An SDV goes Gävle

So it seems that approximately once a year there is some kind of more serious unexplained underwater activity in Finnish or Swedish waters. On 29 June it was the port of Gävle’s turn to be at the centre of attention.

Following dredging works in the main sea lane leading into the port, a hydrographic survey was made. As is usually the case when measuring small areas where high precision is needed, a measuring frame was pulled under the water at the correct depth (for simplicity, think of a welded frame being pulled at a constant depth, indicating if it hits something). At the very inlet of the port this indicated some kind of “anomaly”, and it was decided to scan the plot with a multibeam sonar. The area was then scanned between 11:00 and noon, after which followed a lunch break during which the scans were studied closer. It was then that the crew thought that the shape looked “boat like”, and after lunch the area was rescanned around 13:00. The “anomaly” was still there, and the survey vessel ran a few laps around it. The vessel then went to get divers, and when the divers arrived around 14:00 the anomaly wasn’t visible on the multibeam sonar any longer.

The object is described as around 12 meters in length, and roughly 3 meters high.

Gävle skiss
A rough skiss of the general dimensions of the anomaly based on the imagery released by SVT. The object seems to cast a shadow towards one of the sides, which according to my understanding is normal for this kind of sounding equipment. Source: Own work

It does seem clear that it was some kind of a underwater vehicle. It was observed by professionals, using proper equipment, and observed numerous times before disappearing. It should also be noted that the location meant that if it had been there for any longer periods of time, it would have been hit by a passing merchant vessel.

The obvious next question is what kind of a vessel it could have been. It does seem to feature a quite pronounced passenger bay, meaning that it is likely a ‘wet’ swimmer delivery vehicle, SDV, in which divers sit with their gear on, and not a ‘proper’ midget submarine. There are two (likely) operators of these in the Baltic Sea: Russia, and Sweden.

Russia (probably) uses the Triton-NN, which rose to fame during the Swedish sub-hunt a few years back when it featured heavily in the speculations. Here there’s the obvious point that Gävle was mentioned by Gerasimov in April as part of a staging area, as discussed on the blog earlier, and as such it is likely the target of some form of intelligence gathering efforts.

A more likely candidate, however, seems to be the Swedish JFD SEAL Carrier, which the company has confirmed it has delivered to the Swedish Defence Forces. The likely user is the combat divers Attackdykarna, thought within the Swedish Defence Forces there are also other potential operators under the surface, such as the special forces (SOG), underwater clearance teams (Röjdykare), and even certain army engineers practice diving.

Compare the general dimensions of the SEAL Carrier to the skiss above. The vessel is 10,5 m long, with a width of 2,21 m. The stern is sloping (tumblehome, left side of the picture), while the bow is more sharply built with the crew/passenger compartment being the open bay close to the bow. Perhaps the most significant feature is the round object to the left of the centreline just aft of the passenger compartment. This location matches the location of the snorkel on the SEAL Carrier. As it happens, the Triton NN is more or less an mirror-image of this design, with a car-like bow and a passenger-compartment towards the (straight) stern. There is also a snorkel mounted on the right-side in front of the passenger compartment, but the proportions doesn’t seem to match as well.

As such, my impression is that this is an example of the Swedish Navy’s combat divers being accidentally found during one of their unannounced exercises. As such, the outcome of the incident is probably not much worse than that someone has to buy someone else a round of drinks. Keep calm, and carry on!

Points to @covertshores, who I believe was the first one to point out the similarities to the SEAL Carrier.

Back in Control

This morning the Swedish Commander in Chief surprised the better part of the Nordic defence community by announcing that the mechanised company recently deployed to Gotland as part of a readiness check won’t go back to Skövde where its parent unit, P4 Skaraborg Regiment, is based. Instead, active as of 0700 this morning, it is stationed on Gotland in defence of the island.

This is a drastic move. The new 18. Battlegroup, a mechanised battalion with a mechanised and an armoured company plus support units, is already in training on the Swedish mainland. However, it was planned to become active in 2018. This has now been changed to mid-2017, which together with the decision to transfer one of the existing companies to the island to cover part of the interim year is a major step (the company won’t have to cover the whole time alone, but the duty will be transferred to another unit at some point). Not only is there an economic issue at stake, with already the original Battlegroup Gotland putting added strain on an already stretched defence force, but also the personnel factor. Soldiers and officers with their homes and families in Skövde woke up to the news that they will be staying on the island until further notice. In a time when the defence forces has had a hard time filling its personnel needs, this is certainly not a decision taken lightly.

20151107_jimcro01_SOGDSC_6748.jpg
The already classic picture of Swedish SOG operators running towards their Blackhawk helicopter taken during last year’s major exercise held in Gotland. Source: Jimmy Croona/Försvarsmakten

The unit has been laughed at, including being called “The Kamikaze Company” on behalf of its small size (150 persons), and Russian propaganda noting with poorly hidden contempt that the soldiers aren’t yet allowed to use the local firing range.

However, the situation isn’t as desperate as it seems at first glance. For anyone planning to invade the island, there is a huge difference having to meet no active soldiers at all, or having to do with mechanised infantry including their CV 9040’s. These modern infantry fighting vehicles come equipped with the classic 40 mm Bofors sporting a mix of modern APDS and HE ammunition. In effect, it is no longer enough to land an airliner full of paras on Visby airport, but the invaders need to bring more men and heavier weaponry. This means further preparations involving more people, leading to a lower likelihood of achieving surprise, in turn allowing the defenders greater notice and the possibility to further strengthen their defences with more units. Even in the face of a full-blown amphibious invasion, the unit together with the local Home Guard should be able to conduct a fighting retreat towards Visby, making sure the harbour is in Swedish hands long enough to allow the rest of the regiment time to arrive.

What is worrying, however, is the fact that the temperature around the Baltic Sea seems to have dropped drastically in just a few weeks. Swedish blogger Jägarchefen notes that the last three weeks have featured a number of stern statements by both Swedish, US, and Russian officials. This has now culminated in the Swedish decision not to stand down after a readiness exercise. What exactly has caused this development is not publicly known, but at the same time US vice-president Biden gave Sweden some form of security guarantees in the face of Russian aggression, Swedish officials have quietly upgraded the risk of an “isolated attack on Sweden” from “improbable” to “low”. Rumours are also circulating that the recent Russian exercise caused the Swedish Defence Force to very nearly raise their readiness, something which has not happened since the Russian invasion of Crimea. From the Finnish viewpoint, there is a natural question that deserves to be asked:

What does the Swedish Commander-in-Chief know, that our politicians pretend they don’t?

Finnish Assistance and Russian Media

Note: After a few posts mainly made up of news, headlines and specifications, this post will feature opinions.

Finnish Assistance

As I hinted at earlier, I strongly believe that Finland should offer its support to Sweden in light of current activities. For a small country situated next to an authoritarian greater power, it is crucial that international laws and principles are respected. This includes respecting the territory of foreign countries, both air, land and sea. If our close neighbors, in whose ability to protect their own territory we (according to PM Stubb at a press conference today) trust, says that they strongly suspect a foreign underwater incursion, that should be all the info we need to have a high government official issue a strongly worded condemnation aimed at whoever it is that is behind the incursion. After this, we can start thinking about offering concrete steps to help solve the issue, as it is in our own interest to know who it is that conducts illegal operations in the Baltic Sea. It would be naïve to believe that a string of successful missions directed against Sweden would not put Finland at risk for similar incursions. Thus, we do not need to argue about whether or not we are morally obliged to offer help to the Swedish authorities, as even if one would believe that we weren’t, we should still do so out of respect for our own security needs.

MHC Katanpää (’40), leadship of a class of three new mine countermeasure vessels. The brand new vessel has some of the most advanced sensors currently available in the Baltic Sea for finding underwater items, and could be of great assistance to the Swedish operation. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI.

It might be that Sweden believes that our direct support is not needed, but the offering of assistance would in itself be a powerful signal. If the Finnish government believes it is a too strong signal, more indirect means are available. Yesterday would have been a good opportunity to send out a naval vessel to escort Professor Logachev on its way through the Gulf of Finland. It could have been done at a respectful distance, and as part of a “normal” cruise. This would have given credible deniability in case Russia would have reacted, while still sending a message of support to our western neighbors. Also to note is that as Russia has repeatedly stated that they do not have a submarine in the search area, the Finnish government could credibly state that any participation is directed against our easterly neighbor. However, it must be said that with the Swedish government taking such a low-key approach to the whole incident, it might be out of place for Finland to take the lead in condemning it. If this is the case, I hope that Stubb at their meeting today expressed to Löfven that he has our support if the Swedish government would decide to change their current stance. There are currently only two non-NATO countries aside from Russia bordering the Baltic Sea. While it is a cliché, the cause of Sweden is indeed very much our own as well. And vice versa.

Russian Media

The Red October-incident continues, and today Russian media and psychological operations were activated on a larger scale, with the information originating from TASS. The story was simple: there is no Russian submarine in Swedish waters, but instead the Swedish authorities should “request explanations from the Dutch Navy command”, as it was claimed that it was the Walrus-class submarine HNLMS Bruinvis which would have been spotted while conducting an emergency surfacing drill. This was rapidly debunked by the Dutch Navy, which denied that their submarine would have been in Swedish waters after finishing the joint exercise Northern Archer earlier last week. As it was clear that the Bruinvis had been moored openly in Tallinn during a large part of the weekend, the Russian claim was easily shown as being completely unfounded.

HNLMS Bruinvis, photo taken by Mika Peltola on Saturday (18102014) morning at 8 AM in port of Tallinn.
HNLMS Bruinvis, photo taken by Mika Peltola on Saturday (18102014) morning at 8 AM in the port of Tallinn.

As a side not, TASS has also posted an article with the headline “Sweden’s search for unknown submarine raises tensions in Baltic region”. One could be forgiven to think it was Sweden who has practiced air strikes against neighboring countries… This brings up an important point, which has become increasingly clear since the start of the invasion of Crimea earlier this year: Russian media and officials cannot be trusted to objectively tell the truth. Instead, there has been a number of cases were Russian authorities, including Vladimir Putin, has told outright lies, which have been repeated by Russian media without any kind of critical analysis. The list includes such clear-cut cases as the statement that there were no Russian soldiers in Crimea (later confirmed by Putin himself) and that a Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack plane would have shot down MH17 (when the Russian aircraft manufacturer themselves state that the plane can’t reach the altitude MH17 flew on). HeadlinesThis is in line with what experts in the west has stated about the Russian view of the use of media in psychological warfare [1], [2], [3], and this can in turn be connected to an increasing number of reports about the systematic use of social media to spread fabricated stories [4 see also list of recommended reading at end of source]. Bottomline: unfortunately, due to the above mentioned recent events and a long negative trend with regards to freedom of press in Russia, western media must stop its use of Russian media and authorities as a source of equal value to their western counterparts. To go back to the story above, YLE quoted the Russian Defence Ministry stating that the Swedes should be looking for the Bruinvis, and then quoted the negative answer by Dutch authorities in a way that gives both the sources the same value. In my opinion, this is clearly not in line with good journalistic conduct. A journalist should indeed strive to present both sides of a story, but not all sources are created equal, and a failure to properly explain this gives the casual reader a tilted view of the story.

Update on the Red October-incident

Yesterday I published a brief text pointing out that not all submarines in the Baltic Sea are Russian, and that not all underwater activity is submarines. This will be a brief update on what has happened since.

The major news was when Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported that a signal emerging from the archipelago outside of Stockholm had been sent on a Russian Navy distress channel. When the search operation got underway, there was renewed traffic, which was encrypted, and a transmitter located in Russian Kaliningrad answered. This was the first evidence that decidedly pointed towards Russia as the country of origin. This could also explain the, in my opinion, rather strong and decisive response by the Swedish Navy when the first visual sightings occurred.

Representatives of the Swedish Defence Forces have denied that they have received knowledge about a distress signal, although the exact wording leaves the possibility open that A) the info has been distributed on a strict need-to-know basis, and as such is not available to the officers involved in the operation, or B) the interpretation that a signal on a known foreign military channel used for distress signals does not equal a known distress signal. They have also clearly stated that they do not know the country of origin or exact nature of the underwater activity, and as such they will continue to refer to it simply as “foreign underwater activity”. Most importantly, it has been confirmed that three visual sightings have taken place, and that the operation will continue for a number of days. Imagery from one of the sightings has also been released. The picture is grainy, but could be interpreted to show some kind of a midget submarine, e.g. the Russian Triton NN.

One of the pictures released by the Swedish Defence Forces, showing a man made object traveling on the surface, before vanishing under it. Source: http://www.forsvarsmakten.se

The question of where the mother ship is located has been focused on the Russian-owned Liberian-flagged crude carrier NS Concord. The ship has been anchored outside of St Petersburg since the beginning of May, acting as a floating storage. Last week, it set sail and sailed to a position right outside the border of Swedish territorial waters, where it has since loitered. To begin with its AIS-data gave the destination as Danish Straits, but today this was changed to Primorsk. When the tanker suddenly found itself in the limelight, the Russian research/sea survey vessel Professor Logachev suddenly headed out to sea, destined for Las Palmas(?). It remains to be seen if this vessel will make a stop outside of Stockholm, but the timing seems somewhat suspicious. The Logachev also happened(?) to be traveling in the middle of the three-ship Dutch naval flotilla heading home from Tallinn, with the Walrus-class submarine HNLMS Bruinvis probably not far away either.

In Finland Charly Salonius-Pasternak, Sr. Research Fellow at FIIA, noted that Finland’s stance on the issue will be noted in Sweden, and called for our politicians to make a clear statement in support of Sweden. Otherwise it will affect the possible deepening of Swedish-Finnish military co-operation.

This in turn made Carl Haglund (SFP/RKP), Minister of Defence, answer that we will wait and see, and that if the allegations are true, this is “very serious”. On a direction question he said that we are currently not planning any assistance to the Swedish Navy, but if an official call for help comes, he would personally view it favorably. With regards to what kind of help we could send, he stated that options remains open, and would depend on what kind of assistance the Swedish authorities would be asking for. Salonius-Pasternak in turn noted that one can offer help even before someone asks for it, but this remark went unanswered.

As a further note, the hashtag #redoctober has become widely used with regards to the incident.

Some Reflections on the Stockholm “Subhunt”

In the media the current intelligence operation south of Stockholm has been described as the Swedish Navy searching for (or even hunting) “a Russian submarine”. I would like to point out that the picture might be quite a bit more complex. As said earlier, out of respect for the fact that it is an ongoing operation and the possible need for OPSEC, I will not include any attempts at an OOB.

The Swedish Defence Forces yesterday (Friday the 17th of October) stated that during the day they had received information from a reliable source about “foreign underwater activity”. As a response to this, the Swedish Defence Forces have decided to conduct an intelligence gathering operation in the area, with sea, air and land units.

The “foreign underwater activity” was immediately translated into “Russian submarine” by the media. There are Russian submarines in the Baltic Sea, namely the two ‘Kilo’-class submarines B-227 Vyborg and B-806 Dmitrov of Projects 877 and 877EKM respectively.

However, there are a number of other possible explanations.

The possibility of Russian divers and/or light underwater equipment has to be accounted for. This could include midget submarines or diver propulsion vehicles, with either a supporting land-based unit, or support from ships/submarines in international waters. Possible missions include intelligence gathering, e.g. with regards to the ability of the Swedish units to detect and respond to incursions of this kind. This kind of mission would most probably go to Russian naval Spetsnaz units, which made headline during the 2008 war in Georgia when they apparently entered into the port of Poti and destroyed the majority of the surface units of the small Georgian Navy.

Another possibility is that some other country sent a submarine into the area.

Polish Project 877E ‘Kilo’-class submarine ORP Orzeł (291), outwardly similar to the submarines of Russia’s Baltic Fleet. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Poland operates a single Project 877E ’Kilo’-class as well as four German-designed Ex-Norwegian Type 207 ’Kobben’-class submarines. All are of the diesel-electric type, meaning they are extremely quiet when submerged, but have to go up to the surface and recharge their batteries every now and then. Although the submarines are somewhat dated, they still constitute a very proficient striking force.

Germany has continued its long and proud tradition as builder of submarines. Currently its submarine force consists of four Type 212 A submarines based in Eckernförde, close to Kiel. These are some of the most modern submarines in the world, being so called AIP-submarines (air independent), meaning that thanks to their hydrogen fuel-cells they don’t have to surface regularly.

Neither the three Baltic countries nor Denmark has any submarines left. Sweden has three Gotland-class and two Södermanland-class AIP-submarines, but these are naturally not part of the equation. However, the Netherlands currently has a single Walrus-class submarine in the Baltic Sea, which has taken part in exercise Northern Archer together with the Swedish units now scanning the waters south of Stockholm. As far as I know, no details about its route home have been published.

It is possible that some of these countries have decided to test the Swedish response to underwater incursions. It could have been a unilateral decision by the country in question, or as a proposal/request/idea from some kind of higher-level NATO forum. The purpose in that case would most probably be intelligence gathering, to get a validated picture of the Swedish response and capabilities in case of a Russian incursion, where the secondary goals could include highlighting these deficits in capability to the Swedish politicians and general public. The Navy is already well aware of its (lack of) capabilities.

This would naturally be a very high-risk operation politically, as getting publicly caught with your submarine in the territorial waters of a friendly country is not desirable, to put it mildly. To lessen the risk, a similar operation could naturally be launched with divers as discussed above in the case of Russian units.

I will not rank any of these scenarios as to what is most likely, but bear in mind, there are a lot of things happening under the surface of the Baltic Sea about which we know very little.

Edit 18/10/2014 18:15 (GMT +2): On the press conference that just finished, it became clear that the Swedish navy increases number of units involved in intelligence operation outside Stockholm, stresses focus is on intelligence NOT on subhunt. They still believe the original intel about foreign underwater activity was “very reliable”, and declines to comment on “What further circumstantial evidence we have received”. No further specifics were revealed.