Swedish Advice

You do have to feel for Swedish defence planners. Following a rather long and arduous journey, Sweden finally got a new long-term defence plan approved in 2020. And less than two years after that, Sweden decides to join NATO and several of the underlying premises flew out of the window. As such, the government asked the Swedish Commander in Chief for new recommendations with priorities under the new situation. This was published a while ago, and in general can be described as “It would be good to do more faster, though we have to keep an eye on not shuffling too much resources and personnel to growth so readiness starts to suffer”. However, there are some changes which are worth a more detailed comment, and I will focus on the changes to key systems in usage as they are easy to get a grip of in this rather limited overview. Several of the major changes envisioned are on the process and organisation side, and getting an accurate take on their potential impact would deserve a significantly longer analysis.

H160M Guépard is almost certainly not HKP 17, but the odds are looking better than they did a year ago. Source: Airbus/Eric Raz

A quick note: these are recommendations provided by the Swedish Armed Forces, and as such have not been decided upon yet. During the process leading up to the 2020 plan the politicians did shift focus and major decisions quite drastically from those supported by the Armed Forces, and can certainly do so again. About the structure of the report, the 2024 to 2030 period is described in some detail, while the 2031 to 2035 is painted with broader strokes of the brush.

Army

In the ground arena we see some significant changes. The three mechanised brigades will all get an additional fourth battalion to allow for greater staying power on the battlefield. Battlegroup Gotland would also receive reinforcements to give it a more well-rounded capability. These changes would come before 2030, while the Battlegroup Mälardalen would be transformed into a full (motorised) infantry brigade (Livgardesbrigaden, IB 1) in the period following that. That unit is tasked with defence of the greater Stockholm-region.

Much has happened since the original Strf 9040A rolled off the production lines, and today’s CV 90 Mk IV is a completely new beast in many ways. The mobility, in particular in snow, of the CV 90 is something the Swedes have always praised, and it is doubtful they would be ready to switch to some of the heavier and bulkier designs that dominate today’s marketplace. Source: BAES Hägglunds

The equipment of the mechanised units is growing old, and a new infantry fighting vehicle is in the cards during this decade. My personal guess is that this would be a new version of the CV 90, or potentially a new design from BAES Hägglunds. The current fleet of Strv 122 (Leopard 2A5 with Swedish modifications) is to undergo an MLU to allow it to serve past 2035. While the paper does not include any details, Frank Lobitz in his grand book on the Leo 2 “Gesamtwerk Leopard 2” (published by Tankograd Publishing earlier this autumn) caused some raised eyebrows by outlining in some detail that Sweden had decided upon an upgrade program. The report now make it seem like Lobitz’s information might be correct, and in that case what we are looking at is the introduction of the Leopard 2A7S as the Strv 123A/B. This would include the conversion of a first batch of 44 tanks with the L/55 A1 gun, updates to the fire control system (including new functionalities with advanced HE-rounds), and an auxiliary power unit (APU). Notable is that there is no mention of an active protection system. More engineering armoured vehicles are also in the plans.

Rocket artillery will be acquired, and in addition there will be studies whether these could be used for the anti-ship mission as well. Significant improvements are envisioned when it comes to the air defence units of the brigades and of the division. Loitering munitions and more UAS are in the cards. With these also come a general increase in ISTAR-capabilities, with more ISR-units and improvements to the sensor capabilities.

In general Sweden will maintain a mix of standing units and units which are to be mobilised, where the former provide the ability to react rapidly and buy time for the mobilisation of the later – which will continue to make up the majority of the force. A single new unit is proposed, a minor detachment in the north to focus on host nation support.

NAVy

The Swedish Navy remains too small and new vessels are too far into the future. I covered it in detail over at Naval News, so go over there to read about the details. I will mention that while some have read the news that YSF 2030 (Visby 2.0/Next-Gen) will sport increased air defence capability making it a part of NATO’s integrated air and missile defence (NATO IAMD) to mean it will have missiles capable of intercepting ballistic missiles, it could also mean missiles in Aster 15-class and a serious radar able to feed the situational picture.

Air Force

The proposal for the Swedish Air Force can be summed up in more airframes, missiles, and capabilities – with one crucial exception, which we will get to. More air-to-air missiles followed by more anti-ship and cruise missiles acquired in the 2031-2035 time span. A decision on the future of the fighters post-2040 will need to be made within this decade, and a new advanced trainer aircraft (ATA) to replace the 39C/D currently used in that role will have to be acquired. Instead, the 39C/D will be kept in service and developed further alongside 39E throughout the whole timespan and beyond 2035 to ensure a fleet of 120 multirole fighters – a significant step up from the ambition level just a few years ago when it seemed like the 39C/D was on its way out as soon as the 39E would be available in numbers.

An additional C-130J to bring the fleet up to five aircraft is also in the cards early in the period, and the Armed Forces is looking into the possibility of cooperating internationally and in particular among the Nordics when it comes to tactical transports. This sounds close enough to what Finnish Air Force commander major general Juha-Pekka Keränen mentioned earlier this autumn that I reached out to the general to ask if we are involved. The answer was that “there’s nothing official on the part of Finland, and we haven’t been discussing it in depth. The other three countries [Sweden, Norway, Denmark] are discussing possible synergies when it comes to training and operations. I’ve said that we are looking into the question, but that it needs to be looked at as a part of integrating with NATO and is more a question of logistics rather than Air Force operations.”

Sweden would also like to look into a further developed airborne sensor- and C2-capability in a Nordic cooperative framework, something they mention in the same sentence as S106 GlobalEye. If this is the Swedish Armed Forces way of saying that it would be nice if Finland would buy the GlobalEye and the Swedish government should contribute towards that goal is unclear to me, but it certainly is one read. The production line is still hot as far as I know since the Swedish order is yet undelivered, making it somewhat plausible that a Finnish order could be handled for a relatively modest price tag, but it would be a bit of a surprise if the money would be found for that kind of investment.

Swedish Armed Forces’ A109 LUH onboard the Dutch Navy’s HNLMS Johan de Witt during the ME 04 deployment to hunt pirates back in 2015. Source. Mats Nyström/Försvarsmakten

The big topic was however the helicopters. The fate of the NH 90 in Swedish service is to be retired early, and that include both the tactical transports and ASW/maritime helicopters. However, the Swedish fleet of Leonardo A109 LUH (locally known as HKP 15) are also to be retired starting during the 2024 to 2030 timespan and finishing up during the next five years. While the A109 is the smallest of the three Swedish helicopters, the fleet still number a total of 20 airframes (12 of the ‘army’-version HKP 15A and 8 of the naval-version HKP 15B). While often described as a training helicopter, Swedish helicopter pilots receive their basic training at the Heeresfliegerwaffenschule in Bückeburg, Germany, a move that has freed up the light helicopters for numerous operational missions where having a light helicopter available is more valuable than not having a medium helicopter. In particular for the Navy, the small fleet of HKP 15B provide important service day in and day out, including for ship-based operations.

For a Swedish Armed Forces that are supposedly growing as fast as they can, it’s hard not to notice the fact that while an additional twelve UH-60M are acquired to cover the nine NH 90TTH (HKP 14E) and nine new maritime helicopters are acquired to cover for the naval NH 90TTH (HKP 14F), that still sees the number of operational helicopters shrink from 53 (18 NH 90, 15 UH-60M, 20 A109) to 36 (27 UH-60M, 9 HKP 17?), meaning almost a third fewer helicopters available (32 %).

The answer is that the new helicopters will be more capable than the A109, but it is still clear that quite a number of missions won’t be carried out in the future. In particular the naval squadron will be hard-hit, as they lose almost half of their fleet during the next ten years. While some missions likely will be transferred to unmanned systems, it is still a significant loss in capability, in particular as the cost of average flight hours probably will rise with the fleet consolidated on larger and more expensive platforms.

As for what will replace the NH 90, as mentioned more UH-60M will be acquired for a total fleet of 27 Blackhawks, most likely equipping two squadrons, based in central and northern Sweden respectively. For the naval side of things, when the project was kicked off a year ago, the talk was that the alternative if the HKP 14F was withdrawn was to acquire MH-60R Seahawks for an all-Hawk-fleet. For this end, trials were to take place with the Romeo in the Baltic Sea to evaluate how the sensor suite works in Swedish conditions, something which as far as I know has not been confirmed to have taken place, but on the other hand the USS Kearsarge brought quite a few opportunities for that to happen during its cruise.

Now however it is stressed that a decision on the new maritime helicopter has not been taken. It might be that the realisation that thanks to US DoD bureaucracy there are no major synergies between an Army and a Navy helicopter has struck, or it might be that the Swedish Armed Forces wants to host a serious competition to get a better price tag on the eventual deal. It is also unclear whether the new helicopter will receive the localised sensor suite and mission systems of the HKP 14F, or whether an existing solution would be sought. In any case, the competition isn’t overly big, in particular as the NH 90NFH is a non-starter. The MH-60R was beat by the AW159 Wildcat in South Korea, while France will acquire the Airbus H160M Guépard for the naval role – though it may arrive a bit too late for the Swedes and I am unsure to what extent it will be ASW-capable in the version actually ordered (there certainly are concepts for fitting it with a sonar). Speaking of sonars, the ALFS of the MH-60R is from the same Thales FLASH-family of sonars as the Sonar 234 (Thales FLASH S) mountedon the HKP 14F, which might or might not be relevant to the discussion.

Since this blog is what it is, someone is bound to ask whether Finland would want additional NH 90? My understanding is that the current fleet is roughly what can fit under the budget, though considering the expected lack of enthusiasm on the market for used NH 90s I can certainly imagine Finland buying a small number of HKP 14E for close to scrap-value to use for spares. When asked the question about the ASW-helicopters last year I very confidently stated that there is no chance we could fit those inside the budget and I haven’t heard anyone even dreaming of getting a naval flying unit for Merivoimat. In the year since, however, I have in fact heard a person with insight voice their personal opinion that the Navy really need to acquire an airborne ASW-capability, so who knows. Hashtag bring back Pommituslentolaivue 6, as the cool kids say.

PLELV 6 – if it dives, we can make it dive even more. Source: SA-kuva

On the positive side, the helicopter squadrons will finally get mobile base units, allowing them to better use the strategic mobility when it comes to basing that is one of the inherent benefits of helicopters compared to fixed-wing aircraft.

Food

While there is significantly more in the 66 pages of the unclassified document that we won’t look at in this short overview, there is one thing I can’t skip as the comments would tear this post apart.

The restaurants and catering on the military installations are planned to be brought back under the ownership and operation of the Swedish Armed Forces.

No Tanks to You

The world of military defence and national security isn’t standing still, so for the next three days we will take a look on a current topic from each of the three countries that make up NATO’s northern flank, kicking off with the northernmost one: Norway.

Norway needs modern tanks.

In my world, the statement is obvious enough that I had not thought I would write a post on the topic, but here we are.

Readers of the blog might be familiar with the fact that Norway has been running an acquisition program simply called “Nye stridsvogner” – which literally means “New tanks”. The international interest has largely come down to the fact that it has been a rather thorough one, including local trials pitting Europe’s main battle tank the Leopard 2 against South Korea’s K2 Black Panther, something that is quite rare in the world of tank procurement these days.

Norwegian Leopard 2A4 further south along NATO’s frontier, here with the eFP Battlegroup in Lithuania. Source: eFP BG Lithuania FB

The current Norwegian tanks are ex-Dutch Leopard 2A4, sporting a rather limited amount of local modifications compared to your standard 2A4. This includes a larger storage box on the back of the turret, two added antennas (one of which is for the GPS), and sporting some non-standard side skirt configurations (including borrowing Leopard 1 light skirts from older spare stocks), as well as sporting the Dutch-standard FN MAG light machine gun on the turret roof instead of the MG 3 (the smoke dispenser were converted to German standard upon delivery). In line with other non-upgraded 2A4s, what once was one of the best tanks in the world is showing serious signs of obsolescence (T-62 making sad noises). The original plan was for a serious upgrade program to take place, aiming for something close to the 2A7V-standard. However, like many Leopard-operators, it was eventually found to be more cost-efficient to just buy new tanks.

The expectation was that the Leopard 2A7NO would beat the K2NO Black Panther, an order would be placed late this year or early 2023, and in a few years time the new tanks would have replaced the ex-Dutch vehicles. That expectation has hit a bump already earlier, with reports coming out that the K2NO did in fact perform rather well in the winter trials. This was followed by the Polish order for the K2 and K2PL, which meant a K2NO-order would not make Norway the sole operator of the exotic tank in NATO. At the same time, Germany was making a mess of its grand Zeitenwende in the eyes of many European countries while accompanying its aid to Ukraine with a significant amount of squabbling, eroding its status as the obvious solid supplier of tanks to western countries.

With the significant political and supply base/synergy benefits of the Leopard called into question, it suddenly it seemed we had a real race on our hands. It wasn’t necessarily that K2NO was significantly better than the 2A7NO, but as opposed to the 2A7NO which had a lot of capabilities bolted on to the original Cold War-era design, the K2NO benefited from having been designed with these in mind. That in turn provide significant benefits to growth potential for the future, as well as weight savings which are a non-trivial matter in a snowy mountainous country such as the Republic of Kor… I mean, Norway.

And then in late November, the curveball hit hard. Norwegian Chief of Defence, general Eirik Kristoffersen, recommended to the Norwegian government that the tank procurement should be cancelled, and the freed up funds should be channelled to fund helicopters and long-range fires for the Army. This was rather quickly leaked and confirmed by the general to the press, and was followed up by a rather spectacular in-fighting in full glare of publicity, with the Chief of Operational Headquarters lieutenant-general Yngve Odlo publicly stating that he does not see any alternative to tanks and want the procurement to go through. He gets backed up by the commander of the sole Norwegian brigade Brigade Nord, brigadier Pål Eirik Berglund, who talked to Norwegian daily and paper of record Aftenposten and stated that “Without new tanks, we will be missing an essential component of the combat capability we need.” While the commander of the Army, major-general Lars S. Lervik, is said to oppose the proposal made by Kristoffersen but in public remains loyal (at least to the extent that he declines to comment and stated that he gives his advice to the general, who then gets to say what he wants to the government), the commander of the armoured battalion (Panserbateljonen) lieutenant colonel Lars Jansen said that the first he heard of the whole thing was when media broke the story.

The kind way to put it, and I’ve seen some make that argument, is that this isn’t a big deal, but normal discussion among professionals when money is limited and choices need to be made about where to spend it, with what can best be described as pitting a 21st century land version of the Jeune École arguing for firepower and mobility against a more traditional school of thinking emphasising taking and holding terrain. However, it is hard to see that such a deep and open split between many of the most senior commanders of the force would be a sign of healthy debate – the question is after all about one of the most important acquisition programs of the joint force which has reached a very late stage, in particular when coupled with the readiness displayed by other senior officers to publicly go against their commander.

The idea to cancel the tanks and place the bet on long-range fires is somewhat in line with the media speculation fuelled by the Instagram Wars of the last few years, in which videos of UACs and loitering munitions or light infantry with anti-tank weapons hunting enemy tanks have spread like wildfire and led some to declare the tank as being dead (again, one might add). However, what experiences from Ukraine seem to indicate is that the increased lethality on the battlefield means what you really need to survive is more, not less, protection. This takes the shape both in heavier protection for infantry protection vehicles, logistics vehicles, and so forth, but also a need for tanks to spearhead assaults and perform the numerous roles they have done on the battlefield since at least the Second World War. While the Ukrainian defensive victories of the first months of the war might have been driven by comparatively light forces, there is a reason why Ukraine is begging for all tanks they can get their hands on.

However, there is a second part to the argument in the case of Norway which is geography, and that deserves to be looked at.

The Norwegian border region in the far north is called Finnmark, and like the areas south of the border in Finland and Sweden it is dominated by wilderness, relatively sparse infrastructure, and a population density which makes talking to plants seem like a reasonable past-time: 1.55/km2 in the case of Finnmark. Opposite the border in Northern Russia sits the Russia Northern Fleet, responsible for an important part of the Russian nuclear deterrent – and in particular for the majority of the ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) responsible for the second-strike capability – as well as air defences stretching out over the Arctic which are to try and stop US strategic bombers and cruise missiles in case of all-out (nuclear) war. The notion by some is that in case of war, Russia would want to push NATO forces further away from the border either through use of long-range fires or by invasion, that the Norwegian forces would be unable to stop the Russians from doing this without dying, and that the solution is to attrit the forces before stopping them, and counterattacking when NATO reinforcements have arrived.

Keen readers of the blog know that I do find the idea of Russia trying to push the front westwards in the region a reasonable one. However, the Russian juggernaut is somewhat questionable, as the amount of Russian forces in the area relatively limited, sporting two motorised brigades (200th and 80th) as well as a marine infantry brigade, and Russia can’t risk overly large losses as that would open up the region to counterattacks. Of course, the Russians have shown the ability to mass forces in prioritised operational directions, but the north isn’t an easy place to fight in in the best of times, and in winter (which is long and really dark) it will become directly hostile unless you have trained and equipped for it.

Which two Finnish, a Swedish, and a Norwegian brigades has done (notable here that the Finnish brigades are peacetime training units, and there’s no telling how many and what kind of wartime units they are tasked to mobilise in case of war).

As such, an important thing here to begin with is that Norway is not going to fight alone. This is not something new, but the new part is that from day one Norway isn’t going to fight alone, but rather alongside Finnish and Swedish soldiers. This means that force levels can be expected to be more or less equal on both sides of the border – as long as Norway contribute the heavy brigade NATO has asked for. And while a strategic surprise might catch the Norwegian brigades in Troms (the country next-door to the west), any Russian advance would see angry Finns and Swedes charging down their flank.

Interlude: If Russia shifts troops north they can obviously outmatch the locals, but in that case NATO is also freed up to concentrate more of their forces in the region.

However, I have not seen the Norwegian debate reflect upon what it means to wait for reinforcements. The USMC is going tank-less (which might be an idea for a dedicated amphibious force, but not for a ground force), and the number of heavy armoured units available in NATO are in fact rather limited and can be expected to have their hands full further south. There simply aren’t many available. But perhaps even more questionable, the plan to rely on long-range fires and having someone else spearhead the counterattack in effect means that someone else will have to take the largest share of losses in the battle for Finnmark.

It is difficult to see this leading to anything but the it being Finnish and Swedish sons and daughters in the first line dying to protect the civilians of Vardø. And that raises the question which I have not seen in the Norwegian debate.

Can Norway morally choose to go to war in the high north without tanks? In particular if it is allied with Finland and Sweden?

And it must be said, if the Norwegian politicians and soldiers would be ready to simply let the population of eastern Finnmark suffer under occupation until someone else comes to their aid – and as we have seen that means torture, rape, and killings in the same vein of the Red Army of old – that decision is odd in the extreme.

A Norwegian Leopard 2A4 during exercises in Alta, the largest town by population in Finnmark. Source: Norwegian Army Twitter

The call for cancelling the tank program has so far been met with mixed responses from the politicians. The Norwegian minority government has stated that they indeed to continue with the process, while from the opposition there has been calls for more information.

Which is somewhat strange, as it isn’t like the idea to invest millions in new tanks is a whim by the minister of defence, but rather based on years of studies and recommendations. The basis for the process is the white paper Landmaktsutredningen from 2017-2018 on the future of the ground forces, and in the latest Fagmilitært råd of 2019 the then-Chief of Defence provided four different ambition levels with additional directions for land- or sea-emphasised recommendations for the future of the Norwegian forces, he did explicitly write that the addition of new tanks is seen as crucial regardless of which level of ambition and funding the politicians agree upon. While a new edition of Fagmilitært råd is in the works, it’s difficult to see which changes would have affected the tank-part of things to the extent that new information would suddenly appear.

Norway needs modern tanks, and the only thing waiting for more information or cancelling the deal would mean is higher cost, a more uncertain deterrence situation in the high north, and a spot on Norway’s reputation among allies.

6. Division to the defence of the common North

I recently wrote an article over at Swedish defence website “Militär Debatt” discussing which Swedish capabilities would be of greatest interest to Finland. To the surprise of some, instead of fancy systems such as submarines and AEW&C aircraft, the capability I picked above the rest was the possibility of getting the Swedish mechanized brigade built around the units trained by the peacetime I 19 Norrbottens regemente (the Norrbotten regiment) in Boden, which would be a significant addition to the defence of the vast and sparsely populated northern Finland. While how many Finnish units would mobilised in the region during wartime as well as how many units would be deployed there during different scenarios is obviously a secret, it is safe to assume that in most cases the number of units would be rather limited as the larger part of the Finnish Army would be used to defend the Finnish population and industrial centras in the south and central parts of the country.

In the Finnish north there are two army units spread over three garrisons: Kainuun prikaati (KAIPR, the Kajani brigade) in Kajani, and Jääkäriprikaati (JPR, the Jaeger brigade) in Sodankylä and Rovaniemi. Of these, KAIPR sits just south of the classic Raate – Suomussalmi – Oulu line of advance, while JPR is further north. As geography changes slowly, the strategic value of the east-west axis of advance aimed at Oulu and cutting through Finland at its narrowest point remains, meaning that a significant proportion of the Finnish forces trained in the subarctic wilderness likely will be concentrated on the Kuusamo-Suomussalmi-Kuhmo line, leaving fewer troops to cover the roughly 250 km from Salla to Vätsäri. As such, it is easy to imagine that a Swedish mechanised brigade would at least double the amount of troops capable of conducting high-end offensive operations in the area north of Kuusamo.

Finnish Leopard 2A4 from the tank company attached to Jääkäriprikaati taking part in exercise Cold Response 22 in Norway earlier this year. Norway is also using the 2A4, though they are in the process of picking a replacement, while the Swedes are employing a localised version of the somewhat newer 2A5. Source: Jääkäriprikaati Twitter

However, as we all know, Finland and Sweden won’t be the only countries in Sápmi that are NATO-members (as soon as the Turkey-situation is dealt with), and any defence planning will be conducted jointly with Norway. Any defence planning will also be conducted within the broader scope of NATO, and as is well-known while NATO obviously doesn’t dictate how the individual countries handle their defence, the alliance isn’t shy of asking and in general has stated that it “needs, now more than ever, modern, robust, and capable forces at high readiness […] in order to meet current and future challenges”, as the 64. paragraph of the Wales Summit Declaration expressed it. That doesn’t mean that all forces need to be fully mobilised here and now, but it will provide some food for thought for the Finnish strategic culture.

…which leads us to an interesting idea: what NATO really needs is a tri-national standing division in the high north.

I will admit that whenever I see the words ‘standing unit’ and ‘Finnish Army’ in the same sentence, the first reaction is to try and explain how the Finnish conscript-reservist system works. However, new times calls for new measures, and as we will have units from three nations fighting side-by-side in the area – which is a single geographical theatre of operations as I have earlier noted – this calls for close cooperation and joint training already in peacetime. Few things would raise the combat capability as much as having at least a number of the units in place already during peacetime. As such, I present to you my very rough concept for the 6. Division, a tri-national mechanised unit for the defence of the high North.

I picked the name 6. Division, as it has a historical connection to some of the region’s most notable military formations in the case of all three armies.

While the German attack on Norway in 1940 for the most part was a huge success for the attackers, the one major allied victory was the liberation of Narvik. The city had been captured in the initial assault, but was retaken by a joint French – UK – Norwegian – Polish attack in May. The key Norwegian unit of the battle was the 6. divisjon. The unit was disbanded following the Allied retreat, but was reformed post-war and stationed in northern Norway from 1954 until it was disbanded again this side of the millenium.

The Swedish VI. armé-fördelningen was first created in Östersund in 1893, were it spent the next 34 years until the northern Swedish division was renamed as the Norra arméfördelningen, only to change to II. armé-fördelningen in 1937. At the same time, the Boden garrison had set up their own division as XV. arméfördelningen, which remained as such until the two units where merged in 1994 with Boden taking lead and renumbering as the 6. armé-fördelning, keeping this until disbandment in 2000.

The Finnish 6. divisioona was set up in 1941 with soldiers from the northern districts. The unit enjoyed a somewhat spotty history, including taking part in the failed Unternehmen Polarfuchs with the Nazi-German forces and having soldiers robbing the Kajaani liqueur store under riot-like forms in 1942, until it turned up at Ihantala in 1944 and formed a key part in what was one of the crucial battles of the summer of 1944. After this, the unit went north to fight their former German allies, a campaign which saw them liberate Rovaniemi.

The key Norwegian unit is the Brigade Nord (Brigade North), which is a fully mechanised unit made up of three mechanised battalions, the Telemark Bataljon, the 2. Bataljon, and the Panserbataljon, as well as supporting units. Of these, the Telemark battalion is stationed further south as the name implies, and is the only fully contracted battalion, the rest including conscripts in their manning. The Telemark and Panser (armoured) battalion include both tanks and CV 9030 infantry fighting vehicles among their numbers, while the 2. battalion lack tanks and only has CV 9030-vehicles (and in fact is only now undergoing transition from light infantry to mechanised, a process which will be ready by 2023). Among the supporting units there are e.g. artillery (K9 Thunder) and engineering battalions, meaning that the brigade has all the organic capabilities needed.

I 19 in Sweden has up until now been responsible for the creation of a number of units which can be pieced together according to need under the command of the Tredje brigadstaben, an independent brigade HQ set up by the regiment. However, the wartime forces set up by the unit is now undergoing transformation into a fixed brigade structure, under which the 19. Mekaniserade norrlandsbrigaden (NMekB 19, also known as Norrbottensbrigaden) will see some important changes. This new wartime unit will reach full operational capability in 2026. Like their Norwegian brethren, the two main combat systems are the Leopard 2 and the CV 90 – though Sweden has a newer Leopard (Strv 122/Leo 2A5 compared to Leo 2A4) and an older CV 90 (Strf 9040 compared to CV 9030 Mk I and III). The current two wartime combat battlions are the 191:a and 192:a mekaniserade bataljonen, och which the former sport both full-time and part-time serving soldiers while the latter is made up of soldiers serving part-time. Note that the Swedish mechanised battalions are tank heavy, sporting two tank and two mechanised companies each, actually making them armoured rather than mechanised battalions, something which also is evident in at least one of the plans on the table which would see a wartime NMekB 19 made up of 191. pansarbataljonen as a standing unit and 192. pansarbataljonen and 193. mekaniserade bataljonen as part-time units (also note the inability of the Swedish Armed Forces to decide upon a single way of writing numbers before units, causing headaches to innocent bloggers).

The key Finnish unit as mentioned is the Jääkäriprikaati which is specialised in (sub)arctic conditions and air defence. While air defence units are nice, the interesting part here is the Sodankylä garrison and the Lapin jääkäripataljoona which with a focus on light infantry is responsible for an unknown number of units to be mobilised in wartime. However, for our standing 6. division there is the post-Crimean detail of the Finnish Army’s new standing units created under the designation Valmiusyksikkö or readiness unit – manned by a combination of longer-serving conscripts and contracted soldiers, NCOs, and officers. The readiness battalion of JPR is most likely currently not ideal for high-intensity warfare, but it certainly provide a baseline for how a Finnish standing unit could be created without breaking the bank.

Note here that I am not arguing for trashing the conscript system or other similar complete overhauls. It is notable that of the Norwegian battalions two out of three are manned by conscripts, while two out of three Swedish battalions would also need mobilisation from part-time soldiers. Finland could well offer a brigade with a single standing battalion and two reserve ones, where in line with the current structure the standing battalion would be made up of conscripts volunteering for an additional six months of service, after which the unit rotate into reserve and takes up the place of one of the two reserve battalions. It is however clear that if the standing battalion is supposed to be able to conduct joint operations within the scope of a multinational brigade, the training for the first six months will have to include high-end international training within that frame of reference.

So that is the current situation, how could this patchwork of units and capabilities, almost all of which are currently in the process of being reformed, be brought together for a functioning division?

To begin with a common divisional HQ is created, which is staffed and up and running already in peacetime, is obviously needed. Exactly where it is located is an open question, though I’d imagine for example either Boden or Rovaniemi could be suitable locations, depending on where there are suitable office spaces without windows. With regards to the three brigades, Brigade Nord will likely fit in more or less as is, especially once the current reforms are finished. While it is unfortunate that the Telemark battalion is deployed so far south, it is also part of the Norwegian Army’s rapid reaction forces (HRS), and as such it should be able to deploy quickly if need be. Neither Sweden nor Finland likely have the budget to keep their whole brigades standing – as unlike Norway their armed forces include several wartime brigades – so the solution is to have at least some units immediately ready. This would include the brigade headquarters and the 191. armoured for NMekB 19 as well as an arctic infantry battalion built around the current JPR readiness unit, with 192. armoured and two Finnish infantry battalions being manned by part-timers/reservists and mobilised if and when need be. While the infantry battalions obviously lack the offensive firepower of their mechanised brethren, infantry certainly has a role to play in the wilderness of the region. However, it needs to be emphasised that even if the infantry units are trained to fight dismounted they will need the mobility (and protection during transports) to be able to keep up with the other brigades. Winter war-nostalgia will only take you as far during modern combat.

To compensate for setting up a lighter (and cheaper) brigade, Finland which is known to sport an impressive number of artillery pieces and whose territory include the largest part of the immediate operating area of the division could be expected to provide a disproportionate number of division level-assets. This includes indirect fires, air defences, engineering, and logistics resources. This obviously would put pressure on the current Finnish force structure, as in essence there would need to be supporting arms for two more brigades than is currently found in the Finnish force structure (which, again, is secret, but it does seem a safe guess that there isn’t surplus artillery and bridging vehicles gathering dust in some warehouse). More K9 Thunder as well as potentially a modern rocket artillery unit would certainly do wonders to aid the artillery situation, and while the wartime needs of the other supporting units is more open, more engineering vehicles (including bridges, it’s a wet region) and air defences are a safe bet. A potential order of battle could in other words look like this.

The main combat units of a hypotethical 6. division. Note that as the Finnish wartime OOB is secret, any unit designations are in place more to give an idea about what the unit might be all about than any real name. Note that there currently is no wheeled heavy rocket launcher in Finnish service, but that hypotethical battery certainly would be a valuable capability (though the other possibility is that the long-range fires will be handled at a higher level). A good argument can be made that it is the Swedes who will bring that with their newfound interest for rockets, but as I noted they already bring bring three heavy battalions so it might be more appropriate that Finland brings the divisional artillery, and it certainly could be that it already is found in the Finnish long-term plan. The Swedes are kind enough to write out the air defence company in their open-source brigade structure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if organic air defence fires show up in other units in the diagram above as well. I also stuck to the mechanised symbol for NMekB 19, despite there being a good case for it in fact being an armoured brigade. The equipment of 193. is unclear, but might be only CV 90 as illustrated here. Note that engineering, recce, and logistics units are not visible in the picture.
A Swedish CV 9040 and a Finnish Leopard 2A4 from a temporary mixed unit during Cold Response 22. A sign of things to come? Source: David Carr/Försvarsmakten

While this is all largely a thought experiment spun from an interesting Twitter-discussion, I do feel it is a valuable and (very hands-on) example of what it actually means that our defence planning will no longer be just about ourselves. It also highlights the fact that while the current general ways of operating are expected to remain in place, even the “small” adjustments needed will cost money or alternatively pull units and capabilities from other places in the wartime force structure, in both cases leading to tough choices. If the upcoming changes for the FDF in the North takes the form of 6. division or something else is another question, but don’t be surprised if the NATO structure plans suddenly start calling for a more fixed structure when it comes to how the northern flank is supposed to be defended.

Enter Seahawk – Exit Whitefox?

That Sweden has had a rough time with their NH 90-fleet is no secret. The HKP 14 as it is known locally was delayed to the extent that a batch of 15 UH-60M Blackhawk had to be acquired as a stop-gap for the MEDEVAC-role in Afghanistan due to the Swedish Super Pumas being retired and the NH90 still being quite some way off from entering service. The UH-60M has been a stunning success for the Swedes, becoming a reliable workhorse for the Swedish Armed Forces in general and the airmobile soldiers of the K 3 Livregementets hussarer (Life Regiment Hussars) in particular.

A US Navy MH-60R Seahawk from HSM-78 “Blue Hawks” releases flares during a training exercise. Note the half-full sonobouy dispenser (and lack of port side door), large radar disk under the front fuselage, and aft landing gear being significantly forward compared to a UH-60. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sean M. Castellano via Wikimedia Commons

Now, unlike the situation in Finland where the NH90 eventually overcame the teething troubles to be widely accepted as a fully functioning and integrated part of the Finnish Defence Forces, the NH90 in Sweden has continued to struggle. To the extent that questions about the future of the platform has continued to be raised at regular intervals. A key part of the question is the role of the maritime mission sets which currently is outside the scope of Blackhawk operations. Instead, the Swedish NH 90-fleet sport two different versions: the transport-roled HKP 14E and the maritime-roled HKP 14F. Crucially, the HKP 14F is not an NH90 FFH, but a uniquely Swedish version based on the NH90 TTH (in addition both versions sport a higher cabin to provide a more ergonomic working environment, but the cost impact of that much-maligned feature at this stage is likely minor). The nine HKP 14F are equipped with a “tactical radar” (i.e. a maritime surveillance radar), dipping sonar, as well as sonobuoy launcher and processing capability. Keen readers will note that there are no weapons or datalinks in the description above, and that omission is not by accident.

Somehow, with Sweden being no stranger to neither airborne ASW-operations nor datalinks, it was originally decided against acquiring weapons or datalinks for the NH90, despite the platform being a key integrated part in both the surface and sub-surface warfare plans of the Swedish Navy. The realisation that this is stupid is nothing new, and has been discussed since before the helicopters were delivered. Eventually, common sense prevailed, and the latest long-term plan dictate that the integration of the new lightweight torpedo (TP 47) and a datalink will begin before 2025.

Back in 2018 it was reported that the Swedish Armed Forces looked into mothballing all of the transport-roled HKP 14E operating in northern Sweden to save money. A year later the issues continued, with lack of spares and too few trained technicians leading to fewer (and more costly) flight hours than planned, meaning that the northern Swedish Army units in Arvidsjaur (the recently reinstituted ranger regiment) and Boden have had a hard time getting the flight hours they need.

A HKP 14F, readily identifiable thanks to the large radar disk under the front fuselage. Source: Henrik Rådman/Försvarsmakten

Shortly before Christmas this year, it was reported that the armed forces again are looking at cutting the NH90-fleet. Following preliminary studies, there are two main options: one is to continue with the NH90 and go through with the planned upgrades for the HKP 14F to get the datalink and torpedo, while also ordering another batch of Blackhawks. The second option is to retire all NH90s, and instead go for a joint UH-60 Blackhawk/MH-60 Seahawk-fleet for all the helicopter needs of the Swedish Armed Forces (there is a third helicopter, the light AW109 which is in service as the HKP 15 and seem set for retirement without direct replacement). It is somewhat unclear what is supposed to happen with the HKP 14E, but considering the wish to buy more Blackhawks in both scenarios and the apparent focus on the maritime HKP 14F it does sound like the days of the HKP 14E in the army cooperation role is numbered.

On paper the joint Blackhawk/Seahawk-fleet sounds all nice and simple, and I will say that I am a big proponent of cutting losses and not succumbing to the sunken cost fallacy. At the same time, it is evident that the truth isn’t quite as straightforward.

Another unit which uses the UH-60M is the Swedish SERE- and Personnel Recovery-training unit FÖS, which sort under K 3. Here a UH-60M is out carrying a number of personnel of FÖS earlier this summer. Source: Bezav Mahmod/Försvarsmakten

A key reason why the UH-60M Blackhawk deal was so successful is that it was a rather straightforward need (move healthy and sick people and equipment quickly from point A to B) and that it was accepted to just grab what was already in US service and paint some Swedish crowns on the side (slight exaggeration, but not by much). It is significantly more doubtful if the same is the case for the highly technical ASW-role, case in point being the Danish order for the MH-60R Seahawk (affectionally known as Romeo thanks to the version-letter). Denmark received approval back in 2010 for nine MH-60R, and they achieved IOC in 2017. However, crucially Denmark opted for a non-ASW fitted MH-60R, and decided to include some unique equipment (including the NATO-standard harpoon-hydraulic deck-locking system instead of the US RAST, as well as specific emergency equipment). As such, they have largely operated in the SAR and fisheries protection role, and only now are they being refitted (“during the coming years”) to be able to operate in the ASW-role. This puts it more or less at the same schedule as the Swedish NH90, depending on when exactly “the coming years” is and how long the Swedish integration starting before 2025 takes.

A Danish MH-60R Seahawk in Greenland. Note the additional rescue kit fitted to one of the pylons, and the radar under the forward belly. Source: Forsvaret

Another major question is how the blue-water Romeo works in the brackish littorals of the Baltic Sea? That’s less of an issue for Denmark, where the majority of the time the helicopters will be working out in the North Sea or around Greenland, but for Sweden the Baltic Sea is the main playing field of the Navy. This is acknowledged by the Swedish Armed Forces, and is one of the key reasons why the NH90 NFH wasn’t bought. The plan now is to be able to get a USN helicopter over some time during next summer, and get to see how that performs in Swedish conditions. Obviously, even if the Romeo is chosen, there is a sliding scale between a HKP 16-style off-the-shelf buy and a stripped Romeo fitted with Swedish ASW-equipment and weapons dedicated to the Baltic Sea-environment. Obviously, the most extreme version would be to grab a UH-60M and start installing the extra equipment in that in the same way as is being done with the HKP 14F, something that certainly would be more costly at the outset but would provide a higher degree of synergies and also be based on a simpler platform compared to the navalised MH-60 (there certainly are synergies between the UH-60M and the MH-60R, but there certainly are differences as well). Because for the time being, and unlike Denmark, no Swedish vessel is able to accept either the Blackhawk or the NH90 (the Visby can take aboard the AW109, which honestly might be the feature most sorely missed if it is retired without replacement), meaning that features such as folding blades and tail are just adding extra weight, meaning that a converted Blackhawk might be attractive. A middle of the road alternative that most likely would only combine the worst of the two alternatives would be to use the MH-60S Knighthawk, the multi-role sister to the Romeo, and fit it with an ASW-suite. The Sierra is in essence a navalised version of the UH-60L fitted with the same cockpit and navalised systems as the Romeo (minus the ASW-stuff), and is used for a number of different missions in the US Navy.

Notable is that production for the US Navy has ended for both versions in 2018 (Romeo) and 2015 (Sierra) respectively, though export orders are keeping the production line of the Romeo warm (latest of which is an Australian order for additional Blackhawks and Seahawks to replace their NH90s a decade early in both the transport- and maritime-roles). The Sierra just might be easier to work with if Sweden would want a Seahawk, but with a fully Swedish mission system and if they then would run into some hardware/space-related issues, but the Romeo is by far the most likely alternative (ironically, one of the few prospective MH-60S export orders was for a Qatari contract where a mixed MH-60R/S-fleet lost to the NH90).

However, if we look at the other extreme, and Sweden would simply order nine MH-60R according to USN specifications, there certainly is some interesting options here. To begin with aligning what will be a very small fleet with the standard of a larger operator does provide significant benefits when it comes to operating and upgrade costs, and both spares and weapons would likely be available at a rather cheap rate. The USN training pipeline could potentially also be used, something that might become more of an issue if the AW109 is withdrawn from service.

(Keen readers might notice that several of these points figured prominently during discussions about the HX-program.)

The Romeo and its sensors almost certainly isn’t as well suited to the Baltic Sea as a fully kitted out HKP 14F would be, but here comes the classic question: is a 75 or 90% solution at half the cost the best bang for the buck (note the numbers are pure examples)? A key detail is that finding submarines is extremely difficult, and despite the technological advances is still highly reliant on skilled personnel with a good understanding of local conditions. If switching to a solution that technically might not be the best fit allow the crews to train more, the end result might still be more scrap metal at the bottom of the sea than would otherwise be the case.

The operator stations of the Swedish HKP 14F. While all Swedish Armed Forces helicopters belong to the Air Force, many of those associated with the maritime helicopters have a background in the Navy (including both crew members aboard the helicopters as well as the current commanding officer of the unit). Source: Henrik Rådmark/Försvarsmakten

However – and this is an aspect that the Swedish evaluation will find hard to overlook – ASW is seen as a significant strategic interest for the Swedish defence industry, and killing the HKP 14F with its Saab-designed and built tactical mission system (including domestic sonar) will prove politically difficult. The orders are already far and few between, and with the Armed Forces in general short on funding a decision to acquire a standard Romeo is bound to raise uncomfortable questions. If the Mark 54 is good enough for the heliborne ASW-component, perhaps it is so for the rest of the force as well? What about sensors and processing units? This obviously also ties in with the same questions asked about the small submarine force, as many of the systems rest on a solid knowledge of similar topics (including e.g. Torped 47 as the obvious common weapon system). Giving up the locally developed sensors and weapons on the helicopter might very well come back to bite the Navy at a later stage when it is time for an upgrade of shipboard sensors and systems. As such, the decision on how to proceed with the helicopter part of things shouldn’t be taken lightly.

In the end, a Swedish Romeo-mod might still turn out to the be the best and cheapest option overall. However, the speedy UH-60M buy might not be the best reference point. Rather a highly complex project that hopefully can salvage the lessons (and potentially some hardware) from the current HKP 14F-fleet is to be expected, and I would not be surprised if the FOC date more or less corresponds to what would be the case for a full datalink and torpedo integration for the NH90.

An MH-60R Seahawk (in this case from HSM-73 “Battlecats”) – soon in a littoral theatre near you? Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Logan C. Kellums via Wikimedia Commons

(And since I know you will ask: I don’t foresee Finland acquiring ex-Swedish NH90s to increase the size of the Finnish fleet, though I certainly could imagine some being acquired for cannibalisation in case the spares situation is as poor as the Australian decision seem to indicate)

M23 – If it ain’t broke, build it at home

The opaque Sako AR has finally properly broken cover with an FDF order for series production of the weapon. The weapon – which was known as the K22 in the testing phase – was officially adopted as the M23 with an order worth approximately 10 MEUR this week. The weapon will be acquired in two configurations for the (light) sniper and designated marksman roles. In these configurations the weapon will be known as the 7.62 TKIV 23 and 7.62 KIV 23 respectively.

Emphasis can be placed on the fact that both rifles are the same, with only the accessories differing. Key among these differences is that the TKIV 23 (sniper rifle) will sport a Steiner M7Xi 2,9-20×50 with a modified MSR2-reticle. The MSR2 is a prime example of a modern sniper optic, which means it is packed with different dots and bars to allow for accurate judging of distances and adjustment for different conditions (and which also make it look rather busy to the untrained eye, something the Finnish modifications deals with). The KIV 23 (DMR) will instead sport the Trijicon VCOG 1-6×24, which is a typical example of modern DMR-optics in that it allows for almost red dot-like close-range versatility at the non-magnified setting while still providing for target recognition and accurate shots at range with the higher magnification.

The 7.62 TKIV 23 with the larger Steiner-scope and an Ase Utra-suppressor. Source: Finnish Defence Forces

Most of the details are what you would expect from a modern DMR-platform. The weapon is an AR-10 pattern short-stroke piston-operated semi-auto rifle, fully ambidextrous, ships with 10- and 20-round P-mags, free-floating barrel, NATO Accessory Rail (i.e. backwards-compatible with Picatinny) and M-LOK mounting options, and sports a Ase Utra flow-through suppressor as standard (believe this is the version in question) mounted on a BoreLock-flash hider, adjustable Magpul CTR stock (which is used also on the upgraded 7.62 RK 62M), green ceramic coating, and so forth. Perhaps the one thing that does somewhat differentiate the weapon is the fact that it comes only with a 16” barrel, with a number of countries  (including Norway) preferring a 20” barrel for their corresponding sniper systems. At the same time the uniqueness of this feature shouldn’t be exaggerated, as 16” barrels certainly also are found in a number of places (such as the US Army’s new M110A1 which likewise is used both as a compact sniper rifle and as a DMR). There is obviously a bipod involved as well,  which for the time being at least is a Magpul bipod.

An interesting detail is that more or less all components are found straight off the shelf, meaning the cost should be manageable (and any reservist wanting to build their own MILSPEC-rifle should be able to do so once the rifle itself is out on the civilian market, something which I expect will happen within the next few years). Several of the components are also familiar from the RK 62M, further highlighting that while the weapon itself is new, this is really a rather straightforward and conservative design. As such the risk of any unpleasant surprises down the road either when it comes to performance or cost appear limited.

The first deliveries will take place before the end of 2022, with conscripts getting their hands on the weapon starting in 2023 (hence the name), after which “most” 7.62 TKIV 85 (a highly modded Mosin-Nagant) and all 7.62 TKIV Dragunov (no points for guessing which weapon that is) will be withdrawn from Finnish service. While infantry weapons seldom win wars, it is hard to describe how much of an upgrade this is for both the Finnish snipers as well as for the designated marksmen running around with Kalashnikovs with ACOGs (okay, slight exaggeration, but still). On paper the effective ranges are reported as up to 800 meters with the Steiner scope and up to 600 meters with the VCOG, though to be honest I would not be surprised if trained shooters under somewhat decent conditions would be able to be effective out to and beyond the 1,000 meter mark considering the scope, calibre, and Sako’s reputation for quality on their rifles. A key detail here is that the FDF press release discussing the ranges mentions high-quality rounds when talking about the 800 meters figure, while the DMR apparently is not set to receive such luxuries. One of the obvious benefits of the 7.62×51 mm is obviously the fact that there is both (relatively) cheap bulk ammunition allowing for training at shorter ranges, as well as dedicated long-range loads. The small number of rounds fired by Finnish conscript snipers is certainly one of the weaknesses of the current training, something that hopefully at least partially can be remedied by the transfer away from the classic rimmed 7.62 mm calibres.

The obvious question at this stage is why isn’t this a Heckler & Koch HK417/G28/M110A1? That does seem to tick all the boxes, right? The obvious answer is that the M23 is made in Finland, with the FDF better being able to influence design and production, and security of supply certainly is a key driver. On paper, there is preciously little that differentiates the two weapons from each other, and it will be highly interesting to see if this is just an illusion once the first comparative reviews start to appear on the internet. What has been said is that the FDF did test the GK417 as well, but preferred to go with the M23.

A German soldier with the G28 – the Bundeswehr DMR version of the HK417 – in Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan back in 2013. Spot features that aren’t found on the M23, or vice versa. Source: Thomas Wiegold/Wikimedia Commons

What about the Swedes? As mentioned earlier the weapon is currently undergoing testing in Sweden in the DMR-version with the VCOG as a potential replacement for the AK 4D (modified G3), and while the testing is still underway with no word on the findings, brigadier general Mikael Frisell (Director Land Systems at the Swedish Defence Material Administration, FMV) confirmed that if the weapon meet the Swedish requirement the “primary alternative is to buy the same as Finland, i.e. both the weapon and the accessories”. In other words, the Swedish DMR would be the same specification as the 7.62 KIV 23. The brigadier general was indeed over on a quick visit to Helsinki on the day of FDF placing the order with Sako to sign an Implementation Arrangement for firearms together with his Finnish colleague, building upon the earlier agreements (as well as a highly interesting Technical Arrangement for joint procurement of ammunition to mortars, MBTs, artillery, and anti-tank systems), further cementing the path forward.

Is this also the new assault rifle for both countries then? The short answer is that the M23 contract does not include anything besides sniper rifles and DMRs. However, as was earlier reported, both countries are looking at renewing their assault rifles, and with Sweden reportedly having taken lead on the assault rifle, and looking at the 7.62 NATO as the most promising candidate due to its development potential, and both countries having expressed a wish to buy from Sako due to security of supply reasons, any future assault rifle bought from Sako in the same calibre would certainly be at least based on the M23. But, and I will stress this, for the time being no such contracts are in place, and the assault rifle program is still at the concept stage.

Another somewhat different angle of the TKIV 23. Note attached sling, attachment bolts for the hand guard allowing a free floating barrel, forward assist, and the seemingly lean profile of the operating mechanism for a piston-operated AR (though that might be down to the camera angle). Source: Finnish MoD Twitter

An interesting detail is that there’s an option in the FDF order that is worth 525 MEUR (yes, fifty times the original order value). Exactly what this covers is interesting, but note that sniper rifles tend to be expensive when coming fully kitted out. The M110A1 is for example coming in at approximately 12,000 USD (10.6 kEUR), and it is entirely possible that there is included e.g. simulators or even bulk buys of ammunition for a decade or two with a requirement on Sako to deliver batches meeting a certain accuracy requirement, all of which could drive costs. Also, it is worth remembering that even if the weapon will be rare-ish in Finnish service, that’s still one in nine of the infantry soldiers in the first line squads who will receive the KIV 23. However, no matter how you parse it, it has to be said that the option is certainly surprisingly large. The potential Swedish order value is also not included, though the cross-buy principle reported earlier means that the contract signed by the lead country include the option for the partner to acquire weapons according to the same cost and legal terms.

Sources include the FDF press release, the MoD press release, and Twitter’s sniper-on-call

Aiming for a Joint Target

With Sweden looking at replacing all of their squad firearms, and Finland looking at acquiring a new sniper rifle/designated marksman rifle, the news of Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation that included assault rifles among a number of other weapons understandably raised some questions earlier this year. To shed some light on the issue, I contacted the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV), where brigadier general Mikael Frisell (Director Land Systems) and lieutenant-colonel Per Norgren (Head of Weapons and Protection department, Land Systems) were happy to talk over the phone and explain where the Swedish project is currently, where they expect it to go next, as well as how the cooperation with Finland plays into the needs of the Swedish Armed Forces in this field.

While there is a need to replace the current armoury, this is also happening as the Swedish Armed Forces in general and the Army in particular is growing. Four new regiments (two infantry, one artillery, and a ranger regiment) are being created this fall, and that directly impacts the Land Systems division. “There’s lots of funding, lots of things to be acquired,”Frisell explains. “We are under pressure to deliver as our funding is increasing.” So far this has been visible in a number of different places, with the squad weapons now being one of the major focus areas as simply removing worn weapons from usage isn’t possible when the need for weapons grows. Instead a complete redo of all carried weapons is set to take place. This has in fact already kicked off with the acquisition of the Carl-Gustaf M4 recoilless rifle to replace the older versions in Swedish service back in 2019, and the program is now set to continue until almost all firearms have been replaced during the next ten years.

And this is where cooperation with Finland comes into the picture.

“At the end of the day it is about security of supply,” Frisell explains, noting that while Sweden doesn’t have their own rifle manufacturer any longer, the extremely close cooperation between the Finnish and Sweden armed forces allow them to look at the picture from the somewhat unusual angle of treating Finnish companies as almost domestic ones from a security supply point of view.

But let us start from the beginning.

Sweden has during the last few decades been very much at the cutting edge of small arms acquisitions. The country was second only to the USA in adopting the 5.56 mm NATO as their main calibre (with the FN FNC), was jointly second with Norway after Austria to adopt the Glock 17, was second only to the UK in getting the Accuracy International PM/AW sniper rifle, and in fact beat the USA to adopting the Barrett M82 heavy sniper/anti-materiel rifle as they became the company’s first large-scale customer. However, most of these systems were originally acquired back in the late 80’s or early 90’s, meaning that more or less all systems are in need of replacement by now. Even the FN MAG (locally designated KSP 58) is starting to show its age, though Frisell notes that it is at the back of the queue since “that one is built for eternity”. More or less the only thing not being slated for replacement for the time being is the Barrett.

A Swedish designated marksman in Mali with the AK 4D variant of the G3. Note adjustable stock from Spuhr, Atlas bipod, Aimpoint magnifying kit and CS. This particular weapon also has a Steiner DBAL-A2 (AN/PEQ-15A) laser designator. Source: Joel Thungren/Försvarsmakten

The original plan based on the needs identified by the Army was to first acquire a personal defence weapon (PDW), in other words a modern weapon to fill the role formerly allocated to sub-machine guns. This would then be followed by all assault rifles (including both the FNC/AK 5 and the older G3/AK 4 which is still in widespread use in second-line units) and sniper rifles, and support weapons such as machine guns being at the end of the line with the FN Minimi (KSP 90) going first and the FN MAG following dead last. However, recognising the possibility of teaming up with Finland has lead to a certain amount of reshuffling, with the PDW being pushed back and the sniper rifle as well as the designated marksman rifle (currently a role filled by a modded Heckler & Koch G3 designated AK 4D) instead jumping to the front. This is done on the basis of tagging along on the Finnish K22 project which has seen Finland decide upon the Sako Semi-Automatic Sniper Rifle to be adopted as the new designated marksman rifle and as the new light sniper rifle. However, the plan is significantly more ambitious than simply buying the same designated marksman rifle as Finland.

All categories of weapons have been divided up between the two countries, with either country taking the lead for any individual category. The lead country will lead the development work including specification, testing, and signing the first order which will then include the option for the other country to place corresponding orders at similar terms. Frisell acknowledges that the specifications of both countries are very similar, but he also still sees a need for a more limited set of tests and development work done by the non-lead locally to ensure suitability and to get the userbase aboard – a key feature to ensure that this isn’t felt among the soldiers to be a political choice forcing a system of secondary quality into service. But why bother to begin with, trying to coordinate acquisitions across two countries?

Cross-develop, cross-buy, cross-use – Build trust and security of supply

That’s the guiding principle of the program. On the military side, the ability to cross-buy and cross-develop the weapons saves on cost, while the cross-use ability makes wartime logistics easier. Not necessarily through individual soldiers throwing a spare magazine to their foreign ally in the next foxhole – something that makes for good Hollywood-stuff but rarely is done in practice – but rather through the possibility at the operational and strategic level to redistribute ammunition, weapons, and spare parts according to need. Security of supply is also ensured through creating the critical mass of orders that is large enough to ensure that domestic (kind off) manufacturing is possible to begin with. Obviously, to reach this desired end-state, cooperating already during the development phase is key, as it not only helps push the cost down but also ensures the suitability for both countries. But besides the purely military benefits, the building of trust between the two countries is also important from the wider national security point of view, and here cooperating on this project is yet another building block.

Trials with the Sako TRG M10 in .338 LM (8.6 mm) at the FMV site in Karlsborg earlier this fall. Picture courtesy of BGen. Frisell

In line with that, Sweden has acknowledged that Finland is ahead in the sniper and designated marksman game. Finland has therefore taken the lead here, while Sweden is preparing to do the cross-develop/cross-buy part of the equation. In essence, that means that the eventual Finnish contract will include the option for Sweden to tag along, and that Sweden is doing their own limited tests as we speak. While in Finland the SASR (which I assume will be the abbreviation) will replace the SVD Dragunov and the majority of the locally-built TKIV 85 (a Mosin-Nagant derivative), and in a version with simpler accessories the designated marksman versions of the standard-issue RK-assault rifles, Sweden has somewhat different plans. The plan currently is that the SASR in 7.62×51 mm will replace the AK 4D in the designated marksman role, while at the same time they are doing tests on the Sako TRG 10M in .338 LM as an AW (Psg 90) replacement. This also provide an excellent example as to how the end result might look, with similar weapons but possibly with different accessories and for slightly different roles (Sweden likely not acquiring any of the more highly-kitted out SASR that Finland is looking at for the light sniper role). Notable is that Finland already operate the somewhat older Sako TRG 42 in .338, meaning that both countries would standardise on that in addition to 7.62×51 mm for their accurate rifles. As mentioned, during the signing of the firearms technology MoU this spring Sweden also bought a number of Sako rifles for tests, which have now arrived and are out in the field. The TRG has been tested for roughly a month already, while the SASR tests have just kicked off.

But this is where it gets interesting, as Sweden is looking at the next step in their ten-year plan: the assault rifles.

Let’s give the news up front: at the moment the most likely candidate is a Finnish-built AR-platform in 7.62×51 mm.

Both Frisell and Norberg take care to point out that this is still in the planning stages and no decision has been made on either manufacturer or calibre, but as both the Swedish Armed Forces and FMV have spent considerable time and effort researching the question over the last few years (including no doubt looking into the state of ballistic protection in… certain countries) there are some paths that are looking more probable than others. What tips the scale in the direction of 7.62×51 mm is that the round is seen as having more development potential compared to the lighter 5.56×45 mm. The view is also that most high-quality service-grade AR-pattern rifles are more or less equal once you bring them out in the field, so the need for a big shoot-out is smaller than it used to be when the field of service rifles was more varied (while it wasn’t said explicitly that some designs had been ruled out, the discussion very much centred around the AR). Which brings you back to the question of security of supply. Sako might not be Swedish, but looking at the situation from Karlsborg it is certainly the next-best thing. Frisell notes that any orders require that Sako work out a model for how they will support the Swedish Armed Forces throughout the lifespan of any potential order, but he didn’t sound too worried and I got the impression that it was more a case of working out the details that a serious obstacle.

A few cases of non-AK pattern rifles in Finnish use does exist. Most notable is the use by the professional FDF SOF of the FN SCAR, but another instance is the professional readiness unit of the paramilitary Finnish Border Guard, here shown sporting the HK 416.

An obvious question is whether the Swedes have noticed that there is quite some developments taking place in the US with the NGSW-program set to replace the assault rifles and squad automatic weapons (i.e. the Minimi/KSP 90) with a new family of weapons in a new 6.8 mm calibre? The answer is ‘Yes’, with those involved from the Swedish side having good contacts with their US counterparts both on an agency- as well as on a personal level. The NGSW and associated developments have indeed been followed closely from Sweden, including being briefed directly by their US counterparts. In the end, the technological risk was judged too great for a small country to seek to join the program at this stage. Norgren also noted that “We don’t quite have that time to wait”, as the majority of the FN FNC (AK 5) and G3 in use are getting worn down. However, one thing that is being looked into is the possibility of having the new rifle being modular enough to allow for potentially changing calibre later – or even mid-production as the expected production run for any new assault rifle is expected to be measured in years – in case the 6.8 mm turn out to be a game changer.

Oh, and about that PDW the Army wanted. Sorry to make gun aficionados disappointed, but it seems like the MP7 won’t be coming (besides the ones already in use). For the time being a (really) short AR in 5.56 mm is the frontrunner.

But getting back to the Finnish angle, on the surface this looks like a great opportunity for Sako, and that it undoubtedly is. However, Frisell also made clear that Sweden has expectations other than just getting a bunch of new weapons. As explained, the deal is seen from a security of supply point of view, and that is a two-way street. “We’re not just going to talk about Finnish-Swedish defence cooperation, but actually going out and doing it,” Frisell emphasises. This means that not only has Sako to be able to step up and show that they can deliver the expected quality and volumes, but also that both countries will have to look at the common good instead of at individual benefit. The decision to postpone the PDW and go for the sniper and designated marksmen rifles shows that Sweden is already doing their part, but the bigger question is if Finland will be able to step up when it comes to the assault rifles? As Frisell put it, “We had to adjust the schedule a bit to build the trust […] we hope that the FDF also will have that flexibility”. For some time already the official Finnish line has been that the current AK-pattern rifles can stay in service until 2035 with a decision on the replacement to be made in the first half of the 2020’s. However, those dates originate in a statement made some time ago, and in an interview last month Lt.General Hulkko, the commander of the Finnish Army, stated that continued rebuilds beyond the current number of 20,000 modernised RK 62M “no longer is a cost-effective way forward” for the rest of the Finnish Defence Forces. While still some way out from any hard promises on the part of the FDF, it does sound like Frisell might be getting his wish.

Edit 07-11-2021: It seems the idea is so unexpected that I wasn’t quite clear enough about what the paragraph above actually means:

  • This isn’t a Swedish project to replace their assault rifles, it is a joint Finnish-Swedish project with Sweden as the lead nation,
  • In other words, while neither country has made procurement decision, the expected outcome of any acquisition program is that those involved acquire what the program is all about, i.e. in this case a 7.62 NATO assault rifle (or battle rifle, if you will),
  • It’s easy to forget, but the battle rifle was (and still is in the Swedish home guard) what most western soldiers carried for decades during the Cold War. With modern ergonomics and developments, an AR-10-pattern design (using the designation loosely here, we didn’t talk piston vs DI or anything like that) would likely be miles ahead compared to your regular FAL or G3 when it comes to handling,
  • Yes, there’s a number of reasons why the 7.62 NATO was ditched back in the days. As noted it isn’t yet decided that this will be the outcome, but if FMV after years of studies and weighing the pros and cons say they lean towards going back to it, the message certainly is that based on all available information they feel the benefits outweigh (heh) the disadvantages – the ability to actually kill your enemies also in 2030 most likely key among these.

In a strange twist of faith – the FN Minimi which originally was created with the selling point of being a light machine gun in the same calibre as the rest of the weapons of the squad now seem set to spend its final years in Swedish service as the only 5.56 mm weapon in their infantry squads. Source: Joel Thungren/Försvarsmakten

All in all the development is very interesting, and while both parties are keen to stress that no firm commitments have been made and no orders placed – in fact, the sole FDF comment I got when reaching out was “A mechanism has been created, i.e. the documents have been signed between Finland and Sweden, which enable joint procurements to be made later, but we are still in the planning stage and no decisions on possible procurements have been made” (the statement is still one step above Sako who didn’t answer at all) – the plans does seem to be further along than has been assumed in some quarters (including on this blog) and they look well-thought out both from a national security policy as well as from a military capability point of view. Crucially, while I’ve earlier voiced caution against plans to buy ‘second best’-solutions due to political considerations, modern well-built firearms are generally all more or less on the same level when it comes to lethality. As such this is a field suited to policy cooperation, and the logistical and cost benefits are obvious. Interestingly enough, while there is a certain group of Finnish social media warriors who spend their days questioning whether we can trust the Swedes or whether they just pretend to be out friends to try to coax us into buying Swedish defence equipment, this is very much a case of the opposite. A Swedish buy of assault rifles from Sako would indeed require trust from the Swedes that we Finns won’t leave them out to dry once we’ve cashed in on the export market. Hopefully I read Hulkko’s statement correctly that that is indeed where we are headed – I would very much like to be able to maintain a view of us Finns as a people that can be trusted, both as business partners as well as when it comes to matters of national security.

Oh, and before we go there’s one question all Finnish shooters want to know the answer to: How did Frisell – who by the way has a background as a national level competition shooter – find the SASR to shoot?

Easy to shoot, good quality […] robust, simple, and with high accuracy

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.