to bother looking into autoloaders they might have some plans for manufacturing more weapons than what the FDF might require for their snipers and marksmen. I would be highly surprised if their sights aren’t set on the 200,000+ weapons that will be replaced once the FDF starts retiring the RK 62M sometime in the 2030’s. The K22 might provide a nice development path into the world of ARs, from which to scale down into lighter calibre.

Crucially, the Swedish Defence Material Agency (FMV) has been closely following the Finnish developments, and this eventually led to the signing of an Memorandum of Understanding between the countries last month with regards to exchanging information on firearms and their technology, with the development of the K22 being mentioned in the press release by the Finnish representatives.

A somewhat grainy picture of the K22 in the hands of brigadier general Mikael Frisell, chief for the ground forces’ systems-section of FMV. Source: FDF homepage

The Finnish inspector for the infantry, colonel Rainer Peltoniemi, noted that:

We’ve found that Finland and Sweden have very similar capability requirements, development schedules, and goals, meaning that cooperating is very natural and appropriate.

What has then gone “wrong”, if one country thinks they will be buying a common assault rifle in September? There are two possibilities:

One is that the terminology has been lost in translation. The current designated marksman-ish weapons of the Swedish Armed Forces are coded AK for “automatic carbine” in the Swedish designation system, a designation used regardless of weapon length. It is entirely possible that Sweden intends to buy the K22 in September, and designate it locally as AK-something (Ak6 is one possibility, though e.g. the H&K 416 and 417 which have been acquired for SOF usage are designated AK416 and AK417, so AK22 might be another guess). This would then have been the news that the Swedes happily announced to the world today.

The other is that there is a silent agreement to launch a joint project for a larger number of weapon systems, possibly including the whole Swedish “Nytt Ehv-system”-program as well as Finnish replacement of RK 62M and potentially some other weapons as well. This was now unfortunately slipped into the press release by someone who didn’t know it was supposed to be under wraps.

Hopefully it was a case of the former, but I guess we’ll know by September.

Edit 04 May 2021:

The text has been updated, and it is now made clear that it is indeed the complete New Firearm-project that will kick off in September, and that as a part of this project is to look into whether part of the program can be handled together with Finland. In short, no decision on common weapons just yet, but a Swedish K22 order in late 2021 or early 2022 wouldn’t exactly be surprising in my opinion. 

Swedish readiness operation

The Swedish Armed Forces has started an operation to raise their readiness in the South-east and central Baltic Sea. The behind this being the “extensive military activities” being conducted in the region, which include both Russian and Western activities. According to the Swedish Armed Forces, the exercises being conducted in the region are larger and more complex, and takes place at a swifter pace compared to earlier ones. Coupled with COVID-19 the situation is significantly more volatile and unpredictable. The key focus for the Swedish operation is increased maritime surveillance (including from the air), but Gotland is also being reinforced. Readers will remember that the Battlegroup Gotland is still in the process of being stood up (eventually it will become a battalion-sized battlegroup), but what the reinforcements now consisted of are unconfirmed.

Notable is that two days ago a USAF MC-130J Commando II special forces aircraft landed on a short stop in Visby. The aircraft did not take part in any Swedish exercise, though it was reportedly taking part in an unspecified US one that included the visit to Gotland. This was followed by a three-flight of MC-130Js skirting the Swedish border during a flight from Norway today. As far as I am aware, no details have been released about the flights.

The Russian and Belarusian activities are all significant, with Belarus having initiated a readiness check that aims at raising the armed forces to their highest level of readiness, something that includes calling up the reserve. At the same time, the Russian Western Military District is reportedly home to a major exercise, including the Baltic Fleet and the Baltic Fleet’s Army Corps in Kaliningrad, as well as unspecified units in the St Petersburg area. This in turn is naturally of significant interest to the West, and among the visitors in the area is one of two RC-135U Combat Sent strategic electronic reconnaissance aircraft.

It is important to note here that Swedish Armed Forces are clear that the readiness operation is indeed an operation and not an exercise. However, there are some interesting overlaps in that the main surface striking force of the Swedish Navy, four of their five Visby-class stealth corvettes, earlier today started an air defence exercise in the waters south of Stockholm (Västervik-Nynäshamn). Crucially, the Finnish Navy is also taking part in the exercise with an unidentified mineship. So far no information has been released about what not happens with the exercise, or with the Finnish contribution.

Edit 25/08/20 11:15 GMT+2

While the exact scope of the Swedish operation remain uncertain the morning after the announcement, the fact that it is unprecedented in near-term Swedish history is starting to become clear. Johan Wiktorin, long-term Swedish defence analyst and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences, notes that he hasn’t seen anything similar since the 1991 Soviet coup attempt. At the same time, his colleague in the Academy, Annika Nordgren Christensen points out that the terminology used is new to the Swedish Armed Forces, and has not been used earlier.

The decision not to go with the traditional “readiness check” (Swe. beredskapskontroll) shows that the message the Swedish Armed Forces wishes to communicate isn’t so much that they practice being able to swiftly respond to a sudden crisis, but that they as of today are at a level where they keep an eye on any potentially hostile movements and stand ready to counter these should the need arise. As is usual with these cases, and as is clearly stated in the Swedish press release, the risk for open war remains low, since none of the countries involved are interested in an all-out conflict. However, with the large number of moving parts currently involved, the risk of miscalculations leading to someone getting caught in the machinery is higher than normal. 

Vessel from the Finnish Coastal Fleet conducted artillery firings earlier this month. Farthest away from the camera is FNS Hämeenmaa (’02’), which possibly is the ship currently exercising with the Swedish Navy in the central Baltic Sea. Source: RLAIV Twitter

With the FDF and Finnish government having had some time to react, it does seem clear that we won’t see any Finnish participation in the Swedish operation. This would require a political decision, and as such would most probably be communicated through the appropriate channels. However, as is well known, bilateral exercises and information sharing takes place on a regular basis, and as one of the main themes of the Swedish operation is enhanced information gathering to ensure a correct situational picture over the central and southeastern Baltic Sea, there exist a significant grey zone for what is an exercise, what is an operation, and what is a unilateral Finnish operation that just happens to create information that can be shared with Sweden. As opposed to the Swedish Armed Forces culture of sharing openly and directly what is going on, the Finnish Defence Forces is known to rarely discuss anything directly related to operational activities. As such, unless the air traffic monitorers suddenly catches a Finnish bird outside of Kaliningrad, it is very difficult to tell if Finland has raised the readiness levels in a parallel operation to the Swedish one.

While the Finnish silent culture can be supported from an operational security point of view, and a good argument can be made that the message can be sent to potential adversaries as effectively through actions rather than words, it has also come under increased scrutiny and faces criticism. In particular the question has been raised how to handle this discrepancy between Finnish and Swedish ways of handling strategic communications in the event of a joint response to a serious crisis?

Edit 25/08/20 15:15 GMT+2

The Finnish Navy has now confirmed that it is FNS Uusimaa (’05’) that is taking part in the exercise. 

The exercise develops the vessels’ national capabilities and the interoperability between the Finnish and the Swedish vessels in anti-aircraft warfare at sea.

The exercise is part of the larger cooperation frame between Finnish and Swedish Navies with the aim to maintain the vessels’ interoperability and the capability of the vessels to serve as part of the Finnish-Swedish fleet troops. In the exercise formation the Finnish minelayer will technically operate as part of the Swedish troops but stays under the national lead of the Coastal Fleet. In this exercise there will be no participants from other countries.

The exercise will take place at sea, and minelayer Uusimaa will not moor in Sweden. There will not be any exchange of crew between vessels during the exercise.

This exercise is preplanned among the other exercises between the two countries and it was accepted as an international exercise included in the 2020 programme by the Ministry of Defence.

Continued Imbalances – The Swedish Defence Forces towards 2030

The long-term planning of the Swedish Defence Forces, SVFM, has been in quite some flux during recent years. The short version of a complex dynamic is that prior to Crimea the Swedish Defence Forces were focusing rather heavily on international missions and peacekeeping abroad, including serious contributions to a number of missions in Europe and Africa, as well as in Afghanistan. Following Crimea the homeland defence mission again took centre-stage, and a growth process was started.

The latest plans describe growth when it comes to the Army, relative stagnation for the Air Force, and a slow decline for the Navy.

A bit of background is needed to understand exactly which papers we are looking at. Last spring the parliamentary working group for defence (Försvarsberedningen) that was tasked with developing a long-term plan for how to grow the Swedish Defence Forces broke down, as in the final stages it became clear that while everyone was in agreement on the plan itself, the ruling Social Democratic party refused to confirm their willingness to fund it. Upon this, the centre-right opposition refused to sign the final report “Värnkraft“, though they still agreed with the way forward presented by the document. This has led to an unresolved political quarrel, and as cherry on top leadership of the SVFM is not particularly keen on all details in Värnkraft.

The events got complicated yet further with the SVFM returning the supporting budgetary documents in February this year outlining what they would be able to do during 2021 to 2025 (with the period 2026-2030 being broadly described as well). The government in turn wasn’t happy with these plans, and SVFM got the order to redo the plans earlier this summer, and this time with a list of which projects were not to be touched. The new supporting documents were published last week, and include some key changes to the schedule, and it is these that I am going to open up in this post.

(As this is a long one, feel free to scroll to whatever part interests you)

The Swedish Air Force

The Swedish Air Force had originally planned to phase out the current generation JAS 39C/D Gripen-fleet rather quickly (it is a bit more complicated than that, but for the sake of brevity let’s pretend this was the whole story). This has now changed, and the current Gripens will be kept in service alongside the JAS 39E Gripen up until 2030 (possibly beyond that). This allows the Air Force to keep operating six squadrons of multi-role fighters. In the period 2026 to 2030 the preliminary work on the future air combat capability will kick off in earnest (though Saab is quick to state that current cooperation as part of/together with Team Tempest does not mean that 39E will be phased out anytime soon). To keep the fighter fleet up to date, a new reconnaissance pod is to be acquired before 2030, and advanced munitions will also be acquired in the 2026 to 2030 time span. The February documents included an explicit mention of Sweden acquiring a long-range cruise missile to the Gripen-fleet, but this has been removed from the July version (likely due to a lack of funds).

Another thing that has been pushed back is the replacement of the ASC 890, the current Swedish AEW&C platform. This is based on the Saab 340 propliner equipped with the Erieye-radar, and in February the plan was to replace these old airframes before 2030. Under the current plan, the replacement process is “begun” before 2030.

Something that apparently will keep going forever is the Swedish fleet of first-generation C-130 Hercules. Sweden operates six C-130H (originally delivered in the mid-60’s as C-130E) under the Tp 84 designation, with the aircraft being amongst the oldest still operational in Europe. These will now undergo a serious overhaul to get more flight-hours out of them, with no replacement being planned before 2030.

Another veteran is the Saab 105 (Sk 105), which is used for training. The old jets have started to show signs of their age, including having been temporarily grounded in both Swedish and Austrian service late last year. A new modern turboprop trainer is to be acquired for basic training before 2025, with the 39D getting a larger role in the advanced training syllabus.

The helicopter force will continue to use the current equipment (with assorted updates during the next decade), but will be reorganised into four wartime squadrons. Changes to operational doctrine and the support function will also make them better suited to support the Army and Navy in a high-end conflict. The unique Swedish naval version of the NH 90, the Hkp 14F, will receive some important changes, though the exact nature and timeline of these are more obscure in the July papers than they were in February. It is no secret that integration of tactical naval datalinks and the new light-weight torpedo (NLWT/Torped 47) is high on the wish-list.

Other organisational changes are also to be rolled out, including splitting up the fixed-wing heavies into individual squadrons based on their roles, as well the (re)forming of the F 16 Upplands flygflottilj as an independent air wing. It is unclear to me if and to what extent these changes will impact how the SwAF operates, and to what extent it is a question of administration.

The Swedish Navy

The Swedish Navy was the one to draw the short straw in Värnkraft, and the July documents further reinforce this. In February two new surface ships were to be operational before 2030, which would replace the ageing Gävle-class, with the construction on vessels three and four of the new series also being started before 2030. Ships three and four have now been pushed past 2030, by which time the Swedish Navy’s surface warfare vessels will be five Visby-class corvettes (launched between 2000 and 2006) and two modern corvettes. The Visby-class will start rotating through their MLU between 2021 and 2025, which will include getting air-defence missiles, the Torped 47 replacing the current Torped 45, and a new anti-ship missile (Saab RBS15 Gungnir‎ not being mentioned but certainly the most likely candidate). This will allow them to serve until 2040, by which time they will be 35 to 40 years old. Those that remember the last two sentences of the text will realise that if the Visby-class is to retire in 2040 and the building of it’s replacement hasn’t even started by 2030, that leaves less than ten years in which to build the replacement class.

A key decision which also will impact the Navy heavily is that the work on converting the current base structures so that in wartime there would be two mobile units responsible for maritime logistics (i.e. allowing for dispersed basing in the archipelago) has been delayed in the July papers.

For the marines the situation is looking better. One of the main roles of the Swedish marines is the coastal anti-ship mission which they handle with a version of the anti-tank HELLFIRE-missile. This will be replaced by a new system (a new heavy missile system will also replace the current truck-mounted RBS 15). The marines will also get a new man-portable surface-to-air missile, as well as Minigun 7.62 mm gatling machine guns for their vessels. On the flip side, the earlier announced second marine battalion (Amf 4) will be delayed from 2022 to 2025. There will also be less funding available to replace the boats of the marines, which is bad news as the majority of the Stridsbåt 90 (and some larger vessels) are starting to reach the age when small aluminium hulls usually are retired. However, a boat-mounted mortar system is to be in service by 2030.

The Swedish Army

The Army is the one seeing the biggest organisational changes. For a brief primer, I recommend my old post on the Swedish wartime order of battle, which roughly corresponds to the current baseline.

Starting from the top, the divisional level of command is brought back in the form of the 1. Division. The division will not be of fixed composition, but instead will be a command function with certain higher level assets. This “modular HQ”-model is not completely unlike the current Swedish brigade HQ’s, and will be needed as the size of the Army grows to a point where a single brigade HQ no longer is able to effectively direct all units involved in a single battle. At the same time, the Army headquarters should not have tactical responsibilities, and as such the higher tactical level is brought back into the force structure.

Artillery

Perhaps the most visible new equipment will be the acquisition of divisional artillery. I spent quite some time on the blog discussing higher-level fires in my earlier series on the future of Finnish fires. The current Swedish plans are still to be nailed down, but currently it seems like 12 new guns will be acquired in the 2026 to 2030 time-span (i.e. a battalion under Swedish doctrine), but the SVFM is also seriously contemplating acquiring a proven multiple rocket system (of which quite a few are found on the market).

Artillery in general will receive a boost, with all 48 Archers being included in the wartime organisation, as well as a second artillery regiment being created in the central parts of Sweden (most likely A 9 Bergslagens artilleriregemente will reform in Kristinehamn). Considering the three brigade force envisioned, it’s still not exactly an artillery-heavy force, but coupled with the introduction of self-propelled mortars the Swedish Army will have a serious increase in indirect firepower available by 2030.

Special Forces

The special forces are also seeing changes. The most visible is that AJB, the Swedish Army Ranger Battalion, which is currently subordinated to I 19 in Boden will become an independent regiment through the reformation of K4 Norrlands dragonregemente. The battalion will transform from a Jägarbataljon (ranger battalion) to a Norrlandsjägarbataljon (Norrland ranger battalion), and a second battalion will be added to the regiment starting in 2025 and being fully operational by 2030. The Norrlandsjägarbataljon is an old designation from the Cold War-era when Sweden operated two different kinds of ranger battalions, the NjBat and their southern cousin Jägarbataljon Syd (ranger battalion south), which differed mainly in equipment choices. However, these battalions had very different doctrines compared to the current unit, as was explained in a guest post by Jägarchefen a while back:

The battalions were given a geographical area, which was further divided into company-, platoon-, and squad areas. Within these the so called direct action would take place, simply put different forms of ambushes against predetermined targets such as supply vehicles during a prolonged time. The battle would then transform to interdiction once the divisions of the Swedish Army would launch their all-out offensive aimed at destroying the enemy formations.

[…]

Today’s sole ranger battalion is miles apart from its predecessors. The unit isn’t tied to specific geographic areas, but is used deep behind enemy lines against the critical vulnerabilities that have been identified as having the potential to affect the outcome of the battle. How the battle is fought and with what unit size is not defined in set doctrinal rules, but rather decided on the basis of the specific target in question (the critical vulnerability).

The reintroduction of the old designation apparently doesn’t herald a major change in doctrine, but rather a greater focus on the current role in the unique environment that K4’s home region offer. Looking at the long-term plan presented in the SVFM’s PerP-report, the geography of Upper Norrland (i.e. the northernmost part of Sweden) is such that a defence in depth is possible. This would rest on two ranger battalions that together with defensive works and increased long-range fires can slow down the advancing enemy and attrit their rear units. While the units obviously can be used in other locations as well, the tactic works particularly well in this region thanks to it featuring relatively little infrastructure and being heavily forested. Still, in case Norrland wasn’t directly threatened but an enemy landing was made in the southern or central parts of Sweden one should likely expect the NjBats to quickly head south.

The NjBat designation is also needed to differentiate the units from the other major change in the organisation of the SOF force, namely that the airmobile 31. battalion will be converted to a ranger-style battalion and designated simply as a jägarbataljon (i.e. what the AJB’s current wartime organisation 193. jägarbataljonen is designated as). Their mission will “amongst other things” be to provide support to the Swedish SOF-units (i.e. SOG and the Navy’s special forces found in Amf 1’s coastal ranger company). Internationally, the best comparison is probably to the UK’s Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), which “serves as a quick-reaction force to assist Special Forces missions. This might include large supporting offensives, blocking enemy counter-attacks or guarding areas of operation” (quote from here). Notable is that these mission sets aren’t in fact widely different from the current missions of the airmobile battalion, which also include operations behind enemy lines and emphasise the rapid reaction made possible by the unit being relatively light and moved around by helicopter, and in fact the unit already does cooperate with SOG when the need arises. The wording about “amongst other things” obviously leaves room for other mission sets as well. Time will tell how big the change compared to the current role is for the 31.

Swedish Army main units 2020
The peacetime bases of the main units of the Swedish Defence Forces by 2030 according to the latest plan presented by the Swedish Defence Forces. Note that some icons are shifted slightly to allow for a clearer picture. Source: Own illustration

Brigades and Battlegroups

For the main combat units of the Swedish Army the changes are dramatic. Going from the current two brigades that would be built upon modular blocks being moved around the country, the new structures will be fixed and emphasise the major peacetime regiments all mobilising into their own brigade.

P4 and I19 will both create a brigade each, the 4. mechanised brigade and the 19. mechanised Norrland brigade. On paper these are similar in force structure, with two armoured and one mechanised battalion each as their manoeuvre elements, being backed up by an engineering battalion, an artillery battalion (currently these have 12 wheeled Archer 155 mm SPGs each), an air defence company, and a reconnaissance company, amongst other. Again, the question arises whether the designation “Norrland” will denote anything else than the northern brigade being more accustomed to snow and bogs due to it being located in Boden? It is certainly possible, although as of yet unconfirmed, that there will be differences in equipment, such as tracked all-terrain vehicles replacing trucks in some roles. However, in both cases the main equipment will be the local variant of the Leopard 2A5, the Strv 122, and the CV 90 fitted with the 40 mm Bofors, the Strf 9040.

The third brigade will be the completely new one, and will be based in the southern parts of the country. P7 Södra skånska regementet is currently home to half of the Swedish Patria AMV-fleet in the form of the 71. motorised rifle battalion. These will be sent to Stockholm, and the battalion will convert to become the 71. armoured battalion by receiving the Strv 122 and other assorted equipment from the sister battalion, the 72. mechanised battalion. The conversion should be completed by 2025. This will leave the eventual 7. mechanised brigade lighter than the other two, having a single armoured and two mechanised battalions (the supporting units likely being similar). The reason behind all three brigades not being carbon copies is simply that there aren’t enough tanks. There are a number of CV 90s currently mothballed though, so they are available. The decision to make the brigade positioned in the open flat terrain of Skåne, the stereotypical tank country, is interesting. An optimist would say that it is as MekB 7 will be the first to receive new tanks when they are ordered sometimes post-2030, though there is currently no funds or direct plans for a renewal of the Strv 122/Strf 9040-combination.

As mentioned, the AMVs will be sent to Stockholm, where the other major new combat formation is created. Stridsgrupp Mälardalen (SG MÄL, literally Battelgroup Mälaren Valley) will be a reduced motorised infantry brigade centred around three infantry battalions of which two will sport the AMV – the current 12. motorised rifle battalion (being re-designated 1. motorised rifle battalion) and the new 2. motorised rifle battalion (set up with the equipment from the 71.). In addition, the Livbataljonen (Life battalion) will be included in the battlegroup, though they will likely remain rather lightly equipped when it comes to vehicles. The battlegroup will be responsible for the defence of the greater Stockholm region, and will have relatively light organic support functions. There will be a single artillery company and a single air defence company, with no higher level engineering or logistical assets. However, if the capital really is threatened, my guess it that it would not be long until e.g. MekB 4 would arrive on scene.

The other independent battlegroup is Stridsgrupp Gotland on the island with the same name. This is built around a single mechanised battalion, the 181. battalion, and will receive an artillery company and an engineering company as well as a logistics company to support it. In addition, there is an air defence unit already operational on the island that will be integrated into the battlegroup.

Local Defence Battalions

One of the features of the current Swedish Army is the lack of a “middle level” between the highly mobile and often heavily protected key units and the home guard battalions. This will now be addressed with the creation of local defence battalions (Lokalförsvarsskyttebataljon), of which five new battalions will be in production by 2030 (three will be fully operational by then, the first coming in 2028). These will be mobilised from new regiments, of which I5 Jämtlands fältjägarregemente in Östersund will be the first (the fältjägar-designation in this case is used due to the traditions of the reactivated regiment, and should not be taken to indicate a ranger/SOF-role).

The kicker here is that while the middle level certainly is needed to flesh out the ranks and ensure that there is the required mass allowing the tip of the spear to be pointing at the key locations, the political decision to create new regiments in cities currently lacking garrisons is the one single issue that most heavily eats up the funds needed for a serious and well-balanced force. It was also in the schedule for these that the leadership of the defence forces clashed most directly with the politicians.

Continued imbalances

As noted, several delays are caused by the inclusion of the new regiments on an aggressive timeline. The ones mentioned for the Army include reduced funds for the acquisition of new personal firearms, a project that was launched last year and is urgently needed according to Twitter-rumours that describe many of the current rifles starting to be worn out. Less sexy but vital acquisitions of “trucks, trailers, and other vehicles” are also being delayed, as is the Telekrigsbataljonen (signals and EW battalion) of the new divisional setup. New C3-equipment for the ground forces are also delayed.

The overall situation is also described in rather stern words in the documents:

“In addition to this, there is an extensive need for support from the rest of the total defence [i.e. the civilian sector] as an imbalance, in terms of operational units and
supporting functions, will remain until 2030. “

In short, the political drive now is to score easy points that can be waved around in the TV debates before next election, pointing at new regiments and brigades as signs of growth. At the same time, basics such as the increased logistical footprint to go with it and personal firearms are put on hold or kicked towards the future.

The Political Game

However, whether the plan will be implemented remains to be seen.

Several politicians of the centre-right opposition (which crucially has a parliamentary majority) are openly stating that come the budgetary rounds in parliament this autumn, they will force the budgetary increase needed for SVFM to implement Värnkraft in full upon the left-leaning government. Whether they actually will make good on their threat or whether a last-minute compromise will be reached remains to be seen, as if the budget really is forced upon the government by the opposition it would constitute a serious political crisis. At the same time, sticking to the limited increases currently envisioned by the government in the current troubling times while notionally trying to increase the fighting power of the SVFM will likely lead to the serious issues and imbalances described above. As such, this is in many ways a litmus test to whether the Swedish political line of growing their defence forces and becoming a serious contributor to stability in the Baltic Sea region is true or just empty promises.

When the global becomes local

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.

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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.

Uncertain Future for Swedish Silent Service

Operating submarines is expensive business. However, they do offer significant benefits, ensuring that many countries are willing to pay the cost. But one thing even more expensive than operating submarines is building up your submarine service from scratch because you had to spend a decade or so without suitable boats. That is what the Polish Navy is desperate to avoid.

The Baltic Sea proper offer an excellent stomping ground for littoral submarines (as opposed to the gulfs and straits in the Baltic that are quite narrow and shallow), and as such it comes as no surprise that several of the coastal states have submarine fleets. Sweden and Germany are the two leading submarine operators in the sea, with Russia and Poland playing second fiddle. The Polish Navy has had a few though decades recently, and the submarine fleet is no exception. The ORP Orzeł is a Project 877 ‘Kilo’-class submarine and has been in Polish service since 1986, sporting the distinction of being the first exported Kilo. The plan was for her to be joined by more sisters, but budgetary constraints led to two Project 641 ‘Foxtrot’-class submarines being leased from Soviet surplus stocks instead. These were retired in the early 00’s, while the Orzeł seem destined to serve another decade according to information that surfaced earlier this year. To keep the Orzeł company following the retirement of the Project 641’s, the Polish Navy acquired ex-Norwegian Type 207 ‘Kobben’-class. The vessels were originally built to replace a varied fleet of ex-Royal Navy and Kriegsmarine boats, and are in fact of the same generation as the Project 641’s. However, the West German submarine class is a better submarine in more or less all possible ways, and the class has undergone significant upgrades. Still, there’s no denying that their age is starting to show, and the Polish Navy already retired the first vessel of the class back in 2017.

gdynia_z_lotu_ptaka_-_050
A significant part of the Polish surface and subsurface fleet in port in Gdynia. Note the size difference between the four Kobben-class and the ORP Orzeł. Source: Joymaster via Wikimedia Commons

The solution was to have been the Orka-program, which has included all the twists and turns that have come to be expected from large Polish defence procurements. The original timeline was to have included deliveries taking place this year, but already in 2014 it was reported that the program had ran into delays. Currently, there is a large amount of uncertainty surrounding the program, with the timeline last year being said to include deliveries between 2024 and 2026 while at the same time TKMS gave the first delivery of their Type 212CD offer as taking place in 2027.

In any case, it is starting to become clear that a stop-gap solution is needed if the Polish submarine fleet isn’t to shrink to a single thirty-five year old hull. However, used submarines aren’t exactly floating around on the market in significant numbers, making the task of finding a few vessels to bridge the gap between the Kobben and Orka difficult.

On the other side of the Baltic Sea, former submarine powerhouse Sweden is down to five operational vessels in the form of the two Södermanland- and three Gotland-class submarines (this can be compared to the twelve submarines that were on strength as late as 1995). The Södermanlands are the two remaining of the originally four-strong A-17 Västergötland-class built in the late 1980’s, and underwent a serious MLU that included conversion from diesel-electric to AIP (Stirling) propulsion in the early 00’s. These are still competent boats, and as a side-note the vessels still likely hold the world-record in wire-guided torpedo salvo firing, being able to fire and simultaneously guide up to twelve 400 and 530 mm torpedoes at different targets (a nice party-trick, but likely of limited operational use to be honest). The Stirling-powered A19 Gotland-class was launched in the mid-90’s, and made headlines when the leadship was leased with crew to the US Navy for OPFOR duty, with quite some success.

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Second A19 Gotland-class boat HMS Uppland being prepared for the relaunch following her MLU, that included a lengthening of the hull. Picture courtesy of Saab

The Gotland-class was quite possibly the best littoral submarine worldwide when it entered service, but things have moved on. As such, the new A26 Blekinge-class is currently being built for the Swedish Navy, and as part of the phased renewal of the Swedish submarine force the Gotland-class receives a serious MLU that include several features and subsystems of the upcoming A26 to lessen the technological risk of the newbuilds, increase synergies when operating A19 alongside A26, and to increase the lifespan of the A19.

The problem is money.

Only two MLUs have been ordered by the Swedish Navy, with HMS Gotland and HMS Uppland having been modified. So far no order has been secured to upgrade the third sister, HMS Halland, despite this being a stated priority of the outgoing Swedish CinC of the Navy. Cutting another hull from the force would likely leave the Navy unable to hold two submarines out on patrol simultaneously over prolonged times, and for a potential adversary there is a serious difference in having to worry about two submarines in the Baltic compared to one (think of it as squaring the size of the issue). But in a situation were all three services are struggling to get the funds to cover the capabilities ordered by the government, and with the surface fleet being in even worse shape, who would pay for the upgrade?

The Poles, perhaps?

According to the Polish MoD, they are currently in negotiations with the Swedish government (Saab has confirmed they aren’t involved in the negotiations at this stage) to acquire the two Södermanland-class boats as a stop-gap to replace the Type 207 Kobben-class while waiting for the Orka-class. The vessels would be updated by Saab Kockums before delivery, which potentially could fit in nicely with the fact that there are currently no submarine MLUs ongoing and the two Gävle-class corvettes should be out of MLU sometime during next year. As such there should be free docks and slipways available and engineering resources available. To cover the shortfall in Swedish submarine capability the Swedes would buy back the other two A17 vessels, that are currently in service in Singapore as the Archer-class, having undergone an MLU in the early 2010’s and another round of upgrades in recent years. This castling move would ensure that Sweden has a five-strong fleet of submarines, give Poland two relatively modern boats to replace the Kobben, and potentially bring in some much-needed cash that could be diverted (if the government is so inclined) to the upgrade of the HMS Halland.

The only problem is that there is no indication that Singapore is interested in playing along.

Befattningar Vapenteknisk officer ubåt
A crew-member inspects the no. 2 torpedo tube aboard HMS Södermanland. Note the smaller 400 mm torpedo tube below the 530 mm ones, a Swedish specialty to allow for lighter weapons being used against other submarines and lighter surface vessels which are prominent in the littorals. Source: Mattias Nurmela/Försvarsmakten

The Singaporean submarine fleet consists of the two Archer-class vessels as well as two older ex-Swedish submarines, these Challenger-class being upgraded A-11 Sjöormen-class boats. In addition, the German-built Type 218SG Invincible-class is currently being built, but none have so far entered service. Those familiar with the RSN seriously question that it would be prepared to part with the Archer-class before at least the first two, or perhaps more likely all four, of the Type 218SG are in service. If the RSN would be ready to part with something, it would likely be the Challengers, and it’s highly doubtful if Sweden would be interested in such a downgrade in capability.

Is the Polish A17 deal then dead? Quite possibly not.

The deal makes a lot of sense from a Swedish point of view. Kockums’ submarine know-how is seen as a vital strategic asset, and readers might remember the dramatic headlines when Swedish authorities assisted by soldiers from the P 7 Södra Skånska regiment in 2014 entered the facilities and left with a cargo of ‘sensitive equipment’ as part of an ongoing dispute with then-owner TKMS. The yard was sold to Saab in 2015 to ensure Swedish ownership and that they could be tasked with building the new A26-class. However, the low number of Swedish operated submarines means that keeping the know-how alive purely based on domestic orders is ever more challenging, and the export market hasn’t been kind to Swedish submarines since the controversies surrounding the Australian Collins-class. Selling the Södermanland-class to Poland would not only mean Saab getting to upgrade the two boats, but also ensuring that Saab would be well-positioned in the eventual Orka-project. If the Navy would play its cards well, it could also make the argument that the funds from the sale should be funneled to the upgrade of the last Gotland-class, ensuring all three staying in service alongside the upcoming A26-class.

And before the delivery of the A26, the Swedish submarine force would be down to three boats.

This would be a serious blow to Swedish naval capabilities, especially when it comes to intelligence gathering and more intangible effects such as threshold effects and the creation of uncertainty regarding the kinetic capabilities the Swedish Navy possess at any given time in specific parts of the Baltic Sea. This would also directly affect the Finnish intelligence picture, as Finland and Sweden cooperate closely on the establishment of the maritime situational picture in the Baltic Sea. The submarines can be assumed to be amongst the single most important assets in either the Swedish or Finnish arsenal when it comes to keeping an eye Baltiysk, the main base of the Russian Baltic Fleet, thanks to their range, endurance, sensors, and ability to remain hidden. If Sweden would go down to three submarines for a period spanning years, both Finland and Sweden would be left with a poorer picture of the whereabouts and capabilities of the Baltic Fleet.

Naval News interview with Saab from this summer about the latest status of the A26 Blekinge class

But is it a gamble worth taking?

The situation for the Swedish Navy is already dire. In effect, if HMS Halland isn’t upgraded and no more A26 are ordered, the future Swedish fleet will be down to four boats. If letting go of the Södermanlands prematurely would allow for an upgrade of all A19, and possibly the ordering of a third A26 following economics of scale thanks to A26 securing the Orka-order, gambling on a serious crisis not taking place before the delivery of the Blekinge-class again has brought the submarine force back to strength in 2026 might start to feel tempting. An important detail is also that an Orka-order would mean that the A26 would get cruise missiles, an interesting option for later integration into the Swedish submarine force as well.

After all, temporarily scrapping all artillery pieces worked out nicely. Right?

Disinformation!

Skipper is a well-recognized voice in Swedish discussions on defence and national security. Following the questionable reporting on details surrounding the subhunt of 2014, reporting that now has been quoted in Finnish media as well, he wrote a blog post on his personal blog which I have received permission to translate into English. Any errors in the translation are fully my own.

I practically never write blog posts any longer, but sometimes I feel the demand to do so. The following is due to SvD’s damaging reporting on the submarine question published yesterday.

I will not in any way comment upon the substance of the article. The only thing I will discuss in this post is the unquestioning attitude of the media. Conclusions presented in headlines and introductions to articles are flat out damaging for Sweden and cannot be seen as anything but pure disinformation. Where then lies the problem?

The headline and introduction used by SvD is phrased in a way that a reader not familiar with the issue cannot be expected to understand in any way other than that there never was any foreign submarine activity at all in Swedish waters in October 2014. This conclusion is utterly incorrect. Even worse is the fact that all other media repeat this statement without further questions.

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Original SvD headline

omni
Pure disinformation spread by Omni based on the SvD piece

exp
Expressen takes it one step further with the seriously wrongful statement that the ASW-budget would have been increased by 10 billion SEK (920 MEUR at today’s rate) following the incident 

This narrative constitutes direct disinformation, and was quickly established through national Swedish media during yesterday evening, and soon all established national news-channels sported a rewrite of the article, none of which showed any signs of questioning the narrative. All featured the same or similar misleading and erroneous headlines. [Today Finnish media has also repeated the claims.]

Even public service in the form of Sveriges Radio and Sveriges Television did such rewrites in blind trust, and as such played their part in spreading disinformation. SR and SVT that are trusted to continue working in times of war and serious crises, and as such form “protection” against influence and information operations directed against Sweden.

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The Swedish Agency for Public Management (Statskontoret) 2017:5 “The agency’s work related to disinformation”

Following a social media storm against this both SvD and SVT, as well as other media, have rewritten their headlines and introductions. The problem is that the damage is already done. The narrative is set, and the man on the street now lives with a picture that all that was written by SvD and the others were correct, and that there was no foreign submarine activity in October 2014.

This morning several editorial boards have responded and corrected their headlines and introductions (see below).

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SvD with their updated headline (corrected the day after publication)

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Original headline (misleading given the facts)

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Corrected headline

If media had bothered to check the facts before publication none of this would have had to happen. The facts on the ground have not changed since September 2015, something that SvD knows while still deciding to make a grand fuss about this.

To get the facts one can read the Swedish Defence Forces article from 23 September 2015 with the headline “Beyond all reasonable doubt“. Some extracts from the text (my bold):

The Defence Forces’ final analysis shows that, as was stated last autumn, it is beyond all reasonable doubt that the Swedish internal territorial waters were violated in the Stockholm archipelago in October 2014.

The basis for this conclusion is now a significantly larger material than what was available in the immediate aftermath of the intelligence operation [i.e. the subhunt].

Of the roughly 300 reports that came in approximately 150 has been analysed in further detail of which 21 were judged to be particularly interesting.

Following the analysis several of these have now received a higher classification compared to the earlier analysis. The combined evaluation based on the amount of observations in the area provide a very high level of confidence.

The observation that last autumn was judged to be of the highest level of confidence has been reevaluated. Here additional information have come to light that give this particular observation another explanation, and as such it is not included in the basis for the combined evaluation. Despite this the conclusion remain that through the analysis work it is concluded beyond reasonable doubt that the Swedish internal waters have been violated.

The conclusion that media should have identified is that the “news” SvD built its article on wasn’t part of the final analysis work and combined evaluation. This was obvious already four years ago, but still media tries to spin this to mean that this news should be taken as proof that there was no underwater activity.

As such, this is pure disinformation, and it is regrettable that next to all media without question jumped the bandwagon on this sensation piece. It would – as many have pointed out – be interesting if SR medierna [an investigative public service radio show] would look into this reporting and investigate it from the point of view of source criticism.

That SVT did a rewrite of the article without looking into the sources with a critical mind is particularly interesting as SVT themselves recently launched a campaign for increased media literacy and critical evaluation of sources.

Starting today, SVT launches a new campaign about the role of public service in the modern media landscape. The first film discusses the need for fact-based journalism.

The film “Hen out of a feather” [Swedish expression meaning to make a mountain out of a molehill] focuses on the great importance of fact-based journalism in a world where rumors easily become truths, and information risks being corrupted. Where the border between opinion and fact becomes ever more fluid, and the current fast digital media landscape contribute to making a hen out of a feather.

The campaign has also been heavily criticized, including by the comedy show Svenska Nyheter.

A significantly more nuanced text has been written by Mikael Holmström (DN).

A well-written editorial is found in Expressen by Linda Jernek with the headline “Don’t spread the spin that the submarine was just a bouy”

Yet another meltdown in the reporting is made by Jonna Andersson (mitti.se), se below.

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Combat Boats and Landing Craft

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

jehu and cb90 Silja Merivoimat piste fi
Finnish Jehu-class in the foreground with a Swedish CB 90H in the background. Note the differences in profile. Source: Merivoimat.fi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Post: An Unreasonable Brigade Artillery

A few weeks ago a blog post discussing Swedish artillery at the brigade level caught my eye. As I noted last year,Finland is looking at the retirement of a significant portion of our brigade level assets in the near future, and which system should replace these is far from obvious. The post by Öhman was also of the kind of outside the box thinking I like to bring forward, so I contacted him and asked for permission to run an English translation. The translation is my own, and all faults when it comes to jargon are my own work as well.

The author Peter Öhman is a Swedish officer with a solid knowledge of anything armour or artillery who currently works at the Swedish Defence Material Administration. You will find him on Twitter and on his blog.

In a future growing Army there are many who feel that Haubits 08 ‘Archer’ would be optimally used as a divisional asset. It is a sensible idea which has been discussed in many places, but which won’t be developed further here.

With Haubits 08 as a divisional asset there would appear a void on the brigade level, as we don’t have any towed Haubits 77 mothballed. What should then be the remedy?

If one looks at the different requirements for a brigade-level artillery system they could look something like this:

  • Instantaneous firepower that allows a unit of size X to fire a fire mission in under 10 seconds,
  • Accuracy that allows the fire mission to hit the target location,
  • The ability to maintain sustained fire for X amount of time,
  • Protection which allows the artillery unit to operate together with the rest of the brigade,
  • Mobility which allows the artillery unit to move with the brigade’s battle,
  • High availability.

In practice this means that the artillery piece must have a certain rate of fire, especially initially. The ability to sustain fire over time is created by bringing lots of ammunition, having the ability to reload rapidly, having an efficient logistics chain, and sporting a high resistance to the barrel heating.

Protection means protection against shrapnel, but also signature reduction and the ability to rapidly move to a new position after firing. When discussing mobility it is easy to get dragged into a discussion about tracks or wheels, which is a balance between the ability to quickly transfer between battalions and cross-country mobility to reach suitable firing positions in the terrain. Very few today consider using towed pieces, due to the longer time to get them into position.

High availability may be technical reliability, but it may also be based on mobility, and perhaps most of all range.

As the requirements are broken down into details, sooner or later the question about what calibre should be used will become the topic of the day.

Of what calibre should a future system be?

155 mm is of course the NATO-standard and a calibre which has been working well since at least the Second World War. We can’t abandon a NATO-standard by ourselves, and we have old ammunition stocks which we need to be able to use. That’s how easy the analysis can be. Now is when I will be unreasonable and question this train of thought. Is 155 mm really an obvious choice for supporting the fighting formations of a brigade? The following text should be treated as something of a “military satire”.

If we look at the specifications for a number of common artillery systems in 152 and 155 mm we get the following table:

SystemWeight (t)Range (km)Am. carriedShots/minLengthCrew
2S194224.7506-8L/475
K-94730526-8L/525
M109A73524394L/394
PzH 200056306010L/525
Haub 0833.530218-9L/522-4

Ranges given are for standard rounds, i.e. not including base bleed or similar technologies.

When looking at even large calibers such as 203 mm the big benefit of 155 mm is that it is easier to handle both for humans and machines. A 155 mm shell weighs around 45 kg, compared to at least twice as much for a 203 mm one. The recoil forces are also about twice as big, leading to an unreasonably large gun. The range will also be short unless one want a barrel that is 2.5 m longer than the already long 155 mm L/52 barrels. Big and heavy ammunition also leads to a low rate of fire. The US M110 howitzer with an L/25 barrel has a range of 17 km with standard ammunition. Weighing 28 tons it only carry two rounds. This means a continuous supply of ammunition is required, and even in the best case scenario the rate of fire is around 1 shot/min.

Ukrainian 2S7 Pion in 2017. Source: Ukrainian MoD via Wikimedia Commons

The Russian 2S7 is bigger and weighs a staggering 46.5 ton, have a L/56.2 barrel which gives a V0 of 960 m/s and gives the 110 kg shell an impressive 37.5 km range. However, it only carries 8 rounds and can at best handle a rate of fire of 2.5 shots/min. 2S7 is 13 meters long and has a crew of seven.

These kinds of calibres are unreasonable for highly-mobile artillery that supports the combat units of a brigade, and are better suited to hammering fortifications.

A Finnish 2S1 Gvozdika / 122 PsH 74 during exercise Pohjoinen 18. Source: Maavoimat FB

Eastern countries also employ 122 mm. The most common vehicle is the 2S1 (122 PsH 74 in Finnish service) which fire a 21.7 kg shell out to 15.3 km from a L/36 barrel, it weighs 16 ton, has a crew of four, and carries 40 rounds.

2S34 Khosta on parade. Note the new weapon. Source: Vitaly Kuzmin via Wikimedia Commons

A modernised version of the 2S1 is known as the 2S34 Khosta which sports a 120 mm gun/mortar with a range of 14 km. The same gun is found in the 2S31 Vena which carries 70 rounds and weighs 19.5 tons.

Swedish 12/80 coastal artillery gun. Source: Marinmuseum via Wikimedia Commons

In Sweden we had the 12/80, a 120 mm version of Haubits 77. With a L/55 barrel it had the same range with load 2 that the L/38 Haubits 77 had as its maximum range.

Calibre 105 mm is something that usually has been found on the battalion level. An example of a modern system is Hawkeye which is based on the HMMWV. The weight is just 4.4 ton. With a L/27 barrel is has a range of 11.5 km with a 15 kg shell. According to one source 8 rounds are carried.

105/50 coastal defence gun of the Arholma Battery. Source: Patrik Nylin via Wikimedia Commons

There are also long-ranged 105 mm systems. The Swedish turreted automatic 105/50 with L/54 barrel had a range of 20 km. It is especially interesting that a number of other countries still cling to and develop 120 mm-class guns. I will therefore make a comparison between 120 and 155 mm weapons when it comes to a few specifications I regard as critical for brigade artillery.

Range, less is more!

Upon a quick comparison 155 mm seems to have the edge when it comes to range. 15.3 km from a L/36 barrel compared to 24 km from an L/39 when comparing 2S1 and M109. However, 2S1 uses a rather modest 3.8 kg powder charge to reach a V0 of 680 m/s and 15.3 km. At the other end of the spectrum, Swedish 120 mm Tornautomatpjäs 9101 (12/70) uses a L/62 barrel to reach 27 km with a V0 of 880 m/s. The earlier mentioned 120 mm 9501 (12/80 Karin) can reach 21.1 km with charge no 2 with a V0 of 800 m/s. 155 mm guns with a 800 m/s V0 can reach around 22 km, meaning that the difference is rather small. 120 mm as a calibre has good ballistic properties. With a barrel length of around L/50 a 120 mm gun will use 5-6 kg and a 155 mm one 12-15 kg of powder to reach a V0 of 800 m/s. A 120 mm L/62 is also 60 cm shorter than a 155 mm L/52. In other words a rather small potential edge in range for the 155 mm is balanced against having a long barrel that’s still easily handled for the 120 mm.

Another aspect of the range question plays a major role in the discussion, and this is where less is more. The fact is that when the range approaches or pushes beyond 20 km, the shells will follow a trajectory that is so high, and spend such a long time airborne that the weather makes accuracy unacceptably poor. The reason is partly because it becomes hard to reach the desired effect without ranging shots and/or the need for additional rounds in target, and partly because the increased dispersion increases the danger for the friendly units one tries to support. Base bleed and rocket assisted projectiles (RAP) which are used to increase the ranges also further diminish accuracy and increase cost. To counter this increase in dispersion once the range is edging towards 40 km technical aids such as precision-guided rounds and course correcting fuzes are used. These are very expensive, and ill-suited to the massed fires required to support ground combat. Firing at ranges between 30 and 40 km also has other consequences. At least double the gas pressure and V0 close to 1,000 m/s leads to increased strain on the equipment and faster wear. My opinion is that if the laws of physics makes it a bad, or at the very least an expensive, idea to use supporting fires at ranges above 20 km, then we shouldn’t invest too much money and effort into such a capability for systems acquired to support ground combat. To reach 20+ km 120 mm is plenty enough.

Effect

Presume a fire mission of 24 155 mm rounds would be replaced by a single round with the same weight of just over 1,000 kg in the middle of the target area. It is obvious that the effect would be poor in the majority of the target area and unnecessary good close to the giant round. Ordinarily one strives to spread the effect evenly over the whole target area. Case in point being the use of submunitions. Before the Convention on Cluster Munitions there was even a project on introducing 120 mm mortar rounds with submunitions, and in Russia who doesn’t give a damn about the ban on submunitions their use is increasing. Against fortified targets heavier rounds do however maintain the edge.

The 122 mm D-30 howitzer remains the mainstay of Finnish battalion indirect fire assets. Source: Maavoimat FB

In a comparison between a big bang and thousands of submunitions one can compare the weights of 24 rounds of 155 mm, 45 rounds of 120 mm, and 72 rounds of 105 mm. The superior effect would in this case come from 72 rounds of 105 mm. A good indication is that a Swedish fire mission of 24 120 mm mortar rounds is treated as the equal to 18 155 mm rounds. The weight of a mortar round is in fact more closely equal to that of a 105 mm howitzer round. The effect of a single 120 mm howitzer round matches very closely that of a 155 mm one. The issue is that one reaches further with a heavy round, but preferably would split it up in many smaller units when reaching the target area to get superior effect. As long as we uphold a ban on submunitions the importance of choosing a calibre that gives good effect in the target increases. Scientific advances also make it possible to fit a seeker in smaller rounds than before, though it would be difficult to get as good effect e.g. out of a 120 mm BONUS-round as out of a 155 mm one.

Logistics

To compare the logistics footprint I make the assumption that 24 155 mm rounds equals 30 120 mm rounds when it comes to effect. A complete 155 mm round has a weight of around 60 kg, made up of a 45 kg shell and a 15 kg charge. Similarly, a complete 120 mm round weighs around 32 kg, of which 25 kg is the shell and 7 kg the charge. The fire mission of the 120 mm gun would then come in at two-thirds the total weight of the 155 mm fire mission. If you include a casing to allow for the automatic handling of the ammunition a complete 120 mm round comes in at approximately 40 kg, meaning the fire mission is just 83% of the weight of the 155 mm one. However, fixed ammunition require more space, and the 120 mm fire mission with fixed ammunition will take up approximately 20% more space. However, comparing against fixed 155 mm ammunition the latter will weigh 70% more and take up 40% more space. The benefit of fixed ammunition is that in the same way as with Bkan and 120/80 it is possible to have a higher degree of automation when firing and handling the rounds. This in turn leads to a higher rate of fire and better effect in target. The conclusion is that with fixed 120 mm ammunition you get a similar logistic footprint, but with a round that is more easy to handle and you will be able to get off more rounds which will give as good or better effect in target compared to 155 mm. In real terms, a full charge 120 mm round with a fixed casing will weigh less than 40 kg, and can easily be carried from vehicle to vehicle by a single soldier. A 155 mm round with a fixed casing will come in at 85 kg and will need two persons to carry it, not the least due to the uneven weight distribution. If an autoloader could use the kind of combustible casings that tank rounds use, it should be possible to shave a few additional kilograms of the 120 mm round.

Bkan 1 with the original loader. Note the size of the 155 mm fixed ammunition in the loading frame.

Autoloading versus manual

To achieve good effect in target a high rate of fire is a good tool, and to reach a high rate of fire the ammunition and its handling plays a big role. 155 mm howitzers usually have a rate of fire that varies between 3 to 10 rounds per minute with separate loading ammunition. These are usually either completely manual or equipped with different kinds of automatic handling and loading aids. Some have the ability to fire off a few quick rounds, before settling in for a lower sustained rate of fire. E.g. Haubits 77A was able to fire three shots in less than ten seconds. This is possible as the charges are put in a casing, which allows for the use of a very quick vertically sliding breech block. The shell and the casing is then loaded with a hydraulic rammer. To fire really quickly fixed casings are needed. E.g. Bkan 1 has a technical rate of fire of 18 rounds/min. The 12/80 is another example albeit with 120 mm calibre. With an autoloader the 12/80 fires off 16 rounds/min. There are even faster Swedish guns. 120 mm anti-aircraft gun 4501 has a rate of fire of no less than 80 rounds/min. The 23 ton heavy gun carries 52 rounds.

12 cm Lvakan 4051

Another Swedish rapid-firing gun, although in 105 mm, is the Strv 103. As far as I remember, the technical rate of fire is 26-27 rounds/min and the tank carries 50 rounds. To note is that the sole 155 mm field artillery piece amongst these was the Bkan 1. The reason behind this is, amongst other things, that the mechanism becomes large and heavy. It is also unable to bring along more than 14 rounds. This is likely one of the reasons why modern 155 mm guns almost universally have separate loading munitions. The second, and perhaps even more important issue, is that one wants to be able to set the charge size for each round, and not be limited to a pre-set number of each charge that is set already when the ammunition is manufactured. In 120 mm it should however be possible to benefit from the carefree handling of fixed ammunition and bring more rounds, without the rounds becoming overly large.

Autoloaders is however not an end in itself, except when it comes to the firing. As mentioned earlier, 120 mm is considerably easier to move by hand. This includes fixed case 120 mm ammunition, which thanks to its below 40 kg weight can be moved in the same way ammunition was replenished in Strv 103.

Will there be something else than 155 mm if we buy a new system?

I have a hard time believing that, 155 mm is in all essence even more standard than 7.62 mm. That is why I describe this as an unreasonable brigade artillery. If one would start from a clean sheet, it is however entirely possible that with the technological advances of today the conclusion would be that another calibre would be better suited for supporting the brigades. Perhaps based on some of the reasoning found above.

But we just have to accept that we do not begin with a blank sheet, instead there are several limiting factors that affect the outcome. At the same time, evident truths need to be questioned every now and then. E.g. the miniaturisation of electronics allow for ever smaller rounds to become “smart”. If the reasoning behind 155 mm was the need for precision guided munitions the choice of calibre could be reevaluated now. However, over time factors such as standardisation have become important and will lead to the continued use of 155 mm.

Are we in the West looking for the right capabilities?

As a short sidetrack to the discussion on calibre choice I would like to touch upon two topics that I believe are receiving too much attention: the race for range and extreme precision.

With each new gun there are new solutions to push the range out even further, from L/39 barrels to L/52 as the new standard, and now barrels out to L/58 are discussed even for guns such as the M777.

M777A2 and M777ER with L/52 and L/58 barrels respectively. Source: US Army

Base bleed, RAP, and ramjet projectiles are other ways of reaching further. It is easy to see the benefit of reaching longer, and easy to quantify range as a requirement or selling point, which is why it is often in the spotlight. But range threatens to become the “24 cm higher cabin” of the artillery, an extreme cost driver. Longer range also places indirect requirements on extreme accuracy, no longer is just “rather accurate” good enough. The technology behind the increased accuracy is and will continue to be expensive. This means that the ammunition used to fire far away and with high accuracy becomes too expensive to use for massed fires. The most extreme example is the 155 mm guns of the Zumwalt-class which were supposed to receive rounds capable of reaching 153 km. The price tag became close to 1,000,000 USD/round as opposed to the planned 35,000 USD. The contract was revoked and the destroyers now lack a suitable round for their guns.

There need to be an analysis regarding the missions of individual systems. For a multitool, which is the role one can say that the Haubits 08 has been forced into, long range is a must. If it is a battalion-level asset, the conclusion might be that the 8 km range of a mortar is enough. If the mission is to support the fighting battalions of a brigade, the requirements need to be in sync with those demands, and not necessarily with those of the multitool. Was the reasoning behind the 150 km range of the Zumwalt’s 155 mm guns really correct? Should one have opted for another system if 150 km range was demanded?

The quest for accuracy partly comes from the increased range, but also from some kind of engineering bewitchment for perfection. Accuracy is very nice when the enemy headquarters is located or when the enemy has put their fighting positions close to a hospital. But at the end of the day, artillery is an area effect weapon, and to achieve effect it is enough to hit the target area instead of aiming for the bullseye with every round. I am worried that we in the West is forgetting this. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “Isn’t it jolly good to have better accuracy, that we can get the same effect with fewer rounds.” I have tried to explain that it is enough to be in the right area and that it is more important to be able to fire large volumes in many places, which increases the odds that the enemy will be suppressed in many different spots. Often the fire mission is based on an estimate on the enemy and the terrain, and not on an observation. If one can see the enemy both we and the enemy can use direct fire, and it is the losses that causes which we wish to avoid. Why then aim for a few expensive bullseyes and completely overlook massed fires? Making this case is often like talking to the wall. I will however persist, gutta cavat lapidem.